“We did everything we could, but his injuries were too extensive. I’m sorry, Mrs. Randall. But your husband has died.”
Oh, thank god.
The emotion bent me in half, and I staggered to my knees under the weight of it. The young doctor held my shoulders as I sobbed, seeing and hearing everything through a buzzing fog in my head. He helped me to a chair and sat with me until the first wave passed. He asked if there was anyone he could call.
The irony that on the outside my reaction looked like grief kept striking me over and over. It wasn’t sorrow or loss that overcame me in that moment, but relief.
Frank is dead.
I tried to calm my breathing and fresh tears filled my eyes. He had asked if I wanted to see Frank’s body, and I hesitated, but then shook my head. No, I couldn’t stand next to his corpse and pretend to mourn him. Even I couldn’t stoop that low. After a few awkward moments and a sympathetic pat he left me in the waiting room with instructions that someone would get me for the next steps.
I should call Candy... or Sandy, whoever the latest one was. She would probably want to see him.
Oh god, and Bree.
That snapped me out of it. Our daughter needed to know what happened, she needed to be here with me at the hospital, and she needed me to act like a normal wife, grieving her husband as would happen in a normal marriage.
It wasn’t her fault that our marriage hadn’t been normal.
And now it was over.
I ignored the surge of hysterical relief in my chest and pulled out my cell phone to dial her number. My thumb hesitated over the call button and I closed my eyes to steady myself. I had years of experience breaking terrible news to families who lost loved ones, I just needed to summon that part of my training to tell Bree that her father was gone.
“Hey, Mama!” Her cheery voice came over the line. “I’ll be home in 20. I’m just finishing up at the library and I ran into…”
“Bree,” I interrupted her happy chatter, injecting urgency into my tone. “You need to come to the hospital, baby. It’s your father.”
“It’s… Daddy? Is he okay?”
I hesitated, and that split second was enough.
By the time Joe had picked up Bree and got to the hospital I had my mask firmly in place. She walked through the sliding doors with wild eyes, tears flowing, and I caught her in a hard embrace.
“Oh baby, it’s okay. I’m so sorry, my darling.”
Her bright hair was braided down her back and hidden under a cap, but little tendrils of that deep copper danced in front of my face. Bree was a tall girl, nearly six feet. She commanded attention wherever she went, and tonight was no exception. I could feel the collective gaze of the hospital lobby on us.
“Come on, girls. Let’s get out of the way.”
Joe Abernathy’s presence calmed me instantly. He had been a close friend since our med school days, and he was the only person I trusted, the only person I’d call in times of trouble. He was the only person who looked at me straight in the eyes and acknowledged the conflict there. When I called him tonight to ask him to pick up Bree and bring her to the hospital there wasn’t a question of whether or not he would help.
“You can go in and say goodbye, if you’d like.” My arm was tight around my daughter’s waist, but I deliberately excluded myself from the invitation. Joe caught it and nodded, taking Bree’s arm and leading her down the hall that bustled with activity, doctors and nurses walking quickly from place to place.
I stood awkwardly alone, feeling empty and purposeless. Then I slowly walked over to sit in a chair positioned for privacy behind a fake plant. That’s what normal wives did when they were grieving, I thought. They sat and stared off into space. I’m sure a normal wife would be overcome with shock and pain, thinking of the past, but my mind was consumed with the future and spinning with all the possibilities that Frank’s death opened up.
Even as I chastised myself for doing it, I couldn’t help but let myself imagine what his absence meant for me. I could leave Boston. I would probably be getting quite a sum from Frank’s life insurance which would help me move somewhere nice and quiet. If I sold the house as well…
I knew Bree would be in college this fall, so that would factor in. But suddenly my whole being ached to be rid of that cold stone townhouse with its old fashioned Victorian elegance.
A cottage with a garden. Maybe not by the sea, that might be out of my price range. But in the country, or maybe the mountains. Somewhere warm, where I could sit in the sunshine without neighbors ten feet away. Where I could dig in the dirt and not have someone berating me for working so hard to grow vegetables and herbs that were readily available at the store.
I took a deep shaky breath. I had to slow down. None of this could happen until an appropriate amount of time had passed. I wouldn’t hurt Bree by rushing to change her whole world overnight.
But I could see it. Thank god , I could see it so clearly in my mind and the fact that it was possible brought fresh tears to my eyes.
Late that night I lay in bed with Bree asleep beside me, but I couldn’t relax. The room smelled like Frank. Like that overpowering cologne he used that all the college girls went wild for. I wanted to open the windows and air that smell right out of my life, and I made a mental note to wash all of the bedding in the morning.
I sighed and studied the ceiling fan spinning above the bed. I really should let Candy know about Frank. I wouldn’t want to hear something like that through the grapevine about my lover, and if I waited until morning it might be announced in class or something else that would be a shock for someone who cared about him.
Leaving my daughter peacefully snoring with tear tracks down her cheeks, I tiptoed down the hall and the grand wooden staircase. My mind, which had been held so firmly in control for so long, rebelled on me now that I had given it some rein.
Pretentious. Fucking snobbish, that’s what this place is.
This house screamed Frank Randall and his family legacy. It had never been my taste, and it was never my decision how things were in this house. Whichever ancestor built it in the 19th century had left their mark with the name “Randall” carved into the stone above the front door and the damned family crest on every piece of millwork inside.
Almost like they jizzed all over the house deliberately, to ruin it for anybody else.
I had laid the plastic bag of Frank’s personal effects on the entryway table, and I picked it up now and carried it to the dark kitchen. I sat at the ornate marble island and pulled out his phone, wallet, wedding ring, and a handful of change and business cards. His clothes had been ruined. I examined the evidence of my husband’s last day of life with a jaded eye.
His phone powered up right away and opened without a password. He hadn’t needed one. There was nothing to hide from me.
He had 37 missed messages and a dozen missed calls. 28 from Sandy who appeared to be having a panic attack that he was ignoring her, 3 from Brianna asking if he would help her with a history project that weekend, and 6 from someone named Michelle who he had stood up for a date that night.
Michelle can find out in class tomorrow.
Probably a cold-hearted thought, but I didn’t care much. I copied down Sandy’s number and typed it into my own phone. The thought of texting from his phone crossed my mind, but I dismissed it. Too morbid.
This is Claire Randall
Frank was killed in a car accident tonight.
Thought you should know.
I paused, considered, then added,
Sorry for your loss.
Then I blocked her number so I wouldn’t see it if she replied. I powered off Frank’s phone and laid it back in the plastic bag, shoving in the rest of his belongings and zipping it closed. Bree might want to look through that later.
I sat there in the dark wondering if I should delete his texts in case she looked into his phone, but decided against it. His affairs were his business. If his daughter thought less of him it wasn’t something I cared to contain or control.
The house was cold and unwelcoming around me, almost like it knew I planned to auction it to the highest bidder. And I sat in the dark letting my disdain and hatred for the place flood through me. Fuck this house. Fuck the years I spent here feeling trapped and longing for an escape. I couldn’t wait to leave it behind me, even if I had to bash in every stone myself. Randall legacy be fucking damned.
I wondered how long until I could change my last name without causing a ruckus? It would probably be tasteful to wait till Bree married, I wasn’t sure. But I would separate myself from him—slowly perhaps, but surely—until I was my own person again with nothing of him to hold me down.
There wasn’t anything of Frank Randall’s that I cared about enough to keep except his daughter.
Seven months had passed since that fateful night, and I leaned back in my office chair trying to stretch the kink out of my neck and reflecting on how nice it was to be a widow.
Dead husbands were a good excuse for many things. I had pled overwhelming grief, single parenting, and estate issues on numerous occasions as an excuse to avoid a social gathering or invitation.
I switched out Frank’s gold wedding band for a similar one that I’d had engraved on the inside.
I am whole all by myself.
It had been a line that came out of one of my many attempts to relieve stress with creative writing. They ended up being so emo and bitter they sounded like a 15 year old wrote them, and the majority were torn out and pitched immediately.
But this line had stuck in my mind, and through the years it had become a mantra. I would not ever again let someone else dictate my future or present happiness. I didn’t need someone else to be happy or whole, fulfilled or content. Even Brianna, though I loved her with all my heart. I needed the space to be whole separately from my role as a doctor, a wife or a mother.
Speaking of my daughter, Brianna had moved into her new apartment and started classes at MIT last week. We had come to an agreement that the house was too big for me, and had found a realtor to help us offload it. Bree had hoped that one of Frank’s relatives would want to buy it and keep it in the family, but we had contacted everyone we knew and none of them were in the market.
I had several properties pulled up on my screen that I was considering as possibilities for my new home. I wanted to get out of this atmosphere; the chaos and stress of being an OB/GYN at Mass General didn’t appeal to me anymore at all.
The life insurance money was substantial, and I knew there would be a tidy sum from the sale of the house. But I wasn’t looking at the top of my budget. I was through with ostentatious.
I wanted to be somewhere I could relax and blend in, and also somewhere I could maintain my independence for the rest of my life. No big cities, no need for two incomes, no house I couldn’t afford without my normal salary. Several locations had intrigued me, but the one I kept coming back to was the little tourist town of Boone, North Carolina. It was unlike anywhere I’d been before in my life, small and kitschy with little shops, hiking, and cabin rentals.
Frank would hate it.
I breathed a frustrated sigh and closed my eyes, clearing the bitter thought from my brain. The man was dead. Whatever had happened between us, he had been there for me when I needed him most. I tried to bring to mind good things about Frank in an effort to stop the old anger from rising up and taking over my thoughts.
My therapist had given me several gratitude exercises to help center myself when the anger threatened to take over my mind.
They were all shit.
I gave up and looked at the listings again. The cottage in Boone kept drawing my eye. It was on two acres of wooded property outside of town but close enough to walk or bike in if one felt inclined. There was enough land cleared for a small garden already fenced in with raised beds, and the crowning glory in my eyes was the hot tub on the multi-tiered deck. I could see myself looking over the mountain behind the house while sipping wine and soaking in that hot tub.
There was nothing regal about the house. It had a charm, but it was very basic. Almost blank—like it was waiting for the right person to put their mark on it.
And the price was well within my range.
I dashed off a quick email to the realtor before I could second guess it anymore. The least I could do was go look at it. It would be a relief to get out of Boston and it was the perfect excuse.
Within minutes I had a reply and was setting up a showing the next week. My resignation at the hospital wasn’t unexpected, but it was bittersweet to be leaving friends like Joe and Gail. My last day was Friday, and I’d take the weekend to drive down to Boone just to see what the trip was like by car so I could tell Bree the best route to take when she came for Thanksgiving break.
A thrill shot through my spine. To be able to plan a trip on a whim, just up and go without having to ask permission or arrange for someone to take care of things while I was gone… it was heady stuff. All of a sudden my mind filled with other trips I could take. I’d always wanted to travel after college, but marriage and Bree’s arrival squashed my options to nearly zero.
The travel would have to wait a bit longer while I moved and settled into my new home. But I promised myself that a few solo trips were definitely in my future. Maybe even one of those throw a dart at the map kind of trips to cater to my newfound sense of freedom.
I groaned and stretched my sore back. After 16 hours in the car I felt like a pile of shit. That’s what I got for choosing to drive through Baltimore and Washington traffic instead of taking route 81 which bypassed the bigger cities.
I had booked a rental cabin for the week to get the feel of the town and area before I decided to buy. The cabins were scattered all over the ridge behind the house I was looking at. My house might have been a rental at one time, but it was slightly removed with more land around it than the others.
The cabin rental office was neat and clean, and a bell jingled above the door as I walked in. No one was at the front desk, but I could hear voices from an office down the hall, so I set my purse down and waited, pulling out my phone to check for messages.
“Sorry to keep ye waiting, ma’am.” A deep voice addressed me as its owner came down the hall and stepped behind the desk. My body froze, perhaps trying to warn me before my brain could catch up, but it was too late. I looked up from my phone into eyes the color of a deep blue summer sky. They were terribly familiar, as I had been looking into those exact eyes almost every day since Bree was born.
James Alexander Malcom MacKenzie Fraser.
God fucking damnit.
He looked just as surprised to see me. His mouth hung open and the clipboard he had been holding clattered down onto the desk. The loud bang shook us both out of it and I ripped my eyes away from his. Shit. How the fuck did this happen?
“Claire?” His voice had risen a full octave, and he cleared his throat and tried again. “I didna recognize yer name on the reservation sheet. Are ye… are ye here on vacation, then?”
I chanced a look, noticing his face was pale and he kept his gaze firmly on the computer screen as he looked up my information. He put the clipboard on the counter in front of me without making eye contact.
“No, I’m… well, yes.” I cursed my voice for cracking. I would not let him see how much running into him shook me. I grabbed the clipboard and studied the rental contract and waivers it held, then signed my name quickly.
Jamie was still staring at the computer screen.
“I paid online.” I said, internally screaming at him to give me my fucking keys so I could leave.
“C. E. Randall,” I couldn’t tell what it was in his voice that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, but I was going to pass out if he did not hurry the fuck up so I could get out of here and breathe. He looked at me then, straight on with a glint in his eye. “As in, Frank Randall?”
“He’s dead.” I blurted out, then revised back to my scripted response. “My husband passed away in February.”
Jamie swallowed and dropped his eyes again. “I’m sorry for yer loss.”
He printed out a receipt and handed it to me along with a packet of information about the rental company and the key to my cabin. The action seemed to spur him into business mode because he rattled off some information that I didn’t hear at all and then asked if I needed help getting to the cabin.
“No, thank you.” I said quickly and shoved the papers into my purse.
“Well, enjoy yer stay with us, Claire.” He handed me a business card and I was grateful to see that my hands weren’t shaking. “My cell number is on the back if you need anything.”
I almost started laughing. The ridiculous horror of this encounter was going to hit me hard and I needed to get out of this office, stat. I thanked him as I was turning away and hurried out, hearing the doorbell jingle behind me.
It took everything in me not to vomit in the parking lot. I made it to my car and was fumbling in my purse for the keys when a knock on the window made me stifle a scream.
It was him. He leaned down with his hands braced on the car and peered through the window at me. He looked desperate, terrified actually. He laid his hand against the glass in a plea.
“Claire. Claire, please.” His voice was muffled through the car window.
Our eyes held for a long minute. I didn’t know if I could find the strength to roll down that window and hear whatever it was he had to say. The shock of seeing him after all this time had made my body feel numb, my hands were shaking as I fit the key in the ignition and started the car.
Jamie’s eyes widened and I realized he thought I was about to drive away. Without thinking I raised my hand and laid it on the window against his, then jumped when I noticed what I had done.
I pressed the button to lower the glass between us. His big hands gripped the door, altogether too close to me, and I shifted in my seat.
“Claire, please. Dinna disappear again before I get a chance to speak to ye. Can we talk later? Can I meet ye tonight?”
“No, no. That’s not a good idea.” My heart was racing and my brain was waving red danger flags through my field of vision.
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry, Claire. Can we speak on the phone then? Can I call ye?”
I felt tears fill my eyes and I dropped my forehead to the steering wheel to hide them. He made a noise of distress deep in his throat and fell silent, but I could feel him there beside me.
Jesus god don’t let him touch me.
“Sassenach,” I felt a shiver down my spine when he spoke that nickname, his old pet name for me from another lifetime. “Ye have my number on the wee card I gave ye, aye? I’ll wait for ye to call me.”
He hesitated, and I swore I could feel the heat from his hand hovering above my shoulder.
“Please call me, Claire.”
I heard the gravel crunch beneath his shoes as he backed up, and I wiped my eyes on the back of my hand. I could see him out of the corner of my eye standing 15 feet away by the office door watching me. I put the car in reverse and backed carefully out, catching his eyes once by mistake when he waved.
When I pulled out I drove several miles without knowing which way I was headed. The wooded scenery gave way to gas stations and fast food places, then to the quaint shops and cafes of downtown Boone.
I parked the car at the end of a street out of the bustle of traffic and cried until I couldn’t breathe.
By the time I made it to the cabin, winding up the mountainside on narrow roads and turning at the sign identifying the collection of rentals as Fraser’s Ridge, my tears were mostly dry. My cabin was the last in the row with a small parking space in front and a wraparound porch. The ridge dropped off halfway down the sloped yard, leaving an incredible view of the valley below. I left my things in the car and walked up the porch steps, leaning on the railing to try to see the cottage I would be touring the next day.
It was too dark to tell which of the dark shapes was the one I wanted, but I stayed on the porch absently studying the trees and buildings visible from that vantage point. The cool air brushed my cheeks and I closed my eyes, trying to process the events of the day.
What I wanted to do was turn around and leave. I had sat in the car for an hour arguing with myself about losing the money for the week long rental I had paid for, because I sure as fuck was not going back there to ask for a refund. Finally, I decided to stay and keep my appointment to view the house the next day, even though I was almost 100% sure that I couldn’t take it.
Living in the same town as Jamie Fraser? I’d have to be out of my mind. And living in a property this close to cabins he owned? No way. It was only my reluctance to ghost the realtor that made me determined to keep the showing.
I gathered my things from the car and fit the key into the cabin door, pushing it open and walking inside. A light had been left on in the kitchen, but I walked around turning on lights and exploring each room to get a feel for the place. It was cozy but spacious with a gas fireplace and rough hewn beams. It was perfect for someone who wanted to feel like they were roughing it but still wanting the luxury of a soaker tub and full modern kitchen.
The suite I chose was on the main floor. I figured I’d leave the bedrooms on the other floors alone. Plus this one had a king sized bed and sliding glass doors that promised an incredible view in the morning. I dragged in my suitcase and flopped down on the bed.
Oh my god.
The scent of coconut surrounded me, fresh and sweet and familiar. It was Surf Coconut Bliss Washing Powder. I would recognize that scent anywhere. Memories from decades ago brought tears to my eyes; laying in a bed smelling exactly like this—naked with Jamie, burying my nose in his t-shirt and inhaling the sweet scent, even folding loads of towels and teasing him about his refusal to use any other brand or scent of laundry detergent.
I had actually tried to buy some at a low point late in my pregnancy and found that the brand wasn’t sold in the US. Jamie must have it shipped from the UK, which was ridiculous and endearing all at the same time.
But I didn’t want to be endeared to Jamie. I wanted to forget his existence and go back to the bliss of finding a place to belong in the world that wasn’t tainted with Frank or the past or who I used to be or what I used to love.
I got up and walked around, locking the cabin up and drawing the blinds. Then I quickly showered and slid into the bed, grabbing a pillow and wrapping my arms around it. I relaxed, letting myself breathe in the memories as I drifted into a dreamless sleep.
The view was everything I could have imagined. I had gotten up to pee but jumped back in bed, enjoying this feeling of being cradled in a cloud and watching the earth wake up right outside my window.
There were bird feeders off the deck and a stream of colorful visitors flew in for what was obviously a favorite rest stop. I could hear them chattering and singing through the sliding door that I had cracked open on my brief trip out of bed.
It was so peaceful. This was the life I had been dreaming of ever since my future fell unexpectedly back into my own hands. Long days spent building a life that was mine. Someplace I could live and put my stamp on. A house that felt like me when you walked in the door.
This setting was exactly what I’d been looking for, too; the crisp morning mountain air and the birds, the whole day stretching out ahead of me, free to be filled with whatever I chose to fill it with… if only James fucking Fraser hadn’t ended up in Boone out of all the places on the whole goddamn planet he could have chosen to live.
I had half dozed off again when the smell of fresh coffee filled my nose and I jerked up with a start. For a split second, I thought Jamie had come in and was waiting out in the kitchen to confront me, but I shook that thought off as quickly as it came. Whatever kind of person he had become in the last 20 years, he wouldn’t push me. If he said he would wait for me to call, then he would wait.
Not that I was going to call. I couldn’t think about that yet.
I tiptoed out to the kitchen and found a note on the brewing coffee pot I had missed the night before. It was typed up and laminated, reading “ Welcome to Fraser’s Ridge! As a wee token of our appreciation we provide coffee and breakfast on your first day with us. Check the refrigerator and enjoy!”
My appointment with the realtor was at 9am, and by the time I had enjoyed a cup of coffee and the delicious fresh fruit and yogurt bowl on the wraparound porch, I had twelve minutes until the showing. I wore sneakers thinking I’d try to walk down, but the ridge was too steep to cut through so I had to hike around by the road.
It was just over a mile to get out to the main road and turn down Innisfree Drive which ran parallel to the ridge road above, and when I found the right house I stood in the driveway trying to catch my breath at 8:57.
The realtor hadn’t arrived yet, so I let myself walk around the property to get a feel for it from the outside. It was on a flat plot of land surrounded by woods with the ridge jutting up behind it above the trees. The house had white siding with dark green shutters, and off to the side a brick half wall contained a courtyard with raised garden beds that had obviously not been tended this planting season.
In the back was that large tiered deck with the jacuzzi that looked awfully inviting. The trees screened it off from neighbors, giving it a wonderful sense of privacy. In the winter you might be able to see the cabins on the mountain above, but with the leaves still on the trees I felt comfortable that no one would be able to spy on me soaking in the hot tub.
I heard a car pull in the drive and walked around to meet the realtor. Her name was Gillian Edgars; a tall, slim woman with red-gold hair and sharp, green eyes that gave me a once over as she held out her hand in greeting.
“Good morning! So I see ye’ve given the outside a look, shall we go in?”
“Yes, of course.” I smiled at her Scottish accent and followed her up the cobblestone path to the front door and we walked inside. My first impression was much like the photos: it was blank. But it was blank in a way that screamed of possibilities. I could see myself here. I could envision the rooms full of simple furniture, hanging plants, neutral colors with pops of blue and orange and maroon as I collected pieces in my travels.
Gillian told me about the place, touching on previous owners and what had been updated recently. She had a friendly easy air about her, joking and chattering as we wandered around and I fell in love with each room more than the one before it.
When we stepped into the kitchen I must have made a noise because she turned in surprise and then grinned at the look on my face.
“It has a charm about it, aye?”
Sunlight streamed in through french doors that led out to the deck and three large windows in the kitchen. It was all open shelving with a beautiful dark stained wood and stone counters, and another glass paned door led out to the patio and garden on the side of the house. Photos hadn’t captured the feeling of the room. It was at once grounded and centered, with a sight line into all of the living spaces, but at the same time the windows and doors opened it up, pulling the views of the mountain and trees in and soothing the place in my soul that couldn’t stand to be confined.
Shit. I’m in love.
I stood in that kitchen with a sudden determination not to let my past run me out of this place. The first home in my entire life that actually felt right, that made me feel comfortable immediately. I had been raised with my Uncle Lamb traveling the world, moved to a dorm room in college and then almost immediately into that horrible shrine to the Randall family legacy where I’d felt trapped for 20 years.
If I wanted to live in Boone, North Carolina, James Fraser could go to hell.
It took three days to put in an offer and get it accepted, then started the string of inspections and appraisals before setting a closing date. Gillian assured me that within six weeks I would be ready to move into my new home providing everything came through as expected.
I sent Brianna a dozen photos of the property and took her on a FaceTime tour when Gillian was kind enough to come by and let me walk through again. She invited me to join her at the end of the week for a get-together at her house which was only a few miles away on the outskirts of Boone.
“It will give you a chance to meet some folks. I’ll introduce ye to who ye need to ken around town.” She had driven up with me to the cabin and we sat sipping wine on the deck as the sun set. It had been ages since I’d had a female friend, and a sense of melancholy struck me. I was close to Gail, but I never hung out with her apart from Joe. And Joe was the one I actually spent time with and talked to at work. It was nice to have someone removed from all of the triggering people and circumstances in my past that I could relax with and let loose a little.
Gillian told me about moving to the States with her husband for his work and the string of events that ended in divorce, then her decision to stay and how she found her way to North Carolina. A few glasses of wine into the night, I told her a little about my relationship with Frank. I had never talked to anyone about Frank but my therapist, and even then, very little.
The alcohol lowered my guard, and the similarities between us—both of us starting over in Boone after a hard marriage—made me want to open up more than I normally did. I found myself sharing with Gillian how much I had disliked marriage. I had never tried to articulate it before, and yet she seemed to understand the acute loss of freedom and self that I had experienced while bound to him, and most of all, how very tired I was of being held hostage at close quarters with someone who resented me.
I could see her wondering why he resented me, but thankfully she didn’t ask any questions, just let me talk about the new life I was hoping to build and then after awhile we started to reminisce about Scotland. I told her about doing my undergrad at the University of Glasgow and she made my stomach ache with laughter at her tales of college conquests.
By the time Gillian left, I was feeling warm and flushed and brave from the wine and the excitement of change and possibilities. I walked over to my purse and dumped it out on the table, searching for the card with Jamie’s number on it.
Without letting myself think, I dialed the number and put it on speaker, laying the phone on the table in front of me.
On the first few rings, my heart was in my throat, but as it became clear he wasn’t going to pick up it dropped down like a rock in my stomach. The line clicked and a mechanical voice instructed to leave my name, number, and a brief message at the tone.
I ended the call quickly and took a big swallow to finish my glass. After several minutes I realized I was staring at the phone waiting for him to call back, and I left the kitchen to take a bath in the big soaker tub, spending the next twenty minutes basking in almost scalding water with bubbles spilling onto the floor when I moved. It was decadently irresponsible and I enjoyed every moment of it.
My skin was wrinkled and I had just wrapped a plush robe around my dripping body when I heard my ringtone sound in the kitchen.
Running through the living room cursing and panting, I probably looked like a drowned marshmallow. It was the fourth or fifth ring when I swiped my phone off the table.
“Hello?” I tried to angle the microphone away from my mouth to hide my labored breathing.
“Hi.” There was a smile in his voice. It was warm and deep and it stroked places in me that hadn’t been touched in decades.
We both took an audible shaky breath and laughed awkwardly when we heard each other. There was so much to say, so many times I had rehearsed speeches and written out exactly what I needed to communicate to this man, but after twenty years it was too late for any of it to matter. I was about to make an attempt at small talk when he cleared his throat.
“It was quite a shock to see ye the other day, Claire.”
Shit. I cursed the fading alcoholic courage that had been flowing through me earlier when I thought this call was a good idea.
“I was surprised to see you, too.” There was a tense pause and then I hurried on before I lost what little momentum I had. “I’m in Boone because... I’m actually buying a house here. After Frank’s death, I wanted a change of scenery. But I never imagined I’d run into you, of all people.”
“Ye’re moving? Here? That’s… well, that’s grand, Sassenach.”
His chuckle warmed my heart and frightened me to death, simultaneously. I could fall under his spell again all too easily, it had happened before. I could feel myself opening up to his easy friendliness, and I steeled my heart against it.
“I do. I mean, I will. But I wanted to tell you that I’m not here because of you. I mean, I didn’t know, and I don’t want you to think that I’m staying because of…”
“Daddy!” A young voice in the background of his call broke through, “Kezzie won’t get out of the bathroom!”
I froze, humiliation burning hot in my cheeks. He was a father. Oh god, he was probably a husband. Fuck . Of course he was. Why the hell hadn’t it dawned on me before? It had been twenty years, did I really think he had been sitting around all this time in Buttfuck, North Carolina waiting for me to show up?
Jamie’s voice was muffled now, dealing with the issue between his children. I took another deep breath and tried to center myself, or whatever the hell my therapist called it. I tried to find my calm peaceful place in the midst of the chaos.
Unfortunately, my only peaceful place was Brianna, but right now the thought of her—tall and bright with eyes and hair so like her father’s—sent me into instant turmoil rather than peace.
“Claire?” He was back, sounding breathless but cheerful. “I’m sorry for the interruption,”
“No, that’s fine. I’ll let you get back to your family. I just wanted to let you know that I’m staying in Boone.”
“Aye, I’m happy for ye. I had hoped maybe we could talk, Claire. I need to apologize…”
I cut him off again. “No, Jamie. There’s no need to apologize. We parted on bad terms, but we were both... angry. It’s been too long to hold a grudge. I hope we can co-exist here without stirring up old drama.”
There was a pause, and when he spoke again his voice was low and rough.
“Sassenach, I was wrong. I am sorry for what I said, and for leaving like that. It’s been haunting me for twenty years, and having ye here… I need to ask if ye can forgive me for it.”
My heart squeezed painfully in my chest, “Of course, I forgive you.”
It hung there on the line between us, and I ached to ask his forgiveness in return. But what I had done to him was so far beyond absolution, I couldn’t ask God to forgive me, let alone this man I had taken so much from.
No, I would live with my guilt forever. And I should. It was only right.
“Will ye tell me what ye’ve been up to since college, Claire? Did ye ever become a doctor?”
His words shook me out of my thoughts and I felt a familiar knot of shame in my stomach as I thought about what a fucking waste I had made of my life since undergrad. I couldn’t deal with this, with him, right now. I couldn’t deal with him being so goddamn nice and I couldn’t deal with his fucking sexy ass voice. I needed to get away, and so I fixated on one goal in my head: shut this conversation down.
“Actually, I can’t talk now, I have some things to do.”
“At 10pm? When ye’re on vacation?”
Panic welled in my gut and then anger, though I didn’t know why I was angry. “Yes, I’ll have to go now.” My words were clipped and cold, and I hated the sound of them coming from my mouth so soon after he had extended an olive branch.
“Alright. Well, I thank ye for calling, Claire. Truly.” If he heard my tone, he wasn’t responding to it. His voice was as warm and friendly as ever. “I’m glad to hear ye are staying in Boone.”
“Thank you… goodnight.”
We both hesitated, laughed again, and after a moment I hung up knowing he was still on the line. I felt the connection end like a knife had sliced it between us.
Maybe staying in North Carolina was a bad idea after all.
I walked up to Gillian’s house from down the block, which was the closest place I could find to park. The sun was just setting and the house was lit and full of people, spilling out into the front porch where they talked and laughed with plates of food held in their laps.
Relief swept through me and I smiled at my new friend, extending a shopping bag full of chips and dip that I panic-bought last minute when I couldn’t remember if she said it was potluck.
“Och, ye didn’t have to do that, but thank ye. This crowd will always eat more chips!” She looped her arm through mine and pulled me into the house. We wove through the crowd toward the kitchen where an impressive spread was set up across her entire counter and wraparound peninsula.
“It smells amazing in here!” I ventured. There were at least six crock pots plugged in and releasing heavenly aromas, and the remaining counter space was stuffed full of dishes, bowls and platters. Gillian somehow rearranged the chip area to include my contribution and added a spoon to the dip container.
“Get a plate! I ken it looks like a lot, but the crew out back havena eaten yet and then everyone will want seconds, so ye’d best get what ye want now.”
I obeyed, sampling as much as I could fit in the plate before following her back out to the front porch where bodies in the dim light shifted to accommodate us.
“Everyone, this is Claire Randall. She’s just bought a house out on Innisfree Drive and she’ll be moving from Boston in a few weeks.” Gillian informed the crowd and I gave an awkward half wave. It was too dark to really see their faces well, but there was a swell of congratulations and welcome, then the conversation turned back to sports.
“Which house did you buy, if you don’t mind me asking?” A sweet voice came from my right, belonging to a slim girl with a head of flaxen hair. “My fiancé and I live on Innisfree, so we might be neighbors!”
I swallowed a mouthful of potato salad and told her the house number and we worked out that she lived just two houses further down the street. She introduced herself as Marsali MacKimmie, and we fell into an easy conversation about things to do and see in Boone. She was around Bree’s age, and visibly pregnant. Her left hand never left the small rounded bump under her tank top, and her diamond solitaire glinted in the light from the house.
“Are you moving here for work?” She asked, taking a long sip of lemonade and setting the porch swing swaying with her foot.
“No, actually. I left my job in Boston. I was an OB/GYN at Mass General. But I don’t quite know what I want to do anymore.” I was surprised to find my plate empty in my hands. I rarely ate so much in one sitting, but the conversation and companionship had put me at ease.
“What would you do instead?”
“I’m not certain. I love what I do, but not how I’ve been doing it. I want a simpler life now. I want to slow down.” I hesitated, unsure if I wanted to voice the idea that had been rolling around in my mind to a stranger, but I thought it would help to say it out loud. “I have thought about opening a private practice to give my patients more options when it comes to how they give birth.”
Marsali’s face shone in silver moonlight. “Claire, that is an amazing idea! How long would it take to be able to do that?”
“Well, I have the qualifications already. It would be more about finding a place to practice, hiring staff, getting clients, and all the other legalities of going into business for myself.”
The longer we spoke about the idea, it fleshed out in my mind and I could see it clearly. The problem of what to do with the rest of my life had been weighing on me, and Brianna had also voiced her doubts about my choice to buy a house before deciding what I wanted to do. But I found that talking it over with Marsali had helped me cement the decision that the hospital environment wasn’t going to make me happy anymore, though I still wanted to practice medicine.
The screen door opened and a tall young man approached us, leaning down to kiss Marsali with a tipsy fervor.
“This is my fiancé, Fergus.” She introduced me and I found my hand engulfed in large warm fingers and lifted to his lips.
“Pleasure to meet you, madam.”
“Fergus!” Marsali scolded, “Sorry, Claire, he’s dramatic and a little drunk.”
I laughed at the young couple, now snuggled on the porch swing together, and excused myself to go find a restroom and Gillian. The crowd in the living room helpfully pointed me down the correct hall, and I had just reached to try the knob when it turned beneath my hand and I found myself face to face with James Fraser for the second time that week.
“Oh!” I stumbled back and he caught my elbow before I crashed into the far wall. The surprise on his face was overtaken with a beaming smile.
“Claire, I didna ken ye were here.” He hadn’t moved his hand and the solid warmth of his touch soaked into my body, pulling me toward him like a tractor beam. I hadn’t really looked at him the first time, at the rental office. But I was struck by how big he was in the narrow darkened hallway. He had lost the lanky curves of boyhood and everything about him now was bold angles carved into solid stone.
“Uh, yes. I hadn’t seen you either.” His smile held none of the awkward awareness that I felt so sharply in the pit of my stomach. I gestured toward the bathroom with my free hand and he released me and stepped aside.
“Och, I’m sorry. I’ll get out of yer way. Ye should come and sit by the fire in the back later, lass. We’ve got the good whisky out there, I dinna mind sharing w’ ye.”
With that speech and a dimpled grin, he turned and walked away from me down the hall. A chorus of loud greetings hailed him in the living room and he stopped to chat, obviously a well-known and loved member of the group.
I realized I was gawking and slipped into the bathroom, locking the door behind me.
Why was he here? Damn. Of course he knew Gillian, he probably knew every person in this fucking town. I put my hands over my eyes, feeling the tears welling up. Shit. I couldn’t build a new life here. Not with Jamie Fraser permeating everything in the way that came so naturally to him; he was everyone’s friend, everyone’s confidant, everyone’s first call in trouble. He didn’t even realize he was doing it, it was just part of who he was.
And I knew, if I put myself in his vicinity it was only a matter of time before he pulled me in, too.
Quickly, I used the toilet and washed my hands, checking my eye makeup in the mirror. I needed to get out of here. I could text Gillian later and apologize for leaving early, but right now nothing mattered as much as getting away.
I wove through the crowd and headed out the front door again, picking up my purse and saying a quick goodbye to Marsali. I had made it halfway down the block when I felt him behind me.
“Claire? I didna mean to run ye off. Are ye alright?”
I glanced back toward him, but didn’t stop walking. “I’m fine, Jamie. Thanks. I just need to go.”
He fell into step next to me. His easy manner both calmed me and infuriated me at the same time. “You don’t have to walk me to my car.” I tried to keep my voice level and friendly.
“I ken that.” His hands were shoved in the pockets of blue jeans that fit his ass like they were designed for his frame. I felt the heat pouring off of him and my body remembered how it felt to be enveloped in that heat on chilly nights around a fire with our friends.
“You should get back to your family.” I tried again, refusing to wonder if I was fishing for information about a wife or the children I had heard in the back of our phone call.
“Och, they’ll bide.” He glanced sideways at me and his mouth quirked up. “Why are ye trying to get rid of me, Sassenach?”
“Why are you so cocksure I want your company?”
His laugh was rich and deep and it pulled my lips up into a reluctant smile. We reached my car, but he leaned against it before I could politely dismiss him. I gave in and fully faced him, letting myself really look at the man for the first time in twenty years.
The street light cast a cool tone over his skin and hair, but the curls brushed back from his forehead just the way I remembered. His eyes were intent on my face, searching mine as I searched his; looking for what had changed and what was the same.
His nose had been broken in the years since I last saw it, lending him a rakish air that somehow worked for him. Like every bloody fucking thing worked for him.
“Ye’re different.” He said at length, “I dinna ken why that surprises me after twenty years, but…” His hand brushed the air beside my cheek. “Did ye have a good life, then? With Frank, I mean?”
“Of course.” I answered automatically, but then fell silent, unable to speak around the tightness in my throat.
“That’s good. I hoped ye would be happy, wherever ye were.”
I had to look away, shifting uncomfortably on the sidewalk. I was itching to get away from him. His presence affected me at a molecular level, as ridiculous as that sounded.
“Is it me?” He asked softly when the silence had grown between us. “Can ye not bear me, lass?”
I blinked furiously, irritated at myself. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Jamie. I just don’t know if I can really make a new start here the way I want to. I think maybe I should find a different place… without…”
He pushed off the car and stood inches in front of me, forcing my chin up until I met his eyes.
“Without me, is it?” Emotions simmered beneath the surface of his words, heating my blood and crackling in the air between us. “I swear, ye have the same look on yer face that ye did that last night, Claire. Ye want to run away from me again, and I’ll be damned if I let ye go without a fight this time.”
Anger flashed through me, white hot and burning my skin. “You dare to stand there and say I’m the one who ran?” I whispered furiously. “I looked for you after that night and you were nowhere to be found. I called you, I left you messages with no answer. Don’t tell me I’m the one who ran away .”
Somehow his hands were clutching my forearms and he was too close, much too close. His eyes raked over my face, full of questions I wouldn’t answer. We were both breathing so heavily that I could taste his breath in my mouth and the memories of that breath—that mouth—swamped me. Without warning, the atmosphere between us shifted from anger to something else.
“Claire, I… want to kiss you.” I could feel the force of power he was holding back and my body craved to be crushed beneath it.
“No,” My voice cracked on a breathless sob. “No, you can’t kiss me.”
I wrenched out of his grasp and stumbled to the car, pulling away without a seatbelt or programming my GPS to get back to the cabin, and I was haunted by the reflection of Jamie in my rear view mirror watching me go.
Her tail lights turned the corner and Jamie cursed himself as he lost sight of her car.
Damn it, Fraser. Why did you do that?
His muscles screamed at him to run after her, to forcibly stop her from walking out of his life again. But a decade of experience with runners told him that chasing her now would only make her run farther and faster. So he closed his eyes and breathed in deep, trying to calm his racing heart.
As his mind cleared, the words she had just said jumped out in glaring contrast to what he remembered about how they parted twenty years ago.
She had called him?
He glanced down at his phone without seeing it, thinking of the months he had ached to see her name on the display. The text drafts he had deleted because he was so ashamed of how he had acted that last night together.
Claire had called him. She had wanted to talk to him again.
But now she had said she might not move to Boone after all. And it was his fault. He had pushed her—spooked her—showed too much of the intense emotions she provoked in him. He had been trying his damndest to keep their interactions casual and friendly.
Well, except for just now when you tried to kiss her in the street, clot-heid.
All of his emotions were intense when it came to Claire Beauchamp.
Jamie turned and slowly made his way back up the block. How in God’s name did she end up with Frank Randall? He had been a history major. Quiet, but in a wily, cunning sort of way, like he was always observing and evaluating you. He hovered at the edges of their friend groups, but Jamie couldn’t remember ever having a full conversation with him and he couldn’t remember him showing any particular interest in Claire.
Though, back then, Jamie wouldn’t have noticed if the whole campus had a hard-on for Claire. He was in so deep he couldn’t see anything or anyone else.
He avoided the front porch and cut through the hedge to reach the fire pit in Gillian’s backyard. He couldn’t face down the happy crowd of friends in the bright light where they could see his face.
When he approached the fire, Ian and William were trying to get Murtagh to let them have a sip of his whisky, and Jamie felt himself grin despite the melancholy that was still gripping him. They were 18 and 16 respectively and always pushing the limits. He snuck up quietly in the shadows and then jumped out with a roar that made both boys leap out of their skins.
“Fucking A, Da!”
William had fallen off of his chair and lay prone on the grass clutching his chest, gasping for air in a mock stupor. Murtagh kicked at him with a booted foot. “Language, wean.” He shook his head and gave Jamie a side eyed glance. “I could hear ye coming a mile away. These lads are soft.”
Ian had maintained his seat, but dissolved into laughter at his partner-in-crime.
“Ye should have seen yer face, Willie. I swear, ye about pissed yerself. Did ye piss yerself?”
Jamie cuffed the back of Ian’s head as he settled into William’s abandoned camp chair.
“Stop trying to get Murtagh to let ye break the law, wee gomerals .” He reached over for the flask and took a sip, letting the whisky burn down his throat and settle warm in his stomach.
Murtagh grunted and turned back to his plate of food. Jamie had seen him down at least two servings already earlier in the evening. “They can try all they’d like. I willna be swayed by the likes o’ these two.” He spoke around a mouthful of cake.
“In Scotland the drinking age is 18…” Ian started under his breath, but Jamie cut him off.
“We arena in Scotland, a bhalaich. And it’s a bad example to the wee ones, aye? If I see the twins or Joanie asking for a dram I’ll have yer hide. Both of ye.”
The boys nodded, but Jamie and Murtagh shared another look. It was never long with these two. They might not be going for the whisky next time, but it would be something else. Such was the raising of lads, Jamie had found. You had to be one step ahead of their mischief at all times.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
William shoved Ian’s chair with his foot, catching him by surprise and tipping him over backwards with a yelp of surprise. The chair folded in on itself and Ian scrambled to his feet just as William jumped at his legs and a wrestling match broke out.
“So. Claire Beauchamp, aye?” Murtagh pitched his voice low for Jamie’s ears only as the conversation started up again around the fire. He passed the flask back over and Jamie took another long swig.
“Aye.” He answered simply. Murtagh knew. He had been there in Claire’s aftermath before. Jamie watched the sparks float up into the dark sky and prayed that there wouldn’t be an aftermath this time.
A Dhia, ye brought her back into my life as if by magic after twenty years. Right to my doorstep like a gift from heaven. Surely ye mean to let me keep her at last?
His brain unwillingly projected the sight of her face when she yanked herself out of his arms, the despair and fear that exuded from her body with every step away from him, and her car disappearing from his sight.
And if I canna keep her, Christ. Give me the strength to let her go again.
Hi this is Jamie
I wanted to apologize for tonight. I shouldn’t have acted the way I did
Jamie stared at the screen in the dark of his bedroom, willing her to answer. He had been almost giddy with relief when she had finally called him and he was able to add her number as a contact.
But it had been—he checked the time—12 minutes without a reply to his text. Jamie tossed the phone on the bed and sighed.
Christ . She had turned him from a grown man to a prepubescent lad in less than a week.
Jamie turned to see his daughter’s silhouette in the light from the hallway and he immediately reached to turn on the bedside lamp.
“Aye, Joanie? What is it, love?”
She came in and sat at the foot of the bed, wearing the same rumpled tshirt and leggings she had worn to the party.
“I have to tell you something…” she sounded nervous, and Jamie’s brain suddenly was racing through all of the horrific possibilities of what a 13 year old girl could need to tell him. He kept his face somber with effort and patted the spot beside him, inviting her up to lean on his shoulder. They sat there in comfortable silence for a few minutes with his cheek resting on her smooth auburn hair.
“Luke Yates kissed me tonight.”
Oh God, I’m not ready for this. Jamie’s eyes fell shut in a prayer of supplication for the right words. He let a moment pass and then asked her gently,
“And how did ye feel about that, lass?”
She was picking at a hangnail on her thumb, and he watched closely. That was her tell. When she was feeling anxious or upset she’d pick at that nail till it bled. Jamie didn’t say anything, but tightened his arm around her shoulders.
“I liked it when it happened. He’s nice. And he was nice about it.”
He’d better have been fucking nice about it, or I’ll have his wee balls on my dirk.
Jamie tamped down his violent thought toward the teenage boy. Luke was in Jo’s class at school and had been over to their house several times.
“He’s always nice to Kezzie. That’s why I like him.”
“Aye, I’ve noticed that too.”
Joan let her hands drop to her lap and leaned away so she could look in his eyes.
“What do you think of him kissing me?”
Jamie had to smile at the serious look in her blue eyes. Christ. How many years had he dreamed of a wee daughter with eyes blue as the ocean waves? In his dreams the lass always had curly hair, but Joan’s hung straight as a pin. He kissed her freckled forehead.
“I think he’s a kind lad, and if he treated ye well then I willna skin him alive. But I’m withholding final judgment till we see what the next weeks and months bring, aye?”
“Aye,” she breathed out with a tremor in her voice. Her chin trembled and Jamie wrapped her back in against his side, stroking her long braid. She silently cried a wet patch into his tshirt.
“What’s amiss, a leannan? ”
“I’m just afraid. Of making a bad choice. Of ending up like… like Ma.”
Jamie’s heart broke for her, and his vision blurred with tears as well. He petitioned heaven again, asking the Virgin and saints for something to soothe this little soul that had been laid in his keeping.
“Och, Joanie. Let me tell ye something.” He took her hand in his to stop her from picking her thumb, buying time as he struggled to find the wording he wanted. Joan was still as a mouse next to him, waiting to hear what wisdom he had for her.
Wisdom. Christ, and me not ten minutes past head over kilt for a lass’ attention myself.
He took a deep breath, thinking back on his memories of Laoghaire.
“I kent yer Ma since she was a lassie. And she’s always been... the way that she is.” He swallowed, not wanting to slander her mother. But Joan nodded in understanding, so he plowed on.
“When I look at ye, and at yer sister, I dinna see that... thing. That restlessness that lives in her soul, it doesna live in yers.”
She was crying again, he could feel the tremor in her thin shoulders. But he sensed the tears were more relief than pain. The poor child was scared to death of becoming like her Ma, and for good reason. But she had something that Laoghaire never had.
“Ye have a Da, and ye have the best sister to ever live. And more brothers than ye ken what to do with. Plus Murtagh, who’d chop the head off any lad who did ye wrong. Aye, Joanie? We willna let ye make a bad choice without telling ye about it loud and clear.”
The red head was bobbing now, and she shuddered a long sigh.
“I know. Thank you, Daddy.”
He kissed her brow again and she hopped down and went to bed.
“Change yer clothes before ye sleep, lass?” Jamie called when she vanished into the hall.
She didn’t respond, but he shrugged and sighed. Och, well. One day and night in them wouldn’t hurt her. Being a Da was such a strange mixture of worry and joy, fear and pain. He lay back, saying a prayer for each of them in his mind.
Beside him the phone buzzed and his eyes popped open.
I forgive you.
I’m leaving to go back to Boston tomorrow.
I haven’t decided yet, about the house here.
Jamie was grinning like an idiot at the phone screen and he had to put it down to rub his hands over his face.
There was hope. If she was texting him back and hadn’t decided about the house there was hope. He would take it. Jamie made himself count to 100 before he picked up his phone again and composed a text back to the only woman he had ever loved.
I smoothed tape over the last box and scribbled “office” on the side in red sharpie.
Packing up the house was something I had been determined to do myself, even though hiring movers certainly would have been easier. The thing was, no one but me would know what was a precious memory, and what was just shit that I could not wait to donate to a thrift store.
There was a lot of fucking shit in this house.
The matching antique victorian era table lamps that bracketed the sofa were a Christmas gift from Frank when Bree was 3 years old, and he always told people the amber colored glass reminded him of my eyes. I spent 16 years listening to that bullshit story.
The reality was, he bought them at an estate sale from some famous historical mansion and he had been planning to use them in his office on campus. But when we were putting gifts under the tree Christmas Eve, he realized that the only gift for me was a craft project that Bree and our nanny had wrapped up earlier that week.
The lamps were under the tree in the morning with a bow slapped on the top.
Most of the formal decor and decades of impersonal gifts were going somewhere they could be used again by someone else, but not those lamps. I had found it very satisfying to smash that amber glass in the bottom of a dumpster.
I pushed the box to the side of the room with the others and collapsed against the wall, taking a huge swig of my water bottle. That was it, then. I was ready to move to Boone.
The morning before I left North Carolina, I had called Gillian, determined to withdraw my offer on the cottage. She immediately drove up to the rental cabin with a bottle of wine and forcibly took me down to the empty house and sat me on the front porch. Then, she narrowed those green eyes at me and said, “You love this place, Claire Randall. So tell me what is going on this instant and what James Fraser has to do with it.”
Finding myself neatly trapped, I ended up spilling about half of the story there on the porch drinking straight from the bottle at 9 am. I told her how Jamie and I met at freshman orientation at the University of Glasgow and had been inseparable from that moment until we broke up; and, how running into him now after 20 years was terrifying me.
Gillian took a long swig of wine and then went for the kill.
“You’re going to let a fucking man run you out of town, Randall?”
Well, damn. When you put it like that.
My cell phone buzzed on the hardwood floor beside me and I scooped it up.
What’s your eta tomorrow?
i have a whole brigade ready to help ye move in
the only payment they want is pizza
I tried to bite back a grin. In the five and a half weeks since I left Boone, we had struck up a tentative friendship again—strictly over text. There was something about the filter of text messaging that took the edge off of my nervous reaction to him.
He had tried calling me once, but I couldn’t answer the phone. I just stared at it like it was a landmine and didn’t breathe until his name left the screen.
After my talk with Gillian I had decided not to let my fear of the past ruin the future that North Carolina promised for me. I could see so clearly how much brighter a life in Boone would look: my welcoming cottage with room to plant things and make the space my own, friends like Gillian to be a support system, and even the challenge of starting my own practice.
And maybe, I had to admit to myself, the thrill of the familiar unknown that was Jamie Fraser.
Nothing could come of it. I couldn’t allow anything to come of it. But his name on my phone did something to me, and his stupid flirty texts made me smile.
I had missed him.
God fucking damn it, Claire Beauchamp. No you have not.
It wasn’t us together that I missed, it was just--him. His easy manner. How willing he was to jump into the middle of a mess and help clean it up. How much, even now after all this time, I knew he cared about me as a friend.
Yeah, it was definitely those things, and not us together that I missed.
I’m driving halfway down tonight so I should be there around 3pm
You’ll have to tell me which pizza place is superior
I could do this lighthearted friendship thing. We had coexisted on campus for an entire year after our relationship ended, so I definitely had the willpower to resist going further with him if I really wanted to.
It would be fine .
I was completely overwhelmed by the sight of my idyllic little white cottage surrounded by the vivid colors of North Carolina in the fall. Trees of every kind surrounded the property, displaying every shade of yellow, orange, scarlet, purple and evergreen imaginable.
And it was mine.
Papers freshly signed and keys hot in my hand, I propped the front door open and took a quick walk through the house. I still loved it. That was a relief.
The moving truck was pulled out in front and I was waiting for help to arrive. Both Jamie and Gillian had promised to bring reinforcements, and we were hoping to at least get everything in the cottage and my bed set up before midnight.
I moved to the back of the house and opened the french doors to the deck just in case some of the furniture or appliances couldn’t fit in the front.
I might try out my jacuzzi tonight, actually. My whole body ached from the drive down, and hot jets on my sore muscles sounded divine. I had a bottle of wine Gillian had given me as a housewarming gift at closing, too.
The slam of car doors brought me back to the present, and to the huge amount of work that lay ahead before I could relax in my hot tub. I turned back into the house with a sigh.
It was Jamie. I could see his bright curls and wide shoulders turning to laugh at one of the teenagers beside him. There were actually… I counted them: three, four, five teenagers? Did he recruit a freaking baseball team on his way over?
Marsali and Fergus had walked down from their house and joined the tail end of the throng, and Gillian was getting out of her car along with several other people I didn’t recognize.
“Welcome home, Sassenach.” I looked up into Jamie’s face, shining with some kind of mysterious inner happiness. “Where do we start?”
Halfway through the truck being emptied, I called for pizza, obeying the strict instructions to order from Rocco’s. We ended up with three pepperoni, two cheese, one supreme, and two italian strombolis. It was a ridiculous amount of food, but it was gone within seven minutes of its arrival.
Jamie stacked slices on top of each other, smacking hands out of the way to secure two big pieces of stromboli. He slid one on a clean paper plate and handed it to me.
“Have ye tried this before, Sassenach?” he asked around a bite of pizza.
“No, but it smells incredible.”
He watched me take a bite and moan when the taste hit my tongue. The hot cheese melting around sausage, ham and salami wrapped in crusty dough--it was delicious. Better than any pizza I had tried to-date, and I mentally told myself that stromboli was going in my regular menu rotation.
“It’s good, aye?” My eyes met his, startled that he was still watching me.
I nodded, still chewing. The corner of his mouth twitched up and his gaze made me squirm and look away. My eyes landed on a slim girl with a long red braid swishing behind her as she stalked toward us. She looked about ready to punch someone, and she had a curly haired, gangly teenage boy in tow.
“Daddy! Ian took the last of the cheese pizza and he won’t switch with Kezzie. He knows Kezzie only likes cheese, he’s just doing it to be mean!”
Jamie had preemptively taken a cheese slice from the mountain on his own plate and handed it to the boy. He motioned with his hands quickly, saying with a slightly exaggerated clarity, “I’ll talk to Ian. Dinna worry. Is that enough? Do ye want more than one?”
It took a moment for me to register that his motions were sign language.
“Are you… is he deaf?” I asked, quietly. The boy was focused on his food and didn’t look up.
“Aye. This is Keziah. His twin is running around here somewhere as well, so if ye see a lad who looks the same but isna deaf that’d be Jo. And Joanie was the lass who brought him over.”
“Oh, that’s nice.” I said automatically. My brain was spinning. “How many children do you have?”
“I’d have to count. There are so many, ye ken?” His grin was teasing, but it didn’t ease the knot in my stomach. I didn’t know why it mattered to me. One child or a dozen, he was still very off limits. Not that I was interested.
“I have five at home and two grown.”
My jaw dropped. “Seven children?”
He opened his mouth to answer when there was a scramble at the french doors as several men struggled with the washing machine. Someone yelled for him to help and he grimaced apologetically at me, handing the plate with three uneaten slices to his son.
Keziah was still working on his first slice of cheese pizza, but he tilted his head to look up at me through his dark curls. I had never been around a deaf child before, and didn’t know any sign language at all, but I smiled and he smiled back. We finished eating in companionable silence.
Seven fucking children. That was a shit ton of children.
Internally, I shook my head in disbelief. Joanie and Keziah had to be in their early teens, and Jamie had said two of his children were grown. It suddenly dawned on me that if he had adult children they were probably around the same age as Bree.
So he had moved on from me quickly.
Not that I hadn’t done the same. There was no good reason for this goddamn lump in my throat. I tossed my paper plate in the trash and moved to the sink to wash my hands. Keziah followed, standing at my elbow and reaching for the soap when I finished. I handed him a towel to dry them and then touched his shoulder.
He looked up at me expectantly and I asked, “Can you read lips?” feeling slightly foolish.
Keziah nodded and smiled, putting me at ease.
“Do you want to help me unpack?”
He nodded again and I pulled over one of the kitchen boxes for us to start on. We spent the next few hours putting things away, with Keziah showing me the signs for each item. I knew I wouldn’t remember half of them, but his sweet demeanor made the time pass and, before I realized it, Gillian was coming in to tell me the last box was unloaded.
“We’re going to head out, hen. Do ye need anything before we go?”
I shook my head, giving her a tight hug. “Thank you so much for helping me get settled.” I didn’t know how to express what it meant to me, knowing I had a friend.
“Och, no trouble. I’ll come by in the morning with some breakfast and then we’ll go shopping and fill yer cupboards, how does that sound?”
The crowd of helpers was slowly filtering out of the house and Keziah had disappeared while I was talking to Gillian. I stood on the front porch and waved at Marsali, who came back to give me a hug and kiss my cheek.
It was now 10:30 and night wrapped around the cottage like a cool cotton sheet, crisp and fresh from the laundry. I leaned out to look up at the stars from the porch, trying to pick out constellations that I knew. The house behind me was still a chaotic wreck, but I was hoping that my bed at least had been set up as promised.
Right now I didn’t have the energy to weave through the boxes and find out.
I slipped down the porch steps and walked around the house rather than face the mess by walking back through it. The yard had been mowed recently and I moved along the treeline enjoying the peaceful night.
And avoiding Jamie a little bit. I hadn’t seen him leave, but I figured a good ten minute walk would be enough to clear the house.
I didn’t know how I felt about seeing him again. He was all the same casual friendliness of his texts, except for the moments his eyes lingered on me. Those were the moments that sent shockwaves through my spine and I couldn’t tell for the life of me if they were shocks of thrill or fear.
Being in his honest-to-god presence was intimidating. But it was too late to back out now. Whatever happened with James Fraser, I was tied to Boone for good. So we could either work it out, or…
I remembered that long last year on campus; avoiding his eyes in class, trying to change the places I hung out, the people I spent time with. All efforts to dig Jamie out of my routine like a stubborn weed in the garden of my life.
It had sucked.
The deck loomed in front of me and I stepped up, lifting the jacuzzi lid and turning it on. The lights came on immediately and I was pleased to see the water was full and clean.
I turned on the jets and let my hand trail through the water as it warmed up, absently cataloguing what I needed to do tomorrow.
I spun at the sound of his voice in the french doors. Fucking hell, he hadn’t left after all. He walked out and sat at the top of the deck steps with a sigh.
“I got yer god forsaken bed together, finally. It only took me 45 minutes.”
“Thank you,” I answered him softly. I couldn’t think of what to say next. I turned back to the water, letting the jets push against my fingers. We shared the silence but I was fidgety, uncomfortably aware of his proximity and our solitude.
After weeks of back and forth banter, I felt stupid now. It was just talking. How were we going to live in the same town if I couldn’t have a ten minute conversation that didn’t end in me freaking out and running away?
And this conversation couldn’t end like that, because I was at my own home. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Suddenly my heart was thumping heavily and I found it hard to breathe.
“Hey, hey. Sassenach, are ye alright?”
I didn’t realize that he had stood up, and when his hand touched my shoulder I jumped away so fast I nearly fell into the hot tub. “I’m fine! I’m okay. Sorry, I’m just…” I had to turn my face away because for some fucking reason I wanted to cry.
“Och, lass. I’m sorry to startle ye. Should I go? I thought maybe ye could use a dram after the long day, but if ye’d rather be alone…”
I waved my hands at him to shut him up then took a second to get my composure back.
“I’ll be fine. Sorry.”
He was silent for a moment and I could feel his eyes on me. Then he seemed to decide something.
“Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
I dropped my head to my arms, sucking in air through my nose. God. What an inconsistent idiot I was turning out to be. Were we friends or was I avoiding him? Did I want to reconnect with him or not?
Jamie’s footsteps on the deck made me straighten my back again. I glanced over to see that he had brought me a glass of red wine and my cell phone. He set both carefully on the side of the jacuzzi.
“I’m going to go home so ye can take a wee dip in yer hot tub.” His voice was pitched low and it rippled over my nerves like the bubbling water in front of me. “If ye feel like talking ye can send me a message. I made yer bed all up and put towels and soap in the bath for ye.”
“Thank you.” I felt tears in my eyes again— damn them —because I couldn’t remember the last time someone had taken care of the details of anything for me like that. I was so used to knowing that I would be overlooked unless I took care of myself. It was overwhelming to have someone think of me, even in that small way. Sheets, towels, soap. It shouldn’t have tightened my throat with emotion, but for some reason it did.
When I didn’t say anything else Jamie took a step closer but he didn’t try to touch me again. I could smell the coconut washing powder mixed with sweat from his shirt.
“Goodnight, Claire. I’m glad ye’re here.”
He turned and left, closing the french doors behind him. I watched him carefully shut the front door on his way out.
I didn’t move for several long minutes, letting the peaceful stillness of the night settle around my shoulders and drain the tension from my neck. Then I stripped off my shirt and pants and climbed into the hot bubbly jacuzzi in my sports bra and cotton underwear.
The jets were euphoric. They pounded into my sore muscles like a massage and I tilted my head back and relaxed into the pounding heat. God, yes. I could get used to this.
I reached over for the wine, taking a long sip. Then deeply sighed with content.
Should I text him? I knew he wanted me to. He might be waiting now, hoping that I’d send him a message and our easy camaraderie would be back. He might think I was playing hard to get, or even that I was flirting with him, acting scared or upset so he’d pay attention to me.
No, I wouldn’t text him. I needed to get my footing here in my new home, and I was already thinking about Jamie more than I wanted to.
I stayed in the hot tub well past the recommended 15-30 minutes and went to bed feeling exhausted but more at peace than I had in years.
She had lost her glass face.
Jamie stood in line at Boone Bagelry enjoying the candid view he had of Claire three places ahead of him. She was chatting with Gillian Edgars and trying to choose what to have for breakfast. He had been trying to put his finger on the difference in Claire ever since the night they talked by her car. But he realized now, watching her interact with Gillian, that it was her expressive face. She still showed emotion, of course. But the open vulnerability that let you read her like an open book had been locked away.
Though, her smile today did reach her eyes, and the sight of it warmed his heart—even directed at someone else. He had missed that smile. He hadn’t seen it since their junior year of college.
She certainly hadn’t smiled at him like that in the past few weeks. Her texts were lighthearted with a surface friendliness that he tried to tell himself was enough, but every time they ran into each other there was a tension about her that put his brain on high alert. It reminded him of something actually, it was a lot like...
The world spun into slow motion and he stood frozen, staring blankly at the menu board.
Josiah and Keziah had been placed in foster care after being found in horrific conditions while living with their birth mother. The boys were locked in a back bedroom, both severely dehydrated, malnourished, and behind in nearly every developmental milestone on the charts.
Josiah bore the brunt of their situation as he tried to protect his brother, and his therapy sessions had unearthed so much that made Jamie’s heart ache for the lad.
Jo had run away from 3 foster homes, always found wandering around looking for Kezzie. His social worker had been so excited to find that Jamie was willing to take older sibling groups. She was hopeful that being placed with his brother would make the difference, and so far it had. But Jamie watched the boy closely for signs of distress. He could see fear, anger, and hopelessness build and, usually, he could take early steps to ease them.
Jamie recalled the memory of speaking with Claire after her moving day and the few times they spoke one-on-one before that. She was so tense; it seemed that same nervous energy pulsed from her in waves, just like it did in Josiah when he was overwhelmed.
Had someone hurt her? Was it Randall?
Dhia, was it me?
No, it couldn’t have been him. What they had held and lost was twenty years ago, and she had lived a full life since then. Surely the past hadn’t haunted her to that extent.
“Good morning, Jamie!”
He shook himself out of his thoughts to see Gillian’s broad grin and Claire a step behind her with a small, tight smile. He nodded hello as they passed and then moved forward, closing the gap he hadn’t noticed forming between him and the person ahead of him in line. But he couldn’t stop thinking about what might have made Claire mindful of showing her feelings.
“I dinna want to spend my evening at a stupid fecking class for deaf people.”
Ian’s face was red with frustration and his words clawed across the family, leaving wounds in their wake. William’s jaw had dropped, Joan was crying, and Kezzie stared silently at his untouched food.
Jamie caught Josiah’s waist as he lunged across the table, pulling him back and holding him firmly in his seat. But he couldn’t stop the geyser of curses spewing from his lips at the other boy.
“Shut the fuck up, you motherfucking shit-eater!”
“Hold, lads. We dinna curse at the dinner table.” Jamie’s voice was drowned out as both Ian and Jo were shouting now, and he threw a silent plea for help toward Murtagh who was coming down the hall from the bathroom.
The older man took Jo’s arm and pulled him into the kitchen, and Jamie stepped around the table to grab Ian and push him out the sliding doors onto the patio. The glass muffled the yelling still coming from inside.
“What the hell was that?”
Ian hadn’t stopped walking, his shoulders heaved with each angry breath as he stalked out toward the pool. Jamie sighed and followed, allowing Ian to keep some space between them until he slowed down at the edge of the yard.
“I meant what I said. I dinna care about the class and I wilna go.”
Jamie turned to look back at the house, letting Ian’s declaration hang in the air between them. Warmth and light shone through the windows and reflected off the rippling pool water. They had built the modern cabin with their own hands just three years ago when the family seemed determined to grow of its own volition.
He sighed, turning back to Ian and the problem at hand.
“Lad, ye are eighteen years old and ye can choose what to do with yer life. Ye can stay with us, ye can go back to Lallybroch and live with yer Mam and Da, or ye can start out on yer own with schooling or a job.”
Ian kept his face turned away, and Jamie felt a rush of compassion for his nephew. The lad was aimless, unsure of what he wanted to do next and he felt so much anger toward the world. But he needed to learn to control his emotions.
“As long as ye live here, with us, Josiah and Keziah are yer brothers. And ye will go to the classes because it’s important that we can all communicate with Kez.”
“He’s not my brother.”
“If ye live in my house, he is yer brother,” Jamie said firmly.
Caldwell Community College offered classes in American Sign Language every week and the entire Fraser household had attended faithfully since Jo and Kezzie had joined the family six months ago. Everyone was progressing well except Ian, who refused to participate. He had clashed with Josiah since day one and Jamie prayed they would soon learn to tolerate each other.
Of the five children at home, Josiah and Ian were the ones he worried about the most. Ian’s parents had given him a choice when he was arrested for drug possession and destruction of property the second time: either go to America to live with Jamie or go to boarding school.
That was two years ago, and he had been doing well until recently. It could be the issue with Josiah, but Jamie was half sure the underlying problem was Ian’s uncertainty about his future. He had graduated high school in the spring and was now waffling about the next step.
They would all be there to support him when he made it.
With Ian temporarily subdued, the family left for their weekly class and got through the evening without any more outbursts. It was a relief to get home and start the nighttime routine.
Jamie kissed William’s curly head, ignoring the groan of protest. “Ye should say yer prayers.” he smiled fondly down at his son.
“I’m too old for that shit, Da.”
“Watch yer tongue, lad. Or I’ll let Murtagh cut it out.” He pulled the door closed and heaved a sigh. It had been a long day. He collapsed down onto his bed and closed his eyes.
Will you come over?
I mean, if you can.
I need to speak with you.
Jamie didn’t remember standing up, but he was across the house scrambling for his shoes and slipping outside in what could only have been seconds.
Halfway across the patio, he noticed the two figures intertwined in the deep end of the pool. Fergus and Marsali had stayed to use the heated pool after ASL class, and he shot them a low warning.
“No sex in my pool, aye?”
Then, he tapped on the door of the guest house and waited for Murtagh to unfold himself from the couch. He opened the door with a grizzled brow lifted in question, and Jamie felt suddenly foolish.
“It’s Claire. She sent me a text saying she’d like to talk. Would ye mind…?”
“Watchin’ yer bairns while ye spend the evening wi’ a pretty lass? No, I dinna mind at all.”
The sarcasm was thick, but Jamie could have kissed him. He spared a moment to glare again at the two in the pool and share a meaningful glance with Murtagh before he took off toward the ridge trail.
“Lass, if ye want ta snog the man, ye have a perfectly good house of yer own. I dinna want ta see it!”
Jamie chuckled at the warning as he rounded the house and slipped into the trees. Fergus and Marsali were newly engaged, expecting a baby in a few months, and they had to be reminded often that they were in public.
It was a wonderful thing, to see two people taking on the world together, side by side. They were young, but determined to face whatever came head-on. Jamie couldn’t be happier for the two of them, and he was impatiently awaiting the arrival of his first grandchild.
He pulled out his phone flashlight to navigate the steeper part of the trail. Their house was built on the northern face of Fraser’s Ridge, and the boys had made this trail to end at Fergus and Marsali’s backyard on Innisfree Drive—just down the street from Claire’s house.
It was five minutes later that he stepped up onto the porch and took a deep breath to calm his nerves, then raised a fist and knocked on the front door. It opened, spilling light out of the house behind her.
Christ, she’s lovely.
She was wearing faded jeans and a soft sweater. Her curls brushed against her neck where they had fallen out of the bun at the top of her head.
“Hi,” her voice was low and husky. She stepped back to invite him into the cottage and he was immediately struck by the changes since he had last been there.
Blank walls had been covered with an eclectic collection of art, and her shelves displayed a selection of books and pottery. Everywhere you looked there was texture; throw pillows, chunky blankets, and a beautiful woven rug warmed up the space. The colors were muted—whites, browns, and blues, but there were plants that added a vibrant green into the palate of the space.
It felt so much like her. He felt closer to her just by being here, and she seemed to draw strength from being surrounded by the things she loved.
“Come in, sit.” Claire waved at the couch. “Do you want anything to drink?”
She had been sitting in the living room when he knocked; her wine glass and book were marking her spot. Jamie moved to sit at the opposite end of the sofa.
“Nah, I’ll do.” He watched her settle back onto her cushion and pull a knit blanket over her legs. She picked up her wine, holding the glass between her hands and running her thumb over the rim.
“I wanted to talk because… I was asking questions about you, and Gillian told me I had to ask you myself if I really wanted to know. She actually wouldn’t leave until I texted you.”
He studied her face, trying to make out how she felt about being coerced into inviting him over. She had strung fairy lights in the window and the light burnished her cheeks with rose gold.
“Ye can ask me anything, Claire. I’ll tell ye.”
She sipped her wine, slowly swallowing and rubbing her lips together. Jamie couldn’t pull his eyes away from her mouth. She hesitated, then said, “Gillian did tell me you aren’t married.”
Was it doubt in her eyes? There was a tufted throw pillow on the couch in front of him and he pulled it into his lap, running his hands over the raised design. “That’s true. I’ve never been married.” He smiled as he saw her face relax.
“Okay then, please explain the seven children.”
Her nose wrinkled up when she said it and Jamie couldn’t help but laugh.
“Aye, I should have told ye more about my family. I’m sorry about that, Sassenach. Each of them has their own individual story of how they came to be with me, but for the most part, they started in the foster system.”
“So, you are a foster parent.”
“For the last ten years.” He chuckled, thinking back on the beginning. “I kent I wanted a family, and I thought I’d maybe make a good Da to someone. Or, at least I wanted to try. So I applied and, a short time later, my eldest was placed with me.”
He thought of that night and the teenage boy who won his heart so quickly.
“They had caught him shoplifting. He’s a brilliant pickpocket, and he has a golden tongue, but he couldna escape the law that time. So the lad started speaking only French just to be difficult for the police and the social worker. They brought him to me because I had put on the application that I could speak French as well.”
“Wait, is it Fergus? Marsali’s fiancé Fergus?” Claire had put down her glass and pulled the blanket up over her shoulders.
“Aye. Fergus is my eldest son. And Marsali was my foster daughter, but she didna want to be adopted. When they started dating she said that would feel even more like incest and she was already fighting off vibes.”
Her eyes sparkled in the fairy lights when she laughed and Jamie leaned his chin on his hand, watching her. Some of her nervous energy was apparent in the way she twisted the edge of the blanket, but being in her place seemed to ground her. She stood and brought out the wine bottle and another glass, and he accepted.
“What brought you to the States?”
They each finished a glass of wine as he regaled her with the tale of his immigration to America. Jamie had inherited property from his Aunt Jocasta, and finding himself without a real passion in Scotland he decided to take the chance to build something new. It only took three years to get his US citizenship, as his aunt had petitioned visas for them a while back. Now, he was an established business owner in North Carolina with multiple rental properties and investments.
“So, do ye have any more pressing questions for me, lass?”
“Why didn’t you ever marry?”
She seemed to regret the question. Her mouth was tight and she wove the fringe of her blanket into a braid without looking up.
Because I was waiting for ye, mo ghraidh.
He couldn’t say that.
There was a pause as he tried to think of something to say that was the truth. He hadn’t married because every woman he saw paled in comparison to the memory of Claire. Every kiss fell short of the passion he had with her. Every night spent in another woman’s arms left him longing for the ones he had lost.
“I didna marry because I didna ever fall in love again.”
He spoke softly, slowly, watching her face as his words registered. Her eyes grew wide and her breath hitched, but she held herself still.
It was here that you could see how she had aged. Not in her skin or her hair, but in the way she held herself. The wariness she carried with her at all times. Jamie remembered the bold, free-spirited girl of twenty years ago and he knew she was gone.
But this woman was strong in a way that girl never had been. When she lifted her gaze to his it held a calm determination, as if she had decided her course and could not be swayed from it now.
“Jamie,” the way she breathed his name sent a tremor down his spine.
“Claire,” he answered, barely audible.
The tip of her tongue slid over her bottom lip and her teeth bit down on it, drawing his attention.
“I want to kiss you.” Her golden eyes were deep and steady on his, full of secrets he wanted to coax from her soul. Jamie’s breath was caught in his throat. He gripped the pillow in his lap to keep himself from lunging across the sofa.
Fucking hold, Fraser.
“May I?” the question hung in the air between them.
“Aye,” Jamie whispered.
Fuck it. Just, fuck it.
I had been fighting the draw toward Jamie for weeks, telling myself I didn’t want him anymore. I had filled my days with planning my new life, shopping to furnish my new home, getting to know my new friends. I was enjoying every single day I spent in Boone.
But still, night after night, I could only fall asleep after I let myself fantasize about him.
His lips, his hands, his body on mine.
Running into him that morning had resulted in Gillian badgering me with questions about our past relationship, and I made the mistake of asking casually if he was married.
Like a goddamn cat with a mouse, she quickly cornered me into admitting that I was still attracted to him. She left my house with a shit-eating grin on her face only after I pressed send on the text messages.
Now there he sat; single, available, and hot as fuck.
And he hadn’t ever loved anyone but me.
I stood up slowly, every move feeling like I was finally giving in to the force of gravity. His eyes scorched blue fire into my veins. I threw aside the pillow he had been holding and slid my body in its place, straddling his thighs, and settling my hands on his shoulders.
Every muscle in him was tense, hard, thrumming with power underneath the skin. His throat contracted as he swallowed, then his lips parted and his tongue wet them unconsciously.
I could hesitate. I could let him take the lead and lean forward to capture my kiss. But I was so fucking done with being the follower, the submissive one. I was done with letting someone else take what they wanted, leaving me with whatever was left.
And it had been a long, dry twenty years.
My hands found his cheeks, rough like sandpaper against my fingers, and I held him still as I touched my mouth to his. Neither of us closed our eyes. I tasted him, taking what I craved, biting down on his bottom lip, and pulling a choked moan from his throat. He started to move, but a subtle twitch of my hand froze him solid. It was only his lips and tongue that danced to the rhythm I set.
He tasted so familiar. I let my fingers slide back into his thick hair and angled my mouth, pulling myself deeper into him, tilting my hips to rock against the bulge in his jeans. Underneath my ass, one of his legs was bouncing, shaking with the effort to hold still.
I pulled back, breaking from his lips. We were both panting, on the brink of losing control.
I think he saw the switch flip in my eyes because I didn’t need to signal that he had my permission to move. His arms wrapped around my frame like he had been dying to touch me for weeks and he caught my lips in a soulful kiss that made my chest ache.
“ God, Claire,” he gasped.
He was holding me like I was fragile and precious; a gift that had fallen into his lap from heaven—I was not having any of that shit. I pushed his hands down till they were full of my ass, and hummed when I felt his fingers tighten on me. He had always been an ass man.
The sweater came off over my head, leaving me in an unlined silky bra.
Thank god for dim lighting.
His mouth was drawn down like a magnet, lips, and teeth sliding along the silk until they closed over one hard nipple through the fabric. His fingers fumbled with the clasp and I had to reach back and help him release it.
I felt like a live wire sparking electricity. He kneaded my ass, giving me delicious friction right where I needed it most. My fingers tangled in his curls, holding his head to my chest where he was performing a fucking ballet with his mouth on my skin.
For years, sex to me had been laying on my back and opening myself up to whatever Frank deigned to give me. That could be a quick fuck where he didn’t speak my name or touch my body, or it could be a rough drunk fuck with his hand around my throat whispering profanities in my ear.
I was never going back to that.
Suddenly, I felt panic roar through my body. I needed more. I needed to grab this while I had it because I knew it wouldn’t last forever. My life was hurtling toward a breaking point and when I reached it everything was going to change. This might be my only chance to feel whole again.
Jamie responded to my renewed intensity with his own. He stood, wrapping my legs around his muscled waist to anchor me to him, and headed purposefully toward the stairs. I clung to him like a koala and concentrated on his mouth. He knew where my bedroom was, he had put the bed together himself after all.
There was one stumble on the steps and I thought we might fuck right there where we landed, bruising against the hardwood treads, and gripping the balusters for support. But he recovered, lurched upwards, and then we were in the bedroom. It was dark except for the moonlight flitting through the trees at the window, and the shadows gave me confidence. I’d rather feel than see.
“Take your… fucking… clothes off.” I panted against his mouth, shoving at his shoulders for him to let me down. We fumbled with zippers and denim, yanking at ourselves and each other until the layers were gone. He was fumbling in his wallet and pulled out a condom; when I pushed him back onto the bed and he pulled me down with him.
Being naked on top of James Fraser was something I never dreamed I would experience again. His whole body was a study in textures; hard, smooth, velvet, furry, and sharp. His hands ran the planes of my skin reverently.
“Christ, Sassenach. To touch ye…”
I stopped his words with a searing kiss. Too sweet. Too gentle. I wanted to fuck and be fucked. I could feel his erection stiff against my ass and I ripped the condom open and shifted to put it on him.
He surged up, flipping us over till my back was pressed against the headboard that he gripped on either side of me. I was braced, open, dripping wet and ready, and words tore through my throat.
“Now, Jamie. Jesus shit, do it now.”
His cock filled me with relief. My chaotic thoughts and emotions concentrated on that one point of contact and the pressure and sensation sparking from it. I knew I was making noise because Jamie’s voice growled in my ear to keep doing it, but I wasn’t truly conscious of anything but the rippling pulsing ache through my body.
I tried to tell myself it could be anybody, that this wasn’t special, that our past didn’t matter—it was just sex. I was only having sex with Jamie because he was here and willing. I clung to him with my whole body, knowing in the deepest part of myself that it was all a lie. But this was the only closeness we could ever have.
“Claire, oh God. Oh, Claire.” His hips pistoned against me and the pleasure intensified, lights flashing behind my eyes. I felt when his climax started, immobilizing him in its intensity, and the wave crashed over me as well. We drowned together, gasping for air against each other’s lips.
When it was over he lay still with his cheek against mine and I absentmindedly noticed that both of our faces were wet with tears. I didn’t know if he was crying, but I could feel them leaking from beneath my closed eyelids. His arms tightened again and he tucked us both under the covers, cradling me up against his chest.
“Ye’re safe, mo nighean donn . I have ye.” I don’t know why the fuck I needed to hear that, but suddenly I was sobbing brokenly, helplessly into his neck.
“I don’t know why I’m crying.” The words were thick and I hated the sound of them, I hated the weakness in them. But he only held me more securely, speaking over me in Gaelic. The familiar shapes and sounds of his heart language soothed the tightness in my lungs.
Don’t leave me.
I don’t think I said it out loud. His voice in my ear didn’t falter. I drifted into a dreamless sleep surrounded with warmth and the smell of coconut that clung to his skin.
He left sometime in the night, leaving me wrapped in the down comforter so tight that I didn’t notice his absence until I had been blinking awake for several long minutes. When I stretched, arching my spine and pointing my toes to the bottom of the bed there was a twinge of pain that reminded me of my late-night visitor.
The cool air covered me in goosebumps and I hurried to throw on underwear, sweatpants, and a t-shirt. On the way downstairs I grabbed a chunky cardigan and drew it over my shoulders.
My phone was on the coffee table where I left it the night before and I picked it up. The battery was nearly gone, but several texts popped up on the screen.
I need all the deets.
Don’t leave anything out.
And from Jamie:
I set yer coffee pot
Would it be alright if I come down after the kids are off to school?
He really had set the coffee pot, I heard it start brewing right as the clock hit 7am and the smell drew me toward the kitchen. I could deal with Gillian after a cup of coffee.
I typed a quick affirmative to Jamie and poured a generous amount of cream in my mug before topping it off with hot coffee and stepping out on the deck. The air was crisp and the leaves painted my yard with vibrant color. I hugged the steaming mug to my chest and snuggled down in my cardigan to wait.
My head rested on the back of an Adirondack chair painted bright red. I had always loved this type of chair, sitting in it felt like being cradled in someone’s lap. We never owned them in Boston because Frank thought they were too country.
Fuck Frank Randall.
I banished him from my mind and sighed. For the past few weeks, I had been frequenting thrift stores and antique shops, trying to find my aesthetic. I gave myself a budget to furnish the house, and I had been hard at work refinishing the furniture I had decided to keep; trying to strike a mix of old and new. The renovation shows on the television were my guilty pleasure in the evenings.
I had yet to find an outdoor firepit that would work on the deck, but these chairs were one of my first purchases. I had painted them the most garish shade of red I could find in honor of my independence, and I loved them.
“Good morning, Sassenach.”
He had come around the house holding a thermos and dressed in jeans and a puffy vest over flannel. The copper curls peeked out beneath a baseball cap. He looked like the quintessential American southern boy with scruffy cheeks and a flirtatious gleam in his eye.
Jamie stepped close and leaned down to kiss me quickly before he settled in the other chair. I hadn’t been sure how I was going to react to him after last night, but he struck the perfect balance of familiar and yet respectful of my space.
“Hi,” I watched him from the corner of my eye while I sipped the last of my coffee. He looked comfortable. Too good for a man in his 40s who didn’t get much sleep last night.
He looks fucking edible. Damn him to hell.
“How are ye feeling this morning?” His voice was deep and sweet, warming my belly as much as the hot drink.
“I’m fine. Good.” I tried to take another drink and realized my mug was empty, setting it aside with a flush of embarrassment. He noticed— of course he did— and reached over to refill my coffee from his thermos.
“Do ye want to talk about last night?”
I squirmed in my seat, annoyed that he was so comfortable and direct. “I don’t really want to, but I suppose we should.” He chuckled and I could tell without looking that he had an obnoxious smirk on his face.
“I don’t want a relationship,” I said abruptly. The coffee was hot enough to sting my hands through the mug, but I didn’t drink it. I couldn’t stomach black coffee, though the hand warmer was welcome.
He was silent, thankfully. I groped around in my mind for what I wanted to say, worried that he would get the wrong idea.
“Moving to Boone has been wonderful. I love everything about it so much. But this is the first time I’ve been really independent and I don’t want to lose that.” I took a deep breath. “You make things… complicated.”
“Because of our past?”
I could feel his eyes on me, but his question was gentle. “Yes. And because of… us.”
“What it is between us.”
“Yes.” I cleared my throat. We had always had a tangible unexplainable connection. Even when anger and pain kept us apart, I could sense him. His moods, his emotions, his desires; it was like he could project them from his brain to mine.
Goddamn inconvenient superpower, if you ask me.
Like now. I knew he wanted us to date. To be a couple and ride off into the sunset with his seventeen children in tow. I could feel him planning our future from four feet away.
But this was my future. My new beginning. And I wanted him in it but not to that extent. That’s what I needed him to understand.
“I want to be able to start over in Boone as myself, by myself. I’ve spent so long accommodating what other people needed…” I broke off, thinking of the one truly selfish thing I had done and trying to banish it from my mind.
He said the name like it left a bitter taste in his mouth and that pulled a smile from me. “Yes. Frank, and... our daughter.” I internally chastised myself for bringing her up.
“Ye have a daughter?” I could feel the surge of interest in him that he carefully kept out of his voice.
“Brianna.” My stomach was fluttering just saying her name aloud to him. We sat in silence, the coffee growing cold in my hands.
“ Breeanah .”
A tingle raced down my spine when he said it. The Highland lilt accented the first syllable and left the second to fall off the tongue, making her name his own.
“It’s a beautiful name.”
I swallowed. “It’s a family name. Frank was… very interested in his lineage.”
“Well, I’m glad.” His voice was gruff. “I always kent ye’d be a wonderful mother.”
I stood up quickly, moving to the porch railing. A yellow maple leaf had landed precariously and I picked it up, tracing the veins gently with my fingertip.
“So. I don’t want to complicate my life with a relationship.” I said briskly, trying to shake off my nerves.
His presence warmed my back. He stood closer than an acquaintance. Closer than a friend.
“Then we arena in a relationship, Sassenach.”
If I leaned back, I would be touching his chest. His breath brushed the curls at my neck and the intensity of his emotion sucked the oxygen from my lungs.
“Okay,” the word was barely there.
“Do you want me to go?”
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. The only thing burning in my mind was: no. No, I didn’t want him to go.
I turned around and his mouth was on me before I could open it. My back dug into the railing until he lifted me up and perched my ass on the edge, stepping into the space between my legs. His hand enveloped my jaw and the back of my neck, and I was pinned to him, helpless to do anything but absorb the passion that raged through his body into mine.
His grip on me eased slightly and I felt in his kisses that he was coming back to himself. We stood in the morning chill with flushed cheeks and lips still brushing and catching and releasing as we caught our breath.
Jesus fucking Christ.
“I’m sorry, Claire. I shouldna have done that.” There was guilt in his voice and I kissed it away.
“Take me inside.”
His breath caught, the muscles beneath my hands tense and still. Then tentatively, his arms pulled me close again, lifting me from the railing to his waist.
“Take me inside, Jamie.”
“It’s just that Thanksgiving is such a short break, and I don’t want you to waste half of it in a car driving down here.”
Please say yes.
My stomach clenched painfully as I watched Bree’s brow furrow on the screen of my phone. I just pitched the idea of spending the holiday in Boston with Joe and Gail, and it was taking everything in me not to beg. I needed more time. I knew eventually she would come to Boone and someone would find out. God only knew it was my own stupid fucking denial that made me buy a home in the one place that would be my own downfall. And I was prepared to face it when it came, but I just needed some more time.
“I wanted to see your new house, Mama. Are you sure?”
“Of course, darling. You’ll be here for three whole weeks at Christmas and I’ll give you the full Boone experience.” The anxiety that had been gripping my throat eased at her acquiescence, and I smiled with warm relief at my daughter.
“It will be wonderful to see you. I’ve missed you desperately.” Her easy confidence and good humor were such a balm to my soul that had spent years wrapped in a bitter shell. I felt like I could see the beauty and good in the world when I was around Brianna. She was my focal point, my peace in the storm, my purpose in life for so long.
“Mama, we talk almost every day.” Her blue eyes sparkled at me even through the phone, and her lips quirked up in a familiar mischievous grin. She started telling me a story about her roommate but it took a moment for my brain to catch up.
I had just seen that exact sly grin when Jamie left me in bed this morning. He was leaving for a camping trip with the kids this afternoon. The prospect of an entire weekend without him had us both desperate for each other when he tapped on the french doors just after 7am.
He meant to make me miss him, driving me mad with his tongue and teeth, hands exploring under the oversized sweater which was the only article of clothing I didn’t let him remove.
And when he got dressed, trying to smooth his ruffled hair with his hands, he grinned at me exactly like that, before kissing me goodbye.
She is so like him.
I didn’t ever say it. Not out loud or in my head. If I put actual words to it then it would be real, and I needed to pretend it wasn’t real for as long as possible. But just seeing both of their faces nearly every day, seeing the expressions and mannerisms they shared, the reality was forced into my conscious thought far more often than I could handle.
Brianna’s father… is...
Fear prickled up my spine and nausea burned the back of my throat. No. I couldn’t do it. When circumstances forced my hand I would tell the full story to the two parties involved, but I wouldn’t bring the end of my happiness down one second sooner than I had to.
Because they wouldn’t forgive me. Neither of them would.
When I signed the paperwork to buy my home in Boone, I had been signing my own prison sentence. One way or the other, I was headed for solitary confinement from the two people that mattered most to me.
Thank god for an extra month.
Maybe I could convince her to dye her hair over Thanksgiving break. Or ask Jamie to give us some space. I didn’t want her to have any hint that I was sleeping with the local businessman slash father to every fucking troubled youth in Watauga County.
Shit. I didn’t want to think about him as a father to anybody. When he told me about becoming a foster parent, the words he said had pierced through my body like the blade of a knife. He thought he would make a good father, or at least he wanted to try.
“Mama? Are you okay?”
The phone had slowly angled until only my forehead was showing on the screen and I pulled the camera back to my face quickly.
“I’m sorry, baby. My mind wandered. What were you saying?”
“Well, I told you the latest installment of my roommate soap opera, but it seems like you zoned the whole thing out. You won’t be up to speed when I give you the next episode tomorrow.”
“These are the days of our lives,” I recited in a theatrical voice.
Her nose wrinkled. “You keep doing that and I still don’t know what it means.”
There was a tap at the door and I wrapped up the call quickly, promising to FaceTime again the next day. Gillian had texted earlier saying she would be dropping by, and she had been very mysterious about it.
“Hi Gill,” I smiled brightly and she breezed past me, heading toward the kitchen with a shopping bag on her arm. “Wait, what’s this?”
“This, mo charaid, is coffee.”
She was pulling a number of contraptions from the bag. A glass globe looking vase, a box of cone-shaped filters, a bag of coffee beans, a small container of cream, and some contraption with a handle.
“I have coffee…” I started, but she held up a hand and her green eyes flashed fire at me.
“Hazelnut flavored grocery store pre-ground,” she shuddered dramatically. “Ye dinna ken what coffee is, hen. And I mean to educate ye.”
I gave up and leaned my elbows on the countertop, watching her work. It seemed labor intensive. The kettle was on, and she was carefully pouring whole beans in the little machine to grind them I was guessing, but she handed it to me after the first few turns.
I obediently turned the handle, wondering all the while why anyone would take the time to do all this when pre-ground was available.
“What’s the latest on the business front? Did ye meet with yer lawyer?”
My arm was starting to ache, but I shifted my grip on the grinder contraption and kept going. Life was full of meetings these days. I had spent the last weeks finding a business lawyer and a new therapist. I was taking this new start thing as seriously as possible.
Dr. Rawlings was a licensed psychologist providing individual therapy in Blowing Rock, just a few minutes from Boone. At our first appointment, he asked me about my relationship with Frank and listened to me silently for twenty minutes. When I was finished, he said, “he sounds awful,” and we moved on to something else.
I liked him.
I had hired Gowan & Bug as my small business lawyers. Ned Gowan and his business partner Arch Bug were polar opposites, but vastly knowledgeable about the legal procedures for starting a private practice.
Ned sat down with me and carefully explained every option, from business types to traditional vs. direct primary care. And we decided together the best route for me to proceed. Then Arch wrote up a business plan and we sent in the paperwork to register with the state, obtain an EIN, and get the correct insurances and licenses.
I said as much to Gillian, grinding away all the while at those fucking beans and swearing to myself that I’d get an electric grinder before I’d ever do this again. She finally announced that it was done and I shook out my arm as she carefully placed a paper filter at the top of the glass vase and picked up the kettle.
“Now, ye want to wet the filter first, before ye put the grounds in.” I watched her pour hot water around the paper filter and then dump the water out in the sink, holding the filter in place.
“Then,” she said, pouring in the coffee grounds and shaking the vase thing gently. “Ye start your timer.” I watched, dumbfounded as she actually pulled out her phone and started the clock. She poured just enough water over the grounds to get them wet and watched the clock tick up to 45 seconds.
“This is absolutely crazy, Gill.” I watched her begin pouring water over the damp grounds in a circle, one eye on the clock and the other on her work. Then she set the kettle down and took a long deep breath, sighing with content.
“Perhaps, but it tastes delicious. Better than your bland Starbucks half-arse bean water.”
She prepared us each a mug, turning up her nose when I tried to add my favorite creamer. “Ye have to taste the brew for what it is, Claire. Ye might as well be drinking a milkshake when ye add all that shit.” She waved a hand at the offensive contents of my refrigerator.
I obediently sipped the coffee and made the appropriate noises of approval, wishing for my hazelnut flavored cream; not willing to ruin my friend’s considerable effort to give me this experience. It was actually pretty good. Not what I was used to, but drinkable.
“I ken ye’ll be right back to yer old ways tomorrow, so make me a promise.” Gillian’s sharp gaze hadn’t missed a thing. “Make yer coffee like this for one week. Then try yer bean water again and see if ye canna tell the difference.”
“I promise.” I smiled at my friend.
It was strange and wonderful, having a friend. Gillian invaded my life without waiting for an invitation, which I probably never would have thought to extend in the first place. She booked me into her calendar for breakfast every week and made sure I was informed about all the happenings of Boone. Honestly, without her I’d probably be a recluse in my little cottage.
“Your mother is a born recluse, Bree.”
Frank’s voice in my head was a cold shock. I took a long drink of my coffee on autopilot, trying to ward off the chill that prickled down my spine, but the memory plowed on.
“One day she’ll go and live alone in the woods with nothing but those damned plants she loves so much. She feeds them better than she feeds us, that’s for sure.”
I remembered the herbs I had been carefully repotting in the back yard when his voice drifted through the window. Basil crushed between my fingers where my hands had wrapped into fists in an effort to keep from screaming at him to stay out of her fucking head. I remembered the effort it took to calm my breathing, knowing that I could soothe any doubt in Brianna’s mind that night when I tucked her in bed and read her a story.
So much of my life was spent reversing the damage he caused with careless words smothered in charm.
“What are ye thinking of, Claire? Yer face is white as a sheet.”
Gillian was staring at me with concern, and I tried to shrug it off. Normally I could keep Frank’s ghost in its grave without too much trouble, it was just that thought about being a recluse that had blown the lid off the coffin.
“I’m fine, Gill. Just a memory.”
“A memory of… Frank? Or Jamie?”
The usual fucking culprits.
I hesitated, but his voice was still clawing at the back of my mind. And Gillian had been married to a douchebag as well. The temptation to share got the best of me.
“Frank. It was… I remembered something that Frank told our daughter when he thought I couldn’t hear him.” The picture was coming back. The warmth of the deck boards under my feet, so sore after a day at the hospital. My fingers buried in the soil, cupping the hardy basil plant that had outgrown its pot and needed room to flourish.
“She was probably seven at the time. And our marriage was already over at that point, we had just agreed to remain a family for her sake until she graduated from high school.” I paused, wondering for the hundred thousandth time whether it would have been better for Bree if we had divorced.
After a moment I pushed on. “Frank was always charismatic. He had a way of making you feel like you were the center of his world when he wanted to. And he was obsessed with Brianna. It was his life’s mission to be the best father to her that it was possible to be.”
“But?” Gillian prompted, and I gave in with a sigh.
“To Frank and I, everything had become about punishing each other.” I swirled the last of my coffee in the mug between my hands. “I punished him with silence, and he punished me with words.”
“What was he punishing ye for?”
I should tell her.
The need to share this burden swamped me suddenly and I had to pause and regroup my thoughts. To truly understand what I was saying about my marriage, she would have to know the horrible unspoken betrayal that had grown like cancer between Frank and I for twenty years.
I pulled my phone over, fingers shaking as I unlocked the screen and opened my photo album. There was a picture of Bree from her graduation; long copper curls blowing around her face, blue eyes slanted into triangles as she grinned, and that cock to her head that hinted at the confident humor she carried with her through life.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I slid the phone across to Gillian, who stared at it in silence for several long breaths.
“Oh shit, Claire.”
“I can’t believe I’m adding to the number of filthy boys in this family.”
Marsali wrinkled her nose at William and Jo, who had been digging for worms and were covered in mud, happily making their way down to the lake with their fishing poles.
“Yeah, we need another girl,” Joan piped up from where she and Kez were whittling a pile of sticks to sharp clean points.
Jamie grinned at them from across the fire. “Och, now. Dinna be insulting my wee grandson before he can even defend himself!”
Fergus and Marsali had just found out this morning that they would be having a son, and the whole family had been bombarding them with baby name suggestions. Jamie felt a glow of warmth and love in his chest whenever he thought about it. He’d never had the pleasure of raising a child from infancy, and there was something about knowing that there would be a wee bairn he could cradle to his chest and claim as his grandson … he thought the smile would never leave his face.
It was autumn, and their favorite camping spot on the shores of Lake James was swathed in the colors and crispness of the coming winter. Their campsite was right on the lake, the tall trees opening up to stunning bright blue water that reflected the setting sun. North Carolina was still averaging 65-70 degrees during the day, but they had all packed their warmest thermals to make it through the drop in temperature at night.
The kids loved camping. They went out nearly once a month from March until November. And it was a joy for Jamie that his family appreciated the outdoors as he did. Ian had stayed behind to mind the rental office, but he would drive the hour and a half down to stay with them for the weekend after it closed.
Jamie leaned forward and began flipping the foil packets that were lined up on the grating they put over the fire. Each person had filled their foil pack with the meat, vegetables, and seasoning that they preferred, then they’d crimped the edges, and written their name on the foil with a sharpie. Jamie was cooking them over a bed of hot coals. The trick was to rotate which packs were in the middle so they all got even heat.
In the morning, they’d have doughboys for breakfast, which were everyone’s favorite. Years ago, Murtagh had found the thick smooth wooden dowels that were perfect for wrapping the end in biscuit dough and cooking to a nice golden brown before being filled with butter, eggs, and sausage.
Not for the first time, Jamie tried to imagine Claire in this setting. Would she be sitting with Marsali, feet up on a fallen log, chatting about whatever came to mind? Would she be down at the lake with the boys watching them fish, or looking over the water with her curls flying in the wind? Or would she be here, snuggled up to his side, teasing him about burning dinner?
He wasn’t sure. Twenty years ago, he could have told you anything about Claire Beauchamp, but now… Claire Randall? He couldn’t say. She had changed in ways he was still discovering. The past weeks of their new intimacy had been both the most wonderful of his life and deeply concerning.
This Claire was like a wounded animal; equal parts terrified and ferocious. He was convinced, now more than ever, that she had been hurt badly by someone in her past. And the chances that it had been Randall made him want to dig the bastard up from his grave and kill him a second time.
Just last week he had taken a long lunch break and stopped by Claire’s cottage to see if she was home. She opened the door looking good enough to eat in jeans and a worn t-shirt he recognized as one she had stolen from him in college. He stepped inside, scooping her up and closing the door with his foot. Then they were up against the wall, limbs and tongues tangled as they kissed desperately in the sunny entryway. His body ached for her skin, to be pressed to her with nothing between them. But everything changed when he started to pull her shirt up.
Her whole body tensed, and her hands grabbed at the bottom of the shirt, holding it in place. Jamie’s brain was thoroughly preoccupied with the texture of her ear, and he didn’t pick up immediately on the change in her demeanor.
“Sassenach, let me see ye,” he moaned, fingers pulling at the fabric once more.
“No. No, stop Jamie! No! Put me down!”
He stepped back, stunned. Her hands were hiding her face and she ran away from him, locking herself in the small half bath off of the kitchen.
“Claire?” His brain was spinning from the rapid events, and he found himself at the bathroom door, his hands against it, willing it to open. “Claire, I… I dinna ken what I did. Please, l’m sorry.” He could hear her stifling a sob just inches away through the solid wood. The sound sent another wave of panic through him.
“God, Claire. I’m sorry. Please, let me in.”
The choked words broke his heart. He couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. There was no way in hell he would leave her like this.
“Please go away, Jamie. Please leave me alone.”
His forehead rested against the door and tears burned his eyes and left tracks down his face.
Dinna ask that of me, lass. Anything but that.
His hands clenched, but he swallowed down the despair that knotted in his throat. She needed space. Whatever he had triggered in her, she needed space to recover. And damn it , he would give her what she needed even if it killed him.
“I’ll go, Claire,” the words tasted sour in his mouth. “But I’ll be back tonight. If…” his voice caught and he had to take a deep breath. “If ye can, leave the back door unlocked for me?”
She didn’t answer, and he didn’t wait. He forced his stiff body to walk away from her, out into the woods, and up the trail till he collapsed to his knees under the cover of the forest.
And later that night, the sick feeling in his wame only abated when he found the knob unlocked. The woman in bed didn’t speak, but she clung to him like her last hope of salvation, and he held her fiercely til dawn.
Jamie’s attention was jerked back to the present when Marsali took the tongs from his slack hand. She began pulling the foil packets from the grate, placing them to cool on the log bench by the fire.
“Earth to Da,” she laughed. “A wise man once told me you have to pay attention when you’re the chef.”
Her smile was teasing, but she eyed him curiously. Jamie flushed, then stood and called the boys for dinner. Fergus had been off by the lake with his camera, capturing some of the beauty of the state park for stock photos. William and Josiah heard the call for food and pushed each other into the lake to wash up. They emerged damp, but presentable, running to their tent to change into dry clothes.
He sat down again, this time next to Joanie. Her smooth copper head called him, and he kissed her just at her hairline.
“How are ye, a leannan?”
The thin shoulder shrugged, but she was smiling.
“I’m excited about the baby,” they grinned together. “But it feels like he won’t be here for like, a hundred years.”
It was more like four months, but Jamie could commiserate with the feeling.
“How do ye like the name Dalhousie?” He called out to Fergus as he carefully tucked the camera back into its bag. The whole group erupted in laughter and Jamie sputtered, defending his preferred name with vigor and letting his family push the melancholy thoughts from his mind temporarily.
Late that night–after dinner, marshmallows over the fire, ghost stories, and getting the whole clan off to bed in their tents–Jamie stared unseeing into the fire. Fergus and Marsali were sharing a camp chair that creaked under their combined weight when they moved.
“What is on your mind, Da?” Fergus was watching him with dark eyes, and Jamie felt exposed, like the lad could see all of his secrets.
“I dinna ken, nothing really.” If nothing was a woman with dark curls and sad eyes.
“Mrs. Randall?” This came from Marsali, and Jamie realized a moment too late that his reaction gave him away. The young couple shared a glance, then smiled triumphantly at him.
“You are not the most subtle man, Da.” The laughter in Fergus’ eyes made Jamie’s lips twitch despite his attempt to control his face. “We use the ridge trail too. We can see where a new path is forming from frequent travel.”
Jamie sighed, “Aye, well then. Ye have me there.”
“Are you dating her?” Marsali looked excited. She had been spending Saturday afternoons with Claire at flea markets and antique stores trying to achieve what they called farmhouse chic.
“No, we arena dating. Not exactly.”
Their expressions made it clear that his answer was inadequate, and Jamie felt the need to give them more. He cleared his throat, settled into his chair, and let his mind wander back to the first time he laid eyes on Claire Beauchamp.
“I’ve kent Claire… Mrs. Randall, for nearly 25 years,” he avoided their eyes and concentrated on his story. “We met in college. It was freshman orientation weekend, and everyone in our class was arriving on campus and moving into the dorms. My Da dropped me off, but I wouldna let him stay longer than it took to move my bags to the room.”
“She was with her Uncle, her guardian, just down the hall from my dorm. He stayed with her as long as he possibly could even though she had barely anything to move in. I kept seeing glimpses of her sitting on her bed talking to him as I helped the other freshmen carry things.”
Jamie shifted uncomfortably. “She was… beautiful. Everything about her. Her laugh, her smile, her eyes. I was gone before I’d ever even said hello.”
The coals had burnt down to a dull glow, warming their feet against the chill in the air. Jamie leaned forward to add another log, pausing the story so he could regroup his thoughts. Remembering Claire like this made it so much more painful to think of what might have happened to her.
“I kissed her that first night,” he smiled ruefully. “I could tell she was sad, and we were talking in the hall. She kissed me back for a second but then slapped my face.” He rubbed his stubbled cheek, remembering. “I couldna move, I was so preoccupied with what she would do next. And a second later she kissed me again, then shut the door in my face.”
Fergus laughed out loud, making Jamie grin and continue a little more at ease.
“After that, we were inseparable. She was like a wild horse, ken? She didna want to be caught, but she led me on a merry chase and when I did catch her it was as if that had been her plan all along. We were both 18, and we were in love as any two people ever were. The next year we moved to an apartment off campus and were both working and planning for a future together. I brought her home to Lallybroch every Christmas and we spent Spring breaks in Oxford with her uncle. We had our whole lives planned out. I… I wanted to marry her.”
He fell silent, the next words stuck in his throat.
“What happened?” Marsali’s eyes were big and she clung to Fergus, perhaps worrying that her own young love would be suddenly snatched away.
“She…” Jamie’s voice broke and he cleared his throat to try again. “She got pregnant. At the end of junior year, right before finals. And we fought about whether to keep the baby. It… it was bad timing. My Da had just passed, and her uncle was diagnosed with cancer a few months before. It was just… it was overwhelming for both of us to think about bringing a child into the world just then.”
Fergus had placed a reassuring hand on Marsali’s stomach and their unborn son, and once again Jamie ached to know the child he had made with Claire all those years ago. What would it have been like? The young girl from his dreams with her fiery curls and laughing blue eyes: was that her, or just a figment of his own imagination?
“And that was that. We broke up because we couldn’t handle the pressure upon us. And here we are, twenty years later, and I dinna ken if anything is even different.”
“What happened to the baby?”
Jamie’s heart clenched tight. He felt sorrow and anger mix; dark and strong in his chest. He stood up suddenly, pushing his chair back from the fire.
“We lost the baby.”
The answer was more complicated than that, but in the end, the baby was gone. It didn’t matter how. The baby lived in his heart, but had torn apart his relationship. He was the only one who still mourned for her.
Come on, Beauchamp. You can fucking do this.
Jamie sat patiently on the decorative chair that no one ever actually used in my room, waiting for me to speak. His blue eyes were full of concern. I had to keep checking just in case that concern had changed to scorn. I glanced at him again to make sure.
I meant friendship. Concerned friendship. Friends with benefits. Not love. His eyes were still full of… that.
“I wanted to explain,” I started, “about what happened last week. And thank you for being so understanding.”
His big hand touched my wrist, and I realized that I had been scratching the skin there till there was a raw patch that stung where the air hit it. I felt a wash of shame, but he didn’t dwell on it. He pulled me closer and took my hands in his.
“Ye dinna need to thank me, Sassenach.”
I noticed that he didn’t say there was no need to explain. Every time he looked at me since that horrible day the question had been all over his face. Why did I freak out? Why wouldn’t I let him look at me? We had sex twice since then and the hesitation in his touch was killing me.
Dr. Rawlings said I could trust him. That I needed to trust my sexual partner with my fears in order to experience healthy intimacy in my relationship.
It’s not a fucking relationship.
Regardless. I wanted to heal. I wanted to leave Frank and every scar he scratched into my heart and mind behind me for good. And this was a big one.
It was simple, really. It was more stupid than anything.
“I’m not comfortable with you seeing me. My… stomach, my body. I’m self-conscious.”
I couldn’t look at his eyes now. Saying the words out loud made me realize how fucking lame they sounded. If that bright blue love had changed to disbelief it would break me completely. I knew the other day had been an overreaction, and to come back to him with a rubbish excuse like this was ridiculous.
“Why, mo nighean donn?”
His simple question froze me.
His hands still held mine, and I gripped them back, squeezing. There were a thousand reasons why. Memory after memory washed through me, settling like nausea in my stomach.
“You really shouldn’t try to wear your old clothes, Claire. Motherhood changes a woman’s body. It’s time to admit that it’s not coming back.”
That had been a Christmas party at the university the year after Bree was born, and I had tried to wear my favorite classic little black dress from college.
“God, that baby did a number on you.”
A moment he caught me getting out of the shower before I could grab a towel.
“I’d buy you some home exercise equipment if you were around enough to actually use it.”
“You are getting a second helping? Are you sure you need it?”
“Gary’s wife had twins and she’s back to her pre-baby weight. I guess some people just have good genes.”
Tears were falling fast and hot down my cheeks now and I just shook my head. There was no way I could explain what a million tiny jagged wounds had culminated into. Self-conscious didn’t cover it by half, but nothing else seemed adequate either. All my bravado and sexual prowess disintegrated if there was any chance that he would see me naked in the light of day.
I raised my eyes to Jamie’s, defeated. There wasn’t any judgment or blame, just the deepest tenderness that gave me permission to feel whatever the fuck I had to feel. His thumbs brushed the tears from my face.
“Oh, mo ghraidh. What did he do to you?”
Mo ghraidh. My love.
It would be horrible—absolutely unthinkable—to accept his love now, knowing what I had done to him. Knowing it was only a matter of time till he found out and everything he felt for me went to shit. Again.
But his fingers stroked my cheeks. His gentleness completely disarmed me. All of my carefully constructed defenses crumbled and I gave in to the need to be close to him.
I stepped in between his knees and pulled his head down to my chest. His arms wrapped around my hips tightly and we stayed like that for a long time. My cheek rested against the top of his head and I ran my fingers up and down the solid curve of his skull.
I was so tired. So fucking tired of the work it took to walk through all of these emotional battles. To fight every demon in my mind, to discover all the new ones I didn’t even realize had taken up residence there.
If Jamie had love to give, wrong as it was, I would take it. I couldn’t help myself.
He shifted, pressing a kiss to the skin above the scooped neckline of my sweater. His chin rested between my breasts and he looked up into my face.
Still love. Damn.
I sniffed and smiled down at him, leaning over to press my lips to his.
I’d have to tell Dr. Rawlings that we talked, and it hadn’t been awful. I was always surprised when his suggestions didn’t turn out to make the sky fall the way it seemed when he first brought them up. I had stormed into his office Friday morning saying that I was too fucked up to be with anybody ever again and I might as well become a cat lady because it was better for me to be alone. The therapist talked me down off that particular ledge—woo-fucking-hoo—and convinced me that talking to Jamie was a better option.
His eyes were on my lips, and I leaned down again, savoring the warmth and acceptance of his embrace. This was much better than becoming a cat lady.
“Will ye let me look at ye now, Claire?”
The startled fear must have shown in my eyes because his lips rose as he watched the emotions cross my face. Damn him. He knew he was pushing me, the fucking bastard.
Talking about it was one thing, but I wasn’t ready for this step. Not yet. Did I even trust him that much? To step into his scrutiny with nothing to hide behind? To let him see the body that wasn’t twenty-one anymore?
To let him see the evidence of his…
Oh, god. He was waiting patiently for me to sort through my fear and come up with an answer. The look in his eyes now was a silent challenge.
Fuck it. Do I want to heal or not?
“Okay,” I braced myself, cursing inwardly when I heard that my voice was trembling already.
His blue gaze was steady as his hands slid under my sweater and pushed the leggings and underwear down together. They caught briefly at the top of my thighs, and I shifted to allow them to slide further. No thigh-gap here. When he stripped them off my feet, his hands slid up; over the cellulite that dimpled the back of my legs, over my ass that wasn’t as tight and high as it used to be.
My lip was trembling and I pulled it between my teeth. His hands climbed up my hips and slipped under the tank top I was wearing to unclasp my bra. I swallowed and pulled my arms inside the sweater so he could remove them.
I had been intimate with this man a dozen times in the past few weeks, and hundreds—if not thousands of times before that. He knew how to touch me, what I liked, where to kiss. But this was different, and now he knew why. I was bare under the thin knit sweater that brushed the tops of my thighs.
When he started to push it up I stiffened and he paused immediately. I was squeezing my eyes shut and felt more tears drop and track down my cheeks.
“What did he say to you, mo ghraidh?”
Jamie’s fingers traced soothing circles on the skin of my hips, just under the knit hem of the sweater. I was hanging on by a thread with two handfuls of his t-shirt clenched in my fists. I tried to concentrate on his question.
“He… he said… he thought I was the kind of woman who would keep my figure.”
The long callused fingers stroked up to my waist and back over the swell of my hip. He pushed up the fabric enough to lay a soft stubbled kiss on my hip bone.
“What a fucking daftie,” he murmured, pulling a startled laugh from my lips. “Tell me what else he said, Sassenach.”
I tried to think, gripping his shirt to keep myself from pulling the sweater down.
“He told me my boobs had gotten too big after… after my pregnancy.”
I should have had the foresight to realize that mentioning my breasts would mean the sweater was coming up, but I had just said the first thing that came to mind. I gasped when he lifted the fabric, exposing far more of me than I was ready for. He folded the sweater over my breasts and placed a kiss on each one.
“Never in life, a nighean. ”
I knew he meant to be teasing, but I was trying my best not to hyperventilate. I concentrated on his fingers, still drawing patterns on the skin of my ribs. To someone else this situation might seem erotic, but my brain was flashing warning lights and blaring alarms.
Too much. Too fast. Too soon. He can see you.
I hadn’t opened my eyes since he began this little fucking exercise. The light bleeding through my eyelids was too much, and I let go of his shirt to cover my face with my hands.
“Breathe, mo nighean donn. Breathe for me, lass.”
In and out.
My shoulders were heaving with the effort, but I managed to calm down. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my side, warming the bare skin there—revealing every blemish to his gaze.
“What else did he say, Claire?”
There were tears on my cheeks, swelling my nose, clogging my throat. I tried to remember what Frank had said, to pinpoint some moment that had ripped a part of my self-esteem to shreds. There were so many cutting things, but sometimes it was… oh.
“He…” my shoulders curved in, trying to hide from Jamie, but he wasn’t having it.
“Look at me,” he urged, and I opened blurry eyes to find his flashing a fierce blue.
“Tell me. I wilna hurt ye, mo ghraidh.”
I swallowed and forced the words out. “When we had sex, he… he would pull the blanket up over me, or leave my shirt on.”
His eyes searched mine, uncomprehending. He didn’t understand the implication.
“He said he didn’t like how much…” I gestured helplessly to myself, soft and curvy in the stark light of day. “How much I… jiggled.”
There was a beat of silence where the air seemed to be caught in Jamie’s lungs. Then he slowly pulled the sweater off over my head, laying it gently on the floor. His jaw was clenched, and I half forgot that I was naked when I saw the tears in his eyes. He stood up and walked me backwards until the back of my knees hit my bed and he lay me back with an aching gentleness.
“Fuck him, Claire,” he held my eyes intensely, not letting me look away. “He didna deserve to touch ye.”
I nodded, my own tears spilling down my temples into my hair. Jamie’s gaze caressed my face, stroking me and holding me secure just as much as his hands did. He leaned back and I could feel his eyes on my body. It was agonizing. I held myself still, stiff, waiting for… something. I didn’t want to need his approval. Soon enough, it would be gone too. I wanted to be strong enough to approve of myself and have that be enough.
He leaned down to press his lips to the hollow at the base of my throat, lingering there for a long moment. Then he began to work his way down.
“Yer breasts are like ivory, plump, and perfect in my hand.”
I gasped through a sob as he pulled his rough tongue over my nipple.
“Yer skin drives me mad,” his chin and cheek rasped against my abdomen, making me shudder. “Aye, my Sassenach,” he breathed. “The sun catches every wee hair on ye and gilds ye in gold.”
My eyes were closed again, my chin tilted up toward the ceiling. Every tiny hair on my body must be standing on end. I was covered in chills. Was I scared or sad or turned on? My brain could barely separate the emotions.
All of the above. Definitely.
His mouth stopped where I feared the most. I knew what he was looking at, what the sunlight only highlighted against my pale skin.
The streaked silver webs of stretch marks covering the loose skin of my lower abdomen. Unmistakable, impossible to erase. Permanent reminders of the best and worst parts of my life.
I couldn’t inhale. I just lay in silence with my hands over my face and fear leaking from my eyes.
“A miracle,” Jamie whispered, so low I almost couldn’t hear it. When his lips touched my skin I jerked involuntarily, crying out. My hands dropped to rest in his curls, feeling his head move as his lips traced each silver scar.
Your miracle. Yours.
“I dreamed of seeing ye round with child, Claire,” his touch was reverent, as if the marks Bree left on my body were something to honor. “These are… these are beautiful, mo ghraidh. These scars are the art of life and love.” His voice cracked with emotion. “Never let anyone tell ye differently.”
It was too fucking much. I curled over to my side and sobbed, my whole body shaking and bent in half with overwhelming emotion. If he was talking I couldn’t hear it anymore because of the ringing in my ears.
God, I needed oxygen.
I finally got air in my lungs; tears, and snot streaming down my face and plastering hair to my cheek. I must look disgusting, but he didn’t seem to care. I cried until I was spent, then lay shaking and hiccuping in the shelter of his embrace. His strong chest and arms surrounded me, and I relaxed into them feeling nothing but relief. He stroked the curls back from my face and kissed my brow.
“I love ye, mo nighean donn.”
I love you, too.
I fell asleep, naked, and safe in his arms.
Jamie watched as sunlight danced across the tear tracks on Claire’s cheek, laying close enough to feel the soft rise and fall of her breath. He had left the bed soon after she fell asleep to text Murtagh that he’d be home before dinner, in time to see Joanie off on her first official date with Luke Yates. Then he had walked out into the yard and started punching a sapling tree until the helpless rage in his chest eased slightly.
His knuckles were stiff and swollen, but the pain matched the pain in his heart. He ignored them as he gently brushed away a curl that fell over her eye.
I’ll never let anyone hurt ye again, mo ghraidh.
He lay still and tried to breathe deeply to calm his mind. He had practiced letting go of this type of anger hundreds of times. Each of his children came from families who abused or neglected them in some way, and if Jamie let the emotions he felt on behalf of his kids consume his mind, he would never stop being angry.
At least Randall was dead. Jamie sent a plea for forgiveness heavenward for even having the thought. But if he had known that Claire— his Claire—was married to an abusive bastard, he would have gone mad. It didn’t matter if Randall had never touched her in violence; the scars that his words and actions left in her mind were just as damaging.
He had her for twenty years.
She had given him a child.
A sharp pain shot through his heart when he thought of Randall holding Claire’s baby. A daughter that might have been his if things had happened just a little differently.
What damage had Randall done to her? Had he spoken to the child as he did to her mother? It killed Jamie to think of the woman he loved and a little girl who shared her features in the clutches of that narcissistic brute.
God, how can I forgive a man who lived the life I wanted and shat on it?
Claire stirred in her sleep, her full lip dropping open and letting out a soft congested snore. Suddenly, it was as if heaven had answered his prayer by opening his eyes to the precious woman beside him. He would do it for her. Because she needed to be able to focus on her own journey of healing and not have to worry about his anger on her behalf.
He had another chance to love this woman, and he would not let anything get in the way of it this time.
Lord, shield my beloved.
He thought of Brianna, raised by that man , and his heart went out to the young girl who hadn’t seen love the way it ought to be between her parents.
Shield my beloved, and the child that she bore.
He wanted to pull them both into the safety that he had built with Murtagh and the kids. He wanted to wrap them in the unconditional affection and respect that flowed so freely in the Fraser home. But he knew it was something Claire had to be ready for and choose for herself.
Preserve them both from violence and harm, wherever they choose to be. Whoever they choose to love.
Jamie pressed his lips to Claire’s forehead and she breathed in deeply; her whole body stretching and flexing as she woke up.
“I’m sorry, lass. I didna mean to wake ye.”
Her spine popped and a grimace crossed her face, but she kept her eyes closed.
“I’m not awake,” she murmured.
“No?” Jamie pulled her against him and nuzzled her nose with his own, still a little puffy from crying. The corners of her mouth twitched.
He let her settle her cheek against his bare chest and hook one leg over his hip as he tucked the comforter around so the air didn’t chill her bare skin. Her whole body was flush to his, and he could feel his response growing against her thigh.
“Hmmm,” she squirmed closer and then lay still. Her breathing was deep and even, and Jamie thought for a moment that she might actually be drifting back off.
Then her hand settled innocently on his cock.
For long minutes they breathed in tandem, the only evidence that they weren’t at rest was the secret tightening of her hand each time his erection bobbed forward between their bodies. Semen dripped slippery between her fingers and she twisted her palm over him to coat his cock evenly, then deliberately pumped her hand once up and down.
Jamie let out a tense breath and pulled her thigh further up his waist, sliding his hands down over her lovely plump arse and under until he found her center slick and ready for him. She let out a soft gasping moan when he slid two fingers deep inside her body. He kept her spread wide, not allowing her legs to tighten to control the pleasure.
“Jamie, please,” her eyes were still closed as he drank her in; the soft curves and planes of her skin, her limbs heavy with sleepy arousal, her low cries as he eased his blunt fingers in and out of her core. He was hard and ready in her hand, pressed into the soft skin at her thigh and pulsing as her hips rocked against him seeking friction.
Then her eyes opened, golden and vulnerable, and Jamie lost his head entirely. He took her mouth with force, desperately channeling all of his emotion into their connection. Her free hand tangled and fisted in his hair, and she whimpered under the intensity of the kiss. Jamie rolled above her then and wrapped his hands around her thighs, pressing them down flat and open on the mattress.
He broke from their kiss to take her in; her lips red and swollen from his assault on them, white breasts covered in goosebumps where the air touched her skin, and further down she was glistening and squirming with readiness.
“ Christ, Claire. Ye are lovely.”
He dipped his head and followed the same trail down her body he had traveled earlier, marking every inch of her beautiful form with a kiss. He tightened his grip to hold her legs down; nuzzling, licking, and softly biting her skin until he reached his goal.
When she was a panting boneless mess beneath his hands, Jamie relented; wiped his mouth with a grin, and reached for the condom he had left on the bedside table.
“Always prepared?” Claire’s chest and neck were flushed and her hands trembled where they had fallen from his curls to his cheek.
“ Je suis prest.”
She let out a breathless giggle and then groaned as he eased into her body, sliding his cock through the sensitive flesh still vibrating with aftershocks from her climax. Jamie felt her palms trembling against his cheeks. He turned his head to kiss one, keeping his eyes on her face. He wanted to bare his soul to her, but was she ready for that?
“I love ye, mo nighean donn,”
The words hung between them and Jamie watched her expression; the way it rose and fell with joy and fear at his words. He could see the thoughts crossing her mind and felt a rush of emotion. Her glass face. She was opening up to him again.
Jamie thrust into her deeply till their bodies were as close as it was possible to be—pulling her back to the present. The panic in her eyes stilled as she concentrated on his face.
“Don’t, Claire,” he gripped her jaw, anchoring her to him and the reality of them—here, together right now. “Ye dinna have to give me anything at all. Just let me love ye.”
She nodded, blinking away tears, and then she wrapped her arms and legs around his body and loved him back. He felt it in her kiss and her grip on his shoulders; he heard it in her incoherent murmurs in his ear; and when he rubbed his fingers over her most sensitive flesh and she arched into him, he could feel it in the rapid beating of her heart.
I love you, too. I love you, too. I love you, too.
“Daddy! He’s going to be here any minute, do I look okay?”
Joan twirled around, her hair a smooth copper waterfall around her shoulders. She had taken out her usual braid and wore her favorite jeans and a top she must have borrowed from Marsali. It was a little big but belted at the waist.
“Yer bonny, a leannan. He willna ken what hit him,” Jamie caught her, stopping the twirl, and kissed the top of her head before she rushed off to the bathroom for one more look.
Murtagh watched her go, then turned to his godson. “Yer sure this lad is trustworthy?” He tried to conceal his worry with a gruff cough.
“So far,” Jamie shrugged. “I mean to have a wee chat with him tonight.”
Luke Yates had asked Joan on a date. Her first, and Jamie’s first experience with having a daughter date as well. When Marsali and Fergus became involved his biggest problem was keeping them from having sex until she turned 18. He never doubted his son’s intentions or feelings toward her.
But Luke was an unknown entity. Jamie reminded himself that Jo liked him, and he had always been kind to Keziah. Surely the lads would have picked up on any disrespect and told him about it. The entire family was fiercely protective of Joan. Each of the boys had strategically placed themselves in the main living area of the house to be present when Luke arrived to pick her up.
Just then, the doorbell rang and Ian sprang from his seat on the couch to answer it.
“Hello,” Luke’s polite Southern drawl came from the entryway. “I’m here to pick up Joan?”
“We ken why yer here, laddie,” Ian layered on the brough and led Joan’s beau into the house.
He stood awkwardly in the open space, nodding to each of the men in turn. Jo stood up and offered him a fist bump, and Kez waved from where he was reading. William didn’t acknowledge his presence but watched from the corner of his eye.
“Joan will be ready to go presently,” Jamie stepped in and shook the lad’s hand. “Before ye go I’d like to have a word with ye. Do ye mind?”
Luke looked like he did mind, but he followed Jamie out onto the patio. They stood in the twilight, looking over the pool water to the valley beyond.
“From what I know of ye, ye seem to be an honorable lad. And I hope ye prove that to be true tonight.” He cleared his throat, pushing his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I expect to see ye back here to drop her off no later than 10 pm, and I expect her to come home undamaged, physically or emotionally. Do ye take my meaning?”
“Yes, sir,” the lad was stiff, but seemed to be genuine.
“Joan has a large family who all love her, and we willna take kindly to anyone who canna treat her well. So keep that in mind.”
Jamie wracked his brain for something else to say, but everything that came to mind seemed a little too threatening. He turned toward the house and saw his daughter pacing just inside the doors.
“Aye, well. It seems Joanie is ready. I’ll let ye go then, lad.”
Luke nodded and went inside gratefully. He was polite, if a tad awkward, as he greeted Joanie with a kiss on the cheek—a bold move under the eyes of six watchful Fraser men. The teenage couple left within a few minutes, climbing into the backseat of an SUV. The lad’s parents were dropping them off at the local movie theater and picking them up from an ice cream shop just a few blocks down from it.
As the SUV’s taillights disappeared down the ridge road, William turned to Keziah and signed, “If he hurts her, I’ll cut his balls off.”
Kez nodded seriously and signed that he was with him.
The evening passed peacefully, each of the boys a little more subdued than normal. It was an unspoken agreement that they would all wait up for Joan to return.
Jamie and Murtagh sat out on the patio with a fire lit to combat November’s chill. They had a clear line of sight through the sliding doors into the house where the four boys were watching a movie together.
Jamie’s phone buzzed, and he glanced down to see another text from Marsali asking if her sister was back yet. He typed a quick response and put the phone down with a sigh.
“I dinna ken what we’ll do when she gets married,” he rubbed his temples to stave off the headache that was starting behind his eyes.
Murtagh grunted, flames reflecting in his dark eyes. “This is just her first date, lad. Dinna jump ahead of yerself.”
“It’s just that Marsali didn’t go far, I wasna worried about her. But Joanie could end up anywhere or with anyone.” He tried not to think of the possibility of her ending up with a man as Frank Randall had been.
I swear, I would…
Jamie tried not to think about what he’d be tempted to do. Violence and rage churned in his wame again, and he counted down slowly to calm his mind. He had been simmering all evening.
The crunch of gravel under tires made the men straighten up, and they looked to see that the boys were all spying on the front walk from behind the blinds.
“What will they do if the lad tries to kiss her goodnight?” Murtagh chuckled.
As it turned out, Luke did kiss her goodnight, but it was quick and discreet. By the time Joan came in with pink cheeks and sparkling eyes, the boys had piled back on the couch casually.
“You didn’t have to wait up! Goodnight, everyone,” she said as she hung up her coat and bag. Six pairs of eyes watched her head down the hall to her room.
Keziah smirked at William and signed, “His balls are safe for today. Maybe tomorrow.”
Murtagh tried to mask his laugh with a cough. He turned toward the pool house shaking his head.
“She’ll be lucky if that lad sticks around for more than a month with this lot at home.”
Jamie hustled the boys off toward bed and then stepped back out to the patio to wait for the fire to die down. He picked up his phone and saw there was a text from Claire,
How was Joan’s date?
I know what having teenage daughters is like
If you need medical intervention, I’m just down the hill
He grinned in the dark at his phone and typed back,
I think I’ll need mouth to mouth, Sassenach. Come quick. ;-)
The cabin rental office was quiet. It was Black Friday afternoon and Jamie had volunteered to work so Ian and Marsali could take the kids shopping early that morning. He gave Marsali the list of Christmas gifts he had been eyeing in the sale sheets and his credit card, knowing she would use it wisely.
Fergus had stopped in around noon with lunch, and to discuss his latest feature in the local paper. He had been working for the High Country Press for the past three years, taking over their social media and website, as well as his work as a photographer.
But now Jamie was alone, sipping his third cup of coffee at the front desk, as he worked on the content plan for Fraser’s Ridge over the holidays.
Running a business these days required a certain amount of tech-savvy and an online presence. With Marsali’s help, Jamie had set up a Facebook business page and Instagram profile for the cabin rentals. Fergus supplied stunning photography of the cabins, local attractions, and landscape. And Jamie used every Friday afternoon to set up and schedule the next week’s posts.
Logging into Facebook, Jamie checked his business page notifications and answered comments, questions, and messages that had come in that week. The glasses he used for reading and computer work sat low on the bridge of his nose as he scheduled posts to advertise their upcoming sale on rentals booked during the off-season. When he had finished, he checked his phone to see if Claire had texted him back yet.
She had left for Boston on Tuesday morning, but due to schedules and last-minute family emergencies they hadn’t seen each other since Sunday. It was the longest he had been without her since their non-relationship began, and he had another endless weekend stretching ahead of him before she came home.
Only another hour till the office closed, and then he could head home and see what Marsali had been able to find from his shopping list. Murtagh had packed the fridge with leftovers that they would graze on for the next few days, and Jamie planned to fill the hours until Claire returned with wrapping gifts and stuffing his face with turkey and sweet potato casserole.
Beside him, the phone buzzed and he almost dropped it in his excitement.
Gail took us Black Friday shopping, and I just woke up.
I look like a wooly mammoth.
He laughed out loud and texted back,
I’ll need photographic evidence of this, Sassenach.
The photo she sent was just the top half of her face, her eyes still sleepy, and curls spilling in every direction with no regard for gravity. She meant for it to be funny, but the photo clenched his heart tight. He wanted to see her desperately.
I miss that wee mop of curls tickling my nose.
Have fun, but come home soon.
He was staring at his computer screen and thinking of Claire, glancing up when his phone buzzed to smile at the kissy face emoji she sent in response to his text. In his mind, he pictured her face as it had been last week when they had made love, not knowing it would be the last time before her trip; giggling and tugging each other into the laundry room to “fuck on the dryer like we did in college”, as she put it.
Jamie frowned when he realized he didn’t have any other pictures of Claire. They were cordial in public, but so far had avoided prying eyes finding out about the amount of time they spent together—though he suspected that Gillian knew. He leaned forward and typed her name into the Facebook search bar, thinking maybe he could find a recent photo there to save on his phone.
“Just a wee bit of stalking,” he cringed at himself but scrolled through the list of Claire Randalls until he found her, listed as Claire Beauchamp Randall . The picture was of a bouquet of forget-me-nots, but he clicked to her profile to see if she had any of herself.
She hadn’t posted in almost a year, but she was tagged in several photos. Jamie scrolled through, drinking in her beautiful face. The most recent photos were from yesterday, she was tagged in a picture with a handsome man he assumed was her friend Joe, and another in a kitchen cooking with a woman who was probably Joe’s wife. There was another one of her outside with the vibrant fall colors around her, laughing at whoever was behind the camera. Jamie sat for a moment studying it and smiling. Her eyes were lit with love and humor.
The next photos were from earlier in the spring. They seemed to all be from the same album, a high school graduation ceremony, with Claire standing proudly next to…
The world around him faded to a buzzing static as he stared at the girl in the photo grinning at the camera. She stood several inches taller than her mother and she had broad shoulders with curly auburn hair cascading over them in waves. Her blue eyes met his, like a mirror reflecting back his own image.
He knew her. His mind acknowledged the physical similarities between himself and this girl, but it was more than that.
He had been dreaming of her almost nightly for the past 19 years.
The name on the diploma she held jumped out suddenly and stopped his beating heart.
Brianna Ellen Randall.
His mind was blank, unable to form a coherent thought. There were tears on his cheeks but he didn’t notice them, he just stared at the smiling girl on the screen until his brain jolted back into motion.
“Oh, God,” he whispered. He looked up, not seeing anything. Then he stumbled from his seat and locked the office door, turning off the open light.
His hands were trembling when he got back behind the counter. She was still there. The computer screen exactly as he left it.
He couldn’t fall apart here. The front desk was clearly visible from the door if someone were to knock he would have to answer. But Jamie was terrified of closing down this computer, of breaking this connection. If her face disappeared from his screen, would he ever see it again?
The phone buzzed on the counter, but he couldn’t pick it up.
He memorized her face; the detail and nuance that his dreams had lacked, and then he quickly shut down the computer and walked back to his office.
“God, please. Please…”
The laptop took forever to boot up, and his fingers shook as he typed in her name. She was the third Brianna Randall on the list.
Jamie found himself in her photo album, clicking through snapshots of the life she had lived in Boston. There were pictures with friends from college, selfies in various places on campus, and dozens of photos with Claire.
When Frank’s face came on the screen Jamie flinched. The man’s arm was around the girl. Brianna. He was smiling. Jamie’s fist clenched against the desk and he felt his temperature rise.
That’s my daughter.
He pushed past, clicking into the next set of photos that were all of Brianna as a child. Her bright blue eyes creased into tiny triangles with laughter. Her curly hair flying in the wind.
My daughter. Oh, God.
A photo of Brianna as a baby in her mother’s arms. Claire’s face shone with pride, her hands carefully holding the little girl who stretched out toward a Christmas tree ornament.
The tears were blurring his vision now, and he swiped angrily at his face, knocking into his glasses and laying them on the desk beside him. He was sobbing, choking on his emotion, trying to take a full breath. His hands settled on either side of the screen, framing the two faces.
Claire, how could you?
Jamie fell forward, folding in on himself in pain. His body shook as he cried for the years he lost, the birthdays he never knew he was missing, the days and nights with this precious girl that had been stolen from him.
Yet, somehow, he knew her face. He had seen her and loved her for her whole life, even not knowing that she was alive. That she was his.
Their faces on the screen were lost behind his tears, and Jamie’s head rested in his hands on the desk. He felt numb, but at the same time the stabbing wounds were fresh and sharp in his gut. He could not think of Claire. Not yet.
Breeanah. My wee lass.
He wiped his face with shaking hands and tried to calm his breathing. He wanted to know everything about her. Everything he could find out.
Jamie pulled out a notebook and began writing down information about his daughter.
Her birthday was November 23, she would have just turned 19 last week. She was a freshman at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. She was single, her hometown was Boston. He read everything she posted, the articles she linked to, and the conversations she had in the comments.
She was bright. Jamie was impressed when he saw she was studying to be an engineer. She leaned to the left politically, and always engaged in debates with kindness and empathy. He nodded several times, reading her points and conclusions of current events. There were images of her art; charcoal sketches that jumped off the page with vibrant life and reminded Jamie of his mother’s ability to wield a pencil.
Christ, she’s wonderful.
The photos were more difficult. Jamie tried not to let himself linger on the pictures with her mother, but the hardest for him to take were the photos of Brianna and Frank. There were dozens of them from every stage of her life. Always grinning at the camera like they hadn’t a care in the world.
Jamie studied her face, searching her expression from image to image trying to discern her thoughts—to see if the smile reached her eyes. But she seemed to have inherited his ability to hide her emotions behind a mask.
He found a video and froze for several moments before he found the courage to play it. When her bright face filled the screen his tears started again, flowing silently over lips stretched into a trembling smile. She was talking about a charity her class was raising funds for, something about investing in micro-loans for victims of human trafficking to start their own business. Jamie was mesmerized by the natural conviction she spoke with.
He saw himself in her mannerisms; the way she held her head, the easy confidence in her speech: she was incredible. He touched her face on the laptop screen.
I want to know her. I need to know my daughter.
His ringtone started sounding muffled, Jamie looked up, realizing he had left it at the front desk. He glanced at the time and saw that he had been looking through Brianna’s profile for three hours without realizing that the time was passing.
She smiled up at him from his computer screen, and suddenly Jamie knew what he had to do. More than anything, he needed to understand the pain gripping his heart and mind. He needed to know why she had been hidden from him without his knowledge or consent. And there was only one way to get that answer. Grabbing his laptop and charger, he headed out to go home and pack.
She was in Boston, right now. With Claire.
That’s where he would go.
The cool breeze swept a curl across my face, and I impatiently pushed it away. After spending the weekend in Boston, this mild North Carolina weather could kiss my ass. I trudged down the road; a huge plastic tub full of paint in my hands. Marsali was working on the nursery and I had promised to bring over all the leftovers from my renovation phase.
It had been a whirlwind trip. Seeing Joe and Gail was wonderful. It surprised me how much I had missed them, and I realized the extent I had changed in the past months. Everyone remarked on how happy I seemed, especially Brianna. She was glued to my side the whole weekend.
That girl is my whole life.
She was so excited to see Boone at Christmastime, and I found myself feeling the thrill as well. Before remembering what having Bree in Boone would mean for me .
But there was no avoiding it. Between Gillian and Dr. Rawlings, I knew that I had to reveal the truth to my daughter and Jamie. Fucking obviously. I couldn’t move forward with Jamie knowing this was between us, and I couldn’t keep it from Bree any longer either.
I had two weeks to enjoy him, to soak up everything he would give me, and then the hammer would fall. Selfishly, I meant to use every moment of those two weeks.
I had already priced out hotels in case Bree was too angry to stay with me once she knew. I had gifts for her, but I was half expecting to spend Christmas alone. It was okay. Dr. Rawlings promised that I would get through this and it might not actually be as bad as I was anticipating.
I would be fine. It would be…
Fucking terrible. It’s going to be goddamn awful.
I sighed and hitched the plastic tub on one hip. I had just gotten back from Boston early this morning, and slept for five straight hours when I got home. Marsali had invited me over this evening for dinner and to talk nursery decor, and I was excited to do it, but all I really wanted was to be alone with Jamie for whatever time we had left.
Marsali was waiting on the porch wearing a knit shawl. She was into her seventh month, and her belly was starting to get uncomfortable; I could tell by the way she stood and braced her hand against her spine.
“Welcome back, Claire!” Her grin spread across her face, and I couldn’t help but smile back. Marsali was one of the most sincere people I had ever met, and her friendship was beginning to mean the world to me.
We walked into the living room where Joan was folding and sorting baby clothes. I shifted the tub to my other hip long enough to smile at her and then Marsali led me back toward the nursery, chatting about the colors I had brought and theme ideas. I followed her into the room and almost dropped the tub of paint on my own foot when I saw Jamie and a teenage boy turn around from where they were stripping wallpaper.
It was his son, the next one up in age from the twins. William, I think his name was.
But it was his son.
I know I’d seen him before when they all came to help me move, but it wasn’t until right now, standing next to his father that the resemblance was striking. His hair was a dark chestnut, but he had the bright blue Fraser eyes and the cocky jaunt to his head as he smiled a greeting and turned back to his work.
“Hello, Claire.” I turned and met Jamie’s eyes, instantly feeling enveloped in the most secure of embraces. He had seen my reaction to William, and his gaze on me was as clear as words.
I did. After a moment I nodded, smiled, and turned back to Marsali. I did trust him. Whatever the story was, it would be the truth and he would share it with me. Jamie didn’t keep terrible secrets from people he loved.
That’s me. I’m the one who does that.
Well, not for much longer. I swallowed my anxiety again. Why should I be shocked about a biological son in a slew of adopted ones? There was actually a measure of relief that he had, after all, been able to raise a child of his blood. I hadn’t taken that away from him completely.
We chatted, looked at the paint samples, and tried to picture them on the walls. Joan came in and we debated painting a mountainscape, using Pinterest for inspiration. All the while, I was hyper-aware of his presence. The bunching of muscles under his shirt as he reached and scraped at the wall. He seemed quieter than normal, not joining in the conversation with his usual teasing banter.
Fergus had cooked dinner and we piled around the table to enjoy lasagna and crusty garlic bread. It was delicious, and between Fergus, Marsali, Joan and William the conversation was lively. But Jamie still seemed subdued and his smiles died quicker than they normally did.
I was helping with the dishes when he came up behind me and asked quietly, “Can I walk ye home, Sassenach?”
It was a tidy excuse to leave together, and I took the coat he handed me and said my goodbyes gratefully. The crisp, autumn air filled my lungs and I glanced over at him as we walked down the street, wondering again if everything was alright.
“Did you do anything over the weekend?” I ventured after we passed the first house in silence.
Jamie glanced over at me. “Aye, I took some time away, actually. It was… I needed it.”
He started to say more, then stopped himself and the ghost of a smile crossed his face. “The holiday was good. It was the twin’s first Thanksgiving with us. Murtagh still grumbles about celebrating it, but he has gotten into deep frying the turkey now. It’s fun to watch him embrace his inner American.”
I laughed at that, and the dimples in his cheeks deepened. He reached over and took my hand, and the unsettled feeling in my stomach eased.
“How… how was yours?” he asked.
“Wonderful.” My thoughts turned again to Boston and Bree, and for a moment I pushed aside my fear of the future. “It was lovely. I didn’t realize how much I was missing the friends I left up there.”
“And yer daughter?”
I nodded, blinking back the unexpected emotion. His fingers tightened around mine, tugging me closer and I ended up crying against his wool coat under an evergreen tree in the corner of my yard. His arms were strong and warm around my back, and his voice murmured soft Gaelic in my hair.
When my tears subsided I rested my forehead against his chest, soaking in his strength.
“Tell me, Claire,” he whispered against my cheek.
I swallowed back new tears and spoke a different truth—not the truth I needed to tell him; that one he didn’t even know to ask for.
“I just miss her, that’s all.”
A tremor passed through his body, probably from the cold, and I tugged at him to come inside. We kicked off our shoes and hung our coats in the dark, then he pulled me to sit on the couch, stretching to plug in my string of fairy lights.
I settled with my back against his chest and relaxed there, soaking in the moments of peace between us. Moments that would have to be enough for the rest of my life. His breathing was deep and even, calming my heart and mind.
“I met William’s mother about two years after… well, after college.”
He had pulled the throw blanket over my lap and he tucked it in around us.
“I hadn’t looked at another lass since we broke up, but Jenny kept introducing me to her friends. And Geneva was…” he stumbled, searching for a word. “Well, I thought at first she was like ye, actually.”
I must have stiffened at that because his hands smoothed up and down my arms.
“She was confident and independent, like ye, Sassenach. But it turned out her confidence made her reckless. We dated for a month or two before I realized she was messing with drugs, and it didna last long after that.”
Jamie was silent for a few moments, his chin resting on the crown of my head.
“I learned about William when he was six years old and his mother overdosed on heroin. She had put my name on his birth certificate and within a week they flew him to the States and he moved in with Fergus and I.”
I couldn’t think of a thing to say, but I took his hands in mine and held them tight. What are the odds that two women would hide his children from him? God, I was no different than his drug-addict, rebound girlfriend. I hated myself for what I did to him. And soon he would hate me for it too. I pressed a kiss to the rough knuckle closest to my lips.
If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t have stopped trying. I would have called Jenny, gone to Lallybroch, wrote him a fucking letter... something. Anything.
Instead, I left him two voicemails telling him I was pregnant, and when he didn’t answer I let my hurt take over. I robbed him of his daughter and took Bree away from the best father she could have known. Then, I spent the next twenty years desperately trying not to take another father away from her.
I was crying again. Jamie had wrapped both arms around me; my tears dripped down over my lips to wet his fingers, tight in my own.
“What is it, mo chridhe?”
I just wanted to tell him, I wanted to get this aching weight off of my chest and trust him to understand, somehow, the decision I had made. But the possibility that he would storm out of my house and never hold me like this again kept the words frozen in my throat.
Instead, I shook my head, turning until his lips were on my temple.
He was speaking Gaelic again. I never had picked much up, but I recognized the terms of endearment he used on a regular basis.
Mo ghraidh, mo chridhe, mo nighean donn.
My love, my heart, my brown-haired lass.
How many more times would I hear those words before it was over? My lungs felt tight in my chest and I struggled to pull in enough air. The tears had blurred my vision. But I clung to him and concentrated on his voice in my ear.
“It’s okay, mo ghraidh. I’m right here, lass. I willna leave ye.”
Yes, you will. Oh god, yes you will.
He stood, cradling me in his arms with my head against his shoulder, and carried me up to my bed. I shook with cold and sobs wracked my body as he undressed me and then slid in behind me under the comforter, wrapping me in his warmth.
He seemed to be content just to hold me, but I wasn’t. I could feel the emptiness growing in my belly and I needed to be filled. With his reassurance or with his cock—I wasn’t trying to decipher which one I needed most.
I pressed my body up against his chest and kissed him hard, sliding my tongue across his bottom lip and urging him to reciprocate.
“Jamie,” I whispered in between kisses, “I need you, please.”
He opened to me then, a dam of passion breaking from his chest like he had been holding it back under tight control. His hands burnt my skin and I surrendered to it. I needed to feel that edge of violent possession, and I scratched at his back and shoulders trying to spur him to use me harder.
“No, mo chridhe. ”
I was gasping, almost keening, unable to express what I needed from him. Then his hands wrapped around my wrists and pulled them up above me, holding them against the headboard. He rolled up to kneel between my thighs, his gaze holding my eyes even in the darkness. His cock pressed into me, inch by inch, soothing the restless ache inside.
Now fully joined, his forehead rested on mine; the air between us was thick with tension and unspoken words and he breathed into my mouth, “I love you, and only you.”
There, pinned and filled beneath him, he owned me. When his hips began to move, sensations swamped me in their intensity, and all I could do was cling to him and let him do with me what he would. And he did. Over and over he built me up, using his free hand to send me reeling into oblivion. His mouth brought me back to consciousness and he started again.
At last, he released my wrists and both of his big hands wrapped around my hips, holding them motionless as he let himself go.
When it was over, and he lay shaking with his head pillowed on my breast, he whispered so softly I had to strain my ears to hear him, “Tell me what’s wrong, mo ghraidh.”
What was wrong?
There was too much.
“Not tonight, Jamie. No more tonight.”
As I drifted into an exhausted sleep, I thought I felt tears sliding down between my breasts and dripping onto the mattress below me. But I couldn’t tell if they were real or if it was a dream.
“Ye ken I love yer children, a bhalaich . But ye’re their father, and they need ye to climb out of whatever this rut is that ye’ve been wallowing in.”
Jamie winced, rubbing his eyes in the chill of the early December morning. It was barely 3 am, but Murtagh had been waiting for him when he hit the top of the ridge trail after spending half the night with Claire again.
He was right. The kids knew that Jamie was gone more than usual, and they could tell that he wasn’t mentally present with them even when he was home. Murtagh was always around and able to supervise, but it wasn’t his job to be the primary caregiver.
Regardless of where his mind was with Claire and Brianna, these children were his family, and they needed him. Claire wouldn’t even date him publicly. And Brianna… well, she didn’t know of his existence. Neither of them were his responsibility at this moment .
But Ian, William, Jo, Kez, and Joan were. And since the day he took off with barely a warning and no explanation—missing their annual Christmas tree decorating tradition the weekend after Thanksgiving—he had been letting them down.
“I’m sorry, a ghoistidh.”
The older man grunted in displeasure. “I dinna need yer apologies, lad.”
No, what he needed was an explanation. Jamie owed him that much. He braced his shoulders and gestured toward the pool house.
“Will ye pour us a dram? I’ve got something to tell ye.”
He started with her picture, passing his phone over to Murtagh, who held it with both hands and stared for a long time with his furrowed brows masking his expression. Jamie was about to speak when his godfather finally looked up and there were tears in his eyes.
“Christ, Jamie. She looks like Ellen.”
A wave of emotion hit; Jamie had to drop his head and pinch the bridge of his nose to keep from crying. He nodded and nodded, unable to speak through the knot in his throat. His daughter— his Brianna —was the spitting image of the mother he’d lost when he was a child.
“Och, lad. I kent it had something to do with Claire again, but this was quite a bomb to drop after all this time. When did she tell ye?”
“She hasn’t told me,” Jamie’s voice cracked with emotion. Murtagh’s eyes widened in disbelief, then narrowed at him.
“She hasna told ye?” he repeated the words slowly, confusion and anger playing across his weathered face. “How did ye find out if she hasna told ye?”
Jamie only shook his head. He wasn’t doing this to heap blame on Claire. Good as it would feel to unleash some of the hurt and betrayal he felt, he refused to accuse her or even commiserate with Murtagh, without knowing the full story.
“I’m waiting for her, Murtagh. I’m waiting for her to tell me the truth, and we’ll figure out what to do from there.”
The older man’s mouth was set in a hard line and he studied his godson’s face.
“How can ye not be angry about this?”
“I am angry!” the words burst from between clenched teeth before he could stop them. “God, Murtagh. I drove halfway to Boston in a blind rage, I dinna ken what I would have done if I got there in that state.”
The feelings crashed through him again just speaking about it. That whole weekend had been spent in a seedy motel in Pennsylvania, pacing, crying, and raging his frustration at the thin walls. A full day and night had passed before he could think about Claire without wanting to shake her till her teeth rattled in her head.
But what had held him in check, and what brought him back to Boone without seeing his daughter, was the memory of Claire’s face when she let him see her naked in the daylight. The terror that had marked her features and the bravery as she steeled herself for his appraisal.
“I just…” his eyes turned heavenward as if to ask for guidance. “I need to do this for her . She needs to be able to tell me in her own time.”
Murtagh’s face hadn’t changed. If anything, his brows had furrowed further and his eyes were dark with emotion.
“And what if she never tells ye, Jamie? What then?”
The answer bloomed like hope in Jamie’s chest—he clung to it like a lifeline.
“She will, Murtagh. She wants to. Just look at what she’s done in the past few months; she bought a house in Boone, even knowing I lived here.” His hands hovered, trembling over the image of his daughter on the phone screen. “She has to ken it willna be a secret long once the lass comes for Christmas. She intentionally put herself in a position where she has to tell me. She’s just afraid.”
He felt his heart break for Claire again, carrying the weight of this secret alone for as long as she had.
“Do ye remember when Marsali and Joanie first came? They had been in and out of foster care because Laoghaire was at the whim of whatever boyfriend she had. Then, when I finally got custody, do ye remember how wee Joanie didna believe for months that they would be allowed to stay?”
“Aye, I remember,” Murtagh said softly.
“She was just waiting; expecting to be rejected and discarded, because that’s all she had ever experienced. She kent I had adopted her, but when yer own Ma tosses ye out like rubbish that doesna mean much.”
Jamie struggled to pull his thoughts together, wanting his closest friend and mentor to understand where he was coming from.
“Claire has been hurt like that. I can see the fear in her, growing each day as we get closer to the Christmas break. She’s expecting to be rejected and discarded over this.”
Murtagh’s eyes had softened and he nodded, contemplating the words.
“I love her, a ghoistidh. I always have. And I canna turn on her in anger when I see the courage it has taken for her to get this far. I’ll wait for her to find the strength to tell me about my daughter.”
The men sat in silence, the shadows around them stark in the moonlight. Jamie could feel the effects of too many late nights and too many pent up emotions, there was a painful pressure behind his right eye he had been ignoring for days.
“What’s her name? Yer daughter?” Murtagh spun the phone around to face him again, unlocking the screen to study her face again.
Jamie’s mouth stretched into an unconscious smile.
Their eyes met and Jamie answered the unasked question, “Aye, I think it’s after my parents. Brianna for Brian.”
“So she kent the babe was yours from the beginning.”
“It seems so,” Jamie had been thinking over every word she had said to him since she got to Boone, and one conversation kept coming back to him.
“She said—back months ago—that she had called me after graduation. I’ve been wondering if it was about this.”
“Ye never got a call?”
“Christ, Murtagh,” Jamie’s eyes burned with tears again. “I was a fecking mess over her for years. If I had a call I would have been at her doorstep the next day. Hell, if she had told me she was pregnant I would have moved heaven and earth. Ye ken I would have.”
Murtagh was nodding slowly, his chin resting against his steepled fingers.
“Ye werena a couple then,” he said finally. “The two of ye broke up after Brian passed. So when did this happen?”
Jamie flushed, feeling his ears grow hot under his godfather’s gaze. It was not a memory he liked to relive. But this deep in, he didn’t have much of a choice.
“There was one night,” he started, nervously fidgeting with his glass. “It was our senior year, just before graduation. Finals were over, and all we had yet to do was walk across the stage.”
The memories of that night flooded his head; he could feel the drum of alcohol in his system, and the desperation that had fueled his choices that night.
“I had been at a party and was half-pissed already when she called me.” He set the glass down on the table in front of him. “I picked up thinking she was going to tell me it had all been a mistake. I was so sure she would come back to me before we left school. But…”
He shook his head, feeling the same sharp pain that stabbed his heart that night.
“She was calling to tell me that Lamb had died.”
Her voice had been shaking on the phone, and he knew, even in his drunken state, that she was crying. She was short and to the point, telling him she had thought he would want to know before hanging up abruptly.
Ten minutes later, he rang her doorbell.
When she’d opened it, she had stared at him in shock for several seconds and then collapsed into his arms. Jamie remembered just closing his eyes and relishing the feeling of holding her again. He’d pulled her to the secondhand sofa they had bought together at a campus yard sale, and she had settled into his lap and soaked his t-shirt with tears.
Lamb had been her guardian since she was five years old. She had traveled the world with him on archeological expeditions, and it was only since arriving at the University of Glasgow, that they had been parted for any length of time.
His battle with cancer over the past year was one Jamie had seen from a distance, no longer Claire’s primary support system, but aching to help her cope somehow. He had been sending care packages and flowers. Lamb had been hospitalized for the past few months.
And now he was gone.
The girl in his arms had shifted, sniffing and wiping her eyes with the back of her hands. She had looked up at him with a world of pain and fear on her face and he kissed her.
What should have been the way back to each other quickly dissolved into something else as grief and lust and alcohol clouded their judgment. Jamie hadn’t had a woman since they’d broken up, and Claire was still actively crying even as she kissed him back. Her body responded to him; arching up into his touch and trembling as his hands slid against her skin.
Looking back now, Jamie cringed to think of how he had taken advantage of her vulnerability in that moment. He had wanted her so badly that nothing else mattered, and instead of supporting her through Lamb’s death, he had used her grief as an opportunity to wedge himself back into her life.
Murtagh was waiting patiently, watching the emotions cross his godson’s face. When Jamie finally spoke his voice was thick with self-loathing.
“I should have comforted her, and instead I used her to meet my own needs. I expected her to realize that we were meant to be together and that everything would go back to normal. But I didna see that I was just being a selfish bastard.”
He drained the last of his whisky. The approaching dawn was beginning to wrap a grey glow around the trees to the east. There would not be much sleep for either of them tonight.
“She said one fuck didn’t fix all of our problems, and I was so angry that I walked out. I felt like she was running away from me just like she had before, shutting me out of her life because she didn’t want to deal with our issues. But I’m the one who physically left.”
“Aye, I remember ye called and said not to bother coming to the ceremony.”
Jamie nodded, his eyes on his empty glass. “I left her grieving for her uncle alone. I didna even think about protection, so I left her pregnant too. The woman I said I loved more than life itself, and I chose to leave her hurting in the wake of my selfish anger, Murtagh. I willna do it again. No matter what.”
The older man stood and pulled Jamie to his feet. His dark eyes were full of compassion as he set his hands on his godson’s shoulders.
“I am proud of the man ye’ve become, a bhalaich. However ye choose to handle this situation, it will be the right way. I believe in ye, James Fraser.”
Then he pulled Jamie into his embrace and held him as he broke down and went very thoroughly to pieces.
Three hours to the northeast, Brianna Ellen Randall pulled into the parking lot of a chain hotel in Virginia for what remained of the night. She had been driving for 12 hours and her eyes were starting to feel dry and gritty.
Besides, she needed to think.
She checked in, paying for two nights to ensure she didn’t need to set an alarm for the morning. All she had was a backpack with her laptop and whatever had been clean in her dresser when she left.
She fell onto the bed, opening her phone for the hundredth time to find the picture again.
Months ago, Bree had followed High Country Press on Instagram. It was a small local paper in Watauga County, and their photography was stunning. It always made Bree feel closer to her mother to be able to see what Boone looked like and what local events were happening near her.
But yesterday there had been a picture that stopped her in her tracks.
It was a group shot of what looked like downtown Boone. A large Christmas tree was lit behind them and a dozen faces beamed at the camera. Bree had recognized her mother immediately, smiling broadly with her hair a mass of curls and pink cheeks.
But the man beside her wasn’t looking at the camera. His arm was wrapped around her mother’s shoulders and he looked down at her like she hung up the moon. He was tall and big, with brilliant red curls and sparkling blue eyes.
Bree knew him. She had been dreaming about him for her entire life.
After scouring the High Country Press website, all she could come up with was the name of the photographer: Fergus Fraser. So, she was headed to their main office in Boone to find him.
She took a shower and crawled under the covers, wanting to get at least a few hours of sleep before she showed up in Boone.
The last thing in her mind before she fell asleep was the same thought that had been running through her brain ever since she first saw the man in the photo:
Frank Randall is not my father.
The High Country Press main office turned out to be a neat log cabin situated outside of downtown Boone. Bree had been sitting and staring at it for the past twenty minutes.
She wasn’t afraid to go in. She had driven almost fifteen hours to get here, and she wasn’t turning back now. But every time she willed her body to climb out of the car and walk into the building, she froze.
She spent the whole drive and most of last night wondering what this man was going to be like. She unlocked her phone screen and stared at the photo again. He obviously felt something for her mother. His face as he looked at Claire squeezed Bree’s heart in her chest. What was their story? How did they meet, and how did they lose each other, and how did they find each other again?
That’s my history.
But it was impossible to tell from the outside what kind of man he was, and Brianna had been standing between her parents for the entirety of her life. There was no way she was going to let that same dynamic repeat itself here, especially when she couldn’t be there every day to make sure her mom was safe.
Frank had been a threat to her mother’s safety. This man was an unknown entity. Threat level to be determined.
Bree had told her professors she had a family emergency and had taken all of her midterms yesterday morning. She was in Boone a full 4 days ahead of schedule. Her mom was planning to pick her up from the airport in Charlotte on Friday afternoon. Four days to complete what she came here to do. The first step was Fergus Fraser. And then it was time to find the man from the photo.
My father. Find my father.
She moved abruptly and was out of the car before she let herself think about it, forcing her feet to move toward the building. As she rounded the corner two men were leaving the office. Bree stepped aside, giving them room to come down the handicap accessible ramp that led to the front door.
One of the men smiled at her and stopped walking, “We are leaving for the lunch hour, miss. Is there something I can do for you before we go?”
Bree bit her bottom lip. “I’m looking for Fergus Fraser?”
The man jerked his thumb back toward the office. “He’s still inside, just walk in and his office is straight ahead.”
Their footsteps crunched in the gravel behind her as Bree took a deep breath and headed up the ramp into the office and stepped inside. The door straight ahead was open, and a young man with curly dark hair looked up from his desk with a smile on his face that quickly fell when he saw her.
“Hello, miss! Can I help…” he blinked, frowned, and then stood and walked to the doorway slowly.
“You are Fergus Fraser?” she asked, unsure what to make of his stunned silence.
“I am, yes.” His face had gone pale and he ran long fingers through the dark curls, making his hair stick up strangely all over his head. “I… and who… um, how can I help you?”
Bree grasped her phone in her hand and found the photo. She held it up, willing herself to stop shaking.
“My name is Brianna Randall. I’m looking for the man in this picture. Can you help me find him?”
His eyes had gone even wider when she said her name. He didn’t even glance at the phone, instead stammering “Randall? As in Claire Randall?”
“Yes, she’s my mother.”
“ Sainte mère de Dieu ,” he whispered.
Bree felt a flash of annoyance. “I’m sorry? Are you able to help me?”
Fergus shook his head, his hand running through his hair once more. “Uhh, I can, yes. Will you come sit down?” He turned and she followed him into his office which had cork boards up on every wall and covered in photos.
Her eyes were drawn to the only framed picture on the wall. It was him. The man from the Instagram photo. But he was surrounded by a group of people that were clearly his family. Bree couldn’t tear her gaze from his face.
“His name is James Fraser,” Fergus spoke softly behind her. “He is my father.”
She had dreamed of this man so many times without knowing who he was. In her dreams, he had felt like security and love, a safe person she could trust. For some reason, it had never occurred to her, in all these hours since she discovered he was a real person, that he might have a family. She had somehow thought he would have been waiting all these years—that he would be overjoyed to finally know her.
But the smiling faces around him were a clear message. He already had a family.
Just because you’ve been dying to meet him your whole life, doesn’t mean he is going to feel the same way about you.
“I think he’s my father too,” she whispered through a tight throat. The faces in the photo were blurred as tears filled her eyes, and she blinked them back.
A warm hand rested gently on her shoulder, and Bree heard Fergus murmuring something but it sounded like a different language. She puffed her cheeks out trying to control her tears and was able to hold them at bay. This was not the time to cry.
It was a blow, sure. But, family or not, she came all this way to meet her father. And to find out what her mother had gotten herself into.
Behind them the door opened again and a sunny voice came from the main office. “My love! I’ve brought everything that wasn’t expired or moldy, and then I figured I’d head to the store after…”
Bree turned to see a petite blonde woman walking in with a cooler on her arm. She was heavily pregnant and beaming at Fergus until she noticed he wasn’t alone in the room.
“Who is… holy shit,” her eyes were round as saucers and Fergus caught the cooler as it slipped from her hands.
“Mo chridhe, chérie,” he slipped his arm around what was left of her waist and dropped a kiss on her smooth golden hair. “This is Mrs. Randall’s daughter.” It was impossible for the girl’s eyes to get any wider, but her mouth dropped open to compensate.
“Brianna,” Bree cleared her throat and held out her hand to the girl. “Brianna Randall.”
“Marsali MacKimmie, soon to be Fraser.” They shook hands, the shorter girl’s eyes never leaving Bree’s face. “I’m sorry, you just look so much like…” her words trailed off and her eyes flitted behind Bree to the photo on the wall.
There was an awkward moment of silence, then Fergus held up the cooler. “Would you eat with us, Brianna? I’m sure there’s plenty of food.”
Bree nodded, and the three sat down around the desk which Fergus hastily cleared papers and his laptop from, piling them all on the floor next to the desk. Marsali started pulling food from the cooler. There was half of a loaf of bread, a tupperware container of roast beef, cheese, a few vegetables, apples, some condiments, and a bag of chips half eaten. Fergus poured them each a mug of hot coffee from the main office and then set himself to work making sandwiches, piling them high with veggies and even throwing a few potato chips into the one he handed Marsali.
“God, babe. This is so good,” she wiped at the mustard on her lip. “All I want right now is carbs, and Fergus tries to stuff as many vegetables into my carbs as he can.”
His grin was mischievous and his dark eyes danced as he watched her enjoy her meal. “It is not an easy thing to do. This woman would live on bread, if I allowed it. I have to remind her to think of our son.”
Bree smiled politely, picking up her sandwich and taking a small bite that sank like lead in her stomach. She tried not to look at the photo of James Fraser and his family or think about what that might mean for her. Fergus and Marsali chatted about work, the baby, and their upcoming wedding, trying to pull Brianna into the conversation but keeping the atmosphere light between them as they ate.
She actually recognized the name Marsali. Her mom had told her about the young woman who lived down the street that she had been spending time with, and Bree felt a surge of discomfort, now knowing that her mom had been getting close to James Fraser’s daughter who happened to be just about her age. It was ridiculous to be intimidated by that, but she felt like she was invading an already established family unit. Her mom had reconnected with her old flame and was getting to know his kids. She couldn’t help but feel a little lost. She managed to get half of the sandwich down and was relieved to find that she did feel better for having food in her stomach again.
“So, Brianna,” her name rolled off of Fergus’ tongue with a slight accent and he pushed his plate forward to rest his forearms on the desk. “Why don’t you tell us about yourself and what brings you to Boone?”
Bree nodded and took a deep breath. “There’s not a lot to tell, actually.” She wrapped her arms around her body, feeling suddenly cold even with her sweater and the warm office. “Two days ago I came across a picture of him on Instagram, and I knew…” her voice broke and she shook her head and steeled herself. “I could see the resemblance between us, and seeing him with my mom… it just clicked.”
She couldn’t look at Fergus or Marsali, but her eyes were pulled again to the photo of James Fraser and his family. “I was raised in Boston by my mom and dad, but their relationship has been tense for as long as I can remember. They never gave me any reason to believe Frank wasn’t my father. I just…” she blinked hard to get the sheen of moisture from her eyes. “When I saw that picture, I just knew. Everything in my life made sense.”
All three sat in silence digesting the information. With it laid out in the open like this, Bree felt a slice of pain and anger; that her mother hadn’t prepared her at all for this moment. She pushed the thought aside as Marsali spoke.
“Da told us that he knew your mother in college. They dated for, I think, three years, and then they got pregnant. But they fought about it and soon afterwards broke up. He told us they lost the baby. I assumed he meant Claire had a miscarriage.”
Bree stared at the table, her heart feeling numb. “I would never have thought my mom would lie about something like that, but...” she felt tears burning behind her eyes. “Apparently, she lied to me my whole life about my real father. So, I don’t know. Maybe she could?”
The coffee in front of her had grown cold and her fingers gripped the ceramic mug wishing for the heat that had radiated from it earlier. There had to be a reason. Her mom wouldn’t have done something like that without a good reason.
“I guess we really don’t know much,” Marsali observed, pushing the remains of her sandwich around her plate.
Fergus was studying Bree and, after a moment, he spoke, “They are involved again. Your mother and Da.” She looked up sharply; she had suspected as much, but the knowledge still left her feeling empty. Like she was being left out of the family as it knit back together.
“They aren’t dating officially, but I know he loves her.”
Brianna felt a wave of nausea and dropped her head into her hands. Why was she reacting this way? This wasn’t bad. She wanted her mother to be with someone who actually loved her back. And reconnecting with her long-lost father was like something out of a movie—too perfect to be real life.
The problem was her.
Would James Fraser want her? Could he accept her and maybe grow to love her someday? Or would her very existence ruin her mother’s chances with him?
She didn’t realize she was crying until she felt Marsali wrap her arms around her shoulders, and then she turned toward her and sobbed until there weren’t any tears left. The smaller woman stroked her hair back from her brow and soothed her like she was a baby, but Bree didn’t feel self-conscious. She felt… relieved. She had been expecting to be completely alone, but finding Fergus and Marsali as unexpected allies was something she didn’t realize would make this easier. She sniffed as Fergus handed her a tissue with practiced ease.
“Well,” his dark eyes were focused on her face, “Da is at the rental office right now. If you want to meet him, we can drive over with you. And then we can man the office while you talk.”
Bree wiped at her eyes, feeling a little panicked. “I want to, yes. I’m just… god, I’m never afraid of anything. But what if he doesn’t want me?”
“Oh, lass,” Marsali shook her head, “that’s not even possible. Come on, let me tell you a little bit about your Da.”
They packed up the cooler and threw out their trash, then Fergus scribbled a note letting his co-workers know where he had gone. Bree wanted to drive, so Marsali rode with her and they followed Fergus’ beat up Jeep across town.
During the drive to the office Marsali told Bree about Jamie and their family. She talked briefly about each of the kids, but Bree lost track after the first four. It was a lot to take in, and it sounded complicated. But the underlying message resonated in her chest.
He is going to love you.
Bree repeated it to herself over and over until they pulled into another gravel parking lot in front of a sturdy looking log building. An open light shone in the window. Fergus had pulled into a parking spot along the left side of the building and Marsali directed her to park next to him.
“Do you need us to come in with you?” Marsali asked, “Or would you rather we wait?”
“I want to do this alone, but thank you.” Bree reached over and hugged the other girl.
“Hey, you are our sister now. We would do anything for you.”
Bree climbed out before she started crying again. Fergus gave her a nod and a smile, and then she strode over to the door and walked in.
A bell tinkled above her head, but she barely heard it. He was there behind the front desk with his back turned to the door, and elbow deep in a printer with the top and various parts scattered on the counter beside him.
“Just a moment, aye? I’m fixing a jam.” His voice was deeper than she expected. He was smaller than she expected, too. Probably just the difference between her dreams and reality. She stood just inside the door, taking him in. His profile had the long straight lines of her own; the solid bones, stubborn jaw, the corner of a slanted eye.
The muscles in his forearm tensed and he yanked out several wrinkled sheets of paper out of the bowels of the printer with a sound of triumph. He tossed the paper to the side and turned, straightening his shirt and wiping his brow.
“Now then, how can I help ye?” He looked up just then and his words trailed off. His blue eyes pierced her, and Bree found it hard to pull in a full breath.
“My name is Brianna,” she said softly and saw the color leave his face. “I’m... your daughter, Brianna,” her voice sounded choked to her own ears.
The man behind the counter was pale as a sheet, and then a deep pink flush swept over his neck and face and Bree could have wept. She had studied Frank Randall’s face and mannerisms for years, searching for signs that she had any of him in her blood—that any of his cruelty might show up in her own heart one day. She had never found herself in his face or his actions. But this man... thirty seconds in his presence and she knew she belonged to him.
“Brianna?” He came around the desk slowly, his eyes never leaving hers. He stopped two feet away from her abruptly, as if he wanted to reach out to her but was holding himself in check.
Bree opened her mouth to speak again but nothing came out. She swallowed at the lump in her throat, taking in everything she could about this moment.
Slowly, carefully, his hand lifted toward her and traced the air beside her cheek.
“I have waited… so long, a leannan.” His eyes had filled with tears and Bree found hers were full too. When they spilled over her cheeks, he reached out tentatively but she was already stumbling forward into his embrace. And she found she had been wrong; he was as big as she’d dreamed—and his arms were as strong around her as she had ever dared to hope.
The bell above the office door jingled and Jamie cursed inwardly. Of course, a customer would come in at the worst possible moment. He had tried to print off the weekly reports only to hear the sharp crackle of paper sliding into the machine a little off-kilter. Damn thing should have been replaced months ago.
“Just a moment, aye? I’m fixing a jam,” he called. His fingers were finally able to reach the crumpled mess now that he had disemboweled the machine on his countertop, and with a yank, the mess of paper was free.
“Aha!” He dropped it in the trash and turned around, dragging a sleeve across his sweaty brow and tugging his shirt into place. “Now then, how can I help ye?”
The first thing he saw was her hair, curly and wild around her shoulders, blazing in a shaft of sun from the window behind her.
“My name is Brianna,” she spoke barely above a whisper, but the words shook him to the core. She was searching his face now, her eyes full of emotion and tears at whatever she found there.
“Brianna?” Somehow he had moved across the room to stand before her. She was so beautiful. So familiar; she had been frequenting his dreams even more of late and he had saved a dozen photos from her Facebook to look at when he had a spare moment.
He found that his hand had lifted toward her, tracing the air beside her cheek, afraid to touch lest she disappear.
“I have waited… so long, a leannan.” His heart lurched as tears spilled over her cheeks and then she was in his arms, warm and real against his heart.
Oh, God. Oh, Christ. Brianna.
She was huge . That was his first real thought. He was so used to hugging smaller women; Claire being the tallest, and still, her head naturally tucked right under his chin. His daughter was broad and strong, only a few inches shy of his own 6’3”. She had bent her head to rest on his shoulder and he could feel her tears soaking into the flannel of his shirt.
“Dinna weep, m’annsachd; it’s alright,” he soothed her, running his hand over her hair. He thought his heart might burst with joy, and in the next breath, break with the grief over all of the time they had lost with each other. “ Mo nighean, mo chridhe, all will be right now.”
“How do you…” she pulled away abruptly and blinked away tears to look into his face, “how do you know my name? Have you known about me all this time?”
Jamie felt the loss of her against his chest acutely. “No, no, lass. I have only known about ye a short time. Since Thanksgiving.”
“Oh,” she sniffed, looking down. He fumbled in his pocket for a handkerchief, murmuring a prayer of thanks that he had a clean one. As Brianna wiped at her eyes and nose he could see the wheels turning in her brain. There was a pause, where his arms ached to embrace her again. Then she glanced up, “Did Mama tell you?”
He shook his head, and noting the question in her eyes, answered, “I saw yer photo on the internet.” He ran his fingers through his hair nervously, but looked up sharply when she laughed.
“That’s how I found you, too.” Her own curls were tousled from jittery fingers and he found himself grinning at her. The chuckle caught in his throat when her smile wavered and he pulled her close again, glad for the excuse.
“You saw a picture, and that was enough? You could… you could tell?” Her voice was choked and small, almost unsure, and Jamie had to swallow the lump in his own throat.
“Aye, a leannan. I could tell ye were mine.”
She sobbed then, her whole body shook with relief and sorrow as he pressed her into his shoulder and whispered in her ear. He told her how much he wished he could have been there for her growing up, how much it pained him that those years had been lost, and most of all, over and over again he told her how much he loved her. It was all in Gaelic—he didn’t know if it was too soon to tell her in English—but the words seemed to soothe her tears, and he ran his hands over her curls and held her for several long blissful minutes.
“Are you Scottish?” The words were mumbled into his shoulder and he chuckled.
“Aye, as Scottish as they come.”
“So, I’m Scottish?” She pulled back, wiping her eyes with his handkerchief. Jamie caught a movement at the window and looked up to see Fergus peeking in. He looked startled at being caught, but then waved sheepishly.
Jamie opened his mouth, unsure if he should warn her about his son when the door opened and Fergus and Marsali both walked in. Brianna spun around at the sound but then smiled, and Jamie was surprised to see both of his children beaming at her.
“I told you,” Marsali said, stepping forward and sliding her arm around Brianna’s waist.
He stared for a moment, a little stunned as the world shifted beneath him yet again. “How…?” He gestured abstractly between them, looking to Fergus at a loss for words.
“She showed up at the office this afternoon,” his grin was wide as he watched the two girls, “she found my name as the photographer and came in looking for you.”
Jamie couldn’t think of a thing to say. Brianna had melted into Marsali’s side with a relieved expression on her face. He could see the stress slowly dissipating from her shoulders. She must have come down from Boston not knowing for sure what she was going to find.
What a brave wee thing.
“I saw a picture of you and Mama on Instagram, and I had to know… so, I drove down,” she smiled shyly, and Jamie’s breath caught in his throat. He had thought he knew her face as well as his own, but to see it here, in real life… there was a photo in his home of his parents on their wedding day, Brian and Ellen Fraser—both gone now, but as in love as any two people could be. Brianna was the very image of her grandmother.
“Aye, I saw yer photo on the Facebook. That’s how I found out about ye.”
“God, Da. ‘ The Facebook’? What are you, seventy-five?” Marsali rolled her eyes and they all started laughing. It was surreal. His children—here, happy, and comfortable with each other. Jamie felt like his heart might burst trying to contain his happiness.
Fergus squeezed his shoulder, bringing him back to the moment.
“Marsali and I came to man the office so you two could spend the day together,” he gestured to Brianna and smiled. “You’ll want to get to know each other a bit, I think.”
“Aye,” Jamie said softly, smiling at each of them in turn. “Is that alright with you… Brianna?”
He saw her throat move when she swallowed, but her blue eyes met his and she nodded firmly. It took several minutes for him to gather his things, but they were soon walking out to his truck.
“I thought I’d take ye up to one of the empty rentals,” he glanced over to see her drumming her fingers against her thigh with nervous energy and clenched his hand when he realized he had been doing the same thing. “That way we willna run into anyone.”
“Sounds good. I’m fine with whatever,” she kept her face turned, watching the trees pass outside the window. Jamie wondered what she was thinking, then decided the only way to know was to ask.
“How are ye feeling, then, lass?”
Brianna looked over at him with a half-smile. “I’m okay. It’s been a lot to take in, and my mind is spinning with questions right now. But… I’m glad to be here.”
He reached over to touch her shoulder, squeezing gently. “I’m glad ye’re here too, Brianna. I’ll answer everything I can.”
She took a deep breath and nodded, but didn’t try to keep the conversation going, so Jamie let the silence fall between them. He turned up the road to the cabins and pulled down to the end, to the cabin Claire had stayed in at the end of the summer when she had shown up and disrupted his whole world.
“Yer mam walked into my rental office unexpected one day, just like ye did,” he smiled at the memory. “Nearly knocked me off my feet. She didna ken she had rented a cabin from me, and I hadna recognized her name on the reservation.”
“How long had it been since you saw her?” Brianna hopped out of the truck and they stepped up onto the porch together. There was a chill in the air but the sun was warm enough that he led her around the porch to stand and look at the valley below.
“It had been twenty years,” his eyes found Claire’s cottage through the trees and he thought about pointing it out.
“Twenty years...” her voice trailed off and she stood frowning at the railing.
Jamie could see the wheels turning in her head and took a guess, “Ye’re trying to figure out when we had the chance to make ye?” Her blush made the corner of his lips twitch into a smile.
“Well, it was the last night we saw each other. We had been dating all through college and broke up our Junior year. Then just before graduation we… ah, well.” He felt his own cheeks heat.
“What happened?” Jamie glanced up sharply and Brianna shook her head, “No, not… that. I mean, what happened between you? Why did you break up? Why didn’t she tell you about me?” There were tears forming in the corners of her eyes and she quickly turned back to the view before them.
“I… well, we... “ he stopped, trying to find the words.
“Fergus and Marsali said you lost a baby,” her voice was small again and she wasn’t looking at him. “I thought… I thought maybe that was me, and she just didn’t tell you.”
“No, Brianna,” Jamie turned to face her fully. “No. We got pregnant our Junior year and we fought about whether to keep the bairn or not, but…” he felt the familiar tightness in the back of his throat. “It was what they call a blighted ovum, or an anembryonic pregnancy,” his tongue stumbled over the medical term that he had memorized so many years before. “It means the baby never developed. So she showed all the signs of a healthy pregnancy, but when they did an ultrasound the sac was empty.”
Brianna was nodding, deep in thought.
“We had fought before, because… well, I was raised to believe that every life is precious, and I wanted that bairn with her—so badly. But Claire… she’s always been verra passionate about women’s choice. And I didna want to take her choices away, but… I was so afraid that she would have an abortion.” He couldn’t look at her. He knew she also leaned liberal and most likely would feel the same as her mother had, but the words wouldn’t stop.
“When we lost the baby, we had already hurt each other with our words. And all I could think was that she must be relieved that it was gone.”
He tried not to remember her face. The pain that had split it when he knew he had gone too far. He gripped the wooden railing in front of him and breathed in deeply.
“It wasn’t just that—though that would have been plenty—but my father had just died and her uncle was diagnosed with cancer. We were both in a bad place. And our relationship just fell apart.”
Jamie was startled when he felt her arms wrap around his waist and her head settle on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry that happened to you,” she whispered.
There were tears in his eyes, but not for himself; for Claire, facing the future and raising this child alone. And for Brianna, growing up without him all this time.
“I canna help but think,” he murmured against her hair, “that if I had handled it differently, we would have been able to find each other again. And I would have been able to know ye.”
Her chin tucked down, but she didn’t cry. She drew away after a minute, putting her hands in the pockets of her coat. Jamie thought she might be chilly and he turned to unlock the doors, leading them into the main living space of the cabin. Bree sat on the couch and he switched on the gas fireplace and moved to one of the chairs.
“Are you and Mama together now?”
She was staring at the flames and picking at the piping on a cushion beside her. Jamie was struck again at how very much she reminded him of his mother. His early memories of her had gone hazy, but the photos and videos he and Jenny had watched and treasured for years. He studied his daughter’s profile, trying to decide how to answer her.
“Not officially,” he finally spoke, seeing her mouth tighten slightly with a frown. “She wants to be independent right now. I’m trying not to rush her.” Brianna looked up, surprised. She seemed to search his face for something. Then her eyes dropped to her hands.
“You said she didn’t tell you about me,” she spoke slowly, as if working out what she meant to say in her mind before it came out of her mouth. “But when you found my picture, did you talk to her about it? Does she know that you… know?”
Jamie sat forward and rested his elbows on his knees, keeping his eyes on the fire to give Brianna a bit of reprieve from the tension of the topic. He could sense that her nerves had skyrocketed when she started asking about his relationship with Claire.
“When I first found out, I was verra angry,” he tried to soften his words with the tone of his voice, working to keep it smooth and even. “I didna understand why she wouldna have told me. And I wanted to drive to Boston and find out everything that very night.” He swallowed, breathing deeply through his nose. He could feel Brianna’s eyes on him as he spoke.
“What I realized, after I had a wee bit of time to calm down, is that… whatever her reason is for the choices she made all those years ago, I canna judge her for it. I dinna ken what she was dealing with. And she’s here, now. I think she wants to tell me. And so I’ve been waiting—” he looked up and realized there were tears streaming down her face.
“Och, lass. What’s wrong?” He moved to the sofa quickly, unsure how best to comfort her.
Brianna had buried her face in her hands and sat breathing shakily, trying to control her emotion.
“You want to protect her,” she pulled his handkerchief from where it had been shoved into her back pocket and wiped at her nose. He waited, thinking she must have more to say, but she met his eyes.
“Aye, of course I want to protect her. I love her,” Jamie watched carefully, trying to decipher what was triggering this response in her. “I’ve always loved her—and ye, Brianna. Even before I kent ye were… mine. I would protect ye both. Always.”
She nodded, her face crumpled with all she was feeling. Then she suddenly scooted toward him and put her head on his shoulder. Jamie’s arm came around her back on instinct.
“I’ve always been… the only one… protecting her.”
He stared without seeing at the tousled curls, trying to swallow past the tightness in his throat. His daughter—his Brianna—had been alone all this time trying to protect her mother. The implications of that crashed into him and his embrace tightened around her shoulders.
Christ, my poor sweet lass.
Without thought, his lips pressed to the crown of her head. “Ye arena alone anymore, Brianna. I willna let ye face it alone. Never again, a leannan.”
Jamie walked up the ridge trail toward home from Fergus and Marsali’s house. After the afternoon spent talking with Brianna, they had gotten a call inviting them to have supper with the young couple. They had both been relieved to break from the intensity of their conversation to more lighthearted topics when they joined the others.
Into the late hours of the evening they talked and laughed, and Jamie watched his daughter with fascination. She was his mother, she was him, and under it all she was Claire. He had been carefully keeping the thought of Claire at bay, not sure yet how to handle this new dynamic. Should he go and confess? Should he wait and let Brianna take the lead as she was the one who had travelled down early?
Marsali insisted that she stay with them, rather than going to a hotel. So as the clock hit 10pm, Jamie promised to come down and have breakfast with them in the morning. He had hugged each of his children in turn before he left, holding them each a few seconds longer than he normally would.
The wind blew gently through the trees, but he didn’t notice. His mind was so full of everything that had changed in just a few hours. His daughter was there. She knew him. She didn’t hate him. He rubbed his hands over his face.
I need Claire.
His body was moving toward her even before he had consciously decided to go. He ached for her. To see her, to share with her everything he was feeling, even knowing that he couldn’t tell her yet. Down the side of the ridge behind the properties and across until he stood at the edge of the treeline in her yard, checking the house to see if any lights were still on.
The windows were dark, but a blue light caught his eyes as they scanned the scene. She was in the hot tub. He could see the soft glow of the lights and her curly head resting against the side. Jamie stepped across the yard, slowing down to call out to her softly.
Claire turned her head and smiled, not startled at all. His heart tightened in his chest at the sight of her face so content and welcoming. As he stepped up onto the deck his eyes dropped down her form under the rippling water and he almost stumbled when he realized she was naked.
“I wondered if I might see you tonight,” her arms lifted out of the water to stretch above her head, smooth white skin with drops forming into rivulets tracing down to disappear where the jets disrupted his view.
“Christ Almighty, Sassenach,” Jamie’s mouth was dry and he couldn’t make himself move.
She bit her bottom lip and arched her back off the seat just enough that her breasts floated at the top, flashing glimpses of hardened pink nipples through the bubbling water.
“Are you coming in?”
He had never undressed so quickly or with such disregard for where his clothes and shoes ended up. But within thirty seconds he was lowering himself into the steaming water across from her, his cock stiff and ready as any randy schoolboy. There was a knowing smile on her face as she considered him.
“You look happy, Jamie,” she observed quietly. And for a moment he couldn’t breathe. Happiness did not begin to cover the depth of joy and gratefulness in his soul tonight. For her. For Brianna. For Fergus and Marsali opening their arms and their home to her without question. He tried to smile, holding back the strong emotion that threatened to break over him at any moment.
“Aye, mo ghraidh, ” he managed to get out, “In this moment I am happier than I have ever been in my life.”
“Is that a challenge, sir?” she slid forward through the water and knelt in front of him, her fingers lighting on his knees and then sliding up his thighs. She pushed them apart and wrapped her arms around his hips, her breasts cradling his cock between them, and she watched him with a curious gleam in her eye as she squeezed them together. Jamie groaned, desperately trying to hold himself still.
There were nights in the past twenty years that he had grasped himself with this view sharp in his mind. Claire between his legs, her whisky eyes dark with lust, her bottom lip playfully caught with her teeth. He flexed his hips and watched his cock slide up between the sweet swells of her flesh.
It was incredible but it wasn’t enough. He didn’t want to pleasure himself to her, he wanted to lose himself in her. He wanted to give her everything he had and take whatever she would offer.
“I need ye, Claire,” the words were lost in her mouth as he pulled her up to him. She hummed against his lips with pleasure, sliding her nipples up and down his chest in the water. Jamie shuddered and braced his hands against her hips to keep her from touching his erection. He was ready to burst and he wasn’t going to let this end so soon.
The jets shot a hard stream of water against his back, pounding into the muscles there, and suddenly he had an idea. Claire squeaked when he slid off the seat and flipped them around. “Jamie! What are you…” Her back was pressed against his chest and he lifted her enough to drape her legs over the side of the hot tub, then he sank down to his knees, running his hand down her belly to cup her sex gently in his palm.
“Spread yer legs, mo ghraidh,” his voice was rough with need. He nudged her legs apart further, moving her body down until he felt the jet pulsing water against the back of his hand.
“Jamie…” her hands moved restlessly, finally gripping his thigh and the side of the tub. “Jamie, I don’t know if I—oh…” he parted his fingers, spreading her and letting the stream of water hit her most sensitive places. His arms tightened when she lurched against him, crying out with the sensation. Her head fell back onto his shoulder and he could see her legs trembling, covered in gooseflesh as the air hit them. Her toes curled and she whimpered against his ear.
“Shhh, my Sassenach,” Jamie covered her and her body collapsed against him with relief. His hand slid down over her slick center, shielding her from the jets as he slipped two fingers deep into her body and she convulsed against him again. “I’ve got ye, mo nighean donn.”
His fingers pumped in and out several times, slowly, letting her recover. Her hips started to move with him, legs restless, trying to find something to brace against. Jamie pulled her back enough to get her feet against the inside of the tub, knees still bent and parted wide. He threaded his free arm on the inside of one knee and grabbed the edge of the tub to keep them in place, then he moved his hand again, letting the water pound and pulse against her.
The sound that came from her throat might have set him off, but he had to grip the tub to keep her from pushing herself away from the stream of water. He held her pelvis angled down, directly under the assault.
“Aye, that’s it. Good, let me hear ye, lass.”
“I can’t, I can’t, Jamie!” He slid his palm over her again to protect her from the spray. Her legs were shaking, and he could feel her belly heaving with the effort to breathe. He soothed her, speaking Gaelic in her ear and gently rubbing over her overstimulated flesh with his hand.
“Not again, please,” both of her hands had come up to grip his curls. Her nose was pressed into his cheek and he tilted his head to kiss her. His fingers slid into her core, holding her strongly, and she whimpered against his lips.
“Ye can, my love. Once more,” he pressed his lips to her mouth and her cheek and her neck. Her body clamped tightly down on his fingers, but he kept her legs spread wide. “Once more, let me hear yer wee noises, mo chridhe.”
She nodded shakily and her hands settled on his forearms, gripping him and breathing deeply through her nose. Jamie smoothed his hand up over her again and braced her body as his fingers opened her up one more time.
Her breathless cry gripped his cock, and her entire body shook with the intensity of the orgasm that hit her within seconds. Jamie pulled her back away from the jet and turned her to straddle his lap. She couldn’t speak, only clutched his shoulders with gasping sobs breaking from her lips.
“Ye’re beautiful, my Sassenach. That was beautiful.”