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Love Stained

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Jamie leaned his long limbs against the bar, nursing a beer.  It was Friday night and the music was loud, a small crowd bumping and grinding on the Ridge’s tiny dancefloor.  There was a time he would have utilized the anonymous hedonism for his own ends, but those days were behind him.

Time for a change of scene, Fraser, he coached himself.

His agent agreed.  Edinburgh wasn’t large enough for the type of clientele his photography required.  The kind with big wallets and even bigger walls on which to hang his larger-than-life portraits.  London, maybe, or better yet, New York.

Scotland was his home, though, and he’d been dragging his feet for many months.  Surrendering to superstition in a way that would drive his sister crazy, he told himself he was waiting for a sign.

“Another beer, Jamie?”

Rupert’s considerable paunch was pressed against the bar.  No-one could accuse his friend of not walking the talk when it came to the consumption of alcohol.

“Nah, I better not.  Money’s tight this month.”

Here was another reason to leave town.  His friends all knew him as a struggling artist, barely able to cover rent for his loft apartment and small studio.  And while it was true that photography wasn’t making him rich, his second career more than compensated.  His secret career, that he couldn’t divulge to a soul.

“Och, I ken ye’re good for it, man,” Rupert insisted while opening another bottle of Stella with a flourish.

Grunting his thanks, Jamie turned to scan the room.  A slender woman in dark clothing standing near the door caught his attention.  Even through the gloom punctuated by strobe lights, she looked out of place.  Her eyes skipped nervously around the crowd, searching for someone without the usual eagerness such an activity entailed.  

Whoever they were, they should count themselves lucky.   As a man who observed and decomposed beauty for a living, Jamie couldn’t put his finger on exactly why this woman was so lovely.  She was tall, willowy, with a stately bearing that seemed to harken back to a bygone era of parlours and pinafores.  Her hair, luxuriantly curly, was tousled by the night’s wind and she smoothed it behind her ears repeatedly, as though trying to calm herself with the gesture.

Rupert noticed his paralysis and let out a low whistle.

“Is that tonight’s conquest?  Canna say as I blame ye, lad.”

Ignoring his friend’s ongoing commentary, Jamie continued to watch the woman.  There was a striking juxtaposition between her timid, nearly jumpy demeanour and the sinuous grace with which she moved as she ventured across the room.  She reminded him of the deer on his family’s estate.  

It had been a long time since a woman had captivated him with only a glance.  He was no stranger to lust, but this was something even more visceral, like all the filaments in his body had aligned along an axis pointing directly her way.   Now that she was mere feet away, he could make out the pale luster of her complexion, the fullness of her lips, and most of all the startling topaz of her irises.

Rupert was right about one thing: he was hoping not to leave the bar alone tonight. 

Jamie stood to his considerable height as she approached, full beer bottle hanging forgotten from the crux of his fingers.  Up close, the woman was even more striking but plainly nervous.  He tried to think of an opening line that might set her at ease.

“Alexander Malcolm?”  Her voice, while shaking, was deeper and richer than he’d imagined.  So lost was he in her presence that it took more time than it ought for the words to coalesce.   When they did, his heart, so recently skipping with anticipation, crashed towards the floor.  He hadn’t felt so short of breath since the last time he’d been punched in the solar plexus.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” the woman took his silence for denial, crimson staining her cheeks.  “I thought you were someone… well, never mind.  I’m very sorry…”

She was leaving.  Blind instinct overthrew his good judgement.  He couldn’t watch her walk away.

“Aye, lass,” he managed to push out past rebelling vocal cords.   Then, lowering his voice so that there was no chance Rupert would overhear him, he clarified, “I’m Alex Malcolm.”

***

His dual existence had begun two years ago, when a former lover had been sexually assaulted.  Too fearful to contemplate a return to intimacy with a stranger, Louise’s therapist had floated the idea of a professional sex surrogate.   When her insurance company declined to cover the expense, the next best option was working with a past partner who Louise trusted.  Someone who was gentle, patient and who had absolutely no desire for an emotional relationship beyond sex.  Enter James Fraser.

Louise’s therapist had been so impressed with her results that she approached Jamie about being a sex surrogate for some of her other patients.  He’d taken an online certification program, worked out a fee structure, and launched his second vocation.  His associations with his clients weren’t much different than the casual hook-up he’d previously engaged in.  Everyone knew what to expect going in, and no-one’s feelings were hurt. 

It was fulfilling work, but also quite isolating.  His sister and Ian couldn’t know how he made a living.  He could just imagine the stramash Jenny would raise, ranting and raving about gigolos, sexually transmitted diseases and their parents rolling over in their graves.  Neither could he tell his mates, who would place him on a testosterone throne, right after asking him for the names, addresses and intimate details of his clients.  Even the women he helped knew him only by an assumed name, a necessary protection after an early assignment went horribly wrong and the lass grew obsessed with him. 

There was a karmic synergy to his work helping women regain their sex lives, and he certainly couldn’t complain about the tidy nest egg he’d amassed.  Still, he wouldn’t miss the job when he finally dedicated himself to being a full-time artist.  With every woman he met and helped as Alex Malcolm, the chances grew that he’d cross paths with one of them somewhere in the streets or in the art world, where he was known by his true name.  If Jamie wanted to pursue any kind of success as a photographer, it would need to be somewhere other than Edinburgh. 

***

Slender fingers with unadorned nails skittered across the wooden tabletop between them, dancing between the salt cellar and the tumbler of ice water she’d requested but had yet to drink.  Her left ring finger was adorned with a platinum wedding band and substantial diamond solitaire.  That was unusual.  A widow, perhaps?

“What’s your name, lass?” he asked when it became apparent she wasn’t going to divulge it unprompted.

“Claire.  Claire Randall.”  After a moment her milky skin paled further, and he could read on her translucent face that she hadn’t meant to give him her real name.  A beautiful mystery, this one, and while he hadn’t gotten over the disappointment of not getting to meet her as his true self, he was still eager to know her story.  To understand the reason for her obvious agitation and soothe it if he could.

“Geillis Duncan will have sent ye to me, then?”

“Yes, that’s right.   Oh, shit.  I was meant to show you this…  Jesus, I’m making a right mess of this, aren’t I?”

A familiar business card was placed on the table by trembling hands.   Jamie fought back the urge to reach out and calm them, aware as he was that a stranger’s touch might be the last thing this woman wanted or needed.

“Claire,” he breathed, then checked himself.  “Is it alright if I call ye that?”  At her nod, he continued.  “Ye needn’t be afraid of me, Claire.  I wasna planning to suddenly force myself on ye.”

Pink lips quirked upwards in a show of self-mockery, a tiny crack in the wall of fear that seemed to paralyze her.

“I never thought you would.  You came very highly recommended by Geillis.  It’s only…” she paused to fidget with her wedding ring.  He leaned unconsciously towards her, silently urging her on. 

“I’m not sure I can go through with this.  I’m here as a matter of last resort.  I need you…” he held his breath, captivated by the sudden ferocity behind her golden gaze, “… to help me save my marriage.”