Claire looked from Ellen to Jenny and back. “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” she exclaimed, her voice tight with emotion.
Jenny and Ellen exchanged a look and both burst out laughing before Claire could say another word.
“Oh, aye, yer a firecracker,” Ellen said, coming toward Claire to put an arm around her shoulder. Ellen beamed at her fondly, making Claire relax into her touch.
Jenny snorted and shook her head. “Aye, and yer both are stubborn as they come,” Jenny said, shaking her head. “Ye both, erm, have things tae discuss, sae maybe this plan isna sae bad after all, ken?”
Claire moved to extract herself from Ellen’s grasp. “Oh no, I can’t stay now. I absolutely have to leave this minute. You both saw how he reacted when he saw me.” Claire paused, swallowing hard. “So how many people are in on this plan?” Claire asked, narrowing her eyes.
Ellen tightened her grip on Claire’s shoulder. “Oh, don’t ye worry about that,” Ellen said happily. “And dinna be giving me this nonsense about leavin’. Ye’ve been drinkin’ whisky and it’s snowing, for God’s sake. Ye won’t be goin’ anywhere tonight, sae let’s get ye tae yer cottage.”
Claire suddenly felt drained. She gave Ellen and Jenny a weak smile and nodded in defeat, realizing that she knew better than to argue with either of these women at the moment.
Jenny grinned, looking positively pleased with herself as Ellen and Claire moved toward the door. “Aye, good then. “We’ll see ye in the morning, Claire.”
As they walked out of the house, Ellen gestured at the sky. “It looks like we’ll be gettin’ a fair amount o’ snow, aye,” she said, not actually asking a question. “Tis fine, ye will be welcome here as long as ye need. The cottage is fair stocked to the brim w’ food! My husband Brian made sure o’ that.”
As they rounded a corner, the small stone cottage came into view, the door wide open. “Aye, speaking’ o’ Brian,” Ellen said fondly, “he must be startin’ a wee fire fer ye.”
“Oh,” Claire breathed. No help for it, then. Can’t stop, won’t stop until I’ve met every single Fraser here, Claire thought to herself, grimacing internally.
Ellen and Claire walked inside to find a large man kneeling at the hearth, poking at the logs with an antique fire poker.
“Brian,” Ellen said happily, “Look who I found in the library. Claire, this is my husband, Brian - and Jamie’s father, ken.”
Brian beamed at her, taking her hand between his. “Aye, Claire, it’s so lovely to finally meet ye. I was fair fashed that I’d never get the chance.”
Claire returned Brian’s smile and shook his hand. “It’s so nice to meet you, Biran. Ellen found me, erm, arguing with your son in the library.” Claire gave a small shrug, still feeling hopelessly awkward. “And yelling at him.”
Brian guffawed and tightened his clasp on Claire. “A lass who isna th’ meek an’ obedient type, praise be.”
Ellen laughed. “Aye, weel, we’d expect nothin’ less,” she said. “And nay worry, Jamie often runs his mouth without thinkin’ first.”
Claire shook her head. “It’s really so kind of you to let me stay here, but I’m just,” she paused, searching for words. “I’m just, well, I — oh, to Hell with it — seeing as how your son isn’t likely to speak to me ever again, I promise I’ll be on the road first thing tomorrow.”
Ellen placed her arm around Claire’s shoulder again and squeezed gently. "Och, Claire, that’s nonsense. Ye’ve just been introduced to the Fraser temper, aye? Thrown in the deep end, ken?” Ellen fixed Brian with a pointed look as she spoke.
Brian, who had the good sense to look abashed, simply shrugged and looked at the floor, a small smile playing on his face. “Aye, weel, Ellen is right. He’s as stubborn as they come, with a heid as thick as an iron pot, but he has a good heart,” Brian said fairly. “He’s obviously crazy about ye, so I hope ye both will talk at some point while yer here.” Brian paused, giving Claire a meaningful look before continuing. “When he had his accident, he —“
“ What accident?” Claire asked, unable to stop herself.
Ellen and Brian gave each other a knowing, married look before Ellen nodded at Brian to continue. “Weel, it would probably be better for Jamie tae tell ye more,” he said, hesitating for a moment. “But I reckon it wouldn’t hurt tae tell ye what happened in general.”
Ellen gestured at Claire to have a seat at the bar. “I’m just going to get the kettle on, aye? Here, Claire, sit.”
Claire situated herself at the kitchen counter bar and watched Ellen pour fresh water into the kettle and set it on the burner. Brian, meanwhile, was pulling mugs from the cabinet. Claire bit her lip in an attempt to keep herself from begging for more information.
Brian set the mugs on the counter and moved to lean against the cabinets, sighing as he folded his arms and looked at Claire. “Twasn’t as bad as it coulda been, but aye, Jamie was in a car accident the day before he was due tae be leaving fer North Carolina. He did break his arm and have to spend a couple o’ days in hospital while they ran tests.”
Claire gasped at this revelation. “I had no idea.”
Brian walked over to where Claire was sitting and patted her hand gently. “Weel, o’ course ye didna ken, Claire.”
Claire felt a bubble of dread boiling deep in her stomach and let out a small noise of distress. “Where was he going?” she asked.
Brian and Ellen exchanged another knowing look. “As we understand from John, he was headed tae the airport,” Brian said gently. “John is –”
Claire nodded. “His best friend, I know. He told me,” she finished for Brian.
Brian smiled. “Aye, that’s right, a nighean .”
“Oh my God ,” Claire said, closing her eyes and covering her face with her hands. “This would have never happened if we hadn’t fought that morning,” she said. Neither Brian nor Ellen said anything, choosing instead to let Claire guide their reaction.
The kettle whined, breaking the silence. Ellen turned to retrieve a mug and poured the boiling water over the waiting tea leaves. “Och, Claire, certainly no one blames ye; dinna give that another thought,” Ellen said, evidently divining Claire’s thoughts as she placed a steaming mug of herbal tea before Claire. “Here, ma husband may be th’ better cook, but I make better tea.”
Brian clicked his tongue in mock affront, but smiled lovingly at Ellen. “Some people like weak tea,” he said genially.
Claire smiled weakly, feeling tears prickle at the corners of her eyes. She took a long drink of her tea in a quiet effort to gain a modicum of control over her emotions.
“Anyway,” Brian continued, taking a mug of tea from Ellen, “Jamie has been moping constantly, an’ it’s clear it’s not because he was fashed about a broken arm.” Brian took a large sip of tea and then gave Claire a knowing smirk. “We think ye should talk it out wi’ each other, sae mebbe ye’ll stay long enough for that to happen, ken?” he asked, placing the unfinished mug of tea in the sink.
Claire nodded, her eyes beginning to blur. “I suppose I can do that. Thank you both for being so sweet to me.”
Ellen leaned down to where Claire was sitting to give her a hug. “Get some rest,” she said soothingly. “Brain put yer bags in th’ bedroom.” Ellen released Claire and gestured for Brian to follow her. “C’mon, sweetheart, I think she’s had enough o’ meetin’ Frasers fer today.”
Clair laughed at that. “Thank you both again,” Claire said. “I’ll see you two later.”
Claire finished the tea and placed both her mug and Brian’s discarded one into the dishwasher before opening the curtains above the sink. Fat snowflakes were falling fast, blanketing the landscape in a pristine white. Claire took a deep breath and closed her eyes. It would be so romantic here, save the fact I’m missing one bloody Scot, she thought. I hope Brian is right.
Claire locked the front door before making her way into the bedroom to change into her pajamas. She hoisted her weekend bag onto the bed and pulled out a change of clothes, selecting some cozy leggings, an oversized cashmere sweater, and a pair of fuzzy socks.
Claire stripped to her underwear and groaned with relief as she unhooked her bra. As she changed, she thought of Jamie. Seeing him in the library had turned her stomach and legs to jelly. He looks so damn good , she thought, thinking of one particular time in bed when she’d gripped his hair as he thrust into her, over and over. He kissed her hard as she moaned against his mouth. “ That’s it, lass,” he’d whispered. She shook her head and shivered, unable to stop herself from remembering what happened next. And then he made you come harder than you’d ever come, she thought, failing to stop herself.
Oh, do shut up, Beauchamp, she thought as she made her way back toward the kitchen area. The kitchen, while modern, still felt rustic and cozy. Claire admired the plaids that adorned the curtains and small, random knick knacks around the kitchen, all carefully selected to make guests feel completely at home in the Scottish Highlands.
Claire made her way over to the small bar that stood at the end of one counter and selected a bottle of whisky. Fraser’s Distillery , naturally, Claire thought, shaking her head. She picked up a glass and walked over to the living area to sit on the massive leather couch in the center of the room.
Pouring a large glass of whisky for herself, she sat back and took a large swig, enjoying the sharp burn of the liquid as she drank it down. Claire felt more tears stinging her eyes and forced herself to take a deep breath. “Fuck it,” she said, throwing her glass back and draining the whisky in two swallows.
Claire put the glass down on the table with more force than strictly necessary. Groaning, she stretched out and grabbed the plaid blanket that had been folded neatly across the back of the couch. Covering herself, she closed her eyes, feeling pleasantly tipsy and very tired.
Claire’s eyes flew open and she sat up quickly, feeling at once dizzy and confused. She’d dozed off and felt heavy-limbed and slow, like she was fighting her way to the surface after being submerged under water.
Someone was pounding on the door, she thought muzzily. Rubbing her eyes, she pulled herself up and wrapped the plaid blanket over her shoulders before heading toward the foyer, her heart thumping in her chest the entire time.
Opening the door, her heart gave a jolt as she saw him standing before her. “Jamie,” she breathed out, her voice sounding tight to her ears.
“Sassenach,” Jamie said, looking Claire over, his eyes going soft as his eyes landed on the plaid Claire had wrapped around her. “Can I come in?”
Claire pulled the plaid protectively to her body and felt her heart jolt when Jamie used his nickname for her. “I suppose you can,” she said quietly, stepping back to let Jamie step inside, retreating further as he shook his head to throw off the white flakes that had accumulated in his hair.
Claire stared at Jamie as he methodically removed his wet shoes and scarf. As he moved to take off his coat, Claire finally shook herself into action.
“I don’t want to fight with you, Jamie,” Claire said, forcing herself to sound more confident than she felt. “So if that’s why you’re here, please just go back home.”
Jamie stood still for a moment before turning slowly to look at Claire. “I’m not here to fight,” he said softly. “I promise, ken?”
Claire cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. “Okay, then,” she said, turning away from the door toward the kitchen. “I’ll make some tea.”
Claire busied herself in the kitchen as Jamie made an ordeal out of locking the door and hanging his clothes on the hat tree sitting in the foyer. He’s nervous, Claire thought as she poured water into the kettle. She snuck a look toward Jamie while he still had his back toward her. Fuck, he looks good. Claire bit her lip and looked back at the kettle in front of her, mindlessly going through the motions as she placed the kettle on the burner and gathered the various tins of tea selections.
Claire cleared her throat. “Erm, it seems like your parents make sure to stock every tea imaginable,” she said, desperately hoping that he couldn’t hear the slight shake of her voice as she spoke.
Jamie snorted, coming to stand exactly where Claire had been with Ellen and Brian earlier that evening. “Aye, I suppose they did,” he said. “They dinna know how tae do anything besides go overboard, ken?”
Claire nodded, feeling the corners of her mouth twitch into a small smile. “They’re very kind, Jamie,” she said, finally allowing herself to meet Jamie’s eyes.
Jamie smiled and nodded. “Aye, they are,” he said. “Even when they’re schemin’ behind my back.” His eyes crinkled as he smiled, but he didn’t take his eyes off of Claire’s for several long moments. Jamie opened his mouth to say something when the kettle interrupted with a shrill whine.
Claire jumped, turning toward the burner to remove the kettle from the stove. She turned off the burner and poured the boiling water into the waiting mugs.
When she turned back toward Jamie, she gasped as her eyes found a piece of paper on the counter. Jamie placed his palm flat across the surface of the letter, not saying anything for a few moments before he finally cleared his voice and spoke.
“I came here to talk with you about your letter, Claire?” Jamie said. "Did ye mean what ye wrote?"