They were at it again, the great brutes. Every day, multiple times a day. This time it was with their great claymore blades. I could see why Dougal was so eager to practice with Jamie. No one else could possibly keep up.
Jamie’s enormous two-handed blade was at least as tall as me from hilt to tip. He could only wield it if he used both hands, making it impossible to hold a shield at the same time, but it was so large, it was both weapon and shield on its own.
The great Scots hammered away at each other with astonishing power. The sound of blade crashing against blade must’ve resonated through the air for miles around. Every clash was jarring, reverberating down my spine.
But as terrifying and awe-inspiring as it was, it was also breathtakingly beautiful. The men were soaked in sweat, making their white shirts a tedious formality. I could see every sharp curve and smooth plain of muscle through the transparent fabric clinging to their bodies. The speed at which they moved whirled their kilts around in the air, showing off their long, athletic legs.
I couldn’t take my eyes off Jamie. It was impossible to watch his muscles flex and stretch without thinking about what a body like that might feel like on top of me. And even if I could pull my eyes away, it wouldn’t matter. It was impossible to hear the sounds of his grunting and straining without wondering what he might sound like climaxing inside me.
And every interaction we had outside his practice sessions were now tainted by what I had witnessed in them. Like when we sat down to supper the night before and he conversed politely about the state of the mill, all I could hear in every word he said were echoes of the growls and groans I’d heard watching him fight.
As I began readying myself for the Quarter Day celebration, I was no less affected. I stood at the window in my shift, peering down over Jamie and Dougal in combat. Again I watched as muscle and sinew flexed and rippled under their shirts. I tried, failing miserably, not to imagine Jamie’s powerful thighs between my legs or what it would feel like to press myself against his sweaty body and hear his heavy panting in my ear.
As though he could feel the force of my thoughts, his eyes lifted up to my window. I couldn’t help the blush on my cheeks nor the shiver down my spine, but still, I held his gaze.
It wasn’t until Dougal threw a small rock at his head that Jamie looked away briefly to curse at his uncle. It was at that moment I realized I was still in my shift. Jamie’s eyes lifted back up as I moved away so my half-naked body wasn’t on display for the whole courtyard to see.
Mrs. Crook had already brought in a basin with steaming hot water so I could wash for the festivities. The water was almost painful to the touch, but after too many days in the eighteenth century without such a luxury, I gladly endured the discomfort.
With images of Jamie’s form fresh in my mind, I was very aware of my soft shift sliding down my hypersensitive skin. I worked up a lather in my hands with Jenny’s fine-milled French soap and brought the warm, wet suds over my chest. Clearly, they were my own fingertips running up the side of my neck and down my throat, but my imagination rejected the idea that it wasn’t Jamie who was touching me. That it wasn’t his sizable hands moving down my arms and to my belly.
Foolish, I thought to myself. I planned on being gone very soon, and fantasizing about so intimate a touch—one likely to never become a reality—would only lead to frustrated disappointment and regret.
But as I gently washed over the soft skin of my breasts and tight, achy nipples, I wondered if it would be such a terrible thing to let him touch me before I left. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d harbor all the more regret if I didn’t share such intimacy with him before leaving this century forever.
He’d have to want to, of course, but by the look in his eyes as he had gazed up at me from the courtyard, I was certain his lack of wanting wouldn’t be a problem.
Opening my mind to amorous possibilities had me moving my lathered hand over the smooth curves of my waist and hips...and then further down. As they reached the apex of my thighs, my small fingers slipped delicately between my lips.
And somehow I knew that no amount of imagination would ever do the reality of his own hands justice.
“Failing means ye're playin, laddie!” said Jamie, as he pleasantly slapped the shoulder of a young man of about sixteen. “Keep up yer practice wi’ the longbow, and I’ll ha’ ye come wi’ me to find a buck next week.”
If I’d thought James Fraser couldn’t surprise me anymore with the different manifestations of his personality, I was proven very wrong at the Quarter Day celebration multiple times over.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been taken so off guard—Colum and Dougal had informed me of his charisma—but watching him with his tenants was a revelation. They flocked to him, drawn by his magnetism. All this time, I thought him more introverted like myself, but I watched that assumption prove false as connection to all the people around him fueled his energy, rather than depleted it.
He talked to every one of his tenants, from the infants to the elderly. He laughed, he drank, he told stories, and he listened. I stood at the edge of the room with a whisky in my hand and watched him narrow the full force of his attention on one person at a time. I saw the power it had on the recipient to be cared for by their Laird. I watched grown men’s shoulders straighten with pride, children dissolve into fits of laughter, and smitten young ladies bow their heads and look up at him through fluttering lashes.
I snickered to myself after one such young lady with blonde ringlets pinned high upon her head walked away licking her lips and fanning her flushed skin. I wasn’t laughing at the poor girl, but rather at myself and my own susceptibility to his charming smile and quick wit.
Even fully aware that I was only one of hundreds of people vying for Jamie’s attention, I still fell under his spell the moment he turned his gaze in my direction. It was the way he looked at me, like he was watching a sunrise. Though by the weakness in my knees, I was far more likely to be a sunset; there was no way I could stay upright for long if I continued to stare into those deep blue eyes that glittered prettily in the candlelight.
Was this the effect he had on everyone? I supposed I wasn’t the only one deluded into thinking I was the center of his world when he turned his focus on me.
He was impressive once again with his Fraser colors and hair plaited back. I wore a dress Mrs. Fitz made for me for a MacKenzie gathering during my stay at Leoch, and I was pleased to see Jamie’s eyes appreciating it at length. He stepped toward me, slow strides with long legs.
Someone attempted to approach him, but it was as if he switched the polarity of his magnetism, the intensity of his gaze on me, pushing everyone else away.
“Good evening, Sassenach. Ye look...enchanting, as always.”
“Thank you. Your people are pleased to have you home.”
“Aye. They’re like family.”
“I can see that. Although,” I looked at the young blonde woman staring at me with venom in her eyes, “I think there are a few ladies here who would jump at the opportunity to become a little closer to the family if you asked them.”
He let out an amused breath, but didn’t look away. “Ye mind, ye promised me a dance. If I ask ye for it now, does that mean I forfeit another wi’ ye later?”
“I suppose that depends on how the first one goes.”
He bowed formally before me and offered his hand. “Then I must find a way to rise to the occasion.”
His hand dwarfed my own, but he held it with that same tenderness he showed out in the glade. His thumb traced softly over the back of my knuckles, as though holding something immensely precious to him.
Foolish, I told myself once again. Did I not just watch him make dozens of other people feel the same?
Despite my logical protestations, I was more than overcome by his touch. Flashes of my earlier imaginings of what that very hand was capable of sent a fiery heat down my spine, tickling all my senses as it made its way between my thighs. I shivered, and a quiet whimper escaped my lips.
My reaction didn’t go unnoticed. He squeezed my hand in supportive reassurance as he led me to the drawing room for our dance.
Eighteenth century dancing was nothing like the swings and hops I was accustomed to in the twentieth century, but thankfully, Mrs. Fitz attended to my social education during my stay at Leoch. I had to admit, I would’ve very much preferred to just press our bodies close together and sway in each other’s arms to the music—or even cradle each other alone outside to the sounds of hooting owls and chirping crickets—but the benefit of dancing meant that Jamie was mine and mine alone for the length of the dance. There would be no eager tenants cutting in for his attention and no pretty girls trying to catch his eye. It was just the two of us uninterrupted...likely the only time it would be so for the rest of the night.
His grace and elegance of movement was no surprise, so in control of his body as he always seemed to be, even if the dancing was more refined and contained than the ferocious striking and leaping about he’d been doing with Dougal over the last few days.
When the dance ended, he escorted me off to the side of the room. Though he seemed unaffected by our exertions, I was breathing a bit heavier than normal and retrieved my handkerchief to dab away the light perspiration over my neck and chest.
“Ye enjoyed the dance then, lass?”
“What was not to like? Good company and fine music are always a pleasure. Where I come from, music plays everywhere all the time. It’s something I miss a great deal.”
“Perhaps, if ye stay here for any length of time, I may have to obtain a set of bagpipes and learn how to play for ye. I canna have my guests feeling melancholy during their stay.”
I chuckled and cringed at the thought of this tone deaf man attempting to play the bagpipes. “You won’t have many guests staying here for long if you do that. Perhaps that’s how the Scots can keep the English out of the Highlands. Give bagpipes to every man, woman, and child without teaching them to play.”
“Ye wound me, Sassenach,” his eyes shining as though he’d never known the meaning of the word.
“Jamie!” We were abruptly interrupted by his godfather who gave me a sour look before turning his head up to Jamie. “I’ve been looking all over for ye. Ye’re needed in the study, lad.”
“It canna wait?” Jamie asked.
Murtagh made a grunting noise that brooked no opposition and eyed me with irritation.
“Aye,” said Jamie.
“Duty calls,” I said.
“I’ll find ye later, Sassenach, and see if I earned that second dance.”
As Murtagh pulled him toward the study, I wondered if Jamie was genuinely needed elsewhere, or if his godfather was trying to keep him away from the wicked sassenach invader.
Peering around the room, I saw more than a few hostile eyes on me. I wondered if it was a result of the Laird’s particular attentions, or if it was because I was English.
“I suppose those things aren’t mutually exclusive,” I mumbled to myself.
There was one set of eyes that weren’t exactly hostile. Dougal MacKenzie—who was drinking directly from a bottle of whiskey as though it was water—was eyeing me with an uncomfortable amount of desire. He’d made it quite clear in our months together at Leoch that he was interested in getting to know me on a more physical level. I had made it quite clear that I had no desire to bed the man responsible for my extended captivity. Thankfully, he seemed to respect that boundary for the most part—aside from a few lewd comments and uninvited pats on the arse.
I turned away, not wanting to spend any more time under that hungry gaze than decorum required. I made my way to the dining room to find a little food and drink to fill my time while the Laird was kept busy with his duties.
I salivated at the scent of traditional Scottish fare, and contemplated on what I wanted to sample first. Just as I was reaching for a clootie dumpling, a little boy no more than four years old started crawling up on the table, trying to grab a small treat.
“Here you go,” I said, picking up a sweet and holding it out to him.
The child’s eyes grew wide with fear as he stood frozen to the spot. Finally, he reached up; his hand hesitated several times, fearful of my offering.
“It’s alright,” I said as friendly as I could muster. “Go on.”
“Alistair!” yelled a woman from across the room.
The boy immediately shrank back as his mother came to whisk him away with a look of horror in my direction. Apparently, the English possessed an uncommonly high quantity of cooties.
I sighed noisily and decided to forgo the food and head straight for the drinks. And since no one wanted anything I touched, I decided it safest to just take a whole bottle of whisky with me.
Scots of all ages, shapes, and sizes parted like the Red Sea as I made my way outdoors. It was a cool evening, and a breeze hit me as I walked out the large entryway and out to the grounds. The swig of whisky I drank down warmed my belly immediately and rushed a pleasant heat to my limbs.
I made my way out to the fence by the kailyard. I climbed on top of it—no easy feat in my petticoats and stays—and sat to enjoy a most excellent bottle of whisky.
The moon was barely peeking through a large mass of clouds, and the stars were invisible in the overcast skies. Rain would surely be falling shortly.
Music and chatter mingled in the air from the direction of the house, but I felt removed from it all without the presence of Jamie. It was strange how comfortable the man made me feel in the most foreign of places.
I drank deep, wondering how I’d gotten so quickly swept up in such a silly infatuation with a man who would be two hundred years dead when I returned home to the twentieth century. It was senseless to foster further attachment when I’d only have to grieve the man the moment I made it back to my normal life.
Quiet Gaelic conversation from a shed not far away interrupted my melancholy musings. There was a familiarity in one of the voices, but it spoke with a tone I’d never heard before.
Two men were in the midst of an intense conversation. One was wobbly and unsteady on his legs—probably quite drunk. The other seemed very in control of himself and spoke with stern authority; I recognized him immediately as Jamie.
I had no idea what they were talking about, but I could see both tempers rising as the conversation went on. My own heart rate increased along with the severity of Jamie’s tone. He was clearly making demands of the man, and the foolish drunk was putting up some pathetic form of resistance.
As I wondered what on earth Jamie could possibly want from that pitiful drunk, he put his hand on the man’s shoulder, mumbled quietly in his ear, and punched him hard in the gut.
I felt a sympathetic impact in my own stomach as the man cried out in pain. Knowing the size and strength of Jamie’s fists, I wondered if the poor sot was suffering from internal bleeding or other damage to his organs.
I was already slipping off the fence to make my way toward the one-sided fight as Jamie pulled back his fist and gave the man an uppercut to his jaw. I was certain I heard something crack. The blows rained down over and over, and my feet moved faster to intervene.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I yelled.
Jamie stopped mid-strike and turned to look at me. I thought I’d find feral bloodlust in his eyes, but all I saw was a cold resolve. He ground teeth together when he recognized me as the intruder.
“He’s not even fighting back!” I said.
“Go on, Sassenach,” he said, holding the man up by the scruff of the collar. “I’ll find ye in a minute.”
A pair of hands came down on my arms and started pulling me back. “Come, lass,” said a gruff voice. “’Tis naught to do wi’ ye.”
Murtagh! I’d apparently stumbled on the Laird’s duty Murtagh spoke of earlier.
I yanked my arms free to come to the injured man’s aid.
“Christ,” Murtagh cursed, and his arms came fully around me, picking me up and dragging me back to the house.
“Let me help that man!” I demanded.
“That’s exactly what Jamie is doing.”
“By beating him to death?”
“Och, he’ll be fine come morning.” He set me down when we arrived back at the house. “Jamie willna kill him, but he needs to ensure the bastard will feel it come morning.”
“Why? Why is he hurting him?”
“The Laird must seek justice and bestow punishments as he sees fit. ’Tis no’ for a sassenach to question how things are done here.”
“I thought Quarter Day was supposed to be a day to collect rents and celebrate the Laird’s return? What was his crime? Coming up short on rent while the Laird was off in Paris away from his people?”
“Christ, woman, ye’ve got a mouth on ye.” Murtagh opened the doors and waved me in. “Come on inside now. Jamie said he’d find ye when he was done.”
I hesitated, looking back in the direction from where we came.
“Mistress Beauchamp,” Murtagh spoke softly, “he kens how to hit a man. Trust that he wouldna disable a tenant he’s kent his whole life beyond what’s required for justice.”
I looked back once more, clenching my teeth. I shook my head and took a deep breath. I couldn’t understand why I was getting so worked up when I planned to be long gone from this estate in the next few days. That man would be subject to his Laird’s justice whether or not I was here or in the twentieth century.
I realized I still had the whisky bottle in my hand. I tipped it back and took several large swallows. I’d had enough to drink already so that it burned little on the way down.
“Fine,” I said, walking past Murtagh and into the house. I began making my way through the crowded drawing room in order to get to the stairs. I wanted to be done with the evening and go up to my room. In truth, I wanted peace and quiet so I could start planning my return back through the stones.
It took me a moment to realize why the beating bothered me so much. The cold violence in Jamie was shocking. Only half an hour before, he was touching me with the sweetest tenderness. He was laughing and smiling and dancing. Now, he was pummeling a man outside who was in no state to defend himself.
This was exactly what Dougal warned me about.
I made it halfway up the stairs when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Claire,” said Jenny. “I was calling for ye, lass. Did’ye no’ hear me?”
“I’m sorry. I was distracted.”
“We have a tenant in need of a healer. Will ye come down to the kitchen wi’ me?”
Claire could see the worry in Jenny’s eyes was greater than it would be for a minor ailment. Certain I knew exactly who it was that needed tending, I felt some bit of relief that someone in the Fraser household would see to the wellness of all their tenants, no matter what their Laird demanded.
She took me by the hand, her grasp somehow both softer and rougher than her brother’s, and led me to the kitchen. I looked for the drunken man as I walked through the door, but it wasn’t him who was lying on the table, whimpering in pain.
“Rabbie!” I scurried to his side, setting my bottle of whisky down. The poor child was battered and bruised with a cut under his eye spilling blood down his cheek. “What on earth happened to him?”
“His father,” said Jenny. “That bastard MacNab. Murtagh and I watched him wallop him something fierce for doing naught but asking Mrs. Crook for a bannock. Dinna fash, Claire. Jamie’s out seeing to MacNab, and we’ll be having Rabbie stay wi’ us until Jamie sees his father fit to raise a child.”
“Oh, Rabbie, darling, I’m so sorry you’re hurt.” I stroked a small part of his chin that wasn’t swelling or bruised. “You’ve got a cut on your face that I’ll need to clean and stitch up, and I’ll need to check the rest of your body for injury, but I promise we’ll have you right as rain in no time.”
Rabbie nodded through tears and shuddering breaths.
I turned to Mrs. Crook. “Please bring down my medicine chest from my room.” I hoped I had a bit of laudanum left for the poor child. I looked down at him, and my heart broke into a million little pieces.
Jamie’s behavior finally made sense. As Laird, it was his duty to protect all the people of his land, including the children of his tenants.
I examined Rabbie’s body while waiting for Mrs. Crook to return. Every bruise and abrasion on the child reinforced the thought that though as violent as Jamie may be, perhaps like a surgeon using a blade to effect healing, he wielded his force to promote the welfare of his people.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely sober, but there was no one else capable of helping the boy, so I did my best to tend to him without inflicting any more damage than his father had already done. I used what was left in the bottle of whisky to disinfect my instruments and Rabbie’s wound. Thankfully, Jenny was prepared with a second bottle as I finished up the last of the stitching, so we could attempt to drink away the strain of the evening.
After her second shot, Jenny set her glass aside and said, “I thank ye, Claire. ’Tis a comfort to ken we’ve such a fine healer at Lallybroch, for however long ye choose to stay.”
“Of course. Anytime.”
Jenny stood up and stretched her stiff and aching back. “Now I must go tend to our guests before ’tis time to put wee Maggie to bed.”
She left the kitchen with Rabbie in the care of Mrs. Crook. I stroked a gentle hand over the sleeping boy’s head and sighed heavily with exhaustion. Ready to retire for the evening myself, I grabbed the bottle of whisky and my medical supplies before following her out. I made my way to the stairs, feeling quite differently than I did only an hour before.
As I reached the landing on the second floor, I was so tired and distracted, I walked straight into the chest of a large, solid man. At first, I thought it was Jamie, but the hands that steadied me were not nearly as tender as the Laird’s.
“Dougal,” I groaned. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m trying to go to bed.”
“A moment of yer time, Mistress Beauchamp.” He spoke low, though I couldn’t say his words were soft.
In my own state of mild inebriation, it took a few moments to recognize the War Chief was affected similarly by excessive drink, perhaps even more so than I was.
“Young Jamie seems to be quite taken wi’ ye. Ye’ve weaved yer magic on him as I kent ye would.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“Anyone wi’ eyes can see it so. Ask all the disappointed fathers down there, angry wi’ their daughters for no’ catching Jamie’s eye, angry wi’ me for bringing ye here to steal him away to yer wee dun.”
“Aye.” He lifted his hand to my cheek, tracing the line of my jaw.
“Maybe their anger with you has nothing to do with me. It sounds like the Lallybroch tenants haven’t shown as much excitement for your cause as you’d hoped, and that their loyalties lie with their Laird and not with his opportunistic uncle.”
“They are a smaller-minded people than I expected.” He was inches away now, and the fumes of alcohol were radiating off him. “We’ll just have to find a way to convince young Jamie to broaden their minds.”
“You can’t possibly think a man like Jamie is going to let a stranger, an Englishwoman no less, convince him to risk the lives of his people for a cause he cares nothing for.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt ye’ll find a way to steer the lad’s passions wherever yer heart desires.” He closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of me. “Ye ken, Claire...I find ye to be the most singular woman. Just because ye’re assisting me wi’ young Jamie doesna mean ye should be forced into yer own celibacy otherwise.”
“You’re drunk, and you forget yourself. Please let me pass.”
“Come now, lass. Jamie willna ken if ye slip into my room rather than your own.” He leaned forward and tried to kiss me. My hands were full of my medical supplies and whisky—neither of which I was willing to drop for the sake of a MacKenzie—so in my irritation, I did the only thing in my power and kicked him in the balls.
“Ifrinn!” he cried out, backing away and gripping himself with both hands. Using his momentum to my advantage, I pushed past him with my shoulder, and knocked him on his arse.
“Claire!” said another voice from the stairs.
I turned to find Jamie watching in open-mouthed horror. He shook his head and leapt up the last few stairs, stepping over Dougal’s groaning body to get to me. He took my box of medicines and looked me over. His hand was soft on my cheek as he asked, “Are ye alright, lass? He didna hurt ye?”
I looked down at Dougal who happened to be gripping his manhood and grunting in Gaelic. “No, he didn’t. The alcohol not only took away his good judgment, but his balance and coordination. Though I can’t imagine he’ll be too pleased with me come morning.”
“Dinna fash, Sassenach.” Jamie looked down at his uncle in disgust. “He’s so pished, he’ll no’ likely recall why his balls ache when he wakes. Come, let’s get ye to yer room, and I’ll deal wi’ this tosspot so he doesna cause anymore ruckus.”
Jamie grabbed me by the arm and escorted me the rest of the way to my bedchamber. He came in and dropped off my medicines on one of the tables he had brought up for me a few days before, and I took to lighting a few candles. One of the servants had already started a fire in the small brazier, fighting off the bite of the cool night air.
“Are ye sure ye’re alright?” he asked, stepping close and inspecting me once more.
“I’m fine. Really. Drunken soldiers are nothing I haven’t dealt with before.”
“Aye,” he nodded, “but I didna just mean about Dougal. I meant about what ye saw with me and MacNab earlier.” He looked down at the floor as though worried I thought less of him.
“I saw Rabbie. I know why you had to do it. I’m just sorry the responsibility falls to you. I can’t imagine you took any pleasure from your duty.”
He looked up at me with relief. “I canna say there was no pleasure in giving him a taste of what he did to his bairn. Nor can I regret it being my responsibility, for it would fall to Ian or Murtagh or someone else otherwise. Better it’s left to me. ’Tis what I was built for.”
“How very noble of you,” I said with all sincerity. His ears turned a bright shade of red as his eyes lifted to mine.
“Weel...I’d better get Dougal to his room. I’d hate for Mrs. Crook to trip over him if he passes out on the landing. Or worse, mistake her for you.”
I sucked in a breath. He so rarely used my name. “Hmm?”
“Ye need no’ be scairt of Dougal or anyone else. No’ while I’m here.”
Words seemed to escape me; none of them seemed sufficient enough to express my gratitude. All I could do was nod, but I hoped he saw what I felt in my eyes.
He took his leave with a soft smile and an informal bow. I was left standing alone in my room, holding a half-empty bottle of whisky.
I was no longer tired. The quiet of my empty room seemed to magnify my awareness of the state of my body. Adrenaline pumped madly through my arteries as though ready for another fight. Despite my faith in Jamie’s reassurances, my body seemed to forget that I was no longer on the landing with Dougal.
Then again, I supposed there could be another reason for my heart to be fluttering so wildly in my chest.
I shook my head at my own foolishness. I was prone to amorous impulses when my adrenaline was pumping. It had made the war a very confusing time for a young nurse.
Instead of ruminating, I forced myself to shed my skirts and stays and get ready for bed. I took my time with washing my hair and cleaning my teeth, hoping the bedtime ritual would help me settle down.
It didn’t work.
When I pulled back the blankets and blew out the candle, I was just as wired as when Jamie left. I lay still in bed, listening to the muffled chatter of people still reveling from the floor below. It wasn’t long before rain started falling against the window panes, finally drowning out the loud tenants’ voices.
Still, I couldn’t sleep. All I could think of were strands of mahogany hair...and locks of gold and ginger...tresses of copper and auburn...and wisps of deep cherry. I wondered just how many unique shades of red I could find by brushing his hair.
A thump on my door told me someone was just outside. If Jamie had deposited Dougal in his bed only for the man to get up to try and finish the kiss he’d previously started, I shuddered to think how I might fight him off without causing much of a scene. Perhaps Jamie wasn’t too far away to hear me call for him if needed.
I grabbed an empty candlestick off my nightstand and raised it up, ready to strike as I made my way to the door. Strangely, there was neither a knock nor a wiggling of the latch expected from someone trying to break in. As slow and quiet as I could muster, I reached for the handle.
As soon as I opened the latch, the door swung inward, and a heavy body fell in at my feet. I raised the candlestick, ready to strike, until a glimmer of light from the hall reflected off a shock of red hair.
“Jamie? What in heaven’s name are you doing?”
He peered up at me, cringing—in pain or embarrassment, I didn’t know. “I wasna going to leave ye unprotected wi’ Dougal’s room only feet away. My own room is too far should he arise wi’ wicked intent.”
It was then I noticed an old Fraser plaid he had wrapped around his shoulders as though he meant to stand guard all night. I bent down to help him to his feet. He rose up, towering over me with that ridiculous height. Without my shoes on, my face barely reached the hollow of his chest.
“You were protecting me?”
He shrugged and blushed sweetly.
“But all your guests downstairs…”
“They’ve gone years wi’out me; they can handle one more night.”
“And what if someone sees you sleeping outside my room? Will they not jump to conclusions?”
“’Tis better than the alternative.” He looked at Dougal’s door.
“You can’t sleep out there. It’s cold and uncomfortable and unbefitting of a Laird.”
“I’ll no’ leave ye unprotected, lass.”
“Then sleep in here. At the very least, you’ll stay warm.”
“Are ye mad, woman? Yer reputation will be ruined!” His scandalized face was adorably amusing.
“No more so than if they think you're sleeping out there because you’re waiting your turn.”
“Waiting my turn? Christ!” He rubbed a hand over his face.
I noticed blood, scrapes, and swelling over his knuckles. “Jamie! You’re hurt. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Hurt?” He seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. I grabbed his hand to inspect it, but I needed more light. I pulled him in and shut the door behind him. I escorted him to my bedside and lit a candle to examine his wounds.
“Claire,” he protested weakly, “I’m none so sure this is any better than what Dougal just tried to do to ye.”
“Don’t be silly. I didn’t want Dougal to touch me, but I very much enjoy your company. And I need to clean these cuts before they get infected.”
“Miniscule little beasts in dirt and filth will cause fever and inflammation. Wait here.” I forced him to sit before I hunted down the whisky, a bandage, and a clean rag to tend to the wounds.
Jamie squirmed uncomfortably when I sat beside him. I was still in my shift, and I noticed he was doing all he could to avert his gaze and respect my modesty.
In truth, modesty was the last of my concerns at the moment, and I was growing all the more fond of the flush of his ears when he was embarrassed.
I took his hand in mine and looked it over near the candlelight. He didn’t require stitches, but…“Jamie, some of these are still bleeding. They can’t be from when you hit MacNab earlier. Those should’ve stopped by now.”
“Hmphm. Aye.” He flexed his hand in front of his face. “They were likely reopened by Dougal’s chin. I think I might have inherited his hard heid.”
I thought my heart would genuinely melt. “You gave him a little of the Laird’s justice, did you?”
He shrugged a shoulder. “I couldna let him get away wi’ treating ye so, Sassenach. And I wanted to ensure he was knocked out solid so as no’ to disturb ye this evening.”
I took his hand once again and rubbed my fingers tenderly over the uninjured skin. “Thank you, Jamie. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Aye. I did.”
I looked up at him, wordless yet again, wishing I knew a way to express my appreciation. We held each other’s gaze, affection plain on both our faces. He gave my hand a reassuring squeeze.
“How d’ye kill the wee beasties trying to give me fever?” he asked.
I held up the bottle of whisky and gave it a playful wiggle.
“Of course,” he laughed. “I wonder if the beasts are English then? If they were Scots, whisky would only make them stronger.”
I giggled, imagining microscopic redcoats melting away like the Wicked Witch of the West. I suspected the Scots might actually believe whisky to be spiritual.
“This will burn a little,” I warned before applying the whisky. He didn’t move a muscle nor make a peep. Tough as nails, the Scots. “There,” I said as I wrapped his hand in a bandage, “it should be fine come morning.”
“Thank ye, Sassenach.” He flexed his fingers and checked his mobility. Satisfied, he looked around the room as if deciding what he should do next. “Perhaps I’ll go sleep over there next to the door.”
I stopped him with a hand on his arm. “You don’t have to, you know. You can sleep here.”
“Claire…” He shook his head. I could see I pushed him a step too far. He stood abruptly and walked to the wall next to my door. He leaned against it, sliding down until he sat on the floor, his ears a fierce shade of red—more so than his hair. His eyes refused to look in my direction.
His sweet chivalry was annoyingly endearing.
I grabbed the whisky and followed him to his spot on the floor. His face was scandalized as I sank down next to him. I handed over the bottle; the poor lad looked like he needed a drink.
“Sláinte,” he toasted and drank from the bottle.
“I’m sorry you’re up here dealing with me rather than downstairs romancing a potential wife.”
“Dinna fash yerself about that. ’Tis no hardship.”
“Not for you maybe, but the ladies downstairs are surely put out.”
His grin wrinkled the corners of his eyes.
“Will you get to choose your wife? Or will it be arranged like Colum’s and Dougal’s?”
His smile remained, but his eyes softened. “My mother was meant to have an arranged marriage. She and my father wouldna have it, and Colum wouldna consent to her marrying a bastard. She snuck away wi’ my father in the dead of night, and they ran off determined to marry for love. Wi’ bad blood between my father and the MacKenzies, they turned to each other more so than most couples. They were the dearest of friends and most passionately in love.” He finally looked at me, his gaze tender yet resolute. “I shall settle for nothing less. I’d rather emptiness than disappointment.”
My mouth fell open to take in a quivering breath of air. I knew by the softness in his eyes and the passion radiating off him, he hoped it might be me.
I looked away, confused and uncertain. I needed to get home to the twentieth century, but for fuck’s sake, all I could think about was how badly I wanted him.
Needing a moment to gather myself, I stood up and went to find the small bowl of berries I’d picked with him near the glade. I took my time fiddling with the bowl before allowing myself to be drawn back by his magnetic pull.
“Hungry?” I asked.
He smiled softly. I imagined a man his size was always hungry. I sat back down next to him and offered him the bowl. He took a single blackberry and held it up for inspection.
“It’s not poisoned,” I teased.
“Let’s see then,” he said, bringing it to my lips. My quivering jaw parted at his silent command, and he set the berry gently on my tongue.
It took me longer than it should have to chew and swallow.
“And you?” I asked, lifting one to his lips.
He surprised me by grabbing my wrist and holding it inches away, not allowing me to feed him.
“Ye ken...in the Highlands, we’re taught as wee lads no’ to take food or drink from the fairies. ’Tis believed ye’ll be their slave for all eternity. Bite no bit and drink no drop.”
“You don’t really think me a fairy?”
He didn’t say a word. He just pulled my hand closer to his mouth, opening his lips to allow me to place the berry on his waiting tongue.
He released me and chewed slowly.
My heart thundered as I said, “If I were a fairy, I suppose that would make you mine now.”
“Aye,” he breathed.
Weak and shaky, I set the bowl down, certain to drop it otherwise. I put my hands in my lap, gripping them together, hoping he wouldn’t notice just how flustered I was.
We sat for a while, listening to the rain tapping on the windows, neither of us with the courage to look at the other.
I attempted to will my body into relaxation, hoping prolonged time in his presence would make me less sensitive to it. It was a fool’s errand; every moment we spent so close, I only wanted more and more to kiss him. I wanted to take his face in my hands and press our lips together, forgoing oxygen for the sake of passion.
He took one of my shaky hands in his and said, “I ken, Sassenach. I ken.”
He dropped his head to my hand, but instead of using his lips, he pressed it to his forehead.
“Jamie…” I whispered, wanting so much more.
“I shallna allow my lips to touch yer skin. No’ tonight. For when I do, I shall never be able to stop.”
“Perhaps I don’t want you to stop.”
He turned his head and smiled sweetly, my hand now pressed against his cheek. “I ken, lass. And that’s what scares me.”
Claire fell asleep wrapped around Jamie’s arm. He sat there for hours, not wanting to move, not wanting to deprive himself of her touch. But finally, his concern for her comfort overwhelmed his selfish need for closeness. He gathered her up in his arms and brought her to bed.
He sat on the edge looking over her pale lips in the darkness, and whispered:
“Da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum…”
Then he sighed deeply, and with the strength of Hercules, forced himself to pull away.
Claire’s hand stopped him, grabbing hold of his arm. She mumbled sleepily. “Stay, Jamie. You’re mine now.”
And that he was. “Aye.”
He kicked off his boots and sat up in her bed against the headboard. He would not lay with her, not like this, but he would stay because she asked.
Her arm wrapped around his leg, and she rested her head upon his lap. He stroked her hair away from her face as she drifted off back to sleep.
He hardly slept at all, but he still forced himself to rise before dawn to leave her reputation intact. After going up to his room to change his clothes and ready himself for the day, he set out to find Mrs. Crook.
She had a bowl of parritch awaiting him in the kitchen. “Thank ye kindly,” he said.
“Aye, my Laird.”
“Mrs. Crook. I have a task for ye if ye dinna mind.”
“Please have Mistress Beauchamp’s things moved to the third floor. The guest room on the North side.”
“My Laird?” She raised a brow. She knew very well it was the room next to his.
He narrowed his gaze in a silent command.
“Aye, my Laird. I’ll do so when she goes out to the kailyard today.”
“Thank ye, Mrs. Crook.”
Dougal would never get a chance to harm her ever again.