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Over the Sea to Skye

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Good morning and welcome to the nine a.m. LNER from London Kings Cross to Inverness.

Jamie Fraser’s long fingers tightened their near bone-breaking grip on the armrests. In his rising panic, it was all he could do to not rip the damn things straight off the chair.

We will be calling at York…

He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. The train has no’ left the station yet, man. Ye need to stay calm. Just keep taking deep breaths. Deep, calming, soothing breaths. In and out. In. And Out.

…Newcastle, Berwick-Upon-Tweed…

The viscous bile rose up to coat the back of his throat. Tiny beads of sweat began to form on his upper lip.

Why didna I just fly?

From within the haze of discomfort that was his motion sickness, Jamie felt a gentle movement at his elbow. It was nothing more than a brushing of soft cloth against his arm but still, he felt it. He breathed in through his nose and caught the faint scent of sharp, fresh herbs. Someone had paused to place their luggage in the overhead shelf above him.

Edinburgh, Stirling, Perth…’

Christ! How many more stops were there?

If he could have had the choice, Jamie would be back in his and Annalise’s apartment, reading with the living room window open and with the thrum of the Parisian traffic a distant soundtrack. But instead, he was chasing his future across land and sea, hoping to salvage what was left of his hopes and dreams. He wasn’t being dramatic, despite being tired, hungry, and just wishing that he could curl up in a ball of self-pity and heartbreak.

A soft, feminine sigh sounded as the stranger sat down beside him. She jostled about for an irrationally irritating minute, clearly just trying to get comfortable. Her elbow knocked his and he heard her curse under her breath; had he not been doing his best to keep the bile from rising further, he might just have smiled.

‘…Aviemore and arriving at Inverness, our final destination, by five p.m. Passengers are reminded that…’

“Hello?”

Ah dhia! A Sassenach!

“Um…terribly sorry to disturb you but are you quite alright?” Her voice was crisp and clear as she tapped lightly on his arm. “I’m quite worried that you are about to go over.”

He cracked open an eye; she was watching him warily, her brown eyes wide with concern. He briefly noted a riot of dark curls framing her porcelain face before his stomach lurched. Taking the window seat had no’ been the best idea…

“Sorry. Excuse me.” he murmured, ungraciously scrambling over her as fast as he could. She swivelled her long legs out of his way, allowing him to stumble the short distance to the door interconnecting the coaches, reaching the toilet just in time.

 

**********

 

…Passengers are reminded that all areas are non-smoking, and that all luggage should be situated in the baggage areas or on the overhead shelf…

Claire Beauchamp watched him dart through the door like there were wolves snapping at his heels. She felt a twinge of sympathy, hoping that he wouldn’t be too fettered by what was clearly a horrible bout of motion sickness.

…and to please silence any mobile phones and electronic devices as we operate quiet coaches…

At that precise moment, her phone loudly chirped from inside her coat pocket. Fumbling to retrieve it, and ignoring the dark looks of annoyance aimed towards her by some of the other passengers, Claire swiped the screen and immediately wished she hadn’t.

It was a message from Joe, her one-time divorce lawyer turned indispensable friend. Joe, who had promised to water the plants in her greenhouse while she took a small mid-week break to Inverness, knowing she could do with three days away from her studies. Claire felt the sharp stab of guilt at that – after all, she hadn’t exactly told him the whole truth about her sudden desire to head to the Highlands.

If Joe knew, he probably would have sat on me until I saw reason.

She fired back a quick reply, switched the phone off and condemned it to spend the next eight-hours forgotten in the bottom of her bag. But she didn’t remove her hand straight away. Involuntarily, her fingers sought the rectangular box that she had placed so reverently in the bag the night before. It was inconspicuous; a wooden pencil case that her uncle had always kept with him. If she closed her eyes, she could still see him, sitting on the stool positioned just inside his tent, using his penknife to sharpen the pencils as the endless Egyptian desert stretched out behind him.

I’ll do what I promised, Uncle Lamb.

…Our crew are making the final preparations and we should be leaving Kings Cross shortly. On behalf of LNER, I’d like to thank you for travelling with us and hope that you have a pleasant journey.

Claire checked her watch for the hundredth time, gave a cursory glance out of the window, and settled back into the chair. A few minutes passed and then the whistle blew, signalling the train to leave the station. It gathered speed and soon, the concrete towers that lined the tracks were passing in a grey blur as London was left far behind.

An anxious excitement settled over her. By the end of this day, she would finally, hopefully, have the means to be able to change her life. To be able to have something that was hers and hers alone. To find a place where she belonged.

She would finally be free.

 

**********

 

‘Jamie?’

‘Aye, tis me, Annalise. Are ye all right? Is there something wrong?’

‘Non. Oui. Something's happened…’

‘What? What's wrong?’

‘Jamie. I am just so heureuse, mon cheri. But it's la destinée, Jamie. Zat is what it is.’

‘What are ye talking about? What's destiny?’

‘I met zis man. Zis apparition. Zis…Dieu.’

‘Annalise…?’

‘I have never felt zis way before. Like I could do anything.’

‘What? What are ye saying? Annalise...are ye...’

‘I am not coming back to Paris, mon cheri. Je suis amoureux. I am sorry, Jamie. Je suis vraiment désolé.’

 

He jerked suddenly awake.

The dream had come upon him like the nightmare of hellish memory that it was. Annalise. The woman he loved and who he thought had loved him in return. Annalise, who, only four days before, had told him that she had fallen on love with another man.

Remembering that was like a ferocious kick to his gut all over again.

Shifting in his seat and needing to be distracted, Jamie found himself watching the Sassenach. Engrossed in a slightly battered, clearly well-read paperback, black-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, she barely moved except to turn a page or to push back a curl behind an ear or to smile in amusement at a line or passage.

He looked away before she could catch him staring. He took his phone from his pocket, noticing with dismay that only two hours had passed since the journey had begun, and began scrolling through the podcasts…

“Are you feeling any better?”

She had spoken so suddenly that he jumped a little and she offered him a small apologetic smile.

“No.”

She nodded. “Do you take anything for it? Pills or such?”

“No.”

Her eyebrow raised slightly. “I see. So, you’re a suffer in silence type then, I assume.”

“As ye say.”

She fell silent and Jamie went back to scrolling through his playlist.

But less than a minute later, he felt her turn in her seat to face him. “Can I ask you a question?”

He shrugged a shoulder in response.

“Do you like liquorice?”

Jamie frowned. “Do I like…?”

“It’s only that liquorice can help with settling the stomach,” she continued, reaching down into her bag in search of something. “My Uncle Lamb swore by it and I got into the habit of carrying some around with me.”

A small tin emerged, and she flipped the lid to reveal several black lozenges.

“It might just help.”

He stared at the offered tin for a second before raising his gaze, slightly confused. She inched the tin closer, eagerly nodding her head. He hesitantly took one of the small boiled sweets and sniffed it, causing her to laugh.

“They are quite safe, I assure you. I made them myself…a sort of hobby of mine.”

Jamie had heard of such a remedy before and she seemed harmless enough. Despite his doubts, he popped a sweet into his mouth and smiled. “Thank ye.”

“Thank you for humouring me.” She grinned warmly, closing the tin and offering it to him. “You may as well have the rest.”

He accepted the gift with a brief nod as she returned her attention back to her book.

Falling back into silence, Jamie sat and contemplated. The sweet seemed to be working, as the pitch and toss of his stomach began to settle. For the first time since his journey began, he wasn’t feeling quite as sick. That was until the carriage shook as another train passed by. Then his stomach rolled as though it had just been tossed into a washing machine on its final spin cycle.

“May I try something else? Something a little…unconventional, perhaps?”

He glanced nervously at her. She was again facing him but was now holding out her hand, palm up.

“What do ye have in mind, lass?”

“Acupressure.”

Jamie gaze narrowed. “Ken a little something about it then?”

“A little,” she replied, motioning for him to give her his right hand. “To be fair, acupuncture would probably be better. But, seeing as I don’t have the needles to turn you into a pincushion with me, applying pressure to the nei-kuan will have to do.”

Somewhat reluctantly, Jamie placed his hand in her care. Her fingers were slim and cool to the touch as she pressed down on his exposed wrist. “Why don’t you tell me something about yourself.” She said after the five seconds were up.

Jamie tilted his head as he reached his arm across to allow her to do the same on his left wrist. “Like what?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Something daft perhaps?” She leaned in closer and he blinked; he had been wrong to think her eyes were brown for they were the exact same shade of the finest whisky. “Call it a distraction.”

“Ye want to distract me?”

She shrugged. “It might help. It might not. Only way to know is to give it a go.”

Dinna have much to lose, I suppose.

“I once hid in the back of my Da’s truck to escape having to do chores. Fell asleep and woke up sometime later being jostled down to market wit’ a whole load of chickens sitting on my chest.”

Her mouth twitched. “That must have been terrible for you.”

“Oh, aye. Chickens are very poor company.”

She caved and smiled. “Keep going.”

“A few days ago, the woman I love decided to leave me for another man.”

He stilled. Iffrin! Why did ye tell her that, man?

Jamie chanced a glance at her. She was watching him carefully, her expression thoughtful. “What is her name?”

“Annalise.” Jamie tapped his phone screen, bringing up the picture so that he could show her.

“She is beautiful,” she mused after a moment of scrutinising. “But her chin looks a little weak.”

“It does no’,” he growled as she bit her lip to hide her smile.

“So, is she the reason why you are on this train?”

“Aye.”

She nodded. “Would you tell me about her?”

He found himself doing just that. From their first meeting through to the day he had asked her to move in with him. How they had rented an apartment together on the outskirts of Paris and how he had started to think about marriage and children. He had even started putting money aside for their future. But then, she had crumbled those dreams into dust.

“I thought it was a mere passing folly." He said, twirling his water bottle about in his hands in agitation. "But then, yesterday, she sent me a message to say that they were getting marrit.”

She brow furrowed. “That’s certainly made things trickier.”

"Aye."

"So what are you going to do?"

The question gave Jamie pause. “I dunno. Convince her otherwise, I suppose.”

“And if she doesn’t want you back?”

He looked away, staring out of the window as the train slowed in its approach into York. “I’m hoping that will no’ be an option, Sassenach.”

 

**********

 

“What did you call me?”

The man beside her blushed and Claire notched it up to another thing she found charming. She had spent quite a bit of the last hour staring at him; his was a strong and good-humoured face, with slanted cat-like eyes, high cheekbones, a straight nose, and wide mouth. She had admired how gracious he was towards this Annalise, and it was clear that he was very much in love with her. And she could admit to feeling attracted to him, safe in the knowledge that he could do no further damage to her heart than that.

“Sassenach,” he declared nervously, his blue eyes blown wide. “It only means ‘outlander’ or English person, in the Gaelic. I meant no offense by it, ye ken.”

“Says the Scot living in France,” Claire teased. “I take no offence.”      

He smiled in relief. “I dinna suppose ye have an actual name for me to call ye instead?”

She held out her hand in greeting. “Claire.”

“Jamie.” He replied, engulfing her hand in his.

“So, Jamie, what is your plan?”

He let go of her hand and sighed. “Are ye no’ willing to let it go, lass?” he muttered uncomfortably.

“Not unless you come up with a more interesting subject.”

The whistle blew to announce the trains departure and without hesitation, Claire took hold of his wrist. She repeated the acupressure as before, leaning over his hands as she waited for him to continue.

“Do ye believe in love?”

Claire sat back and pondered her answer. “I loved my uncle.”

He scowled. “Family does no’ count. The question is do ye believe that two people are meant for each other?”

“But that’s a question for someone who believes in fairy tales, Jamie.”

He cocked his head. “Do ye no’?”

“Once…perhaps. But no, not any longer.”

“Can I ask ye why?”

“Well…I was married once. To a man who I thought loved me the way I loved him.”

She had hoped that Jamie would press her no further on the matter of her ex-husband. But instead, the bloody Scot leaned back in his chair and nodded for her to continue.

And so Claire told him of her marriage to Frank Randall, a History professor in Oxford who was ten years her senior. Of how he had swept her off her feet at nineteen before making her the perfect professor wife. Of how she hadn’t known he had taken charge of her inheritance until she was twenty-four. Desperate to regain back her independence, she only then discovered what he had done.

“He’d spent most of it, of course. On expensive holidays and jewellery for his many, many mistresses.”

“Mac na galla!” Jamie growled, making a rather distinctive Scottish noise in the back of his throat.

Claire had no idea what he had said but, judging by the way he spat the words out, she was quite sure she would have approved. “I walked out with nothing more than the clothes on my back, and the name of a bloody good divorce lawyer.”

By now, the train was pulling into Newcastle. Claire watched the people disembark; some sauntered off in the direction of the exit, others ran frantically to catch another train. Then there were those that were reuniting with loved ones, joy erupting on their faces as they hugged. Watching them, Claire felt a twinge of something akin to longing.

“If ye dinna mind me asking, how long have ye been divorced?”

“Two years.” She replied with a weak smile, bringing her attention back to him. “Frank didn’t wait around once the money was all gone. He remarried about a month ago, to someone far richer. They’ll make each other miserable of course, but until then they are spending the summer in their newly built Tuscan villa.”

Jamie shook his head in disbelief. “And what of ye, Sassenach? What are ye doing now?”

She smiled. “I am going to Inverness to meet with someone who might be able to help me put a plan together. A plan to find me a little stone cottage somewhere very remote and as far away as possible from all the Frank Randall’s of this world.”

“And what will ye do once ye find that wee place?”

“Grow a vegetable garden,” Claire sighed whimsically. She could see it in her minds eye; the garden would be a place of calm, somewhere she could retreat to where the bees hummed amongst the bright flowers and herbs she would grow alongside the endless beds of ripe fruits and golden vegetables. “Buy a goat and a mule and a big, white sow. Live a quiet and peaceful life with nothing around me but mountains and endless sky.”

A small smile tugged at the corner of his wide mouth. “And would ye be content with that life, Sassenach?”

“Aye!” She mimicked him, her attempt at a Scottish accent poor. “Content and ridiculously happy.”

A look of sadness passed over his face. “Just as Annalise and I were.”

“And will be again.” Claire quickly corrected. “I do have to ask though – are you going to Inverness so that she can break your heart again, only this time to your face, or are you going to duel this new lover-“  

“Dinna call him that.” Jamie growled in interruption.

“Alright,” she conceded. “This utter bastard. He’s probably not going to simply let you swan in and be off with her, am I right?”

“Do ye no’ think I could change her mind then, Sassenach?” he asked crabbily, seeming to not like what she was implying. “I so could. I would remind Annalise of the life we were building together. Our perfect life. We were happy, ye ken.”

Claire felt her face scrunch up in disgust. “Whenever someone says they are happy, my arse starts to twitch.”

He clearly chose to ignore her flippant remark as he ploughed on saying, “We had plans for a home, to be marrit and to start a wee family of our own. I would remind her of those things.”

“And she was obviously very attached to them,” Claire commented dryly. “Look, Jamie, I’m not saying that it isn’t possible, but surely you don’t want to go into this battle blind?”

“I’m no’ going into battle, Sassenach.” He said in growing frustration. “I dinna need a strategy, or armour, or bullshit to win her back.”

“You know, a little of all three might come in handy.”

“Ye ken nothing of it, Sassenach. So leave it be, aye.”

With that, he turned away from her, putting a stop to all subsequent conversation and apologies by putting his earphones back in his ears.

And it wasn’t until the train was nearing Edinburgh, and Claire had resigned herself to feeling ashamed for the rest of her life, that Jamie suddenly twisted in his seat to face her. “I’m sorry, Sassenach. I ken ye were only trying to tell me that it will no’ be easy. I’m just afraid, ye ken.”

Claire lowered her book – she had only been using it as a shield to surreptitiously watch him from behind anyway – and asked, “Afraid of what, Jamie?”

He lowered his head so that she couldn’t see his expression clearly. “Of no’ being good enough.”

With a small cry of compassion, Claire gently pressed her palm to his face and forced him to meet her gaze. “You are more than enough, Jamie. And if Annalise doesn’t know that by now, then she may not be the one you fight for.”

“What do I do?” He sounded so lost that he came perilously close to breaking her heart.

“You remind her of what she is missing.”

 

**********

 

“This is the Thistle Bank Hotel, not some run down old guesthouse.”

“I ken that,” Jamie muttered darkly. It was taking all his strength not to lean across the desk and punch the man square between his small, pig-like eyes. “All I’m askin’ is if ye could be so kind as to tell me which room Annalise de Marillac is staying in. Please.”

“I’m afraid that I canna do that.”

“No?”

“No, sir. Perhaps, if ye used the courtesy phone…?”

Jamie felt his left eye twitch. “I’ve tried that, but it keeps saying ‘Do No’ Disturb’. Look. I’ve just spent eight hours on a train. I’m tired and I’m hungry, and I just want to see my girlfriend. Now, are ye gonna help me or no’?”

The man gave him an insufferably sweet smile. “Sir, tis my duty as concierge to safeguard the privacy of my guests. And if my guests need safeguarding from their own partners, then so be it.”

Taking a deep steadying breath, Jamie was about to try and be thoroughly unreasonable instead when he heard a woman’s laughter carry over the din of the other guests voices. Her laughter. A throaty French sound that was like a sword to his still uneasy stomach.

Annalise.

“But where are we going, mon coeur?”

Jamie turned slowly. She was as breathlessly beautiful as always, her blonde hair like liquid gold down her back. He had not seen her in a nearly two weeks; had not felt her arms around him or the touch of her lips against his skin. But those arms were currently wrapped around another man’s waist as her perfectly red mouth pouted to be kissed.

“First to ze Isle of Skye to be married,” – Ah Dhia! He was French too! - “And then on to ze Riviera where we can warm our naked bodies on my yatcht…”

The world slowed around Jamie. He heard no more than the buzzing in his ears as he watched Annalise walk by him. He reached out to her, but it was as if she was a shimmer of smoke that just passed through his fingers. She was laughing, her blue eyes as bright and sparkling as the diamond on her finger. Black spots danced across his vision. His breathing shortened. He stood rooted to the spot as he watched them head out of the hotel and into a waiting limousine. He blinked. And all the blood rushed to his head in an instant.

‘What on earth happened?’

‘Has someone called an ambulance?’

‘Jamie?’

‘He just went down. One minute he was standing and then…’

‘Would no’ expect that of such a big fella.’

‘Jamie? Can you hear me?’

Cool hands pressed against his cheeks and forehead, fluttering across his skin like the touch of butterfly wings. He became aware of his surroundings all at once; the shrill of a telephone, several different voices all speaking at once, the sweet smell of herbs…

“Sassenach?”

“Yes, Jamie. I’m here.” Her soft voice, tinged with relief, called him onwards. He sluggishly opened his eyes and found whisky staring directly back.

“Are you hurt at all?” Claire asked, placing an arm around his shoulders to help him sit up. There was a murmur of discontent, but she brushed their empty concerns aside. “He just fainted because he hasn’t eaten anything all day.”

“Mistress? Is there anythin’ I can do?”

“Yes. You can fetch me a wet cloth, some water and a warm bowl of soup. With non-buttered bread. And then, perhaps, you would so kind as to move all these people along?”

The concierge turned to shoo everyone along, leaving Jamie in her sole care. The palm of her hand was still resting against his cheek and, without any further thought, he raised his own to lay over it. “I’m fine, Sassenach. Truly.” He said, trying to reassure her as much as himself.

She didn’t look convinced. “Perhaps we should get you to your room, Jamie?”

He sighed sadly. “I dinna have a room. Someone has taken my room. Someone with an Armani suit and…and…”

He started to feel a little woozy again. “Oh, bloody hell,” he heard her curse as she helped him to stand and then sit in a nearby chair. “Here, sit. Breath in. Breath out. Breath in.”

“I’m breathing, Sassenach.” He said, shooing her hands away.

Her cool fingers were replaced by an even cooler wet cloth and a glass of water was placed in his hand. “Sip it slowly,” she instructed, pressing the cloth to his forehead while she watched him.

“Sassenach?” He whispered, drawing her attention to him. “What are ye doing here, lass?

He stared at her as she pushed a stray curl back behind her ear, lips twitching as it immediately sprung loose again.

“Would you believe me if I said that I missed you?”

 

**********

 

She had left Jamie at the station, wishing him all the best with Annalise. As they had travelled from Edinburgh, they had talked out a plan, with Claire helping him sort through all he felt and wanted to say. It had seemed strange walking away from him because somewhere along in the eight hours they had spent together, they had become friends. Hell, she had told him things that even Joe didn’t know about.

She had headed straight for the small guesthouse close to the river where she had booked a room for three nights. The owner, one Mrs Baird, showed her to her room; it was plain but clean, with a single bed adorned with a beautifully embroidered forget-me-not blanket and a large chaise-lounge situated beneath the window. But once she had placed her breakfast order, Claire phoned her contact, only to be told that he had been called away on some urgent business to Skye. If she still wished to discuss the matter with him, he would be staying at the Pier Hotel in Portree and would be happy to meet with her there instead.

Frustrated, Claire booked a hire car and a room at the same hotel before taking a quick shower and wandering back into the city in search of food. She had no idea what possessed her to take the longer route, the route that led her by the Thistle Bank Hotel. But she soon found herself walking by it, noting the black limousine humming idly at the curb. She looked up in time to see a handsome couple stumble out of the hotel and straight into the waiting car, laughing and talking in rapid French. The woman threw back her golden hair which afforded Claire a glimpse of her face.

Annalise.

And the man she was leaving the hotel with, who she had ardently kissed before getting into the limousine, was not Jamie.

Without thought or hesitation, Claire all but ran into the hotel, spotting Jamie at the exact moment he crumbled to the floor like a felled tree.

“Ye missed me?”

Claire nodded, pulled from her memory. “Like a hole in the head, but still…”

She had meant to tease him, but as he looked so dejected, so small with his shoulders slumped in defeat, Claire immediately pulled him into her arms. She knew it was likely to be a wildly inappropriate thing to do, but she wanted to offer him comfort and therefore be damned of the consequences. She was surprised when, with a shuddering sigh, Jamie leaned into her. He pressed his face into the crook of her neck and wrapped his long arms around her to pull her closer. They sat there, hip to hip, in the foyer of the hotel, and simply held each other.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?” she whispered into his curls.

Jamie whispered against her skin. “I saw them. Together. I dinna even get a chance to talk to her…”

Claire held him a little tighter. “Oh, Jamie. I am sorry. What do you want to do?”

“I dinna ken. Go back to Paris to wallow. Follow her to Skye…”

Claire pulled back in surprise. “Skye? Why there?”

He sniffed. “Tis where they plan to get marrit. I heard him say so as they left. I have a mind to go after her, but it’ll take an age by bus. I canna bear it either way, Sassenach.”

It couldn’t be that easy, could it? She wasn’t a superstitious person by nature, but even Claire had to admit that the coincidence was fortunate. And Jamie…well, he needed this. He deserved to have someone fight in his corner, if he needed them too. He was endearing and sweet and admirable. And I like him, dammit!

“Does travelling in a car have the same effect as the train?” Claire asked as casually as she could.

Jamie shook his head. “Tis no’ as bad. But I have to pull over more often than no’ and I canna go over fifty as my head pounds. Means back roads and twice the time. Why do ye ask?”

She didn’t answer straight away as the soup finally arrived. She insisted that he eat half the bowl, quietly delighted that he was beginning to look a lot less pale and drawn, before giving him her reply. “I don't suppose you be up for a little road trip, Jamie?”

Claire would always remember how his smile was bright enough to blank out the very sun.

Chapter Text

“Why am I helping you?”

Jamie nodded, taking a swig of the ginger beer that Claire was making him drink. It tasted disgusting but it was settling his stomach well enough.

After finding him in the hotel, Claire had insisted that he spend the night with her. He had blushed profusely, much to her amusement and his increasing embarrassment. Promising that his virtue was quite safe with her, Claire had practically marched him to the guesthouse and had insisted he take a shower while she went in search of food.

They had eaten their dinner of sandwiches and root-veg crisps in companionable silence. She hadn’t pressed him further about the incident in the hotel and Jamie had been both relieved and grateful by that. His eyelids had drooped as they say watching a film and he had only been half-aware of Claire ushering him gently towards the bed. He wanted to protest, to insist that the chaise-lounge would be fine. But the moment his head had hit the cool pillow, sleep pulled him under.

The pale glow of morning light had lifted him slowly back into consciousness. He opened his eyes and immediately settled them upon Claire, still asleep beneath the forget-me-not blanket. She slept peacefully, her soft snores muffled by the cloud of curls that covered her face. His fingers itched to brush the curls aside, to expose her soft skin to the golden glow of dawn, but he resisted as her breathing changed. She shuffled onto her back, scratched a curl off her nose, and slowly began to wake…

“Because I like you,” Claire continued, deftly manoeuvring the car along the weaving Scottish backroads. “I do. And you deserve the chance to confront Annalise, and the utter bastard, your way. Without begging.”

“I dinna beg.”

She smirked, giving him the side eye. “No. You just fainted.”

Jamie huffed. “Are ye telling me ye would no’ do the same if faced with the one ye love? If no’ then perhaps ye have no’ found the right one, Sassenach.”

“Maybe he needs to find me.” Claire mused, slowing down to allow a random sheep to cross the road. “Or, better yet, we need to find each other. It’s not something I’m particularly bothered by, Jamie.”

Jamie shot her a look. “Ye ken what happens to people who shut everybody out?”

“They live quiet and peaceful lives?”

“No. They fester.”

“I’m festering?”

“Aye, I’ve seen it happen. Ye’ll be one of those old folks, sitting in the corner of a crowded café, mumbling to yerself – ‘My arse is twitching. You people make my arse twitch.’” He teased, imitating her English accent.

Laughing along with her, Jamie dared a peek out of the window, his breath catching as a familiar signed flashed by. Before he realised it, he was asking, “Would ye mind making a wee detour, Sassenach?”

“Are you feeling unwell?” Claire asked, immediately sobering in her concern. She glanced at his face, quickly but thoroughly discerning if she needed to pull the car over.

Jamie shook his head. “No, lass. Just…somewhere I wish to see, tis all. If ye dinna mind?”

She nodded and happily followed his directions. Before too long, the village of Broch Mordha emerged from the treeline, the cottages adorned with a vast array of early summer flowers.

“It is beautiful here.” She sighed, cooing every time she saw a prettier cottage than the one before.

His gaze barely flickered. “Aye. I suppose.”

“You suppose? What? You don’t think that it’s beautiful here?”

Jamie shrugged. “I was born here.”

She peered at him, then back at the village, then back to him again, her eyes twinkling. “Really? But this place is so beautiful and so charming.”

Jamie took her playful jibe as a compliment. “It was too bonnie for me, lass. I had to leave.”

She quietened, occupied at least in finding a parking space close to the village green. Jamie climbed out of the car and took a deep, calming breath. It was all still here; the sights, the smells, the distant noise of the surrounding farms. Each one a distinct memory that took him back to the rose-tinted days of his childhood. He left her waiting by the car and made his way to the estate agents on the far side of the green. The bell above the door chimed as he entered and the woman behind the desk looked up. Glenna Fitzgibbons had not changed a bit in the decade since he had last seen her. Her hair might have lightened but her face was the same; full of cheer and good heart.

“Good mornin’ to ye.” She said, rising from her chair. Christ! She even sounded the same. “How can I help ye today?”

“Hello, Glenna.”

Her eyes narrowed at being addressed so informally by an apparent stranger. But then she drew nearer, and her face suddenly lit up in recognition.

“James Fraser!” She cried out in excitement. She was on him in a heartbeat, enveloping him in one of her warm hugs. Before, she had been able to tuck his head under her chin. Now, the top of her head barely reached his chest. “What are ye doing here, lad?”

“We are just passing through, Mrs Fitz.”

“We? Is that wee French lass with ye then? The one yer godfather mentions occasionally?”

“No’ quite.” Jamie muttered, unable to stop from glancing out of the window to where Claire was leaning over a nearby planter to investigate the flowers. “Tis a long story, ye ken.”

“Oh, aye.” Mrs Fitz’ gaze had followed his. “Sounds like an interesting one at that.”

“She’s a friend.”

“Since when is a woman like that just yer friend, Jamie?”

“Since her.” He insisted, uncomfortable under the scrutiny of her weighted gaze. He needed to change the subject and quickly, for his and Claire’s sake. “I was hopin’ to get a wee peek at Lallybroch, if ye still have the key.”

“Aye,” she said slowly, rounding the desk to open the middle drawer. She removed a large bunch of keys which she then handed to Jamie. “The current owners have little to do with the place. Have no’ even been since they purchased it.”

Nodding his head as he examined the large silver front door key, Jamie asked, “Do ye ken if they’re likely to sell?”

Mrs Fitz eyed him cautiously. “I can find out…if yer serious, that is.”

Was he serious? Jamie couldn’t say for sure. He twirled the key and found himself wondering if now would be a good time after all? Returning to Lallybroch was his dream, one that he had always envisioned with Annalise. But now, that dream seemed to be further away than it had ever been. He glanced up again, watching Claire as she wandered over to the gift shop to examine the postcards hanging from the door. All he did know for certain was that he wanted, no needed, to show her Lallybroch.

Jamie nodded his thanks to Mrs Fitz, promised to get the key back to her before too long, and left. Claire joined him and an hour later, the tires of the car were crunching over the loose gravel drive. From the moment she cut the engine, Jamie was out of the car to circle the three-story building. He winced as he noted that several of the roof slates had come away, no doubt exposing the attic space beneath to the notorious Scottish weather. But all the windows appeared to be intact, still boarded up to protect the glass, and the old stone broch from which the house took its name still proudly stood.

Nothing had changed.

“Beautiful. Gorgeous. Wish you were here!”

Grinning, Jamie turned to see Claire standing over by the paddock fence, staring out over the fields. “Poor you.” She continued, throwing him a look. “You had to grow up here.”

“Aye. Was hard, ye ken.”

“I’m sure.” She rolled her eyes and started towards the house. “Can I ask about why you left?”

“It was after my ma died. Da didna have it in him to keep up with the estate and the debts grew. The bank foreclosed the day I turned fourteen.”

She paused. “It must have been a difficult time.”

“Aye. We had to move to London. Da never recovered and he died the same year.”

Her eyes misted. “Jamie…”

“Dinna fash, Sassenach.” He said, shrugging. Christ! If she started to cry, I probably won’t be able stop crying myself. “It dinna hurt as much as it once did.”

She nodded in understanding. “Come on then. Show me your old room.”

 

**********

 

Claire couldn’t seem to suppress her excitement as they explored the house.

She had always loved old buildings, a fascination no doubt fuelled by Uncle Lamb’s enthusiasm for spending weekends showing her around them. Growing up, she had been intrigued by their form and function, and so it seemed inevitable that she chose to become an architect. She began her studies but her marriage to Frank, and his stanch belief that she didn’t need a profession, saw her only complete her first year.

But since her divorce, Claire had found her way back to her studies.

Jamie’s childhood room was at the back of the house, and through the narrow slit of light between the two boards covering the window, Claire could see over the paddock and stable building beyond. The room itself was void of any familiarity; nothing more than white walls and a wooden floor. There were traces of the old room in the single metal bedframe, the writing desk and the wonky chest of drawers. But of Jamie, there was nothing of him still there.

He was standing in the doorway, leaning up against the frame as he watched her roam. On Claire’s part, she was doing her absolute level best not to notice him or his biceps. Or the leanness of his hips. Or the way his t-shirt had ridden up just enough for a slither of skin to show above the belt of his jeans.

Jesus H Roosevelt Christ! Is he trying to kill me?

Turning away so that he couldn’t see the faint blush staining her cheeks, Claire paused by the desk, running her fingers along the edge of the wood. She recalled a similar one in her uncles house, positioned opposite his in the study so that he could make sure she did her homework. It had been one of the first things Frank had thrown into the skip when he remodelled the room for his own use. With a sigh, Claire felt along under the rim until her fingers grazed the catch. She pressed it and lifted the lid, revealing the shallow compartment beneath. Just like the rest of the room, it had been cleared out, save for a medium sized curiosity box that had been purposefully left behind.

“What’s this?”

She felt Jamie at her shoulder as he peered over. With a low chuckle of delighted surprise, he reached by her to lift the box out.

“Tis a project I did a long time ago.” He explained, blowing the dust off and up into the air. Claire closed the lid of the desk and stepped aside to allow him room beside her. Jamie placed the box back down and opened it to reveal ten small clear bottles, each filled with what appeared to be dried herbs, flowers, or berries. There was also a much larger bottle that held a familiar looking amber liquid.

“I had the intention of making something of the land here when I was a lad, and this wee box was just the beginning.”

“How?” she whispered, staring up at him.

“I’ll tell ye,” Jamie grinned as he uncorked the larger bottle and Claire caught the faint scent of an aged whisky. “But first, I need ye to sniff this.”

Leaning forward, Claire inhaled deeply. “It smells like whisky.”

“I think ye can do better than that, lass.”

She smiled. “All right. It smells…of a bold cask seeped in sophistication but lacking in pretension. Don’t shake your head at me, Jamie!” – she laughed along with him – “What am I supposed to smell?”

Jamie cleared his throat. “Whisky is a lot like the land itself. It absorbs the nutrients from the soil, from the plants that grow, from the water that flows. It is what it encounters.” He uncorked one of the smaller bottles and handed it to her. “Now smell this.”

“Rosemary.” She stated clearly and he nodded, uncorking another. Claire frowned in concentration as she took a sniff. “Is it a kind of mushroom?”

“Verra good.”

And so it went on, until Claire had smelt every bottle in turn and was practically glowing under his praise. He was a patient teacher, allowing her to recognise the scents in her own time.

“All of these scents, they are true to here, to the Highlands.” Jamie concluded, recorking the last of the bottles. “They are all in the ground around Lallybroch. Now, close yer eyes and smell the whisky again.”

She did as she was told, peering at him from over the rim of the bottle “The heather. I can smell that straight away and…the third bottle along the top row…lavender?” - Jamie gave her an encouraging nod - “That’s incredible, Jamie. And you made this?”

“Aye.”

“Then why did you leave it behind?”

“Figured I would no’ need it in London.” He closed the box and Claire felt his sadness. He looked down at her and smiled, his blue eyes shining as he asked, “Would ye like to see the rest of the farm?”

Eagerly, Claire followed him out of the house and across the cobbled yard to where the fields that dipped and rolled behind the house were overgrown with weeds. Jamie walked a few feet ahead as she came to a stop, watching him as he crouched down to inspect the loose dirt.

“All of this land has been in my family for over three-hundred years. It is who the Frasers are; the Lairds Broch Tuarach. But to make something great, ye must have the soul of a gambler. Which means that ye sometimes have to lose.”

Claire nodded. “Your father…?”

“Was a gambling man, Sassenach. Ken what he was doing. But his heart…his heart was lost the moment my ma died. I had always hoped to buy back Lallybroch one day. I wanted to raise bairns upon this earth, have something to pass down to them. Even managed to put enough money aside to go against a mortgage.”

“Could you still not do it, Jamie? Come back and breath life back into this place?”

“Annalise.” Jamie said, as though her name could explain everything. Claire inwardly smarted with jealously. “She said she dinna want to leave France and could no’ see herself as a farmers wife. So…”

“You’re never going to take the gamble then?”

Jamie stood slowly, turning to face her. She had watched him gaze over the land with pride, seen how he took the smallest pleasure from every root that grew. Would he be so willing to throw away that longed for dream to chase a woman who might not even want him anymore?

“Would ye?”

Claire glanced back at the house and wondered how it would feel to call this place home. To be enveloped in the warmth of family and burning hearth. To wake up each morning knowing that she has a place to call her own. She looked back at him and smiled sadly. “If I could have all this? Yes. I would gamble and a whole lot more.”

“So ye’d risk everything for this? Ye’d get on yer knees and beg?” - Claire nodded - “What makes ye so different from me in the end?”

Understanding dawned on Claire, seeing the direction he had taken her. In many ways, they were similar; both driven by need and want and desire. She drew a long breath. “Okay. I’ll admit it. But only on two conditions.”

“Which are?”

“What does Lallybroch mean?”

The blue eyes danced with merriment. “‘Lazy Tower’. On account of the tower leaning, ye ken.”

“And Broch Tuarach?”

He leaned forward, conspiratorially whispering, “‘North-facing tower’.”

Claire frowned. “That makes no sense. How can it face north when the tower is round, Jamie?”

He grinned then, taking her hand in his as they walked back to the car together. She wondered if her was aware that he had done it. “The door faces north, Sassenach.”

 

**********

 

They had returned to Broch Mordha, dropping the keys back to Mrs Fitz before Jamie insisted on buying lunch. They had chatted easily, the conversation flowing between them just as naturally as it had done since they met on the train the day before. Jamie relished in making Claire laugh, secretly delighting in the way her smile tugged at his heart.

As they drove across the Highlands, following the A87 around Loch Ness and on towards Kyle of Lochalsh, Claire had insisted that he tell her everything he knew about Scotland. The road hadn’t been easy on his stomach, but Claire had been more than happy to pull over whenever he needed, wandering off to take pictures before coming back with a hundred more questions. Jamie had been as happy to indulge her, telling her the old names for the rocky outcrops, hills and fields and rivers, of the traditional stories he grew up with, and of the legends and folk tales that were the core of the Highlands and its people.

By late afternoon they had reached the place where the three lochs of Duich, Long, and Alsh all converged, overlooked by one of the most picturesque castles in all of Scotland. Parting ways briefly, Jamie returned to find her sitting on the low wall that bordered the water, her feet dangling over the lapping waves beneath. She was staring pensively out towards the mountains, the gentle breeze catching up in the curls that refused to be tamed. It wasn’t for the first time that Jamie noticed the colours of her hair and that he had been wrong to think of it as brown. Rather, it was like the water in a burn, where it ruffled over the stones; dark in the wavy spots, with bits of silver on the surface where the light caught it.

Mo nighean donn.

He perched on the wall beside her, offering her one of the drinks he had managed to precure from the café. She gratefully accepted his offering and shuffled over to allow him to sit more comfortably beside her.

“I have a question.”

Jamie rolled his eyes. “Have ye not run out of yer wee questions yet, Sassenach.”

“No.” She grinned, taking a sip of her tea. “This one is about Annalise.”

“Oh, aye.”

“What are you really afraid of?”

He blinked. “I dinna ken what ye mean, lass?”

“With Annalise. What has you so afraid that you are chasing her?”

Now he really was confused. “Why would ye ask me that?”

Claire took a deep breath. “It’s only…she humiliated you once and still might again. Personally, I would be afraid of that but you…you are quite prepared for it. And I don’t understand why.”

Jamie thought for a moment, fingers tapping against his thigh, then smiled sadly. “I guess…I’m afraid that if she does no’ come back, it’ll hurt so much that I’ll shrivel up and never be able to love again.”

Claire hung her head but not before he saw that her eyes were bright with unshed tears. She reached out and took his hand, cupping it between her own upon her thigh. His heart skipped and then started a new rhythm, one that he was sure would echo her own.

“You begin to forget, after a time.” She whispered, her thumb rubbing across his. “First, you forget their chin. Then their nose. After a while you struggle to remember the exact colour of their eyes. And one day you wake, and they are gone. Their voice, their smell, their face. They will have left you completely. And you can begin again after that.”

“Are ye thinking of Frank?”

“‘There is no evil angel but love.’” Claire quoted, raising her head.

Jamie tightened his hold. “I dinna think I could do that, forget so easily.”

But he wasn’t talking about Annalise.

In the two days since they had met, Jamie was finding that he was getting used to Claire. Of the sound of her voice, the touch of her hand. He wanted to know what she thought and how she felt about everything. Standing beside her at Lallybroch, seeing the way her eyes had shone with possibilities that reflected his own wants and wishes, he had felt something stir within him. A deep pull that he had never felt with Annalise. And when the realisation hit him, it wasn’t a lightning bolt. Or a thunderclap. But rather a sudden knowing.

He wanted Claire more than he wanted anything.

“No. No, I don’t suppose that you could.” Claire was saying, watching him thoughtfully. Then, she cocked her head and smiled. “I will help you get your Annalise back, if that is what you want.”

Jamie blinked. “What are ye thinking?”

“I am thinking that I want her to be tempted by you,” she said carefully, letting go of his hands. “To feel like, even though you are right there in front of her, she can’t have you. I want her to be reminded of what it is to want you.”

He licked his lips and asked, “Is that all ye want, Sassenach?”

She stared at him. “Jamie. I want you…”

His heart tripped, skipping a beat. Or maybe three. It could have stopped altogether for all he cared. “Ye want me…?”

She paused. Opened her mouth only to close it again immediately after. The whisky-eyes blinked, confusion giving way to disbelief. Then they flickered back to the water so that he couldn’t see what she was thinking.

“I want you to be happy.” She muttered vaguely into her tea. “That is all. You deserve to be happy after all of this, Jamie.”

 

**********

 

Claire was a fool!

She had been so close to confessing. So close to admitting to feelings that she had thought long buried beneath hurt and disgrace.

It had come upon her gently, the sense that Jamie meant more to her. There probably wasn’t a defining moment but rather a series of them, all bleeding into the other until it became her own life’s blood.

And yet, confessing would have done her no favours. Jamie was so clearly in love with Annalise that saddling him with her sudden truth would have only made things awkward. Claire didn’t want that. She wanted to still be able to look him in the eye, to stand beside him and give him the power to win his love back. She had promised to help him and if that meant cutting out her own heart along the way, at least she had been given a reason to have it beat again in the first place.

She and Jamie reached Portree by early evening. The small town, the capital of Skye, was bustling with tourists, especially down by the harbour as they enjoyed the last of the late summer sun. Luckily, Jamie was able to procure the last room available and they had separated with the promise to reconvene somewhere for dinner in a few hours’ time.

Instead of retreating, Claire went in search of her contact.

His name was Raymond Grenouille and he had been a friend of Uncle Lambs. She had met him only once before, on the day of her uncles funeral. He was short in statue and barrel-chested, with slightly bulbous friendly black eyes that had reminded Claire of a frog. But he was one of the leading jewellery experts in all of Europe, and Lamb had always spoken so highly of him.

The small black eyes didn’t give anything away as he opened his door to her.

“Madonna!” He cried cheerfully, using the odd pet-name he had for her as he stepped aside to allow her into the room. “I am glad to see you here safe.”

Claire smiled warmly as he took her hand. “How have you been?”

“Very well. Very well indeed.” He let go and made his way to the small table by the window. He picked up a small white envelope which he gave to her. “The valuation you asked for, Madonna. The piece is worth a lot of money, so I find myself wondering how you came upon it?”

Claire took the envelope but didn’t look inside. “It came to me as part of a debt owed.” She explained, folding the envelope into her coat pocket. “A debt owed to Lamb.”

His expression softened at the mention of her uncle. “Indeed. Bring the item to me and I will transfer the money directly. By this time tomorrow, you will be a very rich young woman.”

Feeling hollow, Claire turned away but paused before leaving. “No-one knows I’ve been in contact with you, do they?”

Raymond shook his silver head. “No-one knows but us, Madonna.”

Claire swiftly nodded and left.

By the time she made it back to her room, her heart was pounding so quickly that she was sure it was going to burst out of her chest. She hurriedly closed the door and sunk down onto the bed, the envelope twisted between her fingers as she stared at the obscene number written within.  

It was her future. There was no point feeling guilty about it.

With a shaking breath, Claire tore the envelope into pieces and prepared for dinner.

They were shown to their table, Jamie’s hand pressed gently into her lower back. Claire could feel the heat of him seeping through her jacket. He smelt of an intoxicating blend of sandalwood and lemongrass, and Claire was finding it terribly distracting. It took everything she had not to wail at the waitress as they were seated at a cosy corner table for two. Jamie helped her out of her jacket and she gasped, feeling the tips of his fingers brush against her neck.

“Are ye alright, Sassenach?”  

“Absolutely.” She squeaked, mentally berating herself as he draped the jacket over the back of her chair. She waved her hand in the rough direction of the fairy-lights hanging in the window. “Just admiring the lights”

The waitress came to take their drinks orders, returning a few moments late with a large glass of the house red for her and a beer for Jamie. Claire buried her head behind the menu in a futile attempt to not stare at him.

“Ifrinn!”

Claire looked up in surprise. Jamie was staring wide-eyed at something, or someone, from across the room. As casually as she could and on the pretence of checking for something in her pocket, Claire glanced about.

And immediately saw Annalise and the utter bastard seated four tables over.

She turned back to Jamie, only to find him trying to hide behind one of the large trellises that formed partitions between the tables.

“Do ye think she can see us, Sassenach?”

Claire peered over, saw the pair of them get quite handsy with the other, and pulled a face. “It’s…unlikely.” She turned back to watch Jamie as he fidgeted, throwing anxious glances over at Annalise’s table. “Do you want us to leave?”

“No!” He said vehemently, shaking his head. “I…It’s just…what if she sees us?”

She settled back with a smile and shot Jamie a wink. “If she does, we’ll use it to our advantage.”

He stilled. “We will?”

Claire nodded. “In fact, I mean for her to see you, even if only briefly. Because then she will be wondering if she really did see you. Were you a phantom? Was her imagination playing tricks? I say we have a little fun and just when they start to look comfortable, you pounce.”

“I pounce…?”

Claire raised her glass. “Get talking to her. Have her think that she is an idiot, a fool, a weak chinned, mindless - ”

“Tis enough.” He glowered at her. “I get the idea. What should I say?”

Claire sobered. This was where she was going to have to learn to live with only half a heart.

“You tell her that you love only her and that you want her still. As to the moment itself, you’ll know when it feels right. You’ll tell her, and that will be that.”

Chapter Text

“Jamie?”

“Hello, Annalise.”

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.

“Darling?”

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?”

“Most likely.”

He laughed. “Seems ye need a coffee, Sassenach. Have ye had breakfast yet?”

She nodded. “You?”

“Aye.”

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.”

“It is?”

“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.

“Sassenach…I…”

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…

“Jamie?”

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.”

“Aye.”

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.”