At long last, my husband was dead.
I suppose I should have felt shame at my relief, but I couldn’t muster the energy. After more than six months of Frank’s coma—188 days of fluorescent lights and soft-spoken nurses and burnt-yet-still-watery coffee in styrofoam cups—I didn’t have any reserves left for guilt.
In the end, he had simply slipped away when I wasn’t looking. A fitting parallel to how he’d slipped away from our marriage in the months leading up to the accident. And just the same, I was left to pick up the pieces.
I kept wearing my wedding ring, more from inertia than anything else. It was a throughline, I supposed, something to look at as I wandered aimlessly around our too-big house, running my hands over dusty book spines on our overburdened shelves. His too-big house. His overburdened shelves. His absence made it even clearer to me that none of it was mine—I saw nothing of myself in the dark walnut and leather-bound stoicism of our Oxford home.
The university, as it turned out, agreed. Three weeks after his death, they called me to inform me that Frank’s replacement would be needing the house when his contract began.
They gave me til end of term to move out, but I packed my things that night. It all fit into two suitcases. Uncle Lamb had trained me well—no extraneous possessions to weigh me down. Frank’s things, I left exactly as they’d been. Let the esteemed professor deal with it.
The next morning, in the pearly morning light, I dropped a manila envelope with the keys in the mailbox, addressed to the Dean. And then, like I’d dreamt of doing so many times, I got in my car and drove away.
A soft “bing!” brought me quickly back into reality.
“Damn,” I swore under my breath, looking at the newly-orange petrol warning light. I’d been driving for nearly ten hours, lulled into a fugue state by the never-ending white lines. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was—or where the nearest service station might be.
I looked to the side of the road with a renewed focus; I knew I was somewhere in Scotland, and that I’d turned off A9 an hour or two before. Or was it three?
The two-lane road had no signs that I could see, and the forest on either side looked thick. But surely I couldn’t be that far from a town. Still, driving aimlessly along back roads in the Highlands on a near-empty tank seemed foolhardy at best, especially with the sun so low in the sky.
I pulled over onto the muddy shoulder and pulled out my phone. One bar—would it be enough for a map search?
“Bloody piece of…”
So that was a no.
I turned off the car, not wanting to waste gas while I figured a way out of this predicament. I could see a dirt turnoff a hundred feet or so ahead that looked to lead up the steep hill on the other side of the road. Maybe I’ll get better service up there, I thought hopefully.
“No help for it, Beauchamp,” I said.
The turnout proved to be a somewhat gravel-covered track that carved a switchback up the hillside. A rusty gate blocked the path, but when I pushed it lightly, it swung open—no latch, let alone a lock. I swung it closed behind me, and began to climb.
The March breeze was chilled, but some anemic golden hour sunbeams forced their way through gaps in the ever-present Scottish clouds, warming me as I walked. A rain-swollen runoff creek roared loudly a few feet off the road. I shivered in pleasure—moving, stretching, filling my lungs with the fresh metallic tang of spring air after so many hours in the car pulled my consciousness forcibly back to the present, and I reveled in it.
With that renewed sense of awareness came a distinct pressure in my bladder.
I stepped off the track to answer the call, into the thin trees beside the rushing water. The road, if you could even call it that, seemed completely deserted, but I still opted to squat in the partial privacy offered by two low pine boughs.
With absolutely impeccable timing, no sooner than I let forth my considerable stream, I heard the rumbling whine of a motor over the rushing water. I started as a blue ATV came into view around a switchback in the track, but my bladder was past the point of no return. I didn’t even have time to swear—just desperately grabbed at the pine boughs to cover my lower half as the helmeted rider caught sight of my head and shoulders above the branches.
“What in the world are ye doin, pissing in my burn?”
My face felt like it was on fire. Bladder now empty, I pulled up my pants as quickly as I could.
“I—I’m so sorry,” I stammered. “I got lost.”
Finally properly clothed, I stood up straight and stepped out from behind the pine to face this irate landowner.
“I’m low on petrol,” I added, “so I was just trying to find some cell signal to get directions.”
He turned off the idling quad and dismounted, pulling off his helmet, and suddenly, I was blinded.
The rapidly setting sun had pushed through the grey cover in full force, and for a moment he was nothing but a pillar of red-gold. I blinked, but the impression lived behind my eyelids. I looked down to clear my vision.
“Really, I do apologize,” I finished lamely.
“Mmphm,” the man grunted—an acceptance, perhaps? “Ye’d have been walking a good long ways. Mountains on all sides, blocks the signal. Did ye no’ think to bring a map, drivin’ around the backroads up here?”
I could see now he was a tall, imposing figure. His helmet-mussed crown of red hair was damp and curled at the ends, his cheekbones fiercely slanted. I thought he was in his mid twenties—my age, or a bit younger. He met my eyes confidently, so blue I had to look away.
“Ah. Well.” I took a step back, inching back towards the main road. “I didn’t...I suppose...I’ll just drive on, then.”
He pursed his lips at that, and another uniquely Scottish noise rumbled disapproving from his chest.
“Closest petrol station is in Dumnadrochit, more’n thirty miles,” he said, indicating the direction with his sharp-edged chin. “If yer near out, ye’ll never make it.”
I felt like shrinking under his exasperated gaze. I had no idea how to respond to that. As if it wasn’t mortifying enough to be caught literally with my pants down, every sentence out of his mouth made it more obvious he thought me an idiot. Probably right, I thought with a hint of hysteria.
Finally, he sighed. “Come on, I’ve got a can at the farm. No’ much, but it’ll be enough to get ye where ye need to go.”
He stepped back toward the bike, clearly expecting for me to follow. But I hesitated. Was I really about to let a 6’4” Viking behemoth drive me off into the woods?
“Ah,” he exhaled, understanding instantly why I was dithering. “O’ course.” His cheekbones just barely darkened. Blushing ? I thought, slightly incredulous. “The house is seven miles up the drive. You can wait here while I fetch it, if ye like. Or follow in yer car, if ye think ye’ve enough.”
The sun had gone behind the hills behind us, and twilight was short this far north. Waiting in the dark seemed almost as ill-advised as taking a ride from a strange man.
“I’ll follow,” I said, resolute. “Thank you—er—”
“Jamie,” he supplied. “Jamie Fraser.”
“Claire Beauchamp.” I smiled tightly. “I’ll be right behind you, Mr. Fraser.”
Following, as it turned out, was also a very, very stupid idea.
The twisting gravel road gave way to washouts at every turn, and my gutless Renault was no match for the spring mud of Scotland. I was stuck before the end of the first mile, the tires spinning hopelessly as I tried to accelerate out of a slick patch.
If Jamie Fraser had been rolling his eyes at me before, it quickly turned to amusement at my predicament when he finally turned back to see what was amiss.
“Leave it to a sassenach,” he chuckled ruefully.
Though I didn’t know the word, I felt my hackles going up at the obvious insult. But something about the way his cat-eyes crinkled at the corners as he laughed softened the blow.
“C’mon, Claire, I’ll no’ do anything fresh,” he promised, patting the seat behind him. “Yer wee junker will be safe enough here for now. I’ve a neighbor who can help us get ‘er out.”
Cheeks flaming, I climbed up onto the ATV—I certainly wasn’t going to wait in the dark forest alone. Fraser motioned for me to put my arms around his waist.
“Hold on tight now, can’t have ye falling off!” he shouted over the engine as he eased off the clutch.
He drove at a fair clip, whipping my hair into what I knew would be a horrific rats’-nest in minutes. But his torso felt sturdy and solid under my arms, and for some reason I trusted him not to lose me.
As we reached the top of the last hill, the trees suddenly cleared, giving a view down into the narrow valley below. I could just make out a tall stone tower looming in the grey-green gloom.
“Is that a castle?” I shouted over the wind and engine.
“It’s home,” Fraser called back over his shoulder. “Lallybroch.”
The tower stood on its own, and was rather decrepit. The tall, stately manor house was separate and much better maintained, though clearly of an age itself. As we rumbled up to the stone wall that surrounded the compound, lights flicked on, bathing the yard in a warm glow.
Fraser guided the quad through a high archway and stopped just inside.
“Pop in if ye like,” he said, waving vaguely at the front steps as he jumped off towards one of the outbuildings. “I’ll just get the petrol.”
It was properly dark now, and I was feeling rather uncertain. But it was starting to drizzle, and I rationalized that if I was going to be murdered it might as well be inside a warm house as out in the elements.
The massive wooden door had an odd latch, but with a bit of jiggling it yielded, and the hinges made no noise when it swung open. The large entry was dark, but a light was on in one of the rooms down the hall.
“Er, hello?” I called awkwardly. My voice echoed off the stone walls. I heard a muffled thump and braced myself for an awkward conversation with a startled wife.
“Mrow?” came the inquisitive answer, and a slender grey cat slunk around the corner.
I laughed aloud—Fraser hadn’t struck me as a cat person, but I suppose you never can tell.
“Why hello there,” I murmured, lowering down to pet him as he twined around me, purring.
“So ye’ve met Adso.”
The entry hall was suddenly bathed in light. Surprised, I stood up quickly, making the cat trill in annoyance.
“Sorry,” Jamie said sheepishly, hands raised in placation. “I didn’t mean to startle ye—I can imagine yer a bit tense.”
I cleared my throat. “No, no, you’ve been a great help.”
He stepped aside from the doorway, leaving me a clear exit route. I was oddly touched by his thoughtfulness.
“Well, I’ve a bit more bad news,” he said. “My spare petrol is gone. My neighbor sometimes borrows things from the shed rather than go into town—y’know, we share quite a bit around here, since we’re so far out...”
I bit my lip, unsure if I wanted to laugh or cry.
“I was going to call him anyway. See if he’ll come help me get yer car unstuck. Maybe he’ll still have enough left in the can for you to get to Dumnadrochit. Or I can drive to Broch Mordha to get a new one, it’s none so far from the house here.”
I nodded. “I...yes, thank you, Mr. Fraser. I’m so sorry to have to take up so much of your time.”
“Just Jamie,” he corrected. “Well, come sit yerself down, I’ll get Rupert on the phone.”
The house, I could now see, was surprisingly empty. No furniture, bare floor, nothing on the walls. It wasn’t cold inside, but now that I’d been in from the chill for a moment I could tell it wasn’t well-heated.
Jamie led the way into the kitchen, which was somewhat homier, if outdated. The hearth was huge, and a well-worn table served as a workspace down the middle of the room. I slid into a chair and pulled out my phone as Jamie went to a landline hanging on the wall just inside the pantry.
Still no service. Guess that explained the landline.
“Rupert,” he said. “Listen, I need yer help. Got a lost sassenach here, she’s run out of petrol and got her car stuck on the back entrance.”
The familiar heat returned to my face. What. An. Idiot, Beauchamp. I glanced up and saw Jamie eyeing me speculatively. When he spoke again, it was not in English. Gaelic? I thought. He sounded irate.
Finally, with a sigh and what I took to be goodbye, he hung up.
“Well, lass, ye’ve got about the worst luck in the world.”
You have no idea, I thought.
Rupert had indeed taken Jamie Fraser’s spare can of petrol that day. He’d also used it all in his own ATV, which he’d crashed in a creek and then promptly thrown out his back trying to push out by brute force.
“Stinkin’ drunk on whisky now,” Jamie said with grim humor. “Useless gobshite.”
It was the last straw after an exhausting day, an impossible week, a horrific year. Mortifyingly, I felt my throat start to close up in that tell-tale sign, and my vision began to swim. I swallowed hard. “Oh, oh of course, I see.” My voice was tight. I cleared my throat. “I hate to be more of a bother, but if you could take me back to my car, I’ll just…”
“Ye’ll what?” the redhead asked gently as he sunk into a chair across from me. “Sleep in the back seat?” He quirked out a small smile. “If ye think I’d even entertain the notion, yer sorely mistaken.”
It was all too much—his gruff kindness, my own exhaustion, the goddamn stupidity of the situation. I let out a strangled laugh, which quickly turned into a torrent of tears that brought Jamie jumping to his feet again in alarm.
“Och, don’t cry,” he begged, hands hovering over my shoulder. “Come now, lass, it’s no’ so bad as all that! I’ve an extra room, ye can sleep here and we’ll figure out yer car in the morning.”
I couldn’t help it, I let out a sob.
“Ye can lock the door to yer room from the inside, it’s got a deadbolt,” he added, desperate to get out of this situation.
“Oh, Jamie, I’m sorry, I’m so embarrassed,” I hiccupped, wiping at my cheeks. “Today’s just been…”
A white handkerchief appeared in my vision. I took it gratefully. I was starting to get myself back under control.
“That's all right.” He seemed calmer, too, now that I wasn’t openly weeping. He stepped back, clearing his throat. “Tea? Or ah...I’ve whisky, if you like?”
I blew my nose. “Yes, please.”
He chuckled. “Good lass. I’ll put the kettle on. Feel free to make any calls ye need.”
I had no one to call, of course, but it seemed ill-advised to admit that aloud, no matter how much my gut told me Jamie was no threat. I cleared my throat and went to the phone, where I made a good show of calling an aunt.
“So I’ll meet you tomorrow afternoon,” I said finally. “Yes, love you too. Good night.”
“Girls’ holiday?” Jamie asked as he set up a tray with two chipped teacups and a matching teapot beside them, snug in a cabled knit cozy.
“Something like that,” I answered, trying to sound breezy. I sat back down at the table.
Jamie set the tray on the table and started rooting around in the cupboards. “Your first time, then?”
“In the Highlands?” I asked as he pulled biscuits out of a packet and set them on the saucers. “No, I’ve been before.”
He raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing. He sat back down across from me, a bottle of whisky in hand. He poured a healthy glug in each teacup, and I tried to catch a glimpse of the label around his hand.
“My da’s. He used to distill a bit for family and friends. It’s no’ bad.”
He checked his watch, and, deeming the steep time acceptable, poured the tea into the readied cups.
Even mixed with the tea, I could tell the whisky was exceptional from the first sip. I made a satisfied noise, and inhaled deeply.
Jamie nodded approvingly, seeing my appreciation. “I see ye’ve a taste for it.”
I smiled cautiously. “My h—my husband was a bit of an aficionado.”
We were silent for a moment. I had no interest in elaborating on the topic of Frank, and Jamie seemed disinterested in pursuing it.
“Was that yer stomach ?”
It was the reddest my face had been all day.