Actions

Work Header

No Reason to Hide

Chapter Text

Jamie watched as a distant bolt of lightning forked then rejoined, illuminating an entire cloud base in a spectacular pattern of white tinged with violet. He sighed. He was glad to be inside his warm home, with its thick window glass panes muting the rumble of thunder to a more pleasant series of booms. The safety of his wife was another matter.
 
He checked his phone for the third time, drawing comfort from her last message.
 
engineerjammf: Are you ok being with Hal? Do u need me to get u?
cbwetblanket: We’ll be fine! But U, my darling, hav a whole tribe 2 entertain. 
engineerjammf: Brat pack gud & ready to go. Repeat, not a gud idea, but pray 4 me?
cbwetblanket: U can do it! 😍 L8er. Luv U!
 

Sighing, Jamie turned, surveying the room.  

The setting was perfect as the heat from the fireplace staved off the chill of another dark, rainy day in Edinburgh. Mugs of steaming chocolate, with the distinctive milky sweet smell of melting marshmallows, were on the coffee table within easy reach of the children, tempting them with the promise of extra warmth. Well, they weren't exactly children anymore. Claire was right. It was the ideal time to pass on a bit of their story to the family, and though he’d have to edit out the more adult bits, he could make it up as he went along.

“This is a PG-15 story. Are you sure you’re ready for it?” Jamie asked the four teenagers who were watching him with anticipation and amusement.
 
“You know Ian’s only twelve,” 17-year-old William said.
 
“And Brianna’s fourteen,” added Faith.
 
“I’ll be fifteen next month, shrimp,” Brianna replied with dignity. “Besides, the way you act, sticking out your tongue in pictures, you might as well be ten.”
 
“I may be twelve, Will, but I’m almost as tall as Faith, though she’s sixteen,” Ian said. “And Mam said I could join you in everything. Just clap your hands over my ears so I won’t hear the erm. smutty bits.”
 
His older cousins laughed and jeered at him.
 
“In that case, why not stay out in the hallway the rest of the afternoon?” Will asked. “I’ve been told parts of how they met over the years. The whole thing’s a smut fest.”
 
Boos from his sisters and cousin met that last sally, even as Jamie glared at him.
 
“Will, that was disrespectful to yer Mam and me, and ye ken it!” Jamie could feel his face getting warm, and he tried his best to slow his breathing. “Ye may be too old fer a whipping, but there are other ways to deal with ye,” he hissed at his son.
 
“I’m sorry, Da.” Will blanched. “You’re right. I was out of line.” He glared at Ian and his sisters as they giggled at his volte-face.
 
Entertain them, she says. Tell them how we met. That should teach them some life lessons. You’re so going to pay for this tonight, Sassenach. Bloody hell, the things I do only for you.

He’d have a talk with Claire later. What on earth was she teaching the lad? But back to the matter at hand. “I accept your apology, William, but I’ll tell yer Mam. I don’t know where ye earned that word, but ...”
 
“You don’t have to, Da. Uncle Alex told me,” Will said, pre-empting anything Jamie would say.
 
Jamie stilled, surprised, and yet strangely not at this latest revelation. So it’s come to this, Sassenach when even family turn your children on you.
 
“I’ll be having a chat with yer Uncle Alex when I see him next week,” he said testily. “Now, all of ye, hold yer wheesht!”
 
“Uh, oh. Uncle Jamie’s speaking like a Highlander again. We’d all best run and take cover,” Ian sassed back.
 
Aye, and there’s another one with little sense between the ears. Sassenach, I’ll be insisting double tonight for all this trouble.
 
“And that includes ye, Ian Grey,” Jamie said. 
 
Brianna punched Ian’s shoulder. 
 
“Brianna, I saw that. There’s no call for ye to resort to hurting Ian, no matter the provocation.” Jamie shook his head at her. “Besides, he was talking to me, not to you.” 
 
She promptly faced Ian saying, “I apologize for hitting you, Ian, no matter how much you deserve it.” Brianna turned back to Jamie, unrepentant.
 
And that was when Jamie confirmed they were all taking the piss out of him. He wanted to leave them to wreak havoc on the furniture or the board games, but he kept his promises to his wife. “So must I stop, or are ye lot settling down?”
 
Four voices assured him they would. Jamie’s breathing evened out, and he unclenched his fists. His audience rearranged and draped themselves over the leather couches and deep armchairs in the cozy living room.
 
And so, he began.

 

Chapter Text

It was a clear case of English persistence versus Scottish intransigence, and Jamie was ready to concede defeat.

He wasn’t sure why he was in a bar with, of all people, Hal Grey—newly arrived from a two-month Asian trip. It was another chilly December evening, and Jamie could have been relaxing in his flat, with a good book in hand. As best friends, didn’t he have a say when they should meet?

“Bugger it, jet lag’s difficult to recover from,” Hal said at five that afternoon. Hal sat on a settee in Jamie’s corner office at 102 West Port, gazing at Edinburgh Castle and its extensive grounds.  

Jamie quirked an eyebrow at Hal Grey, the other half of Grey and Fraser Engineering and Construction, Ltd. Their firm, housed in 2,800 square feet of prime business real estate, was a second home to several CAD operators, engineers, and staff. It had been a brutal six-year climb to get better contracts and complete those they had, but they’d accomplished it.

Hal looked like a man with a complicated problem on his hands he wanted to conquer. Jamie sighed but said nothing. Hal would talk when he wanted and not a minute less. Ignoring his friend, he returned to the cost estimates in front of him for a bridge-building project while consulting a blueprint to the side. 

“Having a fun day so far?” Hal asked.
 
“I am,” Jamie answered without looking up. “Did Lauren show you around? Have you met the newest addition to the staff?”

He regretted his statement immediately as Hal swiveled his entire body to face him. He was also eyeing Jamie, speculation evident in his narrowed eyes and pursed lips.

Jamie put up a forefinger, while he made a call to Rupert McKenzie, their regular cement supplier. He would have done anything at that point to forestall whatever discussion Hal had in mind.
 
Rupert didn’t oblige him.
 
Jamie thumbed the end call icon and, setting the phone down, glared at it. It didn’t squeak and scurry to hide behind his monitor—a pity.
 
“I was away for almost two months. Aren’t you curious about what I’ve done during that time?” 
 
“I would be if you would only give me enough time to finish checking this figure for I-beams!” Jamie waved at the items in his desk. “And why are you in my office? Your furnishings are just as good as mine, and you even have a comfy leather sofa and a mini-bar.”
 
Jamie’s office, with its hardwood floor and rich wood paneling, was traditional. While he had ergonomic chairs, adjustable work desks, the latest desktop computer, and 3-D printers, the overall impression was utilitarian and sparse.
 
Hal’s office was luxurious. Plush rugs, glass tables, modern art on his walls, and a monochromatic color scheme worked together to impress clients and casual visitors. While Hal and Jamie were both civil engineers, the engineering work had fallen more on Jamie’s shoulders. Harold “Hal” Grey, Duke of Pardloe, with his extensive social network, was in charge of business development and project management.
 
“Give me thirty minutes more. This proposal is for the first new project we’ll be bidding on for the new year, and I’d like for us to win it,” Jamie added.
 
Hmpff. The length and angle of that horizontal beam didn’t look right. Jamie reached for his calculator—and grasped thin air. He looked up to see Hal grinning while brandishing said item above his head.
 
Jamie sat back in his chair, narrowing his eyes at his friend. “You know, for all that you’re two years older, sometimes you act twenty years younger,” he said in a conversational tone.
 
Hal tutted, winked at him, but took a precautionary step backward. “We hire other engineers, Jamie, so we won’t have to sweat the small tasks. But now I’ve gotten your attention—I’m taking you out for drinks. I want to talk to you about something.”
 
“If it’s about your ancestors taking back Edinburgh Castle from the Jacobites, I’m not interested.” Jamie started drumming the fingers of one hand on his desk. 

“I want to know why you mentioned meeting our latest draftswoman.” 

“I was searching for a topic for light conversation. You know we steer away from relationships with our employees. That’s a sure path to a sexual harassment lawsuit.”

Squinting at Hal, Jamie relented and said, “Fine, fifteen minutes. I’ll throw in dinner, and you can tell me all about your Asian tour.”
 
Hal handed the calculator back, the smile fading from his face. “It isn’t just about the countries I visited, though. Today’s the fifth year of their death.”
 
Jamie closed his eyes briefly, put away the folder he was reading, and stood. Bloody hell, man, how could ye be insensitive? Hal’s your best mate, is he not? It isn’t easy to forget your wife and daughter died in a horrific vehicular accident. And remember, Minnie was your friend, too.
 
“Well, you’re right. I can work on this plan over the weekend if needed. It’s only the fifth of December, anyway. The last day for submitting bids is in two months,” Jamie said as he collected his jacket and car keys.
 
“Damn right! Don’t worry. The Scottish Borders Council will be chuffed with our proposal.” Hal’s smile was back on as shrugged on his overcoat. “Now, I’ve been gagging for fine whiskey for the past month. I have it on good authority I can get it and excellent keg beers at the Bow Bar. And it’s five minutes away. Drinks on me, dinner on you as you promised.”
 
And with that, Hal ushered a bemused Jamie out of his office before he could protest and switched off the light.

 


 

 
“Anyway, so there I was, walking along Merlion Park in Singapore, admiring the construction work when a gaggle of tourists walked by. One burly bloke caught me by the shoulder, and I almost fell in Marina Bay!” Hal recounted, laughing as he did.
 
Jamie took a swallow of his beer. After the first dram, they had silently agreed to sample the house ales and beers. It wasn’t a bad idea. Except, it loosened Hal’s tongue, so he was chatty and expansive. He’d been ribbing Jamie for the past twenty minutes.
 
“They were apologetic and wanted to make up for my scare. So, I accompanied the group on their day tour. And I ended up sitting beside a most charming Scottish lady.”
 
“Flirted with her, did you? So how’d it go?” Jamie plastered on a smile and took another swallow from his mug.
 
“It was absobloodylutely great!”
 
Oh no, Hal made it too easy. “How much of it was real, do you think? You trapped her with you, and she didn’t want to cause a scene and move to another seat.”
 
Hal predictably took the bait, spending the next few minutes defending himself.
 
Jamie peeked at his watch. He had allowed himself three hours for drinks and dinner with Hal. As long as they weren’t legless by that time, he planned to return to his office to recheck the proposal.
 
Hal didn’t seem inclined to leave, though. Could he have developed a higher tolerance to alcohol overseas, or had he been spilling his drink under their table? Jamie didn’t think so as Hal watched Jamie, eyes bright and full of mischief, head cocked to one side. 
 
To ensure that Hal would realize he was boring his audience of one, Jamie made it a point to smile politely and look sleepy. He had no doubts that Hal would release him within the hour.
 
“Fraser, you haven’t been listening to me.”
 
“You were trying the take the piss out of me earlier. Why so?”
 
“Oh, you’ve been dim this evening,” Hal said. “And, it looks like you’ve lost the ‘it’ factor,” he teased, using air quotes for emphasis. “Three years ago, you’d have had a girl on both arms with a third or even a fourth waiting in the wings.”
 
Jamie had enough. He had to clench his fists to prevent himself from shoving the table at Hal.
 
“Three years ago, I was twenty-eight and out to conquer the world. I’ve just turned thirty-one. I’m in good health, and far from frail.” He glared at his friend, trying his best to keep his friend from rising. “So what are you saying, Hal? That I can’t get a girl’s number now?”
 
“What I’m saying is you don’t have it in you anymore. Admit it. You’ve lost your nerve.” Hal shook his head. “It’s a slippery slope from now to saggy man-boobs and flabby biceps when you’re thirty-five. And I’m getting there now. One of us has to settle down, and I vote that it be you.”
 
Jamie snorted. “This is juvenile. Who elected ye prime minister? Why don’t ye do it, yourself? Or find your entertainment. That way, ye won’t have to depend on me to get your rocks off,” he said crudely.
 
“You are most perceptive, sir. But, we’re talking about you, James, King of Men.”
 
“What yer doing is trying my patience, Hal.”
 
“Well, it’s working,” Hal smirked. “You’re beginning to sound like a Scot again. What happened to that posh British accent, eh?”
 
Jamie laughed—he couldn’t help it. Hal was a right old reprobate, and he enjoyed sparring with him. But this conversation had an expiration date. And it was ten minutes ago.
 
“I appreciate that you’re somehow motivating me to get me back in the dating game. It’s just that, well, I’m not interested.”
 
“Well, Geneva did a number on you, as the Yanks would say. But it’s been almost two years. And, as your friend, I’m obligated to say it’s not healthy to keep everything in.”
 
Jamie rubbed the back of his neck. “I can get dates with no prodding from you. I know you think I’m still pining for that cousin of yours but, I assure you, I’m not.”
 
“Then, there’s no reason for you to hide away in your man cave. Or in the office,” Hal countered. “Geneva broke up with you, but she did it for a damned good reason. She was fond of you, but she had to come out already.” 

Hal set down his glass with care. His eyes, when they met Jamie’s, full of remembered anger. “Though mind you, I’m still miffed. I wouldn’t mind throttling her myself about the way she did it. Bad form, all around.”
 
Jamie grinned. Hal’s loyalty was one reason he was Jamie’s best mate. But Jamie was on his guard. Hal wanted something badly enough to risk getting drunk with him.
 
“Fine, I’ll do it,” he capitulated. “Flirt around tonight, that is.”
 
“Deal,” Hal affirmed. “Up at the bar, see that cracking blond package? She’s been eyeing you. It should be easy, even for you.”
 
“Gentlemen’s agreement and all that, Hal. If I get her number, I’ll have Monday off next week. If I’m not, I’ll attend the meeting for the Leoch estate on Friday.”
 
“I’ll settle for you chatting her up for ten minutes and, her name. No need for a phone number or email address unless you’re keen on her. No leading her on, mind you. We’re not cads.”
 
“Done,” Jamie agreed and got up, relieved the night was almost over. He’d go to the bar, chat up the blonde, and not talk about anything profound. Inanities. That’s what he’d aim for. The whole dating scene had bored Jamie even before he’d begun living with Geneva, so he expected nothing from tonight’s experience.
 
Sauntering up to the woman in question, he saw she was on the short side with brown roots showing against the platinum blonde hair. Jamie didn’t know why women had to torture themselves by using peroxide. This one was a dish, but she would have been even more attractive as a brunette. He liked dark-haired women fine.
 
The woman wasn’t alone, though. No matter what, she was interested. She had straightened her posture on the stool, flipped her hair, and widened her brown eyes. Was she about to pucker her red lips and rest her forefinger on them? For a moment, Jamie considered turning back to their table. But no, he’d come this far, might as well finish it.
 
“Hi. I’m Alex MacKenzie,” he introduced himself in a deep voice. He decided it wouldn’t hurt to put on a strong brogue. “You’re with friends, I see. I’m with mine over there,” he explained and pointed to Hal, who jerked and frowned at him.
 
Oh yes, you’ve correctly read the situation, mate. I’m bringing them over. You will be part of this, too.
 
“How about I get you a drink, then let’s go so you can meet him, too?” he asked Grace and her companions, whose names he didn’t catch. Jamie’s right middle and ring fingers twitched as he ordered a red wine for each of the women. He kept his eyes averted, avoiding eye contact with any of them.
 
He reached out for a glass, not paying attention to his surroundings. As Jamie sat his bum on the stool beside Grace, two things registered with him. First, the back of his legs brushed up against a woman’s soft lap. Second, he was about to sit on her. Embarrassed, he jumped, and to his dismay, she did the same. Then, the barstool teetered.
 
As the woman grabbed his hand, he tilted the glass, spilling red wine on her dress and the bag on the floor beside her. His heart racing, Jamie felt them topple over even as he tried to break her fall amid shrieks from the surrounding people. 
 
In the scuffle, the woman hit him in his nether regions with her elbow while his flailing fist connected with one part of her; he just wasn’t sure which. His groin hurt so much he doubled over, barely registering Hal’s voice thundering to let him through. As Jamie lay gasping on the floor with tears streaming from his eyes, two thoughts hit him—he’d never have children now, and the woman had come in alone.
 
When he could manage it, Jamie disentangled himself from the woman’s limbs and the stool, worried about her injuries.
 
“Madam, can you tell me where you’re hurt?” he urged her as soon as he scrambled on the floor to stand. As he helped her up, the woman wound an arm around his neck for better balance. To his immense surprise, his breath hitched, and a faint electric current traveled from his hands up to his arms even as he bent, cradling her.
 
Oh no, he thought stupidly, searching for her eyes through the thick mass of molasses-colored, curly hair hiding her face. His heart thudded as he glimpsed them when she pushed the wayward strands off her look with a trembling hand. They were cloudy, in pain, amber in the dim light of the bar.
 
“Jamie, you’ll never see Love coming for ye. She’ll smack ye upside your head. So, don’t laugh. Don’t tempt fate.”
 
Mam’s words echoed through his mind. He had paid no attention to her advice years ago, intent as he was on being the youngest member of Great Britain’s Olympic Archery Team.
 
Too bad he couldn’t tell Mam she was wrong on one count.
 
In case he wasn’t paying attention, Love had elbowed him in the family jewels even as he gave her a shiner.

Chapter Text

Claire had no reason to reread the invitation. She’d memorized the details right up to the names of the children in the wedding party. There were five bridesmaids and groomsmen, a flower girl and a ring-bearer. That was Frank, wanting to put on a good show.

As she moved away from the atelier, hugging her shopping bag, Claire bumped into another woman hurrying in the opposite direction. She smiled and said, “Uhm, I’m sorry—” but the woman scurried away without waiting for an apology.
 
Well, that was polite of you, Beauchamp. So, what are you going to do now? Return to Western Gen Hospital, fifteen minutes away on foot or hail a cab, go home and take a soak? 

It was Friday, and the ceremony was on Wednesday next.
 
She stood still, scraping a hand through her hair as a stiff breeze that had sprung up buffeted her. Seeing a coffee shop that was still open, Claire dashed inside, setting her shopping bag on the free table she’d seen by the window. Gratefully sinking into a chair, she gave herself a minute, intending to order a cup and a pastry at the counter.
 
Claire reached over to her purse, and poking inside, drew out a squarish white envelope which she laid out on the table. She didn’t have to open it to know what it contained—sheer vellum overlaying a heavy cream-colored card underneath. The thin cover did nothing at all to hide the words underneath, written in an ornate script.

Sandra Travers—Frank Wolverton Randall Nuptials

She received the invitation two months back. Claire had opened it, curious who would send her snail mail without a return address.
 
“I can’t believe he’d do something like this,” she muttered once she opened it. She dropped the card to the coffee table and slumped into the nearest chair in her living room. “And how the hell did he find me?”
 
That was then. Claire rubbed at her arms, folding them over her stomach as she stared at the card first, then at the queue at the counter. She rubbed her right eyelid. She still couldn’t figure out why she merited an invitation. She’d last seen Frank shouting, “You will never have someone who’ll put up with your mommy-daddy issues.”

Her friend, Gail Walters, had come on them, drawn by Frank’s raised voice. She’d seen Claire, backed up against a wall, shoulders hunched over her chest, shuddering as she absorbed the verbal abuse Frank was heaping on her. Gail had called the hospital security of Massachusetts General Hospital, who carted him away. Much later, she helped Claire by writing an affidavit that barred Frank from the hospital’s premises for the next three years.
 
And that should have been the last of Frank Randall. She had hated to leave his grandmother, Nana, and his younger brother, Alex, but Claire had to put herself first.
 
In the months following the breakup, Claire threw herself into her work, struggling to build healthy, balanced relationships with her friends and colleagues. She had been successful, she reminded herself fiercely. True, Claire still felt disconnected from her colleagues at times, and there hadn’t been a long-term boyfriend since Frank, but she had regained a small measure of trust in the good intentions of people.

She’d also gotten her self-confidence back and applied for a residency position in Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland. 
 
Frank would not win this time. Claire had promised herself that when she opened the envelope. The day after, she filed for a leave of absence from Western Gen, then contacted a designer. Thirty minutes ago, a shop assistant wrapped her yellow and grey crushed velvet gown and tucked it in a shopping bag. If Frank was arrogant and brash enough to invite her to his wedding, Claire would damn well let him take a good long look at her and see how far she had gone without him. 
 
Things were looking up despite the rainy day. So what if she had just had a frustrating day at work? Claire refused to think about sodding Frank any longer. She wanted coffee and something to eat before returning to her flat.
 
She fished around in her purse again and switched on her phone. It rang in her hand. Claire smiled, seeing it was Joe Abernathy, Gail’s boyfriend, another close friend from Boston. He’d agreed to be her plus one, and she expected both him and Gail to fly in on Sunday.
 
“Hey, Joe! Ready to—”
 
“Oh my God, Claire! I’d been trying to reach you all afternoon.” Gail’s voice came over loud and frantic.
 
Claire’s heart leaped to her throat as she gripped her phone and hunched forward. There were only a few reasons for Gail to use Joe’s phone instead of hers. “Ga...Gail. Please. What’s hap...happened to Joe?” She forced the words out. Her free hand crept up her throat and held on.
 
“No, Claire, I’m sorry I gave you that impression. I’ve been calling you since forever.” Gail’s voice lowered in pitch and evened out. “He’s okay now. But he had to undergo an emergency appendectomy two hours ago.”
 
“I switched my phone off as Tom Thumb was icky today and Dr. Martin…” Claire trailed off, her heart slow even as she broke out in a sweat. Removing her hand from her throat, Claire allowed her body to sag against her chair. But Gail was still talking, so she forced herself to listen.
 
“... I called the airline and canceled our trip. Again, I’m so sorry, Claire. We would have been there if we could.”
 
“Stuff it, Gail,” she said on an exhale. “It’s okay. What’s important is Joe’s fine.” Sitting up, she added shakily, “My God, I’m so relieved. Next time you keep me in suspense like that, I’m gonna smack you.”
 
“Yeah, promises, promises. And I love you, too, Claire.”
 
Claire laughed softly. “Look, I’m in a coffee shop but have ordered nothing yet. And the weather’s turning foul so I’ve got to go. Let’s face time on Sunday, yeah?”
 
Ringing off with promises for a video chat, she sat thinking about her new predicament. Joe was out, and things were more complicated, but Claire wasn’t running scared—not this time. It didn’t matter if she attended the wedding alone—many women did. Claire refused to skip the wedding, but that last bit of news called for something stronger than coffee. She’d make up for losing a warm spot at the café by having a dram or two of whiskey. Claire would toast to the success of Joe’s surgery and his fast recovery. And Claire knew where she’d get her whiskey. She’d seen the Bow Bar sign coming from the atelier earlier. 

Standing, she gathered her bags, leaving a fiver on the table as an apology to the café owner. She hurried out, braving the rain as she rushed down the street. 
 
“Oh, great! Finally, things are looking up,” she murmured as she neared the bar. 
 
Claire entered the pub but stopped right inside the door. It was noisy and dimly lit but clean—she hated staying in dingy places. Though the bar seemed full, Claire saw an empty seat at the bar. A tall red-headed man stood beside it, but he seemed preoccupied with his companions. 

Good, I can have a drink in peace before going home.
 
Claire headed for the bar, intent on claiming the chair before anyone did, but six feet away, her phone buzzed. As the name of their department chair flashed on the screen, her celebratory mood vanished. Dr. Martin never called on a Friday evening with good news.
 
She looked at the screen again. Still debating whether to answer the call, she perched on the barstool just as the red-headed jackass sat on her lap.

Claire jumped, squealing in outrage. A few seconds later, she was lying on the floor, her right eye hurting, mobile phone missing from her hand. She didn’t know how long she had blacked out, but Claire saw the moon revolving.

“Madam, can you tell me where you’re hurt?” a baritone voice pressed her, even while a big, warm, calloused hand pressed over her head, then slid around her arm. Claire groped for the man blindly and squeezing his shoulder, felt his muscles shift as he bent toward her, gathering her up as if she weighed nothing.
 
Claire raised her hand to brush strands of her hair away from her eyes, but it took too much effort. She was light-headed, floating but anchored at the same time as she lay still, cradled to a hard, warm chest.  

“There,” the voice murmured. “I’ve got you safe.”

Why were her arms tingling? And why was the room still spinning? 

A hand stroked her back in circles, gentling her. “That’s so inappropriate,” she mumbled.
 
Claire blinked. The moon she saw above her folded on itself, morphing into an overhead light. Surprised, she focused on the sky-blue, piercing eyes searching hers. Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes moved over a face made up of dramatic angles in perfect symmetry with each other. His nose was high and straight, prominent cheekbones veering down to his lips. She put out an exploring hand to cup his cheek and realized the tingles came from contact with his skin.
 
“Are you real?” she whispered, uncaring of the surrounding noise.
 
The man nodded, eyes still intent on hers. Then he smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners, displaying straight, white teeth. His lips were so near all she had to do was move a little more and…
 
“I’m so glad you’re all right, madam,” another male voice boomed near her ear. The world rushed back in, and she fainted.

 

Chapter Text

The moon was back, luminous and mysterious, creating strange tree shadows where there were none during the day. It was cold. Claire was walking through Boston Common in scrubs, rubbing her arms, wondering why the building at the end of the path never seemed to get nearer. She was readying herself to break into a run…

“Claire, do ye need another cold pack?”

Claire woke from her nap with a start, the acrid smell of hospital disinfectant cutting through any lingering haziness. A makeshift bandage around her head had come loose, and an ice pack was on her shoulder. Gillian, her dear friend, was leaning over her, eyebrows raised in inquiry.

She fiddled with the pack. “Gillian, I don’t need another one yet, but could you help me put this back?”

“I live to serve,” Gillian said with a wink. “Your attending’s Dr. Christie. Did ye ask for him? Or did he shunt every other doctor away to lay his mitts on ye?” She laughed as Claire made a moue of dissatisfaction.

“Do you want to see your periorbital hematoma first?” Gillian asked. At Claire’s nod, she handed over a mirror.

Claire studied her reflection, then returned the mirror with a trembling hand. She’d seen bigger shiners, but for her to have one now was a major disaster. The back of her eyes burned, forcing her to blink away unwanted tears.

“Do ye remember what happened today?” Gillian’s eyes were soft and sympathetic as she reached out to pat Claire’s hand.

She sighed, looking down on her hands. “I do. It started when I had this awful performance review this morning.”

“Yes, I heard about that. The phrase used was ‘the entire pack tore into you like a pack of wolves with a lamb.’ Dr. Christie was frothing at the mouth about it,” Gillian replied as she took Claire’s pulse.

“Okay. First, I appreciate Tom feeling indignant on my behalf, but I resent the analogy to sheep. Second, I cited research I’d done with members of my team at Harvard Med. Ditto with the independent clinical trials conducted at the Mayo Clinic. And everyone still jumped on me!” Claire brooded for a moment. “My career’s going to flatline in this godforsaken climate.”

“I can see you’ll be fine, Claire. You’re still as ornery as ever,” Gillian teased her as she added notes to Claire’s chart. “But what happened tonight?”

“It wasn’t a fight if that’s the gossip. I fell off a barstool, but someone broke my fall, so I didn’t hit my head on the floor. And I fainted because I haven’t eaten since breakfast.” She fiddled with the corner of her blanket, remembering the man’s piercing blue eyes and her unwarranted reaction to him. “I was awake by the time the ambulance arrived,” she admitted in a shaky voice.

“Hey, hey,” Gillian soothed her. “Everything’s okay. When the call came through, Pete and Davey volunteered to go get ye.”

Claire nodded. “They insisted I return to Western Gen with them.” Pete and Davey were efficient EMTs and pros at convincing patients to do their bidding. She could attest to that.

She leaned back, not wanting to ask about something. A hard knot had formed in her stomach, and she was close to tears. “Dr. Christie said he’d have a rape kit prepared. Did he go through with the order?”

Gillian’s eyes snapped to her as she stood. “What, no! Did ye order for one, Claire? Someone from Bow Bar called 999 when ye fainted and requested an ambulance. It arrived within ten minutes of the call. Dave and Petey loaded you on the ambulance as soon as they got to ye. They didn’t leave ye alone after they arrived.”

Claire sighed in relief. “No, but I had to know. I told Dr. Christie it was unnecessary, and that I wasn’t on a date. I know it’s standard procedure to ask if a patient wants a rape kit, especially if she’s lost consciousness at one point.” She met Gillian’s eyes again. “There’s nothing wrong with it, but I thought he would insist.”

Then something else occurred to her, and she clutched at Gillian’s scrub suit. “Wait, did anybody else come in?”

Gillian smirked. “Oh, so you were on a date. Good for ye! But to answer your question, two gentlemen followed the ambulance. You’re lucky that I’m the Nurse-in-Charge tonight else ye wouldn’t get answers.”

“No, I wasn’t on a date,” Claire repeated, but she felt her cheeks warm as she looked away.

“Ye should know Dr. Christie wants to keep ye overnight for observation. There’s a note here that ye refused an IV line. And he scheduled ye for an MRI in two hours.”

“What? I didn’t need IV fluids, and I told him so! And I don’t need an MRI. Some patients need it more than I do.” Claire’s breathing hitched as she panicked. “He can’t keep me here! Quick, read the chart for me.”

Gillian pulled her record from the foot of the bed. As she rattled off Tom’s notes, Claire knew she was going to be okay. Tom was cautious, and Claire appreciated it. But she hated staying in hospitals as a patient when there was a chronic shortage of beds. She’d return tomorrow for the MRI if needed.

“So, what will I do with such handsome specimens that ye have outside? Quick, pick one and let me have the other,” Gillian teased her.

“I must admit, your aptitude for bizarre statements scares even me,” Claire answered. “But, I’m willing to overlook it this time. There should be a man with red hair and blue eyes. Could you please invite him inside?”

Claire settled back into the bed. She would not stay and wasn’t above asking for help from someone else. She still had some shopping to do, like shoes and a bag. And probably a new coat. Tom Christie would have to live with her decision.

She heard a soft knock, turned her head to the door–and had to stop herself from gawking. 

Framed in the doorway was the most striking man she had ever seen. He was every cliché white knights should be—tall, muscular with broad shoulders. But what made him arresting was the glamor of his white smile, the good humor in his face. The warmth in his sapphire-blue eyes held hers, an emotion in them she couldn’t decipher.

He approached the bed. “I assume you’re better,” he said. 

Claire closed her eyes. Okay, you weren’t dreaming about those cat-shaped eyes. Or the man’s deep voice in the bar and… She cut off the thought and sat up straighter.

“Yes, of course, I am,” she replied with some asperity. “Why wouldn’t I be?” 

“Well, back at the bar, ye looked like ye were not. I got all your things together, but I’m afraid I damaged your dress. I’ll pay for its replacement and your hospital bills,” he said, stooping to look into her face, his eyes catching hers again. 

Claire’s pulse started beating faster, but she remained still. One part of her wanted to cover the few inches separating them, but another voice urged her to lean back against the pillows.  

“I’m afraid I can’t do anything about the black eye I gave ye, though.”

Claire gasped and raised a trembling hand to her right eye gingerly. Now that the man had mentioned it, she remembered he had hit her back at the bar. And though the pain had decreased, it was still present, like a low-level hum in the background.

Lost in her misery, Claire didn’t pay attention as the mattress dipped, and the man sat on it, careful not to jostle her. With controlled strength, he took her in his arms, hugging her with great tenderness. 

And Claire took whatever comfort he offered, shuddering from the effort of holding back her tears again. She couldn’t remember the last time someone held her like that. She didn’t know if anyone would ever hug her that way again. 

“Ye can cry, mo nighean donn. I won’t mind,” he whispered. 

“Thank you, I’m fine,” she whispered back, unable to stifle the quaver in her voice.

“I’d do anything, anything at all to help ye, mo chridhe. Remember, ye only have to say the word,” he whispered against her temple.

Claire tightened her arms around his shoulders, feeling safe for the first time in ten years. Then reluctantly, she let go. It was time to put on her big girl panties. But damn, that hug rated 20 on a 10-point rating scale. 

He held on a second longer before allowing her to leave his arms. Unfolding his long body, he stood beside her bed then held out his hand. 

“I’m afraid we did things backward,” he said with a smile.

Claire looked at him, distracted by the halo, the overhead lights made around his head.

“I’m James Alexander Malcolm Fraser, and I’m so pleased to meet ye,” he introduced himself. 

She took his hand, saying, “Claire Beauchamp. I’m a doctor of internal medicine in this hospital, but I’m Claire to my friends.” He took her hand, raised it to his lips, and pressed a kiss to her palm. 

There was no other word for it. Claire melted, feeling that kiss in her core. 

“And please, call me Jamie. Is there nothing I can do for ye?” 

“Yes, there is. This shiner is nothing—it’ll disappear in a week, two weeks tops. But I can’t stay in the hospital. Others need urgent care, and I have important things to do.” Seeing his eyes widen, she added, “This is just a superficial injury.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the way you look,” Jamie assured her. “But, please, allow me to drive you around.”

“I can’t stay here,” she repeated, ignoring his statement. “First, I’ve got to get home and prepare for a wedding near Oxford on Wednesday. I must be ready to leave at the latest, on Tuesday morning.” Despite her best intentions, her voice rose in pitch. “And it’s not any wedding. It’s my ex-fiancé’s. I know,” she added, seeing his eyebrow quirk up, “the invitation was in bad taste, considering we didn’t part exactly friends.” Then she stopped, mortified at oversharing.

“I would think no man would ever willingly separate from ye. But no worries, I’ll spring ye out of here,” Jamie offered.

“You’ve got to be forceful. My attending’s name is Dr. Thomas Christie and, he’s a stickler for rules.” 

“Is he going to be an arse on principle, or is it because he’s got a personal stake in your continuing good health?”

“I don’t quite know what you mean, Mr. Fraser—” she said, hedging her answer. She couldn’t understand what had come over him. He had taken a step back, his face reddened, and his arms came up across his chest. She began apologizing, but he forestalled her by holding up a hand.

“I’ll be addressing you as Claire, so I insist you call me Jamie. I asked you that because I don’t want to take away another man’s responsibility. If you are in a relationship with Dr. Christie, then I should know and also apologize to him.”

Claire bristled and snapped back, “Is this the nineteenth century? Will you be talking about me as if I weren’t around? And, for your information, he’s not my anything. He’s just a physician in this hospital.” She stopped. During her rant, he’d stopped frowning and was back to smiling at her.

“Claire, all you had to do was say he’s nothing to you. That would have sufficed.”

“Why, you conceited man—” She clutched at her pillow, about to hurl it at him.

He approached her bed again and bent, taking care to look into her face.

“Mo cridhe, I was teasing ye,” he said, tucking an errant curl behind her ear. “I’m happy I don’t have to fight anyone for ye. But, if you’re attending a wedding, did you pick up your dress today?”

She nodded, still unable to speak for the hammering in her throat at his statement, but his question and the tone he used, set off alarms in her head. Her breathing hitched as she braced herself for the next revelation.

Jamie straightened and gestured helplessly at the other item on her nightstand. “I mentioned it earlier, but ye may have forgotten about it.”

Claire could feel waves of dizziness wash over her as she stared at the white shopping bag now stained purple inside and out. She tipped her head back. “No, it can’t be. That’s it. Why can’t I catch a break?” she mumbled bleakly. Drawing up her knees, Claire clasped her arms around them, and lay her head on her arms.

Chapter Text

Like all boys of fifteen, Jamie thought he knew everything until Da roped him in for his version of a grown-up-sex-education discussion. “The Talk” occurred the year he turned fifteen.

“Jamie, a word if ye will,” Da said right after breakfast the Saturday after his birthday.

“But Da, today’s important! Team members are competing against each other during target practice.”

“It’s this afternoon, and I’ll be driving ye there. It won’t take over thirty minutes. And this is the best time for it.”

They climbed up the hill behind the house, resting at the very top where tree branches served as chairs for them. The slight breeze was pleasant after the close confines of their home, ruffling Da’s thick black hair.

“I didn’t get to discuss women with you again after the last time.”

“When I was five or six, you told me about sperm and eggs. You got me in trouble in school with that one, Da. No one believed me. And when I was ten, you said I’d start having crushes as I grew older.” Jamie rubbed his nape. “But I didn’t believe you. I never thought I’d ever want to kiss a girl,” Jamie admitted as he rubbed his neck with his left hand. They laughed about it then fell silent.

“I’ll just add some bits,” Da replied. He was looking down on their home, his eyes hooded. Jamie was shredding a leaf he found on the ground. “This is the first. Always remember you’re sister and mother when dealing with girls or women. They’re different from us men, aside from the physical, that is.”

He got up and stretched. Jamie did the same. He was proud Da considered him to be a man, but he thought it was disrespectful to be sitting while his Da stood and had something important to share. 

“Women are more sensitive regarding their feelings and those for whom they feel affection. So let your woman feel cherished, protected, and secure. Win her consent and earn her affection. Only then will ye have a happy relationship.”

 


 

That discussion was seventeen years ago. Jamie could still recall the sharp smell of freshly cut grass, the shape of the clouds drifting by, and Da’s eyes as they held his. Since then, Jamie had done his best with his relationships, treating his girlfriends with care and affection. 

But today, he had failed Claire.

Claire had drawn him to her, back in the bar, even without seeing her face. Her skin on his had started his heart thudding, as he tried to soothe Claire as best as he could. Intense fear and remorse had gripped him in the first minutes he’d held her and thought he’d injured her.

When the paramedics arrived, he was reluctant to give her up. If it weren’t for Hal’s insistence that she would receive more professional care with them, he would have driven her to the hospital himself. He couldn’t draw a deep breath from the time the paramedics loaded her on a stretcher, until ten minutes ago when a nurse had let him in Claire’s room. 

And now, Claire had withdrawn into herself, and it was once again Jamie’s fault.

He didn’t know what to do. Mam and Jenny would have pitched a fit. Geneva would have sulked then later, rampage around the house, then ignore him again for as long as she needed before deciding to forgive him.

Claire’s reaction made him nervous. He’d never seen anyone withdraw into themselves the way she did. He had to do something—oh, and now Claire was shaking. Was she crying?

He waited for a few more heartbeats before sitting on the bed and reaching out to touch her shoulder. “Mo cridhe, I’m sorry about what happened to your gown—” He jerked back when she lifted her face to his. She was laughing!

“The dress was yellow and grey—crushed velvet. I know, not very practical but still–” Claire drew in a breath. “The designer assured me it was all fashionable. It had a sweetheart neckline, not that you know what it is, but, your face—!”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “If I could have kept my balance, I—”

Suddenly pulling the pillow against her face, she let out a shriek of laughter that drowned out his words, then slid down the bed. Jamie was at a loss, wondering if Claire was having hysterics. But he hesitated, not wanting to disrupt her as she appeared to be coping with her distress. He remained silent instead, taking in her flushed, laughing face. The bandage holding the ice pack in place was askew, lending her a jaunty, endearing air.

“Oh God, the universe throws random curveballs when you least expect it,” she choked out.

“Claire,” he whispered and lifting the pillow from her face, touched her forehead with the back of his hand. “Are you running a fever?”

“No, I most assuredly am not. I’m the doctor here, and I would know.” Aiming a smile his way, she said, “Come on, Jamie. There’s no call for you to look so guilty,” she teased him.

Jamie’s eyebrows rose as he considered this unprecedented development. She was thinking of him! It was all he could do to restrain himself from flinging himself on her and kissing her senseless.

“It was an accident, all right? But I must have been somewhere else when God showered blessings and good fortune on people,” Claire added as she plumped up her pillow. She looked up at him with solemn eyes, and in a calm,  firm voice said, “I won’t press charges. I promise you that.”

Then it hit him. Jamie chuckled, his heart expanding with tenderness. His Claire was trying to make him feel less guilty. “You’re an amazing woman, Claire.”

“No, I’m not, not really. I only choose not to cry over it anymore. If fate doesn’t want me to attend the wedding, then who am I to stand against it?”

She unclasped her hands from her knees and lay back on her pillow, still smiling. Jamie looked his fill of her heart-shaped face with its fine bone structure and curly hair of a dozen shades of brown, spilling all over the pillow. Her one visible eye was sparkling with good humor under a winged brow. Her eyes were amber as he recalled. The one eye was now lighter, the color of well-aged sherry.

He sat on her bed, leaning forward to give her space while trying not to jostle her further. Reaching out a finger to remove unruly curls from her flushed cheeks, he said with sincerity, “I’ll do my best to see you do so, mo cridhe. I won’t mind, even if you sue. I’ll gladly pay if it makes ye happy.”

She smiled at him. “And I believe you mean that. But there isn’t anything much you contribute to solving my current problem. Let’s reserve your efforts for when I need help, okay?”

He watched her for a moment, glad to know that she thought there would be future meetings between them. However, he needed to understand why attending the wedding was so crucial. Jamie’s stomach muscles tightened, and for a second or two, he felt his face stretch too tight over his skull. He looked at her furtively, wondering if he should ask.

“Is there anything wrong?” Her eyes narrowed on him, lips pursed.

He unclenched his jaw and gathered his composure. “Why?”

“You were growling.”

He checked himself. The burning sensation in his chest only intensified. “So, why did ye want to attend the wedding, anyway? Do ye still have feelings for the man?” he asked in a rush.

She frowned at his question. “No, I don’t. But the last time I saw him was unpleasant.” She moved, her legs crossing and recrossing under the blanket.

Jamie forced himself not to ogle the outline of her legs but could feel his blood pressure rising. It wasn’t right to imagine those legs and thighs wrapped around him. Not when she lay on a hospital bed, still hung up on her ex.

“I met Frank when I was younger, a junior in pre-med, and he was a new exchange professor from Imperial College.” 

Jamie nodded at her to continue, shifting his weight on the bed, careful not to jostle her.

“Frank even met Uncle Lamb.” At Jamie’s raised eyebrows, she explained, “My uncle raised me since I was five, but he passed away some years back.” With a faraway look in her eyes, she added, “Frank, and I dated a few times after I graduated from pre-med, then we lost touch with each other.”

Muscles tensing again, Jamie bit his lip to prevent himself from saying something rude about Frank. But he’d asked for it and had to deal with it. In the meantime, he could set aside this unaccustomed jealousy to help Claire relive a painful experience.

“Anyway, long story short, Frank showed up again when I turned 28 three years ago, was more persistent, and we got engaged. Six months into our relationship, I discovered he was a serial cheater, so I broke up with him.” Claire raised her eyebrows and staring at him, said, “It was my right.”

“Yes, it was,” he agreed.

“I didn’t even get to say goodbye to his brother, grandmother, and parents,” she whispered. “I liked them a lot, you see. And I loved Nana. I wonder if she thought about me again after Frank and I broke up?”

The tension left him at her words, but he couldn’t help himself from asking, “Are you sure she reciprocated yer feelings?” Seeing her face darken, he hurried on, “Because I can’t help you with that. I can’t make anyone love you.”

Claire gaped at him. “You just quoted the Genie in Aladdin to me.”

“Yes, I did. And like the genie, I can offer you three wishes,” Jamie said, inexplicably pleased she understood his quote. “If I could help you attend the wedding, what would ye need?”

“That offer is juvenile but,” she said, cocking her head to one side, pretending to consider, “I’ll play along. Do the usual conditions apply?”

“They do. What kind of genie would I be if I let you get the drop on me?” Jamie answered. “First, no wishing for more wishes. Second, I can’t bring anyone back from the dead. The third, I already told you.”

“I would never wish for that!” she hissed in mock outrage, then spoiled the effect by giggling. “But I’ll play along. First, you must replace my ruined clothes. The dress code’s formal, which means, where I’m from, a gown for women and a tuxedo for men.”

“Done. I can help with your gown. My sister is a fashion designer, and the atelier’s near my office. I’ll bring you to her tomorrow and see what we can do. And the other?”

Ignoring his question, she asked, “Don’t you think you’re getting ahead of yourself? For all you know, your sister may refuse to help.”

“She won’t,” he said with conviction. “She may object at first, but she’ll agree to it in the end. We’ve always been close, even while quarreling. Besides, this is me, granting wishes.”

Claire was watching him in fascination. “I don’t think you’d ever hurt a woman physically, but what about knock-down, drag-out arguments?”

“We’ve had those, too,” he assured her. “There are incendiary topics like politics. But we’ve always recovered from those fights.”

Her face fell, and she sighed, looking down on her hands. “You’re so lucky having someone with whom you could share your thoughts.”

“I suppose I am. When I’m in a spot of trouble, she’s always been there for me. Because that’s what families do, they help each other.” Jamie smiled, replaying a scene from his childhood. “She’s older by two years, but there are days when she bosses me around as Mam does—”

He broke off. Claire’s face had reddened, and she had turned her face away from him.

“Mo cridhe, are ye in pain? Shall I call for a nurse?” he asked as he reached for the cable dangling over the headboard.

Shaking her head without looking at him, she started plucking at the light blanket covering her.

“Claire, did I say or do anything wrong?” he asked, puzzled at her change in demeanor.

She looked up at him, a strange tightness under her eyes. “No, everything’s okay.”

“Everything isn’t okay,” he disagreed, letting go of the cable. Claire’s lips thinned, but she shook her head. “Come on. You’re upset. I won’t judge—promise.” He reached over to clasp one of her hands.

“I’m a cow.” She turned her hand over and linked their fingers.

“You shouldn’t talk about yourself that way, mo cridhe,” he chided her gently.

“I’m an only child. And when I was five, my parents died in a car accident.” She was swallowing convulsively now. He tightened his grip on her hand.

She squeezed back then, letting go of his hand, smoothed the blanket instead. “See, I’m a horrible person. You’re helping me, and yet for a moment there, I was so envious you had a sister like that.”

He hesitated, trying to find the right words to ease her distress.

“Claire, look at me, please.” He waited until she raised her face to his, eyes vulnerable and trusting. Jamie felt a strong urge to kiss her but stopped himself. Barely. “I will not pretend I know how you feel as both my parents are still alive.”

“It’s okay.” Claire sighed, giving him a slight smile before her lashes came down to hide her eyes.

“The people we love never leave us, Claire. They watch over us. And the memories we have? Sometimes, they fade away.” Her eyes flew open. “You forget the arch of your father’s eyebrows or the curve of your mother’s cheek. It’s natural. What’s important is you remember how they made you feel and how you loved them in return.”

“How did you know I was feeling guilty about forgetting their faces?” she asked as she searched his face.

He looked at her, deciding whether it was too soon to confide in her. “Trust,” Da had said. “Trust is the key to make your woman open her heart to ye.”

“It’s because that’s I’ve been feeling the same way these past few weeks. My older brother, Willie, died ten years ago. It’s still an open murder case.”

She gasped, her eyes softening.

“It’s been a long time, mo cridhe.” He felt a strong compulsion to kiss her, but she wasn’t ready for it. Instead, he put an arm around her shoulder. “There’s no shame in feeling envious, ye were missing yer parents, that’s all. But if ye need them, I’m willing to share my sister and younger brother with ye.”

Claire returned his smile, then moved away. Jamie removed his arm and stood, feeling the moment of intimacy fade away.

“Thank you.” She hesitated with her next words.

Nodding in encouragement, he asked, “Go ahead, is there anything else you may need help with?”

“It’s the most important thing,” she answered, her eyes downcast, a slight tremor in her voice as she plucked at her blanket. 

Now what? “Leave the best for last, aye?”

“I don’t want to attend the wedding looking like I’d been in a brawl. Makeup will fix some of that, I know. But there’s no help for it. I’ll need something extra that will keep everyone distracted.” Lifting her chin, Claire said, “I refuse to be pitied by anyone.”

She stared at Jamie for a few moments, back ramrod straight, hands clasped in her lap. Claire started as if to speak, then hesitated. Drawing in a deep breath, she let it out in increments, repeating this enough times that he was tempted to interrupt. But, he held firm, holding her eyes to let her know that she could tell him anything. 

She rewarded him with her confidence when, after a few moments, she unclasped her hands, laying them on her knees and told him her last wish.

“So, Jamie, could you please pretend to be my boyfriend and accompany me to my ex-fiancé’s wedding next week?”

Chapter Text

Jamie stood, locked in place, staring at her slack-jawed.

Oh God, she’d shocked him speechless. But Claire had already asked, and she couldn’t take it back without sounding like a complete ninny. She dropped her eyes, unable to meet his after her outrageous request. Seconds passed as she fiddled with the sleeve of her hospital gown.
 
She had two choices—wait for his answer or send him away right now and salvage what little pride she had left. He didn’t show signs of answering her, and she didn’t blame him. Why would a kind person like him act out a lie? Rubbing the back of her neck, she looked down on her hands. “Never mind. I’m sorry. It wasn’t a good idea—”
 
“There’s nothing to be sorry for.” 

Claire stopped as a weight dipped one side of the bed. Jamie’s arm went around her shoulder and squeezed her in a one-armed hug. “I made you wait for my answer, Sassenach, though I never intended to make you feel small. I’m so sorry, Claire,” he apologized again, his voice low and hoarse.
 
She cleared her throat. “There’s no need to explain, Jamie.” Tilting her head, she searched his face. “I’m the one who should apologize for putting you on the spot. But, are you sure about this?” 
 
“Yes, I am. What’s wrong with agreeing, eh?” 

He looked so sincere as he met her stare without unflinching that Claire had no choice to believe him. 

“Besides, this is a plan with limitless potential for embarrassment. What’s not to like?”
 
Claire smiled, appreciating his sense of humor. “I still won’t sue you if you don’t agree.”
 
“I’m glad to know that,” he said. “But what I’m worried about is that you may change your mind, and I’m stuck with Hal for the next five days.”
 
Surprised into giggling, she leaned back, dislodging his arm.
 
“Not likely!” she sputtered. “I applied for a four-day leave of absence seven weeks ago, and my department chair cleared it. If I don’t take it, I’ll never hear the end of it, and,” she added, “I may never get the chance again to take a break from this hospital.”
 
“Ahem,” a voice boomed from the door. “The nurse outside, Ms. Duncan, informed me you’re ready to accept more visitors.”

 



 
Jamie turned to watch him approach, happy to make the introductions. But Hal veered away, planting himself on the other side of the bed, and smiled at Claire with unconcealed interest.
 
That small act roused Jamie’s suspicions. Not that he ever paid much attention when it happened—he was a guy after all. Still, Jamie had seen that smile many times at uni, directed at hapless, innocent coeds.
 
“I’m Harold Grey, this numbskull’s friend, and business partner. But please, call me Hal. Now before anything else, I’d like you to know I wish I’d been able to reach you in time to cushion your fall.”
 
Even the way Claire blushed was fascinating, as he watched the delicate pink color spread from her cheeks until it suffused her whole face. She was lovely, even with a spectacular bruise covering one eye. Realizing he was staring again, Jamie looked at Hal instead, trying to catch his eyes. Jamie didn’t know the game Hal was playing, but he intended to stop it. 

“Hal, this is Dr. Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp,” he said, emphasizing her title, but leaving out his.

“Please, it’s Claire. Dr. Beauchamp’s a mouthful,” she informed Hal to Jamie’s chagrin. “Jamie broke my fall,” she added and squeezed his arm. “There couldn’t be a more comfortable person to land on.”

Her words went a long way toward placating him, and he couldn’t help but smirk at Hal. 

Hal countered by taking the hand she held out to him and said, “I would never dream of contradicting an injured lady. Besides, Jaimie has soft parts on his belly and chest so he would make a better landing cushion than me.” He then bent to kiss her left cheek. 

As he straightened, Hal gave Jamie a measuring look, which Jamie returned with a glare. During their next bout at the gym on Sunday, Hal would have to watch out as Jamie planned to give him a real bollocking in the ring. For now, he contented himself with flipping Hall off.

Hal grinned in return, radiating goodwill and charm as he addressed his next statements to Claire. “Forgive me, but I overheard you talking earlier. You can ride with me if you need to get home soon. My car’s large enough and comfortable for a ride home.”

Jamie frowned back. “No, I’ll do it. The backseat of my pickup is wider than yours. And it’s my responsibility to see Claire home,” Jamie said.
 
Fishing in his pocket, Hal handed him a slip of paper and winked. “Oh, you might be busy. Grace gave me her phone number, email address, and Facebook account. I also cleared up the matter of your name. You’re supposed to call her as soon as you’ve finished here.”
 
Jamie had taken the note without thinking, trying to remember who Grace was. When he did, he immediately let go of the scrap of paper, watching in fascinated horror as it fell to the bed. He looked up, dreading Claire’s reaction to the damning evidence that he was picking up a woman at the pub.
 
“I swear to you, I didn’t ask for her number. I was about to hand over a wineglass to her when you—” Jamie trailed off as Claire started shaking, both hands over her face, trying her best to stifle her laughter. Jamie swiveled his head to scowl at Hal, silently promising retribution with his eyes.

But Hal ignored him. And with no thought to self-preservation, beamed at Claire, rocked back on his heels, and shook a forefinger at Jamie. “That’s no way to thank me for doing you a favor, Jamie. And please, don’t grind your teeth.”

Jamie’s face warmed. And for the first time in their long friendship, Jamie wanted to plant a facer on his friend. 
 
“There’s no need to explain anything, Jamie,” Claire gasped out as she lowered her hands, still struggling for control. “I understand. When I first saw you, I assumed you were on a date, and I’m sorry for disrupting your night. It’s okay, I’ll take Hal up on his offer, and you can return to Grace.”

Jamie sat, clenching his fists while he struggled to keep his temper in check.
 
Hal, traitor that he was, chuckled. “Since it’s all settled, Claire, allow me to arrange for your release. I’ll be back within an hour,” Hal assured her. And with that, he left them alone.
 
Jamie turned his head to watch him leave, too unsettled to say anything. He was still stiff with tension when smaller, softer hands covered his. He turned to Claire, his irritation dropping away as he flipped his hands and intertwined their fingers. She smiled at him, eyes soft and warm.
 
“It’s all right, Jamie. I can see you’re stressed about the situation, so go, see to your friend. I’ll leave my phone number and email address with Hal. Will you call me tomorrow?” she asked.

“Let me clarify something first. I wasn’t on a date,” Jamie stated and drew a deep breath. Claire quirked an eyebrow, and he hurried to explain. “Hal asked if I wanted to talk to her, seeing she’d been looking at me for some time...” His voice trailed off.
 
“I’m mucking things up, am I not?” he asked. Claire nodded, biting her lower lip, eyes dancing. “Then please, let me bring you home, that is to your home wherever it is, not mine—” he blundered on.
 
Claire hesitated then said, “If you’re sure it’s not an inconvenience, then yes, Jamie.”
 
She had uttered his name in a low, tender, breathless voice. He shivered, imagining Claire agreeing to a different question. His jeans grew tight as he imagined her begging in that tone.
 
Impulsively, he raised her hands and pressed soft, open kisses on her palm. Attraction flickered in her eyes, and as he took in her parted lips, he leaned forward, intent on claiming them.
 
“Oh, Jamie! Thank goodness you’re still here,” a feminine voice called out.

 


 

The woman had impeccable timing. In another second or two, Claire would have been kissing Jamie, and she doubted she would stop once they’d started. 

With the stranger glaring at her, mouth set in a straight line, Claire’s stomach hardened as she clenched her jaw, upset at the interruption. Was this Grace? If she was, Claire would give her top marks for persistence and stalking.
 
“Now, Jenny, how did you know I was here?”
 
Claire looked up at Jamie, who’d let go of one hand the minute Jenny entered the room. She was pressing her lips so tight—for fear she’d say something rude—that they felt numb. The woman wasn’t Grace as she first feared. Was Jamie married, after all? Was that the reason for not answering her invitation right away?
 
And who would blame him? Jenny was beautiful and petite, unlike her curvy figure on a five-foot-eight-inch frame. Jenny’s black, shoulder-length wavy hair was shiny, with arresting blue eyes framed by dark, arched eyebrows in an oval face. And Jenny wore soft black wool trousers and a long black tunic with a cowl color. It was a striking, sophisticated ensemble.
 
“Rupert, told me, you muckle-headed idiot. He was at the bar, but you didn’t see him. ‘Intent on his prey’ were his words.”
 
Claire gasped at the insult, sure Jamie would object. But he didn’t. Instead, he laughed, saying, “So that’s why he didn’t answer my calls this afternoon!” 

Letting go of Claire’s hand, he stood, advanced on Jenny, and swept her in a bear hug until she squealed. Jamie’s arm remained on Jenny’s shoulders, though with the ease of familiarity. Turning to Claire, he made an old-fashioned bow and introduced Jenny.
 
“Sassenach, meet Janet Flora Arabella Murray—”
 
“Looks like it’s my fate to be forever barging in on your big scenes, Jamie,” Hal said. 

Claire looked over at Hal and smiled, relieved his presence would ease the awkwardness of the situation. “Are those my discharge papers, Hal?” she asked, pointing to the sheaf of papers he held in one hand.
 
Hal walked to the other side of her bed, pointedly ignoring Jamie and Jenny. He attached the documents to a clipboard, laying the items on Claire’s lap.
 
“Yes, my dear. The hospital insists you sign them if you intend to discharge yourself without Dr. Christie’s approval.” He leaned over, handing over his pen to Claire while pointing where she had to sign.
 
“How was he? Did he give you a hard time? What did he say?” she asked as she scribbled her signature. Registering movement in her peripheral vision, she turned, intending to apologize to Jamie for brushing him off momentarily. Claire’s words died on her lips, though, when she met Jamie’s frown and Jenny’s glare, both directed at her.
 
It shouldn’t have mattered, she’d done nothing wrong, but she couldn’t help raising her voice. “What on earth’s the matter now?”
 
“Dr. Christie didn’t believe me at first,” Hal broke in, diverting her attention away from the others. “I had to show him my identification before he agreed to have these documents readied.”
 
“Thanks so much!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t want to argue with Dr. Christie earlier, but I’ll have a word with him when I return from Oxford next week.”
 
“That’s good, my dear. Now, I must return to the good doctor, have the record section acknowledge these, then Bob’s your uncle! You’re good to go. I’ll bring my car to the entrance and—.”
 
“Hal, that’s unnecessary,” Jamie interrupted, as he let go of Jenny’s shoulders. “Claire changed her mind and agreed to allow me to bring her home.” He took a step to stand beside the bed. “But you can bring my sister, Jenny, home instead.”
 
Claire covered her mouth with a hand, allowing her head to rest back against the pillow. Now that Jamie had mentioned it, Jenny’s eyes were so like her brother’s. It was Jenny’s coloring, a stark contrast to the vividness of Jamie’s red hair and fair skin, that threw her off, she decided.

“Jenny? That’s your name?” Hal blurted out. He paled so fast while staring at Jenny that Claire thought he would faint. Jenny, interestingly enough, turned scarlet. 
 
“It’s Janet Flora Arabella Murray nee Fraser,” she answered with an edge in her voice. “The world also knew me as Janet Mackenzie Fraser. And you’re the famous Harold Grey? My brother’s best friend who’s avoided meeting me in the last, oh, eleven years?”
 
“To be fair, Jenny, Hal’s only been a real friend nine or ten out of those eleven years you mentioned.” Jamie joked.

It took all of Claire’s training not to roll her eyes at the aggression filling her room. Interestingly enough, Jamie’s left fingers were drumming on his thigh. 

“So, Mrs. Murray, is your husband around?” Hal asked in an unfriendly tone.
 
Shocked silence met his question. Jenny stood white-faced and thin-lipped.
 
“You ass, she’s been a widow these past six years, don’t you remember me telling you?” Jamie asked in a raised voice. Claire watched Jenny’s eyes flash, then glanced back at Hal, who was staring slack-jawed at the other woman.
 
“We were married for only two years—not that you have any right to know. And I can find my way home. I didn’t fly here on a broomstick if that’s what you’re thinking.”
 
Hal laughed, breaking the tension. It was a warm laugh, one that invited people to listen and join in the warmth of his humor, and Jenny wasn’t immune to it. 
 
The entire situation was whacked. Claire was sure the two had already met, though Jamie behaved as if this was their first introduction. At any other time, Claire would have a theory or two about them. Still, a headache had begun, reminding her she hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours. She might have made a sound of distress as Jamie returned to the bed and reclaimed his seat beside her. As he sat, Claire reached out to take hold of his jacket. He captured her hand instead, and they watched Hal and Jenny.
 
“I apologize, Janet. Things were happening in my life then that I didn’t pay much attention to anything else. And for the record, I don’t go around, insulting women I’d just met.” 

There it was again, that undercurrent of unwarranted hostility Claire couldn’t understand. She could almost hear Hal tack on “Unlike you—”
 
A thumb was caressing Claire’s knuckles, soothing her. Jamie had caught on that she was stressed and was calming her like a cat. With a squeeze of her hand, she let go of his but smiled at him.
 
“Hi, Jenny. I’m Claire Beauchamp. Jaimie, I’ve signed the discharge papers. Shall we now prepare to leave?”
 
“I’ll get Nurse Duncan,” Hal offered then hurried out.
 
Claire saw Jenny watching Hal go, bemused at the soft smile on the other woman’s face. But Jamie distracted her, capturing her hand and smiling down on her.
 
“Now, brother, could you enlighten me on your latest cock-up?”

 

Chapter Text

Not having siblings, Claire didn't know if Jenny's question was acceptable or rude. She'd seen the protective manner her friend Joe treated his sisters and, she knew Gail spoiled her younger brother. But Claire wasn't sure if Jamie could take the put-down without hitting back. She held on tightly to his hand, and this time, her thumb made soothing circles around his.

"You know part of the story from Rupert, eh? What he didn't tell you is I spilled red wine over her bag and her dress. It's over there in the corner. Could you look and tell me if you can remove the stain?" Jamie requested.

Peeking inside the shopping bag, Jenny immediately closed it, looking over to Claire as she answered, "Velvet is a bold choice for a gown, and the color's gorgeous. Unfortunately, that wine stain won't come out."

Then turning to Jamie, she smacked him upside his head. "And what the hell were you doing that you didn't pay attention to where you were sitting?"

"Will you leave off hitting me? I don't want to jostle Claire!" he sputtered, throwing up an arm to fend Jenny off. "I'm surprised Rupert didn't give you a blow-by-blow account of the whole thing."

Claire must have looked confused because Jamie explained, "Rupert's a cousin and a terrible gossip. He's also an importer of cement for our firm. But I didn't see him."

Jenny curled her lip, staring at Claire with narrowed eyes. "He said Jamie was picking women up at the Bow Bar." Giving Claire a once over, she shook her head and said, "It's disgraceful, trolling pubs like a common tart."

Letting out a gasp, Claire's head jerked up at the unexpected attack. How she managed to keep her temper, she didn't know. Jamie put an arm around Clair, pulling her to him.

In the silence that followed, Jamie snapped, "There's no call for vulgarity, Jenny, not that it's any of your business what Claire does."

"Jamie's right," Claire ground out, heart thudding in her chest. "I don't have to explain anything. You, though, made it sound like I frequent pubs for one-night stands. If you must know, I was celebrating the end of a horrid day by having a drink on my way home."

"This is a new low, even for you, Jenny. You owe Claire an apology," Jamie growled as he continued to scowl at her. "It was an accident. I almost sat on her and damaged the gown she was supposed to wear next week. Now, I promised Claire that I'd see to its replacement."

As Jenny shook her head, Jamie added, "Fine, there are other designers in Edinburgh who may be up to the challenge. I just thought of you first since you're my sister." He turned back to Claire, saying, "I'll draw up a list tonight, and we'll hit up some boutiques tomorrow like Kakao by K."

"Hey, wait a minute!" Jenny interrupted him. "What about me?"

"You already refused to help me, Jenny. I'm talking about Plan B now."

"But I never said that!" she protested, gripping her bag tightly. Claire wasn't sure if Jenny planned to throw it at Jamie and was about to warn him when he spoke again.

"Well?" he challenged Jenny, who regarded him and Claire with marked disfavor, "Can you do it? I promised a new gown, and it's got to be by Monday evening at the latest."

Jenny quirked an eyebrow at him. "Oh, so now I'm supposed to drop everything I'm doing to save your neck? It so happens I will be busy this weekend. Something's come up."

"I'm not in the mood for games, Jenny. The wedding Claire's attending is on Wednesday next week." He stared at Jenny, no vestige of warmth on his face. "Forget I said anything if you can't decide whether to help."

At that moment, Gillian entered the room. 

"The nurses at the station can hear you, you know," she told Jenny, her face unsmiling as she took several steps into the room. "I will have you ejected from the premises if you've upset her when she has to rest."

"Dr. Beauchamp," she addressed Claire. "Would you like me to call hospital security?"

"Thank you, Nurse Duncan," she answered, "Everything's fine. We were just having a spirited discussion. I know how to use the call button, don't worry." 

Gillian remained unconvinced. "Fine, I'm leaving, but keep the door open. And use the button as needed." Walking back toward the door, she turned with a hand on the doorknob. Raising her eyebrows, she looked at Jenny again. "I'll thank you not to agitate Dr. Beauchamp. Visiting hours are almost over, and I'll have no qualms to eject you from the hospital for disturbing her rest," she warned, then stalked out. 

"See what you've done," Jamie hissed at Jenny. She wasn't, however, paying attention to him. Instead, she was looking back at Claire, tapping her lips with a forefinger.

"Who brought you to this hospital?" she asked Claire. It was a non sequitur Claire didn't answer.

Jamie seemed surprised but replied without hesitation. "Someone called for an ambulance. Most likely, it was Rupert. Then Hal and I followed as soon as we could."

"And neither of you imbeciles thought to go with her during her ride to this hospital? Unbelievable! The personnel here are her friends." Jenny rolled her eyes at him.

Claire had never met a woman as bluntly disagreeable as Jenny Murray nee Fraser at first acquaintance. Remembering everything Jamie had said about his sister, Claire didn't know if Jenny hid her claws from him or if he was blind to her rudeness. Perhaps Jenny was unpleasant to all women connected with her brother. But whatever Jamie's reason for misleading her, Claire could feel the knot in her stomach tightening as she clenched her fists on her lap.

"I'll be more careful with your choice of words if I were you. Claire got here safely, received the medical attention she needed. So, does it matter who accompanied her in the ambulance?" he challenged. He removed his arm around Claire and stood, taking a few steps toward Jenny.

Claire almost cried out at the loss of contact. She fiddled instead with her blanket, fighting against the tears threatening to clog up her throat. But she couldn't let them fall, not with Jenny in the room to witness her weakness. It was a damnable situation all around. Claire didn't know whether to interfere, uncomfortable with the brewing quarrel. She knew Jenny loved Jamie. That much was clear from the relief on her face when she arrived. But getting Jenny to see reason was like trying to talk down a toddler from screaming his head off.

"Yes, it does, Jamie! They can all testify against you." Jenny regarded Claire coldly as she shifted her purse to the other shoulder. "And who's paying for this room and your medical services?"

"I am," Claire declared as she sat up straighter. "I'm a physician here, and it's one of my perks as an employee. Why is it important?"

"It matters if you intend to sue Jamie afterward for everything he's worth," Jenny said, taking a step toward him. "All you need is to have your picture taken like that and presto! There's instant fodder for a lawsuit."

Claire scowled at her. "I already told him I won't sue. It was an accident," she repeated, seeing Jamie out of the corner of her eye inching toward her.

"You say that now. What happens after you talk to a lawyer, eh?"

"Jenny, enough!" Jamie said through gritted teeth. He'd returned to Claire's side and was hovering around her. "Your behavior's intolerable. You should be ashamed of yourself, badgering her like this!"

In the silence that followed his scolding, Claire watched Jenny's face soften and break into a sweet smile that surprised Claire so much, she almost missed the other woman's next words.

"Oh, it's like that, eh?" Jenny asked Jamie.

"Aye," Jamie answered after a few moments, as he sat on the bed again, his face calm as he locked eyes with his sister. "Exactly like that."

 


 

Jamie knew, in the way younger siblings always did, that there was a distinct possibility that his sister would morph into a friend as they grew older. Born two years earlier than him, Jenny alternately smothered him with attention and drove him crazy over the most trivial of concerns. But they had a special bond only they knew how to navigate. And Jamie knew Jenny had never let him down before—at least not for important things.

"So, if I replace this gown or finish one for you within the next seventy-two hours, you won't sue Jamie?" Jenny pressed Claire.

"Yes, Jenny, that's what I mean," Claire finally snapped and glared at her, hands clutching her blanket. "I already told Jaimie that I'm not suing him at all. Once my fellowship is over in six months, I'll return to the U.S. to take a position at Massachusetts General Hospital. A lawsuit might drag on for years, and I don't want to be here longer than necessary."

Jamie's heart sank, and he turned his head away. He hadn't thought beyond the wedding. Here he was, almost dreaming of his own when she was leaving soon!

Jenny folding her arms below her chest was never a good sign. Paired with a tapping foot and cocked hip meant an imminent explosion. She was at the first stage now, quirking an eyebrow when Claire threw her hands up. Despite his disappointment, he caught one of her hands, to keep Claire from further annoying Jenny but mostly because he liked the feel of her skin against his.

"You know what? You don't have to replace my dress. It was an accident, a fluke," Claire gritted out.

Jamie held on tighter to her hand, rubbing his thumb across the back of it, hoping his action was having the same soothing effect on her it did on him. He narrowed his eyes at Jenny, warning her to stop.

"So why won't you believe me when I say I don't intend to do anything that would land Jamie in the middle of litigation," Claire asked, staring down at his hand.

Jenny looked at their linked hands, waggling her eyebrows, and sticking the tip of her tongue at him. A thread of amusement reverberated through Jamie even as he retaliated, staring at Jenny and widening his eyes. She avoided his eyes but pressed a fist hard against her lips as if stifling laughter.

Jamie settled further on the bed. Placing an arm around her shoulder, he looked into her face, and said, "Claire, Jenny doesn't mean what—"

"Jenny," Claire interrupted. "You can take the gown and shove it."

'... where the sun don't shine' hung unspoken over the room. Jamie hunched over Claire more, glared at Jenny—

And met her dancing eyes. "Jamie, can we keep her, please?" Jenny asked in a trembling voice before exploding into laughter, leaning against the wall in her mirth.

Claire looked up, an expression of comical bewilderment on her face that amused him so much, he snorted to cover a laugh. "Don't mind her, mo cridhe. When she was but a ween, William dropped her in the coal bin," he whispered  sotto voce .

"So, it's mo cridhe now, is it?" Jenny gasped out before bending over in laughter. "Please tell me, Claire, that you gave as good as you got at the bar," she begged, wiping away tears from her eyes.

"Okay, enough already," Jamie said, a reluctant smile tugging at his lips. "I've entertained you enough. So, are you going to help me with the gown for her?"

Jenny bit her lip before answering. "Never doubt it, Jamie," she said. "I just wanted to confirm a few things before being scooped by Rupert."

Claire tugged at Jamie's hand, bringing his attention back to her. "This is insane! Could you please explain what's happening now," she hissed.

"Jenny's agreed to make you a new gown, Claire. And, she's willing to make amends for making you angry." Jamie said, squeezing her shoulder.

"That's it? Does this mean I'm not going to get a turn at insulting you?" Claire asked Jenny.

Jamie smiled at her disgruntled expression. 

"I believe you, Claire," Jenny said as she straightened up from the wall and approached the bed, still shaking her head. "I apologize for needling you, but I had to be sure ye weren't out to fleece this idiot brother of mine." Seeing Claire's look of curiosity, she marveled. "He didn't tell you anything about himself. Such modesty and restraint!" Patting Claire's hand, Jenny added, "You and I are going out next week."

Jamie's soul withered on-the-spot imagining Jenny and Claire together. Bonding. Talking about him. "I didn't have time, you know. Claire woke about an hour ago." Feeling the need for activity, he stood, still holding on to Claire's hand. "Now, I've got to see what's happened to Hal. Can I leave you here with Claire without you trying to tear strips off each other?"

Jenny surveyed them again with something akin to satisfaction, then nodded. And, in a complete turnaround from her previous attitude, invited Claire to her shop the following morning.

 

Chapter Text

Jenny finally accepted Hal’s offer to take her home as soon as the hospital had cleared Claire for discharge. 

The last Jamie had seen of them was when he pulled away from the entrance of Western Gen, his precious cargo ensconced in his back seat. It was too bad Hal and Jenny didn’t get along. While they planned for Claire’s release, Jenny and Hal had taken care to stand far apart, talking only when needed and never exchanging glances.
 
He’d quiz Hal in due course, though. It wouldn’t do for his best mate and sister to be continually bickering. Talking to Hal would be less contentious than appealing to Jenny’s better judgment, so he’d do it after the wedding. Having found a solution to a minor problem, Jamie put it behind him to bring Claire home.
 
Jamie had Claire’s address, and they drove toward Inverleith. It wasn’t an area he frequented, but he knew the district was upscale, with pricy apartments and even more expensive houses. As Jamie drove toward the pavilion where Claire’s flat was, he couldn’t help but think the unit must cost a lot to rent. Security was tight, he discovered, as Claire directed him to a private underground parking slot.
 
As they parked, Jamie turned around and asked, “Mo graidh, why don’t you own a car? Don’t you know how to drive?”
 
Claire laughed, teeth flashing in the dimness of his truck. “I know how to drive. I’m not a complete Luddite, and I grew up in the states. I didn’t think it was worth the bother of practicing to drive on the left side of the road. Besides, the public transport link is great, and I have easy access to shops, restaurants, supermarkets.”
 
He turned back, switching off the ignition. “Fine, mo cridhe, no need to sell me on the development. Now, stay put and wait for me to help you out.” Again, he heard her chuckle as he exited the driver’s seat.
 
Par for the course, Claire resisted being carried toward the lift. He ended the argument by picking up her bag and sweeping her up in his arms. That was when she gracefully gave in and slid an arm around his neck. The effect on him was immediate and embarrassing; his body hardening as he felt her breasts against his chest.
 
Praying she wouldn’t notice, Jamie hitched her up higher against his chest and strode toward the lift. It was fortunate that her apartment was on the first floor. He didn’t know how he would make a trip to the higher levels without making a spectacle of himself.
 
Claire let them in through a digital keypad, with Jamie pretending to drop her.
 
“You beast!” Claire squealed then smacked his shoulder but clung even closer to his neck.
 
Grinning at her, Jamie defended himself. “I had to, mo cridhe, otherwise you’d never have been able to use the keypad.”
 
Jamie had the barest glimpse of a terrace at the end of an open-planned living area with a spectacular view of the city center’s lights. Bringing Claire to the master’s bedroom at the back, he registered that, while the walls were ivory, the effect wasn’t bland and sterile. Instead, she had chosen a palette of navy blue, gold, and turquoise with touches of maroon in vases scattered around the room.
 
The room even smelled like Claire, he thought whimsically. It was a light floral scent that had some light notes of vanilla and jasmine he decided. He’d find out what it was and see if she needed more for Christmas.
 
He slowed as he approached her king-sized bed with its navy blue and gold coverlet, not wanting to let go of her just yet.
 
“It’s chilly in here. Where’s your thermostat?”
 
“It’s along the utility hall. You can’t miss it.”
 
Jamie looked at her, considering what she’d decide. “You have a choice, mo graidh. I can let you down on this chilly bed or carry you over with me to the thermostat and wait for it to warm up before letting you go.”
 
Claire’s arm remained where it was, her lips less than ten inches away. Jamie could feel sweat breaking out on his forehead despite the cold room. Jesus.
 
“Can you carry me for five more minutes?”
 
His arms tightened, and he chuckled. “What do you think?”
 
“Show-off,” she muttered but stiffened. Her eyes grew serious as she asked, “Is this an elaborate play to get me to sleep with you?”
 
Jamie couldn’t help it. Claire was just too adorable, so he rubbed his chin on her head. “I hope you don’t think I’m just perving on you. It’s not that I don’t want to sleep with you. It’s just that there’s something between us I’d like to explore. So no, I will not try anything with you for several reasons. One, you’re injured. Two, we’ve just met. Three, you deserve better than a quick tumble in a chilly bed. Four, I’d like to know you better.” Smiling into her eyes, he assured her, “You have my word on it, Claire.”
 
She stared at him for a few heartbeats then muttered, “Oh, goody, I have my very own Lancelot.” She smiled and relaxed against him. “In that case, carry me away, Sir Jamie, and to the thermostat, we will go.”
 
Jamie laughed again. “You can be goofy, did you know that? Well, shall we go?” And he began walking back toward the hallway.
 
“Uh, oh. Jamie, you and I have got to work on your North American slang if you persist on using it.”
 
“Deal. I’ll brew us some tea to help you relax once we’ve warmed up your flat.”
 
“Make it coffee, and I’ll even throw in a few singing lessons,” she said as they reach the utility area.
 
 



 
Five minutes after, he’d let her down gently and brought her nightclothes as she directed. Then he left while she changed. On his return, he had a tray with him. After settling the ice pack the way she wanted it, he hovered around her like a red-headed, giant bumblebee, watching her sip the tea he’d made and a slice of toast.
 
“See, that wasn’t so bad now, was it, mo graidh? You’ve lived in the States for too long.”
 
“I wanted coffee but,” she grumped, “You gave me tea instead. How was that going to help my temper? And, could you tell me again how you, a total stranger, ended up alone with me, in my flat?”
 
“That’s because Hal processed your discharge papers in record time, earning your gratitude. And, you had a grand old time keeping your temper with Jenny.” He held a hand up to forestall an argument.
 
“Do you not recall what happened when Hal left us alone?”
 
Despite her discomfort, Claire was having fun flirting with Jamie. And she admitted he was right about tea being the better choice. Teacup in hand, he was adorable, waiting patiently beside her bed, the bedside lamp casting shadows on his face.
 
“Who could forget? He said it would ease his mind if I had someone with me tonight. It would have been churlish to refuse after all his help. Hal sure knows how to throw his weight around,” she grumbled. “Well, he assured me you were harmless as long as I fed you.”
 
“I am not a Mogwai. You can feed me after midnight,” he replied with dignity. “I swear I won’t turn into a gremlin.”
 
“And yet another reference from a film meant for kids.”
 
“Which you seem to be familiar with, Sassenach,” he added soothingly. “Admit it, Claire, we seem to have the same taste in childish movies.”
 
“I will do no such thing,” she said primly. “I admit we were born in the same decade, most likely within a year of each other.”
 
He chuckled. “All right, I give in. We’re different. Do you want me to leave you now?”
 
“I am tired,” she admitted. “Do you remember the cupboard I pointed out to you? That’s where the bed linens are.”
 
“I’m sure I can find myself around your flat, mo cridhe. Is your cold pack still okay?” At her nod, he added, “Good night, then.” And with that, he left her alone with her thoughts.
 
Claire snuggled into her bed eyes closing as she recalled how safe she’d felt when he carried her into the flat and that he promised not to seduce her. Warning signals went off in her head, and she opened her eyes, sleep having left her.
 
You can’t fall in too deep with him, Beauchamp. You’re not an impulsive teenager, so start nothing you can’t or won’t finish. You’re leaving in six months for Boston, training complete. It’s instant-lust, that’s what this is. There’s no such thing as instant love.
 
Liar.
 
She punched her pillow. Having found an outlet for her frustrations, she hit it one more time, then shifting position, prepared herself for a sleepless night.
 



 
After tucking Claire in, Jamie left, looking for the items he needed to make up his bed. Claire had a comfortable L-shaped sofa upholstered in mint green across the south-facing terrace. In the past hour, the weather had turned foul, but he hadn’t noticed. Claire had held all his attention.

Wandering over to the French windows, Jamie feasted his eyes on the skyline of Edinburgh, visible even through the heavy rain and hail. Claire also had good taste, he acknowledged. The living and dining area walls were in cream this time, with pastel furnishings and pale-colored furniture.
 
Seeing it, Jamie finally accepted that Claire had only one flaw he knew to date. She liked Hal, enough at least to listen to him. Jamie stopped himself there, trying to slow his speeding heart. Claire wasn’t interested in Hal, not in that way. Jamie needed to warn Hal off early in case he harbored an attraction to Claire.
 
But first, he had to cool down. He admitted to a sick thrill in touching Claire’s clothes but hid it, handing knickers and lingerie to her with panache. That she allowed him to go through her drawer meant she was still feeling woozy, allowing Jamie to take care of her. Jamie smiled to himself. Christ, was his Claire direct! He didn’t expect her to bring up the question of sex so early, but he was glad she did so he could explain.
 
Jamie stood, too keyed up to sleep immediately and wandered around the spacious living room. Claire had strewn picture frames on tables and shelves. Picking up one, he saw it was of Claire with a man and woman. They were in scrubs, young faces smiling into the camera. Classmates and friends, he thought.
 
He walked over next to Claire’s bookshelf while punching Jenny’s phone number. As he waited for her to answer, he scanned the titles of Claire’s books. She had quite a collection with medical tomes scattered here and there.
 
So what did it tell him about her? She put down roots. Her training was for one year, but she still tried to make a home. She had eclectic tastes. Poetry both modern and the classics. History, art, even a military book or two. He wasn’t sure if they were all hers but, if they were, they would have debates down the road—if she let him. And she would. Jamie would do everything he could, so she would eventually trust him with her thoughts. All of them.

Plus, there was a mystery here; he could feel it. How could a physician, still in training, afford the rent in this complex?
 
Jenny still hadn’t picked up, and it worried him. She didn’t even protest when Hal walked with her toward the hospitals’ exit. Jamie didn’t think Jenny would kill Hal, but he wanted to be sure on the off-chance Hal irritated her enough. He was about to cancel the call when Hal answered.
 
“What the hell are you doing with Jenny’s phone?” he blurted out.
 
Silence greeted him. Then, “She invited me in for a cuppa, you ass. It’s what normal fucking people do. And if you bothered looking outside before calling, you’d know it’s brass monkeys outside,” Hal snarled.
 
Jamie switched the phone to his left ear. “It’s a little hail, which you can expect in December,” he replied impatiently. “What’s up with you? I’m checking on Jenny because she agreed to bum a ride from you without a fight. It wasn’t like her.”
 
Awkward silence met his explanation. “I apologize for my extreme reaction, but give your sister credit for being sensitive about your feelings. She said she didn’t want to be de trop. Was her concern misplaced?”
 
Jamie shifted his balance from one leg to the other, feeling a strong compulsion to apologize. To Hal? You must be even more knackered than you thought, Jamie lad.
 
“No, it wasn’t,” he conceded.
 
“Well, don’t you want to talk to her? She’s in her bedroom, but I can get her for you,” he offered.
 
Jamie’s Bluetooth notification went off. Removing his phone from his ear, he thumbed the screen without looking, returning to the call only to hear Jenny’s voice in the background. “No, it’s all good,” Jamie assured him. “I wanted to know if she’s okay, and now I do. Could you tell her I’ll bring Claire to the atelier tomorrow, around ten?”
 
“Sure, and I hope Claire’s fine. You were acting pretty territorial around her earlier, you know? It was worth yanking your chain to confirm it.” Hal said in his normal voice.
 
Jamie laughed. “I was a tad angry when I thought you were attracted to her. I never thought we’d quarrel over a woman.”
 
“Uhm no,” Hal said, sounding serious. “She’s not my type. Jenny said she'd pour a dram, and then I’d better get cracking.”
 
“It’s Edinburgh—what do you expect? Goodnight. Thanks again for everything.”
 
Jamie returned to the sofa and, lifting the pillow to his nose, realized it smelled like the fruity/flowery shampoo Claire used. His eye caught on a rock, about 6 inches long and three inches in the middle of the square coffee table. One side was greyish-black and smooth. The other was rough-hewn, bits of cement embedded on it. It was clunky, so ordinary that he wondered what it was doing in Claire's flat with its delicate furniture and pastels. He shrugged, lying down. It was another mystery that he'd look forward to solving soon.

The rain was coming down in sheets and could no longer see the lights of Edinburgh. It didn't matter, though. He was sure he was in for a good night’s sleep now that he knew she was sleeping barely thirty feet away. 

Then, covering his eyes with an arm, Jamie relived his first glimpse of Claire and how her touch had affected him.

 

Chapter Text

hotrn: gud am sweetie! I looked in on U last nyt B4 U left, but McPretty was in control of D sitch 😉

cbwetblanket: srsly 2 early 4U. C U 2morow. 😘

hotrn: U owe me. I kept McLoaded occupied as long as I cld
 

 

Claire had woken to a text from a perky Gillian at 6 AM. It was time for endorsement to the incoming shift of nurses, and Gillian loved to mess with them by pretending it was a ‘benign’ duty that awaited them.

Brushing her teeth, she thought about Gillian’s nickname for each man. Jamie was obviously McDreamy while Hal was McLoaded. From the little that Jenny let slip, she thought Jamie might qualify for the latter. Not that it mattered. She couldn’t give a toss if he were. Hal was no slouch in the looks department either, but he just wasn’t her type.

Remembering her house guest, Claire hurried through her toilette, spraying herself sparingly with a light scent, Dolce and Gabbana’s The One Gold perfume. After reviewing her clothing choices, she pulled on a dark grey, loose-fitting cashmere tunic, pairing it with black jeggings. The last thing she did was twist her hair upon her head, securing it with deep purple chopsticks she’d gotten in Tokyo.

She peered in the mirror, sighing about her resemblance to a one-eyed raccoon. Not that she’d ever seen one. Claire wondered what Jamie would think of her seeing in daylight, sans make-up, and with her bruised eye on full display.

Well, she couldn’t do anything about it, could she? The situation was what it was. But as Claire had a deep, dreamless sleep, she decided a celebratory breakfast was in order. And coffee. She didn’t know what Jamie liked, so she’d prepare a little of everything. She could always store whatever they couldn’t eat and have it tomorrow.

Thinking of Jaimie and smiling like a lunatic wouldn’t help with breakfast, though. There wasn’t any time to dawdle, not if they wanted to make it to Jenny’s shop by ten. Leaving her bathroom, Claire padded down the short hallway, pausing on her way to the kitchen to check in on him.

He was sleeping on her couch, face open and defenseless, arms flung outward in abandon. She didn’t realize she was taking shallow breaths until the sight of Jamie loosened something in her chest. It may have been because of Jamie’s promise of help. Still, Claire was optimistic that matters would work out well.

Claire’s pulse sped up, watching his gloriously mobile mouth relax, pink lips unfurling in a pout. Back in the bar, she had attributed Jamie’s attractiveness to his physical beauty and masculine magnetism. And the evidence she was right was on her sofa.

Last night was a revelation, though, as she experienced his compassion, vulnerability, and strength. He had no qualms about letting her see his emotions. Her ears were hot, remembering she’d allowed him to put his arm around her, hold her hand, handle her underwear—little acts of intimacy she shied from. Did he think her a slut for allowing him to touch her? Or was he so used to women throwing themselves at him he no longer noticed?

Time was ticking, though, and no matter how enjoyable the experience was, she couldn’t stand there gawping at Jamie till he woke. As it was, she was mentally undressing him when she still had breakfast to prepare and an icepack to put on her eye. With one last regretful look at his sleeping form, Claire turned, willing herself to walk away.
 



 
Jamie woke to the familiar, warm, aroma of brewing coffee. He hadn’t been able to sleep and spent hours remembering how Claire made him laugh at the most trivial things. And when doing that no longer satisfied him, he went over their conversation, picking out his favorite snippets like a magpie going over its hoard.

It didn’t help when he recalled how beautiful she had looked on the hospital bed, the outline of her long legs, and her breasts pressed to him as they walked through the flat. He remembered how she had tried to make him feel less guilty, her rich contralto voice twisting his insides—Ah Dhia!

The sky had lightened to a deep purple and lavender by the time he had nodded off to sleep.

Claire was now less than twenty feet away, making him coffee. His eyes opened as he came fully awake and raced to the smaller bathroom off the second bedroom for his ablutions. Brushing his teeth with the spare toothbrush she had laid out, Jamie thought again of Claire needing his help. If this was the way to get through to her, then so be it. Jamie would take the chance and damn the consequences of possibly breaking his heart.

Following his nose, he found her in the kitchen off the entrance hallway. Jamie stopped, admiring the way her clothes clung lovingly to her, strands of curly brown hair trailing down her long, graceful neck. Even her feet were pretty, one bare foot rubbing up against the opposite leg, eliciting a sigh from him.

Unfortunately, Claire heard him before he could observe her further, and she turned, smiling at him. He winced at the bruise around her eye that had taken a life of its own—the dark blue of the previous evening now sported green and purple shadows.

“Good morning, mo graidh. You look fetching, but,” he said, advancing on her, “You’d better put another cold pack on your eye.” He plucked the balloon whisk from her hand, adding, “Allow me to finish the cooking.”

Jamie caught a whiff of her scent, and his knees almost buckled at how good she smelled—voluptuously sweet and spicy but light.

“Good morning,” she answered, wrinkling her nose. “You’re quite chipper even without caffeine,” she waved at the coffee percolator. “Now, I’m wondering what you’re like at home.”

“Alright?” he asked.

“I’ve never been better. I had an excellent night’s sleep for once.”
 
He took stock of the ingredients on the counter as he finished whisking the eggs. “Scrambled eggs and ham do for you? And what’s that?” Jamie pointed to another bowl.

“It’s the batter for blueberry pancakes. Here, let me get that.” She drew nearer.

Jamie leaned in, trying not to let her know he was sniffing her hair.

“Oh, and the muesli with yogurt’s done, it’s already on the table.” She gestured toward the table with a mixing spoon. “Fancy a cuppa or coffee?”

“Coffee would be just the thing.” Jamie took a deep appreciative breath, watching her from under his eyelashes as she moved around him.

“Got it,” she answered as she poured him a mug of coffee. She studied him, speculation clear in her honey-colored eyes. “How do you take your joe?”  

He couldn’t keep himself from chuckling. “I didn’t think you would subject me to the real-men-coffee-test, mo cridhe,” he teased. 

“Real men drink their coffee black and conform to traditional concepts of manliness?” She smiled at him, setting the mug down. 

“No, I like flavor. Life’s too short for you to judge my masculinity based on the way I take my coffee,” he said while heating the pan. “I like coffee with a bit of chilled milk without sugar.” 

They worked together in silence for a few more minutes with Claire setting out the table and Jamie finishing the pancakes. Seeing he had their meal in hand, she excused herself to fashion a sling for her cold pack.

As he sat at her kitchen table, music filtered in from a hidden speaker. It surprised Jamie to hear banjo music accompanying a woman’s warm, Southern voice as she sang of having to see an ex all around town.

“I didn’t peg you for a country music fan,” he commented as she reappeared and sat across him. 

“What? You don’t like Jana Kramer or the genre?” she asked, spooning muesli in a bowl.

Jamie felt his cheeks warm. “I meant I thought doctors liked jazz, classical music, and all that.”

“I like them, too. And standards, punk, light rock, R&B, pop from the U.S., Asia, and Europe.” She stood and reached for the coffeepot.

At a nod from him, she topped up his mug. “My only requirement is that the song sounds like music, not a discordant jangling of instruments. And you?” she asked.
 
“Pop, unashamedly pop,” he answered on a grin.
 
“Nothing wrong with that either,” she pointed out. “I have no bias against it.”
 
His stomach growled, and he remembered he hadn’t eaten dinner.

“Dig in,” she invited. “Do you want bananas with your muesli?”

He watched her surreptitiously as she ate her breakfast, reaching for anything to add to her plate. His hands tingled, remembering how good her hands had felt in his. He badly wanted to reach out and reclaim at least one.

“These are delicious pancakes,” he said a moment after, “And the coffee’s excellent.”

She shrugged. “Thanks for the compliment. I enjoy cooking but don’t have time for it. Sometimes, I prepare something and bring it to the hospital the following day.”

He made a mental note to get her schedule when they returned from Oxford. There was no sense scaring her off by asking for it this early in their relationship. “That’s generous of you. I can do a little plain cooking but nothing up to cordon bleu standard.”

“You know, I didn’t catch all your names last night. How many do you have?”
 
“Four. Mam was feeling generous after I was born. James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser,” he bowed his head. “A mouthful, I agree. MacKenzie is Mam’s maiden name.”
 
“Oh, how nice! I can see why your mum saddled you with it,” she teased.
 
“What about you?” he asked. “Do you have a middle name?”
 
“Elizabeth.”
 
Warmth filled him as he repeated, “Claire Elizabeth.” He glanced at her hands, wondering how she’d feel if he just leaned over and grabbed them. “I like it.”

“You can’t call me Liz, Beth, or variations on those nicknames.” She leaned forward with her mug, eyeing him with interest. “So you already know I’m a doctor. But what is it you do? Jenny said something about not knowing who you are.”

“I’m a civil engineer,” he answered, slightly uncomfortable talking about himself. “Hal and I own a firm. One of our projects is that new bridge that crosses the Leith about two miles from here.”

“Oh, that one. I know little about bridges, but that one was in the news. It’s beautiful,” Claire complimented him. “Is beautiful a word used to describe a bridge?”

“It’s a cable-stayed bridge. And yes, there is beauty in symmetry. And strength. There are also variations of grey that may not have a tinge of another color.”

“You must have driven yourself so hard to have won a huge contract like that. Determined, much?”

He smiled at her slowly, thinking she couldn’t possibly know how alike they were. “I guess we’re both single-minded people, Claire. But I’ve learned to loosen up and prioritize the important things in my life.” Jamie stood, picking up his plate.

“What, are you done?” she asked.

“Yes, I am,” he answered. “Allow me to get the plates.”

“Leave them—we can do the dishes later. Come on. Celebrate with me, please?” She fluttered her lashes at him. “It’s the first vacation I’ve had since I graduated from pre-med.”
 
He was taken aback at her confession. “That long? Why what happened?”

“You can say, living with my uncle motivated me to study. I finished high school and pre-med in three years each, graduating with a bachelor’s degree when I was nineteen.”
 
He marveled at an education system that allowed children to take off one year from their secondary education and said as much.
 
“My classmates bullied me when I was younger, from elementary until I was a sophomore in high school. They didn’t hurt me physically,” she rushed to assure him, seeing his frown, “But I was too different with my English accent, which I never lost. Besides, I lived with Uncle Lamb and not my parents.” She shrugged.
 
Jamie was feeling hot around his ears. “What happened when you were in high school that they stopped?” he gritted out.
 
“My body filled out, and I experienced a growth spurt.” She grinned. “However, my experience was enough incentive for me to get out early,” she continued. “Uncle Lamb was a professor of Archaeology at Harvard, so I had to perform well as an undergraduate. Then in med school, I didn’t want my older classmates lording it over me.” She winked at him. “By that time, competing had become a way to cope with a heavy academic load.”

Jamie unclenched his fist. He wanted to demand to review her high school yearbook and have her point out the bullies. He’d pay each of them a visit when he attended the international convention in New York the following year. 

“And did you, do well?” he asked when he found his voice.

“I graduated magna cum laude from Harvard then cum laude from med school,” she said, blushing when he made approving noises.

“Good! You showed them, mo cridhe. Do you have other hobbies besides cooking?” Jamie asked, leaning forward. “Are you perhaps a black belt in taekwondo?”

She drew circles with her forefinger on the table, avoiding his eyes. “Don’t laugh.”

He hastily froze his face, killing the smile that wanted to come out at her obvious discomfort about the topic. “I promise I won’t,” he said solemnly. “No matter what.”

Claire cleared her throat. “I like ballroom dancing. I know,” she hurried on, “it’s lame,” she said self-deprecatingly.

Something lodged in his throat, preventing Jaimie from answering right away. Bullied by classmates, betrayed in the worst way by Frank, Claire had every reason to be wary of people. Instead, she looked past all her bad experiences, summoning enough courage to trust him with one of her secrets.

“Look at me, Claire,” he urged after a few moments. He waited until she looked at him before saying tenderly, “I’m glad you had another interest, not just cooking. Ballroom dancing is unusual. And, there’s nothing remotely funny about taking it up.”

“I try to attend sessions as often as I can, but I don’t have a lot of time.” She pushed her plate to one side. “There are several places in Edinburgh offering lessons, but I haven’t gone so far. No one I know has agreed to dance with me. You Scots are a dull people,” she teased.

“You can go with me, mo graidh,” he said, enjoying her surprise.

She flopped back in her chair, surprised into giggling. “You?” she sputtered.

“And why not? Dancing isn’t manly enough for me?” he asked?

“Are you trying to feed your ego at my expense, buddy? Look at you!” She could barely get the words out through her giggles. When they subsided, she added, “Jamie, there’s no need to babysit me further. You’ve already agreed to be my date for a wedding. And you slept here last night in case I needed help around the flat,” she reminded him.

Ignoring her comment about babysitting, Jamie leaned back in his chair. “I’m not saying this to make you feel better, okay? Da shanghaied me into it when I was sixteen. Mam loves to dance, but Da has two left feet, so he designated me Mam’s dance partner.”

At her disbelieving stare, he continued, “I was a member of a fencing team. Ballroom dancing helped develop agility and coordination. And, I’ll let you know I was top of my division at my sport,” he huffed out.

“Hm, you’re lucky you have a parent to spend time with,” she said with a faraway look in her eyes. Looking back at him, she smiled again. “Your mum must have been the most envied woman on the dance floor.”

Was it hot? He didn’t think so, except he couldn’t understand the tightness in his chest. He covered her hand with his, patting it to make him feel better.

“Did ye show them your third face, mo graidh?” he asked tenderly.

She looked at him blankly at first. “What are you talking about?”

“Your classmates. The bullies you mentioned earlier.”

When he would have explained, she said solemnly, “The correct quote is from the novel Shogūn written by James Clavell.” She intoned, “‘A man has a false heart in his mouth for the world to see, another in his breast to show to his special friends and his family, and the real one, the true one, the secret one which is never known to anyone except to himself alone, hidden only God knows where.’”

Jamie couldn’t help himself as he clapped, bowing from his chair. “You’re like a walking encyclopedia,” he said admiringly.

“If I am, then so are you. You’ve caught all of my references,” Claire pointed out.

It had begun to rain, he saw through the window. The kitchen was warm, redolent of the breakfast they’d just shared. Jamie was reluctant to leave as they sipped their coffee, talking desultorily about life in Edinburgh. 

“Jamie, I need to know something,” she said lazily.

He was instantly on his guard. “Anything within reason, mo graidh.”

“What are all those things you’ve been calling me? Cry? Grey? Dweeny? I trust none are rude?” she grumbled. “I hate being the butt of a joke.”

“They’re not bad words,” he answered, chuckling at her expression. “I’ll tell you later on the phone when I’m out of your reach.”

Jamie finished his coffee and stood, intending to begin on the dishes. Claire shifted on her chair, but he stopped her. “Please, allow me. Sit here longer and finish your coffee.”

She looked at him sheepishly and sat back in her chair. “Thank you. I want to listen to this song as it’s one of my favorites.”

Jamie collected the dishes, watching her as she listened, her face open and dreaming, feet tapping on the floor.

‘The great big city’s a wondrous toy, just made for a girl and boy, we’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy.’

He forgot what he was about to say, a hard knot forming in his stomach, thinking she remembered some guy she’d dated when she was younger.

It doesn’t matter if she’s had dozens of boyfriends. It’s a non-issue as long as you’re her last, Jamie boy.

Jamie’s ring tone went off. He patted his jeans’ pockets then remembered he had left it on the coffee table. Excusing himself, he hurried to the lounge and picked it up. It was an unknown caller, but he answered it anyway, unknowingly pressing the hands-free option.

“Hello?”

He jumped, startled at the clarity and volume of the voice echoing around the suddenly quiet flat.

“Jamie, love, good morning!” a girlish voice greeted him. “Why didn’t you come home?”

“Geneva?” 

Shit, Claire’s got Bluetooth speakers! How the hell did my phone connect with her system automatically? I’ll talk to her about cybersecurity later. Wait, would she even allow me to change her settings after this?

He heard a crash from the kitchen. “Sweetheart, what’s that?” Geneva asked. “I heard from Hal that you’re in a spot of trouble. Some bimbo trying to swindle you?”

A second noise behind him had Jamie whirling around in time to see Claire, head bent, hurrying toward her bedroom.

 

Chapter Text

"How did you even fucking know when to call?" Jamie hissed at the phone before cutting off Geneva mid-word. Dropping his phone on the couch, Jamie rushed to Claire's room, cursing himself roundly for linking to Claire's Bluetooth speaker system.

"Claire?" he asked as he knocked on her door. "I'd like to explain—" 

She came out red-faced and brushed past him. "I switched off the speakers to give you privacy, so you didn't have to cut your call short," she said in an even tone. She'd reached the kitchen and, turning her back on him, began rinsing the plates and cups.

He reached out a hand and touched her sleeve. "Claire, that was Hal's cousin, and she wanted—"

Claire whirled to face him, eyes blazing. "First, your sister and now your girlfriend," she hissed. "Why does everyone think I'm out to fleece you? And as for Hal, I thought he liked me well enough not to backstab me."

He reached out to touch her again, but she jerked away. He understood her hurt, but he had to keep trying to reach her.

"Geneva enjoys stirring things up. She's got a warped sense of humor and was out of line just now," he said. "I'll talk to Hal later and sort things out with him."

Leaning against the sink, Claire crossed her arms, pink beginning to suffuse her face. "You only promised to be my plus-one at a wedding. Nothing more. I'm not about to start anything here. I'll be returning to Boston in six months."

"Claire, please. I don't know what she meant—"

"Oh, please spare me the we're-only friends line. I speak English, so I understand what love and darling mean," Claire hissed. "I also know the difference between 'come home' and 'go home.' It doesn't matter."

Jamie rubbed the back of his neck. He could feel himself getting hot under his collar, and he couldn't help raising his voice. "I never said you didn't speak English! And if it doesn't matter, why are you angry? That isn't a logical thing to say."

Clare paled and compressed her lips before turning her back on him.

"You're right. I have been thinking illogically," she replied stiffly. "I heard what you said, and I'm sure my neighbors two doors down either way heard you, too. No worries, I'm fine with it. But square things out with your girlfriend instead of Hal. Nobody likes a cheater." she added, her back ramrod straight.

Jamie's heart sank, knowing he'd said the wrong thing. Claire was in pain, and what she heard had most likely triggered memories of Frank. He understood her reaction at an intellectual level. But that didn't mean her distrust didn't hurt him.

They had just met so he could understand her wariness. What he couldn't wrap his head around was that after last night, she couldn't give him the benefit of the doubt and had jumped to the conclusion that Geneva was his girlfriend. He couldn't believe Claire could turn so cold after what they had shared during breakfast.

Was she jealous? His heart beating faster, Jamie's next step brought him to her side, ready for a second attempt when her phone dinged with a notification.

Taking out her phone, she read whatever was on the screen. It wasn't good news, that much Jamie could tell—spots of red appeared on her cheeks and colored her eyebrows.

"Excuse me, I've got to make a call in my room," Claire said, "If you could just pile the bedclothes you used, I'll see to them and these dishes later."

Then she walked away, and the floor fell out from under him.

 


 

And, she'd blown it, losing her temper like that. But they were on their way to friendship. Hell, she believed Hal thought better of her from the way he ensured her early release from the hospital. Claire had made a costly mistake by assuming the best of Jamie, but only her pride was injured. She would have suffered much worse if she'd invested feelings in him.

It's a wonder your nose hasn't lengthened at least an inch, Beauchamp. Not invested, huh? You have no proof Geneva's his girlfriend! There might be another explanation for the phone call if you could be less pig-headed about it. Jamie isn't Frank, so stop feeling sorry for yourself and march out back there and have it out with him.

Recoiling at the prospect of another confrontation, Claire sat on her bed instead, staring at her phone. She needed to be sharp when making this next call to Dr. Martin, her department chairman.

But she couldn't concentrate, recalling Jamie's crestfallen face. Could she have been mistaken in believing Geneva was his girlfriend?

"Good morning, Dr. Martin, Claire Beauchamp here. You sent a question about my leave of absence earlier."

Five minutes later, her mind on fire with anger, Claire was dressing in warmer, albeit still casual clothes. She hesitated before her mirror, wondering if she had time to cover her bruise with makeup.

"Oh, bother. Let Dr. Martin see I've begun my break," she muttered. "Hope he feels guilty about it."

Jamie, seated on the couch, looked up from his phone when she emerged from her bedroom. Claire hardened her heart against the sight of him, his hair coppery from the weak sunlight streaming through a nearby window. The faint aroma of coffee lingered in the air, reminding her of the intimacy they shared during their meal.

Right. Jamie was another complication she didn't need.

"I put everything away and washed the dishes," he said without inflection. "Seeing your reaction to the text you received, I thought it best to prepare to move out of here fast."

Her heart softening at his thoughtfulness, she answered him in her usual tone, "Thank you. I had to call my department chair, Dr. Martin. He wants to see me before two this afternoon."

"But you told me you had filed for leave, and he approved it," he said while putting on his jacket.

"Remember, Dr. Christie from last night? Tom filed a report. So now, Dr. Martin is threatening to rescind my leave because I filed it for a frivolous reason." Claire pushed a stray curl behind her ears, picking up her bag on the way to the front door.

"Wait, Claire," Jamie huffed as he strode toward her. "Have you forgotten we have to be at Jenny's by ten?"

"Of course, I didn't." She took off her flip-flops and slipped on shoes.

"Then, can we talk about Geneva, please?"

Claire narrowed her eyes at him.

"Look, it's true we were lovers and that she lived with me. But that was—"

Claire held up a hand, preventing him from saying more that would drive daggers in her heart. She wanted to kick him, throw something at him, anything to relieve her misery.

"As fascinating as I find your history with her to be," she said as soon as she stopped gnashing her teeth, "I don't want to discuss it now. If Dr. Martin rescinds my leave, I won't be attending the wedding. Replacing my gown will become moot if he changes his mind."

Jamie stilled, his eyes focused on her. It was as though he knew what she was thinking. Though Claire was unnerved that he could read her so well, she refused to back down.

As coolly as possible, she said, "I'll talk to Dr. Martin and convince him to let me go. And he will," she smiled thinly. "He owes me. I am, however, freeing you from your obligation. You don't have to come with me to Frank's wedding anymore."

 


 

Jamie reached over her and opened the door to the atelier. A slight tremor ran through Claire as his arm brushed her shoulder. She caught a whiff of the same woodsy scent from him, so indescribably masculine that made snuggling against him a delight. And it irritated her no end to realize she still wasn't immune to it.

"I told you, I could have gone here on my own," she said in an aggrieved tone.

"And I said I'll accompany you," he answered just as blunt. "Did you think I'd allow you to go alone just because you uninvited me to the wedding?"

"Allow? Besides, I don't know what to think since I don't know you at all."

The door opened, revealing Jenny in a red and black sleek dress. How she looked so put together in the morning, Claire wanted to know.

Jenny drew back, eyebrows raised. And as she surveyed the same mutinous looks on their faces, Jenny's expression transformed from friendliness to confusion. Then her face cleared, a non-committal smile on her lips.

"Come in, come in. Mind the step, Claire," Jenny greeted her with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

With a wan smile at Jenny, Claire entered the building first, leaving her and Jamie to follow suit. They were quiet, she realized, most likely indulging in another wordless sibling conversation.

Claire stopped a few feet into Jenny's shop. Jenny had painted the interior painted dove grey and white, with accents of mint green, purple, and orange. Potted palms dotted the open spaces while strategically placed mirrors visually enlarged the store area. It was an airy, modern, and sophisticated store with jazz music pouring through hidden speakers. Jenny had planned the space well, displaying the clothes and other merchandise enticingly on low shelves and racks, inviting one to browse and linger.

As the store was open, two women were going through one rack, eyeing Jamie with interest, though he ignored their hair flipping and blatant stares.

Turning to Claire, Jenny threw her arms out. "Welcome to L'Atelier de Murray! This ground floor is for displays," adding as Claire walked around, "We'll be going up to the first floor where my workshop is. The second floor is a living area for my staff and me if we have to rush a big order. My assistant Chris is waiting for us upstairs."

"Jenny, may I have five minutes to go through the racks? Your store's amazing!" Claire complimented her.

A small woman dressed in a navy suit with silver accessories setting off her blonde good looks came up behind the counter on the far side.

"Jamie!" she cried, trying to embrace him, but Jamie gripped her forearms, keeping the woman at bay.

"Cynthia, it's been a long time," he said as he stepped aside and released his hold on her.

"You haven't called, not even for a nightcap," Cynthia answered, pouting up at him.

Claire rolled her eyes, ignoring the sharp pang near her heart. What was it with Jamie? He might as well hang a sign around his neck, with an arrow pointing downward, proclaiming his availability.

"Claire, this is Cynthia Niall, my Store Supervisor. Cynthia, this is Dr. Beauchamp, a friend of Jamie's," Jenny said, emphasizing the word friend.

Cynthia was sizing up Claire in a sulky, calculating manner that didn't bode well for future interactions. "Oh, hello," Cynthia greeted in an off-hand way. Then turning to Jamie, she said, "And you owe me breakfast after that night."

Blushing beet-red, Jamie said, "I'll treat you out to tea one of these days." At Cynthia's smug look, he turned to Jenny, adding, "You're invited, Jenny." Then he looked at Claire. "And you, too, Claire."

Claire would have laughed, but Cynthia looked as though she had sucked a lemon. 

"Jenny, I have to make a phone call. May I use your sitting room?" Jamie asked. 

At Jenny's nod, he left, taking the stairs two steps at a time. 

Claire watched him leave, blowing out a shaky breath, glad to be out of his company. She could see Cynthia in her peripheral vision, licking her lips as she watched Jamie.

Jenny turned to Claire, shaking her head as she grinned at her. "He's such a child at times, climbing the stairs that way."

The bell over the door jangled.

"And you, Cynthia? I see at least one customer who's now ready to pay," Jenny reminded her.

Pivoting on her heel, Cynthia nodded at her employer, leaving without a word to attend to the customer at the check-out line.

Catching Claire watching Cynthia, Jenny said, "All the men in our family are handsome, Claire, so women notice them. But it doesn't matter." She looked at Claire with piercing eyes. "Once a Fraser man has committed himself to one woman, no one else exists for him."

Claire's stomach lurched. "Oh, I don't know, Jenny." Her hands trembled, and she clasped them together, keeping them still.

"Oh." Jenny reached out to the nearest rack, straightening the clothes hanging on it, but said nothing more.

Jenny would have been a wonderful friend if circumstances were different, but Claire owed her the truth. "Jenny, I'll be honest with you. There's a chance I may not need your or Jamie's help." Claire squared her shoulders, meeting Jenny's eyes.

Jenny's eyebrows, which raised to an alarming level, lowered as her forehead furrowed. "Why so?"

"The hospital might not allow me to take a leave," she confided as she explained what happened with Dr. Martin earlier.

"Well, if you can't go, then you'll at least have a gown, designed and handsewn by me, to boot." Jenny smiled at Claire confidently. "I just returned from a one-month stay in Singapore, collaborating with other people for a show next year. You can tell your friends back in Boston, that I dressed you up," she teased her.

At Claire's head shake, Jenny placed a hand on Claire's back, urging her forward. "Whatever happens, trust me, you'll like what I laid out for you. The gowns I want you to try are part of a new collection I was creating for Singapore Fashion Week." 

Claire had to try one more time. "But Jenny, it's too much."

Paying no attention to Claire’s words, Jenny continued to urge her up the stairs. “You must choose from the gloves and shoes I have. And, we’ll advise you on the hairstyle and makeup you’ll need to cover up that bruise.”

Jenny was a mini-bulldozer, Claire reflected. Was it a Fraser trait, or was it just Jenny?

"And you're in luck!" Jenny continued. "I have stage makeup we can experiment on."

 


 

Jenny's voice faded as Jamie bounded up the stairs. 

Fool! You should have remembered Cynthia worked on Saturdays. Stay away from that poisoned well. But Claire already believes the worst of you. She may not listen now. 

A part of Jamie rebelled against Claire's judgment. It was unfair, baseless, and illogical, and—she was hurting. She could be having flashbacks about Frank, and God knew who else had let her down.

But, Claire had initially thought Jamie was trustworthy. And he was. He just needed time to prove it to her again and develop another strategy on how to win her over.

With his mind made up, Jamie took out a phone and dialed Hal's number. 

"Hal, what the fuck did you do?"

"Hold on, Jamie. I just got back home forty-five minutes ago."

Though feeling mild guilt, Jamie pushed on. "I don't care where you've been. Geneva called this morning, asking if I needed legal help. Now, what did you tell her?"

"Nothing! Geneva called asking to consider a project. I said you'd be available in a fortnight as you won't be around next week." 

"So, are you telling me she came up with that on her own?" 

Jamie squinted at the black-and-white photo above Jenny's mantel. Hmm, it appeared to be two figures that looked familiar. He took a step closer to view it…

"No. I explained that you're attending a wedding, and Geneva may have remembered you abhor the sentimentality of those events," Hal said.

Jamie turned back to the conversation. 

"What I'm saying is, Geneva knows you. Most likely, she couldn't understand why you'd attend one when you never did when you were together." Jamie winced at the accuracy of the statement. 

"So, she went on a fishing expedition and succeeded," Hal continued. "First, she now knows you've met someone. Second, you may need some legal help. I know because she just texted me, you have a secret, and she was on its trail."

Jamie felt the hairs on his nape raise. "That's some scary shit in your family, Hal, if that's how she thinks."

"You just had to say no. Or even 'I have nothing to say to you after you screwed me over.' You didn't have to feed the beast."

"I asked, 'How did you know when to call?' and I said that after she ran off her mouth." Jamie stopped by a Chinese vase on a side table. It was ugly by his standards. He wondered if Jenny would miss the piece if he smashed it.

"She made a lot of assumptions and put together a working hypothesis," Hal reasoned out. "That's how Geneva thinks."

"Well, the shittiest thing happened, you know. Now Claire's mad at me and won't listen to any explanation." Jamie could feel his temperature rising as he walked around Jenny's sitting room.

"Make her see reason. Surely you've got enough charm to whittle down her defenses?" 

"She's also hurt, you moron," he snarled. His left eye was twitching as he strode from one end of the room to the other. He stopped, drawing in a deep breath,, and letting it out slowly. It didn't help calm him down, thoughonly one thing could.

"I want one round tomorrow at Holyrood Boxing Gym. I feel the need to pummel you for talking about me to your cousin."

"Jamie, I hope you don't mean that." Hal's voice had lost its calm as well, rising in pitch to meet his own.

"Oh, but I do," he answered silkily. "I want to do more than just hit you. I very badly want to break one of your legs." 

"Tomorrow," Hal said in a strangled voice. "A race around Holyrood Park then up to Arthur's seat. If you still want a piece of me, we'll have two rounds at the gym." Hal cleared his throat and said carefully, "I'm sorry, Jamie. You're right. I should have said nothing to Geneva."

"Done," Jamie answered, but his anger had leached away, leaving him weak. He sank to the nearest armchair. "Stay away from Claire and me, Hal. I mean it this time." Jamie thumbed the phone, then flung it at the couch that lay kitty-corner to his chair. 

"Damn it all to hell," he growled then stood, intent on making tea.

 


 

"I told Hal, you'd be fine. He worried about you, but I knew Claire would be good for you." She finished pouring him coffee, asking, "So how'd your night go?"

Jenny had left Claire with Chris to take measurements and try on makeup. Following Jamie upstairs, Jenny ordered him to sit, and taking away the tin of tea leaves from him, brewed coffee instead.

Jamie plastered on a smile and buried his nose in his mug. "This morning started well. We had breakfast together in her flat." 

"You look peaked," she observed. "Didn't get much sleep, huh? You know, you were adamant about keeping Claire company last night." 

He kept silent, hoping she'd get his message—nothing to see here, move along.  

"What? A body would think you didn't want to talk to me," she teased him. 

Jamie sighed, shrugging to ease his shoulders. "I see you won't stop till you've wormed everything from me. But will you let me finish at least the first part?" 

At her nod, he stood, unable to contain his need to move and take some pressure off him. "So here goes. I got kicked to the curb today." 

Jenny made a move to stand, but he waved her back to her seat. 

"Geneva called, but the phone connected to Claire's Bluetooth speakers." He held up a hand to forestall her comments. "You know Geneva doesn't have filters, and she put her spin on something Hal let slip." 

"Well, Hal shouldn't have even said anything to her in the first place!" she yelled, then grimaced. "Sorry, force of habit. But please, continue." 

Running his fingers through his curls, Jamie confessed, "I've talked to Hal, and he admitted to saying that I wouldn't be available next week. Geneva's investigating what he meant on her own. But I'll have it out with him tomorrow, oh, believe me, I will." He narrowed his eyes at his sister, daring her to comment at his expense. 

When it appeared, Jenny wouldn't talk, Jamie sat back down. Drumming his fingers on the table, he said, "So now Claire believes I have a girlfriend and broke off our date on Wednesday." He slumped forward. 

"Why didn't you explain?" Jenny asked.

"I tried!" Jamie's throat was dry. "She didn't want to listen on the way here, saying if she'd known I had a girlfriend, she would never have invited me in, much less allowed me to sleep at her place." 

Jenny reached out a hand to stroke his hand gently. 

"And then, she schooled me on the difference between 'come home' and 'go home.' I was that furious at first," he grumbled.

He caught a muffled laugh. 

"It's not a laughing matter!" he hissed at her. He tried to stop, knowing he was acting like a five-year-old, but he had been steadily losing control of his emotions after his conversation with Hal.

"I'm sorry," Jenny said. "But Claire could change her mind. Do you want me to talk to her and clear things up?" she volunteered. 

"No," he snapped. Then gentling his tone, he said, "I don't need your help on this. I have my pride. Besides, Claire now thinks I'm an unprincipled lecher," he added bitterly. 

"Jamie, please listen." Jenny stood and rounding the table, hugged him from behind. "When we Frasers fall, we do it wholeheartedly and unconditionally." 

Returning to her chair, she added, "There's no holding back for us so I can empathize with your feelings. Now, this might cheer you up." She smiled at him. "From everything you said and her reaction to Cynthia downstairs, I would say Claire's the jealous type. You could work with that. I'm surprised you didn't catch on to that, though." She winked at him. "How could you be so smart at work, but be so dim about people?" 

"Will you stop poking fun at me?" he growled at her. 

Shocked silence met him. 

After a few moments, Jenny found her voice. "But we would always laugh at your blunders before, remember? Even about Geneva, when you found her in bed with another woman." 

"This time is different, Jenny. Claire's different." Jamie raked a hand through his hair and glared at her. 

"You have a point there. Hal told me, you were possessive about her. And, I'd never seen you so worried over a woman's opinion before. Someone who, I may point out, you'd just met. So what about the wedding?" 

"It's her ex-fiance's. Randall mistreated her, and from what she said, the engagement didn't end well. But Claire's changed her mind about me going with her." Jamie reached out for his mug again, curling both hands around it, allowing the residual warmth to warm his cold hands. 

"So, she changed her mind once. She can change it back again. But, I've never seen you back down like this. What are you going to do about it? 

"Claire can't attend the wedding alone, Jenny. Not with many people hostile to her or angry at her. She can't go without back-up. I won't let her." He groaned. 

Reaching out, Jenny patted his arm, blue eyes so much like his own looked into his, open and warm with empathy. "She shouldn't," she murmured with sympathy. "But she might not see it your way. And besides, I hope you've realized that you've left yourself vulnerable. She could hurt you quite easily."

Jamie looked at her, allowing the misery eating at his insides to show on his face. 

Jenny sucked in her breath. 

His stomach lurched as Jamie finally allowed himself to acknowledge his feelings. "It's too late. I've fallen in love with her, Jenny," he admitted, blowing out a shaky breath. "And now, I'm well and truly fucked."

Jamie and Jenny sat together in silence. It was a disaster, and they knew it.

 

Chapter Text

Claire was a walking, talking cliché—and she knew it. All it took to destroy her hard-won equilibrium was a handsome face, a warm melodious voice, and eyes that could melt her insides.
 
Now that Jenny’s shop was behind them, Claire could admit to herself that jealousy was the root of their quarrel. That and her stubborn pride. They could have had a great relationship—Jamie had drawn her to him from the beginning. Still, she ruined it by allowing her insecurity to guide her actions and flavor her words. Then she procrastinated about mending the rift until she’d lost the opportunity to do so.
 
Claire snuck a sidelong glance at him as he drove without a word, through the Saturday afternoon traffic of Edinburgh. He had barely glanced at her as they left Jenny’s shop earlier. And Jamie was careful not to brush up against her unnecessarily after helping her up the front seat. Now, with his eyes trained on the windshield, the fingers of one hand were drumming on the steering wheel as he muttered about the incompetence of other drivers. 
 
The tightness in her chest was back as she remembered how content he looked this morning as they talked about ballroom dancing and the minutiae of their everyday lives. Then Geneva called, and after, she met Cynthia, who had slept with Jamie some months back.
 
How could she have been such an idiot? That Geneva and Hal believed she was a gold digger stung. But what pained her most was proof that he’d loved someone else and had a one-night fling with a woman she disliked.
 
It wasn’t healthy, this overwhelming feeling of possessiveness where Jamie was concerned. She didn’t expect him to have lived the life of a monk before yesterday. So why the excessive anger?
 
Because Jamie mattered. A lot.
 
He’d already said that he wasn’t just perving on her. Instead, he wanted to explore what he thought they had, and in doing so, build their friendship. It was one reason for not rushing into bed. And she’d forgotten it, allowing her insecurity to cloud her judgment. Jamie was right. Though she hated that he had pointed it out, she was thinking irrationally earlier.
 
Throat constricting with tears, Claire averted her gaze, tugging at the collar of a coat that suddenly felt tight. Claire ached to take his hand in hers and rub it on her cheek. Except, he wouldn’t welcome it. Not after she’d rejected attempts to get her to listen to explanations he didn’t have to give. They had just met. Despite all that talk about his help, Jamie didn’t owe her anything more than a new gown.
 
So lost was Claire in her thoughts, that she paid no attention to their route. To her surprise, Jamie was driving up around the side of the outpatient department. Her hand tightened on her purse as she searched for a way to delay leaving him.
 
“You know, people will wonder if I’d been in a brawl,” she said, then cringed inside. It was one of the lamest opening gambits she could have ever thought of.
 
“If you have sunglasses, I suggest you put them on,” Jamie commented, pulling up to the entrance.
 
“Don’t you think I’ll stand out more?” Drawing her glasses out from her bag, she put them on, turning to him as she did. “So, how do I look?”
 
If possible, he looked even more disgruntled. “You’re right, take them off.”
 
She started counting to ten in head to stop herself from asking him about the stick in his rear. Then, ignoring both his grumpiness and suggestion, said, “Thank you for driving me around, but I don’t need babysitting anymore. I’ll call a taxi later to get home.”
 
“I promised I would drive you, Claire, and I meant it. Now, could you let me know where I should look for you in case you need me?”
 
So, it was Claire now, was it? Her stomach lurched at the thought he’d grown sick and tired of her pettiness. She stole a glance at him, then stared. The lines of Jamie’s face were visible even in the weak sunlight of an early wintry afternoon, the brackets on either side of his lips, deep. She remembered he didn’t seek medical treatment the previous evening though she’d fallen on him and kneed him in the groin. Either incident could have hurt him as she wasn’t exactly a forest sprite.
 
“Jamie,” Claire said, her heart softening even more at the tension coming off him. “Are you okay? Do you have injuries you didn’t report last night?”
 
“I’m fine,” he answered briefly. “Hang on, let me bring you closer to the front so you could make it to your appointment. Where should I look for you?” he asked again. 
 
“Second floor, Acute Elderly Medicine. There are signs all around. Now, please, Jamie, go home. I’d like you to get some rest.”
 
“Funny,” he murmured, “That’s what Jenny said, but I’m not the least bit tired. What I’d like to do is wait for you, then I’ll bring you home. And, you’d better get going; you shouldn’t keep Dr. Martin waiting for long.” 
 
 She shrugged. “Dr. Martin can wait. Some people would try to curry favor with him, but not me.”
 
“Claire,” Jamie said, looking around. “I don’t want to rush you, but this lot seems full. I’ve got to look for another place to park, most likely outside this complex.” 
 
Though near to tears at his irritation, Claire touched the hand nearest her. “I’ll see you in fifteen minutes,” she whispered. And with that, she exited his truck, ignoring the nagging feeling that she was making a mistake in leaving him.
 


 
Putting his truck in gear, Jamie took time to admire Claire striding through the doors of Western Gen before driving off. What was it about her that drew the eye of every man loitering around the entrance? She’d looked far too sexy wearing her sunglasses, and he wanted to wrap her in his coat and rush her through the gauntlet of admiring eyes. She was too oblivious to male attention to be allowed out alone.
 
Right, and he was a sexist pig who persisted in treating Claire as though she were a hothouse, fragile flower when she was anything but.
 
After checking that she’d entered the building, Jamie drove off. He stopped in front of an estate car, parked near a big tree now devoid of leaves. Feeling the need for fresh air to clear his head, he rolled down his window.
 
He was back in the same situation where he was eighteen months ago, clenching the steering wheel of his truck in disbelief at his stupidity over a woman. It appeared Jamie had a type—brunette, pale, curvy, and stone-hearted. Well, it wasn’t quite the same. Claire was infinitely more precious to him, even now, when she was unreasonable.
 
It was time to decide. Knowing Claire could be mulish and kept things to herself could be a bigger problem later. Was it worth future heartache if he continued to pursue her? Could he give himself over to a woman again knowing she could stomp on his heart, uncaring of the consequences? 
 
Jamie could wait thirty minutes to ensure Claire had enough time to finish her meeting. Then he’d pick her up and let her know he’d accepted her decision to attend the wedding alone.
 
And then what, genius? 
 
Jamie had a lot of options. He could go to his office—there’d be a ton of work after this morning’s meetings. Or, he could return to his flat, force Hal into suitable gym wear and trainers, and bully him into a punishing jog. Driving to Lallybroch was also an option.
 
Then continue to hide in his man cave. Wasn’t that what Hal taunted him with last night?
 
Fuck! Anything was better than having this hollowed-out feeling in the middle of his chest. It was worse than before. But, he could still save himself. He was Jamie-fucking-Fraser for Christ’s sake. Claire was a blip in his existence, their meeting a one-in-a-million probability.
 
Except, they met. Claire had forgiven him for the accident, didn’t even ask for anything, but he’d insisted on some form of help. Her graciousness and sensitivity drew him in; he admired her wit and charm. Jamie could swear she felt the same attraction until that damned phone call from Geneva. Cynthia’s antics didn’t help either. Claire was digging her heels in, holding on to her jealousy and pride. Could he live with someone like that? Was he even willing?
 
Could he blame her, though? That gritty stubbornness was her coping mechanism; it had seen her through years of bullying, grueling hours of study, and a brutal work schedule. Would he punish himself and her with separation just because she reacted the way she always had?
 
And then there was effing Frank whose last name she had yet to tell him. Frank, the man who was the catalysis for a series of events ending with him, seated in his truck, contemplating the vagaries of fate. He didn’t know if Claire loved the man still, but he’d find out. Then he’d deal with it.
 
Jamie stared out into a mild winter day, uncaring of the curious glances other people threw his way. He would have sat there longer, but a child’s laugh caught his attention. A couple walked out from between the cars, the man carrying a small bundled figure with one arm while holding the hand of the woman beside him, to his chest. Jamie closed his eyes, trying to imagine Claire and him walking in the same way; a son clasped to his chest.
 
It was all too easy.
 
He opened his eyes and shook his head in equal parts bemusement and resignation. Hell, he was overthinking the situation. Just like Hal sometimes did. But, unlike his friend, Jamie didn’t have civility bred into him for generations. If he stayed and worked it out, he would not turn over just because the object of his affections was skittish. He’d be like Robert the Bruce, trying with everything he had to win Claire.
 
Because Claire was his, it didn’t matter if they lived on different continents or together in Scotland or America. And he would still be hers, irrevocably, regardless if they were married. His Scottish sensibilities had shown him that, right at the start, when sparks tingled up and down his arms and shoulders wherever Claire touched him. That side of him had seen to it he recognized Claire as his own. And it was those instincts he would listen to now.
  
Right. Jamie wouldn’t hide anymore. But he needed a short-range plan; it would never do to continue showing Claire how upset he was. Jenny was right. He was too intense by half. He had to keep his fears to himself, and a lid on his temper or he’d run Claire off. What was it that Jenny said? Lighten up and win her.
 
Feeling more cheerful than he had an hour ago, Jamie put the car back in gear and drove around the lot, setting himself to finding a parking space.
 


 
It had taken Jamie fifteen minutes to park his truck. As he rushed out of the lift to the fourth floor, a now-familiar laugh caught his attention. Following it, he found Claire at the end of one corridor becomingly flushed, a slim, older man with a shock of silver hair standing beside her.
 
Though relieved to find her in a better mood, he was unhappy to discover she’d gained a shadow, Tom Christie. It took Jamie a moment to place the physician, seeing he’d shed his white smock. Christ! He couldn’t leave her alone for five minutes without attracting the eye of some wanker. Looking sharply at Christie, he snorted. Christie was, Jamie remembered, officious at first until he’d seen Jamie’s driving license. Then he’d toadied up to him and Hal.

He strode toward them, not caring if they heard him approaching. Christie saw him first and spoke to Claire, who turned toward him.
 
It was with a sense of triumph and gratification that he saw her eyes light up, and she reached out an arm to him, sliding it around his back in a semi hug. The caress wasn’t close to being enough, though, not after the hell of the past few hours. Putting both arms around her, he pulled Claire toward him for a close embrace and kissed the top of her hair. She didn’t squirm but stood in the circle of his arms.
 
“I apologize for being late, mo graidh,” he said. “There aren’t enough parking spaces in this compound.”
 
“I’ll take it up with the board,” she said and winked at him. Jamie smiled inside. Claire wasn’t aware his father sat on the board, but he saw Tom flinch and realized the other man knew.
 
Jamie stooped to look into her face. “So how did it go? Will we be going to Oxford next week?” he asked, emphasizing the word ‘we.’
 
Claire’s eyes widened, but she didn’t protest. Instead, she squeezed him, took her arm off his waist, but kept hold of his hand. “It was okay. Dr. Christie here attended to clear up any misunderstanding.”
 
Considering that poser had instigated all the trouble, Jamie was not inclined to be friendly. But, he supposed, he could be gracious. After all, Claire was holding on to him and not the other man.
 
Putting out a hand, he said, “Dr. Christie, I’m glad you were there to lend support to Claire.” Christie’s clammy hand clasped his then let go, not allowing Jamie to test the strength of his grip. Claire squeezed his hand, then started rubbing her thumb over his.
 
“I was happy to be of service,” Tom said. “I’m so pleased to meet you again, Mr. Fraser. I trust your ride home was without incident last night?”
 
“Yes, it was uneventful, thank you.” He didn’t know what Christie was leading to, but he could guess.
 
“And how is Master Lovat? I’ve always admired his ability to select superior horses for mating. Has your father expanded that breeding program of his?”
 
Jamie winced inside. Da wasn’t big on titles and disliked his uncle, the current earl. “I’m not part of the management of the farm or stables, so I don’t know if he’s started a new breeding program. But if you know him, Da doesn’t enjoy going out in public.”
 
“Oh, that’s the reason he didn’t attend last month’s round of socials. Do you think he’d welcome visitors?”
 
The reason for Christie’s sycophantic behavior became clear. “If this is business-related, I’ll send the name and email address of the farm manager.” That the farm manager was his younger brother, Jamie didn’t say. Robert didn’t deserve to be hounded by this man.
 
“Oh. I would have wanted to meet your father. But maybe some other time, then. We’ve planted part of our farm to oats and barley, and we were hoping to expand our client base up north.”
 
Claire, who had remained silent until then, spoke up. “Maybe you could discuss this with Jamie some other day? You know, we have places to go, people to meet up with...” her voice trailed off, and she blushed.
 
Jamie wanted to laugh, guessing she had just realized it seemed like innuendo. He contented himself with kissing her temple, instead. “Mo graidh, we have to go. Something’s come up, so we have to stop by my office first as the engineers are there on overtime. Christie, thank you for taking care of Claire last night.”
 
“You’re welcome, but you don’t have to thank me for it. Claire is a valuable member of the medical staff, and it was a pleasure to help this lovely lady.”
 
Jamie rubbed his upper lift. It would never do to insult Christie seeing he had seniority over Claire.

As they finally walked away, hand in hand, Jamie glanced sideways at her. “Get on with it, Claire.”
 
“What?”
 
“I know you’ve wanted to roll your eyes since that last compliment.”
 
“Tom could be a bit of a bore, that’s true.” He laughed under his breath. “He asked if he could bother me for an introduction to your father!”
 
“And?” he prompted.
 
“I told him I didn’t feel comfortable asking you for that kind of favor.”
 
He drew her aside on reaching the lift, and searching her eyes said, “You can always tell me things, mo graidh. No matter if you think it inappropriate. So, are we good now?”
 
“Yes, I believe so,” she answered with hesitation. “I had a long-ish talk with myself.”
He waited for a longer explanation. When it didn’t come, he said, “I’m glad. But I still have to explain some things to you. Maybe not now, but soon. Then we could put this quarrel behind us for good.”
 
She shifted her weight to one foot, plainly not convinced.
 
“Claire, I have a sister, mother, and several female cousins. All of them can still recall fights that happened years before. We will talk and hash it out, mo graidh,” he promised. “I want nothing between us, not even words. You have my word that nothing you could say would make me change my mind about you.”
 
She looked down at their intertwined hands, then clearing her throat, asked, “Were you in your truck all this time?”
 
“Yes,” he answered. “But one reason it took me longer was that Hal called, asking me to come in. I hope you don’t mind if we drop by for thirty minutes. Did you think I would leave you?”

Still not looking at him, she answered, “I wouldn’t blame you if you did after the way I acted this morning.”

“Claire,” he called. This time, he waited until she looked up.

“I realize you don’t know me yet, but I keep my promises. So when I said I’ll return for you, I meant it. I might have been a tad late, but I did.”

“You must think I’m such a child,” she whispered to his chest.

“Well, you are a little,” he teased. “But I understand why. All I ask is for you to trust that I will do my best not to hurt you deliberately.”

She squeezed his hand, her thumb gently rubbing against his. “Thank you. I’ll do my best. And I’m sorry about Tom. I didn’t know he would be like that.”
 
“You’re overthinking what Christie said,” Jamie said wryly. “A lot of guys kiss ass, thinking they could get something out of my family.”
 
“Women, too?” she asked, amber eyes blazing into his with a punch that stirred him.
 
He locked eyes on hers. “I don’t pay attention to them if they do. My taste runs to women who have substance.”
 
Claire’s eyes widened, then smiling at him brightly, she tugged at his hand and led him inside the lift that had just opened.

 

Chapter Text

lallybrochdesigns: where U? Hope I'm interrupting something 😛

engineerjammf: office, where else?

lallybrochdesigns: Claire still not talking to U, huh? Dinna fash, she'll come around

engineerjammf: We're better. Now, what do U want? 😑

lallybrochdesigns: status upd8 on the gown. I had to reconstruct bustline design. U lucky geezer! LMAO Careful w/it l8er K? 😉

engineerjammf: smh get ur mind out of the gutter. when's the pickup?

lallybrochdesigns: I'm rushing this, but ima working alone. Better make plan B for shopping on Monday, just saying. Da called. Mam wants 2 meet Claire.

engineerjammf: WHO TOLD THEM?

lallybrochdesigns: 🙃

engineerjammf: ...

lallybrochdesigns: Jamie?

engineerjammf: NOT YET

lallybrochdesigns: Y not? If U don't, they'll pay U a surprise visit

engineerjammf: talk 2 u 2nyt.

lallybrochdesigns: nope. No time if U want me 2 finish this. K? 😘

 


 

Jamie leaned back in his chair, eyes closed, praying his headache wouldn't worsen.

They had made good time driving to his office where Hal met them at the reception area. He took one look at their linked hands and grinned, a wicked look in his eyes.

"I'm sorry I had to call you in," he said, nodding at Jamie. "Are we still on for tomorrow?"

"There's been a slight change of plans," Jamie admitted. "We might not have to visit the gym. But Arthur's seat is still a go unless it snows tonight."

It was now almost four in the afternoon. The meeting had taken an hour longer than expected; the problem was worse than Jamie feared, and the solution more drastic than he wanted to risk. He wasn't surprised Hal had called him in.

He was now waiting for Claire to return from the loo so they could go. The weather forecast was for snow that evening, and he wanted to be at his flat when that happened. But he had to bring Claire back to her home first.

"Jamie," Claire whispered. He smiled to himself. His office held a faint whiff of her perfume, comforting him at a visceral level. And now, that he'd heard her voice, his hands twitched, expecting her skin on his next.

"Are you okay?" she asked. "You look terrible."

His eyes opened blearily. Those were not the comforting words he expected from his love. And yet there she was, near enough for him to grab, staring at him.

He couldn't help that his mouth flattened. "I'm fine."

She approached him, taking his wrist in one hand to feel his pulse. He said nothing, allowing her to do what she wanted with him. Fishing out a key chain from her pocket with several items attached to it, she took one cylinder, shining it into one of his eyes. He didn't expect that.

After finishing the other eye, she took a small rectangular attachment next to the flashlight, fiddled with it, and then lay the device on his forehead. He heard a tinny beeping sound, after which she took it away, squinting at the flatter surface. He stared, speechless.

"That's like a Swiss knife for doctors."

"Still with the jokes, I see. A nurse returned from a vacation in Asia and gave this to me. This rectangle is a thermometer used for children." She smirked at him. "The good news is your eyes are reacting normally to light. However, your temperature is at the lower normal range."

"I could have told you that."

"I'm sorry I didn't ask you earlier, Jamie, but I'm asking now; How are you feeling?" He caught the urgent tone of her voice.

"I have a migraine," he grumbled. It was becoming difficult to open his eyes. "I've had them for the past ten years." He pressed his fingers to his eyes.

"The pain sucks, but I've accepted it as my lot. Could you please switch off all lights except the corner lamp?"

"Hey," Claire whispered, hitting a wall switch and dousing the overhead lights. "Have you taken anything for it?"

He nodded. "Your friend, Mrs. Duncan, gave me a capsule of Ibuprofen last night. I'll be okay."

She studied him. "I'm not even going to ask why she gave you a capsule. But Ibuprofen won't help much for migraines. And I should know because I've been having them on and off since I was five, and each one has been debilitating," Claire confided and touched his arm. "You're cold! Jamie, you need rest."

Even his chuckle was a faint, pathetic sound. "Feeling sorry for me, Claire? You're free to show it because I can use some sympathy right now."

"Stop trying to deflect. Now, my flat's nearer than Jenny's. Shall we go?"

"Fine," he said with a sigh. "But, I'm still driving."

"Jamie, except for this time spent here, I've been driving almost every day since I turned sixteen. Trust me on this. I don't want you maneuvering through traffic while your head is hurting," she said under her breath.

"I know you've been itching to get your hands on my gear stick, but you might find it difficult to navigate through Edinburgh—"

"Jamie," she repeated in a firmer voice. "No innuendos, please, and shut up. I've driven through five-road intersections in El Paso, crazy traffic in Manila, and rage-fueled drama in Rome. I drove ten miles through a blizzard that would put the flakes in a snow globe to shame. No way am I scared of Edinburgh."

"All right, there's no need to beat me over the head with it," he answered, hoping she wouldn't hear his sigh of relief.

Claire had somehow helped him up, and he slung an arm around her as they limped-walked their way to the lift, through the ground floor lobby and down to the basement parking.

Stopping by his truck, she put out a hand and smiled up at him. "Key, please."

He complied meekly. "Remember to adjust the seat, mo cridhe."

"Now, you're just ticking me off, Fraser."

She pulled free to open the front passenger door, ushering him in. Christ! There was strength in those fragile bones.

Claire clambered into the driver's seat, inserted the key.

Starting the engine, she turned to Jamie and announced, "Okay, let's ride!"

 


 

"Did you quote Nicolas Cage at me? Wasn't that from Gone in Sixty Seconds?"

"He also said it in Ghost Rider. Did you think I only watch romcoms?" she countered, unlocking her flat.

"I didn't think you had time." He shuffled up the steps, shielding his face from the sun with his hand.

"I agree, though—he's not to everyone's taste. Come on." She took Jamie by the elbow and guided him through her sitting room to her bedroom. "Let's get you settled before you fall."

"I've graduated from your lounge to your bedroom. That's not very subtle, Claire." Jamie's eyes were red, and the line between his eyebrows deep, but he was waggling his eyebrows.

"Funny." Leading him to her bed, she urged him to lie down, removing his shoes as he did. She returned to her dresser, switching on a diffuser that emitted different colors of light.

"You'll be sorry you teased me." Hurrying to the windows, she lowered the blinds and drew her curtains closed, plunging them into a darkened world of dreamy blue shadows.

Returning to her dresser, she opened a drawer and taking out a bottle said, "And if you make a crack about what I watch one more time—"

"You'll get angry? That I'd love to see." He moved his head on her pillow to look up at her. "Thank you for letting me stay here. I needed this."

The trust and need in his voice stopped Claire from teasing him further. She chose a safe topic instead. "Do you have an allergy to peppermint, lavender, or olive oil?"

"No known allergies. Though I may have developed one to bossy women." He scrunched his nose at her.

She would not laugh, she decided. Uncapping the bottle, she held it up to Jamie's nose. "Take a sniff. Is it okay for use on a manly man?"

He sighed. "Yes."

So much for her good intentions. She poured a small amount of oil on one palm, rubbing the substance between her hands. "Jamie, please give me your left hand."

He raised his eyebrows but complied, reaching a clammy hand out to Claire, which she warmed by holding it between hers.

"A colleague of mine, Gail, is into alternative medicine and acupuncture. She used to do this for me when I had a migraine," she whispered. "Aside from an analgesic shot or capsule, you can target pressure points to ease the pain."

Though his hand was too large for her to manage at first, she did it. "No one can pinpoint the reason for migraines. But people get triggered by stress and fatigue."

"You said it," he murmured.

"So, what's eating you, Jamie?" She lifted their intertwined hands with a light coating of oil, allowing him to breathe in the soothing scent wafting off them. "Oh, come on, don't be stubborn," she coaxed.

He remained quiet.

She raised her eyebrows. "Don't tell me you're anxious about the wedding?"

Jamie quirked an eyebrow at her. "Did it work, mo graidh? Do you feel guilty?" he asked.

"You almost got me there, Fraser." She smiled to remove the sting of her words. "Now, pay attention. The UCLA Center for East-West Medicine recommends stimulating acupressure points to ease headaches." Taking hold of one hand, she applied steady pressure on the fleshy webbing between his forefinger and thumb before kneading her knuckles down the palm. She tugged on each finger, squeezing the tip of each.

"Oh, good. Just what I need—another lecture," Jamie muttered.

"Most people think a face or neck massage is the best thing for a headache," Claire said, ignoring his comment. "But we have points in our hands that can relieve the tightness of the muscles at the back of our head, neck, and shoulders. Massages ease some of a migraine's pain."

She had to keep talking. Claire wanted to give him relief, but she was hyperaware of his body heat, the way thick lashes cast shadows on his cheeks, and his slow, deep breaths.

Jamie groaned. His fingers jerked, then curled over her hand before he opened his eyes.

"You are a hand-massage goddess," he whispered.

Claire held in her breath as her inner core clenched at his words. "This is a new side to you—Jamie Fraser, Grade-A flatterer," she said. "Doesn't my voice hurt your head?"

Jamie's eyes remained closed, his throat moving as he swallowed. "If you allow it, I would hear your voice before I sleep every night and every morning when I wake up—no one else's. Only yours, Claire," he whispered.

Good. Heavens. Her heart began hammering a sharp staccato beat, drowning out every sound in the room. The hair on her arms and nape lifted, and goosebumps broke out over her arms. "Okay," she agreed after repeated attempts to engage her voice.

Claire stood, careful not to jostle him too much, then walked to the other side of her bed, climbing back to sit cross-legged at the headboard. She grabbed the other pillow, put it on her lap, and patted it.

"Jamie, head here, please."

Claire chuckled, seeing his eyes pop out. "Do you think I'll have my wicked way with you right now?"

"We've just met," he answered, moving his head as he eased down the bed. "But I'm hoping for the best." When he had nestled his shoulders and head, he looked up at her. "Claire, I know I cannot persuade you to change your mind and attend Frank's wedding with me. But I still want to explain," he said, letting his breath out. "I am so sorry I hurt you."

Ignoring the comment, she settled her palms on Jamie's shoulders, pressing to warm them. Jamie's nape and shoulders were so muscular that her fingers didn't make much of a dent in them.

"Geneva Dunsany is Hal's cousin, and we lived together for two years." He put up a hand when she moved. "I'd like to tell you everything, please."

His muscles tensed under her hands. Why he's anxious, this would never do. "I'm not asking for an explanation this instant," she objected.

"I know, but it's been preying on my mind, Claire. So will you please allow me to clear it up?"

Tracing the curve of his ears, she pressed on the front of each lobe. She had enough time to think while waiting for Jamie in his office and had decided on several things. First, she wasn't angry anymore. Second, she realized she was acting like Frank did, and she didn't want to be like him. Third, the most important one was she would not punish Jamie—he deserved to be heard. If his explanation weren't plausible, Claire would finish the massage then send him on his way. Having decided, she nodded, encouraging him to continue.

"I was twenty-nine when everything went tits up. My life was fine until it wasn't. I'd noticed that Geneva was becoming withdrawn months before I ended our relationship. But I put it down to pressure regarding her work." He grimaced. "Talk about being oblivious, huh?"

"Men appear to be born that way," she agreed.

"Okay, I give you that." He moved until he found a more comfortable spot on her mattress. "I came home from a trip to London to find her having sex with another in our bed. I trusted Geneva, and I never thought she'd cheat on me. It was awful," he admitted, then grimaced.

"What she did was deliberate because I had told her the time of my arrival earlier that day."

Claire pressed extra hard on his shoulders, which had bunched up while he was talking.

"I never played around while we were together. And when we broke up? I turned down invitations to go out, including dinner parties and social events hosted by my parents. I didn't want to think about her, nor was I inclined to forgive. Then I moved out of our shared flat. That time at the pub?" He snorted. "Hal was egging me on because I hadn't dated for a year, and fool that I was, I agreed." One of his eyebrows lifted. "You're quiet. Have I bored you yet?" His voice rose.

She chose her words, moved beyond measure by his disclosure. "I'm sorry that happened to you. Does Geneva want to get back with you? Is that why she called?"

He took a deep breath, letting it out when Claire ran her hands over his nape. "Oh, no. According to Hal, she was checking up on me to ask if I needed a lawyer."

Claire's jaw almost dropped at the other woman's cheek.

"Geneva was offering the legal services of her lover, the woman she cheated with on me," Jamie finished.

A wave of tenderness washed over her as she studied Jamie's open, vulnerable face. He was carving his name into her heart with his confidences, and she could stand it no longer. "I don't know what to say, Jamie. I've never been a good advice-giver. But I read this book of poetry once, The Final Stroke by Mandy K. The words resonated in my heart then. Let me share it with you—Don't comfort me with a lie that hurts more than the truth ever could."

"Thank you for sharing, mo cridhe," he whispered. "But it's done. It's a good thing she let me know before I even thought of proposing." His hand lifted to her wrist, squeezing it gently.

Claire closed her eyes, humbled by Jamie's confidence. But she had to bring the conversation back to a lighter topic, or they'd never finish. "Shall I do your face now?"

"My face?" he echoed. Claire noted his eyes were still tired.

"Where's the trust?" she sighed, rolling her eyes at him.

His head moved as he tilted it to her. "Mo graidh, I just confided something about me that only Hal and Jenny know. At least on my side. I don't think my trust in you could be more obvious."

Her fingers rode over the ridges of his sweeping brows, with a steady, firm pressure following the tension. Jamie groaned lowly, the mixed scent of lavender and peppermint hanging over the room.

"So, shall we talk about what's troubling you?" he asked.

"I'm supposed to answer that now—while you're in pain?"

His fingers threaded through hers a second before she could pull away. "I'm jealous, okay?" he admitted, squinting at her. "Frank is an old flame—you have a shared history. And I'm uncomfortable with you being in his vicinity, knowing he hurt you. I know you're an adult and can take care of yourself, but I can't help worrying." He tilted his head, eyeing her. "Besides, there's no time better than the present to talk about it."

"Jamie, I overreacted today. I was hurt, but not for the reason you think. It was a reflex action on my part. I don't believe you are anything like Frank." She looked away for a moment before continuing. "I told you last night that Frank cheated on me. I guess I left out one detail—he did it with prostitutes."

He remained silent but curled a hand around one of her wrists, stroking it.

Taking a deep breath, she confessed, "I haven't slept with anyone, and I'm thirty-one."

His eyes flew to hers.

She held on to his eyes. "I was too busy with my studies in pre-med and med school. Residency came soon after, and I was accepted into a highly competitive training program." She smiled, caressing the base of his thumb with hers. "Having a killer work schedule put a kibosh on my social life for a long time. Then Frank came along, and I thought he understood my desire for a deep emotional bond. I didn't think we should use sex to find it, though, right?"

"So you never had sex with Randall, is that what you're saying?" he probed. "He didn't force you? Just say the word mo graidh, and I'll lay him out for you."

"Oh no, it wasn't like that," she assured him. Her heart expanded as she reached down to stroke his cheek. "What a white knight! But no, we never progressed that far." She blew out a shuddering sigh. "I suffer from low sexual desire. I'm frigid."

The hand on her wrist went still. Then Jamie reached up to touch her chin, bringing her gaze to him. She trembled as he did, praying he wouldn't feel it.

"Frigid is such an awful word, Claire," he said. His heart squeezed as he considered how she must have felt. "But how would you know? You've never been with anyone."

She shook her head. "Thank you for your show of faith, but Frank was emotionally abusive and controlling. It started with little things—he would make snide, pointed remarks about my choice of clothes and friends under the guise of teasing. He brushed off little achievements." She shrugged. "Then I discovered months after that he was a serial cheater. It turned me off sex—with anyone."

"Did you catch him at it?"

"One of his favorites came and visited me at the hospital. I had the woman tested at once for as many sexually transmitted infections that we could do in one afternoon." She took his hand from her chin and held on to it. "She said she was sorry for me. Frank liked to talk, you know, after sex. When he discovered she wasn't in her usual place, he came looking for her." Claire shuddered. "Well, he found her at the hospital—with me."

He shifted, preparing to sit up "Mo graidh—"

She pushed his shoulders back. "I'm okay now," she assured him. "I buried myself in work, so I didn't have to feel. Our engagement dragged on as long as it did because I used to think it was selfish and disloyal to leave people." Stroking the side of his neck, she looked at him and said, "One gets used to emotional abuse, you know? But I've since learned it's okay to put yourself first sometimes."

Jamie put his head back in her lap.

"I didn't want to be a notch on someone's bedpost or a number on his list." She waited for the familiar feeling of frustration and inadequacy to come over her. It surprised her that it did not. "Still too picky for my own good, huh?"

"No, you were cautious and smart after your experience with Frank."

"I get the concept of casual sex, I do." She shrugged. "But sleeping with someone just because I like him or her doesn't work for me. That person has to mean more to me before I take that step."

"When I was fifteen, Da told me you develop intense emotional and spiritual intimacy when you have sex with someone you love. That's the difference when you have sex with a person for whom you have no feelings. He was right." Jamie tugged on her hand. "You were searching, Claire, all those years."

She noticed he used the past tense. She palmed his face, blocking his peripheral vision. Claire ran her thumbs down the sides of his nose, over his eyebrows, ending at his temples, where she pressed in deep before releasing the pressure.

"Christ," he breathed out, "that's good."

"I know. You're smart and perceptive in my favor," Claire teased. "I like that." She returned to pressing his earlobe and the spot behind his ear.

He went silent, and she hummed, a lilting melody that filled the silence. He sighed, easing more under her touch, his body lying laxly on her bed.

"When's your birthday, Claire Elizabeth?" Jamie's voice slurred with drowsiness.

"Shame on you, Jamie Fraser. Don't make me regret telling you my middle name," she teased, slipping her hands under his neck. "Stop tensing up," she murmured. "This is the suboccipital muscle group," she said as she pressed on the base of his skull with her thumbs. "It's October twentieth. When's yours?"

"Oh, God, that's a spot." His brows furrowed on a wince. "Do that again, mo cridhe," he begged.

Heat pooled low in her stomach, and warmth spread over her face and neck, but she complied. Jamie shuddered, his long body twitching.

He cracked one eye open. "April thirtieth. So you spent your last one here in Edinburgh. I should have met you earlier, mo graidh. But since you shared that with me," he said, "I'll have to give you a present next time, don't I? Don't worry; I won't insist you do the same for me."

His throat lifted on a swallow as he moaned her name. "Claire. You asked about Cynthia yesterday," he said in a low voice. "We had a drunken hook up around eighteen months ago. Her divorce had just gone through, and well, I was smashed. I didn't even know she was Jenny's employee." His eyes captured hers as he begged again, a slight tremor in his voice. "Claire, please. Listen. If I had known I would meet you mo graidh, I assure you I would have lived my life differently."

She couldn't get the words out for the lump blocking her words. She cleared her throat, trying again as she continued to stroke and apply pressure on Jamie's eyebrows and temple. The raw lust she'd been feeling gentled into the warmth of tenderness. "I would have, too," she confessed shakily. "But if I did, we might not have met. I have one small concern left, though."

"What is it?" he asked, forehead furrowing slightly.

"Have you rescinded your answer to my second wish?"

He started but didn't answer at first. Then, "No."

An overwhelming wave of relief washed over her. "Then please, Jamie, will you be my plus-one to attend a wedding on Wednesday?"

"Yes," he answered without hesitation, looking up at her.

There it was again, that look of tenderness and desire in Jamie's eyes. She focused on his mouth. So close. Close enough, their breaths mingled. Claire loved the lush shape of Jamie's mouth, craved to know how it tasted, how it would feel against hers. She wanted to do nothing more than accept the invitation in his eyes and close the few inches separating them.

But Jamie needed sleep more than anything, even the confirmation of their growing attachment. Her hands cupped his cheeks as she ran a thumb along his bottom lip. "Sleep," she said. "You need it."

Protest darkened his eyes to warm blue velvet. "But—"

"Sleep," she insisted. "I'm not going further than the kitchen, and I'll wake you in four hours when it's time for supper."

Jamie resisted for a moment, then did what she asked, entrusting himself to her care.