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Conversations in the Dark

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      “You’ve got to be bloody kidding me!” She heard the helicopter before she saw it.

      How dare you interrupt my peaceful evening!

      She fixed her eyes in the direction of the sound as she waited for it to appear. It rose slowly above the peak of the mountains, rotors spinning in a blur. It was a 6-seater, not a news or traffic chopper as she had expected. She guessed it must be a private tour of the Central Cascades. Tourists to Washington state loved to explore the mountain ranges and inactive volcanoes from the air. She set her laptop aside, and picked up her glass of chilled sauvignon blanc.

      From the comfort of her outdoor living area, Claire had a phenomenal view of the magnificent peaks and troughs of the Central Cascades in a 270º sweep. Acre upon acre of unspoiled open wooded land lay between her and her view of the mountains and she had always hoped it would remain that way permanently. However, the greater Seattle area, and particularly the area known as ‘the Eastside’, had exploded in recent years, and developers were buying up land at a frenzied rate. New neighborhoods were springing up all the time and Claire just hoped she could enjoy her private, peaceful oasis - her Eastside home - for as long as possible. She knew it was inevitable that some of the land around her would eventually be bought up and developed into a small neighborhood with single family homes, roads, a park or two, and lots of noisy families. Before Henry’s illness, they had even spoken about buying up a decent chunk of the land to retain their privacy and uninterrupted views. But as his cancer progressed, their lives were focused on far more important things than open land and trees. And now, two years after her husband’s death, Claire still hadn’t given much thought to the land and whether she should seriously consider snapping it up.

      Sighing, Claire took a sip of wine and waited for the helicopter to start bearing west towards the peaks of the Cascades. She swept her gaze across the mountains, and tried to imagine what the helicopter passengers were seeing. It was mid-June and most of the snow caps had melted, but she could still see snow clinging to the very tops of some of the peaks. The tourists were in for a treat, no doubt about that. She watched the helicopter, mentally urging it to start heading west towards the central peaks, but instead, it started to bear down, lower and lower, making sweeping passes over the land adjoining her property. It hovered over a certain area, then moved on, and then swept back around to hover over a different area. All the while, it moved closer and closer to her terrace. When it was quite close, it swept back and forth a few times, and Claire had the distinct feeling that the occupants could see her clearly. She could make out some human forms in the cabin, and they were peering out of the windows on all sides of the chopper.

      Wait, are you seriously waving at me? You come and invade my evening by flying way too close to my home, and now you’re waving at me!

      She squinted into the cabin of the chopper. Hard to tell, but she thought she counted 4 people, including the pilot. She could tell that the frantically waving man had a shock of white hair, and wondered what on earth he was up to. She wasn't sure whether to wave back or flip him off, but before she could decide, her phone buzzed next to her. It was a text from Milo Lukic - a dear friend.

      Milo and his wife, Suki, were Henry’s college friends, and after Claire moved to Seattle seven years ago as Henry’s bride, they had become her closest friends too. They had been there for her throughout Henry’s illness. They were in the room with her when he took his last breath. They held her when she sobbed her pain and howled her grief and yelled her anger at the unfairness of losing her husband. At the unfairness of her twins losing their much loved step-dad. At the unfairness of the world losing a business genius and philanthropist. A widow at 32.

      Milo and Suki had loved and supported her in those raw, dark days. Wiping her tears and snotty nose. Sustaining her and helping her through the funeral arrangements and Henry’s celebration of life. Standing by her side as she received an endless stream of visitors and flowers and meals. Even a couple of news crews from local TV channels. Henry’s position as Professor Emeritus at Fulton Business School and appointment to the boards of several large companies had afforded him a fairly high profile in business circles, and there was a surge of interest in the life and death of one of Seattle’s business personalities and his young widow. Two of the boards immediately dispatched their media relations teams to help Claire deal with the press. And after the turmoil and frenzy of those first few weeks had abated, after the meals and flowers had dwindled, and the visitors stopped coming, Milo and Suki were still there. Still bringing meals for her and the twins, still holding Claire’s hand as she dealt with yet another surge of grief. Still ferrying the twins to and from school and events and activities, and dealing with the lawn service, and club memberships, and insurance and minor roof repairs after a windstorm. Still standing with Claire as slowly, slowly, she started to pick up the pieces and began her return to motherhood and work and life.

      I see you!

      She quickly texted him back:

      Milo! Is that you - I can see your hair from here!

      How are you doing, my beautiful English rose?

      Doing well, thank you! Just getting some grading done. Student case studies and project reports

      Hah! Look at you, Professor Beauchamp

      Nope - still Dr. Beauchamp. Still Associate Professor. But interviewing and negotiating hard - there's a professorship in the works. We need to grab dinner so I can tell you all about it. Are you and Suki hardcore quarantining, or you up for dinner? Also, WTH are you doing flying over my house!

      Looking at the land for a potential client. Top secret. I’ll call you from my car in about an hour or so. I need to chat with you about something

      Later

      As happy as she was to hear from Milo, her heart dropped a little too. If he was looking at the land, then chances were quite high that there was a development in the offing. Milo and Suki were among Seattle’s top five realtors. She wondered how many houses would be built there. Construction would be hard to tolerate - a minimum of two years of noise, dust, and activity.

      With another deep sigh, she picked up her glass and her laptop, and headed indoors. Time to throw together a quick salad and FaceTime the twins.

 

------------

 

      Milo’s call came just as she was wrapping up her FaceTime session with the twins.

      “Hey sweetheart, how are things?”

      “All good, Milo! How are you and Suki doing?”

      “We are fine. Quarantining dutifully like everyone else. We’re doing the distancing thing, but we have a fairly good idea who we can and can’t associate with. We’re so ready for this to be over! We’re heading to our place in Arizona in a couple of weeks for a change of scenery. You and the girls are more than welcome to join us. How are they doing?”

      “Aww, you’re so thoughtful, Milo! I might take you up on that later in the summer. Right now, I am super busy with project reviews and managing a summer cohort, and I’m in the middle of discussions about a potential professorship. Oh - and the girls are with their father in Boston.”

      “Oh? Since when? You must be missing them like crazy!”

      “Oh, I am! Three weeks since they left! I know last time you and I spoke, they were just completing their online schooling and semester finals. Frank wanted them to fly out earlier than usual this summer, as he has travel plans in August/September. They'll be there for a couple more weeks, and then home for the rest of the summer.”

      “Wow! I bet they’re missing you big-time, but probably enjoying the time with their half siblings. Please send them my love next time you talk to them.”

      “Will do. Milo, please tell me Seattle’s top realtor has not found a buyer for the property next to mine.”

      “Hah! I think I heard you swearing at me from the helicopter - in your poshest accent!” Milo chuckled, imagining Claire’s annoyance at the disruption of her peaceful evening. "Well ….” he continued, “it’s good news and bad news. Bad news first - yes, we have a potential buyer looking at it fairly seriously. I know, I know - you were hoping that the land would always be there, undeveloped. The guy’s from the U.K. and he's only seen it on Google Earth and drone footage, but he knows the area from previous visits. He’ll be out next week to look at it in person. In fact, Suki and I were planning on asking you if you’d be willing to meet him briefly - observing social distancing rules, of course. A quick meeting to talk to him about the area, pros and cons of living there, schools, shopping, property values, walking trails - you know all the usual questions potential buyers have. Suki says it’s always helpful to have a friendly neighbor to talk to.”

      “Of course!“ Claire responded, trying not to sound hesitant or disappointed.

      Sure, she would love for the land to remain unspoiled forever, but she knew that was not realistic. Besides, Milo and Suki were practically family - she would do anything for them. “What’s the good news?”

      “He’s not a developer. He wants to buy all 26 acres. He’s a private man with a very public profile, and wants something secluded and spacious. He’ll build something beautiful and classy, and will likely keep horses. He’s already said that he’ll stable the horses as far away from your house as his land will allow. No smelly horse poop to deal with,” he chuckled.

      “Hmmm. Well, if I have to give up my privacy, I’m really glad it will be to a single family. I’m really relieved about that, to be honest. How old are the kids?"

      “Actually,” Milo said, “there are no kids. He’s not married. We found him a 6-week rental on Lake Washington last October-November, and he was on his own for most of that time. His sister and her family came to visit for a couple of weeks. So no kids of his own for the moment but likely some family visits from time to time.”

      “Why was he renting on Lake Washington?” asked Claire, puzzled.

      “He loves the Seattle area and has been planning to buy property here for a while. He wanted to spend time in the area to see what grabbed him and where he might want to settle. While he was staying at the Lake, Suki and I took him to all the usual affluent neighborhoods to view properties - but he really wanted something on the Eastside. He is nuts about mountains, so he really can’t do better than Washington. And since he wants to be in the Greater Seattle Area, I feel like your neighborhood is a really good fit. We drove him out there in November and he says it reminds him of his home town in Scotland.”

      “So he’s from Scotland? What does he do?” asked Claire, a little more interested. Scotland was high on her list of places to revisit. She had spent a few years there as a teenager and young adult, and really wanted to go back and explore some more.

      “Well, that’s where this gets tricky,” Milo replied. “This is one of those top secret deals where Suki and I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement because he’s a celebrity. We can tell you a little, but we’d rather do it face-to face. What are you up to tomorrow?”

      “Hah!” chuckled Claire. “Don’t judge me, but I’m taking advantage of the loosened restrictions and have planned a full morning of self-care and pampering. Mani-pedi, facial, massage, and hair. I’ll be done by 1:00’ish.”

      “Yeah! Good for you, Claire! No judgment here. You totally deserve it. In fact, I’m going to encourage Suki to do something like that soon. She deserves it too after putting up with me at home for weeks on end! Why don’t you come grab a light lunch with Suki at home when you’re done with pampering tomorrow? I have to drive to Bellingham for the day, but Suki has all the info about our client and the transaction, and I know she’s dying to see you.”

      “That sounds divine! Please let her know I’ll bring dessert. It’ll be somewhere between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m. Can’t wait to catch up with her.”

     

      As Claire curled up on the sofa and set her phone down next to her, she couldn’t help feeling intrigued by the private, nameless celebrity who might become her neighbor.

 

 






Chapter Text

    


      Maybe scheduling lunch after hours and hours of pampering was not the best idea. Claire felt positively drowsy as she drove parallel to Lake Washington en route to Suki and Milo’s stunning lakefront home. The sight of the large expanse of gently undulating water only added to her somnolence. She felt completely relaxed and warm, and the after-effects of her facials and a deep back and scalp massage made her want to lie flat on her back and give in to the sun’s warm, soothing rays. Parking her SUV on the driveway, Claire grabbed the paper bag filled with a half-dozen mini bundt cakes and two bottles of wine.  

      “Claire!” Suki squealed as she threw open the front door and wrapped her friend in a strong embrace. She clasped Claire's face in her soft hands and deposited a huge noisy kiss on each of her cheeks. “Our English rose! I have missed you so much! You look beautiful. Turn around, let me see your hair!”

      “Oh Lord,” groaned Claire. “I just had a facial and don’t have a stitch of make-up on. You are so sweet, Suki, but I must look bloody awful!” She obliged Suki and did a 360, allowing her to admire her freshly cut hair and balayage color treatment. 

      “Oh, I love it,” she breathed, gently running her hands through Claire’s soft curls. “The color is beautiful.”  

      It certainly enriched the rich espresso hues of Claire's hair with tantalizing hints of auburn and bronze. Her stylist, Armando, had also transformed her tight curls into loose ‘beachy waves’, and the overall effect was stunning. Claire knew that the twins were going to love it. She couldn't wait to show them on FaceTime later.  

      “Thank you, Suki,” she smiled, “the girls convinced me to do the balayage at Christmas, and I really loved how natural it looked while still enhancing some lowlights and highlights in my own color. But look at you , Ms. Glam! You look ah-mazing !” She admired Suki’s sleek bob, her black hair lightly veined with a few streaks of grey. The overall effect made her willowy friend look even more elegant, distinguished, and chic. 

      “Oh stop!” Suki protested, giggling and ushering Claire into the kitchen! “A few weeks into quarantine, I realized I was fighting a losing battle with my hair color, so I decided to go natural. I’m 53 this year, and figured I’d dye my hair until I was at least 65. I felt like letting the grey grow out would age me too much, but honestly, I think I really like the grey streaks. Milo loves it too - or so he says. Mind you, he’s been completely grey-white for years now, so I don’t think he even notices my grey,“ she laughed. 

      “Well, you look absolutely wonderful,” gushed Claire, as she placed the dessert and wine bottles on the counter.

      ”Did you run into any protests or unrest on your way here?” Suki busied herself uncorking a bottle of wine and arranging the mini bundts on a platter. 

      Wave after wave of protests and demonstrations had been sweeping the country since May, as activists and communities from all sides made their voices heard on the issue of racism and police brutality. Amid rumors of disbanding police forces in some big cities around the nation, Seattle had just seen the establishment of a police-free neighborhood, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ. There were still tensions between the authorities and the protesters, and it felt like all of Seattle was in wait-and-see mode. 

      “No. Most of my drive was on the interstate.” Claire and Suki enjoyed talking and debating about politics, social, and community issues, and she knew that part of their lunch conversation would veer towards the state of the country.

 

      They plated up a deliciously simple meal of baked salmon, asparagus and salad, grabbed their wine, and headed down to the lakefront. Suki’s outdoor living area was cleverly designed for maximizing privacy and optimizing the lake view. Her favorite part was the small, slightly sunken patio next to the boat dock. It was here that she and Milo often took their meals, and it was here that she and Claire settled into their comfortable dining chairs. Over a leisurely lunch, the women talked politics and protests, and caught up on each other’s family news. They laughed at each other’s pandemic frustrations, and reflected seriously on the loss of life and general devastation that the dreaded virus had left in its wake. 

      Claire was excited to share her news about the professorship she was chasing at UDub’s Fulton Business School. Suki clapped enthusiastically, and reached over to hug her. Her eyes were watery, and Claire knew that she was thinking about Henry and how proud he would have been of her success in academia. 

      For her part, Suki was just starting to plan her daughter’s wedding, slated to take place next summer. She updated Claire on all the fine details of the plans. It was a location wedding in Hawaii, and would no doubt be an unforgettable occasion. 

      “Thank heavens they didn’t set the date for this summer!” exclaimed Claire. "What a mess it's been with so many event cancellations.”

      “Tell me about it!” Suki rolled her eyes. “Wedding planning is stressful enough without a global pandemic getting in the way. Milo tells me the girls are in Boston?”

      “Yes,” sighed Claire, “Frank wanted them to spend the earlier part of the summer with him and the family. We FaceTime every night, sometimes twice a day. I miss them terribly. They turn 16 next Wednesday. I’m trying not to think of the fact that I won’t be with them on such a big milestone birthday.” Claire swallowed hard and blinked furiously. Suki reached over and gently squeezed Claire’s hand.

      “I’m so sorry, Claire. I know it will be a tough day for you. You should come over. We’ll go out on the boat and enjoy the lake for a bit.” 

      Claire smiled a sad little smile. “Thank you, Sook. Melissa is visiting from Atlanta next week. We’re going to spend Wednesday in Woodinville. Now that restrictions have been eased and we can enjoy patio outings at restaurants, I figured it would be good for the soul to enjoy a day out - even if we’re wearing masks all day. I’ve booked a patio table at Columbia, and space in a tasting room at La Ville. Figured I can pick up my club wines while I’m out there too.”

      “That sounds wonderful! Please remember to say hi to Melissa for me.”

      “I will. Now - what can you tell me about the man from Scotland who wants to take away my peace and quiet forever?”       

      “Ah! Yes, our lovely Scot!” sighed Suki, and broke into a wide smile. “Milo told you about the NDA, so you know I have to tread carefully, right? We’re working mostly with his business manager, who’s also his uncle - Dougal MacKenzie. Celebrity clients always have an entourage! MacKenzie is a nice enough man, but a little intense and uptight. He’s very protective of his nephew. Wanted a watertight NDA. He’s the go-to guy in the negotiations when our client is busy, and he was in the helicopter with Milo yesterday.”

      Suki paused to take a bite of her salmon, chewing thoughtfully, and pondering what she could and couldn’t tell Claire. “The nephew is in the entertainment industry.” She paused again and took a small sip of wine. “Oh screw it! I’m sure I can tell you this much at least ... he’s an actor.”

      She let that sink in for a few seconds, then took a deep breath. “He’s very well-known and has a huge fan base of ardent female fans. You can imagine the lifestyle, right? He is chased whenever he’s in public - it’s a never-ending saga of autographs, selfies, social media drama - women throwing themselves at him left, right, and center! His past girlfriends have received threats and all. It’s ridiculous and very intense, and he seems to want to get back to a life with some sort of normalcy. Milo and I spent quite a bit of time with him last year when he was just starting to look at Seattle properties. We arranged a six week rental just a little way down from here, so we went boating with him a few times, and we had him over for dinner. He opened up a little. Shared with us that he wants to buy a business here. Milo put him in touch with a friend in the wine business and they’re in advanced talks about that too. That’s why he wants to make Seattle his base in the United States. Currently he splits his time between Scotland and the US. His advisors are trying to convince him to settle in L.A., because that’s what makes the most sense for his movie career. But he is adamant that he wants to get out of the entertainment business within the next 5 years. He’s in his mid-30’s - right around your age, Claire - so you can understand his need to settle down a little and create some stability and balance for himself. For an unmarried, childless man, he’s very family oriented, and finds the obsessive female fan thing a bit much now. Weird, huh? Because what man wouldn't want beautiful women offering themselves to him on a platter? I get the sense that he is just over it. His sister and her family visited while he was in the rental, and he was in his element with his niece and nephews. It was quite cute to see. I don’t know what to make of it all, but he seems to be a decent man. I hope he gets it all figured out in his head.”

      “Hmmm,” Claire mused as she processed all the information Suki had given her. “Milo said he’s coming to view the property next week, and that he wanted to stop by for a quick chat with me. How can I help? What would you like me to do?” 

      “Just be your friendly, welcoming self,” Suki smiled, warmth and sincerity in her voice and soft, expressive face. “Buyers love to know that they will be living near good people. Nobody wants the neighbor from hell. Answer whatever questions he might have honestly. I don’t think we would expect any more from you than that. And neither would our client.”     

      Claire bit on her lower lip - a clear sign that she was nervous, stressed, or deep in thought. It seemed a little daunting to her, if she was completely honest. She knew that the property was a high-value, very desirable piece of prime land. Developers had been after it for years, but it had been in the hands of one of Seattle’s wealthiest and most well-known families for decades. The land had passed through three generations already, and the latest owners were reluctant to sell. Trust fund babies all of them, and they certainly didn’t need the money. For Milo and Suki to have negotiated it this far was really quite impressive. Claire did not want to mess things up for them. They were enormously successful realtors, and this deal was not about the financial reward. As they nudged closer and closer towards retirement, a big deal like this would really crown their careers. It was undoubtedly the thrill of the chase and the challenge that pushed Milo and Suki on this one.

      Claire desperately wanted to do right by them, even if it meant helping to sell the tranquil oasis that felt like an extension of her home and her soul. 

      “OK,” sighed Claire softly, somewhat comforted by Suki’s encouraging words. "When and what time?” 

      “Monday. Milo is picking him up at the airport at 3:30 p.m. He’s flying in from Glasgow, so by the time he clears customs and all, they should be at your house by 5’ish. Milo thinks they’ll spend maybe an hour with you, and then he’s dropping the client off at his hotel downtown after that. Seems he’s going to be wrapped up in all sorts of meetings for a couple of weeks, and he wants to get the property deal over and done with right off the bat.”

      “Sounds good,” Claire responded. She was already thinking about what to prepare for her meeting with the mystery man. She wanted to make him feel welcome, but didn’t want to go overboard and give him the impression that Milo and Suki were overly eager. “I’ll have some wine and light appetizers ready, just in case.”

      “Oh that would be wonderful, Claire. Maybe some time on your terraces with those spectacular views will give him the push he needs to make a decision either way.”

      Claire felt a teeny surge of anxiety again - a lot was riding on that brief visit. Suki sensed that and reached for Claire’s hand to pat it reassuringly. 

      “He’s a lovely, lovely man, Claire - you need to know that. I know it sounds all cloak and dagger because of the NDA. But really, he’s just a man who is trying to make some important life choices and decisions. Don’t be intimidated.”

      Claire allowed herself a sneaky little smile. “So you can’t give me even a little hint about who he is? What if I throw out some names, can you tell me yes or no? Or can I guess one of the movies he’s been in?"

      “Claire, you are so naughty,” teased Suki, but her eyes told Claire she was enjoying this bit of mischief that had crept into their serious conversation. “I will have to be very careful about the NDA, but let’s hear your guesses.”

      “Gerard Butler?”

      “Oh God, no! Can you imagine?” Suki rolled her eyes.

      “Okay, that’s a relief. I can’t imagine him as a neighbor - I feel like it would be non-stop parties and a stream of sexy young starlets.”

      “Remember - our client’s looking to settle down somewhat. Not a big party guy at all,” Suki reminded her gently. "Butler's a little older than our client too."

      “Okay, Ewan McGregor?”

      “Nope.”

      “Liam Neeson? Oh wait - he’s Irish. And in his sixties, not mid-thirties as you mentioned. I’ve always harbored a little crush on him, you know? Why am I always drawn to men who are a fair bit older than me?” Claire pondered wistfully. 

      “Oh hon,” sighed Suki. Claire knew she was thinking about Henry again. “No dear, it’s definitely not Liam Neeson.”

      “Okay. Ummmm.” Deep in thought, Claire tried to remember all the recent shows and movies she had seen with Scottish actors. She gasped suddenly. “Oh! Oh! Who’s the guy from The Bodyguard? He’s pretty hot.” Claire frowned as she tried to remember. “Richard Madden! Oh my God, Sook, please tell me it’s Richard Madden!” She clutched at her heart and pretended to fall back in a swoon.

      Suki laughed heartily at Claire’s over-the-top antics and shook her head. “You are so silly, hon! Okay, I’ll give you one more little clue -”

      They were interrupted by Suki’s cell phone ringing. “It’s Milo! Let me put him on speakerphone.”

      “How are my favorite ladies?” Milo asked. He sounded tired but was clearly happy to be heading home after a long day of grueling negotiations up north. 

      Claire leaned over Suki’s phone and said, “Milo, I’ve had the most wonderful afternoon. Your wife has spoiled me and made me laugh.”

      “Glad to hear it,” Milo said chuckling, “I take it she briefed you about Monday?”

      “Yes, I sure did, honey. Claire’s all briefed and ready to roll.”

      “Okay. Thank you, Claire. We appreciate it so much.”

      “Well, to be honest,” Claire had mischief in her eyes and voice, “your wife is keeping me on the edge of my seat wondering about the identity of this apparently amazing man. She won’t give me any clues either.” 

      “Well, you know we’d love to answer all your questions, but I think they will all be answered in the next week or so.“ Milo sounded upbeat and convincing, and Claire took comfort in knowing that he and Suki would always put her and her daughters above all else. There was no way they would unload a dodgy neighbor on them. Not after all she’d been through.

      For the second time in two days she wondered why she was getting that curious feeling about the private, nameless mystery man. It wasn’t unease or discomfort. In fact, it wasn’t a negative feeling at all. More like a flutter of anticipation somewhere between her chest and her belly. 

 



Chapter Text

 

 

 


      Claire changed three times before finalizing what she would wear for the meeting with Milo and his client. She had spent much of Saturday getting the guest room ready for Melissa’s visit. Melissa had been part of her Masters degree cohort at NYU, and they had remained firm friends over the years, meeting each other at least once or twice a year. Melissa loved to visit her in Seattle to unwind from the stresses of her high-pressure job. Additionally, they often met at a destination city - New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago - exploring each city’s delights and attractions while catching up with each other.

      Melissa had taken her background in PR and Communications and built a hugely successful crisis management firm. If a CEO was caught having an affair - Melissa would step in with her team and ‘mitigate’ as she called it. If a senator was caught in some kind of campaign scandal, Melissa and her team to the rescue! She enjoyed her reputation as a skilled and very expensive fixer and her success at ‘mitigating’ was unparalleled. Claire knew that was code for calling in favors, bribing, nudging, finding skeletons - maybe the odd bit of mild intimidation too. Whatever strategies Melissa and her team used, they worked, and Melissa had saved many well-known business, professional, and political asses over the years.

      Early on Sunday morning, Melissa called to cancel her trip to Seattle. One of her team had been exposed to a friend who had tested positive for Covid, and her entire Atlanta office was required to self-quarantine for fourteen days. It was a huge disappointment, but Melissa promised to reschedule for sometime in July - as long as everyone was clear and healthy.

      Claire spent the rest of the day grading case studies and trying not to focus on her sadness over Melissa's cancelled visit.

      Now she wished she had taken some time to at least think about what to wear for the meeting with the mystery Scot. Who, sadly, is not Richard Madden.

      Milo had texted forty minutes earlier to let her know that they were just leaving the airport. That meant they would be on her driveway any minute. She had already rejected two summer dresses as too “lunch-with-friends”. This was just a casual meeting with afternoon drinks. She finally pulled on her skinny white jeans and a loose-fitting butter yellow top in a silky crepe. The narrow shoulder straps gave way to a soft draped neckline that flattered her breasts without drawing too much attention to them. The soft, flowy fabric gathered in a knot right on the waistline of her jeans, enhancing her waist and showing off her rear end and long legs. Claire was justifiably proud of her figure. She worked out several times a week, and paid particular attention to her butt, which had always been the envy of her friends - and frenemies. She wasn’t a vain woman, but her years of part-time modelling as a student had given her an appreciation of her natural beauty, and she knew exactly how to make the most of her best features. Taking in her reflection in the bathroom mirror with a critical eye, she looked and felt summery and fresh. Thank God I had all the hair and spa stuff done on Friday.

      Her hair was freshly washed and she had tamed her curls so that they fell in soft waves below her shoulders. The pale yellow top accentuated her unusual amber-colored eyes, which were further enhanced by soft make-up. Nothing too over-the-top for this meeting - she didn't want to look like she had spent hours fretting over her appearance.

     Grabbing tan Michael Kors flats from her closet, she ran down the stairs just as her phone app pinged to announce that someone had turned into her driveway. For the umpteenth time that day, she thanked the weather gods for a sunny, cloudless day. Perfect weather to enjoy sun-downers on her patio, and to really showcase the magnificent mountain views. Sliding her feet into her sandals, she headed to the front door, pulled it open and stepped onto her porch.

     Her heart was beating faster than expected. Just who was this mystery ‘lovely, lovely man’? Suki’s description, not hers.

      Milo drove his dark blue BMW past the garages, around her circular driveway, and came to a stop at the front steps, directly in front of her. She could see a figure in the passenger seat, but with the tinted side windows and the sun’s glare off the windshield, she couldn’t make out any features. Milo’s door was closest to Claire, and he had his head turned toward his client. They were clearly having a humorous discussion, as Milo threw his head back and laughed heartily.

      What is so damned funny? Just get out of the bloody car already! I’m dying to know who’s in there. 

      The driver and passenger doors finally opened, and Milo unfolded himself from the depths of his seat and stepped towards Claire with his arms outstretched. Claire gave a little squeal of delight and ran down the wide, shallow steps right into Milo’s huge, enveloping hug. Even though they had spoken over the past few days, it had been a while since they had seen each other, and Claire basked in the comfort and warmth of Milo’s embrace. He rubbed her back gently and swayed with her a little, then dropped a gentle kiss on the top of her head before saying softly, “It is so good to see you at last! I’ve missed you.”

      He freed Claire from his grasp and took her hand as he walked a few steps towards the front of his car, where his client had been waiting and watching their warm, lengthy embrace. Claire finally had an unrestricted look at the mystery Scot.

      She may have temporarily stopped breathing at that point.      

      “Claire, I’m delighted to introduce you to Jamie Fraser. Jamie, this is my dear friend, Claire Beauchamp.”

 



 

Chapter Text

     


      Jamie’s arm moved slightly, as he started to reach forward to shake her hand. Claire started to reciprocate, but they both stopped awkwardly half-way, suddenly remembering social distancing etiquette. They burst out laughing at the same time, and dropped their hands.

      “Jamie, it’s such a pleasure to meet you,“ she smiled, with a calm outer confidence that she definitely didn't feel inside. “Don’t you just love the awkwardness of quarantine introductions?”

       “Yes! It’s starting to get really old, really fast, isn’t it?” he replied in a soft Scottish burr, his r’s rolling softly off his tongue. “It’s good to meet ye too, Claire. Thank you for opening yer home to me and allowing me to get an inside look into this neighborhood.”

      She had seen his smile in hundreds of magazines, movies, interviews, social media posts. But none of that prepared her for being on the receiving end of the real deal. Dazzling blue eyes sparkled and shone in the bright sunlight. His smile was warm and genuine and left her with a warm, fluttery feeling in her belly. Like butterflies.

      She pulled herself together long enough to blurt out, “Not at all! It’s a pleasure, really. A complete pleasure. Oh, I just said that, didn’t I?”

       Oh my God!  What was wrong with her? She was having a hard time articulating her thoughts and forming coherent sentences, and she was sure both men were looking at her like she had lost her mind.     

       Get a grip! You are a grown-ass woman with teenage daughters, and you're well past the point of appealing to this ridiculously handsome man in front of you. Plus - you are an associate professor at a respectable university and you’re about to snag a full professorship. Now stop being starstruck and act your damn age!

      “You have a beautiful home, Claire! I canna believe these views,” Jamie said in wonder, as his eyes took in everything from the large house in front of him to the mountains and woods all around them. His gaze returned to Claire and their eyes locked for a moment longer than was entirely comfortable.

      A tiny flutter in her belly snapped her out of the moment, and she regained her composure. “Thank you! Let’s head inside, and I’ll show you around a little.” She led the way up the front steps, across the porch and into the large, cool foyer. The late afternoon sun streamed through the massive windows all around them, and she was pleased she’d turned up the air-con earlier. It had ended up being an 80º plus day, and the cool interior of the house was a welcome relief from the heat of the driveway. Jamie stood in her foyer and took in all the huge windows. They revealed incredible mountain views, and Claire remembered Milo telling her that it was these very mountains that had drawn Jamie to this part of Seattle in the first place. He turned a little, and took in the beautiful marble floors, the sweeping curved staircase on the left, and the soaring ceilings. The entryway reinforced the home’s sense of elegance and grandeur. Much like the owner herself, Jamie mused, with her gracious manners and English accent.

      The house was truly magnificent, and she and Henry had taken enormous pleasure in planning and designing every tiny detail with the architects and builders. Milo and Suki had brokered the deal, of course, and she and Henry were eternally grateful to them for finding them their own private sanctuary.

    “This is very grand, Claire. Beautiful! I canna get over the views from this room!” His voice was soft, almost reverent, as he turned to look out over the mountains again.

    “The views from outside are even better!” Claire smiled. She always delighted in receiving compliments on the stunning home she had created with Henry.

    The foyer led into a large open formal living room, and Claire led the way through the sun-drenched space. She threw open the French doors to the outdoor living area.    

     If the interior of the house was gorgeous, then the terraced outdoor area was truly spectacular. To make the most of the views, she and Henry had created several outdoor seating areas over three terraced levels, all furnished with comfortable, durable all-weather furniture.     

     The trio stepped out onto the upper terrace, which was dominated by a large covered outdoor patio, open on three sides, but with a solid roof, so that they could enjoy being outdoors even on Seattle’s greyest, most drizzly days. The covered space featured a dining area, and two plush sofas arranged around a fireplace. A large flat screen TV hung on the wall. The space was also equipped with an outdoor kitchenette - small wonder the twins and their friends always opted to hang out in this part of the house. It was made for entertaining people of all ages. Lush lawn and colorful flower gardens filled the remainder of the upper terrace, and at its edge, wide stone steps led to the middle terrace just below.

     The middle terrace featured an open seating area with three large sofas clustered around a fire table, and a huge cantilevered umbrella stood unopened, but ready to provide protection from the sun. On the far side of the manicured terrace was a hot tub that evidently afforded its occupants a relaxing experience with wonderful views. It was nestled in lush ferns and shrubbery and was stippled in sunlight from a canopy of tall trees growing around it. Stone features and surrounds made it meld right into the background.

    “Well, now!“ Jamie‘s eyebrow lifted a smidge as he surveyed the hot tub in its beautiful setting. He moved towards it for a closer look and turned to Claire. “May I sit here for a sec?”

      She nodded, and he eased himself down onto the stone surround, looking out over the mountains.

      “This is something else! Do you use it much or is it one of those things that you get so used to, that it starts to lose its appeal?” He looked directly at Claire, awaiting her response with interest.

      “Actually, I’m in here almost nightly in the summer, unless we’re in the middle of a stormy downpour, which happens every now and again in Seattle, although the summers are generally hot, cloudless, and sunny. I actually use the hot tub during much of the rest of the year too, as long as it’s not drizzly or really cold. My ‘sanity hour’, I like to call it. Do you see the rocks with built-in speakers? I blast my music through those and soak my day away. Nothing beats it.” She gave him a bright smile, anxious to come across as friendly and neighborly.

      “Mm-hmm.” Jamie smiled slightly and held her gaze a fraction longer than she expected, causing that weird thing between her chest and belly to flutter again.

       What the heck is going on - you’re way too old to have butterflies in your tummy over a man. Especially an unattainable, ridiculously hot movie star. Dear God, Claire! Stop fangirling all over him.

      She nipped her lower lip between her teeth and forced herself to focus. Jamie still held her gaze, so she smiled slightly and gestured for the men to follow her. “Let me show you the pool.”

      The men followed as she led them down another set of stone steps and past a low hedge. There, on an expansive stretch of lawn - the third and lowest terrace of her outdoor living area - she showed off the large pool and a sport court with basketball hoop and volleyball net in the far corner. The pool sparkled and glittered in the late afternoon sun. With a few hours of sunshine still to go before sunset, and the heat of the day as yet unabated, the pool beckoned invitingly.

      Jamie nodded towards the pool, “May I feel the water temp?”

     “Of course!” Claire was struck by his politeness and manners. He appeared genuinely respectful of her and her home, and the fact that he asked to sit at the hot-tub and asked to feel the pool water was quite endearing. Suddenly annoyed with herself for even thinking those condescending thoughts, she admonished herself that just because he was a celebrity didn’t necessarily mean that he was an ill-mannered lout. She watched as he strode over to the pool. She hadn't been able to get a really good look at him until now. Quite simply, she didn't want to get caught staring. But as he walked away from her towards the pool, she took in as much as she could from her vantage point. He was tall and well-built; a statuesque 6’3” or 6’4”, by her estimation, and it was clear that he worked out. A lot. His shoulders were wide, and she could tell that under his cream-colored, long-sleeved Henley shirt, his back muscles were toned and taut. His jeans fit snugly around his butt - a part of his anatomy that she was well acquainted with. From afar - at least - and on a big screen. She smiled a small wry smile as she realized that millions of moviegoers were acquainted with that perfect ass. But to see Jamie’s jean-clad rear-end in real life was a special kind of thrill.

      He stopped at the edge of the pool, turned to look at Claire, and promptly busted her staring at his arse. He gave her a quick eyebrow raise, and the tiniest crooked smile, which widened as he saw the pink flush move up her neck and reach her cheeks. She turned to look at Milo, hoping he hadn't noticed that awkward and embarrassing moment. The last thing she wanted was to make a fool of herself in front of his VIP client. But Milo was engrossed in his phone, rapidly tapping out texts.

      Jamie finally saved her dignity by bending down and plunging his hand into the icy pool water. He drew in a little gasp and looked back at her with a grimace. “That is a wee bit cold!”

      “Yes,“ Claire grinned back, “I haven't turned on the water heater yet. If the weather stays this nice, I’ll probably do that in the next few days.”

      “How warm do ye keep it?” asked Jamie. “I think jumping into a bracing cold pool like this on a hot day must be quite pleasantly invigorating.”

      Claire walked towards him. ”Around 80º to 82º, generally. I have two teenage daughters - twins - and they like it slightly on the cooler side - especially after playing on the court for an hour or two.”

      “Lucky lasses,” Jamie looked at her with an inscrutable expression. Was it pity? She knew Milo would have told him a little about her before arriving at the house. He likely knew she was a widow raising two daughters whose father was across the country. She bristled at the notion that she was pitiful, but put her game face on and smiled a tight little smile.

      “Truly, Claire. What a wonderful home to grow up in! Surrounded by all this nature, beautiful amenities, and a loving Mam.” 

      Her smile deepened and she softened a little. “Let me show you the view from the edge of my property - it overlooks the land you’re considering buying, but there are plenty of trees protecting your privacy. The mountain views from there are gorgeous. In fact, it’s my favorite view spot.”

       They walked side by side away from the pool. Milo glanced up from his phone, but continued texting, secure in the knowledge that their initial awkwardness had passed, and Claire’s warmth and personality would inevitably shine as she answered Jamie’s questions and extolled all the virtues of this beautiful neighborhood. As they reached the sport court, Jamie stopped to ask Claire a few questions about court options, sizes, surfaces, and maintenance. Clearly, it was something he was mentally filing way for deeper thought and discussion when he was ready to start planning a home of his own. Claire answered most of his questions as thoughtfully and thoroughly as she could, even offering to get her court maintenance guy on the phone for the questions she couldn't answer.

      “Oh, no need, Claire, thank you. It’ll be a while before I need to build one, ye ken.” He sounded almost wistful, and she was reminded of Suki’s impression that Jamie wanted to move away from his movie star lifestyle and find a little more balance in his life.

      Together, they moved towards the edge of the property, where Claire had promised to show him her favorite view spot. The lawn gave way to more rugged terrain, and a narrow stone path made navigating it somewhat easier.

      “We’ll have to go single file here,” she said, “this path’s a little narrow.”

      “After you,” Jamie gestured politely. Claire was almost certain he did that weird thing again - held her gaze a little longer than necessary.

      Mentally shrugging off that notion, she led the way through a profusion of lush green ferns, purple hydrangeas, crimson rhododendrons and blackberry bushes heavy with unripened berries. The path soon opened onto a rugged stone patio. Four all-weather Adirondack chairs were arranged around a fire-pit. Without turning around to look at Jamie, Claire did a grand sweep with both arms, encompassing the mountains and acres of spectacularly tall firs ahead of them.

      “How’s that for a view!” she exclaimed.

      “Oh, aye! The best view yet, fer sure!” She turned to look at him and found him a few steps behind her, looking somewhat flustered and a little flushed, hurrying to meet her at the edge of the stone patio. A fleeting frown crossed her face.

       Did he deliberately hang back to get a look at my arse as I led him along the path?  

      It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that had happened to her, and most certainly wouldn't be the last. She couldn't get all uppity about it either. Hadn’t he just busted her while she was ogling his rear-end too?

      “Uh … this is the view I mentioned earlier.”

      He stood next to her, his arm almost touching her shoulder. From the edge of her patio, she pointed out that the land beyond was all part of the neighboring property - the parcel of land that Jamie was considering. It sloped away into a deep basin, and was covered in magnificent conifers, spruces and several varieties of firs - some as tall as 80 or 90 feet. They were splendid and impressive and Jamie stared in open-mouthed wonder.

      “Wow,” he breathed, “this is incredible. I can see why this is your favorite view.” They stood side by side in silence for a few minutes, breathing in the scenery in front of them. Claire sneaked a look at Jamie as he studied the landscape carefully. Since her previous inspection of him had been rudely interrupted when she was caught admiring his rear, she took the opportunity to continue her scrutiny. She heartily approved of what she saw. His deep russet hair was slightly longer than the neat shorter cut he had sported in his latest movie and his trademark curls were just starting to form at the back of his neck. He had very chiselled features - his cheekbones, nose, jaw, and chin all in perfect alignment, setting off his brilliant blue eyes and creating a face so movie-star perfect, that Claire had to suppress a deep sigh.

      What would he think if he knew you had pretty much obsessed over him during his 4-season run as lead actor in 'Clan Hearts'?  

      Mortified at the thought of being busted for that , Claire turned her gaze to the scenery in front of them.

      “So, ye built up here and installed a retaining wall to create the stone patio, right?” asked Jamie.

      “Yes,” she confirmed, and explained that the edge of the stone patio and the retaining wall that ran for about seventy feet on either side of it made up one of the boundary lines of her property.

      “So all of this would be my property then?” He waved his hand beyond the patio and retaining wall, encompassing the valley, the trees and the large expanse to the right. “I’ve yet to walk this with the land surveyor, so I havena had a chance to see all the stakes and markers that indicate my property.”

      “Yes. All of this is yours.” Her inner butterfly fluttered a little again. ‘My property’, he had said. She felt inexplicably happy about him already calling it his property. Having known him for only a half hour or so, Claire instinctively knew that she could do a lot worse than have him for a neighbor.      

      She spent the next fifteen minutes telling him what she knew about the Cascades and the Olympic mountains. She mentioned the amazing hikes, walking trails, and bike trails. He asked some questions. She answered to the best of her ability and he listened intently to all of her answers.

      “I canna tell you how much I appreciate yer willingness to answer so many questions. It is truly, truly beautiful out here. Ye seem really settled. Where in England did ye grow up?”

      “In Oxfordshire, mostly. I was raised by my Uncle Lamb after my parents died in a car accident when I was six. Lamb - it’s short for Lambert - was an archaeologist and researcher, and when I wasn't in boarding school, I traveled with him to Namibia, Egypt, Greece, Guatemala, and Peru. It was exciting, interesting, and sometimes quite crazy. But I absolutely loved it. When I was 15, Lamb was offered a position at Edinburgh University. He was filling in for a professor who had taken a one-year sabbatical, and after that they offered him a permanent post as a lecturer. He decided to accept it for a few years so that he could provide me with more stability as I started to approach decision time about my tertiary education. I studied at Edinburgh University for a time.”

      “No kidding!” He seemed genuinely delighted by that bit of unexpected information. “So you were a Sassenach in my homeland for a while there?“ His teasing grin made her feel warm inside.

     “Yes,” Claire countered, dryly. “I’ve been called that a few times.” She smiled at him and for a moment neither spoke. They looked at each other for a few more seconds, suspended in an easy silence.

      “Ummm … are you ready to head back to the house for a drink and nibble? I have some light appetizers.”

      “Aye, I’m always ready for a nibble,” he said softly with his little crooked smile.

       Damn you, that smile will be the death of me!

      They headed back in single file through the stone path, Jamie a few steps behind Claire, who was still trying to process that nibble comment.

       Is he merely a little peckish, or was that a teeny little flirt?

      As they emerged from the shrubbery onto the manicured lawn of the lower terrace, they noticed Milo on a cell phone call. He moved the phone away from his face, and called out, “I’ll join you in a moment.”

      “Okay, we’re going up for a drink,” Claire called back.

      “And a wee nibble,” Jamie said softly, just behind her. 

 

 



Chapter Text


 

      “Would you prefer to sit out in the open or under cover?” Claire asked. 

      “If it’s not too much trouble, I would love to sit out here - the middle terrace. I can help ye with the umbrella, of course. It’s just such a perfect day, and I would like to take advantage of it and enjoy all the views from here.”

      “No trouble at all. What can I get you to drink? I have beer, wine, whisky, tequila ...”

      “If ye have a chilled lager, I would make short work of it.” He grinned. His killer smile reminded her yet again of how surreal this felt. Jamie Fraser. In person. In her home. And she was about to pour him a beer.

      “Can I help you carry the drinks out?”

      “Don’t worry Jamie, I’ve got this. Claire, I'll help you with the drinks.” Milo was striding across the lawn towards them. Having completed his call, he was ready to rejoin the conversation. However, the quick pointed look he gave Claire alerted her that something was going on. “Take a few minutes to catch up on your texts, or just enjoy the peace and quiet out here. We'll bring out the drinks in a few.” 

      “What’s up?” asked Claire as soon as they were in the kitchen, concern clouding her features. She knew Milo well enough to know that something was amiss.

      Milo took a deep breath, puffed up his cheeks, and slowly released a sigh. “I’ve been on the phone with Anton.”

      “Your brother?”

      “Yep.” He looked at her, and she could tell he was worried. Anton Lukic was the Attorney General for Washington State, so this had to be somewhat serious.   

       “What is it Milo, you’re freaking me out a little.”

      “Sorry, hon. It’s serious, but not critical yet. And again - sorry to spring another secretive thing on you - this is even more top secret. For now.” She nodded. “Anton has been in meetings all day. The unrest in Seattle is getting worse. There has been some violence in CHAZ - or CHOP, I think they're calling it now.” 

      “Okay - that’s been brewing for a few days though.” Claire knew the situation was unsettled, but she was puzzled about Milo’s demeanor. She pulled out two trays and started to gather glasses, cocktail plates and napkins to carry down to the terrace. Milo, in the meanwhile, grabbed a selection of lagers, opened a bottle of Claire’s favorite sauvignon blanc, and placed them all in a large stainless steel ice bucket. He filled it with cubes from the ice-maker, and looked at Claire.

       “This is the top secret part. The authorities are considering a complete lock-down across downtown Seattle. The entire city has been on high alert, and businesses and hotels have been quietly evacuating. Jamie has a two-week reservation at the Seattle Hyatt. Right in the heart of the action.”

      “Oh God!” Claire groaned and shot a quick look out at the terrace, where she could make out Jamie’s head and shoulders. From the angle of his head, she knew he was busy on his phone - completely unaware of the drama unfolding in the kitchen - and in Seattle. 

      Milo continued, “I didn’t want to freak Jamie out before I had all the info, so I quietly made some calls to Bellevue hotels while you were talking on the patio. They are all full. Presidential suites - everything! I tried some of my rental contacts, but no one is willing to do anything in the thick of Coronavirus fears and quarantine restrictions. Too much of a liability. I’m desperate enough to start calling the smaller hotels in Redmond and other nearby towns. They’re not exactly the lap of luxury though, and Jamie is used to - well, you know. He’s used to the VIP treatment. I’m also worried about how well some hotels are adhering to sanitizing requirements.”

     “Shoot! What do you think the chances are of a lock-down happening soon?”

     “I think it’s not if anymore, it’s when . And I think it will happen tonight or tomorrow morning. You know the Governor - he’s likely to err on the side of caution. I was thinking of offering up our guest room to Jamie. Suki won’t mind, but we’re heading to Arizona next week, and I don’t want to just leave Jamie to fend for himself.”

      Claire bit on her lower lip and nodded somberly. “It’s not what any of us wanted to deal with. Let’s get all of this out to the terrace, Milo. I don’t want to leave our guest out there hanging.” She opened the warming oven and pulled out a bacon and asparagus quiche. Reaching for the charcuterie platter that she had prepared a little earlier, she added it to the tray and took a quick last look around the kitchen to ensure that she hadn’t forgotten anything. She glanced up at Milo, concern written all over her face. “This is a tough one. I can’t imagine being stranded in a strange city. Please let me know if you find out anything more.” Milo nodded and followed her outside with the drinks tray. 

 

      They enjoyed their drinks and appetizers while Milo and Jamie talked about property values in the area, and year-on-year appreciation. The numbers were definitely appealing. Property on the Eastside had appreciated markedly over the past few years, and there was no denying what a solid investment it was. Milo pointed to the increase in value of Claire’s property, further highlighting what an attractive proposition a decent parcel of land would be. Jamie seemed quite convinced, but asked astute and probing questions about zoning, property taxes, easements and building codes. Milo and Claire answered all of his questions - apparently to his satisfaction.

     “I’m looking forward to seeing the land from the air,” he enthused. “Helicopter’s scheduled for Thursday morning, right?” 

      Milo nodded in affirmation. “Yes, I’ll pick you up here at 10:30.”

      “I’ll wave at you from the chopper if ye're home, Claire,” Jamie said cheekily and did a little eyebrow raise.

      That eyebrow got her every time! Ignoring the butterfly, she smiled back.

      “Don’t go encouraging the pilot to do any wild tricks now. You know I like my peace and quiet out here." 

       Jamie turned to Milo. “The whole team will be here on Thursday, and I feel like the helicopter ride is just a formality - although I’m keen to see it from the air too. Will ye please send me the paperwork for an initial offer? We can chat tomorrow about the details. I really love this area. The views, the greenery, the sense of peace out here. Even the neighbors are … okay’ish,” he turned to wink at Claire, but failed dismally and both eyes scrunched into a quick blink.  

      “ Okay’ish! I beg your pardon,” Claire feigned indignation, but dissolved into laughter along with Jamie and Milo.

      The conversation turned to the pandemic and the challenges of conducting business during quarantine. Jamie was on his second beer, and he and Milo had depleted most of Claire’s appetizers.

      Jamie turned to her. “Claire, thank you for yer hospitality. Truly, I canna thank you enough for all yer troubles today.”   

      It sounded like he was getting ready to wrap up the meeting, and Claire hoped that she had done enough to secure Milo and Suki their deal. She was about to respond when everything changed.

   

      Her phone and Milo’s buzzed at the same time. Then Milo’s buzzed again twice in quick succession. Claire’s phone buzzed for the second time in mere seconds. She and Milo exchanged a quick look, and Jamie looked up from his silent phone, puzzled.  

     “Is this one of those Amber alerts?” Jamie asked. “I remember being on set in L.A. when an Amber alert came in, and the crew’s cell phones started going nuts!”

      Milo and Claire reached for their phones at the same time, not wanting to answer Jamie just yet. 

      “Shit!” Milo pressed his lips together. “King 5 News alert - you too, Claire?” She nodded, grim-faced. Milo sighed heavily. “Downtown Seattle has just gone into a lock-down, Jamie. You know that CHAZ situation I mentioned to you en route from the airport? Well, it has been growing increasingly unsettled, and the authorities have decided to prevent all non-essential movement in and out of Seattle.”

      “No way! Well that’s going to put a spanner in the works for me for sure. I’ll not be able to access my hotel, correct?” His brow furrowed, concern etched all over his face. “I have several meetings planned over the next two weeks. It’ll be a beast to change them all. And I’ll have to find a new hotel.”

      “Jamie, I was tipped off earlier this evening that this might happen sometime this week, so I took the liberty of making some calls while you and Claire were on the stone patio. Just a little back-up plan. I called all the big hotels in Bellevue - that’s somewhere between here and Seattle. It’s an affluent area with high-end hotels.”

      “I’m a little familiar with Bellevue from my previous visits here,” Jamie inserted. “A lot of big hotels there, as I recall?” 

      “I made several calls there - all Bellevue hotels are booked solid. Even the luxury suites. I called a number of my highly-placed contacts hoping they might wield some influence. The problem is that they’re already dealing with restricted occupancy thanks to quarantine restrictions mandated by the state. And now, with the surge of people from Seattle hotels due to the unrest over the past week, and especially today, Bellevue hotels are all at max capacity. Your uncle Dougal always stays at the Hyatt in Bellevue. Do you know when his reservation starts?”

      “Aye, and he’ll be here for Thursday’s meeting. I’ll text Dougal and see what he has to say. He’s in L.A., so there’s no time difference.”   

      For the next few minutes, all three of them tapped away on their phones. Claire tapped Milo’s name on her message app. She needed to conduct a clandestine text exchange with him.

      If the uncle thing doesn’t work out, Jamie can stay here. I have 2 guest rooms, and the bigger one is ready, fresh linens and all. My friend from Atlanta cancelled her trip at the last minute so I am completely guest-ready.

      Milo looked up at her startled, then started tapping.

       No Claire. You can’t be expected to take this on. 2 weeks is a long time to have a guest. 

      I feel terrible for Jamie. You’re going to be in AZ with Suki. At least here I can help with some meals  - not all of them, don’t worry 😝 My house cleaner comes weekly, she would be happy to get extra pay to help with his laundry or whatever

       I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with you having a relative stranger in your home

      They looked up at each other over their phones, and Claire shook her head slightly and continued tapping. 

      You’re kidding, right? He’s so well-known, there’s no way he would do anything weird and risk his reputation. He knows I’m a widow and a mom, he’s been a perfect gentleman all day. I don’t foresee any problems.

       Oh Claire. You're a gem. Let me see what Suki thinks. She might nix this before it gets started. You sure you’re comfortable with him being here?

      Absolutely. He’s been really respectful of my home and me from what I’ve seen. No concerns at all.

      Checking with Suki.

      Claire glanced over at Jamie, who was tapping away with a worried frown, and the occasional small shake of his head. He looked up at her, and shook his head again. “Dougal flies in early on Thursday - his reservation starts that morning. He’s checking with Murtagh, but I’m pretty certain they all fly in on Thursday morning.”

      “Uh, Jamie,” Milo began, shooting Claire a look and giving her the slightest nod. “I was texting with Suki, and we thought we’d offer up our place, but we’re going to be heading to our home in Arizona.” He looked at Claire, and she stepped in. 

      “Jamie is welcome to stay here.” She directed this at Milo, and then turned to Jamie. “You are more than welcome to stay here. I have two guest rooms. My daughters are away right now, so it would be quiet enough for you to get some work done. I’m in the middle of reviewing case studies and project notes for my summer cohort at the university, so I’m in and out, and would not be in your way.”

      She stopped momentarily when Jamie held his hand up, and she sensed he was getting ready to reject her offer. She ignored his hand and continued: ”I’d far prefer that you stay here, than find a random hotel that may or may not be maintaining the required amount of cleaning and sanitizing required by the state.”

       OMG, did I just go all mom on him?

      Jamie released a sigh, stood up, and walked to the edge of the terrace. He looked out over the trees for a long moment, and then turned around to face Milo and Claire, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

      “I can’t put you out like that Claire. Ye’ve been nothing but kind this evening, but I feel it would be an enormous imposition.”

      “I insist,” she countered. "I'm not about to send a fellow Brit and possible new neighbor to figure this out in the middle of a pandemic, not to mention the unrest."

      "Thank you, but I can't impose on ye like that, Claire. There must be another solution."

       "I can't think of one, to be honest. It's an emergency situation, and we're at the mercy of the authorities." She bit her bottom lip for a second, then continued, “If it’s bothering you that much, I have a business proposition for you. Come and sit back down.” She smiled enigmatically.     

      With a raise of his eyebrow, he reclaimed his spot on the sofa and looked at her expectantly. Milo, too, was all ears, a questioning look in his eyes.

      “I mentioned earlier that I had lived and studied in Edinburgh for a few years.” Jamie nodded. “Well, I have wanted to visit the Highlands for the longest time because I never got to go there during my time in Scotland, and it is the number one thing on my bucket list. If you agree to help me plan my itinerary and pick out some great places to stay and visit, we’ll call it even.”

      Jamie pursed his lips and looked into his beer glass, apparently seriously considering the idea. He finally looked over at Claire and his face broke into a wide smile, “I’ll go one better, I’ll host you at my family home, Lallybroch. It’s been in our family for a few hundred years, and we've converted part of the estate into a B&B and event venue. My sister lives there with her family, but there are plenty of rooms for guests. It’s my home when I’m in Scotland and need a break from Glasgow. Your girls must come too - we have plenty of room for all of you.”

      Her heart squeezed a little when he mentioned her girls. The fact that they immediately came to his mind reinforced Suki’s comment that he was very much a family man. According to Suki, he had cherished his time with his niece and nephews when they visited him at the lake. It appeared that under the celebrity facade, there was a genuine, decent man. She looked over at Milo with what she hoped was an ‘I told you so’ expression. 

      “Do we have a deal?” Jamie asked. He held his hand out to her, and she immediately took it in hers - momentarily discarding quarantine etiquette. They shook hands firmly. His hand was big and warm and strong. He held her hand and her gaze for a few long seconds, and then Milo stood up, interrupting the moment. 

     “Jamie, I’m sure you are jet-lagged and tired. I’ll help you get your bags out of my car so you can start settling in.”

   

      While the men headed out to the car, Claire hastened to the guest room to give it the once over. It had been cleaned just days earlier, so she knew it was probably good to go. She grabbed a new loofah and a tube of YSL men’s shower gel from her storage closet, and placed them in the en-suite bathroom. There was shampoo and conditioner in the recessed shower shelf, and on the vanity, a basket filled with supplies that a guest might need - everything from nail clippers to disposable razors. If he needed anything specific, she hoped he would feel comfortable enough to ask her. Opening the closet, she took out a white bathrobe and hotel-style slippers and lay them on the king-size bed. The other guest-room had a queen-size bed, and she knew Jamie would appreciate the bigger mattress. This guest room was a spacious corner room, so it had ample windows, and also included a sitting area arranged around a bay window. Two large plush recliners faced the window, which overlooked an endless stretch of trees and mountains in the distance.

       She heard the men heading up the stairs towards the guest room, and moved away from the bed to stand near the window, feeling a little awkward. They placed Jamie’s luggage on the floor near the bed as soon as they entered. 

     “I’ve given you this room, Jamie, because it has a bigger bed and bigger en-suite, but if you like, I can show you the other guest room, and you can decide.”

      “Ye had me at ‘bigger bed’. This is perfect. In fact it’s more than perfect. A big improvement on the Hyatt, fer sure.“

      ”Flattery will get you my world famous tiramisu for dessert,” Claire smiled. “Seriously though, if you need anything at all. If you’ve forgotten something, need toothpaste, need a book to read - whatever - promise you won’t hesitate to ask.”

      "I promise, Claire. This is more than I ever expected."

      Milo put an arm around Claire’s shoulders and looked at Jamie. “I’m going to head out now. Check your email later. I’ll send you the initial offer paperwork ASAP. Let me know if you need anything." Shaking Jamie’s hand, he turned to go, and then turned back around to look at him. "Oh, and if I were you, I’d take her up on the tiramisu."

     “I’m planning on it,” Jamie chuckled, “thanks again for everything, Milo. See you on Thursday.”

      “I’ll walk with you, Milo,” Claire began. "Jamie, please feel free to use the closet and drawers for all your things. No need to live out of a suitcase. If you want to grab a shower or get some rest, just head on down to the kitchen when you’re done. I’ll give you the WiFi password, and show you what you need to know to make your stay as comfortable possible.”

    “Sounds fantastic. I’ll jump in the shower. See you downstairs shortly.”

 

     After hugging Milo goodbye and reassuring him once again that she was plenty comfortable with the arrangement, Claire cleaned up all the glasses, bottles, plates and leftovers from the terrace and headed indoors. Her next target was the office. Looking around the room, she figured she needed about 10 minutes to sort it out. It was decorated in the classic style that Henry had preferred. Deep mahogany furniture, leather chairs, and an entire wall of mahogany bookshelves filled with hundreds of books. Everything from business manuals, academic textbooks, leather-bound first editions, classics - even the odd trashy novel. The leather-topped desk was hidden by a haphazard collection of her things. Files, folders, books, laptop - it was a bit of a mess, really. Gathering her things and placing them in a plastic tote, she quickly wiped down all the surfaces with disinfectant and furniture spray. She checked the printer cabinet for paper, and made sure there were some notepads and pencils. After depositing the plastic tote upstairs, she headed back down to the kitchen. 

     Dinner was going to have to be relatively simple that night, as she hadn't really planned beyond the quiche and charcuterie platter. She had thrown together a pretty decent home-made pesto the previous day, using basil from her herb garden. There was plenty of penne in the pantry, so it looked like it would be penne pesto tonight. The fridge also yielded all the fixings for a decent salad. She hoped Jamie wouldn't be disappointed, and fervently wished she had thought to make a decent meal for tonight. 

     It wasn’t that she had an aversion to cooking or anything. In fact, Claire loved cooking and was quite an accomplished cook. Every couple of weeks, she and the girls binge-watched The Food Network together, each one picking out her favorite recipe, which they would then all try to recreate together. The twins were becoming quite proficient in the kitchen. Ella gravitated towards cooking full meals, and had recently made a delightful French onion soup on her own. Beth was the undisputed baking queen, and her lemon meringue pie had been the perfect accompaniment to Ella’s soup. 

    Claire gathered all the ingredients for the pasta dinner and set them on the kitchen island. Perching on one of the stools, she grabbed her iPad, tapped the FaceTime icon and waited. It was a little later than usual today, but she had texted the girls earlier to let them know she would call them as soon as she could.

      “Hi babies, how are you?” she squealed as her beloved girls appeared on the screen. She blew them an avalanche of kisses - her usual greeting.

      “Hi mom,” they said in unison, huge smiles on their faces.

      “What’s going on, Mom,” asked Ella in a near whine, “you’re not usually this late.”

      “Ella!” admonished Beth, “Be nice! It’s not even that late. It’s like 7:00 at night in Seattle, and only 10:00 here.”

      “I know, I know,“ Claire sounded apologetic. “I’m sorry, it’s been a crazy day. Listen girls, I need to talk to you. Are you in your room? Door closed?”

      Their heads swiveled together, as they checked the bedroom door behind them, and both nodded. Beth gave a thumbs up for added confirmation.

      “Okay. I’ll get right to it. Uncle Milo has a VIP client who wants to buy the land next door to us - “

      “Nooooooooo!”

      “Settle down, girls. It’s not as bad as it sounds. This must stay between us only, okay? Uncle Milo brought his client over today to look at the property and chat with me a little about the neighborhood and stuff. He wants to buy up all the land for himself and his family - it’s not going to a builder to create a whole new neighborhood or anything. Anyway, you know the CHAZ issue we spoke about? Well, it escalated quite a bit over the last few days, and the governor has put Seattle on a strict lock-down. Stricter than quarantine, even. No one can enter or leave downtown until they lift the lock-down.”

      “Okaaaaaay?” the girls were clearly wondering when she would get to the point.

      “Well, it turns out that the VIP client had booked a hotel in Seattle, and obviously he can’t get there now. So-"

      “Oh no, mom! Is he stranded? You should have offered to let him stay at our house. Things are so crazy there right now!” cried Beth.

      “No!” gasped Ella, looking at her sister in horror. “He’s a complete stranger - you should know better, Beth!”

      Claire sighed. “You both have a good point. We want to do the right thing and be hospitable and kind, but we also have to ensure that we are being safe and careful. So yes, Beth, I offered to let him stay until the CHAZ issue is resolved. Ella, Uncle Milo has known his client for some time, and he and Aunt Suki are in full agreement about him staying here. He is a very nice and decent man.”

      “Okay mom,” said Ella grudgingly. “I totally trust Uncle Milo and Aunt Suki. They would never put you in a risky position. Is it going to be totally awkward having to entertain someone you don’t even know?”

      “Well, he’s here to conduct a whole lot of business stuff, so I don't need to entertain him. I’m also really busy with student papers right now, so it’s unlikely that I’Il see him much, other than maybe breakfast or dinner on some days.”

      “Okay then. But if anything about him freaks you out, you need to let Uncle Milo know.”

       Claire's heart tightened a little at that. Her girls were terribly protective of her, and it warmed her heart to know that they were growing up to be sensible, compassionate, intelligent young women.

     “Of course, honey, you know I would never place myself at risk. You both mean too much to me. You have to promise me that you won’t say anything about this to anyone for now. The man is a VIP, and he is quite well-known, although you probably wouldn't know who he is.” Claire felt bad deceiving the girls about that, because she knew that they might remember Jamie from their mom’s obsession with his show, Clan Hearts, and his movie career had raised his profile in recent years. On the other hand, the girls were probably more focused on their favorite YouTube stars and social media influencers than a movie star in his mid 30s.

     “Oh, mom!” huffed Ella, “You know we can keep a secret. You always had VIPs visiting and other confidential stuff going on with Henry and his work, and sometimes we weren’t allowed to talk about who had visited us because it could affect a business deal or something.”

      “Right. You girls were always fantastic about that. Maybe in a few days I can tell you more, but for now please keep it to yourselves. So what did you get up to today?” Claire was anxious to change the subject in case Jamie appeared in the kitchen at an awkward moment. She listened and hmmm’ed and laughed as they told her about their day, and how they had entertained their half siblings, aged 4 and 6. She had never begrudged the girls their time with Frank and his family. In fact, she loved that they got along so well with their step-mom and the kids. Frank had always been a little distant and aloof, even with the twins, but she had the comfort of knowing that Beth and Ella would be taken care of if anything ever happened to her, and it was important that they maintain their relationship with annual visits and frequent FaceTime calls.

   

     Jamie entered the kitchen just as she was wrapping up her call with the girls. His hair was damp from his shower, and he wore black jeans and a black T-shirt. He looked really good in head-to-toe black, and Claire had to remind herself not to stare.

      “God, I feel so much better after that shower. Were ye chatting with yer girls?”

      “Yes, we have a nightly chat. I miss those little scoundrels so much, and FaceTime and Zoom are basically my new best friends. Umm, Jamie, I need to apologize - I didn't plan a hearty dinner for tonight. Would you be okay with penne and homemade pesto  - with a salad? The tiramisu will have to be tonight’s saving grace.”

      “Dinna apologize, Claire! That sounds great. I love pesto - especially if it’s homemade. How can I help?”

      “Do you cook?” she asked, surprised at the enthusiasm in his voice.

      “Aye, I love cooking. My sister and I cook together at Lallybroch whenever I can spare the time. Now then, what can I do to help?”

 

   



Chapter Text

      


      Dinner ended up being much more successful and relaxed than Claire anticipated. The afternoon heat had dissipated, and they opted to eat al fresco on the patio just outside the kitchen. It was still light out, and they enjoyed the cooler evening air while chatting over their meal. Jamie had offered to cook the penne, and he had done so to al dente perfection. Claire toasted some pine nuts to sprinkle over the pasta, and the simple salad was the perfect accompaniment.

      “This is really good, Claire. I don’t think I could have managed a huge meal after the quiche and appetizers earlier, so this is perfect.”

      “Glad you like it. The basil is from the herb garden around the corner there,“ she nodded her head towards the far end of the upper terrace. "My girls and I planted a lot of herbs this past spring - quarantine boredom, I guess - and now I get to enjoy the benefits. I'm not the best gardener, though, so I don't know how long they'll survive."

      "And your girls are away for a while, you said earlier?”

      “Yes, they‘re with their father in Boston.”

      “How did he end up in Boston and you here?” He was looking at her earnestly.

      “Oh Lord - it’s a long story.”

      “I have all night,” he smiled. 

      God - the way he said that! 

      Damned fluttering. Be still, butterflies!  

      “Okay, I’ll try to give you the Cliffs Notes. I met Frank when I was a student in Edinburgh. I was 17, and wanted to study English and History. Frank was ‘Dr. Randall’ back then - he’s a professor now. He was 30 at the time, and one of the history department’s rising stars. I was a TA for one of his colleagues. They shared a large office, so we were always running into each other while I was doing TA duties for the other Prof. Well, one thing led to another and we fell in love or something approximating it. Of course now in hindsight, I know that he took complete advantage of me. He would never get away with it nowadays.”

      She paused and took a sip of wine. Jamie nodded encouragingly. “Uncle Lamb was not happy with the whole thing from the start. A few months into our relationship, Frank was offered a post at Harvard. He wanted me to go with him. Lamb put up all sorts of arguments and objections, but I had just turned eighteen, and he finally agreed that it was time for me to spread my wings and make some of my own decisions.”

      Suddenly embarrassed that she might be boring him, she said with finality, “So we moved to Boston, and I lived there for a few years until I ended up in Seattle with Henry.”

      Jamie smiled his little half smile. “Now, now, Sassenach, it seems ye’ve left out big chunks of the story. The twins? How you ended up here? Please continue. I’m intrigued.”     

      “Okay - let me top up your wine. Frank helped me arrange a transfer to Northeastern University so that I could continue my studies. I worked part-time as a model to help pay for my tuition. Lamb also helped me by freeing up some of the small inheritance from my parents. It was literally all I had left of them - they never had much." She bit her lip, and then continued. "We had only been in Boston for two months when I discovered that I was pregnant. Frank was not happy. In fact he was pretty pissed off.”

      A slight frown flickered across Jamie’s brow.

      Claire continued. “He slowly came around though, and promised we’d get married after the baby’s arrival. I should have seen it coming. He …uh … he started to spend more and more time at work. Late nights eventually turned into nights away. There was a distance between us that hadn’t been there before, but I was so wrapped up in the excitement of having a baby, and my pregnancy had been easy up until that point. As luck would have it, my neighbor was a wonderful Italian woman, Giovanna. We still call her Nonna - Italian for ‘Grandma’. She was my rock throughout my years in Boston and helped me when things with Frank started to unravel. When I was just over three months pregnant, I went in for an ultrasound. I was on my own, because Frank called to tell me that something had come up at the last minute and he was unable to make it. It was during this appointment that I found out I was carrying twins. I was soooo excited to go and tell Frank and show him the ultrasound printout. I raced over to his office at Harvard after the appointment, planning on sliding the printout under his office door if he was busy. But I heard noises behind the closed door and I opened it quietly, thinking he was on the phone."

      A quick sip of wine.

      "He wasn’t.” She hesitated.

      Another tiny sip of wine.

      “He was behind his desk with a student on his lap. They were … uh … making out, I guess you could call it. She seemed to have lost her shirt and bra in the process.”

      Jamie’s face was expressionless, but she noticed the muscles in his jaw moving.

      “Christ, Claire. I canna imagine how hard that must have been. And you - so excited to share …” his voice trailed off as she blinked away the tears that threatened. He leaned across and took her hand gently in his.

      They sat like that for a long moment. Neither of them speaking or moving. Her hand in his. Strong and warm and comforting. It felt so right at that moment. 

      Eventually, Claire cleared her throat quietly. “I believe it’s time for dessert. You up for that?”

      “Claire,“ he said quietly, ”if this is hard to talk about, I completely understand.”

      “No, I’m okay. It was so long ago,” she smiled a wistful little smile. “Before I finish this long saga of mine, let’s do a quick walk through the house, so that I can show you where everything is. If you’re going to be here for a couple of weeks, I’d like you to be familiar with everything. We can grab our tiramisu after that.” 

      After clearing up and loading the dishwasher together, Claire led Jamie through the kitchen and into the hallway.

      “I think we’ll start here. This is the office. I just cleared it of all my stuff, and it’s exclusively yours while you're here. There are charger cables for a MacBook and Apple products there, and the printer is in the corner cabinet. There’s plenty of paper in there if you need to print out paperwork or documents. Writing materials and notepads are in the desk drawers. Please feel free to use anything you need.”

      “Claire,” Jamie started to protest, “I don’t expect you to rearrange yer life because I’m here. You don’t have to give up yer study.”

      “It’s no trouble at all, Jamie. This study has a good solid door, so you can close it and conduct your calls and business in private. I moved my stuff upstairs to the girls’ study - it’s in an open area between their bedrooms, so it really wouldn't be suitable for you. It’s great for me because being in their space will be a sweet reminder of them. Honestly, this is the best solution.”

      “Claire,” he ran his hands through his hair, “the last thing I want is to put you out even more.”

      “Hush now. The only reason I’m doing this is to ensure you give me the best Highlands tour imaginable.” She smiled her cheekiest smile, and he reciprocated with his little crooked one. 

       Jesus, that smile is undoing me bit by bit. 

      “Oh, ye’d better believe it. I will create the Sassenach tour of a lifetime.”

      She giggled her distinctive little giggle, “I can’t wait! Okay, let’s continue our walk-through.” 

      She led him through the hallway, and around various corners, pointing out things that he might find useful. They stepped into the media room. A sloped floor and two rows of movie theater seats - eight in total - ensured that everyone had a perfect view of the massive screen at the front of the room. Along the rear wall was a built-in bar, cabinets and an old-fashioned popcorn machine.  

      “Feel free to help yourself to anything from the bar. The under-counter fridges are stocked with beer, wine, and bottled water. All glass bottles though, we’re trying hard to minimize our use of plastic. I’ll grab a bottle for your room.” She took out a bottle of San Pellegrino, Nonna’s favorite brand, and the one Claire still bought, years later.

      “Do you have a sweet tooth? Because if you do, you need to remember where I stash all the snacks.” She pulled open two of the cabinet doors to reveal baskets filled with all manner of candy, chocolates, chips, and caramel corn. If you see anything you fancy, feel free to help yourself any time.”

      “Mm-hmm,” he mumbled, the deep timber of his voice going straight to her butterfly zone. Jamie looked at her and she willed him not to give her ‘the smile’, because that on top of his ‘mm-hmm’ would be too much. But he did. The right corner of his mouth slowly lifted into his crooked smile, and his eyes crinkled a little. ”Thank you Claire, I see plenty that I fancy and would verra much like to help myself to some of yer snacks.”

      Jesus H! He is so not flirting with you, Claire! Stop reading things into his words.   

      But the butterflies continued to flutter.

      Claire continued to show him through the rest of the lower level. She pointed out the formal dining room, bathroom, and mud-room. In the kitchen, she showed him the pantry and invited him to help himself to anything in there or in the main kitchen fridge.

      She led the way upstairs, Jamie close behind her. “This is the laundry. There’s a laundry hamper in your closet too, so feel free to throw your clothes in there, or just toss them in the hampers here. I can wash them when I do a load. Alternatively, my house cleaner comes every Wednesday and I was thinking of asking her to stay a little longer and help with your laundry, if you’re more comfortable with that.”

      “Aye, Claire. I’m happy to pay her whatever she wants and more. I’ll not have you put yerself out so much, and then wash my undercrackers on top of it.” He looked mildly embarrassed, and Claire smiled reassuringly.   

      “I completely understand - I’d feel the same way.” The laundry was adjacent to Jamie’s room, and she handed him the bottled water she had taken from the media room fridge. “Do you want to place this on your nightstand?” She deliberately didn't ask to enter his room, wanting him to know that she valued his boundaries. It was important to her that he felt he would enjoy the same level of privacy that he would have done in a hotel room.

      Jamie took the bottle from her and rejoined her moments later. Next up was the girls’ section and the study area between their bedrooms. 

      “See? I have a great workspace up here too. I’ll be perfectly comfortable and productive here. And to be honest, if I’m going to be working at home at all, I’ll likely be outdoors, now that summer has finally made its appearance.“ 

      When they reached her bedroom door, Claire hesitated a little before showing him. Was it weird to take Jamie in there? Would it seem over-familiar? Jamie made the decision for her. 

      “And this door’s yer bedroom, I take it? Looks like ye might have a similar view to the one from the foyer.” 

      “Yes, it’s practically the same view.“

      She pushed open the double doors to reveal an expansive room that took up almost a third of the upper level. The king-size bed dominated the room, its soft cream summer-weight quilt and multitude of pillows in varying shades of cream, blue and grey lending it a feeling of serenity and elegance. A grey tufted bench filled the area at the foot of the bed. The alcove seating area was furnished with a large grey tufted sofa, accented with smaller throw pillows in blues and creams. Over time, Claire had added decorative touches like wall art, accent pieces, and beautiful rugs.

      She led him to the bathroom. Jamie had politely hummed and nodded his approval and reactions throughout the tour, but her bathroom drew a soft gasp. A large free-standing tub sat at the far end of the room, in a slightly raised area surrounded by full-length windows that revealed breathtaking mountain views. The tub and its faucets and fixtures were positioned so that nothing impeded the view from the tub. Baths were always a treat for Claire, and although she rarely indulged, when she did, she made an occasion of it, scenting the water with bath salts and bubbles, and pampering herself with luxurious gels and lotions. 

      “That’s one-way glass around the bathtub, in case you were wondering,” she said lightly. 

      “I was indeed wondering, Sassenach, since this room overlooks my property,“ he replied, and she knew, without even looking at him, that he was smiling that crooked little smile. She couldn’t resist turning to look at him, and yes, as expected, the smile was there in full force, accompanied by the raised eyebrow. 

      Claire blushed hotly, and quickly moved towards the walk-in closet, where Jamie made some more of his approving noises at the large well-organized space. They headed downstairs, and Claire could finally breathe a sigh of relief that the awkwardness of that moment had passed.

      “Almost done, Jamie. Just one more thing to show you.” They walked back towards the kitchen, which opened onto a large family room. 

      The family room was Claire’s favorite room during the colder months. Its beamed ceilings and huge stone fireplace lent it the air of a Colorado cabin, and Claire liked nothing more than to curl up on one the oversized sofas with her girls and a good book. Custom fitted shelves and wall-to-wall wood paneling surrounded the fireplace. 

      “I love this room, it reminds me of the family room at Lallybroch - similar fireplace.” 

      “Wait - it’s not the one I wanted to show you, you’re going to like this even more.” Claire smiled a cheeky smile as she pressed firmly on the panel to the left of the fireplace. It appeared to be part of the fitted shelves, but it swung open heavily and they stepped through to a large room that featured a pool table as its centerpiece. There were some arcade games along the back wall - including an old-fashioned pinball machine and a Foosball table. In the far left corner, opposite the secret panel, was a full, well-stocked bar complete with bar stools and a weathered wood countertop. Two burgundy leather Chesterfield sofas created a comfortable conversation area, and to the right of the room, an expanse of French doors and windows opened onto the upper terrace. This part of the room also housed a treadmill, step machine, yoga mats, free weights and a home-gym system.

      “Oh my God. This has to be every guy's dream man-cave,” Jamie said in open-mouthed astonishment. 

      “I wanted to show it to you and let you know that you can use the equipment any time. I noticed that you … uh … seem to work out …” her voice trailed off as she realized how that must sound.

      “Mm-hmm,” said Jamie, eyes fixed on her, waiting for her to continue. 

      You’re enjoying my awkwardness, damn you! 

      “Well, I meant that if you feel the need to work out, I have limited equipment, but feel free to use whatever you want.”

      “I wouldn't describe this as limited, Sassenach. You have pretty much everything I would need right here.”

      “The gym section looks like a bit of an after-thought in here - and actually, it was. After the situation -” she stopped suddenly, her face reddened slightly, and she quickly swallowed and continued. “Well, Henry, my late husband, was kind enough to give up part of his man-cave so that I could work out from the comfort of home.”

      Jamie narrowed his eyes slightly and looked at her for a moment. He hadn’t missed the fact that she was about to say something but quickly changed her mind. He wondered what that was - clearly it brought discomfort - or maybe sadness. 

      “Thank you, Claire,” he said, hoping to dispel the awkwardness of that moment for her. “I’ll definitely take you up on that. Working out and maintaining my fitness is important to me. I dare say to you too?” 

      Yes, Dr. Beauchamp, I have noticed your toned body. And your arse. Oh, that arse! It’s giving me some frisky thoughts about you. 

      “I do mostly yoga and the step machine, but yes, I try to maintain my fitness and health as much as possible. And now, ironically enough, I’d like to suggest that we grab our tiramisu. I know that jet-lag must be catching up with you.”

      

      It was well past 10:00 p.m. by the time Claire plated up generous helpings of dessert. They sat side by side at the kitchen island, and Jamie groaned deeply when he took his first bite. He looked at her with wide, smiling eyes, silently expressing his hearty approval.

      “This is better than the best tiramisu I’ve had in Italy!”

      “It’s Nonna’s secret recipe,” Claire revealed, as she enjoyed hers too. “I’m the only one she ever shared the recipe with, or so she says. She was widowed quite young, although not as young as me, and has no children. Nonna shared a lot of her secret recipes with me. I miss her a lot. She really is a grandma to my girls. We fly her out to visit us at least once a year, but this year has been hard with travel restrictions.”

      “Thank you, Nonna,” Jamie said, dramatically. “If I ever meet her, I will bow down to the Goddess of Italian desserts.”

      “Oscar-worthy right there,” Claire eyed him through a raised eyebrow of her own, and he chuckled at the silliness of the moment. 

      “Jamie, it's so late! You need to get your sleep or you'll be jet-lagged and exhausted. Let's continue our chat tomorrow. We can also go over what's ahead this week. I certainly don’t want to be all up in your plans, but you mentioned you had some meetings set up, and I want to know how I can help. I’m heading to campus at some point tomorrow to work on papers. Maybe we can chat a little before I go - whenever you get up - I’m not on a strict timeline at all. The only fixed thing I have is a lunch appointment.”

      “That’s a braw idea, Claire. Again, I am so grateful for yer help and hospitality.” He reached for her hand and raised it to his mouth. Without taking his eyes off hers, he kissed the back of her hand softly, and gently released it again. 

      Her butterflies didn't flutter this time. They positively attacked her! 

      Jesus! When was the last time a gentleman kissed the back of my hand? Holy crap. I’m a mess. Stop the madness, Claire! He’s an award-winning actor! And a player. Stop reading things into his words and actions.  

      “I’ll help ye lock up, Claire, and then we can turn in for the night.”

 

      Twenty minutes later, Claire was standing under a hot shower. Just yards away in one of her bedrooms, and probably already asleep, was Jamie freaking Fraser. A man who had been the subject of her fantasies for a good number of years - along with millions of other women who devoured each episode of Clan Hearts. Jamie’s portrayal of Hamish McLean, a Highlander whose wife was captured by the English, had riveted audiences globally, and his fierce love for her had women around the world falling in love with the notion of the hopelessly romantic Scottish warrior. The graphic and intense love scenes were scintillating and very risqué - adding to Jamie’s appeal as an international heartthrob and sex symbol.

      Of course all of this spawned an ardent fan base that encompassed the spectrum from the mildly infatuated to the dangerously obsessed. Claire remembered interviews during which Jamie had addressed disturbing stalking behavior and even threats against women he was dating. He had lamented the fact that maintaining any kind of relationship was difficult and stressful. He seemed to go from event to event, always with a new stunning starlet or model on his arm. None of these ever seemed to become long-term girlfriends, and that in itself spawned more rumor and speculation. As interest in Hamish McLean dwindled after the show ended, Jamie had gone on to bigger and better things - starring roles in big Hollywood movies. The frenzied attention of the Clan Hearts fans also abated somewhat, no doubt a huge relief to him. He still had a large global fan base, but it had established itself as an audience that recognized his outstanding acting talents in several critically-acclaimed roles, while also appreciating his appeal as a sex symbol. Claire was squarely among the fans who had progressed to a more mature appreciation of the man as an actor.  

       I do enjoy your movies and appreciate your talent, but it sure doesn’t hurt that you are so dang hot. How on earth have you ended up as my house guest?

           



Chapter Text


     

      Claire woke up just after 5:00 a.m. Pulling on her black yoga pants and a soft pink tee, she padded downstairs to the kitchen. She had slept soundly, but woke up early, and lay in bed for about ten minutes, still in disbelief that she had Jamie Fraser in her home. Wondering what he might want for breakfast, she made a mental note to point out all the breakfast options in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Claire had always been an attentive host, and her concern for her current guest had more to do with the fact that she wanted everyone to feel relaxed and welcome in her home, than the fact that he was a well-known celebrity. Taking a few ingredients from the pantry, she tapped the Pinterest app on her iPad and pulled up the recipe for lemon and poppy seed scones. It took her about ten minutes to prepare the dough, and while they baked for the requisite twenty minutes, she brewed herself a mug of coffee, and headed outside to the covered patio, iPad in hand.

      The sun was about to rise over the mountains and she loved to see the vivid pinks and oranges in the early morning sky. This morning was somewhat cloudy, however, so she curled up on one of the sofas in the covered patio and opened Safari. She entered ‘Jamie Fraser’ in the search box, and started to click on random articles and links that grabbed her attention. It was the usual profusion of interviews, movie promos and twitter posts. She tapped 'Images', and a grid of pictures appeared before her. Jamie shirtless and buff. Jamie modeling for high-end men's clothing lines. Jamie promoting fitness clubs and gear. Jamie holding glasses of whisky. Jamie with sunglasses and a baseball cap. But most of all, Jamie with an endless array of beautiful women. On the red carpet; on the beach; on yachts; on a coffee run to Starbucks. Jamie with blondes. Jamie with brunettes. Jamie with redheads. Jamie in the midst of a deep soulful kiss. Jamie with his arms around a beautiful blonde in Paris. Jamie holding hands with a sultry brunette in New York. Jamie looking annoyed at the paparazzo taking his picture. The timer went off, startling her and forcing her to close the iPad and head indoors to retrieve the scones. The kitchen smelled delightful and citrusy and fruity. As she waited for the scones to cool, she made a quick list of things she needed to share with Jamie - the WiFi password, the code for the garage and front door, her cell-phone number, and WhatsApp details. She poured the glaze over the scones, set out some plates and mugs for breakfast, and headed upstairs to get ready for the day.

  

      She stepped into the shower, where she always did her best thinking, and thought about the images she had seen on her iPad. They were a sobering reminder that while Jamie may have made a few flirty comments to her over the course of the previous night, he had unfettered access to the world’s most beautiful and glamorous women.   

      Calm the heck down, Claire! He is so far out of your league. Yesterday was all about him turning on the charm and using his acting skills. It’s time to focus on the important stuff. Review those papers and get that professorship.

      Her self-motivating talk in the shower inspired her to go all-business in attitude and appearance. She had a lunch appointment with some faculty members. Due to pandemic restrictions, they would be physically distanced on the large patio of her office building, which wasn't the ideal set up for a good lunchtime discussion. She wanted to make a good impression on them as she vied with a lecturer from the Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania for the professorship in her department. Additionally, she needed to show Jamie that as attractive as he was, she could be immune to his charms and she was certainly not going to go all googly-eyed over him.

      Pulling on black, slim-fitting ankle length pants, she looked through the hangers for a top that was flattering, yet business-like. Slipping on a draped, sleeveless blouse in soft white silk, she checked her overall appearance in the mirror and was satisfied that she looked professional, without being too severe. Black, block-heeled Cole Haan sandals completed the look. Her hair was in disarray, of course. Having washed out yesterday’s beachy waves, she now had a mass of unruly damp curls. Brushing vigorously, she gathered her hair into a bun - not entirely messy, but not overly staid either. She applied her usual work make-up - keeping it as natural as possible. Soft mocha shadow on her lids, brown eyeliner to accentuate her eye shape, and black mascara to coat her long lashes. A lick of tawny blush and matte lipstick, and her professional look was almost complete. Her final touches were small silver stud earrings and a spritz of Michael Kors perfume. Stopping by the girls’ study area, she placed her laptop and papers in her laptop bag and headed downstairs. Jamie was already sitting at the kitchen island, phone in hand.

      He turned as he heard her heels click lightly on the wood flooring in the kitchen. 

      “Good morning!” he said brightly with a huge smile. He stood up as she walked into the kitchen. 

      “Good morning to you too.” Her smile and upbeat mood matched his.  

      Ah! A morning person, thank God! This whole hosting thing would be a bloody pain in the ass if you were a morning grump. Also, did you seriously just stand up when I walked into the room? My butterflies are back and you’re not making my attempts at maintaining a polite, professional distance from you very easy. 

      His hair was still damp from his shower, and he had dressed in blue jeans and a blue toned plaid shirt. He was barefoot, and Claire chalked that up as a small victory. Clearly, he was feeling comfortable enough to not bother about wearing shoes in the house. It always made her feel good when house-guests felt right at home with her.

      “Are you a morning person, Claire?” he asked. “Because I am irritatingly cheerful in the morning.”      

      “Oh, I’m definitely a morning person,” she said, “and grumpy morning people annoy me. Did you sleep okay?”

      “Oh God yes! The bed is really comfortable, and it’s so quiet out here! No endless sirens and city noises to get used to. When I stay in a big city, it takes me a few nights to get used to all the noise.” His smile was warm and sincere. “Have you been baking this morning? It smells heavenly in here.” 

      “I made some lemon and poppy seed scones,” she replied, pulling them out of the warming oven. She arranged them carefully on a large plate, and placed them next to the breakfast plates and mugs.  

      “Let me show you how to work the coffee maker. It does regular, lattes, and cappuccinos.” Quickly and efficiently, she made herself a latte, demonstrating all the steps so that Jamie could learn from her. “Your turn.”

       Jamie set about making his latte, following all the steps perfectly, but not quite getting the hang of frothing the milk for a latte. 

      “May I?” Claire asked. Jamie nodded and she continued, “It takes a little practice. Hold the jug and I’ll show you. She closed her hand over his large one as he held the milk jug. “Watch the steam nozzle carefully. You need to work it in and out of the jug slowly and carefully so that it doesn’t blow the milk all over the place.” 

      “Mm-hmm,” he murmured, and Claire looked up straight into his eyes. He raised both eyebrows, and the effect on her inner butterflies was instant.

      She kept her hand on his and moved the jug up and down in small, slow motions to allow the steam nozzle to froth and bubble the milk - horribly aware that the whole scene could be interpreted as quite suggestive. Something that Jamie clearly enjoyed thinking about too. She sensed, rather than saw his smirk. 

      “Watch the jug, Jamie. Use slow, controlled movements for a richer foam. You need to be a little careful because you definitely don’t want a steam burn.”  

      “Sorry, Sassenach.” His smile was evident in his voice, but she refused to look up. He refocused his attention on her frothing tutorial, and his finished latte looked just as good as Claire’s.

      “Nice work! Please feel free to help yourself any time the need for caffeine grabs you.” 

      As they sat down to enjoy their breakfast, Claire was still focused on making a list of essential information for Jamie.

      “Mmm!” Jamie groaned, reaching for another scone. “These are so good. Thank you. You look all business today, Sassenach. I like that look on ye, if I can be so bold.” 

      “Thanks, I guess,” Claire grinned at the awkward compliment. “Before I go, I wanted to give you a list of things you might need.” She reached for a notepad, and made a list of important information.

      “WiFi password, check. Keypad codes for the front door and garage, check - just in case you go out for a run. My cell number and WhatsApp. My full address is here, in case you call a cab or limo or something. We're technically in Snoqualmie, not Seattle. Spare face-masks are in a drawer in the powder room. Can you think of any info you might need that I haven‘t included?”

      "It looks pretty thorough to me. Thanks for all that. Here, let me add my cell number and WhatsApp to yer phone." She unlocked her phone and handed it to him, watching as he entered his contact details into iMessage and WhatsApp. He saved them as 'Jamie F', and then sent himself a quick text from both apps on her phone. He looked up at her with a teeny smile, and saved her details as ‘Sassenach’ in both apps.

      “There. Now we have each other’s details saved in case there’s a need to call or text.”

      “Thanks, Jamie."

      Well, that was pretty slick. Clearly, entering your number into women’s phones is a move you’ve had a lot of practice in

      “Before I head out, please know that you can help yourself to anything from the pantry or fridge. There’s lots of sandwich stuff, ciabatta bread and sliced wheat bread in the bread drawer and frozen meals in the freezer. Nothing is off limits. Make yourself at home, and I hope you have a productive day. I’ll be back some time between 4 and 5 this afternoon. Call or text if you need anything."

      “Aye, I will. Just so ye know - I have a dinner meeting scheduled with the local representatives of my PR team tonight. They’ll pick me up around 5 p.m."

      "Sounds good. I’ll see you later,” and with a quick smile, she grabbed her phone and laptop bag and headed to the garage.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

    

      By the time Claire pulled into the garage that afternoon, it was 4:40 p.m. and she was drained. Lunch had been decent, but one of the faculty members had asked a series of awkward and uncomfortable questions. She felt like she had answered him well, but wasn’t sure what the rest of the group thought of his line of questioning. It had bothered her all afternoon, and she needed to do some yoga. The deep stretching and quiet meditation would help dissipate some residual stress. 

      She entered the house through the mudroom door and headed to the kitchen. It was quiet and there was no sign of Jamie. She sat down at the kitchen desk, and eased her shoes off. Leaving her laptop bag on the desk, she went over to the sink, soaped up her hands and rinsed them off. It was a pandemic-inspired habit now, and she also insisted that the girls do a thorough hand-wash whenever they arrived home from anywhere. Grabbing a paper towel to dry her hands, she glanced out of the corner window and saw Jamie seated on one of the sofas on the middle terrace - where they had sat with Milo the previous day.

      He was staring straight ahead at the trees and mountains on ‘his property’, apparently deep in thought.  

      She headed out to say hi, and he immediately stood up to greet her. 

      Oh God, if your smile doesn’t kill me, your impeccable manners will. 

      “Sassenach!” His smile and genuine enthusiasm at seeing her made her forget some of the stresses of her day. “How was yer day?”

      He was wearing slim fitting navy pants with a pale blue chambray shirt and tan shoes. The combination of blues set off his eyes beautifully, and Claire was reminded yet again why he had become such a heartthrob. Next to him, she suddenly felt wilted and very plain. 

      “It was a long day,” she admitted, smiling gamely. “Happy to be home, though. How was your day? Did you get a lot done?”

      “Oh, aye. I got a lot of my calls and emails squared away. I’ll fill you in on all my upcoming meeting details later, if that’s okay. I think my ride is almost here.”

       “Okay - I hope you have a great evening. I need some yoga. You have the front door code, right?"

       “Right here in my phone.” He patted his back pocket.

       They walked back to the house together, and right on cue, Jamie’s phone buzzed, and he headed off to the front door with a parting smile. 

       “Later, Claire. Hope ye can decompress a little.”

 

      After streaming her most strenuous yoga class and working up a drenching sweat, Claire showered and put on a deep blue swimsuit. The yoga had helped her work through some of the kinks in her shoulders, but she knew that being suspended in the warm water of the hot tub would be the best way to unwind. 

       First, she needed to FaceTime Ella and Beth. Neither girl could suppress her excitement - they were just hours away from turning 16. It was a bittersweet chat. While Claire shared in their excitement at reaching this milestone, not sharing it with them in person would be painful.

      They chatted excitedly about their day. Their half siblings had baked cookies with them - Beth leading the process, of course. Afterwards, Frank had dropped them off at Nonna’s, where they had enjoyed a pre-birthday dinner of to-die-for lasagna and homemade gelato.       

      “Mom, she asked us to send you a huge hug,” said Beth, dutifully delivering Nonna’s message.

      “Yeah - and don’t worry, we didn't say anything about the VIP man to her, or anyone else. What did you guys do today?” asked Ella. 

      “Well, we didn't do anything really, Ella. Remember, he’s just a guest here because of the emergency. It’s not like I have to entertain him and show him all the sights. We can't do that anyway because of quarantine and lock-down. I went in to work today, and he stayed home and did a lot of his work from here. Right now he’s out having dinner with some business associates.”

      “Is he being good about quarantine requirements, or does he think it’s not too serious?”

      “He’s a little like us, I guess, Beth. We didn’t shake hands - uh, when we first met. And I noticed that he washes his hands quite frequently. So yes, he’s aware and doing all the right things to protect himself and others.”

      Wrapping up their chat a few minutes later, Claire reminded them that she would be calling at around 7:00 a.m., Seattle time, for a virtual breakfast party. It had become their special tradition for her to make them crepes for breakfast on their birthday, and they were excited to do it via FaceTime first thing in the morning. 

      “I promise to make you crepes again the first morning you’re back in Seattle! Love you both so much!” She blew them an avalanche of goodnight kisses, and tapped out of the app. 

      Moments later, her phone buzzed. It was Suki.

      “Sook! How are you doing?”

      “I’m well, thanks, but the reason I’m calling is to see how you’re doing? Can you talk?”

      “Yes - Jamie is out with someone from his PR team.”

      “Well first - thank you from the bottom of my heart for opening your home to Jamie. Is everything okay? Awkward? Comfortable?”

      “Everything is great, Suki, I promise. I’d let you and Milo know right away if anything felt uncomfortable. He is so much more down to earth than I expected.”

      “I hate to say I told you so -"

      "But you did,” Claire smiled, “You said he was a lovely man, and you were right. He is respectful, helpful, humble - not at all what I expected from a movie star.”

      “Yes, Milo and I thought that too when he was on the lake last year. Just a regular guy in a ridiculously hyped industry. Well, it all sounds good with you - I’m glad to hear it’s going smoothly. You’ll see Milo on Thursday. Be sure to let him know if anything has come up that you need to talk about.”

      "I will Suki, but it’s all good. I appreciate you checking in.”

      ”Okay, love you hon.”

      “You too.”

    

      Armed with an ice-bucket, a bottle of sauvignon blanc, wine opener, a stemless wine glass, and her iPad, Claire made her way to the hot tub clad in her swimsuit and a fluffy white terry bathrobe. Draping the robe on the nearby towel rack, she pulled off the hot-tub cover, and eased herself into the steaming water. Before immersing herself completely, she selected the Spotify app on her iPad. Tonight, she felt like her ‘Unwind’ playlist would do the trick. It was a long list of her favorite relaxing songs, most of them older tracks that brought up memories of her student days and Uncle Lamb's eclectic taste in music.

       Tapping Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years”, she slid into the tub and completely submerged herself from head to toe. Drifting back up from under the water, she lay back, took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, allowing herself to float face up. Time seemed suspended as Claire lay there, the warmth of the water and soothing music lulling her deeper and deeper into a state of complete relaxation. She wasn't sure how long she lay like that, but in the far reaches of her consciousness she thought that a song ended rather abruptly, only to be replaced by the gentle strains of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. But she was so relaxed, so comfortable, that she didn’t want to waste energy thinking about the skipped song. When she felt a fleeting movement across her face, she thought it might be an insect, or a fallen leaf perhaps. She was still too deeply relaxed to give it much thought. But her consciousness continued to play tricks on her. Was someone calling her name? Her ears were submerged in the water and the music surrounded her. Suddenly, her hand was gently captured in another larger hand. She frowned slightly and slowly opened her eyes. Jamie was gazing down at her from the edge of the hot tub.

     



Chapter Text


 

      Jamie was perched awkwardly on the edge of the hot tub, leaning over to touch her hand. His brow was creased in a look of concern.      

      She sat up, blinking water out of her eyes, and tugged a few tendrils of hair from her face.

      “Claire, I’m so sorry!” He looked distressed and embarrassed all at once. “I couldna tell whether or not you were asleep. I didn’t want to leave ye here in case ye fell asleep in the water. You seemed so stressed and tired when ye got back from work. And I noticed the bottle of wine in the bucket there, ye ken …"

      "… and you thought I polished it off and passed out in the hot tub.” She finished his sentence for him with her characteristic giggle. “I haven't even had my first glass yet.”

      Jamie buried his face in his hands, clearly embarrassed and annoyed with himself. “Och, I feel terrible for disrupting your ... sanity hour, ye called it?”

      “Please, don’t give it another thought. I appreciate that you were so … uh, concerned. How was your dinner - you’re back earlier than I thought.” She glanced at her iPad - it wasn’t even 7:30 yet.

      “Good, actually. We got a lot done. The PR firm sent a couple of youngsters - they have great ideas for social media presence and all. I really dislike all that stuff - maintaining the correct profile and presence. The studios want me to get it right though, so they’re prepared to pay for it to be done well. Which is code for they want it done their way. These two young 'uns were in their early twenties, and really astute and ‘woke’, I think they called themselves.”

      “Ah yes, my students love to think of themselves as very woke too. Most of them are, actually. So I take it they want to help you comment on social media about quarantine, protests, social justice, etc.”

      "Aye, they’ll help me draft statements. I want it to be my voice, but they will just give everything the once over so that I don’t end up pissing everyone off. That’s happened a bit in the past."

      “Hmm. Yes, the joys of social media. It’s a blessing and a bloody curse too. That’s my background, you know? Public Relations and Communications. Knowing how to deal with the media - especially social media - is critical to corporate as well as career success.” She frowned and sighed deeply. “We should chat about your meetings. I am more than okay with you hosting them here, you know? I have lots of outdoor areas, covered and open, so social distancing requirements won’t be an issue.” 

      “Aye - we should chat about schedules - when do you want to do that?”

      “We can do it right now, if you like. Or later on the patio, if you prefer. My ‘sanity hour’ just started though. You’re welcome to join me in here, or I can just cut it short, and join you on the patio.”

      “I would never dream of depriving you of your sanity, Sassenach.” He smiled broadly, releasing several of her butterflies in the process. “I’ll be right back.”

      “Bring a wine glass,” she called after him.

 

      Within a few minutes, Jamie was back. He had his terry bathrobe from the guestroom draped over his shoulder, and was wearing a pair of striped blue swim shorts. Tossing his bathrobe next to hers on the rack, he placed the wine glass next to the ice bucket and eased himself into the tub, sitting opposite her.     

       Sweet baby Jesus! Your body looks just like the pictures I saw on Google this morning - and I thought those were bloody-well Photoshopped! Frigging 8-pack! You truly are a beautiful man. Also, our swimsuits match.   

      There was a moment of slight awkwardness as they both became keenly aware that they were in a body of sensuously warm water, almost naked, and within mere feet of each other. It was a challenge to keep limbs from brushing up against each other, even with only two of them in the 6-seater tub. Jamie submerged himself and sat up again, running his hands over his face and through his hair to wipe off some of the water. 

      “Should we get some wine, Sassenach?”

      “Yes, of course.” And then she realized that the wine and glasses were right behind her. Too late to do anything about that. She turned to kneel on one of the raised molded seats in the hot tub so she could reach the wine more easily, but she still had to lean way over to reach the ice bucket. Damn! She wished she had worn a more conservative swimsuit. This one wasn’t a thong cut, but it revealed way more butt than she wanted to show right now. The knowledge that her rear looked as good now as it had in her modelling days was small comfort to her. 

      “I’d give you a hand there, but ye seem to have it all under control.” She could hear the smirk in his voice.

      She did not have it under control, and was fumbling horribly with the wine opener. Why hadn’t she opened it in the kitchen before coming down to the tub?

      “Uh ... I’m okay. Give me just a sec.”

      “Take yer time, Sassenach. I’ll just enjoy the view here.”

      The cork finally popped out, and she hoped he hadn't noticed how badly she bungled the whole process. She turned to look at him quickly. His eyes were firmly fixed on her rear end. He didn’t even try to hide it - in fact, he raised his eyebrow and looked her straight in the eye.

      He cocked his head to one side. “I’m happy to help if ye need.”

      “No. Thanks. I’ve got this.”

      She poured two glasses of chilled wine and handed him his glass. Taking a large gulp, she resumed her seat with relief and leaned back so that her head was resting against the tub.  

      “So where did the woke kids end up taking you for dinner?”

      “The Rainier Club - corporate office in L.A. arranged it, or it would have likely been a pizza joint, if the wokes had any say in it. They served us out on the patio, so it was perfectly in keeping with restrictions. There was hardly anyone there, and all the employees were wearing gloves and masks. I felt like they did a really good job with the distancing and guest safety. Food was good too.”

      “Yes, it usually is. I’m a member there, but haven’t been since March.”

      “Tell me about your day, Claire. You seemed stressed earlier.”

      “Long story. Boring one too.”

      “Don’t say that, Claire,” he said gently. "You said it yesterday too - or something similar. Ye’re an intriguing woman, with a very interesting life story - I just wish I could hear it all. But we keep getting interrupted.” He raised both brows in a pointed reference to the fact that Claire seemed to be avoiding telling him her full story. 

      “It’s not that I’m particularly secretive or anything - I just don’t want to bore you. You’re surrounded by interesting, beautiful, successful people all the time. To listen to the life story of a boring college lecturer can’t be that intriguing.”

      “I’m just going to sit here in silence until you tell me.” He took a sip of wine, looking at her expectantly over the rim of his glass. His eyes didn’t move from hers.

      He waited.

      She took a deep breath. 

      “Okay. Where d’you want me to start?”

      “Where ye left off last night. We can talk about my meetings later. You … uh … you had just walked in on Frank and his student.” He looked pained that he had to bring up the story at that awful point, but Claire nodded stoically.

      “Well, after that, Frank seemed very remorseful. Apologized repeatedly. Swore it would never happen again. I believed him of course, and forgave him. For a while after the office incident, he was home by late afternoon, came with me to a prenatal appointment, and was generally more attentive. But within a couple of months, I noticed that he started to come home later and later again. He was short-tempered, and criticized me for everything. My cooking, my poor housekeeping skills, and by that time my baby bump was starting to show, and he seemed quite … grossed out by it all. He commented on my food intake and wanted me to wear flowy things that hid my belly.” Jamie’s jaw muscles rippled, and his brows drew together briefly.

     “Throughout this time, I confided in Nonna. She had a few choice Italian names for Frank. Let me know if you ever need some Italian swear words.” They both smiled. “I honestly would not have made it through without her. By the time I was 5 months along, Frank had only been to one medical appointment, and I realized he would probably not come to any more of them. Nonna started to accompany me to my doctor visits. My doctor noticed that the babies were somewhat underweight. Nonna voiced her concerns to my doctor about the extreme emotional stress I was under. She’s not one to hold her tongue. I was classified as higher risk, and placed in the care of a specialist team. But the stress was too much, and I delivered the babies via C-section at 29 weeks. 38 weeks is generally considered full-term with twins.”

      She stopped there, and took a deep, shuddering breath. It had been so long since she had shared this story with anyone. 

      “Claire, I …”  She held her hand up, and shook her head slightly.

      “I just need more wine, I’m okay.” Beyond caring about the cheeky swimsuit at this point, she stood up to grab the wine bottle and topped up both glasses. Replacing the bottle in the ice bucket, she continued, “Frank was at the birth only because it was a C-section. He had already made it clear that there was no way he would watch babies being delivered any other way. My babies were tiny - 3.2 and 2.9 pounds. They had the expected preemie respiratory issues - it was so, so stressful. My medical team was phenomenal, though. They allowed me to stay there with my babies for the entire time. The head of the team was involved in a research study on ‘the relevance of maternal stress on premature births’, and later it became ‘the importance of maternal proximity in NICU babies’ - or so he said. I came to believe afterwards that he realized at the birth what a jackass Frank was, and wanted to keep me in an emotionally safe space, close to my babies. So I became his ‘research study’. There’s a special place in heaven for that man.”

      To her surprise, she teared up somewhat, and blinked them away swiftly. Jamie slid over and sat closer to her, taking her free hand in his. His sincerity and concern was exactly what she needed right then, and she knew that despite his flirtatious nature, he didn't have an ulterior motive for wanting to sit closer to her at that moment. This was not Jamie pulling a move on her. This was Jamie being the ‘lovely, lovely man’ Suki had described.

      She allowed her hand to relax in his. “So, the medical team set up a private room for me, and I stayed there for the full 6 weeks of the babies’ stay in NICU. Nonna was there almost every day. Bringing me soups, and pastas, and homemade ciabatta.”

      “And tiramisu,” Jamie interjected, bringing a little levity into their chat.

      “Yes,” she giggled, “and tiramisu. And so much love and support. Mind you, Frank seemed concerned about the babies and their progress at first. He spent the first week at the hospital with me, sleeping on the sleeper sofa in my room. When the twins started to gain weight, he started to sleep at home and visited for a couple of hours every night.”

      “Hmmm, and you were 18 at the time, aye? Just a child yerself. Frank would have been 30? 31?”

      She could have sworn that a flash of anger crossed his face. Or maybe it was pity. “When we were finally able to take the babies home, Uncle Lamb came over to help for three months, bless him. Between him and Nonna, I made it through those difficult first months, and the girls started to thrive. Over the next few years, I joined some mommy groups, and started to expand my social circle, while ensuring a constant round of baby play-dates, music classes and such. I had to shelve my studies, of course, but by the time the girls were almost four, they were enrolled in preschool, and I had started distance learning again. I was 22 and felt like I had a handle on the mothering thing. Hah!” they smiled at each other.

      “Aye, I’ve been around my niece and nephews enough to know what that laugh means.”

      “Still, I forged ahead. By this time, things between Frank and me were beyond saving. We weren’t married - or even engaged - so it was not a messy split from a legal standpoint. We were able to come to a decent arrangement for child support and 'co-parenting'." She made air quotes with her fingers. "I started to look for a town-home to rent, but Nonna insisted that the girls and I move in with her. It took a while for her to persuade me, but I realized that she needed it just as much as we did. She was quite lonely, and apart from her friends from book club and bridge, she didn't have much of a social life. You know, looking back, it was one of a handful of moments in my life when the stars aligned and things worked out well.” She took another sip of wine, Jamie nodded encouragingly. He was still interested in her story, apparently.  

      “We struggled along initially, and then I went back to do some more modeling to earn extra money. It helped a bit with tuition and Nonna’s rent, which was ridiculously low compared with other town-homes I had looked at, but still a hardship for someone without a full-time job and in the midst of her studies.”

      “What type of modeling did ye too, Claire?”

      “Okay - this is where it gets a little embarrassing.” Both his eyebrows shot up.

      “No, no! It’s not what you’re probably thinking. I was too much of a prude to do anything salacious. Since I was too short to do runway modeling, I focused on catalog stuff. No big designer brand campaigns or anything like that.”

      “Why would you think that’s embarrassing?”

      “Well … I specialized as an underwear model. And swimwear.” She flushed slightly.

      “Aye, and I can see why,” the corner of his mouth lifting into his naughtiest smile yet.

      She flushed slightly. "Now d’you understand why I was embarrassed.”

      “No, Claire. From my perspective, ye’ve nothing to be embarrassed about at all.” He was quite serious. “First - you were providing for yer family. Second, you were using yer God-given … uh … gifts. No different to me using my acting talent and experience to earn a living by making movies.”

      “I was a butt double in a movie once, actually. They flew me out to Chicago for three days. We shot for hours and hours, and when the movie finally came out, my ass was on display for maybe five seconds. It was the most uncomfortable experience of my life.” 

      “Aye, I ken verra well what ye mean. So how did you end up here in Seattle?”

      “By the time I was 25, I had completed my undergraduate studies, and the girls were in elementary school. I really wanted to study further, so I enrolled in the MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communications at NYU. I picked New York because it was close to Boston. Most of the course was distance learning, but I had to travel for cohort studies a few times. I was gone for a week at a time for that, but thankfully, I had a great support system for the girls in Nonna, and of course Frank was just next door. While I was on one of my cohort trips, I met Henry Benson, my late husband. He was 43 - yes, a fair bit older than me - and a guest professor from Seattle, on loan to NYU. I couldn’t believe it when he started to show an interest in me. He wasn’t one of my lecturers, he had just stopped by to observe one of our seminars, and we all met at a bar around the corner for drinks afterwards. We started chatting, drinks turned into dinner, and he started to very carefully and respectfully pursue a relationship with me.”

      Even though the conversation had moved from her most deeply painful memories to areas that were lighter and more positive, Jamie did not release her hand. Claire made no move to withdraw it either.

      “After three months of dating, he asked to meet the girls, so we went to spend a weekend with him. He had an apartment in New York at the time, and had asked a decorator to come in and transform one of the rooms into a fantasy bedroom for the girls. It was just lovely and colorful, sparkly girl stuff everywhere, and a whole chest of dress-up clothes. He had never been married, and a bout with cancer in his twenties left him unable to have children, so he absolutely doted on my girls. We ended up spending almost every weekend in New York with him. Nonna was thrilled, even though we felt awful about leaving her behind. She came with us to New York to babysit quite a few times, so that Henry and I could have an adult night out.” She smiled wistfully, and Jamie nodded, squeezing her hand lightly. 

      “Henry did a months-long ‘movie festival‘ with the girls. He lined up all the kid-friendly movies that were shot in Central Park, and we watched one every weekend. Then we would head to Central Park the next day. We’d rent bikes, or take a pedi-cab tour to try and find the locations from the movie we had just seen. Their favorites were “Elf” and “Stuart Little”. We must have watched them at least 6 times.” She giggled her deep, throaty giggle, and Jamie realized how much he had come to enjoy that sound. 

      “How was Frank with all the weekends away?” Jamie asked.

      “Honestly, he seemed relieved mostly - being released from parenting on the weekend allowed him to pursue his own … ummm … interests.”

      “When did you eventually leave Boston? Or New York?”

      “About a year into our relationship, Henry asked me to marry him. I said yes. The following weekend, he did the sweetest ‘step-dad proposal’ with the girls. Presented them with ring pops, took them shopping at Saks for beautiful new dresses and shoes. Then off to a salon for mani-pedis, and that night they went for a fancy dinner in a chauffeur-driven limo, all gussied up in their new outfits. Just the three of them, mind you. I was not invited,” she said, feigning indignation. “They had a wonderful time, and I knew he would be a wonderful step-dad.”

       She gently withdrew her hand from Jamie’s, took his empty wine glass and placed both glasses on the edge of the tub. “So when I was twenty seven and the girls were almost nine, I became Mrs. Henry Benson, and we moved to Seattle with him. He remained on the faculty at the Fulton Business School as Professor Emeritus, but he scaled back active teaching because he was in demand in the business arena. His field was tech start-ups, and he served as a director on the boards of several large companies. In the meanwhile, I had finished my Masters, and worked as a junior lecturer at Fulton. I received my doctorate three years ago, and have been an associate professor ever since. Currently, I’m in the running for a full professorship at Fulton. It is such a huge deal for me, and I’m a little stressed about it. My lunch today was an attempt to schmooze some of my faculty colleagues as they start the vetting process. It’s between me and a candidate from Wharton Business school in Pennsylvania. One of my colleagues had some unnecessarily awkward questions for me at lunch. So cross your fingers for me please!”

       Jamie gave her a huge grin, and held up his hands with all fingers crossed at ridiculous angles. “All ten crossed for good measure, but I have a feeling you have this in the bag. You seem so competent and self-assured.”

      “Thank you, Jamie,” she grinned back. “I wish I shared your confidence. The saddest part for me is that if I do get the professorship, Henry …“ she trailed off. “He would have been so proud.”

      “Aye,Claire. I’m so sorry, I know it must be painful for ye. What happened?” he asked gently.

      “Right around the time that I got my doctorate, we learned that his cancer was back. It had progressed to the point where the doctors knew that conventional treatments would have very little effect. In fact he was placed in the care of a palliative medicine team almost immediately. We were determined to enjoy what little time he had left, and we made it so, so special. For him, for me, for the girls. Of course, Henry spent the first couple of weeks getting all his affairs in order. He wanted me and the girls to be taken care of, and we will never want for anything materially. But his loss has left a big hole in our hearts and in our lives. He passed away two years ago in May. Just eight months after his diagnosis.” She took a deep breath, exhaled, and smiled a pensive smile. “Jamie, I have prattled on and on about myself all night. That’s my whole story right there. You know it’s your turn now, right?”

      “Hmmh,” Jamie grunted one of his trademark noises that she hadn't quite learned to decipher yet. 

      “How about we head inside, grab some cheese and crackers - I kind of forgot to eat this evening - and head to the stone patio to see the last of the sun’s rays on the mountaintops?  We can talk schedules really quickly, and then it’s your turn to share your life story.”

      “Right,” said Jamie, “I'll grab the robes.” He took Claire’s robe off the rack and stepped back up onto the wide stone surround of the tub. He held up her robe as Claire emerged from the tub and slipped into its comforting warmth. Taking her gently by the shoulders, he turned her around to face him. He wrapped the robe around her midriff and tied the sash in a firm knot at her waist. Then he wrapped his arms around her and held her for a few seconds. His lips were against her temple. She stood perfectly still, barely breathing. Then she slowly raised her arms and wrapped them around his waist. 

      “Thank you, Claire,” he murmured. “I ken that some of that was very hard for you to talk about. I thank you for trusting me with yer story.”

 



Chapter Text


     

      They stood completely still, wrapped in each other’s arms in the cool evening air. Her ear was pressed against his naked chest, and she could both hear and feel his solid heartbeat. Any other time, she would have had a more carnal response and her butterflies would have been out of control. But she was drained from sharing so much of herself. Being pressed up against Jamie with his strong arms around her brought out an emotional response in her now - a sense of peace and safety and acceptance and warmth.  

      “Thank you for listening,” she murmured. 

      He tightened his embrace, and moved his lips slightly on her temple as he spoke very, very quietly. She couldn’t understand what he said, but recognized it as Gaelic. 

      “I was serious, Jamie. I would love to know your story too. Let’s grab some wine and watch the sun disappear. We have about 30 minutes before it goes down completely.” 

      They hurried back to the kitchen, where she arranged some crackers and a small assortment of cheeses on a plate, while Jamie picked up a bottle of Cabernet from the wine rack in the pantry. 

      Minutes later they were on the stone patio, still wrapped in their robes, side-by-side in the Adirondack chairs.

      The terraces enjoyed a beautiful, unobstructed sunrise view every morning, while the sunset view was well out of range somewhere behind the house. But although their properties didn't get a direct view of the sunset, residents of this neighborhood still enjoyed watching the evening shadows creep up the mountains from the ground up. And every evening, the sun's rays held onto the peaks for as long as they could, before finally surrendering to the night. 

      Neither spoke for a while, reluctant to disrupt the sense of absolute peace and tranquility. Eventually, Jamie turned to Claire.

      “Did I tell you I signed the initial offer for the property? Milo will submit to the sellers tomorrow.”

      Claire gasped softly, “How exciting, Jamie!” She held up her hands with her fingers all crossed together, mimicking Jamie’s earlier gesture. “I’m crossing all ten fingers that it goes well for you too.” 

      “Thanks, Sassenach.” He leaned over to the table, and cut a small chunk of brie, placed it on a cracker and handed it carefully to Claire. She smiled her thanks, a teeny bit flustered by the intimacy of his gesture. 

       You need to stop moving your thoughts in this direction. You had such good intentions to remain aloof this morning; and now, hours later, you have hot-tubbed with him, poured your soul out to him, hugged him for a loooooong moment, and now you’re letting him practically feed you by hand. Get. A. Grip.

      “Jamie,” she began, quietly, “I want to hear about your childhood - and whatever else you feel comfortable sharing.” 

      “Aye, Claire. We’ve both suffered some painful losses, ye ken. It’s been hard for me to open up and talk about some things, but I feel I can trust ye the same way you just trusted me. You are also aware that parts of my life seem to be an open book? Between the tabloids and social media, it seems everyone thinks they know ‘the real Jamie Fraser’. There is a perception that I lead the fabled life of a celebrity. That it’s a glamorous, champagne lifestyle - all tuxedos, limos, and a revolving door of beautiful women. Honestly, Claire, my real life - the life I want for myself - is so far removed from that.”

      She nodded reassuringly. “Jamie, I know that in the career you have built, and the lifestyle that often goes with it, there are many challenges and difficulties. It must be very hard to trust anyone, and I imagine there is a constant fear of sharing too much, and then finding your words twisted and misrepresented in the media days later. I want you to know that I will hold whatever you tell me in absolute confidence. It’s entirely up to you to decide what you want to share.”   

     He watched her intently as she spoke, and nodded silently. “I grew up in my family home, Lallybroch.” He began slowly. “It’s near Inverness in the Highlands, and has been in my family for a few centuries. I mentioned to you before that my sister lives there. Jenny is married to Ian - one of my best friends when we were growing up. They have four kids, three boys and a girl, aged between four and thirteen. She’s four years older than me, is Jenny - 38 this year. We had an older brother, William, who was seven years older than me. He lost his fight with leukemia when he was fourteen years old. I was gutted. Still am. Willie was my hero.” He paused.

      “Jamie,” Claire whispered, her voice filled with emotion. 

     He looked out at the mountains before him and said, “I love how the sun’s rays have crept up the mountains over the past twenty minutes or so and are now at the very tippy top of the mountains. This is really a great spot for sundowners.”

      “Yes it is,” she said simply, comprehending his need to shift gears and process some of his feelings before continuing. Reaching toward the cheese platter again, he sliced off a chunk of smoked Gouda, placed it on a cracker and handed it to her, waiting until she had taken a bite of it before he picked up where he had left off. 

      “My Mam died of breast cancer when I was eleven. It completely broke my father. Broke Jenny and me too. But my Da, oh Claire, my Da was a mess for a long time. They shared a love like nothing I’ve ever seen. Ye ken how so many couples continue to love each other after years together, but that fire and passion - the ‘being in love’ - tends to fade away? The giddy, crazy, romantic love, I mean. The deep love is still there, ye ken?” Jamie glanced at her and she nodded slightly. “Well that never happened with my parents. They were like teens in love all the time. I remember them sneaking kisses and little touches any time they could - like they couldn’t keep their hands off each other - even after years together and three kids! Jenny was always grossed out by their sappiness, but I didn't mind so much. Some nights, my Da would play one of their favorite love songs - anything from Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole to Barbra Streisand - and sometimes even stuff from the 80s or 90s. If the lyrics aligned with what he was feeling, the song was fair game. ‘Listen to these beautiful words, Ellen,’ he would say to her, ‘Musical poetry’.” Jamie mimicked what must have been his Dad’s stronger Scottish accent with a wistful smile. “And then he would grab my Mam by the hand and slow dance right there in the kitchen or family room or wherever the mood took him. To this day, I’m more drawn by a song’s message and lyrics than the melody or rhythm.”

     Somewhere in Claire’s consciousness, she vaguely remembered floating lazily in the hot tub earlier that evening. Had the music changed suddenly, or had she fallen asleep momentarily?

      The first time ever I saw your face, I thought the sun rose in your eyes ...  A fleeting frown crossed her brow. The Roberta Flack classic wasn’t even in her ‘Unwind’ playlist. She pushed away the thought and focused on Jamie’s words.

      “The rest of the family rallied around to help us. My Mam’s brothers, Dougal and Colum, my aunt Jocasta, my godfather, Murtagh. All of them became a permanent fixture in our lives. They're still very involved in our lives and the family business - and Dougal and Murtagh are a part of my business team too. You’ll likely meet them this week or next.”    

      Jamie reached for the wine bottle and topped up both wine glasses. He prepared another cracker with a sliver of cheese for Claire and sat back to continue his story.

      “My father struggled to pick up the pieces, but he forced himself to give Jenny and me as much routine and normalcy as he could. He never got over it, though. When I was fourteen, he had a stroke. Three days after that, he passed away.”     

      Jamie leaned back against the angled Adirondack chair and stared up into the sky. It had darkened a little, and more stars were becoming visible. The mountains were becoming shadowy silhouettes in the distance.

      “If it hadn’t been for the extended family surrounding me and Jenny, I reckon we would have been a mess. But they were determined that we would continue our education and make my parents proud. I had done some wee plays and musicals at school as part of drama class, and really loved it, so I asked to be enrolled at the Edinburgh School for Performing Arts. Jenny studied hotel management and culinary arts. She always loved to cook and putter around in the kitchen, but when she started her formal education, she appointed me her sous chef at home. I had to help her whether I wanted to or not. No one says no to Jenny. Wait until ye meet her, Claire, she’s a force of nature to be sure.”

      "Yes, I imagine she’d have to be to keep her younger brother in check." Claire teased and he responded in kind. 

      “I canna lie, Sassenach, I was quite a handful. But I cleaned up my act and helped Jenny a lot in the early stages of the B&B - our family business. It’s officially called Lallybroch Farms. We converted some of the barns and built a few new ones. There are currently 63 rooms and suites, and we operate at between 70% and 100% occupancy throughout the year. I say ‘we’, but truly Jenny and Ian do all of it. I’m a silent partner. Murtagh and Dougal are also shareholders, and they help with marketing and events. Lallybroch hosts about 25 weddings a year - and a few other events. It’s a busy place, but the business side of things is set a good distance away from our family home, so we can maintain some privacy and separation from the business, ye ken. It’s our family home, and we want to keep it our special place and haven. Despite all the sadness that it’s seen, there’s a kind of magic about it. That’s where you and the twins will be staying during the Ultimate Sassenach Highlands Tour.”

     "The Ultimate Sassenach Highlands Tour, is it?” Claire’s brows shot up, and she giggled heartily. “I can’t wait. Can you give me a preview of some of the highlights?”

      "Of course not! It’s exclusive, top secret, and a surprise to boot. But dinna fash. I offer a comprehensive satisfaction guarantee."

      "Hmmm. I’ll bear that in mind.”

     

     By now, Claire had eaten her fill of cheese and crackers, considerately and almost absent-mindedly prepared for her by Jamie, and they were nearing the last of the Cabernet. Jamie turned to her, looking more serious than she’d seen him. 

      “Claire, if we’re going to talk about syncing schedules and meetings, I’ll need to share some information with ye. It’s about a business transaction that I’ve had to sign an NDA for, to protect myself and my business associates.”  

     There was that term again. Non-Disclosure Agreement. It sounded intimidating and menacing, and for the second time in a matter of days, it drove home to her how very public and open the life of a celebrity must be. How tiresome it must be to have to require people in your circle to sign legally binding documents in order to maintain confidentiality on transactions that were regular events in the lives of regular people - like buying a home. Or investing in a business. She couldn't fathom a life like that - it would feel so restrictive and intrusive and limiting, in so many ways.   

     “I canna tell you a whole lot yet, and believe me I would love to share my exciting news.” He grinned with an almost childlike enthusiasm and Claire knew that whatever it was, it must be a big deal for him. “But what I can tell ye is that it involves wine, and it should all be signed and sealed in a matter of days. The meeting on Thursday is about this transaction. So, looking at the schedule then - in the morning, I have the helicopter ride - Milo will pick me up here for that. When we get back, the team will be with me and it will include my Uncle Dougal, Murtagh, two of my legal team and three guys representing the other side of the transaction. I expect the meeting to take between 2 to 4 hours, and I’ll pay for whatever refreshments are needed for the day. Maybe you and I can come up with some ideas after we’ve outlined my schedule?”

      “Of course. I’m more than happy to help. We’ve hosted many similar business meetings here over the years. I’ll work from home on Thursday so that I can be here if you need anything.”

      “Thank you, Claire. You’ve no idea how much it means to have your help and guidance. I am anxious to get this one right. Without sounding overly dramatic, my entire future is wrapped up in this deal.”

       Gee, thanks Jamie - no pressure. But I have to admit I’m curious now. The wine business, huh?

      “On Friday,” he continued, “I have no meetings scheduled, but I will likely be making a lot of calls and sending loads of emails throughout the day.”

      “Yes, I imagine it will be a heavy 'paperwork' kind of day for you after Thursday’s meeting."    

      “On Monday, it’s all movie business. My core business team will be here - Dougal, Murtagh, and the two lawyers. Plus my agent from Aster Talent Management and two PR people. There will be a few reps from Panther Entertainment and Stargate Productions.” Claire recognized the names as key players in the movie and entertainment industry. “It will be a long day,” he continued with a sigh. “Dougal and I have been at loggerheads about which way I want my movie career to go. He’s siding with my agent and PR people on the whole thing. Monday will be a come-to-Jesus meeting fer sure.”

      “What about Murtagh?”

      “Ah, Murtagh is a gem, Claire. Ye’ll like him. He wants what’s best for me, for my heart and my soul - not just the fame and the money. He wants me to be happy, but knows the importance of keeping a clear head in the business, so he gives me a lot of really good advice. Murtagh keeps me grounded and he’s not shy to tell me when I’m being a git. He’s been a father figure since my teens.” 

      She smiled at the thought of Jamie having someone to keep him from letting the movie business get inside his head too much. 

      “I’m looking forward to meeting him and Dougal. What about the rest of next week? Is there anything planned that I can help with? More meetings to host?”

      “No meetings planned yet - but sometimes they come up at the last minute. Next Tuesday and Wednesday will likely just be a lot of calls and emails. I might take a hike or two. And if the weather’s good, I might also take advantage of yer pool, if that’s alright.”

      “Of course. Please feel free to enjoy all of it,” she waved her hand behind her, indicating the entirety of her home and its amenities. 

      “Thank you. Next Thursday and Friday, I’ll be driving east, a little way past Wenatchee. It’s for the business transaction - a continuation of this Thursday’s meeting. The week after that, I’m supposed to be in L.A.”

      “Okay - it all sounds really busy for you. Hopefully the meetings and transactions all go smoothly. My schedule is really flexible, and I work equally well from home or campus. If there’s any way I can help, just holler. What about tomorrow? You haven’t mentioned anything about tomorrow yet.”

      “I’ve not got any meetings tomorrow, it’s a quieter day for me. I’ll spend some time reading a few documents and contracts for Thursday’s meeting. Probably go for a run too.”      

      “Tomorrow is the twins' 16th birthday - I may have already mentioned that. It’s been our tradition for me to make them crepes on their birthday. So first thing tomorrow morning, I'll be doing a virtual crepe birthday breakfast. When the crepes are almost ready, I’ll FaceTime them and wish them a happy birthday, and we’ll do a virtual celebration. It sounds and feels so weird to think about it, but I guess online parties and drive-by birthday parades are the new normal.” She paused, and swallowed hard. “It’s only the second time I haven't been with them for their birthday. Frank and his wife took them to Disneyland for their 12th.”

      “I imagine it will be a tough day for ye.”

      “Yes, it will be a little tough. My friend Melissa was due to have visited me this week from Atlanta. But she had to cancel due to Covid exposure. We had planned to go to Woodinville tomorrow to distract me from the fact that I am missing my daughters’ huge milestone birthday. I’m still planning on going. I booked a patio table and a tasting room, and I’ll be damned if I’m giving up the opportunity to enjoy an outing after so many weeks - months, actually - of isolating.”

      “Woodinville, huh? That’s a braw little town. Last year, when I spent six weeks here to get a sense of the place, Jenny and Ian visited me with the kids for a couple of weeks. November is a quieter time at Lallybroch Farms, and she needed a vacation. I took her to Woodinville for the day, and she fell in love. It’s got such a unique character and appeal. She loved that it had some big wineries, like Chateau and Columbia, and some wee, quaint tasting rooms too. It was a good day.”

      “You know … you’re very welcome to join me, if you get all your calls and things done. My patio reservation is for 12:30.”

      He looked at her for a long moment, head cocked to the side. 

      Shit, was that too forward? Does it sound like I’m asking him out? On a date?

      “I would love that, Claire. I’m tired of isolation too. We’ll make it a fun afternoon to keep ye from dwelling too much on the birthday, aye?”

      “Sounds great to me. Should we head indoors, Jamie? We seem to have a handle on the schedule now, and we can chat tomorrow about what to do about food and such - for the meetings. I’m also very aware that you are still jet-lagged.”

      “Aye. It’s been a long, but lovely evening - getting to share our lives a wee bit.”

      He stood up, offered her his hand and gently pulled her to her feet. After sharing almost two bottles of wine, she felt a little tipsy, and was grateful for his steadying hand. After gathering the plates and glasses, they made their way back to the house. 

      “I’ll see you in the morning, Jamie. Crepes okay for breakfast?”

      “I canna think of a better breakfast, to be honest. I love crepes!” He sounded genuinely excited, and she chuckled at his enthusiasm. 

      “Good night, Jamie. I’ll see you whenever you get down here. Go on upstairs, and I’ll lock up down here.”

      “Good night Sassenach.” With a last, quick smile, he headed up to his room.

 

 



Chapter Text


 

       Claire stood under the warm shower for a long time. Her thinking place. She washed away the hot tub chemicals and conditioned her hair for as long as possible before finally rinsing and stepping out of the shower to dry off. As she towel dried her hair vigorously and pulled it up into a ponytail, she thought ruefully about how wild it would look in the morning, but she’d deal with it then. Pulling on her standard sleepwear of silky lounge pants and a soft tee, she swept aside the profusion of grey and blue decorative pillows from her bed, climbed under the duvet, and wriggled into a comfortable sleeping position.

       Thoughts from her shower still in her head, she contemplated some of the moments she’d shared with Jamie over the preceding hours, and wondered how on earth they had managed to squeeze so much into one evening. She felt like she had given and learned so much about herself and about him. Both of them had bared their hearts and their souls, connecting over deep losses that had fractured their hearts and left scars. The scars were fading, but not entirely gone. A reminder that the events that caused them would continue to shape them as people. She mulled over some of the things Jamie had said - and the things he hadn’t said. He hadn’t spoken about his more recent years - other than a brief mention about people thinking they knew the ‘real Jamie’ based on his public persona. He hadn’t spoken at all about his romantic relationships. Maybe he assumed she knew about them, because they played out so publicly. In her Google search that morning, she hadn’t seen anything about a recent or new relationship. She knew that didn’t mean anything - in fact, based on what he had said about protecting his family’s privacy, she wondered if perhaps he had a ‘special someone’, and was fiercely protecting the relationship.

       Yes, she decided, exhaling long and slow, that’s exactly what it was. He was deftly avoiding talking about a special relationship, wanting to keep it in a safe bubble. She couldn’t begrudge him that. After years of Hollywood relationships in the public eye, he deserved some happiness and privacy away from public scrutiny. His flirty teases and that long hug - they were just the signs of a new and budding friendship. She turned onto her side and closed her eyes.

       There’s no way he is single. He’s just not ready to open up about his love life - give him time. You’re destined to be good friends and neighbors, nothing else. He’ll marry her, whoever she is, and you’ll all be good friends. You’ll share recipes, and you’ll have cookouts and 4th of July parties, and you’ll keep an eye on each other’s houses when you're traveling. The twins will nanny their kids when they're home from college - Jamie and his wife will like that. It will all be great. Perfect, in fact. 

       Claire drifted off to sleep, and in the far corners of her mind, she thought she heard the soft strains of … she was so, so tired … floating in the hot tub … crepes tomorrow … did she remember to buy blueberries … ' The first time, ever I saw your face ...'

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

       Jamie turned off the water and leaned back against the shower wall, eyes closed, water dripping off him. He shook his head, wishing he could shake off his thoughts of Claire as easily as he could the water droplets. How was she getting under his skin this quickly - he’d known her for less than two days! Trying to convince himself that the connection he was starting to feel was all about her physical attributes, he stepped out of the shower, and grabbed one of the towels. He pulled on a pair of boxers - a respectful nod to the fact that he was a guest in someone’s home. The last thing he wanted was to be caught naked in some weird middle of the night emergency. He drew the bedcovers down and sprawled in the middle of the bed. Yes, it was definitely down to her looks - and the fact that he was in a self-imposed sex and relationship hiatus for just under six months now.     

       To be 100% accurate, it was really Jenny-imposed, but he was a co-operative participant. And the result of almost six months of abstinence had made him think lustful thoughts in the shower. That’s all it was - he was a man, and men were hard-wired to think of sex multiple times a day, right? It was all about her incredible eyes. He wanted to gaze into them and carefully analyze how the various shades of amber and gold and honey merged to create the unique shade that reminded him of a tiger’s eyes, or whisky, or a sunrise. It was all about her mouth. That lower lip of hers and her habit of biting it when she was deep in thought, or sharing the darkest moments of her life with him. He imagined pulling her into a deep, soulful kiss and gently nibbling and sucking that lower lip of hers, and relishing its soft fullness between his lips. And it was all about that arse. That sweet, perfect arse. It was the perfect amount of roundness and fullness. It would fit so perfectly in his hands. He knew that without a doubt. Ignoring his body’s reaction to his suggestive thoughts, he pulled the bed covers over himself, and turned to lie on his side. 

        Bullshit. It’s not just about her looks, and ye ken it. Why were ye so angry at Frank, that ye had to bite down and control yer words when ye heard how he mistreated her? Why were ye filled with relief when ye learned that her life with Henry was so much better, and that he cherished her as she should be cherished. She’s goddamn beautiful, but that’s not even the half it, ye walloper! Ye're a fucking mess, Fraser! Ye're taken with her warmth, her kindness, her ability to take a difficult situation and make it better. Ye're blown away by her resilience and the way she has bounced back every time life has knocked her down. Ye're impressed with how she’s built a successful life and career for herself. Ye're challenged by her quiet intelligence. And ye're a wee bit envious of her ability to live her best life - despite all the loss and pain. Ye want a part of it, ye want to be in her aura and her space, but she’s at a different point in her life. The life ye lead, the work ye do, and the things that go with it are not for her. Ye shouldna’ try to impose all of that on her. She is someone to be adored and protected by a man who can offer her stability. And safety. Ye'll bring her nothing but trouble and pain. She will be a wonderful friend and neighbor. Ye’ve got to accept it for what it is. Ye’ll get to see her and spend time with her, but it will be on a different level than the one ye’re imagining. Friends and neighbors.

       He inhaled deeply. His breathing slowed into a rhythm that brought him to the verge of sleep and his thoughts jumbled into exhausted, incoherent snippets … wine tasting … her hand in his … crepes for breakfast … “I thought the sun rose in your eyes…”

 

 



Chapter Text


 

     She awoke with a tightness in her chest. Like each of the twins’ birthdays before this one, Claire's thoughts went right back to the stress and angst of their birth. It was always a fleeting thought before she focused on celebrating their special day, and today’s heartache was due more to the fact that she wasn’t bursting into their rooms singing ‘Happy Birthday’ at the top of her lungs and having a hug-pile on one of their beds.     

     Quickly pulling on blue yoga pants and a white linen shirt, she released her hair from its ponytail and subdued most of her curls, rubbing a tiny amount of Argan oil into her palms and over the curls to help the taming process. During her three-minute toothbrush cycle, she let her thoughts wander to Jamie and last night’s revelation - entirely of her own making - that he was nurturing a private relationship and protecting it by keeping it to himself. She reminded herself that 24 hours ago she had stood in this very room admonishing herself to remain professional and maintain a friendly distance. Today, she would need to redouble her efforts. She was determined to regard everything he did and said as entirely platonic. The two of them were squarely in the ‘friend-zone’, as the girls would say.

     And that took her straight back to thoughts of her sweet Ella and Beth. How was their day going in Boston? Had Frank and Kelly made enough of a fuss of them in the morning? Had they showered the girls with love and kisses? She doubted whether Frank had been overly effusive. Kelly, on the other hand, had been fantastic about agreeing to help with Claire’s plans. She had hidden the huge balloon bouquet Claire had ordered and agreed to place it outside their bedroom door. The girls shared a bedroom at Frank and Kelly's, and the balloons would be the first thing they saw when they emerged from their room. Claire had also shipped the girls’ gifts directly to Boston. They would open them during their FaceTime call.  

      Moving quietly in her bare feet between the kitchen island, the pantry, and the fridge, she gathered the ingredients and toppings for the crepes as quietly as possible in an effort to avoid waking Jamie. It had been a late night, and he was only just getting over his jet-lag. She mixed up the batter while two skillets warmed up on the range. Brushing the heated skillets with melted butter, she poured the first two crepes, and while they cooked, she started to prepare the toppings. Within the next twenty minutes she had made about half the crepes and all the toppings were lined up: cinnamon sugar, caramel sauce, sliced bananas, strawberries, blueberries, and lemon juice.     

      Grabbing her iPad, she propped it up on the ledge behind the range and started the FaceTime call. 

      “Squeeee!” she squealed when her girls appeared on the screen. “Happy birthday, sweethearts.”

      “Thanks, Mom,” they smiled together, sporting sparkly, glittered tiaras - clearly a craft project created by their young half siblings. 

      “Oh my, that’s a fun new look. Did Frankie and Lily make those?”

      They nodded together, Ella throwing in an exaggerated eye-roll for good measure.

      “I miss you guys so much. Wish we could be together, but it’s important to spend some birthdays with your father and the littles too.”

      “We know Mom. But we miss you too,” Beth seemed close to tears.

      “Did you get the balloon bouquet?” Claire asked quickly, hoping to stave off tears. 

      “Yes, thanks Mom! I totally called it though. I told Beth last night that there was no way we would not be waking up to your balloons first thing in the morning.”

      “She did! But it was still awesome. Thanks Mom.”

      “Did Kelly give you the gifts from me?”

      They both held up small gift bags in the distinctive color and packaging of Tiffany & Co.

      “We’re soooo excited, Mom. When can we open them?” Ella could barely contain herself.

      “You can open them now if you like.”   

      They didn’t need any more prompting. Both girls dived in and retrieved a small box from layers of tissue and the little Tiffany drawstring bag. They opened their boxes at the same time to reveal their gifts. In perfect harmony, their hands flew to their mouths as they stifled cries of excitement. Ella stood up and jumped up and down in a circle, squealing excitedly. Beth buried her face in her hands and sobbed. 

      She looked up in full ugly cry and said, “I’m so sorry Mom, I’m sorry I’m crying. I just love it so much!”

      Claire had overheard the girls ooh'ing and aah'ing over Tiffany T rings a few weeks back while they were seated at the kitchen island waiting for her to put the finishing touches to their dinner. A Tiffany ad had popped up on their Instagram feed, and they discussed the virtues of the various designs as they swiped through the rings. The only style they agreed on was the T ring. Claire had looked on the Tiffany website later and decided it was perfect for the girls - age-appropriate, not too showy, and quite timeless. It just seemed like the perfect 16th birthday keepsake gift. She immediately ordered the rings - in white gold for Ella and rose gold for Beth.

      “Put them on. Show me. Do they fit well?” They immediately flashed their rings at Claire, nodding their confirmation that both rings were a perfect fit.

      “Great! I’m so glad you like them. The crepes are almost ready, by the way. Let me show you.” She picked up the iPad and took it over to the island where she had set two breakfast settings and arranged the toppings neatly in a cluster between the plates. She swept the iPad around so that the girls could inspect the breakfast set-up.

      “Moooooom! I’m so jealous. Wait! Did you forget the Reddi-Wip?” asked Beth.

      “I kind of skipped that, since it’s only you girls who like it. We’re just going with the basics here.”

      “Who’s ‘we’?” asked Ella, eyebrows raised in question.

      “Are you eating our crepes with the VIP man?” asked Beth. “Oooh, I bet he’ll love them.”

      Claire went back to the range and flipped two more crepes, “Yes, of course I’m sharing the crepes with the guest. I can’t eat all of this on my own.”

      Right on cue, Claire heard a noise behind her, and turned around to see the secret panel leading from the man-cave to the family room opening.

      Jamie was in workout shorts, no shirt, and a small towel thrown over his shoulder - about to emerge from his workout. She widened her eyes at him, silently communicating a warning. He realized immediately that she was on a FaceTime call with her girls, and gave her an apologetic grimace. She held up two fingers and mouthed “two minutes”. He nodded and retreated back into the man-cave quietly and pulled the panel almost shut. She knew that the girls wouldn’t have seen him or her exchange with him from the angle of the iPad, so she continued.

      “Okay girls, we’ll have to get breakfast finished here soon. I’m reviewing student papers and my guest has work to do too.”

      “Wait, Mom. You were going to tell us more about the VIP Man.” Beth looked at her, waiting for Claire to continue.

      “Yeah,” Ella interjected, “since he’s eating my birthday breakfast, can we at least know more? You said he was well-known, and it was all a big secret.”

      Oh God, she hoped he couldn't hear clearly from behind the panel. 

      “Well, you girls know how important it is to maintain confidentiality and privacy. We already talked about it.”

      “Yes, but he’s been there for two days now, and we want to know if you feel okay with it. It’s not, like, weird or anything? He’s not creeping you out or whatever?” 

      “No Beth, I feel perfectly safe. Nothing weird at all.”

      “Can’t you at least tell us what he does? What’s he well-known for? We’re not going to Tik-Tok or Snap about it or anything!”  

      “Is he a big name in business, like Jeff Bezos?” Beth probed.

      “No. Girls, we don’t have time to -”

      “Is he a singer? Like for older people music?”

      “No, Ella,” replied Claire, a little exasperated.

      “An actor?” offered Beth.

      Claire’s eyes widened slightly - she wasn't going to blatantly lie to them. There was a moment of awkward silence as she grasped for a response.

      “Oh my God, he is! He’s an actor!” Ella was way too astute for her own good.

      “Oh!” Beth gasped. “Who is it, Mom?”

      “She can’t say, Beth. You know that! Give us tiny clues mom.”

      “No - I can’t do that, girls. He’ll be down for breakfast in a minute. I have to get going.”

      “Okay, we’ll stop talking when he comes in. Is he cute, mom?” Sweet Beth. 

      “Uh … yes. He is. He’s cute.”

      “Like cute, nice? Or cute, hot?”

      “Ella!” Claire blushed visibly.

      “Mom, you’re all red! He’s hot, right?” Ella turned to her sister, “Yep, he’s a hot one, Beth. Look how Mom’s gone all blushy and shy.”

      “Oh, Mom,” Beth gushed, holding her hands over her heart. “Is he single?”

      “Girls! That’s enough. I really need to get on with breakfast.”

      “Mom, it’s our birthday, you can’t cut us short on our birthday,” argued Ella. “Is he single or not?”

      “Unlikely,” said Claire hoping again that Jamie couldn’t hear this ridiculous conversation, but also aware that girls’ reactions were rather loud and excited. She dropped her voice, “Girls, even if he is single, I’m not int-”

      “Stop Mom! Don’t you say that you’re not interested or that he wouldn't be interested. Mom, you are so beautiful. Ashlee’s dad is like, obsessed with you. He asked me for your cell number way back because he wanted to 'coordinate a pick-up time' when we were over there. I told him he should email you to ask for it. It was so awkward.”

      “Yes, I know, Ella. He emailed me and I gave him my number. For parent-to-parent communication.”

      “Mom, you know Ashlee’s dad is kinda cute - like in a divorced dad way - but is this actor VIP cuter?”

      “Oh my God! Girls! Enough!”

      “Mom, seriouslyyyyy! I hope he’s cute, and I hope you start low-key crushing on each other. It would be perfect.” Beth, ever the romantic, had a dreamy far-away look in her eyes.

      “Yeah, Mom! Perfect!” Ella immediately launched into Ed Sheeran’s hit ballad. ‘I found a love fo-o-or me, Darling, just dive right in, and follow my lead ’.

      Beth was not about to be outdone. “Well, I found a gi-i-irl, beautiful and sweet…”

      “Girls, I love you both so much, but I’m going to send you off to enjoy your day. We’ll FaceTime again tonight, okay? I want to hear all about your day later. Love you both.” She blew them an avalanche of kisses. The girls blew an avalanche back and waved energetically, and before she could end the call, she heard them sing at the top of their voices. "Barefoot on the grass, listening to our favorite song …” 

    

      She stared at the blank iPad for a few seconds. ‘Mortified’ didn't come close to describing how she felt. She wasn’t sure how much Jamie had heard, but she was sure it was enough to annoy him. He probably thought she had revealed his identity to two teenagers, and potentially compromised his privacy. Oh God, Milo would be so mad! His property deal with Jamie was so close to completion - she hoped this wouldn't affect it.      

      She heard the panel open again.   

      Jamie emerged with his T-shirt back on and his face hidden by the towel, which he was using to rub over his face and head. She wondered what his reaction would be. He was usually the perfect gentleman, so she was hoping he wouldn’t yell or get in a huff over it. Maybe he would just politely but firmly ask her to refrain from talking about him to the girls - or anyone else. She would apologize and grovel a little, and all would be good.

       Either way, can you just get it over with? Your outburst. I’m a big girl, I can cope.  

      She stood there waiting for the confrontation. When he finally pulled the towel away, his lips were tightly pressed together, his face was bright red, and getting redder by the second. He was struggling mightily to hold in a laugh. He lost the battle, and let out a snort, and then a hearty laugh started deep in his chest and filled the room. He laughed so hard that he had to lean up against the wall. 

      She looked at him in shock. Then a slow smile started to work its way across her face.

      “It’s not bloody funny!”

      “Ohhh, Sass-” another snort broke free, and he laughed again. He walked towards her with a huge smile and laughing eyes. He composed himself and shook his head slowly. “Oh, aye it is, Sassenach. It's ‘bloody’ hilarious. Oh my God, what I wouldn't give to have seen yer face.”

      She was blushing furiously again, but a giggle broke free, and she laughed with him.

      “They sound like a couple of braw wee lasses, Claire. Congratulations on their 16th birthday. I know that when ye think about this day 16 years ago, it mustn't be easy, but look at them now. Smart, funny ...”

      “Cheeky, sassy, naughty,” Claire supplied.

      “And talented wee singers, too!” he teased.

      “Oh, God,” she groaned. 

      “Ye ken I’m going to milk this for a long time, right?”

      “I imagine you will, you bloody Scot.” She glared at him in mock anger. 

      He chuckled again. “I’m going to dive in the shower, and I’ll be down shortly for breakfast. Those crepes look fantastic.” 

      He backed away from her, eyes fixed on hers, and started humming “Perfect” in a low hum. Successfully dodging the scrunched dish towel that she flung at him, he continued backing his way out of the kitchen, then turned and hummed all the way up the stairs.  

    

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Over breakfast, they discussed catering for the meetings. They had become so engrossed in each other’s stories over the past two evenings, that planning had fallen by the wayside, and Jamie’s meetings were looming.

      “Both meetings are pretty casual, and no one is expecting a fancy served meal. Let’s order in from a restaurant.” Jamie suggested. “Do you have any nearby favorites?”

      “I’ve done a Mediterranean bar a few times, and it always goes over well. You’ll no doubt want to hold the meeting in the covered patio, right?”

      Jamie nodded.

      Claire continued, “We could set the food bar up on the covered patio. Things like pita bread, Greek salad, hummus, baba ganoush, lamb and chicken, fallafel. What do you think?”

      “That sounds like a braw idea. If only so I have an excuse to enjoy the baba ganoush. Did ye know that it means ‘pampered daddy’?”

      Claire chuckled, “I did not know that.”

      “Truly though, I think it sounds great, Claire. Can we stop at a grocery store on the way home from the wineries and stock up on drinks?” She nodded her agreement.

      “Now, for Monday - the big meeting with the studio, and where hopefully, you and Dougal will control yourselves. That’s a whole lot more people - sounded like maybe 15? What I’ve done for larger groups in the past is a street taco bar. I have a favorite barman at the Rainier Club who moonlights at private parties. Julio’s done several parties for me. His wife, Alma, runs a catering company, and I know she’s hurting for business during quarantine. She does an excellent street taco bar. I mean, who doesn't like street tacos? They always work for me as “package deal” - Julio handles the drinks - he’ll serve, clear away, make cocktails - whatever you want. He also helps Alma set up and serve. It’s pretty slick, and no one will have to lift a finger.”

      “That sounds fantastic! Let’s do that. Will they be available on such short notice?”

      “I’ll call him right away. It’ll take me 10, maybe 20 minutes to set this all up. Feel free to grab a latte and more crepes. Any known food sensitivities in these groups?”

      “One vegetarian, as I recall, otherwise nothing that I can think of.”

      She stepped out to the patio to plan the catering and provide all the information the restaurant and caterer would need. By the time she re-entered the kitchen 25 minutes later, she had confirmed catering details for both meetings.

      “All done. We are good to go for tomorrow and Monday.”

      In her absence, Jamie had cleaned up, loaded the dishwasher, placed leftovers in containers in the fridge and made them each a latte. 

      “Thank you, Claire, I am truly indebted.”

      “Thank you for the latte. You’ve certainly mastered the foaming,” she eyed her well-frothed mug. “We have a few hours to kill before the wineries, and I need to review some papers. Still have about 11 of them to go. I’m going to work out on the patio - let me know if you need anything. We should leave here at around noon for our patio reservation.”

      “No problem, I’ll be ready.”

      “I also wanted to remind you that the house cleaner will be here while we’re out. She’s agreed to do your laundry, so don’t forget to toss it in the hamper.”   

      “Ah, that’s fantastic, Sassenach! Is it okay to leave her a wee tip with a note of thanks in my room?”

      “Of course - that’s really thoughtful Jamie. Her name is Liv.”

      “Great - I’ll square away the rest of the expenses for her services with ye later, aye?”

      “No worries. Okay - I’m off to the patio to work,” she smiled. “See you back here at noon.”

        

 



Chapter Text


      A little before 11:00 a.m., Claire gathered her laptop and papers and headed indoors to get ready for the winery trip. As she walked towards the stairs, she could hear Jamie still on a call in the study. It had been an early, busy morning with the twins’ birthday breakfast and the hasty planning for Jamie’s meetings. Since she hadn’t had time to shower first thing after waking up, she took a quick shower as soon as she got upstairs, and then set about managing her hair and getting it dry enough to style with a curling wand. Giving her hair a few minutes to cool down after blasting it with a dryer, she pulled a few dresses from her closet to review her options. It was warm and sunny - perfect weather for a summery dress. She decided on a cream and blue floral dress with fluttery cap sleeves and a scooped neckline. Setting it aside, she returned to the bathroom to curl her hair into softer waves like Armando had taught her. She had become quite proficient at softer beachy waves during isolation. Applying her makeup in natural shades of mocha and cocoa, she added earrings and a spritz of Marc Jacobs Daisy and then slipped on her dress. It was bias cut and hugged her body, gently flaring to a few inches above her knees, the soft skirt teasing flirtatiously around her legs when she moved. She paired it with a pair of block-heeled Botkier sandals in cobalt, and pulled the look together with a soft tan Michael Kors purse.   

      Jamie was in the kitchen leaning against the island, checking his texts. Looking up as she walked in, he pushed off the counter and stood straight up, taking her in from head to toe. He let out a low whistle that roused her butterflies from their slumber. 

      She smiled, “You don’t look so bad yourself … uh, in fact, we look a little coordinated here.” 

      He was wearing light tan chinos with a lapis blue shirt that matched the blues in her floral print, and soft beige Derby shoes. His stubble was starting to turn to scruff and he looked breathtakingly sexy. She hoped he kept his scruff a little longer, although she knew that he looked just as handsome clean-shaven. Right now, he looked like the movie star he was, and Claire wished her butterflies would settle down. He grabbed a baseball cap and sunglasses off the counter, and she recognized them for what they were - the standard disguise of celebrities trying to avoid recognition. Her heart squeezed a little in empathy. How vexing to always have to prepare for the possibility of being spotted and attracting unwanted attention. Spontaneity must be a precious and rare commodity in the life of a movie star.

      “Do you want me to keep those in my purse?” she asked, and he gratefully passed the cap to her. 

      “Thank you, Claire. I’ll probably need the sunglasses in the car.”    

      In the garage, Claire led him towards her SUV, but he stopped in the farthest stall to admire the Tesla Model S Performance. It had been Henry’s pride and joy - purchased only months before his diagnosis. Claire didn’t drive it very often, but she occasionally took it out ‘to put it through its paces’, as Henry used to say. 

      “This is on my list,” said Jamie running his hand lightly over the rear of the car. “I have been in a regular Tesla a few times, but never a Performance model. I hear the acceleration is insane.”

      “Ludicrous Mode,” said Claire, nodding. “Yes. Scared the bejeezus out of me the first few times. Let’s take it today.” She took the Tesla key from the hook while Jamie disengaged the charger cable and held the driver’s door open for her, before moving around to the passenger seat.      

     They chatted easily during the drive. Claire, a confident driver, was not at all fazed by the winding mountain roads and tight hairpin bends of the route that would bring them to Woodinville. She desperately wanted to address the FaceTime incident from that morning - needing to reassure him that she had not broken his confidence or told her girls anything that would put him at risk.

      “Jamie, I-”, she started, and then stopped abruptly.

       He turned to look at her, and frowned a little at her hesitance. “What is it, Sassenach?”

      “I .. uh … I wanted to let you know that at no time have I revealed your identity to my girls. I had to let them know that Uncle Milo’s client was staying with us because of the issue with CHAZ.”

      “Dinna fash, Claire. I know you would never do that. Of course you had to tell them ye had a guest at the house. Imagine I accidentally walked past you during a FaceTime call? They would be wondering who I was. Don’t give it another thought, Claire. I trust ye completely.”

      She shot him a quick smile and released a sigh of relief.

      He chuckled. “I canna believe that was stressing you out, Claire. I’m more fashed about ‘Ashlee’s dad’, honestly. Does the hot, divorced dad have good intentions, or is he going to keep obsessing over you?” He had a teasing grin on his face, but there was a subtle undercurrent of ... something. She couldn't quite put a finger on it. 

      She shook her head and giggled a little. “My girls are not shy about trying to find me decent male suitors. It’s the weirdest thing, most girls their age are grossed out even thinking about the traumatizing possibility that their parents might be having sex. My girls feel nothing of the sort. They text me screenshots and links to sexy dresses and shoes and … lingerie. Most of them horribly unsuitable, I might add.”

      “Hmmm. If you hand me yer phone, I can do some quality control over some of their choices if ye like. But be warned, I’ve a feeling I might approve most of them.”

      “Of course you would!”

      “Truly, Claire, it’s really special and sweet how much they care about you and yer happiness. l look forward to meeting them soon.”

      “They would be thrilled to meet you - unfortunately, your travel schedules don’t align this time. But they will no doubt enjoy having you as a neighbor.”

      “That reminds me - Milo called while you were getting dressed. The sellers have made me a counter-offer. Not a terrible one, at that. I told Milo to do what it takes to seal the deal. I know he will represent me well.”

      “Yes he will. He is a brilliant negotiator and knows his game really well,” confirmed Claire, pulling into a parking spot at Columbia Wineries.    

       Jamie came around to the driver side door and held it open for Claire. Holding out a hand, he gently helped her out of the car, releasing a few more butterflies in the process. She had been around many educated, polite men in her life - Henry included - but never had she experienced this level of chivalry and attentiveness. It made her feel noticed and appreciated, and was more than a little intoxicating. They put on their face-masks and walked up the steps to the patio. Jamie had placed his hand gently on the small of her back, and as unexpected as that was, it also felt so right. 

       She turned to him quickly, “Do you need your cap?”

       He shook his head slightly. “Let’s see who we have here first.” He had become adept at reading a room - or patio, in this instance. He knew his fan-bases and their demographics, and today’s patio patrons didn’t seem to worry him at all. There were only about a dozen or so people at tables placed at the requisite distance from each other. “The face-masks are the best disguise right now, but if I need the cap when we take them off, I’ll let you know.”

      When the hostess approached them, Claire asked for a table close to the breezeway, as it was less populated, and had less foot traffic. Once seated, they were able to remove their masks and chat comfortably. Jamie looked around casually, but all the patrons were minding their own business, and he relaxed visibly. They decided to try the white wines at Columbia, and would focus on reds at La Ville’s tasting room. She noticed that Jamie was very interested in everything about the wines - he asked their server a series of questions - about grape-picking, oaked or unoaked wines, filtering, bottling - his questions revealed a decent knowledge of the wine business, and this was not altogether surprising, given their chat on the stone patio the previous night when he revealed a pending transaction in the wine business. Claire wondered if he was collaborating with a winery to create an exclusive wine for Lallybroch. Jamie seemed keen to find out all he could about the whites, and took a genuine interest in the server’s answers. She, in turn, was only too delighted to share her knowledge with someone who knew something about the business.     

       They both ordered paninis and salad for lunch, and their conversation remained light and neutral while they ate. They spoke laughingly about their best and worst vacations, sharing horror stories and highlights. They admitted to their most embarrassing TV show obsessions and what they binge-watched. 

       “You do not watch ‘90-Day Fiancee’!” Claire teased him mercilessly.

       “Shhhh!” he joked, holding his forefinger up to his lips.

       “Full disclosure,” Claire was blushing slightly. “I watched Clan Hearts twice. Back-to-back.” He raised his eyebrow, and fixed her with an intense look.

       “What did you like about it so much?” he asked casually.

       “I loved seeing the lengths that Hamish went to for Aileen. There were scenes that were so incredibly intense that I found myself barely breathing, wondering how they would possibly survive. He said the most beautifully romantic things to her. And did the most romantic things too. Plus, the leading man was fairly decent-looking.” She looked at him with a teasing smirk.

       “Oh he was, was he? I’ve heard he’s a right twat.” Jamie smiled at her, and then focused his gaze a few inches to her left. Their server was approaching the table, and he watched as she came and stood at the required distance away from their table, nervously plucking at her black pants with a restless hand. “Excuse me - I’m so sorry to bother you.”

       Claire’s eyes widened at him and he answered with a slight eyebrow raise. 

       “Here we go - one of your fans no doubt,” Claire muttered under her breath so that only Jamie heard it. 

       They turned to look at the server, their expressions neutral, not wanting to encourage a fan moment in any way.

       “Uhhh … aren’t you Dr. Beauchamp from UDub? Fulton Business School?”

       Claire looked stunned for a moment. Then she straightened up and bristled, and the color seemed to drain from her face.

       “Claire?” Jamie began, but she raised her hand slightly to let him know it was OK.

       She turned back to the young server and said, “Yes. Yes, I am. And I would very much -”

      “OMG, I knew it! I wanted you to know that I am so grateful to you for the way you handled the whole #PILF thing a few years back. The way you stood up for yourself and for women everywhere ... it … it gave all of us a voice. Anyone who has ever been objectified and then tormented for it and roasted on social media. You gave us all the strength and confidence to fight back. My ‘Girl Up‘ group in high school made t-shirts that said “I stand with Doc. B”, and because of you, I am doing my Masters in Women’s Studies when I’m done with my undergrad. So, thank you. Thank you from so many women who drew strength from your experience. Again, I’m so sorry to disturb your lunch. Thank you for listening.” 

      She scurried off to attend to another table.

      “Are you okay, Claire?” Jamie reached over and took one of her hands between both of his. 

      “I’m fine,” she said, still a little shaken. “I was a little startled - it’s been a long time …”

      “What was that all about? I haven't seen ye this agitated.” 

      “It’s a long story,” said Claire.

      “Claire,” he began sternly. “You said that before, and I didn't like it much then either. Please don’t shut me out.” He was still holding her hand and started to stroke his thumb across the back of her hand, eyes never leaving hers.

      “Ok,” she exhaled. “A few years ago, right after I received my doctorate, I ran into three students at my gym. It was a large gym in Bellevue, Galaxy Fitness. Henry had been a member there for years. High-end, but a lot of my students come from wealthy families, so I wasn’t all that surprised to see them at Galaxy. I was working out in proper gym gear, yoga pants and a short-sleeve tee. The students saw fit to take pictures of me working out, and before you know it the pictures were all over campus, and other parts of Seattle, and #PILF was trending.”

      “PILF?” Jamie cocked his head quizzically. 

      “Uh .. you’ve heard the term MILF?” He nodded. “Well, the P is for Professor.”

      “Oh, Claire,” he groaned, and the muscles in his jaw moved. He shook his head. “Christ! How did that all play out?”

      “It was excruciating. It hit the mainstream media in Seattle, and was painfully embarrassing for Henry and me. He was Professor Emeritus by then and on the board of directors for a handful of companies. The Business School leadership was furious - it’s one the top business schools on the West Coast, so to have this awfully embarrassing situation where one of the lecturers is plastered all over social media in awkward pictures  - they were desperate to shut it all down. Henry and I were called into top-level meetings - he was a valuable member of their faculty and they wanted him involved in trying to find a solution. There were some comments made about putting me on administrative leave for a few weeks until the whole thing blew over. Guess they didn’t want me around campus making things worse. Henry lost his shit - I’ve never seen him so angry. He was incensed that they would immediately put the responsibility on the female, rather than on the young men who created the situation. Henry’s business contacts were huge donors to UDub generally, and Fulton in particular, and even though he never brought that up, UDub knew they had to do some damage control or risk losing donors - especially in the midst of the ‘MeToo’ movement."

      She took in a deep steadying breath, and he pressed her hand gently in encouragement.

      "They brought in a crisis management team who met with me right away. I told them exactly how I felt, and they used that as the basis for their strategy. Basically, the message was that it was not okay to keep pointing fingers at women for the poor behavioral choices of men. Henry and I did an interview with King 5, our local news station, all orchestrated by the crisis team. There was a huge outpouring of support for me - the ‘I stand with Doc. B’ thing that the server mentioned trended for about a month. UDub suspended all three boys, but they were vilified on social media and quickly transferred out of state. Of course Fulton came out looking golden for ‘handling it so well’. Anyway, it’s all water under the bridge now, and they have treated me with kid gloves ever since. And honestly - I feel good about being a positive role model for young women. I feel awful that I was so rude to the server - I didn’t even thank her for her kind words.”   

      “That’s why Henry set up a wee home gym for ye?” 

      She nodded, recalling how she had almost blundered while showing him around the house on Monday night. 

      Jamie placed a gentle kiss on the back of her hand, and then turned it over and placed another kiss on her wrist. He inhaled the soft perfume there, and she realized she was holding her breath, and then the moment was broken by the appearance of the awkward server with their bill. Claire smiled warmly at her, and Jamie immediately reached for the folder and settled up swiftly. 

     “You can leave a wee note for the server here, if ye like.” He turned the invoice over, slid it across to Claire, and in the blank space, she wrote “Find your voice and never be afraid to use it. Thank you for your kind words today. Doc B.”

      As Jamie enclosed her note in the black folder together with his signed credit card slip, she noticed that he had left the server a $500 tip.

    

      After picking up her club wines, Jamie carried the sturdy box back to the car for her, placing it in the trunk before opening her car door to help her in. It was a short drive to the next winery. La Ville Wineries had just built a beautiful new facility in Woodinville - a multi-story building with a series of tasting rooms and event areas. There was a rooftop patio that would undoubtedly become a fan-favorite when pandemic restrictions were finally lifted. Jamie asked the hostess several questions about the facility and its design. He was interested in the reasoning behind each area. La Ville boasted several intimate tasting rooms for groups ranging from two to twenty and Claire had reserved a two-person room, an elite member privilege. Removing their masks, they sat side-by-side on the small leather sofa. Their wine specialist brought in their glasses and some crackers, along with a printed sheet of tasting notes. She poured a sample into each of their glasses, gave them a run-down on the wine, and then left the room. Jamie scooted closer to Claire so that they could read the tasting notes together. In the small, intimate space, she was keenly aware of Jamie’s sheer size as they sat shoulder to shoulder, his leg pressed against hers, completely and comfortably in her space. She could smell the lingering fresh, slightly spicy aroma of the YSL shower gel she had placed in his bathroom. She smiled slightly at that and inhaled deeply. They swirled and sipped the small wine sample, penciling notes on the sheet in case they wanted to buy a few bottles later.

      As their server brought in the next few wine samples, they continued to sip and critique the wines, adding more notes to their tasting sheet. They spent some time chatting about various wine clubs that Claire belonged to, which ones she preferred, and why. Jamie listened attentively and asked pertinent questions, clearly appreciating her perspective as a wine lover and club member. All the while, they worked their way through the wine samples, and Claire was starting to feel the effects of the alcohol as a slight giddiness set in.  

      “Jamie, I think I need to scale back on the wine. It’s starting to go to my head and I have to drive home.”

      “Dinna fash, Claire. I can drive us home. Or, if necessary, we’ll Uber, but I weigh a lot more than you, so my blood alcohol is well below the limit. I want you to relax and enjoy the afternoon. It’s been a while since anyone has been able to enjoy an outing. And if I can be selfish for a minute, I’m loving this facility and the way they run their club and tasting rooms.” He leaned close to her ear, and said in a low voice “I’m doing some industry research ye ken, scoping out the competition.” His deep, low voice and warm breath in her ear, coupled with the proximity of so much of his body was doing things to her that she really didn’t want to think about too much.

      She turned to him laughing, "Aaah - so this is an information-gathering outing! Can I be your research assistant?”      

      He picked up his wine glass and turned his body to face her a little more, extending his arm along the back of the sofa behind her. She turned to face him too, tucking one leg under her, her other leg almost touching his. Their thigh contact was broken when they shifted but the connection between them felt more intimate now than it had before.  

      “Ye’ve not been interviewed yet for the position of research assistant, Ms. Beauchamp. Can you tell me about yer credentials and experience?”

      Emboldened by the effects of the wine, she looked directly into his eyes for a long moment. “Well, I know my way around wines. I can speak intelligently about slowly enjoying a robust red with a long, smooth finish.” 

      “And ye like this robust red ... with a long, smooth finish, aye?”

      “Yes, I find it perfectly agreeable.”

      “Mm-hmm.” That low rumbling sound of his went straight to her core. 

      Every. Single. Time. 

      “What else can you tell me about yer wine knowledge?”

      “I’m quite partial to wild fermentation. I find I quite enjoy the rougher finish … occasionally.”

      “Mm-hmm … continue, please …”

      He had started to play with her hair.

     “Uh … Mr. Fraser, I’m not sure that’s appropriate behavior for interviewing candidates.”

      “It’s part of assessing yer suitability, Ms. Beauchamp. I need to determine whether yer curls might entangle themselves in the vines when we’re out closely inspecting the vineyards. Liability for me, ye ken?” His hand slid under the mass of soft waves and his fingers started to lightly stroke the delicate skin at the back of her neck. She bit her lower lip, and forced herself to ignore the explosion of butterflies. He narrowed his eyes, and his hand drifted deliberately and gently over her shoulder and around her neck, fingers trailing over the soft skin above her collarbone, until the tip of his forefinger rested briefly in the hollow of her throat. His fingertip traced a slow, slow path over her throat, under her jaw, past her chin, and paused in the little hollow just below her mouth. She was startled by the intensity of her response to him. A dull, tingly ache started low in her abdomen, and threatened to move lower if he continued along this tantalizing path. He dropped his eyes to her lips, and murmured something softly in Gaelic. His thumb moved over her mouth, gently prying her lower lip from between her teeth. He stroked her lower lip, taking in its soft fullness. Time seemed to slow to a halt in the room, and Claire was only vaguely aware of the noises outside their tasting room. The odd wine glass chink, light laughter, heels clicking on the wood floors. Slowly the noises faded out, until she could only hear herself breathing. She felt her reaction to his caresses in the warmth between her thighs, and wondered fleetingly if he had any idea how much she wanted him to kiss her at that moment. The tip of his thumb moved gently across the inner edge of her top lip, lightly brushing over her teeth. Inhibitions cast aside, she closed her lips around his thumb and allowed her tongue to tentatively touch its tip. She grazed him gently with her teeth, eyes fixed on his.

      “Claire,” he breathed. Slowly … so, so slowly, he moved towards her, his lips coming within inches of hers, searching her eyes for any hesitation. His warm, wine-scented breath mingled with hers, and they moved towards each other, inexorably, unstoppably …

      “Oh! Excuse me. Uh, Dr. Beauchamp, we have an invitation for you.” Their server entered and stood at the table, blushing awkwardly. Claire and Jamie moved apart quickly and turned to face her. 

      “I’m sorry, what?” Claire asked brightly, with an overly friendly smile. 

      “We’re releasing some limited edition wines, and there’s a series of small quarantine-friendly launch parties next week. Here are the details - just call us if you’re interested in attending one.”

      “Thank you, I will.” Claire took the proffered invitation. “Uhhh ... I think we’re all done here,” she glanced at Jamie who nodded in agreement. “Can I collect my club wines downstairs on the way out?”

      After loading the box of La Ville wines in the trunk, Jamie opened the passenger door, helped Claire in, and then settled into the driver seat. He adjusted the seat for his height, and Claire showed him how to save his seat preferences on the car’s touchscreen. He noticed that there were two other driver-seat profiles - Henry and Claire. It was a sobering reminder to Jamie that she wasn’t his to take. She had been through too much loss and pain in her life, and for him to impose his lifestyle and the havoc it might wreak on her world was unthinkable - especially in light of what she had shared over lunch - the awful situation with Fulton. The near-kiss in the tasting room was a mistake, and he needed to control himself a lot better.    

      Ye’re making it difficult for me, Sassenach. But oh, God, being that close to ye was heaven. You biting yer wee lip and teasing me with yer sexy wine talk. I know ye felt it too, but we’re both going to have to back down. Friends and neighbors. For now. 

      They drove in silence for a few miles, Jamie getting used to the slightly different way the Performance Tesla handled. Once he got the hang of it, he relaxed into it and asked Claire if she would find a good playlist. He thought that some music might provide a welcome distraction from the slight awkwardness that hung between them after the tasting room. He hoped she wasn’t offended or embarrassed by it - they had both been so caught up in the moment. But she was the first to dispel the awkwardness in the car.

      “That was a fun outing - disappointed that I didn't get the job as your research assistant, though.” She was tapping on the touchscreen, looking for music.

      “I might have to bring you back for a second interview.”

      Jesus, Fraser, you didn't even last five minutes before getting right back to the flirting. Ye’re a feckin’ numpty!

      “I’m on an 80s music kick right now. Is that OK?”

      “Aye, I love some of those oldies too.

      “This is one of my favorites.” The instantly recognizable first bars of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ had both of them responding to the music right away.

      “Crank that up, Sassenach, and sing with me.”

       Claire notched the volume up, and they commenced their loud and methodical butchering of the song.

                          🎶 Just a small town girl

                          Livin’ in a lonely world

                          She took the midnight train going’ anywhere

                          Just a city boy

                          Born and raised in South Detroit

      Jamie reached across and pressed pause.

      “Do Americans pronounce it Detroit, or Detroi?” he asked.

      “Detroit. Hard ‘t’.”

 

      “Then why didn’t Journey come up with a city that rhymes with 'boy?’

      “I don’t know. Just sing, you ridiculous human being.”

      Unpause.

                          A singer in a smoky room

                          The smell of wine and cheap perfume

      Pause.

      “He should have been in our tasting room. No cheap perfume in there. My Sassenach is a classy gal.”

      Unpause.            

                          For a smile they can share the night

                          It goes on and on and on and on

      She hadn’t quite recovered from “my Sassenach”, and missed a few beats, but recovered quickly. They went outrageously loud in the chorus.

                          Strangers waitin’

                          Up and down the boulevard

      Pause.

      “Where do you think this boulevard is, Sassenach? What city?”

      “Uhhhh - I’m going to guess Broadway, New York. You? 

      “Las Vegas.”

      Unpause.            

                          Their shadows searchin’ in the ni-i-ight

                          Streetlights, people

                          Livin’ just to find emotion

                          Hidin’ somewhere in the night

                          Workin' hard to get my fill

                          Everybody wants a thrill

 

                          Payin' anything to roll the dice just one more time.

      Pause.

      “See, I told ye. It’s Vegas. They’re rolling dice and gambling.”

      Unpause.

                          Some will win, some will lose

                          Some were born to sing the blue        

                          Oh, the movie never ends

                          It goes on and on, and on, and on              

      Pause.

      “Wait a minute. Can I change my answer - he’s singing about a never ending movie. It’s got to be Hollywood Boulevard.”

      “You cannot change your answer. Too late. And if you pause again, I’ll thump you. Now sing, you bloody Scot!”

      Unpause.

                          Strangers waiting

                          Up and down the boulevard

                          Their shadows searching

                          In the ni-i-ight

                          Streetlights people

                          Livin' just to find emotion

                          Hidin' somewhere in the night

                          Don't stop believin'

                          Hold on to that feelin'

                          Streetlights, people ....

       “You went badly off key - completely ruined the song,” he teased.

      “I ruined the song? I ruined the song? You kept pausing it, threw off the rhythm completely.”

      “Good thing I’m not a singer of ‘old people music’ then, aye?”

      “Oh boy! You did warn me you were going to milk it.” She shook her head ruefully - he now had a wealth of Ella and Beth quotes to torment her with.

      “Claire, can I ask ye something?” He sounded serious, so she turned the volume down.

      “Of course.”

      “When you FaceTime the girls tonight … would it be alright if I said hi? I know they were messing around a bit this morning, and it was a good laugh. But deep down they are concerned for ye, because they love you so very much. I want to reassure them that I am a decent guy. Anytime you mention ‘actor’, people get a stereotype in their mind right away. I don’t want them to have that in their thoughts. I’m not like that at all, Claire, as ye know, and if we’re to be neighbors, I want them to know that. I want them to know that while I’m in their home, their Mam is safe and I will be respectful and honorable.”

      Claire swallowed hard. He was so incredibly thoughtful and genuine and kind and considerate. So different from any man she had met. “I think that would be lovely, Jamie. Thank you for even thinking of that.”

      “Aye, of course! Let me know when we’re close to a grocery store - we’re picking up drinks for the meetings, remember?”

      “Actually, we’re not far off now. We’re almost in Redmond - home of Microsoft, so the traffic may get somewhat heavier now. There’s a great curry restaurant there - you up for take-out tonight?”

  

       A half hour later, Jamie was negotiating the hairpin bends on the way back to Claire’s home. The trunk was full of wine, beer, a range of spirits and mixers, and a selection of his favorite whisky.

      “That curry smells so good! I’m starving all of a sudden,” Claire groaned. “Let’s eat right away, and we can FaceTime after that.”

        

 



Chapter Text


 

     “You were right - that is really good naan and biryani! And yer mango lassi too - I’m sorry I downed so much of it.” He smiled sheepishly. “I’ll help ye clear up.”

     They had arrived home two hours earlier and unloaded the trunk, putting away all the drinks so they’d have the rest of the evening free to enjoy dinner and the FaceTime session with the girls. It was a perfect Seattle summer day, and they ate on the patio, pairing their meal with one of the club wines from La Ville. They chatted comfortably about inconsequential things - moments from their childhood and schooling, favorite ice-cream flavor, whether they preferred Mission Impossible or The Bourne series - little nuggets of information that filled in blanks here and there as they learned more and more about each other.

      They cleared up quickly, leaving their wine glasses and remaining wine on the patio table.

      “Are you ready to FaceTime?”

      He hesitated. “Ehm - okay. Aye - I think so. Wait! Let me wash my hands.”  

      He seemed uncertain all of a sudden, almost reluctant, and Claire wondered if he regretted asking to meet the girls. Maybe he had been a teeny bit buzzed on wine when he suggested it, and now it didn't seem like such a good idea. 

      “Jamie, if you would prefer to do it another time -”

      “No! No, Claire - I want to do it. To be honest, I’m just a wee bit nervous.”

      Her eyes widened. “Nervous! Why?” She was quite taken aback. Jamie Fraser, heartthrob and celebrity, who appeared before hundreds and even thousands of strangers at panel interviews, meet 'n greets, and awards ceremonies, was nervous of meeting two teenagers? Over a video call?

      “I don’t know! I guess I really want them to like me. And for them to know that their Mam is safe with me here.”

      “Jamie,” she said softly, “they will like you. Just relax and be yourself. I’ll be right here. Let me start the chat and I’ll let them know they’ll be meeting you. Then you can come and say hi. If anything gets uncomfortable or awkward, nudge my foot and I’ll find a way for you to ease out.” Jamie nodded, his face serious and thoughtful.

      Claire sat at the end of the kitchen island and tapped the FaceTime icon. As soon as the girls appeared on the screen, they were brimming with excitement and blew her an avalanche of kisses. The kisses quickly morphed into heart hands, with the girls wanting to show Claire that they were wearing their new rings. She returned their kisses and heart hands enthusiastically, while Jamie watched from across the island, a slight smile on his face. 

      “How was your day? Tell me everything.”

      “Frankie and Lily baked us cupcakes,” Beth began.

      “They were pretty good, but way too much frosting,” Ella whispered the last part conspiratorially.

      “Dad said we could have anything for dinner, so we got Chipotle.”

      “Sounds yummy,” said Claire, smiling - she knew how much they enjoyed their burrito bowls.

      “Dad gave us tickets to Khalid for his November show in Seattle. I hope we’re not still quarantining,” Ella grumbled.

      “Well that all sounds great. Seems like you had a fun day, and that makes me so happy. Girls, I wanted to -”

      “Mom, how come you’re wearing that dress? And your hair looks so pretty. Where have you been?”

      Oh, Beth!

      “Uh, I went to Woodinville for lunch and to pick up some club wines.”

      “Wait - wearing that dress? Whenever we suggest that you wear it, you say it’s too sexy for the occasion. What was the occasion today?” asked Ella.

      Claire pressed her lips together and shook her head in disbelief that this was happening again.        

      “Mom!” Beth was whisper-shouting dramatically. “Did the actor VIP go with you to Woodinville?”

      “Well, yes, but -”

      “Oh my God!” the girls said in unison, and then stared at each other wide-eyed.

      Claire slid a look at Jamie. He was leaning up against the counter, arms folded across his chest, shoulders shaking in a silent laugh. She subtly gave him the stink-eye and looked back at the girls, who were still freaking out. 

      “Ashlee’s Dad will legit die. Was it a date, date?” Ella asked.      

      “No! He very kindly came along, and he came to, uh, you know, enjoy the wine, and we went to Woodinville, and went to ... uh ... taste wine, and we went there to pick up wine.” 

      She was messing this up badly. 

      Taking a deep breath, she tried again. “Girls, I want you to say hi to him. Is that okay? You don't have to have a long chat or anything, but I know you were worried about me here with a relative stranger. He is really a nice man, and I want you to see that. He wants to meet you too. It’s still confidential, though. You can’t share this with anyone, okay?” She looked at them sternly.

      “Of course, Mom,” they replied in stereo, equally serious. “Pinky swear.”

      “Okay.” She looked at Jamie, nodding encouragingly.

      He exhaled through pursed lips and walked over to perch on the stool next to Claire. He was now in the girls’ line of vision. Breaking into a wide smile, and looking quite adorable in his nervousness, he waved at the girls as they waved back at him.  

      “Hi girls. I’m Jamie Fraser. Happy 16th birthday! It’s good to meet you - yer Mam has spoken so much about you, so I feel like I know you a little bit.”

      The girls gasped audibly - eyes wide as they looked at each other in shock. 

      “OMG, Jamie Fraser is going to be our neighbor!”

      “He has a real accent!” They were still talking directly to each other.

      “Girls!” Claire began, but Jamie carefully moved his hand onto her knee under the counter and gave it a little squeeze, letting her know it was okay. 

      “Sorry! I’m Ella, and this is Beth. Welcome to the neighborhood - or almost. Whenever the deal is done.”

      “Thank you! I promise to be a good neighbor - no crazy parties." he said to the girls. “But I will need a favor." The girls nodded energetically. “Yer Mam tells me you’re both great athletes. I’m going to need one or both of you to help me with some basketball skills. I tried out yer court yesterday morning, and it took me about four minutes before I finally netted one.”

      “For real?” Ella asked. Jamie nodded. “Even Mom can do it in less time than that.”

      “Did you just roast me? And yer Mam?” He asked playfully. 

      Both girls giggled and Ella said, “Yah, we did. Roasteeeed!” 

      “How long are you staying at our house?” asked Beth.

      “About another week and a half. I have a lot of meetings and things to work on while I’m here, so it’ll be a busy time.”

      “It’s awesome that Mom has someone in the house with her. We knew she would be lonely without us, and harder with the quarantine restrictions,” Beth continued.

      “Will we meet you in person when we get back?” 

      Claire answered. “No, Ella, Mr. Fraser will be gone by the time you get back. You miss him by two days.”

      “That’s right,” Jamie corroborated. “I need to be in L.A. that week. But if things go well with the offer to purchase the property next door, I’ll be back quite soon.”

      “Will you be working on a movie when you’re in L.A.?” asked Ella.

      “In a way, yes. I’ll be doing some voice work for a movie that’s in post-production. We needed to add some dialogue lines, and tidy up some other things.”

      “That sounds so cool! Did you take acting classes at school?” asked Beth.

      “Aye, I went to a performing arts school, so a lot of my classes prepared me for my career.”

      “I might do a drama elective next school year,” said Ella. “Beth and I were both in the spring musical, and loved it. It would be fun to do it all year.”

      “Well, I can tell you that taking drama classes really helps with yer confidence, thinking on yer feet, decision-making, collaboration, and critical thinking. It’s a lot more involved than people might think.” 

      “You might both want to consider a drama elective,” suggested Claire. “Those are all valuable life-skills that Mr Fraser just listed. Okay girls, you can chat again another time. Have a great night, and I’ll see you tomorrow. Happy birthday again! And I love you so much!” She blew them the customary avalanche of kisses.

      “Love you too mom,” they said in stereo again.

      “Bye Mr. Fraser,” they smiled, waving.

      “Goodnight girls. It was lovely meeting you.”

      She and Jamie looked at each other, smiling broadly.

      “I thought that went well. What did ye think, Claire?”

      Claire’s smile wavered, and she felt suddenly and inexplicably emotional. She bit her lower lip to try and regain control, but her chin wobbled a little, and she quickly got up and went over to the sink, apparently overcome by a sudden need to wash her hands. But Jamie had seen her chin tremble, and he suspected that the emotion of not being with her girls on their milestone birthday had finally caught up with her. He got up, walked over to the sink and gently wrapped his arms around her from behind. He nuzzled his face in her soft hair and inhaled the fragrance of her shampoo. Slowly, she turned around so that she was facing him. Burying her face in his shirt, she wrapped her arms around him and let the tears flow. He held her, his face buried in her hair, and allowed her warm tears to seep through his shirt to the skin beneath. He stroked her hair gently, over and over again, and spoke some soothing words in Gaelic. Eventually she sniffled and sighed, and he reached for some paper towels and gently wiped her tears with one, and gave her another so she could wipe her nose. 

      “I’m sorry," she whispered.

      “Don’t be sorry. I ken why ye’re crying, and there’s no need to be sorry.”

      “That’s two evenings in a row you’ve held me like this and comforted me. Sorry about your shirt.”

      “Shhhh. Both evenings have called for a little extra … something. I’m glad you found me to be a comfort.”

      “Thank you, Jamie. And to answer your earlier question, yes, I think it went very well with the girls. They like you - you connected on their level, and they appreciated that. I must look a mess. Let’s change into something comfy and head outside for sun-downers. Or did you have something else planned?”

      “There’s nothing I’d rather do tonight than hang out on the patio with ye.” 

      “You are quite the charmer tonight, Mr. Fraser. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve changed.”

      “Do you need any help getting out of yer 'sexy dress'?” He waggled his brows teasingly.

      “I think I’ll manage, but thanks for the offer.” 

       Bloody Scot!

      

      Claire splashed her face with cool water and lightly repaired the damage caused by her tears. Her mind drifted to the near-kiss, and she berated herself for coming so close. She still wasn’t sure of Jamie’s relationship status, but assuming he was indeed involved with someone, she would never have forgiven herself if they had kissed. Their level of intimacy in the tasting room was unacceptable for someone in a committed relationship. She tried to avoid judging, but it worried her that Jamie insisted he was not the typical Hollywood celebrity, yet his behavior fit the stereotype of the celebrity womanizer. Messing around with someone else's man was something she would not be a part of. She had been scarred by Frank’s infidelities, and thinking of Jamie doing anything approaching that was troubling. 

      But you know none of that aligns with what you've learned about him in the past couple of days. This man who takes your hand when you're stressed, holds you when you need to cry, generously tips a server who made your day, wants to reassure the girls that he's one of the good guys, opens doors for you, teases you, and makes you laugh. 

      She was so confused and torn. Shaking her head to chase out her tangled thoughts, she pulled on black yoga pants and a lightweight long-sleeved white tee, and headed back downstairs. Jamie had changed into black sweats and a grey tee, and was on the patio, grabbing their glasses and half-full bottle of wine left over from dinner.

      “Do you want to sit on a different patio tonight? Similar view, with more of this eastern part.” 

      “Sure. I don’t think you have a bad view anywhere on yer property, so I’m happy to sit wherever ye like.”

      She led him to the end of the upper terrace, where a set of shallow steps curved away from the outdoor living area, around the corner of the house, and opened onto a small wooden deck, recessed into a small alcove directly beneath the master bedroom. It enjoyed a similar view, overlooking Jamie’s property and the Cascades beyond that. Recessed into the ceiling above the deck were outdoor heaters for cooler nights, Bluetooth enabled speakers, and soft lighting. Two roomy wicker recliners with soft cushions were placed side by side on the deck, a small weathered teak table in front of them.

      They placed the glasses and wine on the table and settled into the recliners. While Jamie tested the recliner settings, Claire connected the Jazz playlist on her phone to the ceiling speakers, and turned the volume down low. After Jamie’s ridiculously detailed analysis of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, she realized how deeply attuned he was to song lyrics, so she deliberately selected an instrumental playlist that would allow them to talk without distraction. Jamie was still messing with the recliner settings, making her giggle.

      “It flattens out quite nicely. I’ve fallen asleep here many a time.” 

      She set hers so that it reclined just a little. Jamie matched her angle, and then reached for their wine glasses and handed Claire hers. 

      “What a day, Sassenach! I feel like it was jam-packed.”

      “It was! Lots of good laughs and crazy moments. Starting with my girls on FaceTime. I must remember to thank them for giving you so much good material to torment me with,” she said dryly. “And then the server incident - thank you for tipping her, Jamie. That was so kind of you.” He grunted one of his generic grunts. “And great wine tasting all around. One little weep at the end of the day. Thank you, you were there for me through all of it. Tomorrow will be busy for you. Can I do anything to help you prepare?”

      “I don't think so. Milo will pick me up for the chopper ride at 10:30. Then we’ll come back for the meeting. It should all be over by 5:00 p.m. And then you and I can have some patio or hot tub time.” He smiled gently, almost melting her.

      She couldn't help noticing how he just accepted that they had started to settle into a routine of sorts. This would be the third consecutive night of chatting from dusk until nightfall. And it sounded like Jamie wanted to continue the pattern into the next evening too.   

      “Claire, do you have any plans for Saturday night?”

      “Why? Are you asking me on a date?” she teased.

      “Yes, actually.” He was completely serious and looked at her expectantly.

      She was shocked. “Uhhhh … you’ll need to give me more info …”

      “The Caledonian Society has its annual gala dinner on Saturday."

      “Ah yes, I'm familiar with the Caledonian Society. They host some great events.” 

      The Caledonian was the largest Scottish organization in the Seattle area, geared at promoting and supporting Scottish culture and heritage. Their events were always lively affairs, with lots of whisky, bagpipes, and rich Scottish accents everywhere. She and Henry had been invited to a few fund-raisers, and if anyone knew how to party, it was the Scots.

      “Hmmh, well, for whatever reason, they saw fit to invite me as guest of honor this year. It’s usually around 250 people, but they have limited it to 75 this year, as required by the state for Phase 2 of quarantining, and they will observe all the guidelines for social distancing. Large round tables with three couples per table. They're screening for fever at the door, and there will be masks and sanitizer readily available all night. My PR team texted me all that information earlier. If ye’re not comfortable with those arrangements, I completely understand.”

      “I’m okay with those arrangements. But I have to ask you, Jamie … Oh, God, this is so awkward.”

      “What is it, Claire? I think after the way we have opened up to each other over the past two days, you shouldn't be reluctant to ask me anything.”

      “I know, but I noticed some omissions when you shared your story with me last night. So I’ve been wondering … and now you ask me to a formal event, and I … uh…”

      “Out with it, Claire. The best way is to ask straight out.” 

      She took a deep breath.

      “Are you in a relationship with someone?” 

 

   

 

Chapter Text


 

      Jamie stared at her, wide-eyed.

      “You didn’t mention your love life at all when you shared your story last night, and I’m wondering if you are protecting a relationship that is very special to you, and that’s why you are not willing to open up about it. And of course if you are in a relationship with someone, that is wonderful, and I would be very happy for you. Because you deserve to be happy. But I would feel uncomfortable accompanying you to the Caledonian event if there was a girlfriend out there - in spite of the fact that I would be there as a platonic plus-one, it would feel wrong.” Her words tumbled out, and she didn't know if she had made sense at all.

      “Claire, you think I have a secret relationship back in Scotland?” He looked quite distressed.

      “Or L.A., or anywhere really,” she shrugged.

      He shook his head in disbelief. “No, absolutely not. In fact, I am on a strict six-month relationship hiatus, imposed by my sister Jenny. Actually, it’s a sex and relationship hiatus.”

      “What? Why?”

      “The way the industry affects peoples’ lives is very insidious, Claire. It messes with yer head. I’d had it up to here,” he held his hand at chin level, “and so had Jenny. I told you that no one says no to her. She’s very protective of me. Told me I needed to take a six-month break from dating and relationships and sex, and figure out what I want to do with my life.”

      “Okaaaay.” She nodded slowly, contemplating his explanation. "How’s that been going for you?”

      “It was going fine until Monday.” He looked at her with an inscrutable expression in his eyes.

      She didn't even want to unpack that comment just yet. There was so much in the little that he had told her that needed explaining. 

     “Claire, you need to know this about the Frasers: we may have little secrets here and there, but we value honesty above all else. If you ask me something, I will answer honestly. And I ask the same of you. You may have things and wee secrets ye want to keep to yourself, and that’s okay. But if we’re to be … uh … neighbors and friends … I ask that we’re always honest with each other.”

      Neighbors and friends.

      “Agreed. You have my word on that.” 

      “I just told you a secret and a truth. My secret is the 6-month hiatus and my truth is that I am not seeing anyone.”

      Claire nodded slowly and thoughtfully again.

      “Can you tell me more about how the industry and studios messed with your head? What happened in your relationships?”  She paused momentarily. “If it’s too painful, I understand.“ She bit on her lower lip.

       “Aye, Claire, I’ll tell you everything. But first …” he leaned over and, just as he had done in the tasting room, gently pulled her lower lip from between her teeth with his thumb. “Did you know you do this when you’re stressed or upset? I’ve known ye two days, and have already seen ye do it too often. And I canna lie ... I find it a wee bit ... distracting."

       And by 'distracting' ye mean ye find it sexy as fuck! Guess ye'll classify that as a secret, Fraser.

      He brushed his thumb over her lip again, and then moved his hand down to capture her fingers, interlacing them with his own, and bringing their joined hands to rest where the two recliners met.      

      “My first big break in the entertainment industry was the role of Hamish in Clan Hearts. I was cast when I was 27, and I don't think anyone expected it to become the success it became. Honestly, I would have been happy if it just made it through the first season. But when it was renewed for three more seasons, I was ecstatic. The crux of the show is the romance of course, so the fan base was largely female, and the studio’s hope was that viewers would fall in love with the hero and keep coming back for more. The show has aired in over 60 countries now, and the ad revenue and accolades and royalties are still rolling in. It was a cash cow for Stargate Productions, and they protected it at all costs. All of us had to sign non-frat contracts to prevent actors from forming relationships with each other and potentially causing conflicts or chemistry issues among the cast and crew. I started dating Natalie Berry halfway through the first season. She was not on Clan Hearts - or any other Stargate production.”

      “I remember you dating her,” Claire said. She remembered them breaking up too - it had been all over social and mainstream media.  

      “We dated for over a year, and things were mostly good. I think everyone thought we were heading towards a long-term commitment. But relationships that play out in the public eye are not quite so simple, and we had to work hard at it.”

      “What happened?”

      “In a lot of shows with a strong romantic character as lead, parts of the fan base inevitably conflate the character with the actor who plays him. So fans who had fallen in love with Hamish thought they were in love with me too. God, it’s so embarrassing to even talk about this. Do I sound like a prat?” 

      “No, of course not!” She squeezed his hand gently, and he responded by absently circling his thumb slowly in the palm of her hand.

      “Fans created Instagram and Twitter accounts in my name and posted pictures and videos that I had nothing to do with. Many made lewd and obscene suggestions - publicly, on social media. Hundreds of women private-messaged me photos of themselves in all stages of undress, and doing things I can’t even describe. Then they started to target Natalie. She received threats and ugly photos of awful, unpleasant things. People posted hurtful, insulting comments about her on social media. You’ve had a wee taste of that too, Claire, and I’m sure ye can imagine what it’s like to have it happen constantly. 24/7 all year round.”

      “Jamie, I had no idea it could be this bad.”

      “It got so bad, that she was followed and taunted and insulted out in public too. Her car tires were slashed. One social media threat was really frightening - we had to involve the authorities - and it pushed her over the edge. She started drinking and became addicted to prescription drugs. It completely changed her and messed her up. Of course our relationship couldn't withstand that kind of onslaught, and she ended it. That messed me up. I felt that it was my fault, that I should have done more to protect her. I went home to Lallybroch for a while. Knew that Jenny would know what to do. I didn’t do drugs, but there were times that I was reckless. I was binge drinking every few nights over a period of a few weeks. I was miserable and hungover and it was awful. Jenny threatened to kick me out and told me she would not allow me to see the kids until I cleaned up my act. That was a turning point. I love my niece and nephews so much, and the thought of her keeping them from me completely broke me. I stopped binge drinking that night and sought counseling.”

      He paused again, and stared at the mountains for a while.

      “What ended up happening with Natalie?” Claire asked tentatively, realizing that after the well-publicized relationship and break-up with Jamie, she hadn't been covered in the media much - if at all.  

      “Her family sent her to rehab in Switzerland. Took her six months of rehab and therapy, but she finally healed. She withdrew from the entertainment industry completely. She’s married now, with two little ones. They live in Africa - Malawi to be exact. She and her husband run an animal sanctuary for zoo and circus animals.”

      “Ohhh, I’m so happy to hear that things worked out for her.” Claire felt genuine relief that Natalie’s story had ended well. A different ending would likely have destroyed Jamie too.

      “How did things progress for you after Natalie?”

      “After Natalie, I didn’t want to date for a while. It was hard enough to deal with the crap on my social media, and I didn’t want to subject anyone else to it. After a year of not dating, questions arose about why I was never photographed with women. Some rumors started surfacing that I was gay, and honestly it didn’t bother me in the least, but it messed with the image that Stargate Productions wanted me to project. They wanted me to retain their female viewership, so to kill the gay rumors, ‘the parade’ began - Jenny’s term, by the way. It was a constant stream of red carpet appearances with a whole slew of rising young stars and wannabe actresses. Any movie premiere or awards show they could snag tickets to, I was off in a tux with a complete stranger. We turned on the dazzling smiles, arms around each other or hands clasped, and then as soon as we were in the auditorium, we would be on our phones or otherwise occupied. I hated it! It was awkward and uncomfortable.” He paused here, released her hand and stretched his arms and neck to release some of the pent-up tension.   

      “How about a top-up?” suggested Claire, “I need a drink just imagining all of this insanity.” Jamie poured a little of the wine into each glass and immediately reached for her hand again, kissing her wrist softly before continuing.  

      “This has been the story of my love-life, Claire. It’s all lived out on social media and ET and TMZ, and I don’t even know most of the women involved. When the studio decides it’s time to make Jamie Fraser look like a player or a heartthrob or a bad boy, I’ll have to do photo-ops or pap walks at some pre-arranged destination - Starbucks, a trendy restaurant, a park - and all the red carpet events, of course. Then the social media crap starts almost immediately, and that’s the part that messes with my head. It takes so much time and energy to deal with it - meetings and calls with the PR company as they try to spin things and respond for me on social media. I’m tired of being linked with women that I would never date in real life. I’m tired of spending time dealing with this crap when I should be enjoying better things in life. When I look at Jenny and Ian and the kids …” He frowned deeply for a moment. 

      Claire nodded, and he continued.

      “More honesty here Claire, okay?” She nodded. “I haven't exactly been a monk. There has been the occasional quick fling. I’m only human, ye ken. That need for a physical connection can be overwhelming at times. I also had two relationships in the past couple of years. One with an actress in L.A., and the other with a tech executive from London. I’m only telling you this, Claire, to be completely open and transparent, aye?”

      She nodded again, and gave him an encouraging smile. 

      “Both were short-lived, and largely due to the craziness that follows me on social media. Both women were targeted on social media, and neither wanted to deal with that. It has improved a lot since the end of Clan Hearts, but picks up again for a few months after I release a movie. It is so hard to maintain a genuine relationship for any length of time. Some can do it successfully. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Hugh Jackman, Pierce Brosnan, Meryl Streep. They all seem to do well. Matt Damon married outside the industry, and that has worked well for him. I don’t know how they’ve done it, actually, but it is a rarity. The entertainment industry is littered with broken marriages, broken hearts, broken souls. I looked around me and saw what it was doing to others in the industry too. It's pretty pervasive. Jenny saw what it was doing to me, and she said “No more.” She feels that it's robbed me of my happiness; she doesn't see me smile much anymore, and I don't seem fulfilled. She's probably right. I told her that for some time now, I’ve been thinking that it’s time for me to change paths. Initially she wanted me to just quit and join the family business. But I told her I wanted to withdraw a bit more gradually. I have a tentative 5-year plan for that, because I think it will draw less attention if it’s a carefully paced thing. Jenny asked me to promise I'd speak to the studios about no arranged dates for events or photo ops, just for 6 months so that I could have space to breathe and think and sort out my priorities without social media interference. I pushed the mental health and they agreed to 6 months - no forced dating, no studio-arranged dates. Jenny was ecstatic. So was I, actually.”

      “Has it helped?” asked Claire. 

      “In some ways, yes. Instead of worrying about what’s happening on my social media, and spending hours dealing with PR people because of it, I've had time to really look for investment opportunities and develop other areas of my life so that I can focus on life after I leave the industry. I was in Seattle just over a year ago filming a movie, and that’s when I fell in love with the Eastside. It reminds me so much of home. A few months after filming ended, I came back to spend 6 weeks looking around a little more. I knew I wanted to have a base here, rather than L.A., while I work myself out of the industry. Milo and Suki were introduced to me as top realtors, and after we met, they seemed to know exactly what I wanted. Milo made quiet inquiries about this land. He had to be careful because he didn’t want to attract the attention of property developers who would want to put in a whole neighborhood. He spent a few months schmoozing the current owners, and in February he told me it was looking good, and now ... here we are. Milo was also the one who approached me about the wine business. He became aware of it through one of his college friends. Seems these fraternities aren’t just about getting drunk and partying, as all the movies seem to indicate.” He smiled cheekily, and turned serious again. “I hope that after tomorrow’s meeting, I can tell you more about the wine thing. We're very close to finalizing it.”

      She nodded. “So what are you looking for, Jamie. What happens when the hiatus ends? The studios will have lined up a new parade, right?”

      “That’s what Monday’s meeting will be about - but they don’t know it yet. I expect fireworks from Dougal. Between you and me, Claire, my agent is bringing scripts and initial paperwork for roles in DC Comics and James Bond. There’s the potential for a Superman deal, and a three-picture deal as 007.”

      “What! Wow! Congratulations, Jamie!” Claire was genuinely impressed and understood the impact of those roles on his career. Every decent actor on the planet had been campaigning for the James Bond contract.

      “Thank you, but see, that’s the thing. I’m not that excited about it right now. The James Bond thing is something I chased after for a long time. But my hiatus has shown me a calmer, more peaceful, more important side of life that I didn't even realize I missed until now. Jenny knew it though.”

      He paused and looked out over the trees, a slight frown creasing his brow. Claire had come to recognize this as his ‘thinking face’.

      “How far into the hiatus are you?”

      “Just over five months.”

      “You have some more time to think about it then, Jamie. In a few weeks' time, you might find that you’re refreshed and renewed and ready to get back into it all. Or you might find that you’re ready to plan your five-year exit strategy from the industry. I think your biggest ally in this will be Jenny. She wants the best for you, Jamie. No hidden agenda. You may not agree entirely on the approach or timeline, but I sense she will always protect your heart - and your soul.”       

      They were both silent for a while, the only sound was the soft strains of the jazz track from the overhead speakers. 

      “I canna believe you thought I had a hidden relationship,” he chuckled, and then turned serious, as if suddenly reminded of something very important. “Wait a minute, ye thought I was involved with a woman even after what happened ... even after that moment in the tasting room?” 

      She flushed at the memory of that, and grimaced. “I know, I didn’t know what to think, really.”

      “Claire, you should know that if I was in a relationship, I wouldna be sneaking around doing things like that. I wouldna be having these moments with ye, I wouldna be saying naughty wee things to ye, and holding yer hand.” He looked at her earnestly.

      “I know, Jamie. I don’t know what’s come over me. I’m not usually so ... uh… forward. And yes, it shames me to think that even though I thought you might be in a relationship, I didn’t try to stop you in the tasting room.”

      He gazed at their joined hands on the wicker chair for a while, deep in thought.      

      “Thank you for letting me share all of that with you, Claire,” he said eventually. ”And for sharing your story with me too. It’s emotionally draining, aye?”

      “Yes it is. I haven’t opened up about my life to anyone in a very long time, and certainly not in so much detail. Thank you for letting me do that.”

      He looked into the distance. The peaks of the Cascades were shrouded in the last rays of sun, and it would be dark soon. 

      “D’ye think this is usual, Claire? To get so emotionally close to someone so soon after meeting. To feel like ye can tell them anything and know that they will keep it in their heart. To be able to bare yer soul and know that they will take yer story and cherish it and keep it in their own soul for ye. Is this usual - what’s going on between us?”

      She could barely breathe as she considered the impact of his words. The raw honesty and trust in opening himself up to her like that. And she with him.

        “It’s not usual, Jamie. I have never known this immediate emotional connection before either. It’s not usual at all. It’s unique … and incredibly special.”

       He raised her hand to his mouth and placed a soft, gentle kiss on her wrist. And another on the back of her hand. They sat in silence as the night darkened around them, the soothing sounds of the music enveloping them.

       “I never gave you my answer, Jamie, about the Caledonian event. Yes. Yes of course I’ll go with you.”

       A slow smile spread across his features. “It’ll be a braw night, Sassenach. C’mon, it’s almost dark now. Let’s head inside. Tomorrow will be a busy day.”

       

       

 

 

Chapter Text


      Claire awoke earlier than usual. From her bed she could see bands of mist still threading through the trees in the soft dawn light. The sky was starting to pink up a little, and she so wished that Jamie was up to enjoy the sunrise. 

      She had fallen asleep by 10:30 the previous night. The emotional toll of so much soul-baring over the previous three nights had caught up with her, and she needed a good, restful sleep. 

     It was getting close to 5:00 a.m. now, and the sun would start peeking from behind the mountains in a few minutes. She had time to run downstairs, make a latte and grab a blanket so she could watch the sunrise from the sofa on the middle terrace.

     As she frothed the milk, she hoped that the sounds from the noisy steam nozzle wouldn't carry upstairs and disturb Jamie’s sleep. 

      A rustling from the family room made her turn. The panel swung open and Jamie emerged from a workout, smiling instantly when he saw her. He was toweling his hair, and had clearly worked up a sweat. He was shirtless, and she took in his muscular arms, shoulders and pecs, all covered in a faint damp sheen. She didn’t dare look at his well-defined abs, having noticed from across the room that his gym shorts were slung low on his hips. There was no way she could trust herself not to let her eyes follow his V-line to parts of his body that she really shouldn’t be imagining right now. Her butterflies were apparently awake and enjoying similar thoughts.

      “Sassenach! You're a sight for sore eyes. And sore muscles. You’re up early, did ye not sleep well?”

      ”I could ask you the same question,” she replied cheerfully. 

      “I slept verra well, actually. But my body clock is still a wee bit off from the jet-lag. I woke up at 4:00 a.m. and decided to get an early workout in.”

      “I’m really glad you’re up. You’re just in time to grab a latte and watch the sunrise with me.”

      “Och, Claire. I'm a sweaty mess. I’ll have to grab a shower first.” 

      “No time. Sunrise is at 5:11. and it’s 4:55 now.” 

       And by the way, I used to fantasize about your sweat all over my body, so, yeah, I’m OK with sweaty.     

      “Watch me!” And with that, he raced up the stairs. While he was in the shower, Claire made his latte. He was downstairs in fresh workout gear by 5:04.

      “Did you take a cold shower? That was really fast!” 

      “Aye, it was quite refreshing. I’ve only done weights so far, still heading out for a run. I’ll take a warm shower after that. Thanks for my latte.” He followed her out into the cool morning.      

     The first time they had sat on the middle terrace, Milo, Jamie and Claire had each opted for their own sofa, clustered around the coffee table, chatting and making small talk. So much had changed in three short days. Now Claire was selecting the sofa that would afford them the best view of the sunrise, patting the cushion to her left, indicating where Jamie should sit for the best view.

     Placing her mug on the table, she unfolded the blanket and spread it over both of them, struck by how an act as basic as sharing a blanket could feel so intimate with the right person. They settled into the sofa, quietly sipping their coffee, completely enveloped in silence. The only sounds were the birds trilling and warbling at each other in a range of melodic calls. Some of the misty wisps had started to dissipate, but many still lingered, lending the trees and mountains an ethereal feel. The cloudless sky was now painted in large swaths of intense pinks and oranges.

      “God, Claire, this is beautiful,” he whispered.

      She looked at him and smiled. He fixed his eyes on her and she noticed with mild relief that he had not shaved, and his scruff was looking sexier than ever. She took a quick sip of her coffee to distract her thoughts from moving into areas that she was studiously trying to avoid.

      “Foam,” he said, still holding her gaze as she lowered her mug. 

      “Hmm?” she looked at him, not tracking his meaning.

      He reached over, and with his index finger, swiped the foam off her upper lip and licked it off his fingertip.

      “Thank you,” she smiled, turning to look back over the mountains. The colors of the sky had deepened.

      “I need a picture of this so I can remember it forever. Our first sunrise, Sassenach.” He said this in a low voice to avoid disturbing the quiet peace, but the sheer sensuality of his already deep voice in an even lower register made her heart skip a beat, and it took her a few seconds to process the content of what he had said.

       Our first sunrise.

      She took a deep steadying breath. He had no qualms about revealing his innermost thoughts and feelings, and she found that refreshing and endearing. But with last night’s revelations about his relationship status, she had to wonder where this was all going. And whether it was going anywhere at all - hiatus or no hiatus. 

      She heard his soft gasp, and they watched together as the first rays started to appear over the top of the mountain.

      “In a very short while, we won't be able to look at it anymore. It’ll be too bright,” she warned quietly.

      “Aye,” he replied, disappointment evident in his voice. “I wish we could sit and watch this for hours.”

      “Me too! Sunrise is my favorite time of the day. It’s a new day, a fresh start, you know? The sheer magnitude of realizing that your part of the universe is awakening around you … it’s sobering and exhilarating at the same time. The sun coming up in the morning is always a reminder that things will be okay, that no matter what challenges you faced the previous day, you have a whole new day to tackle them. Or if the previous day was amazing and wonderful, you have a whole new day to continue to enjoy or build on that.” She suddenly looked embarrassed as she realized he was listening intently to her, the glimmer of a smile in his eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m rambling nonsensically.”

        “No. No you’re not. You sounded so poetic and intense, and it was wonderful. Sunrise is a magical time of the day. I’m so grateful that you were willing to share this one with me.” 

      They gazed at each other for a moment and his eyes dropped to her lips. She held her breath and they sat there, silent and still, suspended in the beauty and magic of the sunrise around them.

      A blue jay descended onto the table and launched a series of shrill calls to its mate, breaking the spell between them. Startled, they turned to look at the bird, which flitted off immediately in response to their sudden movement. 

      The sun had risen a little higher, and the bright orb began to emerge over the top of the mountains, making it uncomfortably bright for them to sit where they were. Reluctantly, she tugged the blanket off them, and Jamie stood first, extending his hand and pulling her upright. 

      “Turn around, Claire." He pulled her in close, wrapping his arm snugly around her, and she could feel his scruff on her temple and the side of her face. “Quick selfie,” he said. He snapped and showed her the picture.

      “Oh, I love that!” she exclaimed. They were both smiling broadly, chest-to chest, heads together, his free arm just visible around her upper back. The sun was just a bright blur behind them, but some of the beautiful color streaks were visible in the background. “Will you send it to me please?”

      “Sure.” As they made their way back to the kitchen, he tapped the picture, selected ‘Sassenach’ from his contacts, and hit send. 

      “I’m going to do a yoga class and then I’ll get some things ready for your meeting. You go and enjoy your run.”

      “Thanks, Claire - please don’t put yerself out on account of the meeting. I think it’ll go pretty smoothly.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      She was looking forward to unscrambling some of her thoughts during her post-yoga shower, but she wasn’t sure that it was particularly helpful this time. In fact, she was more confused than ever.

      Before last night’s talk, she had been enjoying the light flirting and banter that went back and forth between herself and Jamie. And now that she knew he was not in a relationship, she expected that he would continue to flirt and tease - that was his nature. She felt quite flattered, if she was totally honest. She’d had a decent number of suitors over the past year or so, ‘Ashlee’s dad’ by far the most ardent of them. But despite her admirers finding her attractive enough to pursue, she was held back by her insecurities, and these were magnified when it came to Jamie. He had his pick of the world's most beautiful and glamorous women, only too eager to hop into bed with him, no strings attached. Always one to be brutally honest with herself, she wondered if his attentions were largely due to the isolation and proximity imposed by quarantining. Was their ability to share so openly with each other just the result of being in each other’s space so much and having no one else to talk to? Was it the yearning for a human connection that was absent in both of their lives? Or was it something else entirely? A deep and instant emotional connection that was so rare that few people experienced it; and when they did, it was because everything aligned in just the right way, at just the right time.

  Her heart was telling her that the immediate and unusual connection was unique and warranted further exploration. It was her darn head that was getting in the way, warning her to tread lightly. 

       This could end up being one of his flings as soon as the hiatus is over, Beauchamp. Are you sure you're okay with that? Or do you need to work harder on keeping this on a solid, friendly basis. You’re about to be neighbors, for Pete’s sake.

    

      Jamie was incognito in his sunglasses and cap. He enjoyed running in the brisk morning hours, before the air became heavy with heat and traffic. Quickly getting into his rhythm, he allowed his mind to wander to Claire. God, she was gorgeous. And hot. And sexy. And that little minx had a naughty sense of humor that drove him wild. And an arse that drove him to distraction. Revealing his story to her last night had felt like a huge unburdening. He hadn’t shared as much about his true feelings and hopes and dreams with anyone else - apart from Jenny. Claire didn’t judge or try to persuade or dissuade him in any way. She asked probing questions that made him think more deeply, and she had encouraged him to keep thinking about his options before making his big decisions. He admired everything about her, and yearned for the kind of life she had. Apart from the hiccup with the PILF situation, she lived in privacy and anonymity. She had a successful career that was on a great trajectory, she had two beautiful daughters for whom she had created a safe and loving home. His heart tightened when he thought of how much loss she had suffered. How he would love to ease those painful memories by creating new ones with her.

      Their connection was so immediate, so intense, so real - and she felt it too. She made him feel grounded and she made him laugh and she made him want to spend time with her. She was now the first person he thought of when he awoke, and the last one on his mind as he drifted to sleep. 

       She has worked her way so far into yer heart already, ye sappy walloper! And you're quite okay with that. But you need to get yer shit figured out soon, or ye'll end up being neighbors and nothing more.

   

  

 

Chapter Text


     

      Claire let her hair dry naturally, and quickly applied her usual daytime makeup. She dressed in slim-fit, light khaki pants and a soft blue sleeveless blouse. Eying herself critically in the mirror, she decided she looked semi-professional and comfortably casual - exactly the look she wanted to project. She slid her feet into tan Tory Burch flats, added gold hoop earrings and a spritz of Daisy - her go-to daytime perfume. 

      After unloading the dishwasher, she set about making a quick checklist of things to do before Jamie’s meeting. He had returned from his run and was upstairs in the shower. She gathered a range of glasses - wine, whisky, water - and took them out to the covered patio, where she set them up on the granite counter. A few trips back and forth between the patio and the kitchen, and she had checked most of the items on her list. Plates, napkins, and silverware were all set out and ready for the afternoon meal. She wandered over to her flower beds to see what flowers might look good in a vase for the countertop. Her lawn service did a great job with her yard overall, but she always liked to potter around in the flower beds to see what might grow from her efforts. She was not blessed with a green thumb and Henry had playfully teased her about her tendency to commit ‘horticultural homicide’. She wandered through the beds on the upper terrace and made a mental note that the yellow and white peonies looked quite good, but she wanted to check the area at the end of the terrace.

      “Noooooooo,” she moaned aloud.

      “Claire?” She turned to see Jamie walking towards her. He looked neatly casual in khakis and a navy Henley shirt that hugged his muscled torso and arms quite deliciously, she decided. The scruff was still there. Good thing she wasn’t in the meeting, she would never be able to focus on the discussion.    

       Our outfits match again, Jamie-boy. This is getting weird. 

      “Everything okay?” he asked.

      “Yes, kinda,” she said ruefully. “I’ve managed to kill my gladioli. Again! They’re one of my favorite types of flowers, and I try to grow them every year, but I really need to admit defeat and move on. The peonies are looking good. I’ll cut some of those instead.”

      “I’ll hold them for ye,” he offered. And as she cut them, he collected them from her, holding them gently in his big hands. He brought them into the kitchen where she arranged them in a few small square vases, and placed them on the patio to add a dash of color. 

      “Claire, thank you for doing all this,” Jamie looked around the patio. “You are incredible.” She blushed and shook her head. She was never entirely comfortable receiving compliments.

      “Are you ready for your helicopter ride?”

      “Aye, I canna wait to see all of this from higher up.” He looked out over the trees around them. “I’ll go and work on some emails. I need to FaceTime Jenny and the family too.”

     "Jamie..." she began, "good luck with the meeting today. I know that this wine business thing is something you've worked hard on, and there's a lot riding on it for you. I hope it all goes well."

     He seemed genuinely touched by her words, and put his arm around her shoulder in an awkward side hug. "Thank you, Claire. Truly."

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Claire reviewed more student case studies in the upstairs study space, only coming back down when her phone pinged to let her know that Milo had arrived.  

      “Claire, you look lovely as always. How are things going?” asked Milo, giving her a warm hug.

      “Everything is going just fine. Hopefully Jamie thinks so too.”

      “Oh, I’m sure he’s more than happy, Claire. You are a marvelous hostess.”

      “Hey Milo,” Jamie emerged from the house. “Sorry to keep you - I was getting last-minute instructions from Jenny to take lots of pictures.” 

      “No problem,” smiled Milo. He had met Jenny when she visited Jamie on the lake, and knew she could be a little intense. “Claire, we should be back around 1:30. If you’re out back in around 45 minutes, look out for us. Grab your binoculars - we’ll wave at you.”

      “See you later, Claire.” Jamie gave her his two-eyed wink out of Milo’s line of sight. She smiled and waved them off.   

      Back in the kitchen, Claire brewed herself some herbal tea, grabbed her iPad and binoculars, and headed to the middle terrace - where she had been when she first spotted Milo in the helicopter exactly a week ago. She cranked open the umbrella, and sat with her feet up, catching up on texts, emails, and social media. Her mind drifted to the formal dinner on Saturday night and she made a mental note to go through her closet later. She opened her message app, and tapped ‘Armando’.

      Hey you! Busy on Sat afternoon, say 1’ish?    

      She waited a little, but there was no immediate reply so she continued going through her email. Ten minutes later, Armando’s reply slid in at the top her screen.

      Hey girl! i have 2 appointments in the AM but free after that, so i'm all yours in the PM. what’s going on?    

      I have a formal dinner at night. was hoping u could come over and do a nice up-do?    

      OMG, Yes! we’ll do something soft - a few loose curls - stunning.  i’m gonna need more deets on Saturday. who, what, why - whole 9 yards. 

      LOL. love u! see u Sat.    

      🥰 

   

      Almost an hour later, she heard the rotor blades of the chopper and set her iPad aside. She picked up the binoculars, and walked to the edge of the terrace. Within minutes, the chopper appeared and moved towards Jamie’s property. Just like it had done the previous week, it started making wide sweeps over the area, hovering over particular spots. There was a little more hovering today, and she guessed that Jamie had a few more areas that he wanted to scrutinize closely. As the chopper got closer and closer to her terrace, Claire picked up the binoculars and peered through them. She followed the chopper on a long sweep down the length of the property, as it made its way closer to the terrace. She could make out Milo’s distinctive white hair, and when she was able to focus, she saw his face fairly clearly. She adjusted the binoculars a little, and saw that Jamie was in the seat that faced Milo, but he had turned his body towards the terrace. She thought he was waving, but when she focused and zoomed in a little, she realized he wasn’t. The goober was making heart hands at the window! His body angle was a deliberate move to conceal the gesture from the other occupants - there was no way he would risk it being seen by Dougal and Milo. She saw that he had grabbed his binoculars, so she dropped hers, and waved with both arms. Seconds later, the chopper turned towards the west, evidently the aerial property tour was complete.

     Back on the sofa, she picked up her iPad, tapped the messages app, and selected ‘Jamie F’.   

     Cheeky bugger! hope ur uncle didn't see that - or Milo

     Nope - too busy looking at the snowcaps. u look quite bonnie down there. missing me yet?

     See u later, bloody Scot            

     

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      By 2 p.m., there were three cars in the driveway, ten people spread across the patio, and the meeting was well underway. Some wore masks, others were less fastidious. Jamie had asked them all to wash their hands as soon as they arrived. Claire had also placed hand sanitizer and spare masks strategically in the powder room and on the patio. They were taking as many precautions as possible. Jamie had introduced her to everyone, but she knew that the only names she would remember for now were Dougal and Murtagh.

      Dougal was a big, imposing man, almost as tall as Jamie, and heavy set. He had the same blue eyes, but set under bushy brows, and a severe looking permanent frown. He was completely bald, and boasted a trimmed salt and pepper beard. His eyebrow shot up when he met Claire, and he held her hand for longer than felt comfortable, looking her over from head to toe. Murtagh was a good few inches shorter, slim and wiry, with black beady eyes, and an unruly black beard. He had a full head of black hair, only lightly threaded with silver. Clearly he had inherited the good genes when it came to greying hair! He was polite and friendly, but Claire suspected that those black eyes of his missed nothing.

 

      Wanting to stay well out of the way, she worked on student papers upstairs.  Jamie would text or call for her if he needed anything. At 3:00 p.m., Claire took delivery of the food and texted Jamie.

      Food’s here LMK when safe to bring out. don’t want to walk out if ur talking private stuff

      Seconds later, Jamie was in the kitchen.

      “I don't expect you to handle all of this on yer own, Claire. Give me instructions.”

      “Okay, why don’t we unpack all of it. I want to give it all the once-over, make sure it looks presentable, then you can carry it out and set it on the counter. I left serving utensils out there already.”

      As they busied themselves, Dougal wandered into the kitchen, somewhat unsteady on his feet. He looked Claire up and down again, and asked in a thick Scottish burr, “Could ye direct me to the restroom, love?”

      “I’ll show ye, Uncle.” Jamie bristled at the way his uncle had overtly ogled Claire. He led Dougal out of the kitchen and down the hallway towards the powder room.

      “She’s a bonnie wee piece of arse, Jamie. Just like you to find a willing woman - even in the middle of a pandemic.”

      “DOUGAL!” Jamie raised his voice, and then instantly dropped it, but Claire could hear him quite clearly. “I’ll not allow you to disrespect Claire. She has been nothing but kind and welcoming, not only to me, but to you and all my business associates. I consider her a good friend and neighbor, and I’ll thank ye to show her some respect. I’ll also thank ye to stop drinking for the day - it’s making you verra unpleasant to be around.”

      The powder room door clicked closed and Jamie re-entered the kitchen, looking pained.

      “Claire, I’m so sorry. He had no right to talk like that. He’s had too much to drink, and he’s so inappropriately old-school. Please accept my apologies.” 

      “No need, Jamie. I’ve been around enough drunk men to recognize when a man is a little past his best self. Did you see I ordered some baklava for dessert - theirs is to die for. Let’s get these platters outside, and then we’ll assemble the salad.”

      They set the platters of food out, and then returned to the kitchen where they opened all the separate containers of ingredients to assemble the Greek salad. Jamie sampled a chunk of feta.

      “Mmm. This is good feta - creamy, not overly salty,” he declared. “Here ...” He held a small chunk of feta up to her lips, and she closed her mouth around it as he carefully withdrew his thumb and forefinger.  

      Dougal chose that very moment to return from the bathroom. He froze momentarily, fixed the pair with a raised eyebrow, and then continued out to the patio with a knowing look. 

      Claire turned to look at Jamie with a wide-eyed look of concern, but he merely shrugged and went over to the sink to wash his hands. “Let’s get this salad out there, aye? Will you join us for the meal, Claire?”

      She shook her head. “I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but I’d rather just grab a bite later. You may want to continue discussions over the meal, and you can’t do that if I’m there. I’ll be working upstairs, just text if you need anything.”

 

      Claire retreated to the upstairs study, and continued working through student papers from the summer cohort. Within twenty minutes she heard Jamie call her, his voice sounding closer as he approached the study area. She swiveled around in her chair, and her heart stopped momentarily.       

      He had plated up her meal and brought it up to her.

      “It’s a wee sampling of everything. If there is anything you want more of, I can bring it up.” 

      “Oh Jamie! You are a sweet, sweet man!” She shook her head in disbelief.

      “I thought I was a ‘cheeky bugger’!” He said in mock confusion.

      “That too!” she said, dipping a piece of pita bread into the hummus.

      “Try the baba ganoush,” he suggested.

      She did as requested, and responded with a groan. “So good.”

      “I didn’t forget your baklava. Saved us both a piece to enjoy in the hot tub or on the patio later.”

      “Thank you, Jamie,” she said, eying her plate, “this is perfect.” 

      “I’ll come and get you when the meeting’s over.” 

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      It was almost 6 p.m. when her phone pinged, alerting her to movement in the driveway. The meeting was clearly over.

      Claire felt good about what she had accomplished over the preceding few hours. She had FaceTimed the girls, who had seemed disappointed that Jamie was otherwise occupied and they wouldn't get to chat with him. She had also spent some time going through the formal section of her closet. It had yielded two good options for Saturday’s event, and she planned on asking Armando’s opinion when he came to do her hair. 

      Jamie joined her upstairs and collapsed onto one of the girls’ oversized bean bags. 

      “That was exhausting! Dougal is a prick when he’s had too much to drink.”

      “How did it go - apart from Dougal?”

      “Really well. I’ll tell ye downstairs - are you up for the hot tub? I could use that warm bubbly water to wash away the stress.”

      “Of course. Get your swimsuit and robe, and meet me downstairs in a few.”

      “Sassenach?”

      “Yes?”

      “I’m quite partial to that cheeky swimsuit ye had on the other night. Just sayin’.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

      Claire wriggled into a red one-piece that offered better rear-end coverage, but was a little lower cut in front. She wrapped her robe tightly around herself and tied the belt in a knot. Jamie was not in the kitchen yet, but she was taken aback at what she saw. The kitchen counters had been cleaned, the dishwasher was running, and the glasses and dishes that didn’t fit were stacked in the sink, ready for loading. Glancing out at the patio, she saw that it too had been cleaned. 

      “I’ll load those after this load is done,” he appeared in the kitchen, and gestured towards the sink and dishwasher.

      “I can’t believe you cleaned up! I would have helped you.”

      “I would not have allowed ye to. Murtagh helped me - while Dougal poured himself another drink. Good thing Murtagh’s driving the rental.”

      “I’m dying to hear about the meeting. You ready to go outside?”

      “Aye. How do you feel about taking some whisky down there tonight, instead of wine. I picked up some good stuff at the store yesterday.”

      “I’d love it. Grab the bottle, I’ll bring glasses.”

      They set the whisky, glasses and their iPads next to the hot tub, draped their robes over the towel rack, and eased into the steaming water. For a few seconds they allowed their bodies to get accustomed to the stinging heat. 

      “Sassenach, would you mind finding music - your favorite playlist is fine. I need to spend a few minutes on my iPad. I’m sorry - I hate to be so rude, but once I’ve taken care of a wee thing, I’ll give you an update on the meeting.”

      He tapped away on his iPad while Claire selected a favorite playlist that combined oldies from the 80s and 90s. The strains of Queen’s ‘It’s a Kind of Magic’ soon filled the space around them. 

     “God, I love Queen!” Jamie didn't look up from his iPad, but his mouth lifted in a crooked little smile. “Ye ken this is from the movie Highlander, aye?"

      “Yes. You can’t live in Scotland in your teens without seeing it at least 5 times at various sleepovers. Christopher Lambert was quite a hottie in his day, so it really wasn’t a hardship to have to watch it multiple times. He rocked that kilt!” 

      “Mm-hmm. A hottie, huh? You like a man in a kilt then, Sassenach?” He still hadn't looked up from his iPad.

      “Depends on who’s wearing it.”

      “And ye ken The Highlander’s clansmen were enemies of the Fraser clan, aye?”

      “Still a hottie,” she insisted playfully.

     “Done!” He set his iPad on the hot tub ledge. “I’d like to make you dinner tomorrow night, Claire. I just placed the grocery order. It’ll be delivered in the morning. I would have asked ye first, but ye’d have said no.”

     “I would have said no. You don’t need to go to all that trouble.”

      “I knew ye’d say that. It’s no trouble - it’ll be really simple. One of Jenny’s recipes that she makes at the B&B.”

      “I’m looking forward to it. And I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Now - tell me about the meetings.”

      

      Jamie stood up and reached for the whisky glasses. He had brought down a bottle of Kilchoman single malt, and handed Claire a glass of the rich amber whisky before pouring his own. Sitting across from her, he took a sip of his whisky and cocked his head slightly. 

      “We should be toasting this with wine, but I don’t have the right wines, and feel like it would be disloyal.” 

      She frowned, “Disloyal? What do you mean? What are the ‘right wines’?”

      “Uhhh …well, Claire ...  ye’re looking at the new owner of The Grotto.”

      Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened. “The Grotto? The winery?”

      “Aye. The winery, the resort, the tasting rooms - all of it.”

      “Oh my God!” She was stunned for a few seconds. “The whole nine yards?”

      “That’s a verra American expression, but yes, the whole nine yards.”

      “Oh my God!" she said again, still processing. "Congratulations!” She leaned across, planning on giving him a chaste kiss on the cheek, but at the last minute decided that this moment was quite extraordinary and warranted a much bigger gesture, so she flung her arms around his shoulders and hugged him tightly. “I’m so, so excited for you.”

      The hug caught him off-guard and whisky sloshed over the side of both glasses. He was clearly delighted by her excited reaction, and wrapped his free arm tightly around her before she could return to her seat. 

      “Sit here, and I’ll tell you about it,” he patted the molded seat closest to his. The 90º angle of their corner seats meant that their legs would inevitably get tangled together, but she ignored that, and focused her attention on what Jamie was saying.

      “I ken that you and Henry were good friends of Milo and Suki - and that the three of them were friends from college days. I assume ye know Rob Raymond?”

      “Yes. Very well. He was part of the frat group that remained friends over the years. I’m not as close to Rob and Susan as I am to Milo and Suki, but they are friends - good people. He built up The Grotto from nothing. Started with just the winery, and then added the tasting rooms there and in Woodinville, and slowly built the resort at the winery over the next few years. It's magnificent ... it overlooks the Columbia River valley and some of the rooms are recessed into the rocks and cliffs. I assume you know this all better than me by now," she smiled. "I had no idea he was selling it.” 

      “Milo knew that Rob was not ready to retire 100%, but he was keen to start divesting and preparing for eventual retirement. Their only child was killed in Iraq, so he had no one to take over the business. When Milo mentioned it to me, I was apprehensive at the thought of taking on a business in an industry I know nothing about. Still am, if I’m honest.”

      “I don’t think that you would have embarked on this journey if you didn’t feel you could do it, Jamie. You asked so many pertinent questions at the wineries yesterday. It’s clear you have a deep interest and decent knowledge about it already. Tell me more about the deal.”

      He acknowledged her words of encouragement with a smile “I brought in my business advisor from Glasgow, and he and my local lawyers helped structure a deal that appealed to both sides. I have a 75% stake right away, and Rob keeps 25% for the next five years as I learn the industry. It’s a good way of keeping him involved while I learn, and a big enough stake for him to stay committed and keep building on the winery’s success. It also means that he can slowly get used to retirement over the course of a few years. After five years, I acquire the remaining 25%.”

      “How are you planning to balance your movie schedule with learning the ropes? Will current management stay on for the full five years?”

      “Aye. That was written into the deal. The entire management team is locked in for five years. They were well incentivized for that. Rob thinks most of them will stay on beyond that. More than half of them have been with him for ten years or more. Murtagh will be spending the next six weeks up at The Grotto. He will be my eyes and ears, and will learn more about the industry faster than I can with my commitments. After my week in L.A., I’ll be back here to spend some time at the winery and start my ‘on-the-job’ training.”

      “It all sounds really exciting. Your purchase deal sounds solid and it seems you’ve locked in everything you needed. I love that Murtagh will be involved to keep an eye on things.”

      “Aye. He has a keen business sense, has Murtagh. He spent nine years in France working for a cousin who is a wine and spirits merchant there. He runs a huge enterprise, and Murtagh learned things from the ground up, until my Da passed away, and he came back to help take care of us.”

      “How perfect that he has some background in the industry. I have a really good feeling about this for you, Jamie.”

      “Aye, me too,” he chuckled. “Me too.”

      Jamie stood up to replenish their whisky.

      “Go easy on mine please, Jamie. I can’t be getting tipsy in front of you every day.” She was already feeling the effects of the whisky’s much higher alcohol content. 

      “Dinna fash, Claire. I’ll take care of you. I won’t let ye drown.” He winked his goofy wink at the reminder of Tuesday’s hot tub moment when he thought she had fallen asleep.

      He sat down with his drink and their legs got entangled in their attempts to settle back down into their previous positions. Claire considered moving to sit across from him, or on the same side of the tub at least, to try and avoid the inevitable confusion of legs. She didn’t know if it was the effects of the whisky or just her growing level of ease with Jamie, but she untangled her legs from below the water, and eased them up and across his lap. 

      He slid her a quick look, but she had rested her head against the edge of the tub and closed her eyes. 

      “Sorry,” she said lethargically, ”I’m too lazy to move - and legs are always a mess when you sit in the corners."

      “Did ye hear me complaining?” Her eyes were still closed, but she knew he was smirking.

      “So you’re going to come back after L.A.?” she asked casually.

      “Aye, there’ll be a lot to take care of with The Grotto. And if I get this property deal finalized, I’ll want to start working with architects, builders and the like.”

      His fingers started to draw lazy circles on her foot, carefully avoiding the ticklish zones when she flinched slightly. She was still pondering the fact that she might get to see him when he was back in Seattle after L.A. Why did that make her feel so warm and fuzzy? Or was that the result of Jamie gently caressing her foot under water. Water made everything so much slower and sexier.  

      You’re getting into dangerous territory here. Where’s your resolve?

      She took another sip of whisky.

      His fingers were softly exploring her ankle. 

      “Jamie?” she opened one eye.

      “Mmmm?”

      “You promised me some baklava.”

      “I did, didn’t I? Do you want me to go get it now?”

      His fingers traced slow whorls and circles up her shin.

      “Uh uh. Not yet.”

      He chuckled, and his fingers continued their slow, sexy exploration. He reached the area behind her knees, and she squirmed at the sensation of his fingertips in this particularly sensitive spot. Her back arched slightly, and he paused briefly.

      “Do you want me to stop?” 

      “No,” she sighed, her head still resting against the edge of the tub. “But you’re neglecting my other leg. That’s favoritism.”

      “Well, then. I can't be accused of favoritism, now can I? He reached for her other foot, and began a thorough sensory tour of that leg too.

       She was breathing a little faster and shallower now. And there were things going on between her thighs that she hadn’t felt in a long, long time. She didn't dare open her eyes because if she looked into his blue eyes now, she would lose herself in him completely. She bit her lower lip and heard one of his deep, rumbling grunts. 

      “Jamie?”

      “Mmmm?”

      “What did that little grunt mean?”

      “Grunt?”

      “Yes. You make all sorts of Scottish noises, and I never know what they mean. You’ll have to make me a glossary of your grunts.”

      “A glossary of grunts?” he chuckled. “Aye, I’ll get right on it.”

      His hand was on her knee now, and slowly making its way north. She opened an eye again. He had also leaned his head back against the edge of the hot tub, eyes closed.

      By the time he reached her mid-thigh, she knew she was in the danger zone. 

      Oh God, there's some serious stuff going on in my lady parts. I don’t want you to stop, but …

      Her head was a little woozy from the whisky, but he was awakening feelings and reviving sensations that she hadn’t felt in so long, and she wanted more. Much, much more. Maybe they should slow down a little.

      “Jamie?”

      “Mmmm?”

      “I think it’s time for that baklava.”

      His hand stopped in its tracks, and she sensed his disappointment.

      “I’ll be right here, Jamie. Too lazy to move.” 

      “Sip yer whisky - I’ll be right back.”

      

      She sensed the water level rising slightly as he got back in the hot tub. Having downed the last of her whisky, she thought she still had her wits about her - mostly - but she was feeling dangerously uninhibited. 

      She smiled lazily at him and said, “You poured me way too much whisky. I’m going to have to stay out here for the night.”

      “I’d never leave you out here all night, Sassenach. I’ll carry you back to the house, dinna fash. You ready for your dessert?”

      “Mm-hmm. Very ready.” She hoped she wasn’t slurring. And she hoped she could keep it together - she tended to get a little daring when she drank whisky. 

      She held her hand out to take the Baklava, but Jamie pulled it back out of her reach.

      “Uh uh. You took care of so much for the meeting today. Time for you to relax. I’ll feed it to you. Scoot over a wee bit.”

      She was still reclined in a comfortable, floating slouch, and lazily moved aside to make room for him, sitting up a little higher. Holding the wedge of syrupy, honey-drenched baklava between his thumb and forefinger, he brought it to her lips.

      “Take a wee bite.”

      She obeyed, and immediately groaned at the decadent deliciousness of it. 

      “Oh my God, it is so good. Try it Jamie.”  

      “I’ll get mine soon, this one is all yours.”

       His body was very close to hers, leg pushed up against her thigh. Her languid semi-slouch had her right at eye-level with his chest, the perfect vantage point to take in his well-formed pecs and strong, defined biceps. She wondered what it must be like to lay her head on his chest and feel those arms wrapped around her, keeping her close to his heart. His voice, so close to her now, interrupted her thoughts.

      “Another wee bite,” he prompted, bringing the baklava slowly back to her mouth. A single drop of thick honey dripped off Jamie’s forefinger onto her chest. She looked down in mild surprise and saw the bead of honey on the swell of her breast. She started to raise a lazy hand to wipe it away, but Jamie gently pushed her hand away with his wrist, the last bite of the baklava wedge still balanced between his thumb and forefinger. Looking into her eyes for any hesitation and finding none, he slowly lowered his head, bringing his lips down to her breast, over the bead of honey, and gently licked it off. He heard and felt her soft gasp. He raised his head, eyes fixed on her lips, which had parted as she drew in soft, shallow breaths. Reaching for his hand, she guided the baklava back to his mouth, silently encouraging him to accept the last bite. Then she brought his hand back to her mouth, and took his sticky, syrupy forefinger between her lips and slowly, so very slowly, licked the honey off. 

      “Sassenach…” he breathed.

      When his forefinger was clean, she took his thumb into her mouth, and sucked and grazed the honey and flakes of pastry that lingered there. She released his thumb slowly and he dragged his hand lightly across her shoulder and down her arm, below the water, with exquisite tenderness. He moved his hand around her to the small of her back and traced a slow path up her spine to the base of her neck. Weaving his fingers into the damp curls at her neck, he cupped the back of her head gently in his large hand. She was almost breathless in anticipation, biting her lower lip and keeping her eyes focused on his. His eyes dropped to her lips, and he groaned a little when he saw her lower lip between her teeth. It did things to him. Things that were beyond his control. 

      “Claire …” She nodded a tiny nod and he eased her up towards him slightly, lowering his head at the same time. His eyes didn’t move from her lips until his mouth was just inches from hers. He shifted his gaze to her whisky eyes, and found them looking into the depths of his eyes. God, she was beautiful. He wanted her desperately, but he intended to take it slow. He wanted to be sure that she was completely ready for this step. Slowly and tenderly, he touched her lips with his and let them linger there, mouths barely touching. She released her bottom lip, and he took it between his lips, softly kissing away the indents her teeth had made. They parted briefly, eyes locked. The tip of his tongue peeked out, wetting his lips slightly, and he moved towards her mouth again.   

                          🎶 I found a love fo-o-or me,

                          Darling just dive right in …

      They froze as Ed Sheeran's voice wafted out the speakers. Seconds went by as they stared at each other, motionless.

                          Well I found a gi-i-rl, beautiful and sweet …

      “That did not just happen!” Claire’s face started to crease into a laugh, and within seconds her giggle erupted from the depths of her belly. Jamie straightened up and then collapsed against the back of the hot tub with a groan. Then he started to laugh. They sat side by side laughing in disbelief that a love ballad, of all things, could ruin such an intense moment.

      “This must be destined to be our song, Sassenach.”

      “Oh, Jamie, I am so sorry,” she giggled. “That was bad timing. I didn't even realize this was in the playlist.” Her speech sounded lethargic.

      “D’ye think yer girls mentally telepathied that to us? Is that even a word?”

       Another giggle. “Possibly. I FaceTimed them earlier and they were bummed that you were too busy to speak to them.”

      “Claire!” he chided her, “you should have texted me, I’d have come up to say hi.”

      “You were too busy buying wineries, remember?” More giggles.

      He turned to face her again - he was ready to pick up where they had just left off, but something about her voice and giggle bothered him.

      Please, please don’t be tipsy, Claire. I want you so much, I ache. But I’m not going any further if you’re not fully aware of what ye’re doing.

      She sighed deeply, and rested her head on his shoulder, tentatively resting her hand on his chest. He held his breath for a moment, and exhaled slowly as her fingers explored the firm contours of his chest - the hard nipples and firm pecs, the little hollow between them, the sprinkling of soft russet hair. Her hand slid lower and it was obvious to him now that she was feeling the effects of the whisky quite markedly. There was no way he would be continuing what they had just started unless she was completely clear of the effects of alcohol.

      He gently took her hand and held it in his. Kissing her fingertips, he looked into her eyes and realized they were a little less sharply focused than usual. 

      Damn! Why did ye think whisky was a good idea tonight? She's a small wee thing, and it's gone right to her head!

      ”To be continued.” His voice was low and tinged with disappointment, but his words were full of promise.

      “Mmmm,” Claire murmured. 

       “l’ll grab the robes.” And like he had done on Tuesday evening, he carefully and tenderly wrapped her in her robe, lifting her off the ledge by the waist, and placing her carefully on the grass. Pulling on his own robe, he rested his hand on her back and guided her back to the house. She was steady enough on her feet, but he knew from her general lethargy and slight giggliness that it would take a few hours to clear her system. 

      It was a little after 8:00 p.m., and Jamie suggested that a movie might be a good way to end the evening. It would also be a good distraction from the lingering heat and longing between his legs. 

      “A movie sounds like a great idea. What do you want to watch?”

      “Your choice, Sassenach. Let’s change out of our swimsuits. Uhhh … I’m going to need a quick shower. Let’s meet back here and you can pick the movie while I get us some snacks.”   

      Claire took a quick shower too, downing a bottle of water between the kitchen and her bathroom - she knew she was headed for a hangover in the morning if she didn't hydrate well. By the time she reached the kitchen, she was feeling a tiny bit less woozy. Jamie was in his grey sweats and a navy tee, brewing some herbal tea for her. No more alcohol tonight. She was also comfortably dressed in yoga pants and a soft tee. They headed into the media room together.

      “Are you hungry? I can make you up a wee plate.” He handed her the tea in a travel mug so she could keep it in the theater seat's cup holder. 

      “Thank you,“ she smiled gratefully, taking a small sip, “I’m not hungry, but please grab something for yourself.”

      “I’m okay too. I’ll grab you a bottle of water and some snacks. What are we watching?”

      She scrolled through the recommended movies based on her preferences, and stopped at one she knew was good.

      “How doesThe Equalizer sound? Denzel Washington. I've seen it, but it's so good, and I've been wanting to see it again.”

      “Yasss! I love action movies. I've seen it too, but I want to watch Equalizer 2, so I'll gladly re-watch the first one. I'll re-watch anything with Denzel. Great choice.”   

      She dimmed the lights, and they picked the two middle seats in the back row as it gave them the best view. The deep red leather seats reclined quite far back, so they set their seats at the same comfortable angle and settled in to watch the movie. Jamie reached over and took Claire’s hand, interlacing their fingers. 

   

      When he awoke three hours later, the screen was blank, and they were still holding hands. He looked over at Claire, sound asleep in her seat. She looked beautiful and peaceful, and he hated to disrupt her sleep, but he certainly didn’t want to leave her there all night. 

      He leaned over, brushed a curl from her face, and stroked her cheek softly with the back of his forefinger.

      “Claire,” he whispered. 

      No response.

      "Claire, wake up, mo leannan.” He continued to gently stroke her cheek.

      “Huh?” She stirred, blinked awake slowly and yawned deeply. “Oh God, I am so sorry. I can’t believe I fell asleep on you.”

      “You were out within 20 minutes and I didn’t last much longer - just woke up myself.”  

      He stood up and held his hand out to her. Pulling her upright, he steadied her for a second as she adjusted to wakefulness from a deep sleep.

      “I’ll help ye tidy up in the morning. Let’s get a good night’s sleep. Take some more water up with you.”

      They headed upstairs together. At the top of the stairs, he pulled her into a firm hug and held her there for several long seconds. Kissing her temple, and squeezing her hand, he let her move away from him. They smiled a little awkwardly at each other.

      “Good night, Jamie.”

      “Good night, Sassenach.”

        

      

 



 

****** First moodboard with sexy, shirtless Jamie appears in the first few comments. Don't miss it. Click on 'Comment'. ******

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

      Claire awoke well after sunrise - unusually late for her. She had the tiniest headache and groaned when she thought of her tipsy behavior the previous night.

      Seriously! The man is on a friggin’ hiatus that is really important to him, and you’re getting all tipsy and up in his stuff. 

      She felt slightly ashamed for her wantonness.

      New day, fresh resolve. You got this.

      But this was the fourth day in a row of telling herself to renew her resolve and she had failed every time. God, he had been so freakin' sexy in the hot tub. She was so turned on and ready. And she knew he was too. That was about to be the hottest make-out session of her life.

       Damn you, Ed Sheeran!

      How would they ever survive the next week together without messing up his hiatus?

      She swallowed a Tylenol before taking a long, hot shower, pushing all thoughts of Jamie out of her head. Focusing on the impending professorship process, she made a mental list of people she needed to connect with. Faculty members who would give her useful advice as Fulton started to seriously vet her and her competitor. She also needed to reach out to some of Henry’s business contacts for advice and guidance. She was good at networking - Henry had taught her well - and his circle of contacts would provide valuable wisdom and insight. Pulling on grey yoga pants and a soft peach shirt, she headed to the kitchen.   

       She could see Jamie through the window, sitting out on the middle terrace. The umbrella was up and he was sprawled on a sofa, a document in one hand, and latte in the other. She made herself a latte and headed over to the terrace. 

      “Good morning!”

      “Sassenach!” He sat up, and she quickly shook her head.

      “Don’t get up. I’m about to do some croissants and cinnamon rolls for breakfast. Does that sound OK?”

      “That would be a great breakfast, thank you. Can I give ye a hand?” 

      “Nope. Thanks though. Have you been up for a while?

      “Aye, I’ve been for my run, and I’ve FaceTimed with Jenny and the kids. They are very excited about The Grotto. Now I’m just going over some of the final details from Milo - about the property deal. Keen to get that sorted.” 

      “Fingers still crossed for you.” She held up her ten-digit mess of crossed fingers, and he chuckled. “I’m going to check the cinnamon rolls and will be right back.” 

    

      She set some preserves and fresh berries on the counter, checked on the cinnamon rolls, and set the oven timer. While the rolls baked, she grabbed her iPad and went back to the terrace, settling into one of the sofas while Jamie finished reading his document. After a few minutes, he put it away, and she set her iPad down.

      “Are you going to work on campus today?”

      “No, I can do everything from here. I need to make a ton of calls to colleagues and business contacts. The professorship thing.”

      “Aye. It’s important that you focus on that. I’m glad you got a good night’s sleep before tackling all that.” He smiled cheekily and they laughed at how they had fallen asleep during the movie the previous night.

      “I think we should try the movie again tonight - after I’ve made yer dinner.”

      “That sounds like a good idea. No whisky, though. I can’t be trusted around it.”

      He narrowed his eyes, then his crooked little smile lifted the corner of his mouth. 

      “Good to know. I’ll have to remember that.”

      “Jamie … I need to apologize for my behavior last night. I should not have been so … you know? Frisky ...” She blushed a little. “I want you to know that I respect your hiatus, and your need to spend the time thinking about your life and what you want to do going forward. I should not have messed with that.”

      “Claire, you realize there were two of us in the hot tub last night, aye? You didn’t do anything that I didn’t want. If you recall, I was a very active participant. I’m a grown man, and if I feel like the hiatus has run its course, that’s a decision I’m comfortable making. Please don’t mistake the fact that we didn't continue after the song for reluctance on my part. Or because I’m too hung up on the hiatus. I knew that you were still a little under the influence of the whisky, and I respect you too much to take advantage of a situation while you don't have all your wits about you. No matter how badly I wanted you. And I wanted you very badly."

      He paused and continued to hold her gaze.

      "Our first kiss - or first anything - is not going to happen in a haze of alcohol.” He looked at her with an intensity that made her heart skip a beat. 

      She nodded slowly. His phone buzzed.

      “I need to take this call,” he said apologetically.

      “Go ahead, I’ll make you a fresh latte.”

      Jesus! Thank God for that call. I need to unpack all that! First kiss. First anything. He wanted me so badly? He’ll decide when to end his hiatus. Jenny’s going to hate me. And he refused to take advantage of me in my drunken state. I need that coffee.

      As he paced around the terrace, seemingly in an intense conversation, Claire made him a fresh latte and set it on the patio table for him. He nodded his thanks and continued his conversation. She returned to the kitchen to clean up. The croissants were ready and the cinnamon rolls would be done soon.    

      She had just finished wiping the counter top, when Jamie entered the kitchen, latte in hand. His eyes were alive with excitement, and she could tell he was bursting to tell her something. She looked at him quizzically, a silent question in her expression.    

      “I have some good news, but I’m afraid to tell ye.”

      “What? Why?”

      “Because last time I told you some good news, you launched a stealth offensive on me, and caused me to spill my whisky all over myself. And now I’m holding a very hot coffee.”

      “Jamie …” she said, very slowly and deliberately, “… set … the coffee … down.” She had a little suspicion about what the good news might be and her heart was thumping. “Are you going to tell me what I think you’re going to tell me?”

      “I don’t know what you think I’m going to tell ye,” he teased.

      “Stop tormenting me!”

      “Okay, okay! I need a sip of coffee first.”

      “Jamie!” she threatened.

      He set the coffee mug on the counter.

      “The property is mine. That was Milo on the phone.”

      She squealed and launched herself on him, throwing her arms around his neck. He wrapped his arms around her and they hugged tightly.

      “Congratulations! We’re officially neighbors.”

      “Hmmh.”

      “See, there’s one of your grunts. That needs to go in the glossary.”

       They were still hugging, her head on his shoulder and his face buried in her mass of fragrant curls. She moved to let him go, but he tightened the hug.

      “I need to enjoy this moment a little longer.”

      “I know, I’m excited for you.” God, she would stay wrapped in those strong arms of his all day if she could.

      She raised her head and planted a gentle kiss on his cheek.

      “Congrats again! I need to get the rolls,” she said softly.

      He released her and she pulled the cinnamon rolls from the oven and set them on the range to cool.

      "This calls for a wee celebration, Claire. Do ye have any champagne?”

      “I do - and some orange juice. We can make mimosas.”

      “I canna wait to go check out my new property. Will ye walk it with me later? It’s a bit rough and rugged, but we can wander around a little and check it out.”

      ”I’d be happy to. Wait - let’s take our breakfast over there and have a celebratory picnic. There’s so much to celebrate this morning!”

      “Braw idea! How can I help?”    

      They gathered the croissants and cinnamon rolls, jams and preserves, fresh berries, and the mimosa ingredients and loaded it all into a cooler bag. Claire grabbed a thick picnic blanket, paper plates, knives, and two mimosa glasses. At the last minute, she pulled open the freezer and pulled out a small box of macarons from Le Panier. They would thaw quickly. Pulling on sneakers and gathering their picnic supplies, they walked down her driveway, and made their way to the overgrown bushes and long grasses into the large expanse of property.

      “Watch out for wee rocks and things, Claire, I don’t want you spraining an ankle. Especially just before our big date night tomorrow.”

      “Oh, it’s a big date night, is it?” she teased.

      “Aye, I’ve arranged a limo, so we don't have to worry about driving. And I plan on dancing with you, so ye need those wee ankles in good shape. I already ken they’re in pretty good shape, though.” 

      “Mmm, I’m sure you do.” Her thoughts wandered to his thorough investigation of her legs in the hot tub.

     

      They walked a little way into his property, until they found a space that would allow them to spread the blanket out fully. 

      “It’s a bit rough, but this should do just fine,” she said, patting the blanket to flatten the overgrown grasses below. They set out all the picnic items, and while they ate, Jamie peppered her with questions about the house designing and building process.

      “I can recommend architects and builders if you like. Milo and Suki will have a list of great ones too - reputable firms that design and build custom homes. You might want to meet with a few of them and decide who you connect with.”

      “Aye, I think I’ll do that. I love the layout of your house Claire. I’ll be picking your brain to find out if there are things you might have done differently.”

      “Oh there are definitely things I’d have done differently.”

      “Like?”

      “I’d consider a separate gym for starters. You might also want to think about a separate little guest house - you have so much space here and it makes sense. You’re likely to have a lot of guests visiting from Scotland - Jenny and her family and others. A ‘casita’ or guest house would give them some privacy. Also consider that if you have babies and small children in the main house, it’s easier to maintain a routine if you have some separation between visitors and your home life. My girls are older and we love having guests, so it’s never been a problem in our home, but if they'd been babies here, I would have been stressed out about routines.”

      Jamie nodded thoughtfully at this. “Makes good sense fer sure.”    

      “I can think of a few other small things, but I’ll let you know as I remember them. Suki mentioned that you might want horses out here too?”

      "I haven't given that enough thought yet, but when I found out how big the property was, I thought it might be worth considering. I love horses. They played a big part in my Clan Hearts role. There’s nothing like a long horse ride to clear your mind. They are such gentle, intuitive animals. If I did keep them, it would be as far from yer house as possible.”

      “We’re horse lovers too - the girls each have a horse. They’re stabled a few miles from here. They’ve been riding since we moved to Seattle. Both girls volunteer at the stables to help kids with special needs ride horses and ponies. As you said, they are intuitive and gentle, and it’s amazing how therapeutic they can be.”

       Jamie popped the cork on the champagne and mixed their mimosas. He handed her a glass. She knew he was going to make a toast, and assumed it would be a generic toast to new friends and neighbors.

      He raised his glass: “To new beginnings. To family and children and loving homes and horses and happiness.” It was both lighthearted and heartfelt. They tapped glasses and sipped.

      No ‘friends and neighbors’.      

      “Your turn, Claire.”

      She raised her glass.

      “To new beginnings for you, Jamie. To making the right decisions. To filling your new home with laughter and love and passion and children.”

      They tapped glasses and sipped again.    

      Having eaten their fill, they tidied up, loaded the leftover breakfast things in the cooler bag and stretched out on the blanket to enjoy the warmth and peace of the surroundings. The sun wasn’t very high in the sky yet, and they enjoyed the dappled shade from some nearby trees. Claire lay back and squirmed into a semi-comfortable position on the uneven ground.

      “I might lie here for the rest of the day instead of working. I love how unspoiled and peaceful it is out here.”

      “I used to lie like this under the clouds as a kid. Lay there for hours at a time with Willie and Jenny. It’s sad that when we become adults, we get so wrapped up in our lives that we don’t take the time to lie back and do absolutely nothing for a moment. Force away all our thoughts and just enjoy our surroundings.”

      “Mmmm. I agree.”    

      After a moment, Jamie turned to Claire. “Can I ask ye something Claire?”

      “Of course.”

      “We spoke a lot about my dating life the other night. Have you been able to think about how that will unfold for you going forward. I mean dating and such?” He sounded tentative and hesitant. “I know you have men interested in you. Ashlee’s dad, for one. The one who’s ‘legit dying’ right now. I hope it’s okay that I asked. If ye’re not comfortable talking about it, I completely understand.”

      “No, I’m okay with it. I had just started to dabble in dating before the pandemic. Last year, I went on a few one-and-done dates. There are some crazy people out there. Two of them thought that since I’d been widowed for well over a year, I must be desperate for sex, and they thought they’d be the ones to break my drought for me. Acted like they were about to do me the favor of my life. One of them suggested a threesome with our server! In both cases, I got an Uber home - no way was I allowing them to drive me anywhere.”

      “Jesus, and I thought things were weird in Hollywood!” 

      “A couple of Henry’s old business connections have asked me out. That felt strange, I must admit. I declined one, and had dinner with the other several times. Really great guy whose wife left him for someone else. He’s not a player in any sense of the word. On our last date, he brought me home, and I asked him in for a drink - not planning on anything beyond that, because I just wasn’t ready.”

      “Mmhmmm.”

      “We were out on the patio, and he kissed me and I shut down completely. It felt wrong. And I felt awful because he was such a gentleman about it.”

      “Why d’you think you felt that way, Claire? Did you feel disloyal about being intimate with someone in the home ye shared with Henry, or was it because he was Henry’s friend? Or just no chemistry?”

      “Probably the last two, to be honest. It was weird that he had been a close friend of Henry’s, but to be blunt, there was zero chemistry. I knew that from the first date, but thought maybe it would develop, but it didn’t. Thinking about intimacy in the home I shared with Henry was a concern for me when I first started dating. I even sought grief counseling for that. When Henry was … near the end … he made me promise I wouldn't turn the house into a shrine with his pictures everywhere. He told me he wanted me to find happiness, and if that happiness brought someone who loved me and cherished me into our home, he would be happy. But he said it wouldn’t work if I had pictures of him everywhere. He told me I could keep one picture of him up - he even picked it out - it’s the one of him in a frame in the office. Smallish one on the shelf. All his other pictures are in albums or saved digitally for me to look at when I feel the need.”

      “He sounds like a good man, a wise man, who loved you very deeply, Claire.”

      “Yes, I was so very lucky.”

      “The grief counselor that you saw was helpful, aye? What did he or she advise?”

      “She was a very experienced counselor and helped me work through some things. Primarily about bringing a new man into Henry’s space. She did not think that selling our home and finding a new one would be helpful to me or the girls. Henry was always wary of overstepping his boundaries as stepfather, but he was still much more fatherly towards them than Frank, and they were devastated when he died. It would have added to their heartbreak if I moved them from the happiest home they have ever known. So the counselor suggested that I completely redecorate my own space - the master bedroom - and I followed her advice. My room is so completely different in every way from the room I shared with Henry.”

     “And ye’ve not shared it with anyone yet?”

      “No,” she said quietly.

      “Where does Ashlee’s dad fit into all of this?”

       She giggled, "He doesn’t really. Too much of a playboy. He’s a Microsoft exec, but far from being a tech geek, he’s a bit of a ladies’ man. I’ve been boating with him on Lake Washington and we went to a Seahawks game a couple of months before quarantine. Nice guy, but he really wants a trophy wife, and that’s not me. I have no plans to move that forward. It’s a little awkward, because the girls are very good friends with Ashlee. They don’t know about the dates with him, and think we were all out in a group, like teens, you know." She chuckled. "It would be awkward for the girls and Ashlee, and I have no desire to add myself to a sleepover there anytime soon. He’s working it hard though."

      Jamie was watching her intently. 

      “And there you have my sad little dating life, in a nutshell. A university lecturer with two teenagers isn’t exactly the most sexy image for dating, ye ken.” She teasingly borrowed one of his expressions, and he smiled.

      “You’ve got be joking Claire. You are the sexiest woman I know, and I’m not one given to flattery. Teasing and playing around, yes, but not mindless flattery. You are intimidatingly intelligent. Do you know how sexy that is? And you are beautiful, Claire. In every way.”

      She plucked at a thread on the blanket, still gazing at the sky. Compliments made her very uncomfortable.

      “Full disclosure, Claire - when Milo told me he was introducing me to my neighbor to talk about the property, he gave me the basics. Associate professor, widow, two teenagers, with a 'proper English accent' as he described it. I was expecting Helen Mirren - and know that I love Helen and think she’s a classy, beautiful woman. But that was the image I had of the neighbor I was going to meet with Milo. When he first pulled up at your front stairs with me in the car and I saw you standing there, I said, ‘I thought you told me the kids were out of town!'. He fell about laughing right there in the car, and told me ‘That’s your new neighbor. I think you’ll find that she’s pretty amazing.' And he wasn't wrong.”

      Jamie rolled onto his side to look at her, propping himself up on one forearm.

      “And then you came around to the front of the car and I saw you up close, and I saw your eyes for the first time. Christ, Claire! Did you know yer eyes are the color of whisky? And sunrise?”

      She turned her head to look at him and giggled. “Well I’ve heard them described as honey-colored, or amber, or sometimes tiger-eyes, but leave it to a Scot to say they’re like whisky!”

      He smiled at that, and they held each other’s gaze, suspended in timelessness, neither willing to break the spell. Jamie rolled over a little more, bringing his body closer to hers. She could feel the heat off his chest, and she could smell the subtle spice of his shower gel on his skin. He moved his hand to her face, gently tucking her curls behind her ear. He curled a tendril around his finger.

      “You have no idea how stunning you are.”

      Her butterflies were suddenly on high alert. He was sober, she was sober. Whatever was about to happen here could not be explained away by alcohol. And no matter how much they had tried to self-talk themselves into trying to fight the attraction, and to find every logical reason why it would be a mistake to surrender to the desire and the hunger and to keep the relationship on an even keel - friends and neighbors - they kept failing dismally. If the intense emotional connection they had was ‘not usual’, then the insane sexual chemistry that accompanied it threatened to overwhelm them completely. 

     He released her curl and his finger traced a lazy path behind her ear, around her neck and along her collarbone. Then he lowered his head and his lips traced the same path along her collarbone in a series of tender kisses. She moaned and gasped softly and felt his mouth smile into the little spaces around her collarbone. His scruff tickled her lightly, driving her mad with desire. He had zeroed in on one of her most sensitive areas and he knew it. He tilted her head back a little to expose more of her neck and lay down a new path of kisses and tiny licks in every shallow little groove he could find. He nibbled and licked and kissed, until she could stand it no longer.  

      “Jamie,” she breathed. 

       Having teased her mercilessly, thoroughly kissing and nibbling every available inch of her collarbone and neck, he focused his attention back on her face. He moved to gently position himself over her body, one forearm on either side of her head. She parted her legs, allowing him to move into the space between them. Bringing her knees up a little, she tilted her pelvis into a more comfortable position, which also meant they were groin to groin. She brought her hand up to his face, stroking his scruff slowly, gaze locked with his. Her hand rested along his jawline, and she stroked him with her thumb, relishing the bristly softness. Moving both her hands around his back, she slid them under his shirt and felt his warm bare skin under her fingertips. His back muscles rippled slightly as he adjusted his position to lift some of his weight off her breasts. She felt the tingly warmth between her legs at the same time that she felt Jamie’s growing arousal pressing into her groin.  

      “Close yer, eyes, mo leannan.” She didn't understand the Gaelic term, but it sounded so sweet, so loving, that she melted even more under his warmth. He gently kissed her eyelid, and traced a path of kisses to her ear, down her cheek and along her jawline, kissing all the way across, up her other cheek and finally kissing her other eyelid. She opened her eyes and gazed into the deep blue of his eyes.

      His mouth hovered inches above hers, his breath fanning her lips. 

      “Claire, I-”

      He didn’t finish what he was going to say. Instead, he lowered his lips to hers and left tiny, delicate kisses all the way across her lower lip. He pressed his mouth over hers and breathed something in Gaelic onto her lips. His breath was warm and she knew he would taste of the mimosas they had shared. She parted her lips and the tip of her tongue brushed along his lower lip. Her hands now out from under his shirt, she brought them up to cradle his face, and her lips traced a path of soft, dewy kisses along his upper lip. 

      A low groan escaped his lips, and he moved his mouth over hers again, gently pushing it open with his tongue. He pulled back almost immediately and feathered more soft kisses on her lips, raining them down gently but firmly. His tongue pushed in between her lips again, and the tip of her tongue reached for his, but he teased it back and tugged her lower lip tenderly between his. She was achingly aroused now, her body wanting so much more than he was giving her. She tried to suppress her little pants and sighs, but he heard all of them, and each one went to the core of his own arousal. Her hips started to move infinitesimally against his groin, and she felt his erection against her lower abdomen. He couldn’t hold back another deep moan as her hips moved against his. Lifting his head a little, he looked into her eyes, and then brought his mouth down on hers and pushed his tongue into her mouth, exploring hungrily, greedily. She tasted of cinnamon and berries and celebratory macarons. She responded to his kiss with the same feverish intensity; her tongue caressing his, his tongue stroking hers. He tasted of mimosas and strawberries. Their kiss deepened, and everything else fell away around them. The trees, the birds, the hard ground beneath - nothing existed but the warmth and taste and feel of each other. Their bodies were in perfect alignment, hip to hip, chest to chest; and their lips met in an exquisite union of softness and fullness - at times seeking, at times yielding. When they broke apart, breathless, but still desperate for each other’s mouths, she reached up to caress his face gently. Their gazes locked, amber and azure, whisky and ocean; each wanting to drown in the other, to stay in this moment as long as possible. Their first kiss.

      “Claire,” he whispered, “Christ -“

      “Shhhhh,” she placed a finger on his lips, “just kiss me.”

      He claimed her mouth again, gently sucking on her lower lip, savoring the softness as she surrendered to the passionate demands of his lips. He released her lip, and she captured his mouth in hers, her tongue finding his again as a primal desire moved his hips in perfect tandem with hers, his hard length pressing into her abdomen with every movement. Their kiss became more fervent and they were completely lost in each other now. They pulled apart - panting, breathing each other in. 

      “Sassenach ….” he whispered, and peppered tender, healing kisses all over her swollen lips. He left a trail of nibbles and kisses along her jawline. She knew where he was headed, and she waited in breathless anticipation, as he zeroed in. In an agonizingly slow burn, he brushed his scruff lightly over her skin in a tantalizing path from her jawline toward her shoulder and along her collarbone. He was immediately rewarded with the deep, slow, rolling movement of her hips. Her arousal was almost painful in its intensity.

      “Jamie,” she gasped, as he continued his downward path of kisses and nuzzling. He paused at her breasts and raised his head to look into her eyes. She met his gaze with unashamed longing. His hand slipped under her shirt and found its way to her breast. He thumbed gently over her nipple through the soft fabric of her bra; every part of her was on fire, and her hips moved up against his with more urgency.      

      An aching, desperate need took over her senses, and she reached for his waistband, fumbling awkwardly with his buckle. He reached down to help her, and then stilled for a moment, a frown furrowing his brow.

      “Claire, are you … I don’t have anything… protection, ye ken?”

      She released a long deep sigh. “Oh God, Jamie. We should have …”

      He remained frozen for a long moment, face suspended above hers, both of them trying desperately to process their thoughts and their options against the urgent need they had aroused in each other. Their eyes were still locked together, and a look of anguish slowly replaced the passionate yearning. 

      He slowly rolled off her onto his side, still nestled up against her.

      “Christ Claire, I’m sorry … I should have … I wasn’t expecting...”

      “I know, Jamie, neither was I. It’s okay.”

      “It just felt so right - it feels so right. I can’t see you lying there Claire, without wanting to kiss you. I don’t want to keep fighting it.”

      “I didn’t try to stop you, Jamie.”

      “I’m so sorry, Claire. I feel terrible - this is so awkward. I should have thought of this sooner, but it’s been a while since I’ve had to think about it.”

      She touched her fingers to his lips. “It’s okay - it’s on me too."

      They lay in silence for a while, allowing their bodies to slowly come down from the intense highs they had just shared. A sense of disbelief and disappointment settled into the space around them. 

      “Claire,” his voice was barely above a whisper, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to keep fighting this … this thing between us.” 

      She nodded. 

      “We need to talk about what we’re going to do, Claire - what it all means for us emotionally and what we’re going to do about protection. We have to be responsible about it.”

      “I know, Jamie. I’ve never connected this strongly with anyone. I don’t think we can deny it much longer. I don’t want to fight it either.” 

      She paused for a moment, appreciating how very considerate he was, and how he had the ability to make an awkward situation feel so comfortable. 

      “I … uh … when I first started getting back into the dating scene, I was fitted with a contraceptive implant, Nexplanon. But that was so long ago and I haven’t given it any thought at all since I got it. Haven’t needed to. I would have to check with my physician - whether my Nex is still effective - and I think it might be, but we need to be sure. I’m so sorry Jamie.”

      “No, Claire, don’t apologize. I want you to know that I am scrupulously careful about my health and I have a full medical every year, including all the testing. My last one was in March. Completely clear on all the tests. And since I haven’t been … active since well before then …”

      She nodded.  

      He reached for her hand, and she rolled over to face him. They interlaced their fingers, and she smiled a slow, shy smile, lips still tingling from the intensity of his kisses.

      “I’m glad we had this talk.”

      He nodded; regret, longing, want written all over his face.

      He pulled her close again and kissed her still-swollen lips slowly and tenderly. There was no urgency in his kiss, just a softness that said so much without uttering a word.

      They lay there facing each other, lips touching lightly, sharing the same breath, feeling the same intense desire. Finally, he stood up and helped her to her feet, immediately gathering her into a comforting embrace. They held each other for a long moment, until he kissed her temple and they moved apart. Collecting the things they had brought with them, they walked back to the house in silence.

 

      Jamie’s groceries had been delivered, and they carried them into the kitchen. Once they had put the groceries away, Jamie pulled her close again and wrapped her in his arms.

      “You’re going to drive me to distraction, Claire. I can barely keep my hands off ye.”

      She rested her forehead on his shoulder. “Oh, Jamie, we’re in trouble here, aren’t we? Let’s try and focus on our work this afternoon. We both have lots to do. I’ll start with my medical records.”

      He nodded. “I’ll start preparing yer dinner at 5:00’ish.“

      He gently tipped her chin up with his forefinger and placed a soft, lingering kiss on her lips.

      “That’s not helping, you cheeky bugger!” They both chuckled, then headed to their separate work areas.

   

- - - - - - - - - - - -

      

      It ended up being a very productive afternoon for both of them. Jamie worked on his speech for the gala dinner and made several calls about the winery. He FaceTimed with Jenny again. She knew him well enough to notice a levity and buoyancy in his voice.

      “I ken that lilt in yer voice verra well, Jamie. Ye’d better not be taking a hiatus from the hiatus!” 

       “Jenny! Back off!” He was mildly annoyed. “I’ve been really good about it, and it has already given me a lot of time to think and sort things out in my head and my heart. You need to trust me. I may be yer baby brother, but I’m a grown man. I know what I’m doing.”

       “She’d better be worth it.”

       “Mm-hmm.”

         

      Claire had placed an immediate call to her OB-Gyn, with whom she had a great relationship. She hoped that Glenda would call her back as soon as she heard her message, but decided to speak to her assistant too - just to ensure that her call was prioritized. Glenda’s assistant let her know that she was performing some out-patient procedures, but would call back as soon as she could. Claire then focused on work matters, making calls to faculty members and business associates. Two colleagues who had become professors in recent years offered to meet for coffee or lunch. Business contacts were delighted to hear from her - most of them had learned a lot from Henry, and owed large parts of their success to his business advice and acumen. They assured her of their support in whatever way she needed. Most of them were well-connected, and Claire had a deep understanding of the importance of networking. She was feeling more and more confident about the professorship. The remainder of her work time was spent on planning curriculum for an online course she was offering later in the summer.   

      Her phone buzzed at around 4:45. The caller ID was “Prima Medical”. It was Glenda’s assistant, letting her know that Glenda needed to check Claire’s records for some important information, and would call her that evening or first thing in the morning. 

        

      Jamie was already in the kitchen setting out his ingredients. He had poured her a glass of wine and it was waiting for her at the end of the island. 

      “Sassenach! Did you get a lot done?”

      “Yes! Tons, how about you?” 

      “Oh, aye. Milo is picking me up for brunch tomorrow morning. We’re signing the paperwork, and he’s lined up two meetings with architects. Figured there’s no point in delaying. I’d like to see what initial ideas they have.”

      “That’s fantastic! It’ll be good to get multiple viewpoints before you appoint your architect. Remind me what time our limo is coming?”

      “5:00 p.m. There’ll be pre-dinner drinks at 6:00, and dinner starts at 7:30.”

      “Sounds perfect. I have a mani-pedi in the morning, and my hairstylist is coming at 1:00.”

      “You’ll look beautiful no matter what, Claire. It makes me happy that you’re looking forward to it. Now, where can I find those wee herbs you’ve been growing in yer garden?”

      “They’re around the far corner - near my dying glads. While you get what you need, I’ll FaceTime the girls.”

      “Aah,” he smiled. “I’ll pop my head in and say hello, if that’s okay.”

      “Of course.”

        

      The girls appeared on screen, full of excitement and energy, as always. After the kiss avalanche, they were ready to share all their news and find out Claire’s too.

      “We saw Nonna, again. She seems kinda down, mom.”

      “Oh no! I have neglected her this week. I’ll FaceTime her tomorrow for sure. What else have you girls been up to?”

      “Not a lot. Is Mr. Fraser available?” asked Beth, expectantly.

      “He will be soon - he’s making dinner tonight and went to pick some herbs.”

      “Oh my God mom, that is such a couple thing. A guy making dinner for a girl is so ‘coupley’,” Beth beamed excitedly.

      “Yah, Beth is totally shipping you guys,” Ella rolled her eyes. “I mean, he’s definitely cute, Mom.”

      “Girls, please - no embarrassing comments tonight.”

      Jamie walked in with a handful of fresh herbs and placed them next to the sink. He looked at Claire questioningly and she nodded. He walked over to the iPad and pulled up a stool.

      “Hi girls!”

      “Hey Mr. Fraser,” they said together, huge smiles on their faces.

      “Did yer Mam tell you the news?”

      “Couldn't get a word in,” said Claire wryly, giving the girls an exaggerated look of exasperation. “Why don’t you tell them?”

      “Oh my God, let me guess,” said Beth, “you guys are dating!”

      “Beth!” cried Ella in shock.

      Jamie and Claire shot a quick look at each other, trying to maintain blank expressions.

      Jamie jumped in quickly. “My good news is that the property deal went through this morning, so we are officially neighbors.”

      “Yay - that’s awesome,” both girls clapped their hands excitedly. “Congratulations.”

      “When will you build your house?” asked Ella.

      “As soon as possible. There’s quite a lot to do before we get to that point. I’m also considering building stables, and I hear you lasses have yer own horses?”

      “What?” They stared at Jamie in disbelief. ”You’re getting horses?” They looked at each other and squealed. 

      Jamie laughed, “It’s something I’ve given some thought to. I’ll let you know what happens. I’ve gotta go make yer Mam some dinner.”

      “Thanks for being so awesome to her, Mr. Fraser,” Beth smiled.

         

      Jamie started to prepare the meal while Claire chatted a little longer with the girls. Wrapping up their chat, Claire said, “We’ll chat earlier tomorrow. I have an event in the evening.”

      “With Mr. Fraser?” asked Ella.

      “Well … yes, but it’s a big dinner with dozens of people.”

      “I called it!” yelled Beth triumphantly. 

      “You guys are so dating!” whispered Ella. Beth sat next to her making heart hands and a kissy face.

      “Love you girls, good night.”

         

      “You’ve raised two amazing young women, Claire. I’m going to enjoy getting to know them.” He was trimming chicken breasts at the sink, and when those were done, he assembled the herbs to rinse and chop.

      “They may get a over-little excited by things occasionally, but they are really good girls at heart. I’m proud of how they’ve bounced back from some hard knocks, you know? Can I chop the onions or grate the Parmesan?” offered Claire.

      “No, thank you. I’ve got this. You get the night off.”

      “Umm … we’ve mostly had take-out, so it’s not like I’ve done a lot. I’m happy to help.”

      “Ye’ve opened yer house to me, Claire. That is a pretty big thing, ye ken. I want to do this for you. Sit back, relax, and enjoy yer wine, mo leannan.”

      “You’ve said that to me more than once, what does it mean?”

      “It’s a term of endearment. It means sweetheart or darling.”

      She sipped her wine, and mulled that over. 

      Why am I so warm and fuzzy over the fact that he is already so comfortable using endearments with me.

      Unable to shake off her discomfort about not doing anything to help prepare the dinner, she waited until he was busy at the sink; then she moved silently to the chopping mat, picked up an onion and a knife, and checked the recipe printout to see if it called for sliced or chopped onions. Sliced. She set the onion on the mat, and prepared to cut into it.

      Before she could make another move, Jamie was behind her, pushing his body into her back, nudging her hips right up against the counter. She could feel the heat of his body along the entire length of hers. Her breath hitched and she froze, waiting for him to say something.

       He moved her curls aside and lowered his head to her ear. Sucking softly on her earlobe, he nipped it gently between his teeth and in a low rumble that awoke every nerve ending in her body, he admonished her, “Dr. Beauchamp, you’re not a very good listener.”

      He gently nuzzled his scruff into the sensitive area behind her jaw and brushed his chin gently down her neck.

      “I thought I asked ye to sit back and enjoy yer wine.”

      Her breath came in little gasps and pants, and she felt his little smile of triumph on the side of her neck. It hadn’t taken him long to learn exactly what to do to her to make her start losing herself in him. Moving his jaw back up to her ear, he started a trail of gentle, wet little kisses in a line from her ear lobe all the way to her collarbone, the lingering moisture a torturous reminder of their picnic and how his kisses had left her wanting more. So much more.

      “Drop the knife, Dr. Beauchamp.” His voice still low and commanding.

      “Just trying to help,” she whispered weakly.

      He turned her around by the shoulders. “Ye can help by sitting and keeping me company.” He lowered his head and kissed her lips gently. Before he could move away, she took his face in her hands and placed a series of kisses on the scruff along his jawline. 

      “I’ll sit back down if you promise not to shave for a while.”

      He smiled his crooked, one-sided smile. “Well, I’ll need to shave tomorrow for the formal event, but I promise to grow it back next week.”

      “I’ll hold you to that, Fraser.”

      “I’m a man of my word, but we can seal it with a kiss if ye need more than that.” 

      One hand threaded through the curls at the back of her head, while his other hand found its way to the small of her back and firmly pulled her hips closer to his. He tilted her head back a little, and lowered his face to hers. His lips were a hair’s breadth from hers and his breath was on her mouth, but he teasingly withheld his lips from touching hers until he heard her tiny groan. With infinite control, he softly brushed over her lips with his in the lightest butterfly touches, all the way across her lower lip, and all the way across her top lip. Desperate to take his mouth and kiss him deeply, she forced herself to exercise the same restraint, every nerve fiber in her body ablaze with longing. He paused for a long moment, lips barely on hers. Slowly, slowly, he pressed his lips on hers, and the tip of his tongue pushed into her mouth. Her lips parted and her tongue met his in the gentlest of touches - caressing lightly, delicately - for what seemed like an eternity. Both of them felt the familiar stirrings of their need. The soft, slow touches started to give way to a deeper, more urgent exploration of each other’s mouths, and they kissed long and deep with a fervor and intensity that left them both gasping as they pulled away, lips swollen and glistening and still desperate for more. Her hips were pressed against his, and they both knew they were dangerously close to can’t-turn-back territory. His eyes dropped to her mouth and she sensed that if he kissed her again, there would be no holding back.

      “Jamie,” she whispered, “you know where this is going. We-”

      “Sassenach …” his voice almost a whisper, “did you call your doctor? I’m so sorry to ask, but, God! You drive me crazy with thoughts of what I want to do with ye.” He pulled her close and released a deep sigh over the top of her head. 

      “It was the first call I made. She was performing procedures all afternoon and will get back to me tonight or first thing tomorrow. She wants to check my records for all the correct information. I’m so sorry.” She reached up and held his face in her hands, thumbing gently over his lower lips. He touched her forehead with his own, and they nuzzled for a moment.

      “Claire ... you should probably sit back down while I still have a measure of control.”

      She returned to her seat, acutely aware of the yearning their kiss had aroused deep in her core.

      “We need cooking music!” she announced, looking for anything to break the sexual tension. “I’ll pick a playlist, if that’s okay.”

      “Of course, I love music while I prepare dinner.”

      “Do you like country music?”

      “I was never that into it. It seemed like every song was about a man and his dog in a truck, on a country road, singing about his broken heart. But when I started attending more events here in the U.S., I also attended awards shows for the music industry - usually a publicity appearance orchestrated by the studios or my PR. I found I really started to enjoy some of the country music. The songs all tell a story. And the writing comes from the heart. Musical poetry, ye ken.”

      “Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I was also not a huge fan of country music until I attended Watershed last year with the twins and some of their friends and a few moms.”

      “Watershed? Is that the one held over by The Grotto? It came up in discussions while we were negotiating the purchase. One of the big events that takes The Grotto to 100% occupancy.”

      “Yes - it’s a 3-day camping festival at The Gorge amphitheater, which is super close to The Grotto. Thousands of country music fans attend, and most of them camp in the campgrounds. We had to Airbnb because The Grotto was full. But it was an absolute blast! It’s cancelled this year, but I definitely want to be there next year. And like you, I found myself enjoying the music a lot. I’ve started to add a few great country tracks to my playlists - some classic and some more recent crossover stuff like Florida Georgia Line.”

      “Let’s hear some of yer favorites then,” he smiled as he busied himself rinsing some quinoa.

      She tapped her ‘Country and Crossover’ playlist, and the first bars of Faith Hill’s “Breathe” drifted from the overhead speakers. Oh God, way too intense for us right now. She tapped the skip button, and the slightly more uptempo beat of Kelly Clarkson and Jason Aldean’s 'Don’t You Want to Stay' filled the space.

                               🎶 I really hate to let this moment go

                               Touching your skin and your hair falling slow

                               When a goodbye kiss, feels like this

 

      “I like this,” he said, a few lines in.

 

                               Don't you wanna stay here a little while

                               Don't you wanna hold each other tight

                               Don't you wanna fall asleep with me tonight

                               Don't you wanna stay here a little while

                               We can make forever feel this way

                               Don't you wanna stay

      “I like this verra much. Good choice.” He looked over at her for a moment, and then continued to prepare his ingredients, clearly paying close attention to the song’s lyrics.       

                               Let's take it slow I don't wanna move too fast

                               I don't wanna just make love, I wanna make love last

 

      Shoot, this one has some intense moments too. Are you also thinking of our picnic moment this afternoon, Jamie-boy? Because yes, dammit! Yes, I want us to hold each other tight, and yes I do want to fall asleep with you tonight. Fuck! Why hasn't Glenda called?

 

                               Don't you wanna stay here a little while

                               Don't you wanna hold each other tight

                               Don't you wanna fall asleep with me tonight

         

      She changed the music to something more upbeat to lighten the mood, and while he finished preparing a herb and Parmesan encrusted chicken breast with quinoa and roasted cauliflower, they chatted about the property and his house. He shared his vision for his man-cave, gourmet kitchen, and wine cellar. He asked for her thoughts on areas like the master bedroom, walk-in closets, and whether a main floor or second floor laundry was better.

      “You have some great ideas, Jamie. Lots of little luxury touches, but plenty of practical ideas too.”

      “Aye, that’s the goal. Ready for dinner?”

      They ate on the patio. Claire kept her phone close to her in case Glenda called. Jamie’s eyes dropped to her phone every now and again, but no call came. The meal was perfect — tender, flavorful chicken with a divinely cheesy, herby panko crust. Everything was cooked to perfection.

      “Jamie, this is restaurant quality. Which makes sense, since Jenny offers this at the B&B. I’m so impressed. And grateful.”

      “No, mo leannan, I’m the one who’s grateful. This has been one of the happiest weeks of my life. Certainly the most memorable.”

      “Yes, it’s not every week one buys a winery and prime piece of real estate.”

      “Or meets the woman who changes the way one views one’s world.” His eyes held hers for a long moment.

      “Jamie … you give me too much credit. I just let you talk and listened while you did.”

      He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed each fingertip gently. 

      “Movie night?” he asked.

      “Yes - let’s try to stay awake this time.”

 

      She kept her phone in the cup-holder, but there was still no call or message by the time the movie ended.

      They looked at each other for a long moment at the top of the stairs, knowing with certainty that if they touched … or kissed … neither would be able to hold back.

      “Good night, Jamie,” she whispered.

      She bit her lower lip and willed herself not to reach out her hand. He fought the overpowering urge to take her in his arms. 

      “Good night, Sassenach,” he replied, his voice low and strained. “Go now, or I …”

      She nodded and walked backwards a few steps before turning around and making her way to her room.

     

    


 

 

*** See first comment for notes/moodboards/pictures and next chapter post date. Click on 'Comments'.***

 

Chapter Text


  

      Jamie was first to the kitchen, hoping to catch another sunrise, but he had missed it by about 10 minutes and the sun was already well over the mountains and streaming into the kitchen. He filled his water bottle from the fridge dispenser and headed to the man-cave for his weights workout.

      Claire came downstairs a few minutes later. Her hair was pulled up in an unruly ponytail, and she was dressed for her yoga class. Hearing the muffled clank of the weights in the man-cave, she decided to wait and give Jamie his space and privacy while he worked out.

      She knew that he had brunch planned with Milo later, but figured that he might need a little something to eat after his workout. Scanning the fridge, her eyes landed on the picnic leftovers. She pulled out the remaining cinnamon rolls. They would be perfect for French toast, and that would be the ideal little filler snack between his workout and brunch.

      Forty minutes and a fragrant kitchen later, she had a tidy little stack of sliced cinnamon roll French toast. Taking her latte out to the patio, she sat down and mentally mapped out her day. Yoga first. Mani-pedi at 11:00. She had been lucky to secure that appointment on short notice, as nail salons were still under quarantine restrictions and operating at 50% capacity. Next was Armando, who was due at her house at 1:00 p.m. She was excited to spend time with him. Not only was he a talented hairstylist, he was also one of dearest friends. She needed his advice on her dress choice for the event, and she trusted him to ensure that she looked her best. As soon as her hair was done, she’d FaceTime the girls and Nonna. She would start to get ready at around 4’ish.

      She had to admit that she was pretty excited for tonight. It had been so long since she’d attended a formal event. Prior to Henry’s illness, they had enjoyed a busy social life, attending numerous formal and semi-formal events year-round. After his death, she had attended a few events as a ‘plus-one’ with men in her social and business circles, and even some of her faculty colleagues. There was nothing date-like about them, and they were strictly platonic. Tonight would be different. It felt exciting. It felt like the date that it was. And she would likely know quite a few of the people attending the dinner - her social circles tending to intersect a lot. It would be good to reconnect with some familiar faces. She and Jamie needed to be on their best behavior - Jamie had such a high profile, and she still had some lingering recognition issues after the very public PILF matter. They definitely didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to themselves. She couldn't prevent a slow smile as she hoped they'd be able to keep their undeniable sexual attraction firmly under control. 

      Last night had been hard enough, but they had managed to get through the entire movie without incident. Jamie had held her hand, occasionally kissing her fingertips or wrist or palm, between quick glances at her phone. Still no call from Glenda. At some point Claire had given up on getting the call, and rested her head on his shoulder, enjoying the feel of his scruff on her forehead. Both were acutely aware of the sexual tension. The desperate hunger they felt for each other was escalating, but in the absence of the confirmation they needed from Glenda, they had to do the prudent thing and suppress their ardor for now. The abstinence also gave them an opportunity to internally process the emotional intensity of the previous few days before giving in entirely to their near-overwhelming physical needs.

      “Good morning, beautiful.” She turned to see Jamie emerge from the French doors of the man-cave, shirtless and glistening with the exertion from his workout.

      “Hey you! Ready for a latte and a light snack while you wait for Milo?”

      “Oh, aye! Whatever you’ve been working on this morning, the aroma has been seeping into the gym and making my belly growl like crazy.”

      “C’mon, let’s get you fed.”

 

      Over coffee and French toast, they shared their timelines so that each was aware of where the other would be throughout the day.

      “It sounds like you won’t be back from your meetings with Milo until at least 3:30. Do you need me to steam your tux or shirt?”

      “Nope - thank you though. I have it all sorted. I won’t get to see you until the limo gets here.”

      He reached out to wind one of her loose curls around his finger, and then released it as they stood up to clear the table and start their busy morning.

      Her phone buzzed. 

      Both of them stopped dead in their tracks. Their eyes went immediately to the screen.

      Glenda Lytle.

      Claire answered right away, and after they dispensed with some niceties and small talk, Glenda asked her a few questions. Claire nodded and said "No" a few times, and “Hmm’ed” and "Ah'ed" several more times in response. At one point, she put her hand to her forehead and shook her head. Finally, Glenda confirmed that Claire's Nex implant was indeed still active and assured her that there was no reason to abstain or have any concerns about it. Then Glenda wished Claire a “very, very good weekend” and hung up.

      Jamie had heard Claire's side of the conversation, not even attempting to hide his curiosity. Claire's chin dropped to her chest, and she shook her head wryly. 

      "Claire?"

      “Uhhh … that was my doctor. I’m good to go. For at least a year and a half!” She blushed slightly, and Jamie couldn't suppress his little half-smile.

      “Why the delay in getting back to you, though? Is everything okay?”

      “Yes. Ugh - this is so frustrating! She remembered that I had taken some anti-anxiety meds for a few weeks during the PILF situation, and knew that there may have been some adverse drug interactions with the Nex implant that rendered it ineffective, but she just couldn't recall the exact timeline - which was way off by the way. I had been off the meds for a while by the time I got the Nex. But she wanted to be 100% sure, and some of her records are stored on a separate system, so she stopped by the office to access it early this morning. Then she wanted to check whether I was on any meds right now, which I'm not. If I’d known about her concerns, I would have given her assistant all that info. I'm so sorry! She’s just very thorough about things. I'm giving her a Covid pass. She's probably as stressed out as the rest of the medical community, and still trying to deliver babies and take care of patients under extremely difficult circumstances.”

      “No need to apologize. I think that’s the best news I’ve had all week, Sassenach!” He pulled her into his arms, and kissed the top of her head. 

      “Don’t be daft! I’d say the winery and your property were hands down the best pieces of news you’ve had in months!”

      “Aye but the winery and the property don’t come with a fine arse like this,” and he pinched her butt lightly, barely dodging her swift swat to his bicep. 

      “James Fraser, you are out of control! I’m going to do my yoga class, but first I need to bid farewell to this,” she placed her hand gently on his scruff. Leaning forward, she pressed several delicate kisses on his jawline, and one final soft, wet, cinnamon-flavored kiss on his lips.

      “Jesus, Claire …”

      She placed two fingers softly over his lips, “See you later, Jamie.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Just before 1:00 p.m., her phone pinged to let her know that Armando had arrived. She had just taken a shower and her hair was still damp so that he could work his magic with it. Dressed in sweats and a tee, she pulled the front door open and waited for him to park. She squealed with excitement when she saw him - they were always delighted to spend time together. She’d had her balayage treatment barely a week ago, but she could never get enough time with this hilarious, kind, and talented man. He was wearing pointy ankle-length boots, skinny black jeans and a hot pink tee, with a heavy knee-length brocade coat in shades of purple and pink. His hair was freshly trimmed - a cheekbone-length black bob, undercut at the back. He always looked flamboyantly chic, and had the best taste. Claire rarely made a designer shoe or clothing purchase without texting Armando a picture.

      “Hey girl,” he hugged her tightly.

      “You look divine, as always. Let me take your coat. Wine? Whisky?”

      “Ugh - I’m mildly hung over. Do you have herbal tea?”

      Minutes later, they headed upstairs to Claire’s bathroom.

      “I need your advice on my choice of dress for tonight.”

      “Uh uh! Hold your horses. First, I need to know who the lucky man is tonight.”

      She sighed. “Armando, you need to swear to me that you will not breathe a word of this to anyone. It is so, so confidential.”

      He studied her through narrowed eyes for a few seconds. 

      “Okay, you’ve never asked me to do that before, because you just know that I would never let you down like that. So, I’m guessing this is a big deal.” 

      She nodded.

      “Claire, hon, after the crap you went through with the little shits who PILF’ed you, you know I am your biggest supporter and protector. You don’t even need to ask.” He looked at her earnestly. 

      “Okay. Are you ready for this? I’m going to the annual Caledonian dinner event.”

      “Uh-huuuuh?” he encouraged.

      “With Jamie Fraser.”

      He was blank for a split second, then his eyes widened.

      “No. Fucking. Way.”

      She nodded.

      "What? How? What?”

      “I know right? It’s a crazy story. I’ll keep it short. He just bought the property next door, and came to talk to me about the neighborhood. Got caught up in the CHAZ/CHOP situation, and was stranded because his hotel was downtown. So he ended up staying here in one of my guestrooms.”

      “Holy crap - I need to sit down.” He perched on the edge of the bathtub. “Is he as hot in real life?”

      “Hotter.”

      “Are you … uhhhhh ... ?”

      “NO!”

      Armando raised his brows. “Nuh-uh, girl, I’m not buying that. Two of the hottest people in the friggin’ galaxy alone in a house together. There must be a little somethin’ going on.”

      She blushed.

      “Claaaaaaire…?”

      “Armando, I can’t… we haven’t …”  

      She paused.

      “Hon, I get it,” he said gently. “It’s too new - maybe too special too - to want to share right now. But when you want to open up, you know who to call.”

      She giggled. “I love you, Mando, you are literally the best.”

      “Okay, this calls for your best look ever! Let’s see the dresses now, before we do your hair.”

       

      Claire carefully stepped into the first dress option. It was a Vera Wang that she had picked up at Neiman Marcus the last time she had visited New York. A deep plum, off-the-shoulder dress, with a slight mermaid cut. The color looked perfect against her pale skin. Armando pinned her hair up roughly so they could get a sense of what it might look like with the up-do.

      “Oh my stars! You look gorgeous. You could pair this with the platinum Jimmy Choos. Perfect. Turn around.”

      She did a slow 360.

      “Love it - a definite possibility. Let’s see the other one.”

      

      Claire emerged from her closet wearing a beautifully cut black Oscar de la Renta gown. Armando took in her front view. The fabric was a delicate silk crepe that fell softly into an elegantly flowy skirt concealing a thigh-high slit up one side. The cut of the bodice revealed a modest amount of cleavage, and the impossibly thin straps skimming her shoulders were subtly jeweled with black beaded crystals.

      “Love this too - the cut and the fabric are divine! Turn around, let’s see the back.”

      She did a 180 and waited.

      “Awww, hell naaaaaw!”

      The dress was almost completely backless, deeply dipped to just above her derrière. The beaded straps crossed over at the back and attached to the side of the bodice. The overall effect was sexy and classy in a way that was typical of Oscar de la Renta designs.

      "God, Claire - this one is sensational! You still have the tag on - you’ve never worn it?”

      “No, haven’t had the right occasion.”

      “It looks sooooo good on you. Sexy but tasteful. Wait, let me look up close. Okay, obviously no bra, but it has a nice boob insert thing for support.”

      He moved around to her back.

      “Yeah, you can’t wear undies with this dress. I can see your little black thong peeking out.”

      “Wait, what? Let me try another pair - maybe a nude pair.”

      She emerged from her closet wearing the nude thong under the dress.

      “Nope, even worse. It’s more visible because your skin is so fair. You’re going commando tonight. Whoop! Whoop! Jamie Fraser better be ready for Dr. Claire Beauchamp!”

      Claire swatted at him, laughing at his sheer silliness.

      “Do you have fabric tape, Claire? Bring it to me and I’ll fix it so that your ass isn’t visible down the back. Take the nude undies off so we can get the full effect.”

      Claire stepped out of her underwear, and Armando attached a double row of fabric tape securely along the inside edge of the dress where it skimmed above her buttocks.

      “Okay, put on the black strappy Louboutins, and walk towards me from the door.”

      She did as asked. 

      “Guuuuuurrrrlll!” He fanned himself with his hands. “Someone is getting laid to-night !”

      She blushed and he chuckled.

      The high heels were the perfect touch. She walked towards him again, did a 360, sat down on the edge of the tub to test the reliability of the tape. Everything looked and felt good.      

      “This is definitely the dress, hon. So, so hot! The slit only opens up every now and again, and the effect is all in the back. Shoes are perfect. Wear diamond stud earrings - classic and less is more. No necklace. Okay. Let’s get to the hair. Put your robe on so that you don’t mess it up when I’m done. And let me replace the backing strips on the fabric tape, or they’ll stick together and make a mess. Peel them off carefully and when you get dressed, position them exactly where I just showed you.”  

       

      For the next hour Armando dried, curled, pinned, twisted and sprayed her hair. They chatted about why he was hung over, his six-month old St. Bernard puppy, and his husband’s restaurant’s struggles in quarantine. Steering clear of an overly structured, severe look, he gathered her hair in a full, low chignon, slightly offset. Expertly weaving in pieces to reveal the subtle colors of her balayage, he tugged out a few loosely curled tendrils to soften the overall look. He adjusted her hair until he was satisfied that it looked perfect.

      “Girl, you are going to kill it tonight! But more than anything, I hope you enjoy it. Have a great time, but also protect your heart, you know?”

      “I know, Mando. And I know when you think of Hollywood and celebrities, you probably have an immediate stereotype. I definitely did - it took me about a day to realize I had been wrong, wrong, wrong about Jamie. He is such a gentleman, and he calls me Gaelic endearments, and he feeds me baklava, and he holds my hand when we talk …”

      “Oh my God,” Armando clutched his heart. “He sounds better than Hamish, even! And he was a bad-ass, romantic warrior! In a friggin kilt! I’m excited for you, hon.” He enveloped her in a hug, taking care not to mess up her hair. 

       

      With an hour to go before she needed to get dressed. Claire grabbed her iPad. She needed to make quick FaceTime calls to Nonna and the twins.

      “Ciao, bella!”

      “Hi Nonna, how are you doing?”

      “Good, good, thank you. So happy to see you!” 

      “I’m so sorry I haven’t called this week - it has been a crazy week.”

      “Yes, the girls told me you have big things going on at work.”

      Clearly, they hadn’t mentioned the fact that she had a house-guest.

      “Yes. hopefully it will all be over in a month or two, Nonna. Thank you for spending time with the girls this week, and for treating them to your wonderful cooking.”

      “It was my pleasure, cara. They are lovely girls, Claire. You should be a proud mama.” 

       Every so often, a few ‘Italianisms’ would creep into Nonna’s speech, something Claire found very endearing. 

      “Nonna, would you consider coming out to spend time with us in Seattle this summer? Any time is good for us. We’re not going anywhere.”

      “I don’t know, Claire. I’m nervous about traveling. But I miss you so much, amore, and I want to see you. I’m scared for my health. Let me think about it for a few days, and I’ll call you back next week.”

      “Okay, Nonna. Ti amo, and we’ll chat next week,”

      “Love you too. Ciao, Claire.”

    

      Her heart tightened thinking about Nonna on her own in Boston during quarantine. She so hoped that she would agree to come for a visit.    

      She tapped her iPad, and soon the girls were up on the screen.

      “Hi girls.” A longer than usual avalanche of kisses followed. Speaking to Nonna had made her miss them even more than usual. “I just spoke to Nonna - tried to convince her to come see us this summer. She’ll think about it.”

      “Awww, I hope she comes.” Beth, as always, the emotional one.

      “Mom, your hair looks awesome,” gushed Ella. “Did Armando do it?”

      “Yes. I have the formal dinner tonight, remember?”

      “Oooooh, date night!” Beth teased.

      “What are you wearing?” asked Ella.

      “One of my black dresses,” Claire replied lightly, imagining the over-the-top reactions if she showed them her choice.

      “You always look good in black mom,” said Beth.

      “Do a nice smokey eye mom - I’ll send you a tube-video of an awesome makeup artist.”

      “Thanks Ella. Hopefully it’s a short video, I don't have a ton of time.” She had already been planning on a smokey eye, and matte red lips.

      “Send us a selfie when you’re ready.”

      “Will do. Love you both, and we’ll chat tomorrow.”

      “Love you, Mom.”

    

      As she glanced at the time on the iPad, a text slid in at the top of the screen. 

      Jamie F. 

      She tapped it - hopefully, he wasn’t running late.

      I’m home - u busy?

      'I’m home' … not 'I’m back' or 'I’m here' or 'I’m at the house'.

      Hey! yes, just putting on makeup - need anything?

      Not really - i missed u - did u know this is the longest we’ve been apart all week     

      Oh God.   

      I missed u too. see you downstairs at 5

       

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

    

      Her makeup looked exactly the way she wanted. The occasion demanded a more intense, glamorous look, and Claire was skilled at applying her own makeup, knowing which colors worked for her, and how much to apply. She slipped some extra fabric tape, lipstick, and gum into her Judith Leiber beaded clutch, spritzed on some Viktor&Rolf Flowerbomb, and took a final look in the mirror. She had to admit that the dress flattered her body, gently skimming her curves and accentuating her small waist and pert derrière. Turning to check her rear view carefully, she wanted to ensure that the tape was doing its job. Going commando was certainly not something she did routinely, and she hoped that the tape would not let her down. She gave the fabric a little tug, but it was going nowhere.

      Hmm - might be painful coming off later. Never mind - I’ll deal with it then.

      She took a quick selfie and sent it off to the girls. They would be crazy with excitement - they loved it when she glammed up for special occasions.

      Descending the curved staircase carefully in her 5” heels, she could hear Jamie in the kitchen and called out to him. 

      “Jamie? I’m ready - is the limo here?”

      She heard the clack-clack of his brogues on the marble floors as he walked towards the foyer staircase. She stopped dead - with four steps still to go - as soon as she saw him.

      Sweet baby Jesus! He’s wearing a kilt! 

      Standing at the bottom of the stairs, he held his hand up to help her down, a stunned expression on his face. She placed her hand in his as she took the last few steps ... and then she was standing in front of him. She raised her eyes and they looked at each for a moment.

      “Claire!”

      “Jamie!”

      They smiled broadly - they had breathed each other’s names at the same time. 

      “You look absolutely beautiful, babe. I am near speechless, and ye ken that doesn’t happen often.”

      She smiled, suddenly feeling a little shy. He called you ‘babe.’ No one had ever called her 'babe' before.

      “Jamie - I had no idea you were wearing a kilt tonight. You look amazing!” She looked over his outfit from his bow tie to his traditional brogues. “Will you explain all the different parts to me - in the car?”

      “Aye of course. God, Claire ... it’s going to be hard to keep my hands off ye in public. Let’s see all of you.” He raised her hand to turn her around, and she gracefully complied to show off her back.”

      “Christ Claire. I’m speechless again. God, you’re gorgeous.”

      “You look so dashing, Jamie.” She ran her fingers over his smooth jawline. “Clean shaven looks just as good.”

      Her phone pinged. “Limo must be here.”

      Jamie helped her into the back of the limo, and climbed in after her. They sat close together, and he gently placed his hand over hers on the seat. The driver turned around to face them.

      “I have the address. There’s water in the back, and I believe you requested champagne. Do you need help opening it?”

     “Thanks - I’ve got it.” Jamie nodded at him.

     “I’ll raise the privacy screen, and if you need anything, press the buzzer.”

   

      The privacy screen was a clear glass panel that gave them the freedom to speak in private. It was a 30-minute drive to the event center, and they were both relieved to be able to chat without worrying that a complete stranger might overhear them.

      “Claire, let me take in all of you. Your hair looks beautiful - and yer face. You look beautiful to me all the time, but tonight you are just indescribable. Your dress is perfect on you. I like yer sexy shoes too. Lift them up for me to look.”

      She raised her foot slightly, and the dress fell open at the slit, revealing her leg up to mid thigh. He leaned his head on the headrest, closed his eyes, and groaned.

      “Oh my God, I’m not going to be able to take my eyes off ye.”

      He leaned towards her and kissed her below her ear.

      “I’ve never seen a sexier woman in all my life. Thank you for being my date tonight.”

      “I’ve never been on a date with a man in a kilt. Now that’s pretty darn sexy.”

      “I guess we’ll just be the sexiest couple, then.” He grinned the naughtiest grin, and she shook her head, trying to keep a straight face.

      “You are a ridiculous man! Will you tell me about your formal kilt? It looks amazing and sexy and so full of culture and tradition.”

      “Well the formal event calls for a black Prince Charlie jacket. I like to wear mine with a waistcoat and a bow tie of course. The kilt is the Fraser colors. This is a traditional sporran - with a silver chain for formal wear. I like the kilt hose like these - I’m a little bit of a traditionalist in that sense. My shoes are also traditional brogues, and as ye see I have the laces too. I wear the Clan crest on my jacket for formal occasions.” He unclasped it to show her more closely. “It has the stag’s head and Fraser motto, ‘Je Suis Prest’ -”

      “I am ready,” Claire interjected. 

      “Aye, in French.” He attached it to his jacket again, and she sensed that he was really quite proud of the centuries of tradition that went into his heritage.

      “It’s all so interesting and rich in history and folklore and legend. I love it, Jamie. You look incredibly handsome tonight.” 

      “I’ll be rolling a lot of history into the Ultimate Sassenach Highlands Tour,” he winked at her. “So ye’ll learn a lot more about some of these things,” he gestured at his outfit. “I’ve already started making a list of things and places I want to show you and the girls.”

      “Oh, Jamie, you really are a rare man.”

      “Let’s have a wee glass of champagne before we get there, and I’ll give you a run-down of the events.”

      He popped the cork and poured them each a glass, holding it up for a toast.

      “To the sexiest couple.” She laughed and tapped her glass against his. They sipped their champagne as he briefed her on the order of events.

      “When we arrive, I have to go straight to the photo area for a short meet ‘n greet. It’s not a huge red carpet event like a movie premiere. There will likely only be three or four photographers. But I’ve been asked to pose for pictures with guests - part of the job, ye ken. I want to try and avoid letting them capture pictures of you. First, if they capture us together, I don’t want social media drama to follow you, Claire. That would break me.” He frowned lightly and kissed the inside of her wrist. “Second, I know you don’t want any more attention than you’ve had. You’re my plus one, so we should walk in together. I’ll give ye my elbow to hold because that looks less … uh … intimate. Ye ken I’d prefer to hold your hand, but I canna do that until the press photographers have gone and we’re inside the event area.”

      “Roger that. As soon as we’re in, I’ll head off to the pre-dinner drinks area while you do the meet ‘n greet. I’m bound to know a few people there tonight. Do you have any other duties?”

      “Aye, I have to speak a little about Scottish culture and heritage - just 5 or 10 minutes. I do these talks all the time - it’s not a big deal at all. I prepared my speech yesterday. They do it right at the beginning of the night, so it’s over and done with right away. There will probably be some Highland dancing - usually a local dance school will send some kids to dance. It’s quite sweet, really. Apart from that, it’s eat, drink, and be merry.”

      “It’ll be a lot of fun, Jamie - I’ve been looking forward to it.”

      “Aye, it will. I hate that we have to be on guard at the beginning, and that I have to abandon ye for a half hour. I’m so sorry, Claire.” He leaned over and kissed her gently on the mouth.

      “Uh-oh! Let me check you for lipstick. It’s matte so it usually stays put.” She held his face towards the dim interior light, but his lips looked clear. “All good.”

      But just in case, and because she was feeling sassy, she swiped her thumb slowly across his mouth, dragging his lower lip, and biting her own intentionally.

      “Ye’re a shameless tease, Sassenach, ye ken that, don’t ye?”

      “Mmhmmm. How did it go with Milo?”

      His eyes were still on her lips. “It was really good - I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow. We got a lot done.” He raised his eyes to hers, “I really did miss ye, Claire. It was a long day without you.”

      Her heart skipped a little beat. “I missed you. The house felt lonely and quiet without you.”

  

      The privacy panel dropped a few inches and the driver turned his head slightly to let them know that they were about five minutes out. 

     

   



Chapter Text


 

      The driver stopped the car at the portico and ran around to Jamie’s door, which was nearer to the stairs. As he opened the door, Jamie handed him his unlocked phone. 

      “Could you do us a favor, mate? Take a couple of pictures of us together please.”

      Jamie unfolded himself out of the car, then turned to help Claire out. She placed her hand in his, eased herself out gracefully and stepped towards Jamie. He pulled her close, his arm around her near-naked back, and they smiled broadly while the driver captured a couple of photographs in quick succession.

      “Our first date pics, Sassenach. Can you imagine if the girls saw these?”

      They looked at each other and laughed.

      Jamie thanked the driver for taking the pictures and confirmed their pick-up time. Claire slipped her hand lightly into the crook of his arm, and they walked up the stairs together.

       No photographers, thank God!

      Two bagpipers were at the top of the stairs, playing “Scotland the Brave” as the President of the Caledonian Society, Angus MacFarlane, came over to greet his guest of honor the moment he saw Jamie arrive.   

      After quick introductions, Claire excused herself to find the pre-dinner drinks, and Jamie went to the meet 'n greet area, which was set up in a corner of the foyer. He was immediately surrounded by mostly female fans. Claire found herself thinking that this was one good thing about quarantine restrictions - numbers for this event were limited, or there would undoubtedly have been even more people waiting for pictures.

     She made her way to the Rainier Ballroom, where roughly 15 large round tables had been set up for the dinner. A small dais and lectern had been placed at the front of the room for the speakers, and just to the left of that was the DJ table. There was a small dance floor, and in the back of the room, a large area had been set aside for a bar. A small crowd of around 30 people had started to gather for pre-dinner drinks. Gloved and masked servers were walking around with trays of appetizers and champagne flutes. Claire grabbed a flute - it was barely one-third full and she had sipped a small amount in the limo. She wanted to be alert and observant tonight to avoid putting Jamie in any kind of compromising position.

      Standing at the edges of the group, she looked around and spotted a business executive who had been on a board of directors with Henry. She went over to greet her, and she was delighted to see Claire and chat with her. She introduced Claire to a few of her group, and they stood around making pleasant small talk for a few minutes. Claire was adept at mingling and continued to circulate and greet acquaintances, enjoying reconnecting with those she hadn’t seen for a year or more. She was starting to yearn for the company of her Scot and, sneaking a look at her watch, she hoped he wouldn’t be too much longer at the meet 'n greet. 

     “Claire?” His voice was right in her ear, and she jumped a little.

     “You’re back!” she smiled.

     “Will ye mingle a bit with me?” She allowed Jamie to lead her away, his hand resting lightly on her back, warm and strong and reassuring.

      Together, they circulated and worked the room. Jamie, ever the charming Scot, was meeting and greeting, schmoozing and humoring everyone he came into contact with. Claire was at his side the whole time, his hand protectively on her back, and occasionally he would squeeze her hand gently. They were a striking couple and looked very comfortable together. Heads turned when they were near, and they attracted more attention than they realized.

      As dinnertime approached, guests were asked to take their seats, and after a brief introduction by Angus, Jamie delivered a short but well-rehearsed speech about Scottish culture, history, and heritage. He spoke about how Clan Hearts had inspired a global resurgence of interest in Scotland, and tourism had spiked enormously. He encouraged everyone present to visit Scotland. Much applause ensued as the audience heartily endorsed his sentiments. He went on to talk about how important it was for organizations like the Caledonian Society to prosper so that they could continue to nurture Scottish heritage globally. He urged guests to donate to the Caledonian. More applause followed. And finally he spoke of how he had fallen in love with Seattle after months of filming a movie locally. He spoke of how much the greenness and weather reminded him of Scotland. This drew some light-hearted groans as Seattleites acknowledged their notoriously rainy, cool climate.

      Claire watched him and listened carefully to every word as he spoke with deep passion and conviction about his heritage. He looked devastatingly handsome up there, dapper and polished in his Highland finery. His russet hair gleamed under the lights, and the chiseled lines of his face looked even more defined now that he was clean-shaven. She watched him and the audience’s reaction to him with a sense of pride.

      Jamie started to wind down his speech by saying that Seattle felt like a second home to him. He glanced briefly at Claire at that point. The audience sensed the sincerity of his comments and responded with rapturous applause and whistles. Most of them were second and third generation Americans, and while they held onto their Scottish heritage firmly, they liked nothing more than a foreigner who loved their city. He endeared himself further when he mentioned that he was a Seahawks fan and had the jerseys to prove it.

      His memorable conclusion was tweeted by a guest, and then retweeted extensively by his fan bases over the next few days. 

      “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to conclude by reading a short poem by Scotland’s beloved Rabbie Burns. This poem may well be my ode to Seattle, and for some of you in the room, it may be an ode to your beloved. I sense that for a few of us, it may even be both.

                                O my Luve is like a red, red rose

                                That’s newly sprung in June;

                                O my Luve is like the melody

                                That’s sweetly played in tune

            

                                So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,

                                So deep in luve am I;

                                And I will luve thee still, my dear,

                                Till a’ the seas gang dry.

 

                                Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,

                                And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;

                                I will love thee still, my dear,

                                While the sands o’ life shall run.

            

                               And fare thee weel, my only luve!

                               And fare thee weel awhile!

                               And I will come again, my luve,

                               Though it were ten thousand mile."

 

      He read it beautifully with all the right Scottish inflections, thrilling the audience with his expert intonation, a result of his years of training and experience in delivering lines with impact and feeling. During his reading, he made fleeting but unmistakable eye contact with Claire several times. Whistles, applause, and a brief standing ovation followed Jamie as he made his way across the room, amid pats on the back and quick greetings. He returned to his place next to Claire, who was still on her feet, applauding his perfect address. She sat down, reeling from his reading of the poem, and almost breathless as she tried to remember every word and searched for meaning in it. She had analyzed the poem extensively in literature class when she was in S5. In the Scottish school system, that meant she would have been around 15. She wished she had paid better attention, but she sensed that Jamie’s interpretation here was much more personal and real than anything she could hope to learn at school. 

      She wanted to hug him, kiss him firmly, and tell him that he had done a phenomenal job. But, aware that a lot of eyes were still on Jamie, she smiled politely at him instead, as he took his seat at the table. 

      “That was excellent, Jamie.” 

      “Thank you.” Under cover of the long tablecloth, he found the slit in her dress and slid his hand under the fabric to gently squeeze her knee. He left his hand there, and she looked at him with a tight smile and warning look in her eyes. He looked at her steadily, eyebrow slightly quirked, and the corner of his mouth twitching a little.

      Grabbing the printed program from the middle of the table, she placed it between them, and pretended to point at something on it. Both looked down at the page, making it hard for anyone to even try and make out what they were saying to each other. She said through a smile:

      “People are still watching us. Please remove your hand from my knee.”

      “I canna. It feels so good.”

      “Jamie, please.”

      “Are ye begging me, Sassenach?”

      He was enjoying this.

      “I’m appealing to your common sense. What if someone sees you?”

      “No paparazzi here tonight.”

      Damn you! I’m going to have to fight fire with fire.

      “You looked hot up there, Jamie. That kilt is doing things to me.”

      “What kinds of things, Claire?”

      “I’ll tell you if you take your hand off my knee.”

      In response, he started to trace lazy circles on her knee with his thumb.

      “Would you like me to adjust your sporran for you - right here?”

      “Aye, I’d love it.”

      The server arrived with drinks at that moment and Jamie reluctantly moved his hand from her knee back to the table, his wicked little half-smile giving away nothing to anyone but her.

      Soon after the drinks arrived, guests enjoyed a beautifully presented and delicious dinner of roasted pheasant and spring vegetables. The two couples at their table were good company. They were well-traveled, witty conversationalists, and it was a pleasant meal-time conversation with none of the awkwardness that is typical of large, formal events. As the meal drew to an end, tables started to break up and regroup, as friends and acquaintances cautiously reconnected after months of quarantine and isolation. 

      Jamie leaned towards her, "I recognize some people in the bar area. Group of guys in the red kilts - they were a hoot last year. It’ll be a while before dessert is served. Let’s head over and join them.”

      “Sure - let’s do it. They are definitely having a good time.” She giggled at the boisterous laughter coming from the group. 

      Jamie stood and helped her from her chair. They excused themselves from their table companions and walked over to the bar, where Jamie and the red-kilted men re-introduced themselves and reminisced briefly about the previous year’s event. He introduced Claire to the men and they were immediately drawn into the uproarious fun the men were creating around them. The red-kilts had plainly over-indulged and the whisky shots lined up on the bar counter indicated some drinking games, but Jamie and Claire preferred to watch rather than participate, enjoying the fun nonetheless. Here in this bubble, with the red-kilted men surrounding them, they felt safer and more protected from prying eyes. Jamie was more attentive and openly affectionate in this space. Now and again he planted a quick kiss on her temple, her nose, her neck. The men didn’t seem to notice - or if they did, they were too drunk to care and carried on with their revelry.

      Jamie’s hand was on her back, lightly caressing and stroking the delicate skin from the small of her back up to her waist. His fingers slid under her dress, and he softly tickled her waist. She drew in a sharp breath at this more intimate touch, forcing herself not to squirm. Enjoying her reaction, Jamie noticed that none of the red-kilts were paying any attention to them, and with their backs close to the wall, he and Claire were well out of the line of sight of curious eyes. His fingers crept lower under her dress, reaching her hip, where he paused and caressed her skin with his thumb. He dipped lower, past her hip and paused again where the fabric tape prevented him going lower. His fingers were stroking her hip as far below the fabric as he could go, caressing, enjoying the softness of her skin and the goosebumps that his touch left in their trail. Slowly, something dawned on him. He glanced at her with a questioning little look, and she looked boldly back, a knowing smile curving her lips.

      Realization glimmered in his widening eyes and a lop-sided smile lifted the corner of his mouth. He leaned over to her.

      “Claire!” He sounded almost hoarse, “Did ye forget something?”

      “No. Why? Did you?” 

      “Jesus, Claire. The things ye’re doing to me tonight! Ye’re cruel and merciless.”   

      “Mr. Fraser, Mr. Fraser!” Angus MacFarlane was peering through the group of red-kilts trying to find him. Jamie quickly pulled his arm away from Claire and waved at Angus.

      “Angus! Here!”

      “Mr. Fraser - we have a major donor who would love to meet you. He may ask for an autograph for his daughter. Would you mind terribly?“

      “Not at all.” He went into charming mode immediately. Turning to Claire, he asked, “Will you be alright for a minute, Claire? The lads will look after ye. I’ll be a few minutes at most.”

      “Go ahead Jamie, I’ll nip to the bathroom and I'll be here when you get back.” 

     

      Returning from the bathroom, she noticed that two men in blue-green kilts had joined the red-kilts, and she wondered fleetingly why so many more men than women attended this event.

      Maybe it’s that age-old kilt camaraderie.

      She skirted her way around the group to wait where she and Jamie had been standing.

      “Claire!” She turned to see who had called her and looked into the smiling face of Jeff Campbell, quickly making his way over to her.

      “Jeff! I didn’t realize you were here!”

      “My table is near the back. I saw you earlier - wanted to make sure I said hello.”

      He reached her, and put an arm around her shoulders, dropping a wet kiss on her cheek. She wondered how she could discreetly wipe it off. He smelled of beer and whisky and was slightly unsteady on his feet.

      “I always come to this event, Claire. I’m a proud Campbell,” he indicated his tartan kilt in clan colors.

      “How have you been, sweetheart?” His hand moved from her shoulder and slid down to the small of her back, warm and clammy, and dangerously close to her butt. He lowered his voice. ”You look hot tonight. Every man in the room is looking at you. Me included.”

      Oh God, how do I get out of this awkwardness. 

      Thankfully, the DJ announced that the dance floor was open, and launched into a string of golden oldies. A steady stream of couples moved towards the dance floor. It was just the distraction she needed, as even the red-kilts turned momentarily to listen to the announcement. She tried to wriggle away, but Jeff moved with her.

      Jamie had indulged the donor with a few minutes of small talk, and then signed the back of a program with a message for the donor’s daughter. Smiling broadly, he thanked him and headed back to the bar. He and Claire had some unfinished business. He felt the response below his kilt as he remembered where they had left off. Knowing that the little minx was not wearing underwear would make it that much harder to keep his hands off her. How was any man supposed to maintain a level of self control when faced with that much sexy!

      Approaching the bar, he noticed a man in Campbell tartan talking to Claire. He appeared to be way up in her personal space, but that was likely the result of all the free-flowing whisky. Probably all harmless - maybe someone she knew. When Campbell-kilt placed his arm around her shoulder and planted a kiss on her face, Jamie froze. For a second he clenched his teeth, muscles moving furiously in his jaw. Campbell-kilt dropped his hand to her lower back, and left it there, almost on her butt.

      What the fuck are you doing? I’ll thank ye to take yer hands off my Sassenach.

      Jamie had reached the end of his tether. Clenching and unclenching his fists, he strode over to the group, and reclaimed his place on the other side of Claire. He was at least 4 inches taller than Campbell-kilt and he fixed him with an icy blue stare.

      “Jamie,” Claire moved in as close to him as she could in unspoken confirmation that Campbell-kilt’s attentions were unwanted. He fixed the man with a stony stare - charm be damned! No drunken lout was going to slobber all over Claire and place his hands on her while he was around. Claire noticed the look on Jamie’s face and knew she had to quickly defuse this situation.  

      “Jamie, this is my friend, Jeff Campbell. Jeff, this is Jamie Fraser.”

      “Good to meet you Jamie. I’m a fan of your work - MI5 is one of my favorite movies.” Jeff was slurring a little.

      Jamie nodded, and Claire saw his jaw muscles move almost involuntarily. She didn’t recognize this side of him. There was a tension about him that was both thrilling and a little frightening at the same time. And very, very sexy. 

      A sudden round of raucous laughter from the red-kilts reminded her that they were in a very public space, with a wealth of cell phones equipped with cameras. Jeff’s hand was still on her back, and she hoped the situation wouldn't escalate.

      Making another attempt to break the uncomfortable mood between the three of them, she said lightly, “Uh … Jeff’s daughter, Ashlee, is really good friends with the twins.”

      Jamie looked at her sharply.

      Fuck! ‘Ashlee’s dad’, and he’s still obsessing, apparently. What a cocksplat!

      Jeff’s hand still hadn’t moved - even when she had practically snuggled into Jamie’s arm. Downing his whisky, he looked at Claire and smiled his most lecherous smile. The song changed - clearly a crowd-pleaser as more couples moved towards the dance floor.

                          🎶 I’ve got sunshine, on a cloudy day

                          When it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May

                          I guess you’d say

                          What can make me feel this way

      “Would you like to dance?” Jeff asked her, slurring his words.    

                          My girl, my girl, my girl …

                          Talking ‘bout my gi-i-irl                                             

      “Claire, I believe this is our song,” Jamie looked at Jeff, eyes still icy. “It was good meeting ye, Campbell.”

      He took Claire by the hand and guided her to the dance floor.

      Once on the dance floor, he wrapped an arm around her, resting his hand on her lower back. He clasped her other hand and held it gently between their chests.

      “I’m so sorry, Claire,” his voice gentle and comforting in her ear. “I should have taken ye with me to sign the autograph.”

      “It’s okay. He’s harmless - just annoying.”

      “Hmmh.”

      “Since when is this our song?”

      “Since tonight,” he laughed.

      “I thought it was 'Perfect'?”

      “I like that one too - it’s also in the running.”

      “For what?”

      “To be our song.”

      “How many songs are in the running?”

      “I don’t know yet, there are so many great ones with beautiful lyrics. We need to listen to them all and find our song, aye?”

      The song changed, and they continued to dance and chat comfortably, both enjoying the physical closeness of dancing and the fact that they had to speak into each other's ears to ensure that their words were for each other only.

      “You really listen carefully to every song, don’t you?”

      “Aye. I told ye my Da would play special songs for my Mam all the time.”

      “Yes - musical poetry he called it.”

      “Aye. He taught me to really appreciate poetry. Told me that poets write and rewrite a verse, or a line, or a word, to make it just right. To create the right mood and send the right message. He said we need to respect that by truly appreciating what they’ve written. It’s the same with songs, according to my Da. The writer or singer writes and rewrites parts of it until it’s perfect. We should appreciate it more deeply and listen more carefully.”

      “Your reading of the Burns poem was beautiful. Such a perfect way to end your speech.”

      He pulled her in closer. “I changed the poem at the last minute. I worked on it after we got back from our picnic. The one I had picked just didn't work with the way I was feeling. “Red, Red Rose” captured my feelings much better.”

      He moved his head, breaking their cheek-to-cheek contact so he could look into her eyes. They gazed at each other for a long, long moment, almost coming to standstill on the dance floor. 

      “Claire,” his voice was heavy with desire and longing. “Let’s get some fresh air. I need to clear my head.” 

      He took her by the hand and made his way out of the ballroom. Heading down the corridor, he guided her to the escalators, and they headed up to the next level. It was completely deserted, with just a few glowing lights to indicate emergency exits.

      “Where are we going?”

      “There’s a lovely wee patio here, overlooking the lake. Last year, the men gathered there to smoke cigars and take in some air, but they’re not doing that this year since the event is so much smaller.”

      The cigar patio was unlocked, and they stepped outside to a magnificent view over Lake Washington. The space was dark and deserted, of course - the empty tables, chairs and stools a reminder of the strange quarantine world they were in. Night had fallen, and hundreds of city lights were reflected in the lake. A few yachts and boats bobbed languidly in the water, their lights also reflected in the lake. They leaned on the railing, shoulder to shoulder, and looked out over the water.

      “I’ve never seen the lake so peaceful and quiet. Hardly any boats out at all.” 

      He looked at her, the reflected lights from the lake casting enough brightness for him to clearly make out her features - his gaze dropped to her lips. He moved behind her and wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. They stood like that in silence for a moment, looking over the lake and its dancing, reflected lights. Pressing kisses on the back of her neck and shoulder, he slowly turned her around to face him and pushed her gently against the railing. She felt the hard, cold metal against her back, but didn't dare react - her eyes searched his eyes and then dropped to his mouth. The tip of his tongue peeked out to wet his lips briefly, and then he was moving towards her.       

      He kissed her hungrily, tongue brushing her lips, gently at first, and then pushing them open and greedily exploring her mouth. Their tongues twisted together and they kissed with an urgency and roughness borne of the slow-burning desire they had both felt for each other all evening. Crushing each other’s lips hard, they were a mess of lips and tangled tongues, teeth nipping and holding, then releasing again. He sucked in her lower lip hard, holding it in his mouth, grabbing it between his teeth. She let out a little moan, and they broke apart, breathing hard. They looked at each other, suspended in a moment of intense longing, her lips swollen and glistening in the soft reflected light. He brought his mouth down over hers again, and kissed her lips achingly tenderly, wanting to heal the roughness and the lingering sting from his passionate onslaught moments earlier. He pressed tiny soft kisses all the way across her swollen lips.

      “I’m so sorry, Claire, I didn’t mean to hurt ye.” He sounded pained and regretful.

      “You didn’t,” she said, placing her fingers gently over his mouth, and then reached up to softly kiss his lips. 

      Taking both of her hands in his, he walked back a few steps, bringing her with him. He leaned on the edge of a patio table, legs extended in front of him, and pulled her in to stand between his thighs. The height of the table and the angle at which he sat brought his eyes level with the base of her throat. He leaned in and pressed a tender kiss in the hollow there. Still holding both of her hands, he started to draw gentle circles on the inside of her wrists with his thumbs. Looking into her eyes, his face became serious, as if he'd been thinking about what to say to her.

      “Claire, I’m sorry about my earlier behavior. With Campbell. I wasn’t very friendly or gracious, was I?”

      “You definitely seemed tense.”

      “When I saw him with his arms around you, kissing you like you were his to kiss, I almost lost it. And I know I have no right to do that, but I canna help it, Claire. I don’t know what I was feeling at that moment. Maybe a bit of jealousy - I wanted you all to myself. But it was also a sense of wanting to protect you. I could feel that you were not enjoying his attentions at all.”

      “I wasn’t. I didn’t feel unsafe, but I was nervous about getting out of the situation without causing a scene. And I wanted him to know that I was with you.”

      “I think he knows that now,” he chuckled briefly, and then the seriousness set in again.

      “Claire, I’ve already told you that this week has been life-changing for me.” He was drawing soft, gentle patterns on her skin with his thumbs …. up and down the inside of her arms, all the way from her wrists to the delicate area on the inside of her elbows. She tried not to focus on how much that was turning her on. “And not all of it has been about the winery and the property. I’ve never known anyone like you, Claire. You’ve made yer way into my heart in a very short space of time.”

      His thumbs were so distracting, and almost as if sensing that, he slid his hands down to hers and interlaced his fingers with hers.

      “I desperately want to explore that feeling and that special connection with you, Claire.”

      He searched her face for acknowledgement, and she nodded, her eyes never leaving his. 

      “I know you haven’t felt ready to move past some of your own boundaries, and that ye need more than just the physical - more than just the sex. But I want you to know that my feelings are not based just on the physical, the lust, the maddening desire you arouse in me. It’s not only about you being the most beautiful woman I have ever known. And the sexiest.” His tiny smile made her respond in kind. 

        “Are ye willing to explore this connection further with me, Claire?” He waited anxiously for her response.

        “Jamie, this has been an unforgettable week for me too. You have awakened feelings - and needs - in me that I haven't felt in a long time. They make me scared and nervous, not because I don't trust you with my heart, but because these feelings have grown so intense, so fast. We’ve spoken a bit about this unusual and instant bond we’ve formed. I’ve never felt that with anyone else. I want to explore it with you, Jamie, but we need to spend some time thinking and talking about it too.”

      “Aye, I understand you better than ye think, mo chridhe.”

      He raised her hand to his lips and kissed each of her fingertips, and then placed soft kisses in her palm. She had noticed how much attention he lavished on her hands - always kissing each part of them. It melted her to think that a man would take the time to focus on areas that brought her pleasure - her neck, her collarbone, the soft skin of her inner arms - rather than just the ones that turned him on. As if reading her thoughts, he kissed the inside of her wrists, and continued with a line of tiny wet kisses up the inside of her arm to the soft skin on the inside of her elbow. He gently nipped and sucked the most sensitive part. The moisture he left behind cooled in the night air, making her shiver slightly and starting a slow ache between her legs.

      “Jamie … the … uh … the physical is important to me too, you know. I don’t think we can explore us fully if we don't explore the physical, and I want you to know that … how do I say this …? Je suis prest, Jamie. I won’t hold back. Like I said, you have aroused some needs in me … ” She gave him a shy smile that eased the seriousness of the moment.

      “Well, you’ve been teasing me all night, so I am very interested to learn more about those needs. I might find ways to tend to them, ye ken.” His half smile and raised eyebrow stoked the fire already making its way through her body.

      “Oh you might, might you? Care to elaborate, Fraser?”

      His eyes narrowed a little, and he looked thoughtful for a moment.

      “I’ve given a lot of thought to that this evening, Claire. Ye canna stand before me looking like that and expect me not to think about taking you in my arms and making love to you all night.”

      His hands were around her waist now, warm and gentle, his thumbs caressing the area below her ribs.

      Her eyebrows lifted slightly. “Continue …”

      “Well first, I will take you in my arms and I will kiss you for a very long time Claire. I will kiss every inch of your beautiful face, from your eyes, to your ears, to your neck - especially that little area right there,” his eyes dropped to her clavicle, and he leaned in to place another tender kiss there, “the one that drives ye mad and makes ye pant and sigh and squirm under me.”

      “I don’t pant and sigh and squirm!” she said indignantly.

      “Oh, aye ye do. And after I have made you squirm, I’ll go back and kiss your mouth again for a long, long time." He paused and kissed her hungrily, pulling away reluctantly to look into her eyes. "Sometimes my kisses will be gentle, and sometimes they will not, because you bring out some very base instincts in me at times, Claire. I wouldna hurt you, but ye would certainly feel my heat and my passion in those kisses. And when yer lips are swollen and sore, I will give them a wee rest.”

      “And then what?”

      “Then I’ll ease these bonnie sparkly straps down over yer shoulders and I’ll follow them down with kisses.” He pulled her closer, slid a finger under each strap and pressed kisses along her shoulder and a little way down her arm.

      “What then ... ?”

      “I’ll very gently and carefully remove the tape that is protecting your modesty here,” he gave her the dirtiest little eyebrow raise as he caressed the lowest part of her back above the line of her dress, “and your dress will slide off yer body and fall in a wee puddle on the floor around your feet. Then I will take my time looking at your beautiful body, Claire, and I will ignore my own arousal so I can continue to adore every part of you.”

      Her breathing was faster and shallower now.

      “And how do you intend to do that?” she breathed.

      “I’ll take you up in my arms, and I’ll lay ye gently on the bed. Then I’ll kiss ye all the way down yer neck until I reach yer breasts.”

      “And then ... ?”

      “And then I’ll kiss and suck yer breasts until … ” his hands slid up her body, past her waist towards her chest and his thighs tightened around her legs a little. His thumbs found their way under the outer edges of her dress to lightly caress the swell of her breasts. She was barely breathing. His thumbs caressed her nipples, already hard and now agonizingly tender under the gentle circles his thumbs made around them. “Until I feel your nipples in my mouth and on my tongue. I’ll take my time there, and then I will suck them until your hips push hard against me and ye beg me to stop.”

      She bit her bottom lip involuntarily. “Keep going …” she whispered.

      “I will reluctantly take leave of your breasts, and I’ll kiss ye all the way to yer wee belly button, and I’ll kiss and lick ye there, until ye wriggle and squirm, and then I’ll continue kissing, past yer belly button …" He paused.

        “Don’t stop now,” she said softly, breathlessly. The slow ache that had started between her legs had continued to intensify, and she knew that she was wet with longing.

        “Then I’ll roll you over, and start at the top again. Kissing ye from the back of your neck,” he pulled her in closer still and she placed her hands on his shoulders, steadying herself. He reached up and softly caressed the back of her neck with his fingertips. She clasped her hands around his neck and looked intently into his eyes, lips slightly parted, and still swollen from his earlier kiss. 

       “I’ll kiss every inch of your back too, and I’ll leave a path of wee kisses down yer spine,” his fingers lightly showed her the path his lips intended to take, all the way down to the dip in her dress. She shivered delicately under his touch. He moved his hands onto her buttocks and clasped his hands over the soft roundness there, relishing the soft yielding feel in his hands through the fabric. “God, Claire, you have no idea how I have longed to feel yer perfect wee arse in my hands.” He groaned at the sheer pleasure of it and rested his forehead on her shoulder. She indulged him for a moment, and as he pulled his head back again, she held his face between her hands, looking into his eyes.

      “Please continue …”

      “Then I will kiss every millimeter of yer arse. I will bite and nibble and lick - I'll spend a lot of time there, Sassenach.”

      “Mm-hmmm ...”

      “Then I’ll kiss and nibble the back of your thighs in a long line …" he released her butt and slid his hands slowly down the back of her legs until he reached the back of her knees. He brought his hands around to the front and, finding the slit in her dress, he pushed his hands through the folds of fabric to touch the skin at the back of her knees. His fingertips caressed the sensitive skin there, increasing the ache and wetness between her legs to new levels. She couldn’t suppress a low moan that formed in the back of her throat. 

       “Hmmh,” he grunted, “sounds like I might have to spend a little more time here, kissing and licking and nibbling.” 

      “And where will you go next?” Her voice was barely a whisper.

      “I will roll you back over,” and he withdrew his hands from the back of her legs and reached up to place a hand on her lower back. With his other hand, he reached through the slit of her dress again and started to draw lazy circles and random patterns with his fingertips on the inside of her leg, just above her knee. His eyes had narrowed and she could tell he was working to control his own responses. He continued up the inside of her leg to mid-thigh, and looked into her eyes intently, wanting visual confirmation of her consent. Her breath was coming in short pants, and she slid her hands from around his neck to the lapels of his jacket, gripping the fabric tightly. She could feel that her wetness had started to seep past the confines of her folds and the very tops of her inner thighs bore traces of her blazing arousal.

      “Carry on,” she panted, “I want to know more.”

      “I’ll kiss you all the way from yer knees,” he had lowered his voice and she could barely hear it over her breathing and the sound of her own pounding heart in her ears. His fingers continued on their teasing, titillating upward path, and his fingertips were now just millimeters from her slickness.

      “And when I reach here, Claire, I will lose myself in you. I will kiss you, and lick you, and smell you, and taste you. I will find all the hidden areas that make ye pant and squeal. I will spend a lot of time here and you will show me how to please you Claire, and when ye finally stop shaking in my arms, I will kiss you, and I will make love to you again, with my body, instead of my mouth.” 

      His fingers continued to stroke and caress where they had stopped in their upward path. Their eyes were still locked on each other, and slowly, he moved his fingers into her warm, wet folds. She gasped softly and gripped his lapels hard. He groaned something in Gaelic. 

      “Claire, ye’re so wet for me. God, I want you so much.”

      With his other hand on the small of her back, he pulled her closer so that her thigh brushed up against his arousal. His fingers gently explored her folds and spread her juices where he needed them.

      “Jamie …” she brought her hand down towards his kilt, but his hand grabbed her fingers.

      He shook his head. “This is about you, Claire.”

      Slowly and with exquisite tenderness, he inserted a finger inside her, eliciting a deep moan from the depths of her throat. She felt herself flutter and tighten around his finger and he released a raspy breath. Pulling his finger out, he stroked and caressed around her opening, and then two fingers were inside her, gently moving, allowing her body to adjust. Clenching around his fingers, she gasped as he curled them and they continued to move inside her. His thumb explored her folds, finding her swollen nub; gently, tentatively touching her. She made a sound that was somewhere between a squeal and a gasp, and clutched his jacket by the lapels again, feeling the hard metal of his clan crest under her palm. Gripping the fabric hard to steady herself, she panted unashamedly now, as his fingers moved inside her and his thumb circled her sweet spot. She groaned at the combination of agony and ecstasy that this slow burn had created in her core. 

      “Jamie! God, Jamie …”

      “I know, babe. Christ, I want ye so much I can scarcely breathe.”

      She ached for him so badly, for the friction and touch that would bring her to her shattering undoing, but they both knew that this was not the time or place. They knew, too, that this was just the start of what would be a long night of ecstasy and fulfillment.

      Slowly, so slowly, he withdrew his fingers and left a trail of her wetness down the inside of her thigh as a reminder that they had unfinished business. 

      She sighed deeply. Wrapping his arms around her back, he brought her closer, and she leaned in to kiss him. She kissed him with tenderness and passion, her tongue pushing gently into his mouth, and his tongue meeting hers in a lingering, delicate kiss that held a promise of more to come.

      "We should go back inside,” she whispered, voice unsteady and breathless. “You’re the guest of honor, they might be looking for you.”

      “Aye, ye're right. The wee Highland dancers will be on soon, and we should probably have a dance or two and mingle for a few minutes before we call it a night. I need to take ye home, Claire. Does that sound okay?”

      She nodded.      

      “Quick bathroom break, and then I’m good to go,” she said.

      “Aye, you and me both,” he said dryly.  

 

       The Highland dancers were about to start their performance, and no one noticed Jamie and Claire quietly slipping into the ballroom again. They made their way to the bar, where the red-kilts had also stopped their carousing to appreciate the performance of the talented young dancers. 

      "I definitely need a drink,” Jamie eyed her knowingly.

      “I’ll sip on yours, if that’s okay.”

      After the performance, they enjoyed the company of the red-kilts for a little while, sharing Jamie’s whisky and laughing at the men’s stories and antics, until Jamie heard the first chords of an old classic and immediately took her by the hand. 

      “May I have this dance, mo chridhe?”

      “Of course,” she moved with him towards the dance floor, not recognizing the song until Roberta Flack’s sweet, pure voice filled the room.

                         The first time, ever I saw your face

                          I thought the sun rose in your eyes

      He pulled her close, one hand firm and strong and low on her back, the other holding her hand over his heart. Her other hand rested on the back of his neck, where she could gently play with the russet curls that just reached his collar. The tempo of the song was unusually slow. They were swaying to the music without moving about the dance floor much, and that suited them just fine. After the intensity of the patio, they were content to just bask in the enjoyment of having their bodies pressed together. He held his cheek against hers, and turned his head slightly to inhale the combination of fragrances that made up her unique aroma. Perfume, lotion, shampoo - all of them combined to create her own special scent, and he couldn't get enough. 

                         And the moon and the stars

                         Were the gifts you gave

      “You so smell so good, babe.”

      “Sshhh. I’m listening to the words - isn't this musical poetry?”

      “Aye it is. I grew up listening to this."

                         To the dark, and the endless skies

                          My Love

                          And the first time, ever I kissed your mouth

                          I felt the earth move in my hands

      “I love the lyrics,” she said, and he pulled her closer still, fingers lightly caressing her back. “I think I heard this song earlier this week. Isn’t it funny how you don’t hear a song for years and years, and then suddenly you hear it several times in succession.

      “Mm-hmm.”

                          Like the trembling heart

                          Of a captive bird

                          That was there, at my command

                          My Love

      “Jamie?”

      “Hmmm?’

      “Did you request this song?”

      “Aye. I did,” he sounded a little sheepish. “And before you ask, yes. Yes, I added it to your playlist when you were in the hot tub. Because the first time I saw your face, yer eyes reminded me of sunrise. And whisky.” 

      “You are a precious man.” She lay her head on his shoulder while they swayed to the music, her nose nuzzling his neck.

                         The first time, ever I saw

                         Your face .... your face …

      The song came to an end, and they stood still on the dance floor, staring into each other’s eyes. They so badly wanted to kiss, but there was no way they could do that with so many people around them. Jamie took her hand and led her back to their table.     

     “Grab your purse, babe. Our car will be here in less than 10 minutes. I’ll say my goodbyes to Angus and his team.”

 

  



Chapter Text


      The drive home felt agonizingly slow. They were keenly aware that every mile brought them closer to inevitable ecstasy, and their patio exploits had significantly escalated the sexual tension between them. The yearning for each other was palpable. There was an electric and exhilarating energy between them in the car that forced them to exercise remarkable control, aware that the privacy panel was solely there for passengers to enjoy private conversations. The driver could see everything, and there was no way they could risk any physical expression of their hunger for each other, save for the tender lingering kisses they stole when the passion threatened to overwhelm them.

      The driver lowered the panel and let them know that they were five minutes out. 

      Jamie pulled Claire in close, his hand gently caressing her shoulder and arm.  She rested her head on his shoulder, and her hand was on his chest, where she could feel his heart beating below the hard metal of his clan crest.

      “Je suis prest. I wasn’t kidding, Jamie, I am so ready!” she whispered.

      She could hear the lazy smile in his voice. “I know, Claire. I ken exactly how ready you are. If you thought you were wet on that cigar patio, you should know I am ready to take ye all the way,” he murmured in her ear, sending a thrill through her, all the way to her toes.

 

      As soon as the driver brought the car to a stop, Jamie helped Claire out and took her hand as they quickly ascended the stairs to her front door. He entered the key code and pushed open the heavy door, guiding her into the foyer and following her in. She waited for him to lock the front door, and extended her hand to him in an unspoken invitation that had been a week in the making. His heart stopped for a beat and he felt his response in the twitch between his legs. 

      “I want you, Jamie,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper. “I need you.”

      “Claire … ” He took her hand and pulled her towards him firmly, releasing her hand and holding her face between both of his hands. He looked into her eyes, and brought his mouth down over hers in an electrifying kiss that left no doubt about how the evening would end. The moan that escaped her lips was his undoing. Still holding her face in his hands, and raining greedy kisses down on her parted lips, he turned her and walked her back a few steps until she was up against the front door. His breath came in ragged gasps as he kissed her fervently and passionately, tongue exploring and teasing and eliciting an immediate response from hers. He lowered his head to her neck, his sharp stubble adding a deliciously new sensation after the familiarity of his softer scruff. He moved his prickly jaw in a targeted and deliberate exploration of her neck and collarbone. Her moans made him twitch again and she was keenly aware of his arousal as he pushed her firmly against the solid door. He brought his lips to hers and whispered into her mouth. 

      “Claire, I need you so badly.”

      “I need you too.” She whispered back, her lips on his.

      His hands moved around to her lower back, and she arched it away from the door a little, instinctively knowing what he wanted. Gently and carefully, he started to ease the fabric tape from her skin to free the dress, their lips still lightly pressed together, parted but not kissing, just breathing in sync. He didn’t want to hurt her sensitive skin, but, God, he desperately wanted to slip the dress off her and have her naked in front of him. He had pictured this moment so many times over the past week - the moment they would finally succumb to the emotional connection and sexual tension that had been building between them from the night they met. But he hadn't fathomed the depth of his longing and the intensity of her response to him. Easing the last piece of tape away, he could finally dip his hands beneath the dress, and he cupped her bare buttocks, squeezing gently, relishing the feel of her soft flesh yielding to his touch. She pushed her pelvis against him, feeling his hardness and gasping at the quivering response it evoked between her legs.

      He slid his hands up to her shoulders and pushed one of the beaded straps down, planting sweet kisses all along the side of neck, across her shoulder and down her arm. He did the same on the other side, then captured her lips in another searing kiss, pushing his groin up against hers, seeking the movement of her hips that she willingly gave him. Her skin here was delicate and fragrant, and he brushed his stubble lightly over it knowing that it elicited a primal response from her. 

      “Your skin is so soft, mo chridhe.”  

      She was delirious with pent-up desire, and his warm, steamy kisses on her neck and shoulders brought a new wave of little moans and a surge of wetness low in her core.  

      “Jesus, Claire, do you not know what those noises do to me?” he growled.

      Driven by the rumble of his deep voice against her shoulder and the thought of her lustful noises intensifying his arousal, she gasped against his ear, and fumbled urgently with the fabric of his kilt. Finally finding her way to his buttocks, she grasped his taut, solid muscles firmly, pushing her fingers deep into his flesh. His rear end had been the subject of millions of fantasies - her own included - and she pulled him tighter against her now, possessively, almost forcefully. He ground his hips into hers and she dug her nails into the strong, muscled flesh, triggering a guttural groan from him. She was not immune to his noises, and that groan went to her very center, intensifying her yearning in a fresh rush that left her wetter still and breathless. She immersed herself in the sensations that he was arousing, marveling at his ability to awaken nerve fibers that blazed with his every touch.

      Gazing into her eyes, he slowly and deliberately worked her dress down past her breasts and arms, allowing it to fall free and pool at her feet. His eyes followed the path of the dress, taking in her firm, rounded breasts, her taut stomach, neat Brazilian patch and shapely, toned legs. He already knew that she was a stunningly beautiful woman, and having her stand naked in front of him, filled with desire and yearning for him, pushed his thoughts into sensory overdrive. He kissed her again, desperate for another taste of her mouth, for the feel of her tongue against his, for the sounds of her pleasure in his ears, for the provocative combination of smells that made up her unique fragrance.

      “God, you’re beautiful, Claire. So beautiful.” He smoothed his hands slowly up her arms, over her shoulders and down to her breasts. Cupping a breast in each hand, he gently circled his thumbs over her hardened nipples, mouth seizing hers again and again in an endless series of tempting little kisses. He lowered his mouth, still wet from her kisses, and claimed a nipple, sucking gently at first, and then with increasing intensity. Her nipples ached with a need that went to her core, and brought new waves of desire and hunger for him.

      “Jamie,” she panted, her fingers losing themselves in his hair. He took her other nipple lightly between his teeth and nibbled and teased until she tugged lightly on his hair, and he sucked gently as her hips ground more urgently into his. She slid her hands under his jacket, pushing it off his shoulders, and he quickly discarded it, along with the waistcoat and bow tie. Her fingers moved quickly as she started unbuttoning his shirt, planting sweet kisses and tiny licks on his skin as she exposed more and more of his muscled chest with each button. She was brazen in her eagerness to disrobe him completely so that she could freely explore and bask in the delicious mounds and hollows of his incredible body, honed to near-perfection by hours of dedicated workouts.

      His hands slipped around to cup her buttocks again, caressing and kneading and getting his fill of the arse that drove him crazy with lust. She pulled his shirt free of his waistband and undid the last two buttons, intentionally pressing up against the arousal under his kilt. He inhaled sharply and looked at her with hooded eyes. Dragging his shirt down his arms, she splayed her hands on his chest and buried her face in the sprinkling of soft, curly hair between his well-defined, firm pecs, inhaling his intoxicating scent. She swirled the tip of her tongue gently over his nipple, and felt his reaction in the movement of his muscles. Kissing her way across to the other nipple, she licked and nipped lightly until he moaned softly and caught her lips in his, leaving her panting with another scorching kiss. She wanted to spend hours exploring and licking and kissing his entire body, but he had other ideas, and with an urgency that sent a ripple of anticipation through her, he discarded his shoes and socks in a few quick moves, and started to remove his sporran.

      “No,” she breathed, “I’ll do it.” She pushed herself tightly against him, her breasts pressed on his chest. She dragged the sporran across his waist, pressing it torturously up against his erection, until she had the clasp in her fingers. She unclasped and discarded the sporran along with the growing pile of clothes on the floor. Locking her eyes with his, she ran her fingers slowly along the inside of the kilt’s waistband, feeling his abdominal muscles react to her touch in tiny pulsing movements as her fingers sought the clasps that would release the last barrier between his skin and hers. He gave her a tiny smile and guided her hands to the buckles on each side of the kilt. Making short work of both buckles, she pulled the kilt free at last and discarded it. He was finally naked before her, and she needed to take him in - all of him. His body was hard and toned and lusting for her. She ran her fingers lightly over his broad shoulders and strong muscled arms, hands closing firmly around his biceps, savoring the strength and hardness she felt there. Completely focused on enjoying his body, she ignored the aching desire between her legs, and skimmed her hands over his chest, down to his abdomen, where she lightly brushed the lines and grooves of his muscled 8-pack with her nails. Her eyes dropped to his V-line, and she drew her breath in sharply at the sight of his erection. She knew that when they finally came together, her body would need to adjust to his size and she let out a tiny moan of pleasure at the thought of how he would fill her.

      Locking her eyes with his, she reached down and gently palmed his balls, taut and straining and desperate for the moment that would bring them release. He narrowed his eyes, breathing faster and shallower now. Moving her hand up along his length, she tentatively touched the drop of moisture collecting at the tip. Slowly circling her finger in the slick wetness, she raised her finger to her mouth and licked it slowly, seductively. He drew in a sharp breath and watched her through narrowed eyes. She lowered herself to her knees and ran her fingers over his erection, feeling the swollen veins throb at her touch. Gasping slightly at the thought of tasting him, of taking his length slowly into the warm depths of her mouth, she ran her tongue slowly up and down and around his cock. Looking up at him, she bit her lower lip, and heard a groan rumble deep in his abdomen. Pressing one hand into his russet curls, she wrapped her fingers around the base of his erection. Her other hand circled his shaft, dragging slowly along the full length of him. He watched as she lowered her head and closed her lips around the head of his cock. Her lips and tongue, her hands and fingers - he was almost incoherent with carnal desire and need. The little vixen was dangerously close to sending him over the edge.

      Jamie’s hands were suddenly on her wrists.

      “Babe, if you carry on, I’m not going to last,” he said gently. “I need you up here.”

      He helped her up, and pushed her gently back against the door and she gave herself to his slow and sensuous kiss. She pushed back against his body, her hips rocking rhythmically against his, as she sought the friction that would bring her satisfaction. Jamie’s hands were on her hips, and he was wild with desire as her hip movements almost pushed him beyond the realm of his control. Their kiss grew more urgent and intense, until they devoured each other’s mouths hungrily, tongues pushing and twining and sucking and savoring. They finally parted, panting and desperate for more. His hand moved slowly from her hip to the front of her thighs, and he gently cupped the V-patch between her legs. 

      “Oh God, Jamie …”  She wanted to freeze time and stay locked in this moment. His long fingers buried themselves in her folds and the abundant wetness there.

      “Claire!” he looked into her eyes in awe at the physical proof of the sensations he awoke in her. 

      “Jamie, I need you …” she whispered.  

      His fingers were deep in her folds now, electrifying her with every touch. He found her swollen nub, and began to massage in slow circular motions. She arched her back towards him and he took her nipple in his mouth, sending a charge directly to her wet, aching core.

      “Jamie …”   

      His mouth was on her jaw, on her neck … tracing a path to her breast and back to her collarbone with his tongue, and her breath came in pants and sighs as he licked and nibbled the hollows he found there. He slowly inserted two fingers inside her, and she tightened around them in small pulsing movements that hinted at what awaited him when he finally took her. But he pushed those thoughts aside to focus on her pleasure. He curled his fingers inside her, seeking gently until he found what he was looking for. He stroked her steadily until she arched her back away from the door in a forceful movement. He wrapped his other arm around her and used his body to gently push her back against the door, pressing his body close to hers. He withdrew his fingers from her core and found her swollen clit again. With gentle fingertips, he circled the slick, swollen nub while he nuzzled the space between her neck and shoulder, listening to her noises and breathing, and responding intuitively until she started to tremble and he knew she was close to peaking. 

      “Jamie … Jamie …” she breathed. 

      “Show me, babe.” 

      She placed her hand gently over his and with the gentlest touch guided his speed and pressure. Her breathing became more erratic, and her noises alternately guttural and breathy. His fingers moved inside her, around her sweet spot, bringing her tantalizing, agonizingly sensual pleasure. Her body began clenching around his fingers, shaking, tightening, bringing her to a soaring crescendo and losing herself completely in his arms. He held her tightly pressed to him until he felt her shaking subside, and then he peppered gentle kisses all over her face.

      “Jamie …” she reached for his cock, but he held her hand. She wanted to bring him pleasure as he had done for her, but he knew that in his desperate state of yearning for her, he needed to take the lead tonight.

      “Upstairs.”

      His voice was raspy and desperate with desire. He reached around to grasp her butt and quickly hoisted her up. She wrapped her legs around him, and he took her upstairs effortlessly, their groins pressed together. He carried her into her bedroom and sat her gently on the edge of the bed.  Reaching into her hair he felt for the hair pins and gently released her curls from the chignon. How he loved her mass of richly textured curls. Whether she wore it natural or in softer waves, he could barely resist inhaling it, or touching or winding a curl around his finger. Burying his fingers in her hair, he tipped her head back and kissed her hungrily.

      “I could kiss ye all night, Claire. I canna get enough of yer mouth.” He traced her lips with his finger and dragged it down her neck to her breasts, where he circled one nipple slowly. He gently pushed her back onto the bed with his body, and with a strong arm beneath her, guided her to the middle of the bed. 

      “My shoes, Jamie,” she breathed.

      “Your shoes are staying on, Claire.” His voice was low and decisive, and she thrilled at the thought of him wanting her to keep her stilettos on while he made love to her. Her hair lay in disarray around her head, and he nestled his face in it, reveling in the soft, fragrant curls. 

      “Ye smell like heaven.” He planted tiny, wet kisses along her shoulder and collarbone, making her dig her stilettos into the bed and roll her hips against his body. She was still achingly sensitive from her intense release downstairs.

      “Claire,” he rasped as her groin rubbed up against his straining erection. Taking her nipple in his mouth, he lavished it with licks and nips and kisses, and then sucked it hard, nipping it delicately between his teeth, while his thumb and forefinger lightly pinched and tugged at her other nipple. 

      He took it between his lips and left a circle of kisses around it, continuing the trail of kisses down the middle of her abdomen, pausing to lick and kiss her belly button. He gently rolled her over, and continued his sensuous trail of kisses along the back of her neck. His hand caressed her butt with a feather-light touch, and he felt her hips grind down into the bed as his lips left a slow path of kisses down her spine. She knew he was going straight for her ass - it was his not-so-secret obsession - and she waited in eager anticipation for attention he would lavish on her. He started in the sensitive small of her back, pressing kisses in a low curve, dipping into the little cleft between her soft mounds. He rained firm kisses down on every visible inch of her butt, groaning with pleasure as she clenched slightly and rolled her hips under him. He grazed her lightly with his teeth and nipped gently, as his hands kneaded and his fingers explored dangerously closely to her wet, quivering core. His own response was bringing him close to the point of no return, and for the umpteenth time that night, he fought for control of his visceral, carnal urges. 

      He abandoned thoughts of kissing her all the way down the back of her legs to her stiletto-clad feet. That exploration would have to come another time - he was too close to his own release, and he still needed to feel her peak in his arms again. 

      Reluctantly leaving her delectable butt, he rolled her over again, and buried his face in her neat V-shaped mound, gently pushing her legs apart, caressing sensually from her knees, all the way up to her inner thighs. She sensed a renewed urgency in his movements now, and the idea that he was getting close to the limits of his control thrilled her. She was desperate for him to fill her and find his own release deep inside her.

      His hand moved to her inner thigh, moving intentionally upwards towards her swollen pink folds. Slowly and gently, he immersed his fingers in the abundant moisture he found there. 

      “Christ, babe ...” he whispered. His straining arousal intensified at the evidence of her response to him, and when she spread her thighs further to accommodate his body on hers, he let out a moan of pleasure that rippled through every fiber of her being. 

      She bent her knees up a little more, stilettos digging into the bedding, back arching sharply in response to his gently probing fingers. He stroked and explored with the gentlest of touches, finding her clit again, still swollen and slick with her juices, and so, so ready for him. He drew tiny circles, his mouth moving closer and closer, dropping more kisses over her small V-patch, the coarseness of the hair tickling his lips as he moved to her smooth, wet folds. He buried his face in her, inhaling her heady scent and groaning in pleasure and anticipation. She arched her hips upwards, and brought her knees up higher still, scraping his butt and hips with her stilettos. Her nails dug into his shoulders, leaving little half-moon indents - imprints of her wildly escalating lust. He dropped kisses in a small circle around her sweet spot, and followed them with tiny licks. His tongue teased over it, and she arched her back wildly, then pushed back down, deep into the bedding. She started to rotate her hips rhythmically, as his tongue flicked and sucked and swirled. He ran his tongue along her fold, and in the slick spaces between them, and brought it back to where she needed it most, flicking light, gentle touches that brought her to the edge. He dipped two fingers into her, keeping them there until her tightness had adjusted to their girth, then slowly, slowly he inched them upward, curling them to maximize her pleasure. He pumped them in and out slowly, eliciting a series of pants from Claire. He withdrew his fingers to allow his tongue to take over, exploring the depths of her, taking in her scent and her taste, as his tongue plunged into her. He dragged his tongue back to her swollen, aching nub and lavished attention on, licking, swirling, sucking. She writhed under him, her thighs pressed against his head. 

      “Jamie. I .. Jamie,” she dug her nails into his scalp and he knew she was close.

      Her hips arched up again, and her gasps and sighs grew louder. 

      “Jamie. Jamie, please …” her voice was plaintive, pleading.

      He lifted his head and watched her intently and his fingers sank into her again, his thumb reclaiming her sweet spot. His fingers worked their magic on her, while his mouth found her nipple, licking and nipping and sucking. She couldn’t prevent the movement of her hips - nor did she want to. 

      “Jamie, Jamie! Oh God,” she was breathless, panting, “don’t stop!”  She clutched at his back … at the bed-covers … at his back again, thighs pressing in on his hand, hips arching, nails scraping his back. His lips were on hers, breathing her name; his fingers were on her … in her; bringing her unimaginable pleasure. She lost herself completely in him. Wave after wave of unstoppable ecstasy coursed through her body, intense and exhilarating. Nothing else existed in that moment. It was just the two of them, completely absorbed in each other, completely suspended in their awareness of each other as her body trembled beneath his. 

      He didn’t stop until her shaking and panting and moaning slowed, her hand gently stilling his. Still breathless, she took his face between her hands.

      “I need all of you, Jamie. I need all of you, now.”

      He lowered his mouth to hers in a swift, plundering kiss and spread her thighs wider. Taking his thick, hard cock in his hand he gently guided it to her opening and eased in a little. He searched her eyes, finding only raging desire, and he pushed in more, allowing her to adjust, until he was deep inside her. She pushed back on his chest and brought her ankles up on his shoulders, her stilettos in his peripheral vision. He started thrusting, slowly and deeply, withdrawing almost fully, before plunging in again. Her raised legs allowed him intensely deeper penetration, eliciting sighs and groans of pleasure from both of them. 

      Anxious to prolong her pleasure and his, he maintained his slow rhythm, their eyes locked in mutual rapture. He kissed her deeply, sucking the breath out of her, triggering more blissful moans within her. Her breathing was fast and shallow, her hands grabbing the strong muscles of his back and raking hard. He pumped harder and faster now, and she rocked upward to meet his thrusts. He pushed deeper still, wanting to possess her entirely, to lose himself in her body, to get lost in her soul. Eyes locked with hers, he knew that everything about this moment was perfect. He couldn’t imagine a time when lying with someone had felt so right. Her nails dug into his back, and she pushed the tips of her heels into his flesh. He moved in her in a visceral rhythm that awakened parts of her body that yearned for more, in a euphoric combination of pleasure and pain that made her cry out his name.

      His blood coursed through his veins, pounding in his ears and focusing his thoughts entirely on where his body and hers joined. His rhythm became irregular and they knew he was close. With a shudder that she felt all the way in her center, his movements slowed as he called out her name. And in that moment, his heart, his soul, his entire being was one with hers, as he poured himself into her in ecstatic and total release, her core pulsating around him, locking him deep inside her as he filled her completely with heated gushes, the culmination of a week of intense and overwhelming desire. In that moment, there was only Claire. Her whisky eyes fixed on his, her hands on him, holding him tightly pressed against her. He shuddered, completely spent, and collapsed on her, panting and breathing her name.

     

      They lay there for an eternity, sharing the same breath, the same heartbeat; unable to take their eyes off each other. They were fused together by this moment that was almost divinely surreal in its intensity. 

      “Don’t move,” she whispered. “Stay inside me. Just stay here forever.”

      His lips melted into hers, and they kissed with infinite tenderness. 

      “Mo chridhe,” he breathed, his hand caressed her face.

      “What does that mean?” she whispered.

      “My heart.”

      They held each other, legs tangled, and arms wrapped tightly around one another. Neither of them wanted to fall asleep, preferring to gaze at each other endlessly. He smoothed some curls from her face and kissed her gently, almost reverently. And when his kiss ended, she caressed his face, and left a trail of tender, lazy kisses across his lips.  

 

      Eventually, they lay still ... fingers interlaced, breathing aligned ... and gave themselves to a deep, restful sleep, completely entwined in each other. 

 

 



Chapter Text

 


 

      She awoke slowly. The sun was streaming directly onto her bed, and she knew by its angle and warmth that it was late morning - probably close to noon. She never slept in this late. Lulled by the heat of the sun on her bed, she lay on her side, perfectly still, and closed her eyes again, enjoying the indulgence of a Sunday morning lie-in. Gradually becoming aware of her senses, she felt the mild ache between her legs first. Releasing a deep sigh, she allowed images and moments from last night to float into her consciousness. Jamie’s mouth on hers, gentle, then demanding; his hands on her body - giving, then taking, then giving again. Jamie on her ... and in her, stretching her and filling her so completely. A soft moan escaped her lips as she recalled how she had abandoned herself to him.

      The second thing she became aware of was the stirring of his strong muscular body behind her, his arm draped across her middle, gently tightening his hold on her. A series of kisses gently deposited on her shoulder told her that Jamie was awake too. She opened her eyes and interlaced their fingers, holding his hand over her heart. She released a soft sigh. 

      “Those wee noises of yours are going to get you in a whole lot of trouble.” His voice was sleepy and insanely sexy in her ear, and she felt an immediate response between her legs.

      “Mmmhmmm,” she hummed again, kissing his fingertips, “tell me more…”

      He pulled her towards him gently, the frenzied passion of last night replaced by a languid tenderness. She felt the first signs of his arousal against her, and a slow smile stole across her lips. Slowly, she rolled over to face him, his hand sliding across to her lower back as she moved, drawing her close to him.  

      A smile crept across his features and he captured her lips in a slow, deep kiss. 

      “Good morning, beautiful.”

      She reached her hand up to his face, and gently brushed his stubble, smiling as she remembered his promise that he would allow the scruff to grow back. “Good morning.” 

      His hand moved to her butt, and he traced abstract patterns on her skin with his fingers. Her fingers explored his back, feeling the slightly raised marks that her nails and stilettos had left on him. A question formed slowly in her not-quite-awake mind.

      “My shoes?” she asked quietly, and he smiled his half smile.

      “I got up at some point to pull the covers over us and took yer shoes off.”

      “Mmmm,” she murmured gratefully.

      His hand slid up her belly to her chest, and he gently cupped her breast, thumbing over her nipple with a butterfly soft touch. Reaching for her mouth again, he kissed her tenderly, leaving her slightly breathless as he moved his attentions down her neck to the sweet hollow at the base of her throat.

      “Did you sleep okay?” she asked, wondering if she’d hogged the covers.

      “Best sleep I’ve had in ages. I might stay here all day, if you’ll stay with me.”

      “Hmmmm. Sounds heavenly. You wouldn’t get any more sleep, though.”

      “That’s the whole point.” His little eyebrow raise told her exactly what was on his mind.

      Her hand drifted over his hip, and across his belly, where her fingertip slowly circled his belly button, feeling his muscles contract in response. She traced the lines of his 8-pack with her nails, and dragged them down the strip of soft russet hair in the middle of his V-line, reaching his springy red-brown tangle, and caressing slowly, gently. She felt him twitch against her hand, and she moved her hand to gently palm over his hard, erect length. He groaned into the hollow of her throat, the vibrations going straight to her core, adding to the aching wetness that had been building from the moment he warned her that her ‘wee noises’ would get her in trouble. If this was trouble, she wanted more of it.

      He dragged his lips up from her throat to reclaim her mouth. Her fingertip circled the head of his erection and with the lightest of touches, stroked the ridge at the base, eliciting a low moan from him. He took her hand and moved it gently away from him, holding it firmly in his hand. He was already so turned on, so ready to feel her take him deep inside her.

      Rolling her over onto her back, he brought his lips down on her nipple, and flattened his tongue over the pebbled hardness. He pulled her nipple into his mouth, swirling and flicking his tongue over it, making her moan and roll her hips in a rhythm that was starting to become deliciously familiar to him.

      He ran a hand over her belly and gently palmed her mound and brushed his fingers through the soft, trimmed curls there. Reaching lower, he dipped a finger into her slit, immediately finding the slick, warm evidence of her arousal within her swollen folds.  

      He released a low, guttural groan. “You’re so wet already. God, you make me want to lose myself in you.”

      Gazing into his eyes, she nodded, and he slowly pushed his fingers into her. Her wetness all over them, he slid them slowly back to her swollen nub, and started to trace slow circles, as she released a long, deep moan and clutched the bicep of his arm, pressing her nails into them. His other hand still held hers away from his arousal. He wanted them to enjoy delectably slow morning sex, and she made him want her with an urgency that rocked him to his core. He was hard and thick and aching for her. He desperately wanted to sheath himself in her and feel her tighten and pulsate around him, but he needed to take it slower.

      He kissed her mouth deeply, and continued to tease her clit with his fingers, adjusting his pressure as he gauged her breathing and hip movements. Her breathing became shallower, and her legs became increasingly restless. Using two fingers over her sweet spot, he increased his intensity a little more. She rolled her hips and pressed them up into his groin, trapping his hand just where she needed it.

      “Slower, Jamie,” she breathed, and he adjusted his movements, gazing deep into her eyes. He wanted to watch her lose herself in him. 

      “Jamie … Jamie …” she arched up. “Oh God …” 

      And in that moment, he knew she was giving herself to him completely. He felt her shattering, powerful release in her trembling body. She arched her back up, head thrown back on her pillow, clutching the bedding in her fists, panting hard and moaning deeply as she came undone in his hands. Flushed and breathless, she parted her legs wider. He hadn’t taken his eyes off her, his own arousal heightened by watching her release. 

     “Now, Jamie! Please …" she breathed. She reached down and reclaimed his hard straining cock in her hand, thumbing gently over the slick tip.

      “Babe,” he growled, and she guided him to her entrance. He pushed himself inside her in one fluid movement, and she clenched and tightened rhythmically around him, her pulsating core driving him to utter bliss. He withdrew slightly, and then pushed in deeper. 

      “Claire, God …”. He started to move intentionally, his thrusts long and slow and restrained. Her hips rolled up towards his, matching his rhythm and intensity. They reveled in each other, lost in each other’s eyes as he pushed slowly and deeply into her. Every thrust reached parts of her that drew little pants of pleasure. She wrapped her legs up over his hips, and the adjusted angle deepened his thrusts, drawing more groans from both of them. His thrusting became more urgent as she clutched his back and pressed her fingers into his firm flesh, meeting his thrusts with her eager hips. He pushed harder and faster, his breathing becoming increasingly ragged and erratic. 

      “Claire …”  He froze momentarily, a look of sheer rapture on his face, and then pushed hard into her, spilling himself in powerful, hot spurts, filling her with his heat and surrendering himself to her entirely. She contracted tightly around him in pulsating movements that kept him deep inside her, unwilling to break their union.

      He settled slowly, cautious not to crush her; and as their breathing slowed, he rolled back a little, his body pressed against hers, face nuzzled between her neck and shoulder. His hand claimed her breast and cupped it tenderly. Every part of him needed to touch a part of her.

      They lay entwined together for long, lazy minutes, content to bask in each other's post-lovemaking languor for as long as possible; fingers exploring each other's faces, getting lost in curls, touching swollen lips, memorizing every tiny detail of each other.

      Eventually, a soft growling arose from the depths of the bed.

      “Was that your hungry tummy or mine?” Claire smiled. 

      “Not sure, but we should probably get up and get some breakfast.”

      “Mmmm. Scrambled eggs sound OK?”

      “Perfect.” He kissed her lips. “Are we spending the day at the pool? Or do you have other stuff to do?”

      “I think we should - it looks like a gorgeous day.”

      “Right then,” he said decisively, grasping her butt-cheeks firmly. “Let’s get this beautiful arse out of bed.”

      “Cheeky bugger!” she squealed as she retaliated in kind. “Shower, swimsuits, and meet downstairs?”

      “Yes - first one in the kitchen starts the lattes.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Jamie was already in the kitchen brewing their lattes, wearing only his swim trunks. He had just started the toast and was about to start scrambling eggs for their very late brunch. She wore a white two-piece swimsuit under an unbuttoned, oversized peach linen shirt that served as her cover-up. He eyed her lustfully, eyebrow raised, as his eyes drifted from her breasts to her groin. 

      “Down, boy!” she teased, shaking her head in mock exasperation as she buttoned her blouse from chest to thighs, to his great disappointment. “I’ll finish the lattes while you do the eggs.”

      In between frothing milk and scrambling eggs and brewing coffee and making toast, they assembled a satisfying breakfast, and within a few minutes, they were enjoying it on the patio.

      “Good team-work!”

      “Right? This is perfect, Jamie - I was starving!”

      “Me too. Eat up - you’ll need yer energy for later.” He winked at her, and she laughed at his two-eyed attempt.

      “I need to teach you to wink properly!”

      “Is that part of your curriculum?”

      “I can make adjustments to my curriculum to accommodate specific needs.”

      “In that case, Dr. Beauchamp, I’d like to sign up for extra lessons after class. I have lots of specific needs.”

      “I’ll check my schedule and get back to you.”

      “Add me to the waiting list, if necessary.” He teased her with his slow, sexy half smile.

      “Uh uh, Jamie. That smile of yours does things to me - starting when you arrived here last Monday. Let’s clean up and head down to the pool. We can catch up on emails and stuff down there.

 

      She had turned the pool heater on a couple days earlier and the water was at the perfect temperature. Jamie helped her inflate a two-person floating island that she retrieved from a small shed hidden among the bushes near the stone patio. 

      “I didn’t know this shed was back here,” he said in surprise.

      “I’m not sure the homeowner’s association would approve. Hopefully my new neighbor won’t report me.”

      “I’ve heard he’s a reasonable guy,” Jamie replied, “I’m sure you can come up with a mutually acceptable arrangement.” 

      “James Fraser! Are you suggesting that I trade some … special favors with my new neighbor in order to avoid trouble with the HOA?”

      He looked at her in mock horror. “Would I ever suggest such a thing, Sassenach?”

      “Yes, you bloody well would,” she replied knowingly.

      He finished pumping the pool float and carried it over to the pool. Tossing it in the water, he helped Claire onto the float, before clambering on next to her.

      Nestling into the large, comfortable float, they picked up their iPads from the edge of the pool, and floated lazily around the pool, spending the next hour or so catching up on emails and texts.

      Claire re-confirmed the catering arrangements with Julio and Alma for Monday's meeting, and replied to some student emails. She also responded to a few unopened texts, including one that had come in earlier that morning from Armando.

       Girl! about last night……?????

      She smiled and tapped out a quick response.

       He wore a kilt

      Imma need to lie down. call me later this week. love u. 

      Will do   

 

      Jamie had a lot more to respond to, so she busied herself reading an ebook, allowing him to text with Jenny, Dougal, and Murtagh, updating them on all matters relating to the winery.  

      “Jenny wants to come over and check out the winery soon.”

      “That’s great, Jamie! I know you’ll be so proud to show her around.”

      “Aye, and I canna wait for her to meet you!” 

      “Hmmm. She might not that be that taken with me, since I’m the reason you’ve broken your hiatus agreement with her,” she pointed out.

      “We already had a conversation about that - she must have sensed something during our last FaceTime call, because she asked me if I was sticking to it. I told her that she needs to trust me - she still sees me as her baby brother sometimes, ye ken.”

      “She just wants what’s best for you, Jamie.”

      “I ken that, but she also needs to stop babying me and accept that I make my own decisions. I’m a big boy now.”

      “Mmmm… yes. I’m very aware of that.”

      He threw her a sideways look. “Is that right? I think ye might need a wee reminder later.”

 

      He gently removed her iPad from her hands, and leaned over the side of the float to place both his and hers on the edge of the pool.   

      Snuggling in close to her, he eased her over to face him and they lay there, wrapped in each other, bodies pressed together, floating lazily around the pool. Her face was nuzzled in his neck, and he buried his nose in her curls. 

      “You always smell so good, Claire.”

      “You do too - drives me to distraction.”

      His arms were around her, his hands on her lower back. He slid them under her bikini bottoms and grasped her butt cheeks in his hands, gently squeezing and pressing and basking in the feeling of the soft flesh in his hands. Her arms were wrapped around his neck; one one hand drew gentle, sweeping lines up and down his spine with her fingernails, while the other played with his curls and caressed the back of his neck.

      He leaned towards her and kissed her lips. “Claire, last night was … I canna even describe it.”

      “It was pretty incredible," she sighed, “everything was just perfect, Jamie. From the limo to the event, to our … our night here at home.” 

      “Having you there with me was very special. It was an unforgettable night.”

      “It felt so right … being with you there last night. I’m glad we didn’t have to worry about photographers. It was a respectful crowd. Your speech was amazing too - I was so proud of you!” 

      “You were?” he seemed touched by her pride in him. 

      “Will you read me that poem again sometime?”

      “I can recite it now, if ye like.”

      “Yes!”

       You’re going to wake up soon, you know that, right? Because right now, this dream has you drifting slowly around the pool in a float with this amazing, ridiculous man, who calls you babe, kisses your fingertips, sneaks a special song into your playlist, and is about to recite a love poem by Robert Burns. 

      Only, it wasn’t a dream. They lay facing each other, bodies wrapped and limbs tangled together, and in a rich Scottish burr, Jamie recited his favorite poem.

 

                         O my Luve is like a red, red rose

                         That’s newly sprung in June;

                         O my Luve is like the melody

                         That’s sweetly played in tune

            

                         So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,

                         So deep in luve am I;

                         And I will luve thee still, my dear,

                         Till a’ the seas gang dry.

            

                         Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,

                         And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;

                         I will love thee still, my dear,

                         While the sands o’ life shall run.

            

                         And fare thee weel, my only luve!

                         And fare thee weel awhile!

                         And I will come again, my luve,

                         Though it were ten thousand mile

 

      “Thank you Jamie,” she stroked his face tenderly, “that was beautiful. I’m impressed that you have it so well memorized.”

      “It’s not a long poem, Claire, and it’s a very special one for me. And ye ken I’m used to memorizing lines in scripts. I guess that makes it a little easier too.”

       “It’s a beautiful poem. The last verse makes me sad, though,”

       “It used to make me sad too, but it’s taken on a new meaning for me. In English Lit, we were taught that the poem is all about his crazy new love for a woman, a love that will last forever, because the seas will never run dry and the rocks will never melt, but he has to bid her farewell. And that all sounds good to me - I can get behind most of that interpretation. But I’m choosing to reinterpret the last stanza. It’s not a goodbye, in my analysis.”

       He sounded so serious and thoughtful as he shared his thoughts about his poem. 

      “Okay … what’s your interpretation?”

      “He has to travel far from his love now and again - maybe to Scotland, ye ken - and he’s telling his love to take good care of herself, because although he may be far he canna wait to get back to her, even though it’s thousands of miles that he’ll have to travel. He says, ‘I will come again, my luve’ - sounds very determined, aye?”

      “Yes, he does,” she said, stroking the stubble on his jaw.

      “Did you know that it’s almost 9000 miles round-trip between Seattle and Glasgow. Pretty close to Burns’ ten thousand miles, aye?”

       She smiled broadly. “I love the poem even more with your interpretation.”

      She snuggled her face into his neck and inhaled his scent, content to lie there for the rest of the day, if she could.

   

      They drifted around the pool like that for what seemed like hours, immersed in the pleasure of just being together … touching, kissing, gazing as the mood took them.

      “Jamie?”

      “Mmm?”

      “I really did miss you yesterday.”

      “Aye, it was a long time to be without you. I’m going to miss you when I’m in L.A. Don’t even want to think about it.” 

      “It’s only a week, and then you’ll come back here. When do you think you’ll have to go back to Scotland?”

      “August - just for 2 or 3 weeks. That’s when we get together as a family and hold meetings - annual financial review and planning, marketing and such.”

      “‘And I will come again’ …” she started the line from the poem he had recited earlier.

      “‘My luve ’…” he finished, and kissed her softly.

      “It’s important that you stay connected with Scotland and your family there.”

      “Aye, it is. The Frasers are a tight bunch.”

      “Did I tell you how incredibly dashing you looked in your Fraser kilt last night?”

      “You did, Sassenach. But I’m doubting your sincerity - seems like you couldn’t wait to get rid of it. Did I tell you how beautiful you looked, leannan?”

      “You did. Several times. But you can tell me again, if you like.”

      “Christ, Claire, you were beautiful beyond description. Your gorgeous hair, gleaming with beautiful streaks of auburn, so classy and elegant. And your dress was sensational. I hope ye’ll wear that for me again and again. And your shoes! So sexy. They looked even better around my neck.” She swatted his butt, and he chuckled heartily. “Everything about you was perfect, even yer underwear .. oh wait ...” He gave her his double eyebrow waggle.

      “Uh ... you’re not in much of a position to comment on my missing underwear.”

      “Aye, but that’s our Scottish tradition. Do you think ye might start a wee tradition yourself? A ‘no underwear’ tradition when we’re out on a date?”

      “You cheeky bugger! I’m a respectable woman, I’ll have you know.”

      “Oh aye, I remember all your respectable behavior on the patio last night.”

      “I believe you may have initiated that, Fraser. And exactly how many dates are you planning?”

      “If it were up to me, we’d be on a date night every night. But you’re avoiding the question. Will ye start a new tradition for me?”

      “No underwear whenever we’re out on a date? Have you lost your mind?”

      “Aye - I lost it last Monday night, when I arrived on yer doorstep. But you’re still avoiding the question. How about one more date? No underwear when we're out on our next date, and I’ll not pester you after that.”

      “I’ll think about it.”

      They gazed at each in an easy silence for a long moment. He was still caressing and squeezing her butt - a blatant display of favoritism when it came to her body.

      "Sassenach," his voice was low and lethargic, “did you know that your arse is the 8th Wonder of the World?”

      “Don’t be ridiculous,” she laughed. 

      “Aye it is, and I want to stay here like this, holding it in my hands and taking care of it for the rest of the day.”

      “Well, you are taking such good care of it that I fear other body parts are starting to get some residual benefits.” 

      “It’s your fault, Sassenach. Ye canna expect me not to respond to ye when you’re looking like a mermaid goddess - is there such a thing? - in your wee white bikini, with yer nipples like cherries, and yer arse like ripe peaches in my hands.”

      “You are incorrigible. I think it might be time to get in the water and cool off.”

      “Spoilsport,” he grumbled as she eased away and slid off the float into the pool.

      “C’mon,” she flicked water at him, and he launched himself at her, diving under the water and emerging with her cradled in his arms. Squealing at his unexpected underwater attack, she tried to wriggle free, but he tightened his hold and shook his head.

      “Oh no, you don’t!” He bent down to kiss her lips, but she deftly dodged him with a teasing look.

      “Uh uh, Fraser, if you want me, you’re gonna have to come and get me.” And before he could react, she had squirmed out of his arms and was halfway across the pool, swimming faster than he had expected.

      He sprang into action, swimming with powerful strokes to catch up with her. But while she could not match his physical strength and speed, she could match him tactically. Taking a deep breath, she dived deep under the water, pushed off the wall and glided swiftly back in his direction, close to the floor of the pool, and well out his reach. She emerged on the opposite side, giggling at his look of shock and confusion. 

      “You’d better pray I don’t get you, Sassenach!” he called, and plunged back in, gaining on her faster than she would like. Rolling onto her back, so that she could flutter kick and speed up her movement across the pool, she pushed herself to try and bypass him again. She saw his wild splashing out of the corner of her eye as she sneaked past him for a second time, a smile of triumph already on her lips. 

      Her victory was short-lived, though. She felt a large hand close around her ankle, and before she could react, she was being dragged strongly against the resistance of the water. A hand grabbed her other ankle and pushed her legs apart. She coasted to a stop, groin-to-groin with her assailant, who was in waist-deep water.

      He had a look of sheer triumph all over his face as he clasped her back, and raised her body from the water, positioning her so that she could straddle him, legs wrapped around his hips. He held her butt and pulled her groin tight against him. She wound her arms around his neck and pushed her chest up against his. 

      “So you think you’re all that, huh?” She raised an eyebrow, and brought her lips down hard on his, pulling his lower lip fiercely into her mouth and nipping it with her teeth. “Standing here like some goddamn Highland warrior ready to take his wench!” She kissed him again, harder still, pushing into his mouth, her tongue fighting his for dominance. “Took you long enough to capture your woman, soldier.” 

      “Aye, but now that I’ve caught her, I’m never going to let her go.” Looking at her with narrowed eyes, he slid a hand up her back and wound his fingers into her wet hair, tugging her head back, exposing her neck. He planted urgent open-mouthed kisses and licks on her neck and throat, and then retraced his path with his teeth, lightly grazing her, leaving her gasping and digging her nails into his shoulder blades. Her rolling hip movements against his hard length drew a deep groan from his throat, and she slowed it way down to prolong his agony. 

      “You’re a vixen and a wench,” he breathed, lips still on her throat. Releasing her hair, he cupped both hands over her butt again.

      “We should start thinking about heading up to the house soon.” She pressed wet kisses all over his mouth. “I need to feed my warrior ...” her groin was still fused with his and she slowly dragged her slit up and down his length, her legs tightly anchored over his hips, "… he’s a big boy …" she breathed " … with a healthy appetite."

       They could feel the heat of their shared arousal through the water and layers of fabric. He caught her lips with his mouth and kissed her deeply and thoroughly. Slowly she eased her legs down his hips and legs, remaining on her tiptoes so she wouldn’t break the kiss. They finally pulled apart, lips swollen and slick. 

      “But before I feed him …” she drifted her hands across his shoulders and down his arms and then leaned in to press a firm kiss on his mouth.

      “… we have a situation …” 

      Another kiss. 

      “… that needs some attention.” 

      Another kiss. She bit her bottom lip, and his eyes fixed on her mouth.

      “What situation?” His voice was deep and raspy and she felt his reaction to her teasing in a slight twitch on her abdomen.

      “This one.”

      She dropped her hand below the water and cupped his balls, thumbing over the base of his erection.

      He gasped slightly, and his eyes narrowed. Her fingers found the string tie at his waist and loosened it in a matter of seconds. She pushed his swimsuit over his hips and down his legs. He stepped out of it and she pushed her foot under the fabric and brought it to the surface of the water. Tossing his swimsuit onto the side of the pool, she reached for his butt and pulled him towards her, smiling playfully. He pushed his thumbs into the sides of her bikini bottoms, ready to push them down over her hips, but she stopped him.

      “No, Jamie. You focused on me all last night - and this morning! It’s your turn …"

      Her hands were doing things to him below the surface that made coherent thought impossible. She pushed against him through the water, breasts pressed up against his chest, walking him backwards to the side of the pool. 

      “I need you to sit up on the edge.”

      In a quick motion, he hoisted himself up, and sat on the edge of the pool, legs dangling in the water.

      Sweet Lord! That involved way too many rippling muscles. Stop panting!

      She moved into the space between his knees and pushed his legs a little farther apart. Looking up at him, she smoothed her hands from his knees to his thighs, and stopped when her thumbs reached his patch of red-brown curls. He was very aroused, and she avoided touching the base of his erection, watching as he took in a deep breath.

      “Get comfortable,” she said, running the tip of her tongue slowly along her upper lip. He closed his eyes, exhaled, and leaned back slightly, supporting himself with his hands at his side. 

      She trailed her hand slowly towards his balls and gently cupped them, massaging with a light and delicate touch. They felt taut already and she wanted to prolong his enjoyment. She dragged her finger slowly along the length of his erection, stopping to gently thumb the ridge at the base of the head. She heard his deep grunt, and looked up. He was watching her, his eyes hooded and heavy. She kept her eyes on his, as the tip of her tongue followed the same path her finger had taken. The tip of her tongue flicked over the ridge, and she licked the head thoroughly. She placed one hand at the base of his erection, and, taking his length in her other hand, slowly dragged her fist along his length, and gently palmed over the entire tip, before bringing her fist back down to the base again. He realized he was holding his breath, and released it slowly. He was in awe of her ability to turn him on and bring him to the edge of release, and then pull back a little, building ever-increasing tension and desire in him. 

      She closed her lips around the head and moved slowly down his length, taking as much as she could into the warm, wet depths of her mouth. She drew back up and teased the tip of her tongue over the tip of his erection, feeling him twitch slightly in her hands. Sucking lightly, she continued to gently nibble her way back down his length, to the soft skin between the base of his length and his balls, which were still cupped in her hands. She flicked her tongue over this sensitive area, and, hearing his groan, started to suck gently, moaning softly as she did so. Her low humming vibrations added an extra dimension of pleasure and he clenched his buttocks in response. She felt his balls tighten more, and she knew he was getting close. Moving her lips over his length again, she swirled her tongue over the head, and moved her mouth over his length, moving down, almost painfully slowly, taking in most of him.  One hand continued to cup his balls, and the other was lightly fisted around the base of his erection, moving in small up and down movements in tandem with her mouth.  

       She moved her mouth back up his length just as slowly, creating suction as she went, her tongue swirling and laving him and adding to the near-painful ecstasy he was feeling as he struggled to control his urge to give himself entirely to her. She released him with a small pop as the suction broke, and looked into his eyes.  

       “Ssssassenach,” he breathed, looking at her with brazen desire.

       She took him in her mouth again, and started to move up and down his length again, one hand lightly on his balls, and the other fisting him gently in small, pulsing movements. The suction she created with her mouth and lips finally sent him over, as he twitched and clenched, and her mouth took him deeper and faster. He arched up and let out a long, loud groan, releasing himself in strong, pulsating bursts.

      He lowered himself onto his back at the edge of the pool and sighed a deep shuddering sigh.

      “Babe …” 

       Still positioned between his legs, she hoisted herself out of the water and carefully stretched her dripping wet body out on his. Her face found her favorite place in the space between his neck and shoulder, and his arms immediately wrapped around her back. They lay there for a few minutes.

      “Sorry - I know I’m dripping cold pool water all over you.”

      “Jesus, Claire. You can drip anything over me after that.”

      His hands slid down to cup her butt. His fingers ventured under the fabric, and she raised her head to look at him with a raised brow.

      “That’s my cue to get you up and back to the house. C’mon, Fraser, time to figure out some dinner.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

       After a quick shower they met in the kitchen again to decide on what to make for dinner. They reviewed the available ingredients and decided to collaborate on a shrimp risotto. They still needed to FaceTime the twins and wanted to do so before it got much later.   

      “The only drawback to a risotto is that you have to stir constantly ,” Claire grumbled as she spooned more stock into the pan and resumed stirring.

       “I’ll do that while ye FaceTime the girls.”

       She gave him a grateful kiss and sat at the end of the kitchen island while Jamie worked on the risotto.

 

      “Hi girls!” she smiled at the iPad screen, amid her avalanche of kisses. 

      “Hey mom!”

      “How was your day?”

      “It was good! We all went to Franklin Park so that we could get a nice long walk. Kelly says the fresh air and exercise makes the littles sleep better and longer.” Beth suddenly sounded very knowledgeable about kiddie sleep cycles.

      “Beth and I took a ball so that we could shoot some hoops too. We’ve got to keep up our skills so we can flex when we crush Mr. Fraser at basketball.”

      Jamie turned and winked at Claire, holding his finger to his lips so that she wouldn’t reveal to the girls that he was in earshot.

      “Mom, how was your date with him? We got your selfie - you looked beautiful!”

      “Thanks for saying that hon - it was a lovely dinner. It was a lovely evening overall, Ella.”

      “What color suit did Mr. Fraser wear? Did you guys match?” Beth was hopelessly sentimental and a romantic at heart. 

      “Actually, he wore a kilt, Beth. The event was a Scottish one, after all.”

      “For real?” asked Ella. “Is it true that men don’t wear- …oooffff!”

      Beth elbowed her hard in the ribs before she could finish her question.

      “Mom, the kilt sounds so romantic - just like when Mr. Fraser was in the show you used to watch.”

      “Did you guys hold hands?” Ella was whispering in a loud, dramatic whisper.

      Jamie grinned at Claire and indicated that they should switch spots. She relieved him at the risotto, and he took Claire’s spot on the kitchen stool.

      “Hi girls,” he said with a big smile. 

      “Oh, hey Mr. Fraser! How has your day been?”

      “It’s been fantastic. Great weather, so I spent some time down at the pool. This evening, I’m going to spend time getting ready for my big meeting tomorrow. Did I hear you say that you’re practicing yer basketball?”

      “Yeah! You should too, Mr. Fraser. I mean, it could be super embarrassing if Beth and I take you down. Just sayin’.”

      “Hmmmm - that sounds like a challenge, girls. How about we set up a little contest. Most shots in 5 minutes. Loser buys the other two the dinner of their choice.”  

      “Sure! You might want to find the nearest Chipotle, Mr. Fraser.” Beth giggled. 

      “Ouch! You girls go ahead and keep up the trash-talk - I might just surprise ye!” he laughed with them for a moment. “I’ll get your Mam back on. Good talking to you.” 

      “Good night, Mr. Fraser.”

 

 



Chapter Text


 

      The risotto was a success; creamy and rich and fragrant, and the perfect meal to cap their day. Claire felt almost guilty about how decadently indulgent their day had been. Waking up to Jamie’s slow, sweet love-making had set the tone, and from there it had been a deliciously sensory adventure for both of them. Snuggling for what seemed like hours on the pool float - kissing, touching, inhaling each other. They were so comfortable with each other and around each other, almost from the moment they met - so emotionally, intellectually and physically connected.

      Their conversations reflected the very essence of the relationship that was taking shape between them. At times their talks were deeply cerebral as they spoke about poetry or business or socio-political issues that were important to them; at times they were emotional and almost spiritual when they spoke of their connection, and of their losses, and of family; and at times their talks were light-hearted and fun, as they joked and teased and flirted - and Jamie never missed an opening for a ribald reference when he could. She loved that. He was so exuberantly and unabashedly aware of their sexual chemistry, and the many ways he found to remind her of it delighted and thrilled her.

      Sated after their meal, they sat at the patio table, talking about Jamie’s ideas for a tasting room at Lallybroch where they could showcase Grotto wines for a European clientele. She was impressed with his acumen and ability to come up with creative and feasible business scenarios.

      “I’m so excited to see how many of these ideas you can bring to fruition. There is so much potential for growth in The Grotto. I love that you are rolling in some elements from Lallybroch.” 

      “Your opinion matters a lot to me, Claire. Your job exposes you to so many business successes and failures, both theoretical and practical, and I value your thoughts and ideas.” He had her hand in his, and was absently playing with her fingernails, feeling the smooth polished texture that contrasted with the softness of her palm and wrist.

      “Should we tidy up and get sun-downers on the wooden deck?” she asked. 

      “Aye, I want to run some things past you - related to the meeting tomorrow.”

      She nodded. He was torn about which way his decisions should go, and she could see that concerns about the meeting were starting to cloud his eyes.

 

      They settled into the wicker recliners with a chilled rosé that seemed like a good choice after the rich risotto.  

      “What’s worrying you most about tomorrow, Jamie?” Thoughts of the meeting were weighing more heavily on him now, and she knew that some parts of the looming meeting were going to be more stressful than others. 

      He took her hand in his and she was once again struck by how he rarely missed an opportunity to hold her hand, or kiss it, or explore it with his fingers. It was as though he had an inherent need for that physical connection when they shared their innermost thoughts. Reaching for her hand seemed instinctive for him, and she found it deeply moving and comforting.  

      “I think Dougal will be a real handful tomorrow. He has a very specific idea of how he sees my career unfolding over the next 15 or 20 years, and it does not align with mine in any way. We’ve been at loggerheads about it for months now. He and Jenny have had confrontations about it too.”

      “How does he see your career progressing?”

      “He thinks I’m just starting in this business, and that I have at least 20 years ahead where I’ll be offered 'prime roles in huge movies' - according to him.”

      “He’s not wrong, Jamie. Look at leading actors like Clooney, Hugh Jackman, Denzel, Samuel L. Jackson - they are all 50 plus, and still getting amazing roles.”

      “Aye, ye’re right, and I have been offered some fantastic stuff that would be rolling out over the next few years. I rejected most of it - the only two I want to discuss tomorrow are Superman and James Bond.”

      “Are you thinking of accepting both roles, or will you pick just one.”

      “I’m looking at the pros and cons of both roles, and trying to decide which one would be least intrusive in my personal life. Superman has an entirely different fan base. The age range is pretty vast - from kiddies who want to be Superman for Halloween, to granddads and grandmas who were hooked on the comics from the time they were kids. So that makes recognition out in public a certainty almost anywhere you go in the world. For years and years. Despite that, it’s an amazing franchise, and I like that it’s all deeply steeped in fantasy, so even little kids watching it know that all the stuff Superman does is not real life. I like that he’s a good guy, fighting the good fight, mostly. His love interest is a strong, intelligent woman who gives him a run for his money. They are fierce adversaries at times, and she challenges him. The sex isn’t a huge thing - nothing too graphic or intense. Certainly not on the scale of Clan Hearts, ye ken.” He gave her a knowing look, and she blushed slightly.

       Yessir, I ken very well. There were Hamish scenes that I rewound and watched six times in a row. Hot, hot, hot!

      “Mm-hmm,” she mumbled encouragingly.

      “Promoting Superman would be intense and busy, but I don’t think DC Comics and their production partner, Panther Entertainment, would interfere as much in my personal life as Stargate has done. I’ll know the terms of the promotion and publicity stuff tomorrow. My agent and manager, Tara Lewis, will have all the contractual information so I can review over the next couple of weeks. But I already know it will be the usual red carpet stuff with some of the cast, including the lead actress. A lot of TV interviews, morning shows and late night, Facebook and Instagram lives, and Comic-Con of course. Comic Con is my favorite of all the promo stuff. Have ye been to a Comic-Con, Sassenach?”

      “I haven’t.”

      “If I end up doing Superman, I would ask you to consider coming to at least one of the Comic-Cons with me. I think ye’d love it. The fans are a lot of fun. They dress up in the most elaborate and detailed costumes. Halloween on steroids.”

      “I’d love that, Jamie. I’ll dress up for sure.”

      “Aye - maybe a wee Catwoman costume. Oh God, I can see ye now.” He waggled his eyebrows. “We’d have to think about the costume carefully - I can’t be walking around Comic-Con with my Catwoman on my arm - and a big boner.”

      “Jamie! God, you’re shameless!”

      He laughed heartily at her reaction. 

      “I’m winding you up, babe. But ye ken that every time I think about you, there’s a little movement going on in-”

      “I get it!” She was blushing. “Tell me about James Bond and your thoughts on that.”

      “James Bond is a different animal altogether. When Daniel Craig hinted that he wanted out, the media went crazy looking at lists of possible replacements. My name was dragged into those lists, and for a few months I was moving between first and second place on various lists and in social media. There was a lot of hype, and before long Tara was being approached by Broccoli family reps. She will bring the terms of their offer and all the publicity and promo that goes with it for me to review tomorrow.”

      “How do you feel about it, though? That was a fiercely fought battle - or so it seemed. There were so many great contenders, Jamie Dornan, Richard Madden, Idris Elba. To be offered James Bond is such a huge deal, and to be honest, I am really excited for you, and so proud too.”

      “Ye ken it makes me go all gooey inside when you tell me you’re proud of me.”

      “I am, Jamie. I know it’s strange saying that, because we haven't known each other that long. But I felt so proud of you during your speech last night, and I’m so proud of you getting the James Bond offer.” 

      They leaned towards each other and kissed tenderly before Jamie continued with his thoughts about James Bond. 

      “You’re right, it is a huge deal for me, and my team campaigned hard to get me the role. But it will be so much more intrusive on my personal life. Bond has a very different persona, and as much as they have tried to bring him more into ‘21st century man’ mode with plot lines and Daniel Craig’s great portrayal, he still has this iconic image of a smooth, dapper, arrogant womanizer, and that’s not going to go away. A new 007 will bring new twists, and I think they will bring back some of the old playboy vibe to appeal to certain parts of the audience. To be honest, I am really uncomfortable with the Bond franchise approach to women. It’s pretty sexist, despite some adjustments over the years. Women are still overly objectified in the 007 movies. Charlize Theron is on board for the main female role, and I believe hers will be a strong character who pushes back against the over-sexualization of women in the testosterone-heavy world of secret agents, but there will be a big focus on sex.”  

      She nodded, but kept her expression neutral. 

      “The filming of the sex scenes is one thing - I ken you had a wee taste of that when ye did your butt double work.”

      “Oh God, yes - nothing sexy about filming that for hours on end.”

      “Sex-scene filming is heavily planned, scripted, blocked - almost like choreographing a dance. It’s technical and tiresome, to be honest. It’s the build-up and publicity for the role that will be hard. And it will start long before the shooting starts. There will be a long parade of starlets and fake girlfriends lined up, photo-ops, pap walks, red carpet events, all the stuff we spoke about the other night.”

      “Comes with the territory, Jamie. If Bond is what you really want, you need to scrutinize the contractual obligations and consider everything carefully.”

      “Aye, it’s one thing doing the dog and pony show as a single man, but I’m not sure I’m in the right mindset to do that right now. My hiatus has been an eye-opener. And it’s been very healing too.”

      “Jamie, technically, you’re a single man. I don’t want to be the reason you-”

      “No, Claire!” He leaned forward and closed his other hand over their interlaced fingers. “Look at me please, Claire. I need to see your face when I tell ye this.”

       She sat up straighter and looked directly into his eyes. She had never seen him look more serious or earnest.

       “We spoke on Saturday night about exploring this connection of ours. We both agreed that we’ve never experienced anything like it. And we both want to see where it takes us.” He paused and brought her hand, still cupped in both of his, up to his lips, and pressed a kiss on the back of her hand. 

      “I’m falling for ye, Claire, and I’m not shy to admit it.”

       He kissed the back of her fingers and looked into her eyes.

       “I’m falling hard, and I want ye by my side, whether it’s Superman or Bond. But I’m terrified of what it might do to ye. When I think of what happened with Natalie, I worry about the impact on you. The extreme fan base of Clan Hearts has died down, but there are some crazies out there who might still target ye and I canna allow that to happen. I’m not willing to start doing all of the studio-mandated publicity again, and that's going to influence my decisions now. Jenny’s crazy hiatus has shown me what it’s like to live a normal life. It’s shown me what I’ve been missing.”

      Claire’s heart skipped a beat or two, and then resumed with a vengeance. It was now thumping almost painfully. She had grown accustomed to Jamie speaking his mind and sharing his feelings quite openly, but for him to tell her he was falling for her was quite a different story! It pushed this relationship out of ‘exploring their unusual connection’, beyond the frenzied sex and gentle love-making, and into a different realm altogether. It pushed her into a place where she was no longer allowed to think just about Jamie and her, and the fun, and the sex, and the waking up together. It moved them out of ‘fling’ territory. And it meant that she needed to think even more deeply and carefully about where this was going. It meant that she needed to think about Ella and Beth and the impact of their mom having another man in her life. She pushed these thoughts aside for a moment and focused on Jamie’s words.

      “What have you been missing, Jamie?”

      “Time and space to think about what’s important. Love and family and friends. Time to think about what a normal relationship might look like. One that grows out of love, mutual emotional and physical attraction, and shared values, shared interests; rather than a need to have someone just to meet your physical needs, or to try and convince yourself that you’re in a good relationship because you’re so desperate to find that person. And it takes you months and months to realize that she’s not the one. That song you played while I was making dinner - one of the lines stuck with me - “I don't wanna just make love, I wanna make love last.” He smiled sheepishly. “I added it to my Spotify. It struck a chord with me, because that is what’s been missing for me. Finding a love that will last beyond the excitement of a new relationship. A love that will survive the difficulties and challenges and come out stronger on the other side. I have tried to imagine myself with someone who would be my forever love. Like my own parents, ye ken. I have tried to picture that person, and I have not been able to visualize her. Until now.”

      She listened quietly as he unburdened his innermost feelings. His words revealed so much raw emotion and honesty, and for the umpteenth time she marveled at his ability to express himself with unrestrained candor and passion.

      “There are still a lot of obstacles ahead. Your decisions … how you move out of the industry - I want you to make those decisions for you . I shouldn’t factor in them. And my girls, Jamie, they have to be front and center if we do this. How do you know it won't all become too much for you? Me and two teenagers. It's a lot, Jamie.”

      “I know because when I was a kid, I asked my Da how he knew that my Mam was the right one for him. He told me that he just knew, and that I would know too. He said when I met someone and couldn't imagine a life without that person, I would know. So yes, I know, Claire." She was barely breathing, as he continued.

      "Ella and Beth need to be our first consideration - I agree with you 100%. I want to get to know them, and I want them to get to know me too. You’re their Mam - I want you to be completely comfortable with how we handle the girls meeting me. It’ll likely be when I get back from L.A. I need you to guide me, tell me what you want me to do.”

      “I’ll need to think about that a bit. We can talk about it in a few days. I want you to focus on your meeting now. I know it’s causing you a lot of stress, and I want you to feel like you’re ready and prepared for it.”

      “Okay, Claire. But I want ye to know that talking about us and the girls is really important to me too.”

      “I know, and I appreciate that,” she leaned across to kiss him. “Can you tell me about your thoughts for withdrawing from the industry? Your career is on an upward trajectory, so I can’t imagine how hard this will be for you. When you opened up to me on Wednesday night, one thing you said almost broke my heart.”

      “What was it?”

       “You said that the entertainment industry is littered with broken marriages, broken hearts, and broken souls. Please don’t let it break you, Jamie. Whatever you decide - whatever path your choices lead you to, please don’t let the industry steal your soul.”

      “That’s the part that finally pushed me into making the decision to ease out of the industry - the reason for Jenny coming up with the hiatus. The broken people I see there every day. The pressures are just too much. I looked at all the actors who were chewed up and spat out by the industry. Big names over the years like Sean Penn and Charlie Sheen. They had their shit together for years, and then it all fell apart. And their children and families suffered right along with them. My wake up call came when the Ben Affleck and Johnny Depp stuff started. I’ve always admired them ye ken. For a long, long time, they seemed to have everything together. When their lives started to spiral out of control, I couldna believe it. I thought if it can happen to them, it could happen to anyone. Jenny and I spoke about it when I was at Lallybroch for Christmas. I told her I was alarmed with how things can turn so fast in the industry, and that's when we started to look at how I could get out of it. I had to convince her that doing it slow and steady would cause less angst in the long run.”

      “I have to agree with a slower approach, Jamie. I feel that if you stop suddenly, you will be hounded by the media for years. Journalists are going to be looking for that scoop. ‘What happened to Jamie Fraser?’"

      “Exactly what I was thinking, Claire. It’ll also give my team a chance to withdraw slowly from all the things they do to support me, and focus on other clients instead.”

      Yes, it’s just like you to think of others in the midst of some of your toughest decisions. You really are a rare man.

      “One of the most important calls I made last week was to Tara. I gave her a heads-up about where my head is right now. She had suspected it because I have been rejecting so many scripts and projects. I did that because rather than spend Monday’s meeting convincing her that it’s the right move for me, I want her to process that ahead of the meeting so that she can start fine-tuning my exit strategy.” 

      “So, without knowing all the details of your five-year plan, it sounds like you want to base yourself here in Seattle as you make a select few movies - as part of your exit strategy. And over that time, you’ll slowly withdraw from the industry. Attend fewer events, premieres, panel interviews - apart from the ones you’re contractually bound to. Does that sound right?”

      “Yes - those are the broad strokes.”

      “And after you’ve withdrawn from the industry? Where do you see yourself then?”

      “Ultimately, I’d like to stay here, in the home I’ll build on this property,” he looked out over the large tract of land that he had owned for all of three days. “The Grotto will be my business focus, so I need to be close to that, and this is perfectly located. I hope to build a life here on the Eastside.” They held each other’s gaze for a long moment.

     “What about Scotland?” she asked finally.

     “It’s less than a 10,000 mile round-trip, Sassenach.” They shared a smile at the reference to the poem. “I’ll go back a couple of times a year, for meetings or quick visits, and I’ve no doubt Jenny will be sending her crew over to spend time with me here every summer."

     They sat in pensive silence as they mulled the difficult decisions facing Jamie in the weeks ahead.

     “Jamie, you have some very tough decisions ahead. You need people in your corner who are putting your needs above the fame and fortune. I know Jenny is one. Who else do you trust to help guide you?"

      “Murtagh, for sure. You havena had a chance to get to know him yet. But he is my biggest supporter, after Jenny. He gives me a lot of gentle guidance, and in a way that I don't even realize he’s doing it until long after the fact. Complete opposite of Dougal.”

     “What do you plan to do about Dougal?”

     “Oh God,” he groaned, “I’ve been trying to push that out of my head for days, but I canna avoid it any longer. That’s the toughest part of this. This is hard for me to say, but I’ve outgrown my need for Dougal as an adviser and business manager. He started ‘managing me’ when I got the role in Clan Hearts. I was younger and naive and inexperienced, and he’s a strong personality, and it felt good to have someone to handle the difficult media stuff, and studio execs, and even the PR people at times. He had my interests above all of theirs, and he was exactly what I needed at the time. But he’s someone who likes to be in control, and as my career and profile grew, he started to lose more of that control when the studios and PR teams became more actively involved in all areas of my life. He didn’t like that at all! He tried to regain control by looking for more and more movie opportunities for me - setting up meetings with random studios, directors, and producers to discuss big roles - without consulting me first. He’s bringing Stargate to the meeting against my wishes, because they’re considering a spin-off of Clan Hearts. That’s not something that I’m interested in, and I need them to hear it from me tomorrow, and more importantly, that’s something my agent does for me. Dougal should not be interfering In Tara’s area - she has a lot of experience and a lot of clout in Hollywood. He’s become a loose cannon. This is going to be one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life, but I have to terminate our business relationship soon. I can’t have him involved in my decisions any longer now that I’m planning my exit.”

       “Oh, Jamie, that is going to be unbelievably hard.”

        “Yes, it is. It’s gut-wrenching. He’s my uncle, Claire. My Mam’s brother. He was there for me when Willie died, and when I lost my Mam and Da, too. He’s been there for me and Jenny ever since. He put his whole life on hold to help me grow my career. It tears me apart to have to do this.” 

       His voice strained under the emotional weight of his dilemma, and Claire felt a surge of empathy for him. It was an incredibly tough situation, and she wished she could take away some of the many stresses that he faced.

       “Jamie, I’m so sorry you have to go through this. What can I do to help you - to support you?”

       “Just sitting here talking it through with you is helping. It’s helping me straighten out my thoughts and think through what I have to do tomorrow.” He paused and sipped his wine. 

       “Claire, I dinna think I can get a peaceful night’s sleep any more, unless we have watched the darkness deepen around us while we bare our souls to each other. Our conversations in the dark are the highlight of my day.”

       “You always say the most beautiful things, Jamie. How can I not love sitting out here every night, sharing my heart with you, and listening as you share yours.”

       He brought her hand up to his lips, and pressed gentle kisses on the inside of her wrist and a little way up her arm.

       “It’s getting late, and you should get a good night’s sleep before your meeting. Should we head up to bed?”

        He stood up and stretched briefly, before helping her to her feet.

     

       “Uh … Claire … “ he began awkwardly, “what were you thinking … for tonight, I mean?”

       “Hmmmm?” She looked at him, perplexed, not understanding what he meant.

       “Ehm … I don’t want to presume that you’re willing to share your bed with me tonight … I know that’s your space, and I don’t want to impose.”

       “Oh! I … uh ... I guess I just assumed that you would be with me. Unless you prefer your own room?”

       “No! God, no! There is nowhere I’d rather sleep than in yer bed, with you. And tonight of all nights, I need my Sassenach beside me.”

        He pulled her into his arms, and claimed her lips in a deep, lingering kiss.

 

     



Chapter Text


    

She stretched languorously in her bed, slowly coming around to full wakefulness. Rolling over, she was surprised to see that Jamie was not in bed. She groped for her cell phone to check the time.  

      7:17 a.m.  

      And there was a text notification from Jamie at 6:33 a.m.

      Good morning babe.

       I’m working out in gym, bringing u a latte at 7:30 😘

      His text completely melted her, obliterating the disappointment of not finding him in her bed. With a few minutes still to go before he brought her a latte in bed, she swiped through her social media and news headlines, noting that Washington state had continued to ease some quarantine restrictions. State authorities had been very proactive early on, and the state as a whole was in a better position than many other states - for the moment. Things were so grim in some parts of the country, that she worried about tougher travel restrictions coming into play. She hoped that it wouldn't affect the girls’ return from Boston. She was so looking forward to having them home.    

      “Good morning, beautiful.”

      Jamie walked in with a latte in each hand and a broad smile. He was shirtless, and, as usual, his workout shorts were slung low on his hips.

       Damn! That V-line!

      He came over to her side of the bed and placed the mugs on the nightstand. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers. 

      “Did ye sleep well?” He leaned over and kissed her. She reached up to grasp his arm and pull him closer, but he resisted.

      "I’m sweaty and sticky, and I need a shower.”

      “Mmmmm, I don’t care about the sweat. You look friggin’ hot this morning.”

      His eyes widened and one eyebrow shot up.

      “Feeling a little frisky, are we?” he teased.

      “God, yes! Do you need any help in the shower?”

      “Hmmmmm. Now that I think of it, my back could use a good scrub.”

      “Happy to take care of that for you.”

      He stood up and helped her out of bed, already partially aroused by her sexy banter and the thought of her naked body under the bed covers.

      “After you,” he indicated with a sweep of his arm and a dirty little smile. “I’ll protect you from back here.” He grabbed her butt with both hands as she passed.

      “Uhhh… it seems that you’re the one I need protection from!” she tried to dodge his hands, but he pulled her towards him, lifted her up and draped her over his shoulder, one arm clasped around the back of her legs. His other hand reclaimed her butt, lightly pinching and squeezing, and making her squeal.

     With her body still draped over his shoulder, he ran the water to the right temperature, and placed her down gently to adjust the shower heads to mist setting, and aimed them so the water hit them from shoulder level down. Claire lathered up some shower gel and started to scrub his broad, muscular back, reveling in the feel of his muscles as they rippled under the soapy foam. She traced her nails lightly from his laterals down to his waist, noticing how his muscles moved and flinched when she touched certain parts. Rinsing his back clean, she kissed it all over, relishing the opportunity to become intimately acquainted with every inch of him.

      Grabbing more shower gel, she foamed it up between her hands. Sensing what was next, he leaned his hands up on the shower wall and spread his legs a little.

      She soaped his butt, slowly and thoroughly attending to his perfect glutes, gently kneading and pinching and raking. She took her sweet time there, aware of the growing response between her legs, and knowing that Jamie was also straining under his own arousal. She reached lower between his legs and gently soaped and massaged his balls. His sharp intake of breath and subsequent moan told her that he, too, was ablaze with desire. She pressed herself up against his back and slid her hands between his chest and the shower wall. The water gently misting down on them added to the sensuality and eroticism of the moment.

      “Ready for me to wash your chest too?”

      “Mmhmmm,” he turned to face her, and immediately caught her up in his arms to ravage her mouth with hungry, wet kisses. Pulling apart, he looked at her with unabashed yearning, making her agonizingly aware of the slick wetness and subtle pulsing between her legs. She rolled her hips into his.

      “Jamie,” she pleaded.

      He smiled his devastating half smile, and shook his head. ”No,” he teased, “you have lots more body to wash yet.” 

      He squeezed shower gel into her palm and she lathered it between her hands before gently spreading it over his shoulders, neck, and arms. She explored every inch of him as she scrubbed and massaged his toned muscles and every delicious hollow around them, pausing frequently to rinse and lick, and then rinse again. Moving to his chest, she explored with her mouth, her lips, her fingers, her nails, her teeth. A deep groan escaped his throat. She was on her knees, nipping, sucking, licking every possible inch, moving lower and lower past his abs and finally reaching that V-line that was the subject of her fascination. She dragged her nails lightly up each hollow of his V-line and noticed his sharp intake of breath in the movement of his abs. Looking up at him, she saw that his head was back against the shower wall, eyes closed, breathing ragged, as he focused on the sensations she was awakening all over his body. She traced her fingertips back down his V-line towards his straining arousal, and he suddenly clamped his hands down on her wrists. There was an urgency in his manner, and she knew he was going to take her with uncontrolled passion. 

       She was ready.

       “I need you, Sassenach. Now!” he rasped. He pulled her back up to a standing position and kissed her hungrily. Walking her back a few steps with him, he brought their bodies under the misting water. He released her from his kiss, and turned her to face away from him. Kissing the back of her neck and shoulders, he moved his hands firmly over her breasts, palming her nipples until she pressed her hips back into his again, rubbing up against his erection. He was wild with want for her, and his fingers yearned for her wet, warm softness. She caught her breath in anticipation of the pleasure that she knew his fingers would bring her as they inched their way down her belly. His fingers slipped into the slickness between her legs and explored gently until the pulsing in her core told him he was right where she needed him. Rational thought escaped her, and she focused on the sensations his fingers were generating deep inside her, as he brought her to within moments of complete release. Her hand touched his lightly and he moved his fingertips over her sweet spot, teasing lightly and delicately. Sliding her hands to the back of his legs, she gripped him tightly, almost painfully. Her reaction intensified his own arousal and his fingertips moved with increased urgency and pressure. She buried her nails into the flesh at the back of his legs as he brought her to a full and shattering release in his arms, panting and gasping as she came back down and her breathing slowed again.

      His own arousal was still pressed hard against her back, and he moved his hands to her hips again, gently pushing her forward with his body. Intuitively guessing how he wanted her, she bent over and braced her hands on the wall, pressing herself back up against his groin. With a groan, he guided himself into her in one fluid movement. She was slick and ready, and he pushed deep into her, starting a rhythm that had her gasping and moaning all over again. Pushing back against him, she met him thrust for thrust, in perfect harmony with his movements. The water misting over them felt exhilarating and heightened every sensation. His grunts were guttural and low and she sensed that he was now in a visceral and unstoppable rhythm.

He grabbed her hips and pulled her firmly and rhythmically towards him as he pumped deeper still. Her little cries and gasps of pleasure were like a primal chant, filling his ears and pushing him to the edge. Within moments everything fell away around him and when his release came, it was with low, cathartic moans as he grasped her hips tightly, held them still for a moment, and spilled himself deep inside her.

 

      He helped her upright into his arms again and held her for a moment until their breathing regulated, kissing her gently all over her face.

     “God, Sassenach!" he breathed, "you are a she-devil. How am I supposed to focus on my meetings with these images of you in my head?”

      She leaned in to kiss him. “Discipline, my warrior man, discipline. You’ll need to be disciplined and focused.”

      “Let me help you clean up.”

      Adjusting the shower-head, he dropped to his knees behind her and lathered her butt, washing slowly and sensuously. Reaching between her thighs, he washed away the evidence of their lovemaking, and rinsed off the suds. He lavished kisses and nibbles all over her butt, taking his time and apparently enjoying it immensely, if his groans were anything to go by.

      “If you keep that up you’re going to have to start the clean-up process all over again,” she warned with a mischievous lilt in her voice.

      Holding her waist, he turned her around to face him, and still on his knees, he lathered some gel between his palms, and gently reached between her legs to wash away the last traces of their passionate morning. He rinsed her carefully, and then paused - completely still for a moment. Claire looked down, wondering what had caused him to stop so suddenly. He was looking at the thin, faded scar low down on her abdomen, just above her mound. The scar was around five inches long, and even though he had never seen one like it before, he knew immediately what it was. He looked up at her, and saw that she was watching him with a look of discomfort.

      A deep frown marred her forehead, “Uh ...' she started hesitantly. "I know it’s not exactly the most attractive-”

      “No, Claire!” he interjected firmly.

      He touched the scar gently, and pressed two slow, gentle kisses on it. 

      He stood up and took her face in his hands. “I hadn't noticed it before now. It shouldn’t cause you embarrassment! You are beautiful in every way, Claire. And your incredible body gave you two precious gifts. Every inch of you is beautiful, Claire. Every inch of you deserves to be loved and adored." 

      The tenderness with which he had kissed her scar and the sincerity in his words threatened to bring her to tears for reasons he wasn’t even aware of.   

      “Babe, if I caused you any distress, I am so sorry.”

      “No,” she kissed him long and slow, “No, you didn’t. You are so sweet. I’ve never …” She took a deep breath and changed the subject altogether. 

      “Thank you, Jamie - that was a perfect start to a busy day.”

      “Thank you , Claire. God, I’m a lucky man!” He pulled her into a very wet kiss right under the misting water. Her giggles broke the kiss, and she grabbed the shampoo, “Let’s finish up here and get our day started.”   

 

      A half hour later, they were cleaning up from a quick breakfast of re-heated lattes and toast; drizzled with honey for Claire, and lashings of almond butter for Jamie. 

      The meeting was scheduled for 12:30 and she quickly made a to-do list for them to work through as they set up the patio. 

     Plates, silverware, napkins, glasses - they kept checking off items on the list. They moved some furniture around and brought in additional chairs from a storage shed to ensure that people could sit at a safe distance from each other. Masks and hand sanitizer bottles were placed within handy reach.

      “Looks ready to go. Thank you again.” He pulled her into his arms and kissed her forehead.

      “I’ll be upstairs again during the meeting. You can call or text if you need anything. I’ll be thinking of you the whole time, Jamie, and hoping that all is well.”

      He pulled her in closer. 

      “I’ll fill you in as soon as it’s over. We’re getting all the Superman and Stargate stuff done first and they’ll all leave pretty soon after lunch. Tara, PR, legal and I will meet about Bond stuff, and then it’ll be just me, Dougal and Murtagh. That’s when I’ll have to break it to him that his plan and mine are completely different.”

      He paused to kiss her temple. “I’m not going to terminate his involvement today, ye ken? But I will tell him my plans. I need him to digest that for a few days, before I let him know that he and I are going to need to pursue our own paths. It feels too brutal and harsh to do it all in one go.”

      “I absolutely agree. I think he needs time to process where you are coming from and he needs to think about the impact the industry has had on your personal life. On your soul.”

      “Jenny, Murtagh and I have thought about ramping up his involvement at Lallybroch so that he feels needed and useful. Murtagh has drawn up some other plans for him too.”

      “You’re doing everything right, Jamie. We still have an hour before Julio and Alma arrive to set things up for the taco bar. Do you want to spend a quiet hour on the terrace with your iPad and some music, or just collecting your thoughts?”

      “That’s a great idea. I’ll get my stuff.”

 

      Claire settled into their ‘sunrise’ sofa, catching up on global news on her iPad. Jamie joined her a few minutes later with his iPad and a folder filled with paperwork. He sat next to her, and spent a few minutes going through papers, dog-earing a few before placing the folder on the table. He picked up his iPad and responded to some texts. 

      “I never showed you the pictures our limo driver took on Saturday.”

      He tapped his pictures app, pulled up the pictures and handed her the iPad. There were 5 in total, and she looked at each one in turn. One was out of focus, but the remaining four were really good. In the first one, she had just emerged from the limo, Jamie had his hand extended to help her, and her hand was in his. They were both smiling broadly. In the next two, they stood side-by-side, bodies angled towards each other, pressed together, arms tightly around each other. They were smiling and looked excited about the evening ahead. In the last shot, they had turned to each other to laugh at Jamie’s little joke about ‘first date pics’. The picture was perfectly captured. It was an image of a beautiful, happy couple, delighted to be in each other’s company, and completely engrossed in each other. 

      “This one’s too blurry, but I love all the others. Will you text them to me please?”

      She watched as he tapped all four and texted them to ‘Sassenach’.

      “Am I doomed to being a Sassenach on your phone forever?” she teased.

      “You’ll always be my Sassenach, so yes it’s staying that way. Forever.” 

      He leaned in and kissed her.

      “Are you getting news updates?” he gestured with his chin towards her iPad, where she was swiping through news articles.

      “Yes. The pandemic is front and center. Some parts of the country have really frightening numbers. I was thinking about it this morning - I’m worried that if travel restrictions come into play, it might affect the girls’ return home. But even more worrying than their delayed return is their exposure, with numbers apparently so out of control. As preemies they had severe lung issues, and because Covid-19 attacks the lungs so badly, it just worries me. Of course I have zero medical or scientific data that they would be more susceptible, and the girls are strong and healthy, and very fit athletes, but my mommy heart can’t help worrying.”

      “Hmmm, numbers will probably keep worsening, Claire. This must be so stressful for you.” His brow was creased in a worried frown. “I know the girls are everything you, and to have all this uncertainty around their health while they travel must be stressing you out.”

      “I’ve spoken with Kelly about all the precautions ahead of the flight - masks, gloves, sanitizer, Clorox wipes - she’s making sure they have all that. Still, it’s a concern. I even thought about road-tripping there and back, so that I could bring them home with no travel exposure. It would be a two-week deal though. I’ll do it if numbers continue to worsen at this rate.” She looked resolute and determined. 

      “That’s literally the opposite side of the country! How long is the drive?”

      “About 45 hours - one way. I could do it there in six days if I drive around 7 or 8 hours a day. That still gives me time to do some work in my hotel room at night, or at various Starbucks along the way. I could make it a fun trip for the girls on the way back. Stop at important landmarks en route home.”

      “It would be exhausting, Claire. Unless you spent a little longer on the return trip. Break it up a little more.”

      “Mmmm, yes, that’s an option. A road-trip is just a crazy thought right now, but I’ll be watching the numbers carefully, and listening for hints from the authorities about travel restrictions.”

      “Would ye have to try and squeeze in a full day’s work on top of all the driving?”

      “I’d say at least 5 hours daily, and I’d make up some time on the weekend. I need to keep up my momentum right now. They’re starting to look at the professorship candidates more closely in the next couple of weeks.”

      “I want to know more about the professorship and how they're doing the selection?”

      “Let’s do that tonight after the meeting. I want to stay focused on you now. Are you feeling ready?”

      “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

      She lay her head on his shoulder and nestled into him. He wrapped a strong arm around her, and kissed the top of her head. 

      “Today marks one week since we met, ye ken?”

      “Mmhmmm,” she smiled, noticing again how sensitive he was to the timing and little milestones in their growing relationship. 

      Our first sunrise … this is the longest we’ve been apart all week … first date pics. 

      He was the most romantic man she’d ever known - she knew that without a doubt. And his romantic nature covered the spectrum from sweet, schmaltzy stuff like analyzing song lyrics; to profound, intellectual moments like reciting poetry; to thoughtful, considerate gestures like bringing her a plate of food in the midst of his business negotiations. She loved every sweet, endearing act, but most of all, she loved how he made her feel . Noticed, appreciated, protected … loved? Too soon to think along those lines. But there was an intensity in their feelings for each other and she sensed that they were moving towards something all-encompassing and enduring. Something that transcended a fortnight of forced proximity imposed upon them by circumstances well beyond their control. 

      As if reading her thoughts, he asked, “Do ye think the stars aligned for us last week, Claire?” 

      ”What do you mean, exactly?”

      “When we spoke in the hot tub last Tuesday, you told me how the stars aligned for you when you met Nonna, and she helped to take care of you and the girls, and you ended up moving in with her - which was exactly what she needed and exactly what you and the girls needed. Do you think the stars aligned for us last week - the pandemic and CHAZ and the hotels? Do you think the stars  - or the universe - or something - wanted us to meet?”

      “I was just thinking along similar lines, Jamie. Have you ever read The Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho?”

      “I have. In fact I have a badly dog-eared copy at Lallybroch with sticky notes and markings all over it. There are so many great quotes in that book!” 

      She smiled, not in the least surprised that they shared a love for the novel. 

      “I have a copy here if you need it. One of my favorite quotes is ‘So, I love you because the entire universe conspired to help me find you’. I don’t know what powers or stars aligned for us, but I do think that our connection is amazing and rare and beautiful. I’ve never felt this way. It’s exhilarating … and a little scary.”

      “Why does it scare ye, Claire?”

      “Because it makes me so happy, and I worry about whether something might take that happiness away.”

      “I won’t let that happen.” He pulled her close and kissed her deeply. 

      

      Her phone pinged to let her know that someone was in the driveway. Checking the video feed, she saw that it was Julio and Alma, arriving to set up for the meeting. 

      Claire and Jamie met them at the door and she greeted them warmly. “I so wish I could hug you both. Really grateful that you could do this at short notice.”

      “No, Dr. Beauchamp, we are so thankful for the opportunity. It’s been a quiet few months for my business.” Alma was soft-spoken and shy, unlike Julio, who was the very image of the flamboyant, friendly mixologist. 

      “Please call me Claire. I absolutely insist. And let me introduce you to Jamie. Jamie meet Alma and Julio.”

      “I’m very happy to meet you both, and very thankful that you could help us out. Can I help you carry things inside?”

 

      In a few trips between the truck and the kitchen, they had unloaded totes filled with all manner of produce, ingredients, slow-cookers, and other tools of their trade. Julio and Alma worked quickly and efficiently as they set up in the kitchen and on the patio. Within an hour, the slow cookers were emitting tiny plumes of fragrant steam as chicken, carnitas and barbacoa bubbled gently under Alma’s expert care. Julio had set up a mini bar, and helped Alma prepare the toppings and fixings for the street-tacos. 

      Shortly before the meeting attendees started to arrive, Julio took Claire aside.

      “Dr. Be …Miss Claire, I wanted to let you know that I recognize Mr. Fraser, of course, and I want to assure you of my and Alma’s complete discretion.”

      “Oh, Julio, I didn’t doubt that for a second. I’ve known you at the Club for years now, and I know you’ve seen and heard things that could take down marriages and entire companies. And you’ve both done private work for me so many times - you’re more than acquaintances, you’re friends, Julio. I have total faith in you and Alma, but I appreciate the reassurance.” 

      “Miss Claire, I hope you don’t mind my saying, but you seem happier than I have seen in a long time. It makes me and Alma happy to see.” He touched his heart and smiled warmly at her. “I also want to remind you that Wednesdays in June and July are lobster nights at the club. I hope you will join us soon. The patio will be open - all the state regulations are in place.”

      “Oh, I almost forgot about those, Julio! They are awesome. Yes! I will definitely stop by soon. Thank you again for everything today.” She placed a hand on his arm, and smiled gratefully.   

 

      Jamie and Claire looked around the patio one more time, and, satisfied that everything was ready, headed towards the front door to greet people as they arrived. Jamie was in a lightweight navy suit with a crisp white shirt and tan shoes. He looked polished and handsome, and he looked like he meant business. 

      Claire wore tailored ankle-length white pants, and a white sleeveless crossover top, with tiny navy polka dots. A pair of navy, block-heeled Vince Camuto sandals finished her outfit. 

      “I just realized we have coordinated outfits again,” he chuckled. “I told you the stars aligned! We always align.”    

      Jamie's phone buzzed, and he checked his texts.

      “Murtagh. They’re 15 minutes out. Do we have time for a good luck kiss?”

      “Always.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

       

      The meeting attendees trickled in over the course of twenty minutes. Jamie greeted everyone as they arrived and introduced them to Claire. He asked them to wash their hands before heading out to the patio, where Julio immediately attended to their beverage needs.

      “That was the Superman team and Panther Entertainment,” he indicated with a slight jerk of his head towards the patio. He linked his pinky finger with hers as he explained their role in DC Comics and the Superman movies, and what they would be discussing at the meeting. They were still standing there chatting when Murtagh walked up the front steps with Dougal just behind him. They separated their hands quickly and stepped apart a little to greet the men as they entered.

      Murtagh greeted Claire with a hug that caught her slightly off-guard. She hadn’t really had a chance to interact with him much, apart from a brief introduction at last Thursday’s Grotto meeting. But he seemed genuinely happy to see Jamie and Claire, and the warmth of his greeting made her want to get to know him better.

      “It’s good to see ye lass! I havena thanked ye yet for taking care of our Jamie here. We’re grateful for yer hospitality with him and with us today.” 

      “Please don’t mention it - it’s my pleasure.”

      “Hmmh - Jamie’s too, no doubt,” his beady, black eyes looked at her steadily. She flushed slightly, and nodded quickly. Jamie stepped in to greet Murtagh, saving her from that awkward moment. 

      Murtagh’s hug set the precedent, and Dougal greeted Claire in similar fashion. He pressed himself up against her and held her with one hand low down on her back, almost on her butt, and the other higher up on her back, hugging her a fraction longer than strictly necessary.

      “Thank you for hosting us again, lass,” he said, as he drew back and let his eyes drift up and down her body.  

      “Dougal, good to see you,” she replied, her tone clipped and polite, and her smile just a little tight.

      Jamie ushered them out to the patio, and returned with a look of concern.

      “I hope Dougal wasn’t offensive in his greeting, Claire! I was not expecting him and Murtagh to hug ye.” 

      “No, it’s okay," she laughed. “It’s kind of sweet that Murtagh felt comfortable enough with me to do that. I’m definitely keeping an eye on Dougal though - no offense, Jamie.”

      “None taken. He’s a notorious lech.” His eyes narrowed and his jaw muscles clenched, “If he touches you, I swear-”  

      He was interrupted by the arrival of his agent and manager, Tara Lewis, who greeted him with a warm hug. 

      “You know I had Covid back in March, so I’m assuming I’m safe now," she said, “Although I think the jury’s still out on the immunity issue.” 

      Tara was a tiny dynamo - 5’1” and solidly built, she was in her mid-sixties and clearly a no-nonsense type. Her once rich brown curls had greyed, and rather than spend hours coloring and covering the grey, Tara owned it and wore it proudly. She carried a heavy-looking laptop bag that was bulging at the seams. Today, she was dressed for comfort in jeans, a button-down shirt and comfortable looking flats. This was a woman who was always busy, and had no time for frills and fuss.

      “Tara, I’d like you to meet Claire Beauchamp. Claire, this is Tara. She takes unbelievably good care of me in the movie business. I wouldn't be able to do any of it without her.”

      “Fraser, you’re a dream client! You’re more like a son at times,” she said, brushing off his praise. “Claire, I’m happy to meet you. Jamie’s told me a bit about how he came to be staying at your home. Very kind of you. Thanks for hosting us today.”

      “It’s lovely to meet you too, Tara. I’m pleased we could keep Jamie on track with all his meetings despite the craziness that went on last week.”

      “Tara, after we’re done with Superman, Stargate and Bond, I’ll need some time with you - just us, one-on-one.” Jamie looked solemn as he addressed Tara.

      “Yep - I know, hon. I’m at your disposal all day.”

      She had suspected for a few months that Jamie was easing himself out of the industry. He had rejected so many scripts and great roles and had been adamant that he would only talk about Superman and Bond for this meeting. She and Dougal had spoken about it - and even though he stepped on her toes - a lot - they were mostly in sync about wanting Jamie to continue to make great movies. Of course she was disappointed that Jamie wanted to make big changes in his life and his career. He was so talented, and such a sought-after actor. But she had seen him through the pain of the Natalie drama, and subsequent studio-driven crap that plagued him constantly. She was a killer agent, and a force in Hollywood, but she was also human - and a mom. She knew that he had been driven almost to the point of no-return when he had gone home to Lallybroch. Jenny had pulled him from the brink and had stayed in touch with Tara throughout that dark time. So when Jamie called her last week to have a heart-to-heart, she had to step back and think about him and his well-being rather than just his career.  

      As much as it crushed her to think of losing him as a client, she wanted him to make the right choices for himself. Today, she would try and head off Dougal’s attempts to lock Jamie into the Stargate Clan Hearts spin-off. If she was to be involved in helping Jamie wrap up his career, this spin-off was not the way to go. She wanted him to go out on a high. It would be good for him - and for her. There was already Oscar buzz about his performance in Unauthorized Contact, and that was still in post production, with a release date sometime in September - if the pandemic had eased by then.

      She smiled at Claire before heading out to the patio. “I’ll see you later, Claire.”

      Tara had an air of dependability and confidence about her, and Claire immediately got a good feeling about her. Of course, as Jamie’s agent, her job was to keep him gainfully employed and making as many movies as possible, but she got the sense that Tara genuinely liked Jamie and would take care of his interests, no matter which way he wanted his career to go.

      “I think that’s everyone. Legal, PR, Superman, Stargate, Dougal and Murtagh, and Tara has all the paperwork for Bond with her.”

      "Okay, I’ll check in with Julio and Alma now, but I think they’re on track. I’ll be upstairs if you need me. Good luck, warrior, you’ve got this.” She reached up and kissed him softly on the lips.

      He winked at her, and strode off towards the patio. He looked determined and capable, exuding confidence as he stepped onto the patio, ready to reclaim his life.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Claire finished the last of her student papers and almost squealed with glee. It was always a draining process to thoroughly review their submissions and provide helpful feedback. She confirmed a few appointments for Thursday and Friday as part of her preparations for the professorship process. Jamie would be at The Grotto on those days. She didn't even want to think about that yet, because she knew she would miss him terribly.

       You’re ridiculous Beauchamp. Known him a week and you’re already having a hard time separating for two days. What about when he’s in L.A.? Nope. Not even thinking about that right now.

       Her phone buzzed, and a text slid in from Jamie.  

       We’re breaking for lunch. a proper break, not working. please join us

        U sure u don’t want to keep it to business associates?

        Totally sure. i really want u to join me. need to see u 😍

        On my way 😘

      She joined the team on the patio. Discussions with the Panther Entertainment and DC Comics team had wrapped up, so the Superman folks would be leaving right after lunch, leaving Jamie and Tara to deal with Dougal and Stargate, and their Clan Hearts spinoff. Legal and PR would be there as observers and advisers, and Murtagh would be there for moral support. 

      Julio and Alma had done a stellar job with the food and beverages, and their service was discreet and flawless. Jamie and Claire waited until everyone had been through the taco bar before they helped themselves.

      “Claire, this is amazing. I’m so glad you recommended Julio and Alma. They’re fantastic.”

      “They are. And you know I’ll be making leftover tacos for days!”

      “I’ll have your tacos any time.” His words were meant only for her, and he waggled his eyebrows suggestively, drawing a reproachful look from Claire.

      “You are hopeless, Fraser.”

      They plated up and sat next to each other on one of the patio sofas, making small talk with the legal and PR representatives. Claire felt Dougal’s eyes on her and Jamie, but every time she looked at him, he looked away quickly. Towards the end of their lunch break, Murtagh came over and asked Claire if she would show him around the outdoor living space. 

      “Of course. Will you all excuse me, please?”

      “Be sure to show him our favorite spots, Sassenach.”

      Murtagh’s eyebrows shot up at that comment, but he recovered quickly.

       Oh my sweet, sweet Jamie. You are so exuberant and impulsive at times. Now to explain that one to Murtagh.

      She set off with Murtagh and started a tour of the property, similar to the one she had given Jamie exactly a week earlier.  

      “This is truly beautiful, Claire, I can see why Jamie loves it so much. It is lush and green, like the area around Lallybroch where he grew up. And this here is all part of his property?” He waved his arm in a sweeping arc over Jamie’s lot.

      “Yes. All of it from the edge of my terrace.”

      “Where are the favorite spots that he mentioned?” he asked, looking directly into her eyes.

      “Well, we have fallen into a routine of sorts. In the evening after dinner, we pick a spot outside and chat until dark. We’ve … uh … we’ve found that we have lots to talk about, so it’s been rather pleasant.”

      “I’m glad to hear it, Claire. I’m not sure how much he’s told you about the stress he’s been under because of the industry and how it takes over his life?”

      “Yes, we’ve spoken a lot about that.”

      “Aye, and I’m seeing him more relaxed right now - apart from today’s meeting, of course. In our recent FaceTime calls, he seemed more content, somehow. I know he’s making some big decisions that will simplify his life and let him focus on what's important to him. He grew up in a loving family environment ye ken. And even after he lost his parents, extended family stepped in to keep raising him and Jenny with love and care. He misses that family closeness in the bright lights and plastic world of Hollywood, ye ken. There is a change in him lately, and I can’t help wondering if there are other reasons for that contentment - apart from the relief of making changes in his career. I’ve not seen him as self-assured and confident in a long time. I’ve not seen him smile as much as he is smiling now. Jenny has noticed too. Something about being in this area, this … neighborhood … is verra much agreeing with him.” He looked directly into her eyes again, and she felt a blush move from her chest to her cheeks. 

      “Let me show you some of his favorite spots, Murtagh.”

      She led him through the little path to the stone patio, where she and Jamie had spent hours sitting and chatting in the Adirondack chairs.  

      “Oh my, my, my! This is truly spectacular!” Murtagh took in the mountains and majestic trees in amazement. “I can see why ye would want to sit out here and talk all night.”

      Just as she had done with Jamie, she told Murtagh what she knew about Washington’s mountain ranges, the nearby peaks, trails, volcanoes - whatever she thought might interest him. He made a series of Scottish grunts and noises like Jamie’s, and she knew he was engaged and interested in what she was telling him. 

      Her phone buzzed, and she took it from her pocket.

      “There’s a text from Jamie - will you excuse me while I check in case they need anything?”

      “Of course.”

      She opened the messages app.

      💦 🚿 

       Huh? did u need something?

       Told u i’d have a hard time focusing after this morning’s shower

       OMG - r u crazy! Murtagh is standing right in front of me! 

       Tell him i asked how much to tip Julio and Alma 

       I will deal with u later!

       Can’t wait 😜🌮

 

      “Everything okay?” Murtagh looked mildly concerned.

      “Yes - uh - he’s wondering how much to tip Julio and Alma. Let me show you other areas Jamie likes.”

      Claire wanted to show him the wooden deck with wicker chairs that overlooked the area where he would mostly likely build his house. They walked past the court and pool, and Murtagh paused momentarily at the hot tub.

      “I bet he likes this - if he’s had an opportunity to get in.”

      Claire blushed deeply at this point, and she knew that Murtagh was well aware of her discomfort, but he was gentleman enough not to comment further.

      “He hasn't spent a lot of time there, but he does like being on the wooden deck. I’ll show you.”

 

      They wrapped up the tour of Claire’s property after the wooden deck.

      “Thank you, Claire. You have a lovely home here, lass, and Jamie is lucky to be moving into your neighborhood. I have a feeling he’ll be really happy out here. They’ll be starting the discussions with Stargate shortly, and I need to be there for that. This is the one that will cause the most stress today.” He sighed deeply.

      Claire nodded. “I know Jamie is incredibly thankful for your support today.”

     “I'll do what I can - see you after the meetings.”

      Claire left Murtagh on the patio so that he could join the meeting. She headed indoors to check in with Julio and Alma.

      “Thank you both so much. Everything was delicious, Alma, and your bar service is wonderful as always, Julio. I have a few things to do upstairs. Call me if you need anything.”

      She glanced over at the patio as she left the kitchen to go upstairs. Dougal seemed agitated and fired up, and she knew that the meeting had run into choppy waters.

 

      She continued to work on the curriculum for her online summer course, making excellent progress, until she heard an increase in activity downstairs. She headed down to the kitchen, and looking around at the faces, she knew that the meeting was clearly over. The Stargate reps looked less than happy, and Dougal was fuming. Jamie looked tense, and Tara was leaning against the kitchen counter, arms folded across her chest, lips pressed together. The legal reps and PR team looked like they wanted to get out of there.  

      Jamie looked at the Stargate reps. “Like I said, Tara will be in touch shortly. Please let the exec team know that this is not something I will consider. Thank you for coming out today.” 

      He turned to thank the PR and legal representatives, and they all headed out at the same time.

      “Claire, Tara and I need to meet in private. We’ll use the study, if that’s okay?”

      She nodded. He was serious and his demeanor was all business. He turned to his relatives.

      “Dougal and Murtagh, ye can wait on the patio, or in here - whatever yer preference.”

      Tara and Jamie retreated to the study, and Claire looked at Murtagh. “I need a few minutes to help Julio and Alma, and then I can sit outside with you. We’ll grab a glass of wine or whisky or something.”

      “Aye lass, ye do what ye need to do. Dougal and I will be out here.”

 

      Alma had already packaged up all the leftovers and placed them in containers on the kitchen island. She and Julio did one final walk-through to ensure that everything was clean, and then Claire saw them to the door.

      While Dougal and Murtagh caught up on texts and emails on the patio, Claire looked over the leftovers to decide what to freeze and what to refrigerate. As soon as she had put everything away, she would FaceTime the girls. 

      As she moved the containers into the fridge, the patio door opened, and Dougal entered. She wasn't surprised to note that he seemed unsteady on his feet - again. 

      “Are you looking for the bathroom?”

      “No, I’m looking fer you, actually,” he said, his voice thick with aggression. 

      “Did you need anything, Dougal? How can I help?”

      “Ye can help by staying the fuck away from Jamie.” His voice was low and threatening, and he looked at her with unbridled anger and disdain.

      Her heart started pounding in her ears, and she moved away from the fridge and placed her hands on the edge of the kitchen counter to steady herself.  

      “I’m not sure I know what you mean, Dougal,” she began.

      “Of course ye do! The moment he arrived here last week to look at his property, ye snared him. Lured him in with offers to stay here in yer house. Just the two of ye. How convenient!” His voice was growing louder. “Ye saw the opportunity to snag a couple of weeks of shagging a movie star, and ye were gagging fer it. Gagging fer Jamie. I can see it in yer face now!”

      The color drained from her face, and her jaw dropped open in shock. She was stunned into a numb silence at the viciousness of his words.

      “I dinna ken what kind of hold ye have over our Jamie, what kind of shite ye’ve been feeding him, but ye canna think for a minute he’s giving up his career for the likes of you!”

      “Dougal, I never - "

      “SHUT UP, YE HUSSY!” he roared. “Just look at ye! Ye’re a college professor with a boring life. Jamie has the world’s most beautiful women throwing themselves at him all the time. He can have all the pussy he wants -”

      “DOUGAL!” Jamie burst into the kitchen and lunged for his uncle. Tara was hot on his heels. “Tara, get Murtagh!”

      Jamie grabbed Dougal by the shirt and pushed him against the wall. They were close in height, but Jamie had at least two inches on him. And although Dougal was a solidly built man, Jamie had the advantage of youth and a strong, well-toned physique. He pushed his forearm against Dougal’s upper chest to restrain him, and held him there.

      “Claire, are you okay?” he asked frantically, looking at her, eyes wild with concern.

      “I .. I’m fine. I’m okay,” she stammered. “Jamie, it’s okay.”

      He searched her face for signs of distress, his chest heaving. 

     “What the fuck are ye doing with her , Jamie?” Dougal taunted.

      “Shut up, Dougal, I’m warning ye.”

      “Ye can have anyone ye want…”

      “Dougal, I swear if you open yer mouth again ...” Jamie pressed his forehead into Dougal's, their noses barely an inch apart. His voice was low and threatening. Claire had never heard him speak in anger before now.

      “Are ye going to let a piece of arse bring yer whole career down, ye fecking idiot?”

      Jamie pushed his forearm higher up Dougal’s chest, his fist clenching and unclenching.

      Claire stood frozen, unable to properly process what was happening in front of her - in her home, her safe place.

      “Jamie! Stop! Let him go!” Murtagh flew in with Tara hot on his heels. Murtagh tugged on Jamie’s arm. “Let him go, Jamie.”

      “Murtagh, get him the fuck out of here.” She had never heard Jamie swear in anger either. He lowered his arm, and a furious but unsteady Dougal glowered at everyone in the kitchen. Murtagh collected their belongings from the patio and stopped in front of Claire.

      “Claire, I know Dougal’s vicious tongue. Whatever he may have said to ye, know that it came from anger and frustration. None of it is true. I'm sorry about this, lass. I canna thank ye enough for your hospitality today.” He planted a noisy kiss on her forehead, and grabbing Dougal by the elbow, growled angrily, “Get in the car.”

      “Tara, you and I can finish this on the phone or via Zoom or FaceTime tomorrow.”

      “Of course, hon.” She looked at Claire, who was still drained of color. “I’m sorry, Claire. I don’t know what he said to you, but I can tell you that Jamie needs you and wants you in his life.”

      “Thank ... thank you, Tara. I hope we meet again in less stressful times.”

      She trembled noticeably as her physical response to the sudden emotional shock set in.

 

    

 

Chapter Text


 

      Jamie locked the front door and hurried back to the kitchen, immediately gathering a still-trembling Claire in his arms. They were alone now.

      “I’m so sorry, mo chridhe. I knew he was angry, but I never thought he would take it out on you. God, I am so sorry!” He held her close for a long, long time. She wrapped her arms around him, and as the shock of the angry outburst dissipated, her body continued to shiver as it released her pent-up tension. Jamie held her tighter still, stroking her hair, and whispering soothing words in Gaelic, as she slowly started to come down from the unexpected and aggressive confrontation.

     Holding her tight against his chest, he moved his hand in soothing sweeps over her back, endlessly patient and caring and tender; and as the tautness in her body continued to ease, the trembling seeped out of her and she softened and melted into his strong arms. 

      He brought his hands up to hold her face, pressing gentle, soothing butterfly kisses all over. Finally reaching her mouth, he kept his lips softly on hers, until her breathing slowed to match his.

      “Mo chridhe,” he whispered, “I should never have let that happen. I should have kept you safe.” His eyes were dark and tormented.

       He touched his forehead to hers gently, looking deep into her eyes, desperate to take away the pain and distress he saw there. 

      “It’s not on you, Jamie.” Her voice was soft but steadfast. “He’s a grown man, and he should have better control of his drinking and his temper. I’m okay.”

      “I only heard what he said when he started to raise his voice, and I came immediately. I have no idea what he said before that, but everything I heard was untrue. And I imagine everything he said before that was a load of bollocks too. He lashes out verbally when he’s angry. He has no idea how I feel about you, and he has no right to make comments about what I should and shouldn't do in my personal life.”

      “I know, Jamie. You told me the other night that you know my heart. I know yours too, and I know that Dougal has no idea what we have between us. He’s angry, and anxious, and ultimately, he thinks he’s doing right by you. I’m sorry it brought a crashing end to your meeting with Tara.”

      “No, Claire, please don’t be sorry. Tara and I can continue with what we were talking about tomorrow, or the day after.”

      She snuggled into him, her face nuzzled in the space between his jaw and his shoulder. He held her tighter, and they stood locked in each other’s arms for a long, quiet moment.

      Dougal’s words had stung, no doubt about it, and she hadn't really had time to think about what he’d said. But she knew that he had lashed out in an alcohol-fueled tantrum, and she forced herself to push aside his savage verbal attack to focus on Jamie’s comforting arms and soothing voice. His heartbeat echoed in her ear, strong and rhythmic and reassuring. His chin gently nuzzled her forehead.

 

      Eventually, a slow smile curled her lips, and he could feel it on his neck.

      “What’s so amusing, Sassenach?”

      “Mmmm, I can feel your stubble and in a few days, it’s going to be back to where it was. And then you’re in trouble!”

      “All these promises you keep making. I hope ye’re planning on delivering!”

      “Oh, I’ll deliver. But not all at once - you’ll have to work for them, warrior.”

      He tipped her chin up and kissed her.

      “Let’s get comfortable. We should change and meet back here. I thought that we could go down to the sport court. I really need to work off that huge lunch and work on my basketball skills - can’t be embarrassing myself in front of the girls, can I? Have you FaceTimed them yet?”

      “Not yet - I was about to do that, but …” Dougal’s outburst had derailed her plans completely.

      “I’m sorry,” he looked pained again. “Let’s talk to them once we’ve changed. You know they’re bound to say something that’ll cheer us up.” They smiled at the thought of the exuberant girls and their tendency to inadvertently embarrass Claire.

 

      Jamie came downstairs in navy workout shorts and a light grey tee, and Claire joined him soon afterwards in dark grey yoga pants and a light grey tee. They looked at each other and laughed. 

      “Okay, I give up! I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we will never not wear coordinated outfits!”

      “I know! And I bet one of the girls will notice.”

      “My money’s on Beth, although they’re both very observant lasses.”

      “No - it’ll be Ella! Ella will call us on it at some point during the chat,” Claire insisted. 

 

      The girls were excited to see Claire and Jamie on the call together.

      “Hi Mom, hi Mr. Fraser!”

      “Hi girls!”

      “Uhhh … why are you guys in matching clothes?” Beth asked.

      Jamie threw Claire a triumphant little side-eye.

      “We’re in work-out gear. I was thinking that after dinner we might head down to your court so I can get some practice before our challenge.” He looked at Claire. “What do you say ba- … Claire? Any chance you want to help me get some practice?” 

      Her eyes widened slightly at his near-slip.

      Did Ella just give Beth the smallest elbow nudge?

      “Oh - uh - yes, that’s a great idea. I’m in workout clothes too. I’ll give you girls some inside scoop on his technique so you can strategize and take him down.” She winked at the girls.

      “Well, we arrive next Wednesday, and Mr. Fraser gets back from L.A. next Saturday. So we’ll have a few days of solid practice. Mr. Fraser, you are so going down.” Ella held up her fingers in an 'L' on her forehead, and they all laughed. 

      “How did your big meeting go?” Beth asked.

      “It was a long day and a busy meeting, but it all went as expected.” Jamie was careful not to reveal any of the tensions that surrounded the meeting.

      “Julio and Alma catered for us,” Claire added.

      “Oh my God, that’s not fair!” Beth playfully put on a pouty face. “Did Alma make her street tacos?”

      “Yes, and they were excellent. I’ve frozen the leftovers, so there’ll be plenty for you girls next week. We’ll just need to make fresh toppings.”

      “And there’s a ton of her ice-cream too,” Jamie added. 

      “Yasss! Her home-made dulce de leche is even better than Häagen-Dazs.” Ella was already salivating in anticipation.

      “Mr. Fraser, are you staying with us again when you get back from L.A.?” Beth waited expectantly for his response. 

      Jamie and Claire glanced at each other briefly. They had not yet finalized this conversation. They didn’t want to be apart any longer than necessary, and the thought of Jamie not staying at the house was tough, but they had to consider the girls and how they would carefully broach the subject of their relationship with them. And with Beth throwing this at them out of the blue, they had to think on their feet.

      “We haven’t really planned that far ahead,” Jamie said casually.

      “You should stay with us,” Beth suggested. “Ella and I are pretty quiet, so you would still get your work done.”

      “Totally!” agreed Ella, ”And in your down time, we can coach you on basketball.”

      "And volleyball - we’re pretty decent at volleyball.”

      “You girls are very kind, and it sounds very appealing. We’ll get it all figured out in the next few days.” Jamie was touched at their sincerity and kindness.

      “What did you girls do today?” Claire asked.

      “We watched Stuart Little with Frankie and Lily. Beth made caramel corn - it was so good!”

      “And we made a bunch of TikToks with them,” laughed Beth. “I’ll send you some, Mom. They are so funny!”

      “Sounds great! But as always, just be really careful about what you post on your social media.”

      “We always are, Mom!”

      “I know - you’re both really smart about it.  Okay, girls, Mr. Fraser's going to entertain me with his … uh …  basketball skills on the court.” She winked at them again and they giggled.

      “Goodnight!” The girls waved and blew kisses.

      Claire blew kisses back and Jamie waved as they tapped out of the call.

 

      “Shit! I’m sorry!” Jamie immediately apologized for almost calling her ’babe’ on the call. “Do you think they picked it up? They’re smart as whips, those two!”

      “It’s okay - not a big deal. At first I thought I saw Ella subtly try to nudge Beth, but I’m not sure. I feel like one of them would have made a big deal of it if they caught it. Either way, we’re going to have to talk about us with them. Sooner rather than later.”

      He reached for her hand and brought it to his lips. “I’ll let you drive that process. In terms of whether you want it to be just you and the girls - or both of us and the girls - when you have that talk. Either way, I completely respect your decision. Just know that I would be more than happy to be with you when you talk to them.”

      “I’m sure they’ll have a lot more questions and thoughts when they’re back next week - about you and your time here so far. I’ll have more time to sit and chat with them. I’ll let you know how that all goes, and we can decide how to approach the subject of us.” She leaned over and kissed him. “In the meanwhile, since they raised the question, are you comfortable staying here when you get back from L.A.? Or would that be … too much? Me and the girls?”

      “God, I was hoping you would ask! No! It’s not too much - I don’t even know what you mean by that. Ye ken I’m already so fond of the lasses, and we haven’t even met in person yet. And I’m going to miss you so much next week, there’s no way I would want to stay anywhere else.”

      “I’m going to miss you too,” she ran her fingers over his stubble, and leaned in for another kiss.  

 

      As they made their way down to the court, Jamie started to update her on the meeting before it all unraveled. The discussions around Superman with DC Comics and Panther Entertainment were first on the agenda, and they had gone very well. Tara and the PR team repped him fiercely on the promotion and publicity requirements, saying that they would allow their involvement in his tweets and social media, but a hard ‘no’ to appearances with random starlets and fake girlfriends. Of course, there would be appearances with the female lead - as yet uncast - but those were routinely part of practically every movie ever made. DC Comics’ PR and Jamie’s PR agreed to collaborate on his social media presence. Tara also pushed them for a higher percentage in Jamie’s box-office earnings. She was a brutal negotiator and if he accepted Superman, he would be in a very comfortable financial position as he exited the industry. 

      “I have a good feeling about Superman after meeting the team. What do you think?”

      “Well based on what you’ve said, they seem to be really flexible about accommodating your needs and requests. That seems to be quite a shift from how Stargate does things.”

      “Aye, 180 degree shift there!”

      “I’m so pleased the Superman part went well. That should be a big help as you move towards a decision. How did the Stargate talks go? Did things get tense with Tara and Dougal.”

      “When I first started to reject strong roles and scripts that Tara secured for me, she and Dougal suspected that I was looking for a way out of the industry, so they teamed up to push me to keep going. But ye heard her this morning - she treats me like a son sometimes. I think after my heart-to-heart with her last week, she had to think of me less as a client and more as someone who has been through quite an ordeal due to all the studio-imposed crap. She is slowly coming around to me withdrawing from the industry, but she says it’s going to take her some time to wrap her head around it. She says that if it’s going to happen, then it must happen the right way. ‘I want you to go out on a high,’ she said.”

      “It’s going to be hard for her, Jamie. She’s been with you for what? Six, seven years? It’s going to be a big loss for her  - personally, I mean. She’s clearly very fond of you. You’ll want to be a little patient with her.”

      “I wish Dougal would take her approach. They clashed badly over the spin-off series today. I was going to break it to him gently, but Tara charged right in. Told him that if my plan was to exit the industry, I was not doing it on a spin-off TV series. ‘Over my dead body’, were her exact words.”

      Claire chuckled at that - she could almost see Tara in that moment, feisty and defiant and verbally placing herself between Jamie and Dougal. Jamie continued:

      “Stargate reps weren’t happy about that. I think that’s what set Dougal on edge. He felt embarrassed and blindsided. And I had to support what Tara said so that Dougal wouldn't go all loose cannon on us again. He pushed the money angle in a big way. I assured them that I understand the huge financial implications of a successful spin-off, but with syndication revenue from Clan Hearts still likely to come in for a decade or more, and box office income from recent and current projects, I’m not at all incentivized by the potential earnings of another Stargate project.” 

      “Wise move - clearly stating that money is not your motivator. What did Murtagh think about all of this? And what about the Bond stuff?”

      "Let’s get some basketballs and I’ll fill you in as we get some practice in.”  

      He found them in the shed and, tossing one at Claire, he started working on his aim. Claire watched him, hands on hips, completely baffled about why he was, quite frankly, so hopeless at it.  

      Oh, Jamie, you are 6’3”! And a half! How are you so bad at this?

      At this rate, the girls would eat him alive. She grabbed a ball, bounced it a little, and took aim. It was really close, but rebounded off the rim. She lined up another one  - and sank it. She bounced the ball again, and took another shot. It glided beautifully through the net. Two in a row. Then three. Then four. He stopped bouncing his ball, and stared at her, mouth open in surprise.  

      “How are you getting them all in like that? What’s your strategy?”

      “I really don’t know - I mess around down here with the girls from time to time - I guess it’s just practice. Muscle memory? I don't know.” She shrugged.

      “Let me stand behind you while ye take aim.”

      He stood behind her and watched carefully as she lined up her shot and sank another great shot.

      “Okay - I see you stand at a very slight angle to the basket, and your knees are a little bent. I’ll try that.”

      He imitated her stance, but still missed all three of his attempts.

      “Oh boy, I’m in trouble if I don’t fix this.” 

      Claire giggled - but she was also mildly surprised that he wasn’t in the least bit bothered that a woman was better at this than he was. 

      “Let me try and imitate how you set up your shot.”

      “Okay, first set up your shot as you’ve been doing, and then I’ll do mine,” she suggested.

      He did as she asked, and she stood next to him with her shot lined up. She looked over at his line-up and pointed out some differences.

      “You bring your ball a lot closer to your shoulder than I do. Try to raise it more. Okay, now your guiding hand is actually on your ball, and mine is just floating a little to the left here, not actually touching the ball. I feel like if I touch the ball, I’m going to affect the accuracy.”

      He set up his ball as similar to hers as he could.

      “The only other suggestion I have is that when you release the ball, avoid using your thumb. That affects accuracy too. Try now.”

      He set up his shot exactly like hers, bent his knees slightly and released the ball. It bounced off the rim.

      “Well, that’s a lot closer than most of my other shots. I’ll try again.”

      His next two attempts bounced off the rim too. But the fourth shot sailed in. And the fifth, and the sixth. He looked at her in excitement, then lifted her in his arms, and spun her around.

      “I think you missed yer calling! You should have been a basketball coach!”

 

      They continued to practice shooting over the next half hour, even doing a little dribbling. Jamie’s dribbling was way better than his shooting, and he got the better of Claire several times.

      “You are way fitter than me! I should do more treadmill work.”

      “Why don’t ye come for a run with me tomorrow morning? If you add running into yer fitness plan a few times a week, ye’ll build up stamina in no time. And it gives me an excuse for more time with my Sassenach.”

      “You’d adjust your speed to mine - I know you well enough to know that - and I don’t want to hold you back.”

      “C’mon, Claire. It’s okay if I adjust my speed the first few times, but you are pretty fit as it is. It won’t take you much time to build up your stamina. We could run together twice a week, maybe?”

       He continued to out-dribble her, and she stopped to look at him, hands on hips and puffing slightly.

      “Deal! And when I’m fitter, I’ll challenge you to beat me at dribbling!”

      They did a little more shooting practice, and, while his aim was improving, it still needed some work. He filled her in on the Bond discussion in between shots and little breaks in their practice.  

      There had been no Bond representatives at the meeting, but Tara had all the contracts and paperwork with her, and PR and legal sat with them as they discussed this part of the meeting. Jamie had asked Murtagh to keep Dougal out of the Bond discussion, as he had not handled the Stargate spin-off discussions well. While the break-out Bond meeting took place on one side of the patio, Dougal drank mojitos, margaritas, and anything else he could think of. Julio, always the attentive mixologist, had reduced the amount of alcohol in the drinks, but he was too late. The big Scotsman had definitely started feeling the effects of all the alcohol he’d consumed. 

      “What do the Bond contracts stipulate in terms of publicity?” Claire asked, almost dreading the answer. 

      “Exactly what I expected. Actually - worse, if I’m completely honest. The campaign to start pushing me as a bad-boy bachelor will start a few weeks before they even make the official announcement about who the new Bond is. It mentions photo ops with actresses, models, cover girls. It will require red carpet appearances, beach vacation pictures - romantic walks along docks and such - and parties on yachts with five girls to every guy. Subtle Instagram hints, tweets. Everything.”

      “Oh, Jamie…”

      “I told Tara flat out I’m not doing it. I’m not putting myself - or you - through that. Their timeline and roll-out pushes me well past my five-year limit too. There's always a few years between Bond movies, and I want out much sooner than the schedule would allow.” 

      “What did she say?”

      “Surprisingly, she was okay with it! It’s going to be a little uncomfortable for her to back out of Bond after pushing so hard to get it for me, but she’s had to back out of movie deals plenty of times before - with me and her other clients."

      "I must admit, I'm a little surprised she took it so well. As you point out, it will be awkward for her to backpedal now.'

      "The reason she’s okay with it is that she’s heard early Oscar buzz about my performance in Unauthorized Contact.”

      “Whoa! What? How are you so casual about that?" He’d been nominated for numerous industry awards and had won a decent number of them, but she knew there were no Oscar nominations in the line-up.

      “I may seem casual about it, but I’m really quite pumped. Tara and I spoke about it a lot today, so I’ve had a little time to process it. It’s very early days too, ye ken, and I don’t want to get my hopes up too high.”

      “Tell me about the nomination buzz and the movie - I haven't heard about it at all!”

      “Unauthorized Contact is the movie I shot in Seattle. The one that made me fall in love with this city. It’s still in post production, but a few insiders have seen parts of it, and she says that it has generated talk about a possible Oscar nom for me. I don't know if you know how the Oscar campaigns work, but studios pour millions into promoting actors for their top movies. It’s nothing at all like the general public thinks: actors do a good job, the Academy nominates them, industry people vote, and they’re announced at a splashy ceremony. I think that’s what most people think happens.”

      She nodded.

      “The reality is different. It’s a money game. There is so much money, schmoozing, and borderline bribery behind the scenes. The goal is to secure the nomination, and then work the voters to secure the votes. The studio behind Unauthorized Contact is Millennium Entertainment - the biggest studio after Walt Disney. It's incredibly powerful.” Claire knew the name of course, Millennium was a major force in the industry. 

      “Tara says they’re very aware of the early buzz, and they want to promote me for it, so that means big campaign money for them. It also means that I can’t have any kind of scandal or craziness attached to my name. Millennium will not be impressed with a parade of fake girlfriends and lap-dances and girls on yachts. So the Bond approach will be entirely at odds with that. Unauthorized Contact is a serious movie, tough content. It’s about a whistle-blower, the role that I play, who’s on a quest to expose the government’s failures in the height of the ISIS conflict. Very painful scenes. In terms of publicity, Millennium will require a global tour of appearances and interviews with the female lead, Anja Baranov, who plays my fiancée. The usual stuff. Breakfast TV, late night, social media.”

      Anja Baranov. Claire had seen some of her movies. She was a decent actress - and a stunner! And quite the man-eater, if her profile and social media presence were anything to go by.

      “So much to process! I’m really excited about your Oscar buzz! And proud! So, so proud.” They smiled at that - his admission that he went ‘gooey’ over her pride in him still fresh in her mind.

      “I’ll admit that I am very excited about it. A nomination would be a great way to cap my career as I ease out. And yes, still a lot to work out and process. Tara and PR warned me that there will be some bumps ahead. There will likely be two big announcements - my acceptance of Superman and my rejection of Bond. There will be a surge of social media craziness, interview requests, morning shows, late night shows, and I’ll have to wear caps, face-masks and sunglasses every time we’re out. It’ll blow over within a few weeks though. Think you can power through that with me?”

      “Of course. We’ll get through it, Jamie. I’m so excited for you - it’s a lot more good news than bad.”

      They each picked up a ball, ready to toss them back in the shed and head up to the house. 

      “Wait, Sassenach, let’s take a selfie for the girls.”

      They held up the balls, put on their best bad-ass expressions and snuggled in for the shot. They laughed at the picture, and Claire wondered fleetingly if they just looked too snuggly, too ’coupley’ to send to the girls, but she shrugged it off.

      “Love it! Please send it to me.”

      He tapped his message app, and selected her name. She noticed immediately that he had edited her contact. She was no longer just ‘Sassenach.’ Her name on his phone was now Sassenach❤️. 

      She had to suppress a smile at how comfortable he was expressing his feelings so openly. And his emoji game was very sweet - and entertaining!

 

      They decided to have their night-time conversation on the middle terrace, where they could lie next to each other and snuggle on one of the sofas. By this time, they were ready for a light snack, so Claire threw together a hasty charcuterie platter, while Jamie grabbed a bottle of tawny port and glasses.

      “You haven’t told me what Murtagh thought of today’s developments.” They settled into their ‘sunrise’ sofa, and he took her hand in his and leaned back on the cushions, stretching his body across the sofa, pulling her in next to him. 

      “Murtagh supported all my decisions today. He had to think long and hard on the Bond thing though. And I’ll admit to ye that it was a gut-wrenching decision, Claire. Murtagh knows how hard everyone worked to get me the role. But he also had to concede that the publicity requirements and image-building around it would take me back to a dark, dark place.”

      “Do you think you will end up regretting the Bond decision?”

      “I won’t regret it.’ His voice was full of resolve. “All the soul-searching and sleepless nights happened in the process of making that decision. I was 95% of the way there before the meeting started, and when Tara told me about the publicity commitments and the Oscar buzz for Unauthorized Contact, that sealed it for me. Ye ken no Bond actor has been Oscar nominated for the Bond role? It just doesn’t happen. And at this point in my career, I am more excited by a nomination than making 3 movies that will keep me in the Hollywood mess far longer than I want.”

      She couldn't help feeling a twinge of sadness for him over the Bond role, but his rationale about the Oscar nomination above the Bond role was reassuring and made perfect sense. Jamie preferred the recognition of his craft over the kudos of winning the Bond role.

      "Claire, I would really like to hear about the professorship - before we even enjoy the port. I want to hear everything before we get distracted by alcohol.”

      “Okay. It’s a professorship within the MBA program, and our program is recognized as one of the best. A good advanced business degree can enhance career opportunities, income potential, and promotion prospects. The most popular options for people wanting to further their business studies are an MBA or an MS in Communication. Currently Fulton offers an MBA, but I have been pushing for us to offer the Master of Science in Communication too, in order to make us more competitive with schools like Purdue, who offer both. That is still a long way off, but I have been doing a lot of work on it over the past two years. In-depth feasibility studies and a detailed roll-out plan, so it might happen in a few years. It’s a huge deal to offer a whole new degree - it takes planning, money, forethought.”

      “What are the major differences between the two degrees? Why would someone pick one over the other?”

       “The MBA is a much more popular option - it’s become the gold standard. People who opt for the MBA generally want to boost their knowledge in a wide spread of skills, including business strategy and management. They learn about ethics and basic human resources; marketing is a big part of it, depending on how the curriculum is structured. And of course some business communications. The MS in Communications can have a range of different focuses, depending on the school.  Some focus on politics, others on mass communications, or technical or health. Fulton’s MS would focus on strategic business communication, providing the background and skills that help to advance the mission of an organization. It includes PR, marketing, some advertising, social media, online content strategy, even some international business communication. Other elements would be corporate social responsibility campaigns, business-to-business communication, and internal communications as well. Eventually, I’d love to see crisis management rolled in, but that would be a specialization too. One of my dear friends from my time at NYU, Melissa Thornton, is probably the country’s leading expert in crisis management. I may have mentioned to you that she was due to visit me last week.”

      “Aye, ye did. She was supposed to go with you to the wineries.”

      “Yes! That’s the one. She would be an invaluable resource if Fulton incorporated crisis comms into an MS degree.”  

      Jamie nodded as he absorbed all the information she gave him. “So that is your long-term plan, the MS degree, right? And in the meanwhile, a professorship is now on the table in the MBA program?”

      “Yes, in the interim, a position opened up for a professor in the MBA program, in business communications. When I was first approached, they told me that they would ideally like to appoint from within, which puts me in a strong position - I know the landscape, the culture, the business environment, and of course they know me and my abilities. However as with all positions, they are required to advertise, and they received applications from some strong candidates. One guy stood out in particular.  Like me, he’s an associate professor. He’s a little older - early forties, and he’s from The Wharton School, which as you may know is a very prestigious school. Ivy League. So he is very attractive to the selection committee and to the Fulton Board of Trustees.”

      “What do you think sets you apart from him, Claire? What do you have that he doesn’t?”

      “I’ve led a few very successful cross-disciplinary research projects using students that I embedded as interns in some of Seattle’s leading companies - Amazon, Costco, Boeing, and Starbucks were the biggest case studies. One study looked at communication strategies for organizational legitimacy in social media. Another looked at corporate social responsibility communication with a focus on involvement strategies. My findings were published in a couple of international business journals, and that brings a lot of recognition and exposure to Fulton. I’ve been published a total of nine times, so that is a plus for me.”

      “That is impressive stuff, Claire. Do ye have copies of the business journals? I’d love to read your work. Has the other guy been published?”

      “Yes, I have copies, and yes, he’s been published, but only twice. The other big thing in my favor is that I have attracted a lot of money in donations. Henry set up an endowment a few years ago, and when he passed, I gathered some of his associates to put together another endowment in his memory. That garnered attention from other donors who donated independently. Additionally, after the PILF thing, female-run companies donated in my name - companies like Oracle, General Motors, Spanx, UPS - all of them have women as CEOs.”

      “I love that they rallied around ye.”

      “A significant amount of donor money came in, and that is a huge consideration as they weigh up candidates. The Board of Trustees knows I am well connected, so hopefully that gives me a little edge.”

      “You sound like such a strong candidate. What are your concerns? Because I sense that you have some.”

      “To be honest, I am worried about the PILF thing raising its ugly head again. Remember I had lunch last week with some of the faculty? It was the night I was super stressed, and you found me in the hot tub.”

      “Aye, I remember you were worried about one of your co-worker’s questions.”

      “Yes, he’s on the selection committee, and he mentioned PILF, and how it had been ‘somewhat of an embarrassment’, and Fulton didn’t want to be ‘dragged into negative social media again’ if it started trending as a result of my being appointed a professor.”  

      “Did ye point out that as a result of the outpouring of female support you got, Fulton also benefited from donations?”

      “I did! It shut him up for the rest of the lunch, but it just irked me that he had to bring it up again now, and made me wonder if it’s being discussed again behind my back.”

      “Do ye have an ‘insider’ who can dish on that and give ye useful information?”

      “I might have. I’ll work on that tomorrow.”

      “Claire, I am just blown away by your career success. To achieve all of this at your age is remarkable. Will you let me know how I can support ye? The academic world is so intimidating to me. Too many super-smart people! But if there is any way I can support you, ye need only ask.”

      “Thank you, Jamie. I appreciate that so much.”

      She nuzzled his scruff for a moment, before sitting up to pour some port. 

      “Okay, that’s the professorship story in a nutshell - let’s enjoy some port!”

 

       Jamie sat up too, and while Claire poured a little port in their glasses, he fixed them some cheese on crackers and arranged them on the plate. She sighed softly at the memory of him preparing her cheese and crackers almost a week ago.

      “What’s the sigh for, mo chridhe?”

      “I’m remembering how you fed me cheese and crackers on the stone patio last week. I’d known you for one day and thought it was the sweetest thing ever. That might have been the moment I started falling for you.” 

      He looked at her in surprise and his heart rate kicked up a notch. This was the most forthcoming she’d been about her feelings for him. Sure, she had admitted to feeling their ‘unusual connection’, and she’d shared her favorite Paulo Coelho quote about the universe conspiring to help them find each other. And they both privately acknowledged that their sexual chemistry was unlike any they’d shared with anyone else, but she had not been as open about her feelings for him as he’d been with her.

      That might have been the moment I started falling for you.

      Her words hung in the air and he was almost afraid to say anything in case his words engulfed hers and made them disappear, taking this moment with them.

      He abandoned the cheese and crackers and slowly, carefully twined his fingers in the curls at the back of her neck. 

      “Babe …” he whispered as his lips met hers in a soft, searching kiss, lips and tongues gently probing and reaching and seeking the warmth and softness of each other’s mouths. They kissed with their eyes fixed on each other, burning this moment into their memories.

      They pulled apart, still gazing at each other. Before he could say anything, she pressed her fingers to his lips. “I started falling then, and I’m still falling,” she whispered, as though understanding that he needed corroboration … confirmation that he hadn’t imagined her words.

      For a moment they sat there, quietly absorbing the impact of her words. 

 

      He finally arose from the sofa and held his hand out to help her up. Wordlessly, they made their way back to the house.

 

 

 





Chapter Text


 

      Tuesday dawned bright and warm. The sun’s rays poured through the windows directly onto the bed and the light crept slowly into Claire’s consciousness. She stirred slightly, and reached for her phone.

      6:10 a.m.

      She rolled over. Jamie was still asleep. They had made slow, sweet, gentle love deep into the night, prolonging their pleasure with lingering, soulful kisses, and whispering sweet nothings that were really sweet everythings. Whispered words of desire and praise and adoration for each other, coming as close to declarations of love as they dared. They spent hours caught up in learning every inch of each other with their lips and tongues and fingertips. And when both were completely spent, they snuggled, facing each other, whisky eyes locked with ocean eyes in the dim glow of the moonlight that filtered softly through the windows. She didn’t know who succumbed to sleep first, but it didn’t matter. They were so completely in sync, right down to their breathing, that they had drifted off within seconds of each other.

      Jamie was on his back now with one arm on the pillow above his head. The bed covers gathered below his belly button afforded her a generous view of his delectable V-line. She raised herself on one arm, and allowed herself the luxury of slowly inspecting the muscled magnificence of his upper body. Her eyes lingered on the faint line of hair that went down the middle of his lower abdomen and disappeared under the bed covers. She moved her gaze up to his pecs and shoulders and biceps - every defined line and hollow bearing testimony to the hours he spent working out. She bit her lip unconsciously as she fought the urge to reach out and caress his skin.

     “What are you doing, Sassenach?” His voice was a low, sleepy rumble and his eyes were still adjusting to the light.

      Startled, she blushed hotly and hesitated before answering him. “Uh ... okay, I can’t wriggle my way out of this one. I was ogling. You have a magnificent body, Jamie. You know that, because you work hard for it.  I … uh … I was being greedy and taking the opportunity to stare at it, uninterrupted. Until you interrupted me.”

      He chuckled. “C'mere.” He pulled her down and she lay her head on his chest, his arm wrapped protectively around her back. Still feeling wracked with guilt about the way Dougal had attacked her yesterday, he kissed the top of her head, inhaling her fragrance deeply. They lay there in silence for a while - the only sound she could hear was his strong heartbeat in her ear. It felt comforting and reassuring. She rested her hand on his abdomen, her fingernail gently exploring the grooves of his toned abdominals. 

      “We should get up for our run,” she said softly. They both had a busy morning planned. She had a number of personal calls to make and emails to write, and she was also hoping to write a series of letters to potential donors. Jamie had a lot of follow-up calls and emails from the previous day’s meetings. No to mention the Dougal drama! He would need to ramp up the timeline on getting Dougal out of his business - and now out of his personal matters too.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      They completed a 3 mile run and returned home drenched and panting. It was going to be a 90º plus day, and they were already feeling the effects of the heat. It would take her longer to recover from the run because she wasn't accustomed to it, like Jamie was. She usually did twenty strenuous minutes on the step machine after her yoga sessions, so she was fairly fit, but her stamina was not at Jamie’s level.

      “I think you’re right! I need to do this at least twice a week to build up stamina.”

      “You did great - and yes, let’s do it again this weekend, when I’m back from The Grotto.”

 

      While Jamie did his weights workout, Claire took a shower, using the time to plan out her work day, and prioritize her tasks. She dressed comfortably in soft blue yoga shorts and a navy tank - it was too hot for anything else. She dried her hair as best she could and let it fall in natural curls. A quick application of her light daytime makeup and a spritz of Daisy, and she was ready to face the day. She headed to the kitchen, and started to prepare a light breakfast of bagels, lox, and cream cheese. Jamie was still upstairs in the shower, so she sat at the kitchen island and checked emails while she waited. She deleted the spam, flagged a few of them for priority replies, and there was one that she needed to discuss with Jamie.

      He joined her in the kitchen less than ten minutes later - hair still damp, smelling spicy and woodsy, and looking comfortably cool in white shorts and a soft blue tee. He hadn’t shaved, and his scruff was coming along nicely. Coming up behind her, he wrapped his arms around her and nuzzled her shoulder. She smiled and tilted her head so he could plant kisses from her shoulder all the way up to her ear. 

      “You smell so good, Claire.”

      She caressed his face for a moment, and leaned in to kiss him. And what started as a sweet kiss on the lips deepened into a long, sensual kiss that left them both wondering if they would be able to focus on the work they needed to take care of over the next few hours.

      “You are too damn sexy for yer own good. How am I supposed to focus on my work?”

      “I could say the same about you! Good thing we're in separate work spaces.”

     

      Between bites of their breakfast, they coordinated their lunch time, planned to spend the afternoon at the pool, and made tentative plans to DoorDash their dinner.

      “Jamie, I know you have a ton of follow-up stuff to do today, but what does your day look like tomorrow?”

      “I kept it pretty open because I’m gone on Thursday and Friday, and I wanted to spend the day with you. What did you have in mind?”

      “Frank and I bought the girls a car for their 16th, and I just got an email from the dealership. It’s ready for pick-up from this afternoon. I was wondering if you would come with me to pick it up tomorrow - early afternoon?”

      “Of course! I’d be happy to.”

      “Thank you. Liv comes tomorrow too - my house cleaner. If you have any laundry, she’s still happy to do it.”

      “I just threw in a load after my shower, but thank you. I’ll still leave her a note and a little extra money - she has more to do with me here.”

      “She'll be very thankful for that. We can grab a bite to eat in Bellevue when we pick up the car, and that gives Liv time and space to do her thing. Have you ever eaten at Din Tai Fung?” 

      “No - but I’ll go with any of your recommendations.”

     “Oh, you’re in for a treat!”

 

      They headed off to their separate work spaces and spent the next few hours working through their own to-do lists. At around 11, Jamie brought her some ice-cold water and a small bowl of fresh berries to snack on. 

      “Thank you! What did I do to deserve this?” He really was almost too good to be true.

      “I just needed an excuse to see you.” He bent down to nuzzle her neck with his scruff, and after a quick kiss, he headed back downstairs.

 

      Rather than text, Claire placed a call to Melissa. Mentioning her to Jamie last night had been a good reminder to check in on her friend and she wanted to hear her voice. 

      “Mel! I’ve been meaning to call, but it’s been completely crazy. How’s everyone doing? Any Covid spread in your team?”

      “It’s great to hear from you - I’m still so bummed I had to cancel last week. One more in my team is down, but the rest of us quarantined fast, so we’re all good. How are things with the professorship?”

      “So far so good. It’s ramping up now, so I’ll probably know within a few weeks.”

      “They have to give it to you, Claire, there’s no one better qualified.”

      “Yeah, not so fast. They really like a guy from Wharton. I’m a little worried about a line of questioning from one of the selection committee. He dragged the PILF thing in.”

      “Asshole! I hope you put him in his place.”

      "I reminded him of the donations that came from power women who backed me. Shut him up fast. I miss you - still thinking of coming out?”

      “Yes! Maybe late July, early August. Does that sound good? Can’t wait to see you and the girls!”

      “Of course! Uh … Mel … there may be someone else here at that time.”

      “Okay - anyone I know? Nonna?”

      “I’m still working on Nonna, actually. No, it’s someone I met ...”

      “Claire! You met someone - and you haven’t said anything!”

       “It’s so new - I met him just over a week ago. Oh, God that sounds so bad. I’ll start at the beginning.”

      She gave Melissa the basic details of the most unlikely sounding story she had ever recounted.

      “I’m almost speechless with excitement and happiness for you, my friend. You sound so happy! Are you going to tell me his name?”

      “Yes, but only because you’re my closest friend and I trust you not to breathe it to anyone. It’s Jamie Fraser.”

      “Sweet mother of pearl! What?”

      “I know - I have to pinch myself daily. Multiple times a day.”

      “Uhh … he should be the one pinching himself, you know that, right? Claire …” Her voice trailed off, and Claire knew what she was thinking.

      “Mel, I know - it’s the Hollywood stereotype thing, right? Hard to move past that. I want you to know that I have done a lot of soul-searching over the past week. We’ve been together in this weird lock-down situation, from morning until night, for over a week now; three meals a day together, talking late into the night, every night. If that time was spread out over the course of a regular, non-quarantine new relationship, it would probably be four to six weeks of dating and getting to know each other. We’ve literally compressed that into a week. He’s an amazing man, Melissa. Not just hot and ... uh ... you know…”

      “Yeah - I watched Clan Hearts, and if that’s anything to go by, you’re not getting much sleep.”

      “Well beyond all that, we have an amazing connection. Hard to explain. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. You’ll understand when you see us together.”

      “I’m looking forward to that! You really deserve this kind of happiness, hon.”

      “Thanks, Mel."

       They chatted for a little while longer, and ended the call with promises to stay in touch about Melissa's rescheduled visit to Seattle.

     

      Claire checked her to-do list, and was happy with the progress she was making. A few more important emails, but first she needed to text the girls and call Nonna.

      Tapping her message app, she selected the basketball pic from the previous night and texted it to the girls.

      Omg mom, u guys look so cute!

      Yah! Beth’s still shipping u guys hard, but she’s right. u kinda look like a couple

      Ur shipping them too Ella!

      C’mon girls, don’t get all silly

      How are mr. F's basketball skills?

      I had to work with him on his aiming skills. u will need to go easy on him

      No way - we’re ready to crush him

      Ella, u are too competitive. good sportsmanship above all else, remember!

       We’ll be nice, mom, don’t worry. Ella, u need to calm down

      I'll facetime u girls later - still have some emails to send. love u

 

      Claire placed a call to Nonna, who was delighted to hear from her, as usual. She was still hesitant about travel, but had ventured out to play bridge. She had thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her bridge club friends, whom she’d known for many years. Claire was relieved that Nonna sounded more upbeat and positive than she had done during their last call. She had been concerned about the effects of so much social distancing and isolation on her older friend. It would take a little more work, but she was hopeful of convincing Nonna to visit within the next couple of months.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Jamie and Claire met in the kitchen at 12:30, and quickly put together cheese and ham paninis and a salad, which they ate on the covered patio with the ceiling fan turned up high.

      Jamie was unusually subdued at lunch, and she wondered if more problems had arisen with Dougal or one of the studios. Eventually, he took her hand and looked at her with some trepidation in his eyes and a little hesitation in his demeanor.

      “Claire, I want to bounce something off you. I hope you won’t be angry.”

      “Okay,” she nodded encouragingly, a little nervous about what he was going to say. 

      “Yesterday, I mentioned to Tara that you were really worried about the girls’ exposure traveling back on a commercial plane and through busy airports and the like.”

      “Mm-hmm …” She wondered why he had shared that with Tara.

      “I asked her to put out some feelers with the studios to see who had a private jet out on the East Coast.”

      Her eyes widened as she realized where he was going with this.

      “All studios have multiple jets, and they're all over the country at all times. They fly actors and execs around all the time. If an actor gets a DUI in Miami or New Orleans or anywhere, you can bet a studio will be sending a private plane to pick him up while PR scrambles to spin it. It’s not a big deal for them.”

      “Okay?”

      “Turns out Stargate and DC Comics will both have jets in the New England area next week. I asked her to look into the DC Comics one - don’t feel comfortable asking Stargate after yesterday’s meeting.”

      She nodded, quite dumbfounded by the extent of his thoughtfulness.

      “So she got me all the details. It looks like one of the DC execs is heading out to his house in the Hamptons next week, and it’s just about an hour’s flight to Boston. The jet can pick up the girls at a small airport in Boston - there are several to choose from - and fly them home directly. The plane is a 14-seater Embraer Legacy 600 - it’s beautiful, I traveled in it earlier this year. I spent some time looking into the plane this morning - I’ll show you the website. It’s got a great safety record. The range is around 3700 miles, and Boston to Seattle is around 2500 miles, so no refueling stops. They are more than happy to bring the girls home. No other passengers will be on the flight, and they will provide an attendant, who is willing to Zoom or FaceTime with you in case you have questions or requests. Will you think about it, please, Claire? I canna imagine you having to road-trip. You are going to be in the midst of your professorship interviews and meetings.” 

      “Jamie …” she started. “I’m speechless, actually.”

      “Are you angry? I should have checked with ye first, but I didn’t want to get too excited until I knew there was a plane available.”

       “A private jet for the girls! I’m not angry, Jamie. First, I am just beyond touched by your thoughtfulness. But I have questions.”

      “Ask away, and I’ll try to answer them, or at least find the answers you need.”

      “Will it make things awkward for you in any way? Will the studios expect some sort of ‘you owe us’?”

      “Not at all. Like I said, it’s very routine for them to fly all over the county. My name is not even involved. Tara has a lot of influence in Hollywood.”

      “I can trust the girls to keep this absolutely confidential, but I’m not quite sure what I would tell Frank. He might want to know who arranged it, how it all happened, etc. And he has a right to ask. How do I explain your involvement?”

      “I’m not sure how to navigate that part. I can think a little about how the PR people would spin it. They’re great at getting information across without revealing too much, and not blatantly lying about it.”

      “Yes, I’ll have to think about it too. When do you have to confirm with Tara?”

      “By tomorrow night.”

      “Jamie, thank you so much. I am so grateful.”

       He broke into a broad smile, “I think the lasses would get a kick out of it. It’s really comfortable. They can sleep, or use the Wi-Fi, or enjoy the endless snacks and treats.”

      “Are you kidding! They will love it! You are going to be their hero.”

      “That’s not what it’s about, Claire. I’m not trying to curry favor with them. I’m concerned for their safety too.”

      “I know that, and so will they. But you’ll still be their hero.”

      “Full Fraser honesty here - a road trip there and back would take you away from me for three weeks! How do you expect me to survive without ye for that long?”

      “I don’t think I could either.” 

      He kissed her fingers and released her hand.

      “Let’s get this cleaned up, and grab our swimsuits. It’s a great day to float around the pool together.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      They spent the afternoon on the floating island, occasionally diving into the water to cool off. Both attended to a stream of emails and texts. Claire connected her iPad to the hidden blue-tooth speakers, and randomly selected a recommended playlist from Spotify. 

      Tapping her message app, she selected ’Armando’, and sent him a quick text. Something had been on her mind since the previous day, and she thought Armando might be the one to help her figure it out.

      Hey u! can u do lunch on Friday?

      He responded almost immediately.

      Of course! where are u thinking?

      University Village? i’m on campus in the morning, so it’s a quick walk, and it’s not far from ur salon.

      Sounds perfect. 1:00 work for you?

      Yes - meet outside Starbucks. also, can u share ur favorite summer playlist on Spotify, i’m not feeling the one i’m listening to right now.

      Sure, what are u doing?

      Floating around the pool

      With ....?

      Yes   

      Ok - stand by, i’ll send my playlist in a few.

 

      Around ten minutes later, she accepted his shared playlist and hit play.

      “I’m changing this mid-song,“ she warned Jamie, “my friend just shared his playlist - I needed something more upbeat.”

      “Sounds good.” Jamie reached for her hand distractedly, and kissed it before releasing it again. 

      “This is going to be one of my favorite pastimes of the summer, ye ken. Floating in the pool with you beside me - for hours and hours.”

      “I know - I could do this every afternoon too.” 

      Harry Styles’ ‘Watermelon Sugar’ wafted out of the speaker.

      Oh Armando, is that how you’re going to do this - wait until I see you on Friday!

      “Oh, this is more like it! It sounds like beach party music.”

      “You know what this song is about, right?”

      “Sweet watermelons?” he offered.

      “Google it sometime.”

 

      She tapped out an email to Uncle Lamb, filled with general news about her work, the girls’ trip to Boston, and news about her professorship ambitions. She avoided mentioning Jamie, sensing that it would be better as a phone conversation. They emailed a couple of times a month when Lamb was on an archaeological site and more frequently when he was home in Oxfordshire. Currently, he was on site in Egypt, so she knew she might not hear from him for a week or more. Lamb refused to come to grips with smartphone technology, so FaceTiming was a rarity. He considered emails quite cutting edge, and Claire indulged him.

      Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” replaced Harry Styles, and Claire suppressed a giggle. Jamie shot her a quick look:

      "Who's the friend sending you his sexy song playlist? Should I be worried? Tell me it's not Ashlee's dad."

      "Oh God, no! It's one of my dearest friends, Armando, who's also my hairstylist. You have him to thank for my choice of dress last Saturday. And no, you should not be worried. He has been happily married to a wonderful man for a good few years now."

      “In that case, I hope to meet him and thank him in person soon. What was the name of the restaurant you mentioned for tomorrow?”

      “Din Tai Fung”

      Jamie tapped on his iPad and explored the restaurant website. 

      “If it tastes as good as it looks, it’ll be an awesome lunch!”

      “It’s beyond delicious. It’s a very popular restaurant. I got us a table at 2:00.”

      “Sounds great. I see it’s right in the middle of all the Bellevue malls - I’m going to order a few things for in-store pick-up. Is that okay, babe?”

      “Of course! I might do the same - and the girls will probably want to order some clothes. We’ll get their car after that.”

      “Where are we getting the car?”

      “From Tesla in Bellevue - not the Mall, it’s at their main branch a few blocks away."

      “You got the girls a Tesla?”

      “It’s a pre-owned Model 3. Supposed to be one of the safest cars on the road - that was my biggest consideration. Also, it’s enviro-friendly and they won’t have to pay for gas. Plus, I already have the charging set-up all ready to go in the garage.”

      “Lucky lasses! Are they going to share the car happily, or will it become an issue?”

      “They know they're getting a car to share, they just don’t know it’s the Model 3, so that will be a surprise. And they’re completely okay with sharing. They might be very different in many ways, but they have mostly the same friends, and they’re both in cheer and volleyball, so driving to practice and hanging out with friends will work well.”

      “Frank’s okay with all of it too?”

      “Yes. Eventually. We went back and forth a lot. I had to handle it sensitively. He wanted to go fifty-fifty on all the expenses - a matter of pride for him. College professors don’t exactly earn the big bucks you know, and he has another family to take care of. So when I found this screaming deal on the Model 3, I jumped on it. It was less than a thousand dollars more than the other car we were looking at, and the pros out-weighed it. So he agreed. I’m not gonna lie - I was surprised he made the decision so quickly.” She chuckled wryly. “He probably just wanted to get it over with so he wouldn't have to field more phone calls from me.”

      Shakira’s distinctive warble was replaced by AC/DC’s gravelly “You Shook Me All Night Long.”  Claire could no longer suppress her reaction, and her laughter bubbled up as she looked at Jamie and shrugged, “What can I say - he has eclectic tastes.”

      “Nothing wrong with a bit of hard rock. This is a classic. But … English thighs.”

      She looked at him, puzzled.

      “Keep listening.”

 

      Jamie lay the iPad down on his chest and turned to her attentively. “I’ve avoided asking you about Frank because it made me so angry when you told me what had happened in Boston. Still does! How do you get along now? Are you co-parenting well?”

      “Well, I wouldn't call it co-parenting exactly. He's okay with me setting the terms and limits for visits and such. I let him know if they’re going out of town without me - for family weekends with their friends or on school trips, for example - and he’s always been okay with it. When the girls are with him, he’s fairly attentive, but not overly affectionate. The girls have come to accept that he's just not overly demonstrative. They always have a good time in Boston, but I think a lot of that is due to Kelly being so warm and welcoming. I have a feeling she was the one who insisted that they take the girls to Disneyland for their 12th birthday. They ended up having a wonderful time, largely because they treasure their time with the littles."

      She sighed deeply and then continued, "When they’re home, they FaceTime him weekly. He’s interested in their grades and their successes at school. But the part he misses out on is them as people - who their friends are, what movies they like, their favorite ice-cream place, the great things they do at the stables for kids with special needs, and all the other volunteering they do. He wasn't there when they won state at cheer and volleyball, he’s never seen them in the school’s drama productions; he has no clue that Beth will read Emily Bronte poetry and drown in the angst of it all, while Ella will read John Green’s books because they’re more risqué and more relevant to today’s teens. He won’t get a read on their first boyfriends, or help them through their first break-up, or take prom pictures, or go to their homecoming game - all those important milestones. Obviously, I resigned myself to that all when I left Boston years ago. But it stings that Frank doesn’t take more of an interest. He’s never asked for the videos of their cheer competitions or volleyball games. He rarely asks for pictures - I always send him pics on their birthday. It’s just who he is.”

      “Makes you wonder what he’s like with the little kids - the girls’ half siblings.” Jamie seemed fascinated by the fact that a man could be so disengaged from the lives of his own children.

      “I get the sense that Kelly really pushes him to be more involved. Frank was in a biking accident a couple of years after I moved in with Nonna. He was cycling to work and was hit by a van. Shattered his pelvis, and Kelly was his physical therapist. She’s very caring, but very no-nonsense. He must have had some sort of epiphany during the months of rehab and recovery. I can’t imagine Kelly falling for the man I knew back then. It seems to have worked for them though. I like Kelly a lot - would far rather deal with her than with Frank, to be honest.”

      “Have you thought any more about what you might tell Frank about the girls’ flight home?”

      “I’ll probably tell him you’re a well-connected neighbor and have access to people who can easily arrange flights. Are you comfortable with that?”

      “Aye. None of it is a lie. Just a wee little secret in there.”

      “I know - but I do feel a little bad about not being entirely forthcoming. I just hope he doesn’t ask the girls anything about the neighbor. I can’t expect them to lie. I’ll hold off telling all of them until the weekend.”

      “The girls really don’t know any more than what you’ll tell him. To the girls and Frank, I am no more than a neighbor with some connections, as you said. You don’t owe him more of an explanation than that.” He got a wicked little glint in his eye. “Unless you really want to share that the guy who arranged the flight is the one making love to you all night, every night. The one who can’t get enough of your kisses and who loses his mind when your hips start to move, because yours definitely don’t lie, and the one who brings out all yer wee noises when he-”

      “Yep - I get it, Fraser! You are insufferable and insatiable.” 

      “And ye love it!”

      “As much as it pains me to admit it, you are correct. I do. And now I am confiscating your iPad so we can make out like a couple of horny teens.”

      She took the iPad from his chest and rolled towards him as Selena Gomez’ ‘Come and Get It’ drifted from the speakers.

      “Oh Sassenach, I like this playlist more with each song! I’ll come and get it any time.”

      He turned towards her and kissed her thoroughly. When the song ended, and ‘Perfect’ came on, they both smiled broadly. 

      “Remind me to thank Armando - this is quite the playlist! Maybe now I’ll get to kiss you for this entire song. From start to finish.”

      He rolled onto her slowly, and did exactly that.

     

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      By the time they headed up to the house to shower and change, it was almost time to FaceTime the girls. They placed a quick DoorDash order for pizza. It seemed like the perfect meal to end a simple, but productive day.

      They sat at the island and started the FaceTime call.

      “Hi girls,” Jamie and Claire spoke at the same time, and the girls had a fit of giggles over that.

      “You guys are so synced. What’s the deal with that?”

      Claire shrugged. “You girls do that too, sometimes. How was your day?”

      “It was good, but we’re really missing you mom! This week is dragging. I just miss my mom hugs and our Starbucks outings.” Ella sounded almost tearful, which was unlike her.

      “Me too, Mom! I just want to come and watch the sunrise with you and snuggle on the terrace like we do sometimes.”

      Claire swallowed hard. Jamie’s hand reached under the counter and squeezed her knee gently. She clutched his fingers and held on tight.

      “I miss you both so much too. Just one more week. Try to keep busy and the days will fly by. Do you want me to ship you some craft supplies to work on with the littles?”

      “Sure.”

      “Okay - text me some links and I’ll order on Prime. Tomorrow, Mr. Fraser and I are going to Bellevue to pick up some things. If you want to order any clothes or stuff from Sephora, I can pick it up for you. Use your allowance money and forward me the order confirmations.”

      “Okay. Thanks, Mom.

      “Can I order something for you, Mom? Early birthday present?” Beth looked excited about spending some time doing online shopping.

      “You don’t need to do that, Beth. There’s plenty of time.”

      “Yah, but since you’re going to be there anyway, you can pick it up.”

      “Where are you ordering from?” Claire wanted to ensure they kept it to stores within the mall area.

      "Uh … I’ll have to tell you in code.” Beth sounded secretive and just a little sassy.

      "Oh! I bet I know,” Ella jumped in. “Mom, it’s very special. You know - VS. Very Special.”

      “Yes,” Beth confirmed. “VS for verrrry special. Special like my friend Victoria , who is so secretive .” 

      Jamie made a valiant effort to keep a straight face, and did remarkably well.

      “Girls,” she said in a warning tone, “text it to me first.”

      She was used to the girls sending her links to hopelessly unsuitable dresses and lingerie.  

      “And text me the links or confirmations to anything you want me to pick up tomorrow.”

      “Okay, thanks Mom.”

      “Mr. Fraser, how are the house plans coming on?”

      “Actually, I have another meeting with architects this weekend. We’re going to talk about it generally, so they have an idea of what I want, and then they’ll start planning.”

      “That sounds so exciting. And the stables?”

      “Yes - I’m giving that more thought too. It’s looking promising.”

      “Yeah! Beth and I can help to look after the horses.”

      “Ahh, you girls are the best. Thank you!”

      “Okay, babies. You go and do your online shopping and text me all the links. Love you both so much.”

      “You too.” They blew kisses as she tapped out of the call.

 

      Jamie put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “It’s getting hard for them, isn’t it? They miss their Mam. I’m dreading being away from you for just a week, and they’ve been gone several weeks already.” 

      Her phone buzzed a few times as the girls’ links came in. A few craft items from Amazon, and a photo frame - she guessed they were going to take a picture of themselves and their half siblings and gift it to Frank and Kelly. The last link was to a lace baby-doll from Victoria’s Secret.

      “I approve,” Jamie said, raising a brow and giving her his killer half smile.

      “You stay out of this - you already told me you’d approve all their suggestions, you horny Scot. I’ll text her directly and tell her no. My girls should not be buying me this stuff. Boundaries, you know?” 

 

      They headed down to the stone patio with a bottle of rosé and glasses. Dusk had already fallen, and sunlight was draped over the top of the mountain peaks. It looked beautiful, and as they settled into the Adirondack chairs with their glasses, he unconsciously reached for her hand, as he’d done every time they had spent time chatting into the night. 

      “Do you know that you always hold my hand when we sit out in the dark and talk? From the night we met.”

      “Aye. I remember that first night. When you told me about that dreadful day with Frank and his student. I was so afraid that I had upset ye by bringing up painful memories, and I felt a need to comfort ye. And it just felt right every night since then. When I was just a lad and I did something naughty or mean, my Da would sit me down and have a long talk. And he always told me that I showed all my feelings and pain on my face, and he couldn't bear it when he reprimanded me and my feelings were hurt. So he always held my hand when he scolded me. He said it was a way to stay connected and a reminder that even though he was disciplining me, he still loved me, and that hand-to-hand touch was physical proof of our unbreakable connection as father and son. And I never forgot that. I never want to stop holding yer hand when we talk, Claire. Our hands will always connect us.”

      “I hope you never stop holding my hand when we talk, Jamie. I love to feel your warm hands holding mine. They are so strong and reassuring and comforting, and yet I know how very gentle and loving and nurturing they are too. When our hands are connected, our hearts are too.”

      He leaned across and kissed her lips, touched by the emotion in her words and voice. They sat steeped in their thoughts for a moment, until Claire eventually broke the silence.

      “Can I ask about Dougal? I haven’t wanted to mention him because I know it was a stressful day for you yesterday. Is it okay to ask?”

      “Claire, you should never feel like you canna ask me something. I will always answer you honestly, and if I don’t have the answer, I’ll tell ye that honestly too.”

      She nodded thoughtfully.

      “You’re right though, it was a very stressful day, and his attack on you was by far the most distressing moment. I so badly wanted to hit him and shut him up, but I didn't want to add more violence or tension to the event - especially right in front of you, in yer home, Claire.”

      “I’m glad you maintained that control, Jamie. I was fearful that you’d lose it and hurt him.”

      “It was out of respect for you, and for my Mam, Uncle Colum and Aunt Jocasta that I kept myself in check. I Zoomed with Colum and Jocasta this morning. We all agree that it’s time for Dougal to come back to Scotland. He could work in the MacKenzie businesses - probably the distillery. He’s also a shareholder in Lallybroch Farms - a small stake - so he could focus on that too. Murtagh has some ideas on that to share with me on the drive up to The Grotto. There’s a lot to keep him busy in Scotland. We’re going to Zoom with him in a day or two and tell him that he has a month to get his affairs in order in the U.S. I’ve worked out a decent termination package with some residual income for the projects he worked on for me. He did some good work for me in the early years, Claire, and I do owe him that much.”

      “Absolutely, Jamie. I completely agree. Just because he said some awful and hateful things to me doesn't mean that I want to see him completely crushed. He put his life on hold for you and Jenny when you needed him, and you’re doing the honorable thing by him.”

      “Colum and Jocasta want to protect his pride a little and call it ‘skill-set re-alignment’, rather than a termination. So they want him to use his strengths and management experience in the family business in Scotland, rather than meddling in my life. I really don’t care what they call it, as long as he stays out of my career plans and personal life.”

      They watched as the last of the sun’s rays faded from the mountain peaks, content to sit in silence, their fingers entwined, connecting them to each other.

      “Claire, can I ask you something?”

      “Of course - you can ask me anything too, Jamie.”

      “I don’t want to bring up painful memories, so it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”

      “Jamie, we can talk about anything.”

     “Yesterday in the shower, you seemed quite stricken when I noticed yer wee scar, and I saw some pain in yer eyes that you tried to hide by changing the subject. Is it okay to talk about it?” 

     “Yes. You’re wondering why I reacted so strongly? I did try to hide my feelings - guess I didn’t do a great job of that.” 

     “I think we’ve learned to read each other verra well in a short time.”

      “We have,” she smiled, “and it amazes me that you can do that with me. I know I can be hard to read. After I had my babies, I spent six weeks with them in the hospital. During that time, the medical team took care of me too - my incision, you know. They dressed it daily and removed the stitches carefully - they were just awesome. I thought my scar looked pretty good and the team said it would heal well and the scar would start to fade nicely within a few months. I was anxious to get home with my babies, and wanted to try to make the best life for them with Frank. And I knew that we had to work on our relationship - every aspect of it.”  She paused and gathered her thoughts. “Doctors always tell new moms to wait about six weeks before resuming sex - sorry, this will be a lot of TMI!”

      “It’s okay, mo ghràidh.” His voice was gentle and reassuring, and his thumb caressed the back of her hand.

      “So by the time we went home, it was the six-week mark, and I wanted to make an effort to please Frank. A few days after getting home, I had a decent sense of the girls’ sleep routine, and I set up the scene in our bedroom to … uh … reconnect with Frank. I knew I only had a few hours while the babies slept, and I lit candles and put on some silk pajamas, and I thought he would be pretty excited. It started off well, but when he saw my scar, he … uh … completely lost … interest, if you know what I mean. He couldn’t … after that.” 

      Jamie’s thumb stopped caressing for a split second and then resumed.

     “He was so obviously turned off by my boobs, the scar - my belly wasn’t totally flat yet. And he refused to touch me sexually for months after that. When he did, the room had to be in complete darkness. And it was quick and dutiful.”

      He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it softly, not daring to speak, and clenching his jaw muscles hard.

      “Of course, back then the scar was nowhere near as faded as it is now! But when I saw that you had noticed it, I wondered if it might be a turn-off for you too.”

      “No, Claire. I told you that I find every inch of you beautiful. That was not me trying to make ye feel better. It’s the truth. You are gorgeous and beautiful and sexy - in every way. Your scar does not take away from your beauty, it enhances it. Scars tell stories, and yours tells the story of a beautiful woman with inner strength and drive and determination. An intelligent, capable woman who is also an incredible mother and nurturer.”

      “You say the most beautiful things, Jamie. Even though I felt a surge of those painful memories when I realized you were looking at my scar, you instantly made me feel accepted and appreciated. I almost cried when you kissed my scar. In the 16 years since I’ve had it, no one has ever done that. It was such a loving gesture, and I was so touched by your gentle recognition of the fact that the scar gave me my sweet girls. You made me feel that I was still desirable to you in spite of it. I appreciate so much that you made me feel that way.”

      “I want you to know that I have never felt like this about anyone. Emotionally or sexually. You ignite all my senses. I can’t imagine an event or a time when I will not desire you or yearn for you. I think of you all the time, Claire, whether you’re with me or not. Your eyes, your lips, your hair, your body, your mind, soul, heart  - all of you. And I want you beside me all the time. I don’t know how I will make it through a week without you in L.A.”

      “It’s going to be hard for me too, Jamie. I will miss waking up with you. Even with the girls here to keep me busy and distracted, I will miss you.”

      "Aye, I'm glad the girls will be back here with you." He seemed deep in thought for a moment.

      "Claire ..." he hesitated "... have you thought about the possibility of having more children?" There was a tentative, uncertain quality in his voice, almost as if he was afraid of her response.

      She was quiet for a while, and his hand tightened around hers almost imperceptibly as he waited for her answer.

      “To be honest, I haven’t really thought about it. Mostly because I haven’t had to. If you’re asking me whether I’ve ruled out the idea of having more children, the answer is no. I have not ruled it out. There’s no physical reason for me not to have children. I’m 34, and in good health. It would mean a lifestyle adjustment, but the joys of motherhood outweigh any challenges by a long, long way.”

      He listened intently and processed her answer for a moment.

      “How do you think the girls would react?”

      “I can tell you that Ella and Beth would love it - and I realize that a lot of teens would be mortified if their mom suddenly became pregnant. The girls are very aware that I’m a lot younger than their friends’ moms, and they know that children are a possibility for me if I was in the right relationship. When Kelly had Frankie and Lily, they were so excited. Of course they were younger then too, but for a while they wanted me to have a baby. Swore up and down to help me look after the baby, right down to getting up in the middle of the night.” She chuckled at the memory.

      ”What about you, Jamie? Do you see children in your future?”

      “I do Claire. I’ve always imagined having a family. I feel very deeply and strongly about raising children in a loving, safe environment. And the Hollywood bubble is not the right space to do that - not for me, anyway.”

      He had never felt more at peace about leaving the entertainment industry. Thinking about children and family validated all the difficult decisions he had made recently.

      A soft breeze whispered through the trees, immediately reminding him of some lines from an old classic rock song by the Scorpions:

                         The future's in the air,

                         I can feel it everywhere,

                         Blowing with the wind of change

      As the rustling of the leaves settled, the distant sounds of coyotes filtered through - a reminder that the night creatures were starting to emerge. Jamie stood up. 

      “Why don't we head indoors, Claire.” He held his hand out to her, helping her up with a gentle tug. 

      Holding both of her hands in his, he kissed first one, and then the other.

      “I verra much appreciate that you opened up to me about deeply personal things, mo ghràidh.”

      “That’s a new one for me, Jamie. What does it mean?”

      “It means ‘my love’.”

 





Chapter Text


      The mall was a lot quieter than either of them expected. Quarantining was still in force, and almost everyone they saw was wearing a mask. This served Jamie well, as it helped hide his identity, and with a baseball cap on in addition to his mask, he was able to move around freely without being approached by fans. Because they had eleven stores to visit between them, they decided to divide and conquer.  Jamie would pick up his purchases and Claire would pick up the girls’ things and her own packages.

      Jamie navigated the malls of the central Bellevue area with ease, quickly picking up his online purchases and loading them in the car, before texting Claire to find out where she was.

      Claire had also moved around the malls with purpose, guided by the string of email confirmations and texts that the girls had sent her.

      Where are u babe? my stuff’s in the car, can i help with yours?

      Yes please - girls bought a lot! i’m in Nordstrom, cosmetics, lower level

 

      After loading Claire's shopping bags in the car, they settled down to a delectable meal of Din Tai Fung’s signature pork xiao long bao and a selection of other superb dishes. Over lunch and a crisp sauvignon blanc, they shared some of the plans that would keep them busy over the next couple of days.

      “Tomorrow, I’m having lunch with two potentially big donors. On Friday, I have coffee with colleagues. And lunch with Armando after that.”

      “Ahhh - the playlist man. Please thank him for me.” He raised an eyebrow suggestively. “And when you remember, please share the playlist with me too. I think I’ll rename it ‘Down and Dirty’. Or maybe ‘Sexy Sassenach.’ I’ll be listening to it all the way to The Grotto.”

      He reached across the table to hold her hand, and briefly shared what he and Murtagh would be doing.

      “We’re mostly working with the transition team, outlining what Murtagh will be doing over the next six weeks. I’ll be in most of the meetings, but in some of them, I may tune out and work on other areas. Murtagh got a lot of great experience in the import/export side of things when he worked for our cousin years ago. I don’t want to be involved in that for now - Murtagh knows his stuff, and there will be people from the Washington State Wine Commission to advise him on trade and tariffs. He will give me an executive summary when necessary. I want to focus on building a strong team around me.”

      “That makes really good sense. You can’t be involved in every area. Find the best people you can to run the major disciplines and areas. Headhunt, if necessary. I can put you in touch with some good headhunters who will find you a few people to augment the existing management structure.”

      He nodded thoughtfully. They made such a great team in ways that went beyond their emotional and physical connection. He was new to the American business arena, and she had so much theoretical expertise and a broad network of business leaders to call upon. Her opinions and guidance were becoming more and more important to him as he plotted out his future.

      “Lunch is on me today.” Claire handed the server her card, and he looked awkwardly from Jamie to Claire. 

      “Uh … your husband gave me his card earlier, and I already entered it.”

      They looked at each other awkwardly, and Claire jumped in to ease the tension.

      “Okay! Thanks … hubby! Next one will be on me.”

      “Oh, it’s my pleasure, wifey.”

      They smiled at each other, and Jamie continued to play with her hand while they waited for the server to bring the receipt and their packaged leftovers.

      “Thanks for bringing me here. It was outstanding - we must come back. Maybe with the girls? I wonder if they have a Din Tai Fung in L.A.?”

      “I’m not sure, but I imagine they have one in most big cities.”

      Jamie flipped the menu over and looked at the list of locations. “Most of their locations are on the West Coast - and there’s one in Century City. I’ll go there next week - it’ll remind me of you.”

      “I’m surprised they don’t have one in New York or London!”

      “Those your favorite cities?”

      “Definitely in my top five favorite cities.”

      “What are the others?”

      "Rome, Hong Kong, Berlin.”

      “What?” He looked surprised. “I thought for sure Paris would be in the top five.”

      “Believe it or not, I’ve never been to Paris. It’s near the top of my bucket list. After the Ultimate Sassenach Highlands Tour.”

      Jamie seemed shocked. He was silent for a moment, so engrossed in his thoughts that he didn't react to her Highlands tour joke.

      “Claire, I’d like to take you to Paris for your birthday. I know it's four months away, and you don’t have to answer me right away, but will you at least think about it? For an extended weekend - maybe four or five days?”

      “Yes! Yes! I don’t need to think about it. There’s no one I’d rather discover Paris with, Jamie.”

      He broke into a broad smile, and kissed the back of her hand.

      The server arrived, and they wrapped up their Paris discussion, promising to talk about it at a later time.

     

      Jamie drove Claire’s car home from the dealership, while she drove the girls’ Model 3. She backed it into the garage, and placed a huge magnetic bow on top - ready to surprise them when they arrived home in a week’s time. Jamie reminded her to video their reaction and send it to him.

      “It’ll be loud and there’ll be shrieks of joy,” Claire warned him.

      “It’ll be fantastic - I canna wait to see their reactions.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Fearful of slipping up and inadvertently revealing the surprise car for the girls, Jamie and Claire kept their FaceTime with them short and sweet. The girls sounded a little more upbeat, and it seemed that Kelly was keeping them busy with chores like reorganizing the pantry and sorting out the kids’ bookshelves.

      After enjoying a light dinner, they were ready to unwind and have their nightly conversation outdoors. It had been a busier day than usual. Both had started the day with a workout - a run and weight training for Jamie, and yoga and step machine for Claire. And between a few work-related tasks, the in-store shopping pick-ups, lunch, and a new car, they hadn’t spent the day as wrapped up in each other as they’d hoped.

      Claire finished loading the dishwasher while Jamie put some things back in the fridge. He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. She leaned back against him, and folded her arms over his.

      “How does the hot tub sound tonight? Are you in need of a sanity hour?”

      “I’m in need of a Jamie and Claire hour - it feels like the day just ran away from us, and you leave tomorrow morning.”

      “Mmmmm.” His low deep rumble went right to her core. “Jamie and Claire hour sounds so good right now.”

      “Let’s get our swimsuits.” 

      “Whisky or wine tonight?”

      “Whisky.”

      “I’ll bring the bottle and glasses. Meet you down there in a few.”

      Claire was already waiting for him in the hot tub, water bubbling around her. He poured them each a generous shot of whisky, tossed his robe over the rack, and eased himself into the water. He slid across to sit next to her, and handed her a glass. They tapped glasses and he toasted.

      “To surviving two whole days without you, mo ghràidh.”

      “To Saturday morning,” she responded. 

      They spent well over an hour entwined in each other in the warm, soothing water. Talking, kissing, caressing - drinking each other in.  The awkwardness of accidentally tangled limbs was long gone, and they reveled in touching and holding each other in the sensual environment that the steamy, bubbly water provided. Jamie dragged Claire onto him and they lay locked in a watery embrace, kissing with a combination of gentleness and passion, knowing that the intensity of what they were feeling would have to carry them through two long days without each other.

      “Jamie, I think it’s time for bed.”

      “To bed, babe, or to sleep?”

      In response, she untangled herself from him, emerged slowly from the water and stepped out of the tub. Standing on the stone surround, she locked eyes with him and slid her bikini bottoms slowly and deliberately down her legs. She stepped out of them and turned away from him to step down onto the lawn. He was almost frozen, watching her slow seductive movements and waiting in breathless anticipation for the next move. Turning to face him again, she unfastened her bikini top, letting it fall to the ground too. 

      “Christ, Claire.” He finished his whisky in one gulp and stepped out of the tub. 

      Before he could wrap her in her robe, she took it from the rack, slid her finger through the hanging loop, and walked slowly away from him, dragging the robe on the ground behind her.

      She turned to look at him over her shoulder. He was several steps behind her, taking it all in. Her naked body, the sultry sway of her hips, her bare breasts, and her blatant desire for him all conspired to make him crave her with a ferocity that rocked him.

      “To answer your question, there won’t be much sleep tonight, Fraser.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Claire awoke early to Jamie’s deliciously gentle kisses. She moaned sleepily under him, still feeling the effects of a long and energetic night of whisky-fueled love-making. 

      “Sorry to wake you.” He was scattering kisses all over her face and neck, and his hand was between her thighs.

      “Don’t apologize,” she replied sleepily, ”you can wake me up like this any time. Lazy morning sex with you is the best way to wake up.” 

      “I’m always ready to execute on that,” he murmured, his voice low and husky against her throat, as he lavished kisses on her breasts, up her neck and back to her face. He plied her lips with soft, sensual kisses that made her ache for more. And despite their extended night of pleasure, both were very ready to engage in more erotic pleasure and enjoy more intimacy for as long as possible before Jamie had to leave. 

      She placed a hand on his face and he paused to look at her. “I need gentle Jamie this morning. I want to look into your eyes.”

      He leaned in for a long soulful kiss, rolling off her slightly so that they lay face to face, arms wrapped around each other, eyes locked together. Hands and fingers explored gently, caressing and grazing and holding, wanting to prolong every moment, but knowing that their time was limited. He slowly pulled her leg up over his hip and eased himself gently inside her. They lay there for a few moments, enjoying the quiet union of their bodies. His lips found hers in a deep, searching kiss as he started to rock her with his strong, gentle hand on her hip. It was slow and deep and tender. The intimacy of looking into his eyes and kissing him as he slowly made love to her was unlike anything she had ever experienced. Their bodies moved together until waves of bliss enveloped them both, leaving them breathless and sated and wrapped in each other’s arms.

 

      An hour later, they had showered and dressed, and Jamie quickly packed his bag for his trip. He insisted on borrowing the business journals with her published articles so he could read them over the next couple of days. Her app pinged, announcing Murtagh's arrival on the driveway, and she walked Jamie to the front door. Murtagh bounded up the steps to help with Jamie’s bags, and wrapped Claire in a tight hug.

      “You’ll have him back by Saturday morning. I’ll see you in about six weeks. Unless you swing by the winery for a quick visit?”

      “That sounds like a great idea - I might do that with the girls. There’s lots for them to do up there. Hiking, swimming, boating. I’ll let you know, Murtagh.”

      There was an awkward pause and silence, and Jamie gave Murtagh a quick eyebrow raise.

      “I’ll put this in the trunk.” Murtagh said quickly, picking up Jamie’s roll-on. He winked at Claire as he headed out the front door.

      Jamie took Claire's face in his hands and twined his hands in her still-damp curls. They kissed deeply and held each other for as long as they could - aware that Murtagh was waiting in the car. 

      “See you in two days, mo chridhe.”

 

      She closed the door behind him and headed to the kitchen for coffee. Her phone buzzed in her pocket - a text from Jamie. He must have forgotten something. She tapped her messages app to read the text. 

      Miss u 😘

      Omg - have u even left the neighborhood yet?

      No

      U are silly. but i miss u too. so quiet in here.

      R u saying i’m noisy?

      Maybe

      I’ll call u later babe 😚 

 

     Murtagh drove the beautifully scenic I90 route to The Grotto so that Jamie could read Claire's business articles and work on his phone. The winding interstate was carved into a valley between soaring peaks, completely blanketed in towering, majestic conifers. Traffic was light and it would take a little over 2 hours to get there. They stopped for a drive-thru latte at Starbucks and chatted amiably along the way.

      "What are you reading, Jamie?"

      "Some of Claire's published articles. She's been published nine times in industry and business journals."

      "That's impressive. She's a smart lass fer sure - ye can tell that right away."

      "Her accomplishments are ridiculous for someone her age."

       Murtagh slid a look at Jamie, a little amused at his obvious pride in Claire and her achievements. Whatever was going on between the two was clearly deeper than he'd been giving them credit for.

      “How did things go with Claire on Monday night after Dougal made an arse of himself?”

      “It was tough, Murtagh. I did what I could to reassure her, but he said some ugly stuff.”

      “He’s obsessed with Hollywood and the celebrity lifestyle. We knew that. We should have anticipated that he would react badly to you backing out of the movie world.”

      “We did - we just didn’t anticipate the extent of it. Everyone else - even Tara, who benefits more than Dougal from my movie career - is supporting my move. I thought that as my uncle, he would put my well-being above his own need for the glamorous life.”

      “Did you ever sit down with him and tell him how you feel, and why you’re doing this?”

      “No. I’m so used to him being a control freak, I've been avoiding that. I'll get together with him in L.A. next week and we'll have a face-to-face talk. It's long overdue, and I think I owe him a chance to explain what he's thinking and feeling.”

      "That's a braw idea, Jamie. He'll appreciate it."

      "It might just end up in another argument."

      “Maybe. His drinking doesn’t help either. I want to bounce some ideas off ye for his future. There are a few options for him to consider now that he is not managing you. The first is to get back into McKenzie Industries - probably in the distillery. Although at the rate he’s going, there might be nothing left to bottle after they let him loose. Another option is to have him do some crossover promotion work for The Grotto and Lallybroch. Colum tells me they’re targeting their tourism business as an area of major growth. Here’s a crazy idea that might interest Dougal - and it’s something that he could do with the blessing of Stargate - maybe even get their endorsement. An official Clan Hearts tour. There is still a massive following for the show and huge interest in Scotland generally. No one has put together a tour that covers all the castles and towns in the Highlands that are mentioned in the show. MacKenzie would build period-style stone B&Bs near the castles and locations that don’t have any - guaranteed occupancy.  It’s just the kernel of an idea right now, but I think it’s something Dougal could get his teeth into and he could make it a success. He could build a whole team around all the different facets of that in no time. He’s great at managing and delegating.”

      “That sounds like an excellent idea, Murtagh - he would be great at the official tour idea. Thank you for working on all of that. Dougal is family, and I want him to feel that he’s still needed and still making a valid contribution. These ideas should appeal to him.”

      Jamie took his AirPods out of his pocket. “Murtagh, I don’t mean to be rude here - I’ll put one pod in, and I’ll leave one out so I can still hear ye. I need to find a song for Claire.”

      “What song?”

      “I don’t know yet, but I’ll know when I find it.”

      “Is it for a playlist or a party or something?”

      “No, it’s musical poetry.”

      “God, you’re your father’s son, aren’t ye?”

      “Nothing wrong with letting her know that I’m thinking of her while I’m away.”

      “You’ve got it bad, haven't ye? You’ve only been gone an hour, ye numpty!”

 

      Claire was taming her curls into loose waves ahead of her lunch appointment when her phone buzzed. It was Jamie.

      Babe, tap this link as soon as you have a moment

      What is it?

      Musical poetry for you 😘

      She tapped the link, and YouTube opened on a John Legend song.

      John Legend has a song called “Conversations in the Dark?”

      Crazy, right? i just found it - i think he wrote it for us. my fav line: 'I can sleep forever next to you’

      I can’t believe u found this ❤️ going to play it now while i get ready for my lunch appointment. thank u for your sweetness

      She tapped play and listened as John Legend’s soulful voice and heartfelt lyrics filled the space around her. So much of the song rang true, and she loved that he had taken the time to find it.

      She sent him a quick text.

      I love the song! thank u  ❤️❤️  will call u after my lunch appointment

 

      “Did ye find the right song, and does she think ye’ve lost yer marbles?” Murtagh shook his head. Jamie was so like his father. Brian was a hopeless romantic, and he and Ellen had loved each other with a fierceness and passion that Murtagh had never seen before … or since.

      “Aye, I did, and she loved my song choice.”

      “She’s in as deep as you are! The pair of ye are ridiculous.” Murtagh sounded gruff and dismissive, but deep down, he could sense a change in Jamie, and it was a change that he heartily approved of. He wanted his godson to be happy and to feel fulfilled. He had been beside himself with worry when Jamie was on the brink of a breakdown after the Natalie debacle. Seeing him happy again warmed Murtagh's heart. He worried a little about the fact that Claire had two teenage daughters - what if they didn’t like Jamie? Or didn’t approve of their Mam dating him?

      “When will you meet her daughters?”

      “When I get back from L.A. next Saturday. But I FaceTime them with Claire most nights. They’re fantastic lasses, Murtagh. You’d approve. They have great manners, they are kind, and so, so funny!”

      “They think ye’re just a guest in the house. If they knew you and Claire were … involved, they might not like that so much.”

      “To be honest, they seem to like me fine, but we’ll see how it goes when we meet in person. I’m very fond of them already, so I really hope it goes well.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Claire’s lunch had gone really well. The donors were representatives from two Amazon subsidiaries, and both were interested in some of the research studies that Claire had conducted with their head office in Seattle. They wanted to maintain a relationship with her as they refined their corporate communications strategies, with a strong emphasis on social responsibility initiatives. In return they would be approaching Fulton about making some significant donations. 

      En route home, she opted for a soft rock radio station as she mentally reviewed parts of her lunch discussions. She was excited to share her news with Jamie. She knew he’d be happy about the donations. An old Savage Garden song came on the radio and she found herself riveted by the lyrics and melody, and the hauntingly beautiful voice of the singer.  

      You need to send a song back to Jamie - but it has to be the right one. This one sounds promising.

      She asked Siri to Shazam the song so she could look into it later.

      Once home, she checked a few more items off her list. She zoomed with three students on her summer program, and fired off a few thank you emails before sending Jamie a quick text.

      How’s ur day going? missing u so much

      Still in meeting. miss you babe. more than you can imagine. 😔  

      Meetings going okay?

      Yes, just a lot of them. how was lunch meeting?

      Really good. they’re ready to donate

      Yassss! happy to hear that

      Thanks - we can talk later 😘

      Will call u ASAP. did i tell u i miss u?

 

      It was almost 5:00 p.m. when she decided to shut down her laptop and pull on a swimsuit. Her plan was to swim some laps and then round off her day in the hot tub. She was in her closet, adjusting the clasp of her swimsuit when a FaceTime call came in from Jamie. She propped her phone up on a shelf and fumbled with her swimsuit strap.

      “Is that going on or coming off?” Jamie asked, eyeing her swimsuit appreciatively.

      “Going on - but I’ll let you watch when it comes off later, if you’re out of your meeting.”

      “Sassenach, don’t make promises-”

      “Oh, I fully intend to keep it,” she interjected. “How’s your day going?”

      “Good so far. Back-to-back meetings, and we’re about to have dinner with the transition team, but I had to see you quickly before I do that. Your lunch went well, huh?”

      “Yes - two Amazon subsidiaries. They both need help with corporate comms, and they both plan to make decent donations.”

      “That’s awesome news! You’re killing this, Claire. I'm so proud.”

      “Thank you. Are you in a suite or regular room? It looks great!”

      “I asked for a regular room - I want to experience all the different levels of accommodation in the resort. Want to see and feel what the guests do. They’re really nice rooms.”

      “Yes, they are. Go get dinner - we’ll chat again later.”

      “Okay. I won’t call too late. I’m wiped - didn’t get much sleep last night. I’m not complaining, mind you.”

      “Mmmm,” she smiled, “I’ll probably have an early night. Call me when you’re ready to say goodnight.”

      She touched her fingers to her lips and waved them at him, tapping out of the call to his smile.

 

      Her iPad was in the kitchen, and she preferred the bigger screen when she FaceTimed, so she headed downstairs to make herself a salad and FaceTime with the girls.

      “Hi, Mom!” They spoke in unison. 

      “Hi girls! You doing okay today?”

      “Yah - a little better. But we still miss you.” Claire was pleased to note that Ella sounded less distressed than the previous few days.

      “Some of the craft stuff arrived, so we worked on projects with Frankie and Lily.”

      “When will Mr. Fraser be back?”

      “Saturday morning,” Claire replied.

      “Do you miss him?”

      “Well, it’s kind of quiet with him gone.”

      “That’s not what I asked,” Ella pointed out. “I asked if you missed him.”

      “Ella!” Beth sounded annoyed. “Of course she does, I can tell.”

      “Do you, mom?” Ella was insistent, and that surprised her, because Beth was usually the one who got dreamy-eyed and mushy about Claire’s dating life - or lack thereof. 

      “I do miss him somewhat - we’ve become good friends over the past week-and-a-half.”

      The girls looked at each other and Claire knew they were communicating in that special way that only twins can.

      “Mom, how’s your thing going at work?” Beth, wise and sensitive beyond her years, changed the subject to ease the tension.

      “The professorship? It’s going well, actually. I’ve had a few good meetings recently - and a great lunch meeting today. It’s looking promising.”

      “Whoa, Mom, that’s awesome!” Ella sounded proud and impressed all at once.

      “What are you doing tomorrow, since Mr. Fraser isn’t around? Do you have things to keep busy with?” Beth was going all 'mom' on her and Claire had to suppress a chuckle. 

      “I’m having lunch with Armando tomorrow. Do you girls want me to schedule an appointment for you?”

      “Yes, please!” They both nodded enthusiastically. 

      “Okay - I’ll set that up for next week when you’re back. I’m going to go swim some laps now. I’ll FaceTime you tomorrow.”

      “Ok, Mom. Love you!” 

      “Mom,” Ella wanted to squeeze in one more thing before tapping out, “I bet Mr. Fraser misses you too.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Claire felt a little more energized after twenty minutes of swimming laps, but a few minutes in the hot tub had her feeling relaxed and almost sleepy again. At this rate, she would be asleep by 9:00, and she didn't want to miss Jamie’s goodnight call. She cut the hot tub session short, and headed back to the house, stopping to pick up last night’s discarded bikini - a sweet reminder of the passionate night they had shared.

      She curled up on the sofa in the family room and tried to read her ebook for over an hour. Her thoughts kept drifting to Jamie, and she finally gave up on the ebook and pulled up the song she Shazam’ed earlier. She listened intently and thoughtfully analyzed the lyrics as she did so. It conveyed so much of what she wanted Jamie to know. She found it hard to express her feelings in the animated, honest and enthusiastic way that Jamie did. She had opened up to him a little more over the past couple of days, but she still felt that it wasn’t enough to convince him of the depth of her feelings for him. The way he expressed himself to her was pure poetry - whether it was a song lyric, a series of emojis embedded in a text, or just candidly expressing his intense feelings for her. She pondered the irony of his skill at communicating his heart in the most beautiful and profound ways, and she - an expert in communications - found she had to work hard at being more open, creative, and expressive.

      She tapped her messages app.

      Dinner over yet?

      Just wrapping up now

      Do you have your earbuds?

      Yes. why?

      I’m sending you musical poetry. listen on the way back to your room.

      Babe! 😍 you’re sending me musical poetry?

      Yes! I found an awesome one - listen carefully. ‘I Knew I Loved You’ by Savage Garden. Link below.

      What’s your fav line?

      She started typing ‘I am complete now that I found you’, and then wondered if it was too much. She deleted it and tapped some more.

      I love all the lines! do i have to pick?

      Yes

      'And in your eyes I see the missing pieces I’m searching for’ 😍

      She saw the three dots bounce as he read the lyrics, and then no activity while he listened to the song. The silence from his end dragged on longer than she expected, and she wondered if he may have decided to go to bed. He'd had an exhausting day filled with meetings, and they both needed a solid night’s sleep to function well the next day. After locking up downstairs, she headed up to her room, slipped her swimsuit off and pulled on her lounge pants and a soft tee.

      Jamie FaceTimed as she stepped out of her closet.

      “Claire, I don’t even have the words to tell you how I feel about your song. I had to listen to it twice.”

      “Sometimes it’s hard for me to open up, but when I heard this one, it captured so much of what I feel … for you.”  She sounded a little hesitant - shy, almost.

      “I know it’s harder for you, mo ghràidh. That’s why I am so blown away by you sending me the song. I canna lie, it got me a little choked up.”

      “Jamie …” Her heart squeezed a little at that - she resolved again to be as open and sincere with him as he was with her. “Are you about ready for bed?”

      “Yes, you’re already in pajamas?”

      “Sorry - I know I promised …”

      “It’s okay. For tonight, I'll just close my eyes and fall asleep listening to your song.”

      “Okay. Sleep well, Jamie. Sweet dreams.”

      “Goodnight, mo chridhe”

      “Goodnight, my love.”

      She tapped out of the call. Instantly, there was a text from Jamie.

      You called me “my love”

      I did    

 

 



Chapter Text

 


 

      She had fallen asleep almost as soon as her head touched her pillow, but the moment she awoke, her head was filled with thoughts of Jamie. Did he sleep well? Did he dream of her? Had he listened to the song she sent him again? Was he awake yet?

      Her phone buzzed.

 

      I’m not going to survive a week without u 😞

      I miss u too ❤️

 

      He switched to FaceTime.

      “Good morning, beautiful.”

      “Hey, handsome.”  

      “You look gorgeous lying there with your curls all over the place. If I was there right now …”

      “If you were here right now, these curls would be somewhere near your belly button.”

      “Babe - you’re going to get me all worked up here.”

      “I can’t wait for you to get home tomorrow.”

      “Did you sleep okay?”

      “Yes - flat out as soon as I hit the bed. You?”

      “God, yes! It was a good deep sleep though. I woke up early to work out and watch the sunrise. It was stunning, Claire. I watched from the cliff-top as the sun rose over the gorge. Of course it wasn’t the same without you - snuggling under our blanket, ye ken - but it was spectacular nonetheless. I can’t wait to share a sunrise with you here.”

      “Ohhhh, I can just imagine. Sunrise has always been my favorite time of the day and I can't wait to enjoy some with you at the winery. What a great start to your day.”

      “Aye, I’m ready to face all my meetings today. I wanted to give you a heads-up that it’s going to be a late night for me. Dinner’s at around 7:00, but earlier this week, the transition team pulled together a small night harvest crew to demo what that looks like for Murtagh. They want me to go too. We’ll go deep into the vineyards as the crew recreates what it’s like when they do the night-time grape picking. It’s a good few weeks early for harvesting, so it took some doing for them to pull this together, and I don’t want to disappoint them. But if you prefer that I stay behind so we can FaceTime tonight, I’m okay doing that too.”

      “No way, Jamie. They’ve gone to all the trouble to arrange that, you should go with Murtagh. Where are the vineyards?”

      “In Yakima - about an hour away.”

      “Oh, it’s going to be a very late night for you.”

      “It’s okay. Gives me a chance to see what sort of conditions the laborers work under during the harvest. I won’t get a complete picture, but it will be good to get a general idea of how it all happens.”

      “Sounds like a good thing to do - it also shows your team that you’re willing to muck in and get involved at ground level. That’s important. Okay, I’m going for a run and then I’ll get ready for my day. I’ll text you throughout the day and keep you updated.”

      “I’ll do the same. Enjoy your run - don’t overdo it.”

      She touched her fingers to her lips, waved them at him, and tapped out.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      She took extra care with her hair, curling it into softer, natural looking waves. Pulling on navy slim-fit pants and an ivory sleeveless top, knotted at the waist, she looked professional and cool. Her navy block-heeled Camutos completed the look.

      The meeting went very much as she’d hoped. Her colleagues were helpful and posed some tough questions to help prepare her for the big panel interview that was looming. They had been through the process themselves, and knew the areas she should focus on. Claire felt that they genuinely had her best interests at heart, and the pointers they gave her would be invaluable as she fine-tuned her preparation for the panel.

      At the end of the meeting, Tonya Markowitz, an admin intern who was one of Claire’s protégés, asked if she could walk Claire back to her office. Tonya was a 2nd year MBA student who had been an intern in several of Claire’s research projects. She had already been approached and offered jobs by Costco and Amazon, and she was particularly loyal to Claire for opening up opportunities for her. During quarantine, Fulton had retained Tonya as an admin intern, and she now helped several professors and associates with filing, paperwork, and a host of random office tasks. She had attended today’s meeting because one of the professors advising Claire had asked her to bring in a stack of research paperwork.

      “How has the internship been going?” Claire asked as they started the 20-minute walk back to Claire’s office. 

      “It’s been a little quiet, but it’ll probably start ramping up as we get closer to August. Do you have anything I can help you with?”

      “I’ve been working on curriculum for my electives and I'd love it if you could find the time to read through parts of it and tell me what you think.”

      “Just send it my way.”

      Claire sensed that Tonya had something she wanted to talk about, but she didn't want to put her on the spot by asking outright, so she took a broad approach.

      “What interesting things have you been working on, Tonya?”

      “Strictly between you and me, Dr. B, I just finished re-classifying your preliminary research and feasibility studies for the future MS Communications program from ’Pending’ to ‘Dormant’.”

      She knew that would come as a shock to Claire - all her hard work over months and months of researching and writing proposals and submitting reports; and without even notifying Claire, the higher-ups had decided to shelve the degree program indefinitely.

      Claire stopped walking and looked at Tonya in shock. She had so many questions, and she knew she had to tread carefully so as not to compromise Tonya or herself.

      She resumed walking and said casually: “Hmmm, I wonder why they would do that?”

      “The official word is that they want to boost enrollment in the MBA, and a new degree will muddy the waters. International enrollment is down because of the pandemic. So the talk is that they want you to focus on the professorship and build up the department you’ll be heading in the MBA program without distractions. They’re predicting that a better communications component under your professorship will strengthen the MBA and make it more attractive to prospective students. So I guess the good news there is that they’re talking as if you already have the professorship in the bag.”

      “And the unofficial word?”

      “Not sure.”

      They passed an entire building before Tonya spoke again.

      “I just get the feeling that it’s a sexist thing rearing its ugly head again. Almost as though they think you can’t focus on two work-related things at once. I mean, why wouldn't you be able to run a great communications component in the MBA, while still doing some work on the MS Comms? And when they take that decision away from you, they don’t bother to tell you in case you have a ‘hissy fit’. Those words are a direct quote. That’s why I feel it’s a sexist thing - they would never say that about a male worker!”

      They reached Claire’s building, and she turned to thank Tonya.

      “Thank you Tonya. I always appreciate our personal heart-to-heart chats.”

      Tonya’s eyes were filled with regret and sadness.

      “Dr. B, you work so hard. It’s so disappointing that …” she trailed off, eyes filling with tears. 

      “Tonya, you have to trust me when I tell you that it will all work out okay. Gather your thoughts and go finish your duties. I’ll be in touch about the curriculum that I’d like you to look over for me. And … thank you!”

 

      Back in her office, Claire untangled her thoughts. Her knee-jerk reaction on hearing about the MS Comms program was shock and disappointment. She mulled over Tonya’s assertion that the ‘official’ reason was to keep her focus strongly on the MBA component to enhance the overall quality of the MBA and boost enrollment. It was enormously offensive - and borderline unethical - that they took the decision to shelve it without consulting her. She had to admit that there was a sense of relief that they hadn’t completely terminated the project. She really smarted at the idea that the term ‘hissy fit’ entered the discussions at some point.

      Rather than try and overthink it all now, she spent some time working on her online summer course until it was time to walk over to University Village to meet Armando.

      During the short walk, she texted Jamie.

      Hey - still missing me?❤️

      More than you know babe …🥰😘

      Missing u too

      Would u be willing to come with me to a meeting with the architects tomorrow - late morning?

      They're open on a Saturday?

      Yeah, they know I want to fast-track the house project and agreed to meet on the weekend 

      Of course I’ll come with u - what are we meeting about?

      They just emailed to say they have some preliminary floor plans - i’d love your opinion

      No problem

      Thank u. how was ur meeting?   

      Some interesting developments - i’ll tell u later

 

      There was no response for a moment, and then a call came through from him.

      “Claire, I stepped outside of my meeting. Everything okay? What developments?”

      “You stepped out of the meeting to check on me and my meeting?”

      “Of course! ‘Interesting developments’ is either great or not so great. Either way, I want to know.”

      “Professorship is apparently still on track, but they reclassified all my work on the MS Communications from pending to dormant. Disappointing, but on the plus side, they didn't terminate or cancel it outright.”

      “Oh, Claire, I’m so sorry. Why would they do that? You worked so hard on it.”

      “We can talk about it when you’re back. I’m pushing it out of my head for now. Lots of positive things to think about instead. Lunch with a good friend. You’re back tomorrow. Girls are back next week.”

      “I love your attitude. Wish I was there to hold ye and kiss ye.”

      “Your call means everything, Jamie. Thank you for caring. And for supporting me.”

      “I’ll call or text again later - enjoy lunch with Armando.”

 

      She was five minutes early, but Armando was already waiting outside Starbucks, dressed all in black, apart from a sparkly purple face mask.

      “Girl, you look like you mean business today.” He folded her in his bear hug, and stroked her soft curls. “You did a great job on your hair - it looks fabulous.”

      “Thanks, Mando. You look gorgeous as always - love the mask.”

      “Gift from a client - she made it for me, so I figured I have to wear it some time.”

      He took her by the hand and they made their way through the maze of parking areas, walkways, and stores to Piatti, one of her favorite Italian restaurants.

      They ordered a bottle of chianti and a focaccia bread to share, and Armando dived right in with questions.

      “I need to know what’s happening, girlfriend. Tell me you are waking up next to that delicious man every morning!”

      “Well … I have been, but he is out of town for two days. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

      “Ugh - bummer. But before he left - things were going good, right?"

      “Yes! It’s been going so well, Mando. He’s … hard to describe. He’s wonderful. Oh, and by the way, he wants me to thank you for the playlist.”

      “Squeeee! What? He liked it?”

      ”Armando, every song was about sex and seduction. Yes, he liked it!”

      “Did you like it?”

      “Yes! I got such a kick out of it. And a very long and sexy make-out session.”

      “TMI! TMI!” Armando held his hands up in mock horror.

      “What are you talking about - you’re the one who always wants the details!”

      They bantered back and forth through a lunch of ravioli for Claire and rigatoni for Armando. They picked from each other’s plates occasionally, and laughed uproariously at some of Armando’s tales of disastrous hair capers - his own, not his clients’.

      “My worst was when I was living in L.A. and doing hair for ‘Hunger Games’. I thought I’d look good with a really tight perm, but I got caught up in watching something on YouTube and left the solution on too long, and my hair broke off in chunks. OMG! It was hideous. I looked like something out of a zombie apocalypse. Jennifer Lawrence walked into hair and makeup the next morning, and said “He’s not touching my hair.” It was mortifying. I had to wear a beanie for about 3 months, until I could actually do something with it again.”

      “That’s hilarious! I can’t imagine you in a beanie. Do you miss the Hollywood scene?”

      “Hell, no! I’ve been out of it for 7 years, and I wouldn’t want to go back.”

      “Do you still have a lot of friends in the game?”

      “Oh yeah. I have three friends who visit me here often, and I hang out with them when I go back and visit. They keep me updated on all the scoop. Everyone treats their hair and makeup sessions like they’re free therapy. Those celebs just unload on their stylists and MUAs - that’s makeup artists. It’s cray-cray!”

      “Hmmm. So if I had a question about a particular actress, you could probably get me some scoop?”

      Armando's eyes narrowed and he looked at her thoughtfully.

      “Claire - when we were getting ready for your date night last Saturday, I asked you to take care of your heart.”

      “I am, Mando. It’s not Jamie I’m worried about, it’s one of his co-stars. She has quite the reputation in the tabloids and on social media.”

      “Who?”

      “Anja Baranov.”

      “Oh, God!” He rolled his eyes dramatically. “Here’s what I know about her - she tries to get her hooks in every co-star, director, and producer that she’s associated with. Whoever will advance her career. She’s ruthless. But why are you even worried about her - she hasn’t done a movie with Jamie, and she’s been dating Bradley Cooper for like two years.“

      “Actually, she made a movie with Jamie last year. It’s in post-production, but will be released soon. They shot it here in Seattle. Jamie was on set in Washington for several months - that’s what drew him to the Eastside. The green and the mountains remind him of Scotland. I googled Anja, and there was a lot about her and Bradley Cooper, but I thought I’d check and see what else you know. She’s been liking and commenting on a lot of Jamie’s Instagram and Twitter posts.”

      “Let me send a quick text.”  He tapped back and forth on his phone for a minute.

      “Ok, I asked my hairstylist friend, Gemma, what she knows about Anja. She knows the MUA from her last movie. She’s calling the MUA and will get back to me.”

      They continued to enjoy a relaxed lunch together. Claire insisted on only one glass of wine, as she had to drive all the way home to Snoqualmie, so Armando re-corked the bottle to take with him.  

      "Tony and I will enjoy this on our front porch tonight while we watch all the runners go by. And dog-walkers. And stroller-pushers. My God! We've become so boring during quarantine!"

      “Hang in there. It can't go on forever! The girls want to come and get their hair done next week. I’ll call you to schedule.”

      “Bring them in on Thursday, I kept my morning clear but I’d like nothing more than to hang with you and the twins. Come at 9:30.”

      “Thank you, Mando!”

      Claire settled the bill, and they headed out of the restaurant.

      Armando’s phone buzzed. “It’s Gemma - maybe she’s got Anja scoop. Hold on.” 

 

      “Gemma, what you got?”

      He listened intently, and gasped slightly, placing a manicured hand on Claire's arm.

      “Nuh-uh, how come it’s not all over social media?”

      He listened some more, making big dramatic eyes at Claire.

      “Ok, thanks Gem! I’ll call you soon. Mwah!”

 

      “So the MUA told Gemma that Bradley Cooper dumped Anja a couple of weeks ago. Cooper's been hanging out with Jennifer Garner, Ben Affleck’s ex.”

      Claire’s heart dropped slightly. So Anja was now available. And keen to snag a man, no doubt.

      “There’s been nothing in the tabloids or social media.”

      "Gemma thinks the PR people will put out a statement soon - the usual crap: ’After much soul-searching they’ve decided to go their separate ways. They remain great friends and appreciate some privacy.’ You know - typical PR spin.”

      Claire nodded.

      “The MUA also said that one of the TMZ reporters is obsessed with Anja, and she gives him a ton of exclusives, so maybe they’re just waiting for the right time to break the news - on Anja’s terms. Either way, I wouldn't worry about it. She’s a straight-up skank.”

      “I’m not going to worry about it, Mando. I know Jamie’s heart. It’s good to know all this info, though.”

      They hugged goodbye, and Claire headed back home.

 

      She was home by 3:30 p.m., and after the eventful day, she was looking forward to unwinding on the stone patio, where she could relax in the reclining chair and read her ebook, 'The Book of Longings'. She so badly wanted to call Jamie and hear his deep gravelly voice telling her the sweetest things, but she didn’t want to disrupt his focus during his last few meetings.

      An unexpected FaceTime call came in from the girls.

      “Hi girls, is everything okay?”

      “Yes, we wanted to talk earlier tonight because we’re going to a drive-in movie theater. It’s the only one open around here during quarantine.”

      “Oh, that sounds like so much fun!”

      “Yeah, Dad’s going to back the van into our spot, and we’ll drop all the seats and have pillows and blankets and stuff. Frankie and Lily are super excited.” Ella sounded excited too.

      “I made caramel corn and brownies, and Kelly has a bunch of snacks too.” Beth’s baking skills would no doubt be very popular with the family that night.

      “What movie are you watching?”

      “It’s two movies, actually. The first one is ‘Scoob’ and it’s very kid-friendly. Kelly says Frankie and Lily will fall asleep before that’s even finished, so we can stay and watch the next one.” 

      “Yeah, it’s too scary for the littles. ‘Artemis Fowl’. We didn't see it when it was released last year, so it’ll be awesome to see it on a big screen. Watch the trailer, Mom, it’s so creepy!” Beth seemed just as excited as Ella, and Claire was happy that they were doing some fun activities to stay busy and keep their minds off the fact that they were really missing home. 

      “Mom, how was your day? Did you get to speak to Mr. Fraser?” Ella tried to sound casual and disinterested, but her eyes gave her away. She was watching Claire’s face intently for any tiny signs that revealed her true feelings. 

      “I did, yes. We chatted and we’ve texted too.”

      “Is he missing you?”

      “Well, you’d have to ask him that. Wait on second thought, don’t do that.”

      “Dad’s calling us - we need to go.”

      “Bye girls - have a great time. We’ll chat tomorrow.”

 

      By 4:00 p.m., she was enjoying a glass of wine, and was quite engrossed in the novel. Her phone buzzed.

      What r u doing?

      I’m reading on the recliner on the deck. You?

      Murtagh talking exports and tariffs. i excused myself. still in the meeting but i told them i needed to attend to other business

      How have this afternoon’s meetings been?

      Good - ready to wrap up - maybe another hour. how was lunch?

      Awesome. Italian. Armando was a lot of fun. missed u all day tho

      Miss u so dang much! i’m doing a lot of thinking while Murtagh is talking

      What are u thinking about 

      Your lips 💋

      Awww   

      And ur boobs, with those luscious cherry nipples 🍒

      Uhhh?

      And that perfect arse 🍑

      Jamie?

      And ur sweet punany

      Omg! have u been drinking? 😲

      There’s no punany emoji! very sexist! 

      Jamie, ur drunk!

      Not totally

      Omg! u are incredibly naughty 

      I am?

      Yes - how much have you had to drink?

      It’s a winery, babe. they tend to start partying at lunchtime on a Friday. there may have been some wine involved in the last two meetings. i have to do some quality control on my products!

      You are out of control! 🤭

      I’m only out of control when I think of u

      We’re going to need to work on your discipline when u get back

      What kind of discipline?

      I'll think about it and let u know tomorrow

      Will it involve 🍆

 

      Oh, two can play at that game, Jamie!

 

      It might involve some of this - if ur a good boy  ↩️ 🐮🤠

      Really! u sending me reverse cowgirl? i can’t focus on anything else now. but thank you! looking forward to getting home

      Not so fast! you’ll have to *earn* reverse cowgirl this weekend

      What? how?

      By demonstrating self-control and a lot of discipline

      Pshhh, i can do that!

      Don’t be too sure - i’m a strict disciplinarian. call me on ur way to Yakima 

 

      Jamie FaceTimed as soon as they set off for Yakima after dinner. He was in the back of the car with Murtagh, and both of them had probably had a glass of wine too many. Claire knew that he and Murtagh were being wined and dined by the transition team. They were sober enough to appreciate the tour, but had enough alcohol in them to be bold and slightly ridiculous. Their driver, who was mercifully completely sober, was an employee of The Grotto.

      “Hey, babe. What are you doing?”

      “I’m just cleaning up after my dinner. Are you ready for your night harvest tour?”

      “En route already. Murtagh wants to say hi.”

      Murtagh’s face took over her screen and he planted a noisy kiss on the camera.

      "Yer lad has been pining for ye all day. Yesterday too. It’s embarrassing! How are ye doing, lass?”

      “I’m doing well, Murtagh, how about you?

      “Big learning curve out here, but I’m going to love it. I get to drive one of the winery trucks. Big F-150. Don't see many of those in Scotland!"”

      Jamie nudged him out of the way.

      “Claire, I’m going to get out of here as soon as I can in the morning. Canna wait to see ye.”

      She heard Murtagh groan in disgust in the background.

      “Me too. Have a fun night.”

     “Goodnight, mo ghràidh.

      “Goodnight, Jamie.”

 

     As she tapped out of the call, Claire thought about her promise to discipline him. She wanted to spend a little time thinking about that. It had to be fun and light-hearted, and she needed to show him that their intimacy was as important to her as it was to him. He was as effusive and demonstrative in his naughty references to their sex-life as he was in sharing his heart and the depth of his feelings for her. And while it had taken her some time, and a lot of courage, to finally open herself up to him emotionally, when she finally did, it had felt so right and she knew it meant everything to Jamie.

 

      She had surprised herself with how sexually uninhibited she was with him. He brought out the vixen in her, and as far as she could tell, she was satisfying his physical needs. He was certainly fulfilling hers in every way imaginable. She had borne her ‘Frank scars’ in the bedroom for years and her insecurities had tormented her even during her marriage, despite Henry’s loving and gentle treatment of her.

     Her scars continued to fade and her walls continued to crumble as she and Jamie pursued their intimate journey with zeal. Sometimes achingly gentle, sometimes frenzied and desperate, their love-making was always an ardent expression of their emotional relationship. She never wanted him to lose his sense of fun, and she wanted to show him that she appreciated and loved his enthusiastic expression of his passion for her.

      She mulled over some ideas on how to make their reunion particularly special. It had to be memorable, and she would have to build it up over the entire day for it to really work. She wondered if she could pull it off - she would be just as anxious as Jamie to get intimate as soon as they could.

      You got this Beauchamp. Make him ache, and make it worth the wait! 

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Claire awoke to her buzzing phone. She knew instantly that it was Jamie, and answered the call in a sleepy voice. 

      It was 7:10 a.m.

      “Good morning, babe. Sorry I woke you!”

      “Good morning! It's okay. Where are you?”

      “I’m an hour away. Can’t wait to see ye.”

      “What time did you leave?”

      “Just before 6:00.”

      “What time did you get back from the night-harvest demo?”

      “Around 1:30 a.m.”

      “Oh my! Why didn’t you sleep in a little?”

      “Couldn't wait to see you.”

      “Awww! I’m so glad you’re almost home. See you soon.”

      She showered and dressed in skinny white jeans and a soft pink sleeveless top with a plunging, draped neckline. 

      With 20 minutes to go before Jamie arrived, she pulled out the makings of a classic English breakfast - plus some non-traditional additions that she liked to add. Bacon, eggs, breakfast sausage, mushrooms, hash browns and ciabatta bread.

      The bacon and sausages were sizzling on the griddle when her app pinged. She turned the griddle off, and ran to the door, flung it open, and ran down the stairs. Jamie was on the driveway, about to open the trunk, but he abandoned that as soon as he saw her. He moved towards her and the second she flung her arms around him, he pulled her up so she could wrap her legs around his waist. They held each other for a long moment in complete silence, basking in the feeling of being enveloped in each other’s arms again. Claire released her legs, slid down and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him. He took her face in his hands and kissed her fiercely.

      “You feel and taste and smell so good.”

      She reached up and stroked his jawline. “Your scruff is perfect, and I have missed it! I’m going to enjoy it this weekend. A lot.”

      He chuckled and his raised eyebrow told her he was ready to deliver on that whenever she wanted. “I’ll grab my stuff from the trunk later.”

      They went indoors, and the minute the door was closed, he pulled her into his arms for another scorching kiss.

      “God, I missed you so much. Next week will be awful.”

      “Don’t think about it now, Jamie. I want us to enjoy our weekend together. When you get back, the girls will be here, so we need to make this one all about us.”

      “Aye, you’re right.” He kissed her again. “Is that bacon I smell?”

      “Yes, I’m making you a full English breakfast.”

      “How about I take you upstairs and we have an English breakfast up there first?”

      She looked at him sternly.

      “Now, now, Jamie! We spoke about your lack of control yesterday, and we’re going to work on your discipline all day. We’ll see how you do by tonight.”

      He looked at her in shock. “So I have to wait all the way until tonight?”

      “Afraid so.”

      “That’s not fair, Sassenach! Look at you. Your boobs are peeking out at me and driving me crazy already. And your arse in those jeans! I’ll never make it until tonight.”

      “Yes you will. You just have to be on your best behavior all day.”

      She reached around him and placed her hands on his butt and pulled him tight against her, groin to groin, and kissed him. It was a slow, sensual, searching kiss and she knew she was being a tease, but she was having too much fun with this.

      Pulling away from him, she took him by the hand and led him to the kitchen.

      “Babe, ye canna be teasing me like that all day. I’ll lose my mind.”

      “Discipline, Jamie. You can do it.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      After a leisurely breakfast, during which he told her a lot more about his time up at The Grotto, Jamie unloaded the trunk, and brought in two cases of wine.

      “A sampling of our best sellers.” 

      “I’m so excited to try these with you, Jamie. I love the red blend, and all Grotto whites are outstanding!”

      “They are really good. We’ll sample some of the newer stuff over the next few weeks. We should probably get going to the architects. Can we drop off the rental along the way?"

      “Sure. I’ll follow you in my car.”

 

     After returning the rental car, they drove to the architects’ office on Mercer Island.  Jamie explained how he had selected them after meeting with a few firms that Milo suggested. 

     “I like these architects, Claire. Something about them makes me feel really comfortable that they’re the right choice. They’re a husband and wife team, and they both bring great ideas and a family perspective to their designs. I shared all of the ideas that you gave me too, and they’ve incorporated most of them, as far as I can tell.”

     “I can’t wait to see it.”

     The architects worked from a home office attached to their main house, and walking through the main house, Claire could immediately tell that they were talented and experienced designers. The flow from room to room, and the family-friendly spaces indicated how much thought they had put into building a home that allowed them to enjoy sophisticated modernity, while still creating a comfortable, liveable space for their family.

     The office had a huge central work island with 3 large-screen computers, and rolls of blueprints neatly stacked on one side. Blueprints were spread out on the other side of the work island, and there were several stools surrounding the work area.

     “Claire, meet Mark and Michelle.” Jamie introduced them to Claire, and thanked them for agreeing to meet on a Saturday.

     “We really appreciate it. I want to get moving on building, and this is the first step. Can’t wait to see what you have for us.” Jamie settled onto a stool, while Claire stood next to him, leaning over the worktop to look at the blueprint.

     “Before we start, we were about to make coffee, and get our toddler settled in with a movie. Can we get you some coffee?”

     “That sounds great, thank you. Black, no sugar - for both of us.”

     “We’ll be back in a few minutes.” Mark and Michelle headed to the main house, and Jamie wasted no time in flirting with Claire. As she pored over the printout on the counter, he placed a hand on her butt and gave it a gentle squeeze.

     “Uh uh! Self-control, warrior.” She gave him a warning look, but he ignored her and pulled her in close. She turned to face him, ready to fix him with another stern look. Seated on the stool, his eyes were level with her cleavage, and he groaned as he saw the swell of her breasts peeking invitingly from her soft, draped neckline, mere inches from his face. He tried hard to hold back, but his impulsivity got the better of him and he buried his face in her breasts, groaning with pleasure at the softness and warmth. His scruff was doing things to her too, and she enjoyed the feeling for a moment, until a crashing sound made them pull apart and turn to the door, startled. A toddler, around 18 months old, had pushed the door open and toppled over a small waste basket in the process. 

     "Oh my, who do we have here?" Claire headed over to the toddler, and crouched down to the little one’s eye-level, while Jamie picked up the waste basket and the scattered bits of paper that had fallen out.

     Mark and Michelle hurried in with their coffees and very apologetic looks.

      “Emily! I am so sorry! She’s used to finding us in here."

      Claire was still at eye level with Emily, who had reached out to grab some of her curls. 

      “No, Emily.” Michelle chided her gently but firmly.

      “It’s okay,” Claire insisted, “she’s not hurting me. Is it okay if I hold her - will she let me?”

      “Oh yeah, she loves client attention!” Michelle smiled.

      Claire held her arms out and Emily immediately stretched her plump little arms out to her.

      Holding Emily on her hip, she headed over to the work table so that they could all review the plans together. Jamie took in the sight of Claire with a baby in her arms with the tiniest smile in his eyes. 

      They went over the plans, making suggestions and tweaks as they alternated from looking at the printout to looking at the computer screen, while Michelle made changes.

      “Claire, what do you think of the kitchen layout?” Jamie asked.

      “I love the double islands! It’s huge and there’s so much storage. I wouldn't change a thing there. One thing I would suggest for the covered outdoor entertainment area is an additional dishwasher out there.”

      “Yes! That makes sense,” Michelle agreed, and made some tweaks to the design.

      “What about the master bedroom? Or ‘primary bedroom’ as we’re starting to call them nowadays. What do you think of the overall layout?”

      “I love it too. You’ve positioned it perfectly to take in all the best views. If I can be a little bold - the closet could be a little bigger. It looks about the same size as the one I have now, and it’s perfectly adequate, but I often wish I had just a couple of extra feet here.” She indicated her suggestions on the blueprint.”

      “Jamie?” Michelle looked at Jamie for his thoughts.

      “If Claire thinks it needs to be bigger, that’s good with me.”

      Michelle looked at Claire with a smile. “We rarely have the husb- … man agree to larger closets! Lucky you!”

      Claire turned to Jamie and smiled awkwardly. They hadn't really addressed Claire’s involvement or input in the house design. It was just assumed by Jamie, Mark, and Michelle that her opinion mattered in these discussions. Emily leaned over and buried her plump fingers in Jamie’s russet curls and babbled a few unintelligible words. Claire untangled his hair from Emily’s grasp, and Jamie turned to smile at the baby, touching her plump hand with a fingertip. Emily immediately launched herself at him, taking Claire completely by surprise, but Jamie caught her in his big hands and held her upright on his lap. She smiled broadly at him and bounced up and down a few times, her tiny feet balanced on Jamie’s legs. She babbled a little more, then snuggled her face into his broad shoulder and lay there contentedly, her little nose pressed up against his neck. Jamie placed his hand on her back to keep her securely against him.

      “Oh boy, it’s getting close to nap time. I’m sorry guys.” Mark seemed a little rattled by all the baby interruptions, and Jamie was quick to reassure him.

      “Please don't worry. We’re designing a family home here, and this is what family’s all about. I have four nieces and nephews, so I’m used to this. Let’s continue, Emily seems quite okay here, if it’s okay with you guys.”  

      “Yes!” the relieved parents replied in unison.

      The discussion turned to the stables and guest house, and after a few more tweaks, Michael and Michelle declared that they had all the information necessary to work on a second round of floor plans.

      Emily had fallen asleep on Jamie’s shoulder, and she held on tighter as Michelle gently took her from him. She had drooled slightly on his shoulder, but that didn't bother him at all.

      They said their goodbyes and headed home.

      “I need to keep busy until tonight. Seeing you with that baby gave me all sorts of thoughts and all sorts of movements were going on in my -”

      “Uh uh,” she interrupted, “remember what we discussed about self-control?”

      “You’re killing me, Claire!”

      “It’s killing me too, but it will be worth it tonight. Do you want to do a hike this afternoon? Rattlesnake Ledge is pretty close to home, and it’s beautiful and scenic. It takes about two and half hours to complete. That would get us home in time to FaceTime the girls and grab dinner. And start your disciplinary procedure.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      The hike was the perfect distraction for both of them. Both were aching with need for each other, but Claire was determined to keep building the sexual tension, knowing that when their bodies finally met later, it would have been well worth the wait.

      The cool air in the house was a welcome relief after the heat and mild exertion of the hike, and they had both worked up a decent appetite.

      “How about some of Alma’s left-over tacos for dinner? It won’t take long to thaw out the meat, and we can make some fresh guac and salsa.”

      “Tacos sound fantastic. I’ll help you make the toppings.”

      “We can FaceTime the girls while we do that.”

 

      “Hi Mom, hi Mr. Fraser.” The girls almost squealed their greeting, clearly very excited to see Jamie and Claire together on FaceTime again. 

      “Hi girls!”

      “Good to see you girls - I missed our FaceTime chats the last couple of days.” 

      “Aww, Mr. Fraser! We did too!”

      “How did the meetings go at the winery?”

      “Really well. It was a busy couple of days.”

      Jamie and Claire stood side by side peeling and chopping and dicing.

      “How was the drive-in movie outing?” Claire asked.

      “It was so fun! We should do that when we get back. You guys would love it!” Ella was bubbling over with excitement.

      “What are you guys making for dinner? You look so cute cooking together!” Beth was all heart eyes at the sight of Jamie and her mom working together in the kitchen.

      “We’re just making some fresh taco toppings. Defrosting some of Alma’s leftovers. And don't worry, there’s plenty for you next week.”

      “What have you been doing since Mr. Fraser got back?”

      “We just hiked Rattlesnake Ledge.” Claire knew it was a popular teenage hang-out.

      “Uhhh … you know it’s like a make-out spot for teens, right?”

      “Good to know, Ella - I’ll remember that next time you girls ask if you can go up there.” 

      “Moooommmm!” 

      “Mr. Fraser, help us out here.”

      “Well, it’s a beautiful place, and I can see why a lot of hikers of all ages would want to go up there. But I know yer Mam has raised you well, and I imagine that you would both make good choices about who you go there with.”

      “We always do, and Mom knows that. See, Mom! Mr. Fraser knows we don’t do dumb stuff.”

      “I know that too,” Claire reassured them, “I’m just giving you a hard time.”

      They chatted a little longer and the girls told Claire they were spending most of Sunday with Nonna. It was their last few days in Boston, and they wanted a chance to say goodbye to their beloved surrogate Grandma. 

      “Okay girls. I’ll call at the regular time tomorrow. Love you both so much!”

      They blew avalanches of kisses at each other.

      “Bye Mom, bye Mr. Fraser. Have a fun night.”

 

      “A fun night? I’m scared of what ye have in store for me now. But kind of excited too.” 

      “I won’t hurt you, I promise. It’s not BDSM.”

      “I don’t know if I can even control myself tonight. I’ve missed you so much! Can I get a rain check?”

      “No rain checks. The discipline starts now. Here’s how it’s going to go down. We’re going to go upstairs - to our separate rooms - and we’re going to shower the sweaty hike away. Just a quick shower. And then we’ll get into our robes. Completely naked under the robe.”

      “Hmmmm. The discipline plan is sounding better already.” He growled deep and low and pulled her body against his.

      “You will control all your urges, Fraser,” she said sternly. “Then you will meet me down here. We’ll eat on the patio, and we’ll have dessert in the media room. Do we have some of Alma’s ice-cream?”

      “Yes,” he breathed into her neck, “lots of it.”

      “Good boy. I may be feeding some of it to you, depending on your behavior and manners tonight.”

      “Uuuhhhh,” he groaned again.

      “Control yourself, Fraser. You are sorely in need of a little behavior modification. Now, head on upstairs, and meet me down here in your robe.”

 

      Ten minutes later, wrapped in her belted robe, she headed back to the kitchen, where Jamie was already waiting in his robe, looking eager to take whatever discipline she was going to mete out.

      “First, Fraser, I’d like to address the unfortunate incident with my breasts at the architects. Most inappropriate. To atone for that, you’ll need to make me two small carnitas tacos with all the toppings and extra lime crema. Then plate up some tacos for yourself and join me on the patio. We’ll enjoy our dinner out there tonight. It’s a hot night - low 80’s - so you might find these terry robes a little warm. I know I will.”

      She pulled on her knotted belt and let it fall loose. The robe fell slightly open revealing a five-inch strip of her naked body all the way down the middle. She waited while his eyes traveled from the swell of her breasts, past her belly button, lingered on that sweet triangular patch and continued down past her thighs to her feet. He took a deep breath in, and expelled it slowly.

      “I’ll be waiting.” She took a few slow steps backwards allowing him to look a little longer, then turned and stepped outside onto the patio.

      Jamie had never worked so quickly in a kitchen before. Thankfully, it was merely a matter of assembling four tacos, and plating them up. He cleaned up quickly and carried the two plates out to the patio. She looked up from the sofa, and patted the seat next to her. He noted with disappointment that she had re-belted her robe. She had also poured them each a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc.

      “Come sit, Fraser.”

      He joined her on the sofa, and handed her the plate with two carnitas tacos. His were barbacoa. 

      “No,” she shook her head, and took his plate instead, “we’re feeding each other tonight.”

      He fought to control his little half-smile, but she could see the beginnings of it, and it almost made her want to smile back.

      He picked up her plate, and gathered the taco carefully in his hand. He held it to her mouth, plate balanced just below to catch the bits that would inevitably fall from the tortilla. He allowed her to take her first bite, and as she chewed, she picked up his barbacoa taco and fed him his first bite.

      He gathered up some of the fallen bits from her plate with his fingertips and fed them to her. She took them eagerly, nibbling and licking his fingertips in the process. She fed him his fallen pieces too, enjoying the sensation of his lips and teeth nibbling, licking and sucking her fingers as he took all the bits that she fed him.

      “Time for wine,” she said. They each sipped on their wine, and continued to feed each other.

      “Did you bring napkins, Fraser?” Her fingers bore remnants of guacamole and lime crema, as did his. 

      “Damn! I knew I’d forget something! Would you like me to go get some?”

      “Well, that’s a fail, Fraser. You know tacos are messy. No, I would not like you to go get napkins. You may lick my fingers clean. But first, I’ll do yours.”

      She took his fingers in her mouth, one by one, licking and sucking each one thoroughly, until all traces of the taco were gone. He barely breathed while she did that - the sight of his fingers disappearing between her lips and the swirling movements of her tongue, and the little suction noises she made were doing things to him that nudged the boundaries of his self-control. She raked her teeth gently along the length of each of his fingers, and returned his hand to him.

      “Done,” she said, looking directly into his eyes.

      He brought her hand to his mouth, and sucked in two of her fingers at once. His tongue swirled around and between them as he licked them clean. He pulled them out, and then sucked each one individually, before moving to her thumb, and cleaning it as thoroughly as he had her fingers. He slowly licked the sensitive web between her fingers, and grazed his teeth along each finger individually. He knew by the little arch of her back that she was enjoying his attention to her hands. Before returning her hand, he kissed each fingertip.

      “Thank you, Fraser. That was nicely done. I think we’re ready for dessert. We’ll have our dessert in the media room, and we may or may not watch ‘Equalizer 2’. Your ability to control yourself will determine that. If you fail, we will watch the movie; if you pass, we will have no time for movies." Her raised eyebrow told him what they would be doing with their time instead. "Please place the plates in the sink, wash your hands, and wait for me at the kitchen island while I scoop some ice cream.”

      They got up and returned to the kitchen, where he followed her instructions closely. As much as he loved Denzel Washington, he had no desire to watch a movie tonight. He needed to do everything right, and exactly as she had instructed.

      She scooped some of Alma’s heavenly dulce de leche ice cream into a bowl. 

      “Please take this bowl and spoon into the media room and place the bowl in the freezer there. I’ll wash my hands and meet you in a minute. Wait for me by the popcorn machine.”

      When she stepped into the media room, Jamie was standing at the back of the room near the popcorn machine, feet slightly apart, arms folded over his chest. He had the teeniest hint of a smile in his eyes, but was doing his best to look serious.

      “Take off your robe,” she ordered in a low, serious voice, dimming the lights slightly. “I want to look at you.”

      His eyes widened, and his eyebrow raised a fraction, but he slowly tugged on the belt, and shrugged the robe off, tossing it onto the floor next to him.

      He was naked in front of her. She took in a deep breath.   

       My God, you are truly a magnificent man.

      She walked over to him slowly, eyes locked on his, and placed her hand on his chest, feeling the hard muscle under the roughness of the light smattering of hair. She lowered her eyes to his lips and although desperate to kiss him, she held back. There would be time for that soon enough. His eyes were still fixed on her, uncertain about what she had planned for him. Her fingers explored his nipple, gently pulling and squeezing and thumbing. She lowered her mouth over his other nipple, flicking her tongue delicately over it, then sucking gently until she felt his chest rise as he took in a deep breath. She pulled her mouth away and caught his gaze again. Trailing her hand down his chest, over his rippling abdominals, and across his hip, she started to walk a slow circle around his body. Her hand trailed just behind her, and when she reached his butt, she stopped and eyed it appreciatively. Her hand cupped the firm, toned contours of his glutes, and she watched the subtle reaction of the muscles under his skin as her nails scraped gently over his butt. She continued her slow circle around his body, hand still trailing, nails gently grazing a path in their wake. She came to a stop in front of him, her hand paused on his thigh, inches from his erection. She brushed her nails slowly towards it, and saw the involuntary twitch and heard his quick intake of breath. She stopped.

      “I don’t think we’ve come quite far enough in your self-control.”

      He breathed out in a rasping sigh, disappointment and longing rolled into that long release of his breath.

      “What about your robe? Fair’s fair.”

      She looked at him sternly, unsmiling. 

      “I’ll decide what’s fair. Please go sit in your seat. I’ll get the ice-cream.”

      She brought the ice-cold bowl over to his chair. He sat waiting for her, body taut with anticipation and arousal, that tiny smile still gleaming in his eyes. She stood in the space between his legs, facing him.

      Reaching for the control panel in his seat, she reclined it a little and scooped up a generous spoonful of ice cream, bringing it to his mouth to feed him his first taste of the creamy dulce de leche treat.

      “Mmmmm! Oh my God, that’s so good!” he moaned.

      “Uh, uh, uh,” she admonished him, ”it’s bad manners to speak with food in your mouth. That means additional consequences. But first, let me verify that it is indeed as good as you say.”

      Setting the bowl down on the wide armrest, she placed her hands on the back of his seat and brought her mouth down towards his, stopping just before making contact. 

      “It’s polite to share, Fraser,” she breathed, brushing his lips with hers.  

      He parted his lips and she pushed her tongue into his mouth, swirling it around Jamie’s tongue and lapping up every trace of ice cream. He groaned at the unexpected pleasure of her deep and thorough kiss.   

      “I’m not sure I got a real sense of the flavor.” She fed him another generous spoonful, and immediately closed in for a deep, sweet kiss that was a sensory exploration of textures, tastes, and temperatures. They continued to kiss well after the spoonful of ice cream had disappeared, ravishing each other with yearning and hunger. She nipped his lower lip delicately, running her tongue lightly across its fullness, before burying her tongue back in his mouth to take in every last hint of ice-cream. He groaned low and deep and slipped his hands under her robe. She broke the kiss immediately and gave him a warning look. He moved his hands away from her body and his look of despair almost broke her resolve, but she forged ahead. 

      Standing upright again, she said in her stern voice, "Okay, I’ve verified that your assessment of the ice cream is accurate. It is really good. But … you still haven't had any consequences for your behavior at the architects or your lack of manners."

      “If I apologize, will you let me touch ye? Please?”  

      She ignored his plea, and dropped to her knees. He froze for a moment and stopped breathing momentarily. She placed her hands on his thighs, pressing her fingers into the solid firmness of his muscles beneath the lightly fuzzed skin. She worked her hands slowly upwards, gently raking with her nails. Still holding his gaze, she pushed his thighs wider apart, and reclined his chair a little more. Moving her body farther into the space between his legs, she trailed her hand slowly towards his balls, and gently cupped them, massaging with a light and delicate touch. They felt taut and she wanted to prolong her exploration of his body. She traced a finger slowly along the length of his erection, gently caressing the head and touching the wetness in the groove at the tip of his shaft. His sharp breath intake drew her eyes back to his face. His head was back against the seat, eyes closed, and fists clenched tightly.

      She heard his deep grunt, and leaning forward, took his length in her fist and slowly swirled her tongue around the tip. 

      “Sassenach,” he breathed.

      “Open your eyes,” she ordered. He did as he was told, and she closed her lips around him, and moved slowly down his length, licking and sucking as he gripped the seat tightly. He was desperate to touch her breasts, her hair, her shoulders - any part of her. Two days away from her had generated a deep longing, and he ached for the feel of her skin on his.

      Her mouth and lips and tongue on his length pushed him ever closer to the very limits of his control. She felt him twitch in her hand and pulled back a little. Reaching for the ice-cream, she took a generous spoonful into her mouth and allowed it to melt for a little before swallowing it. Her tongue was ice cold and as she approached his erection again she saw his thighs clench and his eyes widen.

      “It’ll be cold, but it won’t hurt,” she assured him.

      She licked his length from base to tip, sweeping thoroughly with her cold tongue as he gasped and squirmed at the unexpected sensation of her coldness on his warmth. She took another spoonful of ice-cream, kept it in her mouth until it was almost melted and she knew her mouth was well-chilled. She swallowed the ice-cream, and took him deep into her mouth, swirling her cold tongue around his length. He was panting under the strain of the sensory bliss and the desperate need to control his urge to reach out for her. Her arousal pulsed between her legs and she fought her own battle to control her need to take him inside her and bring them both to a breathless climax. 

      But the night was still young, and she had more sensual adventures planned. Licking away all traces of the ice-cream on him, she stood and slowly shrugged off her robe. He devoured her with his eyes, raw desire all over his face. She climbed up and straddled his thighs on the wide seat. 

      “Can I touch you yet?” he pleaded. She held out her hand and he placed his hand in hers. She guided his fingers between her legs and drew them through her folds so that he could feel the slick warmth there.

      “God, Claire, please …” She shook her head and released his hand.

      Reclining his seat further, she maneuvered her body over his so that her slit and his erection were aligned.  

      She rolled her hips seductively, and positioned herself to slide her slit all the way along his length, allowing him to feel again how wet and ready she was. His breath came in short gasps as she slid up and down his length over and over again. She felt his hard, throbbing heat against her sweet spot, and bit down on her lip to maintain control of her own desperate yearning.

      “Claire, please …” his hands reached up and gripped her breasts hard, almost painfully, and she knew he was forcing himself to control the primal urge to thrust himself hard and deep inside her.

      She shook her head and raised her body to position the tip of his length at her entrance. 

      “I’m going to do this very, very slowly,” she warned him. “If you move or push, I will have to start over again.”

      “God, no, Claire. Please …”

      She ignored him and lowered herself an inch down his length. She paused to look at him. He was almost breathless in his attempt to control his desperate urge to push himself hard into her. 

      She slid down another inch, and he pressed his lips together, grabbing her breasts harder still. 

      She slowly took in another inch, and he jerked his hips upward slightly.

      “Oh dear,” she whispered. “We’ll have to start over.”

      “No … God, no … please …”

      She lifted herself up so that his tip was at her entrance again. 

      “Are you going to demonstrate some self-control this time?” she asked.

      “Yes! Yes! Please … “

      Starting the torturous journey down his length again, she lowered herself an inch, and stopped to look at him. He held her gaze, and gave her a tiny nod. Another slow inch … he continued to fight for control.

      Another inch … he released a long, low groan ….

      She gave him a warning look and counted five long seconds. She clenched around him, deliberately fluttering and pulsing her muscles, and he closed his eyes and clenched his fists and muttered something in Gaelic. 

      “Good boy,” she whispered. He kept his eyes squeezed shut.

      She took another inch … and still he controlled his primal need to push up into her. But by now, she was battling for control too. She desperately wanted to push down hard, all the way, and feel his firm length push all the way into her core and fill her. 

      “Open your eyes.”

      They looked at each other. Both of them frozen, eyes fixed on each other, fighting hard for control.

      She caved first.

      Pushing hard all the way down, she felt his length fill her completely, and they both let out deep moans. She raised herself up again, and drove down hard in one move. His hands were suddenly on her hips and on her breasts, and she rode him hard, grinding and pushing herself on him, rubbing against him and feeling his rough hair on the delicate, slick skin of her folds. She pushed firmly against him, the friction of her swollen clit against his body bringing her closer and closer to an explosive release. She leaned into him, her breasts pressed up against his chest, as she rolled her hips firmly against him. He was teetering on the edge of his own release, panting breathlessly and grazing her shoulder with his teeth as he fought for control.

      “Jamie … Jamie …” she panted, and his strong hands on her hips pulled her even harder against him, as she moved her hips in a rhythmic, rolling motion, the back and forth movement bringing renewed friction and pressure right up against Jamie's groin, exactly where she needed it. She arched her back sharply and cried out his name again as she completely lost herself to the waves of bliss that coursed through her, her core clenching rhythmically around him. Jamie pulled her down firmly, and with his own grunt of release, he spilled himself deep inside her in powerful surges, emptying himself completely and holding her as she slowly subsided onto his chest. They both lay there utterly lost in each other, breathless and panting.

      They lay still for a while, and eventually Claire slid off him, and they lay side by side, entangled in each other, coming down from their intense release. Jamie’s lips sought hers in a deep kiss, and she twined her fingers in his, as they savored the intimacy they had missed while apart.

 

      “Do we have to watch the movie?” he asked quietly, as she nestled her face under his jawline.

      “No,” she whispered.

      “Did I earn the reverse cowgirl?”

      “Yes.” He heard the smile in her voice.

 

 



Chapter Text


  

      Jamie awoke first, and before he’d even opened his eyes, he reached out for Claire and pulled her in close, burying his face in her curls. She grumbled a little, hoping for an extra half hour of sleep after another late night. 

      “Wake up, little vixen.” He planted kisses all over the back of her neck, and held her tight against him. 

      “Good morning, my love,” she said sleepily. 

      “Ye ken it makes me turn to mush when you call me that, right?”

      “I’ll have to use it sparingly then,” she teased.

      “No, you can say it as often as ye like. Use it all day, if necessary.”

      She rolled over to face him and he draped his arm around her, hand resting lightly on the small of her back.

      “Are we going for our run?”

      “That’s why I’m waking ye so early - we should go before it gets too hot. Or have ye no energy left after last night?” 

      A slow smile spread across her face. “Was I too hard on you?”

      “God, Claire! You were a right minx! That was an amazing night. You were unbelievable!” 

      “Glad you enjoyed it.” She was thrilled with her five-star review.

      He kissed her lips, and squeezed her butt gently. “How did I ever get so lucky? I’m going to take images of this sweet arse and that cowgirl of yours all the way through L.A. week.”

      “Mmmmm. That’s the goal. Don’t want you getting distracted by all the glamorous Hollywood beauties.”

      She meant it light-heartedly, but he turned serious for a moment, looking at her earnestly.

      “Claire, you need to know that I would never allow anyone or anything to distract me from you. You know I canna stand the fakeness of Hollywood. There’s no one who could hold a candle to you.”

      “Jamie, I may not be a Fraser, but I want to invoke Fraser honesty here. Armando is ex-Hollywood, so he knows a lot about the vibe there. I asked him what he knew about your co-star, Anja. She doesn’t have the best reputation, you know, and I was a teeny bit concerned when you said you’d have to do a lot of interviews and appearances as you start the publicity drive for Unauthorized Contact.

      "Claire, you need never feel that you canna ask me something. You can talk to me about anything, and you can ask me anything. I'll always answer ye honestly."

      "Are you mad that I asked Armando?"

      "No, not at all. I know that you're close friends, and our friendships are important to help carry us through certain things. But I want you to feel comfortable asking me about things that might be troubling you."

      "You always make awkward conversations so much easier, Jamie. Can you tell me more about you and Anja, and the work you did on the movie? And what's in store with the upcoming publicity?"

      “Of course. First, there was never anything romantic or sexual between us. Tara and my PR team contacted me about the publicity late last week. They’re looking to release the movie within a few weeks, as theaters start to open up again. We’ll start doing breakfast and late-night shows quite soon. I can understand yer concerns about Anja. She definitely likes to cultivate the femme fatale image. But ye ken she’s been dating Bradley Cooper for a long while, right?”

      “Apparently they broke up a few weeks ago.”

      Jamie’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “I did not know that. Normally with a high profile couple, PR teams will work on a joint statement.”

      “Why would they not issue one? Would Millennium want that kept a secret? Is it an image thing for them? The female star of their next movie being dumped just before it’s released?”

      “Doubt it. She had a fairly minor role in the movie. She’s the love interest - there always has to be one, because sex sells, as we know. And even though she’s my character’s fiancée, she’s not in that many scenes. There is one big sex scene, Claire, and I want to be upfront about it. The producers wanted a balance between a hot and heavy sex scene that will generate buzz and boost viewership, but they also didn’t want the sex to take away from the seriousness of the movie, so they concentrated it all in one big scene. Anja's other scenes are mostly dialogue and plot advancement. The sex scene has lots of nudity, some of it ours, some of it body doubles. But you know how these things tend to go; people will probably make a fuss about the sex scene, like they did with Clan Hearts.”

      She nodded.

      “When there’s a lot of buzz about sex scenes, it tends to boost the profile of the female star. Back in the day, movies like ‘Basic Instinct’ and ‘Fatal Attraction’ helped put actresses on the map. More recently ’50 Shades’ made Dakota Johnson a household name for a while. I fear that Anja may use the publicity tour to milk her scenes in Unauthorized Contact for all she can.”

      “Will Millennium expect you to be flirty and sexy in your appearances and interviews?”

      “It would have been easier if she and Cooper were still together, but I’ll have Tara speak to her people and make sure they tell Anja to keep her behavior in check. She can be a little …. uh … forward and flirty. I won’t have her humiliate me - or you - in public.”

      He twirled one of her curls around his finger.

      “I can’t wait to be out of this industry altogether.”

      “Jamie, we will have to be strong and power through the next few months - publicity, film release, Oscars - but we can do it. And then it’s Superman, and then you can look to your future!”

      “Our future, Claire.”

      She smiled and nuzzled his jawline. Yesterday's meeting at the architects warranted further discussion with Jamie about their future, but she wanted to wait for the right time to talk about that. It would be a longer conversation.

      “I’m serious, Claire. I don’t want concerns about co-stars and such to give you any doubts about us. You are everything I want and need. You fulfill me in ways I never thought possible. Emotionally, intellectually, sexually. You feed my heart and my soul with everything you say and do. I’ve never felt this way about anyone. I want you to know that.”

      She caressed his face and leaned in for a long kiss.

      “I didn't mean to sound insecure. It’s hard not to worry about the Hollywood scene - it seems that so many people leave their morals and decency behind when they enter that world.” She put a hand on his chest. “I know your heart, Jamie. I know I don’t have to worry. I want you to know that I have never felt this way about anyone either. I have never experienced this level of connectedness and happiness. I didn’t think it was possible.”

      “The universe conspired so that we could meet.”

      She smiled at his use of her favorite quote from ‘The Alchemist’.

      “That reminds me, do ye mind if I borrow your copy of ‘The Alchemist’ while I’m in L.A.?”

      “Not at all, I’ll find it for you later."

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      They were back from their run before 10:00 a.m., and it was already promising to be another scorcher. She was excited to see that she had shaved almost a minute off her running time, and even more so when Jamie picked her up and whirled her around.

      “Nice going, babe. You’ll be passing me soon.”

      They showered and dressed and headed downstairs. Claire made a mental note to talk to Jamie later about what the sleeping arrangements might look like when the girls were back. She didn’t want it to become uncomfortable, so it would be good to get that discussion out of the way, as awkward as it may be. Over a breakfast of waffles and fruit, they discussed what to do that day.  

     “It’s too hot to be out at the pool all day. I don’t really mind what we do, as long as we do it together.”

     “How about heading over to Bainbridge Island? The ferry ride will be cool and breezy, and we can have a late lunch or early dinner at a waterfront restaurant, where it will be a lot cooler.”

      “I love that idea! Let’s do it.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      The ferry ride from Seattle to Bainbridge was around 35 minutes. Jamie and Claire spent some time out on one of the decks, taking in the views of the Seattle skyline, and majestic Mount Rainier in the distance.

      “I love how Mount Rainier rises out of nowhere, almost like a ghost, all white and shadowy and hazy in this heat.”

      “Aye, it’s beautiful. It has an ethereal quality, doesn't it?”

      They took a selfie with Mount Rainier in the background, and then headed indoors to sit and chat, away from the blustery deck.

      They were required to wear masks on the ferry, and with his mask and sunglasses and a baseball cap, Jamie went completely unrecognized. He took her hand in his, and they leaned in to each other to chat. 

      “Jamie, what’s the progress on Dougal? May I ask?”

      “Of course you may. Murtagh had some great ideas for him.” He went on to explain the Clan Hearts tour and how it would be a great option for Dougal to pursue. 

      “That sounds like it has some potential. It might give your Ultimate Sassenach Highlands Tour a run for its money.”

      “Never! I have some secret spots to show you and the girls that Dougal doesn’t even know about!”

      “Do you think Stargate would give him an official endorsement?”

      “There’s a good chance they might. He’ll have his work cut out for him though. And that’s a good thing. It’ll keep him busy. I’m planning on seeing him sometime while I’m in L.A. I think we need to clear the air. I don't in any way condone the way he spoke to you, and in all honesty, I haven't forgiven him yet, but I want to speak with him openly and honestly about our personal relationship going forward.”

      “I’m so pleased you’re doing that. It’ll be good for both of you.”

      He started to raise her hand to his lips, and she stopped him. “Mask!”

      “Ugh,” he groaned, “it takes some getting used to, doesn’t it. I keep wanting to give you wee kisses but the masks are in the way.”

      “We can kiss all night, my love.”

      “I’ll hold you to that.”

      She rested her head on his shoulder, and sighed. 

      “Five whole days without you!”

      “It’s going to be tough for me too, mo ghràidh. But Saturday will be here before ye know it. I canna wait to meet the girls!”

      “They are so excited to meet you too! Do you think you’ll be able to tell them apart?”

      “If you asked me on the day we first FaceTimed with them, I’d say no. But after almost two weeks, I can tell them apart on our calls by their personalities. I think there’s a chance I can tell them apart when we meet in person.”

      “I’m not so sure, Jamie,” she teased. “I’d like to see you try though. It takes a while for new friends and teachers and coaches to know which one’s which.”

      “Challenge accepted.” Jamie was not one to shy away from a dare. “Even identical twins have little differences - I’ll figure it out. They’re wonderful lasses. They look so much like ye, Claire, and they have your inner beauty too. I was telling Murtagh all about them.”

      She smiled at the thought of him telling his godfather all about the twins.

      “You’ve raised them well, Claire. You’re an amazing mother.” He went quiet for a moment, and she knew he was mulling something over. “We should talk about what we’ll do when I’m back with you and the girls next weekend. I canna be waking up in your bed with you when the girls are home. I don’t think it sets the right tone and example, ye ken.”

       And there it was again. 

      Jamie’s intuitive ability to know what was on her mind was uncanny. She was relieved that he’d also been thinking about it. It didn’t surprise her - he’d been nothing but considerate and respectful from the day he arrived on her driveway. 

      “I’ve been thinking about that too,” she said.

      “And what are yer thoughts on it?” 

      “I agree that it would go against the way I’ve raised them if you were in my bed every morning. They’re 16, and they’re smart and savvy girls. I don’t think it would surprise them, but I agree that it doesn’t set a great example. They have no idea what kind of connection we have, and as much as they are ‘shipping’ us, we’ve only known each other two weeks. That’s what they’ll take away. That it’s okay to be in an intimate relationship within two weeks of knowing someone. As they start to dabble in the dating scene, I don’t want that to be their example. It’s hard for me to say that, because I don’t want to negate what we feel for each other. It is just impossible to explain our connection to anyone.”

      “That’s exactly what I was thinking. What we have is so rare and so special, and it would be hard for anyone else to understand why it feels so right for us to be in this deep after such a short time. I feel like we’ll know instinctively when the girls are at the point when it’s okay for us to wake up with each other. In the meanwhile, Sassenach, we'll have to be sneaky and creative.”

      "Challenge accepted." The wicked gleam in her eyes assured him that the vixen in her was not about to disappear.

    

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Their afternoon on Bainbridge Island passed way too quickly. They wandered in and out of the quaint stores and boutiques on Winslow Way, and strolled through some of the side streets, where they found hidden gems, like art galleries, coffee shops, and stores selling hand-crafted items. Claire bought a few tops at one of the tiny boutiques, and some sea-glass earrings in a shade of blue that was a perfect match for Jamie’s eyes. Jamie bought her a leather-bound copy of ‘Love: Selected Quotations’, by Paulo Coelho.

      They shared a mid-afternoon meal of Dungeness crabs and cedar-wrapped salmon at Doc’s Marina Grill. It was a lot cooler on Bainbridge, and they sat on the patio overlooking the marina with its yachts and fishing boats bobbing idly in the gently undulating water. They spoke about Claire’s MS Comms degree being shelved, and she shared Tonya’s opinions and the ‘hissy fit’ comment.

      “What? That’s a direct quote?” Jamie looked shocked.

      “Yes - I didn’t ask who said it, but I trust that Tonya repeated exactly what she heard.”

      “How does an offensive term like that enter a professional discussion in the hallowed halls of academia?”

      “I‘m going to try and probe a little more after the professorship is out of the way.”

      “I’m appalled and angry that they’ve done this after all your hard work. And I agree - ye should go after them after the professorship has been announced.”

 

      On the way back to the ferry they stopped to get ice-cream at Mora - watermelon sorbet for him, pineapple for her. 

      “I’m not sure I feel safe around you and ice-cream, Sassenach, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.” He gave her his two eyed wink above his mask, and she giggled her deep belly giggle that he loved so much.

      As soon as they arrived home, Claire propped up her iPad, and she and Jamie sat at the kitchen island. They had spoken about the FaceTime call in the car and hoped they had accurately anticipated some of the girls’ questions.

      “Hi girls,” she and Jamie spoke in unison again.

      “Hi mom, hey Mr. Fraser. Where have you guys been? You're like a half hour later with the call.”

      “Mr. Fraser and I went to Bainbridge Island, and that always takes longer because of the ferry ride.”

      “Bainbridge Island on the ferry?” Beth crooned. “That is so romantic.”

      “Well, it’s not exactly Bora Bora, Beth, but it was a very pleasant day out.” Claire shook her head. Beth was hopelessly starry-eyed at times.

      “How was your day with Nonna?”

      “It was so awesome! She made homemade gnocchi and shared the recipe with Ella.”

      “Mom, she cried so hard when we left. It made us so sad.”

      “I know hon, I’m sorry. We’ll try and convince her to come and visit soon. And we’ll FaceTime her when you get back on Wednesday, just to check in with her.”

      “Yeah. We don’t want her to get lonely, Mom. She doesn’t see her friends as much as she normally does.”

      “I know, sweethearts. You girls are amazing and caring, and she loves you dearly. Uh … Girls, Mr. Fraser and I need to speak to you about something important and quite confidential.” Claire turned serious, and the girls leaned closer to their iPad. 

      “Are you guys getting married or something?” Ella asked in a whisper. 

      “No, Ella,” Claire was exasperated, and for the umpteenth time on these FaceTime calls, Jamie tried to keep a straight face.

      “So you know I have been a little worried about the surge in Covid numbers that’s being reported around the country? I don’t have medical data that justifies my concerns for you girls, but I’m your mom, and I do worry about how it affects the lungs. You girls know that. So, my concern is that you’ll be exposed to a lot of public places. With a stopover in Chicago, that means three busy airports and two flights on big commercial planes.”

      “Mom, we promise to use our hand-sani and wear masks.”

      “Well, I appreciate that a lot. But I’ve been watching the numbers and listening to what the airlines are doing, and I’m not totally convinced of your safety. Mr. Fraser has very kindly offered to get in touch with some people he knows who have private jets, and his contacts have arranged a jet to bring you home on Wednesday.”

      “Whaaaaat?” The girls looked from Claire and Jamie to each other, hands clasped over their mouths.

      “Mr. Fraser can tell you more.”

      “Okay girls, your flight will leave at 10:30 am from a small local airport in Boston. You need to be there by 10:00 a.m. With these small airports and private flights, there are fewer people, no security lines, and a fraction of the baggage issues, so there’s no need for you to get there super early. The jet will fly you home directly to Boeing Field - no stop-overs. You will be the only passengers, and there will be a flight attendant named Debbie, in case you need anything. A meal will be provided, and unlimited snacks and soda. Free Wi-Fi too.”

       “And I will be at Boeing Field to pick you up. Any questions so far?” 

      “Mooooommm! Are you guys for real?”

      “Yes, we’re very serious.”

      “OMG. Will it be like the ones that the Kardashians fly in on their show?”

      “Yes. It will be very similar to that.” Jamie replied.

      “Mom, this is such a major flex! Can we tell our friends?”

      “Not right away. You can take pictures, but don’t post on social media until I tell you it’s okay to do so. And absolutely no mention of Mr. Fraser.”

      “No problem, Mom.”

      “I’ll be calling your father and Kelly after this to let them know about the private plane and which airport to take you to.”

      “Mom, you told us that we have to protect Mr. Fraser’s confidentiality and privacy. What if Kelly and Dad ask us who arranged the flight?” 

      “You’re absolutely right, Beth. And I will do everything possible to protect Mr. Fraser’s privacy too.  I’ll be telling your father and Kelly about it without mentioning Mr. Fraser’s name. I can’t imagine that they will ask you additional questions. If they do, you can suggest that they check with me.”

      “I actually can’t believe it!” Ella was still processing this crazy new development.

      “Girls …” Claire looked at them with raised eyebrows, and they recognized that look right away.

      “Thank you so much, Mr. Fraser!”

      “Thank you! It’s so kind of you to arrange this for us!”

      “You girls are most welcome. I’m off to L.A. tomorrow, so I won’t get to FaceTime with you until after you arrive home. Safe travels to you both, and enjoy the flight.”

      “Girls, I’m going to tap out now so I can call your father. Love you both! Goodnight.”

 

      Claire leaned in to kiss Jamie. “Thank you again!”

      “No need to thank me. Glad we could pull this off. Are you ready to call Frank? I’ll be super quiet back here.” 

      Jamie sat and listened to Claire’s side of the conversation, giving her some moral support as she navigated her always unpredictable interactions with Frank.

      “Hi Kelly, Hi Frank. Thank you again for making the last few weeks so special for the girls. They’ve loved being with you and the little ones.”

      She was silent for a moment as she listened to their response.

      “I’ve been a little concerned about the crazy Covid numbers, and as you know, I’m always fretting about the girls and their health. I’m not crazy about the idea of them spending hours in three major airports and two passenger planes.”

      She listened for a moment.

      “Yes, Frank, I realize that Kelly has spoken with them about masks and hand-washing, and I absolutely appreciate that. However, an opportunity came up that I was hoping to take advantage of. One of my dearest friends here is also my realtor. He recently introduced a new neighbor who is well connected with people and organizations who have private jets. After a couple of calls, he learned that one of them would be on the East Coast this week, and the timing worked out perfectly to fly the girls home on the jet. They would avoid all the major airports, and it will literally be just the two of them and a female flight attendant on a non-stop flight.”

      She listened again.

      “No, Frank, there is no cost to us. The jet has to fly back to the West Coast anyway, so to fly the girls to Seattle is not a big deal. And as far as their other flights go, I booked them on frequent flyer miles, so those will be re-credited to their accounts.”

      She listened for another few moments.

      “I totally agree, Kelly. It’s a great opportunity and it feels safer than public travel right now. And yes, I’ll text you the airport address. I know that it’s a lot closer to you than Logan International, and it’s a lot less hassle than going through the check-in procedure at a major airport. The girls only need to be there a half hour before the flight, so they need to be at the airport by 10:00.”

      Another brief silence as she listened.

      “No Frank. Again, zero cost to us. Beth will no doubt bake a ton of cookies by way of thanks. Neighbors helping neighbors.” 

      Claire listened briefly again.

      “Okay, Kelly - and are the girls aware that they'll be saying goodbye to their father tonight?”

      One more brief silence.

      “Yes, I’ll text you and the girls all the details tonight. Thank you both again!”

 

      Claire exhaled long and slow. Jamie went over and hugged her.

      “From what I heard, it seemed to go well.”

      "Yes,” she replied, relief in her face and her voice. “Frank is off on a small, exclusive four-day conference early tomorrow morning, so he won’t be around to potentially ask the girls awkward questions. I’m just hoping that Kelly feels it’s none of her business, and doesn’t say anything more than absolutely necessary to the girls.”

      “It’ll be fine, Claire. You’ll see.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

*** See first comment for notes/moodboards/pictures and next chapter post date. Click on 'Comments'.***

 



Chapter Text


     

      Claire drove Jamie to Boeing Field, a small airport near downtown Seattle. Morning traffic was unusually light, and they arrived with time to spare.

      Millennium had sent one of their smaller jets for Jamie, and while the crew and support team prepared the plane for take-off, he sat with Claire in a small private waiting room. 

      “Jamie, I’m going to …” she stopped herself.

      “I’m going to miss you too, you know that.” They were already starting to complete each other’s thoughts.

      She pressed her forehead against his. “We already know we’re going to miss each other - let’s not make it harder on ourselves by always voicing it and texting it. For the next five days, you can’t tell me you miss me, Jamie, because it goes right to my heart every time, and it’s going to kill me slowly. I’ll do the same with you. We can express our feelings any other way - but no ‘I miss you’ messages. That squeezes my heart bit by bit every time.”

      He pressed a kiss on her temple. “You’re right - it makes us dwell on it more if we keep telling each other how much we miss each other. We have to find creative ways to express our feelings this week and lift each other up. I think I can do that. In fact, I may have already started - ye’ll find out later today.”

      The pilot stepped into the waiting room. “Mr. Fraser, we’re ready for you. Your bag is loaded.”

      “Thank you - I’ll be with you in a few.”

      The pilot walked the short distance across the tarmac back to the jet, and Jamie pulled Claire to her feet.

      “Claire …” he whispered. They held each for a long moment, and their lips met in an achingly tender kiss that spoke the words they hadn’t spoken to each other yet. 

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      The memory of his kiss lingered on her lips and in her heart, and she had to consciously push thoughts of him out of her mind as she drove back. She focused on making a mental list of all the things she needed to do. Her first task was stopping at the grocery store to stock up on things she would need for the girls’ return home. First up would be a crepe breakfast for them on Thursday morning - the belated 16th birthday celebration she’d promised them. As she moved through the store, she filled her cart with all their favorite treats and snacks. She also added a smoked Gouda and triple cream brie - two of Jamie’s favorite cheeses, as she had learned over the past two weeks.

      I can try to push thoughts of you out of my mind, but they're going to come creeping back anyway.

      While she waited in the check-out line, she tapped into her messages app and sent Jamie a quick text.

      In case you ever foolishly forget: I am never not thinking of you.”  Virginia Woolf        

 

      Pulling into her driveway, she noticed a sticker on her front door. A delivery service had either left something on her porch, or it was a note saying they’d try again tomorrow. She brought all her groceries into the kitchen. Her phone buzzed as she was about to head to the front door to read the sticker. It was Jamie.

      Landing soon. love the Virginia Woolf quote 😘  Check ur dining room and look for delivery from me later

 

      The formal dining room led off the foyer, and was adjacent to the formal living room. It was rarely used - or even accessed - unless Claire was entertaining more formally, and that didn’t happen very often. She walked into the dining room and gasped. A magnificent tall blue vase stood on the center of the table.

      She recognized it instantly as a Daum lead crystal vase, and knew that he must have picked it up in Bellevue last Wednesday. There had been a larger package from Neiman Marcus among all the things he’d hauled up to the guest room. 

      She walked around the table and admired the vase from every angle. It was tall and heavy, and beautifully made.

      Is there no end to his awesomeness and thoughtfulness? Thank God for the girls being here from Wednesday - I would never survive otherwise!

      She remembered the rest of his text and the delivery sticker, and pulled open the front door. A huge bouquet of white gladioli had been carefully placed on the front porch. She picked up the bouquet and read the card, immediately recognizing his handwriting.

      "I looked into your eyes and I’m sure that some divine artist dipped her brush in the same soul and used it to paint us both.”   Cristen Rodgers

      She pressed her hand over her heart.

      I’ll answer my own question. There is no end to his awesomeness and thoughtfulness.

      She tapped out a quick text to him.

      Facetime as soon as you can, my love

 

      His FaceTime call came in within a half hour. 

      “I just landed and got in the car. They sent a driver and we’re heading straight to the voice studio.”

      “Jamie! That vase! I am blown away. And the quote - I love it! I read Cristen Rodgers’ blog sometimes - she has a special way with words. And the flowers, my love. You remembered.”

      Her words tumbled out of her as she walked over to the dining room to show him the gladioli in the vase.

      “I did remember. You should put the vase wherever you want it - I just set it on the dining table so you wouldn’t see it until after I left.”

      “I’m going to move it to the coffee table in the family room where I can see it throughout the day. It will be a sweet reminder of you. Thank you so much.”

      ”My heart almost missed a beat when I saw that you had quoted poetry - I knew my quote was coming today with the flowers. Just another indication of how our souls are so connected.” 

      “That struck me too. It really is quite unique, Jamie. Are you just arriving at the studio?”

      “Yes,” he groaned.

      “FaceTime again later?”

      “Every break I get, mo ghràidh.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      The rest of Monday went by in a whirl of text exchanges with Jamie, FaceTime calls whenever he could squeeze in a break, curriculum development for her later summer course, and her cherished FaceTime chat with the girls. She took her sanity hour in the hot-tub and relaxed to the point of near somnolence, before calling it a day and heading up to bed.

      Jamie’s unique spicy-woodsy scent lingered on his pillow, and she hugged it to her body, sleeping a deep, restful sleep with Jamie filling her heart and her mind and her senses.

 

      He had spent hours in the studio, recording and re-recording voice-overs for Unauthorized Contact. He Zoomed briefly with Tara and the PR team, who outlined some of the interviews and appearances they were working on for the movie’s publicity drive. His FaceTime calls with Claire kept him going until he collapsed in bed, exhausted. He too slept deeply and restfully.

     

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      On Tuesday morning, he awoke to a text from Claire. 

      "Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”   Emily Brontë       

      He texted her right away.

      Couldn't agree more - as you'll see soon 😘

 

      Before noon, a large bouquet of pink gladioli was delivered. The card was written in Jamie’s hand.

      "The reason it hurts so much to separate is because our souls are connected."   Nicholas Sparks

      She texted him immediately.

      Our quotes Jamie! this is insane!

      I know - the universe continues to conspire! keep them coming - your quotes are keeping me going 😘

      Thank you for the glads - pink today. love them, love the quote

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      By the time Wednesday dawned, clear and sunny in both cities, they were both missing each other intensely. The texts and quotes and FaceTimes were a lifeline, but the missing each other went deeper than the physical ache or the expression of the words that they were denying themselves. It was also a longing for the emotional and spiritual connectedness that had grown between them.

      She was anxious for lunchtime, when she would finally be reunited with her girls, and that would fill the other aching, empty place in her heart.

      For Jamie, being thrust back in the industry was a stark confirmation that he was making the right life choices. The contrast between what he felt for Claire - the profound and sincere feelings they shared - exposed the dichotomy between his former life and the way he imagined his future with her.  

      His phone buzzed. It was a text from Claire.

      “You and I, it’s as though we have been taught to kiss in heaven and sent down to earth together…”   Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago    

 

      She saw the three dots bouncing as he tapped a response.

      Babe 😘   

      Two down, three to go

      We got this - and your girls will be there later

      Yes! so excited to see them - we’ll facetime you tonight

      Don’t forget to send me the video of the Tesla reveal 

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      It was Liv’s weekly cleaning day at Claire’s house, and she spent a few hours doing some general cleaning and preparing the girls’ rooms and bathrooms. Claire’s guest’s room was almost spotless - in fact it looked like he hadn’t slept in there since she changed his bedding the previous week, but she did a full clean nonetheless. She knew he was out of town, but he had still left her a thank you note and some cash, and she appreciated his thoughtfulness.

      Claire had asked her to stay on for a couple of extra hours to help her with a secret project, and while she headed out to pick up the girls from Boeing Field, Liv busied herself polishing and buffing the kitchen cabinetry.

      Claire waited for the girls in the same small waiting lounge as the one she and Jamie had sat in. She stood at the window overlooking the apron and watched the activity going on outside. Airports were fascinating places - multiple disciplines had to work together effectively to ensure safety and efficiency - technology, engineering, ground operations, security, catering, air traffic control. It was a dizzying mix of moving parts, almost daunting in its complexity.

      When a sleek jet touched down and taxied towards the waiting area, she recognized the DC Comics logo on the tail. The jet slowed and glided to a stop a few yards from the waiting area, and Claire moved to wait just inside the sliding doors. She snapped a few pictures as the girls descended the steps at the front of the plane, their long curly hair blowing about their faces in the sudden light breeze. The flight attendant, Debbie, was right behind them, and they snapped some selfies with her and individually while they waited for a baggage handler to bring them their bags. She noted with pride that the girls stopped to thank Debbie and the pilots, who were also on the ground, completing their post-flight checklists.

      The minute they walked through the doors, Claire enveloped them in her arms. They stood there holding each other for a long while. Claire allowed some tears to roll down her cheeks, and wiped them away quickly so as not to embarrass the girls. She was surprised to notice that they too had shed some tears. They looked at each other and laughed through their tears. 

      "Mom, we missed you a ton,” Beth’s tears were still rolling down her cheeks. “I mean we loved visiting Boston, but it was a long time to be away.”

      “I know babies. I feel the same way. It’s so good to have you back. Let’s go home.”

      Claire parked on the driveway instead of in the garage, and if the girls found it a little unusual, they didn’t mention it. They hadn't stopped chatting since they left the airport. She heard all about the flight and the interior of the plane and Kelly’s mac and cheese and a boy named Chase, who lived a few houses down from Frank’s house. Chase and Ella were back and forth on Snapchat a whole lot, according to Beth. 

 

      Claire sent a text as she parked her SUV, but the girls were too busy talking to notice. 

      “Let’s get out here, I’ll pop the trunk for you.” 

      With the trunk open, they busied themselves getting the bags out. Claire had parked her car at the perfect angle, and the girls failed to notice that the garage door on the far right was opening. Liv slowly drove the Tesla out, and then retreated into the garage, out of sight and ready to video the reveal from a different angle.

       Claire tapped her camera app, and started to video the girls.

      “What are you doing, Mom?” Ella asked.

      “Just welcoming you home with a little gift. Come and see.”  

      The girls stepped out from behind Claire’s SUV and froze in shock and surprise. 

      They took in the gleaming white Model 3 with a huge red bow on its hood. They turned to look at Claire and she smiled broadly and nodded. Their hands flew to their mouths as they gasped, and then all hell broke loose. Amid shrieks and squeals, the girls grabbed each other in an embrace and hopped around in a perfect 360º circle, clasped tightly to each other. Then they separated, and still squealing and shrieking, they ran towards the car. Ella flung herself over the bow on the hood in an attempt to hug the car, and Beth collapsed to her knees sobbing. 

     Claire walked over to them, still capturing all of it on video. 

      “Mom, I’m so sorry, I didn't mean to ugly cry! Thank you so much - I love it!” Beth stood up and flung her arms around Claire, almost launching the phone out of her hands. Ella left her spot on the hood of the car, and joined in the group hug.

      “Oh my God, Mom! We love it - thank you so much. Can we drive it?”

      “Let’s go inside the house and get settled down. We can go for a drive later this afternoon. Your father and I shared the cost for the car, so I’d like you girls to text or call him. Maybe text first, in case he’s in his conference.”

 

      Liv texted Claire her videos and pictures, and Claire thanked her for helping with the car surprise.

      “My pleasure, Claire. Thank you for letting me be a part of it. That was so much fun to see. They’re such sweet girls. Oh … there was a flower delivery for you. They’re in the kitchen sink.”

      The girls had dragged their bags inside, and were in the kitchen, opening the fridge and looking for treats in the pantry.

      “I’ll DoorDash some Thai food later, so don’t have too many snacks now.”

      “Mom, who are all the flowers from?” Ella was circling the coffee table now, admiring the blue vase in the family room. “They’re beautiful. Aren’t they the ones you can never grow properly?”

      Beth answered for Claire. “Yes they’re gladioli and I bet they’re from Mr. Fraser. Is the vase from him too?”

      Claire flushed slightly and answered their questions. “Yes, they’re from Mr. Fraser, and the vase too. I told him how awful I was at growing glads, and it’s really sweet of him to send these.”

      “There are more in the sink.” The gladioli were a rich coral color.

      “Yes, those arrived while I was out. Liv brought them in.”

      “There’s a card. Can we see it?”

      “Ella!” Beth pounced on that immediately. “It might be private. We don’t need to see it, Mom.”

      “Girls, I’d love some help with these.” She pocketed the card. “Please remove the plastic wrap and cut an inch off the bottom of each stem. Then arrange them in the vase so that the colors are all mixed up nicely. I need to text Kelly to let them know you arrived safely - and send a few other texts.”

      She stepped out to the patio and opened the card. It was also in Jamie’s writing. He had planned this all so well. He had clearly written out the cards and dropped them off at the florist in Bellevue, with strict instructions on which one was to be delivered on which day. And what struck her most about all of it is that it dovetailed perfectly with her impulsive request at the airport to not send ‘I miss you’ messages, and to find other ways to express their feelings. She read the card.

      “It was a million tiny little things that, when you added them all up, they meant we were supposed to be together ...”   Tom Hanks, Sleepless In Seattle

      She smiled at how perfect the quote was for them and tapped her messages app.

      Your quote today! so special and written just for us!   

      I thought so too. your quote has kept me going all day 😘 

      And thank u for the glads - gorgeous coral color! 

      How was the car reveal? don’t forget to send me the video - can’t wait to see it

      It was fantastic - they were so excited! facetime us when u have a gap - we’re going to hang out on the patio. happy to wait for ur call when u can 

      Sounds good - it’ll be a couple of hours 

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      The FaceTime call came in minutes before the DoorDash delivery arrived.

      “Hi Girls! And Claire!” 

      “Hi Mr. Fraser!”

      “I just saw the video and pictures of your reaction to your new car! Awesome video. You girls were clearly very excited! Congratulations on the new car - I wish you lots of safe driving.”

      “Thanks, Mr. Fraser! Also - thanks for the private jet flight too! That was soooooooo awesome!”

      “Oh my God, Mr. Fraser, it was the best flight ever! Thank you so, so much!”

      “I’m so glad you enjoyed it. You’ll have to tell me all about it this weekend.”

      “How is your voice-work going? What other stuff are you doing in L.A.?”

      “Voice-work is going okay - I have to work with an accent coach, and it’s a little repetitive, but we’re getting there. I should be done with it by tomorrow. And then on Friday, I’m working with a personal trainer to start preparing for Superman. But that’s a secret too.”

      “We’ll keep it to ourselves.”

      “Just so you know, the personal trainer is giving me some basketball tips. I hope you’ll be ready for our challenge on Sunday.”

      “Oh, we’re ready!” Ella was all sass. “Question is - are you?”

      “Ahhh, keep up that trash-talk, Ella! I might shock you with my impressive new skills.”

      “Mr. Fraser, we love the flowers you sent Mom. They’re so beautiful.”

      “I’m very happy you like them too, Beth. I know they’re her favorites.”

      “Jamie, dinner was just delivered. Girls, can you grab the stuff from the front door?”

      As soon as they were out of earshot, she blew kisses at Jamie, and whispered “I’ll call you when I’m in bed.”

      He held up heart hands and blew her a kiss as they tapped out of the call.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

     

      After dinner, Claire accompanied the girls on a drive around the neighborhood. They drove slowly and somewhat nervously through the quiet streets. They had an appointment with the dealership the next day. One of the technicians would be taking them through all the controls and settings, and ensuring that they were comfortable with all the features.

      Claire and the girls sat out on the patio chatting and getting caught up on news and happenings in Seattle during the girls’ absence. They had caught up on emails and group texts from their cheer and volleyball teams, and would be starting limited practices soon. Schedules would be out by the weekend.

      Claire reminded them of their driver license road tests the following week. It would be a huge plus when the girls could drive themselves to volleyball and cheer practice, and to meet with friends for their quarantine-friendly Starbucks hang-outs at a park or parking lot.

      Still used to Eastern Time, the girls tired quickly that night, and after they went to bed, Claire tidied up a little, ran a load of the twins’ laundry, and FaceTimed with Jamie. As she drifted off to sleep it occurred to her that Frank hadn't asked for pictures or a video of the girls seeing their car for the first time.

      Jamie had reminded her to send him the video. Twice.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Thursday was a busy day for Claire and Jamie. The girls awoke early, as she thought they might, their bodies still on a three-hour time difference. The twins made a latte for Claire and chai lattes for themselves, and they all headed outside to watch the sunrise.

      “This is so unusual, girls, to have you up watching the sunrise with me. When you’ve adjusted back to Seattle time, I won’t see you before 10 every morning.”

      “It’s kinda fun watching the sunrise. The colors are so pretty.”

      While the girls took selfies and posted on Instagram and Snapchat, Claire tapped out a text to Jamie.

      “You’re everywhere except right here and it hurts.”  Rupi Kaur 

      Jamie was up early too- she watched the three dots bounce as he tapped.

      Good morning babe. that quote!

      I know - watching the sunrise with girls, seeing your flowers, making crepes - so many reminders of u

      Pls send me a selfie with u and the girls

      “Girls, Mr. Fraser asked for a picture.”

      “I got this.” Ella held Claire’s phone up, they all scooted in together, and she captured a couple of pictures.

      Claire selected her favorite and texted it to Jamie.

      Love it - that just made my morning 😘 

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

     

      Jamie met Dougal for a quick breakfast before heading to the voice studio. Their meeting was a little strained, but Dougal had the decency to apologize for his outburst at Claire.

      “It’s not me you need to apologize to, Dougal.”

      “Aye, ye’re right. I do feel badly about that. I’d like to apologize to Claire in person, but if ye think I should send a note, I can let ye have it before ye head back to Seattle.”

      “Maybe do both. You don’t know when you’ll see her next, and you should apologize before that anyway.”

      “I’ve spent some time thinking about the decisions you’re making in your career.”

      “Dougal -”

      “Jamie, I’m not going to interfere. I still think ye should take more time to think it over, though.”

      “I’ve done plenty of thinking, Dougal. I think my career plans and recent decisions align well with how I want my life to unfold from here. I’m sorry it affects you too - I appreciate very much the work ye’ve done for me. Colum and Murtagh have spoken to me about some things they’d like ye to look at.” 

      “Aye. Colum spoke to me already. I must admit, I like the tourism idea, but I’ve asked for a little more time to wrap things up here. Sorry, Jamie - I know that after my … uh … incident last week, you wanted me out of here and back in Scotland right away. But I really need a little time here to think and get my business matters sorted out.”

      “I can understand that. I ask only that ye stay out of trouble, and in particular stay out of my affairs.” Dougal nodded. 

      “I have to get going now - working with my accent coach all morning. Tara and PR will have me coming back within the next couple of weeks for the Jimmy Kimmel Show. We can grab dinner, and you can tell me what you’re planning then.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      After their crepe breakfast, Claire and the girls headed downtown for their appointments with Armando. He refreshed their very subtle balayage, and while the color developed, he and Claire stepped aside and spoke quietly.

      “Any developments I need to know about, Girlfriend?”

      “Jamie and I had a good talk about it. He was very upfront - says that Anja can be a little over-the-top, but he will be on alert for any inappropriate comments and behavior from her. It goes with the job, as you probably remember from being in that world. The schmoozy red carpet scene is crazy. I’m not too worried about it after speaking to Jamie, to be honest.”

      “Ok, but if anything ever comes up, I got you.”

      “Thanks hon. I love you for it.”

      After their hair appointment, Claire drove the girls to Bellevue to meet with the Tesla tech. They spent about a half hour acquainting themselves with the features and technology in their car. Their favorite feature by far was Caraoke on the audio system. It was an in-car karaoke system that played the backing track and displayed the lyrics on the big touchscreen, so that passengers could enjoy some fun. 

      “Okay girls, that sounds like way too much fun in the car! It’s fine to do that once in a while, but don’t get carried away and lose focus on your driving!” She felt a little guilty telling them that, because just two weeks earlier, she and Jamie had done their own riotous version of karaoke on the way back from Woodinville.

      “Remind me to check if the Model S has that feature too - it might be just a quick software upgrade.”

     

      The gladioli awaiting Claire after her busy morning were a rich lavender color. While the girls trimmed the stems and added them to the blue vase, she stepped outside and opened a fourth handwritten card.  

      “The silence isn’t so bad, till I look at my hands and feel sad. Because the spaces between my fingers are right where yours fit perfectly.”   Owl City, in Vanilla Twilight.

 

      She found the song on Spotify and listened to it while she texted Jamie.

      Thank u for my beautiful lavender glads, and that quote is making my heart burst

      Did u listen to the song?

      Yes! i love your musical poetry. it’s the sweetest song

      One more day 😘 

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

       Claire awoke early on Friday, feeling the heaviness of almost five days without Jamie. She was feeling quite introspective, and her quote reflected her thoughts.

       "It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; - it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.”   Jane Austen

      She saw the three dots bounce as he tapped his reply.

      Awesome quote - i can attest to the fact that our disposition towards each other 100% supports Austen’s theory - BTW - less than seven days for me

      Me too - as you well know  😍 one. more. sleep.

      I’ll call you after meeting with personal trainer. sending u 1000 kisses 😚 

      Sending u 1000 more 💋

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      “Mom, are we doing anything special tomorrow? Since it’s the day Mr. Fraser gets back, and also 4th of July, Beth and I can help with the food and stuff.” 

      “Well, he’ll be home late morning, so I figured we could make burgers with all the fixings, and then we can drive to Snoqualmie Ridge to watch some fireworks from the park. I can’t think of a good dessert though. Any ideas, Beth? Something American-themed?”

      “Mom, since we’ll all be wearing red, white and blue, and the burgers and everything else will be American, I should make him something Scottish so that he feels more welcome. I’m going to google some Scottish desserts.”

      A bouquet of beautiful yellow gladioli arrived soon after lunch, and the girls quickly assumed control of the trimming and arranging. The vase was now completely filled with tall, richly colored gladiolus stems.

      “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many flowers, Mom! The vase looks amazing!” Ella was fascinated by how the design of the vase allowed the stems to fan out and fill the space around it dramatically. 

      “I can’t believe he sent you a bouquet for every day that he’s been gone.” Beth sighed. “I mean, that’s goals, right there.”

      While the girls stood in the family room adjusting the stems, Claire opened the last hand-written card. Her breath hitched slightly when she read it.

     “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."   Nora Ephron

      She tapped back a message.

      Your quote today literally stopped my heart   

      That’s what happened to mine when I first saw you on the driveway almost three weeks ago

      I'll call u tonight after the girls have gone to bed 😍 

 

      Ella started making a list of things they needed to do to get ready for Saturday's meal and for Jamie’s return. Claire had already ordered everything for the burgers, so they wouldn’t need to go back to the store for food. The girls really wanted to decorate the patio in 4th of July decor “to make it more festive for Mr. Fraser.”

      “Okay, we’ll go buy some supplies after dinner. Beth, you drive us to the store, Ella you drive us home.”

      Beth was still researching suitable desserts, and when she gasped dramatically, Claire guessed she had found a winner.

      “Mom, I think I found something! It’s a layered Scottish dessert that looks a bit like the 4th of July trifle we always make, with layers of berries. It’s called cranachan. We need steel-cut oats.”

      “We have that in the pantry,” confirmed Claire.

      “Okay, I have to toast them and soak them overnight in whisky.”

      “Well, you girls can’t have whisky, so you might want to toast two batches of oats and soak yours in a simple syrup instead.”

      “Sure. We have all the other ingredients. Cream, berries, honey, and sugar. I can toast the oats after dinner, and I'll assemble everything else tomorrow morning.”

 

      After their trip to the store and the FaceTime call with Jamie, the girls set about decorating the patio for their small Independence Day celebration. 

      By bedtime, the oats were toasted and soaking, the patio looked festive, and all three were ready for a good night’s sleep.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Saturday was cloudless and sunny, and Ella and Beth were in the kitchen even before Claire. Claire had showered and dressed in skinny blue jeans and a slim fit blue tee with vintage-looking American flag print. She had curled her hair into soft waves, and applied her make-up with a little extra care.

      Both girls wore denim shorts, and Ella had a red tee with large, bold USA lettering on the front, while Beth wore a white tee with a wavy American flag print and the occasional sparkly bead scattered through the stars.

      While Claire headed out to Boeing Field, the girls inflated and hung at least two dozen balloons. On a whim, Beth decided to bake some shortbread, so that Jamie would have "something Scottish" to enjoy with his morning lattes.

      Claire recognized the jet as it taxied towards the terminal. She held her breath as the door swung downwards and the steps were secured in place. Jamie stepped out in jeans and a navy tee, ducking his tall frame through the doorway. He looked straight towards the waiting area but couldn't see into the lounge because of the glare off the windows. The baggage handler brought him his bags, and with a quick final wave at the pilots, he strode towards the sliding doors. Claire was standing just on the other side of the glass, and as soon as the doors opened, he abandoned his bags, and took her in his arms. The airport was almost deserted because of the holiday, and they stood there completely wrapped in each other. Her face was against his neck, inhaling his familiar scent deeply. His nose was in her curls, taking in the unique fragrance he knew so well. They stood there soaking each other in, and then he tipped her head back and kissed her.

      When they pulled apart, he pressed his forehead to hers and said in his deep, low rumble, ”Take me home, babe.”

      En route to the house, they filled each other in on some of the details of their week that they hadn't already covered in multiple daily texts, FaceTimes, and phone calls.

      “Claire, some full Fraser honesty here - I’m a little nervous to meet the girls.”

      “What? Why? You’ve been FaceTiming for almost 3 weeks now! They think you’re awesome!”

      “They might not like me in person. What if they think I’m not good enough for you, Claire? That’s what scares me the most. It’s one thing playing around and teasing us on FaceTime, but if they don’t like me … I can’t even think about what that would do to us!”

      She brought her car to a stop on the driveway.

      “Jamie, listen to me. They have spent most of yesterday and all of today preparing for your return. They cooked and decorated and cleaned. They are super excited to meet you. Just be yourself. You felt the same way when you met them on FaceTime for the first time, and look how well that worked out. Also, you’re wearing a Seahawks-themed 4th of July shirt. They like you already!”

      “Do I shake hands with them? Wave? Fist bump?”

      “Let them decide - they’ll probably guide that.”

 

      They walked through the kitchen and stopped at the door to the covered patio. Before they stepped out, Claire kissed him quickly on the lips. “I’ll be right here, you’ve got this.”

      They stepped out, and Jamie’s eyes swept over the streamers, mini flags, balloons and red, white, and blue fairy lights that twinkled everywhere. The girls were engrossed in their phones.

      “Girls …” Claire called out.

      They turned their heads and both of them gasped and stood up immediately, dropping their phones on the sofa.

      “Mr. Fraser!” Beth sprinted the short distance to where Jamie stood and flung her arms around his waist. Jamie hugged her back awkwardly, patting her back a few times.

      “It’s so good to meet you, Beth!”

      She released him, and Ella stood a few steps away, somewhat awkwardly. She smiled and held her hand out to shake hands, and at the last minute, she changed her mind and gave him an awkward, one-armed side hug.

      He gave her a one-armed little squeeze, and said “It’s great to meet you, Ella.”

      She pulled away, and looked up at him, smiling broadly. “Welcome home, Mr. Fraser.”

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

*** See first comment for notes/moodboards/pictures and next chapter post date. Click on 'Comments'.***

 

Chapter Text


  

      “Mr. Fraser! You got our names right! No one ever does that until they’ve known us for, like, ages.” Beth was genuinely impressed.

      “Well, we’ve been chatting on FaceTime for a while now, and I feel like I’m starting to get to know you both a little through that.”

      “You’re taller than I expected.” Ella was looking at him steadily, and Jamie knew instinctively that he would have to work a little harder to win and keep her trust.

      “And you’re probably wondering how I can be so bad at basketball?” he said, with a self-deprecating grimace.

      “Uhhh … I wasn’t going to be that blunt, but yeah…” Ella's face broke into a wide smile.

      “Well, I’m hoping that after you take me down tomorrow, you girls will give me all your pointers.”

      The girls laughed at that, and Claire broke the ice a little more by suggesting that they all sit and chat over a pitcher of lemonade that Ella had made earlier. 

 

      By the time Claire emerged from the kitchen with a tray of cups and the lemonade, Jamie and the girls were seated on the patio sofas, in a back and forth discussion about their flights on the private jets. 

      “You girls got burrito bowls for lunch on your flight? All I got was a breakfast sandwich.” Jamie feigned an air of indignation. “Okay - it was a pretty decent breakfast sandwich, I canna lie.”

      “We even got our favorite candy on our plane. There was a giant bag of Swedish Fish for me, and Hi-Chews for Ella.”

      “You can thank Mr. Fraser for that! He asked me what your favorite candy was when he arranged the flight.”

      “Awww, that was so nice of you, Mr. Fraser. Thank you!”

      “Don’t mention it, lasses - it was my pleasure. I heard we’re having burgers today. What can I do to help? I’m not the best at grilling, but I can help ye prepare the other stuff.”

      “Mr. Fraser, your accent is so cool!” Ella was starting to warm up a little more, and Jamie was doing a great job of engaging both of them with his humor.

      “Actually - you’re the ones with accents. To my ears anyway!”

      “But yours is waaaaay cooler!”

      “My accent has actually diminished over the years, as I spend more time out of Scotland than in it. It flares up again when I speak to my sister, or Dougal and Murtagh - my relatives. And definitely after I’ve been to Scotland - it’s all ‘aye’ and ‘ken’ and ‘ye’. If it gets too much, just remind me.”

      “No - we love it. Everyone loves accents! Our friends think that Mom’s accent is the coolest.”

       Claire rolled her eyes slightly. “Yes, I’m not sure how flattered I felt when your friends all told me I’m just like Mary Poppins. After lemonade, we should probably head back to the kitchen to start prepping the burgers. It’ll be a mid-afternoon meal. And then fireworks tonight - we can pack some snacks to take with us, in case anyone’s hungry by then.”

 

      Ella took charge in the kitchen, assigning everyone jobs as they prepared toppings and fixings for the burgers. Jamie was in charge of slicing tomatoes and caramelizing onions, and Claire was given the task of sautéing mushrooms and putting the final touches to the potato salad that they had worked on last night. Beth cut watermelon slices and assembled all the condiments and toppings, and refrigerated items like cheese and pickles. Ella did everything else, and insisted on doing the bacon herself because she wanted the perfect amount of crispness. 

      Jamie and Claire stood together at the range as they watched over their skillets. 

      “My onions look way more appetizing than your mushrooms,” he teased.

      “Oh, excuse me!” she replied haughtily. “We can’t all be sous-chefs at Lallybroch!”

      “I don’t know if I’d call myself a sous-chef exactly.”

      “Let me see what you’re roasting each other about,” Ella intervened. “Mom, I’m sorry to say that Mr. Fraser is right. His onions are perfectly soft and golden brown.” And she flounced out of the kitchen to help Beth set the patio table.

      “They’re not really - she’s just being nice," Jamie winked at her. "Claire, I’d love it if you’d consider letting them drop 'Mr. Fraser' and just call me Jamie.”

      “I’m okay with that as long as you are. I think now that you’ve met in person, there’s a different level of comfort and ease between you and the girls.”

      “It would feel more appropriate to me. 'Mr. Fraser' adds formality to my relationship with them, and that’s not how I want it to be.” He leaned over and kissed the top of her head. “Thank you. I’ll find the right time to let them know.”

 

      Within an hour, they had all the fixings and toppings ready, and Ella and Beth made several trips in and out of the kitchen as they set things up outdoors. While the girls arranged platters and condiments on the patio table, Claire and Jamie were in the kitchen putting the finishing touches to a green salad. Claire reached into the fridge for the burger patties. 

      “I think we’re about ready to go with these burgers, Jamie. I don’t mind grilling them - our grill is idiot-proof.” 

      “Trust me, it’s not Fraser-proof. I’ll help you, but ye’ll have to take the lead.”

      “No problem. Would you mind grabbing the buns?” She set the patties down on the counter and reached for a tray.

      “I don’t mind grabbing the buns at all.” Jamie came up behind her and pressed his body against her back. His hands clasped her butt and squeezed gently. She leaned back against him and he bent down to kiss the sensitive area behind her ear. 

      “Not those, Jamie.” He heard the smile in her voice and in response, he smiled against her neck, nibbling her soft skin. 

      “When can we sneak a quick kiss?” He ran the tip of his tongue from her ear lobe to her shoulder.

      “Jamie … “ she sighed.

      He pulled away from her suddenly and busied himself helping Claire load up the tray just as the girls stepped back into the kitchen.

      “I think we’re all set up out there,“ Ella announced. “We can start the burgers.”

 

       Claire and Jamie worked the grill together, producing perfect patties. They all assembled their unique burgers and sat around the patio table to eat. The girls’ 4th of July playlist drifted through their space, and their mealtime conversation flowed comfortably. It eventually turned to Jamie’s ownership of The Grotto.

      “You girls haven't met Murtagh Fraser yet, that’s Jamie’s godfather. He’s going to help run the winery, and he suggested that we go up for a brief visit. Would you girls want to go spend a couple of days up there before you start your cheer and volleyball training?"

      “Yeah - that would be awesome. Will we get to do some jet-skiing?” Beth loved water-sports.

      “And hiking?” Ella was all about the challenging hikes.

      Jamie answered their questions.

      “There are some great hiking trails for beginners and advanced hikers. I checked that out because I love to hike and climb mountains too. I’ll find out what water equipment we own up there. There’s a couple of boats in the asset register but I'm not sure about jet-skis. Do you girls have life jackets?”

      “They’ve probably outgrown them. I’ll order some new ones. They need them anyway. A few of their friends live on the lake and they’re always down there doing water-sports.”

      “Claire, will you let me take care of getting a separate set of life jackets for all of us - to keep at the winery for whenever we visit? We can keep them in the Owner’s Suite.”

      Ella and Beth threw each other a quick look, but said nothing.

      “Of course - thanks, Jamie.”

      “It’s a bummer that they’re not doing Watershed this year. Can we go next year, Mom?”

      “Sure, Beth. I’ll ask Mr. Fraser to reserve a room for us right away, and I’ll pay upfront to secure one close to the amphitheater. They’ll know the dates up at The Grotto.”

      The girls looked at Jamie.

      “Oh, not this Mr. Fraser. Jamie’s godfather, Murtagh Fitzgibbons Fraser, the one I mentioned earlier,” Claire explained.

      “But that brings up a good point,” Jamie said. “How do you girls feel about calling me Jamie, rather than 'Mr. Fraser'?”

      There was a brief silence, as the girls pretended to mull it over. They were just as keen to drop 'Mr. Fraser'.

      “I’m okay with it. Mom, is that okay?” Ella spoke up first.

      “I’m okay with it too, if Mom says it’s fine,” Beth agreed.

      “Jamie asked me if it was okay, and I said yes, so it’s perfectly fine with me.”

      “Ok, that’s settled. I’ll let the other Mr. Fraser know - my godfather - so that he can confirm a room for you as soon as possible.”

 

      “Mom, I think it’s probably time for dessert.” Beth was excited to share her Scottish treat with Jamie.

      “Of course, sweetheart. Is it in the patio fridge?” Beth nodded. “Why don’t you and Ella get it ready, and Jamie and I will clean up in the kitchen.”

      While the girls decorated the cranachan with fresh berries, Jamie and Claire loaded the dishwasher and cleared up. 

      “I think we have some unfinished business, babe.”

      He walked over to her and took her hand. “I need to kiss you. I want to feel your tongue on my lips and in my mouth. I need to kiss you right now.” 

      She leaned back against the counter and pulled him towards her.

      “I need you too, but we can’t do it here.”

      “It’s okay, I can see the patio from here. We’re good.” He pressed himself up against her. She stood on her tiptoes and dropped sweet kisses along his jawline. She grazed his jaw gently with her teeth, and nibbled her way back along his jaw towards his ear.

      “God, Claire, I really, really need … uh … here comes Beth.”

      He stepped away from Claire.

      Beth poked her head around the corner. “Dessert’s ready!”

      “On our way,” Claire called back. “Jamie, she’s super excited about her dessert. We’ll pick up from here later.”

      He smiled. “Of course. We knew we’d be sneaking around a little. It just adds to the fun.”

 

      Beth and Ella were already seated at the table, and when Jamie and Claire joined them, Jamie’s eyes went immediately to the cranachan in whisky glasses.

       “Ye’re kidding me! You guys made cranachan?”

       Beth was beaming with pride and excitement.

       Ella explained: “It was Beth’s idea - to make you feel more at home on a very American day.”

       “Ella helped a ton too! Try it Mr. Fra - Jamie!”

       Jamie swallowed hard and looked at Claire. She smiled at him, knowing how much the girls’ efforts meant to him. She was desperate to take his hand, but held back for now.

      “Girls, I am so touched by your thoughtfulness. I can’t wait to tuck in.”

      They all tried their first spoonful and Beth basked in their lavish praise as they enjoyed the dessert.

      “Mine and Ella’s don’t have whisky, but it’s still really good.”

      “Mine’s outstanding! You girls did a great job. This is better than my sister’s, and she’s been making it for years!”

      “For real?” asked Beth.

      “For real,” he confirmed.

 

      At the end of the meal, Jamie thanked the girls again for all the effort they had put into making the day so special and memorable. 

      “Beth, Ella, I canna thank you enough for making me feel so welcome. I’ve spent a few 4th of July holidays in America, but this is by far the best. Your decorations, your food prep, the cranachan. It’s all been amazing. I even like your playlist. I appreciate all of it very much!”

      “You’re very welcome, Jamie,” Ella responded. “It's a small way to thank you for arranging our flight.” 

      “I have to agree with Jamie, girls. You’ve done an amazing job of preparing for today. Why don’t you take it easy for a while. Connect with your friends so you can meet up at fireworks tonight. Jamie and I will finish cleaning up, and I’m going to help him figure out how to scan some documents in the study, and then we’ll hang out here with you until the fireworks.”

      Jamie looked at her in surprise. Scanning documents? She fixed him with a steady gaze, silently daring him to say anything. Realization dawned a second later, and he stood up to clear the table with her.

      As soon as they were in the kitchen, they abandoned the plates and glassware in the sink and hurried to the study. Claire shut the door, and Jamie pushed her up against the wall with his body, hands pressed on the wall on either side of her head.

      He dropped sweet, gentle kisses all over her face. 

      “Claire, I’ve had to wait almost six long days for this!”

      “Let me kiss you, my love. I've ached for you too.” 

      She held his face in her hands and her tongue teased his lips, and her teeth nipped and grazed him gently. He groaned in pleasure and brought his arms around her to wrap her in an embrace, pulling her in close. She pulled and sucked gently on his bottom lip until she could stand it no more and pushed her tongue into his mouth. He responded with all the passion and longing of their five excruciating days apart. Both of them were aware of their own and each other’s bodily responses. Their kiss intensified in its urgency and when they finally pulled apart, their breath came in soft gasps. They pressed their foreheads together, and as their breathing steadied, she wound her hands in the curls at the base of his neck and pressed one more kiss to his lips.

      “Welcome home, Mr. Fraser.”

      He smiled his wide, sweet smile. “I have never been happier to be home, mo ghràidh.”

      “We should get back to the kitchen.”

      “Go on back, Claire. I’ll join you in a moment.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      The fireworks display was somewhat different to previous years. Attendees were required to stay in their groups, either in their cars or gathered in clusters on the lawn. Most of the revelers wore masks, and Claire and Jamie kept theirs on, concealing Jamie’s identity and allowing them to enjoy the display undisturbed. The parking lot had turned into a large tailgate party. Dozens of cars were parked with trunks wide open, their occupants gathered in the back of their vans or SUVs, or in lawn chairs next to their trunks. Jamie and Claire settled into their lawn chairs, and the girls took a picnic blanket and set off towards the park to find Ashlee and a small group of friends. 

      Jamie reached for her hand and they sat in silence watching the surrounding festivities with amusement. Many people drank from travel mugs filled with everything but coffee. Some had snacks set out. A few even had tiny camping grills set up where they grilled hot dogs or made s’mores. Playlists clashed as music thumped out of car sound systems and portable speakers.

      “I love how patriotic Americans are, and how much they embrace this holiday. I bet in normal, non-quarantine years, this fireworks party is even more crazy.”

      “Oh, it is,” replied Claire. “It’s a lot of fun. Next year’s will look a lot different.”

      “I canna wait to spend that one with you and the girls too.”

      She looked at him, eyes smiling above the mask. “We need to talk to the girls soon. I’d like to do that with you, if that’s okay?”   

      “Of course. When do you think would be a good time?”

      “I don’t know. I’d like it to happen naturally - almost organically. I’d prefer that to calling them into some sort of ‘we need to talk’ meeting. That always seems forced and awkward. I don’t think it’ll come as a huge surprise to them, but I do want it to be comfortable for them when we do it.”

      “Suits me. We’ll wait for the right moment, and I’ll be there with you, Claire.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      The girls were exhausted by the time they arrived home from the fireworks display. They had almost adjusted to Seattle time, but the last vestiges of jet-lag lingered, and they’d both been up early that morning.

      Claire knew they were ready to call it a night. “Okay - it’s time for everyone to head to bed. It’s been a long and exciting day. I’ll be up to say goodnight to you girls in a minute.” 

      “Goodnight, girls.” Jamie assumed they would respond with a simple ‘goodnight’ too, but they both came over and gave him a quick group hug and headed upstairs.

      Claire chuckled at his look of surprise. “That’ll likely be a nightly thing.”

      “That’s great, Claire. My niece and nephews do the same thing when I’m at Lallybroch. It’s very sweet.”

      “Should we head up too? I’ll kiss the girls goodnight. I’ll text you when …” She trailed off and he nodded.

      “There’s a little something for you under your bed, babe.” His slight eyebrow raise hinted at something worth looking forward to.

 

      Both girls were already teetering on the edge of sleep when she kissed them goodnight. She pushed her bedroom door closed behind her and went to her side of the bed. Reaching down, she pulled out a silver Nordstrom gift box tied with a silver satin ribbon. She tugged the ribbon and lifted the lid. Carefully moving aside layers of silver and white tissue, she reached in and held up a delicate La Perla babydoll and thong in black lace. She smiled slowly.

      Tapping her messages app, she sent him a quick text.

       💋 

      He responded right away.    

      U like?

      I love 

      She sent him another message.

      Give me 10 minutes. i’ll text u again

      She grabbed a few candles from her closet and placed them on the nightstands. After a quick shower, she applied Philosophy’s delicately fragranced Amazing Grace lotion all over her body. It had the subtlest of shimmers without being glittery, and she knew her body would gleam enticingly in the soft candlelight. She removed the stickers and tags from the lingerie and stepped into the lacy black thong before slipping the baby doll over her head. A perfect fit, as she knew it would be. It hugged her breasts, and a slit up the front opened to reveal her toned abdomen and provide a tantalizing peek at the thong.

      She lit the candles and sent another text.

      Je suis …

      She watched the three dots bounce and waited near the door. 

      Seconds later, Jamie pushed the door open quietly and froze. 

      “Oh my God, Claire … “ he whispered, as he took in the sight of her in the babydoll, her soft waves tumbling over her shoulders, skin glowing in the soft flickering light.

      She held her hand out to him. “Lock the door, my love.”

      They spent long hours slowly and sensuously re-discovering each other, their bodies perfectly attuned to each other’s needs and desires. And when they finally fell asleep, it was pressed up against each other, chest to chest, hearts beating together, arms and legs locking them in a tight embrace that loosened slightly as deep sleep overcame them.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      When Jamie awoke, they were still lying face to face, arms draped over each other. He smiled slightly at the memory of their hours of gentle lovemaking and kissed her softly. He carefully untangled himself from her embrace and paused as she stirred slightly. She continued sleeping, and he soundlessly let himself out of the bedroom. 

      After his weights workout, Jamie showered and dressed in navy shorts and a soft blue tee that emphasized the vivid blue of his eyes. He headed down to the kitchen and found Ella and Beth already there.

      “Good morning, girls!”

      They both responded enthusiastically, and he noted with relief that they had both inherited Claire’s sunny morning disposition. 

      Ella was sitting at the kitchen counter, tapping away on her phone, and Beth was gathering ingredients for a baking project.

      “I’ll make you a latte,” Ella offered. ”Beth baked you some shortbread yesterday.”

      “Aww, you girls are truly the best! I’d love a latte, thank you! And a piece of shortbread would be great with that.”

      Ella busied herself with the latte, and Jamie looked at Beth’s assembled ingredients.

      “What are you baking, Beth?”

      “Blueberry muffins.”

      “Do you need any help? I’m pretty useful around the kitchen. My sister runs our family business in Scotland. It’s a B&B - bed and breakfast - and she ropes me into helping her cook and bake every time I'm there.”

      “Sure - could you please cream the butter and sugar until they’re light and a little fluffy. You can use the handheld electric mixer. I’ll get you an apron.”

      She disappeared into the pantry. “It’s a bit frilly, but it’s the biggest one we have, and you’re so tall. Sorry!”

      “It’s okay, lass,” he smiled as he set his phone down on the counter next to his latte, and donned the pink floral apron.

      Ella was back on her phone at the kitchen island and looked up quickly at the spectacle of Jamie and his clearly too small, pink, frilly apron.

      “That’s an interesting look, Jamie,” she teased.

      While he creamed together the butter and sugar, Beth rinsed the blueberries. His phone buzzed on the counter near Ella, but the mixer was too loud for him to hear it. Ella caught sight of the notification as it lit up his phone.

      “You have a text, Jamie,” she said loudly, so he could hear over the noise. 

      He turned the mixer off and peered over at his phone.

      Ella helpfully tried to read it upside down.

      “It’s from … uh … Sassy snack …or something. And ... it has a heart emoji.” She looked at him pointedly, her eyes narrowed slightly and there was a sudden tightness around her mouth.

      Jamie’s heart lurched a little. Beth stopped what she was doing and looked up. Ella watched him closely as he picked up his phone. As he’d guessed, the notification was from Sassenach❤️.     

      He tapped his messages app and read Claire’s text.

      Good morning - thanks for letting me sleep in 😍  Just got out of shower - did u make it out of here before the girls woke up?

      He tapped a quick reply.

      Yes, in kitchen with them now. it may be time for that talk 😳

  

      Claire quickly gathered up the previous night’s evidence and stuffed the candles and lingerie in her closet. She took the swiftest of showers, pulled on her blue yoga pants and a soft white tee, and headed downstairs. The girls had resumed what they were doing, and Jamie had started mixing the butter and sugar again. No one heard Claire as she padded to the kitchen. She leaned up against the wall and her heart tightened at the sweetness of the scene in front of her. Jamie was engrossed in his mixing duties, a slightly worried frown creasing his brow. She wondered about that, but would ask him later. She was too distracted by the sight of his big muscular frame in her frilly apron. Beth was sifting together flour and baking powder. Ella was on her phone, her forehead also creased in a tiny frown. Jamie saw her first, and stopped the mixer.

      “Good morning!” he smiled broadly and the frown disappeared.

      “Hi mom,” Beth called out, “Jamie’s helping me bake blueberry muffins.”

      “Hey Mom.” Ella sounded flat and looked tense. Claire looked at her and Jamie quizzically.

      “Everything okay here?” she asked.

      “I don’t know,” Ella replied, fixing her mom with a worried look.

      “Claire, Ella saw your text come in a few minutes ago. My phone was on the counter near her. And she saw ‘Sassenach’ with the heart emoji.”

      “Who is that? What kind of dumb name is that?” Ella’s emotions were getting the better of her and she sounded angry.

      "Okay,” Claire intervened, “I’m going to guess that you saw the unfamiliar name and heart emoji, and you’re wondering who is texting Jamie this early in the day. With a heart next to her name.”

      Ella nodded. “Something like that.”

      “Beth, come sit here next to Ella for a moment. We can get back to the muffins in a little bit.”

      Jamie walked around the island and sat next to Claire. He scooted his stool so that his shoulder was touching hers. If he couldn’t hold her hand just yet, he needed some physical contact with her - a reassuring and comforting closeness for both of them.

      “Girls, Sassenach is a nickname that Jamie uses for me. He added me to his phone as Sassenach, and yes, he added a heart emoji.”

      Beth tried really hard to suppress a smile, but failed dismally.

      Ella was tougher to crack. “Why Sassenach? What does that mean?”

      Jamie explained. “It’s an old Scottish word for an English person. Historically, it wasn’t always the most flattering term for the English, but you need to know that I mean it as an endearment. I use it only with great … affection.” 

      “Okay,” Ella nodded slowly.

      “I have some other endearments that I use with your mom, and you may hear me use them ...”

      “Like ‘babe’,” Beth offered.

      Jamie looked at Claire and they both smiled sheepishly.

      “That’s one of them, yes. ‘Leannan’ is one I use too - even with my niece and nephews. It’s similar to ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’. Another is ‘mo chridhe’, which means ‘my heart’.”

      Claire prompted “And ‘mo ghràidh’.”

      “Yes,” Jamie smiled, “that means ‘my love’.”

      Ella looked at Beth, and then at Jamie and Claire, and said seriously. “Will you give us a minute, please? Don’t move from here.”

      Ella led Beth out to the patio, closing the door behind her. Jamie and Claire heard a squealing sound, and Claire leaned over to look out of the window. She giggled.

      “They’re hugging and jumping up and down. I guess they’re very okay with all this. Here they come …”

      The girls had their serious faces back on as they reclaimed their seats at the counter. Ella started.

      “Jamie, I’m sorry about my attitude. When I saw a strange name and the heart - I knew you must have added the emoji in your contacts. I thought maybe it could be your sister, then I thought nope, no way. The heart was a bit much. And it's exactly what happened when Ashlee and Tate broke up. He was texting with a girl from another school for weeks, and it was heart emojis and kissy faces that busted him. So I was worried about Mom and …”

      Beth jumped in. “Can you please tell us what’s going on? Are you dating for real, or just crushing, or what? I feel like we should know.”

      “You’re right. You should know. I guess you would call it dating, but yes, Jamie and I are in a relationship. I know it probably seems weird or strange to you, because we met so recently and it happened so fast.”

      “I don’t think it’s weird at all.” Beth was going into dreamy mode. “It’s like one of my favorite quotes from Anaïs Nin. ‘You don’t find love, it finds you’.

      “I know the rest of that quote, Beth,” Jamie said. “'It’s got a little bit to do with destiny, fate and what’s written in the stars’.” 

      “Yes! I can’t believe you know that!” Beth’s eyes were wide in disbelief.

      “I don’t think it’s weird either,” said Ella. “I feel like right from when we first started to FaceTime you, it was pretty obvious that there was something going on.” 

      “Yeah. We knew something was happening. You guys weren’t very good at hiding it.” Beth smiled impishly. “I mean, who sends someone so many flowers in one week! And knows that they’re her favorite flowers.” 

      "And mom always blushed when we mentioned your name."

      "And you always wear matching clothes."

      Ella looked at both of them pensively. “It’s more than just crushing, right?”

      “Yes,” Claire nodded.

      “It’s a lot more than that, Ella.” Jamie said carefully. “I know that you girls are savvy and smart and you know that in the movie world and the music world, the entertainment industry in general, people don’t always make good choices in their personal lives. Some impulsive decisions and questionable choices can destroy relationships, and it really taints the industry and paints everyone in it with the same brush. But we’re not all that way. I was raised to value love and family and fidelity. In particular, I was taught to cherish the beauty and sanctity of a relationship with a partner who is your forever love.”

      "What do you mean by the 'sanctity of your relationship with your forever love'?"

      "I mean sanctity in the sense that the single most important relationship in your life - the one that becomes your forever - should be cherished and treated as sacred. There's almost a holiness to it, and nothing should violate it. And I want you both to know that I would never do anything to damage my relationship with your mom, or to hurt her. I treasure and value what we have together."

      They both mulled this over for a moment, and Ella finally asked: “Do you feel like Mom is your forever love?” 

      “Yes. I do, Ella. I have very deep feelings for your mom.”

      Claire reached over and took his hand.

      “And you, Mom?” Beth looked at Claire.

      “I feel the same way about Jamie. He is my forever love. I’m one hundred percent sure of that.” He squeezed her hand gently in acknowledgement. “It’s hard to explain in words the type of instant connection that we felt, but now that we’ve shared it with you, you might notice it in little ways. Don’t worry, we won’t embarrass you with constant PDAs.” Claire lightened the mood a little. “We promise not to be too cringey. But we sometimes think the same things, or complete each other’s sentences. And, yes, we often end up wearing matching clothes. We are very, very in sync with each other.” 

      Beth sighed deeply. “This makes me so happy. I just want Mom to be happy.”

      “Me too,” said Ella. “You deserve to have a forever love, Mom. We want you to be happy.”

      “I am, sweet girls. I’m very happy.”

      Jamie looked at the girls earnestly. “I want you to know that I will always strive to make your mom feel happy and loved and safe. Do you have any questions for me? I know how important your mom’s happiness is to you, and if you have any concerns, I’m more than comfortable addressing them.”

      "Me too girls. We’re still navigating our relationship, and we’re all going to be getting to know each other better in the months ahead. Over the next few days, we'll talk a little more about Jamie's plans for the future, and how some of that might play out publicly. But if you have any immediate questions, we're happy to answer them."

      The girls were silent for a moment, then Beth spoke. “Not right now. But is it okay to ask later if we think of anything?”

       “Of course,” Jamie replied. “Don't ever hesitate to ask us anything. We'll always answer you honestly. Should we get these muffins done?”

       Jamie and Beth stood up, and he planted a kiss on the top of Claire’s head.

       “Don’t get up, babe. I’ll make you a latte.”

       Beth and Ella gave each other their secret twin look. 

       They couldn't remember the last time they had seen their mom so happy.

 

 



 

 

*** See first comment for notes/moodboards/pictures and next chapter post date. Click on 'Comments'.***

 

Chapter Text


  

      The weekend ended on a high note for Ella and Beth. They were beyond excited that their mom and Jamie had opened up about their relationship. After spending most of Sunday day at the pool, they had trounced Jamie in the basketball challenge, and were looking forward to their Chipotle dinner. Jamie had accepted their teasing and ribbing in his usual good-natured manner, pointing out that he only lost by a margin of three.

      Monday kicked off what was to become a more complicated week. Jamie and Claire woke up together for the first time since the morning he’d left for L.A. They had set an alarm for their run at 6:00 a.m. - well before the girls would surface. Despite the long talk with the twins about their relationship, and the explanations about the depth of their connection, neither felt it was the right time to openly share Claire's room. Ella and Beth needed to get used to Jamie’s presence in their home and in their lives. They needed to see first-hand the intensity and authenticity of the relationship. Jamie and Claire knew there would be lots of questions to answer in the days ahead, as the girls’ initial excitement dissipated a little, and they would know when the time was right to start sharing a bedroom.

      “Good morning, babe,” he nuzzled her neck gently.

      “Mmmmm. There is no better way to wake up, my love.”

      “Is that right? I beg to differ. Allow me to demonstrate …”

 

 

      They finally set off for their run an hour later, after Jamie had convincingly demonstrated that there were, in fact, better ways to wake up. Claire’s running time had improved again, and they decided to add a little more distance on their next run. She was getting closer to reaching Jamie's distance, and that would make her feel a whole lot better. Her competitive spirit drove her to keep improving and match his distance, if not quite his pace.

      "You're doing great, Claire," Jamie complimented her as they stretched against the garage wall and allowed themselves some cool-down time before entering the house. "We'll be running marathons before you know it."

      "Just let me know when your next charity run is - I'm in! Let's head inside and grab some coffee."

      They walked into the kitchen to find Beth and Ella preparing four acai bowls.

      “Good morning, girls! Jamie and I went for a run. I didn’t think you’d wake up this early, so I didn’t even leave a note.”

      “We checked the front-door video history and saw you guys head out in your running gear, so we figured it out.” Ella shrugged.

      “Okay, so for future reference, Jamie and I run together two mornings a week. Sometimes I go on my own too - you girls are welcome to join me.”

      “That’s awesome mom - we might do that! We have to get our fitness back up for volleyball and cheer.” 

      “Don’t forget your driver’s tests at noon today. When does cheer and volleyball training start?” Claire asked.

      “Mandatory training starts in a couple of weeks. Parent showcase for cheer is in August. It'll be mostly tumbling because we can't stunt yet, until Washington Athletics gives schools the all-clear," Ella explained.

      Every year, after summer training camps and choreography boot-camp, the cheer team held a series of parent showcases for parents and families to watch the team demonstrate their new routines, cheers and dances for the upcoming season. Their school team was particularly good at tumbling, and it was always a highlight of the showcase. As with so many things that had been affected by the pandemic, this year's showcase would be different. Claire knew the school would send a list of guidelines about where they could and couldn't sit during the performance, rules about mask use, and all the other things that had become a part of everyday life, and would likely continue for several more months.

      "Well, I'll look forward to it anyway. You and your team are always so polished and impressive really early in the season, and it's a joy to watch. What about volleyball? How are you feeling about that this season? You lost three good players when they graduated in June - that's half of your State Champ team. How are the incoming freshmen and sophomores?"

     "There are two really good sophomores, mom! Like, really good. One's a setter and one's an outside. And we have a new junior student whose family just moved to Seattle from Montana. Her team won state there too, so she's good and experienced at top level."

      "That sounds promising," Claire responded. "It'll be a great season all around. You'll just have to get used to doing things a little differently for the first semester."

      "Do you think we'll need masks for the road test? I'm kinda nervous for it."

      "Yes, you will need masks."

      “If you lasses would like some last minute practice this morning, I’ll go with you so your Mam can get some of her work done. I had to get a WA state license last year, so I should be okay to accompany a permitted driver.” 

      “Thanks, Jamie. Can we go right after breakfast?” Beth was anxious to get her last practice in.

      “Me too,” Ella echoed. “I need to practice how to back up around a corner.”

      “Of course. And if ye both pass, we’ll have a celebration dinner at your favorite restaurant tonight. My treat - and not Chipotle. That’s a separate thing.”

      “Can we go to Montalcino? It’s really awesome. Mom?”

      “Sure, if you pass your road test. I’ll make a reservation. I’m going to shower and dress and I’ll be back soon for those amazing-looking acai bowls. Thanks for working on those this morning.”

      “Aye, they look fantastic. I’ll be down as soon as I’ve showered too.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      After breakfast, Jamie took the girls out in their car to get a little practice. Claire busied herself responding to emails, and was grateful to have Jamie's help with the girls' driving. She asked him to accompany her to the twins’ road test, and he agreed readily.

      “I’ll be a nervous wreck waiting at Starbucks on my own. If one passes and the other doesn’t, I don’t even know …”

      “They’ll both pass. They had a last-minute practice and they’re both competent and confident. I had to remind Ella to keep an eye on the speed limit, and Beth was a little close to the curb, but if they manage to avoid those issues, they’ll do just fine.”

      “Thanks for doing that with them.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      While the twins went out on the road with the examiners from the licensing center, Claire and Jamie sat at the outdoor tables at a Starbucks around the corner. 

      “Jenny wants to come over for a few days next week. She really wants to see the winery. And meet her baby brother’s hiatus-breaker, I suspect.” He raised his eyebrows teasingly at her. “She has a lull in events and reservations at the B&B, and Ian can handle the ones they do have. They have two sous-chefs now, so it’ll be easier for him.”

      “That sounds awesome. I’m looking forward to meeting her. Hopefully she doesn't hate me too much. She’ll stay with us, right?”

      “She was planning on finding a hotel in Bellevue. She wouldn't want to put you out.”

      “No, Jamie. Please tell her I have another guest room. It makes more sense. Would it be okay to schedule The Grotto trip I promised the girls for the same time as Jenny’s visit?”

      “Of course. I asked Murtagh to order two jet-skis for the winery. All our life-jackets too. The jet-skis will be primarily for the girls’ use - and my niece and nephews when they visit.”

      “Jamie! Are you kidding?”

      “No. I reckon if I’ll be spending some weekend time at The Grotto, I really want you with me. And I also reckon we would want the girls with us as much as possible before they go off to college. So if we keep them excited about going up there, they’re more likely to want to keep coming.”

      “Your reckoning is excellent, and very much appreciated.” She leaned over and pressed a lingering kiss on his lips.

      “Ummm …. heeeeyyyy,” Ella’s sing-song greeting broke their kiss. She and Beth were standing next to their table with paperwork in their hands.

      “We passed!” They waved their paper licenses around excitedly. 

      Jamie and Claire stood up immediately and wrapped their arms around both girls and each other. 

      “Whoop, whoop!” Claire shouted exuberantly. “Awesome news, girls. I’m so proud of you!”

      Jamie joined in the celebrations. “Congratulations, girls. You did it! I’m proud of the pair of you.” 

      “Thanks!” they replied in stereo.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Ella and Beth were almost as excited about dinner at Montalcino as they were about passing their road test. Jamie drove them in Claire’s SUV, and everyone had dressed up a little for the occasion. 

      “You’re going to love it, Jamie. It’s our ‘special occasion’ restaurant,” Beth enthused.

      “The food is amazing! It’s authentic Italian. Nonna has been there and she said she couldn't fault it.” Ella was just as enthusiastic.

      “It’s really tiny,” Claire described it to Jamie. “It probably seats only 30 people. And fewer now.” 

      It was a popular, award-winning restaurant, and at 50% quarantine capacity, even with a reservation, they had to wait at least ten minutes to be seated. They stood outside the restaurant with a few other diners, chatting amiably until the host finally emerged and called out, “Fraser, party of four.”

      Jamie leaned down close to Claire’s ear and said, “I love how that sounds.”

      “Me too,” she whispered back, smiling softly at him.

      Over dinner, the twins asked Jamie if he would be willing to answer some questions that they had thought of since their discussion the previous day.

      “Of course ye can. Go on, what’s on your mind?”

      “Will you carry on acting for a while?” Ella asked.

      “And before you answer, we know that most of what you tell us is very confidential. We have always been good at keeping secrets.” Beth looked at him earnestly.

      “Yeah, Beth’s being totally honest. We have each other to talk to about stuff, so we don’t feel the need to unload on our friends about everything.”

      “I appreciate your willingness to maintain confidentiality,” Jamie looked at them seriously. “My career plan is to withdraw from the industry and to focus all my energies into my family life and the winery. It started out as a five-year plan, but it will likely be shorter than that. I’m ready to be done. My most recent movie is now in post-production. All the voice and dialogue work I did in L.A. last week? That’s for a movie titled Unauthorized Contact. Pretty soon, I’ll start work on publicizing it with my co-stars. That means appearances on morning TV, late night shows, Instagram and Facebook lives, and other appearances. There’ll be lots of press and social media.”

      “Is that part of your job fun, or more of a chore?” Beth seemed quite intrigued.

      “It depends on the movie and the co-stars. I really love this movie and its story. Most of my co-stars are great, and the PR tour should be fun. One of my co-stars is very publicity-conscious, so that could get interesting. I recently signed on to do Superman, and that will be my swan song.”

       “Superman is the last one? Whoa! Talk about going out on a high!” 

       “Yes, it is pretty exciting, I have to say. We’ll start shooting that quite soon. A lot of Superman will be done in a CGI studio, so we’re lucky that we can work within quarantine restrictions. The last thing I want is for it to drag out.”

       “Why has your plan dropped from five years to less than that?” Ella asked.

       “Well the main reason is meeting this amazing woman - the one I want to share my life with.” He reached over and took Claire’s hand and kissed the back of her wrist and then turned it over and kissed the underside of her wrist. Beth smiled with delight and Ella took a quick look around to see if any of the other diners had noticed. “Once I met your Mam, I was done for. My original five-year plan had some wiggle room in it in case I landed a 007 movie. When I was offered 007, it was a three-picture deal that would extend well beyond the five years. A movie typically takes about two to two-and-a-half years from the time it’s announced to the time it hits the theaters. It depends on the genre and complexity. Within that time, principal photography for an action movie - the actual time shooting - is around 120 days. All the other time is pre-production, planning and post-production. So you can see how three movies would just drag on and on. Because of that and a few other reasons, I rejected 007 and opted for Superman.”

      “So after Superman, you’ll be done? In like two-and-a-half years, maybe? Do you think you’ll miss that whole vibe? The fame and the fans?” 

      “I won’t miss it, Beth. I’m very grateful to the fans for always supporting my work and my charitable events, but the lifestyle is not for me. It invades every area of my life, and can be soul-destroying. I grew up in a very family-focused home, and I miss that quiet, private life. Hollywood is not the environment I’d like to raise a family in.”

      The girls threw a fleeting look at each other, and Ella commented, “Some of it sounds like a lot of fun - like the red carpets and the parties and awards shows. But yeah, we can see how sometimes it can make people do crazy stuff. Like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. They both went through some really bad times.”

      “And they were chased by photographers and TMZ all the time. That seemed really invasive. They literally couldn't go get coffee or boba without it being all over social media. Zero privacy.” Beth added.

      ”That’s it exactly. I just want to reclaim a normal life.”

      Claire listened to the conversation carefully, noticing how astute her girls were about celebrity lifestyles. Like most teens, they were captivated by social media, and they were very interested in the comings and goings of the celebrities they followed. But they also seemed to understand how the lifestyle negatively impacted so many in the entertainment world.

      “Beth, Ella, as soon as Jamie starts to promote his new movie, there will be a lot of coverage on mainstream media and social media. Social media, in particular, may put out information that is completely untrue or exaggerated. Jamie has some fans who are obsessive, and they get pretty vocal. You need to disregard all of that. Or just don’t read it. I certainly won’t be.” 

      “And always feel free to ask us if you read or hear things that worry you.” Jamie added.

      It turned out that the first worrying thing would happen the next day.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      The twins left the house mid-morning to work out with their volleyball team at their school’s field and running track. They would do a few weeks of optional cardio and strength training before mandatory skills training started. Like many active, achievement-oriented teens, they found that summer break started to get busier and less relaxing as August approached.

      Claire was on the patio, video conferencing with Tonya, as they reviewed parts of Claire’s online summer course. Tonya had made a few suggestions and Claire had noted them as she put the final touches to the course before its launch in a few weeks. Before signing out of the Zoom call, Tonya had a quick update for Claire.

      “So Dean Abernathy is backing you up. I wanted you to know that. I was filing some stuff for his assistant, and I heard him on his phone. He said something about if the sexist bullshit with Beauchamp continues he’s going to call a meeting of the Board. And that Fulton can’t afford more accusations of sexism and negative publicity.”

      “Oh, wow! That’s really good to know, Tonya! He and I have always got along really well, and he was a good friend of my late husband. He’s such a forward-thinking, progressive leader. It makes me happy to hear that he’s aware of the sexist issue that’s emerging again. Thanks for that update.”

      As she ended the Zoom call, Jamie stepped out of the kitchen and walked over to her, a worried frown marring his otherwise smooth forehead. 

      “What’s up?” she asked.

      He sat next to her and took her hand. “Just got off a Zoom call with Tara and the PR team. They're tracking a trending Jamie Fraser hashtag. The PR team does that for its clients so that they are prepared to handle issues as they arise.”

      “What’s it about?”

      “TMZ is running a segment about me later today. Just a snippet - not a headline. Someone tweeted a photo of you and me at Din Tai Fung. It captures me from the front, and you from the back, so it’s impossible to identify you. It’s blurry, but definitely looks like me.”

      “Can you show me?”

      “Sure.” He tapped through a few screens on his phone and showed her the tweet. It read ‘Jamie Fraser at Bellevue Din Tai Fung!’ It had been retweeted over a hundred times and had several thousand likes. From the user’s profile, it was clearly just a random Seattle resident who happened to spot a celebrity and tweeted about it. 

      “You’re right. It is pretty blurry, but your fans will know it’s you, and it’s clear that we’re holding hands. Shoot! Jamie, will this be a problem for you?”

      “Claire! I’m more worried about it being a problem for you!”

      “There’s no way you can tell it’s me. It’s just a dark-haired female. Why are you worried?”

      “The tweet is pretty basic, but TMZ’s angle is along these lines, according to my PR: ’Jamie Fraser spotted with mystery woman in Seattle’. And the story goes on to feature the tweet and photo.” 

      “So that means some of your ardent fans might go on a quest for more info about the 'mystery woman'?”

      “Possibly. PR is not that worried - it’s only got 100 or so retweets, so it’s not trending at a rate that concerns them. TMZ called Tara and my PR to ask for a statement, but they declined. It’s always better to do that than to have viewers trying to minutely analyze any statement put out by PR. I’m just worried that they identify you, and the whole PILF thing comes up again.”

      Claire nodded pensively.

      “My PR will probably prepare a statement and bounce it off me later, but their sense is that by tomorrow or Thursday some other story will overshadow it. I’m not that worried, but I wanted to give you a heads-up.”

      “Eyes on the prize, my love. We knew there would be a few bumps in the road. We’ll get through it. It doesn’t sound like it will be a big deal. We may have to give the girls a heads-up.”

      “Definitely - I’d rather they were ready for it too.”

      “On the plus side, I got some good news from Tonya! It seems that the head of Fulton Business School, Dean Joe Abernathy, is quite supportive of me. He was a professor and department head during PILF, but even at the time, he backed me. Now that he’s Dean, it’s a huge deal for me.”

      “That is great news, Claire!” 

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Around mid-afternoon, Jamie got an alert on his phone that the segment had posted on TMZ’s website, and he and Claire watched it together.

      ‘Scottish heartthrob and actor, Jamie Fraser, has been spotted wining and dining a mystery woman in Seattle. A Twitter user posted this picture of Fraser at Din Tai Fung in the greater Seattle area. It’s uncertain when the picture was taken, but sources tell us that much of Fraser’s latest movie was filmed in the Emerald City last year. The movie, ‘Unauthorized Contact’ is slated for release within the next two months, as authorities allow movie theaters to open again, with limited attendance. Fraser has also been the top contender to replace Daniel Craig as the next 007. No announcements have been made on that yet.’

 

      When the twins arrived home after practice, Jamie and Claire filled them in on the Twitter and TMZ situation. They listened carefully.

      “TMZ is Ashlee’s favorite app. She’s always checking out celebrity gossip.” Ella commented with a slight eye roll.

      Jamie and Claire glanced at each other briefly. Knowing that Ashlee's father, Jeff, was aware that there was something between Claire and Jamie was slightly disconcerting. They knew that he had been drinking at the gala dinner, and there was no telling what he remembered, but it was still a concern, and both of them filed it away in the back of their minds. For now, they would just have to hope that Ashlee didn't mention the TMZ story in Jeff's presence.

      “Can we see the TMZ story?” asked Beth.

      They all watched it together, and Ella remarked.

      “Doesn’t seem that bad. It’s hard to even see Jamie in the picture, and no one’s going to recognize Mom from that.”

      “Until it all blows over, it means that Jamie will have to protect his identity more. Sunglasses, cap, definitely a mask - that’s a huge help.”

      “I’m used to it, girls. It’s one of a hundred little reasons that I’m getting out of this craziness.”

      They nodded solemnly.

      “We totally get it. I can’t imagine going for lunch and always worrying about people taking a stealth photo and tweeting it.” Beth shook her head.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      After dinner, the twins stayed on the covered patio to binge watch episodes of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, while Jamie and Claire took what was left of their wine and headed to the stone patio. They settled into the Adirondack chairs, and Jamie quickly checked his texts.

      “PR says that after the TMZ story, #next007 started to trend too. I just hope it takes the attention off the ‘mystery woman’ thing.”

      Jamie reached for her hand, and sighed deeply. “I’m sorry, babe. The last thing I want is to complicate your life with this crap.”

      “Please don’t think that. We knew we’d hit some turbulence along the way. This does not complicate my life. We're in it together, my love.”

      “Thank you, mo ghràidh. You are so patient and tolerant. I’m the luckiest man alive.”

      “I think we could easily argue until it gets dark about who’s the luckiest.”

      “Aye, we could, but we need to talk about some important things, Claire. I’m pretty sure I can predict the twins’ next few questions to us.”

      “Yes, I felt like they had some more questions for us at dinner last night, but they held back a little.”

      “They’re going to ask us about the house that I’m building for sure. They must be wondering how it all fits together with them and you and me. I’d like to reassure them, but you and I need to talk about that first.”

      “I agree. We went to the architect appointment together, and you asked for my input, but I’m still not sure how you see it all fitting together. How it all works for us.”

      “I know, and I’m sorry. I should have been more upfront about it, rather than throwing you in the deep end and hoping you’d figure it out. I guess I was a little nervous that you would think I was moving too fast. I didn’t want you to feel pressured, and I was worried I’d scare you off a little with thoughts about leaving this home for another.”

      “I’m not feeling pressured or scared, Jamie. Tell me what it is that you envisage.”

      “I picture you and me and the girls here.” He looked over at his property. “I picture us making a life together here. All four of us … and possibly more.” He looked into her eyes, trying to gauge her response to that. Her eyes and gentle smile told him what he wanted to know, and he leaned over to kiss her.

      “But ye ken, it’s very nerve-wracking for me to talk about this because it means asking you and the girls to leave this beautiful home you’ve created here. It’s the only home that the girls have known in Seattle. I want to make the new home as comfortable as possible for you and for them. I will include everything that they want in our new home, Claire. A pool, court, hot tub - whatever they want, and whatever you want -”

      “Jamie stop,” Claire interjected. “It’s not about all the material things and the amenities and all the bells and whistles. I can assure you of that. This is the only home they’ve known in Seattle. But before we moved here, they had to leave their home in Boston. I thought they would never forgive me for ripping them away from Nonna and all the friends they'd made there. And they were mad at me at first, they really were. But they settled in, made new friends, and they’ll be the first to tell you that home is where family is. They’re not attached to material things. They will want to be where we are. Another thing we need to bear in mind is that they are entering their Junior year. They have two years of school left before they head to college. I don’t want to think a whole lot about what that means just yet, but my point is that they know their lives will change a lot and family support and love will mean much more to them than whether they still have a pool or a court.”

      “I want them to know that they will always have a home with us. You saw that the house plans included 5 bedrooms in the main house, and a guesthouse with 2 additional bedrooms? Two of the bedrooms in the main house are theirs. For as long as they need them or want them. During their college years and beyond.”

      “And the other three bedrooms?” she teased.

      “Well, one is the primary bedroom, for us, of course. With a new, improved and enlarged closet.”

      “And the last two?” 

      “Sassenach,” he pleaded, “don’t torment me. Do you have any idea how much I want you to have my babies.”

      “I know. And I do too,” she said softly.

      “Do you think two more rooms aren’t enough?”

      She sputtered and coughed out a little wine.

      “No, I think two more are plenty!”

      They both chuckled at her reaction, and after a moment, Jamie turned serious again.

      “How do you feel about it, Claire? About leaving the home you built with Henry?”

      “Jamie, you know that I had a wonderful life with Henry, and that he loved me dearly. And I loved him. He loved my girls too, and he was a great father figure to them." She stroked her thumb absently on the back of his hand. "When Henry was diagnosed and we knew that the outlook wasn't good, he told me that he wanted me to find love and happiness again - I mentioned some of this to you at our picnic on your property."

      Jamie nodded.

      "There's a quote that really resonates with me: 'People come into our life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime'. About two months before he passed, Henry gave me a small, framed copy of the quote and I keep it on my desk at work. He told me that he came into my life for a season, and as much as he would have wanted it to be so much more than that, we needed to accept that it wasn't in the universe's plan for me." She smiled wistfully. "He was very tolerant about my obsession with 'The Alchemist' and Coelho's quotes. So he indulged my belief that the universe had a master plan for me, and he told me that our season was special and wonderful, but the universe had other plans for me. He promised me that other seasons would follow, and that eventually I would find my 'lifetime'."

     She swallowed and took a deep breath in and exhaled slowly.

      "I didn't believe him Jamie. I didn't believe that other seasons would follow, and that I would eventually have someone come into my life as my 'lifetime'. I thought I wouldn't love again. But I was wrong. You are my reason and my lifetime. You are the reason I'm able to love so deeply and openly. You are my forever love and my lifetime. My home is where you are, Jamie."

       "Claire ... I'm so grateful to Henry for coming into your life when he did. I know he will always be in your heart. In his wisdom, he knew that the universe would connect you with your lifetime. And I am eternally grateful that the universe conspired for us, mo ghràidh. I cannot imagine a life without you. You are my home.”

      Their lips met in a deep kiss that sealed a lifetime of hopes and promises in their shared future.

      A rustling in the rugged pathway interrupted their kiss, and the girls appeared from the bushes.

      “Hey guys!” Beth greeted them cheerfully. “We wanted to ask you something.”

      They sat in the chairs on either side of Jamie and Claire. 

      “So, you’re probably going to want to stay out of restaurants for a while because of the TMZ story, right?” Ella asked.

      “Just until it blows over,” Claire confirmed.

      “Well, we want to organize a date night for you - right here at home.” 

       Beth looked at them expectantly.

      “A date night?”

      “Sure,” said Ella, “Beth and I will make dinner and dessert. We'll serve you guys like they do at a real restaurant - it will be out on the covered patio."

      Jamie and Claire melted into smiles. The girls were so excited about their idea, there was no way they’d decline.

      “Aww, girls, we would love that!” Claire enthused.

      “Way to spoil us! What time and what’s the dress code?” Jamie was touched by their gesture and wanted to show his enthusiasm too.

      “Well,” said Beth, “it’s a date night, so you have to dress up a little. And dinner will be at 7:00 p.m.”

      “That sounds wonderful, sweethearts! It’s the day of my big interview, so I will be ready for a great night after what will probably be a stressful day.”

      “It’s going to be a great interview, Mom.” Ella said firmly. “You’ve totally got this. And we’ll make it super special on Friday. Date night plus a celebration of Mom’s awesomeness.” 

      “We’re going to Pike Market on Friday morning to get some fresh ingredients and bread.”

      Claire raised her eyebrows at that. “Girls, can we order your ingredients online? I’m not comfortable with you driving all the way into downtown Seattle. You need a little more driving experience before you tackle the Interstate and the nightmare of Seattle traffic and parking.”

      The girls’ shoulders slumped and they tried not to look too disappointed. 

      “I mean, we can try and find the stuff online.” 

      “I’ll take you lasses into Seattle on Friday, if you like. I’ll clear my morning, and it will keep my mind off your mom’s interview.”

      “For real?” The girls spoke at the same time, eyes wide with excitement.

      “Of course - I love the market, and you can show me all your favorite stores and stalls.”

      “Oh my God, thank you so much! Ella, let’s go finish planning the menu.”

 

      The girls left them to continue their chat, and when darkness surrounded them, they headed indoors to find the girls at the kitchen counter still planning their date night dinner. They were watching YouTube cooking videos, making notes, and checking the fridge and pantry. Jamie and Claire smiled at each other, beyond touched at the thoughtfulness of the twins, and headed for the media room to watch a movie and stay out of the girls' way.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      The TMZ story continued to trend on Wednesday, and Jamie stayed in touch with his PR team about whether or not to issue a statement. In the end, it was decided that an official comment would merely prolong interest in the story, so they remained silent.

      Tara called Jamie to let him know that he would have to fly out to L.A. next Tuesday morning to appear on James Corden’s Late Late Show.

      “I love James - his show is always fun! No Carpool Karaoke, I’m guessing?”

      “Nope. Anja will be there too.” Tara knew he wouldn’t love that news.

      Jamie groaned audibly.

      “I know, hon. Here we go, right? The publicity tour will start in earnest now, so brace yourself. Have you prepared Claire for all of this?”

      “As much as I can. I mean, how do you prepare for all the shit that comes out of left field? We’ll weather it together. Tell me more about the Corden show.”

      “Here’s what I know. Corden has been doing the show from home since quarantine started, but they just revealed their new set. No sofas, only individual armchairs. Their plan is to do remote interviews on large screens with their guests, but Millennium asked if they would do an in-person with you. They know that viewers are keen to see an actual in-studio guest on late night shows, and you would be the first in a long time. So the viewership will be insane, and of course that means a ton of buzz for the movie. And for Corden’s show.”

      “How long is the interview?”

      “You’ll go on first, and Corden will interview you for about 20 minutes on your own. Anja will join you for the last 10 minutes. Again - it’s individual chairs, so there won’t be unexpected handsy stuff and typical, showy Anja behavior.”

      “Thank God for small mercies! Thanks, Tara!”

      “Millennium is sending the jet for you - someone will text you all the details. You’ll fly in on Tuesday morning, and the show records in the afternoon. You and I can meet afterwards - we have other stuff to talk about. You’ll be back with Claire by lunchtime the next day.”

      “Sounds great! My sister flies in from Scotland on Tuesday - I might make adjustments to her schedule so she can meet me in L.A.”

      “I bet Millennium will gladly help you with that.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Jamie updated Claire on the Corden interview scheduled for the following Tuesday. 

      “Isn't that when Jenny flies in?" asked Claire.

      “Yes, but I’m going to have her fly into L.A. instead. Dougal will pick her up at the airport. It’ll be good for her to spend some time with him and update him on things in Scotland. They’ll come with me to the Corden show taping. Jenny and I will fly back here on the Millennium jet the next morning, and then we’re all off to The Grotto for the weekend.”

 

      By Thursday, a new trending story had completely overshadowed TMZ’s story on Jamie, as they focused on a new, much bigger issue about a beloved and popular daytime talk show host who was under fire for the supposed toxic work environment on her show. As one of the biggest names in showbiz, the Ellen story dominated social media and celebrity news outlets for days.

      Jamie and Claire felt a sense of relief as they were finally able to push the TMZ story out of their minds and breathe more easily.

      For now.

 



Chapter Text


 

      Claire and Jamie had set the alarm for 5:00 a.m. on Friday morning so she could do an hour-long yoga session before getting ready for her interview. She yawned and stretched as Jamie wrapped an arm around her. She turned to face him, and they lay in silence for a moment, contemplating the big day ahead for Claire.  

      “You’re going to blow them away, babe,” his voice was still morning-sleepy and husky.

      “I hope so, my love. Thank you for being so supportive - it means everything knowing that you’re thinking about me while I’m in there facing a tough panel of interviewers.”

      “Just as it meant so much to me knowing that you were here thinking of me during my recent stressful meetings. You’ll wow them with your intelligence, experience, and potential. I know you will.”            

      “That’s my plan,” she smiled. “Do you want to do your weights workout while I do my yoga?”

      “You go ahead. I’ll make you some breakfast. How about a cheese, tomato and ham omelette? Lots of protein to keep you going. And some fruit and a latte?

      “Where did I find you?" she sighed. "And are you always this amazing? An omelette sounds awesome.”

 

      The girls joined them for breakfast, and sensing that Claire was anxious about the interview, they chatted about a wide range of subjects to keep her mind on other things. They spoke about everything from their training schedules and fashion trends, to makeup videos and new favorite songs. After breakfast, Beth and Ella hugged Claire goodbye, bombarding her with good luck wishes. She looked the consummate professional in her grey pantsuit, white shirt and Coach pumps. 

      “You look amazing, Mom. Like you could run the whole place,” Ella complimented her as she walked out of the kitchen.

      "You got this, Mom!" Beth called after her.

      Jamie walked her to the car, and kissed her tenderly on the forehead before opening the driver side door for her.

      “I know you won’t be able to text in between interviews, but know that we’ll be waiting here for you when you get home. Crossing fingers for you, mo chridhe.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Her series of interviews started at 9:00 a.m. They were hour-long interviews with a half-hour break in between. The first one was with Dean Abernathy and his academic council. It went very smoothly, and she answered all of their questions competently and with the confidence that came from her expertise, experience, and familiarity with her subject. She sensed no hostility from the group, and they seemed genuinely interested in her experience and her plans for the department, as well as her ability to secure donations and funding for the program.

      When it ended and the interviewers dispersed, Claire stepped out into the hallway and walked towards the large atrium in the middle of the building. She wanted to clear her head before the next interview. It would likely be the toughest of the day, as she went before Dean Abernathy and the Board of Trustees.

      As she looked out of the atrium windows at the perfect lawns and manicured flower beds, Joe Abernathy walked up and stood next to her. 

      “Claire, that went very well indeed.”

      “Thank you, Dean Abernathy.” In a professional setting, she always addressed him by his title, but in the social events they attended it was always ‘Joe’.”

      “I want you to know - off the record - that I fought hard against shelving the MS Comms degree. Unfortunately, I’m up against some old-guard folks who need to move into the 21st Century. The MS Comms notwithstanding, I know that the MBA program would be enriched by your professorship, and I wish you well in today's interviews. Be prepared for some tough questioning in the next interview. I’ll be there too, along with 17 members of the Board.”

      “Thanks, Dean Abernathy. I have a fairly good idea of what I’m up against, and I believe I’ve prepared well. I appreciate your support very much.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Jamie and the twins set off for Seattle at around 10:00 a.m. Jamie drove the girls' car, and Beth sat in the front passenger seat adjusting air-con, setting the GPS, and selecting a playlist.

      “Jamie, have you seen this cool feature? It’s called Caraoke, and it’s basically karaoke for the car. The screen shows you the lyrics of the song while the track plays in the background.”

      “No way!” said Jamie. “Let’s try it.”

      “Yassss!” they both exclaimed eagerly.

      “What song do you want?” Beth was scrolling through options.

      “Pick a classic rock, I think. I might not know all your music.”

      “The first one in that genre is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’,” Beth said.

      “Yes! I love that one. We saw the movie last year, did you see it, Jamie?” Ella asked from the back.

      “I did, Ella. It was amazing. I love Queen - so this is a perfect choice.”

      The three of them launched into an exuberant and very loud rendition of the song, amid giggles, timing and pitch issues, and occasional raucous laughter.

      Beth paused the song, “What does ‘Scaramouch’ even mean?”

      “Who knows,” replied Ella. “Unpause it, Beth!” 

      Moments later, she paused again. “And fandango! What is that?”

      “Isn’t it a dance of some sort? We’ll have to google it later,” laughed Jamie.

      “Unpause it and let’s sing!” Ella exclaimed from the back seat.

      They continued singing to the end of the song, breathless with laughter, and then started it from the beginning again. By the time they had also sung ‘Summer Nights’ and ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’, they were almost at the market.

      They all put on their face-masks as they exited the car. Jamie’s was larger than the one he usually wore, offering a bit more coverage. He wore a Seahawks cap and kept his sunglasses on, even in the indoor market. Claire had reminded the girls to avoid calling Jamie by name while out in public, and the trio did not draw any unusual attention as the girls went from stall to stall, buying ingredients and produce.  

      “We need to grab some bread and some really good olive oil - but that’s in the outdoor section.”

      “No problem - lead the way,” said Jamie. “Do you girls know what color your Mam’s wearing tonight?”

      “She’s wearing a red dress,” replied Beth. “We helped her pick it.”

      Jamie smiled at that. “I need to get something for her. It’ll take me twenty minutes. Where should I meet you?”

      “After we get some things here, we’ll go to the fish place to get fresh scallops. We can meet there - it’s the one where the guys throw the fish.”

      “Ah, yes. The famous one - by the brass pig. I’ll see you there in about twenty.”

      Jamie set off for a store a few blocks away, and by the time he had concluded his transaction and pocketed his purchase, twenty five minutes had gone by, and he hurried back to their meeting place. The girls were standing near the brass pig statue, holding several bags filled with their purchases. There were four young men standing with them, a little closer than pandemic restrictions recommended, and way too close for Jamie’s comfort. He took in the scene. The boys looked like they might be nineteen or twenty, and all four were holding their phones. They all wore t-shirts from different colleges, and he guessed they were kids who had grown up together in the Seattle area and reunited over the summer. The girls were looking uncomfortable, and Ella looked around her, probably trying to find Jamie among the masked shoppers. Jamie’s stride lengthened and quickened, and when one of the boys reached out to touch Beth’s curls, he closed in, just in time to hear one of them say:

      “Come on, just give us your Instagram or your Snapchat…”  

      Jamie swooped down, extending a strong protective arm around each of the girls’ shoulders. He topped the tallest of the boys by at least three inches, and they all looked up at him, visibly daunted by the sight of this tall, muscled stranger who did not seem in the least bit happy to meet them.

      “Everything okay here? Something I can help you boys with?”

      “Uhhh … no, it’s okay. Our bad. Sorry girls.” They took off at speed, and Jamie looked at the girls with a worried frown.

      “Are you lasses okay? I saw one of them touch your hair. Did they do anything else?”

      “No, we’re fine. They weren’t scary, really. Just a bunch of boys home from college. But they wouldn’t take no for an answer when we refused to give them our Snaps or Instagrams.”

      “Thanks for helping us out, Jamie. I didn’t think they could move so fast,” Ella giggled.

      “No problem. But next time, don’t assume they’re harmless. I’d prefer to see you girls find help if you feel threatened like that again. These guys seemed friendly enough, but a different group might not have had such innocent intentions."

      “Yeah, next time we’ll be more careful and maybe just move away to where more people are standing.” Ella seemed contrite and Beth nodded in agreement.

      "That would be much better. I’m sorry I took longer than expected.”

      "It's okay. Did you get what you needed?" Beth asked.

      "I did. And I think it’s lunchtime. I saw a Chipotle a block away. How does that sound?”

      

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      By the time Claire returned home, it was mid-afternoon, and the girls were busy preparing dinner. They stopped working to ask her how the interview had gone, and were relieved when she reassured them that it had gone really well.

      “How did it go at the market? Did you guys have a fun time with Jamie?”

      “Yes! He’s so fun, Mom. We sang Caraoke all the way there and back.”

      “Oh, Lord,” groaned Claire. “Did he make you pause it every few minutes?”

      “No, but Beth did.”

      “I was questioning some of the words and lyrics, that’s all. Also, Jamie had to save us from some guys at the market who were low-key bugging us.”

      “Oh?” Claire’s eyebrows shot up.

      “Yeah, Jamie went to get you something, and by the time he got back, there were four guys trying to get our Intsa and Snap. We weren’t scared or anything, they were just annoying. And then one of them touched Beth’s hair, and Jamie was there in a flash, with his arms on our shoulders, giving them the stink eye.”

      “He was way bigger than the guys, and they left pretty fast after Jamie asked what they wanted.”

      “Well, I’m happy that Jamie was there to help out. If that happens when you’re out with friends, or just the two of you, don’t ever assume that the boys are being friendly. Even if these guys were. Try to find a security person or store owner.”

      “Yeah, Jamie had that talk with us too. That would have been our next move for sure,” Beth said. 

      “Mom, after we’ve served you dinner, can we head over to Ashlee’s for a sleepover. It’s Hannah’s Birthday, and she’ll be there too. It’s just the four of us. We’ll probably be done here by 9:30.”

      “Is Ashlee with her mom or her dad this weekend?”

      “Her mom. So it’s literally seven or eight minute’s drive.”

      “Okay. Yes, you can go.”

      “Mom, we banned Jamie from the kitchen, and we’re banning you too. You should change into something comfortable and go and join him - he’s on the terrace."

 

      A few minutes later, she joined Jamie. He was stretched out on the sofa with his iPad in his hands, but leapt to his feet the minute he saw her.

      “Claire!” He pulled her into his arms, and held her close. “How was it?”

      “Exhausting! But it went really, really well.” 

      “I want to hear about it - all of it.”

      They sat on the sofa, and she told him about Dean Abernathy and the interviews with the council and the Board.

      “Honestly, the trickiest questions came from the Board, as expected. A little more hostile than I would have liked.”  

      “What were the tough questions from the Board?” 

      “They asked how I felt about my work on the MS Comms being shelved. What my thoughts were about whether social media could impact Fulton’s reputation. Obviously a not-so-subtle reference to PILF. Poor Joe looked so uncomfortable at that - as did a few of the others, to be fair. Joe steered the questioning back to my expertise. Lunch with my co-workers was the longest, but by far the easiest. They all know me so well.”

      “Overall, what’s your sense?”

      “I think it went really well, and Joe seemed happy at the end of it. I get the feeling he’s rooting for me.”

      “Oh, Claire, I’m so happy to hear that. You must be wiped!”

      “I am. It’s mentally exhausting, and I’m drained. I should have thought of that before the girls went to all this effort. I don't want to flake out tonight - of all nights.”

      “You’ve been up since 5:00 a.m. too. Long day for you. Here, why don’t I lie back on the sofa, you lie here next to me, put yer head on my chest and take a nap. You’ll feel refreshed in no time and ready to tackle their very special date night. They've been working so hard all afternoon, babe.”

      Claire snuggled into his arms, and lay her head on his chest. Nestled between Jamie and the back of the sofa, and with his heartbeat in her ear, she felt cocooned and safe. He played with her hair and gently caressed her face, until he felt her breathing slow to her sleeping rhythm. Then he kissed the top of her curls, and drew her closer still.

      He lay there with her asleep on his chest for well over an hour. Ella came over, saw that her mom was asleep, and whispered to Jamie. 

      “We’re going to start setting up the patio from 6:00, so you’ll need to go upstairs by then. Please.”

      “Okay,” he whispered back. “I’ll let her get a few extra minutes, and then I’ll wake her up.” 

      Moments later, he wriggled slightly to avoid an arm cramp, and his stirring woke her up. 

      “Babe,” he murmured, “it’s time for us to go up and get ready for our date night. The girls want us out of the way while they set the table.”

      She stretched, and raised herself up to look at him.

      “Jamie, did you really just let me sleep on you for over an hour?”

      “Of course, and I loved every minute of it. You’ve no idea how it makes me feel to hold you next to me like that for a whole hour, uninterrupted.”

      “It makes me feel safe to be wrapped in your arms like that, and to hear your heartbeat in my ear.” 

      She leaned over and placed deliciously sweet kisses on his lips.

      “We should go upstairs and get ready so that the girls can do their thing,” she suggested.

      “But I was enjoying your kisses, Claire!”

      “There are so many more where those came from. Thousands, in fact.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Jamie showered and neatened his scruff a little, leaving it long enough to keep Claire happy. He dressed in a dark suit with a vest and a white shirt, but no tie. His look was perfect for date night - stylish and put together, but not overly formal. 

      Claire showered and pinned her waves up into a casual up-do, with a few loose tendrils to soften the look. She applied her makeup with greater care, opting for a blend of caramel and coffee tones to complement her eyes. She slipped into a curve-hugging red dress, with cap-sleeves and a cross-over bust, and stepped into her platinum Jimmy Choo heels. Her phone buzzed as she spritzed on some Miss Dior. She tapped her messages app. Jamie had sent a text.

      Can’t wait for our date night! a little something for you on your pillow 😘

      She stepped into her bedroom and saw a small gift bag in the distinctive blue of Tiffany & Co on her pillow. She worked through the tissue paper and pouch, and finally opened the little box to reveal a pair of magnificent ruby earrings. The deep red studs were surrounded by small sparkling diamonds that enhanced the rich color of the jewel. She gasped and reached for her phone.

      Jamie! they’re beautiful!

      She watched the dots bounce as he read and replied.

      You are beautiful, can’t wait to see u! i' ll knock on ur door in a few and we can go down together

      She applied the perfect shade of ruby red lipstick to match her earrings and dress, and minutes later, Jamie tapped on her door. She opened it and he stepped inside and let out a low whistle. 

      “You look gorgeous, Claire!”

      “And you, Mr. Fraser, you look so very handsome. And sexy. And hot.” 

      He held her face in his hands and kissed her lips.

      “Jamie, thank you for the beautiful earrings. I feel thoroughly spoiled.”

      He tilted her head gently to look at them. “They look good on you. You look sensational tonight.”

      

      They walked down to the kitchen together and the girls quickly stood to attention when they saw them. They were both in black jeans and white shirts, and most of the kitchen countertops bore the evidence of their efforts to put together a very special date night.

      “You guys look so awesome! Mom, your earrings!” Ella exclaimed.

      “They're from Jamie.”

      “They’re beautiful!” Beth breathed. “So that’s what you went to buy earlier today!”

      Jamie nodded, smiling, and the twins gave each other their little look.

      “Will you follow us please, we’d like to take you to your table.”

      As they stepped out onto the patio, Claire gasped and Jamie came to a dead stop. The patio had been transformed into an enchanted, romantic wonderland. The sofas had been moved out of sight, and a round table was set up in the middle, draped with a long ivory tablecloth. The table was set for two, with candles and scattered red rose petals. On the ground were dozens of votive candles flickering warmly, illuminating more red rose petals that had been scattered around them. Fairy lights had been hung from the ceiling in a rectangle, demarcating their dining area and a small adjacent space.

      Red organza ribbon was tied around the back of the dining chairs, and soft romantic music drifted from the overhead speakers. The girls led them over to the table and invited them to sit. Jamie pulled Claire’s chair out and helped her in before taking his seat opposite hers.

      “This is tonight’s menu.” Ella pointed to a sheet of cardstock. The evening’s menu was written out in fancy script, and she read it out to them. 

      “Burrata Caprese

      Sriracha-glazed seared scallops, served with green beans and au gratin potatoes 

      Red velvet lava cakes

      A selection of wines from The Grotto.”

      “Just so you know, Jamie picked out the wines earlier,” Beth explained. 

      “Other things you should know, before we serve your starter. This area here is a dance floor.” Ella indicated the area next to the table.

      “And the playlist was put together for us by Armando.”

      Jamie’s eyebrow flicked up just enough for Claire to notice.

      “And we’re leaving for a sleepover when your dinner is over, so you can dance as much as you like - we won’t be around.”

      “Girls, before you get our starter, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for putting together such a special night for us. When you lasses mentioned a date night, I never imagined you would put together this amazing scenario. I am so touched, and I can see your Mam is too. It’s absolutely breathtaking. Thank you.”

      “You’re welcome,” Ella said, almost shyly.

      “It was our pleasure,” Beth agreed.

      The girls had prepared a perfectly cooked meal. They kept everything simple, as Claire had taught them whenever they collaborated on their Food Network cooking sessions. The combination of the freshest ingredients, and a great blend of flavors and textures, made it a deliciously memorable meal. The scallops were cooked to perfection, tender and cooked through, without a hint of toughness. Ella had watched the scallop recipe video several times before attempting it. Her au gratin potatoes were rich and creamy, and the perfect counterfoil to the spiciness of the scallops. Beth’s red velvet lava cakes were delightful heart-shaped mini cakes, oozing with rich chocolatey goodness, and served with sugar-dusted fresh berries. Jamie had picked two great wines from the cases he had brought back from The Grotto - an aromatic sauvignon blanc and a zesty pinot gris.

      Armando had shown some restraint in his choice of music - nothing overtly sexy or suggestive, and nothing too maudlin either. The music enhanced the mood and included golden oldies as well as more contemporary love songs.

      Over dinner, they interlaced their fingers and spoke about plans for Claire’s birthday trip to Paris, and their trip to the Grotto with Jenny the following weekend. Jamie also suggested bringing the girls to the next architect meeting so they would feel more included in the design process. Claire agreed that bringing them into the process would be a good thing.

      "Especially Ella. She's interested in structure and design, and I wouldn't be surprised if she studies engineering or architecture at college."

      "Beth will want to be involved in designing the interior structure, and picking finishes and colors, I bet,' said Jamie. "She's pretty detail-oriented like that."

 

      After they had cleared the dessert dishes, Ella and Beth came back to check on them.

      “We’ve cleaned up and loaded the dishwasher, so everything is clean in the kitchen. Do you need anything else? It's just past 9:00 and we can stay later if you need us.”

      “No sweethearts, you have done the most amazing job here. Will you take some pictures of Jamie and me before you go? I want to capture this amazing night.” 

      “Sure! We took a bunch before you started eating and during the meal too, but you were so busy talking you didn't notice.”

      Jamie and Claire leaned in close as the girls snapped some pictures with Claire’s phone.

      “You can kiss if you want, we won’t be grossed out,” Ella assured them.

      They turned to look at each other and Jamie leaned down to capture her lips in a sweet and tender kiss.

      “Okay - that’s perfect. Thank you. If you girls are ready, you can go to your sleepover. Thank you again for a magical night.”

      “No problem. It was fun to plan and do. We’ll be back some time after Hannah’s birthday brunch tomorrow.”

 

      A peaceful calm descended on the patio after the girls left. They could be more openly demonstrative, and when Frankie Valli’s ‘Can't Take My Eyes Off You’ started to play over the speakers, Jamie stood up and held his hand out to Claire. 

      “Aahhhh! A sweet golden oldie, but so appropriate for tonight. May I have this dance, mo ghràidh?”

      “Yes, you most certainly may."    

      She placed a hand on his shoulder as he pulled her in close, his hand firmly on the small of her back. His other hand held hers near his heart, as he had done when they danced at the Caledonian event.

      “Have I told you how stunning you look?” he asked as they swayed to the music.

      “You have, my love, and thank you for showering me with compliments. You know how to make a woman feel good. Have I told you how amazing you are.”

      “You have not, Sassenach.”

      “Liar! I’ve told you that several times tonight alone!”

      He pulled her in for a deep, passionate kiss. Afterwards, he pressed his forehead gently to hers.

      “You are beautiful. You are everything to me. I hope you know that.”

      “You are an amazing man, and I seriously believe I dreamed you into life.”

      A slow smile spread across his face. “That’s from the song you sent me. See how in sync we are? You’re getting better at musical poetry than me.”

 

      The song changed to Lonestar’s ‘Amazed’, and he pulled her closer. 

      “I haven’t heard this song in a long time. Musical poetry for sure. Every line is beautiful. Listen with me.”

      They danced silently as they listened to the lyrics.      

                     

                              🎶 I can hear your thoughts, I can see your dreams

                             I don't know how you do what you do

                             I'm so in love with you

                             It just keeps getting better

                             I want to spend the rest of my life with you by my side

                             Forever and ever

                             Every little thing that you do

                             Baby, I'm amazed by you.              

      Jamie released her hand and wrapped both arms around her, pulling her as close as his could. Claire wound both arms around his neck and pressed her cheek to his.

                             The smell of your skin

                             The taste of your kiss

                             The way you whisper in the dark

                             Your hair all around me

                             Baby, you surround me

                             Touch every place in my heart

                             And it feels like the first time every time

                             I want to spend the whole night in your eyes

                             I don't know how you do what you do

                             I'm so in love with you…

                            

      The song ended and the next one began, and Jamie held Claire’s face gently in his hands as he dropped tender kisses on her lips.

      “Favorite line?” she asked him in a near-whisper.

      “ 'I want to spend the rest of my life with you by my side' .”

      “That was mine too.”

      “I can’t wait for our forever to begin, mo ghràidh.”

      “I feel like it has already.”

      “In many ways it has. But I want my old life in the rear view mirror. I can’t wait to wake up next to you every morning. I can’t wait to start building our home. I can’t wait for us to be there with the girls and …”

      “… our babies,” she finished.

      He nodded.

      “We will make cute babies, my love. I hope they have your heart - and your blue eyes.”

      “I hope they have your intelligence and your kindness - and your beautiful curls.”

      He wound one of her loose tendrils around his finger and placed gentle kisses on her eyelids, down her nose, and on her lips.

 

      He pulled back, and looked at her intently, his eyes searing hers with an intensity she hadn’t seen before.

      “Claire …” he whispered, “I love you. I love you so much and with such intensity that I can scarcely breathe at times. I love you and I want to tell you that every day of my life. I will love you for our lifetime, and way beyond that.”

      Before she could reply, his lips met hers in a deeply tender kiss that captured all the depth and emotion of his words.

       When the kiss ended, she looked into his eyes. “Jamie, I love you . I love you with my whole heart and my soul and my body. Every day, I think I couldn’t possibly love you more. But every day, I’m proven wrong. I love you endlessly.”

 

      They remained wrapped in each other, swaying slowly as George Michael's version of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" drifted over them. As the song faded and the votive candles started to flicker out, Jamie took her hand and led her upstairs.

 

 

 



 

 

*** See first comment for notes/moodboards/pictures and next chapter post date. Click on 'Comments'.***

 

Chapter Text


 

      Claire awoke before Jamie and she lay still for a moment, unraveling her thoughts and processing the impact of the words they had spoken to each other for the first time the previous night. Everything about their evening had been perfect. The stars had aligned yet again and they had been lost in their own little world for most of the evening. It had felt like the right time to openly and fearlessly share their hearts with each other. 

      Dear Universe, we have put those words out there. ‘I love you’. You conspired to bring us together, now please capture those words in the palm of your hand and hold them carefully. And if ever we start to lose our way, remind us of those words, and help us to find our way back to each other.

     He was spooning her, and her arm was in an awkward position, so little by little, she turned herself so that she lay on her back, freeing her arm. His arm was still draped over her and his breathing was slow and steady, his sleep undisturbed by her movements.    

      She continued to stare at the ceiling as more thoughts crystallized in her mind. There was something about saying those three magical words that forever changed a relationship. 

      “I love you” moved them from ‘you and me’ to ‘we and us’. It moved them from ‘yours and mine’ to ‘our and ours’. It anchored them to each other.

      Jamie slowly became aware of her wakefulness and lay quietly for a few minutes as his sleepiness drifted away and he became more aware of his surroundings. He was mesmerized by Claire’s eyelashes as she blinked, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. His hand felt for hers and their fingers interlaced.

      “So deep in thought this morning. What are you thinking?”

      She continued to stare at the ceiling for a few seconds, then turned to face him, the hint of a smile playing across her lips.

      “I was just thinking about how much I love you.”

      “Claire …”

      His hand cupped her face, and he kissed her gently.

      “And I was thinking about how saying ‘I love you’ changes us.”

      “Aye, it does, Claire. It takes away the last barriers that you and I … that we might have had. It strips us down and makes us more vulnerable, but that vulnerability also makes us more protective of each other. Protective of the love we share, so that nothing can come between us or harm this incredible connection of ours.”

      “We must never stop saying it to each other, Jamie. We must never stop voicing our love and thinking about how much we love each other. When little things come between us, as they might, those words will help us find our way back to each other.”

      He kissed her; a kiss that deepened and awakened anew their physical response to the emotional impact of their ‘I love you’s. Their love-making last night had been immeasurably tender. Hours spent in mutual physical adoration and pleasure, intensified by the depth of emotion that came with the freedom of expressing their love for each other, unabashedly and fervently. This morning’s love-making captured the same profound emotion, marked with an even deeper, unhurried passion as they breathlessly and lovingly brought each other to complete fulfillment.

      In the quiet afterglow, they lay wrapped up in each other, until it was time to get up and get ready for the day. 

      

- - - - - - - - - - - -

      

      Claire crisped up a couple of croissants in the oven while Jamie made lattes, and over breakfast, they reviewed the week ahead. 

      “It’s going to be a busy one. I’m in L.A. on Tuesday, back Wednesday with Jenny. Then we’re off to the winery Friday through Sunday. What’s your week looking like?”

      “My online course starts soon, so I’ll have a lot of individual one-to-one Zoom calls with the enrolled students. I might go on campus for those. That will keep me busy on Monday, Tuesday, and much of Wednesday. I’m clearing my day on Thursday so we can do something fun with Jenny. And then it’s our winery weekend.”

      “What about the twins? Anything going on that I can help with?”

      “Not really. Now that they have their licenses, they’re so much more self-sufficient. I imagine they’ll be knee-deep in training and practices for a lot of the week. They’ll be ready for some R&R by Friday, that's for sure!”

      “How do you feel about all of us staying in the Owner’s Suite at the winery?” Jamie asked. “It has two bedrooms and sleeper sofas. How do you want to manage the arrangements? Jenny will have her own room.” 

      “Let me think about that for a moment.”

      They stood up to clear up their breakfast things, and after unloading and reloading the dishwasher, they stood side by side, leaning against the counter, as Claire mulled over the sleeping arrangements.

      “Would it be possible to get the girls their own room near the Owner’s Suite?”

      “Of course! What’s your plan?”

      “I’m not going to say a word about arrangements, but I’ll unpack my stuff in the smaller bedroom of the Owner’s Suite, and let everyone come to their own conclusions.”

      “So the subliminal message is that you’re in one bedroom, and I’m in the other?”

      “Something like that.”

      “Well, we’ll not fool Jenny, but I really don’t care. Not sure we’ll be fooling the girls either. But I like your plan for an entirely separate room for the girls. You can make all your noises to your heart’s content in our suite and no one will hear ye.”

      “Oh, there’ll be noises, Jamie. You can count on that. There’s no way I’m spending a weekend at the Grotto with you and not sharing your bed.”

      “Is that right? You lustful little minx, you! You planning on attacking me all weekend, then?”

      He put an arm around her waist and pulled her around to press her body up against his. Holding her butt firmly in his hands, he leaned in for a prolonged and hungry kiss, moaning deeply as she responded with equal passion.

      “Okaaaaay! Let us know when it’s safe to come back in.” Ella’s voice from the hallway forced them apart, and they stared at each other, eyes wide in shock and embarrassment. 

      “I had my hands all over your arse, Claire. What do we do?” he said under his breath, a note of panic in his voice.

      “I have no idea! Apologize?” She grimaced and shrugged.

      “Sorry girls,” Jamie called out awkwardly. “It’s safe to come in.” 

      He and Claire resumed their places, standing side by side at the counter, and the girls walked in, avoiding eye contact.

      “I’m really sorry, girls,” Jamie began, “I should have been more careful about where I express my affection for your Mam. Certainly didn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.”

      “Me too, girls. Sorry about that,” Claire said briskly.

      “It’s okay,” Ella muttered. “I can cope with some kissing, but making out here is a bit OTT.”

      “Ella!” Beth exclaimed. “You guys, it’s totally fine. I mean, I’m not a psychologist, but it’s definitely better for us to see a healthy, loving relationship than a bad one, you know. Like before Ashlee’s parents split, they were always arguing and throwing shade at each other. Ashlee hated it. You guys can kiss, but maybe not in the kitchen when we’re around.”

      “Deal,” Claire announced, still embarrassed by their indiscretion. “Now, tell us about your sleepover. What did you girls get up to?”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      On Monday morning, Claire went to her office on campus to conduct several hour-long zooms with her students. 

      Jamie worked with his PR reps, Cal and Simon, on likely questions and suggested responses to some of them for the Late Late Show interview. He had one request for his PR guys. It wasn’t for all the red M&Ms to be removed from the bowl, or for a humidifier, purple tulips, and Cuban cigars to be placed in the green room. Jamie never made any special requests, so his reps were a little surprised to hear that he had one this time. 

      “If at all possible, could you get me ten minutes alone with Corden before we tape? I want to talk to him on a friendly basis, man-to-man, and ask him to avoid mentioning the TMZ story and any ‘mystery woman’. I think it’s better coming from me than having my team speak to his producers.”

      “Shouldn’t be a problem. We’ll confirm with you as soon as we have the okay on that.”

      “And they’re aware that Dougal and my sister will be my guests in the green room?”

      “Yes, that’s not a problem either.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

      

      Just before noon, Tara called and asked Jamie to Zoom with her, Cal, and Simon.

      As the three faces appeared on the screen, Jamie looked at the PR reps and asked:

      “Is this about my request to meet Corden? I thought it wasn’t a big deal.”

      “No, it’s not about that. Corden’s already agreed to it.”

      “Jamie,” Tara began, “some more TMZ crap is about to hit the website. In less than ten minutes.”

      “Oh God, no!" he groaned, "what is it this time?”

      Simon from PR continued, “One of the TMZ reporters, Rahim, is very close to Anja. He always ‘manages to find her’ when she wants to be found, if you know what I mean. Starbucks, Nobu, Vegas, Venice Beach, wherever. We know she gives him exclusives. And he gives her the exposure and publicity she’s after.”

      “Are you guys aware that she and Bradley Cooper are no longer an item?” Jamie asked.

      “Yes, we found out a few days ago,” Cal replied. “So, here’s what we think - you know Anja is all about her image as the man-eater, temptress, Hollywood siren - whatever she wants to be called. So for her to be dumped by Cooper is very humiliating. Her team and Cooper's have not put out a statement. I think he's showing her some grace by not saying anything just yet, but he's already been seen out and about with Jen Garner. So it's a matter of time before the word gets out there that they’ve split up. It's obviously going to be really embarrassing for her, which is why they're keeping it on the down low. She has a crazy big ego, as we all know, and there is no way in hell her PR team will allow a story to emerge that she was dumped. They're going to make it look like she did the dumping. We think her strategy is to try and get her hooks into a big name male celeb, and make it look like they've been having a rip-roaring time for a while. That makes the break-up with Cooper less of an image issue.” 

      “Okay,” said Jamie, slowly. “This had better not involve me.”

      There was a long silence as neither PR nor Tara responded, and instead allowed Jamie’s words to percolate.

      “NO!” he yelled. “Fuck! No way! No! If she’s trying to make it look like she and I are in any way involved, I will deny it and call her out. Publicly!”       

      “Jamie,” Tara tried to calm him in her most soothing voice. 

      Cal interrupted, “We just got an alert from our inside source that the TMZ piece is about to go live on their website. We’ll share our screen and watch it together, and we can talk about it afterwards.”

      PR shared their screen and all four of them watched footage and audio of Rahim apparently stumbling on Anja buying boba tea at a Hollywood hot-spot.

 

      “Anja! Anja!” Rahim called as he tailed her, camera rolling.

      Anja turned around, full lips pouting over her straw as she sipped seductively on her boba tea. 

      “Oh, hey,” she greeted, feigning surprise, then turned around and kept walking, allowing Rahim to capture good footage of her pert ass peeking out of her daisy dukes.

      “Anja, can you talk to us quickly?” Rahim asked, trying to keep up with her.

      “Uhhh … what is it that TMZ wants to know about Anja Baranov today?” 

      “We heard you and Jamie Fraser have a movie coming out soon?”

      “We do.” She smiled mysteriously and kept walking, hips swinging, shoulders back, boobs almost popping out of her tiny cropped tank.

      “Any hot scenes we should know about?” Rahim asked.

      “Of course!” She tossed a look over her shoulder right into the camera, “It’s Jamie Fraser, baby, of course there are hot scenes.”

      “What does Bradley think about the sex scenes with Jamie?” 

      “I dunno,” she shrugged. “Go ask him.”

      She continued walking and sipping her boba tea. Rahim walked alongside her, his camera focused on her profile. “Is it true that you shot most of the movie in Seattle?”

      “Mmm-hmmm. Jamie and I loved it up there!”

      “What do you know about the mystery woman Fraser’s been spotted with in Seattle?” Rahim asked her. “We ran a story about that last week.”

      “She's irrelevant,” Anja replied with a dismissive wave of her hand. Turning to look into Rahim’s camera, she blew a kiss right into it, giving viewers a close-up of her pouty lips. With a sly smile, she continued down the sidewalk as Rahim captured her walking away.

      The segment ended, and there was complete silence on the Zoom call for a moment, as PR deactivated screen-share and their faces re-appeared. Jamie buried his face in his hands, and shook his head.

      “Fuck!”  

      “Not gonna sugar-coat this for you, Jamie," Tara began, “it’s not good. What she just did is great publicity for the movie. Millennium might not like the sexy undertones a whole lot, and she's stealing your thunder because you're supposed to reveal the movie on Corden's show. But it's going to generate a lot of interest in Jamie Fraser's new movie. This ain't my first rodeo - I can see what she's doing. Anja is clearly laying the groundwork to make a play for you - and she won't care if you're not interested or available. She will go after you hard, and she will use outlets like TMZ and social media to help push her narrative.”

      “Is there no one else for her to dig her nails into?” Jamie asked in despair. “I really, really don’t need this crap in my life. Tara, can you speak to her agent? What about her PR? Can you guys get a sense of what their plan is? Maybe one of the studios needs to connect a male asset with a female one. They’re always match-making. There’s got to be a way to get me out of her cross-hairs.”

      Cal responded. “Jamie, we get that this is stressful, and really bad timing for you personally. Tara, if you can connect with her agent or manager, we’ll see what we can do with her PR. Let’s Zoom again at 3:00 p.m.”

      Jamie leaned his head back against the chair, and closed his eyes.

      This is the worst possible timing! Just when we are making plans and building our future! I promised her that I wouldn’t let anything take her happiness away, and I’ll be damned if I let that happen now.

 

      Claire arrived home at around 2:30 p.m. She took one look at Jamie and wrapped her arms around him. 

      “What’s happened?” she asked. He pulled her close and rested his forehead on her shoulder for a few seconds, drawing comfort from her calm demeanor and the familiar scent that he inhaled on her skin and in her hair.

      “Let’s go in the study,” he suggested. The twins had been gone since morning, but were due back from practice at any time.    

      He took her hand as they sat next to each other on the small Chesterfield sofa. Jamie summarized the discussion he’d had with Tara and his PR reps earlier. He watched her face closely for her reaction. The occasional small frown flitted across her brow, and her mouth tightened two or three times, but mostly, she listened attentively and held his hand tightly.    

     “I'd like to see the TMZ segment.”

     He sighed deeply and pursed his lips. 

     “Jamie, I will end up seeing it anyway. I’d rather watch it with you.” 

     “Let’s sit at the desktop computer. We have another Zoom call at 3:00 for an update, and I’d like us to be on the Zoom together, if you’re okay with that.”

      Saying ‘I love you’ has moved us from ‘you and I’ to ‘we and us’.

      “Of course.”

      He pulled up the TMZ site and found the segment with Anja’s sidewalk interaction with Rahim.

      “Ready?” he asked, looking at her closely. Claire reached for his hand and nodded. He hit play, and she watched as the glamorous, coquettish movie star, a household name around the globe, casually and flirtatiously threw Jamie’s name around as if she had some kind of claim to him. Her last word cut deep. ‘Irrelevant’. 

      “Claire. Mo ghràidh, I’m so very sorry. I hate that I’ve brought this on you.”

      He looked at the computer screen and rubbed a hand over his chin.

      “No, Jamie. This is not on you. She’s a grown woman and she should know that her actions and words have consequences beyond her own little world. Jamie, look at me.”

      He looked at her and she continued. “Jamie, we are in this for the long haul. We knew there would be some issues. We have to be able to weather these storms together, my love. I know it’s frustrating for you. It is for me too. But it’s July. The movie will be out when? September? That’s two months of crazy. It’ll die down after that - maybe a little surge again before the Oscars. But we can do it! Anja can say all she wants about ‘Jamie Fraser, baby’. At the end of the day you’re in my bed, not hers.”

      A tiny smile tugged at the corner of Jamie’s mouth. Before he could respond, the Zoom call came in.

      “Hi all,” Jamie greeted the faces on the screen, “you remember Claire from our meeting here a couple weeks ago. We’ll be in on the Zoom call together. Anything you have to say to me, you can say to Claire too.” He reached for her hand. “What are the updates?”       

      “Hey, Claire,” Tara greeted her. “One day we’ll get to hang out drama-free.” She shook her head wryly. Claire greeted her back, and Tara launched into her update. 

      “I called Anja’s agent, Steve Bonnet, he’s a bigger asshole than she is, by the way. I asked him if we could tone down the Jamie-Anja bullshit, and he was pretty direct with me. He said that Anja is on the shortlist for a few starring roles. Two rom-coms and one serious drama - something meatier than most of the stuff she’s been doing. She wants something beyond the ‘supporting actress’ roles. Her part in Unauthorized Contact has given her a taste for more serious roles and we all know how competitive the arena is for good female roles.”

      Tara looked at all the faces on the screen, and continued. 

      “Anja has a reputation for being a little difficult to work with, so being dumped by a long-term boyfriend at this time is really not great - makes her less desirable to the studios - especially since it was by a serious actor like Bradley Cooper. It’s also, as we all know, pretty humiliating for her. I did point out to Bonnet that if she wants serious roles, taking a pap walk down Hollywood Boulevard in daisy dukes is not the way to go. He conceded that it was probably not the best move. I asked him to instruct Anja to tone down the Jamie narrative, and he told me that ‘Anja’s gonna do what Anja’s gonna do’. In other words, he’s okay with her generating this sort of publicity - gives her more exposure and makes his job easier. For the moment. He likes the idea of his client being associated with a serious Hollywood name like Jamie Fraser.”

      Jamie shook his head in disgust. “Okay, thanks Tara. What about PR?”

      Cal took over the report-back. “Simon and I approached her PR from a friendly angle - we felt it made sense that way, because we knew we’d get better information from them. It behooves them to work in tandem with us as they try to promote Anja and we try to promote you and your role in the movie. They immediately raised the issue of the break-up with Cooper and suggested that we set up some ‘couple sightings’ for Jamie and Anja to leak to some media outlets and social media. They are aware of the Oscar buzz with Jamie, and they are keen to align Anja with a potential Oscar nominee. That will boost her profile - by association. They also want Anja to appear on more talk shows with Jamie. We told them no go on the couple sightings, and we’d look at the talk show appearances. Of course, we will push for solo appearances for Jamie.”

      Jamie immediately picked up on that point. “After Corden tomorrow night, if we can do zero talk shows together, that would be awesome. Even if they’re on video calls - the fewer opportunities there are for us to appear together and let her push her narrative, the better. Now that TMZ has posted this crap, it’s more important than ever that I speak to Corden. His producers will be all over this, and it will be ratings gold for them. The producers will push the drama. They want the crazy for ratings, and Anja is giving them the crazy. Corden’s a good guy, a family man with strong values. I know he’ll be willing to hear me out.”       

      Tara listened carefully to PR’s report-back and Jamie’s response, and then commented. “We need to come up with our game-plan, our approach. For now, we can prepare some generic statements, but we won't issue them unless absolutely necessary. Cal, Simon, don’t accept any talk show invitations until we have a strategy in place. I can tell you that Millennium will not push couple sightings and similar bullshit. They want an Oscar nom for Jamie and more noms for the movie. They want publicity, but not trashy stuff. Tara might just end up shooting herself in the foot, but there will be some collateral damage - let’s not kid ourselves. There will be some damaging publicity - the type that Jamie doesn’t want. And l’m sure Claire doesn’t either. Let’s sleep on this and meet tomorrow. We’ll all be at the studio for the taping, apart from Claire. Let’s meet afterwards for dinner.”

      “Sounds good to us,” Simon agreed. “Jamie, after we pick you up at the airport, we’re bringing you to our offices to meet with Millennium’s PR. They want to go over what to push and what to focus on in Corden’s show. 

      “Let’s hope they’re meeting with Anja and her PR too!” Jamie shook his head, still in disbelief that this was happening.

      “Oh, they will be meeting too. The question is whether she’ll stick to their script.” Cal responded. “Just know that in the meanwhile, this story is going to trend more than last week’s. Try not to let it bring you down.”

      “Okay - thanks everyone. We appreciate the help and support,” Jamie said.

      “Yes - we’re very grateful for your expertise on this,” Claire added.       

      They looked at each other in silence. Words were unnecessary for now. Jamie looked troubled and stressed, and Claire was trying to maintain a pragmatic approach. She finally stood and held her hand out to him. He stood up and she folded her arms around him. 

      “Jamie, I stand by what I said before the Zoom. We’re going to have to tough it out.”

      “I’m used to this, Claire. I’ve had to deal with it since Clan Hearts. I hate that you have to deal with it now too.”

      She ran her fingers along his jawline, and rested her hand gently on his face. 

      “Jamie, I love you. Nothing that Anja says or does will change that. Let’s just ride this out. It’s not something we can control right now, but we can determine our reaction to it.”

      “Aye, you’re right. And I love you too, Claire. So much. Let’s chat with the twins and give them a heads-up without worrying them too much, and then we’ll enjoy our evening. I’ll be gone for a day and a half and we can’t let this spoil our night. By tomorrow, Tara will have a strategy.”

      “Yes, she will. Did she seem stressed or tired to you?”

      “This is a busy time for her. She always gets stressed out pre-awards season. And some major film festivals are coming up. That’s a busy time for her. Don’t worry, she will focus a lot of her energy and attention figuring out this Anja mess. I have total confidence in her.”       

        

      After dinner, they spoke to the twins about the situation with Anja. It was awkward initially, because of the sexual nature of Anja’s comments, but they knew she would be ramping that up, and Claire wanted to tackle it early on so that the girls had an idea of what might lie ahead. 

      “So she thinks it’s okay to make suggestive comments like that about someone she works with?” Beth asked in disgust.

      “It’s showbiz, Beth,” Ella pointed out. “It’s like some of Selena Gomez’s songs before Justin Bieber married Hailey. There were some very suggestive lyrics aimed at him, because that’s what sells. But just because she was singing about it, doesn’t mean that’s what was going on. We’ve just gotta be real about it.”

      “Well, you girls have a fairly good idea of what goes on out there, and Jamie and I wanted you to be prepared because it’s going to get a little more intense until the movie is released. It’ll die down after that.”         

      “The most important thing I want you to remember about this is that there never has been and never will be anything other than a work relationship between me and Anja Baranov. Over the next couple of months you might hear or read comments from her that hint at something else, but you should know that I would never do anything to hurt your Mam. I love her so much, and I won’t let anything come between us.”

      “We know, Jamie. We know where your heart is.” Beth assured him, while Ella nodded her agreement.

      

- - - - - - - - - - - -

             

      They decided that Jamie would drive himself to Boeing Field in Claire’s SUV on Tuesday morning so that he could leave the car there overnight and drive himself and Jenny back on Wednesday. Claire would be tied up in Zoom calls, and needed to leave for campus around the same time that Jamie left for the airport. They said goodbye in the garage, a prolonged and loving farewell, punctuated with ‘I love you’s and lingering kisses.

 

      Claire checked her texts as she walked the short distance from her car to her office building. The first one was from Armando.

      Call me ASAP

      She called him as soon as she was in her office.

      “Girlfriend, Tony shared a TMZ segment about Anja this morning. Are you okay?”

      “Yes, this is going to be my new normal for the next couple of months, or until the movie is released. Jamie and I have been conferencing with his team and they’re coming up with a strategy to mitigate whatever damage she causes.”

      “That skank is lucky I don’t live in her city anymore! I would bitch slap the heck out of her and her fucking boba tea if I saw her on the Boulevard!”

      “Mando, Jamie flew to L.A. this morning. He and Anja are going to be on James Corden tonight. I don’t want to watch that on my own. Can we FaceTime while it’s on, so we can kind of watch together?”

      “Hon, I’m coming over and we’ll watch it together. I know it’s on late, but I’m coming.”

      “Oh, Mando! You are the best. Come for dinner. Bring Tony, if he’s up for it.”

      “Tony’s always asleep by 10:00 these days, but it’s okay, I’ll be there.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

       

       Jamie’s PR reps picked him up at the airport, and took him straight to their offices to prepare him for the Late Late Show taping. Over an early working lunch with representatives of Millennium’s PR, they went over some of the questions and talking points that Corden’s producers had sent them. The questions seemed pretty innocuous - Millennium wanted Jamie to focus on the story behind the movie and the gravity of the content. They were aware of the TMZ segment, and asked Jamie to try and steer away from too much frivolous, sexy banter where possible. They weren’t totally averse to a little titillating content - sex would always be a draw-card at the box office - but with Oscar buzz louder than ever, the studio really wanted to snag nominations for Best Picture and Best Director in addition to Jamie’s potential Best Actor. They needed to work a lot more with Anja to groom her for publicity appearances. Until then, they rested their hopes on the far more polished and experienced Jamie Fraser.

      After lunch, Cal and Simon drove him to Corden’s studio at the CBS premises. On the way there, he texted Claire.

      ‘You touch every place in my heart' - line from one of our songs on Fri night     

         You have the biggest heart, my love, and I'm so happy it’s all mine. thinking of u all day     

      U going to watch Corden tonight?      

      Yes, Armando is coming - to hold my hand thru it      

      That’s really kind of him - i’m happy you’ll have a good friend with u

      No matter what she says, know that I love you. so much!      

       I love you

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

       

      Jamie's stylist met him at the studio and showed him several suits and a variety of shirts. After trying on a few of them, he selected a bright blue suit and white T-shirt that set off his eyes to perfection. While he was in hair and makeup, he received a text from Dougal. He and Jenny had arrived at the studio and were being escorted to the green room.

      As soon as the team was done working with him, Jamie made his way to the green room. Amid all the stress of the past 24 hours, he hadn’t given much thought to how excited he was to see Jenny. He opened the door to the luxuriously furnished room, and Jenny squealed with joy and launched herself at him. They hugged tightly for a moment, and Jenny stood back to admire her brother - all spruced up for his talk show appearance.

      “Ye look fantastic, Jamie!”

      “You too, Jenny. I’ve missed ye!”

      “Come sit down and talk to me. I want all yer news.”

      Dougal and Jamie greeted each other cordially, and Jamie thanked him for picking Jenny up from the airport. Then he sat on a sofa with Jenny and they spent a good half hour catching up on each other’s news. Dougal busied himself nibbling on snacks from a lavish charcuterie board and poured a shot of whisky for all three of them. Jenny accepted eagerly, but Jamie declined.

      “No thanks, Dougal. I’ll need my wits about me. And James often has whisky or other liquor on the set.”

      Dougal shrugged and downed his shot as well as Jamie’s.

      The door opened and Cal poked his head in the room.

      “Jamie, we’re still waiting on Corden. Will give you an update when we know anything. One of his team will come and call you when he’s available. Everything else okay here? Need anything?”

      “Thanks, Cal. We’re all good here.” Jamie gave him a thumbs up.

      Jenny took her phone out and showed Jamie some recent pictures of his niece and nephews. Jamie’s face immediately softened, and he took the phone from her to scroll through the pictures.

      “Maggie’s looking so grown up! She’ll love Claire’s girls, Ella and Beth. And I can’t believe the height of young Jamie!”

      “Young Jamie is going to take after you, Jamie. He’s a strapping lad. They’re all growing so fast!”

      “I miss them all so much. It’ll be good to see them at the Lallybroch meeting in August.”

      A clattering from the hospitality table startled them and they both looked up.

      “Sorry - clumsy me!” Dougal had knocked over a bottle of Perrier water. 

      “That must be his third shot of whisky. Jenny, keep an eye on him please,” Jamie muttered under his breath. 

      “Dinna fash! I’ll hide that bottle soon as I get a chance.”        

      “Thank you. Someone will be here shortly to take me to set and show me where I’ll walk on, where I’ll sit, etc. I’m also meeting with Corden for about 10 minutes before he goes live. In the meanwhile, Dougal will take care of you here.”

      “Sounds fantastic! I’m loving this.” Jenny was a little star-struck to be in Corden’s green room. As much as she hated what the industry had done to Jamie, she enjoyed some of the perks, like the occasional red carpet and most of the London and Glasgow premieres. This was the first time she had been in a talk show green room.

      “You’ll meet Anja soon - she should be almost done in hair and makeup. Dougal knows her well. He was with me when we shot the movie in Seattle, so he got to know her there. He’ll introduce you to her. Someone will come and ask you if ye want to watch the taping in the green room or in the audience. You can decide.”        

      “Oh, audience for sure - that looks like so much more fun.”      

      A production runner entered the green room, holding two clipboards, a cellphone and a two-way radio. 

      “Mr. Fraser, I’m Jeremy. Mr. Corden has been held up in the Covid screening area. CBS requirement.”

      “Ah yes, I had to get my temperature taken too. It was getting a bit back-logged in there,” Jamie commented.

      “Exactly, and it’s busier now. Unfortunately it means that Mr. Corden won’t be able to meet you before you go live. He’s en route to set now, and he's already a little later than we’d like.”

      Jamie was disappointed. He had so badly wanted to give Corden a heads-up on Anja. He would just have to rely on his gut if anything awkward came up. 

      “Thanks for letting me know, Jeremy.”