This was not his sort of scene at all.
James Fraser stepped silently behind his colleagues into the smoky darkness of The Mayfair Club. The boys had insisted, to celebrate their law firm’s latest contract. The pulsating beat spilled out onto Dover street and Piccadilly, as the hour grew close to midnight.
He’d heard of this place. He’d never had reason to visit it, though. He found his thrills elsewhere: in the courtroom, in a swimming pool, and a few years ago, in Afghanistan.
He imagined he could feel the scar tissue on his back prickling in apprehension as scantily clad serving staff paraded by, balancing loaded trays. It was Friday night and Mayfair was jumping.
Raucous calls greeted the group, as the manager slapped Dougal’s back and set the men up at a prime table in the middle of the club, from where they could monitor all the action. The décor was lush and elegant, as befitted one of the most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs in London. They were immediately plied with champagne in silver buckets; one word from the manager, and Jamie found the group surrounded by swatches of bare skin. Women danced all around them, lively with the prospect of huge tips.
John Grey, an Englishman in the midst of Scots who did not care overmuch for the attentions of women, sat back and laughed at Charlie Stewart and Dougal MacKenzie’s exploits. For once mindful and respectful of the club’s rules, they kept their hands to themselves, but that did not stem their lewd comments and lascivious stares. All of it made Jamie feel slightly ill.
He took a seat next to John, shaking his head politely at a blonde girl who offered to dance for him. Instead, he ordered a whisky neat, crossed his legs, pulled out his phone, and settled in for a long night.
And then he saw her.
He had thought to drown himself in drink, but instead he found himself foundering in her whisky eyes.
She was taller than most, towering even higher on ten-inch stilettos. Her brown curls were nestled under a black bowler hat; her hair reminded him of the different hues of water in a burn, when it ruffled over the rocks. In his native Scotland, he would call her mo nighean donn, his brown-haired lass.
All of this flashed through his mind in a second. She hadn’t noticed him, of course. Her own gaze was focused on the horizon; a horizon that held a gilt-edged mirror, random patrons, and flashing lights. She leaned casually against the bar, seemingly bored.
Dougal caught Jamie’s gaze and smirked. “Interested, are ye, lad?”
Jamie sat up straight and looked at Dougal. “No, Uncle, ‘tis alright. Just tired.”
“Och, Jamie my boy, there’s no need to be shy. I’ll buy ye a lap dance.” Dougal gestured towards the women at the bar, until he caught someone’s attention. A thin blonde waif sauntered over. Jamie could feel heat crawling up his neck as she approached; it spread to his face until he was sure it matched his red hair.
“Uncle, really, I dinna want—”
“Lass, I’d like ye to take care of my nephew here.” Dougal waved a thick wad of notes while Jamie felt he would die of shame.
The woman glanced at Jamie, who refused to glance up from his lap; her eyes gleamed, and spoke to his uncle.
“Perhaps a private room would be better, if you insist on spending that much.” She batted her eyelashes at Dougal and smiled. She called the manager over and whispered in his ear. He nodded and took the money from Dougal.
“This way please, sir.” The last thing Jamie wanted was a lap dance, but he figured it would be better in a private room; he would simply tell the lass he didn’t want her to perform. She could sit and rest for a while, or go do something else. The dance was paid for anyway, and he’d avoid further comments from Dougal. After that, he would leave, no matter what—he was tired and the thumping music was giving him a headache.
Jamie was led down a short hallway to a secluded area lined with small rooms. They had no doors; instead, satin curtains dropped from the doorframes. There was a low-lying table in front of a plush banquette seat; everything was lit in purple tones and soft electric candelabra. The music volume was not as earsplitting here. Jamie took a seat, defeated. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, taking deep breaths. He heard the manager greet someone and he opened his eyes again.
It was the brown-haired beauty from the bar.
Jamie swallowed hard. This was not who he was expecting. Now she would think he had requested her for a lap dance! He felt his face burn, hot with embarrassment. He tried not to look at her; she had changed her outfit into some sort of dancer’s leotard—except he’d never seen a dancer wear a leotard that was practically see-through, lacy, and black. The hat was still perched on her head.
“Make sure he’s well taken care of, eh, love? He’s a VIP client, mind. Show the lad ‘ere a good time.” The manager—Stephen, his tag read—touched the woman ever so slightly on the small of her bare back. Jamie could see her visibly shudder; she had a glass face that did nothing to hide her distaste. He felt like punching the living daylights out of Stephen, but before he could react, the woman waved the manager away and drew the satin curtains shut.
“Miss, I’m sorry, I dinna want—no offense, but ye dinna have to dance for me, truly—”
She turned to him with a mysterious smile; it stopped the words coming out of his mouth. She pointed discreetly at a CCTV camera tucked in the corner of the room and shrugged; she had a job to do, regardless of his wishes. Sultry, upbeat music burst out of hidden speakers, different from what was playing in the club. This seemed to be a cue for her; she stepped forward and climbed expertly onto the table.
He hadn’t wanted this, it was true; but to say he didn’t find her beautiful and sensual would be a lie. Jamie watched, helpless, when she began to dance.
As the lass moved, Jamie forgot about everything else. Her outfit hugged every curve, so no further removal of clothing was necessary. The high, black patent-leather heels clicked almost inaudibly on the tabletop. Her hands were everywhere: trailing down her neck, tracing the contour of her breasts, tracking the outline of her hips. When she turned, the shape of her derriere made a perfect inverted heart shape, covered in the lacy material.
The woman swayed in time to the music, occasionally twirling and dropping the lower half of her body, only to rise up in a fluid motion that reminded him of ocean waves. Her whisky eyes never met his, preferring to keep her gaze on her feet. Her scent—sweet jasmine—enveloped him. Jamie was completely mesmerized, almost forgetting his previous objections to this moment.
The vibrating beat changed, now pounding out a staccato bass. Jamie felt an overwhelming sense of dread wash over him, skin tingling. A hole opened up in his chest, sucking the air from his lungs. He could feel his heart sprinting along, trying to pump enough blood to keep him from fainting. The music, pounding like gunfire, triggered the familiar wave of memories from the battlefield six years ago.
James Fraser curled his hands into fists; head between his hands, willing himself to remain conscious, he called out to the dancing woman with beseeching urgency. He thought he was screaming, but it was barely above a whisper.
- - -
Claire thought he was dying.
She had heard stories about men who suffered heart attacks and collapsed in the club. Fortunately, it had never happened during her performances—until now, it seemed.
She heard him calling in spite of the music. She heard the word stop.
She halted mid-step, arms raised above her head; she watched him for a second, disoriented and sweating rivers, before Claire Beauchamp, nurse, sprang into action. Clambering off the dance table, she landed gracefully on her stilettos. She was at his side, ready to assess and aid the red-headed man before she remembered.
No touching or contact exchange between performers and patrons.
Claire hesitated for a second before recalling Geillis’s trick when she wanted to flout the rules a bit. She pulled the bowler hat off and stepping carefully onto the banquette, draped it over the CCTV camera. It would buy her at least ten minutes, she thought.
The red-headed man was keening softly, rocking back and forth in an attempt to get himself under control. This was some sort of panic attack. His tightly fisted hands trembled as they rested on his knees. Perspiration stood out on his forehead, red curls sticking to his skin. She sat next to him, as close as possible without actually touching him. She wasn’t sure how he might react to her attempts to help.
“Breathe.” Claire’s voice cut through the music. His back and forth motions slowed, as he registered her words. “Just breathe.” She stretched her hand towards him carefully, so he would be aware of her actions. He gulped for air as she gently loosened his tie and opened a few buttons on his shirt.
“What’s your name?” she asked kindly, her hand on his shoulder as he inhaled and exhaled slowly.
“J-J-James.” Pause. “Jamie.” Another pause. “Fraser.”
“Alright, Jamie. I’d like you to tell me five things you can see around you.” Claire’s hand remained on his shoulder, the touch feeling as forbidden as it actually was.
“Five. Things. I…” Jamie took another deep breath, panic his eyes. “I see the table. The curtains, the lights. The seat. You.” She was surprised at the soft Scottish burr of this tone. His eyes blinked slowly and met hers in a calmer gaze, an intense blue she only remembered having seen in nature. The Cornish coast, perhaps.
“Well done. Tell me four things you can touch.”
Jamie glanced at her hand, and Claire quickly pulled it back.
“I’m sorry, Jamie, we’re not actually supposed to—”
“No, it’s fine, lass.” His voice was still stilted; he was still trying to pull the reins of his control. “It was yer touch that helped, at first.” He smiled shakily. “And yer voice, of course.”
The panic seemed to subside. They sat still for a few minutes, until Jamie broke the silence. “Will it cost yer job? I’d be happy to speak to the manager, if ye like.”
“No, I—don’t worry. I took care of it.” She gestured at the CCTV camera once more, and Jamie chuckled at her improvisation.
“Would it help to talk about it?” Claire asked softly,
“I dinna ken.” Jamie hesitated. “I dinna ken if I… can.”
“Was it something I did? If so, I apologize.”
“No, lass, it wasn’t anything ye did. Nothing ye could ever do. It was the song, it brought back… memories.”
Claire nodded encouragingly. Jamie was quiet for a minute before launching into his story.
It was 2013. Lance Corporal Gavin Hayes playing this song on his phone as they cruised through Kandahar.
The convoy in front of them, exploding into clouds of fire and smoke.
His own tank, turned on its side from the blast of a land mine.
The searing pain on his back, the screams of his fellow soldiers, the endless rat-a-tat of shots ringing in his ears. Cries of “Major Fraser!” all around.
“I graduated from law school and I served in the military. My da died from a stroke while I was on active duty. I flew back for a few days from Afghanistan, to attend the funeral, but I had to return. Then the attack happened.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that, Jamie. About your father and your men.” Claire wanted to touch him again, squeeze his hand, his shoulder, anything to show her sympathy. Noise from the hallway had her jumping up hastily, climbing back up on the table to place the hat back on her head. She began to dance again, her hips swaying in time to the beat. Jamie—James—fixed his stare on his lap, refusing to look up at her.
Claire felt strangely gratified; she was used to men ogling her, to their vulgar comments, and occasionally, men trying to touch her despite club rules. It inspired her next words.
“I’m a nurse.”
Jamie did look up at that, shock on his face. Claire smiled, continuing her sinuous motions.
“I do have a day job, you know. I applied as a dare, but the money is good. I’m used to being up at night, so I pick up shifts here and there.”
“I didna think—that is to say, I wasna—”
“Men would be surprised to know, that’s all. But I don’t think you’re like most men, anyway.” Claire turned, looking over her shoulder at him. “I’m booked for a full hour. What do you want, Jamie?”
Jamie swallowed visibly. “To talk. For ye to come with me, away from this place. And one more thing.”
“What’s that?” Claire touched the brim of her hat, with a glance at the camera that was always watching. Jamie stood.
“Tell me yer name.”
Claire paused, regarding him seriously. She always gave a fake name appropriate to men’s fantasies. She considered the usual (Eliza, Lizzie, Candy, Clara…). She thought about walking out, taking him with her, just to talk. Responding to instinct, she smiled.
“I’m Claire. Claire Beauchamp.”
“Well then, Claire.” James Fraser reached out, their hands entwining as he helped her off the table. “It’s a pleasure to meet ye.”
“The pleasure’s all mine.” Claire gripped the lapel of the coat Jamie had draped over her. He buttoned it up to the neck; the sleeves were too long on her so he folded them over her wrists. He gestured for her to go through the curtains first; he followed her down the hall, pushing the emergency exit door out into the cold night.
Jamie and Claire, hand in hand, left The Mayfair Club together and didn’t look back.