Claire’s lungs burned from the cold as she flew through the woods. Her hands slapped against the rough bark of the trees in an effort to keep her balance each time she slipped deeper into the snow. She could hear raised voices just ahead, including Jamie’s distinct Scottish burr. As she burst through the screen of trees she could see Jamie and another man talking heatedly next to a black pickup truck.
In physical appearance the other man wasn’t particularly threatening. Average height and slightly overweight, he appeared rounder wrapped up in a khaki winter jacket but compared to Jamie’s tall, broad, imposing frame he still looked small. It was only the hunting rifle pointed at Jamie’s chest that gave him the upper hand. Luckily what she didn’t see was the dapple grey stallion they’d chased this way.
“Don’t you think you can come onto my land and tell me what I can and can’t do!”
Claire had seen too many stories on the internet about Stand Your Ground laws in the states where folks ended up dead with no repercussions. She was worried Jamie might try and challenge the man - being the stubborn Scot that he was, it didn’t seem to make a difference that he was holding a weapon.
“Ye’ve no reason to kill that animal. He doesna ken land boundaries. He goes where he needs to - so his herd might survive.”
“Except it comes here because that old bitch is always putting out food out. Then when they’re done with that they come here and destroy my pasture so there’s no good grazing left for my cattle come spring. If I see another one of those horses on my land it’s done for and if I see you again, you’ll be joining them!”
“Jamie, let’s go! He’s not worth it,” Claire interjected, hoping to dial the testosterone back down to a more reasonable level.
“Better listen to your woman, Jamie,” the man said sarcastically. “She’s smarter than she looks.”
Those were the only words needed for Jamie to snap and lunge at the man. The two began a struggle over possession of the rifle, each pushing and pulling to gain control. Claire jumped back with a yelp they came barrelling toward her, nearly knocking her down.
“Stop it!” she yelled. “Enough!”
Although she was certain he couldn’t have heard her over the sound of the raw masculinity pulsing through his veins, Jamie heeded her words and stepped away with his hands up in surrender. The other man used the moment of vulnerability as an opportunity and quickly reared the rifle back and thrust the butt end forward into Jamie’s face.
“Stay off my land! Final warning!”
Claire waited until the truck was speeding off, snow flying in every direction before rushing over to Jamie, who was laying on the ground clutching his face.
“You stupid, stubborn Scot! What the bloody hell did you think you were doing? You could have gotten yourself killed, you ignoramus! That man had a gun! What could have been going through your testosterone-poisoned mind?! We’ve barely been here 12-hours and already you’re–”
“I can bloody well see that, can’t I?!”
With a huff of annoyance, Claire dropped to her knees next to him in the snow. Nose bleeds always tended to look more dramatic than they were, but as she pulled his hands away she realized Jamie’s gusher was somewhat justified. She had seen a lot of broken noses in her days of emergency room rotations and his definitely qualified.
“It’s broken,” she said, scolding him for his foolishness. She filled one of his hands full of snow and put it against the spot where the rifle had hit him, hoping to get some of the swelling down so she could better treat it.
“Whatever could have been going through your mind? That man could have shot you.”
Jamie mumbled something under his breath and if it weren’t for the impediment of his swelling nasal cavity, Claire might have found reason to be annoyed by that, too. She angrily pulled off her scarf and pressed it to his nose, feeling somewhat satisfied at the grunt of pain he let out at the sudden pressure.
“What was that?”
“He called ye stupid,” Jamie repeated softly. “I couldna let him speak about ye that way.”
His eyes were bloodshot and would likely soon be surrounded by dark, black bruising but they still held the same genuine honesty that they always did and she felt her anger toward him soften.
“You can’t get yourself killed over me,” she said, brushing the damp red curls back from his forehead. “I need you.”
They held each other’s gaze for what seemed like forever, but was really just a moment while she soothingly stroked his temple, feeling the strong pulse beneath her thumb.
“I need you, too.”
“Bloody well right you do,” Claire said, the corner of her mouth lifting just slightly with a smile. “Who else is going to set your nose?”
Jamie groaned and fell back dramatically into the snow.
Claire had learned a lot about Jamie during their journey from the UK to the western plains of the U.S. He was the only son of two children, the youngest since his baby brother had died on the day of his birth, along with Jamie’s mother. His father had passed away just a few years later, leaving his sister Jenny and her husband Ian the caretakers of the family farm. Jamie had stayed on for a few years, but his skills as a horseman were highly sought after and he soon found himself working at some of the most elite equestrian centres in Europe.
It wasn’t the satisfying life he had expected it to be. Superficial, elitist and less about bringing up horses with good personalities - they only wanted longer pedigrees to put more dollars in the bank. For Jamie, it was all about the horses. He could speak to them in a way he couldn’t speak to anyone else.
In spite of their lengthy conversations, the most revolutionary thing that Claire learned wasn’t until they were standing in front of a rental car counter when she discovered that Jamie was not a licensed driver. Never had the need for it, he’d said. Anywhere he needed to go, he could walk. Which left Claire behind the wheel of a four wheel drive pickup, bigger than anything she’d ever driven before, heading down the wrong side of the road into the snowy wilderness.
An unexpected storm had rolled in while they were in the air, delaying their plans to set up camp. They’d managed to find a guest ranch along the way with a vacancy (mostly vacancies, Claire suspected, given the likelihood of the average traveller vacationing in a difficult to reach location in the winter and the sheer excitement of the woman on the phone when she’d called to inquire.)
The roads were long, snow covered and barren. Claire felt like they were travelling at a snail’s pace and was grateful for the privacy on the road, if only because she wasn’t quite sure that she had complete control of the vehicle.
The snow was falling harder now. It wasn’t the big, fluffy flakes she was used to back home, but an unrelenting downpour of smaller crystals that swirled across the road like a rushing river. With flat prairie fields on one side of the highway and the mountains on the other, the resulting wind tunnel pushed the truck from one side, then the other, leaving Claire to white-knuckle the wheel anxiously.
“Are ye alright?”
“Sorry, did you say something?” Claire gave Jamie a meek smile but tried not to show her discomfort.
“Aye,” he chuckled under his breath. “The next exit is ours.”
“Oh! Of course. Thank you, navigator.”
Jamie’s map reading lead them down a long, winding driveway that opened up to reveal a main house and three smaller log cabins. The lights were on at the big house, illuminating the snow covered front porch.
“It’s beautiful here,” Claire said as she shut off the engine, looking up at the old, rustic farm house in awe.
“Aye,” Jamie agreed. “Minds of me of Scotland a bit. It’s my dream to live this way, caring for my own land, out in the wilderness wi’ no one around.”
“Surely you won’t want to be all alone?”
“I didna say I’d be alone.”
The porch lights bouncing off the falling snow created a glow that illuminated the inside of the truck and gave Jamie’s eyes a bright grey-blue hue as they locked with hers. Claire wanted to tell him he was too perfect to be real, she wanted to tell him that she would live in the woods with him forever if he asked.