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Save The Date

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A year and three months later

 

The last time Claire had attended a game of shinty otherwise known as  camanachd  in the Highlands, she hadn't expected it to lead to meeting the love of her life. The feeling was deeply evocative. Standing here reminiscing the not so distant past. Looking out into Broch Mordha's pitch and hearing the deafening cheers of people she'd become acquainted with and grown to love. Players' cleats and  camáns  skidding through turf and dirt, and feet thundering against the ground in wind sprints. She absorbed the excitement permeating the Highland air and acknowledged the moment of contentment for her new life and future. Gratitude wrapped around her heart and squeezed, threatening sentimental tears to spill. Mentally shaking herself, she inhaled deeply through the intense emotions of memory and refocused on the game.

Into the final stretch, Jamie dodged a tackle with lethal speed and powerful drives, launching the ball with his  camán  to his brother. In turn, Willie propelled it under the crossbar to the wild roars and applause of the spectators. Just as the whistle blew, signalling the end of the game and a win for Broch Mordha, Angus, one of the players, blew her a kiss. Jamie glanced up in time to witness it. She wasn't surprised at all. It was pretty uncanny how he could sense her presence and the attention she garnered from a distance as if he could perceive her every mood, movement and thought. Blue eyes penetrating hers from across the green, he slowly smiled, clearly oblivious to the celebratory backslaps he received from his teammates. Watching him jog purposely towards her, her attention was momentarily snagged once more by her flirty offender. 

"Ach, bonnie, Claire!" Angus bayed theatrically, placing both hands over his heart. "Will ye lend me a kiss, my sweet lass? I promise to give it back to ye with returns."

Fully aware of Jamie's possessive streak, Claire bit back a smile as she watched him jerkily whipped off his helmet. 

"Give it a rest, Angus," he barked. "And back right off. She's as good as married to me." 

"As good as, ye say?" Angus grinned, loping beside Jamie. "That's no' good enough. I still have a chance, and I believe I have six weeks to convince Claire she's chosen the wrong lad to marry." He winked at her and gave Jamie a sideways shoved on the shoulder. "I'm gonnae take my chances."

Jamie abruptly tore his gaze away from her and dropped his  camán  and helmet to the ground. Grabbing Angus' by the neck, he playfully put his teammate into a headlock. "Over my dead body," he growled, slapping Angus' helmet for good measure. "Now leave my lass alone, ye manky git!" 

Angus wheezed as he forcibly extracted himself from Jamie's clutch and lurched forward. "Away an'  bile  yer  heid , ye numpty!" His hand flew to his neck and glared. "Ye shouldnae be let  oot . Ye're bloody mad where Claire is a concern."

"That'll teach ye to flirt with my lass," Jamie replied with smug satisfaction.

Angus' scowl deepened. "Bloody hell, lad, dinnae get yer pish in a froth ... Claire's only got eyes for ye. Ye act like as if ye dinnae ken that." He dramatically kinked his head sideways to the right as if some damage had been done to his neck. "I swear to God, ye're more territorial than my chihuahua but not as cute." When Jamie lunged his way, he made a quick sidestep and began running backwards. Angus then brought his attention back to Claire, deliberately blowing her multiple air-kisses, clearly in an attempt to taunt Jamie. "Right, sweetheart," he called out to her. "Ye ken where to find me in case ye decide to leave this mardy  bawheid . Mind ye, in case naebody has warned ye yet, his gene pool needs a good dose of chlorine."

"Bugger off, or ye'll be going home with a black eye or worse ...in a full-body cast!" Jamie warned.

"Wanker!" Angus hollered, launching Jamie the one-finger salute before heading out of the field.

Claire watched Angus' disappearing form and sighed. "Men! Insufferable, the lot of you." Her gaze flicked back to Jamie, and she shook her head at him. "Well, there ...what do you have to say for yourself?"

His hawk-like eyes immediately fastened to hers, luminescent electric blues like fire in water and midwinter sky. His coppery locks had turned dark with perspiration, beads of sweat sliding from his temples down the sides of his neck. He had several days worth of scruff hugging his jaw and a sport shirt that stretched against his broad, solid shoulders and trim waist, muscled abs precariously straining against the material. Powerful quads flexed as he moved, the bulge at his groin tucked away in compression undergarment still definable in his mud-covered white shorts, leaving little to the imagination and causing her to bite her lower lip.  Damn, the sexy devil!

"Ye like what ye see, Sassenach?"

Her eyes snapped back to his, unable to reply, way too absorbed in admiring his physical attributes. She could only stand there and anticipate as he headed towards her, got hold of her jaw and brought her lips to his for a hard kiss. His display of proprietorship should have annoyed her, but it didn't. His calloused touch and firm grip were softened by deep affection and longing, telling the world he belonged to her as much as she belonged to him. It was as if they hadn't spent the past year planning their wedding and spending time together whenever their hectic schedule would allow. A period that was supposed to have tempered and slaked their passion and obsession for one another. Instead, time only served to intensify it at an exponential rate.

She sighed at how good he tasted and felt. He smelled of damp earth, the Highlands' breeze and all man. After a few days of separation, being kissed by him was like her first deep breath after surfacing from under the water.  God, how I've missed him!

Humour shaped his mouth. "So ye missed me then?" he whispered as if reading her thoughts. His hand slipped underneath her top and caressed the skin on the small of her back, causing the words she'd wanted to say next to evaporate into thin air. 

She breathed unevenly and eagerly kissed him back, twining her impatient fingers through his damp locks. "Uh-huh," was all she could manage in response. 

"Good to hear, but I'm gonnae have to be straightforward with ye," he muttered between kisses, seemingly uncaring of the people in their vicinity and sallies of "get a room" directed at them. "I'm no' feeling sensible right now, so ye better have a very good answer for me." He bit her bottom lip hard before soothing it with a lick of his tongue. "Why didnae ye tell me ye're arriving early? I could have picked ye up at the airport."

"But I ..."

"Ye didnae even give me a polite warning," he interrupted, squeezing her hip. "Showing up here looking beautiful and giving the menfolk an eyeful in those tight jeans." He clucked and pressed his heated lips against her jawline. "It doesnae even help that I made it clear to anyone who has eyes, ye're with me in every way. And still, ye get these pesky attentions. What am I supposed to do with ye, eh?"

"Knock me out with your  camán  and drag me home hollering like a caveman that you are?" she bristled.

"Dinnae tempt me, Sassenach," he grumbled. "I told ye often enough I want to be the first to see ye the moment ye arrive in Scotland."

She tried to extricate herself from his hold, but his grip wouldn't allow it. There was no way around when he was so much stronger and more bull-headed. So she yielded and relaxed in his arms. "And wot? Allow you to miss this game? Not a bloody chance in hell. You've been looking forward to this game for weeks." 

"Wrong answer." He playfully nipped her earlobe. "I decide if I want to miss the game or no'. Not ye."

Her head shot up, and she raised her chin in defiance. "And for your information, I decide if I want to be picked up or not." 

He frowned so hard, a muscle popped on his cheek. He looked like he was attempting to choose his words wisely. After a couple of heartbeats of stare-off, he let out a heavy exhale, fanning her face with his warm minty breath. "I'm no' gonnae say anything to that. Only because I'm too happy to have ye back." 

She arched an eyebrow at him.

"Fine!" He rubbed his face with a hand. "I dinnae want to bicker with ye. It's just that ..."

"It's just wot?"

His face softened, and he gave her an apologetic smile. "I'm so sorry, Sassenach. It's just that I've missed ye ...loads. And that touchy-feely editor of yers has spent more time in yer company than I have these past few months."

She slapped his chest. "His name is Alex, and I wish you would stop calling him names. He grew up travelling the Continent, and you ought to know, touchy-feely is a European thing. Besides, ..." She took a deep breath. "...allow me to remind you, he's more than an editor. He is John's best, and I'm fortunate he's been assigned to me. These past few months, he's bent backwards over to help me tie loose ends in my old job on top of assisting with the publication of my book and making the process as less stressful for me as possible." 

His brows knitted together. "It doesnae mean I have to like his over the top demonstrative ways."

She sighed at Jamie's dogged determination not to be swayed from his opinion about Alex. But it was true, though, that she'd been spending more time with her tactile editor friend. The past few months had passed in a blur of settling in the Highlands, which had morphed from planning her wedding to frenzied rush getting her book published. It hadn't been her intention to publish her work so soon, but after Louise, a children's book author and a long time acquaintance, outed her as a closeted writer to her former boss, her life had been turned somewhat upside down. John Grey had immediately insisted on allowing him to read her manuscripts. After a lot of wheedling on his part, she'd conceded but not without a mixture of excitement and trepidation. 

To her relief, though, John had fallen in love with her work, and he'd been over the moon when she'd told him she had more. He'd binged read the rest of the manuscripts that comprised the entire series, and when he'd returned her work, she was surprised there were minimal dreaded red-inked commentaries offering suggestions for changes. After a lot of discussions, John had pushed and managed to convince her that now was the right time to get her work out there to capitalise on the present trend and the uniqueness of her story. 

Though she'd been hesitant at first, she'd agreed in the end but hadn't expected the fast pace of the publication process. But she hadn't been the least bit surprised since John was in dire need of fresh materials. And her manuscripts were as good as ready to go. She'd written them awhile back and edited herself countless times with her critical editorial acumen. As luck would have it, Alex had been relentless in ensuring everything was ahead of the production schedule. So, during these past few months, her time had been divided between meeting John's teams of professionals, planning her wedding and spending time with Jamie whenever their work schedule would allow for it.

Jamie pulled her closer against him, bringing her back to the present moment. "Let's no' talk about yer editor anymore. Ye're here now. But please tell me ye're no' flying to London again ...at the very least, no' anytime soon."

She shook her head against his chest. "There's just one more trip. And then John and Alex are leaving me alone ...at least until after our honeymoon."

"And what's this next trip about?" 

She glanced up and touched the cleft on his stubbled chin. "I'm attending Mary Hawkin's publication day book signing in a couple of weeks at Foyles in London. Not only has Mary offered to endorse my book online, but she wants me to sit next to her during her interview. She thought it would give my new career a boost to introduce me as the new writer on the block. Both John and Alex thought it's a grand idea. I guess it will be great exposure for me before I make my own debut."

He drew slightly away and searched her face. "Why am I only hearing this now?" 

"It's no big deal," she shrugged. "It's just a day trip."

"Nae big deal? It's actually quite huge, Sassenach. Hawkins will be endorsing yer book during her book's release when it's supposed to be her big day. I assume there'll be important people vying to adapt her book into a movie or something like that. Who knows, ye might catch their attention."

She grinned. "How do you know all that?"

His shoulders lifted casually. "Jenny's a fan of Hawkins' writing, and she told me there are rumours her previous books may be adapted into a movie. I must admit, though, I'm no' mad keen on Hawkins nor her writing style. But I cannae deny she is a heavyweight in the literary world. I think what she's doing for ye is quite generous." He smiled, bright and wide, his handsome face lighting up. "Weel, she owes it to ye after what ye've put up with her antics. But it's no' like ye need her to endorse yer book. I'm pretty sure ye can make it on yer own."

She smiled at his faith in her. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Jamie, but without John's influence, Alex's ingenuity and Mary's endorsement, the market will be a hundredfold harder to crack. I'm fortunate I know the right people and getting these opportunities for a good headstart."

His lips coasted over her brows. "Ye owe yer good headstart to yer brilliance, Sassenach. The moment I first read a snippet of yer writing, I felt it in my guts ye're gonnae go far. John's excitement about yer book is also a testament to that. Ye're very gifted, and on top of it all, a grafter to boot." He stared at her and brought her hand to his lips to kiss her fingers. "Ye've nae idea how proud I am of ye."

She stood on her tiptoes and gave him a quick peck on the lips. "You're biased when it comes to me, but hey ... I don't mind." She began to pull away but was yanked back against him. "Jamie! We best get going. You still have to shower, and your mates will be expecting you at the pub to celebrate your win."

He let out a groan and dropped his head into the crook of her neck. "Do we have to?" he grumbled.

"Yes, we have to," she said firmly. "You don't cancel on your friends just because I'm here." 

"It's no' like our team is playing in the premier division. I'd rather we do something together ...alone. How about we do our own celebrating? Just us."

"And what are we supposed to be celebrating that you can't attend your team's get-together?"

"Yer homecoming for one," he whispered into her ears, pressing his hips suggestively against hers. "We'll start with a shower, and then ..." He trailed off and squeezed her arse. "We'll take it from there."

Her mouth went dry and warmth spread through her belly, but she refused to be tempted. "As enticing as your proposition sounds, I can't allow you to do this to your team." She pressed her hands on his chest to push him away, and when he didn't budge, she gave him an exasperated look. "Jamie, they're your mates, and they'll want to celebrate the person responsible for that winning pass to your brother. Which happens to be you. Anyway, you should be taking advantage of spending more time with your friends. Soon enough, we'll have a lifetime of doing many things on our own."

"I was afraid ye were gonnae say that." He reluctantly let her go and picked up his helmet and  camán  from the ground "Why do ye have to be staggeringly reasonable?"

"And why do you have to be so whingy?"

"Am not." He straightened up and jerked his head. "Shall we then?" 

Sighing, she closed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around his waist, forcing him to look at her. "Jamie."

"Sassenach."

She rolled her eyes when she saw he was trying to hide a smirk. She blew out a breath and mentally counted one to three. "Alright, how about this? One drink. That's all I'm asking. We won't stay long, and that's a promise. Just show your face to your friends, have a bit of blether, and then we're off. Unless, of course, you decide you want to stay longer."

A slow grin transformed his face. "Fine, it's a deal. But mind ...ye have a lot of making up for me to do."

She nodded and tamped down the urge to laugh. "See? Compromise isn't so difficult at all, is it?"

He arched an eyebrow at her. "Ye been reading Marriage 101 ahead of our wedding?"

"No! But someone here has to do a bit of adulting."

He playfully hit her bottom with the helmet dangling from his hand. "Cheeky!"

Laughing, they kissed some more and just as they were about to draw apart, a sudden uncomfortable and cold feeling washed over her. It felt like she was being watched. She froze on the spot waiting for the odd sensation to pass.

Sensing the change in her, Jamie stilled, too. "What's wrong?" he asked.

Before she could respond, a familiar voice boomed from somewhere behind her. "Claire, ye're back!" 

She jumped, and her head jerked, knocking Jamie on the chin.  Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!   As she spun around, a sharp pain fired across her brow. She ignored it and forced a smile. "Tom!" she gasped, ignoring the twinge and the string of obscenities Jamie muttered under his breath. "Long time no see." 

She was relieved to see it was Tom Christie. Like her, he was in the process of getting his book published and occasionally travelled to London for work-related stuff and to visit his girlfriend, Mary Hawkins. After six months of working intensively with Tom as his editor, they'd become fast friends. Even Jamie had started to warm up to him, but only after he'd found out that Tom was pursuing Mary.

Tom gave her a quick hug and slapped Jamie on the back. "Great game, pal!"

Jamie nodded absentmindedly and worriedly looked at her. "Ye alright, Sassenach? Ye're awfully jumpy. Ye look like as if something has spooked the hell out of ye."

"Aye," Tom agreed, his brows creasing deeply. "Ye look white as a sheet. I hope it has nought to do with me."

"Don't be silly," she winced, touching her brow and trying to get her breathing back to normal.

Jamie gently touched her forehead, where she'd banged herself against his chin. "Does that hurt? That was some impact."

"It'll be fine," she insisted, closing her eyes briefly at Jamie's featherlike caress.

"Ye sure?"

She glanced at Jamie and then at Tom and then at Jamie again. When they continued to stare at her with a mixture of worry and confusion in their eyes, she let out an exasperated sigh and gave them her signature death glare. "Wot? I said I'm fine. It's not like I'm going to get a concussion out of it. The worst outcome will be probably some light bruising or a tiny bump." They didn't look convinced. Whatever they saw on her face was making them fuss unnecessarily, and it was all over their expressions. She inhaled deeply and blanked her features. "Honestly! Don't worry. Maybe I'm a bit jumpy. It's either just the frequent flying or the excitement about the wedding and my book causing my hormones to go haywire or spike my stress levels up. Nothing that an ice-cold cider and a good night's sleep can't fix." She softened her voice and touched Jamie's forearm. "You go and shower ...I'll wait at the pub. Is that alright?"

Jamie rested his  camán  on his shoulder and gave her a  we'll-talk-about-this-later  look before kissing her on the lips. It was apparent he still hadn't shaken off the concern out of his system. He glanced at Tom. "Ye'll accompany her, aye?"

Tom looked between them. "Aye, of course. It'll give us ample time to talk shop. And watch the Rangers and Celtic game."

Jamie's worried expression eased marginally. "I shan't take long." Then he pointed his finger at Tom. "Mind, keep the lads at the pub at bay until I arrive."

Claire gasped.  What the hell!  She was on the verge of suggesting that they headed for home instead of the pub so she could give him a right telling off when Tom stirred her away by the elbow. She glared at Jamie, who was already walking away and shook her head at his beastly behaviour. She wanted to call him out, but an inner voice shouted to clamp her mouth shut. Maybe it was the right thing because if she was honest with herself, she was more ticked off at the fact that Jamie was on to her rather than his boorish conduct. It was clear as daylight he'd sensed her discountenance, and she knew he wouldn't let her off easily. She decided to calm herself down and regroup. A night out in the pub was definitely a great idea and would do the trick. It would spare the needless interrogation.

Oh, for crying out loud, just tell him. What's the big deal?

And tell him wot? He'll go bonkers, or he'll think I'm going bonkers! 

Stop being dramatic and just tell him.

Well, theoretically, there's really nothing to say. 

If that's the case, what are you fussing about then? Have a drink and enjoy your night out.

Fine!  Tonight, no resolutions needed to be made. It's just stress causing her imagination to run wild. It was her first night back after being away for almost a whole week, and there was no need to ruin the evening with what were probably nontrivial matters. It was time to drop the antsy attitude and just enjoy their time together.

Mentally gathering her wits about her, she hooked her arm with Tom's and changed the subject by asking him if he'd summoned the courage to propose to his girlfriend yet. To her relief, he dove right into the conversion without another mention of the earlier incident.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Jamie stepped into the pub and scanned the room. Though it was jammed packed with shinty enthusiasts and Saturday night regulars, it didn't take long to spot Claire. Besides his height affording him a good vantage point, her long willowy frame, untamed curls, and lively manner instantly set her apart. She was stood with a group and looked like she was in a deep discussion with his sister Jenny. When Tom stopped by her side to hand her a drink, her eyes lit up, and her lips twitched in amusement at something said. For a moment, he found himself stranded in awe, watching every small gesture and expression she made, radiating an aura that amplified the physical appeal that was uniquely hers. His body stirred, and a lump wedged in his throat. Christ, she's so beautiful, and in six weeks, she's officially mine! How did I get to be so lucky?

As if she'd read his thoughts, her eyes flew up to meet his, and she beamed. Face flushed and glowing, she waved and animatedly beckoned him over. There might be dark circles under her eyes, but that didn't take away the delight she exuded. That few seconds of distress he'd seen on her earlier seemed to have passed, and though she'd tried to reassure him it was just the strain of travelling back and forth to London, he couldn't shake the feeling off that there was more to it. They definitely had to talk about it later, but momentarily, he really needed to tone down his proprietorial and over-protective attitude, or else he'd dim her spirit. He didn't want that when she looked so happy right now.

He was about to make a move towards her when he noticed Claire's attention was beginning to be drawn into many directions. His sister attempted to pull her back into a conversation, and Tom raised his glass for a toast. His teammate's wife stopped by and leaned over to kiss her on the cheek in greeting. Though it was a tempting thought to yank her away from the group, he swallowed the impulse and decided to let her be, his love for her extinguishing the spark of worry and irritation of not having her to himself. She'd just arrived from London and needed this distraction to decompress, and Jamie wasn't about to take that away from her. Before he could change his mind, he pointed at the bar and made a motion to her of going to get a drink, and she responded with a thumbs up and an air kiss.

It took considerable effort to tear his gaze away and start moving, but the sound of someone clearing their throat from behind catapulted him back to reality.

Navigating his way through groups of revellers, he smiled despite himself, glad that his sister and his soon wife-to-be were getting along. After the two had taken off to a rocky start, he was glad their differences had been somewhat resolved - Jenny kind of refraining from interfering with their lives and Claire trying to put behind their unpleasant start. They weren't close and probably never would be, but at least they were on talking terms. At least and most likely where their wedding preparation was a concern.

When he finally made it to the bar, he saw his older brother watching football on one of the flatscreens. Clapping Willie on the back, he waved down the passing barmaid. "I'll have what he's having and another one for him, please."

Willie swung around and peered over the rim of his pint glass. He placed his beer down and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. "Ah, the man of the hour has finally arrived," he grinned.

Jamie pocketed his phone and slid onto a stool. "Man of the hour? I dinnae think so." Squinting, he checked the football score on TV and fist-pumped the air when he saw Celtic leading by two goals. Thrilled with the result, he turned to face his brother. "Ye're the one who brought it home, mind?"

"Weel, that might have been the case, but my goal wouldn't have been possible if ye hadn't broken through that solid wall of defence and given that delicious pass. I saw the video recording and must admit it was a thing of beauty the way ye controlled the ball and executed the move." Willie ribbed him with his elbow and smirked. "Is there any chance that yer excellent performance has anything to do with Claire watching? Showing off to yer ladylove, perhaps?"

"I had nae idea she was arriving today," he replied, nodding his thanks at the barmaid when their drinks arrived. He shifted on his seat and raised his pint glass at his brother. "I only realised she was there watching the game when the final whistle was blown."

Willie watched him down a healthy measure of his beer. "Ye dinnae sound too pleased."

Jamie placed his glass down and glanced over at Claire. When she caught his gaze, she mouthed,  I love you.  He felt his face heat up, and his heart rate kicked up a notch. Whenever she did something like that, everything flew out the window. As he'd learned over the past year, nothing ever went according to plan when it came to this lass. Trying to understand what had spooked her earlier, his plans had been to ask her about it and then tell her off for failing to mention her arrival today. He'd even promised himself not to let her off the hook easily, knowing she'd brush it off as nothing. But looking now at her come-hither looks, his earlier concerns were all but almost forgotten and suddenly seemed inconsequential in retrospect. To add to his dwindling resolve, his plans to talk had been replaced with mental scenes of a sexual nature.  Ah,  sweet Jesus!  He rubbed his face and forced himself to refocus on Willie before he embarrassed himself and did something like throw her over his shoulder and take her home. Shaking his head as if it would rid him of his carnal thoughts, he took another swig of his beer. "She's a stubborn woman and willnae be told. That's all I have to say to that."

Willie barked out a laugh. "It takes one to know one, and ye love her for it."

"Aye, that's true, I suppose," Jamie replied with a sigh.

"And ye wouldnae want her any other way."

"No, I wouldnae." 

Someone from behind him hollered " foul, " causing their attention to revert back to the TV. Watching the slow-motion replay of an illegal tackle, the brothers shouted curses at the flatscreen and waited with bated breaths as a Rangers player was awarded a penalty kick. The next tense minutes seemed to go on forever, but when the ball was saved by the goalkeeper, they both jumped out of their stools and let out a groan of relief.

"Yesss!" Willie slammed down his glass on the bar and ordered another round.

"Fuck, that was close," Jamie muttered into his pint.

"Aye, too close." Willie let out a low whistle and slumped back onto his stool. "So, how's the wedding planning moving along?" he asked, changing the subject. "Not long to go before ye're a married man."

Jamie contemplated his brother's words as he watched the barmaid served them another round of drinks. He and Claire should have married on the day he proposed and skipped all the hassles of wedding planning. But, instead, the preparations for their upcoming nuptials were putting Claire under a lot of unnecessary stress, thrust into arrangements she'd rather not have. Even though Jenny had taken upon herself to slot into the role of a wedding planner, still he could tell Claire was daunted by all the fuss. "The wedding, ye say?" he finally responded with a sigh. "Jenny's in her element organising it. Ye'd think it's her own wedding the way she's walking around making grand plans and insisting what's best. I'm surprised Claire hasn't throttled her yet."

Willie frowned. "Has our Jenny gone back to her meddling ways? Because if so, that wee busybody needs a right telling off and ..."

Jamie cut him off. "Hold yer horses. I'm no' even sure if I'd call it meddling. Claire has a lot on her plate at the moment. I reckon she's happy enough to let Jenny run the show, what with her trips to London sorting out her book publication and her house in Oxford. I havenae been much of a big help either with all the amount of work ye, and I have."

"Hmm ...I just dinnae like the sound of Jenny taking over, that's all. She may mean well, but she has this awful habit of bossing everyone around."

Jamie shrugged as he grabbed his beer. "I dinnae like it either. But if Claire's alright with it, I just have to trust her on that one. Besides, I dinnae have a clue about wedding preparations. I wouldnae even know where to start."

"Ye could've hired a wedding planner," Willie pointed out, clinking his fresh pint against Jamie's glass.

Impatience snaked its way through him. "Ye really think I havenae proposed that idea?" Jamie shot. He took another swig of his pint and then shook his head. He'd already suggested that to Claire, but she hadn't had the heart to deny Jenny the role, seeing it as an opportunity for her to get to know his sister better and smooth their relationship.

Willie ignored the sarcasm and sipped his beer. "Weel, just make sure Claire is definitely on board with everything Jenny is doing. It's yer wedding and not our sister's pet project."

Jamie resignedly waved a hand. "Dinnae fash. Claire's no' shrinking violet. She'll put Jenny in her place if it all gets too much and if she has anything to say ...trust me, my future wife has plenty enough to say ... she'll come right out with it."

Willie didn't look convinced, and he gave Jamie a sceptical glance before resuming watching football.

Though money wasn't an issue since Claire had inherited a fortune and he had reasonable savings put away, they'd only wanted a small and simple intimate wedding. But from the moment they'd announced their engagement during a family dinner, attended by his godfather, Murtagh, Claire's uncle Lamb and a few extended families from his mother's side, everything had gone out of control. His parents had been thrilled, but before he and Claire could express their wish for a small wedding, his parents had gotten carried away with ideas and suggestions for a grand family affair. He was about to put a stop to it, but Claire had squeezed his hand under the table and subtly shaken her head at him. It had been apparent she didn't want to spoil the families' excitement of the news. It had been bad enough his godfather and uncle Lamb had often nearly gone head to head with one another after they'd been introduced that night. Old wounds clearly hadn't healed because Murtagh had taken an immediate dislike to uncle Lamb when he saw the older man's physical similarities to Claire's father. It had been a painful reminder for his godfather of a long-ago love he'd lost.

Matters then hadn't improved when uncle Lamb had enthusiastically agreed to a big wedding, to his parents' delight, naturally. He'd cited it was what Claire's parents would have wanted, and he'd even offered to foot the bill. Needless to say, if Jamie had had his way, he would have chosen to elope, ideally somewhere up further north or on some remote island with just the two of them. And he was pretty confident Claire would have agreed under different circumstances. But as it was, she wanted to please the family, and she'd told him if she was going to live in the Highlands, she didn't want to start married life with people resenting her for settling for a downscaled wedding party. He'd tried to reassure her that wouldn't happen, but she hadn't been convinced. So, in the end, Claire had relented to a grand wedding to keep the peace. He didn't like it one bit that she'd been pressured to do something she didn't want, but she'd assured him it would be fine. But the way Jamie saw it, she had no experience with a large and loud close-knit family. And while he looked to his family as a source of love, support and comfort, life with them could be chaotic, messy, clinging, and annoyingly, in your face. Claire may look like she's taking everything in a stride, but he could tell she was overwhelmed by all the fuss and bustle.

The microphone tap and the noise of the pub dropping by half drew Jamie out of his musing. "What's happening?"

"Huh?" Willie craned over his shoulder and then grinned. "Oh, it's live band night. I almost forgot ... it's on tonight."

"That'll be our cue to go then." He picked up his glass and downed the rest of his drink. He couldn't wait to spend some quality time with Claire, just them for the rest of the weekend. "Christ, I havenae even meant to stay this long."

Willie dropped a heavy hand on Jamie's shoulder. "No' so fast,  bràthair.  I have a feeling ye might want to see this."

"I think no'," he muttered, wincing at the sharp crackle that blasted from the sound system. He brushed his brother's hand from his shoulder and stood up. "I havenae seen much of Claire. God knows, with my luck, something or someone will yank her from our alone time. So it's definitely time for us to go." He was just about to pull out his wallet to pay for their drinks when a familiar husky voice uttered,  "...mic test"  through the speakers, sending a jolt of shock through his system.

"Good evening, everyone," Claire spoke, tapping the microphone once more.

What the ...?

Willie pitched sideways and leaned into Jamie's ear. "I believe yer wife-to-be is about to say something, Jamie lad," he murmured.

Slowly, he turned around to face the stage, and there she was, the very sight of her mildly tipsy and shy, expanding his heart and lungs. He sank back onto the stool to take her in. Wisps of locks, dark auburn under the stage's harsh lights, creating a halo effect on her crown in tawny and reddish glints. Amber eyes lit, clear and golden as the finest whisky and scarlet rising on her cheeks. Crossing his arms across his chest, he watched her smile and then puff out a breath, a gesture that told him she was trying to calm her nerves. 

Willie nudged Jamie with his elbow. "Ye alright?"

"Aye," he fibbed without taking his eyes off Claire. "Why shouldnae I be?" In his distracted state, he might have drunk slightly more than he'd intended and was unsure what he truly felt at that moment. Though he was happy to see her fitting in with the people he'd known all his life, when it came to her getting all these attentions, his possessive streak always grew an ugly head. 

"For those who don't know me, my name is Claire," she began.

Willie chuckled. "Aye, that'll be right. 'Course everyone knows her. As if ye havenae told anyone with a penis who she is and who she belongs to."

Jamie ignored his brother as the crowd whistled and cheered, and she beamed at their response. Her voice sounded rich and smoky over the speakers, like melted chocolate and freshly ground coffee. He'd often said to her she had a bedroom voice, and by the looks of the captivated men, they probably thought so too. A feeling of restlessness laced his organs, and it took Herculean effort to tamp down the urge to carry her off the stage and take her home. Dragging a hand down over his face, he let out a rough exhale and forced himself to remain seated and wait. 

What the bloody hell are ye up to, Sassenach?  

She raised a hand to quieten her audience. "Now, you wonderful lot may be wondering what I'm doing up here when we have a live band and not karaoke night. Well ... I'm going to cut to the chase and tell you why." She tucked her hair behind her ear and glanced at her feet. When her eyes came back up, she gazed straight at him. "I guess it's safe to say, love and too much alcohol make you do the craziest things." 

There were shouts of agreement and whoops of delight, and he could feel all eyes on him. Of course, they all knew Claire was talking about him and that she was his, but that didn't take the feeling away that he was losing that tiny shred of composure not to act like a selfish bastard and shield her from everyone's scrutiny.

He kept his eyes plastered on her and saw something soft playing around the edges of her smile as she licked her lips and leaned closer to the microphone. "That said, I'm here to sing a song." More cheers and whistles ensued, but she shook her head. "I must warn you, though, I've never sung on my own in front of a crowd. The few times I've been up here on stage was when my mate, Annalise, needed a backup voice during karaoke nights. Unfortunately, my mate is not here to help me out ... she's in London. So tonight, I'm going to be brave, and I'll be singing solo."

"Ye can do this, Claire!" someone shouted.

She winked and smiled. "This song I'm about to sing is for a special someone who serenaded me a Rick Astley song in the village square over a year ago. I hope he doesn't mind me returning the favour." The guitarist behind her strummed a few whimsical opening chords, making the crowd roar with laughter and launched teasing remarks at Jamie. 

He wasn't surprised at the reaction. How could anyone forget that incident? Almost everyone in Broch Mordha remembered or had heard what had transpired the night he'd serenaded Mary Hawkins thinking he'd been singing to Claire. Some had thought it was romantic, and others, he'd been a drunken menace. Ever since then, he'd often been teased about it, but Jamie couldn't care less. It had been the night he'd reunited with Claire after his stupidity nearly cost him the love of his life. He could have been dealt with far worse, and the repercussions of making a fool of himself would have been worth it every time.

Claire cleared her throat and clutched the microphone stand with both hands. "This song is a classic ...an old favourite of mine. It's about treasuring every moment spent with the one you love." As the guitarist began to play the familiar prelude, her eyes closed for a moment. When she opened them again and spoke, her voice was barely a whisper. "Jamie, my love ...this song is for you." 

The audience simmered to a hush as the melody rose, expanding from playful plucking to steady strumming resonance, and when the note hit the verse, she sang, soulful and almost haunting. She sang of treasured times of togetherness and not wanting to miss a single moment of anything, but her clearest words were in the chorus.  Don't want to close my eyes, I don't want to fall asleep 'cause I'd miss you, baby, and I don't want to miss a thing. 'Cause even when I dream of you, the sweetest dream will never do. I'd still miss you, baby, and I don't want to miss a thing.

The way she looked at him as she sang made him forget to breathe. She looked at him like he was the most precious person in the world, telling him her heart was his, always have been and always would be. He was possessive and, at worst temperamental, but she didn't care. She embraced his every facet and flaw. He was everything to her, and she made it known with the song and by the tender way she looked at him.

As the song neared the end, his body took on some instinctive reflex in response to the crescendo. The pull was so powerful it felt like his very existence had just tilted in her direction, and everything was shifting towards her. He stood up and took a step. And then another, the entirety of his surroundings slowing and fading into the background. Though he was conscious of people looking at him, he couldn't feel beyond the woman who held his gaze.

Vaguely aware of the applause and whistles when the song finally ended, he stepped up the stage and pulled her to him. He curled a hand behind her neck and brought their foreheads together. "That was amazing, Sassenach."

Her breath released in a rush, and she smiled dreamily at him. "Take me home, Jamie."

"About bloody time," he muttered against her lips. "I've wanted to ages ago, but I didn't want to seem like a selfish bastard."

Her lips twitched, and she swayed against him. "I don't mind it sometimes when you're selfish with me, Jamie."

He cocked his head in question. 

"How could I when you're selfless in the ways that matter?" 

"Ye think so?" 

Her hands slid around his neck. "Well ...even though you don't get panic attacks anymore, I know you loath going to the city. Yet you accompany me whenever you get a chance. And regardless of how much you hate us spending time apart, every time I leave for London on my own, you're always encouraging me to pursue my dreams." 

"I dinnae like it one bit when we're not together," he admitted, without hesitation. "But it would be a sin to hide ye away and keep ye to myself." He brushed their nose together. "Ye're the bloody light, Sassenach." 

"And you're the one who helps me shine," she whispered. She rose onto her tiptoes, and in front of the cheering packed pub, this beautiful woman who he loved more than he'd imagined possible kissed him. His worries about life's maddening uncertainty and her vulnerability dissolved into thin air, his attention collecting on the only thing that was truly guaranteed to him - this gift of now, a sliver of a singular beautiful moment. Their moment.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Claire patiently waited for Jamie as he said his goodbyes to his mates and brother. As expected, a string of grumbles and protests succeeded, and she had to look away when he feigned exhaustion. With his hair stuck out in most places, making him look as though he'd ran his fingers through it all evening and a tad bit worse for wear, his excuse seemed it would pass as believable. But she knew better. He'd missed her, and he couldn't wait to have her alone, but the concern that layered his expression earlier hadn't escaped her notice. 

It was her fault. She'd allow some minor incident in London to get under her skin. Nothing had happened, but yet that particular episode had rattled her. She'd tried to dismiss it by putting it down to wedding jitters and telling herself she was safe in the Highlands, far away from the big bad city of London. But when caught off guard, Jamie could read her like an open book and knew something had alarmed her. She hadn't wanted him to worry when he was doing so well with his PTSD recovery. She'd thought tonight's distraction would make him forget. It looked like she had to do a better job at convincing herself as well as him. 

When Jamie finally managed to extract himself from offers of another round of drinks, he took her purse from her shoulder and dropped it over his head. Tugging her hand, he guided her out of the pub and into the square, his brisk stride forcing Claire into a jog. Weekend revellers enjoying the unusually warm night in the streets of Broch Mordha became a blur, her awareness narrowing mainly on Jamie's muscles that strained into tightrope tension. With every movement, his powerful back shifted underneath his t-shirt, making her squeeze his hand tighter and her nails dig into his palm. He remained mostly silent on their way home, glancing her way now and again to urge her to keep up. Like everything else he did, he'd taken charge with determined focus. But his eyes, the window to his ever-changing moods, were a mixture of lust, worry and apology. 

Several disturbing thoughts flitted through her mind, but she refused to give voice to a single one of them. She wouldn't have the slightest idea how to deal with it even if she wanted to. When the time came to go back to London, she'd deal with her problem. Not that it was a problem, but her wild imagination was raising her anxiety level. Jamie could sense it, and she knew it could be anytime now before he asked what was going on, and she hated lying. She had to reassure him and herself everything was fine before everything got blown out of proportion. Wasn't that what her best friend, Annalise, had said?  Don't make a mountain out of a molehill.  Taking a deep breath, she summoned something to say that would convince Jamie everything was indeed alright.

"It's a woman's thing," Claire blurted the first thing that came to her mind, speed walking to keep up with his steady pace. "You know, like when estrogen affects the serotonin production and make your mood go bonkers. It happens regularly in varying degrees, and sometimes it's more dramatic during a significant stage or change in life."

Jamie gave her an odd look. "What are ye talking about?"

"What I'm trying to say is ...sometimes it's a bummer being a girl."

"Are we talking about yer period, or are ye trying to get at something else?"

She let out a breath. "Yes! I'm talking about periods." 

He looked at her without breaking his stride. "Is this yer way of warning me of PMS zone ahead? 'Cause, it isnae due for another three days."

Her mouth dropped open, but she quickly shut it. "You know my cycle?" 

He smirked as if to say  I know everything.  

She shook her head in disbelief. "So what now, you keeping tabs on me with some mini-pocket calendar?"

Their exchange seemed to relax him, and he smiled, amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes. "Ye're as regular as clockwork, Sassenach. It's a good thing too because yer PMS is no' laughing matter. Knowing yer cycle gives me a fair idea of what to top up on when I do our shopping. Like this week, I bought ye yer favourite jar of olives stuffed with anchovies and next week, Jenny will get me a box of Thornton's for ye when she goes to Inverness. Just in time when ye start having chocolate cravings."

She clapped a hand over her mouth. "Jamie!"

He slid her a thoughtful look as they turned towards the cottage. "It's come to my attention, though, that yer cycle may be a bit off by a day or two." He let go of her hand to fish for the house keys in his pocket. "Or perhaps, more than that by now. I believe all this stress with ye travelling back and forth to London and planning our wedding has messed with yer cycle."

"Exactly!" She let out a sigh of relief. "That's what I've been trying to tell you earlier when ye were fretting about my jumpiness," she explained. "All these travelling back and forth has thrown my hormones all over the place. I'm probably just PMSing a tad early."

"Ye do know sex can help alleviate yer PMS, aye?" he asked. 

"Says who?" 

"Says me. It releases mood-boosting endorphins. Actually, in most cases ..." Jamie trailed off, shaking his head. 

"In most cases, wot?" 

He cleared his throat. "I've read somewhere PMS symptoms in most women impact energy levels, mood, and body image. As I understood it, all those wayward hormones ye're talking about are like wee beasties in yer body that create havoc making ye moodier and more anxious. But in yer case, there's a slight difference."

Curious, she glanced at his profile. "Oh? How so?"

"Weel, for one, women lose their libido during PMS whereas ye ..." His tongue swept the inside of his lower lip. "... ye're a whole different ball game."

She arched an eyebrow at him. "What do you mean?"

His lips twitched. "Sex during yer PMS makes you more even keel but a hell lot friskier and insatiable."

"Wot?" she gasped and slapped his forearm. "I certainly do not!" 

"Aye, ye do! Ye're my wee unquenchable nymphet," he laughed out loud, bypassing her attempt to strike him again. He zigzagged the rest of the way to the cottage, and when she reached his side, Jamie quickly opened the door before pulling her inside and then against him. Sliding a hand behind her neck, he spoke into her ear. "I wasnae complaining, Sassenach. I was just stating a fact."

She raised a hand to slap his chest, but he caught her wrist and kissed her palm. "If anyone's a horn ball, it's you, you cocky bastard!" she muttered.

"Shall we put my theory to the test and prove my point?"

She scrutinised him for a bit. In her distraction, trying to fend off Jamie's worries, she hadn't realised he'd been teasing her all along. She deliberately contemplated his question long and hard and then smiled when an idea popped into her head. "Very well, I think this calls for a bet then."

He gave her a lopsided grin. "Name yer terms."

She schooled her features and upped the ante. "The terms are simple, really," she began softly. "We carry on as usual. Since we've both had a busy past week and a very long day, we'll get ready for bed, kiss each other good night and go to sleep. If you wish, before we turn off the lights, we can have a little cuddle. Whoever initiates sex first is the loser. If you lose, you have to wear a Rangers shirt the next time we go to the pub."

He froze. Claire wasn't sure if he was more horrified by the idea of wearing a Rangers shirt or skipping sex tonight. "A Rangers shirt, ye say? Are ye out of yer mind? I'll be disowned by my mates."

"And here I thought you looked confident about your wee hypothesis."

Jamie's exhale came out hot against her forehead. "And if ye lose?"

"If I lose ..." She shrugged. "...well, I'll let you dish out the penalty on that one. But beforehand ..." Holding Jamie's gaze, she reached between their bodies and unbuckled his belt. "...this has to come off first." She stifled the urge to smile when he hissed harshly at her ministrations. Palming his abdomen, she watched her actions turned him on like nobody's business. "Is that alright if I help ye get ready to bed?"

A muscle ticked in his jaw, and whatever's left of his cockiness instantly evaporated as he gave her an accusing look. "Ye're no' playing fair."

"And when did you ever play fair, Jamie? Mind that poker game a fortnight ago? You thought I wouldn't notice the marked card. You badly wanted me to strip in front of you that you had to resort to cheating." She unbuttoned his jeans and playfully tugged at the zipper. "So, are we in agreement with the terms or what?"

With a heavenward glance, he made a low sound of frustration. When his eyes finally landed on hers again, she raised an eyebrow to let him know she was waiting for him to respond. 

"Well, what's it going to be, my big lad?" 

"Ah, sweet Jesus, who am I kidding?" Jamie backed Claire into the room and kicked the door shut behind him. As they stared at each other, something changed in the atmosphere. The sexual awareness that had always existed between them drummed powerfully in her ears, and the urgency taking root in her belly spread its branches to her core. Nevertheless, she stood her ground, and her eyes dropped to Jamie's hand, locking around the bulge behind his zipper and shifting it with a grimace. When he saw her watching, he cussed harshly under his breath. "Fuck the terms, Sassenach. Ye win. I dinnae care if I have weeks of ye taking the piss out of me. Just dinnae make me wear a Ranger's shirt. I was just messing ye about thinking ye might be tired and I could psyche ye up for ..." His voice tapered off, and his ears turned pink. 

"Psyche me up for what?" she asked, bewildered. 

It didn't take her long to realise what he meant because before the next words could come out of her mouth, Jamie had backed her against the wall. "I meant this." Propping his hands above her head, he pressed his hips against hers, the unmistakable evidence of his arousal trapped between their bodies. "Truth is, I've missed ye and been looking forward to this all night."

She cocked her head back and traced her finger along the underside of his jaw. "And so have I." Her eyes slid down to his throat, and she watched his Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. "I knew all along you were full of it."

"Aye, I ken. I'm so full of shite sometimes." 

"If you wanted me, all you had to do was say so." 

"Ye ken, I always want ye, Sassenach. We've been together for over a year, and I still cannae get enough of ye. There's no explanation for the way ye make me feel." 

She nipped at his chin. "How about you show me instead?"

Sliding his fingers through her hair, he drew her closer until their mouths were an inch apart. "Kiss me first," he ordered, his cocksureness once again taking over.

She didn't need telling twice. 

Practically climbing him, she hiked a leg against his waist, his hand automatically curving behind her knee, lifting her up so she could straddle him. She wrapped herself around him as their mouths locked, her tongue sliding between his parted lips and savouring his taste of beer, mint and something sweet. His clean soap scent floated up and swathed them, making her dizzy with need and urgency. His hips began to rock, and his bulky frame took over her space, crushing her breasts as his hands squeezed and claimed ownership, rough, reverent and probing on her hips. 

When Jamie slanted his head, her tongue stroked deep into his mouth and teased, taking pleasure in his deep growl of approval. The guttural sound he made and the jerky thrusts of his hips told her he was close to breaking point and was holding on to that constrained tether of control. But letting her take charge was his way of letting her know they were equal partners in every way and that she was his peer. She sensed it came from his need to soothe his guilt for the times when he was crazed with jealousy or over-possessive. Though he could be overbearing at times, she found it comforting to know his emotions were laid bare for her to see. It made it easier to overlook his flaws.

Breaking their kiss, she gasped as she came up for air, and his mouth instantly latched onto her jaw before trailing down her neck. "Jesus, Sassenach, ye're gonnae kill me if ye keep gyrating like that." He hissed when her head fell back, and she let out a long, drawn-out moan. "Ah fuck, we're no' gonnae make it to the bedroom."

"No ...here ...now," she stammered, barely able to form a simple sentence. "Clothes ...off." Shakily she pulled off her top, and her breath caught when his lips descended on her exposed skin before she could peel her shirt over her head.

"Ah, sweet Jesus, look at ye ...ye miss this so badly, aye?" He trailed hot kisses on the soft swells of her breast, his stubbles abrading her skin, causing series of tiny explosions to set loose on her nerve endings. "Tell me what ye want, Sassenach and I'll make it happen."

Just as she felt Jamie's finger tugging at the waistband of her jeans, in her lustful haze, she heard a doggy whimper and non-stop deep meowing racket. They froze at the same time. Following Jamie's line of vision, her eyes slowly trailed downwards to find Rollo and Adso looking at them as if in a fit of pique. In the heat of the moment, they'd forgotten about their pets. It was late already, and they're demanding to be fed and let out. Pounding his fist on the wall above her, Jamie dropped his head in frustration and growled a vicious curse.

"I should have fed them before heading to the games earlier," she breathed, still reeling from their kiss. "Was too excited to see you. It's not their fault."

"Aye, I ken."

Mentally shaking herself out of her lust induced stupor, she braced his face with both hands. "I'll take care of it," she said softly, bringing their foreheads together.

"No," he grunted, carefully letting her go so she could slide down from the wall. "I'll deal with them." He tipped her chin to kiss her, but the constant meowing and barking suspended him midway. With a sigh and a forced smile, he quickly kissed her forehead. "Shan't be long."

She grabbed her top from the floor and watched his retreating back. Rollo and Adso's interruption had dampened the mood, and she wanted to recover whatever's left of it. All evening he'd been looking broody, impatient, frustrated and devastatingly handsome. She wanted nothing more than to soothe him and give him something to smile about. Resolved in fixing matters, she hanged her top on the back of the chair and followed him into the kitchen. "Are you hungry?" she asked, opening the fridge.

"A wee bit peckish," he replied as he headed towards the pantry. "There's a banoffee pie in the fridge. Mrs Fitz dropped it off earlier. She said it's yer favourite."

"I see that," she smiled. She took out the pie and placed it on the counter. She sighed, admiring the sweet masterpiece. "Mrs Fitz's banoffee pie is something else, don't you think? They're as yummy as they are beautiful."

"Aye," he mumbled, shuffling about in the small space adjacent to the kitchen. "It's a wonder ye havenae gained weight with all the pies she makes for ye. I bet she makes them, so she has an excuse to mosey into our home and pry."

She grabbed a couple of plates and some cutleries. "Don't be mean!" she admonished. "She's lovely and neighbourly. Ever since I told her how I like my banoffee pie, it appears it makes her happy to make them for us. She even offered to make our wedding cake."

"And?"

"I agreed."

His shuffling stopped. "Ye what?" 

"She showed me a picture of a wedding cake she made for her niece. I must admit it looks fabulous ...and rustic."

"Rustic?" he snorted. "I dinnae like the sound of that. I ken I said I'll leave the details of the wedding up to ye, but I hope Jenny didnae put ye up to letting Mrs Fitz make the cake. Our wedding is becoming the village's affair."

"It was entirely my own decision."

"Very well then ...I trust yer judgement."

She dipped her spoon into the filling and tasted it. When the toffee flavour hit her palate, she groaned out loud. "Hmmm, this is so good. Expect a lot of cake degustation in the next few days, and I swear ye'll be forever converted, and ye'll see Mrs Fitz in a different light.."

"Is that so?" Jamie finally came out of the pantry holding two bowls, one on each hand. After placing them in front of Rollo and Adso on the floor, he straightened up and looked at her. She noticed how his eyes flared as he took in her sheer skin-coloured bra. It was only a few minutes ago he had her pinned topless against the wall and trailing kisses down her cleavage. Her new lingerie must have the same desired effect or even more from a few feet apart. 

Naughtiness suddenly frolicked through her veins, making her giddy with mischief. Wanting to see how far she could tease Jamie, she gave him what she thought was a sexy smile and picked up the spoon. Scooping a creamy mass of banoffee, she slowly brought it to her lips and glid it into her mouth. She savoured the smooth and rich texture, provocatively twirling the cutlery on her tongue before pulling it out to lick it. 

She pretended not to notice how his jaw flexed as she helped herself to another portion. "You know, if she can make delicious pies like this, I'm quite sure her cake will just be as tasty. I must admit, I think all of Mrs Fitz's puddings always have that perfect arse wibble." 

He blinked. "Arse wibble?" 

"Uh-huh ...firm but with a subtle wobble. No sloshy jiggles." She ran her tongue over her upper lip, and she noted how he bit his lower lip in response. Trying not to get distracted by the intensity of his gaze, she resumed her teasing. "Aaaand ...this sweet has everything I like."

He cleared his throat. "Sweet? Oh, y-yes, very sweet. Ye like yer sweets."

"It has bananas, and you know how I love bananas."

"Ye do?" he swallowed audibly. "A-aye, o-of course, ye do."

"And this ..." She tapped her spoon against the bottom part of the pie. "...this here ...utter perfection. No soggy bottoms and it has a generous thick base. It must have taken a lot of pounding to crush those digestive biscuits."

"Pounding?" he asked, looking like he'd been hit on the head with a sledgehammer.

She nodded and smiled innocently at him. "Yes, pounding. You fist your hand around a rolling pin and use it to grind the biscuits."

"Oh."

"You want some?"

"Want what?"

"Some pie."

An agonised groan escaped his throat, but he remained motionless as he stared at her. A long silence followed, and the only sounds that could be heard were Adso and Rollo making wet smacking noises as they ate their food. Waiting for him to reply, she leaned back on the counter and scrutinised him, marvelling over the intense strain on his face. His brows were furrowed as if seriously concentrating on her words instead of her breasts.

She waved a hand at him. "Jamie? I asked if you want some pie."

Coming out of a daze, he shook his head, almost too vigorously. "Pie? No pie. I have to take Adso out to let him do his business."

"Don't you mean Rollo?"

"Rollo?"

"Yes. Rollo. It's Rollo who needs taking out. Adso can let himself out."

"He can?"

"That's what the cat flap is for."

"Sure."

Claire couldn't help but wonder if his brain had short-circuited or if all the blood really rushed down south to settle somewhere else. A brief glance at the front of his jeans confirmed her suspicions. Her plan to revive the mood was clearly working. Now all she needed to do was to soothe and give him some much needed loving. Tomorrow was Sunday, and they wouldn't have to rush off anywhere. He'd had enough torture for one day. It was time to service her man.

She watched him tucked his tongue in his cheek as she put the spoon down and started towards him, his eyes lifting from her breast to meet hers. 

"I have an idea." She smiled and took his hand in hers, twining their fingers together. "Why don't you finish up here while I get ready for bed? That way, you'll be done quicker. You can bring us something to drink, and I'll take the banoffee pie with me. Once you're settled, I'll even feed you while you relax. How's that? "

Familiar longing swirled in his eyes. "The bet is off then?"

"I thought I already made that clear."

He searched her eyes. "Dinnae tease me, Sassenach. I ken I do that a lot with ye, but I'm a dying man here."

"I'm sorry, I'm not teasing you this time." She laid a hand on his cheek and ran her thumb under the curve of his bottom lip. It fluttered on the tip of her tongue to ask him to come with her to London in two weeks time, but she hesitated. Though Mary Hawkin's publication day book signing landed on a Friday, it was Jamie's busiest day of the week. It was too much of a big ask. She noticed Rollo had finished eating and was scratching at the backdoor, itching to go out. "Best go and take him out before he makes a mess. I'll be waiting in bed."

"Right. Yes. Umm, Rollo. I'm going." He leaned forward and gave her a quick kiss. "I'll bring wine when I get back."

Claire smiled as he strode briskly towards Rollo, grabbed the leash off the hook, ushered the dog out and slammed the door behind him. 

Picking up the pie, plates and cutleries, she hurriedly made her way to the bedroom and placed her load on the nearby desk. After peeling off her clothes, she had a quick shower and shave. Feeling refreshed, she laid back on the bed and closed her eyes, intending to rest them until Jamie returned. It didn't take long before she fell into a deep sleep.

..........

Claire's eyes snapped open as the breeze parted the curtain and let a sliver of morning light filter the room. Her brain went instantly alert. Realising she'd fallen asleep on Jamie last night, she cringed and groaned in annoyance and regret. Far too little sleep and stress probably had caught up with her, but there was nothing she could do about it now. Sighing, she turned on her side to watch the sunlight bathe Jamie's profile in a radiant golden hue. He slept deeply and peacefully, his face unmarred from waking life realities.

She scooted closer and tunnelled her fingers through his hair. "I'm so sorry I fell asleep on you last night," she whispered, tucking a wayward curl behind his ear.

As she'd expected, the sweetest smile formed his mouth, the familiar display never failing to startle her. It was something he did every time she brushed his hair back in his sleep.

"I hope you weren't too annoyed. I must have been exhausted after all the excitement yesterday."

He let out a soft exhale as she trailed a finger along his collarbone.

She smiled. "Peaceful as you look, I can tell there's mischief lurking behind those closed eyes. So tell me, what are you dreaming of, my love?"

His lips twitched, making her wonder if he'd heard her. Before she could read more into the situation, Jamie rolled on top of her, forcing her on her back. She tried to wiggle, but he pinned her down with his weight. "So you want to know what I'm dreaming of? I'm dreaming of the many things I'm gonnae do to ye today," he murmured into her ears.

"Oh, hi there," she breathed, his arousal against her belly leaving little room for thought. 

"Oh, hi there," he echoed, his voice still husky from sleep. "Is that all ye have to say?"

"How about coffee?" she managed with a croak.

He let out a pained laugh. "Oh no, Sassenach. I'm no' letting ye out of my sight." He skimmed his lips along her jawline before tilting his head to nip the flesh beneath her ear. "If ye had any idea what I had in store for ye last night, ye wouldnae have fallen asleep."

She tried to catch his lips, but he denied her with a shake of his head. Instead, he parted her thighs with his knee, and his hand drifted down between their bodies to touch her core, igniting shocks of pleasure shooting through to her centre.

When she began to squirm, he lifted her arms above her head and pinned her wrists with one hand. "This is what's gonnae happen. First, I'm gonnae ..."

There was a loud rap at the door, followed by Rollo barking, making Adso jump into their bed.

She immediately lifted her head. "Who's that?"

"Fuck knows." Jamie dipped his head and nibbled her earlobe. "Just ignore it. It's probably only Mrs Fitz ...with more pies."

Though unconvinced, she forced herself to relax and focus on Jamie, but when they heard the sound of the door unlocking, they both froze and stared at each other.

"It could be your sister or your brother," she whispered, tugging the sheet over them. "Rollo is doing his happy bark."

"But it's unlike them to come on a Sunday," he replied, looking over his shoulder at the door. 

"Maybe one of them came to get something, and then they'll go when they realise we're still in bed?" she supposed, biting her lip.

Jamie smiled. "Ye're probably right. Let's ..."

"Hello, kids, you in there?" uncle Lamb's voice boomed, startling them both. "Your favourite uncle is here. You both still in bed?"

Jamie looked at her in disbelief. "What the hell, Sassenach! Ye gave yer uncle a key?"

Claire winced. "No, but I told him where we hid the spare one."

"No fucking way!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Freshly showered, Jamie walked into the dining area and found Claire already sat, hiding an amused expression behind a mug of tea. "What so funny?" he grumbled.

Before she could reply, Quentin walked in with two plates of breakfast fry-ups. "Sit," he ordered, serving Claire first.

Stomach grumbling at the sight and smell of food, Jamie mentally forgave Quentin's unannounced intrusion and did as he was told. "What's this for?" he asked as a plate was placed in front of him. It had square sausages, eggs, a slice of black pudding, grilled mushrooms and a couple of triangles of tattie scones. "No' that I'm complaining. It's just that ye didnae have to go through all this trouble."

Quentin hung the teatowel over his shoulder and sat. "It's the least I could do after dropping by without warning. I know it's your day of rest, but I thought I'd stop by before flying to Malta on Tuesday. I'll be gone for a while, and there's something important I need to discuss with both of you. Besides, I miss doing domesticated stuff, and I love to cook."

Jamie glanced at Claire, quietly sipping her tea, but she only shrugged in a gesture that told him she had no idea what her uncle was on about. He cut into the square sausage and black pudding and forked the whole thing with a mushroom, and shoved it in his mouth. Washing it down with black coffee, he studied the older man. "Discuss about what?" 

Quentin plonked his coffee cup on the saucer with a clack and looked around the room. "Where do you both plan to live after you're married?" he asked casually.

Jamie stopped mid-chew. "What do ye mean? We have a house right here." He followed the movement of Quentin's gaze, trying to see his interior through the older man's eyes. It may be an old cottage, but it was a solid home. He'd made sure of that with his own hands and labour. "Ye think it's no' good enough for my bride?" he challenged, ignoring Claire's hitch of breath.

Quentin seemed unfazed. "I like your cottage, and I like the fact it's retained most of its characters. You've done an excellent job restoring it. But ..."

Jamie leaned back and defensively crossed his arms across his chest. He noted Claire had narrowed her eyes, appearing not too pleased where this conversation was heading. 

"But what?" Jamie prodded.

"This cottage is not big enough for the both of you, even less so for a family," Quentin said plainly. "Where are you going to put your babies when they start popping out?"

Jamie almost choked on his tattie scone. What the ...?  This time, he was at a loss for words. He'd known talk about starting a family would eventually crop up. Jamie just hadn't expected it would come from Quentin. Claire had brought it up once in passing, but he'd been caught off guard and taken by surprise that instead of answering, he'd pulled out his phone and made up some inadequate excuse of needing to make a phone call. 

At that time, he'd been at a difficult phase of his life, exorcising his demons and taking each day as it came. The last thing he'd had in his mind was becoming a father in his condition. He'd felt bad when he'd seen the hurt that flickered in Claire's eyes, but she hadn't brought it up again, so he'd left it at that. But recently, he'd seen a couple of times the longing in her face when she'd watched mothers pushing prams. Could it be she's ... He immediately discarded the thoughts.

"Uncle! That's none of your business!" Claire gently scolded, looking apprehensively at Jamie. "First of, Jamie and I haven't talked about ..." She trailed off, her face crimsoning profusely.

Quentin looked between them in confusion. "You haven't?"

"No!" Claire gasped.

"Well ..." Quentin shrugged. "That's odd. You've been engaged for over a year. With Jamie here coming from a big family and you ...always have been dreaming of having one of your own, I just presumed you would have talked about it already at some point."

"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! Uncle!" Claire croaked, looking uncomfortable. "Is that what you came here for? To talk about ...b-babies? Surely not!"

"No!" Quentin raised both his hands. "What I'm trying to get at is ... babies' talk aside ...this cottage is too small. For the both of you. It's not practical." He looked at Claire. "How many times did you have to walk out in the rain to go to your shed studio? What if you become pregnant or you have a baby, and you slip on those flagstones when it's raining and cracked your head?"

Jamie paused. He'd never thought of that. Though he's still rattled about Quentin's mention of babies, he could see the older man had a point. The path that led to Claire's office had some slippery spots, especially in the dead of winter where thin ice was likely to form on the surface. Quentin was right. Their home wasn't suited for Claire's needs. Though he'd made sure the shed studio was comfortable and had everything in it to make her work easier, the fact that she could slip on the flagstones when it's raining made him consider Quentin's words. He couldn't have Claire hurting herself. 

He leaned forward on the table and steepled his fingers. "Alright, Quentin, it looks like ye have something in yer mind. I dinnae believe for one second ye came all the way here to talk about the practicality of our living condition. So let's hear all about it."

"Very well ..." Quentin rubbed his hands together and smiled. "I have a suggestion, ...and remember you can always say no." He took a quick sip of his coffee and smacked his lips. "I want to buy your cottage ..."

"What?" Claire and Jamie simultaneously sputtered.

Quentin raised a hand. "Hear me out first. The thing is, I'll need a place to stay when I come and visit. Staying in bed and breakfast and inns will not work for me in the long run. I'm not getting any younger, and it's time to start thinking about where I want to place my roots and when I do that, I want it to be near my niece." He looked at Claire and smiled. "I think this cottage is ideal for me. I'll pay you above the market price for it, plus this ..." He pulled out a piece of paper from the back of his trousers, unfolded it and placed it in the middle of the table for both of them to see. "Whether you agree or refuse to sell the cottage, I'm giving you this ... it's my wedding present for both of you."

Realising it was a cheque, Claire grabbed it. "Two hundred and fifty grand?!? What's this, uncle Lamb? Are you ill? Please tell me you're not dying or something."

"Don't be ridiculous, sweetheart," Quentin replied, but his eyes were trained on Jamie. "I have all this money and no one to spend it on but you and Jamie. The money is just sitting in the bank, and I figured it could be better put to use like buying yourselves a bigger place."

"But it's too much," Claire argued, pushing the cheque away. "And you're already footing the bill for the wedding."

"I'm a traditionalist, Claire, and so was your father," Quentin returned calmly. "The bride's family foots the bill, which happens to be me. And as for the money ... it's a present. Take it."

Jamie absorbed what was taking place in front of him. First was the shock of Quentin arriving unannounced, then he dropped the baby bomb and now this ridiculous amount of money. Jamie didn't know what to feel. Quentin was giving them a substantial amount, and Jamie knew it would make a lot of difference to his and Claire's future. 

He'd always known the Beauchamps came from old money, but Claire never seemed to be affected by it. She worked hard, was frugal most of the time and basked in the simpler way of the Highlands' life. All her life, she'd been provided with the best of everything; top-notch education, an expensive apartment in London and enough allowance to travel around the world. But yet, she chose to be here beside him. Her happiness had nought to do with the fortune she'd inherited from her parents. He made her happy, and Claire had seemed contented to be around his family and friends. He wasn't rich by any means, but he was mortgage-free and had enough to support them. With his brother, they had a thriving business ever since they'd branched out to agribusiness. If he had to work day and night, seven days a week, to buy Claire what she wanted, he'd do so in a heartbeat and with his own hard work. 

Blowing out a breath, he shook his head. "Quentin, what ye're giving us is far too much," Jamie began, taking Claire's free hand in his. He briefly glanced at her, and a silent understanding passed between them, "I ken ye mean well, and we're grateful. But I'm afraid we have to decline. As for selling ye ... our cottage  ..." He put an emphasis on our cottage, letting Claire know this house was as much as hers. "Claire and I will talk about it first. If that's alright. I fully understand yer concerns about those flagstones. And ye're right. They could be dangerous when it's wet."

Quentin studied them both. "I understand your need to talk about my proposition. By all means, discuss it between yourselves. As for the money I'm giving away, it will eventually go to both of you, whether you want it or not. So why not take it now and put it to good use?"

Claire bit her lip and looked at Jamie. "Well, you seem to be mulling about those flagstones. And I've thought about selling my parents' house, in Oxford. I want to keep my mum's paintings and other knick-knacks from my dad, and we'll need a bigger place for that."

Jamie frowned. "Ye sure ye wanna do that, Sassenach? I mean, sell South Lodge."

"My place is here with you," Claire smiled. "I've never had a sentimental attachment to it, and it will be one less thing to think about once it's sold. It would be a waste to leave it lying empty for much longer. These few months, I've had a few inquiries wanting to know if I was planning on selling or leasing it. With everything that's going on, I just haven't had the chance to think about it at all. But if we're going to move to a bigger place, I think it only makes sense to sell my parents' house."

Jamie sighed and rubbed his forehead. There was no running away from Quentin's money nor Claire's inheritance. It was no use fighting it. Old fashion as it may seem, in his mind, he'd always pictured himself as the provider in the relationship ...the one who brought home the bacon and took care of everything. But at the same time, he didn't want to diminish Claire's contribution to their future nor seem too prideful in accepting Quentin's generosity. He might not be able to give her a high-end, luxurious lifestyle, but there was something he could both give them that money can't buy. Something they'd never had. Roots and a place to belong to. Quentin and Claire was now family, and he would make sure they always have a place they could call home ...and that's by his side. 

Jamie straightened up on his chair and regarded the older man. "Alright, this is my counter-proposition," Jamie suggested. "We'll find a bigger place to live in, and since there's no getting away from the Beauchamps' money, if Claire has no objection, we'll accept the generous gift. But under one condition."

Quentin perked up. "And that is?"

"Ye're getting my cottage for free. It may not be worth a quarter of a million pounds, but it's a sound house and very well maintained."

Claire squealed in delight and clapped her hands. "What a brilliant idea!"

Quentin reflected on Jamie's proposal. "Alright. How about this. I'll live here rent-free, but the title deed to this house remains in your name. That way, if anything happens to me, there'll be no hassles of transferring deeds and messy paperwork."

"Fine," Jamie breathed, eager to move on to something else. Like spending some alone time with Claire. "But those flagstones would have to be rectified. I dinnae want ye falling and breaking a hip in yer old age."

"Cheeky bastard!" Quentin stood up and spat on his palm, and then grinned. "Shall we shake on it, then?"

Jamie snorted at the sight of spittle and wave a hand in dismissal. "Our words will have to suffice, thank ye very much." He turned his attention to Claire. "You happy with that, Sassenach?"

Claire slid onto his lap and twined her arms behind his neck. After brushing her lips against his, she drew away and searched his face. "I'm very, very happy. And thank you so much for doing this, Jamie." Lights dancing in her eyes and her lips stretched into a broad, happy smile, she looked at him as if he'd just gifted her the moon and the stars. Jamie's heart faltered before swelling up to fill his chest. Within the space of a few minutes, he went from feeling like the pauper of the group to the richest man on earth. Someone who could give her everything. It made him think that whatever he'd give her, she would receive it like he was giving her something valuable beyond estimation. That was just the person she was, and he loved her more and more each day for it.

He leaned forward and kissed her tenderly, saving him from having to speak around the lump beginning to jam in his throat.

"Right," Quentin coughed, making Jamie and Claire start. He visibly shuddered at the sight of them canoodling. "I'll take Rollo out for a walk and maybe stop by Lallybroch and touch base with Ellen and Brian." He stole an abandoned tattie scone on Claire's plate and took a bite. "I'll be gone for a few hours, and when I get back, you better be done with all this." He waggled a finger at them.

"Sounds like a good plan," Claire said, snuggling deeper into Jamie's arms.

Quentin glared between them and harumphed noisily.

"I'd tell ye to stay behind and blether some more," Jamie added, schooling his features. "But honestly, ye probably want to see some football da is hosting for the seniors at the back of the house ..."

"I'm not interested in football," Quentin retorted, taking another bite of the tattie scone.

"I heard my god-father is playing ..." Jamie said nonchalantly as he felt Claire poked him on the ribs, telling him she knew what he was up to.

"Is that right?" Quentin asked with an arched of his brow. "Well then, I think I'm in."

Before Claire could protest about her uncle's bad back, Quentin had already ushered Rollo out and slammed the kitchen's backdoor in record time.

..........

Claire quickly slipped into her studio and shut the door. She badly needed to talk to her friend, or else she'd go insane. Damn uncle Lamb and his talk about babies!  The day Annalise finally moved to the Highlands for good couldn't come quick enough, which would not be for another couple of months. But for now, a quick call would have to suffice. Pulling out her phone, she tapped Annalise's number.

"Claire?" Annalise squinted from the phone screen. "It's Sunday morning. Shouldn't you be in bed with your Jamie-love instead of face-timing me?"

"This won't take long," Claire hushed, looking out from her studio's window. 

"Can't it wait? We have a dress fitting in Inverness tomorrow, remember?"

How could she forget? "Yes, yes, we have, but this can't...I have to ..."

"You're still picking me up at the airport, right?" Annalise interrupted, her voice still husky with sleep.

"Oh, for God's sake, woman, will you shush for one moment?" Claire snapped. "Of course, I'm picking you up."

Annalise clamped her hand over her mouth, feigning to struggle to keep her mouth shut. 

Claire rolled her eyes. She'd known her best friend would still be in bed, but this simply couldn't wait another day. After uncle Lamb had left to take Rollo for a walk, she'd told Jamie she'd check her emails while he washed the dishes. 

Claire kinked her head to the side to release some tension. "All right, here goes ... it's about babies."

"What?" Annalise abruptly sat up and brushed her dishevelled blond hair away from her face. "You're pregnant? 

"No!" she replied impatiently. "No one's pregnant. It's Jamie's reaction about babies."

"And?" 

"Well, firstly, Uncle Lamb reckons the cottage is not big enough for us and asked where we're going to put the babies when they start popping out. Those were his exact words. Can you believe it? He made it sound like I'll turn into a human cannon one day and start popping out babies left, right and centre. Jamie almost choked on his breakfast."

"Jesus, Claire, I would have choked too if I had been there to hear it," Annalise sighed. "Uncle Lamb has no filter." 

"But that's not just it," Claire pressed. "I have a feeling Jamie might have some reservation about becoming a father one day. Well, at least, that's the vibe I'm getting. Remember a while back? When you warned me on the Isle of Harris? You insisted that I ask him about his thoughts about having babies? You told me that his memories of my parents' accident and me becoming an orphan kind of put him off bringing a child into this world. You said Willie told you that." 

Annalise slapped her forehead and groaned out loud. "Yes, I remember. But I also remember you telling me that those fears stem from his PTSD. He's come a long way, Claire, ever since he's started doing those intensive therapies with ...what do you call that good looking doctor again ...Dr Joe ... that's it."

"Dr Abernathy," Claire corrected firmly.

"Whatever. I can't believe, after all this time, you haven't talked to Jamie about this. You really ought to be discussing this with him."

"I know. It's just that after we got engaged, one thing led to another, and I got caught up with so many things happening all at once."

Annalise sighed. "Look, listen to me. Just talk to him and ask him what he truly feels about fatherhood. Confronting him head-on is the only way forward, Claire. Just because Jamie doesn't talk about babies doesn't mean he hasn't thought about it yet. You'll just have to find the right words to soothe whatever preconceived ideas he has about raising children. Expect a bit of resistance or some lame excuse like putting it off for another day. I swear to God, you'll find it funny how some men perceive marriage, babies and women's bodies."

"There's nothing funny about Jamie's fear of parenthood," she mumbled.

"Of course, it's funny if you understand how men's brains work. I'll give you an example." Annalise tapped her chin thoughtfully and then grinned. "Listen to this ...one time, Willie told me Jamie nearly had a heart attack when their mate, Rupert, became a father for the first time and complained about the three months of dry spell. Jamie asked what that was all about. When Rupert explained he'd to abstain from sex until his wife's body has fully healed from giving birth, Jamie apparently spat out his beer, looking utterly horrified. He then went on to say he wouldn't be able to survive three months of no sex."

"Jesus, Jamie already complains about having to go without whenever I have to leave for London," Claire muttered.

Annalise scrunched up her nose. "Willie is not any better. He might have laughed at Jamie's reaction, but I saw the goosebumps on his skin when he told me that story. I'm willing to bet he got the heebie-jeebies thinking about it."

"I wish sex abstinence is the only worry Jamie has, but we both know that isn't the case. You're just trying to cheer me up."

Annalise face filled Claire's phone screen as she leaned closer. "The only way to find out is to talk to him about it. You have six weeks to get him to acclimate to the idea that you foresee babies in your future. "

"What if he doesn't want to be a father?"

"That's nonsense. Jamie comes from a big family ...of course, he'd want children. He's only probably got a slight reservation, not an aversion to babies. Now run along and talk to him and let me go back to my beauty sleep. I'll see you tomorrow, and you can tell me how it went during our dress fitting. And remember, the longer you delay this talk, the more it will put a strain on your relationship."

..........

Claire walked into the kitchen and found Jamie wiping the countertops. He glanced up and smiled. "There ye are! Everything sorted?"

Reminding herself what Annalise had just told her, she sidestepped both him and his question and took out a bottle of water from the fridge. Squeezing her eyes shut, she took a deep breath before turning around to confront him. "I want to talk," she blurted before she could change her mind. 

He stopped what he was doing and faced her. He must have sensed her unease because the smile gradually waned from his face. "Talk about what, Sassenach?" he asked slowly.  

Buying herself time, she took a sip of water before placing the bottle on the counter. "I want to talk about having our own family," she stammered. "We've never talked about it before, so perhaps before I get carried away with assuming things, you can tell me your thoughts about it." 

His body stilled, and his expression was unreadable. His only tell was the tapping of one finger at his side. It was a clear sign he was worried, and the discussion wasn't going to be as straightforward as Claire had hoped for.

She'd mentioned babies to him once before, but he'd evaded answering, making her think he'd had a lot on his plate. But after the way he'd reacted earlier, almost choking on his breakfast at the mention of babies, she was beginning to wonder if he'd ever wanted children of their own. 

Looking back, they'd fallen in love fast, and after only two months of meeting each other, they'd become engaged. They'd been so engrossed trying to make their relationship work amidst Jamie's battle with PTSD and her workload, they hadn't had the chance to talk much about the future, let alone touch the subject of babies. With six weeks before the wedding, she needed to know.

He continued to stare without saying anything, and the longer the silence hung between them, the more she feared his answer. This couldn't be happening. Her mind raced, thinking of the outcome if Jamie outright refused to have children, and she remained with him. She would be torn apart, and there would be two parts of her, two separate women, living a life that's not quite whole.

A part of her would be the woman ruled by her love for the man before her. Devoting her life to a childless marriage. In return, she would have Jamie all to herself, freedom, a career, friends, and travel. But would it be enough? But then, the other part of her would be the woman ruled by her body. The one that veered to the pull of history, generational expectation and primal urge to procreate. If she leaned too far, her body would ache to be filled with child, to unravel the mystery of pregnancy and birth, to hold her infant and say to Jamie, "We made this."  For the rest of her life, she would be left wondering what it would have felt to create a tiny being that embodied hope and unity.

If she decided to call off their wedding, what then? She couldn't even bear to entertain such thoughts because it would mean trying to envision a life without Jamie. Then there's the question of how they would be able to remain together without bitterness or regret impairing their relationship. They loved each other, and part of the biggest joy of marriage was supposed to be planning a future with children. Her rampant thoughts were too much to digest all at once. She needed to clear her head before she ran away with all sorts of disturbing images.

Swallowing the lump in her throat, she braced her shoulders. "Can you see children in our future?" she whispered, her heart already shattering into tiny pieces. "Please tell me the truth."

He took a step forward. "Sassenach ..." and when he paused again, her stomach fell to the floor.

She couldn't take his hesitation anymore. "I asked a simple question, Jamie. Just answer me, damn it!" Her hand flew to her mouth to stifle a cry. She blinked back the tears and refused to look at him, afraid she might find the answer in his eyes before he could utter the words.

But this time, Jamie moved towards her without delay. "Jesus Christ, Sassenach, I didnae mean to upset ye." With a sigh, he enfolded her in his arms. "It's no' that I dinnae want to have our own bairns. Children need committed and sound parents and ..."

"You think we're not?" she mumbled against his chest.

"No, I dinnae think that at all." He raised her chin and forced her to look into his eyes. "Ye just started a new career, and I've just come out of the final stage of my recovery program. I'm no' ready to be a father. Just yet." He brushed an errant curl back and kissed her temple. "I'm sorry if I've given ye cause to worry, but for a long time, I didnae see myself as a suitable parent. I wouldnae wish upon any child to witness what I have gone through. It was terrible enough ye had to see it."

The tension in her body refused to let up. "But you should have seen your face when uncle Lamb mentioned babies ...you looked like you were going to gag," she accused. "How do you think that made me feel?"

He shook his head. "Shock, Sassenach. I was in shock. Starting a family is the furthest thing in my mind at the moment, and I didnae expect yer uncle to bring it up."

She wanted desperately to say something, but her throat stuck together. She, too, had been in shock and soon after worried out of her mind, thinking the worse. Annalise had been right. She should have talked to Jamie about her concerns ages ago.

His big warm hand began to move up and down her back, gradually loosening the tightness in her muscles. When he spoke again, there was a distinctive longing in his voice. "I - I'm just beginning to get used to travelling again without wondering when or where my panic attacks will strike. As selfish as it may sound, I want to enjoy doing things normal couples do before starting a family. I want to spend more time with you and make up for the times when we missed out on dates. For ages, I wanted to take you to places, but the best I could offer ye was a night out in the village or a hike somewhere remote which, more often than not, we ended up getting caught in the rain. But no' once did ye ever complain." 

Guilt washed over her. How could she have forgotten? For the most part, Jamie's PTSD had prevented him from leading a normal life, let alone travel. He'd worked so hard on his healing to be a better partner for her, and here she was, pressuring him into a discussion he wasn't ready for. Marriage was forever, and they have time, and at the very least, she could give him that.

Feeling off-balance all of a sudden, she took a deep breath and cleared her throat. "Jamie, I've enjoyed every single moment we spent together, and you know that. We could have been anywhere, in the North Pole or in the Sahara desert, rain or shine, and every single second would have been special because I'm with you."

He gave her a small smile and shook his head. "Ye deserve to be wined and dined, go on long romantic weekend trips where the sun shines on you, attend concerts and theatres ..." He placed a hand on the small of her back and eased their bodies closer, making her tilt her head back. "God, I cannae wait till we're on our honeymoon so I could spoil ye and do things we havenae done before."

Tenderness welled up in her chest before it was once again overrun with a niggling feeling. Not for the first time in her life, Claire wished she wasn't stubborn to the core, but she couldn't help but pressed on. "Jamie, I can't wait to be just us too. But why didn't you answer me right away? You just stood there letting me think the worse ..."

"I didnae mean to." His gaze dropped to her mouth, and his soft sigh fanned her face. "When ye walked in, looking so determined and beautiful, ye took my breath away. You always do that to me. Making me wonder how I get to be the lucky bloke who gets to marry ye. And when ye started talking about babies, ye caught me unawares. I didnae ken what to say because, for a long time, the prospect of becoming a father frightened the hell out of me. Not because I didnae want to become one but because I was afraid of not being fit enough to be one." He captured her left hand with his right and laced their fingers together. "After the positive results of my treatment, I began to be hopeful again, but I want to take it a day at a time. I didnae want to get ahead of myself and talk too much about the future in case I made promises prematurely and jinx it. And speaking of jinxing it, I seem to be doing a lot of that lately, starting with last night and this morning." Then he stilled, his brows knitting together. "Wait! Were ye planning on leaving me if I'd said no to children?"

She met his worried gaze, and the past few months of their lives rose right there between them, burning like a flame and brighter than ever. The thrill of meeting for the first time and falling in love, the carnality of their trysts, the promises and trusts exchanged while hundred of miles apart, the thousands of hours they'd spent chatting on the phone or in each other's arms. There was no way she could have left him.

Her head fell forward onto his chest, as the weight of worry, exhaustion and stress from the past few days lifted. Tears and a fit of hysterical laughter burst out of her. "Leave you? Are you nuts? I couldn't live without your cock." When Jamie made a sound between choking and clearing his throat, her eyes flew to his, and she quickly sobered. Realisation settling upon her, she cupped a hand over her mouth. "Did I just say that out loud?"

"Aye, but ..." He ran an impatient hand over his face. "Christ, Sassenach, are ye trying to tell me that I would have had my cock to thank for yer decision to stay with me? I'm not even sure what to feel about that."

Her face heated up. She hadn't meant to verbalise her thoughts, too absorbed with the mixture of emotions addling her brain. Puffing out a breath, she shook her head. "Can you blame me for thinking out loud when ..." she trailed off and peered down between their bodies, where their hips were pressed together. "...when you're packing enough wood down there to build me another shed."

Not amused, Jamie drew back to examine her face. "So ye think this is funny now, is it?"

"Do you see me laughing?"

A deep frown creased his brows. "To be truthful, I should be concerned with the number of people that barge in on us or call in when I'm in this state. It's a good thing yer uncle suggested we get a bigger place of our own. That'll give us a chance to move somewhere a wee bit remote. Otherwise, it'll be only a matter of time before I'd be answering to Woody or something of a sort."

Claire tamped down the urge to laugh by burying her face in his chest. "Woody wouldn't be too bad. Better than Indiana Bones or Pocket Rocket. Do you think it would be so bad if I called you Woody when we're alone? Kind of suits your profession."

"I wouldn't even go there if I were ye, Sassenach," he warned

Ignoring the mild threat in his tone, she rolled in her lips and cleared her throat to prep her best sultry voice. "It's Sunday. Will Woody be hard at work today?"

"Right, that's it!" Taking her by surprise, Jamie scooped her into his arms with lightning speed and strode purposely towards the bedroom. Using his shoulder, he nudged the door open before settling her on her feet at the foot of the bed. 

Before she could say anything, he left the room without a word. Biting a nail, Claire listened to him making his way through the house, bolting the back and front door shut. She knew exactly what that meant and whatever he intended to do, no visitors or callers were going to be received nor entertained this Sunday afternoon, not even Mrs Fitz's pie. When he finally came back, he yanked off his top and dropped it onto the floor. Closing in on her, he tutted and shook his head. "Ye've been quite a tease since ye got back from London. Now that ye got me in this state, what are ye gonnae do about it?" 

Licking her lips, she watched his hand glid across his abdomen, stopping to rest above the waistband of his sweatpants. That simple act caused her to flush, and it was as if a bolt of electricity had hit her core and her skin had caught wildfire. If he thought he was the only one suffering from their thwarted sex drive, he was so very mistaken. Delaying the inevitable would only make her combust from inside out. 

Unable to prolong the wait any longer, she placed a hand on Jamie's front and pushed him back, forcing him to sit on the edge of the bed. He was so aroused and ready, his chest heaved in anticipation, and his eyes burned with want. When he reached out for her, she shook her head at him and stepped back. Shakily, she stripped down to her black lace panties, taking note of his shallow breathing and every nuance of his expressions. Beads of sweat had already accumulated on his temple, his pupils dilated and hands clenching and unclenching by his sides. 

"Christ, Sassenach," he muttered thickly, abruptly yanking down his pants and grabbing his length. "I'm so fucking gonnae lose it. I'm no' gonnae last."

"I know," she managed, moving towards him and straddling his lap. "I'll make it better ...take the edge off."

As she lowered herself, his eyes dropped down. His outstretched legs forced her thighs wide open and strained the material of her panties, leaving part of her core exposed. His perusal made her dizzy with need, giving her an excuse to be a little wild that she found herself slipping her fingers between her thighs.

"Ah, sweet Jesus! I should be making slow sweet love to ye as ye deserve." he gritted, his hands touching her everywhere. "How dare ye make me feel I want to fuck ye to next year, huh?"

Claire felt intoxicated, like she was encountering an out of body experience but at the same time still attuned to her body. "Sounds good," she whispered hoarsely, working her fingers on her sensitive flesh. "Do your worse."

Without finesse, he fisted her hair and kissed her hard. Her back arched of its own accord, plastering her body against his and moulding her curves to his hardness. He groaned against her lips and her thoughts and emotions fused together, dimming the plans she'd intended. She couldn't even stop for air, her singular focus greedily centred on the throbbing ache between her legs. She began circling her hips, the damp material of her panties brushing over his straining erection, creating delicious friction.

He tore his mouth away from their kiss with a harsh sound of frustration. "Damn it, Sassenach, keep moving like that, and it'll be over soon." 

"I can't stop ...I need you now," she stuttered against his lips, her hands gripping his shoulders as she rode him with quick bucking movements. Relief within reach, she couldn't slow down now even if she wanted to. She was hovering so close to release, she reckoned it would only take a single thrust of Jamie's hips to make her come. "P-please, Jamie."

"Ah, fuck!"

Without warning, Jamie suddenly reared and whirled around, carrying her with him. No sooner had her back settled on the mattress than he shoved her panties to one side and thrust his entire length inside her. She gasped out his name, her whimper mingling with Jamie's stream of colourful expletives.

The relief of feeling his perfect fullness inside her faded quickly as he began to move in strong, quick drives forcing her to link her ankles at the small of his back. His lips locked with hers, his tongue eagerly sweeping into her mouth with animalistic sounding groans.

His thrusts almost brought her to her peak, only for him to slow down and pull out as she poised on the brink of orgasm, his way of punishing her for teasing him last night. She writhed beneath him and clawed his back, begging for relief and an end to the sweet torture. He responded by breaking their kiss and dipping his head to suck her nipple and chuckled when she flung her head back and forth on the pillow and moaned. Desperately craving to feel more of him, she arched her back and spread her legs, her inner walls starting a slow, tight suction of his cock. The mere act made something inside him snap, costing him his control as he slipped into a manic frenzy.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck! I cannae hold on," he hissed. "Come for me, Sassenach. Now!"

His weight suddenly dropped on her, his breathing coming out harsh and sporadic. He buried his face in her neck and grunted her name, forcing her thighs wider as he shifted his weight to a different angle and drove into her with more urgency.

Their mouths joined and greedily gorged, her restless hands coming down on his arse to draw him deeper and spur him faster. Attempting to recover the climax Jamie had denied her, she made a mental note never to play mind games with her fiance ever again, for the reprisal was way too torturous.

"No, no, it's too soon," Jamie groaned, his hips pumping furiously. "I cannae ...ah fuck, I'm coming!"

Her wandering attention only momentarily eclipsed the sensation spiralling inside her before it came back with more potency than ever. The tingling began in her thighs and launched straight through her middle, causing her stomach muscles to contract against the onrush of convulsions that overtook her. She heard herself sucking in gulps of air and shamelessly screaming Jamie's name as she came apart, too caught up in the pleasure to care if any neighbours were within earshot.

Jamie shouted his victory before collapsing and resting his head on the crook of her neck, the sound of their uneven breathing permeating the air. He chanted her name over and over, his hips still pumping rhythmically even after the spasms had passed.

With their sexual desires slaked, suddenly, she felt physically and mentally worn out. After the emotional roller coaster ride that morning with her uncle and conversations about babies, she was glad she and Jamie had come out the other side with more clarity. The struggles and complex enigmas of partnership would always be there, but at least Jamie's feelings about having a family of their own were no longer a mystery nor a secret.

Secret?

She swallowed hard. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell Jamie about her own concerns, but second thoughts bugged her. When he shifted his weight from her to move onto his side, she blew out a shaky breath to the ceiling.

"How do ye feel?" he whispered.

Unable to think past her own troubles, she rolled over to face him and summoned herself to tell him what's on her mind. "I-I feel good ..." she floundered, chewing her lower lip.

The light in his eyes dulled at her dithering. "I feel there's a but coming. Tell me what's bothering ye. Maybe I can help," he offered.

She shut her eyes for a few heartbeats and made up her mind. "I -ah ... there's something I've meant to ask you. I know it's a big ask, but ..."

"Out with it, Sassenach," he pressed gently.

She held on to their connection generated by the intimacy of the moment. "Do you think you can take some time off to come to London with me for Hawkin's book signing?" She searched for the right words that wouldn't cause him to worry but came up short. "It's just that ...I-I really need you to be there ...by my side."

To her surprise, a slow smile formed his lips, and his eyes lit up once more. "I can do that."

She let out an audible sigh of relief but wished she could articulate to him why she wanted him to come other than the fact she loved having him by her side. She reasoned there had been enough revelation for one day, but she knew it was just a feeble excuse. She needed to come clean even if her troubles seemed inconsequential, but it would have to be for another time. 

"Thank you, Jamie," she said finally, placing a hand on his cheek and looking into his eyes. "That means a lot to me."

With a strangled noise, Jamie hauled her once more against him. "Christ Almighty, Sassenach. Going to the city willnae kill me, if that's what ye're worried about. But the way ye look at me and the way ye make me feel, just might."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

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." 

"Unbelievable!"

"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."

"For me?"

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.

"Claire!"

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.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

By mid-afternoon, the clouds had darkened, and the grounds Jamie worked had turned into a rolling dark-green ocean as a cold wind raced across the surrounding fields. When the first clap of faraway thunder resounded through the valley, he'd decided to call it a day. 

Jamie put the last of his rigging equipment into the van while the rest of his team cleared debris from the terrain. He was about to unstrap his harness when he felt an arm hooked around his neck. 

"Christ!"

Willie let go and slapped Jamie's back. "I thought ye'd be finished by now."

Jamie turned and jerkily divested himself of his tree climbing gear. "I wanted to get as much done today before it starts to rain. Heard the weather willnae be any better tomorrow." He dropped his harness along with his chainsaw boots and helmet into the van before facing his brother. "What's up with ye? Ye're beaming from ear to ear."

Willie grinned. "I'm surprised ye should ask. Annalise should be home anytime soon."

Jamie knew the feeling. He and Claire had been there before. He shook his head at his brother and glanced up at the sky. "Claire hasnae called yet. So they're probably still in Inverness. Ye might as well help finish up before it starts pouring it down."

Jamie's phone buzzed, and he automatically reached for it from his back pocket and read the screen. It was a text message from Tom.

Claire slipped and hurt. Calling an ambulance in case serious.

Jamie's heart faltered.

"Is that them?" Willie asked.

Jamie glanced at his brother. "Got message from Christie. He says Claire slipped and hurt herself. He's calling the ambulance in case it's serious." He tapped on Tom's name to find out what happened, but the line was engaged, and when he tried Claire's number, she wasn't answering. "Shit! I cannae get hold of Christie nor Claire." 

"I'll call Annalise," Willie offered, taking out his own phone. "It's probably nothing and just Tom feeling responsible for Claire's welfare." After several attempts to get hold of Annalise with no success, he swiped his phone shut. "Listen, nae used trying to call any of them. If it's anything serious, they'll let us know. Who knows? They're probably trying to reach us as we speak."

Jamie swallowed his dread, and when his phone rang, he immediately answered it. "Tom! What happened?"

"Sorry to say this, but I think Claire's badly hurt." 

The air whooshed out of Jamie's lungs. "What? How? Where are ye?"

Willie's phone rang at that moment, and as Jamie watched his brother walked away to answer the call, he thought it had to be Annalise on the other end.

"I'm with Claire right now at the back of yer cottage," Tom replied rapidly. "I'm trying to figure out where she's hurting." 

Jamie's mind began to race. He was more or less forty-five minutes drive away from Broch Mordha. He needed to assess the situation first before jumping into a vehicle and driving like a madman to Claire. "Let me speak to her." 

"She cannae. She banged her head pretty bad and knocked hersel' out. I have to go now and see to Claire. I can hear the ambulance coming. I'll call ye back when I know which hospital they're taking her in." The urgency in Tom's reply and the sound of the ambulance's siren in the background pushed Jamie's fear to the surface. 

"Wait!" Jamie almost shouted. "Before ye go, give me at least something." His voice sounded gruff, almost unrecognisable. He told himself to keep it together ...for Claire. Needing to focus on something, he glanced around and saw Willie run towards their workers and said something before handing over the keys to their van. "Please tell me she's going to be alright," he pleaded.

"I wish I can, Jamie, but I have nae idea." Worry laced Tom's voice, heightening Jamie's anxiety. "I really have to go. I have to show the paramedics the way round to yer house. I'll call as soon as I can when I know more."

Fear gripped Jamie in a chokehold, but the sound of Willie barking orders at the workers brought him back from the edge.

"Let's go, Jamie!" Willie ordered, running towards his Land Rover. "Annalise told me what happened. I'll drive while ye get hold of Quentin."

Jamie mentally shook himself. This was not the time to fall apart. Claire needed him. Pocketing his phone, Jamie sprinted towards his brother's car, praying to every saint he knew by heart that Claire would come through this incident safe and whole.

........

Though it began to rain heavily, Willie drove as fast as the speed limit on the roads would allow, bypassing motorway exits on gridlock, swerving through rush hour traffics, and occasionally jumping the lights. Tom, Annalise, Mary and Quentin were already at the hospital, and they're still anxiously waiting for medical staff to apprise them of Claire's condition.

Unable to do much but hold on to his seat, different thoughts played loudly in Jamie's head.

Is Claire going to be alright? Why are the doctors taking bloody too long to make a diagnosis? How did she slip and hurt herself when it hadn't been raining when she fell?

Tom had blamed himself for what happened to Claire. And even though Jamie wanted to vent his frustration on someone, he could hardly hold Tom accountable for Claire's accident. Claire could have slipped anytime, and Quentin had just recently warned him about those flagstones. Tom had done all the right things, and if anything, Jamie had only himself to blame for overlooking safety hazards in their home.

"Fuck!" Jamie shouted, thumping his fist against the dashboard when they were caught in another congestion. "This is bloody frustrating not knowing. I should be there. She needs me."

"Nearly there, lad," Willie said calmly, easing the car into a slow crawl when the traffic began moving again. "Just calm down, alright? Ye'll be nae used to Claire if ye have a panic attack now."

Jamie squeezed his eyes shut and tried to relax. His brother was right. Though he hadn't had any of the recurring symptoms of his PTSD for the last eight months, it didn't mean it wouldn't come back. He'd been to Inverness, Oxford and London a few times, and he'd gotten through the trips without experiencing fits of terror. Right now, his anxiety level was at an all-time high, and it was threatening to overpower him, and if he didn't control the stress building up inside him, all his hard work towards healing would all be dismantled.

He cleared his head and concentrated on his breathing. It took a while before his body slackened against the seat and his heart rate normalised. The counting helped. When he eventually opened his eyes after losing track of counting backwards from a hundred, he was surprised Willie just pulled to a halt in the hospital's parking lot. He immediately pushed the door open and got out, knowing Willie wouldn't be far behind.

When Jamie stepped into the A&E waiting area, he staggered to a stop and scanned the room, making Willie bump into him. Though the place was crowded, he immediately spotted Tom restlessly pacing back and forth in front of Quentin. Claire's uncle was slumped in his seat, looking like he'd aged twenty years, and next to him was Mary with her arms around Annalise. It didn't look good. 

Jamie rushed over to them. "Tom! Any news?"

Tom whirled around, looking relieved at the sight of Jamie and Willie. "Not yet. I've spoken to the receptionist, and I was informed they're still running tests."

"Tests are good," Willie said expectantly. "They take time. A bump on the head is a serious matter for doctors, and they just want to make sure Claire's alright."

Annalise got up and briefly hugged Jamie before throwing herself into Willie's arm. "Thank God, you're here," she choked. "All this waiting is horrible."

Willie gathered Annalise close against him and stroked her hair. "There now, everything will be fine. Procedures and tests take time."

Jamie placed a comforting hand on Annalise's back before sitting down next to Quentin. "Hey,  auld yin , how are ye holding up?" he asked softly.

"Hanging in there ...I think," Quentin replied. For once, the older man was not his usual sardonic self, and his face looked ashen. Jamie realised he had to step up his efforts to take better care of him. Quentin was family now. 

Jamie nudged Quentin's shoulder with his. "Everything is going to be alright," he promised, even though he felt terrified and powerless. "Claire is a fighter. Ye and I know that. It's in the Beauchamp's blood. Aye?"

Quentin propped his elbows on his knees and dropped his head in his hands. "She's all I have ..."

"Ye have me too, and it'll all be fine," Jamie vowed, forcing certainty in his voice for not only Quentin's benefit but himself as well. 

Even though Jamie doubted his own words, he reminded himself it was his job to take care of Claire and Quentin and to function as their rock, the one who made sure everything was alright. He was physically strong, could protect them with his body if need be, but Claire's health was beyond his control, and he was suddenly mindless scared of what the doctor would have to say. 

"Are ye sure about that, son?" Quentin's jaw tightened, his eyes wanting to believe Jamie. 

Jamie didn't like seeing Quentin like this. Right from the beginning, Claire had been a force of nature by Jamie's side, helping him get through his PTSD and Quentin, in his own way, had been supportive throughout. This time Jamie was needed to be the stronger one. Resolved, he firmly nodded to convince Quentin and spoke with more conviction and ferocity. "I'll make it alright. It's gonnae be alright." He glanced at Mary and Tom. "Hey guys, thank ye for being here for Claire and Quentin. If ye both wish to go home ..."

Mary suddenly sprang from her seat. "It's those bloody roses! I just know it."

"Holy hell, Mary, now is not the time," Tom sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"What roses?" Jamie asked, confusion fractionally taking over his fear for Claire's condition.

Mary wrung her hands together and looked at Jamie. "You see, we were all having a grand time at the dress fitting. Claire may have been a tad bit whingy being dolled and fussed over, but I could tell she enjoyed our girly time. But ever since those roses arrived for her, she seemed all of a sudden ill-at-ease and unusually quiet during the drive back from Inverness. I'd lay odds that her nervousness caused her to slip when Tom called after her. And that said, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the reason why roses from a secret admirer would cause her so much stress. Maybe I'm missing something."

"Secret admirer? What secret admirer?" Jamie looked at Annalise. "Ye ken anything about Claire having a secret admirer?"

Annalise turned in Willie's hold and faced Jamie. "Look, I don't know if it's the same person from London ..."

"What?" Jamie sputtered. "There's more than one? Christ!" Jamie stood up and ran a hand through his hair. "How come I've never heard about this?"

"Good question," Annalise replied. "Maybe Claire should do the explaining when she comes around. I don't think it's my place to tell you."

Willie touched Annalise's shoulder. "This is not the time to be vague, Annalise. This could be pertinent to understanding Claire's reaction to the roses or her falling and hurting herself. It could be nothing, but what if there's someone out there causing her distress? Have ye thought about that?"

There's someone out there causing Claire's distress?  A brand new level of anxiety threatened to suffocate Jamie, but he remained silent, waiting for Annalise to say more.

"Fine." Annalise took a deep breath and focused on Jamie. "Look, maybe there's a perfect explanation for the roses today and probably unrelated to Claire's secret admirer in London. What I do know is, for some time now, whenever she's in London, she occasionally receives unsigned messages and gifts from an unknown person. It all began at some book launch event hosted by an author Claire worked with some months ago, and I was there to accompany her as her plus one. Then at one point during the evening, while we're at the bar, the barman slid a drink in front of Claire, but he would not reveal who it was from. It came with a handwritten note on a napkin. The message was some kind of quote from a writer ...I can't remember which. It went something like this ... If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not  ..." she trailed off, her face scrunching as if trying to remember the next words.

"... blame the wind for revealing them to the trees,  by Khalil Gibran," Mary finished off.

Annalise nodded gratefully. "Anyway, Claire thought it was sweet, but she declined the drink. Then over the next few months, she began receiving gifts addressed to her at her former workplace. She never kept any of them but gave them away instead to her former colleagues. She only started to fret when the gifts began showing up at the apartment door. When I talked to her about it, she downplayed it and told me it's probably some harmless crush. I told her to tell you, but she didn't want you worrying."

Jamie's thoughts, by process of elimination, zeroed in on the one who worked closely with Claire on her book. "I bet it's Alex ...her editor," Jamie fumed. "How else would the sender have known where to send the gifts?"

"Alex?" Mary shook her head resolutely. "Sweet Alex ...no, definitely not. I know him, and I can hundred per cent vouch for his character."

Well, then who else was left?  Agitated, Jamie plonked back down on the seat as he attempted to fit the jigsaw pieces together. Claire had been stressed and worried this whole time, keeping this massive burden to herself. He'd sensed something hadn't been right, and he'd failed to follow through on what his instincts had been telling him all along. He was so angry at himself for not acting sooner that he wanted to smash his fist on something or on someone.

Sensing his stress level rising again, he did his counting exercise in his head, inhaling deeply and slowly exhaling. One of these days, he would find a way to convince Claire to stop underestimating the hard work he'd put into healing himself and learn to trust the process. Most of the time, she showed a healthy respect for his judgment, his emotional well-being, his ability to see through her nonsense and antics. But sometimes, she was desperate enough to convince herself she could hide things from him. Enough was enough.

"Mr Beauchamp?"

Jamie's head jerked up. He hadn't noticed the doctor approaching them.

"I'm Dr Buchanan," the doctor announced as she stuck her hand out to Quentin. 

Jamie rose with Quentin, bracing himself for the worse.

As Quentin shook the doctor's hand, he motioned towards Jamie. "Oh ...and this is my niece's fiancé, Jamie."

"James Fraser," Jamie said, taking the doctor's hand. "How is she?"

Dr Buchanan looked between Jamie and Quentin. "I'm sorry it took so long to get back to you. Ms Beauchamp has taken quite a blow to her head, and we had to conduct several tests. We performed a CT scan to evaluate the extent of that bump and determine if there were any internal bleeding. So far, it's looking like she's just going to have a massive sorehead for a while ..."

Everyone let out a mixture of sighs and whoops of relief.

"But ..." Dr Buchanan raised a hand. "... we're keeping her in to monitor her progress and make sure there's no brain swelling and other complications. We'll need to wake her up every few hours, and because of the wide-ranging effects a bump to the head could cause, a team of other physicians will want to make further assessments before she's free to go. At the moment, she's on heavy medication for the pain, and only one person may see her for now."

"You go," Quentin said, shoving Jamie. "You're more of a sight for sore eyes ...or, in this case, sorehead than me. Go and tell Claire I love her."

"Ye sure?" Jamie said thickly, feeling immense gratitude towards Claire's uncle. "Ye've been waiting here for so long."

"Absolutely. Now go before I change my mind. I'll call your ma and da and tell them the good news."

Jamie didn't need telling again as he followed the doctor to the intensive care unit. He held his breath until they reached Claire's bed, and the doctor pushed aside the curtain. The moment he saw her, he felt the tension in his whole body loosen. Claire might look a tad bit pale, but she looked like she was going to be alright.

Claire's eyes fluttered open.

"Right, let's see what we have here," Dr Buchanan said softly, shining a penlight into Claire's eyes. Claire blinked twice before following the movement of the doctor's finger movement from left to right. "How are ye feeling, Claire? Can ye feel any pain?"

Claire licked her lips. "I feel good," she replied before her eyes settled on Jamie. "Oh, hi there."

Swallowing the hard lump in his throat, Jamie immediately moved to her side and squeezed her hand. "Hey, ye gave us quite a scare out there. Everyone is waiting to hear how ye're getting on."

Claire gave him a watery smile. "Are you mine?" she asked groggily, trying to lift a limp hand to touch Jamie's face.

Jamie looked worriedly at the doctor. "What's with her? She doesn't recognise me."

Dr Buchanan glanced up from Claire's chart. "Oh, don't worry. That's perfectly normal. It's her medication making her high. It's quite strong, but it helps with the pain."

Jamie nodded and moved closer to Claire. Leaning over, so she could see him better, he brushed back a loose curl on her forehead. "Aye, I'm yers, Claire, always and forever," he whispered. 

Claire's eyes widened like saucers as a slow toothy grin spread across her face. "Oh, goody, I've always wanted a giant Raggedy Ann," she murmured before passing out with a soft sigh.

What the ...?

..........

A continuous short, high-pitched sound coming from some electronic equipment and the smell of antiseptic reminded Claire she was in the hospital. But the sound of the waves crashing, the wind caressing her face, and the smell of salt in the air was gradually replacing her sensory awareness of reality.

She opened her eyes and realised she sat on her parents' bench on the Isle of Harris.

"Claire?" A tall man wearing pinstripe pants and red suspenders over a crisp white shirt approached her. He looked so much like uncle Lamb that it was uncanny.

"Dad? Oh my God, is that you?"

Henry's face cracked into a big smile. "What are you doing here, darling?"

Claire looked around. It was so beautiful and tranquil, and she felt an overwhelming sense of love and peace. "Am I dead?"

"Oh, of course not, love." His dad stopped a few feet away from her and shook his head. "But you shouldn't be here, Claire."

"I want to see Mum. I want to stay."

"You can't stay, darling. You have to go back, now. You still have so much to live for. Go while you still can."

Claire stood up and reached out to her father, but he backed away. "Dad, what are you doing? Aren't you happy to see me?"

The wind rose and picked up, but Henry remained stationary where he stood, unflinching and his love unwavering. "Of course, I'm happy to see you. But you have to go back and live. When your time comes, I'll be waiting by the shores, so we can cross together."

"But Dad," she pleaded, tears pouring down her face. "Can't you see? You, mum and me can be together again."

"Oh darling, I'm so sorry we left you. But we're never really gone. You have a choice to go back, Claire. Choose life and live. Take life as it happens, but make it happen the way you want to take it. And without fear. Now go!"

"No, Dad, please, don't leave me again," she screamed, falling to her knees, her arms outstretched in a plea. "Don't you love me anymore?"

Henry was slowly fading in a whirl of wind, but his voice remained clear and distinct. "Love doesn't die with death, Claire. And neither do the people you love. Your mum and I continue to live in your mind and heart, the way we've always lived inside you. You keep our light alive, and that light is what guides you ...just like the shine of long-extinguished stars guiding ships in unfamiliar waters."

"No!!! Dad, please come back!" she cried. "Take me with you!"

A deafening sound filled her ears, and then she started to fall. She was falling through time and space and stars and sky and everything in between. She fell for what felt like a lifetime across lifetimes. She fell until she forgot she was falling. And then, for a brief moment, she felt suspended, free of pain and everything. Then gravity took over, and a sharp blinding white light and a burning sensation behind her head bombarded her senses. Consciousness fought its way to the surface as reality began to weigh her body down. She commanded her lungs to suck in air, and in that nanosecond of enlightenment, she understood that her wandering soul needed to get back home.  But where?

She let go and gave up fighting the odd but familiar sensations. It was too exhausting to fight. She gasped as she took a huge deep breath, and in that instant, her eyes slowly fluttered open and settled on a mass of copper waves resting on the edge of her bed. She stared at the head of the sleeping form as memories gradually trickled in. When the floodgates of her mind released images of recent events, her heart pounded against her ribs when she realised this was where she'd expected to find herself. Her home.  Jamie!  

As if she'd spoken out loud, Jamie stirred and looked at her. His eyes were weary and bloodshot like he hadn't had much sleep, but they widened in sudden alertness. "Sassenach?"

"How long have I been out?" she croaked.

"Wait, I'll get the nurse." 

Jamie was about to stand, but she stopped him with a touch to his hand. "Please don't go."

His brows knitted in concern. "Are ye in pain?"

She shook her head slowly and smiled. "Just stiff and achy."

"Can I get ye anything?" he asked, leaning over to kiss her forehead. "Something to eat or drink, perhaps?"

"Not yet," she rasped. "I've missed you. Can you just hold me, Jamie? Please?" 

Jamie's gaze turned to the curtain that offered them privacy before looking over the tight quarters of her hospital bed. "I can do that," he smiled.

She gingerly scooted to her side to make room for Jamie's bulky frame as he climbed onto the bed. Then, with the utmost gentleness that belied his physical strength and hardness, he nestled her into the crook of his arm and rested her head on his chest. As his lips pressed against her head, a sense of calm washed over her. She sighed in contentment. He was her home, and she was safe, and his body shielded her against the outside world and any force that could harm her. Just as her eyes drifted shut and sleep claimed her, she heard him softly say, "Thank ye, Harry, for bringing her back to me."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jamie carefully steered the four-wheel drive off the carriageway onto a narrow lane and followed the winding slope to the glen. The road was uneven, and the next three miles were about to get very bumpy.

He glanced at Claire. Her head was propped up with a neck support pillow, and she'd fallen asleep, alternating between muttering something incomprehensible and snoring softly. Hair loosely pulled up in a high bun and her face free of make-up, she was a picture of health. The pallor on her cheeks caused by her recent accident had been replaced with a vibrant glow. Sighing, he focused his attention back on the road, mindful of the bumps and pits that might cause to jolt Claire awake. 

Before her release from the hospital two days ago, she had been advised to have plenty of rest, avoid strenuous activity, and report immediately to a doctor if headaches or repeated vomiting or nausea persist. Jamie had even delayed probing her about the gifts she'd received from an unknown source, thinking to wait until she was more herself. His mother's suggestion to take Claire to the family's weekend home further up north in The Highlands was ideal. It would give her ample chance to recuperate in peace before her London trip and them to talk without any disturbances.

As they drove further up, the barren stretches of exposed, peaty land were replaced by forest, enveloping them on all sides. The Douglas Fir trees rose up like sentries along the road in a dense wall of foliage. There wasn't the faintest hint of inhabitants, no tourists, no motorists and moreover, no Mrs Fitz. It was just tranquillity and the sound of the Landrover making crunching sounds on the road.

As the family lodge came to view, Jamie gradually brought the vehicle to a halt and switched off the ignition. It would be Claire's first time here, and he couldn't wait to see her reaction.

Jamie reached out to unbuckle her seatbelt and gently nudged her awake. "Hey, sleepyhead, we're here." 

Claire's eyes fluttered open, and she glanced at him. "Oh, hi!" She yawned prettily and peered out the windshield, and gasped. All of a sudden, she was wide awake. "Oh wow! When you said you're taking me in the middle of nowhere, you weren't joking."

He chuckled. "I was exaggerating. We're just a couple of hours drive from home. I didnae want us to go too far in case the trip was too tiring for ye. Shall we?" 

Her lips twitched, and before Jamie knew what she was about to do, she scrambled out. Sighing, he followed suit and got their bags from the boot while she walked to the lodge. Once inside, Jamie watched Claire take in her surroundings, smiling to herself as she touched surfaces, picked up family memorabilia and peered out windows. He wished to God they were here for a different reason. 

Though happy to have some quality alone time with Claire, the events of the past few days had unnerved him and still seemed unreal. She'd had an accident that could have ended fatally. She'd kept him in the dark about her fears and concerns. On top of everything else, there was this secret admirer of Claire he needed to deal with.

For now, she appeared content. Jamie guessed she hadn't a clue that he knew the secret she kept from him and wondered if it would be too much too soon if he asked her outright about it. He'd planned this trip to take her away from work and give her a break from wedding planning. He intended to make their alone time memorable, but there was no fucking way they'd leave this place until she told him everything she'd been keeping from him the last few months.

"Oh, Jamie, everything is so beautiful here. It's so homey."

He smiled at her, knowing he needed to think everything through before speaking his mind. "I'm glad you agreed to come, Sassenach. Ye need this."

She looked up from the book she'd retrieved from the bookshelf. Her sundress was wrinkled. Mischief gleamed in her amber eyes, and her hair bun was now slightly askew. She still had the bandaid on the back of her hand where the intravenous infusion had gone in. 

She was so earth-shatteringly, heartbreakingly beautiful, a vision so perfect that it was a moment he wanted to save.

"We both need this, Jamie," she said quietly before putting the book back in its place and picking up a framed picture of the Fraser family. "So, this is your family's secret bolthole, is that right?"

He looked around as if seeing it for the first time. The interior was made of wood, from the double-vaulted ceilings and pine floors to the cabinetry and tables to the built-ins that held modern gadgets, antique books, and artwork. Jute rugs, throw cushions, canvas paintings, and the leather sofa added colours, breaking up the expanse of natural wood. The stone fireplace gave its warmth, and the open-plan space afforded gable end views and access to the balcony, overlooking a gurgling river.

He closed their distance and slid his arms around her waist, pulling her close and absorbing her warmth and her scent. "Aye, ye can say that. The whole family used to come here for bank holiday weekends when we were bairns. But as Willie, Jenny, and I got older, our visits became few and far between. Eventually, I used this place to hide after I came back from the war, and I'd spend my time here working on restoring dated furniture."

She put the picture frame down and leaned back against him. "I could tell you had a hand in restoring it. You've always had this special way of bringing whatever you're working on its natural beauty to life."

A smile touched his lips. He took Claire's hand and led her into the bedroom. "This is where we're sleeping tonight," he announced as he opened the door. The cosy room had the same wood walls and ceiling, log bed frame with red tartan runner and an overhead branch chandelier adding an artisanal touch. A wide panelled window lit the room, lending a view of the forest. 

"I hope this is comfortable enough for ye."

Claire let go of his hand and walked over to the bed. Laughing, she sat on the mattress and slid all the way to the headboard and leaned back. "Love it! Peace, quiet and nature. This place is a writer's dream."

He shoved his hands in his jeans' pocket, content to just watch her looking happy and more herself. "I knew ye'd say that."

She shrugged and patted the mattress beside her. "Come here and tell me what's on your mind. You haven't said much ever since I got the all-clear."

He walked over to the bed and toed off his shoes. "Weel, for one, ye've been sleeping a lot ...so I cannae really say much." When Claire held out a hand, he hesitated. "How are ye feeling? The trip wasn't too much, was it?"

She made a funny face at him. "I took a knock on the head, Jamie ... I'm not decrepit."

"How about headaches and nausea? Are ye feeling any of those?" 

She scrunched up her nose. "No headaches, just a bit queasy. But that's to be expected, the doctor said."

The queasy part made him a bit nervous. Taking a deep breath, he sat down on the edge of the bed and faced her. "Sassenach, there's something I've meant to tell ye."

"Alright, that serious look on your face is worrying," she teased. 

"Claire ...please."

She immediately sobered and arched an eyebrow at him. "Alright, what is it?"

He cleared his throat and took her hand, his thumb tracing the edges of her bandaid. "I know about the gifts ye've been receiving these past few months. As well as the bouquet that was delivered to the boutique where ye had yer dress fitting." 

Her hand jerked, but he held on to it and kept talking. 

"Mary reckoned that the arrival of the roses caused ye a lot of distress and may have contributed to yer accident. So what I want to know is, who is sending ye these gifts?"

She made a move to get out of bed, but Jamie was quick to react. With one swift movement, he hauled her onto his lap and banded his arms around her. He cupped her face with one hand and forced her to look at him.

A mixture of anger and panic flashed in her amber eyes. "Mary had no right telling you that," she seethed. "That was way bang out of order. She's just a ..." 

"Annalise told me it's been going on for months," Jamie interrupted quietly.

She tried to squirm away from his hold, but he only gripped her tighter.

When he forced her to look at him once more, she slapped his hand away from her face and jutted her chin in defiance. Holding on to his impatience, he waited for her to speak. "They had no business telling you that. I trusted them!"

"Oh, no, Sassenach, ye're no' gonnae blame yer friends out of this. Now tell me, what the fuck is going on? And why of all people am I the last person to know about this?"

She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. "I didn't want you worrying. I thought I was probably just getting worked up for nought. You're dealing enough with a lot of things as it is. So let's just drop it, alright?"

Jamie struggled against the exasperation assailing his forced calm demeanour while Claire scrutinised his expression as if she was grappling for defence but couldn't find justification.

"One way or the other, I'm gonnae get to the bottom of this, Sassenach," he said as calmly as possible. "Even if it means turning London upside down to find that person who's been sending ye gifts. Ye might as well start talking." 

"You're stubborn," she mumbled.

"And ye're reckless. I love ye, and I vowed to protect the people I love. So out with it." 

"This is my problem and not yours, Jamie," she snapped. "I can handle it. I've been handling it for the past few months." 

"Damn it, Sassenach. When ye agreed to marry me, yer problems, worries, yer fears became mine too. So, I'm asking ye very nicely, tell me who this person is."

"I don't want to talk about this. You said you want to protect me, but can't you see I'm doing the same for you? I didn't tell you because I knew you'd go ballistic ...just like what's happening with you right now." 

Jamie almost laughed out loud. "You have to give me more credit than that, Sassenach. Ye seem to have forgotten I used to be in the SAS forces. I've seen and handled far worse things in my former job." 

Her throat worked with emotion. "And how did that go for you, huh? Your PTSD almost ruined your life. I don't want my problem putting you squarely back in that place. It was horrible seeing you suffer, and I don't want you going through that again." 

"For God's sake, we're not in the war zone. I'm no' gonnae have any relapses or panic attacks because of some random gifts you've been receiving." 

She dragged herself away from him, and this time, Jamie didn't try to stop her. "I don't want to fight over this."

He bit his tongue before he could accuse her of avoiding her emotions. He could hardly judge when he'd done just that many times in the past. He rubbed the back of his neck to ease the tension building up. "I dinnae want to bicker either. But I willnae just back down, like none of this matters to me. That's no' who I am, and that's no' who we are."

"Look, I'm exhausted. For all we know, you're getting frantic over nothing. Let's just forget about it, alright?"

"Forget about it? Are ye listening to yersel'? How the bloody hell am I supposed to do that when I know ye're looking over yer shoulders all the time? Jesus, Sassenach, whatever this is, it's affecting yer life. I've noticed ye've been on edge lately, and every time I've asked ye what's wrong, ye say ye're fine when clearly ye're not. What Mary told me is beginning to make sense ...you have this fear of being watched and followed, and I believe it caused you to fall when Tom caught ye unawares. So please, go ahead and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong."

Indecision clouded her features. She pondered for a moment before rolling her eyes in agitation. "Fine. We'll talk about it, but there's not much to tell. I have no clue who's been sending me those gifts."

"Did ye keep the notes, cards or anything that has their handwriting on it and might give us a clue?"

"I've chucked them all away."

"Any suspects?"

She bit her lip and then shook her head.

"I can see ye're upset, Sassenach. Surely, ye must have a slight inkling," he pressed.

She sighed. "I don't know. He or she probably orbits the same circle of social networks as I do. So I figured the sender must be just some harmless secret admirer who probably has a crush on me."

"Secret admirer? That's a charming way of putting it," he gritted, tamping down his frustration. "Ye have a stalker, Sassenach!" When she acted surprised, he waggled a finger at her. "Oh, don't ye dare play dumb with me. Ye're a lot of things, but dense isn't one of them! Look at ye. Ye're shaking just talking about it. Ye've been reduced you to a nervous wreck. And ye think, by keeping this from me, ye're protecting me? How is that supposed to pan out for us when I have nae idea what I'm dealing with?"

"Why do you think I asked you to come to London with me?"

Hating the hollow quality of her voice, he rose from the bed and strode towards her. He tilted her chin and looked her squarely in the eyes. "That's good thinking, Sassenach, but I could only take so much of ye shutting me out. Ye dinnae get to choose which parts of yersel' that I get. We're a team, and in a few weeks, we'll be married. I cannae be a husband if I cannae protect the person I love. So things will have to change around here until I get it through yer head we're in this together. From now on, I'm no' letting ye out of my sight. At least, until I find out who's been sending you those gifts. So wherever ye go, I'll accompany ye."

She gasped. "You can't do that!"

"Oh, yes, I can, and I will. Ye should have told me about it right from the start, and I would have nipped it in the bud for ye. Then we wouldn't be having this discussion right now." 

She tried to shove him away, but he didn't budge. "Damn it, Jamie! You know I won't tolerate high-handedness and peremptory demands. I'm my own person, and marriage will not change that."

He grasped her shoulders, just short of shaking some sense into her. "Listen to me. I appreciate that ye're driven, independent, and a confident woman, Sassenach, and I love all those qualities about ye. Ye must also realise I'm overprotective, and despite that, I'm doing my best to be patient and understanding. But I've been far too deferential about giving ye yer space and letting ye do things as ye see fit. Look where it got us. Sorry, but times like these require tough love,  mo chridhe ." Before she could get a word edgeways, he kissed her hard, smothering the profanity she was about to launch at him. She tried to break free, twisting and wriggling in his hold, but he didn't let up. When she finally turned pliant in his arms, he broke their kiss. 

"You arrogant, over-bearing ..." She burst into tears as she launched herself at him, pummeling his chest with her fists. He recognised her need to release all the pent up emotions and anxieties from the last few months. He absorbed the blows, letting her vent, thinking of all the times when she'd jumped nervously when caught by surprise, her eyes widening in alarm and her face draining of colour. How restless she'd been around unfamiliar spaces and crowds. He understood her fear and what it felt like to be powerless in its clutches. He should have known something was wrong and protected her better. This time he wanted to prove to her he was strong enough for the both of them, and she needn't hide anything from him.

Finally exhausted, her blows eased, and she slumped against his chest. He gently pulled her closer, stroking her back and letting her cry until she had nothing left. When she finally spoke, her breaths came out shallow and laboured. "So now you're punishing me because I kept this from you?" she hiccupped, smooshing her tear-stained face on his shirt. "I only wanted to protect you, Jamie." 

His heart squeezed at the sincerity behind her words, but he remained focused. He wanted nothing more than to wipe her tears away, forget about this conversation and cuddle up in bed with her. But he'd made a vow to himself they would talk, and they weren't done yet. Claire was sometimes oblivious to her effect on him to the point of distraction. And, feeling her soft and warm against him, he came close to forgetting his resolve. But he knew if he allowed himself to be distracted, they would never make progress. 

He pressed his lips to her forehead and sighed. "I'm no' punishing ye, Sassenach ...not at all." His voice cracked from all emotions welling up inside him, but he swallowed the uncomfortable lump in his throat. "If anything bad had happened to ye under my watch, I dinnae think I would have been able to forgive myself. That time when ye were lying in the hospital bed, and the nurse came to wake ye up as part of the routine to make sure ye had no complications from yer bump, ye started to convulse. That frightened the hell out of me, not knowing what the fuck was happening to ye. Ye were clutching yer belly, and I thought ye were having some reaction to the medication. Then the doctors came and ordered me to wait in the waiting area. My first thought at that moment was I'd never see ye again." 

A tortured groan passed through her lips. "Oh, Jamie ..."

He blinked back the heat that burned behind his eyes. "I sat there on my own praying, making promises to whoever could hear me that I'll do better by ye. Protect ye and do everything in my power to make ye happy. I was so desperate I even called out to yer father, hoping that some act of divine intervention would make him appear like he used to. I dinnae ken how long I sat there and waited, but when the doctor came and told me to come with her without explaining why, I feared the worse. But when I heard ye call after yer da in yer semi-conscious state, I thought it might have been the most magical sound I've ever heard. I dinnae ken what ye were saying, but I had feeling ye were going to be alright. Crazy as it sounds, I believed yer da was right there ...with ye."

Her eyes shot to his in surprise. "Really? I had a vivid dream about him. It was so peaceful in his presence, I begged him to take ..." she trailed off as if she sensed his horror. "Jamie, I had no idea what was happening. It felt like I've forgotten where I was supposed to be. All I knew was that I was searching for something. But when I finally opened my eyes, and I saw you, I realised all that time I was trying to make my way back to you."

The thought of her making a choice between life and death made him shudder. He let out a humourless laugh. "I'm just glad ye chose to come back to me."

She must have felt the air that lodged in his chest because her hand began to move up and down his back, easing the taut muscles straining under his shirt. "Jamie, there was no choice. There was no decision to be made. It was not my time."

Trying valiantly to accept her explanation, he nodded stiffly. "I-I just thought ye were slipping away from me and ..."

"Jamie, stop. Please, don't think about it anymore. I'm right here, and I'm not slipping away anywhere." 

The conviction in her voice made him smile, but it teetered under the importance of the next significant matter he wanted to talk about. "Aye, ye're right, you willnae. No' if I can help it. But we're no' done talking yet. I need to tell ye something, and what I'm about to say to ye will make ye understand why I've been acting like a highhanded brute." 

Claire was already shaking his head. "Look, Jamie, I'm sorry ... it was my fault. I should have told you about those gifts and my concerns about them instead of ..."

He placed his hands on her shoulders. "No ...please, Sassenach, let me finish." When she acknowledged his request with a slow nod, he blew out a breath. "After the doctor checked up on ye and allowed me back to yer quarters, one of the first things I noticed was a machine on wheels by yer bedside. Naturally, having never ever seen these types of medical apparatus before, I panicked, and my imagination got the better of me, thinking they were about to put ye in an induced coma or hook ye on a life-saving machine. Then I got distracted when another attending physician I've never met before started to poke a probe into yer fanny."

"My wot?" 

Jamie ignored the incredulous look on her face. "Ye see, I was so rattled after seeing ye convulsed, I kind of started demanding what the hell was happening and what they were doing to ye. I was then told the nurse hadn't put the intravenous drip on correctly and that ye were severely dehydrated, which has induced the cramping."

"Cramping?" she whispered, looking bewildered.

"Aye, cramping. The doctor explained the lack of hydration caused the blood flow to yer uterus to be reduced, resulting in uterine cramping."

"That's odd. I've never had cramps while dehydrated before." She looked confounded. "Couldn't they just have reattached the intravenous drip? And what was the probe for?" 

Holding Claire's gaze, he dragged in a gulp of breath and entwined their fingers together. He knew he was beating around the bush to buy himself more time searching for the right words. He dialled back the depth of uncertainty he was feeling and kissed her knuckles. They hadn't discussed much the future beyond their wedding, too busy with their own respective work. At the moment, there were things that needed their attention, like organising their lives, looking for a bigger place to live and sorting out the sale of Claire's childhood home in Oxford. There was also her book launch in the not so distant future and the expansion of Willie's and his business. On top of everything else, there was the problem of the stalker that needed to be addressed. Their lives haven't begun yet, and now this? But after the scare of almost losing Claire, he was prepared to face anything and with her by his side, surely they could overcome any trials life threw at them.

Guiding their joined hands, he placed them over her belly and watched her eyes widen. "Jamie? You haven't answered my question. What was the probe for? And what the bloody hell is it?"

"The probe was used to monitor the state of the baby. As it turned out, we are pregnant, Sassenach."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"The probe was used to monitor the state of the baby. As it turned out, we are pregnant, Sassenach."

Claire stared blindly at Jamie, feeling like she was going to faint. 

The unspoken plan had been simple: marry, enjoy their first few years as newlyweds and then, when they're ready, work out their future together.  Wasn't that what Jamie said he wanted?  Instead, he'd found out about her pregnancy while she'd been knocked out of her senses. And he's looking at her as if everything was hunky-dory.

"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!" she wheezed, swaying on her feet.

"Easy there now." Jamie grabbed hold of her elbow and worriedly looked her over. "Ye alright?"

She placed a hand on the flat of her belly. "Oh, God, how did that happen?" 

Jamie frowned. "What do you mean, how did that happened? We had a lot of awesome sex together. That's how!"

"Don't you think I know that!" she snapped, suddenly feeling flustered. "Of course, I know the how!" She stared at Jamie as she racked her brains. She'd been feeling slightly off during the past few weeks, and she'd missed her period, but she'd put it down to stress, anxieties caused by the strange gifts she'd been receiving and all the travelling back and forth to London. She hadn't considered the possibility because ...."But, I'm taking birth control pills!"

Jamie nodded. "Aye, I mentioned that to the doctor."

"And I haven't missed! Not once!"

"Actually," he began, clearing his throat, "the doctor asked me if ye've taken any medications in the past months. I told her ye took antibiotics for strep throat not too long ago, and I was informed that taking antibiotics reduces the efficacy of the birth control pills."

"Oh, sweet Lord..."

"The doctor said that sort of slip-up is not uncommon," he said casually like this sort of thing happened on a regular basis.

She sucked in her cheeks and forced herself to remain calm. "How far along?" Claire whispered.

"The doctor said nine weeks. He thought we were aware that we're expecting."

Nine weeks!

Heat crept up her neck as a torrent of scenes featuring her and Jamie played in fast forward clips in her mind. With Jamie's sex drive and stamina, there were far too many illicit and indecent exhibitions to focus on. She vigorously shook her head to banish visions of their naked bodies writhing and pumping while in various states of throes of passion and swallowed hard. 

"Ye look kinda hot and..." 

"Jamie!" she snapped at him in disbelief. "Knock it off. Now is so not the time!" 

This time it was Jamie's face turn to colour. "I meant to say ye look hot and bothered. It's stuffy in here. I think ye need air." He let go of her to open the windows as she unsteadily made her way to bed.

The cool breeze immediately hit her as she sank onto the mattress and leaned back against the stacks of pillows. Nausea gripped her middle, and she realised the sick feeling had nothing anymore to do with the knock she got on her head. She drew in big gulps of air to tamp down the burning sensation rising up in her oesophagus, and when she let out a satisfactory burp, she sighed with relief.

"Feel better?" Jamie asked, sitting down next to her and taking her hand.

She squeezed her eyes shut and allowed the recent past events to unfurl themselves in her mind, zeroing in on one particular day.

Jamie had surprised her when he'd showed up in London while she'd been in the middle of a meeting discussing her upcoming book's cover. She'd come out of the conference room to find Jamie in the waiting area, surrounded by her former female colleagues offering him refreshments and magazines. It had been apparent he'd been a welcome treat and distraction at the office while he'd waited for her to come out, adorably clutching a box of her favourite chocolate truffles on his lap. 

Until then, Claire hadn't realised she had a jealous streak in her and should have had known he'd attract women like bees to a honeypot. They'd been able to tell Jamie was a unique exemplar of a man, a perfect balance of charm, restrained power and vulnerability. He'd been engaging but at the same time distant and inaccessible, wearing his relationship status like a badge of honour. Unfortunately, that inherent trait had only served to make him more alluring to his admirers in an enticing, forbidden way. Though Claire appreciated Jamie's qualities, she hadn't liked it one bit that these women had recognised it too. 

In that instant, she'd understood Jamie's proprietorial behaviour when she'd felt the urge to claw the eyes out of the women surrounding him. She'd come to a conclusion it probably wouldn't be the last time Jamie got propositioned or flirted with, but what she'd had chosen to do then would determine how she'd handle situations like these in the future. She could either had thrown a jealous fit or gone to claim her man. She'd chosen the latter. 

When Jamie's eyes had finally met hers, a dozen emotions had flashed in their depths. Relief at seeing her, desire, joy, and pleading to be rescued. She'd taken a deep breath, strutted up to Jamie and planted a lingering kiss onto his lips, feeling chuffed when his arm had automatically circled her waist to the wishful sighs of their on-lookers. The group of women had immediately dispersed, much to Jamie's amusement, and she'd been surprised to find out how massively turned-on he'd been at her possessive behaviour. So much so, when they'd finally left the office, he'd whispered suggestive and indecent things he'd wanted to do with her, all the while sneaking a slap on her bottom, tempting and heightening the anticipation when no one had been looking.

By the time they'd arrived, kissing and groping each other, in her old bedroom at Annalise's empty apartment, they'd been in a sexual frenzy. She'd been pushed against the wall, and her green wrap around dress yanked from her body, leaving her naked for Jamie's perusal and fevered touches. He'd been inside her in no time, and by then, nothing short of a nuclear war could have stopped them. 

She could still recall every detail of that afternoon romp. It was as if it had taken place only yesterday, their lovemaking more intense than usual. Their times apart must have lent the mad urgency and gravity, making them both twice as wild and more impetuous.

Claire opened her eyes and found Jamie curiously staring at her. They were having a baby, and the realisation felt like perfection and pain all at once. It was supposed to be happy news. So why did it felt like something heavy was weighing her down? 

She sighed and slumped deeper into the pillows. "Oh, well, I kind of figured out the  when ."

Jamie's head dropped forward and let out a small laugh. "Was it that day when I came to London to surprise ye? If so, that wee green dress had definitely undone me."

She puffed out a breath towards the ceiling. "Yes to that day and the green dress."

"I thought so." Gingerly, he slid into bed and laid on his side, stretching his whole body next to her. Surprising her, he took her hand and rested both theirs on her belly. "I cannae believe my sperms were that vigilant and ready waiting for their first opening to knock ye up."

She blinked. She hadn't expected Jamie to take the news this lightly, least of all make a joke. "Jesus, Jamie!"

He grinned at her. "What?"

"You're not taking this seriously!"

"Oh, I am. And ye better believe it! I'm just trying to work out how many rounds we had that day and which round got us pregnant."

"Does it matter?"

"Of course, it does. We're talking about my semen here ..."

"Oh, good God ..." she groaned.

"Look at it this way ...we both have a fairly good idea about the mechanics of conceiving, but knowing something is growing in yer body because of what we did together is kinda fascinating." He paused, his brows knitting together. "Ye do want the baby, Sassenach, aye? I ken ye already made it clear to me ye want to have bairns, but I just want to make sure."

Hope trickled through her. "Of course, I do! What kind of question is that?"

"Weel, this is the twenty-first century, and this is yer body we're talking about. Circumstances can change mindsets. It's just proper etiquette to ask yer opinion about it. After all, it was me who got us in this state, and I would find it highly inappropriate if ye couldnae have a say about it, irrelevant which side of the argument ye stand."

She couldn't help but smile. Jamie might be old-fashion in many ways, but he was surprisingly progressive considering he'd grown up in a place where outdated ideas and customs still thrived. "If you insist on the formality of hearing my opinion ...yes, Jamie, I do want to have the baby."

"Alright, that's settled then."

She hadn't foreseen Jamie to be this calm about her pregnancy, but she thought perhaps, he'd had time to stew over it and had already accepted their fate while she was still recovering from the news. 

She bit her lower lip. "You don't seem in the least shock."

He guided their joined hands over her belly in a circular motion. "Ye ken well I keep track of yer period, and when I began to notice wee changes in yer body, I sort of had a niggling feeling deep in my guts that ye might be pregnant. But knowing ye, ye would've attributed the changes to yer stress and workload if I'd pointed it out."

"So ...you're not upset?" she asked.

"No." He shook his head for emphasis. "I'm no' upset ...just feeling a little out of sorts."

"Want to talk about it?" she urged.

He didn't reply immediately. He glanced at their joined hands, instinctually still resting on Claire's belly as if they were shielding their baby’s life from some unseen danger. When he finally looked at her, his face had turned serious, clear blue eyes piercing hers deeply.

"I'm no' gonnae lie, but when we talked about having our own babies a few days ago, I meant what I said when I told ye I wasnae ready yet. Ye ken, my uncertainty has wholly to do with my therapy and condition, our work, and my selfish reason for wanting ye all to myself first before having a family of our own. Being the planner that I am, I had this idea in my head that we'll wait for a couple of years, so I could be certain I'm providing a life conducive to a family. But the baby is here now. The timing is kind of off with everything that is happening, but just because I'm no' ready, it doesnae mean I'm upset and will no' rise to the occasion." He squeezed her hand as if to reassure her. "By the way, how are ye feeling?"

"Petrified."

Jamie snuggled closer, resting his chin on her shoulder. "Aye, I feel a bit of that too."

"And why is that?"

"Ever since ye brought up the bairns subject, I question myself, how can I be the kind of da our baby needs if I cannae feel sure about myself? It's so easy to become a father, Sassenach, but to be a da, that's a totally different ballgame. It's tough to feel confident about something I've never done before, especially with my history of going down the deep end every time anxiety gets the better of me."

"Oh, Jamie." Claire relinquished her hold on her belly and turned on her side, propping herself up on her elbow to study him. She tried to see their situation from his point of view, knowing he was the sort of man who never did anything in half-measures. Of course, he was old-school and took his responsibility seriously. And becoming a father had probably triggered a 'provider' mindset, which could be quite daunting for any first-time dad, especially with someone who'd suffered PTSD. 

She ran her index finger along his stubbled chin. "What you're feeling is normal, Jamie. I am scared big time too."

"Ye are?"

"Yes. Being responsible for another human being is quite scary. I haven't had time to fully settle living in the Highlands, and now there's another major adjustment coming our way. I suppose there'll never be a perfect time to start a family."

He sighed. "Aye, I guess ye're right. I just dinnae want my condition to hurt our wee family."

"Jamie, you have to cut yourself some slack," she scolded softly. "You've come a long way managing and not letting your condition control your life. It'll be tough ...no doubt, because, just like any other first time parents, we're entering this experience together without a bloody clue."

He took her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist before placing it over his chest. "I understand that. But I've come across men and women who'd been in a similar situation as me. And in most of their cases, PTSD has been a catalyst to domestic violence. The thought of anyone, especially me, hurting ye or our future bairns is unbearable. So how do I know something willnae set me off someday? That's what I'm first and foremost worried about."

Finally, she understood Jamie's reservations about having babies. His emotional and psychological wounds might have been lanced a while back, and despite hours of therapy and long nights discussing his time in the Middle East, he still doubted himself. She knew the healing process was slow and tedious, but she wasn't about to allow him to question his progress.

"You're such a silly prat, you know that?" she said softly. 

He blinked in bewilderment. "What? What do ye mean?" 

"How on this God's given earth could you even think that you're capable of hurting our future bairns or me?" she asked, rolling her eyes in feigned exasperation. "We've had loads of arguments in the past that could have easily triggered PTSD symptoms, but not once have I ever felt remotely intimidated, threatened, nor cowed by you." 

"That's because I've walked out in the middle of our arguments, mind?" he pointed out. "Every time I felt my anger getting out of control, I walked out and did my breathing exercises because I was so afraid I'd end up hurting ye. Physically."

"Is that what you think you're capable of?"

He pinched the bridge of his nose and slowly nodded.

"Alright then ... what's the angriest you've ever been with me?" she asked quietly. 

His brows furrowed. "When ye kept that stalker a secret from me?" His reply sounded more like a question as if he wasn't wholly sure of his answer.

"No, Jamie ... you weren't angry," she dismissed. "You were frustrated, and it was understandable because you were concerned for my safety."

He shifted his position to lean on his elbow. "Alright, how about this. That time when ye spent a lot of time with Tom and these recent months with that handsy editor of yers?"

Claire sighed. "My handsy editor is called Alex. And no, you weren't really mad then," she stressed. "You were just obnoxiously unreasonable. I'm speaking of real anger. The sort that makes you feel like your head's going to implode."

"Ah, weel ..." He looked disconcerted as he shook his head. "I cannae mind. I dinnae think ye've ever given me any reason to be that angry," he admitted. "Ye've always been very quick to smooth things out after a tiff."

"Oh, come on, I have a list of numerous incidents off the top of my head. Like that one time, I told your brother that you enjoyed getting the occasional facial with me in the salon. You were so infuriated that there were practically smoke puffing out of your ears."

"Aye ...I was pissed off, but rightly so," he said, scowling as if he didn't want to be reminded of that occasion. "Willie passed on that story to the rest of our shinty mates, and I dinnae think I'll ever hear the end of it. But that's just petty stuff. I'd never hurt ye over something so trivial."

"Exactly ...there you go!"

"There I go what?"

"Don't you get it? You might have the tendency to go beyond irrational, be over the top jealous and possessive, bull-headed and quick to snap but never, ever near violent. Now, I may not be an expert, but from what I've read and heard about abusive spouses that suffer PTSD, they barely need an excuse to trigger the violence. Even during the times when you were emotionally hurtful, even then, you were punishing yourself more than me." She placed a hand on his cheek and smiled at him. "It's not in your DNA to be violent, Jamie. You have to start believing that."

His eyes searched hers, looking uncertain. "Ye sound so sure," he whispered. 

"I'm sure because even at your most unreasonable, when I thought you were going to have a relapse and seemed to be lacking in control over your emotions, never once was I afraid of you. Not once."

"That's comforting to know," he said softly, looking somewhat placated. "But just because I appreciate yer complete faith in me, it doesnae mean I'm letting ye off the hook so soon. I'm still cross at ye for not telling me about yer stalker."

"Oh yes, about that ..." A worrying sensation descended upon her once more, reminding her of the unresolved issue. Yet on its heels came the palpable feeling of relief. She'd denied herself Jamie's protection because she’d wanted to be noble and protect him. But now that he knew the extent of her months of living in fear, she felt lighter for the first time in ages. She gave him her most contrite look. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about it sooner. I've caused myself unnecessary distress and made you worry in the process. I get it now ...if something bad happens to one of us, the other will suffer. I understand that it goes both ways."

"So ye realise why I need to get to the bottom of this bloody menace. Ye're carrying our bairn now, and yer protection and well-being are paramount to me."

Remorse nipped at her heart. "Yes, I understand."

"So, ye'll let me handle this?"

"We'll handle it together," she responded firmly. "If this past year has taught me anything, it's that you're the kind of man who would place himself squarely between his loved ones and any threat. And just so you know ... I'm exactly the same."

"Ahh, Sassenach ..."

Expecting objections, she braced herself. "Wot?" 

"Ye're the bravest person I know."

Surprised he didn't kick up a fuss, she relaxed. "Well, for starters, loving you gives me a hell of a lot of courage."

"And ye loving me gives me strength," he said, brushing his lips against hers. He slid his hand around Claire's back and pulled her against him. "I've bred far too much fear that I almost lost sight of the future. But after what happened to ye and seeing ye in that hospital bed ....Christ!" He let out a shudder that she felt all the way to her bones. "I realised life is too precious thinking too much of the  'what ifs,'  and I figured out very quickly what I dinnae want."

"And what is that?" she breathed against his chest.

He drew slightly away to tip her chin up. "I dinnae want to believe anymore that I dinnae deserve what ye have to offer ...like a bairn of my own. Ye changed my life, Sassenach ...ye taught me all about second chances, healing and faith when times were bleak. Ye taught me that it's alright to fall apart and to trust the process of building myself together. The fear is still very much here, but with ye by my side, I think I'm gonnae be alright with this fatherhood thing."

Relief, coupled with pride in Jamie, clouded her vision. She gazed at him, withholding nothing, seconds from drawing him into her arms to kiss him deeply, but he'd become preoccupied with something else. She followed his line of sight, looking between their bodies and realised he was ogling her breasts, pushed up and plastered against his chest. They definitely looked fuller and rounder, thoroughly squished and up close.

Claire glanced back up to find Jamie watching her, longing and desire etched on his face. He caressed her cheek with his thumb, taking in everything as if he was seeing her for the first time. 

"I want to make love to the mother of my unborn child," he whispered hoarsely. "If ye'll let me."

When she nodded her reply, he kissed her, a warm, slow merging that ignited her entire being. She parted her lips, and their tongues mated, the deep primal instinct to copulate, heightening their need. 

When his mouth coasted along her jawline, she tilted her head back in an invitation to take whatever he needed. Groaning in response, he trailed his lips down, bowing his body over hers as he worked his way to her collarbone. The way he moved over her was different from any other time they'd made love, but she sensed it was his way of telling her he was embracing the unexplored path of parenthood.

Gently pushing her onto her back, he shed her clothes before discarding his, pausing to kiss, taste and touch every inch of her exposed skin, worshipping her body with a reverence that left her suffused with heat and grasping out for more.

Intoxicated with lust, Claire watched with heavy eyes as he parted her legs and dropped between her thighs, his gentle fingers separating the folds that hid her throbbing flesh. His head dipped and kissed her core, and at the first stroke of his tongue, her hips jerk and she let out a throaty moan. Ignoring her desperate movements to pull him back up, he sucked, licked, using his lips and tongue to push her toward the edge. Her stomach muscles clenched against the barrage of sensations as the spasms overtook her. She climaxed hard and arched in his ministrations, his strong hands holding her hips as he continued to kiss her until she broke into a sob.

He rose upwards and paused at her entrance.

"Look at me, Sassenach," he commanded gently.

Totally spent, she forced her eyes open and gazed at the man she loved with her whole being.

"I love ye, and I already love our wee sprog growing inside of ye, ye hear me?" He stilled as if to make sure she'd heard and understood what he'd said, gripping her fingers, trying to speak beyond words. "Never ever doubt that."

When she nodded her head, Jamie pushed his entire length inside her and buried himself to the hilt, extracting a raspy cry to pass her lips. Without taking his eyes off her, he began to move to the rhythm of the ancient mating dance, and every time he reentered her body, a sensation expanded and deepened between them. Their bodies aligned with the precious life nestled inside her, the tempestuous current of energy vibrating through every nerve of her body melding her to him. It fused powerfully as he continued to give all of himself, thrusting into her with slow, steady strokes until she hovered over the edge. This time when she climaxed, he followed, grasping her hands the whole time he shared the journey. And when they drifted back, he gathered her in his arms in the profound silence that descended over them like the flame dying down to smouldering ash. 

She realised something had shifted between them, something powerful and mysterious. Fundamentally, sex between them had always been raw and primaeval, and they had a bond ingrained with innate intensity and untamed passion. This time, it carried more weight and breadth. Perhaps it had to do with the biological parental instinct to bond with their unborn offspring, to vow to protect. Whatever it was, she held on tight to their connection until she drifted into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

..........

Jamie woke up to find Claire still fast asleep, and her arm draped across his middle. The trip, their long discussion and lovemaking must have worn her out. He knew he'd pushed too hard to get her to talk, but it was the only way to get as much information about the stalker as he could from his stubborn woman. It might have amounted to nothing but the fact that she'd open up about her fears was a huge step. This wasn't only about her or them anymore. She was carrying their child, and whoever this stalker was, had endangered his family. If Claire thought the extent of what he was going to do about the stalker was to chaperone her wherever she went, she had another thing coming to her.

Careful not to rouse Claire, he slid out of bed, put on some clothes and made his way to the living area. He had a plan that required to be set in motion before he made dinner, and Claire woke up. As a former soldier for SAS, he'd been trained to always anticipate an attack. This might not be in the war zone and the stalker, just some harmless man who had a crush on Claire, but this was one encounter he wanted to be prepared for. With their trip to London coming soon, he had to do something.

Grabbing his suitcase, he pulled out his laptop and set to work. 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jamie inspected the turnout gathering around the foyer and wished he and Claire were somewhere else a little bit less crowded, having their own intimate dinner. Mary Hawkins' book release announcement and after-party were supposed to be the turning point in Claire's as well as Tom's writing career. He knew the bigwigs of the literary and entertainment world teemed the venue, and Claire and Tom were there to be seen to help endorse their soon to be released books and put Dreamcatcher Publishing company once more into the spotlight.

He handed the cloakroom attendant Claire's shawl and guided her through the crowd. Placing a possessive hand on the small of her back, he leaned down and brushed his lips against her ear. "You followed John's advice way too literally, Sassenach," he whispered. "When he said ye needed to be seen, he didnae mean ye have to catch every bloke's attention in the room in that dress."

Her rouged lips broke into a wide smile as her hand smoothed over her tummy, a subconscious act she'd been doing a lot ever since she'd found out she was pregnant. The simple red off the shoulder pencil dress that went down past her knees would have been understated and modest if the soft material didn't showcase every curve of her body to perfection, revealing just the right amount of cleavage enough to tantalise. Her feet were encased in delicate strappy four-inch heels making her legs look a mile long, and her hair fastened high on her head, with wisps of tendrils spilling around her ears and caressing the back of her neck. Her creamy skin glowed against the fabric of the dress, and her eyes shone with anticipation.

She turned to face him and glanced up to meet his gaze. "I wore this dress for you," she said, letting out a soft exhalation of breath. 

"Did ye now? For a moment there, I wasnae so sure," he teased.

"I can't allow you to have wandering eyes." Her hands coasted over his chest and rested on his shoulders. "And as for you, my love, you don't even need to try. You always look dashing in whatever you choose to wear."

Jamie looked down at his own attire. He'd opted to wear a black dress shirt underneath his blazer and dark jeans for the occasion, forgoing to adhere to formal wear protocol of suits and ties. "Not too shabby for ye?"

She shook her head as she appraised him. "Not at all. In fact, you look ruggedly handsome. Kind of sexy when you break the rules. It suits you and no pun intended."

He couldn't help but grin. "Handsome, eh? Didnae think ye'd noticed with all the menfolk here all primped up, smelling like they'd bathed in cologne and strutting around like peacocks.

"Oh, I definitely noticed." She smiled. "And so did a lot of lassies."

He kept his gaze on her, not interested in finding out whether she was stroking his ego or not. "Ye ken well, I only have eyes for ye."

"And so do I." She hooked her arm to his and patted his forearm. "So shall we then?"

Jamie led Claire through the gilded double doors that opened into a massive open space and instantly noticed Claire's friends, former work colleagues, and John Grey assembled in a group. Wanting to dodge the bedlam of greetings, introductions and small talks for as long as possible, he steered Claire towards the bar, where he ordered her a virgin mojito and a single malt for himself. 

A five-piece band played a lively tempo in the background, enticing guests to fill the dancefloor as waiters in their elegant black and white uniform enthusiastically served Champagne, canapés and hors d'oeuvres. As he scanned the room, he was momentarily blinded by the ostentatious display of men in their designer suits and women in an array of shimmering silks and satins. Everyone seemed perfectly done up, from their sun-kissed skin, refined dialogue to their artificial smile.

Jamie realised a handful of celebrities and TV network moguls were in attendance, and some were rubbing elbows with Mary Hawkins. He wasn't surprised. After all, she'd had several bestselling novels under her belt and had a massive worldwide following. He wondered how many production companies had approached her to discuss making her books into a movie or TV series. Apparently, Mary had been offered several attractive propositions in the past, but she was careful to settle. She'd heard far too many accounts of books making it into movies or TV series and ambitious screenwriters deviating from the author's storyline. Though Mary understood changes were necessary for film adaptations, she didn't want her work ripped apart just for the sake of ratings. If her books were going to be made into a film, it had to be mainly on her own terms.

He watched Claire as she sipped her nonalcoholic cocktail and surveyed the room with wide eyes. So far, she seemed at ease and didn't seem perturbed, probably too awestruck with all the hype going on around her. He ought to relax too and enjoy their evening. He'd done what he needed to do, albeit over the top, and Claire was safe. 

Before they'd left Broch Mordha, Jamie had enlisted the help of his former SAS comrade, turned private investigator, Taran MacQuarrie, also known as Taz. Taz was based in London and had strong affiliations to Scotland Yard and MI6, making him the best option for the job. So when Jamie had received the report of the background check on all employees of Dreamcatcher and the guests invited to Mary's book press release after-party, he'd been relieved to find out everyone had come up clean, including his main suspect, Alex Randall.

But why did it felt wrong to be here? They might be in a roomful of polished people, but it didn't mean there weren't any characters with unsavoury intentions in their midst. Once again, Jamie dispelled his dark thoughts and tried to relax.

"Ye ken we dinnae have to stay long if it all gets too much." 

Claire glanced at him looking surprised, her glass suspended halfway to her lips. "We just got here." Her expression suddenly turned worried. "Are you alright?"

He hurried to explain. "Oh, aye, of course. It's just that, aah ..." He did his best to look composed as more guests arrived. "I was just thinking about your condition and the baby."

Her face spread into a slow smile as she put her drink down at the bar counter. "Aww, look at you ...having a midwife crisis."

Jamie shoved his hands in his pockets. "Very funny. So ...when are we telling our family and friends about our baby?"

"Well, since I'm not showing yet, and if you don't mind, I want to keep this for ourselves a little bit longer." She lit up when something caught Claire's attention over his shoulder. "I'm fairly certain Mary wouldn't want me stealing her thunder tonight, even if your intention is only to let everyone know I'm yours. Especially Alex. And speaking of the devil, he is coming our way, and I would appreciate it a lot if you could be nicer to him."

Biting his tongue, Jamie turned to see Alex Randall heading in their direction. Automatically, he slid a protective arm around Claire's bare shoulders and stiffly nodded in acknowledgement.

"Jamie!" Alex greeted, playfully letting out a low whistle of approval at the sight of Claire. Alex Randall had been an editor at Dreamcatcher long before Claire joined the publishing company and was well-liked by his peers for his laid back manner and over the top chipper disposition. Too bad Claire liked the smug-looking bastard too.

"Alex," Jamie responded.

"Aah, the epitome of Lady in Red." Alex took Claire's hand and twirled her around before giving her a kiss on both cheeks. "Look what you've done. I now have that mental soundtrack playing in my head. I have a very bad feeling it won't stop unless we dance to it later. So what do you think? Want to help out this poor chap when you have a moment? That's, of course, if Jamie wouldn't mind."

Claire let out a hearty belly laugh. Though it wasn't one of those measured smiles or soft giggles he'd often seen in women flirting, he didn't know whether to be bothered by her delight at Alex's smooth line or captured by her open beauty. One thing for sure, he didn't like it one bit that Alex had made her laugh.

"Very slick, Alex. Very slick, indeed," she gasped, wiping a tear at the corner of her eye. 

Jamie couldn't help but scowl, but Alex just chuckled, a flash of mischief crossing his face. "Just wanted to grab the opportunity to hang out with the most beautiful woman in the room while I still can. Reading the looks you're getting, I have a feeling every bloke present here would love the chance to dance with you. I thought I'd join the queue while I still can."

Claire made an unladylike snort. "Typical smooth operator reasoning."

Alex grinned but stopped when he saw Jamie's expression. "And I'm also reading Jamie's look as not too please by the attention you're getting."

If Jamie hadn't known for a fact that Alex was seeing someone from a piece of information he'd retrieved from Taz, he wouldn't have tolerated the editor's blatant flirting with his fianceé.

Jamie's hand slid around Claire's waist once more and brought her back against his side as Alex watched the gesture with barely hidden amusement. Jamie tamped down the urge to throttle Alex and kept his face neutral. "So, are ye here on yer own? Or do ye have a plus one ye're no' being attentive to?" Jamie asked, even though he already knew the answer.

"Ah, yes, I had a date. But alas!" Alex dramatically clutched his chest before winking at Claire. "She had to postpone last minute because of some work-related emergency, so I had no choice but to bring a mardy plus one to accompany me."

"Oh!" Claire's face pulled into a disappointed look. "That's a shame, Alex. I would have loved to meet her. So who did you bring with you instead?"

Alex's phone rang, and his hand immediately shot to the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He gave Claire an apologetic look. "Got to take this. See you around?"

"Of course." Claire motioned for him to go. "We'll catch up later."

Alex nodded to Jamie and directed a smile to Claire. "Yeah, catch up later," he echoed, squeezing her arm before disappearing into the crowd.

"See what I meant about yer editor being handsy?"

Claire sighed and turned to face him, a mixture of amusement and disapproval carving out her features. He bet she wished Alex's date had made an appearance if only to prove a point. But that wouldn't have mattered. The stalker could be in their vicinity, and every man who looked at Claire with even the slightest interest made them a suspect in Jamie's mind. He wondered who Alex had brought with him as he made a mental note to find out this one detail he hadn't accounted for.

She squeezed his hand, bringing him back to the present. "Alex didn't mean anything by it, Jamie. He's sweet to all the women in the office, and he's a natural-born flirt. He is what he is. He's probably using the same line he used on me on another girl as we speak."

He frowned at her casual explanation. "I doubt it," was all he could say as another group made their way to the bar, making him more vigilant, if not on edge. It looked like every debonair erudite had come tonight, and every one of them knew Claire by name. But his jealousy was secondary to Claire's safety, even if it was a spinning ball of spikes rattling around in his stomach. He shielded Claire with his body as more people jostled to get her and the bartenders' attention. When his phone buzzed in his breast pocket, he subtly snuck it out to read the screen and found there's a text message from Taz.

Ah, shite!

Jamie looked around and was relieved to see Tom heading their way. 

"Who was that on the phone?" Claire asked as Jamie motioned for Tom to hurry over.

He glanced down at her upturned face. He didn't have the presence of mind to make up some excuse. He had to call Taz and find out if there was something important he needed to know. Inwardly flinching, he lied through his teeth. "It's work-related, I think. I have to make a call just to check, and I need ye to stay put. Tom is on his way."

Her lips curved into a smile. "I'll be here."

Tom slapped Jamie on the back when he finally reached them. "There ye both are. Mary was looking for ye ..."

Jamie steered Tom and cleared his throat. "Listen, pal," he said in a low voice, not wanting Claire to hear. "I have an important phone call to make. Can ye please keep an eye on, Claire? I shan't take long."

Tom cast a worried look between Jamie and Claire. "Everything alright?"

Jamie waved a hand in dismissal, hating how he felt about leaving Claire in a roomful of people he didn't know. "Aye, aye. I just dinnae want her on her own ...ye ken, with the stalker and all that."

Tom nodded his understanding. "Nae bother. I'll take her over to our seats." He pointed at where Mary was sat, next to John Grey. "It's table number five, near the stage."

"Got it!" Satisfied Claire was in good hands, Jamie gave her a quick kiss before leaving her side, hoping Taz's message wasn't any form of bad news.

...........

Bored with the political chatter, Claire's eyes roamed and landed on what looked like a gallery in the other end of the room. Curiosity piqued, she leaned over to Tom, who was sat next to her and placed a hand on his arm to get his attention. 

Tom smiled. "Ye need a drink?"

She shook her head and pointed in the direction of the gallery. "I'm just going to stroll over there. I think there are some paintings on display."

Tom's brows furrowed as he shifted in his seat. "I think ye should wait for Jamie. He's really worried about ye wondering about, especially with the stalker at large. He'll be here any minute."

She huffed out a breath and rolled her eyes. "I appreciate all the fuss, but look, you have a good view of the adjacent room, and it's not that far ... twenty-five yards, give or take?"

Tom pursed his lips. "I'll go with ye."

"No!" Claire finished her drink and dabbed her lips with a napkin. "I'm not among strangers. I know most of the people here. Besides, Mary's glass looks like it needs topping up. It's her evening, so fuss over her."

Resignation tinged his voice. "I cannae stop ye, can I? I swear to God, I'm gonnae get the brunt of this when Jamie comes back, and he finds ye've wandered off."

Claire laughed out loud. "Don't be so dramatic. You can't lose me with my red dress. I stick out like a sore thumb in a sea of blacks. I'll be easy to spot." She quickly excused herself from the table before Tom could stop her and stood up. 

Humming under her breath to the strains of Elton John's "Can You Feel The Love Tonight," she made her way through the maze of tables, nodding and smiling in acknowledgement at familiar faces. Her steps carried her past the dancefloor and straight into the brightly lit room filled with contemporary paintings and modern sculptures. Claire held her breath as she itched to take a closer look and examine the stories behind each artwork.

Her attention immediately latched onto the abstract interpretation of the famous skyline on the River Thames, titled The London Eye by Night. She smiled as she admired the earthy texture and harmonious colours the artist used, evoking memories from her time in London and of her mother's love of painting.

"Ah, maybe I should turn into a painting to get your attention."

She whirled around. A man sauntered in, his eyes filled with a mixture of something dark and playful humour. His chocolate brown hair was long and neatly tied back in a low ponytail, giving him the look of a rockstar who beguiled women to be part of his groupies. He was clean-shaven with thin lips and a nose that dominated his angular features. Dressed in all black and well-buffed leather shoes, he presented a smooth, confident air just by standing, appearing much younger than his cultured voice. Though he looked familiar, Claire couldn't place him in any of her circles or associates.

"Are you an artist?" She turned her back and renewed her examination of the painting, tipping her head to the side. "I don't mean to stereotype, but I've always envisioned male painters having long hair."

The heels of his shoes clicked against the floor as he moved. He stopped a few feet away from her to look at the Canary Wharf canvas. "Yes, I'm an artist. As for my hair, I grew it out of rebellion. My father thought long hair was unbecoming." 

"Still?"

"No. Nowadays, I forget it's growing. Over the years, it's grown on me, and I'm used to it."

She smiled to herself. "Are any of these here in exhibition yours?" 

"No," he replied. "My work is, let's say ...too vulgar for the mass' tastes."

"Pornographic?"

"Pornographic is a paltry word to describe my work. I paint people's darkest sexual fantasies ...particular fetishes that border the lines of risks, consent and reason."

An awkward silence settled as Claire tried to discern if he was teasing or not. 

She glanced over his way and saw a hint of madness gleamed in his dark eyes, but she put it down to the eccentricity that most creative artists have. She sensed he was the type of person who liked to shock people and have fun with their reactions. Laughter bubbled to her lips as she turned to face him.

He arched an eyebrow at her. "You don't believe me?"

She shook her head, still laughing. "I do believe you, but I have a feeling you are making fun of me."

He bowed his head theatrically and placed a hand on his chest. "Ah, you wound me and my fragile heart."

"And you played with my delicate sensibilities," she teased.

"I suppose you're right, and I apologise."

"Nothing to apologise. I was teasing as well."

His face broke into a smile that could only be described as bordering deranged. 

He cleared his throat. "Actually, you'd be the perfect muse for my work ..." Stroking his jaw, he looked her up and down, openly scrutinising her. "The colour blood red suits you, you know that. It shows off your porcelain skin to perfection. I can think of countless ways how I would paint you in that dress."

Claire tried not to be offended, rationalising he was only studying her with a keen artist's eyes. "This dress would hardly inspire a fetish art masterpiece."

A slow smile curled his lips. "Oh, but that's where you're wrong. Ever heard of autoerotic asphyxiation?"

A disturbing image flashed through Claire's mind. "Something akin to depriving someone or yourself of oxygen?"

"Actually, it's the practice of sexual self-stimulation while causing oneself to experience asphyxia. For some, it heightens the sexual experience. There are many methods to induce this, for example, strangulation, neck or chest compression, suffocation, or inhaling chemicals." He cocked his head as if in contemplation. "If you would allow me, I'd paint you in that dress, your hands cuffed above head, your lipstick smeared, and your face covered in cellophane."

She let out a high-pitch nervous laugh. "I'm not quite sure whether to be flattered or not, but I don't think my fiancé would be too thrilled with the idea of me modelling a sexual fantasy."

He feigned disheartenment. "Ah, you're engaged! That's a pity."

She raised her hand to show off her engagement ring, ignoring the unease settling in her stomach as he stepped closer to take a closer look. "I thought you already noticed," she pointed out, annoyed at herself when her voice squeaked, making her confidence for her safety waver a bit.

"Perhaps. To be perfectly honest, I pay no heed to such things. Nowadays, women put them on to deter attention." He leaned in ever so slightly, and she caught a whiff of his expensive perfume, making her mildly nauseous. 

She took stock of her surrounding. They were alone in the gallery room, and she could see Mary's party in full swing through the doorless entrance and wondered if Jamie was back yet. She forced a smile as she looked past his shoulder, her thoughts distracting her a second too long. She wasn't prepared when he stuck a hand out in front of her, almost making her jump.

"We haven't been formally introduced yet."

"Oh!" She looked at his hand and then his face. She really needed to go, or Jamie would start to worry. This had gone on for far too long. A quick, no-fuss introduction, and then she would be out of there. She took his hand and smiled. "I'm Claire, Claire Beauchamp. Listen, I have to ..."

"Claire, lovely Claire. I've been waiting for so long to make your acquaintance. Alex talks so highly of you."

She paused, her hand still in his, and suddenly, it dawned on her why he looked so familiar. "Are you related to Alex by any chance?"

"That I am," he said, chuckling as he brought her hand to his lips to kiss her knuckles. With a glint in his eyes, he smiled. "Alex is my brother. My name is Jonathan Randall. But you may call me Jack." He let go of her hand and took a step back. "Now that we're no longer strangers, would you like to dance with me?" he asked with a flourished swing of his arm.

A wave of relief washed over her. Jack was no longer a stranger. Though he was an odd character, this was Alex's brother. A quick whirl on the dancefloor was harmless, and they'd be surrounded by her friends and acquaintances.

Grateful for the chance to finally escape the gallery, Claire didn't dwell on the aftermath of Jamie finding out she'd wandered off. Nodding, she took Jack's hand once more and allowed him to lead her out onto the floor, where several bodies danced to a love ballad. Finding an open space, he pulled her into his arms as her eyes landed on the main entrance, and she wondered why several police officers were walking in and scouring the room.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jamie had been trying to call Taz for the last ten minutes, but every single time he'd attempted, the line had been engaged. The longer he waited, the heavier the sense of apprehension that had settled in the pit of his gut became. He tried not to let anxiety get the better of him, but he knew something was up. Taz hadn't sent that text demanding to call immediately for nothing. 

 He strayed over to the far corner of the foyer and tapped Taz's number once more, and this time, his call was immediately answered.

"I got your text. What's up? Anything new?" Jamie asked rapidly before holding his breath.

"Jamie? Hang on a sec. I have a few pieces of info coming in that would be of interest to ye."

By the time Taz came back on the line, Jamie's patience had almost exhausted, and it resonated in the strain in his voice. "There's someone new in Mary's invitation list. Is that what this is about?"

"Yes. The link is with yer main suspect."

Jamie restlessly paced back and forth like a caged animal. "Alex Randall. I figured that out. Is Alex involved?" In as much he didn't like the bastard, he hoped Alex wasn't involved.

"No. We've tapped his phone. Just dinnae mention it to him because it's illegal. Where is yer fianceé? Is she safe?"

"Yes, she's safe. She's in a roomful of people sat with a group of friends. A trusted mate is with her."

"Good." Taz dragged in a sharp intake of air. "Now, listen very carefully. Alex Randall's original plus one was scrapped off the invite list and replaced with his older brother's name. It's supposed to be Frank Randall, a university professor. I managed to get CCTV footage of all attendees and ..."

"You said it's supposed to be Frank Randall," Jamie interrupted, his internal processing data working in overdrive. "Who came with Alex then?"

Taz cleared his throat. "Let me finish. Frank Randall has a twin, and his name is Jonathon, also known as Jack, among his closest. According to copies of records coming in, Jonathon is locked up in Broadmoor. That's..."

"...the high-security psychiatric hospital in Crowthorne, "Jamie finished for Taz. 

"The very one. Now listen up," Taz hedged. "This is where it gets sticky. Alex's mother has been over to Frank's apartment earlier to drop off some food using a spare key entrusted to her. She's been worried about Frank not returning her calls and thought he wasn't taking care of himself. Apparently, the mother and Alex haven't seen Frank for months. Listening to our phone monitoring device, we found out Alex reached out and invited Frank to come as his plus one, and they were supposed to meet at the party. According to my source, Frank has arrived and is there somewhere at the Hawkins' party. He arrived not too long ago. The problem now is that the mother discovered something that made her think the wrong brother was incarcerated in the psychiatric hospital, and Jack is walking around using Frank's identity. Frank's apartment walls are plastered with Claire's photos, paintings and printed out pictures from Alex's social media account. The whole place is in disarray, and according to the mother, only Jack painted in the family."

"Alright, back up for a minute." Jamie pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to piece together the information overload. "So what ye're trying to tell me is we're dealing with an evil twin, is that right?"

"Aye. That is correct."

"So it's no' Frank who's really here, it's... what's his name again?"

"We assume it's, Jack and it's looking more that way as more intel are pouring in."

"Alright, carry on."

"To cut a long story short, the mother immediately alerted the police after she's discovered more stuff that led her to confirm her suspicions, like emails from the dean revealing Frank's absences from work."

"Jesus! Mistakingly incarcerating the wrong brother ... that's a bloody schoolboy error. Surely fingerprints ..."

"Jamie, never mind that. We've contacted Broadmoor, and they truly believe they have Jack ensconced behind secured doors, but I know otherwise. Now, this is what you are dealing with. There's a dangerous psychopath and a pathological liar in yer midst, and he's after Claire. He probably knows her from reading Alex's not-so-private social media account. How he managed to put his brother in Broadmoor is another day's story. This Jack is cunning and very impulsive. Dinnae be fooled by his looks. He's not all there, and he's off his rocker. I've alerted the police too and given them a low-down on most of everything I got, and Alex has been made aware by his mother."

Jamie looked up in time to see a group of police wearing tactical kits filling the foyer. "What the fuck, Taz? Specialist firearms officers? Really?"

"I might have neglected to tell ye that Jonathon Jack Randall is a former Royal Marine officer. He was second in command in Royal Marines 30 Commando, and his last deployment was in Helmand province. So there's a danger Jack might be armed and wouldn't hesitate using it. Mind too, he's also proficient with hand to hand combat."

Jamie rubbed a hand on his face. "Christ!"

"One of the officers arriving is my brother-in-law. His name is Jordie. I already told him to get hold of ye. Now go and find yer lass."

"Fuck!" Jamie turned off his phone as he rushed towards the venue entrance, but the crowd had thickened with more guests arriving and some police hovering at the door. He hoped this Jack hadn't found Claire because he wasn't too sure what he was capable of at this moment and if she was hurt ...

"Jamie!"

Jamie's head snapped to the right, and he saw Alex shoving bodies out of the way and walking towards him. 

"Where the bloody hell have you been? I've been looking everywhere for you? Claire's in ..."

"I've already been informed about yer brother," Jamie cut him off impatiently, tugging his elbow. "And ye're coming with me to fix this. Ye ken another way into the hall?"

Alex snatched back his arm and glared at Jamie. "I do. But watch yourself, Fraser. I'm not the bad guy here. I'm here to help, so be nice."

Jamie's hands curled into tight fists as a fresh dose of anger rose within him, making him wish he had a target to vent, preferably Alex's gob. He leaned over to him and snarled right into his face, not caring if he was Claire's friend. "The fact that ye're still standing on yer feet means I've been nice so far. I've no' time to observe social niceties with ye, ye fancy baws. If ye cannae stand the heat, get the fuck out of my face."

Alex's pupils widened in surprise as his Adam's apple bobbed up and down. "Don't know what Claire sees in you, but point taken, mate." He spun on his feet before Jamie could say another word. "Follow me ...this way."

..........

Jack's unexpected tight grip on her fingers startled Claire, causing her to tear her gaze away from the squad of policemen entering the room and tip her head back to look at him. The way he held her as they swayed to the music suddenly made her uncomfortable, and when a hand riding just above her waist pulled her even closer than it was appropriate, a hitch of breath escaped her lips before she could stop it.

He looked at her questioningly. "Anything wrong?"

She bit her lower lip, casting a glance once more over at the entrance, where policemen were beginning to split up and move in different directions. She attempted a smile to disguise her concern. She wished she could spot Jamie and wondered where he was and what the police were doing here. It was hard to tell with all the bodies moving, coming and going.

"Police officers have just entered the room," she replied.

Jack spun her around and glanced over at the entrance. When he brought her back against him, his face hardly registered any surprise. "Maybe they were called in because of some public disorderly conduct. You know, typical London weekend scene."

She frowned. "But they're not your normal police from the streets." She paused as she caught a glimpse of one officer leaning over the bar, talking to the bartender. "They're all carrying guns. They're from the tactical unit."

He let out an impatient snort. "SFOs are more prevalent nowadays than you think," he contended, his fingers digging painfully into her back. "If the news is anything to go by, there have been loads of threats from terrorists' attacks recently." 

"In Fitzrovia? This is hardly a place for a terrorist attack. Don't you think the threat would be more likely to be centred around Westminster? 

He looked down at her and frowned. "Just relax. I'm sure the law enforcement have it all handled."

Claire did relax as soon as she saw a police officer purposely heading in their direction. Maybe they'd all be told to disperse the floor, and it was probably a good thing too since Jack's odd demeanour was beginning to unnerve her as she was finding it harder to believe he was Alex's brother. Either way, this was her way out, and hopefully, she'd get to Jamie before he noticed she'd wandered off.

When the police stopped about a foot away from them and locked eyes with her, the next few seconds suddenly became a blur. One second, Jack was dancing with her, and the next, yanked away, almost knocking her off-balance. It all progressed so quickly, Claire barely had time to grasp what was happening.

"You are under arrest on suspicion of personating for purposes of bail and Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which ..."

Suddenly, in one swift movement, Jack tugged his arm free with extraordinary speed and force and grabbed the gun holstered to the police's thigh. Someone screamed, but Claire could only stand there frozen on the spot and wait for the scene to unfold. In that instant, the music ended, the crowd around them stopped dancing, and everything was suspended. Unexpectedly, the police lurched forward with a growl, seemingly with no thought for his own safety. But Jack expertly flipped the gun in his hand and pointed it straight at the man, who immediately halted mid-action, raising both hands in the air.

Another law enforcer stepped out from nowhere, drawing his gun, but Jack's hand shot out and grabbed Claire's arm, hauling her in front of him and pressing the cold metal of the gun's barrel against her neck. Ice formed in her veins, and a silent scream caught in her throat. She realised then, Jack was a man who knew what he was doing. A man who'd handled a gun before and had anticipated every move. He was cornered in a roomful of people and dozens of armed police, and she was his only bargaining chip. If she made a move, he wouldn't hesitate to shoot her.  Why is he doing this?  He'd seen the police earlier and yet hadn't made any attempt to escape. He could have slipped away unnoticed, hiding in the shadows of the semi-darkened room, and everyone would have been none the wiser.  Unless ...

That's when it occurred to her, making the hair on her body stand. Jack had been her stalker these last months. How could she had not realised this? Claire recalled the signed note and almost let out a groan.  Love J.  She'd been complacent after she'd confided in Jamie, revelling in the news of her pregnancy and unwittingly letting her guard down. 

She fought the rising panic as she watched the second police put the gun down and placed both hands behind his head, and the crowd slowly backed away. She hadn't anticipated this. Hadn't formulated a plan of what she would do when faced with the man who'd spawned fears and nightmares over the past few months. Her only modus operandi had been to be on guard.

Behind her, Jack's breath was even and warm against her ear. "Don't try to do anything funny," he whispered as he started to walk them backwards, pulling her with him in the direction of the back of the room. Despite the oppressive dread she was feeling, she knew better than to struggle, afraid she might startle him to do something unexpected. As they reversed through a door, her eyes frantically scanned the room and just before she was dragged further in, she saw Jamie watching with horror on his face. She squeezed her eyes shut, praying and hoping the demons she'd slain inside his head hadn't roared back to life.

...........

Jamie continued to stare at the closed door where the mad man had pulled Claire in. His sense of awareness narrowed down to her, and their unborn child as his surroundings became warped and people's voices distorted. He tried to breathe, but the air jammed into a knot in his throat. 

What the fuck just happened? 

He'd prepared for all eventualities except Claire being taken captive by a certified madman. Now, his meticulously outlined plan was blowing up in his face. His worst nightmare had come true, but this time, he knew there was no waking up from it, and the stakes were much higher. When Claire had confided about her supposed secret admirer, he'd done all the right things and taken the matter seriously. He'd arranged for her safety. He had intel with the most sophisticated means, SFO officers were swarming the place, and he'd had training with UK's elite force that should have made it straightforward to protect Claire and catch a lone male. So how the fuck did it all go wrong? 

Harsh lights suddenly illuminated the room, and the sound of sirens became more pronounced, snapping the present back into focus. He needed to pull himself together, or he could lose Claire and their baby. Inwardly shaking himself, he erected a wall around his emotions and centred himself. He couldn't just stand there and do nothing. He'd been trained in counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, and covert reconnaissance, and all those years of hard work had prepared him for situations like this even though he was now a civilian. He had to do something and act fast.

He spun in a circle in the middle of the floor and examined the almost empty room. Tom and Mary were giving their statements to the police and Alex speaking to another officer. 

Jamie was about to go over to Tom and Mary when he made eye contact with one of the uniformed men approaching him. "James Fraser?"

"Aye?"

"I'm Jordie, Taz's brother-in-law. OIC." He tossed Jamie a bulletproof vest. "22nd SAS regiment, I heard?"

"Ye're no' supposed to say that out loud," Jamie pointed out as he jerkily put on the vest. "It wasn't that long ago I took part in a secret mission."

"Right, right. Sorry, I forgot you lot are a secretive bunch." Jordie handed him a balaclava. "Here, wear this too before the press sees you. Taz said you would probably want to take part in the operation. We don't have an official clearance for you to join in this rescue. But we don't have time for that. As far as the rest of the team is concerned, you're from the plainclothes division. CID."

Jamie looked around before pulling down the mask over his head. Most of the crowd had been ushered out, and no one was paying attention to them. "So, what's the plan?"

"You're the Elite's force hostage rescue expert. You tell me what you have in mind."

"Right. Brief me with the visuals. I already know we're dealing with a male with a handgun."

"All exits and entrances, including lifts, are sealed. We have a blueprint of the floor. The room where the hostage was taken is a dry goods storage area with one small window with bars. Upon entry, at twelve hundred, a swing door leads to the staff's canteen. At nine hundred is the kitchen. The kitchen is being evacuated as we speak, and five SFO are posted on the other kitchen's entrance. Unfortunately, I can't give you any firearms. That's above my jurisdiction. I'm already putting my neck out on the chopping block by letting you in. But I can give you this." Jordie subtly slid him a Fairbairn–Sykes double-edged knife, and Jamie slipped it at the back of his jeans without question. "Taz said, you've been in a far worse situation, so this should be a walk in the park for you. But just to put your mind at ease, we've assigned a marksman."

Jamie let out a humourless laugh. "Marksman? Waste of bloody time. We're no' only dealing with a calculated mad man, but he's a former Royal marine. He already knows all yer moves and has most probably covered the window, scant might it be."

"Fuck! Why was I not told this? The only brief I got was a man familiar with firearms." Jordie ran an impatient hand through his hair before composing himself. "So, what else do you need?"

"I want everyone to hold their position but keep their distance. By distance, I mean keep your men scarce. We're dealing with a highly intelligent, dangerous and mentally unstable man. I want everyone clear that the perpetrator cannot, under any circumstances, feel threatened, or we'd be risking the life of ..." Jamie swallowed hard but kept his emotions in check. "...my fianceé and our baby. Keep Alex Randall nearby. We'll probably need him. If ye can get hold of the mother, even better."

"What's the MOE?"

"As I already said, the perpetrator knows already your next course of action. That's what happens when ye bloody lot follow everything by the textbook. But what he willnae anticipate is me. So I'm going in alone."

"No fucking way!" Jordie hissed, trying to keep his voice down. "I can't let a civilian go in there alone and risk their neck."

"Yes, way, and I'm no' ordinary civilian, and ye ken that. Look, there's no time for discussing the insufficiencies of my decision." Jamie pulled out his phone from his pocket and handed it to Jordie. "Keep that for me. Dinnae want the perp seeing my phone's network" He fixed his bulletproof vest, patting it in places, trying his best to hide his impatience. He was itching to get moving, but he couldn't show any weakness or emotions even though fury permeated his veins at the thought of his woman scared. This was his last card to play to get his hands on the man who'd inspired fear in Claire. He took a deep fortifying breath to ease the growing frustration. "Just make sure ambulance vehicles are on standby, and no press gets hold of the rescuer's identity. No' even my fianceé's colleagues. If anything happens to me, your first priority is to keep my fianceé alive and safe."

Jordie eyed Jamie warily and hesitated. It was apparent there were more than caution tape unfurling in his head, most probably weighing all the consequences of any decision he was about to make. Jamie knew the officer was having second thoughts, and no one could blame the man. Too many things were at stake, and any wrong judgement could land a lot of people in hot water. An unknown length of time passed before Jordie resignedly let out a heavy sigh. "Make it swift, Fraser and may God be with you."

Keeping his face impassive, Jamie gave Jordie a haphazard Royal Air Force salute. "Lima Charlie, mate."

..........

Jack whirled Claire around and grabbed her jaws, his other hand caressing her cheek with the gun barrel. She braced herself so she wouldn't recoil. "I'm in a lousy position right now, and I'm mighty pissed off about it. I can't help but wonder how the police knew where to find me. Care to enlighten me?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Claire replied through clenched teeth.

He glanced up at the ceiling as if appealing for patience to some unseen force. "Oh, I very much doubt that, my beauty. You cannot undervalue your importance when someone went through all the trouble for all this fanfare." He studied her face for a lengthy time. "Let's see ...what type of person would have been able to foresee my actions tonight and launch firearms police force, no less, to gatecrash this party?" He rolled his lower lip in, in reflection. "Whoever did this for you, I'm very impressed with their resourcefulness. Do you think they'll barge in here if I made you scream?"

Claire somehow tamped down the dread threatening to overwhelm her. "I'm surprised as you are when I saw the police arrived. I swear to God, I had no idea they were coming for you. I didn't even know you were Alex's brother until you told me." It's true she was as astounded as Jack, and she would have never dreamed in her lifetime that her safety would warrant armed response units. Only one person could have set such action in motion, and that was Jamie. But no way she was going to reveal that.

Jack laughed as if enchanted with her. "I truly like you. Sharp, quick wit. You're someone who speaks their mind even if it shook. A fiery spirit indeed. I think I'm going to enjoy breaking you."

She twisted from his hold and managed to take a step back. "You don't want to do anything you'll regret later, Jack, because you'll never be able to get away with it. You can end this now before it's too late. I'll tell the police there was no harm done."

He shrugged, seemingly unconcerned that she took another step backwards, his eyes lasciviously raking her body. "I'd rather take my chances. I can't help but think spending some time with you might prove highly interesting. And very pleasurable." His hand reached out to cup her breast. "Now, if only you would cooperate ..."

Disgusted, she smacked his hand away and spat on his shiny black shoe. "Never in your life, you revolting pig."

All evidence of humour dissolved from his eyes. His right hand holding the gun reared back and struck Claire across the face with such remarkable force, she toppled backwards. She felt the prick of a cut on her lips from where his knuckles had connected with her face. 

She edged backwards, got on her feet and tried to run. She managed only a couple of steps before Jack wrapped a strong arm around her waist and shoved her against the shelves packed with service paraphernalia. Claire gasped as her back met the metal shelving unit, and pain shot along her spine. It was a fruitless endeavour trying to run in her high-heels. She'd only end up spraining her ankle or, worse, breaking her neck. 

Without warning, he grabbed the top of her hair, tugging her head back until tears formed in her eyes. He pushed her down on a wooden chair so violently she nearly fell off. He aimed the gun at her face and shook his head at her. "Try that once more, and I promise you, you'll never see daylight again," he said calmly, taking out his phone from his pocket with his free hand and dialling a number. "Now sit nice. There's someone I would like you to meet."

She squeezed her eyes shut as a new sort of fear settled in her belly. She hoped the person Jack was calling wasn't Jamie. She wouldn't be able to bear the horror nor panic in his voice. It was bad enough she felt tremendous guilt for bringing this situation upon herself and their unborn baby.

"Hello, darling!" she heard Jack say in casual greeting. "Want to see what I have for you?"

"What the hell, Jack?" replied an agitated familiar female voice on the phone speaker. "You shouldn't be calling me on this phone. Do you wish to be locked up again after jumping through hoops to get you free?"

Claire's eyes immediately flew wide open. She knew that voice.  Where have I heard that voice before? Southeast England, accent, probably Cockney?

Jack's laugh was almost indulgent. "And here I thought you'd be pleased." He turned the phone screen in Claire's direction. "Say hello, Claire."

She focused her eyes to get a good look at who was speaking. Instantly recognising who it was, a shiver snaked down her back. They'd only met once and very briefly, but it was enough for Claire to identify the woman on the screen. It was Jamie's former psychotherapist. "G-Geneva? Oh, my God." She swallowed her alarm back and schooled her features. "What's the meaning of this?"

Geneva's eyes widened, and for a moment, panic and regret flashed in her eyes before they quickly switched to an icy cold glare. The corner of her lips curled, baring her teeth. "The meaning of this is exactly what it says on the tin," she snapped. "You're fucking screwed."

Claire was at a loss for words. "B-but why? What have I ever done to you?"

Geneva's eyes narrowed at her. "Why?" she scoffed. "You know why, bitch. You took what belonged to me. You should have never come back to Broch Mordha. Now you and Jamie will know what it feels like to have their heart torn into tiny pieces."

Claire's heart felt like it was going to implode as she strived to understand what was happening. "Did Alex set you up for this?"

Geneva let out an almost maniacal laugh. "Oh, Alex have no idea and never will. You see, it's not that difficult to find out what you've been up to. Your social media account may not reveal much about your life, bar those stupid cat and dog photos you seem to like posting, but your friends love to overshare. Let's see ...in a year, you managed to steal my man, get yourself engaged, live the life that should have been mine, and now you're about to publish your book while I'm stuck in Broadmoor working with loonies in a psychiatric ward."

"Hey!" Jack interjected. "Who are you calling a loon?"

Geneva ignored him. "When Jack here was sentenced for psychiatric evaluation for an indefinite period in Broadmoor, and I was assigned to work with him, I realised what a small world we live in when I found out his brother was none other than your editor, Alex. You see, Jack proved invaluable because not only is he ingenious, but he'd been obsessing about you ever since pictures of you started popping up in Alex's circle of friends' social media accounts. I noticed Jack would paint you for hours in his solitary confinement, probably daydreaming in the process what he would do if he ever gets his hands on you. So imagine my delight when I found out Jack have a twin brother, Frank, who occasionally came to visit. I knew Jack wanted out, and I wanted my revenge. So we devised a plan to switch Frank in Jack's place, and in return, Jack gets to have you."

"You evil witch!" she gasped. "What have you done to Frank?"

Geneva sneered. "Oh, don't worry about Frank. He's away with the fairies and high as a kite with a cocktail of drugs administered to him. No one will ever know I did the switch. If ever though, the unfortunate circumstances will be put down to administrative error, and if Frank talks, it will be taken as a rambling of a mad man off his nuts."

"Alex would eventually visit, and he would be able to tell that it's Frank you're holding in confinement. If anyone's screwed, it's you."

Geneva's harsh laugh cut Claire off. "You think I haven't thought of that? Come on! Give me some credit. I deal with the brightest minds in my line of work, even if some intellect borders insanity. The difference between me and society is that I'm not judgemental and respect the inner workings of a brain, even of those who'd been diagnosed as having personality disorders. I've picked up a trick or two overtime while having those loonies eat out of the palm of my hand. It's amazing what you can discover if you delve deep into people's psychological disorder and use it to your advantage."

Claire's stomach lurched. She felt like throwing up. She gripped the sides of the chair until her hands hurt, hoping the pain would take her mind off the queasiness. She was dealing with two sick individuals devoid of emotions and knew the moment she showed weakness, they would feed off her fear. Now was not the time to break down. She needed to be clever to survive this. And if she's going to get killed, she wasn't going down without a fight.

Though it hurt her lips where Jack had struck her, Claire forced a smile and stared at Geneva. "Dr Geneva Dunsany," she said loud and clear. "You think you're so bloody clever and above the law with all your degrees, academic rank and your ability to manipulate. But you see, you were so smug and eager to rub my face on shit, you failed to ask Jack Randall here the predicament he's in right now. Here's a piece of advice. The first rule to getting away with crime, you don't go shooting your mouth off without making sure you're a hundred per cent in the clear. Are you even aware that I'm being held captive in a room surrounded by armed police? I bet not. And guess what? There's probably some fancy listening device monitoring our conversation as we speak. And having said that, the police are probably on their way to pay you a visit. What do you think of that, you nasty piece of work? Still, feeling clever?"

Geneva screeched. "Jack! What the fuck is she talking about?"

Jack snatched the phone away before Claire could say something more. "She's just dramatic, darling. I have everything under control, so calm the fuck down."

"Your life is over, Geneva!" Claire taunted, shouting to be heard.

"Get rid of her! Now!" Geneva ordered sharply. "The bitch knows I'm involved. We cannot risk anyone finding out what we've done. If you don't, you'll be back here in Broadmoor, and my life is over."

"Oh, but I'm not done with her yet," Jack reasoned coolly. "I have this wonderful plan ..."

"Listen to me, you freak," Geneva screamed. "If what's she saying is true about the police, you're dead meat. Her fiancé was a patient of mine, and he's a former SAS soldier. I bet it was him who'd orchestrated the police."

"What?" Jack's head snapped in Claire's direction. "Is that true?"

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!  Her blood turned from cold to boiling at Geneva's reference of Jamie. She might not have a clue what to do next, but she couldn't allow these evil sorts to harm him. If she did nothing, it would be all over. The spectre of what would transpire would hang over Jamie's head like a ghost, and he would never be the same again. She had to do something. She had armed police outside. If only ...

Her eyes urgently scanned the nearby shelf and landed on an iron griddle pan. Looking at its size, she knew it would be heavy, but there weren't any other options for weapons, and she only had a small window of opportunity.

"What are you doing still standing there?" Geneva shrieked. "Kill her now!"

It's now or never.  Claire jolted into action and dived for the handle of the griddle. Using all the strength she could muster, she swung the heavy iron and threw it in Jack's direction, praying it would hit her target. When his gun clattered onto the floor, her survival instinct roared to life as she descended on the weapon and grabbed the grip. 

Jack shot forward to seize it from her, but she dug her high heels into his groin, extracting a vicious obscenity from his mouth and propelling her on her back at the loss of leverage.

She quickly scampered to her feet, shakily pointing the gun at him. She couldn't deny the satisfaction Jack's roar of pain gave her as he clutched his genitals. For the first time, she allowed tears to fall. 

"Get the fuck up, you fucking wanker!" she shouted at the man who'd made her helpless these past months. "I said get the fuck up!"

Gradually Jack rose to his feet, slowly lifting his hands in the air and keeping his eyes on the gun. "Now there, my lovely. You don't want to hurt yourself with that," he cooed, taking a cautious step forward.

"Don't move, you piece of shit or I'll blow your cock off."

Jack stopped, and his head swivelled to the left as the door to the adjacent room opened. 

"Sassenach!"

Claire didn't take her eyes off Jack. "Stay out of this, Jamie. This is my fight!" she sobbed without looking at Jamie. "I'm going to do the world a huge fucking favour and get rid of this bellend."

"Wait! No! Sassenach, please, listen to me. It's over. Ye're safe now. Hand me the gun."

Three uniformed men walked in behind Jamie, but she kept her gun trained at Jack. She heard Jamie saying,  "I got this,"  to one of the officers, but she took no notice.

She angrily wiped the tears from her face with one hand and shook her head. "Oh no! The world is not safe with people like him. A prison cell is too good for him. He has to go."

"What are you waiting for?" Jack jeered. "Pull the trigger, and we can be roomies at Broadmoor." 

"Shut up! Jack!" Jamie shot before refocusing his attention back to her. "Sassenach, please, dinnae listen to him. Listen to me ... don't do this. He is not worth your anger. It is not your job to get rid of him. It is mine, so don't take that away from me."

She continued to stare at Jack. He looked like a statue frozen in his evil ways. She had the upper hand, and yet his smirk said,  "you'll never prevail."  It was almost enough to make her believe it. But not quite. She tightened her hold on the gun as she felt a wave of all-consuming anger rising. 

"Sassenach, look at me. Dinnae do this to yersel'. I know what it feels like to take another life. I've been there and done that. Dinnae give in to the darkness. Hand me the gun, and I'll take care of him for ye."

"I'm sorry, Jamie, but he threatened to kill me. And you know what that means? That means he threatened to kill our baby too. Where would that have left you if he managed to do just that, huh? Back to square one? He can't treat a human being the way he treated me, terrorising me like a hunted animal and expect no consequences. It's my responsibility to make the world a safer place for our baby." She swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth and cocked the gun. This was it. She had the power to eradicate one less evil in their midst, and once she pulled the trigger, there'd be no more wondering when he'd show up to threaten her. Or her family.

She steeled herself as she raised the gun, aiming for the spot between Jack's eyes.  Never again, you filthy son of a whore!  Suddenly Jamie stepped in front of her as the police sprang forward and knocked Jack onto the floor. Her hands began to shake as Jamie slowly reached out to take the gun from her.

"It's alright,  mo chridhe , I'm here now," Jamie hushed. "Ye're safe, and no one's harming our baby."

She burst into uncontrollable tears. Gasping for breath, her arms finally went slack as she was crushed against Jamie's chest in a fierce embrace. Somehow, just being held by him healed her of all the shock and horror she'd endured. It was as if he was absorbing her trauma into his own body, calming and cleansing her of all the negative feelings she'd felt for Geneva and Jack. She took huge gulps of breaths as she greedily inhaled his scent, knowing her emotions were all over the place. She'd stifled her fear to deal with the precarious situation, but now that the threat was gone, she didn't feel tethered to reality. If it weren't for Jamie, she felt like she might drift away.

Jamie pulled back to look at her face and tipped her chin up to survey the cut on her lips. "He did this?"

She could only nod as fresh tears rolled down her cheeks.

Jamie turned the gun in his hand and marched towards the door, shouting at the police ushering Jack out to wait. Before Claire could scream for him to stop, he brought his forehead down on Jack's nose in a head butt before handing the weapon to a nearby officer. The sound of cartilage crunching echoed in the tiny room, making Claire wince. Jack fell onto his knees with a loud thud, holding his bleeding nose, shouting improprieties muffled by his hands.

"Now, that was uncalled for, Fraser," an officer clucked, but his grin and the amusement in his eyes implied he wasn't too bothered over Jack's injury. "Now go and get some rest. I'll handle the paperwork and delay the statement for tomorrow morning. You both have done enough to save the day."

Nodding, Jamie returned to Claire's side and scooped her effortlessly into his arms. She automatically curled against his hard chest as someone placed a blanket over their heads, and Jamie carried her out of the room. An officer led them through a backdoor and into a waiting police vehicle. Once in the car, Jamie pulled Claire into his lap and buried his face into her neck, not letting go until they arrived safely at their hotel.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Jamie studied Claire. She lay relaxed on the examination table, going through her phone and reading messages. She looked untroubled and seemed to have recovered from the ordeal this past weekend. The only tell-tale sign left of that hellish night was the tiny scab on her lower lip and bruising on her right cheek where Jack Randall had struck her. She was whole and safe, and yet here he was, having trouble letting go of that incident.

When he'd helplessly watched Jack shoved a gun against her neck and dragged her away from his sight, he'd felt the full gravity of her vulnerability and his inadequacy to secure her safety. But how Claire had handled the situation was nothing short of mind-blowing, albeit heart-stopping. She'd kept her presence of mind, aptly keeping Geneva talking while the tech specialist monitored the audio listening device. The moment they'd identified the voice on the phone, the administration in Broadmoor had been immediately alerted to make sure Geneva didn't go anywhere until the police arrived.

Geneva and Jack were in jail now, awaiting trial and most likely would stay there for a very long time. He really needed to stop fixating on what could have gone wrong and focus on the matter at hand, like their baby's condition and Claire's health.

He puffed out a breath and sprung onto his feet. "Ye comfy, Sassenach?"

"I'm good," she replied, without looking up from her phone screen.

"Ye ken, we can cancel the baby reveal for another day."

"I know, but I prepared so much food already."

They were having his family and closest friends over for afternoon tea to share the news of their baby. Claire had insisted on a celebration to invalidate the ordeal Geneva had put them through, determined not to allow recent events to cast a shadow over their upcoming nuptials. Jamie had thought it was too soon, but Claire had pressed that the sooner they moved forward from the incident, the better. 

So last night, she'd spent the entire evening preparing shortcrust pastries, scones batter and making Victorian sponge cake. Apparently, she'd taken some lessons in baking and cooking from Mrs Fitz so that she could host parties like Jenny and his ma. It was as if her work, all the travelling she'd been doing, preparing for the wedding and recovering from trauma wasn't enough. She also needed to put up a brave front.

Though the doctor had given Claire an all-clear in London after a routine checkup, Jamie had insisted on another examination when she'd complain of spotting last night. He hadn't a clue what that had meant, but the concerned look on her face was enough for him to push her for another doctor's appointment. To his relief, she'd hardly put up a fight, and he'd immediately arranged a consultation with a private practice to speed things along since the NHS hospitals were notorious for long waits.

"I just want ye to be certain, Sassenach. That's all. I dinnae want this tea party putting a strain on ye."

Claire put her phone down and glanced up at him. "I'm pregnant, Jamie, not incapacitated. I know you're worried about the spotting, but I'm quite certain pregnant women gets them sometimes. I don't feel ill, but here we are, taking precautions."

Sighing, he moved to her side and took her hand in his. "It's just that I'm bothered about that bruise behind yer back. It looks vicious. I ken bruising looks a lot worse than it is, but I cannae help but wonder if the baby has been harmed when ye banged yer behind on those shelving units after Jack pushed ye. I'm concerned about any delayed complications. Or if the doctor in London overlooked something."

She squeezed his hand. "Your worries are valid, Jamie. The odds of miscarriage or complications might be highest in the first trimester, but I haven't had any issues." She shrugged. "Oh, well, except for the tiny spotting last night. I'm sure everything's fine. Try not to worry."

Easier said than done, Jamie thought. How could Claire sit there looking so calm?  Now that she's pregnant, the world was suddenly full of threats: unpasteurised juice and dairy, soft cheeses that she loved so much, fish high in mercury, saunas and hot tubs, secondhand smoke, changing Adso's litterbox. Not to mention aunt Jocasta's bloody stories of baby-abducting fairies. He really needed to stop reading too much pregnancy information; otherwise, he'd go insane.

Claire gave him a look that said she could tell he was overthinking things.

He promptly kissed her on the lips. "Aye, I guess ye're right," he conceded. "I'm sorry for over-reacting."

The door suddenly opened, and in walked a friendly-looking middle-aged female doctor. "Hello, Claire! Dr Fiona Innes. How are we feeling today?"

"I'm good, just a bit nervous about the spotting," Claire breathed. 

"Understandably." Then the doctor turned to Jamie. "And ye're..."

"James Fraser. The one who got her up the duff," he replied, taking the doctor's outstretched hand and giving it a firm shake. 

"Jamie!" Claire gasped, her face crimsoning profusely.

The doctor laughed. "Hah! I like that! A good sense of humour will get ye through anything." She dragged the ultrasound monitor closer to the exam table and pulled up a stool. "So, let's get started so we can put both yer mind at ease, shall we?" She proceeded to put gloves on and prepare the probe that Jamie had the unfortunate luck of knowing already what it was for. "Now, Claire, I want ye to lie back and place yer feet in the stirrups." 

Claire did as she was told while Jamie helped her ease down. He winced when he heard the sound of latex snapping over the probe. He looked away and took Claire's hand in his.

"Is this your first ultrasound visit, Mr Fraser?"

He glanced over his shoulder, thinking the doctor must have noticed the strain on his face. "Aye and no."

Dr Innes arched an eyebrow.

Jamie pointed at the probe and tried not to grimace. "I've seen a doctor used that thing on her when she was hospitalised a few weeks ago. I hadn't known what was going on then, so I walked away and let them get on with it."

"I see." The doctor refocused her attention back to Claire. "Now relax for me and big deep breaths," Dr Innes advised as she put lubricating gel on the blunt tip of the probe. "This will be a tad bit uncomfortable."

Claire shut her eyes and took a deep breath while Jamie whispered all sorts of nonsense in her ear. When her grip clenched into a tight vice, he pressed his lips on the top of her head.

A few seconds passed, and that's when he heard it. He stilled. It was loud, clear and steady. The unmistakable sound of a heartbeat coming from the monitor. It was their baby's. He let out a sharp exhale, realising he'd discovered something powerful in the tiny, vulnerable life form growing in Claire's womb.

His ma once said that the heartbeat was the first music that a child heard and that every bairn was born knowing the rhythm of their mother's song. To Jamie, this was the sound of their child's soul, the unspoken words already speaking volumes. It was as if it was saying, I'm alive and well, can you hear me?

"Weel, that sounds like a strong and healthy heartbeat there," Dr Innes remarked. "See right there?" Jamie and Claire stirred in their positions to take a better look at where the doctor was pointing. "That's yer baby."

Releasing Claire's hand, Jamie stepped closer to the monitor and tipped his head to the side, adjusting his eyes to discern the grainy image on the monitor. When he finally figured out the shape, mixed emotions began to bombard him in all directions. He felt the complexity of love at seeing a piece of himself and Claire on the screen, inspiring fierce protective instinct to kindle within him. Words like elation, joy and sobering responsibility were too meagre terms and did not give justice in describing how visceral all his emotions were.

"T-that ..." Jamie pointed an index finger at the image, swallowing the lump in his throat. "Is that a ..."

"It's not what ye think, Mr Fraser. That's the foot," Dr Innes responded briskly. She shifted the probe at a different angle to capture another image. "As far as I can see, everything seems to be in perfect working order. I can safely say ye have a healthy, strong baby, so ye can both rest easy."

Jamie continued to stare at the monitor, still trying to wrap the idea of impending fatherhood around his head. "The baby is no' missing any parts, is it?"

"The baby has everything it should have at this stage of the pregnancy," the doctor replied, amused. "Though I think we'll need another few weeks to be able to tell the gender."

"Thank you so much, doctor," Claire said gratefully, pushing herself upright. "We were worried about the spotting and thought it might have had to do with the stress and trauma of what happened last weekend. It was mad, really. I nearly got abducted and had a gun pointed at me."

The doctor threw the probe's latex into the waste and began peeling off her gloves, seemingly unaffected by what Claire had just revealed, making Jamie think physicians were used to hearing such stories. The doctor gave them both an understanding look. "Having a gun pointed at ye is quite jarring, so I understand why ye're both concerned. So how are ye coping mentally?" 

"I try not to dwell on it and carry on as usual," Claire shrugged. "So far, I'm dealing with it fine."

The doctor looked at Claire curiously, her expression full of empathy. "Sometimes ignoring it isn't as cut and dried as you think. Try and get some counselling. Ye're going to deal enough with all the hormones impacting yer physiological, physical and mental well being. This is the time to be enjoying this exciting time in yer life, so counselling is just taking a precautionary step to ensure you are in a good place and prepared for what the next few months will throw at ye."

Jamie locked eyes with Claire, and a silent agreement passed between them. They both understood the impact of a traumatising experience, and he wanted to take the doctor's advice on board. 

"I'll make sure she and the baby are well taken care of," he reassured the doctor, patting Claire's thigh.

"I'm sure ye will," the doctor smiled, pressing buttons on the monitor.

"Let's just hope he won't go over the top," Claire added. "He has a tendency to do that."

The doctor pulled out copies of ultrasound images from the printer and glanced up at Jamie. "I can understand the need to protect, but just bear in mind, us women are more resilient and stronger than we look," she pointed out. "And pregnant women aren't as frail as society perceives them to be."

Jamie laughed. "There's no question about that. After all, my wife-to-be here achieved what twenty-four specialist firearms officers could not."

"Oh?" Dr Innes looked surprised. "And what was that?"

"She single-handedly took down a maximum-security prisoner escapee, helped led the police to his psychopathic accomplice and in the process saved an innocent mistakenly imprisoned," Jamie explained. "I ken it was a foolish move with her being pregnant and all ..."

"It might have been foolish, but I happen to believe Claire's response is inherent in all mothers and mothers-to-be, and it's something almost impossible for the human brain to override." 

"Och, aye?"

"It's called maternal instinct, Mr Fraser, and it's as old as life itself." Dr Innes got up and handed him an envelope containing the ultrasound images. "So woe to anyone who dares a mother-to-be or new mother harm because they're utterly more ferocious than any man wielding a gun when it comes to defending their nest." She looked between him and Claire and smiled. "Anyway, congratulations to you both on your coming parenthood." Then she faced Jamie and patted him on the shoulder. "And as for ye, congratulations on yer newly acquired bodyguard. Ye can sleep well tonight." 

..........

Jamie walked in and placed the last of their shopping bags onto the kitchen counter. "Is there anything else ye need, Sassenach, before I go?"

Claire felt him approach and busied herself, placing apples in a large bowl and then lemons in another. "Umm ...I think I have everything I need." She felt his eyes boring into her back but tried her best not to get distracted. "Shall I make a sandwich to take with you?"

"No, I'm no' hungry."

"Oh, alright ...I guess I shall see you later then."

"I have a few minutes to spare. Want to talk?"

"Talk about what?"

"What ye're feeling. Ye haven't said much all morning ...since we left the clinic. And ye hardly talked to me while we went food shopping."

She took out a knife and honing steel from a drawer and went through the motion of sharpening the blade. "Oh ...I guess I must have been preoccupied with my mental to-do list. That's all."

A long silence ensued, and after what felt like an eternity, he let out an exasperated sigh. "Sassenach, can ye stop what ye're doing for a minute and look at me?"

Hot tears suddenly settled behind her eyes, but she fiercely blinked them back and breathed deeply, swallowing down conflicting emotions and refusing to let them fall. She didn't want to be the type of woman who cried at the littlest and inconsequential thing. She'd never been a crier before, and she wasn't about to become one if she could help it.

"I'm busy, Jamie."

"Please."

Bracing herself, she placed down her utensils and faced him. "What is it?"

"This ..." Jamie waved his hand at the shopping bags on the counter. "I ken what this is. Ye havenae sat still ever since we came back from our trip. Ye've decluttered our bedroom and cleaned out all the kitchen cupboards. And now an afternoon tea party? I ken what ye're doing. Ye're keeping yersel' busy to forget what happened in London instead of talking about it."

"No." She shook her head. "It's not that."

Jamie impatiently rubbed a hand on the back of his neck. "Weel, what is up with ye then?"

"Hormones."

"Hormones," Jamie echoed. "Why did you no' just say so?"

She felt her face heat up. "I don't know. Maybe I didn't know it at the time. Or perhaps, because it all seems so silly that I'm getting all worked up for nothing."

Jamie stepped closer and braced her cheeks with both hands, a calloused thumb tenderly swiping her lower lip. "Listen to me very carefully. Whatever ye're feeling or going through, hormonal or not, is never silly. Everything ye have to say is important to me. Trust me on that. I always want to know if something is bothering ye and be able to help ye fix it. Yer body is going through many changes, and it's normal yer emotions are all over the place. So no more self-deprecating thoughts about yer feelings. Am I making myself clear?"

She pursed her lips and nodded, tamping down the urge to cry.

"Very well then, tell me what's going through that mind of yers. At least we can clear the air between us before I go, and my whole family comes and start noticing that something isnae right. Today is supposed to be a celebration of our baby. I dinnae want anything to ruin this day in as much as I think we should delay this for another time."

"Fine." She shut her eyes to search for the right words, but no matter how she formulated them in her head, it didn't sound right. Saying it out loud would only make her appear pathetic. But there was no way around it once Jamie set his mind in extracting something from her. 

"Sassenach?"

Her eyes flew open. "Yes?"

"Yer face is getting redder by the second. I'm beginning to worry."

"Very well, if you must know ..." She blew out a breath. "You haven't touched me since that night in London, that's what," she blurted out. "I feel like you're avoiding me. Every time it was time for us to go to bed, you always had some excuse, like you haven't walked the dog or you need to check the emails." Unable to hold it back any longer, she suddenly burst out crying. "I know it's hormones talking, and I'm acting silly. But I can't help but feel the way I feel because I'm hormonal and horny. That's why I'm keeping myself busy, so I will not overthink things. Because if I did, I'd start believing you don't want me anymore, even if logic says it's not true. Happy now?"

He blinked rapidly as if his brain was short-circuiting. 

"Yeah, just the reaction I knew I was going to get. See what I mean when I said I was acting silly?"

"No," he groaned out loud. "Sweet baby Jesus! Ye cannae say things like horny  when I have to go."

Claire slapped Jamie on the chest. "Jamie! You wanted to know what was wrong! Now that I've said it, you can't blame me for it!"

"Cancel the tea party, and I'll tell Willie I'll be late!"

"No!"

"Why no'?"

"Because!"

With a deep groan, he grabbed her neck from behind and gave her a hard kiss. There was nothing tender or playful about it, just a desperate act of trying to get his fill. He let out a frustrated moan as his tongue swept in her mouth, and a hand cupped her breast, his arousal hard and thick against her belly, letting her know how much he wanted her. When he finally broke the kiss, they were both gasping for air. He pressed their foreheads together, breathing harshly into her face. "How could ye think, even in yer hormonal state, I dinnae want ye any more? Damn it, Sassenach, I've been aching for ye these past few days."

"Then why didn't you touch me?" 

He shook his head as he attempted to even his breath. "That night in London, after I took ye back to the hotel, I wanted to bury myself deep inside ye so I could remind myself that ye're really alive and back in my arms. But when I saw that bruising behind yer back and knowing what ye've just been through in yer pregnant state, I thought if I took ye right there and then, I might cause ye irreparable damage, physically and psychologically. I wanted to make sure ye're properly healed first and that our baby was safe. God, all those nights I was away from our bed, I've been doing push-ups to release all those pent-up frustrations of not being able to make love to ye."

"So you did want me all along ..."

He tapped her nose. "Aye, ye silly goose."

"Oh Jamie," she sighed. "You still don't get it, do you?" She placed a hand against his face and smiled for the first time that morning. 

"Get what?" he asked, looking suddenly confused.

"You should know by now, lovemaking is the best stress reliever. I thought you knew that." 

"Weel ..."

"Remember the times when you were all worked up and conflicted, and how much better you felt after sex?" When he nodded, she pressed on. "Whenever you and I have sex, whether it's fast, hard, long or a quickie, it always came from a place of love. And we've talked about this before ...love heals. The most wonderful thing about our lovemaking, it puts us in that intimate space where we can better connect, heal, open us to those hard conversations, helping us in the process to find closure and release. If sex worked for you to ease your stress, why should it be any different for me? I needed you most after that horrendous night, Jamie. I needed your body to ground me. But I understand now why you didn't touch me that night."

Jamie stared at the ceiling and sighed before looking at her with a mixture of wonderment and torment. He let out a pained laugh. "Weel, right now, I'm under a lot of stress and pressure." He took her hand and placed it on his bulging arousal to make a point. "How about we continue this in the bedroom and let off some steam? I'm stressed, and ye're horny. Ideal combo! Ye can use my body anyway ye want."

Claire clucked her tongue and planted a quick kiss on his lips. "Oh, no, you don't, you sneaky, Scot! You're running late as it is." She placed both hands on his chest and began pushing him out of the kitchen. "How about you let me get on with food preparation, and you finish what you need to do so you can come home as soon as you can in time for the tea party?" she proposed.

"How about my stress levels?" he grumbled.

"Your stress levels are fine!" She turned him around and smacked him on the bum. "Now go. Mrs Fitz will be here any minute to bring the Battenberg cake I ordered."

At the mention of Mrs Fitz, Jamie didn't need any more prodding. He gave her another quick kiss and left the cottage, muttering something about getting a new house before slamming the door behind him.

..........

The rest of the morning and early afternoon passed by quick, and something in Claire lightened even though she was a nervous wreck hosting her first traditional English tea party.

She looked at the kitchen counter laden with several tiered plates displaying the delicacies she'd meticulously prepared. She was ready, and everything looked perfect. 

She'd made four different tea sandwiches to be on the safe side: pear and stilton, cucumber and cream cheese, egg salad, and smoked salmon and dill. And then there were scones, lemon curd tartlets, fruit tarts, and shortbread and Linzer cookies she was looking forward to gorge on. On the other end of the counter were Mrs Fitz's Battenberg cake and Claire's pièce de résistance, Victoria's sponge filled with jam, berries and double cream. Her teabox was neatly packed with Darjeeling, Earl Grey, and Assam, and the pitchers of lavender and elderflower lemonade were cooling nicely in the fridge. 

Perfection!

She was about to wash the sink when she heard a rap on the window. She looked up and saw Jenny waving at her. Letting her in through the kitchen back door, she was surprised to see her carrying a stack of real estate pamphlets and magazines with its pages tabbed with colourful sticky notes.

"Jen! What's all that?"

Jenny shrugged. "Weel, after what happened to ye in London and with everything going on at the moment, I thought I'd make yer life easier." She plonked down her load on a nearby stool and picked up a magazine, leafing through the pages. "I heard from Willie ye and Jamie are looking for a bigger place. So I decided to grab all these. It has listings of every available property for sale in the surrounding area. Ma and I saved the pages we thought ye and Jamie might like."

"Oh, Jen!" Claire gasped, her hands flying to her mouth.

Jenny waved a hand. "Think nothing of it!"

Feeling emotional, Claire gave Jenny a big hug. "That's very thoughtful of you. Thank you so much." When she finally broke away from their embrace, she noticed deep furrows on Jenny's forehead. "Jen? What's wrong?"

Jenny's usually brilliant blue eyes suddenly looked serious as they landed on the bruising on her cheek. "Does that still hurt?" 

Claire touched her cheek. "Oh, this? No, not at all. It looks worse than it is. Poor Jamie getting all these weird looks when we're out and about. He was even accused by some granny of being an abuser. I can understand why but I had to step in and explain to the old dear."

Jenny wrung her hands and gave her a small smile. "Actually, I -I came early because I wanted to talk with ye. Just us two."

"Oh, do you want a drink first?" Claire offered, jerking a thumb in the direction of the fridge. "I have some lemonade ..."

"No! Please! I need to get this out before anything else."

Claire nodded. "Alright then, I'm all ears."

"I-I want to apologise for ..." Jenny's chin crumpled, seemingly attempting to blink back her tears. " ...for what happened to ye in London."

"Wot? Oh, Jen! Why are you apologising? That wasn't your fault."

Jenny raised a hand, which told Claire to let her talk. "It was in some ways my fault, Claire. Geneva was my friend, and I tried to push Jamie and her together. I shouldn't have told her last year there was a vacancy in the village, and then she wouldn't have come back and pursued her interest in my brother. I honestly had no idea she was capable of such horrid deeds. If I'd known, I wouldn't have taken her into my circle of friends and family."

Claire shook her head. "No one could have known, and no one knew. Even her work colleagues and peers were shocked when they found out what she's done. She's a master manipulator, Jen, and she probably manipulated you too under the guise of friendship."

"Still ..." Jenny insisted. "If it wasn't for my meddling ..."

"Stop right there!" Claire wagged a finger at Jenny. "We've locked horns on the subject before and moved on from that already. Alright? Past is past. We all make mistakes. The most important thing is we learn from it. So no more mention of Geneva."

This time Jenny's smile reached her eyes. "Fine! Just dinnae tell Jamie we talked about this."

"Whyever not?"

"Jamie has given everyone in the family strict orders, not to mention about London today."

"Really?"

Jenny nodded. "He didn't want to ruin today's celebration rehashing what happened. Unfortunately, I had to in order for me to apologise, but enough of that now." She clapped her hands. "So, how about that drink. I'm parched." She whirled around and stopped, her eyes widening when she saw the spread Claire had prepared. Walking over to the kitchen counter, she took in everything with a smile. "Goodness, did ye make all these?"

Claire smiled with pride. "I did. Except for the Battenberg cake. Mrs Fitz made it."

"Ye said, ye didnae know how to bake," Jenny said almost begrudgingly. 

"Now I do, thanks to the wifey Bootcamp I attended, also known as Mrs Fitz's kitchen."

"These all look scrumptious. It's been ages since I had a proper English afternoon tea." Jenny glanced up at her and grinned. "So, what are we celebrating?"

Claire nearly blurted out the baby news, but she quickly caught herself. Sliding an arm around her soon-to-be sister-in-law, she walked Jenny to the end of the counter to show her the sponge cake. "Today, we're celebrating love, friends and family."

Jenny poked a finger into the clotted cream and licked. "I like the sound of that. That'll always be a perfect excuse for a celebration or a proper afternoon tea party."

Claire smiled. "I couldn't agree more, Jen. I couldn't agree more."

..........

Jamie came home from work and noticed all the sandwiches, tarts and cakes laid out on the kitchen counter. He was mildly astonished that Claire had been able to prepare so much in the nick of time. He glanced out the window and spied her and Jenny in the garden, busily arranging tablecloths on the long wooden table. Looking at his watch, he realised he had about fifteen minutes to get ready before their friends and family started arriving. 

But first things first.

Stepping out into the backyard, he snuck behind Claire and wrapped his arms around her waist, planting a soft kiss on her neck. "Mmm, ye smell of berries, lemon and lavender," he whispered, running his lips on her bare skin and ignoring Jenny's mumbling about getting a room.

Claire turned in his hold and smiled up at him. "And you reek, mister. You won't be served tea smelling like that."

"Fancy a shower with me then?" he suggested, feeling mischievous. "Jen's here to look out for guests."

"Nice try, but I had a shower already, and Jen is our guest today." 

He leaned down and nibbled her earlobe, making her squeal.

"Jamie, you're going to get my dress dirty. Oh, fiddlesticks ..." She suddenly stilled mid-laughter and made a face, her hand covering her nose. "Urgh ...what's that smell?"

Jamie let her go and took a whiff of his shirt. "Oh, it's just a bit of wood stain I was working with. It'll come off in a wash."

Her face suddenly turned pale. "Oh, God, I think I'm going to be sick. Tell Jen I'll be right back ...and you ...you go have a shower before your parents arrive." With that, she spun around and ran back to the cottage.

Stunned, he watched her disappearing form and whistled under his breath. "What just happened?" he muttered, even though he knew the answer had to do with the dreaded pregnancy sickness. She'd been doing so well so far he almost thought morning sickness was nothing but a myth, even though Claire had revealed, she couldn't stand the smell of aniseed, star anise, fennel, and liquorice.

"Maybe, she's pregnant and suffering from sickness?" Jenny replied, walking past him with an armful of wildflowers to put into the empty vases dotted on the wooden table.

He hadn't realised Jenny had returned from wherever she'd disappeared to. He needed to be careful not to reveal their baby news too soon, or the surprise would be ruined. Jenny was simply someone who couldn't keep a secret. 

"Ach, I should have known chemical smells always make her nauseous," he explained, not wanting to give too much away to his perceptive sister.

Jenny twitched her lips from side to side as she trimmed the bouquet's stems with pruning shears. "Aye, that will be right!" she smirked.

He glared at his sister. "What's that supposed to mean?"

She shrugged and gave him a knowing look. "Nothing! Now go have a shower, and I'll take care of things here until Claire feels better."

Jamie was about to say more when he heard the sound of a car parking in the driveway. As Jenny made a move to take a look, he quickly made a beeline back to the cottage before anyone saw him, hoping Claire had already recovered from her bout of sickness.

..........

Jamie leaned back on his chair and glanced around. It was a perfect summer late afternoon, and everyone seemed to be having a great time and enjoying the food Claire had prepared. The sun warmed his face and bathed the garden in dazzling light, making the different shades of green and the profusion of wildflowers more vibrant and alive. The chatter was lively, and funnily enough, no one complained about the lack of alcohol which was highly unusual for a gathering in Scotland. But, he suspected his godfather must have a flask of whisky or something similar tucked away somewhere as he was getting louder and more boisterous as time went by.

He took Claire's hand in his, and she turned his way and smiled. Her face looked pale, but there was an aura of tranquillity radiating from her that told him she was happy and content. Though her plate was full of food, it remained untouched, and if anyone had noticed, no one said anything. "How are ye feeling, Sassenach?"

She took a huge deep breath, held it in for a few seconds and then relaxed. "I'm fine," she sighed. "It's a lovely day, isn't it?"

He knew she was valiantly fighting back the sickness that must be creating havoc in her body but was too stubborn to give in to it. "Shall we tell them about the surprise so you can finally have a rest?" he suggested in a low voice, so no one would hear. "It cannae be comfortable sitting here when ye feel so unwell."

She shook her head as she gulped in more air. "I want to wait for uncle Lamb. He'll be here soon."

Quentin's plane from Athens should have arrived four hours ago but was delayed because of some mechanical issues. Jamie hoped for Claire's sake Quentin was on his way and wasn't dilly-dallying somewhere, like planning a grand entrance. Jamie kissed her cheek, hoping to sweet talk her to giving up this charade of wellness. "I'm pretty sure ye're uncle will understand once he finds out about yer condition."

"I know," Claire murmured. "But I want today to be perfect and complete. I want to see uncle Lamb's face when we announce it."

"But it's already perfect."

"Not without uncle Lamb."

Jamie prayed for patience and tamped down the urge to haul this beautiful but infuriating woman in his arms and carry her to bed. He squeezed her hand and yielded to her request, knowing this get-together was important to her. "Whatever ye say, Sassenach. Just let me know if ye need anything."

"I will," she replied between sharp intakes of breath.

Jamie decided not to press anymore. He knew this was one battle he couldn't win without creating a scene in front of their friends and family. But if Claire thought she was pulling this act off, Jamie was convinced, his perceptive family had already caught on with what was passing. Claire was a terrible actress, and she couldn't even lie to save her life.

Fortunately, their intimate tea party was animated and loud, and it diverted the attention from Claire. Directly opposite them, Tom and Willie were discussing the merits of owning a mini campervan for spontaneous weekend trips around the Highlands. On one end of the table, Murtagh passionately ranted and raved to Brian and uncle Duncan about the Tories and how SNP was the solution to Scotland's political future. Next to Claire, Annalise showed Ellen and aunt Jocasta how to work the Instagram app while Jenny, Mary and Geillis cackled over some celebrity gossip they've probably read somewhere. Grannie Annie had meanwhile fallen asleep in her seat with Adso in her lap and Rollo at her feet. At the far end of the garden, Finlay, Geillis' boyfriend and Ian were having a go at playing badminton but kept hitting the shuttlecock over the hedge to both their frustration. 

Though Jamie was happy the tea party had gone as planned, he couldn't relax, too worried about Claire predicament. If it got to the stage where Claire lost any more colour to her face, he was sure no one would be able to blame him for whatever course of action he would take next.

"Right, does anyone want some fresh cuppa?" Claire suddenly announced, getting up from her seat.

Annalise immediately jumped to her feet. "I can do that."

Willie got up too. "I'll put the kettle on."

"I'll clear up the empty dishes," Geillis offered, already grabbing an empty tiered plate stand. "We dinnae want this stunning antique piece being knocked over, now do we?"

Ellen reached over to Claire from her seat and patted her hand. "Everything was lovely, dear. I couldnae decide which was my favourite. And that lavender lemonade was refreshing."

"Aye," Murtagh piped in as he got up and sat directly opposite Claire. "I bet it will taste even better with gin or vodka."

Brian frowned at Murtagh. "The lavender lemonade tastes good as it is. There's nae need to spoil it with alcohol. Besides, it's good for ye to give yer poor liver a wee break. If ye're no' careful, yer gene pool will soon have a swim-up bar."

"I dinnae drink that much," Murtagh grumbled. 

"Aye ye do," Aunt Jocasta pointed out. "Dinnae think for one minute I didnae notice ye've been spiking yer tea."

Before Murtagh could retort, Geillis came back in time with a steaming mug and placed it in front of Claire.

"Ooh, what's this?" Claire asked, looking into her drink.

"It's ginger and turmeric tea," Geillis declared. "It's good for ye. I brought it with me from Glasgow. It's organic, and thought ye might like it."

Jamie couldn't help but smile to himself. He knew ginger tea or any form of ginger were effective in reducing nausea. Claire probably knew too because her eyes lit up and gave Geillis an appreciative nod. If he wasn't a hundred per cent certain earlier, everyone knew about Claire's condition, now he's more convinced than ever they were playing along. Jamie appreciated the gesture, but this had gone on too far. Where the bloody hell is Quentin?

"I'm back!" boomed a voice, waking grannie Annie up. It was as if Jamie's thoughts had conjured Claire's uncle from thin air, and there he was making a grand entrance as Jamie had expected. "I hope there are some leftovers. I'm famished."

Claire laughed, twisting around on her seat to watch her uncle approaching. Ellen got up and started plating some food for Quentin.

"There's plenty of leftovers," Annalise assured as she placed another platter of sandwiches on the table. "Claire made enough for the entire village."

Quentin gave Claire a quick kiss on the forehead before greeting the rest of the party, who'd gathered back around the table. "Sorry for the delay," he apologised, finally taking a seat next to Claire. "Our plane was stuck on the tarmac without any air conditioning. We had no choice but to sit there and stew in the heat while the engineers fixed the plane."

"Well, I'm glad you're here now," Claire said, looking adoringly at her uncle. 

Quentin stared at the bruising on her cheek. "I don't like the look of that. It looks ..."

Sounds of several throats clearing ensued, a signal to Quentin not to pursue the London topic any further.

"Very well," Quentin nodded in understanding. "I'm glad too that I'm here."

Claire smiled. "Alrighty, so now that everyone's here, Jamie and I have an announcement to ..."

"Hold that thought, sweetheart," Quentin interrupted as he bent down to retrieve the holdall he'd placed at his feet. "I brought a souvenir."

Jamie bit his tongue at the interruption.  

"I hope it's not another ceramic plate," Claire groaned, unaware of Jamie's frustration.

"No. I got something better." Quentin waggled his bushy eyebrows as he unzipped his bag and proceeded to rummage through its contents. "Wait for it! Wait for it!" Suddenly he yanked out a bottle and held it up for everyone to see. "I got Ouzo!" he announced with satisfaction.

"Yesss, ya beauty!" Murtagh cheered happily, banging a hand on the table. "I love Ouzo."

Aunt Jocasta scowled at Murtagh. "Ye like anything alcoholic. Ye'll drink Listerine if it was placed in front of ye."

"What's Ouzo?" Claire asked as she stared curiously at the offering. "I mean, I've heard of it before, but I've forgotten what it is."

Jamie was about to fill in the information and tell her she wouldn't be able to stand the smell of it when Quentin expertly uncapped the bottle and held it under Claire's nose. Oblivious to Jamie's hitch of breath, Claire pressed her nose closer to the opening of the bottle to take a better whiff. Ah, shite!

"It's an anise flavoured liquor," Quentin described. "Mostly served as an aperitif in Greece.."

Jamie watched in awe as Claire's head jerked back and her face contorted when her senses registered the smell, and a low, gurgling sound came from deep down in her belly. He winced, half expecting any moment now a horrific scene of projectile vomiting, and the recipient would be none other than his godfather sat opposite her. But Claire jumped to her feet, startling everyone, and her hand immediately clapped over her mouth, golden eyes bright and tearing up. Quick thinking Jenny, grabbed a sprig of mint she'd put in the vase, macerated it in her hands and offered it to Claire. Everyone gasped and watched in fascination as Claire took the green leaves and stuffed her mouth with them, and began to chew, jaws working overtime, reminding Jamie of a cow feeding in the fields. Nobody said a word, waiting for the next scene to unfold or for someone to offer an explanation.

Swallowing audibly, Claire finally untensed and slumped back down to a loud hearty burp. And as if nothing had happened, she calmly drank a good measure of her ginger tea, put the mug down and then smiled. "Sorry about that. So where were we again?"

Eyes bulging almost out of his head, Quentin sputtered before he managed to string a coherent sentence together. "W-What the bloody hell was that? Was that some kind of weird side effects from what happened in London that I have no idea of?"

Claire looked at Jamie, looking suddenly exhausted. "Can you please tell them?"

"Tell me what?" Quentin bristled.

Jamie dropped his head on his folded arms resting on the table and allowed it to bounce once. Twice. Thrice. God must have taken pity of him because when he glanced up, everyone shouted in chorus. "Claire and Jamie are having a baby!"

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Claire woke up to a soft knock and opened her eyes to see Ellen's head popped out from behind the door. 

"Hullo dear, may I come in?" The older woman smiled, the distinguished lines of her face shining with classical beauty and strength, even more striking with her copper hair tied back in a simple chignon. 

Claire let out an involuntary groan as she looked around and noticed the bedroom in disarray and the untouched food Jamie had prepared for her this morning on the bedside table. She felt embarrassed. She'd been suffering from severe morning sickness ever since that afternoon tea party she'd hosted that she hadn't been able to leave bed for the last couple of days. Though nibbling peppermint leaves and ginger helped staved nausea, it hadn't been enough to help keep any food down in her tummy.

"Ach, Claire, ye poor thing," Ellen sighed as she walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. Claire made an attempt to get up, but Ellen shook her head. "Dinnae try to get up just yet, pet. First, we talk. I want to see what I can do to help ye out of this misery."

"I'm sorry about the mess," she croaked, sinking back into her pillow.

Ellen brushed a strand of hair from her forehead and smiled. "Dinnae fash about it. Jamie is worried sick. He said ye wouldnae let him stay at home to take care of ye."

"No wonder. Jamie kept checking up on me every minute, and it was driving me insane, so I made him go to work so I can suffer in peace." Claire laughed at her feeble attempt to make a joke.

Ellen patted her hand. "He's worried ye havenae eaten at all these past few days. That's no' good for the baby, dear. We have to try to get some food into ye."

"I can't stomach any food, but I've been keeping myself hydrated." Claire pointed at the mug of herbal tea and a couple of bottles of mineral water she had nearby. "I think the baby is a picky eater."

"Weel, I believe the problem is that Jamie hasn't been giving ye the right food, and I'm here to sort that out."

"You don't have to do that," Claire almost wailed out loud, not wanting to impose. "How about you write down what I need, and I'll sort it out myself."

Ellen tutted and shook her head. "I figured ye might say that. Ye're just as stubborn as my offsprings, if not more, when it comes to getting help. So ..." She clapped her hands on her thighs. "Brian is out and about doing errands, and since I have nought to do until later this afternoon, I thought I'd make myself useful here." Standing up, she placed her hands over her hips and looked Claire over as if trying to determine what task to tackle first. "First, I need ye to get up and take a shower," she ordered. "Yer bedsheets need changing, and that top ye have on looks it could do with a wash."

"But ..."

"Nae buts, young lady. Chop, chop ...up ye go."

Claire tilted her chin in defiance and was about to protest some more when something made her stop. She noticed the stern expression on Ellen's face and had a brief glimpse of what it would have been like to grow up with a mother. Realising there was no room for argument when the Fraser matriarch made up her mind and set her foot down, Claire clamped her mouth shut. Though Ellen was the gentlest and kindest soul, unfortunately, she could also be like a dog with a bone whenever it suited her. Too weak to argue, Claire got up in a huff and stomped off to the bathroom.

When she was done taking a shower, dried herself off thoroughly and put on a fresh nightshirt, she opened the bathroom door to find Ellen fluffing her pillow. 

Ellen patted the bed. "Now that ye're all nice and fresh again, ye can rest a wee bit more while I sort out some food," she announced, pulling back the sheets.

Suddenly feeling exhausted all over again, Claire could only nod her head and crawl back under the covers. The moment her head landed on the pillow, she fell once more into a restless sleep.

Somewhere at the back of her mind, she knew Ellen was buzzing around the cottage, cleaning up and cooking up a storm in the kitchen. A couple of times when Ellen had woken her up to make her sip soda water mixed with grapefruit juice, Claire had attempted to send her home, which had been, of course, a futile endeavour. She had to admit, though, it felt good having someone else there with a mother's touch to take care of her. Jamie had always done a great job tending to her needs, but the way he constantly worried, hovered about, and over-fussed drove her crazy. Ellen knew exactly what to do and never had to ask every few seconds if she was alright. It was as if she had everything under control. But Claire wasn't surprised at all. After raising three children, running a large manor and managing rental cottages on the side, taking care of a sickly pregnant woman had to be child's play for Ellen.

Sometime near early afternoon, she woke up to Ellen walking into the bedroom with a tray of food. Her stomach grumbled for the first time in days when she caught a whiff of chicken broth. She immediately sat up and fixed the pillows behind her back.

"Ah, nice to see some colour back in yer cheeks," Ellen observed, placing the bed tray over Claire's lap. "Now, let's get some food into ye. This should do ye a world of good."

Claire looked down at the bowl of clear broth and a plate of saltines. She waited for the wave of nausea to hit her, but when none came, she relaxed and smiled. "Thank you so much. It smells wonderful." 

"Ye're welcome, dear. I've taken out the wee bits in the broth to start ye off and get yer tummy used to eating again," Ellen explained, grabbing the empty mug and bottles from the bedside table. 

Claire hummed happily as she slurped the broth from her spoon. "Mmm ...this is so good. Jamie has made me all sorts of food, even my favourites, but I can't seem to keep them down."

"The trick is to eat bland food, and wee meals spread throughout the day. And always keep saltine crackers with ye and nibble on it once in a while. It has sodium bicarbonate that should soothe the tummy acids."

"I should have taken the time to read about morning sickness and what food to eat," Claire said in between bites of the cracker. "I hope this will do the trick. Otherwise, I have to get a doctor to put me on an IV drip if I don't get any nutrients into my body. At least, that's what Jamie told me."

Ellen nodded. "Aye, in a worst-case scenario, that's what would happen. But I have another thing in mind that should also help with the pregnancy illness. It helped a lot of the pregnant women folk around here."

Claire's curiosity was piqued. "Oh, what's that?"

"Have ye heard of Yi Tien Cho?"

"Yi Tien, what?"

Ellen chuckled. "Not what! Who! You probably have heard of him by another name. The folks around here call him Mr Willoughby."

Claire nearly choked. "The bloke with feet fetish?"

Ellen waved a hand in dismissal. "Mr Willoughby is a reflexologist, among many other things. That's probably where the feet fetish rumours come from. He runs a wellness centre and practices traditional Eastern medicine. Actually, I find his methods quite effective when it comes to treating many ailments." She leaned over and kissed Claire on the forehead. "Finish yer broth. We'll talk about it some more over a mug of herbal tea out in the garden so ye can have some fresh air about ye. And if ye're well enough, I'll take ye there later for some therapy."

Claire watched Ellen leave the room. She wasn't going to argue because already she was feeling so much better. She was willing to try anything once if it would help her get back on her feet. There were still so many things to do before the wedding. The sooner she was up and about running, the better.

..........

Jamie tugged a fresh shirt on and gathered his things. He was leaving work early even though he knew Claire would be miffed with him for coming home so soon to check on her. It couldn't be helped when there was always that worry about her and their baby slinking into his mind, distracting him while operating heavy machinery. Willie had already warned him that it wouldn't bode well for any of them if he had an accident for not concentrating. So Jamie had decided to call it a day.

He was about to slide into his vehicle when he heard the crunch of footsteps on the gravel.

"Ah, there ye are, son! I've been looking everywhere for ye."

Jamie spun on his feet and saw his father walking towards him. "Da! What are ye doing here?"

Brian smiled, the lines on the corners of his eyes crinkling. Jamie had to pause for a bit to take in his father's likeness to his older brother in mannerisms and carriage. If his father hadn't spoken, Jamie would have thought it was Willie approaching at first glance. 

"I heard ye're done for the day. Fancy humouring yer auld man for a quick pint before ye head for home?"

Jamie ran a hand through his sweat-damped hair. "I'd love to, da, but I need to check on Claire."

Brian clapped Jamie on the back. "Yer ma has everything under control. In fact, Claire has eaten already and hasn't thrown up."

"Oh?" Jamie was surprised. He'd tried everything to make Claire eat, even preparing her favourite food, but she'd pushed everything away. He'd already thought about taking her to the hospital to get her into IV fluids and vitamin supplements. "How'd she managed to get her to eat?"

"Ach, ye ken well all about yer ma's trusted chicken broth. It has always done wonders whatever the ailment. If it's good enough for her bairns, then it's good enough for Claire."

Jamie suddenly perked up at the thought of Claire feeling better again. "Weel, all the more, I should head home." He felt like a selfish bastard for putting his needs before anything or anyone else's, but the ache in his balls from desperately wanting Claire couldn't be ignored. "I'm sorry, da. Maybe another time?"

Brian shrugged. "Up to ye, son, but ye'll be going to an empty cottage."

"And why is that?"

"Yer ma took Claire to that Oriental Holistic centre for some sort of wellness therapy that's supposed to help her with morning sickness. That's why I'm here asking ye out for a pint." Brian pulled out a flyer from his pocket and handed it to Jamie. "Ye ken Mr Willoughby, aye? He runs the place."

"Aye, Yi Tien Cho. Nice fella but always seems to be in a hurry to talk," Jamie replied. He read the advertising on a piece of paper and was astounded at the number of health programmes on offer. "They sure provide a lot of services in this wellness centre. Aromatherapy, ear candling, hypnotherapy, reflexology, to name a few." Then he laughed. "They even have Ayurvedic Kamasutra consultation as part of their sex therapy session. Now that's a first here in Broch Mordha."

Brian grinned. "Isnae Kamasutra all about the art of erotic."

"Aye, something like that. I think it's a Sanskrit text with some ancient Hindu teaching about sexuality and complex sexual positions."

"I cannae imagine Mr Willoughby giving lessons in Kamasutra," Brian said, shaking his head in amusement. "But dinnae fash, Claire and yer ma are no' there for Kamasutra consultation. They're there for ladies' afternoon."

Ladies' afternoon?  Jamie flipped the other side of the piece of paper and went through the part he'd already read. "Ladies afternoon ye say?"

"Aye," Brian replied. "Yer ma likes to attend ladies' afternoon once a month. It's a creative activity group, and it's called art therapy or something like that. She says it suppose to expand her creative growth and promote stress relief and all that mumbo jumbo. She must have probably thought it would benefit Claire as well."

Jamie balled the piece of paper in his hand after he'd finished reading what the Ladies' afternoon entailed. He stared at his father in disbelief. 

"What? Why are ye staring at me like that for?"

"Christ, da! Have ye any idea what this ladies' afternoon is?"

This time Brian frowned. "What do ye mean?"

"Ye send yer wife ...m-my ma ...to a place where she could paint a bollock naked man? What the bloody hell has that to do with wellness and holistic?"

"What?"

Jamie glared at his father. "Aye, I thought so. Right this very minute, ma and Claire are staring at and painting a naked model's tadger. How could ye have not known?"

"Let me see that flyer," Brian demanded, holding out his hand.

Jamie uncrumpled the piece of paper and handed it back to his father. 

Brian skimmed through the flyer, and the more he read about what the Ladies' afternoon was all about, the bigger his eyes became. " Painting a nude man, if you tackle it, is a very fascinating subject, especially for a woman, " Brian read the last bit out loud before throwing the flyer away in disgust, his face suddenly turning a dangerous shade of colour red. "I dinnae ken about ye, son, but I'm off to get my wife out of there."

"Aye, me too," Jamie agreed, sliding into his vehicle. "Ye take yer own car. Claire and I'll need our privacy on the way back home."

Brian nodded. "I'll meet ye there at the entrance."

"See ye in ten." 

Fuming, Jamie reversed his four-wheel drive and followed his father's car. He'd already decided there, and then there was no way was he going to allow Claire to stare at another man's naked bits. If she wanted to paint a naked man, by all means, but it would have to be his naked body and his cock. This was one argument he definitely wasn't planning on backing down from, come hell or high water.

..........

"...I was found early to have skill in composition ...to make the images of my brush resemble the ideas that dance like cranes within my mind. I became known as the fung-wong, a bird of fire ..." Yi Tien Cho delivered as he paced the small circular stage, mesmerisingly waving a stick in the air. The Chinese immigrant might be tiny in frame and stature, but his presence commanded the room with confidence and aplomb as he briefly spoke of an earlier time in his life.

Ellen looked at Claire and smiled conspiratorially. "Ye enjoying yersel'?"

Claire nodded and smiled back, feeling a million times better, her morning sickness almost a distant memory. She was only half-listening to Yi Tien Cho, more focused on the subject of their painting and the technique she wanted to use. Her mother's hobby had been painting, and Claire wanted to create something that would honour that memory. She glanced at the art supplies around her and realised she could use any medium she wanted and wouldn't be restricted to limited methods.

She loosened her shoulders and stared at the blank canvas before her, trying to summon memories of her mother. She took a deep breath, the air subtly smelling of burning incense stick as soft oriental music played in the background, helping her relax and focus. Even the voice of Yi Tien Cho was beginning to calm her, taking her to that place in her mind where creativity could spread its wings and take flight.

"Before picking up a brush, the most important thing to ask yourself is,  'What do I wish to convey?'"  Yi Tien Cho emphasised. "Your answers will determine how you proceed and what you need to focus on the subject. So that said, we can continue to ..."

Unexpectedly there was a loud bang as the double doors flew wide open, hitting the walls and making Claire, Ellen and the rest of the group jumped up from their seats. To everyone's astonishment, two very annoyed Fraser males stood in the doorway, their faces red and eyes scanning the room.

"Ellen MacKenzie Fraser!" Brian bellowed.

A litany of colourful words came from Jamie the moment his eyes landed on Claire, making her and Ellen winced.

"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!" she muttered, grabbing Ellen's hand. "What's gotten into them two?"

"Heaven knows, but I'll be smacking their addled heads any second now if they continue with this nonsense."

"Ahh, good afternoon, Mr Jamie, Mr Brian," Yi Tien Cho greeted, seemingly unfazed by the disturbance. "It is ladies' afternoon, but you are both more than welcome to join us now that you are here. We have empty seats here in front if you will take your place. And perhaps a cup of tea first to improve the flow of your chi?"

"There's nothing wrong with my chi!" Brian barked. "I'm here to take my wife home."

Yi Tien Cho smiled and nodded before turning his attention to Jamie. "And how about you, Mr Jamie?"

Jamie shook his head stiffly. "I'm sorry, but the only naked man my fiancée will be painting today is me."

Ellen gasped as the room erupted into a mixture of hoots and catcalls.

"W-what the hell are you on about?" Claire stammered, ignoring the howls and jests.

Jamie and Brian glanced at the stage and then stared at each other, unsure what to do or say next.

"Brian!" Ellen snapped, jolting her husband to look at her.

"Jamie?" Claire questioned more calmly than Ellen.

"I ...ah ... dinnae like the idea of ye looking at another man's..." Jamie shrugged, his eyes darting to the audience as if, for the first time, he just realised there was a roomful of people watching and listening.

"Another man's wot?" Claire looked back at the stage where the subject for today's painting stood, then back once more at Jamie. Then it suddenly hit her. "Are you trying to tell me you're bleeding jealous of a clay statue replica of Michaelangelo's David?" She blew out a breath in exasperation. "Jesus, Jamie, I was planning on painting the upper body because from where I'm sat, my view of the statue's cock is virtually nil."

Yi Tien Cho cleared his throat. "Umm ...Ms Claire, may I remind you, in this room, we call the male's genitalia phallus."

Claire glared at Yi Tien Cho, but before she could say anything, Ellen had already stormed off in the direction of the doorway.

"Now listen to me, ye giant clowns," Ellen began, waving a paintbrush at Jamie's and Brian's faces to the delight of their audience. "The both of ye are gonnae go home like good husbands and let us be to spend an afternoon of relaxation. Because if not ..." She tapped the brush on her husband's chest. "I willnae be coming home. And as for ye ..." She pointed at Jamie. "I'll come and stay in yer cottage for the night."

Jamie didn't need telling twice as he grabbed his father's shoulder and started to pull him away until they were out of sight. After Ellen shut the door, she turned around and smiled with glee. "So, where were we then?"

Grinning, Yi Tien Cho clapped his hands. "Alright, Mr Gordon. You may come in now," he shouted against his cupped hand.

To Claire's shock and the loud appreciative whoops in the room, a handsome man in his mid-thirties confidently walked onto the stage and dropped the sheets covering his body. The spotlight highlighted the carved muscles under his oiled skin, and the nude coloured briefs hugged the crucial bits, leaving the rest of his flesh proud and exposed. 

Claire watched in fascination as Gordon posed into his position, still wondering how this session could be considered remedial. But already, she could hear the sharp scratching sound on canvases as some began to make rough outlines for their painting while Ellen worked on which angle of their subject to capture most.

Claire leaned towards Ellen and spoke through the side of her mouth. "And how is painting a semi-naked man supposed to be therapeutic and help my morning sickness?"

Ellen smiled without looking at her. "Ye'll see."

With no choice but to go with the flow, Claire allowed the pull of the paintbrush to take over. For a while, she forgot everything else, engrossed with the lines and planes of the subject. She never painted like her mother, but occasionally, she dabbled with creating something with colours. This, though, was different. She'd never painted an animate object, least of all a half-naked man. The voyeur inside her broke free, and she had permission to trespass another person's privacy safely from a distance. She pushed the barriers away and forced herself out of her comfort zone to capture the perfect essence, and when she was done, she realised she was the only one left painting, and most had gathered behind her. 

Her audience complimented her as Ellen nudged her shoulder. "Ye've done a fabulous job. I didnae ken ye paint so well."

Claire plonked her paintbrush into a jar of water and sat back to look at her finished work. "My mum used to paint. I still have most of her stuff. I feel painting brings me closer to her."

"So ...how do you feel?"

"I feel good ..." Claire grinned, slumping into her seat. "...and so far, no nausea."

Her audience dispersed, and Yi Tien Cho appeared from nowhere. "Aah, very good to know, Ms Claire. I'm thrilled that this session has proven helpful to your condition."

Claire tilted her head back and looked back and forth between Ellen and Yi Tien Cho, still unsure how the sitting had helped her morning sickness. "But how can we be sure it's not the chicken broth I had earlier that helped with the morning sickness?"

"The chicken broth isnae an instant cure," Ellen pointed out. "The fact that ye havenae touched yer saltines since lunchtime and ye're no' feeling ill means the painting therapy worked."

"But how?"

Yi Tien Cho tapped the air with an index finger. "That, Ms Claire, was an example of mind over matter."

"Mind over matter?" Claire repeated, looking at him warily.

"Yes, it kind of works like meditation," he explained. "When ye're painting or doing something creative, you don't have an option but to disregard everything around you and use the right side of your brain ..." He tapped the side of his head. "...moreso when it's challenging and complex as painting a human form. You see, your right brain is the one that helps you relax and cultivate present moment awareness. When you are in that state, every aspect of you is calm and the hormones in harmony. And when everything is balanced within you ..." He clapped his hands in the air. "Voilà! Nausea gone!"

"As simple as that?" Claire queried, looking at him in fascination.

He scratched the top of his head. "It doesn't always work for everyone, but when that happens, we use other forms of therapies better suited for the individual's needs."

"Interesting," Ellen murmured, tapping her chin. "Maybe Brian and Jamie could use some of the therapies on offer here to exorcise their crabbiness."

Yi Tien Cho chuckled. "Already sorted, Ms Ellen. When you chased them away, my assistant caught up with them and offered them a Thai massage to help them relax. Both of you should come home to very pliant and obliging partners."

"How'd yer assistant persuaded them to have the massage?" Ellen asked curiously. "Dinnae ken about Jamie, but Brian is funny about strangers touching him."

Yi Tien Cho smiled broadly. "No need. The masseuses aren't only competent, but they're also extremely attractive and, how should I say ....exotic. Now which man could refuse ..."

Claire's head snapped up. "Come again?"

Yi Tien Cho's eyes widened as he realised his error. "It's not what you think," he said, raising both his hands, his one eye ticking uncontrollably. "Mr Brian and Mr Jamie remained fully clothed while the masseuse stretched them into poses until they found their release."

Release?  Ellen and Claire looked at each other, and without missing a beat, they both started grabbing their things, muttering excuses about making dinner. Yi Tien Cho could only look on with dismay, wondering what he'd done wrong. But Claire's mind kept replaying a mental image of a gorgeous foreign lass touching Jamie as he reached his Nirvana.  No bloody way is that happening!

Just as they were about to exit the room, Yi Tien Cho shouted after them. "I think my explanation was lost in translation. What I meant by release is, relieving them of muscle tension and pressure. I would suggest practising breathing exercises before you see your partners. Very highly recommended!"

..........

Jamie was just unwrapping the assorted dim sum he'd ordered twenty minutes ago from a takeaway when Claire walked into the cottage. The colours on her cheeks were back, and she looked radiant in her baby blue dungaree dress, if not a wee bit flustered.

"You're home," she breathed.

"Why shouldnae I be?" he asked, straightening to his full height.

She didn't answer the question; instead, she discarded her jean jacket and dropped it on the sofa along with her oversized bag and proceeded to scratch Rollo's ear.

Jamie ignored the agitation whipping in his belly that had been there since he'd arrived home. After his mother had shooed him and his father away from Claire's painting therapy, they'd ended up having a Thai massage. It had all happened in a blur. One minute he and Brian had been arguing whether to hang around and wait for Ellen and Claire. And then the next, they had been ushered into a massage room. Free of charge, one of the staff had said. 

The massage had been overall good, but throughout the session, he'd been thinking about how happy he was to see Claire feeling better and the plans he had in store for them. Unfortunately, thinking of the plans had resulted in embarrassing himself by getting a full-blown erection. The masseuse had taken this as a sign of interest, and she'd tried to proposition him. Realising the misunderstanding, he'd jumped to his feet and left the massage room in a hurry. He'd almost tripped in the process, trying to get as far away from the girl's advances as possible.

As he'd driven back home, he'd hovered between two choices. Tell Claire about what had happened or keep it to himself. Having heard horror stories about hormonal women in their pregnancy, it was hard to make a decision, but his conscience seemed hell-bent on pushing him to confess. Nothing had happened, and he'd done nothing wrong, but that masseuse might start talking, and he knew what village gossips were like. If the rumours reached Claire, he was sure it would end up being a whole different story, and a misunderstanding could ensue. 

He quickly downed the whisky he'd poured himself earlier in one go, the action catching Claire's eyes. She raised an eyebrow at him, asking without words what that was all about.

Jamie slowly put the tumbler down on the table. "Just fancied a wee bit of drink before dinner," he said, walking over to her and giving her a lingering kiss on the cheek. "I'm sorry for barging in yer therapy earlier. Even if it hadnae been a statue ye were painting, I should have known better than to behave the way I did. I guess I was jealous of the thought of ye looking at another man's dick."

"The subject wasn't a statue at all," she replied after a moment. "We painted a half-naked man, and I actually enjoyed it." When he frowned, she quickly shook her head and smiled. "Not at ogling another man's body but the satisfaction of creating an artwork." She tipped her head up to look at him. "How about you? Did you enjoy your massage?"

"How'd ye know about that?" he asked almost defensively.

"Yi Tien Cho might have mentioned it."

Jamie felt his face heat up. He had to tell her. He'd told her he didn't want her keeping secrets from him, and it was just right he was forthright with her too. He swallowed hard and hoped he was doing the right thing. "I ...ah, how shall I say this? I ...sort of embarrassed myself. But it didnae have anything to ..."

She let out a sharp intake of breath, stopping him mid-sentence. "The masseuse was that good, is that it?" Jamie thought he saw a flicker of annoyance in her eyes, but it was gone before he could decipher it any further. "So, did you find her pretty?" she asked, the question catching him off guard.

"Aye, she was ..." he said truthfully. "But it had nought to do with ..."

She pushed him away with both hands and marched towards the bedroom.

He groaned inwardly. "Sassenach! It wasnae like that!" he appealed, walking behind her. 

"Was it not? Seems pretty straightforward case to me," she grumbled, flicking on the lights to the room.

"It's not what ye think."

"Since when did you become an expert on what I think?"

"Sassenach, please let me explain ..."

She plonked herself on the edge of the bed and glared at him, frantically tugging off her sandals and kicking them off. "What's there to explain? The masseuse was good at what she does, she's attractive, and your body reacted. Pretty male standard stuff, I would say." She shot to her feet and stormed past him. "There's nothing more to talk about!"

Jesus Christ, this cannae be happening!  He took two long strides and grabbed her arm before she reached the bathroom and spun her to face him. Feeling bewildered at her outburst, he stared at her flushed face trying to discern what lurked behind those amber eyes. She was usually the level headed and calm one between them, and seeing her react like this over a lass was a novelty. He'd prepared himself for the eventuality of a gamut of mood swings that usually accompanied pregnancy, but this was different. This was way too unreasonable behaviour coming from her, even if hormone changes had something to do with it. 

Slowly realisation dawned on him, and it was clear as day, and he couldn't help but grin like a pillock. 

"What's so funny?" she hissed.

"Ye're jealous."

Sputtering, she tried to twist her arm out of his grasp. "I beg your pardon?"

"My beautiful Sassenach is jealous. I cannae believe it."

"No, I'm not!"

"Aye, ye are. Admit it!"

"You've no idea how close you are to getting your balls ripped off!"

Jamie crowded her space, not giving Claire any room to escape. She tried to sidestep him, but he merely walked her backwards until her back hit the wall. 

He tipped her face up with a finger under her chin and shook his head. "I dinnae ken whether to be amused or annoyed with ye right now. Ye're jumping to conclusions without giving me the time of day to explain. By now, it should be very clear to ye that ye're the only woman who could stir things inside me, turn my world upside down and slip that sense of rightness back into place ...right in here." He thumped his chest to make a point. "If ye'd allowed me to talk, then ye would have known that the hard-on I was walking around with had to do with thoughts of ye. The masseuse assumed I was reacting to her touch, and when she propositioned me, I was out of there before she could even finish her sentence."

Claire's eyes narrowed, studying his face closely as if judging the sincerity of his confession. In a way, Jamie was glad he'd told her, and he was hoping they could move on from this and enjoy the rest of their evening. If she needed space, he'd give her that, but he wouldn't allow her to think the worse, especially when her emotions were all over the place.

"So, you didn't stay?" she asked.

He feathered kisses across her forehead, then down along her cheek. "Ye have nothing to be jealous of, mo chridhe," he whispered. "Ye ken well ye rule my entire universe." He felt her body relaxed, her soft breaths fanning his neck, making his cock throb in his jeans. "Ye shine so bright, I couldnae look at another woman even if I wanted to."

He cupped the back of her neck and kissed her bottom lip, hovering there as he spoke. "Ye ken I'm a jealous man when it comes to ye, even if ye give me no reason to feel that way. It's horrible and all-consuming to be in that state, and I dinnae ever want ye for even a single moment to feel even a smidgen of it." He brushed his lips over hers, stopping at the corner of her mouth, kissing it gently. "So I'm so sorry ye had to feel that way."

She took a deep breath and puffed it out, her breasts swelling at the mere action. "And I'm sorry for doubting you."

He traced his finger over a nipple, his heart aching at the sight of her looking so excruciatingly beautiful. "Ye never really doubted me," he managed.

She playfully tugged the hem of his shirt. "No. I didn't. I just didn't like the thought of another woman touching you," she admitted.

"I thought I'd feel dead chuffed hearing ye say that. But I dinnae. All I ever wanted for ye is to feel secure in my love."

"I do," she whispered. "Even when we're bickering or when we're having our worst moments."

Jamie inhaled deeply to pacify the urgency pressing against his jeans. He wanted her badly, but he didn't want to rush her, thinking of their baby and her recovery from her morning sickness. If it had been all up to him, he would have taken her by now against the wall. He ignored the weight of his arousal and attempted to smile, the command not quite reaching his mouth. "Would ye like something to eat first? I've ordered takeaway, but if ye prefer the broth ma made, I can quickly reheat it up for ye."

Claire's hands slipped around his neck and tugged him closer, her soft lips pressing against his jawline. "I'm hungry for you. You think you can deal with that first?" 

Reeling from her bold challenge, her request hung in the air as he lifted her against him, his mouth greedily delving between her supple cleavage. His need roared in his head like a powerful hurricane wind, and amid the lustful haze, his heart expanded with love, threatening to choke him out of air. 

He hoisted Claire higher, and she banded her legs around his middle as he resumed feasting on the soft mounds of her breasts until a faint moan passed her lips. "God, ye have nae idea how I've missed this," he muttered against her heated skin, his teeth tugging at the neckline so he could lick her nipple. "Tell me again, this is really what ye want, and the baby will be alright with what we're about to do."

"I want you now, Jamie," she whimpered. "And the baby will be fine."

Jamie groaned, powerless to stop his hand from slipping under her dress and running along the soft curves of her thighs. He walked them to bed while Claire attempted to rip his shirt off. "Ah sweet, Jesus, ye want this as much as I do."

She answered by arching her back with a frustrated soft grunt and pressing her centre against his aching cock, making him even more impatient to bury himself inside her.

Gently, Jamie deposited her down in the centre of the bed, his pulse wildly racing at the sight of her breasts straining against her dress. They struggled together, laughing in between as they pulled the dress and her knickers off her body before divesting his own clothes in record time. When her eyes landed on his hand, stroking his erection from root to head, she bit her lower lip in anticipation, making him groan out loud. He'd gone nearly a week not having her, and he could only hope he could hold on a little while longer, her needs always in the forefront of his mind. His desperation must have been apparent on his face because her arms impatiently reached out for him.

He leaned over and kissed the hollow of her neck, his fingers travelling over her belly to stroke the wet folds between her legs. Her thighs instantaneously parted, and her hips lifted to meet his hand. "Ach, ye're so ready for me, Sassenach." He rubbed her sensitive nub, watching as she flung her head sideways and gasped. "This was all I could think of while waiting for ye to come home." He lowered himself to the floor and hooked her leg over his shoulder. Parting her with his fingers, he dipped his head for a quick taste, and she almost undid him with her throaty sigh. With concerted effort, he drew his gaze up from the juncture of her thighs, forcing her to look at him. "I want ye to watch me, Sassenach, so ye'll see how much I want ye."

Too impatient to wait for her response, he tongued her nub with circular motions before open-mouthed sucking her core. Her body jerked upward, writhing and flailing uncontrollably that he had to place a hand on her belly to keep her still. Her voice was raspy, from imploring him to keep going to mumbling disjointed words to chanting his name over and over again. Too drunk and high on the taste of her, her screams of release only registered dimly as impatient fingers tugged his head, breaking through the sensual trance. 

"Please, Jamie, I need you now."

Overcome with his own need, he kissed her nub one last time before rising over her body and shoving her legs wider. Without an ounce of finesse, he roared in satisfaction as he drove the entire length of his cock inside her with one rough thrust, muffling her scream with a deep kiss. "Aaah, Christ," he breathed against her panting lips. "This is how it's always gonnae be with us, isn't it?" His body shook as he pulled out and sank into her tight heat repeatedly, tamping down the urge to take her hard. "Only ye can make me feel like this. Only ye."

He braced himself on his elbows and began rolling his hips, thrusting into her in controlled and deliberate measures. He desperately wanted his own release, but at the same time, he wanted this moment to last, always mindful of her condition. When her eyelids dropped, he touched their foreheads together, prompting her to focus on him. The union of their bodies and the connection he felt on a soul level were so primordial and deeply ingrained, it made him feel exposed and raw, and he wanted her to see and feel all of it. So that there would never be a doubt in her mind again who he belonged to.

"My eyes see only ye, Sassenach," he whispered, kissing her eyelids, his lower body driving his rigid length into her wet heat. "My lips kiss only yers, and my heart sits on the palm of yer hand to do as ye wish with it." He caressed the side of her throat with his mouth and inhaled her sweet fragrance. "Yer hands are the only hands my body will rouse to. I am yers as ye are mine. Always remember that." His orgasm was inexorable, hovering over him, ready to spill his seed, but he held on to the strained tether of his self-control. She'd begun to shake and convulse around him, her thighs gripping around his waist. It felt like she was marking him and embedding herself in him with every contraction of her inner walls.

"And you're my first and my last." 

His head spun, but he reminded himself not to thrust any harder like a rutting beast, but the needy part of him only cared about hammering his cock into her to assuage the building ache. He wanted to be gentle and savour the moment, but his body wouldn't allow it. 

As if reading his concerns, her thighs opened wide to take him deeper. Planting kisses along his neck and collarbone, she circled her hips and dug her fingernails into his bottom, urging him to move faster and harder.

"Fuck, Sassenach, I dinnae want to hurt the baby nor ye," he gritted.

"You won't," she whispered, kneading his stiff muscles on his shoulder. "I promise."

Jamie lifted his head to search her eyes. But one look at her parted lips, face suffused with pleasure, his control finally snapped.

She gasped out loud when he began to pick up his pace, pounding into her as he let out a strangled groan, his own breathing becoming more laboured with each thrust. Her hands flew around his neck, and her legs curled once more around his waist, her heels digging into his lower back as she moaned. 

"Ah, fuck, fuck, fuck," he growled. "I cannae stop now." 

The bed creaked, and the headboard banged against the wall, the dull thump mingling with her cries as she came apart beneath him. The sight of her riding out her orgasm against his cock and the feel of her damp skin made it impossible to hold back any longer. He shattered into her with a loud roar and came with such ferocity, he thought his heart stopped. Wanting to extract every last ounce of pleasure, he fused his lips with hers with an animalistic sounding groan, their tongues tangling as they slowly regained their breathing under control. Sated, he dropped his head into her neck, muttering her name over and over, his hips continuing to pump even after the shudderings passed.

Claire blew out a shaky breath in his ear. 

"Ye alright, Sassenach?"

"Oh, God, we should do that more often."

"That good, aye?" 

"Uh-huh."

He moved off her to roll on his side and grinned. "I agree. I'm all for having more sex."

"I meant to say we should more often take breaks from sex. It will make our lovemaking more intense."

What?  He pulled back to study her expression. "Ye're bloody joking, right?"

"A few days tops!"

"Nae fucking way!"

Claire's body shook with silent laughter.

"Ye think this is a laughing matter now?"

She covered her face with her hand to hide her smile, telling him she was only teasing. 

"Christ! Ye think that was my best performance, and I cannae top that, is that what ye're trying to say?" Taking Claire by surprise, Jamie rolled onto his back, bringing her with him, so she was on top of him. Using one hand, he placed his thickening arousal against her core, making her gasp. He clucked his tongue and shook his head. "Ach, Sassenach. We were just getting warmed up." He lifted her hips and slid his cock inside her, effectively putting an end to her laughter.