There were two things on Jamie Fraser’s mind at present: what his sister could possibly be making for dinner, and the fact that he was an inch away from losing his job at the distillery he worked at. No matter what he did, no matter how carefully he chose his words and actions, he couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. Colum and Dougal MacKenzie, younger brothers to Jamie’s late mother, Ellen, had only tolerated Jamie’s antics because he was their favorite sister’s only son. Not to mention, the only one in the MacKenzie bloodline capable of running the business after they were gone. But that rope was slowly being unraveled as time went on.
As master mechanic for the big distillery machinery at Leoch Distillery Inc., it was Jamie’s responsibility to ensure everything ran smoothly. He was in charge of directing which men fixed what machines on any given day. Twice his actions had led to machine breaking that didn’t need to be fixed at all, and broken machines that were neglected to cause injury to someone on the distilling floor.
This latest visit to the CEO’s offices involved his cousin Rupert. One of their four main distilling barrels’ heating element mistakenly needed to be replaced, per Jamie’s misguided orders, but because it was fully functional, Rupert got a face full of hot steam, resulting in burns to his eyes. He was rushed to hospital and was expected to be okay, but had Jamie been paying attention to his own orders, it never would have happened.
“I’ve grown weary of yer careless actions, Jamie,” Colum said calmly but sternly from the chair behind a grand oak desk. “Yer cousin coulda been killed today ‘cuz o’ yer foolishness.”
Jamie couldn’t even look at his uncle; he was right. And the only reason why he even still had a job at all, wasn’t because he was Ellen MacKenzie’s only living son, but because despite his shortcomings, no one else in the company had the qualifications he did. No one could replace him. Assuming Uncle Colum wasn’t already searching.
His other uncle, Dougal, standing behind Colum, decided to speak up. “Jamie...yer a good lad, wi’ a big heart...but something’s not right here.”
Jamie looked up at this, startled. Usually, Colum was the calm one, and Dougal was bursting at the seams to shout someone’s head off. This was a strange role reversal if Jamie had ever seen one.
Dougal stepped out from behind the desk, towards Jamie, and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Whatever is buggin ye, it’s clearly interferin’ wi’ yer work. Ye’ve never been this accident prone. Why, ye’ve had the highest safety marks in the company’s history! But this last month...”
Jamie didn’t need either uncle to say anything. As if he needed to be reminded of his failures.
“I suggest ye go home and find yerself, boy,” Colum said with an air of spiteful reproach. “Gather yer wits about ye. Or else.”
“Aye, uncle,” was all Jamie could say before he started slowly making his way back towards his locker to change out of his work jumpsuit, gather his belongings, clock out, and make the three mile walk back to the farmland known as Lallybroch, his childhood home.
He didn’t usually walk home; normally Jenny, his older sister, would come by with the van to pick him up. Or her husband Ian would swing by in his truck on his way home from the local grocer he ran and they’d stop at the pub for a bite and a brew. But neither of them were waiting for him outside the distillery. Usually, that meant they were busy, and he would have to walk home.
It wasn’t too terribly far from Lallybroch. In fact, you could see the towering tops of the factory on the outskirts of Broch Mordha, the village just beyond the border of the farm. But Jamie took one look at the dark swirl of blackish gray clouds in the sky and wished he could still sprint like he did in school. It was going to start pouring down rain any moment, and all he had to hand was his trusty brown sherpa-lined corduroy jacket. Great for the harsh winters of Scotland, but did nothing but weigh him down when it rained.
Despite the threat of rain, he didn’t hear the first clap of thunder rolling in the distance until he was close enough to Lallybroch to see the top of the main house. A four-story castle-like tower house of white stone built by Jamie’s 16th-century ancestors, it shadows many landmarks around Broch Mordha. The farmlands had been subjected to many English threats to Scottish welfare, but survived and stayed in the Fraser family. When his father Brian died unexpectedly from a stroke three years prior, his will had stated that it was up to him and Jenny to decide who gained control of the sprawling estate. Jamie, as the only son left, their older brother having died when they were children, knew Jenny and Ian were expecting their second child at the time, and bequeathed the property and all its contents to them. Jenny was so taken aback by the gesture, that she balked at his mention of “finding a place elsewhere.”
“You will be doing no such thing, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser! Not while there’s breath in my body, I willna banish ye! Ye’ll stay wi’ us.” Jenny’s voice echoed in the back of his mind as Lallybroch became more visible beyond the trees. The woods that surrounded the property were vast and easy to get lost in if you didn’t know your way; a great deterrent for would-be criminals trespassing on the property.
And if Jamie hadn’t been paying attention to where he was going, he would have tripped over it and eaten dirt faster than he could spell his own name.
A shoe lay in the boggy wooded area. A woman’s clearly, given the size and shape, a loafer perhaps? Jamie crouched down, and reached out to pick it up. Peering at it, he noticed that the shoe was too big to fit his sister’s feet. And, besides the women he knew from work, he couldn’t think of any other woman who it could possibly belong to. And even if he could, why would any of them be out here, of all places?
Looking out, his heart stopped at the sight.
A young woman with thick wavy brown hair in a filthy, tattered dress laid sprawled out on the ground, limp as a rag doll.
His heart lurched at the sight as he scrambled towards her. As he got closer, he could hear moans of pain. Well that’s something good, he thought, at least she was alive.
“Mistress?” Jamie called out to the woman. But it was as if she couldn’t hear him. He called out again, louder this time. She jumped into a sitting position and scooted as far away from him as she could, a hand pressed hard over her heaving chest. “I’m sorry, lass, I didna mean tae frighten ye. Is this yers?”
He tentatively held the shoe out to her, and she snatched it back, trying and failing to put it on without untying the laces.
“Are ye hurt, ma’am?” Jamie asked cautiously, trying to get closer to her without startling her further. “I can call fer help if ye need it. My lands are just that way.” He pointed in the direction of Lallybroch, hoping the friendliness in his voice and calm stance were showing her he meant no harm.
She said nothing, just eyed him in suspicious contempt.
Jamie managed to get close enough to crouch back down, and looked her in the eyes. Sherry, warm whisky, aged to perfection. He couldn’t place an exact name on the colors, but those were the best descriptions he could come up with. “What is yer name?”
For the first time, emotion shown on the woman’s face. And it broke Jamie’s heart to pieces.
“I don’t know.”