Claire smiled warmly and extended her hand to Jenny. “Jenny, hi. It’s nice to meet you.”
Jenny was looking at her with an odd smile on her face, like she was trying to make sense of something. For Claire’s part, she couldn’t take her eyes off of Jenny; she was stricken with the sense that she knew her from somewhere.
“Erm,” Claire said, looking away, realizing that she must have been staring. “I guess I need to check in?”
Jenny nodded, still smiling. “Oh, aye, we will get ye all checked in, nay worry. Listen, yer actually not in the main house. Ye’ll be in one o’ our newly renovated cottages. Can I ask that ye wait in the library? The room isn’t completely ready yet, aye? We actually aren’t fully open to the public; we’re in the midst of a soft launch, ye see.”
“What about my friend Geillis Duncan? She booked the rooms for us, but she didn’t say anything about cottages, and I don’t have a confirmation number or anything…” Claire trailed off as Jenny shook her head.
“Oh, I’m sae sorry, but Ms. Duncan canceled just before you got here,” Jenny said with a pleasant smile.
“She what ?” Claire barked out, surprised. “There must be some mistake??”
“I’m sorry, I dinna ken anything other than that, Claire.” Jenny stretched out her arm to guide Claire in front of her, placing her hand on Claire’s shoulder. “Let me take ye tae the library for now, aye?”
“Of course,” Claire said, striving for calm. “Lead the way.”
Jenny led her up the stairs and down the hall, stepping aside when they came to a large, ornately carved door, which was likely an original to the house.
“Here we are,” Jenny said, opening the door and gesturing for Claire to walk in ahead of her. Claire gasped as she looked around the room.
“This is gorgeous,” Claire said, eyes wide in wonder. “Are all of the rooms this beautiful?”
“I like tae think they are,” she said, obviously pleased with the compliment. “This was my family’s home, ken? It dates back to the 1700s.”
Claire nodded, continuing to take in her surroundings, momentarily forgetting about her friend’s great betrayal.
“We have a nice bar wi’ whisky, tea, and some water. Just here.” Jenny pointed to a small bar near the middle of the room. “Please make yourself at home, aye? I’ll be back soon.”
Claire thanked Jenny, turning to watch her bustle out of the room before she opened her purse to fish out her cellphone. She hit Geillis’s number and started pacing by the couch in the middle of the room. Geillis’s phone rang several times before going to voicemail.
Claire gritted her teeth as the voicemail tone beeped. “Geillis, what the bloody hell is going on?” Claire spat out. “I’m at Lallybroch and the owner said you called to cancel? Call me back. NOW.”
Claire huffed as she ended the call and stowed her phone back in her purse. Placing her purse next to the couch, she took a couple of breaths and looked around the large library, rotating in the spot where she stood.
The library was breathtaking. Large, built-in bookshelves adorned the walls from ceiling to floor, and the shelves covered most of the room in its entirety. The large, leaded glass picture window sat in the middle of the exterior wall and boasted a built-in window seat that appeared large enough to comfortably lie down on. Claire fizzled with excitement at the thought of stretching out with a good book for hours. She’d have to ask Jenny if she could come read during the day tomorrow.
A large, ornately carved fireplace stood sentinel at the far end of the room; the fire in the grate crackling happily. Above the mantle stood a large oil painting of Lallybroch and its grounds. Turning her attention back to the bookshelves, Claire walked over and gently moved her fingers along several of the countless leather-bound books lining the shelves. The spines, soft and worn with age, felt like butter against her fingertips. She breathed in the scent of leather, old books, and the smell of the fire and felt at peace. Geillis or no Geillis, she thought, I’ll enjoy this place just fine.
The bar that Jenny had referenced sat in front of the window; Claire made her way to it and picked up a finely-made crystal glass to pour herself a drink. The glass she selected was heavy; its weight reassuring to her. Moving closer to the assorted dark liquors, she froze, gasping when she saw the label of the bottle closest to her. She quickly set the glass on the bar and picked up the bottle, feeling light-headed and nauseous.
She hadn’t needed to pick up the bottle to see the label; she’d memorized it, after all, she thought, but she was still too stunned to believe what she was seeing. The elaborate “F” printed on the label stared back at her. “F” as in Fraser’s Distillery. “F” for Jamie Fraser. Claire closed her eyes, trying to calm her now racing heart. “Bloody Hell, of all the whisky in Scotland,” she said quietly to herself.
Regaining her composure, she poured a healthy measure of whisky and brought the glass to her nose, inhaling deeply. Jamie , she thought, her heart twisting. She took a long drink, savoring the flavors on her palette, feeling another sharp stab of memory as she tasted the whisky. Tastes exactly like Jamie Fraser. She felt her stomach clench and shivered, remembering how he’d introduced himself to her at the bar. His eyes. His smile. His voice as he talked about his whisky. His hands as they shyly explored hers. The heat of his body as he inched closer to her at the bar.
Still feeling lightheaded, she moved to sit on the couch to watch the snow fall outside the window. She placed the whisky tumbler on a coaster and brought her hand to her neck, massaging a sore spot in slow circles, still thinking of Jamie. For the moment, she thought herself unable or unwilling to stop thinking of him, and closed her eyes, allowing the memories to wash over her. She sighed wistfully as she thought of him, first at the hotel bar, then in the hallway where he kissed her for the first time, and then their first time in bed together. “ Nothing will ever taste as good as you,” he’d whispered in her ear. Claire let out a small whimper at the memory. Her eyes flew open as the sound she’d made jolted her from her reverie.
She picked up her whisky and tossed it back, draining the amber liquid in a single gulp. “Bloody Scot,” she said under her breath. She’d done a decent job of shoving the memories away as of late, finally arriving at a place where she could think of the weekend as a fun experience instead of dwelling on what could have been if they’d parted on better terms.
Standing up, she went to refill her whisky and moved across the room to the fireplace to admire the painting of Lallybroch above the mantle. The stately stone mansion stood out among the brilliant pinks, oranges, yellows, and reds of the setting sun. At the corner of the painting, she noticed the initials. “E-M-F,” she read aloud to herself. Claire remained fixed at the spot, staring at the fire and painting until her eyes began losing focus. She still felt restless, but the whisky was doing wonders to calm her nerves, making her feel warm and relaxed all over. This is cozy, she thought.
She was still admiring the painting when she heard the door open. “Jenny, this library is a dream,” Claire gushed. When no one answered, Claire turned to face the door and gasped.
“ Jamie ?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
Jamie Fraser stood at the doorway, wearing an expression of surprise and shock on his face. Claire, slack-jawed and momentarily speechless, stared at him in disbelief. After a moment, he crossed the room in four strides until he was standing in front of Claire.
The vision in front of her was doing nothing to stem the flow of illicit memories she’d been thinking of only moments ago. “You grew your hair out,” she said.
Jamie Fraser, the bloody bastard, has become even more gorgeous since I saw him last, Claire thought abstractedly . Jamie’s hair now came close to brushing his shoulders, and his auburn and cinnamon curls danced in the firelight. Claire couldn’t help but think of running her fingers through it.
Claire continued to stare at Jamie as though he were an apparition; her heart raced and her palms felt clammy.
“Claire,” Jamie said in a cool, clipped tone. “What are ye doing here?”
The chill in Jamie’s voice brought Claire back to the reality in front of her. “Well, hello to you, Jamie. I’m fine, thanks for asking,” Claire said, feeling heat spread across her skin as adrenaline began pumping through her veins.
Jamie swallowed harshly and squared his jaw. “Who invited ye here? I wasn’t aware you knew my family,” Jamie said, his voice steely and impersonal.
“Your family?” asked Claire, stunned. “I don’t know your family, Jamie.”
“This is my family home. I told ye that Jenny and Ian were starting a bed and breakfast, remember? I’m sure I mentioned it the last time I saw ye,” he said slowly, enunciating the last few words to emphasize his meaning.
“I sure as Hell didn’t bloody know that this place was the one you told me about,” Claire said venomously, her voice rising. Claire’s face felt hot, and she bit the inside of her cheek in an effort to control herself. If this is how he was going to talk to me now, she thought, then I’m definitely not going to give him the satisfaction of crying in front of him. Not now, not ever. “And I sure as Hell wouldn’t have come here if I knew it had anything to do with you,” she added, feeling defensive.
Claire saw Jamie’s face fall momentarily before he quickly rearranged his features in a more stoic expression; Claire felt pleased to see that he appeared to be having difficulty keeping his feelings in check.
“Weel then, I suppose ye’ll be leaving now,” he said. “Ye certainly know how to do that well enough, aye?”
Jamie’s blow landed squarely in Claire’s gut. “I did no more and no less than what you requested of me, or perhaps you’ve already forgotten that part? The part where you asked me to leave? I’m sure you picked up plenty of women while you were in the States selling your stupid whisky,” she said bitterly. “I’d understand if you’re having a hard time keeping us all straight. I was the one you fucked in New York, does that help?”
Jamie’s eyes flashed with blue fire. “Ye have nae idea what yer talking about,” Jamie said evenly, taking a few steps toward her.
Claire took a few steps toward him in response, eager to match him blow for blow. “Oh, don’t I?” she said, her voice high. You spent an entire weekend with me, making me feel…” she paused before going on. “Making me feel the way you did, and then you just, what, dismiss me without even attempting to talk to me about it? Was I that easy to throw away? Jesus, Jamie,” Claire spat out, feeling breathless.
“ Dismiss ye ,” Jamie huffed out. “Are ye serious?” he asked, his accent thickening with his temper. “Ye lied tae me all weekend, and now yer blamin’ me fer being mad about it, and now ye stand here - in my home - accusin’ me of fucking my way through the States?” Jamie said, the trace of bitter laughter evident in his voice.
Claire shook her head, realizing that they had gotten so close to one another that she was forced to crane her neck to look him in the eyes. She took a couple of steps back, unable to stop herself from breathing in his scent, something woodsy with a hint of whisky. Something entirely Jamie.
“Ye lied about yer name, Claire,” Jamie continued. “What was I supposed tae do? Say ‘thank ye for telling me, nae problem, and then what? Take ye back tae bed? Ask ye tae cancel yer flight and stay wi’ me another day? What did ye want? What did ye expect tae happen?” Jamie swallowed as though he were willing himself to stop talking. Claire could see his pulse throbbing wildly in his neck.
“It seems you’ve given quite a bit of thought to that, doesn’t it?” Claire said, trying her best to sound as furious as she now felt. “Just - it doesn’t - fucking Hell, it doesn’t fucking matter now,” Claire said, biting back the tears threatening to fall. She felt her face crack and admonished herself silently for not being better at controlling her features.
Jamie’s face flickered and momentarily softened before he rearranged his features to a more neutral position. “Fine, yer right. It doesna matter,” Jamie said, his voice low, almost a growl. “Clearly the weekend didna mean anything tae ye anyway, or maybe ye would ha’ reached out tae me.”
Claire felt something snap at his words. “Don’t you dare tell me what I felt about our weekend together,” Claire yelled, her voice sharp. “You couldn’t find the courage or decency to reach out to me after you read the letter I left for you,” she said, her hands gesturing wildly in a show of frustration and agitation. “Are you going to pretend you didn’t see it or read it Jamie? It’s not like I intentionally hid it from you.”
“I have nae idea what yer on about,” Jamie said, his eyes narrowing in genuine confusion. “What letter, Claire?”
Claire folded her arms in front of her chest. “So, yes, you are going to pretend like you didn’t read it, then,” she said, answering her own question. “That’s fine . Like I said, it doesn’t matter now,” Claire said, shaking her head and turning to move toward the couch to collect her belongings. “I’m leaving, so you can quit being such a goddamned, bloody bastard. Coward.” Claire spat the last word through gritted teeth.
Jamie followed her to the couch, his fists balled at his sides.
“A coward now, am I?” Jamie yelled. “Aye, and I ken what it looks like when ye leave,” Jamie said in a dangerous voice. “I said I had nae idea what ye’re talking about, so quit acting like such a self-righteous cun –”
“James. Alexander. Malcolm. Mackenzie. Fraser,” said a woman’s stern voice from the doorway.
Claire and Jamie jumped, both turning toward the owner of the voice.
A tall, elegant woman with long, brilliantly red and white-streaked hair stood in the doorway, staring open-mouthed at Jamie, wearing the same furious expression Claire had just seen on Jamie’s face.
“Mam,” Jamie said, his voice flat.
Jamie’s mother crossed the room to join Jamie and Claire by the couch. Claire, for her part, couldn’t stop staring at her - at Jamie’s mother. She imagined that her hair must have once been the same tones of copper, auburn, and cinnamon of her son’s hair. She was wearing a beautiful ivory cashmere sweater that brought out the color of her eyes, and as she looked closely at her features, she could see how much her son favored her. Claire gasped in sudden recognition. Jenny. That’s why she looked familiar. Good Lord, she thought , how many other Frasers are running around this bloody house?
“Don’t ye dare speak that way ta anyone in this house, James,” she continued. “Or ever,” she added for good measure.
Jamie had the good sense to look abashed. “Sorry, mam,” he mumbled, looking down at his feet. “We were just arguing and I lost my heid.”
”That Fraser temper, I swear, Jamie,” she said, shaking her head. “Ye certainly didna get that from the Mackenzie side of the family.”
Jamie snorted. “Oh, aye, the Mackenzies are kent well fer their sweet personalities, Mam,” he said sarcastically.
Jamie’s mom ignored this, instead turning her attention to Claire and giving her a radiant smile, which Claire returned shyly. “My son seems to have lost all of his manners, so it seems I’ll introduce myself. I’m Ellen Fraser,” she said warmly. “And ye must be Claire ,” she said, looking at Claire as though she hadn’t heard Claire fighting with her son.
Claire winched, feeling her cheeks heat once again, this time from embarrassment. Perhaps the floor will open and swallow me whole, Claire thought, silently begging for her wish to come true. She steeled herself, extending her arm. “Yes, I’m Claire. Claire Beauchamp,” she said, striving for an airy tone that she definitely did not feel. Ellen enveloped both of Claire’s with hers. “I’m sae pleased tae meet ye, Claire,” Ellen said, beaming.
Jamie snorted. “Aye, Claire. Claire. Elizabeth. Beauchamp,” Jamie taunted. “Or sae she says.” He swallowed, clearly trying to stop himself from saying anything else in front of his mother.
Claire’s eyes widened, feeling her anger bubble back to the surface. “That’s it.” She extracted her hands from Ellen’s gentle, warm grasp. “It was so lovely meeting you, but I’ll be going now. I can’t stay here and listen to this,” Claire said, moving toward the door, stopping abruptly as Jenny materialized in front of her. “Jenny,” Claire said weakly.
Jenny walked into the room, looking from Claire, to Jamie, to Ellen, and then back to Claire. “What’s the kebbie-lebbie about?” she asked. “Ian is just getting Young Jamie tae sleep, and we can hear ye down th’ hall.”
Jamie drew himself up to his fullest height and crossed his arms in front of his chest. Inclining his head toward Claire, he said, “Nay bother, Jenny, Claire was just leaving.”
“I very much doubt that, brother,” she scoffed. “She’s our first guest here, sae dinna be sae rude,” Jenny said, eyes sparkling.
Jamie made a deep noise in his throat. “Janet, dinna be daft, the place isn’t even open yet. And ye dinna even ken who Claire is.”
“We ken fine who Claire is, brother, and we all think ye both needed tae see each other and talk some things out, ken?” She flashed Jamie a large, superficial smile – something Claire thought Jenny probably reserved specifically for her sibling.
“How did ye – what did ye mean we – I didna even tell John her real name,” Jamie stammered. “Ye invited her here?” Jamie’s eyes went wide as he looked from Ellen to Jenny in disbelief.
Jenny beamed, giving him a look that was so quintessentially Jamie that Claire would have laughed if the circumstances were different. “Aye, we, ” Jenny said patiently. “John gave Minnie the other name and o’ course Minnie figured it out.” Jenny was glowing with satisfaction.
Claire pinched her nose, suddenly feeling tired and dazed; clearly, the effects of the whisky was finally catching up to her brain. “Jenny,” Claire said, hesitating, “Did you somehow know Geillis before she even called to book this place?”
“Weel, as it sae happens, Claire, Minnie works in the same building as Geillis, an’ they got tae talking, an’ things kind of fell into place, ken?” Jenny shrugged in a playful gesture, her eyes alight with mischief.
“And who is Minnie?” Claire asked, turning toward Jamie in demand of an answer.
Jamie sighed, rubbing his nose with his thumb and forefinger just as Claire had done moments ago. “She’s a family friend,” he said. “Look, ye all had nae right tae do any o’ this, Janet,” he said, walking toward his sister and stopping inches from her face. “Keep yer neb out of my business.”
And with that, Jamie stalked out of the room, leaving the women silently looking after him until they heard the front door open and slammed shut.