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As Close as it Gets

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Breathe in. Breathe out.

It didn't work. Claire's headache only worsened.

She leaned her head across the back of her armchair and closed her eyes. She hadn't had time for coffee that morning, and hospital joe was horrendous. But it was almost half-past ten. She had to hustle if she wanted to bring Faith out later.

"Rough night?" 

Claire opened an eye. It was all she could manage at that point. Alex, one of the pediatric fellows, dropped into the armchair opposite hers. "You could say that. But it isn't what you think so you can wipe that smirk off your face, Alexandra," she replied in a hoarse voice.

"Oh, no need to be nasty, dragging out my name. So, I hit a nerve! I wasn't going to say anything, but this is the first I've seen you with mussed hair. The residents hate you, you know, for being perfectly turned out—even after surgery!"

Claire rolled her eyes, stuffing her surgical cap in her bag. "Now, that's a lie. No one looks good after wearing a cap for more than an hour. But as my friend, you're contractually obligated to pay me compliments. I say you're fishing, Alex."

"Maybe." She shrugged. "But you looked flustered when I came in—which is odd. You've always been unflappable, even during medical reviews. So, what gives? Man trouble?"

She hesitated. She didn't have many friends and wasn't sure how to confide in Alex.

"In a way. A neighbor kept me up with loud music till half-past three. I had to ask her to turn it down."

"Where does the man part come in?" Alex leaned forward, hazel eyes intent on hers.

Right after, he walked up to the door and stood completely in my space. Claire's neck and face grew warm as she remembered those hours lying awake in her bed, thinking of him.

Alex hooted. "I knew it! You're blushing and looking guilty as hell, Ms. Beauchamp. Someone's gotten under your skin. So spill." 

Claire looked down at her long coat, pleating the skirt slowly. "It turned out she didn't live there. The real owner arrived after a few minutes. He was livid." 

"And?"

"He's hot, okay? But he made me nervous. So I'd rather not talk about it right now. Not without a good cup of coffee."

Alex sat back in her chair and grinned. "In the short time you've been here, you've racked up a reputation for ignoring males of every occupation, shape, and age. You're the great white hope of every woman with a grudge! Did you know you ruined the reputation of every Lothario in this hospital?" 

Claire laughed. She couldn't help herself. "Just not true. First, I'm not the beauty pageant type. You are." She paused, admiring her friend's blonde good looks. Dr. Alexandra Hailey could have been an actress or model with her long, graceful neck, narrow blade of a nose, and twin scimitars for cheekbones. 

"Second, you don't see men queuing to do me any favors, do you? But anyone could be forgiven for thinking you're a urologist, with all those men lined outside your clinic."

Alex rolled her eyes. "Not my fault they insist on bringing their children, nieces, or nephews. But that's what I'm saying, Claire. You don't notice when men look at you with hearts in their eyes. Nothing crushes their egos more than being ignored. But come to think of it, you've never once mentioned going on a date since you arrived three months ago." 

"Well, I'm not interested in dating. Or flirting. I have Faith, and she's more than enough." 

"You know how difficult it is for female doctors to have relationships. Look," Alex said, holding up a hand when she would have argued the point. "I'm just stating facts here. We fritter away our lives, putting off equally important non-career concerns. And why do we persist in delaying these? Because we always think there's a better time to start. Girlfriend, your mindset has got to go." 

"Never think I don't appreciate your advice, Alex," she replied, reaching out to pat Alex's hand. "But one of us should have a love life, and I vote for it to be you. Don't worry, though. I'll let you know once I've met someone who catches my eye." 

"I'd say this neighbor of yours has done just that. You should give him a chance. He might not be a wanker like your ex-fiancé," Alex urged in a low voice. "Why don't you get to know him first and see where it goes?" 

"Well, it will not be anytime soon," she said, shaking her head. "I'm waiting for some documents from the American College of Surgeons. I didn't know medical registration would be this difficult for foreign-trained doctors!" 

"Believe in the system, darling. The General Medical Council might move on your application faster. After all, we don't get many summa cum laude graduates of Harvard Medical School."

Claire waved a hand, dismissing her statement as hyperbole then started rummaging in her pocket for her phone. "Thank you for your vote of confidence, but whatever I did before doesn't matter in the real world. I'd rather not risk losing all those skills I worked to develop as a surgeon."

Texting for an Uber pickup, she asked, "So what brings you here so close to lunch? Shouldn't you be swanning your way to any of the posh restaurants around?" 

"I almost forgot! I was running around St. Hildie to warn you. Tom Thumb approached me for an introduction to you." Alex smacked her hand on her forehead.

Claire blinked. "And who's that?" 

"Honestly, Claire! You act like you're a surgery troll, cooped up in an operating theater. Don't tell me you haven't met him yet?" 

"I'm not sure. And if I did, I don't remember. Is Dr. Tom a letch?" 

"No, he is not. Quite the opposite. He's a silver fox with loads of residents and patients swooning over him." 
She stood as Claire gathered her bag and books. 

"Excuse me, Dr. Rivers. I thought the lounge was empty." 

Claire looked up at the new voice. Just inside the doorway was a tall, lean silver-haired man. He reminded her of Mark Harmon, the lead actor of the television show NCIS, with his broad forehead, large eyes under arched eyebrows, and a straight, slim nose. 

She looked at her friend as she joined her, asking with her eyes if this was the silver fox. Alex gave a short, discreet nod. 

"Dr. Christie, nice of you to drop by the lounge. I don't believe I've ever seen you here before," Alex said. 

"Oh, my daughter wanted a tour of the hospital since she's starting work on Monday. Come in, Malva, and let me introduce ye to one of the pediatric fellows." 

With those words, he ushered in a slim brunette woman, shorter than Claire, even in heels. She was striking and sophisticated in a charcoal grey fitted dress and matching coat. Chin-length straight hair framed beautiful grey eyes with dark pupils. Those eyes were flinty, openly assessing her that very moment. 

Claire stood straighter, aware she was still in surgical scrubs though she had her long white coat over it. Her right hand rose in an automatic gesture to smooth her light brown curls, but she caught it in time. Instead, Claire stretched to her full height of five feet eight inches. It was childish and so unlike her, but for the first time in her life, she was glad for her curvy figure and full breasts. 

The man's eyes snapped to her.

"It appears more than one introduction is needed." 

"Indeed. Where are my manners?" Alex chirped in a way that made Claire long to kick her. "Dr. Christie, meet Ms. Claire Beauchamp, our latest US-trained surgical consultant. Claire, this is Dr. Tom Christie, Chair of the Internal Medicine Department." 

As Claire offered her right hand, Dr. Christie, eyes intent on hers, lifted her hand gently and kissed it. Claire was surprised, not only at the gesture but at the slight trembling she detected from him. 

"I've had the pleasure of being acquainted with the chair of surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital for many years, and he's spoken highly of your work. I'm pleased ye chose our small hospital to practice in," he said as he let go of her hand. She suppressed the urge to wipe it on her coat. 

"I regret not being around when the Head of Surgery introduced you around. But if there's anything you need, let me know. Now, I insist we dispense with formalities. I'd like for you to call me Tom." 

Her eyes flew to Alex, whose face showed only polite disinterest. Feeling her cheeks burn with second-hand embarrassment for his blunder, she spoke more formally than usual.

"Dr. Stuart is a wonderful mentor and a gifted surgeon. I'm sure he would have said the same for all the residents under his care. But," she continued, "It was a lovely compliment for all that." 

Claire did her best to hide her uneasiness as Tom introduced Malva. She tried but found it difficult to warm up to the younger woman, remembering the challenge in her eyes earlier. 

"Your arrival has sparked quite an interest among the hospital staff, Ms. Beauchamp," Malva said. "People address a surgeon as Doctor in America, do they not? It must have been a bit of a let-down to revert to plain Miss. Or is it Mrs.?" 

Not knowing what to make of Malva's statement made Claire uncomfortable. She didn't know if Malva was disingenuous or hostile. Alex stepped up beside her, rushing in to fill the breach in the conversation. 

"It's a silly leftover practice from the medieval period when people considered surgeons, barbers, and not physicians. It isn't true now. Some surgical sub-specialties even have longer residency periods than internal medicine sub-specs." 

"I don't mind. It doesn't matter how someone addresses me, as long as it's not 'Oi!' What's important is I get to help people. That's what I signed up for, anyway." Claire said. 

"No matter, I, for one, am honored ye've chosen our hospital to begin the certification process," Tom said. "The youngest surgeon on the Massachusetts roster, weren't you? And Harvard Medical School accepted your application when you were 19. Your papers on direct and indirect revascularization surgery for Moyamoya were outstanding." 

Turning to Malva, he added, "You would have known this if you had continued your medical studies instead of being stuck in a pharmacy program." 

Claire stole a sideways glance at Alex, who was watching Malva with speculation. Whatever her feelings for the younger woman, Claire was embarrassed to witness an ongoing family quarrel. She fished in the pocket of her coat, and bringing out her phone, made a big production of swiping at the screen and reading the text message she received. 

"Excuse me. It's been lovely meeting both of you, but I have to run. My ride is five minutes away," Claire said. "Alex, are you coming?" 

"We can drop you off wherever you're going," Tom offered with alacrity.

"Da, it's out of the way. She lives at the Garden Estates, near the Frasers." Malva looked once more at Claire and stepped aside, clearing the doorway for them to leave. 

"Then, let's do this some other day. Ms. Beauchamp, I'm so glad I finally got to meet you."
 
 


 
 
Her phone vibrated as she stepped on her driveway. Claire took it out, seeing the message coming from Alex.

Such a spoiled brat! Super awkward meeting. Weird, the text read. 

She sighed, returning it as she watched the taxi reverse out on the street. She'd answer Alex later once she'd gotten over the unpleasantness of meeting the Christies. It surprised her, though, that Malva knew where she lived. She didn't think it was common knowledge, and it made her a tad uneasy.

It wasn't the dismissive tone of Malva's last statement that got to her. Her reaction fit in well with her passive-aggressive behavior. It was Tom himself who made her feel uncomfortable with his ogling, his effusive compliments, and kissing the back of her hand. Didn't he realize she'd just gotten out of surgery?

As it was, she didn't have time to chat with Alex, unload her books at her office, and change her scrubs for a long-sleeved top and trousers.

She had to get a car soon. 

Driving on the left side of the road, which was the "right side" as her driving instructor insisted, was tricky. She had to be sure she could do it; she had Faith to think of. But she'd been practicing for over a month, so she thought it was about time. Besides, she'd had extensive experience driving in winter. 

Aside from saving on taxi money, having a car at her disposal would be convenient. Being able to brush off unsolicited invitations was only one perk. Not only would she be able to drive Faith to her violin lessons, but they'd also get to explore Scotland as they planned months before. 

Shivering in her coat, she turned toward her front door. Not for the first time, she wished Uncle Lamb had picked another part of the United Kingdom to purchase a house. If she had to get out of Boston, she'd never have chosen Scotland. How did Jamie stand the cold last night in a jacket? 

"Good morning," a familiar voice called out behind her. 

She paused mid-step, breath hitching in her throat. If she were superstitious, she would think she'd conjured him with her thoughts. She looked back at him, schooling her face to impassivity. 

"I thought you were ignoring me," he said, long legs closing the distance between them. "I hope you'll allow me to make amends for last night."

Move, you ninny. 

He reached her. "James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. Jamie to friends. I didn't have time to introduce myself as you left before I could say anything more," he said. 

"Hello, Mr. Fraser," she got out. She remembered Malva mentioning a family called Fraser. Did she mean Jamie? 

"Jamie," he corrected. 

She nodded but remained silent. 

Looking down, she fiddled with her phone in her pocket. She thought of pretending she had an urgent call. Then she felt ashamed for being a coward. But she needed to get going. She had to change out of her hospital clothes, wash, then pick up Faith from her sitter's house, in that order. 

She looked up as he prompted, "You are?" 

"Your neighbor." 

One russet brow quirked up. "Does my neighbor have a name?" 

She shook her head, and he frowned.

"You don't have a name?" he asked.

"No, please, Mr. Fraser, I have to dump my things and leave again in fifteen minutes." 

"Jamie." 

Her fingers clenched on her coat as she stepped away from him. 

"Mam! Mrs. Bug wanted to walk me home!" Faith yelled as she skipped up the sidewalk. 

Uneasiness forgotten, Claire looked toward her with a wide smile. Hitching her bag higher on her shoulder, she stepped around him to meet Faith halfway, crushing her in an embrace. 

"Oof, Mam! Can't breathe!" Faith laughed while wriggling out of her tight hold. "Mrs. Bug wanted some exercise. And we saw you pass by in a taxi. May I help with your handbag?" 

Claire saw the senior woman puffing up the sidewalk toward them like a small steam engine.

"Thank you, sweetheart," she said, giving her the bag. "Say thank you to Granny Bug, then get inside. I'll follow soon."

Faith froze when she saw Jamie. 

"Who's that man?" she whispered, sotto voce. 

Her neighbor smiled and approached. Leaning down, he held out a hand to Faith. 

"Hey, I'm James Fraser, one of your neighbors," he said softly. 

Jamie's expression changed from condescending to gentle in a second, surprising her. If he had only looked like that last night

"I'm Faith Beauchamp," she announced, allowing the dimples in her cheeks to show.

"Jamie," he repeated.

"Wicked! Are you a doctor, too? Is that why you're visiting Mam?"

She groaned inside to see Faith staring up at Jamie as though he were a plush toy she fancied. Thank heaven it would be several more years before Faith would be into boys, and Claire shuddered at the thought of Jamie being her male ideal.

"Oh, Jamie! You're back! How long will ye be staying around afore returning to Lallybroch?" Mrs. Bug called as she approached their group.

"Mrs. Bug, please bring Faith in?" Releasing Faith, she smiled at the older woman before Jamie could answer. "Mr. Fraser and I have something to talk about."

Faith looked at them wide-eyed but allowed Mrs. Bug to usher her to the door. At the very last minute, she turned. "Mr. Jamie, would you like to come in for lunch?"

"Sweetie, remember we're supposed to be on our way to Deep Sea World? And I'm sure Mr. Fraser has already planned out his afternoon." Claire narrowed her eyes at him, daring him to contradict her.

"Sassenach, it's fine. I came over to see if you and the lass would fancy having an early dinner at The Restoration café. We could explore and walk around Dalkeith Country Park right next to it. But are ye going out now?" He looked up at the darkening sky.
"Looks like a storm's coming our way."

She could feel her face growing warm and knew she was blushing. Faith—the little traitor—skipped toward Jamie. She took his hand and smiled up at him, with joy like he was a favorite uncle.

Claire felt her heart turn over. When was the last time her daughter acted so carefree? Not since Uncle Lamb passed away. At that moment, she would have done anything to keep Faith happy.

She was about to agree when Mrs. Bug decided on the matter.

"Och, there's no need to eat out, Claire! I fixed the stew in the slow cooker when you left this morning. It should be ready by now. And there's more than enough even for Mr. Bottomless Pit over there," she said, pointing at Jamie.

"Murdina Bug, you must think me a nutter if you believe I'll pass over your cooking," he teased her back.

"Away with you, lad. I'm not the one you should chat up," she replied with a sly look at Claire.

Faith giggled. With three people waiting for her answer, Claire gave the only one she could.

"Fine, fine. Faith, please go in now. Mrs. Bug, may I leave you alone with our lunch for a few more minutes?"

"Of course, my dears. Take your time," Mrs. Bug answered, then led Faith inside.

Once she was sure they had left, Claire rounded on a grinning Jamie.

"You and Mrs. Bug know each other!"

"We come from the same district in the highlands."

"You could have refused the invitation!" Claire's heart was now thumping away at a rapid tempo.

"Your name's Claire."

"Yes." She blinked, thrown off by his off-tangent remark. "What of it?"

"Claire," he repeated quietly. "Do you know Claire means light?"

She didn't reply. She already liked the way he said her name too much. His voice was low, dark, and smooth. It made her want things she couldn't have, feel unwelcome emotions she refused to think about in the early hours of the morning.

He took a step into her, but she stood her ground. Jamie Fraser might be big, but he wouldn't cause a scene in her driveway, would he? Not with Mrs. Bug inside her home and Faith by the window, watching.

Bending, he looked into her face while her mind screamed, too close! But she refused to let him intimidate her even as she watched his smooth lips move. Her eyes flew up to his.

"She makes three million dollars a movie but hasn't made one in five years. When she was younger, she could get up to twice that in stateside and foreign endorsements for lots of products, including cosmetics. But no one wants her now." 

He was, she realized in a daze, talking about Geneva Dunsany.

It surprised Claire she could keep up with him. But as she had no interest in the topic, she began telling him this. "Mr. Fraser—"

He cut her off. "She still thinks she's the shit because of her past fame. The problem is," he said, and held up a hand as she was about to protest, "she believes she's got the right to do things. Then, she's always gobsmacked when she's called out on her mess."

"I don't care about any of this."

"I scared you," he declared. "Don't lie. It was clear last night. And I saw it again, just now."

She stepped away. Jamie was standing too near, emitting heat like a small furnace.

"You could have gotten her out without resorting to verbal abuse," Claire hissed, goaded at last into revealing one reason for avoiding him. "And, you knew I wasn't keen on listening to your spat."

"You're Quentin's niece." He grinned.

She started at his tone. "What has that got to do with anything?"

And like what happened the night before, she saw something happening behind those brilliant blue eyes. But she refused to acknowledge it. He was another promiscuous dawg, just like Frank.

"Well, you'll certainly find out soon," he replied mysteriously, then sauntered into her house.