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Game Changer

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Jamie stepped into the batter’s box, readied his bat in the air, and peered at the pitcher facing him from sixty feet, six inches away. He awaited the pitch, rear elbow up and knees bent. It was the top of the ninth inning, his team was down by one run, and there was a runner on second base with two outs. He could tie the game with a long single. He could give his team the lead with a home run.

He willed his mind to be clear, his body to align itself, and his entire being to focus on the fastball flying towards him at ninety-nine miles per hour. But as the pitch whizzed past him, he froze. The ball soared by for strike three, ending the game. Nationals 3, Mets 2.

Once again, he had been unable to put the pieces together, unable to make contact between ball and bat, unable to get a damned hit. Once again, instead of seeing the baseball, he saw orbs of golden caramel glinting in candlelight and laughing eyes framed by long lashes. He saw flashes of her, and he was completely immobilized, incapable of doing anything.

“Ifrinn!” he shouted, whirling away from home plate. He tossed his bat to the ground before snatching his helmet off his head and slamming it into the dugout, narrowly missing the bat boy. None of his teammates talked to him as he made his way through the visitors’ clubhouse and towards the showers, walking gingerly while massaging his lower back, which had been giving him trouble again. They all knew he’d been struggling at the plate on this road trip; his trouble on the field had started on the Sunday afternoon home game the day after the gala. The day after he had last seen Claire.

Stripping off his uniform, he grabbed a towel and entered the nearest empty shower stall. He ran the water as hot as it would go and felt relief as he stepped under the flow, the water washing the sweat, grime, and a bit of the aggravation off of him. The hot water pounded against his back, somewhat easing the pain.

He closed his eyes, and saw her before him as she had been that night, exquisite in rose-colored velvet, her milky white skin soft as silk to the touch. His stomach clenched as anger and guilt struck him like lightning. He punched his balled up fist into the shower wall in frustration, recalling the series of events that had led to the mess he currently found himself in.

The evening had passed in a blur—of hushed conversation, the tickle of her hair against his nose, blissful laughter, the whisper of her skin beneath his fingers, the fullness of her body pressed against his as they danced. They had spent hours drawn together as though by a metaphysical force, their connection seemingly unbreakable by the bonds of time or space. When they parted, removing his hand from the delicate flesh of her lower back had been like separating two magnets.

Throughout the meet and greet, he had felt her pull from across the great hall, and rushed to return to her immediately afterward. Blocked by forces beyond his control in his attempts to get to her, he frantically scribbled a note, telling her that he hated to go back on his word, that he wished more than anything they could have continued the evening together, that he hoped she could forgive him. He wrote down his number and asked her to text or call so that he could know that she made it home safely, and so that he could explain what had happened to keep him away.

Gillian had handed off the note to her intern while Jamie gave him a head to toe description of Claire. “Make sure she gets it, aye? Dinna lose it, lad,” Jamie warned, his fingers tapping furiously against his thigh.

Stuck at the Duncans’ party, he was anxious, miserable, and feeling the palpable loss of her by his side. To calm his nerves, he accepted a whisky that the investors surrounding him shoved into his hand. Preoccupied by an overwhelming ache for Claire, he distractedly drank dram after dram, leaving him with a bitter, acidic taste in his throat.

Things became hazy quickly, though he vaguely recalled toasting to World Series victories and to MVP awards in his future. But as the haze surrounding him increased, so did his yearning for her.

After an hour and a half at the party, he was finally able to escape from his obligation, stumbling out of the library and back home to his apartment, where he spent the rest of the night rehydrating and incessantly checking his phone for a message from Claire.

But she never reached out to him.

A feeling of dread filled his wame with each passing hour. Had she gotten his note? Did she think he was an uncaring rake who had led her on all night? That he had willfully stood her up? His heart hurt, thinking of the pain he may have caused her.

She’d said that she would be working at the hospital the following day, so he left messages for her there, to no avail. On Monday, from the road in Miami, he called Gillian at her work number. After leaving three voicemails, she finally called him back, explaining that she was doing so against Claire’s wishes. She confirmed his worst fears—Claire had never gotten his note, she was hurt and angry, and she didn’t even want to hear his name, let alone listen to Gillian's explanation of what had happened.

In the nine days since then, he had become practically incapable of hitting a baseball. He was distraught, moody, and listless over losing a woman who he had no right to even think of as his. But Claire had felt like she belonged to him, in the same way that he belonged to her, from the very first time they had met.

Jamie shut off the water and wrapped a towel around his waist, itching to get out of the stadium. He had spent so long in the shower that most of his teammates had already left the clubhouse, but sitting in a swivel chair just next to his own locker was John, fully dressed and waiting for him.

“Come on, Fraser. Get your clothes on. I’m going to buy you dinner tonight,” John said.

“Nah, I’m going to grab something at the hotel before I head to the airport later on. My Da and Jenny are flying in at nine tonight,” Jamie said, avoiding eye contact as he rifled through the drawer at the bottom of the locker for his clothes.

John chuckled and glanced at his watch. “It’s 4:30, man. You’ve got plenty of time.”

“I dinna feel like going,” he replied icily, pulling a t-shirt over his head. “I’m just going back to my room to relax a bit. It’s been a long trip.” It wasn’t like him to close himself off to a close friend like this—he could see the surprise in John’s face at his tone—but he wasn’t feeling at all like himself. He didn’t even know how he could explain the situation to John. It would sound ridiculous to say the words out loud. His world had been turned completely upside down by a woman he had met barely three weeks before. It was madness.

John stood, looking puzzled and a bit wounded. “I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s clear that something is. You know you can talk to me, Jamie. Hell, I’ve confided my deepest secrets to you. Is this more than just your slump?”

Turning to his friend, Jamie let out an exasperated sigh. “Ye’ve seen the way I’m playing. I’m struggling, and badly. And I dinna feel like talking about it.”

John nodded understandingly and reached out a tentative hand to squeeze Jamie’s shoulder in support. “I see. I’ll just . . . leave you alone then.” Before walking out of the locker room, he paused by the door long enough to say, “I’ll be here if you want to talk. Tell your dad and Jen I say hi.”

Jamie finished getting dressed, cursing himself the whole time for alienating John on top of everything else. He checked his phone, still hoping for a message from Claire after all these days, and was once again disappointed. He left the stadium to head back to the hotel, hoping that something—a movie, a run, a nap—could quiet the cacophony in his head and his heart.

*******************

“I needn’t be at the stadium ‘til 3, so we’ve got the whole day ahead of us to explore,” Jamie said, spreading the free map he snagged from the front desk across the empty breakfast plates on the table. “Shall we start at the Lincoln Memorial or at the Capitol? Or if ye want, we can go to some of the museums at the Smithsonian.”

Jenny exchanged a look with her father before narrowing her steely blue eyes upon her brother. “We didna fly all the way over here to sightsee and ye ken it, Jamie. We haven’t seen you for a year and a half. I’d be happy just to go back to the room and spend the morning talkin’ to ye.”

“I thought we should take advantage of being in Washington together. This might be our only chance to do this,” mumbled Jamie, still poring over the map in front of him.

“What’s happening, mo mhac?” Brian asked, looking at his son, head still bent over the map like he was plotting a quest for a secret treasure. “Jamie?” he tried again. “Why d’ye seem so distant? Is everything ok?’

Jamie had always been good at masking his emotions, but his current turmoil was apparently too great to be contained within him, to his chagrin. He hunched his shoulders up towards his ears as he finally looked up at his father. “I’m all right,” he said, forcing a smile. “I’m glad ye’re both here.” And that he meant. He was glad they were there. Though he wished that he’d be able to show them all that he was capable of on the field. And oh, how he wished that he would be able to introduce them to Claire.

His Da grinned back at him, the same expansive smile that had always been on his face, even in the tough years following Willie’s death and then his Mam’s. The same smile that had always meant security and acceptance to Jamie.

“I know you’ve been having a rough go of it at the plate lately,” Brian said. “But ye’ve been through slumps before. And ye’ll get through this one, just like ye’ve gotten through those ones.”

“Mmphm,” Jamie grunted.

“Don’t ‘mmphm’ me!” Brian said in a tone of faux consternation that quickly turned to a laugh.

And when his father laughed, Jamie couldn’t help but laugh, too.

“Oh, Ian’s FaceTiming me!” Jenny shrieked, moving her seat closer to Jamie’s so that he could see the kids. “Hello, my gomerels!” she shouted lovingly to the beaming faces of wee Jamie, Maggie, and Kitty, seemingly all crowded onto Ian’s lap.

Jamie leaned behind Jenny’s head, and his nieces and nephew erupted in cheers at the sight of him. “How are my favorite bairns doing? Causing yer Da some problems, are ye?” he asked.

“I’m no’ a bairn anymore, uncle,” six year old Jamie announced indignantly.

“Och, so sorry for my error. Here, say hello to yer Grandda,” said Jamie, laughing as he passed the phone to his father.

And so the day went, laughing and talking and wandering aimlessly with no tourist landmarks hit, but with time spent in the best way possible: in the comfort and companionship of family. Jamie still remained on edge, butting heads with Jenny from time to time over their two days in Washington, but he was grateful to her and to his Da for helping bring a lightness to his soul that he hadn’t felt in ten days.

*******************

Claire shifted on the lounge chair for the fourth time in the last five minutes, lowering the back rung once more in an attempt to get comfortable. She reclined into the new position, and was immediately blinded by the sun’s harsh rays, making it impossible for her to see a thing on the screen of her Kindle. Her annoyance escaped her body in a sigh. She was not made for the lounging poolside lifestyle.

At that moment, Gillian slipped through the sliding glass door of the modern and pristine Hamptons home where they were staying, holding a small tray containing two still-fizzing gin and tonics.

“Give me one of those, stat,” said Claire, “before I melt into this bloody chair.”

Gillian rolled her eyes while passing the drink into Claire’s eager hands. “It’s 76 degrees out. You’re not melting into anything. Stop being so dramatic, and try to enjoy yourself a little.” She sat in the chair next to Claire’s and took a sip from her own glass before lying down and lifting her alabaster face towards the bright sun. “Oh God, this feels so good.”

Claire let out a huff as she stood, lifted the entire lounge chair, and set it down so that it was angled away from the sun. Settling back onto the lounger that was now facing Gill, she said, “Remind me again why I agreed to come here with you.”

Gillian chuckled at her cranky friend. “I’m happy to. For one, we had the chance to stay in a gorgeous house in the Hamptons for free . . . thank you very much to my aunt for marrying rich, by the way. Two, you haven’t gotten out of the city in—what did you say? Two years?”

“That’s not entirely true. I’ve traveled for conferences,” Claire protested.

“Work trips don’t count, sweetheart. Ok, three, you have been working yourself ragged lately and need a break. And four,” she said, sliding her sunglasses down so that she could look Claire directly in the eye, “it’s time. We need to talk about what happened with Jamie. It’s been eleven days, and you’ve cut me off every time I’ve tried to say his name.”

“Christ, I should have known this was coming,” Clare said, exhaling sharply through pursed lips.

“I thought I was being good!” crowed Gillian. “We’ve been here two days and I haven’t brought him up yet. I was waiting for you to talk first, but I can see that that’s not going to happen.”

Claire took a swig of her drink, the tartness of the lime already diluted by the rapidly melting ice cubes. “Gill, I’ve talked with my therapist about it. I’m ok.”

Of course, inside she knew that she was decidedly not ok. She had been at war with herself every day since the gala. Gillian was right; she couldn’t bear to talk about him, and had completely avoided watching the games or checking the baseball news so as to stay clear of any mention of him. She feared that hearing his name aloud would awaken the silent fury that had been burrowing in her belly.

He was still ever-present in her mind, despite her efforts to evict him. She still heard the quiet but steady whisper of his name, murmuring in her ear day and night, meandering through her brain, circulating with her blood, imbuing itself into the very fibers of her being. Jamie, Jamie, Jamie.

Her feelings for him alternated wildly between absolute, blinding rage, and a sharp, almost desperate pang of longing and desire. She was nearly as angry at her own traitorous heart and body as she was at him.

“It’s wonderful that you’ve talked to your therapist, hon,” Gillian said, reaching her hand across to Claire’s and gripping it in support. “I know you still have a lot of leftover baggage to unpack from Frank. And I know that what happened on the night of the gala brought up a lot of trust issues for you. I don’t blame you at all for feeling hurt! But Jamie truly seems to be one of the good ones, and I just think that if you could—”

Claire suddenly removed her hand from Gill’s, grabbed her large floppy hat from the low table next to the lounger, and threw it on her head. She pulled it as low as she could, creating her own secret world where she could attempt to hide from Gillian’s words. It may not have been her most mature move, but she simply did not feel equipped to have this conversation.

“Hey! Don’t hide from me, missy,” said Gill, tilting the hat up and forcing her friend to look at her. “Listen, you know that I talked to him when he called me at work. Well, we also exchanged cell numbers and he texts me every day to ask how you are. Not in a stalkerish way. He’s just absolutely devastated that he’s hurt you—”

“Good!” Claire interjected.

“—and he just wants to explain what happened. I think you should at least talk to him, Claire. He really did try to get word to you. It’s not his fault that Geordie, that utter imbecile of an intern, didn’t get the message to you. I think you and Jamie could be so good together. I just can’t get out of my head the way he looks at you, like you’ve hung the fucking moon.”

Gillian wasn’t wrong—Claire was well aware of the way he looked at her—but that only made it hurt more. She tossed back the last of her drink and sat up, placing her feet between the two lounge chairs, letting out a sigh of resignation. Guess this conversation is happening, like it or not.

“Here’s the thing, Gill. There is something about him that makes me—” she paused there, grasping for the right words before starting over. “I just feel like when I’m around him, I . . . I don’t stand a chance. Every sense, every emotion is heightened when it comes to Jamie. The connection that I feel with him is so powerful. It’s overwhelming.” She shook her head thinking about it, frustrated with how inadequate her words were at describing how she felt. “And then the anger I’ve been feeling towards him, it’s so much more than anything I’ve felt before, even towards Frank. It’s visceral and potent and . . . and physical. Honestly, it frightens me to feel so strongly.”

Claire plucked the hat from her head and ran her hand through her thick mane. “I’ve spent so much time working on myself over the past year and a half. And what happened that night with Jamie reminded me of just how vulnerable I am. It made me remember that I don’t want to be—I won’t be!—subject to someone else’s whims.”

Gillian sat up in her chair, turned to face Claire, and laid a comforting hand on her forearm. “I understand that, hon. I really do. But I also can’t help but think that someone who inspires such powerful feelings in you has to be pretty special, no?”

“Thank you for looking out for me, Gill. I’m so grateful to you. But I just need to handle this my own way.” If only she could figure out what her own way was. Claire stood and slid off her cover-up, turning her eyes towards the shimmering, cool water of the pool. She berated her mind for immediately conjuring up an image of Jamie’s eyes, the same astonishing shade of blue.

“Now, since we’re going back to the city tomorrow, I’m going to take advantage of being here and pop in for a swim. Care to join me?”

*******************

In the end, Gillian was right. The time away had been good for her. Returning to work the following afternoon, she felt rested, refreshed, and relaxed in a way that she hadn’t been for a long time. She approached the employee entrance with a smile on her face.

And then she heard his voice.

“Claire!”

She froze in place, her spine tingling with the fledgling flames of her ire.

“Claire, wait!” he shouted again.

She felt more than heard his approach, the air somehow shifting, becoming heavier with each footfall as he jogged towards where she was standing.

Her breathing had already become shaky, her knees weak with adrenaline. Damnit, Beauchamp! All those therapy sessions to prepare for this, and you’re still a mess.

She felt the shuddering of his breath and knew he was right behind her. It took her an instant to steady her own breathing before turning around. When she did, she momentarily faltered, taken aback by his striking features—slanted, bright eyes, chiseled cheekbones, dimpled chin, pointed ears sticking out from his mess of red curls—all combining to create the world’s most beautiful man. How had she forgotten how absolutely stunning he was?

As soon as he started speaking, her face and her mind snapped back to their prior furious state.

“Claire, I’m so verra sorry that I hurt ye. I’ve been trying to reach ye so we could talk and I could tell—”

“I don’t want to talk to you, you bloody bastard,” she spat out, chin pointed like a dagger towards its opponent.

Jamie took a step closer to her, his eyes concerned and pleading. “Please. Listen to me. I was basically blackmailed by the owners into attending their party, but the only reason I gave in was that I—”

“I don’t want to hear it, Jamie,” she snarled, putting her hand up between them. “You led me on. I trusted you, and you acted like I was a toy to play with for a night. My God, I thought that at the very least you were a friend—”

“I would never do anything to hurt you, Claire, I swear it.” It was clear that he was becoming more agitated by the second, as his words became clipped and insistent, and his voice deeper. “I tried to get back to you. But I was stopped by—”

Claire’s head snapped up at the sound of people approaching the entrance that she and Jamie were blocking. Her stomach sank at the thought of anyone affiliated with the team witnessing their argument.

Before she could register who was there, she heard a sharp Scottish voice ring out, “Is this Sassenach the reason why ye were acting so crabbit when we got here, ye big numpty?”

Looking from the woman (a carbon copy of Jamie, if he had been a five foot tall female with black hair) to the man (as tall and broad as Jamie, and possessing the same long, straight nose and cat-shaped eyes), realization dawned on her. This was Jamie’s family. They were here on their visit.

Jamie had twisted around at his sister’s words, and Claire witnessed the sudden reddening of his ears, cheeks, and the bits of his chest visible at his collar. He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t seem to get the words out.

Claire couldn’t seem to form words either; she was seized by the memory of the stories he had told her about his sister and his Da. And for a moment, she saw beyond her anger and felt her heart soften.

Jamie’s father walked closer to them with a devilish half smile on his face that was so reminiscent of the one she had seen on his son countless times.

“She’s got a sharp tongue and a fiery temper, just like yer Mam did, mo mhac,” he said, his tone full of mirth.

“Would ye both haud yer wheesht and mind yer own business?” Jamie exclaimed in agitation, his entire face now as red as his hair.

An awkward silence descended over the four of them, broken only when Claire decided to introduce herself.

“I’m Claire Beauchamp, a doctor with the team. It’s . . . nice to meet you both. I do need to get to work now, though,” she said weakly, feeling the after-effects of the adrenaline that had been coursing through her body only moments before. “I’ll just be going now. Hope you enjoy your visit.”

Steadfastly avoiding contact with the three sets of Fraser eyes set upon her, she slinked through the stadium entrance, hearing Brian’s voice echo behind her, “He’s a good lad, Claire! Ye should give him a chance.”

She practically ran down the hallway to her office, muttering, “Damn you and your hold on me, James Fraser.” Suddenly the idea of lounging poolside for all eternity seemed like a good plan after all..