Page 44

Jamie lay back on the bed beside me, staring up at the ceiling.

“No,” he said. “No, he told me all right. And at a reasonable price.”

I rolled up onto an elbow in order to look down at his face.

“Well, then?” I demanded. “Who did shoot the sergeant-major?”

He looked up at me and smiled, a trifle grimly.

“Randall,” he said, and shut his eyes.

“Randall?” I said blankly. “But why?”

“I don’t know,” he said, eyes still shut. “I could guess, perhaps, but it doesna much matter. Damn-all chance of proving it.”

I had to agree that this was true. I sank back on the bed beside him and stared up at the black oak beams of the low ceiling.

“What can you do then?” I asked. “Go to France? Or perhaps”—a bright thought occurred to me—“perhaps to America? You could likely do well in the New World.”

“Across the ocean?” A brief shudder ran through him. “No. No, I couldna do that.”

“Well, what then?” I demanded, turning my head to look at him. He opened one eye enough to give me a jaundiced look.

“I’d thought for a start that I might get another hour’s sleep,” he said, “but apparently not.” Resigned, he pulled himself up in bed, leaning against the wall. I had been too tired to pull the bedclothes off before retiring, and there was a suspicious black spot on the quilt near his knee. I kept a wary eye on it as he talked.

“You’re right,” he agreed, “we could go to France.” I started, having momentarily forgotten that whatever he decided to do, I was now included in the decision.

“But there isna that much for me there,” he said, idly scratching his thigh. “Only soldiering, and that’s no life for you. Or to Rome, to join King James’s court. That might be managed; I’ve some Fraser uncles and cousins with a foot in that camp, who would help me. I’ve no great taste for politics, and less for princes, but aye, it’s a possibility. I’d rather try first to clear myself in Scotland, though. If I did, at the worst I might end up as a small crofter in the Fraser lands; at best, I might be able to go back to Lallybroch.” His face clouded, and I knew he was thinking of his sister. “For myself,” he said softly, “I wouldna go, but it isn’t only me anymore.”

He looked down at me and smiled, his hand gently smoothing my hair. “I forget sometimes, that there’s you now, Sassenach,” he said.

I felt extraordinarily uncomfortable. I felt like a traitor, in fact. Here he was, making plans that would affect his entire life, taking my comfort and safety into account, when I had been doing my best to abandon him completely, dragging him into substantial danger in the process. I had meant none of it, but the fact remained. Even now, I was thinking that I should try to talk him out of going to France, as that would carry me farther away from my own goal: the stone circle.

“Is there any way to stay in Scotland, though?” I asked, looking away from him. I thought the black spot on the quilt had moved, but I wasn’t sure. I fixed my eyes on it, staring hard.

Jamie’s hand traveled under my hair and began idly to fondle my neck.

“Aye,” he said thoughtfully. “There may be. That’s why Dougal waited up for me; he’s had some news.”

“Really? What sort?” I turned my head to look up at him again; the movement brought my ear within reach of his fingers, and he began to stroke lightly around it, making me want to arch my neck and purr like a cat. I repressed the impulse, though, in favor of finding out what he meant to do.

“A messenger from Colum,” he said. “He didna think to find us here, but he passed Dougal on the road by accident. Dougal’s to return at once to Leoch, and leave Ned Gowan to manage the rest of the rents. Dougal’s suggested we should go with him.”

“Back to Leoch?” It wasn’t France, but it wasn’t a lot better. “Why?”

“There’s a visitor expected shortly, an English noble that’s had dealings wi’ Colum before. He’s a powerful man, and it might be he could be persuaded to do something for me. I’ve not been tried or condemned on the charge of murder. He might be able to have it dismissed, or arrange to have me pardoned.” He grinned wryly. “It goes a bit against the grain to be pardoned for something I’ve not done, but it’s better than being hanged.”

“Yes, that’s true.” The spot was moving. I squinted, trying to focus on it. “Which English noble is it?”

“The Duke of Sandringham.”

I jerked upright with an exclamation.

“What is it, Sassenach?” Jamie asked, alarmed.

I pointed a trembling finger at the black spot, which was now proceeding up his leg at a slow but determined pace.

“What’s that?!” I said.

He glanced at it, and casually flicked it off with a fingernail.

“Oh, that? It’s only a bedbug, Sassenach. Nothing to—”

He was interrupted by my abrupt exit. At the word “bedbug,” I had shot out from under the covers, and stood pressed against the wall, as far away as possible from the teeming nest of vermin I now envisioned as our bed.

Jamie eyed me appreciatively.

“Fretful porpentine, was it?” he asked. He tilted his head, examining me inquisitively. “Mmm,” he said, running a hand over his head to smooth down his own hair. “Fretful, at least. You’re a fuzzy wee thing when ye wake, to be sure.” He rolled over toward me, reaching out a hand.

“Come here, my wee milkweed. We’ll not leave before sunset. If we’re not going to sleep…”

In the end, we did sleep a bit more, peacefully entangled on the floor, atop a hard but bugless bed composed of my cloak and Jamie’s kilt.

It was a good thing that we had slept while we had the chance. Anxious to reach Castle Leoch before the Duke of Sandringham, Dougal kept to a fast pace and a grueling schedule. Traveling without the wagons, we made much better time, despite bad roads. Dougal pushed us, though, stopping only for the briefest of rests.

By the time we rode once more through the gates of Leoch, we were nearly as bedraggled as the first time we had arrived there, and certainly as tired.

I slid off my horse in the courtyard, then had to catch the stirrup to keep from falling. Jamie caught my elbow, then realizing that I couldn’t stand, swung me up into his arms. He carried me through the archway, leaving the horses to the grooms and stableboys.

“Are ye hungry, Sassenach?” he asked, pausing in the corridor. The kitchens lay in one direction, the stairs to the bedchambers in the other. I groaned, struggling to keep my eyes open. I was hungry, but knew I would end up facedown in the soup if I tried to eat before sleeping.

There was a stir to one side and I groggily opened my eyes to see the massive form of Mrs. FitzGibbons, looming disbelievingly alongside.

“Why, what’s the matter wi’ the poor child?” she demanded of Jamie. “Has she had an accident o’ some sort?”

“No, it’s only she’s married me,” he said, “though if ye care to call it an accident, ye may.” He moved to one side, to push through what proved to be an increasing throng of kitchen-maids, grooms, cooks, gardeners, men-at-arms, and assorted castle inhabitants, all inquisitively drawn to the scene by Mrs. Fitz’s loud questions.

Making up his mind, Jamie pressed to the right, toward the stairs, making disjointed explanations to the hail of questions from every side. Blinking owlishly against his chest, I could do no more than nod to the surrounding welcomers, though most of the faces seemed friendly as well as curious.

As we came around a corner of the hallway, I saw one face that seemed a good deal friendlier than the rest. It was the girl Laoghaire, face shining and radiant as she heard Jamie’s voice. Her eyes grew wide and the rosebud mouth dropped unbecomingly open, though, as she saw what he carried.

There was no time for her to ask questions, though, before the stir and bustle around us halted abruptly. Jamie stopped too. Raising my head, I saw Colum, whose startled face was now on a level with mine.

“What—” he began.

“They’re married,” said Mrs. Fitz, beaming. “How sweet! You can give them your blessing, sir, while I get a room ready.” She turned and made off for the stairs, leaving a substantial gap in the crowd, through which I could see the now pasty-white face of the girl Laoghaire.

Colum and Jamie were both talking together, questions and explanations colliding in midair. I was beginning to wake up, though it would have been overstating matters to say I was entirely myself.

“Well,” Colum was saying, not altogether approvingly, “if you’re married, you’re married. I’ll have to talk to Dougal and Ned Gowan—there’ll be legal matters to attend to. There are a few things you’re entitled to when ye wed, by the terms of your mother’s dower contract.”

I felt Jamie straighten slightly.

“Since ye mention it,” he said casually, “I believe that’s true. And one of the things I’m entitled to is a share of the quarterly rents from the MacKenzie lands. Dougal’s brought back what he’d collected so far; perhaps you’ll tell him to leave aside my share when he does the reckoning? Now, if ye’ll excuse me, Uncle, my wife is tired.” And hoisting me into a more solid position, he turned to the stairs.

I staggered across the room, still wobbly-legged, and collapsed gratefully on the huge tester bed our newly married status apparently entitled us to. It was soft, inviting, and—thanks to the ever-vigilant Mrs. Fitz—clean. I wondered whether it was worth the effort to get up and wash my face before succumbing to the urge to sleep.

I had just about decided that I might get up for Gabriel’s Trump, but not much else, when I saw that Jamie, who had not only washed face and hands but combed his hair to boot, was headed toward the door.

“Aren’t you going to sleep?” I called. I thought he must be at least as tired as I, if less saddle sore.

“In a bit, Sassenach. I’ve a small errand to do, first.” He went out, leaving me staring at the oaken door with a very unpleasant sensation in the pit of my stomach. I was remembering the look of g*y anticipation on Laoghaire’s face as she came around the corner, hearing Jamie’s voice, and the look of angry shock that replaced it when she saw me cradled in his arms. I remembered the momentary tightening of his joints as he saw her, and wished most fervently that I had been able to see his face at that moment. I thought it likely he had gone now, unrested but washed and combed, to find the girl and break the news of his marriage. Had I seen his face, I would at least have some idea what he meant to say to her.

Absorbed in the events of the last month, I had forgotten the girl entirely—and what she might mean to Jamie, or he to her. Granted, I had thought of her when the question of our abrupt marriage first occurred, and Jamie then had given no sign that she constituted an impediment so far as he was concerned.

But, of course, if her father would not allow her to marry an outlaw—and if Jamie needed a wife, in order to collect his share of the MacKenzie rents…well, one wife would do as well as another, in that case, and doubtless he would take what he could get. I thought I knew Jamie well enough now to see that practicality with him went deep—as it must, with a man who had spent the last few years of his life on the run. He would not, I thought, be swayed in his decisions by sentiment or the attraction of rose-leaf cheeks and hair like liquid gold. But that didn’t mean that neither sentiment nor attraction existed.

There was, after all, the little scene I had witnessed in the alcove, Jamie holding the girl on his knee and kissing her ardently (I’ve held women in my arms before, his voice came back to me, and they’ve made my heart pound and my breath come short…). I found that my hands were clenched, making bunched ridges in the green and yellow quilt. I released it and wiped my hands over my skirt, realizing in the process just how filthy they were, grimed with the dirt of two days of holding reins, with no respite in between for washing.

I rose and went to the basin, forgetting my tiredness. I found, a bit to my surprise, that I strongly disliked the memory of Jamie kissing Laoghaire. I remembered what he had said about that, too—’Tis better to marry than burn, and I was burning badly then. I burned a bit myself, flushing strongly as I remembered the effect of Jamie’s kisses on my own lips. Burning, indeed.

I splashed water on my face, spluttering, trying to dissipate the feeling. I had no claim on Jamie’s affections, I reminded myself firmly. I had married him from necessity. And he had married me for his own reasons, one of them being the frankly stated desire to alter his virginal state.

Another reason apparently being that he needed a wife in order to collect his income, and could not induce a girl of his own kind to marry him. A reason much less flattering than the first, if no more lofty.

Quite awake by now, I slowly changed from my stained traveling garments into a fresh shift, provided, as was the basin and ewer, by Mrs. Fitz’s minions. How she had managed to make accommodation for two newlyweds in the time between Jamie’s abrupt announcement to Colum and the time we had mounted the stairs was one of the mysteries of the ages. Mrs. Fitz, I reflected, would have done quite well in charge of the Waldorf-Astoria or the London Ritz.

Such reflections made me suddenly more lonely for my own world than I had been in many days. What am I doing here? I asked myself for the thousandth time. Here, in this strange place, unreachable distances from everything familiar, from home and husband and friends, adrift and alone among what amounted to savages? I had begun to feel safe and even intermittently happy during the last weeks with Jamie. But now I realized that the happiness was likely an illusion, even if the safety was not.

I had no doubt that he would abide by what he conceived to be his responsibilities, and continue to protect me from any harm that threatened. But here, returned from the dreamlike isolation of our days among the wild hills and dusty roads, the filthy inns and fragrant haystacks, he must surely feel the pull of his old associations, as I felt mine. We had grown very close in the month of our marriage, but I had felt that closeness crack under the strains of the last few days, and thought it might now shatter completely, back among the practical realities of life at Castle Leoch.

I leaned my head against the stone of the window casement, looking out across the courtyard. Alec McMahon and two of his stable lads were visible at the far side, rubbing down the horses we had ridden in. The beasts, fed and watered adequately for the first time in two days, exuded contentment as willing hands curried the glossy sides and cleansed the dirt from hock and fetlock with twists of straw. A stableboy led away my fat little Thistle, who followed him happily toward the well-earned rest of her stable.

And with her, I thought, went my hopes of any imminent escape and return to my own place. Oh, Frank. I closed my eyes, letting a tear slide down the side of my nose. I opened my eyes wide on the courtyard then, blinked and shut them tight, trying frantically to recall Frank’s features. Just for a moment, when I closed my eyes, I had seen not my beloved husband, but his ancestor, Jack Randall, full lips curved in a mocking smile. And shying mentally from that image, my mind had summoned at once a picture of Jamie, face set in fear and anger, as I had seen him in the window of Randall’s private office. Try as I might, I could not bring back Frank’s remembered image with any certainty.

I felt suddenly quite cold with panic, and clasped my hands about my elbows. And what if I had succeeded in escaping and finding my way back to the circle of stone? I thought. What then? Jamie would, I hoped, soon find solace—with Laoghaire, perhaps. I had worried before about his reaction to finding me gone. But aside from that hasty moment of regret on the edge of the burn, it had not before occurred to me to wonder how I would feel to part with him.

I fiddled idly with the ribbon drawstring that gathered the neck of my shift, tying and untying it. If I meant to leave, as I did, I was doing neither of us a favor by allowing the bond between us to strengthen any further. I should not allow him to fall in love with me.

If he meant to do any such thing, I thought, remembering once more Laoghaire and the conversation with Colum. If he had married me so coldbloodedly as it seemed, perhaps his emotions were safer than mine.

Between fatigue, hunger, disappointment, and uncertainty, I had by this time succeeded in reducing myself to such a state of confused misery that I could neither sleep or sit still. Instead, I roamed unhappily about the room, picking up objects and putting them down at random.

The draft from the opening door upset the delicate equilibrium of the comb I had been balancing on its end, heralding Jamie’s return. He looked faintly flushed and oddly excited.

“Oh, you’re awake,” he said, obviously surprised and disconcerted to find me so.

“Yes,” I said unkindly, “were you hoping I’d be asleep so you could go back to her?”

His brows drew together for a moment, then raised in inquiry. “Her? To Laoghaire, ye mean?”

Hearing her name spoken in that casual Highland lilt—“L’heer”—suddenly made me irrationally angry.

“Oh, so you have been with her!” I snapped.

Jamie looked puzzled and wary, and slightly annoyed. “Aye,” he said. “I met her by the stair as I went out. Are ye well, Sassenach? Ye look a bit fashed, all in all.” He eyed me appraisingly. I picked up the looking glass, and found that my hair was standing out in a bushy mane round my head and there were dark circles under my eyes. I put it down again with a thump.

“No, I’m perfectly all right,” I said, with an effort at controlling myself. “And how is Laoghaire?” I asked, assuming casualness.

“Oh, quite bonny,” he said. He leaned back against the door, arms crossed, watching me speculatively. “A bit surprised to hear we were married, I reckon.”

“Bonny,” I said, and took a deep breath. I looked up to find him grinning at me.

“You’d not worrit yourself over the lassie, would ye now, Sassenach?” he asked shrewdly. “She’s naught to you—or me,” he added.

“Oh, no? She wouldn’t—or couldn’t—marry you. You had to have someone, so you took me when the chance offered. I don’t blame you for that”—not much I didn’t—“but I—”

He crossed the room in two steps and took me by the hands, interrupting me. He put a finger under my chin and forced my gaze up.

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