OMG I LOVE THE VIETNAM AU. Finally, the reunion! So wonderfully written. But hold the phone WHAT happened to Jamie and why does he look like that and how is Claire gonna heal him? *sigh*
“Stuffed cabbage, Claire?”
Claire turned to her left, meeting the kind brown eyes of Ian Murray – Jamie’s best friend and brother-in-law.
“Sure – is it grown here on the farm as well?”
Ian served her a good-sized helping. Jenny – at her right – poured a bit more wine into the tall glass by her plate.
“Most of the simple vegetables come straight from the kailyard – always have, as long as we can remember. Nothing is as fresh to us. Or as rewarding.”
Claire took a tentative bite, keeping her eyes firmly on the gorgeous old dinner plate – clearly used only for special occasions – as Jamie’s foot silently nudged hers beneath the table.
Somewhere around three that afternoon, Ian had hobbled down to the barn – he had lost his leg in a childhood car accident, Jamie later explained – finding a doubly rare sight. Jamie Fraser was idle – and Jamie Fraser was in the company of a woman.
That he had somehow, sometime told Jenny and Ian who she was had been clear – but just exactly what they knew about her was not. She had helped Jenny and the kind housekeeper Mrs. Crook prepare dinner – over Jenny’s protests that a guest should rest – seeking the opportunity to quietly introduce herself to Jamie’s sister, and needing the time away from him to just reflect on her whirlwind day. She had had months – years – to prepare. He had had no notice, and yet had taken it all in so gracefully.
Had pledged himself to her, fully. Unequivocally.
Would she do the same for him?
She’d immediately accepted his offer of a place to stay for the night. Jamie had proudly shown her to one of the beautifully apportioned rooms on the second floor of the Big House – Lallybroch – sharing incredible stories of the many Frasers whose blood and sweat had been poured into the very stones and floorboards of the house since before the Revolution.
Light streamed through the windows of the room that was to be Claire’s – the hand-carved bed covered in a worn but exquisite blue bedspread that had been quilted by Jamie’s grandmother MacKenzie; two plush armchairs of a 1940s vintage cozily angled before a small fireplace; on the wall above the bed, a vibrant watercolor of the Big House amid the glowing orange leaves of autumn.
“There should be some spare clothes in the bureau,” Jamie remarked softly, remaining just inside the doorway as Claire quietly acquainted herself with the room. “And my Mam painted that when I was small. We have her drawings and paintings up all over the house.”
From her position at the window, admiring the kitchen garden and small orchard of fruit trees clustered near the old outhouse, Claire turned to smile at him. “Do you paint?”
He shrugged. “I’ve tried. But Jenny has the real talent for it – some of her pieces are downstairs.” He paused, licking his lips. “Well then. I’ll be down in the study with Ian. Have some orders to straighten out for tomorrow. Will – ”
“I’ll be all right,” she reassured him. “Thank you, Jamie. Truly.”
His smile – small, glowing – was absolutely beautiful. “Thank *you*, Claire.” Then he turned and disappeared down the hall.
“The apples in that pie you helped me with come right from the orchard – great-grandmother Fraser planted them, right after the War Between The States,” Jenny continued. Claire snapped back to the present as the toe of Jamie’s boot curled around the back of her shin.
“I’m normally not much help in the kitchen, but you’ve all been so incredibly warm and generous – ”
“Nonsense,” Ian insisted, tearing up a piece of Mrs. Crook’s thick homemade oat bread – a bannock, Jamie had called it – for his three-year-old son – Jamie’s namesake holding court at the worn but homely kitchen table between his father and uncle. “You’ve made Jamie smile again. Lord knows that’s been a rare sight since he returned from ‘Nam.”
Jamie withdrew his foot – and Claire looked across the half-empty portions of roasted pork and Brussel sprouts and corn bread. Meeting his intense blue gaze. Hoping her eyes could convey everything her voice could not.
Apple pie and whisky before the fire in the sitting room – lined floor to ceiling with books dating from the 18th century all the way up to shiny new editions of Slaughterhouse-Five and In Cold Blood. Comfortable silence between them when Jenny and Ian departed to tuck the children into bed. And then when Claire had yawned for the fifth time, Jamie rose, banked the fire, and helped her rise from the couch. Then gently led her upstairs to the room that would be hers for as long as she wished. Holding her hand the entire time.
They paused in the doorway.
“Will you be warm enough? There are extra blankets in the hallway closet – ”
Claire rested her hands on his solid shoulders. “I’ll be just fine. I’m not fragile, you know.”
He settled his hands on her hips, eyes creasing with happiness in the dim light of the hallway. The silence of the house buzzed in their ears.
“I know you aren’t,” he breathed.
Then drew her close – holding her. Enveloping her. Feeling her melt against him – her heart thrum in time with his.
After a long while she pushed back, kissed the corner of his mouth, and quietly slid out of his arms.
“I’ll be right here, down the hall,” he whispered. Eyes dark.
She blew him a teasing kiss, then quietly swung the heavy oak door shut.
On both sides of the door, Jamie and Claire rested their foreheads against the wood. And sighed.
Despite her exhaustion, Claire slept fitfully. Tossing and turning on the heavenly soft mattress and under the almost sinfully warm quilt. So many images flashing through her mind – the bullet-scarred palm tree on the helicopter pad at Chu Lai; the faded anchor tattooed on the forearm of her anatomy instructor; the checked shirt Uncle Lamb loved to wear when presenting his latest findings to a group of his peers. The graceful, invisible shapes Jamie had traced with his hands as he shared stories about himself and his Fraser forebears – helping her learn about all the gifts he would give her.
Did she belong here? Could she belong here – the lady of this great house? Sharing such a well-respected name? Enjoying dinner every night in the rustic kitchen built two centuries ago, surrounded by so many Frasers, alive and dead? Quietly at peace here on the ridge which Frasers had called home for longer than Beauchamps had been in America?
The house groaned and settled around her – easing into sleep.
Except the shuffle of steps in the hallway. Pausing outside her room, then continuing down the stairs.
At least she wasn’t the only restless person tonight. Jenny, perhaps? Maggie was still nursing – perhaps just another late-night feed?
Claire wrapped the tartan blanket – Fraser colors, Jamie had told her – from the foot of the bed around her shoulders, draped over the App State t-shirt and flannel pants that had been neatly folded in the bottom drawer of the bureau, gently pushed open the door, and stepped downstairs.
Only one room to visit at this time of night – the parlor, where books and the warmth of the fire could lull even the most restless to sleep.
But it wasn’t Jenny who sought solace, deep in the night.
Jamie stood after adding a fresh log to the fire, rubbing his face with his hands, clad in an olive-green Army-issued t-shirt and worn white long johns.
Claire must have made a sound – for his head snapped up, startled.
His wide, sweet mouth twisted in a wry smile. “You could say that. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in three years.”
Claire blinked harshly in shock. “You mean – ”
“Yes – since Chu Lai. I – well.” He swallowed, grasping for words. “I re-live all of it every night.”
She crossed the room to stand in front of him. Rested a tentative hand on his elbow. “Tell me?”
He did. Terrible storied of men blown to pieces. Villages burned. Dead livestock floating face-down in rice paddies. The faces of men he couldn’t save. Memories of pain, and anguish, and isolation.
“And the worst one –” his voice broke.
At this point they had curled up together at the corner of the couch, her legs tucked against his, sharing the warmth of the plaid. She squeezed his clammy hand. Encouraging.
“The worst one is when the VC attack Chu Lai – and I can’t find you, Claire. I can’t protect you. And then I’m scrambling down the hallway and they’re firing at me and I trip over your body.”
He wouldn’t look at her – preferring to stare into the hypnotic flames.
She wiped the tears from his eyes. Stunned.
“Have you ever told this to anyone?” Her fingers twined in his hair, damp with sweat. Bringing his face to rest in the curve of her neck.
All he could do was shake his head. Breathing hard. Burrowing closer to her.
“Nobody here understands. I’m a war hero. The owner of this estate. I’m not supposed to be scared. I’m not supposed to have a back twisted with scars. I’m not supposed to be terrified of going to sleep every night.”
Claire eased onto his lap. “Shh,” she soothed. “I’m here. Just let go, Jamie.”
He inhaled deeply. Shakily.
“Let go,” she repeated. “I understand. I’m here. You don’t have to pretend.”
“I love you.”
His awed, red-rimmed eyes lifted to meet hers. Smiling through the tears.
Then her lips found his – and they clung to each other in desperation and joy.