James Fraser peered through his front windshield into the sunlight and wished he was back in his apartment in Edinburgh. If his older sister Jenny hadn't called earlier to drag him out of his blissful, mind-numbing slumber and reminded him of his nephew's birthday, he would have been still in bed. Instead of his usual routine of sleeping until past midday, eating junk food and washing it down with beer, playing Xbox and going back to sleep, he'd found himself putting on some fresh clothes and driving to Lallybroch. His sudden motivation had more to do with his nephew, wee Jamie. He wouldn't miss his birthday for the world, come rain or shine. Unfortunately, sunshine and children's parties seldom bode well for his mood while nursing a massive hangover.
It had been three months since he was last in Lallybroch - three months of avoiding his family and dodging questions about his future. He knew he'd hit his limit for grieving the untimely death of his career and feeling sorry for himself. It was time to face the world of adulting, and it was time for a change. But what change? A job in the Fraser distillery? It was his legacy and fallback plan, after all.
But he didn't need the money, and his brother-in-law, Ian Murray, was more than capable of overseeing its running. He considered going away to take an extended sabbatical and figure out what he wanted to do with life.
Not too long ago, he had been the nation's sports phenomenon until his sterling rugby career was prematurely cut short by a neck injury sustained during a Six Nations game against France. Later, it was discovered that he had a triple fracture of the vertebrae. Although he avoided any serious nerve damage and had worked with the best therapist in the country in an attempt to get back on the field, he'd been advised by his doctor and friend, Joe Abernathy to retire.
See it this way - you could have ended up in a wheelchair. Count your blessings, Jamie. You're still young, you have a fat bank account from your time in rugby and sponsorships, and the future is full of possibilities. How about going back to your roots? Like your family's distillery?
Jamie pushed himself out of his black BMW SUV with an annoyed grunt and grabbed the toy bicycle from the back seat of the car. He could hear the loud, shrill screams of children and smell burger meat grilling on the BBQ. Tugging on the collar of his T-shirt, he grimaced at the perspiration running down his back. It was a warm day, and already a headache was starting to grow. From his vantage point, he could see the flowers in the front of the manor house in full bloom and the path leading to the rear garden where the party was being held. Colourful birthday buntings were hung, and balloons decorated posts and hedges. Whether he wanted to be surrounded by people at that moment or not, coming home always hit him with a sense of nostalgia for a time when life was less complicated.
Tamping down the sudden urge to turn around and walk away, he thought of his wee nephew and kept moving. He wondered what kind of reception he would receive now that his identity had been stripped away. He'd always been a rugby player and the game ran in his veins. However, it appeared that the end of his career seemed to have cast a shadow over his every interaction. Ever since he retired, the topic of rugby had been delicately avoided anywhere he went. He thought if someone asked him about the weather or complimented on how good he looks one more time, he was going to implode.
Is this how it's going to be from now on? Pretending as though ten years of his rugby career never happened? What was the point of all the hard work then?
Jamie came to a stop when he reached the back of the house and took in the scene before him. A few adults were clustered around the makeshift buffet, and some congregated around the BBQ. There were probably around twenty children surrounding an entertainer who was dressed as a cartoon character from Paw Patrol. Conscious of his damp shirt sticking to him, he felt sorry for whoever was in the mascot outfit on this sweltering day. Somehow it made the state of his mood, and the complexity of his life seemed insignificant compared to the person earning a living dressed as a dog. Disgusted with his wallowing and despondency, he pulled himself together and took in a huge fortifying breath and braced himself.
"Uncle Jamie! Uncle Jamie! Ye're here!"
Jamie's gaze landed on the small figure hurtling towards him, hands flapping in the air. Putting the toy bike on the ground, he crouched down and grinned, opening his arms to catch his nephew. His lousy mood and discomfort dissipated all at once. " A chuilein ," he breathed, gripping the boy's small frame and lifting him in the air. He smelled of lollies, vanilla buttercream and baby sweat.
Wee Jamie squealed with delight as he was spun around. "I knew ye'd come, uncle! Ma said ye have lots and lots to do." As soon as he was released, he eyed the shiny red bike and let out a gasp. "Is that my pressie, uncle?"
He laughed. "Aye, that it is. Want to try it?"
"Ma! Look what I got from uncle Jamie!" his namesake shouted at the top of his lungs as he excitedly got on the bike.
Jamie watched his nephew pedal towards his mother to show off his latest acquisition.
Jenny turned, smiled and then she was coming towards him.
"Aah, the prodigal son is back home." Her face was flushed with heat, and her expression showed relief. He had been expecting reproof or anything of that sort. But his sister seemed genuinely happy to see him.
Guilt prickled his nerves. "Jenny ...can we talk?"
"Not now lad. We have plenty of time for that later. I'm just glad ye could make it." She stood on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek and stood back to get a better look at him, a platter dangling in one hand. "I need to get more buns in the kitchen. Can ye sort out the lass in the mascot costume for me? My purse is upstairs," she explained, jerking a thumb towards the children's entertainer.
"Aye, of course, I'll do that." There was a squeeze in his chest at the prospect of facing his whole family and explaining his disappearance. He knew it had to be done, and it was only a matter of time.
What have I gotten myself into? Argh, Geillis you owe me big time!
Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp rolled on her back in the grass, gasping for air as half a dozen five-year-olds piled on top of her. The impact of hyper and sugar-high children nearly dislodged her mask. She wished she was dressed as a clown or some other cartoon character instead, and one that didn't require her to put on such a weighty headgear. Alas, the birthday boy was a Paw Patrol fan.
Under different circumstances, she would have enjoyed the company of children, but she felt like dying from heat and exhaustion. Sweat trickled down the nape of her neck, and the fusty smell of her mascot headgear was making her nauseous. Without looking at the mirror, she knew her hair was an untamed mass of frizz thanks to the humidity.
Surprisingly, she hadn't collapsed from fatigue after her back to back shift at the hospital. She had been up all night when she was called into trauma surgery during an emergency. Despite having very little sleep and her body crying out for a much-needed rest, she couldn't back out on her promise to help her best friend, Geillis.
Geillis had just started her own business in children's party entertainment. The venture was still at its early stages, and because she was double-booked that day and didn't have enough money yet to hire extra staff, she had pleaded to help her do the Paw Patrol gig in Lallybroch.
How could she say no? Claire was already guilt-ridden for the many times she had cancelled on their night outs. These days her life revolved around her job at the hospital, planning her wedding and Frank. It was the least she could do for her neglected friend and social life.
"Who's hungry?" a voice shouted from the designated BBQ area. "Burgers, hotdogs and chips are ready!"
Instantly she was relieved from the weight of tiny bodies holding her down. Sitting up, she adjusted her mask as the children abandoned her for food.
"Um, Geillis?" She looked up. It was Jenny Fraser, the mother of the birthday boy. Claire hadn't bothered correcting her and elaborating that she was a stand-in for her friend. After all, this was just one-off and favour for Geillis.
"Listen, the other children's entertainer is here already, and the bairns are eating. I believe yer two hours are up. D'ye mind collecting yer fees from my brother? He's just arrived and..." Jenny shrugged, looking down at the empty platter she was holding. "...as ye can see my hands are full at the moment."
She stood up, and through the eyeholes of the dog mask, she glanced at the newcomer.
Aah, bloody hell, it's James Fraser. The Highland's homegrown hero is back. She wondered how she failed to make the connection. She was in Lallybroch, the childhood home of Scotland's rugby best and finest centre.
"Ah, of course, I don't mind."
Jenny gave her a grateful look and smiled. "And thank ye. I ken it's nae job for the faint-hearted keeping the wee bairns entertained especially on a hot day like this. Ye must be shattered. Not to worry, though, I promise to give a good review online for yer new business."
She bobbed her big doggie head and watched Jenny turn and approach her brother before disappearing into the house.
After all these years, the sight of James Fraser could still make her heart kick into a gallop and the moisture in her mouth dry right up. What is it about this man that turned her into a lovesick teenager just by looking at him?
Easy now, Beauchamp. You're as good as married. Remember Frank? The weight of the three-carat diamond engagement ring on her finger served as a reminder. Think Frank! Frank! Frank! Frank! But her head refused to obey, and she continued to stare.
The first and only time she exchanged words with James Fraser, he was half-naked in the men's locker room being treated for a hamstring injury during a game. Her friend, Joe Abernathy, was a Tournament Medical Manager for the team, and through him, she had been there to assist for her own selfish reason - to see a live rugby match, up-close. It hadn't been difficult for Joe to get her in since she was an intern from the Royal Infirmary Hospital, and was more than qualified to assist.
She remembered only too well when she came face to face with the famous rugby player. He had been cocky as sin when she was caught staring awestruck instead of preparing the ice pack for his thigh. How could she not stare? Given his considerable height and athletic frame, he was one fine specimen of a man, gorgeous and bursting with character.
"Like what ye see, love?" he asked in amusement, flexing his pecs to tease her.
Mortified at being called out, she felt the heat creep up her neck. Not one to be intimidated by the display of cheek, she swallowed her embarrassment and tilted her chin at him. "To be honest, I've seen better. Robbie Henshaw is more my type," she retorted, referring to another rugby player.
A ruddy eyebrow shot up. "A sassenach that fancies an Irish charm! Weel, that's funny. I had a feeling ye like looking at my arse."
Ooh, the arrogance! "Sorry to give you the wrong impression Mr Fraser but, I thought I was looking at your face." Joe's snort and Jamie's frown sent her backing away to get the ice before he could respond. But by the time she returned, he was already surrounded by his manager and other paramedical crew, her presence and their exchange soon to be forgotten. It didn't come as a surprise since, in the grand scheme of things, she was just one of a myriad of faces he came across daily.
Later on, Joe teased her regarding the chaffing rejoinder she had launched at Jamie. "You should have seen his face after that comeback you did back there?"
"Come on, LJ ...stop pretending you don't know what I'm talking about. I saw sparks flying." LJ stood for Lady Jane, a nickname Joe had given her during her first year of internship at the Royal Infirmary Hospital. It all began when their mutual friends made fun of her voice, and posh English accent, jokingly pointing out that she sounded like she just had tea with the queen. The moniker remained ever since.
"Sparks? You must have mistaken it for my short fuse firing off."
Joe boomed with laughter as he walked away. "You definitely like the man ...no use denying it. Your mouth may be saying one thing, but your face tells another story."
"I most certainly do not!"
"Oh, and LJ?" Joe paused and turned around, ignoring her vehement denial.
"Don't believe everything you read in the newspaper about Jamie. Most are just tabloid nonsense."
"Yeah, sure. Whatever."
Yes, it's true she had a crush on James Fraser and had religiously followed his career. But her infatuation was just that and nothing more, even though she was often teased by her colleagues in her early years of internship. She was realistic enough to admit he was way out of her league, especially when he had been photographed and linked to high profile women in the past and fawned over by over-eager fans. After the locker room incident, she crossed path with James Fraser a couple more times, and there was never any hint of recognition on his part. She simply put it down to her baseball cap concealing most of her face and her refusal to engage, in case the embarrassing episode of her ogling at him was brought up.
Over a year and a half ago, she'd watched him score try after try for the national team during the World Cup, along with everyone in the local pub she frequented. There had never been a doubt he was destined to become one of the all-time greats in the rugby world. But no one had seen the injury coming, especially Jamie. Claire could still remember the heartbreak in his eyes when he announced his retirement on live TV at the age of twenty-eight, despite the light-hearted joke about having more time to practice his golf swings. And just like that, he disappeared from the media circuit.
After a while, rumours started to spread that he had gone off on a self-destructive bender. Joe Abernathy had confirmed the stories were true and he had tried to reach out to him, and so had the local community and his own family. Instead of being coaxed out into the light, James Fraser hid in his apartment, refusing to answer calls and emails. She thought what a waste if he ended up as a drunken slob as she'd never known him to be anything but a fiercely confident man even to a fault. Although she was a nobody to James Fraser, she had urged Joe multiple times to keep trying to reach out. Unfortunately, he didn't want the help and soon, even his staunchest fans began to lose interest. Except, maybe her.
Making her way towards him, she watched with interest as James Fraser smiled at his nephew whizzing about on his new toy bike. Russet coloured hair curled unruly over his brow and brushed the nape of his neck. He looked rather pale, and it was the first time she'd seen him with a beard. The uneven state of it told her the facial hair was a product of self-neglect rather than a style change. Her gaze dipped lower. With his feet braced apart, arms folded across his chest and at least his six-four height, he towered with an impressive bearing. Clad in faded black jeans that hung low on his hips and a white t-shirt that stretched over his muscular build, he looked like a modern Highland warrior.
Claire's thought bubble burst, and she quickly reeled in her dwindling focus and pulled it higher until she met his eyes. A pair of pale ice blue with piercing intensity momentarily froze her in place. Right! What was it again I'm supposed to do? Oh yeah, collect the money, and get the hell out of here. Piece of cake. "Hi."
He gave her a forced smile as he fumbled at the back of his jean's pocket. "Ye've come to collect yer money. How much does my sister owe ye?"
"That'll be seventy quid, please. And um, good to see you out and about, Mr Fraser."
He stopped and squinted at her as if attempting to see through her doggie disguise. "Ah, a sassenach!"
"Yes, I've been reminded often enough."
There was a moment of silence.
Puffing his cheeks, he dragged a hand through his hair and rapidly let out a lungful of air. "Christ, I didn't mean it that way. And please call me Jamie. Everyone else does. And nae need to be so formal!"
She nodded her big head. "Alright ...Jamie, it is then. And don't worry. I didn't take offence. I know you didn't mean anything by it."
He was about to pull a note out of his wallet, but he stopped. As if he was in search of the right words to say. "Ye have a beautiful voice. What's the word ...aye, husky. Kinda like a bedroom voice."
Her heart skipped a beat, and she searched his face. It seemed he was genuinely just attempting small talk. "Thank you."
"Would ye like a drink before ye go? It's a hot day. Ye must be parched."
"Ah, no, I'm quite alright. But thanks."
"Ye have a name?" He drew out a hundred-pound note from his wallet, pinching it between his fingers.
"Call me Chase. I'm one of the Paw Patrols." When he laughed out loud, she was grateful for the mask that hid her unexpected smile.
"Weel, Chase I think ye sound bonnie." He took a careful step forward to peek through the eyehole. "Ye bonnie under there, Chase?"
Oh no, you don't! She took two steps back. This is getting bloody ridiculous. In as much as Claire was enjoying the harmless blather with the handsome Scot, she knew she was running out of time. She had a couple of hours of nap to take, shower, and meet Frank for a dinner date. For the most part, he was affecting her in ways that no other man had made her feel. Including Frank. "I really need to go," she said hoarsely.
"Right. Just one request before ye go. I'll give ye this ..." He waved the hundred-pound note in front of her. "...and ye can keep the change if ye let me see yer face."
Claire felt a stab of exasperation. Why does it matter what I look like? She was exhausted, hot and bothered and all she wanted right there and then was to get out of the stuffy costume. "Why do you need to see my face?"
Suddenly he looked uncomfortable. "What I meant ..."
She didn't let him finish. "What if you don't like what you see? Do I have to give the change back? Don't you have enough girls fawning over you?"
His shame morphed into annoyance and then into smug. "Careful, Sassenach, ye're starting to sound a little jealous to me."
Ooh, he's back to his usual cocky self. "Wot? Me? Jealous?" she fumed almost sputtering.
"Aye, jealous." He looked like he enjoyed making her feel uncomfortable as a corner of his mouth lifted into a half-smile.
A cloud above her head darkened, lightning threatening to shoot at all sides. She knew it was the heat and exhaustion that was making her cranky and tried to take calming breaths. "You're presumptuous and rude."
"And ye're annoyed because I can see that the idea of girls fawning me irks ye."
That's it, I've had enough of this palaver.
Claire rolled her lips inward to plump them, then reached up and removed her mask. Gratification coursed through her when his jaw went slack, and his blue eyes turned a deeper shade. That's right matey, I am not at all that bad! As she took a step forward, he straightened his posture, a groan escaping from his throat. He saw the intention in her eyes and knew what was coming.
"Jealous, you say?" she hissed. Remembering the embarrassment Jamie had caused her during their initial meeting, she shoved him against the wall of the house, not caring if anyone was watching the spectacle she was creating. Surging up on her toes, she brought her face up close to his, their noses almost touching. "That's right, darling, I would rock your world."
Ah, what the heck ...I'm getting married soon, I might as well. Not giving Jamie a chance to get a word in edgeways, she leaned even closer and merged their mouths together. To her astonishment, his lips parted, and the kiss hit the ground running in no time. One strong hand gripped her chin and pulled it down further, allowing him to slant his head and deepen the kiss more. Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! Shock exploded into her brain, and she swayed a little under the onslaught of heat. Jamie pushed his tongue deeper, making a low moaning sound, and she echoed it in kind. Then she felt his hand slide behind her neck as if he couldn't allow her to get away, and that's when she knew she was losing control. What the hell are you doing Beauchamp? Remember Frank?
Claire pulled away and took a deep breath. With his mouth damp and parted, he too was trying to draw in as much air as he could, his face a mask of stunned disbelief. "Ye look familiar. Who the hell are ye?"
Swallowing the odd lump in her throat, she plucked the hundred-pound note out of his fingers. "I'm gone. I'll have a receipt sent over." She took a few steps, stopped and then turned around to look at him. "Oh, by the way, I sincerely hope you're done feeling bad about your rugby career. Circumstances mess everyone up once in a while. And I guess it's fair to say, you've been messed up really bad. But, please, don't lie down and play the victim. I know you're better than this. Look at this way, you've achieved more than anyone could in a lifetime. You did it, Jamie. You've already achieved what you set to do. And I wish you all the luck in the world."
Taking advantage of the group of people approaching them, she hurried away.
"Hey ...wait, what's yer name?"
This time she didn't respond nor look back. With as much dignity as one could summon while dressed in a doggie costume, she ran as fast as she could.