Actions

Work Header

All this and Heaven too

Chapter Text

I didn’t fall in love with my husband at first sight.

In fact, it took two months, three days, eleven hours and thirteen minutes before I knew it was love.

Funny thing was, I didn’t realise it until I was about to marry another man.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

It was a gloomy Tuesday afternoon in October and the Emergency Department of Raigmore Hospital had been quiet, save for the occasional hacking cough and the low-level chatter of patients and staff. Coming off my break, where I had woofed down a chicken sandwich between gulps of lukewarm coffee, I rounded the desk to reception to see that Geillis Duncan was in her usual commanding spot, suspiciously eyeing a small vase of long-stemmed yellow roses.

“These arrived for ye while ye were on yer break, hen” she said as I drew near, nodding her head at the vase where I could see a card attached.

Love, Frank. Was all that was written. What was he sending me flowers for?

“Guess the wee bouquet will be from Frank, then?”

Geillis’ thinly veiled insult was refrained but expected; she and Frank had clashed almost from the off, for several different reasons. She found him to be a “condescending ass” while Frank often referred to her as “the Scottish Shrew”. Best friends they were never going to be, but they tried to keep it respectful for my sake.

Sort of.

Frank and I had moved to Inverness from Oxford six months before. He had had the intention of spending a year researching the Highlands so that he could fulfil his lifelong dream of writing a book about the culture and the ’45. Unwilling to be parted from him for so long, I had sought a transfer to Raigmore, hoping to begin my speciality training in surgery. And for the first eight weeks after the move, everything had been perfect.

Until Frank accepted a year-long teaching position in Boston.

Probably best not explore that quagmire of feelings, Beauchamp.

I gently touched the petals and nodded.

“Ye ken,” Geillis casually began after a minute. “In all the time since ye started working here, I still dinna know how the two of ye got engaged.”

“No? It’s not much of a story really.”

“Come on, hen!” She pleaded, refusing to give in to my vagueness. “Was it romantic? Did ye sweep each other off yer feet? How did he propose? Did he get down on one knee? How come ye never wear the ring? Have ye chosen a date yet?”

I laughed. “Today too slow for you, Duncan?” I teased.

She rolled her eyes. “A little,” she conceded. “But I’d like tae ken what motivated him into proposing and then abandon ye for a year to live in Boston.”

“He hardly abandoned me!” I scoffed, loading the next patients file and giving it a precursory once over; 24-year-old male. Dislocated shoulder. Reduction only. “And as to his motives – you’ll have to ask him that for yourself, Sherlock.”

“Like he would tell me anything,” she grumbled, eyeing the flowers thoughtfully. “Besides, I’d be asleep before he finished saying ‘hello’.”

I shot her a look. “Your continuing hostility with each other certainly is commendable.”

She merely grinned at me. “Tis the only thing we have in common, hen.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

“James Fraser?”

The young man sitting on the bed barely acknowledged my presence. His head was bent low, his left hand clutching the right shoulder as he gently rocked back and forth in pain. I knew he had been given painkillers once he had returned from X-ray, but as I could see the swelling that rose up beneath the skin of his shoulder, I appreciated that they might not have quite taken effect.

“Good afternoon.” I smiled, closing the curtain and coming to stand beside him. I could feel the heat from his skin, but I doubted that it had to with any rising fever. “My name is Doctor Beauchamp and I’m going to take a quick look at your shoulder if I may?”

He nodded.

“Can you tell me how it happened?” I asked, leaning over to retrieve a pair of blue gloves from one of the drawers beside the bed. The young man looked up and though drawn with pain and stubbled with red beard, he had a strong, good-humoured face topped with a head of cinnamon curls, darkened by sweat.

“Fell over wi’ my hand out. I landed and crunch! There it went.”

“What were you doing?” I began probing the shoulder, making him grimace in pain. He squeezed his eyes shut and set his teeth to his lower lip.

He hissed. “Playing Shinty.”

I nodded in understanding; I had treated many broken bones and bleeding noses caused by that game since moving to the Highlands. “Did you at least win?”

“Oh. Aye!” His mouth twitched into a grin.

“That’s alright then.” I said, giving him my most reassuring smile as I finished my assessment. “Your X-ray came back and you will be pleased to know that you haven’t broken any bones. It means that I can carry out a pretty easy procedure right here called a reduction. It will pop the joint back into the socket. Are you happy for me to go ahead with this?”

“Aye.” He nodded his head, white-faced.

I knew he had declined the sedative when it was offered, so I kept one eye on him as I began to rotate his arm around the shoulder joint. “This is the worst part,” I warned after several minutes, cupping the elbow gently.

“It canna hurt much worse than it does.”

A few more rotations went by until suddenly the shoulder gave a soft crunching pop! And the joint was back in place. We both tensed and then simultaneously breathed out. I took a step back to give him some space and watched as he stared at his shoulder in amazement, pressing his long fingers to it as a delighted spread across his face.

He looks younger when he does that.

“It doesna hurt anymore!”

“It will,” I began to explain, turning my attention back to the drawers in search of a triangular bandage. “The muscle will be sore for the next few days so you must keep your arm in a sling until the pain settles.”

“Will I need tae stay here overnight?”

I shook my head. “No. But I will need to send you back up to X-ray to check that the joint is in the correct position. Once that’s done and I’ve seen it, you should be able to go home later today.”

“Shame…” he murmured as I tied off the sling and adjusted it to fit more comfortably.

“If you like the hospital that much, Mr Fraser, then you are in for a treat.” I laughed, peeling off the gloves and clicking my pen to make a quick note on his casualty card. “You’ll have to come back in a few days for a follow-up appointment and you may be referred to physiotherapy to help strengthen your shoulder. You are not quite out of the woods yet.”

The young man slid off the bed and slowly stood. Jesus H Roosevelt Christ! He is a giant!

“Thank ye for yer kind touch, Doctor Beauchamp.”

“Think nothing of it, Mr Fraser.” I smiled up at him, motioning for him to follow me back to Reception.

“Why, wee fox,” Geillis exclaimed as we appeared before her. “Ye were in the best hands with Doctor Beauchamp here.”

The tips of his ears turned pink.

“Geillis,” I interjected, hoping to distract her from saying anything more. “I need to refer Mr Fraser back up to X-ray before I am happy to discharge him.”

“Oh. Certainly, Doctor Beauchamp. Leave it with me.” She nodded as I handed her my notes. I was about to turn back to James Fraser to wish him all the best when I heard the distinct ring of the Emergency Red Phone.

Then, a missing heartbeat later. “Adult trauma call. Seven minutes.

Taking a deep, calming breath, I smiled faintly at him and made my way towards the trauma unit.

So much for a quiet afternoon.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

What I really needed after today was sleep.

A solid twelve-hours should do the trick.

The incoming call had been for an RTA; two cars and a motorbike had been involved. And while the drivers had sustained only minor injuries, the motorcyclist had been a different matter. I doubted that the scrubs I had been wearing would ever be clean of the blood.

I shuffled about the kitchen of my flat, throwing a teabag into a mug, and opened the fridge in search of the milk. But, upon seeing only a margarine tub and an opened packet of wilting salad leaves, I finally remembered that I needed to go food shopping.

Excepting defeat, I retreated to the bathroom. Once showered and snuggled into the last of the clean pyjama-bottoms (I apparently need to do the washing too) and an old t-shirt of Frank’s, I crawled into bed and closed my eyes, willing the blissful ignorance of sleep to take me down into its depths.

Until an irritating persistent buzz pulled me back out.

I scrambled to sit-up; the feat not made easy by my legs being tangled up in the duvet. My phone was gently vibrating upon its makeshift shelf of half-finished books piled by the bedside. In the befuddled haze of being unceremoniously dragged into consciousness, I swiped my thumb to accept the call.

“Hello?”

“Claire?” Frank! “Sorry darling. Did I wake you?”

Just like that, I went from displeasure to happiness. “S’ok. How is Boston?”

“Very beautiful and busy, as usual.” He sounded excited. “I was just phoning to wish you a happy birthday.”

I blinked. Then frowned. Was it the 20th already? I glanced at my watch. Oh!

“Thank you, darling. And thank you for the flowers; they are beautiful.” I smiled, suddenly realising why he had sent them. I wanted to say more; to ask him about everything that had happened since we last spoke, to hear his thoughts and to share in his news. I wanted to share my own, to fill him in on all the little things that we had missed, that I had missed by him not being here. “What time do I need to pick you up from the airport on Friday?”

There was a pause.

“Now, Claire, darling. Don’t be mad.”

“Why should I not be mad, Frank?” I replied, narrowing my eyes in the darkness.

I heard him sigh.

Ah! I know that sigh. I am about to be very disappointed.

“There is a function being held for the faculty this Saturday and I’ve been invited. It is very important fundraiser for the university, darling.” He paused again “So, I’m afraid I won’t be back this weekend after all.”

I stilled. “What did you just say?”

“I said-”

“Oh! I heard, Frank.” The phone was beginning to shake in my hand. “Forgive me, but I thought we had all this arranged months ago.”

“I appreciate that, darling. But this was all very last minute. I had hoped that you would understand how important this will be for me, Claire. For us.”

Understand? Understand? Oh, I bloody understood alright.

“Will you at least be coming back before Christmas or should I cancel all of those plans too?” I asked through gritted teeth. After all, one o’clock in the morning seemed a perfectly reasonable time to be drawn into an argument with someone three-thousand miles away.

“There is no need for that tone, Claire.”

“There is no tone, Frank.” I seethed, far too tired to reign myself in. “Just disappointment.”

“I miss you too.” He tried to sound soothing but he had clearly completely missed my inflection. “Look, I must be quick as I have a lecture in about two-minutes. Would you mind posting a few things over for me? Teabags and the like?”

“What?” I spluttered in disbelief, my mind whipping back and forth with the breath-taking shift in conversation. Was he now asking me to send him a bloody care package?!

“I’ll try to call later, I promise.” He added, his voice growing distant as he moved the phone away from his ear. “Have a lovely day, darling. Happy birthday!”

And then he was gone.

I had to take several deep breaths to stop from screaming in frustration. Bloody typical Frank! I put the phone down as gently as I could.

Well, at least he remembered your birthday, Beauchamp.

Infuriated beyond words, there was absolutely no way I would be able to go back to sleep until I somewhat calmed down. And the only way I was going to do that was to exhaust the anger out.

I pushed back the duvet, threw on my running gear, shoved in my earphones and loaded the loudest, angriest playlist I had. I then went and spent two hours pounding the pavements along the river that meandered through the city, lost to my thoughts.

Chapter Text

In truth, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do about Frank. 

So I did nothing.

I knew it was cowardly. I knew I should have called him back the next day. Get the whole thing sorted out there and then. Except that I could barely hold two thoughts together, let alone be able to voice any of them out loud. Oddly, what did keep swirling up in the maelstrom was the sense that this was all leading to some big revelation and inevitable truth about our relationship.

And that scared me more than anything.

In the days that followed, I held onto this strange notion that I should say nothing. That all thoughts of Frank should be pushed firmly back. So I laughed and talked and slept and worked every damn hour the hospital wanted to give me. I reluctantly sent Frank the things he had asked for. I replied to his short messages with shorter ones of my own. And in all that time there was this insistent sting gnawing away deep in my chest.

That I was simply waiting for the penny to drop.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

A Time for Tea was just like every other quaint tearoom that I had ever wandered into; clean and quiet, with floral linen tablecloths that were adorned with tiny blue forget-me-nots and where the tea was brewed in pristine white porcelain pots. The owner was one Mrs Graham, a friendly grandmother-figure who would sometimes offer to read the leaves of your tea if the mood so struck her.

I had found this small nirvana some months before and had frequented it nearly every week since. It was a place to be able to think. To be still for a few hours. To be contently quiet. And heaven knows that I needed to feel that sense of calm. For Tuesday had rolled around again and with it, the looming presence of my weekly call with Frank.

To my surprise, I found the tearoom busy that early afternoon; the clutter of voices and clanking china filling the normally peaceful tranquillity. I had my suspicions that the near persistent rain that had hounded the skies over Inverness since the day before were to blame. But I was unperturbed by the amount of people that snaked along the counter. I joined the back of the queue and began rummaging in my bag for my reusable mug.

“Doctor Beauchamp?”

“Yes?” I replied automatically, keeping my head down to continue my excavation. Why did I need such a big bag if all I was going to use it for was to carry around the scrunched-up mess of receipts at the bottom of it?

“James Fraser.” A hand appeared in my peripheral vision and I glanced up. Standing in front of me in the queue was a vaguely familiar giant; slanted cat-like blue eyes, stubbed jaw, kind face. An honest to God red-haired Viking.

I hesitated and he took pity on my bewildered expression. “Ye healed my shoulder last week…”

Ah! I quickly shook his hand, remembering just how warm he was as his fingers engulfed my own. “Of course. Sports injury, if I recall?” He nodded as I glanced to the shoulder in question. “I do hope you haven’t been misusing it in any way?”

“No! I went back, as ye advised, and the consultant said that I’d need nae further treatment.” He grinned, perhaps with a hint of flirtation. “Ye did a good enough job at the start.”

“Well, that’s good news.” I said, returning my attention to finding the mug. Which I thankfully did, wrapped up in the thick woollen scarf I’d taken to carrying around. “Probably best to stay away from any contact sport for a while yet, Mr Fraser.”

“Jamie.” He softly corrected, smiling slightly as he pointed to the floral-patterned mug I was now triumphantly holding. “Perhaps I could buy yer drink, just tae say thanks for the healing of my wounds?”

I blinked, baffled by his offer. “You don’t need to do that.”

“Aye! I would like to.”

“That is really very kind of you, Mr Fraser, but-”

“Jamie.” He persisted, motioning for me to hand the mug over.

I was torn. On the one hand, I had been his doctor and there was some ethical conundrum about accepting gifts. But on the other, there was something so terribly endearing about James Fraser that I found myself accepting before I could talk myself out of it.

“I’d like a cup of the three-mint tea, please.” I said, giving him the mug. “Thank you, Jamie.”

The smile he gave me lit up his whole face. “And as I seem to be doing sae well in convincing ye, can I ask ye to take yer tea with me?”

“I…”

“That is” - he sounded almost hopeful - “if yer not too keen tae be going on yer way.”

I glanced at my watch. I wasn’t due to be meeting Geillis for another twenty-minutes, and as I had no great desire to be out in the rain until I had to be, I conceded and took a seat as the table Jamie directed me to. I took note of the Barbour jacket hanging off the back of his chair and the general scattering of his things (notebook, pens, pricing lists of some sort) over the tablecloth. But not wishing to be nosy, I turned away to stare absently out of the window and into the glistening gloom.

“‘The quality of mercy is not strained.’” I quoted under my breath. “‘It dropeth as the gentle rain from heaven…’”

For some reason, the quote reminded me of Frank. And that reminded me of the message I had received from him early that morning. I pulled my phone out of my coat pocket and swiped the screen:

Darling? Do we need to talk about why if feels as though you have been avoiding me?  

Well, that’s because I have been, Frank!   

It was an unwelcome feeling that settled in the pit of my stomach. I gently placed the phone down on the table, a black void amongst the bright colours of the dainty flowers. I felt adrift. Caught up in the breach of a brewing storm that was threatening to pull me under. Or cast me out to sea with no chance to swim for shore.

I needed to take a deep breath. Remember that I had not built this ship to see it go to wreck. 

Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, Beauchamp. You could start with not being so bloody dramatic!

“Here ye go.” Jamie suddenly appeared and was placing a tray down on the table. I snatched my phone out of the way to give him some room. “I took a wee risk with the biscuits. But if ye dinnae want yers, I’ll gladly eat them both.”

The biscuit was a delicious looking slab of shortbread. And faced with it, my stomach rumbled. Remembering that the last thing I’d had to eat was a cup of lukewarm soup whilst on shift the night before, I thankfully accepted the plate when he passed it to me.

“Thank you, Jamie.”

“Tis no bother, lass.” He replied, gathering together his things and stuffing them into a worn leather satchel that had been hidden beneath the table. 

“Claire.” This time I corrected him. “Seeing as I know your name and all.” 

“Claire.” He repeated my name slowly, as though testing how the syllable sounded. “Sorcha. It suits ye.”

I laughed. “It all worked out quite well then.”

“Aye. Suppose it does.” He grinned and took a great gulp of his coffee. “Sae, Claire, what brought ye to Scotland?”

Small talk. I can do small talk. “Raigmore, for the most part. I was offered a place on the surgical programme for a year.”

“Why only a year?”

“That would be because of my fiancé.” His eyes flickered to my left hand and I could see them clouding in confusion. “He wanted to spend the time researching the Highlands for a book.”

Did he just roll his eyes?

“And how is his research going?”

Right, Beauchamp. You can talk about Frank without getting into that pit of despair.

I took a sip of tea and tried to sound as nonchalant as possible. “He tells me it’s all going rather well. From his desk. In Boston.”

Or, you can’t.

“Boston? He abandoned ye to go to Boston?”

“No…” I started to deny, wondering why I felt the need to explain anything to this stranger, when a small voice suddenly whispered in my ear; ‘Didn’t Geillis say much the same thing.’ 

Oh, bloody hell!

I met his gaze. I tried to stop my lip from wobbling and my eyes from tearing up. But it was too late; Jamie was already reaching across the table to place his hand on top of my own, asking me if I was alright. And for some reason, that simple touch and his sweet concern was enough to push me even closer to the edge.

“I’m so sorry.” I snivelled, making a grab for the spare napkin. “I don’t know what’s come over me. I’m not…that is, I don’t usually…”

Jamie was shaking his head. “Tis okay, lass. I’m sorry too.”

I shook my head. “Why?”

“For my poor choice of words. I didnae mean to make ye feel bad.”

“You didn’t. Not really.” I sniffed. “It just all gets a little too much sometimes. The separation. The constant feeling of being left behind. Sometimes, I don’t know quite how to…that is to say…what must you think of me?”

“Well,” he smiled, gently rubbing his thumb over the back of my hand. “I cannae say I’ve ever made a lass weep ten minutes in to making her acquaintance before, ye ken.”

“Then I would be your first?” I teased, despite everything.

He winked. Or at least, I thought he did; he just owlishly blinked at me. “And my last, hopefully." 

I sobbed a laugh and dabbed the napkin at my eyes. We sat companionably in silence until I finally took a shaky breath and asked, “Have you ever been so mad at someone that you can’t think straight?”

“Only my sister, and probably only every other week.” 

I grinned and Jamie grinned back and it was all somehow a relief. 

“Can I ask ye something? As a friend?”

“Are we friends?” I asked dubiously.

“Casual acquaintance?”

I nodded.

His fingers drummed against the table. “I dinnae want to assume this is any of my business.” He swallowed, holding my gaze. “I havnae been engaged before. I dinnae ken anything about the situation beyond what ye’ve told me.”

As he spoke, I could feel heat blooming up in my face.

“But I dinnae think ye should go into a marriage with any doubts. Or if ye feel inferior.”

For a moment, I sat completely still, far too stunned to say anything. Inferior? Who said anything about feeling bloody inferior? I couldn’t quite work out if I wanted to shout at him, pour what was left of my tea over his head, or storm out in absolute fury. I opened my mouth in readiness of releasing a tirade about how we didn’t know each other anywhere near well enough to start throwing assumptions around, when my phone buzzed in my pocket.

Beauchamp! Tis just gone one. Have ye forgotten about lunch, hen?

Geillis!

I hastily sent her back a reply.

Yes and no. Give me ten minutes and I’ll explain everything.

Ye bloody better. I am freezing ma arse off waiting for ye.

“I’m sorry but I have to go.” I stood abruptly, refusing to meet his eye. “Look, thank you for the drink but you really don’t know a thing about me. Or about Frank.”

Jamie had stood too, his eyes wide with concern. “I’m sorry, Claire. Please dinnae go like this.”

“I hope that you enjoy the rest of your day, Mr Fraser.” I said coldly. I turned on my heel and left the tearoom, refusing to look back.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

I was curled up on the sofa, wrapped in my favourite tartan blanket and with a large glass of wine to hand, as I waited for the call to connect.

At lunch, Geillis had been full of righteous indignation on my behalf once I had told her about my conversation with Jamie. But I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps I had overreacted. That he might not have meant anything by what he had said, other than to offer me advice. But the pressure point that was my relationship with Frank seemed to cloud my better judgement and I swore that, if I ever saw James Fraser again, I would profusely apologise.

But for now, I needed to have a long overdue conversation with Frank. Face up to the fear and the worry and the unenviable frustration.

“Claire!” Frank answered his phone by the fourth ring. “Darling, it is so good to hear your voice.”

“Hello Frank.” I started to nervously pick at an invisible loose thread on the blanket. “Sorry I haven’t called back-”

“No need to apologise,” he cut in. “We both said things we shouldn’t have.”

Actually, I had meant every bloody word.

“How have you been, darling?”

Frustrated. Morose. Pissed. “Frank. I think we need to talk.”

“Of course, darling. Anything you want.”

I wasn’t looking to get into an argument with him; I just wanted to be clear. But this time, so unlike any time before, I just couldn’t seem to move on from it. I heaved a sigh. Best get it over with, Beauchamp. “I can’t help feeling that we are struggling with being apart, Frank.”

There was a pause. “What on earth are you talking about, darling?” He asked, sounding confused. “Where is all this coming from?”

From nowhere and everywhere.

“It’s been four months since we were last together,” I said, forging ahead. “I was excited to see you. And I had hoped that you would feel the same. But you just abandoned everything because a party was more important.”

“I hardly think that it matters all that much, Claire.”

“Of course it matters, Frank!” I said in a furious undertone. “Everything that we do that concerns the other matters.”

“It was for the university-”

“You’re driving me away, Frank.” I blurted out, overcome by it all. “If you keep making such decisions for us both, without discussing it with me from the beginning, then you are going to drive me away.”

“Those decisions are for our future.” He tried to reason. “I am always thinking of our future together.”

“But you don’t get to choose them on your own, Frank.” I affirmed, feeling an old burning hurt. “Everything in the past six-months has been about you. The move to Scotland. The teaching position in Boston. Nothing about those things were about us.”

I took a deep breath. “Is this still what you want, Frank?”

“What do you mean?”

“Marriage! Do you still want us to get married? ‘In sickness and in health’? ‘Till death us do part’? All of the things that come with being together for the rest of our lives?”

He immediately answered. “Of course I do, Claire. I can’t think of anything but that.”

I closed my eyes. “Then I need to start feeling like you are putting us first. Despite the distance.”

He remained silent. I held my nerve, even though I wasn’t sure I could stand it. I could imagine him; he would be thinking, his forehead furled as he chewed on the inside of his cheek. It was his tell, the give-away that he was hesitant, undecided on the right thing to say. He inhaled sharply. “I’m sorry.” He quietly, finally, said. “I made a mistake. It was wrong of me to say it didn’t matter. I should have been more thoughtful. More considerate. But I’m not perfect, Claire.”

“I don’t want perfect, Frank.” I replied, blinking back the sting of tears on the brink of falling. “I want to be able to trust in your word, in your actions. And I need you to be sure that this is what you really want. Because I don’t want us to get to a point where it’s too late.”

“Yes.”

“Yes?” I frowned, not sure of what he was implying.

“That is all I want too. Claire. I love you.” 

I couldn’t help smiling at the tenderness in his voice as the tears finally yielded. “I love you too, Frank.”

We spent the next hour cataloguing the mundane moments of the past week, reconnecting over the small things that we wished we were there for. Tentative words were spoken about our future, simple plans that we would nurture together until we would be ready to see them flourish.

Yet, as I ended the call with the promise to message him the next day, I couldn’t help but feel that we were still unresolved. That there was something else that was changing.

And I was going to have to ignore the voice that whispered that the damage had already been done.

Chapter Text

Everything was going to be fine.

I felt at ease. Frank and I were in a good place and, although the wound was still a little raw, I was happy that the whole matter had been settled. I was confidant and buoyant about our future together. I had even started looking into wedding venues, assured by Frank that he would commit to a date upon his return. He had even promised to purchase an engagement ring over Christmas.

The ring had never been a thing of contention between us. His proposal had been spontaneous, the question asked as we had enjoyed an evening stroll along the River Cherwell back in Oxford. He didn’t have a ring with him. We were two days away from moving to Scotland. It hadn’t seemed prudent.

I was used to not having a ring. I wasn’t sure that I wanted one really.

It was probably why I felt like I was somehow on the run.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

“Evening, hen,” Geillis said, breezing into the break room as though it wasn’t eight-thirty at night and pouring it down outside. “Anything exciting happen yet?”

Had anything exciting happened yet? It was a Thursday night in the Emergency Department; I’d already dealt with a broken leg, a thumb sliced open with a craft knife, two fractured wrists, and a severe case of concussion in the four hours since my shift had started. I briefly glanced up from the crossword I was attempting to find her loitering by the door. She was preened to near perfection; her long pale hair was in some complicated braided arrangement, and her willowy figure was wearing a deep green trouser suit like it was a second skin.  

“Nothing out of the ordinary for a Thursday,” I replied, eyeing her suspiciously. She shouldn’t be here, since it was her day off. “I thought you were on some sort of date with that new cardiologist?”

“She’s running late sae I’m meeting her here in about twenty-minutes.” She stated, dismissing me with a wave of one immaculately manicured hand. “I figured I could come and chat tae ye for a wee bit instead of just waiting in the cafe.”

My eyes narrowed further. I would normally have no reason to doubt her. Except that she had the most mischievous glint in her eye. Oh! That didn’t bode well for me. I gave her my very best doctors glare from over the top of my glasses. “To annoy or to interrogate?”

She shrugged. “A wee bit of both when it comes tae ye, hen.” She gracefully plonked herself down on the chair next to mine. “How did everything go wi’ Frank?”

After my somewhat disastrous meeting with Jamie Fraser, I had joined Geillis for lunch and promptly burst back into tears. I then told her everything over a bottle of prosecco and two servings of sticky toffee pudding. Perhaps I should have done so from the beginning. But I had held back from her in much the same way as I had done from Frank. I knew the reasons behind it and in doing so I hadn’t really been fair to her. Strangely, it had been my conversation with Jamie that had changed my view on it all. I had been on the verge of spilling my guts out to a practical stranger, safer in the knowledge that there would be no criticism or sympathetic ‘I told you so’ smiles. I thought that my pride would be less wounded that way.

But as it turned out, my pride had taken a bashing regardless.

And I’d left behind my favourite reusable mug.

“Things with Frank are fine.” I replied, pushing my glasses up into my hair, the usually riotous curls temporarily tamed into a high bun. “We are very happy, thank you. And before you ask, I am completely content with the understanding that we have reached together.”

“How romantic.” She muttered, rolling her eyes.

“It is for Frank and I.” I grinned, knowing her only high opinion of Frank was if he made me happy. “We’ve even agreed to set the date for the wedding,” I continued, returning my attention back to the crossword book. “It’ll be next year, when he finishes with the teaching position. And as he is leaving the venue for me to find, I’m going to need some help…”

I waited a moment for my words to sink in.

She gave a sharp intake of breath. “Does that mean I get dibs on being Best Woman?”

I pretended to consider my answer, tapping my pen against my chin as I stared up at the ceiling. “Well, I suppose the job is all yours…” Then I laughed as I was nearly knocked off the chair as she tackled me into a bear-like hug.

“I’m going tae be the greatest Best Woman yer’ll ever want or need, Claire.” She was practically squealing with excitement. “Thank ye. I’m sae happy that I think I might just pee!”

“Please don’t.” I chucked, squeezing her back. “I do just need you to promise me one thing, Duncan.”

“Anything ye want!”

I pulled back so that I could look her directly in the eye. “Just try with Frank. For me.”

Her sigh was resigned. “For ye, I will do just about anything right now.” Then, grinning like a loon, she released me to rummage in her bag for her phone. “I’m going to start looking for ye now, hen.”

It was a few minutes later, after endlessly scrolling through pages of wedding venues in the area and being less than impressed, that Geillis suddenly raised her head. “Hen, I dinnae suppose yer working on Saturday?”

“Nope. Why?”

Her grin only grew wider. “Because I might just have the perfect place in mind. Tis exclusive but not expensive. As long as ye dinnae mind a wee drive out into the country that is…?”

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Scotland was stunning, even in early November.

The roads that had been cut into the glorious Highlands swerved and tilted, offering quick glances through thick hedges, heavy with hedgerow fruits, to the vast stretches of promising emerald grass beyond. As the morning mist began to gently curl its way, the rolling peaks and troughs of the distant mountains were snow-capped bastions reaching up into the crisp blue sky.  

Cranesmuir was exactly how Geillis had described it; rows of chocolate-box cottages and meandering cobbled alleyways lined with artisan shops and tearooms. From the passenger’s seat, Geillis pointed out a few of the important places as we drove along the main street, laughing at the memories of her childhood antics. I drove us by the Village Hall, painted an extraordinarily bright yellow, and turned to follow the river as it weaved through the patchwork fields. It didn’t take long before I caught a glimpse of our destination, peeking out of the woodlands surrounding it.

Castle Leoch.

The gravel crunched beneath the tyres as I steered the car up and along the drive, finally coming to a stop beside the gatehouse. I took a moment to stare up at the hulk of dark stone outlined by the pale autumnal light; Castle Leoch was blunt and solid, looking rather more like an enormous fortified house than a castle. It was imposing, impressive, and I knew Frank would love it!

“Tell me again how you know the owner?” I asked Geillis, climbing out of the car so that I could shrug on my blue jacket and grab my bag from the backseat. “It’s not by some nefarious means, by any chance?”

Laughing, Geillis led the way. “We were childhood sweethearts.” She glanced over her shoulder and winked. “And a wee bit more besides. But he isnae here today so we’re meeting with the formidable Mrs Fitz instead. You’ll love her!”

As we neared the main entrance, a large, stout lady in dark brown linen appeared in the doorway. She was beaming, eagerly opening her arms to embrace Geillis in a quick hug. “Why, if it’s no’ wee Geillis Duncan, as I live and breathe. Tis been a few years since I last saw ye here, lass.”

“Tis good to see ye, Mrs Fitz.” Geillis said, pulling away. “May I introduce my friend, Doctor Claire Beauchamp. She’ll be the one looking for a wee spot to get marrit, ye ken.”

“Oh, aye?” She eyed me with an air of shrewd evaluation. But then, apparently approving of what she saw, Mrs Fitz smiled warmly and shook my hand. “Welcome to ye, Doctor Beauchamp.”

“Claire, please.”

“Tis a pleasure to meet ye, Claire.” She stood aside to allow us into the spacious hallway. I got a second to marvel at the exposed stone swathed in real woodland garlands before my coat and bag were taken from me, and I was led away on a tour. “Now, why dinnae ye tell me all about yer plans sae far…”

For the next hour, Mrs Fitz asked question after question. I answered what I could with what I knew and was relatively vague about the rest. In-between she chatted away, sharing stories with Geillis as I wandered about, peering into bookshelves or out of the many high sashed windows. With every room, I grew more convinced that the castle would be perfect. I doubted I would need to convince Frank, especially as the castles history was steeped in the lore of the Highlands. I snapped a few photographs on my phone and attached them to a message for him to see.

We were somewhere in what I assumed was the east wing when I spotted it. I had been drawn to the window by the view of the rolling hills and was whimsically staring out at them when I caught sight of the ivy-covered ruin. It was far enough away from the gardens to not be considered a part of the landscape but was very clearly still within the boundary of grounds. I was fascinated by ruins, no doubt ingrained in me from a childhood with my dear Uncle Lamb. An archaeology professor, he had raised me on his digs in the fields of Britain and the deserts of the Middle East. I often wondered if perhaps that love of history was what had first drawn me to Frank?

“Do either of you know anything about that ruin?” I asked, peering across to where Geillis and Mrs Fitz were laughing over a framed photograph by the fireplace. Both looked up in puzzlement. “I don’t suppose it is somewhere I can go and visit?”

It was Geillis who answered. “That’ll be the ol’ Black Kirk. Been there since before Leoch was first built. And tis cursed.”

“Aye.” Mrs Fitz fervently agreed. “Tis a wicked place” – she crossed herself - “for nothing good happens to those that cross that accursed threshold.”

I glanced back and forth between them in mild surprise. I had found Highlanders to be suspicious by nature, but I had yet to see it manifest itself which such ardent enthusiasm.

“So what happened to make it cursed?”

“Oh no!” Geillis started, shaking her head. “Dinnae go asking us tae get drawn into some long-winded story about spirits and lost loves, Beauchamp.”

My eyes widened in anticipation. “Now you’ve said that, you can’t expect me not to-”

“Nope. Tis a boring story that ends horribly and I willnae tell it tae ye.”

I objected to her objection all the way back down the sweeping central staircase. Clearly amused, Mrs Fitz left us in one of the drawing rooms while she busied herself in the kitchen with making us a spot of tea. Geillis attempted to distract me further with a riotous rendition of a Hogmanay party that she had attended in her teens, but I would not be dissuaded so easily.

“Why won’t you tell me about the kirk?”

She stopped mid-sentence and sighed. “Ye dinnae wanna know, Claire. I do and didnae wish tae.”

“Is it so very bad?” I asked, somewhat amused by her reaction.

She looked away to stare out of the window. “For those wishing to be marrit, aye it is.”

I wanted desperately to know. But there was something in the way Geillis held her head, her chin tilted upwards in defiance, that gave me pause. I found myself wondering if being here, in a place that clearly had such an influence on her, was bringing up memories that she may well wish to forget.

“If ye take a shortcut across the herb garden,” she said softly, conspiratorially, after a few minutes. “Ye’ll find a wee path that leads through the woodland. It should only take ye ten minutes or sae to reach the kirk from there.”

She shifted her gaze back to me, her eyes narrowed. “But if somethin’ happens while yer there, dinnae say I didnae warn ye!”

With a promise to be back within the hour, I darted across the herb garden and found the path. It was muddy but reasonably easy to negotiate, and I thoroughly enjoyed the brisk walk through the dabbled sunlight. Before long, I was clambering over a loose rubble boundary wall and was standing in front of a worn iron gate. The hinges were rusted, causing the metal to groan in protest as they gave way.

I took a few minutes to explore the building, fascinated at finding weathered coats of arms and reused grave slabs engraved with swords and keys. There was a tree growing out of the western end of the building and a narrow rectangular window that offered a rather lovely view across the fields beyond. Intrigued, I climbed up a part of the fallen masonry to get a better look, leaning my head and shoulders through the gap to see what was below.

There was a sudden flash of red. Then a blinding pain as something hard smashed into my nose.

“IFFRIN!”

I heard someone shout but I was too preoccupied with the pain to pay much more attention than that. Staggering back, I desperately felt along the bridge of my nose; if it was broken, I would have to try and pull it back into alignment before the swelling made it impossible. I lowered myself down to sit on the wall, just in case.

Jesus H Roosevelt Christ. What the bloody hell just smacked me?

“Claire!”

The surprised cry of my name had me squinting up in the direction of the window. Standing there with a dazed expression and with the weak sun illuminating his damnable cinnamon curls, was Jamie Fraser.

Before I could say anything, he had ducked below the window and had disappeared. I blinked. Frowned. Winced at the throb of pain it provoked. The rusted hinges protested and a moment later, Jamie was kneeling in front of me, his blue eyes wide with concern as they searched my face. “Christ, Sassenach! Are ye badly hurt?”

Through the pain and the tears, I managed to mumble, “I think I’ve broken my nose!”

Jamie gently pulled my hand away to see for himself. Then the bastard smiled. “Nae, ye haven’t.” He kindly assured me. “If it were broken, it would have made a crunching noise and yer’d be bleeding like a pig!”

I narrowed my eyes in doubt. “Are you secretly a doctor then, Fraser?”

“No. But I’ve seen a lot of broken noses.” He smirked, keeping a hold of my hand. “Tis not even swelling, Sassenach.”

Tentatively, I scrunched my nose. Sure enough, the pain was receding and as my chin wasn’t drenched in blood as I feared, I had to agree with his diagnosis. “I don’t suppose you saw what hit me?”

“I’m afraid that would be me,” he coyly answered, reaching up to absently rub the top of his curls. “I was sittin’ down for a wee moment when I heard somethin’. Sae I stood up tae investigate and…”

I nodded my understanding. “How does your head feel, by the way?”

“Doesnae hurt.” He shrugged my concern off. “My sister always said tis as solid as a brick.”

“Well, my nose can certainly attest to that.” I smiled and Jamie smiled back. And as much as I didn’t want to admit it, he did have quite the heart-stopping smile. Especially when it came out of nowhere.

Bloody hell, Beauchamp. Now is not the time to start crushing on the man who, only four days ago, had you storming out of a café because he dared to question your relationship with Frank.

Oh! Shit!

“Jamie.” I ventured, remembering my promise to apologise for my epic flounce if I ever got the chance to. “I believe that I owe you an apology.”

His grip on my hand tightened as he shook his head. “Tis nothin’ ye need to apologise for, Sassenach. Neither of us knew the other was there, ye ken.”

That was the third time he had called me ‘Sassenach’ in as many minutes. I’ll assume he means it to be a nickname…which is a little galling if I’m honest. “I ken,” I mimicked, motioning back and forth between his head and my nose. “But I wasn’t talking about this.”

He frowned. “What then?”

I took a deep breath. “The last time we spoke, you offered me some advice and I took it all rather badly. I won’t apologise for what I said, because that all still holds true, but I would like to apologise for the way I reacted. Frank…well, Frank can be something of a pressure point, I’m afraid.”

“Ye still dinnae need to apologise-”

“Will you let me, though?” I grinned, interrupting him. He finally conceded with a brief nod. “I am sorry, Jamie. I know that you only meant well.”

He let go of my hand. Stood and then perched himself on the stone wall beside me. I got the feeling that he would have immediately retaken my hand had I not placed it, along with my other, securely in my lap. Better to be safe than sorry, Beauchamp. Not that I had anything to be sorry for.  And certainly not because I might have enjoyed the feeling of his hand around mine…

“Tis all sorted then? Between yerself and yer man, I mean?”

“For now. And although I have never felt inferior, I will admit to there being doubts.”

“Do ye doubt him? Or yerself?”

“Both.” I admitted, looking away. “But it is probably for the best that we don’t talk about that.”

He made a rather Scottish sounding noise in the back of his throat. “As ye say. Sae, can I ask as to why yer here instead?”

At that request, I happily agreed. “Just having a good look around. My friend Geillis is convinced that the kirk is cursed.” I wiggled my nose then, recalling her now weirdly prophetic warning. “But I wanted to see it anyway.”

Jamie bowed his head. “Oh, aye. Tis the Lovers Curse.”

I raised a curious brow. “It is the what?”

“The Lovers Curse. I suppose ye would like tae hear it?”

I nodded enthusiastically. Finally! And you suppose right, my lad!

With a sly grin, Jamie settled more comfortably beside me. As it turned out, he was a naturally gifted storyteller. Charming and engaging, he had me in the palm of his hand before I was even aware of it.

“Tis said that two-hundred years ago, a pair of lovers came here tae be marrit. But before they could promise themselves, the Laird came upon them with the devil on his shoulder. Sae angered that he had not been consulted on the marriage, and that he couldnae have the bride for himself, he shot her there, where the tree now grows.

As she lay dying, the bride swore tae her love that she would love him ‘til the stars fell from the sky, and as he cradled her tae him, he swore the same. He cursed the Laird, vowing that he would never have a love as great as the one he had taken. Sae heartbroken was he that he took his last breath as his bride took hers.

The Laird, upon realising what he had done, tore the stones of the kirk down and banned it from ever being used. He died an auld man, alone in his great castle. Tis said that the curse draws the spirits back here on the anniversary of that fateful day, as it does many lovers since, and the fate of their love depends upon which fetch they see. If it is one of the lovers, they will find happiness for only a fleetin’ time. But if it is the Laird, then their love will never be.”

I sat quietly as his tale came to an end, mulling it all over. I could see why Geillis hadn’t wanted to tell me it; it was sad. Bittersweet. Agonising. My gaze drifted over the tree and I smiled sadly as I recognised the species. “I don’t suppose the bride was named Lily?”

“Aye. How did ye ken?” He sounded surprised, especially when I nodded towards the tree. “But that’s wood garlic…?”

Crinodendron patagua.” I gently corrected. “More commonly known as a lily of the valley tree. Seems someone had a soft spot for the story.”

He eyed me approvingly, nudging me with his shoulder. “Secret botanist are ye, Sassenach?”

“I’ve been known to enthuse over the odd plant here and there.” I grinned. I was about to ask him more about the curse when his phone began to nosily vibrate from inside his jeans pocket. He hurried to answer it, cursing in gàidhlig as he saw the name on the screen.

“Excuse me.” Jamie put his phone to his ear. “Laoghaire. What’s up?”

He stood and began pacing the length of the ruins. I tried hard not to eavesdrop but soon found myself wondering who this ‘Leerey’ might be. Were they a friend? Girlfriend? Sister? Work colleague? Certainly, Jamie was having a rather animated conversation with the person on the other end of the call, his cheeks reddening and his fingers drumming against his leg whenever he stood still. Not that this was actually any of my business or, in fact, mattered to me. It really didn't. 

Jamie ended the call and returned to his seat beside me. He didn’t appear to be agitated so I guessed that the call had been okay after all. “Sae, Sassenach, tell me a wee bit more about this lily of the valley.”

“Actually, I do have a question for you.”

“Aye? What is it that ye want tae ken?”

“As I’ve only ever heard it be used in derogatory terms, I have to wonder…why do you keep calling me Sassenach?”

He stilled. Held his breath for a split second. And then began to anxiously shake his head. “If I offended ye, I’m sorry, Claire.”

I had no idea what came over me.

One minute I was staring at him, ready to accept his apology, and then the next, I was doubled over and laughing. Not unkindly and not a giggle, snicker, or chuckle. But a full belly laugh, one that was loud and completely out of control. I could sense Jamie watching me, torn between asking if I was alright, walking quickly away, or joining me. Thankfully, he decided on the latter.

“Are ye laughing at me?”

I tried to take great gulps of air in order to explain. “Not at you exactly. More at us!”

“I dinnae understand…?”             

“Can you not see how ridiculous this all is?” I said, immediately calming upon seeing confusion, and what may have been hurt, in his eyes. “Every one of our conversation so far has resulted in one of us, or both of us, apologising to the other. Do you think we will ever make it through a day without saying sorry?”

His smile widened. “Sae ye dinnae mind me calling ye Sassenach then?”

“Not in the least,” I said, wiping away a tear. “Mostly because I know that you don’t mean it that way.”

“Ye do?”

I held his gaze a fraction longer then was strictly necessary. “I do.”

This time it was my phone that interrupted us. It was a message from Geillis:

Dinnae suppose yer coming back anytime soon? Tis only that there is cake and if yer not back in fifteen minutes, I’ll be forced tae eat yers too!

She had attached a photograph of said cake to prove her point.

“I’d best be heading back,” I lamented, suddenly unwilling to have to end our conversation. “I still have to hear the eye-watering amount of money I’ll have to spend to have a wedding at Leoch.”

“Yer having yer wedding at the castle?”

I nodded. “Hopefully. Well, I should say goodbye to you, Jamie. It was good to see you again.”

Unexpectedly, he fell into step beside me as I walked away. “I’m heading back that ways sae I’d like to walk with ye, if that’s alright?”

I ignored the flutter in my stomach. “Of course.”

We walked on for a bit in companionable silence.

“I dinnae suppose this means we’ve moved on from being casual acquaintances yet, Sassenach?”

Recognising his tone for teasing, I gave a rather non-committal shrug of my shoulder. “Can’t say for sure. I suspect we are still a long way from being friends though.”

“What will it take, do ye think?”

I took a minute to consider, playfully grinning when I replied, “A common interest, perhaps? Something along the lines of…cats or dogs?”

“Definitely cats!”

“Ditto!”

“But I dinnae think we can spend forever only talking about cats, Sassenach. Do ye have a favourite alcohol?”

And so it went on the entire way back to Castle Leoch. As it turned out, we had quite a bit in common. We shared a love for the poems of Rupi Kaur (“Got me through the end of a year-long relationship.” Jamie had confessed), we both had our coffee with only a splash of milk, we were both stubborn, liked our whisky neat, hated injustice of any kind, and very nearly fell out completely when I admitted to liking Star Wars more than Star Trek (“Tis a good thing I like ye enough tae see past it, Sassenach.”).

By the time we made it back to the castle, I was quite taken with Jamie Fraser. Not in any romantic way but in a new friend kind of way. Besides, there was no way that I could like Jamie as anything more. I had Frank after all.

I shouldn’t have been at all surprised to find Geillis hovering by the door like a Mother Hen. I felt Jamie stiffen beside me but then he seemed genial enough as he shook the hand Geillis offered him. “Why, if it isnae the wee fox.” She smirked. I crossed my fingers behind my back, hoping that she wouldn’t bring up the infamous café meeting. “What are ye doing here, Jamie?”

She acted as though she knew him far better than I had thought. I briefly recalled their meeting in the hospital after I fixed his shoulder; I had been distinctly aware that the two knew each other then.

“I could ask ye the same thing, Geillis.” He said, coldly. “Ye ken that Dougal isnae here at present.”

“Oh, I ken.” Her smile turned feral. “But if ye do happen tae see yer uncle anytime soon, do pass on my warmest regards.”

Jamie nodded curtly. Turning back to me, he was all warmth again. “Would ye happen tae have yer phone handy, Sassenach?”

I pulled it out of my coat pocket, ignoring Geillis’ sharp intact of breath. “Whatever for?”

“Best have my number just in case ye try to sneak up on me again, ye ken.”

“I was hardly sneaking.” I scoffed, opening the contacts so that he could store his number. “And am I supposed to message you every time I’m about to poke my head out of a window?”

Jamie grinned as he handed the phone back. “Only for those at my heid height! Besides which, I was wondering if ye ever wanted yer wee mug back?”

“Do you have it then?” I asked, elated to know that I could get it back after all. He nodded but then his phone rang again. Smiling brightly as he took a step back, he did his strange owl-blink, bowed his head and answered the call.

“I’m here, Laoghaire. Tell me what’s going on.”  

I watched him walk away until he disappeared around the corner of the herb garden. Then I turned and immediately ran straight into Geillis. “Nothing good comes out of a visit tae the Black Kirk, Claire.” She said, her green eyes flashing in warning. “Nothing good at all.”

Chapter Text

I couldn’t stop thinking about the damn curse.

Lying in bed, curled and wrapped up in the winter duvet (the weather had taken a particularly chilly turn), I was unable to rid myself of the story. Every time I tried to close my eyes, to even attempt sleep of some kind, a hundred different questions crowded my head. I wasn’t a superstitious person. I held no great regard for fairy tales or what Frank might call hokum and New Age nonsense. But there was something about the folklore of the Highlands, rooted so deeply in tradition, that was like the pull of a sirens call.

And the kirk, that wretched pile of rubble and roots, was what made me both agitated and excited in equal measure.

I wanted it to be ridiculous.

I wanted desperately to know which fetch I might possibly see.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

I glanced at the clock – 4.17 a.m. – and again surrendered to the restlessness that had plagued me for days. Deciding that a cup of tea and a few hours of mindless tv streaming were in order, I dragged myself out of bed and went in search of something to quieten my mind.

My phone was on charge in the kitchen and while I waited for the kettle to boil, I idly scrolled through my social media and checked on any messages. There were a few from Geillis and one from Frank, wanting to speak to me later about Castle Leoch. He seemed happy enough with it when I had forward him the brochure, insisting that he wanted to do a little research before committing. I was just happy that he was happy, and that everything seemed to have been settled between us.

I quickly fired back a reply, knowing it would likely be a while before he responded. I was somewhat surprised when my phone pinged with a new message almost straightaway.

Sassenach.

It wasn’t Frank after all.

Jamie. What are you doing up so early?

A few days after seeing him at Leoch, Jamie had texted to arrange returning my reusable mug back into my possession. Except that an RTC had required surgery the same morning so I completely missed him. I told him that he could have simply dropped it off at the hospital, but Jamie had seemed rather adamant to hand it to me in person. So we rearranged. And then Jamie was pulled into an emergency meeting regarding his work and couldn’t make it. The third attempt saw me sleep straight through the alarm I set following a particularly gruelling eighteen-hour shift.

Was going to ask ye the same question, lass. Were ye working?

No. I just can’t sleep. What’s your excuse?

Same.

Why?

Just wondering if everything is about to come crashing down around my ears.

Well, I can certainly see why that would keep anyone awake. Want to talk about it?

Typing…

I stared at that one word for what felt like an age. I finished making my tea, popped some bread in the toaster, and had nipped to the loo in the time it took for him to reply. In fact, it had taken him so long that I began to worry that I had crossed some sort of line. My intention hadn’t been to pry but to offer…well, I didn’t quite know what I was offering. Friendship? Possibly…

Did I ever tell ye I was starting up my own business, Sassenach?

Intrigued, I took my cup and plate of buttered toast, and settled down amongst the cushions haphazardly strewn about the sofa.

You did not.

Turning on the television, I began to absently flick through the channels, keeping the volume low.

I plan to open a distillery close to where I grew up. Broch Mordha. On the site of the old mill.

Really?

Aye.

I bit into the toast and waited.

There’s a planned coffee morning later for the town, a chance for everyone to see the plans. And I dinna think I’ve ever been so nervous.

Do you think people aren’t going to approve?

All three of his replies arrived in quick succession.

Yes!

No!

Maybe.

I smiled. I may not have known him long but I highly doubted that Jamie Fraser had anything to be nervous about.

I just…dinna want to mess this up, ye ken.

I knew that feeling all too well.

Do you need some moral support? Because I could come to the meeting, if you like. I have the day off and I’ve no plans.

He replied back almost immediately.

It starts at eleven at the mill. And if it’s moral support ye come with, Sassenach, the least I can offer in return is a wee bite to eat afterwards.

I came perilously close to replying with ‘It’s a date!’ before I caught myself. Because it wasn’t a date. It couldn’t be a date. And I needed to stop sailing so close to the bloody wind with him.

We’ll see. But I’ll talk to you later, Jamie.

Then, as an afterthought.

Don’t forget to bring my mug!

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

The largest of the outer workshops of the old Broch Mordha mill was full of people.

Inside, there were display boards positioned about, showing the proposed plans for the distillery. People were milling about the boards in clusters; there were lots of nodding heads and back-slaps going on, with everyone seeming to be in high spirits. I didn’t know anyone, obviously, but I was thrilled to be there. I had spotted Jamie almost the second I arrived, easily towering inches above nearly everyone else in the room. He kept glancing back and forth between the door and his watch, as though he was anxiously waiting for someone to arrive.

I slipped into the room unnoticed, gladly accepted the cup of tea offered to me in lieu of the whisky and began reading through the displays. It was as I was reading about the community-led projects that were planned during the first phase of renovation that I heard my phone ping.

Do ye think he is wearing a wig?

I was currently having a rather lengthy conversation with Geillis about her brunch date. Things hadn’t worked out with the cardiologist and so she was currently out with a cousin of a friend from her aromatherapy group. I was having a hard time keeping up. She had somehow managed to take a picture of this poor chap’s hair while he had turned away.

I squinted at the picture and was going to reply when I felt someone at my elbow

“Good afternoon tae ye.”

Taken by surprise, I looked up to find a young woman standing beside me, smiling intensely. She had a very pretty, pouting face and perfectly straightened blonde hair.

“Hello?” I said, a little uncertainly.

Her smiled widened. “Welcome to Broch Mordha. Do ye have an information leaflet?”

I shook my head and accepted the leaflet she thrust into my hand. I glanced at her name badge: Laoghaire McKenzie, Broch Mordha Business Support.

How on earth did she pronounce her name? Leghair?

“Do ye ken much about the distillery?”

I smiled politely. “Very little, I’m afraid. I’m here to support a friend.”

“Well, my name of Laoghaire” – she pronounced it Lee-ree, which was a relief to discover – “and I would be happy to explain anything to ye if ye need. I’m lucky to have been part of the project from the beginning.”

“Oh? It all seems to be quite exciting.” I commented casually, taking a sip of my tea. I glanced over to where Jamie and two others were now taking the stage. “It must have been hard work for everyone.”

She nodded. “Aye. Jamie especially…” and with that she blushed.

Ah! So she had a crush on Jamie then.

The man himself was now scanning the room, the corners of his wide mouth turned down in what I supposed to be disappointment. Quite suddenly, the man standing in-front of me moved aside and I was placed in full view of the stage and Jamie. His eyes collided with mine and the world momentarily fell away. With a smile, I raised my cup in his honour and Jamie laughed. I found myself catching my breath a little at how handsome he was. It was disconcerting. It was pulse-racing. It was…

Just concentrate on the speeches, Beauchamp.  

Jamie stepped forward and a hush descended upon the room.

“Good morning to ye all and I thank ye for attending. This wee project of mine has been three years of development and planning, and it certainly would no’ amounted to much withou’ the support and guidance of those standing beside me. I owe them more than I could ever say.”

Everyone applauded.

“My family and I have been through a lot.” Jamie continued once the applause had quietened. “Tis what led us here, today, and this opportunity to share with ye all the future vision of Broch Mordha. A chance for my family to give back to the community that has welcomed us, sheltered us, and provided for us these past two-hundred years.

With that, we present ‘The Spirit of Our Land’ – a distillery that will celebrate local art, crafts, food and culture. A place for our community to work, to grow, and to thrive. A place that will be at the heart of everything we do for generations to come. We hope that ye can share this journey along with us.”

As applause broke out again, I turned to Laoghaire and asked, “Have you known Jamie long?”

“For years!” She said, tearing her gaze away from where Jamie was now asking people for their questions. She leaned towards me and conspiratorially whispered, “Jamie and I grew up together. But we’ve grown a lot closer since the project started. We’ve been seeing each other for a few months now, on the quiet. He doesna want our relationship to impact on things, ye ken.”

“How wonderful.” I replied, my smile tight. She wasn't doing a fantastic job of keeping it quiet if she was so willing to discuss the matter with a complete stranger. I took a sip of tea and inwardly crushed the sting of jealousy that had reared its ugly head. Not that I had any reason to feel jealous. I had Frank. Jamie could date whoever he wanted. “You are very lucky.”

“Aye. I am.”

Any further conversation was, thankfully, ended for the next hour as we listened to Jamie field and answer questions. Just as he had been with me, Jamie was charming and witty, openly engaging with the community about the distillery and what it would mean for the town. I found myself warming to him more, smiling each time he laughed or praised his investors. Yet his gaze would constantly shift to meet mine, as though he needed to make sure I was still there...

Laoghaire laughed and I was forced back to reality. I mentally berated myself. Here I was, standing beside Jamie’s girlfriend, feeling all sorts of butterflies dancing within my stomach because he smiled at me.

This just wouldn’t do. I had shown up as I said I would. I didn't need to be here much longer than that. 

Not wishing to get drawn any further in, I was thinking of making my excuses when Laoghaire took a step back, almost shyly. Frowning, I peered around to see Jamie weaving his way through determinedly through the crowd. Drawing near, he acknowledged Laoghaire warmly enough but formally, no doubt wishing to stay professional.

His greeting of me was much more relaxed.

“Tis good to see ye here, Claire.” Jamie said, taking a hold of my hand in both of his. “I was starting to fear ye would no’ make it.”

I smiled and extracted my hand, so conscious of who was standing beside us. “I said that I would. And it seems that everything hasn’t ended as expected.”

He frowned as I pulled away, trying to hold my gaze. “No’ quite!”

“You should be very proud, Jamie.”

“Aye. Tis been a dream of mine since I was a lad.”

“I remember ye then,” chimed in Laoghaire, cheeks blushing. Jamie inclined his head to include her but kept his eyes on me.

“Do ye? I’d no’ think I was much to see then, so as to be remembered.”

“Well, I do.” Laoghaire persisted. “Do ye not remember how we snuck into the mill late one night? And ye said…”

“No, I dinna remember.” He interrupted kindly. “And I would no’ be likely to. Far too taken with my own grand thoughts then to be thinking of what others were doing.”

Feeling the awkwardness of their conversation, I glanced at Laoghaire, noting the flush of her cheeks as shyness gave way to embarrassment and anger. I felt a small wave of sympathy for her then; I had been on the receiving end of a similar conversation once with Frank. I had been left smarting from it for hours afterwards.

“Laoghaire has been very kind,” I said, feeling the need to say something. “She offered to answer any of my questions.”

Jamie nodded and offered her a small smile. “Did she now. Thank ye kindly, lass.”

She practically glowed under his appreciation. “Aye. I did, Jamie. I’m here to help ye after all.”

He didn’t answer as his name was suddenly shouted out from somewhere across the room. He nodded his head in that direction and, taking my empty teacup from me, handed it to Laoghaire and said, “That ye are. Will ye see this back to the kitchen, lass? I’ve a mind to introduce Claire to some people.”

And with that, he pressed a gentle hand to my back and steered me away, leaving Laoghaire behind. I glanced back at her; thankfully looks couldn’t kill, because otherwise she would be gladly dancing upon my ashes.

“Jamie…” I hissed, prepared to reprimand him for his behaviour when I found myself facing the two main investors.

“Claire, may I introduce ye to my brother-in-law, Ian Murray, and my godfather, Murtagh Fitzgibbons.” Jamie beamed proudly. “Gentleman, this is Doctor Claire Beauchamp.”

“Pleasure to meet ye, Doctor Beauchamp.” Ian smiled kindly, shaking my hand. “Jamie has spoken of ye often enough that I feel as though I ken ye already.”

A little taken aback, I smiled back and said, “Claire, please. And he has?”

“Oh, aye.” Murtagh said, his dark eyes crinkling in mirth beneath bushy brows as I now shook his hand. “Ye canna believe the trouble we’ve had getting him to shut up about ye, lass.”

“Will ye two stop!” Jamie growled, shaking his head in disbelief.

I looked up at him, raised an eyebrow, and asked, “What on earth did you tell them about me?”

His eyes widened. “Only good things. I swear to ye, Claire.”

“Like what?”

He swallowed nervously, clearly flustered. I couldn’t help the small teasing smile then and Jamie noticed. His eyes narrowed as he leaned down to whisper in my ear. “Dinna start teasing me too, Sassenach.” His breath tickling the sensitive skin. “Otherwise, yer never gonna see that mug of yers again.”

I grinned, turning my attention back to Ian and Murtagh. “May I offer you both my congratulations on the distillery. It’s going to be an amazing project.”

“Oh aye.” Ian nodded. “Tis all Jamie’s doing though.”

“We’re jus’ here to drink the whisky,” Murtagh agreed, looking around. His dark eyes lit up as he extracted a glass of whisky from a passing tray. “We usually leave the lad and Jenny to charm the room.”

“Jenny is my sister, Sassenach.” Jamie answered my unspoken question.

“And my wife.” Ian added. “She is eight months along and the bairn does no’ allow her to keep to her feet longer than an hour.”

“Is it your first?”

Ian grinned. “Aye. And our last, if ye believe what she yells at me every day. She’s back on the farm preparing lunch for us all.” He tilted his head, sharing a brief look with Murtagh. “Do ye have plans for lunch, Claire?”

I blinked at the question. “Jamie did say something about food…”

“Oh, good.” Murtagh grinned, those dark eyes of his twinkling mischievously. “Yer’ll be coming back to Lallybroch with us then.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lallybroch turned out to be a large estate about ten-minutes from Broch Mordha.

I carefully followed Jamie’s directions, marvelling at how comfortably the house was nestled into the landscape. As we drove up towards the house, Jamie briefly explained that it had been built three-hundred years before and as I parked my car on the other side of the stone arched entrance, I felt a twinge of nostalgia; Uncle Lamb would have loved it here.

The moment I switched off the engine, Jamie hopped out and ran around the front of the car to open my door before I could. “Welcome to Lallybroch, Sassenach.”

“It’s stunning, Jamie.” I said, climbing out and staring about me. “And it’s all been in your family since it was built?”

“Aye.” He nodded, closing the car door and taking my bag from my hand. “Tis always been a working farm-”

His voice was drowned out by a sudden terrible racket coming from the direction of the outbuildings. I turned in time to see two enormous dogs come barrelling towards us, yapping and barking in their excitement at our arrival.

“Bran! Luke! Seas! Stand ye wee heathens!” Shouted Jamie and the dogs skidded to a halt within a few feet of me. I stood perfectly still, smiling despite myself as their tails started wagging.

“They’ll do ye no harm,” he said, noticing the way I had tensed. “They just get excited to see a new face, ye ken.” I harrumphed, slowly reaching my hand out to allow the dogs to sniff. The larger of the two even allowed me to scratch him affectionately behind their ears.

“We best get inside, Sassenach. Jenny will have our hides if we’re late for lunch.”

He gave a curt whistle and the dogs scampered after us as Jamie led me into a yard besides a small walled garden, a scattering of colour still evident in the beds despite the summer being long over. The light autumn wind rose up from the other side of the house; I sniffed deeply and was rewarded with the rich smell of hops and yeast, as well as the distinct smell of hay and manure.

“That had better be ye and that yer doctor of yers, James Fraser?” A woman called out from within the house as we approached. Jamie winced and offered me a resigned look.

“Are ye ready, Sassenach?”

“For what?” I asked, nervously glancing back and forth between him and the house.

He took my hand and squeezed. “The Jenny Murray Meet and Greet.”

Interrogation would probably have been a better word.

Jenny Murray would have made a brilliant drill sergeant. From the moment I walked through the kitchen door, she had me sit down between Jamie and herself at the large oak kitchen table. It was laden with plate upon plate of delicious Scottish food and several bottles of homebrewed sweet wine. Despite insisting that I could stay the night if I did wish to have a drink, I was provided with with my own jug of freshly prepared elderflower water.

Jenny was nearly the exact opposite to her brother; shorter by nearly a foot, with clear-drawn features and alabaster skin, she wore her cascades of black curly hair bound back with a green ribbon. Only her eyes, blue, cat-like and slanted, were the same as Jamie’s. And once my plate was piled high with food and I could clearly not go anywhere, her questions began.

I found myself telling her all about my medical career; where I went to school, my favourite places in and around Oxford, and all my hobbies and interests. Even my childhood didn’t go by unquestioned.

“Uncle Lamb was a renowned archaeologist,” I explained happily. “I would travel around the world with him, taking part in digs in Egypt, the Middle East, and across Europe. We once even spent a year in Paris when I was fourteen.”

“Ye were so often away from home?” Jenny asked with interest. “Did yer parents no’ mind?”

“Not really.” I hesitated before continuing, knowing what was likely to follow my revelation. “They both passed away when I was five.”

And there it was. The awkward pause. I stared down at my empty plate, counting down the seconds, waiting for it to pass. How many similar pauses had I caused and sat through in the last twenty years? It was pretty much always the same. No one could look me in the eye. No one knew what to say out of fear of saying the wrong thing. I supposed that, at least this time, no one was insisting upon giving me a hug.

“Lass,” Jamie whispered in dismay beside me. “I’m so verra sorry-”

“There is no need.” I cut him off brightly. “Really. I had a wonderful childhood with my Uncle Lamb. He did a fantastic job of being all the family I could have wanted and needed.”

I smiled at him as firmly I could. I was not going to be drawn in. I never could be. The memories of my parents were all boxed up and put away in my mind. I am happy for them to stay that way. After all, no one wants to hear stories about broken hearts and homes.

It happened. There was nothing left to say on it.

“What brought ye to Scotland then, Claire?” asked Jenny at last. Relieved, I seized on the distraction.

“My fiancé and I moved to Inverness so that I could join the surgical team at Raigmore, and he could do some research for a book he is writing about the Scottish Clans after Culloden.”

“Is that so,” Jenny smiled as Murtagh scoffed, leaving Ian to smile behind the rim of his glass. “Tis many an Englishman who thinks he can write such things.”

“Well, he isn’t writing much right now.” I conceded. “He is currently teaching in Boston. But he’ll be back next year, and we are hoping to get married once he does.”

A strange quiet fell over the table. I glanced about, noting that they all shared a look with each other. I glanced at Jamie, confused to say the least.

“Ye are getting marrit?” Jenny asked in surprise, raising a questioning brow at her brother. “Jamie…ye did no’ say.”

Jamie shifted uncomfortably in his seat, throwing his sister a thunderous look. “Tis no’ for me to speak of, Janet.”

“Ye told us everything else about her, brother.”

“Can ye just stop!”

But Jenny, it seemed, was as persistent and as stubborn as her brother. “Tis just that ye spoke in such a way that we all thought-”

“If you can all excuse me a moment,” I stood suddenly, not wishing to find myself anywhere near such an awkward and uncomfortable conversation. Especially as it was about me. “Would someone mind directing me to the nearest bathroom?”

Jamie went to stand but I held up my hand to stop him. He stilled, desperately trying to catch my eye, but I wasn’t too sure I could look at him right now. It was Ian who led me out of the kitchen, head held high, and walked with me in silence to the bathroom on the second floor.

“Jamie did no’ say much, Claire.” He ventured as he showed me into the room. He smiled kindly as I held onto the door handle, ready to close it behind me. “He was just so…”

“Thank you, Ian.” I attempted my own easy smile to deter him from saying anything more. “I’ll be down again in a few minutes.”

Nodding, he stepped away from the door, leaving me to gather myself back together.

I wasn’t mad. Not really. Just surprised that I would have been such an open topic of discussion amongst practical strangers. I was embarrassed. Not quite humiliated but certainly a little shamed. But I didn’t need to be. I could take control of this whole situation. Take back what belonged to me. After all, I liked Jamie and the people sitting around that kitchen table were important to him. I knew I would like them too, if I just gave them the same chance. What I needed to do next was quite simple.

Washing my hands, I took a deep breath and steeled myself. No point getting all het up about it, Beauchamp. What’s done is done.

I could hear the gentle rumble of voices as I neared the kitchen. They were all still seated; most of the plates had been cleared away and in the centre of the table was a huge wooden board full of cheese, crackers and fruits. Resolved, I returned to my seat with aplomb and refilled my glass. Everyone was looking at me nervously; from my peripheral vision, I could see Jamie drumming his fingers against his leg.

I took a sip and leaned back in my chair, smiling at them all. “So…what hasn’t Jamie told you about me?”

 

~~~~~

 

“The place is absolutely perfect, darling!”

I nodded, elated that Frank seemed to be so excited about Castle Leoch. I had phoned him the moment I got home from Lallybroch. Thinking back over the afternoon, I was relieved that the rest of the meal had gone off without a hitch, with Jamie easily re-directing the conversation away from me and onto anything and everything else. I had been grateful for that and had said as much as I prepared to take my leave. Having walked me to my car, I had politely ignored his attempts to apologise and assured him that we were fine.

“Christ!” Jamie exclaimed suddenly, looking back at the house. “I almost forgot again. Wait right here a moment, Sassenach.”

I did as I was told, laughing as he emerged from the kitchen door a moment later with my reusable mug in his hand.

“Thank you, Jamie. I was starting to feel a little lost without it.”

He titled his head. “What do ye mean? “

I sighed. “This was the last thing my Uncle Lamb brought for me.”

Jamie took a step closer; I could feel the heat of him down my arm. “The last thing…?”

“He died. Nearly two years ago now.”

“Sassenach…”

A clump of emotion began swelling up in my chest, threatening to chock me. But instead of giving in to it, I smiled up at Jamie and said, “No apologies, remember.”

He laughed then and nodded in acceptance. “I ken. So, now ye have the wee mug back in yer possession, what excuse will we have to make to see each other again?”

“Well, I’d say we are almost friends now, are we not? I don’t think we’ll need an excuse.”

 

“Tell me again about the castle’s history. What was the name of the Laird who built it again?”

Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I settled down on the sofa to recount, again, the history of Leoch. Frank was keen to hear about the affiliation of the Laird to the Jacobite cause, asking far too many questions than I was able to answer.

“You’ll have to speak to Mrs Fitz directly, darling!” I laughed after a particularly in-depth question regarding the clan’s finances. “I’m afraid that wasn’t exactly something that came up.”

Frank paused. Then he chuckled softly. “You are quite right, of course. So, is it everything that you want?”

I sighed. “It has to be everything that we both want, Frank.”

“I agree. So, is it available early next year?”

“I believe so.”

“Well then. Pay the deposit and secure it.”

“We have to have a date first, darling.” I pointed out affectionately. “We can’t just-”

“Use the twenty-fourth of April to secure the booking.”

“But it’s just a random date, Frank.” I said, absently flicking through the pages of a wedding magazine I had picked up whilst out shopping the day before. “You won’t be back by then, will you? Imagine the absolute kerfuffle there will be when we have to cancel because-”

“Claire. Darling.” He interrupted, sounding exasperated. “I’m asking you to marry me on the twenty-fourth of April.”

That bought me up short. “Are…are you saying you’re confirming the date?”

“I certainly am. So, Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp, will you marry me next spring?”

 

Chapter Text

I was getting married.

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure the whole idea had sunk in.

I mean, I knew I was going to get married to Frank. Eventually. But the time and the place all felt a distant spot on the horizon. A goal to reach without ever knowing how. Or when.

And yet, here I was. Swiping through catering websites and thumbing through wedding magazines. Feeling giddy with excitement because I was getting married in the Spring from a Scottish castle. Everything was perfect. Everything was how it should be.

Now, if I could just get rid of the weighted ball of unease that felt like it had taken root in my pit of my stomach, I might be able to start enjoying myself.

 

~~~~~

 

December in Inverness arrived in a flurry of ice and snow.

The bright lights of the High Street were a glittering mass of stars and reindeers, whilst those out Christmas shopping wrapped themselves up against the chill, faces buried within thick woollen scarfs and hats.

Christmas was probably one of my favourite times of the year. There was something so magical about it all; the lingering dark nights, cosying up with loved ones, hot chocolate topped with cinnamon cream, meeting up with friends, terribly cheesy films, alcohol-laced mince pies...

“I’m starving, hen.” Geillis chimed, peering at me from around a spinning-stand of hand-knitted hats. “Dinna suppose ye fancy something to eat yet?”

It was early Saturday afternoon and Geillis and I had met up to start our Christmas shopping. As I wasn’t due to start my shift for a few more hours yet, I was only too happy to spend the time meandering along the streets of the city, getting ideas and perhaps picking up an item or two.

I returned the leather gloves I had been admiring for Frank, checked my watch and shrugged. “I suppose I could go a hot turkey sandwich.”

“Finally!” Geillis clapped her hands with glee. “I dinna think I could go on much further.”

With a laugh, I followed her out of the shop and into the artisan café directly next door. Once seated by the roaring fire and with our hands warming up around spiced lattes, our conversation naturally turned to the wedding.

“We need to have a wee chat about yer Hen Party.”

I took a sip of my coffee and nodded. “Sure. What are you thinking?”

“How do ye feel about a weekend in Magaluf?”

I scrunched my nose and shook my head.

Geillis laughed. “I dinna think ye’d go for it. How about a spa weekend or an afternoon tea in some posh hotel in Edinburgh? Or, and dinna dismiss it outright, a farm weekend.”

“A farm weekend…?”

“Oh, aye.” Geillis nodded with excitement as she swiped her phone and started searching. “Ye get to do cow-milking, feed the wee animals, go bog-jumping, hen chases, bread-making. There’s even a wee farm treasure trail, which I figured would be right up yer alley.”

She spun her phone and showed me the page. Sure enough, there were photos of people wearing various pieces of wedding attire, laughing into the camera as they rode tractors, posed by Highland Cows, and went about jumping in muddy fields.

“It’s…different.” I conceded, not totally objecting to the idea.

“Tis. But there’s no’ that many places that do it locally except for a place called Lallybroch.”

My stomach clenched. “Lallybroch?”

“Aye. Lallybroch.” She eyed me warily. “Ye heard of the place then?”

I peered at her from over the rim of my mug. “I was only there a couple of days ago.”

She frowned. “Why would ye…oh! Yer blossoming friendship with the wee fox.” She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. “Yer probably practically one of the family by now.”

“It’s nothing like that. Jamie and I…”

“Are just friends, sure.”

“We are.” I insisted, rolling my eyes. “What else would we be for heaven’s sake.”

“I’m thinking a bit more.” She replied coyly, winking at me. “Ye talk about him all the time-”

“I do not!” I said indignantly. Geillis smirked.

“Aye. Ye do. I ken more about Jamie then I do about Frank.”

I scoffed. “That’s only because you don’t ask me about Frank.”

“I do.” She said, leaning back in her chair to allow the waitress to place our lunch down on the table. “But ye close up like a wee clam whenever I ask.”

I could feel the heat of my embarrassment upon my cheeks. “Geillis…”

“Tis nowt to be ashamed of, hen.” She made a brushing-off motion as she unwrapped her cutlery. “I ken that those Fraser’s are an alluring bunch.”

“And how would you know that?”

Geillis gave a rather casual shrug of her shoulders. “Their uncle is Dougal Mackenzie. He is the one who owns Leoch, ye ken.”

“Dougal? As in your childhood sweetheart, Dougal?”

“Oh no ye don’t!” She said, brandishing her fork at me. “Yer no’ gonna drag me into this right now, Beauchamp! If yer no’ willing to spill the beans about Frank, then yer no’ getting a thing from me about Dougal.”

“Fine.” I laughed, taking a bite of my sandwich. “You can tell me what Jamie was like as a teenager instead.”

“Only friends, my arse.” I distinctly heard her mutter before she went on to say, “Jamie was canny. Braw. Always have a gaggle of lasses following him everywhere. There was one in particular – nowt but big eyes and pouty lips. Laoghaire, I think her name was.”

I thought back to the woman who I had met at the distillery site, her nostrils flaring as she tightened her grip upon my discarded cup. “Yes. I’ve met her.”

Geillis curled her lip in disgust. “She’s still sniffing about then. Weel, she certainly wormed her way into the family after their mum died.”

I froze, a chip halfway to my lips. “I’m sorry…” I was failing miserably to hide my shock. “Jamie’s mum died?”

“Has he no’ said?” Geillis seemed surprised. “Just before he turned fifteen. Heart troubles, if I remember rightly.”

I blinked. “He never said.”

“Tis a private matter, I guess.” She shrugged. “I only ken because I was with Dougal at the time. And even then, I’m sure I dinna ken all that happened. So, do ye want me to find out about a farm weekend? Maybe the wee fox can give us a ‘friends’ discount.”

I blinked at the speed at which Geillis changed the subject. “I doubt it. But yes, it sounds like fun. And, perhaps, the spa weekend too.”

“Excellent. I’ll need a list of people yer want to invite, of course…”

But I wasn’t listening. My thoughts were tumbling down one after the other. I didn’t know anything about Jamie’s parents. I didn’t know if his father was still alive or even if he had any other brothers or sisters. As I sat there, absently eating my chips, I felt somewhat chastened. Because of my own loss, I hadn’t even thought to ask him. All this time, I thought I had Jamie all figured out in my head. But in truth, I was nowhere near to knowing him. Not even close.

For the rest of the afternoon, after Geillis had pulled me from my thoughts to discuss contact lists and wedding decorations, I tried not to think back on it. We finished our lunch (after several more coffee’s and a rather large slice of chocolate cake) and were about to pay and leave when I felt my phone buzz in the pocket. I frowned down at the screen as it read that I had four new notifications. One turned out to be a voicemail from an unknown number, but the other three were all missed calls from Jamie.

Jamie?

Sooner than I could register whether it was a good idea or not, I was pressing the screen to call him back.

It only took two rings for him to answer.

“Claire?”

I could hear it in his voice; the shock, fear, worry.

“Is everything okay?”

He took a shuddering breath. “Tis Jenny…”

 

~~~~~

 

It took me all of fifteen minutes to reach the maternity unit of Raigmore.

I nodded my head in greeting to the reception nurse as I entered the unit, weaving my way to the waiting room via the fairly decent coffee machine. I spotted Jamie immediately, the giant that he was, folded into one of the unforgivably uncomfortable blue chairs. He was leaning forward with his elbows upon his knees, his head cradled in his hands. Silently, I lowered myself into the chair beside him and offered him one of the coffee cups. It didn’t take long for him to turn his head, sighing with relief, it seemed, to find me sitting there. He reached out for my hand, bringing it to rest upon his knee, wrapped within his own and with palms pressed together.

“Yer here.”

“I am.” I smiled, squeezing his fingers. “I’m glad that you called.”

“Ye were the first person I thought of, Sassenach.”

Jesus H Roosevelt Christ. Ignoring the butterflies racing about my stomach, I asked, “Has Ian gone in with her?”

“Aye…” he sighed, his shoulders slumping in exhaustion. “Her blood pressure rocketed so we rushed her in. The doctor came to take her into surgery about thirty minutes ago.”

“It’s going to be alright, Jamie.” I quickly assured him. “An emergency c-section is daunting, but the obstetrician will get Jenny through it, I promise.”

He nodded. “Tis just…being in the hospital brings back memories of my Ma and her dyin’. And being here, waiting and no’ knowing, tis like I’m a scared lad all over again.”

I tightened my grip. “You’ve never spoken about your mother.”

“No. I suppose I just get so frustrated by the awkward pause, ye ken.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised that he understood. I nodded. “I know that.”

He smiled briefly. “Aye. I remember seeing yer face at lunch, after ye spoke about yer parents. I kent then that ye would understand. I should have said somethin’.”

I vehemently shook my head, for there was no way I was going to let him feel guilty. “Not at all.”

He took a deep breath. “I’d like to tell ye about her, if ye’d like to hear?”

And so, for the next thirty minutes, Jamie regaled me with his memories of his mother. Ellen Fraser sounded amazing. He told me stories about her strength, her loyalty, and her sharp tongue. She had been an accomplished artist, with her paintings proudly hung in Lallybroch and on display in galleries across Scotland. But most of all, he told me about her kindness, her sweetness, and of how much she had clearly loved her family.

“She met my Da at a friend’s wedding and that was that.” Jamie chuckled as he remembered. “They eloped the very next day and my older brother, William, was born nine months later.”

“You have an older brother?”

“By four years. He went backpacking round Australia after he finished university, met a lad and never came back. He and John have a restaurant together on the east coast.”

I smiled in delight. “You must miss him.”

“I do. But he comes back to Lallybroch whenever he can. Da is visiting him at present – the warmer air helps with his joints.”

“Does your father have any brothers or sisters?”

He smirked. “Ye are just full of questions today, are ye no’, Sassenach.”

I nudged him with my shoulder. “I’m not quite up to Jenny Murray standards, but I can hold my own.”

Jamie laughed. “He has one. Jared. He lives in France and runs a wine empire.”

“Did he inspire you with the distillery?”

“Nah. That was my uncle Dougal. Ye see, after Ma died…I dinna take it weel. Got myself into trouble whenever I could. Da was at the end of his tether when Dougal offered to take me in. Got me interested in business and has even helped with the project. He is the owner of Castle Leoch.”

“Geillis told me as much.”

“Dinna think she’d ever show her face in Leoch again.” He said, rather too darkly for my liking. “No’ after everything that happened.”

I tried to not look miffed as I gently warned, “She is my friend, Jamie.”

He ran his thumb over the back of my hand. “I meant no disrespect, Claire. What there is tis between her and Dougal. I dinna have a word to say about it.”

“No?” Thinking back on the cool way he had greeted Geillis when they had run into each other at Leoch. “Perhaps we shouldn’t-”

“Jamie!”

The sudden sharp, shrill female voice surprised us both enough to jump in our seats at the same time. We both laughed breathlessly and turned to see who it was that had called out to him.

And my heart plummeted when I recognised Laoghaire.

“Ah dhia!” I heard Jamie mutter but before I could fathom what he meant by that, Laoghaire had perched herself on the vacant chair on Jamie’s other side and had flung her arms around him.

“This is all so terrible.” She cried into his shoulder. “I came as soon as I could.”

“Ye dinna have to, Laoghaire.” Jamie informed her, his forehead wrinkled in disbelief. “Ye should have stayed in the office.”

Her eyes widened with unshed tears. “I could no’ do that, Jamie. I wanted to be here for you. When Murtagh said ye’d come to the hospital to be with Jenny, I was just so worrit. There was no way I could keep working after that.”

Awkwardly, through all of this, Jamie refused to let go of my hand. I couldn't quite figure out if he had forgotten or if he was trying to draw strength from me to handle the situation. She did seem to be overbearing type of girlfriend.

And here I was, holding his bloody hand. Shit!

“Tis nothin’ to be fashed about." He pulled back so that Laoghaire could finally see me. "After all, I was no’ alone.”

Her face twitched but her smile remained sweetly intact.

“How…kind of ye.”

I highly doubted that four words had ever been laden with such vicious pleasantness.

“I was on my way in to work anyway,” I tried to explain, hoping that she wouldn’t see more into the situation than there was. She carried on smiling for several more uncomfortable seconds and it was beginning to unnerve me a little.

Make that quite a lot.

I was saved from any further scrutiny by the arrival of a wide-eyed and very excited Ian. All three of us stood as he danced into the waiting room and I took my chance to take a step back, offering Jamie a small smile when he glanced at me in confusion. This is a time for family, I tried to convey to him with a gentle nod of my head. Family and your slightly crazy girlfriend.

Ian stared at us all before his face practically split with his wide smile. “I have a son!”

Jamie took a cautious step towards him. “And Jenny?”

“Is already demanding for Uncle Jamie to come and meet his nephew!”

With a whoop of laughter, Jamie leaped forward and practically lifted his brother-in-law off the ground as he hugged him. They started talking in rapid Gaelic, so I stood quietly watching, barely able to contain my own delight at the news. That was until I felt the laser-like glare of Laoghaire upon me.

“What are ye really doing here?”

“Hello again!” I smiled politely as I turned to find her standing as close to me as she could. I was in no way prepared to get pulled into whatever drama she was cooking up in her head. There was nothing going on between Jamie and me. If she had seen anything at all, it was simply a friend comforting another. I had no reason to feel guilty.

Keep telling yourself that and you might convince yourself it's true.

“Who are ye?” She bristled. “Tell me at once or I’ll-”

“I’m Claire.” I interrupted her. “We’ve met before.”

“Claire?” She sounded deeply suspicious, ignoring the other fact. “Claire who?”

“I’m just a friend of Jamie’s.”

“Are ye now. Then how come he’s never mentioned ye before?” She was eyeing me up and down in a haughty sort of way that was threatening to get my hackles up.

“I couldn’t tell you that. You’ll have to ask him for yourself.”

She blinked in rapid succession. “So that’s it…he’s two-timing me with some Sassenach whore.”

Whatever patience I had with her snapped at this point.

“Now, look here.” I demanded in a furious voice, but my tirade was woefully interrupted by the sudden persistent beeping of my pager. Unable to ignore the call and with my cheeks hot from anger, I stepped away from her, grabbed my bag, and turned at once to find Jamie. I hated to admit that I was a touch crestfallen that he seemed oblivious to his girlfriend behaviour.

“I’m so sorry.” I interrupted, gently clutching his sleeve. He turned immediately and I could see that his face was lit up with absolute joy, his eyes dancing with excitement. I beamed back and before I knew it, his arms were around me when they really shouldn’t be.

But for a fleeting heartbeat, there was nowhere else I would rather be.

He must have felt me stiffen for he pulled back as suddenly and we awkwardly took a step back.

“Are ye alright, Sassenach?”

I flinched. I knew that Jamie used it as a term of endearment but hearing it so close after Laoghaire’s sneer, I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it. So instead, I smiled brightly and said. “I’m sorry to interrupt but I have to go.” – I turned then to Ian – “Congratulations to both you and Jenny.”

“Will ye no’ come and meet the wee lad?” Ian asked, gesturing back to the ward. “I ken Jenny will be thrilled to see ye, lass.”

I smiled warmly at him. I really did quite like Ian. “I would love to, but I have to go and prep for surgery. Please do send her my very best and let her know I’ll try to pop back later, if I can.”

He nodded as I shifted my gaze back to Jamie. “Congratulations, Uncle.” I grinned, shouldering my bag. “I’m glad it all turned out well in the end.”

His blue eyes twinkled. “Thank ye, Claire.”

Smiling as them all, I turned and walked out of the room, refusing to meet the baleful glare of Laoghaire. Let her stew in her own spitefulness, I thought to myself. She means nothing to me after all. I was barely out of the door before someone grabbed my elbow. I was spun round to find Jamie staring down at me warily.

“Did something happen with Laoghaire, Claire?”

I wanted to tell him. I did. But for some reason the words got lodged in my throat. It really wasn’t my place to get involved with…well, with whatever they were.

“Nothing.” I reassured him, unwilling to burst his bubble. “But you should probably have a talk with her, Jamie.”

“I’m talking to ye.”

What a dear, sweet, endearing man. Before I could stop myself, I was up on tiptoes with my lips pressed firmly against his cheek. His stubble felt rough against my skin and I was almost overwhelmed by the heady scent of him. Spicy. Woody. Earthy.

I could sense it imprinting upon my skin.

Just as quickly, I took a stumbling step back, shyly looking up at him. Jamie was staring off with such a glazed, shocked expression that I felt my insides churn up.

Clearly overstepped a boundary there, Beauchamp!

“Congratulations again.” I whispered, desperate to get away and hide my face against my growing mortification. “We’ll speak again soon.”

And without a backward glance, I hurried away.

 

~~~~~

 

I need to talk to you. Urgently.

I drummed my fingers against the table of the break room, impatiently waiting for a reply. I had just come out of an emergency bowel surgery and, although I had kept my head together throughout it, I now desperately needed to talk to someone. I just felt that every part of me was coming apart at the seams, the delicate threads tearing and fraying with every breath. I needed someone to pull me back from the brink of completely unravelling.

So, when my phone finally beeped with a response, I practically jumped on it in my nervous eagerness.

What’s up, hen?

I tapped my fingers quickly over the screen, chewing my lip anxiously at I told her what had happened. To her credit, Geillis was quick to reply.

Ye did what?

I kissed Jamie.

On the mouth?

The cheek…

There was a pause.

Is that all?

I gasped in indignation at her response.

What do you mean ‘Is that all’?

Was just a wee peck on the cheek, right?

Well…yes.

So…tis no’ like ye stuck yer tongue down his throat or anything.

Trust Geillis to be frighteningly straightforward.

No. But what about Frank? I can’t just go around kissing men on the cheek, Geillis. I’m engaged!

Aye. But yer no’ dead, Claire. And if Frank would be an arse and object, he should no’ be on the other side of the ocean, ye ken. Besides, he does no’ need to ken.

I sighed in frustration, slumping down in my chair.

I don’t know if this is helping…

What do ye want to hear, hen? That yer a woman with a beating pulse in yer veins? That ye should, somehow, be ashamed of what ye feel? Weel, guess what? Ye are and ye should no’ be. Jamie is an attractive man. If he was no’ so taken with ye, I’d give it a shot myself. Dinna fash so, hen. Tis a good thing.

How?

It took a minute for my phone to beep again. I swiped the screen in trepidation, already suspecting what she was likely to say. It wasn’t as though I was not aware of those bubbling, bewitching feelings…

It might get ye to start thinking about what ye truly want!

 

~~~~~

 

The maternity unit was serenely peaceful.

It had just gone six in the morning when I returned to the ward, quietly asking the nurse if I would be able to check in on Jenny. She nodded and directed me towards the beds towards the back of the ward, far enough away from the commotion of the reception to allow healing mothers a little extra peace and quiet.

I didn’t know if she would be awake but as I had promised to pop my head in at the end of my shift, I took a chance. Luckily, Jenny was indeed awake, softly crooning to her new-born son safety secured in her arms.

“Good morning,” I whispered so as not to surprise her. Jenny glanced up, smiling tiredly once she realised that it was me.

“Good morning to ye, Claire.” She whispered back, shifting her position to allow me to perch on the edge of the bed close to her knees.

“How are you both doing?” I asked, peering at the quietly snuffling bundle. “Did you get much sleep?”

“Aye. Enough.” Her smile widened as she glanced back at her baby. “But I canna stop staring at him, Claire. He is just so perfect.”

“Have you got a name for him?”

“Aye. James Alexander Gordon Fraser Murray. Named after his uncle.”

I was sure Jamie was ridiculously proud of this fact. “His names are beautiful. Congratulations, Jenny.”

She sighed happily. “Thank ye. Would ye like to hold him?”

I blinked in surprise. “May I?”

“Of course.” She gently adjusted his weight, allowing me to scoop him up and out of her arms. He was surprisingly sturdy, his small mouth pouting at the different warmth of me. He clenched his fists and partly opened his eyes as though to object. But upon deciding that it was not worth the fuss, he promptly reclosed them and went back to sleep. “We’ve taken to calling him wee Jamie. So as no’ to confuse the two of them.”

I chuckled as I moved to the chair beside her bed. “Hello, wee Jamie.” I cooed softly, stroking a gentle finger down his warn, fuzzy cheek. “Welcome to the world at last.”

We sat quietly for a few minutes as I slowly fell under wee Jamie’s spell.

“Ye look good holding a bairn, Claire.” Jenny observed quietly. “Would ye like children of yer own one day?” – I glanced up, frowning in thought, which she misread as annoyance - “Sorry. I dinna mean to pry.”

I cleared my expression and smiled. “You weren’t. I was thinking about your question. I think that I would but it’s not something that Frank and I have ever discussed.”

“Is Frank yer fiancé?”

I nodded. “We’ve been together for a while so you’d think the subject of a growing family would have come up. But it never has.”

She titled her head. “Why ever no’?”

“There are just so many other things we need to figure out first.” I shrugged, standing to return wee Jamie to his mother. I didn’t really want to get into a conversation about Frank this early in the morning. “Having a child together seems like a long way off yet.”

“I ken that feeling. I dinna think Ian and I were ever goin’ to be ready.”

I returned to my seat and asked, “How long have you been married?”

“Nearly three years but we’ve been together since we were teenagers. I ken I wanted him the moment I set eyes on him. Tis what us Frasers do.”

“Love at first sight.”

“Something like that. I suspect Jamie will be much the same, when he meets the right one.”

I didn’t know if I wanted to talk about Jamie this early in the morning either. But it would probably be rude to say that to his sister. “You don’t think he has yet?”

She scoffed at the idea. “If ye mean Laoghaire, I doubt it. The lass is a loon.”

I bit my lip to hide my smile, failing miserably. “You know about them then.”

“I ken what Laoghaire thinks. Jamie was a fool to allow her to think he was interested in the first place.”

My curiosity piqued, I couldn’t help asking, “Did they start dating before she joined the project then?”

Jenny raised a sceptical eyebrow. “If ye call one dinner dating.”

“I suspect Laoghaire does.”

“Oh aye. And Jamie is too much of a gentleman to call her out on it. But believe me, Claire. Jamie and Laoghaire are no’ an item.”

I shifted uncomfortably in the chair, slightly confused as to why she was bringing it up. “You don't think you have to explain anything. It really is of no concern to me who Jamie is dating.”

She watched me with a level gaze and smiled. “Oh? I think it verra much may well be.”

 

~~~~~

 

It seemed that everyone had an opinion about how I should feel about Jamie.

Everyone, that is, except for me.

By the time I left Jenny to get some rest before the family descended back on her, my head was reeling. Jamie and I had only just become friends, so to start thinking of him in any romantic way just seemed…well, it wasn’t as though I hadn’t thought about him in that way. I’d have to be blind not to notice him. But I had Frank. And I had a plan.

I was bloody content with how things were, thank you very much.

With a jumble to feelings coursing through me, I stomped out of the hospital and out into the cold, drizzly rain. It was a near perfect reflection of my current mood. Shaking out my umbrella, I splashed my way through the puddles towards the bus stop, reckoning that I would be in an even fouler mood if I had to walk back to the flat in this weather. With a harrumph, I took a seat only to sigh in annoyance when I discovered it was wet.

Oh! That’s just perfect.

“Ye alright there, Sassenach?”

I raised my eyes up to the sky and scowled. Just fucking perfect!

Dreading another mortifying encounter when I was still trying to figure out feelings, I plastered a smile on my face and said, “Good morning, Jamie. You’re a little early if you were hoping to see Jenny.”

He was standing a little way from me, one hand holding a dark blue umbrella while the other was stuffed deep in his jacket pocket. He was wearing a cosy looking tartan scarf and his curls were hidden beneath the hood of his hoodie. His gaze met mine and he smiled. “Actually, I was hoping to catch up with ye.”

“Really?”

“Aye. I was wondering if ye might be interested in getting some breakfast?”

“With you?”

His smile widened. “If ye like.”

Right on cue, my stomach rumbled loud enough for the whole of Inverness to hear. Jamie tried not to laugh as he took a step closer. “Come on, Sassenach. I might even treat ye to a coffee just so long as ye promise to no’ kiss me again.”

“Christ, Jamie!” I cried out, mortified all over again. The sound of his laughter echoed as he took my arm and laced it through his so that we could share his umbrella. To my utter surprise, he leant down and quickly pecked a kiss to my heated cheek.

“There ye are, Sassenach. Ye can now say the same of me. And I guess we’ll just have to keep buying each other coffee to make up for it.”

He was insufferable. An intolerable bloody Scot.

I was going to have to get better at quelling those damn butterflies.

Chapter Text

I have never believed in the idea of a knight in shining armour.

Chivalry. Romantic love. Swooning. Having a soulmate.

It all seemed rather irrational. A fairy tale, as it were.

I think that is why I was first attracted to Frank. I liked how uncomplicated he was about love. He wasn’t romantic. He didn’t need to show me that he loved me. He didn’t need to send me cards covered in hearts. Or flowers on any occasion other than my birthday. He didn’t need to sweep off my feet with grand romantic gestures. He didn’t need me to do the same.

And I was okay with that. To not need or be needed.

At least, that’s what I thought.

 

~~~~~

 

It was the week before Christmas and Geillis had somehow managed to persuade me to join her for a couple of hard-earned drinks to celebrate.

She claimed that the planets had finally aligned; I was due to start a week of night shifts the day after next and Frank would be returning to Scotland on Christmas Eve. Therefore, she had a very small window of opportunity and she was taking it. I had been pulled into one of the cities bars where, three hours later, I’d had considerably more than a couple.

The bar was heaving with early yuletide revellers, laughing and talking amongst the myriad of twinkling fairy lights and artfully draped swags of holly. Christmas music blared out from hidden speakers, with many of the crowd merrily singing along to the catalogue of festive tunes. As the afternoon passed into evening, we managed to nab a couple of the stools by the bar. I had been perched there for at least an hour, wearing a sequined Santa hat and laughing as Geillis recounted her many and varied dating stories, when a flash of red curls appearing at the door pulled my attention.

He was wearing a perfectly fitted double-breasted jacket over a black t-shirt, his dark jeans hung low over his narrow hips. The cinnamon curls had been swept up at the front, cut and tamed, making the fire within them dim to a smouldering glow. He hadn’t shaved, the few days’ worth of stubble evident even from where I was sitting, and my fingertips itched to stroke along the chiselled line of his jaw…

Hands to yourself, Beauchamp!

My gaze involuntarily followed him as he made his way across the bar to the booths that lined the walls. I understood the quiet stirring that heated deep within my belly at the sight of him. The prickling of sweat in the palms of my hands. The increasing thrum of my heartbeat. Desperately, I wanted it all to be because I was frustrated. I liked sex. I missed having sex. And as Frank had been gone from my bed for over six months, all that frenzied energy was bubbling away, just waiting for an out.

It didn’t help that I was becoming increasingly aware of Jamie; the single gentle curl of red gold at his temple, the scar on his cheek, the way his laughter started from somewhere deep inside him. The owl-like way he winked. The touches at my elbow and the devastating little smiles he always had for me…

I wanted Jamie Fraser. It was visceral, a deliciously painful need that caused every nerve in my body to spark and crackle with thousands of volts of electricity. It fevered my skin, burned its way through muscle and bone to seep into the very marrow of my being. It caught me unawares at random moments of the day. It breathed along the back of my neck whenever he spoke. It was in the way his fingers and mouth ghosted across my skin as I slept through fitful dreams, leaving me panting and wanting from the moment my eyes reluctantly opened.

The reality of it all was that I wasn’t going to do a thing about it. Not while there was Frank and a wedding to plan. And I was going to have to come to terms with that, one way or another.

“Earth to Claire.”

I blinked and shook my head, hastily returning my gaze back to Geillis, who was waving her hand back and forth to divert me, her green eyes full of drunken concern.

“Where did ye just go, hen?”

“Nowhere.” I smiled brightly, glad that the flush on my cheeks could be accredited to the amount of alcohol I had consumed, not my sudden embarrassment at being caught daydreaming about Jamie Fraser. “Tell me again about the accountant. Did she have a tattoo on her arse after all?”

“Aye,” Geillis said slowly, eyes narrowing. “But that story is no’ that interesting anymore. What is interesting is the fact that ye have yer ‘Jamie Fraser’ face about ye suddenly.”

I stared at her. “My what?”

She smiled knowingly. “Whenever ye talk about the wee fox, or he is somewhere within a mile radius of ye, yer eyes get all large and starry-eyed, hen.”

“They do not!” I objected, rapidly blinking. Was I really that obvious?

“Aye. Ye do. And ye may as well start panting for what its worth.”

“I was thinking about Frank, actually.”

She shook her head. “Ye were no’. I’ve seen yer face when ye think about him and that were no’ it.”

I gulped down some wine in a vain attempt to stay calm. “Do I have a ‘Frank face’?”

Geillis crossed her eyes and scrunched her nose in an overly comedic way. Despite myself, I snorted with laughter. “Tis like ye have just stepped in dog shite. Ye cannae hide that glass face of yers, even when ye try.”

Bugger!

I glanced up and over to where I could see Jamie, his arm casually swung along the back of the seat as he laughed along with something.

“He’s sitting in the booth by the tree.”

Geillis swivelled on her stool to stare; I didn’t have the presence of mind to tell her not to be so obvious.

“Aye…so he is.” She said, leaning forward as though to get a better look. “And it looks like the crazy limpet Laoghaire is wit’ him, amongst others.”

He was out with Laoghaire? Well, so what if he was. It’s certainly none of your business, Beauchamp.

Except that I couldn’t quite shake the notion that Laoghaire was somehow my business. That her jealous girlfriend routine was going to backfire spectacularly, and I was going to get caught up in the crossfire.

“Did ye ken he would be here, hen?”

I shook my head. “Nope. He didn’t say anything the last time we spoke a few days ago.”

Geillis’ pale eyebrows rose in surprise. I should have known she’d latch onto that. “Why ever no’? Ye two talk all the time.”

“We don’t tell each other everything we do, Geillis.” I was thoroughly prepared to bury my head in the sand over this, no matter how determined Geillis was to dig me out.

“Is this because of Frank?”

I sighed. “Why would this be about Frank?”

“Because yer no’ sure if ye want him anymore.”

I glared at her. “Of course, I still want Frank. There is the small matter of our wedding after all…”

She tilted her head. “I’m no’ denying that. But yer no’ marrit yet.”

“Geillis…”

“Trust me, Claire. If I had someone as fine as Jamie Fraser sniffing about, there’d be no leaving the bed-“

“Good evenin’ Claire.”

Shit!

The little thrill of excitement at hearing Jamie’s voice speaking softly in my ear was instantaneously replaced by utter embarrassment. I peered at Geillis, who had what I feared to be the exact same ‘hand caught in the cookie jar’ expression as the one I had. And so surprised was I by his sudden appearance at my elbow, that I jerked and knocked my nearly empty glass over.

“Careful there, lass!”

As my befuddled fingers tried to stop the contents from spilling everywhere, Jamie’s long arm shot across me, narrowly saving us all from any further red wine disasters. I watched him lift the glass, cupping the bowl gently with one large hand as he passed it back and forth under his nose. He raised a surprised eyebrow as he set the glass back down on the bar behind me.

“It’s something called rhenish,” I attempted to explain while trying hard not to stare at his fingers.

“Aye, I ken,” he said, smiling slightly. “This place is known for it. And judging by the colour, I’d say tis also double strength. How much of it have ye had, Sassenach?”

“Two, no, three glasses of this,” I replied with as much dignity as my drunken state could muster. “Are you suggesting that I’m intoxicated?”

“I’d be surprised if ye were no’. Can ye even stand, lass?”

Feeling defiant, I straightened my legs and hauled myself unsteadily up from off the stool. The room attempted to spin once but I was standing. So, I grinned up at him in triumph.

“Withou’ ye holding on to me though.”

I frowned and stared down at my hands. It took a second for my brain to catch up; sure enough, I was grasping tightly onto his forearms. Cringing, I let go but the sudden movement caused me to wobble. Jamie had to step forward to place a hand at my waist to steady me.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, stepping away as gracefully as I could without colliding with the stool. Christ! It was like that one small touch searched straight through me. “What are you doing over here, Jamie?”

“I’ve been sent to get drinks for everyone. And then I saw ye and thought to say hello.”

I grinned happily and gave him a small wave. “Oh! Well, hello!”

“Hello, Sassenach.” He chuckled softly, his blue eyes sweeping over my face. “Ye look sae bonnie, all flushed and such.”

“Is that a polite way of saying sweaty?” I teased, inwardly grining as the tips of his ears flushed pink.

“If it were, then I’d have to say ye were glowin’. But I think ye’d best drink no more of it, or ye’ll have no idea of who ye are come the morning.”

I nodded, frowning a little. “Quite right, I suppose.”

The bartender appeared and Jamie turned away to place his order, allowing Geillis to pull me aside to whisper, “Perhaps this is yer chance, Claire.”

“My chance for what?” I said, somewhat baffled.

“Frank is due back on Christmas Eve, no?”

I nodded, still none the wiser.

“Then ye still have time with Jamie. Invite him to sit wit’ us.”

“I’m not going to do that, Geillis.”

She looked scandalized. “Why ever no’?”

“Because he is here with his friends,” I hissed. “And…perhaps there needs to be some separation. Frank wouldn’t like it if-”

“To hell with Frank! He isna here but Jamie is. Ye like him, do ye no’?”

But before I could answer, Jamie stood back from the bar with a tray laden with drinks. “I’ve got to deliver these before there is a riot,” he said, his blue eyes trying to hold mine. I was far too drunk to focus on anything longer than a few seconds. “But if the two of ye are staying a wee bit longer, perhaps I could come find ye later?”

All I could do was stand there like a rabbit caught in the headlights. It was Geillis who said, “Aye. We’ll be here.”

Jamie nodded once, throwing me a wary look. “Grand. I’ll be back in a bit, Sassenach.” – he nodded at us both as he began to walk away – “Geillis.”

I waited until he was well out of earshot before rounding on Geillis. “I’m going home.”

“Why?” she wailed in protest.

“Because I am standing. And I probably should.”

“He offered, hen.”

I sighed as I attempted to wrap my scarf around my neck. “I know he did. But I’d rather not have another run in with Laoghaire, not if I can help it.”

“I can slap her for ye?”

I laughed, shrugging on my coat. “I’m perfectly capable of doing that myself. But thank you.”

“And what am I going to do withou’ ye?”

I leaned down to give her a quick hug. “If I were you, I’d give the rather dashing blonde three seats down a go.”

She pulled back and turned her head to see for herself. Sure enough, the blonde raised his glass in her direction and unfurled himself from the stool to make his way over.

“Merry Christmas, Geillis.” I laughed, stepping aside to let the man take my spot. But I don’t think she heard me as she was far too busy openly ogling him.

With very little incident, I found myself outside in the cold Inverness air.

It was like a thousand tiny daggers of ice scratching at my face.

The shift in the temperature did little to clear my head but it was enough. With only a slight stagger, I started walking down the street, taking the turn that would lead me over the bridge that crossed the River Ness and on towards the path that skirted the river. A small Christmas market had been set up, with all the trees along the walk behind it beautifully lit in various shades of festive colours. I could smell the enticing aroma of bratwurst and my stomach rumbled in protest.

Deciding to follow my stomach’s advice and lost to the thoughts of hunger, it took me a few minutes to realise someone was calling out my name. I turned and my heart did a giddy little flip; Jamie was hurrying after me.

“Christ!” He laughed as he drew near. “For someone so unsteady on their feet, ye sure do walk fast, Sassenach.”

“That is because I have somewhere to be.” I explained cheerfully.

He raised a brow. “Oh, aye?”

“Aye.” I mimicked him, pointing my thumb towards the food vendor behind me. “My empty stomach demands it.”

He looked across and smiled. “How about I buy ye one for Christmas then, eh?”

I held my hand over my heart and said. “You sure know how to treat a lady, Jamie Fraser.”

“I always aim to please, lass.”

Ignoring the undertone (because there was one and I had to), I led the way and waited patiently to the side as he ordered us both some food. As he did, I found myself watching him. It seemed rather inevitable that I would start noticing differences between him and Frank.

Frank was careful, changeable, so straight and narrow. Everything had to be by the book. Plans were always meticulously made. There could never be a deviation unless it mattered to him. Whereas Jamie was…exciting. Spontaneous. And strong. And generous. And kind.

He turned back to me then and handed me one of the rolls with a smile. I looked down, finding charred peppers spread over the bratwurst instead of the usual fried onions.

Jamie caught me staring and chuckled. “Ye dinna like fried onions.”

I narrowed my eyes. “How do you know that?”

“Ye said it to Jenny.” Jamie stated, stepping away to begin walking along the path towards where the live band was playing. “Ye think that I was no’ listening, Sassenach.”

I stared at him for a second before I hurried to catch up. “You have a good memory. What else do you remember from…when was it? Two weeks ago?”

“I remember a lot of things about ye, Claire.”

Oh! Bloody hell! You need to stop saying those things to me, lad.

I felt something warm and fuzzy squeeze my heart.

“So, why did you come after me?”

“Dinnae want ye walking home alone, Sassenach.” He shrugged, demolishing his bratwurst in two bites. He owl-blinked and said, “Who kens where ye’d end up.”

I glared at him. “I’m all grown up, you know. I can walk myself home and everything.”

“I ken that. In truth, I wanted to talk to ye about somethin’.”

“About what?”

We had drawn level with the small stage. The band were quite good, and I couldn’t help swaying and bopping my head along to the music as I waited for Jamie to speak.

“Dance wit’ me.”

I paused, my half-eaten bratwurst all but forgotten as I stared up at him.

“Was that your question?”

He chuckled and shook his head. “No’ quite. Tis more like a prelude to my question, actually.”

I stared back and forth between him and the band. “But there’s not a dancefloor…”

“We can just sway where we stand.”

I swallowed. I was torn. On the one hand, the thought of being in Jamie’s arms was everything I could have wanted and wished for in that moment. But on the other hand…

“Okay. But can I ask you a question first?”

He smiled a little taking a step closer. “Aye.”

“It’s a little personal. I don’t want you to feel like you have to answer it, if you don’t want to.”

He gave me a pointed look. “Just ask me yer wee question, Sassenach.”

“Well, it’s…it’s about Laoghaire.”

Jamie nodded. “What about her?”

“Well, I’m just wondering who she is.”

“Laoghaire is my assistant.” He said after a pause. “And she’s been a friend before that.”

“But has she ever been anything…more?”

“In what way?”

The words came tumbling out of my mouth before I could stop them. “It’s…it’s just that she straight out told me that you were together the first time I met her. And then, at the hospital, she accused you of two-timing her. With me. She just seems a little threatened…”

“I’m no’ hers.” I could hear the thrum of anger in his voice. “I never was.”

“Does she know that?”

“She does.”

I took a bite of my food and chewed on it thoughtfully for a moment. “Are you sure?”

He sighed, his anger evaporating. “Ye dinna need to be worrit about her, Claire.” He said gently, closing the distance between us so that he could gently cup my cheek with one of his large hands. He smiled as his thumb brushed lightly across my cheekbone. “No’ as long as I’m with ye.”

I peered up at him and licked my suddenly dry lips. “And when you’re not?”

Only vaguely aware that the band had started to play ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, my breath stilled in my throat as Jamie pressed his other hand to the small of my back to gently pull me closer. The hand at my cheek slid down my arm, his fingers wrapping around my own before bringing our joined hands to rest between us. Whispering something in Gaelic, he bent his head to press his cheek against my temple. Then, as promised, we began to sway.

I was swaying on the banks of the River Ness with Jamie and his arm was around me and it shouldn’t be. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea where any of this was going.

Except that I did.

And I didn’t want it to stop.

I didn’t want this little bubble of ours to burst.

After a minute, I asked, “What’s your question, Jamie.”

He lifted his head so that he could look down at me. “Hmmm?”

I smiled as his eyes dropped to my mouth, the blue darkening to that of a clear night sky. It would have been the easiest thing to do; to lean up, to breathe him in, to press my lips softly against his…

“What did you want to ask me?”

“Oh. That.” He sighed, somehow pulling me closer still. “I ken that ye are working up till Christmas, but what are yer plans for New Year?”

“Why do you want to know?”

His grip around my fingers tightened. “I was just thinkin’ ye could come stay at Lallybroch. I’d love to be able to show ye a real Scottish Hogmanay, Sassenach.”

I was so close to saying yes. So close to denying that I had any plans and that I would spend any and every Hogmanay with him for as long as he asked.

But I couldn’t.

“That sounds wonderful. But Frank wants us to go back to Oxford after Boxing Day so…”

I felt him tense and I inwardly cursed. “Frank will be back?”

Unable to meet his eye, I stared blindly into the lapel of his coat instead. “He is. He’s coming home on Christmas Eve.”

For the briefest second, Jamie and I stopped moving.

I couldn’t breathe. I desperately wanted to take it back. To tell him that it was a lie, that Frank wasn’t ever coming back from Boston...

“Ye’ll be pleased to see him after all this time.” Jamie said darkly, loosening his grip. But I clung to his hand, unable to let go of him just yet.

I whispered into his coat. “Jamie…could we not talk about him. At least, not until the song finishes.” For a second, I didn’t think that he would agree. But with a shuddering sigh that ghosted like a lover’s touch across the loose curls behind my ear, he pulled me to him as before.

But the moment couldn’t last forever.

And as the song ended, our bubble didn’t so much burst as quietly evaporate. He walked me the rest of the way to my front door, our conversation stilted and unnatural for the first time since we had met. I had no idea how to make it right again. How to pull us back from the brink of this sudden abyss.

He kissed me on the cheek before saying goodbye, barely smiling as I joked that he would have to buy me another coffee. Then I watched him disappear off into the darkness, shoulders hunched as though he was trying to protect himself against the world.

Leaving me to face an almost impossible choice.

 

~~~~~

 

It was the heavenly aroma of freshly baked bread that pulled me out of my blessed slumber.

I cracked open my eyes, squinting into the blinding light that floated all around me.

“Am I dead?”

“I don’t think so, darling.”

I blinked. Gasped. Blinked again.

Frank was sitting on the bed beside me, smiling down at me.

“I reckon you are going to have one hell of a hangover though,” he said, nodding his chin at the cup of tea precariously placed on the pile of unread books that acted as my bedside table. “I’ve made you some tea. You were out like a light when I got home.”

“You’re here?” I sat up as quickly as I could, staring at him in disbelief. “When did you get here?”

“Early this morning.” His smiled widened. “I thought I’d surprise you.”

Frank was in Scotland. When he should have been in Boston for another few days on some conference or other. And yet, there he was. As though he had never been away.

He looked well. His usually pale face was lightly tanned, his hazel eyes bright. He’d let his hair grow out a little and the sun had bleached the dark brown a shade lighter. It suited him. It seemed that Boston had suited him.

“But…”

“Are you not pleased to see me, darling?”

“Of course.” I laughed, wrapping my arms around me. “I’m just…surprised.”

He took a deep breath of my hair and chuckled. “That’s good. How about you take a shower and come down for some breakfast. I have something I want to talk to you about.”

I remembered another man asking of me the same thing. But I couldn’t be drawn into that right now. So, I nodded as Frank patted me on the arm and bounced off the bed.

“Don’t take too long, darling. And don’t forget to drink your tea. Eggs on toast okay for you?”

I watched him hurry out of the room and slowly laid back down. Frank was here. After all these months, after all the longing and the worry and the fears, Frank was finally here.

I should have felt happier about that then I did.

As I lay, contemplating every one of my choices, I took a quick assessment of my hangover. As I expected, my head was pounding at roughly the same rate as my stomach. My throat ached. My entire body ached. And I was becoming grossly aware that I needed to brush my teeth. With a heaving sigh, I rolled out of the bed and shuffled into the bathroom, refusing to look at the mirror.

One hot shower later, I had changed into simple jeans and a jumper before making my way into the kitchen. Frank had set the table (something I never did while he was away) and he looked up from his paper as I slid into the seat beside his.

“How are you feeling, darling?”

I smiled, taking a bite of my lightly buttered toast. “Better. But I still think that my eyebrows are the only things that don’t hurt.”

Frank chuckled. “Who did you go out with?”

“Geillis.”

He rolled his eyes in that way he reserved just for Geillis. “I should have known.”

I glanced at my phone, quietly charging on the kitchen counter beside the kettle. “I should probably let her know I’m still alive…”

“Can that wait, Claire.” Frank asked, neatly folding his newspaper to reach for his tea. “There is something I want to discuss with you before we head over to Castle Leoch.”

I stared at him blankly. “Why are we going to Castle Leoch?”

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to pop in, seeing as we are heading over to Reggie’s for a spot of lunch. It’s on the way after all.”

“It is? We are?”

Frank patted my knee in sympathy. “Poor love. We discussed it remember…the last time we spoke.”

I recalled it all perfectly well, thank you. “I know that. But that was after Boxing Day.”

“Well, plans change, darling. After all, we won’t be able to go and see him as we originally planned.”

I could feel my hackles rise. “Why not, Frank?”

“That’s what I wanted to discuss,” he turned in his seat to face me, gently taking my hand in his. “I’ve been offered a job, Claire.”

“But you already have a job,” I countered, rather fearing I knew where this was going. “It’s back in Oxford.”

He took a deep breath. “I know. But the university in Boston has offered me tenure.”

I stared at him, feeling an odd detachment. “Have you accepted it?”

He shook his head and I felt a vague sense of relief. “I asked to give them my decision after the New Year. And I thought it would be good for you to see Boston for yourself. So, I’ve booked us flights for us to spend the week after Christmas exploring the city. I can even show you where we’ll get to live.”

My confusion over the matter was not clearing up. “But…what about Scotland, Frank?”

“Oh! We can come back one day.” He dismissed my question with a wave of his hand. “Claire, darling. This is going to be the start of a great life for me. For us. You’ll love it there, darling. I can’t wait to show you the house that comes with the position. It’s what they call a brownstone and…”

But I wasn’t listening. I was breathing so hard that I couldn’t hear him over the crescendo in my ears.

He was planning our life together without me. Again.

“And our wedding?” I snapped, unable to find my calm. “What about our wedding, Frank? And my job?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “I thought that you could stay here, just until the wedding, and then you can transfer your medical training over to the hospital in Boston.”

I felt my eye twitch. He had been thinking about it, the bloody bastard. “But that won’t be for another five months.”

“You’ll barely notice the time.”

I bloody well thought that I would.

“Look, Frank. I don’t really want to-”

“Don’t worry about anything right now, Claire. Just wait until we get to Boston. And until then, lets enjoy Scotland and Christmas together. Now, finish your breakfast and then get your boots on…perhaps put some lipstick on to brighten up your paleness. I said we’d be with Reggie by twelve.”

He returned to reading his paper and left me sitting there, staring at the top of his head in quiet astonishment.

Chapter Text

I felt lost.

Adrift.

Just as before, I felt as though I was standing upon an island surrounded by nothing but the endless grey sea. Watching on in quiet stillness as the water rapidly rose to cover me and pull me under.

What had I told myself all those months ago? That I had not built this ship to see it go to wreck.

I wanted that to still be true. I wanted to believe that I could still brace myself against the tide.

But in truth, I wasn’t at all sure I had any strength left in me.

And had I known the fallout of the next twelve hours, of the accusations and the counteraccusations, I might have reconsidered right there and then. But that’s the funny thing about hindsight. There’s no chance of seeing oblivion before it is upon you.

 

~~~~~

 

Something has crawled into my mouth and died.

Reading the text from Geillis, I had to smile. It was a small break in my deepening misery. I was currently waiting for Frank to gather his research papers together, idly rolling my phone about my fingers. Pleased to have a distraction, I quickly typed a reply:

Did you have a good night?

Oh, aye. Most pleasurable. How are ye feeling? I ken Jamie saw ye home safe.

Jamie.

The mere thought of him began a slideshow of images from the night before: a gentle touch at my waist, the tips of his ears flushed pink, his smile as he brushed his thumb across my cheek, his blue eyes darkening to a starless sky, the want to lean up and kiss him…

The heart stopping, gut-wrenching guilt.

I barely had time to give him my number before the wee fox was rushing out to follow ye. I kent ye would be in no state to text me once ye got home. Did ye invite him in?

It was probably best that I rip the plaster off my friend’s excitement before she got herself carried away.

Frank’s home.

I stared at those two words and felt the unease creep up my spine. Frank’s. Home. It should have made me feel excited. Happy. Relieved. It certainly shouldn’t have left me feeling as though I was being tossed into the breech.

Shite…

How I’d gotten to this point was beyond me. The heady days of Oxford seemed like a lifetime ago, when I had been so sure of him and of us. When our happiness and our future all seemed to be assured. All the dreams that I had wanted to share with Frank were still within my grasp, but I couldn’t reach out for fear that they would all dissolve into dust at my touch.

Suddenly Boston felt like the enemy.

“Are you ready, darling?”

I looked up to see Frank waiting for me by the door. I nodded, putting my phone into my jeans pocket as I allowed him to lead the way out to the car. It took less than an hour to reach Castle Leoch but as we hadn’t made an appointment (something Frank had insisted wouldn’t be needed) there was no-one to greet us. Grumbling under his breath about expectations, Frank had to contend with a brief glance over the wall at the garden (frost tipped hedges were not what he had come to see) before we were back in the car and heading through Cransmuir.

Frank remained quiet. His silence was fine as it allowed for the dull ache of my hangover to go unprovoked. I glanced at him a few times, watching his face tighten as his eyes watched the road. Had he always been such a sulk? I couldn’t quite remember…

“According to Reg, his house was built at the turn of the twentieth century.”

I merely nodded absently as he swung the car through the narrow iron gates that marked the entrance less than five minutes later. The manse of the now retired Reverend Reginald Wakefield was only a short distance from Leoch, sat in the middle of a row of bungalows and partially hidden behind an enormous leylandii hedge. It was a rambling pile of grey stone and white sash windows, topped with ugly twisted brick chimneys; not exactly architecturally magnificent but certainly not lacking in charm.

As Frank parked the car, the front door opened and a grey-haired, short, plump man stepped out. He was smiling broadly and was wearing a rather bright tinsel-woven Christmas jumper over green corduroys. I couldn’t help but like him on the spot. He laughed jovially as we climbed out of the car, shaking both mine and Frank’s hands in greeting.

“Come. Come.” He said, ushering us inside, his Scottish lilt softer than I was used to hearing in the Highlands. “Let’s get you two by the fire while I ask Fiona to fetch us a wee pot of tea.”

After our coats were hung and the bell for tea rung, I quietly followed the nattering pair down a long, narrow hallway that led to the study. Floor-to-ceiling windows allowed the dull grey December light to flood into the room, highlighting the wide desk, tall bookshelves, and large corkboard bedecked with various pieces of paper.

“Tis a pleasure to meet you at last, Claire.” Reg Wakefield said as he directed me to sit in one of the worn high-backed leather chairs closest to the roaring fire. “Frank has spoken of ye fondly.”

I smiled sweetly. “As he has you. You have a very comfortable home, Reverend Wakefield.”

“Reg, please.” He corrected, flushing with pride. “It has been mine for nigh on forty-years, even though I’ve been retired these past five. The new vicar had no need for the place, so the diocese let me stay on. I suspect the council will buy it once I’m gone and turn it into a retirement home or some such.”

“Frank tells me you are something of a keen amateur historian.”

“Oh aye. I’m descended from vicars and curates – with the occasional bookseller thrown in for variety, hence why there are books everywhere.” - he pointed to the corkboard – “But I like to draw too. The Black Kirk, up near Leoch, is one of my favourites.”

My gaze traversed the elegantly drawn sketches of various places until I spotted it. The ruins of the Black Kirk stared back at me, perfectly detailed in delicate sweeping lines of charcoal and chalk. I felt my heart squeeze as I recalled sitting upon the low wall, listening to Jamie tell me the story of the Laird of Leoch and the doomed lovers…

I didn’t know why but I briefly thought of Uncle Lamb. He had been pleased enough with Frank, happy that I was happy. But the last time I saw him, the week before he died, he had called me into his study, much like this one. He was standing by his desk, putting together his notes on a lecture he was due to give at the British Museum. He shuffled the papers together and looked up at me as I entered the room. “I’ve been thinking, dearest.” He said as I sat down on the chintz chaise-lounge that faced the window. “About what is going to happen to you.”

“Why? Am I going somewhere?” I teased, trying to keep my tone light. We both knew time was running against us. “Don’t forget that I have reservations for dinner with Frank later.”

Lamb sighed and came to sit down beside me. Gently, he took my hands in his ink-stained ones and said, “There is something that my mother always said to me, just as she did your father. You must hold on to your heart, dearest. Keep it as safe as you can until you are sure. And don’t feel that you need to give it away until then.’

I’d had no idea what he had meant at the time. But now I thought I did. Now, as the fluttering around my heart grew stronger, I thought I understood perfectly.

And I had no idea why I wasn’t screaming.

“Claire, did I ever tell you that Reg and I met at a local historical societies AGM?” Frank was now saying, leaving Reg to move documents and maps from off the side table in readiness for the arrival of our tea. “He can trace his ancestry back to the ’45 and we got to talking. He has a rather impressive array of first-hands resources.”

“Mostly journals and the such,” Reg continued, nodding his head towards the basket-hilted broadsword, dirk, and musket mounted on the wall above the fireplace. “And the occasional wee artefact passed down.”

I stared up at the pieces just as the door to the study opened and a young woman walked in, carrying a tray laden with refreshments. Efficiently and in very little time, she had poured the tea into three delicate china cups, had handed us each one along with a homemade biscuit, and had ducked back out of the room with barely a smile and a murmured, “Lunch will ready in twenty minutes.”

“So, Claire, tell me more about your work. You are a surgeon, are you not?”

I nodded. “Well, I hope to be.”

“And will it be easy to transfer to Boston when you move there in the New Year?”

I paused, the china cup burning my bottom lip as I held it there. Moving to Boston when? I stared over at Frank, noticing his stoic expression. Slowly I lowered the cup and said as calmly as I could, “Frank and I haven’t really discussed anything about Boston yet.”

“I’m taking Claire to see Boston after Christmas,” Frank said, biting down on his biscuit. “I’m hoping she’ll love it as much as I do.”

“Oh?” Reggie took a sip of his tea, oblivious to the growing tension. “I thought it was a done deal. Tenure at such a prestigious university is quite exciting, is it no’? I’m sure you’ll like the lifestyle, Claire. Frank has been telling me all about the city and where you are going to live. And the house is close enough to the hospital-”

“Did you manage to find that source I was asking you about?” Frank interjected, immediately distracting Reg from saying anything more. They both glanced at me nervously. “The one about Jonathon Wolverton Randall?”

The rest of their conversation fell away. I sat motionless, whether in a state of shock, denial, or upmost rage, I really couldn’t be sure. I suspected that it might have been all three. My mind was circling around everything Frank and I had ever discussed about Boston, trying to pull out specific moments, words, full fucking sentences, that would remind me that this was all okay. That I must have simply missed something. Or misunderstood. Or had been terribly, horribly misinformed.

But there was nothing.

I blinked, realising that Reg had stood and was mumbling to himself as he sought through a pile of papers and books over the other side of the room. Bless Reg. I honestly didn’t think he had realised quite what he had said, or at least implied. Because there had been no ifs or maybes.

Seeing as I had no intention of making a scene, I leaned closer to Frank in order to keep my voice low. To anyone looking over at us, they would be forgiven into thinking I was about to affectionally kiss his cheek when in fact, it was all quite the opposite.

“I thought the plan was to wait until after the wedding, Frank.” I hissed into his ear.

“Of course it is.” Frank hissed back, his top lip twitching slightly. It was one of his tells; the bastard was lying to me. “I told you that I wasn’t going to make the decision until the New Year.”

You’re going to make the decision? Just you? Nothing I say or want will make a difference?”

He sighed. “Obviously I meant us. Do stop twisting my words, Claire.”

“That’s the trouble, darling. I’m not twisting anything and we both know that.”

Frank fidgeted in his chair, pulling at the collar of his jumper. “Now is not the time to discuss this, Claire. It can wait until we get home.”

But I was quite determined. “I asked you once if being married to me was what you wanted, Frank. Is it still? Because I can’t keep up this fucking charade if you’re lying to me.”

He shot me a look of warning, saying with exasperation. “There really is no need-”

“Just answer the question, Frank.”

“What do you want from me, Claire.” He snapped, turning to me abruptly. “I agreed to the bloody date, didn’t I?”

He wasn’t simply driving me away now; he’d bloody handed me the sodding keys. Seething, I was forced to not spit vitriol back at him by the sudden reappearance of Reg behind our chairs, carrying a stack of books.

“It’s all rather interesting,” he was saying as he handed the stack to Frank. “Your ancestor may well turn out to something of an insidious wee rascal.”

Unexpectedly, I needed to get away from Frank. I needed time to think. I needed to be alone.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured, standing abruptly. “I think I need to get some air.”

“Are ye okay, Claire?” Reg asked, worried. He glanced back and forth between Frank and I. “Should I ask Fiona to fetch you some water?”

I shook my head, already retreating. I couldn’t even look at Frank. I knew he was watching me warily, his own anger still bubbling away beneath his calm exterior. “Please don’t trouble her. I just feel a bit of a headache coming on. Perhaps the fresh air will help to clear it.”

“Shall I postpone lunch? We could take a turn up to the kirk together, before the weather changes. It’s really not far…”

“Thank you but…I just need…” I didn’t finish the sentence because I was already in the hall, my coat clutched in my trembling hands, and was heading out of the door, Reg’s bewildered voice trailing after me.

 

~~~~~

 

There was a storm brewing.

I paid it no real heed. I had flown from the house and had started out along the footpath, not caring which direction it took me. I had no idea how far I’d walked, merely keeping the snow-capped hills ahead of me. The woodland behind the house gave way to fields and still I trudged on, barely aware of my surroundings. Or of the rapidly decreasing temperature.

All that kept turning over in my head was the hurt. And the anger. And the contempt.

My phone pinged twice; the sound was shrill enough to penetrate the fog of my quiet anger. It would be another mile of muddy field before I felt quite able to check on who the messages were from.

One was from Frank: Claire. I think we should talk about what just happened. Please come back to the house. I don’t want you to get caught up in the rain.

I’m not ready yet, Frank.

The other was from an unknown number: I felt that ye should ken that Jamie and I have sorted things out and are together. We are stronger than before ye tried to tear us apart. Ye will no longer be able to sink yer poisonous claws into him, I promise ye. Go back to yer own fiancé, you Sassenach whore.

What the fuck? How the hell did Laoghaire get my number?

Something snapped.

It was as though I was dissolving on the spot.

I stumbled in the clawing mud. The air grew heavy. The hills rose up ahead, drawing in and mocking me to tear them down with nothing but my bare hands. Something electric singed through my blood. I felt as though I was bleeding from wounds I couldn’t see. Out of sheer anger and frustration, I threw my phone and screamed up into the sky. The clouds gathered above me, a mass of darkness that threatened to come crashing down. The first specs of sleet clashed with my own hot tears. I stood with my face turned up into the sky, willing everything and everyone to just stop.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think.

“SASSENACH!”

I could hear the voice call out from beneath the storm. That or I was slowly losing my mind.

Someone squelched in the mud behind me. Then I could no longer feel the water upon my heated skin. I was barely aware of being sheltered beneath the warmth of a coat, an arm around my shoulders pressing me forwards. Urgent, worried words were being whispered into my ear, as warm lips were pressed to my chilled temple.

I was bundled up into a blanket and practically lifted into the passenger seat of an incredibly warm SUV.

“Christ! Yer hands are like ice, mo ghràdh.”

I started shivering.

“Claire.” Warm hands were brushing back my hair from my face, tilting it back so that he could see me clearly. No doubt checking for any obvious injuries. “What were yer doing out there, Sassenach?”

“Walking.” I murmured, shaking my head. “Just…walking.”

He expression softened. “Oh, mo chridhe. Why?”

“I needed time to think. I didn’t realise…”

“Aye. The storms roll on quick in the Highlands. Thank Christ I saw ye.”

I blinked, awareness slowly washing over me. Jamie was sat behind the wheel, his whole body turned towards me. His eyes were searching mine; relief, fear, confusion all vying for dominance in the blue storm.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him, my brain still befuddled from the cold.

He smiled. “Remember that I told ye my uncle Dougal took me in as a lad?” – I nodded - “Weel, I still do the odd job for him when he is away. I was out checking the lower fences when I heard a scream. I dinna think I’ve ever moved so fast, Sassenach.”

I looked away so that he couldn’t see the flush to my cheeks. “Sorry about that. But thank you all the same.”

“There’s nothin’ tae thank me for. Funny thing was that I was trying to call ye when I looked up.”

I peered out of the window and helplessly said, “I threw my phone away.”

“Aye. Nearly trod it into the mud.” Jamie said, motioning to where my phone was perched upon the dashboard, slowly drying out. “I dinnae think its too damaged. What did ye need to think about?”

“Frank.”

“Oh?”

“He came home early. And he’s asked me to move to Boston with him.”

A terribly deafening silence filled the space between us. The same as it always did whenever I mentioned Frank.

“So yer’ll be leavin’ then.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know…”

“Can I ask why?”

I couldn’t raise my gaze for fear that he would be able to see straight through me. So I said nothing. “Why did you want to call me?”

He shifted in his seat to adjust the heaters. I wondered, given that the warmth within the car was perfect, if he did so as a nervous distraction. “I wanted tae see how yer head was after yesterday. If it was up for dealing with a slightly cholic new-born, I was hoping to invite ye over for dinner. I’ve offered to give Jenny and Ian a night off so it would just be the two of us.”

I frowned. Just him and me? I was back to being confused about his relationship again. Unless… “My head is fine. But your girlfriend might want to speak to someone about that is going on in hers. I know a few people that might be able to help her.”

He stilled. “What are ye talking about, lass?”

Why was he being so evasive?

I grabbed my phone, swiping the screens until I found her message. I held it up to his face and practically snarled, “Why on earth did you give her my number?”

Jamie read the message. Frowned. Gently took the phone from me and read the message several more times, swearing under his breath. “Iffrin. What is she about?”

“I have no idea.”

Shaking his head, he offered the phone back to me. “I did no’ give her yer number, Claire. Ye must believe me. Christ!” – he ran his hands through his damp hair, causing the curls to spring forth in all directions. “I’ll talk to her…set her straight.”

“She’s made it all perfectly clear,” I said scathingly, snatching the phone from his grasp.

Nothin’ is perfectly clear, Claire.” He tried to take hold of my hands, but I firmly placed them in my lap. He sighed before continuing, “She is no’ who I want to be with. And I’ve struggled wit’ what I feel for ye because yer no free. But if ye would be willing, then perhaps ye and I can-”

“Why bother, Jamie.” I hadn’t wanted to pick a fight with Jamie, but I didn’t feel like I had any control of what I was saying. “If Laoghaire is who you want to be with, then I don’t really know why we keep doing this…whatever this is.”

He tried for my hands again. “Sassenach. Will ye no’ stop and listen…”

But I wasn’t listening. “Why keep on making me want you when I’m not who you want?”

“Ye’ve got some nerve.” He retaliated, eyes blazing with sudden fury. I blinked in surprise. “Is that no’ what ye’ve been doing these last two months?”

I stared up at him incredulously. "Excuse me?"

"Have ye no' done the same to me, Sassenach. Made me want ye when there was no chance to have ye."

I spluttered, “You’re not actually in a position to take the moral high ground here.”

“Ye ken that it’s never goin’ tae work between ye and Frank.”

“It will!” I said, suddenly defiant. I hated to hear it, but my voice was beginning to tremble.

“No, it won’t,” he said. “That is no more real than ye and I are.”

“You don’t know what you are talking about,” I replied, witheringly. “What Frank and I have…well, I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”

“Oh! I understand all right, Sassenach. I understand that he abandoned ye to go to Boston and it made ye miserable. But ye still forgave him. He made ye doubt yerself constantly. But ye still forgave him. He keeps pulling the rug out for under ye and ye just keep goin’ back to him. Do ye ken how hard it has been to stand aside and watch ye do that, Claire? What’s going to be different after ye walk down the aisle?”

I didn’t answer at first as I needed time to think. But really, my answer should have been easy. “It will be different,” I said fiercely, as if saying it with enough vehemence would somehow make it true. “He’ll be different.”

“That’s bollocks,” Jamie spluttered.

I glared at him mutinously.

“What’s bollocks is you making a judgement on my relationship when you’re far from perfect yourself,” I scowled. Oh, he’s not turning this around on me. Even if he was bloody right.

He leaned forward until our noses were practically touching. “I dinnae ken how ye can be the smartest person I’ve met and also the daftest,” Jamie snapped. “Do ye think he is going to make ye happy? That yer goin’ to be able to be happy wit’ him?”

I stared at him blankly for a moment - then it was as though something icy trickled down my spine. “I’ll make sure we are happy.”

He laughed unkindly. “Ye ken what I think, Sassenach...I think he makes ye miserable and yer happy to let him.”

I deflated under his words. Feeling chastised and in desperate need to lick my wounds, I bent my head so that I wouldn’t have to look at him. I watched him out of the corner of my eye as he put the SUV into gear and began to drive along the dirt-track. The sleet had given way to rain, the sound as thunderous upon the roof of the car as my beat of my heart within my ears.

After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Jamie quietly asked, “Tell me where ye walked from, Claire, and I’ll take ye back there.”

Just as quietly, I gave him directions to the best of my memory. Thankfully he knew where the manse was, driving through the gates less than ten minutes later. I didn’t want to get out of the car. My heart was screaming at me to apologise, to beg him to forgive me for picking the fight. But it was as though the air had frozen in my throat and I couldn’t say anything. Jamie was slipping away from me and I could do nothing to stop him.

We sat in the car for what felt like an eternity.

“Jamie…I…”

He didn’t look at me as he said, “Weel, there’s no use in waiting. I must part wit’ ye now. Ye best get yerself back to Frank because there is nothin’ for ye in here.”

My heart splintered. What had just happened? Slowly, I climbed out of the car, unravelling the blanket from around me to place on the seat in my absence. As I closed the door, I heard him say, “Goodbye, Sassenach,” before he quickly drove away.

I had no idea how long I stood there, watching the gate as though I expected him to drive back through them. The rain pelted down upon me, soaking through every layer. What had I said? What the hell had made me act that way towards Jamie? It was as though I had lashed out at him because I was too afraid to lash out at Frank. To not confront him because I was afraid of what I would lose.

And had I not just lost Jamie along the way?

I checked my phone, half-expecting, half-hoping…

But it was dark and silent. It remained dark and silent as I trudged to the front door of the manse. It still made no noise as Frank opened the door, flooding me in warm light.

Perhaps Jamie was right. Perhaps I could only be happy if I was miserable. Perhaps marrying Frank wouldn’t make me feel as miserable as I felt now. Resolved, I stood straighter so that I could look him directly in the eye.

I needed the conversation that was to follow to be on my terms.

Calmly, I said, “Frank, I think you know what I am going to say.”

His eyes narrowed. “Who was that man, Claire?”

I shook my head. “I’m not going to discuss that with you now. I want to know why you want to marry me.”

He sighed. “We’ve been through this, Claire.”

“Then we’re going to go through it again,” I insisted. “I need to hear it from you, right here and now. Why do you want to marry me, Frank?”

“Because I love you.”

“Is that enough?”

“It was this morning…”

“I’m not sure that it was,” I scoffed. “But you were too caught up in your own needs. Just like you always are. And I don’t know if being married to me will change that.”

He folded his arms defensively. “What do you want me to say, Claire?”

I took a deep breath. “I want you to be truthful when I ask you to be. I don’t want to always question whether you are lying to me or not. I want any and every decision that effects our future to be made together. I want our marriage to be equal. But what I want most of all is to hear you say that you wont just try, you’ll make sure.”

“If this is about Boston-”

“It is. But it’s also about the way you tend to bulldoze me,” – he opened his mouth to object, but I held up my hand to stop him – “You do, Frank. And I’m tired of it. So, I’ll ask you again. Why do you want to marry me?”

He took his time to answer me. But that was okay because I was willing to wait. Finally, he realised a weary breath and stepped towards me. “I want to marry you because I do I love you and because I want to share my life with you, as equals. You make my life better by just being in it. Whether that is in Boston, or Scotland, or back in Oxford.”

“And you won’t lie to me again? Because if you do, Frank, I’ll divorce you for everything that you have.”

He laughed, expecting me to be joking. But it soon died away when he realised that I wasn’t laughing with him. That I was completely serious.

“I won’t lie to you again,” he conceded.

My stomach clenched. “Alright then. We’ll get married. But not in April. If you can arrange it, I would prefer to get it done before we leave for Boston.”

“Whatever for?”

“Because it’s my decision, Frank. Just like it was yours to accept the position in Boston. Which I assume you have done.”

He paled considerably but nodded his head, stepping to one side to allow me to brush past him.

As I entered the warmth of the manse, I supposed that I had won that round.

And for the first time in a long while, I felt completely alone.

Chapter Text

Geillis Duncan knew a little something about love.

She knew about loves contradictions. Of the raging feelings that often made no sense, that were flawed and tricky. Even sometimes denied altogether.

She also knew about loves confirmations. Of feeling the warmth and respect and affection that wonderfully tumbled the heart and stomach over and over. Of the spark between souls.

For Geillis, love was exquisite ecstasy to deepest despair. It couldn’t be controlled or demanded or taken away. It was what is was going to be.

She’d been through it all time and time again.

So when Claire Beauchamp appeared the morning after her fiancé had returned from Boston, Geillis really wasn’t surprised. For if there was ever a woman who was spiralling to gain control of feelings she still refused to even acknowledge, she was standing on her doorstep with a bag of food and a hopeful smile.

 

~~~~~

 

Day One

 

“What are ye doing here, hen?” Geillis asked, stepping aside to let Claire into her home. “I thought ye’d be wit’ yer man now he’s back.”

Claire shrugged as she handed her the bag. “Jetlag. It’s caught up with him so he’s sleeping it off.”

Leading the way into the kitchen, Geillis thought that Claire was the one that needed sleep. Normally pale, she practically looked transparent that morning, her features drawn with dark circles under her tawny eyes. She even held herself differently; shoulders slumped as though something was weighing her down.

Concerned, Geillis asked, “Are ye okay, hen? Ye look like yer about to fall down and stay down.”

“I’m fine,” came the curt reply. “There’s just a couple of things I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Alright.” Geillis, having gathered cutlery and plates, pulled out two stools from beneath the kitchen island and motioned for Claire to take one. “What’s on yer mind.”

But Claire didn’t sit down.  Instead, she began to nervously pace the kitchen. There was a moment of quiet as Geillis platted up the food, took her own seat and waited. Finally, and with a shaky breath, Claire stilled and said, “It’s about Frank. We’re getting married.”

Geillis smiled into her salmon and cream cheese bagel. “I ken that already, hen. I’m yer Best Woman, remember.”

Claire blinked but did not smile back. “I know. But the thing is…the wedding isn’t going to be in April anymore.”

Desperate to ask if it was because she’d finally seen sense, Geillis bit her tongue and asked, “Why no’?”

Another shuddering breath. “Because it’s now on the twenty-third.” – Claire swallowed – “Of December.”

“Next year?”

“No. This year.”

Geillis frowned. “But that’s in…three days, is it no’?”

Claire nodded, her gaze shifting from one spot on the wall behind Geillis’ head to another. “Frank made the appointment first thing. Seems that there was a last-minute cancellation at the Registrars so...”

The bagel was slowly returned to the plate. “I dinna understand-”

“Frank has been offered tenure with Boston university and he has asked me to go with him. I agreed but only if we got married before the New Year. I don’t want to get married in Boston.”

“Okay. But just when exactly are ye going to America?”

“After the wedding. Frank is going to show me where we will be living.”

Geillis’ confusion was rapidly giving way to incomprehension. “But yer coming back again, right?”

Infuriatingly, Claire shrugged. “I’m heading into the hospital early this afternoon to see about transferring. I can just as easily complete my surgical training in Boston as I can in Inverness.”

Taking a deep, steading breath, Geillis purposefully pushed the second stool towards her friend. Pointing at it, she said firmly, “Sit yer arse down and start from the verra beginning, Beauchamp.”

“But I’ve just told you the situation” she replied, reluctantly perching on the edge of the stool. "I don't know what else there is to say."

Geillis nodded. “Aye. I do. What about Jamie?”

Her brow furrowed as she took one of the paper napkins that had come with breakfast from off the island counter. “What about him?”

“Weel, two days ago ye were all heart-eyes for him, and now yer telling me Frank is yer one and only. Forgive me for feelin’ a wee bit confused, hen.’

“I've always wanted to be married to Frank.’

“Aye. Ye have. But that was before Jamie.”

Claire began shredding the napkin. “It’s always been that way.”

Christ! She was so good at being cagey. “Don’t pull that bullshit wit' me, Beauchamp. I was there, remember.”

She sighed. “You don’t understand.”

“Maybe. But ye’ve gone on and on these past months about how ye feel Frank does no’ tell ye the truth and here ye sit, doing the same thing. So, I’m goin’ tae need ye to explain it all to me in words that'll make sense, Claire.”

A heavy silence fell over the kitchen. Geillis stared at the top of her friends bowed head and willed her to finally speak what was so plainly in her heart. When she still refused, Geillis took a deep breath and said a little more kindly than before, “If Frank is who ye want, then I'll go along and say no more. But yer gonna need to give me yer reasons, hen.”

Her friend sighed in resignation.

“Frank...we've been together for a long time. We met through my uncle; he was one of his History students. I liked Frank. He didn’t exactly sweep me off my feet, but he was polite and attentive. And when Lamb died, Frank was there. He held my hand. Kept me on my feet. It’s always been Frank and Claire. Claire and Frank. We've never really been apart. I’ve always been content to build a life around us both. I was when he proposed, and I still am now. We can be happy together.”

“Being grateful to someone is no’ lovin’ them, Claire.”

She shook her head. “Of course I love Frank. I always have.”

“And Jamie?”

Claire's head jerked up angrily. “Why do you keep asking about him? He doesn’t matter in any of this.”

Oh, judging by those high spots of colour on yer cheeks, I rather think he does, hen.

“Does he no’?”

“No!”

Raising a pointed eyebrow, Geillis couldn't resist asking, “Then why are ye getting annoyed?”

“Because he doesn’t want me!” Claire practically shouted, tears brimming in frustration. “I saw him yesterday and he doesn’t want me. So what would be the point in pretending otherwise.”

Geillis frowned. None of this was making any sense to her. She had seen the way Jamie looked at her friend. There was no way that he did not want her.

“And Jamie told ye that? In those exact words?”

Claire’s shoulders slowly slumped further down. Suddenly, she looked small. Defeated. Broken.

“More or less.”

“But…?”

“It doesn’t matter anymore, Geillis.” Claire whispered, a single tear tracking down her pale cheek. “Jamie…I need to move on. And Frank is my choice. So, will you still be there on the twenty-third when I marry him?”

Realising her friends anguish, and swallowing any further retort or argument, Geillis leaned over to wipe the tear away before wrapping her friend tightly up in her arms. “Tis all alright, Claire. Dinna fash. I’ll be there, just as I promised.”

 

~~~~~

 

Day Two

 

Three days before Christmas seemed the perfect time to try to find a wedding dress.

“Tis utter madness out there,” Geillis observed, moving away from the window of the Department Store where she had been standing for the past few minutes, silently watching on and judging. “I dinna think I’ve ever seen so many cars or people out in such dreich weather.”

“Last minute shoppers, I suppose,” Claire replied, her voice muffled from behind the screen of the changing cubicle. “It’s been a nightmare all week.”

Geillis grimaced and sat herself back down in one of the plush armchairs set up in the corner of the room. She was taking her role as Best Woman seriously, even if she didn’t understand anything. She wasn’t ashamed to admit it, but she had come perilously close to phoning the wee fox himself yesterday evening to demand to hear his version of events. To make up her own mind about what had, or had not, been said. And then beg him to do whatever he needed to stop this fiasco from getting any worse.

To stop ripping Claire’s heart out.

But to do that would have violated Claire’s trust in her. And if her friend had no wish to discuss the two of them in any detail, then Geillis had no right to intrude upon it just to quell her own curiosity.

Even if it was eating her up inside.

“Right, I think this might be the one.” Claire said, pushing aside the screen to step into the side room where Geillis was waiting. “What do you think?”

Despite the sadness that hung over her like a cloud, Claire looked stunning.

She was wearing a simple vintage 1950’s tea length ivory dress with a matching capped sleeve jacket, the only embellishment being a slim beaded belt that encircled her waist. Her eyes were bright with excitement as she swished the skirt from side to side.

It was elegant. Classy. The perfect dress for Mrs Claire Randall.

With a watery smile, Geillis rose from her chair to stand behind Claire before the mirror. “The dress is beautiful, hen.” She said, brushing the satin of the jacket gently with her fingers. “Ye look dazzling.”

“Thank you.”

Geillis grinned, catching Claire’s eye in their reflection. It struck her then, how similar they both were when it came to making choices. How frightening similar they were. She doubted that what she was going to say next would change anything, but perhaps now would be the time to speak it.

“Did I ever tell ye about Dougal and my first husband, Claire?”

Shaking her head, Claire eagerly turned to face her.

Folding her arms, Geillis leaning her hip against the chair and said, “Weel, I had just started working in one of the wee tearooms in Cranesmuir when he walked in one rainy Saturday morning. Christ, it was like all the air was pushed out of the lungs the moment I saw him. He was ten years my senior; twenty-eight and perfect. Somehow, he noticed me and for a few years, we were inseparable. I honestly believed we would get marrit one day.

But the Mackenzie's are a brutal bunch, all about tradition and status. The golden son could no’ be marrit to a wee guttersnipe with no family or money. But he could be marrit to Maura Grant. She was beautiful; tall, graceful, came from a respectable family. They got engaged but Dougal did no’ tell me that himself. I had to hear it from Ellen. She was the only one of that family who ever cared if I was okay.”

Claire nodded her understanding. “What happened after you found out?”

“Chaos. I should have walked away. Kept my heid held high. My reputation would have remained intact.” – Geillis laughed cynically – “Not that any of those things matter tae a twenty-year old with a broken heart, ye ken. I got mad. Showed up tae the engagement party at Castle Leoch and caused the biggest scene that I could. Screamed out my sorrow and anger. Accused Dougal of all sorts of things.

It was Ellen and Mrs Fitz who pulled me away. Gently cleaned me up and softly advised me to leave Cranesmuir, just for a little while and only until things blew over. I kent them to be right but it was a hard thing to swallow. But I left and moved to Glasgow. That was when I met Arthur Duncan.”

“Was he a good man?”

Geillis unfolded her arms and began to play with an imaginary loose thread on the upholstery of the chair. “Arthur was the best. He picked me up. Championed everything that I did. Loved me somethin’ fierce.”

“Did you love him?”

“No. At least no’ in the way he deserved. I thought it would spite Dougal tae get marrit but it made me bitter. It ruined my marriage before it even started. All because I chose the wrong man.”

Claire raised a sceptical brow, but Geillis shook her head. She had wanted to share her story with Claire, had wanted there to be this connection between them. And it didn’t sadden her to tell it, only reminded her of her own regret.

She would be damned if she would allow Claire to go through the same without at least knowing.

“My story tis no moral compass for ye.” She assured her, patting her arm. “I only mean for ye tae understand that I ken of the struggle between heart and head. I had a good man, but I wanted the one that would happily crush me into the dirt. All I’m sayin’ is that ye still have a chance tae choose the right one. Ye just need tae be brave.”  

Claire’s chin wobbled and not for the first time, her eyes were drawn to her feet. As though yer gonna find any of yer answers down there, hen. “What if I’m not brave, Geillis? What if I can’t swallow my pride?”

Geillis shrugged, stood and gently pushed Claire back in the direction of the changing cubicle. “Then ye sleep in the bed that ye made. And ye make the best of it while ye can.”

Claire paused. “Thank you, Geillis. For telling me.”

“Tis no bother, Now, go change. Ye gotta be in work in a few hours and we’ve still got to find ye shoes yet.

 

~~~~~

 

Day Three

 

It was ten at night and Geillis could no longer feel her face.

Her suggestion of heading out to a bar the night before the wedding had been a completely sensible idea when she had been sober. Now, with less than twelve before Claire was due to say ‘I do’, Geillis was feeling the effects of a full bottle of whiskey somewhere behind her eyes. Claire, on the other hand, had remained quite sensible about the whole thing and was still only nursing her third bottle of cider.

“Yer so full of hot air, Beauchamp.”

“I bloody well am not,” Claire retorted, rolling her eyes. “It’s not my fault that I prefer the second film over the first.”

Geillis narrowed bleary eyes and growled, “I dinna ken how we can stay friends after this!”

“Well then, I guess it’s a good job I’m moving three thousand miles away,” Claire said flippantly, taking a swig from the bottle. “It’ll be harder for you to miss me.”

“Christ! Dinna talk about it!” Geillis cried, reaching out for her friends hand. “I am gonna miss yer stupid face sooo much, Beauchamp.”

“Thank you. I think…”

Geillis grinned, her thoughts suddenly jumping to the hospital. “We should text Joe. Let him ken that his sacrifice of an evening at home to take yer shift was most gratefully received.”

She grabbed her phone and opened the camera, spending an extraordinary amount of time angling it to get the right shot. After taking a ridiculous number of photographs, Geillis finally settled on one and forwarded it on to Joe Abernathy, a rather brilliant American surgeon who had come to work at the hospital the month before. “There. Now he’ll be most pleased.”

“I thought about messaging him.”

Geillis frowned a little. “Who? Joe? No need, hen. I just did.”

“Not Joe. Jamie.”

Geillis sat up a little straighter in her chair. It was the first time she’d heard Claire say his name in days.

“And did ye?”

Claire shook her head. Geillis’ heart fell.

“I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t…pull him back in to all this mess. Therefore, I have concluded that I'm the creator of my own misery.”

Geillis scoffed and said, “I could have told ye that, hen. So, what would ye have said to Jamie, had ye no’ bottled it?”

Claire poked out her tongue. “I don’t know. Sorry? That I didn’t mean it? Will you choose me after all?”

Geillis’ heart squeezed. “Why no’ tell him all of that?”

“Frank.”

Growling in frustration, Geillis threw up her hands and said, “Ye really are gonna have tae explain yer attraction to Frank ‘probably keeps his socks on during sex’ Randall, cos I just dinna get it.”

“I didn’t know we’d ever discussed mine and Franks sex life,” Claire laughed as Geillis pulled a face.

“And, God willing, we never do, lass.”  

Claire seemed then to decide upon something.

“Alright. There is something I do want to say instead. Do you remember that I told you that my uncle had introduced Frank and I?” – Geillis nodded – “Well, a few weeks before he died, Lamb told me not to give my heart away until I was sure. And I promised him that I was. Perhaps it’s stupid, but if I don’t marry Frank tomorrow, it’ll feel like I’ve somehow gone back on that promise.”

“No’ if ye did no’ give yer heart away in the first place.”

Claire scrunched her nose and continued. “I didn’t want anything to change. Any cracks in my relationship with Frank were easily hidden beneath denial. That is would all be easier that way.”

“Easier for who?”

“Me, I think. When Frank left me here to go to Boston because that was what he wanted, I was pissed but it was just another crack to fill in. Just as moving here had been another crack. But those cracks were becoming harder to ignore because Frank wasn’t here. I just kept feeling more disappointed but powerless to do anything about it.”

She smiled then, so utterly sweetly that it damn near broke Geillis’ heart.

“But then along came Jamie. He was different. A gust of fresh air into a stale room. Suddenly, there were these new feelings churning up and all I could do was see them as a threat. Because he was going to have me face into the reality that is Frank. And I didn’t want to do that, Geillis. I didn’t want to be proven wrong. Jamie was right there, and I pushed him away.”

Her tawny gaze suddenly floundered and Geillis could see the tears forming.

“Why did I do that?”

Staggering to her feet, Geillis moved around the table to that she could sit beside Claire. She wrapped an arm around her shoulders and said, ‘Ye'll have to tell me what happened first, hen.”

Claire thought for a moment. “It’s all a blur,” she whispered. “I was so mad at Frank, so flustered and confused about Boston. And bloody Laoghaire had sent me this shitty text message. I just…Jamie found me, somehow. I think he tried to tell me something that I wanted to hear. But I didn’t. So, I screamed at him instead of screaming at Frank.”

“Why did ye no' scream at Frank after? I doubt anyone would have blamed ye, lass.”

She stared off to one side for a moment, her eyes darting back and forth as she tried to come up with an answer. ‘Because I've always let him win. I’ve never been good with confronting him. It's always just been easier to let him get his way.’

‘I dinnae think that’s easy, hen.’

‘Is it not?’

“No. It takes a lot from ye, tae always be the one to let things go. To no’ get mad at the small things. But ye’ll need to. There’s no point bottlin’ it all in all of the time.”

She sighed wearily. “I just...don’t want to be alone anymore.”

Affronted, Geillis poked her shoulder hard. “But ye were no' alone, ye wee ridiculous besom. And heaven ken’s that marryin' Frank will no' change that.”

Outraged, Claire poked her back as she said, “Jamie said much the same thing.”

“That’s because us Scots are a clever people, while ye English are just daft. And ye, Claire Beauchamp, have to be one of the most stubborn people I’ve ever met.”

She nodded her head in agreement. “Not the first time I’ve been told that. What if I don’t want to marry Frank?”

“Then don't, hen,” she said simply.

“I don't think I can do that.”

“That’s just yer pride getting in the way.”

Claire sighed. Blinked back tears. “How am I going to get through tomorrow, Geillis?”

Geillis’ eyes softened. “With yer head held high. And if ye need to do a runner, I'll keep the cab waitin’.”

 

~~~~~

 

The morning of the wedding of Claire Beauchamp and Frank Randall broke clear.

Geillis stood beside her kitchen sink, slowly sipping a glass of water and staring out of the window at the blue sky, deep in thought.

There was still time.

Decision made, she grabbed her phone and hastily typed:

Jamie. It’s Geillis. I dinna want to say how ye feel or what yer thinking, and if I’m wrong then I’ll live wit’ it. But if ye care about Claire, even just a little, could ye make today the day ye reach out?

His response arrived almost immediately.

What’s wrong? Is she okay?

Yes and no. She is…complicated.

That she is.

A second message followed almost straight off the back of the first.

Do ye think she’ll talk to me? I miss her.

Geillis heart and stomach clenched.

Weel, wee fox. Ye’ll never ken unless ye try.

And with that, Geillis resolved to let it be. She glanced at the oven clock and sighed. Guess it’s time to get Reg and get this day over with.

Chapter Text

It’s funny, the things he remembered.

The moments that were vividly etched into his memory.

The sound of the harvest-ready wheat, a golden sea that rustled in the summer breeze as he playfully hid from his brother and sister. The smoky smell of the peat burning in the fireplaces of Lallybroch, sinking into the very fabric of the home. The first taste of his father’s ten-year oak cask whisky upon his tongue, the liquid burning the back of his throat. The feather light touch of his mother’s kiss to his forehead as she sent him off to his first day of school, smiling proudly.

The exact moment he set eyes on Claire Beauchamp for the very first time.

That memory wasn’t so much etched as scorched into his very soul.

 

~~~~~

 

Jamie was silently cursing his uncle for landing him in Raigmore.

It had all been because of a charity shinty match.

The annual event between Mackenzie Brewery and Campbell Haulage raised funds for several local charities. It was a hard-fought for game and with the seconds ticking down on the final minute, Jamie had made a mad dash for the goal when he had collided with Dougal. His own momentum carried him over his uncles back and, foolishly, Jamie put his hand out in a vain attempt to break his fall.

He was pretty sure he’d passed out from the pain for a minute.

Thankfully, the hospital was only five minutes away and before he’d known it, his dislocated shoulder was being x-rayed and a wee nurse was insisting upon giving him a load of painkillers. And as he sat upon the bed, keeping his head bent low and clutching his right shoulder, he knew that they were having absolutely no effect on his pain.

Or his increasingly foul mood.

“James Fraser?”    

Through the haze, Jamie heard the crisp rustle of the curtain being pulled back into place and then the clipped English voice of the doctor as she asked if she could examine him. He was only vaguely aware of her presence; the faint scent of something floral beneath the sterile smell of the hospital, the gentle touch of her hands upon his heated skin (shielded as they were by her blue gloves), the sound of her soft and reassuring voice as she rotated his shoulder.

Which suddenly gave a soft crunching pop! As the joint was forced back in place.

“It doesna hurt anymore!”

She smiled. “It will. The muscle will be sore for the next few days, so you must keep your arm in a sling until the pain settles.”

“Will I need tae stay here overnight?”

“No. But I will need to send you back up to X-ray to check that the joint is in the correct position. Once that’s done and I’ve seen it, you should be able to go home later today.”

“Shame…”

As she tied off the sling and adjusted it to fit more comfortably, Jamie glanced at her properly for the first time. He felt his heart flutter. His throat went dry. His palms started to prickle with sweat.

Ah dhia . She was beautiful.

She had dark curls that were piled up in a messy bun, with a few that had come loose to frame her face. Her face…clear alabaster skin that had the lustre of pearls, glistening from the exertion of her work. Warm and friendly golden-brown eyes that instantly called to mind the finest whisky.

Then she laughed and he was convinced that the sound was an adrenalin shot straight into his heart. 

“If you like the hospital that much, Mr Fraser, then you are in for a treat. You’ll have to come back in a few days for a follow-up appointment and you may be referred to physiotherapy to help strengthen your shoulder. You are not quite out of the woods yet.”

Jamie slid off the bed and had to stop himself from reaching out to her. Easy man! She does no’ ken ye.

“Thank ye for yer kind touch, Doctor Beauchamp.”

“Think nothing of it, Mr Fraser.”

She smiled up at him and it was as though the sun had come out on a cloudy day.

Just slightly dizzy from the breadth of those sudden feelings, Jamie followed behind as she led the way back to the hospital reception, keeping his gaze fixed on the curls. He tried to stop his eyes dropping down to watch the sway of her hips beneath the blue scrubs. To not notice the way the material hugged the gentle slope and curve of her arse.

He really did try.

But judging by the knowing smirk Geillis Duncan was giving him, Jamie had failed quite miserably.

 

~~~~~

 

A few days later, Jamie was back.

He had an appointment for a check-up on his shoulder but Jamie, hoping that it would be with the alluring Doctor Beauchamp, was sorely disappointed when he was shown into the room of a surly consultant. Given a clean bill of health and sent on his way, he had nonchalantly swung by the Emergency Department reception on the off chance that she would be there instead. Geillis, eyeing him suspiciously from behind the desk, explained that Doctor Beauchamp was on a much-deserved day off.

Disheartened, he had retreated to his favourite café and settled in for an afternoon of work on the distillery before his late meeting with the Highlands Council. The Broch Mordha project meant that there were always business cases to go over, architect plans to discuss and approve, permits to be applied for, contractors to be found…

Thank god Laoghaire was helping to keep it all together.

One of the many Business Support Assistants working for Mackenzie Brewery, Laoghaire had been seconded over to Broch Mordha at Dougal’s request as one of the main financial investors in the project. And despite their shared past (and that one disastrous date), Jamie had to admit that she was efficient and had taken on some of the more tedious aspects of the project with enthusiasm.

Even if she was occasionally a little weird around him. And some of the women he had worked with.  

In need of coffee, Jamie left his table to join the queue that stretched along the counter, still surprised that the tearoom was busier than normal. The door opened behind him, bringing in a blast of wet October air. He cast a disinterested glance over his shoulder and stilled.

It was her.

Head bowed, her face partly hidden behind a curtain of curls darkened further by the rain, she was rummaging through her bag and muttering under her breath. Jamie didn’t know which Saint he needed to thank, but he would gladly praise them all for the fact that she was here.  

Tis now or never, Fraser!

“Doctor Beauchamp?”

“Yes?”

Unperturbed by her curt reply, Jamie held out his hand. “James Fraser.” – Shite! She didn’t recognise him – “Ye healed my shoulder last week…”

With a smile, she took his offered hand and it was all he could do not to gasp out loud; her skin was as cool and as soft as he had supposed. “Of course. Sports injury, if I recall. I do hope you haven’t been misusing it in any way?”

Jamie shook his head. “No. I went back, as ye advised, and the consultant said that I’d need nae further treatment.” – Stop grinning like a loon, man – “Ye did a good enough job at the start.”

From somewhere deep within the bag, she produced a pretty floral-patterned reusable mug. “Well, that’s good news. Probably best to stay away from any contact sport for a while yet, Mr Fraser.”

“Jamie.” He corrected automatically. “Perhaps I could buy yer drink, just tae say thanks for the healing of my wounds?”

“You don’t need to do that.”

“Aye! I would like to.”

“That is really very kind of, Mr Fraser, but-”

Christ. She was a stubborn wee thing.

He stood still, watching the confliction of accepting his offer flitter across her face. He was about to try a different tack, convince her that it would save time if they just ordered their drinks together, when she suddenly handed her mug over to him.

“I’d like a cup of the three-mint tea, please. Thank you, Jamie.”

His triumph gave way to elation when she agreed to sit with him, when she told him to call her Claire, when she happily and easily chatted. Elation became heartbreak when she mentioned a fiancé, which turned into concern when she admitted to doubts, her whisky eyes brimming with tears.

Mo ghraidh. I’d hope to never make ye cry, or doubt. Ye’d always ken ye were wanted and needed…

“…But I dinnae think ye should go into a marriage with any doubts. Or if ye feel inferior.”

Jamie had known the second the words passed his lips that he had spoken wrongly. Claire’s expression clouded, high spots of colour appearing on her cheeks as her eyes flashed in fury. She looked about ready to tell him as such when the buzzing of her phone distracted her, giving Jamie time to quickly think of something that would bring them back to the quiet comfort of their earlier conversation.  

“I’m sorry but I have to go. Look, thank you for the drink but you really don’t know a thing about me. Or about Frank.”

With an internal whimper, Jamie stood with her. “I’m sorry, Claire. Please dinnae go like this.”

“I hope that you enjoy the rest of your day, Mr Fraser.”

His hand reached out to somehow stop her, head spinning from how quickly it had all deteriorated. This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t.

He was only dimly aware that Claire had left her mug on the table. With shaking fingers, he grasped it to him as though it was a lifeline thrown in the eye of a storm.

If it somehow brought her back to him, perhaps it was.

 

~~~~~

 

He was the sorriest sorry person that there ever was.

It had been four days and Jamie had yet to find peace. Ian had suggested that he show up at the hospital and wait her out (“She’s already angry wit’ ye,” he had chuckled as they sat in the pub on Friday night. “Ye cannae make it much worse.”) while Jenny, after shouting at him for being a bear with a sore head, thought that he should take himself out from under her feet and just go for a walk. Then, perhaps, the answer would present itself and he could stop moping. After all, that had always worked for their mother.

That was why Jamie found himself at the ruins of the Black Kirk that Saturday morning, sitting underneath the narrow west window, hoping that the spirit of Ellen Fraser would tell him what to do.

Instead, he had headbutted his Sassenach and very nearly broken her nose.

Och, I hear ye loud and clear, Ma!

Desperate to get to her to see if she was alright, Jamie ran back around the ruins and hurried through the gate, wincing at the sound of the protesting rusted hinges. A second later, he was kneeling before her, his heart thumping loudly in his chest.

“Christ, Sassenach! Are ye badly hurt?”

“I think I’ve broken my nose.”

As gently as he could, he pulled her hand away and smiled when he realised that there was no blood streaming down her face. “Nae, ye haven’t. If it were broken, it would have made a crunching noise and ye’d be bleeding like a pig.”  

“Are you secretly a doctor then, Fraser?”

Jamie’s smile widened. “No. But I’ve seen a lot of broken noses. Tis no’ even swelling, Sassenach.”

“I don’t suppose you saw what hit me?”

“I’m afraid that would be me. I was sittin’ down for a wee moment when I heard somethin’. Sae I stood up tae investigate and…”

“How does your head feel, by the way?”

“Doesnae hurt. My sister always said tis as solid as a brick.”

“Well, my nose can certainly attest to that.”

Smiling, he sat beside her on the low wall where, for the next hour at least, Jamie wondered if he was floating on air.

In each other’s company, they created a bubble around them. He told her about the Lover’s Curse whilst she assured him that she had taken no offence to him calling her Sassenach. To be honest, her Englishness was one of the things that he found captivating about her. They spoke of her wedding (something he hadn’t particularly been interested in), discovered that they had more common interests than not, and had importantly established that they had moved on from being casual acquaintances.  

The whole time they talked, Jamie couldn’t stop staring at her, fascinated by the way her glass face constantly gave her away. His stomach flipped when she smiled. His heart fluttered about in his chest when she laughed. He felt this odd euphoric high just from being in her presence.

Not even the fact that Laoghaire kept calling him on her day off distracted him from her side.

By now, there would be no sense in denying it. Jamie Fraser was completely under Claire Beauchamp’s spell and was happy to be there.

 

~~~~~

 

The first person he had thought to call in all the frantic panic was Claire.

After seeing Jenny safely to the hospital, and assured that Ian was not about to lose his mind, Jamie picked up his phone to call. But when she didn’t answer, he felt the world press in on him.

What if something happened to Jenny? Or the bairn? Or them both?

Christ. He needed Claire.

His Sassenach was at his side within fifteen minutes of her calling him back, armed with coffee and a sense of immediate calm. She had stayed as he waited for news, holding his hand and keeping him from spiralling into the darkness of anxiety, grief and fear. Jamie spoke freely about his mother, telling Claire his favourite stories of his childhood, knowing within his heart that his Ma would have loved her. He spoke briefly of his father and brother, wishing and hoping that he would be able to introduce them one day. Jamie had felt more at peace in those blessed few minutes alone with Claire than he had in a very long time.

The appearance of Laoghaire, blustering and crying as though it was her own sister in emergency surgery, called to mind a conversation he’d had with Jenny the morning of the town meeting.

Jenny lowered herself down into one of the kitchen chairs and sighed in relief. “Tis grand to be off my feet.”

“Is the bairn givin’ ye trouble?”

“No. But my wee swollen ankles are. I tell ye, I cannae wait for this bairn to be born, Jamie.”

Jamie chuckled. “Is there anything that ye need?”

“Aye. I need to talk to ye about yer assistant.”

“Laoghaire?” he asked, confused. “Why?”

“Do ye no’ think her a little…intense, brother?”

“In what way?”

Jenny released a slow breath and said, “Ye ken the way she looks at ye, right? And the way she talks about ye to other people? Mary’s been up from the village to tell me that Laoghaire’s been on about ye two getting back together. I thought ye only went on the one date…?”

“We did. And it was a disaster.”

“Aye. So, ye dinnae think that the two of ye working together is confusing the lass?”

“What are ye sayin’, Jenny?”

“Only that I think ye need to be careful, brother. There is somethin’ no’ right about her and the things she is sayin’.”   

With a deep weary sigh, Jamie nodded. “I ken. I’ll talk to her.”

“Ye’d better, brother. And do so before she causes ye, or anyone ye love, a load of pain.”

“Ah dhia!”

“This is all so terrible. I came as soon as I could.”

“Ye dinna have to, Laoghaire. Ye should have stayed in the office.”

“I could no’ do that, Jamie. I wanted to be here for you. When Murtagh said ye’d come to the hospital to be with Jenny, I was just so worrit. There was no way I could keep working after that.”

Claire attempt to tug her hand from his but he tightened his grip. He needed her to remain close; he felt brave and strong and sure of himself when he held her hand.

“Tis nothin’ to be fashed about. After all, I was no’ alone.”

Jamie watched Laoghaire’s expression freeze, flicker with something akin to annoyance and then settle with a tight smile. He’d seen her do that before but never so openly, as though she couldn’t reign her emotions in this time.

It worried him that it was directed at Claire.

But before he could think more on it, Ian appeared with the good news. And with a whoop of laughter, Jamie leaped forward and practically lifted his brother-in-law off the ground as he hugged him.

“Are they both well?” Jamie rapidly asked in Gaelic. “There is nothing more to worry about?”

“No, brother. Everything went well. Jenny was brilliant and my son is canny and braw.”

“And Jenny is fine?”

Ian squeezed his arms and nodded. “She is. Exhausted and perfect and so excited for ye to meet yer nephew.”

“I cannae wait. Do ye think she’ll mind if I bring Claire in wit’ me?”

Ian laughed. “No. She’s already asked after ye both, figuring ye would have called her-”

“I’m so sorry.” Claire suddenly interrupted, gently clutching at Jamie’s sleeve to gain his attention. He immediately turned to her, fully accepting that his heart must have been clear on his face. Uncaring and unwilling to stop and think it through, Jamie wrapped his arms tightly around his Sassenach in unreserved happiness.

The hug lasted no more than the stretch of a heartbeat. But it was enough for his senses to be flooded by her. To feel the weight of her in her arms. The press of the sweet lines of her body against him.  

When she pulled away, the loss of her left his arms empty. “Are ye alright, Sassenach?”

To his dismay, he saw her flinch at his term of endearment before she quickly covered her reaction with a bright smile. “I’m sorry to interrupt but I have to go. Congratulations to both you and Jenny.”

“Will ye no’ come and meet the wee lad?” Ian asked, gesturing back to the ward. “I ken Jenny will be thrilled to see ye, lass.”

“I would love to, but I have to go and prep for surgery. Please do send her my very best and let her know I’ll try to pop back later, if I can.” – she turned then to Jamie – “Congratulations, Uncle. I’m glad it all turned out well in the end.”

“Thank ye, Claire.”

As she walked away, he wondered if something had been said between Claire and Laoghaire. He’d noticed the high colour in his Sassenach’s cheeks, the tightness around her mouth that was a sign of her simmering annoyance. Glancing at Laoghaire, he caught her smirk of triumph. Needing to know and more mindful of what Jenny had said, Jamie shot after Claire, catching her elbow before she was barely out of the room.

“Did something happen with Laoghaire, Claire?”

“Nothing. But you should probably have a talk with her, Jamie.”

“I’m talking to ye.”

She smiled sweetly before her lips pressed firmly against his cheek.

If Jamie hadn’t already been so sure that he was in love with Claire Beauchamp, he would have known it for certain in that moment.

 

~~~~~

 

“Dance wit’ me.”

It had been an honest request, one born from a desperate need to hold Claire close to him.

She had been pulling away from him more and more over the past few days. Jamie wasn’t sure as to what had happened, knowing enough about his Sassenach to understand that, if he tried to push her on it, she would retreat further. It broke his heart to see her become so drawn and fragile, so lost and afraid.

He was sure it was all the fault of the bastard fiancé.

When Jamie had walked into the bar earlier that night, he hadn’t been surprised to find his gaze immediately drawn to her. She was sitting with Geillis, a sequined Santa hat perched at a jaunty angle upon her curls, her cheeks flushed with laughter. He had wanted to go straight to her, to reveal in her presence and her joy, but he needed to show his face first.

He was there for a Christmas gathering with some of the team that he worked with at Mackenzie Brewery. His was a consultancy job mostly, allowing him the freedom to still help with the running of Lallybroch and to project manage Broch Mordha. He did the odd job for Dougal here and there on the Leoch estate; which reminded him that he would need to inspect the boundary fences as soon as possible.     

But all thoughts of work were wiped from his mind when he offered to buy a round of drinks, making a beeline for where Claire was sitting and discovering a delightfully drunk Sassenach. Preferring to be with Claire rather than sit next to a slightly tipsy and handsy Laoghaire, Jamie made a promise to be right back.

Ignoring Laoghaire’s sulking pout when he explained his intention, Jamie grabbed his coat and turned in time to see his Sassenach wrestle her way through the crowd towards the door. Worried, he made to follow but found his path blocked by Geillis Duncan.

“Are ye goin’ after her then?”

“One of us has to.”

“Now, now, wee fox,” Geillis bristled, poking a napkin into his chest. “The lass is her own woman. But as ye are prepared to be the gallant one, I’m goin’ tae need ye to get her home safe and let me ken. She is far too drunk to remember that herself.”

He opened the napkin to find a number hastily scrawled across the middle. With a curt nod, he pocketed it and went after his heart.  

“Okay. But can I ask you a question first?”

“Aye.”

“It’s a little personal. I don’t want you to feel like you have to answer it, if you don’t want to.”

“Just ask me yer wee question, Sassenach.”

Jamie felt his world tilt as she asked him about his relationship with Laoghaire. Not that he had one beyond professional, but he grew increasingly alarmed that Claire thought otherwise. And that Laoghaire had fuelled her confusion.

“Ye dinna need to be worrit about her, Claire. No’ as long as I’m with ye.”

“And when you’re not?”

He pulled her close and held her, feeling as though he could breathe clearly for the first time. He would give all this and heaven too to keep them this way. Jamie bent his head to press his cheek to her temple, whispering, “Tha gaol agam ort, Sorcha.”

He meant it with every fibre of his being. And he was going to tell her the truth of it. Bare his very soul to her and be damned of the consequences. He would give her the choice to chose him and if she didn’t…well, he would respect that. He just had to hope that he would not fall upon his knees and beg her to stay with him.

“What’s your question, Jamie?”

“Hmmm?”

“What did you want to ask me?”

“Oh. That. I ken that ye are working up till Christmas, but what are yer plans for New Year?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“I was just thinkin’ ye could come stay at Lallybroch. I’d love to be able to show ye a real Scottish Hogmanay, Sassenach.”

He had every intention of telling her all his heart then.

“That sounds wonderful. But Frank wants us to go back to Oxford after Boxing Day so…”

Iffrin!

Jamie’s heart spluttered. He feared that he may have already missed his chance.

 

~~~~~

 

Jamie could not think of a time when he had ever been so angry.

Angry with Claire. Angry with himself. Angry with Laoghaire for putting them all in this situation.

He knew he needed to deal with the situation once and for all. That was why he’d had the tech team go through Laoghaire’s work phone and had been speaking with the company lawyer, Ned Gowen, to find a suitable resolution. He had no desire to see her punished, but she needed to atone for what she had done.

Hence why he was sat in his office in the stables of Castle Leoch three days after he had last seen Claire, silently stewing in his own misery as he idly scrolled through their shared messages on his phone.

Yer mug misses ye.

Is this Jamie?

Do ye get told that a lot, Sassenach? How often do ye leave yer mug behind?

Only by hard-headed Scots. And you’d be surprised…

Tis a terrible way to treat it, ye ken.

Then you had better give it back to me so that I can leave it some place else.

 

The mug and I are on our way.

I really, really appreciate you coming to Inverness, Jamie. Still meeting at Time for Tea at 12?

Lookin’ forward to it.

 

Sorry – got called into surgery. You can just drop it off at the hospital if you like?

I dinnae think so.

Why ever not?

Tis too…impersonal. I’d be worrit it would never get to ye. How about Wednesday afternoon?

 

I cannae make it, Sassenach…some emergency in the office. Should be free for dinner though?

No worries. Make it tomorrow and you have a deal. I’ve got a monster 18-hour shift so will need food!

 

Sassenach?

Claire?

Text me back as soon as ye get this message, lass.

 

I’m so sorry, Jamie. I’ve just woken up on the sofa…I didn’t think I was that tired. Forgive me for missing dinner?

Forgiven. I’m just glad yer alright.

 

As Jamie read the messages, he caught his breath. Seeing those words again, hearing Claire’s voice in his head, it was as though he was right back in those moments.

 

Ye ken, yer mug has been on the window ledge for sae long that I’ve started to put flowers in it.

You’ve turned it into a vase? That’s…rude. I’m going to need proof that it’s okay.

[Picture] See. It looks so happy there.

Haha. You are a monster, James Fraser.

 

Jamie. What are you doing up so early?

Was going to ask ye the same question, lass. Were ye working?

No. I just can’t sleep. What’s your excuse?

Same.

Why?

Just wondering if everything is about to come crashing down around my ears.

Well, I can certainly see why that would keep anyone awake. Want to talk about it?

 

Do you need some moral support? Because I could come to the meeting, if you like. I have the day off and I’ve no plans.

It starts at eleven at the mill. And if it’s moral support ye come with, Sassenach, the least I can offer in return is a wee bite to eat afterwards.

We’ll see. But I’ll talk to you later, Jamie.

Don’t forget to bring my mug!

 

And suddenly there was a lump in his throat.

Christ! He missed her. Like a sharp stab to his heart, his last words to her echoed about his head.

“Weel, there’s no use in waiting. I must part wit’ ye now. Ye best get yerself back to Frank because there is nothin’ for ye in here.”

He had been so mad at her for being stubborn, angered by her refusal to see her own unhappiness. Jealousy. Guilt. Confusion. Each one had whirled up inside of him like a hurricane. He’d said more than he meant. And now…now he didn’t know how to bridge the chasm.

All he did know for sure was that he needed to sort out this mess with Laoghaire before he could place his heart and soul squarely in Claire’s hands.

“Knock, knock!” Ned’s head appeared around the door suddenly. “Mrs Fitz and Miss Mackenzie are on their way.”

The situation turned out to be worse than he had thought.

Laoghaire sat opposite him and Ned, impatiently drumming her nails upon the table. Mrs Fitz reached over and placed her hand upon hers, immediately quietening her. She shot her a look, but the older woman shook her head in warning.

“Do you ken why ye are here, Miss Mackenzie?” Ned asked, pulling a pile of papers out of a non-descript brown folder.

She shrugged. “I dinna ken why.”

“It is over the matter of certain texts and emails ye have sent in the last seven months, ever since ye started working for James Fraser.”

Her blue eyes narrowed. “What texts and emails?”

“The ones ye sent from yer work phone, Miss Mackenzie. To several woman, all of which warn them to stay away from Mr Fraser. And, although I am most certain that ye thought ye’d erased them all, the tech team managed to recover each one. I have a copy of them here, if ye have any doubts.”

The smile waned. Her eyes widened in disbelief. For the first time since she walked into the room, Laoghaire looked at Jamie; her steady blue gaze was laced with malice and scorn.

Quite calmly she said, “We are meant to be together, Jamie. Ye ken that as well as I.”

A cold shudder went down Jamie’s spine. The print outs had exposed a litany of texts and emails to any woman that Laoghaire had considered showing an interest in him. Most were innocuous but there were a few that were threatening and preposterous, full of lies or wild imaginings. There were others to friends, full of escalating falsehoods about her relationship with Jamie; that he loved her and wanted to be with her.

The lawyer sighed. “The matter is quite simple, Miss Mackenzie. If ye wish to continue working for Mackenzie Brewery, ye will be required to complete a series of meetings with a counsellor. During that time and after it, ye are not to contact either Mr James Fraser or Doctor Claire Beauchamp, or any of their family. If ye do no’ agree to this condition, Mackenzie Brewery will terminate yer contract and Mr Fraser will gain a restraining order against ye. Tis in yer best interests, Miss Mackenzie, to accept this offer and have the matter dealt wit’.”

Laoghaire went quiet, her left eye twitching.

“Why are ye doing this to us, Jamie? I thought ye loved me.”

“I’m no’ doing anything, Laoghaire. I just want ye to get better.”

She stared at him for a second. Then she suddenly stood, picked up her glass of water and hauled the contents into Jamie’s face, shrieking as she did. “Ye are a complete bastard, James Fraser! Ye and that Sassenach bitch deserve each other.”

And with that, she stormed from the room.

For a second, no one else moved. Then, Mrs Fitz leaned forward in her chair to offer Jamie a handkerchief.

“I’m verra sorry, Mrs Fitz.” Jamie said, gratefully accepting the small piece of cloth to wipe his face. “I ken she is yer granddaughter but-”

But Mrs Fitz shook her head. “Och. Say no more, laddie. She’s always been a troubled wee thing. I’m just ashamed that it had to come to this. I’ll go after her and get her back, make sure she signs whatever ye need, Mr Gowen.”

She followed behind her granddaughter, leaving him and a chuckling Ned Gowen to sort out the paperwork.

“Tis never a dull moment,” Ned observed with a wide smile as he clicked his pen. “Especially when there is a Fraser involved.”

 

~~~~~

 

The twenty-third of December dawned clear.

Jamie felt lighter than he had in days. He had gone for a long run around the Lallybroch estate, answered a few emails, and finally cut down one of the furs behind the house to drag into the living room for Jenny to decorate.

Today was going to be the day he tried to reconnect with Claire.

He just needed to figure out where to start.

His phone pinged with a message as he was sat on the living room floor attemting to untangle the lights for the tree. Seriously. How did they always get this way…?  

Jamie. It’s Geillis. I dinna want to say how ye feel or what yer thinking, and if I’m wrong then I’ll live wit’ it. But if ye care about Claire, even just a little, could ye make today the day ye reach out?

He was on his feet, to the surprise of Jenny and Ian, before he’d finished typing his reply.

What’s wrong? Is she okay?

Yes and no. She is…complicated.

Jamie swallowed down his fear. Perhaps, considering that she had contacted him, Geillis would be willing to help him out a little.

That she is.

Do ye think she’ll talk to me? I miss her.

He held his breath, waiting for her to reply.

Weel, wee fox. Ye’ll never ken unless ye try.

What the hell did that mean?

“Ye okay, Jamie?” Ian asked from his seat by the fire where he had been sorting through the baubles. “Ye look well fashed wit’ something.”

“Tis Claire…” was all Jamie said, looking down at his phone in confusion.

“Is she okay?” Jenny queried, coming over to stand at his elbow so that she could peer at his phone. “Has she got in touch?”

“No’ quite…”

Jenny rolled her eyes. “Either she has, or she has no’, ye dafty. Perhaps ye need to be the one to take the first step.”

“Aye. But what do I say?”

“Speak from yer heart, Jamie. She’ll ken the truth of yer words then.”

With bated breath, he opened his messages and typed:

Sassenach

Jamie.

Relief crashed into his chest. He’d been so afraid that she would not reply to him, that the words they had both spoken had pushed the other too far. But she was there, and she was willing to talk. Yet with each constrained response from her, Jamie grew more and more anxious that there was something he didn’t know. Something that she was keeping from him.

It was more than he could stand.

Forgive me, Sassenach. Forgive me and meet me for a coffee. Anywhere ye like.

I can’t.

Please. I was sore and said more that I meant. Please, Claire…

You don’t understand, Jamie.

What? What don’t I understand?

When her next message came through, someone might as well have walked through the door and punched him repeatedly in the stomach. It was a picture of Claire. She was standing before a mirror, allowing him to see the white dress, the tamed curls that framed her pale, tear-stained face, and the small bouquet of pale-yellow roses that hung limply at her side.

His heart stopped beating and would not start again until he heard it from her.

But she wouldn’t accept his call.

So he frantically started sending her texts:

No!

Don’t do this, Sassenach.

Claire, please don’t.

Look, just give me a chance to get to ye.

Claire.

In between texting, Jamie was scrambling to get his boots on as Jenny hoovered close by, fretting. If he left now, he could get to her…iffrin! Where was she?

Geillis! She’d know where. She’d sent him that text earlier after all. Had it been about Claire’s wedding?

Please. Let me explain before ye do anything.

Do you think that he loves you?

Mo nighean donn…please.

I wish you all the best, Jamie.

He texted Geillis. Searching for his keys, he realised that Jenny had them but grew frustrated when she refused to hand them over until he explained to her about what was going on.

No!

He tried to ring Claire again but now his call was going straight through to voicemail.

No, mo chridhe. No. No!

Inverness Town Hall. Ceremony is in about an hour.

“James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser, ye stop right now and answer me!”

Her shouting of his full name stopped him in his tracks. Jenny was standing in the door, eyes blazing with fear and fury, blocking his exit from the house.

“Jenny…” he implored desperately, reaching for his keys. She snatched them back and shook her head.

“No’ until ye explain to me what is going on.” She demanded, her voice shaking. “Ye are scaring me, brother.”

Instead of saying anything, he showed her the picture of Claire. She had to take the phone from his as his hand was shaking so badly.

“Right. Weel, ye can no’ drive in this state.” Jenny said after a moment, handing him the phone and reaching for her own coat and shoes. She called out to Ian, who had picked up the bairn before following them out into the hall. “Love, will ye be okay for a wee bit if I go out wit’ Jamie?”

He nodded as Jamie shook his head. “Jenny. Ye dinna need to-”

She held up her hand to stop him. “I’m coming wit’ ye, brother, so dinna waste time arguing.”

Within ten minutes, Jenny had got them to the main road and was hurtling at speed towards Inverness.

Knowing that he needed to do whatever he could to delay the wedding, he sent a message to Geillis.

Geillis, I need to ask ye a favour. Stop it. Stop her. Hold it off. Delay it until I can get there. She shouldn’t be marrying him. It should be me and I think she knows that. She is just scared, Geillis. And she need not be scared as long as I’m with her. There isn’t time to tell ye everything. I said things to her that I shouldna have and I regret every word. I didnae expect ye to understand just yet but do whatever ye can. I know this all sounds desperate but please, Geillis. Please. Because I cannae live without half my heart.

But as he received no reply, he had no idea if she had received his text.

So for the next fifty minutes, Jamie just told himself to breathe.

Jenny pulled up directly outside of the building, keeping the engine running as Jamie clambered out of the car. He sent one final message, ready to storm the building if he heard nothing back in the next two minutes.

Tell her I’m outside.

Those two minutes were the longest of his life.  

Chapter Text

 

Breathe.

That was all I had to do.

Just breathe.

Everything was in place, arranged with absolute efficiency by Frank. He had already packed up his things, the boxes shipped out to Boston ahead of him. All that was left for me to do was to climb into the back of the black cab that was idling outside and make the ten-minute journey to the Town House with my husband-to-be. There we would get married and I’d move to Boston to be with him and we would live a full and happy life together.  

But it was all a lie.

As the minutes of my wedding day ticked away, my thoughts kept turning back to Jamie. Why did he send me a message today of all days? Regret. Shame. Guilt. I didn’t know which one weighed heavier in my heart. I’d never be able to make it right, to tell him that I was sorry for the things I said, for the way I had acted.

To tell him that my fear was pushing me into making the most terrible mistake.

And that the only way out for me was if he brought me back my heart.

 

~~~~~

 

“Who the fuck is Jamie?”

I blinked. I’d momentarily forgotten about Frank, about where I was and about what I had been about to do. All I had been aware of was Jamie, of the words he’d spoken through Geillis…

‘…She shouldn’t be marrying him. It should be me and I think she knows that…Because I cannae live without half my heart…’

Did Jamie just say he loved me? That couldn’t be right, could it?

“Who is he, Claire?”

What could I tell him?

“He’s just…someone I treated. We spent some time…” my voice trailed off helplessly. There wasn’t a way that I could describe who Jamie was, who he was to me.  All that I knew with any certainty was that I wanted him. I needed him. I loved him.

Oh, bloody hell…

“Did you fuck him?”

I turned my head sharply, glaring up into Frank’s red face. He had some bloody nerve asking me that. “No, Frank. I wouldn’t do you the discourtesy.”

“I find that hard to believe, Claire.”

The thin thread that held me to him finally snapped. I felt a stirring hotness rise from my feet, a strange mortified anger that blazed up. I had been an utter fool. To have thought that a life with Frank was worth the heartache and the suspicion. To cower myself to his self-centred view because I was afraid of change, to change myself and what I knew. That I would have accepted my own misery as penance for knowing that I didn’t love him.

He deserved more than that. I deserved more than that. And I needed to let him go.

And with that awareness, what I had felt for Frank fell away.

Standing a little taller, I said, “You can believe what you like, Frank. I never wanted to hurt you. I thought that I could let him go, that I could live a life with you. But I know now that I can’t. This is for the best; you know that as well as I. We both deserve to be happy on our wedding day. Go find someone who can give you that, who can give you everything that you need.”

Frank clearly would have liked to say something more, but Geillis was tugging at my sleeve to pull me away from him, to draw my attention to her.

“He is waiting for ye, hen,” she said, beaming with pride. She pulled me in for a brief hug before she pushed me in the direction on the door. “All ye have tae do is step outside.”

Jamie was here?

Without further thought, I hurtled out of the room. Back in reception, the woman behind the desk looked up, surprise giving way to a smile of knowing as I all but ran to the glass door. I reached it and paused, taking a moment to collect myself. My heart was racing, my pulse throbbing beneath the thin skin of my wrist. My breath came in short, sharp gasps of nervous excitement, my fingers shaking as I pulled the door towards me.

I was outside in a matter of seconds and there Jamie was.

His cinnamon curls were ruffled, as though he had run his hands through them numerous times. He was drumming the fingers of his right hand against his thigh, blue eyes watching me warily as I slowly descended the stone slabs towards him.  

We finally stood facing each other. I was fighting to breathe, knowing that what happened next would determine my happiness. Thoughts whirled around my head; would we go from here to talk? Would I be given a chance to say what I needed to? And would Jamie allow me to beg for his forgiveness?

I was the first to speak, my voice trembling as I said, “Hello.”

“Tis a pretty dress yer wearing, Sassenach.” He replied, his expression closed off from me.

“What? This old thing.” I joked nervously, staring down at the dress. I brushed my fingers against the skirt. What if he’d changed his mind once he saw me again?

“Did ye go through with it then?”

I looked up, seeing doubt flash in his eyes. I immediately held up my left hand for him to see. “It seems that I got a better offer,” I shrugged, failing to stop the corners of my mouth from twitching up into a smile.

He nodded. “Yer a little over-dressed for a coffee, ye ken.”

“Oh, I ken. But I think it adds a nice touch, don’t you?” I paused, worried that it was too soon to be teasing him. But the slight lift at the corner of his mouth left me with little doubt.  

Suddenly, not being able to touch him was unbearable. Very slowly I held out my hand, my throat burning. For a moment, he stared at it. Then, lifting his gaze, he smiled brightly and took it, his long fingers sliding tightly between mine. The stoic façade melted away and Jamie closed the distance between us, bringing his forehead down to gently rest against my own.

“Do ye forgive me, mo ghràdh?”

“Forgiven.” I vowed, pressing my nose against his. There was nothing for me to forgive but I still gave it to him freely.

“Sassenach.” Jamie sighed, a hand winding round to press gently into my lower back, softly pulling me closer to him. “I want…I would like very much to kiss ye. May I?”

Tears filled my eyes as I nodded.

“Do not be afraid,” he whispered against my mouth, raising his hands to cup my face.

I touched his jaw, drawing my fingers back to the nape of his neck. “There’s the two of us now,” I whispered back, lifting my face to his.

Jamie’s sigh fanned my face as his mouth settled over mine.

This kiss ! That stole my breath, practically every thought in my head, and would have knocked my knees clean out from under me had I not been firmly holding on to Jamie. I swayed towards him in bliss, lost to the way his mouth moved against mine, feeling nothing but the sensation of friction that caused my blood to ignite beneath my skin.

Someone slammed through the door behind us. Footsteps thundered down the stone slabs towards us. I pulled Jamie closer, our tongues twining as our bodies met from mouth to chest to knee, the heat and feel of him radiating through layers of clothing.

When we finally broke for air, Jamie was all I saw and felt; his beautiful, charming, easy grin, the warmth of his long fingers threading through mine as he somehow pulled me closer still, the sweet touch of his breath against my mouth – a wonderous indication of a hundred-thousand kisses more.

“Do ye still want that coffee?” Jamie murmured, lips now brushing against my flushed cheek.

I nodded as he tipped his forehead towards me, my own smile widening to match his. I vowed right then and there to see him smile every day from now on.

“I would like a word, Claire.”

Bloody hell. It would have to be Frank who had come after me.  

I kept my eyes fixed on Jamie, watching with increasingly alarm as the happiness clouded and his grip loosened within mine. I squeezed his fingers and shook my head, the movement barely noticeable. But I knew, I hoped, that Jamie would see, would understand my subtle implore for him to wait for me, just a few moments more.

Then I would be his, irrevocably.

Jamie gave a curt nod but still let go of my hand. “Dinna fash, Sassenach,” he said, pressing his lips to my brow and the frown that had formed. “I will no’ be far. Jenny is probably spittin’ wi’ waiting.”

“Jenny is here…?” I asked, glancing around until I saw a familiar SUV parked across the way. I could see her sitting behind the wheel, her phone pressed to her ear as she grinned and waved. I waved back, having no doubt in my mind that she was speaking to Ian.

“Aye. I’ll go tell her that she’ll no need to stick around…if ye want me to stay, that is.”

My heart broke a little as his uncertainty. I really did have a lot of explaining to do. But until I could tell him everything, I reached up to press my lips against his stubbled cheek before whispering in his ear, “I want nothing more.”

With a grin that threatened to set a fire in my womb, he owl-blinked a wink and hastened across the road. I watched him move, marvelling at the breadth of his shoulders and slope of his back, the narrowness of his hips and they way his jeans snuggled around…Frank coughed impatiently, and I reluctantly dragged my gaze from Jamie to face Frank square-on.

“What more is there to say?” I asked, not unkindly.

Frank sighed wearily. “I rather thought that would be the case. Can we at least take a seat?”

I nodded and followed him to a nearby bench. He sat in his usual uncompromising way, knees firmly apart with his hands resting in his lap. “Claire-” he began before he immediately stopped. There was a moment of silence as I watched the emotions flicker across his face. “How long?”

I frowned in confusion. “How long for what?”

Frank swallowed, rubbing his hands over his face. “How long have you been having an affair?”

I took a deep breath. “There was never an affair, Frank. And I know that you don’t believe that right now” – I added, seeing the look of disbelief on his face – “But that is the truth. All I can say is that I didn’t know what I felt for him.”

“But you know now?”

I nodded. “I do.”

“I see.” Frank’s expression turned grave. “I have to say, Claire, that I am disappointed. You could have come to this conclusion sooner - it certainly would have saved us both this embarrassment.”

I could understand that. “I should have. I should have been more honest with you. But Frank, I thought that this was what I wanted, you and me. Now, considering Boston, can you honestly tell me that it was the same for you?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “I told you as much, didn’t I?”

Tears press against the back of my eyes. “You told me what I wanted to hear and that is a totally different thing. I saw you today, Frank. I saw how unhappy you were-”

“That’s rubbish!”

“Is it? Because I don’t think you love me in the same way that you once did. And I don’t think we love each other enough to not destroy the other sooner or later, whether we mean to or not.”

“Then why did you push for this marriage, Claire?”

“Because I thought I could do it. I thought that I could be happy and content. I thought it would be the same as before, that we would be the same. But this time apart just allowed our cracks to go unchecked, Frank. This marriage would have just been a plaster, nothing more.” – I paused for a second, taking a moment to calm before I told him the truth – “And I am ashamed to admit that I wanted you to feel as miserable as I did.”

He raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Because of him…?”

“Because of you, Frank. Because of how you made me feel. There can be no compromise with you sometimes.”

Frank let out a slow, resigned breath. He stared down at his hands and I gave him time, turning my gaze to watch the bustling crowd of Christmas shoppers as they dashed about for those last-minute gifts.

“I do love you,” he said after a minute or so, his tone weary. “But you are right. We don’t…light each other up anymore, do we?”

I sadly shook my head. “We don’t.”

“So…this is it then. It’s over.” He looks genuinely put out by it and I feel a twinge of guilt.

“It probably was a long time ago, Frank. I was just too afraid to admit that I was never going to make you happy, not really. I want you to go to Boston and be happy.”

Frank shrugged. “Can I ask you one last question though, before I go?”

“Of course.”

He breathed in and out through his nose, taking his time. “Would you have gone through with it had he not shown up? Would you have forgotten him, in time?”

I glanced over at Jamie; he was talking to Jenny, but he was watching me, the sapphire blue gaze steady. I supposed, in a way, I would never know the truth, would never be able to answer Frank’s question completely. But I could tell him one thing for certain.

“That amount of time doesn’t exist.”

Frank nodded and stood. “Well then. I’ll pick up my bag and stay with Reg until my flight out, I think.” He paused; his expression sad as he looked down at me. “I wish you all the best, Claire.”

And with one final light kiss to the top of my head, he turned on his heel and walked away.

Hot tears spilled as I watched him disappear into the crowd. But I wasn’t crying over losing him; this certainly wasn’t how I wanted to let him go. I was crying because of the hurt that we caused each other, of the lies and distrust. Because the foundations of the life I had thought I wanted were finally crumbling to dust and I was okay with that. I had no idea if that made me a good person or not, but there was a relief in knowing that I didn’t have to care any longer.

That I was slowly coming back to life.

“Sassenach?”

I quickly wiped away the tears, determined that they would be the last I would cry over Frank Randall, and stood from the bench, turning to Jamie with a bright smile.

He was immediately at my side, eyes wide with concern. “Are ye alright, mo nighean donn? He did no’ hurt ye, did he?”

I shook my head, my heart swelling with his concern. “No. At least, not anymore.”

Jamie didn’t look convinced, so I took him by the arm, prepared to take him away. “Come on. Buy me that coffee you promised, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

 

~~~~~

 

Somehow, but probably not unexpectedly, Jamie and I ended up back at A Time for Tea.

We’d said goodbye to Jenny outside of the Town House after she had pulled me into a tight hug, blue eyes dancing with excitement. “Ye and I need a good long chat after today,” she laughed, pulling back to look at me. “And let my brother convince ye to join us at Lallybroch for Christmas and Hogmanay. Neither of us will no’ take no for an answer.”

I blinked back more tears and nodded. Would I ever stop crying? She kissed my cheek, hugged her brother, and drove off, leaving us standing alone, but together, on the pavement. Jamie then took my hand and we walked along the streets of Inverness, saying very little but seemingly at ease.

I didn’t stop smiling.

The moment the door opened, bringing us into the comforting warmth of the café, Mrs Graham materialised before us. “Did the two of ye get marrit today?” she cooed with excitement, although she eyed Jamie’s jeans and shirt with some distain. Before I could correct her, she had already taken us in hand and was merrily pushing us towards the plush sofa that faced the fire. “Whatever the two of ye want, it is on us. Och, how lovely. A wee wedding just before Christmas. And the two of ye looking sae bonnie together, too.”

Slightly dazed, I allowed myself to be shepherded onto to the sofa, sharing a grin with Jamie as our coats were taken along with our orders for hot drinks. Despite the clear sky, the bite of the December winds had pierced my skin and I was glad to be sat before a roaring fire. Jamie sat quietly beside me and I found myself wondering if he was feeling as shy as I suddenly felt.

Now that we were sitting down, it felt…strange. Not uncomfortable but perilously close to being awkward. Stop being bloody ridiculous, Beauchamp! Just talk to him. It hasn’t been a problem before.

Well, that was before he kissed me. And I kissed him.

I peered sideways at Jamie; sweat prickled my palms as a nervous energy thrummed through me. I shifted on my seat, trying to get comfortable against the stacked cushions pressing into my back, but I couldn’t. I sighed and crossed my legs to stop one of them jigging up and down.

“How have you been?” I asked shyly, absurdly.

Without hesitation, Jamie reached across my lap and took my hand in his. Instantly, I felt calmer, more reassured. I twinned my fingers with his and looked up to find him smiling sweetly at me.

“Tis easier if we touch, I think.”

I nodded. “It is. So…how have you been?”

“Lonely. I missed ye, Sassenach.”

My heart plummeted and I hung my head in shame. “I’m so sorry, Jamie.”

“Claire. Ye dinna have tae-” Jamie tried to interject but I needed to explain everything to him while I had the nerve to.

“Please, Jamie. Please, let me explain.”

He tightened his grip as his other hand came to rest at the side of my neck, his thumb rubbing along my jaw to coax my chin up. He held my gaze for a moment, eyes searching mine, before nodding.

I swallowed, trying to think of where to begin.

“Do you recall that day we met by accident here?”

He smiled. “Vividly. Ye looked so bonnie, despite the rain dripping off the end of yer nose.”

I narrowed my eyes before continuing. “Well, I was in the middle of an argument with Frank. He was supposed to come back for a weekend but instead, he chose to stay in Boston. And I dealt with it in the same way I always did, by avoiding it. Because that was normal when it came to me and Frank. Better to ignore the things that bothered us then to confront them.

“He’d proposed two days before we moved to Scotland and then he left for Boston. That was why I never had a ring. I was left behind to plan a wedding that I was sure I wanted, that I had dreamed of. Until there was you.”

Jamie cupped my cheek with his hand. “Aye…ye felt it then.”

I gave him a watery smile. “I did. And it scared me because I should have felt that way about Frank. But every time I saw you, every message we sent each other, everything that we shared, just made me want you more. It all started to get confusing. And then there was Laoghaire.”

Jamie growled. “Ye dinna need to be worrit about her, a nighean. She’ll no’ bother either of us again.”

“What made you change your mind about her?”

He shook his head. “I always kent she had a soft spot for me, but it seemed harmless enough. Then she sent that message to ye and…well, it was no’ the first but it was the one that made me see red.”  

I gasped. “So you threatened her with a restraining order?”

“Dougal would have fired her, but I did no’ think that would have done much good. So, we arranged for her to get some help, but she is no’ to make contact, even afterwards. She’ll no’ ever get between us again, no’ if I can help it, Sassenach.”

I stared down at our joined hands. “The day she sent that message, I was already livid with Frank. She just…pushed me over the edge. I was jealous when I knew I shouldn’t be.”

“Ye were?”

“Very much so. I felt horrible for it because you weren’t mine to have.”

“But do ye no’ see, Claire,” Jamie said softly. “I’ve been yers since that day in Raigmore, and I’ll keep being yers until my last breath leaves me.”

I blushed a little, not expecting him to be so open. “You are?”

Jamie smiled. “Verra much so,” he leaned back into the sofa, taking me with him. I tentatively snuggled up against him, pressing my face into the collar of his shirt, happily breathing in the woodsy smell of him. With a sigh of contentment, Jaime wrapped his arms around me and pressed his mouth to my forehead. “It’ll always be forever for me, Sassenach.”

Jesus H Roosevelt Christ! Who was this man?

I stroked the fine cotton of his shirt, marvelling at simply being able to. “How did you know where I was earlier?”

He spoke into my hair, the deep timbre of his voice lulling me into a relaxed state. “Ye can thank ye friend, Geillis. Ye see, I did no’ want to come to ye wit’ the cloud of Laoghaire over my head. I wanted to be able to show ye that I would always do right by ye, that ye could trust me. I needed to make up for the things I said to ye in the car.”

“You only spoke the truth.”

“Aye. Maybe. But that did no’ mean that I should have. Ye can be a stubborn woman, Claire.” He pressed his lips to my curls before continuing. “Anyway, I was all but tearing my hair out tryin’ tae think of a way to approach ye when Geillis sent me a message. Told me to reach out. And thank heaven that she did.”

Tears sprung up in my eyes. “I’m glad that you did.”

His turbulent blue eyes held mine and he smiled. “I would have done far worse than crash yer wedding to keep ye, a nighean.”

The next few hours passed by in a blissful haze. We held each other as we talked, lost within the bubble of ourselves that we had once more created. It should have felt strange to me, to be this close to him so quickly after Frank. But then, I supposed that Jamie and I had been building up to this. And this was without barrier, without question or doubt. I wanted him and he wanted me. Let that be enough.

But we couldn’t stay in our bubble forever. As the afternoon light began to fade, I glanced at my watched and balked. “Bloody hell. I have to be in work in an hour.”

Jamie looked puzzled. “Ye were going tae work on the night of yer wedding?”

“I was.” I paused, chewing my lip as I realised how ridiculous that was. “I had to in order to get the time off for Boston.”

“When will ye finish?”

“Not until early tomorrow afternoon.” I replied, pulling myself out of his grasp in order to find my coat and phone. “If I leave now, I can still make it the hospital on time…Jamie, how are you getting back to Lallybroch?”

The faint blush that I found so endearing tinged the tips of his ears. “Weel, I had hoped to stay wit’ ye, Sassenach. If ye dinna think it immoral.”

I laughed. “Why would I think that?”

“Because we’ve only just begun, and I would hate for ye to think that I was pushing myself-”

My lips were on his before he even managed to finish the sentence. He tasted of coffee and butter and citrus. I pulled back enough to touch my nose to his and smiled.

“You could stay in the flat, if you like. If you can live with the mess for a few hours, I’ll be back by lunchtime tomorrow.”

Jamie smiled. “I dinna think I can live withou’ ye, a nighean. The mess will be fine.” He moved a hand so that he could draw his thumb along my lower lip. “So. Will ye come to Lallybroch wit’ me tomorrow then? Spend Christmas wit’ me and my family?”

I nodded eagerly. “Although, I’ll probably sleep through most of it.”

Jamie lowered his face closer to mine, another perfect kiss just a breath away. “Dinna fash, a nighean. I’ll enjoy finding ways to wake ye up.”

Chapter Text

 

I have absolutely no idea how to describe the way I feel.

Every time that I have tried, the words float away from me like falling spring blossoms. So at best, I would say that I was happy. But even that one word feels wholly inadequate.

How can I describe the butterflies that flitter about in my stomach? Or the new beat that my heart seems to have found? Or the way I glow from somewhere within, allowing me to see the world in a completely fresh way?

Okay, yes. I know it all sounds rather cliché and I’m throwing out platitudes as though I expect them to have some sort of impact. The simple truth is that everything I now feel, the elation and joy and wonder, is because of James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser.

I have always thought that I knew what I wanted. I thought I could be content and fulfilled and satisfied with the life that I had envisioned with Frank. But I was so utterly and completely wrong.

It’s funny really, how someone can turn your world on its head, making you realise it was the wrong way round all along.

 

~~~~~

 

As much as I had not wanted to leave Lallybroch, the reality of work called me back to Inverness.

It was now early January and I was back at Raigmore. Back to performing surgeries and covering the Emergency Department. Back to the standard twelve-hour shift and the mugs of black coffee required to get through them. Back to being interrogated by Geillis Duncan at every opportunity she got.

Especially at seven-thirty in the morning, just as I had finished my shift and was about to go in search of breakfast before stumbling home and sleeping for a solid nine hours (it was taking a little time to get back into my pre-Lallybroch routine).

I was busy checking my phone for messages (grinning like a love-struck fool at the one Jamie had sent already wishing me a ‘Good morning, mo nighean donn. Breakfast date?' – which meant a video call while we ate breakfast, me in some cafe and him back at Lallybroch) when I became aware that someone was standing in my path.

I glanced up, straight into the curious green gaze of Geillis.

“Ye ken that it was switched off for most of the week ye were away,” she gently chided, raising a pale eyebrow as she pointed to the phone in my hand. “What if I’d needed tae tell ye something important?”

“Like what?”

“I dinna ken! Just...important,” she said, skirting around the question with an impressive bout of mock indignation. “And tis beside the point anyway.”

“Which is...?”

“That yer no' usually so closed-mouth,” came the reply, her red-lipped pout soon giving way to a wicked grin as she added suggestively, “Sae I take it that the wee fox kept ye thoroughly distracted then?”

Inwardly, I rolled my eyes. Dearest Geillis. She really was the best friend I had ever had.  Adorable. Loyal. Nosy as hell. Strangely fixated on her quest to know everything there was about my sex life.

Even if there wasn’t anything yet to know.

“What are you doing here so early anyway?” I asked, hoping to steer her off course. “I didn’t think you started until ten today?”

“I do no’. But I was hopin’ that I might join ye for breakfast, seeing as we have yet tae have a proper catch up since ye got back.”

I felt a twinge of guilt. It was true that I had been somewhat preoccupied since the last time I had seen Geillis, smiling proudly on the steps of the Registry Office as I walked away with Jamie. It was high-time I did something to rectify that.

“Alright then,” I smiled, motioning for her to lead the way. I sent Jamie a quick apology for missing our date and pocketed my phone, following Geillis into the small hospital coffee shop.

“I’m glad we are getting to do this, Geillis.” I said once we had ordered food and were sat at a table. “Although I am sorry that’s taken until now for it to happen.”

“Me too, hen. And dinna fash about it.” She assured me, leaning back in her chair with a smile. “Och! Look at ye, all flushed and happy for the first time since I’ve ken ye. It suits ye, Beauchamp.”

I felt myself blush. “Thank you. And I am happy, thanks to you. Jamie showed me the text you sent him that morning.”

“Twas no’ much,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “But tae be honest, I did no’ ken what else to do. Ye were no’ in good place and unwilling to press the matter, sae I figured that perhaps Jamie would. I’m just so verra glad that he did what he did because otherwise, I was that close to feigning some sort of medical emergency.”

“I do regret that it ever got that far…”

“Och, Claire. Ye were doin’ what ye thought best for ye and Frank…” – she paused for a second, her brow furrowing slightly as though she wasn’t sure if she should ask – “Have ye heard from him since then?”

It was rather inevitable that she would ask, although I had rather hoped to not have to speak of him. Feeling my stomach clench, I took a sip of my mint tea and willed myself to remain calm.

“I have…”    

The distinct ping of my phone had woken me with a start.

Years borne of being on call had trained my mind to listen out for the sound, even on days off when I should have been able to sink into the oblivion of sleep. It had taken a few seconds of wild blinking into the pale light cast off by the antique bedside lamp for me to get my bearings; decorative plaster ceiling, four-poster bed, softly glowing embers in the fireplace…

Lallybroch.

The phone pinged again.

Groaning, I had rolled over and reached for it. I peeked at the screen, bleary eyed and still half asleep, and froze.

2 messages from Frank.

I stared at his name in confusion. I glanced at the time and frowned. It was six-thirty in the morning, the day after Boxing Day. Why would Frank be sending me messages so early…Oh! Jesus H Roosevelt Christ!

Boston.

I would have flown out to Boston with Frank that day. I had forgotten all about it and all about Frank.

And the wave of crushing regret felt terrible.

Even though he and I had said our goodbyes that day at the Registry Office, I still had felt battered about by the whole experience. Our relationship had lasted for seven years and all those feelings, those shared memories and events and moments, were not simply forgotten overnight. It was going to take time and Lallybroch, while being a welcome salve to my wounds, was not going to protect me from acknowledging that forever.

So I had gathered up my courage, swiped the screen, and read:

Claire. As I am about to board the flight to Boston, I find myself thinking of you and the life that we might have shared. And while it would be easy to place the blame on the end of our relationship solely at your feet, and as sorely tempted as I am, I must confess that I have been just as false with your feelings as I have with my own. You see, there is someone else in Boston…

Bloody son of a bitch!

…and I will freely admit having slept with her before my return to Scotland. In truth, I never thought that you would agree to come to Boston with me. Or, at the very least, I had hoped you would not. Therefore, I will be forever grateful that you were brave enough to pull us apart before any real damage was done. That you did not force me to choose.

Reg has agreed to forward on what remains of my things. He will be in contact in the New Year to make the necessary arrangements. Above all else, I hope that this Jamie chap finally makes you happy. Claire, I wish you both all the best, just as I know you wish the same for me. Frank.

And there is was. One final, well-aimed blow. 

Having read his messages several times, I had sat motionless, waiting for the waves of shock and anger to roll over me. But to my surprise, there was nothing. No rage. No deluge of frustrated tears or wrath of betrayal. No sense that he had ripped out my heart only to then stomp on it.

There was absolutely nothing.

Of course, Frank’s confession stung but that initial shock at learning of his infidelity was already lessoning. As harsh as it was, and how horrible it would probably make me feel later, I simply could not find it in me to care.

Let him feel that he had won. It no longer mattered to me as it would have once done.

Geillis stared at me in horror. “And yer telling me that he sent ye those in good faith? Do ye think he was telling ye the truth?”

I shrugged. “I never bothered to reply so I have no idea. I simply put it down to him needing to feel like he got to walk away with his pride intact.”

She wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Ye ken that I’ve always said that he was an absolute bastard, Claire.”

“I know you did.” – I smiled at her fondly – “And I was a fool to think that marrying him would have made a difference to how we were or how we acted towards the other. Finding affection elsewhere would have been quite normal.”

“Ye are no’ blaming yerself for what he did, are ye?”

I shook my head. “No. But I don’t blame Frank either. I have no doubt that we would have taken shots at each other for years had things turned out differently. It is much better this way, giving us both a chance to understanding that behaviour.”

“Sae yer letting bygones be bygones then?”

“Something like that. I’ve spoken to Reg and have offered to take him the rest of Frank’s things on Friday. Once that’s done, I’ll be rid of him completely.”

“I could do that for ye, hen.” Geillis offered just as our food arrived. “I quite liked old Reverend Reg.”

“Actually, the manse is on the way to Lallybroch…”

“Of course it is!” She grinned, squeezing ketchup over onto her plate. “I might have guessed ye’d be heading back that way sooner rather than later. Goin’ for a dirty weekend away wi’ yer man?”

Sort of.

Jamie and Ian were splitting the days between Lallybroch and Leoch, helping out with spreading the fields, completing the maintenance checks, and preparing the livestock for weaning. I had offered to help Jenny out with a few jobs around the house (I wasn’t a complete disaster when it came to some DIY projects) and so the plan was that I’d stay Friday night through to Monday morning.  

I snorted. “Exactly how dirty do you think it could possibly get?”

I had no doubt that I wouldn’t come away without being splattered in mud, paint, and baby spit. But I didn’t think that was quite what Geillis was getting at.

“I dinna ken. Ye are a creative young woman and I reckon yer wee fox cub is pretty flexible. There is no way that the two of ye did no’ have sex while ye were there last.”

Jesus H Roosevelt Christ!

I tried to look shocked but couldn’t quite manage it. “Well, I hate to disappoint you but no, we didn’t.”

There was a moment of silence as Geillis stared at me incredulously.

“Yer jokin’, right?”

I shook my head. “Not at all. Jamie and I spent our time talking.”

“About what?”

“You know – our jobs, childhood memories, favourite restaurants…”

“Did the two of ye no’ already get all that dealt wi’?”

“…what movies and tv shows we liked to watch, the economic repercussions of Brexit…”

“Sounds lovely!” Geillis pouted, shaking her head. “I am that disappointed in ye, Beauchamp. How could ye run off with yer Viking and no’ at least try for a wee fondle or two?”

I smiled as I took a bite of my omelette. “A wee fondle? I never said we didn’t do that…”

The look she threw me was priceless.

The truth was that Jamie and I were rarely apart during my stay at Lallybroch. I remembered every one of the light kisses pressed to temples and cheeks, and those more greedily and more deeply sought from our lips. The words of affection whispered into soft curls and warm necks as hands and fingers found their way under cloth and over skin, stroking and teasing in their wake.

By mutual consent, it never went much further than that. 

“Ye are a mean one, Beauchamp!” Geillis scowled before winking at me. “But bless ye, lass. Ye had me that worrit for a moment. Sae, tell me all about Lallybroch then.”

I sighed happily. “Geillis, it was perfect…”

Arriving late on Christmas Eve, I had immediately been swept up into the whirlwind of the house during the festive season. There had been the excitement of seeing Jenny and Ian again, snuggles and cuddles with wee Jamie (simply adorable dressed in the cutest elf costume I had ever seen) and then a tour of the house with my Jamie (and all our sweetly stolen kisses along the way).

The days had passed by in a blur of laughter and chatter and food. We had taken long walks in and around the estate, enjoyed pub lunches beside cosy open fires, and sat quietly in the evening with books or the television, relishing being able to just be together.

And on top of that, there was what seemed to be a never-ending stream of family and friends at the door or at some other social gathering the Fraser’s were expected to attend. I was introduced to each one as Jamie’s special friend, the apparent newness of our relationship yet to find its definition as anything more or less.

That is, at least, for the time being.

“It all sounds like domesticated bliss, hen.” Geillis sighed, staring dreamily at me once I finished regaling her with tales. “Sae when do ye suppose that Jamie will move in wi’ ye?”

“It’s been two weeks, Geillis!” I pointed out with a chuckle. “I think it’s a little too early for any talk of moving in together.”

“Yeah right,” she scoffed, wiping a slice of bread across her plate. “Tis merely a matter of time. All I ask is that ye remember how amazing I was at being yer Best Woman the first time around when the lad eventually proposes.”

 

 ~~~~~

 

As it turned out, the weekend plans were thoroughly thwarted by staff shortages.

Regrettably, I ended up shifting my schedule to cover for planned surgeries and shifts in the Emergency Department on both Saturday and Sunday, therefore cancelling my plans to visit Lallybroch. Understandably, everyone was disappointed (especially Jamie, who apparently had something planned but wouldn’t tell me what) and I had to take Geillis up on her offer to remove Frank’s boxes from the flat after all.

By the time I made it home again late Sunday afternoon, I was exhausted and starving. I took a shower, loaded the dishwasher and was mid-way through deciding on which take-away I wanted when the doorbell rang. Only mildly put out (especially as I was wearing my most worn but comfortable pyjamas), I shuffled to the door and tentatively peered through the peephole.

Standing there, grinning like a fool, was Jamie.

With a squeal of excitement, I flung open the door and was immediately swept up into his arms.

“Christ! I’ve missed ye, Sassenach,” he whispered into my hair, pressing me to him with as much force as I used to pull him towards me. “It feels like I’ve no seen ye in a month.”

I was about to point out that it had only been six days (not that I was counting) when his lips crashed into mine and we were kissing in my open front door and every one of my senses was firing simultaneously and I was pretty sure I had forgotten my own name.

“I missed you too,” I sighed, eventually giving in to the need to fill my lungs with much needed oxygen. “Not that I’m complaining but what are you doing here?”

“Weel, I kent ye probably had no food in the house and would be too exhausted to cook anyway, sae I brought dinner tae you instead.”

“Thank you!” I replied, pecking his lips before glancing down at the bags by his feet.

Bags as in there was decidedly more than one.

“Alright. I get all the shopping ones,” I said, raising a quizzical brow as I pointed at them. “But what’s with the overnight bag?”

I glanced back at Jamie, smiling slightly at the faint pinkness currently colouring the tips of his ears.

“Forgive me, mo ghràidh,” he said sheepishly. “I am being a wee bit presumptuous.”

“How so?”

“I have a couple of early meetings in town tomorrow and I thought it would be easier if, seeing as I was makin’ ye dinner and all, I could stay here wi’ ye.”

“Did you now…?”

“Aye. But if it’s too much of an imposition, I can head back to Lallybroch after-”

I abruptly stopped his speech by kissing the words right out of his mouth.

“Of course, you can stay,” I said, pulling back just enough to smooth some of his curls off his forehead. “And you can be as presumptuous as you like, Fraser!”

He smiled. “In that case, would ye mind letting me in as I’m about tae freeze my balls off out here.”

Laughing, I stepped aside and helped him carry the shopping bags into the kitchen. I left him to start prepping dinner, taking his overnight bag with me as I went to make the bed in the spare room. As tempted as I was to leave his bag in my room instead, I wasn’t feeling nearly as confident as he was. There was no doubt that I wanted Jamie (just as I had no doubt that he wanted me) but the subject of sex wasn’t one that we had yet to openly discuss.

Perhaps we both felt it was too soon? Or, perhaps, I should just be bold and ask him.

Thirty minutes later, I was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping on red wine, and watching Jamie make himself at home in my kitchen. His phone was softly playing music and he moved about in time with the beat, chopping vegetables and marinating beef. He was a man completely at ease within his own skin, laughing and joking and teasing in a way that I had only seen in the comfort of his family and close friends. He was a vastly different Jamie to the one I had first met, or even the one who charmed his way around a room full of strangers.

This was the version that Jamie showed only to the ones he loved, and it completely blew me away.

But as much as I was enjoying watching him, I wasn’t allowed to sit idly for long as he soon put me to task on setting the table as he cooked our dinner. Wanting to create a little atmosphere, I lit a few candles and we ate by the light, bumping knees and sock-covered feet beneath the table.

“This is delicious, by the way.” I stated, trying not to spoon enormous amounts of perfectly seasoned beef and noodles into my mouth at once.

Jamie smiled proudly. “Good. Tis one of my brother’s recipes that he swears by.”

“Did William always want to be a chef?”

“Aye. Ever since Ma showed him where she kept the recipe books, he was always experimenting with different textures and flavours. He planned to open up a restaurant in Glasgow but meeting his husband in Australia soon changed his plans.”

“Do you think he and John will ever come back to visit?”

“Tis the plan to. After all, they have yet tae formally meet wee Jamie Murray,” – he tipped his glass towards me – “And ye too, Sassenach.”

“Me?”

Jamie nodded. “Ye are a part of the family know, a nighean. Da is insisting that ye come and stay wi’ us when he comes home next month sae that he can get to know ye better.”

“Well…” I blushed slightly. “I would be honoured to meet him.”

Then, not knowing what else to do because Jamie was staring at me with such intensity that I wasn’t sure if my skin was flushed from the wine or his gaze, I pushed back my chair so that I could start clearing the table.

But Jamie was quicker.

“Let me do this, Sassenach.” He demanded sweetly, taking my plate from me. “Why don’t ye take the rest of the wine and find us something tae watch, if yer no’ too tired?”

“Not at all,” I replied, gathering the bottle and our glasses to settle down on the sofa. I was flicking through the channels when Jamie came to join me, carrying in a small lemon tart and two forks.

“Did Jenny make that?” I asked excitedly as he slid underneath the blanket beside me.

“Aye. Considering the way ye devoured the last one she made, she figured ye’d be wanting another. Although I hope ye dinna mind sharing this one wi’ me?”

“I suppose so,” I said, only half joking as he offered me a fork. “Ye really are spoiling me this evening, Jamie.”

“Tis a pleasure for me tae do so, Claire,” he said, leaning over to press a quick kiss to my mouth. “If ye are happy, I’m happy, ye ken.”

I felt my heart somersault.

And as we sat and ate that lemon tart, cosied up beneath a blanket watching Countryfile, fingers brushing over whatever skin we could find, I came to an understanding.

Because it wasn’t only that Jamie was here, it was everything that he had done to bring me comfort. His weekend had probably been as long and as tiring as my own, and yet he still came to Inverness in order to make me dinner and feed me one of my absolute favourite desserts because it made him happy to do so.

And if I wasn’t already aware of how in love I was with Jamie Fraser, I knew it for sure in that moment.

He turned slightly to press a kiss to my cheek and suddenly I did not care that the plate was still between us, for I lunged forward to kiss him, sighing in pleasure at the way the lemon tart tasted differently on his lips. He kissed me back with equal abandon, alternating between desperate and then slow, deep kisses that I felt all the way down to my toes.

I had an overwhelming urge to shift my body until it was flushed against his, to grind and press into his touch as his hands drifted over me, cupping my breast and bottom through the thin layers of my pyjamas. I wanted to make it perfectly clear that I wanted him, but I needed to give him a chance to be sure.

So, just as abruptly as I had thrown myself at him, I pulled back.

Jamie looked at me, flushed and a little confused. “Mo nighean donn? Are ye alright?”

I took a deep breath, stood, and help my hand out to him. “Will you come to my room with me, Jamie?”

He looked up at me, the sparkling blue darkening to an almost obsidian black. I stood transfixed, the only sound the thumping of my heart, loud in my ears. Did he want me as much as I wanted him? Slowly, Jamie stood but didn’t reach for my hand. Instead, he pressed a long finger to my flaming cheek and I almost (gladly) burned to ashes right there in front of him.  

“Tae bed or tae sleep?”

Barely thinking, I raised myself up on tiptoes and pressed my lips once more to his. He yielded immediately, the slither of his tongue cool and exquisite against my own. I had no idea if I could stop, for the more I drank him in, the more Jamie gave and the sweeter he tasted.

I released his mouth long enough to catch my breath and ask, “Well…?”

With a groan that started deep in the back of his throat, Jamie’s lips crashed back down to mine with such force that I was sure he would have knocked me off my feet had he not wrapped his arms around me. I found myself rocking back on my heels as his fingers slipped into my hair to cradle my head, deepening the kiss enough for my pulse to leap in response. My heart was thumping wildly and as my hands began to wander of their own accord across the taut fabric of his t-shirt, I felt the thunderous pulse of his own beneath my palms.

Tearing his mouth away, Jamie began trailing kisses along my cheek and down, licking and nipping along the column of my throat even as his fingers started to play with the thin straps of my top.

“Maybe we should…?” I panted desperately, trying to string my thoughts together. “My room…?”

“Aye.” His hot breath fanned across my collarbone as his hands dropped to grasp my hips. And then he was walking me backwards towards my room, pressing his forehead to mine until we were safely inside, and the door was shut to the world.   

Everything after that was a flurry of heat and touch and sighs. As he kissed me, I felt his fingers slid beneath the straps of my top again, gently pushing the material down until my breasts were revealed to his heated gaze. He reluctantly broke our kiss and stepped back just enough for him to stare down, his shaking hands reaching up to cup the naked flesh as his thumbs brushed the hardening nipples, leaving my breasts feeling swollen and full and aching.

“Claire.” He groaned, unable to stop his hands from touching. “Ye are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, mo ghràidh.”

Had it been anyone else saying those words, I probably wouldn’t have believed them. But not with Jamie. There was a way about him that made everything he said out to be true.

Consumed with a need to touch him, I reached for the hem of his t-shirt, keeping my gaze locked with his as I pulled it up and off, revealing his chest to my curious gaze. He was perfect, sculptured, and hard beneath my fingers as I raked down his abs and along the fuzz of hair that disappeared below the waistband of his jeans. I could see the bulge of his growing erection pulling the fabric tight and I longed to run my fingers along his length, to feel the satin hardness of his desire press and throb in the palm of my hand.  

He sucked in a breath as my fingers strayed lower, long fingers wrapping around my slim wrists in a bid to stop any further movement.

“I want to see you…” I started to protest but was silenced as Jamie leaned down to give me a quick, reassuring kiss.

“I ken. But there is something I need tae ask ye before we go any further, Sassenach.”

I pulled back my hands to give him some space and nodded.

He took a shaky breath and asked, “Do ye want tae stop?”

I shook my head frantically. “Not unless you want to?”

“No. I dinna want tae stop. Do ye no’ ken that I’ve burned for ye since the moment I first saw ye. But I dinna want ye tae have any regrets because tis too soon after-”

I pressed my fingers to his mouth. “I won’t ever regret being here with you, Jamie. Not once. Not ever. But if you want more time, we don’t have to go any further than this…?”

Jamie pulled me closer, groaning as our naked skin made contact for the first time. “Christ! I want ye sae much I can scarcely breathe. But I have tae ken - will ye have me, Claire? Do ye want me?”

“Yes. I’ll have you.” I panted into his mouth. “Yes, I want you.”

That was all either of us needed to hear.

With a grin, Jamie retook my mouth and kissed me, hard and wanting. I tugged my hands free of his grip, wrapped my arms around him, and fiercely kissed him back with everything that I had. His own hands returned to palming my breasts, thumbs performing sweeping arches over sensitive flesh, his tongue chasing mine and my knees buckled just a little. With a guttural growl that I felt like a shot of heat to my core, he tore his mouth away and ducked his head to take an aching nipple into his mouth. I cried out as he sucked and nipped, lathering his tongue over the spot before repeating the action until he had me squirming and quivering beneath his touch.

“Jamie…I…”  

“I have tae taste ye, Sassenach.”

He led me over to my bed, gently pulling me down with him until I was sitting on the edge and he was kneeling before me. Realising his intention, I leaned back on my elbows, lifting my hips just enough for him to pull the pyjama bottoms down my legs and throw them aside. I watched him as his gaze lowered, hearing his sharp intake of breath at what he found.

“No bra and now no knickers?” He muttered, looking up at me possessively. “Ye are a wee vixen, mo graidh.”

My grin faded as he placed hot, wet kisses to my stomach, removing my socks before his hands were sliding from ankle to calf, tickling behind my knees before spanning the soft skin of my thighs. I arched into his touch, desperate for more as his hands cupped my buttocks, squeezed appreciatively, and pulled my hips closer to the edge, opening myself wider to his ministrations.

Lips replaced calloused fingers as Jamie playfully grazed his teeth along my inner thigh, sending shivers of desire coursing through me. And I almost completely came undone right there and then when he gently blew cool air over my swollen clit.

I swore loudly and bucked my hips. “Jamie…please…” I whimpered, watching indulgently as he pulled one leg up and over his shoulder, placing a featherlight kiss to the top of my mound and inhaled deeply through his nose.

“Aye. I’ll see ye right, Claire.” Jamie moaned in pleasure as he tested how wet I was with the tip of one finger. Then that one long finger was sliding up inside me and shallowly thrusting to the rhythm of my breathing as I tightened around him.

“Show me how tae please ye, Sassenach.”

This bloody man!

Tenderly, I wove my fingers through his curls and sighed. “Alright. Listen and pay attention, Fraser!”

With a wicked grin, he did exactly as I said. I threw my head back and moaned as his tongue darted out to taste me, running the flat of it deep in between my wet folds to lap at my juices. All my nerves endings seemed to be short-circuiting as he alternated between suckling and licking, flicking, and circling his tongue, responding to every one of my moans and cries and gentle tugs of his hair.

As my climax neared, he set himself to his task. By then, I was grinding and writhing against his face when he suddenly pointed his tongue and drove it into me, matching the relentless plunging of his wet finger.

It was enough to send me over into sweet oblivion.

I came with a series of airless gasps, my eyes tightly shut as sensation after sensation rolled through and over me, causing my entire body to spasm with the strength of my orgasm. I was incapable of thinking or moving for several moments afterwards, barely aware of Jamie moving up my body to take me gently in his arms.

He held me until I returned to myself. Then his lips sought mine and I could taste myself on his tongue as I kissed him slowly, increasingly aware of how hard he was through the fabric of his jeans pressing against me. My hand wandered downward to palm his bulge, smiling as bucked his hips.

“Let me touch you.”

His response was to pull back enough for my hand to worm its way between our bodies to his zipper, tugging it down enough to slide my hand inside and trace a finger along the outline of his hardening erection.

Jamie moved off my so quickly that I let out a wee yelp of surprise. But it was only to shimmy out of the rest of his clothing before he returned to the bed, aiding me so that I was now sitting on his lap. His hands were everywhere at once, stroking my skin and stoking the desire burning up within me. My breasts were flattened against his chest, the hairs tickling my flushed and sensitive skin as I kissed him. His cock was hard between us, lying almost flat against his stomach. I shifted until I was straddling his thighs and ran a finger along the vein underneath before taking a firm, tight grip and tugged, rubbing my thumb back and forth across the tip.

Jamie groaned and closed his eyes.

“Dinna stop. Please.” He moaned, dropping distracted kisses along my throat as I pumped my hand. “Just…dinna stop.”

I had absolutely no intention to do so until his pleasure was mine.

“You are beautiful, Jamie,” I stated, dropping my chin until my mouth found his and he almost devoured me, his breath coming faster and faster against my lips.

With little effort, I pushed him down to lie down on the bed, feeling empowered by the adoring way he was watching me as I dropped my face to his belly. I pressed my nose into his skin and inhaled deeply…bloody hell! He smelt so good.

Unable to resist, I began my descent lower, licking and nipping until my mouth was a hairsbreadth from his twitching cock. I glanced up, needing reassurance that this was what he wanted; Jamie nodded, and it was all the encouragement I needed. I took him into my mouth slowly, my moans of pleasure matching his own as I wrapped one hand around the base of his shaft and cupped his balls in the other. Fuck! He tasted even better.

“Ah dhia!”

I felt his fingers once more in my hair, doing nothing but tangle in my curls as he gave himself to me completely. He moved only to gently thrust up and I increased my movement, leaving me in full control as I sucked and pulled and licked and tugged to prolong his pleasure.

“Sassenach. I dinna…I cannae…” Jamie groaned and pulled on my hair, a clear indication that he wanted to move. I released him just as gently and, practically purring, I stretched my body up and over his, meeting his gaze with my own curious one. He smiled and kissed me thoroughly before stating, “I want tae come inside of ye.”

That got me wanting again, my core throbbing with need.

I wriggled, trying to build friction when Jamie suddenly moved, effortlessly rolling us both so that I was pinned beneath him. He lifted a thigh to press up into my heat, giving me just enough room to start rubbing my wet core against his hot flesh as he kissed me. Then the pressure was gone, replaced once again by his hand as his thumb stroked my clit and a finger sank inside. 

I panted desperately as a second finger entered me, rubbing that spot that made me clench around him in wanton need. Barely aware of anything beyond my own growing pleasure, I somehow reached across to the bedside table, my hand flailing about until I finally managed to open the top drawer. Jamie’s other hand was now there with me, pulling out the box of condoms I always kept in case.

There was a moment of desperate fumbling as he wrestled the box open. Then he spread my legs wide and shifted until he was kneeling between them, easing his fingers out of me. I vaguely heard the tearing of a foil packet as I had lost all sense but that of touch as he ran both hands down to my bottom and lifted my hips until I felt the taut shaft of his penis against my mound.

Jamie moaned as I gasped, wrapping my legs around his waist as he positioned me just so that my shoulders pressed down into the pillows and my arse was resting upon the tops of his thighs, the soft down of his balls tickling my flesh there.

“Claire? Mo ghràidh? I want ye tae watch as I take ye.”

I nodded and lowered my gaze, marvelling at the sight. I knew he was watching me as he very slowly brushed the head of his cock against me, so I instinctively rolled my hips enough for him to briefly slip inside. Then he thrust up into me, hard and deep, filling me almost to the hilt.

And he felt wonderful.

I sensed myself stretch to accommodate the thickness of him, my walls fluttering and clenching and drawing him further in. I breathed out slowly, expecting him to start moving but he had stilled, fingers digging into soft flesh, waiting for me to refocus back to him.

“Are ye alright?” he asked huskily, clearly worried that he might have hurt me.

I smiled and pulled one of his hands up to my mouth, licking each finger in turn before pressing an open kiss to his palm in utter reverence.

“Perfect.” I sighed, lowering his hand to my breast. “But do it now. And don’t be gentle.”

Jamie growled and finally began to move.

The hand on my breast teased and palmed and grabbed. He leaned forward to draw the other hardened nipple into his mouth, repositioning us so that one taut forearm could slide up between my shoulder blades in support as he sunk deeper with his next thrust.

“Jamie…”

“Christ! Claire…”

I flung my arms around his shoulders, the fingers of one hand sinking into the sweat-soaked curls at his neck to hold him to me while the other scraped nails down powerful muscles, causing his to shiver. I kept my eyes open to watch the way his body moved and responded to my own. His skin was flushed and glistening with sweat, the muscles of his back rippling and clenching every time he drove forward and pulled back. Our slick bodies moved together, and I cried out, screaming in pleasure as I felt him hit the spot again and again where I ached for him the most.

“Mo chridhe. Claire…fuck! I need…”

“Take whatever,” I begged, only half aware as I writhed against him that he was shifting, lowering my legs and hips to the bed to stretch and settle his body completely against mine. Now, hands and mouths were everywhere that could be reached, our breaths laboured and hot as we breathed into each other.

“Give me yer mouth, Sassenach.”

I would have given him my soul, right there and then, if he asked.

I could see the tiny beads of sweat that had formed on his upper lip from the exertion and I flicked out my tongue to taste the sweet salt of him before our mouth fused together. Jamie plunged faster and harder, rubbing every last sensation from deep within me. I did the same to him, coaxing and milking until neither of us knew where the other started or ended.

His thrusts became erratic and then I was shuddering and clutching and coming, my screams of fulfilment evaporating into the musty air around us. Jamie tumbled after me, crying out my name and a string of Gaelic words as he came.

I had no idea how long I lay there afterwards; my whole being scattered about the cosmos as I waited out the euphoric high. Jamie had barely moved other than to kiss me before rolling his weight away (no doubt to remove and throw away the condom), returning almost immediately to the shelter of my arms. He wrapped himself around me and lowered his head to rest upon my breasts, remaining still save for the occasional press of his lips to my cooling skin.

My fingers traced lazy circles across his back and shoulders as I lost all awareness of time and self.

Eventually, Jamie shifted onto his back, taking me with him so that I was now draped across his chest. I lifted my head to stare up at him, finding that his cheeks were still high with colour and his mouth was plastered with such a daft grin that it made me chuckle.

“What did you say?” I asked, pressing gentle kisses along his collarbone. “Right after…?”

“I said ‘I think my heart is goin’ tae burst’,” he replied dreamily, his voice both hoarse and soft. His gaze lowered and he stared at me, stroking my face with such tenderness that I felt unexpected tears well.  “What we just did…iffrin! It felt sae good. But…did ye enjoy it, Claire?”

“I did,” I whispered, feeling such a swell of emotion that I fear it would explode out of me. He frowned, blue eyes searching mine in concern, so I did the only thing my tumbling emotions would allow; I gave him a watery smile and pressed my lips against his, hoping to convey everything that he made me feel.

Clearly understanding, he relaxed and pulled me closer, dragging his mouth from mine to plant small, sweet kisses along my cheek, temple, and hairline. I closed my eyes and immediately felt the cocoon of sleep begin to pull me under.

“Tha gaol agam ort, mo Sorcha.”

“You’ve said that to me before,” I whispered, pulling myself awake long enough to ask, “What does it mean?”

“I’ll tell ye in the morning, Sassenach.” He whispered back, his thumb chasing circles across my cheekbones. “All of my heart and more. But for now, rest yer head for I have ye.”

And my last conscious thought was that heaven had been easily found in the circle of his arms.

Chapter Text

 

 

I can remember once saying that it took two months, three days, eleven hours and thirteen minutes before I knew I loved my husband.

Of course, he hadn’t been my husband then.

In fact, it was going to take another two years, five months and twelve days before either one of us was remotely ready to talk marriage. Life was quite funny that way.

It wasn’t because Jamie and I didn’t want to get married. It was quite the contrary; we had spoken about it and I knew that one day we would, even though we were in no particular rush to meet at the altar. After all, he was building a whisky empire from scratch and I was beginning my specialty training in general surgery. It didn’t feel right to plan a wedding in amongst all of the chaos.

Frank had gotten married of course. I had kept in touch with Reg and he had told me in passing that Frank had married some American academic and they were living happily in Boston while trying to start a family. I wished them both all the best of luck and thought no more of it, simply glad to know that we had found our happiness apart from each other.

I was perfectly content with the life I shared with Jamie and saw no reason to change it.   

But how was I to know that I was about to have all this and Heaven too.

 

~~~~~

 

It had been the warmest day of the summer so far.

The sun was beginning to set, casting the garden in a pastel pink and orange glow. A heady scent of honeysuckle clung to the air as music gently played beneath the low murmur of the voices and laughter coming from the castle. I was lying on the grass, the blades tickling the backs of my knees, so that I could watch the candyfloss clouds float by in the evening blue sky.

“Three…two…one. Ready or not, here I come!”

I sat up. My eyes scanned the garden as I listened, waiting for the tell-tale sign.

Then, from somewhere within the nearby leylandii hedge, came a rather distinct giggle.

“Hmmm,” I pondered loudly, making sure not to look over as I slowly stood. I wiggled my bare toes in the warm grass and began to walk off in the opposite direction. “I wonder where Wee Jamie is hiding this time?”

I heard him giggle again (truly, he was the happiest three-year old in all the world) but continued along the herbaceous border, pretending to search amongst the leaves and brightly coloured flowers, acting surprised every time I couldn’t find him.

This game was a particular favourite. Whenever I showed up at the door of Lallybroch, Wee Jamie would immediately monopolise my time with either play, food, or stories. More often than not, it was all three and sometimes all at once. Jenny was always grateful for the respite (especially now that she was six-months pregnant with Baby Murray Two), Ian would find it amusing, and Grandpa Brian would use the opportunity to have a quick nap.

But not that day.

Instead of Lallybroch, the whole Fraser Clan had descended upon Castle Leoch as the host of this year’s AGM, and Mrs Fitz had outdone herself with the celebrations. The castle and gardens had been festooned with bunting and fairy lights, there were floral displays on every available surface, a hog roast was sizzling above a firepit, and the champagne and whisky were flowing to the abundant cheer of all those gathered.

Normally, I would have been at Jamie’s side, but as I had been feeling a little nauseous all afternoon, I had wandered from the festivities in search of a little peace and quiet that didn’t involve going inside on such a beautiful evening. Wee Jamie had immediately taken my hand and insisted upon coming with me, not wanting his Nunty Air to be on her own. We had watched the clouds for a bit but the chance for a game of Hide and Seek was just too much to ignore.

I rounded the leylandii hedge and paused. “How are you so good at this game?” I called out, crouching down quietly until I saw the back of his shoes; he was facing away from me, his whole body shaking with giggles.

“BOO!”

He squealed in delighted surprise and scrambled out the other side of the hedge, clearing hoping to make a mad dash for it. I shot off after him but found his escape had been thwarted by a six-foot-four red haired Viking, who had effortlessly picked up his nephew and was now dangling him upside down.

“I seem to have caught a wee monster,” Jamie grinned over at me as I joined them. “Is it one of yers, my Fairy Queen?”

“Let me check,” I said, tickling Wee Jamie until he couldn’t take any more. “Yup. He appears to have escaped my court. What shall we do with him?”

Jamie pretended to ponder the matter with some seriousness. “We…could…spin him around until he gets dizzy?”

“No, Unca!” Wee Jamie shrieked, trying to wriggle free. “Air is no’ feeling well.”

Jamie raised his brows at me. “Ye alright, Claire?”

I nodded. “It was just a little nausea but nothing to worry about. I just ate too much ice cream earlier.”

Jamie cocked his head, throwing me an odd look. “Aye. From the way ye and this wee man here were scoffing it down, ye’d have thought ye’d never had it before. Or would again.”

“Well, in our defence, it was really tasty.”

“Verra tasty,” Wee Jamie chimed in, finally managing to squirm enough for Jamie to put him down. He swayed on his feet for a second before looking up at me and said with a grin, “More ice-cream, Nunty?”

“Oh! I don’t think that I could,” I said, puffing out my cheeks as I placed a hand upon my tender stomach. “I think I’ll have a glass of sparkling apple juice instead.”

Wee Jamie wrinkled his nose in disgust and then shrugged, suddenly darting off back in the direction of the castle as though his life depended upon it.

“Tell yer Ma we’ll be along shortly,” Jamie called after him, shaking his head before saying to me. “He’ll no’ tell her, will he?”

I patted his arm affectionately. “Nope. Not when there is ice-cream to be eaten.”

Jamie nodded in agreement, handing me a bottle of sparkling water that I hadn’t even noticed he’d been holding. “Here, Sassenach. Tis still cold.”

As I took a grateful sip, feeling the bubbles pop all the way down to my stomach to settle the strange fluttering, I took the opportunity to stare at Jamie. He was wearing the Fraser tartan, the kilt falling about his knees in a rather attractive way; I’d never considered knees to be sexy until Jamie (or maybe, it was just his knees that drew my eye). At some point in the thirty minutes since I had last seen him, he had shrugged off his jacket and tie, effectively shedding the businessman who, only a few hours before, had stood before his employees and stakeholders to deliver his speech on the distillery’s first year. He was still wearing the fitted waistcoat though, with the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to the elbow.

He was as breathtakingly handsome as always.

Jamie reached out to pull me to him, wrapping himself around me from behind. “Feeling any better?” he asked, pressing a gentle kiss to my curls before dropping his chin to my shoulder.

“I am,” I murmured, folding my arms over his. “I hope I didn’t miss anything by wandering off?”

“No’ much, other than Da and Murtagh deciding it’s time for a ceilidh.”

“They’ve had that much whisky?”

“Aye.” He tightened his hold and stifled a yawn. “I dinna ken about ye, Sassenach, but I’m too bloody knackered to swing myself about.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” I replied, leaning aside enough to place a gentle kiss on his cheek. “You were marvellous today, Jamie.”

He closed his eyes and smiled. “I did no’ think this week would ever come to an end. All those meetings and preparations and endless sleepless nights...actually, I had no qualms about those” – he pressed his mouth to my neck and gave a satisfied growl – “Ye soon wore me out, Sassenach.”

“Only too happy to help,” I giggled, rolling my head back to the side to allow him better access to my neck and jawline. He accepted the invitation with his usual enthusiasm, licking and kissing his way up to claim my mouth in such a way that left me feeling wonderfully dazed after he pulled away.

“Tis no’ only that though,” he murmured, his mouth now close to my ear and his large hand splayed across my stomach. “I hope I’ve never given ye the slightest doubt that I needed ye, Sassenach?”

“No. To the best of my knowledge, you needed me urgently the moment I saw you. And I haven’t had reason to think you’ve got any more self-sufficient since.”

Jamie threw back his head and laughed. “Tis true enough.”

“It’s the same for me, you know,” I said quietly, drawing patterns with my fingers all along his bare arm. “When my core surgical training was coming to end, you were there to support me when I struggled with which specialty to go into. You dried every one of my tears of frustration and anger and happiness, picked me back up whenever I stumbled, and have been everything else in between. You have given me a place to belong.”

He held me tighter. “I knew ye belonged here, with me, almost since the first time I laid eyes on ye. Christ! I wanted you more than I ever wanted anything in my life. But I kent I loved ye that morning at the Black Kirk and now I wake up every day and I find that I love ye more than I did the day before. Will ye take a walk wi’ me, Sassenach?”

I pulled back and blinked at the sudden question. “What? Now?”

“Aye.”

I eyed him suspiciously but nodded all the same, leaning on him in order to slide my heels back on.  

“Where are we going?” I asked, brushing away the grass from the back of my dress.

“I just have a mind to ask ye a question tis all,” Jamie answered mysteriously, taking my hand and leading us back across the lawn towards the herb garden. “But I dinna want tae ask ye it here.”

My throat had gone dry. “What sort of question?” Actually, I had a rather sneaky suspicion…

He smiled at me but instead on answering, he asked, “Have I told ye how beautiful ye look today?”

“You have and don’t try to distract me.”

His eyes crinkled in delight. “I’m no’. Besides, if one of us were trying tae distract the other, it’ll be ye in that dress.”

I glanced down; the backless, sleeveless halter neck dress was dark gold in colour and embroidered with hundreds of tiny wildflowers along the hem of the swing skirt. “You have been rather preoccupied by it since this morning,” I mused, squeezing his hand. I hadn’t forgotten that the reason we were very nearly late to the AGM was because I needed to redo my hair and makeup as Jamie had taken it upon himself to show me just how appreciative of the dress he had been.

“Ye cannae blame me, Sassenach,” he stated, briefly kissing my shoulder and leaving behind the familiar tingles that leapt and sizzled beneath my skin. Jesus H Roosevelt Christ! How did he do that? “Wi’ yer skin like white velvet…God. I cannae look at ye and keep my hands from ye, nor be near ye and no’ want ye.”

“Is that not how you felt the first time we lay together?”

Jamie paused as we reached the woodland path and kissed me briefly, hard on the mouth. “Tis always been forever for me, Sassenach.”

“Jamie…”

“Dinna fash, Sassenach,” he whispered against my mouth, giving me a look that left me feeling damp and prickly behind the knees. “I’ve a mind tae serve ye well when we get home, mo chridhe. But right now, I have somethin’ else in mind.”

My heart skipped its usual beat as he led me onwards.

“Bloody Scot.”

We walked along the now familiar path, bathed in the glorious evening light. “The Black Kirk.” I whispered in wonder, gasping in delight as the loose rubble boundary wall suddenly came into view with the ruins rising behind it. I turned to Jamie and asked, “What made you want to come here?”

“A few things, Sassenach. But I’d like tae explain them inside if I may.”

He pushed open the rusty gate, leading the way towards the western end and the narrow rectangular window. I smiled as I recalled the moment we had first connected, quite literally, at that window, and I glanced over at Jamie, noticing that he was watching me closely, his own mouth pulled up in a sweet smile.

“Do ye remember that day, Sassenach?”

“I do.” I said encouragingly. “I still have no idea how my nose wasn’t broken considering how bloody hard your head is.”

“I was petrified that I’d truly hurt ye.” He murmured, lifting our joined hands to place a kiss upon my wrist “My heart was practically thumping out of my chest wit’ fear and excitement and sheer joy at being able to talk tae ye at last.”

“I also remember that this was where you first called me Sassenach.”

“No’ really. I’d been callin’ ye that long before I actually said it tae yer face.” He confessed, urging me to take a seat upon the low wall. “Tis just who ye are. My Sassenach. It was yer Englishness that first attracted me to ye. Well, that and yer whisky eyes and round arse.”

“Round arse, eh? Ever the flatterer, Fraser.”

He grinned, leaning forward to nudge my nose with his. “Aye.” He kissed me quickly and then lowered himself down onto one knee before me.

Oh! Bloody hell…the ridiculous man was going to make me cry.

“I could no’ have managed this week, this month, these near three years, wi’out ye, Claire. Having ye by my side, being able to come home tae ye, tae turn to ye wi’ my problems and ken that ye would be there to help me solve them, has been everything. Being wi’ ye has meant more to me that I could have ever thought or hoped it could be. Ye are my comfort and my shelter. Yer face is my heart, Sassenach. And the love of ye is my soul.”

He paused for a moment to take a deep breath, his shaking voice betraying the depths of his emotions.

“Ye werena the first lass I kissed,” he continued softly. “But I swear you’ll be the last. I have but one life, Claire, and tis yers if ye want me. Will ye marry me?”

His gaze was burning into mine. I could feel the tears spilling down my cheeks. Needing to touch him, I practically threw myself at him so that I could cup his face in my hands. “I love you!” I whispered, feeling him shudder beneath my fingertips as I drew his face to mine. I kissed him fiercely with everything I had, feeling him kiss me back with just as much passion. Why was I so greedy for his kisses? I was already wanting the next one and the one after that and then the one after that…

Jamie pulled back enough to see my face, wiping away my tears with the tips of his thumbs, and asked, “Is that a yes, Claire?”

“Yes.” I sobbed happily, peppering his face with kisses and tasting the salt of his own tears. “Yes, I will marry you.”

He laughed with relief, releasing me long enough to start fumbling around in his sporran, clearly looking for something. Finally, he produced a beautiful silver ring, engraved with thistles and set with a single diamond. I glanced back and forth between the ring and Jamie, not knowing what else to say or do, other than hold my left hand out towards him. He slid the ring on (both of us gasping as it fit my finger perfectly) but before I had the chance to admire it, I was back in his arms.

The kiss started slow but with the first glide of Jamie’s tongue against my own, it soon became more about heat and want and need. My whole body was throbbing; the pulsing of my blood now nothing short of pounding as Jamie pressed me back into the grass, kissing his way down the column of my throat to leave my breaths coming in short, sharp gasps. Our hands began to delve under hems, fingers toying with buttons…

“I thought you were going to wait until we got home?” I panted against his skin, lifting my hips so that he had could remove my knickers, barely noticing where he flung them in abandonment.

“A slight change of plan, mo ghràdh. Christ! I want ye sae much.”

In truth, I had to have him now and he clearly wanted the same, pulling away from me to fumble out of his waistcoat in comedic haste. My eyes were glued to the movements of his hands, watching as he managed to shrug the garment off before throwing it to one side with a triumphant cry. I tried to stifle my laughter, but the heady mix of pure happiness and Jamie Fraser made it impossible. He was such a fool, but he was my fool.

“Are ye laughing at me?”

“I most certainly am.” I giggled but then gasped as he was suddenly upon me, his mouth and hands everywhere.

“Then ye shall get what ye deserve,” he growled in my ear, setting to his work.

He undid the button that held the bodice of my dress up, tugging it down to expose my naked breasts to his worship as he drew a hardened nipple into his mouth. He suckled and lathered on one before dragging his open mouth to the other, licking and nipping in equal devotion.

I couldn’t take the lack of skin to skin contact much longer. I took a hold of his ears and pulled his upwards so that I could kiss him. And now it was my hands that were moving over his body, my fingers making light work of the shirt buttons and revealing his chest and torso to my touch. I caused him to suck in a breath as I scrapped my nails across his hard muscles, flicking his peaked nipples as my fingers journeyed up, my hands sliding beneath the fabric at his shoulders as he helped to shrug the shirt off and away.

Immediately, we drew each other closer and sighed in pleasure as we rubbed and stroked and stoked the burning heat of our desire. His mouth found its way to my neck and I stretched to give him better access, panting as my hands travelled down his back to cup his buttocks, pulling him closer to my heat. He groaned as I sighed, feeling the hardness of his cock against my belly through the layers of dress and kilt. I cursed as I attempted to push all the fabric out of the way without releasing him from my hold, eager to feel him in the grip of my hand.

“Do ye want me to stop to take it off, a nighean?” he chuckled, lathering his tongue over the spot upon my breast where he had just lightly bitten me. I felt his palm press against the inside of my thigh, the tip of his middle finger slipping against my sleek wetness.

“No time for that,” I heard myself saying, my desire making me desperate for him. “I just want you inside me.”

“Aye,” he agreed, shifting just enough for me to finally find purchase. My fingers encircled him, stroking him once, twice, before guiding him towards my entrance. He grunted and thrust into my hand, adjusting to settle between my legs as he ran his hands down the back of my thighs. Needing no further encouragement, I wrapped my legs around him and lifted my hips, crying out as he slid inside, sinking deeper and deeper until he filled me completely.  

Jamie stilled, waiting until my gaze found his. Gold met blue as he stared down at me, smiling slightly in wonder and rapture. Having no doubt that my expression matched his, I cupped his face in my hands and drew him down for a languid kiss, our tongues stroking and probing with wanton need. I was the first to pull back, brushing my thumb across his bottom lip and sighing as he grazed it with his teeth before dipping his head to kiss the inside of my wrist.

Then slowly, exquisitely, Jamie pulled out only to thrust back hard, the action making me cry out. “Does it ever stop?” he panted into my ear. “The wanting ye?”

Bloody hell, I hope not . Because I knew with every fibre of my being that I would always want him. But I was unable to find my voice to answer him, the silence of the kirk being filled with the sighs and groans of our coming together. With every thrust, I shuddered and clutched at him, crying out a crescendo of gasps and screams and demands for him to push harder, to reach deeper. He met each roll of my hips with grunts and groans of his own, shouting my name and strings of Gaelic words as he brought me to the very edge of heaven. Then, with bursts of starlight, we pushed each other over into sweet oblivion.

Time had no meaning afterwards. We stayed where we were, limbs entangled as our heated, flushed skin cooled in the encroaching twilight. Lifting a hand, I began drawing lazy circles across the width of his back as Jamie cupped a breast, wanting nothing more than to simply maintain contact as the last shudders of our climax subsided.  

“Christ, Sassenach,” he murmured, lifting his head to press a damp kiss to the base of my throat.

I hummed in agreement. “That was…” I broke off, apparently still too dazed to form a coherent thought or sentence. “I don’t…”

“I ken, mo chridhe. I felt it too.”

 

~~~~~

 

I woke the next morning covered in grass stains.

My gaze sought the ring on my finger as I remembered the rather obvious walk of shame Jamie and I had to endure when we returned to the castle. Thankfully, any jeering was limited once the ring was spotted on my finger. I was hugged and kissed and congratulated, while Jamie was clapped on the back and told it was about time that he proposed. We spent the rest of the night basking in our newly engaged happiness, finding any excuse to touch and kiss and occasionally whisper something deliciously filthy things in the others ear. And every time my entire body would respond with both want and need, shivering with an unquenchable desire.   

Thankfully, the drive back to our cottage on the outskirts of Broch Mordha was short. The time taken to get completely naked on the floor of the hallway even shorter.

Our home, a nineteenth-century toll cottage, had been a surprise from Jamie about a year after we officially became a couple. Although Inverness was convenient for us both, it had been me who had suggested making the move closer to his family and the distillery project. I had reasoned that as our free weekends (and my days off) were spent there anyway, I didn’t mind the commute into the city as long as we could find somewhere that was just for us. It had been one dreary afternoon in January when Jamie had shown me around the abandoned space, asking if I could see us having a life together there.

We had moved in exactly three months later.  

My phones alarm gently buzzed and I quickly swiped it off, glancing over at Jamie. He was still asleep on his back, a sweet smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Me too, my lad. Me too.

As quietly as I could, I rolled out of bed (but not before running my nose along his and placing light kisses on both closed eyelids) and padded naked into the bathroom. But before I even made it to the door, my stomach pitched, and I only just made it to the toilet bowl before last night’s dinner made an unwelcome return.

Perhaps it wasn’t the ice cream after all .

Twenty minutes later, scrubbed clean, teeth brushed and dressed for a shift in the ED (although my stomach was still unsettled), I made my way back to Jamie. He was now awake, sitting up against the headboard and watching the bathroom door intently. He barely flinched as it opened, his sapphire gaze shifting to my face with concern.

“Are ye sure yer alright, a nighean?”

“I think so. But I’ll check in with Doctor Rawlings before my shift.” – he beckoned me over and I climbed onto the bed to lay beside him – “You were out last night the moment your head touched the pillow. I hope I wasn’t too rough on you last night?”

“Ye could raise me from the dead for that,” he murmured, pressing his lips to my forehead as he tucked me into his side. “And no, Sassenach. Because if ye bed a vixen, ye expect tae get bit. Do ye have time this morning tae bite me some more?”

“Ever the charmer, Fraser. But no…I’ve got to be at the hospital in an hour.”

He sighed, his thumb rolling the ring back and forth across my finger. “Will ye be able to wear it today?”

“Mostly. Besides, Geillis is going to want to see it.”

“How far do you think ye’ll get through the door before she does?”

“Oohhh…about an inch. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if her sixth sense hadn’t already picked it up.”

At that precise moment, my phone beeped with an incoming message from Geillis.

“The woman is a witch,” Jamie said, shaking his head. “Will ye call me if Doctor Rawlings tells ye anything? Or if ye just need to come home? I will no’ be missed at the distillery if ye need me here.”

“I will. And please don’t worry. I’m sure it’s nothing serious.”

As it turned out, I was terribly wrong in my estimate of both Geillis and the reason why my stomach was unsettled.

“Will ye look at the size of that rock!” - I wasn’t even at the door to the hospital before my best friend was upon me - “When did the wee fox cub propose?” She asked, lifting my hand closer to her face so that she could inspect the ring.

“Last night, after the AGM.”

“And ye’ve come to work this morning? Christ! When Greg proposed, I dinna leave the bed for two days.”

“That’s something I didn’t ask to know about,” I laughed as we walked towards the lift. “How is married life? You are positively glowing, by the way.”

“Glorious,” she sighed, her smile ridiculously sappy. “I did no’ think I could ever be this happy but wi’ Greg…he is the other half of my heart, ye ken. And as for glowing, have ye looked in a mirror this morning, hen.”

“This is the glow of a sunburn,” I sulked, checking out my reflection in the lift’s doors. I felt the sudden swell of emotion burn the backs of my eyes…was I about to start crying because of it? “And you and Greg are the damn sweetest couple that ever existed. Plus, he is an absolutely amazing designer – that dress he made for me to wear yesterday is stunning.”

Geillis grinned. “Aye. He said ye’d liked it. And we figured Jamie would like it too.”

“Well…quite.” I blushed, much to Geillis’ amusement. “I was hoping Greg would be interested in designing my wedding dress.”

“Really. Oh, hen, he’ll love to.”

“And your Best Woman’s outfit as well?”

Geillis squealed loudly as the lift pinged open. “Truly? Ye mean it, hen? Christ! I’ve got everything planned already…where are ye going?”

Much to my friends confusion, I had stepped out of the lift a floor too soon. “I’ve been feeling a little off lately so I’m just going to check in with Doctor Rawlings to be on the safe side.”  

“I see,” she mused as the doors began to slowly close. “Perhaps ye should ask Greg to design some baby clothes too then.”

“Why would he-?” but the lift was already on the move.

It wasn’t until later that day, as I sat on the couch in the cottage’s living room, staring down at the sonogram in my hand and holding Jamie to me with the other as he wept tears of utter joy, that I had to admit that perhaps he was right - perhaps Geillis was a witch after all.

“Are ye sure, Sassenach?”

I nodded, wiping away his tears with the pads of my thumbs. “Yes Jamie. Either we are going to have to get married in the next month, or we wait the six months until Baby Fraser can be there in person.”