The flight from Paris to Venice was almost too quick. When Claire realized they were descending she was still sipping her first whisky. She threw it back and raised her hand for another. She was terrified of renting a car and finding her way to Veneto. Javier drew her a map with the roads and turns but she worried it would be pitch dark and she would get lost. Every single thing she saw now scared her. The cricket she saw at Javier’s turned into a deadly assassin with an Uzi under his arm and a second before she stomped her foot down it turned into a land mine. The flight attendant handed her the whisky and reminded her they were picking up the glasses in preparation for landing. Claire threw it back and handed her the glass. Now I’ll get lost for sure, she thought.
Claire’s anxiety mounted with each minute once the wheels hit the runway. She was barely holding it together, conjuring up macabre scenarios of what she would find at the property. By the time she found the car rental place, she asked for a tank. The man blinked and stared at her shaking his head no. He continued to shake his head when she asked for a Humvee, an Escalade, a Suburban, a Jeep, or a station wagon? He held the keys out and pointed to a tin can on wheels with bald tires. Claire grabbed the keys and signed where he pointed. She had to muscle her way through the cramped rental building wondering why so many people were arriving at night. She could see the door and lunged for it feeling her feet leave the dirty floor as her body was pulled through the people into the arms of love.
“Sassenach, I’m so damn glad to see you lass.”
Claire gripped Jamie’s jacket and sobbed into his chest. She cried like there wasn’t a soul around to see her, like a child who finds his mother after being lost in a giant shopping mall. Her arms circled his waist in a death grip and her tears continued as Jamie inched her to the door and out into the night.
“Sassenach, are you hurt?”
Jamie took a minute to hug her and rock back and forth. When she got control of her sobs, he guided her to the rental car and helped her in. He wanted to get them out of the airport and pushed the little car toward that end. Claire turned her tiny flashlight to the map and called out the next turn as they made their way to Veneto.
An hour later they pulled into the driveway of her property. Javier had arranged for the lights and water to be turned on, but they had to navigate to the front door where the light switches were. Jamie was holding her up for the most part and realized something monumental had shaken her to the core. When the lights came on, the monsters were banished from her reality and she felt the apprehensive calm of the newly rescued.
Jamie pulled her to a couch, left by the previous owners, and pushed the hair out of her face with compassionate eyes taking her in.
“I know it’s big, what we’re up against so just tell me like you’re reading it in a book.”
She tried to start, sputtered a few sentences, and tried again. Jamie pulled her hand to his massive bicep and smiled at her, cowering on the couch. He spoke quietly to her.
“I know how to use these.” He pressed her fingers into his muscle. “It’s the chapter of my life left to be told. I think we are safe here, right? No one will know we are here, in the middle of nowhere, in a small Italian village. So we can take a deep breath,” he expanded his lungs waiting for her to follow him, “and chill for tonight.”
Jamie pulled her chin up to look in her eyes, “besides the cloak and dagger, I am so damn glad to see you lass.”
Claire pulled his head to meet her mouth and they lost themselves in a renewing kiss. That seemed to break the fear spell she was under and she took another deep breath before telling the details of her last thirty hours, leaving out the discovery that she was Casper and Javier a fence for stolen art. Jamie listened intently, impressed not only with her plan but her die-hard resolve to get word to him. Once he was fully informed, the two of them sat huddled together on a leftover couch in a villa owned by some business incorporated in Bangladesh. Not a crumb of food was in the kitchen and the water would run rusty brown for the first thirty minutes but it was heaven on earth to them.
In Chicago, the sun was rising as a man watched the building Claire lived in. He stretched his legs and heard his back crack from sitting up for two days. When he hung his private investigator's license in Chicago, he never anticipated jobs like this, working for men that scared him shitless. He transmitted his report that the subject has remained in the apartment spending most of her time searching for wedding related information.
Claire had been explicit about how long to stay in the apartment telling her friend to order a taxi to the back of the building where she eased into the backseat and gave her address. It would be hours before anyone wondered about the lack of activity in the apartment or internet giving the impostor plenty of time to get away safely. Geillis waited to board her plane to Michigan where she would visit her parents and the town she grew up in, visit old friends and high school sweethearts. She stood to line up for boarding smiling at the good looking commuter behind her.
Claire balled herself up between Jamie and the couch back sleeping fitfully and grabbing at him when she woke up through the night. He would pull her in and shush her, reminding her he was there and she was safe.
Jamie’s eyes opened with the dawn and the lack of window covering allowing the sun rays to bath them in heat. He rolled off the couch and looked down at his clever Sassenach feeling an overwhelming need to protect her. Come what may, he would see her safe before he disappeared forever.
Jamie stepped outside and smiled like a kid at Christmas. There were vineyards as far as the eye could see. They were terraced up the side of the mountain, even the land around the villa was grapevines hanging heavy with grape clusters. When he looked at the villa, he realized it was very large with outbuildings that made him wonder if there were chickens around. He walked around staying close to the estate in case Claire woke up in a panic. He felt a sharp peck on his boot and looked down at a confused chicken who continued to peck getting nothing in return. He picked the chicken up and threw it in the air following where it flapped, finding a treasure of eggs in multiple nests. The coop was well maintained and he filled his pockets with the freshest looking eggs.
He set the eggs on the kitchen counter and opened cabinets looking for anything left behind. There was a small, battered pan for frying eggs, a plastic cup, and a box of plastic forks. Hm, not enough for his ravenous hunger. He set the eggs in the fancy, now cold refrigerator and went to check on the Sassenach.
Claire’s lifeless body suggested he explore some more so up the stairs he went marveling at the open upper floor that looked down on a sleeping Sassenach. He wandered through the rooms making note of anything left behind that could be useful. There were custom upgrades throughout the house including a gigantic tub in the master bath and a glassed-in shower with water heads on both ends. He liked that idea. Shower with your love and meet in the middle for…
Descending the stairs two at a time he pulled her into a hug in less than a minute. She was shaking and crying saying something unintelligible. He pulled her to the couch and held her for a minute before asking what she said.
“I have been in these clothes for two days Jamie. I might smell bad for the first time since the jungle, and we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere!”
“You look fresh as a daisy sweetheart, and you smell as good as always. Don’t fret so, now that we’re here we can buy what we need, ok? Come now, let me show you this amazing place.”
His excitement got her off the couch and outside where the vineyards spanned in every direction. His smile was beaming. Claire turned around and went back to the couch where Jamie would convince her she looked fine and smelled wonderful. It was decided that food was the priority and Jamie was prepared to drive until they found a cafe or a land mammal he could kill and eat. Thankfully, they found a small eatery that was open for breakfast and with Jamie’s limited Italian, hot eggs, sausage, potatoes, bread, and spaghetti were being consumed in a short twenty minutes.
Jamie continued to explore the outbuildings which led him to an artist’s studio full of painted and unused canvases. His heart was racing when he found the cabinets full of paint and brushes, turpentine, rags, acrylic, and oils. He found a fortune in art supplies and a canvas that was already prepped for paint. He ran his fingers around the edges, seeing the painting emerge in his mind’s eye. He pulled a long oil brush from a container and checked the balance and weight, closing his eyes at the rush of energy he felt. He shook his head and dropped the brush back into the container before making his way back to the house. Claire leaned over the sink and watched the brown rusty water pour out. She wore an oversized cotton frock and cowboy boots giving Jamie a new definition of adorable.
He pulled her to him for a soul-stealing kiss feeling her ardor ramp up, responding to his every touch.
“You found soap, I can smell it on you.” A long kiss suspended his thought. “Suppose you show me this treasure lass.”
Claire pulled him upstairs where she had stocked the master shower with all she found. There were several bars of hotel soap, shampoo, and towels that looked relatively clean. She told him one of the linen closets was full like they totally forgot about it. Jamie was pulling his clothes off while she was talking and gratefully stepped under the rainbird shower head letting the water pour over him.
A towel was wrapped around his waist and he shook the water from his curls before calling to Claire. He could hear her but couldn’t find her until he climbed a narrow staircase into an attic where he saw several trunks open, and clothing pulled out onto the floor. Two armoires were open with their contents pulled out and one naked Sassenach on a bed that was left behind. He walked toward the foot of the ornate iron bed where his beautiful girl waited for him. He looked her up and down and asked her to spread her legs. When she did, he gasped involuntarily making the hair on her arms stand up. He was stuck, looking at the honey that glistened. Like being led by the pied piper he lowered himself to her and ran his flat tongue up her fold, hearing her moan, and feeling her hips chase his mouth. He was spellbound by her body and pushed his tongue into her greedily, holding her legs open for his consumption he brought her to the brink and stopped abruptly.
Claire was in no mood to miss the crashing euphoria promised by Jamie’s tongue. She looked at him like a predator and moved her body and bouncing breasts to his lap where she powered down on his cock until he could feel her throat tighten around him. Jamie grunted and almost lost it, but he pulled her away and buried his face in her again, sucking and flicking his tongue until she exploded. There was no room for gentleman Jamie on this bed. He took a fist full of hair and pulled her head back to gorge himself on her mouth while pulling her under him. He was slightly aware of her panting in his ear, encouraging him to ravish her, promising to deliver whatever he wanted. He held her pelvis up and pounded into her, lifting her legs over his shoulders and bearing down on her soft wetness. Claire was panting and begging him to make her come again. He pushed into her and rotated his hips growling at her to come for him. Her orgasm coated Jamie with honey and he pumped his life and his love into her with a sustained moan. Claire was back on earth watching her love take flight, marveling at the strength and intensity of his body chasing his release. She ran her hand softly down his back and over his butt, feeling his balls squeeze and pulse their contents into her.
Jamie collapsed to her side and held her to him, panting for air, while the last of the magic waves washed over him. He felt complete sexual release, like never before and remembered Claire talking in his ear, making him crazy with what she told him to do, deeper, faster, make me come. He opened his eyes to a head full of curls, giggling, while she kissed his chest all over and told him he was an exceptional lover. He held her close and listened to the Sassenach purr while gratitude filled him. Every time they touched, he felt closer to the woman of his dreams. He was so humbled by her love and knew together or apart, she would ride his dreams in this life and the next.
Jamie pulled Claire’s house key out of her purse, locked the house, and drove to the restaurant to buy food for dinner and breakfast. He covered her with a quilt and jogged to the studio where he found an old pallet and squeezed vibrant oil paint onto it. He painted quickly, aware of the time but not wanting to stop. When he pushed it as far as he dared, he dropped his brushes into the turpentine, sealed his pallet in a plastic bag, and ran back to the house.
He kissed his love awake promising tasty treats to fill her empty stomach. She was excited at first but after a few bites she got quiet and struggled with her eyelids closing. Jamie felt his heart squeeze at her attempt to stay awake. He picked her up and spooned her on the bed until she was very deep. He whispered how much she meant to him, hoping it would take hold in her dreams so she would never forget.
“You ran a play that protected all of us sweet lass, no wonder you're exhausted. Sleep and restore your strength. I will be next to you for as long as I can be.”
Jamie put the food away and tried to sleep but the painting called to him and his hand itched to hold the brush again. He finally gave up and left quietly to indulge an addiction that was awakened with the first stroke of a paint-filled brush. He painted all night, completely lost in the experience of creation. When the first rays of light snuck under the door, he dropped the brushes into turpentine and hurried back to the house.
He laid down next to a sleeping Claire and fell into the void in seconds. When Claire opened her eyes, it was midmorning and her head was crowded with remnants of her dreams, one being reaching for Jamie and finding an empty space. Food helped her to focus and she realized it wasn’t a dream, he was gone all night. She set out to find where he had gone and opened the studio door an hour later.
The smell of fresh turpentine assaulted her nose and she crept farther into the little building that was brimming with paints, easels, brushes, and a canvas that bounced light off the paint like it was still wet. She touched the paint with the end of her finger and pulled fresh paint away. When she looked at the painting she almost fainted. It was a beautiful reproduction of the masterpiece Girl With A Pearl Earring, and Claire was astounded by Jamie’s ability to recreate the famous painting from memory. As the sun climbed in the sky the pigment revealed a secret she was not prepared for. She stepped closer to the canvas and studied the brush strokes.
“Holy Christ! The Painter, what the fuck!”
Claire recoiled into an easel behind her and with wild frightened eyes she whirled around to run away and stopped in her tracks. Jamie was behind her, watching her discovery, watching her fear take flight.
“Claire, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I want to talk this out and…”
“You’re the Painter!” She was pointing at him as the blood drained from her face. She looked around for an exit, but he was blocking her only way out. Jamie watched the tornado in her head lay waste to all she had come to believe, and he reached for her with pleading eyes.”
Claire stammered at him to let her pass and Jamie let out a defeated breath.
“You want to grab the car and drive away, never to be seen again. Please Claire, let me explain.”
She skirted the wall of the studio and lunged for the door only to see Jamie’s strong arm slam into the door frame blocking her way. He put his head down in a defeated posture. His voice was barely above a whisper.
“I know who you are. I cracked the case and I know you are Casper.”
“Images sent to me right before I ran for my life. They were retrieved from the multiplexer at Sotheby’s. There was a fancy shoe, red with lots of straps, the same shoe you had on when we were buried. You stole the Rembrandt, didn’t you Claire, I mean Casper.”
He felt her strength waning like a cornered animal and hated what this was doing to her. He knew what he would do and wanted to save her anymore fear.
“When I was caught, after ten lucrative years of passing forgeries, they locked me up in a high-security prison, far away from civilization. I still don’t know where I was, my guess is Russia. We wore hoods going in and going out, for me anyway. The rest will die there I’m sure. Men go mad there, not knowing, not hearing from their families, never seeing the sun, no one to speak to but other crazy inmates."
Claire just watched him, ready to run when she saw a way out. “The world thought you were dead. You just disappeared. I’ve never heard of a prison like that and why Russia?”
“Maybe they won the coin toss. There were almost a dozen countries that wanted me. I made a deal, I would have agreed to anything. They asked me to catch Casper and offered me the freedom, within limits, to do it. As I said, I would have done anything to get out .”
Jamie was silent for several minutes and kept looking at the floor.
“I’m going back, Claire.” His voice was low, devastated like every word conjured all the strength he had left in his body.
“If my choice is to turn you over to the authorities or go back, I’ll go back, no question.”
“You can’t. How could you?” She took a step toward him and stopped, suddenly confused about everything. “Jamie I can run, and keep running, and you can tell them who I am. It was a calculated risk for the last ten years, and I knew it might end in a prison sentence. That is your only alternative.”
Jamie remained in the door frame shaking his head no and looking at the ground. “I will go to my grave with your secret Sassenach, but I want to see you safe from the Coalition. We need to keep talking until you trust me again. Please, Claire, I’m willing to make the sacrifice so you can live a long life. Don’t die like me, in a cage somewhere, alone, afraid. You must quit stealing art. I want your pledge before I leave you.”
Jamie stood upright and smiled sadly at her. His first step to open the door for her betrayed his terror and he collapsed.
“Jamie!” Claire rushed to put her arms around her love. This was devastating to her as it clearly was to him. She cried and begged until he stood up and walked her into the house. He went straight upstairs and asked her to lay down with him and talk. He knew, come what may, they had to become a united front and Claire had to trust him.
The man watching Claire’s apartment was getting nervous. He had not seen any network activity nor could he pick her up on infrared. She basically disappeared and he wondered what the consequence would be. He sent the report.
The man across from Jamie’s estate spent a lot of time sleeping because there was little to occupy his time. He had waited for the call for three days and his temper was getting the best of him. He had not seen the subject today and worried he may have slipped by him. The more he thought about it the madder he got. He would forfeit his fee if Fraser escaped and he suddenly needed to shoot someone, namely the guy in the house.
The sniper dropped from his tree stand and boldly walked across the estate, rifle in hand. To his surprise, the front door was unlocked so he stepped right in, still carrying his rifle pointed at the ground. When he walked into the living room Rupert was sitting down with a very large pistol pointed at him. He shot the man in the head.
At eighteen years old, Rupert left to serve in the Queen's army and he wasn’t seen again for seven years. He traded his youth and innocence for fatigues and his aim with a long gun was noticed early. He was promoted right out of boot camp and shipped off for specialist training. He didn’t share the details of his six years as a sniper and he wouldn’t tolerate questions or ribbing about being a soldier. It was a black hole in his life and would stay that way. When Angus told him about the sniper in the woods, waiting to kill Jamie, Rupert saw and accepted his mission.
Rupert removed the body parts that would identify the man. His hands, feet, and teeth would be incinerated, and the rest was rolled up in a rug and pushed into the gorge. It took twenty minutes to walk back to his truck and by that time, the man was forgotten.
Jamie talked and answered questions for an hour before calling a time out. He hugged Claire close and suggested a ride to find some whisky. Claire looked a bit shell shocked, but she was listening and he could see her processing the information.
“A nice drive with the windows down will do us both good. Ready?”
They drove in silence, both in their heads about the truth between them, they were both on the wrong side of the law and Jamie going to prison to protect her secret would not save her from the Coalition. They found the commercial section of town with an outdoor market and regular storefronts and looked for a liquor store. The sun was shining and it was a dash of normalcy that made them both relax as they passed the vendors.
“We should buy groceries Jamie, there is nothing to cook at the house.”
“Let’s grab a bottle of whisky and then pick out some food.”
They only had American money but that didn’t stop the Italian woman behind the counter. She reached over and pulled a twenty-dollar bill from Jamie’s bills and then smiled at them. Jamie wrapped his arm around Claire and turned them to leave. Claire reached for the doorknob and jumped back nearly causing Jamie to drop the bottle. She pushed him back with more strength than he expected. He could see the terror on her face and asked the woman if there was a back door. It took several tries, but she finally understood and pointed to the back. Jamie put his finger up to his lips hoping she would understand not to say anything if questioned.
Claire made a break for the car running so fast it was an effort to catch up to her. Jamie had the little car racing for the road and once free of the plaza Claire screamed at him to turn.
“Go Jamie! Get over that hill and hide us!”
Jamie turned onto a dirt side road and raced over a hill and down the other side. He turned the car sharply at the bottom of the hill and parked the car behind a wall of vegetation. They were hidden from the road and Jamie prayed the road dust would settle quickly. He was panting and watched Claire look out the window like she expected a monster to come over the hill.
“What is it Sassenach?”
Her eyes were huge when she looked at him.
“That horrible man is here! The one that came to my office and told me I had to marry Frank. How the fuck did he find us? How many of them are searching the town for us? It’s over Jamie! We failed.”
“We’re heading for Venice. It will be obvious someone has been at the villa, so they’ll have confirmation we’re here.” Jamie pinched his eyebrows together and tried to think. "Call Darius. Tell him to pick us up at two in the morning. Let him tell you where the boat will be, he knows this shoreline and we don’t. Claire, listen to his voice for a tell. Something odd or nervous sounding and then tell him we’re in trouble and need a rescue, give him the choice mo chridhe.”
Jamie and Claire stepped onto the pier at two in the morning and ran down its length as quietly as possible. It was a moonless night and they couldn’t see their hand in front of their face. Jamie put an arm out to stop her and whispered he couldn’t see the end of the pier and didn’t want to run off of it. He walked on the edge of the pier with his hand out, not knowing if the boat was there, who would be on it, and how far out the pier went. Claire held his other hand with both of hers afraid a wrong step would send him into the ocean. Jamie’s hand hit the smooth surface of a hull and he exhaled in relief. The sides of the yacht were dark blue and impossible to see in the blackness. They continued to feel along the hull until he touched metal. They boarded the boat silently and waited.
The yacht was blacked-out to allow them to board without being seen. They heard the disembodied voice of the captain, no more than whisper. “We are at the end of the pier, so we go slow to keep the noise down then we hit it and get the hell out of here. Why don’t you both come to the bridge? Maia is waiting to help.” Darius held Claire’s hand who held Jamie’s and they felt their way up two flights of stairs in silence. Claire was shaking from the overload of adrenalin that continued to pump into her system since the art studio. Darius squeezed her hand for reassurance. Of what, she wondered.
Darius pushed them onto a bridge couch and started the engines. He crossed himself in the dark as the yacht moved forward and away from the dock. It is illegal to operate a boat without running lights, without notification to the harbormaster, without observing standard safety precautions of the authority. Darius was breaking the law on their behalf which made Jamie relax, a little. This water was Darius’s playground growing up. He knew every boulder, sand bar, and water object like the back of his hand. Jamie could sense his confidence and relaxed a little more. After fifteen minutes of running dark Darius steered the boat toward the open ocean pushed the speed up, they were flying across the water. Maia turned the bridge lights on and the boats running lights lit up.
Darius looked straight ahead, watching for other craft on the water. “Tell us what you want us to know. Nothing, or everything.” He looked behind him and smiled at Jamie and Claire. “I prefer everything, it’s more fun!”
“Is there a place we can drop anchor and gather our senses? We want to tell you what’s happened and give you the choice to help us or not, but I can’t collect my thoughts in this situation, it would be lovely to just stop and rest for the night.”
Maia watched Claire’s body quake and her teeth clench. There were tears in Maia’s eyes when she hugged her and pulled Claire down the stairs to her glorious bedroom. She looked at the dress falling off her shoulders, the cowboy boots, and her dirty legs and arms.
“Be right back.” Five minutes later Maia brought her a Drambuie over crushed ice and closed the door. Claire sat down on the bed and ran her hand across it remembering two weeks ago she and Jamie slept here, on a lover’s holiday without a care in the world. She cried into a towel, but Maia still heard the heartbreaking sobs. She went up to the bridge and heard Darius tell Jamie they had a mooring, ten minutes.
Maia turned a worried look on Jamie and he was down the stairs taking two at a time. He burst into the bedroom and pulled the sobbing Claire to her feet so he could hold her, calm her down and promise everything he could possibly give to make her feel safe and loved.
“Scary day, right love? I know you hated hiding in that barn with the rats and under the pier in two feet of water for hours. Right? Not a good time, but you did it lass, I’m so damn proud of you." He held her around the waist and leaned down lifting her foot to pull the boot off both feet. He pulled his shirt off and walked to the shower where he pulled her in and covered her body with her favorite gels. He shampooed her hair dipping her head back to rinse the soap off. He turned the water off and reached for an oversized towel that was wrapped around her.
“Rest for five minutes Sassenach, pick one of your favorite dresses, and dry your hair. How lucky it is you left them on board. Right?”
Jamie ran back to shower the grime and fish smell off him and shampoo the sand out of his hair that constantly fell off the pier they were hiding under. Hours under the Pier in two feet of water in the pitch dark must have scared the crap out of Claire because it scared the crap out of him. In the momentary safety of the shower, he reviewed the day of running for their lives, hiding while they waited to rendezvous with the boat. He wondered how the Americans were able to find them and suddenly felt afraid for Javier. They would do unthinkable things to him until he broke and told them where she was. He shivered and turned the water off.
Claire handed him his swimming trucks she found in a drawer and Jamie was very happy not to put his reeking clothes back on.
He studied her face and pushed the hair behind her ear. “One conversation with Darius and Maia, they deserve to know, and then I want to hold you in my arms until morning.”
“I’m ready, let’s go."