In which our hero arrives at her new residence
Broch Mordha is even smaller than it looked on Google maps. It has one main road, as far as she can tell, and several offshoots that flow higgledy-piggledy from it, curling in on each other in a manner that suggests organic growth rather than active planning. She can imagine herself wandering around the winding roads forever. She reaches out a hand to touch the cool brick of the nearest wall. It feels reassuringly solid under her hand.
“There ye are.” Her taxi driver is a small, round man, who had taken her bags out of his boot and lined them up against the door with brisk efficiency while she stared into space. “I’ll be off now.”
She pays him in a daze, fumbling with money that isn’t familiar to her anymore after so many years dealing with dollars. When he’s gone she rubs her thumb over a pound coin, as if it is a talisman.
“Get on with it, Beauchamp,” she mutters, quietly, in case anyone is listening. It won’t do for the new town doctor to also be known as the local crackpot. It might be bad for business, she thinks, and finds herself cackling anyway, her grip on the wall possibly the only thing keeping her upright.
“Are ye alright, dearie?” The woman in the doorway seems wary, but kind. She’s stronger than she looks, too, and slides a hand under Claire’s elbow while scooping up one of her bags. “Ye must be Claire. I was expectin’ ye in the morning.” Her tone is stern, but her hands are gentle as she guides Claire through the narrow side door.
Right inside there’s a narrow set of stairs that leads straight up to a closed door. The carpeting on the stairs is old, but obviously freshly cleaned, and the old wood shines. The way up is slow - her second suitcase is much heavier than it had seemed in her hotel room in London, after hours of travel, and she staggers up the steps, doing her best not to scratch the wood.
“Oh, I never even introduced myself. I’m Mrs Fitzgibbons. I manage the Castle - that’s the restaurant below - and I’ll be the person tae help ye settle into the property. Call me Mrs Fitz, everyone does.”
She is breathless from the climb and the change of scenery, and she can only nod. Mrs Fitz keeps moving into the small flat - hers now, courtesy of a recommendation by the receptionist at her new practice.
The space itself is small, and sparsely furnished. The kitchen is barely a recess in a corner, and the bedroom is separated from the rest of the living area by translucent french doors, one of the few touches of modernity in the space. The furniture is unassuming; beige melting into grey with rare touches of colour - a small vase filled with flowers, no doubt put there by Mrs Fitz, a small throw pillow.
“It’s perfect,” she says, and Mrs Fitz smiles.
“I wasna sure ye’d like it,” she says. “It’s fair simple. I didna think it would suit a lass from the City.” She pronounces city in a way that makes the capital letter obvious, Claire notes in amusement. “But ye seem like the kind of person it would fit,” she says, with satisfaction, and takes her leave before Claire can ask her what she meant by that.
It’s March, and so the sun starts to set only an hour after she arrived, when she’s only barely managed to unpack her first suitcase. She’s experienced enough at moving that she can do it without a second thought, and she zones out as she does it, coming back to awareness to find her clothes neatly put away in the small closet space, her shoes lined up with military precision. She smiles, despite herself. For all his eccentricities, Lamb had been punctiliously neat, and had impressed upon her the importance of tidy presentation.
People will forgive any number of scandalous notions if they are delivered by a well-cared for appearance, my dear, he had once said, tugging on the end of her braid, and she smiles to herself in the rapidly darkening room.
She knows she should probably go and get some dinner, but she is exhausted. Instead she snacks on the chocolate she had stashed in her handbag and thinks ruefully on all the healthy eating talks she has given to her patients over the years.
She curls up under a blanket she unearthed from a storage closet and pulls her phone out. Mrs Fitz had left a sticky note on the coffee table with the WiFi password carefully written out in spidery text. The incongruity of that had amused her when she first saw it, but now she groans and covers her eyes when her phone connects and dozens of messages come through.
It won’t be made any better by ignoring it, though, and eventually she picks it back up.
There are junk emails, a few goodbye messages from acquaintances from Boston, and about ten messages from Joe.
Throat tight, Claire exits from an email about Microsoft’s new privacy settings and to Joe’s messages.
Gonna miss you, LJ. But you’ll be ok.
Where did you put the lucky pen? Gonna need it for this next patient
Freeman’s taken your parking spot, his midlife crisis looks horrible next to my baby
She really will cry, she thinks, and she double checks the time before she presses call. He picks up after only two rings.
“Claire,” he says, his voice rich and warm, vaguely melodic even through the tiredness she can hear in his tone. She can picture him sitting in that shabby armchair he likes in the doctors’ lounge, probably fiddling with his glasses. She hopes he found the lucky stethoscope.
“Hey, Joe,” she says, too brightly. “I made it. Google maps lied; the town is even more twee than it looked. There are awnings everywhere.”
“I’m glad you made it,” he says. “I worried about you.”
Everyone’s been worried about her, with her husband dead so suddenly. The grief of it had driven her out of Boston, a crystalline conviction that life would be more bearable away from the streets and places that had held the last of her family. Joe hadn’t fought her on it. She knows he thinks she’s being rash, but he had never tried to stop her. So she’d found a job posting for a family doctor on the NHS website and left as soon as she had served notice in Boston.
“I’m fine,” she says. “How’s Gail?”
“I missed her mother’s birthday party, so she’s pretty pissed,” Joe says. “I promised to take her to that steakhouse near the Arbor to make up for it. But she picked me up another romance, so I think it’s gonna be okay. This one has the word tumescent five times in one chapter; I counted.” She laughs.
“Read the beginning to me,” she says, and he does.
One week ago, she was in Boston, in the brownstone she had lived in for seven years, and now she’s thousands of miles away, alone. Alone, but not lonely, not at this moment, with her best friend in her ear, chasing the shadows of memory away from the corners of her little flat.
In which our hero gains an admirer
She wakes early the next morning. She’s always been more of a night owl, but medical school and residency have ground some impulses deeper than natural inclination, and she is awake before the sun, feet feeling their way for slippers before her eyes are properly open, head still half in dreams.
She doesn’t have any food. Her handbag is out of chocolate, and a desperate search of the cupboards reveals a tin of flour, a half-empty box of pasta, and a solitary tin of tuna. She stares hopelessly for a second before she remembers that she now lives above a restaurant.
The place is surprisingly full for so early in the morning. There are only about ten tables inside, with a few more on the stoop just outside, but about half of them are full. The clientele vary from grizzled old men who look so ingrained that the restaurant may well have been built around them, and sleepy-eyed young people clutching cups of coffee. There’s even a little boy sitting quietly in the corner.
There’s so much that she needs to get done, and not much time to do it in. The practice she’s joining expect her in two days time, and in the meantime she needs to unpack, learn her way around, and try to set up some kind of a routine. She’s grateful for the work, though. She’s always preferred keeping busy.
Mrs Fitz drops by her table with eggs, toast, and the strongest coffee she’s ever tasted. It’s good despite its strength, and she sips at it absently, her attention on the novel she’d carried down with her.
She is pulled away by her awareness of a presence by her elbow. She looks up to see the little boy standing a few feet away, regarding her curiously. He’s dressed in a pressed jumper, hair swept neatly to the side, and he smiles when she looks at him.
“Hello,” she says.
“Hello. Are ye a visitor?”
“No,” she says, lowering the book. “I’ve moved here. Do you live here?”
“No, I live at home,” he says. “But my Da said that we havta leave the house today. The baby’s gone barmy,” he says, conspiratorial. “Mam needs to sort her. Where did ye move from?”
“England,” she says. “I came here to be a doctor.” He seems sceptical.
“Where’s yer white coat?” he asks.
“I don’t have to wear it all the time,” she says. “Only at the office.” He nods sagely, and she finds herself smiling at him. He’s sweet and serious, wide eyes fixed on her.
“Ah, Jamie.” A tall man with the same brown eyes as the little boy walks up to them, and places his hand on his shoulder. “Dinna be botherin’ the lady, now.”
“Oh, he wasn’t,” she says. “He’s very sweet.”
“She’s a doctor, Da,” the little boy - Jamie says. “She has a white coat, but she doesna havta wear it all the time.”
“Ye’re taking over for Doctor McGillivray, then? I’m Ian, Ian Murray.”
“Claire Beauchamp,” she says. Ian Murray is easily over six feet tall, and skinny with it, giving him an almost stretched appearance. He’s kind looking though, and his son leans into him, wrapping an arm around his leg.
“Welcome to Broch Morda, Doctor,” he says. “Have ye been here long?”
“Not at all,” she says. “I only arrived yesterday. I’ll be starting in a few days.”
“No’ much time,” he says. “But this is a good little town. I’ve no doubt ye’ll settle before long. It was nice meeting ye,” he says. “We must leave. It was good to meet ye, Doctor.”
“She has lots of hair, Da,” she can hear Jamie stage whispering to his father as they walk away. “Does everybody from England have hair like that?”
In which our hero broadens her vocabulary
It doesn’t take her much time to do the shopping she wanted, and soon her flat is stocked with food. The post office and the bank take a little longer, but she’s done by noon. She’s not quite ready to go back to her flat yet, and so she spends the afternoon wandering. Most of the buildings are the same weathered brown brick as the Castle, with easter-egg coloured buildings lending a splash of colour here and there. There is a stark contrast between the built up humanity of the village and the wildness just beyond - the rolling hills and endless grey sky stretching above her, the smell of green apparent even in the middle of the village. It makes her feel small.
The high street stays is busy in a quiet sort of way, people moving at a sedate pace, calling out as they pass each other, and she takes her time, peering into the little shops. She even ducks inside the Tesco’s, strangely soothed by the familiarity and weird sameness of large supermarkets the world over.
The further she walks the quieter it gets, until even the low hum of the high street disappears. She stops trying to keep track of where she is going and takes turns as she finds them, and the more she walks the more the buildings spread out, and the more greenery appears, until she has almost walked her way out of the village.
She turns to head back - she should head back, her feet are starting to complain, and she suspects it will take her a while to find her way. She lingers though. It’s beautiful here, plants slowly starting to take over, honeysuckle and bluebells and dandelions and vines growing in gardens and curling over the gates and brushing at her feet. A small part of her wants to keep going, wants to walk into the hills that are closer and greener and bigger from here, quiet and looming over the little town, their rugged greenery spilling over at her feet.
She has an image of herself walking into them, climbing into the small wood she can see from here, curling into the hollow of a tree and sleeping until moss creeps over her, enfolding her. It would be peaceful.
Stop it, Beauchamp. It should be enough that she’s left the continent she spent the last decade of her life on, the city she thought she would spend the rest of her life in. It should be enough that she’s in a village she’d never heard of before she got the job offer, that she will never see hers and Frank’s brownstone again.
You can’t keep running.
She turns back, with an immense effort of will, and walks back towards the town.
She has walked too far, she thinks sourly, as her feet twinge. She is not exactly sure where she is, and she doesn’t want to cave and use her phone to find her way back. Every street looks similar, every turn deceptively familiar, but she’s determined to find her way back.
She ducks into the first non-residential building she sees just to take a break. The only signage outside is a faded green sign that says Cuimhnich in curling green font. It doesn’t give her any idea of what’s going to be inside, and she walks in with a little trepidation.
It looks like a small gallery. The space is cleverly used, with partitions turning the room into a quasi-maze. The paintings on the wall are bloody and surreal, heavy oil paint depicting screaming faces, red fires, clawed fingers. It’s such a contrast from the peace of the world outside that she finds herself staring, mouth hanging open.
The gallery seems to be empty, so she takes her time looking at each piece. One has a man in a kilt being ridden down by English soldiers, their red coats almost bleeding off the canvas. The man’s face is fixed in a rictus of horror, muscles tensed in panic. Another has a woman burning at the stake. Her face is calm, though, almost at peace, even as the mob painted in the background stare, faces twisted into hate.
She feels unsettled, nerves skittering up her spine at the violence contained in the room, at the sheer desperation of the emotion trapped within the frame.
“Do ye like them?” She whips around to find the speaker, and spots a slight, red headed woman standing at the base of a staircase she hadn’t noticed. The woman smiles at Claire, faintly catlike, and glides forward while she grasps for words.
“Er. Yes. I - “ she sneaks another look at the painting nearest her, a black dog hunting a small creature in the woods. “Yes. They’re very... evocative. Are they all yours?”
“Aye,” she says. “It’s a special interest of mine.” She comes closer. She walks oddly, like a ballet dancer, almost floating her way over. “I believe it’s our duty to keep our local history alive, otherwise all of this would be lost to time.”
“So, what particular time are you preserving here?” The art is obviously depicting a historical event, but she’s allowed her knowledge of history to slip since her childhood lessons.
“The Jacobite rebellion, and the Highland Clearances. Have ye heard of them?”
“Yes,” she says, and summarises what she can remember from her teachers, Geillis’ cat eyes fixed on her the whole time. She doesn’t seem malicious, exactly, just intent. Maybe a little eccentric.
“Not bad, for a Sassenach,” Geillis says. “English history lessons don’t always cover that much detail.”
“I was raised by an academic,” she says. “He believed in consulting multiple sources. And, what is a Sassenach?”
“An outsider,” she says. “An English person.”
“You could also call me Claire,” she suggests, and Geillis smiles.
“Aye, I could, at that,” she says. “Ye must be the new doctor, then?”
“Yes,” she says. “How?...”
“Ye’ve been in town for a whole two days,” Geillis says. “It’s old news by now. The old people are glad to have ye, ye’ll keep them busy with gossip for the next week or so. More if ye have a scandal associated with ye.”
“None here, I’m afraid,” she says, smiling tightly. No scandals, but she is starting to feel oddly vulnerable, and searches around for a change in topic. “What does the art gallery name mean? Is it Gaelic?”
“Aye,” Geillis says. “Cuimhnich. It means, remember.”
“Cuimhnich,” she repeats dutifully. It doesn’t quite roll off her tongue the way she wanted - more like trips clumsily, and Geillis pats her arm.
“It can be a tricky language,” she says kindly.
“You seem to be quite well versed in it.”
“Local history,” Geillis says, and grins. “If not I, then who?”
“Remember,” she says, and the word tastes faintly bitter in her mouth.
“Whether it’s pleasant or no, it’s important,” she says, and glides away as silent as she appeared.
In which our hero is the recipient of an act of charity
There is a small shop down the road from her flat. It’s more expensive than Tesco, but it sells little custard éclairs that she had bought the day before on a whim. They were good enough that she had eaten them all, despite herself, and now she finds herself with a strong craving. Plus, she has a vague notion that being a true resident of a small town such as this means regular visits to the locally owned shops.
She has to hurry. Shops here close early, at sunset or maybe an hour before. No more twenty four hour convenience stores, she thinks, as she looks for a jumper. Spring nights here are cold enough that she can’t be without it.
At night, she can truly appreciate how beautiful the place is. The streetlights are a soft yellow that makes the cobblestones gleam, and the trees lining the road lend the whole area an air of otherworldliness.
She makes it to the shops with ten minutes to spare, and nods at Mrs Baird, the owner, before hurrying to the bakery aisle. Now that she’s got the idea in her head, they are all she wants.
She turns the corner and is pulled up short by a large man standing in front of the bread, holding a pack of the coveted éclairs. She peers around him, and yes, it is the last one.
She must make some small sound of dismay, or maybe he is somehow able to feel her despair, because he turns around, head cocked at an inquisitive angle.
“Are ye alright, Miss?”
“Yes,” she says, nodding vigorously, because she is a grown woman - a doctor! - and adult women with medical degrees do not glare at strangers because they got the last éclairs. The man only raises an eyebrow. He’s much taller than her, and large enough that he blocks almost all the space in the narrow aisle.
“Were ye wantin’ to pass by?” He turns sideways obligingly, squeezing up against the opposite shelf, her éclairs dangling from his hand.
“Well, no,” she says. “Thank you.”
She darts one more gaze at the deplorably empty shelf, and at the bag he’s holding. He watches her, puzzled, and his expression clears suddenly.
“Ah,” he says, and holds the bag out to her.
“Take it,” he says, when she hesitates.
“I couldn’t possibly,” she says, even as her hands reach out to grasp the bag. “Well. Thank you,” she adds, when her prize is safely in her grasp. He smiles. He’s attractive, blue eyes set in a strong face, russet hair spilling across his forehead.
“It’s fine,” he says. “I eat too many, anyway. I used to watch Mrs Baird make them when I was a bairn. She’s verra generous with the sugar.” He plucks a pack of the plain scones from the shelf instead.
“Jamie, are ye done?” The man with the little boy - Ian, she thinks, walks around the corner. “Ah, Doctor. Nice to see ye again.”
“You as well. Please, call me Claire.” She turns to include the other man in the conversation, feeling generous and friendly with her snacks in her grasp.
“I’m Jamie,” he says.
“Oh! Like-” she turns to Ian.
“My son’s named after his uncle, aye,” he confirms. “My sister insisted. It’s caused no end of confusion. The lad likes it, though.”
A cash register slams shut very pointedly.
“We should go,” Jamie says, and Claire nods, impressed at Mrs Baird’s ability to convey well-bred impatience via cash register.
“Ah, Jamie, those are plain,” Ian says, glancing back as they file out of the aisle.
“They were out of the éclairs,” Jamie says, and winks at her. Or tries to, anyway. He blinks both eyes instead, owl-like, and she can’t help but smile.
Mrs Baird practically shoos them out of the store, smiling all the while. She shivers. It feels like the air’s dropped five degrees while she was in the shop.
“It’s a bit nippy,” Ian says. “We’re a bit higher up than the rest of Scotland.”
“I’ll adjust,” she says. She’s good at that.
“We’d better be off,” Ian says. “Good luck with yer first day, Claire. Ye’ll be fine, though. We’re a friendly lot, for the most part.”
“Thank you,” she says, and the men leave.
The surgery is almost exactly how she thought it would be. It’s a converted old house, the weathered stone incongruous against the ultra-modern inside. The walls are covered with the standard posters showing the workings of various organs, a dire warning against smokers, and a vaccination schedule reminder. She’s early enough that she has at least half an hour to wander around before her official start time, and she takes full advantage of it.
For all the differences between here and Boston, everything is comfortingly familiar. There’s a certain logic to her surroundings that are the same the world over. She doesn’t have access to the entire building, not until she meets the practice manager, but she pokes around where she can. There’s even a garden in the back, obviously carefully tended, weathered benches lining the wall. A good place to eat lunch, she thinks, already feeling more settled here than she does in her neat flat and the winding, cobblestoned streets.
The morning passes in a rush. She has to sign and review a truly staggering amount of paperwork, and makes promises to read the various personnel manuals pressed into her hands by the practice manager, a fair, skinny woman named Mary MacNab.
By the time the administration is done it’s nearly lunchtime, and a few people in the office take her out to lunch instead. They’re all friendly, unabashedly curious about what would bring an Englishwoman from Boston to Broch Morda, and all she can do is talk about wanting a change.
They digest the answer disbelievingly but essentially politely, and they allow her to steer the conversation to the town.
“There’s nowt that goes on here, I’m afraid,” says a nurse practitioner. “This is a good place if ye like nature, or history. We have a fair good old castles in the area.”
“I might like that,” Claire says. “I was raised by a historian.” Discussion of Uncle Lamb and their travels fills much of the rest of lunch, and by the end she has the feeling that she’s received at least conditional approval by the office.
She sees a patient with a sore throat and another man with a worrying rash, and just like that, her first day of work is over.
Joe calls when she’s washing up after dinner, and she scrambles to get to her phone.
“Hi,” she gasps.
“I was just about to hang up,” he chuckles. “Back from a run?”
“Ha,” she says. “Don’t insult me.” She and Joe had liked to sit under the motivational exercise posters and work their way through a pile of chocolate. Gail, a runner, had despaired of them.
“My first day’s done,” she says. “It was a good one.”
“I’m glad, LJ,” he says.
“It was quiet,” she adds. “I had two patients. The whole day. Did that ever happen in Boston?”
“Two a minute, maybe,” he says. “Do you mind?”
She takes a second to think.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “I think… I might like it.”
Boston had been so full. Of work, of people, of things to be done. She worked punishing hours, made time for Frank, spent time with Lamb. There was so much - so much noise, so many people. The hustle and bustle had been exhilarating, but it had begun to hem her in by the end, despite Joe’s best efforts.
“As long as you’re happy,” he says, and she misses him, misses his laugh and his kindness. Misses having a friend. She suddenly feels unmoored.
“I…” she starts, and is horrified when her throat closes up. “God, Joe, I don’t even know what that would look like.”
“I don’t know either. Less crying maybe,” he suggests, and she laughs snottily. “I hope you find it.”
“Me too,” she says.
In which our hero’s social schedule gets a little busier
The next few weeks pass quickly. She adapts faster than she thought she would, the relatively undemanding but interesting work keeping her easily occupied through the day. She spends the evenings reading mostly, a favourite hobby she hasn’t had much time to indulge in recent years. People are still wary with her - it’s the kind of place where almost everyone can trace their lineage back at least one hundred years - but they’re not exclusionary by nature.
She’s having an easy Wednesday morning; she’s seen four patients so far, including a baby with a bad case of colic, the poor mother almost worn down to the bone, so she’ll probably be able to leave by four.
Her next patient is a familiar-looking man, and she almost chokes on her water when he walks in.
“It’s Jamie, isn’t it?”
“Jamie Fraser. Aye.” He lowers himself gingerly into the chair on the other side of her desk.
“What seems to be the matter?”
He gestures to his shoulder. It’s dangling oddly, and his back is hunched slightly.
“I was workin’ with one of my horses - he’s new, and a bit of a devil - and he bolted away when my hand was in the reins. I wasna able to pull away in time and he dragged me a few feet. Wrenched my shoulder.”
“You ride horses?”
“I own a stable. Well, my family does.”
“That’s fun,” she says. “I used to love riding.”
She steers him to the examining table and he climbs on. He’s tall enough that he doesn’t have to do that awkward half hop that most of her patients do, she notices.
“Shirt off, please,” she says, and he obliges with minimal hesitation, stripping down to his undershirt.
His left shoulder is slightly swollen, she can see, but there is minimal bruising. His pulse is strong in the injured arm, and the skin is warm but not overly so. He can rotate his shoulder almost normally, but he bites his lip when she presses down on his sternoclavicular joint.
“Don’t be brave,” she warns. “It won’t do any good in the long run. How much did that hurt?”
“No’ too bad,” he says. “But that wasna pleasant.” She steps back.
“All done,” she says. “It looks like you have a minor sprain. You should keep that arm in a sling for at least the next week, and I’ll prescribe you an anti-inflammatory.”
“So it’ll heal on its own?”
“It should,” she says. “If you’re feeling pain in the next few weeks, come back and we’ll do further tests, but I think it should be fine.”
She finds a sling in the store, walks him through how to put it on, and reminds him to be gentle on his arm.
“Thank ye,” he says, and smiles.
She smiles back automatically, oddly cheered by the sight of this giant Scottish man taking up all the space in her doorway.
“You’re welcome,” she says.
Broch Morda is a beautiful place to be in April. The town gets an appreciable amount of its revenue from tourism, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a picturesque place, and the locals ham it up, setting out brochures for overpriced horse and carriage rides, offering traditional meat pies and haggis at little foodcarts that spring up across the street.
“It’s all a bit much,” Mrs Fitz confides, one morning over breakfast. “But they like it.”
Claire takes a certain perverse pleasure at watching the tourists interact with the town. They move through it the way she had, at first, lost and having fun but fundamentally not part of the fabric of it, easy to remove as if it wasn’t there.
She has people she’s friendly with, people who invite her out for the occasional drink and wave to her when they see her in the mornings. People in the shops know her name, tell her when the things she likes are in stock. She’ll never be part of the town the way some people are, but she has a place here. She’s carved a space that’s just for her.
She can feel herself smiling into her coffee, and she does her best to control her face. The last thing she needs is to undo all that goodwill by appearing unhinged.
Her head snaps up and she comes face to face with Jamie.
“Please, call me Claire.”
“If ye call me Jamie.”
“Deal. How is your shoulder doing?”
“Better,” he says, lifting to demonstrate. “I took the sling off last week. I won’t take up too much of yer time,” he adds. “I wanted to let ye know that our stables are starting up our afternoon rides now that it’s properly warm. Most Sundays, we take a group of riders on a tour through the hills. Tourists mainly, but some locals come along. It’s usually a good time.”
She blinks. That was not at all what he had expected. He backtracks slightly.
“I remembered ye mentioning ye enjoyed riding,” he explains. “I thought ye may enjoy it. Don’t worry about it, ye dinna have to.”
“No!” she yelps. “I mean, yes, I’m interested. That does sound fun. Thank you.”
“It’s no bother,” he says, relaxed now that he has seen that he didn’t offend her.
Five minutes later, she has been given very detailed directions to Broch Tuarach stables, a lack of sympathy for the six am start time, and a friendly goodbye.
Mrs Fitz stares after him fondly as he walks out, refilling Claire’s coffee without her having to ask.
“He’s a nice man,” she says. “Verra good family. Though, I’ll tell ye, I used to look after him and his sister when they were bairnies. They were a basket of trouble, but sweet as anything.”
“You know his sister?”
“Och, aye. They dinna come into town much, but she’s a good sort. They’ve been in these parts since the 1700s, ye know. The Lovat Frasers, not the Lowland Frasers. In fact - ”
Genealogy is a common enough topic of conversation that she’s not surprised when Mrs Fitz sits down in the chair opposite her, sighing in relief as she takes the weight off her knees.
“Drink yer coffee, dear,” she says. “Now, I was saying-”
In which our hero meets a four-legged fiend
The weekend comes quickly. Work, as always makes time fly by. She doesn’t really think about it until Saturday night, when she’s looking through her wardrobe and she realises that she doesn’t have any heeled boots.
“Damn,” she says. It’s unexpectedly crushing, the idea that she’s going to have to cancel. ‘Damn,” she says again, to the empty room, which does not make her feel better at all. Her assorted (and useless) footwear stares back at her, her flats and loafers and low-heeled boots and a lone pair of high heels, shoved in the corner.
Mrs Fitz notices her foul mood when she goes down to dinner.
“Well, that’s an easy fix,” she says. “My niece left her things behind when she left for school. Let’s see if anything will fit ye. She used to work at the stables, ye know.”
The boots fit well enough, well-worn but sturdy, and she eyes them dubiously.
“Your niece won’t mind, will she?”
“She’ll no’ be back anytime soon,” Mrs Fitz reassures her. “She’s got a nice job down in Edinburgh. Seems to be settlin’ down weel. Lots of our young people do that. Anyway. There we go,” she says approvingly, as Claire takes a few tentative steps in her borrowed boots. “Now ye dinna have to miss it. “
Six am finds her at the stables, colder than is strictly comfortable, swallowing a yawn as she trudges from the parking lot. There are already a few cars parked, and a large bus squeezed into the corner. The sun isn’t even up yet, and the air is filled with a vague greyness that only hints at the possibility of daylight.
The entrance to the stables is a tall arch, wide enough that five people could walk side by side. In the courtyard, a dozen or so people are milling around, stamping their feet and sipping at steaming cups.
The source of the cups is a short, dark-haired woman set up behind a small table and a few thermos. Something warm sounds heavenly, and she hurries forward.
It turns out that the thermos are a clever way to lure people over and collect payment, and she gladly hands over the stable fee for a cup of tea.
“Thank you,” she says fervently, as the warmth seeps into her fingers.
“It’s even chillier up here than down in the town,” the woman says. “It takes people by surprise every time. Are ye with the tour group?”
“Oh, no,” she says. “I moved to town recently. Jamie Fraser invited me.”
“Are ye the doctor, then? My brother mentioned that ye might stop by.”
“My reputation precedes me,” she says dryly. “But yes I am.”
“I’m Jenny, his sister,” she says, and now that she’s mentioned it, Claire can see something of him in her face. Something about the eyes, maybe.
Just then, a tall figure strides into the group, and the group stop chattering, and turn expectedly, including Claire, she notes with some amusement. She’d had a lecturer in medical school who had the same effect on people.
“Alright,” Jamie says. He walks to the rough centre of the group. “Welcome to Broch Tuarach Stables. My name is Jamie Fraser and my family own and operate the stables. Today we’re just goin’ to take a leisurely ride up to the foothills around the estate, stop there for a bit of brunch, then back down to enjoy the rest of yer Sunday. We’ll be going out in six groups of four, each with a team leader. We’ll spend a few minutes in the paddock to warm everyone up, then we’ll set off.”
Jamie and his trainers are impressively adept at corralling the whole group of sleepy people to their horses, each trainer coming up to call out groups to lead them to the stables to get outfitted. Claire and three other people are left for last, and she’s practically buzzing with excitement by the time Jamie leads the last group in.
“Right this way,” he says, leading them to a spacious courtyard. Once the helmets are sorted, horses are led out one by one and he supervises until they are all sitting securely on their horses. He follows them on his horse, a gigantic sorrel stallion.
The trail starts easily, a wide, smooth dirt path leading away from the stables and meandering through the gorse. Her horse seems to know the way well enough, and all she really has to do is keep her seat secure they make their way through.
She makes idle conversation with the other members of her group, but on the whole they are happy to be silent and take in the peace of the place. The sun is more than halfway up by now, more than enough light to see by, and before she knows it they are under the trees.
They have to go single file, the horses huffing slightly as they go. The trees here are old and gnarled, covered with moss and vine, almost suffocatingly close together. Jamie and his giant horse at the front of the line weave smoothly down the narrow path, and her horse follows placidly.
Finally they crest a hill and the woods drop away, revealing a clearing with a breathtaking view of the countryside. From this distance, Broch Mordha is nothing but a speck on the map, blending in almost seamlessly with its surroundings. Other than the highway, a dark smear far below, she is surrounded by nature, verdant and lush, filling her senses.
“Oh,” she says, and Jamie grins at her.
“I ken,” he says. “I never tire of the view.”
They are the last group to arrive, and everyone else is milling around, talking quietly, while a few young men - employees, she assumes - gather the horses and lead them away.
Brunch is good, too, the kind of healthy, filling food that Mrs. Fitz is so happy to ply her with at every opportunity. The ride is more tiring than she thought, and she’s happy to sit in the grass and enjoy herself. Jamie’s sister is here as well, talking quietly with Jamie and the other men. They don’t look much alike, other than their eyes, but they both have a certain bearing and way of walking.
When she’s done she walks along the edge of the clearing, lured by the variety of plants scattered around. She wishes she had brought her sketchbook so she could compare the plants, and she makes a mental note not to leave Broch Mordha without it again, awkward as it would have been to bring it on the horse.
Close up, she can see bell heather growing thickly, the woody smell thick in her nostrils. There are a few hidden yarrow plants dotted here and there, and marsh-mallow growing tall. She thinks she sees cloudberries starting to flower further in. The smell is dizzying, melding together, and she finds herself taking a few steps into the wood. She feels like a child in the thrall of the Pied Piper, tugged along happily, ready to step away to whatever else the world may offer her.
“Excuse me, Miss? We’re about ready to go.” A young, anxious looking man stands a few feet away, and gestures at the group of people, who are being slowly helped onto their horses with the help of the other guides and strategically placed wooden blocks.
Only halfway there, the young man frowns and jogs over to where her horse, who she had been informed was named Rocket, is waiting. He leans over to feel its foreleg and shakes his head at the person standing there. By the time she gets there, the conversation is almost over.
“I’ll ask Mr Fraser,” one of the men says, and hurries off before she can say anything. She turns to the anxious one who had come to get her.
“What is it?”
“I think Rocket has thrown a shoe,” he says apologetically. “We can put a boot on him to make sure he doesna split it but I dinna think ye can hide him back.” He gives her horse a pat on the neck and jogs off to talk to Jamie.
“Hope I didn’t hurt you,” she says to the horse, stroking the white blaze down his face that gave him his name. He nuzzles at her hair and snorts.
Jamie comes rushing over, and checks the horse’s hoof first. He sighs.
“The hoof isna cracked, at least. Sorry, a charaid,” he adds to the horse, who only gazes back peaceably.”
“He’s a sweet one,” she says.
“Aye,” Jamie agrees. “George is right, ye canna ride him back. The pickup will be takin’ Jenny and the lads back to the stables as soon as they’re done cleaning up. If ye like, ye can ride back with them.”
“What about him?”
“I can tie him to Donas and lead him back. The route back down isna as long, and they know the way. If ye like,” he adds, “ye can come along on Donas. If I lead him he willna give ye any trouble. I noticed that ye enjoyed the surroundings on the way up,” he adds, “and it won’t be the same in the truck. But it’s up to ye.”
It doesn’t take her long to decide. She does like being outdoors, and she likes Rocket, and Jamie is a solid and reassuring presence next to her, despite the little she knows of him.
“Yes, thank you,” she says.
She starts to have second thoughts at the size of the massive horse.
“He willna misbehave if I’m there,” he insists, as he brings the giant horse toward her. Donas gives her the kind of imperious look that looks cute on cats but very disconcerting on an animal that is significantly taller and heavier than she is.
He doesn’t do more than shift while she clambers on though, and he quiets when Jamie runs a hand down his mane. He’s much larger than her horse, and broader too, and she fights the urge to hunch over and grab the pommel.
The way back down is different from the route up: wider, more even, clearly more travelled, and she relaxes before long, falling into the horse’s walking rhythm as Jamie walks beside her at a swift and tireless pace, leading Rocket forward. He looks as if he could keep going forever, and she cranes her neck to see how much further they have to go.
“It isna far,” he says, accurately reading her expression.
“I don’t mind,” she insists. “It’s just that you have a very large horse. He seems quite strong-willed.” Donas’ shoulder muscle is twitching minutely under her thigh, as if he is considering jostling her to see what will happen, and she gathers the reins in her hand firmly. He settles back down with a snort, and Jamie claps at his neck, murmuring something in Gaelic.
“I haven’t met many native Gaelic,” she starts, at the same time he says, “ye’re a verra good horserider-” and they stop. He grins.
“Ye first, if ye please.” He looks charmingly boyish from this angle, tilting his head up to meet her eyes, flicking his hair off his face in a move that seems young on such a large, imposing man. His hair is different in this light, too, a lighter, richer red than it had looked in the weak light of the morning.
“Yes. Er. Gaelic,” she says. “I haven’t heard many people speak it.”
“There’s a few in the Highlands,” Jamie says. “My Mam’s aunt was a teacher, and she made sure all the weans in the family learned how to speak it. She wouldna acknowledge anything ye said unless ye said it in Gaelic. Fair frustratin’ when I was younger, but I’m glad I have it now.”
“Are there many people who know it here?”
“In this town, aye. Well, many means about one in ten people, which doesna sound like much, but it is when ye compare it to the rest of Scotland. Many people can scrape by, for casual conversation at least.”
“I should work on that then,” she murmurs, half to herself.
“So ye’re plannin’ on settlin’?”
“Yes,” she says. “I think so.”
“Well,” he says, “Mrs Graham will be pleased to hear it.”
“Aye. She and all the old ladies in the book club have been debatin’ about whether ye’re here to stay. Mrs Graham thinks ye are. Old Mrs Wilson thinks ye have a verra filthy mouth because she heard ye swear when ye dropped yer purse in a puddle, and on that basis she is sure ye canna truly be a medical doctor.” He shoots her a sardonic look.
“Goodness,” she says. “I don’t think I’m nearly interesting enough to sustain that level of gossip.”
“I think ye are,” he says, “but even so, the people in this village are apt to pick apart any little bit of new going on until no one can stand to hear another word about it. Ye’ll keep them all busy until Samhain at least.”
“Hmmm,” she says. She’s not exactly unused to being an oddity, but it’s hard not to feel self-conscious.
“Dinna fash,” he says. “Mrs Wilson’s an outlier. Ye’re verra popular.”
She suddenly feels warm, and focuses her attention on ensuring that she has a proper grasp on the reins. For safety, of course.
“You had a question for me,” she says.
“Ye’re verra good with the horses,” he says. “Ye rode when ye were younger?”
“A little,” she says. “My uncle insisted. He loved horses, and he insisted I learn.”
“Yer uncle?” he asks.
She’s adept at summarising her story by now, and draws quick, sharp strokes: her orphaning, Lamb’s split-second decision to take her along with him, their jolting, rootless existence that she had loved. He doesn’t say anything as she speaks, keeping his eyes focused on their route but managing to nod or hum at the exact right parts of her telling.
“That’s quite a life,” he says, and smiles. It’s a beautiful smile, and she finds herself smiling back.
By the time they get back to the stables, all the other guests have gone and the only person around is Ian. He’s standing on the far side of the paddock, holding a bundle against his chest. She stumbles off Donas when they finally come to a stop, her thighs and backside sore. She thinks about giving him a goodbye pat, but he tosses his head and gives her a look at his impressive incisors, as if he can read her mind.
“Fine, then,” she mutters, and walks over to pat Rocket instead.
“He likes ye,” Jamie says. He loosens the girth on Rocket’s saddle, running a careful finger under the saddle to check the space.
“He seems generally friendly,” she says. He’s close to her, and she tries to keep out of his way as he turns to do the same for Donas. He’s close enough that she can smell his scent, light sweat and grass overlaid with the slightest hint of horse. It’s not unpleasant at all. He doesn’t seem to mind that she stays in close proximity, and it’s easy to carry the conversation on from the trail.
“Jamie!” Ian shouts. She pulls away
(goodness, she’s closer than she thought)
to see him waving, one hand around the bundle.
They make their way to his side of the paddock, and as they get close she can see that the bundle in his hand is actually a baby, maybe four months old. She’s wide awake, large brown eyes taking in the scene.
“Afternoon, Claire,” Ian says.
“Hello,” she says. “Is that your daughter?”
“Aye,” he says proudly, and angles the baby so she’s facing them properly. Her face splits into a gummy grin when she sees Jamie, and she lets out a little gurgle that has Jamie grinning right back.
“She’s lovely,” Claire says. “What’s her name?”
“This is Margaret,” he says. “Or Maggie, for short. She got bored of bein’ in the office so we’ve come out for a walk.” The baby does seem to be enjoying the outdoors. She’s quietened down, eyes moving from the people in front of her to the horses and the trees and the flowers, and back again.
“Hello, Maggie,” she says, and the baby turns at the sound of her voice, waving her arms.
“There’s another one of my bairns, fascinated by ye,” Ian says in a mock-resigned tone, and she laughs.
“I don’t mind when they’re this sweet,” she says, as Maggie starts to coo.
“Verra sweet, in the daytime,” Ian agrees.
“I’ll just go wash up and I can take the wean from ye,” Jamie offers.
“Aye,” Ian says, with no small measure of relief. “I’ll go and watch Wee Jamie at his lessons. He’s tryin’ to convince Hamish that he’s old enough to try jumping, if I let the wee fool break his head open Jenny will hang me out of the window.”
They all walk back towards the main buildings, leaving the horses grazing in the paddock. She’s happy to walk along as Jamie and Ian talk in the half-finished sentences of people who know each other well enough not to have to complete a thought.
Soon enough, Ian splits away from them with a respectful tilt of his head at her, and they have made their way back to the main buildings.
She’s reluctant to leave, suddenly. She doesn’t know what exactly she wants to stay to do, but she does want to stay.
“I wanted to ask ye something, if ye wouldna mind,” Jamie says.
“I don’t know if I’ll mind unless you ask me,” she says tartly, and he shoots her a gently exasperated look.
“Hmmmph,” he says. “Weel. I was wonderin’ if I could take ye out to dinner this week. Or next, if that’s better for ye.”
Half expecting it, somewhere in her subconscious, but there is something about hearing the words actually said out loud that leaves her utterly wrongfooted, her mouth hanging open in a way that’s sure to make him regret extending the invitation.
“Ye dinna have to,” he says, and she can see that the tips of his ears are pink. “It was just-”
“Yes,” the part of her brain that is not busy running an empty hamster wheel. She pauses to see if she will regret it, but a second passes and she doesn’t so she smiles instead, and the lines in his face soften. “Yes,” she repeats. “That would be...I’m free on Friday.”
“Friday is excellent,” he says. “Can I have yer number?”
Five minutes, and he has gone from attractive stable owner to a potential romantic partner. She feels almost dizzy from it, and she finds herself flushing as she pulls her phone out. He takes a step forward and he can see sweat glistening along his neck, the light gold hair on his arms catching the light.
“Well. Goodbye,” she says, after contact details have been exchanged and tentative plans reached. “Oh!” Her helmet is still fastened to her head, and she struggles to pull it off. Whatever delayed awkward reaction she is experiencing has made her hands utterly useless, and she fumbles with the buckle, swearing under her breath.
“Let me,” Jamie says, and calloused hands are tilting her head back slightly, deft fingers loosening the leather even as she gulps for air. This close she can see the pulse beating in his neck, faster than normal. “There,” he says, and she is free, her head light and cool with the weight of the helmet gone. “I see what Mrs Wilson was talkin’ about. Ye certainly have a way wi’ curse words.”
“It’s my gift,” she retorts, equilibrium somewhat restored by her head having regained its freedom, and the knowledge that he is at least as nervous as he is.
“Ye certainly are talented,” he says. “I look forward to hearin’ more on Friday.
In which our hero bravely overcomes her nerves
“This was a terrible idea,” she says. “Is it too late to cancel?”
“Way too late.” Her laptop speakers aren’t the best, and Joe’s voice crackles across her small flat. “I thought you English were all about politeness.”
“You’re not helpful,” she mutters, as she clips her earrings into place. There, done. On the outside, at least. She’s wearing a first-date appropriate outfit, simple but pretty with a matching cardigan, and her hair is done up in a messy bun that makes her curls look artful rather than chaotic.
“Very nice,” Gail says. “You look beautiful.”
“Don’t worry so much, LJ,” Joe says. “You’ll be fine.”
“Easy for you to say,” she says, whirling to face her laptop and the two tiny faces peering out from the screen. “You’re both married! Blissfully! When was the last time either of you even had a first date?”
“It’s been centuries,” Joe says. “And I wasn’t great at it. But we made it work. And now we’re blissful.” He plants an exaggerated kiss on Gail’s cheek, and she shoves him away.
“He seems like a nice guy,” Gail says. “You liked him, right?”
“Yes,” she admits. She did, in a passive sort of way that she hadn’t given any energy to processing, but she did, and does like him.
“And, I mean, he’s a business owner, right? A family man. He’s travelled. At the very least you’ll have something to talk about.”
“How do you know all that?” she says, and they exchange glances.
“Social media is a wonderful tool, LJ,” Joe says. “He’s very buff. Kind of like the pirate on the cover of Temptress on the High Seas. Remember that one? Made me blush.”
“You,” she says, “are the worst friend in the world. You’re terrible.” But she can feel her lips tick upward, despite herself.
“You’ll be fine,” he says, gently this time. “Go on. Don’t be late.”
“Bye, honey,” Gail adds, and they sign off.
“Chin up, Beauchamp,” she says, and touches her hair to make sure it’s all still in place.
Jamie is waiting at one of the small tables outside the Castle. He stands when she approaches. He looks dashingly windswept, the collar on his jacket turned up against the bite of the evening air.
“Hello,” he says.
“Hi,” she replies, and smiles, determined to leave her nerves in her flat. He smiles back, and it loosens her enough that she feels comfortable falling into step beside him.
“Ye look verra bonny,” he says, simply, and she has to fight back her nerves with a vengeance.
“So do you,” she replies, partly to give her breathing room, and partly because he does, and maybe he is immune to teasing, or maybe he can hear the thread of sincerity humming under her tone.
“Mission accomplished,” he says, eyes glinting.
They go to a restaurant only about fifteen minutes walk away. She’s passed by it several times on the street but she’s never gone inside before.
“Drumossie,” she reads the sign above the door. “Didn’t a battle happen there?”
“Aye,” he says. “Drumossie Moor isna near here, but there’s a few families in this area who can trace their lines back to some of the Scottish soldiers who fought there. I think this one is owned by a grand grand niece.”
The inside belies the grisly origins of the name, light-filled and airy, half-full with chatting patrons strewn across the room. Jamie catches the eye of one of the waiters and they are nodded over to a table in the corner, next to one of the plate glass windows.
“Does everyone know everyone here?” she says, after they are seated.
“No’ quite,” he says. “I worked here for three years when I was a teenager, and I like to come here now and again.”
“I had a place like that in Boston,” she says. “A tea shop that I worked in when I was doing my undergrad degree. They had these amazing couches that were perfect for studying. I think I spent most of the money I earned there on tea.”
“Trust a Sassenach to go to Boston and work in a tea shop,” he says, grinning, and she mock-scowls.
“It was a complete coincidence, I promise you.”
Talking is easy, with him. The conversation swims through topics: their childhoods, the books they have read, what they did that week, and before she knows it they are halfway through their main course.
They’ve also made their way through at least one glass of wine each, and his cheeks are slightly flushed with it. Her fingers tingle with the sudden impulse to touch the pinkened cheekbones, and she curls her hand around her fork.
“Doctor Beauchamp,” he says, grinning. “That’s quite a lascivious look for a public space.”
“Be quiet,” she says, and laughs, joy bubbling up suddenly, a clear brook. “I wasn’t thinking about you at all, in fact.”
“That’s none of your concern,” she says, and her hand, traitor that it is, does reach out and brush against his cheekbone, just for a moment. The movement does quiet him, and he stills, catlike eyes flashing.
They sober slightly as the night goes on, and by the time they are on dessert the earlier giddiness has evaporated, leaving her feeling heavy and ponderous. Her dessert - a death by chocolate monstrosity - leaves sticky sweetness in her mouth. Jamie, who powered through his apple crumble, is talking, eyes on her, foot nudging hers under the table.
“I spent a little time travelling, after University,” he says. “I wasna sure what I wanted to do. So I drifted around and worked odd jobs here and there. I spent a lot of time in France because we have a distant cousin with a vineyard near Montpellier. I got half my wages in wine and I’d walk down to the beach and sell the bottles to tourists. My uncle offered me a job there by the end, but something about it didna feel quite right.”
“What about it,” she asks, spooning more gooey chocolate onto her spoon, and he watches her for a moment before continuing.
“I told ye both my parents died young,” he says, and she nods. “It’s hard to have a concept of what home is, when ye’ve been left on yer own like that. It can be hard to be brave. So I think I travelled so much because I wanted to know that I could, not really because I wanted to live elsewhere.”
She does remember that feeling. Not so much with her parents, because she had been so young, but with Lamb. He had been everything to her. She doesn’t know how she would have handled it if she hadn’t already been so dead set on being a doctor.
Silence falls, but it’s not uncomfortable. She finishes the last bite of her chocolate as he finishes the wine. He puts the glass down.
“Shall we go, then?”
They are one of the last people to leave the restaurant, and the streets are deserted as they stroll down. She tucks her hand into the crook of his arm and they walk slowly, savouring the night: the company, the food, the energy buzzing between them, quiet and humming and overwhelming.
She tips her head up so she can see the stars.
“Do ye know any of the constellations?” she asks.
“A few,” he says. “I learned in my scout troop. Hmmph,” he says, and tilts his head upwards, examining the sky with all the seriousness of an inspector general. “Right there, below the moon, that’s Leo.”
“I don’t see it,” she says after a minute, and he points out the cluster of stars.
“Are you sure?” she asks, trying but apparently failing to keep the scepticism out of her voice, because he laughs.
“It requires a certain flexibility of imagination,” he says. “Dinna fash if ye dinna possess it.”
“I am very flexible, thank you!” she says, and blushes fire-engine red as he laughs uncontrollably, bending forward to clutch his stomach.
“I’m sure ye are,” he says, and she laughs despite herself.
They sway together as they get closer to her flat, or maybe she leans into him. She doesn’t know. At any rate, he’s close enough that she can feel heat radiating off him, as if he has swallowed one of the stars he was trying to show her.
They stop when they get to her door, and suddenly all her nerves are in full force, curling in her belly like snakes.
“Thank you,” she says. “Truly. For tonight.”
“I had a good time,” he says. Has he moved closer? She can’t tell, not in this light, and anyway he’s still now, his grip on her arm loosened.
“Me too.” She winds her arm back into his. Takes a small step closer. She can see this breath, frosted in the cool air.
Want simmers through her, slowly, and she sighs. His eyes flick down to her lips.
“I would… I would like to kiss ye. May I?”
“Yes,” she breathes, and the arm she is holding pulls her closer, and she goes along, only stopping to tilt her head up.
It takes centuries for their lips to touch, millennia strung out in the moment between her affirmation and the kiss itself. It doesn’t last nearly long enough, and she sways back into him when they break apart, kissing him once more. His arms tighten around her, large hands at her back, and she feels a tremble in her knees as he strokes gently along her spine.
She can feel her heart beating hard when they break apart, and they sway together in unison for a few moments.
“You’re very good at that,” she whispers, and he laughs shakily.
“Same to ye.”
She knows she should let go, disengage, go back upstairs, but her disobedient body is refusing to move away, lured in by the warmth and feel of him, tantalisingly solid underneath his fashionable jacket, the smell of a subtle cologne rising from his skin.
“Ye should probably go in,” he says.
“I should,” she agrees, and reaches up to kiss him instead. He meets her halfway, pressing her closer, sending sensation down to her core. She fists her free hand in his jacket to hold him close.
“Ye should go,” he says, when they finally pull away again. “I dinna want ye to. But it’s most likely for the best.”
“You’re probably right,” she says, and with a great effort of will, restrains the
(large and very vocal)
part of her that wants to take him by the hand and bring him upstairs.
“Can I see ye again?” he asks, eyes dark. She suppresses a shiver at the sight.
“Yes. Is Sunday too soon?”
“No. Will ye come to the stables?”
Jamie texts her on Saturday afternoon, when she’s still lazing around in her pyjamas.
Are you allergic to anything?
Not that I can think of, she writes back. What are you planning on feeding me?
Find out tomorrow comes back a couple of minutes later, followed by a winky emoji face. She sends back the smirking face and puts her phone back in her pocket before this devolves any further.
For the first time in a while, her Saturday drags. She doesn’t want to clean, none of the books she has are holding her interest, and she’s not entirely sure she wants to be social anyway.
She pulls on the first shirt and pair of jeans she finds, and stops by Mrs Fitz for a takeaway cup of coffee before making for the nearest park. It’s not too far from her house and has a little pond on the other side.
People-watching has always been one of her hobbies, and this is a particularly good spot for it. Families come here with their dogs, older people take leisurely walks around the perimeter of the park, and people like her sit quietly, watching the world go by.
“Hope I’m not botherin’ ye.” Geillis sits down on the bench without waiting for an answer. She’s a shock of colour, a bright green dress and yellow scarf a direct contrast to the drab day.
“No,” she says, only partly out of politeness. She’s run into her a couple of times at the pub down the street, and they have an easy, if shallow, companionship. And Geillis is odd enough that her presence is interesting rather than purely intrusive. This is borne out when she leans but and tilts her head up as if it is sunny.
“This park has a good energy,” she says, when she opens her eyes and catches Claire staring. “Like ye do. Ye’re glowing a little, did ye know?”
“That’s ridiculous,” she says, even as she feels her cheeks heat up.
“If ye say so,” Geillis says. “It suits ye, though.”
“I had a good Friday,” she says despite herself. She hadn’t planned on telling Geillis at all, but it slips out anyway. “I went for dinner last night. With a nice man.”
“Which one? There arena many eligible bachelors around here.”
Ah well. In for a penny.
“James Fraser. He owns the stables up by Loch Errenty.”
“Aye, I know him,” Geillis says, face placid, but working as a doctor does give one a certain amount of skill at reading people.
“What is it?”
Geillis flashes a quick look at her from under her eyelashes, wry and coquettish all at once.
“Dinna be shooting the messenger, now,” Geillis says, and her stomach lurches. She tries to hide it with a sip of her now-lukewarm coffee.
“Weel, he was in a serious relationship for a few years, up to sometime last year. They were goin’ to be marrit, but he changed his mind not long before the wedding. The lass couldna bear to be in town anymore, and had to move away.”
“That doesn’t sound like him,” she says, and Geillis shrugs.
“To tell ye the truth, I dinna know either of them all that weel. It’s only that it caused enough of a stramash that most people ken it.”
She sips at her coffee now. It’s cold and bitter and her lips purse.
“I didna mean to spoil yer Saturday,” Geillis says.
“You didn’t,” Claire replies, with a moderate effort of will.
She does manage somewhat to get herself back on track - Geillis is a pleasant conversationalist, but worry sits in her stomach like a pit for the rest of the day.
In which rain precipitates a difficult conversation
She feels a little better by Sunday, but unease still sits in the back of her mind. It’s alleviated slightly by the sight of little Jamie playing with a toy car under the stable arches.
“Hello, Miss Claire,” he says, straightening up. “I didna ken ye were comin’ today! Are you takin’ a riding lesson?”
“No, I’m not. I’m here to visit your Uncle.” He lights up.
“Unca Jamie? He’s in the office, I’ll take ye!” He abandons his car completely in favour of taking her hand, and before she can protest he is enthusiastically towing her to a small side door. He pushes it open and guides her to a chair in the corner of a small front room.
“Just wait here,” he says. “I’ll go get him.” He runs off, short legs carrying him fast, brown hair flopping as he goes, and she smiles, despite the awkwardness. She had left home early, not sure what to do with herself, and she had planned on lurking a little before finding Jamie.
The larger Jamie appears, his nephew tucked under his arm like a rugby ball, giggling madly as he tries to wiggle loose.
“I told ye, Unca Jamie,” he says triumphantly, as Jamie stops short at the sight of her. “I helped.”
“You did,” she agrees, and his face goes pink with pleasure. Or maybe from being held partly upside down. Jamie lets him down.
“Go find yer Da,” Jamie says, and the boy nods and scrambles back outside.
“He likes ye,” Jamie says. “Maybe all Jamies do.” He grins, and her heart beats faster at the sight of it.
“I’m sorry I’m early,” she says.
“No’ a problem,” he says. “I wasna doin’ much anyway, just messing with paperwork. We can leave now, if ye like.”
“Leave to do what?”
“Picnic,” he says. “Prepared by yours truly.” The room is too small for him to do a real bow, but he manages a courtly half-lean that has her rolling her eyes.
“Let’s get out of here before you hurt yourself,” she says, and reaches for his hand before she thinks about it. His palm is warm, long fingers wrapping around hers.
“Ye’re a verra rude woman,” he says, squinting at the weak sunlight.
“One of my many flaws, she says. “How long have you been in there?”
“Too long,” he says. “I’m tryin’ to register one of my horses for a race at Ayrshire, and our oats supplier’s tacking his prices up at the last minute.”
“I didn’t know you raced,” she says.
“Not me,” he says. “But not for lack of trying. Broke my wee heart when I shot up to six feet and filled out, so now I train a horse or two for racing instead. I have a local lad that’s registered as a jockey, he’ll race.”
A quick stop to the surprisingly spacious kitchen, and they are out, an overstuffed picnic basket tucked under his arm. Luckily, she had dressed for an outing in a stable, and she is wearing sensible shoes, jeans, and a dressy blouse. Jamie is in a casual plaid shirt and jeans as well. Casualness suits him.
They are still holding hands when they stop under a small tree.
“The perfect picnic spot,” Jamie says.
“Is that so?”
“Aye. Decades of testing, and the Frasers have agreed that this is by far the best spot in the Highlands, if not in the entire UK.”
“You’re setting your expectations very high,” she says, raising her eyebrows, as he releases her so that he can spread a thick picnic blanket under the shade of the tree.
He is a commensurate picnic organiser, she discovers, as she pulls out finger foods packed neatly in Tupperware. She opens one to discover carrot sticks with dip in its own little mini holder.
“The Frasers do take their picnicking seriously,” she says, as he pulls out two bottles of fancy sparkling juice. He grins and hands her one.
The afternoon is sunny but cool, and just like Friday, time slips away without her noticing, until the sun is much lower in the sky and the breeze has moved from cooly pleasant to nippy. Jamie has unearthed a container of strawberries and offers the container to her.
The taste of strawberries fills her mouth, tart and fresh, and she smiles.
“Good date, then?”
“Good date,” she confirms, and she leans forward, mouth filled with sweetness and the cool air raising gooseflesh along her arms. He meets her halfway, a steadying hand on her back.
She doesn’t know how long they kiss for - doesn’t care, really, not when her skin is humming and her toes are curling from the feeling. A hand strokes lightly down her side and she leans in eagerly, accidentally toppling them so that she lands hard on his stomach. She pulls back.
“No harm done,” he says, and pulls her closer.
It’s only when the first few drops of rain start to land on her that she realises that she’s overwarm, cheeks flushed, heart beating as if it is trying to escape her ribs. All of a sudden she can’t breathe.
Frank. She doesn’t want him in her head right now, she doesn’t want to think about grief and loss and betrayal but she can’t help it. She can’t help thinking about what Geillis had said, about Jamie, and a dark part of her is afraid that she’s setting herself up for hurt again.
She pulls back, heart hammering, and touches her fingers to her lips.
“Claire?” Jamie looks confused, then alarmed, when he gets a good look at her face. “Did I hurt ye? Are ye alright?” She curls her fingers into a ball and breathes, carefully.
“I’m fine,” she says, hating how weak and reedy her voice sounds. “I just-”
I have to go is what she was planning on saying, but just as the sentence is leaving her mouth the heavens open and rain falls in earnest, hammering down on them and their little picnic.
“Ifrinn,” Jamie says, and springs up, scrambling to stuff containers and bottles into the picnic basket. She jumps up to help him, and they hurry from their previously perfect picnic site, staggering together to keep their balance on the slick grass.
“There’s a shed a minute away from here,” Jamie says. “We could wait out the storm in there. It willna last long.”
“Fine,” she says, awkwardness notwithstanding, because the rain truly is vicious.
They make it to the shed in less than a minute, desperation to get out of the rain driving them. Claire looks out of the tiny window doubtfully as the rain roars outside.
“Are you sure it will stop soon?”
“This is normal for spring,” he says. “It’s fierce, but in an hour the sun will be shining.”
The combination of the darkened sky and the poor lighting casts him in shadow, darkness pooling in the hollows of his cheeks and shoulders, and for a moment she feels truly dislocated. Why is she in a shed with a man she barely knows?
“Claire.” He hasn’t moved toward her at all, but she is as aware of his physical presence as if they are pressed together. “Did I scare ye, before?”
“No,” she croaks, and clears her throat, tries again. “You didn’t. It was me.” The shed is cramped, but she finds a clearish space on a table that she can perch on. “I’m a widow,” she bursts out, and the word tastes bitter on her tongue. Widow means sorrow to her, dark colours and dreariness, all of the things she had left Boston to escape and that she is now bringing into this shed with this man.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and she shakes her head, brusque.
“He was cheating on me,” she says. “I found out at the wake. He’d been on the way to her house when he lost control of the car.” The woman - one of Frank’s graduate students, bespectacled eyes brimming with tears, had made it a point to let her know. She’d brought her phone with his texts on it as proof. Claire had snatched it from her hand and thrown it into an ice bucket, then walked outside so she could be sick in the bushes.
“When was this?” Jamie asks. He takes a tentative step forward, and when she doesn’t shrink back, another, until he can rest a hand on her knee.
“Last June,” she says. “That bloody bastard.” All that love she had for him had curdled into hate and rage and disappointment, and sometimes she is afraid that it is all still there, rotting at the centre of her.
“Aye,” Jamie says, gravely enough that it coaxes a smile from her.
“I shouldn’t even be dating,” she says, half to herself. “And-are we dating? We’ve only been on two. Well, one and a half. I shouldn’t even be talking about this. It’s just - do you sometimes feel like everything’s happening all at once? Everything in the world, and all you can do is hold on, and, and Geillis told me you were almost married, and I was just married, and-”
“Wait.’ He looks vaguely alarmed. “Marrit? Me?”
“Yes,” she says, impatiently. “To a local girl.”
“Ye heard that from Geillis Duncan?” At her nod, he lets out a stream of what are undoubtedly Gaelic swear words, if his face is anything to go by.
“I didna leave anyone at the altar,” he says, a glower on his face.
“Well, she didn’t say that-”
He rubs his hands roughly through his hair, leaving patches sticking up straight from his head, like a porcupine.
“I didna abandon the lass either! We dated for a few months and she made assumptions. She told her family that I was thinkin’ of proposing, and even asked my landlord to add her onto my lease without askin’ me. I only found out when she asked Jenny whether Lallybroch would do as a weddin’ venue.”
He’s not even looking at her, indignantly staring into the middle distance, clearly lost in an unpleasant memory, and it makes her inclined to believe him.
“I confronted her and she was verra upset. Told her family that I called it all off last minute, and she couldna bear to live here anymore. It did cause some trouble at the time, because her Da had a job with the city council. I almost lost my business licence for the stables over that mess.”
“What exactly was her excuse for all that?”
“Weel. She had a hard life. Her Da was verra hard with her when she was a bairn. I imagine she was desperate to get out of his home. And her Mam died when she was young, so she only had Mrs Fitz.”
“Aye, her Auntie.”
Mrs Fitz had liked Jamie; she’d helped Claire find a pair of riding boots the week before.
“I see,” she says, and lets out a breath. It takes some of the tension with it. A large hand lands tentatively on her knee again.
“I’m sorry about yer husband,” he says, sincere, and her heart squeezes as she smiles wanly.
“Thank you,” she says. “I’m sorry about-”
“Lheery,” she says carefully.
The rain is still pounding outside, creating a white noise effect that’s soothing. She tangles her fingers with the hand still resting on her knee, feeling unaccountably shy.
“I didn’t mean to ask you like that,” she says. “It just kind of-” she makes an exploding motion with her hand.
“Aye, ye’re verra fiery,” he says. “I like that in a woman.” It’s gently flirtatious enough that she feels comfortable leaning forward so their lips brush together, again and again. It’s less passionate than simply comforting, and it stays that way even when he moves to step in between her legs.
She allows her hands to roam slowly, tracing solid musculature with the tips of her fingers, dipping her fingers under the hem of his shirt. He kisses her lips, her neck, gently enough that it won’t leave a mark. She shivers and tugs him closer, hands reaching around his waist, and she pauses when she feels raised skin under her fingers.
Jamie pulls back, and there is a moment where they stare at each other, a million unsaid things flitting between them. He breaks the silence.
“Do ye want to see?”
At her silent nod he moves his hands away and unbuttons his shirt. She can’t help but stare as smooth, lightly tanned skin is uncovered slowly, but doesn’t move until he takes his shirt off. At his nod, she puts her hands back on his waist, skimming up briefly before curving round to rest on the scarred skin of his back. She can feel raised, straight ridges, divots where the skin must have pitted, thick ropes of scar tissue that stretch from just underneath his neck to the small of his back.
His face is impassive, but she can see a muscle ticking in his jaw, and his shoulders are drawn up slightly higher than before. She pulls back.
“I can stop,” she offers. He doesn’t have to make himself uncomfortable to help her trust him. But he leans forward and kisses her instead, lingering instead of pulling away.
“What happened?” she asks.
“A car accident in France,” he says. I was trapped under a convertible when it flipped.”
She winces. She’s done more than her share of emergency room work in Boston, and she knows the kind of devastation a car crash can cause. He sees it, and smiles wryly.
“It was that bad. I made the doctors work verra hard to save me.”
“It was close?”
“Aye,” he says. “That’s why Wee Jamie’s named for me. Jenny was nine months pregnant when the hospital called them, and she had to stay back while Ian flew to me. She named him for me because they thought I would die.”
She moves off the table, and he steps back to make room for her in the cramped space. She takes a slow circuit around him, and he lets her, holding still as she comes to a stop behind him.
His back looks like the map her fingers had drawn for her, but the skin is supple enough to allow for easy movement. The marks will never fade, but they will not cause him pain, either.
Scars all over both of us, she thinks, and is selfishly comforted by it. She presses a kiss right in the middle of his back, and he starts, but doesn’t protest.
“I don’t think a second date is meant to be quite this intense,” she says, moving back round to face him.
“Probably not,” he agrees. “But I’ve never been one for rules.” He glances at the window, where the rain had indeed cleared, and weak sun shines through the grimy pane. “We can probably leave now. If ye like.”
She meets his eyes.
“Not quite yet,” she says.
In which a routine of sorts is formed
One and a half dates quickly becomes three, then eight. Jamie stops by the Castle most mornings so they can have coffee together; she stops by his cottage on the way back home. He’s a marginally better cook than she is, but they rely heavily on sandwiches and pasta to keep themselves nourished.
He has an impressive collection of books. There’s a whole wall in his living room devoted to them, everything from modern thrillers to classics to nonfiction. Some books look older than the both of them combined, some still have the Tesco sale sticker on them.
She invites him up to her flat and watches as he moves around the spare space, touching random objects carefully. He crosses to the window and peers out onto the street.
“Ye have a great view.”
“I do,” she says, staring blatantly, and he laughs.
He leaves traces of himself whenever he is there - a scarf here, a pen there. She wonders if she’s doing the same to him, if traces of her are bleeding into his life too. She doesn’t know how she’s going to be able to unravel him from this new life she’s building for herself. She doesn’t know if she wants to, which is slightly more worrying.
They don’t have sex until the ninth date, which frankly was seven and a half dates longer than she thought they would last. Maybe it was something about the tiny botanical gardens they visited earlier in the day that made them finally decide it was time, she thinks, and laughs quietly.
“I hope you werena laughin’ at my performance,” Jamie says sleepily.
“Never,” she assures him, lips twitching. He grunts and closes his eyes again. He takes up more than half of her double bed, long limbs thrown every which way as he slumbers on his stomach, and she curls up to his side.
“You acquainted yourself very well,” she says, and when that fails to wake him, presses a kiss to the tip of his shoulder. She does it again when he shifts ever so slightly, and he eventually opens his eyes.
“I was havin’ a verra restful moment,” he says, no venom in his voice as she leans over to kiss him.
“You can rest later,” she promises. The duvet is bundled up somewhere at the bottom of the bed, and she has full access to him. He stays on his stomach as she trails a hand down his scarred back, sinks a hand into the thick hair of his head, slips a hand down to touch a well formed buttock. He twitches impatiently, but gentles under her hands when she presses a kiss to the nape of his neck.
That first time had been fire, their clothes flung every which way, fumbling and franticness that had propelled them into the bed without thought, but now that that first fire has been banked she wants to take her time, wants to touch the parts of him she had been too impatient to look for the first time.
“Claire,” he says, after a while, panting, and she allows him to turn over. He immediately moves his hands to her waist, pulling her to him, and the press of skin makes her gasp, her legs automatically falling open around his.
She rocks once, the feeling of him between her legs making her overwarm. She does it again, and his hands tighten over her hips, holding her down onto him. She leans down so they can kiss, head swimming. He surges his hips up powerfully, and she squeaks.
“That’s a verra sweet sound,” he says, grinning, even as his eyes glaze over as she shifts on top of him. His hands move, restless, leaving swathes of feeling everywhere they touch, trapping the words in her throat as her eyes slam shut.
She can feel want rising in her, and her muscles shake with the need to reach down and guide him inside her - she can feel him hard against her thigh, but there is something unspeakably delicious about being suspended where they are, anticipation rising in a wave. She shuffles down onto his thighs to lessen the torment, and he takes the opportunity to surge forward and nip at her breast. She stiffens, eyes rolling back at the lightning bolt that starts where his mouth is touching her and sends pulses down her body.
“Oh, fuck. Fuck!” He hums, which only makes everything unbearably better. A hand sneaks down between her legs, and, oh God, he’s going to kill her. Her hips move in the same rhythm as the hand stroking between her legs, the drag of skin on skin enough that she shivers helplessly, hands gripping as his shoulder, fingers digging into the skin.
She drifts a hand down and circles his wrist for a second, feeling the tendons and muscles move as he works her. Then down, so she can grasp him, stroke down and feel his gasp against her chest.
“No’ much more,” he murmurs, and she moves back, fumbles in the nightstand for the condoms.
They both sigh when she eases him into her. She closes her eyes against the stretch, the fullness. He circles one arm around her to keep her close, and they move together. She feels airless, dizzy, her core melting into his as they share air, spiralling upward together. She opens her eyes to meet his and they are a closed circuit, energy running through one into the other, multiplying exponentially until she feels like she will die if she doesn’t get some relief.
“I’m-” is all she manages to say, before it hits, her and her vision whites out.
She comes back to herself just as he comes, clutching her to him and shuddering deeply, Gaelic falling from his lips in benediction.
They collapse back, exhausted and spent, overworked muscles trembling. She lies quietly on his chest, drifting.
Her head is quiet for the first time in a while: no worries, only a pleasant blankness and the soothing sound of a heart beating under her ear, somnolent. A hand comes to rest in her hair, and she closes her eyes.
So yes, that first time was great. But the second time - she won’t be forgetting that any time soon.
The addition of (regular and fantastic) sex to their relationship brings sleepovers and rushed breakfasts and the knowledge of what he looks like when he’s sleeping.
Joe is ecstatic for her.
“Who knew that all you needed was some Scotland,” he says. “I’d have flown you over myself.”
Work picks up a little - the town isn’t all that busy, but the beginning of summer means an increase in outdoor-related injuries, and she finds that she does have friends. Mary McNab from the office makes a point of inviting her for lunch a couple of times a month, and Geillis continues to be a reliable pub companion, inaccurate gossip notwithstanding.
He invites her down to Ayrshire to watch his horse run in the novice races.
“Starbright’s only in the one race, but it’s a fun day out,” he says. “Have ye ever been before?”
“No,” she says. “Who picked that name?”
“Jenny did. Actually his full name’s Starbright Millenium. I ken it sounds daft, but every registered horse has to have a unique name. It isna the worst I’ve heard,” he says, somewhat defensively, as Claire bites her lip to keep from giggling. “Ye wouldna believe some of the horse names I’ve heard. Ye’d never stop laughing then.”
They agree that Jamie will leave early with the horses and the stable lad, and she’ll get to the course before they have to race. She takes some time picking an outfit, because Jamie had said that a friend of his had booked a private box and invited him to lunch, and that kind of thing occasions at least moderately fancy dressing.
In the end she picks a maroon cocktail dress that she had last worn during an interdepartmental mixer in Boston and sidesteps the issue of hats completely, settling for a half-down style that the internet assures her is perfectly acceptable for a racecourse.
The race is on a clear Saturday, the sky a stunning blue, and the hour-long drive to the racecourse passes by quickly. She texts Jamie from the parking lot as she walks in, and he replies almost instantly, giving her directions to where he is.
She finds him by the betting booths, chatting with the man behind the grate.
“Morning,” he says. He’s in a good mood, eyes creased from smiling, slipping hand securely in hers.
“Morning to you,” she says, smiling back. He looks particularly handsome today in an immaculately pressed suit and tie, curls slicked back. He looks rather like a banker, and she gives him an affectionate squeeze.
“Angus, this is Claire,” he says, and the man in the booth tips his hat at her, like a character in a movie.
“Morning, Madam.” He smiles, revealing a friendly, gap-toothed smile. “Care tae place a bet? I’ll give ye good odds.”
“Well…” she’s never really gambled before, but she’s starting to get into the spirit of the day, and rifles through her handbag for a fiver. At Angus’ contemptuous look, she sighs and pulls out another.
“I’ll put it all on… er, Starbright Millenium for the… Jamie?”
“For the second novice race,” he fills in. “Mind ye give her good odds, Angus.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he says, tapping away at a computer. “I can give ye 7/2 odds to place. It’s the best I can do,” he says, when Jamie makes a disapproving noise. “It’s no’ my fault yer colt has a spotty record.”
“It’s no spotty,” Jamie starts, before inhaling deeply through his nose. “Fine.”
“Sorry,” she says, entertained by Jamie’s martyr-like agreement. “What is 7/2 to place?”
“It means if his horse places first, second, or third in his race I’ll give ye back yer stake plus seven pounds fer every two ye gave me. That’s forty-five pounds tae ye.”
She takes her Tote ticket and thanks Angus, halfway convinced that she may have been better off just throwing the money into the gutter, but Jamie cheers as they walk away.
“Are ye hungry? There’s a decent pub round the corner that does good sandwiches.”
She is starting to get hungry, so they split a bacon sandwich. They have at least two hours before his race, and they go slowly, ordering a plate of chips after Jamie starts to look longingly at the last few bites of her sandwich.
“It tastes the same as when I was a bairn,” he says happily, swilling his chips around in a homemade sauce, looking about five seconds away from just sticking his fingers in his mouth. “Jenny and I used to come here with Da all the time. It was a special treat for when we were good.”
“He sounds like he was a good father,” she says.
“The best,” he agrees. “We were lucky. Now,” he says. “Ye must try this. Ye canna come all the way here and no’ have at least a bit. It’s against the law.”
She accepts the diversion and allows him to place a chip covered in the brown substance in her mouth, choking slightly at the vinegary taste. He watches her face avidly, and she finds the strength to chew and swallow.
“That was… an experience,” she says, and he shakes his head.
“Ye did try. I’ll give ye points for that.”
“Oh, thank you,” she says, and together they walk out into the sunshine.
They watch the first race from the grandstand, watching as the tiny figures whip around the course as breakneck speed. It all seems so much more violent and dangerous up close, her doctor’s brain cringing as the jockeys and their mounts soar over jumps.
“Aye,” Jamie says, when she asks him. “Jockeys do get injured. Collarbones, ankles, some concussions. It’s hard on the body.”
They leave before the second race so Jamie can talk to Geordie, his jockey. He’s already with the horse, a dark brown colt with dark ears and an inquisitive face.
“Hello,” she says, and the horse tosses his head.
“We talked about the strategy for this one already,” Jamie says. “We willna have to go through it again. But just remember-”
“Starbright doesna like racing alone, hold to the pack as long as possible,” Geordie says impatiently, but he has gone a remarkable pale shade in the time they’ve been standing there, and his top lip is shining. His racing colours - red and green with lines of white, the Fraser colours- clash horribly with the poor man. Jamie claps him on the shoulder.
“Ye’re a good lad, Geordie. Ye’ll be fine.”
They leave to go and watch from a strip of grass right next to the track, which seems to be mostly occupied by other trainers. Jamie is nearly vibrating with excitement as the commentator announces the start of the race, and goes completely still as the horses leave the gates.
She can see the green and red of Jamie’s horse in the middle of the pack, barely visible amongst the thousands of pounds of horse flying down the course, but Jamie doesn’t seem to be upset, muttering numbers under his breath and tapping his fingers against his thigh.
“Come on now, lad,” he says, as the crowd’s energy begins to rise, a dull roar from the people behind them as the horses near the finish line. “Come on now, push him.”
The green and red pulls neatly out of the middle of the pack, the horse flying, Geordie’s face set as he leans forward, nearly in front of Starbright’s ears. They pull up to just behind the lead horse, and she finds herself leaning over the rail, heart in her throat as the racers thunder past the finish line.
“Did he win?” she asks anxiously.
“I dinna think so,” Jamie says, already moving to the winners’ enclosure. She waits outside the gate while he talks to the stewards, and after a tense few seconds, the other horse is announced as the winner. Jamie is still happy, though.
“7/2 odds to place,” he scoffs. “An insult to ye, a charaid.” Starbright only snorts, sides still heaving from the race. “Still, it’s made ye a nice packet of money, Claire.”
“I’m set for life,” she agrees. Geordie walks up, his face pinched.
“Ye did well,” Jamie says. “He’s still only two, he’ll do even better next year.”
“I ken that,” Geordie says. “I was just coming to let ye know I’ll be off.” His tone is abrupt, but he’s still shaking from the excitement. He gives Claire a nod and Jamie a stiff handshake, and walks off.
“He’s an odd one,” Claire says, and Jamie shakes his head.
“I canna disagree with ye there. Lunch?”
The private box is dripping with luxury, crystal sparkling from every table and a view of the entire racecourse from the giant glass windows.
“What exactly does your friend do, exactly?” she murmurs.
“Old money,” Jamie says. “He doesna strictly do anything, but John’s a good sort.”
The “good sort” turns out to be a slight blond man who is in fact perfectly courteous to Claire and warm to Jamie, making sure to introduce them to the small group of equally well-appointed guests floating around. She’s sat next to him for lunch, and he engages her in idle conversation about the Highlands, racing, and the current state of the NHS.
“I moved here to manage a minor branch of my father’s company,” he says over vichyssoise. “To tell you the truth, it was more of an exile than a real job to be done. Perils of working for the family business, I suppose.”
“So what made you stay?” she says.
“No idea. The company, I suppose,” he says, with an incline to the table. “Stubbornness, maybe. It’s not an exile if you choose to stay.”
He’s easy to talk to, and the meal goes easily, until they are all at the window, sipping at champagne and watching the afternoon races. Jamie has mostly stayed by her side, but he is occasionally pulled away by a fellow trainer or horse owner.
She is standing by the glass windows, sipping at her glass, when John comes to stand next to her.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he says, gesturing at the ground below, and she nods. The view from up here is breathtaking the green of the course setting off the still-pristine blue of the sky, the people on the ground colourful blobs.
“Yes,” she says. “Thank you for inviting us.”
“Not at all,” he says, with a wave of his hand. “Jamie’s a good friend.”
“How did you two meet? She asks.
“It was a few years ago,” he says. “When I had just moved to Inverness. I’d walked down the wrong alleyway and three men attempted to rob me. Jamie was on a visit to his uncle and he chased them off, then took me to the hospital.”
“That sounds like him,” she says.
“We have similar tastes in literature as well, which gave me something to talk about when I’d finished thanking him. He was the first friend I made here.”
She glances back at where Jamie is laughing with an elderly woman, dressed to the nines. He touches her shoulder and she glows. Honestly.
She turns to see that John is watching her, a soft smile on his face.”I’m glad you found each other,” he says.
It’s a good thing they’d agreed that Jamie would drive back, because she is well and tipsy. Not enough to make a fool of herself, but enough that the world seems a brighter and softer place, full of hilarity. Jamie keeps her hand tucked into his arm as they make their goodbyes.
“It was lovely to meet your girlfriend, Jamie,” the elderly woman (Fiona? Flora) says. “It’s good to see you settling down.”Jamie smiles, and she files that away for later as they head out.
“My winnings!” she says, too loudly, as they pass the Tote, and she folds the notes carefully into her wallet as Jamie smirks at Angus.
The ride back home is longer than the one out, maybe because she’s drunk, maybe because she’s tired. Maybe she’s a faster driver than Jamie, but that seems unlikely.
“Ye had a good day, then?”
“I had a great day,” she says, and he squeezes her thigh.
“We can do it again.”
“That would be nice,” she says sleepily, and falls asleep.
In which an accord is reached
She wakes up at 3 am that night, mouth dry as anything and head pounding.
Jamie had escorted her back upstairs, wrestled her into a comfortable shirt, and tucked her into bed. He had steadfastly refused to get in with her, agreeing only to press a kiss against her forehead before leaving. Drunk Claire is a fool, she acknowledges, and crawls back into bed after fetching a glass of water.
She can’t sleep, though. She doesn’t know whether it’s sobriety, or an imbalance of her circadian rhythm, but she lays in bed for an hour and twelve minutes, wide awake as sheep of all descriptions parade through her head.
She gives up, eventually. She knows what’s keeping her awake.
The drive to Jamie’s is fewer than ten minutes at this time of night, and she is knocking at his door before she is fully cognizant of what’s she’s doing.
“What?” His voice is hoarse with sleep.
“It’s me.” A second and the door opens, treating her to the sight of a dishevelled Scotsman, clad only in his boxer briefs.
“What’s happened? Are ye alright?”
“Fine,” she says. “I woke you.”
“Yes, ye did. I’m no’ an owl.” Ironically, he does look quite owl-like, blinking irritably at the bright porch light as she steps aside to let her in.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” she says, as if there can be any other outcome of a 4 am impromptu visit, and he gives her a look that says just that.
“Weel, now that ye have, maybe ye should tell me what’s eatin’ at ye.” They sink into the couch in his living room, a cushy, pillow-filled den.
“We’ve been seeing each other for two months now,” she says. “And, it seems odd that we haven’t really talked about that. Doesn’t it?”
“A wee bit,” he says eventually. “But only a bit.”
“And then Flora called me your girlfriend,” she says, and he nods, face inscrutable. “Which… Jamie, I don’t even know what I’m doing here.” He cocks his head.
“Broch Mordha. Scotland. I’m so happy here, but… I don’t know. I…I don’t know how to do this again.” she says, fear pounding in her chest, the dark shadow of a heartbeat. The parts she wants to share with him are broken, jagged pieces that she’s done well to ignore so far. It seems a poor offering.
“Alright,” he says, after a moment. “ I can tell ye what I ken. Is that alright?” At her nod, he continues. “Being with ye is the best part of my day. Even at four in the morning. Ye’re my favourite person,” he says.
“If ye dinna want to be with me, that’s yer choice, and I’ll respect that.” he continues. “But ye’re no’ as broken as ye think. There isna a part of ye I dinna want, if ye want me to have it.”
She can’t help it; she reaches out to touch him. Only gently, featherlight touches over his shoulder and neck and the curve of his knees, only a confirmation that they are really here, that she isn’t dreaming, that in the midst of it all life will sometimes make you an extraordinary gift.
“I do,” she whispers, “I do.” A firmer touch this time, to brush those lovely curls out of his eyes. “Every part of you.”
He releases a breath, and she sees how nervous he was for the first time, the lines of his mouth that ease as she strokes through that hair again, the thick waves that she loves.
“Come to bed wi’ me,” he says. She raises an eyebrow.
“To sleep?” He grins.
They don’t quite make it to bed. Instead he sinks her down onto the thick rug in front of the fireplace, holding her so tight that it should hurt, but it doesn’t. It inflames her instead, as if something primal has been released by their confessions, a force that guides their lips together, eases her out of her clothes, drives him inside her with a force that makes her gasp.
“Look at me,” he says, voice hoarse, lifting his head from where it had been buried in her shoulder, eyes dark in shining in the dim light.
“Ye’ve never really met Jenny,” Jamie says. They are in the middle of a lazy Sunday, Netflix blaring something or the other, a tub of popcorn balanced on his stomach.
“My sister,” Jamie says. And ye havna really seen Lallybroch. Do ye want to go next weekend?”
“Hmm,” she says, as a laugh track plays on the screen. “For the day.”
“Aye.” He munches his way through a gigantic handful of popcorn. “Jenny invited us for lunch.”
She hesitates. They’re definitely at the point where it’s okay to properly meet family, and Jamie talks about Jenny all the time. She sounds like a formidable person, looming large in all of Jamie’s childhood stories.
Jamie keeps silent, devouring another handful of popcorn - the man never stops eating, it’s in equal parts impressive and worrying - but she can hear the quiet tap of his fingers against his thigh that usually signifies nervousness.
“Lallybroch sounds lovely,” she says, and rises to press a kiss to his cheek. He smiles, not fooled.
“It’ll be fine,” he promises. “And if it’s not, I’ll make it up to ye.”
“And how are you planning to do that?”
“Whatever it takes to appease ye, ye wee minx.” The popcorn bowl is deposited on the table, and she takes advantage of the newly created space to crawl into his lap.
“Maybe you should practice now,” she suggests.
“Maybe I should,” he says.
Lallybroch is set about a mile back from the Broch Tuarach stables, down a dirt road. She doesn’t see any other houses or people all the way down. The actual house is a huge manor, made of heavy, sun bleached stone, clearly meant for multiple people at once.
“This is your house?” she says.
“My family’s,” he says. “Dinna look at me like that!”
“What, were your family gentry,” she says, half joking, and groans when the tips of his ears turn red. “Shall I refer to you as Sir Jamie, then?”
“Laird, if ye want to get precise about it,” he says, and she laughs.
“Joe and I have definitely read this exact story before,” she says, as he turns the car off. “I’ll tell you later,” she adds, as a little head bobs its way to the driver’s window.
“Hello!” Wee Jamie climbs into the car as soon as Jamie has opened the door and perches on Jamie’s lap, grabbing onto the steering wheel for balance. “Hello Unca Jamie! Mam told me ye were coming! We made ye an apple pie.”
“Sounds delicious, a bhailach,” Jamie says, ruffling the boy’s hair.
“Hello, Miss Claire,” the boy says shyly, and she smiles.
“Good afternoon, Jamie. You can just call me Claire, you know.” He nods doubtfully before wiggling out of the car, dragging Jamie out with him , to where Ian is waiting in the doorway.
“Da! They’re here!”
“I can see that,” Ian says, and claps Jamie on the shoulder.
“Good to see ye again,” Ian says. “It’s been a few centuries. Hi, Claire.”
“Hello,” she says, and follows Jamie into the house.
It’s more modern than it looked from the outside, obvious remodelling done to knock out walls and widen windows, but it still feels old, as if they’re only one of a very long line of people to stand exactly where they are.
Jenny and Ian have filled it with warmth, though, with bright flowers line the side tables, pictures of the family, of little Jamie and Maggie, and Jenny and Ian’s wedding day, and older ones that must have been their parents.
“Is there one of you?” she asks, tracing the gilt-edged frame of a serious-looking boy with thick black hair.”
“Somewhere,” he says. “I’m sure Jenny has books of pictures here.”
“I want to see those,” she says, imagining what a young Jamie would have been like when he was young.
“In time,” he says, leading the way through to what must be the living room, where Jenny is lifting Maggie out of her playpen. She’s much bigger now, able to hold herself up easily, tugging at Jenny’s hair and babbling at the new arrivals.
“Aye, ye can go to yer uncle,” Jenny says, and passes Maggie off to Jamie. “Claire, welcome.”
“Thank you for inviting me,” she says, and thrusts the tin of biscuits she had picked up from Mrs Ftiz into her hands. It had taken her an inordinate amount of time to pick them, Jamie grumbling at her back the whole time, but Jenny takes them with thanks and bustles off to the kitchen to fetch drinks.
“She never stops,” Jamie says, taking a brief break from cooing over his niece to follow Claire’s gaze. “It’s a wee bit scary. Isn’t it, lassie?” he says to the baby, who makes a grab for his cheek. “She looks like her Mam, doesna she?”
“I suppose,” she says, although in truth Maggie looks like a baby, chubby cheeked and wide eyed. Jamie shakes his head.
“Ye’ve no appreciation for the Fraser features,” he says mournfully.
“I absolutely do,” she says tartly, and Ian chooses the perfect time to walk back in with drinks.
It’s easy for the four of them to pass the time, talking idly as Wee Jamie crawls around their feet and Maggie coos in her Uncle’s arms. Claire finds herself relaxing gradually, bolstered by the solid presence of Jamie by her side and the easy company.
They have lunch in the formal dining room, the first room in the house that seems the least touched by time. Wee Jamie asks if he can sit in between Claire and Jamie, and does a creditable job of minding his table manners.
Jenny is in fact a fantastic cook, serving up seared salmon and mashed potatoes that melt in her mouth. She accepts the compliments with the air of a master craftswoman who knows her due, and maybe Claire didn’t have to worry quite as much as she did.
After lunch Wee Jamie wants his Uncle to watch him fly his kite outside, and Jamie leaves with a promise to do the dishes next time. Next time, as if this will be a part of her new life as well. Jenny doesn’t say much, only accepts Claire’s help as they carry the dishes into the kitchen.
At some mysterious marital signal, Ian leaves them alone in the kitchen, and she realises this is the real interrogation. She focuses on rinsing off the plates, feeling rather like a fattened lamb being led to the slaughter.
“I willna bite, ye know,” Jenny says, and Claire jumps guiltily.
“I didn’t think you would,” she says.
“It was good to meet ye properly,” Jenny says after a while. “He willna stop talkin’ about ye.”
“Good things, I hope,” she says.
“All good things,” Jenny says. “More good things than I think I’ve heard before.” There are a thousand spoken sentences in what she doesn’t say, and Claire raises her chin. Nothing for it but to be direct, then.
“I feel the same,” she says, and Jenny smiles ruefully.
“I canna ask more unless I want to be accused of being an interferin’ old besom,” she says wryly, “so we can leave it there.”
“Old besom? Jamie called you that?”
“Och, aye,” Jenny says, “ and worse, when we were younger. Poor Ian spent half his days keepin’ one from murderin’ the other. Now we’re adults, and we must model good behaviour for the bairns,” Jenny says with a roll of her eyes.
Ian, summoned by some marital sorcery, sweeps into the kitchen with Maggie, passing him off to Jenny.
“Jamie wants to hunt worms at the pond,” he says with a grimace.
“We’ll bide,” Jenny assures him, and he leaves again.
“I could do with some tea. Will ye hold her?” she asks, and hands Maggie to Claire. The baby is heavy and sweet smelling, and looks up at Claire, plainly deciding whether to protest at the sudden change in caregiver. She settles when Claire tweaks her nose gently, though she keeps an eye on her mother. Claire leans against the counter and listens to Jenny chat, the baby secure in her arms.
Jamie takes her on a tour of the house when he gets back, damp and slightly mud spattered. He shows her the priest’s hole where their ancestors used to hide Jacobites, filled in after a close call when Jamie was a toddler, the art lining the halls upstairs - Jamie’s mother had been an artist, and had added a portrait or two to the ancient-looking art on the walls.
“Is that you?” One of the paintings depicts two young boys, round-faced and starched, the younger one leaning against the older. “And Willie?”
“Aye,” he says. “I remember that day. Mam let us have a chocolate biscuit each for every ten minutes we sat still.”
There’s a framed photo of a jockey on a black horse, arm raised in victory.
“Is that Jenny?”
“Aye,” he says. “She’s quite the horsewoman. Rode in a few races when she was younger. Won them all, which she doesna let me forget.”
They leave as the sun sets, Wee Jamie slumped in his father’s arms, exhausted after the excitement of the day. She hugs Ian and kisses Jenny on the cheek, her heart full.
“Good?” Jamie asks, hand on the steering wheel, guiding the car down the dark road.
“Good,” she confirms.
In which our hero receives a proposal of marriage
Visits to Lallybroch become a semi-regular event over the summer. It’s a perfect place to wile away the long days and warm nights. They picnic by the lake, explore the caves around the estate, and stargaze whenever the night is clear enough.
It all seems like a dream, one that she hopes she doesn’t wake up from.
“What are ye thinkin’ about?”
“Nothing much,” she says. “Will it rain, today, do you think?”
“Nah,” he says.
“You’re better than Google Weather,” she says, and he picks up her hand, presses a kiss to the back of it.
“I should hope so,” he says.
“Enough of that,” Jenny says, setting Maggie down on the blanket, where she immediately crawls onto Jamie’s stomach. “Ye’ll blind the weans.”
“Dinna be a bore, Janet,” Jamie says, nevertheless obligingly rolling away to stop his niece from tumbling off him. “Where’s Ian and Jamie?”
“Still makin’ mud balls by the water,” Jenny says, sitting beside Claire. She reaches into the gigantic picnic basket and pulls out a bottle of water, holding it to the back of her neck.
“Sounds like yer kind of activity,” Jamie teases.
“It was fine, until they started throwin’ them,” she says darkly.
“No mud balls here,” Claire says, watching as Jamie and Maggie start a mysterious game involving a random ribbon and an empty container.
“Tis good to have some sane people to retreat to,” Jenny agrees.
They leave when the children are starting to get overtired and the adults are overfull, clearing up lazily and half staggering from tiredness. It’s only a short walk, but Jamie and Ian with their long legs, and Jenny by sheer force of will alone, quickly pull ahead, leaving her with Wee Jamie, who seems content to meander back.
They walk in silence for a little while, Jamie stopping often to pluck this or that plant from the earth, or wave a stick at imaginary enemies. She’s content to let the day settle on her, not quite ready to have it end.
“Miss Claire,” he says.
“Mister Jamie,” she replies, and he giggles, before his little face turns serious.
“It’s only, I was wonderin’, are ye Unca Jamie’s wife now?”
She chokes slightly, and coughs to cover it up.
“No, I’m not his wife. What makes you think that?”
“Well, yer always sittin’ in his car. And ye hold hands all the time. Growups dinna hold hands with each other unless they are marrit, that’s what Jonas says.”
“Who’s Jonas?” she asks, picking the easiest thread of conversation.
“My friend in the kids club. He’s five,” Jamie says, with finality, as if fivedom is the barrier between childish ignorance and unlimited knowledge.
“Well, Jonas isn’t quite right about that,” she says. “Grownups can hold hands even if they aren’t married. Maybe he thinks that because he only sees his parents holding hands.”
“Maybe,” Jamie says, clearly not convinced, and mumbles something that she doesn’t catch.
“Will you say that again?” she asks,
“It’s only…” he trails off, kicking at the ground. “It’s only, I was thinkin’ of marryin’ ye. When I’m old like Da.”
“Oh,” she says, and coughs to hide her smile. “That’s incredibly sweet of you, Jamie.”
“But Jonas said ye can only marry one person, and ye hold hands with Unca Jamie all the time,” he says. “Then ye’re going to be a Mam and there’ll be even more babies here. I dinna like babies,” Jamie says, his face screwed up in a frown.
She feels uniquely unqualified to handle this conversation, and takes a quick look around, in the vain hope that Ian or Jenny will materialise from under one of the bushes and take over.
“I am certainly not married to your Uncle,” she says, when they fail to appear, “and you are a very lovely little boy, and just the kind of person I want to have as my friend.”
“I’m a verra good friend,” he says. “I got a sticker in class for it on Friday.”
“Perfect,” she says, with feeling. He looks at her, brown eyes considering.
“Will ye come to Lallybroch so we can go swimming? And fly my kite wi’ me?”
“Promise,” she says, and they shake on it.
“Your nephew tried to steal me from you,” she says, on the car ride back.”
“Really,” he says lazily. “What did he promise ye? Unlimited mudpies?”
“Something like that,” she says dryly, and fills him in on the rest.
“Wee smout,” he says, laughing. “I told ye before, all the Jamies in the world want ye,”
“One is enough for me, thank you,” she says. “This one in particular.”
“He looks at her, eyes still slightly alight with mirth, a smile dancing at the corner of his mouth.
“Me as well,” he says.
In which promises are kept
Summer starts to come to an end, the days shortening ever so slightly. She makes plans to go to Inverness for an autumn wardrobe, and Jamie complains a little less about the heat in her room when they’re trying to get to sleep.
“You’ll be useful in the winter,” she tells him, and he rolls his eyes.
Eventually they manage to fall asleep, Jamie by the open window, face turned toward it in the hope of a breeze, Claire cosy underneath a summer duvet.
She wakes in grey darkness, aware and alert in a way she hasn’t been since her days in the on call room. She can almost hear the sound of beeper, the squeak of sneakers on linoleum.
She knows she won’t sleep again any time soon, and sits by the window instead. The sill is wide enough that she can just about squeeze on, and the calm and quiet of the street below soothes her.
“What is it,” Jamie says, from right behind her, and she jumps, hand over her heart.
“I didn’t even hear you move!” she says, and he shrugs, sleepy-eyed. There’s absolutely no way they’ll both fit on the ledge so he stands instead, arms wrapped around her waist, his chin balanced on top of her head.
It’s a different sort of peace when he’s with her, but she likes it all the same.
“I love you,” she says quietly, and he stills.
“I love ye too,” he says. “Verra much.” He presses a kiss to the top of her head.
Everything here has been a balm to her: the place, the work, the people, and him especially. It feels as if something has slid into place, the last piece of a puzzle she’s been working on all her life.
“Of all the things I thought I’d find when I moved here,” she says, and trails off. “Thank God I moved here.”
She turns to him, and kisses him fiercely, trusting him to catch her as she leans into him, and strong arms catching her as she starts to overbalance, moving them to the bed.
“I do,” he says, “ every day.” She closes her eyes.
“Stay with me,” she says. “I don’t think I could bear if you left.” The very thought leaves her breathless, and she kisses him again, gently.
“Never,” he says. “For as long as ye wish it, I’ll be here. I dinna think I could do otherwise.”
“I’ll always wish it,” she says, eyes closing as he rubs her back. “Always. I promise.”
She doesn’t want to sleep, but her body pulls her down, overwhelmed with relief and comfort and trust, eyes closing against her will.
“Sleep, mo chridhe,” he whispers. “Sleep. I’ll be here.”
So she does. And he is.