James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser was a couple of things.
But most of all, he was a grump.
There wasn’t much he could do about it. He woke up like this, as they say. Grumpy. Annoyed. Impatient. It was a combination of events that turned him into the person he was today. Things he couldn’t do much about, anyway. So instead, he embraced the grumpiness and went along with his days. Alone and at peace, on the Scottish estate he had called home since birth.
His days were divided into two: time at the knitting factory, and time taking care of the animals.
When he wasn’t running the family business along with his little team, he was milking the cows and gathering the eggs in the chicken coop. When he really had to, he would make the trip to the village — always as quickly as possible — before returning home. He’d spend his time reading, knitting, and listening to his countless records. Loneliness was his best companion, as it had been for the last few years now.
A couple of months ago, he finally started to rent the little house on the property. Not to make ends meet, but simply because he didn’t want to see it become abandoned and ruined by time. Plus, he didn’t have to do more than welcome the guests and leave some milk and eggs on the doorstep every Wednesday.
Social interactions with minimum effort.
When Jamie woke up that morning, he was far grumpier than usual. Given he had been woken up by the telephone ringing, it made sense to be, at least to him. The one day he had decided to sleep in, his plan went awry.
“Fraser speakin’?” he mumbled, his voice still hoarse with sleep and his eyes closed.
The person on the other hand was an overly enthusiastic American named Simon, calling to rent the cottage he had put up on one of those vacation rental websites a few months back.
“Yes, we’ll arrive in the early afternoon, most likely. We’re in from London so it’s not a very long flight.”
Nodding absently, Jamie noted something quickly in the notebook beside his bed and yawned silently. “Aye, ‘tis good for me. Whenever you arrive, I’ll be there.”
The call lasted approximately five minutes — too long for Jamie’s taste. And upon hanging up, the promises of new guests on his lands were very much confirmed.
When he hung up, he realized he didn’t have the exact time they’d be staying on the estate. Simon didn’t seem to know for how long the house would be needed but he assured Jamie that they would let him know upon arriving in Scotland.
Who was the “they?” he wondered.
Truthfully, Jamie didn’t really care. At all.
He’d be polite to welcome them and then ignore their presence until it would be time for them to leave Broch Mordha again and forget their existence just as quickly. Whoever they were, Jamie hoped they wouldn’t be too much of a pain in the arse.
Like every other day, Jamie checked on the animals and opened the factory before he had his daily call to Geillis to assure her he was alive and thriving. A childhood friend, they’d been like brother and sister ever since Geillis showed up in the garden and asked him to play hide-and-seek, fifteen seconds before telling him she was in love with his big brother, William.
Since then, they had been as thick as thieves.
There for one another in the good times and the hard ones. Holding each other’s hands through it all. They went through the same heartbreak when Willie passed, and it was comforting to know they had each other to talk to. Both understood the grief and the pain they were going through.
Geillis knew what kind of grump he was and had been since his loss. But she never pushed him away, quite the contrary. She was the only person who knew him well enough to know when not to bother him, as long as he promised to call or text at least once a day to tell her how he was doing.
The fellow Scot lived in the village but visited Lallybroch once a week or every other week, when her busy schedule as a doctor permitted it. Being the only generalist in town kept her rather busy.
After a quick breakfast of toasts and eggs with black coffee, Jamie always did the same thing. He’d go up to the cemetery to visit the graves of his beloved mother and brother. Both of them taken away from him sooner than he had ever imagined. The pain suffocated him all the time, and he learned to live with his head barely above water, but it was hard.
All he hoped was that one day, he’d wake up fully breathing again.
In the meantime, he’d go on with his life, one day at a time. Little by little, until he felt like himself again. Shielding the pain, as best as he could. Ignoring the hole in his chest or the way his ribcage seemed to be closing, crushing his heart.
He kept busy, which helped him avoid thinking about it all. Between the factory thriving and the work on the estate, with the guests and making sure all things ran smoothly, it was almost enough.
Sometimes, it would catch him off-guard, a constant shadow haunting him. Whenever that happened, he had to stop whatever he was doing and went back to the comfort of his home — a place too big for one person alone. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to sell it. He couldn’t bring himself to let go of the last piece that connected him to his mother and brother. To his roots. He owed it to them to keep the business going and the garden flourishing.
Some days, he didn’t want to get up at all; instead, he stayed confined at home in the dark, records playing loudly to shield the deafening noise of silence. Music soothing his anguish and worries. The voice of an angel rocking him blissfully.
He found solace in her songs and he had seen her live once, in Glasgow. One time that went by too quickly as he watched her on stage. Transfixed by her. By her stage presence — as if she owned it. It was her territory and she didn’t seem afraid. She seemed fearless and free, scratching her guitar while singing to thousands of people who were there, just like him, because her lyrics spoke to them.
Jamie would never forget the way goosebumps erupted on his skin the second her voice reverberated through the concert hall. He’d never forget the way her eyes looked through the crowd as if she was making sure to register every single face that came to see her.
He had been bewitched.
She was a siren calling the sailor to jump off the ship and into the sea.
He had never been one to believe that music could soothe a broken heart, and yet. Yet, whenever he listened to her music, to her voice, it didn’t hurt anymore.
For a brief moment, he didn’t feel pain.
That morning felt like any other morning at Lallybroch. The crisp air clung to his skin, trying to make its way under his tartan scarf while he walked back towards the house from the cemetery. However, he decided to go and collect the mail before going back in. He didn’t plan on getting out of the house again, given the cold temperature. He had forgotten about the guests arriving, too.
But before Jamie had time to reach the letterbox, his nostrils were assaulted by the vile smell of cigarettes, quickly followed by someone’s curses.
He saw her approaching, dressed in a thick woollen coat with a scarf wrapped around her neck and a knitted hat hiding the most part of her head. She was a wee thing, dragging her bags with one hand and smoking with the other. She didn’t seem to know where exactly she was going and altogether, the sight amused him.
Jamie walked over to her, observing her attentively. She had her back turned to him, up until he finally spoke:
“Smokin’ is no’ good for ye, lass,” he remarked, crossing his arms.
Slowly, the lass in question turned around and looked up at him. She didn’t seem all too pleased about his remark, her eyes widening.
He knew those eyes.
The shade of whisky, like liquid gold. The way her gaze threw him off was sudden and unexpected — like a blow to his guts. It caught him off guard, sending a shiver all over his body. A shiver he couldn’t attribute to the cold weather. He knew her...but from where? She looked like Elizabeth, and yet, she didn’t seem like the fearless animal he saw on stage, once. Plus, there was no way she’d end up lost on his estate. But the resemblance was rather uncanny.
Whoever she was, Jamie found himself unable to move. He couldn’t talk. Time seemed to have stopped.
“Not minding your business isn’t, either,” she retorqued, rolling her eyes.
“Ah, a Sassenach,” was the only thing that came out of his mouth. He silently cursed himself, trying to pull himself together and hoping she didn’t see his distress. Thankfully, his face had always been unreadable.
“I beg your pardon?” She looked at him, dumbfounded. “Do you think this is 18th-century Scotland or something?”
“Are ye lost?” He changed the subject quickly, crossing his arms to look more nonchalant. To be honest, he didn’t know what to do with his hands.
“Even if I were, I wouldn’t tell you.” The Sassenach ignored him and started to walk towards the little cottage. At that moment, Jamie realized she was most likely one of the guests he was expecting.
“Are ye the one who’s rentin’ that?” he asked, following her.
“None of your business, Braveheart,” she mumbled, blowing out some smoke, and he couldn’t help but smile. Thankfully, she didn’t see that.
“Ouch, actually ‘tis.” He pointed out, seeing her stop in her tracks. She turned around again and looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“No, it isn’t. Have a nice day, sir.”
“I’m sorry to disappoin’ ye, Sassenach, but ye’re rentin’ the cottage on my property which also means I’m the one rentin’ it to ye —”
“Oh.” He could read all the emotions on her face. As plain as day, like an open book. He was also very aware of how beautiful she was. Not an ounce of makeup on her skin, her cheekbones pink from the cold. Her lips plump and her cupid’s bow perfectly carved. He’d be lying to himself if he didn’t admit to wanting to kiss her.
“I dinna believe ‘tis ye I had on the phone this mornin’, it sounded much less posh and much more American.” His mouth flicked up into what seemed like a smile, something he didn’t even notice. “More friendly too –”
“No, it wasn’t.” She cleared her throat, her cheeks turning crimson with embarrassment.
“I’m James Fraser, lass.” He introduced himself, playing it cool and cold.
“I’m Claire Beauchamp,” she said in turn, finally really looking at him for the first time. The way she was looking at him wasn’t lost on Jamie. She was studying his features, the way he carried himself. He felt like she was undressing him on the spot and he rather liked that.
“Welcome to Broch Mordha, Claire.” The way her name rolled off his tongue so naturally actually surprised him in the most pleasant way. It was as if it had been created only for him to say, which was a rather odd thing to note upon a first meeting. Yet, there was just something about this lass.
Something he couldn’t explain.
He held out his hand to her and she shook it. He felt an electric stream going through his veins when their skin touched.
“Thank you, Mr. Fraser.”
“Ye can call me Jamie, lass.” He grew almost amused at the formality. No one ever called him Mr. Fraser.
“Let me get yer bags and show ye the cottage, aye? I’ll start the fireplace for ye.”
Before she could answer, he had taken her bags and was walking towards the house. The Sassenach quickly followed him towards the place that would be her residence for the next few weeks.
Jamie tried as best as he could not to stare at her. Pushing his grumpiness to the surface, he didn’t want to show her the way she threw him off. He felt like a small boy who had his first crush and didn’t know what to do about it.
She was here alone, with eyes that bore so much sadness that he wanted to gather her into his arms and never let her go.
That day, for the first time in a long time, Jamie felt air completely fill his lungs again.
That day was the first day of the rest of his life.