February 21st, 1744; The Abbey, Scotland
I stifled a groan in Claire’s curls as the church bell tolled three, my arms reflexively tightening around her as I tried to ignore the fact that it was time to get out of bed.
I hated to wake her.
The night had not been an easy one for my wife — were they ever these days? — and Claire only just managed to fall back asleep, but I knew she’d need a wee bit of extra time to dress this morning… as her appearance was vital to our ruse.
Smoothing the tousled curls away from her brow, I placed a kiss on her temple, then trailed one after the other until I reached the base of her neck. She stirred at my touch, her eyelids flickering and one corner of her mouth pulling upwards towards a smile, but didn’t wake. My hand lowered to her hip, then slid along the distended curve of her abdomen as my lips found hers.
Her own hands moved then, reaching and finding me in the darkness.
“Good morning,” I murmured into her palm, brushing a kiss across it as her hand drifted round to the back of my head.
One eye cracked open to scowl at me at this greeting, her words slightly jumbled but still coherent, “Thisn’t morning, y’oaf. Dark’out.”
I curled my lips between my teeth to keep from grinning at her offended expression, the innocence of slumber still lingering on her face and made her appear very much like a spoiled, pouting child.
Claire felt my suppressed amusement and struggled to open both her eyes. Her brow furrowed with the effort it took to spear me with what I’m sure was meant to be her best look of consternation, but it fell short. I kissed her soundly in an effort to keep from laughing outright, rousing us both completely and bringing us directly back to why we’d risen at this inhospitable hour of the morn.
She sighed a moment later, a wistful look dancing across her now clear eyes.
“It’s time, isn’t it?”
“Aye,” I swallowed hard, excitement mixing with the fear of the unknown as my stomach churned.
“Time to leave.”
Half past 4am.
The wind howled around us as we stepped from the shelter of the abbey out into the open courtyard, cautiously picking our way across the frozen cobblestones. It’s nasty chill bit at any patch of exposed skin it could sink its teeth into and my cheeks and hands were already red and raw from ensuring the rig was properly loaded with our things.
I hastily grabbed for the carriage door, lunging for it before it was really in reach as I was eager to get Claire out of the cold, but she was of a different mind.
“You won’t say a word if we’re stopped, will you?” she inquired, pulling up short and studying my face intently. “Or only in French if you must? That cap’ll do to hide your hair, but there’s no mistaking your voice.”
My hand instinctively went to the back of my neck, feeling the rough wool of my knitted hat. It would keep me warm, certainly, but pulled low as it was, it went a long way to hide the telltale auburn hair that was plastered all over my broadsheets.
“Aye, er, oui Madame,” I promised, squeezing her hand reassuringly with a forced smile as I helped her onto the first step.
Wobbly as a new foal, I steadied her as she picked her way into the dark carriage. Murtagh held his lantern high, giving her light to see as she eased herself into the padded cushions and meticulously arranged the folds of her cloak.
“The same goes for you, hmm?” Claire’s head snapped up to look at us, her gaze locking onto my godfather’s. Her eyes narrowed in a rather unreadable expression of consternation mixed with something akin to a challenge as she continued, “Not a word from the both of you. Let Francis do the work and the talking until we’re aboard ship.”
I caught the twitch of my godfather’s lips out the corner of my eye — despite his heavy beard and the early morning darkness — and marveled yet again at the relationship the two of them had formed while I was away.
“And I can quite handle myself, thank you very much,” she added in afterthought and under her breath, almost as if to reassure herself as it was to us.
Claire caught the mirth bubbling up beneath my gathering nerves and reached out her hand to me. I took it in an instant, leaning in and keeping my voice low, even though I was sure no one but our present company could hear us.
“May your brilliant mind and unbridled tongue keep us safe, my love,” I blessed her in French, then dropped my hand to the swell of our children. “And may you both bide until we are safe.”
She crossed herself, the barest hint of a shudder running through her, and I dove into the carriage beside her, pulling her into my arms and vowing, “No harm will come to you, Claire. I give you my word.”
“I know,” she murmured back after a moment and I loosened my grip.
Sitting back, she waved me off.
“We need to leave if we’re going to catch the tide,” she insisted with a smile that gained confidence by the second. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
I blinked at her for a moment, which made her laugh — a heartily welcome sound — and I shook my head with a smile of my own.
“Oui, Madame,” I stepped back onto the ledge of the doorway, “I am entirely at your service, my Lady Beauchamp.”
She nodded curtly and dismissed me fully, all but shoving me out into cold with a single look.
I grinned at her and exited the carriage, shutting the door firmly behind me. Turning, I moved to join Murtagh on the bench up top but hesitated a moment before climbing aboard.
That they might be safe… both she and the children.
My eyes slid shut, my heart offering up the rest of a prayer that I could not put into words.
“Come along, a bhalaich.”
Murtagh’s command was urgent yet gentle and I reflexively moved to do so, hastily crossing myself before climbing up beside him with a fluidity that hadn’t been mine since before my injury. I nodded to him and with a flick of the reins, he set us into motion.
I held my breath as we passed through the main gate and left our safe haven behind.
There would be no going back.
We hadn’t traveled long before we encountered the first crofter’s hut, still shut up and slumbering in the early morning dew. I scanned the road ahead and caught sight of a small copse of trees off to the left side. This particular stretch of road wasn’t bounded by forest, so it would make a perfect lookout post, should a soldier or two want to keep an eye on the comings and goings of the abbey.
And they certainly would.
My gut clenched as we approached, wishing the lanterns posted on the corners of the carriage were bright enough to see what we were about to ride into. The mare on the right snorted to her teammate and I flinched. It took everything within me to not grab the reins from Murtagh’s hands and turn us around.
“Steady,” Murtagh coaxed in the language Claire had instructed us… one I knew he didn’t particularly care to use.
To anyone listening, it’d be logical that he would have been speaking to the horses, but I knew it was intended for me.
The carriage began to slow and I spat out an emphatic, “Fuck!”
I bit down hard on my lower lip, the sharp pain competing against my rolling stomach and spasming back. The deep, frozen ruts of the lane did little to ensure a smooth ride to the harbor and the combination of my raw nerves and the carraige’s jolting, jostling motions were enough to set me completely on edge.
Lifting a hand to the ridiculous bonnet atop my head, I adjusted it slightly and then arranged my skirts around me. Our success was dependent on my looking every inch a respectable woman of wealth and I was determined to have everything in place when that door opened. We came to a complete stop long before I was ready and I forced myself to take as deep of a breath as was possible in my current state.
Here we bloody go, Beauchamp.
Male voices began to bark orders, sending a shiver down my spine, and I steeled myself for the gust of frigid air mingled with danger that was sure to come at any moment. I didn’t have to wait long, for the door opened in the next second and I saw the face of Lady Margaret’s most trusted footman, Francis.
His expression gave nothing away as he offered his hand in assistance — the as yet unseen redcoats obviously requested I present myself — and I donned my most affected air, slipping into the personage I’d crafted in my wakeful hours of the night.
“Tell them I wish to speak to their commanding officer,” I sniffed, drawing my cloak tighter around me, “and do shut the door, Francis, or I shall catch my death of a chill.”
One brow twitched and I caught the briefest of smiles flicker across the chap’s face before he disappeared back into the night, doing exactly as I’d asked.
More voices sounded in conversation outside the carriage, taking on an air of confusion as a whole, with the exception of Francis’ Lowland lilt.
“Ye better do as th’Lady asks, ye ken,” he warned and I couldn’t help but grin in the dark in spite of my nerves. “She’s not one t’bide... an’ she’s a ship t’meet.”
There was a shuffling of feet and a clanking of metal, but one person had obviously moved off and all discussion faded away into nothing. A few moments passed in anxious silence until a new disgruntled voice suddenly asked, “Have you found something, then?”
Bile rose at the back of my throat as I thought of them finding Jamie up above me, but I didn’t waver from my plan.
Negatory remarks followed the new voice’s inquiry and the officer — for indeed, he must be — was informed of the situation.
Francis opened the door again and I launched into my tirade, “What is the meaning of this inconvenience, Captain?! If my ship departs without me, I shall ensure that you are stripped of your position, paraded through the streets barefoot in nothing but sackcloth and ashes, and unable to find a place of employment as anything but His Majesty’s scullery maid!”
The officer stood slack jawed just outside the door in perfect response to my tirade, obviously not expecting a well-bred, highly enraged, loyal British subject on the road at this hour.
“Do come in and explain yourself,” I huffed, beckoning him forward, “you must have a reason for holding up honest traffic in the middle of the night like a Highland bandit.”
His mouth snapped shut at this and his brows rose all the way to the edge of his wig as he climbed inside, a lantern in hand. I blinked at the sudden brightness, but it only helped to permanently affix my scowl.
“Now, who do I have the pleasure of addressing?” I titled my head to the side, feigning interest while looking very much like an addled bird, I was sure.
“Captain George Brooks, my lady, of, ah, His Majesty’s Third Battalion,” he cleared his throat, stammering slightly. “I, well, I sincerely apologize for Private Richardsen’s rather forward behavior and, well, the delay.”
He studied me quite openly, his gaze taking in my fine clothing and warm cloak. The captain seemed to take me for what I appeared to be, for he quickly continued, “You see, Madam, we have word that an escaped convict has sought sanctuary within the abbey and are stopping and searching every conveyance that leaves the place.”
I stiffened at the word convict, but used it to my advantage.
“I must tell you, Captain, that I was the guest of the good brethren and can assure you no such man exists,” I leveled him with a look that made him squirm. “And, certainly, no one of such quality is among my men.”
“I consider the Scottish brutes to be a detestable sort and am on my way now to leave this godforsaken country,” I sniffed, forcing myself not to choke on the absolute fallacy of my own words.
Captain Brooks nodded at this, but it was clear from his gathering frown he had questions for me.
“There’s a respectable tavern in the village where my men are quartered,” he shifted, leaning forward slightly. “Why stay with the heretics when other suitable — and dare I say safer — lodging was available?”
I snorted, feigning disgust, “I’d rather sleep in the gutter than under the roof of a Highland villager, Captain… and as for the heretic Papists, you forget that a good many of His Majesty’s subjects are such.”
He caught sight of the jet rosary on display around my neck and had the good grace to wince.
“My apologies, Lady…,” he trailed off.
“Beauchamp,” I supplied for him, ready to rattle off my concocted scenario. “My husband is Lieutenant Commander Alexander Beauchamp of the Royal Navy and I’m meeting him in Portsmouth… that is, if you and your men will permit us to be on our way.”
My companion shifted uncomfortably once more, groveling, “Yes, well, I see there is no reason that you should not be allowed to travel on. I shall send a man ahead to alert the guard at the port. They’ll see that you board and depart without interference.”
“How good of you, Captain,” I commented, forcing a smile as a sudden wave of nausea overtook me.
Hurry up, Captain, or you shall be wearing my breakfast.
The captain strode out the door of the carriage, nearly knocking Francis off his feet, and beckoned wildly to his lieutenant. I tensed, nearly grabbing the reins out of Murtagh’s hands, but instead steeled myself as I caught his orders on the wind.
“Ride ahead,” he motioned for a horse to be brought round, bellowing, “Tell Phillips to let them through without trouble and ensure no one delays their departure... And If I hear that so much as a seagull spoke out of turn to the Lady Beauchamp, I shall have both your head and your commission, Hawkins!”
Lieutenant Hawkins swung into the saddle with a barked yes, sir and was barreling down the path ahead of us a moment later.
I blinked in surprise, then let the darkness of the night hide the beginnings of a smile that warmed my face.
Well done, mo nighean donn.
The remainder of the ride to the harbor was something akin to cruel and unusual punishment.
The road had gotten better some time ago — the carriage no longer pitching from side to side with every rut we hit — but I still felt every stone, every bump we drove over. The muscles of my lower back and left hip spasmed with a ferocity that I had never experienced, protesting their rough handling in a language that I could not ignore. My stomach rolled, my chest heaved, and it was everything I could do not to lose my cookies all over Lady Margaret’s velvet cushions.
I slid my eyes shut. It was dark as the deepest cave around me, but somehow the feeling of closing my eyes still gave me a barrier to the outside world.
You did it.
We’d passed through the checkpoint undetected, sent on our way the very man in charge of the entire operation. I couldn’t let my guard down yet, though, couldn’t celebrate this victory until we were really, truly well on our way on the open sea.
I shook my head, trying to fixate on something steady, something outside of the tossing, tumbling barrel I was currently deposited in.
I did allow myself to smile then.
What did he think of it all? Of our walking through right under the redcoats' noses?
I was thankful he had Murtagh at his side through the whole ordeal, but I still wished I could have been with him. For my presence beside him to steady his nerves.
Who are you kidding, Beauchamp?
You couldn’t have climbed up there next to him if your life depended on it.
Well… maybe only if it TRULY depended on it.
My hands moved, my arms cradling the curve of my distended abdomen as I shifted against the seat cushions. Climbing aboard this conveyance had been interesting enough… I didn’t want to think of what getting aboard the Demeter would entail.
The footman Francis was a short, sender slip of a thing, and while that suited his career perfectly, it wouldn’t suffice should I need assistance boarding the ship.
No one would think twice of Jamie’s strong form helping me… would they?
My heart lurched to a stop, skipped a beat, then thundered on as the carriage began to slow and I realized the next hurdle was upon us. We didn’t stop, but continued to crawl along for many minutes, allowing me time to right myself and prepare for act two of my facade.
When Francis did open the door… I was ready.
Around 5am, Aboard the Demeter;
A dhia, what a woman.
I shook my head in amused astonishment as I watched Claire’s rigid form dismiss Colonel Phillips with a flick of her hand, then turned to the captain of the ship and pointedly asked for shelter from the cold. We hadn’t the time to inform him of her ruse before we boarded, but he gruffly acquiesced and motioned for her to follow him into the cabin.
Seeing that Phillips had disembarked and none of his men were looking towards the ship, I slipped into the shadows of the gathering dawn and trailed after them.
“I do apologize for my tone on deck, Captain,” I heard her sigh as I entered the small, cluttered room. “We sincerely appreciate your kindness and understand the risk you’re taking in bringing us aboard.”
“Aye, well,” he shifted from foot to foot, not quite sure what to make of my wife, “‘Tis nothin’ much… so long as ye stay within an’ out of my men’s way, ye ken.”
I’d gathered in our short time on deck that the crew’s opinion of my wife was something akin to an omen of bad luck — as a woman aboard ship often was — and had no intention of letting her out that door again until we were disembarking onto French soil.
Claire turned as the ship’s captain left, realizing I was there for the first time and her face completely crumpled. She looked as though her body was about to follow suit and was at her side in a moment, gathering her into my arms and tucking her head securely beneath my chin. I could feel her begin to tremble from head to toe against me and looked wildly around for a place for her to sit.
Not readily finding one, she clung to me as we stood in the middle of the room, swaying slightly with the motion of the ship.
“Ifrinn,” I muttered when I found I could finally speak, “I shouldna let you do tha’, mo chridhe.”
“We didn’t have a choice,” came her soft reply, muffled by the front of my coat.
I shrugged at this, knowing she was right, but wishing my heavily pregnant wife hadn’t had to be the one to navigate us through the lion’s den.
“But ye did verra well, indeed,” I had to admit, more than a hint of pride coloring my voice.
She snorted in objection to this and I grinned, turning back her hood and shedding her of that ridiculous cap in one movement. Placing a kiss amid her curls, my hand cupped the back of her head.
Lifting her chin, she looked up at me, fatigue evident in her eyes. I kissed her soundly then and she turned in my arms, looping her own around my neck with a contented sigh.
“Are you cold?” I asked, placing a kiss on her warm neck but had felt her chilled cheek against my own.
“No, not very,” she rested her head against my shoulder. “It’s much better in here.”
I nodded, agreeing as my gaze lifted and I began to examine the quarters we’d been given.
Captain’s quarters they may be, but it was also clearly a storeroom for a good portion of his cargo. Crates stacked upon crates loomed around us like a forest of trees, with bundles and baskets cast about on the floor in unorganized chaos. There didn’t seem to be a bed to be found in any resemblance of the word and this gave me no amount of disquiet.
Resigning myself to a sturdy crate that was roughly sitting height to my left, I slowly moved Claire in that direction, easing her down onto it as I went in search for better accommodations. She flapped a weary hand at me, encouraging me on my way as she loosened her stays and let out a shaky breath.
I wove in and out of the stacks of goods, desperate to find a place for my wife to lay down. There were large wooden trunks and canvas wrapped parcels, small wooden crates and barrels of various volumes and heights… but no bed. I discovered something resembling a hammock slung in one corner, but as that would never do, I dismissed it immediately and continued my search, doubling back and returning a different way than I’d come.
Claire’s voice had me leaping over a canvas wrapped bundle and grabbing for the bucket I’d caught out the corner of my eye. I reached her just in time for her to deposit her breakfast in the receptacle, her eyes wide and cheeks gone an unearthly pale.
“Christ, I’m sorry,” I gushed, keeping a stray curl from getting in the way of things. “I shouldn’t have left yer side… tis the same wi’ me, too.”
In truth, our current rhythmic motion was nothing compared to what we’d experience once we left the harbor, but I had the good sense to let that be.
Claire shook her head, glowering into the depths of the bucket and grumbled, “It was that bloody roller coaster.”
“Mhmm,” I commented noncommittally, not entirely sure what that was but fairly confident she meant the carriage ride here. “Aye, well, ye’re off it now.”
She retched again, as if the very mention of the conveyance had set her stomach into motion again.
“Shh, my own, it will be better in a moment,” I assured her in Gaelic as I knelt beside her, smoothing back the hair from her face and rubbing her back.
Offering her my handkerchief when she appeared to be done, I took the fragrant bucket from her and set it aside, though within arm’s reach should she need it again.
“Are you alright?” she squeaked, the color beginning to creep back into her cheeks.
I stared at her, my brows nearly to my hairline as I asked incredulously, “Me?!”
“Yes, you,” the frown was back, but I could see that the wheels were churning furiously behind those amber eyes. “You were just paraded in front of an entire battalion of redcoats… that couldn’t have been easy for you.”
I shook my head, shrugging off her concern, assuring, “I’m fine, Sassenach. They didna give me so much as a second glance, thanks to you.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
A slow smile tugged at my lips at her slow, deliberate enunciation of every syllable of this declaration.
“Aye, I ken jus’ what ye mean,” I reached for her hands, twining my fingers between hers, “an’ I think ye ken me better than I ken myself, at times.”
She snorted at this, dismissing the notion.
“If I do, then it’s the same with me,” she muttered, wiping at her face.
I grinned, squeezing her hands tightly.
“Oh, aye, mo nighean donn… I do, indeed.”