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Renewal

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At long last, my husband was dead.

I suppose I should have felt shame at my relief, but I couldn’t muster the energy. After more than six months of Frank’s coma—188 days of fluorescent lights and soft-spoken nurses and burnt-yet-still-watery coffee in styrofoam cups—I didn’t have any reserves left for guilt.

In the end, he had simply slipped away when I wasn’t looking. A fitting parallel to how he’d slipped away from our marriage in the months leading up to the accident. And just the same, I was left to pick up the pieces.

Bastard.

I kept wearing my wedding ring, more from inertia than anything else. It was a throughline, I supposed, something to look at as I wandered aimlessly around our too-big house, running my hands over dusty book spines on our overburdened shelves. His too-big house. His overburdened shelves. His absence made it even clearer to me that none of it was mine—I saw nothing of myself in the dark walnut and leather-bound stoicism of our Oxford home.

The university, as it turned out, agreed. Three weeks after his death, they called me to inform me that Frank’s replacement would be needing the house when his contract began.

They gave me til end of term to move out, but I packed my things that night. It all fit into two suitcases. Uncle Lamb had trained me well—no extraneous possessions to weigh me down. Frank’s things, I left exactly as they’d been. Let the esteemed professor deal with it.

The next morning, in the pearly morning light, I dropped a manila envelope with the keys in the mailbox, addressed to the Dean. And then, like I’d dreamt of doing so many times, I got in my car and drove away.

 


 

A soft “bing!” brought me quickly back into reality.

“Damn,” I swore under my breath, looking at the newly-orange petrol warning light. I’d been driving for nearly ten hours, lulled into a fugue state by the never-ending white lines. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was—or where the nearest service station might be.

I looked to the side of the road with a renewed focus; I knew I was somewhere in Scotland, and that I’d turned off A9 an hour or two before. Or was it three?

The two-lane road had no signs that I could see, and the forest on either side looked thick. But surely I couldn’t be that far from a town. Still, driving aimlessly along back roads in the Highlands on a near-empty tank seemed foolhardy at best, especially with the sun so low in the sky.

I pulled over onto the muddy shoulder and pulled out my phone. One bar—would it be enough for a map search?

“Bloody piece of…”

So that was a no.

I turned off the car, not wanting to waste gas while I figured a way out of this predicament. I could see a dirt turnoff a hundred feet or so ahead that looked to lead up the steep hill on the other side of the road. Maybe I’ll get better service up there, I thought hopefully.

“No help for it, Beauchamp,” I said.

The turnout proved to be a somewhat gravel-covered track that carved a switchback up the hillside. A rusty gate blocked the path, but when I pushed it lightly, it swung open—no latch, let alone a lock. I swung it closed behind me, and began to climb.

The March breeze was chilled, but some anemic golden hour sunbeams forced their way through gaps in the ever-present Scottish clouds, warming me as I walked. A rain-swollen runoff creek roared loudly a few feet off the road. I shivered in pleasure—moving, stretching, filling my lungs with the fresh metallic tang of spring air after so many hours in the car pulled my consciousness forcibly back to the present, and I reveled in it.

With that renewed sense of awareness came a distinct pressure in my bladder.

I stepped off the track to answer the call, into the thin trees beside the rushing water. The road, if you could even call it that, seemed completely deserted, but I still opted to squat in the partial privacy offered by two low pine boughs.

With absolutely impeccable timing, no sooner than I let forth my considerable stream, I heard the rumbling whine of a motor over the rushing water. I started as a blue ATV came into view around a switchback in the track, but my bladder was past the point of no return. I didn’t even have time to swear—just desperately grabbed at the pine boughs to cover my lower half as the helmeted rider caught sight of my head and shoulders above the branches.

“What in the world are ye doin, pissing in my burn?”

My face felt like it was on fire. Bladder now empty, I pulled up my pants as quickly as I could.

“I—I’m so sorry,” I stammered. “I got lost.”

Finally properly clothed, I stood up straight and stepped out from behind the pine to face this irate landowner.

“I’m low on petrol,” I added, “so I was just trying to find some cell signal to get directions.”

He turned off the idling quad and dismounted, pulling off his helmet, and suddenly, I was blinded.

The rapidly setting sun had pushed through the grey cover in full force, and for a moment he was nothing but a pillar of red-gold. I blinked, but the impression lived behind my eyelids. I looked down to clear my vision.

“Really, I do apologize,” I finished lamely.

“Mmphm,” the man grunted—an acceptance, perhaps? “Ye’d have been walking a good long ways. Mountains on all sides, blocks the signal. Did ye no’ think to bring a map, drivin’ around the backroads up here?”

I could see now he was a tall, imposing figure. His helmet-mussed crown of red hair was damp and curled at the ends, his cheekbones fiercely slanted. I thought he was in his mid twenties—my age, or a bit younger. He met my eyes confidently, so blue I had to look away.

“Ah. Well.” I took a step back, inching back towards the main road. “I didn’t...I suppose...I’ll just drive on, then.”

He pursed his lips at that, and another uniquely Scottish noise rumbled disapproving from his chest.

“Closest petrol station is in Dumnadrochit, more’n thirty miles,” he said, indicating the direction with his sharp-edged chin. “If yer near out, ye’ll never make it.”

I felt like shrinking under his exasperated gaze. I had no idea how to respond to that. As if it wasn’t mortifying enough to be caught literally with my pants down, every sentence out of his mouth made it more obvious he thought me an idiot. Probably right, I thought with a hint of hysteria.

Finally, he sighed. “Come on, I’ve got a can at the farm. No’ much, but it’ll be enough to get ye where ye need to go.”

He stepped back toward the bike, clearly expecting for me to follow. But I hesitated. Was I really about to let a 6’4” Viking behemoth drive me off into the woods?

“Ah,” he exhaled, understanding instantly why I was dithering. “O’ course.” His cheekbones just barely darkened. Blushing ? I thought, slightly incredulous. “The house is seven miles up the drive. You can wait here while I fetch it, if ye like. Or follow in yer car, if ye think ye’ve enough.”

The sun had gone behind the hills behind us, and twilight was short this far north. Waiting in the dark seemed almost as ill-advised as taking a ride from a strange man.

“I’ll follow,” I said, resolute. “Thank you—er—”

“Jamie,” he supplied. “Jamie Fraser.”

“Claire Beauchamp.” I smiled tightly. “I’ll be right behind you, Mr. Fraser.”

 


 

Following, as it turned out, was also a very, very stupid idea.

The twisting gravel road gave way to washouts at every turn, and my gutless Renault was no match for the spring mud of Scotland. I was stuck before the end of the first mile, the tires spinning hopelessly as I tried to accelerate out of a slick patch.

If Jamie Fraser had been rolling his eyes at me before, it quickly turned to amusement at my predicament when he finally turned back to see what was amiss.

“Leave it to a sassenach,” he chuckled ruefully.

Though I didn’t know the word, I felt my hackles going up at the obvious insult. But something about the way his cat-eyes crinkled at the corners as he laughed softened the blow.

“C’mon, Claire, I’ll no’ do anything fresh,” he promised, patting the seat behind him. “Yer wee junker will be safe enough here for now. I’ve a neighbor who can help us get ‘er out.”

Cheeks flaming, I climbed up onto the ATV—I certainly wasn’t going to wait in the dark forest alone. Fraser motioned for me to put my arms around his waist.

“Hold on tight now, can’t have ye falling off!” he shouted over the engine as he eased off the clutch.

He drove at a fair clip, whipping my hair into what I knew would be a horrific rats’-nest in minutes. But his torso felt sturdy and solid under my arms, and for some reason I trusted him not to lose me.

As we reached the top of the last hill, the trees suddenly cleared, giving a view down into the narrow valley below. I could just make out a tall stone tower looming in the grey-green gloom.

“Is that a castle?” I shouted over the wind and engine.

“It’s home,” Fraser called back over his shoulder. “Lallybroch.”

 


 

The tower stood on its own, and was rather decrepit. The tall, stately manor house was separate and much better maintained, though clearly of an age itself. As we rumbled up to the stone wall that surrounded the compound, lights flicked on, bathing the yard in a warm glow.

Fraser guided the quad through a high archway and stopped just inside.

“Pop in if ye like,” he said, waving vaguely at the front steps as he jumped off towards one of the outbuildings. “I’ll just get the petrol.”

It was properly dark now, and I was feeling rather uncertain. But it was starting to drizzle, and I rationalized that if I was going to be murdered it might as well be inside a warm house as out in the elements.

The massive wooden door had an odd latch, but with a bit of jiggling it yielded, and the hinges made no noise when it swung open. The large entry was dark, but a light was on in one of the rooms down the hall.

“Er, hello?” I called awkwardly. My voice echoed off the stone walls. I heard a muffled thump and braced myself for an awkward conversation with a startled wife.

“Mrow?” came the inquisitive answer, and a slender grey cat slunk around the corner.

I laughed aloud—Fraser hadn’t struck me as a cat person, but I suppose you never can tell.

“Why hello there,” I murmured, lowering down to pet him as he twined around me, purring.

“So ye’ve met Adso.”

The entry hall was suddenly bathed in light. Surprised, I stood up quickly, making the cat trill in annoyance.

“Sorry,” Jamie said sheepishly, hands raised in placation. “I didn’t mean to startle ye—I can imagine yer a bit tense.”

I cleared my throat. “No, no, you’ve been a great help.”

He stepped aside from the doorway, leaving me a clear exit route. I was oddly touched by his thoughtfulness.

“Well, I’ve a bit more bad news,” he said. “My spare petrol is gone. My neighbor sometimes borrows things from the shed rather than go into town—y’know, we share quite a bit around here, since we’re so far out...”

I bit my lip, unsure if I wanted to laugh or cry.

“I was going to call him anyway. See if he’ll come help me get yer car unstuck. Maybe he’ll still have enough left in the can for you to get to Dumnadrochit. Or I can drive to Broch Mordha to get a new one, it’s none so far from the house here.”

I nodded. “I...yes, thank you, Mr. Fraser. I’m so sorry to have to take up so much of your time.”

“Just Jamie,” he corrected. “Well, come sit yerself down, I’ll get Rupert on the phone.”

The house, I could now see, was surprisingly empty. No furniture, bare floor, nothing on the walls. It wasn’t cold inside, but now that I’d been in from the chill for a moment I could tell it wasn’t well-heated.

Jamie led the way into the kitchen, which was somewhat homier, if outdated. The hearth was huge, and a well-worn table served as a workspace down the middle of the room. I slid into a chair and pulled out my phone as Jamie went to a landline hanging on the wall just inside the pantry.

Still no service. Guess that explained the landline.

“Rupert,” he said. “Listen, I need yer help. Got a lost sassenach here, she’s run out of petrol and got her car stuck on the back entrance.”

The familiar heat returned to my face. What. An. Idiot, Beauchamp. I glanced up and saw Jamie eyeing me speculatively. When he spoke again, it was not in English. Gaelic? I thought. He sounded irate.

Finally, with a sigh and what I took to be goodbye, he hung up.

“Well, lass, ye’ve got about the worst luck in the world.”

You have no idea, I thought.

Rupert had indeed taken Jamie Fraser’s spare can of petrol that day. He’d also used it all in his own ATV, which he’d crashed in a creek and then promptly thrown out his back trying to push out by brute force.

“Stinkin’ drunk on whisky now,” Jamie said with grim humor. “Useless gobshite.”

It was the last straw after an exhausting day, an impossible week, a horrific year. Mortifyingly, I felt my throat start to close up in that tell-tale sign, and my vision began to swim. I swallowed hard. “Oh, oh of course, I see.” My voice was tight. I cleared my throat. “I hate to be more of a bother, but if you could take me back to my car, I’ll just…”

“Ye’ll what?” the redhead asked gently as he sunk into a chair across from me. “Sleep in the back seat?” He quirked out a small smile. “If ye think I’d even entertain the notion, yer sorely mistaken.”

It was all too much—his gruff kindness, my own exhaustion, the goddamn stupidity of the situation. I let out a strangled laugh, which quickly turned into a torrent of tears that brought Jamie jumping to his feet again in alarm.

“Och, don’t cry,” he begged, hands hovering over my shoulder. “Come now, lass, it’s no’ so bad as all that! I’ve an extra room, ye can sleep here and we’ll figure out yer car in the morning.”

I couldn’t help it, I let out a sob.

“Ye can lock the door to yer room from the inside, it’s got a deadbolt,” he added, desperate to get out of this situation.

“Oh, Jamie, I’m sorry, I’m so embarrassed,” I hiccupped, wiping at my cheeks. “Today’s just been…”

A white handkerchief appeared in my vision. I took it gratefully. I was starting to get myself back under control.

“That's all right.” He seemed calmer, too, now that I wasn’t openly weeping. He stepped back, clearing his throat. “Tea? Or ah...I’ve whisky, if you like?”

I blew my nose. “Yes, please.” 

He chuckled. “Good lass. I’ll put the kettle on. Feel free to make any calls ye need.”

I had no one to call, of course, but it seemed ill-advised to admit that aloud, no matter how much my gut told me Jamie was no threat. I cleared my throat and went to the phone, where I made a good show of calling an aunt.

“So I’ll meet you tomorrow afternoon,” I said finally. “Yes, love you too. Good night.”

“Girls’ holiday?” Jamie asked as he set up a tray with two chipped teacups and a matching teapot beside them, snug in a cabled knit cozy.

“Something like that,” I answered, trying to sound breezy. I sat back down at the table.

Jamie set the tray on the table and started rooting around in the cupboards. “Your first time, then?”

“In the Highlands?” I asked as he pulled biscuits out of a packet and set them on the saucers. “No, I’ve been before.”

He raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing. He sat back down across from me, a bottle of whisky in hand. He poured a healthy glug in each teacup, and I tried to catch a glimpse of the label around his hand.

“My da’s. He used to distill a bit for family and friends. It’s no’ bad.”

He checked his watch, and, deeming the steep time acceptable, poured the tea into the readied cups.

Even mixed with the tea, I could tell the whisky was exceptional from the first sip. I made a satisfied noise, and inhaled deeply.

Jamie nodded approvingly, seeing my appreciation. “I see ye’ve a taste for it.”

I smiled cautiously. “My h—my husband was a bit of an aficionado.”

We were silent for a moment. I had no interest in elaborating on the topic of Frank, and Jamie seemed disinterested in pursuing it.

And then…

“Was that yer stomach ?”

It was the reddest my face had been all day.

Chapter Text

Jamie was gratified, if somewhat surprised, that Claire agreed to stay the night.

Truthfully, there weren’t that many other options. He could have tried some of the hotels in the area to see if they had rooms available, but the closest ones were quite expensive, the reasonable ones quite far and all of them often booked solid on short notice. Or call Jenny, see if she’d come to spend the night too, if it made Claire more comfortable, but she was all the way in Glasgow.

No, all in all, having Claire stay at Lallybroch was clearly the best option. And it certainly had nothing to do with her wild dark curls, or the way her thighs pressed against him when he went a little too fast around the switchbacks on the back road.

All right, she was undeniably beautiful. But Jamie didn't want to scare her by seeming too interested, not when she was in such a vulnerable position. So he guarded his expression, kept it friendly.

“My room’s on the other side of the landing there,” he told her as he backed away from her door. “If ye need anything, just knock, I’ll wake up. Anyway, the boards squeak all along there, loud enough to wake the dead.” He stepped on the floor to show her, hoping it would add a bit of comfort if she knew she’d be able to hear him if he came to her door.

Stupid , he thought to himself, as he closed his own door behind him. But she’d smiled to herself as he said it, and she didn’t seem so nervous as when he’d first met her in the wood.

It was odd, having another person in the house. Jamie supposed this was what he was working toward, though—the rooms of the old lady full, bringing her to life again. A refuge, a gathering place. And he couldn’t deny it pleased him to see that someone like Claire could relax a bit in Lallybroch’s embrace.

Although maybe the whisky had a bit to do with that, too.

 


 

Claire was already in the kitchen, reading a book, when Jamie came downstairs the next morning.

“Good mornin’,” he greeted as he came through the doorway, not wanting to startle her. “Ye found the coffee, I see.”

Claire nodded by way of response, a small smile on her lips.

“I made extra,” she said, pointing her cup towards the French press on the counter. He tipped his chin in thanks.

He poured his own cup, and set to work making some toast. He felt himself surreptitiously looking her over through his lashes as he bustled around the kitchen, taking stock. Dark circles, aye, she’d had them yesterday. Her hair was in a messy bun, rather than loose and wild. He thought she looked better rested.

“What’re ye reading?” he asked, pushing down the toaster.

Claire looked absently at the cover. “ Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies ,” she replied, tone droll. “List of London prostitutes in the 18th century, it seems.”

Jamie choked on his coffee. “Where did ye find that?” he asked, coughing.

“In the room at the end of the hall,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind, I poked around a bit while the coffee was brewing.”

Jamie waved off her apology. “The lairds of Broch Tuarach certainly had some interesting guests in that speak-a-word room over the centuries,” he said, amused. “Toast?”

“Mm,” Claire affirmed. She snapped the slim book shut, putting it aside. “Jamie, what exactly is this place?”

“At the moment, my home,” he said slowly, pulling out two small plates. “Before, my family’s home. And someday...” 

The toast popped. He scrapped butter onto each slice, then brought them to the table.

“Well,” he said as he sat, “I’m workin’ to make it a bed and breakfast, of sorts.” He spread strawberry jam on his slice. “I can’t quite make a living off the land like my ancestors did, but I thought if I could fix the place up, make it comfortable…”

He shrugged. “I just...want her to be useful.”

Claire smiled, and laid her hand over his in a comforting gesture. The unexpected touch made him jolt slightly. “I think it would make a lovely b&b,” she said sincerely.

 


 

“Would ye like to come wi’ me to Broch Mordha, then, or would ye rather stay here?” Jamie asked when they had finished eating.

“To where?” Claire asked blankly.

“To get the petrol,” Jamie explained. “I was going to take the truck into town, get a few litres for yer car.”

Claire flushed prettily. “Ah. I’ll come—so I can buy it.”

Jamie quickly schooled his features to hide his pleasure. “As ye like.”

The drive was quieter than he would have hoped. The radio was up when he turned on the truck, and it felt awkward to turn it down to talk. So they traded the occasional comment, but passed most of the 20 minute drive listening to the classic rock station. 

He would have liked to ask Claire more about her plans, try to wheedle more information out of her. She’d said “was” when she talked about her husband—what did that mean?

Young Rabbie McNab was at the counter inside when they arrived. He stared openmouthed at Claire in a way that made Jamie want to smack the boy over the head.

“I need another canister,” Jamie said pointedly, no greetings or formalities. Rabbie nodded, still slightly slack jawed.

As the teenager filled the plastic container at the pump, Claire leaned up against the door on his truck, looking thoughtful.

“So what’s the plan for getting my car unstuck?” she asked.

Jamie groaned. “Ye know, I’d fair forgotten about that,” he admitted. “I might have a way to get it out ourselves. We can try when we get back.”

She smiled ruefully. “I guess I should have mentioned I don’t have four wheel drive before I tried to follow you.”

“Och, yer a sassenach. I should’ve expected ye wouldna have it.”

Her head tilted sharply. “You called me that before, sassenach,” she said. “What does it mean?”

“Nothin’ offensive,” Jamie quickly assured her. “Just an outlander, an English person, like. I don’t mean anything by it.”

“Yer petrol,” Rabbie interjected. Jamie took the plastic container with a nod of thanks and put it in the back of his truck.

“Put it on my tab, eh?”

“No, wait—” Claire began, scrambling in her purse, but Jamie held up a hand.

“Dinna fash, Sassenach,” he said with a grin, exaggerating his natural burr. “Just consider it a wee bit o’ Hieland hospitality.”

And there was that pretty flush again.

 


 

Jamie thought ahead for the trip back; he turned down the volume knob as soon as they got in.

“What time are you meeting yer auntie?” he asked.

“My aunt?” Claire repeated absently, staring out the window.

Confused, he looked at her. “Is that no’ who ye called last night?”

She reddened again. “Ah. Right. Well...I didn’t really...have anyone to call,” she admitted. “But it seemed like a bad idea to tell that to a stranger.”

Jamie’s brow furrowed.

“Then what are ye doin’ up here, all alone?”

“That, Jamie, is a very good question.”

He would have liked to ask more, but the memory of her bursting into tears the night before stopped him. He hated seeing people cry—never had any idea what to do. So he held his tongue.

They were nearly back to Lallybroch when she broke the silence herself.

“Is there…” She paused, swallowed, began again. “Well, ah...do you know anybody that’s hiring?”

“Around here?” he asked, surprised.

“Sure.”

He turned under the stone arch, eyes always seeing the chores to be done, projects to be finished, improvements to be made. And then he turned back to the slender Englishwoman in the passenger seat, chewing her lower lip.

“Aye,” he answered simply, “I am.”

 


 

It was a fairly simple arrangement. He needed another pair of hands, someone to help with the detail work while he took care of the brute strength. More than that, someone with an eye for the finer things, who could decide how to arrange the check-in, what sort of experiences and amenities to offer, which bedsheets to buy. And really, hadn’t last night proven that it would be better to have a woman around to make lone female travelers feel more comfortable?

Yes, exactly. A feminine touch.

He didn’t have much cash, most of it tied up in the renovation. But Claire was happy to settle for room and board plus a small monthly stipend in exchange for her work.

Jamie couldn’t help but study her face as they shook hands on the deal. It struck him as a little odd, really, that a woman like her would be that hard up. And if she was so skint, why would she come looking for work here, of all places? They could hardly keep their own working-age folk around—most everyone went south when the time came. So the idea of a sassenach making her way all the way to his tiny hamlet…

Well. At least now he’d get some time to figure it all out.

He watched her now through the open back door as she went through the wellies in the boot room, a jumbled mess of old rubber.

“Aha!” she cried triumphantly as she unearthed the match for the single boot that fit her. “Found you, you bastard.”

“I’ve got the planks,” he said, holding up the boards for inspection. “And baling twine.”

She looked puzzled. “Whatever for?”

“Ye put ‘em under the front tires and tie ‘em round the wall. The flat side gives ye a bit of purchase when it’s slick,” he explained. “We’ll get that rotten sow of a car out o’ the muck, mark my words.”

 


 

They did manage to extract Claire’s car, but not before the mud got a bit of its own back.

The baling twine was coming loose, and Jamie had been trying to grab the ends to tighten the knot when Claire hit the gas, spinning the tire and flinging a fountain of mud directly across his front.

“Oh my God, Jamie!” she squealed from the front seat, horrified but unable to control her laughter. “I didn’t know you were leaning down!”

He wiped his sleeve across his face in as dignified a manner as possible.

“Dinna fash, Sassenach,” he said with a smile, waving off her apologies. “A wee mud pie never hurt anyone.”

All the same, he made sure to step far back before she hit the gas again.

In the end, he had to get in the car to finish the job himself. Claire stepped out of the front seat, sheepish, mouth open to say something and then—

She slipped. Jamie reached to grab her but he was too far, and into the mud she went, arse first.

“Christ, are ye ok?” he cried as she looked up from the ground, blinking.

“Fine,” she gasped. He reached out a hand to help her up, and as she stood she started giggling. “Is it bad?” she asked him, trying to look over her shoulder to assess the damage to her clothes.

His shoulders were shaking from suppressed laughter. “Ah...weel...I mean, er—”

He couldn’t help it, he was laughing at her in earnest now. She’d left the mark of her full body in the mud, spread-eagle. “Ye’ve made a mud-angel, Sassenach,” he choked.

“Oh dear,” she laughed. “What a pair we make, eh?” She motioned at his face and her backside, grinning.

Jamie chuckled, outwardly nonchalant. But the thrill he felt when she said “pair” caught him off guard.

Oh dear indeed, he thought grimly.

Chapter Text

As I washed the mud from my hair, I started taking stock.

Less than 36 hours after leaving Oxford, I’d found a new place to live, a job, and, it would seem, a friend. “Not bad, Beauchamp,” I murmured to myself. 

I flipped my head upside down under the hot stream, letting it loosen the chunks that had hardened in my curls at the nape of my neck.

A knock at the door startled me and I righted myself, a little dizzy. “Yes?”

“I’ve got some fresh towels,” Jamie’s voice came from the other side of the door. “D’ye mind if I bring them in?”

“Ah…” I looked frantically at the door. Jamie’s bathroom was the only one with a shower so far, and it was lovely—but the full glass sides were suddenly a bit of a problem.

“I willna look,” he assured me, “just drop them on the sink there.”

“Of course,” I responded. The door cracked open, and a disembodied arm came through the gap holding two neatly folded, fluffy white towels. The pedestal sink was well within his long reach, and he dropped them on the edge of the bowl.

“Take yer time,” Jamie said as he pulled the door shut again.

Faintly, I could hear the creak of the floorboards at the top of the stairs over the rush of the water as he left.

He’s certainly considerate, I thought. A gentleman.

I went back to picking through my curls, a smile stubbornly clinging to my lips.

 


 

In the time it took me to shower, dry off, and dress, Jamie had long since finished cleaning himself up. I could hear him bustling around the kitchen as I came out of my room.

“Claire, come down here, would ye?” he called at the sound of my door closing.

He had a stack of neatly-sliced ham and cheese sandwiches at the ready for a late lunch, along with a soup pot steaming on the stove.

“I want to go over the plans wi’ ye,” he said, ladling soup into bowls. “Show ye what we’ve got to work on.”

A stack of sketches sat in the middle of the kitchen table. He flipped through them slowly, explaining his ideas as we ate.

“Eventually I’ll need to add ensuite bathrooms to all the rooms upstairs,” he said. “But I thought I’d start wi’ the barn, turn it into a cottage rental. That way I can start making a little money to pay someone to do all the plumbing. Rupert’s been helping me with some of the more finnicky bits, but that’s a bit beyond him.”

“What about the tower?” I asked, surprising myself with my own investment.

“Y’know, I thought of that. But it’s in need of pretty major structural repairs—I dinna think I can fix it without an engineer, so it’ll have to come after, once I can turn a real profit. But I thought that could be a luxury suite—for honeymooners and the like.”

His enthusiasm was infectious, and the care for the integrity of the estate was as plain as the long, sharp nose on his face.

“I’ve got the rooms in the barn rough framed and the electrical in, at least,” he explained, pulling out his phone to show me photos. “I think I can finish the rest in time for the summer tourists, wi’ yer help.”

The logic made sense. I couldn’t quite picture how we would get everything done in a few months, but I figured he’d made it this far on his own. Surely the two of us could get the barn into a usable state.

“I also thought...well.” He shifted in his seat. “My mother had a kailyard outside, a little garden, when I was a lad. Herbs, vegetables, the like. I thought it might be nice to bring it back.”

“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” I said. “You could use the produce for guests’ meals. People love that sort of thing, farm-to-table and all that.”

Jamie had a soft look on his face, and I wondered where his mother was now.

“I could start on that tomorrow, if you like, while you work on the barn,” I continued. “I’m a fair hand with plants, and it’s about the right time to get things moving for a summer garden. And if we get it established this year, it’ll be even better by the time the main house is ready for guests.”

He cleared his throat. “Aye, that’d be perfect.” His voice was a little thicker than it had been before. “Just tell me what ye need, and I’ll order it.”

 


 

The next day, Jamie showed me around the property. The manor house had nine bedrooms including the old Laird’s room on the top floor, plus what had once been a servants’ wing that had been gutted at some point. Jamie told me he planned to turn that into a standalone apartment, either for himself or as another option for guests who wanted extra privacy. Only our two rooms were set up properly; the rest had a jumble of furniture and odds and ends. 

Among the collection of buildings inside the stone-walled compound, there was the barn, his shop, and a storage shed that somehow held even more canvas-covered furniture, plus the old tower, which he called the broch. We walked down the road to see the farmland, which he had leased out for the moment, and the abandoned mill and chilly pond that marked the edge of his property and the beginning of Rupert’s. 

After a hasty lunch, I spent the afternoon in the parlour with Adso. We shared a cushion on the floor, he curled around my feet and me leaning on the low coffee table that was the only piece of furniture in the great stone room. At least Jamie had put down a rug in here, I thought ruefully.

He’d also dug out a number of books about gardening from the study—the one he’d called the speak-a-word room, a turn of phrase I found immensely charming. The newest one was from the 90s, and the oldest, bound in beautiful navy leather, was dated 1683.

“Can’t imagine much has changed about green things sprouting since then,” he’d said when I pointed out the date, a wolfish grin on his undeniably handsome face.

That was true, I conceded, but the language of the Scots Gardiner for the Climate of Scotland, in Three Parts was a bit beyond my faculties. I laid it aside somewhat reverently, and moved on to the relatively more modern tomes.

Some hours later, I thought I had a decent layout planned. There would be potatoes, leeks, and carrots, salad greens, kale, and cabbage. Strawberries and raspberries, for desserts and preserves. Radishes and peas, for the spring, and some winter squash. I thought maybe I still had enough time to get some tomatoes sprouted indoors to transfer outside when it was warmer. And, of course, a wide variety of herbs.

I tapped the pencil to my lip, considering my haphazard drawing. Something was missing still—the look of it was off, somehow.

“Flowers,” I murmured to myself.

I sketched in forget-me-knots, larkspur, lavender, and poppies all around the edge of the fence, and two large rose bushes to flank the entrance. Perfect to attract some pollinators, add a bit of color, and maybe provide some cut flowers for arrangements in the house.

All in all, it was a bit bigger than I meant for it to be. But when I went outside to inspect the courtyard, I thought that might be a good thing. The area was totally empty, and a big, lively garden would be just the ticket to warm up the space between the kitchen windows on the house and the rickety tower.

I found some stakes in the shed by the barn where Jamie was working, and started marking out my plot in the dirt.

“Got yer space all sorted, then?”

Jamie’s voice, mere feet behind me, gave me a start. I grabbed my heart, whirling around.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” I exhaled. “Don’t sneak up on me like that!”

He laughed, hands up in apology. “I thought ye’d hear me—I wasna trying to be quiet.”

He peered over my shoulder at the stakes in the ground, marking the outline and the paths between each bed. “Verra orderly, Sassenach. Like a row of soldiers.”

“You don’t think it’s too big?” I asked, stepping back to take in the full view.

“Nay, my mam’s was about that size, I think,” he said, considering. “Ye can see the outline of it, if you look. Where the ground’s a bit higher.”

I hummed agreement, seeing the slight mounding of the earth. It lined up almost exactly with my stakes. I took that as a sign that I’d been right about where it would be protected from the wind by the buildings, but still get plenty of sunlight.

“Anyway, it’s getting a bit late, and I think it’s like to rain,” he continued, gesturing at the sky. “Come inside, and we’ll go over what I need to pick up for ye in town tomorrow.”

 


 

“Roses?” Jamie repeated, squinting at my drawing. We were back at the kitchen table, tea brewing again.

“Yes, I thought they’d be nice for the entrance. Pretty, and we could make rosehip tea and soaps and things. We can get a climbing varietal and put in a nice little arch—one of the books said there are lots of colors native to Scotland, so plenty of choices.”

“Yellow,” he said firmly.

I looked at him in surprise. “Yes, I'm sure they come in yellow…”

“No, I mean I want yellow.”

My brow furrowed. He’d been quite content to listen to my blather about my garden plans up to this point, offering no thoughts beyond general agreement. “Well, all right,” I said, suddenly cautious.

Jamie took a deep breath. “My mother,” he began, “had a climbing yellow rose bush, by the door.” He paused, long enough that I wasn’t sure if that was the end of it.

“She died,” he finally continued. “I was quite young, so I dinna remember her well. But I do remember her leaning out her bedroom window in the summer, smelling the roses. They climbed all the way up to the Laird’s room, by the time I was a wee lad.”

The kettle was boiling, but neither of us moved from our seats.

“It was still alive when I left home for school, though no' so beautiful as when she cared for it.” His small smile was sad. “But when I...came back, it was gone. I’m no’ sure what happened.”

My hand reached out to his of its own willpower. He looked up and our eyes met.

“Yellow, then,” I said with finality.

 


 

The first week was over before I knew it. We woke with the dawn every morning, and let the twilight tell us when to finish work in the evenings. We ate our meals together, and ended each day with a dram of whisky and books by the fire in the parlour, Adso purring like mad in my lap. I fell into bed at night bone-tired, but satisfied in a way that was completely new to me. The process of building the garden almost entirely on my own gave me a sense of purpose and tangible accomplishment.

I’d started by putting together a dozen raised beds, laid out in three rows. Jamie had had to help me with the first one, but once I saw how it was done, I made the rest myself while he worked in the barn. I hammered in the picketing around the edge, but left a gap for an arch—Jamie had wanted to build that himself. I laid down drainage, mixed soil, tested pH levels, set up drip irrigation, spread gravel along the paths. And on the seventh day, I stood with my hands on my hips and admired my handiwork.

“It’s certainly something, Sassenach,” Jamie called from the barn door, peeking out to see. “When will ye plant?”

I looked up at the sky. It had been a mild winter, Jamie told me, but the mornings were still frosty. “I’ll do the kale and cabbage and things tomorrow,” I said. “Those seeds do all right in the cold. And I might try some indoor seed starts, get a head start on the summer veg.”

“Och, take tomorrow off,” he said, stretching lazily. “They’ll call the labor board on me if ye don’t rest yerself.”

I rolled my eyes. “It’s barely even work, Jamie,” I griped. “Anyway, I don’t see you taking a day off.”

“Well then, I guess we’ll both have to rest our auld bones tomorrow. Keep the government off my back.”

I snorted.

“Really, Claire, ye can’t work every day. We can go into Inverness if ye like, eat a meal we don’t have to cook ourselves for a change. My treat.”

“Well, all right,” I said. “I’ve got some things to buy anyway.”

 


 

My phone started buzzing like mad some twenty minutes outside Broch Mordha, where the landscape flattened a bit.

“I thought ye told me ye’d nobody to call,” Jamie teased, glancing away from the road to peek at my cell. “But the second ye’ve got reception…”

“I have no idea who all these are from,” I murmured, surprised. I started listening to the first voicemail.

“Mrs. Randall,” the voice began. I blanched at the address—I’d stopped using my married name while Frank was still in the hospital. “This is Gregory Alton at Alton, Talbot, and Forbes. I have urgent information about your husband’s life insurance policy. Please call me back at your earliest convenience. My office number is…”

The next three messages were all from the same number. I deleted them all without listening.

I could tell Jamie was watching me out of the corner of his eye. I fixed my face into a neutral expression. “Damn scammers,” I said, trying to sound light.

Jamie made a Scottish noise, as I’d come to think of his surprisingly versatile grunts. I opted to ignore the skeptical tone.

“Can we stop at the garden store first?” I asked, pushing onto a new subject as quickly as possible. “I want to get their advice on companion planting, and see when they think the rose starts should go in.”

“O' course,” he said. But I could still feel his calculating gaze on me all the way to Inverness.

 


 

“I think we should get wifi at the farm,” Jamie said decisively as we sat down for lunch at a tavern by the river.

“Oh?” I said, amused. I somehow couldn’t imagine Jamie at a computer, surfing the web. He gave off an air of being from another era entirely, long before anything as uncouth as the internet.

“Well, guests will expect it, to start,” he began, fiddling with the menu. “And I’ll need a website and email to manage bookings.”

“That’s true,” I agreed.

“So it’s settled.”

I grinned at his air of satisfaction. “It’s your house, Jamie, you can do whatever you like with it.”

His cheeks reddened lightly. “I just wanted ye to know. In case ye...needed it for something.”

I made no response to that, simply buried my nose in the menu. We lapsed into silence.

“Jamie, m’lad!” a deep voice boomed from the front door. “I havena’ seen ye here in ages! Been locked up in tha’ house?”

Jamie’s eyes widened, and he stood up to greet the newcomer. “Dougal.” He reached out a hand, and a bald man with a neat grey beard stepped up to grip it.

The grey hair aside, Dougal came across as hearty and hale, and I guessed he was somewhere in his late fifties. Dressed in dark jeans and an olive field jacket, he was trim and fit, every inch the stylish Scot.

“And who’s this?” He smiled down at me in a way that seemed meant to be kind, but something in his expression made me want to shrink away.

“Claire,” I said coolly, holding out my hand. 

Dougal squeezed it lightly. His palm was cold and dry.

“I hired her to help me get the business off the ground,” Jamie interjected.

“A sassenach, eh?” Dougal said to Jamie, dropping my hand and finally looking away from me. “Helpful to get the insider view of the English taste, I suppose.”

Jamie nodded stiffly.

“Weel, I’ll no’ keep ye. Jest wanted to say hallo to my nephew.” 

I blinked at Jamie, and his eyes flickered to mine, as if to say, Later.

“And Jamie,” Dougal’s voice dropped and he leaned in closer to Jamie’s ear. “If ye run into financial trouble, ye ken ye can always call on me.”

And with that, Dougal clapped Jamie on the shoulder, gave me a small nod, and was gone.

Jamie breathed out slowly and sunk into the booth, looking thoughtful.

“That's your uncle?” I asked.

“Oh aye,” he confirmed, shaking his head. “My mam’s brother. Dougal MacKenzie. He owns a mineral processing company. The MacKenzie family business.”

“And he wants to invest in Lallybroch?”

“Somethin’ like that,” he said. “He tried to buy it, a few years back. My da couldna make ends meet farming anymore, so he’d taken out a loan against the house. Dougal said he was just looking to help, but...”

I had the gist of it now. “You think he wanted it for himself.”

“I do,” he said firmly. “And now that she’s mine, I’ll no’ sell her—to Dougal or anyone.”

Chapter Text

More than a month they’d lived under the same roof, and Jamie was no closer to figuring Claire out.

It would have been impressive if it wasn’t so maddening. He’d always been a charmer, and he put great stock in his conversation skills to wheedle information out of people. And yet, on the subject of herself, Claire was a stone wall.

He’d picked up some things, of course. She’d been raised mostly by an uncle, an archaeologist of some sort who’d dragged her all over the world. She spoke to the wee cheetie like he could understand her, and sang to him when she thought Jamie couldn’t hear. She’d studied medicine in university but never did her training, and she read voraciously, everything from treatises on natural sciences to bodice rippers.

And then there was the ring. She always wore it, a plain gold band. So assuming her husband was indeed an ex, he guessed it was a recent development. There was the voicemail about an insurance policy, which he’d been able to overhear bits of. So was he dead, then? Or could it be a call about removing her from the policy after a divorce? Could they still be married, and she’d simply left him? Claire gave no sign.

For all that she never offered up any information that mattered, her face gave away her every emotion. That was something, at least. He had grown to look forward to their meals together, and most especially their quiet companionship by the fire after dinner, when he could watch her glass face surreptitiously as she read.

He’d let her talk him into finally pulling some furniture out of storage, beautiful antiques that he’d hidden away for safekeeping while he’d been in the thick of the downstairs renovation over the summer. They each had their preferred seat, his a worn leather highback and hers a squashy tapestry-covered armchair with a mismatched ottoman. Sometimes, if it was his turn to wash up after dinner, he’d find her splayed out on the couch she’d insisted he bring inside as well, as close to the fire as she could get, Adso industriously kneading her flat stomach.

“Listen to this, Jamie,” she’d say, and read him some particularly ridiculous or profound passage from whatever ancient book she’d found in the study that evening.

He felt he was running out of time to figure out where she stood. If things went on in this manner much longer, and he found out the husband was still in the picture in one way or another, or some other man waited in the wings…

Well. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to stand it.

But, he reasoned, he’d never seen her contact anyone, not even now that the wifi was up and running and she could actually use her phone on the property. No texts or calls—except for that number he’d grown to recognize as the solicitor. When it flashed on the screen, she ignored it immediately. So it seemed unlikely that she had someone.

Logically, he knew he'd have to ask to get the information he wanted. But he wasn’t ready to risk a change in their easy friendship, and he certainly didn’t want to startle her into quitting.

No, he thought, better give it at least another week.

Coward, a voice whispered back.

 


 

“Jamie, come look!”

He was hanging the bedroom door in the newly-plastered barn cottage when Claire’s excited voice came through the open window. He cursed as the damned thing slipped off the hinges before he could get the pin in place, but set it aside and went to look at what had got her so animated.

“Look at the roses!”

She’d planted two bare root plants three weeks before, one on either side of the gap in the fence (still empty, he noticed with chagrin). The plants’ spindly brown sticks had pointed sadly up towards the sky since then, but today there were suddenly three green shoots on one, and four on the other.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Jamie marveled, crouching down to inspect them.

“Now that they’ve woken up, they’ll grow like mad,” Claire said proudly. “We’ll have to get something for them to climb, so they go the right direction.”

“Aye. I’ll build the arbor tomorrow, then.”

He turned just fast enough to catch her tender look before she could cover it up.

“Wonderful,” she said, brushing the dirt from her hands onto her filthy jeans. “Need help with the doors in there?”

 


 

True to his word, the next day took his sketch into his shop to get to work. It was a simple design, but strong, built to last. He’d made it deeper than the standard garden arch to fit small benches on either side of a passageway, along with a gate to keep animals out. He could picture how it would look when the roses were well-established—almost like a tunnel of greenery into the garden. Her garden.

As he cut the wood to size and assembled the pieces, Jamie allowed himself to daydream a little. Claire in a dress, her curls loose and shining in the summer sun, with a basket of ripe produce dangling from one arm. Pushing open the gate he’d made for her, and as she turned to see him, her dazzling smile—

“Good Lord, those posts are massive.”

He pulled away from the saw to see her peering around the doorway. “Aye, I had a bit of inspiration last night. Thought I’d add a few features.” He turned off the tool as she approached.

No sundress today, of course. Just her standard jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, but curly wisps escaped, as always. She futilely tucked a piece behind her ear as she leaned over the work table beside him to look at the drawing, comparing it to the partially assembled product.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, smiling. “Just you wait, some bride-to-be is going to be just begging to get married in front of your turnips one day.”

Jamie’s mouth went slightly dry. The thought had, of course, crossed his mind—as had the various ways in which two people might occupy themselves on the sheltered benches under the arch.

“Bit close to the pigpen for that,” he responded with faux nonchalance.

“So don't buy any pigs,” she countered.

He turned to smile at her, having no retort.

Mistake, he thought.

She was very close beside him, and turning his head had brought their faces within a foot of each other. He was locked on her eyes, golden and rich. The curl she’d tried to tame had popped back out from behind her ear. He reached, unable to tamp down the desire to touch it. Would it be as soft as it looked…?

“James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser!” a shrill voice shouted from the courtyard. 

He jumped back, guilty. Claire looked dazed. Was it the shout or the moment that passed between them that had surprised her?

He didn’t have time to analyze her expression, as he could hear footsteps in the gravel fast approaching.

“Jenny,” he groaned.

“Jamie, I swear, ye’d better be dead in there.” He could see her figure silhouetted at the open door. “Ye’ve no’ answered any of my calls.”

“No’ dead, just...busy,” he responded, wavering between affection and exasperation. “My sister,” he muttered to Claire, who still looked somewhat bewildered.

“Well, come out intae the light so I can see for myself,” Jenny commanded.

Claire followed him out of the shop, and Jamie immediately wished she hadn’t. Jenny took one look at her, then back at him, with an all-too-knowing expression.

“Jenny, this is Claire. She’s…”

“The sassenach ye hired. Aye, I’d heard about that.” And other things, besides, her pursed expression added silently.

“A pleasure, Jenny. Jamie’s told me so much about you,” Claire said sweetly, holding out her hand.

Jenny looked down at the proffered palm for just a moment too long before she took it. “I’m sure.”

Mary, Michael, and Bride. He was in for it now.

 


 

Claire, bless her, excused herself after introductions and went to finish sanding the reclaimed floors in the cottage bedrooms. Good on ye, lass, he thought. Discretion is the better part of valor.

Jenny gave him a square look as he glanced after Claire’s retreating back, and then rolled her eyes.

“Good Christ, Jamie,” she said reprovingly, then turned on her heel towards the house. Jamie had no choice but to follow her, though it felt a little like walking to the post for a thrashing.

“So,” Jenny said firmly when the front door was closed behind him. “Ye’ve found yerself a little plaything to entertain you on this mad venture of yers, then.”

“It’s no’ like that, Jenny,” Jamie protested, trying to keep control of his temper. “I needed help, and she’s a good head for this sort of thing.”

“Oh aye, I’ll bet she does!”

“Janet, fer Christ’s sake!" he growled through gritted teeth. "For once in yer damnable life would ye wait five seconds before jumping to conclusions?”

So much for controlling his temper.

But to his surprise, Jenny softened a little.

“Yer right, of course,” she conceded primly. “And I will say, Jamie, the place does look better.”

He snapped his mouth shut, willing his blood pressure to lower.

“I never did much like the thought of ye all alone here. So I suppose I’m glad ye’ve someone to spend time wi’.”

“I’m really no’ swiving her,” Jamie said, suppressing a smile.

“No’ for lack of trying, I’m sure,” Jenny teased.

“Come have a cuppa, we’ll chat,” Jamie said, wrapping an arm around her narrow shoulders and leading her to the kitchen.

 


 

They studiously avoided the topic of Claire for the rest of the afternoon, and when the woman herself finally came back in from the barn, Jenny was the picture of affability. All the same, Jamie was on high alert—his sister might have stowed her temper, but he was sure she hadn’t dropped the topic. Her quick, bright eyes missed nothing, and he could see her gaze following Claire all around the kitchen as she washed her hands and started fixing dinner.

“I’m so glad you’re staying,” Claire said over her shoulder as she rooted around the refrigerator. “I was planning to make roast chicken tonight.”

Jamie winced at that. Claire wasn’t a bad cook, but she just didn’t seem to get along with the 1970s appliances. Anything she attempted that was more complicated than a cheese toastie seemed to end in disaster.

Jenny caught his expression. “I’ll help ye,” she said, rising from the table. “Our mam had a wonderful recipe. I can show ye how it’s done, if ye like.”

Within minutes, Jenny had taken over the whole operation, relegating Claire to chopping duty and him to hunt for thyme in the budding kailyard.

Leaving the two of them alone together made him slightly nervous, but it was undeniably pleasant to be out in Claire’s garden, despite the mid-April drizzle. The days were growing longer, and all the green things had progressed significantly under her studious care.

He breathed deeply for a moment—the rich smell of wet soil was heady—then started his search. He’d thought she was planning to plant the herbs nearest the kitchen door for precisely this reason—ah yes, there!

Claire had charmed Mrs. Fitz down the road into dividing some of the plants in her massive kailyard to get Lallybroch’s started. The thyme plant was working along industriously as a result, having grown in size significantly since being moved. Jamie trimmed off ten sprigs as instructed.

As he pushed into the back door, he could hear Claire laughing in the kitchen.

“—And there was Jamie, nekkid as a jaybird, climbing out the millpond wi’ one hand coverin’ himself—”

“Janet!” he protested, but he couldn’t help grinning. It was a funny story.

Claire was gasping for breath, tears glistening at the corners of her eyes. “What did your father do?” she managed.

“Och, he just looked Jamie up and down, then turned to the lass an’ said, ‘I think ye’d best be along home now.’ Dinna ken a girl could move that fast wi’ her trousers on backwards.”

Claire, having regained control of her breath, wiped at her eyes with her sleeve. “He sounds like a character.” She smiled at Jamie, and he felt his heartbeat quicken.

“Aye, he was a good man,” Jamie agreed. He handed Jenny the thyme sprigs, and she tore the leaves off the stems, sprinkling them over the chicken and potatoes in the cast iron pan.

“Grab yerself a glass, a bráthair,” Jenny commanded, pointing at the open bottle of wine on the table. “I’ve got a few more tales to tell Claire here while dinner cooks. It’s really no’ fair that ye dinna warn her what she was getting into when ye hired her.”

Resigned to his fate, Jamie did as he was told.

Chapter Text

By the time we finished dinner, we’d gone through two bottles of wine. I was feeling pleasantly lightheaded as we stood up to clear the table. Jenny had proven to be warm and witty, once we got past the awkward introduction. Still, I caught her giving me carefully guarded glances throughout the evening, and there was an underlying hum of tension between her and Jamie.

It was decided that Jenny would spend the night in Jamie’s room. He would sleep on the couch in the parlour, since the other bedrooms were still unfurnished. I was skeptical that all 6’4” of him would fit, but dutifully scrambled upstairs to set out fresh bedding for Jenny while the two of them finished clearing up. I felt a little strange, going into his room and touching his slept-in sheets. But it seemed prudent to give them a little time alone. 

Jamie’s room was spotless, as always. His bed was already made, which made me smile for reasons I tried not to think about too deeply.

I pulled back the duvet, stirring up a puff of air that smelled faintly of pine, leather, and something baser that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Eau d’Scot, I thought giddily as I breathed it in.

“Focus,” I berated myself, and set to work on stripping the bed. But the scent of him lingered, warming me more than the wine had.

When the new sheets were on and the old tucked into Jamie’s hamper, I scampered to the stairs, avoiding the creaky floorboards by habit. I could hear Jenny and Jamie’s low voices from the top—with a tipsy sort of courtesy, I paused, not wanting to interrupt a serious discussion.

“So she’s English,” Jenny said. I froze, not even daring to breathe. They were talking about me.

“Aye. From Oxford.”

Glass touched crystal, a gentle clink, followed by a faint glug as liquid poured.

“And married.” Jenny’s tone was reproachful.

I didn't catch Jamie’s mumbled reply. I crouched down to carefully peer into the downstairs hall. They were just below the landing, backs to the stairs and fireplace. I slipped down the first set of steps to hide behind the massive chimney that blocked the landing from view, straining to hear.

Unnecessarily, it turned out—the volume of the conversation was on the rise. “Ye dinna ken? What d’ye mean, ye dinna ken?”

A Dhia, Janet! I told ye, she works for me. I’m no’ going tae dig into her private life. It’s no’ my business!”

I could hear Jenny snort. “Well, she’s wearin’ a ring, or did ye miss that? I’ll tell ye, all of Broch Mordha and half o’ Inverness took notice. Geillis Duncan called me askin’ had ye got engaged, said ye’ve been parading her all ‘round the county.”

Jamie made a loud Scottish noise. “I didna miss it,” he said peevishly. “She’s only mentioned a husband once since she’s been here, and she used the past tense. Maybe he’s dead, maybe they’re divorced, or maybe she just up and left him. But if he’s still about somewhere, she’s certainly no’ interested in talking to him.”

“Have ye no’ just asked?”

That was enough of that, I judged. With a sense of bravado that could only come after three glasses of wine, I stepped around the corner of the chimney and cleared my throat to announce myself. They turned, Jamie looking guiltier than I’d ever seen him. Jenny was stone-faced.

“No, he hasn’t,” I said, my voice thankfully steady, if a little higher pitched than normal.

I descended the last few steps into the parlour with as much dignity as I could manage and sat down on the edge of the chaise. “My husband died. Last month. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. So I came north, looking for a place where I could...sort through it all, I suppose. Decide what to do next.”

“Claire…” Jamie breathed.

“I’m very sorry tae hear it, Claire.” I was relieved that Jenny wasn't overwrought—her tone was pragmatic, yet compassionate, in a way I very much appreciated. She poured whisky into the empty glass on the table beside her. “Here,” she said, holding it out to me. “Ye look like ye could use a dram.”

I took the glass gratefully and sipped it slow, steeling myself for the wave of questions.

“So then,” Jenny began. “Tell me about yer plans for the barn.”

Jamie looked just as wrong-footed at the sudden change in topic as I felt. Jenny slipped into the easychair, her eyes—blue, slanted, like her brother’s—warm as she met my gaze.

“I—er, well,” I stumbled, trying to refocus. “Jamie thought we’d finish up the conversion, so we can start taking bookings while we work on the rooms upstairs.”

I detailed the plans we’d worked on, rattled off the to-do list for the month and our progress thus far. And as I rambled, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jamie surreptitiously take Jenny’s hand and squeeze it.

 


 

It was past 11 when Jenny stood and announced she was off to bed. Jamie had just poured us both a second glass of his father’s fine whisky.

“Stay, Sassenach,” he said when I made a move to follow her upstairs. “Dinna let that go to waste—we’ve only so many bottles left.”

I acquiesced, unable to resist the golden liquid in my glass. He patted the arm of my favorite chair, now vacant. My head swam when I stood, and immediately I slid bonelessly into the worn tapestry. I was definitely approaching drunk.

“I love this chair,” I sighed, pulling my feet up onto the seat.

Jamie chuckled. “Aye, I’d noticed.”

We were quiet for a moment. I closed my eyes, enjoying the warmth of the fire he’d lit, as he did every night.

“Claire.” 

I opened my eyes again to see his serious expression.

“I am sorry. About yer husband, and about...well. The way people talk.”

“That’s all right,” I said softly. “I didn’t really mean to make it some big mystery. I probably should have just told you.”

I couldn’t meet his gaze any longer. The whisky was making me dizzy—or was it his intense stare?

“Why didn’t ye?”

I considered the question for a second. “I suppose...I felt like if I didn’t say it out loud, it wouldn’t be true. If I don’t call myself a widow, maybe I won’t be one.” I laughed a little. “That sounds stupid.”

Jamie leaned forward in his chair and hesitantly, he covered my hand with his own.

“It doesna,” he said.

We sat just like that til we finished our drinks, not speaking, not moving, connected. And long after I finally went up to bed, I could still feel the warmth of Jamie’s palm on the back of my hand.

 


 

The next morning, Jamie rushed around the kitchen, making toast and eggs and coffee—anything to avoid sitting at the table with Jenny and I. When the phone rang, he almost tripped in his rush to get out of the room.

“The kitchen things are in,” he announced as he hung up. He’d put in a special order at the hardware store in Inverness for appliances, cabinet fronts, and a sink that fit the barn’s rustic style. 

“Why don’t I take the truck, go fetch it all?” I offered. “I can drop off the sander while I’m there, now that the floors are done. I’ve got some things to do in town anyway. You stay and spend some time with Jenny before she has to leave.”

To my surprise, he accepted, and quickly jumped out the side door to load the rented drum floor sander into the back of his truck.

“Clot-heid,” Jenny muttered, shaking her head.

“What?”

“He’s embarrassed,” she replied.

“Whatever for?”

She gave me a meaningful look, and I blushed.

“He’ll get over it,” she said, watching him out the window over the sink. “Will you?”

Her tone made her meaning clear. Is this some short-term way to pass the time, or will you help my brother see this through?  

“My marriage was...not a good match,” I said carefully. “I’m sorry Frank is dead—he wasn’t a bad man, really—but I don’t miss the life I had with him. And being here, at Lallybroch, working on something real...well.” 

“Good.” She smiled, but her eyes were serious. “I was no’ a fan of this enterprise when he cooked it up, but he’s in too deep to back out now. I dinna ken how he’ll manage, if it all comes out to naught.”

I had a feeling she wasn’t only talking about Lallybroch.

 


 

I returned from Inverness in the late afternoon, treasures tarped and battened down in the bed of the truck, to find Jenny gone and Jamie in a dreadful mood.

I could hear him cursing up a storm in the barn as I climbed out of the cab, a steady drum of Gaelic phrases punctuated with the occasional ominous crash.

“Jamie?” I called cautiously as I stepped inside the open door. “I’ve got the stuff for the kitchen, if you want to help me bring it in?”

Ifrinn!"

His voice was coming from the bath, which was still down to the studs—the plumber was due to come next week, and then Rupert would help us drywall and lay tile.

“Is everything all right?” 

“Fine,” he snarled.

I blinked as I saw the state of the room. Pipe and fittings were flung everywhere, and new holes seemed to have appeared in the pine subfloor—not all of them neatly cut. Jamie was on his hands and knees in the center of the chaos, one arm reaching down into the gloom below.

“Can I...help somehow?” I asked hesitantly. I hadn’t yet seen Jamie’s temper truly unleashed, but I had a feeling I was about to get a taste.

“This...fucking…” He lapsed into Gaelic again. Suddenly, he gave a wordless shout, and pulled out a piece of pipe that looked the same as all the others to me. Panting, he flung himself backwards, til he was sitting up against what would eventually be the linen cupboard.

I pursed my lips, surveying the sweat-dampened hair at his temples and anger-flushed face. He stubbornly avoided my eyes.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he snapped. “I canna afford to wait a whole blasted week for that mhac na galla plumber.”

“All right,” I said mildly, and sank to the floor across from him. “If you show me what you want, I’ll help you put the pipes together.”

Jamie sucked in a breath like he would shout at me again, but instead he slumped, letting the air out slowly.

“I’m sorry, Sassenach,” he grunted. “I just had a bit o’ bad news, is all.”

I didn’t respond, just waited for him to elaborate.

“The bank called. They got an offer to buy out the debt on Lallybroch.”

I blinked. “What does that mean?”

Jamie tilted his head back against the post, connecting with a thunk. “It means there’s someone out there who wants to take over control of my business loan—and would be able to set the terms as they like, more or less.”

“Dougal?”

“Aye, so it would seem,” he said dully. “Jenny said he called her last week, told her some ratchel nonsense tha’ I hadna paid the contractor for the work last summer, and asked her if she’d try to talk some sense into me about letting him invest.”

I was confused, and I knew it showed on my face. 

“I don’t understand.”

He sighed. 

“It’s a bit of a long story.”

I scooted across the floor to lean up against the wall beside him. 

“I’ve got time.”

Chapter Text

Jamie was 16 when he left home, barely more than a child himself. But his father wanted him to take advantage of all the opportunities available to him—even if it was to Brian Fraser’s own detriment.

So Jamie crossed the Channel and went to Paris, where he’d been accepted to a top Jesuit lycée in France, and then to the Sorbonne to study modern languages and political science. He was an exemplary student, well-liked by his teachers and classmates alike.

No matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t quite make out where it was leading. Learning and reading in French, Arabic, Portuguese, Mandarin, discussing the connections between nation-states—it was enjoyable enough, and he was good at it. But to what greater purpose? His father had been a farmer, and his father before that, back to time immemorial. His family had kept the people of the Broch Tuarach estate fed and clothed for centuries—up to and including giving their lives in the field of battle, when it came down to it. In the face of all that, what chance did literature and theory have? 

Jamie gave his studies exactly as much attention as they required, and anything left over—that, he devoted to the sorts of distractions to which the young are susceptible. 

Paris, in all its charm, loved him in such a way that made it easy to forget his father, toiling alone in the fields. After all, Jamie was hardly the first to leave the estate—Jenny had married and gone to Glasgow with Ian Murray before the age of 20, his mother dead of cervical cancer before Jamie was out of primary school. What was one less Fraser at Lallybroch, in the grand scheme of things?

But Brian was not alone, not really. The thread between him and his son may have been stretched, but it was strong. Jamie was the Great Red Hope, Seumas Ruadh—and Brian was determined to see him through to his potential, come what may.

And so, for the love of his child, he made a crucial mistake. He took out a loan against the estate to cover tuition at the lycée. And when that money ran out, he took out more to pay Jamie’s living expenses while he attended university. Land that had been inhabited by their family going back to the time of Robert the Bruce.

It might have been a gamble that paid off, were it not for a substandard apartment balcony and a single weak artery deep in Brian Fraser’s brain.

On the first of May at the end of his fourth year in Paris, Jamie’s friends threw him a birthday party in their Latin Quarter apartment. He climbed three flights of stairs to their doorstep, where they greeted him with cheers and warm embraces and filled glasses.

That would be the last thing he remembered of that night—accepting a foaming beer from a pretty girl he didn’t yet know as he shrugged out of his jacket. The rest he would have to cobble together from a garbled mess of text messages, indifferent police reports, and drunken memories relayed second- and third-hand.

As best as he could figure, he had been smoking a cigarette with a girl (the same one?) on the balcony overlooking the building’s courtyard, some hours after arriving. A liquor-soaked argument escalated to blows just inside the door, and someone crashed out into the couple. A squeal of metal, a twisting. In the end, wether because of relative levels of intoxication, weight distribution, or, perhaps, a mad protective instinct that drove him to shove the girl back to safety, Jamie was the only one who went over the failing rail.

A two-story freefall, then a crash of glass to break his momentum before the final plummet to the ground.

The greenhouse roof might have saved his life. But he would bear the scars forever.

While the paramedics worked to stabilize Jamie and slide his broken body into the ambulance, a few hundred miles to the northeast, a call woke Brian Fraser. And as he rushed to gather the essentials and make the arrangements to get to his son, an arterial wall gave way deep in his brain.

When Jamie woke a week later, Jenny was there. His father was not.

He spent nearly a year in a rehab facility in the Breton countryside, recovering from the spinal cord injury. The staff made the mistake of calling him “lucky” only once.

Jenny and Ian took on the legal crusade despite Jenny’s advancing pregnancy and a toddler underfoot, with the help of the intrepid family lawyer Ned Gowan. The balcony, they found, had not been up to code, and the building owners had been ordered twice to replace the rusting supports. 

The judgement wasn’t much, in the grand scheme of what Jamie had lost. But, Ned rationalized as he explained the situation in Jamie’s Spartan room at the rehab facility, it would be enough to finish school and start anew.

“For, ye see,” Gowan said gently, peering over his stupid little spectacles, “I’m afraid ye’ll no’ be able to keep Lallybroch.”

The debts had mounted without Jamie and Jenny’s knowledge. There was the mortgage against the value of the estate, of course. But also a farm loan, to fund a harvest that never came. And lingering balances from prior years that hadn’t yielded quite the bounty Brian had hoped. While Brian had left Lallybroch to the two of them, neither could afford to cover what his estate owed. Selling seemed to be the only option.

“There’ll still be a good bit left over,” Jenny told her brother over the phone. Young Jamie, just two, screamed in the background. “Ye’ll be able to buy a nice place of yer own, once ye finish school. Something more manageable.”

But Jamie would never go back to university.

In his single-minded, pigheaded way, he forced through the only idea he could come up with to save his home. He combined his small settlement with a business loan from the bank to pay off Lallybroch's debt. He parceled out some of the land, though it wrenched his gut to do so, and sold it off to finance the renovations. If it took turning the house where he was born, where his father died, into a tourist attraction to save it, then so be it. The trade-off was worth it.

But like his father before him, Jamie missed something in his financial dealings. Because when he sold the plot of land at the head of the narrow valley, he thought he was selling it to another farmer, someone who wanted to grow wheat or barley or keep it for grazing land. But Byzantine business structures hid the truth—Jamie sold the land to a subsidiary of Leoch Minerals, his uncle Dougal’s company. And at the edge of their new property, where it bordered the remaining Broch Tuarach estate, they discovered traces of cobalt-bearing ore.

 


 

“A pit mine,” Jamie spat. “That's what they’ll turn her into. Strip her bare, line their pockets, and leave her for dead.”

His voice was raw and his eyes red-rimmed. I didn’t remember moving, but I was kneeling in front of him, and he was gripping my hand like a lifeline.

“Dougal thinks he can squeeze me out. Buy my loan from the bank, change the terms so I cannae afford the payments. And he’s working Jenny, to make it seem like I’m out of my depth so she’ll push me to sell.” He hung his head. “It was meant tae be hers, too—she thought it was a daft idea to try and keep it, but she knew I’d find a way do it with or without her. So she and Ian agreed not to cash out her share to buy their own place. An’ now they’ve got three bairns in a rented terrace house while I’m here, drivin' her inheritance into the ground.”

Suddenly, I could see just how young he really was. I had assumed we were the same age, but if I’d understood his story right, he couldn’t even be 23. The enormity of everything he carried hit me, and my vision started to swim.

“Jamie,” I breathed, squeezing his hand even tighter.

“I dinna ken what to do,” he whispered shakily. “The money from the land is runnin’ out and—”

He couldn’t catch his breath to continue. The gathering storm of despair had darkened his beautiful blue eyes. 

I couldn’t stand to see him that way. I scrambled across the few inches of pine floor between us and flung my arms around him. I could feel myself speaking, but I had no real notion of what was coming out of my mouth.

Jamie wrapped his big arms around my waist desperately, his head buried at my throat. I could feel his parted lips pressed against my collarbone as he sucked in air, trying to choke down sobs. The tears he didn’t want me to see dampened the neckline of my shirt, and he shook violently.

“You’re all right, you’re all right,” I murmured over and over, as though saying the mantra enough times could make it true. “It’ll all be all right."

 


 

Some time later, Jamie lay quiet with his head on my lap. I had ended up seated on the rough subfloor, back against the original stone wall that had stood since the 18th century, with my legs extended. I could hear his steady breathing—he’d fallen asleep. I peered down at his face as I absently stroked his hair, and I could just see his lips twitch up into the tiniest of smiles.

“Oh,” I said, suddenly without breath.

If I was honest with myself, it had been there for weeks. But up until now, I could only bring myself to look at it obliquely. Like the sunbeam that had engulfed him the day we met, it was too bright, too intense to stare at straight on. But in the quiet times, when we’d been working side by side or just sitting together wordlessly for long enough that I could forget anything existed outside of the two of us, I would catch it out of the corner of my eye. A flutter, a glance. A lingering moment, standing closer than I consciously realized.

But now, here it was, in my lap, tangled around my hands.

Oh.”

Chapter Text

They didn’t speak much in the days after, beyond the immediate needs of food and work. Claire seemed distracted, and she took to reading in her bedroom in the evening instead of sitting with him by the fire. Jamie wondered if she was job hunting, now that she knew the dire straights the business was in; he walked in on her scrolling through her phone a few times, and she’d shoved it quickly out of sight, a guilty expression on her face.

It made him depressed, which in turn made him irritable. He picked fights with her, snapping whenever she asked a question or tried to help him on a project. He could see that he was pushing her away, but he couldn’t help himself.

At night, when she disappeared into her room, he would lie in his own bed and allow himself to pretend he hadn’t ruined everything. He pictured her beside him, remembered the velvet feel of her white throat against his lips, the curve of her waist in his arms. 

He always felt worse when he was finished, his seed spilled across his belly and cock slowly deflating in his hand, but he couldn’t resist the brief escape from reality.

After almost a week of torture, he was nearing the end of his rope. Claire had taken her little hatchback into Inverness, told him she’d be gone all day. She’d asked to borrow his laptop too. Guess that’s it, he thought, and braced himself for the resignation that was undoubtedly coming. 

He moped around the house, unable to concentrate on any of the urgent tasks that needed to be finished in the barn. By early evening, Claire still hadn’t returned. He couldn’t muster the energy to cook for himself, so he just ate a hunk of bread and slices of cheese straight off the block. Finally, he retreated to his room and changed into pajamas to read in bed. The book wasn’t particularly good, but the heroine had curly brown hair and was often described in various states of undress. He allowed his mind to fill in the rest.

It was half seven when her car finally came rumbling up the drive. Soon after, he heard the front door close and the sound of someone bounding up the stairs. Jamie threw the book into his nightstand drawer and crossed to the door just as Claire came bursting in.

“I think I’ve figured it out,” she said, pushing past him into the room. His laptop was balanced on her arms, open to a spreadsheet. She sat down on the edge of his rumpled bed, and he felt himself flush down to his toes to see her right where he’d just been lying, about to…

“Figured what out?” He hoped his voice didn’t sound too strangled.

She waved him over to her. “I fiddled with your budget projections. If we can cut a couple expenses and move up some of the timelines, I think we can make it work.”

Jamie was bewildered. He sat beside her, looking at the glowing screen in her lap. It was a document he’d created to track the cost of the renovations. But she’d removed some line items, and the income line was much higher than he knew it to be.

“I think ye’ve messed up the formulas somewhere.” He pointed to the number in question. “That’s thrice what’s in the account.”

“Well, for now,” Claire said timidly. “But I’ve found another investor.”

Jamie turned to her, shocked. “That’s what ye’ve been up to? Looking for investors?”

Claire shifted awkwardly. “Sort of.” She closed the laptop and put it aside. “I reached out to Frank’s solicitor.”

“The one that keeps ringing ye?” He couldn’t quite see where she was going with all this, but a sense of foreboding filled his gut.

“Yes. There was a problem with the life insurance payout. Frank had increased the coverage amount by quite a lot right before, and there was some question...but Mr. Alton said it’s all sorted now, and the money’s mine.”

And then it clicked.

“No,” he said firmly.

She ignored him, pressing on. “He’s got the check at his office now, he just needed an address to forward it on. I gave him the box number, so it’ll be here in the next few days. It should be enough to cover what’s left on the loan, and a little left over.”

“Claire, no.” His voice was rising now.

“I met with Ned Gowan, and he said he could draft up an agreement as soon as we’re ready. If I forgo the stipend and we start marketing the cottage now—”

“Dammit, Claire!” he shouted, rising to his feet. “Will ye listen to me?”

She stood up to match him, flushing with anger. “No, I will not!” she cried, voice shrill. “It’s my money, and I’ll use it for what I like! And I won’t sit by while you stick your head in the sand just because you feel guilty!”

Jamie could feel his desperation rising. “Claire, you have to think about this,” he pleaded. “This money is supposed to help ye build a new life.”

Claire stamped her foot, and he was horrified to see her eyes starting to shine with tears. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do!” 

He could see her trying to gather herself—she shook her head, breathed through her nose slowly.

“I didn’t earn that money,” she said after a moment, voice tight but a little calmer. “I didn’t want anything to do with it. But I can’t give it back, so if I can use it for a bit of good, to do something that makes me happy...why shouldn’t I?”

Jamie reached for her, and she didn’t pull away.

“And what if things go wrong?” he said softly. “What if...I fuck it all up?” He ran his hand down the length of her arm, until their fingertips touched. “I could lose Lallybroch, all yer money…”

And you , he added silently.

Claire squeezed his hand hard. “You won’t,” she said. “I know you won’t.”

She eyed him with her head cocked slightly, deliberating.

“I haven’t told you much about Frank,” she said, slightly apologetic. “But it might make all this a bit clearer.” She dropped his hand and sunk back down onto the bed, tucking her feet up. He sat down beside her.

“We were already on the rocks, before...everything. He wanted a child so badly and it wasn’t going well. He was ready to move on to IVF, but I wasn’t, and we were fighting a lot,” Claire said calmly.

“I walked in on him with a student, in his office.” Jamie’s jaw clenched, but he said nothing. “He was a history professor, see. I suppose I wasn’t really surprised, except he didn’t seem the type to let himself be caught.”

“Idiot,” Jamie muttered, and one corner of Claire’s mouth twitched upward.

“Maybe. Anyway, I started a big row when he came home that night, and told him I wanted a divorce. He didn’t like that idea much, and he ended up storming out.”

Her voice was starting to shake a little. Jamie laid a hand on her knee, giving it what he hoped was a comforting squeeze.

“He went to the pub, I’m told. Got pissed. And on his way home, he stepped in front of a truck.”

The shock of it made him flinch.

“It looked like he might have done it on purpose. That’s why Frank’s solicitor kept ringing—I had to give my testimony to the insurance company for their investigation before they’d release the money.” She took a breath. “And Frank didn’t die, not right away. He was in a coma for months. I didn’t really know what to do—I was so mad, and hurt, and it felt so awful to visit him with everyone at the hospital treating me like the grieving wife. So when he finally passed, it was...a relief.”

Claire started idly tracing the back of his fingers, eyes downcast. “I’d been going about in a fog for some time, even before,” she continued. “I changed my whole life for him, you see. I had no family, no close friends—it was just me and Uncle Lamb for so long, moving about, and then when I lost him I sort of threw myself into university. So when Frank and I got together and he asked me to come with him to Oxford instead of doing my foundation training...I just went along with it. I didn’t need to work, he said, he’d take care of everything. So I gave it all up, and I spent two years just trying to make him happy.”

Jamie wished she’d meet his eyes, but she just kept staring at their two hands.

“Nobody tells you when you’re getting married that your husband might die and leave you all alone. And when it happened to me, I looked up and realized I had nothing of my own. So...when I ended up here…” She shrugged helplessly. “Suddenly I had something I was working toward. Some agency, I suppose.”

Finally, she looked up at him. “I don’t think it’s so surprising that I don’t want to give that up,” she finished, her voice low. “Not when I have a way to hang onto it.”

It was her eyes, molten gold in the soft lamplight, that pulled him in, their gravitational force impossible to resist. Claire stayed perfectly still, expression, for once, unreadable. He could feel the tease of her breath on his lip as he leaned closer.

“Jamie,” she said softly, and her tone made him pause. “Jamie, I don’t think this is a good idea.”

He felt the harsh glow of embarrassment rising from his wame. “I thought—”

“No, I know.” She was blushing, too. “It’s just, if we’re going to really do this, be partners on this thing…”

He shrunk away from her. “Of course,” he said tightly.

She was still trying to explain herself, and he wished she would stop so he could get on with feeling sorry for himself. “It’s bad timing, is all,” she continued. “You’ve been such a good friend to me, and I don’t want to muck it all up, not when we’re getting so close to everything you wanted.”

Jamie had to bite back a laugh. Everything he wanted? She really had no idea. But he certainly knew what “friend” meant, and if that was how she felt...

He cleared his throat and stood up, backing away from her. 

“No, yer right. I understand.”

He was afraid to meet her eyes again, afraid that he wouldn’t be able to stop himself pleading her to reconsider. He turned away from her, fiddling with some papers on his dresser.

“Rupert will be here early to help finish the bathroom,” he said. “We can go see Ned Gowan on Friday about the contract.”

He could hear the bed shift as Claire stood up, recognizing the dismissal. She hesitated at the door behind him, started to speak, then stopped herself.

“Goodnight, Jamie,” she said finally as she pulled the door shut behind her. He made no attempt to reply.

Chapter Text

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck.

I threw myself on my bed, burying my face in the pillows as the tears started to rise again. Had I made a huge mistake? 

Stopping Jamie from kissing me—because that was plainly his intention—had been harder than I could have imagined. But as he leaned in, all I could hear was Ned Gowan’s voice in my head.

It had been at the end of our meeting, after I’d explained my plan and Ned had given me what information he was allowed to give on the Lallybroch business structure. I had packed up all my notes and was standing up to leave his cozy office on the outskirts of Inverness.

“Miss Beauchamp,” he said, slightly hesitant. “I dinna mean to pry into yer...personal affairs. But I feel compelled to add a bit o’ advice—no’ as a lawyer, but as a friend, ye might say.”

I sank back into the chair, wary.

“It’s admirable that ye want to help the lad.” Ned’s reedy voice was firm, but kindly. “But I’ve seen many a tender feeling turn hard when money is mixed in.” He patted my hand in a grandfatherly gesture. “Tread careful, my dear, or ye may both end up with naught.”

I couldn’t pretend not to understand what he meant. I’d simply nodded, thanked him, and left.

I knew he was right. If Jamie accepted my proposed terms, I’d have a major stake in Lallybroch. How could we possibly explore a romantic relationship under those circumstances? Just the mere timing of his attempt to kiss me made me doubtful; was it really attraction or just down to the relief of being able to keep the estate? And even if he really did feel the same as I did, there was no way to tell if it would last. If things soured, he’d insist I pull my investment, and then he’d be right back where he started. Or worse, I thought—he might try to keep the relationship alive to ensure Lallybroch survived.

Simmering below Ned’s warning was a deeper fear, one I could barely even examine in my own head. I’d only just emerged from under Frank’s shadow. And as much as I loved Lallybroch already, it was still Jamie’s, not mine. Could I keep hold of this scrap of self that I’d recovered, in the face of the overwhelming magnetism that was James Fraser?

If I was serious about wanting to help Jamie get Lallybroch on its feet, and I was, I had to put my growing feelings for him aside. But resolving to do it and actually stopping him in the moment were two different things.

I sighed deeply into the pillow. Of course I’d had an inkling that he was interested—the man wasn’t exactly subtle—but tonight was as clear a confirmation as I was likely to get.

And what a thrill it had been, to sit beside him on his bed, heat radiating off him, his skin ruddy gold in the lamplight. I shivered, remembering the intensity in his impossibly blue eyes as he leaned in close.

“Dammit,” I grunted, muffled by the pillow. “Goddammit.”

I fell asleep in my clothes and dreamt I was drowning in a sapphire blue sea, until a column of fire appeared and took my hand, pulling me towards safety.

 


 

I expected the next day to be a continuation of the week before—with Jamie sulky and snippy. But he seemed more or less his normal self when he came down for breakfast. I had to tamp down the wounded feeling in my chest, telling myself that this was a good thing. Maybe his attraction really was a passing fancy and we could continue as friends with no tension.

The idea ruined my appetite and I didn’t finish my toast.

Rupert arrived as I was rinsing my plate in the sink, and Jamie bounded out to the yard to meet him.

“No rush, Sassenach,” he called over his shoulder. “We’ll get started.”

I took my time tidying the kitchen, trying to settle my disquiet.

By the time I made it out to the barn, Rupert and Jamie were placing the underlayment to prep for the flagstone we’d selected for the bathroom to match the original floor in the living room and kitchen. The room was a good size, but it felt cramped with the two men’s bulk—Jamie all muscle and leonine grace, and Rupert pure Highland bull. I slipped behind Rupert’s sizable backside as he squatted down to unroll the sheets. Jamie glanced up at me.

“It’s a bit tight in here wi’ the three of us,” he remarked mildly. “I reckon Rupert and I can handle this ourselves, if ye want to go back to the house and work on the listing. And maybe pick out some furniture?”

Ah. So that was how he planned to handle things.

I pushed down the bitter feelings—Jamie was right; the barn was nearly finished, aside from the floor and finish work in the bathroom and the countertop installation in the kitchen. It would be useful for me to spend the day writing the listing for the vacation rental site so we could get it up as soon as we got pictures. And with the endless supply of furniture collected by Jamie’s family over the centuries, we could get the house mostly furnished and decorated without buying new. But I couldn’t help the nagging feeling that he was just trying to get rid of me.

Outwardly, I just shrugged. “All right. Let me know if you need anything.”

“See ye fer lunch, Claire!” Rupert said cheerily. Jamie flicked a hand in a distracted half-wave.

Bastard, I thought, though I knew it was unfair. After all, I was the one who’d rejected him. Of course he’d want a little space today.

I spent the morning working in the study, crafting descriptions and hunting through the room's many nooks and crannies for old photos to add a sense of history to the listing. Adso curled up on my lap, sharp claws needling my thigh as I typed.

Some hours later, I heard Rupert and Jamie thunder into the kitchen, loudly joking in their broad Scots, followed by rattling as they pawed through pantry and fridge for lunch. Adso jumped off my lap to beg for scraps, but I made no move to join them. Don’t want to ruin the fun, I thought sourly.

By the time they’d gone back out and silence descended on the house once more, I had the listing written and my favorite photos scanned. I moved on to fiddling with the budget spreadsheet. We were scheduled to finish the last bits of the renovation by the end of the week, and then we could move in the furniture and take photos. The cottage would finally be available to rent, hopefully just in time to capture summer holidaymakers.

Getting bookings during the high season would be crucial to getting started on the next part of the project—adding ensuite bathrooms to all eight remaining bedrooms in the main house.

The funds from the cottage would hopefully be enough to get one more suite ready for guests. There was an existing bathroom in the main hall adjacent to my room, but the clawfoot tub was badly stained and there was no shower attachment; we would close off the hall door and make a new opening to connect it to my room, and then refinish the tub and add a freestanding shower. If we could get the barn booked for three weeks over the summer, we’d have the money to get the room done before the end of autumn. I would move to a different room, and with two spaces available over Christmas and New Year’s, we’d be able to keep rolling the booking money into the next ensuite.

It didn’t leave much left over for living expenses, but the Broch Tuarach estate had some of the best flat farmland in the area, and Jamie had negotiated good leases with tenant farmers on most of the acreage for the year. And I planned to eliminate my monthly stipend as a part owner of the business. With the produce from the kailyard and maybe some bartering with neighbors for other necessities, I thought we could make it work without taking out another loan that would leave Lallybroch vulnerable to Dougal’s grasp.

With a sigh, I saved the spreadsheet and closed the laptop. My back was cramping, and I stretched. The shadows outside were starting to get longer—I checked my phone and saw it was not quite four o’clock. Plenty of time to go through the furniture in the storage shed before I had to start dinner.

I picked up a stack of sticky notes and the sketchbook where Jamie and I had drawn the layout for the rooms in the barn. There were two proper bedrooms on the main floor plus the hayloft, which we’d decided could be a media room with a sofa bed. The living room would have at least one seating area, and Jamie had made rough-hewn shelves from scrap barnwood all along one wall that we would fill with books and decor. I’d also sketched out a makeshift entryway that would need a bench and some storage.

Some things—sheets, towels, and the like—we’d have to buy new in town. But I thought I’d be able to find most everything else either in the storage shed or in the higgledy-piggledy of the unused bedrooms upstairs.

The storage shed stood separate from Jamie’s workshop, tucked up against the stone wall that surrounded the compound. It was of a much later vintage than the house and the barn, but was still more than a hundred years old. The Fraser that had built it—and the later generations that kept it up—had done a bang-up job and it was warm and dry inside, despite its age. I thought at some point it could become another freestanding studio cottage, once we’d emptied it of its contents.

The furniture inside was a mishmash, mostly covered in heavy canvas sheets to protect it from dust. But Jamie, ever the utilitarian, had the foresight to sort everything into groups, tables with tables and beds with beds. I uncovered a herd of dining chairs and picked out six that matched, marking them with sticky notes. Jamie could help me move my selections over later.

The work was rhythmic and soothing, and I let myself be lulled by the repetitive actions. Pull off the canvas, inspect, stick, re-cover. Soon I’d reached the rows of shelving at the back that held boxes and boxes of smaller items. Each was labeled by contents in Jamie’s surprisingly elegant handwriting. Candlesticks. Tableware. Frames. The odds and ends that had been lovingly displayed by generations of his family, now hidden away.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I chided myself, forcing down the lump that appeared in my throat whenever I thought of all the people Jamie had lost. Their treasures would be back to pride of place soon enough, if I did my job.

I selected two boxes filled with popular novels from the last couple centuries for the living room, along with a selection of horse-related leather goods to display as a reminder of the cottage’s original purpose. I was tempted by a box of blue-and-white patterned bone china, which I knew would look charming stacked on the open shelving in the rustic kitchen, but I had a feeling it was worth far too much to let guests use unsupervised. Instead, I picked hearty stoneware that looked more like it was of 1990s origin than 1790s.

Satisfied with the selection, I picked my way back through the maze to the door. It was still light out—the days were already getting long this far north, even with a little more than a week of April left. But with only a half piece of toast to fuel me, my grumbling stomach was becoming impossible to ignore.

As I stepped out into the courtyard, a truck started noisily on the other side of the stone wall. My phone vibrated in my back pocket.

It was a text from Jamie.

Off to Rupert’s. Meet you at Ned’s office tomorrow at 9.

Well then.

 


 

The landline rang just as I sat down to eat my sad and slightly burnt ham and cheese toastie. Scarfing down the largest bit I could manage, I jumped to the small corridor, chewing industriously.

“Hello?” I said around my desperate bite.

“Claire? Is that you?”

I recognized Jenny’s voice instantly.

“Jenny, hi! I’m sorry, Jamie’s gone out to Rupert’s for the evening.”

“That’s all right, I’ll try his mobile later. Listen, I’m glad ye answered—I’ve an idea to run by ye.”

My eyes widened as Jenny walked me through her thoughts. And for the first time that day, I broke into a genuine smile.

“Oh Jenny,” I said when she was finished, barely containing my glee, “he’s going to absolutely hate that.”

Jenny’s idea had a lot of moving parts and we only had eight days to get everything arranged. Jenny rang off quickly to call Jamie and give him her excuse for coming to stay for the week—that she’d found a photographer who would do the listing photos for free, but the barn had to be ready by the following weekend.

“After all, it’s the truth,” she said.

She would arrive from Glasgow the following afternoon to help us get the barn photo-ready—but also to help me with all the arrangements. And with a little bit of luck, the two of us could set everything in motion before Jamie figured it all out. I had a feeling that if he connected the dots too early, he’d force everything to a grinding halt.

But if we could pull it off...we’d have a shot at blowing my summer bookings goal out of the water.

Chapter Text

Jamie was running very late.

He cursed Rupert and his heavy-handed pours as he ran to the truck. He felt absolutely wretched. Though he really couldn’t blame the hangover alone for that.

No matter how much he thought about it, he really couldn’t account for Claire’s rejection. He’d gone over every relevant moment from the past six weeks in his mind, and the idea that she really wanted to keep him at arms’ length made no sense. There were too many casual touches, shy smiles, jokes—and most of all, the way she’d held him on the bathroom floor.

Jamie flushed at the memory as he turned the key in the ignition—partly in embarrassment, but also with a glow of pleasure. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried at all, let alone in front of someone. But it had been a much-needed release, and he felt lighter than he had in ages when all was said and done.

So no, he didn’t buy it at all. That much he’d decided the night before, deep in his cups in Rupert’s shabby living room. He held that feeling close, a warm talisman in his chest. Because if he was right, that meant there was still a chance. All he had to do was stay patient—a simple solution, though not an easy one.

Jamie drove as fast as he dared to Ned Gowan’s office, but he still was almost 20 minutes late by the time he arrived. Ned and Claire both looked relieved when he blew in the front door; they each had an empty teacup before them, and had clearly been sitting uncomfortably for some time.

“Sorry, sorry,” Jamie said as he pulled up a chair beside Claire, leaving a bit more space between them than he might have done before. “Slept in.”

“That’s quite all right, Jamie m’lad,” Ned said amiably. “Can I get you anything before we start?”

“No, I’ll no’ hold us up more.” He leaned his arms on Gowan’s desk. “Let’s have it, then.”

“Weel,” the solicitor began, pushing some papers around on the antique wood surface. “Miss Beauchamp has told me a bit about how she’d like to structure the investment, and it’s fairly simple, as long as you agree with the terms.”

“Whatever she wants,” Jamie said automatically, glancing at Claire out of the corner of his eye.

“I don’t want outsize influence,” she said. “So Ned suggested making me something of a silent partner.”

“Ye’ll retain day-to-day control, Jamie,” Ned interceded. “With the caveat that Claire, Jenny, and Ian together can outvote you alone when it comes to sale, or else ye’ll have to buy them out.”

Jamie’s mouth tightened into a thin line. He wasn’t sure which thought was worse, Claire just giving him the money and having no say, or the three of them being able to force him to sell. Which he supposed meant it was probably a fair compromise.

“And the profits?” he asked.

Ned nodded encouragingly. “Ye’ll each get a percentage equal to your investment until the initial amount is paid back. So with the equity you and Jenny inherited plus your cash contributions, that works out to around forty percent to you, thirty-five percent to Claire, and a quarter to Jenny and Ian. Once ye get beyond that...”

Ned began explaining all the finer details of the arrangement, but Jamie couldn’t make himself concentrate. Truthfully, he didn’t care much about profit-sharing structures. He was too focused on the turmoil of emotions that constricted his chest. Guilt, yes, and shame, but underpinning it all a sense of gratitude that Lallybroch would still be his. He looked at Claire straight on, and was surprised to see she was already watching him. She smiled slowly, and the hold on his heart contracted further.

He reached for her under the desk, where Ned couldn’t see, and gripped her hand tightly.

Thank ye, Sassenach, he thought, trying to convey the depth of his appreciation through his eyes, and returned her sweet smile with his own.

 


 

It took an hour and a half to sort through everything, but by 11 o’clock Ned was shooing them out of the office, promising to call when the contract was ready for signing.

“By Monday,” he assured them as he waved goodbye.

In the meantime, Claire wanted to walk to the post office to see if the check had arrived yet. They’d come to town separately, so Jaime could have driven home, but the tiny flame of hope he’d nurtured wouldn’t allow it.

“I’ll go wi’ ye,” he said. He kept an eye on her face as he spoke, and felt the flame strengthen as he caught her pleased expression.

Despite the ever-present Scottish mist that hung in the air, the walk was pleasant enough. Claire’s curls, however, did not seem to agree. The moisture had made her hair frizz, and the tiniest of droplets collected on each strand like dew on grass. The effect was a soft silver halo around her crown.

“Yer hair is looking a mite wild, Sassenach,” Jamie chuckled, reaching out to swipe the top of her head. 

She slapped his hand away. “Leave off!” she said, laughing. “You’ll make it worse.”

Yes, this felt right. The day before, he’d felt the need to put some distance between them to hide his gut-wrenching disappointment, and she had been clearly discomfited. But it seemed that both of them were ready to put it aside. Well, that was fine by him. It would be much harder to bring Claire around if she felt awkward around him.

He grinned at her and shoved his hands in his jacket pockets. “All right, all right, I’m done,” he said. What he really wanted to do was throw an arm around her shoulder as they walked, but he thought there wasn’t quite room yet for that kind of easy physicality. In time , he thought. He’d have to coax her out, draw her back to him. But he knew the connection he felt was reciprocated. It had to be.

They chatted comfortably as they walked, first about the progress they’d each made yesterday and then about his evening at Rupert’s.

“I knew you were hungover,” Claire said slyly.

“Weel, mebbe a bit.”

They’d arrived at the post office, and he held open the door for Claire to go in before him. She smiled in thanks, and he gave himself the reward of a discreet glance at her shapely backside.

God bless whoever invented stretch denim.

“Anything?” Jamie asked as she opened the box with her key.

She pulled out a few envelopes and started flipping through them. “Doesn’t look like it,” she said, sounding disappointed.

“That’s all right. I’m sure it’ll be here before the contract’s done,” he said.

She shrugged and closed the box.

“Should we pick up some things fer lunch?”

“Actually,” Claire said as they stepped back out into the street, “about that. Did Jenny ever get ahold of you?”

Jamie raised an eyebrow. “I saw she’d called, but I havena rung her back yet.”

“Oh. Well, I talked to her a bit last night. She said a friend of hers was visiting Inverness next weekend on a bit of a holiday. A photographer.”

Claire paused, and Jamie looked at her pointedly.

“I guess they were talking about Lallybroch, and he offered to take photos for the listing,” Claire continued. “So Jenny was asking me if the barn was close to ready, and said she’d be happy to come stay for the week. Help us put the finishing touches on it.”

“Isn’t that nice of her,” Jamie said dryly. “I suppose it’s no’ a bad idea.”

“Having professional pictures for the listing will make a huge difference,” Claire said, wheedling. “And free is a good price.”

Ever the thrifty Scot, Jamie could find no fault in that logic. “Then it’s settled,” he said.

Claire looked relieved. “Wonderful! Jenny said she’ll be here sometime this afternoon. We should get something for tea.”

The corners of his mouth twitched. So Claire and Jenny were in league together. Now there’s a dangerous alliance , he thought, amused. The prospect was slightly terrifying, but he had to admit it was also endearing to see Claire get along so well with his sister. 

Jamie was particularly entertained by Claire’s complete lack of guile. As if he wouldn’t realize this for what it was—a thinly-veiled cover for the two of them to put something together for his birthday the following weekend. He’d have to ring Jenny in the car, let her know he saw right through their plan. 

Eyeing Claire’s self-satisfied expression, though, he thought better of calling them out. Maybe it would be more fun to let them see their scheme through. He could play along.

Chapter Text

Jenny’s latest visit to Lallybroch started off on a markedly different foot from the last. I heard her car pulling up from the kitchen and jumped up to greet her. She grinned as I came out of the front door, opening her arms wide to accept me in a warm embrace.

“All set?” she whispered in my ear as she folded me against her. I nodded into her shoulder.

“Glad to have ye back, Jenny!'' Jamie called from the doorway behind me. “What’s all that ye’ve got?”

I pulled away and peeked into the car. The backseat was full of shopping bags.

“Bedding and towels, mostly,” Jenny said as she stepped up to hug her brother. “There was a sale on, so I thought I’d get some things for the photoshoot.”

Jamie made a Scottish noise in response.

“Claire, will ye help me put them in the barn?” she asked nonchalantly.

“Of course,” I said.

Jamie fixed us with a shrewd gaze. “I’ll take yer suitcase,” he said, having clearly divined that the two of us had things to discuss.

“Ta,” Jenny replied with a breeziness I envied. I really was awful at subterfuge.

Jamie smiled and gave us an ironic salute.

“So he kens something’s afoot?” Jenny asked me quietly when he’d gone inside.

“I think so.”

“Excellent,” she said, grinning. “If he took the bait, he won’t think too much about the photographer.”

Jenny had built in a few layers to the plan; I’d told her there was no way Jamie wouldn’t cotton on that I was hiding something, and a surprise birthday party seemed like an easy cover. If he was focused on that, maybe we could slip the arrangements with the magazine under his nose.

We picked up as many of the shopping bags from the car as we could and brought them into the barn. Jenny set the bags on the floor just inside the entry and straightened, hands on her hips, to appraise the changes to the interior.

“Ye’ve really made a lot of progress in here,” she said, admiring. “All the cabinets, the stove, the shelves...it looks wonderful.”

“I haven’t even looked at Jamie and Rupert’s work from yesterday,” I said. “They were putting in the heated flagstone and tile in the bathroom.”

“Well, let’s have a little keek, then.”

 


 

That evening, we three were sat in the drawing room once again, after-dinner drinks in hand.

“Jamie,” Jenny began pleasantly, “what do ye think of Ian and the bairns coming up next weekend? We could have a nice family meal fer yer birthday.”

Jamie’s mouth twitched, and he narrowed his inky blue eyes at his sister. “Oh aye, that’d be nice,” he said. “I’ve no’ seen the weans in months. The cottage will be finished by then, there’ll be room for all ye.”

“We still need mattresses,” I chimed in. “Jenny and I can go to Aberdeen tomorrow, pick up some things at Ikea. If you don’t mind staying here to supervise the countertop installation.”

“Aye, I can do that.”

“Good,” Jenny said with finality. “Then I can stay in the cottage tomorrow night and give ye yer bed back. That’ll give me a chance to see what we’re forgetting before John arrives.”

I watched Jamie sip his whisky, his eyes darting between Jenny and me. “That’s yer photographer friend?”

“Yes, Ian met him through work,” she said easily. “He’s based in London but he comes up here for shoots now and again.”

True enough—though I knew she was leaving out a rather crucial detail. Lord John Grey was not only a photographer, he was the owner of Country House magazine. We hoped he’d be so charmed by Lallybroch and Jamie that he’d feature the barn renovation. But we both knew it would take a little more than a pretty room to get the job done—a magazine of that caliber needed a story with a hook. And Jamie was bound to disapprove of our plan to capture John’s attention.

“When’s he planning to come?”

“Saturday’s the only day he has free, unfortunately,” Jenny said. “Hope ye dinna mind dealing wi’ him on yer birthday. But he’ll be done long before dinner.”

Jamie, thankfully, seemed to be losing interest. He waved a hand. “Och, that’s fine,” he said. “Sassenach, ye’ll take my truck tomorrow, then?”

I nodded, trying to cover my expression by lifting my glass to my lips.

 


 

I drove the truck so Jenny could make a flurry of calls on the road to Aberdeen. 

“It’s a surprise, though, ye ken,” she said warningly into the phone. “Ye have tae keep yer gob shut.”

She finished with a torrent of goodbyes that lasted almost as long as the call itself, then hung up with a sigh.

“Well, that ought tae do it,” she said, smiling at me. “Mrs. Fitz is the biggest gossip in the valley. Between her and Geillis, there shan’t be a soul in the county that’s no’ heard about the party by teatime.”

Jenny had been careful to throw in my name as a co-host of the festivities in all her calls, I’d noticed. I knew what she was about—the area was abuzz with rumor about the nature of my relationship with Jamie. Hinting that I was throwing Jamie a combination surprise party/Beltane festival was sure to attract some looky-loos. And our plan hinged on a large contingency of locals showing up in their Highland best. 

“So what exactly goes on at Beltane?” I asked.

Jenny smiled faintly. “Weel, nowadays it’s mostly an excuse for New Age-y folk to put on a spectacle,” she said. “But my mam loved to keep the auld ways. She and my da always put together a big feast for the farmers and villagers. It’s to welcome the start o’ summer, ye ken? So it’s a blessing of the crops, for a fruitful year. Ye build big bonfires and drive the kine through the smoke so they’ll be healthy and strong, couples jump over the embers to declare themselves, that sort of thing.”

“Jenny!” I cried, appalled. “Have you been telling people I want to throw Jamie a fertility festival?”

She had the decency to look slightly abashed. “Not in so many words, no…”

“Oh God.” I couldn’t decide whether it was hilarious or horrifying.

“Anyway, it’s no’ my fault the lad was born on the first of May,” she reasoned. “It only makes sense to do both together. Silly to plan two parties.”

“Sound logic,” I said tartly. Jenny giggled.

“It has tae be a big traditional Scottish celebration to catch John’s attention. He’s no’ agreed to publish anything, ye ken.”

I snorted, not wanting to admit she was right. Lord John had taken a keen interest in the dwindling of traditional Highland agriculture as small-time farmers were pushed out by industrial operations, and had published a number of articles featuring Highlanders working to maintain local country traditions. So Jenny thought we could present Jamie’s quest to save Lallybroch along those lines, showing his deep connections to the community and culture of the Highlands by hosting a big, traditional festival. 

Jamie, of course, would never agree to positioning himself as some kind of hero. But we thought if we could engineer it to look like a spontaneous decision on John’s part to cover Lallybroch, we might be able to get Jamie to participate.

“And,” Jenny continued thoughtfully, “if some nosy buggers show just tae see if ye and Jamie jump the fire together, so much the better.”

I had to restrain myself from banging my head against the steering wheel.

 


 

The drive to Aberdeen was the last time Jenny and I had a chance to talk privately for a few days. What had seemed like a few final touches on the barn were actually rather time-consuming—we truly needed all hands to finish in time for John’s arrival. There were walls to paint, art to frame, drapes to hang, beds to make. The list of small tasks seemed to grow each night, no matter how many we accomplished during the day.

Come Monday, Jamie and I had to go into Inverness to sign the contract at Ned Gowan’s and then deposit my check, which had finally arrived at the post office, into the Lallybroch business account. 

“Does it feel like people are starin’ at us, Sassenach?” Jamie whispered to me as we entered the bank.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I admonished, but a few heads were undeniably turning as we passed.

“Mr. Fraser,” a petite blonde called in greeting from one of the open desks at the front. She had a peaches and cream complexion and a plump face. I rather thought she looked awfully young to be a teller—certainly not older than 20. 

Jamie smiled at her, though it seemed a little forced—or was that wishful thinking on my part?—and I followed as he stepped up to her.

“Hallo, Laoghaire,” he said kindly.

“Ned Gowan said we were to be watchin’ for ye,” she said, dimpling. Her watery blue eyes flickered to me for a second.

“Yes, we’ve a check to deposit,” Jamie said.

I made no move to take the envelope out of my bag, loath to hand over all the money I had in the world to a teenager.

“Aye,” Laoghaire said. “I’ll go get Himsel’.”

My lips were pressed in a firm line as I watched her stand, wriggle her tight pencil skirt down, and flounce back into the bowels of the building.

“Something wrong, Sassenach?” Jamie asked innocently. “Ye look a bit tense.”

Before I could answer, Laoghaire popped back into view. “Mr. MacKenzie will be out directly,” she said primly, and sat back down. But instead of—I don’t know, working?—she rested her pert little chin on interlaced fingers and looked up at Jamie.

“Is’t true yer hostin’ a Beltane festival for yer birthday Saturday?” she asked coquettishly.

Jamie’s eyebrows raised and he looked to me. I started coughing.

“Er—”

His eyes sparkled with suppressed mirth, and he blinked at me in a remarkable impression of an owl.

“Weel, Saturday is my birthday, true enough,” he said slowly, “but I’ve no notion of what Jenny and Claire here have cooked up.”

The girl eyed me speculatively, but we were saved from her further attentions by Mr. MacKenzie.

He emerged from the doorway, rolling himself in a wheelchair and smiling broadly at Jamie and I. He had broad, flat cheekbones and surprisingly long auburn hair, streaked with silver. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn’t put a finger on where I might know him from.

“Colum,” Jamie greeted warmly, reaching out to grasp the man’s hand as he came around the corner of Laoghaire’s desk. Colum touched his handbrake and then returned Jamie’s firm grip.

“Jamie, good tae see ye, lad,” he said, then turned to me. “And you must be Claire Beauchamp.”

I smiled and held out my hand to him as well. “Lovely to meet you, Mr. MacKenzie.”

“Come back to my office, we’ll get this all settled.”

 


 

“So. Ned said ye’d like to pay off the entire balance,” Colum kicked off the discussion once we were all seated round his table. A tray laden with a carafe of water, teapot, biscuits, and every damnable adornment possible sat between us, fetched ever-so-eagerly by the young Laoghaire.

Easy, Beauchamp, I thought.

“That’s right.” Jamie’s tone was friendly, but I saw a tension in his broad shoulders, and his crooked smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“I’m thrilled tae see Lallybroch getting so much outside interest,” Colum said, turning his grey eyes on me with a nod. “I ken Dougal will be pleased tae hear yer in better straights as well.”

My stomach dropped, but Jamie didn’t react.

“I do want tae suggest that ye think a little on whether ye’d no’ rather use the investment tae hire out more of the renovations, and keep the loan,” Colum continued. “Havin’ the liquidity will give ye some more flexibility, and ye’ve had nay problem makin’ yer payments so far. Leverage it, ye ken.”

“It’s an idea,” Jamie said neutrally. “But I’d rather own the asset outright. Keeping control of th’ place is important to me, as I’m sure ye can understand.”

The older man’s smile tightened. “Aye, I take yer meaning,” he said, voice even. “I ken my brother can be a bit...ah, forceful in his dealings.”

I barely stopped myself from gasping in recognition. Of course! The family resemblance was certainly strong—the two MacKenzie men shared many of the same features. Come to think of it, so did Jamie, though I thought his face much more refined.

Colum continued speaking, oblivious to my thoughts. “But he means well, Jamie—neither of us wants tae see ye locked in by this project.” He glanced at me, clearly unwilling to say more in my presence.

“I understand that, uncle,” Jamie said, clearly having to work a little harder now to keep his cool. “But with due respect, it’s my land, and it’s been my family’s land for centuries. I’ll no’ be selling it to Dougal, or anyone else for that matter.”

“Well, if yer sure…”

“We are.”

A small bit of warmth bloomed in my chest. It really was “we” now, wasn’t it? In all the drama of the last few days, I hadn’t fully appreciated that this was about to become a true joint venture. If all went according to plan, I would be tied to Lallybroch for a very long time. And , a voice in my head added, to Jamie.

When the time finally came, I signed over the check without a second thought.

 


 

As we left the bank and got into the truck we were both slightly giddy at what we had done.

“I cannae believe it,” Jamie said, marveling as he backed out of the parking space. “I dinna think I realized just how much having that loan was hanging over my head.” 

He flashed a dazzling grin at me, and my heart leapt into my throat. “Who knew when I caught ye having a pish in my pines that you were just markin’ yer territory?”

It wasn’t a particularly clever joke, but the whole situation was just so astonishing, so outrageous that the laughter bubbled up inside of me, and I came positively undone. I was laughing in the way that hurts, tears streaming down my aching cheeks and ribs burning. Something about my hysteria set Jamie off as well, and he had to pull the brake to keep from rolling out into the street while we fell to pieces.

It took some time to gather ourselves. We would calm down enough to start catching our breath but one of us would start giggling again, and the whole process would be kicked off anew. 

Finally, we pulled it together, still panting. Jamie looked at me, smile softening, and took my hand.

“Thank ye, Claire,” he said with a depth of feeling that stopped my heart, and then raised my hand to his lips.

The touch of his kiss on my skin couldn’t have lasted more than a second, but it felt much longer. When it was over, he placed my hand gently back on my lap and gave it one final squeeze before pulling away to put the truck back in gear.

We were quiet for the rest of the ride home.

Chapter Text

The morning of Jamie’s birthday dawned bright and clear, for which he was sure Claire and Jenny were thanking their lucky stars.

He had awakened quite early, and he considered whether he ought to try to sleep a little longer—the day was bound to be a long one, if wee Laoghaire MacKenzie had been on the right track. And Claire’s face, of course, had told him that she had been. He had opted not to pursue that particular line of questioning with her or Jenny; if a few Beltane fires were the worst of what the two ladies of Lallybroch had planned, he was getting off lightly. He had fond memories of his mother’s Beltane festivities. And besides, he’d put up with a lot worse if it meant a chance to take Claire a-Maying.

He could hear someone bustling around downstairs, so he nixed the lie-in and got up to hunt for some clothes. He’d barely finished pulling on his trousers when a soft knock came at the door, and he called for them to enter.

Jenny and Claire’s eager faces peeked around the door, and they started to sing—Jenny in Gaelic, Claire in English. 

Latha —birthday to—bhreith...”

Jamie couldn’t help but laugh at the garbled, bilingual mess of a birthday song. But they soldiered on, pushing all the way into the room to reveal a tray of Chelsea buns.

The sight made his throat tight. “Just like Mam,” Jamie said when they’d finished singing.

“Och, dinna start greetin’,” Jenny chided, but she was smiling warmly and her eyes shone at the memory. “It’s no’ becoming for a man of twenty-three.”

He laughed and took a bun, biting into it with a groan. “Ih’s still warm,” he mumbled around the soft, yeasty bread.

“It better be,” Claire said, picking up one for herself. “We were up early enough to get them in the oven.”

“Now, finish dressing,” Jenny commanded. “We’ve lots to do before John gets here.”

“Nay rest for the wicked,” Jamie lamented, grinning at Claire. He gave her his mad-owl version of a wink, which never failed to make her laugh, and then stuffed the rest of his bun into his mouth. “Awa’ wi’ ye!”

 


 

After coffee and a couple more Chelsea buns, Jamie got to work on setting up the arbor. With all the rush to get the cottage up to snuff, he hadn’t had a chance to put it up, and he was determined to fulfill his promise to Claire before the photographer arrived. And with Claire and Jenny occupied with rearranging the furniture in the barn yet again, he could work in peace.

He’d set four corner posts in concrete earlier in the week and they were well-cured now, providing a sturdy base for him to attach the pergola top and the benches underneath. The sides were lined with lattice for the roses to climb, creating a dappled tunnel into the garden proper.

The work went quickly, and it wasn’t long before he was ready for the finishing touch: the simple arched garden gate that had been such a feature in his imagination. He dithered for a moment about whether to attach it to the side that faced the barn, or the one inside the garden itself, ultimately deciding on the former. It seemed like it would be easier to push the gate open out into the courtyard, if one’s delicate, opal-bright arms were burdened with a basket of harvested produce. Hypothetically.

He picked up the simple iron hinges and started marking where they would attach to the posts to hang the gate.

“Oh, Jamie!” The gasping voice was unmistakable, and he found he was smiling before he turned around.

“Ye like it?”

“It’s perfect,” Claire said, stepping up to run her hand over the rough-hewn wood of the as-yet-unhung gate. He’d been able to use reclaimed pine for most of it, and had weathered the new pieces as best he could to match. “Like it’s been here all along.”

“Will ye hold the gate up for me?”

The gate was heavy, but Claire was surprisingly strong, despite her slender limbs. Still, he did his best to work quickly as he attached the hinges, and she let out a sigh of relief when he told her she could release it.

“Where’s Jenny?” Jamie asked as he started packing up the tools.

“Cleaning up her things in the bedroom. John’s meant to be here around noon.”

Jamie looked up at the sky, considering the sun’s position. “So we’ve a bit o’ time, then,” he said. 

“Yes—I was going to see if you wanted to take a look inside, actually.” He could feel the excitement rolling off of her. Clearly she couldn’t wait to show him whatever the two of them had been working on.

Jamie hadn’t actually been inside the cottage for a few days—he’d been sent on errand after errand and given a number of woodworking tasks to complete in the shop, which he assumed was down to Claire and Jenny’s party planning. But now that he thought about it, he honestly had no idea what kind of state the barn was in.

“Suppose I’d best see it before the photographer does,” he said. “Lead on, Sassenach.”

Claire grinned and put her hands on his shoulders, frog-marching him to the door.

“Cover his eyes!” Jenny shouted from inside, and Claire, laughing, complied.

Jamie had to bend his knees a bit so she could reach, but he did it gladly. Her slender fingers and soft palms were warm across his eyelids, and the sun made rosy stripes across his vision where it shone through the edges of her fine skin.

She pushed him slowly through the threshold, warning him to step up at the right times. Staggering, he felt the floor go from stone to rug, and finally, Claire pulled her hands away.

Blinking, he looked around the cottage.

A Dhia,” he breathed, and his vision started to blur around the edges.

It was beautiful, he thought. The last time he’d seen it, the furniture had been haphazardly clustered in groups, rugs rolled up, boxes and bags scattered about. But now, books were on shelves. The long table was set with fresh flowers and tall candelabras. Pillows welcomed guests to sit on the deep velvet couch. And above the mantel, in pride of place, a still life featuring two yellow roses in a glass.

“What do you think?” Claire asked apprehensively.

Jamie shrugged helplessly, unable to find the words. Suddenly, it all felt real, possible in a way it hadn’t been just a week before.

“Say somethin’, ye numpty,” Jenny chastened, but her voice was thick.

“I...It’s…” He let out a breath and looked at the two women standing before him, both watching his reaction in earnest. 

“Thank ye,” he finally said, “both of ye.” And he opened his arms to wrap them both together in a tight embrace, willing them to feel everything he couldn’t say aloud.

 


 

Something prickled at the edge of Jamie’s consciousness when he caught sight of the expensive silver Land Rover coming up the drive through his bedroom window. How had Jenny said she knew this photographer again? Through Ian’s work? 

Jamie’s eyes narrowed as the driver parked outside the wall and walked through the stone gate. The man was slim and elegantly dressed, in a wool peacoat and dark wash jeans, and carried a leather messenger bag. His hair was dark and he moved in a distinctly graceful manner.

Jenny and Claire appeared in the courtyard, and the man smiled at them both. They converged in the middle of the yard, handshakes all around.

That too struck him as strange—if John and Jenny were friends, why would they shake hands?

The party turned toward the house, and Claire’s head turned up towards his window. She saw him and smiled brilliantly, then beckoned to him.

They were in the parlour when he came down, and he was suddenly glad Claire had taken a bit of extra time this week to spruce things up in there as well.

“Ah, Jamie!” Jenny said, spotting him on the stairs. “Come meet Lord John.”

Lord? Jamie thought, his skepticism intensifying.

John, who was sitting in Claire’s chair, Jamie noted with a touch of disapproval, stood up and turned to greet him. But as the dark-haired man met his gaze, the broad smile faltered, and for a split second he looked positively gobsmacked.

“Pleasure to meet ye,” Jamie said politely, reaching out a hand. “Jamie Fraser.”

It was enough time for John to recover from his funny turn, whatever that had been about, and force his smile back on. “John Grey,” he said, gripping Jamie’s hand. His long-lashed blue eyes watched him with a slightly unnerving intensity, and he still had a bit of an air of astonishment.

John kept hold of Jamie’s hand for a beat longer than was necessary, then seemed to catch himself again and let go with a muffled cough.

“Well, Fraser, this is quite the establishment,” he said, looking up at the intricately arched wood beams and aged bronze chandelier. “Your sister tells me all this is original?”

“Aye,” Jamie began. “The house dates from 1702, and the tower ye saw outside is from the 16th century sometime. But the land’s been in our family since the 1300s.”

John looked fascinated. “How marvelous,” he said. “I’d love to get some shots of all of this, before we get to the barn. Would you care to show me around, Jamie?”

Jamie was beginning to get the picture now. He looked to Jenny with an arched brow, and his sister bit back a grin. He had a feeling Lord John Grey had not been lured to Lallybroch solely by Jenny’s friendship.

“Yes, Jamie, give John a tour,” Claire urged. She, too, was smiling in a way that was supremely irritating. “Jenny and I can bring your equipment in from the car, John—we’ll just put the bags in the cottage?”

“Yes, yes, that would be lovely,” John said. “Thank you, Claire.”

“I’d be happy to show ye the place. But first, Claire, could I speak wi’ ye for a moment?” Jamie was already grabbing her by the wrist. “Take a keek around if ye like, John, I’ll no’ be a second,” he called over his shoulder as he pulled Claire into the kitchen.

“I dinna ken what you two are about,” Jamie whispered through his teeth, “but if you’ve promised John something…”

Claire giggled. “Of course not!” she responded, voice also hushed. “Though...Jenny did say she’d shown him a photo of the house when she told him about it, with you standing out front…”

Instantly he knew which photo it was. Ian had taken it during the demolition in the barn over the summer. Jamie was shirtless in the heat, pushing a wheelbarrow of debris across the courtyard with the manor house in the background. “Bride defend us,” he groaned. “Tha’ poor man.”

“He knows you’re straight, Jamie—he just appreciates an attractive man when he sees one.”

The second the sentence came out of her mouth, Claire clearly realized what she’d said. She went beet red and her hand twitched upwards sharply, as though she were fighting the urge to clap it to her open mouth.

His irritation promptly forgotten, Jamie raised a roguish eyebrow at her—he could be nice and pretend not to have noticed, but where was the fun in that? 

“Attractive, is it?” he repeated, grinning slyly.

She smacked his arm in rebuke. “Oh, sod off, you know you are.”

“Don’t hit me—yer the one who said it,” he teased. “Now go help Jenny wi’ the gear while I entertain His Lordship.”

She stuck her tongue out at him as she passed, headed to the side door, and he felt the familiar warmth in his wame. So she admitted to thinking him attractive. 

No’ a bad birthday present, he thought smugly as he stepped back into the hall to begin the tour for his newest admirer.

John had quite collected himself by the time Jamie led him back to the speak-a-word room, and he turned out to be a fine conversationalist. He was fascinated by all the books, just as Claire had been, and whipped out the camera from his leather messenger bag to start taking photos.

“Tell me, how did yer Lordship end up a freelance photographer?” Jamie asked, amused, as John lined up a shot of the bookshelves.

John heard the gentle ribbing in the question and grinned behind the lens. “Oh God, please don’t ‘Lordship’ me,” he laughed. “It’s a silly title. My brother Hal’s the posh one—Duke of Pardloe and Earl of Melton, MP in the House of Lords, all that. Thank heavens I’m a second son.”

Jamie chuckled. “Aye, I can imagine it’s a bit more relaxin’.”

“This was a titled estate, though, was it not?”

John was still photographing as he spoke, and Jamie noticed the lens pointing further and further in his direction. “Aye, though no’ since the ‘45,” he said, trying to ignore John’s less-than-sneaky tactics. “My ancestors were the Lords Broch Tuarach, though ‘round about here, they just said Laird of Lallybroch.”

“Why Lallybroch?” John asked as he very boldly pressed the shutter directly in Jamie’s face.

“Means Lazy Tower,” Jamie said, leaning away. “Broch Tuarach translates to North-Facing Tower, but it’s been a wee bit tilty for a few centuries, so I suppose an old nickname stuck.”

John let the camera fall so it was supported by the strap around his neck, and Jamie was relieved. “Charming,” he said with a friendly smile. “Shall we move on?”

The whole thing was just confusing. John made no attempt to hide that he was taking pictures of Jamie in addition to the images of the rooms. Was this some cockeyed scheme to put Jamie’s photos in the listing to attract a certain type of visitor? Or was John planning to use them for his own purposes somehow? But John was certainly not acting lewd in any way. He seemed genuinely curious about Lallybroch, asking Jamie probing questions about the renovation and its history.

As John asked to see the upstairs, it dimly occurred to him that Claire and Jenny hadn’t come back in from moving John’s gear.

 


 

By the time Jamie had finished showing John the main house, tower, and kailyard, he was starting to get a little irritated. They’d wasted almost two hours going through every room, even the unfinished ones. Jamie’s voice was hoarse from talking, and they were just now getting to the impetus of this whole thing. And where the hell had Jenny and Claire got to?

Still, he did his best to remain polite to John—after all, if he’d got this far, he was damn well going to make sure he got the photos for the listing.

John gasped in delight as Jamie ushered him into the barn.

“Good Lord, and you’ve done all the work yourself?” he asked, marvelling at the open space.

“Och, no,” Jamie said. “Claire’s been a huge help, and my neighbor Rupert gives me a hand with the labor now and again. Hired out the electrical and plumbing. And Ian and Jenny pitch in when they can.”

“Who did you hire to decorate?”

John was already lining up his camera as he spoke.

“Claire and Jenny did it. Just about everything in the cottage has been part of the estate, and Claire did most of the selectin’ from what we have in storage. Then Jenny helped her put it together.”

“And neither of them are professionals?” John’s impressed tone made Jamie’s chest swell with pride for the work Claire and his sister had done.

“No—Jenny’s a stay-at-home mam, and Claire studied medicine, of all things.”

“Well, it’s splendid, Jamie,” John said sincerely. “You’ve kept the soul of the place in tact. I have a feeling you’ll be booked solid for months, once we get these photos published.”

We? Jamie repeated silently, eyes narrowing as he considered John anew. All the detailed questions started to make a little more sense. If Claire and Jenny thought he’d let just anybody off the street invest in Lallybroch, they were sorely mistaken. John seemed a nice man, but Jamie was distinctly not interested in diluting his ownership further with more investors.

Still, maybe he’d wait until after the photos were done to tell him that.

 


 

John was just finishing his last few artificially lit shots of the cozy loft when Jamie heard a car approaching. He glanced out the window of the loft and, seeing Ian’s station wagon pulling up to the arch, grinned hugely.

“Excuse me, John—my brother-in-law’s just arrived,” he said, already starting to descend.

“Ah, Ian Murray?” John asked, sounding pleased. “I’ll just finish up in here and follow in a moment—I’ve not seen him in months!”

Lord John Grey was pushed entirely out of Jamie’s thoughts by the whirling dervishes that were his niece and nephew. 

His namesake launched himself at him with a wordless scream the second Jamie stepped out of the cottage, and he laughed as he patted the young boy’s head affectionately. At five, Young Jamie idolized his uncle even more than his own father at times.

“Good tae see ye, a bhalaich,” Jamie said.

“Birfday, nunkie!” Three-year-old Maggie was hot on her brother’s heels, chubby legs churning as she tried to keep up. Jamie kneeled down to open his arms to both of them.

Co latha bhreith, Jamie!” Ian’s voice called from somewhere beyond the mess of curly hair blocking his vision.

Jamie poked his head above the squirming children in his arms, grinning at his best friend.

“Ian, ye’ve got tae learn to wrap it up, mate! We’ll soon be outnumbered!”

Ian snorted, adjusting baby Kitty on his hip. “Och, stuff it,” he said, smiling at the scene before him. “Come take this wee ratten, my back’s achin’ something awful after that drive.”

Jamie pressed a final kiss to the tops of the dark and strawberry-blonde crowns before him, then stood to take Kitty from Ian.

“Mighty dressed up for a family picnic, aren’t ye?” Jamie remarked as he saw Ian’s outfit in full, tone droll.

His brother-in-law snorted, brushing a hand on his kilt self-consciously. “Och, ye know Jenny, any excuse for family photos.”

Jamie raised an eyebrow. “And surely it’s nothing tae do with Laoghaire MacKenzie askin’ me about Beltane?”

Ian smiled ruefully. “Damn, ye heard,” he said. “I told Jenny that’d cause a bit o’ clishmaclaver.”

Jamie chuckled and clapped his free hand on Ian’s shoulder. “Nay bother. I’m touched, really.”

“Ye’ll have tae get yer kilt on as well, I’ll no’ be the only—”

“Mam!” Young Jamie cried.

Jenny and Claire had reappeared at last. Jenny had a tartan blanket folded over one arm and Claire was carrying a rather large basket—presumably provisions for the late lunch they had planned. Claire caught his eye and she smiled tenderly at him and Kitty. Jamie felt his stomach flip.

Young Ian and Maggie ran to Jenny, and Kitty began squirming in his arms, reaching for her mother.

“All right, a nighean,” he soothed, raising his voice so the women could hear him across the courtyard. “Yer mammy’s back from her dastardly scheming.”

Jenny shot him a withering look and held out the blanket to him in trade for her youngest daughter.

 The sound of a shutter click made everyone look to the barn.

“Sorry,” John said, grinning as he lowered his camera. “Just couldn’t resist.”

There was a general kerfuffle as John greeted Ian warmly and was introduced to the children, who were very interested in his equipment.

“John, why don’t ye join us?” Jenny offered.

“Oh yes, we’ve plenty of food,” Claire jumped in.

That nagging suspicion woke in the back of Jamie’s brain again. If they were planning to ambush him about adding another investor, this would be the time.

“Oh, I don’t wish to impose,” John demurred, but Jenny and Claire would hear none of it.

“Ye’ll want to get some photos of the landscape, anyway,” Jenny said, her stern tone leaving no room for argument. “The light will be lovely by the time we’re finished eating.”

Jamie sighed. He really didn’t want to have to ruin the day with a blowout argument, but he really couldn’t see a polite way to stop the freight train that was already careening down the tracks. Maybe he could redirect a bit over lunch.

 


 

Claire and Jenny had picked the millpond as the site for the picnic, which offered Jenny the irresistible opportunity to retell the story of Jamie’s thwarted skinny dipping attempt for John’s benefit. John, for his part, roared with laughter, much to Jamie’s chagrin.

The spread was excellent, however, and despite the embarrassing stories, he was truly enjoying himself. The topic of investment was never broached, thank God, and John mostly refrained from taking photos after some initial snaps when they first sat down.

When they’d eaten their fill, Ian and Jenny, who had driven to the picnic spot, took the children back in the car to settle into the barn. Claire and Jamie took John on the long route back to the house on foot so he could take some landscape shots.

“Jenny was right, this light is incredible!” John called as he lined up a shot of the tower and house with the mountains in the background. The sun had started its long, slow descent, and the air had a golden-green quality of a late spring afternoon. The crags of the rocky peaks behind the house threw dramatic shadows. 

Jamie felt familiar pride rise in his chest, looking at the land—along with that unshakeable tinge of fear that always accompanied it. The responsibility was as vast as the valley itself, and he felt its constant weight.

He felt a small hand touch his shoulder, and he turned to see Claire’s soft smile. Her eyes, illuminated to glowing brilliance by the angled sun, were filled with encouragement, as if she knew what he’d been thinking. For his part, he could almost hear her voice in his head, too. Don’t be afraid, she seemed to say. There’s the two of us now.

Jamie reached up to squeeze her hand quickly in response. These tender moments between them, once so rare, seemed to be becoming almost commonplace since the investment was finalized. But despite the frequency, Jamie knew he’d never tire of the feel of Claire’s elegant hand, nor would his stomach ever stop flipping at the intensity in her whiskey-gold eyes when their gazes met.

The mile-long trek around the edge of the fields back to the house was pleasant in the sunshine, though a bit slower than normal with John’s many stops for photos. It was past five o’clock by the time the stone arch came into view. Smoke rose from the house’s chimney, and the smell of roasting meat was heavy in the air.

Jamie’s stomach tightened. He had a feeling he knew what to expect when they rounded the corner into the courtyard, and he only hoped he could hold it together. Claire was grinning like mad, and she almost vibrated with anticipation beside him.

Sure enough, when they stepped through the arch, a huge cheer shook the air. The courtyard was packed with people, all in their Highland best, calling out their enthusiasm at the sight of Jamie. A ceilidh band started playing, the fiddles and pipes and bodhran beating out a lively welcome.

Jamie was laughing without realizing it, trying to take everything in. The edges of the yard were thronged with tables groaning under the weight of food and drink, and someone had hung string lights all around. A dancefloor had been laid in front of the newly-finished arbor, and the band was up on a makeshift stage in front of the tower. 

“Yer all off yer nut!” he shouted at Claire beside him over the cacophony. She was laughing too, eyes bright.

“Happy birthday!” she responded.

Jenny was at their side suddenly, Kitty on her hip. They had both changed since they’d left the picnic, Jenny in a pleated skirt in the modern Fraser dress tartan and silky white blouse, Kitty in a tiny matching party dress.

“Ye’d all best get changed,” she commanded, grinning at the three of them. “This is a proper party, and I won’t have any of ye looking like ragamuffins. John, I took the liberty o’ rustling up an old kilt of our Da’s, if ye’d like tae try it on…?”

Claire took Jamie’s hand and led him through the crowd, which pressed in excitedly with well-wishes and attempts to start a conversation. But Claire was determined, and her polite insistence on pulling him through brought them into the relative quiet of the house.

She was slightly breathless as he shut the front door behind them. “Is it too much?” she asked him. Her cheeks were split by that same wide smile, but he could see the self-consciousness behind her eyes, and he crushed her to his chest tightly.

“I love it,” he said sincerely, pressing his lips into her curls. “But the twa of ye are mad as March hares, puttin’ all this together when ye had so much to do with the barn.”

Claire laughed, and the swell of her breasts moved against Jamie’s sternum in a most pleasant fashion. She pulled away much too soon for his liking.

“Go get dressed,” she said, already heading for the stairs herself. “I think Mrs. Fitz will riot if you’re not wearing a kilt by the time she’s done in the kitchen.”

“As ye say, Sassenach.”

As they separated into their respective rooms, Jamie let himself wonder just what Claire might have chosen to wear for the evening’s festivities. He hoped some Fraser colors might be included—though he thought she could do with a little less fabric than Jenny’s outfit. Beltane fires were remarkably good for keeping warm, as long as one had enough whisky and someone to hold.

Chapter Text

By the time I had finished taming my hair and putting on a touch of makeup, Jamie had already gone down to the party. I could hear the renewed roars of excitement from my window as he stepped back out into the yard.

I tried not to hurry myself through the end of my ablutions, though I could feel my heart thrumming in excitement at the thought of experiencing a kilted Jamie in all his glory. I hadn’t yet gotten the chance to see him in a kilt, but I’d spent much of the last week picturing it.

My own outfit was a bit less traditional, but I hoped it would work for the occasion. Jenny had helped me pick out my dress—a strappy, figure-skimming number in a red and navy plaid that flared out into knife pleats below the knee. She had tried to push me into a true Fraser tartan, but I resisted, not willing to give the gossips anything more to speculate about. I somewhat reluctantly layered a grey turtleneck underneath; the red of the thin straps and tailored bodice were flattering against my pale skin, but it would definitely be too chilly after sundown for uncovered shoulders. Black heeled ankle boots and a dainty freshwater pearl pendant finished the look. It was certainly the most polished I’d looked since my arrival, I thought as I surveyed the effect one last time in the mirror.

After a moment of dithering, I spritzed a bit of my favorite perfume into the air and walked through the mist as a final touch before I went down.

I decided to stop in and check on Mrs. Fitz in the kitchen before heading out to the party. She had graciously offered to organize the food and drink—for a fee, of course. But she had always helped Jamie’s mother Ellen to create the elaborate Gaelic feasts Lallybroch had been known for when Jamie was just a child, and Jenny and I agreed it would be worth it.

The stout, grandmotherly woman was barking orders to her minions (who I had been told were all her relations, in some shape or form) when I entered the kitchen, but seeing me, she broke into a wide, gap-toothed grin.

“Ah, lass, don’t ye look bonnie!” she cried, stepping forward. “Jamie will jest die when he sees ye.”

I felt the heat rise in my cheeks, and a couple of the younger kitchen helpers shot narrowed eyes in my direction.

“How are things going in here?” I asked, opting to ignore her commentary.

“Och, we’ll be done in nae time,” Mrs. Fitz assured me breezily. “Jest a few more things tae get oot, an’ we’ll join ye fer the dancin’.”

Looking at the organized chaos, I wondered if she was underplaying the situation. But I also knew I couldn’t really be of help to her with the cooking.

“Well, can I take something out for you?” I asked.

Not one to stand on ceremony, Mrs. Fitz loaded me up with an overburdened tray of freshly baked mutton pies and shooed me out the back.

“Through the kailyard is easiest,” one of the girls suggested helpfully as she opened the door for me. “Tis the only path no’ pure hoachin’ with people.”

She was right; the courtyard was teeming with life. It seemed Jenny’s plan had brought every last person in the Highlands to our door.

I spotted one of the few tables with space left for more food, just outside the garden fence. I balanced the edge of the tray against one hip and pushed Jamie’s beautiful gate open with my free hand.

I don’t know what made me look up at that moment. But there he was, standing on the other side of the dance floor.

It was all I could do to keep hold of the tray. Jamie was a vision in his dark waistcoat, jacket, and cardinal red Fraser kilt. But it was his expression that brought me to a standstill. He had a look of such naked hunger as he watched me that I felt my knees instantly go to jelly. His eyes, dark even in the still-bright early evening sun, were locked on mine, and I couldn’t have looked away anymore than I could will my hammering heart to stop beating in my chest.

It felt like hours that we stood that way, but it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. A man grabbed Jamie by the shoulder, breaking the spell of our eye contact. 

I sagged slightly against the sturdy post of the arbor, feeling as though I needed to catch my breath. I had seen Jamie look at me appreciatively before, and I was keenly aware of the attraction that simmered between us. But this...this was something else entirely.

“Claire, darling, let me help you with that,” a kind voice offered. I looked up to see Lord John Grey, himself in a more subdued green and brown kilt and grey tweed jacket, arms outstretched to take the tray from me.

I let him, grateful for the respite in my somewhat shaky state. “Thank you, John,” I said, trying to sound casual.

“He’s quite a sight, isn’t he?” he asked wistfully, nodding in Jamie’s direction. He was now caught up in conversation with the portly old man who’d tapped him on the shoulder, though I could see him stealing occasional glances our way.

“That he is,” I agreed. 

“Where shall I…?” John held up the platter a bit, and I pointed out the open table. I followed him as he went to set it down.

“Good Lord, those are bloody heavy,” he laughed as he set the silver tray down. “It all looks so wonderful—I should have eaten less at lunch!”

I smiled. I liked John; he had very few pretenses, despite his standing. “Well, we had to do something to get Jamie out of the way for a couple hours,” I said, leaning against the edge of the table. “Good thing you wanted to take so many landscape photos.”

John looked at me ponderously, dark head tilted. “Tell me,” he began, “how much of all this was for Jamie’s benefit, and how much to lure me into featuring Lallybroch?”

I couldn’t help it—I threw my head back and laughed. It seemed to startle John, but he quickly recovered and started chortling himself.

“Well, it was a cracking good plan,” he admitted. “This place is a wonder.”

“It was mostly Jenny’s scheme,” I said, somewhat apologetic. “But really, she just knew if you could see it how Jamie always pictured it, full of life and tradition…”

“That I’d fall in love?” John finished. He wore a peculiar half smile, and he looked out over the crowd. “I rather think she was right. How could you not?”

I saw then that he was looking at Jamie again. I followed suit. He stood a full head over most in the crowd, his cinnamon-roan hair gleaming in the golden hour sun.

“Quite right,” I murmured under my breath.

 


 

I was buffeted about by the natural flow of the party for a bit, with curious Scots grabbing me for a chat right and left. The questions turned ever more probing as large quantities of cordial, punch, and ale were consumed. I had begun to feel quite harried and was looking for a spot to hide for a moment when I felt a familiar hand at the small of my back.

“Come wi’ me,” a voice rumbled in my ear. 

I shivered, and not from cold. I had known who it was instantly, and Jamie’s low voice (deeper, even, than usual) sent the same heat to my core that seeing him across the dancefloor had earlier.

He guided me gently but firmly through the gap between the barn and his shop, back towards the storage shed. I let him steer me with no complaint—the crowd parted for his bulk much easier than they had for me, and I was happy to let him take me somewhere quieter.

Jamie sighed in relief when we got inside, shutting the door firmly behind us.

“Thank God,” he groaned. “Laoghaire just wouldna leave off.”

I stifled a chuckle and slumped into a dust cover-draped chaise. Jamie sat on the other end and patted his lap.

“Put yer feet up, Sassenach,” he offered. “Ye’ve been up and about all day.”

I raised an eyebrow, but slipped off my boots and did as instructed. My skirt bunched up a bit over my knees, and the scratch of the wool kilt that covered his thighs tingled against my bare calves.

Ever-so-coolly, Jamie took one of my ankle sock-covered feet and started rubbing the arch with a strong thumb. I let out a hiss of pleasure as he hit a particularly sore spot.

“Tell me if I tickle ye,” he said quietly, and I nodded.

“What did Laoghaire want?” I asked after a moment, trying to be nonchalant.

Jamie’s teeth flashed white in the dim room, and I knew I’d failed miserably.

“Och, she just doesna take no fer an answer,” he said. “I’ve known her since we were bairns, and she didna used to bother me much. But she’s been a pain in my arse since I came back from France.”

I giggled at that. It seemed my jealousy at the bank had been somewhat misplaced—for which I was shamefully glad.

“So she’s hoping to jump the embers with you, then?” I teased.

“Aye,” Jamie responded. His hands stilled for a moment, and his expression turned suddenly serious. “But I told her there’s only one lass I’ve an eye to go a-Mayin’ with, and it isna her.”

My eyes widened, and I inhaled sharply.

“I’m sorry tae bring it up again, but I know ye feel it, too.” He spoke softly, but insistently. “When I saw ye tonight, at the garden gate, lookin’ at me like that—Christ, Claire, I cannae ignore it any longer.”

I was utterly speechless. Jamie took his hand away from my arch and turned toward me. His eyes were black pools as he reached to gently touch my cheek.

“I can tell yer afraid,” he continued. “But I promise ye, Claire, ye have nothing to fear from me.”

“I know that,” I said, my voice thin.

Jamie smiled, his hand drifting down to cup my chin. His broad thumb gently brushed my bottom lip, and I shivered.

“I’ll wait, as long as ye need,” he said, finally. “But I’m done pretending that what’s between us doesna exist.”

He dropped his hand from my face to pat my knee softly, before lifting my legs off his lap to stand.

“I’ll see ye out there,” he said over his shoulder as he crossed back to the door, and then he was gone.

I sat still for some time, feeling dizzy. Suddenly, I found myself entirely unable to recall any of the reasons I’d come up with to not jump in with Jamie. It was as though the intensity of his desire had blown up my objections entirely, and I was utterly defenseless.

Finally, I bent down to pull my boots back on, and left the shed to rejoin the party.

The sun had just slipped behind the mountains while Jamie and I were in the shed, and someone had turned on the string lights despite the fact that the sky was still light.

“Claire!” a high, clear voice called as I stepped into the packed courtyard. I turned to see Geillis Duncan, who owned the garden center in Inverness. She was smiling slyly, and I let out a sigh. I hoped she hadn’t seen me go off alone with Jamie.

“Ye look like ye could use a drink,” she said conspiratorially, handing me a glass. “The punch is deadly, mind, so dinna drink that too fast.”

Despite my reservations about Geillis’s motives for chatting me up, I took the drink gratefully and sipped. “It’s lovely to see you, Geillis,” I said, and found that I meant it. She was unabashedly a gossip, but I found her impish manner and cutting wit endearing.

“What a wonder ye’ve managed in that kailyard,” she complimented. “And such a fine arbor yer wee fox cub has built for yer roses.”

I rolled my eyes at her, but couldn’t help smiling. “Not mine, Geillis,” I admonished lightly. 

“The roses, or the man?” she teased back.

I threw up my free hand in mock exasperation, and she let loose her crystalline laugh.

“All right, hen, I’ll leave it,” she finally conceded. “But I’d keep a canny eye on yon laddie tonight, if I were you.” She raised her chin meaningfully at a pair of girls tittering in the corner. 

I followed their gaze; they were staring at the dance floor, where Jamie was whirling a very red-faced Mrs. Fitz with complete abandon. I smiled at the sight. He caught my eye and grinned, the seriousness of our discussion minutes earlier clearly forgotten—or at least laid aside for now.

“Though it seems ye’ve nay reason to fash,” Geillis said dryly, taking a sip of her drink.

The song was ending, and Jamie bowed gallantly to Mrs. Fitz. “Off wi’ ye, ye gowk!” she squealed, rapping her knuckles playfully on his exposed skull. He laughed good-naturedly and kissed her cheek, which turned her even redder, if it was possible. And then he was crossing the floor, headed our way.

 “Hope ye've got yer dancing shoes on, hen,” Geillis murmured, and then melted away as Jamie stepped up to take my hand and pull me out.

“I don’t know the steps!” I protested.

“Och, dinna be daft,” he said. “Just follow my lead.”

I quickly gulped down the punch, which made Jamie laugh. Geillis materialized again out of nowhere to take the empty glass as the music began anew. Jamie pushed me by the shoulders into a line of women, then took his place facing me. His smile was pure mischief, and I felt aglow as he gave me that absolutely insane double wink.

“Gird yerself, lass,” the middle-aged woman next to me in the line-up warned with a grin. “Tha’ one’s naught but trouble!”

And then we were away, coming together and flinging apart, then crashing back to spin in wild circles. The lady beside me let out yelps of encouragement, guiding me when Jamie could not, and I let myself fall fully into the flow of the dance.

Jamie dragged me through six or seven songs in a row, until I was so dizzy and out of breath that I could barely stand. He guided me chivalrously off the floor and to the nearest refreshments.

“A drink, milady?” he offered in an absolutely outrageous imitation of an upper-crust accent. I would have laughed aloud if I’d had the breath; as it was, I just wheezed.

He sniffed disdainfully at my appalling lack of decorum, but poured me a cup of punch all the same.

“You are a ridiculous man,” I chided, grinning.

“Perhaps,” Jamie replied in his normal burr, “but ye like me all the same.”

I couldn’t deny that, so I just snorted and took a deep drink. It was well dark now, and I was starting to get hungry.

As though reading my mind, Jamie took me by the elbow and guided me towards one of the other tables, which was full of a dozen kinds of finger food.

“How did you know?” I asked as I grabbed a sausage roll and bit in eagerly.

“Yer awfully easy to read, Sassenach,” Jamie said, lip twitching up. “Ye started lookin’ around at all the tables whilst ye drank, and it’s been hours since lunch.”

I hummed thoughtfully as I chewed and swallowed. “You really have me figured, don’t you?”

“Weel, I’m certainly tryin’, mo ghraidh,” he said lightly.

The music, which had continued apace since we left the floor, suddenly stopped, and we both turned to see what was the matter. Ian and Jenny were on the stage, motioning futilely for quiet. Finally, exasperated, Jenny lifted her fingers to her mouth and let out an ear-splitting whistle, which cut the chatter instantly.

“Tha’s better,” she grumbled, and everyone chuckled. “I want tae welcome ye all to Lallybroch—whether ye’ve been before or no. Now, all of ye ken we’re here tae wish my knuckleheided brother a happy birthday.”

A cheer rose up at that, but Jenny quieted them down again with a wave of her hand. “And the auld coots among us might recollect the days when our mam Ellen and da Brian would hold parties fer all the fire feasts.” 

The older guests nodded their heads fondly, many smiling. “Tonight, we’re honoring Jamie Fraser, who—daft as it may be—is building back what our family created. But we’re also honoring the memory of Brian and Ellen, who showed us how best tae care for this land and our people.” Jenny raised her cup high, pointing it towards Jamie as she met his eyes firmly. “To Jamie, may he live long and love well. And to Brian and Ellen, our parents. Sláinte mhath!” she cried, and the whole party lifted their glasses in salute.

Sláinte mhath!” their voices roared.

I lifted my own cup to Jamie and drank with the crowd, watching him intently. His eyes were dry, but his right hand drummed against his kilted thigh, and I could see his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed hard.

“Now, enough sentimental shite,” Ian called from the stage. “It’s time to light the fires!”

The crowd cheered again, and there was a mad rush for the refreshment tables as everyone gathered provisions for the walk ahead. I looked at Jamie meaningfully but he just smiled and pulled a surprisingly large flask from his sporran.

“I came prepared, lass,” he said. “Grab yerself a pie, we’ll be gone a while yet.”

 


 

Jenny and I had enlisted Rupert and his friend Angus Mhor to set up the bonfires on the hill behind the broch while Jamie was showing John around the house. As Jamie and I led the crowd of people up the path, I started to wonder if we ought to have provided some measure of supervision.

“My God, they're huge!” John exclaimed somewhere behind me. “Are we really going to light those on fire?”

Jenny, freed from the responsibilities of mothering three small children for the evening by one of Mrs. Fitz’s many young relatives, laughed tipsily. “Oh aye!” she confirmed. “Best be sure yer feeling sprightly afore ye get tae jumpin’ any—ye dinna want to singe yer bawbag under tha’ kilt!”

Ian, also somewhat in his cups, snorted, and John made a choked noise.

“Leave the poor man alone, Janet,” Jamie laughed.

John and I were both panting by the time we reached the top, but the Highlanders, damn them, were all fresh as daisies, trained by a lifetime of hillwalking. Angus, who I’d only met once, was waiting for us, grinning like a loon.

“Happy birthday, Seamus Ruadh!” he greeted, opening his arms wide for a hug. He was much shorter than Jamie, and his head barely reached Jamie’s pecs. There was much back slapping and general merriment, making me suspect Angus also had a flask of something strong in his sporran.

The hill was filling with people now, throngs of locals finding space on the flat top and then spilling down the sides. I really had no notion of how many had shown—certainly in the hundreds. And they were a sight to behold in all their finery. Most of the men wore kilts, and the women were in a mix of period costume and modern dresses like mine. I had admired them all in the courtyard, but up here, on the dark hillside with nothing but the moon and stars to illuminate them, they looked otherworldly.

When the steady stream of arrivals had slowed, Jamie stepped away from our little group, to stand where he could be seen more clearly by the crowd.

Beannachdan Beltane!” Jamie’s voice boomed, and the upturned faces called back the greeting enthusiastically.

“I thank ye all for being here. This tradition meant so much to our parents, and it means even more to me now,” he continued.

John shifted beside me, and I noticed him surreptitiously extracting a much smaller camera than the one he’d been using earlier from inside his jacket. I smiled to myself—this was exactly what Jenny had hoped might happen.

“My ancestors have tended this land for nigh on seven hundred years,” Jamie said. “They cared for it, protected its people, lived off its bounty—through feast and famine, in peace and at war.”

He had them all in the palm of his hand, I marveled. He truly looked like a warrior of old, commanding his clan. And for my part, I knew I would follow him anywhere.

“The days of the Lairds of Lallybroch are long gone. But tonight, I honor their spirit and their sacrifices. And I ask for their favor, that this land and its people may prosper in the year to come.”

To my right, Angus appeared from behind the massive stack of wood, carrying a lit torch. He handed it to Jamie, who accepted with murmured thanks. He held it high, and the flickering light illuminated the waves of his hair until it looked like it, too, was made of flame. I heard a camera shutter click quietly.

“I offer this blessing to the Holy Father, and to the saints that watch o’er us.

Beannaich, a Thrianailt fhioir nach gann,  
Mi fein, mo cheile agus mo chlann, 
Mo chlann mhaoth's am mathair chaomh 'n an ceann,  
Air chlar chubhr nan raon, air airidh chaon nam beann, 
Air chlar chubhr nan raon, air airidh chaon nam beam.

Jenny and Ian both murmured the words along with Jamie, and as he continued on to the second verse, I could hear more people joining in—mostly the elders in the crowd, but some young folk, too. The sound of dozens of voices melding together sent a chill up my spine, though I had no notion of the meaning.

Jamie watched me out of the corner of his eye for the third and fourth verse, and I found myself desperate to know the translation. I mentally made a note to ask Jenny later.

The cadence was rhythmic and beautiful, and I found myself able to join in for bits and pieces as lines were repeated. By the end, the multitude had become one voice, booming and strong, and the sudden quiet felt heavy and thick. Despite the crowd’s silence, the air hummed with shared anticipation as Jamie turned toward the first bonfire. He caught my eye as he swung round; his lips twitched and he gave me the subtlest of double-winks. I had to bite my lip to keep from reacting.

Slowly, solemnly, he lowered the torch to the kindling. Apparently, Angus and Rupert had prepared the spectacle well; I smelled lighter fluid, and the second the torch touched the wood, it burst into intense flame.

The crowd gasped, and Jamie crossed the gap to light the second fire—which seemed to catch alight even more spectacularly than the first. A cheer erupted, and pipes began to play. Soon the bodhran joined in, and a fiddle, and the merriment had begun anew.

The heat from the fires was intense, and I was suddenly very warm. Jamie seemed to note my flush and jerked his head towards the back side of the hill, which was less crowded and offered a place to step away from the roaring flame. I nodded, and he took my hand and led me between the fires to the respite on the other side. It was much cooler, and we sat down together in the grass, looking out over the dark valley. The sound of the party was much quieter on this side, with the crackle of flame in between.

“Well,” I said as Jamie rummaged in his sporran, “that was certainly something.”

He chuckled and handed me the flask. I took a sip, instantly recognizing his father’s best aged whisky. “Highlanders do love a spectacle,” he said. “We’re a superstitious lot.”

I passed him the flask, and he took a lingering draught, savoring the flavor. He looked at me as he swallowed, smiling faintly.

“I dinna think I’ve told ye how bonnie ye look tonight, Sassenach,” he said.

I flushed.

He reached out and touched the fabric of my skirt, feeling the weight carefully between his fingers. “Tartan suits ye,” he said, voice husky. “We may just make a Scot of ye yet.”

I tried to laugh it off, but found I could not. Instead, I took the flask back and took another mouthful.

“Does it make ye uncomfortable?” Jamie asked, letting go of my skirt and leaning back on his hands. “When I compliment ye, I mean.”

I looked down at my lap. “Well, a little,” I said slowly. “But I like it.”

I could almost hear the smile curling around his lips. “Then I’ll no’ stop.”

The lowing of a cow just below us brought Jamie to full attention.

“Oh God,” he laughed, having spotted something in the dark below. “Ye didn’t!”

I saw the lumbering silhouette of Rupert’s bulk moving up the hill, and he popped up into the light with a satisfied grin on his broad face.

“Wha’s Beltane with no kine?” Rupert said with exaggerated indignance. “Yer Sassenach was goin’ tae skip it altogether, if ye can imagine!”

I laughed and swatted Rupert’s arm. “We just didn’t want to trouble you with anything more!”

Rupert scoffed. “Nay trouble, lass.”

“Where is it?” I asked, peering down the slope.

“Where are they,” Rupert corrected, smug. “I brought three. McNab won’t miss ‘em for a night. I’ve got a pen down there, just a temporary one, mind.”

The spell of our solitude thoroughly broken, we let Rupert drag us back to the crowd. Some clever soul had filled a fleet of wheelbarrows with drinks, and the party was turning rowdy. I spotted more than one couple sneaking off towards the wood on the other side of the path.

“Claire, dear, have a Beltane bannock!”

Mrs. Fitz appeared from the crowd. Her hair was mussed and her nose red from drink, but she was remarkably steady on her feet. She handed me an oatcake from the basket she carried, and passed another to Jamie and Rupert each.

Jamie waved me up to the fire again, standing with his back to it.

“Throw a bit over yer shoulder as ye eat,” he instructed, plucking a piece off the edge of his own bannock.

“Here to ye, wolf, spare our sheep,” Jamie said solemnly, throwing the piece into the fire behind him. Then broke off a piece for himself and popped it into his mouth.

“We don’t have any sheep,” I teased.

“It’s the principle,” he replied haughtily. “Now you.”

Grinning, I twisted off a piece. “What shall I say?”

“Do one for the foxes, I suppose.”

“Here to you, fox, spare our cat."

Jamie snorted. “A fox couldna take on yon cheetie. He’s a braw laddie.”

“That’s my offering and I’m sticking to it,” I said firmly, and tossed the bit into the fire.

 


 

The supply of oatcakes was soon exhausted, and the crowd turned to dancing again—though with less organization and quite a few more falls, owing both to the uneven footing and the collective alcohol intake. I found myself whirling with John Grey, his camera stowed and he looking quite glassy-eyed by now. We laughed together like schoolchildren as we stumbled through steps we tried to copy off the other couples, and I realized I was nearing drunk myself.

“I need a break,” I gasped, and he threw a companionable arm around my shoulder.

“Ah, Claire, don’t leave me!” he beseeched. I giggled, and pulled him towards the flattish spot where the wheelbarrows had been left.

“Look at you twa, stoatin’ about.” Angus Mhor was rummaging through the drinks himself, and he handed me a bottle of water. I gulped it down thirstily.

“The fires are getting lower,” he said, nodding up the hill. “Rupert went tae get the kine, if ye want to watch. An’ it’ll soon be time tae jump the embers, so best find yer sweethearts now.”

He gave me a suggestive look, waggling his eyebrows, and I snorted.

 “C’mon, John, let’s go watch.”

But John was already ahead of me, pulling the camera out of his jacket pocket.

“That one’s so small,” I said, pointing at his camera as we made our way up the hill. The crowd was thinner now, as people emptied away to sleep—or find a private spot to canoodle.

“It’s film,” he said, fiddling with the settings. “Bit titchier for firelight than digital, but the results are so worth it. And it’s much easier to carry about.”

We could hear mooing now, and the sound was attracting the remaining revelers to the top of the hill. We could see Rupert now, a staff in hand and three shaggy Highland cattle huddled close beside him before the bonfire.

He saw us too, and gave a little wave. With most of the party now watching intently, Rupert turned to his work, gently pushing the horned beasts forward with his long staff. They lowed in protest, but started moving forward, and a ragged cheer came from the crowd as they stepped between the fires.

Rupert paused them for a moment, letting the smoke wash over them, before tapping their haunches lightly to drive them forward once more. He circled the left fire first, then came back through the middle, and circled right. The crowd was invested now, crying out encouragement. Rupert completed his final circle, and stopped again in the middle. He turned to the crowd and bowed with a dramatic flourish of his staff before driving the cattle down the hill, back to their makeshift paddock.

The crowd gave a final cheer of approval, then turned back amongst themselves, intoxication shortening their attention spans.

I, however, was watching the flames. They were burning low now—it had seemed impossible that fires that size would ever burn out, but I supposed with the lighter fluid they’d burned hot and hard, consuming the fuel quickly. Though, I reasoned, it had also been a few hours since Jamie had lit them; it had to be past midnight by now.

“They’re a bit high yet fer jumping, Sassenach.”

Jamie’s voice in my ear made me jump, and I whirled around. He was grinning foolishly, and his eyes were bright.

I blushed. “I wasn’t thinking about that,” I said defensively. 

“No?” he asked, teasing. “I think ye may be the only one, then.”

I looked self-consciously over my shoulder, and saw more than one pair of eyes glancing our way.

Jamie leaned forward and touched my hip with his far hand, where it couldn’t be seen by the onlookers, making my breath catch. “Meet me down the hill, in the trees round the back,” he murmured. “Sneak out when they look tae see who jumps first.”

I nodded dumbly, and he pulled away, giving me a slow blink. He turned to Angus then, and wrapped an arm around his shoulder.

“Och, Angus, mate, I’m positively foutered,” Jamie said loudly, affecting a slur. “Help me down, would ye?”

Angus, bless him, cottoned on straight away, and the two of them stumbled down the path. I snorted at the two of them as they bobbed and weaved, then looked for my own exit route.

Somewhere under the haze of whisky and cherry cordial, my rational mind was churning. Just what, the sober part of me wondered, did Jamie have planned for this little sojourn? The tension between us was at its absolute peak, a quivering soap bubble that filled my chest, ever-expanding. Meeting him was, I knew, a Patently Bad Idea, particularly in my present state.

But then, a handsome couple in their early twenties stepped up to the fire, laughing, and the whole crowd turned to watch them, shouting in excitement. Before I could overthink it, my feet turned down the slope of their own accord.

At first, I walked. But whether from the building momentum or my own undeniable excitement, my feet quickly began to churn. I was being pulled by a force far greater than logic, greater than my own fear. I had no care for the uneven footing, the too-tall heels of my boots, the slickness of the grass. There was no room for thoughts anymore—only action.

When I reached the bottom of the hill, my eyes had adjusted enough to the moonlit night to see the flash of his hair in the trees ahead. He was watching me.

I ran to him, pulled into his orbit by an inexplicable gravity. And when I reached him, he opened his mouth as if to say something. But I was done with words. I simply crashed into him, wanting, needing—and pulled his mouth to mine in a searing, desperate kiss.

Chapter Text

He watched her on the hill from afar, enjoying the opportunity to observe her unawares. There was something intimate in that, he thought, to see a person when they had no airs, completely oblivious.

She was standing slightly separate from everyone else in the dwindling crowd, though she always appeared that way to him. A woman apart , he thought. She seemed to hesitate, feet rooted to the earth as the attention of the group shifted to some action he couldn’t see. He could feel her thinking, even from his vantage point some hundred-odd feet away. The tension in the elegant lines of her body was as plain as day to him.

And then, sudden as a hawk diving for prey, she was away down the hill. She didn’t bother to follow the path, just went straight down the slope. Her feet gained speed, and he could see her slip now and again. His chest tightened at the sight. It seemed an apt metaphor, really—she’d been stuck, stagnant, frozen. And now, she simply let herself go.

The moon, not quite full, was bright enough to illuminate what little of her skin was bare to the night as she ran down the hill, and her clear face glowed. He wished he could see the dove-white sheen of her elegant neck, fine collarbone, the gentle curve of the tops of her breasts above that crimson neckline—

She spotted him as she reached the bottom, and his breath quickened as she let her momentum carry her across the flat clearing to the edge of the woods where he waited.

He opened his mouth to greet her, but no words came out. For before he could process it, she was leaping into his arms, burying her hands in the curling hairs at the nape of his neck. The impact knocked the wind from his chest, and then her lips were locked on his.

Nothing could have prepared him for the feeling of her, for the hunger in her kiss. She pressed her entire body against his, as if she were trying to meld them into one. His baser self responded in kind on pure instinct, and he felt a dim sense of pleasure at how well they fit together.

They broke apart just as suddenly as they’d come together, panting.

“Jesus,” Claire whispered, and she started to giggle breathlessly.

“What?” he asked dazedly. “What’re ye laughing at?”

“How stupid it is we haven’t done that before,” she replied, and kissed him again. 

The first had been bruising but short; this one was all languid sensuality, and he groaned as she teased her tongue across his lower lip. 

The shock of it all was fading, though, and Jamie started to be able to think again. He could taste his father’s whisky on her, and it rang a hint of alarm deep in his brain.

Reluctantly, he pulled away, but didn’t release her from his embrace.

“Sassenach,” he said, voice husky. “Yer drunk.”

She scoffed, trying to stand a little higher on her toes in an attempt to capture him in another kiss. “Am not,” she said, her lips fluttering along his jaw as she realized the futility of trying to meet his mouth. “Anyway, you’ve been drinking too.”

It was torture to deny her what she so obviously craved. But despite her words, he knew she was at the very least tipsy, and he wouldn’t run the risk of her waking up with regrets. Why did I fetch her all those drinks? he admonished himself as she pressed an open-mouthed kiss to the pounding pulse point on his neck.

“Take me home, Jamie,” Claire murmured into his skin.

Jamie suppressed a groan at the underlying implication. He had to get ahold of himself.

“Aye,” he said finally, “I’ll take ye back to the house. But no’ to bed, Claire. No’ like this.”

She tilted her head back to meet his eye, making a face. “Fine,” she said. “But I don’t see what harm a bit of snogging could do.”

It was enough to break the tension, and Jamie laughed.

“Weel, ye make a fine point there, lass. I’ll make ye a deal,” he said. “I’ll kiss ye all ye like...if ye tell me why now.”

Claire cocked her head to the side, considering. “I…” she began slowly, “I suppose I’m just sick of looking for reasons not to.” She smiled crookedly with a shrug. “There’s no logic to it. Just a feeling.”

Jamie’s pulse quickened, and that tiny spark of hope he’d been nurturing caught alight. True to his word, he cupped her chin, and bent to cover her lips with his own.

 


 

Jamie could have stood there for hours, availing himself of the pleasure of her mouth, but she soon started to shiver without the warmth of the bonfires nearby. So he draped her in his jacket and led her the long way back to the house, through the wood rather than back toward the hill, hoping to avoid any late-night revelers. As they made their way, they could hear the sounds of other couples who’d sought refuge in the privacy of the trees.

A comically loud moan from the bushes sent them both into a fit of poorly muffled laughter.

“Sounds like a brothel out here,” Claire whispered.

Jamie chuckled, squeezing her a little tighter to his side. “Och, slipping off wi’ yer sweetheart on the first o’ May is a grand Highland tradition,” he said. “A Beltane baby was considered a blessing, in the auld days.”

She sent him a sly look. “Oh, so that’s what you meant when you said you wanted to ‘go a-Maying’ with me?”

Jamie coughed, uneasy that she thought he’d been angling for such a thing. “Weel...it doesna only mean that ye...mmphm.”

She let out a peal of laughter at that, and he hastily clapped a hand to her mouth, shushing her.

They made it back to the house with no visual confirmation of the activities in the bushes, thankfully. The courtyard was quiet, as were the barn and the house. If anyone was still celebrating, they were doing it in the open air.

When they reached the landing of the stairs, Jamie couldn’t help kissing her again. Claire, too, was clearly more than willing. Her enthusiasm drove him mad, and before he knew what he was doing, he’d pushed her up against the stone wall. She moaned, and he felt his cock twitch in response, pressed as it was against her belly.

A loud, sudden crash shocked them apart, wild-eyed.

“What was that?” Claire whispered frantically, looking down the dark hallway.

“Adso?” Jamie murmured back hopefully, but the noise had been too loud. It came from Claire’s bedroom.

“Stay here,” he said, and crossed to her door. Carefully, silently, he turned the knob and pushed it in slowly.

What he saw made him stuff his fist in his mouth to keep from laughing.

Claire had, of course, ignored his command to stay put, and she peered under his arm into her room.

“Oh dear,” she said with a chuckle.

Lord John Grey, clearly the worse for wear, was sprawled out on his stomach across her bed, fully dressed. His kilt, however, had rather unfortunately flipped up to expose the lily white curve of his arse, which was sporting a rather distinctly red handprint. The crash, clearly, had been a glass of water that was shattered across the floor.

“I should clean that up,” Jamie whispered to Claire, “so he doesna step on it when he wakes.”

Claire nodded and disappeared to get the broom. Jamie tiptoed into the room and carefully picked up the biggest pieces of glass. When she returned, they quietly cleaned the rest, and then undressed John as much as they dared before sliding him under Claire’s blanket.

Stepping back into the hall seemed to reawaken the hum of desire between them.

“Take my room tonight,” Jamie said. “I’ll uh...I’ll set up on the couch.”

Claire fixed him with a square look that reminded him just a little too much of Jenny for the current situation. “Is that what you really want?” she asked, eyebrow arched.

Despite himself, Jamie grinned. “Well, no. But I dinna want to take advantage—”

“Oh, do shut up,” Claire interrupted with an eyeroll. “We don’t have to do anything but sleep. I’m perfectly capable of restraining myself, and so are you.”

She turned on her heel and stalked into his bedroom, pausing for only the briefest second in the doorway to glance over her shoulder at him, making her meaning clear.

He followed obediently, entirely too happy to be under her power.

“Let me get ye something to sleep in,” he offered, turning to rummage through his dresser for something suitable.

“Thank you,” she said, fidgeting with the tiny pearl pendant on her necklace. She seemed to have lost a bit of her bravado, now they were actually in his bedroom.

“I’m no’ going tae jump on ye,” he said as he handed her a t-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts.

She smiled apologetically, accepting the folded clothes. “I didn’t think you would,” she said. “I just...it’s been a while since I shared a bed with anyone.”

He could have slapped himself. Of course. Frank. “I really dinna mind the couch, Sassenach,” he offered.

Claire shook her head. “I want you here,” she said firmly.

“Aye, all right,” he said softly. But, he resolved, he’d have to behave himself.

“Don’t go anywhere,” she commanded as she slipped into the bathroom.

He could hear the water running as Claire went through her nighttime routine, so he pulled out a pair of boxer briefs for himself and undressed. Kilt and accompanying layers discarded, however, he caught a glimpse of himself in his mirror and realized just how little the briefs concealed—particularly round the front.

Might be a bit much, he thought, and quickly pulled on his flannel pajama bottoms just as the door to the bathroom opened.

Jamie couldn’t help the goofy smile that spread across his face at the sight of her in his too-big shirt, face bare and curls in a riot, lips red and puffed from his kisses.

“God, yer beautiful,” he said sincerely.

Claire wrinkled her nose, but her pink cheeks showed her pleasure.

“Make yerself comfortable,” he said as he moved towards the bathroom. He couldn't resist trailing his fingers over the curve of her hip as he passed, but restrained himself from anything further. “I’ll just be a moment.”

He brushed his teeth vigorously and splashed water on his hot face. When he came out, the overhead light was off, and Claire was illuminated by the soft glow of his bedside lamp—just as she’d been the night he’d first tried to kiss her.

This time, however, she was tucked up in his bed, crooking a finger at him with a beatific smile.

“Hurry up, it’s cold,” she said, wriggling deeper into the covers.

“At yer service,” he joked, and peeled back the duvet to slip in beside her. Automatically, he lifted his arm, and she curled up below it, head tucked up in the groove where his shoulder met his chest. She curled one leg over his, and he wrapped a hand over her knee, idly stroking the delicate tendons where the joint met the underside of her silky thigh. It felt so natural, so easy.

“Jaime,” Claire started, “I’m really glad. About this, I mean.”

He kissed her temple in reply, too content to speak. He knew they’d have to talk about it, and soon. But at the moment, he just wanted to enjoy the feeling of her in his arms.

He released her leg and stretched to turn off the lamp.

“It’s late now, Sassenach, ” he said softly. “Sleep.”

 


 

Jamie wasn’t entirely sure what woke him, some hours later. It was still dark, but there was some anticipatory stillness in the inky sky outside his window that made him sure dawn was approaching.

Then he saw the strip of light beneath his bathroom door, and he remembered.

Claire.

He heard the toilet flush, the faucet run. The light under the door went dark and then there she was, in the doorway.

She seemed to stand there longer than necessary, and he wondered if her eyes hadn’t yet adjusted back after the brightness of the bathroom.

“Sassenach,” he whispered. “This way.”

He could see the gleam of her teeth as she smiled.

“Bad night vision,” she murmured as she carefully picked her way across the floor.

Jamie reached out his hand to her and pulled her back into bed, curling around her spoon-fashion. She gave a contented sigh and wriggled pleasantly.

“I think ye might have the finest arse I’ve ever seen,” he said, letting his hand creep between them to cup the curve under the thin shorts she wore. The ends of his long fingers reached further than the hem, and he relished the downy feel of the fine hairs on the back of her bare thigh, inches below the crease of her buttock.

Claire giggled into the pillow and pushed her hips back against him. That made him gasp; sleeping in the same bed with her had done nothing helpful for his usual morning cockstand, and she was in just the right position to rub against the length of him when she moved.

“Oh...sorry about that,” she said, but there was no hint of remorse in her wicked tone.

“Ye’ll be the death of me yet,” Jamie grumbled, but wrapped her tighter in his arms. “Go back to sleep.”

“No,” she said, covering his arm around her waist with her own. “Talk to me for a bit.”

He smiled into the tumble of hair that tickled his chin. “What about?”

“I don’t know. Anything.”

He thought for a moment. There was something he wanted to ask, though it was a little risky. But the small hours seemed to offer a sense of safety, an intimacy that made it easier to broach touchy subjects. He decided to forge ahead, and scooted back to prop himself up on one elbow. Claire rolled onto her other side to face him.

“Ye said in the woods that ye were tired of thinking of reasons not to kiss me,” he said carefully. “What exactly were those reasons...before?”

The gloom hid some of the intricacies of her expression, but her ivory skin reflected just enough light to reveal the half smile playing on her lips. “Why did I stop you that night, you mean?”

“Yes.”

She took a deep breath. “Well...there were a few,” she admitted, somewhat reluctant.

He didn’t press her, just took her hand and lifted it to his lips in a gesture of encouragement. It seemed somehow easier to talk when they were touching.

“Mostly, it was something Ned said to me.”

“Ned Gowan?” Jamie repeated, incredulous.

“Yes. When I went to talk to him that day about Lallybroch, he said…” She hesitated again, and Jamie squeezed her hand gently. “Well, he gave me a bit of advice. That I should be careful, mixing money and feelings.”

Jamie snorted. Just like Ned to meddle where he wasn’t needed.

“Don’t scoff,” Claire chided gently. “He had a point.”

“And what does he know about it? The man’s been a bachelor since my da was in clouts.”

“I’m serious, Jamie. It’s something to think about. If we give this a go, and it goes wrong, what happens?” She was looking down at the pillow now, not meeting his eyes. “I’m afraid you’ll want me to pull out my investment, and then where would that leave Lallybroch?”

“Who says it has to go wrong?”

Claire fixed him with an exasperated look. “We have to think about these things, Jamie. We’re business partners now, and I don’t want to cock it all up for some...some dalliance.”

Jamie was caught somewhere between annoyance, hurt, and amusement—with a healthy dose of arousal hearing the word cock fall from her lips, even in that context. But it seemed a bit dangerous to focus on that part of the sentiment. “Dalliance?” he repeated, trying not to grin.

“Oh, you know what I mean!”

He could see how this weighed on her, though, and opted not to tease her further.

“Claire,” he said seriously. “I understand what yer saying. But believe me when I say this is no passing fancy. At least, no’ for me.”

He heard her breath catch, and she swallowed hard.

“I care about ye. Deeply,” he forged ahead. “I think ye feel the same, though ye’ve been too stubborn to admit it.”

She wrinkled her nose at the gentle ribbing in his tone, and he smiled, reaching out to tap the tip affectionately.

“I suppose yer right, that all this could blow up in our faces. But to me, this—” he motioned to the space between them— “is worth the risk. You are worth the risk.”

Jamie could see her cheeks darken, and he wrapped her in his arms, pulling her against him again. Their noses almost touched, and he could feel her breath on his lips.

“Jaime, I...” She trailed off, lost in the palpable connection between their eyes.

“Will ye trust me enough to try, at least?"

She smiled tremulously, and tilted her head until her lips brushed his. “Yes,” she whispered against his mouth, and he kissed her in earnest.

After some time, Claire broke away from his mouth. The room was starting to get just a bit lighter, Jamie noted—he could make out the flecks in her eyes now.

“Do you mind if we keep it a bit quiet, just to start?” she asked hesitantly. “I just...I want some time to see what it is between us, before…”

“Before the lang-nebbit nashgabs of this God-forsaken valley work themselves into a lather?”

She laughed, which was a relief to him after the solemnity of the whole discussion. “Yes, exactly.”

“No, Sassenach, I dinna mind at all.”

The truth, of course, was that he would be hard-pressed not to go tap dancing across the courtyard, as elated as he felt. But he rather thought she had a point—he wasn’t sure he was ready to face the inevitable storm of questions and criticisms bound to come from Jenny in particular.

They moved on to less delicate topics, and Jamie was pleased to find that nothing of their easy companionship had been lost in this shift to something more. At some point, Claire’s responses grew slower, less frequent. Soon, she was asleep again, curled up against his bare chest.

“Sleep well, mo chridhe ,” he whispered into her hair, and closed his own heavy eyes.

As he started to slip under, he dimly realized Claire had only told him one of her apprehensions. But before the thought could take hold, he had followed her into unconsciousness.

 


 

“Jamie, wake up!”

Claire’s panicked hiss sent him shooting straight up in bed, wincing in pain as the bright sunlight hit his eyes.

“Wha?”

He heard the knocking now, and Jenny’s voice came through the door.

“Jamie lad, are ye in there?”

Claire clapped a hand over his mouth, eyes flashing a warning.

“He just came in to shower!” Claire called back, voice a little shrill. She released his mouth and flapped her hands desperately at him, waving him towards the bathroom.

“Oh, Claire, it’s you. Are ye...decent?”

Even through the thick wood, Jamie could hear the reproach in Jenny’s voice. He was having trouble controlling the urge to laugh. But Claire’s frantic expression made him keep his trap shut, and he silently slipped into the bathroom, where he turned on the shower and pressed his ear up against the door to hear just how Claire planned to get out of this one.

He’d missed part of their conversation, but what he could catch made him stuff a knuckle into his mouth to keep himself quiet. What he would give to see their expressions…

“—and I didn’t want to wake him. So Jamie offered me his room and slept on the couch.”

She was rambling. Och, Sassenach, less is more, he thought, biting down harder.

“Is that so.”

Jenny sounded completely unconvinced. He could picture her face perfectly, warring between disapproval and amusement. Jamie knew his sister liked Claire immensely, but he had a feeling she would have a few choice words for him if she knew he’d taken her to bed that night.

“Weel. I’ve got a fry-up going, and John’s out of yer room, so ye can get dressed. Tell Jamie.”

Jamie couldn’t hold in his snort at that. He heard the implication—Jenny had been in the house for some time now, and he had most certainly not been on the couch at any point that morning. She’s got ye now, lass, he thought ruefully. Claire really was the worst liar.

Hearing the bedroom door shut behind Jenny, Jamie quickly shed his pajamas and jumped under the hot stream. Might as well at least try to keep up the pretense, he supposed, flimsy as it was.

Downstairs, the kitchen was a whirlwind. Maggie and wee Jamie were running around the table in some kind of incomprehensible game, and Kitty bawled in Ian’s arms, reaching desperately for an exasperated Jenny, who was trying to man four pans at once. Claire and John were nowhere to be seen, Jamie noticed with no hint of surprise.

“Here, Janet, let me help ye,” he offered, grabbing a spatula to take over the pan of eggs. She gave him a grateful look and moved aside to make room for him at the stovetop.

It was a tight squeeze, but they made it work. Claire drifted in just as they were plating and Jamie gave her an exaggerated reproachful look. She grinned sheepishly and poured herself a cup of tea from the pot on the table.

“Where’s John got to?” she asked Ian, who had succeeded in mollifying Kitty with a piece of dry toast, which she gummed enthusiastically.

Ian chuckled. “He was lookin’ a bit green around the gills when I saw him earlier,” he responded. “I think he went out for some fresh air.”

Jenny and Jamie served the plates, setting out one for John in case he returned, and sat down themselves to tuck in.

“So,” Jenny started, and Jamie tensed. “Where did you two disappear to last night?”

Claire opened her mouth to speak, but Jamie was faster. He quickly slid his foot forward to cover hers under the table in silent warning.

“Angus and I went to help Rupert with the kine when he was done,” he said easily. “What time did ye make it back, Ian?”

Jenny’s eyes darted between him and Claire. But the corners of her mouth twitched upwards subtly. So she wasn’t angry, Jamie thought, relieved. He didn’t need his sister’s approval, but Lord knew life was much easier with it than without.

They’d moved on to recounting some of the revelry from the night before when John appeared through the side door, holding his cell phone. He did look a bit peely-wally, but he was grinning.

“Wonderful news,” he announced as he flung himself into the empty seat. “I’ve just got off the phone with our editor-in-chief.”

Claire choked on her bacon, launching into a sudden coughing fit. Alarmed, Ian slapped her back ineffectually, but she waved him off. She turned a panicked eye at Jenny as she gulped more tea to try to soothe her throat.

Suddenly Jamie got the distinct feeling he’d been had.

“What do ye mean, editor?” he asked slowly.

Jenny grimaced, but John was oblivious.

“I might own the magazine, but the editorial decisions are generally left up to Isobel,” he said cheerfully, scooping an egg onto a piece of toast. “But I’ve sent her a bit of a sneak preview of the photos and she agreed we should make a last-minute swap to our cover story for next month.”

Jamie felt his temper flaring. A magazine ?

Claire was looking quite guilty, but her sense of decorum won out.

“Well, that’s wonderful, John,” she said, her voice a bit hoarse after her aspiration.

“Yes, I think it will be a huge hit with our readers. They go absolutely batty for hands-on owners. Between that, the family story, and the lost title angle—”

Jamie had stopped listening. He was busy watching Claire, who was looking pained. I’m sorry, she mouthed, and under the table she slid her other foot alongside his. He pulled his legs back under his chair, out of her reach.

Some small, rational part of his mind realized this was clearly just an attempt to drum up bookings for the new rental. But he couldn’t quell the ire he felt at both of them for going behind his back. To whore out his story, his hard work, his losses, and not even ask his opinion on the subject—

John was standing up now, having shoveled a few more bites of his breakfast into his mouth.

“I’m so sorry, I absolutely must get on the next flight back to London,” he said, grabbing a tattie scone from the plate for the road. “We’ve so much to do to get the story together before press check. Claire, you have my number? Text me, so I can call if we need to check any facts…”

And then he was off, leaving the tensest of silences in his wake.

“I’ll take the weans to get cleaned up, then,” Ian said mildly, standing up. “Maggie, Jamie—come along.”

Jamie stared down at his plate darkly as Ian gathered the children and left. When he heard the front door close, he put his hands down on the table, flexing his fingers.

“Explain,” he gritted out.

Claire reached across the table for his hand, but he snatched it out of her reach. “Jamie—” 

“It was my idea,” Jenny interrupted. “John owns Country House . Ian met him at a presser on the crofter’s rights bill last year. I thought it’d be a means to grab a bit o’ attention, with the barn opening up. So I called him, and he said he’d come look at least. I wasna sure if he’d publish anything unless we gave him a good reason.”

“So what, the last 24 hours have been an interview?”

Claire winced, but Jenny regarded him impassively.

“Yes,” she said coolly.

Jamie had to close his eyes. He breathed in deeply through his nose, trying to keep himself from exploding.

“And it didn’t occur to either of ye to run this idea by me?” His voice was steady, but he felt as taut as a drawn bowstring, ready to loose at the closest target. 

“Jamie, we were only trying to help,” Claire said softly.

He opened his eyes to fix her with a glare. “Oh, aye,” he snapped sarcastically. “I don’t even remember all I said to the man, Claire! Who knows what he’s planning to write!”

He was losing control now, the fury and shame battling it out in his wame. His conversations with John flashed in his mind as disparate snippets. Claire’s garden and his mother’s roses, his father, the financial troubles and how Claire had come to his rescue—

It was too much. His greatest humiliations, most precious memories. And next month it would be on the cover of some posh English magazine for the London upper crust to judge.

Neither Claire nor Jenny said a word as he stood up from the table and stalked out of the room.

Chapter Text

Jenny and Ian stayed long enough to help me clean up the courtyard, which was in quite a state from the evening’s festivities. We didn’t talk much, just gathered the rubbish, folded all the tables, and pulled down the lights while Young Jamie and Maggie played in the empty pigpen and Kitty napped in her pram.

Rupert and Angus came by in the early afternoon as we were finishing up, and loaded the stage, dancefloor, and tables into Rupert’s truck to return to the rental center.

“Have either o’ ye seen Jamie today?” Jenny asked as they strapped down the stacked tables with a winch.

“No, I’ve no’ seen the lad since last night,” Angus replied, glancing at me uncertainly.

“He went out after breakfast,” I said, keeping my voice even through sheer force of will. “Maybe he went into town for something.”

Rupert looked thoughtful, but didn’t chime in. Jenny’s mouth was a straight line across her face, lips pressed together tightly.

As Angus and Rupert drove away, truck full to bursting, Ian went to pack the children’s things. Jenny, however, lingered in the courtyard as I brought the last of the garbage bags to the bins.

“Can I talk to ye a minute?” Jenny finally said when I came back to the house.

I had some idea of where this was going, and though I really wasn’t in the mood for that particular discussion, I could see no polite way out. So I just sat on the front steps with a sigh, waving for Jenny to join me.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” she said bluntly. I had to smile a bit at that—so much for keeping it to ourselves. “I saw how he looked at ye from the first.”

We were silent for a moment. I knew I should respond in some way, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

“I think it’s a good thing, Claire. No’ that ye asked.”

“But?” I prompted, unable to hide my glum mood.

Her mouth twitched in exactly the same manner Jamie’s did when he was trying to hide a smile, and my heart clenched. They really were so alike.

“But nothing,” she said. “I just want ye to know. I ken he seems invincible sometimes, but he’s no’.” I smiled crookedly, remembering the day not so long ago when he’d fallen apart in my arms, not fifty feet from where we sat. “I can see that he’s scairt. He feels the weight o’ it all so strongly. I think ye help him bear it, and I’m grateful to ye.”

She put a motherly hand on mine, and I felt my throat close up. “Oh, Jenny, he seemed so angry,” I whispered, the tears rising.

Jenny sighed. “Aye, he was,” she admitted. “But ye ken he burns hot and fast. He’ll no’ be so fratchety tomorrow, ye’ll see. And it was my idea, no’ yers.” She gave my fingers a final squeeze then released her grip.

Ian and the children appeared in the doorway of the cottage then, laden with bags. We packed their things into the station wagon and buckled Young Jamie, Maggie, and Kitty into their car seats. I embraced Ian and Jenny in turn before they each got into their cars and left me with my thoughts.

 


 

It was something of a relief to be alone after the last two weeks. I felt like I hadn’t had a chance to relax since...well, since Jenny’s last visit, I supposed. It had been a whirlwind, first with trying to figure out the investment, and then frantically putting together the party plans and finishing the cottage. I was exhausted, and that only served to heighten my fragile emotional state.

I did, however, find myself aching for Jamie’s comforting presence in his leather wingback as I sunk into my armchair with a cup of tea and a book. I had picked at some of the leftovers Mrs. Fitz and her minions had carefully stored, but found I didn’t have much appetite. So I decided to return to our old after-dinner habit of reading in front of the fireplace.

Even without the fire’s cheerful crackle, the familiarity of my chair and Adso’s contented thrum against my stomach was soothing. It wasn’t quite the same, though, without Jamie.

I tried to concentrate on the story, but found myself simply staring at a single paragraph, my mind wandering. I just kept replaying the feel of Jamie’s lips on mine, the desperate way he’d pushed me up against the wall on the stairs, the evidence of his desire burning against my thigh through our clothes…

I shivered at the memory. His insistence on chivalry had been absolutely maddening, though I was grudgingly touched. I had been a bit far past tipsy, emboldened by the alcohol I’d consumed. Though I knew I would have by no means regretted it if we had gone beyond kissing, Jamie’s respectful nature was one of the first things that drew me to him, and I could hardly fault the man for it now that it was inconvenient for me.

A niggling worry shifted to the surface of my mind. Would I get the chance to be with him in the way I so craved, after this morning? Or was our erstwhile romance doomed already?

I forced the panic down in my mind. No, he wouldn’t do that. Not after what he’d said in the wee hours, when I was curled against his chest.

He was drinking too, a cruel voice reminded me. Who knows if he meant it.

The late night and frantic day caught up with me as I ruminated, and I fell into an uneasy sleep.

 


 

A warm hand on my shoulder woke me, and I started.

“It’s just me,” Jamie said quietly.

He was sitting on the ottoman before me, looking tired. It was dark outside; I’d been asleep for at least an hour, I guessed.

“Where have you been?” I asked, wincing internally at how desperate my voice sounded.

“Went for a walk,” he responded, but offered no further details. He watched me sit up and run my fingers through my hair, expression inscrutable.

“Are you still angry?” I asked tentatively.

“Oh, I’m furious,” Jamie said calmly. “But I ken ye meant well, misguided as ye may ha’ been. And this crackit plan has Jenny’s fingerprints all over it.”

I flushed, shrinking in the chair.

“I talked to John,” he said after a moment.

“Did you ask him to pull the story?” It would have broken my heart—a cover story would practically guarantee a full year of bookings.

“No. But I did tell him to leave the money out of it, and the part about Dougal.”

I let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding, relieved. I fidgeted, not sure what to say next.

“Claire...why did ye do it?” he asked, and the hurt in his voice gutted me.

“Oh Jamie,” I breathed, leaning forward to put my hand on his leg. I needed some connection with him, some bridge to help me get everything across. “I just wanted to find some way to make sure we got the bookings we need. And Jenny had this idea, and it seemed so perfect, if we could just show John how amazing Lallybroch is—”

“But why no’ just tell me?” He looked into my eyes then, and I saw the betrayal there.

“Well...I…” I searched for some good explanation, and found none—so I settled on the truth. “We knew you wouldn’t like it,” I said, looking away. “We didn’t think just the renovation would be enough to get John to publish a story, but with how interested he is in the culture and so on, we thought we could show him how important Lallybroch is to the community. How important you are. But we didn’t think you’d go along with it. So we tricked you into it instead.”

“He said he didna ken ye were keeping it a secret from me,” he said.

I nodded. “Well, he is a journalist,” I said. “If he thought you weren’t willing, he would have dropped the story right away.”

Jamie closed his eyes, jaw set firmly. I slid off the chair and kneeled on the carpet before him, a supplicant seeking forgiveness.

“I am so sorry, Jamie,” I said, reaching for his hand. “I didn’t think that you might have things you would want to keep private, and I should have.”

He sighed, and threaded his fingers with mine. “I understand yer reasoning,” he said. “And though I dinna like yer methods one bit—” he smiled crookedly “—I do think yer right, that a little press could be good for Lallybroch.”

I could tell we hadn’t settled things altogether, but Jamie was offering me a way to move forward. He pulled me up by my hand and settled me in his lap, wrapping his arms around my waist and pressing his lips into the crook of my neck.

“I canna stay mad at ye long, Sassenach,” he murmured against my skin, sending goosebumps skittering down my throat and chest. “Least of all wi’ ye on yer knees before me.”

I felt my stomach flip at the low rumble of his voice, keenly aware of all the points at which our bodies were connected.

“Will ye stay wi’ me again tonight?” he asked, and the tender note of uncertainty cut through me like a blade.

“Yes,” I said simply, and turned my head to capture his lips in a kiss.

 


 

I went first to my room to change while Jamie brushed his teeth. I dithered at my dresser, finding none of my pajama options right for the occasion. A sudden burst of inspiration, however, reminded me of the look in Jamie’s eyes when he saw me in his threadbare t-shirt the night before. I undressed quickly and pulled it on, inhaling as I pulled it over my head. It smelled of clean laundry, overlaid with the faint pine-and-musk scent of him, and it sent an electric current straight through my center.

Feeling delightfully wicked, I opted for only a black lace pair of knickers on bottom. The shirt was big enough that it wouldn’t be immediately obvious, and I was looking forward to Jamie’s reaction when he realized.

The bathroom door was open when I entered his room, and Jamie stood at the sink. He saw me in the mirror and smiled as best he could with a mouth full of toothpaste. I sidled up to him and held up my toothbrush. With a snort at my feigned helplessness, he squeezed out some from the tube for me, then spat rather delicately into the sink and rinsed his own brush.

“I’ll get out of yer way, Sassenach,” he said, pressing a kiss into my hair as he slipped past me. I just smiled and started brushing. As he stepped through the doorway, I leaned over the sink, arching my back to make the hem of the shirt rise and reveal just what I was—or rather, wasn’t—wearing underneath.

I heard his intake of breath behind me and glanced over my shoulder. He was watching me with that now-familiar intensity that made my knees weak. I raised an eyebrow at him, and he gave a breathless chuckle.

“Only you could make somethin’ so mundane look so alluring, mo ghraidh,” he said. “I’ve half a mind to have ye right there. But standin’ over a sink isna conducive to the sort of things I’d like to do to ye.”

I felt a flush spread over my throat and chest, and suddenly I was much more motivated to finish my nightly routine.

When I emerged, Jamie had turned on the lamp on his nightstand again, and he was sitting up in bed, shirtless but wearing sweatpants.

“Would ye get the light?” he asked. I obliged, flicking off the overhead light before accepting his outstretched hand to allow myself to be pulled into bed with him. He slid down the pillows a bit and pulled me tight against him, so we were chest-to-chest.

“It’s a dream to have ye here, like this,” he said, tilting my chin up with a gentle forefinger. “I’ve wanted ye for so long.” My blood fizzed under my skin as he kissed me, and I allowed myself the great pleasure of touching his bare chest. His skin was gold silk over steel, and I mapped its undulations where the muscles rippled. My hands roamed down, and soon I was dipping a curious finger under the waistband of his pants, tracing his hip bones.

Jamie groaned into my mouth, and the urgency of his kiss grew—as did the hardness pressed against my hip. I wrapped one leg around him, positioning the length of him against my core. I pulled him tight against me and moaned at the sudden rush of pleasure, rocking against him. He, too, chased the friction, and moved his hips with mine in a dizzying simulation of the true joining I ached for.

He wrenched his mouth from mine, panting. “My God,” he whispered. “Ye’ll finish me before we’ve started.”

I laughed, but forced my leg to release him from my grasp. I looked him over, smiling at the sight of his puffed lips, mussed hair, and flushed chest. He looked thoroughly disreputable, and it was wreaking havoc on me.

“Aren’t you...a bit hot?” I asked suggestively, letting my fingers return to his waistband.

“Och, trying to get me naked, are ye?” he teased, an underlying timbre to his voice that sent heat pooling between my legs.

“Yes, I am,” I replied boldly.

He tipped my chin up, and I breathed in sharply when I met his dark eyes, pupils so wide that they nearly engulfed his ocean blue irises. “I never could say no to ye,” he murmured, and then kissed me briefly.

Jamie rolled onto his back and lifted his hips to give himself room to pull his pants off. I rolled onto my stomach, resting my chin on my hand as I watched him.

He wore the flimsiest of navy boxer briefs that did very little to contain his straining length. The sight of him was gasoline on a fire, and I burned. 

“I told ye I wanted ye,” he said wryly. I could hear a hint of embarrassment in his voice, and I met his eyes with no attempt to hide my longing. His breath quickened, and I smiled.

“Weel,” he said, eyeing my covered torso, “fair’s fair.”

I quirked an eyebrow at him, and sat up. I hadn’t bothered to wear a bra, and I felt the tingle of anticipation at being all but naked before him. I took my hem in my fingers and slowly started to raise it, watching his face intently. His eyes were locked on my skin, following the edge of the fabric as I revealed myself to him.

He reached out a slightly shaky hand as I finally pulled the shirt over my head, fingers outstretched—but instead of touching my breasts as I expected, he drew a finger delicately along the line of my clavicle.

“Ye have such fine skin, Sassenach,” he breathed. “Like a string o’ pearls in candlelight.”

I trembled under his touch, and he smiled.

“Lay back,” Jamie murmured. “I want to look at ye.”

I was certain my knickers were soaked through already, and he’d barely even touched me below the neck yet. I did as he commanded, though, and he shifted to lean over me, eyes hooded as he let them roam over the unexplored landscape of my body. 

He touched my hip lightly, running his fingers over the lace of my underwear, and then down my thigh, making me gasp. I felt goosebumps rising under his hand. 

“Are ye cold?” he asked softly, watching my skin shiver at his touch.

“No.”

“Good.”

He bent down and brushed his lips lightly over my hip bone, just above my waistband. I inhaled sharply, and he smiled. He trailed his lips across the bowl of my pelvis, to the opposite hip, where he grazed the crest with his teeth.

“Jamie,” I murmured, touching his hair. He looked up at me reverently, accepting my hand like a benediction.

Mo nighean donn,” he breathed across my stomach.

“What does that mean?” I had to tense my legs to keep from shaking in anticipation.

“My brown-haired lass,” he replied, running his fingers back up my thigh, and sliding one into the leg opening of my knickers. He was teasing me now, gliding the rough pad of his fingertip back and forth along the top of my thigh, so agonizingly close. “I’ve thought of callin’ ye that since the first day I met you, with yer curls so wild. Like water in a burn, all different shades of brown and auburn, with bits o’ silver where the light hits it. I imagined touching it every day.” His gentle smile turned wicked as he stared me down. “And I’ll admit, I’ve pictured touching the hair between yer legs as often as the hair on yer head.”

I had to close my eyes for a second.

Jamie’s finger pushed my underwear just a little further to the side, and he brushed the very edge of me. I shuddered.

“Tell me.” His voice was hoarse, and when I opened my eyes he was watching me with an intensity that left no room for me to hide.

“Jamie, I want you,” was all I could manage.

He moved further, dipping into the folds. I whimpered. “God, Claire, yer so wet,” he groaned.

I flushed as my hips wriggled involuntarily. With his free hand, he gently took hold of the back of my knee, pulling it up to expose me. I let my leg fall to the side, and he moved his mouth further down to press a kiss along the lace at the crease where my leg met my groin.

I was dizzy, almost enough to ignore my alarm at what he was clearly planning to do. “Jamie, you don’t have to—”

He jerked his head up, eyes fierce. “Have to?” he repeated, incredulous. “Claire, if only you knew how often I’ve dreamt of it.” His tongue flicked out to touch the spot where he’d just kissed me.

“Jesus Christ,” I choked.

“Do ye want me to?” he asked, dragging his finger up and down in teasing passes through my slickness.

I swallowed hard.

“You have to say it, if ye do.”

“Y-yes, I want it,” I stuttered. “But Jamie, I’ve never—”

He made a gentle shushing noise as he pulled away from my hips. “Just tell me if ye want me to stop,” he said.

He hooked his thumbs under the waistband of my knickers and gently pulled them down over my legs. I pressed my thighs together automatically—I felt suddenly shy, with nothing to hide behind. He could see it, and he kissed my knee as chastely as possible, under the circumstances.

“That’s all right,” he soothed. “I’ll go slow.”

And, bless him, he did. He kept a low stream of Gaelic adorations on his lips, gentling me like a startled animal, punctuated by kisses along the length of my leg. He slid his hands between my thighs, petting and stroking until I was spread wantonly before him again, but this time, utterly bare to his gaze.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said, in awe, and I believed him.

His fingers grew bolder, testing, observing my reactions. I could feel his breath on my opening as he watched me hungrily. He teased me until I begged him, a steady prayer of “Please, Jamie.”

Only then did he bring his lips to my core. I keened, far beyond shame now, and the sound only encouraged him. His tongue twisted over my slit, but he danced around the nub, just barely grazing it. I swore violently and felt him laugh against me, which brought its own wave of pleasure. The sight of his cinnamon hair between my legs was so deeply erotic that I couldn’t look away. 

Finally, he turned his full attention to where I needed it most, pressing his tongue firmly against my clit and then swirling in a circle. I moaned, my body arching up. He lifted one of my legs over his shoulder so he could hold me still with one hand. And the other…

His finger slipped inside of me and crooked forward, hitting me deliciously deep.

“Jamie,” I cried out.

He pulled his mouth away for just a second, finger still moving in me. “Tell me how it feels, mo chridhe,” he murmured, and then he was lapping me with renewed vigor.

How I felt was close to fainting—but I was nowhere capable of verbalizing that. He brought me higher and higher, until I could feel the stomach-churning drop coming. “I’m so close,” I whispered, barely able to breathe.

Jamie never altered his pace. The roar in my ears was deafening. And suddenly, white light exploded across my vision, and I shattered.

 


 

When I came back to myself, Jamie lay beside me, gently stroking my hair. I could tell he was speaking, but I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying over the ringing in my ears.

“What?” I asked stupidly. My head felt fuzzy, and my mouth seemed slow to follow instructions.

He laughed. “I said, that was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

In the past, I had always felt oddly shameful after my first orgasm in front of a new man. But with Jamie, I just felt peaceful. I smiled lazily and stretched, enjoying the heady glow. He leaned in to kiss my sweaty temple, and I rolled over his outstretched arm to rest my head on his shoulder.

“There’s a good lass,” he said softly.

I sunk back into the darkness, safe and warm.

 


 

I woke up some hours later in the dark, the light off. Jamie must have tucked me in, because I was securely wrapped in the covers and my knickers were back on. He himself was mostly outside the blanket, laying on his stomach with his face turned towards me and one arm around my waist.

Heat radiated off him, and I was too warm. I pulled the blankets down, trying not to wake him. I wanted a moment to watch him, to take it all in. He was beautifully made, with his ruddy fair skin and a carved-from-marble face. Sleep softened his fierce features, and I was grateful for the chance to see him this way.

The moonlight coming through the window illuminated his body. He was still in his boxer briefs, and I let my gaze linger on the strong curve of his glutes. My eyes wandered up to his broad, muscular back. I had caught glimpses of the scars before, but viewed in full they were certainly shocking—and yet, they had their own kind of beauty, I thought. I turned onto my side under his arm, and reached out to touch them. They criss-crossed the planes of his shoulders down to his waistband, a map of the pain he’d suffered. I ran my fingers over one of the ropes of scar tissue, and he shuddered under my touch.

“’S horrible, I ken,” he mumbled, voice still thick with sleep.

“Actually,” I replied softly, continuing my explorations, “I was thinking you looked rather lovely, glowing like that in the moonlight.”

He didn’t respond to that, just lay still, allowing me to touch each scar.

“It must have been painful,” I said after some time.

“Mmphm.”

His eyes were closed, but I knew he was still awake.

“You don’t mind that I’m looking?” I asked.

He opened his slanted eyes. They looked black in the darkness, but I could make out his smile.

“No, Sassenach, I don’t. Ye’ve a way of letting me know ye feel sorry for it, without makin’ me feel pitiful about it.”

He kissed me gently, then rolled onto his side, pulling me with him. I loved how well we fit, my head under his chin, our chests moulded together. And further below…

The feeling of him against my pelvis, hard and hot, made my stomach clench. I felt a flush spread across my chest and down, til it pooled between my legs.

“Jamie,” I began, pressing my thigh carefully against him, “I fear I may have left you a bit...unsatisfied, earlier.”

Jamie chuckled, and I could feel the rumbling in his chest against mine. “If that’s what ye consider unsatisfied, I dinna ken if I’ll survive satisfaction,” he teased, fingers idly stroking my shoulder.

I pushed him onto his back and kissed his collarbone, letting my hand drift down to the front of his briefs. “Shall we test that hypothesis?” My voice was husky, and I could feel his cock twitch in response.

“Just tell them all I died a happy man,” he answered solemnly. I laughed, and started my journey down.

 


 

“Jesus God,” Jamie groaned some time later, pulling me back against his chest. “I was right, ye’ve killed me.”

I giggled and took him gently in my hand again, enjoying the feel of him softening.

“Truly, Sassenach, I canna take any more,” he said. “My heart will burst.”

“I’m not doing anything,” I promised, “just admiring my handiwork.”

Still, I pulled my hand away, moving it to a safer location on the concave of his stomach, and we lay quietly together for a moment.

“I canna believe no one’s ever gone down on ye before,” Jamie said suddenly.

I froze, not sure how to answer. I heard the underlying accusation, and so did he. I can’t believe he never went down on you.

“I’m sorry, mo ghraidh, I didna mean…” he backpedaled.

“That’s all right.” I twirled a bit of his chest hair around my finger idly, embarrassed.

“It’s only, I meant what I said,” he continued apologetically. “That I dreamt about it. More than once.” I could see the blush spreading down his throat. “I dreamt of all of it, really, but that part in particular. I guess what I’m tryin’ to say is thank you.”

That surprised me, and I looked up at him. “Thank you?” I repeated, incredulous.

“Aye. It just...it means a lot to me, ye ken, that ye trust me that way.”

I had nothing to say to that. I just took his hand and squeezed it, and curled myself tighter around his naked body.

 


 

We woke late the next morning, the sun streaming in cheerily. Jamie was watching me when I opened my eyes, smiling contentedly, and I felt myself glow under his gaze.

“Good morning,” I said sleepily. I stretched theatrically with a bit of an eye for my audience, purposefully letting the sheet fall off my chest.

Jamie fell for my little display hook, line, and sinker—he licked his lips and reached out to gently draw a finger along the line of one breast. I shivered, and he leaned down to kiss me.

“Mornin’,” he replied huskily, and pulled me in close.

“Nice to wake up with nobody hammering on the door,” I said, and he hummed in agreement, running his hand idly over my bare legs and up to my hip, then back down again, as though he were memorizing the lines.

We reveled in the lazy touches for some time, both content to bask in the pleasant ache of our lust, so recently sated and yet already building again.

There was something, though, that I thought might need to be addressed before we went any further.

“What’s on yer mind, Sassenach?” Jamie asked lazily, and I looked at him in surprise.

“How do you always know?” I demanded, slightly cross. He laughed and patted my rump affectionately.

“I could hear the wheels turnin' from here.”

I snorted. “Well. I’m wondering...if you wanted to talk about...protection and so forth. Before...”

His lips quirked up in a crooked smile. “Aye?”

You’re being ridiculous, Beauchamp, I admonished myself. The man has been tongue-deep in you, you can talk to him about it like an adult.

“Well. I assume that’s why we didn’t...last night. And we probably should have talked about it before all of that, but here we are.” I swallowed hard. “So I thought I’d tell you that I was tested fairly comprehensively after Frank’s accident, since he’d been...well. And I got an IUD, since I wasn’t...trying anymore.”

So much for not making it awkward. I still wasn’t fully comfortable bringing up Frank in front of Jamie, and talking about our sex life and attempts to get pregnant was about as difficult a subject as I could imagine.

He was quiet for a second, his hand still exploring the length of my thigh.

“Have ye really no’ been with anyone since him?”

The question caught me off guard. “And just how would I have managed that?” I asked tartly. “Popped down to the pub, tapped a bloke on the shoulder, and said ‘Hi, I’m Claire, my husband tried to kill himself and now he’s in a coma. Fancy a shag?’”

I caught the corner of his mouth twitching, and I glared up at him.

“Jamie Fraser, don’t you dare.”

“I’m sorry, Sassenach—I’m no’—I’m no’ laughin…”

His shoulders were shaking, though, and I felt myself starting to smile back.

“It’s not funny,” I said desperately, as the giggles began to bubble up in earnest.

“It’s no', it's just...the way ye said it!” Jamie was well and truly cracking up now, and I was laughing too, despite myself.

When he could breathe again, he grasped my hand tightly and kissed it. “Apologies, Claire,” he said, still grinning. “I didna mean to make light of it.”

“You bloody oaf,” I chided, but I was smiling too.

“And...I’ll confess I’ve no’ been with anyone in a while either,” he said shyly. He rolled his shoulders, touched his neck as though tugging the collar of a shirt—a nervous habit. “No’ since...before, in Paris.”

I laid a sympathetic hand on his arm. “Yes, I imagine falling off a balcony will do that.”

Jamie ducked his head. “I had...some trouble at first. For the first few months, I didna have as much feeling in my legs and...well.” He motioned to his lap awkwardly. “I was worried I might no’ get it back. I called Ian cryin’ the first time I managed to—” 

“Have a wank?”

Jamie laughed despite the reddening of his ears. “Aye, exactly,” he said.

“So we’re in a similar boat, then.” I squeezed his arm, and he put his hand over mine. Our eyes met, and he hesitated.

“Claire, there’s somethin’ else.”

He dithered, and I waited patiently.

“I—och, dinna laugh, all right?”

I mimed zipping my lips, watching him intently.

“I’m still a virgin.”

I did my best to hide my considerable shock. But I couldn’t keep myself from blinking rapidly, my lips pressing together as I replayed the last eight or so hours in my mind.

“Does that bother ye?”

“Not at all,” I replied immediately, my voice firm. “But I do have to wonder how last night fits in with that classification?”

“Well I've done that," Jamie said defensively. "I’m no’ sayin’ I never got off with a lass before. I’m no’ a monk. But I was still quite young when I was in France, ye ken, and I just havena...”

I smiled lopsidedly. “I take your meaning,” I said soothingly. “And you don’t have to explain yourself. We’ll just take it slow. I don’t mind.”

He looked me up and down, and I felt myself melt. “I’m no’ so sure I want to take it slow,” he rumbled, lifting a hand to palm my breast. I gasped as he ran a rough thumb over my nipple, making it pucker.

With impeccable timing, my stomach gave a loud, low grumble, and Jamie chuckled. “Saved by the bell,” he joked, and gave my nipple one last, lingering tweak. “Come on, Sassenach. We’ll get ye fed. Plenty of time to handle my appetite later, I suppose.”

Chapter Text

Jamie was sorely tempted to drag Claire back to bed the second she was finished eating, but a text from John had set her on a mission with single-minded focus.

“He’s sending the barn photos right now,” she protested, laughing as he tried to pull her into his lap at the kitchen table. “I want to get the listing up!”

He rolled his eyes at that, but relented, freeing her his grasp. Yesterday’s drama over the article might as well serve a purpose, he supposed, and the sooner the photos were on the website, the sooner they could start booking reservations.

Claire padded barefoot back to the study to retrieve the laptop, while Jamie took a moment to tidy up from breakfast. 

When he finally followed her out of the kitchen, he had to stop in the hall for a moment to take in the sight. He could see her on the chaise in the parlor from his vantage point, belly-down but propped up on her elbows to scroll through the photos on the computer. Her lower legs swayed idly in the air above her knicker-clad arse, and his t-shirt—which he could now see would inevitably become hers—hung off one shoulder most alluringly.

He must have made a noise without realizing it, because she turned her head to him with a brilliant smile.

“See something you fancy?” she teased, and Jamie had to force himself to exhale. “Here, come help me pick.”

He sat on the edge of the chaise, hip pressed against hers to look over her shoulder at the screen. A small portion of his attention, however, was on her wild mess of curls and the rest was sliding down over her back to the lace-covered curve rising below the hem of her shirt. But he made the right noises as she clicked through the album of photos John had emailed her, satisfied to listen to the sing-song of her voice as he admired her.

It was, Jamie reflected for the hundredth time in two days, absolutely stunning to him that he was allowed to touch her now. And more than that, to be free to watch her as she came undone, to bring it about himself. The pleasure she had given him with her mouth had been dizzying, better than he’d ever had, but giving the same to her had been an almost spiritual experience.

Jamie glanced at Claire’s face, wondering if she had any idea where his mind had wandered to, but she was engrossed in the photos, debating the merits of two almost-identical shots of the tower with the mountains behind.

“Aye, yer right,” he said automatically. Almost immediately, he felt a little guilty—he would have hung on every word she said under different circumstances, but as it was, he couldn’t imagine how he was supposed to concentrate on anything besides that crease of skin where arse met thigh.

She shot him a narrow look, lips curling wittingly, but continued on, clicking through to the interior shots.

Jamie returned to his thorough examination, determined to memorize every inch of her. He wondered if, when he finally drove himself home within her, she would cry out in the same way she had at the feel of his mouth on her hot, wanting slit.

Now ye’ve done it, he thought to himself ruefully, feeling his blood pulse directly to his cock. But really, he couldn’t help it; Claire had fully bewitched him. His fingers ached at the memory of her clenching against them, his tongue wanted to taste nothing but her ever again. He felt as if he’d go to his grave still burning for her, no matter how many times he had her before then.

But he was getting ahead of himself; he hadn’t even had her once yet, not properly anyway. He wondered if it would ease his desperation, or fuel it.

Jamie had a hunch, but he was more than willing to test the theory.

He knew Claire wanted it too, but after their conversation that morning, a thought had been forming at the back of his mind. It would be easy, he knew, to just slide into everyday domesticity, living as they did under the same roof. And he wanted that intimacy with her, but not at the expense of the romance she so deserved. Already they’d skipped a few steps that seemed to him crucial in the adoration of a woman like Claire.

Jamie intended to rectify the oversight. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from re-exploring familiar territory, nor did he want to. But he could take the time to woo her a wee bit before he gave in fully to his basest need, to make it special for both of them.

“What are you thinking about back there?” Claire asked, laughing nervously. “You look like you’re about to devour me.”

He smiled at her and leaned forward to kiss her generous mouth. “I was just thinking, Sassenach,” he began, “that I’d like to take ye out on a date.”

Her eyebrows rose in feigned skepticism, but he could see that flush of pleasure rising on her throat that always inspired lust in him. “Well, that’s very forward of you,” she said dryly, and he chuckled.

“I’m serious,” he said, nudging her shoulder. “Nice dinner, nice wine, goodnight kiss at yer door—the full monty, ye ken.”

Claire tipped her head, pretending to consider his offer. “Well, I think I’m free tonight…”

He shook his head. “No’ tonight. Friday.” 

Five days. That would give him enough time to put together something worthy of her.

She rolled her eyes, but smiled. “Fine,” she said, and he kissed her again.

 


 

Their first few days as...whatever they were felt like a dream. With the work in the barn complete and the next project as-yet unstarted, they had more time to simply be than they’d ever had before. They fell into an easy routine, as natural as breathing. Jamie always woke before Claire, eager to spend some time watching her. The flickers of dreams he could see playing out across her face were fascinating, tiny windows into the corners of herself that she hadn’t yet revealed to him. 

Whenever he finally found the strength to tear himself away, Jamie would slip downstairs to make her coffee. The scent of it always pulled her toward the surface of reality just as he slipped back into the bedroom. He would race the flutter of her dark lashes against the bloom of her cheek to be beside her before her eyes were fully open, just so he would be the first thing she saw.

They spoke little in the morning, Claire being one to appreciate some time to stumble into full wakefulness. But Jamie didn’t mind. After almost two months of seeing her at the end stage of her morning routine, when she was dressed and brushed and hidden behind some measure of propriety, he was only too happy to bask in her unvarnished, sleepy presence. The fact that she was in his bed and generally in some state of undress was, of course, a bonus.

After coffee, Claire would shower. It took Jamie a couple days to work up the courage to ask to join her, and she teased him for his prudence—a small price to pay for the pleasure of hearing the echo of his name reverberate around them as she cried out, the ripples of her satisfaction playing out over his hand.

Once they were dressed (a leisurely process, punctuated by wandering hands and lingering looks) Claire drifted off to the garden, or the study, or to the spare bedrooms, leaving him to start the preparations for converting the hall bath into an ensuite for her room. Being without her, even just in a different part of the house, left him with a sharp pain in his chest that amazed and frightened him. It was as if she were Eve and he, Adam, aching for the lost rib he could only reclaim by pressing her body tight to his own.

But he bore his burden cheerfully enough. Living together at this early stage left so few spaces for Claire to hold for her own, and he felt instinctively that she needed the chance, now and again, to miss him.

They would come together again for lunch, as they had before. Though now, Jamie made an effort to make the meal a bit of an experience for her, rather than a perfunctory refueling. He tried to use the late spring produce that was now bursting forth in the kailyard, and she was thrilled to enjoy the fruits of her labor. Tender lettuce, crisp cucumbers, peppery radishes—even some early strawberries, small and sweet, which she pressed to his lips by hand, gasping as he tasted her juice-stained fingertips.

 


 

Wednesday was bright and approaching warm (or at least a few degrees above chilly), so he packed a picnic and took her out on the ATV, up the back road where he’d first met her. He could hear her delighted laugh as she recognized the spot where her car had been stuck. He was tempted to take her all the way down to where he’d first seen her, pulling at the pine boughs to hide her lily white legs, just so he could kiss her there. The urge had hit him like a truck that day, when she stepped out onto the road and he got a proper look at her in the anemic March light. It would have felt like poetic justice to taste her lips in that place now.

But no, he had a different destination in mind, and he turned up a track that was little more than two bare ruts in the mossy soil.

“Where are we going?” she said into his ear, her lips brushing the lobe in a way that made the blood drain from his head.

“Ye’ll see,” he replied over his shoulder.

The track went almost straight up the mountainside, and she clung to him with a bit of alarm. She seemed relieved when they stopped and he helped her off the seat, though that seemed to quickly turn to confusion as she looked around the rather nondescript section of forest around them.

He just smiled at her and took her hand, pulling her through a gap in the brush.

Claire gasped at the sight on the other side of the thick bramble.

“Oh Jamie,” she murmured, awestruck.

They stood on a broad, flat rock that jutted out from the mountain below, worn smooth from millennia of wind and rain. A cold meltwater spring splashed over the next rock over and tumbled down the side. And below them, a sun-glistened loch, surrounded by forested hillsides and the rugged mountains beyond, still capped with snow.

“My da used to bring my mam here,” Jamie said, feeling suddenly self-conscious. “After she died, he brought me an’ Jenny up now and again, to tell stories and help us remember her. It seemed easier for him to speak of her here, somehow.”

Claire turned to him, a tender smile on her face. “It’s beautiful,” she said earnestly.

They laid out the blanket on the rock and unpacked the basket he’d prepared. It was simple fare, just a ploughman’s lunch with a thermos of still-hot tea, but Claire ate with her usual relish.

Being back in that place opened an almost-forgotten pathway in Jamie’s heart, and he found himself recounting memories of his parents.

“They were so in love, even after two bairns and more’n a decade together,” he said, smiling fondly. “Always kissin’ and pawin’ at each other. It used tae make Jenny an’ I howl, when they’d get all moony while we were around.”

Claire, finished with her bread and cheese, nestled herself against his side, and he wrapped an arm around her shoulder.

“It must have been awful for your father to lose her,” she said quietly.

Jamie felt the familiar stab of old grief, but Claire’s head on his chest was a balm that held the worst at bay.

“Aye,” he responded, rubbing her upper arm. “I was only eight, so I dinna mind it so well. But I do remember coming home after the funeral. He started cryin’ as we drove up to the house, and sent us in wi’ Ian’s da. Said he couldna bear to go inside wi’out her.”

She turned in his arms to kiss him gently, and he squeezed her in gratitude.

“He came through it, eventually. He said she would ha’ had his hide if he didna care for the two of us properly.”

They were quiet together for some time, watching the springwater sparkle its way down the mountainside.

“Are you much like him?” Claire finally asked.

It was a question Jamie wasn’t sure how to answer. “I look more like her,” he said slowly. “He was dark, like Jenny, an’ no’ quite so big as I am now. But in all the rest...” He paused, feeling his throat tighten. “Well, I...I can only hope so.”

 


 

It was late afternoon when they made it back to the house, chilled but happy. They had, as was their want, spent plenty of time kissing and touching on the blanket. But the wind had a sharp bite that convinced them against anything more than warming their hands under each other’s clothes. Now, Jamie’s blood thrummed with unfulfilled arousal.

Restraint was harder than he had expected, despite the multiple times a day they fell into gratifying one another. Or perhaps, he mused, because of. It was like drinking from the sea; no matter how much he consumed, the thirst was never quenched.

As she always did after lunch, Claire scrambled off to the speak-a-word room to check all the booking sites where they’d listed the cottage. Jamie lingered in the hall, wondering if it was cold enough to start a fire; he really did love the burnish her hair took on in the light of a flame.

Before he could make a move to fetch some wood, however, a sharp cry from the back of the house brought him running to the study.

“Claire?” he called as he rounded the corner.

But she was laughing, jumping up and down in excitement.

“Jamie!” she cried, leaping into his arms. He caught her automatically, despite his bewilderment. “We got one! Our first reservation!”

“Yer jokin’!” he said, peering over her shoulder at the laptop on the heavy antique desk.

“Look!”

She wriggled out of his arms but took hold of his hand to pull him to the chair. She pointed triumphantly at the screen, where the booking system from their own site was pulled up to show the request notification.

“A whole week in June! And look, they paid in full!”

Jamie sat down in the chair heavily, pulling Claire with him. She twined her arms around his neck and kissed his shocked mouth with a slow sensuality that stole the last of his breath.

“I seem to be sayin’ this a lot recently, but thank ye, Sassenach,” he said when she released her hold on his lips.

She laughed—perhaps his favorite sound in the world, outside of the ones she made when he touched her. “I barely did anything,” she demurred.

Jamie snorted. “Oh aye? I’ve had the run of this place for two years now, but two months after ye drop from the sky an’ the money is rollin’ in.”

She giggled, cheeks pinking. He kissed both of them in turn, and then pressed his lips to hers again.

Thorough perusal of the business inbox revealed that they had actually managed to draw three separate reservations, all in June and July, though the other two were only for long weekends. Claire, perched on his knee, hunched over the keyboard as she scrolled through the details. She was frowning at the screen, eyebrows drawn together.

“Ye look mighty fierce, Sassenach,” Jamie teased, running an inquisitive hand up from her waist to brush the side of her breast, soft and pliant under her thin sweater.

“Well, I just don’t understand it,” she said, distracted. “Three all at once, and all off the official website.” She scooted back against him, leaning into his touch. “It would make more sense if people had found it on AirBnB or one of the other listings. But we haven’t done anything to promote the website yet aside from setting up our Instagram. Do you think that’s where they found us?”

Jamie abandoned his exploration, seeing that she was not going to be so easily distracted.

“I havena looked at the account today, have you?” he asked, wriggling his phone out of his pocket. “Mebbe there’s a hint there.”

Claire gasped when he opened the app. “Well, would you look at that!”

There were quite a few notifications, and he clicked into the tab to see what for. Admiring comments on a tagged picture filled the phone screen. He pulled up the photo, and couldn’t help but smile.

It was from down near the mill, looking out over the glistening pond with the main house and broch visible behind, mountains in the distance. The light was golden and rich, illuminating the whole scene vividly, and a few puffy clouds threw blue shadows. And in one corner, on the banks of the pond, he and Claire stood close together with their heads bent towards each other, small against the vastness of the landscape. But even on the tiny screen, he could just spot the speck of her white hand in his.

“I didn’t know they would post anything so soon,” Claire said, sounding nervous.

Jamie glanced at the account handle; it was @countryhousemag. The caption read “Couldn’t resist posting a sneak peek of the dreamy property that will grace our June cover. Welcome to Lallybroch.”

“Dinna fash, Sassenach,” he said. “If it’s getting bookings, it’s fine by me.” His finger hovered over the photo again, feeling the urge to reach out and touch her heartbreakingly small figure on the screen. “And ‘tis a bonnie photo.”

Her flesh-and-blood hand blocked his view to tap the screen twice, turning the little heart red.

“It only seems polite,” she said uncertainly, and he laughed, then leaned down to kiss her soundly.

Chapter Text

“Oof!”

I gripped the phone tighter in my hands as I stumbled over a wrinkle in the rug, swearing under my breath. Jamie looked back at me, eyebrows raised and the ghost of a half-hidden smile on his lips.

“You have to go slower,” I whined. “My legs aren’t as long as yours.”

“Oh I think they’re plenty long, Sassenach,” he purred, looking over my legging-clad limbs.

I bit back a laugh and ended the recording. “Well, now we have to start all over,” I chided, but leaned in to kiss him to take the bite out of it.

“I dinna see why I need tae do this,” Jamie said for the tenth time that morning as I frog-marched him back to the entryway.

“Well, you heard John,” I replied. “If the preview alone got people so excited, the feature’s going to go gangbusters. So we need to have something on our account to capitalize on the initial attention.”

He sighed, but straightened at the door. “Aye, that has the ring o’ sense to it,” he admitted grudgingly. “But I still think it ought to be you in the wee videos. Some nice close-ups of ye going up the stairs, mebbe, shot from behind...”

I gave him an arch look, and he smiled brilliantly.

“That’s better. Now dance, monkey,” I teased. “Action!”

Fáilte gu Lallybroch,” Jamie began, his voice low and rumbling. Welcome to Lallybroch. “This is the main house, which was built by my many-times great-grandfather in 1702. The downstairs has been renovated a few times since then,” he gave a wry smile, “but most recently I gave it a bit o’ polish last summer.”

We walked through the finished rooms downstairs, Jamie weaving together family stories and the broader history of the Highlands. I just let the camera roll, planning to cut everything down to short clips that could be Instagram stories. Neither of us were very knowledgeable on the finer points of social media or video editing, but John had assured us that a home-grown feel would charm Country House readers.

Jamie and I had decided that a tour would be a logical starting point, to expand on whatever photos and information John and his editorial team included in their story. We still weren’t quite sure exactly what they planned to publish; John had assured Jamie he would have never dreamed of revealing the financial details, but he was less forthcoming on the shape the article had taken. “We never show drafts to subjects, opens a whole can of worms,” he’d said, somewhat apologetic. But he had sent us a few of Jamie’s quotes to check the accuracy, and most of those were about the renovation process, which had soothed some of Jamie’s worries.

When Jamie had finished showing the slash mark in the wood on the stairs from an English solider’s bayonet, I checked the time. I groaned when I saw it was not even ten o’clock yet. I had hoped that filming might take up the whole morning, to distract me from the creeping anticipation I felt over the evening’s activities.

“Somethin’ amiss, Sassenach?” Jamie asked, hearing me.

“Not at all!” I said, a little too brightly. He gave me a skeptical look, but didn’t press.

Eight hours to kill before our date. It felt like a lifetime.

“I’m going to see if I can figure out how to get this cut down to size,” I continued breezily, already creeping towards the study. “Thanks for helping.”

Despite his raised brows, Jamie made no comment. He reached out and grabbed my hand, though, and pulled me close for a slow, gentle kiss that made the tension melt from my knotted stomach.

“On wi’ ye,” he said softly when he released me, and gave me an affectionate pat on my rump. I smiled gratefully, and skittered down the hall.

It wasn’t that I was nervous over having dinner with him, exactly. We’d eaten hundreds of meals together in the months I’d been at Lallybroch, and it was hardly the first time we’d be dining out together either.

If I was honest with myself, which I was desperately trying (and failing) not to be, it was the level of care and attention Jamie was giving me that strung me tight as a violin. I had never been this openly adored before, not even in the early days with Frank. And while it was a heady feeling, it was also somewhat terrifying. 

It rather reminded me of learning to ride a bicycle as a child, while we were on a dig in Peru. Uncle Lamb had finally let go of his hold on the seat and sent me careening off on my own. I had quickly lost control, my body forgetting how to use the pedal brakes, and accidentally went down a steep hill. At first, the speed was thrilling, but as I realized I had no way to stop, I started to scream. I had ended up in the ditch along the dirt road, stunned and breathless, the adrenaline not quite hiding the pain in my broken arm.

I slumped down in the chair, feeling suddenly drained. The past five days had been a blur of endless caresses and sweet words, and I had been an enthusiastic participant in all of it. But in the quiet between, I couldn’t quite ignore the hint of unease that lurked below the butterflies. Just like the moment my bicycle wheel had tipped over the edge of the steep slope, I was leaning over a precipice with Jamie. I feared I was already past the point of no return, and I couldn’t be entirely sure I wouldn’t end up in the ditch again.

I spent more time than strictly necessary editing the video, allowing myself to get lost in the comforting lilt of Jamie’s voice as I cut and spliced things together. The real Jamie made no appearances, which I was simultaneously disappointed by and shamefully grateful for.

I had, of course, noticed that he made a point of leaving me to my own devices in those moments when I felt a bit overwhelmed by it all. It reminded me a bit of that first night, when he’d made such a point of standing aside from the door in the front hall to leave me an exit route. He simply made space. Evidence that he saw so much of me—which was in itself a little nerve-wracking.

It was around one when my stomach started growling, and I wandered out to the kitchen, surprised that Jamie hadn’t come to grab me for lunch.

The house was quiet, and there was no sign of Jamie downstairs. I called out his name, with no response. But in the kitchen, I saw a handwritten note on the table.

“Sassenach,” it began, in Jamie’s elegant script. The slight smudges touched my heart; he was left-handed, and his hand had smeared the ink in his apparent haste.

Gone to town for some things to start on your bathroom next week. I’ll be back at 6 to pick you up for dinner. Don’t work too hard without me.

-J

To my surprise, tears started to well in my eyes even as I smiled. He’d given me some time alone to get ready and make it feel like a real date—as well as to have some mental space. The man was perceptive, I had to give him that.

 


 

After a spot of lunch, I spent the early afternoon working in the garden, letting the soil and green things soothe me. I weeded and then harvested more of the late spring produce, allowing myself to feel some measure of pride in the bounty. Come summer, we’d be drowning in fresh fruit and veg. Maybe I would do some preserving, I thought, and give it to the first few guests…

A few hours digging in the dirt left me much more at peace mentally, but a right mess physically. Given the windblown and tangled state of my hair, I thought I’d better give myself plenty of time to shower and get my curls back into some semblance of order.

Once in the shower, hair washed and conditioner soaking into the locks, I felt the nervous energy start to return. Now, however, it was more fluttery excitement than panic. I shaved my legs carefully, but hesitated when I reached the apex of my thighs.

Neither Jamie or I had yet revisited the conversation we’d had that morning after our second night together, though I was of course keenly aware of the fact that we’d so far only explored one another with hands and mouths. I had a feeling, though, that Jamie had something else in mind for tonight. Should I at least do a bit of shaping, I wondered?

But I remembered vividly Jamie’s awed expression when he first saw me exposed, and the number of times since that he’d buried his face between my thighs. The image of his red hair against my dark thatch was burned in my brain, and I shivered as I pictured it. No, I decided, best leave it alone.

I went through the rest of my routine as quickly as I could, an eye to the time. I could never be sure just how my curls would dry, and I wanted to give myself time to fix it up if they came out wonky.

Jamie had said I should dress formally, but that we might be outside for a bit, so I pulled out one of the only suitable dresses I still owned—a long-sleeved midi of emerald green silk chiffon with a plunging neckline and a rather daring slit at the front. I’d bought it in an ill-conceived attempt to online shop myself out of my depression while Frank was in the hospital and had never had a chance to wear it out. I hoped it would elicit the same hungry gaze from Jamie as the tartan dress I wore for his birthday.

Dress on and a bit of makeup applied, I took a tentative look at my still-damp curls to see how they were progressing. Not terrible, I thought, turning to see the sides in my vanity mirror, but not their best. Maybe I’d best put them up.

Thirty minutes later, after wrestling with my long-unused diffuser and the better part of a pack of bobby pins, I thought the result was passable. I’d left a few tendrils springing out of their confines, knowing how much Jamie liked the sight of my hair against my pale skin. I felt a flush rise as I thought of how just that morning he’d gently brushed a curl aside to press an openmouthed kiss to the nape of my neck, his erection hot against my lower back.

I’d pushed back against him, hoping to goad him into a bit of morning fun before he left to make coffee. But he’d just chuckled and patted me on the hip.

“It’ll bide,” he said cryptically, and swung himself out of bed despite my whining protestations.

As a result, I felt a bit like a live wire, crackling with sensitivity. As wonderful as all our many encounters had been so far, I craved the feeling of him inside me with an alarming intensity. For my own gratification, true enough, but also to give Jamie a first time worth remembering.

Given my studies, I was well aware that sex was a much broader and deeper category than vaginal intercourse alone, and I found something quaint in Jamie’s insistence on calling himself a virgin still. But personal experience had taught me that, at least for me, there was some particular significance to having a man inside me in that way. It seemed almost poetic to give pleasure with the piece of me that felt pleasure most—it was as mutual as sex got, in my opinion. I thought it would hold a similar weight for Jamie, and I longed to watch him experience it.

The sound of a car coming up the drive startled me into the here and now, and seeing the time, I swore violently. I quickly misted the air with perfume, letting it settle over my hair, and then scrambled to get my heels on and buckled. I heard the front door close, and Jamie’s faint call of “Sassenach?” from the hall. 

“Coming!” I shouted back. Grabbing my trench coat and purse from the bed, I hurried out of the room and down the stairs.

A Dhia,” Jamie breathed as I came around the landing into his view. Descending the last few stairs was like slipping into a warm bath as I reveled in him watching me. I felt that same blush rise again from my chest.

He looked lovely himself, having dressed at some other location. He wore a perfectly cut navy suit with a white shirt and no tie. His red hair, usually a bit of an unruly mop, was swept back casually, and I couldn’t resist touching the waves that brushed the back of his collar as he pulled me to him for a chaste kiss.

“Ye look fantastic, mo ghraidh,” Jamie said, giving me another look from above.

“What’s that one mean?” I asked, giving him a little twirl. “I never think to ask.”

He coughed a bit. “Ah. Well. It’s somethin' like my darling, or my dear,” he said, tips of his ears starting to redden. “Christ and Mary above, lass, I can see yer third rib.”

I giggled. “I thought you might like it,” I said slyly.

He slipped his arm around my waist and pulled me tight against him. “We’d best get out of here before I decide tae march ye back upstairs, and damn the reservation,” he murmured huskily in my ear. I shot him a look to indicate that I did not mind that alternative one bit, but he just chuckled and pulled me along to the courtyard.

 


 

Jamie pulled out all the stops, holding my door and helping me into the cab of the truck. On the drive, he was his most charming self, recounting his trip into Inverness and the rather ribald teasing he’d been subjected to when he ran into Angus Mhor at the hardware store.

“Oh!” he said suddenly. “And I found out who left that handprint on John’s arse.”

“Who?” I asked, covering his hand on the gear shift with my own.

“Ye’ll never believe it,” he said with a roguish smirk.

“Tell me, you twit!”

“Jenny.”

I cackled aloud. “No!”

“Oh aye. Angus said he came back from walkin’ me down the hill and John was greetin’ something fierce about burning his arsehairs off tryin’ his hand at jumpin’ the fire. So Jenny pulled up his kilt to get a look and he yelped and pulled awa’ like she was skelpin’ him, so she smacked him a good one.”

“Oh my God.”

“Wonder if that’ll make it into the article,” Jamie mused.

“Somehow I doubt it,” I said with a snort.

We were coming down through the pass out of the valley, and as we came around a bend in the road to see the Glass River, winding and glimmering in the early evening sun. I sighed in content at the view.

“No’ much further,” Jamie said, stroking my index finger with his thumb.

“We’re not going to Inverness?” I asked, surprised.

“No,” he said with a grin, but declined to elaborate further.

We were quiet for the last few minutes of the drive, basking in the sight of the valley at golden hour in companionable silence.

The narrow one-lane road followed the river, and as we came up to one of the bends I spotted a stone tower peeking out through the trees across the water.

“What’s that?”

“Castle Strathglass,” Jamie said. He turned off the road into a small parking lot that had been hidden from view by the spring-green trees. I could spot a cobblestone path at the far end that led to what looked like a stone bridge over the river.

While I was distracted, Jamie came around to open the door for me once again, holding out a hand for me to take.

“Such a gentleman,” I teased as I placed my own hand delicately in his.

“I aim to please,” he rumbled, and I felt a thrill at his tone.

“I’ll have you know I’m not one to put out on the first date,” I said with a sniff as I stepped gingerly out of the cab, and he laughed.

“Nor am I,” he said, taking my coat and settling it over my shoulders. “But as they say, there’s a first time for everything, aye?”

My breath caught in my throat as I felt his lips brush against my earlobe.

“Come along, Sassenach,” Jamie said, taking my arm gallantly. “I’ve some things up my sleeve yet, before we get tae seein’ just who puts out for whom.”

The pathway did lead to a bridge, a beautiful stone arch that crossed the river to an ancient-looking gate. I could see the same turret I’d spotted from the road rising above the wall, with a Scottish flag flying against the orange-streaked sky.

“Th’ place was bought by some Frenchman, a decade or so ago,” Jamie explained as he steered me onto the bridge. “A restaurateur, I gather. He turned it into a luxury hotel, and the restaurant is one of the best in the Highlands.”

We passed through the open gate into the courtyard, and I gasped at the sight. 

The pathway meandered through an idyllic English-style garden, and beyond was the castle, lit up extravagantly against the coming sunset.

“Ye can go around and park closer, but I thought ye’d like the view better from here,” Jamie said, a note of uncertainty. “I hope ye dinna mind walking.”

I squeezed his arm and rose up on my tip-toes to kiss his cheek. “Not at all,” I said sincerely.

 


 

Inside, the maitre d’ greeted Jamie warmly by name and took us straight to our table, which was draped in a rich white cloth and set against a massive arched window overlooking a small loch with the mountains behind. The sun was just sinking below the peaks now, and the sky was alight.

“My God, Jamie,” I said breathlessly when the maitre d’ had left us, whisking my coat away with him. “This is…”

He smiled, looking a little nervous. “I hope it’s all right,” he said apologetically. “I thought ye’d like to see one o’ the other hotels about.”

I reached across the table and took his hand. “It’s perfect,” I said sincerely, threading my fingers through his.

Part of me wanted to ask if he could afford it, but that struck me as cutting the poor man off at the knees. So I simply smiled at him, grateful for his thoughtfulness.

Our waiter arrived moments later with glasses of champagne and the menus, but quickly left us to our own devices.

“So is this a recon mission rather than a date?” I asked mischievously, sipping my champagne.

Jamie laughed. “Weel, I didna think of it like that,” he said, swirling his own flute idly. “But I suppose it could be a bit o’ both.”

As it always did, the conversation flowed easily between us, interrupted only by the waiter’s return for our order. Jamie chose a bottle of wine to split—“Oh, of course you know about wine,” I said with faux exasperation as he discussed pairings with the waiter—and started us off with a decadent smoked lobster dish to share. I opted for Scottish halibut for my main, and Jamie went with the turbot.

“Excellent choices,” the waiter murmured as he deftly lifted the menus out of our way.

“They're known for their game during hunting season,” Jamie told me, “but in the spring they really go all in on th’ seafood.”

“All local?” I asked.

“Aye,” Jamie said with satisfaction. “Ye did say that people like that sort o’ thing.”

I smiled, pleased to hear my own words repeated back to me after so long. “I did, didn’t I?”

The waiter returned with the wine Jamie had selected, a white burgundy that I deliberately hadn’t checked the price on. I took a sip and closed my eyes to savor the fullness on my tongue.

“Good?” he asked, sniffing his own glass with alacrity.

“Very,” I said. He took a sip and made a pleased Scottish noise in agreement.

“So how do you know so much about wine?”

Jamie gave me a lopsided smile. “My uncle Jared is a distributor,” he said. “He lives in Bordeaux. He used to bring cases and cases to the house at Hogmanay, and he started me a bit young.”

I raised a brow. “Well, there’s a useful connection to have,” I said thoughtfully. My mind was working overtime. Of course we couldn’t compete with a place like this, but the idea of a restaurant, with hand-selected wines and local whiskies…

Jamie cut me off at the pass. “Let’s not talk about work anymore,” he said firmly. “We can do that any time.”

He was right, of course. I filed away my thoughts and turned my attention fully to him.

 


 

By the time our dessert plates were whisked away, I was feeling pleasantly warm from the wine and the incomparable company. The longer we’d talked, the more we’d sought each other out. First, casual brushes of feet. Then a hand, under the table on my thigh. Our chairs seemed to migrate closer to each other by sheer magnetism, until our legs were pressed against each other.

After he’d paid the bill, Jamie looked at me speculatively. I met his gaze squarely, certain my pupils were blown as wide as his. He leaned over and brushed his lips over my shoulder, then brought his mouth within inches of my ear.

“Sassenach,” he murmured, and I shivered. “What say ye to a wee nightcap?”

I looked at him through my lashes. “At home?” I asked pleadingly.

He laughed, low and deep. “No, lass. But no’ here, either.”

I was intrigued. “Well, I suppose…”

He was up and pulling out my chair for me in an instant. The maitre d’ arrived with my coat as soon as I was up, and with a few murmured thank yous and farewells, we were away up the drive.

We made it to the garden before our breathless desire caught up with us. Jamie paused, whirling me by the waist to face him, and captured my mouth in a dizzying kiss. I was all too willing, the tension of the meal having driven me beyond distraction, and I nipped at his bottom lip a little harder than I intended.

Far from putting him off, it pulled a groan from him that sent heat pooling directly between my legs. He pressed me tighter against him, and I could feel that he was just as affected as I was.

Finally, he pulled his mouth away, and a small cry of loss escaped me. He buried his face in my hair, nuzzling.

“Keep tha’ up and we’ll end up under in a bush,” Jamie chuckled.

“I wouldn’t mind,” I quipped.

He pulled back to look at me, eyes sparkling with mirth. “Let’s save exhibitionism for round two at least, aye?”

I snorted, but allowed him to pull me down the path to the parking lot. Jamie helped me into the truck as he’d done earlier, but somehow his touch was hotter, more electric on my hand, and the feeling lingered.

“That arse,” he sighed as I turned to sit, making me laugh.

On the drive, however, Jamie was back to playing the gentleman. He held my hand comfortably, letting go to shift gears now and again.

“Ye really are the most bonnie lass, Sassenach,” he said when we’d gone some way down the road, stealing a glance at me.

I blushed. “Flatterer,” I accused, and he smiled crookedly at me. I wanted to tell him the same, that he was as beautiful a man as had ever walked God’s green earth, but I couldn’t seem to find the words. I was noticing a pattern between us, that he always seemed to know what to say and how to say it, while I tended to deflect and downplay. Was it a difference in constitution, or simply a learned guardedness I’d acquired in the extra years and heartbreak I had on him? The inequity of it was starting to bother me, and I wondered if I’d ever be capable of telling him what was in my head—and my heart.

But for now, I simply changed the subject.

“So where are you taking me?”

Jamie smiled, as though he knew every thought that had just flitted across my mind. And he probably did, the bloody Scot.

“It’s just up the pass a ways,” he replied cryptically.

Some ten minutes of comfortable quiet later, he turned off the road onto a gravel drive that ran along the ridge of a heathered hilltop. He stopped at the highest point and put the car in park.

I looked at him in considerable confusion.

“This is where we’re having a drink?” I asked, skeptical.

“Just trust me, Sassenach,” he said lightly, getting out of the cab. I watched him through the windscreen as he came around the front to open my door.

“The ground’s a wee bit soft,” he said. “Careful in yer heels.”

I stepped gingerly down to the ground, where my shoes did indeed sink in immediately, making me wobble. He chuckled, and before I knew what he was planning, lifted me up bridal-style in his arms.

I squealed in shock, the sound cutting through the crisp night air. “Jamie Fraser, put me down this instant!” I admonished shrilly, slapping a hand ineffectually against his shoulder.

“Nay chance,” he replied cheerfully, stroking his thumb against the curve of my backside. He didn’t even sound like he was straining, the beast.

He carried me around to the back of the truck, where he did lower me gently to my feet so he could open the gate to the bed. Inside, the faint moonlight illuminated a thick nest of blankets and pillows, with a small cooler of some sort off to the side.

“What’s all this, then?” I asked, balancing on my toes so my heels would stay firmly out of the dirt.

“There’s meant to be a meteor shower tonight,” he said shyly. “I thought we could catch the beginning at least.”

My heart melted. He helped me up into the bed and hopped up effortlessly behind me. I took off my shoes, tucking them along the side, and wrapped myself in one of the quilts. Jamie did the same, following his loafers up with his suit jacket, and then leaned over to rustle in the cooler.

“Care for a wee dram?” he asked, holding up a bottle of his father’s finest. “Only the one, mind—I still have to drive us home.”

I accepted, and Jamie scooted over to me with the bottle and two glasses. He poured us each a finger or two, then shimmied into the blanket with me. We leaned up against the cab, his arm around my shoulder, and tilted our heads back.

“They’re even brighter here than at Lallybroch,” I whispered, the dark making me feel the need to keep quiet.

“Aye,” Jamie responded, squeezing me tighter against him. “Nay lights at all, out here.”

I took a small sip of the whisky, but I was already feeling lightheaded. Whether it was from the wine or the overwhelming desire to be closer, ever closer to Jamie, I couldn’t say. He leaned over then to kiss me, caressing my cheek with his free hand, and I pressed against him.

It only took a few minutes for us to slide down til we were horizontal, chest to chest on our sides, the heavens and our glasses both forgotten. His mouth was everywhere, on my mouth, my eyelids, my earlobe, my jaw. I was panting, murmuring his name as his leg slid between mine. My skirt had hiked up so the slit of my dress was at my hips, giving his thigh access, and I rocked against him in desperation.

His hands were warm as he slid one under my deep neckline, and he moaned into my mouth when he realized I wore no bra underneath.

“Jamie,” I breathed as he ran a rough thumb over my already-taut nipple.

His other hand ghosted down along the line of my waist, to my hip, and then across my midriff to seek the gap in my dress. He pulled his thigh back slightly and I whined at the loss. But I knew what he was looking for, and I moved my top leg to give him access.

“Oh fuck,” Jamie groaned when he found what he sought, and I gave a strangled laugh.

“Sassenach, are you tellin’ me ye’ve been wearing absolutely naught underneath that dress all night?” he growled in my ear as he slipped one teasing finger into my slippery folds.

I could give no reply beyond a whimper.

“Why, you wee vixen,” he chuckled, and pressed suddenly hard on my swollen nub. I cried out wordlessly, bucking my hips as he pulled his hand away.

“Jamie,” I pleaded.

“Would ye think me verra wicked if I told ye I wanted ye here and now?” he asked me breathlessly. I could feel him trembling in my arms, and the length of him burned against my hip.

I tried to focus, my brain clouded with desire. “Jamie, I...wouldn’t you rather…for your first time?”

He kissed me hard, swallowing my stammering. “I can think of nothin’ better than tae have ye glowing in the starlight,” he whispered. “But only if ye want to.”

“I very much want to,” I breathed, reaching up to the nape of my neck to undo the small button there.

Seeing my intention, Jamie pulled his hand away from my breast and curved his arm around my shoulder to seek out the zipper. As he pulled it slowly, I kissed him, and brought my own fingers to his shirt. The chill air against my exposed spine sent a shiver right through me, but a pleasant one. He slid the open dress down my arms until the bodice was pooled around my waist.

Jamie pulled back then, adjusting the blanket so it made a cave around us but he could still see my bare torso.

“Ye look like a faerie, lyin’ there,” he murmured, reaching out a finger to trace from my neck down over my breast and all the way to my belly button. “Is it too cold?”

“It won’t be if you hurry up and get on top of me,” I teased, tugging his undershirt out from his waistband. He laughed and shimmied out of his open shirt, then pulled off the undershirt. Even without him pressed against me, the heat radiated off of his bare skin, warming the air under the blanket cavern.

His shirts discarded, he gently rolled me onto my back and took hold of my skirt, pulling the dress down over my hips until I was bare. I grabbed at his belt, desperate to have him as naked as I, to feel all of him against me. He pulled off his pants and briefs together, and there he was, leaning over me.

He met my eyes with such feeling that I almost couldn’t hold his gaze.

“Are ye sure this is all right, Sassenach?” he asked, hesitant. 

I could have laughed; could there be anything more romantic than seeing him this way, with the star-dazzled sky over his shoulder? Instead, I just smiled and lifted my head to kiss him softly.

I let my hands slip down his washboard abs until I brushed the end of him, slick with his excitement. His hips pressed hard against me, seeking more contact. I obliged, wrapping him in a light grip and sliding down to the base of him. He moaned and his own fingers returned to my center, retracing a now-familiar path along my inner lips, slow and teasing.

“I want you, Jamie,” I whispered. “Jamie, please.”

He had been resting most of his weight on one arm, only half-covering my body with his, but at that he maneuvered himself to be fully on top of me. I spread my legs to make room for his, opening myself to him. There was no air left between us for words. I still held him in my hand, and I gently guided him to my core.

He held himself still above me, the tip of his cock brushing against my opening, and gently, tenderly brushed my hair out of my eyes. He leaned down to touch my lips with his, and then, agonizingly slow, pushed his hips forward to enter me fully.

We both let out relieved breaths at the same time, and I was suddenly struck with a feeling of rightness. Jamie let out a gasping laugh.

“My God, Sassenach, ye feel so good,” he choked, and then he was pulling back and easing forward in an altogether too-gentle rhythm.

I was half-delirious, the fullness of him inside me driving me mad with want. I wrapped a leg around his hip, pulling him deeper still, and I moaned. He felt what I wanted and increased his speed, eyes wide with wonder as he watched me under him. His strokes gained a more practiced rhythm as he got the feel of it. My breath came in gasps, punctuated by small cries and his own name when he periodically pressed himself as deep as he could go. He moved his hips experimentally in a figure eight, and I nearly sobbed in pleasure.

“Yer wee noises are lovely, mo chridhe,” Jamie whispered in my ear, and captured my lobe between his teeth.

I could feel the pressure building as the weight of him pressed against my clit, and his rather large cock hit that spot deep inside me over and over again.

“Jamie, I—”

He was growing more frantic now, all but slamming against me with delicious force. I wanted to ask him to wait, to let me catch him up, but I could see he was too far gone. Suddenly he tensed, crying out my name, and then went limp against me, head resting on my shoulder.

I pressed gentle kisses to his sweat-dampened temple and ran my fingers through his hair, whispering nonsense to him as he recovered his breath.

“Claire,” he groaned finally, pressing a kiss to my collarbone. “Jesus, Claire.”

I laughed, somewhat breathlessly, as his weight was fully against me now. He heard the wheeze and pushed himself up a bit, making his softening cock fall out of me. I whimpered a little at the empty feeling—I had been so close, and I was still on fire.

“Is it always like that?” he asked in amazement, rolling to one side. He seemed to be regaining his senses.

“Not always,” I answered, unsure of how to put into words just what about the feeling of him was so different from anything I'd experienced. “But something like that, I suppose.” I couldn't stop myself pressing against him, craving desperately, but not wanting to call attention to it. After all, it was his first time—it wasn’t surprising he’d have gone before me.

Jamie looked down at me for a moment, thinking, then suddenly his eyebrows shot up.

“Och, I’m so sorry, Sassenach,” he said, hand creeping over my stomach. “I couldna help it, ye just felt so…”

I waved a hand. “It’s fine, really,” I said reassuringly. “I don’t usually…”

But he was already dipping his fingers down, coaxing my legs back apart. My eyelids fluttered as he circled the bundle of nerves lazily.

“Lay back, lass. I’ll no’ leave ye wanting,” he whispered against my ear, and I surrendered.

It didn’t take me long, as close as I’d been. I came hard, calling out his name as I tried to keep my eyes on his adoring face, dark against the glittering sky behind him. And as I rode the final waves of my orgasm, a bright light streaked across my vision—the only meteor either of us would see that night.