Actions

Work Header

Sinners & Saints

Chapter Text

Galerie Charpentier is home to Sotheby’s Auction house in the center of the Parisian art world and host to almost eighty auctions per year. Art buyers worldwide watch for pieces to add to their collection and millions of dollars change hands as the gavel comes down on the final bids. A rare Rembrandt was up for sale today. One of three self-portraits done by the artist and the only one still in a private collection. The estimated price at auction is twenty-eight to thirty-five million dollars for the eight by twelve-inch painting. It will elevate any collection to new boasting heights and there is a lot of interest.

Jamie Fraser walked the halls of the auction house and checked in on his team trying to stay clear of buyers flocking into the building. He could care less about the art bought and sold today. He was here to catch a master art thief, his nemesis, who bested him at every turn. Jamie was number one in the world for profiling and catching the most accomplished thieves until he signed on to find Casper, the most prolific art thief in Europe. He was dubbed Casper because he came in and went out like a ghost, leaving nothing behind.

Jamie’s jaw clenched thinking of the many times he was closing in on his prey only to have him vanish with the prized art. This time was different, he could feel it. He was tipped off by a black-market snitch that told him the Rembrandt would be in play soon and that painting was being sold today. Casper had to be here, and Jamie would leave him crippled when he took him down. Payback for leading a merry chase for the past two years.

Jamie walked quickly toward the back entrance to verify the doors were locked. He was surprised to pass a large group of people in one of the auditoriums and glanced at the signboard, Doctor Claire Beauchamp, professor of fine arts, University of Chicago. By the size of the audience, she was quite popular. Jamie caught a glimpse of the striking professor in a body-hugging dress that she wore like a fashion model. Black rimmed glasses were perched on her nose above red lipstick and a pile of hair on top of her head that looked exquisitely messy. She pushed a coil of hair off her face and looked up at a huge screen, flipping slides with a remote control. One word came to Jamie’s mind; fascinating. His earpiece crackled and he spun around to head back to the front of the building.

Claire Beauchamp clicked for the next slide, clicked again, and again to no avail. She apologized to the audience and ripped her headset off to find some assistance. Five minutes later she was back to wrap up the lecture with the slides moving perfectly.

Jamie walked by the auditorium three more times as the professor worked her way through the questions, signed copies of her new book, and accepted the thanks of the Parisian art world. Jamie watched her, knowing the auction was underway and the clock was ticking on Casper’s entrance.

“Doctor Beauchamp, there’s a rumor you’re joining the team to catch Casper. Any truth to that?”

“Well, no. He has stolen pieces that I have a particular fondness for, and I would love to help catch him, but I have not been asked. It’s just a rumor.”

Claire shrugged her shoulders and smiled at the last of the people leaving. She stuffed her materials into her briefcase and took a deep cleansing breath. She had one more meeting and a plane to catch back to Chicago. She would give anything for a day to herself in Paris to wander around the Louvre and spend as much time as she wanted with the Masters. Maybe next time, she thought.

Claire emerged from the auditorium and made her way to the back entrance where she was allowed to park. She stopped abruptly and opened her case, smiling when she saw her headset tucked safely inside. She pulled the case up to secure the retaining strap and lowered her arm as the explosion blew her sideways, off her feet, and into a wall that was coming down. She could hear herself screaming until something heavy hit her on the head. Her screaming stopped.

Claire was vaguely aware she was laying in rubble from an explosion. The rubble was warm and had hands that held her upper arms, and a voice that kept asking if she was alright. She tried to lift her head and bumped it on something above her.

“What the bloody hell?”

Her hands were splayed on someone’s chest and she felt around deciding it was a male with a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger! Claire looked to her right and left seeing the tiny space they were pinned into and her heart pounded in her chest, feeling the claustrophobic fear that made elevators impossible.

“Jesus Christ, I have to get out of here, right now! Help me get out of here Mister, please!”

She felt the beefy arms wrap around her and hold her down making the panic even worse. Her wiggling made it hard to hear the man saying her name, getting more stern by the second. He finally held her tightly to him and warned her not to move.

“Doctor Beauchamp, Doctor Beauchamp, Claire! Stop moving! Something is holding the tonnage of walls, ceiling, and live wires above us. If you knock it loose it will kill us. Do you understand?”

Claire gripped his arms and panted from her attempt to escape. She listened to his voice calming her down and telling her to breathe with him. He was very encouraging and kept telling her they would be all right. He talked her down from a panic attack but kept his hands on her to be sure.

“May I call you Claire?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Alright, thank you. I need your help lass. Look around for something strong, like metal, a strong metal box, or something like that not connected to anything, free moving and about a foot tall. Do you see anything like that?”

“Why, for what?” Claire finally lifted her head a few inches and looked up at the man’s head, but it wasn’t there. A very large piece of the wall was suspended right above his throat and his head was on the other side of it.

“Oh my God, oh my God! Sweet Jesus, what are we going to do?” Her panic was rising again, and the arms came around her while the disembodied voice told her to breathe and keep her wits about her. It took several minutes but she finally gained control again and looked around for something strong with the limited space she had to lift her head.

“There are cinder blocks in the rubble, two of them are not touching anything. Will those work Mister?”

“Sorry lass, my name is Jamie, and those might hold this wall up long enough for me to scoot free of it. Can you move one, can you reach it?”

Claire could move the block slowly by stretching her arm until it hurt. Little by little she scooted the cinder block closer to the wall, muttering about a decapitated Arnold and she didn’t want to be alone. Jamie patiently calmed her reminding her to breathe deeply. He helped her push the block under the section of wall and patted her shoulder, thanking her for being so brave. Claire felt the man’s body scooting slowly, taking her with him an inch at a time until he was free of the would-be guillotine.

Jamie laid very still, trying to calm his racing heart. He could see what Claire could not and knew they were buried by at least twenty or thirty feet of debris. It would take hours for rescuers to find them if they ever did. Shafts of light were coming through, but those would disappear when the sun went down leaving them in complete darkness. Jamie felt a murderous rage boiling in his stomach.

“You fucking bastard,” was whispered through clenched teeth. “I will hunt you right into hell before I give up.”

“Who’s a bastard, who will you hunt, who’s going to hell?”

Claire was patting his arm trying to comfort the rage she felt in his tensed muscles. It scared her because she didn’t know this man. Jamie’s arms encircled her lightly for a few seconds.

“He’s called Casper and he’s a dead man walking because I’m gonna finish him when I find him.”

“Casper? The art thief did this?”

Claire got very quiet for a few minutes before asking, “who are you?”

“Jamie Fraser. I head up the task force trying to catch that piece of shit. Just so you know, we are getting out of here, one way or another, because I won’t let him win.”

He felt Claire shaking and heard her sniffling. He held her, feeling bad because he scared her. He lifted his head to look at her.

“I’m sorry lass, I didn’t mean to scare you. Look at me, Claire.”

Jamie wasn’t expecting the large whisky colored eyes and long black lashes wet from her tears. Her face stole his words for a moment, so he just looked at her. He wanted to touch her porcelain skin and feel the coils of curls that had fallen around her face and shoulders.

“I’m sorry Sassenach, rest now. It won’t be long.”

“Sassenach means crazy bitch, doesn’t it?”

Jamie laughed and Claire bounced on his stomach until she smiled too. “No. It means outsider. You’re a Brit, living in America, trapped in Paris, with a Scott,” he said laughing. He laid his head back down, “tell me about yourself, are you married? Any kids?”

“There is an offer on the table, but I haven’t decided yet. I like him fine but he’s a politician and I’m …not.”

“Tell me more. Why hesitate?”

Claire talked about the senator from Illinois who said he loved her and promised a life of excitement and purpose. Jamie listened to the story of two mismatched people and hoped she would choose herself over a man with plans to change everything about her. She couldn’t see that yet but to him, it was very clear.

“What about you when you’re not chasing a master criminal around the world?”

“I cannot say, it’s been too long. I asked a beautiful girl to marry me once and she said yes but she died in an automobile wreck before the wedding. I haven’t dated since then, about two years now.”

“I’m sorry for your loss Jamie, and if it hurts you, I’m sorry to bring it up.”

“I have never been to Chicago, what is it like?”

The conversation was interesting as they took turns asking questions about the other. Jamie was waiting for some sign, pounding, or yelling, that would indicate workers were close. He heard nothing so far and the light was fading in their rubble pocket. He prayed the night would not be terrifying to the woman on top of him.

“Can you sleep, Claire? I think you should try, it will make the time pass faster. Close your eyes and think about something you do at home for fun, breathe deep, that’s a good lass.”

Jamie could hear Claire’s breathing deepen into her slumber and he closed his eyes hoping to join her. He had a feeling it would be a long night.

Senator Randall was startled by a tap on his shoulder and a note passed to him by his aide. It said Doctor Beauchamp had not gotten off her plane from Paris and was not answering her phone. Frank nodded to the aide and gathered his papers into a case leaving the meeting as quietly as possible. He was calling Claire when the door closed behind him. No answer. Claire was reliable, punctual, predictable, and always called when her plans changed. He felt a nervous twitch in his stomach as his phone vibrated continuously with messages delayed while his phone was turned off. He read through the text messages quickly and was jogging to find his driver and get back to his office.

Claire’s secretary and friend had bombed his phone about an explosion at Sotheby’s, part of the building collapsed, and Claire had not boarded her plane. Frank was feeling a surge of anxiety that was quite unfamiliar and unwanted. He kept his life sterile and empty of drama so he could pursue what made him happy, successful, and energized. He barked at the driver to find a way out of the traffic and back to his office. He couldn’t wait. The laptop lid flipped open and Frank searched for news of the Sotheby bombing. It was all over the internet and the pictures of the damage almost stopped his heart. He started dialing for his aides, giving orders to find her, book a flight to Paris tonight, and get him an emergency number for who was in charge at the auction house. He walked briskly to his office followed by jogging aides handing him notes with flight times, and phone numbers.

“Hello”

“Thank God! Jesus yer hard to find Frank. Ye know whats happened at Sotheby’s. Claire didn’t check-in at the airport, she didn’t return her rental or check out of the hotel. I’m sorry Frank, she is unaccounted for and …”

Frank clicked off of the call when Geillis was mid-sentence. He couldn’t deal with her at the moment, and punched in the numbers to Sotheby’s but couldn’t get through. He assigned two aids to keep calling the emergency number until one of them got a person on the phone.

The sixty-inch television in his office was streaming news of the explosion and the missing Rembrandt painting that was discovered. The explosion was reported as a possible diversion so the thief could get away. One of the aides held her phone out.

“Senator Bradley, sir. He says you won’t answer your own phone and he needs to speak with you.”

“Hello, yes, no I can’t meet tonight, I’m flying to Paris, my girl…” Pausing to listen, “sorry Gary, I can’t, it’s an emergency. No, I won’t be voting tomorrow, I have an emergency, I have to …”

Senator Bradley could be heard from across the room making the aides press into the farthest point in the office to complete their tasks. Frank drew his arm back to throw the phone into the wall and someone shrieked and grabbed her phone away from him. It might cost her job, but this was her brand-new iPhone and no cranky senator was going to smash it to pieces. She headed for the door and disappeared.

“It’s the manager at Sotheby’s, sir. Please don’t break my phone.”

Frank dropped into his chair and reported the news of his missing fiancé, Doctor Claire Beauchamp from the University of Chicago. The manager wanted the name of her rental car company, hotel, and time of day she was last heard from. Frank gave him Geillis’s cell phone number adding she would be the point of contact. Tomorrow would be a ball-breaker and he needed someone attached to their phone in case any news came in.

Hours later, Frank laid in bed in the dark and thought about Claire. So many hours after the explosion and no word from her. He didn’t want to believe it but found little hope she was alive. He closed his eyes.

Claire was shifting her weight trying to get comfortable on the lumpiest mattress ever made. When she moved to her side Jamie’s eyes slammed opened and he groaned loudly from her hip crushing his balls. He lifted her hip and moved her over three inches letting his hands rest on her hip and leg. The dress she wore was knit and very soft. It had pulled up above her knee so Jamie pulled it back down.

He didn’t know Claire, and would never see her again once they were free, but he did not like hearing about her fiancé and that made him feel weird. He closed his eyes again.

“Jesus Christ! What is that?”

Jamie was yanked to the surface of consciousness by a loud and panicked voice coming from a wiggling woman trying to move up his body. His arms came around her and he shushed her, asking what was wrong.

“Something crawled up my leg and it had sharp claws, small sharp claws. I need to sit on your chest.”

Jamie grunted and held her still while he talked her down from another panic. He had worried about rats in the building being attracted to their smell. He told Claire to breathe with him while he stroked her hair in the pitch darkness. She had wiggled up toward his head and now her cheek was pressed against his, her mouth only inches from his. He could feel her relaxing and truly hoped for no more surprises tonight. He fell asleep with his arms around Claire.

Jamie opened his eyes when the noise of pounding pulled him back to consciousness. He felt Claire pressed against him, their faces touching, and the morning erection that threatened what little dignity he had left. He willed it away, quite unsuccessfully. The banging started again and he smiled to himself, it won’t be long before they are back on their feet, he thought. The pounding gave way to ripping metal and the distinct sound of a backhoe.

Claire moaned and moved to her stomach, rolling her face so her mouth was smashed against Jamie’s. He didn’t want to breathe for fear she would wake up and take her lips away. The noise from moving heavy debris got louder and the light from the new day flooded their pocket. Claire opened her eyes and screamed, pushing away from Jamie and hitting her head hard.

“What the bloody hell!”

“I’ll have you know madam that you accosted me just now, taking advantage of my inability to move and get away. This assault comes after you nearly strangled me getting away from a mouse.”

Claire rubbed her head and looked at the most beautiful face she had ever seen on a man. He could be a movie star with looks like that, she thought. Jamie was trying to look indignant but started to chuckle when her mouth turned into a smile. She looked adorable with a mass of curls pouring over her face as she felt for a bump on her head.

“Do you need me to rub it for you?”

The laugh that followed was genuine, feminine, and he loved hearing it.

“I’ll let you know if I want you to rub it.”

She laid her head on his chest and listened to the cavalry above them. “Sounds like they are making progress Jamie. I think you will soon be free of me.”

“Let’s hope it’s before I die of dehydration. I have never felt thirst like this in my life.”

With nothing to do but wait for the rescuers, they dozed and tried not to move too much. Through the early morning, the efforts above them intensified. The crew boss called a halt to the noise so they could get a radar fix on the heartbeats again. The radar technician moved his finger in a circle above their location and the infrared tech nodded his agreement. The noise continued.

“Jamie?”

“Yes, Sassenach.”

“What is the first thing you want to do when we’re rescued?”

“Drink like an elephant.”

“How is that?”

“Someone hands them a hose and they use their trunk to place it in their mouth. An hour or so later, the elephant pulls it out.”

“I’m quite sure you made that up but it’s still funny.”

“It’s God’s truth, I swear. Next, I will jump into the hotel pool until my body temperature comes back to normal. You laying on me is like a giant quilt heating me through for the last twenty hours or so. What about you Sassenach?”

“I’m down for the elephant thing, and a bubble bath, while I pray there are no flights to Chicago today. I want to lose myself in the Louvre.”

“Your list is impressive but surely a phone call to the senator will be done first, even before you put the hose in your mouth?”

Claire was giggling at Jamie’s charm, “of course, the senator, and then the hose.”

“Your dress is so soft, I woke up petting it like a rabbit in the middle of the night.” Jamie ran his hands down her back for effect and then instantly dropped them to his sides while Claire laughed. He just wanted to make her laugh until they took her away from him forever.

“Don’t move Sassenach!”

“Why? Is something crawling on me?”

Jamie grunted when her knee made contact with his balls as she twisted to look for a bug, or worse.

“No, it’s a phone call is all.”

Jamie reached up and pulled a phone to his ear. He spoke to the rescue worker and described how they were trapped. The phone was then pulled upward through the remaining debris until it was out of sight.

“Wow, how do they know exactly where we are?”

Jamie watched her childlike wonder and smiled at her until the dangling section of wall that had been directly above his throat dropped onto the cinder block making a deafening noise. Claire screamed and held onto Jamie tightly. She buried her face in his chest and cried until he could calm her down again. Claire felt his hand stroking her hair, and his arm around her waist. It was so foreign to be held this way and she didn’t want it to stop but could not force more tears, so he let her go. Jamie smiled encouragingly at her and pointed to the crushed cinder block.

“You see, you saved my life. That means you’re responsible for me forever.”

“Wait. If I saved you, that means you owe me a life, I think.”

“Anybody’s life?”

“I’m not quite sure about that. Maybe it’s like a debt that is paid by saving my life.”

Jamie took a chance and twisted his body and hers until they were lying side by side looking at the other.

“I don’t imagine a professor of fine arts and future first lady of the United States finds her life in peril much. But if you did, I will be the first one there Claire.”

She looked so innocent and beautiful looking at him. He seized her mouth and gorged himself on the beautiful professor. She turned her head for better access to his lips and he felt the exhilaration of her interest, however brief it would be. Aside from inhalation, the kiss continued until a large section that had them pinned was ripped away.

Claire sat up smiling at the men that surrounded them about ten feet up. She waved and stretched her back. A harness was lowered, held still by the men until she was safely in it. She pulled her briefcase strap over her head and was lifted through the debris to safety. Jamie watched her legs until she was pulled from his view.

Jamie looked up at the men, “any of the art stolen yesterday?”

“One small painting is all,” said with a heavy accent.

His stomach suddenly felt like a rock grinder. He asked the man, “quelle peinture?” The man shrugged his shoulders and looked around at the other workers until someone yelled “Rembrandt”. The sling was lowered again and Jamie was tempted to wrap it around his neck, but then Casper would win. He buckled himself into the harness.

Claire was loaded into an ambulance and whisked off to the nearest hospital. She gripped her briefcase and tried to calm her sense of shock at being thrust back into normality and away from Jamie. The EMT bent the straw top of a bottle of water and placed it in her mouth. She pulled the cool water into her mouth and thought about the elephants.

Claire was released by nine in the morning and now sat on her hotel bed with the phone in her hand.

“Sweet heavens, I am glad to talk to ye Claire, I haven’t slept a wink!”

“You are such a good friend Geillis. I tried to call Frank but his phone is off. Is he on his way to Paris?”

“No, he tried to leave last night but there’s an important vote today, it couldn’t be missed. What do ye need me to do? I already checked flights and they are booked today and tomorrow, even first class. I booked ye on United, leaving Paris at ten in the morning on Friday. All your appointments are canceled because ye were missin from a building that was bombed and I dinna ken if you were dead or alive.”

Geillis sobbed through the last part of the sentence and continued to cry until Claire calmed her down.

“I have quite the war story from the experience. I spent almost twenty-four hours laying on top of a giant Scot with a gorgeous face and bulging muscles.”

Claire giggled at Geillis’s reaction, knowing her friend would find that part of the tragedy delicious. After the call, Claire pulled her filthy clothes off and dropped them in the wastebasket. Flipping the security bar on the door meant she would be undisturbed while she scrubbed the dirt away. Sinking into the hot fragrant bubbles, she exhaled and thought about the rest of her day. She would meet with her client later and conclude their business and then tomorrow was all for her. The silver-lining as it were.

The exquisite bed in Claire’s room was so expansive one might miss the 8x12 inch Rembrandt in the center. Soon it would be handed over to the client in exchange for a deed to an Italian property valued at three million dollars. All in a day’s work.

Chapter Text

Claire emerged from a taxi in a tight black pencil skirt and black high heels as she walked into the upscale restaurant. She knocked on a door with a “espace de rangement” sign on display. The door opened to a nice looking man, impeccably dressed, and she could see her Godfather standing to greet her. He held his arms out for an embrace.

“My darling Bear, it is so good to see you alive and well.” He kissed both of her cheeks and looked her over for bruises. “Quite a scare you gave me yesterday.” He looked into her eyes, “did you arrange for the explosion? The news is reporting natural causes, a gas leak I believe.”

“Certainly not. I wouldn’t put the art at risk like that, besides, I could have done it in my sleep.”

“The news had video of you being rescued, quite terrifying. Do you know the man you were trapped with?”

“Yes, James Fraser. For twenty hours I laid on top of Jamie Fraser and found him to be quite charming and attentive.”

Javier Charvet laughed from his belly and looked at his men enjoying the humor. He pulled a chair out for Claire and sat down next to her. Someone spread a white cloth in front of him while Claire pulled a rolled canvas from her purse. Javier put white gloves on and carefully unrolled the painting where he could examine it under a high powered magnifying glass. He sat up and signaled to his man who left the room, presumably to initiate the transfer of the deed for the Italian property.

“Little Bear, what in God’s name is the Senator doing? I’m talking about his bid for governor announced today.”

“His what?”

Javier looked up with compassionate eyes. “You didn’t know. Has the bastard even called you yet?”

“Yes, yes, I got a call from Mary this morning.”

“And all this time I thought his name was Frank.”

“Mary is his secretary, like his right hand.”

“I know Bear, like I know what grades she got in middle school and that she is a lesbian. I was being sarcastic.”

Javier could see the pain on Claire’s face and backed off. “You must go, I understand. I will have the deed delivered to you in a few hours. Go out through the kitchen, Joseph is waiting to take you back.”

Javier Charvet was a best friend to Claire’s father until the day he died, along with her mother, in a car crash. He tried to get custody of little Claire, but her Uncle Lamb was a blood relative and the courts awarded custody to him. Javier continued to fight for her through the years they were in Egypt and South America, arguing it was no place to raise a young lady. Finally, when Claire was fifteen, the court let her decide where she wanted to live and she chose France with Javier.

Claire did not want to hurt Uncle Lamb, but she was ready to get out of the dirt and sleep in a regular house with indoor plumbing. The warm love and attention she received from Javier was an unexpected bonus and she blossomed under his care. Whenever he saw her, his face would light up and he would call her Claire Bear which was shortened through the years to just Bear. She stayed with Javier through graduate school, leaving for America when she was hired by University of Chicago. That was three years ago.

Claire sat back in the front seat and sighed. She was reeling emotionally after hearing Frank had announced his bid for governor. He never talked to her about it, come to think of it, he never talked about anything. Their relationship felt settled and comfortable from day one, like couples who had spent thirty years together. She couldn’t remember either of them doing anything romantic for the other and suddenly felt like crying her eyes out. What she needed was a day to be selfish and pretend she was someone else who wasn’t saddled with a flatline relationship. She directed Joseph to the retail district and blew him a kiss promising to find a safe way home. She wanted to be free for the next two days and that started with something fun and funky to wear tomorrow.

Javier assigned two of his men to investigate the Senator again. “Find out what projects have his support, who are the major players, who is backing his bid for governor. Find out what master he serves.”

The next day, Claire woke up excited to walk the Louvre. She straightened her hair and added some makeup before jumping into one of her new sundresses. She looked into the full-length mirror and giggled at the strange reflection. The top of the dress was fitted, connecting at the back of her neck leaving her shoulders bare. The skirt had yards of soft fabric that fell just below her knee and a studded belt. The dress was sunshine yellow with silver studs. Nothing could be farther from the tailored suits and conservative colors that filled her closets at home. She smiled and almost skipped out of the hotel to catch a taxi.

Jamie sat at the hotel pool sipping his coffee, and quietly losing his mind. The team spent seven hours yesterday pouring over every art theft attributed to Casper… again, and they had nothing. He took a deep breath and started making phone calls to those he served feeling like he would explode any minute. He had checked the airlines and knew there were no flights to Chicago until tomorrow, so she was still in town most likely. He exhaled and ran a hand through his hair. Fuck it, he thought, let's see if lightning will strike twice. He made his way to the Louvre.

Claire drifted happily through the museum walking close to the Virgin of the Rocks to examine the brush strokes. She jumped when someone spoke to her from behind.

It’s obvious there was a second hand, don’t you agree?”

Claire spun around to see Jamie Fraser smiling at her. There was initial surprise and happy excitement in her face which she covered quickly, turning back to the painting.

“I do not agree. I have always advocated a single hand and it’s the crazy conspiracy theorists who lead people down that road. You should know better than to comment on fine art, Mister Fraser.”

Jamie looked confused by her comment. “I beg to differ madam. I have an art degree after all.”

Claire giggled at the hurt look he concocted, “what kind of degree?”

When she turned back to him and looked up at his face, Jamie nearly forgot to breathe. “Nothing like yours and may I ask how you are allowed to walk the streets of an unsuspecting Paris? How many cars collided watching you walk down the sidewalk, hmmm?”

Claire was laughing at his charm and feeling flattered. “Suppose you do Paris a favor and walk with me?”

Claire looped her arm in his and they walked, admired the paintings, sat and discussed, joked and flirted for hours. Jamie’s knowledge of the masters was surprising and made for stimulating conversation. He had a profound appreciation for the art and artist, much like her own. After four hours they called it a day and went to find a sidewalk cafe for refreshment. Claire watched Jamie look through the three menus at the table and decided to be brave.

“Come on, handsome, this place is too boring.” She spun in the other direction as the wind caught the ample fabric of her skirt and teased it up until she could get a hold of it. They heard a loud crash as a driver struck a parked car and suddenly Jamie’s arm was around her waist pulling her along.

“I rest my case madam. Where is it we are going for more exciting refreshment?”

Claire was laughing at Jamie and feeling bad for the driver, “it’s close and you will love it because they have beer and volleyball outside. It’s quite popular in America.”

Jamie could not get the image of Claire’s legs out of his mind but dedicated himself to being less flirty with her. With a last look at her backside, he let his eyes follow the curves to her feet.

“I can’t believe you can walk the Louvre in heels.”

“I bought flat sandals for today but kept running into walls, so I went back to what I’m used to.”

“Thank God they don’t accentuate your statuesque figure, or perfect posture,” said rolling his eyes, making her laugh again.

She was so easy to talk to, and joke with, Jamie winced remembering her disarming banter in the Louvre that made him a slave to her enjoyment.

“Listen, Sassenach, I am sorry for the flirting, I lost my head with a very pretty girl, who is engaged to be married. I promise to behave like a gentleman while we have a beer and then see you home safely.
Right after this…” He pulled her to him and stuck his nose against her neck breathing deeply and releasing her instantly with a happy grin. “You smell like heaven lass.”

Claire was stunned by the cascade of feelings elicited by Jamie’s hug and the feel of his skin against her neck. When he released her she almost fell over, reaching for his arm to steady herself.

“That’s quite alright, it is a lovely scent.”

They entered a dark bar with a rousing crowd who were drinking the afternoon away. The beer was reviving while they talked about their time under the rubble and the mouse that ran up her leg. He asked about her lecture, fascinated by her travels to bring the love of art to the masses. She had been in more countries than he had and entertained him with anecdotes. Sitting in a booth gave her the freedom to look at his face, shoulders, and arms. He was dressed casually in jeans and a polo shirt that did little to hide his massive biceps and chest. She was careful to look discreetly until the second beer arrived which made it harder to pretend.

“Let’s watch the volleyball for a while, Sassenach, then I’ll see you back to your hotel.”

The fresh air helped to clear Claire’s head and she chose a team to root for. The game was fast and fun and she lost herself in the competition, slapping Jamie’s leg at times when her team scored. She didn’t notice how quiet he had become.

True to his word, Jamie was polite and attentive for the rest of their time together. Inside, he went to battle with the part of himself that wanted a girl like Claire and would be ruthless to win her. His decent side won, and he dropped her at her hotel before kissing her forehead and thanking her for a memorable afternoon.

Claire smiled and waved goodbye. Her glass face always gave the observer a look into her true emotion and Jamie saw her confusion and her interest. He needed to get out of Paris, first thing tomorrow. Go home to Scotland and forget about this time with the Sassenach. It felt like he lost a piece of himself today, a piece that remained with her. It made him feel empty inside.

Claire ordered food in her room and sat on the terrace, thinking about Jamie, Paris, and Frank. If he had given her his cell phone number, she would have called him and talked about her crazy feelings and desire for him. He mentioned the name of his hotel several times that afternoon. She tried to resist the seduction that played on a continuous loop in her mind. If only…

Jamie opened his eyes in a dark room when he felt his bed move and was instantly awake. He smelled her perfume and rolled toward the scent as she turned on a light. She was removing her shoes and then her belt and looked like she might join him in bed.

“Your dress lass.”

Claire twisted the button under her hair and pulled the dress over her head letting it drop to the floor. He pulled her to him and kissed her like his life depended on it. The kisses were sweet and long, building the fire she craved. For the next hour, he felt each curve, tasted every part of her, and pushed himself into her wet softness when she begged him to.

Claire walked naked to his room refrigerator where she stashed a bottle of champagne and a bowl of fresh strawberries. She pushed pillows against the headboard so Jamie could sit up and then straddled him, handing him a glass and placing a strawberry in his mouth. The ground rules were unspoken yet they both knew not to ask or comment on what this was. It just was.

“How is it you move through my door, room, and refrigerator without making a sound lass?”

“I’m a cat burglar,” said with honesty

Later Jamie led Claire to his outside patio with the lights of Paris spread far and wide. He danced with her, naked, holding her close, with a promise of more. Claire was very aware she was dancing with the enemy. The man was obsessed with bringing her down and his life was dedicated to that pursuit. None of it was lost on her so she lived each second with him. They made love once more and he gripped her to him as they fell asleep.

Claire looked up at Jamie’s window before getting into her cab. She would not see him again unless she made a mistake and he caught Casper. She wondered if she could walk away from stealing art for a man like Jamie. The answer was moot. It was the only thing that made her feel alive.

Later, Claire walked to the front desk to check out of the hotel. On her way to the exit, she felt someone pull her back and looked into the eyes of Jamie Fraser. He reached into her purse and pulled her phone out, punching in his contact information. He kissed her soundly and stroked her cheek.

“I still owe you a life Sassenach, and as I said, I’ll be the first one there.” He disappeared into the throng of people leaving the resort and Claire dropped into a couch to slow her racing heart.

Landing at O’Hare airport did wonders for popping the pink balloon Claire was in. She looked out at the familiar sights of home and Jamie Fraser was reassigned to the distant memory file in her mind. Like so many Sorority nights in her past. She felt strong and ready to tackle the remainder of the semester. When she saw Geillis she quickened her step and hugged her friend like her favorite puppy. The two women chatted while waiting for luggage and then heading home. When Claire walked into her townhouse Paris no longer existed. She was back.

Jamie had to get out of Paris before he lost his mind. Another failed attempt to catch Casper and a stunning girl left her mark on him and then disappeared. He made haste getting back to his farm in Scotland where the demands of the land would pull him back to normal. He assigned his top man to wrap up the investigation at Sotheby’s auction house and the report was waiting in is outlook when he got to Scotland.

The explosion was caused by a gas leak, the vault video was disabled by some sort of bright light beam, there were no fingerprints unaccounted for, and the handlers were questioned but added no clues. One female handler said she left the vault for a couple of minutes with Professor Beauchamp to find the audio technician and heard the auto-locking door to the vault slam behind her. As usual, Casper left no leads to follow and disappeared with a Rembrandt worth thirty million dollars. He had nothing.

Claire and Geillis wrapped up the semester in the final month. There were graduate dissertations to evaluate, term papers to read, and final exams to grade. It was a busy month and both looked forward to a summer off. Geillis would spend two months in her pool by day and the clubs by night. Claire would be away most of that time, lecturing, appraising, promoting her book, and stealing art.

She knew she had been in the game too long. Statistically, she was on borrowed time as a thief and when she was caught, she would lose her freedom for the next twenty years. Aside from quitting, she took every precaution including secure communication, the best VPN, encryption security, and a code translator that was owned by Javier because he commissioned the program. There were no back doors installed in the programming, verified by the best security experts in France. He named the program Tom, and no one knew why. Tom was installed on Claire’s home computer and on Javier’s, no one else would use it, see it in action, or ask questions about it. Claire’s heart jumped when she saw the message and she sent it to Tom. Thirty-six seconds later she read the message from Javier and smiled.

“Easy Peezy,” she said out loud as she sent a coded RSVP and agreed to the terms, one point five million in gold. The compensation received for her service had been routed to several off-shore accounts in the beginning and her wealth grew at a staggering rate. Cash felt like an anchor that would sink her in an investigation so she switched to valued properties that would be harder to discover. The gold would be kept in a bank vault locally and used for catastrophic expenses in the future, like hiring a team of defense lawyers. It would cost her two or three hundred thousand just to get it to Chicago, but she would pay it.

Her cell phone played Frank’s ringtone and she felt a boulder in her stomach.

“Hello darling, just touching base about this weekend. Do you have plans for us yet?”

“No Frank, you have not been home since the break started so I will consider you still gone until I actually see you.”

“Alright, fair enough. I have been invited to a private island, owned by a billionaire. The people that are funding my campaign have asked me to go. It almost sounds like a rite of passage kind of thing.”

“Well, best of luck with the upcoming test of manhood, or whatever it is.”

Claire trapped her lip between her teeth and was grinding on it as Frank talked. She was so mad at him and hurt by his estrangement. This was the time of year he spent in Chicago but he was still in Washington with his high-powered new friends that filled his calendar with things to do and people to meet. She tasted blood in her mouth and went back to her packing. Her flight to Germany left in twelve hours and it would be a tense few days once she got there.

Claire paid the admission to the Johannisburg Castle, host to the Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh exhibit. She played with the micro camera hidden in a broach and pinned to her sweater, the remote was deep in a pocket of her trousers. With luck, she would have clear pictures of the employee badges, the security cameras, and the exhibit hall by dinner. Tonight she would finish her fake statue of King Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun’s grandfather who guarded his tomb for millennia before it was discovered and plundered by archaeologists in 1922. The statue would not stand up to scrutiny, but she just needed a few minutes to get out of the building.

Claire plugged a USB into the back of the pendant and downloaded the pictures onto her laptop while the last coat of gold paint was drying on the little statue. She launched her graphics program and got to work, creating an employee badge that would pass at a glance.

Claire noticed the incoming handlers would have their badges scanned before coming into the castle. When leaving for the day, they were scanned to ensure none of the treasures were going home with them. Each piece in the collection was tagged with a liquid that emitted a dose of radiation high enough to be outside the normal range but low enough to be safe. She would skip the scanner and leave through the ceiling, like she came. By midnight, everything was ready, by tomorrow night at this time she would be one and a half million dollars richer.

Claire laid in bed, but sleep would not come. She reached for her phone, launching her contacts. For the hundredth time since leaving Paris, she looked at Jamie’s name and brought the whole evening back to her mind. It was such a sweet sadness that filled her, and each time she did this Frank became less and less important. In her dreams, she slept in Jamie’s embrace all night.

Chapter Text

Claire strained to get the bodysuit up her arm and over her shoulder. She had been at this for thirty minutes and had one more arm to go. She felt sweat roll down from her temple and grunted the rest of the way into the bodysuit that instantly made her morbidly obese. She pulled her fat clothes on and stuffed her hair into a shag wig that layered hair against her cheeks and forehead. Blue contacts were centered in her eyes and she was ready.

Jamie addressed his team at breakfast, giving last-minute positions and handing out the castle floor plan.

“There is a ten thousand pound bonus to the man that catches Casper in the act. Let me know where he is and stay with him. I only need three minutes with the man then you can arrest him. He has this coming.”

Claire came in through the air shaft and looked through the grate . It appeared to be someone’s office and it was empty. She popped the grate off, preventing it from bouncing on the hardwood floor. Cracking the door, she rushed out when the hall was empty and joined the other handlers unpacking the treasures. The statue was a foot away from where she was working and when she scooted her bulky body around the display, blocking the camera, the statue disappeared for just a moment, and then it was back. It was time to go.

She told her partner, “I gotta take a shit, right back.” When she walked briskly around the corner, she felt the air get sucked out of her lungs and instantly changed direction. James Fraser was walking directly for her, fortunately with his head down. She needed to get out of the castle before someone recognized the statue was a fake. She started running from room to room looking for a way out. She ran through a kitchen and saw a delivery truck behind the castle and the door standing open. She leaned forward to make a run for the door but jumped back into a pantry when Jamie’s voice was coming toward her. Struggling to quiet her breathing she could see his outline through the vent in the door. He was less than a foot away and she could smell his aftershave. Jamie spoke into his walkie and assembled his team in the exhibit hall.

Jamie looked down at one of the handlers.

“The fat girl said she was going to the lu and never came back. I didn’t see her scan out. Just letting you know.”

Jamie and his men spread out and searched the castle for a fat girl looking for a bathroom. This waste of time was irritating. He wasn’t here to manage the handlers or look for a girl with a gastric issue today. His walkie crackled.

“Ah, we have an issue in the exhibit. One of the pieces has been replaced with a fake.”

Once Jamie was out of the kitchen, Claire made a run for the door praying she wouldn’t be seen and pushed her long legs as fast as they would go. She headed for the woods and cover, trying to get her direction so she could find her car.

People in the castle were shouting and running outside to look in every direction and then back in. They discovered the fake statue and if she didn’t get very lucky in the next few minutes Jamie Fraser would finally catch Casper. She said a Hail Mary and chose a direction. Five minutes later she ran right into her rental car.

“Christ almighty, thank God.” The little green bug was pushed to its limit and came bursting out of the woods at the bottom of the hill the castle was built on. It was dangerous and terrifying to race the little car through the woods, but she would not be seen getting back on the road this way. Claire was panting from fear and heat as she flew down the road in her rented bug. She parked behind the hotel and took the service elevator to her room, ripping her bodysuit off as she came through the door. She reached into a hollowed-out pocket in the fat abdomen and pulled out the statue. She might have the hounds of hell coming down on her, but she took a minute to admire the ancient artifact before rolling it into lambswool and placing it in a fake two-liter soda bottle.

Claire checked out of the hotel by phone and headed to a toy store to buy an assortment of toddler toys that she ripped open and dropped into her carry-on. The toys would act like a cushion for the statue after she got it through the x-ray scanner. To do that, she wrapped the statue in carbon paper and affixed it to the bottom of her bag. A sheet of Teflon was laid over it and glued down to the case. When the glue was dry she piled the toys on top.

She raced to the airport and dropped off her rental car then headed for the terminal. She had no idea if the X-ray scanner would pick up the gold statue. If it did, she would be caught and her life would be over. She placed her carry on in the bin and waited at the other side almost fainting with relief when it popped out of the scanner and rolled toward her. Her legs could hardly hold her up as she walked away. Sticking her hand in the bag she pulled at the Teflon until it ripped away. The carbon paper was next and she balled the material up and pushed it into a waste receptacle. Now If her bag was inspected, the statue was just another toy.

Claire requested stand-by, first available flight to Paris, and was told to board flight 312. The woman pointed to the gate that was a brisk walk away and Claire boarded gratefully. When the plane lifted into the air, she allowed herself to exhale and relax. She pulled her phone out and sent a text to Javier. ..’Coming for spaghetti dinner, extra meatballs on mine. Landing 1h10m.’

Javier looked at the text and couldn’t believe it. The code was set between them five years ago and never used. Spaghetti dinner meant, I’m in trouble and coming in hot. Extra meatballs meant go dark, get off the grid.

“Gentlemen, cell phones off, batteries out, this is not a drill. Joseph, the Bear lands in forty minutes, find her.”

Claire pounded two shots of whisky and closed her eyes so she could think. What the hell was Jamie Fraser and his team doing at the castle, today of all days. He would not go there unless someone tipped him off and that thought was terrifying. Forty-five minutes of considering every conclusion to this horrific situation and she was coming undone. Were they waiting at the terminal to arrest her? Had Javier already been arrested? She felt the plane descending and saw the green earth beneath them. Hold on to your sanity, she told herself, you’re almost home.

Claire was very protected by Javier. She would hand off the stolen piece to one of his men, usually within the hour of her possession, and leave the country clean. This was the first time she boarded a plane with the evidence that would convict her, and she was completely unnerved by the experience. Someone was assigned to take the statue in Germany, but she didn’t trust anyone at the moment.

Joseph weaved through traffic at the airport and finally saw Claire walking briskly away from the terminal. He pulled up to the curb and she jumped a foot off the walkway. Not a word was spoken during the ride back and Joseph pulled into the lower garage at the mansion so Claire wouldn’t be seen. Javier was waiting for her and pulled her to his office.

Javier waited while Claire caught her breath. “When was your last sweep in here?”

My darling Bear, spaghetti and meatballs is not a dish quickly eaten. One moment, I will get you a cocktail. One of the men came into the office and swept it for bugs, leaving quickly shaking his head no.

“You may speak freely.”

“What are the odds of James Fraser and his team showing up at a German castle for the Pharaoh exhibit, today? With the statue in my possession, I nearly ran right into him. What reason would he have to be there? Why was his whole team at Sotheby’s two months ago?” Claire put her hand up and exhaled loudly. “He ranted from anger when we were stuck in the rubble. He got control of himself but not before saying his black market snitch told him the Rembrandt would be in play.”

Javier waited for Claire to get it all out. He almost lost it when her eyes filled with tears and her chin quivered as she pushed back on her fear.

“Javier, someone close to you is passing information to Jamie, or the police, and he is hearing it from them. All your men know who I am so I must assume James Fraser knows the true identity of Casper. Jesus Christ, the time he spent with me in Paris, why not arrest me right there? He needs to catch me in the act or risk losing his case to good lawyers is why. You have a rat in your house Javier and he nearly cost me the next twenty years of freedom.”

Javier leaned back in his chair with an expression rarely seen. It was murderous.

“It would seem so. Have a bath and some food and rest a bit. It will not be quick to catch this rat so you must be a teacher for a while until I can catch him. Okay?”

Claire nodded and made her way upstairs leaving the statue on Javier’s desk. She was completely exhausted and confused about Jamie Fraser. Had he known her identity from the start? If so, he was very good at hiding his hand, she never suspected a thing. The smell and serenity of her room were the last straw holding her together, so she sank into the familiar covers and cried.

Claire stayed with Javier for a week before she felt brave enough to board a plane to Chicago. She was out of the thieving business for the foreseeable future, possibly a year Javier said. He tried to convince her to quit but she wasn’t ready. On her trip back to Chicago, she considered the fortune she had amassed in real estate, gold, art, and more stock than she could remember. It was more money than she could spend in a lifetime so why risk everything on the next coveted piece? Her eyelids closed and she slept all the way home.

Frank laughed at the jokes and slammed his shot with the others, smiling at his growing euphoria. He looked around the room and saw shadow people in various sexual positions. It was arousing as hell and he absently grabbed his balls.

A gorgeous girl smiled and pulled on his arm, “common big guy, I think you’re ready.”

He was led into a smaller room with a bed and the woman was taking his belt off and pulling out his dick. Throughout the night the girl would morph from an adult to a very young girl and then back again. He didn’t care as long as she kept it up.

For the rest of the weekend, Frank consumed three roofies dropped in his drink, had sex with women, men, boys and girls, and didn’t remember a thing when he stepped off the billionaire’s plane in Washington. This was his fourth trip to the island, and he looked forward to the next.

Later in the year, snow fell heavy in the Highlands and Jamie leaned against the barn and watched the fields turning white, a sight he never tired of. This year, he arrested five burgeoning art thieves, a counterfeiter, and shut down a major black market railway in Europe, but Casper eluded him still. He could not attribute a single theft to Casper in over a year and decided he had gone underground, but for how long? The men who recruited Jamie were putting pressure on him to make an arrest because someone had to be punished. It wasn’t enough that Casper wasn’t stealing art anymore. Jamie had a network of informants that had been full of information at one time and even they were disappearing or just stopped talking. He shook his head in disgust and went into the house to pack for Paris. He would be there for the week, maybe more, to add another five agents to his team. It was his first time back since the explosion as Sotheby's.

Claire walked quickly through the townhouse throwing items in her suitcase while Frank followed her like a complaining puppy. She couldn’t take it anymore and stopped abruptly feeling Frank bump into her back.

“Frank, I have hardly seen you this year. I agreed to the lecture four months ago and a new DaVinci has turned up in a French basement that I have got to examine. I will be home on Christmas day so why don’t you go see your parents while I’m gone?”

God the man was irritating, she stormed in her head. He wanted to direct her every move, dictate her social schedule, and preapprove her trips and lecture schedule. Now he wants a wedding planned for five hundred people. She wasn’t sure she even liked him anymore. The door closed on Frank Randall’s face because he was making her late. Claire was fuming as she finished packing and stormed out of the bedroom saying goodbye like an afterthought.

Claire got in line to check into her hotel and called Javier to say she landed and would see him for dinner. Jamie was completing his transaction in the line next to Claire and walked the other direction to find his room. An hour later Claire walked across the lobby in a short black skirt, black heeled boots and an oversized sweater. She pulled her Maurizio Braschi cashmere coat around her and hailed a cab. She had not been back to Paris since the ill-fated Germany job, her last job, and she was so excited to see Javier.

Jamie sat through a security workshop and pinched his leg to stay awake. His on-again-off-again girlfriend, Laighaire, was bombing his phone, knowing he would be in meetings all day. Such a pretty girl, he thought, but when the holiday parties were over and there were no more gifts to get, she would be off again, looking for a man who was everything Jamie wasn’t, primarily present and accounted for. He smiled wryly and shook his head to wake up.

Joseph drove Claire back to her hotel after dinner and she gushed about the decorations and lights around the city. The minute he pulled away she was back outside to walk around and look at all the decorations. The temperature was a comfortable thirty-two degrees, so she kept walking.

Jamie stumbled out of the workshop bleary-eyed and needing to find some fresh air. He wrapped a scarf around his neck and headed for the door. His taxi dropped him at the hotel, and he headed out for a brisk walk before dinner.

He saw her sitting on a bench, her ponytail was long and rested on her shoulder. Her lips were pink frost and she smiled at the night. Just lovely, he thought. The woman stood and walked toward him, he kept looking until his feet stopped, and he froze. Impossible. As she got closer, Jamie’s smile was like a beacon and she searched his face.

“Jamie Fraser!”

She jumped into his outstretched arms and kissed his cheek. Jamie smelled her neck and had the same happy grin he had the first time. “God, you smell like heaven. Can you walk with me a bit, we need to catch up.”

They walked through Paris arm in arm for the next two hours, and as before, thoroughly enjoyed the company of the other. Claire was trying to get a signal that he knew she was Casper and decided he was a fantastic liar, or he didn’t know. When they had a nightcap in the hotel bar, she looked in his eyes and asked if he had caught Casper yet. All she saw was sincere sadness and he shook his head no.

“No, lass. Casper went dark a year ago. He retired, or he’s dead, neither work in my favor. I think the team will be disbanded and I,” his eyes looked haunted for a moment, “will be reassigned if I can’t catch him in the next six months.”

Jamie shook his head, “let’s talk about something more pleasant.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek.

Claire told Jamie about the changes in Frank, his estrangement, and her decision to follow her own path and then she leaned over and kissed Jamie’s cheek.

“Well, it is fortuitous we landed in the same hotel and I hope to spend more time with you while you’re here. Be a good lass and tell me when that will be.”

“Dinner, tomorrow?”

“Perfect, let me walk you home.”

At her door, he said goodnight and moved to kiss her cheek again but instead he held his head close to hers and then looked her in the eye. “Kiss me, Claire, like you did once before,” he whispered. Claire turned her head and kissed his mouth, sucking air at the intensity of the moment. Jamie gorged himself on her lips being careful not to take more than she wanted to give. He felt the key card in his hand and opened her door, kissing her inside, pulling is coat off and then hers. He broke the kiss and looked at the woman who haunted his dreams.

“Goodnight sweet Sassenach.”

Claire was startled at first but realized he felt her hesitation. She really liked Jamie, but he was an art cop and she, an art thief. One thing that was perfectly clear to her, she was done with Frank. The attributes that once attracted her were starting to crack and it was a deal-breaker for her. Besides, he never made her feel the electric current going through her body like Jamie did.

The next night, after a long day of lecture and appraisals, Claire swung the door open with an excited smile. She should be dead on her feet but spending time with Jamie tonight was exhilarating. She kissed him long and deep sending a message there would be no hesitation tonight.

They chatted throughout dinner and the silence was comfortable when they allowed themselves to stop talking and eat. Claire confessed her decision about Frank was partly due to how she felt with Jamie. He inched closer to her.

“Sassenach, is it wise to tell me such things? This lad is head over heels for you and now I know you’re free.” Claire giggled until he kissed her.

“Check please.”

Jamie grabbed her hand and helped her with her coat. “I have already paid Sassenach. Do you want to walk back?”

They stopped to kiss every other minute, so the block-long walk took thirty minutes. He kissed her in the elevator until she broke the kiss, “thirty minutes to call Javier and rinse off.” She walked briskly to her room and Jamie watched like a starving man.

The shower calmed her racing heart and she slipped into a satin nightgown that was very short and felt divine to touch. She knew seduction was the main event tonight and set candles all over the room, a purchase she made between appointments while a happy cab driver waited. Pulling her straightened hair into a ponytail and heard him knock.

Jamie brought champagne and fine chocolates and received the smile of approval from the object of his desire. He waited for her to put them in the frig and then pulled her to him, running his hand up her side and groaning at the feel of the fabric. He didn’t want to race to the bed, instead, he would see how high she wanted to go. He picked her up and sat on the couch with her across his lap. The kissing was slow and sensual as their bodies found their way to a comfortable position. They whispered in the other’s ear, smiled and kissed while their hands explored.

Jamie’s shirt was unbuttoned slowly and she helped him out of it kissing every inch she could reach. Jamie pulled the band from her ponytail loving the soft shiny hair between his fingers.

“You want champagne love?”

Jamie grabbed the bottle and chocolates, pulled Claire to her feet, and poured two glasses. He could not stop touching her and needed to see her naked. It was two years ago she invaded his space so sweetly and he could not wait any longer. While she stood in front of the mirror, he moved his hands up her body under her nightgown and pinched her nipples slightly. He could see the rosy glow on her cheeks as she pressed back into his chest. He lifted the fabric very slowly in case she pushed back until it was over her head and he was stuck staring at her body. His eyes slowly covered every inch and she watched him look her over, confident in her own skin, aware that he needed this visual experience.

The give and take between them made the night exceptional, sweet, erotic, and satisfying. Her body was so responsive to his touch and that thrilled him. When he dropped to her side, panting for his life, she pushed him onto his back, laid her head on his shoulder, and fell asleep, followed by Jamie a short time later.

Claire was hyper aware of Jamie in her bed all night. She woke up several times and went back to sleep with her hand or arm touching his skin. This gesture was sweet and tender to Jamie as he woke each time she moved, anxious to feel her hands move across his skin again.

The beeping of Jamie’s watch brought them both to consciousness as the morning rays were streaming in the windows. He jumped out of bed worried he was late for his interviews and looked around for his clothes. Claire was on her knees on the bed and spread her arms wide, still half asleep, she wanted a morning hug that made him feel weak. He pulled her close and hugged her, kissing the top of her head and asked how she felt, if she was ready for the day, if she would think of him today, and if he could get her anything. He pushed the hair out of her face and realized she was sleeping, somehow still on her knees.

“Sassenach, do you need to get up?”

She nodded her head yes and held her arms up for another hug which was warmly given.

“Dare I ask if you’re free for dinner tonight?”

“If you can wait until seven o’clock, I would love that.”

“See you at seven then.”

Claire checked her email and was shocked to see a coded message. She sent it to Tom remotely and then read what Javier had to say. ‘Rat found, extermination complete, you are safe. Do you want a new project?’ She sent her response to Tom before sending it to Javier. She passed on the project, wanting more time with Jamie to explore her feelings. She jumped to her feet and danced her way to the shower. It was going to be a great day.

Chapter Text

“Hmm, I’m sorry sir, this is a fake. I know that’s hard to hear. I will speak to the police if you want to make a report.”

“You bloody well look again. That vase is Ming so that means you are an idiot.”

Jamie walked to the appraisal room at Christie’s where Claire was working today. His fists balled up listening to the man yell at the Sassenach.

“I assure you it’s a fake sir and I’ve decided not to help you with a report, you can go.”

“If you move one step, I will stop you until you prove why it’s a fake.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake, fine.”

Claire picked up the vase and threw it against the wall making the man gasp, red-faced, while Claire pushed past him and picked up a shard. Jamie’s eyebrows went up and he tried not to laugh, completely spellbound by her.

“The only true test of a Ming is the blue color of the clay after it’s fired. See, this is white. Oh all right you big baby, I’ll pay for it, I’m sure I have a dollar bill in my purse.”

The man screamed like a banshee and lunged for her, feeling his feet leave the ground, his face changed to shock as he reached behind him trying to open the hand that held him. Jamie shook his head when the man started yelling for help. He dragged the man to the door and whispered in his ear.

“Get near the lady again and I’ll rip your throat out, okay?”

The man bolted out the door and spun around to look at Jamie who smiled and thanked him for coming before closing the door. There were only two more people waiting for Claire to appraise their art and both looked nervous, clutching their prized paintings and looking at the shattered mess on the floor. One lady left, and the other was thrilled she had an authenticated treasure. Claire was a popular appraiser and seemed to know exactly where to find proof of her valuation. She would spin her laptop and there it was, selling price and picture of a comparable piece from the same artist.

Christie’s was very good at locking the doors at six o’clock, even when people pounded to get in. The room was suddenly empty except for Jamie and Claire. He helped her pack up and though she seemed normal in every way he could feel a disturbance in her energy.

“Sassenach, we have been up late every night this week. If you’re as tired as I am, maybe you should rest tonight and not be pestered by me.”

“Did you just suggest room service and a movie before early shut-eye? If so, then I accept!”

Jamie smiled and exhaled gratefully. It would have been a supreme sacrifice to lose a night with the Sassenach and he loved her suggestion.

“It’s our last night together, so we can celebrate the holiday a day early in our pajamas okay?”

Jamie’s palm itched as he thought about running his hand up the satin nightgown. He would miss her when they both went home and he wondered what promises they would make, if any.

“Javier has invited you to dinner tomorrow night. He throws a lavish party on Christmas eve at his restaurant and wants to meet you. What do you say?” She wrapped her arms around his middle for a hug.

“Of course, it would be my honor.”

Claire laughed seeing Jamie load his arms up with all her belongings, “you are super hot and so darn useful Jamie.”

That made him laugh but truth be told, like it or not, he was living for her next statement of endearment, whatever that might be. He just wanted to matter to her because that was the first step in building something that would change their lives. As long as there was a chance he might catch Casper, there was a chance at a life with the Sassenach.

“Jamie, I want to hire you to show me some exercises to build up my upper body strength, what do you say? There’s a gym at the hotel and I am worried because I can barely do three pull-ups anymore.”

“It would be a pleasure to assist you Sassenach,” he smiled realizing they would have the entire day tomorrow. No work for either of them, but such a strange request from one so fair.

When Jamie knocked later that evening, Claire felt the now familiar butterflies take flight in her stomach. She was convinced he had no idea she was Casper so she could just be herself, a professor with a crush on a cop. She asked several questions over the last few days about which agency he worked for but he was vague with the answers, saying the task force he led was a multi-agency effort. She didn’t want to pry and assumed his partial answers were a testament to an underlying boredom or unhappiness with the job. She might overthink her way right out of these hot nights with him, so she stopped analyzing him and just looked forward to the next time his hungry eyes devoured her.

Jamie had shamelessly taken possession of her body and mind every night this week and tried to calm himself down as he walked to her door. Even if he needed handcuffs it was the Sassenach’s turn at seduction and he just had to wait. He groaned inwardly trying to think of anything except her long legs, tiny waist, long hair, perky breasts, and her sweet kisses. He felt defeated already.

After a delicious meal brought by room service, Claire curled up in Jamie’s arms for a new movie they both enjoyed. Halfway through Claire turned toward him and unbuttoned his shirt pushing it off his shoulders. She moved her hand down the arm that was wrapped around her waist and tried to concentrate on the movie. She twisted to face him ten minutes later and kissed his neck and chest, pulling his face to hers she kissed him deeply and touched him everywhere.

The movie ended and Claire got up to lite the candles and hand Jamie another beer. She pulled him to the side of the bed and straddled his lap, kissing him slowly and then sinking to the floor. Jamie was fascinated with her moves, feeling like she was trying them for the first time, but that was ridiculous.

Getting his jeans off seemed to take an eternity while Jamie studied her. Keeping his hands to himself allowed him to experience Claire’s world and it was so different he was astounded. When she put him in her mouth, he could see this act pushed her arousal and she lost herself until Jamie pulled her away. Her mouth was open and eyes half-closed when he pulled her face to him for a deep kiss. I promise to try again to let you lead Sassenach, but I’m taking over, he thought.

Later, in the dark, Jamie ran his fingers through her hair and marveled at the mystery of Claire Beauchamp.

“Sassenach, how does one so tender throw a vase against the wall in front of the owner?”

“It really got his attention,” she giggled in her sleepiness. “He’s an opportunist that got hustled is what he is. I have no respect for people like that. He knew nothing of its providence or even which dynasty and had the audacity to challenge my authority on the subject. He deserved it.”

Jamie cataloged her answer in his brain and smiled to himself when she asked him to come closer. He wrapped her up in his arms and listened to the human equivalent of purring. A low soft moan that came from a happy place deep within her. He slept and dreamed of Lallybroch feeling her shift position through the night and reach for him. His sweet Sassenach.

Jamie was up and dressed early to conclude some new hire business. He gently pushed the hair out of Claire’s face, and she smiled trying to pull him in for a hug. He kissed her cheeks and whispered he would meet her in the hotel gym at noon and then left her to her dreams.

The morning blew past as Claire wrote reports, made phone calls, and returned email. She was feeling happy like sparklers were going off inside of her. It was Christmas eve, a holy holiday, and Jamie would be with her to celebrate tonight. She bounced into the hotel gym and saw Jamie sitting on a bench, red-faced and sweating. A long bar was racked behind him with three large weights at both ends. Impressive, she thought, as she walked to him. He carefully kissed her cheek trying to avoid sweating all over her.

“Ah, my Sassenach, what is your goal with this workout?”

“I want to do at least five pull-ups, underhanded and over-handed, without effort please.”

Jamie walked around her and listed the muscle groups she needed to work, touching each while he circled her.

“You need specific strength building for biceps, triceps, pectorals, deltoids, trapezius, Rhomboideus major, and teres major. Are you joining the circus Sassenach?”

“Certainly not, but I carry heavy canvases that are getting more difficult to manage and it’s required to be a decent cat burglar.” She gave her best ‘I am a professor smile’ and giggled.

“Uncle” was muttered after an hour and she clung to Jamie. He walked her back to her room and gently massaged her tired muscles. He could feel them shaking under the skin and hoped he hadn’t pushed her too hard.

“You need to soak in a tub of hot water mo chridhe. I will watch the game and guard you. Okay?”

Jamie was asleep when she got out of the tub. He looked like a handsome angel, so serene in his rest. He was relaxed, unguarded, and he looked ten years younger. Something about Jamie made her feel hopeful and happy for some reason. She tried to imagine going back to Chicago, getting Frank out of her life, starting another semester, and the big decision about stealing art. That was the reality of her life, and this week was a sweet tryst with an incredible man, and that was all.

“Sassenach, come lass.”

He held his hand out to her and pulled her to him so he could make her forget whatever made her look so sad.

In late afternoon, Claire straightened her hair and lined her eyes putting two coats of mascara on her lashes, powder on her cheeks that shimmered, and red lipstick. She wore a silver sparkling wrap-around dress and thigh-high boots that stopped an inch from the hem. When she opened the door for Jamie, she was shocked. He wore a dark blue suit, white shirt and a paisley blue tie. He looked scrubbed with his hair slicked back. His eyes looked like blue diamonds.

“Wow, you clean up nicely,” she said wrapping her arms around him.

He had a gorgeous bottle of Italian Merlot in a gift box for Javier and Claire was very impressed. Rubbing her lipstick on a tissue she reached for him and kissed until his toes curled. He looked closely at her face and hair and she knew he loved the way she looked. What a fine way to start the evening, she thought.

Javier opened the door to greet them and was quite happy about the snow falling outside. He shook Jamie’s hand with a warm smile and kissed Claire’s cheeks. They were brought into the dining room of the restaurant where a huge table was set with finery. Javier made the introductions and Jamie sat down next to the host while Claire made her way around the table, hugging and kissing the people in Javier’s inner circle. When she came back to Jamie he was in a lively conversation with Javier and another man about the European football leagues. The men were laughing and Javier told the other man in French, “this kid knows his football.” Jamie thanked him in French making them all laugh.

Course after course was placed in front of Claire. Soup, salad, a sumptuous duck and roasted vegetables, followed by coffee, and a delightful chocolate mousse with fresh whipped cream. Claire would take two or three bites of each in order to finish the meal. Jamie ate every bite with a smile on his face and Javier almost cried. She watched Jamie engage any conversation that was offered, with the appropriate grace, humor, or sympathy. She was so grateful he came. When he was bantering with another guest, Claire watched is face until he turned his head and smiled at her. She could feel the blush spread across her cheeks as she quickly looked away. Two old women snickered to each other and talked behind their napkins.

Jamie shook hands with Javier who handed him a business card and asked him to call when he was in town. The blush on Jamie’s cheeks showed how much he appreciated the gesture. They piled into the back of the Rolls Royce and Joseph took them back to the hotel. He watched them kissing and was happy they were going to separate ends of the earth tomorrow. He could see no good coming from this relationship.

Joseph hugged Claire and when she turned around his smile disappeared and the look he gave Jamie made his blood run cold. The older man got behind the wheel and drove away without a backward glance. Jamie wasn’t sure what to make of that but he looked up and saw his pretty girl beckoning him out of the snow.

“Merry Christmas Jamie.”

“Merry Christmas Sassenach. Come here.”

At three in the morning, Claire’s cell phone started ringing and didn’t stop. Jamie whispered that her phone was ringing and it could be an emergency of some kind. Claire sat up and grabbed her phone, suddenly afraid that something bad had happened.

“Hello!”

“Claire darling you come home tomorrow right? Yes, well I am making sure because it’s Christmas and you have been gone.”

“Frank why are you calling me in the middle of the night you scared the shit out of me!”

“If I wasn’t so drunk I would think you were yelling at me. That’s ridiculous because I’m a fuckin Senator and you are a measly teacher. Now listen Claire, this is your last trip to wherever, from now on you are here or at the school. Got that?”

Frank was so drunk she could hardly understand him, and she was getting mad. “Now tell me how to unlock your computer.”

“Why are you in my house, Frank?”

“Why not.”

She heard a loud bang, the sound of glass breaking, and Frank in the background yelling profanities.

“You fucking computer!”

Claire clicked off and ran to her laptop to look up the police precinct closest to her. She gave a report that her ex-boyfriend broke into her apartment and was destroying everything. She explained she was in Paris and told them his name.

“His name is Frank Randall.”

“Is it spelled like the Senator Frank Randall?”

“It is Senator Frank Randall.”

The cop who was taking the report smiled to himself. Senator Randall had voted to defund the Chicago police and they hated him for being a ball-less politician parrot. He wouldn’t enjoy his time with them tonight.

Claire was fuming and slipped her nightgown over her head, filling a glass with bottled water.

“What can I do to help Claire?”

“Nothing Jamie, I’m fine, I’m just going to wait for the police to call. Go back to sleep.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No, honestly, it’s taken care of. A rather unpleasant episode with my soon to be ex.”

Jamie could not believe she was shutting him out of this incident with Frank like he didn’t matter and had no business in her real world. He was being respectful when he didn’t ask her about after they leave Paris or maybe he just didn’t want to know.

“Claire, were you going to call me when you go back to Chicago?”

“What?”

He could see it in her eyes, confusion about a question that seemed so simple to him. She never planned to see him again, or even call. He was nothing to her. He dressed quickly and left her room. He couldn’t think of anything to say to her so he said nothing. He went to his room and changed into jeans for a long walk through the city while he worked this out in his head.

Claire couldn’t stop crying as she watched him out her window. He walked away hunched into his coat against the cold. She sobbed, realizing she had lost herself in the arms and charm of Jamie Fraser. She never told him she would call, she never said she had feelings for him. She would never forget his face as he figured out what this week was to her. She laid on his pillow with his wonderful smell and cried herself to sleep.

In the morning, Claire called Jamie’s room, and looked for him in the dining room and gym. She asked at the front desk and was told he checked out. It felt like an emotional bomb going off inside her and she struggled to get to her room before falling apart. She looked at his name in her contacts and wrote him a text about how sorry she was, then deleted it. She was dreadfully sorry she hurt him but knew all along they would go separate ways. She didn’t think it would feel so bad.

Claire boarded her plane with puffy red eyes and a pounding headache. About every ten minutes she felt the tears start again and finally ordered whisky so she could sleep. Her life stretched out before her and never seemed so bleak. Jamie Fraser showed her a fresh new day where anything was possible, and he held her like a precious treasure. Now she was going back to her life in a dirty, crime-ridden city, with a drunk Frank telling her what to do, and she could not find a ray of light in all that. She raised her hand for another whisky.

Claire walked toward the baggage claim and could hardly put one foot in front of the other. Geillis hugged her gushing questions about Paris and going on about her new man. The doorman at her building helped carry her suitcases to the elevator asking if she needed help to her apartment. She tipped him and said she would be fine. Her key slid into her door lock and she bent to take the first case inside. A large fist came out of nowhere and cold-cocked her. The assailant left her on the floor with her door open and suitcases in the hall. She was unconscious.

Jamie walked through Paris for hours, but the decorations and lights were not noticed this time. His brain crunched the facts that were heartily ignored for the last four days realizing he believed what he wanted. She was an enigma with an enchanting personality that drew him to her, she was mysterious because she shared little about who she was inside. He didn’t believe she wanted to hurt him, but it hurt nonetheless.

Jamie flew back to Scotland pounding whisky and sleeping to avoid thinking about the Sassenach. He retrieved his car and drove the country roads to Lollybrach, feeling better with each passing minute. He would hurt and miss her, but he truly hoped to forget her in time.

Claire’s face was swelling badly when the paramedics arrived, she was asking for Jamie, completely disoriented. When she saw only strangers around her, she started to cry like her soul was dying. The EMT’s brought her suitcases into the apartment and tested her for a concussion, asking her to come to the hospital but she refused. When they left, she turned in a circle and saw destruction everywhere. The glass-top computer desk was shattered on the floor, cables yanked out, monitor smashed, furniture was in pieces, and the kitchen floor was inches deep with shattered glass, crystal, and dishes.

Two officers were lifting prints in the bedroom and walked out to see a young woman looking as shattered as the apartment. They knew this was done by someone she knew, this was personal and laced with violent hatred. Both were afraid for her and asked where they could take her for the night.

Claire looked up at the officers taking a moment to understand the question. She shook her head and opened the door for them. Other than have a cruiser drive by her building during the night, there was little they could do without her cooperation. They left reluctantly, both fearing he would come again, this time for her life.

Claire recognized she was in shock. All she could see was Jamie’s face, at dinner when he smiled at her, sleepy and hugging her, laughing at her banter, and crumbling from the truth. If there was whisky and a remaining chair she would have stayed right there, but there wasn’t. She took her suitcase and left to stay in a hotel where she sat in the darkness staring at nothing until Paris woke up.

Javier listened to his goddaughter cry and explain being knocked out and the destruction of everything she owned, even her clothes had a knife taken to them. Javier took the call in his office and accepted a glass of water and a baby aspirin from Joseph who recognized a dangerous tone of voice in his employer, and lifelong friend. Joseph closed his door so Javier would not be disturbed and took a position nearby to stop anyone from knocking. Javier called his name, and Joseph, not liking where the dominos were falling, prepared for the worst.

“The bear is in trouble, he’s going to kill her!” Javier ranted the story out as Joseph felt the magma rising in his soul. They knew she might go to jail someday until they could get her out, but being struck and terrorized by that perverted piece of shit had Joseph on the edge of reason. Javier was packing up his briefcase and told Joseph to get packed, they were going to Chicago.

Claire clicked off her phone and sat still. She had not stood up since coming to this room in the middle of the night. She dialed Frank.

“Hello darling, Merry Christmas! What time will you be ready for dinner?”

“Come anytime, Frank.” She disconnected.

She had not intended to confront him, but he would have to start pretending, shock, concern, anger, protectiveness, all the emotions a real fiancé would have when he stumbles into her wrecked apartment. She expected her phone to start ringing in about twenty minutes.

“Hello Frank, did you get a good look at the mess you made last night. Shut your mouth or I will..” He kept sputtering a string of words and talking louder. She clicked off and waited. This happened three more times before he remained quiet on the phone so she could talk.

“If you want to stay alive to pursue whatever it is you’re pursuing you only have one rule, never speak to me or see me again for as long as you live. Even if you see me by accident…bye-bye baby. I’m not the meek teacher you think I am, and you have fucked with the wrong person. Don’t believe me? Try it Frank, and I’ll be more than happy to order your life extinguished.”

Claire felt some weird kind of closure with that and stumbled to the bed where she passed out from exhaustion. She dreamed of Jamie whispering in her ear and felt the happiness bubble up inside her. The ringing of her cell phone pulled her out of sleep. She didn’t know where she was or how long she slept and Javier’s worried voice on the phone was asking where she was. Her face hurt so badly she couldn’t remember the name of the hotel until she looked at the branding all around her.

Javier almost fainted when he saw Claire’s face. He was no stranger to violence, but the Bear’s face was beyond recognition, black and swollen with one eye puffy and closed. He hugged her gingerly and walked her to the bed. Claire was telling him she was fine, but she was very much not fine. Joseph had turned away from her to hide his tears and get control of himself. Javier handed her a pill and a glass of water. Once she was asleep, Joseph stayed in the room and Javier went looking for a new residence for her. He was gone all day and she slept peacefully.

Joseph looked down at her, deep in sleep. He saw the fifteen-year-old, fresh from the jungle, quiet and self-protective, completely vulnerable. He remembered her locked in the bathroom for hours, showering, flushing the toilet, showering again. Her fingers were puckered for the first several weeks from so much washing. Joseph and Javier bent over backwards to make her welcome and finally, after two weeks, she smiled, and then laughed at something said and Joseph thought his heart would explode with happiness. They were devoted to her happiness, and when she grew up, she returned their kindness by becoming the most extraordinary woman. Now here she was, beaten and broken. He took a deep breath and went back to his seat to pull himself together.

Javier arranged for a medical doctor to examine Claire at the hotel because she refused to leave the room. He gave her antibiotics and pain medication and ordered rest for a week as the swelling came down in her face. He was happy to say her eye was not damaged, and her sight would clear up in time. Claire took the medicine as directed and slept like the dead. Javier would go out each day making arrangements for her apartment and filling it with furniture, dishes, crystal, flat wear, pots and pans, linens, towels, shower gels, shampoo, even some makeup. He had impeccable taste, but he was not a thirty-year-old female in Chicago, so he hired a decorator to make the selections. All of it was the best quality money could buy and Javier was in heaven to be spoiling his Bear.

Claire had put the brakes on Javier’s extravagance at age eighteen. She allowed him to finance school and a simple wardrobe and saved her money for anything else she wanted. Joseph would drive her to her job each afternoon at a nearby printer. She sat on plastic for the ride home because she was covered in ink smears and dirt from crawling into the machines. Javier would wince seeing her filthy and exhausted but could never convince her to quit.

Everything changed for Claire when she was hired by Christie’s auction house to be a runner during auctions. Every other day she assisted the appraiser, the decorator, or anyone else that needed help. She was exposed to the great artists of the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo , Neoclassicism, and Romanticism periods and she was hooked. During dinner one evening, she laid out her plan; what schools she would attend, what graduate school she would choose for her PHD, and her choice of career, teaching fine art at a respected University. She apologized for not knowing which University yet and Joseph shot a few peas across the table before he could raise the napkin to his mouth. The original plan never wavered, she did exactly what she said she would do.

After two weeks of rest, Javier checked them all out of the hotel and brought Claire to her new home, a high security, luxury apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. It was extravagant and huge, filled with high-end furniture and decorations. Claire found beautiful crystal stemware, glasses, mugs, plates and everything in between. Her closet was filled with basic clothing, drawers filled with undergarments, sweaters, belts and socks. She pressed her fingers against her mouth and couldn’t stop the tears that were rolling down her cheeks. She hugged her godfather, and then Joseph, shaking with emotion, so grateful for all their help.

Claire utilized the gourmet kitchen to cook an American favorite for Javier and Joseph, filet mignon, lobster tail with butter for dipping, baked potato and herb-roasted carrots. Javier hovered in case she needed help and Joseph laughed and told him to sit down and enjoy the sun setting on the Chicago skyline. Javier planned to rave over this simple, no sauce meal until the beef melted in his mouth and the lobster exploded with flavor. He lost himself in the unusual and primitive meal and Claire mentally high-fived herself. The meal was symbolic. She was a grownup who could manage life on her own, thanks to their help.

Claire hugged them goodbye at the elevator and promised to visit at Christmas next year. When the elevator doors closed, she took her first steps in independence, free of Frank, free to pursue her career, free to choose her every next step. The only thing still missing was color. The apartment building was opulent and surely full of beautiful colors, but she only saw shades of gray in the objects she passed.

Geillis made arrangements for Claire’s senior graduate student to start her classes when the new semester started. The administration was told her face was heeling after a car accident and they were too happy to help. The first day she walked into her lecture hall there was only sympathy on the faces watching her. She was grateful and soon her love of teaching took over and life returned to normal, albeit colorless.

Chapter Text

Jamie walked his newly planted fields and saw green shoots coming up in every direction. He prayed for a good harvest this year. Not because he was poor or starving, he just wanted to win at something this year. He answered his cell phone and stood up straight, listening intently.

“Are you sure it’s Casper? I’ll leave within the hour and meet you in Paris.”

Jamie felt exhilarated and ran back to the house and into the shower. Casper had come out of retirement and stolen a painting from a private gallery. He did the same thing at a London gallery the previous weekend. It seemed a bit low end but at the very least, it would buy him more time. He got packed and headed for the airport.

Claire sat in her office at the University, staring into gray space. Her pencil tapped absently and when Geillis called to her she jumped.

“Calm yerself, Claire. I had hoped you could settle down a bit, especially with your gorgeous high-security apartment, and it’s been five months without word from that snake Randall. But yer still very unhappy. Why?”

Claire looked up at Geillis and shook her head, saying she didn’t sleep much the night before and not to worry. She packed up and went home for even more quiet time with her gray thoughts and more time to worry she was losing her mind. Jamie lived in her head now, always with her, always heartbroken because of what she did. She didn’t think he would ever speak to her again, and if he did, what would she say? Looking at the clock she wanted to scream because it was only seven o’clock. That was the worst part of missing Jamie, an hour took forever to go by so the torture never ended.

Claire grabbed some lined paper and a pen to see just what she would say to Jamie. Maybe getting it all out is what she needed to start feeling better. She could burn the letter after it was written.

Jamie poured over the reports and studied the crime scene photos of what were now three thefts. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He spent two full days checking his contacts in the black market, but no one knew the fence for this art, no one knew anything. The last guy he spoke to said someone told him a Monet would be in play soon, but he didn’t know which one. Jamie thanked him and promised the standard reward if the information was used to apprehend Casper.

Jamie sat on the same bench he shared with Claire six months ago and he let himself remember her smile and whisky brown eyes. She was playful and sexy, and he believed she had feelings for him. He shook his head and opened the newspaper. Flipping pages to the art section he scanned the ads and bam, there it was. A mid-range gallery hosting a private collection of Monet the following weekend. This, it seemed, was Casper’s new normal. Private showings and small galleries. Jamie had a good feeling about the location, and they had one week to set the scene to catch Casper.

There was one piece of evidence left by Casper that wasn’t shared with the world. It was how they identified him as the thief. Casper took great pains to keep the art intact, unlike many who pull the canvas from the frame basically ripping it out. Casper used some kind of tool to pop the nails that held the canvas in the frame. Whatever this tool was left distinct marks on the wood, a half-moon indentation. It was all they had so it was a guarded secret.

Claire pulled another piece of paper, the fourth piece, and continued writing a letter she would never send. Her feelings opened up to her like a blooming flower and she let it flow thinking the answer to her continuous sadness would reveal itself so she could fix it. When she was ready to end the letter and had said all there was to say, she wrote, ’I have never shared this much of me with anyone and I hope it cures my broken heart. I can summarize these four pages by saying I love you, Jamie, with all my heart, I love you.’

Claire sat up and looked at the paper. The words I love you seemed to jump off the page and she just stared at them. Before she could stop herself she sent a text to Jamie, ‘I love you, please forgive me. Claire” Send.

She didn’t expect to hear from him but hoped this would give her some closure. She went to bed.

Jamie stared at his phone and felt his heart ramming in his chest. Those words were the absolute last he expected to see, six months after they parted. He wouldn’t be returning the text, but as he fell asleep he said out loud, “I love you too Claire.”

The Monet show was one day away, and Jamie called Javier to ask about the gallery. He seemed genuinely happy he called and suggested they meet for lunch and he would answer any questions he could. Seeing the older man’s happy face was bittersweet for Jamie. They met at a sidewalk cafe and Jamie told him about the show. He asked about the gallery, if there were hidden entrances, a second vault, a basement, or structural abnormalities. Javier answered what he could and asked Jamie who it was they were closing in on.

“Casper.”

Javier almost choked on his coffee, “Casper you say? Well, that is wonderful, I hope you get him.”

The men talked a bit about sports and Jamie thanked Javier for his help and then bit him goodbye.

Claire came home early and saw a coded message from Javier. Once Tom deciphered the message, she couldn’t believe her eyes. ‘Lunch with Jamie, he is preparing to arrest Casper tomorrow on a tip about a Monet. Needless to say, I was very surprised but not worried because you are in Chicago, right?’ Claire held the Chicago Tribune in front of her chest and took a selfie that she sent to Javier. She needed some air.

Jamie and his team had installed close circuit tv monitors in the gallery office and extra cameras throughout the exhibit. They scrutinized each visitor until their eyes were blurry. Jamie noticed a man standing in front of one of the pictures for a very long time. When he moved away the picture was still there, but Jamie’s gut was telling him the guy wasn’t normal. He radioed to his men near the door and described the man as he started running. The man was already being led out of the gallery when Jamie got to him. This was surprising since he would expect a man to fight harder for his freedom. The art thief had switched the painting with a reproduction and was arrested. His pockets were searched and a small Leatherman multitool was handed to Jamie. It was a link to Casper he thought, and a billion other people.

Later that afternoon, Jamie questioned the suspect who knew all the details of the last three crimes but was confused about the others.

“Tell me, sir, why did you rip the Rembrandt canvas out of the frame? Was someone coming?”

“I don’t remember, probably.”

Jamie made a sound of disgust, “if you intend to impersonate someone, sir, at least get the details straight. You are not Casper, nor could you ever be. You’re not smart enough.”

Jamie left the suspect handcuffed to the table and left. The pressure from his employers had let up with the newly revived Casper chase but now they would learn it was a copycat crime and his nightmares would start again.

“Yes, sir. It was a copycat, sir.”

“This is not good news for us or you Mister Fraser. We gave you an additional six months and you failed to fulfill your end of our bargain. I’m sorry Mister Fraser, it is out of my hands. The court will be notified of your failure to abide, sadly our agreement will be nullified.”

Jamie put the phone down and walked outside for some air. All of his tomorrows suddenly vanished and the nightmare of his captivity came back in living color. He was terrified. Not of monsters or torture, but of loneliness, desolation, no hope of escape. Jamie realized he left his phone at the office and jogged back before he lost that too.

Once back at his hotel, the phone vibrated an incoming text and Jamie’s heart sank, they don’t fool around, he thought. He looked with disbelief at the text message. ‘Come to Greece Jamie, please give me a chance to fix the hurt I caused. Two weeks on a yacht, just you and me going from one island to another. My heart aches to be near you. We can spend the first day making rules we are comfortable with. Claire.’

Jamie held his phone while the heartbreak over missed opportunities crushed him. “I love you too, Sassenach. Forget about me and find your happiness.” No text was returned, instead, Jamie got back to his reports and the grief settled into his bones.

Claire had battled herself for days over sending the text. The semester was over and she was getting out of Chicago for two weeks at least. She owned a yacht that was moored in Greece and the open water always made her feel better. For days Claire waited to hear back from Jaime, but no text came. This was the second time she extended an olive branch, leaving herself vulnerable, and he did not make contact. He was lost to her forever she concluded, and try as she might, the tears came, her legs buckled, and she sobbed into a gray pillow on her gray couch in her gray apartment, like her heart would never mend.

Jamie spent three days closing his case on Casper and the successful arrests made during the past year. He checked out of the hotel and headed for the airport. He considered calling Javier, but he wasn’t strong enough to show a brave face. Javier reminded Jamie of his own father in many ways and he didn’t want the reality of who and what he was to be known. Not to anyone in her world. Her perfect, sparkling world would be repelled by him. Like a muddy pig running through a fancy white living room. Jamie swiped at his eyes in the taxi and tried to stop thinking about it. His phone buzzed for email and he brought it up.

Good afternoon, Mister Fraser.

We have ironed out the details of your return and would like to ask for your complete cooperation. Our agreement is not to be known outside of the agency and we want you to extract yourself slowly to avoid anyone looking for you or filing reports that you are missing. You will return to us as quiet as possible. I do hope you agree, the alternative is rather brutal.

I understand you have a small farm in Scotland and will need time to sell it and conclude any other business such as liquidating assets and the like. We are offering a four to six-week window and ask that you keep us informed.

Any questions you can reach out to this address and I will receive the message.

Jamie paid the taxi driver who looked at him with sympathy and told him life will be brighter tomorrow. He wiped at his face and nodded. Sorry mister, wrong about that, no sun where I’m going, no love, no hope, no redemption, he thought.

When Claire landed in Athens, she spent half of the first day getting reacquainted with the captain and his girlfriend who lived on the ship. There were living quarters connected to the bridge and they were happy there, living on a luxury yacht waiting to be called to duty. She and Maia made three trips to the grocery store to stock food for a two-week journey.

Claire walked down the long dock with her arms full of last-minute purchases. She could feel one of the bags slipping through her arm and she felt sweat drip down the side of her face from the effort.

“Here, let me help you with that.” The man rescued the slipping bag and took all the others. Her subconscious smelled him and sent a cascade of neurotransmitters through her body that felt glorious and tense at the same time. She looked up at his face and just stared at his icy blue eyes and crooked smile.

“You invited me, remember Sassenach?” He asked the question nervously as he could not read the shock on her face.

“And here you are,” was her breathy response.

Jamie wanted to drop the bags and crush her to him. She was like the gift of air to a suffocating man.

Claire was so overwhelmed it took a few seconds to see the man that had stolen her heart was right in front of her. She pulled his head down and kissed him with all the pent up passion and loneliness of the past six months. Someone pulled the bags out of Jamie’s arms and he wrapped her up and held her to him. The kiss was a surrender to love, an invitation to leave the chrysalis of loneliness and fly into a world of their making. When she finally pulled away from him, she was the definition of happiness.

“It is so good to see you, Jamie.”

“You just restarted my dead heart Sassenach, thank you for that.”

He kissed her again and as time passed for the rest of the world, for them it didn’t exist. Jamie heard the musical sound of the Greek language and looked up at the biggest boat he had ever seen up close. Two beautiful people were on the top deck waving and laughing, beckoning them on board. He heard Claire laughing as she waved back.

“Do we get on that then?”

Claire was giggling, “we do, come on I’ll show you around.”

Jamie was astounded at the size and luxury of the yacht, three bedrooms, two decks, a large living area with a huge flatscreen, phones, and a bar. The galley had two refrigerators and a chest freezer, two ovens, microwaves, and large food preparation counters. The opulence was staggering and if not for the beautiful girl walking in front of him he would have looked closer. When they found the back deck, Claire pulled his mouth to hers and they were lost in love.

“Time for trunks or something more comfortable.”

She led him back to the master bedroom and helped him put his clothes away, noticing he packed for any occasion. She unbuttoned her shirt and Jamie watched her with interest as she pulled off her cut-off shorts to reveal the tiniest bikini, bright melon colored against her tanned skin. I will meet you on deck. Maia has been cooking since yesterday, so I promise you won’t starve. She looked at him and wanted to pinch herself in case she was dreaming. He was here, with her, he came.

Claire handed Jamie a cold glass of champagne and offered flatbread and several kinds of dip that were made from scratch while they chatted at the bar. The sexual energy was palpable, and Claire looked out at the ocean to think about something other than the mere twelve inches of space between them.

“My God, I haven’t noticed how blue the water is until now, I can’t remember the last time I saw blue.”

There was so much to discuss but every sentence fell stunted, unexplored because both were captivated with the other.

Claire picked up a ringing phone at the bar and told the captain they were ready to go. She smiled at Jamie and promised open ocean and sunshine for the next six hours.

“This is my first launch, you want to see it from the front deck?”

Jamie watched her mouth and nodded yes.

They got comfortable and sipped champagne as the captain eased the vessel away from the dock and toward the open ocean. It wasn’t long before the huge engines pushed the boat forward to cruising speed and Maia appeared with the cold bottle of champagne to refill their glasses.

“Maia, what do you have on?”

Maia was a Greek beauty with all the attributes this country was known for. Large brown eyes, a wide smile, and flowing hair to her waist. She looked down at her clothes and shrugged her shoulders,

“Uniform.”

Claire rubbed the highly starched shirt sleeve between her fingers and noticed the ill-fitting shorts. This would not do, she thought.

“You have been in cut-offs or a swimsuit since I arrived. Unless you love that uniform, I want you to be comfortable. Please, get that off.”

Maia thanked her and left them alone.

“I think we left the dip on back deck. Let’s go find it.”

Jamie noticed her voice was quiet and nervous sounding. When they walked to the other deck Claire closed the sliding glass door and locked it. The glass was black and Jamie wondered if it blocked the view from the other side. Claire led him to a lounge with a comfortable mattress and pillows to aide whatever ailed you. She walked back to the bar removing her button-down shirt revealing her exposed butt cheeks. She looked naked from behind and Jamie almost choked on his tongue. Her skin was already bronzed with a bit of sunburn on her cheeks and shoulders. She brought the tray of bread and dip and laid next to Jamie on the large lounge.

He took in every gorgeous inch of her and ran his hand down her hip and leg. He wanted to touch everything and tried to hold himself back.

“I promised we would go over the ground rules first thing.” She ran her hand across his massive chest and down his arm. When he saw her ramming heart pulsing in her neck, he let it go and pulled her on top of him to smother her with kisses. In his delirious mind, he decided this was enough, to have her body on his and her tongue in his mouth. When she broke the kiss, he chased her mouth as she sat up and straddled him. He watched her reach behind and pull the strings of her bikini top dropping it on the floor. She never took her eyes off his until he pulled her down and kissed her.

Their bodies were covered in sweat that made contact difficult, causing them to overheat or slide off each other. Claire stretched her arm until her fingertips touched the bridge phone.

“Darius, were you kidding about sea spray …ahhh…on the back deck when you dropped speed. Okay, do that please.”

She dropped the phone and used that arm to pull on the string holding Jamie’s trunks on. They slowed enough for the wake to slap the sides of the boat and lovely, cool, sea spray brought their temperature down for more vigorous activity. Jamie ran his tongue from her waist to breast and sucked a nipple while caressing the other. She was losing her mind and asked him to pound into her which he did in short order, gasping when he filled her. Claire felt the throbbing, almost painfully. She begged him not to stop, she was about to come. His next two strokes pressed into her and he twisted his hips. That did it. He held her and watched her face register the euphoria, he had never loved her more. When she pressed his butt, he pumped into her soft wetness until he stiffened and his body convulsed as he emptied himself into her.

They kissed and found their favorite resting position to snuggle and nap the afternoon away. Claire called the bridge and asked Darius to set whatever cruising speed he wanted, and the boat lurched forward.

Later, Jamie felt a cool breeze on his stomach and opened his eyes to a breathtaking sunset.

“Sassenach, sweetheart, you must see this beautiful sky.” Claire sat up and declared it the best sunset she had ever seen. What finally drove them inside was starvation and Maia served them a beautiful meal of lobster bisque, steak, and several Greek sides that were delicious but unknown to them.

Later they cuddled under a quilt on the top deck and let the heavens entertain them with shooting stars streaking across a black sky with billions of stars as a backdrop.

“It’s important to me that you really know who I am, how I got this way, how I could screw up so bad in Paris last Christmas. Would you mind?”

“Please Sassenach, there is nothing I’d like more.”

Claire turned on a battery-operated light and handed him her four-page burn letter. She couldn’t bring herself to burn it because it was all she had to remember him by. It was shoved into her wallet and now it was in Jamie’s hands. She felt self-conscious and rolled away to leave him to his reading. He caught her hand and pulled her back, “not without you love.”

He read every line and then, to her surprise, started at the first line and read it again.

“Jesus, lass, I hardly know what to say. Completely alone at five years old except for a man who dragged you from one archaeological dig to another. He wasn’t there for you emotionally, I see that, I also see how you slip easily into emotionless relationships. And why I didn’t hear from you for six months. It makes sense now, so many things. Come here, sweetheart.”

Jamie hugged Claire and pulled her to him. She was so grateful he read her letter, and then read it again. She hoped he would have more faith in her this time because now she knew how much she loved him.

“What is happening with Frank Sassenach?”

Claire was quiet just a little too long while she considered telling Jamie the truth. If she didn’t, the letter meant nothing and he still couldn’t trust her. She reached for her phone and launched her gallery.

“This is my new apartment that Javier rented for me, and that is all my new furniture. He arranged everything from the lease to filling the apartment with furniture, kitchen stuff, even clothes. The reason he had to do all this is because…”

Claire swiped to the next picture of her destroyed apartment showing various rooms and angles. Then she swiped again, and Jamie’s intake of air was loud enough for the sea creatures to hear. He grabbed her phone and sat up, studying the picture of her face after being knocked out.

“No, no, no, no, no, my God, how did this happen, who did this? Oh my God Claire, this is sickening.”

He stood up and walked the deck around their bed under the stars. He kept looking at the picture as she told him exactly what happened. When she was finished, he pulled her from her sitting position down on the mattress and covered her. He spoke into her ear, telling her she was loved and protected, and Frank or anyone else would never touch her in anger again. His kisses were love affirming becoming heated and passionate causing her to pant.

Claire was trying to get his shirt off and panting in his ear when the voice of reason took over in his head. You will love her, tell her you will always be there for her, make her feel safe, and then break her heart like everyone else in her life. The lovemaking came to a crashing halt and Jamie looked like he had been kicked in the head.

“Sassenach, I…I’m sorry love. I’m too much in my head, I can’t right now. I’m sorry.”

“You are here in the flesh Jamie. You took a leap of faith and came on this trip with me. Your hands are still warm, and your heart is still open. That’s what I want. There is time for us to find our way.

He hugged her for over a minute, trying to come to terms with his reality. He had, at the most, six weeks of freedom left, and he needed to find a way to tell her. Claire suggested a hot shower and sleep and he agreed.

Chapter Text

Jamie’s eyes were open with the sunrise, as always. He didn’t mind his early rise because it gave him time to think before the trials of the day buried him. He kissed Claire’s cheek lightly and struggled not to laugh at the coil curls that buried her. She had not changed. She still kept a hand on him all night, she still purred when he wrapped her in his arms. She was still amazing.

His first stop was the galley to make coffee and find some bread to toast. He was excited about all this boat had to offer them and inhaled his breakfast so he could explore. When he stepped out on the forward deck, he couldn’t believe his eyes. During the night, they arrived at the first island and the boat was moored safely offshore. The island of Santorini was waking up, shops were opening, food was cooking, and the colorful island just came alive. This couldn’t wait, he decided and ran downstairs to wake Claire.

She looked so sexy having kicked the covers off. His eyes followed the curves of her back and ample butt, long legs and that tan line was driving him nuts. Slowly, Santorini faded from his recent memory and he crept up on the beautiful one. He kissed the back of her thighs and the nearness to her honey was crippling him. He rolled her to her back and opened her legs giving him access to her secret garden. By the time she was fully awake she was just minutes from organism and Jamie pushed her into the erotic wind and scooted up the bed to hold her while he pulled his trunks off.

“Will you have me Sassenach?”

“I insist,” she breathed with her eyes still closed.

Jamie froze when her still undulating inner muscles held him like a hand. He moved slowly at first, kissing her awake while he took possession of her body. When he let himself go, he held her pelvis up to him and buried himself in her softness. After several minutes he dropped to the mattress and turned into the girl monster, much like the cookie monster with a taste for pretty girls. Claire laughed and tried to avoid his kisses making him redouble his effort to kiss every inch of her.

“I’m sorry for waking you love.”

“You can wake me any time, day or night. What a fantastic way to start the day.”

“I have a surprise for you, but you must get up to see it. It is worth it Sassenach.”

Claire sat up and pushed her hair away from her face while she yawned and pointed to a drawer, “pick one.”

Jamie laughed at how many bikinis were in the drawer and took his time picking his favorite. It was a leopard print, and no bigger than the one she wore yesterday. She slipped it on and looked for her brush in the bathroom, coming out in under five minutes with her hair tamed in a ponytail. Jamie was bursting at the seams with energy and bounced out to make her coffee, telling her to hurry.

With a steaming mug in hand Jamie led her out the forward deck and watched her mouth drop open and then smile.

“She opened a section of railing and said, “first things first, sweet Jamie,” and jumped overboard with Jamie right behind her. They played in the water and kissed and played some more before swimming to the rear deck to climb back on board.

Maia appeared wearing a suit much like Claire’s and announced breakfast whenever they were ready. The table was set with juice, waffles, omelets, bread pudding, fruit, fried potatoes, and delicious sides they didn’t recognize but ate with complete faith it would be delicious.

Darius came in and shook Jamie’s hand introducing himself. They were close in age and seemed to hit it off from the get-go.

“I’ll tender you to shore when you’re ready, just let me know, I have to see to a repair of the navigation system.”

Jamie looked at Claire, “if it means we’ll be lost somewhere in these beautiful islands then don’t fix it.”

Claire laughed and headed for the shower, Darius to his task, Maia to the galley and Jamie to the rear deck to look at Santorini. Each time he thought about the night before he chased it out of his mind. She would be hurt and angry if he told her now, or at the end of the trip. It wasn’t an easy decision.

Darius tendered them ashore leaving them with a small walkie talkie to radio the yacht when ready. Jamie and Claire walked their feet off all morning and stopped for lunch at an outside grill. They decided to rent scooters to see more of the island and other than two almost crashes, Claire figured out how to ride the scooter. It was a dream day, and on the way back to the boat Claire fell asleep on Jaime’s shoulder. He looked at her and felt his heart squeeze.

Claire opened her eyes the next morning confused by the darkness of the bedroom and then she heard the mighty thunder overhead and jumped out of bed to dress. She loved thunderstorms and couldn’t wait to get to the deck.

She halted right before opening the glass door. Jamie stood on deck watching the storm come in. He was such a gorgeous man it was hard not to sigh each time he looked at her. He must have felt her stare and turned around to smile at her. He held his hand and she took it.

“Claire, I secured a new mooring on the other side of the island. If we stay here we take the front head-on. We weigh anchor in the next five minutes, okay?”

“Yes, whatever is best, do you need any help, Darius?”

He didn’t know what to make of that question at first, so he just smiled and said it was all under control. Claire wrapped her arms around Jamie’s waist and put her head on his shoulder. This was surreal. The beauty, the boat, the islands, the storm, and the man. Mostly the man.

The rain held off until they were securely moored on the other side of the island. The rain came with a vengeance as the wind blew the rain sideways. Maia and Claire ran around the yacht closing windows and bringing in lightweight items from both decks, so they didn’t blow away. They were soaked through in seconds, so Jamie had towels waiting for them. It was going to be an inside day and not one of them would be bored.

While the storm raged around them, Darius and Maia joined Jamie and Claire for charades, then broke out the board games and switched the teams throughout the afternoon. Claire and Maia served dinner just as the storm was moving out.

“Tomorrow should be beautiful.”

“Claire, we can cruise all night and be moored at Crete when you wake up.”

“Oh no, I wouldn’t expect you to stay up all night. Let’s set off at first light.”

Darius reluctantly agreed, still getting used to an owner with a heart. He and Maia cleaned up the living room and galley while Jamie and Claire found their way back to the top deck. It was the highest point on the boat offering a 360 view of the sky and a built-in double lounge for comfort. The air was fresh and cool after the rain and Jamie ran down for a quilt to snuggle under. They were so high above the water it felt like they could touch the stars in the black sky.

They talked until early morning, covering various topics, both eager to learn more about the other. The air warmed up with the retreating storm and Jamie removed a piece of Claire’s clothing about every fifteen minutes until she was naked and pulling him to her. It felt very risky to make love on the upper deck, adding erotic energy that raised the bar on explosive orgasms. They were exhausted and clinging to each other before sleep swept them away.

“Sassenach, you must wake up and dress to get downstairs.”

Claire could hear the edge in his voice and opened her eyes to a new dawn and mooring. “Jesus, there are people all around us!”

Jamie held the quilt up so she could slip into her suit while he chuckled. “On or off makes little difference Sassenach.”

They walked downstairs quietly and found the privacy of their bedroom where they could sleep the morning away before exploring Crete. Claire heard all about Lallybroch the previous evening, Jamie’s parents and his sister. The more she knew the better he became.

Every other day Darius would bring them to another island for exploration, snorkeling, eating and drinking. It was, by anyone’s definition, the perfect vacation. On their last night, Jamie pulled her up to the top deck for a much-needed conversation that Claire had thought out well in advance. She would give him anything he asked her for.

“I will miss this view Sassenach.”

“Me too, the stars are beautiful.”

“Oh, yes, the stars too. I have a concern about when I will see you next. I love you lass and don’t want to live without you.”

“I still have two months of summer vacation left. Maybe I should come to Scotland? Would you like that?”

“Aye, I would, when?”

She laughed at his anxious face and kissed him. “As soon as I wrap up the last of my semester projects. Maybe a week?”

“That is perfect, now I feel better, so what happens if I pull this string?”

Darius pulled up to the dock the next morning and they said their goodbyes. Claire hugged Darius so tight he laughed and blushed. She did the same to Maia adding a kiss and a thank you to both of them.

“Maybe you could borrow the yacht again, soon.”

Claire’s mind raced with different ways to answer that question and she fell back to her commitment to the truth.

“It’s my boat, Jamie. It’s part of my inheritance. I’m sorry I didn’t say that before, it just never came up.” A half-truth is better than no truth, she decided. It was actually payment for stealing two Degas paintings, one from London, the other from a private collection in Romania.

Jamie was quiet but smiling and Claire waited. “A girlfriend that is beautiful, sexy, fun, and she owns a yacht. I don’t think there’s a better treasure to be had in this life.” He stopped in the middle of the airport and kissed her, hoping it wasn’t the last time.

Claire clung to Jamie when it was time to board her flight. She didn’t want to leave him and there was nothing in Chicago she couldn’t replace, including her job. He pushed her curls behind her ear and studied her sad face.

Will you be in Scotland by next week lass? That’s a good girl and please let me know you are home safe. He kissed her again and she walked quickly to security and onto her gate.

“It’s like you take the oxygen with you when you go.” He said watching her walk away.

After the dream vacation of the past two weeks, Claire wasn’t looking forward to anything other than leaving for Scotland. Her building on campus was mostly empty and quiet, feeling kind of eerie as she approached her office. There was no Geillis running after her, verbalizing every topic in her head, and no students hanging around waiting to speak to her. That means no interruptions, she told herself and sat down to work.

She didn’t hear him approach, even though the building echoed when empty. When she looked up, there he was at her office door, asking for a moment of her time. He sat across from her in his three-piece suit and seemed to size her up before speaking.

“Doctor Beauchamp, I represent the coalition that is active in Frank Randall’s campaign for governor of Illinois. It is vital that he receive all the support necessary to be the best candidate and win the election. He was supposed to be married this summer, to you, and we are not happy the vows have been canceled. You and Frank have had a long, well known relationship that would look unstable if he was to marry someone else, so you have a large wedding to plan and make sure you sparkle on your big day. There will be hundreds of pictures taken that day I’m sure.”

Claire stared at the man completely mute. She was suddenly afraid and there was no one to hear her scream.

“Don’t be absurd. I have a restraining order on that man, so I’m hardly interested in marrying him.”

Claire stood up and reached for her briefcase running physically into the man when he stood to block her. He looked down at her and suggested she sit and continue the conversation. Now she was terrified.

“I will not marry that man so peddle your story to someone else.”

“I’m afraid you are the best candidate for the governor’s wife and in three years, the first lady. A professor of fine arts at the University of Chicago is exceptional. I suggest a romantic dinner this Friday at your new apartment on Michigan Avenue, number 1103, the view must be breathtaking from up there. Frank will agree and you will be married in September.”

“You’re not listening…”

“I don’t have to listen Doctor Beauchamp because it isn’t an offer or a choice. We are counting on eight years in the White House and after that you can run away with James Fraser if you want, we don’t care.”

“Last I checked it was illegal to force a person into marriage,” said through clenched teeth, she was seething.

“You won’t be forced, Claire, and I don’t bring a water pistol to a gunfight, I bring an Apache helicopter fully loaded.”

The man sent a text to someone and two minutes later he held the phone out for her to see a live stream of Jamie working on a barn. The camera zoomed in on his face and Claire gasped.

“I have a man at Fraser’s estate and your beloved is in his crosshairs. Go to the police, try to run, and Jamie dies. Now, let’s look at your godfather’s business, oh, he’s been breaking the law fencing stolen art and he’s moving millions per year. Too bad he wasn’t a better chef.”

Claire’s mind was racing trying to outthink this horrible man. He watched her for a minute and smiled.

“Give us eight years in the White House, and play nice so he doesn’t beat you to death, and all will be well…Casper.”

The man stood and moved to the door, and like he had an afterthought he turned toward her.

“Our candidate will look holier than the pope when he runs for governor and then president of the United States. It is unacceptable to have an ex-girlfriend reject him, but mourning over his dead love will provide a nice boost in ratings. We don’t need your permission, and you cannot bargain.”

“An Apache, fully loaded.”

Claire was shaking from her head to her feet. When she stood, her legs threatened to give way so she held onto her desk, and then the walls, and then the door frame, another wall, and then the exit door. The first step without support was wobbly but she finally made it to her car and drove home.

She took inventory of her predicament once in her apartment where she had felt safe until an hour ago. They will kill Jamie, they will expose Javier, they know she is Casper, and he threatened to kill her if she didn’t marry the vilest man in history.

She wasn’t well versed in spy technology but she knew they would track her credit card expenditures, so she needed cash and a lot of it. They would tap her phone and have her watched and followed. She jumped up to write a message on her computer and run it through Tom. When her fingers touched the keyboard, she realized they would have a keystroke recorder and see everything she typed. She closed her eyes and tried to relax.

“I will take it, and I’ll need a quiet place and access to the secure internet for five minutes.” Claire handed her credit card to the clerk at Best Buy and followed his pointed finger to the back room where she found a hub to plug her new laptop in. She flew through creating a new email and wrote a warning letter to Javier.

‘I want spaghetti and meatballs, three times the meatballs please. I will find a way to update you until I’m there.’

Claire sent the file to Tom remotely and pulled it back once it was coded. She sent it to Javier and went to her next destination. The safety deposit box was placed on the table in the vault. She pulled the fake passports and credit cards out and scooped the gold into her purse. She signaled the bank manager that she was finished and handed him a note with an offshore account number.

“Do you have affiliates in Veneto Italy?”

“Yes, how may I help you?”

“Please arrange a checking account in Veneto, Edinburg, and Athens, if you would. Be a darling and transfer three million from the account on the paper to each bank. Also, transfer three million to my account here. I will be traveling and I will be heavily reliant on my credit cards. Burn the paper when you’re done.”

“No problem, anything else, Misses Dunn?”

She handed the man three hundred dollar bills and received his pledge in his expression. She had set up her account under her alternate identity and was known to these people as Mary Dunn. The real Mary Dunn was in a deep coma at her family’s estate in France. Her husband asked his friend Javier for help burying the story of her car accident and the problem was taken care of. Claire visited the family with Javier and sat with Mary for quite some time. She was a beautiful woman with three gorgeous sons and a husband who loved her. It seemed so unfair and her heart broke for the whole family. When she learned that Mary’s favorite artist was Gustave Courbet, she stole one of his paintings that was being reconditioned in the lower basement of the Louvre. Some flirting, some promises, and the painting was abandoned so the artist could meet and get lucky. Claire never had it so easy and a week later the painting was hung on the wall directly across from Mary’s bed. When Claire received her Ph.D. and a job in Chicago, Mary’s passport, license, and birth certificate were given as a gift with the provision they would not be used in the commission of a crime. It was a safe way out of town, or the country, if ever needed.

Claire made her way to see Geillis and put the crucial part of the plan into action. She needed a safe way out of town and prayed Geillis would help her.

Geillis read the paper Claire handed her and saw the stark terror in her friend’s eyes which was sinking into her bones too. She nodded her head and Claire left.

Geillis read the instructions and dialed the airline making a reservation to Paris for Mary Dunn leaving tonight and used her own credit card looking at the one thousand in cash Claire had left on the table. She dialed a friend and announced she needed a favor and was coming over.

Claire dropped her make up bag, passport, driver’s license, and credit cards into her largest shoulder purse. Her plan and Jamie’s life were in the balance and she prayed for enough luck to pull this off. She needed a head start because once the coalition knew she ran, it would turn into a hunt for blood.

Claire and Geillis arrived at Ravinia and enjoyed the outdoor show, a trending jazz band that was very entertaining. Claire pounded three cans of beer and giggled to the restroom. Geillis moved her feet to avoid the puddle of beer on the grass and said a silent prayer. Claire wore a floppy, stylish hat with a huge brim to keep the afternoon sun out of her eyes. When she entered the restroom she looked at their friend who was waiting for her. Claire threw her clothes over the lavatory door and grabbed the woman’s clothes, holding her breath they would fit. They did and she let out a sigh of relief. She handed the hat to the woman along with three hundred dollar bills and hugged her tightly, thanking her. The woman walked back to Geillis looking a bit unsteady on her feet. Claire waited ten minutes and left in the other direction.

The most vulnerable time was waiting for a city bus to the airport and she tried to calm her ramming heart as she climbed on board and took a dirty seat next to a window. She wore a blond wig cut in a bob at her jawline, like the picture on her passport and license. She thought about the live stream of Jamie in that man’s hands and prayed he was alright.

If she was very lucky, the woman impersonating her would get dropped at Claire’s apartment building and lock herself inside. Geillis gave her the passwords to Claire’s computer so she could send an invitation to Frank for dinner Friday night. Tom was completely cloaked on Claire’s computer so there was no worry their friend would find it. She spent hours surfing the web for wedding planners, wedding venues, dresses, bride’s maid dresses, and poured over pictures of recent celebrity weddings. She didn’t mind, she loved Claire and was happy to burrow in this luxury apartment to give her a couple of days head start. From what she had no idea.

The security technicians reported back to the coalition that the subject has not left the apartment and Frank has accepted the invitation to dinner, all other activities were wedding related. The tall man read the report and smiled. “That’s a good girl.”

It was morning when Claire left the airport in Paris and started walking. She punched the numbers of Javier’s burner phones and heard a ring on the fourth try.

“Bear!”

“Send Joseph please.”

The line went dead and Javier motioned for Joseph to go get her. She might be a short-haired blonde at the moment, but Joseph would know Claire’s walk anywhere. He pulled up to the curb and she gratefully got into the front seat.

“I am racing the clock Joseph, Jamie Fraser is in danger, they are using him to force me to marry Frank. They want me with him for the next eleven years from governor to the White House.” Claire took a deep breath, “they know about Javier and they know I am Casper.”

Joseph was freaking out inside but patted her hand and promised all would be well.

“Or, Jamie is shot in the head for leverage, I am forced to marry a monster, and Javier goes to prison. You too I might add.”

“I get it Bear, all those things are possible, you must have faith in Javier. He is ready for this.”

Claire felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck. What did he mean ready for this? When they were safely back at the mansion Javier listened to every detail and hugged his goddaughter like they had all the time in the world. When he stood up the smile disappeared and he strode into the outer office where his men were given specific instructions for moving the art, and every piece of paper in his office and restaurant. He twisted the dial on his wall safe and left it open so they could remove the money, gold, and treasures inside.

Javier picked up his burner phone and called his man in Scotland, explaining he was to find Jamie at Lallybroch and tell him to get out of the country before these men made an example out of him to put more pressure on Claire.

“Make it convincing my friend, or share the same fate as Fraser.”

There was much to do but Javier watched the men, looking for one in particular who had not shown up in almost a week after winning a weekend getaway at a luxury resort somewhere in France.

The corpse of a once loyal servant was buried in a landfill on the outskirts of Paris. His fingers were burned down to the second knuckle, one eye was gouged out, and his naked body was full of wounds from the sustained use of a cattle prod. When he cracked, he was delirious and near death. They got him to divulge Javier’s secrets by offering a drop of liquid pain killer into his mouth. They buried him alive in garbage where the tortured man lived another twelve hours in extreme pain.

Jamie grabbed a wrench next to the tractor he was under and started to line it up with a stubborn bolt. He could hear a car in the driveway and peaked out at a small man running toward him.

“I have your order Mister Fraser. Please show me where to set up lunch.”

Jamie looked up at the weird man who seemed about ready to shake himself out of his boots. When Jamie didn’t move the man quietly said it’s from Claire and they must go inside. Jamie walked the man back to the house and read the note he was given, then he looked at the stack of money and fake identification. The little man handed Jamie a ticket to Venice, Italy, and a note with an address in Veneto.

“Wait a minute! What the hell is this all about?”

“There is a sniper in the woods across from your estate. When he gets the call, he will shoot you in the head. Find a way to the airport without being seen or die in the attempt. She will meet you in Italy. Good luck Mister Fraser.”

The man left the house and drove away. The sniper in the woods was sound asleep and missed the whole episode.

Jamie sat down in the kitchen wondering what the hell happened to cause these preparations. It was unnerving to think Claire was in trouble and he couldn’t reach out to her. He started planning his escape when his cell phone buzzed for an incoming message. One of the men on his team sent twelve fuzzy pictures recovered from the close circuit hard drive at Sotheby’s. His team had no idea he pulled from prison and was now going back. The pictures were absolutely useless, but Jamie looked through them a few times to give his body some time to normalize after the shock. He squinted at one picture that seemed indiscernible at first glance but there was something there that he needed to see. He downloaded the jpeg to his graphics program and sharpened the image before making a copy with higher resolution, he used other filters to clean up the image and then enlarged it gradually, making a copy with higher resolution each time. When he had the image at 300 dpi, he enlarged it and hit print. He pulled the picture out of the printer and stared at it, moved to the light of a window, and finally turned it upside down. There it was.

Jamie threw his gear in a backpack and came downstairs in time to see Angus sneaking in the front door. Jamie slapped him on the back and Angus looked into his friend’s worried eyes. They waited in silence until they heard Rupert coming into the driveway, revving his engine and honking his horn.

“Good luck Jamie.”

Angus pulled Jamie’s jacket on and kept his head down as he ran to the truck. It was too dark to see much more than a hunched shape get into the truck and head for the fields to spin donuts and generally be loud, obnoxious, and attention-grabbing.

Jamie went out the other side of the house and ran a half a mile to find Angus’s motorcycle parked under a weeping willow that had been a rendezvous spot since they were kids. He jumped on the bike and made for the airport in Edinburgh. Angus would pick the bike up tomorrow in the underground parking.

Javier hugged Claire and then held her hands. She was in a lot of trouble, no doubt about that and he would help all he could, starting with research on the coalition.

“You stay ahead of them Bear, just don’t let them catch you. I need time to find their weaknesses and we will play the same deadly game with them.”

“Javier I am so worried about you, once they know I’ve bailed they will come here looking for you.”

“I am too old to fight so thank God we won’t be here. The men have been scattered far and wide for their own protection. Joseph and I are going underground. Please touch base once a week or this old man will worry himself to death.”

Joseph gave her a warm hug even though he was driving her to the airport. Claire walked backward so she could keep Javier in sight and blew him a kiss before she went through the door.

Joseph watched her walk into the airport with nothing but the clothes on her back, heading for a place she has never been, to meet a man that might already be dead.

“God speed, Bear.”

Chapter Text

The flight from Paris to Venice was almost too quick. When Claire realized they were descending she was still sipping her first whisky. She threw it back and raised her hand for another. She was terrified of renting a car and finding her way to Veneto. Javier drew her a map with the roads and turns but she worried it would be pitch dark and she would get lost. Every single thing she saw now scared her. The cricket she saw at Javier’s turned into a deadly assassin with an Uzi under his arm and a second before she stomped her foot down it turned into a land mine. The flight attendant handed her the whisky and reminded her they were picking up the glasses in preparation for landing. Claire threw it back and handed her the glass. Now I’ll get lost for sure, she thought.

Claire’s anxiety mounted with each minute once the wheels hit the runway. She was barely holding it together, conjuring up macabre scenarios of what she would find at the property. By the time she found the car rental place, she asked for a tank. The man blinked and stared at her shaking his head no. He continued to shake his head when she asked for a Humvee, an Escalade, a Suburban, a Jeep, or a station wagon? He held the keys out and pointed to a tin can on wheels with bald tires. Claire grabbed the keys and signed where he pointed. She had to muscle her way through the cramped rental building wondering why so many people were arriving at night. She could see the door and lunged for it feeling her feet leave the dirty floor as her body was pulled through the people into the arms of love.

“Sassenach, I’m so damn glad to see you lass.”

Claire gripped Jamie’s jacket and sobbed into his chest. She cried like there wasn’t a soul around to see her, like a child who finds his mother after being lost in a giant shopping mall. Her arms circled his waist in a death grip and her tears continued as Jamie inched her to the door and out into the night.

“Sassenach, are you hurt?”

“No.”

“Thank Christ.”

Jamie took a minute to hug her and rock back and forth. When she got control of her sobs, he guided her to the rental car and helped her in. He wanted to get them out of the airport and pushed the little car toward that end. Claire turned her tiny flashlight to the map and called out the next turn as they made their way to Veneto.

An hour later they pulled into the driveway of her property. Javier had arranged for the lights and water to be turned on, but they had to navigate to the front door where the light switches were. Jamie was holding her up for the most part and realized something monumental had shaken her to the core. When the lights came on, the monsters were banished from her reality and she felt the apprehensive calm of the newly rescued.

Jamie pulled her to a couch, left by the previous owners, and pushed the hair out of her face with compassionate eyes taking her in.

“I know it’s big, what we’re up against so just tell me like you’re reading it in a book.”

She tried to start, sputtered a few sentences, and tried again. Jamie pulled her hand to his massive bicep and smiled at her, cowering on the couch. He spoke quietly to her.

“I know how to use these.” He pressed her fingers into his muscle. “It’s the chapter of my life left to be told. I think we are safe here, right? No one will know we are here, in the middle of nowhere, in a small Italian village. So we can take a deep breath,” he expanded his lungs waiting for her to follow him, “and chill for tonight.”

Jamie pulled her chin up to look in her eyes, “besides the cloak and dagger, I am so damn glad to see you lass.”

Claire pulled his head to meet her mouth and they lost themselves in a renewing kiss. That seemed to break the fear spell she was under and she took another deep breath before telling the details of her last thirty hours, leaving out the discovery that she was Casper and Javier a fence for stolen art. Jamie listened intently, impressed not only with her plan but her die-hard resolve to get word to him. Once he was fully informed, the two of them sat huddled together on a leftover couch in a villa owned by some business incorporated in Bangladesh. Not a crumb of food was in the kitchen and the water would run rusty brown for the first thirty minutes but it was heaven on earth to them.

In Chicago, the sun was rising as a man watched the building Claire lived in. He stretched his legs and heard his back crack from sitting up for two days. When he hung his private investigator's license in Chicago, he never anticipated jobs like this, working for men that scared him shitless. He transmitted his report that the subject has remained in the apartment spending most of her time searching for wedding related information.

Claire had been explicit about how long to stay in the apartment telling her friend to order a taxi to the back of the building where she eased into the backseat and gave her address. It would be hours before anyone wondered about the lack of activity in the apartment or internet giving the impostor plenty of time to get away safely. Geillis waited to board her plane to Michigan where she would visit her parents and the town she grew up in, visit old friends and high school sweethearts. She stood to line up for boarding smiling at the good looking commuter behind her.

Claire balled herself up between Jamie and the couch back sleeping fitfully and grabbing at him when she woke up through the night. He would pull her in and shush her, reminding her he was there and she was safe.

Jamie’s eyes opened with the dawn and the lack of window covering allowing the sun rays to bath them in heat. He rolled off the couch and looked down at his clever Sassenach feeling an overwhelming need to protect her. Come what may, he would see her safe before he disappeared forever.

Jamie stepped outside and smiled like a kid at Christmas. There were vineyards as far as the eye could see. They were terraced up the side of the mountain, even the land around the villa was grapevines hanging heavy with grape clusters. When he looked at the villa, he realized it was very large with outbuildings that made him wonder if there were chickens around. He walked around staying close to the estate in case Claire woke up in a panic. He felt a sharp peck on his boot and looked down at a confused chicken who continued to peck getting nothing in return. He picked the chicken up and threw it in the air following where it flapped, finding a treasure of eggs in multiple nests. The coop was well maintained and he filled his pockets with the freshest looking eggs.

He set the eggs on the kitchen counter and opened cabinets looking for anything left behind. There was a small, battered pan for frying eggs, a plastic cup, and a box of plastic forks. Hm, not enough for his ravenous hunger. He set the eggs in the fancy, now cold refrigerator and went to check on the Sassenach.

Claire’s lifeless body suggested he explore some more so up the stairs he went marveling at the open upper floor that looked down on a sleeping Sassenach. He wandered through the rooms making note of anything left behind that could be useful. There were custom upgrades throughout the house including a gigantic tub in the master bath and a glassed-in shower with water heads on both ends. He liked that idea. Shower with your love and meet in the middle for…

“Jamie!”

Descending the stairs two at a time he pulled her into a hug in less than a minute. She was shaking and crying saying something unintelligible. He pulled her to the couch and held her for a minute before asking what she said.

“I have been in these clothes for two days Jamie. I might smell bad for the first time since the jungle, and we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere!”

“You look fresh as a daisy sweetheart, and you smell as good as always. Don’t fret so, now that we’re here we can buy what we need, ok? Come now, let me show you this amazing place.”

His excitement got her off the couch and outside where the vineyards spanned in every direction. His smile was beaming. Claire turned around and went back to the couch where Jamie would convince her she looked fine and smelled wonderful. It was decided that food was the priority and Jamie was prepared to drive until they found a cafe or a land mammal he could kill and eat. Thankfully, they found a small eatery that was open for breakfast and with Jamie’s limited Italian, hot eggs, sausage, potatoes, bread, and spaghetti were being consumed in a short twenty minutes.

Jamie continued to explore the outbuildings which led him to an artist’s studio full of painted and unused canvases. His heart was racing when he found the cabinets full of paint and brushes, turpentine, rags, acrylic, and oils. He found a fortune in art supplies and a canvas that was already prepped for paint. He ran his fingers around the edges, seeing the painting emerge in his mind’s eye. He pulled a long oil brush from a container and checked the balance and weight, closing his eyes at the rush of energy he felt. He shook his head and dropped the brush back into the container before making his way back to the house. Claire leaned over the sink and watched the brown rusty water pour out. She wore an oversized cotton frock and cowboy boots giving Jamie a new definition of adorable.

He pulled her to him for a soul-stealing kiss feeling her ardor ramp up, responding to his every touch.

“You found soap, I can smell it on you.” A long kiss suspended his thought. “Suppose you show me this treasure lass.”

Claire pulled him upstairs where she had stocked the master shower with all she found. There were several bars of hotel soap, shampoo, and towels that looked relatively clean. She told him one of the linen closets was full like they totally forgot about it. Jamie was pulling his clothes off while she was talking and gratefully stepped under the rainbird shower head letting the water pour over him.

A towel was wrapped around his waist and he shook the water from his curls before calling to Claire. He could hear her but couldn’t find her until he climbed a narrow staircase into an attic where he saw several trunks open, and clothing pulled out onto the floor. Two armoires were open with their contents pulled out and one naked Sassenach on a bed that was left behind. He walked toward the foot of the ornate iron bed where his beautiful girl waited for him. He looked her up and down and asked her to spread her legs. When she did, he gasped involuntarily making the hair on her arms stand up. He was stuck, looking at the honey that glistened. Like being led by the pied piper he lowered himself to her and ran his flat tongue up her fold, hearing her moan, and feeling her hips chase his mouth. He was spellbound by her body and pushed his tongue into her greedily, holding her legs open for his consumption he brought her to the brink and stopped abruptly.

Claire was in no mood to miss the crashing euphoria promised by Jamie’s tongue. She looked at him like a predator and moved her body and bouncing breasts to his lap where she powered down on his cock until he could feel her throat tighten around him. Jamie grunted and almost lost it, but he pulled her away and buried his face in her again, sucking and flicking his tongue until she exploded. There was no room for gentleman Jamie on this bed. He took a fist full of hair and pulled her head back to gorge himself on her mouth while pulling her under him. He was slightly aware of her panting in his ear, encouraging him to ravish her, promising to deliver whatever he wanted. He held her pelvis up and pounded into her, lifting her legs over his shoulders and bearing down on her soft wetness. Claire was panting and begging him to make her come again. He pushed into her and rotated his hips growling at her to come for him. Her orgasm coated Jamie with honey and he pumped his life and his love into her with a sustained moan. Claire was back on earth watching her love take flight, marveling at the strength and intensity of his body chasing his release. She ran her hand softly down his back and over his butt, feeling his balls squeeze and pulse their contents into her.

Jamie collapsed to her side and held her to him, panting for air, while the last of the magic waves washed over him. He felt complete sexual release, like never before and remembered Claire talking in his ear, making him crazy with what she told him to do, deeper, faster, make me come. He opened his eyes to a head full of curls, giggling, while she kissed his chest all over and told him he was an exceptional lover. He held her close and listened to the Sassenach purr while gratitude filled him. Every time they touched, he felt closer to the woman of his dreams. He was so humbled by her love and knew together or apart, she would ride his dreams in this life and the next.

Jamie pulled Claire’s house key out of her purse, locked the house, and drove to the restaurant to buy food for dinner and breakfast. He covered her with a quilt and jogged to the studio where he found an old pallet and squeezed vibrant oil paint onto it. He painted quickly, aware of the time but not wanting to stop. When he pushed it as far as he dared, he dropped his brushes into the turpentine, sealed his pallet in a plastic bag, and ran back to the house.

He kissed his love awake promising tasty treats to fill her empty stomach. She was excited at first but after a few bites she got quiet and struggled with her eyelids closing. Jamie felt his heart squeeze at her attempt to stay awake. He picked her up and spooned her on the bed until she was very deep. He whispered how much she meant to him, hoping it would take hold in her dreams so she would never forget.

“You ran a play that protected all of us sweet lass, no wonder you're exhausted. Sleep and restore your strength. I will be next to you for as long as I can be.”

Jamie put the food away and tried to sleep but the painting called to him and his hand itched to hold the brush again. He finally gave up and left quietly to indulge an addiction that was awakened with the first stroke of a paint-filled brush. He painted all night, completely lost in the experience of creation. When the first rays of light snuck under the door, he dropped the brushes into turpentine and hurried back to the house.

He laid down next to a sleeping Claire and fell into the void in seconds. When Claire opened her eyes, it was midmorning and her head was crowded with remnants of her dreams, one being reaching for Jamie and finding an empty space. Food helped her to focus and she realized it wasn’t a dream, he was gone all night. She set out to find where he had gone and opened the studio door an hour later.

The smell of fresh turpentine assaulted her nose and she crept farther into the little building that was brimming with paints, easels, brushes, and a canvas that bounced light off the paint like it was still wet. She touched the paint with the end of her finger and pulled fresh paint away. When she looked at the painting she almost fainted. It was a beautiful reproduction of the masterpiece Girl With A Pearl Earring, and Claire was astounded by Jamie’s ability to recreate the famous painting from memory. As the sun climbed in the sky the pigment revealed a secret she was not prepared for. She stepped closer to the canvas and studied the brush strokes.

“Holy Christ! The Painter, what the fuck!”

Claire recoiled into an easel behind her and with wild frightened eyes she whirled around to run away and stopped in her tracks. Jamie was behind her, watching her discovery, watching her fear take flight.

“Claire, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I want to talk this out and…”

“You’re the Painter!” She was pointing at him as the blood drained from her face. She looked around for an exit, but he was blocking her only way out. Jamie watched the tornado in her head lay waste to all she had come to believe, and he reached for her with pleading eyes.”

Claire stammered at him to let her pass and Jamie let out a defeated breath.

“You want to grab the car and drive away, never to be seen again. Please Claire, let me explain.”

She skirted the wall of the studio and lunged for the door only to see Jamie’s strong arm slam into the door frame blocking her way. He put his head down in a defeated posture. His voice was barely above a whisper.

“I know who you are. I cracked the case and I know you are Casper.”

“What?”

“Images sent to me right before I ran for my life. They were retrieved from the multiplexer at Sotheby’s. There was a fancy shoe, red with lots of straps, the same shoe you had on when we were buried. You stole the Rembrandt, didn’t you Claire, I mean Casper.”

He felt her strength waning like a cornered animal and hated what this was doing to her. He knew what he would do and wanted to save her anymore fear.

“When I was caught, after ten lucrative years of passing forgeries, they locked me up in a high-security prison, far away from civilization. I still don’t know where I was, my guess is Russia. We wore hoods going in and going out, for me anyway. The rest will die there I’m sure. Men go mad there, not knowing, not hearing from their families, never seeing the sun, no one to speak to but other crazy inmates."

Claire just watched him, ready to run when she saw a way out. “The world thought you were dead. You just disappeared. I’ve never heard of a prison like that and why Russia?”

“Maybe they won the coin toss. There were almost a dozen countries that wanted me. I made a deal, I would have agreed to anything. They asked me to catch Casper and offered me the freedom, within limits, to do it. As I said, I would have done anything to get out .”

Jamie was silent for several minutes and kept looking at the floor.

“I’m going back, Claire.” His voice was low, devastated like every word conjured all the strength he had left in his body.

“What?”

“If my choice is to turn you over to the authorities or go back, I’ll go back, no question.”

“You can’t. How could you?” She took a step toward him and stopped, suddenly confused about everything. “Jamie I can run, and keep running, and you can tell them who I am. It was a calculated risk for the last ten years, and I knew it might end in a prison sentence. That is your only alternative.”

Jamie remained in the door frame shaking his head no and looking at the ground. “I will go to my grave with your secret Sassenach, but I want to see you safe from the Coalition. We need to keep talking until you trust me again. Please, Claire, I’m willing to make the sacrifice so you can live a long life. Don’t die like me, in a cage somewhere, alone, afraid. You must quit stealing art. I want your pledge before I leave you.”

Jamie stood upright and smiled sadly at her. His first step to open the door for her betrayed his terror and he collapsed.

“Jamie!” Claire rushed to put her arms around her love. This was devastating to her as it clearly was to him. She cried and begged until he stood up and walked her into the house. He went straight upstairs and asked her to lay down with him and talk. He knew, come what may, they had to become a united front and Claire had to trust him.

The man watching Claire’s apartment was getting nervous. He had not seen any network activity nor could he pick her up on infrared. She basically disappeared and he wondered what the consequence would be. He sent the report.

The man across from Jamie’s estate spent a lot of time sleeping because there was little to occupy his time. He had waited for the call for three days and his temper was getting the best of him. He had not seen the subject today and worried he may have slipped by him. The more he thought about it the madder he got. He would forfeit his fee if Fraser escaped and he suddenly needed to shoot someone, namely the guy in the house.

The sniper dropped from his tree stand and boldly walked across the estate, rifle in hand. To his surprise, the front door was unlocked so he stepped right in, still carrying his rifle pointed at the ground. When he walked into the living room Rupert was sitting down with a very large pistol pointed at him. He shot the man in the head.

At eighteen years old, Rupert left to serve in the Queen's army and he wasn’t seen again for seven years. He traded his youth and innocence for fatigues and his aim with a long gun was noticed early. He was promoted right out of boot camp and shipped off for specialist training. He didn’t share the details of his six years as a sniper and he wouldn’t tolerate questions or ribbing about being a soldier. It was a black hole in his life and would stay that way. When Angus told him about the sniper in the woods, waiting to kill Jamie, Rupert saw and accepted his mission.

Rupert removed the body parts that would identify the man. His hands, feet, and teeth would be incinerated, and the rest was rolled up in a rug and pushed into the gorge. It took twenty minutes to walk back to his truck and by that time, the man was forgotten.

Jamie talked and answered questions for an hour before calling a time out. He hugged Claire close and suggested a ride to find some whisky. Claire looked a bit shell shocked, but she was listening and he could see her processing the information.

“A nice drive with the windows down will do us both good. Ready?”

They drove in silence, both in their heads about the truth between them, they were both on the wrong side of the law and Jamie going to prison to protect her secret would not save her from the Coalition. They found the commercial section of town with an outdoor market and regular storefronts and looked for a liquor store. The sun was shining and it was a dash of normalcy that made them both relax as they passed the vendors.

“We should buy groceries Jamie, there is nothing to cook at the house.”

“Let’s grab a bottle of whisky and then pick out some food.”

They only had American money but that didn’t stop the Italian woman behind the counter. She reached over and pulled a twenty-dollar bill from Jamie’s bills and then smiled at them. Jamie wrapped his arm around Claire and turned them to leave. Claire reached for the doorknob and jumped back nearly causing Jamie to drop the bottle. She pushed him back with more strength than he expected. He could see the terror on her face and asked the woman if there was a back door. It took several tries, but she finally understood and pointed to the back. Jamie put his finger up to his lips hoping she would understand not to say anything if questioned.

Claire made a break for the car running so fast it was an effort to catch up to her. Jamie had the little car racing for the road and once free of the plaza Claire screamed at him to turn.

“Go Jamie! Get over that hill and hide us!”

Jamie turned onto a dirt side road and raced over a hill and down the other side. He turned the car sharply at the bottom of the hill and parked the car behind a wall of vegetation. They were hidden from the road and Jamie prayed the road dust would settle quickly. He was panting and watched Claire look out the window like she expected a monster to come over the hill.

“What is it Sassenach?”

Her eyes were huge when she looked at him.

“That horrible man is here! The one that came to my office and told me I had to marry Frank. How the fuck did he find us? How many of them are searching the town for us? It’s over Jamie! We failed.”

“We’re heading for Venice. It will be obvious someone has been at the villa, so they’ll have confirmation we’re here.” Jamie pinched his eyebrows together and tried to think. "Call Darius. Tell him to pick us up at two in the morning. Let him tell you where the boat will be, he knows this shoreline and we don’t. Claire, listen to his voice for a tell. Something odd or nervous sounding and then tell him we’re in trouble and need a rescue, give him the choice mo chridhe.”

Jamie and Claire stepped onto the pier at two in the morning and ran down its length as quietly as possible. It was a moonless night and they couldn’t see their hand in front of their face. Jamie put an arm out to stop her and whispered he couldn’t see the end of the pier and didn’t want to run off of it. He walked on the edge of the pier with his hand out, not knowing if the boat was there, who would be on it, and how far out the pier went. Claire held his other hand with both of hers afraid a wrong step would send him into the ocean. Jamie’s hand hit the smooth surface of a hull and he exhaled in relief. The sides of the yacht were dark blue and impossible to see in the blackness. They continued to feel along the hull until he touched metal. They boarded the boat silently and waited.

The yacht was blacked-out to allow them to board without being seen. They heard the disembodied voice of the captain, no more than whisper. “We are at the end of the pier, so we go slow to keep the noise down then we hit it and get the hell out of here. Why don’t you both come to the bridge? Maia is waiting to help.” Darius held Claire’s hand who held Jamie’s and they felt their way up two flights of stairs in silence. Claire was shaking from the overload of adrenalin that continued to pump into her system since the art studio. Darius squeezed her hand for reassurance. Of what, she wondered.

Darius pushed them onto a bridge couch and started the engines. He crossed himself in the dark as the yacht moved forward and away from the dock. It is illegal to operate a boat without running lights, without notification to the harbormaster, without observing standard safety precautions of the authority. Darius was breaking the law on their behalf which made Jamie relax, a little. This water was Darius’s playground growing up. He knew every boulder, sand bar, and water object like the back of his hand. Jamie could sense his confidence and relaxed a little more. After fifteen minutes of running dark Darius steered the boat toward the open ocean pushed the speed up, they were flying across the water. Maia turned the bridge lights on and the boats running lights lit up.

Darius looked straight ahead, watching for other craft on the water. “Tell us what you want us to know. Nothing, or everything.” He looked behind him and smiled at Jamie and Claire. “I prefer everything, it’s more fun!”

“Is there a place we can drop anchor and gather our senses? We want to tell you what’s happened and give you the choice to help us or not, but I can’t collect my thoughts in this situation, it would be lovely to just stop and rest for the night.”

“Done!”

Maia watched Claire’s body quake and her teeth clench. There were tears in Maia’s eyes when she hugged her and pulled Claire down the stairs to her glorious bedroom. She looked at the dress falling off her shoulders, the cowboy boots, and her dirty legs and arms.

“Be right back.” Five minutes later Maia brought her a Drambuie over crushed ice and closed the door. Claire sat down on the bed and ran her hand across it remembering two weeks ago she and Jamie slept here, on a lover’s holiday without a care in the world. She cried into a towel, but Maia still heard the heartbreaking sobs. She went up to the bridge and heard Darius tell Jamie they had a mooring, ten minutes.

Maia turned a worried look on Jamie and he was down the stairs taking two at a time. He burst into the bedroom and pulled the sobbing Claire to her feet so he could hold her, calm her down and promise everything he could possibly give to make her feel safe and loved.

“Scary day, right love? I know you hated hiding in that barn with the rats and under the pier in two feet of water for hours. Right? Not a good time, but you did it lass, I’m so damn proud of you." He held her around the waist and leaned down lifting her foot to pull the boot off both feet. He pulled his shirt off and walked to the shower where he pulled her in and covered her body with her favorite gels. He shampooed her hair dipping her head back to rinse the soap off. He turned the water off and reached for an oversized towel that was wrapped around her.

“Rest for five minutes Sassenach, pick one of your favorite dresses, and dry your hair. How lucky it is you left them on board. Right?”

Jamie ran back to shower the grime and fish smell off him and shampoo the sand out of his hair that constantly fell off the pier they were hiding under. Hours under the Pier in two feet of water in the pitch dark must have scared the crap out of Claire because it scared the crap out of him. In the momentary safety of the shower, he reviewed the day of running for their lives, hiding while they waited to rendezvous with the boat. He wondered how the Americans were able to find them and suddenly felt afraid for Javier. They would do unthinkable things to him until he broke and told them where she was. He shivered and turned the water off.

Claire handed him his swimming trucks she found in a drawer and Jamie was very happy not to put his reeking clothes back on.

He studied her face and pushed the hair behind her ear. “One conversation with Darius and Maia, they deserve to know, and then I want to hold you in my arms until morning.”

“I’m ready, let’s go."

Chapter Text

Jamie held a chair for Claire at the table and looked at the anticipatory faces of Darius and Maia. He took his seat and began with Claire’s history with the Senator, the subsequent threats to marry him or die, and how she warned him to run and meet her in Italy.

“This afternoon we found the stores in Veneto where we were staying wanting to buy whisky and groceries. Before we could get out of the store, I saw the man who came to my office in Chicago. They found us somehow, so we ran. He will kill me he said if I don’t marry Frank because grieving over my death was better than being shunned. We were high profile during his bid for Senator and after. In America, politicians don’t get divorced or cancel weddings, it shows a weakness of character and lack of commitment.”

Jamie watched Darius. He had learned a lot about expressions, pupil dilation, flushed complexion, and other telltale signs the person was truthful or lying, believing or doubting, moving forward or resisting. Darius was doubting and Jamie felt his last nerve get frayed.

“It’s none of my business, but in the interest of truth, I have a problem with this. Why not go to the police or people in your government to help, why run?”

Claire listened to Jamie tell the story and it sounded a bit unbelievable to her also. Why they couldn’t go to authority is because the man knew who she was. It was hopeless, she thought, too many holes in their story, and Darius was no fool. She started to feel their last hope slip through her fingers.

“It’s because the man knows I am Casper.”

Jamie’s head shot up as he gasped. “Claire!” He glared at her and suggested she come to bed, she wasn’t feeling well. Darius was watching her.

“Who?”

Darius looked from Jamie to Claire and then Maia who summed it up quite eloquently.

“Claire is wanted for doing something and the man who threatened her found out what she did. He wants her to marry this Senator or he will expose her, and then kill her because she is a loose end that shunned the Senator. Darius, they have running all day and don’t know who to trust. They don’t know us to be trustworthy so why don’t you tell them this isn’t your first rodeo, as the American’s say.”

Jamie was stunned. “Thank you, Maia.”

“Okay, so I run tobacco for the black market in Greece when I’m not in your service. It gets pretty crazy sometimes but I’m the best, so they haven’t caught me yet. Since moving onto your yacht, I stopped doing it because I no longer had to.”

Black market tobacco didn’t compare to the millions Claire and Jamie cost the European art world, but it was criminal nonetheless. Jamie shook hands with Darius and thanked him for his honesty. He stared at Jamie a bit too long.

“Why do I have the feeling you are the one with a past, Jamie?”

Jamie stared at his folded hands for a minute, “because I am. I was known as the Painter and for ten years I sold reproductions of masterpiece art all over the world, they say I cheated buyers out of three hundred million during that time. I cannot say because I never counted it. I was caught, the money was confiscated from a bank I thought was safe, and I went to prison for twenty years. I made a deal to catch Casper and they let me out, with limits.”

“Wait a minute,” Maia looked confused looking from one to the other, “you two are…together.”

The discussion continued for another hour. Claire brought beers and Drambuie to the table and asked Maia what she was drinking. She wanted to try the Drambuie and blushed when Claire went for another glass. It was her job to serve everyone on board and she felt embarrassed being too caught up in the story.

“It is your choice, of course, we can find another captain in Greece and I wouldn’t blame you for walking away. But I must know, are you with us?”

Darius finished his beer and smiled, “hell yes! Sounds like fun.”

Jamie pulled Claire up and bid goodnight to the other couple. “They know we’re in Italy and I expect them to keep searching, maybe even by air.”

“Well, I’m going to drink coffee for an hour and head back to Greece where I have better hiding places. Goodnight.”

Maia headed for the galley, presumably to make coffee and Jamie led Claire down to their bedroom. They didn’t talk, just washed and brushed, stripped, and got into bed. Jamie held Claire in his arms and they fell into a much-needed sleep. Safe for the moment.

Something about the hum of the engines was calming to Jamie so when he woke up it would lull him back to sleep as he pulled Claire to him. The blackout blinds had been pulled on all the windows in their cabin making it difficult to know what time it was. Jamie made his way to the galley for some coffee at noon the next day, surprised he could sleep that long while the sun was up. Darius and Maia were lounging on the front deck, so he joined them.

After some chatting, Darius opened a trap door in the floor and pulled out snorkels, masks, flippers, and spear guns. He asked Jamie if he wanted to fish for dinner and his quick retreat to swallow some food was his answer. They were moored near a small island that looked uninhabited and Darius raved about the giant lobsters and grouper to be caught with spears. Jamie was thrilled.

Jamie kissed Claire’s cheeks and told her he was going spearfishing. He heard an OK somewhere under the mass of black curls and smiled. He and Darius piled into the tender but stayed close enough to see the yacht.

Claire enjoyed some quiet time with her thoughts after rising. A long shower, straightened her hair, and was bikini-clad stepping onto the forward deck where Maia was reading.

“Good morning, or afternoon, Maia. Where’s Jamie?”

“He and Darius are spearfishing.” She handed Claire small binoculars and pointed to the tender.

“Oh my God! The little boat is empty! They found us! Jamie!”

Thankfully, the front deck is long enough for Maia to catch her before she jumped overboard.

“Claire, Claire! They are underwater, spearfishing! I’ve seen them pop-up with fish and if you look across the water and sort of defocus your eyes you will see squirts of water when they come up for air.”

Maia held onto her until she was sure Claire wouldn’t fling herself into the sea. Claire watched the water and suddenly Jamie popped up with a huge fish speared through its middle. She melted at his huge smile and saw the bro’s do a high five. Darius looked into the sky and shoved Jamie underwater. The alarm bells went off in her head and she backed into the boat handing Maia the glasses.

“Darius just pushed Jamie underwater, he was looking at the sky.”

Maia searched the sky and then saw the men pressing against the tender, moving around it to stay hidden from the drone that was flying a pattern above them.

“Holy shit.”

She kept the glasses pointed up and watched the drone fly away. The tender made for the boat at its top speed and Jamie climbed aboard the aft deck and was inside in seconds. He was wide-eyed and jumped when Claire ran into him like a linebacker from behind. She threw her arms around his waist and he hugged her, looking into the sky every few seconds.

“Sassenach, I’m dripping on the carpet, I’ll grab a towel love.”

“Don’t you move James Fraser!”

The sound of her voice stopped him cold. It was commanding, terrified, and loving, all rolled into one sound bite. He wrapped his arms around her with the now-familiar rocking back and forth. While the water poured off his trunks, he kissed her like there was no one in the world but the two of them.

Maia raced toward him with a large towel and mentioned his girlfriend was about to throw herself overboard and swim to the tender to save them. Claire scowled at her and then dissolved in giggles when Maia couldn’t stop laughing. Jamie pressed his forehead against hers and thanked her for almost saving them. He tried to sound light-hearted, but he was seething inside. Another day she is terrorized first thing out of bed. The constant flood of stress hormones has got to take its toll on the body, like yesterday morning when she discovered his painting and tried to escape the studio. Was that only yesterday? It didn’t seem possible. He heard the buzz of a drone in the distance and reminded himself they were being hunted, it was time to make a plan.

Maia and Darius carried a tray full of lobster and fish fillets down to the galley saying breakfast was coming up in twenty minutes. Jamie walked Claire down to the bedroom where he would be her port in the storm, always.

Darius closed the doors to the galley and spoke quietly to Maia about the danger they were in just being around the people they served. He towered over the tiny Maia and needed to see her eyes for this dire conversation, so he picked her up and set her on a tall counter. Once she was eye to eye with him, he told her how much she meant to him.

“A rare and beautiful flower came to me, spoke of loving, healed my world, and promised to stay. Since then I have wanted for nothing except time to stay in your light Maia. I can’t allow anything to happen to you sweet girl, so I’m taking you home, today, as soon as we eat. I’ll make sure you get safely to your door and then leave you with your family until this is over.”

“No Darius! I won’t go and you can’t make me! You can’t run this boat alone, I have to stay!”

“I can and you will!”

Darius walked away from her, his jaw set, his mind closed to her pleading. Maia was like a streak getting by him to block the door of the galley and she held a pan up like a weapon. When he took a step forward, she raised the pan looking like she would hit him with it if he came any closer. He stopped and exhaled in frustration.

“You will serve breakfast and then you’re going home!”

“I hope you have a straitjacket in your back pocket Darius or I will jump in the water where you cannot catch me!”

She was panting for breath, wide-eyed and murderous with her pan. She was right about catching her in the water. Her tiny body somehow propelled her like a mermaid, and he had visions of swimming after her around and around the boat while the bad guys got closer to finding them. The first time she flicked her eyes away from him he grabbed her and held her arms at her sides.

“Drop the pan, Maia.”

“No! I intend to beat you with it, why would I drop it?”

She was pinned against the galley door and looked up at him, turning her head like she does when she wants him to kiss her. He looked at her lips and wanted to taste her more than his next breath. He felt her panting chest against his stomach and saw the hedonistic desire in her eyes. Like a tractor beam his mouth came down on hers and he kissed her deeply as she squirmed against him seeking his hardness. The pan clanged on the floor when it fell and her body was hoisted up and wrapped around his middle. The energy generated between them would have powered the boat for days if not spent on each other in a desperate chase for the other’s soul.

Jamie and Claire laid on their bed and talked about a plan while he ran his hand through her silky hair. When voices were raised in the galley it was obvious a fight had started and escalated quickly. They smiled nervously at each other, both grateful they couldn’t understand a single Greek word between them. Claire jumped slightly when the pan crashed to the floor, followed by multiple crashes as the couple lost themselves to the objects in their path.

Something told Jamie this was no longer a fight. He rolled onto his back and pulled Claire’s head to his chest where his resonate voice led her away from this boat and the danger they were in. She walked the forest of the Scottish Highlands with a friendly troll and his fairy friends and took a ride on a water-horse to discover new lands that were bountiful with gold and diamonds. She was transported into a fantasy of Jamie’s making, spellbound by his lovely voice, laughing when the story got funny. Jamie stroked her arm and back while he spun his tale and felt her muscles relax and lengthen under his touch. When she was deep in sleep his stomach growled ferociously and he tried to extricate himself from the human pretzel she created. He gave up rather than wake her, so he closed his eyes and joined her for a short respite.

When Maia loaded the table with brunch the aromas brought Jamie to the table with Claire soon to follow and they all sat down to eat and discuss a plan. Claire noticed Maia jumped up to refill the coffee mug in front of Darius and then put another scoop of fried potatoes on his plate. She found it sweet and touching, recognizing little Maia’s claim to this man she loved so dearly. Maybe we need a new name for the boat, she thought, like the Love Boat. That did it. Every shredded nerve in her body was zapping her funny bone and Claire could not stop laughing. She got Maia started and the two of them were off in their own world almost crying with runaway laughter. Darius and Jamie just waited for it to pass, and talked about the size of the lobsters they speared. The laughter covered the hum of the drone in the sky that passed the boat twice before it flew away.

In Paris, Javier clicked off his burner phone in disgust. He motioned to Joseph to hail a taxi so they could get off the street. It was a risk when they surfaced but required for checking in by phone. No bars in the bunker. Joseph was ready to split down the seams waiting to hear what Javier was told. When they were finally alone Javier spit the sentence out with rage.

“That despicable man is CIA and very high up. It’s the CIA that wants a puppet in the white house and it is them driving the Senator’s campaign. The might of the American government against one little girl, she doesn’t stand a chance.”

“She needs to get off the grid Javier, go dark and hide out.”

“Are you proposing she go underground until after the election? The Presidential election is not for three years, she will die living like a mole.”

“She will die if she doesn’t Javier!”

A cold wind blew dark clouds into the islands dropping the temperature rapidly. Claire shivered in her bikini and excused herself to search for more clothes. She pulled on lounging pants that hung low on her hips and a cropped turtleneck sweater that left a gap of four inches to her pants. It would have to do.

Claire’s burner phone lit up at her vacated chair and Jamie grabbed it, running to find her. They met on the stairs and he stammered about a notification while pulling her clothes off in his mind.

“The tall man is CIA. His name is Warren Hesser. I am so very sorry Bear. We will find a solution.”

Jamie saw the phone fall, like in slow motion, and felt his guts twist when he read the message. A hammer came down on his hopes of outthinking these people, keeping Claire ahead of them, removing the threat. He took deep breaths to keep up with his racing heart as the sheer hopelessness devoured him. The CIA was the very definition of a spy organization whose network reached around the world with access to every bite of information collected through data mining and surveillance, legal or otherwise. The organization that toppled governments and started wars had Claire in the crosshairs. They were coming for her.

“I need to send an email that will not give our location or IP away.”

Darius sat down in the salon, “lucky for you I’m a paranoid freak. We can send it through a swiss remailer that will bounce it off every continent before it gets to the desired location. Now?”

Jamie said yes in a voice Claire heard recently, in the painter's studio when he confessed he would go to jail for her. It took a minute for her mind to latch onto that powerless, defeated voice and they were on the bridge already. She chased them yelling for Jamie.

“What are you doing?”

“I'm asking for help.”

“From who Jamie! Stop typing for a minute and talk to me.” She heard him click the mouse. “What did you do?”

“It’s done.”

“What’s done?”

“I asked my handler who Warren Hesser is. It’s something we need to know if we are to fight him. I’m sorry Claire, it might move my timeline up when he knows I’m cloaked.”

“Oh my God. We will have the Europeans after us as well now.”

Darius watched Claire and his mind raced to find even a temporary solution. “Do any of these people know this boat belongs to you?”

“I don’t know. There is a hand full of people that were involved with the transfer of ownership. If they don’t know now, I suppose they will eventually.”

“I hate to even put this out there, but when these people find you they will kill you, is that right?”

Claire didn’t answer but Jamie shook his head yes.

“Buy another boat, we find a private sale in Greece and use Jamie’s name to title it to.”

“Sorry, I am wanted in every country in Europe again. My alternate credentials won’t stand up to investigation.”

“Mine will. My alternate name is Mary Dunn who is alive and married to a billionaire. I am using her identification with permission. What are you thinking Darius?”

“I feel way out on a limb here, but buy another boat. There isn’t time to sell this one first, so I’ll need to know how much money you have. Claire, it’s your lives in the balance here. A big enough boat will do a continent to continent crossing with no problem, it’s the best way to hide and mobilize when you need to run. It’s going to take time to find a private seller and it sounds like they will discover your connection to this boat any day. We need to get off this boat but stay on the water, it’s the safest place to be. I feel like a jerk asking but I need to know what kind of money you have and start looking.”

Darius did feel like a jerk, especially speaking the truth that this boat would lead them right to her eventually. What if she had no money to spend? He felt the pressure of defeat and couldn’t take it, he left them alone.

“Tell him twenty million Sassenach.”

“What?”

“I’ll transfer twenty-million into your account, the money will be there at this time tomorrow.”

“I thought they confiscated your cash.”

“Not all of it. Darius is right, it’s time to get off this boat, as soon as possible. If he can arrange a private sale and give us an untraceable shelter to operate from it could mean we have a chance.”

She noticed an uptick in Jamie’s voice, “you like his idea, don’t you.”

He took her hands and looked sad, “I have been waiting to hear the helicopters and glass doors smashing open as mercenaries pull us out of bed and stick rifles in our faces. They found your Italy property, they will find the boat eventually. Let’s go downstairs.”

“If you can pull this off Darius, and I hope you can, we can go to twenty-million. How will you do it?”

The smile on Darius belied the cascade of emotions and relief flooding his body. They had a chance now, he could scratch his plans to evacuate with Maia and leave them to die. He placed a call to his cousin, the most accomplished of his family, who arranged the purchase of superyachts. It took a bit of convincing by Darius that he had a vetted buyer for the taking, up to twenty million. He was told five days, if ever, and the line disconnected.

The tension was strangulating and there seemed no way to find relief. Maia went to the galley to make coffee and promised to bring the bottle of Baileys back. Something to take the edge off.

Maia’s scream was loud and long. Darius jumped up and took the first five steps in a leap, calling her name. She gripped him and pointed to the counter, stammering “rat….rat….rat!”

Claire was at the top of the stairs and felt something warm and furry run across her foot and she screamed. Jamie’s head twisted from the stairs to Claire. When he heard Maia yelling rat he immediately looked at the floor to find the offensive thing. The four of them searched for the rat who was very good at hiding, pushing the stress level higher in the two couples.

“I have it!” Jamie called from the saloon and walked toward Claire asking for her hand. “C’mon Sassenach, hand out, palm up.”

“I most certainly will not touch a…”

Jamie pulled the rat from behind his back and large green eyes nestled in long grey fur blinked at them.

Claire and Maia were instantly in love and cuddled the tiny thing while the men joked about how the kitten was able to board the boat. It was decided the kitten climbed aboard when they were blacked out in Venice waiting for Claire and Jamie.

“We can’t take him back to Venice, it's too risky. There’s an animal shelter in Athens, we can take him when we go ashore. For now, we need to find an appropriate potty or ruin your boat.”

Claire and Maia were already on the way to the galley to find some warm milk for the tiny thing. Jamie noticed the rosy flush on Claire’s face when she saw the kitten and it made him happy. He wondered if a cat would throw itself overboard or settle into the boat as his home. It was completely impractical to keep a kitten when they were running for their lives, but it had to be better than a shelter, and the ball of fur made Claire happy.

Darius’s cousin called two days later wanting to send a video of two yachts for sale and Darius agreed providing the email for Mary Dunn. He was also sending documents to get her prequalified, so he didn’t waste his time or company helicopter.

Claire and Jamie watched the video of two yachts, one was almost eight years old, the other, at double the price, was just a year old and had a history of short excursions only. Darius gave his seal of approval and Maia jumped up and down. They all had hopes of getting off this boat soon.

They moored off Santorini the next day and Darius tendered Claire and Maia to shore. Claire needed a new blond wig and clothes befitting a billionaire’s wife. They had the whole day to shop, have lunch, and drinks if they were early to meet the tender at five that evening. It took a bit of effort from Maia but soon she had Claire excited about shopping and spending more time on this beautiful island.

The kitten stood in the doorway to Claire’s bedroom and cried for ten minutes straight before Jamie came down and picked him up.

“What’s to say there, idy bity, your mam’s gone and you're alone? Suppose you stay with Uncle Jamie today. Do you like beer?”

The kitten tried to accept Jamie as a temporary lap but when sports was piped into the saloon from a 60-inch television, the occasional explosion of energy and shouting made the kitten very unhappy. He jumped down and sat at the big glass door to the front deck, waiting for Claire.

Claire had purchased what Maia called a helicopter outfit, two of them including shoes, a large pair of sunglasses, and a blonde wig, jeans and shirts for Jamie, kitten supplies, and a very special bottle of whisky to celebrate their new home if she was lucky enough to buy it.

“You girls leave any money to buy the boat tomorrow?”

Darius reached for the bag Maia carried and she held it away from him and climbed onto the tender. She smiled with excitement at Claire who smiled back. Darius was in for a rare treat tonight compliments of the boat buyer, an outfit that was intended to steal his brain, quick fry it, and serve it up for Maia’s enjoyment.

The front deck had been cleared the next morning to allow the helicopter to land. It was an early morning meeting and Claire had been up for an hour getting ready. She heard the helicopter approach and checked her new purse for identification and red lipstick.

Darius was dressed in his starched uniform, as was Maia, who greeted Cousin Thomas with a professional smile. Cousin Thomas looked at his watch as Claire’s four-inch heels clacked on the teak deck. Thomas looked appreciatively at the woman approaching in a creme colored suit, short skirt, tailored jacket and matching shoes. Her blonde hair bobbed as she walked as did her cleavage and she surveyed the staring men through lined eyes and long lashes. Thomas was falling over himself to shake her hand and opened the door to the chopper.

Jamie barely recovered in time to send a warning look to Darius, bring her back in one piece or die. Darius and Thomas sat in the back and Claire looked in a hand mirror to apply red lipstick as they took off.

“Wow, she does the rich bitch pretty well, huh?”

Jamie was watching the chopper fly away and nodded absently to Maia.

Jamie paced the saloon the whole time she was gone. Maia tried to get him involved in a French football game, but he was soon up out of his chair to check the sky and then resume his pacing. The kitten sat nearby watching Jamie go back and forth. Maia laughed at the kitten telling Jamie it looked like he was watching a slow-motion tennis game. Her bantering fell on deaf ears until she pointed up.

“Do you hear that Jamie? They’re back.”

The chopper pilot ran around the front to open Claire’s door and her long legs extended to the deck while he held her hand for balance. She smiled at Jamie giving a slight wave over her shoulder like an afterthought while Darius and his cousin struggled to get out of the back seat. Once inside the boat she hurried to their bedroom and jumped on Jamie as he walked through the door. Her kiss was electrifying and Jamie set her down to look her over.

“Are you alright Sassenach. This happened so fast I wasn’t prepared to see you fly away with three lads ogling you.”

Claire had been in character all morning and saw a delicious opportunity to blow Jamie’s mind.

“What are you talking about,” she sounded annoyed while she unbuttoned her jacket and slipped it off her shoulders.

Jamie watched her, spellbound by the length of her legs, the low cut blouse she wore and that crazy blonde hair. He didn’t like being ignored suddenly and grabbed her arm pulling her face to his for a rough kiss.

“I was worried lass, I don’t like seeing you with three lads salivating over your legs.”

Claire pulled her leg up Jamie’s side looking like she would eat him for lunch. A warm hand slid up her leg to the top of the thigh high stockings and played with the lace while he kissed her senseless. The skirt fell around her feet and the buttons came apart on her blouse making Jamie’s head spin with her push-up bra and thong panties. She was new from head to foot and he unwrapped her like a present. When the bra came off his gaze swept the length of her.

“Make them bounce lass,” was his strained request.

Claire moved her shoulders like a slow-motion shimmy that stole the last of Jamie’s restraint and the dance began in earnest with Claire high-fiving herself at a job well done. She did her best to remain the annoyed, distracted lover but Jamie was an expert with her body and soon had her panting barely intelligible words that his body interpreted perfectly. When she was naked except for the heels and stockings he pushed her into orgasm and roughly took what he wanted.

Both couples had retreated to their cabins and there was not a warm lap to be found for the lonely kitten. He continued to cry outside the bedroom until it opened a crack and he ran in jumping up on the bed and curling up at Claire’s ear to purr.

“Will you do that again sometime, every time, anytime, Jamie?’

“Which part, lovely lass?”

“All of it.”

“Yes, mo chridhe, now tell me, did we buy a boat today?”

Chapter Text

Claire and Maia packed all the personal belongings until late into the night. Claire and Jamie would leave with the helicopter in the morning and Darius would take the boat to the island of Mykonos where it would be stored in dry dock, under cover.

“Thank you for helping me, Maia. I think we’re done and if we forgot something I’ll buy it new. Get some sleep dear one, tomorrow starts early.”

Claire pulled on a black silk suit with a short skirt, tailored jacket, and starched white shirt. Black heels and the blonde wig transformed her into the billionaire’s wife, and she walked with purpose onto the forward deck with the kitten tucked under her arm. The men swiveled their gaze, stuck on the long legs coming toward them.

“Good morning gentlemen, this my engineer…” Claire froze midsentence realizing they had not talked about Jamie’s name for introductions. Jamie smiled and extended his hand introducing himself as Gregory Patton.

“Ah, yes, Gregory.” They piled into the chopper and watched Darius wave from the deck before running to pull anchor and make way for Mykonos.

Jamie watched the pilot openly flirt with Claire and shoved his hands under his legs to keep from balling his fists. Thomas was giddy with the almost three-hundred thousand he made in two hours of work, so he was oblivious to everything. When the yacht came into view Jamie was enchanted. It was all white and huge compared to the other boat with three decks in the back, and two in the front. He forced himself to look out the window at the ocean to hide his wonder.

Claire and Jamie walked into the saloon as the chopper was already in the air. They were met by the owner’s wife who looked very distressed. Claire smiled and held her hand out asking if everything was alright.

“Yes, Misses Dunn but I’m afraid Adso is very unhappy today and unwell. He forgets so much these days and he doesn’t want to lose his beloved boat. It’s time for us to go ashore and be looked after by our children. Please understand if my husband is short with you.”

“I promise, and I understand. Who would want to part with this?”

They found the owner on the upper deck sitting in shade looking like he lost his family, his dog, and his best friend. Claire felt tears press against her eyeballs and took a deep breath. At that moment she shed her impersonation and became Claire, the compassionate, loving, woman Jamie fell in love with.

“Mister Rosen! How nice to see you again. This is Gregory, my engineer. I understand the money has been transferred and you have papers for me to sign.”

He didn’t look up at her or acknowledge Jamie. Claire sat down next to him as his wife explained she had purchased the boat and they would soon have to leave.

“Before you do, I was hoping you could give me the history of the boat and what it can do. Like, what are the upgrades and why did you choose them, what is the farthest you have taken it?”

When he didn’t respond she asked, “what did you love most about this boat?”

He seemed to grunt and liven up a bit, looking at her and the kitten.

“What’s that?”

“This is my kitten. It will live here on the boat with me.”

“What’s its name?”

“Adso.”

“Adso? That’s my name.”

“Well, that is fitting, isn’t it? Now then, what kind of adventures can I have on this magnificent boat?”

That seemed to break the older man out of his shell. He reached out to stroke the kitten and smiled as he launched into his stories of the exciting places they had been on the yacht. Claire’s probing questions kept him talking and Jamie watched him look younger with each sentence. Claire talked to him like they were old friends, took her jacket off and put her feet up. Jamie was ready to burst with pride in her and her compassion for the old man.

After two hours of laughing and storytelling, the wife told Adso it was time to go. The man looked at Claire with such excitement and said he was glad she would live here from now on.

“One more thing, sir. Whenever you want to spend a day exploring please do it with me.”

It was a great way to put closure on a difficult transition. He would always be welcome. Adso’s wife hugged Claire hard, knowing she just spent two hours out of the kindness of her heart and she loved her for it. She took her husband’s arm and walked across the saloon where their trusted captain waited to tender them ashore.

“You know, I think the engineer is sweet on our Mary, ha!”

Claire watched the tender pull away from the boat with a tear in her eye. Strong arms encircled her waist and Jamie’s silky voice spoke his pride, devotion, and love into her ear.

“Are you ready to see your new home handsome?”

“Lead on love.”

They started below deck in the engine room and laundry, came up one flight to the guest cabins and crew area with a separate kitchen and living area, up another flight to the main saloon and forward deck with a shaded area and table for dining and a sun area with lounge chairs, they went up a flight to a second saloon with full media support for movies and television with a second forward deck. Up another flight to the bridge with the captain’s quarters and the sun deck. Jaime was confused because they reached the top deck, but he hadn’t seen the master bedroom. Claire led him down to the main saloon showing the dining area, the galley, and straight ahead was the entrance to the master suite that blew Jamie’s mind. The level of luxury was astounding and beautiful. There was a separate deck for this bedroom that gave them privacy from the world. Large windows in the bedroom and bathroom, and a sixty-inch flat-screen that rolled out on command.

“Well, how do you like your new boat sweetheart.”

Jamie stood and caressed her cheek, holding her to him. “This is Mary Dunn’s boat and I will think of you every day for the rest of my life, on this amazing yacht. It’s my gift Claire, a trinket compared to how much I love you.”

Claire wiped her tears and gave a brave face, “I have something to celebrate our new home, I hope the Rosen’s left some glasses.”

The galley had a full service for eight; glasses, dishes, flat wear, stem wear and serving bowls. Claire pulled two glasses and opened the one bag she brought on the helicopter. She set the bottle of fine whisky and two glasses on a tray and went to Jamie on the forward deck. They toasted their new home and kissed, another glass and another kiss, the third glass made them lose themselves in a kiss that was life-sustaining for them both and they stopped thinking of life alone.

“Jamie, I remember you have a birthday this month, is that right? It was in the Louvre when we spent the afternoon talking and admiring the art. I believe the date is the twenty-first?”

“What a memory mo chridhe. The only thing I remember from that day is your skirt being pulled up by the wind, and how much I wanted to kiss you.”

She pulled his arms around her and looked at his half-smile. “Am I right?”

“Aye, you’re a clever lass.”

“I want to make your birthday memorable, what is your pleasure?”

“Marry me, Claire Beauchamp.”

She had not heard her real name in quite some time and to have it linked with a proposal made her eyes sting with tears. Jamie hugged her and asked if that was a yes and then chuckled at her tearful response that it was. He hugged her to him and felt humbled that she would pledge herself to him with such an unknown future.

“I’m not going back, Claire. I figured I couldn’t outrun them with face recognition in all the airports, banks, even department stores. Fingerprint evidence left behind everywhere I went, they would catch me eventually so I didn’t see any possibility of running. All that changed when you bought this boat, Sassenach. We just stay on the water and keep moving.” He touched her cheek, “it’s not perfect, but I will be so damn grateful for every day I have with you.”

Jamie kissed both of her wet cheeks and then a long kiss to her mouth, full of promises and love.

The sound of a boat horn pulled them apart and they looked for the boat that was pulling up to the aft deck to offload all their belongings. Darius boarded the yacht and worked the hydraulics for lowering the back platform where they all pulled bag after bag out of the arriving boat. Darius thanked the man who shuttled them back from Mykonos and Jamie handed the man a one hundred dollar bill which made him very happy.

The platform was raised back to its resting position and Claire looked at an exhausted captain and first mate. It was quite an undertaking to prepare a yacht for dry dock. A checklist that required several hours to complete and then pulling their belongings to the transport boat that would take them back.

“As the owner of this craft, I order you two to your quarters until dinner. Take whatever you need to get out of those uniforms and disappear.”

Darius looked at all the bags to be brought in and Claire exerted her position over the tired captain.

“That is an order captain, be gone with the both of you.” She smiled at Maia and felt bad she handled so much alone, the poor girl was about to collapse. “Wait! You are both required on the front deck for five minutes please.”

Claire poured four glasses of whisky, thanked them from the bottom of her heart, and they threw them back. “Now you can go.” She couldn’t help the giggle that slipped out when she was commanding but noticed the other couple did not argue. They were too tired.

The day was overwhelming for everyone. Claire had tempted Jamie’s sexual appetite too many times throughout the day, with marriage proposals, touring the boat, an intimate introduction to their bedroom. By dinner time he felt like a live wire and could not relax. Claire surprised everyone with a lovely chowder of leftover lobster, snapper, potatoes, cabbage, onions, and spices. She served the other three at the table and set warm rolls on the table as well as a large salad. It was delicious and she seemed so happy to do it, even Maia was happy to be served.

The frumpled couple retired to their rooms straight away and Claire cleared the table and started cleaning up. Jamie held her wrists to prevent her from grabbing another plate to rinse and turned her around kissing her soundly.

“Let me finish so you can get ready for bed. I want to sleep for twelve hours with you in my arms, but we have other business to attend to first.” He pulled her hand to his concrete erection and she gasped, smiling slyly.

Jamie made short work of the remaining dishes and slammed the dishwasher closed. His long arms reached every last crumb on the table and counters and leftovers were stowed in the vast refrigerator. He locked up, turned lights off, set the alarm, and grabbed the whisky and glasses on his way to the master cabin. When he stepped under the rainbird shower-head he decided it was the most exquisite shower he had ever felt. Entering the bedroom he noticed the covers turned down, but he was missing one fiancé. He looked beyond the huge sliding glass door and saw his love reclined on a double lounge. She was naked and he stepped into a beautiful night with his love ready to ease his pain.

“On your back, soldier.”

She stretched her long legs on either side of him and brought her warm mouth down on him tenderly, slowly, feeling him fill her to her throat. He moaned and gripped the lounge to keep his hands from forcing her down on him. Jamie’s head was spinning in her erotic ministrations and groaned when she straddled him, sliding her body down on him with a moan. He watched her in the moonlight, so beautiful, so lost in her arousal. He knew she had changed in the time they were together but had not the brain space to figure it out right then.

Claire was swept away with carnal love and she watched Jamie’s face feeling more and more out of control.

“Come for me lass,” was the last thing she heard before the winds of erotic release made her deaf and her body left the earth in the pulsing delight that rolled through her.

Jamie held himself back until he watched her face in orgasmic release and he groaned pulling her hips down on him until he was spent. He carried her to the enormous bed, laying her on soft cool sheets, a gift from the owner. When he turned off the lights, he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, and it took a while to find his future wife. He held her close and thanked God for such a spectacular woman, come what may.

The tall man covered ground faster than the average human due to his extraordinary stride. Usually an advantage he appreciated unless he was on his way to a dreaded appointment, like today. The Senator’s secretary didn’t move fast enough for Hesser, so he strode into Frank’s office and told him to hang up the phone.

“Nice of you to barge in this morning. What do you want?”

Hesser almost felt sorry for the ignorant punk in front of him who could no more win the gubernatorial race than fly to the moon. He needed Hesser behind him and Doctor Beauchamp at his side if he had a chance in hell.

“We are running out of time to bring your bride back Randall, let’s take a look at some possibilities of where she might be. We know she was in Chicago, Paris, Italy, where else might she have friendlies that would give her shelter? What languages does she speak?”

When Frank didn’t jump to answer the question, Hesser stood up and grabbed his collar yanking him to his feet.

“You better take this seriously Randall, without her you lose and your career is over. You are here because we want you here, it’s not your merit or sparkling history in politics you sanctimonious idiot. Let’s add worthless to that list.”

Hesser was disgusted leaving Frank’s office and dialed his cell phone as he left.

“I need fifty more agents assigned to the Beauchamp case. I will send you their destinations in an hour. Make the travel arrangements and copy the dossier for each of them.” He clicked off his cell and tried to remember which of the Greek islands they visited on their honeymoon. He couldn’t remember a single one and barely remembered his ex-wife's face now.

The moment Claire’s eyes opened in the morning her heart rate bounced into the happy zone and everything she saw made her want to jump up and down. After a delightful shower, she pulled on a bikini followed by shorts and a loose top. Her shipmates were in the galley preparing breakfast, decidedly concerned over the lack of food.

“We have the same amount of food, it just looks sparse because the frig is bigger. Okay, okay, we will buy food today.” She laughed at the sad faces and left them to open the doors to the wonderful sea breeze.

Over breakfast Claire asked how long it was safe to sit on this anchor, “is it okay to just stay here for now?”

“No.” Darius finished his coffee and pulled Maia into his lap. “I need you to weigh in on this Maia so stay for a couple of minutes before you start cleaning up. I think it’s logical Hesser will search the Greek islands next because it makes the most sense, Italy to Greece. I say we move on to Croatia as soon as the supplies are restored. One more thing, you should go ashore as a blonde, just in case.”

“I agree Sassenach, or stay onboard and let the rest of us go ashore.”

“I need some things so I have to go, but I’ll wear the wig. Let’s split up, each with our own list, we won’t be as noticeable that way and only buy what you can carry to the beach.”

They went their separate ways and Jamie caught up with Darius on the bridge. He requested some time, so they sat in the captain's chairs and faced each other.

“You’re a captain of a ship Darius. Can you marry us?”

Darius looked long and hard at Jamie. “You’re both running for your lives and you want to get married?”

Jamie looked at his hands folded in his lap. “I suppose you feel there's a lifetime to do the important things, but I don’t feel that way. I asked her and she said yes, so we want to do this as soon as possible. We will say our vows in front of the Almighty and that’s enough for me.”

“Jamie, I can marry you in international water but I cannot file the marriage in Greece, or anywhere in the world, it will lead them to you.”

“It’s enough to know we did it and if something happens to us you can file the marriage certificate post humus.”

“Okay, that’s enough of that!” Darius got up shaking his head and turned to Jamie before he left the bridge, “I’ll marry you. We head 200 miles out for the ceremony and then set course for Croatia.”

Jamie felt tingling in his head and wanted to shout it out the window of the bridge. Several deep breaths and a smile that made his cheeks hurt were good enough. He joined the others for making lists to shop.

Claire ushered Maia into her room and led her out to the deck where they sat knee to knee.

“Jamie asked me to marry him.” She almost fell over when Maia launched herself at Claire in a happy hug. “I hope we can marry on the boat, but I want it to be special. I need a dress and some kind of decoration. Will you stay in town with me and help me?”

Maia’s eyes brightened and she stammered something about forgetting her whole list and sending the men back to the boat to unload.

“If we start early enough, we should have at least a couple of hours to shop.”

“Perfect! You are my best friend Maia.”

Little Maia blushed at that compliment because she had put Claire on a pedestal from the first day. She was deeply touched.

Jamie and Darius spent the afternoon spearfishing while Claire and Maia created lists for everyone, laid in the sun, and then gawked at the enormous lobster and grouper brought back by the men.

Jamie was fascinated by the hydraulics lifting the tender out of the water and seemed to never run out of questions when Darius was around. The next day he had the tender on the water, tied to the back of the yacht when Darius walked onto the aft deck.

“For a guy new to the water you learn fast. I appreciate the help and think it’s time you became a proper first mate if you want to.”

“Yes, I do want to but it will hurt Maia’s feelings.”

“That little beauty has very deep feelings but they’re limited to love, compassion, support, and stubbornness if that’s a feeling. You watch, she will start teaching you too and your head will spin from too much information.”

Jamie locked the boat alarm into his phone app and they piled into the tender to shop in Santorini. Between the four of them, Jamie carried the lion’s share of groceries back to the tender an hour later. Like on cue, Maia pulled a folded paper from her pocket and complained about forgetting most of the items on her list. Darius looked at all the frozen food and said he would be back to get them.

“So we meet here in four hours?”

“Four hours?”

Darius shook his head in agreement and the girls watched the tender speed away before they ran to a garment shop.

Claire was getting upset because she couldn’t find anything suitable. Maia looked around trying to help her friend and saw something perfect for the occasion. She brought it to Claire who looked it over with a critical eye.

“You will shine in this color Claire, the fabric is beautiful.”

Claire looked Maia up and down and strode across the dress shop to pick the same garment out for Maia who was thrilled with the gift. Claire would wrap herself in a soft sarong in deep blues and gold. Maia’s sarong was graduated pinks and dark green leaves sprinkled throughout. The garments felt luxurious and the women were happy. Claire inspected the men’s shirts and pulled a gorgeous white collarless linen shirt out for Jamie.

“Be a good girl and give this to Jamie tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, shit, there’s something else I need. Is there a place around here to get artist paint?”

“Yes, and I will get the decorations and champagne while you do that.”

Maia was gone in a puff before Claire could say a word. She found a nightgown that looked and felt much like the one she wore in Paris and then made her way to the craft store. Claire struggled with so many bags that were getting heavier by the minute. Maia swooped in on her and took half of them giving a puzzled look at the contents.

“It’s Jamie’s birthday tomorrow. I want to give him something from his past and hope he will try to paint again. I need to hide this stuff in a bedroom downstairs, can you help me?”

Maia looked at her like she was kidding and pointed to the tender as their feet sunk into beach sand. Fortunately, Darius came alone saying Jamie was preparing dinner and making quite a mess. Claire collapsed into her seat, exhausted from her shopping marathon. Once back at the yacht, Maia grabbed the bags with art supplies and pointed to others for Darius to bring. When Jamie came out he grabbed Claire for a long hug. He held her to him as he pulled the tender out of the water with the wench and stowed it safely in the boat garage, returning the back platform to its upright position.

“You're rather good with all these buttons handsome. It’s kinda hot.”

“That fits nicely into my plan Sassenach.”

“Which is?”

“Something to do with lobster, whisky, a slave to my pleasure and you … oh! Sorry love, I’m burning the rolls.”

Jamie ran into the boat heading for the galley and Claire shook her head and laughed.

Spirits were upbeat through dinner. They had food for several weeks, a plan to get to Croatia, and a wedding tomorrow. They were all very happy to embark on the next adventure. Maia cleaned up after dinner and Claire went up to the sundeck that had full-size mattresses across the deck that she could lay on. She smiled up at the stars and couldn’t wait to feel the wind in her hair when they were racing to Croatia.

“I’ve been looking high and low for you love. May I join you?”

“Actually, I think you will be very comfortable here Jamie. There are blankets under the bar if you get cold. I love you so much. See you tomorrow to take our vows.”

“But Sassenach, wait, what about a slave to my pleasure and ….”

“That I will surely be, tomorrow. It’s bad luck to be together before the ceremony sweetheart. I’ll miss you tonight.”

Jamie found himself alone on the upper deck, but the stars were brilliant diamonds sparkling in the black sky and he never tired of that grand view. He laid on his back and looked at them for exactly three and a half minutes then he fell asleep.

Claire arranged the canvases, paint, brushes, and other supplies in one of the bedrooms below deck. She prayed she was not overstepping but could not resist trying. He was a brilliant artist so how could he ignore such a big part of himself? She locked the door and went to her room. She was exhausted.

Darius went to sleep right after dinner. He would get up in a few hours and turn the boat toward the open ocean. It would take eight hours to reach international water and he hoped to be there before everyone woke up for the day.

Maia paced the lower saloon, checking her cell phone every other minute. She had slipped away from Claire when they were shopping to find the flower shop run by her brother’s best friend. He was happy to see her and helped her pick out three buckets of fresh flowers and garland. She gave him every penny she had, a gift to her friends. He was supposed to be here to drop them off and she started getting nervous. Another ten minutes and she got a text that he was at the aft deck. He kissed her cheek and waved, soon swallowed up by the black night. Maia stowed the flowers in the second refrigerator and sighed in relief before locking up and setting the alarm.

Jamie felt cool air on his face and opened his eyes. He could swear the boat was moving, and fast. It took a minute to remember why he was on the sundeck alone and by then he was sure they were moving. He walked downstairs to the bridge and almost scared the skin off of Darius.

“Jesus, Jamie, I didn’t expect anyone to be walking up on me. This baby is quiet, like a purring kitten. God, I love this boat!”

“Uh, where are we going?”

“You want to get married tomorrow, I mean later today, so we’re heading for international water, be there in four hours. I need something to munch on.”

Darius headed for the stairs to the galley and Jamie swiveled his head from the bridge to the retreating Darius.

“Don’t you need to drive the boat?”

Darius had a mouth full of food and shook his head trying to say autopilot. Jamie looked worried about going this fast with no one at the helm. Darius slapped him on the back, “if you’re not going back to sleep let me show you around the bridge. Why were you sleeping on the sundeck?”

“Claire says it’s bad luck to be together before the wedding.”

Darius laughed so hard he almost fell out of the captain's chair, “that’s rich, it’s what I love about women, they never make any sense when it comes to love.”

They could see the first rays of sunrise by six in the morning and it was the most beautiful sight Jamie had ever seen. He watched the colors change in the sky and on the water, purple, indigo, scarlet, orange, and a lite blue on the horizon. They were surrounded by water without a hint of anything else as far as the eye could see.

“Did you hear that?”

There was a crash below and both men stiffened and quietly crept down the stairs. Seeing a bucket of flowers come around the corner almost scared them half to death. Maia looked up at them on the stairs with a very strange expression and kept walking toward the forward deck. They got back to the bridge in time to answer the ringing phone.

"How long until we’re there?”

“Maybe an hour, why?”

“Drop it to five knots, the wind is blowing my flowers apart.”

Darius pulled the throttle back, “God she’s bossy sometimes.”

Claire stretched in her magnificent bed and smiled at the smell of bacon and sausage. When she realized this was the day she was getting married, she bolted upright in bed with a gasp. A minute later she was heading for the bathtub and panicked it was already nine o’clock in the morning. She opened the big glass door to the deck and looked around, she was pretty sure Santorini and all the moored boats were missing, in fact, she saw nothing but water on all sides and they were moving!

Maia brought a tray of food for her and explained that Darius left Santorini at one o’clock in the morning and they were now in international water.

“How does ten o’clock sound for your wedding?”

Claire swung her head from Maia to the bathtub to the sarong that hung on her closet door. Her face was pale and she nodded her head vigorously. Maia laughed and told her to relax and take her time.

Claire felt overwhelmed with bombarding emotions and wondered if Jamie was a basket-case too. He must be she decided. Meanwhile, Jamie and Darius crashed in the saloon watching a prerecorded game. Maia hung Jamie’s new shirt next to the couch he was sleeping on and decided to let them sleep for a while longer while she pressed Darius’s uniform.

At nine-fifty, Maia came down to the saloon with her new dress, makeup, and curly hair cascading down her back. He shook Jamie’s arm, and then Darius, and announced the wedding started in ten minutes. The two of them were blinking hard and shaking the sleep off as Maia handed Jamie the new shirt, clean jeans, and left giggling.

Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp and James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser said the traditional vows on the main deck surrounded by their two close friends and sweet-smelling flowers. Neither had a certain future, both were being hunted, and they would never stop running, albeit in luxury. They seemed oblivious to their circumstances and kissed like they were all alone in the universe. Afterward, Maia brought out champagne and fluted glasses to toast the newlyweds.

At the same time, CIA agents were landing on every Greek island with an airport, while others flew into Athens and hired a boat to their assigned island. Five agents were pulled off Italy and sent to Greece for a total of fifty-five CIA agents looking for Claire and Jamie with eight by ten glossy photographs of face and body. They were told to follow and get their location but do not engage, that privilege was reserved for Hesser.

Chapter Text

The sun bounced its light off the surface of the water looking like a million diamonds sparkling all around them. Jamie watched Claire laughing at something Darius said and he almost pinched himself to verify this wasn’t a dream. He had not seen her this relaxed in quite some time and she looked so beautiful. Adso stretched out on her lap and she stroked him while her attention was on Darius. She turned to look at him suddenly with a smile that would melt a glacier.

“Happy birthday Jamie. I have a present for you, want to see it?”

“Nothing can top the day we’ve already had but yes please show me.”

She led him below deck and unlocked the door to the guest cabin pushing it open. Jamie’s face was unreadable as his gaze swept the room and stopped at the tubes of oil paint, the container of brushes, a pallet, turpentine, and empty canvases waiting to come alive with color. He pulled a brush and bounced it between his fingers and then smiled at her. His heart was beating rapidly as the paintings appeared to him, one after the other.

“Do you like it? Will you paint?”

“Come here Sassenach. I love it, yes I will paint,” he whispered.

Jamie kissed her softly and when she moved into him he could hear his heart ramming as his large warm hand slid down her body making his intentions known. The mind-bending heat came on them so fast their mission in life was suddenly to get the other naked. Jamie pulled where the sarong was tied and it dropped to the floor around her feet. She was naked except for her tiny thong panties.

“Ah, God, you’re a beauty Claire and I love you.”

One grab of the bed cover stripped the bed and Jamie pulled off his clothes while Claire reached for him. They were out of control and Jamie pulled away and looked into her eyes.

“This is the consummation of our marriage, Sassenach, I feel we should slow down and pay it the attention it deserves,” was panted out.

“Too late.” Claire pulled him on top of her and raised her knees on either side of him. “I’m with you until the wheels fall off sweetheart.”

It wasn’t the slow-burn lovemaking they had fantasized about but reinventing themselves, breaking all the rules, and finding the alternate route had become their forte. When they dropped back to earth, panting and clutching each other, it was just perfect.

Maia served a late lunch and then it was time for bikinis and jet skis. They played until exhausted, pulling themselves up on the lowered aft deck as the beautiful sunset filled the sky.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect day when the couples curled up on the deck couches and watched Casablanca. Jamie carried Claire to bed and spooned her into a deep sleep. He was restless and his hand itched to paint. Rather than wake his bride, he went below deck to find a suitable place to work and he set his watch for two hours to prevent painting all night. Just before dawn he pulled his wife to him and sighed his appreciation. Claire smiled to herself in the dark room, aware he had been painting all night and thrilled she could lead him back to the canvas, even if she slept alone occasionally.

In Washington, Hesser sat back in his chair and thought about Claire Beauchamp. He was impressed with what she had overcome in her short life to become a full professor at the University of Chicago. A virtual globe trotter because her appraisals were in such demand. He wondered what caused the birth of Casper and how she became so notorious for stealing art. Most likely Javier pulled her into the dark side and he would spend the rest of his life in prison. It wasn’t enough to save her, but he would be punished for what he did to her. Hesser would keep her leash short and execute Javier’s lover, Joseph, as a warning to stay in line. Jamie Fraser would be of no use to him. There was a kill on sight order on him so he couldn’t be used to pressure Claire. He just wanted this resolved and these loose ends cleaned up. It was taxing to even think about.

Claire let Jamie sleep and pulled Adso from under the covers while he stretched and yawned. Adso’s preference was to stay in bed if either of them was still in it but his purring right into Jamie’s ear would surely wake him up. She held him against her mouth and gave kisses all the way to the galley.

“Time to head out Claire,” Darius was smiling and looked sleepy. “Or, we can stay right here for as long as you want, the choice is yours.”

“I got rather excited about seeing Croatia and eating more lobster of course.”

“Where is your husband?” No response. “Your husband?” Nothing “Who is your husband, Claire?”

“Hmm?”

“Your husband.”

“My hus…” Claire’s eyes went from conversational to lovesick in seconds and she left the galley, drawn to him, awake or asleep, she wanted to cuddle with him.

“Nice going, Darius,” Maia giggled, “ my egg casserole is done and there’s no one to eat it now.”

“I can fix this sweet girl.” He bent over and hoisted her over his shoulder heading for the stairs to the upper deck. He kept climbing and smacked her ass when she tried to get down. At the highest deck, he set her down and smiled like a fox. When she turned to the stairs he ordered her to stay. Maia knew his voice intimately and could recognize happy, bored, stressed, aroused, and dangerous. She closed her eyes and felt the excitement of what was to come.

“Come here, Maia.”

“No.”

“I will come over there and get you.”

She turned around as he was advancing and she held her hand up, “I will jump overboard if you come any closer!”

Darius let his eyes wander up her body slowly and he noticed her nipples standing at attention and the flush to her face. It was like catching a wild cat that wanted to be caught sometimes but he would trick her. He held a quarter up and asked her to call it.

“Fine, then I’m jumping, heads.”

She watched the coin toss into the air and land on his arm. “Ha, you lose!”

Darius pulled his shirt off and the sun bounced off his toned bronze torso. Maia licked her lips open so she could breathe. He told her to call it.

“Heads again!”

“You lose girl, off with the shirt.”

“But I have nothing on under my shirt.”

“You should have thought about that when you got dressed this morning.”

Darius had a beautiful smile with bright white teeth and full lips that made her weak. “C’mon little one, off.”

Maia raised her chin in defiance and finally pulled her shirt off, naked to her shorts barely hanging on to her hips. She was breathing hard and called tails for the next toss. Darius barely touched his cut-offs and they fell to the ground around his feet. He was uninhibited by nature and Maia was stuck on looking at him letting him sneak forward and pull her to him.

“You have a choice, dear one, I can pull them off, or you can.” She felt his hands pull once on her shorts and they were off. He pulled her up on the handrail at the top of the stairs and sank to his knees using a slow tongue to pull her into orbit. He watched her head go back to lean against the boat and her breasts bounce as she got close.

He kissed her and carried her to a mattress dropping onto his back and pulling her on top of him. Darius moaned when she dropped her body onto him. He sat up and pulled her feet behind him pressing down on her knees to supply the needed friction. She was too good at this and he held her still while he regained control. He slipped out of her body.

“Put your legs over my shoulders.”

When she did he told her to bring it to him and pushed her pelvis up and to his mouth. Maia was losing her mind and her arms burned from holding her weight up. She was making strange noises that made Darius pull her higher and then over the top as she screamed his name. Her arms buckled and she came down on the mattress as her orgasm ripped through her. Darius pushed into her and hammered with his own need until he growled and held her against him.

“That’s a good girl,” he panted. “Now you can jump overboard.”

He kissed her face a dozen times and then ran a towel under the cold water tap behind the bar. She looked like a sated angel lying there with her eyes closed. When he ran the towel down her arms, chest, breasts, and stomach she moaned and smiled at him.

“Will you be flinging yourself into the ocean?”

“From way up here? Not a chance,” she giggled and reached for her clothes.

In Paris, Joseph sat on a park bench and watched Javier walk around the park while he talked on his phone. They had been on the surface too long, Joseph felt, and he flicked his eyes to Javier as a warning, it’s time to go. Javier walked back to Joseph growling into the phone to go two-million and make the deal by noon tomorrow or he was out.

“Two million Javier?”

He sat down heavily on the bench and exhaled nodding his head. It looked like he had aged a decade in the past week and it broke Joseph’s heart.

“Our girl needs a miracle so two million is a small price to pay.” He looked at Joseph and his eyes were full of love. “I have lived a full life, I want Bear to have that chance and it’s all I want. I’m ready to rest in the ground and wait for you Joseph.

Joseph pulled him up and walked him toward the path to the bunker hoping the package would be delivered at noon tomorrow.

Cruising back to Greece would be a memory Claire would not soon forget. She glanced at Adso sitting at the edge of the deck watching something in the water. When she looked up the water was boiling with jumping dolphins who were keeping up with the boat like it was a game. She grabbed a phone to the bridge and asked Darius to drop the speed so she could see the dolphins.

The yacht stopped moving and Darius came down to lower the hydraulic aft deck to the water level. The four of them sat with their lower legs in the water watching the playful dolphins. Several of them came close enough to touch their feet and babies would swim between their legs. When Adso sauntered out and jumped down on the platform everything changed. He sat watching like he was unimpressed and the dolphins gathered around the platform trying to see him. He walked forward and batted at the long noses making them lurch back and blast out of the water like it was the most fun thing to happen in a long time. They tried to lift their upper body out of the water to see him bringing Claire two inches from a large wild dolphin who was captivated by her cat. She didn’t dare move and scare them away but she got brave after a while and reached out to touch one of them. Jamie got to his feet which dipped the platform underwater and Adso ran into the boat like a shot, shaking his wet feet as he went.

He pulled Claire up and walked her inside because the dolphins were leaving and it was too dark to see anything. He looked at her face and chuckled at the wonder in her gaze.

“Well, my wife is in a dolphin stupor so we might have to hold dinner for a bit.”

When Santorini was in sight the next day, Jamie and Darius were chomping at the bit to go spearfishing. Once a mooring was purchased the women saw them run to the tender and wave goodbye.

Claire laughed and followed Maia outside with a pitcher of iced tea and a deck of cards. Darius had secured a commercial grade fishing pole to the boat and the baited hook drifted out to the current to spin and bounce while the girls played cards.

Claire looked up sharply at Maia, “what’s that sound? It’s like a huge zipper going up and down.”

“It’s a fish,” and then she yawned.

“It’s a what?”

Claire looked at the pole and the line was being dragged out to the open ocean at a rapid rate. She felt adrenalin course through her body while Maia walked over and waited for several minutes, then reached down and locked the reel causing the pole to jerk almost in half.

“What now?”

“We play another hand and then bring him in if we can. It’s a very big fish.”

Halfway through the hand, the pole almost jerked out of the holder and Maia ran to grab it but the pole slammed her against the railing and she couldn’t move.

“Oh my God Maia, let me help you!”

Claire held onto the pole and both women were straining to hold onto the fish. They fought with it for twenty minutes before Maia could feel a bit of slack and started reeling with all her might. The fish would let them reel it in for a few minutes and then suddenly dash back toward open water pulling the line with it. They were exhausted after an hour and both sat down on the deck, holding the pole, sweating through their light clothing. Maia smiled when she heard the tender coming.

“Reinforcement.”

Jamie came running when he saw Claire looking like she went three rounds with Mohammed Ali. When he was told there was a monster fish on the line he ran to get Darius.

Strong male hands took control of the pole and they took turns reeling the fish in. Darius had the timing down to snap the reel lock driving the hook deeper into the fish. Jamie had the strength to drag it closer to the boat. Claire brought cold beers out for everyone and was captivated by the muscles that bulged in Jamie’s arms and chest.

“It’s close Darius, how do we get it onto the boat?”

Darius laughed at the question and told him it would be several hours before they got it close enough to grab it.

“No, it’s close, I can feel it getting very close.”

When the monster fish came to the surface and saw the boat it dove deep and ran the line out to the original distance.

“My turn!” Darius sat down on the deck and pushed his feet against the rail. He let the fish fight until he got tired and then started reeling. He worked the pole, pulling it taught and lifting high overhead like he was dragging the fish toward him and reeling quickly to take up the new slack. Jamie watched and learned.

The girls brought dinner to the table and ended up setting the plates and food on the deck and they all sat cross-legged eating and encouraging whoever had the pole.

A fishing boat passed slowly coming in for the day and two crew members laughed and pointed to the line in the water giving them a thumbs-up as they motored by.

The sun was starting to go down and Jamie warned Darius the fish was close. Darius looked out at the water and seemed to freeze and blink his eyes. He squinted and stared at the water.

“Holy shit!” In the next instant, he was overboard swimming toward the fish, he yelled to Jamie to pull it to the surface and waited for the fish to come up. When he saw the sword break the surface he yelled holy shit again and swam hard toward the boat. He climbed up on the aft deck and dripped water running through the saloon to the forward deck getting a stern look from Maia.

“It’s a Swordfish for Christ’s sake! Oh my God, what is he doing close to the island? He should be long gone by now. Oh! Jamie, don’t let go.”

Claire wondered if she had ever eaten Swordfish, she didn’t think so. It wasn’t long before Jamie’s strength was too much for the fish and it was reeled close to the boat. One last push of fight or flight from the Swordfish and it was completely out of the water dancing on his tail with the long sword in the air. Jamie looked at the gorgeous fish shimmering in the moonlight, thrashing up out of the water and crashing back. He had never seen anything so beautiful come out of the water.

Darius grabbed the pole and walked it back to the aft deck by the side deck that ran along the side of the boat. He sat Jamie on the deck and told him to keep reeling. He was back in two minutes with orange gloves on a grappling hook that he carried out to the lowered back platform. When the fish came alongside the deck, Darius swung the grappling hook into its side and told Jamie to hold it. He jumped into the water and fought the wounded monster. Once he got a hold of the sword and the body Jamie lowered the deck under water so Darius just had to sit with the fish on his lap while Jamie lifted the deck up. Darius sent the fish’s soul to heaven and once dead he took a picture of it and then cut it into thick fillets.

He and Jamie worked quickly to cut and clean sections of the Swordfish put them into freezer bags and stow them in the chest freezer. Jamie was sitting on the deck with his feet in the water throwing the waste far from the boat.

“Get your foot out of the water before you get bit,” Darius warned. He flipped the underwater lights on and Jamie looked down at a dozen large sharks right under his foot. He jerked it out of the water and they wrapped it up for the night. They both carried their loves to bed and Jamie locked up and set the alarm. It was a very good day.

Claire stretched and gave kisses to Adso who purred contently next to her ear. She showered and dressed before finding Maia in the galley.

“Where are the guys this morning?”

“Darius had to clean the bottom of the boat and Jamie jumped in after him to help. You two don’t act like millionaires.”

“Ill-gotten gains, sweet pea.”

Claire looked down both sides of the boat from the foredeck and could not see the men in the water.

“Maia they aren’t in the water.”

“They are under the boat and use long tubes to breathe. Look harder for the two clear tubes just above water level.”

“No need, I’ll wait until they’re done, just looking for a morning hug.”

Claire felt her phone vibrate and opened her text messaging. She read Javier’s message and walked up the stairs to the bridge computer to read his email. She knew he was working tirelessly on a solution and she loved him for it, hoping for a breakthrough. She downloaded a video file, hovering over the video she clicked the mouse and waited for it to load into the player. She was looking out the bridge windows when she heard Frank's voice and a child crying. She turned her gaze to the video.

Maia heard something crash upstairs and called to Claire but got no answer. She bounced up the stairs and found Claire on her hands and knees retching on the floor. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and tried to say “Jamie” but she couldn’t push the words out. Maia ran to the deck and pounded the side of the boat until they surfaced.

“Claire is in the bridge and something is very wrong Jamie.”

Enough said and he was taking the stairs two at a time.

“Sassenach! What’s happened?”

He pulled her to her feet but she couldn’t do more than snivel and shake. She pointed at the monitor and said watch. Jamie felt her pull away from him and head for the stairs she turned and put her hand up telling him to watch the video. She was crying and apologizing and then slammed her hand against her mouth and ran down the steps.

Jamie started the video and the images shot into his brain where they would torment him for the rest of his life. He had seen a lot of violence in prison, some that made him physically ill, but nothing could have prepared him for this. He turned it off and ran to find Claire wondering who he would strangle for sending this evil video.

Claire laid on their bed in the fetal position, clutching Adso and crying.

“Who sent you the video Sassenach?” said through his clenched teeth.

“Javier.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s Frank!”

Jamie struggled to hold onto his composure. He wanted desperately to run to the deck and throw himself in the ocean until he felt normal again if that was even possible. He heard Claire crying and forced himself to sit down and take a deep breath. He put his hand on her thigh and promised to make everything alright. He told Claire that no one else should ever see such a thing and he was going up to the bridge to shut her email down.

“Claire, hold on for five minutes, I will close your email and clean up the bridge and be right back. Okay?”

When he saw her nod he ran upstairs and read Javier’s email message.
“Darling Bear,
First, load the VPN and the email security program attached to this email. The video and documents attached are not to be viewed by you, I forbid it. Forward the attached to the Washington Post and every major news outlet, the DC chief of police and the DC district attorney. Send the attached to Senator Frank Randall as well. Above all, do not view the video, just forward them. This will save you Bear.”

Christ Claire, did you not read Javier’s message? Jamie closed her email and locked the video so no one else could open it. He cleaned the floor of the bridge and went back to Claire.

“Sassenach, come here love.”

He laid against the headboard, held his arm out to her and she crawled into his strong embrace. Her crying subsided and she gripped him around his waist like a shield against the horror she witnessed.

“We will forget, eventually, your mind wants to protect you and what you saw will be forgotten. Now tell me what you intend to do with the video.”

“I will ruin Frank Randall so he goes to prison forever,” said through clenched teeth. “I don’t care about the blowback. He belongs in a dumpster, dead and rotting. I’m sending it everywhere Javier told me to.”

“So you read his email and played the video anyway?”

She dropped her head, “I wish I hadn’t but there is no turning back now.”

Jamie tried to get Claire to rest but she was hell-bent on following Javier’s instructions. Back on the bridge, she loaded all the email addresses and attached the video. Jamie watched her finger hover the Enter key and then she pushed it. Her eyes instantly snapped to his and she looked scared.

Jamie sat in the captain’s chair and pulled her into his lap where she laid against his chest with her head under his chin. He stroked her hair while they were silent, watching the water and boats below. They didn’t move or speak until the sun had set.

“It feels like we just lit the fuse on an explosion we know nothing about Sassenach.”

“I agree, but I trust Javier, implicitly. One thing is certain, Frank is no longer a candidate and I won’t be forced to marry him.”

Jamie felt their story was racing to an end and he didn’t know what to do, except run. He helped Claire downstairs and they sat at the table when Maia brought dinner from the galley. While they ate, Jamie gave a brief version of what had transpired and now felt they needed to put distance between them and Greece.

“I say we leave in the morning and head somewhere far away. Maybe Jamaica.”

Claire looked pale since she and Jamie returned from the bridge, now she stuttered out her concern.

“I need cat food, litter, and treats before we leave. It’s still early, can we tender to Santorini tonight and be ready to go in the morning?”

“I’ll go with Jamie and you two can rest. You don’t look so good Claire.” Darius looked concerned. “Let’s go, Jaime.”

Jamie and Darius made short work of their trip ashore and were on their way to the tender in thirty minutes. A junior CIA agent recognized Jamie and his eyes nearly bugged out of his head. After they passed him he stayed in the shadows and watched them tender out to a huge yacht. He pulled his cell phone out with shaking hands and dialed the private number for Hesser who was throwing every object in his office against the wall in a rage over a video that was sent to him. Hesser could hardly speak through his panting and told the agent to give him the details and say nothing until he arrived. He pulled a notebook out of his breast pocket and wrote while the agent talked.

Frank Randall sat at his desk and stared at the monitor. He knew the video was a fake because he had no memory of such brutal behavior. His mind raced to find a solution and he tried to reach Hesser over and over again. He finally made his way to Hesser’s office and was jogging to the building when he saw the man walk out. Frank caught up to him and begged for his help. Hesser towered over him, looking down at the hysterical Senator with a menacing face.

“You’re finished in politics you pustular pimple on the ass of humanity. You better get your affairs in order before they come for you. Get the fuck out of my way.”

Frank argued that the tape was fake and someone was trying to ruin his campaign. Hesser pushed by him but before he reached his car Frank pulled his arm and drove his fist into his face. Hesser was shocked and staggered a bit looking down at Frank with bulging eyes. Then he dropped to the pavement, out cold.

Frank searched his pockets and pulled out the notebook he was always writing in or reading from. He pushed it into a pocket and ran for his car. He found a parking garage to hide in and read the notebook cover to cover. He giggled hysterically at the names and events he read, happy to have dirt on the powerful people in Washington who would have to help him. He flipped through to the last page and read the notes from the junior agent in Santorini. There was a description of the yacht and location of the mooring. He read the other notes on that page where Hesser had written video=Claire? Frank’s blood boiled and he headed to the airport.

The close circuit security cameras in the parking lot recorded a clear picture of Randall attacking Hesser. It would be added to the list of atrocities and they would nail his prison door shut with the evidence. Hesser didn’t know that Frank was already at cruising altitude on his way to Greece. He got lucky, had his passport, and found an open seat immediately.

While Jamie and Darius plotted a course to Jamaica Claire slipped away to soothe her jagged nerves in a hot bath. After drying her hair she slipped her new nightgown on, and it was a near duplicate of what she wore in Paris. Candles were not allowed on a boat but every lamp in their cabin had a dimmer switch and she turned them all way down and opened the big doors to the outside.

Jamie watched Claire lean against the door looking at the water. Her bare back was crisscrossed with tiny straps from her nightgown that stopped high-thigh to show most of her tanned shapely legs. He crossed to her quietly and kissed her shoulder feeling her press into his chest. When he asked her to wait for him to shower she looked up at him with wide eyes that he couldn’t read. Worry had settled into his stomach after they sent the video so he assumed that is what he saw.

After a calming shower, Jamie dried off and walked naked to his wife. He had pulled the bedding off the mattress and wrapped an arm around her to lead her to it. She giggled at him for running his hand along the satin garment whispering how soft it was. He started at her feet and talked about how beautiful Jamaica was while he rubbed and pulled moans out of his lover. His strong hands wrapped around her calves and massaged them to her knees for ten minutes. He was not in a hurry and noticed her smile when he described the crystal clear water around the island.

He moved to her side, slowly massaging her thin arms and hands explaining how long it would take to cross the ocean to Jamaica.

“Poor Darius will be stuck on the bridge for days, I don’t suppose we can take turns driving the boat.”

“He will set the autopilot once we’re at sea. The boat will warn him of other boats or objects under the water.” He turned her over and rubbed her back, then butt, and then down her legs.

Claire wanted to look at him and flipped onto her back, searching his eyes.

“I knew you before we met at Sotheby’s, not what you looked like but certainly as an artist. I broke many hearts appraising paintings that were fake. Every master painter has distinguishable strokes and I would know your work anywhere.”

Jamie blushed and looked at the skin he was working on. “I am a forger, not a master painter love.” He kissed her before she had time for rebuttal. She felt the kiss to her toes and wanted more but Jamie indulged himself in sliding his hand up and down the satin material getting closer to her breasts and core until she opened her mouth to breathe.

When his hand slid down her inner thigh she gasped and looked at him with a mixture of heat and pure love. Jamie twisted himself and settled between her legs where his soft, wet tongue made promises of the heights he would take her. He stopped before she lost her mind, wanting to love her slowly and let their passion build with simple strokes. He entered her, feasting on the story her eyes were telling, about love, hero-worship, and devotion. She looked at him like he was the king of men and he stopped moving so he could kiss her until he found her soul. She breathed into his mouth, “I love you so Jamie.”

When they cuddled to sleep Jamie hoped to find a jewelry store in Jamaica and a beautiful diamond befitting his extraordinary wife.

Chapter Text

Jaime jerked awake in the middle of the night, his heart was ramming like he had a nightmare, but he couldn’t remember one. He was covered in sweat and rolled quietly out of bed and grabbed his shorts. He felt sad for some reason and decided to paint for a bit. Walking into his makeshift studio in the boat garage chased his blues away and excitement filled him. He was ready to paint the angel’s face and that would bring her to life in the picture. He studied his renderings while mixing the paint and raised his brush within a quarter-inch of the canvas before pulling it away. The skin tone wasn’t right, so he kept mixing.

As dawn was breaking across the water Jamie tossed his brush into the turpentine and stood back to look at his angel. He smiled at the gleam in her eyes and youthful vibrance. He cleaned up and slid into bed with his Sassenach, wrapping his arms around her and dropping into sleep. What felt like seconds later he felt sweet lips kissing him awake. He blinked at her and then pulled her giggling into the bed with him.

My darling it is mid-morning and Darius has ordered you up and fed so you can help with refueling before we turn this bad boy around and head for Jamaica.

“First, yachts are female Sassenach.” He ran his hand down her curves making her laugh harder. “Alright, no use pretending I could ever deny you. I will be up and fed in ten minutes.”

Claire watched his magnificent form walk to the shower. She was full of excitement this morning because they were running far away, to safety, to a new adventure, and her first ocean crossing.

Frank paid the cab driver and ran to the highest point above the water where he could watch the yacht. It took him some time to find it and he nearly kicked his heels when he spotted it. He had been on the island for two hours, the time it took to find the bad part of town and buy a gun. He laughed out loud at how lucky he was and how absurd these people who thought they could take him down. When the boat started to move, he panicked and ran in the direction it was heading. He would die from exhaustion before he let Claire slip away to enjoy a long life.

He lost sight of the boat and ran harder until his legs burned and sweat dripped into his eyes. When he came up over another hill there it was, waiting in line for a fueling station. He squinted at the decks but saw no one, especially, no Claire, so he waited and heaved oxygen into his depleted lungs.

Jamie hopped onto the dock from the aft deck and jogged to the line to pay for fuel. Darius was driving the boat from a side station where he could stand outside on the side deck and use accessory controls to guide the yacht up to the dock. He could see a boat leaving the station with only one more in front of them. This wouldn’t take long.

Frank ran closer to the boat searching for Claire and tried to find a way to board the yacht undetected. When he saw her walk out to the foredeck he nearly passed out with relief. She was smiling and picked up a kitten to bury her nose in its fur and give kisses. Frank was shaking with hatred and brought the gun up to aim at her head. When he was ready, he squeezed off two shots one of which hit the fuel pump and burst into flames as gasoline poured out into the water. The man fueling his boat screamed and threw the fuel nozzle away from his boat spewing gas.

Claire heard the shots fired and the whizzing sound of a bullet close to her head. She watched the fuel station blow up and the fire spread across the water. She was confused at first until she saw Frank running full speed toward the boat. It was a surreal moment that hobbled her ability to think or run inside. She turned her gaze to Frank as he raised the gun again, sure to hit his target at this close range. Before she could react, Jamie tackled Frank from the side and his shot went wild. Claire screamed as she watched Jamie and Frank fall off the dock and into the water, directly into the flames.

Darius saw the whole thing and now heard Claire scream like she was dying. He threw a rope to a kid on the dock and asked him to tie them then he ran to the aft deck and threw the kid another rope. The fire was getting smaller on the water as the gasoline was consumed and Claire searched the water for Jamie. Within minutes the authorities were racing down the dock and stopped close to the yacht.

When Maia understood what was happening, she ran to Claire’s room to grab her wig. Darius helped push an unmoving Claire into the boat long enough for Maia to get the wig on her head. They were back on the foredeck watching the water. Darius was quiet. He knew something was wrong. He jumped to the dock to find the authorities. Once they had taken statements from all people involved or eyewitness to the shooting they came aboard to speak with Claire, who answered the questions but never took her eyes off the water.

An ambulance could be heard in the distance. Frank had been pulled out of the water and brought back to the dock where he was loaded into the emergency vehicle. The officer called for divers to a possible drowning and Claire lost it, screaming Jamie’s name until she passed out. Darius picked her up and pushed past the objecting officer. Maia stayed with her in her room while Darius went out to speak to the officer. He pointed to his vantage point next to the upper deck and his clear sightline to the shooting was obvious. He gave a statement, identified the shooter as Senator Frank Randall, and denied knowing any relationship between him and Mary Dunn. He identified the hero as James Fraser, a resident of Scotland. He refused to say anymore and left the officer alone on the deck and locked the glass door between them.

Darius had never felt this despair and he paced the saloon trying to get control over his emotions. He couldn’t let the girls see him this way because he had to help them through the grief that was coming. He looked up at Maia, watching him from across the room. She searched his eyes and sobbed, dropping to the floor when her legs would not hold her anymore.

Claire laid on her bed, eyes open, and listened to Maia declare Jamie dead with her tears. It’s time to pop up Jamie before the world makes you dead with their thoughts. She walked out to her patio and searched the water for him. Two more divers came and she watched them back-flip into the water and sink out of sight. Please find him, she thought, his foot is stuck on something down there and needs someone to pull it out, she thought. She sank down on the teak deck and watched the water until the sun set. When she couldn’t sleep, she found a flashlight and ran it across the water until early morning. The food trays brought in by Maia were left untouched.

Maia tried to coax Claire out of her room for the first three days and grew more and more worried about her friend. On the fourth day, she sat down on the deck with a glass of iced tea and shamed her into drinking it.

“Do you really think Jamie would be happy with the way you’re acting? He would be angry to see you give up on life. You haven’t eaten in four days or left this room.”

“I have to watch the divers in case they bring him up and need help.”

“When did you last feed Adso?”

“Adso?”

She looked so sad it almost broke Maia’s heart. “Did he jump overboard too?”

“No Claire, he’s asleep on your bed, he is fine but lonely for someone to sleep with him.”

“I will sleep in the bed when the diver’s find him.”

Maia knew when she was defeated, she left Claire on the deck and begged her to finish the iced tea. This exchange continued every day. Sometimes Claire would eat a little, or drink a little, and then get back to searching the water.

On the seventh day, the officer came to speak with Mary Dunn who stood stick straight, looking at the floor, hearing they had called off the search and Jamie was presumed dead, probability pulled out to sea by the currents. Claire face planted the floor and Maia tried to revive her as Darius threw the officer out spewing expletives in their native language. He carried Claire to her bed and Maia put a cold cloth on her head and left to grab her book. She settled into a plush chair and stayed all night.

Claire had gone inside herself, so deep she looked dead laying there, she kept going deeper until she found him. When she felt his arms around her, she clung to him and looked into his blue eyes. He took her hand and walked her into the forest of his youth constructed from the many stories he shared with her. It was lush and green, and he was so happy to show her his boyhood playground. He stopped about every twenty feet and kissed her with such love. They laid on the forest floor and she put her head on his stomach as they looked up through the canopy of tall trees. When Claire woke up, she was in her dark bed alone and couldn’t stand it, so she got up and walked around the boat.

She looked for anything he had left behind, in the saloon, the galley, the room downstairs where they had made love. She found scarce little and felt empty inside wandering into the boat garage where he painted. She pulled the cover off a tall canvas and stared into her own eyes, on a happier day when the sun was shining on her skin and her hair blew in the wind. In a lower corner of the painting, Jamie wrote “My Love” and signed his name underneath. That did it, the damn that held her tears at bay finally ruptured and the flood of grief, shock, and lost love poured out from her soul until she fell on her knees clutching her stomach and sobbing.

When she could stand up again, she left the garage and walked back to the main floor where Adso sat at the top of the stairs. She tried to get his attention, but he looked at his paws and that broke her heart.

“My little Adso, I have made you a sad kitten and I’m so sorry. Let’s go find you a treat and then get in bed and you can purr for me.”

Adso lapped up the warm milk and ate the small kitty treat then stood on his back legs and tried to reach her chin with his paw but he was still too little. He cried for her and Claire felt so much love and responsibility for him. She picked him up and they cuddled in her bed until she fell asleep.

Claire walked out on the aft deck the next day and was startled by an envelope laying on the raised deck held down by a toy helicopter. It was an Apache, and it was fully loaded. Her hands shook when she took the letter out and sat down to read it.

My dear Claire,
I am very sorry for your loss.
Use your talents and education for good in the world.
If Casper comes back, I will see you behind bars for twenty years.
I am releasing you and Javier to a law-abiding life.
W.H.

She held the toy helicopter and spun the blades on top. She felt relief for Javier knowing he had spent the last two weeks in the bunker. She found her phone and sent the message of freedom to Javier then went to find Adso for a nap.

Several days later, Javier called and gushed with questions about their sudden reprieve. He could hear it in her voice when she said hello and her brief answers to his questions. Her voice was hollow and unrecognizable.

“What’s happened to you Bear?”

Javier’s voice gripped her heart and the tears came heavy on her cheeks. She couldn’t speak and held her phone out to Darius pleading with her eyes for him to deal with her godfather. She ran to her room and got under the covers to hide from her pain.

“Hello sir, my name is Darius. I am a close friend of Claire’s and the captain of her yacht. Um, Jamie died two weeks ago, saving her life, and she is not doing very well. She hasn’t spoken much and she hasn’t slept much either. The first mate and I are very worried she will starve herself to death in her grief. We don’t know what to do.”

Javier had turned the speaker on so Joseph could hear the conversation. Both men were shocked and afraid for Claire.

“We would like to fly to Greece today if you will have us. We will not impose, I don’t imagine there is much room for guests on your boat.”

Darius chuckled at that and told him there was a room just for them. He gave the directions to the farthest dock from the fueling station and promised to meet them if he called in his flight time. Darius gave his cell phone number to be sure the call would get through. He clicked off with conviction this was the best thing to help Claire. He went to find Maia to explain they were expecting guests.

Eight hours later, Darius and Maia stood in their starched uniforms to welcome Claire’s family aboard. Javier was speechless looking around the grand saloon and Joseph wiped his eyes and nose a lot but stayed mute. Darius offered them a seat, but Javier shook his head.

“Where is Bear…I mean Claire.”

When Darius pointed at the master cabin both men took the initiative to barge in on their unsuspecting goddaughter. Claire was laying on her side, so Javier and Joseph sat on the side of the bed and addressed her in French.

“My little Bear has suffered so much and we have come to help you through this.”

Claire registered the soothing voice of Javier, her hero and protector. She squeezed her eyes to stem the tears and rolled toward them launching herself into Javier’s arms and then Joseph. She was so relieved to see them, alive, healthy, and here in her room.

The way she cried broke Javier’s heart and terrified him at the same time. It was gut-wrenching, still, after two weeks. He held her and promised he would help, it would not hurt so much one day, she would live with his memory forever. Claire didn’t like hearing such things and she went to Joseph.

Darius paced the saloon waiting for Claire’s wrath for bringing her godfather into her pain.

“Darius, calm down, she won’t be mad at you.” Maia got quiet, “I don’t think she is capable of any other emotion right now except grief.”

When Claire could stop crying Javier told her to get up and join them for dinner. She shook her head no and was yanked out of her closed mind by Javier’s stern voice.

“Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp you get out of that bed this instant and come to dinner. I will not have you waste away and I do not approve of your giving up.”

She looked up at Javier and got out of bed to follow them to the table. Claire sat down with her eyes on her lap eating only when Javier demanded she do so. It was the saddest testament to how she felt inside.

From one week to the next, Claire’s unwillingness to join the world again weighed heavily on Javier. He thought it best to pull her off this yacht where she felt Jamie everywhere and bring her back to Paris. He talked to her about it several times and actually wondered if she was listening because she gave no feedback. She just got thinner, gaunt, and refused to engage. Javier was done letting Claire lead, so he put his foot down. She was going to Paris until she was back on her feet and that was final.

Claire hugged Darius goodbye and tried to smile.

“We will pick you up in France when you tell us to.”

Maia held her tight and promised they would see her soon.

When Claire walked off the boat, they made their way to where they would find the cab to the airport. She didn’t look back at the yacht just stared at her feet until they stopped to wait. Javier pulled Joseph’s attention to a grand yacht that was moving into the area. As they admired the boat a fat hand clamped over Claire’s mouth and dragged her into a car that peeled away in less than a minute. When Javier turned around, he was shocked to see empty air where Claire stood one minute ago.

Claire was pinned between two men in the backseat of a strange car speeding down the road at a dangerous clip.

“Hello, Claire.”

She looked into the eyes of the tall man and wondered where his nasty features went. He looked calm and almost human.

“I apologize for grabbing you. It couldn’t be helped.”

Hesser noticed her gaze return to her hands on her lap and realized she had not improved as he had hoped. He wondered what that kind of love felt like. When the car stopped, he pulled her into a small house that smelled like a hospital.

“I have my reasons for doing it this way, mostly he wasn’t expected to live.”

Hesser dragged her by the hand making her jog to keep up with him. She didn’t understand what he wanted with her, but she didn’t care that much about anything anymore.

“This is jumping the gun a bit, but we couldn’t let you leave for France. We have monitored your phone calls and had to step in at the last minute and move the timeline up.”

He stopped abruptly and Claire ran into his back jumping to right herself and look up at him.

“He would not wake up for the first week and the doctor announced he was at death’s door and made arrangements to dump his body. I couldn’t have that, so I told him you were on the dock each day looking for him and calling his name. I realized it was ridiculous to think he could hear me but that afternoon he woke up like a raging bull and had to be sedated immediately. Now he wakes up the same way each time and I fear he cannot improve this way.”

Claire’s mind was scrambled and she stared at Hesser, “who?”

“James Fraser.”

He pulled her into a room converted into a hospital setup. The man in the bed was covered in gauze and bandages but she could see his face and his chest was moving. She lurched for him and Hesser held her back.

“You are here to give your husband directions to get well enough to see you again. I will play it for him in hopes he will calm down and start the business of recovery.” He held his phone out, “tell him.”

Claire struggled for control and spoke to Jamie like he could hear her.

“My sweet love I am so happy to see you’re alive. I think I died with you that day and now there’s a chance I will see you again. I will pray every minute of every day until you’re well enough to join me. I love you so much and I’m waiting at our boat for you to come back.”

Hesser clicked off the recording and dragged Claire out of the room. She fought him until she felt something sharp stab her thigh. She looked at Hesser as he swam before her eyes and then everything went black.

The officer stood in the saloon shaking his head at the three men who were arguing that Claire wouldn’t just wander off to God knows where. He refused to file a missing person report for 48 hours knowing she probably sat in a bar all day and got drunk. Darius was furious and threw him off the boat, again.

Maia offered whisky shots from a tray hoping they would drink before having a collective stroke. They threw them back and continued to pace. Maia came back with a second shot and encouraged them to drink it until each of them had two shots in their belly. They all left the boat to search for her and came back, one at a time, after several hours. Darius reached for his phone and clicked it on.

“Hey man, there’s a lady on a bench with this number pinned to her jacket. I think she’s drunk.”

“What?” Darius stood up while the man told him where she was, and Darius took off at a dead run. He could see her sitting on the bench, her head was bobbing like she couldn’t wake up.

“Claire…Claire!” He thanked the men who found her and slapped her cheek a bit to wake her up. “Can you stand?”

She was saying something about her leg and Jamie, but Darius could only make out certain words. He helped her to her feet and all but dragged her back to the boat. Joseph was coming after Darius and held the other side of Claire to help her back. She talked continuously but her slurred words were impossible to understand. They got her to bed and Darius asked Maia to check her stomach and back for incisions. He feared she was abducted to harvest a kidney for the black market.

Maia came out sometime later and shook her head before grabbing her book and heading back to sit with Claire who continued to mumble in her sleep. Darius exhaled his relief and tried to calm Javier and Joseph down. They retired to their rooms to rest for the night but anxious for Claire to wake up in the morning and tell them what happened.

“Maia?”

Nothing.

“Maia, are you here? I need to tell you something.”

She heard mumbling and a deep breath from the dark corner of the room. Maia came toward her yawning and sat on her bed.

“Jamie is alive. I saw him!”

Maia’s heart rate shot up trying to ground herself before saying the wrong thing. Claire kept talking, excitedly, telling her he will come home when he’s well, and they will be free.

“Ok Claire, get some sleep, you’ve had a busy day.”

Claire kept repeating she had seen Jamie, and Maia kept telling her to sleep.

“Maia?”

“Hm?”

“Go tell Darius you think I’ve lost my mind and then lay down and sleep with him,” she giggled. “I have never felt this joy and I don’t need a babysitter, sweet pea. I will be eternally grateful for your concern and I love you. Now leave me be.”

“Alright, goodnight Claire.”

When the door closed, Claire jumped out of bed and danced around the dark room before walking out on her deck.

“I can feel your heartbeat love, it’s always been there but I forgot to believe in miracles so I missed it. Sleep and heal, I’m waiting for you, right here, until you come.”

Claire discovered a new level of happiness in her soul, one that few people know. Only those who have lost the love of their life and then found them again. Utter despair to sparkling happiness changes a person and that change would become an insurmountable barrier to the others on the yacht.

Javier’s stomach smacked him awake early in the morning. Hunger spasms caused by the delicious smells drifting through the boat. He could see the sun was up, so it was a respectable time to rise. He wrapped his robe around him and followed the smell.

He stood rooted to the ground watching the unbelievable spectacle in the galley. Knowing he was dreaming of Claire, cleaned up, shiny hair, bounding between pancakes and sizzling bacon. She pounced on Javier kissing his cheeks and blinding him with her smile. He had a hot mug of coffee in his hand and he was thrilled with the sense of touch in this dream. He wondered if he could tame his growling stomach with the food that was offered. Best dream ever, he decided and consumed everything she laid in front of him.

Claire shined her light on a sleepy Joseph next, kissing his cheeks and laughing at his stunned expression. She carried a plate to the table for him and came back with the coffee pot to refresh the cups.

“Good morning Darius and my little savior Maia! I have breakfast fit for a king so come and eat.”

There was an extraordinary feast that must have required hours of cooking. They looked at each other around the table but said little. They were all thinking it, Claire was having some kind of psychotic break and they were all afraid for her.

When Claire sat down with everyone, she gave them all a new plan.

“I cannot go to Paris right now because I have to wait for Jamie. He is not well enough to leave the hospital and I was told to stay right here, moored at Santorini until he comes. So no Jamaica yet Darius. I don’t know when he will come, but soon, that I know.”

Darius cleared his throat, “what happened to you yesterday Claire?”

“Hesser grabbed me and stuffed me into a car, then he dragged me into a house somewhere and gave me instructions to stay here. He pulled me into a room where Jamie was, like a hospital room. He was sedated because he fights them when he wakes up. Hesser held his phone out and told me to tell Jamie to calm down and I would be waiting.”

The excitement in her voice and the way she smiled made them all realize that she believed in her story like it really happened. No one knew what to do and the tension was mounting.

“How did you get so drunk and fall asleep on the bench then”

“I wasn’t drunk! Someone stuck a needle in my leg and I blacked out. They left me on the bench I assume.”

“Why did they do that?”

Claire suddenly realized they didn’t believe her, and she narrowed her eyes at each person around the table. How do you suppose I got this?” She lifted the hem of her sundress and pointed to a round bruise on her thigh with a red dot in the middle. “And how did I get this incision?” She lifted her arm to display a two-inch incision neatly tied with sutures.

The others were stunned into silence not knowing how to respond to that.

“You’ve all gone quiet have you? I suppose next you will be taking a nice walk together to talk about me. Go ahead! I don’t care.” She raised her arms over her head and spun her way back to the galley.

Joseph looked at Javier, “she’s manic I think. How do we get her help if she thinks it’s just happiness because Jamie is coming back.” He looked at the others, “does anyone believe that Jamie is alive?”

Darius and Maia shook their head no and Javier just looked stricken and went into the galley to speak privately with his goddaughter. He took both of her hands and looked into her eyes.

“Are you alright Bear? Wait, you are sparkling with happiness so of course you feel alright. Can I ask for a favor? Will you agree to an examination by my friend, Doctor Bernet? Please Bear it will be the best gift you have ever given me.”

“I would love to, for you Javier, but I can’t go to France, I promised I would wait for Jamie. Maybe he will come today!”

“Alright Bear, I will fly him to Greece at his earliest convenience and you will be honest like you always are. Okay?”

Claire shook her head and shot for the stairs that led to the sun deck. Once there she could see far and wide and she searched for him while she hummed. By afternoon, Maia came up to the highest deck and scolded Claire for being in the sun too long.

“You have sunburn everywhere! You need sunscreen to stay up here so long. Come, I will help you.”

This became a constant battle, every day someone would have to pull her out of the sun and slap sunscreen on her before she toasted. Claire couldn’t be bothered with worrying about her skin, she was too busy watching for her love to return.

Javier made the climb to the sundeck the following week. “Bear, Doctor Bernet is here to examine you, remember, you promised.”

She seemed reluctant at first but made one more scan of the water and then followed Javier pulling her sundress on over her suit. She and Bernet sat in the saloon and were left alone for the entire afternoon. Joseph came up the stairs to peek at the progress and went back to Javier to report no change, they were still talking.

Javier could hardly stand it being in their room all afternoon and not knowing how the examination was going. He had prepared himself for the worst, bipolar disorder, or some other horrible mental illness. He was coming apart at the seams and Joseph wasn’t much better. They both jumped when someone knocked on their door and announced dinner was ready. When they came upstairs Bernet was seated at the table with Claire and Darius while Maia brought bowl after platter, filling the table with spicy roasted lamb and numerous side dishes and rolls.

“Maia, what are these delicious looking dishes?” It was Javier’s way of asking what he was eating before he put it in his mouth. She pointed to each dish as she answered him.

“Roasted lamb, Courgette Balls, Dolmadakia, Tomatokeftedes, Yemista, Greek salad.”

“Ah, I see… thank you for that.”

They all sat down and ate a beautiful dinner complimenting Maia on the feast and stealing glances at Claire.

“Doctor Bernet, I don’t think anyone will really enjoy this lovely meal until you give your report. Please tell them everything.”

Bernet raised his eyebrows at Claire and heard her say “Please” so he wiped his mouth and addressed the group.

“Well, I work very hard at not being influenced by what I hear from the family members. Truthfully, it was hard not to form premature opinions about Claire’s mental health and I put her through rigorous testing to convince myself. She stayed focused on my questions hour after hour and tested in the high range on all psychological tests.” He went into some detail about what made her so extraordinary and then sat back and looked around the table. “It is my recommendation that you all prepare for Jamie’s return.”

Every back stiffened and eyebrow raised, followed by shocked silence. Claire giggled.

“See, I told you they all think I’m crazy!”

Javier scowled at his friend causing Bernet to address the group again. “What will you gain by doubting her? She is going to wait right here until he comes and there is nothing you can do about that. She believes she visited him by force of the CIA man. If you all relax and enjoy this meal, this yacht, and this glorious location you will be happy, and Claire will be happy.”

Darius couldn’t keep silent, “Claire what will you do if he doesn’t come?”

She looked at her lap, “Hesser didn’t promise Jamie would survive, he’s still got a long recovery. If he doesn’t come after two months, I will assume he died although I think Hesser will let me know.”

That seemed to break the spell on the group, and they all started to relax knowing that Claire was cognizant of how long she would reasonably wait, and they could live with that. After dinner, Javier walked the doctor to his cab back to the airport. He was grateful but guarded when he said goodbye. Bernet told him to trust in his goddaughter or go back to Paris while she waited for Jamie.

“She will feel your doubt and it will seem traitorous to her. What is the worst that can happen? He will either come or she will accept that he has died from his injuries and you are powerless to dissuade her.”

On the far side of the island, Hesser sat on the couch reading his reports and making notes in files. He could hear Jamie clicking the buttons on the recorder that played the tape Hesser made him. He would hear her voice and then rewind and play it again, over and over until he fell asleep. Another operative had come in barely clinging to life and the medical team was maxed out. He decided Jamie would get better care with his family and made the arrangements.

Javier and Joseph wanted to stay and Claire was so happy to have them, but she wouldn’t allow the yacht to move when Darius suggested day trips to see the other islands. She knew he would come because she talked to him across the water every night, declaring her love for him and her faith in his strength. As the month passed, her faith remained strong. She spent the afternoons up on the sundeck, watching for him, straining her eyes at every cab that rolled to a stop with a passenger. She looked at an oncoming cab and watched closely as a man got out slowly. He walked with a cane taking small steps and looking out at the water for something. He had a ball cap on and leaned forward a bit when he walked. Claire’s heart started ramming in her chest and she ran for Darius.

Darius was bent over maps when he heard her thunder down the stairs to the bridge calling his name. She stood at the door panting and told him to get the tender, she was going ashore to get Jamie! He was gripped with worry of a new disappointment but ran to get the tender ready. Claire searched for the man she had seen get out of the cab. When she felt the tender run into the sand she jumped out and ran toward the road where she saw the cab stop. She was panting for air when she came up over a hill, and there he was.

Darius ran after Claire once he secured the tender and when he crested the hill, he could not believe his eyes. Not five feet from him was Jamie Fraser holding Claire while she cried. Jamie looked up at the brilliant smile on Darius and held his hand out to shake. It was slow going due to Jamie’s weak legs and the numerous kisses that halted progress altogether, but they made their way over the hill where Javier, Joseph, and Maia got the shock of their lives. They were all standing on the upper deck and their mooring was close enough to see it was Jamie.

Maia jumped up and down waving her arms in the air until Jamie waved and gave her his beautiful smile. The tender was close, but Jamie was really struggling with exhaustion. Claire insisted they stop and rest and Jamie looked at her gratefully. Maia could not contain her excitement and ran down to the aft deck and dove into the water. Darius laughed and said he would be right back and went to pick her up. She ran to Jamie and kissed his cheeks about to erupt with excitement.

Jamie laughed and blushed, so happy to be home with Claire and his friends. Javier and Joseph watched the four of them squeezed onto the same bench, laughing and talking.

“I think our girl has a very strong yacht family Joseph, would you look at that.”

Joseph wiped his face and watched the reunion with tears falling down his cheeks. It was a miracle and he felt so privileged to witness it.

Once Jamie was on board the yacht he went straight to bed and Claire laid in his arms and listened to him breathe. For the next two days, she came out only for soup and soft food bringing it back to Jamie on a tray. Jamie asked for her help getting his shirt off because he was overheated. She was so careful pulling his shirt over his head and gasped when she saw a two-inch incision under his arm.

“Jesus Christ Jamie! I have the same incision under my arm, it happened the day Hesser brought me to you. What did they do to us?”

Jamie stared straight ahead and his voice was just above a whisper, “Hesser wants to know our location from now on.”

Claire felt the hair on her neck stand up and she shivered with the realization he could track them anytime he wanted. She didn’t like the change that came over Jamie, so she gently guided him to the mattress and pulled the blackout shades for an afternoon nap, with her on one side and the purring Adso on the other.

Adso licked her face until she opened her eyes. There was enough light to see Jamie’s chest go up and down with each breath, so she smiled and watched him. Her eyes lingered on his beautiful face and moved to his neck and shoulder and.. Her body jerked up and she pressed her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream. Her heart was ramming in her chest and her eyes were so wide they hurt. The skin on the back of Jamie’s shoulder and lower onto his back looked like it had melted. She couldn’t see how far the scaring went because he was on his back. This was not the time to ask him because she was horrified and needed to calm down. She took deep breaths and rolled quietly off the bed to freak out in private.

On the third day, Claire let Darius and Maia visit with them and they pulled their chairs up to the bed and chatted away until Jamie fell asleep. After that, Darius and Maia would sit with Jamie while Claire spent time with Javier and Joseph. Jamie was very weak but seemed to be gaining his strength back slowly.

Darius pulled Claire aside after the first week and asked if she wanted her godfather to see some of the other islands. It was decided they would venture to several of the islands and do some fishing on the way. Darius was happy to break up the boredom and Javier and Joseph really loved the sightseeing. They would tender to shore and walk around leaving Claire and Jamie alone on the yacht. Once Jamie and Adso were fast asleep she would swim and watch a movie or catch up on the art world through the internet.

There were hours to lay with Jamie and talk about life without the other, the fear and loneliness, and their resolve to never be apart. Claire decided to wait for Jamie to mention the scars. He surely knew she could see them when she helped him dress but he did not talk about it. When Claire asked him how he came under Hesser’s care he stopped talking and looked like he was remembering something that made him emotional, unable to speak. Claire panicked and placed angel kisses all over his face until he calmed down changing the subject to happy adventures ahead.

James Fraser was assumed dead from drowning and Hesser had gifted him with identification that was foolproof, created by the greatest spy agency in the world. In a perfect world, he could start his life over again, a free man, but that was not why Hesser saved him and kept him hidden. Jamie knew Claire was waiting for an explanation of how he came under Hesser’s care but he couldn’t bring himself to ruin her life just yet.

Chapter Text

The morning broke peacefully on the day Javier and Joseph were flying back to Paris. Claire had a huge breakfast for everyone on the foredeck and even Jamie was in attendance. He was looking better and was staying awake longer each day. He was indebted to these men for coming at a moment’s notice to help Claire with her grief.

Claire hugged each of them, waved, and blew kisses as the cab rolled away. Maia had come with them and now walked with Claire back to the boat.

“Has Jamie said anything about the scars yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Has he told you how he ended up with Hesser?”

“No.”

“Well, we have ten days at sea before we hit Jamaica. Maybe all that time alone will make him talk.”

“I certainly hope so.”

Darius was excited to get out to open water so Claire and Jamie got comfortable on the foredeck to say goodbye to Greece, civilization, other boats, people, everything except endless miles of ocean.

”Can we talk a bit Sassenach? Every time I get ready to explain things, I decide it’s not the right day to ruin for you and I put it off.” He stuck his nose in her hair and pulled her smell into his nose. “God, you smell good.” He sat up and looked into her eyes, “are you ready mo chridhe?”

“Yes, although I don’t think you’re capable of ruining my day. Your mouth is too beautiful, your eyes are too mesmerizing, your body is too close to me. So, do your best Mister Fraser, and don’t pout if I smile through your story.”

“It starts when I woke up in what I thought was a hospital. I was so scared, and I just wanted to find you, but people were holding me down and that made me fight more. My back was on fire and every movement was excruciating, even so I fought them until they knocked me out. This happened every time I woke up, many times. I saw the doctor standing over me once, at least I thought he was the doctor. He started shouting at me about not having a candidate for the white house and it was all my fault. He finally settled down and told me it had been a month since I fell into the water with Frank. I was shocked it had been that long. He said my wounds were starting to heal, but it would be a long recovery. He handed me a tape recorder and your voice soothed me and gave me hope.

“I can’t imagine how awful it was for you, alone, severely wounded with that man hovering over you. But you’re home now Jamie, and we can forget this whole incident if we try. We’re free with new identities, a shitload of money, our friends, and adventure ahead.”

Jamie brought her hands into her lap and looking straight into her eyes he shook his head sadly. Hesser plans to train me in espionage and counterterrorism. I refused and he laughed, telling me dead men don’t have a choice. Claire, there is a branch of the American government called Black Ops and Hesser is the chief. They answer to no one, not even the president. When he is ready they will come and get me for six months of training.

Claire sat up, "that’s ridiculous, he can’t force you to become a spy, or terrorist, whatever it is!”

Jamie held her hands to make her look at him and he shook his head looking like it was the end of the world.

“It’s not a matter of me, Sassenach, it’s a we”

“What are you saying? I will be abducted and forced to train in espionage, for Hesser?”

“He knows you are Casper, and I am the painter. He owns us and he is giddy with it. The worst part is no help or backup. If we die during the mission we have no identity within the CIA.

“That is why he saved you. So he can turn you into his personal super-spy and he can end your life anytime he wants just by turning your location over to the Europeans.”

“Hesser wouldn’t waste his time reporting me. He has no compunction about killing unnecessaries. His words.”

Claire was seeing the bigger picture and it terrified her. Hesser would become their puppet master and throw them into any horrible situation he wanted. It was unfathomable how cruel he was, it would be a life of torture, always looking over her shoulder, waiting for them to take her. She wanted to vomit and scream at the twist of fate that now promised a very short life for both of them.

“ I am going to lay down.”

Claire had pulled the bedspread off the bed and lay sleeping in her bikini. Jamie watched her with a crippling need for her love. It had been almost three months since they last made love and he fought with his painful erection every day until he felt strong enough to let it go with her. He could barely breathe because his heart was hammering in his chest. He could not stop himself from touching her.

Claire felt Jamie’s warmth press into her from behind. It was foreign to her and she felt her body react instantly. His arm came across her chest, strong and commanding, holding her in place and rolling onto his back, pulling her with him. He pulled at her bikini top savagely and she heard the straps rip as the garment was cast aside, leaving her breasts naked for his mauling hand. He pinched her nipple and she gasped before trying to get away from him. She wanted to control the activity and make sure he was safe from harm, but he wouldn’t release her nor did he speak. She felt the hair on her neck stand up when he panted into her ear.

He ran his hand down her stomach and into the lower part of her suit where he dropped his other hand and ripped it off of her. His mind was not his own anymore. He felt like a different person, out of control with need, barely able to have a coherent thought.

“Spread your legs, love,” he breathed into her ear.

“Jamie..”

“Spread them.”

His amazing fingers played with her bud and spread her lips open to the fingers of his other hand pushing into her.

“My God, your wet. Your body wants me and you’re powerless to stop me.”

He would not let up on her, even when she pleaded in her headlong rush to orgasm. She felt his strong wet fingers pull her chin to his lips kissing her into submission and his fingers were once again inside her body moving in and out in sync with his tongue. Claire moaned and her body was shaking when he stopped.

“Turn around Sassenach, I want to watch your eyes when you come. Straddle me, love, that’s it.”

She was out of her mind with this possessive lovemaking and watched Jamie quickly move through her knees and down on the mattress to hold her pelvis tightly and pull her down on his assaulting tongue. He could see her breasts bounce with her oncoming orgasm and the erotic scene nearly finished him. Claire moaned through her release and Jamie pulled her to him and held her while she pulsed and jerked. The second she opened her eyes, he took control again.

He flipped her to her back and ripped the buttons off of his shirt followed by his shorts. Claire was in a lust drunk haze and tried to rally with his fresh onslaught on her body.

“Tell me you love you me.”

“I love you, Jamie, more than anything.”

“Tell me you belong to me, tell me how you will make me come.”

“I belong to you Jamie and I want to feel you down my throat.”

Jamie rolled to his side and grabbed a fist full of hair, very close to her scalp so he could direct her head. “tongue out,” he panted and moved her tongue up and down the length of him before he shoved her face into his balls and watched her lick and suck until he almost lost his mind. She felt him lift her head to his cock and push her down on it, keeping her head clear of his view. He yanked her head away and held her away from him while he regained control.

“On your back.”

He pulled her legs straight up and held her ankles with one hand and watched his dick go in and out of her. Claire was moaning with a second orgasm building pressure and she begged him to let go so she could spread her legs and let him bang into her throbbing center.

He pulled her legs apart and pushed them wide. With each thrust he pressed into her and told her he loved her, he desired her, he would never leave her. Claire was mewing with every contact until he pushed into her deepest body and felt her orgasm start. Jamie just closed his eyes and felt her pulsing, her wetness, and heard her moan his name until it was over.

Two deep thrusts and he joined her in the erotic stratosphere where arms and legs disappear and existence is reduced to your core that pulses wtih euphoria.

Jamie grabbed his chest as he panted and dropped to her side, pulling her close.

“I’m sorry for being a brute, love.”

She tried to speak and gave up forming words that would fall tragically short. When she could speak again, she pulled Jamie’s head up from her shoulder and looked in his eyes.

“I will fight for you Jamie, no matter what Hesser throws at us I will never give you up. Please say you will never give up on me.”

“Never, ever, ever, will I give up on you, Claire.”

Jamie held Claire while she napped and his mind was racing for some way to out-think Hesser. He had them in a vise grip and cared not a lick for their lives. They were utterly disposable and when one was taken, the other would agonize until they returned. He wondered how long sanity would hold up under that torture.

Once Claire was deep in sleep, he made his way to the boat garage and placed a fresh canvas onto his makeshift easel. He didn’t make drawings or sketch the final picture but stabbed his brush into the earthy colors on his pallet mixing them lighter and darker, adding shadow colors and light ivory and peach, browns from light to dark and transferred the color to the canvas to rough out the forest where he played as a child with his three best friends, Ian, Angus, and Rupert. He painted the gorge, then changed it to the ravine they loved with a giant tree overhanging the edge and a long rope tied to its outstretched branch. He roughed in Rupert, clinging to the rope, smiling in the dappling sunshine. In his mind, he heard Rupert’s voice telling him he would always be on his side, no matter what.

Jamie threw his brush into turpentine and ran up the stairs to the bridge, where Darius was looking at his maps.

“I need to get to Jamaica right away, even if you push the engines beyond what is safe. I’m serious. I need to be there yesterday.”

Darius looked at him for a full minute, trying to think of any reason someone would risk the engines to cross the Atlantic so quickly. One thing he knew about Jamie was his intelligence, so he would know the risk.

“Done.”

“How long?”

“Seven days. Ish.”

“Thank you.”

As the days passed, Jamie painted, Darius used the autopilot and fished, Maia cooked and read her chapters for her online English course, and Claire touched base with the University and then sent her letter of resignation. It wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be. Rather, a minor event when compared to the horrific life she would endure in the days to come.

The weather turned warmer and humid two days out from Jamaica so Claire and Jamie slept on the sundeck, under the stars. If they didn’t make love when they first laid down Jamie would wake her with a warm hand and the race would start anew. It was exciting, and he would take her to the edge of acceptable passion and then push her into the erotic vortex. He had changed and both of them knew it. Making love slowly and softly was no longer on the menu but was replaced with something desperate, possessive, and domineering, yet wholly satisfying.

The last day of their journey, Jamie kissed Claire’s neck at breakfast and told her how lovely her hair was. He pulled on a shiny coil and it sprang back, making him chuckle.

Maia backhanded Darius’s upper arm and demanded he pay more attention to her. He rubbed his arm and scowled at her.

“I love you and you know that Maia, why the brutality?”

“You don’t love me enough, Darius!”

When he saw the tears start he jumped out of his chair and pulled her to him. Maia did not cry, not even at funerals, and here she was with wet cheeks. Claire felt sad for Maia and wondered what was happening.

“I love you Maia, with all my heart.”

“You love to fish.”

“I love you more than I love fishing.”

Maia looked up at him and smiled through her tears and then hugged him. And that was it. The spat was over and Maia was bouncing around the kitchen again. Claire squirmed in her seat, horrified at her sudden arousal, and ran to the bedroom.

“Jamie, can you get this splinter out of my hand?”

“Sassenach, come out to the deck, it’s easier to find in the sun.”

When she didn’t respond he followed her into their room and barely caught her when she jumped on him. He found her bossy lovemaking adorable until she pulled him into orbit and the slave became the ruler.

Later, Claire walked out to the foredeck and was stunned by the crystal clear water and marine life that was everywhere she looked. She grabbed the bridge phone and asked Darius how long to get to the island.

“One hour and I want a promise you will wait until we’re moored before you jump overboard. Claire?”

“Yes, yes, I will jump overboard, goodbye, and hurry.”

Jamie was dispatched to make sure his wife stayed on board and the two of them hung over the side of the yacht to watch for sea life. Jamie helped Darius with mooring the boat and the girls were overboard without a backward glance. Darius dug out the snorkels, flippers, and masks and threw them overboard before locking up the yacht and diving into the water. They all found a slice of heaven in the clear water and did not return to the boat until the sun was setting.

Jamie was exhausted and could hardly get the fork to his mouth for dinner. Darius told him to pace himself because they would here for as long as they wanted. Jamie laughed and said “too much fun” with his mouth full of peas. Claire found him asleep on their bed still in his trunks and she smiled at her prince, praying for some time before one of them was taken for training.

The following day they tendered to shore to look around and find some local fun. Jamie promised Claire he would catch up and took off to find a store and then a post service. He paid cash for the fastest service to Germany, then Scotland.

Three days later, Jenny received a package from a remailer in Germany. She pulled out a card and read the note as she struggled to the kitchen table to sit down.

Dear Mrs. Murray,
Thank you for your order. Enjoy your new phone and see the
operating instructions before plugging it in the first time.

She had not ordered a phone which was confusing, but she was stuck on the handwriting because it looked just like Jamie’s. That was impossible, and her eyes stung with fresh tears remembering him. She pulled out the folded instructions and on the inside he had written, “keep the phone on and with you at all times. JAMMF” Jenny stared at the letters and backed into the refrigerator before running upstairs to wake her husband and show him.

Ian rolled toward the tapping on his shoulder and smiled at his pregnant wife. He stared at the handwriting and the initials on the instructions. This was Jamie’s way of contacting them without phone taps finding him, or the cruelest joke in history. He pulled Jenny to his side and pulled the phone and cord out, plugging it in.

“We will keep it charged and on us at all times. Okay, Dove?”

Jenny reached for the ringing phone two nights later and immediately started to cry. She heard Jamie’s voice and thought she would choke from crying so hard. His calming voice helped her get over the shock that he was still alive. He asked her to wake Ian and turn on the speaker to which Ian replied “go ahead, Jamie.”

Jamie told them everything about Frank, Casper, his wife, and Hesser, the man in charge of Black Ops.

“Ian, will you find Rupert and tell him everything I’ve told you?”

“Of course Jamie, I’ll do it tomorrow. Why Rupert?”

“He’s a good friend and might have some pointers about dealing with Hesser, maybe he learned something in the special services.”

“Jamie, I feel so bad for you and Claire. I wish there was something we could do to help. Can ye get that tracking device out of yer arm?”

“I hope so, it’s something we’re working on.”

Jamie ended the call soon after and told them he would call another time. He never thought he would pit a friend against the likes of Hesser and hung his head in shame for having no other solution. It was never confirmed, but he knew things about Rupert and his time in the service. He prayed for forgiveness and his guilt raged for several days after.

Ian smiled at Rupert through the window as he walked up to the construction trailer. Rupert was the job manager for a new shopping center going up in Edinburgh. He launched out of his seat, shook hands with his old friend, and the two sat down to talk for a bit.

Ian knew there was a special bond between Jamie and Rupert because Jamie saved his life when they were eleven years old. Rupert, Angus, Ian, and Jamie were inseparable when they were kids, always looking for something fun to do with the long summer days. When it was hot, they would head into the forest to find the big tree that hung into the ravine, right over the rushing creek that cut through the woods. Jamie was first to swing into the center of the ravine and let go, falling ten feet into the water. Ian was next followed by Angus, but Rupert wanted nothing to do with it. It took all summer, but they finally talked him into it and he held the rope shaking from head to toe. He was quite sure he would fall to his death but none of his friends had, so he forced his bravery and jumped off the edge of the ravine. Unprepared for the stark terror of clinging to a rope over a drop that seemed one hundred feet down he refused to let go. Jamie got concerned and backed up to jump off the edge with enough speed to reach the rope. If he had missed, the momentum of his body would have dropped him into the rocks on the other side of the creek, so it was utterly heroic to an eleven-year-old.

Jamie caught the rope and told Rupert to hang onto to his waist, and then he dropped them into the water, pulling Rupert to the bank and going on about his bravery. Jamie was his hero after that, and Rupert made no attempt to hide that fact.

Ian looked Rupert in the eyes, remembering his break down at Jamie’s memorial, and decided to just blurt it out after swearing him to silence.

“Jamie’s alive Rupert, but he’s in trouble, so keep it secret please.” Ian told the story of Jamie being rescued and revived by a man named Hesser, a Black Ops CIA boss that threatened to turn him over to his captors or kill him outright if he didn’t follow orders. He covered Jamie’s marriage to none other than Casper, the art thief, the very person he gained his freedom to catch. Rupert seemed to be playing with something in his desk drawer while every word was seared into his brain. When Ian stopped talking, Rupert looked up, “Ye tell Jamie, I gotcha brother.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means I’ll be prayin for im.” Then he slapped Ian on the back and walked him out to his truck.

One week later, the moonlight shined on the raised barrel of a sniper rifle with a twelve-inch silencer attached to its end. An eyeball looked through the night scope from over a mile away and twisted the calibration dial and focus. Rupert crouched on top of a water tower with a clear sight to the CIA parking lot and Hesser’s vehicle. He had been in this position for three nights, waiting for the man to show up. When he climbed the tower that night he was relieved to see Hesser’s car in the lot and waited for his five-second opportunity to remove him from Jamie’s life. When Hesser walked out of the building Rupert trained his rifle on the man’s head, exhaled, and took his shot.

To the CCTV cameras, it looked like Hesser bent down to unlock his car door when he was actually sprawled on the blacktop missing half of his head. He wasn’t noticed for an hour, giving Rupert time to break the rifle down into separate plastic bags that he would return to his comrade-in-arms. He still had to drive the pieces back to Maryland, then he would jump on a plane back to Scotland. The only emotion he felt was relief that Jamie and his wife were safe.

“James Fraser, get out of the water this instant!”

Jamie looked up at Claire on the foredeck, hands on hips, looking exasperated. He knew there was no use putting this off and swam to the aft deck, throwing his flippers up on the boat and hoisting his body up after them. He found Claire in their bathroom with a chair pushed into the vanity right under the sink. She pushed Jamie’s head back and started mixing the chemicals to turn his red hair blonde.

She looked down at him and smiled, making his stomach do flip-flops. “Don’t look so scared Jamie, it will look good, I promise.”

“I don’t care how it looks Sassenach, it is a bit late for this, isn’t it?”

“Not if we can find a doctor on the island willing to cut into my arm and remove the whateveritis.”

“Why not use me as the guinea pig?”

“Because you have been brutalized enough lately. It’s my turn.”

Jaime could smell the chemicals being squeezed onto his hair and ran his hand up Claire’s leg, making her squirm and laugh. He closed his eyes when he felt her hands spreading the mixture through his hair. He thought about Rupert and wondered if he had taken the initiative. So far the news had been devoid of any attack on the CIA chief, and each day was one day closer to men boarding their boat and taking one of them away. Jamie shivered at the thought.

“You have twenty minutes to wait. Do you want your book?”

“Hmm?”

Claire could see Jamie was already falling asleep, so she left him alone and got the chair ready on deck to cut his hair. When she rinsed out the hair color, she noticed it looked very light and wondered if she made a mistake. The sun dried his hair as she cut it and when it was combed into his new style, he almost took her breath away.

“Are you looking that way because blonde is not a good color on me, Sassenach?”

“Quite the contrary, actually.”

“Wow, you were good looking before, but now you’re drop-dead gorgeous! That’s an American saying I learned,” Maia giggled, “it means you look even better.”

“Thank you, Maia,” he chuckled.

The next day they all went ashore, Jamie and Claire had a doctor appointment to remove Claire’s tracking device and the others wanted to see a bit of Jamaica. Claire was getting uncomfortable with the women staring at Jamie. One stopped on the sidewalk and just watched them pass.

“Jesus Christ, haven’t these people seen blonde hair before?”

Jamie gave her a squeeze and kissed the top of her head. When they entered the medical facility, Claire was getting nervous. What if the doctor turned them over to the police? It wasn’t everyday people came in with trackers in their arm. At least she didn’t think so.

The Jamaican doctor nodded a few times and looked at Claire’s incision that had healed to a thin red line. He was a man of few words which sharpened the edge Claire was feeling.

“Lay here and I will try to find it.”

The doctor came back into the room with a medical device that used sonar technology to find foreign objects under the skin. He pressed a wand into Claire’s skin around the incision and listened with headphones as he calibrated the machine. He was getting concerned because the machine was blinded by another pulse, but that was impossible. He moved the wand to Claire’s leg, then feet, then her back before he removed the earphones and turned the machine off. His face did not look right to Claire, and she was ready to come undone.

“Please doctor, tell us something, I am getting terrified because I thought this would be an easy removal.”

The doctor sat on his stool and shook his head. “The chip in your arm might be identifiable like a GPS bouncing off a satellite. But it is using some kind of sonar technology to ping into your body. Until you discover what it is pinging to, you should not remove it.”

“What?”

“What do you think it’s pinging to doctor?”

“It’s only a guess, but it might be looking for a second object that was introduced into your body at the same time. It could be anywhere and small enough to inject.”

“That makes no sense, doctor.” Jamie could hear the almost hysterical pitch to her voice.

“I think I understand. Sonar technology is also on the chip and it pings looking for something, like a specific shape that they injected. If we have the chip removed the ping sends a warning that it can’t find the shape. That’s as far as I got. So what then?”

“If someone wanted to know your whereabouts enough to implant a super RFID chip they don’t want you removing it and getting away. Just a guess, but when it’s removed, it may lock in your coordinates and …”

“The sky is filled with helicopters looking for us.”

Claire looked quite pale all of a sudden, and Jamie pulled her close. The doctor picked up his equipment and headed toward the door. He looked at them both.

“A life of crime does not suit either of you. Why not do an honest day’s work? Handsome men get pictures in magazines, make lots of money, put a hex on my nurse so now she just waits at the clinic door!”

The doctor laughed and left before seeing Claire’s eyes roll. On the way out, she regarded the nurse with an I-dare-you-look and they left, more rattled than before. Back on the yacht, they filled the others in on what they learned.

“That is diabolical,” Darius shook his head.

“I don’t get it,” Maia looked wide-eyed at the group.

"It’s a sonar warning system in case they have the chips removed. They put something else in their bodies that the sonar looks for. If it can’t be found, because the chip is removed, it locks in their location and they flood the area with agents. It is pretty hard to hide a yacht of this size.”

“Just take the other thing out as well then.” Maia looked at the three of them like they were dumb.

“They have no idea where the object is. It wasn’t implanted with an incision, it was probably injected.”

Maia rubbed her temples like she had a headache. “I’m going for a swim before I start dinner.”

Maia left to jump overboard, Claire went to feed Adso, and the guys went to the bridge to think and bounce ideas. Five minutes later, Maia ran up the aft deck and saw Claire sitting in the saloon staring into space.

“I get it now! Oh my God! You look like you just lost your best friend, but I’m still here, so get your ass in the water. Claire?”

When she didn’t move Maia boldly walked into the saloon and stood next to Claire dripping water on the Persian rug. She pinched her suit and a fat drop of water squeezed out and rolled down her hip. She pointed at it rolling down her leg.

“Okay, okay, Maia, I just want to sulk for five minutes.”

“No!”

Claire jumped in the water followed by fins, masks, and snorkels that Maia threw overboard. She felt the usual excitement pulling her fins on and decided to worry later, diving deep to catch up with her friend.

Darius and Jamie were on the side deck watching the girls dive for shells. The contrast of moods was not lost on Jamie.

“How can they be so happy? All they do is hunt for pretty things, they could at least spear some fish for dinner.”

He and Darius both laughed at the absurdity of his statement.

“I need to speak freely, Jamie.” Darius looked out at the ocean and took a deep breath. “What if the second object does more than act as a warning when the chip is removed? You said Hesser placed no value on your life other than what you could do for him. What if the second object is programmed to kill you, like releasing a neurotoxin if the ping stops?”

Jamie had a pained expression on his face and gripped the railing, making the veins in his arms stick out. “Certainly something to consider. Thanks.” He slapped Darius on the shoulder and left the bridge to find sanctuary before he lost his mind. When the turpentine hit his nostrils his racing heart slowed down and the painter came out. He pulled a canvas out of hiding and set it on his easel. It was Darius, on the bridge, the morning of their wedding. He stood looking out at the water with the glorious purple, orange, and magenta of the sunrise seen through the windows. Jamie was intrigued by his face. A wide smile flanked by deep grooves, solid jaw, and floppy hair, but his eyes shined with intelligence and calm confidence. His shirt was open and the instruments were reflected off the flat planes of his chest and stomach. Jamie’s expert use of color contoured his face like a photograph, and he stood back to look at the finished painting. He lettered “The Captain” in a lower corner and left to clean up for dinner.

Climbing the steps to the saloon was a shock when the rays of sunrise stung his eyes. He could hardly remember the hours of night going by, but the image of Claire looking at the picture and kissing him goodnight finally surfaced. He was filled with gratitude for such an extraordinary partner.

Chapter Text

In Washington DC, Hesser’s second in command watched the crime scene, grinding his teeth. The forensic team worked quickly to finish before dawn to keep a lid on this. They had not prepared for a tourist with insomnia who wandered the streets of the Capitol taking pictures with his phone. A week later the man and his family were back home in Flint Michigan where it would take another several days for him to review the shots of their vacation.

The pictures were sent to the Washington Post where they were forwarded to the CIA without printing them. They were also sent to a popular political vlogger who devoted a ten-minute stream showing the pictures and sharing his guesses like they were facts.

An unmarked van pulled up to the tourist’s home in Michigan and held the family at gunpoint while six other men removed every cell phone and computer in the house. They threatened the man within an inch of his life and piled all of their electronic devices into the van and drove away. The vlogger was spared the rough treatment but every platform he used on social media was closed and his content was deleted. Gab, YouTube, twitter, Instagram, and numerous boards, went black. One hour after he posted the pictures he was out of social media, lost his lively hood, and had absolutely no recourse.

Little Maia was a gossip junkie and that included the conspiracy channels that whipped her mind into a tornado of awful scenarios coming to the world. Darius teased her so badly about it she started watching her saved videos when she was alone. The Washington crime scene was in her downloaded videos which she watched some days later. When she mentioned a murder in Washington, supposedly at the CIA building, Jamie launched from his chair and pulled Maia out of her seat, almost dragging her upstairs. They all gathered in front of her laptop and watched the vlogger show pictures of a late-night crime scene.

“Jamie, do you think that’s Hesser?”

“I know it’s Hesser. Thank Christ."

“Does this mean we’re free?”

“Of Hesser, yes. He said no one in the government will know us, so we can hope.”

The days ahead were kind to the four of them. Jamaica’s perfect weather, great fishing with rods and spears, gorgeous water to swim, snorkel, and treasure hunt made the days speed by with nary a care. Jamie spent time in his studio each day and occasionally all night. There was still an aggressive edge to the way he made love and Claire tried to be patient until he wanted to talk about it.

After spearfishing with Darius one afternoon, Jamie asked if he would come with him to the island the next day.

“I can’t live with this thing in my arm anymore, it’s driving me crazy not knowing if they will be coming for us. Nor can I forget your warning the ping might be keeping us alive. I have to do something.” Jamie looked around at the beautiful surroundings and then focused on Darius. “I’m going back to the doctor to have it removed tomorrow. I want you there, just in case.”

“In case you die, is that what you mean? Before you take the ultimate risk, maybe look for an expert in this technology or super-spy stuff that you can talk to.”

“I’ve already done that and learned even more that terrifies me. Apparently, it takes a fair amount of energy to be an RFID and even more for the sonar pulses. The battery will go dead at some point and the pinging will stop. We have no way to know how long the battery will last.”

“Same doctor?”

“Yes, I spoke to him yesterday, he said he would do it.”

“Claire knows?”

“No.”

“What kind of a partner does that?”

“One who loves the other more than anything in this universe Darius.”

Claire lowered the aft deck and sat with her legs in the water, deep in thought. Adso sat next to her waiting for something interesting to happen and then left to find a soft seat in the saloon. Claire hardly noticed. Jamie seemed distant the past week, spending nights in his studio, and days with Darius or hiding with his laptop. When she walked into the bedroom the previous day she saw him click off the website he was on and slam the lid down. He was hiding a secret, and with every woman and girl fawning over him on the island she wondered if she should be worried. She missed him and hoped she was wrong.

Later, in the evening, a time the four of them usually sat on the foredeck and played cards or watched a movie, Jamie was painting, Darius carried Maia upstairs, and Claire sat by herself and cried, contriving multiple scenarios of Jamie cheating. She wandered into her bed and fell asleep with her clothes on.

Jamie wanted to write a note to Claire, just in case he didn’t return from the island the next day. He knew they were well into a movie above deck so he took his time. He tried over and over again and the trash can filled with balled-up paper. When the words wouldn’t come he gave up trying and climbed the stairs to a dark and lonely saloon with no one in sight. He laid down behind his Sassenach, filled with sadness this might be the last time to hold her while she slept.

The next morning, Claire poured coffee into a mug and asked Maia where Jamie was. When she heard he and Darius had tendered to shore the tears came tumbling down her cheeks, leaving Maia speechless. Claire shared her suspicions that Jamie had hooked up with someone on the island and Maia’s eyes became slits of anger.

“So Darius is helping him? Or maybe she has a sister? Oh, hell no. We are going after them so get your suit on and bring something to wear into town.”

“Maia, we don’t even know where they are, we can’t start knocking down doors.”

“I know exactly where Darius is every minute of the day.” She held her phone up and punched one of her apps that opened to the streets of the island with a glowing red circle in the middle. “He is here. Let’s go.”

Maia tied her flipflops and waterproof canister to her waist and Claire did the same. From their mooring, the island looked very close but as they swam toward it Claire was getting tired. Maia looked around and waved at a tender with a big smile and let’s-party eyes. Soon after, they were helped onboard by two very hopeful young men. She dismissed them on shore with a kiss on the cheek and pointed to someone else’s yacht while blowing kisses. Claire looked at Maia’s phone over her shoulder. They headed in the direction of the red circle.

“This can’t be right Maia, it’s the doctor’s office we visited before.”

“There is no mistake, Claire, at least Darius’s phone is in there.”

The doctor had closed his office while he performed the extraction, just in case. He heard pounding on the front door and motioned for his nurse to check on the commotion. She glanced at the monitor behind the front desk and recognized the woman who sneered at her the previous week. Quickly she unbuttoned the top of her nurse's uniform and pulled it open so her push-up bra could display her ample bosom, then she tossed her hair pulling stray pieces of her updo into her face. She grabbed a nail file from the pencil holder and rubbed it savagely against her lips making them puffy and red.

Maia pounded on the door again and both women gasped when the nurse pulled the door open five inches, enough to see her bouncing breasts and disheveled look. She was panting and whispering she was at lunch and they had to go away.

Claire looked at the hair in the nurse's face, her breasts pouring out of her loosened uniform, and her lips that looked ravaged. It was the same nurse that waited by the door to watch Jamie leave. Her heart dropped into her stomach and she turned around and walked away while Maia was arguing with the nurse. She was almost to the water’s edge when Maia grabbed her arm.

“Have you condemned Jamie already?”

“What else would he be doing there during their lunch. Do you know how to drive that thing?”

“Yes, I’ll get you home.”

The nurse put herself back together before taking her seat next to the doctor. She looked at Jamie’s beautiful face, relaxed from a shot of Valium, and watched him strip her in her mind.

“Nurse!”

She jerked out of her daydream and held the instrument tray for the doctor. He teased the tissue back exposing the RFID chip and locked the forceps on it.

“Mister Smith, do you want me to pull it out?”

Jamie turned his head from the window and said yes, then he smiled like he had not a thing to worry about.

“Wait just a minute.” Darius sounded angry and closed his hand on the doctor’s arm. “He is high as a kite and you’re asking him if he’s ready to die?”

Jamie looked at Darius and his eyes cleared suddenly. He recited the navigational terms he learned and named the doors on the yacht that closed with a watertight seal in case they were sinking. He looked at Darius, “I love my wife more than my next breath and this will save her.”

Darius released the doctor’s arm and watched him pull the chip out of Jamie’s arm. They waited, silently, while the tension crushed them. One minute, nothing happened, two minutes, then three. Sweat rolled down the doctor’s temple as he pumped up the blood pressure cuff on Jamie’s arm and then pressed a stethoscope to his chest. He repeated the procedure at five minutes, ten, and then fifteen minutes while Jamie dozed from the Valium. He pulled his equipment away and slumped in his stool.

“I do not know if there is some kind of poison in the second object, but if it was strong enough to kill him, he would have a reaction already. I am too old for this. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve and started suturing the incision.

Darius smiled and handed the doctor five one-hundred-dollar bills before helping Jamie stand up and walk toward the door. They both watched the sky as they walked to the beach and half expected black SUV’s to come screeching around a corner, but there was nothing out of the ordinary.

When Jamie saw the ocean in front of them his smile was huge. It felt foreign to him and he realized there hadn’t been much smiling for the past week. It was time to make up for all of that. If he didn’t drop dead in the next twelve hours they were completely free…and rich…and in love.

There was a strange vibe in the saloon that was uncharacteristically quiet. They both felt it and went in separate directions to find the girls.

Claire was breathing hard from the heavy suitcases she carried from the closet. She looked up at Jamie and jumped back, pushing the hair out of her face. He could see she was completely undone and wondered what had happened.

“What’s this then?”

“I think I got all of it. There was more than I thought so I gave you my new suitcases.”

Her voice was so quiet he could barely hear her, so he got closer and she backed away.

“Thank you, love, that was a lot of work, and very generous to give me your cases. What am I to do with them now?”

Jamie took another step toward her, and another until she was pressed against the wall, still looking at her feet. Something huge had happened to Claire and it was not based in truth so he acted authentically until she found the strength to tell him.

“Do you love her?” It was no more than a whisper.

He was standing toe to toe with her, looking down on the top of her head, there was no room for Jesus between them.

“Oh yes, more than the air that fills my lungs,” he whispered. “I am fascinated by her mind, and soft coiled curls, not to mention her body that steals my soul. He ran his fingertips up her thigh as she shook with the confusing arousal caused by his touch. He pulled her chin up so she was forced to look at him. “Mostly, I love her whisky eyes because I see all of my tomorrows in them.”

Claire was under his spell so he brought his mouth down on hers and tasted her fear, her love, and her growing passion. He studied her eyes and her confusion. Clearly she doubted his love for her and that hurt her deeply.

“I would give my life for her,” he whispered, “and I did, today.”

Jamie’s large warm hand covered her globes before inching up her back. She was fighting her need to touch and claim him so he continued his soft touch that came closer to her heat making her exhale into his chest. There were noises upstairs, shattering glass, and tumbling furniture that threatened to break the spell so he kissed the sounds from her mind and let his tongue dance with hers. He moved with her toward the bed, like a dance that she followed. He grimaced when he laid down and quickly moved to her other side so his good arm could support his head.

Claire was in a love stupor and she asked why his arm hurt. Her eyes were foggy with lust and pain from her broken heart. Jamie pushed the hair behind her ear and studied the tragedy on her face wanting to carry her away to a world without threat or danger to erode her faith in him. He dragged his fingertips up her thigh and under her sundress. His warm hand covered her abdomen from side to side and moved slowly toward her breasts.

“Unbutton my shirt love, help me out of it.”

When Claire pushed the shirt off his shoulders she looked at the bandage that circled his arm and he could see her confusion.

“Like I said, she is my everything, her love is so honest and sweet, how could I not give my life for hers.” He kissed her deeply and she could feel his need. In her tortured mind she decided something was interpreted wrong and she opened herself up to his body as he covered her. She felt drunk from relief and gave herself over to his unrelenting soft hand and his power between her legs. The remaining clothes fell away and he pushed into her while he kissed her face, neck, breasts, and mouth. It was a soft, slow build of passion while their eyes affirmed what was in their hearts.

When they came back to earth, Claire held him tightly and buried her face in his neck. He could feel her slight puffs of air as she fell asleep. He held her and let himself truly rest for the first time in days.

Claire’s eyes opened and her stomach growled from the smell of food. Jamie watched her mind clear and then she looked around and gripped his arm. She expected to wake up alone, that was obvious, and he felt shame for leaving their bed so many nights. She smiled at him and he pulled her close. `

“I plan to have a bit of fun loving you back to me.”

“What do you mean?”

“We are truly free Sassenach. It’s over, forever. I know you’re confused and I am so sorry about that. I smell lobster, your favorite. How about a nice dinner while Darius and I clear things up.”

Jamie and Darius went into battle with an invisible foe and won the day. Claire and Maia were brought to their knees but rescued by love in the end. Their story came out over a delicious meal that provided enough distraction to soften the shock of what had transpired.

“We realized a new threat with removing the chip. Maybe it would cause the second object to release something deadly.”

“I found experts online who were more concerned with the battery dying because sonar takes so much power.

“I thought he was nuts to take the risk but he was determined, with or without me.”

“It looked so obvious she had been kissed senseless and her boobs were overflowing her uniform.”

“I grabbed the doctor’s arm before he could pull the chip out. I didn’t think Jamie was capable of giving him the go-ahead. Then he listed the navigation definitions and watertight doors on the yacht and I knew he was clear-headed.”

“I took Claire back in the tender, then returned it and swam back to the boat. If I hadn’t been so pissed at you Darius I never would have made it.”

“I thought you went to her and she did nothing to change my mind, that fluzzy. Coming to the door with her hair in her face and puffy lips.”

"So all those nights and closed doors with your laptop was researching the chip?

"I was looking for proof they could not kill a person with it and found just the opposite. The CIA has studied mind control and building the perfect soldier for forty years. A chip that costs ten cents to make solved both problems."

"So you had it removed, why?"

"So you could turn yourself in and force them to remove it. You would be out in your early fifties and still have decades to live."

Jamie put his arm around Claire protectively. It was over, all of it. They had been on the run for so long and now they were free. Two people, complete strangers at first, had given so much to see them safe were now trusted friends. It was overwhelming.

“I suppose I’m next to get this thing cut out of my arm.”

Jamie kissed her neck, “right, tomorrow it’s your turn.”

”Well, I say we have drinks on the deck and enjoy the beautiful evening. By the way, Maia, will I need to order a new bedroom set?”

“Not all of it.”

The breeze touched her skin like a whisper, so soft and lovely. She dropped her head back on Jamie’s arm and sighed. Looking in his beautiful eyes she asked for a kiss and when his lips were millimeters from her she jumped at the sound of a boat horn.

They looked at the superyacht getting ready to drop anchor beside them with the crew running around on every deck. They almost missed the small woman waving to them.

“Hello, neighbors! I don’t want to intrude but might you come and bring me over so we could have a chat?”

Darius raised his eyebrows at Jamie who asked the woman if she was ready to come now, and they went to fetch her.

“I like people who are straight forward, I suck at subtleties. Sut-el-tees,” she said slowly, “is that the right word?”

“Yes, although depending on the person hearing it, you might want to skip the suck part.”

Claire never realized how little Maia actually spoke because she had grand gestures that made it clear what she was thinking. A bit of encouragement and she was trying out her growing English vocabulary regularly. They went to meet their guest while Maia practiced the word under her breath.

Claire held her breath while Jamie and Darius helped the elderly woman on board and then led her into the saloon and offered her a seat.

“This lovely saloon is entirely comfortable for a chat but weren’t you all sitting outside before I butted in?”

“Of course, let’s sit on the deck and get to know each other.”

The woman seemed so happy to meet new people and sat with a warm smile on her face. “I believe you were drinking, is that right?”

“What can I get for you?”

She looked Jamie up and down, “You in fifty years perhaps, for now, I’ll have beer if you have it.”

Jamie smiled at her, “we never run out of beer.”

The woman looked around at the young faces and healthy smiles, “my name is Sepora. My mother insisted and my father could not pronounce it so he called me Danny and that is the name that stuck to me. It’s just me and my crew, sailing around the world, looking for something to do.”

“I’m Claire, this is Maia, Darius, and Jamie.”

The old woman watched Claire’s face when she said each name and knew Jamie to be loved like no other. He was a special man, she could see that and wanted to know more. But first, she turned toward Darius, “You are the captain, and you love your first mate.”

She touched Maia’s skin and smiled at her. “I see you at the United Nations, telling men what they have come to hear. You are desperately unhappy surrounded by concrete, bricks, and glass. The sea calls to you but you have left it behind. Don’t do it Maia dear, money won’t make you happy.”

Looking back at Darius she smiled disarmingly and told him to take the honest path and leave his family behind.

“When you doubt your path is the right one you have only to look at the picture. It is the real you, and honestly shows your strength.”

The four friends were stealing looks at each other, wondering who this crazy old woman was, but fascinated, hanging on her every word. They didn’t speak fearing they would miss something.

Darius did not believe in seeing the future but couldn’t help his curiosity about some picture. “Ma’am? What picture shows the real me?”

“It’s downstairs dear. Let it guide you toward your path.”

“Jesus,” Jamie whispered and moved from foot to foot.

Danny looked at Jamie, “the dusty old masters could not bend paint into emotion like you can Jamie dear. Paint your world authentically, from your heart, like, the conversation. The world will beat a path to your door.”

Jamie was entranced by her, “how could you…”

“The next one will see you remembered as one of the masters, you will belong to the ages, but the conversation will see you better.”

Jamie’s eyes bored into the woman’s, “How…how could you know my paintings?”

“It is time for me to go home. Could I trouble you boys for a ride back?”

Suddenly she looked pale and tired so Jamie and Darius helped her to the tender and took her back. Five of her crew were waiting on the aft deck to help her aboard. She nodded and smiled at them and then batted at their over-eager hands to assist her. She turned and looked into Jamie’s eyes as they waved, “she is still a mystery that thrills me.” He heard every word and felt the hair on his neck stand up.

Jamie and Darius were arguing when they joined the girls on deck. Darius was begging to see the painting of him and Jamie was saying his paintings were not shared with anyone.
“How in God’s name did she know about those paintings Jamie, and what painting is called the conversation?”

Jamie turned a strange look on Claire as the old woman’s words came back. There was no denying she knew what she couldn’t possibly know and if her suggestions were a gift to each of them he had better get out of the way of the message.

“I’ll be back.”

Jamie invited them into the saloon where his paintings were propped up on chairs and couches. They walked through the huge room admiring his talent and use of color but mostly looking from one to another.

“Darius! Oh my God, it’s you. Oh my God,” she whispered and blinked her eyes to clear her vision.

He stared at the image of the man he aspired to be and felt a shiver go up his spine, “someday…I hope.”

From behind him, Jamie said, “I have a photographic memory, and that is the man on the bridge the morning of our wedding. You are him, my friend.”

“What a beautiful place, it’s how I see Scotland in my mind.”

It is Scotland indeed, my boyhood friends, Ian, Rupert, and Angus,” pointing to each of them when he said their names. “The painting is for Rupert, in a few years.”

In her mind, Claire heard boys laughing, twigs snapping, and screams of glee as they dropped from the rope into the ravine. It was rare when a painting pulled her to another place where she felt the emotion of the scene. She looked up at Jamie with wonder and he pressed his forehead to hers for a moment.

There were a dozen more canvases in some stage of completion and all were commented on. Darius was trying to remember all that Danny said.

“Where is The Conversation?”

Jamie blushed and looked at the floor shaking his head side to side. “It is private and it is in our bedroom Claire if you want to see it.”

Claire looked up at him and took his hand, leading him into their room where she gasped and stood rooted to the ground. She was stunned by the life-like tones of her skin, the clear eyes of Adso watching her like he was listening to something profound. Claire was painted naked, laying on her side in their bed. Her one finger was under Adso’s chin so he would listen. Her naked breasts looked lifelike as did her ample butt and flat stomach. Her black coils spilled across her shoulders and down her back and her mouth was open in conversation with the kitten. Adso’s body was stretched out but his eyes were fixed on hers. There were so many emotions conveyed in the picture. Sweet, parental, sleepy beauty, enticingly sexual. Claire’s chiseled features were perfectly painted, full lips, loving eyes, playfully serious. The colors were muted giving the viewer an almost voyeuristic experience.

“My God, Jamie, have I ever looked like that?”

“Every morning love,” he breathed in her ear.

“I keep feeling different things, happiness, love, teaching Adso how to be a good cat, our bed in the morning awe, sexual energy, Adso’s worship. It’s absolutely marvelous Jamie but if we don’t let them see it, I fear they will search for it every time we leave.”

“It is your beautiful body mo chridhe, do you mind them seeing it?”

“I don’t mind, besides, the cute energy between me and Adso is predominant, they won’t even notice.”

Jamie got control of his spontaneous laugh and looked at his wife, as you wish Sassenach.

Claire walked Darius and Maia into their room and apologized for being in her birthday suit. Not a word was spoken from the mouths that hung open. Jamie watched their eyes move around on the canvas, delighted in the exchange between adorable cat and owner being the central focus.

Jamie dropped a sheet over the canvas and blushed at the comments. When they walked out on the deck Maia had grown quiet and pensive. When Darius asked about the new painting she tried to act interested and push down her hurt feelings because she was the only one he didn’t paint.

“What is the subject of your new painting Jamie? She said it would make you famous as a master painter, so what is it?”

Maia stared at her toes, trying not to cry when she heard, “it’s Maia.” She jerked her head up and her heart jumped to her throat.

When Jamie heard Danny comment about how famous it would become, he closed his mind to her abilities to see the future. It was just sweet Maia being iconic and would never be a promoter of his talent. He kept that to himself because the others were having so much fun with the predictions.

“Bring it up! Let us see,” Darius was about to bust with his desire to see the painting. Jamie was worried Maia would be offended after the seriousness of the other paintings.

“Maia, last month I walked into the galley when you were baking, remember?”

Maia was smiling and shaking her head no.

“Come with me and I’ll let you decide.” She followed Jamie into his studio and watched the covered canvas with anticipation as Jamie exposed the picture. She didn’t smile, or bounce around, nor did she make a sound as her eyes flicked all over the canvas.

The painting was life-sized showing Maia from the waist up leaning forward to exert force on the rolling pin over dough. Her face looked like beautiful determination punctuated by the tip of her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth. Her bikini could be seen under her white shirt and her long ponytail had slipped to the front of her shoulder and was covered with white floor. Adso was in the foreground shaking flour off of his fur. “Morning” was painted in a lower corner.

“Oh Maia, you sweet baby girl.”

Darius pushed into the studio and wrapped his arms around Maia while he studied the picture.

“I walked into the galley, early in the morning, and this is what I saw. It was cuteness overload when Adso shook flour all over her. It’s a very intimate picture Maia, I hope you like it when it’s done.” She turned her happy face to him and Jamie was relieved.

Darius looked at every line and shadow in the painting feeling weird about her floppy white shirt exposing part of her bikini-clad chest. One nipple pushed against the fabric and Darius smiled to himself. Maia’s nipples didn’t look like that, they were much bigger, so it was creative-license and not Jamie memorizing his girlfriend’s breast. He turned a knowing smile on his friend.

Jamie felt self-conscious with all the attention and covered the canvas before ushering everyone out. The evening had been extraordinary and the day, a roller coaster of highs and lows that suddenly felt exhausting.

Jamie slid into bed and turned the last light off before pulling Claire to him. He thought about all the crazy things that happened since morning and felt overwhelmed. He cuddled with Claire.

“Life is a journey Sassenach and there are no absolutes except one…me.”

He pulled her close and felt her let go of her conscious world. He would ride the night next to her, a happy occupant of that sacred position.

Chapter Text

The tender ride to the island had Claire’s last nerve in shreds. She was very afraid of having her chip taken out today, even though Jamie already tested the safety of the procedure the day before. The four of them split up at the front of the clinic, Darius and Maia would hang out at the back door of the facility just in case the good doctor made a run for it.

Jamie held Claire’s hand and scowled at the nurse during check-in. The doctor saw them and abruptly turned around but was soon escorted back by Darius. The nurse was decidedly unfriendly today which added another layer of stress to the procedure. Jamie just wanted it over with and pulled Claire to the treatment room when they were called.

The doctor thankfully started with a shot of Valium that put Claire out completely. It was a little unnerving. Claire was not a rambunctious mover when she wasn’t sedated, but this complete stop even unnerved the doctor, so he put a monitor on her heart. Jamie held a glass jar out for the doctor to drop the bloody implant into before closing the incision. He knew women had a thing about their upper arms looking nice, so he watched every stitch closely.

Jamie handed the doctor ten one-hundred-dollar bills and they left as soon as Jamie could wake her up. Claire smiled continuously and said hello to everyone they passed. She stopped to pet a lady’s purse and asked what its name was. Jamie was struggling to keep her walking in a straight line and if he stopped she would go off in another direction, so it took multiple attempts to call Darius.

Once Claire was in the tender, he searched for Darius and Maia, hoping they would hurry. The inebriated Sassenach needed to be locked in her room until the Valium wore off. Everything almost went south getting her onto the aft deck when she fell backward. Jamie was able to catch her before she slipped into the ocean. He was so rattled, he put Claire to bed and watched her from a nearby chair. Maia came in with a tray of food and agreed to sit with her so Jamie could get his sketch pad. He was intrigued by the locals, the tone of their skin, their gestures, and facial expressions. While Claire slept, Jamie roughed in the scene he wanted to paint and the remainder of the day was uneventful.

Jamie had given up hope that Claire would wake up that day. He wanted to talk about Danny and the extraordinary things she said and knew about his paintings, even those not done yet. It would have to wait until tomorrow he decided and slid his sketchbook into his bed table.

Claire’s eyeballs peeked out from under their lids at first light. She could hear the rhythmic breathing of her husband next to her, so she knew it was very early and after almost twenty-four hours of sleeping, she needed to get up. Adso had other ideas and did nothing but purr when she stroked him.

Sipping delicious coffee on the foredeck, the sun energized her to feel more alive by the minute. There was movement on Danny’s yacht and she watched the peculiar crewman standing on the foredeck holding a flat of flowers like a statue. How odd, she thought, until she saw Danny’s head pop up and take a handful of young Petunias before dropping out of sight again. She forced herself to stop looking and jumped at the vibrating cell phone next to her. Javier was the only person who called so she picked it up and said his name.

“Javier!”

“No darling, it’s Danny, do you remember giving me this number? If not, I’m sorry to intrude. How are you on this beautiful morning?”

“I feel amazing today, and you?”

“Very well indeed, but I could use a hand with these young plants if you have a moment.” She chuckled, “I apologize for being unacceptably straight forward, dear, please forgive me.”

“No, no, I would love to help, plant flowers? On your boat? I love gardening but never considered doing on a boat. Yes! I would love to help you, Danny. I see your tender is out, can someone come and get me in ten minutes?”

Claire left a note for Jamie and got into the tender waiting for her at the aft deck. She was excited to see Danny again and planting small flowers, however weird that was on a boat, was the perfect activity for her energized morning.

Danny smiled brightly when Claire walked onto her deck, removing her gloves to shake her hand warmly. The tender engines screamed away until it was clear of the yacht, then the crewman pulled the steering wheel harshly for a nautical-donut that launched the young man sideways, splashing down about twenty-feet from the tender.

“Oh my God!”

Danny held her arm before she could jump overboard and rescue the man. “Don’t worry about the cub my dear, he has a racer’s heart and can’t help himself. I had the tender engine modified so when someone let’s go of the throttle it stops moving. He’s fine,” she giggled. “Let me show you our chore for this morning.”

Claire followed Danny along the side deck to the other end of the enormous yacht and stepped down to the foredeck. She watched her step descending the six steps and noticed greenery around her feet and heard the most amazing music. Once on the deck, she looked around at the beautiful garden Danny had created. There were large trees, many bushes, vines, trellis clinging roses, a proper rose garden, and planters overflowing with pansies in every color that lent their sweet smell to the air.

“This is amazing, Danny! It is the last thing I would expect on a boat. It is beautiful but what happens during a storm?”

“If we can’t outrun it the planters are wheeled into a garage beyond that door. You just lift a bit on the end of the planter and the wheels pop out.”

“Oh! That is so clever! Well, I’m ready, where do I start planting?”

Danny showed her an empty planter and they discussed what levels and colors should be included then Claire got to work. When Danny came to check on her a bit later, the planter was done. She and Danny took turns watering the expansive deck full of flowers and talked as they worked.

“Have you always loved to sale or yacht?”

“No, I bought this yacht to get away from my son who wants to put me in a home. Turns out I really like the freedom, the people, and my crew.” She regarded Claire for several minutes and finally spoke to her about the joys of being nosy.

“My dear, I was raised strictly, trained in social graces at the best boarding schools, I was a debutante, and my family is at the top of the social food chain so to speak. I caught a fever in my early thirties that killed my husband and put me into a coma for a month. I had a lot of time to think before I woke up and I was a changed woman from then on. The first change was I spoke my truth, whatever that was. Let me demonstrate.”

Claire was delighted with her perky and fun attitude and listened closely.

“You, my dear, might spend the entire time asking socially acceptable questions and never get an answer to the question that burns in your mind. Give it a try, what do you want to ask me?

Claire watched Danny encourage her to speak up and she finally blurted out “how can you afford this boat and live-in crew? Oh God, it’s none of my business Danny, please forgive me!”

Danny stood straight and held her head high, “nonsense! When I tell you the answer, we will be friends and I want to be your friend so come inside, out of the sun for some refreshment while I explain.”

Claire pulled off her deck shoes and looked up as a glass wall opened to the formal saloon. She was struck dumb as her eyes took in the exquisite furniture and art in the massive room. There was a double grand staircase that went up to the second floor of living space and the boat seemed to go on for a mile. She was barely aware of Danny talking to her until she felt her hand slip through her elbow, leading her through the saloon.

“I can see that you like my floating home, and now there are two burning questions, are there not?”

“What…what does the rest look like?”

Danny chuckled and led Claire on a tour of luxury and abundance she didn’t know existed. The artwork was exceptional and they chatted about several of the artists. The formal dining room could serve twenty-four people comfortably with another dining room for everyday use. The floor to ceiling windows provided a stunning view with glass doors spaced to provide fresh air and an exit to the side deck. Beyond the double staircase were Danny’s expansive office, sitting room, private atrium, and bathrooms as big as Claire’s bedroom. All the flooring was Italian marble that also lined the walls of the shower, which you could fit a basketball team in.

“I don’t stay in these rooms, too big. I live in one of the staterooms and it’s just right for me.”

“What? Why? My God Danny, this is so beautiful it’s making me emotional.”

Danny showed Claire the private deck with a hot tub, full bar, outdoor shower, and lounges big enough for two. They continued the tour to the upper decks, four of them, a large movie theater, an upper saloon that was a bit more casual with flatscreen televisions that appeared when a button was pushed, a bar that looked fully stocked, and a foredeck with formal dining. Another level was dedicated to a full-sized gym with all the equipment, free weights, benches, a huge screen for watching aerobic videos, two saunas, a huge hot jacuzzi, and a running track that circled the enormous room.

They stepped into an elevator made of glass and went down to the lower deck with a large swimming pool and waterfall. The glass wall in front of the pool opened completely to the aft deck that was set up like a beach party with two bars, outside showers, lounges, and a closet full of towels. Danny pulled Claire’s hand and they were somehow back on the main deck walking through the expansive galley that included four of every major appliance needed for entertaining, four commercial refrigerators, freezers, and dishwashers, a two-hundred bottle wine cellar, and huge tables for food preparation.

Claire was in luxury overload and felt sad she would forget half of what she had seen.

“I wonder if you would accompany me for lunch and the second question you asked?”

Claire was delighted to spend more time with a woman she was really starting to like. Danny led her out to yet another private deck off the galley that was smaller and more intimate with a small table for two already made up for lunch. She picked up the phone and spoke to someone about a sore ankle, asking questions that made Claire feel she was really concerned about the person on the other end. Then she ordered avocado toast and tuna stuffed tomatoes with several side dishes and iced tea. Claire was overwhelmed by the experience and the calming water around the deck, about thirty feet down she guessed. When the food came, a muscular young man brought the plates stacked carefully up and down his forearms which were transferred to the table with no apparent effort. He limped away.

“You are very quiet dear Claire. Oh, you’re starving, poor thing, I don’t imagine you had much to eat yesterday.”

Claire’s head jerked up to look at Danny, smiling at her cheeks stuffed with food. How would she know about no eating as she slept yesterday away?

“Well, you eat while I tell you who I am and maybe what I hope to be to you sweet girl.”

“My birth name is Sepora Cornelius Meyer. My grandfather immigrated to America from Poland and worked in a small grocery until he learned to speak English. He purchased the store eventually, but I digress. Everything my grandfather touched turned to gold and he reinvested every dime he made in oil, real estate, and steel. The short version is he became rich and celebrated before he died, leaving a son to take his place, my father.”

The young muscular man came out with plates of cheese and fresh vegetables that were bite-sized. While Claire crunched on carrots she looked to Danny with anticipation.

“Things were different then. The household adopted the opinions of the father and never questioned.
They had more money than could ever be spent but an idle life was not allowed, so my father worked, starting at the bottom, learning the business of steel, oil, and real estate. He was quite a man, my hero, never to be replaced.”

Claire waited and crunched celery while Danny took several tiny bites of her avocado toast.

“Before my brother died, poor Alfred, my life was positively glorious! Boarding school in France and Sweden, summers in various countries with my friends, and beautiful parties during the social season where we could be in the same room with boys our age. It was such fun. When we buried Alfred, all that changed. No more school, no more summers away, and parties became a new kind of classroom where I would learn from watching the men. I didn’t like it one bit so I stuck my nose in the air through the first season and won myself a stiff neck and a cross father, more determined to ruin my life.”

“What took the place of school?”

“I spent dreadfully long hours reading communications from my father to other companies, banks, businessmen, and political people. When the steelworkers refused to let me take an active role on the production floor my father set up a small desk and chair and that is where I read stacks of documents. When I could finally wash at the end of the day, I pretended I couldn’t hear my mother saying I was now deaf from the ungodly noise of the production floor. She smiled and told me to set the table when my hearing came back or none of us would eat. I recovered quickly.”

“Did it ever get more tolerable for you?”

“Father planted fake letters, several of them during my second year leaning the business. Brazen mistakes in accounting, materials, even which political party he supported. I missed them all because I was daydreaming of lovely parties or who I would marry. Father became distant and terribly unhappy and one night I heard him talking to mother about his shame over not having a qualified heir to lead the business. He was so sad and it broke my heart hearing his defeated voice. It took about a minute to realize I was an utter failure to the most important man in my life.”

“Oh, Danny, how could you know how important it was for you to learn?”

“He and mother both told me and I didn’t listen, until that night. After that, he would hand me a stack of documents and I ran back to his office for more, asking questions about certain decisions and correcting the math where I found mistakes. It took several days to convince him, but soon I was waiting for him to come down the stairs for our walk to the office and I pumped him with questions along the way. It seemed like he grew three inches but it was the weight of defeat getting off of his back, allowing him to stand straight and proud, beaming his smile to the world. I was never so happy, or relieved, to know I wasn’t a failure in his eyes. And that’s all there is.”

“What? How old were you when you took over? Did your family keep all three businesses? How did you survive the depression? What was it like to be the leader of that kind of fortune? What …”

Danny smiled at Claire and her eyes twinkled. “I would love to tell you more after we discuss my coma.”

“What?”

“I had become my father when I fell ill. My loving husband had succumbed to the illness and I didn’t know it for over a month as I was deep inside myself. I could see how I distanced myself from real life to free my mind for running the business and such. When I woke up I had a new burden to suffer because I could see things in people. Their happiness, sorrow, who they loved, and who they were deceiving. It was like living in a nightmare that never ended. Young people from the best families would shake my hand and I would see their hands around someone’s throat, choking the life out of them. It felt like I had gone insane, especially when my mother had me committed and took over the raising of my son.”

“Good God.”

“You are feeling my pain at the moment because you are an empath, dear Claire, and those that confide in you feel they are truly understood for the first time. It is a rare quality.”

“I think everyone feels the way I do.”

“Wouldn’t that be lovely?”

Claire heard a loud whistle and looked across the water finding Jamie and Darius standing in the tender holding spears up with two large fish impaled. She smiled and clapped a bit in the air, suddenly wanting to wrap herself around her husband.

“Thank you for spending time with me today, Claire. I hope to see you again, but it is time for me to rest. The cub has a boat race later and I will need my strength to endure it.”

Danny walked Claire to the aft deck and was truly surprised when Claire hugged her, thanking her for everything. Jamie helped her into the tender and she waved to her new friend who watched them smiling, until she disappeared into her own boat.

Jamie, Darius, and Maia, were asking about Claire’s morning making her uncomfortable with keeping Danny’s confidence about all she told her. She finally went to her room and drew a bath with bubbles to idle away part of the day.

“Everything alright, love?”

“No.” She looked at Jamie’s handsome face, “I miss you, although I don’t know how that could be.”

“I do, because I miss you too Sassenach. I came to ask you to go to the island with me today. I want to take some pictures of the five lads that will be in the painting. After that, we can play, have dinner, or drinks. But it is a date so look your best, like you do right now, mo chridhe.”

“What, here in the bath?”

“No, that wouldn’t be right unless we stayed right here.”

Jamie smiled and tried to grab her getting a wet sponge in the face for his efforts. Claire pulled the plug and stepped into the shower so Jamie could wash her hair.

When he came back an hour later, Claire was sitting on the deck in a pretty yellow dress that reminded him of something. She had straightened her hair and wore makeup to add the exotic dimension to her eyes. He slid his arms around her waist and asked if she was ready to go.

Once on the island, it wasn’t hard to find the five boys that hung out together. Jamie explained he was painting a picture and they were in it which caused quite a ripple in the calm of the afternoon.

Jamie took several pictures of each of them, close up of the face, one showing some mannerism, the other a body shot. He showed them and they laughed. Once Jamie sat down to sketch, Claire called them to her and when they realized how friendly, and pretty she was, they showed off for her trying to outdo the others. The sun was shining off her hair and shoulders and her smile was like a beacon on her tanned face. Jamie laughed at the playfulness of the boys he guessed to be fourteen to eighteen. Gentle, beautiful boys who had taken over his creative mind. Jamie packed up his paper and tools and they bid the boys goodbye to wander around town.

Jamie could see Claire’s shoulders getting red in the sun and pulled her into a dress shop that had a large section of hats, which he brought to her, five at a time. He chose a wide-brimmed hat and the shop owner was happy to wrap a yellow ribbon around it, tied in the back with the extra length hanging off the brim. They laughed and stole kisses and wandered aimlessly until it was time to find a restaurant and gorge themselves on local cuisine and whisky. Jamie slipped an arm around Claire when they left. If they had been more aware of the people around them, they might have noticed the stares, but they were in their own world.

Claire pulled her shoes off when they reached the sand. Jamie waited to be alone with her on the beach because the full moon provided all the light he would need.

“Sassenach, I have something for you.” He pulled her hand and she turned around with her tipsy smile and sparkling eyes. “God, your beautiful.”

“Do I get some sort of prize for something awesome I did?”

“Something like that.” He pulled a tiny box from his pocket and handed it to her.

She looked excited until she pulled the box open and her eyes fell on the diamond inside. She could not pull her eyes away from it.

“We can take it back and get something you like better. Just put it on, one time, and then decide.”

She handed him the box and never took her eyes off the ring. Offering her outstretched hand she watched him push it onto her finger, and then he pulled her to his mouth for a sweet kiss.

“Thank you, Jamie,” she whispered.

“Your welcome, love.”

Once in the tender, they moved slowly to the yacht, careful to keep the engine quiet as they passed boats and yachts with people sleeping inside. Claire moved to the floor of the tender and leaned against the inflated side and dropped her head back. She was looking up at the moon, directly above her, feeling deliciously happy, slightly buzzed, and ran her hand down her burning nipple. Jamie watched her tipsy arousal and wanted her naked under the moonlight.

When the motor shut off, she looked at him like he was all she needed for the rest of her life. Jamie crept toward her and pulled off his shirt and shorts. He wanted her to remember this night. The dress came off, as did the tiny thong she wore and he pulled her leg up and over the inflated side of the tender. He pushed into her body placing greedy kisses on her face and neck. He wanted it to last but seeing his naked wife and the way her breasts bounced with every thrust was his undoing. He couldn’t help himself, he let it go when her orgasm started and pumped his warm love into her body while she clung to him.

They laid in each other's arms and talked quietly, about love and what was ahead.

“Jamie, I want to buy a new tender. This is like an inflatable raft, so I suppose the previous owner had little use for it. It doesn’t feel safe, but it was a marvelous bouncy thing to make love on.”

“Of course, Sassenach.”

Jamie raised up on an elbow and looked around the tender in all directions. He pulled Claire up with a worried look and helped her dress before getting them back to the yacht. He held Claire with one arm and drove the tender with the other.

“Did you just turn completely around?”

“That I did Sassenach. Lay against me and rest, we’re almost home.”

When Jamie turned again she started giggling. “Sweetheart, are we lost?”

The motor started to sputter and lurch as the last of the gas was consumed. Claire could not stop giggling which calmed Jamie more than she would ever know. Claire dropped to the soft bottom of the tender and held her arms out to him.

“Come here, my darling man, and rest under the stars with me.”

Once she had twisted her arms and legs with his and laid against his chest, Jamie smiled at the moon and decided to relax. When they were dropping into sleep a huge noise woke them up and they clung to each other.

“What the fuck was that, Jamie?”

“It’s gone love, whatever it was. Rest now.”

Claire wasn’t relaxed and buzzed anymore, she was panting with fright and suddenly felt something very large push against her from under the water. Before she could say anything the horrendously loud noise was back and slimy cold water rained down on them.

“Jesus Christ, Jamie, what is that?”

Jamie suspected it was a whale that surfaced near them but had not formed a word before he felt something bump the tender. Claire started screaming as the bump came again, harder this time. Jamie pulled out his cell phone and prayed Darius would answer.

“Darius, thank God. We have a bit of a problem here.”

Something under the surface pushed on the tender again and kept pushing it until they were spinning around clinging to each other. Claire was screaming for all she was worth, and Darius was trying to sound calm for both of them.

“Do you see any lights, anywhere?”

“No, Claire sweetheart please don’t scream.”

“Do you have a flashlight? If you point it at whatever is beneath…”

“No.”

They were spinning in the tender pushed by something massive under the surface. Darius was running down the stairs as fast as his legs could go, worried they had drifted into the shipping lanes where they would never be seen before a gigantic cargo ship plowed over them, dragging them underneath it.

“Darius searched the water and saw nothing. “Jamie look up and tell me if you can see…”

“The sky is full of clouds now Darius, I can see nothing, it’s pitch black out here and something under the water is pushing us in circles. We need help!”

Darius noticed the lights coming on all over Danny’s boat and two bright searchlights swept the water for as far as he could see. He heard a tender approach and jumped in pointing a direction for the crewman to go. He had his phone on speaker and the young man was getting rattled by Claire screaming. He moved away from the throttle and told Darius to drive.

Claire was screaming the boat was going to tip over and Darius did his best to calm them down.

“Jamie! Hold onto Claire really tight and ask her to stop screaming, I’m in Danny’s tender and I’m coming to get you!”

When it was quiet Darius took a deep breath and played the only card that might save them.

“Be calm and don’t blow this, my friend. There is a flare gun in the water-tight compartment under the steering whflareIt is the only chance I have of finding you so ask Claire to sit perfectly still, take aim at the sky directly above you, and fire.”

A minute later the crewman pointed to a brilliant purple streak climbing into the sky, in the other direction.

“Did you see the flair from the water level?” The boy shook his head no, which meant they were very far away and Darius had only seconds before the flair extinguished.

“Sit down!”

Darius pulled back on the throttle and the dual engine tender launched in the direction of the flair. He noticed both searchlights were now directed at the ocean under the flair and hoped they could see the lights and know help was on the way.

Talking at that speed was impossible because the wind snatched your words away. Darius dropped the speed enough to tell the crewman to keep sight of the flair and then watch the smoke if it went out, then tap his leg when they were close. The tender jerked alive again, like a bullet shooting across the water. Darius was feeling frantic when the boy tapped his leg and he pulled up on the throttle. It was black as pitch above and below them and he knew his friends must be terrified. The boy put something in his hand, it was a flare gun!

“Holy shit, you just saved the day my man!”

“Jamie, are you there?”

“Well, I was about to hang up but decided to stay on a little longer,” said sarcastically.

“We have flairs, shooting one now, watch it for my direction.”

The bright red flair went shooting to the heavens. “Starboard, maybe half a mile.”

The crewman found an emergency box stored inside the bench seat at the back of the tender. There was a light that plugged into the battery port and it almost blinded them both. He held it high above his head and Darius shot another flair.

“Talk to me brother!”

“Portside, same distance.”

“What?!”

“We aren’t spinning anymore, it’s pushing us, a bit rough I might add.”

Darius could not wait. They had to take a risk if they were going to find them before the boat sank from something underneath.

“Your name.”

“Ethan, sir.”

“I’m Darius. It’s only right I know your name before risking your life. How do you feel about that..Ethan?”

“It’s what I came for, sir.”

“Perfect.”

Darius aimed the light a foot above the water and about 500 yards ahead. Once Ethan took the light, Darius pulled back on the throttle and kept his eyes glued to the direct path ahead.

Claire was on the edge of sanity after being bumped, spun, and pushed, by something large underneath the little tender. She couldn’t see anything in the dark black night except maybe a two-foot space that was lit by Jamie’s phone. She watched that space while Jamie talked to Darius and when an unexpected shape came up out of the water, caught by the dim light, Claire’s scream shattered the night and she fainted.

Jamie looked up at a large head shaped like a torpedo with an eye that regarded him before slipping back under the water. He held Claire on his lap and patted her cheek, begging her to wake up. Jamie was aware of another flare shot into the sky and realized he heard the gun go off this time.

“Darius! You’re close! Starboard and close!”

“Can you see my light, Jamie?”

Suddenly, there it was, like a hand reaching through the dark night to save them. He watched it until the white teeth of Darius’s smile materialized. Claire was rubbing her eyes and crying, waving at Darius in her filthy yellow dress.

Jamie pulled her to him, “thank Christ.” He reached for the rope and tied it tightly to the tow ring at the front of the tender. Darius heard the song of the Humpback whales in the distance and smiled at Claire.

“There’s your tormentor. Probably a female with a calf who had a bit of fun playing with the tender.”

Her ghostly white face peeked out from Jamie’s chest and he could see her shaking and teeth chattering. Jamie asked if she wanted to ride back on Danny’s boat. She moved to the side of her boat and looked down at the water before launching back into Jamie’s arms.

Darius slowly turned Danny’s tender around and moved the boat forward very slowly until the rope was taught and they were pulling the other boat. He turned toward them and asked them to lay on the floor of the tender and hold onto something. They were right in the middle of a shipping lane and Darius wanted to get them out of there pronto. He told Ethan to watch for bodies flying out and picked up speed gradually keeping the tow rope taught. Soon they were flying across the water until he gradually slowed down when the yachts were in view. Darius circled the boats twice, letting his wake provide resistance to slow the towed tender. Danny was waiting on Claire’s boat with Maia and helped bring Claire on board with teeth chattering and pasty white skin. The women helped her into bed and covered her with a quilt.

Danny sat next to her and pushed her hair out of her eyes. “I can’t imagine how terrifying that was for you. Luckily, your man is strong as an ox and would have beaten the sea thing off to save you.” Danny’s voice was soft and caring and Claire was so grateful for her help. Jamie is coming to warm you up and I hope you rest tonight dear. Goodnight.

Jamie and Darius thanked Danny repeatedly, not finding the right words to convey she had saved them tonight. Danny looked at Darius with a sleepy smile.

“You are rather good at what you do, don’t ever doubt that Darius. I saw your brave heart tonight and felt your relief when you found them. Quite extraordinary. Goodnight.

“Thank you for everything tonight ma’am.”

Darius helped Danny into her tender and watched until she was safely on board, the tender was resting in the garage, and the lights flicked off one section at a time. He knew the chance of finding them in time was zero without a fast boat and he felt the gratitude down to his toes.

Small arms circled his waist and he looked down at the incomparable Maia with her head tilted and her chin raised in a healthy come fuck me pose that threatened his very sanity. She would pull him back to earth and make him right again. He gave himself over to her.

Chapter Text

Jamie peeled the dress off of Claire in the shower because it was stuck on her like glue. He remembered the slime showers and the horrifically loud noise like a wind tunnel and figured it was the blowhole of a whale making that noise. Claire cowered in the corner until he pulled her under the water and soaped her from head to toe before shampooing her hair. He used three fluffy body towels to wrap her up in and led her to a seat. He felt so awful for her and wondered if they would say goodbye to life on the high seas. The lotion rolled down her arms with warm hands to push it. He didn’t care if they lived on the yacht or a fort in the Mohave desert, as long as they were together.

Jamie massaged the lotion into her hands and was rubbing them with his thumbs when his eyelids shot wide open and he struggled for composure. The ring was gone before he arranged an insurance policy on the two-hundred thousand dollar diamond. It took two weeks and a diamond broker to get a diamond of that size and quality to Jamaica so he couldn’t replace it before she noticed it was gone.

“Jamie, sweetheart, could you bring me my ring please.”

Her voice was gone from her screaming and she had to breathe the words into his ear twice before he understood. He slid the ring on her finger and exhaled his relief.

Danny laid in bed, trying to read herself tired. She had a mission ahead, that if done correctly, would preserve her independence and hard-won place on the board of directors. Independence was everything to her and protecting her father’s business, a close second. She needed help, and guilt crept in to her as she considered getting Claire to assist her. Her mind got foggy and she saw a man in camouflage, grease paint covered his face making his eyes look bugged out as he peered into a scope on his rifle in the dark. “For you Jamie, for you Jamie, for you Jamie” was his mantra as he waited for his prey.

Someone had committed murder on Jamie’s behalf and it was Jamie’s guilty secret, just like hers. When her mind cleared she knew she had to recruit Claire’s help to fight her son. It was the only way.

For the next month, it was like they all called time-out from crazy, death-defying, worrisome, and threatening, and lived like they were on vacation. Claire’s voice came back after three days giving Darius ample time to tease her. Jamie purchased a new tender for the yacht. It was a dual engine, heavier frame, and bigger. Claire’s biggest fear of their torment at sea was when the boat was pushed from the side and almost tipped them over. The first time she came out for a trip to shore, Jamie was standing on the side of the boat to show her how strong it was. This boat would not tip over and he wanted to prove it to her. She boarded happily and they picked up Danny for a nice lunch on the island.

When they were stuffed with food and slightly inebriated with cocktails Darius threw caution to the wind and asked his burning question.

“Danny, ma’am, how did you know to send your tender over, with the right crewman, I might add.”

She smiled at Darius, “would you believe that you woke me up? It’s true, you shouted in my sleep they were in trouble and I knew Ethan’s heart to be most like your own so I sent him.”

Darius shook his head slightly and whispered, “I would never.”

“Don’t despair, dear, whatever realm it is that speaks to me always says the truth, sometimes in a shout and sometimes a mumble. It makes it easy to distinguish the emergencies.”

Claire could feel the tension at the table and wanted to lighten up the conversation.

”How did the crewman do in the race last week?”

Danny laughed from her belly, “I have explained centrifugal force a dozen times and he continues to turn too sharply and gets thrown into the water. He always pops up with a shocked look on his face.”

Danny cleared her throat and smiled around the table.

“I will be going soon and I will miss you all so much. Would you come to my little boat for dinner tomorrow night?”

Everyone nodded and questions were asked about where she was going but Danny kindly put them off. Claire was excited for them to see the yacht and knew they would be blown away. She had taken over the gardening for Danny and the front deck was bursting with color. She would show them all.

What she hadn’t anticipated was the day Danny would leave, chasing the next adventure. The strange feeling of being without Danny in her life was an emptiness that surprised her.

Jamie could see the shade come down on Claire’s eyes when Danny announced she was leaving. It was unmistakable. He wondered if Danny was the first mother figure Claire had built a relationship with and it broke his heart they would be separated so soon.

Later that night, when Claire was in the bath, Jamie walked the foredeck and looked at Danny’s impressive yacht. Please don’t leave her, he thought, please be the person she needs you to be. He went to his wife to make her forget time and space, her own name, and her fear of being an orphan. When they collapsed on the bed and the panting stopped, he promised to guard her heart and help her reconnect with Danny whenever possible.

Danny stood in her room looking out the expansive windows and watched Jamie Fraser walk the deck, head down, contemplating his wife’s pure heart. She heard his thoughts and felt tragically torn between duty and Claire’s loving attachment to her.

The next morning, Jamie tendered Claire to Danny’s yacht and his kiss was long and light. She remembered the way he touched her the night before and her face flushed as she slipped her tongue into his mouth for a brief moment. Whenever her soft tongue pushed past his lips it spun his mind instantly because it was a blatant invitation. Claire stepped onto Danny’s aft deck and pointed Jamie in the other direction before he motored away and got lost in his lusty delirium.

Through the morning, Claire tended to nipping back new growth, shaping tree limbs, and researching ways to keep the salt spray from killing the plants. While she was sweeping the deck she glanced up at her boat and saw Adso delicately stepping onto the edge of the deck, looking down at the water and then up at her. When she realized he was debating a dangerous swim to Danny’s boat she freaked out and raised her hands to stop him.

“No, Adso, no, no, no, don’t jump!”

She dialed Jaime and told him Adso was about to jump off the foredeck and thirty seconds later large hands reached for the feline before he could jump to the one he loved most. Claire clutched her chest and smiled her thanks to Jamie who promptly locked the purring cat in their bedroom. Adso was very unhappy and paced at their door crying at Jamie. He called Claire and told her the love-sick cat would not calm down and would she make a fuss so he could see her. Jamie picked Adso up and set him on the back of a chair close to a window. He didn’t seem to get it at first and kept trying to jump down until he snapped his head at her waving arms and jumping up and down. His cat eyes focused his gaze on her and he seemed calmer. Jamie left the bedroom knowing Adso was focused on the object of his desire and he was safe from throwing himself overboard.

Danny observed Claire, bent over the railing, waving and smiling at her boat. She felt the love in the message but it was still darn funny to see and her giggle brought Claire’s attention around instantly.

“He, he was going to jump and it scared me.”

“He was a very determined kitten,” she looked up at Claire and her face brightened with a smile, “a stowaway.”

Claire was getting used to Danny’s weird statements when a thought would come to her. “Yes, he snuck onboard one night in Italy. I would never want to bring a cat on a boat but there he was.”

Danny looked around the foredeck smiling like she was happy with her growing garden.

“Lovely. You have earned some refreshment young lady.”

When they were relaxing in the galley, Claire finished her iced tea and decided to be nosy and ask her burning question.

“Do you have to go right now, Danny?”

“I do indeed, dear.” She looked down and seemed so sad. “The greatest battle lies ahead and I have little confidence I will win. He is buying any stock available to make a grab for my company in a hostile takeover. I have kept a close eye on his progress and it’s time to put a stop to this, to him.”

“Who?”

“My son.”

Claire had heard of familial takeovers. Upstart children who make decisions to grab power and control of the company, always to the detriment of the controlling parent. She could see the effect it had on Danny and she wanted to help.

“What’s happened to your confidence, Danny? Why are you afraid of him?”

“He is young and strong, and very motivated. It’s not time for him to do this, he’s not ready, but he is willing to lock me away to take control and I have to stop him.”

Danny sat down hard on a chair and looked at her feet. She looked so small and fragile to Claire, making her insides rage. She knelt in front of Danny and looked up at her eyes.

“Tell me what you have to do, how you have to stop him, what is your plan?”

“It is very frowned upon to attempt such a thing. Old money observes certain rules and breaking them is not supported without a good reason. My son has supporters which means he has convinced at least some of them this is the best thing. He’s convinced them I am not fit. It’s convenient for him. My mother raised him using my insanity as her shield until I won him back in court. She had already poisoned his mind and there was little I could do to change it.”

“That bitch! Oh, dear God, I am sorry for that Danny, I’m sure she was, well she must have been, I mean, oh Christ, who would do that to their own grandson and daughter? Who is running the company now, can’t you stay on your lovely yacht and just say no?”

Danny looked down at Claire’s face, so hopeful, so sure that the righteous would prevail and clueless of the boiling deceit and greed that ruled the other side.

“I have good men in place to run things and stay in contact with me while I hide on the yacht and prepare for this battle. Rumors have been started and have spread like wildfire, making the stockholders afraid. If they dump their stock, he buys it and grows stronger.”

“Danny, this has to stop. I know how much your father’s legacy means to you. Why do you hide on the yacht, what are you preparing for, why aren’t you standing in your own power right now?”

The old woman grabbed Claire’s arms with shaking hands as the tears poured out.”They put me in an asylum fifty years ago and left me there like I no longer existed and he wants to do it again!”

“Over my God damn dead body, Danny! I went up against my crazy ass fiance and the CIA. That ingrate has met his match! Oh, Jesus, I’m sorry Danny, I didn’t mean any of that, I won’t hurt anyone, I promise.”

Danny looked at Claire through her tears and started to laugh and then kissed her cheek and laughed some more.

“Maybe you and the others can help me make a plan before I leave. I will be another day because I’m letting go of my captain. I’m afraid he will spend the next thirty days in rehab, pour man. You go home and spend some time with that handsome husband. I have a rare feast for you four tonight.”

The yacht was lit up like a Christmas tree when they arrived. Claire walked them to the glass wall that opened to the grand saloon and giggled when they gasped in unison. Danny welcomed them and asked Claire to give them a tour while she finished dinner. They were all thoroughly impressed and raved about the multiple course meal the chef prepared. They were served by the crew who seemed to worship Danny, keeping their distance until the next course was served. The chef came out and graciously accepted their praise for the delicious meal. He shook hands with Danny and walked straight out of the saloon, presumably to catch a ride home.

Claire excused herself to find the powder room and passed the galley with six crew members cleaning pots, washing dishes, wiping counters, and laughing. She was stunned.

“If I didn’t know better, I would have to say you guys love your jobs.”

They instantly went silent and lined up shoulder to shoulder, chest out, eyes straight ahead.

“Wow, at ease soldiers, I just wanted to say hello. The kind of happiness you all have is amazing to see. Are you all going on vacation tomorrow?”

“I signed on for the whole trip, I think we all did, right guys?”

“No, I have to fly home after Hong Kong, for my sister’s wedding. Not fair.”

Claire stood motionless, not knowing what to make of these people so happy on the job.

“My name is Claire, and you are?”

“Stacey, John, Steve, Amy, Cissy, Ethan.”

She smiled at Ethan. “I thought you looked familiar, so you rescue people on the high seas and clean the kitchen? You’re a keeper.”

They all chuckled while Claire left to rejoin the group.

After coffee was served Danny spoke quietly to a crew member and they all vanished like they had never been there.

“Claire, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Well, Danny needs our help devising a plan to outsmart those who are leveraging for a hostile takeover of her company. It’s time for her to face these people, one primary person, who has vowed to take her yacht and lock her away in a mental institution.” She looked at Danny who nodded to continue.

For the next twenty minutes, Claire told Danny’s story to her three closest friends who were on the edge of the seats. Jamie saw Danny’s hands shaking in her lap and wrapped his big, warm, hand around both of hers.

When Claire finished, the table was quiet as each of them was in their own heads sorting it all out. The questions started, the suggestions were flying out, and splintered pieces of a plan hung in the air around them. Claire ran for some paper and hastily wrote down anything that sounded reasonable. By the second hour, Claire put her hand up and looked compassionately at a fading Danny.

“Can we talk a little more tomorrow Danny, I am worn out?”

Danny looked at Claire’s sparkling eyes, alive with the effort they were making, and felt so grateful for her. They all thanked her and said goodnight as three of the crew suddenly appeared to put the room in order and close the yacht up for the night.

Adso jumped on Claire’s lap two hours later to protest having no one in bed to cuddle with. She put him on the floor and went back to writing as the conversation continued. It was three o’clock in the morning when Claire read back the plan that had been honed and sharpened.

Danny goes to the countries that have board members, stockholders, and influential people that will help her. She throws a huge beautiful party on the yacht so people can see she is of sound mind and she rounds up support at as many stops as she can make before the showdown in New York. If she can stop the sell-off of stock it will prevent any more gain of the primary.

“Who is the primary, Sassenach?”

Claire paused and looked up at Jamie, “her son.”

After a minute of silence, Claire raised her eyes to the group’s shocked faces.

“Who would do such a thing to their own mother? What else do we have Claire?”

“A string of countries to visit and throw a party including Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, Monaco, Manilla, Rome, Germany, Singapore, Mumbai, who knows until we talk to Danny. These listed are just financial hubs around the world. Ending up in New York for the Christmas party of the century and the showdown with her son.”

Claire’s head was down hiding her tears while she struggled for control, “there is no way Danny can do this, not without help, and I don’t see that kind of talent in her crew. I’m going to bed but thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for trying to help her.”

“Claire, this is the only way. We have to at least pitch it to her, she asked for our help with this.”

“Her son has had free reign to campaign against her and convince the board and stockholders she is crazy. If she steps foot in New York without enough support he will lock her up and take over. I can’t encourage her to do that if there’s a chance she will fail.”

“Well then,” Darius looked at Jamie and pulled Maia close, “looks like we have to go with her.”

They were all silent, letting the idea percolate into their brains. Claire was stunned, wondering where this protectiveness Darius felt came from. She looked from face to face and met Jamie’s eyes, confirming he was all in. Maia was looking at her hands in a not so fond way.

“Maia, do you have a problem with a luxurious vacation on that gorgeous yacht?”

“What will I do?”

“Do you think I can drive that boat by myself, Maia?”

“No.”

“There may be experienced seamen in her crew but you and I are of the same mind on the water and you’re the only person I’ll do an Atlantic crossing with.”

“Ok, I’ll go. I love you, Darius,” was said just above a whisper.

Claire pressed her hand to her heart, “oh, thank God, I didn’t know where I’d find another best friend in two days.”

Maia shot her a happy smile.

“Sassenach, did you just say two days?” She nodded. “Come lass, it’s time to sleep, much to do tomorrow.”

When Jamie got into bed he kissed her with minty breath. He propped himself on an elbow and dragged one finger down her stomach, pulling the sheet down with it.

“Sassenach, you said something to me in the tender this morning, have you forgotten?”

His hand caressed her stomach, hip, and thighs. I see that you have, no worries, I’ll remind you. He kissed her soft and long until he felt her wee tongue slide into his mouth.

“So you do remember. That’s a good lass.”

“Jamie, I…mmm, I think, ah! God that’s so good!”

“Tell me where to lick”

She touched her neck and he dragged his tongue up her neck and chin and kissed her passionately.

“Where else? Come now, you must open your eyes and participate.”

She touched her nipple and her arousal grew as his warm mouth licked and sucked on it.

“And then?”

She touched his nipple and pushed him to lay on his back, time for the game to get more interesting.

The next morning, Darius and Maia were on the foredeck, drinking coffee and going over checklists to get the boat ready for storage on the water.

“Good morning! Don’t look at me with shocked faces. I do get up early sometimes. I need to speak to Danny, right away, and pitch the idea of us going with her.”

“She is so totally thrilled! She went back to her boat to get our rooms ready and cancel the interviews for a captain. She asked me and you to help her order prov, ah pro..” Maia looked up trying to remember the word. “It means food and such.”

“Provisions.”

“Yep, you ready? Oh, she said you and Jamie have to sleep behind the stairs, sorry. I got the tender out already, do you need to eat something first? I’ll get a coffee for you to take. Should we bring a pad of paper? C’mon.”

“I’ll just have whatever you had this morning and I should be fine.”

Danny threw her arms around both girls when they came aboard and she went on and on about her gratitude. Claire had not seen her look this good since they met. They worked diligently making lists of food and non-food items for the first leg of the trip. Orders were placed for next day delivery.

Darius came on board so he and Miai could do an inventory of the engine room. Ethan came in to help them find everything and answer questions. Maia was calling out inventory so fast Ethan wondered if Darius was listening but occasionally he would stop her to order more of something.

They were all working as fast as they could. Darius wanted to leave Jamaican water by midnight the next night and there was much to do on both boats.

Jamie, on the other boat, was looking for safe storage with a long term slip rental at a dock that was fully insured and had 24-hour security. He found a management company to do monthly maintenance on the exterior and hired them. He checked in with Darius and realized they would never have their boat decommissioned in time.

“The four of us can move the boat and get it ready in a couple of hours tomorrow, no sweat.”

“What happens if we take an extra day before we leave?”

“The odds of running into a hurricane get worse every day and from June first until November, no crossing the Atlantic.”

“I had no idea.”

The tender went between yachts for the rest of the afternoon, back and forth as Jamie emptied the boat of their belongings. Danny’s tender went back and forth from yacht to shore as crew members purchased last-minute items.

“Jesus, I forgot how immense this suite was.” Jamie doubled over to pant after carrying enough weight for three men. He found Claire in their new rooms putting their clothing away. She held her arms out to the sides and turned in a circle.

“Not bad for the next six months, right?”

“Will you be alright away from your home for so long Sassenach?”

“Everyone who lives on this floating commune is happy, unreasonably so,” she giggled. “So, yes I am looking forward to the experience. If I could just stop worrying about Adso.”

“I have never seen a cat so attached to one person. On the estate, we always had numerous cats and anyone’s lap would do. Not Adso. We’ll bring him over tonight, just before bed so he can relax with you for the night. Have you mentioned Adso to Danny?”

Claire’s face drained of color and she looked up at Jamie with wide eyes. “I, I… well, no. I suppose I should.”

Danny’s face brightened at the mention of Adso. “Yes, of course, Adso is coming! This is what I ordered for him, did I forget anything?”

“Thank you, Danny. I will have a very spoiled cat once he comes aboard. You are the best! Darius says anytime you are ready for the meeting we can sit down and plan our stops.”

They gathered on the foredeck, in the garden, and chose the places to stop along the way to New York. Danny had chosen locations based on the highest concentration of people involved with the company and all those within a day’s travel would be invited as well. It was up to Darius to plan the order of their locations and he would have that by morning. Claire wondered if he felt the pressure of this huge responsibility. If he did, no one would know it.

When Danny heard the cries of a lonely and scared Adso in her dream, she likened it to a small child calling for help. Even in her dream, her heart broke for him. It woke her up and she ran to find Jamie, He would know what to do. Jamie smiled at Danny when she called to him.

“Jamie dear, I am not familiar with the emotions of a cat but I can say with certainty it is time to bring Adso over. Let’s do it now and not wait for bedtime.”

She watched the recognition on his face quickly be replaced with concern. “I’ll get Claire and bring him over now.”

Claire could hear Adso meowing loudly as she neared her room and he sprang into her arms when she walked through the door. She heaped love on him and let him rub her face over and over again until he finally settled down. When it looked like he might lay down he suddenly sprang forward and the head-butting started anew. Claire was patient and when she thought he was ready, she carried him to the tender, under her arm, and then put him down in his new home.

Later, Claire laid back in the bubbling hot tub on their deck. She didn’t bother with her suit because no one could see them out there. She ran down the checklist in her head of ordering invitations for the London party, sending the guest list, transferring money to pay for the special service, choosing a caterer, an inventory of the china, wine glasses, champagne flutes, silver wear, serving dishes, and tumblers. She felt a disturbance in the water and smiled at Jamie moaning his way into the boiling water. He was exhausted and gave fragmented answers to her questions.

“What is left to do over there sweetheart?”

“Park in the slip, decommission, toys, new painting, stuff. Mmmm.”

“I want you to bring them all over here Jamie and I won’t hear another word about it. They’re too precious to lose.”

He gave her a dismissing snort causing her to sharpen her focus on him. “You have no idea how good you are, do you.”

“I do, actually. I’ve been copying the masters for ten years and I am not in their club. I’m an amateur Sassenach, the finished paintings can stay on the other boat.”

She raised her body so she was looking down on him and licked his lower lip. “You will bring them here and I will put them away.”

His eyes opened like slits from his exhaustion. “You’re a wee temptress and very adorable, but this will not work in hot water.” He pointed to his dick and chuckled.

They slid into the giant bed deciding it was the best bed ever made on earth and a hot tub soak was equal to a bottle of tranquilizers. It was the most restful sleep they would have for the next six months but if they knew that then, they never would have gone.

Jamie kissed Claire awake at six in the morning and whispered a reminder that Darius called a meeting this morning, their last day in Jamaica. She felt the pull of duty and headed for the shower with Jamie. He felt strangely attached to their Jamaican hideaway and wondered if they would be back.

“What is it, Jamie? You seem miles away.”

He poured shampoo on his head and started scrubbing. “I’ll be alright, Sassenach, oh my God what are you doing?”

He looked down in time to see his wife push his soft cock into her mouth becoming hard as granite in seconds. She released him before he could grab her hair and make her finish what she started. He was all over her for the second it took her to turn off the water and step out. She held a big towel for him to step into.

“To be continued, the second we’re done with the checklist.”

Jamie found himself alone in the grand bathroom and heard her sing-song voice ask if he was ready to go.

“I need a minute before I can walk,” he growled.

Jamie pulled his wife close to him and stuck his nose in her wet hair. “You will be punished for what you did my darling.”

Claire smiled at the thought and then focused on Darius who would lay out their daily existence for the first leg of the voyage.

Darius split the crew, which now included Claire and Jamie, into wheelhouse and boat crews, laid out the shifts, handed them a checklist of duties to be done during the shift, and explained the locations of each log to be maintained daily. Jamie was astounded at how many chores had to be done during each shift, how many measurements, recordings, observations, and testing would be done daily, sometimes twice. The ancient use of the sexton was still in use to verify the bridge instruments were accurate, twice daily, and the ship's flag was changed to the closest country whenever they left international water. Ethan was assigned a shift on the bridge, as was Darius and Maia, partnered with Claire, Jamie, and Steven respectively. The rest of the crew were split into shifts for all other duties while at sea.

“This yacht was built for long-range speed. There are three Rolls Royce 6700 horsepower turbine engines and two 1200 horsepower MAN engines. Top speed is eighty knots, so we can outrun any storm, hurricane, or pirates if the captain has enough warning. Your prime directive on the bridge is to wake the captain if you pick up a storm that’s gaining on us or a ship you think might be following us. Cruising speed will be forty knots dropping to the low twenties when we get close to a landmass. Decks are off-limits at that speed. If you have to go on deck you must wear a tether and let someone know. No one goes outside after dark without clearance from the acting captain and he or she will drop speed until you’re safely inside again. Are we good so far?”

The crew muttered an “aye captain” like this was something they did every day. Well, maybe they did, Claire thought, and she braced herself for an adventure and an education. Darius asked for questions, the first being where did they go after London.

“Paris, Athens, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York. There are whole weeks built into the schedule for emergencies. It won’t due to be late for our own party. Last thing, full dress uniforms for each party and all hands on deck. Danny, you have the floor.”

“Before you spend too much time assigning your galley crew I have hired a chef who will stay on board to New York and he will cook for both levels. Also, supply trucks are scheduled from two o’clock until four so if you want one more opportunity to enjoy the water now is the time to do it.”

The meeting disbanded and Jamie caught up with Darius for questions.

“Why have you put me on the bridge with you? There must be a crew member with more experience.”

“The crew is seasoned, most of them, but they won’t have the initiative and motivation you will. I need you to learn fast and be ready to take Ethan's place. He is being deployed sometime between L.A. and Florida.”

“One more question, what’s a wheelhouse?”

“The wheelhouse is the bridge.” Darius rolled his eyes and suggested extra vitamins every day. He was going to need them.

Chapter Text

Claire and Maia were each jogging to their rooms to throw on a suit and get into the water before Jamie or Darius could press them into a chore. They both loved the crystal clear water around the island and wanted one more chance to enjoy it.
 
When Darius stepped out of a corridor, they almost ran right into him. He observed the guilty faces and bit into his apple, watching them.
 
“You both look like you’re running from a robbery or something. Why the guilty faces? Is Danny tied up in a closet? You’re running away before we leave? That only leaves one thing. You are escaping to swim.”
 
Darius looked at his watch. “We move the other boat in one hour, so you better hurry.”
 
They both ran for their rooms once Darius moved out of the way and emerged in record time to jog-walk back to the aft deck. Freedom was within reach when the glass doors opened and Danny escorted a man into the saloon. Both girls slowed to a respectable walk and almost made it outside before Danny corralled them for an introduction to the best dressmaker in Jamaica. There was a pedestal under the man’s arm that he placed on the floor and looked at the confused girls because they weren’t moving.
 
“Go on Maia, you’re first.”
 
Maia stepped on the pedestal and the man thanked her for her skimpy suit, saying it made measurements easier. He called out measurements and Danny wrote them on a pad, smiling with excitement over the gift she was giving the girls. The man was taking too much time reading the tape, so Claire looked closely and said the measurement. He glared at her until she backed up.
 
“Claire, get in the water. When I come out, you can get your measurements done.”
 
“I’ll wait,” she said miserably.
 
She could hear laughter and jet ski’s off the other side of the boat and stepped out on the side deck to look. The crew was having a last blast before leaving Jamaica, and Claire was so jealous. No wonder she never saw any of them in the water. They were restricted to the other side of the boat, away from people above deck. She was astounded at their discipline, perfect manners, obedience to the captain, and deference to Danny. When they wanted to cut loose, they were rather good at that as well. They waved from the water and received a true Claire smile.
 
Maia was finally stepping down, and the man indicated the pedestal impatiently. Claire stood straight and looked at the ceiling wishing it to be over. Twenty minutes in measurement-hell was the little man squinting at the tape for an eternity while Claire listened to the joyous crew in the water.  
 
“You are free little fish, thank you for your time.” Danny smiled at the girls as they turned and ran to the aft deck. They pulled their fins and snorkels out as fast as they could and threw them overboard jumping in after them. Claire was so excited as she pulled her fins on and dove deep to follow Maia. When they popped up, Darius and Jamie were waiting for them in the tender. Ethan waited patiently to take the tender back to Danny’s boat. They surrendered their fins, masks, and snorkels and swam to the other yacht.
 
Claire pulled a long hose to the foredeck while Maia instructed Jamie in raising the anchors, Darius was on the bridge preparing for the brief trip to the boatyard. Claire heard the healthy engines come to life and looked up in time to see Adso stepping between petunias to get closer to the edge of Danny’s deck. She yelled at him to stay but he was resolute this time and jumped toward their yacht. Claire screamed and looked down at the water for him. Before she could decide what to do Jamie went sailing over the side landing very close to Adso who was pawing the slippery hull looking for something to grab. Jamie was as still as possible in the water and talked to the cat in a quiet, confident voice as he made a grab for the skin on the back of his neck, immobilizing him instantly.
 
Darius had cut the engines when he saw Jamie go over and watched the rescue from the side deck of the bridge. Claire was waiting at the aft deck so Jamie could place Adso into the huge towel she held out. To her amazement, Adso seemed calm and happy to be on the same boat as she was and started licking the icky seawater from his coat. Jamie got a hero’s hug and waited for another towel. Catastrophe averted, the engines powered up again and all doors were closed.
 
Darius explained the docking procedure and then backed into the slip so slowly Claire and Maia could step onto the dock with their ropes, ready to tie the boat down when it stopped. Jamie was on the aft deck with a radio to the bridge, counting down the feet left before they plowed into the concrete dock. The engines were cut when they were still five feet from the back of their slip. Darius came down to show them how to tether the yacht for safety, and the anchors were released into the murky depths. The men were another thirty minutes securing the yacht, so Claire and Maia emptied the water reservoirs, scrubbed them with vinegar, and dried them thoroughly. All water lines and drains had to be emptied, refrigerators and freezers unplugged, washed, and dried completely. They gave the many bars in the saloons and decks the same treatment.
 
The checklist went on and on until they were all exhausted and dripping with sweat. Jamie went to the office to pay the slip fee for the next eight months and found someone to motor them back to Danny’s. The yacht was locked, the alarm engaged, and Jamie stepped into the waiting boat. He kissed Claire on the cheek and asked how Adso was doing. Any cat worth its claws would be freaking out by the loud outboard engine and the strong wind in their faces. She moved the towel to peer inside and announced he was fast asleep or dead. It was hard to tell.
 
Danny was waiting on the aft deck, looking pale and shaken when they arrived.
 
“Claire, I am sorry for allowing Adso to jump off the boat, I should have known better. Come here young man, you gave me quite a fright.” She pulled Adso from Claire’s arm and hoisted him close to her face, murmuring something about warm milk as she carried him inside. Adso remained calm and looked into Danny’s eyes as they disappeared toward the galley.
 
“What the hell?”
 
Jamie wrapped his hot sticky arms around Claire’s waist and then picked her up, falling backward into the water. The four of them played and kissed and chased each other for an hour before Danny called out twenty minutes until dinner. They were dry and dressed when they joined Danny at the table and got an exquisite taste of the meals to come on this trip. Two crewmen served them and brought out fresh coffee after dinner but were sent back to the galley.
 
“I am sorry for not warning you two, but no coffee tonight. These gentlemen will move us out to sea in six hours and need to sleep.” She turned to Jamie and Darius, “this will be the last bossy thing I do, I promise. Get some sleep before we leave tonight and there will be fresh coffee ready for you at midnight.”
 
Darius smiled at her, “thank you, Danny, that is an excellent idea.”
 
At eleven forty-five Jamie paced the bridge and did a double-take when Darius arrived in his uniform, a large cup of coffee with a lid, and no hair. He now sported a crew cut that actually improved his rugged looks. Maia came in after him and sat in the corner, out of the way and quiet.
 
“Maia will take you through your shift-start readings tonight.” Darius spoke into his radio to check the position of the crew and ordered the anchors up. Ethan and Steven were hanging off the side of the hull where the anchor and chains were stored. They guided the huge chains into a pattern that would prevent entanglement the next time they were released. When they were back on deck, Darius started the massive engines and crossed himself before easing the yacht toward the open water.
 
Maia jumped up and started running through the shift-start checklist, showing Jamie how to read each instrument she called out to Darius. Once the logs were updated, she kissed Darius and left. Jamie was exhausted, mostly from nerves he decided because he hadn’t lifted so much as a pencil yet.
 
Maia poked her head in the bridge and asked Darius to sleep for two hours until his regular shift started, “and you too, blondie. Steven is on his way so you can’t say no.” Jamie and Darius had an eight-hour shift starting in three hours and sweet Maia stepped in so they could get a nap.
 
Twenty-one hours later, Maia stayed after her shift to show Claire how to do the checklist and update the logs, which was greatly appreciated. It set the tone of camaraderie and team spirit in the bridge that lasted to New York, and little unassuming Maia would be richly rewarded by her captain, the next time they could spend five minutes alone together.
 
Danny sat in the saloon waiting to see Jamie come down after his shift and asked him to follow her.  They rode the elevator up two floors and stepped out on a level with no deck, but the view out the enormous windows was stunning. There were two interior doors, one of which she pushed open to take Jamie’s breath away. The room was enormous with a concrete floor, a large battered table with two ancient chairs in sharp contrast to the rest of the yacht. The afternoon sun was sharply angled, leaving portions of the room dark. There were special lights above and to the sides of one area, and Jamie was fighting his emotion with a deep breath. In the middle of those lights stood an easel and a blank canvas, waiting for him to tell a story with paint. He squeezed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, trying to clear his vision.
 
“Come, I will show you the rest.”
 
There was a six-foot-wide cabinet attached to the wall with multiple doors that opened to reveal Danny’s gratitude. Two sections were dedicated to oil paint, professional-grade, in every color. A section for the finest sable brushes in twenty sizes, along with specialty brushes. He knew them to be handmade by a man on the island and was thrilled to have a set. Another section was dedicated to acrylic paints and brushes, buckets of clips, stacks of rags, tin cans, pallets, and turpentine.
 
Jamie was so overwhelmed he just hugged Danny and kept repeating “thank you.”
 
“What’s that?” He pointed to a chest of drawers off to the side.
 
“For a rainy day. A bit of warning though, you will find yourself in those drawers, they will reveal your true heart.” She patted his arm, “I’ve seen it, and it’s wonderful.”
 
Jamie’s attention was pulled to the other wall of the room where stacks of empty canvases, in every size, awaited his attention. He fingered through them, seeing dozens of paintings in his mind. When he next looked for Danny, she was gone. He left and tried to have a normal day, but the studio called to him, getting louder with each passing hour.
 
Claire worked with Danny during the days, preparing for the party and finding pictures of the important people on the internet, printing each of their faces to be used as flashcards. When Claire started her shift at midnight, Jamie brought the 5 lads canvas upstairs and set it on the easel. He adjusted the lights until it was lit like an afternoon in Jamaica, and the lads came alive under his tiny brushes that painted creases and shadows that summed into expressions unique to each person.
 
Painting created an energy that was barely containable, it’s how he could paint all night. It wasn’t the time for self-indulgence; he needed to be sharp on the bridge. When his watch dinged, it was time to stop, so he cleaned his brushes and sat down at the table with his big sketch pad. He drew her face, her eyes pensive and happy, her upper torso next to him in deep sleep. Every angle and every emotion was rendered during the trip while he let himself relax until it was a struggle to get to their bed. He would reach for her in his sleep as she would him, but their shifts on the bridge kept them apart.
 
If he didn’t paint when Claire went on shift, he would sleep and get up early to hit the gym. He was running the track one morning and thought he saw Danny in a corner with tiny weights in each hand. When he got closer, he watched her peering at the pages of a book while she pushed the weights over her head. He cringed at her worse-than-poor form and stopped.
 
“You can’t hold the weights like that, you will get hurt. Keep your wrist straight, that’s it, now push up.” He handed her heavier dumbbells and had her go through the same movement.
 
“Use enough weight that twelve reps will completely tax you, when that becomes easy, go to next weight up. No, not good to work upper arms on the same day as deltoids because… well, they rely on the same muscle groups.”
 
Danny looked at Jamie like he was speaking Greek and flipped through the book, trying to find the same information. Jamie could see her confused determination and wanted to help.
 
“Danny, why not let me train you, three days a week? You can meet me here after my shift and we can keep it to ourselves if you want. Now, what are your goals?”
 
On the ninth day at sea, the yacht motored into the famous London harbor, five days ahead of schedule. Darius added enough extra days to handle anything that broke on the way. The first four-thousand miles was so easy he almost chuckled when the engines finally turned off. Jamie arranged a mooring close to a dock that would lead them into downtown London, and they all breathed a sigh of relief when the banging anchor chains dropped their load into the water.
 
It thrilled Danny to have the girls together again and invited them to brunch on the foredeck. The chef outdid himself with a gorgeous buffet of delicacies and sparkling champagne in cold fluted glasses. Jamie and Darius would be another hour on the bridge, and a bit of girl talk would be nice before they were lost to their men for the rest of the day.
 
Claire could not concentrate for long. She had not been close to Jamie in nine days because of their shifts, and she missed him fiercely. She had considered what she would do to him for so long she was now in a constant state of arousal. When brunch was over, she went to their rooms, the deck, and the galley, but he was nowhere to be found. She wanted to cry with frustration but went to the foredeck to move the planters out of the plant garage and hopefully burn off some of this energy.
 
The planters were rolled out onto the foredeck and arranged in a pleasing configuration. Bent over, she pushed one of the last planters until she hit something that stopped her. She looked into crystal blue eyes that were hungry like hers. Jamie helped move the heavy load and noticed how shy Claire was around him. When they went into the plant garage for the last planter, he stopped her and pressed her into the cool wall, holding her against it with one hand while he studied her face, deep breathing, and shaking hands, that were all screaming their need for him.   
 
“Will you meet me in the pool in five minutes, Sassenach?”
 
“What?”
 
“It’s so hot here, and I need to bring my core temperature down. Be a good lass and get your suit on.”
 
Claire pulled her most conventional suit up her legs and grit her teeth when the tight garment wrapped around her core. Visions of a domineering Jamie danced in her head when she headed to the lower deck and the pool. The water cooled her off instantly as she swam the length of the pool.  
 
Jamie held her hand and walked her to the sauna room. He locked the door and handed her a large towel before dropping his trunks and walking into the steamy room. Claire loved the heavy eucalyptus scent from the branches that laid on glowing coals. Jamie would throw a cup of water on them periodically and the steam would bellow into the closed room. Claire felt like she was drunk with lust because she couldn’t speak or move, so she laid on her back and closed her eyes. She heard Jamie leave and come back into the glass walled room. When she opened her eyes, they were in absolute darkness and she was thrilled about where this might lead.
 
“Sassenach, I am too long without you. I will find you in the dark and love you to me.”
 
When sight is removed, the other senses are magnified, causing slight explosions of sensation with each touch. Jamie’s hand was lite and skipped around her body to land in unexpected places to prolong her thrill. He held her head and kissed her deeply. Her panting was audible, and she whimpered for him in agony, waiting for his next touch. When his tongue slid into her fold pushing deep into her body, she gasped and arched her back. There in the dark, he moved her legs and her body for the greatest exposure of her tiny bud and pulled her into a world of sensation that made her whole body shake with desire. To Claire’s delight, he made it last, pushing her into two ferocious orgasms, leaving her clinging to him.
 
When she could think again, she ran her hand up his slippery leg and thigh to cup balls and tease him. Something was very wrong because he was soft.
 
“What’s wrong Jamie, don’t you want me?”
 
“If you knew how much you would run away, most likely. This heat and moisture is my saltpeter love. Like the hot tub, it will not work in here.”
 
“Then I can play with you as long as I want?”
 
“Only if you want to waste your time, sweet one.”
 
Claire rolled off the platform and used her hands on his legs to find the object of her interest. She pulled him into her mouth and used her tongue to move him this way and that, getting lost in the experience and her increasing arousal. She felt him fill her mouth suddenly and his breathing was deep as his hips came off the platform. He pulled her up to straddle him and impaled her as they both groaned at the incredible feeling. He was reaching places inside her that ramped her up and made her beg. Just as suddenly, his erection was gone and she fell against him.
 
“Are you ready for lights and a cool shower, love?”
 
“But…”
 
“It’s all part of the plan.”
 
He led her out and shielded her eyes before turning on the lights. The cool water hit her body, jerking her out of the over-aroused zone she was stuck in. Jamie pulled her suit up her legs and kissed her lightly, smiling at her. Chatting about little things, they made their way to their rooms where Claire grabbed a towel and bent forward, squeezing the water out of her hair. Jamie pulled her suit off and pushed her upper body down while pushing her feet apart.
 
“Hold your ankles,” was growled out as he assaulted her from behind. Grasping her hips so he could thrust into her and marvel at how different it felt. He would not last long, so he wrapped his hands around both of her arms and pulled her to him until he came with a deep growl. Claire walked with him to the bed so they could fall into it and nap, wrapped around each other.
 
Danny was so happy to have her four companions at her dinner table again and asked a string of questions to hear all about the eight-day adventure. When the laughing woke Adso, he sat up on Claire’s lap and looked around the table yawning. When he found Danny, he jumped on the table and walked to her, jumping down into her lap where he promptly went back to sleep. Claire was horrified and stammered an apology to everybody about the manners of her cat. Danny put her hand up and smiled at Claire.
 
“It’s alright, Claire. My fault, I told him he could.”
 
Claire’s mouth closed and she stared at Danny, “you what?”
 
Danny’s eyes had a twinkle when she announced she and Adso were friends.  
 
“He has told me much about his life in Italy, but he calls it before the boat. A barking dog chased him down the dock, and he was separated from his mother and siblings. He tried to find them and saw the sunrise and fall twice as he got weaker from no food. He passed a large boat and smelled food, so he snuck inside and found something to eat. He fell asleep under a bed and heard someone crying, and it hurt him deep inside. That was you, Claire.”
 
Claire froze, listening to an accurate account of the first night on the boat after hiding from Hesser all day. She couldn’t speak and just stared into Danny’s eyes.
 
“He didn’t know if he wanted to fight for his life. The boat was moving, taking him away from his mother and brothers, so he went to sleep for a long time until his hunger drove him back to where he found food.”
 
Each person at the table was remembering where they were and what they were doing as the kitten’s story came out. Jamie was uncomfortable with Danny’s gift, and he wrapped his large hand around Claire’s and waited.
 
“He was gulping pieces of fish he found when someone screamed and it hurt his ears so he ran until a large warm hand wrapped around his body and pulled him into the air. He knew it was time for him to die, but he wasn’t sad. When other hands held him he felt soft hair cover him and take him to warm milk, like his mother’s.”
 
Claire could feel the kitten’s truth and a tear ran down her cheek. “And then?”
 
“His belly was full and he was so happy. The hands put him in a soft bed and he curled up under the soft hair. He felt safe with her, and happy. Eventually, he laid down next to the other person and found him to be gentle and caring. He felt so happy to have a mother again and a second source of heat.”
 
“Adso.” Claire whispered. He popped his head up and ran across the table to head butt her face before dropping into her lap.
 
“Thank you, Danny.” Claire stroked Adso while she struggled with a dawning notion. “So, you know we were hiding that night.”
 
“Yes dear, in the most ghastly of places.”
 
“Do you know why, and what happened after? I can explain.”
 
Jamie could hear Claire’s fright, and he looked pleadingly at Danny to stop this crazy conversation.
 
“There is nothing to explain, dear Claire. Adso has confided in me and that is all I wanted to say. Now relax, all of you. We have arrived at our first stop and we have a party to put on.”
 
They had five extra days, so Claire and Maia took Danny for a spa treatment. Facial, manicure, pedicure, and a temporary lip filler. The next day, their dresses arrived for a fitting and shoes were chosen. Danny had ordered elbow-length gloves for both of them and opened her massive jewelry collection for them to borrow from.
 
“All Claire has to do is wave her left hand around with that gorgeous rock on it. I wish Darius was more like Jamie,” she pouted.
 
“They have the same heart when it comes to the women they love, you can be sure of that, dear one.”
 
Claire recruited Maia to help her research the big players so they could feed the information to Danny during the party. Claire used the pictures she downloaded like flashcards and quizzed Danny daily until she could name practically everyone.
 
The crew was allowed two days off to wander around London and see whatever sights they wanted. Darius laid down the law to check in with him every three hours or find their own way home, and no public drunkenness.
 
Jamie brought Claire to the studio one morning, and she was bowled over with Danny’s gift. The scent of turpentine quickened her heart as memories of the art world flooded her mind. The five lads on the easel transported her to Jamaica, where she met them, looking exactly as they did in the picture. Her spontaneous kiss surprised Jamie, but he recovered quickly and took full advantage of her pressing herself against him.
 
“Let’s go to our room.”
 
“No, I don’t want to leave just yet.”
 
She kept kissing until they fell onto the table and gave in to their sudden need for each other. Claire’s naked body was pulled to the end of the table, giving Jamie an erotic view as he pushed into his wife. The table became quite uncomfortable after they satisfied their lust so Claire went back to looking at the picture. This luxury of time was so foreign after the regimented life when they were cruising, they felt rich with time and refused to rush through anything.
 
The day of the party, the yacht was moved to a dock reserved for the rich and famous. It took Darius, Jamie, and the whole crew to secure the twelve huge lines that held the yacht and stabilized it. The harbor crew was already building a custom gangway for guests to board, and their first sight would be the grand saloon with its glittering finery.
 
Workers came to move half of the saloon furniture to below deck storage and install additional lights among the planters on the foredeck. Then came the stunning flower arrangements placed throughout the main deck. The crew was busy all day washing the outside of the boat, washing windows, polishing, polishing, and more polishing. Danny checked in on the chef who had been cooking since they reached London. She noticed all four of the ovens were on and he was humming as he went from one to the other. She decided not to interrupt. The dresses and tuxedos arrived and the energy was amping up for all of them.
 
Danny hired two make-up artists and a hairdresser to get them all ready for the party and insisted that Claire and Maia take advantage. Getting Maia to sit still in the chair while two people worked on her was no small task, but when she looked in the mirror she was stunned. Her long hair was swept up and to the side for a curled ponytail that dropped down the front of her shoulder. Her eyes were beautiful with natural colors befitting her barely twenty age. Claire’s hair was pulled back with ten sections weaved together and her eyes were darkly lined and smudged slightly. They both looked beautiful and kissed Danny when they left to dress.
 
Darius came bounding through the door to their rooms and glanced around for Maia. When he looked in the bathroom, he was stunned to see her in the bath with overflowing bubbles.
 
“What are you doing?”
 
“I’m trying to drown myself.”
 
“What?”
 
“I’m taking a bath, Darius.”
 
“Why?”
 
“Because Claire said it would relax me and it was working until you came in.”
 
“Oh, sorry.”
 
Darius vaporized and Maia rolled her eyes and pulled the plug, wondering how to get all the bubbles off of her. The next time Darius came in, she was ironing his shirt, wearing a thong and a push-up bra. He stared at her until she glared at him.
 
“What is wrong with you Darius?”
 
His eyes had softened seeing her this way and he just wanted to wrap around her and stay in bed for the evening, but that was impossible.
 
“Your tux is ready.” She walked to him and kissed him, “get in the shower.”
 
Jamie looked at the statuesque beauty standing on the deck outside their rooms. Her gown was simple but fitted to her hourglass figure, and it took his breath away. She reminded him of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He kissed her neck, and she turned to smile at the most handsome man in the world.
 
“I will be the envy of all the women tonight, Jamie.”
 
Adso was kissed over and over requiring a long bath to remove the sticky lipstick and he didn’t notice when they slipped out and closed the door behind them.
 
Darius came up to escort Maia to the party and when he saw her hair and gown, his mouth dropped open and he stared. He looked at his little love and thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world and he was so proud to be with her.
 
“I have something for you, Maia. It is your birthday present, but after the way you pitched in for the launch and gave up sleep time to help the others, I want to give it to you now.”
 
He handed her a wrapped box and watched her eyes light up when she lifted the lid of the velvet jewelry box. Her cheeks had a warm rose glow when she looked at him and he kissed her softly, afraid to smudge something. He put the necklace on her and she was swept away with her first diamond that sparkled like her eyes when she looked at Darius.
 
He remembered accompanying Jamie to see the diamond brought to the island for Claire’s ring and as they looked at settings Darius wandered to the diamond necklaces and stared at them, hoping someday he could give Maia such a gift. Jamie looked at the jewelry with him and asked to see the necklace Darius kept looking at. A single diamond set in white gold with only the prongs holding it to the pendant so it sparkled from all sides. It was beautiful and Jamie told them to wrap it up.
 
“Wait a minute! I don’t have that kind of money Jamie.”
 
“How much do you have?” Jamie gave him a look that asked, how much is your girlfriend worth to you?
 
“I have two-thousand dollars to my name.”
 
“And what is the value of a man’s life, I wonder. The life you risked when you didn’t run that first day when the entire world was chasing us? If you teach me to drive the boat, I’ll get the rest.”
 
Jamie went back to the diamond broker and spoke to the salesperson quietly.
 
“I want a better diamond in this necklace and I don’t care how the two of you work it out, but there’s enough profit in my stone to cover the upgrade. It needs a GIA certification too, if you please.”
 
When Maia joined the women in the saloon, Claire and Danny raved about her beautiful necklace. Danny had a keen eye for Diamonds and wondered how Darius could afford such a gift. Her head came up and she looked at Jamie.
 
Danny was stationed inside the entrance to the saloon where she could greet her guests, Claire stood to one side, Maia on the other. When the guests started to arrive, the photographers were snapping pictures of everyone who approached the boat in formal wear. Claire and Maia would tell Danny any noteworthy events happening in the lives of those coming in, and Danny was able to work it into her greeting flawlessly.
 
“Recently diversified and now in oil... that guy put his stock up for sale and then withdrew the offer… son graduated West Point top of his class… That guy stopped a hostile takeover this year by the skin of his teeth.. new babies, twin girls, daughter’s name is Amanda and she is doing fine.”
 
Jamie went from bar to bar serving drinks, the crew carried silver trays of ore dehors; the pianist played the baby grand for beautiful background music and Darius got locked into a conversation about buying a superyacht. As the guests loosened up with alcohol, many of them kicked their shoes off to wander out on the deck. Claire asked one gentleman if he would like to see the garden on the foredeck, and the elderly man was pleased as punch.
 
Danny snuck a few people into Jamie’s studio where each of his paintings was on an easel. They were big collectors of art and she wanted to see their reaction. One gentleman offered fifty-thousand for “Morning” and Danny thanked him for the offer but said they would soon be shown as a collection and she would send an invitation.
 
By one o’clock in the morning the guests were gone, the harbor crew was dismantling the gangway, and Darius was preparing to move the boat to their mooring. When the anchors were dropped again, it was almost three in the morning and the chef passed out tiny cakes and champagne and told them all to drink up and go to bed. The crew would have the boat back to normal by morning.
 
There was a full moon so Jamie pulled Claire to their deck and they danced slowly while he feasted on the love in her eyes.
 
“You were… perfect tonight, mo chridhe.”
 
He kissed her neck, then her chin, and then covered her mouth for the searing kiss that deepened with passion as he danced her to a lounge.
 
“Just in case you need help getting that dress off later, suppose you show me how it’s done.”
 
Claire reached for her right shoulder and squeezed a clasp to open it and the dress fell to the deck. Jamie looked at her tiny thong, thigh-high stockings, and high heels, as she released the weaved coif and let her hair fall.
 
Jamie smiled as he looked her up and down, “that is a good start, lass, come here.”

Chapter Text

Sebastian Meyer spun his desk chair around in time to see his secretary drop a newspaper onto his desk. She had the paper folded back to the society section where Danny’s face was beaming as she shook hands with Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of England. He felt like someone punched him in the stomach and lowered the receiver to its cradle without warning to the caller.
 
“What in God’s name is she doing?”
 
He looked up in time to appreciate the swinging ass of his secretary before the door closed behind her. Sebastian read every word associated with the story and decided his mother was having a last fling before she surrendered the reigns to him this year. Let her have some fun, he thought, a nostalgic party to remember her glory days when she was the seat of power and reigning queen of the socialites. He could give a shit because nothing could stop him now. The purchase of a sizeable chunk of stock was in the bag after his manufactured bromance with a major investor. Sebastian did his best to undermine his mother’s stronghold and convince the man she was suffering from dementia. He was sure this sale would put him close to majority shareholder, so his take over was within reach. Still, the picture gave him an unsettled feeling because she had not surfaced in almost a year. Why now?
 
The crew had worked all night to put the boat right after the party, with orders from Darius not to report for duty until noon the following day. Jamie took advantage of the quiet morning and trained Danny and himself in the gym before swimming laps to cool off. He hated the weather in London. Hot, sticky, and draining.
 
Adso’s loud purring cut through the fog of Claire’s dream and she felt him head-butting her face. He stretched out beside her and kept his paws on her face until she opened her eyes. Claire rolled to her side and with a finger under his chin pulled his head up to look at her.
 
“Ok my darling, I’m up. Is it food you want?”
 
The door to their deck slid open for some fresh air and was closed immediately to keep humid air from filling the room. Tonight they will weigh anchor, set a course for Paris, and her intimate time with Jamie would be on hold again. She stretched and smiled at their glutenous sexual pursuits over the past week and figured she would survive the three days apart. She couldn’t wait to get to Paris and see Javier and Joseph again. They were invited to the party and would stay on board to Athens and then fly home. It felt like an eternity since they were together.
 
Darius called a meeting of the crew and ran down the teams, shifts, and duties on their three-day trip to Paris. Maia was the last one onto the bridge and noticed Cici did not move away from Darius when she came in. She stood across from them and quietly listened to the meeting, however she remembered not a word. When the crew muttered “aye, captain,” Maia was deep in her memory, adding up the lingering looks and odd behaviors observed in Cici.
 
“Maia? You’re a million miles away.”
 
Maia looked around at the empty bridge and blushed. “I’m closer than you think. I gotta go.”
 
Black Rolls Royce automobiles pulled up to the offices of the Harbor Master all day long so someone in the employ of a party guest could deliver a handwritten message thanking Danny for a lovely evening. When Darius requested permission to make way, he was told a boat was coming to deliver mail. Eighty-five guests sent a thank you note and Danny read every one of them.
 
The anchors were raised just as a thunderstorm ripped open to soak Ethan and Steven, who gripped the slippery hull ladder with one hand while they guided the chain with the other. Darius watched the CCTV monitors closely until they were back on deck. The other crew members were pulling furniture and lounge chairs under the deck ceiling and snapping waterproof covers over everything. When all of them were back inside, Darius and Jamie turned the yacht away from London toward open water.
 
Danny looked out the expansive windows at the squall coming in on the port side and told Claire and Maia to close all the windows. Claire ran to her rooms and called for Adso, usually on her lap at this time of the day, getting more frantic by the second. She ran around her room calling for him and spun around to see him sitting on her bed yawning. She picked him up and carried him out to the table where they were working.
 
Darius looked at the color of Jamie’s face and decided he finally found his friend’s Achilles’ heel.
 
“You look a bit green around the edges, friend. The trash can is empty if you need …”
 
Jamie ran for the head and over the next two hours, purged his system, in one way or another. Darius was waiting to give him a patch for seasickness, but Jamie couldn’t spend more than a couple of minutes on the bridge before dashing back to the head. On one of his brief visits, Darius pressed something sticky behind his ear. Jamie made a run for the bathroom again and Darius chuckled. After four hours of being tossed around on an angry sea, Darius could see the margin of the storm and pushed their speed to get out from under it.
 
When Maia and Steven arrived to take their shift, Jamie almost crawled out of the elevator and got to their rooms to lie down. Claire was reading and jumped off the bed when she saw her green-faced love stagger in. She pulled his clothes off and propped him up on pillows, then went to the galley for soup and water. The chef was preparing food for the next day when she told him how sick Jamie was. He smiled and fixed up a remedy for seasickness and suggested broth to restore him.
 
“He won’t like the taste of the remedy, so tell him to pinch his nose and swallow. Best to have a bucket nearby, just in case.” Claire carried the tray to their room and Jamie did whatever she told him to. Then he laid down and passed out.
 
Jamie reported to the bridge the next morning feeling much better except for sore stomach muscles. He kissed Claire as they exchanged places and the familiar rotation was back in full swing. Claire worked with Danny during the day, getting her to remember the faces that would board in Paris, and Maia did research on the guests. When they dropped anchor in Paris, it felt like they had hardly moved.
 
The night of the party, Claire and Maia flanked Danny again at the entrance to the grand saloon and fed her information about guests who were approaching. When Claire saw Javier and Joseph in the greeting line, she broke away to throw her arms around them. Javier held her at arm’s length and smiled at her gown and hair. He was bursting with pride, as was Joseph. Claire introduced them to Danny and Maia and walked them into the saloon to find Jamie.
 
Jamie’s smile was brilliant as he shook hands with the men. Claire promised to catch up in a bit and went back to Danny greeting guests. It was a stifling evening and even with the air conditioners blowing Danny was perspiring in her jacket, so she took it off to reveal the sleeveless gown underneath. Jamie caught sight of her and beamed with pride at her smooth and shapely arms. Danny looked in his direction and smiled back.
 
At one o’clock in the morning, Claire dropped onto the couch between Javier and Joseph and sighed.
 
Danny smiled her gratitude at the three of them. “I owe you a big thank you for talking with the French-speaking guests. I never saw any of you sit down all night and you were all so charming!”
 
“I left you to fly solo tonight and you knocked it out of the park Danny.”
 
“I wasn’t alone, I had the darling Maia with me much of the night.”
 
Claire put her hand on her heart and lipped ‘thank you’ to Maia. She noticed Ethan and Steven had changed into their day uniforms and were standing by.
 
“It would appear we are moving the boat to our mooring so it’s time to change and be useful.” She kissed Javier and Joseph goodnight and then Danny, telling her to rest well. Danny looked up at Maia and tapped her other cheek for a goodnight kiss and they all went to their rooms.
 
Claire clipped the radio to her shorts and heard the crew members give their location and readiness to the bridge. She pulled a t-shirt over her head and pushed her hair into a ponytail.
 
“Claire, are you close? You’re on the aft deck to catch the stern ropes.”
 
“Yes, had a devil of a time getting that dress off, but I’m almost there.”
 
“Thank you for the visual now move your ass, we’re ready.”
 
Claire rolled her eyes and jogged to the aft deck to catch the enormous ropes used to tie the yacht to the dock. When the anchor chains were quiet again, Steven popped up on the ladder and helped with the remaining ropes before descending again when they dropped anchor at the mooring. Claire was grateful for the hard-working crew who would put the boat in order before morning. She was exhausted.
 
“Good job everybody, captain out.”
 
Maia came to the bridge in her pajamas, eating dry cereal out of the box. Darius was writing in his log and kept looking over at her soft pants riding her hips four inches below her belly button. When she lifted the box above her mouth, he watched her breasts bounce under her pj top.
 
“Done!” Darius picked her up and she threw the empty box into the trash on the way to their rooms.
 
As before, Danny held a brunch the next day for Javier, Joseph, Danny, and the four friends. It was a beautiful afternoon in sunny Paris, and Darius did the unthinkable. He gave the crew the day off, postponing their departure until the next day.
 
In New York, Sebastian took the folded paper from his secretary and his eyes bugged out at the picture of Danny in a sleeveless gown toasting a major stockholder and oil investor.
 
 “What the bloody hell is going on?”
 
“Get Marvin on the phone, interrupt him, tell him it’s an emergency!”
 
“Marvin! Tell me Johnson is ready to sell before I lose my mind! My mother is up to something and I don’t like it.”
 
Sebastian listened for two minutes, heard his financial manager say Johnson had taken his shares off the table, and the phone slammed into the cradle so hard it shattered. “Goddammit!” He unplugged the phone base and threw it against the wall.
 
The next morning, Jamie and Darius prepared to weigh anchor as the crew covered deck furniture and stowed planters in the plant garage. Ethan and Steven raised the anchors and the mighty engines came to life. Javier and Joseph sipped cold champagne on the deck and marveled at the teamwork required to get them underway. Claire, Danny, and Maia joined them to watch the historic sights and beautiful buildings glide by on their way down the Seine.
 
Claire had mixed feelings about anchoring off Greece again because so much had happened there. Thankfully, there was no party to prepare for and they could act like tourists for the three days Darius and Maia would be onshore visiting family. She told herself to relax and enjoy the time with her godfather.
 
The third night at sea, Danny planned a special dinner on the upper deck for Claire and her family, Jamie, Darius, and Maia. They were served by the crew, and the chef prepared a glorious meal for them to enjoy. Many stories were shared after dinner, and Claire watched Danny talk animatedly with the others. Her jawline was still defined and her neck showed no drooping skin, in fact, she was aging quite well but no one would know it because her shoulder-length hair kept her best parts hidden. She decided it was time for Danny to emerge and wished she had thought of this while still in Paris. She would talk to Danny at her first opportunity, which was later that evening when she was reading in the saloon along with Javier and Joseph.
 
“Danny, I would love to treat you to a new hairstyle. What do you say to a girl’s day out in Athens?”
 
“I am quite comfortable with my hair, as awful as it is. I’m not comfortable risking a bad haircut. How about facials and pedicures?”
 
“Okay, that would be fine, I guess. I’m on shift in the wheel room in two hours, so I’m going to lie down for a bit. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
 
Claire needed Jamie’s help for this and found him watching a rerecorded game in their room. She snuggled up to him and whispered she needed a favor. The game flicked off before her sentence was finished.
 
“I am trying to talk Danny into a new hairstyle, something more modern, but she’s afraid of having a bad haircut until it grows out. You could draw her face and put different hairstyles on her, right?”
 
“There is a very high price for such a service Sassenach, but I’d be happy to break it down into installments if you like.” He pulled her down on the mattress and kissed her until she forgot who Danny was.
 
Through the night, while Claire was on shift, Jamie sat in his studio and rendered Danny’s face with three hairstyles he found on the internet. He jogged to their bed to grab four hours of sleep before his last shift of this leg.
 
Darius was getting more uptight by the minute as they cruised toward Athens. He and Maia would visit their family for three days, so Jamie assumed this mood was family-related.
 
“I’ve been wanting to ask you, it’s none of my business, but I’ll ask anyway. When we were at the jewelry store in Jamaica buying the necklace for Maia, you said you had two grand to your name, remember?” Darius shot him a dark look. “What did you do with your earnings then?”
 
“You couldn’t be more right, it’s none of your business.”
 
“I think I know the answer, but I’d like to hear it from you.”
 
“Me and Maia have all we need while on the yacht, so I send the bulk of my pay home, to my family and hers. The economy is poor, very few good jobs, low pay, no assistance. My two brothers live in the same house as my sister, her husband, and their baby. They need every penny.”
 
“I always knew you were a good man, Darius. What are you forty, forty-five years old?”
 
“I’m twenty-seven asshole, and I don’t need a lecture about robbing Maia from the cradle. ”
 
Jamie ducked as wadded paper was launched at his head and the bantering took the edge off of Darius’s mood. The anchors hit the seabed close to Athens, where the fishing was good for both pole and speargun. Darius and Maia said goodbye and got into a boat brought by Darius’s brother and it sped away.
 
Javier and Joseph were gleefully setting up their fishing lines and sipping beer in chilled glasses. They now had a partner in crime. The chef was crazy about fishing and kept the men within arms reach of food and beer while they enjoyed the day.
 
Jamie felt soft arms come around his waist from behind and twisted his body to put Claire under the shower water. He kissed her under the stream and felt a ravenous hunger ignite in his groin. They could take their time today, he realized, and broke his kiss to wash her hair.
 
“It’s time for a whisky, love. Be a good girl and stay here, I have some things to discuss with you.”
 
When Jamie left to fetch the whisky bottle, Claire went out to the deck with her nail kit and put a fresh coat of polish on her fingernails. Jamie set a whisky in front of her and watched the process with mild interest. He stood behind her and pulled the string holding her bikini top on, letting it fall to the deck, then he carried her to a lounge. Claire kept her hands in the air so he wouldn’t smudge the polish, and Jamie smiled wickedly at her.
 
“Let me pamper you, love. Give me your foot.”
 
He found all kinds of creams and scrubs in her caddy and settled on a soothing gel that he applied to her feet, calves, and thighs, covering an inch at a time very slowly. He massaged her inner thighs until she was panting, taking care not to touch her most intimate places. This was about seduction, and that required a soft touch. Pulling her foot into his lap, he sat down on the deck and held up bottles of polish until she picked one. The hours he had watched her manicure her toes paid off when he brought out each tool for cuticles, filing, and smoothing. When the paint rolled onto her toenails, he could see her thighs quivering slightly and smiled with his bowed head.
 
When the first foot was done, he licked from her knee to her core, pulling her bikini bottom to the side and pulling his soft, wet tongue up her fold. The fabric was returned to normal and he grabbed the other foot for the same treatment while she panted and tried to slow her heart rate. It took an excruciatingly long time to paint five toenails and drink two shots of whisky. Claire was growling with need and gave her love a warning look to finish what he started. It took another hour but finish he did and they curled up on the lounge for a happy siesta.
 
By mid-afternoon, Claire found Javier, Joseph, and the chef, drunk, sunburned, and deliriously happy. To her surprise, Danny had joined them and was holding two of their poles with lines in the water. She greeted Claire with a happy smile, so excited to be fishing.
 
“Claire! Look, I am fishing for my supper, isn’t that fantastic? I haven’t caught a single fish yet, but I am determined.”
 
Javier looked at Joseph and asked if he baited the hooks to which Joseph raised his shoulders and giggled.
 
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Give me a pole Danny so I can check your hook.”
 
Soon there was a spinning lure attached to the line and cast far into the water. Claire handed the pole back to Danny with a warning that the fish were large and might pull the pole out of her hands if she wasn’t ready. Danny squealed with delight and watched the water with anticipation. Claire baited the other hook and sat next to Danny, trying to ignore the loud snoring of the three men who were now sleeping in the shade.
 
Claire’s pole jerked violently, and she heard the line running out as the fish dove deep to get away from the hook. She counted five seconds and pushed the lock on the reel, almost losing the pole when it jerked back hard. Danny dropped her pole in her excitement to help Claire, and it jerked on the deck when another fish swallowed her hook and then tried to get away. Fortunately, the pole was pulled along the deck sideways and got caught by rail mountings so they didn’t lose it. Both women were screaming and laughing, trying to reel in the first fish.
 
Jamie’s head jerked up hearing the chaos outside. His book forgotten, he ran to the deck and watched Claire and Danny pull the same pole, losing themselves in laughter. He grabbed the other pole and demonstrated how to reel and pull the fish, but they were hopelessly lost in their fun. He felt the fish release his line and swim to freedom while he reeled in the hook and set the pole aside to help Claire.
 
From behind Claire, he moved her hands, holding them still while the fish ran the line out again, and then pulling up sharply to set the hook deeper. Danny held onto the pole like it was a lifeline while she bent over laughing. When the fish was exhausted, Jamie had them walk the pole and fish along the side deck where he could net the beautiful sunfish that would feed them that night. Claire and Danny jumped around the aft deck, lost in their celebration.
 
Jamie made quick work of gutting the fish and cutting away the parts that were unusable. The chef roared from the side deck to stop as Jamie was about to throw the head far from the boat.
 
“That head will make the best fish head soup!”
 
The chef took command of the fillets and head and left them for the galley, very excited at their catch. Danny showed Claire how to wash with soap and then cut lemon sections to rid the skin of the fishy smell. Danny went to lie down until dinner and the crew was cleaning the main saloon, so Claire went outside to fetch her godfather and Joseph off the deck. They went down to their rooms to tend their sunburned skin and nap.
 
Jamie pulled Claire to their rooms and closed the door before pushing a button that pulled the blackout shades down the massive windows. He pulled Claire to the bed and suggested a movie to which she happily agreed.
 
“This is a classic that I found in the video library upstairs. I think you will really like it.”
 
Claire cuddled up to Jamie when the movie started and was well into the story before it suddenly heated up with erotic scenes between two lovers. She couldn’t pull her eyes away as the characters showed body parts she didn’t expect to see. Jamie watched her face flush as the scenes became more erotic and he chuckled suggesting they watch something else.
 
“No! I mean, don’t you want to see how it ends?”
 
“As you say, love.”
 
Claire lost herself in the beautiful actors and for the first time, watched a woman making love as her breasts bounced with the pounding. The woman’s inner thighs looked so soft as she spread them for the man’s mouth moving toward her core. When the sex got rough, Claire’s panting was giving her arousal away.
 
“Should we find another, sweetheart?”
 
Jamie pulled her in front of him, between his legs, and pressed her back against his chest in a relaxed posture. Claire was hypnotized by the sex scenes and hardly noticed Jamie pulling her feet to the sides to open her legs. When he touched her, it was like a firebomb to kindling and he gave her all the thrills she had just seen.
 
When they collapsed, gasping for breath, Claire was panting out “how” and “why” and certain unintelligible words making Jamie chuckle.
 
“It takes a bit of work the second time in the same day, love.”
 
“Wow, that was… wow.”
 
After another shower, they finally stumbled to the table for dinner and Jamie was still chuckling at her deer in the headlight eyes. She needed help to come back to the here and now, even though he loved her expression and blush.
 
“Sassenach, how do you like the fish you girls caught today?”
 
“Hmm?”
 
“The fish, how do you like it?”
 
Claire looked at her plate like she just realized she was chewing food. “It’s wonderful! I really love it.”
 
She and Danny started talking about the next party and Jamie knew she was back on earth. He missed his starry-eyed wife instantly. They shared a closeness for the rest of the evening and he cuddled her in their bed that night wanting to hold her close all night long, but that was not going to happen.
 
Jamie’s eyes would not close, his breathing would not deepen, and his mind felt like a pinball game in play. He rolled quietly out of bed and made his way to the studio. A painting was clamoring to get out, and he felt the crushing responsibility to get it right.  
 
Sunrise filled the studio with light as the third canvas was sent to the failure-closet, so named that very night because it had not happened to him before. He went to his sketch pad to work out the dimensional issues and used colored pencils to test the color differences. If he couldn’t find the skill to paint it accurately, he wouldn’t do it. It was that important.
 
Jamie knew Claire would be up soon and he wasn’t ready to share this picture yet, so he put his drawings away and put the five-lads on the easel, then he went to snuggle with his wife.
 
Claire hugged Javier for a full minute, and then Joseph. She wiped a tear off her cheek and smiled bravely wishing them a good flight back to Paris. They both turned in their seat and waved as the taxi pulled away.
 
“Darius and Maia return tomorrow and then we weigh anchor for strange places Sassenach. Perhaps the three of us sit on the deck today and fish. What do you say?”
 
Danny jumped to fetch whatever Claire needed that afternoon. She could feel her melancholy, and her maternal instincts took over. At least until the first pole nearly bent in half from a monster fish that latched onto Jamie’s hook. The women abandoned their poles to render aid that was not needed, and Jamie tried to reach his pocket when he felt his phone vibrate. It was hopeless reaching through the women’s glee, so he held his pole out to the side with one hand and clicked to answer the call.
 
“What the hell is going on over there?”
 
“Two excited women helping me boat a fish, but it could be long gone by now because I can’t feel the pole move anymore. What’s up?”
 
Jamie listened to the instructions given, “on my way.”
 
Handing the pole to Claire, he excused himself to tender Darius back to the yacht, and Claire looked confused when the pole was no longer bouncing.
 
It was obvious Darius was hurt and Jamie helped him into the tender without commenting on his bulging eye that was swollen shut, his bloody mouth, or his arm held tightly to his side.
 
“Hospital?”
 
Darius shook his head, “boat.”
 
Darius crept into the saloon hoping to make it upstairs before anyone saw him but the stairs were impossible. He turned around to use the elevator and heard Claire’s voice as he winced from his broken ribs.
 
“Don’t you fucking move, Darius.”
 
She led him to the galley by his good hand and pulled his sunglasses off while he voiced his complaint. Claire grabbed the emergency kit and a frozen steak and led him up to his rooms.
 
He couldn’t lay down because the position drove the broken ribs into his lungs so Claire cleaned the wounds as best she could.
 
“I didn’t know you had such a crush on me, Claire.”
 
“Shut up, you idiot. What happened to you?”
 
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
 
Jamie found Danny cleaning up the fishing gear and looking worried.
 
“He probably told you to leave him alone, and while that works most of the time, it will not work today. Maia knows what to do so get her back here so she can help him. Jamie, please do this.”
 
Jamie was naturally resistant to Danny’s gift, but he heard the edge in her voice and reached for his phone. Twenty minutes later, a wide-eyed Maia was climbing into the tender asking how bad the injuries were. She interrupted his explanation saying she could swim faster than he was going so he pushed the tender to its limit and soon they were flying across the water.
 
Maia could hear Claire arguing with Darius as she approached their rooms and kindly asked Claire to wait downstairs. She glanced at Darius and saw his tears of pain and frustration, so she helped Claire exit the room and locked the door behind her.
 
Claire could hear them talking and ripping packages of emergency supplies. She was terrified and crying, having never seen anyone fresh from a brutal fight. Jamie put his arm around her and led her downstairs where the three of them waited in the saloon to hear more about his injuries.
 
Maia cleaned the wounds, wrapped his ribcage, and slapped his good hand when he tried to loosen the ace bandage constricting his breath. She pushed a pain pill into his mouth and moved her finger along the base of his teeth searching for a loose wiggle. Ten minutes later he could lie down, gingerly. She knelt next to the bed and put her head down, fighting the tears she didn’t want Darius to see. His good hand stroked her hair, and he whispered to her that everything was alright. When she gave in to the sobs, he held her as best he could and reminded her he was the captain with a job to do and she was expected to help him for a little while.
 
“Darius, of course I will. I’ll pull the boat with my bare hands if you ask me to!”
 
She held his hand against her cheek and searched his face, feeling relief when he smiled at her.
 
“It’s alright,” he said, stroking her hair. “My face scared you, but you patched me up with a steady hand, and now you need to cry a bit. It’s okay to cry, and then I wonder if you might tell the others what happened so we can all shake it off and depart in two days.”
 
Maia could see he was asleep and covered him before going downstairs. Her eyes were puffy from crying and nothing would change that, so she walked into the saloon and told them what happened.
 
“Darius sends most of his pay to his family and mine. His sister lives in a small house with her baby and husband, and Darius’s two brothers moved in a year ago because they were homeless. Darius said the house was a horrible mess. The front door had been kicked in, glass was missing from windows, the baby was crawling through filth. His sister is afraid of the brothers who spent all the money Darius has sent. Her husband leaves on Monday to work on Mykonos and he is gone all week. Darius ordered them out of the house and called the husband, telling him to walk off the job and come home to protect his family. Darius said he would cover his pay. They jumped him and beat the shit out of him.” Maia looked up, “sorry for my language. He has a job to do and I will help him. We leave in two days, nothing has changed.”
 
Danny held her hand up to stop Maia and seemed to struggle with the right words.
 
“I know it’s hard for the four of you to accept my gift, and I don’t talk about it much, but I have to tell you something. Darius suffered an impact to his abdomen, a kick I think, and his spleen is bleeding. I can see it bleeding and it might have to come out. If I could get close to him I will know for sure. This could threaten his life, so we shouldn’t wait. Please wake him and ask if I can see him, Maia.”
 
“C’mon.”
 
When Darius didn’t wake up right away, Maia got scared and shouted at him. She squeezed his hand and apologized.
 
“Is the boat on fire, sweets?”
 
“No. Darius, were you kicked in the stomach?”
 
“No.”
 
He closed his eyes again and Maia muttered about Danny being wrong as she walked to the door.
 
“Maia, yes, I was kicked in the stomach, several times. Why?”
 
“Danny needs to see you. Something about your spleen is bleeding. Can I let her in, please?”
 
“Yes.”
 
Danny entered and reached for his hand, looking concerned. He watched her.
 
“I can’t tell if it’s going to stop. We can go to the hospital now or I can check you later.”
 
“Check later if you would, I don’t like hospitals.”
 
“Alright, dear Darius.”   
 
Danny left and Maia sat on the floor and put her head near his on the mattress. She stroked his arm until she was sure he was asleep again.
 
“I love you so much, Darius.”
 
“I love you too, sweet one.”
 
Jamie and Claire finally said goodnight and Danny went to the elevator and her rooms. All through the night, she monitored Darius, sneaking into their room to lay her hand on his foot. On one visit, she put a blanket around Maia and pulled the covers around Darius. Her last visit was at five o’clock in the morning. She kept her hand on his foot because she wanted to be sure.
 
“You did it, young man,” she whispered, “no splenectomy for you, so kindly put your cape back on, and save the day… when you’re ready.”
 
Danny was exhausted and desperately wanted to lie down on her bed. She rode the elevator down to her floor and held the wall as she walked. She was proud of Darius for his decision to heal.
 
Later, Jamie spent some time with Darius and he was particularly sarcastic and funny because Darius begged him to stop making him laugh. Jamie decided that was enough painful levity for one day and left, grabbing Maia in the hall.
 
“Maia, I have spent too much time with Darius and I don’t want to wake him up. He asked me to alert the authorities that his sister should be alone in the house waiting for her husband, but he didn’t give me the address.”
 
Jamie pulled a notepad out of his pocket and had a pen poised to write it down. He started to move down the hall like he was in a hurry and raised his eyebrows at her. She gushed the address out and then went into their rooms. Jamie pushed the pad into his pocket and went downstairs with a face that could murder a man just looking at it.
 
After dinner, Jamie pulled Claire into their rooms and made passionate love to her. She mumbled something about her jello legs as she slipped into her dreams. He waited until she was deep enough not to feel him roll out of bed or hear him dress. He jumped in the tender and paddled halfway to shore to avoid waking anyone. He had a mission to complete before they left in the morning.
 
Danny stood in the dark saloon and watched Jamie paddle the tender. She was conflicted about raising the alarm or letting it happen. She whispered, “forgive me, Jamie,” and went back to bed.
 
Jamie leaned against a large tree and dozed for half the night, waiting for the brothers. He would bet his last dollar they hadn’t left and Jamie knew the husband would not be back until the next day. His head jerked up hearing the drunken laughter of two men approaching. They staggered toward the sister’s house and Jamie cleared his throat to make them turn around.
  
One of them addressed him in what sounded like gutter slang and Jamie smiled like an altar boy and pulled his wallet out. The men approached so Jamie lowered the wallet so they would see the large bills he thumbed through as he talked about paying them off to stay away from the sister. He was not getting through to them so he said “Darius,” and waited. One of them shoved a fist in Jamie’s face.
  
“We take your money and drop you in the deep ocean. No worry, you be dead.”
  
Jamie’s eyes were wide with fright and he backed into the tree with his hands in a defensive position. They were smiling at each other coming toward him when Jamie suddenly stood upright and laughed, stopping them in their tracks.
  
“Oh! I.. I know who you two are, you beat the shit out of my friend, your own brother!” He was still laughing while the men shot glances at each other. “You know, Darius said you guys fight dirty.” More laughter. “What a relief! Because so do I.”
  
Jamie jumped up and grabbed a tree limb, driving his feet into one man’s face. He dropped to the ground and pulled his jacket off showing the second man his sleeveless t-shirt and the bulging muscles in his arms. Before the man could run, he grabbed his long greasy hair, and drove his knee into his back, flipped him around and pummeled his face until the man collapsed on the ground.
  
Jamie grabbed the last of the rope he brought and wound it around the man’s legs. Both of them were tied to different trees with no possibility of escape. Jamie hoped the husband would be the first to find them. He pushed a note under the ropes and put his jacket back on. He had a naked wife waiting for him in a big warm bed. He headed for the tender.
 
 
Danny thrashed in her bed having one hell of a nightmare. She saw men fighting and one of them run away. Suddenly, the man stopped and looked directly at her, “it’s alright Danny, I won, rest now,” came the echo of his disembodied voice. Her eyes flew open and she sat up in her bed gasping for air. She felt the presence of Jamie above her and sighed her relief as she dropped back to her pillows, feeling much better.

Chapter Text

Jamie waited on the bridge the next morning, hoping Darius could get them underway. He ran through his checklist and responded to the crew as they announced their position and readiness to the bridge.
 
“Prepare for anchors up,” he responded, hearing Darius laugh behind him.
 
“I told you I’d make a sailor out of you.”
 
“You good to go, captain?”
 
“Yes, please continue, I can’t get away from here fast enough.”
 
Jamie gave the order to weigh anchor and the crew sprang into action while Darius punched coordinates into the navigation system. Without looking up, he told Jamie about his phone call with his sister that morning.
 
“She said a big man beat my brothers in the front yard and tied them each to a tree. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”
 
Jamie knew Darius had figured it out and he didn’t want to lie, so he shrugged and busied himself with watching the monitors.
 
“Thank you for looking out for them,” was all he said. They turned the yacht toward open water.
 
By noon, Darius was sitting in the captain’s chair on the bridge, something he never did. By mid-afternoon, Jamie was anxious about his stubborn refusal to go lay down. Jamie had no authority on the bridge except friendship, and he played that card like a champ by shutting down the engines and then standing between Darius and the bridge. After a feeble attempt to restart the motors, Darius dropped his shoulders and left. Maia checked on him and found him sleeping already, so she took over the bridge.
 
“Report, first mate.”

Maia listened to Jamie give their position and clear radar before she woke the engines up and set their speed at twenty-five knots. She checked in with each crew member on duty and listened to Cici cry because Darius had left the bridge.
 
“Why did he leave the bridge? He got worse? Does he need surgery? How do we get help so far from land?”
 
“Crewman, you are wasting my time acting like a teenager with a crush. Report your position or walk off the job. You can fly home from India.”
 
Jamie listened to the exchange and thought Maia acted appropriately. His respect for her was growing. Before Jamie’s shift ended, Maia asked him about alerting the authorities, the reason he needed the address for Darius’s sister. He blinked at her in confusion, and Maia knew the truth.
 
“You are a fool. If you had injuries from them boys I would have killed you in your sleep.” Jamie was wide-eyed shaking his head no.
 
“I had reason to believe I was not in danger, Maia. Please don’t judge me on this.”
 
“I have anger for you and women talk these things out with each other. If Claire doesn’t know you will tell her, then she and I can talk about it.”
 
“That doesn’t sound much like a request.”
 
“It’s not a request. I won’t have Claire be the only person on this boat that doesn’t know what you did.”
 
Jamie flushed with anger at being ordered to do something completely wrong, not to mention personal, between him and his wife. After his shift, he pounded iron in the gym and then swam laps to clear his head. He realized Maia was protecting her friend from hearing it from someone else and feeling betrayed. Still, he feared Claire’s judgment, and how it would change her love for him. On his return lap, he spotted pretty legs in the water and knew she was sitting on the side of the pool. He swam to her and launched his arms around her waist, laying his head in her lap.
 
Claire sensed something desperate about Jamie and stroked his wet hair, asking him why he seemed that way. Jamie kept his head down and revealed a side of himself she did not know.
 
“I have something to tell you Claire, but before I do, promise you will listen with an open mind.”
 
“Okay, I promise.”
 
“I dealt with black market fences when I started forging the masters. I would leave hints with the art underground that a certain painting would be for sale after being switched with a forgery. I was so astounded by the money people would pay that it carried me away at first. The third painting I sold, the fence was waiting to ambush me, to steal the painting, and keep the money. They beat me nearly to death, and I learned a powerful lesson about self-preservation. If I was going to do business with these people, I had to learn to fight. My friend had returned from his time in special services and I asked him to teach me. I didn’t paint again for over a year so I could learn self-defense. I didn’t much like the martial arts, too rigid and formal, so I stuck with hand to hand, no holds barred fighting. Rupert gave me the foundation and then introduced me to two men who took me the rest of the way. There wasn’t a day I didn’t wake up with bruises, a split lip, internal bleeding, ringing ears, loose teeth, blackened eyes, and such like that.”
 
“Good God, Jamie. To learn they had to beat you?”
 
“It was not fun, and I learned to push the fear down before engaging in the training exercises. When I went back to painting, I continued to train for two more years, having less damage inflicted on me as time went on. My body changed. I got muscular and intimidating, so there was no threat to me for several years. One night, I waited for the fence behind a gas station. He approached me with two would-be killers and I put them down without a second thought. I could have killed them, but I didn’t.”
 
Claire looked down and asked him why he couldn’t look at her. He jumped out of the water and sat next to her. It made his chest tight when he looked into her eyes.
 
“I was pretty sure Darius’s brothers would not stay away from his sister and being honest I wanted to hurt them for what they did to my friend.” He looked down at his feet underwater and each word came out slowly. “I waited for them in front of his sister’s house last night and kicked their ass before tying each to a tree.”
 
“You what?”
 
Those words made his heart hurt. He heard quiet laughing and jerked his head up to see Claire’s hand to her mouth, trying to stifle the giggles and look serious.
 
“Tied them to a tree? Now that’s just flaunting it, Jamie.”
 
She touched his cheek and looked compassionately into his eyes, aware of his fear about telling her. “You warned me, at the Veneto property. When I was scared, you wrapped my hand around your muscles and told me you knew how to use them. A part of your past we had not talked about yet. I figured you were a cage fighter or something like that. The truth is even better.”
 
Jamie searched her eyes with growing relief. She kissed him and continued.
 
“On a scale of one to ten, of notorious criminals, I must be close to eleven. I stole art all over the world. I will not judge you for defending yourself or protecting Darius’s sister. Besides,” she leaned closer to him, “you have never been sexier to me.”
 
Jamie felt her tongue slip into his mouth and moaned as he grabbed her waist and pulled her into the water. They kissed deeply and Jamie finally relaxed. “Thank you for being cool with this Sassenach. I love you.”
 
The atmosphere on the yacht slowly returned to normal. Darius continued to improve day by day, and on the fourth day, they entered the Suez Canal. The flag of Egypt would be flown until they exited the Canal on the other end. Claire was unimpressed with the scenery finding it industrial, plain, and ugly. When she thought it couldn’t get any worse, Egyptian officials boarded the yacht forcefully and detained them for ten hours. They stated their purpose was searching for contraband and turned every room upside down, pulling contents of drawers, cabinets, and closets onto the floors. When the men started pulling plants out of the dirt, Claire ordered them to stop and stood in front of the planters that were still in the plant garage.

“Stop this at once! I demand to speak to your supervisor before you destroy any more of my plants.”

Jamie was pushing his way through the men, trying to get Claire out of there when their leader started laughing. The interpreter told him what she demanded and he shared it with the group making them all laugh. Claire had no idea they could imprison her indefinitely for such behavior, and Jamie’s heart rate was in the stroke zone watching them shoot glances at her while they laughed.  
 
“Hello, how lovely it is you came for a visit! I am Danny Meyer and this is my yacht. I have an early Christmas present for you men, I hope you like it.” Darius stood between Danny and the men so she had to reach around him to pass out her bundles of money. She created five bundles of cash before they left Greece but there were eight officials. As soon as her rooms were searched, she and Darius made eight bundles from the five as fast as they could.
 
That did it. The men were heading for their own boat in just a few minutes and handed Darius a form that would prevent other officials from boarding. Jamie had pulled Claire into the plant garage where he could hold her out of sight from the men. When he felt the boat moving he released her and they joined the others inside.
 
“That is one fine hiding place you have Danny.”
 
“Darius, dear, people who buy yachts like this will always need plenty of great hiding places, this one is no different.”
 
When they motored through the high-risk zone where Somalia pirates were known to attack, they were all on alert. Darius and Jamie wore guns, holstered in plain sight, and the crew watched the water while they crossed the Sea of Aden. Danny wanted to hire armed mercenaries to guard the boat for the two days to get through the zone, but Darius assured her they could handle any attack. Until they were beyond the dangerous water, he questioned his judgment more than once.
 
After eight days at sea, the yacht pulled into an exclusive harbor in Mumbai, India, a day late and only three days before the party. There was much to do so Jamie switched their mooring for the dock and they tied down for the night. Everyone seemed on edge ever since the customs search, including Danny, who for once did not celebrate with brunch the following day.
 
The yacht was stocked with food, spirit deliveries, and fresh flower arrangements. Catering people were everywhere on the day of the party. Danny paced the saloon waiting for the dresses to be delivered from one of the top designers in Mumbai. They arrived at three o’clock, just hours before guests would arrive and Danny’s nerves were shot before the party even started. It was a compliment to India that they wore traditional evening wear, and the three women together were a beautiful statement of respect.
 
Danny hired a photographer with specific instructions about who was to be photographed and which newspapers in America he would send the pictures to the following morning. Her intent was to shake her son to his core and make it obvious she was moving against him.
 
The party was a success and once it was over, they moved the yacht to the mooring for a day of rest before their eight-day trip to Hong Kong. Darius could feel the lingering tension in the crew and no one requested shore time, so he decided to get underway after lunch that day.
 
Jamie planned to stay in bed with Claire all afternoon and dedicate himself to being her everything. He placed kisses every inch up her inner thigh when the radio started barking his name.
 
“Jamie, report to the bridge, we weigh anchor in five.”
 
He looked at Claire with such a sad face she couldn’t help her bubbling laughter. She grabbed his face and kissed him repeatedly, and then pushed him out the door.
 
In New York, Sebastian got off the elevator and saw the wicked smile on his secretary’s face, he knew she hated him for being a normal red-blooded male and she was well compensated for his ass-grabs and occasional masturbation while she took dictation. She looked particularly evil this morning and he braced himself when she held the paper out to him. Once the door closed behind him, she grabbed her purse and headed to the elevator to escape for an hour.
 
Sebastian read the story of Sepora Meyers hosting a beautiful party in Mumbai with several pictures of her with various guests of fame and importance to the company. He felt like he was coming apart and buzzed his secretary repeatedly, barking orders to get his financial manager on the phone and his attorney. He kept buzzing and eventually dialed his own phone adding fuel to his anger. His mother was making a power grab, undermining all he had done to discredit her over the last twelve months. Before his new phone went sailing into the wall, he vowed she would pay for every share he lost. She would pay and he would lock her away forever.
 
Sebastian left the office and drove home to find his wife hosting a luncheon for a local charity. She was dressed to the nine’s with her hair up laughing and talking when he stormed in. He walked across the spacious living room and pulled her upstairs while she tried to protest quietly. Once in their room he ripped the top of her dress open and pushed her bra up forcefully, pinching her nipples like an assault. She was thrown on the bed and then flipped over while he squeezed K-y jelly onto his index finger. He raped her in the most painful way while she screamed into a pillow. Once he ejaculated he pushed off of her and left.
 
Back in his office he called his broker and told him to buy any stock that came available, no matter how many or few shares. He sweetened the deal and promised a one million dollar bonus when he owned enough to take over. He knew his mother would never come to New York; she had long lost her backbone for confrontation so he would have to find her. He wrote a list of countries with the greatest number of investors and would start calling until someone confessed to an invitation to Danny’s next party.
 
Half-way to Hong Kong, Jamie gave in to his need to paint and finally roughed in the picture in his head. Two women, one pole, bent almost in half by a fish on the hook, a beautiful sunny day, completely swept away with their fun. He stood back and smiled. It was a start, his new labor of love.
 
The Hong Kong party was perfect and Danny was able to speak privately with an investor who was being courted by Sebastian. His description of her dementia infuriated her, and she asked the man to pass the truth to anyone he talked to associated with her company. He vowed to help.
 
The next stop was Tokyo and again the women wore dresses of a top Japanese designer. Jamie never stopped being impressed by what the three of them could do and he watched Claire with pride throughout the party.  
 
Sebastian got lucky when he called an investor in Tokyo and found out about the party. He sent a scanned copy of the newspaper picture of Danny, Claire, and Maia, greeting guests in their finest evening wear. The man in Tokyo understood what Sebastian wanted and what his compensation would be. One million dollars if he could scare the women away from Danny. He arrived early to the party and waited for the opportune time.
 
Later in the evening, Claire escorted a couple out-to the foredeck to view the garden and talked about her frightening experience with the Egyptian customs officers. It was a cool night and the elderly couple was heading back to the warm saloon in a short time. Claire stretched and sat on a couch for a few minutes to relax.
 
“Pardon me miss, please talk with me for a while.”
 
The man sat right up against Claire, breaking through her personal space so that his face was inches from hers. Claire leaned away from him and tried to get up, but he held her hand so tightly she was afraid he might break one of her bones. She looked around her and there were three other men standing too close for comfort and looking straight forward.
 
“Hear this Claire, you must fly home tomorrow without a fuss and never see Sepora again. Is that understood?”
 
“Back off, asshole.”
 
The three men around her chuckled and the man sitting next to her leered even closer. “I will teach you a hard lesson if you do not heed my words, bitch. I will make a fortune hurting you and sending you home. It would be my pleasure.”
 
The man ran his hands up Claire’s thighs and it stunned her mute for a minute while she processed what was happening. Without a sound, Jamie was behind the man, grabbing his collar and belt to throw him overboard. The man screamed all the way to the water. Jamie kicked viciously at the knee of one man and then threw him overboard. The two others came at him together and all Claire could see were arms and feet as each was tossed overboard.
 
Jamie pulled her up and hugged her asking if she was alright. She forced herself to keep cool and smiled at him, “never better my love.” Jamie knew better when he held her trembling hands.
 
The guests were crowding the door to the foredeck after hearing the screams. Darius pushed through them and ran onto the deck looking at both of them. He turned to the crowd, holding his arms open to force them back inside. The four Japanese men struggled to get out of the water with a clear intent to execute the brute that tossed them over. Jamie waited so when they stepped onto the dock the first thing they saw was his face and it unnerved them all. Jamie grabbed the collar of the man who dared to touch Claire.
 
“You chose the wrong team, you poor bastard. Tell that piss ant, Sebastian, I’m coming for him.”
 
He picked the man up and threw him back in the water while the others backed away. Jamie didn’t expect their absolute compliance until he turned around to see Darius and a group of guests behind him waiting to back him up. When the leader climbed out of the water for the second time Jamie wanted to cripple him, but not in front of so many people. He grabbed the man’s sopping suit coat and pulled him to his face.
 
“Tell Sebastian we will meet in New York and I can’t wait.”
 
“You won’t make it to New York.”
 
Claire and Maia stood on the deck and watched the whole thing while an additional factor appeared in the equation… fear. The incident was played down to the guests and when the party was over, they spoke little of it. Danny addressed the issue before going to bed.
 
“Well, my darling young friends, it seems my son knows one of the guests willing to do his bidding. We should expect the same in California, so please devise a system where everyone stays safe. Get some sleep, please, fifteen days at sea to get to California so hold each other close while you have the chance.”
 
Maia looked up at Cici one second before Cici rolled her eyes and made a face. She didn’t like that girl and she vowed to keep an eye on her from now on.
 
Darius helped everyone relax and promised someone would be awake, guarding the boat against intruders for the rest of the night. He was exhausted but would find the strength to get them away safely tomorrow.
 
Ethan walked to the middle of the room with his chest out. “I will take a shift.” Steven said the same and Darius smiled at them.
 
“Report to your rack and someone will bump you when it’s time. Thank you, gentlemen.”
 
Darius went up to the bridge and Maia watched Cici from the galley. When she disappeared from the saloon Maia knew she was going to the bridge by the crew staircase and the race was on to beat her. Maia lifted her voluminous skirt and ran up the two flights of stairs to the bridge deck. She pulled her arms out of the dress and dropped the top before surprising Darius. When he saw her naked breasts bounce with her walk he was mesmerized and picked her up to sit on the high captain’s chair. He just wanted to kiss and shake them a bit, but Maia pushed all his buttons until her legs were up in the air and he was between them. She saw the shocked look on Cici’s face when she came around the corner. Darius was too far gone to notice and ejaculated deep in Maia’s body with a growl.
 
“I love you, Darius.”
 
“I love you too, little siren.”
 
Maia left, but before she went to bed she went below deck and opened Cici’s door without knocking. She stared down her nose at the upstart and the hate in her eyes spoke volumes while she said not a word. Then she went to bed.
 
Darius was getting desperate to stay awake and stumbled into the galley to pour another cup of coffee and almost ran into Ethan.
 
“Why are you up already?”
 
“Jamie said to report for my shift of guard duty.”
 
“Jamie? What the hell is he doing up?”
 
Ethan shrugged and wished the captain goodnight before checking the doors and decks. Darius could hardly move his body toward the stairs but had enough brainpower left to notice something odd about one of the saloon couches. He looked into the dark corner and focused his eyes until the shape of a man came into focus. He walked to the couch where Jamie slept and felt deep gratitude for his friend. It gave him the confidence to sleep deeply for the next four hours so he could navigate the tricky water off the coast of Japan.
 
The following day, Jamie walked onto the Bridge in time to watch Cici hand Darius a small vase with three flowers. Darius looked at it and asked what he was supposed to do with it? Cici giggled and left the bridge and Jamie was sure that was a flirting gesture she did with her hair, and eye contact, and starched uniform. He hoped Darius could set Cici straight before it stressed Maia out.
 
There were many pleasant days crossing the Pacific where the women spent the usual time preparing Danny. Maia was withdrawn most days and didn’t join the banter and conversation around the worktable. Claire tried to talk with her about why she seemed so blue, but Maia shook it off and said it was nothing.

Danny sat in front of her laptop one morning, smiling from ear to ear and actually giggled a bit. Claire asked what was making her so happy and Danny gushed with her news that a good friend was coming to the party in California as her date.
 
“Wonderful! Who is this man?”
 
“Sam Elliot. Do you know him?”
 
“I wouldn’t know anyone in California outside of the art world, Danny. Why does his name sound so familiar?”
 
“Well, he’s a movie star!”
 
“Hmm, Sam Elliot. Jesus Danny, the Sam Elliot, with the world-class mustache and gray hair? The gorgeous cowboy? Oh, my God. I’ll be right back.”
 
Claire brought Jamie’s drawings out to the table chatting about Danny’s new hairstyle and saw her hand come up like a traffic cop signaling to stop.
 
“I simply don’t have the nerve with the big events coming up. I need to feel confident and not embarrassed by a bad haircut!”
 
Claire laid the drawings out in front of Danny and smiled when she stopped mid-sentence to look at the pictures.
 
“Oh my, I would never think to do that cut, but I like it, and the color is fantastic.”
 
“I suggest taping them to your bathroom mirror for the rest of the trip. Who knows, one of them might become a favorite.”
 
Claire let the matter go hoping Jamie’s drawings would convince her to be brave.
 
Three days from California, Maia and Steven relieved Darius and Jamie an hour early so they could take readings in the engine room. When Cici came around the corner with a fancy iced tea she looked around for Darius and blinked with confusion at Maia.
 
“What are you doing up here crewman?”
 
“Where is Darius?”
 
“That does not answer my question, Cici. What is your purpose for being on the bridge when you should be working?”
 
“Darius doesn’t mind if I stop by at the end of his shift, Maia.”
 
Maia was stunned. “So you have an agreement with the captain to sneak up here and make the others do your work?”
 
“Something like that.”
 
Cici stuck her chin out and her eyes darted around the wheel room. When Maia realized she was standing up to her, she felt the bone-crushing truth that Darius was having an affair.
 
“Get off this boat, Cici. You are fired. Remain in your cabin until we reach California and then fly back to Switzerland. Your services are no longer needed.”
 
Cici’s eyes were like saucers and her mouth hung open. “you can’t fire me! Only Danny or Darius, so fuck off!”
 
“You are fired and the captain will be notified of my decision to relieve you, now off the bridge on the double!”
 
Cici remained in her position of power making Maia sicker with each passing minute. Maia knew that look on her face. A confidence felt when a woman has been told she is the only one in his life. When Cici finally left, Maia collapsed on her knees and hung her head. Steven was close to Maia and felt terrible and utterly shocked Darius would do such a thing.
 
Claire and Ethan came to relieve them at midnight, and Maia walked to their rooms like she was walking to the gallows. Darius stood in the middle of the room with hands on his hips, looking at her like she sunk the boat.
 
“What the hell, Maia? What horrible act did Cici do to make you fire her? We need everyone to run this ship and assist with the parties, I don’t get it.”
 
He was obviously waiting for her response, but Maia was too confused by his face and demeanor. She expected his guilt, sadness, and apology for falling in love with Cici but he was ferocious, not sorry, and apparently standing by Cici’s side because he overruled the termination. Maia was shocked silent and eyed him like a stranger. When she opened her mouth, the little warrior came flying out with all of her fears, insecurities, and wounding accusations. The words she used expressed her deep pain, and Darius heard them as failure, unworthy, heartless, undeserving, and careless. The five demons that held him down and poisoned his belief in himself.
 
Maia was defenseless and unprepared for words that cut so deeply she gasped in pain. When she could hear them no more she ran away from him, nearly tripping in her escape down the stairs to the lower deck.
 
Claire turned the radio up feeling protective of Maia. Having living quarters right off the bridge provided little privacy, so she heard more than she wanted to. When Maia ran out of their room, Claire was visibly shaken and to his credit, Steven said nothing, kept smiling, and completed his duties as captain-on-duty until they were relieved at eight o’clock in the morning.
 
Darius looked a decade older but performed his duties with military perfection. The voice he used to address Jamie and the crew was heard by all, “don’t fuck with me today.”
 
Claire filled a tray for Maia, with coffee, juice, and various foods from the breakfast bar, but was stopped by Danny. Her eyes looked so sad, her posture seemed to collapse under a crushing pressure. Claire had to put the tray down and step closer to hear her.
 
“This is the confounding part of my gift, the part I hate because I live through the torment with people and sometimes I don’t see the outcome. I don’t know what to do.”
 
Claire guided Danny to the table and brought her coffee before sitting close to her and speaking quietly.
 
“I can’t imagine the burden you carry, Danny. There is nothing you can do, nothing any of us can do except be supportive and don’t judge,” Claire held her hand, “have faith in them to see their way through this. Forgive me for the personal question, but, is it emotion you see in people? In other words, you don’t see people driving to the store to buy milk?”
 
“Yes, that’s right, dear. You called to me, across the water, and I heard your fear and desperation. We were in Alaska at that time and I ordered the captain to Greece, but it took three weeks to get there. Before we dropped anchor, I ordered a course correction to Jamaica, still hearing you every night.”
 
Danny’s eyes cleared and she straightened her back, “Maia needs you, but if you ever want to talk about what brought me to you, just ask dear Claire.”
 
When Claire found one of the empty staterooms locked, she knew Maia was buried inside. She knocked for several minutes but just said her name to prevent the crew from hearing anything personal about Maia’a grief. The door opened finally and Claire pushed it open, walking into the dark room. She held onto Maia as her broken heart reached out for someone to help carry the pain. Claire loved Darius, but she was Maia’s champion above all else, and she encouraged her friend to keep talking until the whirlwind in her head stopped.
 
They talked for several hours and Maia’s dropped sentences and disjointed discourse brought a terrifying image to Claire’s mind. A lamb being led to slaughter. If this was Maia’s first love, she had no experience with emotional fighting that can rip into a person’s soul.
 
“How many times have you been in love, Maia?”
 
“I love Darius.”
 
“And he loves you, Maia. This will pass but it may take several days before one of you decides to apologize which usually pulls an apology from the other. Don’t worry. He meant little of what he said, and I know Cici was lying about her permission to be on the bridge. I swear to you, I have never seen her up there before. But right now, you both need to cool off and keep an open mind for the explanation that will give truthful answers. Mostly, you have to wait for him to feel your loss, and he will. If there is anything I can do to help you just let me know.”
 
Maia gave her a slight smile when Claire left. Her crying had stopped and she sat on the bed, waiting for Darius to come and get her. She imagined throwing her arms around him and crying with joy when he told her Cici was lying and she was his love forever. She believed it so fiercely she started counting the minutes for the door to swing open and his handsome face would reach for her. When the stateroom threw shadows on the walls, she bolstered her belief in Darius and stayed the course.
 
Claire brought dinner to her and tried to get her to come upside to the table but Maia refused and ate in the room. The next day she waited and ate the food Claire brought, sleeping in her clothes because she had nothing to change into. All she had was her belief in Darius.
 
On the third day, Claire brought fresh trays of food and took the previous trays back to the kitchen, fully loaded from the meal before. Maia stopped eating and Claire grew concerned she would suffer from dehydration at the very least.
 
Jamie continued to work with Darius and witnessed several visits from Cici where Darius dealt with her harshly and ordered her off the bridge. This wasn’t a fight about infidelity, so what caused Darius to shut down?
 
The yacht finally found a mooring at the San Diego Harbor and the crew was busy dropping anchor and making ready for an extended anchorage. It was three weeks before the party, the tension onboard was palpable, and Darius seemed absolutely lost.
 
Danny was resolved to not interfere, but after the second night in California Maia was still locked in her room. She threw caution to the wind and went to find Darius after the evening meal. She watched him on the dark bridge, staring ahead, deep in his conflict.
 
“Maia is not the military, Darius.”
 
She could hear him gasp in surprise, either by her presence, or what she said. “Why have you made her so?”
 
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Danny. I just need to figure some things out, please leave me to it.”
 
“Was he your first mentor? Your captain? He certainly moved mountains to promote you. A position on the bridge by your third year of service is quite extraordinary, is it not?”
 
“Darius?”
 
“Yes, quite extraordinary, I suppose.”
 
“When you look at Maia, you feel the same appreciation and security you felt with him… in the beginning. Isn’t that right?”
 
He glared at her, feeling his temper rise and wanting to protect Danny from himself, from his anger of the betrayal.
 
“Please, Danny, leave me be. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
 
“I do dear, Darius. I have known since the first time I met you. I am taking a great risk to help you understand what is happening, you’re like a bomb ready to off and annihilate the world. I accept the challenge and I will not leave until I’m heard.”
 
Darius exhaled loudly and twisted his chair to face her with an impatient face, forcing himself to listen.
 
“You put your faith in the faithless and accepted him as a God on earth. You would prove yourself to the world through exemplary service in the military and finally be free of your criminal family. Once you bet it all on this man, he ruined you.”
 
Stunned into silence, he watched her with mounting dread. “Why do you speak of such things that happened six years ago?”
 
He launched off his chair and Danny blocked his way off the bridge, twice. In his exasperation, he whirled on her and asked what it was she wanted from him. He looked like a bull ready to charge, but she felt no fear.
 
“I have never been wrong about a person’s character, and I’m not wrong now. I see your leadership, ethics, and incorruptibility. You were born with it Darius, it wasn’t something you had to earn. The dark cloud you felt from your family was entirely in your head. The military made you feel worthy of the promotions and the special consideration of your captain. You can imagine my surprise when I read the court documents that described an entirely different person.”
 
Darius jerked his head up, almost sputtering that the transcripts were locked to the public so there was no way she could have read them.
 
“That is a privilege of wealth. It gives me no pride to admit I can purchase anything in this world, including the transcript of the assassination of a moral man’s character in a military court. You protected your captain to the bitter end, turning a deaf ear to the direction of the investigation. You protected your captain, who ordered you to cross international water lines of a hostile country. It could have catapulted your country and others into a war.”
 
Danny was talking so fast that Darius roared at her to stop. He was breathing hard because she sent him back to that courtroom where he was pronounced guilty of international terrorism and hauled off to prison for two years. He remembered the moment his soul shattered, and each piece was branded a criminal that far surpassed his low-life family. In an instant, he lost himself to a lying, self-protecting commanding officer who threw him to the flames.
 
Danny felt his frustration, grief, and betrayal intensify, locking him into a fight between good and evil. She wanted desperately to comfort him, but his eyes were not open yet, and he still couldn’t see Maia. So she pushed him.
 
“Your captain was drunk that night, or high on drugs, I assume. Why would he order you to break your code of honor and threaten a sovereign nation?”

“Darius?”
 
“He wanted a war and he was in a rage.” Darius broke down finally, and Danny could feel the pressure of this reality draining away. He dropped his head and sobbed for five minutes while Danny prepared her final assault to make this wonderful man open his eyes. She braced herself.
 
“Well, Maia was cut from the same cloth as that horrible man. She was getting ready to throw you under the bus I imagine. Maybe she wants to be captain.”
 
Darius jerked his head up and his eyes were like flame throwers ready to lock onto her.
 
“You couldn’t be more wrong, Danny! Maia is the purest expression of love without a mean bone in her body. When the court could not find evidence of my wrongdoing they let me out, to live like a coward, hiding my shame from the world. When I got hungry enough, my cousin agreed to pose as my wife so I could take a job as captain of a touring boat.”
 
Darius was lost in his memories of that time, and Danny could see the color come back to his face. He was close and she could not give up on him now.
 
“That doesn’t change the manipulative Maia, it tells me you had a wonderful cousin.”
 
“Stop saying that, Danny! Maia was part of the crew, only eighteen years old. She never looked me in the eye, but I felt something from her. Something wonderful and cloaked by her avoidance. I felt happy whenever I spoke to her and finally asked her to look at me when I spoke to her.” Darius was looking out the window and absentmindedly put his hand to his cheek. “It felt like being kissed by an angel when she looked up. I knew in that instant she was in love with me. She couldn’t hide such a thing, nor her desire to run away from me. It was so confusing. When I told my cousin about it she spoke to me like I was a two-year-old, reminding me that I was married to the crew and guests.”
 
Darius had settled down talking about Maia and the way she loved him.
 
“So you told her you weren’t married?”
 
“After we all left the ship. My cousin went to see her and told her all about helping me get my first job. Then she brought Maia back to my hotel and surprised me with such a gift. I opened the door and this pint-sized girl jumped in my arms. We’ve been together ever since.” Several seconds ticked by. “Oh, my God, Maia, what have I done?”
 
Darius jumped out of his seat and hugged Danny, thanking her for getting through to him, telling her she was so brave. She could hear him taking two stairs at a time, thrilled it was over. When she heard the desperate shouting of Darius downstairs, the bubble popped and she darted for the elevator. Claire and Jamie had Darius in the saloon trying to calm him down so they could all think and make a plan.
 
“How did she get off the boat? The tender is still in the garage?”
 
Darius just shook his head and tried again to launch himself off the couch, only to have Jamie stop him.
 
“We can’t help find her if we’re stuck on the yacht Darius. Let’s make a plan and then we all go ashore, I’ll get Ethan and Steven. Do you have a picture, a closeup of her face?”
 
Jamie left with Darius to find a picture and make several copies. Claire pulled a sweater on and grabbed her purse. When she came back to the saloon Danny was alone on the couch with her eyes closed. She looked up at Claire, “she is walking and I can’t tell where. You will never find her unless she stops somewhere that I can see.”
 
It almost required tying Darius to a chair to prevent him from leaving in the tender, but Jamie finally convinced him to wait twenty minutes, hoping Danny would see where she was. Ethan and Steven joined them, but they couldn’t sit down. They paced by the door feeling a need to start searching for their friend.
 
Danny was bundled up on the foredeck where she wouldn’t be distracted by the energy inside. She closed her eyes and felt a gripping pain in her abdomen. She held her stomach and realized it was a hunger that was making her weak. Her mouth was dry and sticky because she had to drink. Then she felt the panic because she had no money. She felt afraid of everything suddenly. Danny was with Maia, feeling what she felt, and she didn’t want to break the connection. Keeping her eyes closed, she felt along the wall to the door and yelled through the chaos to be quiet. The group looked at Danny and fell silent. Steven ran to her and quietly asked what she needed.
 
“Phone.”
 
Steven was running back in a minute and a half. “Who do I call?”
 
“Text this to Maia’s phone, “give your phone to the waitress and ask her to call, 6029628811 for a credit card.”
 
Maia looked up at the waitress and handed her phone over. The waitress exhaled loudly like this was an inconvenience. The girl looked like every other homeless person who came in but there was something different about her so she made the call.

Relief overwhelmed Danny when her phone rang. She gave her credit card number to the woman and said the young lady could order anything she wanted.
 
“One more thing miss, what is the name of your establishment so I will recognize it on my credit card statement. Thank you very much, you have been most helpful, and your name dear? Thank you, goodnight.”
 
Claire was crying with relief, and Jamie had a knee on Darius and an arm around his wife. He was dumbfounded by Danny and couldn’t take his eyes off her.
 
“Darius, dear. Help me down to my room and I will give you the name of the restaurant where Maia is.”
 
Darius brought her downstairs and asked for the name getting more and more anxious to find Maia.
 
“Just a moment, dear. Pick one and promise me you will pay for it and I don’t care how long it takes.”
 
She pulled a jewelry box to her bed and plucked four diamond rings from it, laying them on the bed.
 
“What for?”
 
“If you want to find Maia, you must choose.”
 
He looked at the rings and placed one on the end of his finger. “I will take this one.”
 
Danny studied the exquisite solitaire diamond and announced it was fifty thousand dollars and the best stone of the four. She knew Darius was barely hanging on to his civility and asked for his promise.
 
“I promise to pay Danny, and anything else you want, but please let me go!”
 
When Darius hit the top stair, Claire was pointing to the aft deck where Jamie waited in the tender. Darius jumped in as he locked the restaurant into this GPS telling Jamie to hurry. This had taken too long, he feared, sure that Maia would be gone and he would never find her. He ran down the streets with his phone in front of him, turning sharply and nearly crashing into objects in his way. When he saw the circle flashing he heard, “you have arrived at your destination.” He looked through the dirty window at the empty tables in the diner until he saw her. She was bent over her phone when he approached the table and he spoke quietly, trying not to upset her.
 
“Maia? You gave me quite a fright. I have missed you more than I ever thought possible. I want to hold you and kiss you so badly, but I can’t until I apologize for being a stupid idiot. Maia, please let me talk with you.”
 
She was shocked to see him, and even though her heart was dancing in her chest, she forced the happiness down, remembering the fight.
 
“I can’t Darius,” she whispered. “I’m going home tonight.” Her tears were falling down her cheeks, making Darius feel desperate to tell her something that would make her stay.
 
“I have things to tell you. Like I am hopelessly in love with you. Nothing happened with Cici. I should have let you make decisions deserving of your rank. You have earned the right of captain on duty, and I was so wrong to take it from you. The argument we had threw me into an incident from the military and I was lost in it for a few days. I have never been more sorry, sweetheart.”
 
Maia saw the desperation and love in his eyes and cried harder. She had made peace with her departure from his life and here he was begging for a second chance. Through the veil of her tears, she saw Darius drop to one knee.
 
The waitress came around the corner with a coffeepot and stopped in her tracks before backing into the kitchen again. She watched them from the order window and heard Darius make a plea for their love.
 
“Maia, will this change your mind?”
 
He held the ring out to her and stopped himself from babbling every promise he wanted to make her.
 
“I want to marry you, Maia. It’s a declaration to the world that I love you more than anything or anyone. Like I said, there is much to tell you, but this is the most important. I want you to be my wife, and I hope you will always stay exactly like you are because you’re perfect.”
 
Maia was stunned, the waitress was stunned, and Darius was never so sure of anything in his life.
 
“You will always be my first mate Maia, but now I’m asking you to be my wife.”
 
When Maia’s hand came forward, Darius almost passed out with relief. He slid the ring on her finger and caught her as she jumped out of her chair and into his arms. He kissed every tear from her cheeks and held her to him, feeling her shake. Their kiss was a lifeline to a drowning man and Darius held her to him as they walked toward the door. The waitress came out with a blanket and wrapped it around Maia.
 
“It’s been in the back for years but it’s clean and you look like you’re freezing, Honey. I ran your total on the card so you are all set.” Darius handed her a fifty-dollar bill and walked Maia out of the diner.
 
Climbing into the tender woke Jamie up, and he smiled at Darius and the bundle in the blanket that was held tightly to him. He was so relieved for his two friends that found their way back to each other and now cuddled in the tender like they were the only two people alive.
 
Jamie sent a text to Claire and Danny so they could stop worrying. Danny hugged Claire and left the saloon, not wanting to be a distraction. Claire waited for Jamie in their room. There was no one in the saloon when Darius walked Maia upstairs to their rooms. He didn’t want to let her go, but excused himself to draw her a bath.
 
“Are you hungry, Maia?”
 
“No.”
 
“Are you thirsty?”
 
“No.”
 
“Will you kiss me, please?”
 
Maia melted into Darius as he kissed her breath away and pulled the blanket from her. He carried her into the bathroom and watched her beautiful body sink into the excessive bubbles. She had never felt so filthy in her life and moaned into the hot water. After soaking for a few minutes, she jerked her hand out of the water and wiped the bubbles away to reveal her ring. She sighed and slid under the water, wiping the bubbles out of her eyes when she popped up. She was smiling at Darius.
 
“Either you come in here with me, or we both go to the shower. On second thought,” she held onto the collar of his shirt and kissed him, pulling him into the water, fully clothed. Darius understood that she needed his kisses as much as the bath, so he kissed her repeatedly before pulling her out to a hot shower. On the third washing of her hair, Darius pulled her hands around his waist and helped rinse the soap before kissing her again, and then again.

Chapter Text

Danny stood in front of the mirror and looked at the hairstyles while she ran her fingers through her thinning hair. She took Claire’s suggestion of taping the drawings to the mirror so she looked at them every day. She hated the idea of an ugly cut, especially facing her son in two months. Her eyes darted from one drawing to another but she always went back to her favorite. She thought about all the events since meeting her four young friends. How they stood up to challenges without a second thought and wondered if she would ever feel that way again. Well, she thought, it was bravery she admired in her young friends and she supposed that might start with a new hairstyle. She pulled the drawing from the mirror and went to find Claire.
 
Claire’s eyes were as big as saucers looking at the drawing Danny chose, “you want to what?”
 
“Go to one of those fancy salons in Beverly Hills and have that done to my hair.”
 
Claire was excited over Danny’s choice and agreed to get an appointment as soon as possible.
 
“Tell them it’s for Sepora Meyers and only their best artist.”
 
“Um, yes I will be sure to mention it.”
 
When the work was done for the day, Danny reminded Claire to call for an appointment and chuckled all the way to her room on the lower level. If only she could be a fly on the wall when Claire calls.
 
“Hello, I need to make an appointment for a cut and color for my friend, but it has to be this week sometime. Is that possible? Not until next Wednesday? Well, ok. Her name is Sepora Meyers. Excuse me? Yes, Sepora Meyers of New York, why, do you know her? Tomorrow at one in the afternoon works very well. Thank you.”
 
Claire clicked off her call and looked at the stairs going to the lower level. She was shocked the receptionist knew who Danny was like she was shocked that Sam Elliot would be her date for the party. Her curiosity got the better of her and she spun her laptop to Google Sepora Meyers. For the next hour, Claire read about Danny’s incredible life. There were three full pages of search results, starting with her debutante year going forward to the present. Aside from a grainy picture of their wedding, there wasn’t much said about her marriage and she never married again. She was the wealthiest woman in America, third richest overall. Claire looked around at the grand saloon dripping with luxury and was grateful she could get to know Danny before learning just how wealthy she was. The Danny she knew was down to earth, loving, and concerned about everything except money. She would spare no expense to help the crew or the four of them, including new tuxedos, beautiful dresses, and now Maia’s engagement ring. It filled Claire with warmth thinking about all she had done for every one of them.
 
The following day was girls’ day out and Darius tendered them to the dock and waved. His eyes lingered on Maia and she giggled before turning around. That was the last sane moment of the day. They shopped Rodeo Drive before finding the salon where Claire and Maia would bite their fingernails waiting to see the change in Danny. They lost themselves in magazines for an hour and a half until Claire heard Danny’s voice and looked up.
 
“Oh, my God. Oh, my … Danny it’s perfect!”
 
Danny heard the sincerity in their voice and agreed, this cut and color took ten years off her looks. The stylist kissed both of her cheeks and promised to fit her in anytime she was in town. The other stylists fawned over her, and Danny beamed.

“Maybe I should get my hair cut and colored blonde.”
 
Claire linked her arm in Maia’s and pulled them both out of the salon to hail a cab for lunch at Spago. The taxi driver promised to stay against the curb because without reservations they would never be seated. After waiting for ten minutes, he finally pulled away. Danny was recognized instantly and they were seated in the middle of the dining room for all to see. After an amazing lunch, they were off for more shopping at the famous Beverly Hills stores.

A lifetime of the same hairstyle and natural color defined Danny’s life. Moderate, safe, little consideration for herself. Despite her wealth, she lived for the benefit of others. Mousy brown hair, parted down the middle, hanging straight just to her shoulders. Now it was bobbed and swept provocatively to the side in three tones of the new gray. Reflective surfaces were everywhere in Beverly Hills providing Danny with a continuous shock when catching her reflection. She no longer felt invisible.
 
Darius pulled up to the dock at four o’clock that afternoon and looked at the space in the tender, worried that all the bags wouldn’t fit. Three happy women piled in and Darius helped get the bags settled before really looking at Danny. He stared at her smiling and reached for her hand.
 
“You are stunning, Danny.”
 
She smiled her gratitude and the happy conversation was back. Darius looked at Maia as if to say, are you alright, did you have fun, did you miss me? Maia jumped out of her seat and kissed him hard, making the other two laugh at her blushing face.
 
Back on the yacht, Claire pulled each of her treasures out of bags and boxes, hanging them up or putting them in drawers. She and Jamie had reservations for dinner in two days, just the two of them, and she had the perfect outfit now. She couldn’t wait. The last thing she pulled out was a short nightgown and matching robe made out of luxurious satin and the softest lace. It looked extravagant and felt like heaven, accentuating her curves with a plunging neckline that exposed enough breast to make a man crazy. Or so she hoped. She needed some Jamie time and this was her catalyst.
 
Claire could not forget the amazing sex the day Jamie had two orgasms. The next morning, she made sure she woke up early enough to rub her backside against her husband, knowing he woke up eager and willing. Later, she ran up the stairs to the upper saloon where the movie library was kept. She saw two bumps under a blanket and heard Maia giggle.
 
“I won’t be but a minute.”
 
Searching the movie titles turned frustrating when she couldn’t find anything with sex scenes. When she started back at the front of the first row, Darius told her the interesting movies were in the back on separate shelves. In her embarrassment, she grabbed the first one she saw and blasted out of the saloon. After a relaxing bath, she slipped the satin nightgown over her head and ran her fingers down the sides. Then she picked up her phone and sent a text to Jamie inviting him to a movie in their room.
 
She spun around hearing someone knock on her door and looked down at her skimpy satin robe. Feeling brave, the belt was pulled tight and Chef was let in with a large tray of sushi which he placed on a side table, looking at the walls and the ceiling in his haste to get away. She dabbed lip gloss on her lips and touched a drop of Opium perfume behind her neck before Jamie came bounding into the room with a big smile on his face. His expression went straight to her brain yelling Bingo! He watched her cross the room and bring him a sample of sushi, although she doubted he tasted much the way he looked at her.
 
“Shower before the movie, or should we just start it and eat?”
 
He said not a word as his clothes came off and he jumped under the water before it was warmed up. Claire giggled at the sound he made when freezing water hit his flesh. She put the tray on the expansive bed and cued the movie feeling Jamie’s arms circle her waist and pull her to him.
 
Jamie took the remote from her hand and dropped it on the bed, “I’d rather not have the distraction Sassenach because I have things to do, and I will explain as I go. First, I will kiss you deeply while I investigate your robe and what’s under it with my hands.”
 
The way he spoke and looked at her took Claire’s breath away. Deep kissing and exploring hands left her panting and when he broke the kiss, she dropped to her knees pulling the towel from him. She teased and played with him while he watched, seeing her arousal leap to the next level. His big hand held her lower jaw to slow her down, and he felt his heart melt when she looked up at him.
 
Jamie pulled Claire to her feet and removed her robe, admiring her perfect curves, wanting to pull the teddy off with his teeth. “We’ll come back to that, love. Let’s eat.”
 
There were good intentions behind suggesting they eat. Jamie was starving and Claire was too far ahead in their dash for release. Food was replenishing and grounding and he would enjoy pushing her arousal back up. He inhaled the sushi and Claire picked at hers with eyes that burned into his soul. Jamie looked up as the fourth piece went into his mouth and he almost choked at her blazing eyes, wet lips, and obvious struggle.
 
“If you stop eating, mo chridhe, I stop too. Do you understand?”
 
He pushed the sushi toward her mouth and settled between her legs, watching her come undone. Whatever plans he had to control the dash went out the window as he pushed her to the mattress and pulled her hips to his mouth. When he felt her warm, wet mouth around him they were locked into the carnal need of the other. Hearing Claire whine and plead was like rocket fuel to Jamie, and they crashed into the pulsing erotic zone together.
 
Claire could feel Jamie’s arms quiver when he pulled her to him. She pressed her face into his neck and held him close, feeling him drift into sleep. The aroma from something delicious drifted to her nose, making her stomach growl loudly. She needed a plate full to restore her.
 
“Jamie, love, aren’t you hungry?”
 
Claire looked for clothes to put on for dinner and felt Jamie come up behind her, holding her favorite lounging dress.
 
“Leave that on Sassenach and pull this over it. I’ve not had but a minute to feel it.”
 
They joined the others for a delicious Mediterranean meal with all the side dishes Maia, and Darius loved. Chef was still celebrating their reunion the only way he knew how, fabulous food. With the party still a long way off, dinners were low-key and conversational. Chef continued to feed them until they held hands up to protest. Any leftovers were wrapped in the refrigerator and consumed by the first person to find them the next day.

Meals were always served by the crew. Danny had ordered Cici to work in the kitchen, below deck, and avoid interacting with Maia and Darius. A rare directive Danny allowed herself in the light of Cici’s destructive behavior. If Darius noticed her absence he covered it well.
 
Claire flopped onto the bed with a groan of overindulgence and felt Jamie pull her up and lift the dress over her head, slipping her arms into the little robe he held.
 
“You’re done in little love, so let’s watch the movie and when you fall asleep, I’ll hold you until morning.”
 
Claire’s brain was not fully functional due to fatigue and too much food. As soon as Jamie laid down, she cuddled up to him and fell asleep as the movie started. Jamie moaned when he slid his big hand down her back, “so soft.” Within the first ten minutes of the movie, Jamie realized it was more soft porn and punched buttons on the remote trying to stop it. Claire’s hand came up and pushed the remote to the bed, apparently annoyed with his movement. Jamie exhaled and resigned himself to listening to the movie until he fell asleep. He cuddled his wife and closed his eyes while the dialogue drifted into his ears and dreams for the duration of the movie. When his eyes popped open at three o’clock in the morning, there would be no earthly object or verbal objection that would stop him. He devoured Claire in a thrilling, mind-bending assault until the first rays were coming over the horizon.
 
Jamie looked at his wife, covered in sweat, already asleep, and felt his love welling up inside him, wondering if he would burst from the pressure. Grabbing a towel from the bathroom, he dried her face in dabs and pulled the towel down her arms and chest, trying not to disturb her too much. She spoke in French, something she did when exhaustion made her talk in her sleep, rather than wake up. He loved listening to the few words he could understand, like peering into her unguarded mind. Claire felt strong arms hold her in the swirl of images that danced in her dream.
 
“Mon amour a accroché la lune ... une ét ... ma dévot...” She twisted in his arms and pressed her face into his neck, “plus proche!”
 
“Oui, mon amour, toujours.”
 
Darius almost stumbled down the stairs and shook his head to wake up. How could he not notice the one thing that was missing this morning, Jamie? As constant as the sunrise, Jamie was up at dawn, always, and his contribution of work far outweighed the rest of them as a result. Whatever kept his friend in bed this morning deserved a phone call to reschedule their meeting with the engineer until later in the week. Darius pushed buttons on his phone, giving Jamie a pass for the rest of the day.
 
San Diego is known for beautiful weather in early November, and today was no exception. Danny requested Chef prepare a lunch to be consumed with one hand if the other was busy with a fishing pole. Darius was excited about a day of fishing and turned to Google to find the best locations and Google did not disappoint. Jamie and Claire emerged from their rooms almost bumping into the crew making way to depart their anchorage. Danny laughed and squeezed Chef’s arm at the trays of finger foods that were carried to the foredeck by the crew.
 
Jamie’s smile was radiant, “Looks like we’re fishing today!”
 
The sunny day, and exciting excursion, filled them with happiness as pole after pole was baited and cast far from the boat. It felt like playing hooky, adding to the list of features that defined this remarkable day.
 
The lounge chairs, warmed by the sun, felt like heaven as each reclined, lazily holding their poles. Food and frothy beer were an arm’s reach away, and the conversation was laced with humor. Not Danny. She stood and watched the water where her line went under, diligently, unwaveringly. Steven removed the trays, squinting his eyes from the stinging sun bouncing off the water. He was back in a few minutes to push Danny’s sunglasses to her face. Not a word between them, Danny smiled her thanks but never took her eyes off her string going into the water.
 
Danny was first to feel the jerk of a fish on her line. She let out a whoop of glee and Claire moved to help but was stopped by Jamie. He picked up her pole and whispered not to help, this part was the most fun if Danny did it alone. Claire reluctantly took her pole but kept eyes on Danny. Jamie burned the image of Danny’s face into his brain and likened it to the first ride on a roller coaster.

Danny’s lips moved as she counted the seconds before pushing the reel into the locked position to drive the hook deeper into the fish. The pole jerked so hard it flew out of her hands, right into Jamie’s fist as he grabbed for it. Even he had trouble hanging onto the jerking pole and called for Darius to assist.
 
They pushed Danny into one of the straight-backed chairs, bolted to the deck for this very occasion. The butt of the pole was shoved into a special hole attached to the footrest of the chair and her wild hands were guided to hold the pole above the reel. The men let go of her hands cautiously as if she would lose her grip at any second. Darius coached her from behind her seat, ready to grab the pole if she lost it. Danny’s screams of delight brought the crew out, one by one, to witness her battle against what they assumed was a monster fish. Chef came out with fresh beers and stayed to encourage her.
 
“You won’t boat it from here, Danny. Open your reel, let him dive, five seconds, and then lock it.”
 
The fish overruled that directive, deciding to end this annoyance, and used his mighty strength to pull the line out with him, as he dove to get away. The zing of the line pulling out against the locked reel intensified and Danny looked from Darius to Jamie for help. They both held their hands in the surrender position, smiling with excitement but unwilling to take over. When Danny realized she was on her own her countenance became militant as she sat back in the chair with a stern face.

Darius watched the reel rapidly losing line and looked at Jamie, shaking his head. He gave her a hail-Mary directive to unlock the reel in hopes the fish would finally stop when the pressure of the hook was relieved. It was doubtful the ruse would prevent the line from snapping once the reel was empty. The zinging sound stopped instantly when she pushed the lock open and the men counted the seconds, watching the remaining line disappear.
 
Chef was turning red from holding his breath and his loud exhalation made everyone look at the unmoving reel. Darius held his hand up to the others to remain quiet before he instructed Danny to reel in the line as fast as she could.
 
“Faster Danny, he swam toward us and you have no control until you reel all that line in. When you can feel the fish again, stop. Excellent! You still have him, so let him play until you tire him out.”
 
The reel now had a healthy layer of line and the pole jerked tentatively like the fish was too tired to fight. Darius fed her instructions to pull the fish toward the boat, pulling with the pole high above her head, and then reel as fast as she could.
 
Claire watched Danny’s face, bursting with happiness and determination. Stinging tears pressed her eyes for release and she turned her head toward Maia when they spilled over and ran down her cheeks. Maia smiled at the sentiment and pulled Claire’s sunglasses from the top of her head, running her hand down her arm.
 
Jamie was hyper-aware of Claire’s moods, and he smiled at the back of her head. He had never seen happy tears until he met Claire. In regards to Danny, there were many happy tears. He remembered Claire stopping abruptly right in front of him to watch Danny reading to Adso from a book she ordered on cat breeds, and Adso appeared to be listening. The tears flowed as Claire watched the intimate scene and Jamie wrapped his arms around her and whispered: “you’re a sissy” into her ear.
 
Claire was an emotional girl, and he loved her for it. She was genuine and unguarded, with him, and with Danny. After she left him in Paris, his love took six months to penetrate the walls Claire had erected to protect herself, but Danny pulled them down the first week they knew her. It baffled him. Danny would make her own way soon, and he worried about Claire missing her. It’s why he painted his latest picture of Claire and Danny, both holding a fishing pole, dissolving in laughter. He showed it to no one and finally finished it the day before. Feeling jubilant, he painted the name and signature into a lower corner; JAMF, “A Moment to Remember.” He was eager to show it to her, but that would have to wait until tomorrow. Tonight he would romance his true love over candlelight and kiss her on the beach until he was king of men in her world.
 
Noise and excitement pulled Jaime back to the present to see Darius lower their new extended pole and net to the water, looking for Danny’s catch. He saw the glint of silver and unmistakable yellow stripe down the side just before the fish suddenly dove, making the reel zing again. Danny laughed and wiped the sweat off her forehead with her sleeve, holding the pole for dear life.
 
“Danny, you’re exhausted. Why not let the men bring the fish in?”
 
“My dear Claire, I would not miss this chance for all the tea in China!”
 
It would be another hour before the big yellow-fin tuna slipped into the net and was hoisted onto the deck. The crew cheered and Danny beamed as the large fish was placed in her lap for a picture.

The women gathered at the galley sink and giggled while they soaped their hands and handed cut lemon wedges to Danny. Maia cleaned up the galley when Claire helped Danny downstairs for a nap and heard their laughter all the way to Danny’s rooms.  
 
A day off in the sun was a tonic to them all so Claire was not disappointed to postpone dinner ashore with Jamie. She didn’t want to rush through getting ready because it was half the fun of going out on a romantic date. She suggested a postponement to Jamie and was curious about his excited smile. He bolted for the studio, happy for the opportunity to unveil the painting. Claire laughed at his retreating back and shook her head, wondering what task he was hellbent on doing.
 
Everyone on the boat seemed to enjoy some private time, to read, or nap or any other pursuit to keep them in their respective rooms and away from the saloon. The large picture was placed on the arms of a dining chair and draped while Jamie paced, waiting to show it. One by one, they drifted back to the saloon for drinks before dinner, eyeing the draped shape, excited to see Jamie’s new painting. Claire laid on their bed, book on her chest and felt Jamie take her hand, pulling her to the surface.
 
“What is it? What’s happened, Jamie?”
 
He smiled and apologized for waking her as he pulled her to her feet. “Come Sassenach,” was all he said and pulled her toward the dining room. Adso was perturbed at being awakened by his mistress getting out of bed but dutifully followed, feeling strange and happy energy in the air. They joined the others and waited for Jamie to remove the drape. When he pulled it away the room was silent, causing him to look from one to the other with dread.
 
“What is it called?”
 
Jamie heard the quivering voice of his love choke out the question. Her tears flowed freely as Danny moved to her side and held onto her hand.
 
“It’s remarkable,” whispered in awe as Danny squeezed her eyes to focus.
 
Jamie’s brilliant smile lit up the room as he exhaled in relief. Darius watched him with a look of bewilderment dawning on his face. Maia had moved to the women and Darius continued to stare at the relief in Jamie’s face.
 
“You have no idea, do you?”
 
Jamie looked at Darius, trying to figure out what the question meant. “About what?”
 
Darius continued to stare, and Jamie was feeling self-conscious again.
 
“It is a cruel trick of nature when the truly gifted doubt their ability, and they are everywhere, the truly gifted, in all walks of life. Like a stunning beauty that’s insecure about her looks, a brilliant composer who never dares to hear his own music, or a …”
 
“Gifted captain, and leader of men, who never takes command,” Danny finished his sentence and then looked at Claire, “Or the purest heart fears she can’t be loved so she becomes the unloved, by nefarious means.” Danny reached for Maia’s hand. “Another, rare and innocent, stands ready to fight for her share because the mirror reflects the undeserving.”
 
Claire, Maia, and Darius had backed away from Danny when their truth wrapped around their heart.
 
“Oh my, I didn’t mean to throw a wet blanket on everyone. Jamie dear, I collect art, always have. The walls of my mansion are covered with every period and master, and I love each of them. You could paint a cow on her period and it would evoke emotion in all who saw it. It is a stunning and brilliant painting that will forever take us back to that special day.”
 
The four of them laughed at a cow on her period, breaking the somber mood. Danny implanted a painful seed in three of them and covered the wound with humor as only she could. Her instincts told her it was time to heal four extraordinary people and pay the miracle of her gift forward. She glanced at Jamie, feeling sad that his seed of truth was coming tonight, but it was a giant oak, fully grown, that would tear his soul apart. She squared her shoulders and prayed that the purest heart would pull him through it.
 
The crew filled the table with dishes of food to pass, person to person, family-style. It was one of Danny’s rules. Communal dining, no matter how busy they became hosting the parties around the world. The mood turned jovial and conversation continually turned back to the painting, making Jamie very happy.
 
Chef came to the table with dessert, delighted to share time with these cheerful people.
 
“Look at that beautiful painting! Danny is surely blessed to find the four of ya before you start popping babies out. Another year and she would be making this trip alone.” He smiled brightly and passed desert to each of them before returning to the galley.
 
Jamie wasn’t smiling anymore. He stared at the cake in front of him with unfocused eyes as the torment took root. He felt fear, somewhere deep inside, and struggled to understand what was happening. Danny knew exactly what was happening and was helpless to stop it.

“I’m sorry, Sassenach, I’m not feeling well suddenly. Please excuse me, Danny.” He left the table and Claire left shortly after to check on him. Once her eyes adjusted to the dark she could see Jamie laying on the bed staring at the ceiling.
 
“Jamie, are you alright?”
 
“I’m fine, Sassenach, just a headache that I need to sleep off. Go back to dinner.”
 
“But I could…”
 
“Please love, I’ll be right by morning.”
 
When the door closed quietly behind her, a tear rolled down the side of Jamie’s face. His torment had begun in earnest.

Chapter Text

Claire crept silently to bed and laid down, ready to grab Adso to keep him from waking Jamie. His back was to her and his customary embrace was not there to soothe her nerves. She sensed he was awake, but a million miles away from her. Sleep was hard in coming, but she finally rested.
 
In the deep of night, she reached for Jamie, feeling cold sheets bring her out of sleep. She found him on their deck, standing as still as a statue, looking out at the blackness.
 
“Jamie? Are you feeling better?”
 
He didn’t answer or move until her hand touched his bare back, making him jump and gasp. She rushed to him, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her cheek to his chest. His hands were on her upper arms, gently pressing her away from him.
 
“Let’s go back to bed, Sassenach.”
 
“No.”
 
She pulled away from him and the hurt she felt played across her face. Jamie felt his heart squeeze painfully. He reached out to her and walked her to the bed. Claire said nothing. By the looks of him, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to know.
 
Jamie sat her gently on the edge of the bed and looked at the face he loved, knowing this conversation would change their lives forever.
 
“You are the purest heart that Danny talked about tonight. I can see it so clearly now. Losing your family at such a young age, and belonging to no one, made you feel you couldn’t be loved. You grew up with a cold uncle who dragged you from one dig to another, but he never held you when you scraped your knee or had a nightmare. Did he Claire?”
 
She stared at Jamie, liking this conversation less and less, wondering where this was going.
 
“Becoming Casper was how you coped with being the unloved. Never allowing anyone close enough to discover your identity meant no one would ever know you as the unloved.”
 
“You are wrong. I grew up in a crime family so it was just natural to steal art.”
 
“Sweet Claire. Are you lying to me or are you lying to you? You were stealing art for a year before Javier caught you. He said he grounded you for a whole summer and when you refused to quit, he pulled you into his business to protect you. You had to become Casper, and it worked. No one ever got close enough to know you couldn’t be loved. As wrong as that is, it’s how you felt.”
 
“What about Frank? I was engaged to be married to him!”
 
“The nowhere man, so self-absorbed he couldn’t possibly discover who you were. Marriage was another layer of protection from the world. You became notorious, willing to saddle yourself with a cold-hearted man. You became the unloved.”
 
Jamie barely made it through the last sentence before he broke down and pulled her to him. She held onto him for dear life, not knowing why he would remind her of that life and the choices she made. It took a minute for Jamie to get control and set her back on the bed, away from him.
 
“I’m so goddamned sorry it took this long to understand that part of you. Because I would have told you about the Claire that I know. Everyday. She is loved so fiercely, so completely by me, and everyone on this boat. I would have made you see it until you no longer felt like the unloved.”
 
Claire felt bolstered by Jamie’s words of love, but it was a brief respite. He still sat away from her and still called her Claire. Something bad was coming, she could feel it all around them.
 
“Can it end there, Jamie? Please?”
 
She looked at the pain on Jamie’s face when he shook his head from side to side.
 
“We got married so quickly. Before there was time to talk about our dreams and plans for the future. We were running for our lives with no certainty of a future. Do you remember Claire?”
 
She nodded, feeling the distance between them, wanting to cling to him and promise whatever he needed.
 
“I am so sorry, Claire. I am so sorry that I let you pledge yourself to a man condemned to live out his life on the water. Like a ghost.”
 
“Stop it, this instant! I don’t want to hear anymore. You are my husband and whatever is wrong we will face it together!”
 
Jamie could see her shaking, and it was breaking his heart.
 
“Everyone in love talks about their hopes and dreams of the future, but not us. We got married not knowing if we had tomorrow let alone the rest of our lives. So we skipped that part, maybe because we knew it would end us.”
 
Claire was silent as the tears fell. Whatever Jamie had to say, it was too late to turn back now. She locked her whisky eyes on him like an enemy.
 
“Stop it, Jamie! Nothing can end us, this conversation is killing me! You are talking nonsense like you’re suddenly someone else. What has changed?”
 
Jamie looked at his lap while Claire cried. He was up against a brick wall with nowhere to turn and he hated the whole world for it, especially himself.
 
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. By the end of this conversation, you’re going to leave me behind and have the life you were supposed to have.”
 
“You’re lying!” Claire flung the sentence at him like a weapon. “So you don’t love me anymore. Man up for Christ’s sake and tell me the truth!”
 
Claire was crying and looking for clothes to put on so she could escape this conversation. Her mind had shut down from shock and she was in survival mode, running for her life, running from her life, because she couldn’t take the pain anymore.
 
Her shaking hands could not button her shirt, so she ran toward the door anyway, coming within feet of Jamie who pressed his back against the door, blocking her way. His head was down, and the image of him barring the door of an outbuilding in Veneto came to her mind. She shook with the memory of that morning, discovering he was the painter, desperately wanting to get away from him. She could hardly believe she was that woman, who barely escaped capture hours later when she and Jamie ran from Hesser. Her eyes were wide with fear and she backed away from the door, seeing rats around her feet as they hid in an old barn that same day. She felt Jamie catch her as she spun toward the floor.
 
Claire opened her eyes, feeling the wet towel dab her face. She was in bed with covers over her and still she shook with cold. Jamie pulled a chair to the bed and sat next to her, looking ghostly white himself. He spoke softly to her, his voice weakened by his breaking heart.
 
“We owe it to each other to finish this conversation, Sassenach. I don’t want to hurt the one I love most in this world, but we have choices to make and we need to start in the truth.”
 
Claire felt a moment of hope. He loved her most in the world, and she clung to that statement and listened.
 
“As a young man, I saw only one path in front of me. Fall in love, marry, and start a family. I wanted to be a father and pictured wee ones playing in the fields around my family home. It was an absolute future, I had no doubt. The estate passed to me after my father’s death and the second year we suffered a long drought, followed by days of rain that washed away the only surviving crops. My fields were damaged and empty. I had nothing to sell to replenish my accounts. I went bank to bank but having no credit history no one would give me a loan and my unpaid bills were in collection. Winter was coming, and I knew I would lose the estate by spring. It was my lowest point until today. I never thought anything could hurt me more than that did.”
 
“I painted a lot in the winter, and I had the idea of creating a forged masterpiece to make enough money to save my land. I practiced on bed sheets and used the only money I had to buy three canvases. Two weeks later I finished a copy of the “Girl With A Pearl Earring”, the same painting you discovered in Veneto. It took a month to find an art fence that would talk to me. I told him the painting was stolen and replaced with a forgery, and this was the original. When I showed him the painting, he studied it with an eye loop for two hours, made phone calls, and agreed to buy it for a million pounds minus one hundred thousand for his fee. A staggering amount of money I never expected, but it saved my estate. By spring, I felt like I was in the clear, so I did it again with a Renoir and sold it in Ireland for the same money. It was completely unnecessary, but my addiction had taken hold of me.”
 
Jamie stopped and looked at Claire’s deer-in-the-headlights face. “I’m sorry, Claire. I have to do this and you are being very brave so I’ll continue.”
 
“I never lost sight of my dream to have a family, to be a father, but it was on the other side of my criminal life. Once I quit forging art, I would go back to Scotland and settle down. But that never happened. I was caught, convicted without trial, and locked in a cell until dead. You know the rest.”
 
“Why did you tell me that, Jamie?”
 
“ I want you to know I was once a moral and decent man with dreams of being a father and loving one woman until my last breath. That is no longer an option for me, but it is for you.”
 
Claire sat upright, eyes wide with horror, staring at Jamie. “Do you hold me in such low regard you would leave? Was this a mere dalliance to you?”
 
Jamie took her hand, “quite the opposite. The body of James Fraser was never recovered, so I am presumed dead. My crimes are spread out over a dozen countries and there are people that will never stop looking for me. It’s why I have to stay on the water, always moving, until one of them catches me. Only two people know your secret. One is dead, the other will die with your identity protected.”
 
“We don’t know that Jamie, there could be others that know who I am.”
 
“Do you think of them, Claire?”
 
“Who?”
 
“Our children. Do you see them playing at the park, or jumping off the school bus? A beautiful life, on land.”
 
“It doesn’t have to be, we will have a life on a superyacht.”
 
“So it’s more accurate to see a toddler walking to the edge of the boat, in the middle of the ocean, with no other children for socialization. He or she will be completely unprepared for life as an adult.”
 
“Here is a darker reality. They will come in the night, breaking down the glass doors, pulling people out of bed at gunpoint, a child crying, you screaming, and me trying to protect my family. They will shoot me in front of you, in front of our child. They will put you under a microscope and possibly figure out who you are, hauling you to jail, leaving our child alone.”
 
“Stop, Jamie! We will figure this out and we don’t have to have children. I love you, where ever we are, and if you leave me I think I might die. You have been thinking all night about only the bad and nothing of the solution. Why?”
 
He pulled her to his lap and held her while she sobbed, fighting his own emotion over their heartbreaking reality. When Claire’s tears stopped, she pressed herself to him and wouldn’t let him go.
 
“We suffered so much, from Italy to Greece, always just one step ahead of Hesser. You were inches from a bullet that whizzed by your head, and witnessed my death, grieving for months. Are you starting to remember Claire?”
 
“That is over now, Jamie.”
 
“We fled to Jamaica and felt safe in the sun and warm water. Once the tracker was out of our arms, we forgot who we are and let the distractions like Danny and my painting hypnotize us into thinking we were safe. It will happen again Claire, we will let our guard down. The night I fought Darius’s brothers, if his sister had called the police they would have taken us in, or surely me, and I would be fingerprinted. It’s that easy to be identified as the Painter and never seen again.”
 
“If you leave me, I will follow you. I’ll never stop looking for you. Is that the life you want to force on me, Jamie?”
 
“No more talking, love.”
 
Jamie laid Claire on the bed and pulled her to him. He didn’t think either of them would sleep, but he couldn’t hurt her anymore, he just wanted to hold her in the quiet of the early morning. He wanted to tell her he thought of nothing but a solution and would trade a decade of his life to find one, but there was no solution. They would live like fugitives until he was caught, and Claire would have no protection.
 
Later, when Claire’s breathing was rhythmic and deep, Jamie pulled away from her and went to his studio. Feeling like a shattered man, he stared at the wall as random thoughts came in and out of his mind. Looking at the little chest of drawers that Danny had stocked with watercolor supplies, he remembered her words, “For a rainy day. A bit of warning though, you will find yourself in those drawers, they will reveal your true heart.”
 
Jamie thought watercolor was a child’s toy, certainly not for the serious artist and before he could stop himself he set up the paints, water, towels, and brushes. He was numb, going through the motions without thought. He painted a large circle of water, very wet, pushed the brush against the pots of dried paint until it softened and filled his brush. A drop of paint hit the wet circle and pigment rushed into the water in all directions. This isn’t helping me think, he decided and stood to put everything away. His first step buckled his knee and he went down clutching the chair for support, feeling his mind break and his tears flow, and then he cried, hard, gulping air to steady himself, but it just kept coming.
 
Danny put her hand on Jamie’s back and helped him into the chair, telling him not to give up, he would find a solution. He turned his face from her to hide his tears and heard Danny’s steady voice telling him again there was a solution.
 
“There is no solution that will keep Claire safe. I have to go on my own now, I just don’t know how to do it.”
 
He got up and walked out of the studio like a zombie, on his way back to Claire. He knew he had to be the strong one, that she would fall apart, but she had her dearest friends with her. She would get through this if he never contacted her again.
 
Jamie could hear Claire crying as he opened their door. There were at least a dozen tissues balled up around her. Jamie pulled her to him and rocked her. Or was it himself he rocked?
 
“Claire, I will take the little boat and disappear. I will transfer all my money to your accounts so you will never want for anything. You will let me go, Claire, it’s the only way.”
 
“I will hate you for the rest of my life.”
 
“I pray that when you are very old, surrounded by your children, and maybe their children, your heart will soften towards me and you will know I did this for you.”
 
Danny paced in her room, rubbing her hands together, convincing herself not to meddle. She could feel her resolve slipping, “fuck that.” She started dialing her cell phone. She knew people who knew people that knew how to get things done. If there was someone in this world who could help them, she would find him.
 
Jamie walked into the galley and heard Chef gasp.
 
“Still sick? You look white as a sheet.”
 
“You have no idea. Can you have the crew bring trays to our room today? Neither of us are feeling well.”
 
“You got it, Jamie. I’ll keep ya well fed.”
 
Before Jamie left, he poured an iced tea and dropped a sprig of mint into it. He knocked on Danny’s door, hearing her talk to someone excitedly. When the door opened, she took the drink and kicked the door closed with her foot. He went back to Claire, who was checking on flights to Mykonos. Jamie leaned on the desk and looked at the floor.
 
“I’ll have you know that I will book a flight to Mykonos as soon as you leave. I will be on that boat when you come to pick it up, most likely washing all the dusty furniture. I will be your first mate and we will stay together.
 
“Claire.”
 
“My husband calls me Sassenach, or love. We pledged ourselves to each other until death. We are not dead.”
 
Claire was bouncing around the room, pulling suitcases from the closet, acting like they were going on vacation.
 
“Adso has decided to stay here, with Danny. He hates you so he doesn’t want to go.”
 
“Claire.”
 
“Anyway, I will be ready to depart in a moment’s notice.”
 
She seemed manic, high on adrenalin, she raced from drawer to drawer pulling clothes out to pack into her cases.
 
“Oh! Forgot to tell you that Cici resigned and left the boat and Ethan got his orders to deploy, I will be chasing you and you will be running away. That leaves Darius, Steven, and Maia to get the boat to New York. They’ll be fine, I’m sure. Actually, I’m not sure, I just don’t fucking care.”
 
Jamie gripped the desk he leaned against, trying to calm down. When Claire pushed Adso out the door and told him to find his new mother, Jamie snapped and lunged for her.
 
“Claire! Stop this right now. You need to let me go, don’t make this any harder.”
 
He crushed her in his arms and kissed her hard, running his hands up and down her backside, trying to pull her top over her head. As soon as her arms were free, she slapped his face hard enough to make his ears ring. Jamie was shocked and looked at her with wide eyes.
 
“You gave me away today, you called our marriage regrettable. One last fling? I’d rather not.”
 
Jamie watched her leave the room, hearing her sobbing down the hall. He sat down hard and hung his head.
 
Danny heard the rapid knocking on her door and helped Claire to the bed where she sat on the edge and cried her eyes out. Danny held onto the hysterical woman and waited for her to gain control.
 
“Danny, please tell me what you see. Are these my last moments with Jamie? Will I ever see him again? Did you see this coming? I can’t let him go, I can’t live without him, he says… he won’t… Jesus, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!
 
Claire went down so fast Danny was shocked and started screaming for help. She opened her door and screamed that Claire was unconscious. Heavy feet could be heard running down the stairs. Darius looked down at Danny kneeling next to Claire, patting her cheek. He scooped her up and took her to the saloon, almost running into Jamie on the way.
 
“Please Claire, wake up!”
 
Jamie held her hand and cheek while the chaos surrounded him. Danny called for emergency medical and a chopper was landing on the yacht within minutes, it seemed. The medical team would not allow Jamie on the ride to the hospital, so the tender was pushed to the limit of speed the outboard motors would tolerate. Jamie jumped to the peer and ran for a taxi.
 
It isn’t every day a helicopter lands on a yacht and a small crowd had gathered to watch. People on the dock saw the tender racing toward them, and several hailed cabs in case they were needed. Jamie barely had enough brain space to thank them as he jumped into one and they sped away.
 
Mary Dunn was whisked into emergency, followed by a terrified Jamie ten minutes later. He asked for her and was shown a seat in the registration area where he would be questioned about her name, date of birth, medical history, events leading up to her collapse. His name, request for ID, and dozens of other questions that he didn’t want to answer, so he refused. The hospital representative looked at him suspiciously and then looked up as a woman approached.
 
In her infinite wisdom, Danny also raced to the hospital to get the focus off Jamie. The rep watched both of them, wondering how she was getting home after her shift and what to make for dinner.
 
“Thank you for your assistance, please return to the yacht and I will be along soon.” Danny sat in the vacated seat and looked at the rep.
 
“My name is Sepora Meyers and Mary Dunn is one of my crew.”
 
Danny laid her passport and driver’s license on the counter and started answering questions. She informed the rep they were self-pay and she wanted to speak with the doctor, ignoring the continuous questions and finally getting up to wait near the door to the treatment rooms. Her heart was pounding so hard she worried about a heart attack, so she walked around to calm herself but kept an eye on the door. She spotted Jamie pacing outside and went into command mode.
 
“This is not a subject for debate, Jamie. You will hail the next cab and return to the ship. Hello Darius, no, we don’t know anything yet. I am sending Jamie back to the boat so please pick him up at the dock. If he is not there in the next five minutes, you are to find him and use force if you must. Maybe take Steven and Ethan with you, but he is to be detained in the yacht.”
 
Danny almost cried when she looked at Jamie’s worried face and she held his arm while she spoke to him.
 
“I’m sorry, Jamie, I promise to stay right here and oversee everything. Now you must get back to the boat with my word I will call the minute I hear anything.”
 
Jamie was stuffed into a cab so fast he barely had time to argue. When he was out of sight, Danny felt the tears of worry and overwhelming defeat. She stood to the side of the ER doors and wept for Claire and Jamie, for herself, and for her son. All the reasons she had stuffed inside of her came to focus and she continued to cry, silently and alone. She saw a police cruiser in her mind and forced her emotions back into hibernation, drying her eyes and face as quickly as possible.
 
Two officers walked quickly into the reception area and spoke to the woman at the counter. Danny pressed her speed dial for her attorney in New York. Kevin Phillips had represented Danny for twenty-five years, starting fresh out of law school. He shook her hand at a function in the city and when she saw the man inside, she hired him as her personal counsel. His success and fame were due to his brilliant mind and Danny, in equal parts, he always thought. He was there for her, always.
 
 “Kevin dear, I am very sorry to interrupt your day but I am about to be questioned by two police officers and I want to control this situation and avoid questions about the identity of two crewmen, well, friends, actually, that just came to the ER in San Diego. Can I legally refuse to answer?”
 
Kevin had a boardroom full of high-profile attorneys waiting for him to resume the meeting. They were a distant memory as he fired questions at Danny.
 
“Put me on speaker, Danny.”
 
“Excuse me, ma’am. You just brought Mary Dunn in for treatment, is that right?”
 
Kevin’s voice could be heard from Danny’s phone. “May I ask, gentlemen, why you are breaching HIPAA, patient privacy, and good Samaritan laws to ask anything about a patient or who brought her in. Is she suspected of a crime? What is your just cause for questioning Sepora Meyers, my client?”
 
“I’m sorry ma’am, but who is on the phone?”
 
“My attorney, Kev…”
 
“Hang up the phone ma’am, we have a few questions for you.”
 
“Danny, if there is anyone around you, please ask them to video your encounter with the officers, offer to pay the person one thousand dollars. Hand the phone to the bossy officer.”
 
Danny looked around at two people brazenly pointing their cell phone cameras at the three of them. She could hear Kevin running down the list of laws and violations, promising to sue the city of San Diego if one more question was asked. The officers walked back to their car and bid Danny a good day.
 
“Will you please carry me to the hospital employee responsible for calling the police, Danny?”
 
The woman rudely ignored Danny and called someone’s name. The patient and her parents approached the counter.
 
“Danny, if you would, turn your speaker on high and set the phone on the counter. This is something everyone should hear.”
 
Danny placed the phone down and suggested the woman listen, then caught her phone when she batted it away.
 
“Young lady, you are in violation of …”
 
It took approximately five minutes for Kevin to finish listing the violations that she and the hospital were now responsible for. The woman’s face drained of color and an overhearing doctor brought another employee to replace her, asking the rep to follow him.
 
Danny turned her speaker off and spoke to Kevin as she walked back outside. It was a long shot, but she had to ask.
 
“I have a question and then I’ll let you go, my wonderful friend. I can vouch for a man who needs to disappear. He is a good man, Kevin, and bad people are looking for him. Would you know about that sort of thing?”
 
“You need Aunt Mary. I will call her and text you a time and location later. You only have one chance with Aunt Mary, so please make sure you are there to meet her. Always a pleasure, Sepora, see you in December.”
 
Kevin clicked off before Danny could utter another word. She rushed back into the ER and was taken to Claire. Danny took her hand and tried to engage her, but Claire looked at her feet and barely spoke.
 
“He’s already gone, isn’t he?”
 
“Jamie? No dear, he has called every five minutes it seems. I had to put my foot down and tell him to relax because I had to use my phone.”
 
Danny chuckled and Claire stared at her feet. “Will I ever see him again? Can you see us in the future?”
 
“I’m sorry, Claire, I cannot see anything but a picture of the beach with a big hill and waving grass. I’m sure he will paint the picture, but I don’t know what it means. Have faith in love dear, a match like you and Jamie is rare indeed.”
 
The doctor interrupted them and explained Claire she was suffering from exhaustion and dehydration. He handed her a prescription and released her with a reminder to have a glass of water or juice in her hand for the next three days to restore her blood volume, and stay out of the sun. Danny wrote a check for the balance of Claire’s care and led her out to hail a cab.
 
Danny called Darius and asked for the tender to pick them up. Claire was certain Jamie would be gone, now that he knew she was released. It was so mind consuming, Danny had to ask a question two or three times before Claire understood. “It’s alright, dear Claire, I will take care of everything.”
 
Darius held Claire’s hand as she climbed into the boat. He knew something monumental was happening but refrained from asking. He would know when he was supposed to know. Claire tried to step out of the tender onto the aft deck and lost her balance due to weakness. She put her head down, wanting to disappear when Jamie came out of nowhere and scooped her into his arms. Claire did not look up but clutched his shirt with a death grip until he laid her on their bed.
 
“Thank Christ you’re alright, Sassenach. You had me worried half to death.”
 
He pushed extra pillows behind her and announced it was movie night, and he chose the film carefully, a classic, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He seemed coiled like a spring, talking rapidly, with a fake smile.
 
“Thank you, Jamie. I haven’t seen it in many years. Very thoughtful.”
 
Jamie ran to the galley and accepted the tray Danny had waiting. Soft food, juice, bottled water, and tea. When Jamie met her eyes, they spoke volumes about her love for Claire, and he wondered if he was included in that love. It didn’t matter, it couldn’t matter. This was no longer his life, his people, or his business. He only wanted to help Claire, and then he was leaving.
 
When Jamie came back with the tray, Claire was just getting out of the shower and grabbed for a large towel to hold in front of her nakedness. Jamie’s looked at the ground before going back to their room.
 
“Whenever you’re ready, Claire.”
 
Jamie laid on the bed and thought about the hospital and that obnoxious woman who insisted on his identification. The world did not accept anonymity anymore. If Danny hadn’t rescued him, he might have ended up at the police station being booked for resisting arrest or some other ridiculous charge because the officers were bored and had an issue with his refusal to produce identification. He hoped it would drive his point through to Claire that she was not safe with him.
 
Claire laid against Jamie in the dark watching the movie, neither wanting to fall asleep and miss that time with the other. Until the day they died, it would live in their memories as the saddest night on earth.
 
Dinner went on without the Frasers. Midway through, Danny received a message from an unknown number. It was from Kevin.
 
Aunt Mary is away babysitting but will call tonight at one o’clock in the morning, California time. Purchase three burner phones and text me a number. Which of the children need a baby sitter? J , D, or M?
 
Danny pushed the J and send. Kevin had done the research on Jamie, Claire, Darius, and Maia when the yacht was heading for Greece to find the voice that called to her. It took two weeks of concentration but Danny finally heard all the names of the people Claire thought about the most and soon Danny was connecting with them all. By the time they met in Jamaica, Danny knew each of their stories, verified by Kevin’s research.
 
Danny looked up at the half-empty table and felt the oppression of sadness on the boat. She wanted to close her mind for just a little while and dispatched Ethan and Steven to the store to purchase the phones with instructions to send Kevin one of the numbers. Maia asked Danny what had happened to Claire and Jamie.
 
“Sweet child, we will all know soon enough.”
 
Jamie was so sweet to Claire. For the rest of the night, he kept her drinking and tried to get her to eat. She said little but smiled shyly when she looked at him. He could feel her emotion change to resignation. He wanted to tell her she would never be forgotten, she would always remain his greatest love. He had so many things to tell her, but he said nothing. He just held her and stroked her hair in the dark. When it got late, Claire sighed deeply and moved out of Jamie’s arms.
 
“Goodbye, Jamie Fraser,” was whispered, then she laid down with her back to him.
 
Jamie sat still on their bed until he was sure Claire was asleep. He left his cases and clothing because every stitch would remind him of their life together. Claire’s eyes opened the minute Jamie left. She stood up and brought the bottle of whisky back to the bed, intending to drink him out of her head, or pass-out trying.
 
Jamie walked through the empty saloon toward the aft deck. He would take the tender and leave it with the harbormaster with two hundred dollars for returning it to Danny. When his feet hit the deck, he gasped at the sight of Danny, sitting close to the water, smoking what looked like a little cigar.
 
He owed her a goodbye, so he sat in the next chair and tried to start speaking.
 
“I have taken good care of you throughout this trip, have I not? I need something from you before you disappear forever. An important call is coming in ten minutes and your strength will be required.”
 
“Danny.”
 
“Just sit with me and keep me talking. Then you can go. We will take the call in your studio if you don’t mind. This cannot be overheard by anyone.”
 
Danny got up and Jamie followed her to his studio. He was upset by her insistence because he wanted to be away from this place, where his heart lived with a beautiful grieving woman. They sat at the art table and Danny read the instructions from Kevin’s text.
 
“Answer the phone but do not speak. There will be a series of clicks and other noises that may go on for several minutes. When the line is clear for one whole minute, state your name and wait. Aunt Mary will identify herself and your conversation will begin. Good luck.”
 
Jamie looked at Danny, wondering if she was some kind of secret agent and the phone rang, making them both jump. Danny tapped the answer button and laid the phone on the table with the speaker on. They waited through all sorts of strange noises and one minute of silence.
 
“Sepora Meyers”
 
“Good evening, this is Aunt Mary.” The man’s voice was deep but quiet. “I have news for you. J’s body was recovered last month by divers investigating a boat explosion. Just bones that matched the age, and height. The recovery was kept from the media because guns and death keep the tourists away, but it was reported to government agencies in Europe and America.”
 
“What name did they report finding?”
 
“Jamie Fraser, of Scotland.”
 
Danny could hear Jamie gasp but didn’t look at him yet.
 
“My friend is being hunted by men in multiple countries. How can he protect himself from being identified?”
 
” Pull all teeth and amputate the hands.”  
 
“There must be another way.”
 
“Switzerland, if you have a fat piggy bank. One million per finger, one million for the new flesh, if it is available. No guarantee the graft will take, but you can always try again. Ninety percent success rate, but you won’t read about the procedure. It is kept secret from the world.”
 
“How do I arrange this procedure?”
 
“Do you have eleven million dollars that can be verified?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“Kevin must vouch for you, putting his life on the line to guarantee truth of disclosure and your silence. Switzerland will be notified, the money transferred to an escrow account, and only then will you meet the doctors.”
 
“I will arrange for Kevin to act on my behalf and …”  
 
The line went dead. Danny turned the phone off and asked Jamie to remove the battery. He looked ghostly white with wide blue eyes. Danny could see his mind was grinding all he just heard.
 
“Danny.”
 
“I have one important promise to make you Jamie. If you disappear anyway, for whatever reason, Claire will never know that you had a solution and chose to leave. I swear.”
 
Jamie jumped to his feet, walking through his studio like a caged animal, shaking his head. He would stop suddenly and then launch back into his pacing. It was incomprehensible there was a way to change his fingerprints. If he ended up with bloody stumps, it would still be a fair trade for Claire. He looked at Danny and pulled her up to hug her for an entire minute. She felt him shaking from shock and patted his arm.
 
“Help me to my rooms, dear Jamie. You have a lot of thinking to do.”
 
“Will it work, Danny?”
 
“Of course it will. You will have a fresh start, no longer a ghost.”
 
“I do not have to think. Come now, I need to see the Sassenach.”
 
Once Danny closed her door, Jamie sprinted to their rooms. Claire had been through so much today, but he would have to wake her. This was too big to wait for the morning. His hand shook on the doorknob and he took deep breaths, trying to calm down as he entered the room.
 
Jamie thought his heart would explode when he looked at her sleeping face, puffy from crying but never more beautiful. He decided rest and love would mend the wounds she endured, and he would give her both. He slid into bed quietly and let the happiest sleep take him away.
 
“Jamie? Why are you here?”
 
Jamie turned sparkling blue eyes on the woman he loved and held her gaze. He wanted to grab her and spin her around the room before locking her to him for the rest of her life.
 
“May I come to you, love? Or perhaps you will come to me. There are two wounded hearts on this bed that want to be together.”
 
Claire was hypnotized by his eyes, full of love, unguarded, like the old Jamie. He moved toward her until his arm pulled her to the mattress and she laid her head on his chest, feeling his arms around her.
 
“I have a miracle to tell you about, a heart to claim, and a celebration to enjoy.” He ran his finger along her jaw and locked his gaze with hers. “Will you come out to the deck with me and watch the first sunrise of forever?”
 
They laid together under a blanket and watched the sunrise while Jamie explained what Danny had done, the phone call he heard with her, and what that meant for them.
 
“Oh, almost forgot, my body has been recovered, well, my bones anyway. Swept out to sea and picked clean by the fishes. The coroner made a positive ID somehow, and this was reported to the authorities throughout Europe and America. I have been officially pronounced dead, may I rest in peace.”
 
Jamie realized that Claire had not moved her eyes from his face, nor had she said a word. He pulled the blanket over their heads and moved his body to lay face to face with her.
 
“Danny’s attorney will personally guarantee our silence about the procedure in Switzerland, with his life. We cannot tell anyone about what I’m going to do. Do you understand, love?”
 
Claire put her hand on Jamie’s cheek and nodded her head.
 
“We have both suffered with the end of our love and the pain of me leaving. I have to ask you, Sassenach, do you still want to be my wife? Will you take me back as your husband?”
 
Jamie could see she was coming out of her stupor when she smiled at him.
 
“Yes. A thousand times, yes. May I have a kiss, please?”
 
Jamie touched her lips with a kiss that would last until mid-afternoon and live forever in Claire’s memory. Jamie took his place at the table that night, after a two-day absence, and plugged himself back into life on the yacht. He ate the sumptuous meal with his left hand so he could hold Claire’s under the table. When he caught Danny’s eye, he held her gaze for a full minute while his heart said thank you to hers.

Chapter Text

Claire opened her eyes on the third morning since her reunion with Jamie and smiled when she heard him breathing next to her. It touched her that he stayed in bed until she woke because Jamie was an early riser. He wanted to be her everything again and being there when she woke was a good place to start. To ensure he could sleep that long in the morning he slipped away and painted all night, which was just the therapy his soul was needing.
 
Claire rolled to him, feeling his arms pull her in and his lips whisper “good morning, love.” His cell phone was ringing and he pulled it to his ear while he kissed his wife. The bliss was over in an instant and he sat up muttering, “Jesus, on my way.”
 
“Did we forget something important?”
 
“We did.” He eyed Claire like he would pounce on her any second. “But there is still time for this!”
 
Claire shrieked with laughter when Jamie grabbed her for a tickle before jumping into his clothes to meet Darius and the engineer in the engine room. They would be hours down there and she made a mental note to sneak him a power bar or two.
 
Adso rubbed his face on her, purring loudly, and she stroked him absently while her mind turned the facts this way and that. During the last few days she felt different, like another person had moved into her skin. She was always aware now that she was Casper and narrowly escaped a tortured existence of a forced marriage to Frank followed by a short life as Hesser’s secret agent. Now she spent her day feeling grateful for being on this yacht, married to Jamie, with wonderful people around her. Jamie was right. They forgot who they were, lulled into a false sense of security when there was still so much to fear. Now, every touch, every smile, and every encounter with her shipmates felt like a miracle.
 
Claire poured a coffee and joined Maia and Danny at the table. Maia was searching the internet for party guests to help Danny remember them all and kept getting stuck on the celebrities, her research hijacked for her personal fascination with famous people.
 
“Ah, dearest Claire, you must come to the foredeck and examine the plants. The boxes have become overrun with bugs. Come.”
 
Danny looked stricken with the discovery of bugs and once outside Claire looked closely at each box bursting with colorful, healthy blooms.
 
“I’m sorry for the ruse. I have news from my attorney, Kevin. I’m afraid it is not good. Now that the money has been transferred and the doctors are involved, they have not found a suitable match for Jamie’s skin. Apparently, Caucasian skin is the hardest to find. I know Jamie is tense and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Please tell him to relax until we hear more.”
 
Claire knew Jamie would be disappointed. He was so focused on the procedure and the life they would have once it was done. Keeping an eye out for him she got caught up in the heightened energy on the boat. They were moving the yacht to the historic Newport Harbor to prepare for the party in two days. Everything was coming together except Danny, who acted stranger by the minute. Claire stared at her good friend and wondered if she was nervous about her date for the party. 

“How will you have your hair done for the party, Danny?”
 
Danny looked pale when she turned to Claire. “I hadn’t thought of it.”
 
“Can we play around for a bit, just to try a couple things? Darius and Jamie will move the boat once done with the engineer, and Maia is hopelessly lost reading about movie stars, so why not, c’mon.
 
Claire tried several styles on Danny’s hair, scrunching up her nose and shaking her head before trying another. Danny told her any of the styles would be fine, wondering what Claire was hoping to do.
 
“This haircut and color are so great, especially with the sweeping side. It’s alluring… mysterious,” Claire cleared her throat, “sexy.”
 
Danny stared at Claire for a minute and then burst out in laughter that was uncontrollable while she sputtered the word sexy.
 
“My dear Claire, I haven’t laughed like that in so long, thank you. I am sixty-eight years old and sexy isn’t allowed at my age. It’s a sin against nature or something. I wasn’t sexy in my twenties, for heaven’s sake.”
 
Claire watched Danny’s nervous fidgeting, heard the edge in her voice, and saw her complexion pale. She was a mess, plain and simple. Claire needed to distract her for some pre-date therapy and ran to her rooms to scoop up her best hair combs. She asked Danny to sit back and relax so she could try the different hair ornaments, and she talked while she worked.
 
“So much has gone on recently, I haven’t been able to ask you about the gorgeous Sam Elliot. How is it you know him?” Claire kept brushing, knowing it was an anxiety smasher. 
“We met at the annual Julliard fundraiser in New York, five years ago. He was seated next to me and kept me in the most delightful conversation. He’s very witty and charming. We went to dinner the next night and then he was back to California because he was filming a movie. We keep in touch, have dinner when we’re in the same city, and that’s it. I hear from him every few months.”
 
“So he really likes you, Danny! It is the only reason a man would keep in contact. That is exceptional! Do you like him?”
 
“Well, he’s a friend…”
 
“Honesty please.”
 
“I have the hots for the man, I think”
 
Danny looked a little lost and Claire knew she needed confidence around this man so the real Danny would shine through. She would give that some thought. They chose the perfect hairstyle, pulled back on one side with a beautiful comb, allowing the side sweep on the other side.
 
During dinner, Claire felt bold and announced Danny had a date for the party with a handsome actor and needed some pointers because she was nervous. Danny dropped her fork loudly on her plate and stared at the excited faces around the table. It seemed they were all talking at once until Darius whistled through his teeth to claim the floor.
 
“If you feel nervous talking to him, just imagine you’re talking to one of us and then let it rip.”
 
“Rip?”
 
“Practice poses that are sexy but not obvious.”
 
“Poses? Whatever do you mean, child?”
 
Maia got up and pretended to look at herself in the mirror, doing different poses while she giggled.
 
Jamie wiped his mouth with a napkin and took a sip of wine. “Stay in the moment and look directly in his eyes with your head up. Men love a confident woman. Touch his arm or hand as much as possible. When you introduce him, slip your arm around his back. If you’re getting on, show him the pool, or the garden, so he can kiss you. Have him take his shoes off and feel the warm marble. It is intimate to have your shoes off with a woman.”
 
Claire made eye contact with Jamie, wishing she could kiss him for that answer. The suggestions continued. Some were ridiculous, others funny, but when something resonated in Danny, she tucked it away. What started out as an embarrassment actually made her feel calmer about seeing Sam, and she wouldn’t complain about this to Claire because she had Danny’s best interest at heart.
 
Later, when the yacht was tied down at the new dock, Claire and Jamie were finally alone. She told him that the clinic could not find a suitable donor for his fingers. It would postpone the procedure until one could be found. He put on a brave face, but Claire could see he was upset about waiting. She scratched his back until he fell asleep.
 
Like Claire, Jamie felt like a different person after the recent revelations about their lifestyle. He spent time in his head, late at night, going over the many times he was careless and could have been discovered. Even a minor offense would result in fingerprints and his time would run out, quite suddenly. Trips to shore were out of the question now and he paced in the yacht when the others jumped in the tender for shopping, meeting with caterers, flower sellers, and liquor distributors. Jamie was always the one who pulled double the weight of the others, and now he hid from the world.  
 
The next day, employees of the designer Baracci filed into the yacht, with the new dresses and cases of tools for any alterations. Danny went first, looking stunning in a floor length classic in black with sheer sleeves and upper chest. Next was Claire with a perfect fit, and then it was Maia’s turn. The door to the main head opened and Maia was holding the dress up, yelling it didn’t fit. Three people descended on her, examining the zipper and trying to pull it closed.
 
“Have you gained weight since your measurements, let’s see, five months ago?”
 
“No! You made it wrong, now I have nothing to wear!”
 
“That would be incorrect madam, we don’t make mistakes.”
 
“Everything else I wear fits me. Maybe I’m hormonal before my period, I don’t know, but you gotta fix this.”
 
Once the dress was off, the group of workers pulled the seam lines and decided there was just enough fabric to let out the bodice. Two women sat close on the couch and hand stitched the top of the dress back together.
 
When Claire heard Maia say she was pre-hormonal, she knew that wasn’t right. After living together for so many months, their period was now in sync and Claire was mid-cycle.
 
The dress fit perfectly after the alterations, and Maia was happy and excited to wear it. Claire caught her in the corridor and reminded her they just had a period two weeks ago. Maia blinked at her with confusion.
 
“No we didn’t.”
 
“We certainly did. Well, I did, but you didn’t, do I have that right?”
 
“My period is due any day is all I know.”
 
Maia started up the stairs to their rooms, end of discussion.
 
“Maia, stop. Could you be pregnant?”
 
“Of course not.”
 
“I have seen you drink during a party, which is fine, but not if you’re pregnant.” Claire climbed the steps to join Maia and speak quietly. “If you don’t want Darius to know until you’re sure I can go with you to the store and buy a pregnancy kit. I almost want to insist Maia. You didn’t bleed two weeks ago, meaning your pregnant or have some health issue.”
 
Maia’s face was losing color, and something in her eyes changed. “If you’re serious, please come with me, now.”
 
It was a lovely day, and Claire enjoyed stretching her legs. It took under five minutes to purchase a test but before they could leave the store Maia turned back, telling Claire she couldn’t wait. Five minutes turned into ten while Claire wandered around the store. She suddenly wondered if Maia had gone back without her. She jogged out of the store and back down the dock until she saw the tender and turned around to jog back. Still no Maia.
 
Claire knocked on the single-sitter bathroom door and called for Maia. She kept it up until the door opened and a tear-streaked face looked at her, white as a sheet. She clutched the test stick in her hand and cried. Claire had to pull her fingers apart to verify the results and felt an unexpected joy deep inside that she struggled to hide. She told Maia not to worry, she would support her no matter what. Claire almost pulled Maia down the dock to the tender and climbed behind the wheel.

“Maia, if you need to talk before we go back, I’m here to listen.”

Maia shook her head no and tried to get her crying to stop. When they entered the saloon, she went straight up the stairs and locked the door.
 
Claire sat down at the table feeling shell-shocked by the last thirty minutes. She looked up at Danny who was smiling like the Cheshire cat.
 
“Don’t worry so, Claire. Darius is quite up to the task and he will be such a wonderful father.”
 
Claire’s eyes were huge, as always, blown away by Danny’s gift. “I am going to lay down until things get normal around here.” Before she could get up, Darius breezed through on his way to the galley.
 
“What is that sound?”
 
“That would be Maia crying hysterically.”
 
“What?”
 
Darius shot toward the stairs, taking two at a time because Maia’s crying sounded like someone died. Maia didn’t cry, she got mad, unless her world was really falling apart. He hit the door expecting the handle to open, but it didn’t and he ran smack into the wood.
 
“Maia open the door. What’s happened? Let me in, we will get through this, but you have to let me in.”
 
“No!”
 
“But I sleep in there, with you, so you have to let me in.”
 
“No!”
 
Darius looked at the door hinges and ran down four flights of stairs to get the toolbox. Running back up, he reached the door panting for his life. He took out a chisel and a hammer and started banging the pins out of the hinges.
 
“This would be a lot easier if you opened the door.”
 
“I don’t want you to see me, Darius.”
 
“Too late.”
 
 Darius grappled with the heavy teak door, and carefully leaned it against the wall. He saw Maia get up from the bed and run into the closet. He lunged for it before she could close and lock the door. The closet doubled as the captain's vault and panic room. No chance of getting her out of there. He pulled her out as she continued to cry. She wouldn’t look at him.
 
“Maia, baby, look at me. Tell me what happened.”
 
Maia looked in her purse, then patted her pockets for what seemed like five minutes. Darius patiently waited, wanting to be her calm port in the storm, whatever the storm was.
 
Pulling a plastic stick out of her back pocket, she looked at it, hoping it had changed. Fresh tears came gushing out and Darius was about to lose his composure.
 
“Here, this is what happened, and it’s not my fault, it is yours.”
 
Darius looked at the stick, trying to figure out why it made her cry. It took a minute, then his eyes and brain made the connection and he almost passed out. He pulled Maia to his lap and held her tenderly.
 
“This is most definitely your fault, Maia,” he spoke softly to her. “For being so beautiful, and sweet, and sexy, and so easy to love. If you weren’t all those things, this never would have happened. I feel like I’m going to explode with happiness!”
 
The crying stopped abruptly and wet, confused eyes looked at him.
 
“That is not a thermometer, Darius.”
 
“No sweetheart, it certainly isn’t. It’s a message from the gods that you and I are going to have a baby.”
 
The light shining from his eyes was unmistakable; he was overjoyed, accident or not. When he reached for her, Maia released her pent up fear and melted into him, letting him whisper his happiness into her ear. He lowered her to the bed and ran his hand across her abdomen, feeling a growing heat.
 
“Oh, God! Sorry, just getting to the bridge for my reports.”
 
Jamie passed by their room and got an eye full, wondering how he could get back downstairs without seeing them again. Darius started laughing uncontrollably, and a minute later it came bursting out of Maia as well. Jamie walked to the stairs and suggested they hang the door for some privacy and the two of them roared with laughter.
 
Darius brought a bottle of champagne and glasses to the dinner table and asked the crew to join them in a toast. He called Chef out and handed him a glass.
 
“I have an announcement. Maia and I are having a baby!”
 
Everyone congratulated them with big smiles, truly happy for their captain and his first mate. When they brought their glasses up, Maia put her glass of juice back on the table and ran upstairs crying with Darius right behind her.
 
“Maia, what’s happened, does something hurt baby?”
 
“No.” The tears were flowing again, and Darius wondered how she had any left to shed. “We aren’t married yet, Darius and I will be a fat bride with a child out of wedlock. My mother will never forgive me!”
 
He hugged her with relief, promising to remedy the situation as soon as possible, and led her back to the table.
 
After dinner, Jamie asked Claire to the studio to show her his latest paintings. There were two of them, partially completed. One of them was a study of himself with his back to the observer. He sat alone on a hill overlooking the ocean. Long grass swayed in the breeze all around him.
 
“It’s a beautiful painting, Jamie, but why does it make me want to cry?”
 
“I had to paint it, to get it out of my head. It was the future I thought I was doomed to when I had to leave you. I dream of sitting on that hill, watching the sea, hoping to get a glimpse of the boat. It wakes me up, like a nightmare, and then I can’t sleep, so I paint. It makes you sad because I am sad in that reality. I still dream of it, so the painting didn’t help in that regard.”
 
“Why not paint me into the picture, with a picnic basket or just leaning against you? Would that make a difference?”
 
Jamie had an excited smile on his face and reached for a small brush to paint in the form of Claire next to him, leaning against him.
 
“You are a genius, love. I can feel my emotion changing already, so this has to work.”
 
Jamie seemed relieved that adding Claire to the painting might stop his dreams. She watched him and it dawned on her that Jamie was traumatized by having to leave her. He made the decision; he made the plan, and he got all the way to the water’s edge before Danny intervened. Poor Jamie’s heart broke so deep and now it wouldn’t heal. It woke him up in a panic every night, and he was desperate to get over this. She put her arm around him and looked into his eyes. There it was, how could she not see the hurt that was still there.
 
“Are you ready for bed handsome? Maybe we can talk a bit about our future, where we might settle down when all this is over. If you’re up to it tonight.”
 
He pressed Claire into the wall with his body and lowered his head until his mouth was an inch from hers.
 
“Tell me, Sassenach, do you like the city or the country?”
 
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
 
“Do you want four seasons, or two?”
 
“I’m not sure.”
 
“What about tropical?”
 
“Yes, I like tropical.”
 
Jamie’s hand moved up her leg, “do you want to be close to a university and teach?”
 
“I haven’t thought about that.”
 
His warm hand caressed her butt, just the way she liked.
 
“So we start with a blank canvas and create our utopia, piece by piece. Is that what you’re suggesting?”
 
Jamie smiled at her face, eyes closed, so aroused, so beautiful. He pulled her toward the door, flipping the lights off, hoping he would have a dreamless night.
 
In New York City, Sebastian met with two men hired to investigate the key people around his mother. They were coaching her; they had to be. If he took them out of the picture she would crumble, he was sure of it. He buzzed his secretary to come in with the airline tickets. She picked up the trash can in the conference room and slowed her leaving by straightening up.
 
“I don’t care how you do it, but I want to know who they are. With luck, we find enough dirt to send them packing. He handed each of them a picture of a woman. You are going to the party as her plus one and it cost me a fortune to get those bozos to agree, so make sure I didn’t piss the money away. Here’s a pen for each of you.” Sebastian demonstrated how to take pictures with the pen and gave them copies of the newspaper pictures of his mother, Claire, and Maia.
 
“Your flight leaves early in the morning. You will have ample time to get a tuxedo and meet your date at the time and place on the back of the picture. You are now a part of the team that will ruin my mother, and I will pay millions in bonuses when I gain the remaining shares to take the company from her.”
 
One of the men looked at Sebastian like he was a monster. He had never heard anyone talk about their own mother that way.
 
“Don’t judge me, asshole, you have no idea. She is a lunatic, fuckin crazy. It’s called dementia and she will have the best therapy money can buy once I kick her out of here. Now get the fuck out.”
 
The door to the conference room was closing silently when they all stood up. The secretary made a dash for the elevator so he couldn’t detain her after the meeting. She waited too long to leave and her heart pounded thinking he might come up behind her. When the elevator doors closed, she exhaled and pressed her back into the wall to steady herself. She chastised herself for being weak and letting that psycho get to her. She needed to train and remind herself how good she was. Her only hope for this mission was an opportunity to kick the little fucker’s ass when it was over.
 
The day of the party, everyone was up early, helping the crew stow furniture from the saloon, clean the chandeliers, and polish until everything was gleaming. Maia sat on the edge of their bed, looking miserable while Darius paced the room in front of her. He was being overbearing to protect her, and it was not working for her.
 
“Darius! Stop moving, stop speaking, please. I am going to the party to stand next to Danny and give her information that she needs. I am too careful to drink alcohol and I’m very protected with Danny and Claire.” She smiled sweetly at Darius and spoke in a mild, ladylike voice at first. “Just because I am growing your baby, DOES NOT MAKE YOU THE BOSS OF ME!”
 
Claire was up on a ladder wiping the crystal that hung from the chandelier. She could hear Maia and laughed so hard she almost fell off. She scrambled down and was almost knocked over by two caterers bringing trays of food to the galley. She was used to the party-day madness and took it in stride. She watched for Jamie, eager to know if the dream came back last night. So far, he was in another part of the boat working with Ethan.
 
Danny walked through the saloon mid-afternoon, rounding up Claire and Maia to start getting ready. She sent them off to their bubble baths, making a face at such an indulgence. Claire ran to her room, grabbed her favorite bubble bath, and took the elevator down so Danny didn’t see her. She boldly entered Danny’s room and ran her a hot bath, pouring in the magic. On the way back to her room she told Danny there was a surprise in her bathroom but she had to hurry.
 
Who doesn’t love a surprise? Danny was shocked at the mountain of bubbles and the amazing scent. She couldn’t stop herself from shedding her clothes and stepping into the tub. It was thrilling to lower herself into the hot water and she groaned with pleasure. Her very first bubble bath was exquisite, and she laid in the tub longer than she should have. Loud knocking pulled her back to the present as two stylists came walking into the enormous bathroom getting set up to do hair. One of them was a man, and Danny wanted to evaporate with embarrassment.
 
“Oh, there you are, still in the tub. Time to get out so we can add the glamour, Miss Meyers.”
 
“What’s to be done with this?”
 
Danny lifted her arm that was encased in bubbles, trying to shake them off. The woman saw her deep blush and ordered the man out of the room until she was dressed. Grabbing a huge towel, she pulled it open and approached Danny, looking the other way until the towel was wrapped around her. She caught a glimpse of Danny cowering in the towel with large chunks of bubbles stuck to her legs, arms, and head.
 
“You just shower that off and wash your hair while I go out for the rest of our equipment. It will take me fifteen minutes at least, so just relax and enjoy your shower.”
 
Later, when Danny was comfortable in her robe, the makeup artist applied her makeup while her hair was being dried. He reached for the conservative fake lashes and was just about to press one to her lid when Claire walked in.
 
“No! Stop. Ah, please stop. She wants a fuller lash, like this one!”
 
Claire dropped into a chair and pulled the towel off her head. Danny shrugged at the man and he pulled the fuller lashes out.
 
Jamie and Darius were meeting with two men by the pool, partly for privacy and to avoid the chaos upstairs. They were hired by Danny for security and were being apprised of the information Danny had this morning. The men wrote the names of the two women who would bring Sebastian’s men into the party. Jamie and Darius would escort the women out of the yacht, forcefully, if need be, with one of the guards behind them to ensure a peaceful exit. The hired men were very sharp and understood every directive.
 
When the meeting was over Jamie looked at the sulking Darius and asked about the sudden change in mood.
 
“What’s wrong, happy daddy.”
 
Darius looked up and growled a warning.
 
“Come now, second thoughts?”
 
Darius’s face softened, and he smiled talking about the baby. The hard edge came back talking about Maia not doing what she’s told.
 
“So, it’s not fun anymore because Maia wants to live her life as a grown-up, like she’s done for the past how many years?”
 
“Fuck off Jamie, it’s a Greek thing.”
 
Jamie shrugged and left, thinking a nap might take the edge off of his anxiety. He was losing so much sleep it made him feel befuddled and clumsy, one more thing to hate about himself, one more thing to be cured in Switzerland.

Jamie heard Claire in the closet and got up to shower and dress. Claire had her foot up on a stool, attaching the straps of her heels, she looked up and smiled. Her hair was up with sparkling things in it and her elegant gown dropped to the floor when she stood up.

“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, Claire.”

“Well, I’m waiting for my handsome prince to take me to the ball.”

She wanted light hearted banter but when she saw the fatigue in his face she had to ask him. “Are you alright Jamie?”

“Yes, Sassenach, just tired, sleeping poorly." They looked at each other for a minute. "Am I enough for you, love. I mean do you like the way I look?”

Her sparkling eyes met his and turned red with her emotion. “You are so beautiful it makes my heart hurt sometimes. I have never known a more handsome man, inside and out.” She offered a cheek for him to kiss and smiled at him with all the love she felt.

“Now get in the shower gorgeous, I feel like a princess and want to show off.”

That seemed to break the spell making Jamie laugh as he pulled his clothes off and turned on the water. Claire left to join Danny and Maia and the three women took their positions to greet the guests.
 
Claire saw him first. Such a handsome man, such a great mustache. She watched him move up the line of people until he saw Danny. His face softened, and he smiled to himself, watching her until he stepped in front of her.
 
“Sepora, you’ve changed some things and I approve.”
 
Danny looked up at Sam Elliot and smiled. He looked her over, quite overtly, making her blush. She introduced Claire and Maia to him, and they shook hands.
 
“You’re my first.” Maia blushed while shaking his hand.
 
“I beg your pardon?”
 
“I have never shaken hands with a famous actor before.”
 
“It is my honor then, Maia.”
 
He smiled at Danny; “I am going to the back of the line because I want to look at you longer.” 

“I think I could move over a few feet and we will tuck you in between us!”
 
Claire moved to the side and kept smiling.
 
“Nestled between three beautiful women is my kind of welcome!”
 
Claire didn’t dare leave because she had to alert Jamie when the two women showed up with Sabastian’s men. Maia wasn’t speaking to Darius and hated Jamie by association tonight, so it was up to her.
 
The saloon filled with movie stars, stockholders, board members, and politicians. The kind of guest list one would sell their soul to attend. Later in the evening, Danny showed Sam around the lavish yacht while Claire and Maia watched the door. By eight o’clock, Sebastian’s men had not been identified, so Claire went out to the crewman who checked invitations. They were already here! She looked at the names after the women and decided they had been here for a while. She panicked and went looking for Danny.
 
Claire jogged everywhere she wouldn’t be seen, calling for Danny frantically. When she walked out to the foredeck she saw the couple standing very close, so she turned around and called to Danny, asking for her immediate attention.
 
“Claire dear?”
 
“Sebastian’s men are here, have been for a while, we just missed them. You must walk through the saloon with me and look for the women.”
 
“Sam, my guests are asking for me, would you join us?”
 
One woman was spotted immediately, and Claire broke away to find Darius. It was taking so long to find the other woman and they started a second time around the crowded room. Danny pinched Claire, describing the dress and color. Claire broke away to find Jamie.
 
Jamie and Darius were perfect gentlemen when they approached the ladies, nodding to their dates.
 
“Miss Weatherbe, Sepora has asked me to find you for a word.”
 
He led the couple to the entrance and kept walking. The man figured out they were being thrown off the boat and turned around to get lost in the crowd. A giant security agent was directly behind him and physically turned him around with a not so gentle push.
 
They were asked to leave and warned not to come back or Sepora would have them arrested for trespassing. The female crewman who checked the guests in was replaced with Ethan, who had a micro-radio in the pocket of his uniform in case they came back.
 
The enormous side entrance to the yacht was wide open to provide fresh air and a way to access the side decks so guests could stroll if they chose to. It was the only other way inside. Claire pleaded with Jamie to guard that door. She was freaked out about people snooping their identity and wanted Jamie out of harm’s way. He reluctantly agreed and found a seat where he could monitor who was coming in and out.
 
Danny was so lost in her evening with Sam she hardly noticed the switch of crew members or Jamie walking in and out of the deck door, fighting the boredom. By eleven o'clock, he was losing his mind. He stared at his fingertips, hating them for betraying him when a shadow was picked up in his peripheral vision. He was on the man before he could make it to the crowd of people, and he dragged him back into the shadows of the corridor.
 
“I’m afraid you’re going to jail tonight, friend.”
 
The man was pleading to speak with Danny, saying he came back to warn her of something. Jamie alerted Darius and the two of them listened to the man begging to speak with Danny.
 
“You can haul me to jail after I speak with Miss Meyers!”
 
They took the man to the pool level by the elevator and five minutes later Danny walked up to them, followed by Sam. She looked at the man and reached out to shake his hand, even knowing he was the enemy.
 
“You came back at great risk, sir, go ahead, I’m listening.”
 
The man told her everything he heard from Sebastian, what his plan was, how much money he was promising those that helped him.
 
“I have never heard a person talk about their mother like that and I can see, clearly, you are not suffering from dementia. He is planning a hostile takeover of the company, ma’am. He is your son, so please pardon what I say. He is evil.”
 
The man turned to Jamie and said he was ready. Danny thanked him and shoved a check in his coat pocket for fifty thousand dollars.
 
“You risked going to jail to warn me. I appreciate that.” She touched his hand. “Oh! You are going to be a father, first time, isn’t that wonderful?” She looked at Darius as the man turned pale.
 
She reached into his pocket and tore the check in half. Extracting another from her clutch, she replaced it for double the amount. Danny was feeling miracles all around her and rewarded a good man.
 
Darius escorted the man to the street after asking him to turn out his pockets. He whistled for a cab and walked back to the yacht.
 
By one o’clock in the morning, the guests were gone and the big doors were closed and locked. Darius found Maia sound asleep and gently pushed the hair from her face, saying I love you and I am so sorry for being a brute. They made their way upstairs, and the crew took over cleaning and setting the boat right again.
 
Claire laid in Jamie’s arms in their dark room and felt sleep coming fast. She asked about his dream.
 
“Has the dream left you, sweetheart?”
 
“It will in time, love.”

Chapter Text

Sebastian bounced off the elevator and spotted his surly secretary holding up the newspaper. Not even she could crush his mood today. The frigid bitch. He was high on solutions to his problematic mother and could not wait for the men to report in.
 
“The society page, sir, it seems your mother has done it again.”
 
She rolled her eyes, giving Sebastian a feeling of camaraderie. It was a rare sign of her loyalty that made him follow her five-foot eight-inch curves down to her four-inch heels. She was a striking woman with a commanding personality that was concealed by large innocent eyes and freckles across the bridge of her nose. When she was sent by the employment agency Sebastian saw a rose, ripe for the picking, and her credentials weren’t bad either. Her fat lips parted, and he felt the stab of a hardening dick, right at her eye level. He had fantasized those lips sliding down his dick so many times the urge to grab her head was overwhelming. He exhaled, telling himself she would be his prize when the door closed behind his mother.
 
He looked at the multiple pictures of Danny, Claire, and Maia. Nice party mother, he thought, let’s see how well you do when I pull those two bitches off your tit. His mother looked incredible, with a new haircut and color and sheer sleeves showing toned arms that belied her age. The magma was boiling in his stomach and his hands shook with rage. How dare she make an effort or spend his money to look younger? He looked closer at the opulent extravagance of the party and the two sycophants that were always with her. He roared with hatred and flung the paper across the room, chest heaving from his anger. He unzipped his pants and squeezed lotion on his hand before urging his cock into a stiff weapon. Then he buzzed his secretary to take dictation. One sure way to take the edge off.   
 
Danny’s post-party brunch was served on the uppermost deck, high off the water with a panoramic view of the historical Newport harbor. A beautiful table was set with sparkling champagne in crystal stem wear, steaming coffee, and gorgeous fine bone china. Food arrived on a modern dumbwaiter and crewmen moved the platters and serving bowls to a side table before sending it back to the galley for more.
 
Claire chose a tailored silk pant-suit the color of her eyes and an ivory turtleneck under the jacket. The flat iron pulled through her hair as she was lost in thought about Jamie’s nightmares. He looked tired, and she worried about his health, and his heart. He came up behind her and kissed her neck, asking if she was ready. Arms went around his waist and she gazed into his azure eyes before laying her head on his chest.
 
“I love you.”
 
“I love you too, my sweet lass.”
 
When they stepped onto the deck, Claire saw Sam Elliot next to Danny and turned her head to conceal her shock. They were in an animated conversation with Darius and Maia as the crew buzzed around them setting up an enormous brunch. Jamie growled his hunger in her ear making her giggle as they were greeted by those already at the table. The conversation was light and fun while they filled plate after plate with food. Sam entertained the group, giving the history of various buildings and the lighthouse arranged on the shore. Danny looked at him with such fondness. Head up, she held his gaze when she talked or listened, very much his equal. Claire’s eyes started stinging and she pinched her wrist under the table to push back on her emotion.
 
Darius looked at his watch and announced a mid-day siesta while the crew and Chef enjoyed the brunch. Steven carried stacks of plates to the dumbwaiter and cleared the table to be set again for the crew. There was a new girl helping him, and he stopped to introduce her to everyone because she was taking Cici’s place.
 
“Everyone, this is Holly, from Switzerland. Holly, this is Darius, Maia, Jamie, Claire, Danny, and Sam.”
 
Darius extended his hand to her, “we’ve met, during her interview. Please let Steven know if you need anything, Holly.”
 
“Aye, captain.”
 
Darius gave the crew two hours to gorge themselves before reporting to duty. He looked at his watch and noticed the whole crew was waiting for the captain to leave before sitting down.
 
“I want to thank you all for your efforts before and after the party. I am proud of you, individually, and as a crew. Relax, eat, and report to your station at sixteen hundred hours. Dismissed.”
 
Back in their rooms, Claire pouted at Jamie until he laid down and spooned with her. His exhaustion came out as a long grown when he hit the mattress. He pulled her to him and was deep in sleep in a few minutes. Claire kept shifting her weight, trying to get comfortable, and finally slipped out of bed so she wouldn’t wake him. The boat was spotless and there was little to do, so she wandered up to Jamie’s studio. Maybe she would draw a bowl of flowers or something.
 
Claire’s eyes darted from one canvas to another in total shock at the number of new paintings he had started in two days. The painting on his working easel was of her walking down a wood pier, looking out to sea. She was barefoot, holding sandals in one hand. Her face was pensive, if not melancholy, her eyes were searching for something. Claire pulled an easel over and set the painting of Jamie on the hill so they were side by side. Why are you stuck in that reality, Jamie? Yes, we would have looked like these two people but we didn’t separate, we are together. How do I help you with this?
 
Sam and Danny walked along the beach and talked for as long as they could. When it was time, Sam kissed her and got into his car. Danny felt empty and confused, not to mention a dozen more emotions completely foreign to her. Jealousy, of what she didn’t know, loneliness, abandonment, fear of being without him, and more. There was one emotion that was bigger than all the others combined, that was love.
 
“Danny!”
 
Hearing her name pulled her out of her thoughts and she watched Claire jog down the dock toward her. Her cheeks were pink with the exercise and her smile was sweet. Another one I love, Danny thought.
 
“Dear Claire, you’re out running nowhere again, I see.”
 
Claire laughed at Danny’s description of exercise and tried to catch her breath.
 
“I have questions, Sepora Meyers, so just tell me everything. Hmm, not talking very much, okay, wow you slept with Sam last night. How did that go?”
 
Danny turned a startled eye on Claire. “Do people ask about such intimate things?”
 
“I don’t mean to pry Danny. Oh hell, of course, I do. I don’t need all the details, just the overall experience. Was it heaven on earth?”
 
Danny stopped like she was searching for the right words.
 
“Fanfuckingstastic?”
 
“Oh my God, Danny! I am so happy for you, woohoo. You both seemed totally into each other, last night and today. So, why are you walking alone? Is Sam asleep?”
 
“No, he is finishing up a new movie and has to work. He left about twenty minutes ago. He is an amazing man and I miss him now. It is making my heart hurt, not knowing when I will see him again. I would give up my fortune for him to love me back. I’m a bit scared by such big feelings.”
 
Claire spoke quietly, “can’t you see his emotion, Danny?”
 
“No. One of Sebastian’s men came back to the boat late last night to warn me about my son’s plans. I touched his hand and felt his sparkling happiness at being a father for the first time, his devotion to his wife, the loss of his job recently, even his love for his mother for heaven’s sake. But I couldn’t read anything from Sam, and now I feel vulnerable.”
 
Claire hugged Danny and rocked her. “It’s the new love syndrome I’m afraid, and I recommend having faith in Sam. Did he mention seeing you at some point in the future?”
 
“I asked him to come to New York with us. He said he wanted to with a few choice words about Sebastian, but he had commitments that were impossible to get out of. He said he would meet up with us as soon as he could.”
 
“Yea!”
 
“What if he didn’t mean it, Claire?”
 
“Well, you stick the memory away for safekeeping and if he calls in three months you can not answer, cut the conversation short, yell at him, or wish him well. You will know what your heart wants to do by then. I am an excellent judge of people. Had no gift like yours and no sure thing, like parents or siblings. I learned early on to read a person’s sincerity and honesty. Sam Elliot is a good man and he won’t hurt you.”
 
Claire kissed Danny’s cheek and pulled her crackling radio out of her pocket to hear Darius call Jamie to the bridge, followed by “It is sixteen one five hours and your presence is required on the bridge before we weigh anchor. Claire, report to the bridge on the double. Jamie, check-in.”
 
“Holy shit, I’m late and Jamie is not answering. I gotta go, Danny.”
 
They were already at the boat, and Claire sprinted inside to get Jamie up and report to the bridge.
 
“Jamie, sweetheart, we are late reporting to the bridge. Time to wake up.”
 
 A warm hand came around her and pulled her to the mattress. His lips were so warm and she lost herself in his kiss before she remembered they were late.  
 
“C’mon and hurry!”
 
Claire bounded up the stairs and snuck into the crew meeting, getting a harsh eye from Darius. He dismissed them to their stations, handing out radios as they left.
 
“I am so sorry, Darius. Danny needed moral support and…”
 
“I don’t want to hear it, crewman.”
 
After interrupting her, he dropped his head to hide his grin. Maia laughed at him and told him not to be such an asshole. Claire relaxed until Jamie walked in with his swimming trunks on and a polo shirt. A towel was draped around his neck. He looked utterly confused.
 
“What? You said we were swimming, right?”
 
Poor Jamie was befuddled from a sleep deficit too large for a nap to cure. It just made him groggy. Darius stared at him, wondering if he was drunk. Claire jumped in and pushed Jamie out with her to change clothes and grab coffee before coming back in under five minutes.
 
She ran him down the stairs, causing him to wake up enough to know they were in trouble with the captain. He ran to their room for clothes and grabbed the thermal cup of black coffee Claire handed him before running to her post on the aft deck. Before the first tie was thrown to her, she watched Maia jump onto the dock. There was a five-foot gap between the boat and dock. What if she missed?
 
“Jesus Maia, don’t scare me like that!”
 
“Like what?”
 
It was obvious Maia had no idea what she was talking about. Claire took a deep breath, mumbling how this was a new level of crazy, and caught the first line. Ethan ran past her, laughing that she was in trouble for being late. He went over the side to man the anchor chain. Holly jogged by right behind him and smiled shyly, then she went over the edge.
 
Claire was in her head, feeling overwhelmed. This is the last leg of their trip, Danny is in love and unprepared if Sam ghosts her, Jamie is having night terrors and preparing to fly to Switzerland at a moment’s notice. Maia is pregnant and jumping off the boat like a gazelle. She felt very small suddenly, wanting to climb in Javier’s lap and rest her head on his chest like she used to. She heard Jamie’s strong voice over her radio.
 
“Crewmen, report position and status to the bridge.”
 
Claire smiled, listening to his strong voice. She decided she couldn’t control everything, like Danny, Sam, Maia, or Darius. All she had to do is report for her shift on time, and love Jamie. She pressed the button on her radio.
 
“From the aft deck, ties are stowed, and ah, I’m crazy in love with the first mate. Just thought you should know, captain.”
 
Both Jamie and Darius raised their head, “what did she say?” The crew giggled and Claire went inside to look for Danny.
 
“I got your crazy,” she said to no one in particular. 

Danny was sitting in the saloon reading and glancing at her phone every other minute.
 
Will you sit with me on the foredeck for our departure Danny, and you too Maia. Maia?
 
After a head shake, Maia looked at Claire, “what did you ask me?”
 
Claire stared at her, sure she had been asleep sitting upright, and wondered how that was possible.
 
“A last farewell to California, c’mon.” Claire stood at the front rail, deep in thought about New York and what was waiting for them. She wasn’t afraid for herself, but she was very afraid for Danny. She shivered just thinking about it.
 
Claire sat with the others and talked while Danny drove herself nuts, checking her phone every other minute.
 
“Danny, stop for a minute. Sam got stuck in traffic and was late getting to the studio. He was tossed into a makeup chair and then hauled off to the set and hasn’t had a moment yet to call you. It’s okay, that happens sometimes. Come with me. Let’s put your phone on the charger and leave it in your room. I’ll give you a radio and all you do is press a button and we can all hear you. You will love it.”
 
Danny followed and did exactly as Claire suggested, closing the door on her cell phone and carrying a radio. By dinner time, she was feeling a little better and enjoyed the first meal at sea. After dinner, Claire excused herself to sleep before her shift started at midnight. Her eyes lingered on Jamie’s like an invitation, and he was five minutes behind her.
 
They talked a bit while Claire pulled his clothes off and walked him to bed. Jamie looked confused about being put to bed and hoped she was coming with him. She was telling him she was worried about his mental state on so little sleep and she wanted him to sleep with her each night because his nightmares were always late at night.
 
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?”
 
“I had plans to worship your body tonight before we rested.” Now I’m too close to the mattress and it's pulling me in.”
 
Claire smiled to herself as she unbuttoned her shirt. “Push yourself up on the headboard. I have questions about what the doctors told you on the conference call.”
 
Jamie went into his explanation of the plans they made and the timeline for healing. Claire made sure she kept herself in front of him as she rolled the skinny jeans down her legs and walked in her thong panties to grab the lotion. She kept throwing out questions requiring long answers, and Jamie obliged with an explanation and followed her hand that spread the lotion all over her body with his eyes.
 
“Come, love, lay here, next to me. I worry you will be neglected when my fingers are bound in gauze and cannot touch you. Touch yourself. I will teach you if needed, touch yourself, Claire.”
 
Claire laid back on the pillows and dragged her fingers down her body, over her nipples, and then to her core. Jamie was right next to her, up on his elbow, watching with intense interest. She purposely made it last and was panting as she got close. Jamie was spellbound when she pushed him back to the headboard and straddled him, guiding him to her until her body opened up to him. Her erotic foreplay turned him on and he was fighting his need to let it go. Claire’s finger touched her bud and wrapped around Jamie’s cock, going in and out of her. She couldn’t hold on any longer and her orgasm sent Jamie over the top. He pulled her down on his chest while he panted for air.
 
Claire kissed his neck, “I think we’ll do just fine.”
 
When he didn’t respond, she looked at his face, relaxed in sleep, looking like an angel. She rolled to his side and followed him into the void.
 
The long break in California made it that much harder to get back into the swing of things. Claire spent days with Danny and Maia, gathering information on the guests. After dinner, she coaxed Jamie to bed with her and monitored him during her shift that started at midnight. He was up most nights, sometimes an hour, other times it was all night.
 
Danny got quieter and more withdrawn as the days passed because she gave up on Sam. He couldn’t possibly have strong feelings for her and not even call. She tried to feel gratitude for what he made her feel. She could have gone to the grave never feeling the heat of an experienced hand touch her. Her marriage was almost fifty years ago and sex was her duty and nothing more.
 
On day three of the trip, Darius stayed within ten miles of the coast of Baja. They were watching a squall make its lazy way toward them. No way to outrun it, so Darius handed Jamie a patch and told him to stick it behind his ear. The all hands on deck was issued by the captain followed by orders to cover the deck furniture on the double and report when they were back inside. Jamie watched the storm and Darius watched the crew on monitors, willing them to hurry.
 
The bridge was being hailed by an external craft, asking for coordinates, direction, and speed.
 
“State your purpose.”
 
The helicopter pilot complied, saying the storm came out of nowhere and he needed to land, then he added he was bringing a friend of theirs. Darius dropped speed to eight knots and told the crew to prepare for a helio landing. Jamie and Darius watched the sky and listened for the chopper. Lights pierced the cloud cover, and the helicopter dropped out of the sky and landed softly on the foredeck. Darius sent Jamie out to help with attaching restraints. He saw the passenger door open and a man dropped to the deck carrying a large suitcase. Incredibly, the blades started spinning again and the pilot took off toward blue sky.
 
Jamie’s smile was brilliant as he shook Sam Elliot’s hand. Darius watched them on the monitors, “thank God.” He turned his attention back to the storm. Sam was desperate to know if Danny was alright. He had been calling for days and left as soon as shooting wrapped. When they entered the saloon everyone went crazy, all talking at once, while Sam looked around for Danny.
 
Claire saw Sam get out of the chopper and blazed down to Danny’s room, pounding on the door. She told Danny to get dressed and hurry, Sam Elliot was onboard! She handed Danny a comb, then powder foundation, mascara, and blush. Danny jumped into an outfit given to her by Gloria Vanderbilt. White denim jeans and a color matching long sweater. Claire pushed her out the door and made for a stealthy entrance from the elevator.
 
Danny stood at the top of the stairs and feasted her eyes on Sam. When he saw her, it took two strides to wrap her in his arms.
 
“I about had a heart attack when you didn’t answer your phone woman, are ya alright?”
 
“My phone? It is, uh.”
 
Danny looked at the radio in her hand and realized her mistake. Not to have faith in Sam.
 
“I don’t know how you found us, but I am so glad you did! Let’s get your luggage put away. By the size of your suitcase, can I assume you are going with us to New York?”
 
“You can, darlin. I’m with ya till the wheels fall off.”
 
Claire retreated into the galley so she could jump up and down unseen by the crew. When she saw Chef looking around the corner at her she stopped abruptly and joined the others. She felt a wave of relief come through her and looked forward to a happy dinner with Sam next to Danny.
 
On the bridge, Darius watched the margins of the storm start moving away from them. He exhaled and kissed Maia hello when she came on shift. He explained the retreating storm and asked her to watch it closely in case it came around again.

Jamie asked him for a word and they sat down in the private office in the captain’s quarters. Jamie was pensive, leaning on his knees and looking at his hands.
 
“You have been an exceptional friend from the very first day I met you and I have kept things from you. I would like to fix that if you have a few minutes. I decided I had to leave Claire and go on my own, to keep her safe from the people who will never stop hunting me.”
 
Darius remained quiet while the story took him up to the night he stepped out on the deck to leave forever.
 
“Is there more?”
 
“Sorry, I can hear your stomach growling from here. Yes. The rest you take to the grave and never tell anyone because a very fine man has personally guaranteed our silence and they will kill him if this gets out.”
 
“My, my Jamie, you do keep some interesting friends.”
 
“I am having a procedure done in Switzerland if they ever find a donor. I am having skin grafts on my fingers to replace my fingerprints.”
 
“What?”
 
“Someone who has a clean history somewhere will donate his fingerprints for one million dollars. And I will be free. When I told you I would have to leave at a moment’s notice, it put you in a bad spot. I’m sorry for being so selfish. I called the clinic in Switzerland and postponed the procedure until after January first. You put a lot of effort into training me for captain on duty and I’m ready.”
 
“I’ll be the judge of that, I haven’t even tested you yet because I thought I would be looking for someone to take your place.”
 
“Do I need a number two pencil?”
 
“Nope, we start tomorrow, swapping places with you making all the decisions. You get two questions answered for your eight-hour shift so use them wisely, or not at all.”
 
They stood up and shook hands. Darius said he understood the gravity of the situation, gave his word he would never speak of it, and thanked Jamie for his trust.
 
“Do they sew the new fingerprint right over yours?”
 
“No, they take mine off first.”
 
“Jesus! That’s gonna hurt!”
 
They sat down at the table and threw questions at Sam, mostly to welcome him.
 
“The day I left there was a wreck on the freeway, held traffic up for two hours. I was so late checking into the studio they grabbed me by the collar and I didn’t see a free minute until three in the morning when we broke for the night. I started calling Danny the next morning and didn’t get an answer for the next two days. I was pretty sure you all ditched New York and went to Jamaica, or something bad had happened.”
 
Danny looked at Sam with so much gratitude it was obvious to all that she loved this man.
 
“That second option gnawed on my gut until I was bout to lose my mind. The director released me and I flew to Costa Rica and hired a helicopter to look for y’all. Just got lucky.”
 
The following morning, Jamie kissed Claire when he reported to the bridge and she wished him luck playing captain for the day. Jamie felt rested for a change and his mood was happy until Darius explained they would be crossing the continental divide through the Panama Canal in thirty minutes.
 
“Report first-mate.”
 
Darius smiled and reported all internal systems. Jamie watched the horizon, stabilizers, sonar, and radar. He checked the electronic map and estimated the time to the Panama Canal within minutes of Darius’s estimation. It was a beautiful day and Jamie was having the time of his life until he saw an approaching barge.
 
“Entering course correction to give-way to privileged vessel approaching.”
 
He entered the correction without hesitation, something Darius couldn’t do on his first time at the helm. Darius checked their bearing and said not a word. The navigation system was corrected again after the ship passed and the first alarm for the approaching entrance to the Canal was flashing.
 
Darius looked at Jamie’s confidence and decided he had no idea what they were in for today.
 
Darius cleared his throat, “tell me about the Panama Canal, captain.”
 
“A system of locks that raise the boat eighty-five feet above sea level by flooding the lock, it is a progressive raising, like an elevator. We enter Gatun Lake at the top and proceed across to the Pacific side of locks and repeat the process down until released at sea level. We will be tethered through the canal and it will take eight hours to cross.”
 
Darius tried to maintain his stoic continence and lost it, smiling his approval at Jamie’s preparation. The continuous stops and starts, systems checks, and trips to the side deck for instructions from the handlers would have taxed the nerves of a seasoned captain but Jamie looked calm and in control for the first six hours, then struggled until their lines were released by the line handlers. It was well past the end of their shift. Maia and Steven sat in observation and silently marveled at the engineering of the locks. Jamie requested the crew on duty to report status and location and then set their speed at twenty-three knots. The sweat running into his eyes stung and his shirt sleeve was wet from constant wiping.
 
“Permission to step down.”
 
Everyone on the bridge clapped for his first day as captain on duty and the monumental effort it took to cross the continental divide. They were now in the Caribbean Sea heading toward the gulf. Darius shook Jamie’s hand with a huge smile, never to divulge his own nerves as they traversed the locks.
 
Jamie went downstairs on wobbly legs and made for their room where he would find a clean shirt and towel for his sweaty face. Once seated for dinner, Darius described the torturous job of getting through the locks and Jamie’s cool under pressure performance.
 
Claire could see Jamie was wrung out from the stress of the day. As soon as the plates were taken away, she excused them both and led Jamie to their room. Jamie laid down and listened to the familiar sounds of a bath being drawn. He was almost asleep when Claire’s cool hands pulled him up and removed his clothes, then led him to the bath and pointed. Jamie looked at the steamy water and lack of bubbles and agreed to get in, letting the hot water pull his stress out.
 
On the last night before reaching Texas, Danny threw a party for Ethan, and the crew cut loose a bit, playing music and dancing. Danny was quick to go above to enjoy a quieter activity. Darius and Maia stopped by for a bit and Maia broke away rolling her eyes because she had to pee again. The first head was occupied so she continued along the corridor catching two people in an embrace. The new girl, Holly, and…Brittany? Maia held her hands up and backed away until she was out of the corridor. She told Darius she was tired and would meet him upstairs, then she left.
 
Something weighed heavy on his mind, so Darius walked the foredeck for twenty minutes before going to their quarters. He had made the only decision he could, no other options, and Maia was going to hate it. He decided to get it over with and smiled at Maia watching a movie in her pajamas. When Darius climbed into bed, he was ready for his fiance to start swinging so he just rushed through it.
 
“Maia, you have seen this movie a dozen times, could you turn it off for a few minutes, I have to talk to you.”
 
The movie was shut off and Maia sat cross-legged ready to talk.
 
“I had to reassign the bridge teams and ah, I moved you to the midnight shift with Claire. Is that alright with you?”
 
“Yep, so does Jamie go to my old shift with Steven?”
 
“That’s right.”
 
Maia was digging a cookie out of the package. “So who is with you?”
 
“The only other crewman with bridge experience, Holly.”
 
“Okay. Do you want me to train her in the morning?”
 
“Yes… Really Maia? All these changes are cool with you? I expected more of an explosion. Come here, sweetheart.”
 
“Holly is super nice and she won’t try to steal you because she only likes girls, so yea I'm cool with it.”
 
Darius chuckled as he pulled her closer to him.
 
In New York City, a man laid in intensive care with a machine to breathe for him and monitors that recorded his blip of a heartbeat, waiting to signal his death. He was brought in by the police, nearly frozen through, found behind a dumpster in jeans and a ripped up shirt, covered in dried blood. The doctors were amazed he had lasted the night and day. He would be moved to county hospital tonight because he was still a John Doe. No wallet, just a picture of a woman with a time and address on the back.

Chapter Text

Penelope Meyer drove up her four-hundred-foot driveway after dropping the girls off at school. She was surprised to see Sebastian’s car in the driveway because he didn’t come home all night. She could give a shit, hoping someday he would stay away forever. Two bags of groceries were carried in and ample time was taken to put them all away. Still no Sebastian. With a deep sigh, she went upstairs to say hello.
 
“Good morning, dear. Why aren’t you at work?”
 
Sebastian pressed into the end of the couch and looked out the window. He looked odd to Penelope, but she had done her wifely duty saying good morning and had no further wish to engage. So she changed into her tennis clothes and left without another word.
 
Sebastian was in agony and held his right hand gingerly. Once downstairs, he laid his hand in an ice bucket and poured ice over it, flinching as the cubes hit his mangled fingers. He hoped it would heal on its own. An emergency visit to x-ray his right hand had to be avoided and that was his driving force at the moment. Three strong pain pills were washed down with whisky and then he laid down. When he closed his eyes, he saw the blood. Buckets and buckets of blood all over his office that had to be cleaned up with just one hand.
 
Penelope, still red-faced from her game of tennis, walked into her room, pulling her polo shirt over her head. She stifled a scream, seeing Sebastian asleep on the bed. In twenty years of marriage, she had never known him to take a day off unless he was projectile vomiting. He looked peaceful, no trashcans near the bed to vomit into, no sticky hair from a fever. Something was definitely wrong, she could feel it. She grabbed her clothes and went to the guest rooms to shower. By nine o’clock she tried to wake him, knowing there was a board meeting at ten. The triple dose of pain medicine made that impossible, but he stirred in his sleep, pulling his hand from under the covers. Penelope staggered backward, seeing his mangled hand, and crashed into a large ornate floor vase, quickly grabbing it so it didn’t fall over. Sebastian’s hand was triple its normal size, with purple fingers sticking out in unnatural directions. She raced out of the room and called his secretary to cancel the meeting for today.
 
Sarah sighed and hung up the phone. She looked at the nine annoyed board members in the lounge and stood up to deliver the bad news. They had been crowding her and complaining for the past hour, and she was glad to be rid of them. When they finally filed out, she was alone at her desk and pulled a leather pouch from her purse, choosing three tiny instruments from it. She watched the hall outside their glass partition while she expertly worked the lock picks, and four minutes later she was locked in Sebastian’s office. Sarah froze, sniffing the air while the hairs on her neck stood straight up.
 
There is no mistaking the smell of blood and bleach. She felt nausea coming and ran for the waste can. The sweat rolled down her face as she bent over the can, waiting for the vomit, but after a few minutes, her stomach settled. She worked fast, going through every drawer, file, and notepad until every piece of paper had been examined. She pushed the power button on his computer and sighed with relief when there was no password to stop her intrusion. She worked fast, knowing she would be caught if Sebastian tried to log in remotely. Nothing, absolutely nothing was amiss. Before she shut it down, she looked at his browser search history, scanning through hundreds of porn websites until a group of strange icons appeared. She opened them one at a time, feeling panic grip her. With shaking hands, she searched her purse for her thumb drive and slammed it into the USB port to copy his browsing history. If she was caught, he would kill her, so the minutes seemed like hours as the thumb drive was updating. Finally, she yanked it out and shut down the computer. Pressing her ear against the door, she heard nothing and boldly slipped out into her office, locking the door behind her.
 
Sarah’s heels echoed against the stairwell as she climbed her way to the top of the building. She had called in the rescue code to the FBI command center and pushed her burning legs until the door to the roof swung open. She could already hear the approaching chopper and finally felt the grip around her neck release. She made one more phone call, writing coordinates on her hand as she ran for the landing bird. She scrambled into the front seat and yanked the headset down, nodding to the agents in the back seat while she addressed the pilot, reading off of her hand.
 
Darius updated the navigation system and listened to Maia go over procedures with Holly. They were cut from the same cloth. Two young women who climbed the ranks in a male-dominated field by being early, eager, and hungry for their place on the bridge. He had the utmost respect for them both.
 
Darius was tired. This trip had been a fascinating challenge on a mega-yacht, and he had taken it around the world. He looked forward to some rest with just the four friends on Claire’s yacht where he could watch his Maia grow round with his baby. She blew him a kiss as she left the bridge.
 
Two more days to New York, three weeks on anchor, four days of which pulling the engines apart for a tune-up, closed up inside due to the cold weather, then the party. A month from now, give or take, they would be Jamaica bound. He couldn’t wait.
 
“Uh, uh… Darius, dear, I need a private line.”
 
“Stand-by Danny.”
 
He picked up the bridge phone and called her cell. Something was wrong, he could hear it in her voice.
 
“Darius, this sounds a bit strange, but I’ve given your cell number to a pilot that needs to land and have a meeting. It’s rather important and I will need you and Jamie to join me if possible. Can Maia take your place for twenty minutes?”
 
“Please send her back up, Danny. The call is coming in so I will meet you on the main deck.”
 
His back stiffened as he heard the pilot request coordinates and a speed of three knots. He made the adjustments as Maia walked in, looking a bit pale. Her big eyes searched his face, but he could offer no comfort until he knew more. He told her to prepare for a helio landing and keep it at three knots until he was back.
 
Jamie had been pulled from sleep and ran into Darius on the way to the foredeck. They both looked at the blue sky, searching for the helicopter. It took another ten minutes before it was spotted, and the expert pilot wasted no time setting it down on the deck. Darius noticed the absence of crew since coming down from the bridge and figured they were sequestered. Now he was very concerned.
 
A tall, striking woman was walking toward them with two men in tow. She shook hands and asked for Danny as they were ushered inside. Danny grabbed the woman in a long hug. They seemed to know each other, but not by sight. Things were getting weirder.
 
“This is Sarah, at least that’s the name she uses. She is with the FBI undercover task force investigating Sebastian for insider trading and manipulation of stock value. I spoke to her when calling for Sebastian, some time ago, and knew she was not what she pretended to be. Well, it worked on me for several days until I called her back and accused her of fraud. We spoke for thirty minutes or so and she finally told me I was correct, but nothing more. She has been my eyes on Sebastian ever since and her information has been invaluable, like the two men he sent to infiltrate the party in California and I can’t remember what else right now.”
 
Danny looked white-faced and frail suddenly. Sam jumped up and guided her to sit next to him, holding her hand. The room got quiet until Sarah took a deep breath and delivered the news that would break Danny’s heart.
 
“Sebastian’s mental health has been deteriorating steadily, as you have hosted parties around the world. He was very close to becoming the majority stockholder, and you pulled the rug out from under him. I am so proud of you, Danny. Stopping him is nothing short of a miracle. He was absolutely positive you would not come to New York, the coup de grass, as it were. When he heard about the invitations to the New York party, I think he lost his mind. He locked his office door for two days and I got worried for you. He didn’t come to work today. Penelope says he’s sick and can’t get out of bed, so I searched his office and computer.” Sarah took a breath and stared at her feet. “ He has spent the last two days researching snake venom, Danny. Hours of research on trans-dermal envenomation, as well as suppliers of the venom on the deep web. I believe he is planning to murder you.”
 
The last sentence was said quietly to soften the blow and Sarah locked eyes with Danny as if lending her strength. Looking around the saloon, she asked if everyone was accounted for. Has anyone come aboard in the last two days? She said nothing about the blood and bleach smell in his office. She was sure he had killed someone the night before but couldn’t reveal that until a proper investigation was completed.
 
“You have to cancel the party, Danny. He had plenty of time to hire someone to come on board and paint the venom on door handles, your hairbrush handle, comb, lipstick. Any surface you would be sure to touch, or anyone else. Do you see? With a hundred or more people in here, how can you monitor everyone?”
 
“Quite right. The company be damned. I won’t risk a single life on this boat… Sarah, I owe you my life.”
 
When Danny’s voice cracked and the tears came, Sarah jumped up and pulled Danny into her arms before passing her to a concerned Sam.
 
“I’m sorry, Danny, but I have to make haste back to New York. How fast does this boat travel?”
 
“Darius cleared his throat and promised no one could catch them.”
 
“Good, don’t get any closer to New York. Go somewhere safe and I will keep you updated. Our people will take control today and seal that floor of the building. I will contact the board of directors and let them know that Sebastian will not be returning anytime soon. They can assign someone to take his place for the interim, right?”
 
“Don’t do that. Call John Steiner. He is on the board and he is an honest man. We started working for my father’s company at the same time, on the production floor of Meyer’s Steel. He will convene the board and he will be in contact with me.” Danny looked up at Sarah. “What will happen to Sebastian now?”
 
Sarah hugged Danny and avoided the question. “I will be in touch.”
 
She motioned to the men in black suits they were leaving and grabbed Darius by the arm, leaning in.
 
“Get them away from here, fast.”
 
Sarah and her team were in the air in a matter of minutes. She was on her phone immediately, dispatching people to arrest Sebastian at his home and seal off the entire floor of the Meyer’s high rise until they secured a warrant. She was unaware of her right foot pressing into the floor of the cockpit, like an accelerator. She needed speed more than air right now and prayed the crime scene had not been contaminated.
 
Danny was shaken down to her bones, but she held her head up and entered the bridge with Darius. Jamie was waking Claire and would join them soon.
 
“Holly, dear. I’m sorry, but you must return to your quarters. Just for a little while. The rest of the crew is there already. I will let you know when to come up.”
 
“Aye, Danny.”
 
Maia was wide-eyed, looking at Darius, feeling the stress of the moment. When Jamie returned with Claire, she looked equally freaked out after hearing the details from Jamie as she dressed. Darius was speaking quietly with Maia and they turned back to the group after several minutes.
 
Sam looked at Darius. “Just how fast can this boat go?”
 
“Eighty knots, sustainable.”
 
“Well, alright. I would feel calmer to check the exterior doors and decks.” He put his hands on Danny’s shoulders. “Like I said, I’m with ya till the wheels fall off. Where you go, I go.” He kissed her forehead and left the bridge to secure the doors.
 
“Where to Danny?”
 
“Jamaica.”
 
“Setting a course for paradise.” He looked up and winked at Danny, hoping to make her smile. She didn’t and left the bridge to tell the crew about their new direction and why.
 
Danny sat in the saloon waiting for Sam. In those quiet moments, she saw Sebastian, newly born, nursing at her breast. The swell of love she had for that precious little boy almost choked her, and she filled her lungs to ward off additional tears that were pricking her eyes.
 
Sam sat down and placed a whisky bottle and two glasses in front of them.
 
“Ya know, whisky is like medicine sometimes. I know you don’t drink …”
 
Danny grabbed a glass and held it out for him to fill. She filled her mouth with the amber liquid and her eyes started to water.
 
“Ya have to swallow it for it to work.”
 
She made a gulping sound and held the glass out again. This time she swallowed immediately and sat back on the couch with her eyes closed. In her mind, she said goodbye to her son and watched a door close behind him.
 
“Will you accompany me below so I can spring the crew and fill them in?”
 
“You don’t have to tell them about Sebastian, sweetheart.”
 
“Yes, I do. They will feel bad for me, but they will be happy to be back in Jamaica. Let’s go”
 
Darius was uneasy waiting for Maia and Jamie to calculate their time to Jamaica at fifty knots. He had turned the yacht 160 degrees and waited rather impatiently.
 
“Come on you two, just get close and be done with it.”
 
Jamie stood up straight, “twenty-four hours, Darius.”
 
Maia said, “twenty-three point five hours.”
 
“Fine. By this time tomorrow, we should drop anchor in Jamaica. We can put all this behind us. We are heading straight into the active shipping lanes off the continent. It’s not a great position to start from, but here we are. Jamie and Maia, you are both with me until we’re safely away from those lanes.”
 
Darius exhaled loudly and entered their course to Jamaica while Maia pulled the high-powered field glasses out and handed one to Jamie. He and Maia calibrated the sonar and radar and reported them fit to the captain. Darius pushed the button on his bridge radio and delivered the “all hands to the bridge” directive. Ten minutes later they were all on the bridge and you could hear a pin drop, they were so quiet. Darius addressed them with authority. There could be no mistakes for the next twenty-four hours.
 
“Thank you for your prompt response. We are minutes from pushing our speed up to seventy knots. Before we cross the shipping lanes, I drop it to twenty knots and we may get three more hours at seventy before we lose the sun. As you know, those speeds are dangerous and decks will be locked. Alert the bridge of any emergency that requires stepping onto the deck and we drop to twenty again. Tethers are required until we drop anchor in Jamaica. Steven, Holly, report to your rack for shut-eye. You will report to fore and aft at nightfall and it will be a long night. We will be running dark tonight.”
 
A collective gasp was heard and Darius was ready to crumble under the weight of his decision.
 
“Dismissed.”
 
“Jesus, Darius, we forgot about Chef!”
 
Chef was in the galley with his favorite country music playing while he perfected the new line dance sweeping America. He was excited to get to New York and wanted to be polished when he grabbed a position in the front line. He started over.
 
“Chef to the bridge, please. On the double.”
 
He jerked his head up and turned down the music. Then he ran, taking two steps at a time to the bridge deck. He listened to the update and safety precautions, but all he could think of was how shattered Danny must be. He returned to the galley and quickly prepared a solid meal for Steven and Holly with enough carbohydrates to last a twelve-hour shift. His shoulders slumped forward and his spine wasn’t ramrod straight, as it always was. He had so much emotion in his head and stomach it was an effort to put one foot in front of the other. He finally stopped and sat down, letting his mind process the details he heard on the bridge.
 
Chef started working for Danny’s special events with his father. A brilliant chef who taught him everything he knew. Danny would alert them of a coming event so they could clear their schedules to cook for her. From fifteen to nineteen years old, he accompanied his father and cooked for Danny. She always greeted them with a hug and a bright smile, and it was she who nicknamed him Little Chef. His father left this earth a few days after his twentieth birthday. As the memories came through his mind, a wet tear rolled down his cheek. Year after year Danny left messages for him to cook for one of her parties, but he didn’t respond. Instead, he clicked the flame on his electronic lighter and held it to a glass pipe, full of his escape. Chef hit the skids hard and dropped off the grid until seven years later when warm hands touched him on a sidewalk in Manhattan. He had not slept in a week, so she had to work for his consciousness. It was his miracle.
 
He was put into a detox program that he hated with every ounce of his being. When his addiction gripped him, he threatened to walk off the program. Danny would receive a call and she would show up for his group meetings the next day to coach him, with love, and remembrance of his dear father. After detox, he was put into a ninety-day rehab program that he hated and when he was ready to lose his mind, Danny would show up the next day and follow him from meetings, to group counseling, to lunch, and afternoon therapy sessions. She was tenacious, and failure on his part was not an option. Chef stayed in that program for six months, scared shitless he couldn’t cope with the outside world. Danny would pull him out to cook for one of her functions and return him the next day. After he completed the program, twice, it was Danny who picked him up and surprised him with a clean studio apartment and six months of paid rent.
 
Tears dropped unabated into his lap and he touched his forearms where he felt her hands on that freezing night in Manhattan.
 
“Looks like there’s a story to be told at this table, and I would like to hear it.”
 
Sam sat opposite Chef at the small table in the galley and locked eyes with him. Chef’s mouth started moving, and he told Sam his story about the greatest person he had ever known, and how she saved him. They talked until Chef was dry-eyed and Sam was touched he felt Danny’s pain so completely.

When Sam went to their rooms, he watched her sleep until her eyes fluttered open and she held out her hand so he would join her. He laid behind her, knowing her pain was far outside his ability to understand. A mother’s love was absolute, and the women, throughout history, that sacrificed themselves to save their children was proof. He would treat her tenderly, and give her his loving support, but he would never know the depth of her pain.
 
Once away from the shipping lanes, the yacht cut through the water at 60 knots. As long as the sun was up, they could push their speed and be almost transparent from small planes and helicopters. Come night, they would be a beacon with the running lights, and impossible to miss. Darius would rely on the sonar and radar to avoid running the yacht into a landmass, and Jamie was nervous about that.
 
“Darius, are you sure about going black tonight? It makes me very nervous.”
 
“Yes. It’s a military maneuver that will keep us cloaked. We run with lights five minutes out of twenty. I understand it is unnerving.”
 
“Five minutes out of twenty? Why turn them on at all if it’s so dangerous?”
 
“There are other vessels in the sea, Jamie. Their instruments raise the alarm there is a large vessel approaching but they cannot see it. Then suddenly, our lights go on long enough to verify our bearing and size before we are cloaked again.”
 
“But why turn them off at all? Sebastian won’t know anything until we don’t show up in New York.”

Darius was quiet for several minutes, staring out at the water. “Someone in the world has been tasked with spreading venom where Danny will touch it. Based on the bonuses paid and promised by Sebastian so far, what might he pay an assassin to kill her? This person stands to make a million dollars at least. I would bet my life on it. Sebastian has come unhinged so it wouldn’t surprise me if he gains another million when she is confirmed dead. I guarantee this person knows exactly where we are and will not stop looking when we disappear.”
 
Darius pulled a small paperclip and placed it on the map table, which was huge in comparison. That is the open ocean and the paper clip is our boat. He grabbed another paperclip and held it high above his head, crisscrossing the table like a small plane or drone would do, if they were looking for them.
 
“Our lights will lead them right to us. Five minutes out of twenty reduces our exposure by seventy-five percent and five minutes of light allows other vessels on the water to verify we are a ship. It takes nerves of steel Jamie. Your job will be to watch the sonar and radar for anything we might plow into. Don’t look so glum. We’ll rotate ten minutes shifts with you three so you don’t get too sick.” Darius saw Jamie’s confusion. “We hood the instruments with black fabric and you are inside, watching the green glow from five inches away. It tends to make a person sick.”
 
Darius looked at Maia and felt a surge of pride in her steady nerves and fearless attitude. Her trust in him never faltered and that was calming to the crew. She was one in a million.
 
“We have a half-hour of sunlight left. You three take twenty to grab dinner and bring a tray back if you would. Claire, get Holly and Steven up on your way back. Maia, go below and grab two of the night vision monoscopes for them. Jamie, go down to the engine room and record the pressures on all five.”
 
“All hands, this is the captain. We are going dark at thirteen-thirty hours and we drop back to eighteen knots until daybreak. Any volunteers to watch the water tonight will be compensated. Grab a monoscope and a tether, warm clothes, and clip yourselves to the foredeck. There is a box of personal flashlights in the galley. They do not provide much light, but you might see the wall a few seconds before you run into it. Give me an aye captain please.”
 
One by one radio’s clicked, and each crewman responded. Darius was torn about waking Danny. He would give anything if she could sleep all the way to Jamaica but she will surely freak out if she wakes on a blacked-out boat.
 
“Um, um… no, I think it’s that button on the side, Sam. No, that one, I think.”
 
Darius shook his head and chuckled at Danny’s ineptitude with the radio. He felt relieved she heard the ship was going dark and knew Sam would help her. He watched the last of the sun dip below the horizon and dropped speed to eighteen knots.
 
“Holly and Steve, position and status.”
 
Holly was on the aft deck getting comfortable, Steven was on the foredeck.
 
“Please move to the foredeck Holly, you both stay there. If you’re warm, tethered, and monoculars are dialed in, let me know. All hands, we are going dark in three minutes. Position and status please.”
 
Brittany’s radio crackled, “foredeck captain, for the duration.”
 
One by one, the crew gave the captain their location, “foredeck, for the duration.”
 
Darius turned around, looking at Claire, Jamie, and Maia. They were all smiling at him. And then…
 
“Ah, um… Darius dear, if you can hear me, I am on the foredeck with a tether and a monocular. We are here for as long as we can stand it. Did I push the right button, dear?”
 
“Dropping speed, going black.”
 
Jamie had pulled the hood over the instruments and took a deep breath before lifting the fabric over his head. It took less than a minute to feel his stomach start churning and his head spin. After ten minutes, Maia tapped him on the shoulder and he pulled out, relieved to feel his stomach calm down. This went on until the running lights lit up for five minutes. Each crewman felt instantly calmed when the lights around the ship went on, only to go off again in five short minutes.
 
The bridge crew continued to rotate through the night, and Claire carefully made her way down to the main deck to check on the crew. When she opened the door she heard them singing, very quietly. Silent Night. It was beautiful and brought tears to Claire’s eyes. When the song finished, she asked if anyone needed anything. They all said coffee, in unison. Easy, for these brave souls, she thought. In fifteen minutes she was back, handing each crewman a thermos with whatever they ordered. She also passed out snack bags with cookies and banana bread. They were already singing as she stepped back into the dark boat and ran right into another person.
 
“I’m sorry to be in the way, Claire!”
 
“Jesus, Chef, why aren’t you in bed?”
 
“I checked the decks, pretty hard when there’s no light. I want to be up with the crew.”
 
“Stay tethered on the foredeck, sweetheart. We are almost through this crazy night.”
 
At three in the morning, Darius lifted the sleeping Maia and carried her to their bedroom, where he pulled off her clothes and dropped her favorite NHL jersey over her head. He could never understand why the girl loved hockey so much. With her hair falling into her face, she protested, wanting to help on the bridge.
 
“Not to worry. The sun is coming up, and I am sending everyone to bed,” he lied. “Sleep on this side so the bed will be warm when I come back.”
 
He laughed at her confusion and told her he was kidding. As she sank into the mattress, he pulled the covers over her and kissed her cheek. She was already asleep.
 
At six o’clock in the morning, Darius released the lock on the lights and the boat lit up as the sun rose in the sky. They still had hours to go before dropping anchor.
 
“All hands, report to your rack. Anchors drop in five hours. Thank you for keeping watch. You are the best crew I have ever had the privilege to work with.”
 
The sleepy crew came in carrying a bundle of coats, and sweaters they had peeled off as the air became warmer through the night. Darius exhaled in relief, threw the locks on exterior doors, and pushed their speed up to fifty knots. The yacht cut through the ocean like a hot bullet over butter, which chased away his fatigue. Darius ordered Claire to bed and apologized to Jamie who would stay on the bridge for another five hours. Jamie didn’t mind. Darius had been on the bridge for almost twenty-four hours straight. It was his honor to hold him up for five more.

In New York City, a forensics team had processed Sebastian’s office before FBI agents took the three upper floors apart. They would continue searching and interviewing the key executives for the next five days.

A separate team was dispatched to the home of Sebastian and Penelope Meyer. Sebastian was handcuffed and led outside to a waiting vehicle. He moaned and yelled at the agents to get him pain medication or a hospital. Penelope and the girls watched it all, including the dismantling of their home, and electronic devices confiscated. When the agents left at two o’clock in the morning there wasn’t a computer, tablet, or cell phone left in the house. The girls screamed into their pillows when their mother didn’t, or couldn’t respond to all they had lost. Not one of them asked, or showed any concern for Sebastian, husband, and father because they just didn’t care.