Will we get a Hail Mary update soon?? Claire need to get back to Jamie and set things right!! :-)
Premise: What if Jamie and Claire had 1) been more openly affectionate, and 2) not *had* to get married?
It was eight days later that I rode into the courtyard of Castle Leoch, just as dawn was breaking.
I could have gotten there sooner, certainly, but I had kept off the main roads to the greatest extent possible, taking no chances of falling into the hands of strangers. I’d had quite enough of that, thank you very much, and while my stint with one highland clan had turned out rather well on the whole, I had no desire to try my luck with another, let alone the English army.
And, despite the danger and the fatigue of the journey, my heart had been light and ready to burst for all eight of those days.
Understatement to the extreme.
It had brought me Jamie.
As foolish and romantic a notion as it perhaps was, I had found myself many times on that hopeful, frantic journey wondering….was it fate that I had come through the stones? That I hadn’t been able to get back to Frank? Had some bizarre destiny planted the fascination with wildflowers in my mind that morning so that I could be brought to Jamie, and him to me? Or had it all been mere luck? Could chance alone truly have resulted in this wonder? Could I honestly believe that mere odds should have allowed two people— so exquisitely attuned to one another, and yet separated by centuries and custom and country—to find one another in a dangerous, lonely universe?
But even as I had wondered endlessly in the long hours and days and nights on the Highland tracks, I knew it didn’t matter; made no true difference why or how by what means I had found myself in this place, this time. What mattered was the burning in my chest as I swung down from the horse; the need of him singing out from my heart; that he was the only thing my bleary eyes sought among the dozens of faces that gaped staring—glaring—at me from around the mist-laden courtyard.
“Mary, Michael, and Bride–CLAIRE!”
It was not Jamie but Mrs. Fitz barreling toward me from the kitchen dooryard, eyes wide…and wary.
So, my suspicions had been right, then— the rent party had come directly back to Leoch. Part of me had hoped against hope that they would have continued further north, upon the secondary loop that Ned had pointed out to me that night upon the map. If they had, I would have arrived well before them—giving me precious, valuable time to convince Colum of the perfectly logical (and fictitious) explanation for how I had been so tragically and unexpectedly abducted from Ned and Murtagh and the rest and then escaped. It would have worked, I thought; as long as Jamie kept his silence. Would he?
I care for you, Claire.
My mind snapped back into awareness, back to the cold, stark realities of the present. I hadn’t arrived first, and thus the entire castle knew of my desertion.
Nonetheless, Mrs. Fitz had genuine affection in her voice as she clasped me hard to her bread-and-herb-scented bosom. “Oh, m’dear,” she said, sniffing, and voice tremulous with emotion, “they said—Och, child, they said such terrible things—!“
I returned the embrace, feeling affection flood my heart, even in the same moment as fear and dead-panic. “What—what have they said about me, Mrs. Fitz?”
Forewarned is forearmed, after all.
She pulled back to stare searchingly up into my face, whispering each word so as not to be overheard by the many watchful onlookers. “That ye’re an English spy—and that ye made off in the night wi’ no warning—and that ye came among us tae do the Mackenzie harm wi’ the knowledge ye’ve gleaned in our midst…”
Well, all things considered, I suppose I couldn’t expect fairer than that. I’d carefully formulated my story, rehearsed the details forward and back—all I could do was pray that Colum would buy it. And that I could talk to Jamie at the first possible moment.
“I’m not a spy, Mrs. Fitz,” I said, as confidently and reassuringly as I could, bending to kiss her warmly on the cheek. “I can assure you, it’s all a dreadful misunderstanding.”
Lord knew I was not a grand actress, but Mrs. Fitz gave an enormous exhale of relief, looked both flustered and pleased as she took both my hands in hers. “I didna wish tae believe it of ye, m’dear—Such treacherous behavior, I couldna—No, I DIDNA myself believe it, child, but Dougal said–”
“I understand perfectly, Mrs Fitz, truly I do. I promise that I’ll explain the truth as soon as possible to Colum—I mean the laird. In the meantime,” I was literally swaying where I stood, “might I—trouble you for some food?—and perhaps a basin of water to wash? Before I attract more attention?”
The water would be pleasant, but it was food that I needed desperately. The bannocks I had filched from camp were long gone when I reached Craigh na Dun. Having no skill as a hunter, I had had to make do with what roots and berries and other edibles I could forage along the roadside. I had made it to Leoch on stubbornness and hope alone; but the reality was that I was very close to spent from hunger, and was having trouble keeping my legs and my vision aright.
“Of course, of course!” Mrs Fitz said, already guiding me toward the kitchens. “Sweet child, starved and half-frozen.” She stopped sharply as we reached the doorway, looking apologetic. “Of course, I will have tae send word tae Himself at once that ye’ve arrived, Claire….given….weel….”
Given that I was still a presumed English spy who had just sauntered back into MacKenzie Clan HQ.
“Of course, Mrs. Fitz,” I said gently, “it’s the right thing to do.”
While she commissioned the boy known as Young Alec to take the message to the laird’s cambers and deliver my few belongings up to a spare chamber, my eyes swung once more around and around the courtyard. No Jamie.
Ten minutes was all I needed—ten minutes to explain how wrong I’d been to run; that everything I’d spat at him that night had been a dreadful, vicious lie; that I missed him; that I wanted him; that I wanted to stay. And failing that, even one minute just to be in his arms; to lay my head against his chest and feel his arms pulling me safe and warm against him. One minute just to hold him, and tell him with the gentle softness of my touch, with my eyes, that he hadn’t misjudged my affections; that he hadn’t been…’mistaken.’
Come find me, Jamie, I prayed upward into the walls of Leoch. Find me. Let me tell you what’s in my heart. What was there all along.
I followed Mrs. Fitz inside and down the familiar corridors to the kitchens. She ushered me—ignoring the stares and whispers from the kitchen staff—into a small room behind the kitchen hearth that I had never noticed before. Less than a minute later, I was gulping a mug of thick beef broth (“Drink slowly, m’dear, ye dinna want griping in yer wame, aye?”), while she and a teenage girl drew me a warm bath in a small wooden tub before the fire. While I had protested that cold water was perfectly sufficient, the warmth of it and the sweet scent of the chamomile soap were together as comforting and bracing as brandy to my weary body. She helped me wash and rinse my hair, then wrapped me thick towels with a second mug of broth as she conjured a clean gown, shift, and stays for me, and then helped me herself to dress.
She sat with me by the fire as I inhaled porridge with honey and a small loaf with soft cheese. Her manner was still kind and sympathetic, but her eyes remained sharp and leery.
“I willna hide from ye, Claire, that the laird is no’ likely tae speak your name with kindness. Dougal was cursing ye roundly tae anyone that would listen—Old Mr. Gowan has scarcely ceased wi’ shaking his head and bemoaning yer actions— and wee Jamie, weel, he’s barely spoken, hasn’t he?”
That jolted my heart into a frenzy. “Has he?” I said lightly, not meeting her eye.
“Jamie? Och, aye,” she said, nodding gravely. “He must ha’ been sore affected by it. I suppose ‘tis only right, wi’ his loyalty to his uncles, ken? But my Laoghaire— she was sae glad tae see him return (she carries quite the torch for him, ye see)—but he’s been silent and lifeless as a stone these past days—Has scarcely given her as much as a ‘Good day.’”
Perversely, that made my heart leap. He doesn’t want Laoghaire, not even for comfort. He doesn’t want just any woman. He wants…
“Begging your pardon, Mrs. Fitz.” Young Alec’s head appeared around the door. “The Mackenzie requests Mistress Beauchamp’s presence in his study at her earliest convenience.”
I didn’t have the balls to ask Mrs. Fitz for a heaping four-finger glass of whisky, but Jesus H. CHRIST how I needed one.
‘Her earliest convenience.’ Which was to say, immediately. Which was to say my fate was to be decided at once. Which meant that if it were the laird’s pleasure, I would be expelled from the castle before I’d had the chance to even lay eyes on Jamie. Which meant—
Dammit. God bloody fucking dammit.
“Will ye do me the honor of sitting with me a time, Mistress Beauchamp?”
I sat in the proffered armchair across the broad desk from Colum MacKenzie. The laird of Castle Leoch was—outwardly, at least— as serene as ever, his appearance decorous and tidy, despite the earliness of the hour. Despite my earlier need for a stiff drink, I couldn’t bring myself to touch the glass he’d had a servant bring me.
He sat there surveying me, that quiet, wry smile playing at his lips. I lowered my eyes and waited, looking awkwardly around the room by way of distraction from the tension in the room. The laird’s study was just the same: luxuriously crammed with its beautiful furnishings befitting the MacKenzie’s station and wealth. His birds cheeped and chirruped eagerly, apparently not at all sensible of the tension pervading the room.
“Déja vu,” Colum said at last.
“What? I mean—“ I stammered, trying to recover from his startlingly calm non-sequitur. “I beg your pardon, my laird?”
“Déja vu. It’s French,” Colum said evenly, eyes twinkling. “It means, ’already seen.’ But surely—“ he said, gracefully arcing an eyebrow, “you, having family in France, would know that?”
I returned his level gaze with one of my own, though I smiled sweetly. “I do apologize, my laird, I simply was taken off-guard. Yes, I do know what the word means.”
“Aye, verra good…excellent.” He nodded sagely, lacing his fingers together on the tabletop, not breaking eye contact. “Then you’ll perhaps know, too, why I should be experiencing such a phenomenon at this moment….”
I knew precisely what he was getting at, but I feigned polite ignorance, waiting for him to continue, to make the first move.
He did. “You…in my study…playing the harmless ingénue…after appearing on clan lands under highly suspicious circumstances.” He raised his eyebrows. “It does seem—to ring a certain bell, does it not?”
My heart was racing with adrenaline, but I smiled a smile of simple regret and opened my mouth to speak—I had rehearsed this all the way from Craigh na Dun, after all—but a pounding on the door made me all but jump out of my skin.
“Enter,” Colum said, not seeming in the least bit surprised by the interruption. I regained my composure and remained facing forward.
There came the squeal of hinges and the unmistakable snort behind me. “So it’s true then,” Dougal MacKenzie’s voice said said, low and hissing, “the prodigal wench has returned.”
My mind was a constant stream of all the curses I’d ever learned, in every tongue, and I’d played with street urchins in countless countries.It shouldn’t have surprised me, now that I came to think of it—Dougal was Colum’s right-hand, after all, and I had officially been in his charge when I’d made my escape— but it did. I had prepared for Colum, for his savage cunning masked in level-headed civility; I was equipped for that: for the turn of phrase and the traps of language and logic. But Dougal was another matter entirely—I couldn’t trust myself to remain calm and collected in the face of his pugnacious and irreverent manner. But I had to bloody do it, prepared or no.
I didn’t bother to turn around, just said simply, “I’m not a wench, Mr. MacKenzie. And yes, I have returned.” This exchange was too important to let him raise my ire.
“Prodigal liar, then,” he said, appearing to my left and coming to stand next to his brother, arms crossed and eyes blazing as he glared down at me. “Conspirator. Agent.”
My gaze was still cool, my voice still polite, but I could feel the shards of glass in it, dangerous to both of us. “I swear to you, Mr. Mackenzie: I’m none of those things.”
He laughed, cruelly and vicious, bending at the waist to put his face mere inches from mine. “Ye expect us to just believe the mere word of a lying, filthy wh–”
“Will ye tell us, Mistress Beauchamp,” Colum said, his sharp tone a silent warning which Dougal must have comprehended at once, for he stepped back from me, and came to stand at Colum’s right hand, his own hand resting on his dirk handle.
Colum continued. “Will ye tell us what it was, exactly, that made ye suddenly choose to leave the rent party….and just as suddenly return?”
I took a deep breath, ready. “You will certainly recall, my laird, that since my—“ (Filthy, barbarous abduction). “—Arrival— with the Clan MacKenzie, so shortly after the death of my husband, it has been my desire to reach Inverness.”
The laird nodded.
“It was my intention to join with friends there in hopes of beginning a new life among those I trusted. It was to them that I went the night I departed from the rent party. My longing for familiar faces had grown so strong, that I could no longer bear to wait. That is why I left. The simple desire to be among friends once more.”
Dougal made a sound of deep derision, but Colum only nodded. “Would ye be so kind as to share with us their names?”
“Reverend Reginald Wakefield and his wife, Catherine, both old friends of my departed parents. I was a child, the last time I met with them, but there was no doubt in my mind that they would receive me. However–” I heaved a deep breath, pleased to feel a lump in my throat that lent emotion to my voice as I revealed the ‘sad’ news. “Upon arriving in Inverness, I learned that the Wakefields had taken ship for the Indies three years ago, to begin a Presbyterian mission on the island of—”
“How daft do ye think we are, woman?” Dougal growled, with a gesture so violent I shrunk back instinctively into my chair. “Ye dinna have friends in Inverness and ye NEVER did. Else you’d have written to them upon your first arrival here.”
I straightened once more and did my best to appear innocently perplexed. “What makes you think I didn’t write to them, Mr. Mackenzie?”
“Because—“ Colum interjected, his calm—earlier, such an asset to my nerves— now terrifying. Not a hand of clemency: a razor-thin knife,“—I make it my business to be aware of all correspondence in and out of the castle. Oh, not necessarily the contents,” he said, seeing the shock and disapproval on my face, “just who is writing to whom while enjoying my hospitality—as is my right as laird.” He folded his hands. “And there has been no letter to or from a Claire Beauchamp at any point since you arrived on MacKenzie lands.”
I opened my mouth, but he cut me off with a soft, “—And if ye did manage to communicate with them… it does make one wonder…” He gave me his most piercing gaze yet, stealing my breath, “—why a woman with nothing to conceal should go to such lengths to do so…undetected?”
No. No no no no no, this was slipping so quickly away from my control.
“I do appreciate how all this must appear on the surface.” I could feel my heart racing with panic as I grasped at straws, desperate to remain calm and failing miserably. There was an audible quaver in my voice—damn it, damn ME!—“All I can do, my laird, is swear that I mean you and your clan no ill will, I have no ties or contact with the English government, whatsoever and I am willing to attest to those truths on anything you wish to name. The simple fact, however it may appear, is I saw a chance to reach Inverness and I took it. That is all.”
“Liar,” Dougal hissed. “Admit it: You’re a paid informant for the English. Ye left our company ten days ago to report our goings-on to your superiors, and now you’re back, despite your sweet face and claim to innocence, wi’ fresh orders and OPEN EARS.”
I was panicking. “That—that is simply not—”
He was looming over me again. I could smell his breath and feel it hot on my forehead. “Admit the truth, woman, and we’ll perhaps show ye some mercy. SPEAK!”
A cacophony of sound filled the room and startled the birds.
Dougal’s violent snarling: “Liar! LIAR!”
A whimpering sound. Me?
Colum’s sharp, commanding, “I can think of no just reason—”
“—that a woman wi’ nothing to hide, should—”
“Please—please—you must believe–”
Dougal’s hands on the arms of my chair.
My eyes closed, the colors roaring in the dark.
Stop. Just make it stop. Stop.
“—Loosen your tongue–”
“JUST TELL THEM, Claire!”
I felt his voice jolt through my body like a wave of electricity and I whirled my head to see him standing in the corner, arms crossed.
I nearly sunk to the floor in abject relief. He must have entered with Dougal, remaining silent. But he was here. HERE.
Jamie. MY Jamie.
Floor be damned: I wanted to leap out of the chair and fly into his arms—those strong arms that had held me and warmed me and kept me; Wanted to feel his skin against mine. Wanted—wanted so badly it felt like physical pain in my chest—to kiss him and feel his fingers in my hair. To talk. To tell. JAMIE.
I forced myself to remain still, but inside I was thrumming with relief and joy. Everything would be alright, now—Jamie was here.
“Tell them, Mistress,” he said, and the coldness in that voice was so shocking I blinked as though struck.
He had stepped forward a pace or two, so I could see that his eyes, too, were hard and icy, revealing none of his usual bright eagerness. Even more disturbing than this, they held an alarming intensity, some silent meaning I couldn’t comprehend. “It’s alright, mistress. Tell them the truth of why ye fled.”
Another jolt, and I could do nothing but stare, my mouth gobbling open and shut. The truth?
For one wild, ludicrous moment, I was screaming: ‘how does he know I was trying to get through the stones?’
But he didn’t know; he couldn’t know; he could never know that truth.
“I….CAN’T.” I finally said, teeth gritted and voice tight. (Because I don’t know what in bloody hell you mean, you damned, wonderful—)
“Ye can,” he said, walking around to my right to stand with his uncles. “Go on, Mistress. There’s less shame in it than being mistaken and hung for a spy.”
“What’s this about, Jamie?” Colum demanded, his eyes flashing.
Dougal, too, was mounting in his own brand of fury. He took a menacing step toward his nephew. “D’ye mean to say that ye had further knowledge of her departure—Information that you chose to withhold??”
“Aye,” Jamie said, his eyes downcast. “Though it wasna mine to disclose, before.”
Dougal gave a guttural roar and made as if to lunge for Jamie behind Colum’s chair, but before he could say another word, Jamie raised a hand and looked directly at me with that same hard eye as before. “With your permission, Mistress?”
I saw it now, what that look meant.
It said: be silent.
I nodded and dropped my eyes to my lap, seeing the three of them behind the desk only from the upper periphery of my vision.
“Mistress Beauchamp fled that night…because I spurned her advances.”
I couldn’t have spoken a word if I’d tried. If I could have, it might have been a gut-punched, ‘…Jesus.’
He went on, quiet and careful. “I begged her to forgive me—Told her truly what a fine, beautiful lady she is, and how much I admired and respected her—but that—my allegiances lay elsewhere.”
He placed a hard emphasis on that word, and I thought I saw a shifting, enough so that I chanced a glance upward to witness the significant look Jamie was sharing with Colum. To my astonishment and relief, I thought I saw something dawning in the laird’s expression. Jesus Christ…this was going to work!
“And—being, as we all know—a verra strong-willed and reckless sort of woman, Mistress Beauchamp departed in the night—” He turned his gaze to me, “—too hurt …and vexed to remain…That’s how it was….aye, Mistress?”
I felt myself nodding but I was still staring down at my hands . I could see him in my periphery, his image blurring and distorting as the tears gathered. My throat was burning. With shame.
That’s how it was. Despite his phrasing, he wasn’t asking me. He was telling. Hurt and vexed—the mildest words possible for what I had done to him. His eyes told me the truth: Furious. Heartbroken.
God, what a fool I was. I’d come back, free in my own heart, ready to sing out a ‘ten-minute’ apology, then throw myself into his arms with hardly a thought for just how deeply I had savaged him with my words, my rejection.
His eyes were on the floor, now, and I wanted to tear my own guts out.
Beauchamp, look at yourself.
And I saw—vividly—how I had ground his heart into the dirt when he’d handed it to me so tenderly and freely.
I had had my reasons at the time, yes. But God, how I had twisted the knife in his flesh. How I had ripped him.
He’d made me a gift of himself and everything he would ever be, and to his eyes, I hadn’t even glanced at it before flinging it into the fire.
I did, Jamie! God, I DID glance. I looked and looked and it frightened me because I WANTED it. And I ran because I was married—because of Frank. But he’s gone now. He’s gone and I want YOU.
Can’t you see that in my face? LOOK, Jamie. Find me, here.
“Well… that does seem to explain things.”
I looked up at Colum in surprise, wiping my eyes, which had been streaming. Apparently my regret and shame over what I’d done to Jamie was playing off rather nicely in support of the narrative that I was the lover that had been spurned. Even Dougal’s hostile posture had softened, though his look of distaste had not.
Colum, however, was not done. “Though it doesna altogether account for your return, this morning. If it was our Jamie’s disregard that prompted ye to flee…why come back?”
“I knew almost immediately,” I said quickly, marshaling my tremulous voice and picking up the narrative from Jamie, thanking him silently for handing me a lie with a fighting chance of success, “that it would look dreadful—as it indeed does, I am well aware—to have forsaken my word to the MacKenzies on a mere affaire de coeur.”
I met eyes with Jamie and lost my breath for a moment. He seemed to sense that my looking at him disrupted my train of thought, and he casually began pacing before the bookshelves, moving to my right and slowly out of my line of sight.
I carried on. “Upon learning that my friends were unreachable, I did consider going south to England—or to Edinburgh or some other place I might have cause to use my skills as a healer, but my honor prompted me to return–”
“Honor,” scoffed Dougal.
“—and to beg the forgiveness of the laird and permission to remain in his service. Which I do now, humbly, under whatever terms you demand.”
Silence reigned, interrupted only by the chirping of the birds.
Colum and Dougal leaned their heads together, sharing a heated, whispered conference. I wanted desperately to turn in my chair and look at Jamie, touch his hand, thank him, but I forced myself to stay still.
At last, Colum straightened with a look of decision, and surveyed me intently for a long moment before saying, “You may remain at Leoch, Mistress Beauchamp.”
My sigh of relief was far louder than I’d anticipated. “Thank you—THANK YOU, my laird.”
“BUT—” he said, firmly, “you will confine your movements within the walls of the main castle. And an escort will be reinstated until you have earned my forgiveness. And my trust.”
I nodded. “That is—more than fair, sir. I will respect your wishes.”
We made our farewells and I rose, taking the time to give my deepest, most respectful curtsy I could muster, but turned the very first second I was able, tuned so that I could see Jamie, ask where we might go to talk, alone.
But all I saw was the swish of a vanishing plaid.
[[Next week they talk, I promise]]