Tom found a vacant slot in the parking area at Inverness airport and neatly pulled in between a van and an SUV. Claire took out her compact mirror from her bag and checked her hair. It was a muggy day, and she'd heard on the news earlier it was forecast to rain later this afternoon. She sighed as she smoothed the unruly tendrils back. There was no use. Her dark curls almost always went impossibly frizzy in the humidity. Feeling way too chipper to worry about the state of her hair, she quickly dabbed on some lipgloss and checked her phone.
"We're slightly early," Claire observed absentmindedly. "Are you sure you don't mind tagging along for my dress fitting?"
When Claire had heard Mary Hawkins was on the same flight as Annalise, she'd offered the author a lift with an invitation to attend her dress fitting before heading to Broch Mordha. Mary had eagerly accepted and even suggested Tom be their chauffeur for the morning, knowing there would be bubblies served.
Tom grinned as he turned off the ignition. "I've freed up my schedule for Mary. So wherever Mary goes, I go. I'm sure it'd be an interesting experience to witness a gaggle of lassies gush over dresses and gowns."
Claire laughed. "Don't worry, my friend Geillis will be there with her boyfriend. He'll keep you company. And there'll be smoked salmon, crowdie and oatcake canapés to ease the pain and boredom of putting up with us."
"Fine by me as long as naebody asks my opinion on anything that has to do with gowns."
"I wouldn't dream of doing that. It would be a fruitless endeavour."
He let out a hearty chuckle. "Shall we then?"
Claire gave up on curbing the idiotic smile forming on her face as she stepped out of the car and almost skipped alongside Tom. Her cheery disposition hadn't anything to do with the excitement of seeing her bridal dress but more to do with just having left behind a six-foot-three inch aroused male lying in a tangle of sheets, wheedling her for one last quickie before he went to work.
Glancing around with a dreamy sigh, she realised she was lagging behind, and Tom was already holding the entrance door open for her. She quickened her pace and slid past him, hoping he hadn't noticed any tell-tale sign of her dirty thoughts.
Resolved to concentrate on today's events, she allowed Tom to steer her through the throng of crowds while she went through her mental checklist, reminding herself of items required, things to be done, and essential points to be considered for the day ahead. Mrs Abercombie from Juneberry Boutique was closing her bridal shop for the whole morning to accommodate her second dress fitting, and someone had arranged for food and drinks to be served for their small party. Jenny, her future sister-in-law, should be there by the time they arrived as well as Geillis, her friend from Glasgow who would be accompanied by her police boyfriend, Finlay. If Claire had anything to say about it all, she thought it was all too much of a big fuss for just a dress fitting, but she'd long ago decided to go along with it if it would keep everyone happy and off her and Jamie's back.
Today everyone was in a good place and thrilled to be part of her upcoming nuptials. She should be more grateful for her friends and family's efforts to make her wedding special. After all, this was an exciting time, and it was almost her duty to enjoy herself. Annalise and Mary would arrive any moment, and it was time to loosen up a bit and take part in the fun.
Jamie grabbed a chilled bottle of mineral water from the cool box and leaned back against a tree, glancing up at the sky. It wasn't midday yet, and already the air felt sticky and oppressive. Heavy thick clouds were forming, and by the looks of it, he was pretty sure a thunderstorm would be due soon. There were still heaps of work to be done before the rain came, but he allowed himself to take a breather and cool down, making way for his thoughts to flow.
The weekend had ended well, better than he'd expected or hoped for. Quentin had obviously enjoyed his visit at Lallybroch, so much so he'd stayed there for the night and didn't return to the cottage until Jamie had been about to leave for work. Not that he minded having Quentin around, but the time on their own had given Jamie and Claire ample opportunity to reconnect and smooth out any doubts between them. At the mention of babies, his shock reaction had caused Claire distress, and Jamie hadn't liked seeing her upset for one bit. When he'd reassured her his response had nothing to do with not wanting bairns and that he needed more time before embarking on parenthood, she'd seem placated and been her usual charming self for the rest of the weekend.
Suddenly remembering Claire's schedule for the day, he wondered if she was at the boutique already for her dress fitting and if she was having fun. Jamie hoped she was because she deserved every simple pleasure life had to offer after the year of ups and downs they'd had.
His phone ringing brought him back to the present. Pulling it out from his pocket, he wasn't surprised to see Claire's name popped up on his screen. Whenever he thought about her, more often than not, she called. It often seemed as if they read each other's minds.
"Sassenach!" he answered. "How is it going?"
"Mary and Annalise arrived on time. So all good. I'm in the changing room at the moment."
"Mmm, dinnae put anything on just yet ...I'll be right there," he teased.
"Sorry, but Mrs Abercombie is about to come in and help me with the bustier. I swear to God, I think she'll enjoy putting me in this torture device. I wish I hadn't eaten that greasy breakfast uncle Lamb whipped up for us yesterday. I feel bloated."
Jamie laughed. "Ach dinnae fash. There's more meat on a butcher's pencil than on ye, lass."
"Actually, I called to find out if uncle Lamb made it back. He's not answering his phone."
"Saw him this morning. He told me he's feeling a bit rough, whatever that means. I presume he had a bit to drink and will be taking it easy today."
"Good," she sighed in relief. "He's got a flight tomorrow, and I've been worried about him all morning. You and I know, Uncle Lamb, Murtagh and alcohol never mix well. The only thing that kept me from stopping by Lallybroch this morning was knowing Ellen would have taken good care of him."
"Aye, there's that. If anything untoward had happened, we would have found out soon enough. So stop worrying and enjoy yer day with yer mates."
"And how are you feeling today?"
Jamie grinned as he thought of their vigorous activity between the sheets last night and this morning. "If ye must know, ye've worn me out. I'm totally knackered."
"Is that so?" Claire's voice lowered a notch. "If that's the case, you and I should have a night off tonight. Maybe watch a film for a change."
"Perhaps. But I doubt if ye'll be able to concentrate long enough to watch a film without yer hands creeping into my pants."
A sound of incredulity passed her lips, making him smile. "Oy! You seem to have a short memory. I haven't forgotten the way ye were begging me to come back to bed this morning after I came out of the shower. Or do you need reminding?"
"I only begged ye to come back to bed because ye were looking at me like ye wanted to have me for breakfast. And here I thought ye needed a bit of push to take what ye want."
"And I love ye." Jamie heard feminine chatter in the background, and he knew he'd taken enough of her time. "Go, Sassenach and have some fun," he said. "Give me a call when ye're back."
"Will do. Love you too."
Claire was sprawled faceup on the chaise longue, squirming and fidgeting with the edging of her bustier in the hope to try and get air into her system. Not even Nat King Cole singing L-O-V-E through the shop's speakers could get her in a love-up mood. "Jesus, this wasn't this tight during my first fitting. I'll probably have to buy a new set of bridal lingerie."
Mrs Abercombie pulled the curtain that divided the dressing room and the reception area where Tom was sat with Geillis' boyfriend, Finlay. The boutique owner frowned at Claire. "Ye must have gained weight, lass. Did ye get yersel' pregnant by any chance?"
"Wot?" She struggled up into a sitting position with the help of Annalise. "God, no! Of course not. I've just over-indulged a bit over the last few days. I'm a writer, and writers have weird eating habits."
"Weel, that's always good to know in advance," Mrs Abercombie said, bustling about. "We still have plenty of room for alteration and one more dress fitting before the big day."
Annalise gave Claire a sympathetic look. "Hey, I'm here for a week. We'll get you in tip-top shape in no time. We'll join a fitness program."
Claire groaned out loud. She had never been into exercise or fitness anything, even though it was Jamie's thing.
"Not to worry," Mrs Abercombie clucked, hanging the plastic garment bag that contained her wedding dress on a hook. "That's what dress fittings are for, and that's why I insisted on having yer dress made two sizes bigger."
Geillis, Claire's fiery red-haired friend, looked over with critical eyes as she popped open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. The Champagne lightly spewed over the top in her distraction but caught it in time when she poured the fizzing alcohol into the neatly lined coupe glasses. "It's supposed to be a bit uncomfortable, Claire," Geillis reasoned. "That's the price of looking fabulous on yer special day. I promise ye, it'll be worth it when Jamie gets a load of yer awesome tits."
Claire tugged at the mesh panel of her bustier and grimaced. "He's got a load of them plenty of times already, and he still can't get enough."
Mary cackled as she grabbed a Champagne and offered a glass to Claire. "That's why he's marrying ye."
Claire took a sip of her bubbly and handed it back. "Ta, but I need a clear head for this. And speaking of Jamie and tits ..."
"Hello, excuse me!" Jenny interrupted, slapping her clipboard against her thigh. "We're talking about my brother here."
Mary shoved a glass of Champagne towards Jenny. "Oh, drink up and lighten up a bit, Jen! We're mainly talking about Claire's tits here and speaking of ...I remember once Ian saying he sleeps best when his head is resting on your delicate pillows of love. You didn't seem to mind then."
Jenny's eyes widened, and before she could come up with some rejoinder, Mary had already disappeared through the curtains and slipped into the front room.
Claire continued to tug and fidget. "What I was trying to say is ...when it comes to boobs, it just goes to prove that men can concentrate on two things at once. That's men's selective focusing for you!" She fell back once more onto the chaise longue. When Annalise offered her a hand, Claire shook her head, determined to get on her feet on her own. She knew she could do it if only the boning structure didn't painfully dig into her skin. She tried to sit upright again but struggled. "Shit, I'll never get up from here."
"Turn on yer tummy, hen," Geillis suggested while plating canapés.
Claire did as she was told, pushed up and slid backwards off the ornate sofa. "Ah, that's better. Now I need someone to pick me up and plonk me into the dress."
"No need ...just step over here, pet, and we'll do the rest," Mrs Abercombie assured, pointing at the circular, elevated platform. "And please stand with yer back to the mirror."
Claire nodded and climbed onto the raised surface, feeling suddenly conscious of her half-naked state. Wrapping her arms around her, she tried not to fidget as she anticipated the next brand new torture.
Mrs Abercombie shook her finger at Claire's friends. "Remember, no comments until we've fitted the dress properly and Claire has seen the result."
The girls nodded like good little girl scouts, their lips twitching in an effort to suppress their amusement.
As Claire waited patiently for Mrs Abercombie's assistant to take out the wedding dress from the garment bag and smooth out the fabric, she glanced over at her future sister-in-law. "Alright, Jenny, you said you wanted to give me the low down of the wedding details. Let's all hear about it."
"Right. Wedding details! I thought you'd never ask." Jenny reached out for her leather satchel bag and pulled out a binder. "Let's see what we have here..." Taking a sip of her Champagne, she opened a folder that revealed colourfully tabbed sheets and scanned the pages. "We'll skip the wedding guests part for now since the replies are still coming in." She flipped on to the next page as Annalise and Geillise gathered behind Jenny and peered over her shoulders. "Wedding favours! As we've already discussed, all welcome gifts will come in woven baskets decorated with tartan patterned ribbons. Male guests will receive a miniature engraved quaich pewter, and for the ladies, a silver dragonfly hair comb. All baskets for adults will contain an Oxford treat box with assorted dinky chocolates, a wee bag of tablet fudge, a packet of wildflower meadow seed and a couple of bottles of miniature single malt, personalised with the bride and groom's names. As for the bairns, they'll receive various sweets, biccies and an activity and game bag to keep them occupied."
"Wow! The wedding favours sound marvellous, Jen," Claire said as she stepped into the wedding dress that was being held out for her. "I would never have thought of those things. I'm bloody useless when it comes to organising stuff like that."
Jenny smiled genuinely for the first time that morning. "I'm glad you like it, Claire."
"Of course, I love it! How about the videographer and photographer? Uncle Lamb has constantly been harping about it."
"It's sorted!" Jenny waved a pen in the air. "We've locked in Gregor McLellan. He's excellent and very sought after."
Claire had never heard of the name, but whoever he was, he sounded expensive. Sucking in her stomach, she straightened her back for Mrs Abercombie as she felt the back zip tug. "Anything else?"
"Well, we've already discussed the caterers and the menu, and that's already agreed on. Mrs Fitz will be making the cake, and she will get in touch with either me or ye to arrange a date for some cake sampling. As for the drinks, Da will organise the open bars and beverages."
"Sweet heavens! All I need to do now is give Jamie a nudge into deciding what he'll wear. He doesn't want to have anything custom made for him. He says he has a couple of kilts and a few formal suits tuck away in Lallybroch."
"Oh, that! That's taken care of. Willie and Murtagh will make sure yer Jamie scrubs up well on yer wedding day."
Claire let out a sigh of relief. Though Willie was outdoorsy like his brother, he had a refined taste when it came to formalwear. At least, she could rest easy knowing Jamie was in good hands. That sorted, for now, she refocused on other matters. "How about the guys at the marquee hire? The Grants, isn't it? Do we have any more updates from them?"
"Aye, the Grants. They're on the case, alright. The latest email I got says they'll arrive at Lallybroch four days prior to the big day to set the wedding tent up. Helpful guys, the lot of them, if I may say so. They've even advised me on how much square footage we'll need based on the number of guests and caterers. Of course, not to forget, the size of the dancefloor and the number of persons in the band."
Claire did a semi-whirl. "Band? Couldn't we just hire a DJ or something? I'm kind of fond of pop music and oldies but goldies."
Jenny bit her lower lip. "Yer uncle Lamb insisted on a ceilidh band. But they're not only folk and bluegrass musicians. They're a function band and have some modern and pop repertoires up their sleeves as well. They're quite good and have outstanding reviews online. If ye want, I'll send ye some Youtube links of their gigs."
"What's the name of the band?"
Jenny grinned. "Papa Shandy and the Drams. A great name, isn't it? Quentin personally picked and booked them. Ever heard of them?"
Claire shook her head in response and glanced over at Geillis and Annalise. They merely nodded their approval and uttered, "cool name." Though her friends could be opinionated at times, she was surprised they haven't shared any of their thoughts or offered any input. From what Claire could garner, they seemed impressed with the details so far as well as her future sister-in-law's meticulousness and attention to detail. If Claire wasn't mistaken, she was quite certain this was Jenny's way of making amends after their relationship had taken off to a bad start. And the fact that they were moving forward from the past gave Claire hope for their budding friendship.
"Well, sounds like you have everything under control," Claire smiled, making a mental note to buy Jenny something special.
"Getting there," she sighed, ticking off some list on a page. "Anyway, I have a summary here for ye and Jamie to take home. Go over it, and if there are any changes ye wish to make or add something, let me know. I want to have it finalised within a week." She clapped the folder shut and smiled. "So that's it! Any more questions?"
"Where're the shoes?" Mrs Abercombie interjected. "And accessories?"
Before Claire could reply, the girls had already sprung onto their feet and scattered in different directions, going through bags and handing over bits and bobs. She'd been instructed by Jenny to bring everything she'd need for the wedding, and she'd done just that and much more. There were all the pieces of jewellery Claire owned, hairpieces recently bought, a variety of clutches and undergarments and even make-up remover. It was over the top, but after all the efforts Jenny was making for the wedding, the least she could do was try her hardest not to forget anything.
All the fineries finally laid out on the table, Mrs Abercombie began making adjustments to the bodice and skirt while the assistant tweaked at the hem. Claire sucked in her breath for the most part and cooperated with every instruction, knowing that the sooner she was done, the sooner she could go back into her comfortable clothes.
"I need to let out an inch here at the back," Mrs Abercombie remarked. "If I were ye, I'd stay away from those canapés. Either that or ye need to do more exercise."
The girls laughed out loud at the older woman's blunt declaration, but Claire simply took a deep breath and gave herself over to the convenience of being attended to, adorned and even bossed around. A vague recollection of her mother making clothes for her when she was a child suddenly surfaced. She saw herself standing on a stool as her mother sang and pinned the hem of her dress. A wave of nostalgia evoked a longing for her parents and bittersweet memories of her childhood, making her wish they were here to see all these.
"Right, let's take a look," Mrs Abercombie announced, breaking Claire's brief reverie and stepping back to assess her handiwork.
Claire twisted her hips and sashayed on the spot, making the girls laugh and whistle. "So ...how do I look?"
"Nobody says a thing," Mrs Abercombie firmly reminded Claire's friends. "I want to hear and see Claire's reaction first when she sees herself in the mirror."
Even though everyone remained tight-lipped, Claire could see the approval and awe shining from their eyes. "So, when do I get to look then?" Claire asked, suddenly giddy with excitement for the first time.
"I think you need these first," Annalise said, carefully placing a pair of shoes at her feet." Slip these on, and I'll strap it on for you."
Taking Geillis hand, Claire slid her feet into a pair of Jimmy Choo's ivory satin pearl sandals. Not used to high heels, she wobbled a bit before recovering her balance. "Oh dear, I think I'll need lessons walking in these," she laughed nervously. "And there's no way I can wear these all day and night."
"That's why I bought ye a pair of these," Jenny said, holding a pair of white sneakers studded with tiny pearls and embellished with an ivory bow. "It even has the date of yer wedding adorned at the back of the heels."
Overwhelmed by Jenny's thoughtfulness, Claire clapped her hands over her mouth to suppress the tears of gratitude threatening to spill. "Oh Jenny, that's so sweet. Come here and let me give you a hug."
"Hugs later," Mrs Abercombie ordered, raising a hand. "We don't want to spoil the dress. Right Claire, whenever ye're ready, please close yer eyes."
Claire did as she was told and held on to readily assisting hands as she slowly pivoted on the spot. Anticipation hung in the air, and the sanguine expectation made the moment all the more seemed endless. She envisioned her mother before her and the emotions the image conjured - excitement, hope and fear of the unknown tightly knotted together, creating a fourth emotion that was hard to define. Whatever it was, it tickled like she had a handful of butterflies fluttering in her belly.
"Ye may look now," Mrs Abercombie said in a hushed tone.
Claire slowly lifted her eyes and took in the reflection before her, and gasped. Statuesque was the first word that came to mind. She'd never been the type to wear a gown, but this beautiful dress dramatically transformed her, accentuating her height and doing wonders to her curves. She was so glad she'd opted for a sheath gown against the better judgement of her friends. Annalise had thought the style would have been too restricting, and Jenny had been convinced Claire would look better in an A-line classic. But this ... this was even better and well beyond her expectation.
Her hand shakily hovered over the body-hugging material, taking everything in from the off-the-shoulder style to the translucent tulle base intricately hand-embroidered with beading and thread work. Her eyes were restless, admiring every detail, but there were so many things to look at and no words adequate enough to describe the beauty she'd been transformed into and what she felt at that moment.
"Mrs Abercombie, it's beautiful," Claire whispered.
Mrs Abercombie smiled triumphantly. "I'm glad ye like."
Like? Are you kidding me? Claire wanted to correct the older woman, but she understood that Mrs Abercombie was giving her the prerogative by remaining impassive. The prerogative to be thrilled for this moment and be filled with anticipation for her wedding day, when the man she loved would see her looking beautiful and splendidly dress like a movie star.
"Goodness, gracious me, you look like an earth angel all vamped up!"
Everyone's head snapped towards the curtain divider direction, and there stood Mary cradling a bouquet of blood-red, long-stemmed roses. "Oops! Sorry for startling everyone ...I couldn't help myself." Mary clutched her throat and shook her head. "Good Lord, Claire, you look absolutely out of this world."
Claire barely heard the compliments. "What's that?" she asked, eyeing the roses.
Mary glanced down. "Oh, these ...the receptionist told me it's for you."
Mary snatched the card and read out loud, " You look beautiful today, love J. " She grinned at Claire. "Romance is definitely not dead. What a sweet man, your Jamie, is."
Everyone awwed, raved and gushed over the sweet and thoughtful note.
Claire frowned. "May I please see the message?"
"Of course," Mary replied, walking towards Claire and handing over the card.
Claire read and re-read the words before looking up.
Geillis touched her hand. "What's wrong, lass?"
Claire shook her head. "It's odd."
"What's odd?" Annalise asked.
"This doesn't look like Jamie's writing," Claire replied.
Jenny stepped in and peered at the card. "It's definitely no' Jamie's writing."
Annalise waved a hand in dismissal. "Maybe it's the florist's handwriting, and they've been instructed to write that message."
Claire wasn't convinced. "It's not Jamie's style," she explained. "He usually ends messages with the words love you and an X. He's quite consistent that way. He never signs J or his name. And he's never given me roses because he knows I don't like them."
"Oh, that's right," Annalise said, suddenly remembering. "You've never been keen on roses."
"Maybe it's from John, your former boss?" Mary implied. "He's quite fond of you, you know?"
Claire shook her head. "Fond, yes. But John is practical when it comes to giving gifts, and he thinks buying flowers are a waste of money. Sending these expensive roses would be a gesture out of character for him. Besides, why would he send these? For what occasion?"
"Oh, oh ..." Jenny's eyes lighted. "Maybe it's from Jamie's therapist? His name is Joe, right?"
Claire chewed her bottom lip. "No, not Joe. Definitely not. That would be too weird, and I don't think his wife, Gail, would be too impressed if she heard about these expensive roses. I don't think that's his style, and on top of that, I hardly know the bloke."
"Well, who the fuck gave you these roses then?" Gellis asked, the furrows on her brows intensifying.
Everyone looked at Jenny.
Jenny sputtered. "Me? Of course, it wasnae me, ye bunch of dafties."
"Weel, there's only one way to find out who the sender is ..." Geillis suggested.
"Eh, how?" Mary asked.
"My boyfriend is a police officer," Geillis answered. "We'll get him to interrogate the florist. I can see the tag of the flower shop on the wrapper."
Claire groaned out loud. "Oh, for God's sake, Geillis. Do we really need to get him involved? It's not important. Soon enough, we'll find out who the mystery sender is."
Geillis' smile was wicked. "Just hang fire," she said before shouting, "FINLAY!"
"WHAT?" Finlay shouted back from the other side of the curtain.
"Get yer sweet, hairy arse in here! Pronto!"
Later that afternoon, Claire walked into the cottage, attempting to forget about the unexpected delivery at the bridal boutique while the sound of thunder rumbled across the sky. She'd given the bouquet to Mary, citing allergies as an excuse. It might as well have been the case since she didn't like roses, especially coming from strangers.
Geillis had sensed something was off and had sweet-talked her boyfriend to find out who'd sent the flowers using his influence as police. But the quick investigation had come up blank. Claire had been informed that the flower shop owner had found an envelope on the counter by the cash register. It contained a hundred and fifty quid, instructions and a notecard, and the florist had only happily complied with the request. Reviewing the video surveillance recording hadn't produced any results either since the person who'd left the envelope had been wearing a sports cap and a hoodie, obscuring most of the face.
The thunder clapped once more, and she realised anytime soon, it would start to rain. Rollo was safe in the house, but Adso was nowhere to be found, and he hated thunderstorms. She needed to find the cat before it came pouring down.
Grabbing Adso's treats, she made her way out through the kitchen backdoor. She clicked her tongue and shook the packet of cat biscuits to entice Adso while searching and scanning through bushes and shrubs. With no luck, she decided to check the surroundings of the shed.
Her heart lurched, and as she whirled around, she toppled backwards, hitting her head on something hard. A sharp pain exploded on her skull, causing her to squeeze her eyes shut.
"Oh, God, Claire! Ye alright?"
The agonising pain was momentarily dulled by the familiar voice. She tried to open her eyes, but her vision blurred.
"Easy now there, Claire! Dinnae move. I rang yer doorbell, and when ye didnae answer, I walked around the house. Ye forgot yer handbag in the car, and I came back to bring it to ye. When I called out yer name, I must have caught ye by surprise, and ye slipped and banged yer head."
Tom? It was only her friend. Damn those roses! She'd been on edge ever since that bloody bouquet arrived, and now she'd panicked over the sound of her Tom's voice.
She tried to speak, but it hurt to talk.
"I've called 999 just in case yer fall had caused more damage. I've sent a message to Jamie and Annalise as well. I'm terribly sorry for sneaking up on ye."
"It's alright," she managed to croak.
"Tell me where ye are hurting," Tom asked calmly.
She was about to reply, but another shearing pain fired at the back of her head, so excruciating it almost robbed her of air and made her see shooting stars. She felt the beginning of rain dropping on her, and suddenly she felt cold and began to shake. And just before the world went dark and silent, she heard the wails of sirens.