At age thirty-three and five months, Claire Beauchamp found herself in an unfamiliar yellow wallpapered kitchen doing battle with a window.
In the far northern Scottish Highlands.
The industrious efforts of an unidentified amateur house painter had apparently sealed the window closed under at least half a dozen layers of cigarette-yellow paint (God knows how many years earlier). Clad in a t-shirt and athletic socks, unemployed, and single (none of the above descriptors constituting afflictions as much as symptoms of empowerment, thank you very much), Claire didn’t know if she should push or pull to force the window open. So she did both in turn with no small amount of profanity narrating her efforts.
She just needed a little bit of fresh air.
There had been some small victories at the bed and breakfast (or what she referred to as “the fucking bed and breakfast” instead of “my bed and breakfast”), enough to sustain her into her third full day in the house, anyway. The water in the bed and breakfast had started to run clear only two days earlier, and the memory of her uncharacteristically ebullient dance in the foyer as the chandelier overhead buzzed to life with working electricity was still fresh on her mind.
But the window (the bloody window) was yet another entry on a litany of “structural peculiarities” (a turn of phrase coined by a contractor) inherent in the bed and breakfast. It was (evidently) part of the home’s “natural charm” (again, the bloody contractor).
“‘Charm’ my English arse….” she muttered, squinting longingly at the lush green landscape just beyond the stubborn window. It was an elaborate tease, having all that nature just outside her reach. She could almost feel the cool breeze against her skin, how it would wick sweat from the back of her neck and carry the crisp mountain valley scent into the mildewed house. Through gritted teeth, she hissed, “Come on, you bloody thing!”
The crack started slowly, the fissure initially restrained along an invisible faultline, a weakness in the pane silently waiting and waiting for precisely thatmoment.
The crack grew as she fought more valiantly against the sealed-shut window (her quarrel with the window stemming from pride as much as a need for some fresh air in the musty house). It spread like a lackadaisical fungus until it bloomed into an invasive species.
By the time the crack swallowed the pane in its entirety, Claire was considering just putting a dishcloth-wrapped fist through the bloody thing. Rejecting the inclination, her mind scribbled a mental note to search YouTube for a video on how to repair glass. (She was unsure whether such a thing was even possible. The retinue of home and garden television programs that formed her baseline knowledge for renovating the fucking bed and breakfast had given her no guidance on such a matter.)
Her foot pressed into a cabinet door for some leverage as she gave the window one final push, almost bellowing, “How in the hell did I get here?”
And with that, the moisture-softened wood groaned beneath her small hands and relented.
For a moment she stood dumbstruck, eyes closing as she inhaled the crisp air.
The sensation was openness itself. Invigorating and even better than she had imagined.
“You’re not utterly useless, Beauchamp,” she declared as she exhaled, turning off the howling kettle adjacent to the sink. “You have water. You have electricity. You have tea. This is all a modern British woman needs.”
As Claire lifted the strainer from her cup of tea and dropped it into the kitchen sink (a sturdy, farmhouse-style porcelain fixture shockingly devoid of any cosmetic defects, which she assumed meant that said sink concealed some grave plumbing malformation), she ran through the list of things she wanted to accomplish with her Tuesday. When she tore the seal on a box of granola, she was rudely interrupted by the bed and breakfast’s only houseguest (a rotund ball of fur she had taken to calling Adso) launching itself onto the counter.
Despite being quite fat, the cat had a silent, panther-like confidence. Charcoal grey, but for two gleaming yellow-green eyes, Adso had quickly become a surly ally in her renovation project. In the time before she had bequeathed a name upon the animal, Adso had boldly sauntered across the threshold in the dead of night as she wrestled her belongings into the house a few days earlier. With one paw crossing over the other like a feline supermodel, it had a boldness that she could have only wished to feel. She found the feline quite charming, all things considered. Too tired to shoo the beast away that first night, Claire had shared a pouch of tuna with it (courtesy of the motley bag of snacks and twist-top wine purchased at a petrol station).
And so it had been for the following three days.
Just Claire and a gloriously fluffy, maltempered cat of indeterminate sex.
“Well, hello there,” she greeted Adso softly, reaching out to offer a scratch. Adso feinted and haughtily turned a perfectly triangular nose up as if to make clear his position that Claire was his houseguest. This was his royal manor, it seemed.
Only when Claire went for the half-empty tin of wet cat food in the refrigerator (a blessedly operational appliance that had, against all odds, not contained the archaeological specimens of a previous tenant’s foodstuffs) did her feline companion dive gracefully from the counter. As she peeled the lid and exposed the fetid gray flakes (allegedly “white fish and gravy”), Adso began to waltz a gentle, nudging figure-eight along Claire’s calves and shins.
Clicking her tongue, she shook her head. “Such fine company, even if you’re a bit fickle.”
Two days earlier (her first full day at the fucking bed and breakfast which proved to be the most overwhelming day of her life, even considering her first day as a physician), Claire had met Rupert MacKenzie. He was the contractor with the overly-forgiving vocabulary – nattering on about charm and character while her eyes focused with laser precision on the abject decay. MacKenzie came armed with a 4.9 star review on Google and a brogue so deep Claire found herself squinting thoughtfully and nodding in agreement with most of what he said (which wasLord-knows-what).
Her uncharacteristic acquiescence to whatever it was that MacKenzie said came to a screeching halt, however, when he passed her his written estimate.
Seventy-five thousand pounds.
Claire had never known that one could feel the blood draining from her face, but there she was. Learning the physical sensation of her face blanching at the proposal to bring the fucking bed and breakfast up to code. Folding the estimate and giving MacKenzie a curt nod she hoped looked like the gesture of a thoughtful and thrifty businesswoman, Claire said she would certainly ring him when she made her choice.
Knowing full well the amount in her bank account, Claire knew she would nevercall MacKenzie to retain his services.
This was truly going to be a personal effort.
With a handful of dry granola in her belly, Claire fell headlong into Tuesday’s first project.
She started in the living room, singing along to bad pop (crooning with Dolly Parton that she was just a step on the bossman’s ladder, but she’s got dreams he’ll never take away – an apt soundtrack given the end of her position at the London City Hospital). On her hands and knees, she made a game of scrubbing the floors, walls, and moldings (how much filth of unknown origin could she unearth with a rag and a bucket of hot, soapy water?). She moved on to the lounge, a narrow powder room, and a dusty, closet-like bedroom. Engaged in a careful inspection of each room, she mentally cataloged the things that she would need to bring the place from dilapidated, haunted health hazard to acclaimed bed-and-breakfast (though she had no clue if it had ever been acclaimed, let alone presentable).
Nails, a hammer, and an assortment of screwdrivers (because no respectable do-it-yourselfer does not have such items in a kit).
Spackle (to fill the mysterious holes that appeared throughout the second level, like a ghost disgruntled with its empty and distinctly unhauntable habitat had thrown some corporeal punches at the plaster).
A new showerhead (she assumed a hardware shop would sell such a thing, one she hoped would fix the anemic trickle of water and the affliction of having two-temperatures in which to shower – glacier-scaling and hellmouth descent).
A sander (an item she knew existed conceptually, but never imagined owning).
Five hours and a significant amount of grime into her cleaning game, two things interrupted her progress.
The first was the ferocious protest of the muscles in her lower back.
The second was the snarling barbarian of her stomach calling out with a cramping moan for some form of sustenance.
She glanced at her watch and tapped its screen until the music shaking the windows paused. Adso discontinued a careful mid-afternoon bath and shifted to fall dramatically upon a wide beam of pale sunlight painting a creamy triangle on the hardwood floor.
Clambering to her feet, Claire got close to the velvety living room drapes for the first time. With a grimace, she realized that the same sunlight Adso followed in an almost-religious daily pilgrimage across the house had bleached the curtains from what she assumed had once been a formerly glorious color to a shade more akin to pale piss. Inhaling, she shuddered at the realization that the drapes were scented to match.
They would have to come down.
“I don’t have a drill,” she said to no one at all (not even her feline companion bothered to pay attention to the assorted tediums of her day, preferring instead to lick the soft fur surrounding its camouflaged cat junk).
She added an electric drill and assorted bits to her mental shopping list.
Another spasm pulsated deep in her lower back, and she groaned. The sensation, like a pestle grinding away on the mortar of her spine, resulted in the addition of a heating pad and vodka to her list.
Into the silence of the fucking bed and breakfast, she announced, “I’m going to town.”
Adso ignored her entirely.
The drive into Broch Mordha took roughly twenty-two minutes.
(Fourteen minutes of gut-churning hairpin turns on a single-track road. Four minutes of cajoling a group of wandering sheep to “move on, gentlemen” from her open driver’s side window. And four minutes to reverse her way onto the main road after a wrong turn took her up the seemingly endless driveway to someone’s home.)
By the time she arrived at her first stop (a shop declaring it sold hardware “& etc.”), Claire was armed with a mental list of purchases (the ad hoc one that was constructed mainly on how the place looked, rather than how it functioned). With a petrol station sausage roll in one hand, she jotted down what she could remember on the back of a napkin with the other. Her memory spent and the existence of the sausage roll evidenced only by the flakes on her cardigan and leggings, she stuffed her list into her handbag.
It was then, with shoulders squared and mind set to an afternoon of sorting through paint samples, that Claire Beauchamp first met James Fraser.
He was perched atop a ladder, arms suspended overhead and hands occupied with a wrench and some sort of pipe.
“Welcome to Fraser’s,” he said, attempting a smile as he redirected his attention from the pipe. At first Claire only mumbled and cast the source of the greeting a brief glance as she reached into her purse for the napkin. But that single glance was enough for her to realize that the man was well-made in a way that demanded she take a second look. “Ye lookin’ for something specific?”
‘Uh-huh,’ her mind slurred, have gone fully stupid in her aching, tired body. The rational sliver remaining in her scrambled egg mind implored her to ‘quit imagining the weight of the shop owner on top of you, Beauchamp.”
She cleared her throat and confessed, “A little bit of everything, I’m afraid.”
She wrangled her rain-damp curls into a low bun and scraped her fingers through the particularly intractable ones at her hairline in a hopeless attempt to tame the beast she imagined existed on top of her head.
“I have a bit of beginner’s regret over my decision not to hire a contractor for some projects.”
(There was no need to explain to this man – chief denizen of the Fraser’s Hardware Store Welcoming Committee – that she had limited resources, and it was unlikely that they would stretch to cover remodeling, furnishing, and staffing the fucking bed and breakfast. That even without the contract, the experiment was likely to bankrupt her.)
A look she could only describe as “bemused smirk” crossed the stranger’s face. “Ye’ve stumbled here – to the ends of the earth – for some wee projects?”
“Not quite stumbled, but I’m the new owner of Leoch Manor,” she supplied, entirely unsure of whether her addition would be at all helpful. Did people here know the name of the place, or had they come to refer to the rotted structure as she had (“that fucking bed and breakfast”)?
Before she could ask, the man gave a final crank on the pipe and brought his arms down to rest on the ladder’s shelf.
He was curious.
And with his direct attention, Claire found herself stunned into silence by the contrast of his loosely waving collar-length red hair with the almost-cerulean slash of eyes set above high cheekbones.
“Hadna heard the place sold. It’s been sitting empty, neglected for ages… when did ye–”
“–it’s… complicated,” she broke in, offering an apologetic smile as she slipped her phone into her back pocket and took a trolley.
“Aye, such things often are.” She said nothing. “They’re complicated, that is.”
He sounded kind, and she had no idea how to respond, so she launched into business. “I’m going to start with the low-hanging fruit. Some easy projects that any enterprising bed-and-breakfast owner can accomplish alone.”
“Ye ken that place’s got significant problems?”
She knew better than most, so she just rolled her eyes, and asked, “Do you have paint?”
“Aye,” he said again, the very corner of his mouth turning up to flash a glimpse of very straight, very white teeth. “I’m a respectable man, and I own this respectable hardware shop. Of course I stock paint.”
Claire’s fingers pulsed around the trolley’s handle; she felt her stomach flip as she nodded.
“I’m Jamie Fraser. Welcome to Broch Mordha.”
She could imagine that his tone (a mildly flirtatious burr accompanied by the sparkling of eyes that practically had the gentle tinkling sound of a distant wind chime) was generally endemic to men in the Highlands, but this man in particular.
“Claire…?” His voice rose in a question at the end. She realized that she’d never heard her name said like that (low, slow, with a penetrating look from beneath a fan of preternaturally-long eyelashes).
“Claire, the owner of Leoch Manor.”
He laughed, the sound rumbling from somewhere deep in his chest, and nodded. “Well, pleasure’s all mine, Claire the-owner-of-Leoch Manor. Let me ken if ye need some help, though I doubt ye’re the type who’ll ask. Ye’ll find that the paint’s in the third aisle from the left.”
Unsure of the reason for her reaction, Claire huffed and swatted the incorrigible tangle of curls away from her face as she took off in the direction of aisle three.
She had barely started to contemplate the merits of eggshell versus washable matte finishes and cozy warm greys versus soothing cool greys when she heard it.
A bellowed set of words she’d never heard (“ifrinn” the only one she felt confident had any consonants at all) and a sharp clatter. But it was the unmistakable sound of crunching bone that sent her stomach to the floor.
Fucking hardware shop owner.