They had a perfect Christmas. It was everything Jamie had ever dreamed of right down to the stockings filled with sweets, the mistletoe hung in so many places that he and Claire couldn’t be near each other without kissing, and the massive smile on Fergus’s face when he came down the stairs to see a brand new bike under the tree, decorated with a bow. They’d gone outside in their pajamas, and Jamie helped Fergus onto the bike, holding onto him until Fergus trusted the training wheels not to let him fall. When he took off, Jamie stepped back and looped his arm around Claire’s waist, kissing her tangle of curls.
He was thankful for the day, all the more so because the next day, they were on a plane, flying right into the hornet’s nest.
“I want my biiiiike!!!!” Fergus had wailed as Jamie dragged him out of bed at four in the morning.
“I’m sorry, mo mhac,” Jamie grumbled as he pulled Fergus’s pajama shirt over his head. The boy’s eyes were barely open, but he still managed to eke out a few tears. “Ye’ll have to say goodbye to yer bike until we get back from Scotland.”
Fergus wailed louder.
"Maybe we shouldna go," Jamie whispered to Claire as they drove to the airport in the dark. He checked the rearview to make sure Fergus didn't hear him, but the boy was already half asleep with his headphones on. "The poor lad just wants to play with his new toys, ride his new bike.”
“We are going,” Claire replied emphatically. “If anything, for the fact that your sister will think we chickened out if we don’t go, and I won’t give her that satisfaction.”
Jamie made a satisfied grunt. He couldn’t have married a more perfect person had he searched for a hundred years.
“Besides,” she went on. She reached out and pushed a stray curl behind Jamie’s ear, twirling it on her finger before letting it drop. “I want to see where you grew up, and I know Fergus does too. You couldn’t get him to stop talking about wearing a kilt and seeing the Highlands the other day. He already thinks he’s a right proper highland warrior.”
This time Jamie’s grunt was more of a choked sound. “He’s a good lad.”
“He loves you so much, Jamie. As his father.”
Jamie nodded but kept his eyes on the road. An idea had been growing in him, infiltrating his brain and heart more and more every day, but he wasn’t yet ready to share it. It was too soon, and he feared the pain he would feel if Claire and Fergus didn’t agree. No, better to give it time.
They arrived in Scotland at six AM the following day, weary and disoriented. Thanks to Fergus’s excitement, he’d barely slept during the entire day of travel, which meant that neither Jamie nor Claire had managed much either. To their bodies, it was time for bed at the end of a long, exhausting day, but as they drove the three hours to the hotel — the option of driving from Edinburgh to Inverness cheaper and less time consuming than flying into Inverness — the sun rose in the sky instead of setting behind the horizon.
Claire urged Fergus to sleep on the drive, but he was much too excited. He stared out the window the entire trip, asking Jamie question after question about everything he saw, even when all he saw was snow. “What does snow feel like?” he asked, having completely forgotten that he’d lived in Boston for the first four years of his life.
“Cold,” Jamie answered, an amused grin never leaving his face. Though Claire had much less patience for Fergus’s endless interrogations, she found herself smiling as well, pleased to witness their interactions. “Cold and wet.”
Fergus considered this for a moment. “How come people like to play in the snow then?”
“I dinna ken, laddie,” Jamie answered with a laugh. “I dinna care for it myself.”
They arrived at the hotel with plans to wash up and have a quick rest before getting a late breakfast, but while Claire was helping Fergus in the bathtub, Jamie’s phone rang. He answered and heard Ian’s cheerful voice on the other end. “Did ye have a good flight, then? How’s it feel to be home?”
“Verra cold,” Jamie replied. “I didna expect to hear from ye so soon. I thought we were meeting tomorrow.”
“Aye, well, there’s been a wee change in plans, if ye’d like. Jenny put the kids in the car this morning and headed off to Mary McNab’s for the day. They’re starting the baking for Hogmanay, so I dinna expect them back until supper time. I thought ye might like to show Claire and the lad Lallybroch while ye have the chance.”
“I dinna ken,” Jamie answered. “I dinna like the idea of sneaking around behind Jenny’s back.”
“She already kens ye’re here. Besides, it’s no’ sneaking when it’s yer own childhood home. Come on, Jamie. I’d hate fer ye to come all this way and never even step foot on the farm wi’ yer new family.”
“I suppose there’s no harm in it,” Jamie answered. “We can stop by after we grab some breakfast.”
“Breakfast?” Ian asked. “It’ll be near on lunchtime by then. I’ll have some sandwiches and such ready for ye when ye get here.”
Jamie rolled his eyes. Whenever he was away from Scotland for a while, he forgot how aggressive Scottish hospitality could be. “Fine, fine,” he acquiesced. “We’ll be there in about an hour.”
“Who was that?” Claire asked as he hung up the phone. She emerged from the bathroom with a squirmy, towel-wrapped Fergus in tow. Jamie took him from her arms, not missing the chance to kiss her cheek in the process. Fergus giggled, and Jamie placed his lips on the lad’s cheek and blew loud raspberries, setting him off into even further hysterics.
“That was Ian,” Jamie said, over Fergus’s laughs. “Ye best hop in the shower while I get this one dressed, Sassenach. He’s invited us to Lallybroch.”
Jamie spoke cheerfully to Claire and Fergus on the way to his ancestral home, but Claire could tell he was pushing down his anxiety. His shoulders were tense, and he held the steering wheel tightly. For the first time, Claire wondered if insisting they come on this trip was the right thing to do. Was she doing it for Jamie or out of her hurt pride?
She reached across the seat and settled her fingers on the nape of Jamie’s neck, scratching it softly. His face relaxed at her touch, and he shrugged his shoulders to relieve the tension. “Thank ye, Sassenach,” he said quietly.
Jamie had described for her and even shown her pictures of the home that had been in his family for over three centuries, but nothing could have prepared her for her first sight of the historic home. “It’s like something out of a fairy tale,” she whispered as they drove through a stone arch that led to the front of the house.
“Ye should see it in the summertime,” Jamie said. He put the car in park and squeezed Claire’s hand. “The grass is greener than anything ye’ve ever seen, and my sister keeps beautiful gardens over that way. Chickens are roaming about, and just over there ye see the goats munching on the grass.”
“Fergus, what do you think?” Claire asked.
They both turned around and saw that Fergus was staring wide-eyed out the car window. For the first time in his life, he was speechless.
Just then, Ian appeared in the doorway, wearing an apron and waving a dishcloth at them. Jamie spotted him and let himself out of the car quickly, forgetting everything else at that moment except embracing his best friend. Claire shook her head and helped Fergus out of the car, trailing behind him.
Ian glanced at Claire over Jamie’s shoulder and pulled her into an enormous hug. “It’s so good to see ye in person, Claire.” He held her away at arm’s length and studied her face. “Och, even lovelier than in the pictures. Jamie, how did ye ever manage?”
“He enchanted me with his organizational and bookkeeping skills,” Claire answered before looping her arm around Jamie’s waist and resting her head on him.
“And who is this braw lad?” Ian asked with a wink.
Fergus stood up straight and stuck his mittened hand out to Ian. “My name is Fergus. It’s nice to meet you, Uncle Ian.”
Ian suppressed his smile and shook Fergus’s hand. “I’m pleased to meet ye, Fergus. I’ve heard so much about ye, but yer Da didna tell me about yer impeccable manners.”
Jamie squeezed Claire at the word Da and Fergus beamed. “Shall we go inside, then?” Claire asked.
“Of course, of course. Where are my manners?” Ian said, waving them in. “I should be taking lessons from yer laddie, eh Jamie?” He clapped Jamie on the back as Jamie came through the doorway.
Claire was the next to be made speechless as she entered the foyer of the manor house. Though electric lights buzzed and the faint sound of music drifted in the room, she still felt like she’d stepped back in time. She took in the entire room in silence, mesmerized by what looked to be original woodwork. She stepped in further and saw, to her right, a sitting room with a stone hearth. It all felt warm and inviting, though Claire cautioned herself to remember that she was in Jenny’s territory now and shouldn’t get too comfortable.
“Do ye like it, Claire?” Jamie asked.
“It’s beautiful,” was all she could manage.
“I’ll give ye the main tour after we put something in our bellies, aye? Then I thought wee Fergus here might like to help Jamie and I tend to the horses.”
“Really?” Fergus asked. He glanced at Claire eagerly. “Can I?”
“Of course. But first, let’s go wash up, so we can eat.”
Jamie conducted much of the tour, having even more familiarity with the house’s history than Ian. He knew every nook and cranny of the place, from the desk in the study that was original to the house to the gouges in the wall left by British soldiers during the Clearances after the Rising in 1745. Claire was fascinated and wanted to learn more, but Fergus was of a single mind: horses.
“Just a few more minutes, love, then we’ll go see the horses,” Claire told him.
Fergus emitted a loud whine, and Claire sighed. With what little sleep he’d had, they’d be better off giving into him.
“Dinna fash, Sassenach,” Jamie told her. “I’ll give ye a private tour another time.”
"Why don't I take the lad down to get started on the dirty work in the barn?" Ian suggested. "You can give Claire the rest of the tour, and by the time you're done, we'll maybe have time for Fergus to take a wee ride."
"A ride?" Fergus asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
Jamie tousled Fergus's hair. "Aye. Go on with yer Uncle. Yer mam and I will be out shortly."
As soon as Fergus and Ian reached the bottom of the stairs, Jamie pulled Claire close and kissed her soundly. "I feel like it's been an age since I've been alone wi' ye, Sassenach." His voice was low and needy, and his hands gently squeezed her arse.
Between the rush of the holidays, Fergus sleeping in their bed on Christmas Eve, and their long day of travel, they hadn’t been naked together for several days. Still, in their honeymoon phase, it felt like an eternity. A palpable heat rose between them instantly, and Jamie pulled Claire in closer yet, making sure she could feel his need of her against her own.
A choked moan escaped from Claire’s throat, a small sound, but enough to encourage Jamie to smash his mouth against hers as he pushed her toward the door to his childhood bedroom. “I think I must have ye now or die, Sassenach.”
Jamie pressed Claire against the door, one hand still gripping her arse, while the other fumbled at the doorknob. As the door released, Claire stumbled backward. She would have fallen to the ground had it not been for Jamie’s grip on her. Instead, he let himself fall with her, holding tight to her as they descended deliberately to the floor. Jamie kicked the door closed with one foot while his lips moved from Claire’s mouth to her neck. He couldn’t be gentle; he knew he was likely leaving marks, but he didn’t care and judging from Claire’s gasps, she didn’t either.
They fumbled at each other, desperate to feel each other’s skin but even more desperate for their joining. Claire pulled at Jamie’s shirt impatiently, popping a button as she worked it over his head. She giggled devilishly, a sound that turned into a long moan as Jamie got her shirt off her head and latched his teeth onto her nipple, tugging lightly.
“Christ, I love the wee noises ye make,” he growled, moving his attentions to her other breast.
“I do not make wee noises,” she insisted, the pitch of her voice rising with every word, the last barely intelligible as Jamie’s hand pushed under the waistband of her pants and cupped her in his palm.
“No?” Jamie teased. His urge to bury his cock in her was overtaken by his innate competitiveness, and he yanked on her pants. “Let’s see what kind of wee noises ye dinna make, Sassenach.”
He pulled her pants off and tossed them aside. Then, rising to his knees, he lifted both of her legs over his shoulders and brought his mouth to her pussy. It was hot, wet, and inviting, always ready for him. The idea of her body rousing for him, that her need for him was as great as his need for her stoked a primitive part of him, that small, hidden piece that lives inside every person that functions only through possession and lust. She was his; he was hers. It was so very simple down to its core.
Claire’s wee noises crescendoed as he plunged his tongue inside her. The angle at which he held her allowed his nose to rub against her clit as he explored her. With Ian and Fergus far off in the barn, he had no reason to quiet her. Instead, he let every sound spur him on, proving himself right, showing her that she could not control the animal within her either, and that was how he liked it.
Her thighs began to tremble in his hands, and he felt her tense under his tongue. He brought his lips to her apex, the tiny nub that seemed to drive this wild part of her. Her body shook. Her vocalizations were nothing but a high-pitched shriek that had no beginning and no end. Finally, he used his teeth on her, ever so gently, and she lost all hold of herself. She pulsed against his mouth, spurting warm liquid from deep inside her, which he took one last lick of before letting her down to the floor.
She was a puddle on the floor, still moaning, her body quaking with the waves of pleasure that ran through her. Jamie relieved himself of his pants, his cock near bursting with need as he thrust inside her, supple and welcoming. This was one of his favorite ways of taking her, she at his mercy as her body recovered. She liked it rough then, hard and fast, pushing her body to its limits when it least expected it.
With one hand braced against a nightstand near Claire’s head, Jamie pounded into her. Her noises were different now, more guttural, harsher somehow. Jamie wondered if he would be able to recall any of it, to describe the difference to her as he made his case about her vocalizations later. He could barely think, though, let alone focusing on his closing arguments.
His movements were erratic, his body taking over quickly. So much of his energy was focused at the point of their joining that he barely noticed the first bannock that hit his head. It was like a fly brushing against your arm, something your brain hardly registered.
What brought him back to reality was a combination of three things. 1) The realization that Claire was pushing against him, struggling to get out from underneath him, 2) the second bannock that hit him squarely on his naked arse, and 3) the sound of his sister’s voice, a sound which immediately softened his cock as if he’d been doused with a cold bucket of water. First, he pulled a blanket off the bed and tossed it over Claire, who was stunned, sitting against the nightstand with wide, bewildered eyes. He then grabbed the sheet off the bed expertly wrapping it around his bottom half like a kilt. Jenny was screaming at him and pummeling him with bannocks from a basket she gripped in her hand.
“Is this what I get for caring about my brother? Ye come to Scotland and then sneak into my own house behind my back? Ye dinna even give me the courtesy of letting me ken when ye’re getting here? Or perhaps coming to my door the proper way instead of sneaking in yer room and...and...and...fornicating wi’ this gold-digging hoor?”
“Now that’s enough,” Jamie growled. He took two steps towards Jenny and snatched the basket out of her hands, tossing it aside on the bed. “Ye can say what ye like to me, but dinna ye dare talk about my wife that way.”
“Yer wife,” Jenny spat. Though she was over a foot shorter than her brother, she was formidable nonetheless, her hands on her hips, never wavering even as Jamie towered over her. “Ye mean the trollop ye met in Vegas and married on a whim? Ye better hope that when ye’re sick of her, we’re able to find grounds fer annulment because otherwise, she’ll have half yer shares in the vineyard and probably take the roof over our heads too.”
“Now, just wait a minute,” Claire chimed in. She had wrapped the sheet around herself and rose to her feet. “Don’t you dare accuse —”
“Don’t ye dare interrupt me,” Jenny cut her off. “This is between my brother and me. Ye have no business in it.”
Claire glanced at Jamie, and his face softened just slightly. “Go fetch Fergus,” he said, tempering the anger in his voice. “Make sure he stays away from the house. Take him back to the hotel if ye have to. I dinna want either of you to have to hear this.”
Claire nodded and gathered her clothes quickly. As much as she wanted to dive in and, quite frankly, kick Jenny’s arse, Jamie was right. This was not her fight, and protecting Fergus from her venom was the most important thing. Claire glared at Jenny as she gathered her clothes, though, daring Jenny to say anything that would give cause for Claire to attack.
As soon as she was in the hall, she leaned on the door and took a deep, shaky breath. Jamie and Jenny were already shouting again, but she tuned them out and walked away, ducking into the next bedroom. She dressed quickly and then headed back down the stairs and out the front door.
Claire was grateful for the unseasonably warm weather as she roamed outside, looking for the stables. She found them quickly enough, a newer building that looked anachronistic next to the ancient manor house. She’d learned to appreciate that sort of dissonance during her childhood travels with Lamb, the old mixed with the new, and she smiled fondly at the memories of eating lunch in flashy contemporary eateries only a stone’s throw away from ancient structures. She was comforted by it, even amidst the chaos of the day.
Inside the stables, Ian and Fergus were having a lively conversation about some sort of Scottish sea monsters while they mucked the stalls together. Ian was a shorter man than Jamie, with a quiet, unimposing presence. His smile was just as warm, though, and she briefly wondered if all Highlanders carried that bit of mirth in their eyes the way he and Jamie did. Well, Jenny certainly didn’t, she thought, and then laughed out loud at her own joke.
Ian looked up and held up a finger for her to wait. He bent down and gave Fergus a few instructions before wiping his hands on a cloth and walking over to Claire. “Is Jenny here?” he asked in a low voice. Claire nodded, and Ian went on. “I heard the car pull up but couldna leave the lad to stop her. I thought the best thing I could do was keep him here, away from it.”
“Are your children here?” Claire asked.
“Nah, I dinna think so. She must have left them at Mary’s house. Perhaps she only came home to grab something she left behind. I’m sorry, Claire. I didna mean for this to happen.”
“It’s not your fault, Ian,” Claire assured him. “If anything, this is all my fault.”
“And how do ye figure that?” he asked.
Claire crossed her arms over her chest and cast her eyes away from Ian. “I should have just left well enough alone. But I was so angry that I bought those bloody plane tickets and booked that hotel, just to spite her.” She looked up at Ian and smiled wryly. “I have a bit of a problem with being told what to do, sometimes. I’m not exactly the meek and obedient type.”
Ian threw his head back and laughed. “I never expected any wife of Jamie’s would be, Claire. Not one worth her salt, anyway.” He placed a hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. “It’s no’ yer fault, Claire. If ye’d stayed away, the two of them would have let this wound fester, maybe even destroy their relationship completely. At least now they’ve got to face each other and have it out. It’ll be better in the long run. Ye’ll see.”
Claire shrugged, “I sure hope so. Thank you, Ian. Your kindness and friendship through all of this are what keeps me hopeful that this will all work out in the end.”
Ian grunted, and though Claire was not quite as versed in interpreting Ian’s particular brand of grunts and hmmphs, she was reasonably confident he was pleased by what she’d said.
“I best go up there now and break those two up before they kill each other,” Ian said, the tone of his voice indicating that he wasn’t even sure himself if he was joking or not. “Ye stay here with the lad. I promise I’ll have us all acting civilly by tea time.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Claire teased as Ian walked toward the house. If Ian Murray could get either of the Frasers to see reason at this point, he indeed was a miracle worker.
Ian was true to his word, though. Soon enough, Jamie fetched Claire and Fergus from the stables, hastily explaining that Ian had put his foot down and demanded a cease-fire. Jenny had gone back to Mary McNab’s to make her apologies and bring the children home, while Jamie and Claire drank hot tea — fortified by strong whisky — and settled in front of the fire.
When Jenny arrived home with the children, quick introductions were made, and the three Murray children, along with Fergus, were sent off to the playroom on the third floor. Ian handed JJ and Fergus some treats and juice boxes and strict instructions to stay upstairs unless there was an emergency. Fergus — so caught up in the day’s excitement — was blissfully unaware of the tension pulsing between the adults.
“Thank you so much!” he declared, looking between Jenny and Ian. “This is the best day ever!”
Ian chuckled softly and led Jenny to two chairs near the couch where Jamie and Claire were already sitting. “He’s such an endearing lad, Claire,” Ian said. “And wonderful manners. Don’t ye think so, Jen?”
Jenny sniffed and nodded, having no room to disagree. “Aye, I can see my brother’s influence in him already,” she said, her eyes set intently on Claire.
Claire swallowed hard, determined to take the high road. “They’ve become very close,” she answered, squeezing Jamie’s hand. “Jamie is a wonderful father to him.”
“Step-father,” Jenny corrected. Ian gave her a look of warning, and she cleared her throat. “What happened to the boy’s father?”
“That’s none of yer business, Janet,” Jamie interjected.
“No, it’s fine, Jamie,” Claire said soothingly. “Let’s have it all out in the open. There’s no reason for any secrecy.” Then, turning back to Jenny, “Frank was never much of a father. He was too busy having affairs with his grad students and spending his time at faculty mixers. When he wasn’t doing that, he was buried in his research. Fergus and I were an accessory for him, the perfect family he could flaunt about when needed and then put back on a shelf the rest of the time. He had essentially no influence on Fergus. I left Frank when Fergus was four, and we spent a year or so just the two of us after I moved to California.”
Jenny grunted and folded her arms over her chest. “And what now? Jamie swoops in and takes his place? Do ye even let the lad see his real father?”
“Jamie is his real father,” Claire spat out, surprising even herself. “Frank has a new family now, with a new child to be born soon, and he has no interest in seeing Fergus. He dropped his custody suit to hasten our divorce so that he could marry his new wife.” Her eyes burned, and Jamie reached over, wiping the single tear that dropped from her eye with his thumb.
For the first time, Claire saw something soften in Jenny’s face. Was it sympathy? Perhaps it was merely pity, but Claire would settle for that over the steady stream of rancor.
“Jamie says ye were a surgeon,” Jenny said, recovering from her moment of humanity. “What would ever make ye give that up?”
Claire took a steadying breath and rehashed the rest of her story: the pressures of motherhood and holding a high stakes career without any support from her spouse, the anxiety that overtook her entire life, and her growing interest in medical marijuana after feeling the positive effects of it on her own life. She held nothing back, laying out all of the details, hoping that her sincerity would show Jenny that she had nothing to hide and no ill intent toward Jamie.
When she reached the point in her story where Jamie came into her life, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. “I’ll take it from here, mo ghraidh.”
Claire smiled thankfully and leaned back against Jamie’s arm, taking a long sip of her tea. Jamie played with her hair absent-mindedly as he spoke. “Ye ken what bad shape I was in this past fall, Jenny. Ye saw it fer yerself here, and I wasna much better when I returned home and had to move on with my life. Dark clouds followed me everywhere I went. Then one day, John insisted that I go to an interview for a job I had little interest in. But I went because I trusted him.” His fingers stilled, gripping Claire’s curls gently as he swallowed back his tears. “The moment I saw her, flustered and running late, her curly wig looking like she’d barely had time to run a comb through it, the sun came out and pushed those dark clouds away. And it’s been that way ever since.”
He sighed and leaned forward, looking his sister in the eye. His face held no anger but rather a quiet sadness. “And now, Jenny, the only clouds in my life have been cast by you, and that pains me to my very core.”
Jenny said nothing as she sat blinking, her lips pursed. She reached over and put one hand on Ian’s leg, and he placed his hand over hers. Finally, she sighed and stood up, glancing at the clock.”Well, I best get supper started. The twa of ye can leave Fergus here while ye go to the hotel to collect yer things. It’s wasteful to spend yer money like that when ye have family ye can stay with.”
And with that, she hurried off into the kitchen. The three left in the living room were quiet for a moment and then Jamie stood and held out a hand to Claire. “Come on then, Sassenach. Let’s get our things. We’ll be in trouble if we’re late for dinner.”
Claire nodded. Though they had a long road ahead of them, the path was finally clear. As she stood to join Jamie, her heart felt lighter than it had in weeks. Perhaps, she thought, I did the right thing after all. As if reading her thoughts, Jamie smiled at her and whispered, “Thank ye, mo chridhe. Thank ye.”