He smiled broadly as he approached the table, two fresh drinks in his hand. Annalise and the utter bastard had been enjoying the end of their meal when Claire had pushed him forward with nothing more than a whispered ‘good luck’ and a promise to appear just as planned before hurrying back to her room.
Ye bloody better do, Sassenach.
“Do ye mind if I join ye?” He asked but didn’t give them much time to object before he plonked himself down on one of the remaining chairs. He turned to the utter bastard, looked him up and down, and smiled. “Ye must be the Frenchman who stole my Annalise’s heart.”
The other man smirked. “I did not steal anything that did not want to be stolen.”
Jamie gritted his teeth.
Annalise nervously shifted in her seat. Jamie couldn’t blame her. He had dreaded this first meeting, afraid of what he would say and do. Would he recognise her as the woman he loved, or would she be different somehow? What Jamie hadn’t counted on was how he would be the one that felt different.
Because now, everything had changed.
She placed her small hand timidly on his sleeve. “Jamie? Mon petit sauvage?”
“I dinna come here for a fight, lass.” Jamie reassured her, patting her hand. “Ye see, after ye dumped me without even bothering to say it to my face, I decided to get on the train to Inverness and get ye back. Because there was no way everything that I’d been building towards would be taken from me by some – this is before I kent ye personally - mac na galla. But then, I realised something.”
“What?” Annalise asked breathlessly.
He smiled thoughtfully. “That ye canna protect yerself against everything. There's no home safe enough, no relationship that’s secure enough. Yer setting yerself up for an even bigger fall. And that's when I met Claire.”
“Claire? Who iz this Claire?”
“Och, here she is now.”
Jamie stood to motion Claire over and was quite sure his jaw must have hit the flaw. Christ, what is she wearing?
It was a stunning red dress, cut low to show off as much of her pearlescent skin as descent. She had tied her hair up, leaving only a few errant curls loose to bounce about her face. Jamie dragged his eyes downwards, following her bare legs to the red strappy heels she wore. He couldn’t help the image that popped into his head; those legs and heels wrapped around his ears and shoulders as he drove her as crazy...
“Come on over. I want ye to meet someone. Claire, Annalise. Annalise, Claire.”
“Enchantée. J’espère que vous avez apprécié votre repas?” Claire beamed, surprising him with her near perfect French.
Annalise’s own smile was strained. “Votre français est bon, pour une femme anglaise.”
“Oh dear.” Claire laughed, switching back to English as she took the last remaining seat at the table. She leaned over to press a gentle kiss to Jamie’s cheek. She smelt of orange flowers and jasmine, and her scent went straight to his groin. “I appear to have been caught out, darling.”
The utter bastard, tired of not being included in the conversation, leaned forward. “What iz it that you do, Claire?”
She winked at Jamie, turning her attention to him. “Besides what Jamie and I do together, Mr…?”
“Comte Charles Gauloise.”
“Indeed. But how extraordinarily lucky I am to meet someone from the French aristocracy.” She practically purred, winking at Jamie as she grabbed her glass of red wine. “Tell me, Comte, what area of France are your family from?”
Jamie took his cue and switched his own attention to Annalise. “Tis a transitional thing, ye ken, to help me get over us. She is incredible, no?”
“Oui.” She snarled, glaring daggers in Claire’s direction. “Elle est incroyable.” – she glanced at him – “How did you know to find me, mon chéri?”
Jamie took a swig of his beer. “I overheard ye, in the hotel in Inverness.”
Her blue eyes widened. “You were there?”
“Oh aye. I had this notion of coming to speak to ye. But then, ye sauntered out of the hotel so I did no’ get the chance.”
“Jamie…I did not mean…that iz…”
“Dinna fash. Claire was there and, well…she offered me a ride, ye ken.”
Annalise started to turn a rather unattractive shade of puce.
Jamie immediately turned back to Claire.
“It seems that we are interrupting a rather important dinner. But as you and Annalise have a lot to talk about, perhaps the lovely Comte would like to keep me company over a dram while you two hash it out?”
“Zat sounds like a wonderful idea.” Annalise quickly agreed. “Perhaps we can join you at the bar in a little while?”
“Splendid.” Claire smiled sweetly. “Does that suit you, darling?”
Jamie reached for Claire’s hand. He gave her a sly smile before lifting it to his lips, brushing a kiss over the knuckles. “As ye say, mo ghràdh.”
He held her gaze, his breath shortening as his heartrate pulsed. She too was unable to look away, her eyes blown wide. Jamie heard her gasp as he bent his head to press his lips to her wrist, his tongue darting out to taste her skin. They were oblivious to everyone but themselves.
“Then it is settled.” The Comte’s slightly nasal voice broke their reverie. “We shall give you all the time you need.”
Claire sat at the bar, only half listening to the Comte prattle on about some car or other he was thinking of buying.
She was only half-listening because the house-band were quite good, and her gaze kept wandering over to where Jamie was sat. She didn’t want to pry but her curiosity was winning out. Their heads were bent close together, gold and red shimmering in the light. Impossibly, heartbreakingly beautiful. The conversation was intense between the two, with Annalise constantly placing her hand on either Jamie’s arm or thigh with a lover’s familiarity.
Jealously reared up as she watched from over the rim of her wine glass.
“What do you think about it, Claire?”
At the mention of her name, Claire glanced back at the Comte. He was handsome enough – dark hair slicked back, grey eyes, impeccable fashion sense. But he was vapid and self-centred, wore far too much expensive cologne, and if his hand ‘accidentally’ touched her once more, she was going to have to ‘accidentally’ break every one of his fingers.
“I’m sorry. About what exactly?”
He pointed his square chin at Jamie and Annalise. “Having those two together in the same room.”
She took a sip of her wine and shrugged. “I don’t have anything to think about. It is for them to sort out. They’ve only been separated for a week.”
“It haz actually been longer, at least for Annalise and I.” He corrected her casually, swilling the port in his glass around. “We have been seeing each other for the past six-months, but she woz just waiting for the right time to tell Fraser that it woz over.”
Claire felt her blood chill and boil simultaneously. “Is that so?”
“It iz. Poor Fraser never really stood a chance once she met me.”
Oh! The absolute arrogance of the man! Claire had a mind to say something scathing but a sudden flash of movement caught her eye. She turned as Jamie led Annalise to the dancefloor. With mounting dismay, she watched as he took her in his arms, lifting their joined hands to rest between them as they swayed with the music. She placed her head on his shoulder and he tenderly kissed the top of her golden halo of hair. It was an intimate gesture and Claire was beginning to feel like a voyeur as her whole world narrowed.
Her heart didn’t break. Her heart didn’t shatter.
Her heart just ceased to be.
“Looks like they are sorting things out.” The Comte whispered in her ear, his breath hot and sticky from all the port he had been drinking. “I guess one of us will be needing to find another bed to sleep in tonight.”
An ice-cold chill ran down Claire’s back. “What on earth do you mean by that?” she hissed, turning slowly to face him.
“Surely, a whore does not care az long az she iz paid.”
The palm of her hand had made a rather satisfactory cracking sound as it made direct contact with his cheek. “I am no whore, Comte Gauloise. And my business is none of yours.”
She downed the last of her wine and stormed out of the bar. Damning the very existence of all three of them, Claire made a hasty retreat along the harbour and up into the town. She had no idea where she was going, nor any idea of what she was going to do once she got there, but she needed to go.
It was ten minutes later that Claire found herself standing before the Apothecary’s Tower, known locally as ‘The Lump’. The walk had been easy if not a little precarious, the woodland path that wove its way had a steep bank down to the water below. But it was worth it as the tower afforded some of the most astonishing views across the harbour and a place for Claire to try to gather herself back together.
The adrenalin of her anger had worn off and she was now facing the overwhelming crash. She had been a fool to fall in love with Jamie, knowing that his heart belonged to another. And she couldn’t blame him, not even if she tried. He owed her nothing. He knew nothing of her feelings. Absently, she ran her thumb over the back of her hand and wrist, remembering the feel of his lips there. It had been nothing more than a light touch, but Claire had felt it to the very marrow of her bones. It had felt like a thousand different pulses of electricity, all going off at once upon her skin.
And in that one moment, everything had felt perfect. Her whole future had seemed etched within the sapphire-blue of his gaze, a lifetime to love and to be loved. An infinite number of possibilities for happiness. Home. Family. Together.
But she had been so wrong. Oh, how could she have been so wrong.
Claire allowed the tears to fall. Allowed the sobs to wrack her body, to shatter her bones. To strangle the breath from her lungs. She allowed herself to grieve, to feel the full weight of her loss. She would never be happy, but she felt gratitude towards Jamie for reawakening what she had thought long dead. For giving her hope that there was a life for her to live and she was going to take it.
She was going to get the money owed to her and she was going to live.
Jamie had woken with a much lighter heart.
For the past week, it had felt as though he’d been struggling to breathe. But since last night, after speaking with Annalise, he now felt like the air was clear once more. He had wanted to share this revelation with Claire, but the Comte had passed on her message that she had returned to her room with a headache and she would see him in the morning. Jamie had paid attention though, seeing the red handprint on the utter bastards cheek; it took most of his self-control not to punch the man in the face.
He had knocked gently on Claire’s door, his stomach falling when she didn’t answer
He needed to go for a run.
The day had dawned under a blue sky. Loading his favourite podcast, Jamie headed out of the hotel and up into the town. As he ran, he began reflecting on his talk with Annalise.
They were making a list of their life together, deciding on who would get what of their belongings.
“The wee lamps we got in Belgium are yers,” Jamie said, ticking things off a napkin. “The love seat...how about we take a chainsaw to it and make two wee chairs instead?”
Annalise gave a small sigh. “Can we not talk about zis, mon chéri? Itz so depressing, non?”
Jamie shook his head. “Tis what couples have to do when they break up, Annalise. I could just sell everything off, ye ken. Write ye a cheque for half?”
Her blue eyes were shining. “You must hate me…”
“I dinna.” He assured her, patting her hand. “Not at all.”
“Jamie…I just feel so guilty.”
He shook his head. “Dinna fash, lass. This will all turn out to be the best thing for both of us, ye ken.”
Annalise stared at him as he continued to run down the list. “You just seem so different” - she interrupted for the umpteenth time - “But ze same, non. It iz like somebody came along and turned on a light inside you.”
The house-band started playing ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ and Jamie felt the sudden rippling wrench of loss. This was their song, the one he and Annalise had danced to on their first date. With a bittersweet smile, Jamie offered Annalise his hand, which she took, knowing his intention. He led her to the dancefloor and, for the last time, wrapped his arms around her.
“I am so sorry, mon petit sauvage.”
“Please stop apologising, lass. What is done is done.” Jamie said, feeling sorry for her now. Her eyes were brimming with tears, but his heart was not swayed. “But I do have one question for ye. Why was it no’ ye that turned on this Jamie light ye see now?”
“I cannot say,” she sniffed, looking at the diamond ring on her finger. “But Charles iz…he iz wonderful. And he loves me in the same way az Claire loves you, I think.”
Jamie shook his head in disbelief, resisting the urge to look across the room to her. “She does no’ love me.”
Annalise tilted her head back. “Are you sure, mon ch éri? I have seen the way she looks at you. Iz the same way I look at Charles, I think. The same az how you look at her when you think she will not notice.”
Hope fluttered in his heart. “Ye ken, no matter how I seem now, I’m still the same old me from yesterday. The same old me who wants the home and the bairns. The man who wants to plant roots and see them grow. If ye dinna want that with me, what makes ye so sure that she does?”
“I am sorry if I broke you in some way, Jamie.” Annalise cried wretchedly. “But Claire…she’ll want for different things than I, mon ch éri.”
Jamie finally slowed an hour later, coming to a stop overlooking the harbour just in front of the hotel. He braced his elbows on the rail and waited for his pulse and breathing to return to normal. He quietly watched the boats bobbing on the water, his thoughts already turning to how he was going to explain everything to Claire.
“It’s a beautiful day, is it not, Jamie?”
Jerking his head up in surprise, Jamie found a small man now standing beside him. He barely reached his elbow, his silver hair pulled back at his nape with a black ribbon.
Jamie smiled politely. “Do we ken each other?”
The man shook his head, turning his friendly black eyes upon him. “No. My name is Raymond and we have a mutual acquaintance. I’d like to talk to you about a watch that is in her possession.”
“A watch? I dinna know anything about a watch….”
The man smiled. “I owe her uncle a debt, one that is much bigger than any amount of money. And I would like to keep her out of prison, if I can. You see, I have reason to believe that the watch does not belong to her. She has asked me to sell it on her behalf, but it is not something that I can be associated with. And she cannot be seen with it in her possession.”
“What has this to do wit’ me?”
“It is quite simple, Jamie. Bring the watch to me and I will return it to its rightful owner. Claire need not know any difference.”
“But what of the money?” Jamie pointed out, his head spinning. “Will she no’ need it?”
Raymond nodded. “She will receive what is due.”
“What makes you think that she’ll agree?”
Raymond turned back to stare at the water. “She must. And it will be possible to get the watch to me, anonymously, if you know how. It really is a beautiful day, Jamie. I hope you will be able to enjoy it.”
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ. Why did I let him talk me into this?
Claire was anxiously pacing up and down the pier. Every few steps she would pause and look up, hoping to see Jamie appear at the door. He had already been talking with Raymond for over an hour and the waiting was agonising. But once it was over, once she had the cheque in her hands, then she could leave with her head held high and find a tiny stone cottage in the middle of bloody nowhere, where she could go and lick her wounds.
She heard him knocking gently on her door.
It was ten-thirty in the morning and Claire had not seen or spoken to Jamie since last night. When she had returned to the hotel sometime around mid-night, she had paused outside of Jamie’s door, clenching her fits to stop from knocking. But it was late, and she really didn’t want to disturb him any more than she should.
She opened the door and there he was. A red-haired Viking.
“Mo ghràdh?” His blue eyes scanned her face. “Are ye feeling better?”
She frowned in puzzlement. “Was I sick?”
“Were ye unsure?”
He laughed. “Seems ye need a coffee, Sassenach. Have ye had breakfast yet?”
She nodded. “You?”
They fell into an unfamiliar silence.
Claire cleared her throat. “How did things go with Annalise? Have the two of you sorted everything out?”
Jamie rolled back on his heels, placing his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “Aye. We are in a good place. But I dinna get to ask how yer meeting with yer contact went yesterday?”
She blinked in surprise, having not expected him to have remembered. “It was promising, thank you.”
“Would ye mind telling me about what ye hope to sell?”
Claire narrowed her eyes. “Why do you want to know?”
He shrugged a shoulder. “Tis only that I negotiate business deals for my uncle all the time, Sassenach. He owns a rather large vineyard and so is always needing to get the best from his suppliers and such. Perhaps…I could meet wit’ yer contact for ye? Make sure ye are getting a fair price, ye ken.”
She eyed him suspiciously but stood to one side to allow him into her room. She closed the door and went to her bag in order to recover the wooden pencil case from within. She turned to find Jamie standing immediately behind her, watching her closely.
“Alright,” she agreed, pushing along the lid. The case wasn’t filled with pencils but rather a delicate diamond-set watch. She lifted it from the case and handed it to him. “Frank brought this with my uncles money for his then favourite mistress. It is entirely made up of diamonds and 18 karat white gold. And it’s the bloody ugliest watch I’ve ever seen.”
Jamie snorted as he examined it more closely. “How much is it worth, Sassenach?”
She leaned in closer. “A rather cool one-hundred and seventy-four thousand pounds.”
It was a further agonising twenty minutes, just as Claire was sure she was about to go mad, that Jamie finally appeared and started towards her. However, judging by the sheepish look on his face, she was not like what he was about to tell her.
He handed her the cheque and waited until she had seen the numbers before speaking. “He said there was a flaw.”
“A flaw?” She wrinkled her forehead in disbelief. “But…that is not possible.”
“Actually, he said that there were some flaws.”
“Some flaws? Some flaws?” She stopped, baffled. “He bloody didn’t notice them yesterday.”
Jamie shrugged. “I dinna ken what to say, Sassenach. He just said that they were beautiful diamonds but, officially, there were flaws. I’m sorry, lass.”
She took a deep breath and let the air out again slowly. “It is okay, Jamie.”
“Of course. It…is a little less then I had hoped for, but it will be more than enough to start a new life. Thank you, Jamie.” She stretched up to press her lips to his cheek. She lingered a second longer, feeling the sensation of his stubble beneath her lips. Then she remembered herself and stepped away. “Thank you for everything.”
She stood there, holding his gaze, her feet suddenly reluctant to move.
It’s time, Claire. Time to rip the plaster from the wound. “You should probably go. Won’t Annalise be waiting for you?”
He stilled, whispering. “Is that what ye think?”
“I am happy for you, Jamie.” sShe continued, determined to get through what she needed to say but not really hearing him.
Jamie shook his head. “Sassenach, ye dinna understand…”
But Claire held up her hand to stop him. “Really. You don’t have to explain anything. It’s been an odd three-days, but I think it is over now. You have a life to return to in Paris and I…well, I have a life to find. I don’t know that we’ll see each other again so I wish you all the very best, Jamie. You deserve it so much.”
He went to grab her hand. “Will ye no’ let me explain, Claire?”
“What is there to explain?”
“Annalise and I…”
“There really is no need, Jamie. I hope she can make you happy this time.”
And with that, Claire turned on her heel and walked away. She heard him call out to her, but she refused to look back. She couldn’t. Not if she still hoped to save herself. She walked until she rounded the furthest corner and then fell against the wall as heart-breaking sobs ripped through her.
‘Good evening and welcome to the eight-forty-five Caledonian Sleeper from Inverness to London Euston.’
Jamie stared out of the window, watching the bustle of the platform beyond. His stomach was churning but it was the lesser of his pains. His heart…well, his heart was only half the size it once was.
‘We will be calling at Aviemore, Kingussie, Newtonmore…’
He closed his eyes and tried to relax. He had wanted to follow Claire, to fall upon his knees and beg her to listen, to get her to hear him and the truth of his heart. But she had run from him so quickly that she was gone before he could reach for her. He had never held her, but somehow his arms felt bereft, lost without her.
Jamie still didn’t understand how Claire could have so misunderstood the situation. How she could have misinterpreted his actions or his words. He had stumbled back inside the hotel, determined to wait for her to return.
But after an hour, Claire still had not returned.
“You will be needing a lift back to Inverness, I think.”
Jamie, dazed, looked up to see Raymond standing before him. “Claire…”
“Needs time.” He interjected. “Her head will clear, and she’ll come around. She will just have to see the truth for herself, which she will.”
Jamie laughed, despite himself. “Do you ever no’ talk in riddles?”
He smiled slyly. “Come. I will take you back to Inverness.”
Someone brushed against his elbow and he caught the distinct aroma of leaves and herbs…
Her voice was like a jolt of electricity to his heart. He kept his eyes closed and smiled. “Yes?”
“Are you feeling alright?”
He nodded. “Aye. I’ve got a new way to keep the sickness down, ye ken.”
“Really?” He could hear the smile in her voice. “Do you want to tell me what it is?”
“Only on two conditions, Sassenach.”
She chuckled softly. “Which are?”
“My full name is James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser. Tis going to be important, moving forwards.”
“Okay. Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. And your second condition?”
Jamie opened his eyes, immediately finding Claire’s. She was kneeling on the seat beside his, her face level with his own. His eyes roamed over her, reaching out to cup her face so that he could rub his thumb along her cheek. She sighed in bliss, turning slightly to press her nose into his palm.
“I need ye to tell what happened, Sassenach?”
She let out a long breath. “I…I saw you and Annalise together. And I couldn’t get my head around it. But you looked so happy that I thought that, maybe, you had managed to convince her that she was wrong.”
“And ye did no’ think about the Comte in all of this?”
“Hardly.” She sniffed. “He is an absolute utter bastard, by the way. I’m pretty sure they’ll make each other miserable.”
A tear spilled over his thumb. “Seeing you with her broke my heart, Jamie.”
“I tried to explain…”
Claire nodded. “I know. I saw them together, a while after I walked away. But by the time I made it back to the hotel, you were gone. I’m that sorry, Jamie. I just couldn’t see through the heartache.”
“How did you ken I’d come back to Inverness?”
She gave him a shaky smile. “Raymond. He…left a note for me.” Her whisky gaze held his, searching for a truth he was only too willing to give her. “He explained a few things. About the watch and the money. About how he matched your savings. You didn’t have to do that, Jamie.”
Claire reached into her coat pocket then and handed him back the cheque. He shook his head in confusion.
“Neither of us wanted ye to go to prison, Claire. And neither of us want the money back.”
She laughed, leaning forward to hold his face between her hands. “I’ve already spoken to Raymond and he agrees. I want you to take your money and invest it as you always intended. In Lallybroch. And I will take the rest of it and invest it back in you. I’ve always dreamed of a small stone cottage, but perhaps a three-story Jacobean house will be do just as well.” A faint flash of uncertainly flared up in the whisky depths and her brow furrowed. “That is…if you think you can put up with me for that long? And I haven’t jumped to some erroneous conclusion.”
He pressed his forehead against hers, laughing. “No. Ye have no’. Do ye want to hear my new way of coping, by the way?”
“Yes. If you want to tell me, that is.”
“Tis you. I just need to think of ye, and everything settles within in me, Sassenach. So, I’m asking if ye’ll stay with me. Today and every day after. I’m finding that I need more than three days with yer. I need forever, my Sassenach. Can ye promise me that?”
She nodded, the tears now cascading freely. “Every day and more, Jamie.”
Jamie pressed a quick kiss to her brow. “If ye are that sure, mo ghràdh, then I will have to tell ye that I love ye, Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp.”
“As I love you, James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser. With all my heart.” She kissed him then and it was as though he held a living flame in his arms. And he was happy to throw himself into the fire. He tried to deepen the kiss when she pulled back, a look of adorable confusion on her face. “I didn’t miss out any your names, did I?”
Laughing, he lifted her up and onto his lap. “No, mo nighean donn. Everything was perfect.”