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Wee Herbs

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“Hello? Claire are you here?” called a voice from the front of the store. Claire Beauchamp was in the back desperately trying to find a folder. A new shipment of tinctures had come in the day before and she’d already lost the damn invoice.

“John? Is that you?” she called back. “Just give me a minute, ok?” She reached up onto a shelf and tried to slide a folder out from under the pile of papers it was under. Standing on her tiptoes, she grasped it in her hands and slowly pulled, inch by inch, until the entire piles of papers came crashing down, just as she had known it would.

“Everything alright back there, Claire?” John called. She could tell by the volume of his voice that he had moved closer to her back office out of concern.

She blew a stray curl out of her face and straightened her shirt before opening the door, closing it swiftly behind her to hide the messy office from view. “John!” she said, smiling. “It’s so good to see you!” She came around the counter and gave him a quick hug. He was one of her best customers and had become one of her best friends since moving to California. “Are you here for business or for pleasure?”

“Why not both?” he teased, making Claire shake her head and laugh. John was a ridiculous flirt, only made worse by his heartthrob good looks. He was a slight man, but tall, with a well-defined jawline and perfectly shaped rose-bud lips. He kept his brown locks casually brushed to the side, their dark color accentuating the piercing blue of his eyes. Under different circumstances, she might have had a wicked crush on him.

He was dressed in his typical “Cali-casual” work clothes, as she liked to think of them. She was accustomed to lawyers wearing suits, having moved from the East Coast less than a year ago, but the rules were a bit different here. She liked it, though. Everything was just a little more relaxed, which she sorely needed after living the rigid life she had in Boston.

“Let’s get business out of the way first, then,” she replied. “What can I help you with?”

“Do you have any more of that Sleepy Time Indica I bought last time? It’s working wonders on my insomnia.” He put his smoothie cup down on the counter. She noticed he had brought her mail in for her as well.

“Hmmmmm….” she replied thoughtfully. “I know I don’t have any right now but let me check my order book.” She began fumbling under the counter, noisily knocking things over. “I know it must be coming any day now!” she said cheerfully. Finally, she got her hands on the notebook and pulled it out, placing it on top of the counter. “Now, let’s see…” she traced her finger down several pages.

“Claire,” John said, grabbing a hold of her hand gently. “Just stop.”

She looked up at him, her whisky colored eyes squinting in confusion. “What?” she asked.

John pointed at the spiral notebook she used for keeping track of her orders. “That!” he said, laughing. “Claire, how do you expect to run a business by keeping track of things in little spiral notebooks?”

Indignant, she put her hands on her hips. “I’ll have you know, the business is doing exceptionally well, thank you very much.”

“That’s because people love you, Claire. You’re sweet and welcoming and really, really damn good at the people side of things. But the back-office stuff? You’re a hopeless disaster.”

“Hrrrrmmmphhhhh,” she responded. She’d moved to the Bay Area a little less than a year ago, looking for a new start. After being completely burned out by her career as a surgeon, she had started researching the effects of marijuana on certain medical conditions. Fascinated by the research she found, she continued studying the topic. When other circumstances in her life had forced her to leave Boston, she’d decided she would make a go of it by opening a medical marijuana dispensary that she named Wee Herbs after a phrase she’d read once in a book.

And things were going better than she’d expected. Sure, she’d had a bit of trouble lately keeping up with some of the paperwork involved, but that would all sort itself out. John was just being his usual fussy self.

As if he could read her mind, he started flipping through her mail. “Late bill, second notice, more government paperwork to file,” he listed off one by one. “Claire, I’m serious. You’re going to lose your business if you don’t keep up with this stuff.”

“And what do you suppose I do?” she asked. “I’ve tried hiring assistants. It never works out.”

“You don’t need an assistant,” he replied. “You need a business manager. Someone who can take care of all this stuff.” He gestured broadly at the papers on the counter. “Someone who can set you up with keeping your books on the freaking computer, for god’s sake! It’s 2018, Claire!”

“Alright,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’ll put together a help wanted ad or something.”

“Actually,” he replied, “I might have someone in mind who could help you.”

She held up a hand to stop him. “Please, John, no. Not one of your boy-toys. I can’t handle getting used to someone and then having to fire him because you decide you’re bored with him.”

He laughed heartily at that, throwing his head back. “That’s not what I meant, my dear, but you do paint a very flattering picture of me.” She rolled her eyes and made a spinning motion with her hand, signaling for him to go on. “He’s actually an old friend of mine from Stanford.”

“Pfffffttttt,” Claire responded. “You think I can afford to hire a lawyer to do this work?”

“Will you stop interrupting me? Yes, he is a lawyer, but he actually decided to take some time off due to stress. He’s trying to figure out if he even wants to be a lawyer anymore. But he’s organized, has accounting experience, and his background would be a great help with all the red-tape you have to go through all the time.”

“What’s the catch?” she asked.

“No catch!” he responded innocently. Then, thinking better of it, he added, “He can be a little uptight. And stubborn.”

“Oh, well he sounds like a peach,” Claire replied, her voice thick with sarcasm. “I’ll hire him sight unseen.”

John gave her a look. “He’s also smart and witty. He’s got impeccable manners, even if he is a bit old-fashioned. And the best part?”

“What?” she asked. She’d had just about enough of John’s nonsense for one day.

“He’s ridiculously good looking. Like, mind-blowing. And he doesn’t even know it.” He raised his eyebrows at her cheekily.

Claire rolled her eyes and leaned on the counter. “Well I don’t care much about that,” she said. “You know I’m not looking for anything in that department right now. But if you truly think I could get along with him and he would be helpful, then set up an interview.”

John picked up his smoothie and checked his pockets for his car keys. “Awesome! I’ve gotta go now, but I’ll text you with the details. I promise you won’t regret it!”

***

One of the best things about owning her own business was choosing her own hours. Claire closed the shop promptly at five o'clock every day so she could pick up her son, Fergus, from after care at school. She'd missed out on so many moments of the first five years of his life working long hours at the hospital. If she thought about it too much, the guilt would eat her alive.

It would have been easier to take if her husband had at least spent time with him when she couldn't be there. Though Frank had a flexible schedule at the University, he'd chosen to spend his free time in his office or, even worse, fucking young co-eds. Once, their nanny had needed the night off to attend a family dinner and he had actually laughed in Claire’s face when she'd asked him to come home early to take care of the baby. She'd ended up rescheduling a surgery instead.

Pushing thoughts of her soon-to-be ex-husband from her mind, she turned the lights off and locked up before getting in her car and starting the short drive to the school. She turned the radio on and rolled the window down, letting the warm California wind whip through her hair. It would be a mess when she got to the school, but she didn't care. If she were back in Boston, she would already be wearing a jacket and preparing to hunker down for a bitterly cold winter.

She pulled into the school parking lot and tossed her sunglasses on the passenger seat. Walking into the cafeteria, she stood in the doorway for a moment and watched Fergus with his friends. Though he was only in Kindergarten, he'd already amassed a large group of friends at school.

He was helping another little boy build something with magnetic building blocks. Though she couldn't hear what he was saying over the din of the cafeteria, she could see that he was comforting his little companion and kindly showing him how to build it so it wouldn't fall down next time.

As if he sensed her in the room, he turned around and smiled brightly at her, abandoning his task and running across the room with his arms open. Claire squatted down and held him tight when he reached her, kissing him on the top of his large mass of curls.

"Did you have a good day, my little prince?" she asked him as she gathered his backpack and signed him out.

"Yes, mama. Today we…"

Claire listened to his chatter as she walked with him to the car, buckled him in his car seat, and got into the driver's seat. She smiled at him in the rear-view mirror as he went on, barely stopping for a breath. By the time she got him home, cooked dinner, gave him a bath, and put him to bed, she could have explained the entire hierarchical structure of his kindergarten class to anyone who asked.

Once he was finally asleep, she threw her pajamas on and went into the living room, popping a gummy she was considering getting for the store into her mouth. Another amazing part of owning her own business was sampling new products. Though she heavily relied on the science behind different strains of marijuana, nothing could quite replace understanding your product from experience.

She'd smoked the occasional joint in college, as most college students do. And like most college students, she'd given it up after graduation made access to the drug difficult. She hadn’t even given a second thought to its potential medical uses until her therapist had recommended that she think about getting a medical marijuana card for the anxiety that plagued her after the birth of Fergus.

It wasn't that he was a particularly difficult baby; in fact, he had been quite the opposite. And it wasn't that she was trying to juggle a challenging career with motherhood; she hadn’t really found that part as hard as she'd thought it would be. It was that she'd had to handle those things while also dealing with Frank.

She'd been fine tiptoeing around Frank and his mercurial moods before she'd had a baby. Sure, it hadn't been easy living with a ticking time bomb, but she'd managed. Work had kept her out of the house a lot; she would pick up extra shifts, especially on the weekends, to avoid being in the house with him for too long.

Because, really, those had been her only two choices: work or home. It wasn't that Frank had forbidden her from going out and having friends, but in their early years of marriage, when she still had a social life, he'd always manage to pick a fight with her or have one of his epic fucking meltdowns right before she was ready to go out. He would glare at her when she was in the group chat with her friends, accusing her of not focusing on him with their precious little time together. What friends hadn't completely abandoned her when she'd turned into a flake, she'd let go willingly; it was easier to just not try anymore.

The only friend who had survived her marriage to Frank was her best friend Gillian, who never stopped calling, never stopped trying to get Claire to go out. Frank hated her with a passion.

It was Gillian who'd suggested she see a therapist when it had all become too much. Trying to care for an infant was hard enough; dealing with the giant baby that she'd married and all his man-feels on top of being a new mother, was just not possible without something breaking.

"You have no idea what it's like," she had sobbed to Gillian on the phone one night. "It's bad enough dealing with a fussy baby, and then Frank comes home and starts throwing a temper tantrum because he 'can't hear himself think over all that racket.' I'm walking on fucking eggshells all the time. At work, I'm constantly worried that Fergus will get sick and I'll have to leave in the middle of a surgery because Frank won't even pick up his phone during the day. I thought I could do this, G, but I can't. I can't sleep, I can't eat. I feel like I'm losing my fucking mind."

"Fuck Frank," Gillian had spat into the phone. "You need to take care of you, hen. I'm going to text you the name of an awesome therapist I work with. You're going to make an appointment with her, and you're going to work out the best way to manage this."

So, she’d secretly started seeing a therapist and then she'd secretly started using medical marijuana. And her life had seemed a little more manageable for a while.

She started to feel the calming effects of the gummy she'd taken. Not bad, she thought. Relaxing and not too heady. She turned on the television and started watching The Office, giggling at Michael Scott's antics

A little while later, she was just about to turn in when her phone rang. John's smiling face flashed on her screen; she smiled back at it and answered. "Hey John."

"Hello, my dear. I spoke with my friend Jamie today and he'll be coming by the shop tomorrow at eight, before you open."

"Who?"

"My friend, Jamie Fraser. The one I recommended to you today."

"Oh, right," she replied, getting off the couch and walking toward her bedroom. "The uptight, judgmental lawyer I'm supposed to hire."

"Please give him a chance Claire. I promise it will be good for you."

"Alright," she replied, rolling her eyes. "But I'm holding you personally responsible if he's a disaster."

John laughed, "Alright, my dear. I'll take on the risk. Call me after you meet with him tomorrow."

"I will. Good night, John."

***

The next morning was hectic. Claire and Fergus both slept late. She’d thrown a Pop Tart to him and attempted to run a comb through his hair before ushering him out the door in clothes that didn't even remotely match. Then it had been a long wait in the drop-off line. That bitch who ran the line like it was her God-given purpose on earth to direct traffic, definitely had it in for her.

By the time she got to the shop it was already 8:15. She would only have a little time to get things sorted out before opening. She rushed from the parking lot to the front of the store fumbling in her purse for her keys and ran directly into a solid mass.

"Ooof!" She bounced back, flustered. Realizing that what she had walked into was a person, she added, "Sorry!"

"It's alright, lass," said a deep voice with the sexiest Scottish accent she'd ever heard. She looked up. And up. And up. Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ how tall is this guy? When her eyes finally reached his face, she could have sworn she was looking at a sculpture if not for the small bump on the bridge of his almost perfectly straight nose, and the kindness with which his light blue eyes looked at her. On top of his head were the most gorgeous locks of auburn hair she'd ever seen.

She stared for just a beat too long before remembering that she was running late. Flustered, she tried to dodge past him, but he stepped to the side, blocking her path. "Sorry, lass," he said, holding his hands up in apology, "But do you happen to be the owner of this store?"

She stepped back and squinted her eyes at him. "Yes, I am. Why do you ask?"

He stuck out his hand and answered. "I'm James Fraser." Claire looked at him blankly and he went on. "John's friend. We have an interview. And you're late."

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He stuck out his hand and answered. "I'm James Fraser." Claire looked at him blankly and he went on. "John's friend. We have an interview. And you're late."

"Pardon me?" Claire asked. Who does this guy think he is?

"We were supposed tae meet at eight, were we no'?" he asked.

Flustered, Claire couldn't think of a thing to say. She stood with her hands on her hips, staring at the incredibly impertinent (and ridiculously good looking) man in front of her. Christ, Beauchamp. Say something, anything!

"You're very tall." God dammit, not that!

His eyes softened, and she could see his lip twitching at the corner. "Aye," he said, "I am."

Claire relaxed a little and smiled at him. "Look, I'm sorry we got off to a bad start. I had a very hectic morning, and I'd honestly forgotten about this meeting. Come on in with me, and we'll get back on track."

He nodded and gestured for her to take the lead. She unlocked the door and stepped into the shop, breathing in the familiar pungent, earthy aroma. Turning around to lock the door behind them, she noticed her companion making a disgusted face, his long straight nose wrinkling. She gave him a sheepish grin and said, "You'll get used to the smell."

In response he made a noise deep and low in his throat, an inscrutable sound. Was he agreeing? Disagreeing? Laughing at her inability to say anything that remotely resembled intelligent conversation?

She locked the door quickly and walked past him toward the back of the shop. Just before she reached the door to her office behind the counter, she turned to find he was right behind her. It was unnerving how quietly a man of his size could move.

Before she could decide what to say next, he asked, "Where did ye get the name for yer shop? It's verra Scottish."

Claire smiled and gave a small laugh. "It's just a phrase I read in a book once. Though I suppose if you take this job, you'll add some authenticity to the name."

"If I take the job?"

"Look," Claire leveled with him, "John's already told me that you're perfect for this job. I trust him not to send someone incompetent or a serial killer my way. You seem like I could get along with you. The real question is, are you up to the task?"

He squinted his eyes at her as if she'd been speaking in another language the entire time. "I dinna ken what ye mean, Ms. Beauchamp."

"It's Claire. And let me show you what I mean." She gestured for him to follow as she grabbed her keys and opened the door to her office. Jamie breathed in sharply at the sight of the room, and Claire blushed. She had let things get a little out of hand.

The cramped room held a small desk and several shelving units. Boxes of inventory were piled along the walls. The top of the desk was so piled with papers that she couldn’t even see the laptop or file holders she never used. The shelves were equally unkempt; instead of the orderly system she'd imagined when she’d set them up, there were boxes filled with notebooks and folders, stray piles of invoices, and unopened packages of office supplies haphazardly placed wherever they would fit.

"You would be in charge of all this," she told him, gesturing at the room sheepishly. "Of course, I'm sure you'll want to do some, um, reorganizing."

"Aye," he said quietly. "Where would I start? Do ye have a, ehrm, system fer yer...files?"

Claire walked over to one of the shelves and started pulling down boxes. "This one has my invoices," she said showing him the stacks of papers and unlabeled folders. And this one has my orders."

"Do ye no' have a way to match up your orders wi' yer invoices?" he asked.

"Well, I, um…"

"How do ye ken if ye're being billed properly?" he asked incredulously.

"I just assume that I am?" It was starting to feel like she was the one being interviewed.

Jamie took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "What program do ye use fer accounting?" he asked.

"Program?"

"Aye, program. QuickBooks? Xero? Freshbooks?"

"Oh!” she exclaimed. “You mean computer program! I was using excel for a little while, but now I just use these." She dug in another box and showed him the spiral notebooks she used to track her incoming and outgoing expenses.

Jamie’s eyes went wide, and she could see he was already exasperated with her. "Ye mean tae tell me," he finally said, "that ye keep her books in a bunch of middle school journals? Am I being punked? Did John put ye up tae this?"

Claire sighed deeply. "No, I can assure you this is all very real. Do you still want the job?"

Jamie looked around the room, drumming his fingers on the side of his leg. "Do ye have a computer?" he asked finally.

"Yes!" Claire responded enthusiastically. She went over to the desk and began shuffling around papers until she located the laptop and pulled it out triumphantly. "Here it is."

Jamie’s face was inscrutable as he looked at Claire, at the laptop, around the room, and then back at her. At last he said, "I'll need to purchase an accounting program first thing."

"Does that mean you'll take the job?" Claire asked eagerly. She truly hadn't realized how bad off she was until she saw the look on Jamie’s face as she'd walked through her "system" with him. John was right; she was in way over her head.

"Aye," he replied. "I'll take it."

"Oh, thank you!" Claire clapped her hands joyfully and moved forward to hug him. At the last moment, she realized how inappropriate that would be, so she stuck her hand out instead. Unfortunately, she was already way too close to him, so instead of reaching for his hand, she lunged forward, her hand brushing against his groin. Jumping back as if she’d touched something hot, she managed to mumble, "Uh, sorry. I... yeah, sorry."

Every visible inch of Jamie’s body turned bright red, right up to the tips of his ears. Finally, he cleared his throat and nodded at her "When do I start?" he asked.

"Now? That is, if you don't have any other plans today."

"Aye, that'll do."

"Shouldn't we discuss the terms of your employment? Salary and such?"

She could see his lip twitching at the corner. "Maybe I should get your books straightened out so ye can see if ye can afford to pay me."

She threw her head back and laughed. "As much of a mess as this is, I can assure you I'll be able to pay you fairly, James. Why don’t you let me know what you think would be fair after a day of cleaning all this up?”

Despite his otherwise austere face, his bright blue eyes were dancing with amusement. "I think it will take more than a day to get this place cleaned up. And please, call me Jamie."

***

As soon as Claire left the office, Jamie sank into the desk chair, his mind reeling. There was so much to do, he wasn't sure where to begin.

A tidying up of the office was definitely first on the list, but he also needed to get her "accounting" records up to date. She'd given him the business Amex, so he opened the laptop to get started. As soon as Windows loaded, he cringed. I should have known she was the type to keep all her files on her desktop.

Ignoring that for the time being, he downloaded his favorite accounting software.  While that was installing, he got to work on the room. It was a disaster, but at least her piles and boxes of paperwork seemed to be sorted in some semblance of order. Once he had a vision in his mind of how he wanted things organized, the rest came easily. As one part of his brain quickly scanned documents and sorted them into the appropriate piles he had created, the other part began to rerun the events of the last twenty-four hours.

The night before, John had called him and excitedly told him about the amazing job opportunity available. Based on the type of business alone, he’d been skeptical. “Medical marijuana?” he’d asked John uncertainly. “I dinna ken. I don’t have any, uh…. experience with that. At all.”

“Dear God, Jamie,” John had replied; Jamie could practically hear him rolling his eyes over the phone. “Don’t go into pearl-clutch mode, please. You know it’s a completely legitimate business; it’s not like I’m recommending you go off and sell drugs on the streets. Besides, you really wouldn’t have anything to do with the actual product. You’d just be running the business side of things.”

Jamie had sighed, rubbing his hand over his face. “I dinna ken,” he said again. “I ken I need to find work, but I’m no’ sure I’m ready yet.”

“You have to do something, Jamie. It’s been two months since you got back from Scotland, and you’ve been standing still. You’re in a rut, and you need something to get you out of it.”

John was right. He had been in a rut. He just wasn’t sure what he needed to pull him out of it.

Jamie had been a rock star at the law firm he’d been working at since passing the bar. He’d been the go-to guy, the person who never said no to take on new challenges, the person who always volunteered to take something on when everyone else said they didn’t have the bandwidth. He had been on his way to becoming a junior partner at age thirty.

But eventually the volume of work had started to wear on him. He worked sixty hours a week and juggled a massive number of projects. Last spring, he’d started having panic attacks. Even worse, though, was the low-level buzzing sense of anxiety that he felt twenty-four hours a day, no matter what he did. He couldn’t sleep because his mind wouldn’t shut off; he couldn’t eat because of the sick feeling that constantly plagued his wame.

He’d taken a week off in July to fly back to Scotland and visit his sister, Jenny, and her family. As soon as he’d gotten off the plane, she’d taken one look at his gaunt face and thin frame and launched into a tirade that lasted the entire ride back to Lallybroch, his family’s farm. “I kent ye worked hard but look at ye. Ye’re workin’ yerself into an early grave, and I willna have it. Do ye no’ remember how our own father died? Worked round the clock day in and day out, and then dropped dead of a stroke at forty-nine. I willna let that happen tae ye, James Fraser.” 

Jamie opened his mouth to get a word in, but she cut him off. “Don’t ye dare let me catch ye using yer work laptop this entire week a bràthair. I’ll take it from ye and lock it away if I have tae. All yer tae do this week is sleep, eat, and play wi’ yer nieces and nephews.”

He’d been too tired to argue, so he’d agreed to everything she subjected him to. She’d cooked all his favorite foods and served him second and third helpings. The bairns were kept quiet in the mornings so he could sleep in, and then he would spend his afternoons chasing them around outside. After only a few days, his heart started to feel lighter. He could breathe more easily, and the ever-present tension in his neck and shoulders began to ease. His appetite returned and he put on a bit of the weight he’d lost.

That feeling lasted five days, but as his impending trip back home got closer, the sick feeling in his wame came back. He’d started to feel as if there were a weight on his chest, and hour by hour it had gotten heavier. It had been unbearable; he spent the entire day before his flight back to California in bed, and when it came time to leave for the airport, he couldn’t bring himself to go.

He cringed, thinking of how he’d embarrassed himself in front of Jenny and his brother-in-law, Ian. The panic had completely taken over his body and he turned into a sobbing, hysterical mess. “I canna do it!” he’d sobbed over and over, until Jenny had enough and called her doctor to make an appointment for him the same day.

He’d skipped his flight and let his sister drag him to the doctor, where he’d sat empty and defeated. Jenny spoke for him, telling the doctor all she’d seen over the past week and how Jamie had reacted to the thought of getting on his flight that morning. When Jenny had finished her piece, the doctor excused her from the room and talked directly to Jamie as he took his vitals.

“Ye’ve no’ said much,” the doctor observed, “But I spose yer sister doesna let ye get a word in edgewise. She seems to think it’s yer work that has ye feeling this way. Do ye think she’s right?”

“Aye,” Jamie replied quietly. “I ken she’s right. I just dinna ken what tae do about it. All I’ve ever wanted to be is a lawyer. I worked hard tae get where I am; I canna just throw that all away!”

The doctor had finished his physical exam; he sat down facing Jamie and showed him the vitals he had just written down. “This is yer blood pressure,” he’d said. “One-forty over ninety-three. That’s much too high for a healthy young man. Ye’re going tae have tae make a change. I kent yer Da, ye ken? I wish I’d kent him when he was yer age so I could have told him what I’m tellin’ ye now. Nothing is worth sacrificing yer health like this, and if ye dinna make a change, I’ll be attending yer funeral in twenty years, if no’ sooner.”

Jamie swallowed hard and nodded. It was the second time in a week he’d been compared to his father, who’d died much too young and left a hole in all of their hearts. “Now,” the doctor went on, opening his laptop, “I’m going tae prescribe ye a few things. One is a medication that will help ye when ye feel that panic coming on. Dinna use it unless ye need it. The second is a longer acting medication; it willna work straight away, but after a few weeks, it should start tae help. Hopefully once that kicks in, ye willna need the first one so much. The third is for sleep; take one every night about thirty minutes before ye go tae bed. If ye take some time fer yerself, though, exercise and reduce yer work stress, ye shouldna need these for very long either. Any questions?”

Jamie shook his head slowly. “No, I dinna think so.”

“Good. Ye can call me anytime if ye do have any. Now, I kent ye were planning on leaving today, but I would prefer if ye’d stay a couple of weeks. I’ll check ye out before ye leave then, and make sure yer blood pressure is improving and such. When ye go back, I’ll be happy to contact yer doctor in the states with all the information I just gave ye.”

“Thank ye, doctor,” Jamie said quietly before leaving.

For once in his life, he’d taken the advice that was given him and extended his stay at Lallybroch. Jenny marched him to the chemist every other day to check his blood pressure, but other than that, she’d left him to his own devices. Once again, he’d begun to feel better, until the day he would have to leave approached.

Lying in his bed the night before his flight, he’d made a decision. He’d been mulling it over since he’d visited the doctor, and just the feeling of panic coming on made the conclusion obvious. As soon as he got back to California, he would resign his position. It wasn’t just the stress and anxiety; if that had been the case, he would have done what he had to do to make it work.  The truth was that he hadn’t been happy in his job in a long time. The moment he’d decided, he could breathe more easily. He’d said goodbye to his family the next day and boarded the plane feeling better than he had in years.

But once he’d gotten home, the reality of being unemployed and otherwise unoccupied for the first time in at least ten years started to hit him. He had few hobbies and even fewer friends. If it weren’t for John, he probably wouldn’t ever leave the house except to go to the gym.

John and Jenny should start a business as life coaches, he’d thought to himself. They enjoyed running his life so much, they should at least get paid for it.

“What do you think?” John had asked.

With a deep sigh, Jamie had replied, “Alright. I’ll go to the interview.”

Jamie paused in his work and checked his phone, surprised to see that the morning had flown by already. He surveyed the small office and felt an odd sense of pride in the progress he’d made over the course of a few hours. He would have the entire office organized and tidy in a day or so, and then he could get to work on setting it up the way he wanted. After that, it would be time to tackle the finances and order tracking.

He wasn’t sure if he’d found his calling exactly, but he knew two things. The first was that he was sure he was going to enjoy this job.

The second was that Claire Beauchamp, the frazzled, disorganized mess that was his new boss, was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen and exactly what he needed to get out his rut.

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“I’m telling you Gillian, he looks like some sort of Viking warrior,” Claire said into her phone. “I’ve never quite seen anybody like him, and he’s got the sexiest accent I’ve ever heard. Just hearing him say my name almost made me melt on the spot.”

As soon as Fergus had fallen asleep, she’d picked up the phone and called her best friend. Though she was much happier in California than she’d been in Boston, one thing she desperately missed was being able to see Gillian. After the day she’d had, she could have really used a pajama and margarita night with her.

“Sounds heavenly, Claire. When are you going to ask him out?” Gillian teased.

“Not gonna happen, Gill,” she sighed.

“Why not? Just because your divorce papers aren’t final, doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun.”

“First of all,” Claire said, flopping down on the couch, “he’s my employee. That wouldn’t be appropriate at all. Second of all, I’m not ready to start dating, and third of all, he seems a little...uptight.”

“How uptight?” she asked suspiciously. After Claire’s history with Frank, Gillian was surely as wary of Claire finding herself in another controlling relationship as Claire herself was.

“Not like he-who-shall-not-be-named, I don’t think. But definitely close enough that I wouldn’t want to go there. He’s just a bit too straight-as-a-pin for me; I need somebody a lot more relaxed.” Despite her words, fantasies of being with Jamie had been running through her head all day.

Her palms began to sweat as she recalled the many ways in which she’d embarrassed herself in front of him. “I’m sure he thinks I’m a complete imbecile, anyway,” she concluded.

“Mmmmhhhhhmmm,” Gillian said doubtfully. “Sounds like you've got it bad. Just be careful of your heart, Claire. I’m not there to protect it.”

“I will,” she promised.

“But not too careful! You need to keep your mind open to new possibilities!”

Claire threw her head back on the couch and rolled her eyes. “Thank you for that clear advice, Gillian,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “I know just what to do now.”

Gillian laughed and Claire’s heart squeezed a little, wishing she could see Gill’s warm smile. “Any time, Claire. Good night.”

***

The next morning Claire arrived at the shop to find Jamie leaning against the wall outside the door holding two cups of coffee. The early morning sunlight bounced off his auburn curls, and his face held a relaxed smile. He was dressed more casually that day, as recommended by Claire the evening before, in grey slacks and a blue polo shirt that brought out the deep color of his eyes. Claire’s heart raced at the sight of him and she paused, looking in her bag for her keys to give herself a moment to catch her breath before approaching him.

“Good morning,” he said, when she was close enough. He reached out his hand with one of the coffees and she took it with a nod.

“Thank you, that’s very nice of you,” she replied.

“I wasna sure how ye liked yer coffee, but I guessed yer a sugar and cream person,” he said with a hint of disdain.

“I am,” she replied, taking a sip of the hot liquid. “Something wrong with that?”

Jamie made a grunting sound in the back of his throat. “I just dinna see the point in drinking coffee if ye canna actually taste the coffee.”

Claire rolled her eyes and sipped again. “It’s a caffeine delivery system, Fraser, not a ten-course meal at Saison.”

She hadn’t yet managed to find her keys, so she looked down into the black abyss of her giant bag and reached one hand in again, fumbling around to try to make contact with them.

“Here, let me...” Jamie said, reaching for her drink.

“No, I’ve got it,” Claire said, instinctively jerking her arm away. The coffee went flying out of her hand, and in her haste to recover it midair, her bag went flying in the other direction. “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” Her face burned with embarrassment and she quickly turned away to retrieve the bag and all its contents.

Eager to help, Jamie was already behind her. She squatted down abruptly to grab a stray tube of lip gloss, and he tripped over her, his giant mass tumbling to the ground like a felled buffalo. His coffee cup fell out of his hands and hit Claire in the back of the head, the warm liquid spilling down her back.

Claire wanted to sink into the concrete beneath her, never to be seen again, until she heard Jamie chuckling heartily from his place on the ground next to her. It was contagious and soon her own shoulders were shaking too, tears of laughter streaming down her face. Despite her embarrassment, she felt a little bit lighter. A bit of tension she hadn’t known was there floated away on the sound of her giggles.

She pushed herself up and attempted to straighten her clothing, pulling the wet fabric of her shirt away from her back. Then, she held a hand out to Jamie, who was still lying supine on the ground. “Are you alright?” she asked.

Jamie grasped her arm and pulled himself to his feet. “Just fine,” he replied. “A wee bit embarrassed, I suppose.”

He stood still in front of her, their hands still clasped between them. Claire felt her breath hitch as he licked his bottom lip. Neither of them moved and the early morning noises of the city were dulled, as if they were under water. Jamie’s eyes twinkled with a surprising mischief and his lip curled up in one corner. Their bodies leaned in toward each other, drawn together like magnets.

Their lips were less than an inch from each other when Jamie opened his mouth. “I should go get us more coffees then.” His breath fluttered over her lips before he moved away. He turned abruptly and took off down the street, leaving Claire standing alone. She brought her fingers to her mouth and touched her lips lightly as if she could trap the sensation.

Get yourself together, Beauchamp! she told herself after a moment. She shook her head quickly and bent down to finish picking up the strewn items from her bag.

By the time she’d gathered her things and let herself into the store, she’d managed to convince herself that whatever she’d thought had happened between them was merely a figment of her overactive imagination. She busied herself with straightening a few items on the shelves. The bell above the door rang, and she turned expectantly, assuming it would be Jamie returning with the coffees.

Instead, John entered the store, striding over to her with an amused smirk on his face. “Guess who I just ran into?” he said.

“Well, hello to you too, John. And who might that be?”

John casually leaned on the counter. A lock of hair fell into his eyes and he brushed it away quickly. “Your new business manager, of course. He was at the coffee shop looking awfully flustered.”

Claire rolled her eyes and continued fiddling with the items on the shelves, though there was really nothing left to be done. “Oh yes, well, we had a bit of an incident this morning when I got here.”

“I see,” John said, reaching out and touching her coffee stained back. “I tried to ask him how it was going, but the man could barely put two words together let alone an entire sentence. What have you done to my friend, Beauchamp?” he teased.

Claire put her hand to her heart in mock indignation. “I did nothing to him. He’s the one that spilled his coffee all over me!”

“Hmmmm,” John considered. “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”

“Oh please, it’s too early in the day to be quoting Shakespeare.”

Just then, the bell rang again. Jamie glided across the room and set the new coffee on the counter in front of Claire. “Good morning, John,” he said quickly. He nodded at Claire and then disappeared into the back office.

“See? Nothing.” Claire said pointedly. She picked up her coffee and gratefully gulped down some of the much needed caffeine.

“Riiiiiiggggghht,” John replied. “Nothing fishy going on here at all.”

Claire cocked her head and raised an eyebrow at John and he threw his hands up in surrender. “Alright, alright,” he said, backing away. “I’ve got to get to work anyway. Have a wonderful day, Claire.”

***

By midday, Jamie had cleared out more of the clutter of the office, combining the contents of many of the boxes and throwing out things that he was sure were no longer needed. As he cleaned, he made neat piles of paperwork on the desk, sorting them out by invoices, accounts receivable, orders, and miscellany.

The simple task of sorting and clearing the mess helped to settle his racing mind. He hadn't anticipated things escalating so quickly with Claire, and their encounter that morning had sent him into a tailspin. A pleasant tailspin, for sure, but a tailspin nonetheless.

His mind wandered to the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the original, of course. He hated remakes. There was a scene in which Charlie and his grandfather drink Wonka's Fizzy Lifting Drink. Their stomachs filled with bubbles and he begins to float up and up. That was how Claire made Jamie feel.

There was a warning in that analogy, though, Jamie reminded himself. As Charlie and his grandfather floated skyward, caught up in the dizzy excitement of their weightlessness, a danger lingered above. There was a large fan at the stop of the ceiling that threatened to destroy them if they didn't get themselves back down on safer ground.

This job was brand new, and it was Jamie's chance for a fresh start. He wouldn't compromise that by rashly rushing into something with his boss. Dating had always been a very complicated business for him, and truth be told, he didn't need that just as he was trying to get his life back together. He needed to simplify, and getting involved with Claire was the opposite of that.

The door to the office opened and Claire peeked her head in. Her brown curls had started to make their way out of the ponytail she wore, and they framed her face sweetly. "Mind if I come in for a minute?" she asked.

"It's your office," he replied, gesturing for her to step through the door.

Claire put her hands on her hips and surveyed the small space. "It certainly doesn't look like my office anymore, which is completely fine. This is your domain now, and I'm happy to be rid of it." She moved to one of the shelves and started looking through some of the notebooks.

Jamie could tell she was trying her best not to disturb the newly found order and he smiled at her. "Can I help ye find something, lass?"

"I'm looking for some notes I took at a seminar a couple months ago. Have you seen anything?"

"Hmmmmm," Jamie considered. "I havena seen any notes. I threw away a couple notebooks this morning, but they mostly had some random pages with scribbles and doodles on them."

"Shit!" Claire grumbled. "Do you remember what color they were?"

"I think mebbe green?" he answered. "I'm no' sure."

"Dammit! I need those notes for my next order." Her temper flared quickly and her cheeks flared pink.

Christ, she's adorable when she's angry, Jamie thought.

"I didna ken ye needed any notes," he said defensively. "Ye never said there was anything in the notebooks that ye needed. In fact, all ye said was tae feel free tae get rid of anything that looked like rubbish. And that's what I did."

"Well I'm glad you think my notes are rubbish!" she seethed.

"Christ," Jamie hissed back. He could feel his own temper boiling, his own skin turning red. "I didna say that. I just didna ken they were important!"

"That's just great," Claire said, throwing her hands in the air. "Off I go to dumpster dive in the back now. I guess it doesn't matter about my clothes getting filthy since you already spilled coffee all over me this morning!"

Jamie gritted his teeth and breathed through his nose, nostrils flaring. "No! I'm the one who threw the damned thing away, and I'll be the one to get it out of the fecking dumpster!"

He turned on his heel and pulled on the knob of the back door to the store. He forgot it was locked and spent a few moments jangling and yanking on the knob irritably until he remembered to turn the lock. Once the door swung open, he stepped out into the alley, with Claire on his heels yelling at him to stop, saying she would do it herself.

Jamie ignored her and walked over to the dumpster that they shared with a nearby bookstore and a smoothie shop. He peered inside and groaned as he saw a pile of banana peels and other disgusting remnants of the fruity drinks. Of course the damned smoothie people have been out here. God damn health nut hippies.

He hoisted himself up with one leg and climbed into the dumpster before Claire could even attempt to stop him. She threw her hands in the air and he watched her ponytail sway side to side as she stomped back into the shop.

He was able to stay atop the pile of trash at first, but like a deceptive quicksand, his feet and legs sank in slowly as he bent over and searched through the empty yogurt cartons, various fruit skins, and expired milk containers. The smell was horrendous as he sifted through the array of foul debris. How on earth was there so much in here when he'd just thrown the notebook out a few hours ago? Egg shells, moldy sprouts...Christ, was that underwear???

He grabbed an empty toilet paper roll and pushed the panties aside. He saw the corner of the green notebook beneath it and reached down gingerly with his thumb and index finger, plucking the notebook at the corner and carefully pulling up. It was mercifully unscathed and, tucking it under one arm, he gripped the side of the dumpster and jumped out, landing easily on two feet.

When he trudged back into the office, Claire was standing next to one of the shelves, flipping through a red notebook. "I got your damned notebook," he said, tossing it on the desk.

She looked up from her reading and blushed. "Oh, er, um, about that…"

"What?" he inquired, closing the distance between them.

"Well, you see, when I got back in here, I saw this notebook on the other shelf, so I picked it up, and um, well, this is actually the notebook I needed." She looked up at him sheepishly, her amber eyes practically pleading with him for forgiveness.

He moved closer yet, towering over her with his face less than an inch from hers, just as it had been that morning. "You," he growled, "are the most infuriating, barmy person I have ever met in my entire life." Then he grabbed her by the back of the head and pulled her closer, crashing his lips against hers passionately.

He felt tension in her body instantly melt away, and her lips parted under his, permitting his tongue to invade her mouth. It twisted around hers and they sparred together, both desperately seeking to conquer and possess the other.

Claire's hands roamed along his chest and he reached his arm around and grabbed a handful of her arse, lifting her on her toes so he could achieve an even deeper invasion of her mouth. She moaned into him, the vibrations filling him pleasantly as she began to grind her pelvis against him, his cock already hard and ready.

Hastily he pulled away, and they separated, both panting heavily. Claire’s pupils were blown with desire, her lips red and swollen. His own lips stung and tasted faintly of hers, a pleasant mixture of coffee and lips gloss.

"I -" she started.

"I best go home during lunch and get cleaned," Jamie interjected. He turned quickly and walked out of the office door, through the shop, and into the blissfully fresh air outside.

***

When Jamie came back from lunch, showered and changed into fresh clothes, his wet curls flopping in his face, he greeted Claire cordially and went into the back office, shutting the door behind him. Claire wondered what was going through his head. Did he regret what they'd done? Or had he spent the entire hour, as she had, craving the feeling of his body pressed against hers again, the taste of his tongue in her mouth?

Her mind whirled with possibilities. She had never in her life felt anything quite like the sensation of Jamie's lips on hers. It had been awhile since she’d had any sexual contact with a man, and she wondered if the electricity she felt coursing through her body when he kissed her was due to some sort of connection between them or if it was just the waking of desire after a long dry spell.

Jamie stayed in the back the entire afternoon, driving Claire even more mad imagining all the possibilities of what he was thinking and what was going to happen. She also realized that, regardless of what he said or did when he emerged from that office, she owed him an apology. She practiced about ten different ways she might offer such apologies, depending on his demeanor.

She'd had to remind herself to slow down all day. Her divorce wasn't even final, and having spent so many years with a man who had controlled her life to the point she barely knew who she was anymore, did she really want to jump into something with this man that she barely knew? And what would it even look like dating someone who she was going to be working in close quarters with day after day? If things didn't work out, she’d be without a Business Manager again.

No, the timing wasn't right; the situation wasn't right. When Jamie came out of his office, she would apologize for making him go through the dumpster, tell him to have a lovely evening, and that would be the end of it.

Her heart quickened as five o'clock approached, and when she finally heard the click of the office door opening, she nearly jumped out of her skin. "Sorry," Jamie said, "I didna mean tae scare ye." He gave her a crooked grin that made her knees wobbly.

"That's alright," she replied quietly. "I guess I was just lost in thought. Jamie, I -"

"No, please." He stood close to her again and when he put his hand up in a "stop" gesture, his palm was inches from her face. "Let me go first. I'm sorry that I got...um...carried away earlier. It was terribly ungentlemanly of me, not to mention unprofessional, and it willna happen again."

Claire nodded slowly. "Yes, well, I was being unprofessional, too. I mean, I am your boss after all. Also, I want to apologize for the incident with the notebook and thank you for actually going into a dumpster to retrieve it for me. I don't think I've ever met anyone in my life who would do something like that for me. Anyway, you're right. I am scatter-brained and a bit flighty. In fact, I'm an absolute mess, and I can't tell you how grateful I am to you for helping me get everything in order. I...I would never want to do anything to take advantage of you, and I'll try to do better next time. I just hope you'll be able to put up with me."

Jamie gave her another half-smile, his eyes wrinkling at the corner. "Aye, ye are scatter-brained and flighty and a disorganized mess. But I like ye just fine."

He turned then and walked through the store and out the door without another word, leaving Claire, for the third time that day, breathless.

Chapter Text

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The morning after the dumpster incident, Jamie met Claire outside of the store, coffee in hand, casually leaning against the wall as if nothing happened.

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, Claire thought when she saw him. How can he be so calm? It infuriated her.

Claire had been a wreck the entire night before. As she cooked dinner, gave Fergus a bath, and put him to bed, her mind played their kiss over and over in her head. Finally, as she was reading a story to Fergus, he had sighed and said, "Mama, you aren't even paying attention. You just read the same page twice!"

When he'd finally fallen asleep, she'd immediately called Gillian to tell her what happened. “He kissed you?” Gillian squealed into the phone. “Did you kiss him back?”

Claire sighed audibly. “Well of course I kissed him back. I mean…”

“Was he a good kisser?”

Claire paused, considering how much she should reveal to her best friend. Should she tell her that he made her weak in the knees? That she couldn’t stop thinking about the feeling of his lips on hers, their bodies pressed together? How could she explain the spark she felt between them when their lips met for the first time? She didn’t even know what it was because she’d never felt anything like it.

“Yeah, it was pretty damn good,” she finally replied, choosing a more conservative approach.

“Beauchamp, I can feel you blushing through the phone,” Gillian teased. “That must have been some kiss. What are you going to do about it?”

“Do about it?” Claire asked. “I haven’t really thought about that. I mean, I suppose we’ll have to talk about it. I’m not ready to be in a relationship right now. Though, I have to be careful because what if I say that to him and he just laughs at me and says he didn’t intend to be in a relationship. Am I reading too much into this? He didn’t say anything the rest of the day; maybe he just wants to forget what happened. Oh, Gill, I don’t know what to do.”

“You might have to play it by ear, Claire. Go with the flow. See how he acts. But if you want to talk about it, don’t let him avoid you.”

“As always, your advice is super not helpful, Gill.”

“It’ll work out Claire. I promise. Call me tomorrow and let me know how it goes.”

“You know I will. I miss you, Gillian.”

“I miss you too, love. Now get some sleep.”

Too anxious to sleep, Claire took a couple hits off her vape, a nice hybrid blend that usually made her feel content and sleepy. But as she laid in bed, wide awake, with thoughts of Jamie swirling in her mind on an endless loop, she instead felt an intense yearning. She couldn’t wait to see him the next day. Get yourself together, Beauchamp. Your divorce isn’t even final yet.

She had to get the situation resolved, nip it in the bud. That was the only way the foolish feelings he’d aroused in her would go away. She would talk to him the next day and tell him that she intended to keep their relationship professional moving forward.

“Morning, Claire,” he said, handing her the coffee. He smiled at her, and she was instantly drawn to his eyes, the way they crinkled in the corners. She bit her lip involuntarily and tried to push away the thought telling her that she would do just about anything in the world to keep that smile on his face.

“Good morning,” she said, jingling her keys at him. “I’ve got my keys already today.”

He gave her a strange look of confusion and a flush of embarrassment coursed through her body. He doesn’t even bloody remember the incident yesterday morning. That’s how uninterested he actually is in me. She smiled awkwardly. “The keys, remember? That’s why we fell...I...never mind, let’s go in.”

He followed her to the door and she stuck the key in the lock, jiggling the handle a bit to ease the door open. “I’ll have to get you a set of keys, so you don’t have to wait outside for me.”

“Aye, I actually meant to speak with ye about that,” he said. She walked ahead of him, not even looking back, lest he see the flush of embarrassment in her cheeks. “I think ye should invest in a security system.”

They’d reached the back counter, and Claire set her bag and coffee down. “Security system?” She turned and looked at him, nose scrunched up in distaste. “We’re in a safe neighborhood, and the city has cameras on the streets right nearby. Seems a bit silly to get a security system.”

“Silly?” he scoffed. “Do ye know how much it would cost ye if this place were robbed? And then yer insurance rates would go through the roof. I could actually get ye a discount on yer insurance if ye had one installed.”

She threw her hands up in defeat. “Fine, you know what? You’re the business manager. I trust you.”

She suddenly realized how close they were standing and made to move around him. He must have had the same thought because he moved at the same time, and suddenly they found themselves wedged in the small space between the corner and the door. “Oops!” Claire said with a high pitched giggle.

Jamie’s back was against the wall, his pelvis pressed against her back side. “I’ll just….Ermh….”

They engaged in a series of jerky movements, both trying to disentangle themselves and only succeeding in producing a lot of friction that was usually relegated to a dark bedroom. Finally, Jamie managed to seize the doorknob to his office, and slip away quickly into the newly created space, closing the door behind him.

***

Jamie leaned against the door, breathing heavily and trying desperately to calm his nerves. Ever since they’d kissed the day before, or rather, ever since he’d accidentally ravaged her, he could think of nothing but pulling her close and doing it again. He wanted to taste her lips, run his fingers through those ridiculous curls on her head, feel the soft curves of her body against him. The small moan she’d made played over and over in his head.

What had happened, what he’d done, was wrong, and he knew it. It was also completely out of character for him. In fact, Jamie couldn’t think of a single time in his life when he’d felt so drawn to someone that his body acted on its own volition. He’d barely even realized what was happening when he found himself holding her close to him while their tongues wrangled desperately. He couldn’t make sense of the pull she had on him, the way she could change his behavior so easily.

Unable to wrap his head around what had happened, Jamie had called up John the night before and asked him to get a drink. He needed advice and John knew Claire well enough that he’d be able to point him in the right direction.

“And to what do I owe this honor?” John asked as Jamie set his drink down on the table and flopped down in his seat.

Jamie sipped his whisky and sighed heavily as he set the glass back down. “I did something really stupid,” he confessed.

John raised an eyebrow curiously, a smug grin curling up one corner of his mouth. John loved drama and couldn’t help but delight in Jamie’s obvious distress.

Jamie scowled and sipped his whisky again. "Wipe that Cheshire cat grin off yer face, Grey, or I won't tell ye a thing."

"Fine, fine," John said, sitting back in his chair crossing his arms on his chest. "Tell me what's going on."

Jamie told him the whole story, at least the parts he felt comfortable sharing. He didn't tell him what he'd had to do in the shower when he'd gone home to change, how her name was on his lips when he'd spilled himself, how she made him question everything he'd ever thought to be true about love and lust. He'd known the woman exactly two days, and he wanted her more than he'd wanted anything in his life.

When he finished the abridged version of the story, John stared at him, wide-eyed. "Jamie, I didn't know you had it in you."

Jamie rolled his eyes, even though he knew John was right. "I have kissed women before, John. Even a bit more."

"Well I know that. I've known you since college," John pointed out. "I remember you and Annalise. And that's exactly why I'm astonished. You would barely hold hands in public, let alone throw her against the wall and eat her face."

"I'm no' a monk, John," he said. "And you're taking us off topic. I need to know what to do about Claire. You know her better than I do." Even as he said it, he knew it wasn't true. He knew everything he needed to know about her from that one kiss.

John sipped his beer thoughtfully. "Here's what I can tell you. She's in the middle of a divorce. I don't know all the details, but I know her ex was a complete asshole. She has a kid, a little boy named Fergus. At some point she got up the nerve to leave this guy, and move across the country to start a business in an industry she knew next to nothing about."

"Christ she's a brave wee thing," Jamie said under his breath.

"Yes, she is." John leaned forward. "Listen, I wouldn't have encouraged you to take this job or encouraged her to hire you if I didn't think you would be a good match. But I also know that she spooks easily. Take your time. Be your charming self, but let her take the lead."

And that was what Jamie was determined to do. He would be her business partner and her friend, with no expectation of anything in return. Whatever she needed, he would be there to provide it. And even though it was going to kill him, he would wait until she gave him a sign that she was ready.

***

At noon, Jamie stood and stretched his legs. He'd spent three hours researching security systems and manually transferring Claire’s notebook "ledgers" into the accounting software he'd purchased. The only plus side was that he was feeling considerably less amorous towards her after all that.

The door opened and Claire popped her head in. "I'm closing up for lunch. I thought I'd go grab a salad from that shop down the block. Can I get you anything?"

"Do they have anything besides rabbit food there?" he asked grouchily, realizing suddenly how hungry he was.

"Vegetables are for people too, you know," she replied. Though she was trying to sound annoyed by him, Jamie was sure he heard a touch of teasing, maybe even flirtation in her voice. "And yes, they do have sandwiches and wraps."

"Aye, I'll walk there with ye if ye don't mind," he replied. "Maybe we could sit outside and enjoy the nice weather while we eat."

As they walked together to the small deli, Jamie filled her in on the progress he'd made. "I'm hoping to have the books cleaned up by the middle of next week. By the way, is the shop open tomorrow? I wasn't sure if I needed to work on Saturdays."

"No," Claire said, shaking her head. "I would love to be open on Saturdays, but I have my son and there's nobody to watch him. Hopefully soon, though. My Uncle Lamb is retiring and he's going to be moving here. I'm sure he'd love to watch Fergus on some Saturdays."

"Ye could also hire some more help," Jamie suggested. They'd reached the deli, and Jamie opened the door, gesturing for her to go ahead of him. "Ladies first."

The conversation stalled while they ordered their meals: a large cobb salad for Claire and a roast beef sub with French fries for Jamie. The cashier gave the total and both reached for their wallets. "I insist," Jamie said.

"No," Claire said, pushing his hand away. "I insist."

"Claire, a gentleman would never let a lady pay."

She snorted loudly. "What is this, the 18th century? I'm your boss. I pay."

Annoyed, the cashier interjected. "I don't care who pays, but someone needs to pay so we can move the line along."

Claire practically threw her card at the cashier. Jamie walked away mumbling, "Stubborn wee besom," under his breath.

***

Once they were settled in at a picnic table in the small park across from the parking lot, Claire was determined she would firmly, but gently, tell Jamie that they needed to keep their relationship strictly business. Before she could open her mouth, though, Jamie asked, “So yer uncle is moving to the area? Are ye two close?”

She nodded, putting a forkful of salad into her mouth. “Yes,” she said once she’d swallowed, “He raised me since I was five.”

“What happened to yer parents, if ye don’t mind me asking,” Jamie said, his brow furrowed with concern.

“It’s fine; I don’t mind, really,” flicking her hand as if she were trying to dismiss any sadness she had away. “They died in a car accident when I was five. I don’t remember very much of them.”

“Och, I’m sorry lass.” Without thinking, Jamie reached out his hand and placed it on top of Claire’s on the table. As soon as he did it, they both looked at it in horror, and Jamie quickly pulled his back. “Sorry, lass, I…”

“Don’t be silly,” she told him. She could feel her cheeks flushed, hot and pink, and when she looked up, she saw that Jamie was beet red from the neck up. “Anyway,” she said, trying to push on through the awkwardness. “My uncle raised me. He’s an archaeologist. I traveled with him around the world, but when I was thirteen, he decided I needed a proper education, so I ended up in a boarding school. That’s how I ended up in the States. What about you? How did you end up here?”

“I grew up on a farm in a very small town in the Highlands of Scotland. My Da wanted me to take over the family farm some day, but I didn’t want to be a farmer. So when I applied for college, I only applied in the US. I got into Stanford and now here I am.”

Claire leaned forward; she’d barely eaten a bit of her salad -- all she could focus on was Jamie. His Scottish brogue was considerably more pronounced when he started speaking of his home, and it mesmerized her. “Does your family all live in Scotland still?” she asked.

He let out a deep breath. “My sister does, with her husband and children. And I have a brother who lives on the East Coast. Both of my parents passed away.”

“I’m so sorry Jamie.” She looked into his pale blue eyes and saw a sadness there that she’d never noticed before. “I was only eight when my Mam died, but my father just passed a couple of years ago. Worked himself right into a heart attack. It’s part of why I decided to stop practicing law; It was verra stressful, and I didna want to end up dead at forty-seven like him.” He had no idea why he was sharing such personal details of his life with her, but he continued on as if she was his best friend that he’d known for years. “I want to be married someday and have children. I don’t want to be one of those dads who’s never around because he’s always working, and I wouldna want to leave them alone if I went ahead and died of a heart attack. I had to make a change.”

She stared at him intently, her fingers absentmindedly resting on her lips. “You’ll be an amazing father some day,” she told him.

“How do you know that?” he asked with a confused smile.

“Because you’re already willing to sacrifice everything for a family that doesn’t even exist yet. My ex….Well, never mind. It’s not important.”

“I just spilled my life story to you, Claire. You can tell me.”

Something had shifted in the air. The sounds around them were muted, the scenery around them fading into the background. Claire felt like she was in her own little world with Jamie, and she went on, trusting him despite barely knowing him. “He wanted a child, badly. I wasn’t really ready for motherhood - I had just finished my Residency program and wanted to focus on my career. But he was relentless about it, and I eventually gave in. After Fergus was born, though, he didn’t seem to want to do anything with him. I took care of everything; I was lucky if Frank would hold him long enough so that I could eat my dinner. Eventually it got to the point that I felt like I would be better off single, because then at least I would only have one baby to take care of, so I left him.”

“Ye left him and ye moved here,” Jamie said. His hand had ended up on top of hers again, but he didn’t move it that time, nor did she. “Poor excuse for a man,” he added, shaking his head.

They sat with their eyes locked until Claire finally cleared her throat and pulled her hand away. “Anyway, that’s how I ended up in California, all alone with just me and my son. But we’re doing great, just the two of us. It was hard for awhile, but we’ve got it now. I’m just lucky I met John, or I’d have been terribly lonely this past year.”

“And you wouldn’t have met me,” Jamie said, cringing and biting his tongue as soon as the words were out of his mouth.

Claire just smiled and giggled quietly. “I suppose that’s true, but listen Jamie. We should really talk about something.” She saw the worry and hurt in his eyes immediately. She couldn’t go through with it, not when he was looking at her with those soft eyes. Fuck her divorce not being final. Fuck the fact that they were working together. And fuck the fact that she barely knew him. After all she’d been through with Frank, maybe she deserved to be a little spontaneous. She’d planned on getting a tattoo when the divorce was final, but this act of recklessness would have to hold her over. “I...um...I can’t really get out much because I don’t have a sitter for Fergus, but, would you like to come over for dinner this weekend?”

Jamie’s jaw dropped. That was the last thing he’d expected her to say to him, but it was a pleasant surprise. “Sure,” he said. “That sounds great.”

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"Well you've really dug your own grave on this one, Beauchamp," Claire mumbled to herself as she threw the grocery bags on the counter.

"Fergus, darling, please go occupy yourself while mama cooks dinner. Mr. Jamie is going to be here in…" she glanced at her watch, "...SHIT - forty minutes!" She'd meant to get to the store much earlier, but by the time she'd finished cleaning the house from top to bottom and showering, she was already running late.

"Mama! You need to put a quarter in the swear jar, " Fergus told her firmly.

Claire threw her hands in the air in defeat. "I will, but please just go do something that doesn't involve being under my feet in the kitchen."

"Can I play on the Switch?" he asked eagerly.

"Yes, yes, go ahead," she told him. At one point she'd had rules about how he would earn screen time and when he could use it, but that had lasted about a week before things were back to their usual chaos . Lecture yourself about your parenting later, Beauchamp; you've got this mess to deal with first.

What the hell had she been thinking, inviting Jamie over for dinner? To her house? With her child? This was going to be the most awkward first date ever, if it was even a date. Jamie probably thought he was just going over to his boss's house for dinner. He probably felt like he had to say yes.

She took a deep breath and tried to stop the panic from spinning out of control. She would have given anything to pop a gummy at that moment, but the last thing she needed was to have her inhibitions lowered around Jamie.

She got to work throwing together a simple recipe for shrimp pasta  that she found online. The recipe said it would only take about 30 minutes to put together, so she threw the ingredients in the pot, called to Fergus to not touch the stove, and ran upstairs to her room to get dressed.

Thank God she'd picked her outfit out the night before while she video chatted with Gillian. Of course Gillian had suggested something wildly inappropriate for the occasion, but they'd finally settled on a maxi dress that showed off her curves but didn't show too much skin. The last thing she needed was for Jamie to think she was throwing herself at him. It wasn't even a date, really, just two work friends having dinner.  

She had barely managed to get her hair pinned back when the doorbell rang. She glanced at her phone and rolled her eyes when she saw that it was 5:55. Of course Jamie would be early .

"I'll get the door, Mama," Fergus called.

"No, no, no," she yelled. As she ran down the stairs, her heel caught in the hem of her dress just as she heard the door opening. She tumbled down the last few stairs and looked up to see both Fergus and Jamie staring at her.  As she desperately tried to disentangle herself so she could get up off the ground, Jamie stepped past Fergus into the house, and reached a hand out to Claire. "Are ye alright?" he asked.

Trying to recover as gracefully as she could, Claire took his hand and let him help her up off the floor. "Thank you," she said nonchalantly, as if he'd merely opened a door for her .

"Ye're welcome," Jamie answered, not letting go of her hand. They stood there, eyes locked, neither of them saying anything.

"Mama!" Fergus yelled. "The pasta's boiling over."

"Fuck!" Claire turned away from Jamie and ran into the kitchen, turning the heat down and trying to clean up the spilled water.

"Swear jar, mama!"  Fergus chided her.

She turned and glared at Fergus. Then she called out to Jamie,"Sorry! Supper will just be a couple minutes."

"Dinna fash," he said, walking over to Claire and leaning over the pot. "It smells delicious. What are you making?"

"Shrimp pasta." She stirred the pot and then set the spoon down. "Just about done, actually. Fergus, go wash your hands."

"Um, Claire?" Jamie said, backing away. "I'm allergic to shellfish."

"Shit!" she said, immediately turning off the stove and turning to him. His face was already splotchy. "You could have told me, you know!" she chided, instinctually grabbing his wrist and checking his pulse. He began to cough, and she looked up to see his face was pale. "Do you have an epi-pen with you?"

He shook his head, the look of a panicked animal in his eyes. Claire pulled a chair away from the table and pushed him down into it. "You sit," she ordered. "Fergus, stay right here with Mr. Jamie for just a minute."

She grabbed her phone and ran up the stairs, dialing 911 at the same time. "Hello, yes. I have an adult male, shellfish allergy with possible anaphylaxis. I'll be administering two children's epi-pens. No, he doesn't have his own. Yes I'm a doctor, I know what to do. Yes, please hurry."

She hung up the phone and opened the linen closet. Where the fuck are the epi pens? She started sifting through the various bins that she'd bought to keep things organized. Of course, that hadn't worked out and everything was just thrown in random bins in a jumbled mess.  

Finally getting her hands on the box, she raced back down the stairs. Jamie was still in the chair, his breathing labored. Fergus stood next to him, his small hand on Jamie's back. "It's ok," he told him. Mama always knows how to make it better." 

"Thank you, Fergus," Claire said, approaching them. "Go get your tablet; we're going to go to the hospital with Mr. Jamie."

Fergus obeyed and she turned her attention to Jamie. "Drop your pants," she ordered.

Jamie looked up in shock.  His entire face was swollen. "Claire?" he croaked.

"For the epi-pen," she replied, showing him the box as she removed the auto injectors.

He lifted himself off the chair and tried to unbuckle his belt with his swollen fingers .  Claire saw him struggling and pushed his hands aside, deftly opening the belt and yanking down the pants. Then, she swiped him quickly with an alcohol swab and jabbed him in the thigh with the needle, pushing him back in the chair as she did so.

His breathing became less labored and she grabbed his wrist to check his pulse again. It was still weak. She dropped his hand quickly pulling the next epi pen out of the box and plunging it into his thigh.

"Christ!" he seethed. "Can ye no' be gentler? "

"No, I cannot," she replied brusquely. She heard sirens and breathed a sigh of relief. "Fergus are you ready?"

"I don't think I need to go to the hospital, Claire," Jamie rasped. "I'm feeling better already."

"You are going," she said firmly. "The epi-pen only buys us time. You're lucky you aren't dead. Why don't you carry your own epi-pen?" She continued nagging him as the paramedics arrived and assessed him, only pausing to give them a rundown of his symptoms and the treatment she'd administered.

Only when he was strapped onto the stretcher and being wheeled out did she notice the flowers he'd brought, dropped on the floor. She smiled and picked them up, waving after him. "We'll meet you there."

***

Soon after Jamie was loaded into the ambulance, he lost consciousness, but the image of Claire standing in the doorway waving at him, the flowers he'd brought her dangling from one hand, was seared into his mind. As he floated in and out of consciousness, he would see her, that preposterous hair curled around her face.

Then, he could hear her voice, soft as if she didn't want to wake him. He reached a hand out to her, and felt her small hand, chilly even in the warm fall weather, clasp around his.

Slowly, he rose to the surface of consciousness and her voice was clearer, chiding.  Was she still berating him for not telling her about his allergy? No, she said something about whining. The boy, he realized. Probably bored and tired.

He squeezed the hand in his, wondering if it was only part of his dream, but she squeezed it back. "Jamie?" Her voice was soft, concerned. Nothing like the scolding tone from before.

He opened his eyes and squinted in her direction. "Hi," he answered. He was too tired and his voice was too sore to say much more.

"How do you feel?"

"Like a pile of moldy tripe ," he answered, licking his lips and closing his eyes again.

Claire laughed quietly and squeezed his hand. "You scared me for a bit there. Thought I was gonna have to train a whole new business manager."

"Hhrrrmmmppphhh."

"Do you want to sit up more?" she asked. "Do you need any water?"

"I'm glad ye've decided to be nice to me again, instead of scolding me like a magpie,"  he answered. She rolled her eyes and put up the bed anyway, straightening his pillows before pouring a cup of water and handing it to him.

"Oh, I'm not done with that yet. Of all the careless behavior…"

"Shhhh, ye'll wake the bairn," he interrupted, pointing to Fergus, curled up in a recliner.

Her face softened and she sat down again, smiling first at Fergus and then turning to Jamie. "I'm glad you're alright," she told him.

"Ye can go," Jamie replied. "I dinna want ye to keep the lad out so late."

"No," she replied firmly. "I'm not leaving until I know if they're keeping you overnight. I won't have you taking an Uber home from the hospital."

Jamie grunted in appreciation and closed his eyes again. He could hear Claire bustling about the tiny room, checking the IV, fiddling with the monitor. He was glad she was staying; she made him feel safe and cared for.

He drifted off again, waking only when Claire shook him gently. "Jamie, the doctor is here." He stirred and opened his eyes, looking first at Claire and then turning to the doctor.

"I'm inclined to keep you overnight," the doctor was saying, "But as Dr. Beauchamp said she would keep an eye on you, I'll release you under her watch. "

"Claire," Jamie started, "You don't have to - "

"It's fine," she interrupted. "You can stay at my place for the night. You'll be more comfortable than here." She was so commanding when she was in Dr. Beauchamp mode, he didn't even bother to argue.

The doctor went over his discharge papers and medications before they left; Claire insisted he be sent home with two epi-pens. As Jamie got dressed, Claire left to pull the car around, so that when Jamie was wheeled out, she was ready and waiting for him.

When he was buckled in, he reached his hand out and placed it on her shoulder. "Thank ye, Claire," he said sleepily. The smile she gave him was so tender, so sincere, he felt his heart break at the beauty of it. He wanted to say more to her, but he was too tired. It would have to wait until the morning.

***

The antihistamines Jamie had been pumped with made him drowsy,  and when they arrived back at her townhouse, Claire looped her arm around his waist and deposited him on the couch before going back to the car and carrying Fergus in. "I'll be right back," she whispered to Jamie whose head was already flopped back on the cushion.

She tucked Fergus into bed with his clothes on, pushing back his curls from his forehead before kissing it. She tiptoed out of the room and went back down to deal with her other lad. 

She sighed when she came down the stairs and saw him. He looked so adorable and vulnerable; it nearly broke her heart. He'd scared the living shit out of her, more than she'd like to admit, even to herself. All she wanted to do was get on the couch with him and hold him close, feel his heartbeat. 

Instead, she shook him gently by the shoulder until he roused enough to let her help him up the stairs. "I can sleep on the couch," he told her sleepily.

"Nonsense," she replied, "You'll sleep in the guest room. There's two beds in there so I can stay with you and keep an eye on you."

She helped him into bed and pulled his shoes off for him. Covering him with a blanket, she giggled to herself at the absurdity of him sleeping in the twin bed; the blanket barely covered him.

Unable to help herself, she brushed his auburn curls away from his face and leaned down, gently kissing his forehead. His lips curved up into an angelic smile  causing her stomach to do a pleasant flip. She curled up in the bed across from him and fell asleep, the comfort of his presence wrapped around her.

***

Jamie woke up the next morning to the smell of coffee and bacon. He rolled out of bed and made his way down the stairs, letting his nose lead the way. Claire stood at the stove in a bathrobe, her hair wilder than he'd ever seen it. He was struck with an urge to walk up behind her and put his arms around her. 

Before he could do anything, Fergus came running in his direction. "Mr. Jamie! Are you alright?"

Jamie stifled a laugh at the boy's sincerity. "I'm braw, lad. Thanks for asking."

"Are you a Viking?" Fergus asked.

He laughed loudly that time, throwing his head back. "Where did ye get such an idea?" he asked.

"I heard Mama say it on the phone with Aunt Gill." 

Claire turned around, her face red as a lobster. "Fergus! Come set the table please."

Jamie walked over to her and leaned against the counter next to her. "A Viking, hmm?" he teased.

Claire ignored him. "There's coffee in the pot. Pancakes and bacon will be ready any minute. You need to sit down; just because you feel better doesn’t mean your body has fully recovered."

He stayed put for a moment, leaning down closely, so only she could hear him. “I rather like it when ye order me around, boss.”  Then he quickly turned away from her and grabbed a mug to pour his coffee in.

He sat down at the table across from Fergus, who was working on putting together a lego set. “Do ye mind if I help?” Jamie asked.

Fergus nodded, pushing the instructions toward him. It was a pirate ship, a rather difficult one for a child his age, Jamie thought, but Fergus seemed to be holding his own with it. Jamie got to work on one of the sections and soon they were both engrossed in their work.

Eventually, Claire cleared her throat loudly and said, “Pardon me, but would you boys like to put your toy away  for a bit so we can eat?”

Jamie looked up and grinned at her sheepishly, pushing the legos to the other end of the table. Claire set two plates in the center of the table, one piled with pancakes and the other with bacon. “I figured we’d all be hungry this morning,” she said, setting empty plates and silverware in front of each of them. “Dig in.”

Fergus reached for the pancakes with his bare hands, and Claire blushed furiously as she took her seat next to Jamie. “Fergus,” she said through clenched teeth, glancing over at Jamie in embarrassment, “Please try to pretend that I’ve taught you some manners.”

Fergus pulled his hand away, then picked up his fork and jabbed through three pancakes at once, giggling the entire time. “Fergus!” Claire hissed. He kept laughing and brought all three pancakes to his mouth at once, taking a bite out of the side of them.  

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered to Jamie. “He doesn’t normally act like this.”

“It’s fine, Claire,” Jamie told her. “I may be a stick in the mud about most things,  but I ken how kids are and I dinna mind.”

She laughed then, the apples of her cheeks still red.

“What?” he said, filling his plate.

“You said it, I didn’t!” she replied. “And how do you know so much about kids?”

“I have six nieces and nephews,” he told her, “Between my brother and sister.”

“Six?”

“Aye, all ten times more devilish than this one.” They both looked at Fergus who was pouring vast quantities of maple syrup on his pancakes.

“That’s enough!” Claire reprimanded. She took the bottle from his hands and gave it to Jamie.

They all settled into their breakfast, quietly chewing until Jamie said, “This bacon is good, but the texture is different.”

“It’s turkey bacon,” Claire told him.

He scrunched up his nose and put the rest of the piece down on his plate. “Turkey bacon?” he asked incredulously. “What’s wrong with regular bacon?”

“Well, it’s healthier,” Claire pointed out. “But I also don’t eat any pork.”

“Why no’?”

“I’m Jewish, ” she said nonchalantly. “I grew up not eating it so I never developed a taste for it.”

“Ye’re Jewish?” Jamie asked.

“Yes, well, culturally anyway . I don’t really practice the religious side of things. But my mother was Jewish, so I am Jewish. And I went to Jewish boarding school for six years.”

“Hmmmm. Didna know that.”

“Well now you know,” she said matter of factly.

They ate in silence for a bit until Jamie finally announced, “I’m Catholic, by the way. I went to Catholic school my entire life. My religion is a... big part of who I am.”

“That’s good to know,” Claire replied.

As they continued eating their breakfast quietly, Jamie berated himself for responding so strangely when she’d told him she was Jewish. And then to announce he was Catholic, like it was some kind of competition. Ye’re mucking this up good, ye fecking eejit, he said to himself in a voice that sounded eerily like his godfather, Murtagh’s.

The problem was, he couldn’t find a way out of it now, without sounding like an even bigger idiot. So he chewed his food silently, trying to think of anything to say to change the subject.

Luckily, Fergus chimed in. “How old are your nieces and nephews?”

Jamie relaxed and told them both all about his beloved nieces and nephews. Jenny had three children, six-year-old JJ, four-year-old Maggie, and two-year-old Kitty. His brother Willie also had three, seven-year-old Brian, five-year-old Ellen, and three-year-old Alex. “For a while, it felt like all I did was buy baby presents and attend baptisms,” he joked. “But I love them all verra much, and I miss them.”

Claire reached over and grabbed his hand under the table. He squeezed it back before she could realize what she’d done and pull back.  

“Maybe I’ll get to meet them someday!” Fergus said excitedly.

Claire shook her head and stood to clear the dishes. “My social butterfly,” she said, rolling her eyes. She set the dirty dishes next to the sink.

“Do ye want help washing those?” Jamie asked, getting up from his chair.

“Oh no,” Claire said, waving a hand in dismissal. “I’ll take care of them later.”

“I’ll just wash them now, ” Jamie said, moving toward her. “It’s no bother.”

Claire squinted at him mischievously and stood her ground. “It’s fine. They can sit.”

“I really don’t mind.” He walked up to the counter and gently nudged her, but she didn’t move.

Instead, she raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh, I know you don’t mind doing them,” she teased. “But I think you very much mind leaving a pile of dirty dishes in the sink.”

“Ye didna even put them in the sink, ” he hissed, “They’re just piled on the counter.”

Her shoulders began shaking in silent laughter. “What are you going to do about it?”

They were at a stalemate, eyes locked, each waiting for the other to make a move. Finally, Jamie put his hands on Claire’s waist and picked her up , spinning around and setting her back down several feet away from the sink. Then, he turned his back to her and started running the water.

“Fine, you win this time,” she said. “But you’ll at least let me help you.”

He stepped aside so she could join him at the double sink as she began rinsing and drying the dishes. They didn’t speak the entire time, but their bodies were close, their arms and hands brushing up against each other. Jamie wondered if Claire felt the same magnetic pull as he did  or if she got butterflies when they touched. 

When they finished the dishes, Claire went to get dressed while Jamie stayed downstairs working on the Legos with Fergus. "I need to go find some pieces," Fergus told him. "I'll be right back!"

As Fergus scurried off, Jamie stood and stretched his legs. “I ought to get going,” he told Claire.

"Okay," she said, a hint of disappointment in her voice. "Get some rest today. And if you need Monday off, that's fine too."

“I feel fine, Claire. Really.” He moved closer to her and grabbed her hand. They were so delicate, but he knew from the day before that they were also strong and capable. Just like her. “Thank you,” he said. “You truly saved my life last night.”

“After I almost killed you,” she replied, tossing her head back nervously.

“We’ll call it even.”

“Even though we spent most of it in the hospital, it was still one of the best first dates of my life,” he told her.

“Oh, was that what that was?” she asked. “A date?”

He moved his face close to hers, quickly licking his lips. “Aye,” he said, his lips hovering just above hers. 

“EWWWWWWW!!!!” Fergus yelled. 

Jamie and Claire pulled away, both jumping back. “Alright,” Jamie said. “It's best I get home.”

"Can I walk him to his car, Mama?" Fergus asked.

Claire nodded and Fergus opened the door to head out. Jamie started to follow but was pulled back by Claire. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him chastely on the cheek. "Next time," she whispered before letting go of his arm. Then, she gestured for him to go ahead. 

His mind reeled as he walked to the car. The wee vixen had gotten him completely under her power. And he was happy to be there.

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The following Monday was the scene of chaos that it always was. Claire had meant to pick out an outfit, pack Fergus’s lunch, and put some overnight oats in the fridge, but she’d instead had an emergency video chat with Gillian to analyze her date with Jamie. Every gesture, every word was scrutinized in excruciating detail. They’d both come to the conclusion that Jamie was definitely into her and she was definitely into him, but what to do beyond that was still a mystery. She had no idea what to expect of Jamie when she saw him at the shop; all she knew is that her stomach was doing pleasant flips in anticipation of it.

She made it out the door with just enough time to spare to pull into the McDonald’s Drive-Thru and grab Fergus some breakfast. Even the drop-off line gods were in her favor, and she made it to the door with enough time to spare that she wouldn’t be late for work.

As Fergus was collecting his bag and climbing out the door, Claire spotted Laoghaire, the PTA president walking in her direction. “Hurry,” she hissed at Fergus, whose backpack strap got caught in the seatbelt. She was debating whether or not she would have to put the car in park and get out to help him when he finally got them untangled.

Phew.

She blew him a kiss as he skipped off and turned ahead so she could get out of there, but it was too late. Laoghaire was already on the driver’s side, tapping the window. Claire smiled politely and rolled it down. “Hi, Laoghaire. Good to see you. I probably shouldn’t hold up the line --”

“I’ll just be a minute, Claire,” Laoghaire interrupted. “Was that McDonald’s I saw Fergus carrying?” she made a small clucking sound with her tongue. “You know, we do strongly discourage parents from sending in their children with unhealthy food.”

Claire rolled her eyes. “Sorry, Laoghaire, I’ll certainly try better next time. Is that all?”

“No,” she replied, peering nosily into Claire’s car, “I came to remind you that you’re signed up to help at the Halloween party. I figured you might have forgotten. I don’t know how you working moms do it, just work, work, work with no time for anything else.”

Claire took a deep breath and clenched her teeth. “Thank you so much for the reminder. What do I have to do besides show up for the party and hand out cookies and juice?”

Laoghaire threw her head back in laughter. “Oh, Claire, you really crack me up. That’s a good one. Okay, so first of all, we don’t serve juice, only water, which you will be expected to provide.”

“Can’t they just...drink water out of the tap?”

Laoghaire laughed again. “Good one, Claire. Hilarious. So, anyway, you also have to plan the activities for the parties. And get the treats. But nothing homemade. And here’s a list of class allergies.” She handed Claire a piece of paper, which Claire immediately threw on the passenger seat.

“Alright, Laoghaire, I’m on it. Now, I really do have to go.” She rolled the window up and put on her blinker. Laoghaire stood dumbfounded for a moment and then jumped away when Claire eased her foot off the gas.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” Claire mumbled under her breath as she drove away.

***

By the time she got to the shop, she’d mostly forgotten about Laoghaire and was again focused on seeing Jamie. He was leaning against the wall, as usual, coffee in hand. It had barely been a week, and she'd already come to depend on seeing him there.

He handed her the coffee, and she handed him a set of keys. "Your own set of keys," she said. "At least until you get the security system installed."

"Thank ye, Claire," he replied, taking them from her hand. He turned and opened the door, holding it for her to step in first.

After Claire set her bag on the counter, Jamie stood awkwardly by the door to his office. "So, erhm, how did you feel the rest of the day yesterday?" she asked.

"Fine, fine. No issues," he replied.

“Good. That's good."

They both stood there, neither knowing what to say. The silence was deafening and Claire desperately wished she could disappear into the wall.

Jamie glanced at his watch. "Well, erhm, I best get to work."

"Oh, um, me too." Claire started shuffling around some of the merchandise under the counter while Jamie slipped into his office.

As soon as his door was shut, Claire sighed and slumped over on the counter. What the fuck was wrong with them? How could they be so flirty and comfortable with each other at her house but then so terribly awkward at work?

Jamie stayed shut in his office for most of the morning, only emerging once, with a stack of paper invoices in his hands. "Do ye ken this supplier has been charging ye incorrectly for months?" he asked.

Claire glanced up from where she’d been working on a display. "Hmmmm...no, in fact, I didn't."

Jamie sighed and ran the palm of his hand down his face. "It's a significant amount of money."

"Well, can you get it back?" she asked.

"Oh ye're damn right I'll be getting it back. Bastards. Though ye would have noticed it if ye paid any attention," he said, raising his eyebrow at her.

She stood up straight and put her arms on her hips. "Well, that's why I have you now."

Jamie made a grumbling sound low in his throat. It was nearly impossible to discern its meaning, but Claire noticed his lip twitching upward in the corner. In an attempt to hide his amusement, he turned around and went back into his office. Claire watched him, equal parts admiring his ass and wondering when he was going to have the stick removed from it.

As they were leaving for the day, Jamie informed her that the security system would be installed on Friday. They said polite goodbyes and went their separate ways.

***

If Claire had any time, she would have spent the rest of the week spiraling out about Jamie, but she, fortunately, had other things to worry about. Her Uncle Lamb would be arriving that weekend, along with a truckload of his belongings.

He'd rented a townhouse just down the block from hers, and when she wasn't working, Claire spent most of the week running around, trying to make sure everything was arranged. Not only did she have to make sure that things like the electricity were turned on, but she also had to consider that Lamb had been living the life of a nomad for the better part of forty-five years. She wasn't even sure he would have a coffee maker that worked, amongst all his treasures.

On Friday, the security system people were at the store first thing in the morning, so she had to work around them and Jamie, who had clearly taken it upon himself to personally oversee their work. Claire wasn't sure who he was driving more mad: her or the security people.

All morning, Claire apologized to customers as they dodged dangling wires and men clad in blue polo shirts. Finally, they left right before noon.

Jamie called Claire out to the front of the store to show her how the system worked. "No more keys needed," he told her proudly. "Ye just punch in yer wee code and the door clicks right open," he demonstrated.

"Pretty cool," Claire said. "What's the code?"

Jamie showed her again and she scrunched up her nose. "Can't we make it something easier to remember? Like my birthday?"

Jamie looked scandalized. "Ye canna do that, Claire. Christ."

"Fine," she sighed. "I'll write it on a slip of paper and put it in my purse."

"What if someone robbed ye on yer way in and found the slip of paper?" Jamie went on. "Ye just have to remember it."

"OK ok!" she threw her arms up in defeat. "Anything else I need to know?"

He explained how the system worked. If anyone tried to enter the store they had three chances to enter the correct password. After that, the police would automatically be called. "They'll call you, too," he told her. "So that ye can meet the police there. Ye'll have to use the code to disarm the system."

"Got it," she said, giving him a thumbs up.

He looked at her skeptically and nodded. "Ye ken the passcode?" he asked.

Claire rattled it off and even showed him by entering into the keypad. "See?" she said, rolling her eyes. She'd had it with him constantly treating her like an airhead. She was a doctor, for christ's sake! "I'm not a total idiot, Jamie."

He looked taken aback. "I never said ye were, Claire. I wouldn't."

"Well...good. Now if you'll excuse me. I'm going to get some lunch and clear my head."

She brushed past him, walking away before he could say another word.

***

The usual disorder of Claire's evening routine was made all the worse by a text she received from her Uncle. She'd planned to get up early the next day and buy a few last-minute items for him before swinging by the airport to pick him up. The moving truck bringing his items from his apartment in Boston would arrive Sunday.

According to his text, however, he'd gotten an earlier flight and would arrive at the airport early Saturday morning. And apparently, so would the moving truck. In fact, it had always intended to be there on Saturday; somehow Claire had got it in her head wrong.

After a quick dinner, she and Fergus jumped in the car so she could finish her shopping for Lamb. She hated taking him out after his bedtime, but there wasn't much she could do in her situation, and at least it wasn't a school night.

They went to Target first; Claire got Fergus some popcorn and a Sprite to keep him happy while they did their shopping. Everything was going fine until she rounded the corner of one of the aisles and ran straight into Laoghaire.

"Claire!" the blonde woman exclaimed. She was, of course, still looking fresh and neat, her hair perfectly straightened. Claire looked down at her own sweatpants and t-shirt and wanted to sink into the floor. "It's nice to see you. Though I hope you're not shopping for those Halloween treats now. The party isn't for another week — wouldn't want things to go stale!"

"No, we wouldn't want that, would we? I really must be going, Laoghaire." Claire tried to push the cart around her but Laoghaire wouldn't budge.

"Oh, I see you've got Fergus with you too. And so late! I guess that's what you single moms have to do though, isn't it? Thank God for my husband…"

Claire sighed in frustration. "Laoghaire, it's late. I need to get going."

"Alright, but I do want to remind you that you still haven't paid your PTA dues yet." She lowered her voice. "Now I do understand that money might be tight given your...situation, so if you need —"

"It's fine, Laoghaire! I have it!" Claire yanked her wallet out of her purse. She tried to open it but the zipper stuck and she gave it a hard yank. The wallet flew open, sending money, credit cards, receipts, business cards, and a few mints flying in the air.

Trying to maintain her dignity, Claire grasped the first ten dollar bill she saw on the floor and thrust it at Laoghaire. She quickly gathered everything else up and made a mad dash to the registers.

The rest of the shopping took longer than she anticipated and it was nine o'clock by the time she loaded up the last bags from the last store into the trunk of her car. Fergus was already half-asleep in the back. She checked her messages and saw she had a text from Lamb.

Make sure you have some of your mj available for me. I need it for my arthritis.

Claire rolled her eyes and threw her phone on the passenger seat. He'd just have to make do with what she had at home. However, the guilt ate away at her, knowing that she had a much better product for treating pain at the store. She took an impromptu detour and headed in that direction.

***

Jamie was laying in bed wide awake, trying to figure out where he'd gone wrong with Claire. He knew he could be a bit of a know-it-all, but he'd never meant to insult her intelligence. He was just trying to do his job well, but apparently, he'd mucked it all up.

The phone on his nightstand rang, and he fumbled for it.

Claire.

"Hello? Claire? Lass, slow down, I dinna understand ye." He was already out of bed and throwing his shoes on. "Claire, I'm coming. Dinna fash. I'll be right there."

***

"My business manager is on his way," Claire said, her voice raw and wavering. "Can you please let me go check on my son? He's asleep in the car!"

"I'll go check on him, Ma'am," Officer Mohr, the slightly nicer policeman, told her.

Claire sighed and gave him a description of her car. When he walked away, she turned to Officer MacKenzie and sneered at him. "You're going to feel pretty foolish when we get this all straightened out," she told him haughtily.

The rotund man continued to glare at her. "We'll see if this 'business manager' of yours shows up," he replied, using air quotes. "And this better not be some kind of set up."

"Do I look like a criminal mastermind to you?" she asked, exasperated. Officer MacKenzie shrugged.

Officer Mhor came back from the parking lot. "Yer son is fine, ma'am. Sleeping like a baby," he told her.

"Be a shame that we’ll have to call social services when we arrest you," Officer MacKenzie chimed in.

Determined not to cry, Claire lifted her chin and stared back at him until he finally looked away. Coward, she thought.

Just then, she saw headlights in the parking lot. Seconds later, Jamie came running toward them. Claire felt her entire body relax. She knew everything would be okay.

She wanted to run toward him and throw herself against his broad, muscular chest, but she held herself back. Jamie had no such inhibitions. He slowed down as he approached them, but ignored the officers and put his arms around Claire as soon as he was close enough. "Are ye alright?" he whispered. She nodded, her face buried in his chest.

"Officers, do ye mean to tell me what this is all about?" he asked, his arms still holding on to her protectively.

The two cops tried to get the upper hand with Jamie, but he was running circles around them in seconds. "Ye mean to tell me that ye threatened to arrest this woman with no evidence of malfeasance?" He launched into a legal diatribe listing all the things they'd done improperly in handling the situation. Claire still held tight to Jamie and listened proudly to him go up one side of them and down the other.

In the end, they verified with the security company that Jamie was one of the names on the account, checked his identification, and let them go. The security company disarmed the system remotely, and Jamie reset the lock before turning back to Claire. "What happened?" he asked.

"Walk back to the parking lot with me," she told him. "Fergus is asleep in the car. I'll tell you everything."

Jamie looped his arm around her waist as they walked. When they got to her car she peeked in and saw that Fergus was still sleeping soundly. Jamie was leaning against the side of the car and she joined him, standing next to him. "Don't be mad at me." she started.

"Claire, I'm not mad at ye," he told her. "Just tell me what happened."

She told him about her Uncle, the shopping trip, and Laoghaire. She explained how she'd swung by the store to pick up something for Lamb and left Fergus sleeping in the car while she went around to the front of the store to let herself in. "I was sure I remembered the code. But I kept getting it wrong. And I forgot about the police getting called after three incorrect codes. I feel so stupid."

"Ye're no’ stupid," Jamie said gently.

Claire ignored him and went on, "So the police showed up but I didn't have my ID on me, so they threatened to arrest me. Christ, what a mess!"

"What happened to yer ID?" he asked.

"I must have dropped it at Target when I dropped everything. God, I'm such a mess! Thank you so much for coming down here, Jamie. I'm so sorry if I ruined your evening."

Jamie chuckled then. "Claire, look at me."

For the first time since he'd arrived, she noticed the plaid pajama pants and t-shirt he wore. She looked up at his face and smiled when she saw that he was wearing glasses. "I guess you didn't have any better plans then," she teased. "But really, Jamie. I am sorry that I'm such a disaster."

"Weel," he said, mischief dancing in his eyes, "ye are a bit of a disaster, but I dinna mind."

She elbowed him playfully and then stood up straight. "I better get going," she told him. "I have to be up early tomorrow and figure out how I'm going to meet Lamb's moving van and get him from the airport."

"Who's helping ye tomorrow, Claire?" Jamie asked.

"Oh, it'll just be me, Lamb, and Fergus. We'll figure it out."

"What time do you need me there?" Jamie asked.

"Jamie, I couldn't impose on you like that."

He grabbed her arm gently and pulled her close. "Don't you realize by now that ye're anything but an imposition?"

She breathed heavily, her heart thumping so loud in her chest, she was afraid Jamie could hear. He could most certainly feel it. "I just don't...I mean...I wasn't sure how you felt about me."

He placed his hand under her chin and lifted it, leaning down until his lips met hers. She reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck, melting against him. It wasn't anything like the frenzied kiss they'd shared before. This kiss was slow and gentle but full of passion and promises.

When he finally pulled away, Claire stood breathless as Jamie asked, "Does that answer your question?"

She nodded slowly. "I suppose it does."

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Despite the early hour and the long day ahead, Jamie bounded up to the front door of Claire’s house with all the energy of a puppy. He carefully balanced the box of donuts and tray of coffee in one arm and reached out with the other to ring the doorbell.

After a moment, he heard the deadbolt clock open, but when the door wedged open, there was no one there. That was, until he looked down. Fergus was peeking his little curly head out,  looking up at Jamie. “Good morning, lad,” Jamie greeted him.

“Hi Mr. Jamie,” he said sweetly. “Are those donuts?”

“They sure are. And there’s plenty for all of us.”

Fergus closed the door briefly, and Jamie heard the chain sliding in the lock. Then, Fergus opened the door and stepped aside for Jamie. He patted the little boy's head and walked into the kitchen, taking a plate down from the cupboard. “Here,” he said, opening the donut box, “You can have first pick.”

Fergus climbed into his chair and peered into the box and plucked out the donut smeared with chocolate frosting and sprinkles. “Where’s yer Ma?” Jamie asked him, looking around for any sign of Claire.

“Still sleeping, ” Fergus told him through a mouthful of donut.

“Do ye know when she plans on waking up?” he asked.

Fergus shook his head.  “No, and you better not wake her up because Mama will probably be really mad. She doesn’t like to get up early.”

Jamie grunted. “She told me to be here at seven.”

Fergus shrugged and continued eating his donut. Jamie sat down at the table and looked at his watch. 6:58. Perhaps her alarm hadn’t gone off yet. He took a deep breath and sipped his coffee. “Are ye excited to see yer Uncle today?” he asked.

“Yeah, I guess,”  Fergus said. He was much more interested in his donut than having a conversation with Jamie.

Jamie tapped his left thigh with his fingers impatiently and sipped his coffee, checking his watch several times a minute. Finally, at 7:05, he stood up and announced. “I’m going to wake her up.” 

He picked up the donuts and coffee and headed up the stairs. He was fairly certain hers was the first room at the top of the stairs, and he knocked softly on the door. When there was no answer, he cracked it open quietly and peeked in.

Claire was sprawled across the entire bed under her blanket, her hair splayed wild against the pillows. She wore a mask over her eyes, and Jamie shook his head. She was ridiculous, but so breathtakingly beautiful. He immediately forgave her for sleeping in.  “Claire,” he whispered.

She groaned and rolled over, pulling the blanket over her head. He glanced at his watch and shook his head. They only had two hours before she needed to be at the airport, and he needed to meet the moving van. “Claire,” he said again, a little more loudly than the last time. “I’ve got donuts and coffee.”

He heard a muffled moan, a sound he associated with a bear waking up from hibernation. Then, from under the covers, she asked, “Are they from Manley’s?”

“Aye, they are. And fresh.”

Claire tossed the blanket off and pushed the mask up on top of her head. “What time is it?”

Jamie glanced at his watch “7:08.”

“Let me guess, you got here at 6:55 ?” She sat up and moved toward the center of the bed, gesturing for him to join her.

He hesitated, suddenly feeling strange about being in her room while she was still in her pajamas.

“Come on,” she said. “I promise my reputation is already ruined.” 

Jamie laughed, relaxing a little, and entered the room. He took a seat on the bed and handed a coffee to her. Her body was still warm from sleep and he had to fight the urge to curl up with her  and throw the covers over both their heads. Instead, he grabbed the box of donuts and opened it, holding it in front of her. “Does yer son let in any strange man that comes bearing donuts?”

“Oh, I’m not that neglectful of a mum,” she replied, plucking a jelly filled donut from the box. She took a bite and Jamie shot his hand out to catch the bit of jelly that squirted out one end . “I taught him to always make sure he checks to see if they’re from Manley’s first.”

Jamie laughed, looking around for something to wipe his jelly covered hand on. Instead, Claire scooped the blob of jelly off the palm  of his hand with one finger and popped it into her mouth. Jamie looked away and tried to think about anything that would prevent the erection he was dangerously close to having. Amongst the mess on her nightstand was a book, and he picked it up, glancing at the cover. “Stephen King? Ye a fan?”

Claire nodded vigorously. “He’s one of my favorite authors. Do you like his stuff?”

Jamie shrugged. “I prefer Lovecraft for horror, but King does pull a lot from Lovecraft in his books, so I’ve read a few. A bit derivative , but entertaining.”

Claire rolled her eyes and snatched the book from his hands. “You must be a lot of fun at parties ,” she teased.

“I’m more of a one-on-one kind of guy,” he replied.

She sipped her coffee and set it down on the nightstand. “Will there be an opportunity for me to witness your amazing one-on-one skills tonight?” 

Jamie cleared his throat and he could feel his face turning red all the way to the tips of his ears. “I’d like to spend some time wi’ ye tonight,” he told her. “Claire, I -”

“Stop,” she interrupted. “I know we have a lot to talk about, but let’s wait until tonight. I need to get through today before I can focus on that conversation.”

Jamie nodded and picked a donut out of the box. “Not another word,” he said before taking a bite. “Tonight.”

***

By the time Claire and Fergus were showered, dressed, and ready to go, it was time for Claire to leave for the airport. She gave Jamie instructions on getting to Lamb’s new house, just down the block and around the corner,  and suggested Jamie load the items she’d purchased in his car and drive them over.

“Fergus, you can help us load the car, and then we have to leave to get Uncle Lamb,” Claire told him.

Fergus looked up, his face smeared with chocolate from another donut. “Can’t I stay and help Mr. Jamie with the movers?”

She glanced at Jamie, who nodded. “Well, I suppose so. I guess you’ll have to keep my car, since his booster is in the back.”

“Aye,” Jamie agreed. “You can take mine.” He reached into his pocket, hesitated a moment,  and then handed them to her. “I hope ye don’t drive like a maniac.”

Claire laughed, though Jamie noticed that she didn’t actually answer him.  Instead she said, “Come on, let’s carry the rest of the stuff out to my car.”

They gathered up and carried everything out to Claire’s car and placed it in the trunk. “Thank you, again, for all your help,” Claire said, grasping Jamie’s hand and giving it a squeeze. He took the opportunity to pull her close and kiss her softly.

"I don't know how you do that," she said after he pulled away.

"Do what?"

"Take my breath away."

Jamie blushed a deep shade of red. "I wish I knew. Ye do the same to me. "

Claire stood on her tiptoes again and gave him another kiss. "More on that later," she teased.

"Aye, but until then, drive safely please. I'll see ye in a couple hours?"

They parted ways and Claire climbed into Jamie’s SUV. He watched helplessly as she backed out of the driveway, running over the lawn and nearly crashing into a car parked by the curb.  When she had the car straightened out on the road, she rolled down the window and called out, "It's a lot bigger than my Prius!"

Jamie took a deep breath and waved back, resigning himself to the fact that his entire life would be a wild ride with Claire Beauchamp in it. 

***

Jamie and Fergus arrived at Lamb's empty home ahead of the movers and got to work bringing in the items Claire bought. Fergus turned out to be an eager helper and fairly good company.

They brought in everything Claire had purchased and even set up some of the small appliances. The moving truck arrived at nine and Jamie, given no other instructions by Claire, took charge and had the movers place furniture and boxes where he guessed they belonged. Fergus followed the movers around, ensuring they carried out Jamie's orders.

By the time Claire arrived with Lamb, the movers were almost finished bringing everything in. Having lived a nomadic life, Lamb's apartment in Boston had little furniture, and the bulk of the items consisted of boxes full of years’ worth of mementos from archeological digs. When he walked in the door, he headed straight for the boxes piled in the living room, carefully checking the labels on each one.

"He's a bit of a nutty professor type," Claire said, sidling up to Jamie and looping her arm around his. "He'll notice you and introduce himself soon."

"Everything go alright?" he asked her.

"If you're asking if I crashed your car, the answer is no," she answered, looking up at him and smiling.

Her smile was contagious and drove him mad. He started to bend down and kiss her but quickly remembered they were amongst mixed company and pulled away. She squeezed his arm in a promise for later.

Finally, Lamb turned around and noticed Jamie. "Is this the young man you couldn't stop talking about, Claire-bear?" 

Claire's cheeks turned bright pink. "Uncle Lamb, this is Jamie Fraser. Jamie, my Uncle Lamb."

Jamie extended a hand out. "Pleased to meet ye."

Lamb took his hand eagerly. "A Scot! Wonderful! Scotland is a great area of interest for me. Their history of Paganism and how it's still such a large part of the belief system of the Highlands fascinates me!"

"One of Uncle Lamb's specialities is ancient religions," Claire explained.

"Come with me," Lamb said, taking Jamie's arm and leading him away. "I'd like to get your perspective on a few things. Now if I could only find that one box…" His voice trailed off as he began to look through the boxes again.

Jamie shot Claire a "Help me!" look, but she just smiled and shrugged. Apparently, he was on his own.

***

Except for a brief lunch break, they spent most of the day helping Lamb unpack. It took twice as long as it should have since both Lamb and Claire were prone to getting distracted in the middle of their tasks. One unpacked item would send them off on a tangent of memories.

Jamie suppressed the urge to rush them too much. Though it pained him to see things being done so inefficiently,  he was also glad to hear their stories and get a glimpse into Claire's life growing up.

She'd been a bit of a wild child, from what Jamie could discern. She’d grown up without roots, traveling from place to place with her distracted Uncle and an ever-changing cast of graduate students. Seeing her Uncle in action gave him all the insight he needed into Claire's freewheeling spirit.

At dinner time, Claire collapsed on the couch, the last box of essentials unpacked. There were still many boxes of treasures, as Lamb called them, but he would unpack those over the next several weeks. "Should we order pizza?" she asked.

“Yes!” Fergus answered enthusiastically.

“Well, I guess that settles that,” Jamie teased.

Claire brought up the food delivery app on her phone and picked her favorite pizza. “I’ll get a large veggie lovers. Anything else?” Lamb shook his head, but Fergus and Jamie both crinkled their noses. “And what would you like, boys?”

“Plain cheese,” Fergus replied.

“Meat Lovers,” Jamie answered.

Fergus looked at Jamie in awe.  Claire had never bought them anything but plain or veggie pizza. “I changed my mind. I want the meat lovers too,” he said with a firm nod.

“Fine, just this once.” She shook her head at Jamie. “You’re a terrible influence,” she teased.

“And you have terrible taste,” he replied.

She rolled her eyes at him and finished placing the order.

When the pizza came, they gathered around the dinner table together. They all spoke at once and laughed at each other’s stories. Claire couldn’t remember a time when she’d been happier.

During a brief lull in the conversation, Fergus looked at Jamie and asked, “Are you Mama’s boyfriend?”

Claire nearly choked on her pizza, and picked her glass up quickly to take a sip. Lamb looked on with great interest as Jamie’s face turned red and he cleared his throat. “Um...do you think I’m your Mama’s boyfriend?” 

Smooth, Fraser, Claire thought, covering her mouth to suppress a giggle.

Fergus shrugged. “I saw you kissing her.”

Claire’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. “When?” Though he’d caught them about to kiss, they hadn’t actually been kissing, and she was fully prepared to base her entire argument on that one distinction.

“This morning,” Fergus replied. “I saw you kissing out by your car, Mama.”

Claire glanced at Jamie and shrugged. There was no arguing that one.

“Well,” Jamie said finally, “do ye think I should be your Mama’s boyfriend?”

“I think if you’re gonna kiss my Mama like that, you should be her boyfriend .”

Lamb looked like he was going to choke, and Claire’s eyes were watering with the effort not to laugh. Jamie shook his head at both of them.

“I suppose if your Mama wants me to be her boyfriend and it’s alright with you, then I’ll be her boyfriend. Claire?”

“Fine by me,”  Claire answered as nonchalantly as possible.

Fergus sat back in his chair grinning at the two of them, and though Claire tried to keep a straight face, she couldn’t suppress her blushing cheeks or the satisfied grin her lips felt drawn into against her will.

***

Soon after dinner, Claire, Jamie, and Fergus headed back to Claire’s house. Fergus fell asleep in the car on the short drive. Jamie carried him in for Claire, climbing the stairs and settling him on the bed. “I’ll just be downstairs,” he whispered, excusing himself to allow Claire to tuck him in.

When Claire came back downstairs a few minutes later, Jamie was sitting on the couch waiting for her. "Would you like some wine?" she asked.

"Aye, thank ye," he replied.

She went into the kitchen to pour the wine, and then joined him in the living room. "Cheers," she said, clinking her glass against his.

"Slainte."

They both sipped the wine and then Claire smiled at Jamie. “Boyfriend, huh? I guess that makes me your girlfriend?” Secretly, she was thankful to Fergus for breaking the ice on the conversation.

“I suppose it’s an upgrade from Business Manager,” Jamie replied.

“Is this crazy?” Claire asked. “I’ve only known you for two weeks, we work together, my divorce isn’t even final yet…”

Her left hand was resting on her thigh, and Jamie reached over, placing his on top of hers.  They both relaxed a little at the comfort of each other's touch.  “Don’t you think I’ve already gone over all the reasons why this shouldn’t be happening a million times?”

“That would be very on brand for you,” she laughed. “So what did you conclude?”

“After careful analysis of the plethora of reasons why I should not pursue this, there was only one reason why I should.”

“And that was?”

“I’m absolutely mad for ye.” 

Claire’s heartbeat quickened as Jamie leaned in to kiss her. But at the last moment he stopped himself, eliciting an annoyed groan from Claire.

“I’m sorry, Claire. There’s just something you need to know  before we truly make this leap.”

Claire took a big gulp of her wine, waiting for the catch, hoping that whatever he had to tell her wasn’t as bad as what she was imagining. “Go on,” she said.

Jamie reached over and pushed a stray curl behind her ear. "I haven't dated anyone in a verra long time. Not since college."

"Since college? Why not?" she inquired, trying not to let her nervousness show.

"Well, I dated a woman, Annalise, all through college and some of law school. I had our whole lives together planned out. I thought we'd get married, have kids, the whole thing. I even bought a ring. Then she cheated on me." Claire gasped and gripped his hand in hers. "I was heart sore for a verra long time after that, and then I graduated and passed the bar. I got my first job as a lawyer. It was easier to bury myself in my work than put myself out there.

"I went on a few dates over the years, usually when John or someone fixed me up, but they never went any further than a date or two. And then somewhere along the way, I decided that I wasn't going to waste my time with anyone who I couldn't see a future with.”

“And you see that now? With me?” Claire asked.

“I’m no’ trying to scare ye,” he went on. “I haven’t gone and bought a ring or anything. But yes, I can see a future for us. It may be down the road a bit, but I can see it.”

“Is that all?” Claire asked. “That doesn’t seem so bad.”

“No, there’s more,” he sighed. “The reason Annalise cheated on me, and the reason things fizzled out with the few women I did go on dates with is that…” He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Claire, I’m a virgin. And I intend to stay that way until I get married.” 

Claire stared ahead nodding her head slowly, absorbing the information.

“If that’s no’ something you can deal with Claire, I’d rather ye tell me now.”

Finally, she took a deep breath. “My ex,  Frank, was my first serious boyfriend. He was charming, smart, and handsome. I had very little experience with men, having spent my teens at a very conservative Jewish boarding school, so I had nothing to compare him to and absolutely no example of a healthy relationship to draw on.

"I married him right out of undergrad, and at first things were okay. I was so busy with medical school that I hardly noticed anything was off. But as time went on, he started to act miserably toward me.

"I thought if I gave him a child, that would make him happy, but things just got worse. He was controlling, manipulative, and arrogant. He analyzed every one of my flaws, no matter how inconsequential, and made sure that I knew that I was lucky he put up with me. He made me feel so small.

"It took me a year of therapy before I had the nerve to leave him, and another year after that to start to feel like myself again. I honestly didn't know if I ever wanted to date again. To let another man into my life, open myself up and be vulnerable, terrified me."

She reached out and cupped his face in her hands. "But with you, it's like I don't have a choice. My stupid heart opened up to you almost the second I saw you, Jamie. I couldn't walk away now, even if I wanted to."  

She leaned in and kissed him, feeling the tension in both their bodies melt away. Jamie put his arms around her and tangled his hands in her curls, deepening the kiss.

When they finally pulled apart, they rested their foreheads together. "I don't know what the rules are for dating a good Catholic boy," Claire said. "I don't know what your limits are. And you don't have to tell me just now. Maybe we just take it slow, and figure things out as we go along?"

"Aye, that sounds good, Claire," he replied, pulling her in close. "Slow."

Her heart pounded against his chest. "Slow," she whispered, already breathless.

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Claire drove Fergus to school on Monday with a smile on her face that had been plastered there since Saturday night. She sat in the drop off line reliving the evening over and over.

"Aye, that sounds good, Claire," he replied, pulling her in close. "Slow."

Her heart pounded against his chest. "Slow," she whispered, already breathless.

He'd kissed her so tenderly then, reverently. In that small, sweet moment, she felt more cared for than she had through her entire marriage. In his strong arms she felt safe for the first time in years.

These feelings inside her were stirring quickly, but she wouldn't, couldn't, run away from them. Instead, she leaned in, placing her heart in this man's strong yet gentle hands.

Jamie pulled away first and stared into her eyes. "Christ, ye're lovely. His fingers grasped one of her curls, and he twirled it around, pulling it straight and letting it spring back. "Mo nighean donn."

"What does that mean?"

Jamie chuckled quietly. "My brown-haired lass. It's Gaelic."

"I didn't know you spoke Gaelic."

"I spoke it much more as a child. My parents thought it was important we not lose our heritage. But since I've lived here, I havena had much use for it." He leaned forward and kissed her forehead, his lips lingering a moment. "Sometimes, though, English doesna do justice to what I'm trying to say."

"There's so much we don't know about each other yet."

"Aye, and I canna wait to learn all of it."

Eventually they'd wound up curled up together on the couch watching Parks and Rec. Jamie's hands were always touching her: playing with her hair, holding her hand, caressing her arm. It was perfectly innocent yet it had felt so intimate.

"Mama!!!" Fergus's voice broke through her distracted mind. She focused into reality and realized there were car horns blaring all around her. "Mama! The line moved. You have to go!"

Claire put her foot on the gas to move forward just as an impatient car that had pulled out to go around her cut into the lane. She slammed on the breaks but it was too late; the other car had cut it way too closely. The other car scraped alongside Claire's front bumper.

"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!" She slammed her hand on the steering wheel and threw the car into park. "Are you alright, Fergus?"

He sat wide-eyed in the back seat but nodded his head. "I'm okay, Mama."

"Good, now stay here for a moment. I'll be right back."

She unbuckled her seatbelt and stepped out of the car, temper flaring. The other driver stepped out of her car as well, and Claire screamed internally when she saw the perfectly coiffed hair and giant tits of Laoghaire. “What the hell are you doing?” Claire yelled.

Laoghaire put her hand to her heart as if her sensibilities had been insulted. “What am I doing? What the hell were you doing?”

“Are you really that impatient that you couldn’t wait one fucking second? Haven’t you ever been lost in thought before?” Claire tilted her head to the side and gave Loaghaire a look of mock sympathy. “Oh how silly of me. I forgot you had to have a fucking brain to get lost in thought!”

Laoghaire’s face turned bright red — Claire could practically see the steam coming out of her ears. She moved away from her car, closer to Claire. Her attempt to be intimidating failed when she realized that Claire was about six inches taller than her, but she forged ahead anyway. She leaned in close and, through clenched teeth, said, “You stupid, fucking hippie trash.”

Before she could even think about it, Claire’s hand reached out and slapped Laoghaire across the cheek. Laoghaire gasped and held her hand to her face, turning away from Claire.

“Ladies, ladies!” Principal Menzies came running toward them, waving his arm. “This is no way to behave in front of the children. Both of you get your children and send them inside. Then, I want you back in your cars until the police come to do an accident report."

Both women stared each other down until, finally, Laoghaire turned around and slunk back to her car. Claire turned on her heel triumphantly and walked back to the car. She opened the back door and smiled at Fergus. "Alright darling, you can go into school now."

"Mama, you slapped Mrs. MacKimmie."

"Well, Mrs. MacKimmie was being very mean to me. Now go on and have a great day."

Fergus climbed out of the car slowly, and Claire gave him a kiss on the cheek before letting him run off. As soon as she watched him go safely inside, she got back into the driver's seat and picked up the phone.

"Claire? Where are ye? We're about to open any minute. Is everything alright?"

She sighed and leaned her head back on the seat. "Um, well, I got into a minor car accident. And a fight. I slapped Laoghaire."

"Claire if this is a joke, I'm going to be -"

She giggled and shook her head. "Oh I assure you it's no joke."

"Christ, are you and Fergus alright?"

"Yes, we're fine. I just...the side of my car is torn up. I'm going to need to take it to a body shop."

"I ken just the place; I'm friends with the owners. Nice guys and they'll send their tow truck as soon as I put in a call."

"Tow truck? I can just drive there. Text me the address."

"Are ye mad, woman? The frame could be bent. You text me the address where you are, and I'll have them come."

"Ok," she sighed, "it's going to be a while though. The principal called the police to do a report. You'll probably have to keep the shop closed until I get there."

"Don't worry; I can handle the shop."

"Are you sure about that?"

"Claire, I've got it handled. Just call me if the tow truck doesn't come." He paused and chuckled. "Or if ye need me to bail you out of jail."

"Haha, very funny. Wait, will they arrest me for slapping Laoghaire?"

"I hope not. I've known ye for three weeks and you've already been in trouble with the police twice now."

"Objection! I maintain the first time was your fault."

"Overruled."

"Jamie, are you sure you've got it covered at the store?"

"Aye, dinna fash. Everything will be fine."

***

Everything was not, in fact, fine, and within an hour, he came to the realization that he did not, in fact, have it handled. Claire had shown him how the register and debit card reader worked, but he was wholly unprepared for the number and level of questions that would be slung his way. He had an entirely new level of respect for the work Claire did there.

Jamie's mind reeled as a plump, grey-haired woman in her sixties who'd introduced herself as Mrs. Fitz grilled Jamie on the balance of THC to CBD for treatment of arthritis. "If ye come back this afternoon, I'm sure Claire will be able to help ye - "

The bell above the door rang, and Jamie looked up, relieved to see the new customer was John. "Excuse me, ma'am," he said, "I'll be right back with someone who can help you."

Jamie walked past the two other customers in the store and greeted John. "Thank God ye're here. I'm in over my heid."

John chuckled as he looked around the store. "Where is Claire?"

Jamie gave John a brief explanation of Claire's whereabouts. "She won't be here for another hour at least, John. Ye have to help me. Just help the customers find what they need until Claire gets back."

"Jamie," John protested, "I have to get back to the office."

Jamie had no choice but to beg. "Please. I don't want to disappoint Claire."

John's eyes softened. "You are totally gone for her, aren't you? I knew she would be good for you but I didn't imagine you losing your mind this quickly."

Jamie could feel the heat rising to his cheeks. "Never mind, I dinna need yer help if --"

"Oh, calm down, Mr Darcy. I'll help you. I just have to text Tom and let him know I'll be out longer than I thought."

As John got out his phone and sent a text to his assistant, Jamie sighed with relief. "Thank you. I'll run the register and you just help the customers find what they need."

The next hour flew by; Jamie had never realized how busy it was while he sat in his office all day. It was no wonder somebody as naturally disinclined toward paperwork would end up letting it fall to the wayside. The wee thing was probably exhausted by the end of the day.

The morning rush had just quieted down when the bell above the door rang again, and Claire entered. Jamie felt the familiar rush of butterflies at the sight of her. He stepped toward her, hesitating for just a moment when he realized John was there. Claire didn't seem to care though; she went straight for him, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her head on his chest.

Jamie wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. "Did everything go alright?"

"I have so much to tell you." She spoke into his chest, so muffled he could barely understand her. "I missed you."

"Wow," John cut in, holding his hands up in mock surprise, "I knew you two were going to be perfect for each other, but I never expected this so soon."

He walked around them, observing them like animals in a zoo. Claire reached out a hand and slapped him playfully. "Not long. What are you doing here anyway?"

"Saving Jamie's ass."

Claire pulled away and looked up at Jamie. "I thought you 'had it covered?'" she teased.

"I had no idea, Claire. He really did save my arse. We're hiring a couple employees right away. You can't keep doing this on your own."

"Do you see how he thinks he's the boss already?" she said, looking at John.

John backed away. "I'm staying out of this. I've got to get back to the office anyway."

"Thank ye, John. Truly," Jamie told him.

"It wasn't any bother," John said before walking out the door.

Jamie pulled Claire close and bent down to kiss her eagerly. She sighed and welcomed it, feeling the scruff on his face rub against her cheek as his tongue explored her mouth. His hands were beginning to slide down toward her arse when the bell rang.

They both jumped away quickly. Jamie stumbled his way to the backroom, running into the corner of the counter on his way. It jabbed him right between the legs and he doubled over, crying out "Iffrin!" as he practically crawled the rest of the way to his office.

***

At lunch time, they closed the shop and ate on one of the picnic tables across the parking lot. “So...tell me what happened,” he requested, biting into his philly cheesesteak.

“Oh my God,” she said, putting her fork down, “You are not even going to believe it. As soon as I got off the phone with you, Laoghaire took off in her car. Principal Menzies went chasing after her on foot until she went round the corner at the intersection. The police showed up then and he pointed them in the direction she went. So they took off and then I had to wait for another cop to come and take my statement. But can you believe she did that?”

“Abandoning the scene of an accident...hmmmppphhh. She’s hiding something for sure.”

Claire nodded. “Well, anyway, your tow truck guys came and towed me to the garage, and then your friend Ronny Sinclair drove me over to the shop. He said my car will likely be in for most of the week, so I’ll need you to take me to pick up Fergus tonight and bring us home, if that’s ok?”

Jamie nodded and opened his mouth to speak, but Claire quickly interjected. “Oh, and we’ll need to swing by Target on the way to grab a new booster seat."

"That's fine."

"And you can stay for dinner if you like," she said shyly.

He reached out and put his hand over hers, caressing it lightly with his thumb. "I'd love to."

"I missed you yesterday," Claire said softly. "Does that sound silly?"

"No, no, it doesn't. I missed ye too."

***

When they got back to the shop, Claire handed Jamie her purse. "Do you mind copying my license and insurance card?" she asked. "I'm going to need them for the insurance claim."

Jamie nodded and reached out to take the bag, but instead pulled her close. He was feeling less tentative with her every day, and he let his hands boldly roam to her ass, squeezing it between his hands like a ripe peach. She squealed and slapped his arm playfully but didn’t pull away when he bent down to kiss her.

“You have the roundest arse I’ve ever seen,” he told her after he pulled his lips from hers. He gave it one last squeeze before turning around walking back into his office.

Smiling to himself, something Jamie found himself doing a lot recently, he opened her purse and looked inside. It was a jumble of random items and he stared, trying to figure out the best way to even locate her wallet. Eventually, he opted to take out his phone and use the flashlight to help guide his way.

After much digging around and wondering why Claire would keep items such as a banana, a security badge from Boston Memorial, and a coat check ticket from 2014 in there, he finally located the wallet. He opened it and dug through masses of expired credit cards before finally finding the driver’s license.

Jamie couldn’t help but take a peek at it. For a driver’s license picture, it actually wasn’t too terrible. Claire looked young, perhaps around eighteen, and she was smiling, eschewing the rules boldly. He traced his hand over the picture, wondering what she must have been like then, so young and carefree, with her years of a terrible marriage, a successful but stressful career, and a brilliant but exhausting son, still ahead of her. His finger scanned across her birthdate and he gasped, quickly glancing at his watch.

Her birthday was Saturday and she hadn’t said a word. Immediately he got on the phone with John to make plans.

***

The week went by and, with Claire's vehicle in the body shop, Jamie continued to pick her up each morning. They drove Fergus to school and then went into work together. Every evening they repeated the same routine in reverse, ending with Jamie eating dinner at Claire's place.

After Fergus went to bed, they would sit on the couch, drinking wine and making out like a couple of teenagers. He would stay much too late, and then finally go home to sleep a few hours before starting it all again. He was exhausted but incredibly happy to spend so much time with her.

And still, she said nothing about her birthday. She didn't mention any weekend plans to him, and he began to worry that she already had some that didn't involve him. How foolish of him to think that he would be involved in her birthday plans.

Then, on Wednesday night, while they were cuddled up on the couch together, she casually asked him, "What do you want to do this weekend?"

"You don't have any plans?" he asked curiously.

"Who would I have plans with? You're the only person I spend time with."

He was still racking his brain on Thursday morning when he picked Claire and Fergus up in the morning. He hadn't even slept for the few hours he'd been home, wondering if he was losing his mind. Had he read the date on her license wrong? Did she not celebrate her birthday? If that were the case, he had a lot of plans to cancel.

After they dropped Fergus off at school, Jamie was about to pull the car away from the curb when a woman started waving at them, running over. "Who's that?"

"One of the other PTA moms," Claire told him, rolling her eyes. "Probably coming to collect more dues or tell me I've been volunteered to dress up as Santa at the Christmas party this year."

Before Jamie could ask a follow up question, the blonde woman was knocking on Claire's window. "Hi Maggie," she said unenthusiastically as she rolled the car window down.

"Claire, I have to….oh, who is this?" The tall brunette lowered her sunglasses and looked Jamie up and down.

"Maggie, this is Jamie. Jamie, Maggie. Now would you please tell me what you need? We have to get to work."

Maggie leaned into the car. "Did you hear about Laoghaire?" She whispered conspiratorially even though nobody else could possibly hear her. "When the police finally caught her the other morning, they did a breathalyzer on her and she blew a .08. Can you even believe it?"

Claire glanced at Jamie. "Wow. I guess that explains a lot."

"She's not allowed on school grounds now," Maggie went on, "So guess who's the new PTA president?"

“Oh, I’ll never guess. Do tell,” Claire replied flatly.

“Me, you silly! Now, I know you’re on for the Halloween party and Laoghaire was going to be helping you. Unfortunately, I can’t be there because my little Maxson is in a different class than Fergus, so you’ll be on your own unless you can find one of the other moms to help you!”

“Wonderful. We really do have to go now.” She glanced at Jamie and nudged her head toward the gas pedals. He raised his eyebrows at her and she glowered back. Slowly he put the car in drive. “Bye now,” Claire said, rolling up her window.

Jamie pulled away, shaking his head. “I know ye told me that it was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad.”

Claire slumped in her seat. “It’s awful. I can’t stand any of them.”

“At least you won’t have to worry about Laoghaire pressing charges,” he laughed. “Sounds like she’s got a lot more on her plate.”

“I can’t believe I got roped into this fucking Halloween party that they’ve been reminding me about all month. What’s the date today anyway?” She pulled her phone out of her purse and started fumbling with it.

“Well, it’s the nineteenth today, Claire.” Jamie glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.

“Hmmmmm, I didn’t even realize my birthday was so close. I guess I forgot.”

Jamie let out a giant sigh of relief that turned into a chuckle.

“What is it?” Claire asked.

“You’ll laugh at me,” he said, shaking his head.

“What?” she insisted. “I promise I won’t laugh.”

Jamie pulled his car into a spot in the parking lot behind the store. He sighed and shook his head, still laughing at himself. “I found out it was your birthday on Monday when ye had me photocopy your license. I made plans for us for Saturday, but then ye didn’t mention yer birthday so I thought maybe ye didn’t want to celebrate it with me or something.”

Claire’s shoulders started shaking with laughter. “I’m sorry, I know I promised I wouldn’t laugh. Why didn’t you just say something?” She reached over and grabbed his hand.

“I don’t know. I think I’m still a little rusty on this relationship stuff. Will you be patient with me?”

Claire leaned over the center console and took Jamie’s chin in her hand. “Of course I will. And you need to trust me, ok? I like you, James Fraser. A lot. I’ve spent every morning, noon, and night with you for the last four days, and all it makes me want to do is spend more time with you. And if there’s something wrong, I’ll tell you, ok?”

He leaned forward and caught her mouth with his, giving her a gentle, appreciative kiss. “Alright, and I’ll do the same. Or, at least I’ll try.”

They sat with each other for a few minutes, holding hands in silence. Then, Jamie glanced up at the clock and saw that it was 9:05. “Christ, we have to go,” he said, “We have that interview this morning.”

“Shit!” Claire said, opening the car door. Jamie had insisted that they try to find some extra help for the shop after Monday’s debacle. Knowing that they needed someone they could trust, Jamie reached out to one of his former colleagues who was an expert in marijuana law to see if he knew of anybody that was knowledgeable and trustworthy. He recommended a young man by the name of George Dickson, who was apparently a self-taught expert in the business.

They got out of the car and walked around the side of the building. They’d joked about what George would look like -- their best guess being a scraggly haired young man in an ironic t-shirt and skinny jeans. Instead, leaning against the wall was a man dressed almost as impeccably as Jamie had been for his interview. His hair was slicked back into a neat ponytail, and his face was clean-shaven. When he saw Jamie and Claire approaching, he stood up straight, sticking his arm out to Jamie when they were close enough. “George Dickson,” he said. “Are you two always this late?”

Claire reached over and took his hand, “I’m Claire Beauchamp, the owner. And this is James Fraser, my business manager.”

Jamie’s lip was twitching. “Nice to meet ye,” he said. “And no, I was never late until I met her.”

Chapter Text

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On Friday afternoon, Claire got the call that her car was ready. "Do you think you could drop me off at the body shop and then go pick up Fergus yourself?" she asked, standing in the doorway of Jamie's office.

He looked up from the computer, the sight of her putting an instant smile on his face. "Of course I dinna mind.”

“Thank you so much. I don’t want to keep him waiting while I deal with all the paperwork. You’ll stay for dinner?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.”

“And are you going to tell me what we’re going to do for my birthday tomorrow?”

His mouth twitched at the corner, and she badly wanted to kiss it. Biting her lip, she walked toward him, closing the door behind her. He pulled his chair out a bit, and she sat down on his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. When their lips were barely grazing, Jamie told her, “Ye’re not going to get it out of me, ye know.”

“I know, but now I just really want to kiss you anyway.” She closed the distance between them and opened her mouth so that she could tangle her tongue with his. Jamie inhaled sharply, his hands on her back, caressing her as they both lost themselves in the kiss.

They were so caught up in their embrace that they didn't hear the office door open. They did, however, hear when George declared, "If this is how it's going to be here, I'll thank you to lock the door so I don't have to see it. I want no involvement in whatever this is!" He turned on his heel and slammed the door behind him.

Claire rested her forehead against Jamie's as they both giggled. "I suppose we shouldn't be mixing business and pleasure."

"Aye, but it feels so good," Jamie replied with a wicked smile on his face. He kissed the tip of Claire's nose before lifting her off his lap.

"I better go apologize," Claire said, "But I fully intend to pick this up tonight after Fergus goes to bed."

"It's a date."

***

Jamie picked up Fergus at aftercare. Though he'd been driving Claire to pick him up all week, he'd stayed in the car while Claire went into the school. He was oddly nervous as if this were some kind of test he had to pass. It was a silly notion, but he felt it nonetheless.

He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants as he approached the school. Claire had called ahead and put him on the pick-up list, so when he was greeted at the door, he simply showed his identification and the employee gestured for him to head into the cafeteria.

Fergus was sitting at a table playing a board game with some of the other children. Not quite sure what the protocol was, he approached the table and cleared his throat. "Fergus."

Fergus turned around and his face lit up. "Jamie!!!"

To Jamie's surprise, Fergus was so delighted by the unexpected routine change, he jumped up and wrapped his arms around Jamie's legs. Jamie laughed and patted his head. "I'm glad you don't mind that I picked you up."

Fergus shook his head and hung from Jamie's leg like a monkey.

"Is that your dad?" asked a little girl with blonde pigtails.

"No, he's my mom's boyfriend," Fergus said proudly.

"He's really big," another boy remarked.

Jamie felt the blush creeping to his face at the unexpected attention. He smiled at Fergus's friends and then looked down at the boy. "Ye ready to go?" he asked.

Fergus nodded but made no move to remove himself from Jamie's leg. Instead of forcing the issue, he headed toward the door, swinging Fergus on his leg as he went. One of the staff saw his predicament and handed him Fergus's backpack as he walked by.

When they got to the parking lot, Jamie had Fergus get off his leg for safety. The boy slipped his hand inside Jamie's and they walked to the car together. He helped Fergus get buckled in his seat, and then slid into the driver's seat. Then, he looked in the rearview mirror and said, "Yer mom has her car back. What do ye say we stop at Target and get a new seat for her car, so this one can stay in mine?"

Fergus smiled and gave him a thumbs up.

***

When Jamie arrived at Claire's house with Fergus, she sat at the kitchen table with a giant pile of mail in front of her. "There you two are!" She looked up from the mess in front of her and smiled at them both. She reached out her arms to Fergus. "Come give me a hug."

Jamie followed behind Fergus and bent down to give Claire a kiss. "What's all this?"

"Just thought I'd go through the mail while I was waiting for you two. What took you so long anyway?"

Jamie sat down next to Claire and thumbed absent-mindedly through the envelopes in front of him. "We stopped at Target for a few things. Fergus got ye a wee birthday present."

Fergus held the Target bag up proudly. "Jamie even bought a gift bag to put it in. I'm going up to my room to hide it until tomorrow." Before Claire could answer he dashed off with the bag tucked under his arm.

"That boy only has one speed," Jamie remarked.

"I can hardly keep up with him," Claire agreed. "That was very sweet of you." She leaned over and kissed him before returning to her task.

"This is an awful lot of mail Claire. This couldna come all in one day."

"Of course it didn't," she laughed. "This is maybe...a week's worth."

By the look on his face, she may as well have told him she was a serial killer.

"You don't go through your mail every day?" he asked incredulously.

Claire cocked her head to the side. If anyone else had said that to her in that tone, she would have been annoyed and embarrassed. However, she had grown to love that scandalized look on Jamie's face. Thoroughly amused, she said to him, "You've been coming over after work every day. Have you seen me go through it?"

He didn't answer, but rather sat quietly, tapping the fingers of his left hand against his thigh. Claire ignored him and continued sorting and opening, all the while knowing that her lack of excuse or explanation was driving him insane.

After a few minutes, he thumbed through the envelopes again and let out a sigh.

"If you have something to say, you should say it," Claire said without looking up.

He sighed again. "I just dinna understand how ye can let the mail pile up like this. If ye just checked it every day…"

"In case you haven't noticed," she said, keeping her voice even, "I am a single mother with my own business to run. I do a million little things every day that have to be attended to every day. If there are things that I can put off and do all at once, it takes the burden off my list of things that I have to do each day."

Jamie's face softened and he reached out to take her hand in his. "I hadna thought of it that way. Christ, I'm so used to being by myself and doing everything my way. I'm sorry Claire."

She grabbed him by the ears and pulled him in for a kiss. "Forgiven."

"Can I help you?"

"Sure, just set anything that looks like junk mail aside and the stuff that looks like I need to open it right here." She pointed to a small pile of envelopes in front of her.

Jamie picked up several envelopes and started flipping through them, looking up and smiling at Claire periodically. Most of it went straight to the junk pile. There were a few items worth saving and he placed them in her pile, but nothing that looked terribly urgent. That is until he saw a small, handwritten envelope. It was addressed to Claire Randall, and the return address was in Boston. He stared at the name in the upper left corner: Frank Randall.

"What's that?" Claire asked leaning over to get a better look.

He handed it to her and watched as her face went white. With trembling hands, she slid her finger under the flap and then pulled the letter out. Jamie stood and paced as she read the letter to herself. When she was finished she stood and handed the letter to Jamie before opening the refrigerator and taking out a hard cider.

Jamie stared at Claire with the letter in his hand. She nodded and he looked down to read it.

Dear Claire,

I know we're supposed to go through the lawyers, but I wanted to reach out personally before you get the news from them. You deserve at least that.

I am to be married again, and as my fiance is expecting, we would like to expedite our nuptials as quickly as possible. As such, I have decided to drop my contest of your child support request as well as my request for joint custody.

This should not be perceived by you as an admission of any guilt in the failure of our marriage. If time were on my side, I would have had my chance to prove that in court.

Your lawyer should expect to receive the final papers, signed by me, in the coming weeks. I would appreciate it if you could sign them as quickly as possible. I'm sure we would both like to be done with this ugly chapter of our lives.

Sincerely,

Frank

Jamie crumbled the letter in his hands and clenched it in his balled-up fist. He wanted nothing more than to get on a plane to Boston and beat the living shit out of this pathetic excuse for a man. Absent that, he would have liked to punch the wall or perhaps flip over the table. But the wounded look in Claire's eyes stopped him in his tracks.

He crossed the room to her in two long strides and pulled her in. "That pathetic excuse for a man was never worthy of ye, mo chridhe." He tangled his fingers in her hair and kissed the top of her head. "Dinna give another thought to his sorry attempts to hurt ye one last time. Forget all that and be happy that this entire thing will be behind ye soon."

"I don't even care what he has to say about me," she sniffled. "It's just…how can he throw his son away like that? What, he has a new wife and a new baby so he doesn't have any need for Fergus anymore? My son doesn't deserve to be treated like that."

"Ye're right, he doesna. But think of it this way, Frank's been gone long enough that the lad hardly ever remembers him. He'll not even recognize the loss. And now, Frank won't have any chance to disappoint him or hurt him again."

She sniffled as she nodded against his chest. Jamie held her, gently rocking her back and forth.

“Can I do anything to help Claire? What do ye need right now?” He smoothed down her curls with his chin resting on her head.

Claire pulled away slightly and looked at Jamie with red, puffy eyes. “Please don’t take this the wrong way...this has nothing to do with you, but...I could really use an hour or so to myself right now. I want to call my lawyer and Gillian. And then I need to pull myself together for Fergus.”

“Say no more. I’ll take Fergus to the bounce house place at the mall and then grab some food to bring home. Do ye want one of yer wee salads?” She nodded and glanced at his watch. “We’ll be back around seven.”

He gave her one last squeeze and started to turn toward the stairs. She grabbed his hand and he turned back to her. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much for understanding.”

“Aye, Claire. Dinna fash. I’d do anything to make you feel better.”

Unable to speak, she squeezed his hand and then let go, heading toward the living room with the crumpled letter and her phone in hand.

“Fergus!” Jamie called from the bottom of the stairs. “Come on down. We’re gonna have a boys’ night out.”

***

The moment Jamie stepped into the crowded, noisy room full of inflatable bounce houses, he cringed. The air was thick and stale, smelling of sweat and smelly feet. But Fergus was grinning from ear to ear, and he pulled on Jamie’s arm, urging him to walk faster.

Apparently a frequent patron of such places, Fergus knew just what to do. He ran to the cubbies and kicked his shoes off quickly. He looked up at Jamie. "Can I go bounce?"

"Aye, lad. Go on then. Thirty minutes. I'll be right over there on that bench if you need me." He chuckled as Fergus ran off with the reckless abandon only found in young children who hadn't a care in the world.

Jamie kept an eye on Fergus from the small bench that was much too close to the ground for someone who was 6'4". Fergus ran from one bounce house to the next, his curls, slick with sweat, bouncing on top of his head.

Suddenly, he stopped and started talking to one of the other children. Jamie recognized her as the blonde girl he'd seen at Fergus's table at school a few hours before. Next to her was a small, redheaded girl of perhaps three.

He stayed put, watching the group, until he saw a blonde woman approaching them. He assumed it was the girls’ mother, but stood to make his way over just in case. As he got closer, her voice rose above the general cacophony.

“And where is your mother, Fergus?”

Fergus shrugged his shoulders. “She’s not here.”

The blonde woman looked shocked. “Not here? Are you here by yourself?”

“No,” he replied, “Jamie’s here.”

Jamie reached the group and held out his hand to the woman. “James Fraser,” he said.

“He’s my mom’s boyfriend,” Fergus chimed in, beaming with pride.

The woman looked Jamie up and down as if she were taking the measure of her prey. Finally, she took his outstretched hand and shook it weakly. “Laoghaire MacKimmie. Claire’s boyfriend? And just where has she been hiding you?”

Jamie’s face grew red with embarrassment, and at the same time wondered what the etiquette was for meeting your girlfriend's arch-nemesis. Rather than answer directly, he smiled and then turned to the two little girls. "Fergus, will ye introduce me to the wee bonnie lasses?"

"This is my friend, Marsali," he said, pointing to the blonde girl, "And this is her sister Joan. She's still a baby."

"Am not!" the redhead replied with her hands on her hips.

Jamie bent down and patted her on the head. "And a lovely big girl ye are."

"We were just heading to dinner," Laoghaire said as Jamie straightened his back. "Would you care to join us?"

"Thank ye, but we couldn't. Fergus, let's get yer shoes on, lad. We've got to pick up dinner and get home to yer Ma."

Fergus's face fell, but he headed to the cubbies to get his shoes.

"Nice to meet you all," Jamie said, turning away from the MacKimmies and following Fergus.

"Don't be a stranger!" Laoghaire called after him.

"Wee besom," Jamie mumbled under ghost breath. He helped Fergus into his shoes. "Come on, lad. Let's get back to yer Ma."

***

Claire was curled up on the couch with her pajamas on when Jamie and Fergus got back. Her eyes were puffy and rimmed with red. Jamie sent Fergus to wash his hands, set the bags of food on the table, and went over to greet her. He squatted down next to the couch and rested his hands on her legs. "Is there anything I can do, mo nighean donn?"

She smiled at him sweetly and reached out her hand to cup his cheek with her hand. "Just be patient with me. I know this can't be easy for you, but it will be behind me, behind us, soon."

Jamie placed his hand over hers and leaned into her. "Claire, ye ask me to be patient, as if I haven't been waiting my whole life to find you." He wrapped his hand around hers and brought it to his lips, kissing her knuckles. "And now that I've found ye, I'd wait an eternity."

Color rose in Claire's cheeks as she stared into Jamie's eyes. "I don't know what I did to deserve you."

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her that he loved her, to lay himself bare to her, but Fergus came barreling back into the room. He jumped on the couch and climbed into Claire's lap between them.

"Did you have fun with Jamie, my little prince?"

"Yes, mama. But I'm hungry now. Can we please eat?"

Jamie stood and lifted Fergus, throwing him over his shoulder. Fergus squealed and giggled. "Let's get the table set, aye? Yer Ma deserves a break!"

***

After dinner, Fergus begged to watch a movie and Claire relented. The Incredibles 2 had just come out on video, and she downloaded it while Jamie popped popcorn in the microwave and Fergus changed into his pajamas. Fergus insisted he snuggle in between Claire and Jamie on the couch. Jamie's heart had never felt fuller.

Predictably, Fergus fell asleep within half an hour, having worn himself out at the bounce place. Claire started to get up but Jamie put a hand on her to stop her. "I can carry the lad up if ye'd like. Ye've had a rough day."

She nodded and Jamie picked Fergus up, carrying him snuggled against his chest. He climbed the stairs, laid him carefully on the bed, and pulled the covers up to his chin. He crouched by the bed and pushed the boy’s wild curls from his face. "Ye're a braw laddie, Fergus. The man who made ye doesna deserve ye. But I'll never leave yer mother or you alone."

When he went back downstairs, Claire was still on the couch, but with a mischievous look on her face. "What are ye up to, Claire?"

She smiled wickedly and pulled out a container he recognized from the store, shaking it. The contents rattled inside. "I will be partaking in a little work from home tonight. Would you care to join me?"

Jamie tapped his fingers against his thigh nervously. "I don't know Claire. I dinna mind at all if ye, uh….partake, but I don't think I should."

"Why not?"

"Well, I've never…"

"I see," she teased. "You're a virgin in more than one way."

Jamie lowered himself onto the couch, hovering over Claire. "Aye, I am. And you are a wee vixen determined to lead me into sin." Claire squealed and he kissed the tip of her nose.

She twisted the cap off the container and popped two of the gummies in her mouth. Then she dipped her hand in again and held one out to Jamie. "Do you trust me?" she asked, staring into his eyes.

"No," he replied. Then he dipped his head and plucked the gummy from her fingers with his lips. He chewed, made a face, and quickly swallowed. "But I'll let ye lead me into temptation anyway."

***

After a few much-needed kisses, Claire got up and turned on some music. Then, she lay down on the couch with her head in Jamie's lap. He immediately put his hands in her curls and played with them absent-mindedly. She hummed happily and reached her hand up to pat his cheek appreciatively.

"Do ye want to tell me the plan, or would ye rather no' talk about it?" Jamie asked.

"No, it's fine. I feel a lot better now that I've talked to Gillian and my lawyer. And now that I'm here with you."

"What did the lawyer say?"

"Basically that we have the upper hand now because Frank wants this expedited. So Ned's going to - "

"Wait," Jamie interrupted, "Ned Gowan?"

"The very one. Do you know him?"

Jamie straightened one of Claire's curls and let it go, watching it spring back into place. "Aye, he was my professor. Excellent lawyer. Anyway, go on."

"He said that he's going to call Frank's lawyer and tell him we won't sign until Frank pays the back child support he owes."

Jamie's hand clenched in Claire's curls. "That bastard hasn't paid child support?"

Claire put her hand over his and urged him to loosen his grip. "Not a dime, even though he was ordered to pay when we legally separated."

"He doesna deserve to call Fergus his son."

"I have to agree with you there," Claire said dryly.

"So if he pays, it could be over soon?

"Not soon enough. He makes me so angry. And then I get angry at myself for letting Frank get to me." She sat up and rested her head on Jamie's shoulder. "Thank you for being so understanding about this. I know it can't be easy for you to have to be dealing with the fallout with my ex-husband."

"I don't mind, Claire. I know where your heart is."

"Mmmmmmm…." Claire placed her lips on Jamie's and kissed him softly. "Yes, you do." Her skin was tingling and she could feel the tension of the day leaving her body. "Are you feeling anything yet?" she asked with her lips still less than an inch from Jamie's.

He licked his lips, his tongue lightly grazing her mouth. "I dinna ken if it's the drugs or being so close to ye, Sassenach."

Claire pulled back and wrinkled her nose. "Sassenach? What the hell does that mean?"

Jamie flushed red to the tips of his ears. "It's a Gaelic word. Translated it means outsider, but Highlanders also use it interchangeably with 'Englishman.' I, erm, think of ye as my Sassenach. I didna mean to say it out loud."

Claire knew enough about the history between the Scottish and British to be wary. "Is this a nice word for Englishman?"

"Weel, I dinna think the Highlanders of 300 years ago meant it very kindly, but I do."

"Hmmm…" Claire examined Jamie's flushed face. "I rather think I like it. It's unique, something only you would think to call me."

"Then it's all yers, Sassenach," he said, rolling the "R" dramatically.

Claire giggled. "Your accent is getting thicker by the minute."

"Is it now?" Jamie pulled Claire close and nuzzled his head in her neck. She squealed and continued her giggles as his nose tickled her.

He placed a light kiss on the side of her neck. "What's so funny, Sassenach? Do ye like when I roll my Rs?" His mouth vibrated against her neck and she threw her head back laughing.

Jamie lowered her down on the couch and hovered over her on all fours. He placed his lips against her neck again and said, "The radiant, ravishing Claire roared with merriment at her ridiculous rake of a boyfriend."

Claire yelped and pushed him away. "What you are is a ridiculous human being. You seem to be nice and toasty, too."

Jamie sat up and snorted. "I dinna feel a thing." His eyes suddenly darted toward the door. "Shhhh….did ye hear that?"

Claire giggled again. "Hear what?"

"Shhhhhhh…." He held up his finger and cocked his head to the side. "That! Did ye hear that?"

Claire shook her head and tried not to laugh out loud. Jamie stood up and went to the front door, throwing on the porch light and cautiously peeking his head out. He made a "Harumph" sound and then closed the door again, locking the deadbolt and the chain.

"Jamie," Claire said softly, "I hate to break it to you, but you're being paranoid."

He sat down next to her. "I suppose maybe I am a little high then. My skin feels tingly too. Something about the air in your house just feels different than anywhere else."

Claire snickered and clasped Jamie's hands. "Do you feel this?" she asked. "When we touch, do you feel…that...I don't know how to describe it. This thing between us. Do you know what I'm talking about, or do I just sound like a rambling idiot?"

"Nah, ye dinna sound like an eejit. I feel it too. I dinna ken what it is, but I feel it."

They stared into each other's eyes, neither knowing what to say next. Finally, it was Claire's grumbling stomach that broke the silence.

They both laughed and then Jamie asked, "Are ye hungry, Sassenach? Ye barely touched yer salad tonight."

"I am. And I need some really gross junk food right now.”

"Aye, that sounds perfect." Jamie pulled out his phone. "Where should we order from?"

Claire plucked the phone from his hands. With a few taps of her fingers, she pulled up a local diner. She placed a few items in the cart and handed the phone back to Jamie. "They have everything there."

Jamie squinted one eye and moved the phone back and forth until it came into focus. He touched the screen with heavy, deliberate taps. "There," he said finally, "The food will be here in no time."

"I would like an appetizer," Claire said. She pushed Jamie down and crawled on top of him, straddling him on her knees. He opened his mouth and she brought her lips to his, their tongues meeting instantly. They both moaned against each other as Jamie's hands slid to Claire's arse and squeezed. She giggled into his mouth, never breaking their connection.

Jamie's hand roamed up, hovering at the hem of her shirt. He pulled his lips away and gave her a questioning look. Claire grabbed his hand gently and guided it under the shirt.

His fingers ghosted across Claire's breasts through the fabric of her bra. She shuddered as she placed her lips on his again. He moved his hands to her back and fiddled with the clasp on her bra. When he finally freed it, Claire raised her hands above her head and Jamie pushed her shirt up and over her head.

He laid back and looked up at her. She looked like a goddess, her face framed by wild curls, her breasts white and smooth, rosebud pink nipples standing at attention. "Christ ye're heavenly," he said, reaching his hands up and cupping them in his hands.

Claire moaned and rolled her hips as he brushed his thumbs over her nipples tentatively. She adjusted herself so she could lean forward and felt the evidence of his arousal between her legs. She'd seen it before but never had it been so close to her own pleasure center and just the idea of it made her wet.

She leaned forward and Jamie lifted his head, taking her nipple in his mouth, suckling it reverently. Desperately seeking friction she rocked her hips, allowing his erection to press against her pleasantly. "Is this ok?" she asked hoarsely.

Jamie nodded and continued feasting on her bosom while Claire adjusted once more. When she was centered just right, she began rocking her hips again. It was almost too much to bear, Jamie's tongue dancing across her nipples while his hard cock rubbed against her most sensitive spot again and again. "Oh Jamie, don't stop," she called out as he started to rock his own hips in rhythm with hers.

The hot pleasure rose in her stomach, clenching her muscles. "Oh my God," she panted. "Oh God, I'm gonna - "

Her orgasm exploded inside her and she crumpled over Jamie, calling out his name. They laid together panting heavily, Claire quivering as her orgasm faded away. She laid her head on Jamie's chest and he stroked her hair. "That was the loveliest thing I've ever seen," he whispered.

When Claire came back round to her senses, she sat up and pulled her shirt on. Jamie excused himself to the bathroom and Claire felt a twinge of guilt at the pleasure she'd taken from him without giving any in return.

The doorbell rang and Claire stood up to get the food. She grabbed some utensils from the kitchen and spread the food out on the coffee table. When Jamie returned they stuffed their faces with sliders, cheesy fries, and all the other greasy foods they'd ordered. They laughed at each other's vigorous appetites and shared sloppy kisses with ketchup on their lips.

When they were fully sated and the evidence of their gluttony cleared away, Claire sighed happily and took Jamie's hand. "I'm ready for bed. Would you come sleep in my bed with me? I just want to lay in your arms tonight."

"Aye, Sassenach. I'd like that too."

They went upstairs and when they were snuggled together under the covers, Jamie sighed contentedly and kissed the top of Claire's head. "Do you remember how I told you about my trip to my sister's? When I..when…"

"I remember, Jamie," Claire whispered.

"When I came home and decided I had to quit my job... it was the loneliest I'd ever been in my life. I had no life outside of work. The future I had envisioned for myself was gone, and I couldn't see a new path before me. I….sometimes I wondered if it was worth going on. I felt naked and alone like I was hiding under a blade of grass."

"But you don't feel that way anymore?" Claire asked.

"No. Not since the moment I first set eyes on ye. I can see my future verra clearly. It's a happy one full of love and laughter. And you."

"No more blade of grass?"

"No, Sassenach, I'll never be there again."

They laid together quietly, Claire clinging to Jamie and wishing she had his way with words, so she could explain to him what he meant to her. Then through the silence, Jamie let out a snicker.

"What are you laughing at?" Claire asked, already starting to giggle with him.

"Grass...get it? Like the weed?"

They both shook with laughter together before finally drifting off to sleep.

Chapter Text

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Claire woke slowly, basking in the comfort of Jamie's strong arms around her. When he felt her stirring, Jamie shifted slightly. Her shirt had shifted and his hand rested on her waist, the pads of his fingers caressing her lightly. She kissed him in the hollow of his clavicle then lifted her head to look at him.

"Good morning," she said as he bent his head to kiss her.

"Happy birthday, Sassenach." He kissed her deeply, their tongues dancing around each other lazily. Jamie slid his hand under Claire's shirt and ran his hands over her chest, squeezing and lightly pinching.

Claire moaned and reached behind Jamie, pulling him close. His erection was hard against her leg, and, remembering the state she'd left him in the night before, she slowly traced her hand across his thigh. His breath hitched, and she stopped, her hand less than an inch away from the bulge in his boxer briefs."Is this ok?" she asked.

Jamie swallowed hard and nodded.

She slid her hand between his legs and palmed him over his underwear. She slipped her fingers in the waistband and he lifted his hips to help slide them off.

When his erection was freed, Claire gasped. She'd known it had to be substantial but to actually see it sent her body into a tailspin as she imagined him filling her.

"Is there something wrong, mo chridhe?" Jamie asked.

"No, not at all. It's just….very big." She breathed slowly to try to hide the way her heart had quickened.

Jamie wasn't sure how to respond to that, but he didn't need to think about it for too long. Her hand folded around his cock, and she stroked the tip with her thumb, gathering the bit of moisture and using it to help her hand glide easily. She started to pump, slowly at first, taking her time so she could concentrate on the look of bliss on his face.

He sat up on his elbows and his head was thrown back, eyes closed.

As his thighs began to quiver, Claire increased her speed. Jamie's breath was hitched and panting. "Oh God, Claire, I canna -"

His own body cut him off, every clenched muscle letting go as his semen shot out, falling on his chest and belly. Claire continued to work him slowly until she felt him going soft.

She reached over to the nightstand and plucked a tissue out of the box to clean Jamie up. When she was finished, she rested her head on Jamie's chest as he stroked her hair.

"You'll be the death of me, Sassenach."

She hummed happily, playing with the hairs on his chest.

Suddenly the door opened and Fergus burst into the room. Jamie quickly threw the covers over his lower half just in time for Fergus to dive onto the bed between them.

"I saw your shoes by the door, so I looked out in the driveway and your car was still here!" he exclaimed. He sat up and cupped his hand around Jamie's ear, whispering, "I thought we could make Mama breakfast, and then I can give her my present."

"Aye, that's a braw idea," Jamie replied. "Give me and yer Ma just a minute and I'll meet you downstairs."

"Ok!" Fergus smiled conspiratorially and crawled off the bed. He bounded out of the room, closing the door behind him.

"And just what are all these secret plans?" Claire asked.

Jamie got out of the bed and pulled his clothes on quickly. "Dinna fash, Sassenach. All will be revealed. You just stay in bed until we call you down." He leaned back toward the bed and kissed her before setting off on his mission to make her birthday perfect.

***

Jamie and Fergus made pancakes and turkey bacon for breakfast and brought a tray to her in bed. Fergus gave her the present he had picked out for her — a heart necklace and matching earrings from the costume jewelry section. He’s also made a card declaring that Claire was the “Best Mama in the World.” She hugged and thanked him with tears in her eyes; Fergus puffed out his chest with pride and looked at Jamie, who gave him a thumbs-up sign.

After breakfast was cleared away, Fergus went off to watch cartoons, giving Claire and Jamie a few more minutes to themselves.

“Are ye enjoying yer birthday so far?” Jamie asked as she cuddled against him.

“Mmmmmm…it’s perfect. Now I just need to know if the big date is going to live up to its promise.”

“Ye wound me, Sassenach.” He squeezed her tight until she squealed.

“Well, can you at least let me know some basic information so I know what time you’re picking me up and what I should wear?”

Jamie picked up her hand and kissed the knuckle of one finger. “I told ye that John is watching wee Fergus, aye?” He bent his head and kissed another knuckle. “John will be here at two.” Kiss. “I will pick you up at three.” Kiss. “And as for what to wear, how about something that shows off that round arse of yers?”

She giggled and pulled her hand away, trying to feign insult but finding it impossible. “I meant casual or fancy? Indoor or outdoor?”

“Ah, I see. Well, as for that, I’d say somewhere between fancy and casual. And we’ll be outdoors but the weather is supposed to be nice.” He brought his mouth to her neck and nibbled, causing her to shriek.

“Enough!” she said, playfully pushing him away. “You need to go home for a little while. It’s already ten. I need some time to get ready.”

He placed his hand on the side of her face and then slid it around to the back of her head, pulling her in. He kissed her thoroughly until they were both breathless. Finally, he pulled away and rested his forehead on hers. “I’ll be counting the minutes until I see ye again Claire.”

She grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him in, kissing him softly. "Hurry back."

***

When John arrived, Claire ushered him into the house and put him on duty immediately. Fergus had been clingy, no doubt nervous about Claire leaving him with a babysitter for the first time in ages.

"Uncle John is here! I'm sure he wants to hear all about Minecraft," she said before hurrying away to finish getting ready.

Even though she'd been spending all of her time with Jamie, the idea of dressing up and going on an actual date was thrilling. It had been years since she'd been on a date, probably since before Fergus was born, and she relished in the anticipation, the butterflies in her stomach.

She'd dug deep in the back of her closet to find a dress that she hoped would be appropriate for the evening. She slid the green fabric over her head and let it fall into place on her body. She hadn't worn the dress in years but was pleased to see it still fit, if not a bit snug in a few places which she was sure Jamie would appreciate. It was sleeveless -- she would need to bring a sweater in case the air got chilly when the sun went down -- with a low plunging V neckline. The fabric clung to her waist and bottom before widening into a looser skirt that went down to her ankles.

Satisfied with the dress, she slipped on a pair of flat sandals. She left her hair down but added a soft floral print headband. She kept her makeup light and natural and then finished the outfit off with the necklace and earrings that Fergus had chosen for her.

With nothing else to do but wait, she headed down the stairs to join John and Fergus.

"Mama!" Fergus exclaimed. "You look beautiful!"

Claire smiled and did a little twirl. John looked her up and down and whistled. "Ms. Beauchamp, you do clean up nicely."

"Thank you both, gentleman." She sat on the couch next to Fergus and kissed the top of his head.

John seated himself in a nearby armchair. "I feel like it's been an age since we talked. Too busy for your old friend these days?"

"I must admit I've been a bit distracted," she said coyly.

"Fergus," he said, "Why don't you go upstairs and pick out what you want to play with?"

Fergus looked at Claire reluctantly. "You won't leave without saying goodbye, will you?"

"No, darling, of course not." She tousled his curls and he dodged away, jumped from the couch, and headed up the stairs.

As soon as Fergus was out of earshot, John asked, “How serious is this getting, Claire? I can’t get much out of Jamie — not that he ever has time to talk to me anymore anyway.”

Claire could feel the heat rising in her cheeks, and she fiddled with the fabric of her dress. “I...I don’t know how to answer that.”

“C’mon Claire. As the architect of this relationship, I think I deserve to know how it’s going,” he teased.

Claire rolled her eyes. “It’s going really well. I...have very strong feelings for him, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around how this is all happening so fast. But I think you could say that it’s serious.”

John beamed with pride. “I may have to quit my job and become a full-time matchmaker.”

Before Claire could retort, the doorbell rang. She started to get up, but John gestured for her to sit. He went to the door and opened it. Jamie was grinning from ear to ear.

“Can I help you, sir?” John asked.

“Aye,” Jamie said with a chuckle, “I’m here to pick up Ms. Beauchamp for a date.”

“And what are your intentions with —”

Claire was already off the couch and standing behind John. “Enough!” she left, pushing him to the side.

Jamie’s eyes slowly traversed her body from top to bottom as his breathing quickened. “Christ, Sassenach. Ye look so bonny.”

“Thank you.” Claire grabbed him by the hand while she did her own inspection. He wore charcoal grey pants and a blue button-down shirt, slightly darker than the shade of his eyes. The simplicity of it did nothing to quell Claire’s rapidly increasing heartbeat.

In his hands, he held a bouquet of flowers and a small box wrapped in silver paper. Claire let him in and brought him over to the kitchen to put the flowers away. Thankfully, John read the room and slipped upstairs to check on Fergus.

“They’re beautiful,” Claire said, taking the flowers from his hands. Seeing the small box he held, her hands trembled as she filled a vase and placed the flowers inside. “What’s this?” she asked.

“Open it.”

She smiled and then looked down to open the gift. With a deep breath, she steadied her hands and slipped her finger under the paper. There was a jeweler’s box underneath; she could hardly breathe as she opened it. Inside was a watch with a delicate gold band. The face of the watch looked like a mosaic and upon closer inspection, she realized it was made of tiny slices of opal, layered on each other to give it a fiery sparkle.

The last watch she’d owned had been given to her by Frank when she’d graduated from medical school. That night they had intended to go out to dinner with friends. Frank decided not to go at the last minute, feigning illness, but as she and her friends were toasting each other at the apartment before going out, the doorbell had rung. Claire went to answer it, assuming it was another one of her classmates that would be joining them. Instead, one of Frank’s students — he was a TA at the time — was at the door. A young, pretty student with straight blonde hair and perky breasts in a tank top and Daisy Dukes.

She’d worn the watch for years to avoid Frank hounding her about it. One of the last things she’d done before leaving with Fergus while Frank was at work one day was to crush the watch face under her heel and leave it on the kitchen counter for Frank to find.

“How did you —” She looked up and saw the corner of Jamie’s lip twitching.

“I ken ye have trouble getting places on time.”

His humor broke the tension, and Claire let her face fall on his chest as she laughed with him. She slipped her arms around his waist and smiled against him as she felt his lips kiss the top of her head. They settled that way for a few moments before Claire lifted her head to look up at him, and he brought his mouth to hers, kissing her soundly. She noticed he kept his eyes open when they kissed, and, instead of freaking her out, it thrilled her to think that he never wanted to take his eyes off of her.

When they broke apart, she took the watch out of the box and slipped it on her wrist. Jamie helped her close the clasp and then kissed her gently on the inside of her wrist.

“Jamie!” They’d been so entranced with each other that they hadn’t even heard Fergus come down the stairs.

“Aye, little man,” Jamie replied. He scooped the boy up in his arms. “Give yer Ma a kiss before we go,” he instructed, pushing Fergus toward Claire. Fergus reached his arms out and looped them around Claire’s neck while Jamie held him up.

When Jamie put him back down, Fergus asked, “Do you guys have to go out? Can’t we stay here and watch a movie together?”

“No, darling.” Claire squatted down so she was face to face with Fergus. “Jamie and I want a night out just the two of us. But I promise if you’re good for John, we can all watch a movie together tomorrow afternoon. That is if Jamie doesn’t have any plans.” She looked up at him hopefully.

“Let me check my calendar,” he teased, taking out his phone and squinting at it. “Nope, nothing for tomorrow. We can spend the whole day together if ye want.”

Satisfied, Fergus hugged Claire and then Jamie around their waists. Claire grabbed her handbag while Jamie deposited Fergus with John.

“Be good for your Uncle John,” Claire said as they headed out the door.

***

Jamie opened the sunroof as they made the drive to their destination. He rested his hand on Claire’s knee and she put her hand over it. Jamie let her pick the music and they were soon singing along to nineties music, Claire with her sweet soprano and Jamie with his tone-deaf bass.

After forty-five minutes, Jamie turned the car down a dirt and gravel road. They passed through a set of large iron gates, above which was a sign that said, MacKenzie Vineyard.

“Wine tasting?” Claire asked.

“And a wee bit more…”

He pulled into a parking spot and they both got out of the car. Claire put on her sunglasses to save her eyes from the orange glare of the sun as it made its slow descent while Jamie slipped his arm around her waist. The building before them was made of stone and had the appearance of an old castle. When they got to the large wooden doors, Jamie opened them and stepped aside, letting Claire go ahead of him.

Inside, the walls were all made of stone. Sunlight came in through skylights in the high ceilings in streaks, breaking through the otherwise dim atmosphere. Claire turned to Jamie to tell him how beautiful it all was, but they were interrupted by a tall man in a kilt shouting, “Jamie-lad!” as he walked toward them.

Jamie’s face fell. “Uncle Doug...I didn’t know ye were going to be here tonight?”

“And miss a chance tae see my elusive nephew and his lovely lass? Never.” Doug slapped Jamie on the back and leered at Claire, eyeing her body in such a way that made her want to immediately throw her sweater on. “Doug MacKenzie,” he said to her, “Jamie’s uncle and co-owner of MacKenzie Wines, along with my brother Colin and sister Jo.”

Jamie grumbled something indecipherable under his breath.

Doug lifted her hand and began to bring it to his mouth, but she quickly twisted it and gave him a firm handshake. “Dr. Claire Beauchamp. It’s such a...surprise to meet you.”

“Oh, and Doctor is it?” Doug responded, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “Jamie, ye didna tell me that ye were dating a doctor."

“I didna tell ye anything,” Jamie mumbled. He was holding on to Claire firmly at the waist as he turned and asked. “Do ye need to use the ladies’ room? I’m going to take us out on a wee private tour of the vineyards, and ye might want to go before we head out.”

“Aye,” Doug chimed in. “I’ll be takin ye both out myself.”

Jamie’s face was turning red and not with his usual embarrassment. Instead of the relaxed look she was used to seeing on his face over the past few weeks, she saw instead it was tight, nervous, perhaps even angry. She put a hand on his arm, reassuringly. “I’ll just head to the ladies’ room then.”

As she walked away she could hear Jamie saying to Doug through clenched teeth, “I didna ask ye to come Uncle, and I certainly dinna intend to spend my date with you.”

When she returned from the bathroom, Jamie stood with his arms folded against his chest, a sour look on his face. Claire smiled cheerfully and tugged gently at his arm. Reluctantly, he loosened it and she looped hers around his. "Shall we go?" Claire asked.

"Aye," Doug smirked. "Follow me. I'll be givin' ye the grand tour."

Claire smiled through the tension between the two men and pulled Jamie along as she followed Doug through several hallways until they reached a door that led to the outside.

The sun was low in the sky, hovering above the seemingly endless rows of lush green grapevines spread before them. "It's heavenly," Claire sighed.

"I never tire of looking at it," Doug agreed.

"Hmmph," Jamie responded, low in his throat. Though Claire couldn't always decipher the meaning of the Scottish noises Jamie made, this one clearly displayed his displeasure at the whole situation.

There was a golf cart nearby and Dougal led them to it. Jamie helped Claire climb in the back with him while Doug reached over to the passenger side and held up a bottle of wine and two plastic glasses. “Some MacKenzie Syrah for the birthday girl?”

“Thank you, that would be lovely.”

Doug pulled his keys out of his pocket and located a small corkscrew on it. When the wine was open, he carefully poured two glasses and handed one each to Jamie and Claire. Then he lifted the bottle and toasted, “To the beautiful Doctor Beauchamp — may this year be plentiful in all the right ways. Slàinte Mhath.”

“Cheers,” Claire responded. Doug gently tapped the bottle against her plastic cup and then Jamie’s, who scowled in return. Doug took a deep drink from the bottle while Claire sipped hers politely. Jamie threw his entire glass back in one gulp.

Doug started the golf cart and started driving them toward the vineyard, prattling on about the history of MacKenzie Wines. Claire could scarcely pay attention to him — she was more focused on the tension in Jamie’s body. She had never seen him behave like this; even in times when he’d been angry or anxious, he had never gone stiff and quiet. She tried holding his hand, leaning on his shoulder, but he barely responded.

Claire could feel her own temper rising. Here they were in this beautiful place, on her birthday, and Jamie couldn’t even see past whatever silly nonsense was between him and his uncle to enjoy the evening for her sake. She drank the rest of her wine and then nudged him in the ribs with her elbow. Jamie turned and furrowed his brow at her.

“What’s the matter with you?” she whispered.

He rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“Jamie,” she went on, “talk to me. Why are you so upset?”

“It’s nothing, Claire,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Well then if it’s nothing then why are you letting it ruin our evening? Can’t you just ignore him and enjoy yourself?” Doug was still rambling on, oblivious to the scene playing out behind him.

Jamie pulled his arm away from Claire so that she lost her grip on it. “Just leave it alone, Claire. Ye wouldn’t understand.”

Claire reached into the front seat and grabbed the bottle of wine, refilling her glass. She slugged the first pour back quickly and then filled it one more time and sat back against the seat. She inched over as far as she could so that there was a small space between her and Jamie — despite it being only an inch, she hoped she was showing him her displeasure plainly enough.

When the tour was over, Claire hopped out of the golf cart. “Do you mind if I walk around a bit on my own, Doug?”

“Aye, that’s fine lass.” He nodded.

She pointed at the nearly empty bottle of wine. “Any more where that came from?”

Doug smiled conspiratorially. “Be back in a jiff.” He hopped out of the golf cart and headed inside.

“Claire,” Jamie said quietly, reaching out and touching her arm.

She jerked away. “Don’t touch me right now, Jamie.”

“Ye dinna mean to go off by yerself?”

“I most certainly do.”

Before Jamie could respond, Doug returned with an open bottle of wine. He handed it to Claire, and she nodded in thanks before heading off in the direction of the vines.

“Claire! Wait!” Jamie yelled after her.

“Leave her be, lad. She’s a feisty one, and there’ll be no’ talking to her until she’s got her dander down again.”

***

Jamie nursed a glass of Merlot and watched out the windows as the sun sunk lower and lower in the sky. He tapped his fingers nervously on the bar, his left leg bouncing up and down. After an hour with no sign of Claire, he slid off the barstool and headed outside to find her, determined to make things right.

The light was much dimmer than it had been an hour ago and Jamie was overcome with fear that Claire would get lost amongst the rows of vines and not be able to find her way back in the dark. It was a ridiculous notion — the lights of the castle were a beacon to anyone who found themselves turned around, but his anxiety sometimes had a mind of its own, beyond the reach of reason. As an afterthought, he opened the door to a nearby shed and grabbed a flashlight before heading out.

He marched up and down the neat rows, occasionally calling out, “Claire!” He heard nothing in return.

Just when he was about to give up hope and call upon Doug to start a search party, he saw her at the end of a row. She stood with her back to him, watching the sunset.

“Claire,” he said quietly as he approached her. He placed a hand gently on her shoulder, breaking her reverie. “I’m sorry, Claire.”

She said nothing but leaned back against him. He slid his arms around her and they stayed like that together, watching the sunset in silence.

When the sun finally took its final bow as it slid behind the landscape, Claire turned around and placed her hand on the side of Jamie’s face. “I’m sorry about the way I handled that,” she said.

“No, Sassenach, I’m the one who's sorry.” He held her close and gently gripped her hair in his hand. “I was caught off guard by Doug showing up, and I shouldn’t have let it ruin your day.”

“Forgiven,” she said simply. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Aye, but let’s head back and I’ll tell ye the whole story while we walk.”

***

Jamie’s mother, Ellen, was the oldest daughter of the four MacKenzie children. She was beautiful and intelligent, with a sharp wit. Her mother, Ann, died when Ellen was eleven, and her father, Jacob MacKenzie, packed up his entire family and moved them to America. He started MacKenzie Vineyards with nothing but a small plot of land and hardly any knowledge of how to make grapes grow. Through hard work and not a small bit of luck, the vineyard thrived, and the family soon found prosperity.

When Ellen was a senior in high school, they took in a foreign exchange student from Scotland — Brian Fraser. Ellen and Brian fell in love, but Jacob didn’t think Brian was good enough for his daughter. They dated in secret, right under Jacob’s nose. The day after Ellen’s graduation, the family woke up to find Ellen’s bed empty. A note on her desk told her family that she was going back to Scotland with Brian and that they planned to be married once they were there.

Jacob was furious, but she was eighteen, so there was nothing he could do. When she finally called six months later to tell her father that she was expecting his first grandchild, instead of congratulating her, Jacob railed at her, calling her selfish, spoiled, and worthless. He ended the conversation by telling her she was being written out of his will. She never spoke to him again, and he died of a heart attack mere weeks before her youngest son, Jamie, was born.

“And was she written out of the will?” Claire asked.

“No,” Jamie replied. He held her hand in his as they walked, rubbing his thumb across her knuckles. “I like to think he didn’t have the heart to do it. My uncles were furious about it. They’d spent years toiling away at the vineyard while my mom had left them and run off to Scotland. They were young themselves, and I think they resented the fact that my mom had gotten away. So they contested the will and held it up in probate for years.

When Jamie was only eight, his mother hemorrhaged trying to give birth to his brother Robert. Neither survived.

“My grandfather’s will was still in probate when my mother died. With the matter of his estate being unsettled, the matter of how her inheritance would be divided up was left up in the air.”

“Where does it stand now?”

“My father died when I was nineteen; I was already at Stanford. My siblings and I soon realized that there wasn’t much in our father’s estate, and what was there certainly wouldn’t be enough to keep us all in college. Jenny dropped out and took over the running of my father’s farm. Willie managed to eke his way through school working multiple jobs to pay his way. And I went to my uncles and begged them for help.”

Jamie’s uncles loaned him the money on the condition that he would work at the vineyard every weekend to work off his debt. He graduated from Stanford and got a scholarship to Stanford Law. His uncles were furious when he told them he would no longer be working for them, and he considered his debt paid in full.

While he was in law school, Jamie befriended one of his professors, Ned Gowan, who offered to help him end the endless probate that had held up his mother’s inheritance, and, subsequently, his own for most of his life. They managed to get the entire matter settled within a year, making Jamie and his siblings each 8% owners in the thriving business.

Doug and Colin had both tried to sue Jamie for repayment of the loan, but Jamie threatened to report them to the labor department for all manner of violations, including keeping him working for three years without wages. They dropped the suit and things had been tenuous between them ever since.

***

They had reached the castle by the time Jamie finished his story. Claire gestured broadly and asked, “So you own a piece of all of this?”

“Yes,” Jamie sighed. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close. “And that’s why I brought ye here. I wanted to make your birthday special, and I knew I could do that here. I had no idea Doug would even be here. He must have found out about my plans.”

“And what were those plans?” Claire asked.

“First,” he started, “I was going to take you on my own private tour, maybe make out with ye a bit among the vines.”

“Mmmmmmmm,” Claire hummed against his chest. “What else?”

Jamie pulled away and walked her over to the side of the dining patio. A small table for two was set up on a small platform. “Well, then, we’d have a private dinner for two.”

He pulled Claire’s chair out for her and she gave him a small curtsy before sitting down. He took his seat across from her and clasped his hand over hers. “Then after dinner, I thought we’d do a wee bit of dancing.”

“Dancing?” Claire laughed. “After hearing you sing, I fear for my toes.”

“Wheesht, Sassenach. I can’t carry a tune but I do have rhythm.”

Claire smiled and stared into Jamie’s eyes. “It sounds like a wonderful evening you had planned. I think we just might be able to salvage it.”

***

During dinner, Jamie opened up more to Claire about his childhood, telling her about his parents' elopement and their great love for each other. “They were the type of couple that everyone admired. They only had eyes for each other. Sometimes, my siblings and I would catch them when they didn’t think anyone else was around, and the look between them was magical.”

“It sounds like they were a wonderful example for you and your siblings.”

“Aye,” Jamie said and chuckled. “One time I asked my father how I would know who I should marry. He told me, ‘Jamie, when ye meet the right woman, ye’ll just ken it.’”

“And was he right?” Claire asked softly.

Jamie reached across the table and took her by the hand. “Aye.”

***

After they finished eating, Jamie brought his phone out and fiddled with it until Wonderful Tonight began playing. He stood and held out his hand to Claire. “Will ye dance with me?”

She took his hand and stood. He pulled her in close and they moved together on the small platform, swaying with the music. “Happy birthday, Claire,” Jamie whispered. He kissed her softly and then she settled her head on his chest.

As they danced together under the stars, she couldn’t remember when she’d had a better birthday in her entire life.

I feel wonderful

Because I see the love light in your eyes

And the wonder of it all

Is that you just don't realize how much I love you

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Claire didn't have to wait long for Frank to agree to pay the back child support he owed. On the Wednesday after her birthday, he wired the money into her checking account. Claire had an appointment with Ned Gowan the following day to sign the papers.

When she got off the phone with Ned that morning, she went to Jamie’s office to tell him the good news. He was sitting at his desk engrossed in the computer, and she took the opportunity to admire his red curls, chiseled jawline, and strong, muscular arms. He was gorgeous and he was hers.

She glided quietly to the desk and hopped up so she was sitting next to Jamie's computer. He glanced at her thigh and then let his eyes trail up her body until he met her eyes. He leaned back in his chair with a cocky smile on his face. “What can I do for ye, Sassenach?”

Claire smiled back and inched closer so that her leg was resting against his. “It’s all arranged. I'm going to Ned Gowan’s tonight to sign the papers.”

He reached out and rested his hand on her thigh. “Are ye now? And then ye’ll be free to be mine?”

She rolled her eyes and bent forward to kiss him. “I’m already yours.”

Jamie grunted happily and leaned back in his chair again. “Do ye need me to pick up Fergus so you can go to the lawyer’s office?”

“If you wouldn’t mind. It won’t take me very long, and sometimes I think he likes you better than he likes me these days.” She kicked him gently with the side of her leg.

“Nah,” he said, “I’m just the shiny new toy.”

“Well, whatever it is, I’m glad he enjoys spending time with you.”

Jamie stood and Claire opened her legs so Jamie could stand between them. “I just hope he enjoys spending time with his Uncle, because I can’t wait to have ye all to myself this weekend.”

Claire wrapped her arms around his waist and giggled. “Just you, me, John, and all of his other random, closest friends.”

Jamie snorted. “Well, all the same, since they can occupy John while I have ye all to myself.”

Friday they’d be leaving at noon to have a quick weekend getaway for John’s birthday. Claire had always enjoyed the friends of John that she had met, and it was sure to be a fun time. Claire intended to fully let her hair down. “I might get spoiled with all these dates and getaways.”

“Good,” Jamie told her, “Ye deserve to be.”

***

When she arrived home from the lawyer’s office that night, the entire house smelled like an Italian restaurant. She found Jamie and Fergus busily finishing up dinner preparations. Fergus was brushing melted butter on a large loaf of crusty bread while Jamie drained the pasta in the sink. “It smells wonderful in here,” Claire said, setting her bag down on an end table. “What’s all this for?”

Jamie abandoned his task so that he could greet her. He wrapped his arms around her and whispered, “Just a wee celebration, but I told Fergus it was because ye’d be leaving him for the next three days.”

She kissed him quickly. "Thank you."

"Everything went alright?"

She nodded. "I'm a free woman."

"Not too free, I hope," he teased.

"You know what I mean." She kissed him again, a bit more ardently this time to prove her point.

"Ewwwwwww!!!! Stop kissing!!!!!"

Jamie and Claire laughed into each other's mouths and broke apart. "Ok, little prince, we're coming."

***

They ate dinner together, happily chatting about the day and listening to Fergus's rambling about his friends at school. With a light heart, Claire looked around the table and marveled at how quickly they had become a family. They still needed to take things slow for Fergus's sake, but with her divorce papers signed, she could truly start imagining a future together.

She didn't want to get her hopes too high or place any burdensome expectations on Jamie, but she thought that perhaps he could be a real father to Fergus someday. He'd already spent more time with the boy in the last six weeks than Frank had the first four years of Fergus's life. And Jamie truly seemed to enjoy his place in Fergus's life.

He caught her eye from across the table and smiled. As if he could read her mind, he put his hand on Fergus's back and leaned closer, completely engrossed with Fergus's story. Claire teared up a little and got up quickly from the table before she had to explain to Jamie why she was so emotional.

"Are ye alright, lass?" Jamie asked.

"I'm fine." She smiled and bit her lip.

"Alright then, Fergus," Jamie said, "Let's do the kitchen clean up for yer Ma." He stood to start gathering the dishes and Fergus jumped to his feet to help.

Claire pushed herself away from the table. "If the two of you are going to clean up, then I think I'll go pack for our trip."

Jamie turned to her with a shocked look on his face. "Ye havena packed? We leave at noon tomorrow!"

Claire rolled her eyes and looked at her watch. "That means that I have seventeen hours to take care of it."

"We're not stopping back here on our way to the airport, Claire. We won't have time."

"You know, on second thought maybe I'll just go take a nice bath and worry about packing in the morning," she teased.

Jamie's face froze in horror.

Claire walked over to him and put her arms around him by the waist. "I'm really stressing you out right now, aren't I?"

He gave her a withering look. "Please finish your packing tonight?"

"I promise." She stood on her toes and kissed his cheek.

"All the same, I think I'll stay til you’re finished so I can put the bags in my car before I go home tonight."

***

Claire did manage to be packed and ready by the time they were ready to leave the shop at lunch the next day. They'd hired one additional employee, a young man named Josiah. He was the complete opposite of George, dressing in concert t-shirts and baggy jeans. He kept his long frizzy hair back in a ponytail. George was utterly dismayed by him, but Claire and Jamie both had hopes that they could close up the shop that night without killing each other.

As soon as Jamie and Claire were in the car together on the way to the airport, Claire popped a gummy. "Take it easy, Sassenach, or ye'll be passed out by dinner."

"I'll sleep on the plane," she shrugged.

Jamie snorted. "It's only an hour flight."

She shrugged. "I am not planning on going to bed early. It's been an age since I've been able to do anything like this. I'll be the one drinking all of the guys under the table."

"Hmmmppphhhh"

"You are going to have fun with me, aren't you? You're not just going to be a grumpy wallflower?" She'd spent too many parties feeling uncomfortable while Frank pouted about being there at all.

Jamie's face softened and he reached his hand out to grab hers. "Of course I am. I'm sorry, I'm just a little nervous about flying."

Claire gently rubbed his hand with her thumb. "You can take a gummy as soon as we get the car parked."

"Aye, I may take you up on that. You'll take care of me if I get too paranoid?"

"Always."

***

He hadn't needed to worry. Jamie had, of course, insisted they arrive two hours before their flight departed. The security line was quick and they weren't checking any bags for the short trip, so they had an hour and a half to fill while they waited for the flight to board.

They ended up spending it at the bar. As she hopped onto the barstool, Claire said, "Can you imagine if we'd met in a bar instead of at work?" She giggled thinking about the unlikely scenario.

Jamie, who was starting to feel a bit silly and uninhibited himself, leaned on the bar. "Can I buy ye a drink, lass?"

Claire leaned on the bar and twirled one of her curls around her finger. She looked Jamie up and down, feeling a thrill go through her. “Sure, how about a martini?”

He slid easily onto the stool next to her and signaled to the bartender. “One martini, extra dry, and two fingers of whisky, please.”

Claire batted her eyelashes and gave Jamie a coy smile. “Where are you from? Your accent is very sexy.”

“I’m Scottish, lass. And ye are a very bonny Sassenach.” He reached over and pushed back a piece of hair that had broken free and tried to escape the rest of the curly mass.

Claire shuddered, feeling a pleasant warmth in her belly that slowly spread outward until it filled her entire body, right down to the tips of her fingers and toes. It was almost as if they were getting to experience the beginning of their relationship again, only this time there was no self-consciousness, no concerns about boundaries and ex-husbands and compatibility. She wasn’t worried about how her son would react to a new man in her life or if she was even ready to date. They were just two strangers in a bar, both open to the possibilities before them.

The bartender brought their drinks over and Claire sipped hers slowly, savoring the additional heat it added to her already flushed body. Jamie brought his own drink to his mouth with his left hand while Claire reached over and brushed the fingers of his right. “My name is Claire. Claire Beauchamp.”

He turned to her, his eyes glowing with mischief. “James Fraser. Where ye headed, lass?”

And on they went for the next hour, exchanging playful glances and small, but electrically charged touches. By the time they needed to head to their gate, they were both dizzy with desire and giggling at their own ridiculousness. They continued their shenanigans on the plane and were in a very advanced state of amorous intoxication when they arrived at their hotel.

Claire stepped out of the Uber and marveled at the spectacle of it all. The streets bustled with tourists, surrounded by large buildings, each trying out-glam the other. The energy was palpable, as if the city pumped electricity into the air.

Jamie looked down at her wide-eyed expression. “Have ye never been to Vegas, Sassenach?” He slid his arm around her waist and held her close in a comforting possessiveness.

She leaned onto his arm. “No, haven’t had the chance.”

“We are in for a fun weekend. Let’s go check-in.”

***

Check-in was not easy in their inebriated state but based on their giddiness and the fact that they couldn’t keep their hands off each other, the clerk assumed they were on their honeymoon. Neither objected, and they were upgraded to a suite that boasted a king-sized bed and jacuzzi bathtub for two.

“Wow, this looks like it will actually fit both of us,” Claire remarked.

Jamie set his suitcase on the nearby desk and started carefully unpacking his clothes and placing them in the dresser drawers. “If I get in that bathtub with you, I’ll come out having committed a mortal sin, Sassenach.”

She shivered, goosebumps rising on her arms as she flung her suitcase on the bed and pulled out her makeup bag, toiletries, and the dress she was going to wear when they went out dancing that night. Then, she tossed the suitcase back on the floor and left it there wide open before she threw herself on the bed. “Oh my God, this feels amazing. Jamie, come lay next to me.”

Jamie eyed her suitcase but chose to ignore it. He joined her on the bed, careful to let his feet hang off the edge so that his shoes wouldn’t touch the comforter. Claire had already flung off her sandals. He rested his head next to hers, sharing the same pillow though there were plenty to be had. “We have to be careful or I’ll fall asleep,” he said. “At this point, I’ll have to keep pace with my drinking or I’ll end up passed out.”

Claire giggled and sat up, reaching for the purse she’d placed on the nightstand. She pulled out a thin, pen-like object and brought it to her lips, breathing in deeply and holding it in while she handed it to Jamie. He looked at it quizzically, and when she finally breathed out, a cloud of vapor emerged from her lungs. “It’s a vaporizer,” she explained, “And this blend is meant to energize you, not calm you or make you sleepy like the other ones we’ve taken.”

Jamie shrugged, too deep into their debauchery to turn back. He inhaled and held it for as long as he could before letting everything out with a giant cough. Claire got up to get him a glass of water. When he had a hold of himself they each took one more hit and then put the vape away.

“I’ll text John and find out when we should meet him downstairs.”

He watched her as she quickly typed out the message. As soon as she put the phone down, he pulled her in close, their bodies pressed together and kissed her. It was hard and urgent; Claire reciprocated, pressing into him, their teeth pressing against the back of their lips.

They were both too uninhibited to hold back, and their hands roamed up and down each other’s fully clothed bodies. Claire mostly enjoyed the solid feel of his muscles — there was barely a soft spot on him — while Jamie mostly paid heed to her backside. His fingers sank into her, almost violently, but she found it thrilling.

Their pelvises were crushed together and Claire could feel Jamie’s erection hard against the arousal between her own legs. Jamie used her ass to pull them even closer as they both began thrusting their hips into each other.

Suddenly both their hands were clasping at each other’s flies, desperate for their skin to be together, both urgently needing to be as close to one another as possible. They both knew somewhere in the back of their minds that they shouldn’t be doing this but neither could bring themselves to care.

As Jamie managed to unbutton her and get her flies down, Clair moaned in anticipation. His hands were down the front of them, and she could feel his fingertips getting closer to her sex. She would have been a goner if they’d made contact, but just then there was a loud knock on the door.

They pulled away from each other, sweating and panting. “John,” she breathed out. “I gave him our room number.”

Jamie groaned and rolled away from her. “Probably for the best. Fuck.” He let out several loud, shallow breaths.

“Just a second, John,” Claire called.

Jamie finally managed to move. He pulled himself off the bed and headed toward the door. Claire glanced at the bulge in his pants, sending her into a fit of giggles. “Unless you want him to think we’re inviting him to a threesome, you better go to the bathroom and, uh, get that situation under control. I’ll answer the door.”

Jamie’s already flushed face brightened, but he started laughing as well. Without another word, he scurried off to the bathroom. Claire got up and buttoned her pants. She attempted to smooth her hair down and then stood on tiptoe to glance quickly out the peephole. John had a giant smirk on his face and she opened the door, prepared for the teasing that was about to come.

She rolled her eyes immediately. “Come on in. We were just getting unpacked.”

John entered and looked around the room curiously. He glanced at the crumpled bedspread and raised an eyebrow at her.

“Get your mind out of the gutter, Grey.”

He laughed and went in for a hug. “I’m so glad you guys came,” he told her, squeezing her tight. “I know I have a ton of other people invited but you two are my best friends, and it means so much to me that you’re here, together.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Happy birthday.”

Jamie came out of the bathroom and joined in the hug. “Happy thirtieth, mo charaid.”

“What does that even mean?” she asked when they all pulled away.

“My friend. I’ll have to start teaching you the Gaelic soon enough, Sassenach.”

She snickered as Jamie’s eyes danced with mirth.

John rolled his eyes. “What is even the joke? Wait, are you two fucked up already?” He leaned close to Claire, examining her eyes. “Jesus Christ, you are! Alright, let’s go. I need to catch up before dinner.”

***

After some considerable effort to sign up for a casino card to gamble with, they made their way to the casino floor. Claire had been to casinos in Massachusetts but nothing prepared her for the sensory overload of a Vegas casino. Jamie kept his arm firmly around her and gave her some “tips” as they looked around for the perfect slot machines.

His voice was syrupy, the Scottish accent stronger than she’d ever heard it, but he did his best to speak with authority. “The best thing to do is just plan a set amount of money that ye’ll gamble each day and consider it the cost of yer entertainment fer the evening. Assume ye’ll lose it. Dinna go back to the machines and add more.”

Claire’s shoulders shook and she rolled her eyes at him. “You are impossible,” she said, but she leaned her head against him. He was impossible and ridiculous and a bit of a know-it-all, but those were all things that made him Jamie, her Jamie. Her head was swimming and her heart felt ready to burst. She knew her intoxication was providing additional charging to her enamored feelings, but she didn’t really care.

She finally settled in at a machine and Jamie slid onto the chair next to her and John next to him. A few of his other friends would be arriving later, and they planned to have a late dinner together. By that point, Claire just hoped she’d be able to sit upright.

That was when she discovered that the casino provided free drinks while you were gambling. She and Jamie, already well into their debauched state, took great advantage of the situation and consumed drink after drink, while John slowly sipped his, looking on in horror. Whenever the drink well seemed to be running dry, they would pull up camp and head to another area of the casino. Jamie and Claire were at the phase of their inebriation where they would just stop in the middle of the floor and have a quick makeout session, oblivious to everything around them, before moving on.

At one point, Claire needed to use the ladies, and Jamie got up to walk her. “Oh look,” John called after them. “It’s the blind leading the blind!”

They eventually found the bathrooms, and after Claire had relieved herself, she walked back out to find Jamie leaning against the wall, opposite her. Her entire body surged with ardor, and she launched herself across the walkway, throwing her arms around his neck. “I love you,” she declared, before putting her lips on him and kissing him thoroughly.

“Oh Christ, I love ye too, Sassenach,” he panted before going right back to snogging her.

Somehow, they eventually managed to gather enough of their wits to break apart and meander back to where they’d left John. The only problem was that neither of them could precisely remember where they’d left him. They both tried in vain for a bit and then gave up, figuring his other friends had arrived, and they’d find him later.

Somehow they managed to wander into an area where there were other games set up. Jamie traded in some of the money left on their cards for chips and they wandered around looking for something interesting.

“Ooooh!” Claire squealed, “I’ve always wanted to roll the dice at the craps table. Can we?”

Jamie put his hand on her back and led her over to a table with low minimums. He’d obviously done this before, and she was content to just sit back, sip her drinks, and watch him play. When it was his turn to roll, he handed the dice to her. “Fer good luck.”

Delighted, she shook the dice and tossed them across the table. When they came to a stop, Jamie threw his arms around her. “Did I do good?” she asked.

“Aye, ye just won us a hundred dollars, Sassenach.” He kissed her quickly. “I love ye.”

Her heart was an absolute puddle, although at that point her entire body was starting to feel like a slightly melted chocolate bar. Jamie continued his play, each time handing her the dice when it was his turn to throw. They had many small wins and a few losses but were still in the black when Claire started to get antsy. “Let’s get out of here soon and find John.” She had no idea where he was.

“Why dinna ye call him and ask him to meet us here?”

She nodded and stepped away from the table to make the call. Yelling into the phone, she did her best to tell John how to find them and then hung up. She went back to Jamie and kissed his bicep before leaning her head on it. “Ye canna tire out on me now, Sassenach. We’ve still got plenty of night ahead of us.”

“I just don’t understand the game is all,” she said, whining slightly.

“Alright then,” he said, “Let’s place our own bet. Next time the roll comes around to us, if ye throw a six, we go get tattoos?”

Claire threw her head back and laughed. “And if I don’t throw a six?”

“Nothing! It’s just for fun, Claire.”

“Fine,” she said, sealing the bet with a kiss. “You’re on.”

When the dice came back around to them, she watched Jamie as she readied herself to throw the dice. She saw some worry etched in his face, likely as he realized what he’d just bet on. “Your mouth writing checks that your ass can’t cash, Fraser?”

He raised his eyebrows at her, his mouth twitching uncontrollably. “Just roll, Beauchamp.”

She did, throwing the dice across the table and watching intently as they landed; a two and a four.

“Oh my god!” she yelled, “We have to get tattoos now.”

Jamie looked terrified but just then Claire saw John walking toward them. Claire broke away from Jamie and threw her arms around John. “Yay! You found us. You really found us!”

“Oh dear god, Claire, you are hammered. Is Jamie in any better shape?”

Claire shrugged and led him toward the table. Jamie turned around to look at him, smiling like an idiot. “John, I’m winning. And Claire loves me. And we’re going to get tattoos.”

John cringed. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? Maybe we should get some food into the both of you first.”

“I could definitely eat something, Jamie,” Claire chimed in. She swayed from side to side as she tried to stay upright.

“Fine,” Jamie agreed, “But I want to do one more game before we go.” His eyes pleaded with Claire.

She couldn’t resist the puppy dog look on his face. “Okay fine! But you have to let me come up with one more of our bets.” Her hands gestured wildly between the two of them as if he wouldn’t understand who she meant.

“Ye better hurry then,” he said. “It’s almost our turn.”

Claire considered carefully, trying to decide which of the crazy ideas floating in her mind was actually feasible and would be the most hilarious.

“Time’s almost up,” Jamie said. He handed her the dice.

“Fine,” she said decidedly. “If I roll snake eyes after we get our tattoos, we go to the nearest wedding chapel and get married.

“Claire!” John gasped.

“Oh relax,” she told him. “What are the chances of me actually rolling a two?”

John tried to protest again, but Jamie interjected. “Agreed,” he said to her, kissing her quickly.

She smiled broadly and shook the dice in her hand. As if in slow motion, she opened her hand and flung them. They hit the back wall of the table and bounced several times before landing.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.”

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The buzzing of Claire’s phone seemed to pulse in rhythm with her pounding head. She slapped her hand toward the nightstand and fumbled for the device. “Fuck” she yelled as the palm on her hand made sharp contact with it. She sat up on the bed and reached for the phone with her left hand as she shook the right in a vain attempt to dull the sting.

“Hello?”

“Good morning, sunshine!”

John’s voice was like a dagger through her ear. She groaned and pressed the thumb and middle finger of her free hand into her forehead, directly above her eyes. “Please not so loud.” She needed water badly.

Glancing over to the opposite nightstand, she first took notice of Jamie, passed out flat on his back. He was fully clothed from the night before; his right hand was splayed palm up on the bed, and she noticed what looked like a piece of saran wrap on the meaty part under his thumb.

“John?” she asked finally, “How did I get to bed last night?”

John snickered. “I’m going to get bagels and coffee. I’ll bring some up and we can talk."

"Fine," she mumbled. She noticed the plastic on her own hand for the first time. Curiously, she pulled it back, revealing a letter "J" on her palm under her thumb. "John…did I get a tattoo last night?"

He howled at that. "I'll be there in half an hour."

She let the phone fall onto the bed and went back to examining her hand. It was sore and puffy and the skin around it had a red, raw look. She gagged, throwing her hand over her mouth. Her stomach churned and she sat frozen for a moment, taking deep shaky breaths in the vain hope that she could stop the flood that was about to erupt. When she finally couldn’t fool herself any longer, she threw herself off the bed and stumbled her way to the toilet.

Jamie woke to the sound of her retching. Despite his raging headache and aching hand, he slung his legs over the side of the bed and stood shakily. When he was certain he would be able to walk without injuring himself, he went to the sink and filled a glass with water.

When he entered the bathroom, Claire was on the floor with her arse in the air and her head resting on the cool tiles. Jamie shook his head and set the water on the counter before bending down and helping her sit up. He then handed the glass to her, and she took it from him with trembling hands. After she gulped it and a refill down, Jamie reached out his hand to help her up.

“Where did you get that ring?” she asked.

Jamie withdrew his hand and examined the ring closely. “I dinna ken.” He shook his head and reached his hand out again. “Let’s get ye back to bed.”

She took it gratefully and he pulled her to a standing position, then wrapped his arm securely around her waist as he walked her back to the bed. She let herself fall face down on the pile of blankets, and when Jamie crawled back in on the other side, he saw a similar ring on her hand. “Ye’ve got one, too.”

“One what?” she mumbled into the mattress.

“Ring. Ye’ve got a ring, too.”

She lifted her head slightly and looked at her left hand again. Sure enough, there was a thin, silver-colored band on her left finger. She pushed herself up to a sitting position and examined the entire hand closely. With her right hand, she twisted the ring off and noticed that her finger was already green-tinged where the ring had sat. “Must have been some stupid prize they were giving away or something,” she mumbled, setting it on the nightstand. “What I’m more concerned about is this bloody tattoo.”

She tapped her fingers against her forehead as if that would make her memories come back, but it only succeeded in causing another wave of nausea. Jamie lept from the bed and came back with two glasses of water, one of which she took from him with a weak smile.

When she finished drinking, she looked up to see Jamie carefully peeling back the plastic wrap on his hand. “Christ, we did get tattoos.” He held his hand up to show her a letter “C” in the same spot that the “J” was on her hand. “Well, I suppose we’re stuck together for life now,” he joked.

Claire groaned and crawled her way toward him, snuggling under his arm with her head on his chest. “Do you remember anything from last night?”

Jamie was fiddling with the ring on his hand and made a low grunt when he finally twisted it off and saw the green coloration. He tossed the ring toward the nightstand, but it bounced off and fell on the floor. Jamie shrugged and let his head relax on the pillow. He rubbed her arm absent-mindedly, instantly soothing her. “The last thing I remember was being at the Craps table. And I think John showed up.”

“Me too. In fact, I do think I remember you telling him we were getting tattoos.”

“Brilliant idea,” he laughed. “Do they let ye get tattoos when ye’re blackout drunk?”

“Apparently, they do,” Claire replied sarcastically. She was not as amused as Jamie seemed to be at the whole situation.

He squeezed her close and kissed the top of her head. “Relax, Sassenach. If this is the stupidest thing we did last night, let’s not fret about it. At least we made it back to our bed safely,” he pointed out.

“Hhhhmmmppphhh,” Claire responded.

They had both almost drifted back to sleep when a knock on the door made them both jolt back to reality. “That’s John,” Claire told Jamie. “I forgot he called and said he was picking up bagels and coffee.”

Jamie nodded, grunting as he maneuvered himself off the bed. Claire got up too, wrapping one of the blankets around herself before heading to the small table on the other side of the room.

"Good morning!" John said cheerfully when Jamie let him in. "How's the happy couple?"

Jamie swiped the coffee tray from John's hands and brought it over to the table, setting it down in front of Claire. He moved his chair closer to her and plopped down in the seat. John set the bagels down and joined them.

"So, how much of last night do you remember?" he asked, smiling smugly.

"Up until sometime before I got this,” she told him, thrusting her tattooed hand in John’s face.

Chuckling, John reached into his pocket and pulled out a small tube, which he tossed on the table. “I almost forgot. That’s from the tattoo parlor.”

“Why didn’t ye stop us?” Jamie groaned. He sipped his coffee and then pulled a bagel out of the bag.

“As if I could! You two were both very determined. The best I could manage was damage control.”

Claire pulled a bagel out of the bag. Leaning against Jamie, she started ripping small pieces off and popping them into her mouth. “I’m assuming we came back to the hotel and passed out after that?”

“Not exactly. Would you like to see a picture?”

“Not really, but I suppose you’re going to show us anyway.”

John pulled his phone out of his pocket and unlocked it. After a few swipes, he turned the phone around so they could see it. On the screen was a picture of Jamie and Claire kissing under a heart-shaped archway; a neon sign at the top of the arch boldly flashed Just Married in bright pink.

Jamie gave John a withering look. “Verra funny.”

“Yes, it was quite funny actually. You two are the biggest fools I’ve ever met in my life.” John’s eyes were dancing with laughter.

Claire snatched the phone from his hand and held it close to her face, trying to examine every pixel. When she was satisfied, she put the phone down with a trembling hand. “I think you better tell us what happened, John.”

John smiled and sat up in his chair; it was easy to tell he’d been waiting all night to tell them this story. “When I found you two at the Craps tables, you were both completely bombed. The first thing you told me, Jamie, was that Claire loved you and you were getting tattoos.”

Claire opened her mouth to interject, but John shook his head. “And no, I didn’t have time to talk you out of it, because the next thing I knew, you were betting Jamie that if you rolled a two, the two of you would get married after getting your tattoos.”

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.”

“That’s exactly what you said when you actually rolled a two.”

Claire groaned and buried her face in Jamie’s shoulder as John went on.

“I tried to get the two of you back up to your room before you could do any damage, but you were both very insistent. Claire, you couldn’t stop giggling, and Jamie, you just kept saying ‘a bet’s a bet.’ Finally, you both told me that it was happening whether or not I came along. I figured the best I could do at that point was accompany you two to the tattoo parlor, try to minimize the damage, and hope that you would forget about the wedding.

“You two were ridiculous at the tattoo shop; I could barely get you to stop making out long enough to decide on the tattoos and then sit still for them. Jamie howled the entire time he was getting his.”

“I dinna like needles….” he mumbled.

“After that ordeal was over, I tried to veer you back to the hotel, but you both insisted that you had to get married. I pulled Jamie aside and tried to talk sense into him, and then I did the same with you, Claire. Both of you told me that you loved each other too much to not be married. Then, Jamie made an impassioned statement about the tax advantages. Meanwhile, Claire had Google Maps open and was trying to navigate to the nearest wedding chapel. I was afraid she would get lost if we didn’t follow her, so off we all went.

“By the time we got to the chapel, I was done trying to fight you two. And honestly, you both looked so happy and in love. I know you were both smashed, but when you went to say your vows, you both looked so content. I recorded it for you if you ever want to show the grandchildren.”

“You’re a regular Bob Hope,” Claire dead-panned.

John shrugged. “For what it’s worth, you two were both really happy. When I finally got you back to the hotel and in bed, you both looked so...satisfied.”

Jamie pushed his chair back and started pacing the room, while Claire stared straight ahead, neither of them able to speak. “I should probably let the two of you talk,” John said. He got up and moved to the door. After he opened it, he turned back into the room. “If my opinion matters at all, I think you two are perfect together,” he said before walking out and letting the door close behind him.

“What have we done?” Claire groaned when the door was shut. She put her face in her hands and tried to stop herself from breaking down in tears.

Jamie was at her side almost immediately, crouched down next to her chair. “Dinna fash, Claire. It’s a hell of a shock, but we’ll figure this out.

“How?” she sobbed. She lifted her head and met Jamie’s eyes. “I’m not ready to be married again! My divorce was just finalized yesterday. This is insane.”

Jamie knew she might shrink back from his touch, but he took the chance and put his arms around her anyway. She accepted his embrace and relaxed into him. “I don’t know yet, but we will figure this out.” He stroked her hair tenderly. “I love ye too much not to.”

Claire lifted her head. The soft look in his eyes demonstrated the love he’d just expressed. “I love you, too. That’s why I’m so scared that we’ve gone and ruined it. I can’t see a way out of this that doesn’t drive a wedge between us.”

“I willna let anything come between us, mo ghraidh.” He pulled her close and gently kissed each of her teary eyes. “I promise ye that.”

Claire nodded and brought her lips to his, kissing him softly. Then she stood up and started pacing. “The way I see it, we only have two options. We could divorce or seek an annulment, and then try to carry on as if nothing happened. Or we could stay married, but I don’t know how that would work. It’s too soon. We just met, how can we know if we want to spend the rest of our lives together? I mean, really know.”

“Ye thought you knew you wanted to spend your life with Frank, didn’t you? And look how that worked out.” Claire whipped her head around and glared at Jamie. He stood up quickly and went to her. “All I mean is that I dinna ken if you can ever know for sure. I mean, really know.”

“So you’re saying you want to stay married?”

“No. Yes. I don’t know. This is all a lot to take in right now.” His hands started to shake, and he could feel the panic rising in his chest. The last thing he needed was to have a panic attack in front of Claire, on top of everything else. “I think I need to take a shower and then go for a walk to clear my head.”

Tears dripped silently from Claire’s eyes, streaking and staining her cheeks. She grabbed his hand, feeling his racing pulse as she did. “Alright, but you promise you are coming back, right?”

“Dinna ever doubt that, Sassenach. I’ll always come back to you.”

She nodded and dropped his hand. “I think I’ll take a nap,” she told him.

When he got out of the shower, she was already fast asleep, snoring quietly. He chuckled to himself and gently pulled up the blankets so she wouldn’t get cold. Then he scribbled a quick note, placing it on the nightstand before he left.

***

Jamie walked up and down the streets of Vegas, completely oblivious to the crowds of people around him. His mind had one singular focus: to come up with the best solution he could in hopes that Claire would agree with him.

The problem was that when he thought about it, he wasn’t at all that unhappy about their current situation. Yes, he would have wanted to do it the proper way. He would have proposed to her on a romantic evening, but only after ensuring that he had Fergus’s blessing.

They’d have sat down before the wedding and discussed finances. Claire would have been completely bored with the conversation, but she’d do it because it was important to him. They would have discussed the future of Wee Herbs and how they were going to manage it.

They would have had a small, intimate wedding, perhaps at the vineyard. His siblings and their families would have been there, Fergus running around with them as the newest cousin in the rowdy group. The wedding would have incorporated traditions from both their religions and cultures, a carefully thought out blending of their lives.

They’d have gone on a honeymoon, perhaps to Scotland, so that Jamie could show Claire where he grew up, hoping she would love it as much as he did. Or perhaps, they would have chosen a tropical getaway. He could see Claire lounging in a bikini by a pool drinking ridiculous fruity cocktails with giant umbrellas in them.

The end goal of all of that, though, would be a happy life together. Couldn’t they have that without all of the pomp and circumstance? There were a million ways to regret the way they’d done things, but they needed to face the reality of the situation. They were married now. They couldn’t go back and change that, but they could make the most of it. At the end of the day, his ultimate goal was to have Claire as his wife, be a husband to her, and a father to Fergus. Why should an unexpected wedding take that away? This was what he wanted.

He knew what needed to be done. Reaching into his pocket and pulling out his phone, he punched in a quick search and turned around to head back in the right direction.

***

They were spending the afternoon at the beach. Jamie and Fergus were in the water, splashing amongst the waves. Fergus climbed on Jamie’s back like a monkey, and Jamie moved out farther into the deeper water. When a wave came, Jamie let it pick them up and carry them back closer to the shore. They did this over and over, Jamie laughing just as much as Fergus.

When Jamie needed a break, he left Fergus with some beach toys and walked over to the giant blanket. He stood dripping over Claire, and she shrieked, kicking at him playfully. He dropped down and stretched himself out next to her, pressing the entirety of his soaking wet body into hers. She stopped fighting him and let him kiss her, laughing into each other’s mouths.

Fergus joined them, requesting snacks. Claire sat up, reaching into the bag Jamie had carefully packed. They had a small lunch together on the blanket, and then Fergus asked, “Da, will you take me back in?” Jamie was ready for a nap, but he smiled and pushed himself to his feet.

And as they drove home late that afternoon, Fergus slept peacefully in the back seat. Jamie reached over and grabbed her hand, and Claire felt a calm peace settle over her. She never felt fully complete without him nearby. “You’ve made my life complete,” she whispered.

“And you, mine.”

***

When Claire woke, the peaceful feeling from the dream had settled within her. She rolled over to look at the clock next to the nightstand and saw the note that Jamie had left her.

I’ll be back soon, and we will figure out what we’re going to do. No matter what, I love you with all my heart.

Yours, JAMMF

Smiling, she sat up to get herself together. Her head felt much clearer after her nap, and she was ready to get cleaned up so that she would be ready to talk to Jamie when he got back.

After taking a shower, Claire put on a tank top and shorts and went about tidying up the room. As she bent down to pick a piece of paper up off the floor, she saw the cheap ring Jamie had woken up with on his finger. She picked it up and placed it on her nightstand, resting on top of her own ring.

She heard the click of the door unlocking just as she finished making the bed. He still looked a bit nervous, but the impending doom that had been plain on his face earlier was gone.

“Are ye feeling better after yer wee nap, Sassenach?”

She stood on tiptoe to kiss him softly. “I am. Are you? Are you ready to talk?”

“Aye.”

Claire grabbed his hand and brought Jamie over to the small couch. They sat close together, both missing the comfort of the other’s body near them. Jamie opened his mouth to speak, but Claire interrupted.

“I want to say something from my heart, before you start getting all logical on me, ok?”

Jamie nodded and gestured with his hand for her to go on.

“None of this makes any sense, and I’m not just talking about our impromptu wedding last night. We were strangers six weeks ago, and now I can’t imagine my life without you. We are complete opposites, but somehow we were made for each other. Now, we’re suddenly married, and even though it was incredibly stupid, I find that I don’t want to be not married to you. I know you’re going to say it would be irresponsible, and I know we’ve got a lot to figure out, but we’ll do that together.” Her eyes searched his for anything she could discern as agreement.

When Jamie stood up, her heart fell into her stomach. But then, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box. He dropped down on one knee in front of her and opened it. Inside was a beautiful gold ring with a large opal in the middle, surrounded by small diamonds. Claire looked back and forth between the ring and Jamie. “Claire, will ye stay married to me?”

Unsure of whether she was going to laugh or cry, Claire put her hands on Jamie's head and pulled him in. "Yes, I'll stay married to you." She kissed him and soon they were both a mess of tears and laughter.

Jamie finally pulled away and took her hand so he could slip the ring on her finger. "We'll pick out wedding bands together, but I wanted ye to have a proper engagement ring at least."

"It's beautiful, Jamie. I love it. And I love you." She tugged at his arm. "Come here."

Jamie sat back down on the couch with her, and Claire crawled into his lap. "This is absolutely the most insane thing I've ever done."

He threw his head back and laughed. "You? Claire, I eat the same thing for breakfast every day. I buy all of my clothes at the same store. I have purchased an upgraded model of the same SUV three times in the last ten years.

"But you, mo nighean donn, you have raised a child practically on your own. You divorced your husband, left your career, and moved across the country to start your own business. Ye're impulsive and wild and brave. I wish I had half yer courage. It's probably best we got married this way, or I would have never got up the nerve to ask ye."

Claire rolled her eyes. “I’m pretty sure you would have, if only for one reason.”

Jamie brought his lips to Claire’s neck, making her giggle. “What’s that, Sassenach?”

“The honeymoon.”

The mood shifted suddenly as Jamie growled into her neck. “Dinna think that wasn’t a consideration.”

Claire let her head fall back as Jamie suckled and licked her neck. He moved deliberately, bringing his lips in a trail upward and nibbling at her earlobe. Claire was practically panting as he moved his lips down her jawline, back down her neck, finally settling at the lowcut neckline of her tank top. One of his hands was at her neck, entangled in her hair, while the other traced up her waist to her breasts. He cupped his hands under one, pushing it upward while his lips grazed over the top.

Claire moaned and wiggled. Suddenly, she needed more space than the small coach afforded. She wanted to be able to stretch out before him and watch his every reaction as he experienced lovemaking for the first time. “Take me to bed, Jamie.”

Jamie grunted. In one swoop, he had her in his arms and was carrying her to the bed. He set her down gently and she quickly removed her shirt and bra before laying down. Jamie followed suit, almost falling as he tried to take off his shoes and sock along with his shirt at the same time.

He climbed back on the bed and hovered over her, his eyes wild and full of hunger. Claire reached up eagerly and pulled him back down toward her. His mouth didn’t hesitate to take her breast in, using his tongue to graze over her nipple before taking it in his mouth and suckling it eagerly. His hand worked her other breast, his fingers doing a delicate dance on her nipple, as deftly as if he’d done this a thousand times.

Claire was putty underneath his hands and mouth. Every move was made with love and a reverence she'd never experienced with Frank. Her chest heaved as he buried his face in between her breasts. "Christ ye're beautiful."

Claire ran her hands up his back, learning the terrain of his body. He lifted his head and put his mouth over hers, their tongues tangling together. Heat was building in Claire's core, and she started to undulate her hips underneath him.

Jamie brought his hand down and fumbled with the button of her shorts. She reached down to help him and then lifted her hips so he could slide them off along with her panties.

He was kneeling by her legs as she laid back, spread out in front of him. His mouth was agape, his breathing ragged. Claire sat up on her elbows and smiled at the glazed-over look in his eyes. ”Haven't you ever seen a naked woman before?"

Jamie licked his lips and he cleared his throat before answering. "Not one so close." He lowered himself down, laying on his side next to her. His hand gripped her bottom and pulled her in. "And not one that's mine."

Claire shuddered as he explored her body eagerly. His hands roamed along her legs until they reached her bottom. "Ye have the rounded arse I've ever seen," he groaned. He filled his hands with her flesh and squeezed greedily. "Oh God, I've wanted to touch ye like this for so long."

Claire was on fire and she writhed underneath his grip. "Touch me, Jamie," she panted. "Touch all of me."

Jamie released her and she fell back on the pillows. Her legs fell open and Jamie slowly moved his hands toward her center, eager to explore her, but petrified that he wouldn't be able to please her. Claire arched her back, trying to make contact.

His hand stopped on her inner thigh, so close she could almost feel him between her legs... "I dinna know what I'm doing, Claire."

"Just go slow," she said breathlessly, "and pay attention."

He brought his hand between her legs and groaned when he felt the moist heat that had been building there. Claire gasped at the welcome intrusion; she'd been the only one to touch herself in a very long time. She laid back and let him take control.

He was hesitant at first as his fingers explored, but he watched her face and listened to her gasps and moans. When he found the small bud at the top, she cried out, and he kept his fingers there, rubbing in a small circle, eliciting the most wonderful wee noises from her that he'd ever heard.

He moved his fingers down and found her entrance. He pushed them in, groaning at the thought that his cock would soon replace them. He put his thumb back on her clit and continued rubbing while he thrust and curled his fingers inside her.

Claire cried out and her hips lifted off the bed. She managed only to say, "Don't bloody stop," before her moans and purrs turned into a rhythmic cry. Jamie doubled his efforts until her muscles clamped down on his fingers and she screamed as orgasm washed over her. "Keep going," she panted, and he did, watching her as she slowly came down, the look in her eyes far away as if he were the only thing keeping her tethered to the earth.

He laid down next to her and brought his hands to her breasts again, fondling them gently. She turned to face him and smiled lazily. "Was it good for ye, Claire?" he asked eagerly.

She brought her hand up and cupped his cheek. "Yes, Jamie. It was wonderful."

She could feel his erection pressed against her leg and she reached down and rubbed it through his pants. "Christ, Sassenach, be gentle or this will be over before it starts."

Claire ignored him, unbuttoning his pants and pushing them down enough for his cock to spring free. Jamie kicked his legs trying to rid himself of his bottoms quickly, sending Claire into a fit of giggles. "Easy there, lad."

They both started laughing, and Jamie's nerves eased as she helped him get them the rest of the way off. Still giggling, she reached down and cupped his balls in her hand. As he gasped, she brought her lips down on his nipple.

Jamie used his legs to flip her over onto her back. "Do ye think ye can get away with that, ye wee vixen?"

She smiled smugly, and Jamie realized that she'd succeeded in her efforts to get him out of his head. He smiled back and brought his lips to hers, kissing her hungrily.

His cock was ready to explode with the anticipation of it all as it hovered between her legs. "Claire, I canna…"

"I know, Jamie. I'm ready.

He lined himself up and slid inside slowly, groaning as his cock was surrounded by her. Claire gasped and then cried out as he pulled out again and thrust back into her. “Oh God, this willna last long.”

“It’s alright, Jamie. I’m not expecting a marathon your first time. Just relax and enjoy it, ok?”

He nodded and dropped his head down next to her, burying his face in her hair as he began to move again, awkwardly at first, but soon finding his rhythm. Claire gently raked her hands up his back and let out a small cry. “Oh Jamie, it feels so good.”

Everything felt good. The weight of his body on her, the way they fit together like a lock and key, the way his breath caressed her as he groaned in her ear. It felt right like her body had been waiting for him, and he’d finally come home.

Jamie picked up speed, and his rhythm faltered as he neared climax. Claire clung onto him, moving with him until he let out a roar, and she felt the hot rush of him filling her. His arms gave way, and he dropped down on the bed beside her, keeping his leg slung over hers, his head still resting in the crook of her neck.

“Iffrin,” he mumbled.

Claire ran her fingers through his curls, and then massaged his scalp gently with her nails. He was practically purring with pleasure.

“Was it everything you’d thought it would be?” she asked.

“Oh, Christ, no. I couldna ever imagined that in a million years.”

Pleased with herself and with his answer, Claire turned over, so that Jamie was spooning her, his body curled around hers in a perfect fit. His hands found a home on her breasts, cupping them in his hands. “Sassenach?”

“Hmmmmm???”

“I think ye better call John and let him know we won’t be able to make it to his birthday dinner. This is, after all, our honeymoon.”

“Good idea,” she said. “And what should we do the rest of the day to celebrate?”

“Oh, I’ve got plenty of ideas, all of which involve the two of us not leaving this bed."

Claire turned her head and smiled at him. "I like the sound of that."

He kissed her cheek softly and then pulled her body in closer. "I love ye, Mrs. Fraser."

She hummed contentedly, liking the sound of that even more.

Chapter Text

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"What on earth are you doing?" Claire giggled. Jamie was straddling her, holding both of her breasts in his hands, examining them with academic curiosity. He squeezed them, then lifted each before letting them fall back to their natural position. His fingers rolled her nipples carefully, his nose scrunched up in concentration.

"Oh, well, I just realized they're not the same." He looked at Claire seriously, but the twitching in the corner of his mouth gave away his teasing. "So I'm trying to decide which one is my favorite."

Claire burst out laughing. She grabbed a handful of his red curls and tugged on them playfully. "And have you come to any conclusions on the matter?" Her entire body was shaking with laughter.

"Not yet. I think I'm going to need a lot more time with them until I can come to my final decision."

He continued his inspection until Claire's stomach suddenly growled loudly. Jamie groaned and rolled off of her. "Are ye hungry, Sassenach?"

"Ravenous. What time is it?"

Jamie reached for the nightstand and grabbed his phone. He'd missed ten texts from John, each one with increasingly filthy questions about what he was doing with Claire. He'd also missed two calls from his sister. Shite. He hadn't talked to her in a week, so she would already be sore with him when he called to tell her his news. With a sigh, he pushed that idea away and glanced at the time. "It's six o'clock," he told Claire, tossing the phone back on the nightstand.

She rolled onto her stomach, and Jamie reached out and rested his hand on her arse. "Are you enjoying all your new toys?" she asked.

"Verra much, thank you." He pinched her for emphasis and she squealed, squirming away from him.

"I dinna think so, Sassenach. Ye can't get away from me that easily." He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her back while she shrieked and kicked with her legs. Finally, she settled in, nestled with her back against him. "Mmmmm….I could stay like this forever, Claire."

"I couldn't. I need food."

"Fair enough. Do ye want me to order room service?"

***

When the food came Claire wanted to eat in bed, but Jamie looked like he was going to have a stroke when she suggested it. They sat at the table instead, wrapped in bathrobes, Claire's feet in Jamie's lap, sharing a pizza and a bottle of red wine.

"What are we going to do tomorrow?" Claire asked.

Jamie chewed his pizza thoughtfully. "I assumed we'd go home unless ye were planning to stay in Vegas forever."

She poked his stomach with her big toe. "That's not what I meant and you know it. I mean, are you moving in with me?"

"Aye, I don't suppose it would make sense for us to live separately."

The smirk he was giving her made Claire want to smoosh his pizza into his face and then kiss him like a maniac. "I'm serious, Jamie. We have to settle a few things."

"I know, I know. I guess I'm just nervous is all. We've got to pack some very important decisions in very quickly. There's so much we should have already considered."

His face had tensed up, and Claire dropped her feet to the floor so she could lean forward and put her hand on Jamie's cheek. "We'll only make the decisions we have to make today. Everything else we'll save for later, okay?"

They talked over their pizza and wine for over an hour, deciding what their next steps would be once they arrived back in California. Jamie would go to his apartment and collect what he needed for the week while Claire picked up Fergus from Uncle Lamb’s. She’d talk to Lamb privately first, and then take Fergus home to talk to him. Meanwhile, Jamie would call his brother and sister to tell them the news. Once Jamie arrived at her house, their house, they would talk to Fergus again together. Then they would spend the evening together as a family, letting Fergus take the lead.

The following weekend they would take care of moving the rest of Jamie’s things and getting rid of whatever he didn’t need anymore. There were so many other things that needed to be discussed, it made Jamie’s head spin. When he started to get panicky, Claire reached over and squeezed his hand. “One thing at a time.”

With all other matters settled, Claire stood and stretched her whole body. “I think I need a bath. Would you like to join me?”

***

When the large tub was filled and the jets bubbling away, Claire slipped off her robe. She dipped her hand in the water to check the temperature and climbed inside. Jamie followed her, his eyes eager for whatever was to come next, every second a new experience for his body, his heart, and his soul.

The tub had a ledge all around the inside and Claire sat on it, beckoning Jamie to her. He climbed in and settled himself straddled across her legs, with his knees on the ledge on either side of her. He leaned in to kiss her, one hand on the back of her neck, the other tangled in her hair. Their tongues moved together slowly, savoring the freedom to not hold anything back.

Claire pulled back, giggling. His cock was pressing hard against her chest, and she took hold of it, guiding it between her breasts. Jamie’s eyes nearly popped out of his head as she squeezed them together around it. He was twitching with excitement as he grabbed a hold of the edge of the tub and began thrusting slowly.

“Holy Christ in heaven,” he groaned, throwing his head back.

“I’m not sure that he has anything to do with it,” Claire teased. She could spend hours looking at the pure bliss on his face and never grow tired of it.

He thrust up, and Claire ducked her head down, licking the tip quickly. “Holy fuck, do it again, Sassenach.” With each thrust, she grew bolder, circling her tongue around the head, then taking it in quickly before releasing him again.

His hips were thrusting faster, and Claire let go of her breasts. She wrapped her fingers around his cock and guided him toward her mouth. She looked up at him under her lashes as she took him in, teasing the head with the tip of her tongue before wrapping her entire mouth around him and suckling gently. His knees went weak, and he gripped the tub tightly for support. Claire gripped his buttocks with both hands, urging him to move.

Tentatively, he began moving his hips. Claire hummed around him and dug her fingers into him, encouraging him to move with more confidence. He lost track of everything else then. The only things that existed in the world were Claire’s fingers, leaving marks in the sensitive flesh of his arse, her lips, hot and wet around him, and his cock fucking her mouth as if it belonged there, always.

He started thrusting harder, and Claire took control again, moving her mouth up and down his shaft, working it with her tongue like some sort of sorceress — she was sure to be his undoing, but he didn’t care. His stomach muscles tightened and just as he was about to wonder if he should pull out, she looked up at him with her enchanted amber eyes, giving him permission. He thrust once and then everything let go as his cock poured into her. His knees turned to jello, his arms useless appendages. The only thing keeping him upright was her hands still gripping tightly until he was spent.

She let go, finally, and he let himself slide into the water next to her, kneeling on the bottom of the tub, resting his head on her thighs. She ran her fingers through his hair, massaging his scalp with her fingernails. Quite pleased with herself, she giggled mischievously.

"Ye think it's funny that I'm at yer mercy?" He kissed her thigh, and she shivered. "Are ye cold, Sassenach?

"Maybe a little. Let's warm the water up and get each other washed up. Then I think it's bedtime for you, lad."

***

An hour later, they laid in bed together. Claire's head was resting on Jamie's chest and she lazily traced swirls and circles on it with her finger. "This is real," he said quietly, his chest rumbling under Claire's ear.

"Mmmmmmm," Claire responded.

"What if Fergus doesn't like the idea of me barging into your lives?" His voice was tight and constrained. Claire wished more than anything that she could stop his worries from creeping in.

"I'm sure he'll be fine. You've already been spending so much time with us, and he adores you," she reassured him.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I dinna ken the first thing about being a stepfather."

Claire kissed him on the collarbone. "You've already formed a bond with him. There's no rulebook for this. Just keep doing what feels natural.” She sat up on her elbow to get a better look at his face. “Are you regretting our decision?”

He reached up and gently pulled her toward him, kissing her thoroughly. “No. Not for a second. I just get anxious sometimes, Claire — I try not to bother ye with it, but sometimes I can’t help it. And I’m worried that ye’re going to regret this once we get back and reality sets in.”

“Silly man.” She kissed the tip of his nose and then pressed her lips to his. “You think I didn’t know already that you get anxious? You don’t have to hide it from me, and I don’t think you could even if you tried.” She took his hand and pulled it to her chest. Clasping it between both of her hands she said, “Let me be the person you never have to pretend with.”

Jamie’s eyes filled with tears. “I’ve given ye my heart already, Sassenach. I trust ye to hold it close and protect it, and I’ll do the same for you.”

She rolled over on her back, pulling Jamie on top of her. “Come here and let me love you.”

He settled himself between her legs but didn’t move. Instead, he kissed her passionately, pouring his feelings into her. She returned in kind and rocked her hips beneath him. "I need you inside me," she panted.

He obliged her, sliding inside, the hot waves of pleasure spreading through his entire body. The feeling of being inside of her was incomparable to anything he’d experienced in his life. He’s known sex would feel amazing, but nobody had ever told him that he would feel so safe, so enveloped, so loved from the act.

Her body felt wonderful against his. She was so small and delicate; he was suddenly aware of what a responsibility and privilege it was for her to give herself to him. With his body, he could please her, reduce her to molten lava underneath him. It was all at once thrilling and terrifying. God had given him this woman, his wife, and it was his duty as a husband to cherish her in every way he could.

He picked up his pace and drove into her, paying attention as she'd told him to do earlier. He was breathing heavily in her ear, "I love you. I love you. I love you," and with every moan she made, his name was on her lips. He wondered briefly if it would always be like this between them, and, if so, how he would ever get anything done again.

They came together, Claire's contracting around him as he spilled inside her. They both shivered and ran their hands over the other's body, anchoring themselves to each other.

After, they laid together in the dimming light. Jamie picked up Claire’s hand and held it in his, rubbing his thumbs over her knuckles. “Is it always like this, Claire? When ye’re with someone you love? Is it usual?”

She hummed thoughtfully, recalling her own experiences and those that her friends had shared with her. “No, it isn’t usual. It’s never been like this for me before.”

He grunted in satisfaction, turning to his side. Claire curled up behind him, taking the position of the big spoon this time. She looped her arms under his, and he gathered her hands in his and pulled them close to his heart as his breath steadied and slowed as sleep approached. Claire smiled and kissed him between the shoulder blades before closing her eyes and drifting off into a contented sleep.

***

They both slept lightly, highly aware of the other’s naked body so close. They would both drift off and then wake again reaching for each other, eager to join again. They finally accepted defeat around eight in the morning. Jamie reached for Claire again, but she cringed a bit and pushed him away. “No more,” she laughed. “I’m going to need to put an ice pack in my panties on the way home.”

His brow furrowed in concern. “I’m sorry, Sassenach...I didn’t know I was hurting you.”

“You weren’t ever hurting me while we were….it’s just a culmination of all the….”

He raised an eyebrow at her and she covered her face with the pillow. “Of all the amazing sex you’re husband is giving ye?”

She threw the pillow at him playfully. “Yes, in fact. I hope we’re able to fit your ego through the door on the way out.”

He got out of bed and walked toward the table. He had the body of a professional swimmer, Claire thought, lean and muscular with powerful abs and a narrow waist. She was particularly drawn to his taut buttocks, fighting the urge to reach out and pinch it. He was a catch, Claire knew. The fact that he didn’t seem to know that himself made him all the more attractive to her.

He picked up a cold slice of pizza, sniffed it, and took a hesitant bite before throwing it back in the box. “Do ye want to go get some breakfast, Sassenach? We don’t have to leave for the airport for a couple of hours.”

“Sounds like a plan.” She got out of bed and headed for the bathroom. “I’m going to take a quick shower. Why don’t you text John and see if he’s up? Maybe he’ll want to meet us for breakfast.”

Jamie picked up his phone and saw several more lewd text messages from John. He shook his head and shot off a text asking him about breakfast. He clicked on the voicemail button and listened to his sister’s voice, chiding him away from across the sea.

Jamie, it’s me, Jenny. Ye remember me? I’m yer sister who ye seem tae have abandoned completely. I hope ye’re at least on a date; I canna imagine any other reason fer ye no’ tae pick up the phone all evening. When ye get this, please call me back so I ken that ye’re no’ dead in a ditch.

He shook his head and deleted the message, then quickly sent her a text message.

In Vegas for my friend’s birthday. Call you when I get home.

John texted back that he would meet them at the breakfast buffet in half an hour. Jamie put his phone on silent and slipped it back into his pocket.

***

Claire and Jamie were already seated at a table and eating when John came stumbling into the breakfast area. His hair, usually perfectly coiffed, was tousled on top of his head, his clothes rumpled. He wore glasses, something Claire had never seen before. She waved in his direction as he looked around the room through squinted eyes.

When he finally noticed her, he came over and slumped down in his seat. “Rough night?” Claire teased. She pushed a coffee in his direction.

“Amazing night,” he answered hoarsely. “Rough morning. You two work everything out?”

Claire blushed and showed John the ring Jamie had given her the day before. John grabbed her hand and examined it closely. “Damn, Fraser. Nice job. I’m guessing you two had an amazing night too, then.”

It was Jamie’s turn to blush then, and he cleared his throat before answering with a pleased, “Mmmmphhhh.”

“Do you want to get anything to eat?” Claire asked. John waved his hand and shook his head. “OK then, tell us what happened last night.”

They went to a club near the hotel, he told them, and the usual shenanigans ensued — shots, dancing, flirting. “I was having an amazing time, just celebrating my birthday with my friends. Eventually, they all started pairing off, either with each other or people they met there. I have to admit, I started feeling a little sorry for myself — I felt like I was the only single person in the room.”

He decided to make his way back to the hotel, and as he was walking out, a crowd of loud, drunken college kids was walking up the street. One of them stumbled into John, and they both went tumbling to the ground, the frat boy landing on top of John and pinning him to the ground. As John was trying to push the man off of him, the rest of his moronic friends started yelling that they were in front of a gay bar. John saw his entire life flash before his eyes.

As John struggled to get away, someone pulled the man off of him. John tried to scramble up, so he could run away, but a hand reached out to him. He took it and was pulled up only to find himself staring into the softest pair of brown eyes he’d ever seen.

“Thank you,” John said. “I owe you one.”

“It’s no trouble at all,” the man replied in a calming voice. “Do you need assistance back to your hotel?”

John was still shaky from the whole incident, and he looked around. The frat boys had crossed the street, so he didn’t think they would be any trouble. “I’m sure I’ll be fine, but thank you.”

“I really don’t mind,” the man said. “It would make me feel better if I knew you got back safely.” He stuck out a hand to John. “Jeremy Foster, by the way.”

John took the hand and shook it slowly. “John Grey. And thank you. I would feel better if I didn’t have to walk back by myself.”

“And?” Claire asked, impatiently.

“And what? He walked me back to the hotel like the gentleman that he is.”

Claire gave John a withering look while he sipped his coffee slowly. Finally, he put the cup down.

“Oh, fine. And then I brought him up to my room and fucked his brains out.”

Jamie nearly choked on his coffee while Claire high-fived John across the table. “Was it just a hookup? Did you get his number? Where is he from?”

“He’s in the Coast Guard, so he’s stationed close to San Jose. And yes, I did get his number.”

Jamie had recovered himself by then. “That’s awesome, John. I’m sorry we didn’t make it, but it sounds like it all worked out.”

John nodded slowly, looking at Claire and Jamie’s hands linked on the table. “Yes, I think everything worked out.”

***

A few hours later, all three of them were in the air, flying back to California. Claire lifted the armrest between them and cuddled up with Jamie. “Have I told ye yet what the Fraser clan motto is, Sassenach?” She shook her head. “It’s Je Suis Prest.”

“Is that French?” she asked.

“Aye. It means, ‘I am ready.’”

“Hmmmmm,” she answered. “Interesting.” She had no idea where he was going with this.

He kissed the top of her head. “Are ye ready, Sassenach?”

She looked at him for a minute, her brow furrowed in confusion. Finally, realization dawned on her. “Oh!!! Yes. I am ready...Ummm...Jus-we-pray.”

He threw his head back and laughed. “Close enough, Sassenach. Close enough.”

Chapter Text

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Jamie pulled the car up to the curb outside Uncle Lamb's house. He squeezed Claire's hand and then brought it to his mouth to kiss her knuckles. "I'll be back later, and I'll bring dinner for all of us. Thai? Indian?"

"Surprise me." Claire took a deep breath to steady herself. She glanced out the window and saw Fergus's face pop up in the front window and then disappear. "Ready or not."

Jamie leaned over and kissed her quickly. "I love you."

"I love you, too."

She opened the door just as Fergus was running toward them. "Mama! Jamie! I missed you." He dove into Claire's lap before she could swing her legs around to get out of the car.

Jamie ruffled his hair and laughed. "I missed ye too, laddie."

Claire smothered him in kisses until he pulled away. "Yuck, enough Mama!"

"Alright then, get off me, so I can go inside and get your things. I need to talk with Uncle Lamb anyway."

Fergus scrambled down and Claire followed him out of the car. She turned to close the door and mouthed "Good luck," to Jamie.

He smiled, his eyes crinkling in the corners, and nodded. He watched as she walked away from him, holding Fergus's hand. My family. The thought was overwhelming, and he quickly wiped away a tear before putting the car in drive and heading back to his apartment to pack.

***

"You did what?!??!?!"

Jamie was thankful that he had the phone on speaker and away from his ear when he gave the good news to his sister. Otherwise, he might have gone deaf from her reaction. "I said 'I got married,' Janet. There's no need to act like I just told ye I've committed murder." He carefully folded his boxer briefs and placed them in his suitcase.

Jenny was breathing heavily on the other end of the phone; she was five thousand miles away but he could feel her wrath. He shuddered and continued his packing, waiting for her to make the next move.

"How could ye no' even tell me ye’d gotten serious with someone?"

"It all happened verra fast…"

"Mary, Michael, and Bride," she muttered. Jamie was sure she was doing a sign of the cross. "How long have ye kent this woman?"

"Jenny, what does it matter?"

"The fact that ye're avoiding the question tells me it matters quite a bit."

Jamie sighed, rubbing his face with his hand. "Fine, Jenny. Here's everything ye need tae ken," he said. "Her name is Claire. I met her six weeks ago —"

"Six weeks?!?!?"

"Hauld yer wheesht and let me tell ye everything, Janet. Christ, if we have to stop fer ye to have a heart attack every sentence, we'll be here all night, and I'd like tae get home tae my wife and stepson."

"Stepson?!??!"

"Janet!"

"Fine," she grumbled. "Go on then."

Jamie set the phone on the bathroom counter and busied himself packing his toiletries. "Six weeks ago, when I was still out of work, John told me his good friend owned a small business and was looking for a business manager. I met with Claire the next day, and she hired me on the spot."

"She's yer boss?!?!?"

"Goddammit, stop interrupting me."

She went silent.

"We just clicked. I canna explain it — I've never experienced anything like it in my life. And yes, she has a five-year-old son named Fergus, and I love him too." He wanted nothing more than to be with them at that very moment.

"I dinna understand how ye went from dating to marrit in six weeks, Jamie." She sighed as if already exhausted with the whole situation. "Does she ken about the winery, Jamie? What if she's after yer money?"

Jamie slammed his suitcase closed. "I'll thank ye tae stop talking about my wife like she's a gold-digging hoor."

"What do ye want me tae say, Jamie? This doesna make any sense. Did ye at least marry her in kirk?"

Jamie cringed, steeling himself for her next reaction. "No, I didna. We were in Vegas, for one, and we wouldna anyway. Claire is Jewish. And don't ye dare say a negative word about that, Jenny, or I'll be even more disappointed in ye than I am already. "

Instead of the barrage of obscenities he'd expected, Jenny fell silent. Jamie tapped his fingers impatiently as his sister breathed into the phone. Finally, she spoke again, her voice quiet and strained. "Sounds like ye've made yer decision then. Nothing more tae be said about it."

"Aye."

"Good-bye, Jamie."

"Jenny, I love ye."

He was met with silence, save the beeping sound of a disconnected call.

***

Claire dropped her and Fergus's bags at the foot of the stairs, hoping that Jamie's conversation with his sister had gone as well as her talk with Lamb. Ever supportive, he'd simply laughed and shaken his head. "Oh my Claire-bear, you have always kept me on my toes. In the grand scheme of all your impulsive decisions, this one doesn't worry me a bit. Jamie is a good man, and he looks at you as if you're the center of the universe. And Fergus is fond of him, too."

He'd handed her a drawing Fergus had done that weekend, a small boy in the middle of a curly-haired woman and tall redhead, both holding his hands. She'd had to fight back tears seeing it, her nerves about telling Fergus settling slightly. Did he already think of Jamie as part of the family?

There was no time like the present to find out. Jamie would be arriving in an hour or so, and she needed to give Fergus enough time to process the news and ask questions.

He'd taken off to find one of his toys as soon as they'd walked in the door. Claire went upstairs and knocked softly on his door. "Come in, Mama."

He was on the floor surrounded by Legos, an unfinished structure in front of him. "Which one is that you're building?" she asked, sitting down cross-legged on the floor next to him.

"Racecar transporter," he mumbled, concentrating on the task before him.

"Do you need any help?" she asked.

"No," he answered. "Is Jamie coming over later?"

"Yep. Why do you ask?"

"I'll have him help me."

Claire sighed, chuckling at his brutal honesty. She picked up one of the toy pieces and fiddled with it. "I have to talk to you about something, Fergus."

"Ok." He stared at the instructions with his brow furrowed.

She reached out and gently lifted his chin. "Can you stop playing for just a minute?"

He sighed deeply but set the instructions down. "What Mama?"

"You know how Jamie and I went away this weekend?" He looked at her impatiently. "Well, while we were away, we decided that we love each other so much that we wanted to get married. So while we were there, we did."

Fergus looked at her, his face screwed up in confusion. His lower lip began to quiver and then suddenly he burst out in tears.

"Oh, darling." Claire pulled him into her lap and kissed the top of his head. Of all the reactions she'd expected, this was not one of them. "What's the matter? Do you not like Jamie?"

Fergus sniffled and pulled away, giving Claire a puzzled look. "I do like Jamie, Mama. I'm just sad that you didn't invite me to the wedding.”

Relieved, Claire laughed and kissed the tears on his cheeks. "I'm sorry, sweetie. We didn't intentionally leave you out. The only one there was Uncle John."

"OK, Mama." He crawled out of her lap and went back to his toys. "Is Jamie going to live here now?"

"Yes. He's coming with dinner in a little bit, and he'll stay. Next weekend we'll probably move the rest of his things." Her stomach flipped delightfully thinking of Jamie sleeping in her bed every night.

"Good. He's the best at Legos."

Claire kissed him on the cheek one more time before leaving him to his toys. She sighed with relief and went to her room to get ready for Jamie.

***

Jamie's call had gone much better with his older brother, Willie. He wasn't surprised; Willie had always been the most easygoing of the three siblings. He was surprised at how genuinely happy Willie sounded for him, and he told him as much.

"Ye shouldn't be surprised. Ye sound happy — happier than ye've sounded in a long time. A guy like you needs a good woman to keep him in line."

"That she does," he laughed. "She's wonderful, Willie. Truly. I know ye'll love her."

So despite his sister's reaction, Jamie arrived at Claire's house — his house — with a light heart. He pulled into the driveway behind Claire's car and grabbed the bags of Indian food he'd picked up, along with some McDonald's for Fergus.

When he reached the door, he started to knock, catching himself at the last second. Christ, man, what are ye so nervous for? She's already married ye.

He opened the door tentatively and stepped inside. "Hello? I'm he….home."

He sidestepped the overnight bags still at the bottom of the stairs and set the dinner bags down on the kitchen counter. Claire came down the stairs then and wrapped her arms around him from behind, pressing her face into his back. "Welcome home."

He turned around and squeezed her tightly, inhaling the familiar smell of her hair — coconuts with a hint of lime. “How’d it go?” he asked.

Fergus came bounding down the stairs then, carrying his partially constructed toy. “Jamie! Mama says you’re going to live here now, so can we work on my racecar transporter after dinner? What is that stuff you brought? It smells funny.”

Claire rolled her eyes and Jamie laughed heartily. “It’s Indian food, but don’t worry — I got ye McDonald’s. And yes, we can work on your race car transporter after dinner.”

He kissed Claire on the cheek and whispered, “We’ll talk about it all later, aye?”

***

At Fergus’s request, Jamie put him to bed that night. He ignored the overnight bags still on the floor by the stairs as he joined Claire on the couch with two glasses of wine. He handed one to Claire and they clinked them together before taking a sip. Claire tucked her legs up under herself and leaned her head on Jamie’s shoulder.

"I take it yer chat with wee Fergus went fine."

Claire ran her fingers up and down Jamie's forearm. "He was more disappointed that he didn't get invited to the wedding than anything."

Jamie chuckled, his shoulders shaking. "He's a good lad. And yer Uncle? He wasn't upset?"

"Not at all." She sat up so she could kiss him gently. "Do you want to tell me how it went with your sister?"

Jamie shook his head and reached out to tuck Claire's hair behind her ear. His fingers lingered, twirling it around his fingers and watching it spring back to its rightful place. "It's nothing for ye to fash yerself about. She'll get over it."

Claire considered pressing him further but thought the better of it. "And Willie?" she asked instead.

"He was verra happy for us. He even invited us out for Thanksgiving, but I told him I'd have to ask the boss first."

"Good call," she laughed. "I don't know if we have enough coverage for the shop to travel all the way to the east coast." She paused and sipped her wine.

Jamie cocked an eyebrow at her. "What are ye thinking, Sassenach?"

"Tell me if this is a terrible idea, but...would they be willing to come here for the holiday? I know it's a lot to ask, but it would be nice to meet some of your family. And Fergus has never had cousins to play with on the holidays."

"I think that's a wonderful idea, Claire." He set his wine glass on the coffee table and kissed her on the forehead. "I'll text him tomorrow to ask. Which reminds me. Check yer phone. Willie asked for your number.

Claire smiled and pulled her phone out of her pocket. Sure enough, when she opened it she had a text from an unfamiliar number.

Welcome to the family, Claire. -WSMMF

She smiled and texted back.

Thanks, that means a lot. Can't wait to meet you and the rest of the fam.

That business being taken care of, Claire cuddled up closer to Jamie and kissed him. He glanced quickly in the direction of the stairs and then turned back to Claire. He put one hand behind her head and pulled her in closer, deepening the kiss. Claire let out a small moan and threw a leg over Jamie so that she was straddling him. She rocked her hips into him and kissed him down his jawline to his neck.

One second he was with her completely, his hands roaming along her back, his pelvis pushing up to meet her. Then, suddenly, he glanced at the stairs again. Claire pulled away, panting. “What’s wrong? Are you worried about Fergus coming downstairs? He’s a heavy sleeper.” She brought her lips to his again and attempted to resume their activities.

“It’s no’ that,” Jamie said breathlessly as she kissed his neck and started pulling his shirt up.

“What is it then?” she practically whined.

“Do ye no’ think that ye should unpack the overnight bags? I’ve already unpacked most of my things.”

Claire stopped and stared at him, bewildered. “Are you really worried about me unpacking a couple of suitcases? Now?”

Red crept up Jamie’s neck and he cleared his throat. “Well, it’s only that, I mean...shouldn’t ye take care of them before we get distracted?”

Claire took a deep breath and stared at Jamie contemplatively. Finally, she slid off his lap and pushed his knees apart. She quickly unbuttoned his pants and pulled his zipper down. “What are ye doing, Claire?” he asked as she pushed his underwear down, revealing his half-hard cock.

She grasped it by the base and looked up at him under hooded eyes. “Making you forget about the bloody suitcases,” she said before taking him in her mouth.

And within seconds, he did.

***

Their brief detente over the suitcases was shattered the next day when a bleary-eyed Jamie, still getting accustomed to waking up in a new place, tripped over them in the dim light of the morning.

Gòrach pìos de cac!” He kicked the offending bag, stubbing his toe on one of the wheels. “Iffrin!

He limped into the kitchen, muttering more Gaelic obscenities. He slammed through the cupboards looking for the coffee, shaking his head at the way Claire had the kitchen organized. When he finally found what he was looking for, he grumbled again seeing that it was Starbucks brand.

He was so immersed in his righteous indignation, he didn’t hear Fergus approaching, and when the lad pulled on Jamie’s shirt and said, “Good morning,” Jamie jumped a good foot into the air. The coffee went flying and Fergus jumped back, tumbling over a nearby stool.

Jamie froze for a second, unsure which disaster to attend to first, but quickly recovered his wits and went to Fergus, who was sitting on the floor in tears. Jamie squatted down and asked, “Are ye alright, lad? Are ye hurt?”

Fergus sniffled and pointed to his ankle. A small bruise was appearing, most likely where his leg had become tangled in the legs of the stool. Jamie touched it gingerly. “Does this hurt?”

Fergus winced but didn’t pull back. “Just a little,” he answered.

“Can you move yer ankle?”

Fergus obliged, and Jamie was satisfied that the injury wasn’t severe. “Come here, lad.” He scooped him and held him tight in his arms until Fergus relaxed and the sniffling ceased.

“What were you saying when I came downstairs?” Fergus asked when he was back on his feet and walking around as if the last five minutes hadn’t happened.

Jamie had disappeared into a small closet to locate the broom. “Nothing,” he called over his shoulder. “I was just being a duine gruamach.”

He came out of the closet with the broom, and Fergus gave him a strange look. “Are you speaking another language?”

Jamie smiled as he cleaned up the spilled coffee grounds. “Aye. It’s Gaelic — one of the languages we spoke where I grew up.”

“But you learned to speak English too?”

“Aye. And Scots.”

“Wow.” Fergus stared wide-eyed at Jamie. “You speak three languages?”

Jamie pushed the coffee grounds into the dustpan and stood with a small groan. “Actually, I speak six languages — English, Gaelic, Scots, French, Latin, and Greek.”

“Can you teach me some?” Fergus asked.

Jamie deposited the mess into the trash and returned the broom to the closet. “Of course I can. Which do ye want to learn first?”

Fergus scrunched his nose and squinted his eyes, clearly deep in thought. Finally, he asked, “What’s your favorite?”

“The Gaelic is the closest to my heart.”

Fergus nodded. “Let’s start with that one.”

Jamie kept his face composed, but inside his emotions were erupting like fireworks. “That would be fine,” he said with a small nod. “Just fine.”

He got the coffee brewing and threw several pieces of bread in the toaster oven. Then, he went upstairs to wake up Claire, picking up the two bags at the bottom of the stairs on the way.

***

By the time they all got home Tuesday night, everyone was exhausted. The shop had been busier than it had ever been, and even Fergus seemed like he'd had a hard day. Jamie took his backpack as soon as they got in the house and started rifling through the papers inside while Claire got started on dinner.

"What's this, Fergus?" Jamie asked.

Fergus had already seated himself at the table playing with his action figures. "It's your reminder note. Tomorrow's the Halloween Party. Mama's in charge of the party."

Claire turned around, her eyes wide with horror, the color drained from her face. "Tomorrow is Halloween?" she asked in a detached voice.

Jamie glanced at his watch and then back up at Claire, “Aye. With everything going on, I completely forgot. What do we need to do?”

Claire slumped down into a chair and put her head in her hands. “This is an unmitigated disaster,” she said, ignoring Jamie’s question.

Fergus burst out in tears. “I don’t even have a costume!” he wailed.

“Dinna fash, lad. We’ll get ye a costume. I’ll go to Target right now. Claire? I need to know what we have to do for this party.”

She looked up, her eyes still glazed over. “There’s a list,” she said hoarsely. “It has all the rules for what type of snacks we can bring and all the classroom allergies.”

“Where’s the list?”

“Somewhere in my car? I think?”

“Where are yer keys?”

She shrugged.

Jamie swore under his breath and began searching for the keys. “We just got home ten minutes ago. How could ye have lost yer keys already?”

All at once, her eyes snapped into focus and she glared at Jamie. “Do you think right now is the best time to lecture me about losing things?”

“Fair enough,” Jamie replied as he rummaged through a drawer. He mumbled under his breath, “How many junk drawers do you have?”

“What was that?”

“I said, ‘Found them!’” Jamie replied, holding them up. “You keep cooking dinner. I’ll go fetch the list.”

Claire’s car had been sitting idle for days — perhaps even a week or more considering Jamie was usually the one who drove. He opened the passenger door and was quickly reminded of one of the reasons they always took his car.

The passenger seat was a wasteland of discarded food wrappers, various papers, charging cords, and all manner of other items Claire had tossed aside for one reason or other. As he sifted through the mess, he counted no less than five half-drunk water bottles. He tossed those aside and rifled through the papers, most of which were PTA flyers of some sort. When he finally found the note about the party, he skimmed it quickly, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Claire!” he called as he walked back into the house. “How am I supposed to buy Halloween treats with all of these allergies? Yellow Dye #5? And the limitations on grams of sugar per serving? It’s Halloween for Christ’s sake! Can’t the weans have anything fun to eat?”

Claire turned from the range and gave him a sympathetic look. “Do they all have to be the same?”

Jamie cleared his throat. “It says, and I quote, ‘While the treats do not need to be exactly the same for each student, they should be comparable. For example, a child with a gluten allergy should not be eating fruit while all the other children are eating cookies.’”

“Why don’t we think about it over dinner?” she suggested.

“Can ye just set aside a plate for me, Sassenach? I’d rather just get to the store in case this takes a while.”

Claire set down the spoon she’d been stirring with and walked over to him, taking his hands. “This isn’t your problem to fix, you know. I can handle it.”

“I do know that, a nighean. It’s only — “ he glanced at the table where Fergus sat and then back at Claire.

“Alright,” she said, catching the meaning of that small look. “I love you. Don’t be out too late.”

***

Jamie was a man on a mission in Target. While his ancestors had hunted wild boar in the wilderness of the Highlands to feed their families, Jamie, armed only with a debit card and shopping cart, braved the wilds of Target to make sure his first mission of fatherhood was a successful one.

It wasn’t easy. The shelves had been ravaged already and there was very little in the way of decorations for baked goods and the like. Still, he was able to purchase most of the food items he needed, and a helpful woman in the baking aisle was kind enough to let him know that most of the other items he needed could be found at Michael’s, which was in the same shopping plaza.

Pleased with himself, he headed over to the Halloween Costumes and stopped dead in his tracks. The scene was nothing short of post-apocalyptic. Some of the few remaining costumes were hanging haphazardly on one rack while others were scattered on the floor. He picked his way through the spoils trying to find anything that would suit Fergus’s request for his costume to be a “super cool good guy hero with a cool weapon.”

Hoping that the selection would be better at Michael’s he began to turn the cart around. He was struggling to get around all of the abandoned accessories on the floor when two plastic swords caught his eye. He picked them up and examined them quickly. They were in perfect condition despite having been tossed aside and left to be trampled on. An idea came to life in his mind, and he threw the swords in his cart and headed to the checkout.

***

It was two in the morning when Jamie finally crawled into bed with Claire. His presence stirred her awake, and she rolled over, instinctively putting her hand out to rest on his chest. “How’d it all go?” she asked. “Are you ready for tomorrow?”

Jamie reached around and grabbed a handful of her arse, pulling her in close to his body. “Aye. I’ll leave work a wee bit early tomorrow to put the final touches on everything, but it’s mostly done.” His hands fumbled at the waistband of her pajama pants and she giggled sleepily, helping him to push them down.

He hadn’t bothered to put on any bottoms, so as soon as she was free of hers, Jamie pulled her leg on top of his, holding it behind her bent knee. He slid inside of her easily, making him wonder if she’d been dreaming about him before he’d gotten there. A loud groan escaped his lips at the thought.

They made love slowly and lazily, their foreheads pressed together, sleepy eyes half-closed. Most of the times they’d made love over the last few days had been urgent, hungry, and though Jamie had felt a desperate need for her, it wasn’t the same. They were making love because they wanted each other, but in the most ordinary way, as if they needed each other at the end of a long day the way one needs to drink water or even breathe.

“Oh God, I love you Claire,” he choked out as he spilled himself inside her. She hadn’t finished yet, and he brought his hand between her legs and gently urged her clit to action until she let out a small cry and went limp in his arms. They both fell asleep immediately, Jamie still inside of her, his hand cupping her possessively, a sleepy smile on both their lips.

***

Jamie left the shop at eleven the next morning so that he could go home and gather everything he needed for the party. When Claire arrived at the school at one, Jamie had already signed in. “I didn’t know Fergus’s father was so handsome, Mrs. Beauchamp.” The school secretary still looked a bit flush from her encounter with Jamie. “Where’s he been all this time?”

The question was sincere, so Claire simply smiled at her while she wrote Claire Fraser on the sign-in sheet. She didn’t bother to correct her about Fergus’s paternity. “It’s a long story,” she said finally.

Smiling to herself, she rounded the corner toward Fergus’s classroom and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the two figures standing in the hallway with their backs to her. One tall, broad shoulders, head topped with fiery red hair, the other barely reaching his waist, dark curls, and a slender build, but both dressed as fierce Highland warriors, kilts included. “Jamie! Fergus!” she called.

They both turned around and smiled broadly. Fergus ran toward her, plastic sword in hand. “Mama! Jamie and I are both Highland Warriors!” he exclaimed as he plunged into her.

She laughed, even as Jamie joined them and kissed her chastely. “You look incredibly sexy,” she whispered in his ear.

He let out a low growl and whispered back, “I’ll leave it on for later, aye?”

She flushed pink and looked away quickly. Fergus was pulling on her hand leading her to the classroom. “Come on, Mama! Jamie made the coolest treats!”

The classroom was organized chaos as the children finished putting on their costumes and prepared for the Halloween party. Jamie had set out the treats he’d stayed up half the night making on a counter, and Claire weaved around the kids to see them for the first time.

She could see why he’d been up all night. The treats were adorable. Bananas covered in white chocolate with little black eyes that he called “Boo-nanas” and gluten-free pretzel rods covered in green chocolate, raisins at the tips -- witch fingers. There wasn’t a child in the room who couldn’t eat both of them, and they would have put the PTA moms to shame.

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She could feel tears burning in her eyes, and she turned quickly to rearrange them on the tray. She didn’t feel at all worthy of this man who had come into their lives and loved her despite her many flaws, but more importantly, was more of a father to Fergus than his biological father had ever been. Jamie didn’t just love them, he prized them. It mattered to him that they were happy and cared for. He doted on them, doing whatever he could to make them happy.

Jamie placed his hand on the small of her back and she smiled at him. “You ok?” he asked quietly.

“Do you regret marrying me?” she asked.

“No, why would I?”

“Because if you hadn’t married me, your life would be a lot simpler.”

“But I wouldn’t know how to make Boo-nana Pops and Witch Fingers,” he teased.

She laughed softly. “I’m serious Jamie. We’ve got a lot more Halloweens and Christmases and Easters for me to mess up.”

“I like a challenge, Sassenach. Don’t ye think I knew what ye were about the very first day we met? I may have been drunk when I married ye, but I knew exactly what I was doing.” He picked up the tray of goodies and turned to face the class of eager children. “Who’s ready for treats?”

Claire laughed as her ridiculously tall husband handed out the homemade treats to all the little princesses and superheroes. He stopped and spoke to each one, admiring their costumes. Fergus was beaming as he waited for his delivery. When Jamie got to him, he squatted down and put his hand on Fergus’s back as he spoke quietly to him.

The teacher came over to her then, a young cheerful woman who’d always been kind to Claire, despite needing to constantly remind her to sign things or check on Fergus’s homework. “I didn’t even know you were engaged,” she said to Claire. She looked Jamie up and down pointedly. “You are a lucky woman, Claire.”

Claire nodded, a smile plastered on her face. “I certainly am.”

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Part II

Jamie woke slowly, his arms instinctively giving Claire a wee squeeze. Of all the things he loved about being married to Claire, waking up with her pressed against him was most definitely in his top five. She always fell asleep curled against him, even on top of him sometimes, and stayed that way throughout the night, as if even in her sleep her body was drawn to him like a magnet.

It didn't bother him in the slightest. He'd never slept better in his life. On nights when his anxiety got the best of him, he held her close, speaking to her quietly about his worries. She always stayed awake and listened, even when she was exhausted, and sleep tried to pull her under. She murmured reassuring words back to him, her sweet voice a soothing lullaby. Other times, she'd turn to him, press their lips together until all was forgotten, and they lost themselves in each other. They'd make love until they were both too tired to do anything but give in to unconsciousness. On nights when the words wouldn't come to him, or she fell asleep before him, he'd lie awake and watch her sleeping, letting her peaceful countenance and the steady rhythm of her breathing pull him into slumber with her. Last night they'd done all three, and the memory of their lovemaking, of Claire, looking up at him under hooded eyelids as she took him in her mouth, made him very much want to return the favor.

Besides their nightly rituals together, Jamie found comfort in the routines of family life. He’d spent many years on his own, coming home to a perfectly neat and clean, but achingly quiet apartment. Since he’d married Claire, his life was much louder and messier, but so much fuller. He loved being a husband and stepfather, and he was eager to share his new family with his brother and godfather, Murtagh.,

Murtagh had arrived from Scotland the day before. When he'd heard that Willie's family would be joining them for Thanksgiving, he'd taken the opportunity to meet Jamie's new wife and booked a ticket to California. They'd had a wonderful evening catching up. Murtagh seemed to be smitten with Claire and Fergus, the old curmudgeon smiling under his mustache all night, in spite of himself.

Still, Jamie was nervous as hell. His brother's family was arriving today, and he couldn't help but worry about his brother's approval, despite that he'd outwardly been nothing but congratulatory about Jamie's hasty nuptials. Claire had insisted they stay with them, rather than get a hotel, and Jamie had a distinct feeling Claire had no idea what it was like to have a loud, boisterous family of Scots descend on your house. She'd said that was what she wanted — she'd never had much family growing up, and holidays with Frank were quiet at first and then later grim, but he just hoped she truly knew what she was getting herself into.

No matter. It was early yet; they didn't have to pick his brother and family up at the airport for several hours. They'd both taken the week off, leaving the shop in George's capable hands. They had plenty of time.

He kissed her gently and ran his fingers featherlight along the curves of her body. Some days he still couldn't believe this life was truly his. He'd spent so many years in a lonely bed, that to wake up with the most beautiful woman on the planet curled up next to him — to be able to touch her and take her — was almost unbelievable.

His hands found the waist of her panties and pushed them down. He palmed her, and she moaned, beginning to stir, and rolled her hips toward him. With a mischievous grin, he pushed the covers off and kissed his way down, shimmying his body as he went until he reached her pubic bone. He pulled her underwear down all the way, tossing them aside, and then lifted one of her legs, settling his head between them.

This had been one of the greatest surprises of married life. Never had he known how erotic the scent and taste of a woman would be. He'd known that it brought women pleasure, but he'd never imagined the pleasure it would bring him. The taste of her was intoxicating, and to draw pleasure out of her in that way — he could think of no greater gift he could give them both.

Claire had never known this pleasure either, before him. The idea that Frank had told her it was unsanitary, all the while accepting her mouth on him whenever he requested, made him want to fly across the country and punch the stupid idiot. At the same time, he was glad of it. This was something only they shared, a fulfillment only he had ever given her. It was a secret shared only between the two of them.

Claire moaned and rocked her hips as he teased her with his tongue. He looked up quickly and saw her eyelids flutter. Her hands reached down and tangled in his hair as he rolled her onto her back and pushed his hands under her, pushing her up to meet his mouth.

She cried out softly and tugged on his curls as he circled her clit with his tongue. Every noise she made rippled through this own body with pleasure, spurring him on to find the ever-changing sweet spot that would make her lose herself completely to him.

This was another thing nobody had told him about making love. There were reliable moves he could always use to rouse her body, but the subtleties of it all — the exact spot, the pressure, the motion needed was mercurial. And if there was one sure thing, Jamie loved a challenge.

He suckled her softly, and she jolted against him. He chuckled against her and continued, her noises getting more frantic, her breathing ragged. "Jamie," she squeaked.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door. Jamie's head jerked toward it, and Claire's head popped off the pillow, her eyes wide. "Jamie," Murtagh's voice rang through the door, "are ye still asleep, man? Wake up!"

"No," Jamie growled, shaking his head. "No." He pulled her closer and attacked her with vigor, sucking on her sensitive nub while sliding two fingers inside her, pumping them in and out.

She tossed her head to the side and bit down on the pillowcase, trying to stop herself from screaming. One hand was still gripping his hair, the other shot above her head, slamming against the headboard as she came hard, pulsing around Jamie's fingers. Christ, he'd never tire of feeling her let go with him.

He crawled up and kissed her, all the while Murtagh kept knocking on the door. "You better get that," she said sleepily, wiping her hand across his face to help make him presentable. He nibbled at her fingers before throwing the blanket back over her and tucking her back in.

"Enough, dammit. I'll be right there," he called as he got off the bed to find his pants. "I told you we should have gotten everyone a hotel," he mumbled to Claire.

She laughed and rolled over, closing her eyes again. Jamie pulled on his pants and opened the door. "What is it, Murtagh?"

"Has my knock grown so feeble, ye canna hear it, or have your marriage duties made ye sluggish," Murtagh teased. He glanced at the bed, catching a glimpse of Claire's bare back peeking out from the blanket, and then noticed Jamie's half-dressed state. "Oh, I…. well then. I just thought we ought to get moving. The lad's up and I dinna ken what traffic will be like getting to the airport."

Jamie rolled his eyes. The only person in the world more intent on being punctual than himself was Murtagh. "Their plane doesna land for a few hours. We've got plenty of time."

"Weel, I didna want to be late," Murtagh replied sheepishly.

Jamie sighed and patted his godfather on the shoulder. "Dinna fash. I'll take a shower and be down shortly."

Satisfied, Murtagh headed back downstairs. Jamie shook his head, laughing quietly as he closed and locked the door. He jumped back in bed with Claire and hovered over her, giving her tiny kisses until she was laughing in his arms. "I'm sorry mo nighean donn, I meant to take care of ye more thoroughly this morning, but I think Murtagh has other ideas."

"That's all right." She reached between his legs and gave him a gentle squeeze. "I'll make sure we find time to take care of this later."

He grunted and kissed her on the nose. "I'll be looking forward to it all day." He rolled off her and sighed. "I better get in the shower. You go back to sleep, Sassenach. I'll wake you when breakfast is ready."

He tried to get up, but she pulled him back, pulling his lips to hers and kissing him thoroughly. "What was that for?" he asked.

"To thank you for being the best husband in the world," she said, rolling over on her side and pulling the blankets up to her ears. "And to make you think about what's coming later."

He smacked her on the arse, shaking his head as he got up. Whatever happened over the next few days was sure to be interesting.

***

When Jamie got downstairs, Fergus and Murtagh were sitting on the couch together. Fergus was on his tablet, periodically shoving it in Murtagh's face and prattling on about Minecraft. Murtagh was doing his part, nodding politely as he listened with glazed-over eyes.

He got up when he saw Jamie and followed him into the kitchen. "Are ye a Minecraft expert yet?" Jamie teased.

"I dinna understand a thing he's talking about," he grumbled. "But he's braw, Jamie. Such a nice lad. I can see why ye're so fond of him."

Jamie smiled, glancing at the head of brown curls peeking out over the back of the couch. "I couldna imagine my life wi'out him. I always kent he and Claire were a package deal; I wouldna have one wi'out the other." He reached into the fridge and started pulling out breakfast ingredients.

Murtagh slid into one of the chairs at the counter. "It's good to see ye so happy, Jamie. After everything…weel, I can tell how good Claire is for ye."

Jamie's back was to Murtagh as he began cooking. A question had been weighing on his mind, something he would have asked his sister if they were on speaking terms. "Do ye think my mam would have liked, Claire? Do ye think she would have approved?"

Murtagh was quiet for a moment. Ellen had been his best friend, and her death had been difficult for him. After she passed, he'd thrown himself into his role as Jamie's godfather, becoming a second father figure to him.

Finally, Murtagh cleared his throat. "I'm no' a psychic, ye ken." Jamie rolled his eyes. "But I'll tell ye this. Yer mam had the sweetest smile. It warmed a man to the bone just to see it." Jamie turned around and watched Murtagh curiously. "When Claire greeted me at the airport yesterday, weel...to see her smile at me…I havena seen a smile like that in a verra long time."

Murtagh wiped his face, and Jamie politely ignored the two tears that dripped down his cheek, catching in his graying beard. "Thank ye," he said quietly.

Murtagh brushed it off with a wave of his hand, and Jamie turned back to the stove. "Fergus!" he called. "Go wake up yer ma, please. Breakfast is almost ready."

Fergus scrambled off the couch and went about the stairs while Jamie and Murtagh set the table. "The turkey's still frozen solid," he told Murtagh under his breath.

"Och, does the lass ken what she's doing? It's an awfully big meal to be preparing by herself."

Jamie poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Murtagh, then poured another one, adding cream and sugar before setting it by Claire's spot. "I dinna ken, but I have contingency plans just in case."

Murtagh raised a conspiratorial eyebrow at Jamie but said nothing more. Just then Fergus bounded back down the stairs with Claire following in her robe, her hair wild on top of her head. She was so beautiful it made Jamie's heart ache. "Good morning, Sassenach."

"Mmmmppphhhh." She sat down in the chair and sipped her coffee. "Breakfast smells delicious."

Jamie walked over with the frying pan and scooped a spoonful of scrambled eggs onto her plate, placing a kiss on the top of her head as he did. "You should serve our guest first," she chided.

"Dinna fash, lassie," Murtagh jumped in. "Ladies first."

They all ate breakfast together, and then Claire went back upstairs to get ready. An hour later, Murtagh and Jamie were both wearing a path in the floor with their pacing. "Claire," Jamie called from the bottom of the stairs, "We're going to be late if ye dinna hurry up."

"Just five more minutes!" she called back.

"She said that ten minutes ago," Murtagh muttered.

Jamie rolled his eyes but didn't answer. He was well aware of the drill by now, which is why he'd told Claire their plane was arriving half an hour earlier than it actually was. Fergus plopped on the floor in exasperation.

"Fergus, dinna think about taking those shoes off," Jamie said without missing a beat.

Murtagh smiled at Jamie. "He reminds me of ye when ye were a wee laddie."

Jamie's face flushed. There was absolutely no reason that Fergus would take after him any more than any other five-year-old, but the fact that his godfather recognized how important Fergus was to him made him happy. He bent down and picked Fergus up. "Are ye excited to meet yer cousins, lad?"

Fergus nodded excitedly. "I'm gonna share all my toys with them!"

Jamie kissed him on the cheek and set him back down again. "Claire!"

"All right, I'm coming!"

***

If there was one thing Claire was learning about being a Fraser, it was that they did everything together, and the trip to the airport was no exception. It didn't matter that Willie had to rent a car for his large family and was perfectly capable of navigating to their house. They all piled in the car to meet them at the airport regardless. Jamie would drive his brother and his kids home in the rental while Claire drove everyone else, including Willie's wife, Anne, home in Jamie's car.

Claire had no idea what to expect. Jamie had told her little about Willie's wife except that she was American and was a counselor at an addiction recovery center. Jamie had assured her that she had no issue with the fact that they owned a marijuana dispensary, but she couldn't help but worry that Anne would be secretly judging her the entire visit.

She kept her worries to herself, though. Everybody else was excited, including Fergus who was prattling on in the back seat about all the things he wanted to share with his cousins. Claire reached over and put her hand on Jamie's leg. He picked it up and brought it to his lips. "It's going to be fine, mo nighean donn."

The airport was so busy that Murtagh agreed to stay in the car and circle around until they'd collected the family and their luggage. Jamie and Claire walked on either side of Fergus, holding his hands tightly amongst the crowd.

There was no mistaking when they'd found the east coast branch of the Fraser clan. Willie's red hair towered over the crowd. As they got closer, Claire saw three red-headed children running circles around Willie and a short blonde woman who she assumed was Anne.

The two brothers embraced in a hug first, grunting and laughing in greeting. They were the same height; Willie was a bit heavier than Jamie, a rugby player's body contrasting with Jamie's lean swimmer's body. When they pulled apart, nearly identical faces smiled broadly at each other.

They clapped each other on the back a few times and then Willie turned his attention to Claire. To her surprise, he picked her up in a giant bear hug, swinging her around and kissing her on the cheek. "I am so happy to meet you, lass," he said as he set her back down. "Welcome to the family."

His smile, like Jamie's, was infectious, immediately putting Claire at ease. "Thank you, Willie. I'm so happy to meet you too."

"This is my wife, Anne."

Claire hadn't been sure what to expect of Anne but surely didn't anticipate the petite woman with a short, wild haircut that stood before her in jeans, combat boots, and a Dead Kennedys t-shirt. Claire reached out a hand to her new sister-in-law, but Anne embraced her warmly. "Welcome to the Fraser spouse club," she whispered in Claire's ear. "We have a support chat. I'll have Ian add you."

Claire laughed and squeezed Anne back. "Thank you. It's so lovely to meet you."

“And these wee heathens,” Willie went on, “Are Brian, Ellen, and Alex.” He pointed to the children from biggest to smallest.

Fergus was already running circles around the adults with his new cousins. Jamie reached down and caught him, picking him up with ease. "This is my stepson, Fergus." He was beaming with pride. "Fergus, this is yer Uncle Willie and Auntie Anne.” Suddenly shy, Fergus buried his head in the crook of Jamie's neck. "Och, dinna be nervous, lad. Can ye give them a wee smile at least?"

Fergus smiled and then started squirming to be set down. Jamie placed a soft kiss in his curls before placing him back on the floor to rejoin the fray. Willie clapped Jamie on the shoulder. "He's braw, Sawny."

"Sawny?" Claire asked, giving Jamie a confused look.

Jamie's cheeks reddened. "It's a nickname, a play on my middle name. All right, should we get going?"

***

By the time they all made it back and Willie's family was settled, it was mid-afternoon. Claire wrangled the children long enough to feed them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before they took off again, tearing through the house like a tornado.

"How do you manage?" Claire asked Anne as they settled in at the kitchen table. Jamie had taken Willie out to the small yard to talk about Jamie's landscaping plans for the spring. "I didn't quite realize what three kids would be like."

"It's not for the weak," Anne said. "Did you have any brothers or sisters growing up?"

Claire shook her head and told Anne about her unconventional childhood. "I've hardly ever had any family," she concluded. "That's why I'm so happy to be a part of this one and for Fergus to have cousins."

"Mama!" Fergus came running down the stairs. "Brian said my Lego police car was a baby toy and he smashed it."

Anne sprang up from her seat and went flying up the stairs yelling, "Brian Fraser, you're in deep trouble!"

Claire hugged Fergus, kissing the top of his head. "I'm sorry, sweetie. Jamie will help you put it back together after our guests have gone."

"Brian's mean. I don't like him."

"What about Ellen?" she asked. "She's just your age."

"She's nice," he sniffled.

"Well then play with Ellen and Alex. You can ignore Brian."

"That won't be necessary," Anne said. She was dragging a reluctant Brian down the stairs. "Tell him you're sorry," she said when they reached the kitchen.

"Sorry," Brian mumbled, clearly not sorry at all. Claire had seen that look of stubborn defiance on Jamie too many times to count.

"Thanks," Fergus mumbled.

"Now go on outside with your father and uncle," Anne ordered, gesturing toward the door. "And leave your cousin alone." When Brian slammed the door behind him, Anne turned back to Claire. “I’m so sorry. It’s nothing personal — he just thinks he’s too old for baby stuff lately.”

“It’s all right. No harm done.”

“Do you need any help getting things ready for tomorrow?” Anne asked.

Claire shook her head. “No, I’m going to do everything tomorrow.”

Anne furrowed her brow. “Have you ever made Thanksgiving dinner for twelve people before?”

Claire shook her head, a feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach.

“Don’t worry,” her sister-in-law said with a smile. “Come on, let’s get to work.”

***

They ordered pizza for dinner and put a movie on in an attempt to keep the children in one place. The adults drank wine, and then whisky, enjoying each other’s company. Lamb joined them as well, and he and Murtagh kept everyone entertained, telling embarrassing stories about Claire, Jamie, and Willie as children.

As soon as the movie was over, Jamie and Willie were put on bedtime duty. They both groaned but Claire could see the absolute joy in Jamie's eyes. For years he'd sat on the sidelines while his brother and sister grew their families, wishing to be a part of it. Now, he finally could.

Claire and Anne quickly cleaned up the dinner mess. As they were filling the dishwasher, Claire smelled a familiar scent. She glanced over her shoulder and saw her Uncle passing Murtagh a joint. Horrified, she ran over to the couch where they were sitting.

"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, what are you doing?" she glanced over her shoulder to see if Anne had noticed.

"Claire-bear," Lamb said, "relax. Have a puff."

Murtagh coughed with laughter, a cloud of smoke emanating from his mouth. Claire groaned and started throwing open the windows. She went back to the couch and leaned toward the two old men who were grinning like idiots. "Anne is an addiction counselor," she said through gritted teeth. "She might not appreciate —"

"Anne doesn't mind," her sister-in-law called from the kitchen. "As soon as these dishes are done, I'll join you."

Claire sighed with relief. Just then, Jamie and Willie came down the stairs. "Sassenach, what are ye doing?"

"It's not me!" she said, pointing at Lamb and Murtagh. "Blame the old coots."

"Who are ye calling an old coot?" Murtagh chimed in, taking another pull on the joint.

Willie plucked it out of his hands and brought it to his mouth. Claire threw her hands in the air. "I give up. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." She went into the hall closet and got out her lockbox where she kept her own goodies and passed the gummies around.

Not long after, they were all gathered in the living room listening to music and talking over each other as they told funny stories. Claire was curled up on the couch, snuggled into Jamie's warm, comforting body. "I told ye there was nothing to worry about, mo chridhe," he said, kissing the top of her head.

"Thank you," she said.

"For what?"

"For giving me a family."

He squeezed her tighter and bent his head so he could kiss her properly. "I love ye so much, Sassenach."

"I love —"

"Och, get a room!" Willie said, throwing a piece of popcorn at them.

Claire shrieked and threw a pillow at her new brother-in-law. "Maybe we just will." She stood up and pulled at Jamie's arm. "Let's go to bed, darling."

Jamie shrugged and followed her, turning his head back when they reached the stairs. "What can I say, I'm a lucky man."

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On Thanksgiving morning, Claire rolled over in bed and snuggled against Jamie. She'd never thought she would marry again, let alone find herself married to a man she'd known only a few months. She could never have imagined that she'd spend the first Thanksgiving after her divorce hosting an entire brood of unruly Scots that just happened to be her in-laws. But she was thankful.

She thought back to last year's Thanksgiving. She'd only recently arrived in California and had just signed the closing papers on her tiny house. Fergus was only four, and though they'd celebrated Thanksgiving at preschool, she'd been fairly sure he had no idea they were supposed to celebrate at home, too. She'd been ready just to write the whole day off when she was hit with a pang of guilt the night before.

How long did she intend to skip holidays? What was next, Christmas? No, this simply won't do, she'd said to herself. Time to get on with it. So she'd hustled Fergus into the car and drove to the grocery store at seven pm the night before Thanksgiving.

They'd ended up eating frozen pizzas, but Claire and Fergus had spent the morning making silly hats out of paper and drawing turkeys by tracing their hands. It was a good memory, but also a lonely one. And also hopefully the last one like that, thanks to Jamie.

He woke with a few soft grunts, squeezing his arms around Claire and nuzzling his nose in the crook of her neck. “Did ye sleep well, mo chridhe? Ye arena usually up before me.”

“It’s just as well,” she said, “I have to get downstairs and get started on the turkey. Thank goodness Anne helped me with the side dishes yesterday. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Jamie kissed her and stretched his arms over his head. “Everything will be wonderful. I ken it.” He reached over to pick his phone up from the nightstand. Claire admired the defined muscles of his shoulders and bit her lip, wondering if they had enough time for a quickie before she had to get up.

“Claire?” Jamie said. “How big is that turkey?”

“About twenty pounds,” she answered. “Why?”

“Ye better get that round bum of yers out o’ bed. It’s almost 9:30.”

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Claire threw the covers off and jumped out of bed. “ I knew I should have set a bloody alarm!” She dressed quickly in the clothes she’d been wearing the night before and made a beeline for the stairs while Jamie shook his head and chuckled under his breath.

***

As soon as Claire was out of sight, Jamie got up and showered. The house was quiet, but when he glanced out the bedroom window, he saw Anne and Willie playing with all the kids in the yard. Fergus was among them, laughing and chasing wee Ellen around as if he’d known her forever. It was good that Ellen and Alex were meeting him so young — they would likely never remember a time when Fergus was not their cousin. Brian, on the other hand —the incident with the legos had Jamie a bit worried. He was at a challenging age and a bit too savvy to simply accept that Fergus was a part of the family.

“It’ll bide,” he said to himself. When he had an opportunity to pull Willie aside, he would talk to him about it. The more critical task at hand was to check on Claire and see how the meal was coming. If he was going to execute plan B, he needed to decide soon.

He wandered downstairs and into the kitchen, only to find everything in complete disarray. There were pots and pans scattered all over the counter, and the turkey sat on a cookie sheet on top of the oven. Claire was sitting at the table on her phone, reading something intently.

“Sassenach? What’s the trouble?”

She looked up distractedly. “I’m trying to figure out how long I need to cook the turkey if it’s still frozen a bit in the middle. Can I just turn the oven up to four hundred degrees, so I don’t have to cook it longer?”

Jamie walked over and took the phone out of her hand. “First of all, ye have to cook the turkey in a roasting pan, no’ a cookie sheet.”

“Do we have a roasting pan?” she asked, frowning.

“I have one in my boxes in the garage. Just start seasoning the bird, and I’ll go fetch it.” Claire squinched her nose at him, and he pushed the salt and pepper toward her, shaking his head. “Start wi’ that, ok? Under the skin.”

He stepped outside into the crisp, cool air. He could hear the family in the backyard, laughing and shouting as they played. After he got Claire sorted, he would join them. First, though, he needed to activate Plan B. He took out his phone and sent a text to John. We need the turkey.

John sent a series of laughing emojis, followed by a thumbs up.

They’d come up with the plan the night that Claire had decided she was making Thanksgiving dinner on her own. Claire and Jamie had previously agreed they would have the Thanksgiving meal catered, but on the heels of a successful dinner she’d just hosted for John and Jeremy, she announced that she would be making the holiday meal instead.

As soon as she’d left the room to load the dishwasher, Jamie had whispered to John and Jeremy, “We need a Plan B.” Together they’d decided that John would cook a separate turkey at home, and if Jamie sent the text, he would call and say that they’d made a turkey for a dinner with Jeremy’s friend but somehow ended up with too much turkey. Even if Claire saw through it, she would be so grateful that they were sure she would play along.

Jamie retrieved the roasting pan from the box in the garage. By the time he made it back to the kitchen, he could already hear Claire on the phone. “That would be lovely! Yes, please. You’re a lifesaver. Yes...yes...see you soon.”

“Who was that, Sassenach?” Jamie asked, setting the pan down on the counter.

She turned around and gave him a knowing smirk. The shades of her wild hair danced in the sunbeams coming in through the kitchen window. “As if you don’t know.”

Jamie returned the look and took her by the end, pulling her close to him. “I dinna ken what ye’re talking about.”

Claire put her arms around Jamie’s waist and rested her hands on his arse, giving him a slight pinch. “John and Jeremy just so happen to have a spare twenty-pound turkey lying around the house. They’ll be bringing it today.”

He reciprocated in kind, and she squealed. “Make more of those wee noises for me, Sassenach.”

“Stop trying to distract me. Did you plan this with John? Did you think I would fail?” She tried to keep her tone light, but Jamie could tell she was trying not to have hurt feelings.

“Listen, mo chridhe, I didna think ye would fail because yer no’ good at things. Ye are the most stubborn, capable woman I ken, and I ken ye would have figured out how to get the turkey and fixin’s done somehow. I also ken that ye dinna think things through sometimes, and there was a good chance we wouldna be eating dinner until midnight.” He kissed the top of her head and pulled her in, hugging her against his chest. “Can ye forgive a man fer tryin’ to protect himself from starvin’?”

Claire squirmed a bit, half-heartedly, but finally relented and let him hold her. “I suppose I can hardly be mad at you for being right.”

“Next year,” he said, “Ye’ll ken better what needs to be done and when.”

“I love you, you pompous know it all,” Claire told him. She stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the tip of his nose.

“And I love ye, ye scatterbrained taupie. Now, ye can still cook that turkey, nice and slow at 325 degrees, and we’ll have plenty of leftovers.”

Just then, Fergus came in through the back door, running past Jamie and Claire without saying a word. They exchanged a look, and Jamie peeked out the kitchen window at his brother’s family. Willie shrugged and shook his head. “I got this, Sassenach. Ye’ve got plenty to do here.”

He went upstairs, expecting to find Fergus aggrieved over a toy again, but instead found him face down on the bed, face buried in his pillow. The sound of his muffled sobs broke Jamie’s heart.

He sat on the edge of the bed and cautiously put a hand on Fergus’s back. “What’s the matter, a chuilein?”

Fergus shook his head vehemently. “Go away.”

Jamie ran his free hand over his face. He’d never seen Fergus so upset, his little back wracking with sobs. “I canna leave ye like this, laddie, but if ye dinna want to talk about it, ye don’t have to. We can just sit here quietly if ye like.”

Fergus turned his head away from Jamie. “You don’t have to stay. It’s not like you’re my real dad.”

That punched Jamie right in the gut. What on earth could be bringing this on? And what could he say to a five-year-old to make him understand the complicated relationships of fathers and sons? “What brought this on, Fergus?”

Fergus crossed his arms stubbornly, reminding him so much of Claire he had to stifle back a laugh. “Fergus, please. I canna help ye if ye dinna talk to me.”

Finally, Fergus turned and faced him. Jamie reached out his hand and brushed away the tears on his red cheeks. “What is it, mo mhac?

Fergus answered, sniffling and gulping for air, “Brian said I wasn’t his real cousin because you aren’t my real dad.”

Jamie’s fist balled up involuntarily — never before had he felt an urge to punch a small child. He took several deep breaths before speaking again. “I bet that didna make ye feel verra good, did it?”

Fergus’s lower lip quivered, and the tears started again. Jamie pulled Fergus into a sitting position and onto his lap. The little boy buried his head in Jamie’s chest, sniffling, his tiny hands clinging to Jamie’s arms. Jamie soothed his hair and spoke quietly in Gaelic, the comforting words that had healed him many times as a child. Fergus mumbled something into Jamie’s shirt, and Jamie gently set Fergus on the bed next to him. “What was that, a chuisle?”

“I asked you what you were saying,” he said.

“Just some things my father used to say to me when I was sad. I’ll teach ye the Gaelic, so ye can understand someday.”

“I don’t remember my father,” Fergus mumbled quietly. It was the first time Jamie had ever heard Fergus mention Frank. “Will I ever see him again?”

“I dinna ken,” Jamie answered truthfully. “Do ye want to see him again?”

Fergus shrugged and pulled at a loose thread on the bedspread. “I just want to have a real dad.”

Jamie swallowed hard. Perhaps their hasty marriage had been more confusing than Fergus had initially let on. Or maybe Fergus needed him to say the words first. “Fergus, I need ye to ken that I love ye like my own son, like my real son. If ye dinna feel that way about me — if ye dinna think of me as yer real dad right now, that’s all right. Some day ye might, and I’ll still love ye just as much then. And ye are my family, no matter what Brian says. He’s just being a wee troublemaker.”

Fergus nodded reluctantly. “If you were my real dad, would I call you Da, like my cousins?”

Jamie’s heart leaped in his chest. “I supposed ye could, or dad or papa or whatever ye wanted to call me. It doesna matter to me. Nothing will change the fact that I love ye, Fergus. Nothing.” He knew he would have to prove this to him, but it wouldn’t hurt the boy to hear it often. “Ye can call me Jamie forever, or ye can call me Da now, or ye can wait ten years and call me Dad. It’s up to ye.”

“Can I tell people you’re my dad?”

“Nothing would make me happier.” He hugged Fergus close again, kissing the top of his head. “Ye ken that I’m no’ going anywhere, right? When I married yer mother and made ye my son, I meant it forever. Ye can depend on me to be here, always. I love ye, Fergus. I always will.”

“I love you too, Jamie. I’m glad you’re my dad.”

If it were possible to die of happiness, that would have been the end of Jamie. He hugged Fergus until the boy laughed and squirmed to get away, kissing him on his forehead before letting him free. “I’ll talk to yer Uncle Willie about Brian. He willna be mean to ye like that again, I promise.”

There was a knock on the door, and Fergus opened it. Little Ellen stood in the doorway with a smile on her face. She reached out her hand to Fergus and asked, “Will you come back and play with us, Fergus?”

Fergus didn’t need to be asked twice. He took off with Ellen, leaving Jamie sitting on the boy’s wee bed, his mind still reeling. There were a million things he needed to do, but Jamie could hear Claire in his head telling him to take one thing at a time. He’d talk to Willie and then enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with his family and friends. Everything else could wait until later.

***

Claire and Anne were busy in the kitchen when they saw Ellen slip in the house and go upstairs, returning with Fergus a few minutes later. “How’s Fergus taking everything?” Anne asked. “This is a lot of change for him.”

Claire turned her head so that Anne couldn’t see the tears that immediately welled up in her eyes. “He’s doing well, I think. It’s hard to tell — he seems to take everything in stride. I just hope that we didn’t screw this up.”

Anne placed her hand on Claire’s arm and gave her a gentle squeeze. “He’s a very happy boy, Claire. I promise I didn’t ask that with any judgment on you.”

“I know,” Claire said, her voice cracking. “I just can’t help but worry. I never even gave him the chance to say goodbye to Frank. I left while he was at work. I figured it was better that Frank just fade away, rather than Fergus have an ugly memory of our final words to each other.”

Anne went to the refrigerator where she’d been chilling some white wine. She poured Claire a glass and handed it to her. “Listen to me, Claire. You made a decision for your son that he was too young to make for himself, and you made it because you knew it was the best decision for him at the time.”

Claire sipped the wine and nodded. “I know. I just have so much guilt over all of it. And then, I meant to take things slow with Jamie for Fergus’s sake, but you know how that turned out. I don’t regret it, but I wish we’d made the transition a little smoother for Fergus.”

“Claire, have you been to counseling since your divorce?” Anne asked.

Claire shook her head. “Everything has been so hectic. But maybe I should.”

“You all should, Claire. Find a family counselor that can help you process your divorce, help Fergus process all the change, and help Jamie with his anxiety. You all are doing beautifully here, and I can see how in love you and Jamie are and how much he loves Fergus. But everyone has shit they have to work through, so why not stay on top of it?”

“You’re right, and I should have thought of that. I’ll talk to Jamie after this weekend. Thank you, Anne.” She reached out and embraced her new sister-in-law. “I can’t thank you enough for your love and support this weekend. I’ve never had a lot of family, even when I was married before, so it’s wonderful to have a sister to talk to.”

“Speaking of which,” Anne said, cringing a little as she pulled out her phone. “I have a text from Ian. He says, Wonderful, you are all getting along so well. Can’t wait to meet them. Trying to convince Jenny to invite them for Hogmanay. “Do you think you’re up for a trip to Scotland, Claire? Because if you aren’t, I’ll tell Ian not to bring it up.”

Claire considered this — her instinct was to avoid her other sister-in-law for as long as she could, an easy thing to do with her halfway across the world. At the same time, she knew how much family meant to Jamie and would rather see fences mended quickly. “It’s fine,” she told Anne finally, “If Jenny invites us, and Jamie wants to go, we’ll go.”

“Jamie was right about you,” Anne said, pouring herself a glass of wine. “You are a brave wee thing,”

***

John and Jeremy arrived with the turkey. Uncle Lamb and Murtagh emerged from the garage where they’d been playing cards and, from the smell of them, sampling more of the goods from Wee Herbs. The children were gathered at the kitchen table, while the adults were spread out at folding tables set up in the living room. It was cramped and loud, but it was perfect, reminding Jamie of his childhood holidays.

When everyone was seated, he clanged his knife against his glass and rose, towering over the table with pride in his eyes.

“Before we get started, I’d like to make a toast and offer a blessing. Thank ye so much to everyone who is here with us today. Ye canna ken the joy it gives me to have the family I was born to and the family who chose me, together in one room. I canna thank each and every one of ye individually, or else the food would get cold, so I’ll say thank ye for being here. Each and every one of ye is important to me.

“But I do have to take a moment to especially thank my wife, Claire, for welcoming my family into our home. Claire, ye are the thing that I am most thankful for this year and every year to come.

“Now, to quote Robert Burns,

‘Some hae meat and canna eat,

And some wad eat that want it:

But we hae meat and we can eat

And sae the Lord be thankit.’”

Sláinte

The entire room echoed back, “Sláinte!”

Jamie looked around the room, filled with gratitude as he watched the kids clinking their juice boxes together while the grownups did the same with their wine. Before taking his seat next to Claire, he clinked their glasses together and kissed her. “To you, Claire,” he whispered, “Always.”

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Claire had no idea what her husband was up to. First, he’d been up at the ass crack of dawn, rummaging around in the tiny crawl space above their bedroom. After she’d gotten up grumpily and made coffee, Jamie had come downstairs and immediately went out to the garage, Fergus trailing behind him. After another forty-five minutes, they’d both thrown on their jackets and told her they were going to the store, leaving her home to wonder what the hell he was getting up to.

With nothing else to do, she busied herself cleaning up the house — the typical Saturday things; cleaning the toilets (why can’t they aim better?), vacuuming, washing the sheets. Jamie usually took the lead on such things, but he was clearly planning a surprise for her; she might as well give him a surprise of her own.

It also helped take her mind off the family shit that she and Jamie had been dealing with since Thanksgiving. Thanks to Anne, Claire had been added to the Fraser spouses’ group chat, and she’d found Ian to be another friend and ally in the war that was still raging between Jamie and his sister. As Anne had mentioned, Ian had petitioned Jenny to invite Jamie and Claire to visit them for Hogmanay, but instead of brokering peace, he had set Jenny’s ire off anew.

It turned out that a cold war with Jenny was far more preferable than waging an active battle, even from five thousand miles away.

Her first attack had been in a long-winded email outlining all of her grievances and the conditions that Jamie had to meet before he’d be allowed to visit.

Brother,

I trust that you will keep this email to yourself and consider all that I have to say without the influence of your wife. It serves no purpose for you to show her my thoughts, as it will only cause her to resent me after all is said and done. My aim is not to hurt her feelings but to give you the reality check you sorely need.

I remember what you were like when you visited us last summer, Jamie. You were so sick I was worried you might do something drastic. I thought we might lose you, Jamie.

You can’t imagine the worry I went through when you went back to California against my wishes. Ian can tell you all the sleepless nights I spent tossing and turning, worrying that I’d wake up to a phone call that you were sick again or maybe even dead.

So imagine my shock when I found out that you were spending your time selling drugs and cavorting with the first woman to catch your eye. I’ve always wanted you to find a good woman and settle down, but marrying a trollop that you barely know? One who doesna share our religion or our values...a divorcee with a child who owns a pot store? For God’s sake Jamie, mother and father are rolling in their graves.

I ken you think I’m a meddling besom, but you dinna see that my meddling all comes from a place of love and concern for you. You have so much to lose. If you had come to me for advice, I would have gladly helped you —taken you to a lawyer to draw up a pre-nuptial agreement to protect your assets.

The thought of the vineyard going to someone outside of the family pains me to my very core. And this child of hers? I suppose she’ll want you to adopt him so that she ensures he is the one to inherit everything when you’re gone. What if you have another child someday? Instead of your own flesh and blood, a child who isna yours would be the one to get everything.

I’m willing to move past all of these errors in judgment and accept Claire and her son into our family on the following conditions:

You agree to work with a lawyer on a post-nuptial agreement that protects all of your assets from Claire and her son in the event of a divorce,

You and Claire agree to marry properly, in kirk, when you come to Scotland for Hogmanay.

You sign papers to the effect that your shares in the Vineyard will pass only to a child of your blood.

If you agree to these very reasonable requests, I will gladly invite you, Claire, and the child to visit with us this Hogmanay. Just know that if you refuse, it will be you who is the one choosing to continue this rift.

Your loving sister,

Jenny

Of course, Jamie had shown her the email. While it had hurt her deeply, Jamie had gone on the warpath, lodging volleys back at Jenny through text and email, prompting Ian to ask Claire what the hell was going on. After much cajoling from Ian and Anne, Claire had shown them both the email, causing everyone in the family to close ranks against Jenny, including her own husband.

Thus the last week had played out like a soap opera, with Claire starting to wonder why she had ever wished for a big family in the first place. The drama was a constant source of stress, and Claire could see the toll it was taking on Jamie. He lost his appetite, he couldn’t sleep, and he was distracted during the day. Even sex wasn’t helping his mood.

On Friday afternoon, five days after the drama had started, Claire decided that enough was enough. She wrote Jenny an email requesting a cease-fire.

Jenny,

I am begging you, as Jamie’s wife, to put an end to this war you’ve started. I don’t know why you insist on continuing with this stubborn bullshit, but I won’t have it affecting my family anymore. I told Jamie that he could sign whatever he wanted. I don’t care about any of it. All I want is for my husband to be happy.

And that’s where you and I are different.

All you seem to care about is getting your way, controlling Jamie, and protecting money and assets that aren’t even yours. If I understand correctly, you have your own shares in the Vineyard and your own inheritance that is yours to do as you please with, just as Jamie is free to do what he pleases with his.

(And might I remind you that you wouldn’t even have any of it if it hadn’t been for Jamie’s hard work to win it back for you?)

I don’t care about his money or the vineyard, and I know that he will always be a father to Fergus, regardless of whether or not Fergus is in his will. He can make those agreements with you and sign whatever he wants — I want nothing to do with those decisions. I will continue to love Jamie no matter what he does.

You say you were worried about Jamie before, but you seem to have no problem upsetting him until he is physically ill if it suits your own selfish desires.

Jamie, Fergus, and I will be coming to Scotland for Hogmanay. We are staying in a hotel and will be visiting with Ian and your children outside of your home so that I can meet them and Jamie can see his nieces and nephew.

If you choose to continue this senseless drama, we will be blocking you from everything: phones, email, all social media. I will not allow your selfishness and narcissism to affect my family anymore.

I wish it didn’t have to be this way, Jenny. It’s up to you what happens next.

~C.E.B.F.

She didn’t even show Jamie before she sent it, nor did she ask him before purchasing the plane tickets and booking a suite in a hotel in Inverness.

After her fit of pique subsided, she started to worry that Jamie would be angry with her for interfering. After Fergus had gone to bed that night, she confessed to Jamie and showed him the email she’d sent.

Of course, she’d had nothing to worry about. After Jamie read the email, he looked up at her with tears in his eyes and pulled her into his lap, showering her with kisses. “Christ, I love ye so much, Sassenach.”

“No more moping around,” she told him, nuzzling her nose against his. “I refuse to let your sister’s antics ruin our first holiday season as a family.”

Jamie made a low growling sound and brought his lips to hers again. “I love it when ye take charge, Sassenach.”

“Oh, do you now?”

She pushed him back on the couch, quickly stripped off her shirt, and pushed her bottoms down. By the time she pulled Jamie’s shirt over his head and unbuckled his pants, he was standing at attention, waiting for his commanding officer to give the next orders.

She moved up, aligning their bodies just right, then put her mouth over his, kissing him thoroughly as she sank down on him. Jamie groaned loudly and brought his hands to her breasts as she rode him. She bent over him and let him take them in his mouth, licking and suckling them one at a time.

When she straightened again, he brought his hand to her clit, rubbing while she continued to rock back and forth. She soon felt the heat rising in her core and threw her head back, letting the waves of pleasure fall over her. She fell forward as she came, and Jamie wrapped his arms around her.

He flipped them over and onto the floor. She let him take over, crying out as he drove into her. “I rather like it when you take charge,” she panted.

Jamie smiled wickedly and slammed into her harder. “It’s nice to lay there and let ye do all the work, Sassenach, but I suppose I dinna mind tossin’ ye around like a rag doll either.”

When they finished, they stayed on the floor, Claire curled up in Jamie’s arms. He pulled a blanket down from the couch and wrapped them both up in it. “Sassenach,” he whispered, “Ye’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”

So Claire was not at all surprised that Jamie had woken up on a mission; she only wondered what it could possibly be.

When Jamie’s car finally pulled into the driveway, she threw her shoes on and went out to greet him and Fergus. “Where have you two been?” she asked, kissing Jamie before he could even get out of the car. “You’ve been gone for almost three hours!”

“Are ye telling me that ye missed me, Sassenach?” he teased.

“Maybe a little.”

She helped them bring the bags in but was under direct orders not to look in any of them until Jamie had time to sort through them. They’d been to at least three different stores, including picking up the weekly groceries. Jamie and Fergus exchanged a conspiratorial look as Fergus took some of the bags up to his room.

“Any word from Jenny?” Claire asked. She’d checked her email, but there was no reply, and the group chat was quiet.

Jamie shook his head. “I suppose it’s a blessing that she’s no’ yelling at me.”

Claire nodded and started emptying the bags from the grocery store. She pulled out a giant bag of potatoes and raised an eyebrow at Jamie. “Are you planning for a famine?”

“All will be revealed in good time, Sassenach.” He snatched the bag away from her and set it on the counter.

After the groceries were put away, John called and asked Claire to get lunch and a movie with him and Jeremy. She gave Jamie a suspicious look but accepted, the invitation a welcome distraction from constantly checking her email and messages. Besides, she was always glad to spend time with John and his new beau.

Jeremy Foster had been a welcome addition to their lives. He was soft-spoken and a bit shy, but with a warmness about him that was apparent after only five minutes of conversation with him. He and John were a perfect match, both the type of men to put the happiness of others before their own. Claire had only known John a little over a year, but she knew that his past had been riddled with heartbreak. He deserved somebody who loved him selflessly.

Claire met them both at a small cafe near the shore. The air was chilly, but the sun shone brightly for a December day. They both stood when they saw her enter the restaurant, and she greeted them warmly with hugs and kisses.

“Happy Hanukkah,” John said as they settled in their seats.

Claire’s eyes went wide. “Oh shit, Hanukkah starts tonight, doesn’t it?”

John laughed and rolled his eyes. “You are the worst Jew I have ever met.”

“Stop,” she replied, slapping playfully on the arm, “I’ve had a lot on my mind.”

She launched into the story of the Jenny drama, relieved to be able to talk to them about it. She worried if she spoke too much about it with Jamie, it would only aggravate his pain over Jenny’s antics. She also didn’t need to temper her opinions on Jenny as she did with Jamie, knowing how important his family was to him.

“What a bitch!” John exclaimed after she told him about the email. “How can she sit over there and judge your relationship when she doesn’t know one thing about it?”

Claire played with the ring on her finger. “I suppose Jamie and I have a part to play in that, though. If we hadn’t married so hastily —”

“Bullshit,” Jeremy chimed in. “Jamie is an adult. He doesn’t need his sister’s permission to get married.”

“I love the two of you.” She smiled gratefully.

After lunch, they went to a movie then parted ways. Claire stopped at Target to pick up small Hanukkah gifts for Fergus and Jamie on the way home. She barely celebrated Hanukkah since she’d left the strict boarding school where she’d spent her high school years, but she did like to at least get Fergus a little something on the first night.

When she pulled up to the house a little before five, the first thing she noticed was the giant Christmas tree in the front window, colored lights shining cheerfully. She shook her head and laughed — she should have known Jamie’s surprise would have something to do with the holidays.

As she got out of the car, the front door opened and Fergus came running out. “Mama! Mama! You’re late! Hurry, it’s almost sundown.”

“Almost sund —” She stopped dead in her tracks, realizing that a small yarmulke was propped on top of his curls. “What on earth are you up to?” she asked.

Fergus grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the door. “Come on, Mama!”

Inside, the house looked like Christmas and Hanukkah had thrown up all over it. A hodgepodge of nutcrackers, snowmen, and large, decorative dreidels were scattered over end tables and any other available surface. The doorways were adorned with a mixture of tinsel and Happy Hanukkah banners. Jamie stood in the kitchen wearing a yarmulke, with a giant Menorah in front of him.

Claire set her bags on the floor and walked over to Jamie, shaking her head as tears welled in her eyes. “You ridiculous man,” she said before wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him. “What did I do to deserve you?”

“I find myself wondering the same thing about ye every day, mo chridhe.”

“Mama!” Fergus whined. “The sun is going down!”

“All right, all right,” she said, reluctantly pulling away from Jamie and wiping her eyes. “I’m a little rusty.”

“Neither of us will ken the difference, Sassenach.”

“That’s true,” Claire laughed. She placed one candle in the center position of the Menorah and then set another in the spot furthest to the right.

Claire cleared her throat and began to sing:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she-asah nisim la’avoteinu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh.

Baruch atah Adonai, Elohenu Melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu la’zman hazeh.

She picked up the lighter, lit the shammash, and then removed it from its center position to light the other candle.

“Beautiful,” Jamie said quietly.

“Surely you don’t mean my singing.” Claire blushed and bent down to pick up Fergus, kissing him on the cheek.

“All of it,” Jamie said. “Do ye sing the same prayers each night?”

“Only the first two.”

“And that’s all?” Jamie asked. “That’s shorter than midnight mass!”

Claire laughed. “Talk to me about lengthy ceremonies after you’ve been to your first Seder.”

“Mama, Jamie’s making latkes for dinner,” Fergus chimed in, squirming to get down.

“He is?” She set him down and looked around the rest of the kitchen. “You boys have been incredibly busy. You know I haven’t even celebrated Hanukkah in years.”

“I ken ye said that Claire, but I wanted to do something special for our first holidays, and it wouldna be right if we only celebrated my holidays. I want to make our own traditions for our family. I hope that’s all right wi’ ye?”

“It’s more than all right. It’s perfect,” Claire said, standing on her tiptoes to kiss Jamie on the cheek.

That night, as Jamie cooked latkes and Claire taught them both how to play dreidel, Claire knew that whatever awaited them in Scotland, whatever trouble Jamie’s sister wanted to bring them, none of it would matter. The three of them were a family now, and there was nothing Jenny could do that would come between them.

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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.”