Claire leaned her head against the window as Jamie drove them out of Broch Mordha, taking the main road that led them out of the village and past the open fields. It was a perfect Saturday morning drive, the countryside green and lush, mottled with a kaleidoscopic array of wildflowers against the rollercoaster of hills and troughs sprawling as far as the eyes could see. She had no idea where they were heading to, only that Jamie had suggested some fresh air and a wee trek out into the open.
Earlier that morning, Jenny had barged in on them while having breakfast, stressed, looking out of sorts and almost close to tears. She'd revealed that a heavy storm was forecast this coming Thursday and projected to last throughout their wedding weekend with torrential rain, gale-force winds and flood alerts across the country. It had been a shock to hear the news, but Jamie and Claire had been more concerned about Jenny as she'd fallen back onto the chair, defeated after all the hard work she'd put into their wedding.
After they'd consoled Jenny and urged her to go back home so they could discuss privately how to sort out the mess, Jamie had suggested going out for a drive. Looking now at the scenery before her, it was hard to imagine there was a raging storm coming their way.
When Jamie pulled into a layby, Claire glanced at him. "Why are we stopping?"
His hand reached out and squeezed hers. "Ye're quiet. Ye havenae said much since we left home."
She gave him a small smile. "I've just been thinking."
"I understand the weather forecast is upsetting, but ..."
"No." Claire shook her head, stopping him mid-sentence. "I'm not upset." She stared straight ahead and looked at the view of the mountain before her. The hues and cast were breathtaking, a fusion of emeralds, greys, and purples, offset by the sky's cloudless blue. If her mum was still alive, this would be the scene she'd want to recreate. Shifting in her seat to look at him, she sighed. "After the highs and lows of this past year and what happened in London, the weather upsetting our wedding plans seem rather inconsequential, don't you think? This ..." she pointed out with a sweep of her hand, "...and you beside me is everything I could ever ask for. Honestly, I'm alright."
His head dropped back onto the headrest as he let out a relieved if not awkward laughter. "I thought ye'd be upset."
Claire thought back at how distressed Jenny had looked when she'd announced the bad news. She'd felt ungrateful that it hadn't bothered her as much, but Claire and Jamie hadn't been the ones who pushed for a lavish wedding. But still ... "I'm more concerned about Jenny. She's invested so much time and a lot of herself into planning."
"Ach, dinnae fash about it," he said, glancing at her. "She'll be back to her old self before ye know it. We can still go ahead with the wedding without the guests ...just family or reschedule. Whatever ye want. Either way, Jenny would be more than happy to take over the rein, and if anyone can improvise on such short notice, it would be her. She loves doing stuff like that, and it's what makes her happy."
"I know that," she said quietly. Smiling, she placed a hand over Jamie's. "But let's not talk about it for the time being. Whatever muddle lies ahead, we'll sort it out when it comes. It's a lovely day, so let's make the most of it. Unless the reason you took me out here is that so I can have a proper meltdown because of the sudden turn of events." She chuckled softly, wagging a finger at him. "Sorry matey, I have to disappoint you on that one ...not happening."
He grinned at her. "Actually, I wanted to show ye something," he said, restarting the engine. "I thought showing it to ye ahead of time should cheer ye up, but since we're here already, I still want ye to have a look at it and tell me what ye think."
She huffed out a breath. "If you're taking me to Invergarry Castle to tell me all about Clan MacDonell of Glengarry and the Raven's Rock, I've seen it all before with Annalise and know all about the history."
Jamie ignored her remarks. "Do me a favour and close yer eyes for me, Sassenach," he instructed, easing the Landrover back into the road. "I have a surprise for ye. Where we're going is better than all the castles in this area." He paused for a couple of seconds as if second-guessing himself. "Weel, at least I think so, anyway."
Claire snorted. "You know I don't like surprises."
"I know," he murmured. "But I'd like to see the expression on yer face when ye first open yer eyes and see my surprise. I have a very strong feeling ye're gonnae like it." He peered at her and gave her that look he often used when he wanted something. A perfect balance of boyish charm and gentle persuasion. "Please? Can ye do as ye're told for once?"
"Fine!" she replied, hiding a small smile. "But I think I've had enough surprises this year to last me a lifetime."
He blew out an exasperated breath. "Ye're a fine one to talk, lass. I mean, how many times have ye done something that made my heart stop. For example ...ye took a chance on me ... a highly complicated man, nearly got yersel' killed by a psychopath and just look at ye now; ye're sitting there calmly while our wedding plans are about to fall apart. I honestly thought ye were going to be upset."
She laughed out loud. "Admit it, Jamie. You wouldn't want to change anything that happened this past year, even the misguided things we do for love and the highs and lows."
He pulled a face as they reached a T junction. "I wouldnae either, but it would do me a world of good right now if ye would take pity on my heart and do as ye're told." He took a left turn and then growled, "Now close ye're eyes, woman, we're almost there."
Smiling, Claire did as she was told.
Claire felt the vehicle pull off the main road and then into a stop. She squirmed in her seat, itching to get out. "Can I open my eyes now?"
"No!" Jamie replied as he got out of the vehicle. "Stay put."
When her door opened, he unbuckled her seatbelt, scooped her into his arms with minimal effort and carried her out. "Now?" she squeaked.
"Patience, Sassenach, and keep yer eyes close," he muttered as he gently eased her onto the ground. The wind shifted, and she caught a whiff of fragrant flowers, freshly mowed grass and a faint scent of charcoal burning in a barbecue from afar. His hands gripped her waist, pulling her against him, and as her back met his front, he whispered in a warm minty breath against her ear, "Ye may look now."
Inhaling deeply, her eyes fluttered open, and her gaze settled on a grey stone house. She skimmed the expanse of the area and saw the property was detached from fields by a hip-level purple beech hedge, bordering a front garden filled with a stunning display of summer flowers, established shrubs, and spectacular views over Loch Oich and rolling hills. A grey nameplate hung next to the black wrought iron gate, with Fox's House inscribed in white lettering. Confused, Claire glanced up at Jamie. "Whose house is this?"
He didn't answer her question. "Can ye see us living here?"
Claire's heart skipped a beat as her eyes rested once more on the stone house. She'd pushed property hunting to the back of her to-do list, at least until they were back from their honeymoon, and she hadn't anticipated Jamie would actively search for one with everything happening in their lives lately. "It's for sale?" she asked even though she already knew the answer.
He smiled. "Let's just say my parents know the person who used to live here, and they've already moved to a smaller property."
She stepped away from Jamie to take in her surroundings and noticed the neighbouring houses were much further away. A carpet of wildflowers covered the nearby fields, and a walking trail forked out into the woods, the lake and linked to a path that led to the village of Broch Mordha, making it ideal for hiking trips. There was plenty of privacy and land, and the property looked big enough for a big family.
"When can we take a look at the insides?" she asked, whirling around to face him, excitement taking hold of her.
Jamie flashed her an amused grin. "How about now?"
"You have the keys?"
"No, but I've been told where they keep the spare one."
"Well, what are you waiting for?" she said impatiently.
Not waiting for a reply, Claire went ahead and pushed the wrought iron gate open and made her way to the wooden front door. Taking a deep breath, she waited for Jamie to find the spare key. As soon as he opened the entrance, she braced herself and stepped in.
She was greeted by an impressive panelled staircase painted in duck egg blue, drifting upwards and splitting into dual landings. To her left and right were pocket wooden doors that she presumed led to the reception, drawing room or study, but her attention was captured where the end of the hallway flowed. She followed the route that led her into a vast, rustic kitchen and dining area flooded with natural light coming from the sash and case windows with shutters painted in white. It had views to the rear garden and the woods beyond and could be accessed with the panelled glassed double doors. The room was quintessentially the hub of the home, with generous space, a wide range set into an exposed stone wall recess, butler sink, plentiful storage with handcrafted cabinetry and a massive oak dining table that sat eight. Off the kitchen was even a boot room, ideal for coats, wellingtons and a rain-soaked dog, and in the dining area, there's a log burner set into an original period timber and limestone fireplace. It was hardly en vogue, but every detail was so her and Jamie.
"I love it," Claire whispered, running a hand over the polished wooden countertops as she envisioned Jamie making his signature stews during the cold winter nights while she sat by the fireplace and read a book.
Jamie wrapped his arms around her waist from behind and chuckled. "I'm glad ye like it so far because if ye didnae, there's something in this house that will make ye change yer mind."
She tipped her head to the side to give Jamie's lips access to her neck. "Is that so?"
She felt him smile against that sensitive spot just below her ear. "This house comes with an annexed studio. It has fabulous views to inspire ye when ye start writing again. Ye can access it from a secret panel door that used to be a butler's pantry near the staircase."
"Shall we take a look then?"
Jamie took her hand and guided her back to the hallway to inspect the other quarters and every nook and cranny. The bright interior had a homely feel loaded with original fixtures, mouldings and oak timber flooring, exuding warmth and charm. Though the property was a period home, it had been lovingly restored to accommodate mod cons, and even the wood panelling had been introduced to the twenty-first century with dusty blue colours, perfect for hanging her mother's paintings. The first two rooms on either side of the front hallway could be made into a living area, study or perhaps a playroom when their baby was old enough, each space boasting an impressive fireplace. Charming as it looked, her mind began to scramble for ideas on how to babyproofed the rooms.
As if reading her thoughts, Jamie stared at the hearth and frowned. "It doesnae look very safe for our baby, does it?"
She placed a hand on his back and rubbed it in circular motions. "We can always ask your ma how to babyproof it," she suggested, not wanting him to be put off by some minor details. She already loved the house and was already mentally decorating the space. "Almost every room in Lallybroch has a fireplace, mind? I'm sure Ellen has a trick or two up her sleeve."
"Aye, that's true. It would be a shame to board up such a lovely looking fireplace."
Claire ignored Jamie's ghastly alternative and gazed out of the bay window. She saw the herbaceous borders and trees hugging the lawn and the interspersed shrubs and plants at the far end. There was plenty of room for a child to run about and play and perhaps, if she had time, grow their own vegetables and herbs.
Excitement, chased by dreams of the future, bloomed in her chest. This right here was an ideal family home, with or without the annexed studio, but ... She bit her lip and turned to face Jamie. "We need to sell the Oxford house as soon as possible if we're going to afford this," she blurted. "I, ah, haven't really been pushing the sale with all the stuff going on. But on the one hand, we could always put Southlodge up as collateral for a bank loan."
He walked over to her and smiled, kissing her forehead before pulling her into the warmth of his body. "What do ye take me for, Sassenach?" he murmured, tapping her on the nose with his index finger. "Ye think I havenae considered the finances before taking ye here?"
"What do ye mean?"
"We do not need to sell yer parents house to have this."
"But how? This property must cost a fortune."
"No' as much as a studio in London."
Jamie sighed. "Look, Sassenach. Between yer uncle's monetary wedding gift, money ma and da put aside for me and my savings, I have everything covered."
"I've got savings too, and John gave me an advance for my book. It's not much considering the cost of living in London these past years and all the travelling expenses. I'm not even sure how well my book will fare. But there's also money put aside for me by my parents, and the sale of Southlodge should ease ..."
Jamie ran the pad of his thumb along her lower lip, a tactic he always used to shush her up whenever she rambled. She sighed at his touch and swayed closer, extracting a smile of satisfaction to light his face. "I said I've got it covered," he said, winking at her.
"Unbelievable," she chided softly, awarding him with a smack on his arm.
"So ye really like this house?" he asked, running feather-light kisses on her neck. "Ye can imagine us living here? Making this our family home?"
Claire sucked in a breath, unable to concentrate, the stubbles on his jaw causing havoc with the skin on her collarbone. "Mmm? I thought I made that clear enough already."
"Tell me again," he murmured, his hands travelling down over her hips to squeeze the cheeks of her bum. "I want to hear ye say it."
"Very well then ..." Her breath hitched as he nibbled her earlobe. "I love this house, alright? What's there not to love? It's solid, it's beautiful, and it has loads of room for us to grow as a family, and I can see us living here and making it our home. Is that what you want to hear?"
"Pleased to hear ye say that, Sassenach." He pulled back to look at her. "It would have been a disaster if ye didnae like it."
She arched an eyebrow at him. "And why would that be?"
"Because this house is already officially ours."
She stilled, unsure if she understood correctly. "Wot?"
A slow grin spread across his face, seemingly proud of himself. "Ye heard me right the first time. I bought the house."
She stiffened. "This is not funny, Jamie. You better be joking."
He looked perplexed, his smile waning, replaced by a deep frown. "It isn't meant to be funny. Do I look like I was joking?"
Her jaw dropped as she looked at him with incredulity. "Are you serious?" She took a step back and crossed her arms across her chest. "You bought a house without consulting me?" She threw her hands in the air, unable to believe what she was hearing. "Jesus, Jamie! What were you thinking, and what makes you think that's alright? What would you have done then if I'd said I didn't like this house?"
"But ye like the house," Jamie said defensively. "Ye said so yersel'!" He reached out for her, but she dodged his touch. "Come on, Sassenach, dinnae be like this ..."
Incensed, she shook her head at him. "Oh no, you don't get to say that..."
"Hear me out first." When she involuntarily moved another step back, he sighed. "Please?"
She glared at him. "I don't know what you can possibly say that will make me feel okay about this."
He rubbed his face with his hand. "Alright, I think I handled this all wrong."
"You think?" she fumed. "You said we're a team, Jamie! Weren't you the one who was constantly drumming that into me? Buying something as important as a family home without my input is not what I would call teamwork. Teamwork means united action and effort, and that includes decision making. There was no collaborated decision in this, irrelevant of whether I'm happy about this house or not."
Pinching the bridge of his nose, he walked over to the fireplace and stood there, the muscles on his back appearing strained and tensed that Claire almost regretted snapping at him. After a while, what seemed like an eternity, Jamie let out a heavy sigh. "Ye're right," he said in a quiet voice. He spun around and closed their distance and just about stopped himself from reaching out to her. "I should have told ye. I'm so sorry."
She stared at the ceiling blinking back tears of mixed emotions she'd been having since the start of her pregnancy as she acknowledged her own overreaction. It had been a morning full of surprises, and with a wedding that could potentially be rescheduled, the last thing she wanted was to fight Jamie. He'd acted on his instinct when he'd seen this beautiful house, and if she was honest with herself, she probably would have done the same. This, where they were standing now, was a perfect haven she hadn't realised she'd been dreaming of, and attempting to see it from Jamie's point of view, it would have been almost a crime to let such an opportunity pass them by. His transgression had been to take that chance, and how many times had she taken uncalculated risks and driven Jamie bonkers because of it? After the bad news they'd received from Jenny, he'd only wanted to cheer her up by bringing her here which meant, their new home had been perhaps intended to be a wedding surprise.
This time, biting her tongue about impetuous decisions, she let out a few calming shaky breaths and stared at him square in the eyes. "Look, I'm sorry too for snapping your head off. I-I ..." She shrugged. "I was just taken aback by your action. It was so unlike you, and I was caught off guard and maybe felt a little hoodwinked."
"I didnae mean to ..."
Before she knew what was happening, he caught her chin in a firm grip and brought their mouths together as she reached and grasped his neck. Their lips met in a reconciliatory kiss, warm and familiar, quelling the annoyance she'd felt only a while ago. They forgave each other without words, their touches and kisses speaking for themselves until their need to surface for air broke the moment.
"Sassenach ..." Jamie spoke first as she attempted to even out her breaths. "It's true what ye said that my actions were out of character, but ..."
Claire placed a hand on his chest and shook her head. "No, Jamie, it's alright. It's done now. Let's move on, okay? I've had my rant, and it'll serve us no purpose going over it again."
"I have something to show ye though, so ye'll understand," he explained, caressing her cheek with a finger. "Allow me?"
Giving him a small smile, she nodded, letting him lead her back out to the hallway and steer her towards what looked like a simple decorative panel wall next to the kitchen entrance.
He pressed his hand on the surface, and the facade clicked open. When Jamie flicked on the light from the inside and Claire stepped in, she realised there was another set of stairs in front of her. It was only a short climb up to the next level, and when she reached the top, followed by Jamie close behind, there was a door that opened to a spacious natural light illuminated studio. Her quick inspection of the room revealed its own entrance from the garden, a kitchenette, a log burner, and a double glass door that opened to a small balcony, the back half of the floor including walk-in storage and a bathroom.
"It's a perfect place for my work," she remarked, feeling somewhat chastened now that she'd seen the studio. "And it's part of the house."
Jamie walked over to the desk against a wall and pointed at the canvas painting. "See this?"
Claire glanced at the artwork she'd overlooked. "What about it?"
"Your ma painted this."
"My mum?" She walked over to take a closer look. It was a painting of the rolling hills and fields outside, and though charming, it lacked symmetry, the shadows were all wrong, and there was something crude about the style. She looked at the signed initials at the bottom right and found out it was indeed her mum's work. Her mother must have been very young when she painted it because there was something amateurish about the artwork. "She stayed here before?" she asked, facing him.
Jamie nodded. "My decision to make an offer on this house in such rash fashion had to do with the story I heard about this annexed studio." He gazed at the artwork and smiled. "The owner, Reverend Wakefield, kent my family well. So when I mentioned our upcoming wedding and told him how this house would make an ideal home for a family, he asked who the lucky bride was. So I told him yer name, and lo and behold, he began making the connection and telling me the story of yer ma's and da's courtship. He said he offered yer ma to stay here in this very room after he'd heard she needed a place for the summer, but all the bed and breakfast rooms in the village had already been fully booked. So she stayed here and not very long after she moved in, yer da started to come and visit while she painted in the garden. And because this studio wasn't really for lets, but the good ol' reverend was kind enough to offer her a place to stay, she'd left this painting here as a thank you gift. After hearing that story, I knew I had to buy this property. I've never believed in coincidences, but I believe in fate, and I think we're meant to live here. Do ye see now where I'm coming from?"
Of course, it all made sense to Claire. Jamie hadn't bought the house on a whim. He'd bought it not only because it would be a perfect home for a family but also because he knew this house would make her feel closer to her mother.
"Well, it would be a lovely tale to tell our bairns one day," she said softly, giving him an apologetic smile for her earlier surly mood.
Taking her hand in his, he twined their fingers together and kissed her tenderly. "When our baby or other babies we may have, are old enough to understand, I want them to know of yer parents." He pressed his forehead against hers, his warmth and his heady masculine scent flooding her senses. "Yer da's presence has always been real to me, Sassenach. So real that I want to keep the memories of yer parents alive. And what a better way to do that than raise our weans right here where yer parents' love story began."
Tears burned her eyes as she thought back to the day when Jamie had proposed on her parents' bench against the backdrop of the Isle of Harris. She swore she'd felt their presence then. Jamie was right. Even though it sounded silly and superstitious, it seemed like her parents had always had a hand in helping her and Jamie find their way to one another or giving them a nudge in the right direction. Indeed what better way to keep their memories alive than by living right here where it had all began for them.
Wrapping her arms around his neck, she sighed, sharing breath and understanding. "I couldn't agree more, Jamie. I honestly couldn't agree more."
"Right, go take a shower," Claire ordered as soon as Jamie opened the door to the cottage. "I'll go and take care of Adso and Rollo's dinner."
He grinned. "Are we celebrating tonight?"
"Something like that," she mumbled as she put her bag and sunglasses on the table and made her way towards the pantry.
"Alright, but leave Adso's litter box. I'll handle it."
"Fine!" she called out. "Put on something nice. No flannel shirts and no dilly-dallying!"
Huh? what's wrong with flannel shirts?
Jamie frowned and wondered what the rush was. He'd never taken more than ten minutes to get ready for a night out. If anything, Claire should be the one having a shower first since it usually took her longer to get dressed. Shrugging, he left it at that and after dealing with the kitty litter box, he headed straight to the bathroom, stripping his clothes off and dropping them into the laundry basket.
Stepping under the shower, he turned the water to lukewarm and thought of their day earlier as he lathered shower gel over his body. After leaving Fox's House, they'd gone for a walk by the lake before feasting on a light lunch of roasted vegetable bruschettas at a waterside restaurant. It should have been a perfect afternoon if it hadn't been for Claire's phone constantly going off in the middle of their' future planning and salvaging their wedding' conversation. He'd wanted to suggest turning the damn thing off but had refrained himself, knowing her mood swings were unpredictable, and he'd already had one strike to his name when he'd mentioned buying the house without consulting her. In hindsight, he understood now why it had annoyed her, but he would probably have done it again in a heartbeat, although perhaps, a little differently.
When he turned off the shower, he was surprised to hear deep voices coming from the front of the cottage and Claire laughing out loud. He recognised his father's and Willie's and wondered what they were doing here. Quickly drying himself, he forwent taking a shave and put on a dark blue dress shirt Claire had bought and pair of black jeans. Jamie hoped their visitors weren't planning on staying too long. Tonight was his and Claire's date night, and though he'd planned a night in of movies and cuddles on the sofa, Claire wanted to go out, and right now, she needed to get ready and not entertain guests.
He walked out of the bedroom and straight to the kitchen and saw not only his father and brother but also Tom, Murtagh, Ian, Quentin and judging by a few more bodies standing about in their rear garden, there were some of his shinty mates too. They were all dressed up and reeked of perfumes and aftershave.
"What the hell?" He glanced at Claire, trying to find some answers, but she only smiled and shrugged.
"Are ye ready, lad?" Ian asked, downing what looked like a shot of whisky and slamming it on the countertop.
"Ready for what?"
Willie got up from a stool and laughed. "Yer stag party."
"My what?" Jamie glared at all of them. "I never asked for a stag party."
"Ye didnae have to," Willie responded, dropping a heavy arm on Jamie's shoulder. "As yer best man, it's my duty to give ye one."
"B-but the wedding might need to be rescheduled because of the storm."
"Aye, true," Tom piped in. "But nae need for yer stag-do to be rescheduled. It's perfectly warm and dry out there ...perfect for a night out."
Jamie looked at his father for some sort of support. "Da?"
Brian raised both his hands, telling Jamie there's no point in resisting.
He swallowed hard, racking his brain for some excuse. "I-ah, Claire's pregnant, and I should be here taking care of her needs. She shouldn't be alone and ..."
"We're here!" Mary shouted from the front room, followed by a cacophony of excited female voices. "Where's our hen?"
Jamie groaned and turned to Claire. "Ye're going on a hen party in yer condition?"
"What condition, bràthair ?" Jenny walked into the kitchen and began pulling Claire's hand. "She's pregnant, not ill."
Claire came up to him and kissed him on the lips. "Have fun tonight," she whispered. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Tomorrow? What the fuck?
Jamie stared at Claire. He couldn't believe what was happening. He'd been blindsided, and he had a strong feeling that she'd known all along. "Sassenach ..."
She placed a hand on his cheek. "You're not the only one with a surprise, my love."
"But, I thought ..."
Annalise popped up from behind Jenny. "Don't worry, Jamie. She's in good hands, and we'll be taking good care of her. Your ma and aunt will be coming in chaperone capacity."
That wasn't reassuring enough for Jamie when he thought he heard Geillis' shrill laughter in the background. That lass spelt trouble, and he wouldn't put it past her to have a few risqué ideas for Claire's hen night.
Before he could pull Claire to his side and think of how to haul her over his shoulders and escape this incursion, Murtagh pushed a flask against him. "Here, lad, take a nip and loosen up. It's just a night out, so stop acting like a fanny."
Seeing Claire had already been whisked away, he begrudgingly popped open the top of the flask and downed a healthy measure to the cheers of the menfolk present. "Jesus," he muttered. "This isnae looking good at all."
Jamie's party rolled into Inverness early evening after their hired minibus had dropped them off at the town centre, and they'd checked into their hotel. He irritatedly tugged the collar of his shirt, thinking what a bunch of wankers they looked like with their stag deer caps complete with antlers. The group were loud and tipsy after drinking from Murtagh's multiple flasks, and people stared at them as they made their way down the street. When they finally stopped in front of a bustling looking establishment, the bouncer at Hootananny Pub was already looking rather anxiously at them.
"Hiya, mate," Brian greeted the burly man at the door. "We have a reservation. Fraser's the name."
Jamie pulled back his cap to reveal his face and nodded. "We're the stag party," he added by way of explanation, pointing at the antlers.
"Is that right?" the big man said, looking at their headgears warily. "Did ye buy all 12 for a buck ?"
Ian laughed out loud, slapping his thigh. "Hah, a buck, get it?"
Everyone ignored Jenny's husband, and Murtagh didn't seem to notice as he rocked back and forth on his heels, clearly inebriated. "I paid thirty-six quid for them lot, thank ye very much," he corrected the bouncer in slurred speech, not quite comprehending that the big bloke was taking the piss. "The antlers' hats aren't cheap and are made from fine quality felt. In fact ... they're British made!"
"They dinnae look anything like antlers," the bouncer said dryly. "If anything, they look like offshoots and limp ones at that too."
"Hey!" Quentin shouted from behind, making his way to the front. "That's no way to treat your clients!"
The big man narrowed his gaze. "Aren't ye a bit too old for stag parties?"
Quentin puffed out his chest. "Listen to me, son! I may be a lot older than you, but you have no idea what these hands can do." He clenched and unclenched them to make a point. "Insult my mates again, and I'll string a fiddle with your dick and make you play it while I dance."
"Why ye ..."
Willie stepped in between the red-faced bouncer and Quentin. "Aye, aye, that's enough," he interrupted calmly. "We're no' here to cause trouble. We're here to have some good food, a few drinks and enjoy the entertainment. So, are ye letting us in or no'?"
The beefy man rolled his head and straightened himself, expanding his wingspan in a blatant attempt to intimidate. "Just so that ye know, we're a fine establishment here, and we dinnae care for drunken behaviour," he said bluntly, pointing the finger at all of them. "Disorderly conduct will no' be tolerated. And …" He hesitated for a bit. "... no strippers will be allowed in case ye've ordered one for yer stag party."
Jamie let out a massive sigh of relief. "Ach, thank fuck for that!"
"Ye lot got that?' hollered Brian to their group. "No bloody drunkenness behaviour!"
"In other words, no bloody good time for anyone," muttered Ian.
"Them's the rules, take it or leave it!" the bouncer said resolutely before opening the door and letting them in.
A sirloin steak, three pints of lager and several shots later, Jamie was ready to call it a night. The evening was still young, but the rest of the stag party looked like they were just warming up. Murtagh was already up on stage playing the accordion with the band while four lassies on the dancefloor were enthusiastically performing the Highland jig to the crowd's cheers.
When Jamie heard Tom order another round of shots, he winced inwardly. In more ways than one, he already felt well and truly wasted, and it was definitely going to be hard work to get out of his own stag party, considering how his family and friends were all having a grand time, and he was the celebrant. He was just wondering what Claire's bridal party was up to when his phone on the table lit up and started to buzz.
Willie, who was sat next to Jamie, noticed it too, and he frowned when he read it was a text from their mother.
Jamie swiped the screen, expecting some photos or videos of the lasses. Instead, there was a text message.
I'm so sorry to ruin your party, but Annalise has just been arrested.
What the hell? Jamie showed the text to Willie, who nearly shot off from his seat. Mentally shaking off the alcohol-induced fog in his head, Jamie immediately placed a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Calm down, aye? Ma is still typing."
"We should call them," Willie insisted, already getting up and jerking a thumb at the exit. "It will be tomorrow by the time ma is done texting us what happened."
Jamie nodded and excused themselves from their table while Willie quickly took off. When he finally made it outside, Willie was already on the phone to their ma. He signalled his brother to put her on the speaker.
"Ma, start right at the beginning. What happened?" Jamie pressed gently.
"Right," Ellen began. "We're at the Holistic Centre for some pampering. It was our idea for Claire's bridal shower, and Yi Tien Cho was kind enough to have it open for us all evening. So when the police saw lights here at the centre, they stopped by to check, thinking someone may have broken in. We were just about to start facial treatment when they walked into the room. Unfortunately, Annalise had one too much glass of champagne to drink and thought the police were strippers ordered for Claire. I don't know what she said to them, but she's handcuffed at the moment ..."
Ellen stopped midsentence when screams and yells erupted in the background and sounds of what seemed like glasses shattering onto the floor. Jamie and Willie looked at each other.
"Ma?" Willie burst. "What's happening?"
"Oh, dear ..." Ellen hiccuped.
"Jesus, ma, tell us what happened!" Jamie shouted. "We can hear everything!"
"Claire's just been arrested too."
"What?" Jamie and Willie responded simultaneously.
"Please dinnae tell me she's been drinking," Jamie said worriedly.
"No! The silly lass jumped on one of the police's back when they attempted to take Annalise away," Ellen floundered. "Look, lads, I have to go and do something about the lassies. Dinnae fash. Yer aunt and I will sort this mess out. And I'm pretty sure Yi Tien Cho will help. "
What the hell was Claire thinking, jumping on someone's back in her condition?
When the line went dead, Jamie looked at his brother, who was just as shocked. Willie pointed at a taxi rank, and without a word, they made a run for the lone parked cab before the revellers from a nightclub that just walked out could jump in.