Jamie was 16 when he left home, barely more than a child himself. But his father wanted him to take advantage of all the opportunities available to him—even if it was to Brian Fraser’s own detriment.
So Jamie crossed the Channel and went to Paris, where he’d been accepted to a top Jesuit lycée in France, and then to the Sorbonne to study modern languages and political science. He was an exemplary student, well-liked by his teachers and classmates alike.
No matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t quite make out where it was leading. Learning and reading in French, Arabic, Portuguese, Mandarin, discussing the connections between nation-states—it was enjoyable enough, and he was good at it. But to what greater purpose? His father had been a farmer, and his father before that, back to time immemorial. His family had kept the people of the Broch Tuarach estate fed and clothed for centuries—up to and including giving their lives in the field of battle, when it came down to it. In the face of all that, what chance did literature and theory have?
Jamie gave his studies exactly as much attention as they required, and anything left over—that, he devoted to the sorts of distractions to which the young are susceptible.
Paris, in all its charm, loved him in such a way that made it easy to forget his father, toiling alone in the fields. After all, Jamie was hardly the first to leave the estate—Jenny had married and gone to Glasgow with Ian Murray before the age of 20, his mother dead of cervical cancer before Jamie was out of primary school. What was one less Fraser at Lallybroch, in the grand scheme of things?
But Brian was not alone, not really. The thread between him and his son may have been stretched, but it was strong. Jamie was the Great Red Hope, Seumas Ruadh—and Brian was determined to see him through to his potential, come what may.
And so, for the love of his child, he made a crucial mistake. He took out a loan against the estate to cover tuition at the lycée. And when that money ran out, he took out more to pay Jamie’s living expenses while he attended university. Land that had been inhabited by their family going back to the time of Robert the Bruce.
It might have been a gamble that paid off, were it not for a substandard apartment balcony and a single weak artery deep in Brian Fraser’s brain.
On the first of May at the end of his fourth year in Paris, Jamie’s friends threw him a birthday party in their Latin Quarter apartment. He climbed three flights of stairs to their doorstep, where they greeted him with cheers and warm embraces and filled glasses.
That would be the last thing he remembered of that night—accepting a foaming beer from a pretty girl he didn’t yet know as he shrugged out of his jacket. The rest he would have to cobble together from a garbled mess of text messages, indifferent police reports, and drunken memories relayed second- and third-hand.
As best as he could figure, he had been smoking a cigarette with a girl (the same one?) on the balcony overlooking the building’s courtyard, some hours after arriving. A liquor-soaked argument escalated to blows just inside the door, and someone crashed out into the couple. A squeal of metal, a twisting. In the end, wether because of relative levels of intoxication, weight distribution, or, perhaps, a mad protective instinct that drove him to shove the girl back to safety, Jamie was the only one who went over the failing rail.
A two-story freefall, then a crash of glass to break his momentum before the final plummet to the ground.
The greenhouse roof might have saved his life. But he would bear the scars forever.
While the paramedics worked to stabilize Jamie and slide his broken body into the ambulance, a few hundred miles to the northeast, a call woke Brian Fraser. And as he rushed to gather the essentials and make the arrangements to get to his son, an arterial wall gave way deep in his brain.
When Jamie woke a week later, Jenny was there. His father was not.
He spent nearly a year in a rehab facility in the Breton countryside, recovering from the spinal cord injury. The staff made the mistake of calling him “lucky” only once.
Jenny and Ian took on the legal crusade despite Jenny’s advancing pregnancy and a toddler underfoot, with the help of the intrepid family lawyer Ned Gowan. The balcony, they found, had not been up to code, and the building owners had been ordered twice to replace the rusting supports.
The judgement wasn’t much, in the grand scheme of what Jamie had lost. But, Ned rationalized as he explained the situation in Jamie’s Spartan room at the rehab facility, it would be enough to finish school and start anew.
“For, ye see,” Gowan said gently, peering over his stupid little spectacles, “I’m afraid ye’ll no’ be able to keep Lallybroch.”
The debts had mounted without Jamie and Jenny’s knowledge. There was the mortgage against the value of the estate, of course. But also a farm loan, to fund a harvest that never came. And lingering balances from prior years that hadn’t yielded quite the bounty Brian had hoped. While Brian had left Lallybroch to the two of them, neither could afford to cover what his estate owed. Selling seemed to be the only option.
“There’ll still be a good bit left over,” Jenny told her brother over the phone. Young Jamie, just two, screamed in the background. “Ye’ll be able to buy a nice place of yer own, once ye finish school. Something more manageable.”
But Jamie would never go back to university.
In his single-minded, pigheaded way, he forced through the only idea he could come up with to save his home. He combined his small settlement with a business loan from the bank to pay off Lallybroch's debt. He parceled out some of the land, though it wrenched his gut to do so, and sold it off to finance the renovations. If it took turning the house where he was born, where his father died, into a tourist attraction to save it, then so be it. The trade-off was worth it.
But like his father before him, Jamie missed something in his financial dealings. Because when he sold the plot of land at the head of the narrow valley, he thought he was selling it to another farmer, someone who wanted to grow wheat or barley or keep it for grazing land. But Byzantine business structures hid the truth—Jamie sold the land to a subsidiary of Leoch Minerals, his uncle Dougal’s company. And at the edge of their new property, where it bordered the remaining Broch Tuarach estate, they discovered traces of cobalt-bearing ore.
“A pit mine,” Jamie spat. “That's what they’ll turn her into. Strip her bare, line their pockets, and leave her for dead.”
His voice was raw and his eyes red-rimmed. I didn’t remember moving, but I was kneeling in front of him, and he was gripping my hand like a lifeline.
“Dougal thinks he can squeeze me out. Buy my loan from the bank, change the terms so I cannae afford the payments. And he’s working Jenny, to make it seem like I’m out of my depth so she’ll push me to sell.” He hung his head. “It was meant tae be hers, too—she thought it was a daft idea to try and keep it, but she knew I’d find a way do it with or without her. So she and Ian agreed not to cash out her share to buy their own place. An’ now they’ve got three bairns in a rented terrace house while I’m here, drivin' her inheritance into the ground.”
Suddenly, I could see just how young he really was. I had assumed we were the same age, but if I’d understood his story right, he couldn’t even be 23. The enormity of everything he carried hit me, and my vision started to swim.
“Jamie,” I breathed, squeezing his hand even tighter.
“I dinna ken what to do,” he whispered shakily. “The money from the land is runnin’ out and—”
He couldn’t catch his breath to continue. The gathering storm of despair had darkened his beautiful blue eyes.
I couldn’t stand to see him that way. I scrambled across the few inches of pine floor between us and flung my arms around him. I could feel myself speaking, but I had no real notion of what was coming out of my mouth.
Jamie wrapped his big arms around my waist desperately, his head buried at my throat. I could feel his parted lips pressed against my collarbone as he sucked in air, trying to choke down sobs. The tears he didn’t want me to see dampened the neckline of my shirt, and he shook violently.
“You’re all right, you’re all right,” I murmured over and over, as though saying the mantra enough times could make it true. “It’ll all be all right."
Some time later, Jamie lay quiet with his head on my lap. I had ended up seated on the rough subfloor, back against the original stone wall that had stood since the 18th century, with my legs extended. I could hear his steady breathing—he’d fallen asleep. I peered down at his face as I absently stroked his hair, and I could just see his lips twitch up into the tiniest of smiles.
“Oh,” I said, suddenly without breath.
If I was honest with myself, it had been there for weeks. But up until now, I could only bring myself to look at it obliquely. Like the sunbeam that had engulfed him the day we met, it was too bright, too intense to stare at straight on. But in the quiet times, when we’d been working side by side or just sitting together wordlessly for long enough that I could forget anything existed outside of the two of us, I would catch it out of the corner of my eye. A flutter, a glance. A lingering moment, standing closer than I consciously realized.
But now, here it was, in my lap, tangled around my hands.