‘Good morning and welcome to the nine a.m. LNER from London Kings Cross to Inverness.’
Jamie Fraser’s long fingers tightened their near bone-breaking grip on the armrests. In his rising panic, it was all he could do to not rip the damn things straight off the chair.
‘We will be calling at York…’
He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. The train has no’ left the station yet, man. Ye need to stay calm. Just keep taking deep breaths. Deep, calming, soothing breaths. In and out. In. And Out.
The viscous bile rose up to coat the back of his throat. Tiny beads of sweat began to form on his upper lip.
Why didna I just fly?
From within the haze of discomfort that was his motion sickness, Jamie felt a gentle movement at his elbow. It was nothing more than a brushing of soft cloth against his arm but still, he felt it. He breathed in through his nose and caught the faint scent of sharp, fresh herbs. Someone had paused to place their luggage in the overhead shelf above him.
‘Edinburgh, Stirling, Perth…’
Christ! How many more stops were there?
If he could have had the choice, Jamie would be back in his and Annalise’s apartment, reading with the living room window open and with the thrum of the Parisian traffic a distant soundtrack. But instead, he was chasing his future across land and sea, hoping to salvage what was left of his hopes and dreams. He wasn’t being dramatic, despite being tired, hungry, and just wishing that he could curl up in a ball of self-pity and heartbreak.
A soft, feminine sigh sounded as the stranger sat down beside him. She jostled about for an irrationally irritating minute, clearly just trying to get comfortable. Her elbow knocked his and he heard her curse under her breath; had he not been doing his best to keep the bile from rising further, he might just have smiled.
‘…Aviemore and arriving at Inverness, our final destination, by five p.m. Passengers are reminded that…’
Ah dhia! A Sassenach!
“Um…terribly sorry to disturb you but are you quite alright?” Her voice was crisp and clear as she tapped lightly on his arm. “I’m quite worried that you are about to go over.”
He cracked open an eye; she was watching him warily, her brown eyes wide with concern. He briefly noted a riot of dark curls framing her porcelain face before his stomach lurched. Taking the window seat had no’ been the best idea…
“Sorry. Excuse me.” he murmured, ungraciously scrambling over her as fast as he could. She swivelled her long legs out of his way, allowing him to stumble the short distance to the door interconnecting the coaches, reaching the toilet just in time.
‘…Passengers are reminded that all areas are non-smoking, and that all luggage should be situated in the baggage areas or on the overhead shelf…’
Claire Beauchamp watched him dart through the door like there were wolves snapping at his heels. She felt a twinge of sympathy, hoping that he wouldn’t be too fettered by what was clearly a horrible bout of motion sickness.
‘…and to please silence any mobile phones and electronic devices as we operate quiet coaches…’
At that precise moment, her phone loudly chirped from inside her coat pocket. Fumbling to retrieve it, and ignoring the dark looks of annoyance aimed towards her by some of the other passengers, Claire swiped the screen and immediately wished she hadn’t.
It was a message from Joe, her one-time divorce lawyer turned indispensable friend. Joe, who had promised to water the plants in her greenhouse while she took a small mid-week break to Inverness, knowing she could do with three days away from her studies. Claire felt the sharp stab of guilt at that – after all, she hadn’t exactly told him the whole truth about her sudden desire to head to the Highlands.
If Joe knew, he probably would have sat on me until I saw reason.
She fired back a quick reply, switched the phone off and condemned it to spend the next eight-hours forgotten in the bottom of her bag. But she didn’t remove her hand straight away. Involuntarily, her fingers sought the rectangular box that she had placed so reverently in the bag the night before. It was inconspicuous; a wooden pencil case that her uncle had always kept with him. If she closed her eyes, she could still see him, sitting on the stool positioned just inside his tent, using his penknife to sharpen the pencils as the endless Egyptian desert stretched out behind him.
I’ll do what I promised, Uncle Lamb.
‘…Our crew are making the final preparations and we should be leaving Kings Cross shortly. On behalf of LNER, I’d like to thank you for travelling with us and hope that you have a pleasant journey.’
Claire checked her watch for the hundredth time, gave a cursory glance out of the window, and settled back into the chair. A few minutes passed and then the whistle blew, signalling the train to leave the station. It gathered speed and soon, the concrete towers that lined the tracks were passing in a grey blur as London was left far behind.
An anxious excitement settled over her. By the end of this day, she would finally, hopefully, have the means to be able to change her life. To be able to have something that was hers and hers alone. To find a place where she belonged.
She would finally be free.
‘Aye, tis me, Annalise. Are ye all right? Is there something wrong?’
‘Non. Oui. Something's happened…’
‘What? What's wrong?’
‘Jamie. I am just so heureuse, mon cheri. But it's la destinée, Jamie. Zat is what it is.’
‘What are ye talking about? What's destiny?’
‘I met zis man. Zis apparition. Zis…Dieu.’
‘I have never felt zis way before. Like I could do anything.’
‘What? What are ye saying? Annalise...are ye...’
‘I am not coming back to Paris, mon cheri. Je suis amoureux. I am sorry, Jamie. Je suis vraiment désolé.’
He jerked suddenly awake.
The dream had come upon him like the nightmare of hellish memory that it was. Annalise. The woman he loved and who he thought had loved him in return. Annalise, who, only four days before, had told him that she had fallen on love with another man.
Remembering that was like a ferocious kick to his gut all over again.
Shifting in his seat and needing to be distracted, Jamie found himself watching the Sassenach. Engrossed in a slightly battered, clearly well-read paperback, black-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, she barely moved except to turn a page or to push back a curl behind an ear or to smile in amusement at a line or passage.
He looked away before she could catch him staring. He took his phone from his pocket, noticing with dismay that only two hours had passed since the journey had begun, and began scrolling through the podcasts…
“Are you feeling any better?”
She had spoken so suddenly that he jumped a little and she offered him a small apologetic smile.
She nodded. “Do you take anything for it? Pills or such?”
Her eyebrow raised slightly. “I see. So, you’re a suffer in silence type then, I assume.”
“As ye say.”
She fell silent and Jamie went back to scrolling through his playlist.
But less than a minute later, he felt her turn in her seat to face him. “Can I ask you a question?”
He shrugged a shoulder in response.
“Do you like liquorice?”
Jamie frowned. “Do I like…?”
“It’s only that liquorice can help with settling the stomach,” she continued, reaching down into her bag in search of something. “My Uncle Lamb swore by it and I got into the habit of carrying some around with me.”
A small tin emerged, and she flipped the lid to reveal several black lozenges.
“It might just help.”
He stared at the offered tin for a second before raising his gaze, slightly confused. She inched the tin closer, eagerly nodding her head. He hesitantly took one of the small boiled sweets and sniffed it, causing her to laugh.
“They are quite safe, I assure you. I made them myself…a sort of hobby of mine.”
Jamie had heard of such a remedy before and she seemed harmless enough. Despite his doubts, he popped a sweet into his mouth and smiled. “Thank ye.”
“Thank you for humouring me.” She grinned warmly, closing the tin and offering it to him. “You may as well have the rest.”
He accepted the gift with a brief nod as she returned her attention back to her book.
Falling back into silence, Jamie sat and contemplated. The sweet seemed to be working, as the pitch and toss of his stomach began to settle. For the first time since his journey began, he wasn’t feeling quite as sick. That was until the carriage shook as another train passed by. Then his stomach rolled as though it had just been tossed into a washing machine on its final spin cycle.
“May I try something else? Something a little…unconventional, perhaps?”
He glanced nervously at her. She was again facing him but was now holding out her hand, palm up.
“What do ye have in mind, lass?”
Jamie gaze narrowed. “Ken a little something about it then?”
“A little,” she replied, motioning for him to give her his right hand. “To be fair, acupuncture would probably be better. But, seeing as I don’t have the needles to turn you into a pincushion with me, applying pressure to the nei-kuan will have to do.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Jamie placed his hand in her care. Her fingers were slim and cool to the touch as she pressed down on his exposed wrist. “Why don’t you tell me something about yourself.” She said after the five seconds were up.
Jamie tilted his head as he reached his arm across to allow her to do the same on his left wrist. “Like what?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Something daft perhaps?” She leaned in closer and he blinked; he had been wrong to think her eyes were brown for they were the exact same shade of the finest whisky. “Call it a distraction.”
“Ye want to distract me?”
She shrugged. “It might help. It might not. Only way to know is to give it a go.”
Dinna have much to lose, I suppose.
“I once hid in the back of my Da’s truck to escape having to do chores. Fell asleep and woke up sometime later being jostled down to market wit’ a whole load of chickens sitting on my chest.”
Her mouth twitched. “That must have been terrible for you.”
“Oh, aye. Chickens are very poor company.”
She caved and smiled. “Keep going.”
“A few days ago, the woman I love decided to leave me for another man.”
He stilled. Iffrin! Why did ye tell her that, man?
Jamie chanced a glance at her. She was watching him carefully, her expression thoughtful. “What is her name?”
“Annalise.” Jamie tapped his phone screen, bringing up the picture so that he could show her.
“She is beautiful,” she mused after a moment of scrutinising. “But her chin looks a little weak.”
“It does no’,” he growled as she bit her lip to hide her smile.
“So, is she the reason why you are on this train?”
She nodded. “Would you tell me about her?”
He found himself doing just that. From their first meeting through to the day he had asked her to move in with him. How they had rented an apartment together on the outskirts of Paris and how he had started to think about marriage and children. He had even started putting money aside for their future. But then, she had crumbled those dreams into dust.
“I thought it was a mere passing folly." He said, twirling his water bottle about in his hands in agitation. "But then, yesterday, she sent me a message to say that they were getting marrit.”
She brow furrowed. “That’s certainly made things trickier.”
"So what are you going to do?"
The question gave Jamie pause. “I dunno. Convince her otherwise, I suppose.”
“And if she doesn’t want you back?”
He looked away, staring out of the window as the train slowed in its approach into York. “I’m hoping that will no’ be an option, Sassenach.”
“What did you call me?”
The man beside her blushed and Claire notched it up to another thing she found charming. She had spent quite a bit of the last hour staring at him; his was a strong and good-humoured face, with slanted cat-like eyes, high cheekbones, a straight nose, and wide mouth. She had admired how gracious he was towards this Annalise, and it was clear that he was very much in love with her. And she could admit to feeling attracted to him, safe in the knowledge that he could do no further damage to her heart than that.
“Sassenach,” he declared nervously, his blue eyes blown wide. “It only means ‘outlander’ or English person, in the Gaelic. I meant no offense by it, ye ken.”
“Says the Scot living in France,” Claire teased. “I take no offence.”
He smiled in relief. “I dinna suppose ye have an actual name for me to call ye instead?”
She held out her hand in greeting. “Claire.”
“Jamie.” He replied, engulfing her hand in his.
“So, Jamie, what is your plan?”
He let go of her hand and sighed. “Are ye no’ willing to let it go, lass?” he muttered uncomfortably.
“Not unless you come up with a more interesting subject.”
The whistle blew to announce the trains departure and without hesitation, Claire took hold of his wrist. She repeated the acupressure as before, leaning over his hands as she waited for him to continue.
“Do ye believe in love?”
Claire sat back and pondered her answer. “I loved my uncle.”
He scowled. “Family does no’ count. The question is do ye believe that two people are meant for each other?”
“But that’s a question for someone who believes in fairy tales, Jamie.”
He cocked his head. “Do ye no’?”
“Once…perhaps. But no, not any longer.”
“Can I ask ye why?”
“Well…I was married once. To a man who I thought loved me the way I loved him.”
She had hoped that Jamie would press her no further on the matter of her ex-husband. But instead, the bloody Scot leaned back in his chair and nodded for her to continue.
And so Claire told him of her marriage to Frank Randall, a History professor in Oxford who was ten years her senior. Of how he had swept her off her feet at nineteen before making her the perfect professor wife. Of how she hadn’t known he had taken charge of her inheritance until she was twenty-four. Desperate to regain back her independence, she only then discovered what he had done.
“He’d spent most of it, of course. On expensive holidays and jewellery for his many, many mistresses.”
“Mac na galla!” Jamie growled, making a rather distinctive Scottish noise in the back of his throat.
Claire had no idea what he had said but, judging by the way he spat the words out, she was quite sure she would have approved. “I walked out with nothing more than the clothes on my back, and the name of a bloody good divorce lawyer.”
By now, the train was pulling into Newcastle. Claire watched the people disembark; some sauntered off in the direction of the exit, others ran frantically to catch another train. Then there were those that were reuniting with loved ones, joy erupting on their faces as they hugged. Watching them, Claire felt a twinge of something akin to longing.
“If ye dinna mind me asking, how long have ye been divorced?”
“Two years.” She replied with a weak smile, bringing her attention back to him. “Frank didn’t wait around once the money was all gone. He remarried about a month ago, to someone far richer. They’ll make each other miserable of course, but until then they are spending the summer in their newly built Tuscan villa.”
Jamie shook his head in disbelief. “And what of ye, Sassenach? What are ye doing now?”
She smiled. “I am going to Inverness to meet with someone who might be able to help me put a plan together. A plan to find me a little stone cottage somewhere very remote and as far away as possible from all the Frank Randall’s of this world.”
“And what will ye do once ye find that wee place?”
“Grow a vegetable garden,” Claire sighed whimsically. She could see it in her minds eye; the garden would be a place of calm, somewhere she could retreat to where the bees hummed amongst the bright flowers and herbs she would grow alongside the endless beds of ripe fruits and golden vegetables. “Buy a goat and a mule and a big, white sow. Live a quiet and peaceful life with nothing around me but mountains and endless sky.”
A small smile tugged at the corner of his wide mouth. “And would ye be content with that life, Sassenach?”
“Aye!” She mimicked him, her attempt at a Scottish accent poor. “Content and ridiculously happy.”
A look of sadness passed over his face. “Just as Annalise and I were.”
“And will be again.” Claire quickly corrected. “I do have to ask though – are you going to Inverness so that she can break your heart again, only this time to your face, or are you going to duel this new lover-“
“Dinna call him that.” Jamie growled in interruption.
“Alright,” she conceded. “This utter bastard. He’s probably not going to simply let you swan in and be off with her, am I right?”
“Do ye no’ think I could change her mind then, Sassenach?” he asked crabbily, seeming to not like what she was implying. “I so could. I would remind Annalise of the life we were building together. Our perfect life. We were happy, ye ken.”
Claire felt her face scrunch up in disgust. “Whenever someone says they are happy, my arse starts to twitch.”
He clearly chose to ignore her flippant remark as he ploughed on saying, “We had plans for a home, to be marrit and to start a wee family of our own. I would remind her of those things.”
“And she was obviously very attached to them,” Claire commented dryly. “Look, Jamie, I’m not saying that it isn’t possible, but surely you don’t want to go into this battle blind?”
“I’m no’ going into battle, Sassenach.” He said in growing frustration. “I dinna need a strategy, or armour, or bullshit to win her back.”
“You know, a little of all three might come in handy.”
“Ye ken nothing of it, Sassenach. So leave it be, aye.”
With that, he turned away from her, putting a stop to all subsequent conversation and apologies by putting his earphones back in his ears.
And it wasn’t until the train was nearing Edinburgh, and Claire had resigned herself to feeling ashamed for the rest of her life, that Jamie suddenly twisted in his seat to face her. “I’m sorry, Sassenach. I ken ye were only trying to tell me that it will no’ be easy. I’m just afraid, ye ken.”
Claire lowered her book – she had only been using it as a shield to surreptitiously watch him from behind anyway – and asked, “Afraid of what, Jamie?”
He lowered his head so that she couldn’t see his expression clearly. “Of no’ being good enough.”
With a small cry of compassion, Claire gently pressed her palm to his face and forced him to meet her gaze. “You are more than enough, Jamie. And if Annalise doesn’t know that by now, then she may not be the one you fight for.”
“What do I do?” He sounded so lost that he came perilously close to breaking her heart.
“You remind her of what she is missing.”
“This is the Thistle Bank Hotel, not some run down old guesthouse.”
“I ken that,” Jamie muttered darkly. It was taking all his strength not to lean across the desk and punch the man square between his small, pig-like eyes. “All I’m askin’ is if ye could be so kind as to tell me which room Annalise de Marillac is staying in. Please.”
“I’m afraid that I canna do that.”
“No, sir. Perhaps, if ye used the courtesy phone…?”
Jamie felt his left eye twitch. “I’ve tried that, but it keeps saying ‘Do No’ Disturb’. Look. I’ve just spent eight hours on a train. I’m tired and I’m hungry, and I just want to see my girlfriend. Now, are ye gonna help me or no’?”
The man gave him an insufferably sweet smile. “Sir, tis my duty as concierge to safeguard the privacy of my guests. And if my guests need safeguarding from their own partners, then so be it.”
Taking a deep steadying breath, Jamie was about to try and be thoroughly unreasonable instead when he heard a woman’s laughter carry over the din of the other guests voices. Her laughter. A throaty French sound that was like a sword to his still uneasy stomach.
“But where are we going, mon coeur?”
Jamie turned slowly. She was as breathlessly beautiful as always, her blonde hair like liquid gold down her back. He had not seen her in a nearly two weeks; had not felt her arms around him or the touch of her lips against his skin. But those arms were currently wrapped around another man’s waist as her perfectly red mouth pouted to be kissed.
“First to ze Isle of Skye to be married,” – Ah Dhia! He was French too! - “And then on to ze Riviera where we can warm our naked bodies on my yatcht…”
The world slowed around Jamie. He heard no more than the buzzing in his ears as he watched Annalise walk by him. He reached out to her, but it was as if she was a shimmer of smoke that just passed through his fingers. She was laughing, her blue eyes as bright and sparkling as the diamond on her finger. Black spots danced across his vision. His breathing shortened. He stood rooted to the spot as he watched them head out of the hotel and into a waiting limousine. He blinked. And all the blood rushed to his head in an instant.
‘What on earth happened?’
‘Has someone called an ambulance?’
‘He just went down. One minute he was standing and then…’
‘Would no’ expect that of such a big fella.’
‘Jamie? Can you hear me?’
Cool hands pressed against his cheeks and forehead, fluttering across his skin like the touch of butterfly wings. He became aware of his surroundings all at once; the shrill of a telephone, several different voices all speaking at once, the sweet smell of herbs…
“Yes, Jamie. I’m here.” Her soft voice, tinged with relief, called him onwards. He sluggishly opened his eyes and found whisky staring directly back.
“Are you hurt at all?” Claire asked, placing an arm around his shoulders to help him sit up. There was a murmur of discontent, but she brushed their empty concerns aside. “He just fainted because he hasn’t eaten anything all day.”
“Mistress? Is there anythin’ I can do?”
“Yes. You can fetch me a wet cloth, some water and a warm bowl of soup. With non-buttered bread. And then, perhaps, you would so kind as to move all these people along?”
The concierge turned to shoo everyone along, leaving Jamie in her sole care. The palm of her hand was still resting against his cheek and, without any further thought, he raised his own to lay over it. “I’m fine, Sassenach. Truly.” He said, trying to reassure her as much as himself.
She didn’t look convinced. “Perhaps we should get you to your room, Jamie?”
He sighed sadly. “I dinna have a room. Someone has taken my room. Someone with an Armani suit and…and…”
He started to feel a little woozy again. “Oh, bloody hell,” he heard her curse as she helped him to stand and then sit in a nearby chair. “Here, sit. Breath in. Breath out. Breath in.”
“I’m breathing, Sassenach.” He said, shooing her hands away.
Her cool fingers were replaced by an even cooler wet cloth and a glass of water was placed in his hand. “Sip it slowly,” she instructed, pressing the cloth to his forehead while she watched him.
“Sassenach?” He whispered, drawing her attention to him. “What are ye doing here, lass?
He stared at her as she pushed a stray curl back behind her ear, lips twitching as it immediately sprung loose again.
“Would you believe me if I said that I missed you?”
She had left Jamie at the station, wishing him all the best with Annalise. As they had travelled from Edinburgh, they had talked out a plan, with Claire helping him sort through all he felt and wanted to say. It had seemed strange walking away from him because somewhere along in the eight hours they had spent together, they had become friends. Hell, she had told him things that even Joe didn’t know about.
She had headed straight for the small guesthouse close to the river where she had booked a room for three nights. The owner, one Mrs Baird, showed her to her room; it was plain but clean, with a single bed adorned with a beautifully embroidered forget-me-not blanket and a large chaise-lounge situated beneath the window. But once she had placed her breakfast order, Claire phoned her contact, only to be told that he had been called away on some urgent business to Skye. If she still wished to discuss the matter with him, he would be staying at the Pier Hotel in Portree and would be happy to meet with her there instead.
Frustrated, Claire booked a hire car and a room at the same hotel before taking a quick shower and wandering back into the city in search of food. She had no idea what possessed her to take the longer route, the route that led her by the Thistle Bank Hotel. But she soon found herself walking by it, noting the black limousine humming idly at the curb. She looked up in time to see a handsome couple stumble out of the hotel and straight into the waiting car, laughing and talking in rapid French. The woman threw back her golden hair which afforded Claire a glimpse of her face.
And the man she was leaving the hotel with, who she had ardently kissed before getting into the limousine, was not Jamie.
Without thought or hesitation, Claire all but ran into the hotel, spotting Jamie at the exact moment he crumbled to the floor like a felled tree.
“Ye missed me?”
Claire nodded, pulled from her memory. “Like a hole in the head, but still…”
She had meant to tease him, but as he looked so dejected, so small with his shoulders slumped in defeat, Claire immediately pulled him into her arms. She knew it was likely to be a wildly inappropriate thing to do, but she wanted to offer him comfort and therefore be damned of the consequences. She was surprised when, with a shuddering sigh, Jamie leaned into her. He pressed his face into the crook of her neck and wrapped his long arms around her to pull her closer. They sat there, hip to hip, in the foyer of the hotel, and simply held each other.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” she whispered into his curls.
Jamie whispered against her skin. “I saw them. Together. I dinna even get a chance to talk to her…”
Claire held him a little tighter. “Oh, Jamie. I am sorry. What do you want to do?”
“I dinna ken. Go back to Paris to wallow. Follow her to Skye…”
Claire pulled back in surprise. “Skye? Why there?”
He sniffed. “Tis where they plan to get marrit. I heard him say so as they left. I have a mind to go after her, but it’ll take an age by bus. I canna bear it either way, Sassenach.”
It couldn’t be that easy, could it? She wasn’t a superstitious person by nature, but even Claire had to admit that the coincidence was fortunate. And Jamie…well, he needed this. He deserved to have someone fight in his corner, if he needed them too. He was endearing and sweet and admirable. And I like him, dammit!
“Does travelling in a car have the same effect as the train?” Claire asked as casually as she could.
Jamie shook his head. “Tis no’ as bad. But I have to pull over more often than no’ and I canna go over fifty as my head pounds. Means back roads and twice the time. Why do ye ask?”
She didn’t answer straight away as the soup finally arrived. She insisted that he eat half the bowl, quietly delighted that he was beginning to look a lot less pale and drawn, before giving him her reply. “I don't suppose you be up for a little road trip, Jamie?”
Claire would always remember how his smile was bright enough to blank out the very sun.