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Game Changer

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There was pain. Hot, raw, piercing pain that sliced down his calf and reverberated through his veins. His fingers were clenched tight against his palm, his jaw stiff, his eyes squeezed shut.

But then he felt her hand—her delicate, soft hand fluttering ever so gently over his leg—and the pain was instantly gone.

He opened his eyes hesitantly and saw her in profile, her dark hair gathered on top of her head, her ivory neck arched and inviting. She was wearing her rose blush gown and as she bent her head down to examine his wound, he saw the smooth expanse of her back, softer than the velvet of her dress, calling for his touch. He lifted his torso from the table and started to reach for her, but her head shot up and her amber eyes silently admonished him to lie back down.

There was a moment of dissonance then, an inner acknowledgement that this couldn’t be real—why would she be dressed like this at the stadium?—but he didn’t care. He would live forever in this dream if he could.

He glanced down when he felt the tickle of her fingers moving slowly towards the hem of his kilt and then looked up to find her eyes again locked on his. This time, they were sensual with a hint of mischief to them. He was frozen in place, unable to move or speak as she wove her hand above his knee and across his thigh to the part of him where he needed her most.

The moan that escaped him at her first touch sounded tortured, but in fact he had never felt such bliss in his life. Her thumb brushed his tip and her hand—her lovely, silken hand—wrapped around him, squeezing as she began to rub slowly. He exhaled a long, trembling breath and her hand began to move faster, his hips thrusting to the same insistent rhythm. Through it all her golden eyes, glowing with desire, remained fixed on his. He was lost in a cloud of pleasure.

The familiar twinges—the tightening in his thighs and the overwhelming sense of euphoria—told him that he was close, and he instinctively reached for her arm to stop her. He wasn’t ready for this to be over, not before he had the chance to return the pleasure she was giving him. His hand hovered over the pearl skin of her arm and ....

Jamie awoke with a jerk—disoriented, sweaty, and gasping for breath as if he had just surfaced from underwater. His hand was in his boxers, wound tight around his cock. It took him a moment to realize that the ringing in his ears was his alarm going off, and he quickly used his other hand to grab his phone from the bedside table and silence it.

Heart still pounding, he closed his eyes and attempted to dissolve once again into his dream.

Claire. Her whisky eyes shining. Her elegant hands caressing. Her long neck beckoning. He pushed his shorts down and stroked himself steadily, picturing her before him on the bed, on her knees with her fine round ass in the air, leaning close to take him between her rosebud lips. That thought was enough to send him over. He pumped himself into a frenzy, panting and grunting like a beast as he came.

“Christ,” he muttered, head sinking deeper into the pillows. He scooped his pillow into his arms, imagining for a moment that Claire was there for him to place his arm around. If only he could feel her satin skin and the weight of her upon his chest … if he could just rest his face in her hair and breathe in the essence of her, he would be the happiest man on earth. But he was here in his bed alone, his breath still ragged, his eyes squinting open to see the mess across his abdomen. He grabbed a handful of tissues to wipe himself clean and felt a hint of that telltale Catholic guilt coming on, but brushed it away before it had the chance to envelop him.

The dreams of Claire had been torturing him for days, but this was the first time he had seen one to its natural conclusion. It wasn’t exactly a fantasy he would have been able to indulge when his father and Jenny were staying with him in this tiny apartment. But the pent up release he found this morning was a relief, and he didn’t regret it. God, he had wanted her from the moment he had seen her, and he wouldn’t feel shame for that.

Of course, he didn’t know where, exactly, he stood with Claire at the moment. He was reassured that she was at least willing to talk to him again, but he didn’t know if she would grant him the chance to be something more to her. He didn’t know if she’d allow him to reach past the shield she’d built to protect herself. He didn’t know if he’d ever be able to touch her, to have her as his own, to love her the way that she deserved to be loved.

There were so many unknowns. What he did know was that she had agreed to spend the day with him, and he was determined to be content spending it by her side—to feel the tickle of her hair across his face when the breeze picked up, to inhale her botanical scent, to listen to her, to laugh with her. No matter what happened, simply being in her presence would be enough for today.

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

Claire had just slipped on a green maxi dress—her fourth outfit of the morning—when Jamie texted that he was waiting outside. She straightened her dress, quickly grabbed a wide belt from the closet and cinched it around her waist and then took one last look in the mirror while running a hand through her long, dark locks. The Braziian blowout she had gotten two months ago was coming to the end of its lifespan, and she said a quick prayer that her hair would stand up to the crushing NYC humidity.

On the ride down from the sixteenth floor, she forced herself to take a deep, calming breath. She wasn’t sure what to expect from the day. Would things between them be awkward? Electric? Both? There was a lot for them to discuss, that she knew. And while she understood how important it was for them to open up and be honest with one another, a part of her wished she could just skip past the difficult conversations and get to the place where the air between them would be clear and unburdened.

She pushed open the heavy door and emerged from the crisp air-conditioned lobby into the oppressive heat of Brooklyn in August. The sight she found before her only made her feel even more flushed. Jamie Fraser—ridiculously handsome in an aqua-sleeved raglan shirt, his still-wet curls bouncing against the collar—was squatting on the sidewalk, rubbing the ears of a friendly neighborhood beagle. Warmth washed over her as she watched the hound hop onto its hind legs, front paws landing on Jamie’s knees, his maw reaching up towards Jamie’s delighted face to get a good sniff. Damn if this wasn’t the most adorable thing she had ever seen.

Jamie looked up and noticed her standing there—probably wondering why she was gawking like an imbecile—then gave the pup’s floppy mahogany ears one last rub. He nodded to the owner before slowly rising and walking towards her.

“Hi there,” Claire said, an amused grin spreading across her face. “Looks like you made a new friend.”

“Aye. Percy’s a good boy. And his owner is a Mets fan.”

“Oh! A member of the Red Army, perhaps?”

“Nae doubt,” he said, his smile broadening until it spilled into laughter.

In the bright morning sun, Jamie’s eyes were vivid sapphires, the light and joy in them reflecting back at Claire. They quickly flitted down and took in the whole of her. “Ye look so bonny today,” he said, and her stomach instantly fluttered. She was unable to make her brain work well enough to say a word in reply before he asked, “Shall we go eat?”

“Sure, that would be lovely,” she said, her voice a bit too breathless. “Ehm, there are some really great restaurants in this neighborhood. What are you in the mood for?”

“I actually made a reservation already. Come.” He guided her down the busy sidewalk, placing his hand on her lower back. It sent tingles down her spine, somehow both titillating her body and comforting her soul.

She peppered Jamie for a hint about where he was taking her and, after some prodding, he admitted that he had gotten the name of her favorite local brunch spot from Gillian. This fact filled Claire with no small amount of joy, a sign of how thoughtful Jamie was.

As they walked the four blocks over, they chatted about Jenny and Brian’s departure the evening before, the surgeries Claire had completed that week, and Jamie’s first game back following his injury.

“I was a bit cautious at the plate the first few innings. Struck out twice. I suppose I was worried about tearing the wound open if I turned wrong, even though I had been cleared to play.”

“It didn’t look to me like you were cautious,” Claire said, disbelieving. “I saw you hit three doubles! And get four RBIs.” She playfully jabbed her elbow into his side.

“Ye watched the game?” he asked, sounding surprised. “But ye said ye were working yesterday?”

“Well, I may have snuck a peek at my phone while I did some reports after my surgeries.”

“Mmphm. I’m starting to think that you’re my good luck charm. I feel like every time you watch a game, I can’t miss the ball. I need to figure out a way to take advantage of that.” Jamie pulled open the restaurant door and ushered her inside.

“Sounds like a pretty valuable skill that I’ve got, then. Maybe we could come up with some kind of arrangement? I watch your games and make sure to sprinkle you with some of my special baseball fairy dust, and you ...”

“... treat ye to dinner every time I get a hit?” He cocked his eyebrow playfully at her, quickly adding, “But it could be breakfast, or lunch … even dessert. Whatever yer schedule allows.”

Claire looked over her shoulder at Jamie as they followed the host to their table. “That’s an awfully enticing proposal—did I mention that I hate to cook?—but I might hold out a bit and see if I can negotiate a better deal,” she teased.

Jamie laughed as he pulled a chair out for her to take a seat. “I dinna ken what ye have in mind, lass, but chances are I wouldna say no to anything ye might propose.” He sank into his own seat across from hers and placed his elbows on the table. She repressed an urge to reach out and brush her hands along the sparse red hairs covering the golden skin on his forearms. He had a glorious tan, the kind she could only dream of, but that came naturally to ball players at this point in the season. He was so beautiful it almost made her cry.

Claire couldn’t believe how well things were going so far. The mood between them was so light and comfortable and flirtatious, she wondered how she could have been so anxious about seeing him this morning.

They had placed their orders and were admiring the gorgeous room with its exposed wood beams, terracotta tile floor, and abundant greenery, when Jamie’s next words caused her to practically choke on her rosé.

“I never got to tell you the full story of what happened on the night of the gala, Claire. And I’d really like to.” The look in his eyes quickly turned from earnest to distressed as the wine spluttered from her mouth and dribbled down her front. Jamie reached out to pat her back, but she waved him off, assuring him that she was fine. She wiped her chin and the top of her dress with her napkin, cheeks aflame with embarrassment.

“Are ye all right, lass?”

After soothing her burning throat with a sip of water, Claire answered, “I’m okay. I was … caught off guard a bit. It’s just that—this morning’s been so wonderful and easy. We don’t need to ruin it by talking about something so …”

Jamie reached out and placed his hand over hers where it had been resting on the glossy marble tabletop. “Being honest about our feelings doesna have to be scary, Sassenach. I just thought it would be good to make sure there wasna any lingering anger or suspicion between us.” He squeezed her hand on the word us, and her stomach started doing somersaults again.

“Have you been talking to my therapist? You sound a lot like her.”

The corner of his mouth twitched up into a lopsided grin. His eyes twinkled as he looked at her and his thumb moved in circles over her knuckles, assuaging the panic that threatened to overtake her as she remembered how vulnerable and wounded she had been that night.

“So, will ye hear me out?” he asked.

Claire nodded her head slightly, letting him know that she would. She quieted the warning sirens in her brain, forced her mind to still, and did what she had been unable to do all these recent weeks … listen without anger or judgment.

“I think you’ve patched together some of what happened after we parted, between what Gillian has told ye, and what I managed to mention to ye in front of the stadium the other day.” Claire winced, remembering with embarrassment how she had yelled at him in front of his family.

“You said that you tried to come back to the main hall after the autograph session, but that someone from the team had stopped you. And I know there was a note …”

“Aye, that dobber of an intern got distracted and never found ye to pass on the wee note I wrote ye with my number, telling ye to go home.”

“Ok, but … what I don’t understand, Jamie—” Claire faltered over her words, trying not to sound like she was accusing him of something. “How could they make you go to that party if you didn’t want to? Did they threaten you or something?

Jamie heaved a bitter sigh. “Well, they threatened to demote me. They had sent an executive to bring me upstairs to the party, and he said if I refused to go with him, I would be on a bus headed back to Syracuse the next day instead of flying to Miami with the team.”

“Demote you? That’s ridiculous! You had just had a record-breaking debut. Would they really have done that to the detriment of the team?”

“Oh, sure. Teams manipulate players’ contracts all the time for their own financial benefit. And the Duncans? They like to send players down to the minors to settle personal scores. It’s not the first time they’ve done it. Their priority is not in fielding a winning team. These days, teams make most of their money through tv contracts and running the stadium. Most owners dinna event want to try to win a championship if it means shelling out money for top players. And the Duncans are the worst of the lot. The fact that the Mets are doing well this season is just a happy coincidence.”

Claire had been growing increasingly disgusted with stories she had heard about the team’s ownership, making her think more seriously about finding a position with another team to start once her fellowship ended, even if the Mets did offer her a permanent job. “They really are slimy bastards. Can you imagine, I found out recently that they fired a pregnant executive for being unmarried a few years back?”

“It wouldna surprise me at all. They’ve gotten more brazen as the years have gone on. Ye’ve probably heard about the financial troubles they’re in? That they fell victim to a Ponzi scheme a few years ago and lost hundreds of millions of dollars? Apparently they are desperate for money because they’re on the verge of losing the team. And, well, the night of the gala they hosted a side party with potential investors, and one of them—a billionaire named Sandringham—insisted that he needed to speak to me. So the Duncans sent one of their lackeys down to bring me up to him.”

“And what happened when you went upstairs? What did the billionaire want?” At this point, Claire was riveted by the story, almost forgetting that it was the same event that had nearly shattered her heart.

“This Sandringham was a creepy old blowhard. Have ye heard of him? I knew he was an old money guy, invests in real estate mostly. To be honest, I dinna really ken what he wanted from me. I s’pose he wanted to see the new star player that everyone was talking about, see if I was worth the investment. But the man was too sloshed to have an actual conversation. He wanted me to make these absurd toasts, to winning the World Series, to becoming MVP. It was nonsense.” Claire suppressed a shudder as she remembered the sound of those toasts and the accompanying laughter floating down to her from the atrium as she left the library. She felt a pang of hurt in her chest with the recollection, but pushed past it. She could trust him. She had to remember that.

“His cronies were there, all of them wasted and obnoxious and loud.” Jamie breathed out sharply and ran his right hand through his hair, his left still clutched tightly to hers on the table. “I’ll admit I had a few drinks just to make it bearable,” he continued, with a bitter chuckle, his ocean eyes boring straight into hers. “But I really just wanted to get the hell out of there. I was angry, I was miserable, I … I was missing you.” A faint pink stained his cheeks as he said it.

“I finally got out of there, and I checked my phone all night, thinking ye’d text me. But I never heard from ye. Only found out from Gillian a few days later that ye never even got my note. She told me that I had hurt ye so badly that you didna want to talk to me ever again.” He shook his head and dropped his eyes, but they quickly shot back up. “Not that I blame ye! I had promised I’d come back … and then I didn’t. I’m grateful that ye’re giving me the chance to explain it all, Claire. Truly.”

Jamie paused for a moment and took a sip of water, struggling with what to say next. “When he threatened to demote me, it wasna about my pride—hell, when I was called up I thought I’d only be here for three games, tops. I expected to be sent back down.” He cleared his throat before continuing. “Maybe this sounds daft, being as we havena kent each other for very long, but all I could think about was being away from ye, losing the chance to learn who ye are. But I … I’m no’ ready to see what my life would be like without you in it. I enjoy bein’ with ye far too much.”

Claire’s breath hitched in her throat as his fingers played impossibly slowly across her inner wrist, his eyes shining with tenderness as he gazed at her. She had sat silently as he spoke, paralyzed by his words. It was the first time either of them had put voice to their feelings for the other.

Thousands of thoughts swirled through her mind, but she didn’t know what to say. She could have reassured him that she believed him, that she trusted him. She could have told him how sorry she was that she had shut him out after the gala, and warned him that she was an emotional disaster. She could have let him know that she felt the same way he did, but that he would need to wait for her.

What she wanted more than anything was to lean across the table, place her hands on his cheeks, and kiss him senseless, but she couldn’t do that.

Her mind was swimming. She glanced down at the table, and her eyes landed on the plates of food that the waiter must have deposited in front of them during their talk. Which is why, instead of saying any of the rational, normal things that she had thought of, she instead blurted out the first thing that came to her.

“I’m sorry about your cold eggs.”

She regretted it immediately. She removed her hand from below his, and clamped it to her forehead to cover her eyes, squinting in embarrassment. Jamie looked down at the table in confusion, seemingly noticing the plates there for the first time. Why are you such a fool, Beauchamp? The man takes a solemn moment to make a romantic proclamation, and you can barely string five words together in response? “Oh God,” she muttered.

Through her fingers she could see Jamie staring at her for a long beat. He then reached towards her and peeled her hand away from her face, cupping it in his. And when she fully opened her eyes again, she saw his lips trembling and his cheeks shaking, and the next thing she knew he had broken into peals of laughter. Despite having wanted to disappear from the face of the earth moments ago, she couldn’t help but join in, and within seconds she was laughing so hard that her ribs hurt.

“Did ye—did ye really just say you were sorry about my food getting cold?” he managed to spit out.

Claire wiped away the tear that had sprung from the corner of her eye and nodded through her snickering.

“Och, mo ghràidh,” he said, shaking his head back and forth. “Ye’re a witty one.”

“I try,” Claire shrugged playfully.

They had both passed the hysterics phase and were now sighing out the remaining laughs with enormous grins plastered on their faces.

“What was that you just said? Was that Gaelic?” Claire asked as she sipped the last drops of rosé from her glass.

“Was what Gaelic?”

“What you just said. Mo-gray? Something like that?”

“Did I say that?” Jamie asked, looking slightly panicked and more than slightly flushed. The tips of his ears and the skin pulled tight against his cheekbones turned a furious scarlet.

Just then, the waiter returned to ask how they were doing. They both ordered refills of their drinks and looked down sheepishly at the food they had yet to touch. By the time the waiter walked away, Jamie’s skin had regained its normal hue. Claire decided to go easy on him and not ask for further clarification about this mysterious Gaelic phrase, but she tucked it away for the future.

“So ….” Jamie said, the hilarity having segued into a moment of silence. “Do ye want to ask me anything about that night, about what I told ye? Do ye think ye can forgive me for standing ye up like that?” he asked.

She looked across the table at him, wondering how to explain that she was the one who owed him an explanation for how she reacted to the events that night.

“I do, Jamie. I forgive you, of course. And I also take responsibility for—”

“Sshhhh, Sassenach,” he said. “Ye dinna need to say any more. I just thank ye for hearing me out, for listening. Now,” he said, looking down at the plates before them, “I suppose we should eat our cold food before it gets even colder, aye?”

“Aye,” she said with a smile and a tilt of her head, making him laugh again.

She let out a huge internal sigh of relief to have survived the talk she had so dreaded for weeks. While she knew there was more—much more—for them to speak about, she tucked into her avocado toast, knowing that there would be time to discuss it all later.

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

Jamie gripped the stainless steel bar, holding on for his life as the subway—and his stomach—lurched its way through the underbelly of Brooklyn. He was peering at the route map plastered onto the wall of the car, doing his best to decipher where they were in relation to where he wanted to be. After finishing their brunch, he’d told Claire that he’d be whisking her away to a special, surprise location as Part Two of their off day together. Unfortunately, his plan was currently being thwarted by his unfamiliarity with the New York City subway system. As soon as they stepped onto the train, she had badgered him for a clue as to where they were going. It was only when she remarked, “I’m trying to figure out where you could be taking me that’s this far into Brooklyn,” that he realized he had gotten them onto the subway heading in the wrong direction.

He felt the train jolt as it pulled into the station, and he reached down to grab Claire’s hand and bring her to standing so they could get out at the next stop.

“Jamie, what are you doing?’ she giggled as she tried to find her balance, grabbing onto his upper arm to keep from falling. He leaned back against the pole to steady himself as the car came to an abrupt stop, which caused Claire’s body to crash into his, her head into his chest, her hips against his thighs, her legs caught between his own. He instinctively reached out to keep her steady, only realizing a moment later that his hands had landed squarely on her arse and not her hips. Dear God. It was so round, so plump. He had never felt anything more perfect in his life. Christ, this woman was everything.

Her eyes lifted to his, her lovely mouth opened into a small “o,” and he was transfixed. Then he suddenly heard “stand clear of the closing doors, please” blare forth from the train’s speakers, and their brief oblivion was interrupted. He quickly tugged Claire by the hand and they slipped from the car onto the platform just before the doors slammed shut behind them.

“So it looks like we were going in the wrong direction after all?” Claire asked as they moved towards the center of the platform.

“Perhaps I dinna ken the subway system as well as I thought I did,” he said while scrunching his nose. He pulled out his phone to look again at the MTA map, and in doing so, reluctantly let go of Claire’s hand. She moved closer to his side, as if she, too, felt the loss of that closeness.

“Please tell me you’re getting an Uber to take us to your super secret destination?” she pleaded, peeking over his shoulder at the screen.

“An Uber? Ye insult me. I’m a real New Yorker now, so it’s got to be the subway.” He brought the phone closer to his face and continued to scrutinize the map.

“Oh come on,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’m more of a New Yorker than you are, and I say that there is nothing wrong with taking a car. We’ll get there faster and we won’t have to stand on this disgusting platform that’s 100 degrees and smells like boiling piss.”

Jamie ventured a sniff. Claire was right, it did smell of piss, and of rotted garbage, and of decaying rats. And he wouldn’t admit it to her, but his wame could do without the train rocking side to side and the jerky, sudden stops and starts at every station.

“All right, then. An Uber it is. But I’m still no’ telling ye where we’re going.”

Claire brought her hands together and clapped them towards the sky. “Oh thank God! I promise I won’t ask you for even a hint.”

Jamie ordered the Uber as they headed up the stairs to street level where, even though it was 95 degrees and humid, it still felt refreshing compared to being on the stuffy, smelly underground platform.

The car arrived a few moments later, and as he climbed into the back seat beside Claire, it hit him how lucky he was to be here with her. The day was still just getting started and was already going better than he had dreamed it could. They had gotten the hard conversation out of the way and both his conscience and the air between them instantly felt lighter. Claire had been gracious and forgiving and funny in response. Even when he said more than he meant, told her of his feelings, that he wanted more of her in his life, she listened. She hadn’t rejected him … yet. It was clear to him that someone had hurt her in the past, and that she was still wounded, still healing. He hoped she would let him help her learn to trust again.

Claire, despite her promise, continued to ask for hints as they passed various landmarks and neighborhoods on the drive. As the car sailed past 34th Street, she said “I guess we’re not going to the Empire State Building then.” And as they merged onto the West Side Highway, she mused, “Hmmmmm, I guess we’re going uptown? Or somewhere north of the city?” She turned to him and playfully glared. “You’re not taking me to New Jersey, are you?”

“Have patience, Sassenach. Ye’ll find out in just a few minutes. Though I’m surprised ye havena figured it out already.” Claire responded with the loveliest pout he had ever seen.

“I’m so glad I convinced you to take a car, Jamie. It would have taken us ages to get all the way up here, wherever the hell it is that we are.”

After a solid thirty minutes of driving, Jamie lowered his head to see out the side window as the car pulled off the highway. They passed through a stone archway and followed a winding lane across a lush, green park. He turned to face Claire, who had just at that moment begun to realize where they were.

“Jamie!” she gasped, reaching for his arm. “The Cloisters! I can’t believe you brought me here. I … I haven’t been in at least a decade. My Uncle Lamb used to take me every time we visited New York when I was younger. It’s one of the most magical places I’ve ever been.” Her eyes were wet and sparkling like a bottle of the finest whisky when a shaft of light struck through it.

“I ken, mo ghràidh. That’s why we’re here.”

Claire flung herself against him, wrapping her arms around his neck as she whispered, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

His heart nearly burst out of his chest with pride, knowing that he had made her happy. And he vowed to himself that as long as he lived, for as long as she would allow him, he would do everything in his power to keep her eyes sparkling.