"Jamie, be reasonable, lad."
As if he'd been anything but all morning. Standing before his uncle's desk, Jamie counted five deep breaths as he fought for calm. "One of us here is reasonable, Colum, and it isna you."
"Pah." His uncle flapped a dismissive hand at him. "Mackenzie Distillery has been in our family fer generations. 'Tis Dougal's birthright as much as mine, and I wilna force him out while he bears the name 'Mackenzie.'"
"Dougal forfeited his birthright when he decided that company performance reviews included compulsory blow jobs," he seethed. "Even more so when he blackmailed the women wi' the videos should they try and speak against him."
Jamie paced before his uncle's desk, changing tack to try to reach Colum on a level he cared about. "Yer shares are down forty-three percent. Three distributors have cut their contracts short, including yer sole supply line tae the States. If ye dinna do something drastic, ye wilna be able to pay yer staff by year's end."
"Ye said yerself the public outrage is dyin' down! If we just wait--"
"Because the full details havena yet got out," Jamie countered. Mack's lawyers had done their jobs, and done them well. Only vague notions of Dougal's actions had so far made it to the outside world. Whispers of inappropriate workplace talk and propositioning female employees had leaked after the first of the women had served Mack with a sexual harassment lawsuit. By the time the media had picked up on it, she and the two others who came forward after had signed ironclad NDAs, prohibiting the disclosure of further details in exchange for hefty settlements.
"Let me ask ye, Colum, and think on it hard." Jamie gripped the edge of Colum's mahogany desk and leaned over it, sick to his stomach as he posed the question. "Do ye really think there are only three?" When he didn't answer, Jamie continued. "All it will take is one woman who decides yer hush money isna worth her silence. And when the full details come out, ye'll have a lot more to worry ower than the value of the company."
His uncle's chest rose and fell with shallow breaths. Pink cheeks and the bloodless line of his mouth further spoke to his agitation. Looking into his uncle's face -- the hard set of his milky gray eyes, the ticking of the vein at his temple -- Jamie saw the same answer written there. So when Colum again insisted on waiting before taking drastic action, he wasn't even surprised.
Enraged, yes. But not surprised.
Mounting anger set his pulse hammering through his chest. Pushing off the desk with a hmph, Jamie crossed his arms and began to pace again. Neither man spoke, both fuming.
For months, he'd fielded calls and sat in meetings to discuss "the image problem." He'd crafted the press releases and negotiated with suppliers and customers, insisting that Mack understood the gravity of what had transpired and would never allow such a thing to happen again. Meaningless words, so far as Jamie was concerned. For all he'd spent that time behind closed doors trying to steer Colum toward more decisive action, he knew he would run out of air to breathe before he'd see a Mackenzie yield.
All in an effort to save Mack from the iceberg that was Dougal Mackenzie and insulate a sexual predator from the consequences of his vile misdeeds. Every day, guilt and shame writhed in Jamie's stomach over his part in keeping the Mack brand afloat.
It was a crazy man who willingly remained on a sinking ship.
"If ye wilna take steps to hold the man accountable," Jamie spoke suddenly, turning toward Colum, "then I resign effective immediately."
Colum stood from his seat, groaning from his advanced arthritis, and narrowed his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was sharp as steel. "Ye'd abandon yer family so easily, family who's supported ye when ye had naught but their own kindness tae sustain ye?"
The words should've riled him, but for the first time in a long while, he felt calm. Tension eased from his face and shoulders. Not so long ago, he'd needed the job. For the money, yes, but also for the purpose. Early on, knowing that his uncles depended upon him, had taken a gamble on him had been all that had got him out of his bed each morning.
Now, though, the same job that had pulled him from the depths threatened to shove him back into them. He should've left ages ago, the moment he'd realized his father wouldn't have been proud of the work he was doing or the company he was supporting.
And he had more people whose pride he yearned for now. Jamie closed his eyes for a moment, and hers looked back at him. Peace enveloped him like a blanket, and he knew he'd do whatever he needed to be a man worthy of her.
He clasped his hands before him and looked into Colum's gaze. "I'll always be grateful to ye for reachin' out tae me and givin' me a chance, Uncle. But I canna be a part of this any longer. It's eatin' away at my soul, and honestly it's just no' worth it anymore. No' when the both of ye are more concerned with...wi' image and money than yer own honor and integrity."
"Yer contract is through February," Colum growled. "Ye leave now, and ye'll have penalty clauses tae pay. And ye will pay them, lad."
A hollow laugh bubbled from Jamie's chest as he turned toward the door. "And that's the difference 'tween you and me, Uncle," Jamie said. "I happen to ken some things matter more than money."
For the rest of his life, Jamie knew, he'd relish the sublime combination of fury and confusion on Colum's face as he shut the door on him for the final time.
Lungs and legs burning, Claire panted as she willed herself to maintain her speed. Fingers dug into the handle of the pram she pushed before her. Vibrations tingled up from her wheels and through her body as she rolled along the paved path at the neighborhood park. Winter was fast approaching, and she knew these skating days were numbered.
Skating was supposed to be a time of relaxation, yet the last seventy-six minutes had been anything but. Sweat dripped down her face even in the cool Edinburgh air as her mind flipped through the menu of items she could cook moderately well.
The short menu.
Not for the first time since extending the offer, Claire wished she'd had the good sense to suggest a night out for the occasion. She wondered if takeout would be appropriate if it were from a nice enough restaurant...
"Mummy, you're too slow!" came a disgruntled voice from the carriage ahead of her.
Chuckling and rolling her eyes, Claire slowed them to a full stop. She put on the brake before hovering around to the front of the pram. Quinn lounged on her side, her bent legs creating a canyon of the fuzzy purple blanket wrapped about her. She clutched her favorite stuffed giraffe in the crook of her elbow, her fingers gripping the edge of the blanket. Wild dark curls stuck out from the lilac beanie she wore. Drowsy lids drooped over her eyes, and her brow was furrowed with annoyance.
Claire wanted to hug her to her chest and never stop squeezing.
"Mummy's tiiiired, lovey," she whined with an exaggerated pout as she squatted. "How about you give me a push for a while? Would that work?"
The crease between her tiny eyebrows eased as she smiled. Giggling, Quinn shook her head.
"No?" Claire said, aghast. She reached in and tickled at her daughter's belly, high-pitched squeals echoing in the still, late afternoon air. "No, you won't let your Mummy take a break in the pram, then?"
Gasping for breath, Quinn shook her head again. "No, Mummys push!"
With a grin, she desisted her tickle attack and planted a loud, wet kiss on Quinn's cheek. "Right you are, pet. Fine, then, I'll keep pushing." Sitting back and balancing on her toe stops, Claire checked her watch. 3:47. They should head back to the flat soon; she didn't like to be skating with Quinn as the sun set. Plus they were due at John and Hector's for supper tonight.
Claire pecked her girl again on the cheek before standing and resuming her post. She took the brakes off the pram and, with a grunt of effort, picked up momentum again so that her wheels and Quinn's ran smoothly.
If only the cogs of her brain would work just as well.
"You offered to cook?"
She'd have been offended at Hector's incredulity had she not understood the root of his astonishment. John eyes were glassed over and his cheeks pink from the wine in his hand. He sat silent with a smirk on his face as his husband continued on.
"You, who nearly burned the house down on two separate birthdays trying to bake your uncle a cake?"
"And whose failed attempt at an engagement dinner for us resulted in two days of food poisoning," John put in.
Hector nodded and took a sip from his own glass. "You're likely the only mother the Royal Infirmary childcare staff has ever requested 'stick to store-bought' after the kids wouldn't even go near your Christmas biscuits your first year here."
"At least they were already in a hospital," John added with a chortle.
Claire leveled the sniggering men with a stern glare but allowed them their fun at her expense. It was hard to do anything else when they hadn't even needed to exaggerate the stories to drive their point home. "If you two are quite finished, some advice would be appreciated."
"My advice would've been to not promise the man dinner," John murmured into his glass.
"Thank you very much, Captain Arsehat." She pinched the bridge of her nose, inhaling a deep breath. "Anything that will help without the use of time travel?"
Hector leaned forward, dark eyes still glinting with mirth but face slightly more serious. "What does he like to eat, then?"
Blood rushed to her cheeks as she shrugged. "He doesn't seem picky, but I haven't exactly chatted up his mum and gotten the family recipes from her yet."
"Haggis!" John suddenly exclaimed, palm striking the table for emphasis. "I've yet to meet a Scotsman who doesn't like haggis."
She ran her fingers through her curls, pulling at the roots as she hung her head between her elbows resting on the table. "Yes, haggis. Because if I can manage to give us all debilitating food poisoning with Chicken Florentine, dealing with sheep innards wouldn't be at all dangerous."
"That'd be a weapon more than a dish," Hector agreed in a matter-of-fact tone. Claire groaned and curled in tighter. Hector's comforting grasp on her shoulder barely registered. "You're putting too much pressure on the whole thing. It doesn't have to be fancy. No need to put on airs for the man."
"Right," John agreed through his giggling. "Don't mislead the poor sod. Let him see what he's in for if he sticks around."
Before Claire could speak, Hector had pulled the wine glass from John's hand and set it on the other side of the table. Halting John's sputtering protestations with a look, Hector ran a hand through his chestnut hair. "Helpful commentary only. Lay off the sauce and help, or go watch the ending of Moana for the twenty-second time and let the adults speak."
John's eyes slid over to Claire, whose breathing had picked up with rising anger. His face softened then. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't always know when to shut my big mouth."
The warmth of indignation ebbed from her face and chest, and she gave him a small smile of forgiveness. They three fell into silence, all thinking.
"Tomorrow's Friday, isn't it?" Hector finally asked.
"Last I checked, Friday still comes after Thursday, yes."
Tentative excitement exuded from his tone as he sat straighter in his seat. "You and Quinn do pizza nights on Fridays, don't you?"
"Yes, but I think ordering in pizza--"
"Don't order," Hector interrupted. "Make them yourselves."
"Have you not been paying attention? I cannot cook."
"No, he's right," John jumped in, all jesting gone. Wide brown eyes beamed with eagerness. Claire opened her mouth to argue, but he raised a finger. She sank into her seat and motioned for him to continue. "Buy the ingredients precooked, so that worry's taken care of. They even sell personal pizza crusts now, oven-ready. All you'd have to do is pile on the sauce and toppings and stick it in the oven."
"And set a timer," Hector added. "Maybe two. Then take them out when the timer dings."
She bobbed her head back and forth slowly, considering. It should be fairly easy. Quinn could even help. She'd love that. Her lips tugged up at the corners thinking of Quinn standing on her stool with Hector earlier that evening, stirring and pouring, engulfed in the too-big apron and the most beautiful grin plastered to her face.
Still, nerves and doubts nipped at her heels. "Would that not be a little...underwhelming?"
John shook his head. "From what you've told us, I don't think he'll care about what you make. He cares who he's eating it with."
"And besides, he's coming over to meet Quinn," Hector said. "It's not really about impressing him. It's about seeing if they can be comfortable together."
As they descended into quietude once more, Claire could suddenly see it. She could see smiles and laughter and a kitchen messed with their efforts. And it felt right. Bubbles of anticipation fizzled beneath her skin like champagne, replacing the itch of anxiety that hadn't abated for days. She nodded once with a smile. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," John said. He leaned across Hector to retrieve his wine glass, the conundrum at hand having been solved. He paused for a brief, gentle kiss before resuming his seat. Their eyes locked as he sat, smirks playing on their lips as their fingers entwined between their chairs. Claire watched with satisfaction and again thanked whatever power existed that her brother had found the one someone in all the world who fulfilled him.
When Hector finally looked toward Claire and asked for an update on the latest drama from work, she hoped in the deepest pit of her being that she'd found her someone, as well.