James Fraser stepped into the pub followed by his older brother Willie. Although it was still early evening, there was already a small crowd all hyped up into a party mode. The multiple flat TV screens on the walls were showing world championship darts without the sounds. Instead, the speakers blared with Wham's Last Christmas song with the random interference from the resident DJ. While a handful of men milled around the bar holding their pints, the women sat at the table chattering animatedly and sipping long drinks and port. With Christmas Eve only two days away, there was a sense of excitement and goodwill in the air, typical of the festive season.
"Check out those birds at three o'clock."
Jamie cocked his head at Willie's words.
Two wide-eyed bonnie lassies stood next to the pool table sipping cocktails as if awaiting their turn for a game. Living in a tight community where everyone knew everybody and their business, Jamie immediately discerned the girls were visitors.
Willie unzipped his jacket. "I saw blondie first."
Jamie followed his brother's line of sight, but his eyes darted back to the dark-haired lass with the palest skin he'd ever seen, her tresses done up in a messy bun. Her long legs, accentuated by tight black jeans, grabbed his complete attention. She had a cropped red cable-knit sweater on and boots caked with mud which meant she must have been watching the shinty game earlier along with the rest of the village folks.
"Bloody hell, look at her," Willie murmured.
Blondie wore a purple turtle neck top that showed off her nice breasts, and jeans that hugged her hips snuggly. Jamie grinned. "Och, ye like 'em curvy, but I like her mate more. Shall we talk to them?"
"Aye, let's do that before one of those lads get there first."
Jamie made a move forward.
"Hang on a minute," Willie's hand slapped across Jamie's chest, stopping him mid-saunter. "Yer ex ... she's back here for the holidays. She's sat at the bar with her mates. Are ye sure ye're ready for this?"
"Aye, aye. It's been over between us for ages," Jamie replied, not taking his eyes off the dark-haired lass. He hadn't thought about his ex for a long time and whatever he thought he'd felt for her back then, was nothing but a distant memory.
"This is just a bit of fun, alright? Dinnae get too attached. Blondie and her mate are probably tourists."
Willie had seen him go through hell over a year ago with his ex, who he thought had been the one for him. She had turned his life upside down, affecting his job, and his ability to stay sober after she'd cheated on him. Once Jamie got his act together, he'd sworn off serious relationships and decided to concentrate on work.
"Fun. Fun sounds good," Jamie muttered. When Willie didn't release him, he looked at his brother square in the eyes. "How about ye?"
"What about me?"
"Ye haven't chatted up a lass in a very long time. Are ye sure you still know how to?" Jamie asked, trying to keep a straight face.
Willie shoved his shoulder and feigned offence. "Ye cheeky git! Cannae chat any lass up when I know everyone here, now, can I?"
Jamie nodded toward the two girls. "Weel, what are we waiting for?" He took a deep breath and kinked his head sideways to the left and then to the right. "If we're just gonnae stand here like a couple of numpties and discuss, we'd be too late by the time we get there."
"Mmm, never seen ye this eager to meet a lass before," Willie grinned.
Jamie looked back at the women and noticed they were beginning to garner attention from the lads nearby. The dark-haired one made a move around the pool table followed by her mate, and he was powerless to stop his gaze wandering down to the gentle curve of her arse.
Willie straightened his posture. "Let's go," he exhaled as he made a move.
Jamie followed suit and lined up next to his brother. As they got closer, he watched as the dark-haired lass skirted past a group of pool players with a polite smile, then wrote her initials in chalk on a blackboard mounted to the wall, claiming the next game. CB, she scrawled.
She wrinkled her nose and laughed at something her friend said as she started moving towards the bar. Jamie's frown deepened when the lass didn't see the sports bag put into her path. A few steps more, and she would trip and fall flat on her face. But not if he could help it.
"Hey!" Jamie shouted, abandoning Willie's side. "Hey, ye!"
She took another step, looking over her shoulder to acknowledge what her friend was shouting at her.
"Ah, fuck!" Jamie gritted his teeth and hurried towards her in quick long strides. He had no choice but to jostle a couple of bodies out of his way as she showed no signs of hearing him. He caught her as her foot connected with the bulky bag, his arms sliding under hers and pulling her up.
Her forehead bounced off his chin. "Oh, Lordy, Lordy." She let out a lungful of air and dug her fingernails into his forearms, her breath on his neck feeling like a double shot of heat warming his insides. "I'm such a clumsy oaf."
"Hey mate, shove that bag under the table will ye, before someone breaks their neck," Jamie shouted over the top of her head at the owner of the bag, his voice sounding a tad harsh. With her front plastered against him, Jamie could almost feel her shock subside, giving way to the vibration of her laughter. Still holding her close, he puffed out a sigh and whispered into her ears. "Next time, ye should look at where ye're going. Ye could have landed on yer face, and that wouldn't have been a pretty sight."
Still laughing, her shoulders shook, presumably finding the situation hilarious. "We left our Airbnb earlier in a hurry, and my contact lenses are at the bottom of my suitcase. I'm farsighted, you see, but I'm too vain to wear my specs."
"Enough to fall flat on yer face? "
A few heartbeats passed. "If I say yes, are you going to start yelling again?"
"Alright then ...no."
Realising he still held the lass in a firm grip, Jamie let her go slowly to reassure himself she was steady on her feet. She kept her head down as she took a step back to rummage through the handbag slung on her shoulder. When she got hold of what she was looking for, she put on a pair of specs and blinked up at him through round, black-rimmed eyeglasses. As their eyes met, he felt something crank in his chest. He must still be wound up from the shinty game earlier because, on a sucked-in breath, an uneven sound passed through his mouth. A Dhia. She had the most beautiful amber eyes, and they reminded him of the colour of the finest heavily peated single malt whisky, Islay had to offer.
"Oooh!" she whispered.
Aye, tell me about it. "What's yer name?"
"You're one of the shinty players from earlier."
"Uh-huh." He tamped down the urge to laugh. "Yer name?" he repeated.
If the spellbound look in her eyes meant she was stunned by what she saw, she wasn't the only one. "Oh, yes. Sorry. I'm Claire. Beauchamp. Claire Beauchamp."
"Claire." For some reason, colour bloomed in her face when he said her name. "I'm Jamie Fraser."
"Hi." After a few seconds of just staring at each other, she recovered first and slapped a hand to her forehead. "Oh, shoot, where are my manners? Thank you. Thank you for saving me from an undignified fall." Her lips twitched, and her eyes twinkled. "If I had died of embarrassment, at least no one would care since nobody knows me here."
"I would care." Someone collided into him from behind, making him close the distance between them and her head tilt back to maintain eye contact. She was a tall lass, but still, he was a head taller than her. "So ... ye're here on holiday?" he asked.
"Yes, I am ...until Boxing Day. And then we're going to Edinburgh for Hogmanay. And then flying back to London on Three Kings from Glasgow." He heard her swallow. "I have a thing for Christmas in Scotland, you see."
"Is that so? What else do ye have a thing for?"
"Probably a lot of other stuff," she whispered, clutching her handbag in front of her. "But I'm having difficulty thinking of them right this minute."
"And why is that?" God, she's breathtakingly beautiful.
"I guess I'm still rattled by that near fall." She shrugged her shoulders, her eyes sparkling with amusement. "Or have you forgotten all about that already?"
Jamie couldn't stop his grin. "No, not at all." In his periphery, he saw his brother and Claire's friend chatting. He wondered if he could whisk Claire away. This lass is something else. She wasn't staying here for very long, and he wanted to get to know her and make every second count.
He cleared his throat. "Look, Sassenach ..."
He felt heat glid at the back of his neck. "Sorry ... it's a Gaelic word. It means an outsider or someone from not around here. In case ye misunderstood, it's not my intention to make it sound like ye're not welcome here. Let's just say I meant it as a pet name. Endearment, if ye will."
He regarded her as her eyes searched his face, and she made no effort at all to hide her perusal of his lips. When a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, and her eyes lit up into a wicked glint, his chest expanded a hundred-fold. "I like the sound of that ...Sassenach," she breathed as she rolled the Gaelic word in her tongue.
"Mmm, so, you're from London, huh?"
She shoved her hands in the back pocket of her jeans and rocked back on her heels. "Yeah. I'm originally from Oxford. But I live and work in London as an editorial assistant for a publishing company. How about you? What do you do, besides playing shinty?"
"I'm a tree surgeon. My brother and I run an arboricultural business."
Her eyes widened in surprise. "Oh, wow! I've never met a tree surgeon before. So I guess you must love your job to make it into a business?"
"Aye, I do," he smiled, basking in her open interest in his life. "I love the outdoors and the fresh air, whatever the weather. How about ye? Do ye like yer job?"
She paused and frowned in contemplation. "It's alright," she shrugged. "It's a job that will bring me closer to fulfilling a dream, I guess. I want to be a fulltime writer one day ..."
It was his turn to be surprised. "Maybe ye should move to the countryside if ye want to be a writer. Far too many distractions in London, don't ye think?"
She grinned. "Yeah, I suppose so. But I'm enjoying London at the moment, and I'm not quite ready to give up the city life. Just yet. Maybe one day." She glanced at her watch. "Umm ...you must have somewhere to go."
He wasn't ready to let her walk away, so he forced a worried cast into his face. "Eh, ye look still shaken up. We should probably get ye something stiff to drink ...and my phone number."
Her eyes widened, and after a tense split second, laughter burst out of her lips, loud enough to turn heads in their vicinity. She brought her hand over her mouth to stifle the giggle but failed. The sound was so infectious, his own low rumble accompanied it, and he couldn't help but think, there's never been a time he felt such a powerful connection with another person.
"Actually I'm with my mate here," Claire said finally, jerking a thumb over her shoulder and twisting around to the direction of where her friend stood. "She's my French flatmate. But it looks like she's already found someone to talk to." She paused and squinted her eyes. "Oh ...I recognise that bloke she's with. He played shinty too, didn't he?"
Jamie waved at Willie and signalled him and Claire's friend to come over. "Aye, that's my older brother."
Claire's gaze shot right back to him. "Really?" With a smile that showed off perfect teeth, she pushed her specs higher on her nose. "I wouldn't have thought. I don't have a sibling, and I just presumed your whole family would have the same gorgeous auburn hair like yours. Well, alright ..." She crimsoned to her hairline as she looked at his approaching brother. "I see some similarities now ...height, broad shoulders and the colour of your eyes."
Jamie felt a pinch of unease. Even though her vivacity was endearing, he wasn't ready to feel drawn to anyone this deeply or to care at such an alarming rate and intensity. After his last relationship broke down, there hadn't been anyone that piqued his interest ...until now. And she would be leaving in a few days. Chatting to her was only meant to be a night of enjoying the company of a beautiful lass or perhaps a diversion in whom he could lose himself into for a short time. But the moment he'd looked into her eyes, warm feelings drove into his heart while burning urges grew low in his tummy. This lass was a breath of fresh air and sexy and exactly what he needed. He mentally shook his head to clear his brain. Looking beyond the top of her head, he blurred the image of seeing this as something more. The long-distance relationship was a no-go. He was a country lad at heart, and she belonged to the city.
"Jamie?" She was staring at him as if he'd lost some of his ability to think clearly.
"I'm sorry ...still listening. It's just that I'm not used to a beautiful lass pointing out my physical attributes," he reassured her with a smile.
That beautiful blush blew across her face again. Jamie found it adorable. How could she be direct and shy at the same time? "I didn't mean to sound so bold. It must have something to do with me living in the city for so long ...you know, us Londoners tend to have no filters."
He winked at her. "Dinnae fash, lass. I kinda like it." And he meant it.
She was about to respond when Willie and Claire's friend reached them, huge smiles painted across their faces like they'd hit it off.
The blonde girl took a step forward towards Jamie. "Hi! Claire and I enjoyed watching you guys play shinty earlier. I didn't realise it would be so aggressively physical. By the way, I'm Annalise," she smiled warmly, holding out her hand.
Jamie took it. "Aye, that it is and difficult to play when the grounds are too soggy. It could get pretty messy in this dreich weather." He shook her hand. "I'm Jamie ...please to meet ye."
"Likewise," Annalise replied, glancing at her friend.
Willie introduced himself to Claire, then brought his attention to their situation. "Looks like yer glasses are empty, ladies. Can we invite ye both to join us for a drink?"
Jamie saw Annalise elbow Claire with a conspiratorial look. When Claire nodded, Annalise batted her eyes at his brother. "Sure. That would be nice. I'd like a vodka and tonic please."
Willie grinned like he'd just received an early Christmas present and Jamie understood the feeling.
"Sassenach, what would ye like to drink?"
Before Claire could reply, Hugh, one of the lads in his shinty team, tapped her on the shoulder. "It's ye against me now, lass."
Claire swung around and looked at the cue stick being handed to her, and her eyes lit. Turning back to Jamie, she grinned. "This won't take long, but I'll have a single malt, neat, please." Then she stood on her tiptoes and gave him a peck on the cheek. "This is for good luck."
He froze. It was an innocent kiss, but it packed quite a punch.
"Oh ...and yeah, it's a belated thank you again for breaking my fall," she quickly added, suddenly, appearing unsure like she doubted the gesture.
A slow grin roused to form on his lips. "Ye can thank me by going out with me ...tonight," he said, without thinking.
"I'd like to show ye something."
Her brows wrinkled as she studied his face.
"I'd really like to get to know ye better and take ye out," he said. "Please allow me." If she said no, he was quite certain he was going to beg.
He smiled as relief surged through him. "I'll wait for you until ye finish yer game," he said. "We'll leave after we've had a drink with my brother and yer friend."
"Where are you taking me?"
She gave him a wary look, and he laughed.
"Listen." He leaned in close. "I'll get yer friend to take a picture of my driving licence if that will make ye feel better."
He was about to pull out his wallet to retrieve it when she stopped him with a wave of a hand. "I trust you."
"That's a good start."
She rolled her eyes and laughed, and he couldn't tear his eyes away from her.
Slowly backing away from him, she smiled. "Let me play this one game first, and then I'll be with you."
With his heart in his throat, he watched her progress as she walked towards the pool table and swapped a few quick words with her opponent, who seemed to be humouring her. After the lively exchange, Claire pulled up the sleeves of her sweater to her elbow and rubbed her hands together. Before she began chalking the cuestick, she gave him a wink. That mere display made the muscles in his belly clench, literally whooshing the breath out of him.
A slap on his back tore his gaze away from Claire. "Easy now lad," Willie said in a low, amused voice. "Ye look like ye could use the same drink as her."
Jamie glanced back at the subject of their conversation. "Aye, but make mine a double," he whispered.
"On it," Willie replied, laughing as he walked off.
What the bloody hell? He should be withdrawing himself away from this attraction because this mad instant bond between them was like an overloaded electrical fuse, capable of incinerating him alive. He'd already learnt his lesson from his last relationship. He'd been there and done that, but yet he didn't have the will to stop himself from finding out how their connection would play out.
Oh, Christ, this is bad. So, so bad, I'm in so much big trouble. Taking a huge sigh, he found himself a stool nearest to the pool table and watched Claire steal the show from the best snooker player in Broch Mordha.