I watched out the window as the dark gathered, and William and Brianna were still chopping wood.
Fergus and Marsali had taken their children home, and Ian had retired to the lean-to he used as a bedroom.
“Jamie, it’s late,” I said. “Haven’t they done enough?”
Jamie joined me at the window, wrapping his arm around my waist in the process, then smiled when the children started laughing over the way a piece of wood had sailed away when William brought the axe down.
“They dinna seem like they’re suffering o’ermuch,” he said, kissing my temple. “They need tae learn responsibility.”
“I agree,” I said, sighing. “But the situation with Germain could have happened to any of us.”
Jamie arched a brow at me. “It was th’ way th’ situation was handled.”
“And that was on Bree, not William.”
“But he demanded tae share in th’ blame, and I’ll no’ deny that of him. ‘Tis how a man should behave, particularly with a woman.”
I smiled, then leaned back into him. “Oh, you mean the way you took Laoghaire’s beating back in Leoch.”
Jamie winced. “Christ, I hadn’a thought on that in years, Sassenach. That was a wee bit different, ken. I wasn’a th’ man she was accused of going about with. It should have been he who took th’ beating. As it was, I didn’a do it for her .”
He smiled, then tilted my face up with the tip of his fingers to place a soft kiss on my lips. “No. I was but a young fool, trying anything I could think of tae gain th’ attention and good favor of a beautiful, but somewhat intimidating Sassenach.”
“Intimidating?” I asked, letting my eyes widen in faux offense. “How was this Sassenach so intimidating?”
“Why, she near had me quaking in my boots whenever she deemed tae look at me, wi’ those piercing, knowing eyes of hers and that sharp tongue and lightning-fast wit. She was a fearsome thing, tae be sure.”
I harrumphed. “And you, what, wanted to tame her?”
“Och, no,” he said, grinning. “I wanted no such thing. I wanted only tae be seen by her.”
“Hmm. Well, I can’t imagine how she could have missed you; bright red curls standing a head above all the other men, eyes so blue you can see them from a mile away…” I placed my palm against his, raising them up together to our eyesight. “These enormous hands, those long fingers…”
“ Hands ?” he scoffed. “What’s noticeable about hands ?”
“Haven’t you ever heard the correlation between the size of a man’s hands and... other parts of his anatomy?”
Jamie blinked in surprise, staring at his hand like he’d never even looked at it before. “Is that true?”
I shrugged. “Well, it was certainly true in this case.”
Growling playfully, Jamie buried his head into the side of my neck, nipping me there while I squirmed and laughed.
“Da, we’re done,” Brianna said as she and William entered the house, looking dirty and exhausted.
Jamie stopped kissing me, but to my surprise he didn’t release me, keeping his arms tight around my middle and my back pulled flush against his chest. By unspoken agreement, Jamie and I had tended to keep our displays of affection to a minimum when the children were present, resigning ourselves to chaste kisses and hugs. I could tell that Jamie’s lack of restraint hadn’t escaped Brianna’s notice, either.
“Well done,” Jamie said, nodding. “Your supper is waiting for ye.”
The children trudged tiredly to where I’d left the beef stew simmering over the fire, moving stiffly and wincing as they reached for the ladle. Jamie released me with a light pat to my bottom and nodded toward them.
“Go on, then,” he said quietly. “Go mother them.”
With a wry shake of my head, I went and retrieved my medical supplies so that I could apply salve and bandages to their blistered palms.
“After supper, it’s right tae bed,” Jamie said. “Ye may sleep in, in th’ morning.”
“Yes, Da,” they chorused in unison.
I thought nothing of it, but when I glanced up at Jamie, he was frozen, standing there with a strained look on his face as he stared at William, and then I realized what the boy had said, unknowing of its impact.
After I had the children cleaned up, and bundled off to bed with kisses to their foreheads, I returned to find Jamie back staring out the window at the woodpile.
“They did a braw job,” he said. “And Bree didn’a let William take th’ brunt of the work, either. She’s such a strong lass.”
“They’re both strong,” I said. “It was so brave of Willie, jumping down to that ledge to be with Germain, and kind of him to stand up for Brianna.”
Jamie smiled softly. “Aye, he’s devoted tae Bree, that’s plain tae see.”
“Not just him,” I said, wrapping both of my arms about one of his. “He wants you to be proud of him.”
He looked down at me, kissed my temple, nuzzled his nose into my hair. “I was afraid this would happen,” he said. “Th’ lad is attached.”
“Why is that a bad thing?” I asked him. “That William sees himself as a member of the family?”
“Because he doesn’a belong to us,” Jamie said miserably.
“Doesn’t he? He’s yours Jamie. Perhaps it’s time to…”
“No, Sassenach,” he said firmly. “It would do nothing but confuse th’ poor lad, and make it even harder for him when it comes time for him to go home.”
“Oh? And when is that supposed to happen? I haven’t heard from John in almost a year, Jamie, to say nothing of William’s grandparents. How long are we going to keep that child wondering what’s going to happen to him? What happens when we finish the house? Are we going to make him share Bree’s room, or put him up in the guest room, or are we going to give him one of his own?”
Jamie heaved a sigh a pulled his arm away only to wrap them both around me tight. “I dinna ken, Sassenach. I dinna ken what is right.”
I thought that I knew, but decided that Jamie might need to figure that out on his own.
I sat back, admiring my work.
It had taken some time, but I finally had a good start to an herb garden where I could grow things I needed for medicine and more. I’d already planted vegetables that would help see us through winter, and I was very proud of the way my garden was taking shape.
I looked over at Brianna and William. Ostensibly they were supposed to be stacking the firewood, but it was looking a bit more like they were building a fort, and I had to smile, glad that the trials that brought us here hadn’t stripped them completely of their childhood.
When a lone rider appeared over the hill, I tensed in reflex, immediately scanning his clothing to determine whether he was a redcoat, or simply a new tenant. He didn’t appear to be either, but he presented the appearance of a soldier, so I stood, ready to send William up the mountain where Jamie, Ian, and Fergus were building a whisky still.
But as I watched the man approached, I became aware that he was familiar somehow, and once he was close enough that I could see his face, I gasped in surprise. “John?”
William’s head snapped around fast enough it should have hurt. “Papa!” he exclaimed, dropping the firewood and running for John at breakneck speed.
“William!” John cried, leaping off his horse and gathering William up into his arms. “By God!”
I went and stood beside Brianna, who was watching in consternation.
John looked up from over William’s head, his eyes widening even further at the sight of me. “Claire? Is that you?”
I grinned. “Well, who else would it be?” I went to him for a hug, noticing how he seemed to have grown thinner over the past months.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, looking bewildered, but utterly relieved as he clung to William.
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” I said. “Where have you been ? We’ve been trying to contact you for months.”
“I thought you forgot about me, Papa,” William said weakly.
“Forgot you?” John said in disbelief. “How could you think such a thing? I’ve been worried sick, William. How could you just run off the way you did? You have no idea the hell I’ve been through, trying to get to you. The last I heard, you were in Wilmington, but when I got there, the town was in shambles and you were nowhere to be found.”
“That may have been our fault,” I said a bit guiltily. “It’s been a journey, I’ll tell you that. How did you find us way out here?”
John blinked in confusion. “I...I merely came here because I’d heard an old friend of mine was in residence here, and hoped he may be of help.”
“You mean Mac?” William asked.
“Yes,” John said. “But how…”
“John!” I heard Jamie exclaim in pleased surprise. He and Ian were riding down from the mountain on two of our new horses.
I was able to watch as a most curious expression fell over John’s face at the sight of Jamie, one I wasn’t able to quite put my finger on, but felt familiar. “Jamie,” he gasped.
Grinning, Jamie swung off of his horse and strode over to John, reaching over William to embrace him warmly. “We’ve been so worried, man,” he said. “Willie’s been beside himself.”
“I know the feeling,” John said. “But I’m confused, how did William come to be here?”
Jamie smiled proudly, then extended his arm for me, and pulled me to his side once I was within reach. “Because, ‘twas my wife and nephew that ye helped on th’ journey here. Helped tae find my own daughter...Brianna.”
John finally looked over at Brianna, who had been standing shyly beside me.
“You’re…” he began, looking from me, to Jamie, to William, then back at Bree. “By God…”
“I’ve heard there’s a resemblance,” Brianna said wryly.
John smiled warmly. “You have no idea how glad I am to see that you’re here, and safe, Brianna,” he said. He looked back at me then. “And you...you never said…”
I shrugged. “I had no idea you were a friend of Jamie’s,” I said honestly, then shot a meaningful look at William. “No idea at all.”
“Well, why don’t we all go inside?” Jamie asked, gesturing toward the house. “I’m sure we have a lot of stories tae share.”
John put his arm back around William, who leaned happily into his side, as we all proceeded into the house.
When Brianna didn’t immediately follow, I held back and turned to look at her, finding her watching John and William with a glower.
“Brianna,” I said gently. “Come on, darling.”
Squaring her shoulders, Brianna followed me into the house, but I understood exactly how she felt.