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All I Want For Christmas is You

Chapter Text

 

 

James Fraser stepped into the pub followed by his older brother Willie. Although it was still early evening, there was already a small crowd all hyped up into a party mode. The multiple flat TV screens on the walls were showing world championship darts without the sounds. Instead, the speakers blared with  Wham's  Last Christmas song with the random interference from the resident DJ. While a handful of men milled around the bar holding their pints, the women sat at the table chattering animatedly and sipping long drinks and port. With Christmas Eve only two days away, there was a sense of excitement and goodwill in the air, typical of the festive season.

"Check out those birds at three o'clock."

Jamie cocked his head at Willie's words.

Two wide-eyed bonnie lassies stood next to the pool table sipping cocktails as if awaiting their turn for a game. Living in a tight community where everyone knew everybody and their business, Jamie immediately discerned the girls were visitors.

Willie unzipped his jacket. "I saw blondie first."

Jamie followed his brother's line of sight, but his eyes darted back to the dark-haired lass with the palest skin he'd ever seen, her tresses done up in a messy bun. Her long legs, accentuated by tight black jeans, grabbed his complete attention. She had a cropped red cable-knit sweater on and boots caked with mud which meant she must have been watching the shinty game earlier along with the rest of the village folks.

"Bloody hell, look at her," Willie murmured.

Blondie wore a purple turtle neck top that showed off her nice breasts, and jeans that hugged her hips snuggly. Jamie grinned. "Och, ye like 'em curvy, but I like her mate more. Shall we talk to them?"

"Aye, let's do that before one of those lads get there first." 

Jamie made a move forward.

"Hang on a minute," Willie's hand slapped across Jamie's chest, stopping him mid-saunter. "Yer ex ... she's back here for the holidays. She's sat at the bar with her mates. Are ye sure ye're ready for this?"

"Aye, aye. It's been over between us for ages," Jamie replied, not taking his eyes off the dark-haired lass. He hadn't thought about his ex for a long time and whatever he thought he'd felt for her back then, was nothing but a distant memory.

"This is just a bit of fun, alright? Dinnae get too attached. Blondie and her mate are probably tourists."

Willie had seen him go through hell over a year ago with his ex, who he thought had been the one for him. She had turned his life upside down, affecting his job, and his ability to stay sober after she'd cheated on him. Once Jamie got his act together, he'd sworn off serious relationships and decided to concentrate on work.

"Fun. Fun sounds good," Jamie muttered. When Willie didn't release him, he looked at his brother square in the eyes. "How about ye?"

"What about me?"

"Ye haven't chatted up a lass in a very long time. Are ye sure you still know how to?" Jamie asked, trying to keep a straight face.

Willie shoved his shoulder and feigned offence. "Ye cheeky git! Cannae chat any lass up when I know everyone here, now, can I?" 

Jamie nodded toward the two girls. "Weel, what are we waiting for?" He took a deep breath and kinked his head sideways to the left and then to the right. "If we're just gonnae stand here like a couple of numpties and discuss, we'd be too late by the time we get there."

"Mmm, never seen ye this eager to meet a lass before," Willie grinned.

Jamie looked back at the women and noticed they were beginning to garner attention from the lads nearby. The dark-haired one made a move around the pool table followed by her mate, and he was powerless to stop his gaze wandering down to the gentle curve of her arse.

Willie straightened his posture. "Let's go," he exhaled as he made a move.

Jamie followed suit and lined up next to his brother. As they got closer, he watched as the dark-haired lass skirted past a group of pool players with a polite smile, then wrote her initials in chalk on a blackboard mounted to the wall, claiming the next game.  CB,  she scrawled.

She wrinkled her nose and laughed at something her friend said as she started moving towards the bar. Jamie's frown deepened when the lass didn't see the sports bag put into her path. A few steps more, and she would trip and fall flat on her face. But not if he could help it.

"Hey!" Jamie shouted, abandoning Willie's side. "Hey, ye!"

She took another step, looking over her shoulder to acknowledge what her friend was shouting at her.

"Ah, fuck!" Jamie gritted his teeth and hurried towards her in quick long strides. He had no choice but to jostle a couple of bodies out of his way as she showed no signs of hearing him. He caught her as her foot connected with the bulky bag, his arms sliding under hers and pulling her up.

Her forehead bounced off his chin. "Oh, Lordy, Lordy." She let out a lungful of air and dug her fingernails into his forearms, her breath on his neck feeling like a double shot of heat warming his insides. "I'm such a clumsy oaf."

"Hey mate, shove that bag under the table will ye, before someone breaks their neck," Jamie shouted over the top of her head at the owner of the bag, his voice sounding a tad harsh. With her front plastered against him, Jamie could almost feel her shock subside, giving way to the vibration of her laughter. Still holding her close, he puffed out a sigh and whispered into her ears. "Next time, ye should look at where ye're going. Ye could have landed on yer face, and that wouldn't have been a pretty sight."

Still laughing, her shoulders shook, presumably finding the situation hilarious. "We left our Airbnb earlier in a hurry, and my contact lenses are at the bottom of my suitcase. I'm farsighted, you see, but I'm too vain to wear my specs."

"Enough to fall flat on yer face? "

A few heartbeats passed. "If I say yes, are you going to start yelling again?"

"Aye."

"Alright then ...no."

Realising he still held the lass in a firm grip, Jamie let her go slowly to reassure himself she was steady on her feet. She kept her head down as she took a step back to rummage through the handbag slung on her shoulder. When she got hold of what she was looking for, she put on a pair of specs and blinked up at him through round, black-rimmed eyeglasses. As their eyes met, he felt something crank in his chest. He must still be wound up from the shinty game earlier because, on a sucked-in breath, an uneven sound passed through his mouth. A Dhia. She had the most beautiful amber eyes, and they reminded him of the colour of the finest heavily peated single malt whisky, Islay had to offer. 

"Oooh!" she whispered. 

Aye, tell me about it.  "What's yer name?"

"You're one of the shinty players from earlier."

"Uh-huh." He tamped down the urge to laugh. "Yer name?" he repeated.

If the spellbound look in her eyes meant she was stunned by what she saw, she wasn't the only one. "Oh, yes. Sorry. I'm Claire. Beauchamp. Claire Beauchamp."

"Claire." For some reason, colour bloomed in her face when he said her name. "I'm Jamie Fraser."

"Hi." After a few seconds of just staring at each other, she recovered first and slapped a hand to her forehead. "Oh, shoot, where are my manners?  Thank you.  Thank you for saving me from an undignified fall." Her lips twitched, and her eyes twinkled. "If I had died of embarrassment, at least no one would care since nobody knows me here."

"I would care." Someone collided into him from behind, making him close the distance between them and her head tilt back to maintain eye contact. She was a tall lass, but still, he was a head taller than her. "So ... ye're here on holiday?" he asked.

"Yes, I am ...until Boxing Day. And then we're going to Edinburgh for Hogmanay. And then flying back to London on Three Kings from Glasgow." He heard her swallow. "I have a thing for Christmas in Scotland, you see."

"Is that so? What else do ye have a thing for?"

"Probably a lot of other stuff," she whispered, clutching her handbag in front of her. "But I'm having difficulty thinking of them right this minute."

"And why is that?" God, she's breathtakingly beautiful.

"I guess I'm still rattled by that near fall." She shrugged her shoulders, her eyes sparkling with amusement. "Or have you forgotten all about that already?"

Jamie couldn't stop his grin. "No, not at all." In his periphery, he saw his brother and Claire's friend chatting. He wondered if he could whisk Claire away. This lass is something else. She wasn't staying here for very long, and he wanted to get to know her and make every second count.

He cleared his throat. "Look, Sassenach  ..." 

"Sassenach?"

He felt heat glid at the back of his neck. "Sorry ... it's a Gaelic word. It means an outsider or someone from not around here. In case ye misunderstood, it's not my intention to make it sound like ye're not welcome here. Let's just say I meant it as a pet name. Endearment, if ye will."

He regarded her as her eyes searched his face, and she made no effort at all to hide her perusal of his lips. When a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, and her eyes lit up into a wicked glint, his chest expanded a hundred-fold. "I like the sound of that ...Sassenach," she breathed as she rolled the Gaelic word in her tongue.

"Mmm, so, you're from London, huh?"

She shoved her hands in the back pocket of her jeans and rocked back on her heels. "Yeah. I'm originally from Oxford. But I live and work in London as an editorial assistant for a publishing company. How about you? What do you do, besides playing shinty?"

"I'm a tree surgeon. My brother and I run an arboricultural business."

Her eyes widened in surprise. "Oh, wow! I've never met a tree surgeon before. So I guess you must love your job to make it into a business?"

"Aye, I do," he smiled, basking in her open interest in his life. "I love the outdoors and the fresh air, whatever the weather. How about ye? Do ye like yer job?"

She paused and frowned in contemplation. "It's alright," she shrugged. "It's a job that will bring me closer to fulfilling a dream, I guess. I want to be a fulltime writer one day ..."

It was his turn to be surprised. "Maybe ye should move to the countryside if ye want to be a writer. Far too many distractions in London, don't ye think?"

She grinned. "Yeah, I suppose so. But I'm enjoying London at the moment, and I'm not quite ready to give up the city life. Just yet. Maybe one day." She glanced at her watch. "Umm ...you must have somewhere to go."

He wasn't ready to let her walk away, so he forced a worried cast into his face. "Eh, ye look still shaken up. We should probably get ye something stiff to drink ...and my phone number."

Her eyes widened, and after a tense split second, laughter burst out of her lips, loud enough to turn heads in their vicinity. She brought her hand over her mouth to stifle the giggle but failed. The sound was so infectious, his own low rumble accompanied it, and he couldn't help but think,  there's never been a time he felt such a powerful connection with another person. 

"Actually I'm with my mate here," Claire said finally, jerking a thumb over her shoulder and twisting around to the direction of where her friend stood. "She's my French flatmate. But it looks like she's already found someone to talk to." She paused and squinted her eyes. "Oh ...I recognise that bloke she's with. He played shinty too, didn't he?"

Jamie waved at Willie and signalled him and Claire's friend to come over. "Aye, that's my older brother." 

Claire's gaze shot right back to him. "Really?" With a smile that showed off perfect teeth, she pushed her specs higher on her nose. "I wouldn't have thought. I don't have a sibling, and I just presumed your whole family would have the same gorgeous auburn hair like yours. Well, alright ..." She crimsoned to her hairline as she looked at his approaching brother. "I see some similarities now ...height, broad shoulders and the colour of your eyes."

Jamie felt a pinch of unease. Even though her vivacity was endearing, he wasn't ready to feel drawn to anyone this deeply or to care at such an alarming rate and intensity. After his last relationship broke down, there hadn't been anyone that piqued his interest ...until now. And she would be leaving in a few days. Chatting to her was only meant to be a night of enjoying the company of a beautiful lass or perhaps a diversion in whom he could lose himself into for a short time. But the moment he'd looked into her eyes, warm feelings drove into his heart while burning urges grew low in his tummy. This lass was a breath of fresh air and sexy and exactly what he needed. He mentally shook his head to clear his brain. Looking beyond the top of her head, he blurred the image of seeing this as something more. The long-distance relationship was a no-go. He was a country lad at heart, and she belonged to the city.

"Jamie?" She was staring at him as if he'd lost some of his ability to think clearly.

"I'm sorry ...still listening. It's just that I'm not used to a beautiful lass pointing out my physical attributes," he reassured her with a smile.

That beautiful blush blew across her face again. Jamie found it adorable. How could she be direct and shy at the same time? "I didn't mean to sound so bold. It must have something to do with me living in the city for so long ...you know, us Londoners tend to have no filters."

He winked at her. "Dinnae fash, lass. I kinda like it." And he meant it. 

She was about to respond when Willie and Claire's friend reached them, huge smiles painted across their faces like they'd hit it off.

The blonde girl took a step forward towards Jamie. "Hi! Claire and I enjoyed watching you guys play shinty earlier. I didn't realise it would be so aggressively physical. By the way, I'm Annalise," she smiled warmly, holding out her hand.

Jamie took it. "Aye, that it is and difficult to play when the grounds are too soggy. It could get pretty messy in this dreich weather." He shook her hand. "I'm Jamie ...please to meet ye."

"Likewise," Annalise replied, glancing at her friend.

Willie introduced himself to Claire, then brought his attention to their situation. "Looks like yer glasses are empty, ladies. Can we invite ye both to join us for a drink?"

Jamie saw Annalise elbow Claire with a conspiratorial look. When Claire nodded, Annalise batted her eyes at his brother. "Sure. That would be nice. I'd like a vodka and tonic please."

Willie grinned like he'd just received an early Christmas present and Jamie understood the feeling.

"Sassenach, what would ye like to drink?" 

Before Claire could reply, Hugh, one of the lads in his shinty team, tapped her on the shoulder. "It's ye against me now, lass."

Claire swung around and looked at the cue stick being handed to her, and her eyes lit. Turning back to Jamie, she grinned. "This won't take long, but I'll have a single malt, neat, please." Then she stood on her tiptoes and gave him a peck on the cheek. "This is for good luck."

He froze. It was an innocent kiss, but it packed quite a punch.

"Oh ...and yeah, it's a belated thank you again for breaking my fall," she quickly added, suddenly, appearing unsure like she doubted the gesture.

A slow grin roused to form on his lips. "Ye can thank me by going out with me ...tonight," he said, without thinking.

She blinked.

"I'd like to show ye something."

Her brows wrinkled as she studied his face.

"I'd really like to get to know ye better and take ye out," he said. "Please allow me." If she said no, he was quite certain he was going to beg.

"Alright."

He smiled as relief surged through him. "I'll wait for you until ye finish yer game," he said. "We'll leave after we've had a drink with my brother and yer friend."

"Where are you taking me?"

"Somewhere Christmassy."

She gave him a wary look, and he laughed. 

"Listen." He leaned in close. "I'll get yer friend to take a picture of my driving licence if that will make ye feel better."

He was about to pull out his wallet to retrieve it when she stopped him with a wave of a hand. "I trust you."

"That's a good start."

She rolled her eyes and laughed, and he couldn't tear his eyes away from her.

Slowly backing away from him, she smiled. "Let me play this one game first, and then I'll be with you."

With his heart in his throat, he watched her progress as she walked towards the pool table and swapped a few quick words with her opponent, who seemed to be humouring her. After the lively exchange, Claire pulled up the sleeves of her sweater to her elbow and rubbed her hands together. Before she began chalking the cuestick, she gave him a wink. That mere display made the muscles in his belly clench, literally whooshing the breath out of him. 

A slap on his back tore his gaze away from Claire. "Easy now lad," Willie said in a low, amused voice. "Ye look like ye could use the same drink as her."

Jamie glanced back at the subject of their conversation. "Aye, but make mine a double," he whispered.

"On it," Willie replied, laughing as he walked off.

What the bloody hell?  He should be withdrawing himself away from this attraction because this mad instant bond between them was like an overloaded electrical fuse, capable of incinerating him alive. He'd already learnt his lesson from his last relationship. He'd been there and done that, but yet he didn't have the will to stop himself from finding out how their connection would play out.

Oh, Christ, this is bad. So, so bad, I'm in so much big trouble.  Taking a huge sigh, he found himself a stool nearest to the pool table and watched Claire steal the show from the best snooker player in Broch Mordha.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

"Just polishing my balls for the lovely lass, here." 

The people around her howled with good-natured laughter.

Claire kept her head down as she sat on the edge of the stool, chalking her stick, waiting for Hugh to stop showing off and blathering with his mates, and to finally break. She felt eyes on her, and when she looked up, she met Jamie's gaze where he sat with his brother at the high table. 

Annalise leaned in from behind her and whispered, "Ginger can't stop looking at you."

Claire drew in substantial deep breaths. She'd watched Jamie play shinty earlier, and she thought he looked impressive then. Tall, strong, lithe, covered in mud and the epitome of a Highland warrior. Not that she had any idea what a Highland warrior would have looked like. After all, she only had the movie, Braveheart to go by. But who would have thought he'd show any interest in her. Perhaps, because she'd probably looked like she was about to climb him. Who could blame her, though? The moment he'd looked into her eyes, he stirred something inside her, which no man had ever done before him. And by some feat of willpower, she wondered how she'd succeeded not breaking into song right then and there. Up close earlier and now, sat only a few feet away, Jamie looked even better. Wavy auburn hair touched the collar of his plaid flannel shirt and the way his jeans hung low on hips, it shouldn't be even allowed. 

"He probably thinks I'm easy. You know how some rural folks think city people like us have loose morals."

Annalise gasped. "Why do you think he would think that?"

"I think I came on too strong and flirty," she confided in a low voice. "He's a man, so of course, he'd respond, and it probably works a treat for him too since I'm only here for a holiday. But my God, he's one fine specimen of a man, isn't he? I'm even getting butterflies, and the last time I had them ...goodness, I can't even remember." 

"Don't be daft ...you don't even know what he's thinking. Besides, you're single, and you're allowed to show interest if you fancy someone." The ice in Annalise's vodka and tonic clinked behind her. "This is the twenty-first century, and you're welcome to it. Flirt away and get butterflies. Let yourself go a little. I don't know if it applies here, but I'll say it anyway ...what goes on in the Highlands, stay in the Highlands." 

Aww, bless her.

Claire was grateful for her friend's presence in her life. If Annalise hadn't been there to constantly coax her out of her self-consciousness and to confide in to, she'd probably still be living a secluded life, and London would have eventually eaten her whole. Now here she was, openly flirting with a handsome stranger and she'd agreed to let him take her out.

Claire smiled. "How about you? What's happening with you and Willie?"

Annalise made an exaggerated sighing sound behind her, making her laugh. What a tart! 

"Hey, by the way, Jamie asked me out. So I guess, after this game and a round of drink, we're going to split. He wants to take me on a Christmas night tour. Will you be alright with Willie?" Claire asked. She had to make sure as this was their holiday together and she didn't want Annalise feeling abandoned.

"Yeah, I'll be fine. The boys seem like decent blokes, but as a precaution, I took photos of their driving licences and sent them to Geillis. She'll have them thoroughly checked out. Really handy to know someone whose boyfriend works with the police."

Claire's eyes widened, and she turned around to face her friend. "You didn't! I told Jamie I trust him." Geillis Duncan was their mutual friend they'd met in London at a party. After hitting it off, they'd forged a tight friendship, and the three of them became close until Geillis had to move back to her home city of Glasgow when she met the love of her life. Claire and Annalise were going to visit her before flying back to London.

"Of course, I did, silly. We're both on our own. Just because we're on our holidays and having fun doesn't mean we have to be lax when it comes to precaution. Don't worry, it'll be fine." Annalise reassuringly squeezed her arm. "Speaking of protection ...do you have condoms?"

What!?!   Sex was the furthest thing from her mind. But she didn't have time to reply as she saw at the corner of her eye, Hugh finally, leaned across the pool table and broke. As Claire stood up to take her turn, their audience cheered and whooped. 

Ignoring the hoots and whistles, she watched in concentration as the colourful balls rolled, not one of them dropping into a pocket. She began to walk around the pool table, taking in each position of the balls as she tapped her chin. Alrighty Beauchamp, let's have a look, shall we? This should be easy-peasy, lemon squeezy. We'll go for stripes. 

"Ye ken how to play, hen?" Hugh teased, extracting laughter from his friends. "If not, I promise to go easy with my shaft." Another round of loud laughter ensued.

Claire ignored the innuendo, and the sally going on and focused.

First, I'll down that nine-ball hanging over the pocket and use the rail to tap out the eleven, crammed against the twelve. That'll leave open the six, thirteen, and fifteen. Once I drop the fifteen, using a little side spin, that should bring me to the other end of the table. Then I'll sink the eleven and the fourteen into the same corner pocket, gently hitting the ten off the rail in the process, so I don't get stuck later having to bank shot it. Knock in the eight, then I'm clear to finish it off. Good God, Beauchamp, you're so good.

Satisfied with her strategy, Claire leaned over the green felt and positioned herself. Although Hugh's loud wisecrack didn't rattle her, the intensity of Jamie's stare was another matter. Taking a deep breath, she redirected her concentration on her game plan and took her first shot and then another, working clinically and accurately. Unfortunately, their encounter earlier kept creeping back into her consciousness and playing in loops in her head. It didn't help that his scent stuck on to her when he'd caught her after the fall. He smelled of forest and fresh laundry. None of that heavy musky expensive perfumes London yuppies liked to bathe in. It made her want to lean in, bury her face in the crook of his neck and take a deep breath.

Bent at the waist, Claire stretched over the edge of the table and focused on the fifteen-ball and tried not to wince at the memory of openly flirting with Jamie. In her defence, it wasn't every day she was rescued by a very manly bloke who stared at her like he didn't want to let her out of his sight. She wondered if she'd appeared too eager and was totally misunderstanding the look he was giving her. There had been a hint of wariness lurking behind those beautiful translucent blue eyes when she'd agreed to go out with him. Had she said something to cause him to throw up his guard?  

Having gone to a Catholic, all-girls, boarding school, her experience with the opposite sex was limited to the ones she read in romance novels. Orphaned at a young age, her guardian uncle Lamb didn't believe, dragging her across the globe with him was an ideal way to raise a girl, especially when he worked mostly with men in archaeological sites. So he'd decided the best place for her upbringing was with the nuns, right through college.

So when it finally came for her to start adulting and dating in a big, bad city like London, she'd been like a deer caught in the headlights. But she quickly found her feet with the help of her friend and flatmate, Annalise, a Parisienne by birth and a Londoner at heart. The French girl had been a mentor to her, initiating her to the trappings of singlehood and city life. Though the dating and getting-to-know-a-guy part was also an exciting discovery, she quickly realised every date she'd been to, after having gone through a handful of them, was a recycled version of the last. Same lines, same latest fashion, exaggerated backstories and trying too hard to impress instead of being themselves. So at the ripe age of twenty-five, she still had to experience what it was like to have a boyfriend. Annalise accused her of being too picky, but Claire always reasoned she just hadn't met the right one. She'd envisioned her first boyfriend to be someone endearingly awkward, not too loud and maybe a little shy. But Jamie was the least awkward man she'd ever met. He was easy on the eyes, and he lived inside his skin like a well-worn pair of jeans. He was far from a starter boyfriend she'd envision - definitely, not a boy anything.

"Go, Claire! You can do it!" Annalise shouted at the sidelines.

As she marked her shot on the eight-ball, she glanced up at Jamie and felt her focus wobble a bit. When one of the lads emitted a low whistle as she moved her hips to settle herself at a conducive angle, he didn't have a smidgen of amusement on his face. More than anything, he looked liked he was about to knock the front teeth off of the offender.

She didn't want a pub brawl to start in her honour, even if it sounded romantic in movies or books.

Straightening up from her position, she gave Jamie what she thought was a sexy smile. "Hey, Jamie," she called to him. "You got that single malt ready for me? This shouldn't take long." She tried not to blanch for sounding overconfident and cocky. It seemed cheeky for presuming she'd finished this game in a jiffy, but the pleasure of seeing his piercing blue eyes creased at the corners was definitely worth the minor discomfort her behaviour had caused her.  Oh, Lordy!  There were hushed oohs, followed by a round of testosterone-laced jests, making Jamie shake his head in amusement. At least, to her relief, he stopped looking like he's about to wallop anyone.  Trouble averted in the knick of time!

As Jamie turned to get the attention of the bartender, she quickly lowered herself back over the table in the same position and sunk in the remaining balls. When she finished, her opponent, Hugh looked, well …not the least bit pleased about it. It probably didn't help she'd earlier acted cocksure about winning the game and might have dented his macho ego in front of his mates. 

Claire watched Hugh purposely marched towards her as their audience clapped, cheered and teased him for losing to a lassie.

"Ye got me at a disadvantage. I must admit I went easy on you since ye're new around here," he said loud enough for everyone near the pool table to hear. 

Claire gave him a charming smile, even though she felt like throttling him for not being man enough to congratulate her. "I know. Too bad, you assumed I couldn't play because I have a pair of boobs."

Hugh's eyes dropped down to her breast, and his cheek twitched, as he openly leered at her. "I must admit, ye have a lovely pair, and it might have distracted me from playing a good game, now that I come to think about it. Ye ken what ye need? Ye need a good ..."

"Stiff drink?" Jamie interrupted as he handed Claire a glass of single malt. "That's what ye were about to say, aye?"

Jamie's words were mildly pleasant, but she detected the underlying warning in his tone. Hugh didn't look like one to back-off, but when Jamie took a small step forward, he eyed the height and breadth before him and thought better of it. Splitting a forced smile between her and Jamie, Hugh raised both his hands as a sign of truce and slowly walked back to his mates.

With a sigh, she placed her cue stick on the pool table and faced Jamie. "This is fast becoming a habit of yours, isn't it?"

"What?" he asked, taking a step inside her personal space. It was another one of his moves to add to that growing habit list of his. Her old fashion side, the side influenced by her upbringing in the boarding school, wanted her to take a step back. But the side, that suspiciously sounded like Annalise, was shouting at her to hold her ground.

So she held her ground and arched an eyebrow at him. "You coming to my rescue. Again!"

When his mouth expanded into a smile, she couldn't help noticing his full, beautiful lips. With a cleanly shaven angular jaw, they made him looked like an angel who'd spent time in hell. Her breath caught in her throat, and she quickly looked back up, hoping he hadn't noticed her wandering eyes.

His amused expression told her he had. "Ye could say, rescuing ye is one past time that's beginning to grow on me." 

She laughed out loud. It was something she did whenever she was nervous or when shyness overtook, and the most annoying part of it, it was almost always accompanied by a snort. She quickly sobered up. Acting like a loon was definitely beginning to be her nervous signature move.

As if sensing her unease, Jamie quickly changed the subject. "By the way, that was some show ye put on. Ye'll be the topic of everyone's conversation for the next few days. And Hugh the butt of jokes."

"I didn't realise I was playing with a sore loser," she said, taking a sip of her whisky. When the heat slid down her throat, she tried not to flinch. Acting cool wasn't her forte, but she was determined to work on it. "If I'd known, I would have given up my slot."

"Dinnae fash. Hugh's all mouth and no trousers, but he's harmless. So where did ye learn to play like that?" His eyes scanned her face, and he cocked his head a little like he was committing each of her features to memory.

"My uncle taught me. We'd play for hours whenever we get time to spend together."

"Ye're close to yer uncle. That's nice. I hope I'd be that type of uncle one day."

She beamed. Jamie looked like the type of uncle who would have boundless of energy playing with children. "My uncle's for the most part, both a father and mother to me when I wasn't in the boarding school. My parents died when I was young."

His face turned serious. "Sorry to hear that. My parents have always been part of my life, so I can't begin to imagine what it was like for you growing up without them."

Claire gave him a grateful smile as she pulled a vibrating phone from her pocket. "Oh, bummer," she whispered, glancing down at the screen. "I have about fifteen missed text messages. I didn't feel it going off. I must have been caught up with all the excitement of the game." 

He ran a hand along his jaw. "Some lad missing ye back home?"

She hesitated, glancing up at him. "No." She shook her head, vigorously. "It's my friend, Geillis." She skimmed through the messages wondering why there were so many of them. Annalise had sent the photos of the brothers' driving licences to Geillis, and probably something had come up.

"Is everything alright?" he asked as she continued to read the messages.

"It's fine," she squeaked, looking for any incriminating data Geillis might have found. She found none. Instead, what she was reading was making her face heat up.

"Are ye sure? Ye have a troubling frown forming on yer face. Maybe I can help."

She sighed and rolled her head. "Annalise sent the photos of your driving licences to my friend Geillis. And a selfie she took with you and your brother earlier. You know ...to have you check out and see if you're legit. Geillis' boyfriend works with the police you see."

He arched an eyebrow. "And?"

Is he upset?  "Don't look at me like that. I told you I trust you."

He laughed. "Like what? Ye're the one who's giving me an odd look. I told ye I was alright with it. So what did she say? Do I get her seal of approval?"

She winced. "Yeah, Geillis says it's all good."

He picked up his whisky from the nearby table. "Geillis sounds like a verra nice friend. I think I like her already. What else did she say?"

She felt the colour drain from her face. "I swear you wouldn't want to hear the rest of it. Geillis is raving mad."

"Try me."

"I think we should leave it ..."

"Come on, Sassenach. It cannae be that bad."

"I'd rather not."

"Go on, humour me." His blue eyes danced, and she marvelled for the umpteenth time at how handsome he was.

"Well, don't say I didn't warn you." She shut her eyes for a few heartbeats and puffed out a breath. "Well, she said if you're the same bloke who competed against her boyfriend at caber toss last spring and won ..."  Oh dear, God.  "...I ...um ...I should let you ground my corn."

He practically choked on his whisky.

She grimaced and wondered if she should thump him on the back. "I'm sorry. Geillis has an odd sense of humour. I'm afraid it's just her way of saying that her boyfriend thinks you're ace ...well, that's if you're really the bloke who he thinks you are."

He recovered quickly and grinned. "How about ye? What do ye think of me?"

She ignored the question. "You haven't confirmed anything to me yet," she said, speaking into her whisky glass. "Did you really win the caber toss competition?"

He looked smugly amused, and the smile that spread across his face already answered her question.

"So you're a tree surgeon who plays shinty and tosses poles in your spare time ...whatever next."

He nodded at her phone when it lit up again. "What else is your friend saying?"

She put her drink down and glanced at the screen. "'She said, the men who participated in this year's caber toss, including you, posed with nothing on but their kilt for a charity calendar."

He smiled. "Aye, that's right."

"And she asked me to ask you if you're wearing anything underneath the kilt because I'm getting the calendar as a stocking filler."

His booming laughter made a few heads turn their way.

"See I told you, she's raving mad." She took another sip from her glass and realised it was empty. Ah, fiddlesticks!  "I thought her boyfriend would have mellowed her down a bit, but I have a feeling, she's worse than ever."

He eyed her glass and grinned. "I definitely have to meet this friend of yours."

She felt a twinge of ache in her heart, which took her by surprise. "Annalise and I are stopping at her place in Glasgow before we fly back to London on Three Kings. So you won't be seeing her."

He leaned in closer. "I ken we've only just met. Ye think ye're going to miss me when you go back?" His eyes twinkled mischievously.

Even though she was a right bumbling mess around him, she had to admit she was having too much fun in his company. So much so, she didn't really want to think about leaving yet. Her mind was already racing and wondering if Annalise would agree to celebrate Hogmanay here instead of in Edinburgh. "Well, that depends ..."

"Depends on what?"

Her curiosity to explore the dynamic between them made it difficult to keep her guard up. It was useless trying to fight whatever this was when she was so drawn to Jamie. Surely he must be feeling this too. She swallowed hard and decided to be brave. "If I'll have a reason to miss you," she blurted out before she could change her mind. 

A tiny fraction of the playfulness displayed on his face was replaced by uncertainty ...and Claire's stomach coiled at the proof he wasn't prepared to act on the attraction between them. Whatever his reason was, she wasn't sure if she wanted to know as her guard began to scramble back into place. Oh, God, how could I be so dim? Maybe he's got a girlfriend or a wife ...

"Arbroath Smokies."

Stunned, she looked at him. "Wot?"

"Have ye eaten?"

"Uh, um ...not since midday."

"Weel, hard to fall in love with ..." He took a huge deep breath. "...Broch Mordha on an empty stomach."

"Huh?"

That playful smile was back on his face. "Have ye tried Arbroath Smokies?"

"No. I don't even know what that is."

"Ye have to try it. I know just the place." Jamie glanced over his shoulder. "Come on, let's have a quick drink with Willie and Annalise so we can get out of here." 

And then just like that, he wove his fingers through hers and tugged her towards the bar.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Jamie stiffened and stopped in his tracks when he felt a slight hesitation in Claire's movement.  Is she having second thoughts?  He glanced back at her and saw her eyes dropped to their intertwined hands and chewed her lower lip. "Changed yer mind?" he asked softly, his thumb caressing the knuckles of her hand without conscious volition. "I ken Arbroath smokies is not everyone's cuppa tea. We can have something else if ye wish."

She shook her head. "No. It's not that." She took a step closer, and he caught a whiff of her floral scent. Her nearness made the tension in his chest become like a drawn bow like there was an arrow precariously pointing into his heart. But the feel of her skin beneath his fingers was potent enough to mute the warning voices in his head. 

"What is it then, Sassenach?"

"I have something to ask you," she whispered, her eyes darting sideways, seemingly conscious of the watchful eyes around them. 

When she drew her hand from his hold, the loss of touching her skin made a hollow yawn at the pit of his belly.

He ignored the uneasiness he felt and swallowed hard. "Ye can ask me anything."

 Her cheeks blossomed into a pretty shade of scarlet. "I just want to make sure there's no misunderstanding." 

"What's on yer mind?"

"This is a small village, and I understand how everyone talks about everyone's business here. I ...um, don't want to step on anyone's toes while I'm here on holiday. You're not married or involve with anyone by any chance, are you?"

He felt the tension on his back ease, and he leaned back to look at her beautiful face. He wondered what it would be like to have her as his. Would a lass like her be content living in a hamlet like Broch Mordha, where the terrain, although naturally beautiful often described as a dismal place to live in because of the weather and remoteness? "No." A city girl like her would probably have a difficult time settling in the Highlands. "There's nae lass in my life." He forced a smile. "And never been married. How about ye?"

Her mouth opened then closed, and her brow wrinkled. "No. No boyfriend. I haven't been out with anyone for a long time."

He arched an eyebrow. "Really?"  Were the men in London blind or what?  "Why is that? Too focused on yer career to let anyone in yer life?"

"No. It's not that." Her eyes lowered to half-mast and settled on his chin. He almost lost it right there and then.  Ah, Christ!  If she's going to keep staring at him like that, he'd probably end up throwing her over his shoulders and taking her home. "I just haven't met anyone who..." her voice trailed off.

"...took yer breath away?" he finished the sentence off for her.

A slow smile spread across her face, making her eyes bright and opalescent. "Something like that," she replied.

He stared at her for a while, and a silent understanding passed between them, one that made him realised that she was very aware of their connection.

Jamie laughed inwardly but without humour. Everything about this lass so far lined her up as the perfect woman for him. How was that even possible that he felt the way he did after only a short period? He pressed his lips tight together, knowing that kind of thinking would only bring him grief.

She'd agreed to go out with him, and he would enjoy her company for what it was. It was a fruitless endeavour worrying about what he would do when it was time for her to go, and he would rather die before pressuring someone like her to stay. He'd done that before, and all it brought him was heartache and distress. She'd said she wanted to be a writer, but she wasn't ready to give up London just yet. This vibrant and intelligent lass had the fucking world at her disposal and her pick of better suited men who could give her the life she's used to, and he wasn't about to be the one to get in the way of those possibilities.

But it was too late to distance himself from this attraction, so Jamie made a deal with himself. One that made his throat contract and dread of the unknown take root. He'd allow himself to enjoy whatever time he had with Claire and be a perfect host and show her the best of what living in Broch Mordha had to offer. If she decided that it wasn't enough to make her stay to explore this connection between them, he'd force himself to accept it. Going to the city and living in one was no option for him, no matter how much he wanted the lass. He tried it before, but ever since he returned from his deployment in Iraq, he couldn't handle the big crowd and loud noises in the city. It made him freeze on the spot and brought back the nightmares and horrors of the Middle East war. He was more at peace here in the Highlands, where he'd already made a life for himself.

Reluctantly, he took a step back away from her. He had to. Otherwise, he'd end up kissing her in front of these people. "So ye're still in for that  Arbroath smokies ?"

"Of course," she murmured, visibly shaking herself. "I'd love that."

He laced their fingers together once more, unable to stop himself from brushing his lips against her knuckles and uncaring of the gossips he was sure was already spreading like wildfire. When she squeezed his hand in response, he felt weightlessness for the first time in a long time in the depths of his soul. That's when he knew he had his work cut out ahead of him. He cleared the sudden clutter in his throat and gave her his best smile. "Let's go then, Sassenach."

..........

After a round of drinks, Jamie and Claire left Annalise and Willie in the pub to their game of pool and darts. And Jamie was more than happy with the arrangement as he wanted to be alone with Claire.

His steps were light as he led her down the cobbled street, pointing out numerous historic residences and structures on the way. She listened intently, her inquisitive nature surprising him with her enthusiasm to learn more about his birthplace. But as soon as she heard the holiday jingle streaming in the background, her eyes lit up like a child, and she stared straight ahead. Right before them, at the town centre, was Broch Mordha's famous Christmas fair, festively illuminated and a sea of red, green and gold.

To Jamie's amusement, Claire tugged his hand, urging him to walk faster. When they finally got there, the quaint Church Street was bustling with activity. While vendors busily sold their goods, families strolled together, some pushing prams and some walking their dogs. Teenagers walked in groups, laughing and singing at the top of their lungs. Elderly couples wandered hand in hand, stopping now and again to admire the colourful goods on display. The booths bordering the road showed off their fares from patisseries, cheeses and charcuterie to chocolates, tablets and preserves. Beyond the food stalls, there was a whole range of crafted goods, from jewellery to tweed accessories, clothing and photography to candles and ceramic and stoneware.

Jamie had been to the Christmas fair every year of his life, but tonight with Claire, everything seemed more vivid, and he wanted to commit each moment and the sound of her laughter to memory.

He watched her nibble a Crowdie which the cheesemonger offered for her to try after they stopped by his stall. A few samples later, Jamie could tell, the older man was taken by her. It was no wonder as her zest for life was contagious, and she was willing to try anything, undeterred by the unfamiliar names and labels. Looking at her, he glimpsed a faint smattering of freckles across her nose, and he knew she didn't have a trace of make-up on except for the hint of mascara which he thought was totally unnecessary.

She glanced over to him, and her amber eyes widened. "Why are you looking at me like that for?"

He winked at her and lowered his voice. "I dare ye to ask me what I'm thinking."

She wrinkled her nose and snorted. "I don't think so. When men say those sort of things, it usually means there's filth involved. I'll pass, thank you very much."

He laughed out loud, enjoying the way she kept him off balance. Teasing her and watching the colour infused her face was endearing to watch and something he could quickly get used to if he wasn't too careful.

In the next hour, as they toured the Christmas market, he discovered she loved historical books, scented candles, colourful scarves, a sugary Scottish confection called tablet, and her dislike for Haggis. Despite her objections, he couldn't stop himself buying things for her.

When she'd tried to swipe the items she wanted to purchase from his hands, he held them above his head, out of her reach. He laughed when she jumped and attempted to grab them. 

"You can't do that," she protested when he signalled the vendor to wrap up the pendant she was admiring. It was a Sterling silver, with an amber stone set in a Celtic dragonfly design. 

"Ye said ye like it."

"Just because I like something, it doesn't mean I'll go off buying things on a whim. In real life, that's not how it works." 

"But it's Christmas, and I'm the one buying," he reasoned, grinning at her as he pushed some pound notes into the seller's hand. "Besides, I like the necklace on you. The stone reminds me of the colour of yer eyes."

"But Jamie ..."

"No buts. I really want to do this. Just let me."

When she stubbornly glared at him, he took a step closer and caressed her cheek with the pad of his thumb. He heard the hitch in her voice, the deep furrows on her brows slowly dissolving, but not quite totally.

"Please?" he whispered.

She looked at him, and after a few seconds, her features relaxed. "Very well," she conceded, eventually looking anywhere but into his eyes. "I'll pay for dinner then,"

He grinned and gave her a victorious look. "We'll see about that. Come on, Sassenach, I want to eat." He grabbed her wrist before she could object while he held gift bags on his other hand. They walked side by side, meandering through the market until they reached their destination. 

After ordering two paper plates of Arbroath smokies served with new potatoes and peas, they found a secluded area with a wooden table and bench to enjoy their meal and watch people go about their holiday season business.

Her face softened as she ate, looking comfortable in her surroundings as if she felt right at home here. Her eyes radiated with satisfaction, as she savoured every tiny morsel of the smoked fish, her tongue flicking out to catch every bit. A low moan slipped through her mouth with every bite, her head nodding and her eyes widening, when there were no words, reassuring Jamie with facial gestures how much she was enjoying herself. He watched every precious, gut-wrenching, sensual moment of the experience and wondered if he would ever be the same again. And when they finished their meal, washed down with a glass of cider, she let out a soft, sated sigh that slammed straight to his chest, squeezing his heart. 

 If he accomplished one bloody thing over the holiday season, it would be to show this lass how special she was and every second they spent together was a gift he would always treasure.

He opened a small parcel of chocolate truffles they'd bought in the market earlier and pushed it towards her. "Ready for dessert?" he offered, realising how much he loved feeding her.

"Mmmm, yes, please." She popped the sweet treat into her mouth and smiled. "This has been so much fun. I've loved every minute of tonight, Jamie. Thank you."

He had too. He'd never experienced such a powerful bond with a lass on both a mental and physical level, and he tried not to think of the day when she'd go back to London. When the time came, he'd deal with it. "Who said the night is over?" he teased.

"Is it not?"

"Far from it." He got up, dropped their plates and cups in the recycling bin and then offered his hand to her. "Come, Sassenach ... we're off to our next destination," he said, grabbing their bags.

"Where to now? More food?" she groaned, clutching her stomach.

"If it's food ye want, there are still a lot of things ye haven't tried yet." He laughed, taking her hand in his as he tugged her towards the direction where they came from. "But first caffeine. We're going to need it."

"Oooh, are we doing an all-nighter now, are we?" she breathed, almost skipping beside him, trying to keep up with his long stride.

"It's a surprise, Sassenach but I promise ye, ye're going to love the entertainment factor in the next phase of this date," Jamie said as he pushed the door to a coffee shop. "Come, let's go inside and get some heat first."

He ordered two Dutch coffee from the counter and settled them by the window overlooking the street market that was beginning to thin out. When Claire took a sip of the frothy hot beverage, she sighed in pleasure and smiled.

"Ye like?"

"Uh-huh, this is like caffeinated eggnog. Never had it before. I love it!"

"Dinnae tell me, ye don't have them in London."

"They probably do, but I've never had the pleasure of seeing it in a drink menu."

He noticed a residue of cream lodged in the corner of her mouth. Unable to help himself, Jamie reached over slowly, wiping it off with his thumb. Staring into her eyes, he deliberately put his thumb into his mouth and sucked. 

An invisible firework suddenly erupted between them, the sights and sounds of their immediate surrounding fading in a blurred haze, becoming meaningless in the perfect connection of those precious seconds.

"Claire?"

"Hmmm?" Her voice was like a breathless whisper, and he wasn't sure if he imagined the yearning look in her eyes. It took all his self-control to keep from kissing her right there and then. Instead, he locked down all his muscles and willed himself to think of animals that start with the letter D. And all his damn brain could summon was the word dragonfly.

"May I ask ye a favour?"

"I don't kiss on the first date," she said too quickly, but her words contradicted her manner as she stared at his lips.

"That wasn't what I was gonnae ask ye."

"Oh!" Her eyes flew to his, and she blushed profusely. "Oh, well, that depends on the favour then."

He swallowed hard and leaned forward, taking her hands in his. "Will ye spend the rest of yer holiday with me?" He cleared his throat. "What I'm trying to ask of ye is, will ye stay here until the Three Kings ...until it's time for ye to go back to London?"

She blinked thrice. 

It was a request straight from his heart, and he listened to it, unheeding of the alarm bells that started to reverberate in his brain. He needed more time with Claire to see this through and to find out what this was between them. He waited for laughter, a dismissive wave of her hand, a playful joke or a roll of her eyes as he held his breath.

"Alright."

"Alright?" A lungful of air whooshed out of him.

"Yes, I'd love to stay."

Something shifted and awakened. 

He didn't know what it was, but he also knew it would never be the same between them.

Suddenly, he realised the simple request took a lot out of him because all he could muster at that moment were his heartfelt words, "Thank you, Sassenach."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Alrighty Beauchamp, what have you just done?

Grabbed life by the balls? Isn't that the mantra?

Nope!

What do you mean nope?

Those are not your words. Not our words.

Yes, they are. You know, live in the moment and la-di-dah!?

Nope, definitely not.

Whose are they then?

Annalise's.

Ah, well ...

Claire mentally shrugged. 

"Sassenach?"

She snapped out of her tunnel vision, then looked at the big hands still holding hers. She was still trying to wrap her head around the idea of agreeing to spend the rest of her holiday with a total stranger.  Who are you and what have you done with the ol' Beauchamp?  "I'm sorry. I was thinking of Annalise. This is our holiday together, you see. I just agreed to spend the rest of my holiday here without consulting her." She shook her head and laughed despite the conflicting thoughts floating around her head. "I'm quite sure she'll be fine with it. She's the one who's always pushing me to be more spontaneous."

He squeezed her hands. "I'm flattered to be the reason for your spontaneity."

Her face heated. "I've never done this before ...just so you know."

He tried to catch her eye, and when she returned his gaze, he gave her a lop-sided smile. "Neither have I."

Oh, he's so good.  Claire blew out a breath and stilled her heart. "That's comforting to know," she said, trying not to look too flustered. Knowing so little about him, she knew she should be wary, but for some reason, she felt safe. Everything about him was brand-new and familiar at the same time. It's as if there had been a melody playing in her head for her entire life, and he'd finally given it words.

"And Analise is welcome to stay too," Jamie quickly reassured her. "Ye said ye're booked at the Airbnb until Boxing day, but I dinnae think there'll be any guarantee ye'll be able to extend yer stay there with it being high season and all. But we have a family cottage that we rent out for the long term, and it was recently vacated. With all the Christmas fuss and work during the past few weeks, we never got around to letting it. Ye and Annalise are welcome to stay there for the rest of yer holiday." And then he grinned. "I'm quite certain my brother would be thrilled with the idea of yer friend staying too."

Claire laughed. "You're probably right. They seemed to have hit it off."

"Ye could say the same for us, don't ye agree?" he asked in a low voice.

She stared at him. How could he looked so calm and collected when she hadn't figured out how to articulate what she was feeling? On top of it all, it seemed he'd perfected the art of persuasion with finesse, so much so, she'd immediately jumped at his invitation to stay in Broch Mordha without a second thought, surprising herself. When it came to the dating game, she would have equated over-confidence to smugness which as a rule turned her immensely off. But there's a sincerity to Jamie's flirting that she found all too endearing and very charming.

She searched his face. Ready or not, she was curious to explore the unfamiliar emotions this beautiful man was drawing out of her. In her history of dating, no man had ever moved her to make her take the leap of faith. Deep down, something always seemed to be missing, and she'd simply put it down to her inability to know what she wanted. To say her hope of finding herself in a romantic relationship had taken a hit would be an understatement.

When her last date had ended in a blaze of abject embarrassment after she was accused of being a cock-tease, she'd decided she was done with men, at least for the foreseeable future. She had a concrete five-year plan, and getting involved with someone when her heart wasn't a hundred per cent into it, wasn't one of them. Annalise continued to hassle her to dive back in into the dating pool head first, but she'd been content to wade in the shallow end. It may have been frustrating to never take the plunge, but at least, there was a nil chance of her drowning in a sea of mistake.  But now?

"Baby steps," she whispered.

"Sorry ...I didn't quite catch that."

She pulled her hands from his hold and drank the rest of her already cold Dutch coffee. When she finally placed the mug down, she looked up and smiled at him. "That rental cottage you were talking about, can I at least give you some money for it?"

He shook his head. "No way. In case ye've forgotten, I invited ye to stay."

"But you've been paying for everything all evening. Hardly seems fair."

"Spending my hard-earned quid for the pleasure of a gorgeous lass' company? Every penny spent is worth it if ye ask me." 

When he talked like that, she knew her blush wasn't going to fade anytime soon. "Annalise will disapprove, and I'm pretty sure she will want to have her say in the matter."

"And so will Willie."

"Are you always this stubborn?" she countered.

"Only if I want something badly."

They have a stare-off for a few heartbeats before Jamie tore his gaze away and cleared his throat. 

He glanced down at his watch. "So, the last horse carriage ride around the village is in about twenty minutes. We should probably get going." 

"Horse carriage ride?"

"Aye. Part of the Christmas night tour." He got up from his seat and gallantly offered her his arm. "Shall we?"

It's so old-fashioned and chivalrous, she laughed out loud. "Well, I guess we shall." As soon as she linked her hand into the crook of his elbow, he sucked in a quick breath. "Are you alright?"

He looked down at her hand on his arm and smiled. "Aye. I'm just concerned I might have trouble adhering to yer nae-kiss-on-first-date rule."

They headed out of the cafe and into the frosty air, and she was acutely aware of the low voltage electricity buzzing around them. "Would it help if I put my retainers on? I have them in my bag. I usually put them on at night."

"No, not really. I just have to remind myself of the promise I made to Annalise before we left the pub earlier."

"What promise was that?"

"I promised her I'd behave otherwise ..."

"Otherwise?"

"I have to face the consequences."

She laughed. She knew Annalise's threat so well and by heart as the same lines had been often used to warn her dates in the past. "Well, let me see ...did she say if you misbehave she's going to show you the end of the world up close. And she's going to let you see the kingdom come with your own eyes by sending you straight to the southern hemisphere and letting the ashes of death rain all over you."

He grinned at her. "Something like that. How she's going to achieve that, I have nae idea."

"Never mind how. If you keep on focusing on Annalise's threat, that should be deterrent enough."

He gave her a sceptical shrug. "If ye say so." And then he looked down at her and winked. "But then again, ye're worth tempting fate for."

..........

Claire found herself being hoisted into a festively decorated horse-drawn carriage with twinkling garlands, gold & white berries. To her amusement, even the shire horses were wearing faux antlers. As she sat down, she felt their buggy dipped low as Jamie followed and settled next to her, putting the gift bags on the floor and pulling the woollen blanket over them. As their transport rumbled and creaked into motion, he put an arm behind her, resting it the edge of their seat's backrest, leaving her no alternative but to lean against the curve of his body. His closeness and the motion of their carriage added another layer of tension to her already overworked adrenal glands.

"Comfy?" he whispered, leaning into her, his warm breath on her ear.

"Uh-huh," she managed, licking her lips that had gone suddenly dry. It was a challenging feat to ignore Jamie's presence when his sheer size encroached her space, his thigh brushing against hers and the motion of the ride, sinking her deeper under his arm.

She forced herself to focus on the sounds of the hooves and bells, and admire the trees wrapped in lights, wreaths adorning almost every window, and Santas or nutcrackers standing guard outside front doors. For once, Jamie didn't speak, and she allowed herself to relax, revelling the clean, crisp air of the Highlands. Although Broch Mordha was nothing like London, quieter and had a slower pace of life, the atmosphere in the village was electric. It was almost magical, more natural and everything seemed to make more sense, instead of the rat race that occurred daily and nightly in the big city.

Every year, at around Christmas time, she came back to the Highlands in search of some peace, and every time she returned to London, she always felt like a brand new person, invigorated, well-rested and ready to tackle the New Year. But there was something different about her visit in Broch Mordha compared to the other places she'd been to in the Highlands, and she had a feeling deep in her guts, she'd have trouble leaving this place once her holiday was over. 

"Ye dinnae look tired at all, Sassenach. Ye're used to staying up late?"

She glanced up at Jamie and smiled. "I sleep very little. I don't know, maybe I have insomnia."

"Really? Perhaps it's just a consequence of living in the city. I mean it's loud there, and I presume ye live in a flat where ye can hear the comings and goings of yer neighbours."

She sighed. "Yes, there's that. The flat Annalise and I live in is not really the most tranquil setting. It doesn't help that I am an overthinker."

"What do ye think mostly about when ye cannae sleep?"

"Mostly about work," she shrugged, glancing at the lights overhead that were hung above the streets. "Don't get me wrong. I'm happy, and I'm grateful for the good life I have. It's just that sometimes I think about the day when I would stop searching for ..."

Jamie waited for her to finish her sentence, but she couldn't find the words. "For what?" he finally asked, his hand squeezing her shoulder, urging her on.

"More," she replied candidly, surprising herself with the unguarded utterance that came from her very soul, ragged with honesty and desire for something she didn't have a name for. Yet. Suddenly, the empty place inside her reared up, seeking company. "How about you? What do you think most of at night?" She paused, trying to tamp down the sudden curiosity that flared up, but it was out before she could stop herself. "A certain lass perchance?"

To her astonishment, she felt him tensed beside her, and after a few seconds, he let out a sigh. "I have nightmares," he confided.

Her head jerked up, and she twisted in her seat to look into his eyes. He was probably waiting for her to ask a torrent of questions, but she remained silent, allowing him to set the pace of their conversation. She nodded her head to continue.

"I used to be with the SAS. It's a special force unit for the British army. The unit I was in was responsible for a number of roles including covert reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, direct action, and hostage rescue. My best friend, Simon MacKimmie, was captured while spying behind the enemies' lines. He was a valuable informant for both sides, and my team were under direct orders to get him out of there alive and as swiftly as possible." She watched as his throat worked as if he saw the scene replaying in his mind. "We found him quickly enough and thought we were out of the woods. But the enemy fire broke out just as we were about to board the helicopter. Simon and I were hit, but my wound was superficial, whereas my friend's injury was fatal. I promised him everything would be alright and would make sure he stayed alive for his family. Before he slipped away, he made me promise to take care of his wife, Laoghaire, if he didn't make it. She was pregnant at the time. I didn't hesitate and made a vow to keep that promise."

"Oh, Jamie ..."

He pressed his lips into a determined line. "Months later, I was discharged from the army after I was diagnosed with PTSD. I resigned myself to a quiet life as the flashbacks from the horrors of the war and friend's death worsened. Laoghaire and I became close, as we talked a lot about Simon and I helped her with the things she needed. That was when I found my purpose in life again, and even though I wasn't in love with her, I loved her like I loved Simon so I asked her to marry me so that I could take care of their child. It was a sacrifice, aye, but it was a small price to pay, considering I get to live, and my mate will never get to see his unborn child. So we planned to marry after the child was born. So while we were waiting for the big day, I bought a house for us, and my brother helped me restore it."

"But Laoghaire didnae want to live here. She wanted us to move to Liverpool because she couldnae stand the quiet and the remoteness even though she was born and bred here. I told her we would talk about it after the baby was born. But I was worried that living in the city would make my PTSD worse. Meanwhile, rumours were going around that Laoghaire has been seeing another man when Simon was still alive and that she would often disappear to Liverpool weeks at a time. I ignored it as I didnae care for idle gossips and dismissed it as such. Ye see, she lived and worked in Liverpool before she married Simon; hence, I thought, that was where the rumours had stemmed from. She's a very ambitious lass and has this dream of making it big one day. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I later found out from a reliable source that not only had she cheated on Simon, but she cheated on me while were engaged. I began to wonder if the child she was carrying was even Simon's. While I was building her a house and funding her trips to Liverpool, she was seeing the same man she'd been meeting up with when Simon was still alive. When I confronted her, she admitted to it. So the wedding was cancelled, and she went to Liverpool to give birth to her child and to be with the other man." 

He shook his head at the memory. "She reminded me of someone I used to pursue. She'd rather be with a man wearing a five grand suit than be with a labourer like me. I guess it's the lure of the city. Sometimes I feel like I failed Simon and his family. I made him all sorts of promises that I couldnae keep and the memory of the glimmer of hope he had in his eyes turning to death, keep recurring in my dreams."

Claire knew the last things Jamie needed were apologies and pities. He seemed like a proud man who didn't shy away from responsibilities and was unapologetically himself. "I guess we both have demons that keep us up at night," she finally said.

Jamie shrugged and waved his hand. "Dinnae fash. I didnae take ye out so ye could watch me wallow. I've done enough of that myself."

She took a deep breath. "I'm not going to pretend I wholly understand everything you've been through, but one thing I know is that you being part of the SAS means you were trained with the elite. You were drilled to save lives, and with that comes, precision and no room for error. So when something goes wrong, and someone dies during your watch, it becomes your fault."

He looked at her as furrows deepened on his brows.

She placed a hand over his. "You tried to absolve your guilt of not being able to save your mate's life by taking care of Laoghaire, who was so undeserving of your kindness and generosity. God or a higher power or the universe, or whatever you wish to call it, is trying to show you something important. You don't get to choose, Jamie. At the end of the day, you can only do your best, but you can't save everyone. No one can. Right now you're learning to live with that, and all you can do now is make sure you get to the other side. You can't take responsibility for everyone's action but yours."

Something lit up in Jamie's eyes. Emboldened by the small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, she grinned at him. "No wonder you won at the caber toss and your team trashed the opponents at shinty today. You have so much pent up emotions dying to come out."

Jamie suddenly laughed out loud and pulled her against him. "I think I need to fire my therapist and hire ye, Sassenach. All this time, we'd circled around the realisation, always walking on eggshells. But ye ...ye just gave it to me straight. I think I'll need ye to stay longer past three kings."

She poked him on the ribs. "Be careful what you wish for!"

..........

A couple of hours and a glass of mulled cider each later, they walked in silence as Jamie guided her down the path that led to the bed and breakfast cottage. As it turned out, he lived three minutes walk away from where she and Annalise were staying.

After spending a whole night out with him, her body was still buzzing with so much energy. She'd never had such a powerful reaction to a man before. Nor enjoyed the company of one as much as she did tonight. She felt like she could uproot all the trees that stood on her path.

"I had a really grand time," he said.

"Me too. Thank you for a wonderful evening."

"And thank ye for the company."

As they neared bed and breakfast cottage, she realised they were exchanging lame small talk, but there's nothing lame about what's passing between them. Either way, she couldn't care less as she'd never laughed so hard in her life.

When they finally reached the small gate, she stopped and turned around to face him. "Well, here we are," she smiled, trying to conceal her reluctance to go.

He hooked the giftbags onto the wooden gate and nodded tensely, the tightness in his jaw quite evident. "Aye. Here we are at Mrs Fitz's place. I ken the ol' dear. She used to feed me and my brother jam piece and milk when we were bairns." He took a step forward and cleared his throat. "I ...um ...tonight was really special." 

"I think so too. Thank you again for everything."

He ran a hand through his hair and blew out a breath. "I'm no' tired yet, so I'm just going to take a walk some more until I'm ready for bed," he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.

"Yes, you do that. Fresh air is good for you. And I ...ah ... I'll talk to Annalise about extending our stay here. Ah well ... that's if she's still awake." She rolled her eyes and let out a nervous laugh. "Or if she's home. So ... I'll see you around?"

"Aye, I'm just down the road if ye need anything."

"Yes. Got it. Down the road. A hop, skip and jump away."

He stared for a few heartbeats, then ran his hand behind his neck and gave her a crooked smile. "I meant it, Sassenach. If ye cannae sleep, ye can drop by anytime. I'm a light sleeper. Apart from personalised packaged-tours, I also specialise in making a mean toddy to help ye sleep. And a wicked mushroom omelette if its breakfast ye want. Oh, aye, I'm good at foot massage as well."

She stifled a giggle threatening to burst as a ball of warmth bloomed in her belly. "I have no doubt you're good at those things. I'll bear what you said in mind if I need anything or if I have trouble sleeping. And if I have a sudden urge for a foot massage, I'll pop by."

He shook his head. "Ye're not just saying that to spare my feelings are ye?"

"No. Of course not. I enjoy your company. So ..." Claire took a deep breath. "...this is it. Good night, Jamie. And thank you again for everything."  Oh, dear God, I keep saying thank you!  She stood on her tiptoes to give him a peck on his cheek just as he offered his hand. Their sudden awkward movement made her lose her balance, bumping her nose on his jaw. They both took a step back and laughed. This time she held out her hand, and he shook it.

They continued to stand there and shake hands, neither of them letting go, their smile slowly ebbing away as they stared at each other.

Jamie was the first to speak. "Right, this is the part where I watch ye walk away."

"Yes. I'll go now. It's getting late." She smiled as she took a tentative step away from him, but he didn't let go of her hand.

Her bottom hit the wooden post behind her as Jamie took another step forward. His height and breadth blocked out the street light, and in the shadows, his expression looked almost pained. She'd had men looked at her with desire before, but nothing like the way Jamie was doing right now. The way his jaw and muscles tensed and his breathing shallowed, she knew it was taking him a lot of effort to hold himself back. Her eyes travelled down to his throat and watched his Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed.

"Sassenach." His voice cut through the haze, and her eyes flew to his as he leaned down and cupped her face. "Maybe ye could stay for just a wee while more."

Her heart began to thump wildly against her ribs as the air between them charged. "I really should get going," she whispered, the blood roaring through her ears almost deafening. She willed herself to move, but she remained fixed on the spot.

"Or perhaps ye can just stand here for a few minutes more and let me do this."

She stopped breathing and time stood still as he softly brushed his lips across hers. Then he pulled away for a brief second waiting for her to object, and when she didn't, he kissed her again.

Her brain seized, and her eyes automatically closed. She'd never felt lips so soft nor been kissed with such gentleness. She once read an Oscar Wilde quote, and it said,  "A kiss may ruin a human life."  It had puzzled her then because up until now, she'd always thought, although some kisses were sweet it was nothing more than two people putting their faces together and exchanging spit.  But Jamie's kiss?  She knew it had ruined her for any future kisses. This was the type of kiss she never even knew existed. It was the kind of kiss that inspired stars to climb into the sky and light up the world.

She waited with bated breaths for more, but nothing happened.

When she opened her eyes, he was staring at her. "I've wanted to kiss ye from the moment I laid my eyes on ye," he whispered and grazed her lips once more. "Ye've nae idea how beautiful ye are."

Oh, sweet Jesus!  He'd barely touched her. It was merely a light brushing of their lips and the slightest sensation of his breath on her face. But it was enough to cause the static crackling between them to be ignited, and she was left wanting more.

Before she could reassemble her thoughts and make sense of her emotions, he stepped away from her and tunnelled his fingers through his hair. "May I please have yer phone, Sassenach?"

"Oh! Wot for?"

He smiled at her. "I'm giving ye my number." 

She reached into the back pocket of her jeans and handed her phone over. She watched him dial his own number on her screen, and after a few seconds later, his own phone rang. 

"There, now I have yers too." He pushed her phone into her back pocket and blew out a breath. "I'll see ye tomorrow?" 

"You want to see me again?" she teased, smiling.

"I dinnae even want to leave ye tonight."

She dropped her head down to hide the heat creeping up her face. "I'll see what's Annalise is up to and we'll take it from there. I'll either call you or send a message."

He placed a finger under her chin and tipped her face up. "Ye're not mad I kissed ye? I havenae forgotten yer rules about first dates."

Claire picked up the gift bags, stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. And then she smiled. "I'm starting to believe the rules don't apply to you. Good night, Jamie." And with that, she turned around and walked towards the cottage without looking back, knowing full well Jamie was still stood there waiting for her until she'd safely made it to the house.

Once inside, she allowed herself to slide down to the floor and relived the memory of their first kiss. And she sat there for a very long time.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Yawning, he stretched himself until his joints popped. When he glanced at his bedside clock, he realised it was only seven a.m. As per usual, Jamie hardly slept a wink, but this time around, he didn't feel depleted nor on edge. If anything, he felt refreshed and energised. There was nowhere to rush to as his and his brother's business was closed for the holidays; nevertheless, he decided to get up and feed his dog, Rollo and get a few moments alone before the day started. 

Most nights, he'd wake up to his own cries, his body drenched in perspiration and he'd find himself on the floor on his knees, breathing heavily as the feeling of panic took over. Raw terror and uncontrollable fear would course through his body, blurring his surroundings and any coherent thoughts. His only primary focus would be to fight for air, attempting to slow his breathing as his heart furiously pounded out of rhythm, making it seem like it was about to explode in his chest. He didn't have any idea how long the attacks took, only that it happened most nights and in loud, overly-crowded places. 

Last night had been different though. Instead of visions of horrors that plagued his dreams, he'd tossed and turned in his bed thinking of Claire. Images of her and their night together preoccupied his mind causing all sorts of emotions to poke his heart. Unknowingly, she'd gently nudged his past out of him which was a rare occurrence, as he seldom talked about it to anyone other than his older brother. It had been so easy to confide, and it came as natural as breathing. In such a short time, she'd kindled something inside him he hadn't known breathed, and made him feel alive again. When she'd heard his story, there were none of the affected looks of horror or sympathy he'd expected, nor did she give him any special treatment. She'd shared her thoughts with a silent understanding and compassion and moved on as if she knew they were treading over a delicate subject. 

Shoving his duvet aside, Jamie padded to the bathroom and stepped into the shower, relishing the warm stinging spray on his skin. Minutes later, after towelling off, he put on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and a hoodie. He hummed under his breath as he walked into the kitchen, knowing there was a lot to look forward to. Mainly spending time with Claire again. Feeling optimistic, he was grateful for the blessed respite from his night time terrors and counted himself lucky.

After all, he was the lucky one, wasn't he?

He was alive, and he'd dodged the bullets.

Simon MacKimmie hadn't. 

And he'd broken his promise.

He went over the scenario again, wondering if he'd just been a little quicker, shaving a few precious minutes, would Simon still be alive today?

As for his friend's wife, had he given up too soon on Laoghaire? He hadn't stayed around to find out and hear the rest of the story after the lass admitted to cheating. Maybe he should have talked to her and listened to her side of the account, instead of speculating why she did what she did. If he'd done that, would it have absolved him of his guilt?

He knew it was futile to keep rehashing the past events in his head. He'd already decided the best way forward was to embrace the natural process of grief and guilt even though his therapist wanted him to use every textbook solution that was out there and take the prescribed pills to dull the pain. He wasn't a fan of medication that you popped into the mouth and believed in a more organic healing approach which was why he came home to stay, surrounded by familiar faces in an environment he loved. Even if he would recover, he knew he couldn't go back to his old life as a part of him had died with Simon.

The sound of scrambling paws on the wooden floor brought him out of his reflections. His furry housemate and companion, Rollo, appeared around the corner and headed straight for him.

"Hiya mate, sae sorry was late last night." He patted the husky's head to smooth the white-grey fur, and in return, he got a gentle lick and prod with a wet snout to his hand. "I met a lass down at the pub and hardly noticed the time. Her name is Claire. I think ye'll like her."

Rollo's grey eyes flashed with understanding. "We'll go for a run later as soon as I know what she's up to. But first, coffee for me while ye go and do yer business."

Rollo cocked his head and nodded.

He opened the backdoor kitchen to let the dog out as a blast of chilly wind caused him to shiver, but Rollo only twitched his nose, barked twice, and ran off.

He laughed out loud at Rollo's outright joy of freedom, racing over to the grass to a favourite tree, and doing laps around the gnarled trunk and then disappearing behind the shed. A deep sense of peace settled over him as he closed the door behind him and turned on his coffee machine. His cottage might be small, and his yard less than half an acre, but he'd managed to create a home on his own terms.

Rollo had been Willie's idea after he was diagnosed with PTSD. His brother believed, human and animal bonding could help alleviate the aftermath of his trauma and aide with his healing. Willie was right. When Rollo had walked out of the rescue centre and into his arms, it had been love at first sight, and they'd been constant companions ever since. Rollo would soothe him when he had one of his episodes, the low whimper and touch of fur and wetness pressed against the side of his head calming him down in the dead of night. Laoghaire hadn't like the idea of the dog near her, but keeping Rollo was something he remained adamant about.

Jamie headed towards the pantry, grabbed a sack of dog food and filled the doggy bowl with biscuits, ready for when Rollo returned from his morning business. As he brought his coffee over to the table, he checked his phone. There were a few messages from his shinty teammates asking about Claire, probably prodded by their wives or girlfriends, eager to hear some juicy news to gossip about. 

He remembered catching some side-eyed looks as he and Claire had browsed through the stalls at the Christmas market last night and it was only a matter of time before everyone knew and started asking questions. When the phone rang, he quickly grabbed it. It was his brother-in-law, Ian.  Ah, fuck!  It meant Jenny must have heard.

Knowing there was no avoiding it, Jamie answered his phone. "Hey, aren't ye up way too early on holiday? How's the weather in the south of France?" 

Ian chuckled. "Never mind that. I'm calling to give ye a heads up."

"On what?" he asked casually, pretending not to know what Ian was on about as he sipped his coffee.

"Mary called Jenny last night, and they were on speaker, so heard the whole thing. Mary gave Jenny a rundown about the lassie ye were out with yesterday."

He ran a hand down his face. "Nosey git! Why does everyone have to know about my business or take an interest?"

"Aye, I said so too myself. Anyway, thought I'd let ye know. I told Jenny already no' to interfere with yer affairs, but ye ken what yer sister is like. She's worried about ye ..." Ian paused before letting out a sigh. "So go easy on her if she asks too many questions."

Jamie pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'll be gentle, but I'm still telling her how it is. I'm a thirty-year-old man for God's sake, and I dinnae need her telling me how to run my life."

"Aye, I know. So, what's up with the lass?"

Jamie groaned. "Nought! I just met her last night. Went out for a few drinks and then I dropped her at Mrs Fitz's."

"Good. Like what ye said, it's naebody's business."

"Aye, remind yer wife that, please."

Ian laughed. "Telling her that would be like talking to a brick wall. Okay, got to go. I think Jenny just woke up. Talk soon ..."

The call ended.

Jamie let out a long breath. Jenny's friend must have mentioned about Claire being from London. His sister remembered only too well what had happened to him last time he was in a city. 

He'd been in Glasgow to visit a mate and was nearly in an accident after he had one of his episodes while crossing a junction. He'd fallen on to his knees, putting traffic into a standstill, while passersby thought he was just another city junkie, going off his nuts. He'd hoped his fits were behind him, but it seemed they lurked in the background like the monsters under the bed that had kept him up at night waiting for the right time to pounce. If it hadn't been for the kind middle-aged English man, called Harry, stopping to his aid, he wondered what would have happened. Harry had taken him to the hospital, called his family, took his number and then disappeared. 

Once in a while, he would get a call from Harry to check up on his well-being, but every time they talked, Jamie forgot to ask for the man's number, as it didn't show on his phone. It would have been good to know where the Englishman lived so he could send a Christmas card or a souvenir from Scotland. His parents had insisted on inviting Harry to Lallybroch, and every time he relayed the message, the man politely refused.

Jamie let out a resigned breath through his nose and refilled his cup with coffee. Jenny was right about one thing she'd kept on about to him. He wouldn't be able to survive in the city for more than a few hours. But where did that leave his chances of forging a relationship with Claire, the only woman to ever affect him the way she did? He was unsuitable for the outside world, and everyone in Broch Mordha knew it. 

He knew Claire was aware of their attraction by the way she often blushed at his teasing and subtly responded to his kiss last night but would that be enough to convince her to stay? Could she envision herself staying for an unforeseeable future to find out what it was between them? What would that mean for her career? Her dreams? It was early days yet, and they'd only just met. She was here until the Three Kings, and that's if she managed to persuade Annalise to stay and anything could happen between now and then.

He browsed the internet in his laptop, scanning through headline news and answering a few emails. After a while, he wondered where his dog was. Normally, he would be scratching at the door by now, wanting his breakfast. Maybe he got distracted by a critter and went off running across the field. He thought he'd give his dog a few more minutes and then he would go out and look. He had another cup of coffee and answered a few text messages all the while checking the time. He was just tying his running shoes when his phone chirped. He glanced at the screen and smiled.

Claire:  Good morning! If I woke you up, I'm terribly sorry. But I did say I would send you a message. So here I am texting you.

He quickly toed off his shoes, grabbed his coffee and went to the living room. Cup in his hand, he settled himself down on the sofa with a grin.

Jamie:  I'm up. May I call you? 

Claire:  Of course. 

He placed his coffee on the table, hit the phone icon and pressed the phone to his ear. "G'morning Sassenach. Did ye sleep well?" he asked when Claire picked up.

She groaned. "Not really. I might have over-indulged with the alcohol last night. I slept fitfully."

"Were ye thinking about the kiss?" He leaned back on the sofa, put his arm behind his head and smiled.

She didn't respond, but he heard something rustling. There must have been an eye-roll in the ensuing pause.

"Was it that bad, huh?"

"No! I ...was ... I'm sorry, I was trying to unwrap something. Anyway, Annalise hasn't shown up yet."

He knew she was trying to avoid the question and decided not to push. "Oh! Have ye tried calling her?"

"She called already, and she told me she's fine. She stayed in Lallybroch with Willie. She said no taxis were running late at night, and they hadn't noticed the time and your brother couldn't drive because he's had a bit to drink. From what I gathered, Lallybroch is your family home, right?"

That canny bastard!  Willie knew taxis didn't come to Lallybroch after ten p.m. and with his parents staying for the night at his aunt Jocasta's house and his sister and brother-in-law away on holiday in the south of France, Willie and Annalise had the manor house to themselves. "Aye, it is our family home," he finally answered. "It's where I grew up. Was Annalise annoyed?"

"Annoyed?" She sounded surprised. "Why should she be annoyed?"

"Weel, she was stuck in the middle of nowhere with my brother, and they've just met. I figured the situation might have unnerved her. "

"No, she wasn't annoyed. If anything, she sounded chipper and was quite chatty. She's normally a morning grump." And then she laughed. "I think having your driving licences sent to Geillis put her mind at ease and felt safe enough to go with your brother. As I did with you too." She said the last sentence almost shyly and quietly.

"I'm glad." Jamie let out a sigh of relief but not before he moved the phone away. He knew he would have been at a disadvantage if Annalise had been miffed about being stranded in Lallybroch. Not that his family's home was far, but it was slightly isolated from the village, and it was two and a half miles away. Without proper street lighting between Lallybroch and Broch Mordha and the temperatures freezing, it would have been an uncomfortable walk back. Fingers-crossed, he hoped Willie and Annalise were getting along fine because it would mean Claire's friend would agree to stay here for their holidays. "So what are yer plans today?"

"Hmmm ...let me see ..."

Her tone was playful, and he could envision a pretty blush creeping from her neck and fanning out to her face. "I hope I'm included in those plans."

"Don't fret. You are." He heard a smile in her voice. "I'm just waiting for Annalise to finally show her face, so I have a clear idea of how the day is supposed to pan out."

He grinned. "Good. Did Annalise tell you what they've been up to?"

"Oh, yes." Jamie heard rustling in the background again and wondered if she was still in bed and what she was wearing. "She told me they had a quiet evening playing a board game and drinking red wine. Sounds like we had a more exciting evening."

"A board game?"

"Yes. It's funny, really when I think about it. Annalise is more likely to hang out in a crowded place until late. I can't believe she missed the karaoke that was posted in the pub. She loves to sing, and she really has a good voice and ..."

Grabbing his cup, he took a sip of coffee and cleared his throat. "What kind of board game?"

"Umm ...let me think. Annalise said it belongs to your sister and her husband and it sounded something like Monopoly. She said they played for hours."

He almost choked on his coffee.  Ah, fuck ...Willie!  

"You alright?"

"A-aye." He was glad Claire couldn't see the heat spreading across his face. "C-coffee went in the wrong passage," he managed to say.

She let out an adorable giggle, and he heard more shuffling and rustling sound on her end. "Anyway, she kind of explained it roughly and said it has cards and dice. So that's probably why I thought of Monopoly. Hey, maybe we could play it with them. What do you think?"

Ah, bloody hell!  "It's Monogamy ..." he wheezed, putting his cup down on the table and thumping his chest.

Ah, Jesus Christ!  Monogamy board game was a two-player game played by couples with raunchy questions and challenges. He'd found it one night in the hallway cupboard when his family had friends over and was looking for Trivial Pursuit for a night of indoor entertainment. It was hidden behind the stack of other games covered in cloth and labelled  "Jenny's and Ian's - Do Not Touch."  He hadn't realised Willie knew about it. The thought of him and Claire playing it made him hot. He wondered what Claire would think if she knew what it really was.

"Hang on a minute!" He took a few breaths and gulped down the rest of his drink. When he was sure his voice sounded normal again, he grabbed his phone and spoke. "Have ye had breakfast?" he asked, not bothering to answer Claire's question. "I can make us something in a jiffy. I haven't had anything to eat yet."

"Oh, thanks, but I'm having one right now with this handsome chap ..."

He jolted forward and straightened up. "I beg yer pardon?"  Is she teasing me, or is she having breakfast with another bloke while talking to me?

"Oh, um, I'm with a company, actually and I'm waiting for Mrs Fitz to see what we could do about this situation. You see, I got up early, and I read in one of Mrs Fitz's pamphlet, Baker's Dozen was open at seven. So I went for a walk and bought some croissants. On the way back, I met this gorgeous looking fella with the most beautiful grey eyes, and he looked hungry and was following me, so I invited him to have breakfast ..."

"Sassenach!"

"Wot?"

Are ye bloody kidding me?  "Ye cannae just invite someone ye dinnae ken to breakfast just because he looked hungry ..."

"Don't be daft ...he's a charming, cuddly, adorable looking boy."

"Sassenach ..." His voice sounded whiny to his ears.  Ah, fuck!  He wondered who she was having breakfast with, and his mind was already racing, trying to think who could possibly have followed Claire. When he couldn't think of anyone, he shot to his feet and started to shove them back into his running shoes. "I'm coming over right now."

"No, you're not."

"Why not?"

"I'm in my bathrobe."

His heart started to beat faster.  Is this woman who I happen to really like deliriously mad?  "Wh-what? Ye went to the baker's in yer bathrobe?"

"No, silly! It's too cold to be wandering about in a bathrobe. When I got back, I made myself comfortable and dressed down. I have a bath running and will take one soon. But meanwhile, I'm having a bit of breakfast. The water pressure here is not too great, and it's taking ages for the tub to fill up. Don't worry, my guest is very well behaved."

"Behaved?"

"Yeah, he occasionally likes to lick my hand but other than that, he's actually quite mild-mannered."

"Who's with ye, Sassenach?" he asked in a low voice, as he got up from the sofa and made his way to the kitchen. He looked out the window, and when he couldn't see Rollo, he began to grow suspicious.

"Hang on a minute, there's a tag attached to his collar. Umm ...let's see, what do we have here? His name is Rollo."

"That's my dog!"

She let out a throaty laugh. "Oh, that's fine then! I'll keep him with me until I'm done with my bath. And then I'll bring him over to you."

"Why didn't ye tell me it's a dog ye're with?"

"Did I not? I'm sorry I was distracted feeding him croissant with butter. I hope that's alright with you."

"I thought you were having breakfast with another man in yer bathrobe!" His voice held a slightly accusatory tone.

"Well, you thought wrong. So, you're alright with Rollo having croissant with butter? He seems to love it."

He counted backwards, starting from ten, and when he was done, he almost laughed out loud. Knowing Claire didn't mind having his dog around her, made him like her even more. "Aye, that's alright, Sassenach. A wee treat once in a while, never did him harm. Speaking of treats, I could use one too actually."

"What did you have in mind?"

"I'm coming over to tell ye." And then he hung up before she could respond and made a dash out of the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Ah, son of a monkey! He's coming!  Claire stepped away from the window and yanked the curtain back, her eyes darting here, there and everywhere in the living area of her B&B cottage.

Her gaze landed on Rollo. "Well, come on then. What are you waiting for? Daddy's coming to get you." She clapped both hands on her thighs. "There's a good boy. Come on ...come here." 

Rollo didn't budge. Instead, he let out a doggy whimper and lowered himself onto the rug, laying his head on his paws. He was looking at her as if to say,  "No-uh. I'm staying."

Oh for the love of God!  She didn't have time for this. Unsure what to do next, she walked back and forth on the same spot. The plan had been to slip Rollo through the door when Jamie came, so he didn't have to see her morning look. She probably still looked puffy from all the alcohol she drank last night and her skin blotchy as a result of over-indulgence. 

Digging deep into the pocket of her bathrobe, she pulled out a band and quickly tied her hair back. Without a mirror in sight, she knew already her untamed wisps of curls sprang in all directions.  Fudge, fudge, fudge.  Maybe she could quickly run to the bathroom and do something about her unruly locks.

There was a knock on the door. Claire stilled and groaned in exasperation.  Too late! 

She glared at Rollo. "You think this is funny? Your daddy is going to run to the nearest hill when he sees me like this." But Rollo remained where he was and looked away. "Fine! Stay where you are, you ungrateful mutt! No more croissants for you. Ever. Do you hear me?"

Another knock ensued. "Sassenach?"

"I'm coming!"

"I can hear ye talking to Rollo."

"Give me a sec!" She smoothed back her hair and pulled the ties of her bathrobe tighter. Squaring her shoulders, she took a deep breath, rolled her lips to plump them and opened the door.

"Hi!" Jamie greeted as soon as he saw her. With his hands shoved in the pocket of his sweatshirt, he was shifting on his feet to keep warm. His cheeks were ruddy from the cold, hair tousled by the wind, and a shadow of a day-old beard hugged his jaw. "G' morning!"

Her own greeting was stuck in her throat, as her heart leapt at the wide grin on his face.

He arched an eyebrow. "Are ye letting me in? It's bloody freezing out here, and ye're letting the cold into the house."

"Oops, sorry." She blew out a breath and took a step back. As soon as he walked in, she quickly shut the door. Rollo glanced at his master but barely moved his head.  Ah, just great!   She tried to be casual as she wandered towards the kitchenette, grabbing the pastry paper wrappers, an empty mug and a used plate from the table. "If you're looking for croissants, you're out of luck. Rollo ate them all."

His mouth drew up at one side. "No, I'm fine. Dinnae want any."

"I thought you said you could use some treat."

"Aye."

She glanced over to him and noted he was looking at the clothes neatly stacked over the armchair, her white lace bra on top of the pile. She tamped down the urge to dive in and grab the garments. "I don't have anything else to offer besides coffee, tea and fruits," she said, waving a hand at the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter, attempting to distract and prevent him from looking further into the female clutter scattered everywhere. "Annalise and I eat out."

He looked at her and took a step forward. "Dinnae want fruit, and I've had my coffee already."

"Well if that's the case, I really need to go and take a bath." She didn't feel comfortable standing there and conversing with this beautiful man in her bathrobe when he looked so well put together and at ease. She now wished she had taken the time to put mascara on or straightened her hair when she went to the bakery earlier.

His gaze settled on the table, and he picked up one of the postcards she bought in Inverness. "Dinnae fash, we'll go soon," he assured her. "Are ye sending these to yer friends?" he asked, waving a postcard.

She smiled. "No. It's for me. I collect them for my scrapbook."

He looked at her. "Scrapbook?"

"It's kind of my diary stroke travelogue with pictures of places I've been to."

"That's verra nice," he said quietly, his eyes lighting up when he spied  Men's Health glossy magazine with a front cover picture of Gerard Butler headlining  Hot Scots on the Rock.  He grinned at her. "Ye like Gerard Butler? Isnae he a bit too old for ye?"

Her face heated. "It's just something I randomly picked up at the kiosk. We were in a hurry to catch the train and Annalise, and I were just grabbing anything we could get our hands on."

"I thought the magazine stands were predominantly women's magazine. Didnae realised  Men's Health  would be among the women's publications."

She let out a high-pitched neurotic laugh. "Who would've thought."

"Aye, who would've."

Claire glanced around trying to summon something else to say. The cottage wasn't spacious, and he filled the room with his presence. The fact that he stood nearby when she had nothing on underneath the bathrobe caused a delicate shudder to coast down her back, but she managed just about to maintain a veneer of composure. She was already regretting teasing him earlier, thinking flirting with him on the phone while in the safety of her cottage would be harmless fun. Now that he was here, she was one bumbling mess, not to mention probably looking deranged with her unkempt looks. "Jamie ...can we continue this later? I really need to get ready and ..." she trailed off and shrugged, fidgetting with her bathrobe ties.

He placed the postcard back on the table, drew himself up to full height, and slowly closed the distance between them, his gaze never leaving hers.

Her mouth opened, then closed on a nervous squeak, her eyes widening at his obvious intention. She cleared her throat. "It's just that Annalise would be here soon and I want to make sure I'm ready when she comes back. Tomorrow is Christmas eve, and I think she probably wants to do some last-minute Christmas shopping," she rambled, taking a few steps back until her back hit the fridge.

"This won't take long," he said softly. He moved slow and deliberate, reaching out to smoothly tuck a loose strand behind her ear, his deep voice wrapping her in a cosy blanket of security.

Like her legs, her tongue twisted in her mouth. "W-what won't take long?" she asked, even though she knew the answer already.

A flicker of heat lit his eyes. "I would like to kiss you. Again."

She gulped, her heart starting to gallop at a faster rate. "H-how about I take your word for it, and we resume this when I'm more presentable? Like after I've taken my bath?"

"I dinnae think I can wait any longer. May I? Please?"

"I look like a right mess," she croaked.

His lips quirked, and he stroke her cheek with gentle motions. "No. Not at all. Ye look beautiful just as ye are now, Sassenach. I can't get ye out of my head. I keep thinking about that kiss last night. Have ye thought about it?"

"Yes." Her admission was barely a whisper. 

He gently laid both hands on her arms, his eyes caressing her face. "And?"

"I just want you to know I don't do meaningless affairs," she blurted.

"Neither do I nor do I plan to."

"Jamie! I'm serious!"

"Good. So am I. Look, I dinnae care if there's supposed to be a particular order of doing things. All I ken is I like ye and ye like me, and I'm just going with my feelings and winging it. Right now, I would like verra much to kiss ye. If ye'll say no, I promise I will no' be offended, but I'm hoping with my unwavering persistence, that I will get that kiss one day. So, I'll ask again, may I kiss ye, Sassenach?"

She let out a tiny moan and tried to delay the inevitable, racking her brain for any valid reasons why she shouldn't take the plunge. When she couldn't muster any from her addled brain, she could only nod and lick her lips. 

His gorgeous blue eyes darkened, and a small smile played on his mouth. "Thank ye."

"Oh dear," she breathed as she placed her hands on his muscular chest.

He lowered his head, stopping inches from hers. "Oh, aye."

And then it happened. 

His lips descended upon hers, and logic and everything else fizzled away into obscurity. 

Opening for him without further hesitation, his tongue swept inside, drinking her in like a deprived, parched soul coming out of a desert. He nibbled her bottom lip, before soothing it with his tongue and delving back in deep to sup some more. He tasted of coffee, fudge and a hint of mint, and his soft, warm lips contradicted the hard planes beneath her hands. If the kiss last night had been sweet and made her think of fluffy clouds, falling leaves and angel wings, this kiss penetrated her soul and ripped her to the bare bones of staggering need, leaving her breathless and craving for something she was afraid to voice out. Although technically a virgin, she'd had her share of kisses, but never before had she been completely overwhelmed by a fierce need to take it further.

Claire gripped the material of his shirt as she shifted to get closer, extracting a deep groan to escape his lips. He pulled away and smiled, but not before he muttered a vicious curse.

He touched his forehead against hers, the intimacy and tenderness of the gesture surprising her, making her breath hitch. "Dinner tonight at my place?" he whispered.

She managed to find her voice, but the words came out a bit slurred as she stared at his lips. "I'd like that. What shall I bring?" she asked. She could feel the erratic beating of his heart, his laboured breathing fanning her face. 

"Bring something comfy to wear. Do ye like old movies?"

She nodded, smiling.  Where has this man been hiding all her life?  She imagined she'd like anything as long as they could do what they just did again. "What time shall I come?"

"Come as soon as possible."

"I'll be there."

He cupped her chin. "I cannae wait."

He gave her one last kiss before slowly easing away with a triumphant grin. The creasing at the corners of his eyes made her smile despite herself. He called Rollo to his side with a low whistle, and she watched as man and dog walked out of the living room with spring in their steps. And then just like that, they were gone. She hoped Annalise would come soon as she wanted to do some last-minute Christmas shopping of her own for her two new favourites in her life.

..........

Claire watched Annalise order their coffees from the counter. The village's only café was a popular place for afternoon tea, snacks and meeting up with friends. The radio hummed Christmas songs from the speakers, and scents of fresh scones and baked goods wafted in the air. The mismatched tables adorned with thistle flower arrangements cluttered the small space and gave it a homey and cosy feel. Decorated in purple and pale greens, the walls displayed colourfully painted arts on canvas made by local artists, making her vision blear a bit from the bright and unusual collection of hues. A group of four walked in, settled on the nearby table and greeted her with a smile like she was one of the locals. One thing she surmised -there were no outsiders in Broch Mordha because everyone belonged. She'd lived in London for five years, and in all that time, she didn't even know her neighbours' names nor did any of them said hello. Whereas Broch Mordha, although curious and inquisitive, its people embraced her and Annalise and encouraged them to mingle and participate in local activities. And in such a short time, the village and its people were already growing on her.

Annalise placed a cup of Americano in front of her and shrugged out of her peacoat and scarf. "So that's our Christmas shopping done. If we'd been in London that would have taken us the whole day."

Claire made a face as she sipped her coffee. "That's why we're never in London during the holidays. To escape the carnage. Even shopping in Inverness was a breeze."

"So you're all sorted then?"

"Uh-huh. I'll wrap the scented candle gift set for Mrs Fitz, and you can write the card."

"Deal." Annalise slipped onto the chair and rubbed her hands together. "I'm glad we're staying put until Three Kings. Saves me thinking about packing when we just got here. I was planning on suggesting it to you, but you beat me to it."

Claire laughed. "I can't believe you're actually happy missing Hogmanay in Edinburgh. You've always like to be in the middle of frenetic partying -Edinburgh style. What's changed?"

"We've seen it for two years in a row. Broch Mordha will be a refreshing variation. Anyway, change of subject. You haven't said much about your evening out with Jamie yesterday. So, spill! Does the carpet match the drapes?"

Claire narrowed her gaze at her friend's apparent glee in teasing her. "Don't start Annalise. Just because you're my best mate doesn't mean I'll kiss and tell. And to answer your question, how would I know?"

Annalise clucked her tongue. "I saw you sneaked into a lingerie shop while I was trying on some shoes. I'm pretty sure you weren't browsing unmentionables for Mrs Fitz."

"Flannel jammies!"

"What?"

"I bought a couple of flannel pyjamas!" Claire grabbed one of her shopping bags and flashed the red flannel pyjama set, leaving out the red lacy undies that she also bought at the bottom. It wasn't like she was lying to her friend, but Annalise didn't need to know everything. Besides, her friend hadn't told her much about what went on in Lallybroch last night with Willie. "It's movie night tonight. Jamie invited me for dinner at his place. I don't want to lounge in my jeans after eating. I thought I'd be more comfortable wearing these."

"Blimey! That Jamie is one sneaky Scot! That's really a really good set up for a romantic evening. "

Claire smiled. "I know, right?

Annalise leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table. "Jamie's really into you, you do know that don't you? It was all over his face last night, and he couldn't wait to get you alone. And you know what else? I like him, and he's nothing like those pretentious pricks you date in London."

Claire laughed. "You only like Jamie for me because you're nuts about Willie."

Her friend shrugged, her mouth twitching at the corner. "There's an element of that, I suppose, but I have a good sense for these things. You know, I do."

Claire rolled her eyes. "Yes, you're right. You do have a sense for these things."

Annalise shook her head and grinned. "Wow, Claire ...dinner with a man at his place in your jammies? And what ... you've only known him less than twenty-four hours? I hope Jamie realises he's making history here."

"He's different. And I really like him."

"Have you kissed?"

Claire nodded.

"Groped?"

"No!"

Her friend laughed when Claire's face went beet-red.

"What if he's the one?" Claire asked after a few seconds of silent contemplation.

Annalise's eyes softened. "If he's the one, we'll worry about it later. Baby steps, mind?"

Claire burst out laughing. "Good grief, look at me. I've just met Jamie, and already I'm thinking about the future! How pathetic is that? I'm acting like a schoolgirl."

"Claire, look at me." Claire looked at Annalise. "The age-old question ...how long does it take to fall in love? A day? A week? A year? A lifetime? Here's my take. When the stars align, the universe will conspire to make love happen, and there will be no warning signs, and there's nought you can do about it. You will fall into love like you're being pushed from a highrise building. There'll be no time to think about what's happening. None at all. It's inevitable. It's something you will have no control of. It's a crazy, heart-stopping, roller-coaster ride that just has to take its course, whether you chose to ignore it or not, fight it or not. So, take my advise and don't brace yourself too much for what's coming because some sharp turns might be jarring; otherwise, all you'll get out of it is a sore neck and probably a migraine to boot. Just let go and enjoy the ride and who knows, there might be a surprise waiting for you just around the corner. After all, it's the most wonderful time of the year." And then Annalise winked.

..........

After they'd arrived at their bed and breakfast cottage, Claire had floated into her bedroom, knowing there was a goofy smile plastered to her face. She'd wrapped up presents for Jamie and Rollo, written cards for some locals she'd come to know, and took her time shaving her legs, and washing her hair. Annalise had done the same, also lost in her own thoughts and occasionally saying a remark here and there. But Claire had been too preoccupied to listen.

After Annalise had left for a night out of bowling and dinner with Willie, she'd put on her new pyjamas, a long coat so no one in the street would notice what she was wearing underneath when she walked to Jamie's cottage and a pair of Ugg boots. All the while, her stomach did a mad flip-flopped, and she continually found herself staring into space, almost tripping on the way to Jamie's house.

Obviously, she hadn't finished staring into space because when Jamie opened the door after she'd knocked, sending her hurtling back to the present, she was speechless. Rollo dashed out of the house and circled her happily, jumping on her.

Jamie grinned and opened the door wider. "Sassenach! Get in here! We have a guest."

"Oh!?"  I thought we're alone.

She pulled the coat tighter and patted Rollo's head. She remembered Annalise's word not to brace herself too hard, took a deep breath, relaxed and stepped into Jamie's house.

What she saw next, took her by surprise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"Oh, it's alive. I thought it's a toy. What's that?" Claire asked as she stepped into the cottage and saw movement in the shoebox on the floor. Rollo flopped himself down beside it like he was the keeper and protector. "Is this the guest you're talking about?"

"One of them." Grinning, Jamie shut the door and followed her gaze. "Can't ye tell what's in the box? Harry found the poor wee thing mewling under the bushes in the park. It cannae be more than a week old. Probably wandered away from the litter and got lost. It's good Harry found her when he did. I dinnae think it would have survived tonight in this cold."

"It's a kitten!" Placing the paper bags she had on the rug, she got on her knees, picked up the ball of grey fur and held it against her chest. Half of its body was cocooned into a red child's sock, and its tiny head had a comical covering. "Goodness, it's even got a hat with earholes. I've never seen anything like this." 

Jamie beamed. "Not my doing. Harry brought it all bundled up like that already."

"Who's Harry? Another sibling?" she asked, nuzzling her face into the tiny furry body before carefully depositing it back into the shoebox.

Ach, Harry! He was here a minute ago. "No. A mate. He's here somewhere. I invited him to stay for dinner. Give me a sec." He'd been distracted by Claire's arrival, he'd forgotten all about his unexpected visitor.

Jamie left Claire in the living area and went to look for his friend. When he felt a draft of cold air, he went into the kitchen thinking Harry probably went to have a peek at his back garden. 

He poked his head out the back door. "Harry!" he called out. There was no answer. Where the bloody hell has he disappeared to?

All throughout the day he'd been looking forward to tonight after he'd spent the afternoon putting up a Christmas tree he'd bought at a tree farm and decorating it with ornaments belonging to his grandmother from his mother's side. And of all days, Harry had to drop by. Not that Jamie wasn't glad to see him, but the timing was terrible as spending some alone time with Claire was on top of his agenda. Nevertheless, he'd invited the Englishman to stay for dinner. But where the hell is he?

He scoured the yard, but he couldn't find Harry. Suddenly feeling the cold, he slipped back into the kitchen to check the pot roast. It was already ready after he'd left it in a slow cooker to cook all day.

Earlier this morning, after he'd dropped by at Claire's B&B cottage and kissed her, it had been a mammoth task leaving her side, so he'd kept himself busy all day to make time go by faster. It was becoming apparent spending time away from her was starting to feel like the tension on a bungee cord. The longer the time they spent apart, the greater the urge to see her. And the line felt like it was getting shorter, like his threshold for not being with her was diminishing. If Harry was joining them for dinner, he hoped he wouldn't stay too long after dessert.

"Jamie?"

He glanced up to find Claire holding up a bottle of red wine.

"I splurged a bit. I hope this bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon will go with whatever you're cooking?"

Perfect!  Putting the teatowel down, he grinned and approached her.

"It's a classic," he said, taking the bottle from her hand and putting it on the counter. He pulled her into his arms and brushed his lips against hers. "I'm sorry Sassenach, I havenae given ye a proper greeting."

She smiled against his mouth. "Where's your friend?" she asked when he was done kissing her.

He pulled away and ran a hand through his hair. "God knows! He probably left. Harry does that all the time. I've invited him to Lallybroch for tea countless of times, but he's always refused. I guess he's just not a people person." Jamie decided not to worry about it. "Hungry?"

"Very." She glanced past his shoulder. "What are we having?"

"Pot roast."

"Hmmm, nice. Smells heavenly. Need help?"

"No, I have everything under control. Want something to drink?" Jamie asked, taking out wine glasses, plates and cutleries.

"Not just yet. I had a cuppa before I left the cottage." She smiled at him. "I love your home, especially that fireplace. Is it original?"

He checked the roasted root vegetables in the oven for doneness and shoved them back in again. "Aye, it's an original. This is a crofter's cottage from the eighteenth century, and I've salvaged most of the original fixtures and fittings."

"Love the Christmas tree too. Did you put it up today?" she asked glancing around the kitchen, peering out of the window and touching his collection of fridge magnets.

"Aye, I did."

"Those antique Christmas ornaments are stunning and much better than those plastic baubles you get in shops. I have a few antique ornaments myself. Just too bad, our London flat is not big enough to accommodate a proper Christmas tree." She lifted the lid off the slow cooker and took a whiff. "Mmm, this smells lovely."

He straightened and glanced at what she was wearing. "Sassenach?"

"Hmmm?"

"Why are ye still wearing yer coat? Are ye cold? I thought I put enough wood in the fire."

She grinned. "Oh, this. It's a surprise. Hang on a minute." She turned her back to him, and he waited with anticipation, watching her movements of undoing her coat. If she was wearing a negligee under that coat, he knew he would have a heart attack, and dinner would definitely be put on hold if not cancelled. But he rubbished his thoughts immediately, knowing she wasn't that type of lass. "Close your eyes!" she instructed, and he did.

"Ye're killing me."

"Patience!"

"Are ye naked under yer coat?" he teased.

"You wish!"

He heard rustling followed by footsteps.

"Right, you can open them now."

He slowly opened his eyes, and his gaze immediately landed on the front of her top. It was a Rudolph the Reindeer's face applique complete with a protruding shiny big nose. She was a bundle of red, wearing red fleece pyjamas with plaid bottoms, and her feet were covered in thick, red woollen socks. He laughed out loud.

"Wait for this. You haven't seen anything yet." Claire fiddled with something from under the hem and pulled the reindeer antler's hood from behind. The reindeer's nose on her front lit up, and the antlers stood lopsided on her head. The hoodie was far too big for her, and it hid one eye. "Ho, ho, ho!" she intonated in a low voice.

He chuckled and pulled her against him. "Ho, ho, ho, indeed. Where did ye get this? This is something for Christmas morning. It's almost as ridiculous as the Christmas jumpers."

"I know, right? As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to get it. Bought it today in Inverness. I thought since we've been doing all sort of Christmassy things together, I'd stick with the theme."

"That red nose is not going to keep flashing like that the whole evening, will it? It's very distracting."

She pressed something from under the top. "Nope. The show's over."

He arched an eyebrow and decided to tease her. "Really? What's underneath that top?"

She blushed, but the smile never left her face. "A hungry tummy."

"Brilliant! Shall we eat then?"

"Sure! I'll help set up the table."

Claire rattled off the things she did with Annalise that day. He was glad her friend had agreed to stay until Three Kings which would buy him more time getting to know Claire better. Jamie didn't want to think of the day when she would go back to London, even though it had been lurking all day at the back of his mind. Watching her work beside him in the kitchen, he was glad she felt comfortable and right at home. He wanted to make good memories with her just in case this was all they would ever have.

They served dinner like they'd been doing it together for years, pouring red wine, plating food he'd prepared and chatting the entire time. They sat opposite each other so Jamie could see every blush, expression and emotion that crossed her face, appreciating the fact she had an appetite, a sense of humour and took a keen interest in his work, life and Broch Mordha. He might have sounded a tad bit like a salesman trying to sell a lifestyle in a remote Highland village, and if she noticed, she didn't give any hints.

When they touched the delicate subject of his PTSD, he realised it was easier to talk about it this time. Claire spoke with refreshing candour, even suggesting alternative healing such as meditation and acupuncture, which he liked and made a mental note to look into it.

Throughout their meal, Claire spoke of her childhood, and in exchange, he talked about his family. From time to time, he would reach out to squeeze her hand so he could see the blush blooming on her cheeks or kiss her, to see the shy smile spreading across her face. Every second with her was a pleasant discovery, and he knew what a lucky bastard he was. How she was without a boyfriend was beyond him but thankful that she didn't have one.

After dinner, they cleared the table and did the dishes. And when Jamie took out Rollo for a short exercise, Claire fed the kitten with a wee bottle Harry had left him.

They took their coffee, a box of chocolate Claire loved, and the unfinished bottle of red wine into the living room. As Jamie put another log into the fire, Rollo curled up next to Claire. It was quite apparent, he wasn't the only one smitten. Smiling, he plopped down next to her and turned on the TV to watch  Home Alone.

..........

When the film credits started rolling in the end, Jamie turned off the volume and stretched. He glanced over to Claire just in time to see her unwrapping a Ferrero Rocher chocolate. When she realised he was looking at her, she offered him the already unwrapped sweet. 

He shook his head and smiled. "So, what do ye want to do?"

The room filled with silence as she exaggeratedly contemplated, tapping her chin and scrunching her nose while rolling the chocolate in her mouth. 

His eyes dropped to the delicate lines of her jaw. The smooth, pale skin of her neck and the movement of her throat as she swallowed wreaked havoc with his concentration. He had a very vivid image of what they could do, and they involved running his tongue along the neckline of that ridiculous pyjama top. Since that option would probably send her running out the door, he quickly dismissed the idea. "More movies?" he suggested.

"No. Had enough. Do you know how to play poker?"

"Do I know how to play poker?" He laughed out loud. "I'm a master at the game."

Her eyes lit up. "You have a deck of cards?"

"Aye, I will go and get them." He got up from the sofa and headed towards a desk in the corner of the room. "Always love a game of poker."

"Oh, good. I haven't played for ages."

"What do we play for?"

She cleared the coffee table and crossed her legs. "We'll play for pennies, how about that?"

"I dinnae think I have any loose change."

"We'll think of something else. I'm dealing."

He handed her the deck of cards, put on some classic Christmas song, and then refilled their glasses. He sat beside her and watched with amazement as her fingers expertly flew through the cards with ease, shuffling with lightning speed. While concentrating on his hand, he wondered where she learned how to deal and surmised probably her uncle, the same man who taught her to play pool.

"Alright, here we go, dealer's choice. Five-card stud, ante up."

He glanced up at her. "Wait! We havenae decided what we're playing for." 

"Oh, I forgot. You said you don't have any loose change."

"Maybe we ought to play for the family jewels."

She slapped him on the thigh. "Ha-ha! You funny man!"

His lips twitched. "Weel, any ideas?"

"Can't think of one at the moment."

"Wait a minute ...I have a verra interesting one."

Claire glared at him. "If you're thinking of strip poker, forget it."

He laughed out loud. "No, I didnae mean that. Although I wouldnae mind that." When she arched an eyebrow at him, he grinned. "I meant we'll play for favours."

She bit her lower lip. "Favours? What kind of favours?" she asked suspiciously.

"The first to win three hands gets a free favour from the other. It can be used at any time, like a voucher per se."

Her face suddenly became animated. "Can you use the favour for anything? How about the rules?"

He grinned. "Nae rules and ye can redeem yer favours on anything. Anything at all."

The challenge lured her in like a true gambler following the scent of a big stake. "Very well then, we're playing for favours."

He smothered the jubilant smile threatening to surface and quickly fixed his expression into poker-face, almost licking his lips with glee when she'd agreed.

She dealt, and he almost pumped his fist in the air at the obvious outcome, but he remained silent, watching her replace one of her cards.

After a while, he laid down his cards. "Flush."

"Cool. Two queens. Your deal." Her expression remained inscrutable. God, her poker face is good!

Jamie had to give her credit for keeping her emotions under control. Whoever taught her to play, taught her well and if it wasn't for his past experience, he felt in his guts she'd be one hell of a player to beat. Next, she threw down a pair of aces and yielded gracefully to his three twos.

"Alright, one more hand to go," he announced, subduing the mirth in his voice.

"My deal. I can count, ye ken," she said, imitating his accent. He kept his face impassive as he watched her dainty fingers flitting over the cards. "Care to share where you learn how to play poker?"

He inspected his hand casually. "Played a lot with my unit during my SAS days. Beats sitting around and twiddling my thumbs during long intervals."

"My uncle taught me," she shared. "As well as backgammon and chess."

He threw in a card and replaced it. "I have backgammon and chessboards if ye feel like playing for another time. I'm quite good at both games, in case ye're up for a challenge."

She let out an unladylike snort when she laid down her cards, displaying straight as victory gleamed in her eyes.

Jamie almost felt sorry for her. Not quite but almost.

He whistled low and shook his head. "Good hand." This time he allowed himself to smile. "But, sorry lass, it's no' good enough." He threw his cards down, showing four aces and then cockily stretched his legs out in front of him and leaned back on the sofa. "Nice game, though."

She gasped and looked at him with those beautiful golden orbs. "Jamie, the probabilities of four aces in five-card stud are ..." Her eyes widened. "Oh my word, you didn't!"

"What?"

"Why you cheeky sod ..."

"What, Sassenach?"

"Don't Sassenach me. You cheated!"

"No!"

"Yes, you did!"

He shook his head in feigned horror and tried to look offended. "Och, how could ye think that? Surely not! I ken ye're verra good at it, but this is all on luck."

Her pretty eyebrows slammed together. "No way you can get those four aces unless you palmed the cards. Admit it, because I was thinking of doing it myself, but I refrained from doing so!"

"Don't ye think yer accusation is a tad bit harsh?"

"Jamie, you cheated! I know you did. I can't believe you cheated on our date night. Oh, my God! How could you?"

"I did no such thing."

"Jamie!"

"No cheating occurred, Sassenach." He straightened up from his sitting position and smiled. "Now about that favour I won ..." But his voice trailed off when she abruptly stood up and placed her hands on her hips. "Sassenach?"

"You cheat!" Without warning, she propelled herself over the coffee table and into his arms. Air whooshed out of him as she toppled him back onto the sofa and slipped a hand under the sleeves of his sweatshirt, looking for the suspected hidden cards. Jamie grunted as the full weight of Claire landed on him, her intent on finding proof of foul play resolute. He attempted to regain his balance, but she shifted her attention somewhere else, making him fall back again. When her hands slipped into his pants pocket, he realised if she delved any deeper, she wouldn't come up empty-handed.  Ah, sweet Jesus!   With no other options, he flipped her onto her back and pinned both hands above her head.

The tie holding her hair somehow became undone during the struggle, causing her chocolate brown curls to spring forth and tumble down, and a few unruly locks to settle on her face. Jamie stared at the snapping golden eyes peeking between the strands, filled with determination despite his more considerable strength. Her chest heaved against her ridiculous top, the appliquéd Rudolf the reindeer staring mockingly at him. Without meaning to, his weight forced her thighs apart, and he wondered if she was aware of both their predicament. Or at least his.

Jamie knew he would be in deep trouble if he remained where he was, as she continued to wriggle under him.

"I know you're hiding the cards somewhere. I wasn't born yesterday, you know! Admit you cheated and I will forget this ever happened."

"Will ye keep still, Sassenach" he muttered. "Ye're torturing me."

She stuck out her bottom lip and blew a hard breath, the wayward curl lifting and blowing sideways, clearing her line of sight. "That's your conscience doing that. Did you know there's a special place in hell for cheaters?"

He muttered a curse under his breath. "Don't ye ever think of the repercussion to yer actions? Ye cannae just tackle a man like that."

"Oh? What are you going to do about it? Tell Santa to put me on his naughty list?"

Her body suddenly started to shake when she burst into fits of laughter at her own words, causing the heat in his groin to surge through his body like a wildfire gone out of control. Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck!  His blood buzzed in his head like a swarming fog, and even though he tried to shift all his thoughts on the fat man sliding down the chimney and getting stuck halfway, all he could only think of was the soft body beneath him. He tried not to breathe and held his body in a tight muscle lock and prayed Claire wouldn't make any more sudden big movements; otherwise, he was going to explode like a schoolboy and look like a glaikit idiot.

But when the realisation of his plight swiftly dawned on her, her mouth formed a comical O, and her face turned bright red, her previous intent on extracting a confession of his cheating, dissipating. 

"Jamie?" Her voice was husky.

He swallowed hard and ignored the fact he had a big fat boner wedged between them. "Did I hurt ye? Didnae mean to be so rough."

"No. I'm fine."

"Are ye sure?"

She smiled, and he inhaled deeply to regain his composure. She smelled like shampoo and flowers and just a hint of fruit flavoured lollies, and he could just about see the pulse palpitating on her neck. Their position made his erection harder, and the way she was looking at him wasn't helping at all.

"You're a big lad," she gulped. 

Ah, shite!  "And ye're not helping," he said hoarsely, tamping down a groan.

"Shall I go?"

"No!" He took a deep breath and forced a smile. "Just be still for a moment, aye?"

"Alright."

They laid still for a while looking at each other.

Carefully, he let go of her wrists above her head and stroked her cheek with his thumb. "I can stare at ye like this for hours and never tire of it," he whispered. She smiled, and he kissed the smooth line of her jaw. When she tilted her head back, his lips trailed down of their own accord, bowing his body over hers as he worked his way to the side of her neck.

Hard as he was, he didn't move against her. He wanted her to feel safe and everything to be on her terms, letting her know this attraction went beyond sex. He held on to his control with a mental vice grip and simply appreciated the moment. 

His combed his fingers through her curls, feeling the softness of it in his hand as he kissed her softly, never demanding or pushing even if it pained him a lot.

He heard Rollo sigh from somewhere in the house and the crackling of the fire in the hearth. He almost shot out the sofa as small hands tentatively explored his chest and shoulders, before sliding around his neck and up through his hair. Then they moved down his side and waist before her palms settled over the ridges of his stomach. He loved the small sounds she made at the back of her throat and the softness against every part of him that was hard. Every movement and sigh she made, her scent drifted and surrounded him, a heady pheromone, pulling him in closer.

When her hands slipped under his sweatshirt and settled at his lower back, his breath broke and went ragged, and an instant electric tension rose between them, turning their soft, playful kisses heated and more urgent.

As much as it hurt him to do so, he tore his lips away and looked into her eyes. "We dinnae have to do anything ye dinnae want, Sassenach. We can stop right now," he whispered, his voice sounding oddly gruff in his ears. He felt his cock protesting against his boxer shorts, but he ignored the mounting discomfort in his groin.

She shook her head. "No, I don't want to stop. Kiss me again."

Relief slammed through him as a ton of weight lifted off his back. "Sassenach, are ye sure?"

She nodded. 

He was about to kiss her again when a gentle push of her hands on his chest stopped him.

"I've never done this before," she whispered. 

"What do ye mean?" 

She rolled her eyes. "I meant sex!"

Ah, Christ! A virgin living in London! How is that possible?  Even for Broch Mordha, a virgin was a rarity. He shut his eyes for a few heartbeats, and when he opened them again, suddenly she looked unsure, almost embarrassed, and he felt she needed him to step up. He gave her a slow smile to put her at ease. "Do ye come with a user's manual? Never been with a virgin before."

Her face broke into laughter, and the tension eased a bit. "No! And before you start having all sorts of notions about virgins, I'm not all that naive. I have a fair idea of how it suppose to happen."

"Weel, no crash courses needed then," he joked before his face turned serious. "But why me, Sassenach?"

She gave him an unwavering look, her chin tilting up slightly. "Because I've never felt like this before." 

Neither had he, but the wee voice in the back of his head reminded him this lass was the type of lass you brought home to introduce to your parents. Getting involved with her on a deeper emotional level wouldn't bode well for both of them as her life was in London, and he belonged here. He didn't want to hurt her. She deserved a man who could live in her world without falling down to his knees and having one of his episodes. But the gravitational pull between them was unrelenting. He needed her badly, but his conscience compelled him to offer one more out. One more, before he lost sight of the right thing to do.

"We can just continue kissing ...nothing needs to happen," he rasped, brushing their lips together. "Just say the word, Sassenach. I promise ye I wouldnae mind. I'm perfectly happy just to kiss."

Claire's breath caught as she scrutinised him, the weight of what could follow once they'd stripped each other's clothes written in her eyes. Probably in his, too. "I want this Jamie ... I'm ready."

He studied her for a long while, before making up his mind and nodding. "Wait here."

Getting up, he grabbed some blankets and throw cushions from the sofa and laid them out on the floor. And then he went to retrieve some condoms from the bedroom. After a couple of minutes fussing and finally satisfied with his handiwork, he picked Claire up and gently carried her by the fireplace. Though the fire was already slowly dying down, the embers still glowed, lending the room a cosy feel and warmth.

Claire looked up at him and beamed. "Well, I suppose this is the part where you take off your top."

He laughed out loud despite his balls almost on the verge of mutiny. What supposed to be a tense and awkward moment, was turning out to be fun. He didn't need telling twice. Grinning, he dragged his shirt over his head and was hovering over her under a split second. She looked mightily impressed as she pulled him down. "Wow, never seen anyone take their shirt off so fast," she breathed as he pressed his lips on the hollow of her throat.

"Ye should see how fast I can get yers off," he muttered against the crook of her neck. 

She laughed and gently pushed him away. "I don't want my Rudolph top damaged. I'll take my own clothes off, thank you very much."

With his heart in his throat, he watched her stand and peeled off her pyjama bottom first. She had her back to him, and he figured she was trying to hide her blush. And when she took off her top next, his cock roared back to life, and he hurriedly followed suit, taking off his sweatpants, his eyes fixed on the smoothness of her long legs. Leaving her red bra and knickers on, she swiftly slipped next to him, her teeth clattering and her beautiful pale skin covered in goosebumps.

He gathered her immediately under him, rubbing her arms and the side of her body. "How's that? Still cold?" he asked, looking down at her.

She bit her lip and nodded. "Feeling a lot warmer now."

"Christ, ye smell so good."

"And you're so hot." When she realised what she just said, her eyes widened in horror. "I mean you're like a heating pad."

He grinned at her. "I know what ye meant, but I'll take the other meaning any day. It will do wonders for my ego."

She slapped his arm. "Your ego is perfectly intact, I can assure you."

He smiled as he skimmed his hand up her side and gently cupped her breast, waiting for her reaction. When he felt her back arch a little, he brought down his lips to hers, gently thrusting his tongue into her mouth. She let out a tiny whimper, opening and taking each thrust, conscious of her fingernails digging into his shoulders.

He reminded himself to take it slow and make it memorable for her, but when she parted her knees and allowed him to settle between her thighs, he groaned out loud and changed position, so the tip of his erection pressed right into her through their undies. The slow tease of their movements was maddening, and he wondered if she was aware of it. His cock was straining against her where it would slide in effortlessly if there had been nothing between them.

He felt her hooked her thumbs at the waistband of his boxers, tugging them down. He helped her by kicking them off while putting his fingers under the edge of her knickers. He paused with bated breaths, waiting for her permission, and when she lifted her hips, he groaned and kissed her long and thorough, pushing the flimsy scrap down her thighs.

He nipped at her lips, then trailed down with his tongue to nibble her neck, his fingers unsnapping the clasp of her bra. Claire flailed her head, seemingly unable to verbalise the reactions her body was experiencing, and he watched her with fascination. Emboldened, he cupped the weight of her breast, rolling her nipple, then gently tweaking it between his thumb and forefinger.

"Oh, God Jamie ..."

"It's good?"

She nodded, squeezing her eyes shut and rolling her lips in.

Jamie lowered his mouth and sucked her nipple, his tongue flicking and never letting up the frantic pace, his fingers trailing along her inner thigh, causing goosebumps to erupt on her skin. When he touched her core, she was already wet with need, making his head spin out of control. Fighting the urge to take her now, his index finger traced her folds, rubbing her wetness on her nub. The delicate hitch of her breath hit his ears the exact time his mouth abandoned her breast. 

He met her gaze and sank into the amber depths of her eyes, so far gone with pleasure they turned to molten gold, full of feminine demand that battled past all obstacles and shattered them to pieces. The raw need etched in her features told Jamie she was past the point of no return, that she wanted him now and he knew the feeling.

"Sassenach ...are ye sure?"

"Oh, sweet Mother of God, if you stop now ..." her voice trailed off in a hiss.

"I need to hear the words."

"For God's sake, I want you, Jamie. Now."

Knocking back the reluctance to untangle himself from her, Jamie reared back and reached out for the condom he'd left beside the cushion. He quickly sheathed himself in stretched latex and prowled up her body, settling between her thighs and muffling her requests to hurry with a hard kiss. 

"The first time ye come, I want it to happen while I'm sunk so deep in ye, ye'll never forget who broke it in," he muttered, words muffled by her lips.

"Oh, dear God ..." she moaned.

"Open yer legs wider for me, Sassenach."

She nodded, her fingers running over his cheekbones, lips, chin, as she hiked her knees up. Their breaths raced out of their mouths as he reached down and guided his cock to her opening. Slowly, he pushed inch by inch, allowing her to get used to his girth. When he was finally buried to the hilt, he collapsed and dropped her forehead to hers. 

When he got his breath back, he braced himself on his elbow and looked into her eyes. "Did I hurt ye?"

"Just a little. I hardly noticed. Keep moving." She wrapped her legs around his hips, her fingernails scraping his back lightly on the way down to his arse, which she gripped with hesitation at first, then with more confidence.

With a groan, his hips started to roll of their own volition. He held his breath as heat threatened to flare up in his balls. "Oh fuck, ye feel so good."

"Don't stop ..." she gasped frantically moving her hips against him.

With a hand on her bottom, he lifted her hips effortlessly and drove himself deeper, the last shreds of his control dissolving as he fell on top of her like a dying man. His mouth travelled over hers, and she responded in kind, their tongues twining, their bodies moving in synchronicity to the erotic rhythm and dance. The root of his erection grated against her core and her hips lifted to meet his thrusts, her breaths coming out in pants. It was so breathtaking to watch her pleasure, and what his body is doing to hers, it constricted his heart.

When she dropped her legs from his hips to spread them wider, she let out a strangled moan, and his cock bore down, working her nub. He angled his body for more friction, watching and always conscious of her reaction. When her back arched, and her right leg extended further out, they descended into what felt like wanton madness. She whimpered and raised her hips to meet his thrusts, her inner walls beginning a slow, tight suction of his cock. Jamie was almost afraid to look at her, worried the sight of her would make him lose his restraint and come before her. But it was an impossibility to keep his eyes away when she looked so beautiful beneath him.

He watched her writhe and finesse flew out the window. He fell on her, grunting, sucking in huge gulps of air, pushing her thighs open as he drove faster, listening to her moans of his name, treasuring the throaty awe of them in his ears and all around him. Their mouths joined and gorged, her hands slapping down on his buttocks to pull him in deeper and push him faster. All thoughts of logic, questions and issues suspended as he dipped his head, lowered his mouth over her jiggling tits and continued to pump like a wild beast.

Her body suddenly stilled, before trembling violently underneath him in a climax accompanied by a soft moan, her inner walls squeezing his cock tight. Cursing under his breath, he yanked her legs up and drove himself with a few more hard thrusts to his own peak, a loud groan reverberating from his chest and echoing into the room. He squeezed his eyes shut as his body exploded and spilt his seed. He went from being a bundle of tensed nerves to being utterly devoid of it. 

Utterly spent, he collapsed on top of her, gathering her against him, almost smothering the air out of her. His insides were totally decimated, mind blown and floated down like confetti. 

Moments later, when he lifted his head and searched her eyes, he couldn't stop the widest grin from spreading across his face. And when she returned it with a twinkle in her eye, he fell irreversibly and completely in love with Claire Beauchamp.

..........

The next morning, Jamie got up extra early to let Claire sleep while he did a few chores around the house. He'd kept her up all night, making love and sometime in the early hours of the morning, he'd carried her to his bed. Sleep had been evasive, but this time the cause hadn't been his nightmares or one of his episodes. His thoughts had been filled with the future and its uncertainties instead of being plagued with the past. There were still some niggling doubts lurking in the recesses of his mind, and one of them was his concern when Claire returned to London.

How often had he asked himself in the past twenty-four hours if he could live in London to be closer to her? But now that he had an arboricultural business with Willie, it was doing very well and planning on expanding. He was excited about the community projects he was involved in and committed himself to working long-term. With his episodes and PTSD, the idea of being surrounded by busy streets, chaos, traffics, loud noises, and shoes on the pavement rather than fresh earth paralysed a piece inside him.

Jamie had spent the rest of the night staring into the darkness, wondering what the hell he was going to do. Eventually, some choices have to be made. And he wasn't sure if love would be enough for either of them and if Claire felt the same way.

Taking that leap would only end in heartache and worsen his condition. There had to be some other way. But he couldn't ask her to give up her life and career in London. Or could he? Could he give her what she needed? He shook his head and pushed the bugging thoughts away. They still had the time, and he should focus on that.

After letting Rollo out and bringing in more logs for the fireplace, he made some coffee, answered his emails and read some news on the internet. When his phone chirped and realised it was from his sister Jenny, he groaned. He decided to answer and get it out of the way.

Jenny:  I heard all about the lass you're seeing. A city lass, no less. Have you gone mad? Haven't you learned your lessons?

Ah, fuck, I don't have time for this.

Jamie:  Enjoy your holiday, and don't worry about me. It's just a winter fling. OK? She's on holiday, and she'll be going back to London. Soon. Happy now?

He left his phone on the kitchen counter and shook his head. This wasn't the text conversation he should be having about Claire. But if it would keep Jenny from busting his balls of all days, he'd play along just to pacify her. He slipped into the bedroom, and when he saw Claire still asleep, he decided to have a shave and shower.

After he was done, he walked into the bedroom and noticed the bed was already made. He searched for Claire, humming under his breath and planning what breakfast he should prepare.

"Sassenach?" he called out. 

No answer. 

She probably went back to her cottage to get a change of clothes, he thought.

He shrugged and went ahead and prepared breakfast, singing along to the song playing on the radio. All I Want For Christmas Is You.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

His phone rang. Jamie flung the tea towel onto the kitchen counter and glanced at the screen. When he saw the caller's name, he grumbled profanities that would have made his mother slapped his wrist and his da cuffed his ears. 

Fuck,   Jenny, why are ye doing this to me?

He swiped the screen to answer the call.  "What?"

"You didn't answer my text."

"I have! What do ye want from me?" 

There was a long pause, followed by a sigh. "Ye left me on a read. I asked if ye wanted anything from France. Since I already have ye on the phone, do ye want me to bring ye anything? Ian thought ye might like a nice bottle of brandy."

Ah, hell! He felt bad for snapping at his sister. He probably missed the notifications while he was busy preparing breakfast. Contrite, he changed the tone of his voice. "Uh, sorry ...no. But thank ye for asking. Sorry for being a grouch. I ...um ...kinda busy."

"That's alright. I'm out shopping the whole day, so if ye changed yer mind, send me a text."

He blew out a breath. "Aye, will dae. And um ...Merry Christmas, Jen."

"Merry Christmas to ye tae. Right, got to go. Ian is waving at me like a mad man. I'll call on Christmas day." 

And the line went dead.

Frowning, he checked his messaging app in case he missed any other notifications. He tapped Jenny's name first and saw, he had indeed received follow-up texts from his sister. 

He re-read his own message to her first and winced.

Jamie:   Enjoy your holiday, and don't worry about me. It's just a winter fling. OK? She's on holiday, and she'll be going back to London. Soon. Happy now?

Then he read the rest of Jenny's texts which he hadn't seen.

Jenny:   Chill! I was just curious. So what is this chick Claire like? Mary's husband's words were, you have a new arm-candy.

Jenny:   Safe to say, lasses from the city who come to Broch Mordha for holidays are always up for flings.

Jenny:   Mind you, you're better off with a lass from our area. Long-distance affairs never work anyway.

Jenny:   Going shopping. Want me to buy you a nice bottle of brandy or wine?

He went through them again and then again, until realisation dawned on him, sending a cold chill coasting down his back.  Oh, bloody hell, please no!  Claire had read Jenny's text. She must have seen her name mentioned on the notification when his text-messaging went off and decided to read the rest of the messages. That's why he hadn't seen any notices when he checked his phone.

He bolted out of the house and was relieved to see the lasses' rental car still parked outside the B&B. Knocking several times on the door, he called out to Claire. No answer. He knew Annalise had gone to a nearby town with Willie for breakfast and surely, Claire wouldn't leave without her friend.

Walking back to his cottage, he called her up, but all he got was a voice message. With nought to do, he decided to clear up the remnants of breakfast preparations, and afterwards, he planned to sit outside the B&B until Claire came out. There were no other options but to wait. 

He'd just finished cleaning up and was leaving another voice message for Claire when his doorbell rang, and Rollo barked.

Jamie rushed to the door, hoping it was Claire. He made a mental note to give her the spare key once all this mess he'd created was cleared up.

When he opened it, it wasn't who he was expecting.

"Laoghaire!"

"Do ye have a moment? I need to speak to ye?"

Jamie rubbed his forehead. "Sorry, Laoghaire. This is terrible timing. I have all sort of things to sort out and ..." he trailed off, shaking his head.  Oh, God!  He felt like yelling and breaking things apart. Not because of the lass in front of him but he was afraid he might miss Claire if she decided to leave Broch Mordha.

"Please?" Laoghaire pleaded. "I promise it won't take long. I have a plane to catch, and I really do need to speak to ye."

He stared at her for a while before stepping back. "Alright. I just need to make a phone call. I'll be with ye in a minute."

She nodded gratefully before walking in.

Jamie went to the kitchen to call Willie and asked for Annalise's phone number. When he got hold of Claire's friend, he explained partially what had happened and asked for a few personal favours, hoping it would be enough to buy him more time.

Taking a deep fortifying breath, he walked back into the living room to find Laoghaire staring at the Christmas tree he'd erected yesterday, and saw beautifully wrapped gifts lying underneath it. They're from   Claire!  He hadn't noticed them until now.

He ignored the painful twist to his heart and focused on the present. "What can I do for you, Laoghaire?"

She gave him a small smile. "I want to clear the air between us, Jamie," she started. "I know how much Simon meant to ye and how much this guilt ye carry is weighing ye down ..."

"Laoghaire ..."

"No, Jamie. Let me finish. I'll keep this short."

He nodded, wondering how her child was and if it was Simon's.

She wrung her hands and cleared her throat. "I want ye to know I never cheated on Simon." 

He looked at her in disbelief. 

"The only thing I'm guilty of was falling in love with another man, a man who truly loves me. Simon married me because our parents were good friends and we grew up together and were close. Aye, it's true Simon loved me, but not the way a man should." 

She let out a humourless laugh. "And then ye came along, asking me to marry ye because of some obligation or promise you made to Simon." She shook her head. "I couldnae go through that kind of marriage again. I'm no' an obligation or a duty to be passed on. That's why I let ye believed I cheated on ye while we were engaged because nothing would have stopped ye from marrying me. Ye're too honourable to a fault. But ye're not the only one with honour. That lass ye're with ...I saw the way ye looked at her at the Christmas market. Just like the way my fiance looks at me. I want ye to have what I have, Jamie and not be stuck in some mediocre marriage. Ye deserve to be happy, and I'll always be grateful for everything ye've done for Marsali and me."

"Marsali?"

She smiled. "My and Simon's daughter. I'm flying to back to Liverpool in a few hours, and when I come back, if ye're still here, I'll introduce ye to Marsali and my soon to be husband, Joe. And I want ye to be Marsali's godfather. I think Simon would approve."

He swallowed a lump in his throat and nodded. "Aye, I'd like that. That be really nice. I cannae wait to meet Marsali." 

A little sadness settled over him. He would always care for Laoghaire. They all had been inseparable when they were younger. When he'd asked her to marry him, after her husband died, he'd thought Simon's memory would keep them together. Now, he understood the heartache he'd felt back then. He'd felt betrayed and hurt when she'd admitted to seeing another man. It had nothing to do with love but honour and loyalty.

Laoghaire stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. "Goodbye, Jamie."

He watched her walked out of the house. She was right. They wouldn't have done themselves a favour marrying each other, and now with Claire in his life and after what Laoghaire told him, he realised his breathing was clearer, and that horrendous tightness in his chest was gone.

He dashed out of the house and headed back to the B&B. He needed to make this right. He didn't want to spend Christmas without Claire.

**********

Annalise stared at her, patiently waiting for more explanation.

Tears threatened to spill, but Claire blinked them back. Her naivety and stupidity got her into this, and she was determined she was going to woman-up and not cry over some bloke she barely knew. Her obsession with romance fantasies was to blame. Now, she knew better. How could she have been so stupid believing in a schoolgirl's pipe-dream,  love-at-first-sight and at her age, for crying out loud? Her fancies about their connection and bond were nothing but just fancies and nothing more. It's time to get back to the nitty-gritty of reality, and hopefully, this time, her feet would remain solidly on the ground instead of floating with her head in the clouds. 

Claire inhaled deeply and looked around the room to see if she'd forgotten anything. It was a good thing that she was a light traveller.

"I didn't mean to read his text messages," she explained to Annalise with a sigh. "Jamie was in the shower, and his phone lit up while I was in the kitchen. I picked it up to bring it to him. But when I saw the notifications with my name on it, I just had to look. I felt guilty at first, but now I'm glad I took a peek."

Annalise plopped at the edge of the bed, next to her suitcase. "So what was Jenny's reply to Jamie after he said you were just a winter fling?"

Her throat tightened, but she carried on. "She wrote,  tell me more about this chick Claire, and she mentioned something about her friend referring to me as Jamie's arm-candy."

Winter fling and arm-candy repeated in her head like a bad soundtrack from a Christmas medley. Despite the hurt, she still wondered what Jamie's reply to this Jenny was. Maybe it was for the best she would never know.

Her phone rang. When she saw it was Jamie, she sent it straight away to voicemail. It was already his seventh call.

Annalise frowned. "Look we can still go to Edinburgh and celebrate Hogmanay there. The only thing that will change is, we'll be leaving here a few days earlier." 

"No," she said, shaking her head. "You stay here. You and Willie seem to be getting along like a house on fire. And to be honest, I need to be alone to regroup, and I'd feel bad if you'll miss out on some good holiday celebration because you have to watch me mope."

Annalise sighed. "So back to London it is then."

Claire nodded with a wistful smile. "Yep, home of the Big Ben it is." She tried to sound optimistic lest her friend decided to leave the Highlands and accompany her back home, but something as simple as breathing proved too difficult when her heart felt heavy.

Annalise's phone rang, and she answered. "Hello?" Her eyes widened like saucers, and she mouthed,  It's him. 

Willie must have given Annalise's number to Jamie. 

Claire shook her head. 

"What? You fucked up?" Annalise listened for a few seconds, nodding her head and pretending to sound shocked. "And you're wondering if she's here? Oh, she didn't answer the door, oh dear. Let me check in the bedroom in case Claire's asleep. Your brother just dropped me off, you see."

Annalise glanced at Claire for an answer, and an idea sprung to her in a split second of clarity. 

Claire nodded at her friend. 

Annalise frowned, giving her a confused look. "Yes, she's here," she replied to Jamie, giving Claire a  what-the-fuck-look. 

Claire mouthed,  in the shower.

Annalise told Jamie Claire was preparing to go for a shower, listened some more while rolling her eyes. "No problem, Jamie. I'll keep her here until you get here. Of course, I understand. It's no fuss at all. I'll see you soon." 

Annalise ended the call and glared at her. 

Claire glanced at her watch. "Okay, here's the plan." She dragged her suitcase from the bed. "Mrs Fitz's grandson will be here any minute, and he's dropping me off at the train station. I need a head start, and I can't have him following me. So turn on the water and tell him I'm in the shower." 

"Holy shit, don't you want to at least give Jamie a piece of your mind ...so you could get it out of your system?" 

"Nope, it's better this way. I don't want to hear any excuses. I saw Jamie's reply with my own eyes. It's already difficult for me as it is. If I stay, I'll just end up setting myself for more hurt." 

"Claire ..."

"Look, I really liked him. A lot. Far too much." She squeezed her eye shut and took deep breaths. When she opened them again, she thought she was going to faint. "I thought he was the one." She shook her head, blinking back the tears. "I can't deal with this right now. I have to go."

Annalise rubbed her temple. "You truly are stubborn once you made up your mind." 

Claire gave her friend a weak smile and hugged her. "Just delay him for as long as you can. I'll give you a call once I'm at the airport." 

She hurriedly dragged her suitcase and headed for the backdoor, just in case Jamie was already on his way. She'd already instructed Mrs Fitz's grandson to pick her up from the backstreet. 

During the ride down to the train station, she listened to her voice message. 

"Sassenach, I realised ye saw the text message with my sister." He paused. "Christ, it's not what ye think, whatever it is ye're thinking. Please talk to me. I really need to hear yer voice. Umm ...someone's at the door. Please don't go anywhere and I'll explain everything as soon as I'm done here." 

She was about to delete the voice message when she changed her mind and decided not to. 

His voice would haunt her forever, but the message would be a good reminder of why she needed to guard her heart more carefully.

**********

Jamie paced back and forth in the Airbnb cottage's tiny living area, while Annalise sat in one of the armchairs and glared at him. If looks could kill, he should be dying a very slow, painful death by now.

"So, you really said Claire was just a winter fling, huh?"

He let out an impatient sigh and ran a hand at the back of his neck. "Christ, I told ye already, I was just trying to get my sister off my back. In as much as I love Jenny, she's like a wee thorn in my backside with her incessant interfering. I had to say what I said just to make her shut up and stop texting me." 

He glanced at his watch and then at the closed bedroom door. He could hear the faint sound of water still running in the other room. Fuck, when is she coming out?  Claire had been in the bathroom for eleven minutes and twenty-three seconds, and he was starting to get restless.

"But still, it's an awful thing to say about Claire even if you didn't mean it. You made her sound like a one-night stand slut, and she is anything but. And you told that about her to your sister ...of all people!?! Wow, how could you be so dumb?" 

He wanted to punch a wall, but instead, he flexed his fingers and blew out a breath. "I admit, I wasn't thinking, and I'm a fucking idiot for it." He sank into a chair and dropped his head into his hands. "It was wrong of me to say she's just a fling even if I knew she would never see those texts. Unfortunately, she did." He shook his head. "We had such a nice evening last night, and I really pulled out all the stops to make it special for her. Only for me to fuck it up this morning." 

Annalise's face softened a little. "Claire told me it was quite special."

His head shot up. "She did?"

"Yeah, she said you went through a lot of trouble just for a shag."

Jamie groaned and dropped his head back into his hands. "Jesus, she's way much more than that. And I made her feel cheap." The back of his eyes stung and a huge lump lodged in his throat. "I ken, ye willnae believe me but I care for her. Very much. It wasnae my intention to hurt her."

After a prolonged silence, she shifted in her seat and then spoke. "I believe you."

He caught Annalise's gaze. "You do?" 

"Yes." She uncrossed her arms and relaxed her posture for the first time since he walked in. "To be quite honest, I was stunned when Claire told me what happened. I come across many people every day in my line of work, and I'm pretty good at ascertaining people's motive. Having spoken to you these last couple of days, no matter how briefly, and after hearing stories from your brother, I would have never pegged you to be a cad. You look too bloody miserable right now to be lying to me."

Relief shot through him. "Ye think Claire will listen to me?"

She looked away and glanced at the door of the bedroom. "I don't know, Jamie. You have to find out yourself." 

Jamie frowned and followed her gaze. The water in the shower was still running. "Don't ye think ye should check on her?" he asked, glancing at his watch again. "The water in the bathroom has been running since I arrived about twenty minutes ago. She should be out by now."

She stood up and headed towards the bedroom. "She's not here." 

"What?" He looked at the bedroom door, strode past her, and flung it open. When he walked into the bathroom, his heart stopped. It was empty. "Where is she?" he asked, turning to face her, as cold acid swirled in his gut.

"She's on her way to Inverness hoping to catch a plane to Gatwick. I think she said there's an afternoon flight. She left right after you called me. She asked me to delay you for as long as …"

No! No! No! Fuck!  "Call her!"

"What?"

"I said, call her."

"Why don't you call her?" she asked, but she was already reaching out for her phone.

"She willnae answer my calls."  Oh God, please, this cannae be happening.

"What shall I tell her?" Wide blue eyes, stared at him, waiting for an answer.

Fuck knows!  He threw his hands in the air and paced the room, racking his brain. He needed to think and act fast before she gets into that plane; otherwise, he would have to fly to London. The thought alone was already making him nauseous.

"Well?" Annalise arched an eyebrow at him.

He took a huge breath and hoped Annalise would play along. "Stall her."

"What?" 

"Stall her until I get to her. 

"How am I supposed to do that?" she squeaked.

"I dinnae ken. Tell her to not get on the plane and wait for ye. Tell her ye'll be flying with her. And if she asks why just make up any excuses. Like, ye've had enough of this place or that ye dinnae feel like continuing this holiday without her. Whatever ... as long as she doesn't get in that damn plane."

She frowned at him. "I don't like lying to my friend."

He squeezed his eyes shut before looking squarely into her eyes. "Annalise, please. I'm begging ye," he implored gruffly. "I have to get to her." He paused before taking a step forward, bile rising up in his guts at the thought of not getting to Claire on time. He swallowed the bitter taste and pleaded his case. "I need her."

Her hand flew to her chest, and her eyes almost popped out at the realisation. "Good Lord. You're in love with her, aren't ye? It's all over your face. Oh my God!"

"Please? We dinnae have a lot of time," he whispered, almost close to tears. "Ye're the only one who can get through to Claire."

A few heartbeats passed as he held his breath. 

"Fine! Let's do this!" Suddenly spurred by excitement into action, she quickly grabbed a piece of paper and pen and handed it to him. "Write down your number, and I'll update you after I've called Claire."

"Ye will?"

"Yes, yes ..." she muttered. "Come on, chop-chop!" She clapped her hands at him.

Elated with the turn of event, he didn't waste any more time and rapidly scribbled his number and pushed the piece of paper back to her. "Thank ye. I owe ye big time." When an afterthought came to him, he shoved his hand into his pocket, took out a spare key to his cottage and placed it on the table. It was meant to be for Claire. "Another favour, I have a dog and kitten in the house and ..."

"I got it." She grinned and made a shooing motion. "Now go! I'll voice message you with the updates after I've called Claire."

He started for the door, feeling hopeful for the first time since Claire disappeared on him.

"Oh, and for fuck sake, make this right!" she shouted after him.

"I will. I promise!"

"Otherwise I'll get Geillis' boyfriend to beat you into a pulp for breaking my friend's heart," she yelled.

No' gonnae happen!

He jogged back to his cottage to get his car keys. When he came back out, Harry was stood outside.  Oh Christ, what the fuck now!

"Hello, there old sport!" Harry beamed. "I came to apologise for leaving so abruptly yesterday. It was rather rude of me and ..."

"Ah, Harry, sorry I have to go. I'm in a bit of a rush," he rapidly explained, as he made his way to the car and clicked his key fob. "I need to be somewhere verra important."

Unperturbed by his stress, Harry smiled. "Oh, where are you going if I may ask? I was actually hoping to get a lift," he said casually.

He was at the end of his tether, but he stifled the urge to yell at the English man. "I'm heading to Dalcross ...to the airport," he grated. "I really have nae time to ..."

"Oh, but that's marvellous!" Harry gushed with glee. "I'm heading to the airport myself. Do you mind if I join you?" 

Oh great!  Jamie opened his car door. "Fine, get in!" he agreed, getting into the driver's seat. "I hope ye dinnae mind me driving above the speed limit."

Harry shrugged, getting into the passenger's seat. "Oh well, I guess I will need to buckle up then, won't I?"

"Oh yes, buckle up indeed," Jamie muttered under his breath, steering his car out of his driveway. "Why do ye need to be at the airport?"

"My wife Jules is waiting for me there. We have a plane to catch you see."

Wife?  "All this time I've known ye, ye've never mentioned ye're married," Jamie commented, glancing briefly at him.

"Golly gosh, have I not? You know so little about me because I'm always dashing off here and there," Harry chortled. "Hopefully, that will change."

"Hmmm, so where are ye flying to?" Jamie asked, attempting small talk while checking the rearview mirror before driving the car into the motorway.

"We're going back home to Oxford. Just in time for Christmas," he announced happily.

Oxford. Didn't Claire say she was born in Oxford?  He mentally shook his head. 

Refocusing his attention back on the road, he stepped on the gas and prayed Annalise would be able to stall Claire. It was forty-five minutes drive to the airport. Maybe it was a good idea Harry was tagging along. Jamie hoped Harry's happy chatter would keep him distracted from his growing apprehension long enough until they arrived at their destination.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Claire sat at the airport's cafe, every sound of someone's laughter and the sight of happy couples holding hands, driving a knife into her chest. She still had a few hours to go before its time to go through security. With a heavy heart, she miserably flipped the pages of a glossy magazine, unseeing its pages' articles and pictures. It had taken every iota of her resolve and will power to leave Broch Mordha, and now Annalise had made her book a later flight because her friend was on the way and wanted to talk.  Damn her for making this more difficult!  In truth, she wanted to know what Jamie had told her friend and wondered what he would have said if she'd confronted him instead of running away. Now that she was finally out of his life was he even thinking about her? Staying in Broch Mordha would have most probably increased the likelihood of her believing his excuses and running back into his arms. She just couldn't handle the emotional fallout.

"I beg your pardon, is this seat taken?" a soft feminine voice asked.

Claire briefly glanced up, offered a weak smile and motioned for the woman to sit. She wasn't in the state nor mood for small talks so she put her head down and pretended to read, hoping the woman would take a hint.

Restless, she glanced again at her phone to check the time. Annalise should be here soon.  Is she planning to fly with me? I hope not!  She noticed the cafe was beginning to get busy with people waiting for love ones to arrive or the check-in counter to open. Tomorrow at this time, she'd be home. The thought of spending Christmas in London in the cramped apartment made her doubly miserable. She loved the open spaces of the Highlands and quaint villages. Although the weather could be quite grim, the landscape's natural beauty and loads of fresh air more than made up for it. With its tranquil settings, it was an ideal place to start her writing career. She'd put it on hold for far too long, working for a publishing company that gave her very little satisfaction and yesterday she'd even fantasised of moving to Broch Mordha and making it a reality to be closer to Jamie.  How could I have been so stupid?

"Highlands in December is romantic, isn't it?" The woman sharing her table smiled pleasantly. "I love this place. There's something magical about it, don't you agree?"

Ah, another English woman to fall for the Highland charm!  She was about to give some generic answer about the Highlands' ancient history lending the romance a hint of mysticism when the harsh truth chose that moment to free itself. "Kind of deceiving though, isn't it? I got caught up in that so-called magic, but some wanker decided to exploit it and use my heart to make fertiliser. I've only known him for a couple of days, but I can't stand being in this place anymore without thinking about him and his stupid, stupid handsome face. And the way he looked at me." She blew a breath and blinked back the tears. "I guess I was just plain naive and a bloody dimwit for thinking smooth talkers only existed in big cities like London. I tell you what, they're rife everywhere and you can never be too careful."

If the woman had been surprised by Claire's outburst, it didn't show. "Now, now, I'm quite sure there is a perfect explanation. Lovely and sweet as you look, I see the wisdom that belies your age in your eyes. You don't seem like a person to be taken by someone's smooth line at all."

She let out an almost deranged laugh. "Well, obviously, I am. I took one look at a beautiful face, and all logic went south. So there," Claire huffed.

The other woman looked away and sipped her tea. She was much older than Claire thought - in her forties maybe or could be fifties, but it was hard to tell. She had a dark, sleek modern bob hairstyle that contradicted the mumsy grey slacks, woollen jumper and lack of makeup and accessories. Her face was kind though, and there was a serenity in her demeanour she found comforting and familiar.

Claire regretted her oversharing and decided to shut her mouth and continued reading.

"I met my husband many years ago here. Not far from where we are now. A place called Broch Mordha."

Claire's head shot up. "Oh! Is your husband Scottish?"

"No, he's English. We met one summer while watching a Highland game. He lived in Broch Mordha while doing some research for work, and I was on holiday. We fell in love and eventually married. And every year from thereon we celebrated our anniversary here. It's a very special place for us."

"That's very sweet," Claire remarked, trying not to think of Jamie and what could have been for them if he hadn't been a knobhead.

The woman let out a soft laugh and daintily wiped her mouth with a napkin. "Sweet isn't the description I would have used to describe the circumstance of how we met; nevertheless, it turned out my darling husband is my soul mate and marrying him had been the best decision I've ever made in my life."

"Good for you ..." Claire whispered, subtly glancing once more at the time on her phone. She hoped Annalise would be here soon because the last thing she needed right now was to hear someone else's happily forever after. But in the end, curiosity got the better of her. "So what made you change your mind about him?"

The woman sighed and took out her book. "My husband was an insensitive clod, and when he eventually saw the error of his ways and asked for forgiveness, I gave him a second chance. Forgiving him didn't change the past, and I realised in the end, if I hadn't forgiven him, my actions would have robbed me of the best years of my life. And of course, a beautiful daughter who turned out to be everything I've ever hoped for and much more." She smiled and then turned her attention to reading. Obviously, oversharing was now over.

"I see ..." Claire muttered. Well, what had she expected? A magical solution? She almost laughed out loud.  No such thing!

It was too late for her and Jamie anyway. She was on her way to London, and he'd probably moved on now that she was gone. It was definitely better this way. Out of sight, out of mind.

**********

He switched off the ignition of his car and texted Annalise to inform her he'd arrived at his destination. She'd messaged him earlier letting him know Claire would be at D'Lish cafe. Scanning his vicinity, Jamie drew in a lungful of air. He'd only been in Inverness Airport's parking lot a few minutes, and already his nerves were on tenterhooks. From the congested traffic and beeping cars to stressed people madly rushing about, Jamie realised how far from his world he'd strayed, and the distance was only under an hour's drive. 

He hadn't even stepped out of his car, and already he was counting the minutes till he was back within the peaceful haven of Broch Mordha. But he'd made up his mind. He wasn't going back without Claire and had taken his passport with him just in case he would have to follow her all the way to London. How he was going to manage that with his unpredictable episodes, he had no idea. He hoped he would be able to keep his panic attacks at bay long enough until he found her and convinced her to come back home.

"I'll walk in with you," Harry said quietly out of the blue as if he'd sense his trepidation. "My flight isn't till later, and my wife is probably enjoying her cuppa tea somewhere."

The tightness in his body relaxed, and Jamie nodded gratefully. Harry seemed to always understand his situation, popping out of the blue at the strangest times. Jamie had never questioned it and put it down to simply Harry being unusually perceptive and a good friend.

They quietly walked side by side towards the airport and when they entered the building, moving bodies and a sea of faces swarmed his vision. The racket and clamour of people going about their business surrounded him, and Christmas crowds trying to make it home before Christmas jostled too close, their cacophony of voices chattering excitedly. 

Jamie swallowed the mounting panic and fixed his thoughts on Claire, breathing deeply in through his nose and with a heaving chest, letting it all out with a whoosh. His eyes darted and saw people smiling and nodding animatedly, laughter and children's squeals infiltrating his consciousness, their sound accompanied by an air of anticipation that told him it was a season of joy. 

Jamie managed to put a grim smile on his face and concentrated on getting one foot in front of the other, apologising now and again whenever he accidentally bumped into someone, almost stumbling like an intoxicated man. Although aware of Harry's presence, perspiration coated his skin, and he could feel a bead of sweat running down his temple. The usually comfortable soft fabric of his sweatshirt chaffed and squeezed him like a clamp almost suffocating him. The chaotic din typical of an airport during the holiday season came in a huge rush of waves, at first faint, then building to a deafening sound that roared in his ears, shattering his foundation and foothold. 

Oh, God, please, not now.  Jamie knew it was happening. Attempting not to panic, he began to employ a technique that more often than not worked. He tried listening to his mother's singing in his head, the one that stuck most in his mind and brought him comfort when he'd been amidst a conflict in a war zone, a song that sang him to sleep when he was a wee bairn.

He stopped a few metres away from the cafe where Claire was supposed to be waiting and took a moment to draw in oxygen, clinging to his mother's singing in his head.  Goodnight, you moonlight ladies. Rockabye, sweet baby, James. Deep greens and blues are the colours I choose. Won't you let me go down in my dreams? And rockabye, sweet baby, James.  

He dimly recognised where he was, busy eateries, cafes and shops lined a wide area, a focal point for those waiting for love ones to arrive or passengers before heading to security that led to the departure area. Someone's child screamed nearby, and the sound of suitcases dragging on its wheels seemed to rumble and reverberate on the ground. Christmas light decorations that normally shimmered unobtrusively and gave a soft glow suddenly seemed to flash all around him, and the Christmas songs playing in the background became disembodied sounds. Jamie froze, gripped in the throes of a colossal panic attack that forced him to sink halfway to his knees.

Everything seemed to fade in and out, but it was Harry's voice he eventually clung to, his mother's singing hushing into the recesses of his head. The Englishman repeated his name and grabbed hold of his elbow, preventing him from collapsing to the floor and leading him firmly away from the moving crowd. Jamie pitched himself against the giant column and fought the crippling dread chipping away at his sanity. 

He glanced around frantically, but Harry's hand grabbed his face and forced him to look straight into amber eyes. 

"Breathe, Jamie. Everything is going to be alright. Just keep breathing." 

"H-Harry ...I n-need to ..."

"It's alright. I know. I'm not going anywhere. Just breath."

Jamie unzipped his jacket and fought for air, sucking in a lungful. And then, again and again, gasping and coughing as he doubled over, bracing his hands on his knees. Harry's strong hand massaged his back in a circular motion, the older man's presence calm and controlled, breathing with him, encouraging to gradually take in more air. 

It took a while to normalise his breathing, his heart to calm down and the cold sweat to evaporate. As he regained more control, though wobbly at first, he straightened up. Gathering his bearings, he ignored the odd looks from passersby, by now already used to it.

Harry gave him a reassuring smile. "Feeling much better?" 

Jamie managed a nod as the initial feeling of shame and embarrassment took over the panic attack.  Why am I even here?  Claire deserved so much better than this and all his fucking issues. On top of it all, he'd managed to make her feel cheap when he was nothing but just half a man. There was no way she'd go back to Broch Mordha with him.

"Oh no, you don't. I know that look in your eyes. You've made it this far, old sport," Harry whispered fiercely, straightening his jacket. "Don't you even think of going back home without trying!" 

Jamie blinked, confused.  What the fuck? What does Harry know?  But there was no time to ask questions, as he caught a glimpse of Claire past Harry's shoulder. She was in the cafe in the motion of getting up, her head bowed down while speaking on the phone. 

Last night, he'd held Claire in his arms and now, the reality of the moment hit him hard as he saw her hand gripped the suitcase next to her, reminding him she's waiting to board a plane. He could hardly think over the furious pounding in his chest as a combination of relief at seeing her and fear of rejection surged through him. He barely registered himself, moving towards the cafe when Harry put a hand on his arm. He turned to meet his friend's eyes. "You're on your own now. For now. Remember to breathe."

Jamie swallowed hard and nodded.

"Now go and hurry."

**********

Claire panicked, her eyes darting around the cafe. Annalise had just called and confessed Jamie was on his way to talk to her. Her friend had insisted on giving Jamie a chance to explain and that he'd made a mistake. 

But Claire couldn't do this. She didn't have this sort of experience nor the emotional strength to handle this kind of situation. All she knew and was aware of was how much Jamie had hurt her with his words. 

She quickly stood up, said goodbye to the woman sat on her table, grabbed her bags and made her way out of the cafe. She kept her head down and tried not to look around in case Jamie spotted her. She began to walk faster, weaving through crowds of travellers as she wheeled her suitcase, images of Jamie encroaching her thoughts. A new voice was trying to make itself heard, telling her maybe she ought to listen to what Jamie had to say. But what was there to say? She'd seen what he wrote with her own eyes, and there was no explaining himself out of it.

She was just getting into the queue for the security check when a shout cut through the hubbub surrounding her. 

"Sassenach!"

She stiffened, and her hand went slack around the suitcase's handle, sending its bulk toppling to the floor. It took a few heartbeats for her to turn around and face Jamie, afraid her resolve would collapse if she looked at him. When she finally saw him, he stood a few yards away, suspended in a sea of bustling chaos. Perspiration beaded his forehead, his face pale and eyes a little wild as they searched hers, snagging on the way she snatched her suitcase to an upright position and pulled it closer to her side. As always, ever since she first laid eyes on him, his unusual male beauty made her chest ache. A head taller than most, he looked out of place in the busy surroundings, his blue eyes penetrating through everything in their wake to reanimate her heart.

She waited for something to happen, but he just continued to stare at her, his body swaying a little. He looked like he was about to faint. Worry, combined with fear prickled her skin when she recalled his accounts of his PTSD condition. She'd made it this far, and now she was torn between going over to him and making her way to the security.

"What are you doing here?" she said a little harshly.

"Dinnae go in that plane." 

"It's too late for that."

Anguish fogged his handsome features. "I need ye to hear me out, Sassenach. Please."

Claire shook her head. "What is there to say, Jamie? That text you wrote, told me everything already."

"Please let me explain ..."

"I already know what you're going to say, Jamie. You're going to say you didn't mean to write that text. It's classic and cliche at the same time and utter bullshit." Claire's shoulders sagged, and she swallowed hard. "No, I'm sorry, I can't ..." 

She started to step into the queue, but stopped, her heart caught in her throat when a passerby in a rush accidentally bumped into him, and he almost vaulted over. She saw how much it took out of him just to remain upright. She made a move to come to his aide, but he stopped her with a motion of his hand, telling her he would say his piece without any help. Squeezing his eyes shut, he took several deep breaths, discomfort, and distress in this busy environment evident on his face. 

"You don't look well, Jamie. You should go home," she said, glancing around, aware of people looking at him.

"Damn it, Sassenach," he wheezed. "I'm gonnae make ye listen even if it kills me."

A stabbing pain went through her heart. "I can't do this, Jamie. I'm going."

"No!" He took another unsteady step forward. When Claire stayed put, relief washed over his face. "What I wrote to my sister about you was wrong ..."

Rage replaced the hurt she was feeling. "You made it sound I was just a notch on the bedpost," she snapped, angrily.

Jamie winced as a woman nearby gasped and glared at him, but they both ignored her. "No, Sassenach. You were never that ..."

"Your words winter fling said it all. What else could it mean?"

"Sometimes, what I think and what I feel doesn't translate into words ..."

"Or you don't think at all," she interrupted, tipping her head back to keep the tears from falling.

His head dropped. "No, I didnae think. What I said was inexcusable, and no explanation or apologies would take any of the hurt I caused ye back."

"It was a horrid thing to say about someone!"

His face flickered with regret and self-loathing. "It was, and I'm an arsehole for it."

"They why? Why Jamie? Is that how you talk about your conquests?"

His face paled even more. "No! You're not that at all. What we had was special, and I've never felt like this about someone before."

"You could have fooled me ..."

He took a careful step forward as if afraid she would bolt. "Sassenach, I said what I said not because that was what I thought about you and that's the truth. Partly, I text those words to get my sister off my case. She was badgering me for getting involved with ye because she was worried about me falling for someone from the city due to my condition. Another part of the reason I wrote that had to do with my fear of getting emotionally attached. I thought by labelling what we had as temporary, it would be easier to let ye go when the time comes. It was wrong ...so wrong. I wish I hadnae said it."

Claire could barely see him through the blur of tears. The awful pain she'd had in her heart all morning waned a little. She forced her feet to move, but the emotion in his voice kept her rooted in place. 

"Christ, everything happened so fast between us. And I was rushing ahead before I could comprehend what was happening. When ye told me ye live in London, I was convinced that nothing could come out of this ...us ...whatever this is we have ....because I wouldnae ken how to live in yer world and it wouldnae be right to ask ye to give up yers. When I asked ye to extend yer stay, my intention was to make as many memories with ye because I needed to face the truth of my limitations. I was determined not to be that someone who held ye back and made ye regret what ye could've done. I said to mysel' whatever time ye could give me, I'd be grateful. Yet, here I am, begging ye not to get on that plane."

She wanted to go to him, take him in her arms and forget what had happened, but she needed more. She needed to know that this thing between them was more than just a handy itinerary with chemistry tossed into the mix. For her, it had always been more, but he's a man, and maybe it's just all about sex for him.

"Sorry, Jamie." Bracing her shoulders, she pulled her suitcase behind her and joined the line for security check-up.

"Wait!"

She and every person within hearing distance in the queue turned around to look at him.

This time, Jamie didn't flinch and looked at her straight in the eyes with unwavering intensity. "I cannae let ye go without giving it my best shot. I've used my condition as an excuse for far too long, yet not once did ye ever look at me as someone damaged. I dinnae want my condition to stop me anymore from going after what I want. I swear to God, ye havenae seen persistence yet, Sassenach. Ye have nae idea what it looks like until ye've seen it on me. I've fought for my life in a war zone before, and I'm doing it again now. If ye get on that bloody plane, be rest assured I will be on the next flight behind yours. I will show up in every God damned place ye go to until ye give me the time of day. And I willnae stop until I get it through yer pretty head how much ye mean to me. And if ye come back to me, I promise ye, I'm gonnae work my arse off to prove to ye every day how special ye are. Even if it means moving to London to be closer to ye. All I'm asking for is a second chance."

Looking at him, she knew he meant every word, and there was an intensity about him, that told her he would go through with his threat of following her to London. A lump stuck in Claire's throat, so huge she could barely speak. Her face crumpled, and she let the unshed tears she'd held all morning flow. Unable to stand a moment longer without feeling his arms around her, she let go of her grip on her suitcase and began to make a move towards him. Jamie fell back a few steps, both hands flying to rest on top of his head, relief and disbelief visible in every line of his body. She covered the distance separating them in three steps and flung herself into strong arms that circled around her without hesitation. Applause, cheers and whistles from passengers who had witnessed the scene erupted around them, making them both laugh through tears. 

"Jesus Christ, Jamie," she stammered with a hiccup. "You really know how to cause a scene and really make it count." 

A hand tunnelled through her hair, gripping her neck so he could angle her head and kiss her. "I'm so sorry, Sassenach. Oh, God, I'm so sorry," he muttered against her lips. "I was an idiot. I thought I wasnae gonnae make it." 

A shudder passed through her. "I almost got on a plane and spent Christmas on my own." 

Jamie fell back into the nearest seat, taking Claire with him. Obviously spent from all the emotions. "Dinnae remind me ...ever again, please. But just so ye know, I have my passport with me. I was ready to come after ye. Today." 

Claire clung to him tighter. "It's Christmas, and we're together. Let's just focus on that." 

"Christ, I thought I knew fear." His breath shook and fanned her skin. "That was the scariest situation I've been in." 

She let out a sigh, inhaling his scent from the crook of his neck. How had she thought for one second that running away would have been a better option? She thought of the woman she spoke to earlier in the cafe and smiled. 

Jamie shook her a little. "Ye're going to think this is mad, but I dinnae want to take another second for granted, so I'm just going to say it, so ye ken once and for all." 

"Say what?" she whispered. Jamie tilted her face up for a slow, deep kiss, then stood, lifting her in his arms. 

"I'm in love with ye, Sassenach. I ken it's too soon, but I want it out there just in case something happens and I dinnae get another chance to say it, or I do something stupid like making ye cry. Life's too short for over-analysing things and keeping something like that to myself." 

She smiled through fresh tears. "I'm in love with you too, Jamie. And next time you say something stupid, I'm just going to get into a fight with you about it, instead of running away."

Jamie's laughter rumbled in his chest before his face turned serious. "Merry Christmas, Sassenach. May it be our first of many more to come."

Claire reached out and clasped his face with her hands and laid a soft kiss on his lips. Her heart broke open, and for the first time, all the pieces clicked together in a perfect puzzle, and everything made perfect sense. Because she'd learned early on you needed to take the bad with the good and embrace it all. Despite Jamie's condition and fear of uncertainty, she'd taken a gamble and trusted her guts, and by giving him a second chance, they'd ended up with the best thing of all. 

Love at Christmas. 

She knew it wasn't going to be smooth sailing forever. There were going to be long talks of how they ought to proceed with their relationship, compromises to be made, and probably many teething problems during their phase of getting to know each other. But as long they both keep their hearts open, they should have a fighting chance.

"Merry Christmas to you too," she whispered, her voice raspy with emotion. 

"Shall we go home?" he murmured, smiling.

"Yes, let's go home."

Hand in hand they left the airport and headed back to Broch Mordha to celebrate Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Claire began to relax as they drove along. At first, she had been reluctant to spend New Year's Eve at Jamie's family home and meet his parents. She'd thought it was too soon, and after that drama at the airport before Christmas day, she was still in the process of wrapping her head around the fact they were back together. Claire had even suggested to Jamie he should go ahead and spend time with his family, and they could meet the following day. But after Jamie's mother had personally invited her and Annalise over the phone, she'd relented in the end, though with mild trepidation. She'd already declined Christmas dinner with them prior when Jamie had invited her, but this time his mother had spoken, and there was no way out.

En route, they'd made pit stops at several shops so Annalise and Claire could buy some flowers and champagne for their hosts. They'd packed a small suitcase between them as Jamie's mother had insisted they stay overnight so everyone could enjoy the celebration without worrying about driving back to the village. The lads' were chipper, and it didn't take long before their banter put Claire at ease, answering questions about their family home and pointing at places of significance connected to the Frasers' childhood.  

After a few twists and turn, Willie's Land Rover veered to a single lane private road past what could have been a hand-carved sign. "Here we are, Lallybroch," Willie announced. 

Jamie turned from the front seat and winked at Claire then resumed the animated chatter with his brother.

Annalise leaned over to her and whispered, "Is Jamie still in the doghouse?"

Claire arched an eyebrow at her friend to say this was not the time to discuss such things. Annalise took the hint, sighed and looked out the window. 

She couldn't really blame Annalise for enquiring because ever since she'd come back to Broch Mordha, she'd decided to take things slower with Jamie and hadn't stayed over at his place once, just allowing stolen kisses and touches to pass between them. But Jamie didn't seem to mind and was happy enough with their current situation. 

Christmas was spent with Annalise, having dinner at a local pub and later meeting up with the brothers. In as much as she'd wanted to spend the whole Christmas day with Jamie, she'd passed up the opportunity, not ready to be introduced to his parents.

After Boxing day, Annalise and Claire had moved from their Airbnb to Jamie's family's rental cottage. Practically speaking, it would have been better if Claire had accepted Jamie's invitation to spend the rest of her holiday with him since Annalise hardly stayed in and was always with Willie. But Claire was adamant about having her own space. Perhaps her reason had something to do with Jamie's text to his sister, which had left a lingering bitter taste behind, and needed more time to get over it.

They turned down another smaller lane before their vehicle drove further up. The trees became sparse and as they rounded a corner, nestled atop a small hill, was a lovely, three-story, tower house that reminded her of a French chateau. There was a vast green lawn surrounding the home, with a few birch and ash trees scattered about and an ancient oak tree with a tire swing attached to a branch. 

In the early afternoon sun, Claire saw the hills spill down directly to the strath where the village lay, and beyond she caught a glimpse of where moor and mountain met at a loch. In the distance, she could see a few cottages dotted along the landscape, all of which must have spectacular views of untainted nature's beauty. After they stepped out of the car, Claire could only stand there, clasping the car door and looking in awe at her surroundings. It was so breathtaking, she wished she'd brought her laptop so she could start writing right there and then.

Taking a deep breath, she smelled the distinctive scent of burning wood and home cooking and felt the wind whipping back the few locks of hair that had come loose from her bun. She closed her eyes briefly, allowing it all to sink in and thought how easy she could get used to all of this.

When Willie and Jamie had gathered their bags from the car's boot, Claire and Annalise followed them to the house.

Once inside, Claire thought it was the homiest interior she'd ever seen. The entrance door opened up into a long hallway that stretched to the back of the house, revealing an L-shaped wooden handcrafted staircase. It was full of homely and cosy furnishings, mostly made of wood or stone, a round mirror, polished candelabra, and what looked like an antique pew that must have been taken from an old kirk with burlap and cotton pillows scattered across it casually. "Hallo, the house," Jamie called as he placed their bags on the floor and shrugged off his jacket.

There were several distant cheers of delight in response, followed quickly by footfalls from a number of people coming around the corner at the end of the hall. 

"Oh dear," Annalise whispered beside her, placing the flowers on a nearby console as Claire followed suit, putting down the bag with wines on the floor.

Oh dear, indeed.  Jamie hadn't said anything about a lot of people being present.

The group Claire took as extended family, took turns throwing their arms around Jamie and Willie, asking all sorts of questions, all chatting over one another. Claire and Annalise looked at each other and took a step back and waited patiently for the attention to inevitably turn on them. She had not prepared for the onslaught of half a dozen people, so when they finally noticed her and Annalise, she didn't know what to expect. She had expected brief acknowledgements, smiles and handshakes, and perhaps loud welcomes, but not this kind of warm familiarity as she watched one of the older women grabbed Annalise and hugged her tightly.

Claire immediately recognised the parents, holding each other's hand when she saw the resemblance between Jamie and his mother and Willie to his father.

The father was as tall as the brothers and had the same built, with dark hair that was flecked with salt and pepper just above his ears. Dressed casually in a dark green jumper, well-worn jeans and a pair of dark-rimmed specs perched on his nose, he seemed to have a youthful air about him. 

The mother was tall too and her hair reminded Claire of cinnamon, blended with golden honey. It was short, cut just below the ears, and slightly curly. It bounced when she moved and nodded her head. She had a noble face, and Claire could see where Jamie got his intense transparent blue eyes and its shape from. A handsome woman dressed in a pair of skinny black jeans and an oversize sport's sweatshirt, she didn't look nearly old enough to be a mother of two full-grown men.

While Annalise was the first to be greeted by some of the group, Jamie's father looked at Claire and smiled. 

He stepped forward. "You must be Claire!" he said, as he enfolded her into his arms, making her feel slightly awkward. But his easy-going manner just like his sons', immediately put her at ease. 

"Yes, I am," she smiled shyly. "It is very nice to meet you, Mr Fraser." 

The older man shook his head. "Please, call me Brian, and this is my wife, Ellen." 

Ellen's excited laughter turned on Claire and felt Ellen's arms wrapping around her neck.

When she pulled away, she kept her hands on Claire's shoulder, looking her visitors all over then at her sons "Ah, the lassies are so bonnie. Ye should have brought them sooner." 

Jamie and Willie grinned, both looking proud as punch. 

Annalise, who tended to be the less shy one, suddenly looked sheepish, as she blushed profusely. Claire wanted to laugh out loud at her friend's expression and wished she had a camera to capture the moment. It would be something to tease Annalise about in the next coming months.

Ellen turned her attention back to Claire and Annalise, taking both their hands. "We are so pleased that both of ye could join us for Hogmanay. We have been looking forward to meeting the both of ye. It's just a shame Jenny and Ian will be spending their time at Cornwall with their friends and cannot meet ye." 

Claire was relieved. Her mind wandered back to the text exchange between Jamie and his sister, and she didn't think she was ready for their meeting. Just yet.

After a brief small talk with Ellen, Claire quickly hugged the rest of the group, not quite catching up with their eager chatter and feeling her eyebrows arching up into her hairline with wonderment. But despite the initial worry that had washed over her, she felt happy and comfortable. She could not remember a time she had ever been welcomed so warmly by a group of people, except for times with her friends, Annalise and Geillis.

"Annalise, Claire, both of ye probably didn't catch everyone's name. This is Aunt Jocasta, my ma's sister and her husband uncle Duncan," Jamie said, gesturing to Ellen's look-alike and a dark-haired, tall, lanky man beside her. The couple beamed and said something about having heard a lot about them from the lads. 

"And this is grannie Annie, from ma's side" he continued. The woman who stood on the other side of Jocasta was smaller, slight framed, with white hair that was short and styled in a way that Claire thought could only come from a salon trip, though was probably just from years of practice. She nodded and smiled at them.

"And I'm Murtagh!" 

A middle-aged man slightly younger than Brian came forward from behind the women. He had been one of the first to hug her as the family had taken turns jostling to introduce themselves. He had a full face beard and thick dark hair tied back at the nape of his neck.

Willie beamed. "He's our godfather. Dinnae let his looks scare ye." 

"And dinnae let these lads' charms fool ye," Murtagh teased and got shoved by Jamie on the shoulder. 

"I thought ye weren't coming until later," Willie remarked, slapping the older man on his back.

Murtagh rubbed his belly and smiled wickedly. "Weel, I heard ye lads were coming. And knowing yer appetite, I didnae think there would be any morsel left if I came any later."

Jocasta whipped the teatowel in Murtagh's direction. "There's enough food to feed an army, ye ken that fine. Ye're just greedy and want to take most of the leftovers home."

Ellen huffed. "Right ... that's enough." She turned to her sons. "One of ye lads show the girls Jenny's room. That's where they're sleeping tonight."

"I'll go." Jamie and Willie replied at the same time, making the rest of the family laugh.

Ellen threw her hands in the air and rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Just dinnae take long. Food will be served soon."

After Annalise and Claire gave their presents to their hosts, they followed Willie and Jamie up the stairs.

It was a long trek up, and Claire wondered if the stairs were the reason that kept the whole family fit and lean.

When they came to the landing, Jamie grabbed her hand. "I'll just show Claire my room." Before Willie and Annalise could respond, he was already tugging her towards a long narrow hallway with a window at the very end. Once there, Jamie led her to his bedroom and shut the door.

"Jamie!? What do you think are you doing?" Claire whispered loudly. "We're in your parents' house."

He shrugged at her. "I wanted to show ye my room and this ..." He pulled her into his arms and kissed her long and thorough. When she slightly pulled away, he smiled. "I dinnae ken when we'd be alone again once we're downstairs and it's still a long way to go till midnight to wait for a kiss."

"Jamie ..."

"I miss you."

"How can you miss me when I'm here?" she asked, even though she knew precisely what he meant.

"Ye can sneak into my room tonight," he suggested mischievously. "It's been a while."

Claire slapped his forearm and playfully pushed him away to take a good look at her surroundings. There was a solid wood double bed, and a mural of a packed rugby stadium on one wall while the rest of the room was painted in pale blue. On the far end was a stack of clean quilts placed on the carved antique dresser, contradicting the modern decor. A shelving unit hanging from the ceiling held by a thick jute rope was filled with memorabilia, photos and trophies. She peered at the pictures and ran a finger at some of Jamie's childhood collectables.

"I never had this," she whispered, smiling wistfully.

Jamie wrapped his arms around her and rested his chin on her head. "They're just things, Sassenach."

She turned around to face him. "I speak of memories of home, family and childhood."

"Weel, we'll be able to start making our own memories together soon," he said softly, tucking a hair behind her ear.

For the last few days, they'd talked for hours about how to proceed with their relationship, and as much as Claire wanted to start already pursuing her dream as a writer in Broch Mordha, she couldn't just leave London for good on a whim. They'd briefly played with Jamie's suggestion coming over to London for a visit, but Claire thought it was too risky with his PTSD and the idea was immediately scrapped.

"Not that soon."

He grinned. "Let's just say, that's just me hoping it would be sooner."

"I wish it would be sooner too, but I told you already there are things I need to wrap up first." She sighed, running her palms up his chest. "I wish I hadn't taken on a lot of work before I left. I took quite a few major edits on, thinking of that promotion I was after. There's a lot of competition, and I realise now, it will take a while before seeing any progress in my career. I guess I was only after that promotion to find a sense of satisfaction in my work, but really, there's no point when I want to be a writer. But I can't just walk away. I have a few commitments I need to settle first before I'm free."

"Can't ye do it from here?"

"Maybe with some of the edits I'm working on ...yes. But as for the rest, I need to be in London. Before I came here, I also accepted this assignment to work with an author who hasn't publish a book in seven years, and she's quite a big deal. Anyone in the know is quite excited that she is writing again. I was given the task because my mentor knew I wanted a promotion and believed I was ready for the big stuff, even though it means jack squat now. Anyway, the author is almost done with the first draft, so I guess by the time I return to London, I'd be able to start working on it."

He rested his forehead against hers and smiled. "I guess I just have to wait for you until you've tied up all loose ends or visit ye in London."

"Jamie ...we talked already about ye coming to London."

"It doesnae mean I have to quit trying to convince ye," he murmured into her ear and left a trail of kisses on her neck.

"I'll come and visit during bank holiday weekends."

"Sounds good," he murmured, pulling her closer.

They were about to kiss some more when there was a loud rap on the door. "Jamie! Lunch is ready," Willie called out.

"Be there in a minute ..."

"Now! Ye ken what's ma like."

"For Christ's sake, we're coming!"

Jamie sighed and kissed Claire on the nose. "Let's go and eat?"

"Sound plan," she said, smiling.

"Remind me later where we left off."

By the time they made it downstairs, everyone was already seated, and Brian was serving everyone white wine. As Jamie pulled a chair for her, everyone stopped their chattering.

Claire glanced up and noticed, along with everyone else Murtagh was staring at her. She subconsciously touched her hair. "Is something the matter?

Grannie Annie cleared her throat. "Murtagh! For heaven's sake, stop staring at the lass! Ye're making her uncomfortable."

Murtagh shook his head as if in a daze and offered an apologetic smile. "Sorry lass, but ye remind me of someone."

Smiling, Claire waved a hand in dismissal and shrugged. "You know what the say ...everyone has a twin somewhere."

Jamie laughed as he sat down and nudged Claire on the arm. "He says that to all the lassies down at the pub."

"I might do, but we're among family, and I willnae say such thing to a godson's girlfriend unless I mean it," Murtagh said defensively, scowling. He turned his attention back to Claire once more. "When I first saw ye earlier, I thought I might've seen ye somewhere before. But now, with more light in here, I can see ye have a very uncanny resemblance to a lass I used to know."

"He meets a lot of lassies, ye ken. In his old age, he's getting a bit muddled and starting to think everyone looks the same," Willie jested, laughing.

"Ah, wheesht yer chops, lad. I dinnae forget a face easily especially those of someone I knew very well."

"Willie, serve yer auntie some gravy please," Ellen said, changing the subject.

As they began to pass platters around, the pleasing rich scents rose up, making Claire's stomach growl. There was a succulent looking turkey already carved with boats of rich gravies next to it, a huge dish of different vegetables, roasted and some steamed, and a tray of baby potatoes tossed in herbs and Yorkshire puddings. 

"So, whose the extra place setting for, ma?" Willie asked, spreading butter on a roll before taking a bite.

Claire had noticed the empty chair when they came down and wondered if another member of the family was coming.

"Oh, I figured Harry might come along since Jamie vaguely mentioned last week he was around," Ellen explained, serving Grannie Annie some potatoes. "Since he didn't come over for Christmas and I forgot to ask about him then, I thought he might come today. I've been wondering when we'll finally meet him." She glanced at Jamie. "It's been over a year, dear and he comes and goes and visits ye but never quite making it here to Lallybroch. He sounds like a verra nice man. We would all love to meet him. So where is he now by the way?"

Claire noticed everyone on the table looked around, waiting for answers before settling their gazes on Jamie. She'd heard of Harry before. He'd been the unexpected guest on the night she'd been invited to Jamie's cottage for the first time but had disappeared during the fuss with the kitten.

Looking perplexed as the rest, Jamie blew out a breath and shook his head. "Same old story. Either he's got someplace to go, or he's busy. But this time, I ken he's left and is staying home during the holidays. God knows when he'll unexpectedly pop up again. I promise ye, I've extended yer invitation often enough, but he's always got some excuse why he cannae come."

"Didn't you say he came to the airport with you?" Claire asked, referring to that day when Jamie came after her at Inverness airport.

Jamie nodded. "Aye, he was meeting his wife there before flying to Oxford."

Murtagh slapped a hand on the table, making everyone jump. "Oxford! That's where the lass who looks like Claire came from. Now, I remember."

"Claire's originally from Oxford," Annalise joined in.

Murtagh's eyes almost popped out. "Ye're from Oxford?" he asked Claire.

Claire swallowed and took a sip of the wine before answering. "I was born there, but most of my childhood was spent in a boarding school in Leweston School in Dorset. I only lived in Oxford when I went to study English literature at Oxford Brookes University. After I graduated, I got a job in London, and I have been living there ever since. I consider myself a Londoner, really."

Brian and aunt Jocasta nodded, seemingly impressed with her education, but for Claire, it had been a lonely childhood. After answering a few more questions about her parents and explaining how she was orphaned at a young age and why uncle Lamb couldn't be there for her because of his work, silence descended on the table.

She forced a cheerful smile. "Oh, please, don't be sad on my behalf. Despite what happened to my parents, I'm quite fortunate compared to a lot of orphans. Really, I'm fine."

Jamie squeezed her hand.

"But who the hell is Harry? Can someone please explain?" uncle Duncan suddenly asked out of the blue, making everyone turn their attention to the usually quiet man. A man of few words as Claire had surmised, he didn't seem to beat around the bush.

"Aye, who is Harry?" Grannie Annie chirped. "I've been hearing loads about the man, but I've never seen him before. Is he on Facebook? I'm on that now, did ye all know? Jenny set me up an account when I got an iPad for my birthday, so I could see what everyone in the family is up to. Maybe I should send this Harry a friend request so I can see his picture."

Ellen gave her mother a horrified look. "Oh, dear God, help us all! Facebook?!?"

"What's wrong with Facebook?" Grannie Annie frowned.

Ellen rolled her eyes in disbelief as if her ma had committed something scandalous.

"Harry is a friend of Jamie's," Brian explained, giving his wife a warning glance. "He found Jamie going through one of his episodes in Glasgow and took our lad to the hospital and arranged for the doctor to call us up. Unfortunately by the time we got to Jamie, Harry has left." 

"It's a shame really Harry could never make it to Lallybroch. It would have been nice to personally thank him for helping Jamie," Ellen sighed.

Willie looked at his brother. "With all these talks about Harry, I'm beginning to think he doesnae exist. I cannae help it because I keep missing him by a couple of minutes every time he's in Broch Mordha and visiting. Are ye sure ye're not making this man up, Jamie lad?"

Claire looked at Jamie, and he didn't look impressed by Willie's accusation. So she decided to speak up. "Harry was at Jamie's for a short while when I came over for dinner at his cottage before Christmas," she said quietly.

"Aye, that's right. Harry stopped by that day to leave behind the abandoned kitten he found," Jamie added.

"I've seen the kitten," Annalise offered, looking at Willie with a frown. "I've even bottle-fed it."

Willie put down his cutleries with a clack and sighed. "I was the one who brought in the kitten, Jamie. It was that day ye were cooking for Claire, and I even remember ye mentioning ye have a pot roast going in yer slow cooker."

"No, ye didnae," Jamie argued. "I can assure ye it was Harry. Ye must be confusing me with someone else." 

"Maybe yer pills are distorting yer memory, lad," Aunt Jocasta said, looking at Jamie.

"Drugs are bad," Grannie Annie commented, clucking.

Ignoring his grandmother, he let out an exasperated breath. "I'm no' taking drugs nor any medication for my condition, auntie. Never have and never will." He looked at Claire as if willing her to remember something.

"I was at Jamie's cottage, Willie ..." Claire began.

"And Harry went to the airport with Jamie," Annalise pointed out.

"Aye, but did any of ye actually see Harry in person? Because I havenae and he's been supposedly visiting over the year," Willie pointed out.

Annalise slowly shook her head, the furrows on her brows deepening.

"Have ye seen him, Claire?"

Claire frowned. "No, I haven't but ..."

Willie threw his hands in the air. "Weel there ye go. Case closed." When everyone suddenly went quiet, and Annalise glared at him, Willie's expression turned contrite and sighed. "Jamie, I'm no' saying ye're lying, but ye did say ye have these hallucinations during one of yer episodes. Maybe Harry is one of the men from yer SAS team, and ye've forgotten. Ye mentioned often enough ye still see Simon vividly in yer head."

"I told ye that in confidence, ye prick!" Jamie yelled.

"Jamie, language! Willie that's enough!" Ellen scolded. "We dinnae discuss such topics during a meal. And we have guests, in case ye need reminding. Where are both yer manners?"

Willie's face suddenly turned red. "I'm sorry," Willie said, almost inaudibly, looking at his brother. "Christ, Jamie, I didnae mean to. I got carried away."

Jamie grunted in reply. This time it was Claire's turn to squeeze his hand as everyone resumed eating. She was surprised Willie had talked openly about his brother's condition when she knew how much it took a lot out of Jamie to speak about it. Surely, Willie knew his own brother better than anyone else. 

There was an awkward silence that followed, but Murtagh continued to stare at Claire now and again, seemingly unfazed by the verbal stramash that happened minutes ago. As he busily cut a piece of turkey and used it to clean off the gravy on his plate, he cleared his throat. "If ye dinnae mind, Claire, may I ask what yer surname is?"

Claire smiled, more because she was grateful that the conversation's focus was no longer on Jamie. She knew Jamie was still agitated, the way the red on his face stayed and his shoulders remained squared as if bracing for another attack. 

"Beauchamp," Claire finally replied, glancing at everyone, trying to discern everyone's mood.

A long silence ensued as she watched with fascination Murtagh's eyes gradually widened. It was like watching a scary slow-motion movie.

"Beauchamp?!?" Murtagh sputtered when he eventually spoke, taking Claire by surprise. His hand flew to his chest and started to rub it. "Please dinnae tell me that hoity-toity pillock, Henry, was yer father."

"Murtagh!" Ellen gasped, turning to her husband, Brian, for intervention. "Oh God, what is wrong with this family?"

"My father's Henry Beauchamp," Claire said in a small voice, her eyes darting to Annalise, but her friend just shrugged and shook her head, obviously just as confused. "What about it?"

Murtagh started to cough and choke, and Jocasta got up to massage his back. "Ach, what in God's name is the matter now?" she hushed. "Cannae we have a normal Hogmanay meal without drama?"

"Murtagh?" Brian questioned in a low voice.

"Henry," he rasped. "Ye ken Henry or Harry or whatever ye called him ...that fancy peacock! He stole my burd! Right under my nose!"

"Yer burd ?"

"Aye, my burd!  Claire is the daughter of Jules ...ye ken, my Jules! Surely ye remember my burd from back then. She and her mate rented a room from yer father for the summer. A long time ago!"

"Jules?"

"Aye, Jules!"

"Yer burd ...  Claire's ma?" This time it was Brian's turn to look shocked as he took a good look at Claire, his head tilting to his right as if by doing so, he would see the answer he was seeking.

"Claire," Brian said carefully, "was yer ma Julia Moriston?"

Claire swallowed hard, almost afraid to answer. Oh, God, what have I done now?  She warily nodded in reply, unsure what to expect. She glanced at Jamie and noticed his face had gone deathly white. "Jamie, are ye alright?" 

Jamie looked at her. "Ye did say ye're an orphan right?" he whispered.

"Uh-huh."

"Y-yer parents were Harry and Jules?" he asked hoarsely, licking his lips.

"Y-yes that's what my uncle called them, but on paper, they're Henry and Julia Beauchamp, but how ...oh my God!"

Claire watched in horror as Jamie passed out before her very eyes, slumping on his chair first before collapsing onto the floor with a dull thud. Murtagh's renewed choking and coughing, and everyone's gasps were the least of her worry, as she knocked her own chair back and went on her knees to cradle Jamie's head.

...........

Jamie woke up to the reverberation of isolated sharp whistles and boom of firecrackers from a distance. Slowly, he opened his eyes and saw soft light streaming in from the window. It was dark outside, and the faint sound of laughter, glasses clinking, and music from downstairs filled his consciousness. He realised he was in his childhood bedroom and wondered how he got there.

As he began to piece his last memory together, images of Harry and Claire sprung to his mind, and he shot up from the bed.  Is it possible, Harry is or was Claire's father?  He shook his head. He felt like he'd fallen from a tree, smacking his forehead on a couple of branches on the way down.

Needing to clear his head, he stood up and looked out of the window.

There in the darkness, a hazy memory replaced a more vivid recent one, a vague recollection of him as a toddler, his godfather Murtagh and another man. The one thing that stood out the most in that particular memory was the man with an unfamiliar accent hoisting him onto a barstool and telling him what a fine, strong lad he was while his godfather looked on. The strange man also told him of a wish having a son like him one day. If he squeezed his eyes shut and listened intently back to that day long ago, he was pretty sure now it was Claire's father, Henry ...or Harry. 

But how? Why?

The sound of the door opening broke into his thoughts, and he automatically reached out to switch on the bedside lamp before turning around. Claire stood at the doorway, holding a small bottle of prosecco and two champagne flutes.

"Hey, you're up!" she said softly, walking up to him. "How are you feeling?"

He smiled and caressed her cheek with a thumb. "Much better now that I've seen ye. How long before it's midnight?"

"Forty minutes, give or take. Your ma says you normally avoid the fireworks because it affects your PTSD, so I thought I'd come up here and see the New Year with you." She let out a soft sigh. "You gave us quite a scare, you know that? What happened there?"

"Dinnae fash, it was nothing. It was just an accumulation of lack of sleep, excitement, loads of food and an overly heated house getting to me." He took the bottle and glasses from her hand and placed them on the nightstand. "How are ye feeling?" he asked, pulling her in against him. He wasn't ready to discuss Harry just yet. He needed proof first of his mind-boggling suspicions, and hopefully one day, Claire would show him the picture of her late father and they could talk about it.

"Totally spooked by your godfather's revelation. I didn't realise my parents met here once upon a time and that Murtagh was infatuated with my mum. Uncle Lamb never told me that story. But what are the odds, huh?"

He laughed out loud. "I think it was more than infatuation for Murtagh. I've heard tales of his  burd,  that got away, and after all these years, he still talks about her."

Claire's eyes widened. "Really? Wow, I would have never guessed. I mean, he just doesn't seem the type to be a one woman-man. I wonder why my mother chose my father instead of him."

Jamie shrugged. "Maybe your father fought harder for yer ma than Murtagh did. In the end, the best man won."

The thought of someone else winning Claire's heart suddenly became too real. He didn't want to live a life like his godfather, not taking risks and fighting for what one wanted in life. Murtagh had always made people believed he had everything under control and didn't need anyone to complete him.

He took a deep breath and swiped a hand at the back of his neck, thinking about wayward thoughts and of that day when she'd run off without telling him.  Christ,  she'd nearly sent him into cardiac arrest when he thought he'd lost her for good. He'd still be in that airport yelling himself hoarse if she hadn't shocked him into silence with that hug and looked up at him with her huge amber eyes full of tears and relief when she found out he hadn't meant to write those text he sent to Jenny.

He knew he was in deep. So deep, it scared the bejesus out of him. But he could not, under any circumstances, let it show because they couldn't both be uncertain. One of them had to be confident their relationship was going to work, despite their differences and the distance that was going to be between them when Claire returned to London. How much time did she say she needed to wrap things up in London? Six months or a year, tops? He could do this, and he would wait. One of them had to be the rock on top of the stack of papers blowing in the wind, and he decided right there and then it would be him. He swore he would not ever let her doubt.

He eyed the prosecco bottle and the two glasses on the nightstand and grinned at her. "So ye came up here to celebrate New Year with me?"

She looked warily up at him. "Are you really feeling better? You do have colour back on your face, and your father said your blood pressure was back to normal. Jesus, you slept a good part of the day."

"I feel good, Sassenach. So what do ye have in mind when ye came up here?"

"I thought I'd keep you company if you were awake and maybe we can we have a small toast at midnight and talk a little bit ..." she trailed off, giving him a coy smile.

He arched an eyebrow. "Talk?" 

"Yes, talk."

"And?"

Her swallow was audible as she looked away. "Well, let's just say, after the events of today, I decided my nooky hiatus is over."

"Hmmm ...I dinnae like the sound of that," he said, trying to look stern. 

"You don't?" she croaked, looking up at him. 

"It kinda makes me sound like the opening ceremonies for nooky Olympics." He snuck his hand up the front of her sweatshirt and gently palmed her breast as triumph tunnelled through his bloodstream. "Just to let ye know, I'll be the only one taking part in the events from here on out. Are we clear?"

She slipped her fingers into the waistband of his jeans, briefly caressing the sensitive skin underneath, causing a zing of electricity to shoot down his groin and give him a moment of breathless pause. "Well, I think you should lock the door first ..." she teased, trailing a single finger down his distended fly and then walking away. "... there's only room for two for the opening event."

He frowned. "Have ye had a bit to drink downstairs, Sassenach?"

She looked over her shoulders and winked at him. "Not enough to impair my judgement."

Jamie locked the door, adjusted his arousal and took a seat on the edge of the bed. He watched her pop open the bottle and pour the prosecco into the flute glasses. "I've been waiting patiently to make love to ye again, but I dinnae want to take advantage if ye're tipsy. I want ye to know I can wait and we can just cuddle." 

She walked over to him and slowly ploughed her fingers into his hair before taking a step back to take off her shoes. The last time they'd been intimate, he'd taken her virginity and then she'd run off the next day. He couldn't see her trying to do the same tonight, but still, he wanted her to be sure.

"I know Jamie, and I want you to know how much I appreciate it." She slipped off her jeans and stood between his outstretched thighs. "You've always been the perfect gentleman, and you have no idea how much brownie points you're earning by the bucketloads at this moment. I'm falling in love with you, even more, each day and slowly but surely, those little gestures you do for me are outweighing that not so little mishap that happened before Christmas." She swayed closer, her finger tracing a path on his cheek. "Every time I'm giving you credit for something you've done, you surprise me and go beyond it." She whipped off her top and stood there just in her white panties and bra. "So ...what do you think? Do you still think this is wine talking or me?"

He was experiencing a piece of heaven, right there and right now as he listened to her say words he'd been totally unaware of craving. Even with a lot of things hanging in the balance, he'd never felt more whole in his life. He slowly leaned in and kissed the flat of her stomach, whispering, "No, Sassenach, it's no' the wine talking."

He felt a shudder coast down her body. "Very well then ..."

Jamie massaged his way up the backs of her thighs until they disappeared underneath her panties, his hands urging her closer until she climbed onto his lap and straddled him. Their mouths found each other, clinging and breathing hard until she was pressed down in agonising degrees onto his growing bulge.

"Jamie?" 

He gently pulled her in for a breathless kiss, moving her to and fro on his lap with shaking hands. "Aye?" 

"I want you to make love to me ..." She'd barely finished asking the request when he suddenly turned, lifted her and carefully laid her down on the bed.

He reached behind her back and unclasped her bra before pulling off her panties down from her legs. She was magnificent in her nakedness just as he remembered and even more so now with her eyes wild, cheeks flushed and hair loose. But it was the way she looked at him that made his heart swell. "Christ, Sassenach, I could have waited forever for this. Just to have ye beside me is a gift already on its own."

She yanked off her loosened bra and threw them aside. "I don't want you to wait anymore."

Holding her gaze, he lowered himself and traced the slit of her folds with his thumb and kissed her nub.

She grabbed the sides of his head. "Jamie! Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! Come up here. I'm not sure if ..."

A slow, hard lick halted the flow of her words, her soft cries feeding his drive to please her. It was his first time kissing her intimate part, and from her reaction, he knew the act was very novel to her. He'd have waited for decades just for her taste and another few decades more after tonight. But as he sunk his tongue in those folds, he was already worrying when he'd get the chance again. 

"Oh, sweet Mother of God, this is too much. Jamie, I don't think I can ..."

Jamie chuckled and teased her with his fingers to keep her open for his ministrations, trailing soft kisses on her sensitive flesh and using his tongue to hit every nerve endings. Her hands splayed and turned to claws as her fingers closed around the bedsheets, her growing arousal evident on the taste in his mouth.

She couldn't keep still, her soft thighs alternating between hugging the sides of his face and dropping open, the wee spasms against his tongue telling him she was already close. He hummed to let her know he knew what she wanted, bringing his thumb to her nub and giving light, massaging circles while his tongue continued to flick and tease. Where her speech had been intelligible before, now they were nothing but garble in between cries of his name. He watched her heaving body, the sight of her in the throes of heightened arousal putting more discomfort in the constraint of his jeans and pushing the limits of his control. But the lightness in her tonight was worth the week-long sexual frustration and he wasn't going to allow a little pain between his thighs take away from how far they'd come in such a short time.

"Jamie ...Jamie ...Jamie," she chanted under her breath, as she came, his tongue encountering the taste of her pleasure and her thighs muffling his ears.

She was shaking and limp when he tore himself away from her, inwardly mourning his abrupt departure from her body. Stood at the edge of the bed, he retrieved a condom from his jeans' back pocket before hurriedly taking off his clothes and gingerly rolling the latex over his arousal. He settled his knees between her legs and pushed them wider, opening her again, but this time for his throbbing cock.

There was a light film of perspiration on Claire's body, giving her a beautiful glow in the dim light of his room. The sight of her, all wanton and wild, humbled him to the core. So much so, a lump caught in his throat, forgetting for a moment to breathe. Her fingers swept up the fronts of his thighs, her breath still coming in soft gasps, watching him with adoring eyes. He reeled in that look it into his chest, weaving it with everything he was feeling for her, the weight of it making him momentarily weak. 

"Jamie," she whispered, shifting underneath him like a temptress. "Please don't wait anymore."

He didn't need further urging as he dropped down on top of Claire, latching onto her neck with his teeth and entering her with one swift thrust. He caught her scream at the last second with his mouth, but as animal instinct took over, all he was feeling was the urgency of his own need. The tight squeeze of her slick channel surrounding him filled his balls with unbearable pressure, making him groan like an injured beast.

Claire's hands grasped his arse, urging him to move faster and he obliged with shameless abandon, positioning her legs over his shoulders and bearing hard down into her. He continued to grind, seeking for that unexplored space to get deeper inside her and when he found it, it rekindled a pressure at the base of his spine, threatening to make him explode any moment. He held on to the last vestige of restraint, watching Claire with awe as she palmed her own breasts and lick her lips. Even when she began to convulse, he didn't let up, his hands touching and gripping everywhere on her body and lower hips pistoning hard. When she let out another scream, her back arched and he lowered his mouth to her breast, sucking the hard bud of her nipple.

And then she let out a shudder and a sweet moan, her arms around his neck and hands entwined into his hair, her hips still moving to rub its way through her climax. It was far too much, seeing her unbridled, her lips swollen and taking from him. So he let go.

He went shooting through the sky as the fireworks outside began, and though he couldn't see any of his surroundings with closed eyes, he saw fiery blooms amongst the stars. He was shrouded in the never-ending vastness, his body a slave to relief and pleasure all at once.  Oh, God, oh, God!  The spilling of his need and sound of pyrotechnics seemed to go on forever, pulsing and illuminating, and it was hard to tell which was reality and which was a release. It was as if two parallel occurrences were happening simultaneously - one in space-time and the other in time-space.

Claire whimpering brokenly into his neck, brought him hurtling down on earth again, her sweaty body spent beneath him. Though he was back to reality, somehow he felt he was still in heaven because she was right there. 

They lay there like that for a long while, listening to the fireworks subside until only a few isolated booms from a distance could be heard. Their breathing and heartbeats harmonised, bodies interlocking to fit each other. Finally, Jamie eased himself off Claire, kissing her lips tenderly before disposing of the condom. 

Moments later, when he returned, she was on her side, watching him with a satisfied smile. "Happy New Year," she said hoarsely.

Jamie got into bed, pulled her into his chest, and bit her earlobe. "Happy New Year to ye tae. That was the best New Year firework display I've ever seen." 

She laughed and slid an arm across his waist. Nuzzling her nose on the hollow of his throat, he felt her smile against his skin, but her hold on him remained only for a few seconds before she passed out cold.

Not wanting to disturb the perfection of the moment, he gathered her closer and whispered, "I love you," into her hair, hoping and praying that the New Year will bring them together for good.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Laughing, Jamie and Willie noisily strode in from the kitchen backdoor at ten in the morning with Rollo in tow. They found Annalise and Claire making shortcrust pastry for the Cornish pasties and preparing sandwiches for lunch. Apparently, the boys were expecting a few of their mates to come over and help with a project.

With no forecast of rain for the whole week, the brothers had decided to knock down Jamie's old shed and build a new and bigger one. A day ago they'd torn it down, cleared the debris, levelled the ground for the extension, laid down some slabs for support and poured the cement for the foundation. This morning, they've completed the base and put up the wall frames, including the waterproof sheeting.

"Good morning, ladies." The brothers said simultaneously, making the girls smile in acknowledgement. Willie gestured for Annalise to follow him, leaving Jamie and Claire alone.

Jamie washed his hands, made himself a coffee and came around to where she was stood dropping cubed butter into the flour. "Have ye seen our progress with the new shed yet?" he asked. But before she could reply, he leaned in and gave her a swift kiss on the lips, making her knock the carton of milk over. 

Claire gasped, and Jamie grinned with triumph for catching her off guard. He brought his cup up to his smiling lips and winked.

"I have," she laughed, picking up the milk and wiping the countertop. "Are you sure, it's a shed you're making out there and not a small house?"

He leaned back against the counter and smiled. He'd taken off his jumper and was now only wearing a white long-sleeved t-shirt that stretched across his chest, showing the definitions of his toned muscles and broad shoulders. His eyes gleamed in the soft morning light, and Claire thought of how handsome he looked, making her heart pick up a little.

"It's a shed, but I thought while I'm in the process of restoring it, it would be a brilliant idea to build an additional extension for when ye come over for a visit, and ye wish to write. I'll have a huge window facing the field so ye can look out when ye need an inspiration. It's a grand view overlooking the greens. I'll even soundproof it for ye, so ye willnae be distracted by outside noise."

She arched an eyebrow in surprise. These past few days, she started to notice a lot of new items cropping up in Jamie's cottage. There were a couple of floral throw cushions she'd never seen before. And after Annalise had casually mentioned how much Claire missed her mermaid blanket, a handmade crochet mermaid tail blanket had shown up one night on his sofa while watching a movie. His cupboard was now fully stocked with her evening herbals such as chamomile, Valerian root and lemon balm tea. There was even a pair of soft fluffy memory foam slippers, waiting for her whenever she stayed over. Somehow, she was sensing a sense of permanency and more and more each day, she was starting to feel she belonged to him and his home.

Claire tried not to examine it too deeply and focused more on enjoying the moment, but it was getting harder. Because as each day slowly neared to her departure date, the hollow in the pit of her stomach became wider. And tonight was her last night with Jamie.

"Well, I suppose I won't see the finished product until I come over for a visit," she said with a little sadness in her voice.

Sensing the shift in mood, Jamie put down his cup and closed in on her, his fingers coasting past her jaw into the back of her neck, gently urging her in. He stilled for a moment, smiling an inch from her lips, as she inhaled him, his masculine smell, the coffee on his breath, the faint intoxicating scent of his aftershave mixed with sweat. Then he closed his eyes and kissed her.

"What do ye want to do on yer last night? Fancy going out?" he breathed against her mouth.

She swallowed and shook her head. "Shall we stay in?"

He cupped her face, opened his eyes and held hers with his. "I was hoping ye would say that." 

"You don't want to say goodbye to Annalise? It's her last day, too," she half-teased. 

"I think she'd want to spend her last night with Willie," he said seriously this time. He glanced down at her lips. "As I do with ye. But I want to spend the evening, not saying goodbye but making memories." He looked back up at her. "Memories that will bring ye back to me sooner."

Her heart pounded. She knew what Jamie was trying to say to her. 

She smiled at him. "I'd like that too, Jamie."

"Good, that's settled then."

..........

When Claire and Annalise brought out the Cornish pasties, sausage rolls and sandwiches for lunch, they arranged them on a makeshift buffet made out of wooden planks so the men could help themselves. Although it was in the middle of winter, the sun was out, and it was a lovely day to sit outdoors and soak up the heat. The hungry men descended on the food and sat on the benches Willie had earlier put out. Jamie filled his plate and grabbed a can of cider, and they sat on a thick blanket-covered ground, away from the rest, making sure the sun was on them since it was very chilly in the shade. 

"The shed is going to be massive," she observed, her chin in her hand. 

"That's the plan," he said, smiling at her, taking a huge bite of the Cornish pasty and humming in his throat to let her know how much he was enjoying his food. "Once the exterior is done, I'll send ye some photos, and then ye can tell me what colour ye want yer writing studio to be painted in." 

Claire looked at him for the longest time and then sighed. "Why are you doing all this, Jamie? It's not like we've known each other for a long time."

"But it feels like we've known each other for a long time. Ye know it too." He wiped his mouth with a napkin. "And if ye dinnae like the wee studio, I can always turn it into a workshop."

She smiled. "At least allow me to put some money into it."

He shook his head. "Dinnae fash. Most of the woods we're using are from work, and I got the rest of the stuff from the reclamation yard," he explained with the eagerness of a young boy, his eyes all lit up.

She wanted to kiss him right there and then, and realised how much she would miss this place, especially him. He looked so rugged and at peace with his surrounding and very much part of it. And knowing that he wanted her to be part of his world, made her even more determined to wrap up her work in London as soon as possible and start that writing career she'd always dreamed of. Although a little niggling voice in her head was telling her to slow things down, she dismissed it, knowing that for once, her life had a direction she could look forward to.

She noticed, he hadn't put back his jumper on and was only wearing that long-sleeved shirt.

"Aren't you cold?" 

He shrugged. "Here in the sun ...no' at all."

"I'm sat in the sun with you, but I can still feel the chill. Even after working all morning next to the oven, I could not for the life of me just wear a thin shirt like that in this Highland weather. Are you sure you're warm enough?" She frowned, looking over him.

"I am. Do ye want to sit on my lap so I can warm ye up? I have a few ideas on how to quickly achieve that." His eyes gleamed.

She crumpled a paper napkin and threw it at him. He laughed out loud, making the group of men look their way. 

The sun rose higher, and the sky was cloudless, a rarity at this time of the year. Somewhere on a speaker played a Simple Minds song  Don't You Forget About Me,  and Rollo and another dog ran back and forth in the open field. 

"I have something to ask you," she said, plucking a weed from the ground and watching the dogs frolic. "At the risk of sounding clingy and needy, I want to know if you've had a lot of girlfriends ...or say, sexual partners." She shrugged and looked down at her hand. "I-I can't help but wonder ...well, you know, not that I have anybody else to compare you to, but I must say you sort of know things, like when we touch and love each other. And you seem to be good at it. So I figured that maybe you've had a lot of experience." Her eyes suddenly widened when she realised what just came out of her mouth. She waved a hand. "I mean, I'm no prude or anything, and I understand a lot of people are early bloomers and have had a lot of sexual partners. I-I just wanted to understand ...if  it  comes naturally to you."

He grinned at her over his sausage roll as if he was pleased to hear the possessiveness in her tone. "I'm thirty years old, Sassenach, and in as much as I would have loved the idea of ye being my first, I must admit I didnae live the life of a monk. So aye, probably ye can call it that ... experience. But if ye must know, I've never been drawn to anyone like I am with ye."

She cleared her throat. "Fair enough, and since we're sharing our thoughts, I want you to know, I feel the same way." She bit her lower lip and thought over the words she wanted to say. "You kissing me on a first date, making love to me on our second, running after me at the airport on the third day. Very rash, I'd say." 

"Only with ye." He laughed. 

He slugged the last of his drink, and she got up and grabbed him another cider. "How about your ex-fiancee? Any lingering feelings for her still floating around in the ether?" She asked, sitting back down in front of him. 

Looking at her straight in the eyes, he took her hand and rubbed the inside of her wrist. "I will always care for her, Sassenach. But what I feel for her is nothing more than friendship. She's about to be married, and she wants me to be the godfather of Simon's child. And if ye must know, I'm thrilled she's found somebody to share her life. I think Simon would have wanted that for her too as do I ...someone who will take care of her and their child." He twined their fingers together. "What we have between us is rare. Like what ye said, I was rash, but that's ever since meeting ye. Somehow I've lost the ability to guard myself. When it comes to ye, I lose all perspective and control. It's chaotic and scary at the same time, but I wouldnae wish it to be any other way."

She gave him a smile. "Sweet and convincing as you sound right now, I'm still not allowing you to come to London and visit me. It's too risky. I want you to get better first, and one day you will. I believe that."

"I believe that too."

They stared at each other for a while, their surrounding fading into a haze, and it felt like there were only the two of them left. Until the dogs' barking reminded Claire, they weren't alone. "Right now, I would like to kiss you," she said softly. "But I don't know what I feel about people watching us."

A gradual grin crept across his face as he let go of her hand. "Weel, I dinnae see how I cannot oblige ye. Just close yer eyes and dinnae mind them lads."

Smiling, he leaned in close and brushed his lips on the corner of her mouth. When she thought they were done and started to pull away, he caught her lower lip with his teeth, keeping her still. After a few heartbeats, they began to kiss, achingly slow and gentle, his tongue probing into her to tease, taste and mate.

The cheers, sallies and whistles from the men nearby kicked-off almost instantly, and even Rollo started to howl in unison. Intent only on each other, they ignored the raucous banter in the background and continued to kiss.

"Ye ken I'm gonnae get a lot of pelters for this," he murmured against her smiling lips, his eyes closed.

 "Well, you might as well make it worth your while." 

His chest rumbled with laughter, as he kissed her again, causing more cheers to intensify, utterly oblivious to their surroundings.

"Ah, here's my not so wee brother!" a voice cut through their own bubble, making them both jump.

Jamie tore his lips away from her, and they both glanced up. "Jenny!" He immediately shot to his feet and hugged the petite woman wearing a puffer jacket, black jeans and a pair of wellies. "When did ye get back? I thought I'd see ye just after Christmas."

"Aye, had a last-minute change of plan. I left yer pressies in yer kitchen, and Ian says he'll call one of these days to see ye. He's just got some catching up to do with work."

Claire absentmindedly wiped her hands on her jeans and got up, noticing the other woman's delicate features and black hair tied in a high ponytail. At first glance, Jamie's sister could be mistaken for an adolescent with her five-feet height and small frame. The only tell-tale sign that she was a Fraser was the same blue eyes and dark hair she'd inherited from Brian.

"I told ye no' to bother ..." Jamie's voice trailed off as he looked past her sister's shoulder. "You brought company."

Still not acknowledging Claire, Jenny beamed at Jamie and then motioned for the beautiful tall dark-haired girl standing several yards away to come over. "Ye remember Geneva? Aye? Met her at the centre today and we're going for coffee after. Actually, she told me she's going to be yer new therapist. Yer former one had to leave temporarily for the south of England because of some family emergency. Now isnae that grand Geneva's back? She's going to stay here for good."

The girl, Geneva practically skipped, stopping short of throwing herself in Jamie's arms as her eyes briefly caught Claire's. "Jamie!" she greeted breezily, giving him a slack embrace. "Nice to see you again."

"Aye." Jamie nodded, looking perplexed. "It's been a while. Didnae realise ye were around." Not waiting for Geneva's response, he grabbed Claire's hand, drew her to his side and planted a kiss on top of her head. "By the way, this is Claire, my girlfriend," Jamie said, with a hint of finality in his tone. It was almost as if he was giving a warning to his sister that there would be no discussion about it. 

He must have noticed Jenny ignoring her presence and wanted to reassure her he was on her side.

Claire offered a polite smile, a few words of greeting and shook both women's hand, all the while conscious of Jamie's comforting hand on her back. Its weight served as a reminder the promise he'd made to her at the airport, lessening the sting of Jenny's lack of warmth.

"Weel, Jenny, Geneva, nice seeing ye both but I'm afraid I have to cut this short. As ye can see, I still have work to do and Claire and I are in the middle of discussing some personal matters. So if ye'll excuse us, both." Jamie gave his sister a quick peck on the cheek. "Thanks for the pressies."

"I'll give you a call one of these days to arrange for our first round of session," Geneva said, smiling at Jamie.

Jamie nodded and then he firmly grabbed Claire's hand as they edged past them, without another word. Once alone in the kitchen, Jamie pulled her in his arms and sighed into her hair. "Dinnae mind my sister. I'm sorry she wasn't as welcoming to you as the rest of my family."

She swallowed. "I'm fine, really, and I understand. Jenny is only concern about you. Who is that girl, Geneva?" she asked.

He exhaled and stroke her hair. "A friend of my sister. She used to live in the village but moved to Glasgow a while ago. I guess she's back and will be my new therapist."

"Oh, alright."

Jamie hugged her tight. "I want ye to know, it's ye and me now, Sassenach. I need ye to trust in that. Ye with me?"

She buried her face against his chest, as Jamie's words plunged deep and unearthed the truth she'd been grappling with ever since the count down to her departure date begun. For years she'd been living in a fog in London with no sense of direction searching for something she never had a name for. Now that she'd found it, she didn't want to spend a long time analysing it while doing a job that never gave her a sense of fulfilment. She knew now Jamie would follow her anywhere in the world, but she didn't want him to do that and lose a piece of himself. This was the place where he belonged, and she would find a way to belong here too, with or without Jenny's blessing.

She snuggled closer into his hold. There was a reverence in the way he held her, and all she could think of how cherished, safe and anchored she felt. More than ever, she felt secure in his affections and more optimistic about their future. Jamie was right. All that was left was them. Who would have guessed a month ago she would have her life all planned out around this man in such a short time. 

Shivering slightly with excitement, her mind flitted through the countless tasks that needed to be done before she could start her new life. To get back to her Jamie.

Looking up at him, she smiled. "It's you and me now, Jamie and I trust in that. Always."

He looked relieved as he relaxed in her arms, telling her something had lifted off his chest.

..........

That night, Jamie watched Claire from the sofa as she rearranged her suitcase for the umpteenth time. His parents had given her a boozy fruitcake, homemade preserves and a bottle of single malt to take with her, and she'd insisted she didn't need another bag to make everything fit in.

Though her beautiful face looked concentrated and determined with the task at hand, her whisky eyes looked haunted, already dreading the time when she would leave. They'd had a light supper earlier and made love twice, and there was only one truth that mattered. They loved each other. Though he didn't want her to leave, he needed to let her go, for now, be the voice of reason and the face of courage for what might be a lengthy separation. God knows, he understood what she was feeling, but he didn't want their last night together to be filled with uncertainty. He wanted tonight to be a celebration of their love and the future to come. 

How many times had he thought of persuading her to let him come even for just a few days? But then again it wouldn't be fair to her if she had to worry about him every single minute of the day when she would be better off concentrating on the work she needed to do. He had enough on his plate as it was with his arboricultural business and his own mental health, and he needed to refocus his attention on that. 

He told himself, it was a wee sacrifice, and this time next year, she would be here for good.

With a sigh, he slid down to the floor and picked up her travel diary. 

He glanced up at her, waiting for her permission. When she nodded, he smiled. He liked that they sometimes communicated without talking, like it was their own wee secret, instinctively knowing how the other felt or when the other was looking trying to get one's attention.

He carefully opened the travel diary which was thick with postcards Claire had pasted on its pages. A few photos slipped out. Thinking they were postcards, he was about to slide them back into the diary, when he realised he was looking at one of Claire's family photos. His heart leapt, and his eyes immediately zeroed in on Claire's father, confirming his suspicion.  Harry is Henry Beauchamp! But how and why?  Goosebumps coasted down his back. He didn't know what to feel other than have this urge to laugh out loud. He'd never believed in spirits or ghosts, but something inside him told him tonight was not the night to delve into it. He needed to talk to his godfather and find out more about Harry. And find out why Claire's father's spirit was helping him.

He felt Claire's eyes on him, and they stared at each other for a few moments. He put the diary down, and he opened his arms, and she slid into his embrace and onto his lap. 

He breathed in the clean scent of her hair and savoured the length of her body, fitting perfectly to his. His hand travelled down the curve he'd memorised and worshipped with his lips and tongue and touch. And he realised this woman had healed him, with her presence and humour and stubbornness.  Harry must surely approve.

Her whisper drifted to his ears like a wisp of smoke. "I have to leave tomorrow." 

"I ken." 

"Oh, God, but I don't want to." 

He pressed a kiss to her temple. "I ken." 

She tilted her head back, a soft smile curling her lips. "Speechless for a change, huh?" 

He laughed, even though his heart was ripping apart at the idea of her gone from his bed and everyday life, realising what a gift she'd given him this holiday season. "So many things to tell ye but we have little time left. So I'm just gonnae hold ye like this to make up for the long winter ahead."

She blinked twice, a moist sheen apparent in her eyes. "Always the sensible and practical one, aren't you? " 

"I willnae be tonight." 

Claire caught his intention, and the longing they thought was already sated rose between them once more. He kissed her slow and thorough, taking his time, savouring the taste of chocolate, whisky and sweet honey, sinking deep and demanding everything. And she gave it all and much more, as they made love until all their energy had been spent and fell into a deep sleep in each other's arms.

..........

Claire walked out of the cottage and found Jamie waiting for her, her suitcase already deposited into the rental car. Willie and Annalise were in their own bubble locked in each other's embrace, whispering promises and secrets. She smiled at them, her heart hurting. Though Annalise's and Willie's relationship looked seamless, they'd had their own share of teething problems resulting in a couple of fights. Claire was glad they'd made up already before their departure. Claire walked with heavy feet over to them and cleared her throat, making Willie grinned boyishly at her. He let go of Annalise and gave her a big hug. Jamie did the same and enfolded her friend into a tight embrace.

"My brother and I are going to miss ye both" Willie whispered into her ears. 

"Me too. I heard from Annalise, we'll be seeing you in a couple of weeks. Is that right?"

Willie laughed and drew away. "Aye but unfortunately, I willnae be taking my brother with me. Someone has to be here to run the business." 

"I know." 

"I'll bring ye his love letters though," he teased.

She laughed.

With one last squeeze, Willie let her go. Claire watched Jamie said his own goodbyes to Annalise, making her friend tear up even more. Who would have thought, Annalise would be reduced to a bumbling mess when she had always been the one who had everything under control. Claire watched them both laugh with moisture in their eyes, both trying to downplay what they were feeling.

"Take care of my lass," Jamie whispered gruffly. "Ye have my number in case anything happens. Ye can call me anytime."

Annalise laughed and pulled Jamie in for another hug. Claire knew Annalise was trying to hide her own tears "You have my number too. Send me some candid photos or videos of Willie, whenever ye can."

"I will. I have a few embarrassing ones already on my phone. I'll send them once ye're in London."

Annalise wiped the tears with the back of her hand. "I'd love that."

Willie motioned Annalise over for another final goodbye. 

Her friend looked at Jamie before walking over to Willie. "I'll see you when I see you." 

Jamie nodded, smiling.

Claire faced Jamie, sliding her arms around his waist. "I don't like goodbyes," she whispered. "I wish I could teleport myself now to London, so I could just go back to bed and sleep off this feeling." 

Jamie caressed her cheek, his soft blue eyes filled with adoration. "Dinnae be sad, Sassenach. Enjoy yer trip back home and have a few laughs with Annalise. I took ye away from her a lot of times, keeping ye all to myself. Maybe ye can both catch up with whatever ye lassies talk about." 

"I'm glad I'll have her with me on the way home. She will at least keep me distracted from being sad." 

"Ye'll keep one another distracted."

They smiled, and Claire was about to say something when a loud excited barking filled the air, and she glanced over to see Rollo bolting towards them, tongue lolling with excitement. She laughed and let go of Jamie. "I haven't seen the kitten. Where is he?"

"Oh, Adso?

Claire frowned. "Adso?"

"Aye, I've named the wee cheetie, Adso. My ma used to have a cat called Adso, and I couldnae think of any other name, so I'm calling him that."

"Goodness, what a horrible name!"

Jamie laughed. "Try saying that to my ma. Anyway, he's at Mrs Fitz's for now until he's big enough to be on his own."

Smiling, Claire got down to her knees and hugged Rollo, burying her face into its warm fur and inhaling the doggy smell. "Going to miss you, handsome," she murmured, stroking the dog's back. "I'll never forget our first breakfast date. You were a perfect gentleman." 

Rollo replied by nudging her neck with his snout. 

She unfolded herself from the ground and walked towards the car, where Jamie waited. Annalise was in the driver's seat already while Willie leaned on the window talking to her.

Claire glanced at her watch. "I'll call as soon as we arrive home." 

"Looking forward to it." 

"Well, this is it." She stuffed her hands in her jean pocket and looked away, rocking to and fro on her heels. "Try that mediation I told you about so you don't have any nightmares at night." 

"I haven't had them for almost a fortnight, so I guess you have to talk to me on the phone until I fall asleep," he joked.

"That's very good, Jamie," she said, looking at him thoughtfully, this time ignoring the jest that was common in their conversation. "But try to look into meditation. If it isn't your thing, then at least you've given it your fair shot."

"I promise I'll give it a go tonight."

She smiled. "Good."

"And one more thing, Sassenach."

"What?"

"This." He braced her jaws with both hands and kissed her tenderly, the warmth and feel of his mouth, making her sigh, and her heart expand. When he raised his head, he had a beautiful smile etched on his face, almost beatific if it weren't for the mischief that always seemed to shine from his eyes. "I love ye, Sassenach." 

"I love you too. See you around?" Claire whispered, suddenly feeling the odd lump in her throat.

"I'll be waiting." 

She stepped away from his hold and quickly got into the car, allowing herself to take one last look at Jamie through her window. Time slowed in that instance, as if her brain needed a mental photograph, a keepsake to give her strength in the times to come. With his legs braced apart, one hand on Rollo's head, his coppery hair blowing in the wind, the leashed strength radiated in waves around him as his pale-blue eyes locked with hers. Annalise started the car, bringing her back into this moment, and he smiled and raised his hand in goodbye. She knew that took a lot of effort to keep that happy expression plastered on his face, so she smiled back, though wobbly, and blinked back the tears. A choked sob rose up from her throat, and it felt like she was losing a piece of herself she'd just found. 

With one deep fortifying breath, she tore her gaze away from him and looked straight ahead, as Annalise reversed and drove away. 

This time, she didn't look back. 

She knew if she did, she'd never leave.