As I washed the mud from my hair, I started taking stock.
Less than 36 hours after leaving Oxford, I’d found a new place to live, a job, and, it would seem, a friend. “Not bad, Beauchamp,” I murmured to myself.
I flipped my head upside down under the hot stream, letting it loosen the chunks that had hardened in my curls at the nape of my neck.
A knock at the door startled me and I righted myself, a little dizzy. “Yes?”
“I’ve got some fresh towels,” Jamie’s voice came from the other side of the door. “D’ye mind if I bring them in?”
“Ah…” I looked frantically at the door. Jamie’s bathroom was the only one with a shower so far, and it was lovely—but the full glass sides were suddenly a bit of a problem.
“I willna look,” he assured me, “just drop them on the sink there.”
“Of course,” I responded. The door cracked open, and a disembodied arm came through the gap holding two neatly folded, fluffy white towels. The pedestal sink was well within his long reach, and he dropped them on the edge of the bowl.
“Take yer time,” Jamie said as he pulled the door shut again.
Faintly, I could hear the creak of the floorboards at the top of the stairs over the rush of the water as he left.
He’s certainly considerate, I thought. A gentleman.
I went back to picking through my curls, a smile stubbornly clinging to my lips.
In the time it took me to shower, dry off, and dress, Jamie had long since finished cleaning himself up. I could hear him bustling around the kitchen as I came out of my room.
“Claire, come down here, would ye?” he called at the sound of my door closing.
He had a stack of neatly-sliced ham and cheese sandwiches at the ready for a late lunch, along with a soup pot steaming on the stove.
“I want to go over the plans wi’ ye,” he said, ladling soup into bowls. “Show ye what we’ve got to work on.”
A stack of sketches sat in the middle of the kitchen table. He flipped through them slowly, explaining his ideas as we ate.
“Eventually I’ll need to add ensuite bathrooms to all the rooms upstairs,” he said. “But I thought I’d start wi’ the barn, turn it into a cottage rental. That way I can start making a little money to pay someone to do all the plumbing. Rupert’s been helping me with some of the more finnicky bits, but that’s a bit beyond him.”
“What about the tower?” I asked, surprising myself with my own investment.
“Y’know, I thought of that. But it’s in need of pretty major structural repairs—I dinna think I can fix it without an engineer, so it’ll have to come after, once I can turn a real profit. But I thought that could be a luxury suite—for honeymooners and the like.”
His enthusiasm was infectious, and the care for the integrity of the estate was as plain as the long, sharp nose on his face.
“I’ve got the rooms in the barn rough framed and the electrical in, at least,” he explained, pulling out his phone to show me photos. “I think I can finish the rest in time for the summer tourists, wi’ yer help.”
The logic made sense. I couldn’t quite picture how we would get everything done in a few months, but I figured he’d made it this far on his own. Surely the two of us could get the barn into a usable state.
“I also thought...well.” He shifted in his seat. “My mother had a kailyard outside, a little garden, when I was a lad. Herbs, vegetables, the like. I thought it might be nice to bring it back.”
“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” I said. “You could use the produce for guests’ meals. People love that sort of thing, farm-to-table and all that.”
Jamie had a soft look on his face, and I wondered where his mother was now.
“I could start on that tomorrow, if you like, while you work on the barn,” I continued. “I’m a fair hand with plants, and it’s about the right time to get things moving for a summer garden. And if we get it established this year, it’ll be even better by the time the main house is ready for guests.”
He cleared his throat. “Aye, that’d be perfect.” His voice was a little thicker than it had been before. “Just tell me what ye need, and I’ll order it.”
The next day, Jamie showed me around the property. The manor house had nine bedrooms including the old Laird’s room on the top floor, plus what had once been a servants’ wing that had been gutted at some point. Jamie told me he planned to turn that into a standalone apartment, either for himself or as another option for guests who wanted extra privacy. Only our two rooms were set up properly; the rest had a jumble of furniture and odds and ends.
Among the collection of buildings inside the stone-walled compound, there was the barn, his shop, and a storage shed that somehow held even more canvas-covered furniture, plus the old tower, which he called the broch. We walked down the road to see the farmland, which he had leased out for the moment, and the abandoned mill and chilly pond that marked the edge of his property and the beginning of Rupert’s.
After a hasty lunch, I spent the afternoon in the parlour with Adso. We shared a cushion on the floor, he curled around my feet and me leaning on the low coffee table that was the only piece of furniture in the great stone room. At least Jamie had put down a rug in here, I thought ruefully.
He’d also dug out a number of books about gardening from the study—the one he’d called the speak-a-word room, a turn of phrase I found immensely charming. The newest one was from the 90s, and the oldest, bound in beautiful navy leather, was dated 1683.
“Can’t imagine much has changed about green things sprouting since then,” he’d said when I pointed out the date, a wolfish grin on his undeniably handsome face.
That was true, I conceded, but the language of the Scots Gardiner for the Climate of Scotland, in Three Parts was a bit beyond my faculties. I laid it aside somewhat reverently, and moved on to the relatively more modern tomes.
Some hours later, I thought I had a decent layout planned. There would be potatoes, leeks, and carrots, salad greens, kale, and cabbage. Strawberries and raspberries, for desserts and preserves. Radishes and peas, for the spring, and some winter squash. I thought maybe I still had enough time to get some tomatoes sprouted indoors to transfer outside when it was warmer. And, of course, a wide variety of herbs.
I tapped the pencil to my lip, considering my haphazard drawing. Something was missing still—the look of it was off, somehow.
“Flowers,” I murmured to myself.
I sketched in forget-me-knots, larkspur, lavender, and poppies all around the edge of the fence, and two large rose bushes to flank the entrance. Perfect to attract some pollinators, add a bit of color, and maybe provide some cut flowers for arrangements in the house.
All in all, it was a bit bigger than I meant for it to be. But when I went outside to inspect the courtyard, I thought that might be a good thing. The area was totally empty, and a big, lively garden would be just the ticket to warm up the space between the kitchen windows on the house and the rickety tower.
I found some stakes in the shed by the barn where Jamie was working, and started marking out my plot in the dirt.
“Got yer space all sorted, then?”
Jamie’s voice, mere feet behind me, gave me a start. I grabbed my heart, whirling around.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” I exhaled. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
He laughed, hands up in apology. “I thought ye’d hear me—I wasna trying to be quiet.”
He peered over my shoulder at the stakes in the ground, marking the outline and the paths between each bed. “Verra orderly, Sassenach. Like a row of soldiers.”
“You don’t think it’s too big?” I asked, stepping back to take in the full view.
“Nay, my mam’s was about that size, I think,” he said, considering. “Ye can see the outline of it, if you look. Where the ground’s a bit higher.”
I hummed agreement, seeing the slight mounding of the earth. It lined up almost exactly with my stakes. I took that as a sign that I’d been right about where it would be protected from the wind by the buildings, but still get plenty of sunlight.
“Anyway, it’s getting a bit late, and I think it’s like to rain,” he continued, gesturing at the sky. “Come inside, and we’ll go over what I need to pick up for ye in town tomorrow.”
“Roses?” Jamie repeated, squinting at my drawing. We were back at the kitchen table, tea brewing again.
“Yes, I thought they’d be nice for the entrance. Pretty, and we could make rosehip tea and soaps and things. We can get a climbing varietal and put in a nice little arch—one of the books said there are lots of colors native to Scotland, so plenty of choices.”
“Yellow,” he said firmly.
I looked at him in surprise. “Yes, I'm sure they come in yellow…”
“No, I mean I want yellow.”
My brow furrowed. He’d been quite content to listen to my blather about my garden plans up to this point, offering no thoughts beyond general agreement. “Well, all right,” I said, suddenly cautious.
Jamie took a deep breath. “My mother,” he began, “had a climbing yellow rose bush, by the door.” He paused, long enough that I wasn’t sure if that was the end of it.
“She died,” he finally continued. “I was quite young, so I dinna remember her well. But I do remember her leaning out her bedroom window in the summer, smelling the roses. They climbed all the way up to the Laird’s room, by the time I was a wee lad.”
The kettle was boiling, but neither of us moved from our seats.
“It was still alive when I left home for school, though no' so beautiful as when she cared for it.” His small smile was sad. “But when I...came back, it was gone. I’m no’ sure what happened.”
My hand reached out to his of its own willpower. He looked up and our eyes met.
“Yellow, then,” I said with finality.
The first week was over before I knew it. We woke with the dawn every morning, and let the twilight tell us when to finish work in the evenings. We ate our meals together, and ended each day with a dram of whisky and books by the fire in the parlour, Adso purring like mad in my lap. I fell into bed at night bone-tired, but satisfied in a way that was completely new to me. The process of building the garden almost entirely on my own gave me a sense of purpose and tangible accomplishment.
I’d started by putting together a dozen raised beds, laid out in three rows. Jamie had had to help me with the first one, but once I saw how it was done, I made the rest myself while he worked in the barn. I hammered in the picketing around the edge, but left a gap for an arch—Jamie had wanted to build that himself. I laid down drainage, mixed soil, tested pH levels, set up drip irrigation, spread gravel along the paths. And on the seventh day, I stood with my hands on my hips and admired my handiwork.
“It’s certainly something, Sassenach,” Jamie called from the barn door, peeking out to see. “When will ye plant?”
I looked up at the sky. It had been a mild winter, Jamie told me, but the mornings were still frosty. “I’ll do the kale and cabbage and things tomorrow,” I said. “Those seeds do all right in the cold. And I might try some indoor seed starts, get a head start on the summer veg.”
“Och, take tomorrow off,” he said, stretching lazily. “They’ll call the labor board on me if ye don’t rest yerself.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s barely even work, Jamie,” I griped. “Anyway, I don’t see you taking a day off.”
“Well then, I guess we’ll both have to rest our auld bones tomorrow. Keep the government off my back.”
“Really, Claire, ye can’t work every day. We can go into Inverness if ye like, eat a meal we don’t have to cook ourselves for a change. My treat.”
“Well, all right,” I said. “I’ve got some things to buy anyway.”
My phone started buzzing like mad some twenty minutes outside Broch Mordha, where the landscape flattened a bit.
“I thought ye told me ye’d nobody to call,” Jamie teased, glancing away from the road to peek at my cell. “But the second ye’ve got reception…”
“I have no idea who all these are from,” I murmured, surprised. I started listening to the first voicemail.
“Mrs. Randall,” the voice began. I blanched at the address—I’d stopped using my married name while Frank was still in the hospital. “This is Gregory Alton at Alton, Talbot, and Forbes. I have urgent information about your husband’s life insurance policy. Please call me back at your earliest convenience. My office number is…”
The next three messages were all from the same number. I deleted them all without listening.
I could tell Jamie was watching me out of the corner of his eye. I fixed my face into a neutral expression. “Damn scammers,” I said, trying to sound light.
Jamie made a Scottish noise, as I’d come to think of his surprisingly versatile grunts. I opted to ignore the skeptical tone.
“Can we stop at the garden store first?” I asked, pushing onto a new subject as quickly as possible. “I want to get their advice on companion planting, and see when they think the rose starts should go in.”
“O' course,” he said. But I could still feel his calculating gaze on me all the way to Inverness.
“I think we should get wifi at the farm,” Jamie said decisively as we sat down for lunch at a tavern by the river.
“Oh?” I said, amused. I somehow couldn’t imagine Jamie at a computer, surfing the web. He gave off an air of being from another era entirely, long before anything as uncouth as the internet.
“Well, guests will expect it, to start,” he began, fiddling with the menu. “And I’ll need a website and email to manage bookings.”
“That’s true,” I agreed.
“So it’s settled.”
I grinned at his air of satisfaction. “It’s your house, Jamie, you can do whatever you like with it.”
His cheeks reddened lightly. “I just wanted ye to know. In case ye...needed it for something.”
I made no response to that, simply buried my nose in the menu. We lapsed into silence.
“Jamie, m’lad!” a deep voice boomed from the front door. “I havena’ seen ye here in ages! Been locked up in tha’ house?”
Jamie’s eyes widened, and he stood up to greet the newcomer. “Dougal.” He reached out a hand, and a bald man with a neat grey beard stepped up to grip it.
The grey hair aside, Dougal came across as hearty and hale, and I guessed he was somewhere in his late fifties. Dressed in dark jeans and an olive field jacket, he was trim and fit, every inch the stylish Scot.
“And who’s this?” He smiled down at me in a way that seemed meant to be kind, but something in his expression made me want to shrink away.
“Claire,” I said coolly, holding out my hand.
Dougal squeezed it lightly. His palm was cold and dry.
“I hired her to help me get the business off the ground,” Jamie interjected.
“A sassenach, eh?” Dougal said to Jamie, dropping my hand and finally looking away from me. “Helpful to get the insider view of the English taste, I suppose.”
Jamie nodded stiffly.
“Weel, I’ll no’ keep ye. Jest wanted to say hallo to my nephew.”
I blinked at Jamie, and his eyes flickered to mine, as if to say, Later.
“And Jamie,” Dougal’s voice dropped and he leaned in closer to Jamie’s ear. “If ye run into financial trouble, ye ken ye can always call on me.”
And with that, Dougal clapped Jamie on the shoulder, gave me a small nod, and was gone.
Jamie breathed out slowly and sunk into the booth, looking thoughtful.
“That's your uncle?” I asked.
“Oh aye,” he confirmed, shaking his head. “My mam’s brother. Dougal MacKenzie. He owns a mineral processing company. The MacKenzie family business.”
“And he wants to invest in Lallybroch?”
“Somethin’ like that,” he said. “He tried to buy it, a few years back. My da couldna make ends meet farming anymore, so he’d taken out a loan against the house. Dougal said he was just looking to help, but...”
I had the gist of it now. “You think he wanted it for himself.”
“I do,” he said firmly. “And now that she’s mine, I’ll no’ sell her—to Dougal or anyone.”