“Why am I helping you?”
Jamie nodded, taking a swig of the ginger beer that Claire was making him drink. It tasted disgusting but it was settling his stomach well enough.
After finding him in the hotel, Claire had insisted that he spend the night with her. He had blushed profusely, much to her amusement and his increasing embarrassment. Promising that his virtue was quite safe with her, Claire had practically marched him to the guesthouse and had insisted he take a shower while she went in search of food.
They had eaten their dinner of sandwiches and root-veg crisps in companionable silence. She hadn’t pressed him further about the incident in the hotel and Jamie had been both relieved and grateful by that. His eyelids had drooped as they say watching a film and he had only been half-aware of Claire ushering him gently towards the bed. He wanted to protest, to insist that the chaise-lounge would be fine. But the moment his head had hit the cool pillow, sleep pulled him under.
The pale glow of morning light had lifted him slowly back into consciousness. He opened his eyes and immediately settled them upon Claire, still asleep beneath the forget-me-not blanket. She slept peacefully, her soft snores muffled by the cloud of curls that covered her face. His fingers itched to brush the curls aside, to expose her soft skin to the golden glow of dawn, but he resisted as her breathing changed. She shuffled onto her back, scratched a curl off her nose, and slowly began to wake…
“Because I like you,” Claire continued, deftly manoeuvring the car along the weaving Scottish backroads. “I do. And you deserve the chance to confront Annalise, and the utter bastard, your way. Without begging.”
“I dinna beg.”
She smirked, giving him the side eye. “No. You just fainted.”
Jamie huffed. “Are ye telling me ye would no’ do the same if faced with the one ye love? If no’ then perhaps ye have no’ found the right one, Sassenach.”
“Maybe he needs to find me.” Claire mused, slowing down to allow a random sheep to cross the road. “Or, better yet, we need to find each other. It’s not something I’m particularly bothered by, Jamie.”
Jamie shot her a look. “Ye ken what happens to people who shut everybody out?”
“They live quiet and peaceful lives?”
“No. They fester.”
“Aye, I’ve seen it happen. Ye’ll be one of those old folks, sitting in the corner of a crowded café, mumbling to yerself – ‘My arse is twitching. You people make my arse twitch.’” He teased, imitating her English accent.
Laughing along with her, Jamie dared a peek out of the window, his breath catching as a familiar signed flashed by. Before he realised it, he was asking, “Would ye mind making a wee detour, Sassenach?”
“Are you feeling unwell?” Claire asked, immediately sobering in her concern. She glanced at his face, quickly but thoroughly discerning if she needed to pull the car over.
Jamie shook his head. “No, lass. Just…somewhere I wish to see, tis all. If ye dinna mind?”
She nodded and happily followed his directions. Before too long, the village of Broch Mordha emerged from the treeline, the cottages adorned with a vast array of early summer flowers.
“It is beautiful here.” She sighed, cooing every time she saw a prettier cottage than the one before.
His gaze barely flickered. “Aye. I suppose.”
“You suppose? What? You don’t think that it’s beautiful here?”
Jamie shrugged. “I was born here.”
She peered at him, then back at the village, then back to him again, her eyes twinkling. “Really? But this place is so beautiful and so charming.”
Jamie took her playful jibe as a compliment. “It was too bonnie for me, lass. I had to leave.”
She quietened, occupied at least in finding a parking space close to the village green. Jamie climbed out of the car and took a deep, calming breath. It was all still here; the sights, the smells, the distant noise of the surrounding farms. Each one a distinct memory that took him back to the rose-tinted days of his childhood. He left her waiting by the car and made his way to the estate agents on the far side of the green. The bell above the door chimed as he entered and the woman behind the desk looked up. Glenna Fitzgibbons had not changed a bit in the decade since he had last seen her. Her hair might have lightened but her face was the same; full of cheer and good heart.
“Good mornin’ to ye.” She said, rising from her chair. Christ! She even sounded the same. “How can I help ye today?”
Her eyes narrowed at being addressed so informally by an apparent stranger. But then she drew nearer, and her face suddenly lit up in recognition.
“James Fraser!” She cried out in excitement. She was on him in a heartbeat, enveloping him in one of her warm hugs. Before, she had been able to tuck his head under her chin. Now, the top of her head barely reached his chest. “What are ye doing here, lad?”
“We are just passing through, Mrs Fitz.”
“We? Is that wee French lass with ye then? The one yer godfather mentions occasionally?”
“No’ quite.” Jamie muttered, unable to stop from glancing out of the window to where Claire was leaning over a nearby planter to investigate the flowers. “Tis a long story, ye ken.”
“Oh, aye.” Mrs Fitz’ gaze had followed his. “Sounds like an interesting one at that.”
“She’s a friend.”
“Since when is a woman like that just yer friend, Jamie?”
“Since her.” He insisted, uncomfortable under the scrutiny of her weighted gaze. He needed to change the subject and quickly, for his and Claire’s sake. “I was hopin’ to get a wee peek at Lallybroch, if ye still have the key.”
“Aye,” she said slowly, rounding the desk to open the middle drawer. She removed a large bunch of keys which she then handed to Jamie. “The current owners have little to do with the place. Have no’ even been since they purchased it.”
Nodding his head as he examined the large silver front door key, Jamie asked, “Do ye ken if they’re likely to sell?”
Mrs Fitz eyed him cautiously. “I can find out…if yer serious, that is.”
Was he serious? Jamie couldn’t say for sure. He twirled the key and found himself wondering if now would be a good time after all? Returning to Lallybroch was his dream, one that he had always envisioned with Annalise. But now, that dream seemed to be further away than it had ever been. He glanced up again, watching Claire as she wandered over to the gift shop to examine the postcards hanging from the door. All he did know for certain was that he wanted, no needed, to show her Lallybroch.
Jamie nodded his thanks to Mrs Fitz, promised to get the key back to her before too long, and left. Claire joined him and an hour later, the tires of the car were crunching over the loose gravel drive. From the moment she cut the engine, Jamie was out of the car to circle the three-story building. He winced as he noted that several of the roof slates had come away, no doubt exposing the attic space beneath to the notorious Scottish weather. But all the windows appeared to be intact, still boarded up to protect the glass, and the old stone broch from which the house took its name still proudly stood.
Nothing had changed.
“Beautiful. Gorgeous. Wish you were here!”
Grinning, Jamie turned to see Claire standing over by the paddock fence, staring out over the fields. “Poor you.” She continued, throwing him a look. “You had to grow up here.”
“Aye. Was hard, ye ken.”
“I’m sure.” She rolled her eyes and started towards the house. “Can I ask about why you left?”
“It was after my ma died. Da didna have it in him to keep up with the estate and the debts grew. The bank foreclosed the day I turned fourteen.”
She paused. “It must have been a difficult time.”
“Aye. We had to move to London. Da never recovered and he died the same year.”
Her eyes misted. “Jamie…”
“Dinna fash, Sassenach.” He said, shrugging. Christ! If she started to cry, I probably won’t be able stop crying myself. “It dinna hurt as much as it once did.”
She nodded in understanding. “Come on then. Show me your old room.”
Claire couldn’t seem to suppress her excitement as they explored the house.
She had always loved old buildings, a fascination no doubt fuelled by Uncle Lamb’s enthusiasm for spending weekends showing her around them. Growing up, she had been intrigued by their form and function, and so it seemed inevitable that she chose to become an architect. She began her studies but her marriage to Frank, and his stanch belief that she didn’t need a profession, saw her only complete her first year.
But since her divorce, Claire had found her way back to her studies.
Jamie’s childhood room was at the back of the house, and through the narrow slit of light between the two boards covering the window, Claire could see over the paddock and stable building beyond. The room itself was void of any familiarity; nothing more than white walls and a wooden floor. There were traces of the old room in the single metal bedframe, the writing desk and the wonky chest of drawers. But of Jamie, there was nothing of him still there.
He was standing in the doorway, leaning up against the frame as he watched her roam. On Claire’s part, she was doing her absolute level best not to notice him or his biceps. Or the leanness of his hips. Or the way his t-shirt had ridden up just enough for a slither of skin to show above the belt of his jeans.
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ! Is he trying to kill me?
Turning away so that he couldn’t see the faint blush staining her cheeks, Claire paused by the desk, running her fingers along the edge of the wood. She recalled a similar one in her uncles house, positioned opposite his in the study so that he could make sure she did her homework. It had been one of the first things Frank had thrown into the skip when he remodelled the room for his own use. With a sigh, Claire felt along under the rim until her fingers grazed the catch. She pressed it and lifted the lid, revealing the shallow compartment beneath. Just like the rest of the room, it had been cleared out, save for a medium sized curiosity box that had been purposefully left behind.
She felt Jamie at her shoulder as he peered over. With a low chuckle of delighted surprise, he reached by her to lift the box out.
“Tis a project I did a long time ago.” He explained, blowing the dust off and up into the air. Claire closed the lid of the desk and stepped aside to allow him room beside her. Jamie placed the box back down and opened it to reveal ten small clear bottles, each filled with what appeared to be dried herbs, flowers, or berries. There was also a much larger bottle that held a familiar looking amber liquid.
“I had the intention of making something of the land here when I was a lad, and this wee box was just the beginning.”
“How?” she whispered, staring up at him.
“I’ll tell ye,” Jamie grinned as he uncorked the larger bottle and Claire caught the faint scent of an aged whisky. “But first, I need ye to sniff this.”
Leaning forward, Claire inhaled deeply. “It smells like whisky.”
“I think ye can do better than that, lass.”
She smiled. “All right. It smells…of a bold cask seeped in sophistication but lacking in pretension. Don’t shake your head at me, Jamie!” – she laughed along with him – “What am I supposed to smell?”
Jamie cleared his throat. “Whisky is a lot like the land itself. It absorbs the nutrients from the soil, from the plants that grow, from the water that flows. It is what it encounters.” He uncorked one of the smaller bottles and handed it to her. “Now smell this.”
“Rosemary.” She stated clearly and he nodded, uncorking another. Claire frowned in concentration as she took a sniff. “Is it a kind of mushroom?”
And so it went on, until Claire had smelt every bottle in turn and was practically glowing under his praise. He was a patient teacher, allowing her to recognise the scents in her own time.
“All of these scents, they are true to here, to the Highlands.” Jamie concluded, recorking the last of the bottles. “They are all in the ground around Lallybroch. Now, close yer eyes and smell the whisky again.”
She did as she was told, peering at him from over the rim of the bottle “The heather. I can smell that straight away and…the third bottle along the top row…lavender?” - Jamie gave her an encouraging nod - “That’s incredible, Jamie. And you made this?”
“Then why did you leave it behind?”
“Figured I would no’ need it in London.” He closed the box and Claire felt his sadness. He looked down at her and smiled, his blue eyes shining as he asked, “Would ye like to see the rest of the farm?”
Eagerly, Claire followed him out of the house and across the cobbled yard to where the fields that dipped and rolled behind the house were overgrown with weeds. Jamie walked a few feet ahead as she came to a stop, watching him as he crouched down to inspect the loose dirt.
“All of this land has been in my family for over three-hundred years. It is who the Frasers are; the Lairds Broch Tuarach. But to make something great, ye must have the soul of a gambler. Which means that ye sometimes have to lose.”
Claire nodded. “Your father…?”
“Was a gambling man, Sassenach. Ken what he was doing. But his heart…his heart was lost the moment my ma died. I had always hoped to buy back Lallybroch one day. I wanted to raise bairns upon this earth, have something to pass down to them. Even managed to put enough money aside to go against a mortgage.”
“Could you still not do it, Jamie? Come back and breath life back into this place?”
“Annalise.” Jamie said, as though her name could explain everything. Claire inwardly smarted with jealously. “She said she dinna want to leave France and could no’ see herself as a farmers wife. So…”
“You’re never going to take the gamble then?”
Jamie stood slowly, turning to face her. She had watched him gaze over the land with pride, seen how he took the smallest pleasure from every root that grew. Would he be so willing to throw away that longed for dream to chase a woman who might not even want him anymore?
Claire glanced back at the house and wondered how it would feel to call this place home. To be enveloped in the warmth of family and burning hearth. To wake up each morning knowing that she has a place to call her own. She looked back at him and smiled sadly. “If I could have all this? Yes. I would gamble and a whole lot more.”
“So ye’d risk everything for this? Ye’d get on yer knees and beg?” - Claire nodded - “What makes ye so different from me in the end?”
Understanding dawned on Claire, seeing the direction he had taken her. In many ways, they were similar; both driven by need and want and desire. She drew a long breath. “Okay. I’ll admit it. But only on two conditions.”
“What does Lallybroch mean?”
The blue eyes danced with merriment. “‘Lazy Tower’. On account of the tower leaning, ye ken.”
“And Broch Tuarach?”
He leaned forward, conspiratorially whispering, “‘North-facing tower’.”
Claire frowned. “That makes no sense. How can it face north when the tower is round, Jamie?”
He grinned then, taking her hand in his as they walked back to the car together. She wondered if her was aware that he had done it. “The door faces north, Sassenach.”
They had returned to Broch Mordha, dropping the keys back to Mrs Fitz before Jamie insisted on buying lunch. They had chatted easily, the conversation flowing between them just as naturally as it had done since they met on the train the day before. Jamie relished in making Claire laugh, secretly delighting in the way her smile tugged at his heart.
As they drove across the Highlands, following the A87 around Loch Ness and on towards Kyle of Lochalsh, Claire had insisted that he tell her everything he knew about Scotland. The road hadn’t been easy on his stomach, but Claire had been more than happy to pull over whenever he needed, wandering off to take pictures before coming back with a hundred more questions. Jamie had been as happy to indulge her, telling her the old names for the rocky outcrops, hills and fields and rivers, of the traditional stories he grew up with, and of the legends and folk tales that were the core of the Highlands and its people.
By late afternoon they had reached the place where the three lochs of Duich, Long, and Alsh all converged, overlooked by one of the most picturesque castles in all of Scotland. Parting ways briefly, Jamie returned to find her sitting on the low wall that bordered the water, her feet dangling over the lapping waves beneath. She was staring pensively out towards the mountains, the gentle breeze catching up in the curls that refused to be tamed. It wasn’t for the first time that Jamie noticed the colours of her hair and that he had been wrong to think of it as brown. Rather, it was like the water in a burn, where it ruffled over the stones; dark in the wavy spots, with bits of silver on the surface where the light caught it.
Mo nighean donn.
He perched on the wall beside her, offering her one of the drinks he had managed to precure from the café. She gratefully accepted his offering and shuffled over to allow him to sit more comfortably beside her.
“I have a question.”
Jamie rolled his eyes. “Have ye not run out of yer wee questions yet, Sassenach.”
“No.” She grinned, taking a sip of her tea. “This one is about Annalise.”
“What are you really afraid of?”
He blinked. “I dinna ken what ye mean, lass?”
“With Annalise. What has you so afraid that you are chasing her?”
Now he really was confused. “Why would ye ask me that?”
Claire took a deep breath. “It’s only…she humiliated you once and still might again. Personally, I would be afraid of that but you…you are quite prepared for it. And I don’t understand why.”
Jamie thought for a moment, fingers tapping against his thigh, then smiled sadly. “I guess…I’m afraid that if she does no’ come back, it’ll hurt so much that I’ll shrivel up and never be able to love again.”
Claire hung her head but not before he saw that her eyes were bright with unshed tears. She reached out and took his hand, cupping it between her own upon her thigh. His heart skipped and then started a new rhythm, one that he was sure would echo her own.
“You begin to forget, after a time.” She whispered, her thumb rubbing across his. “First, you forget their chin. Then their nose. After a while you struggle to remember the exact colour of their eyes. And one day you wake, and they are gone. Their voice, their smell, their face. They will have left you completely. And you can begin again after that.”
“Are ye thinking of Frank?”
“‘There is no evil angel but love.’” Claire quoted, raising her head.
Jamie tightened his hold. “I dinna think I could do that, forget so easily.”
But he wasn’t talking about Annalise.
In the two days since they had met, Jamie was finding that he was getting used to Claire. Of the sound of her voice, the touch of her hand. He wanted to know what she thought and how she felt about everything. Standing beside her at Lallybroch, seeing the way her eyes had shone with possibilities that reflected his own wants and wishes, he had felt something stir within him. A deep pull that he had never felt with Annalise. And when the realisation hit him, it wasn’t a lightning bolt. Or a thunderclap. But rather a sudden knowing.
He wanted Claire more than he wanted anything.
“No. No, I don’t suppose that you could.” Claire was saying, watching him thoughtfully. Then, she cocked her head and smiled. “I will help you get your Annalise back, if that is what you want.”
Jamie blinked. “What are ye thinking?”
“I am thinking that I want her to be tempted by you,” she said carefully, letting go of his hands. “To feel like, even though you are right there in front of her, she can’t have you. I want her to be reminded of what it is to want you.”
He licked his lips and asked, “Is that all ye want, Sassenach?”
She stared at him. “Jamie. I want you…”
His heart tripped, skipping a beat. Or maybe three. It could have stopped altogether for all he cared. “Ye want me…?”
She paused. Opened her mouth only to close it again immediately after. The whisky-eyes blinked, confusion giving way to disbelief. Then they flickered back to the water so that he couldn’t see what she was thinking.
“I want you to be happy.” She muttered vaguely into her tea. “That is all. You deserve to be happy after all of this, Jamie.”
Claire was a fool!
She had been so close to confessing. So close to admitting to feelings that she had thought long buried beneath hurt and disgrace.
It had come upon her gently, the sense that Jamie meant more to her. There probably wasn’t a defining moment but rather a series of them, all bleeding into the other until it became her own life’s blood.
And yet, confessing would have done her no favours. Jamie was so clearly in love with Annalise that saddling him with her sudden truth would have only made things awkward. Claire didn’t want that. She wanted to still be able to look him in the eye, to stand beside him and give him the power to win his love back. She had promised to help him and if that meant cutting out her own heart along the way, at least she had been given a reason to have it beat again in the first place.
She and Jamie reached Portree by early evening. The small town, the capital of Skye, was bustling with tourists, especially down by the harbour as they enjoyed the last of the late summer sun. Luckily, Jamie was able to procure the last room available and they had separated with the promise to reconvene somewhere for dinner in a few hours’ time.
Instead of retreating, Claire went in search of her contact.
His name was Raymond Grenouille and he had been a friend of Uncle Lambs. She had met him only once before, on the day of her uncles funeral. He was short in statue and barrel-chested, with slightly bulbous friendly black eyes that had reminded Claire of a frog. But he was one of the leading jewellery experts in all of Europe, and Lamb had always spoken so highly of him.
The small black eyes didn’t give anything away as he opened his door to her.
“Madonna!” He cried cheerfully, using the odd pet-name he had for her as he stepped aside to allow her into the room. “I am glad to see you here safe.”
Claire smiled warmly as he took her hand. “How have you been?”
“Very well. Very well indeed.” He let go and made his way to the small table by the window. He picked up a small white envelope which he gave to her. “The valuation you asked for, Madonna. The piece is worth a lot of money, so I find myself wondering how you came upon it?”
Claire took the envelope but didn’t look inside. “It came to me as part of a debt owed.” She explained, folding the envelope into her coat pocket. “A debt owed to Lamb.”
His expression softened at the mention of her uncle. “Indeed. Bring the item to me and I will transfer the money directly. By this time tomorrow, you will be a very rich young woman.”
Feeling hollow, Claire turned away but paused before leaving. “No-one knows I’ve been in contact with you, do they?”
Raymond shook his silver head. “No-one knows but us, Madonna.”
Claire swiftly nodded and left.
By the time she made it back to her room, her heart was pounding so quickly that she was sure it was going to burst out of her chest. She hurriedly closed the door and sunk down onto the bed, the envelope twisted between her fingers as she stared at the obscene number written within.
It was her future. There was no point feeling guilty about it.
With a shaking breath, Claire tore the envelope into pieces and prepared for dinner.
They were shown to their table, Jamie’s hand pressed gently into her lower back. Claire could feel the heat of him seeping through her jacket. He smelt of an intoxicating blend of sandalwood and lemongrass, and Claire was finding it terribly distracting. It took everything she had not to wail at the waitress as they were seated at a cosy corner table for two. Jamie helped her out of her jacket and she gasped, feeling the tips of his fingers brush against her neck.
“Are ye alright, Sassenach?”
“Absolutely.” She squeaked, mentally berating herself as he draped the jacket over the back of her chair. She waved her hand in the rough direction of the fairy-lights hanging in the window. “Just admiring the lights”
The waitress came to take their drinks orders, returning a few moments late with a large glass of the house red for her and a beer for Jamie. Claire buried her head behind the menu in a futile attempt to not stare at him.
Claire looked up in surprise. Jamie was staring wide-eyed at something, or someone, from across the room. As casually as she could and on the pretence of checking for something in her pocket, Claire glanced about.
And immediately saw Annalise and the utter bastard seated four tables over.
She turned back to Jamie, only to find him trying to hide behind one of the large trellises that formed partitions between the tables.
“Do ye think she can see us, Sassenach?”
Claire peered over, saw the pair of them get quite handsy with the other, and pulled a face. “It’s…unlikely.” She turned back to watch Jamie as he fidgeted, throwing anxious glances over at Annalise’s table. “Do you want us to leave?”
“No!” He said vehemently, shaking his head. “I…It’s just…what if she sees us?”
She settled back with a smile and shot Jamie a wink. “If she does, we’ll use it to our advantage.”
He stilled. “We will?”
Claire nodded. “In fact, I mean for her to see you, even if only briefly. Because then she will be wondering if she really did see you. Were you a phantom? Was her imagination playing tricks? I say we have a little fun and just when they start to look comfortable, you pounce.”
Claire raised her glass. “Get talking to her. Have her think that she is an idiot, a fool, a weak chinned, mindless - ”
“Tis enough.” He glowered at her. “I get the idea. What should I say?”
Claire sobered. This was where she was going to have to learn to live with only half a heart.
“You tell her that you love only her and that you want her still. As to the moment itself, you’ll know when it feels right. You’ll tell her, and that will be that.”