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Miles Between Us

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After sitting on her bed most of Saturday working on her laptop, Claire Beauchamp rolled her neck and stretched her back, her arms extending above her head. She flinched when her joints cracked. 

Over the past few days, her boss, John Grey, forwarded manuscripts and drafts from the author she was working with. She hadn’t eaten anything all day, and her stomach was beginning to grumble, and her eyes blurry from reading.

She’d read so much in the past hours, she was practically cross-eyed, and the bridge of her nose hurt where her specs rested. Words upon words had sifted through her brain, but now the lines were beginning to blur together.

She glanced back down on her laptop and opened a file in her document folder, her eyes scanning through lines she knew by heart. She’d been going through her own work lately wondering if she had what it takes to be a writer. Someone who would give her an honest opinion ought to read it before contemplating getting herself a literary agent if she was to start a new chapter of her life and take that leap of faith in her dream career.

A sudden urgency took over, and she needed Annalise to read her work, like right now. Which reminded Claire, her friend was away with Willie, shopping and sight-seeing. He was staying over their place for the weekend for the first time since she and Annalise left Lallybroch. After declining their invitation to join them earlier, the loved-up couple left her to her work with the promise of dinner when they returned.

She was about to reach out for her cold coffee from the bedside table when Raiders of the Lost Ark’s theme song blared from her phone. At the same time, a picture of her uncle Lamb appeared on the screen. He was wearing a high-crowned, wide-brimmed, weather-beaten fedora hat and had a lopsided grin plastered to his thickly stubbled face. Rugged, she thought, just like her favourite pair of distressed leather boots, and very Indiana Jones.

Smiling, she tapped the answer button and put the phone on speaker. “Uncle Lamb! Long time no speak!" 

"Sweetheart,” he started in a deep familiar voice, “how are you?”

She frowned and pushed her laptop aside. Something was off. “Oh you know, same old …just finishing work and …" 

"On a Saturday?” he asked, cutting her off.

“Look who’s talking.”

He chuckled. “You’re young. You should be out. There are so many things to do in London …especially on a Saturday. ”

Claire rolled her eyes but opted to change the subject instead. She wasn’t ready to give her reason for working overtime nor share her future plans nor talk about the handsome Scot she met during her holidays. Not just yet, anyway. “So …to what do I owe the pleasure of hearing your voice, dear uncle?”

“What?” he said gruffly, pretending to sound offended. “Can’t I call my favourite girl in the world and check up on her?" 

She mentally sighed. Something must be up since her uncle never called. It was always she who usually phoned, and when he did call on a rare occasion, it was either because something had happened or he was in London. She dismissed the latter since she knew he was in Papua New Guinea. The next conclusion she landed on was his health but thought it absurd. Her uncle was strong as an ox, ate healthily, only smoked the occasional cigar and regularly went for doctor’s check-up, a requirement in his job as an archaeologist travelling to remote places.

Unless. "You sound suspiciously chipper. Let me guess …you met someone. There’s a woman in your life." 

He coughed like he was choking on a drink. "No! Why would you say that?" 

Alright, he sounded repulsed by the idea enough. Or was that denial? "I don’t know. You seem so …how shall I say it …unlike yourself. You normally skip the niceties and get to the point." 

He lets out an impatient breath. "Claire, darling, am I really that awful?”

“No,” she replied, ignoring the ache in her throat. She missed their time together but tried not to make it apparent in her tone. He was a busy man, and the last thing she wanted was her uncle worrying. “You don’t seem like you’re rushing off to anywhere. It’s rare you sound this relax.”

“It’s way past my bedtime already,” he sighed. “And besides, work is on stand-by at the moment until we get the license to start digging on site. People here are so damn laid back, and nobody seems to be in a hurry to process the paperwork. I’m not about to hand out cash to speed things along even if bribery is rampant here.”

“I see. So you’re in Port Moresby then?”

“Yes. As soon as we have the license sorted out, we’ll be flying to Lae first thing tomorrow. Hopefully, anyway.” He cleared his throat. “Speaking of paperwork, I received an email from my lawyer. Your trust fund has matured, dear. I’ll send you the details where to go to and who to contact, and maybe you can start planning your life. Perhaps take a sabbatical and travel with me if you wish.”

Ah yes, the trust fund. 

After her parents died, everything they had owned was put into her trust fund by her uncle to secure her future. She’d already received a small lump sum when she turned eighteen, and the money had afforded her, though small and cramped, a decent rental two-bedroom apartment in London with high windows, which was premium in this expensive city. And Annalise, her best friend and roommate made enough money to help pay the ridiculous expensive utility bills. Her own wage just about covered the other expenses with almost nought left for savings, but she hadn’t worried knowing there was money in place in her name. She was counting on it to support herself when she pursued her dreams of writing.

“About that, I think I’ll let that sit in the bank for a while. It’s not like I need the money right now, nor do I have the time to spend it.”

“As you wish,” her uncle replied. “And another thing I need to discuss with you …South Lodge …”

“What about South Lodge?” South Lodge should have been her family home if her parents hadn’t died, and she knew it was a highly coveted property because of its historical significance. It was never put into the market for sale since her uncle thought it wasn’t his place to decide. It was put on a twenty-year lease to a high profile politician, its payments going towards her trust fund.

“The lease is up, and the occupants will be moving out soon. Unfortunately for you, that information made it to the local news and you were mentioned as the legatee. So don’t be surprised if you’re bombarded with offers now that your name is out. I’m willing to bet, property investors and developers will be itching to get their hands on it.”

Claire took off her specs and pinched the bridge of her nose. God, she hated adulting, paperwork and dealings with lawyers. Maybe she should just sell South Lodge and be done with it, so she could concentrate on her future plans. What do I need a five-bedroom house with one acre of garden in Oxford for? "I’ll think about it, uncle. I just have a lot of things going on at the moment. I’m quite sure those things can wait.“

"Of course dear.”

“Thank you for letting me know.” She thought of Jamie, and the Highlands and how much life was a lot simpler there. She really needed to double her effort to tie up loose ends in London and have a heart to heart talk with Annalise. Is her relationship with Willie serious? If not, her friend would have to eventually find a new roommate. After quickly glancing at her bedside clock, she realised they would be here soon and hopefully with a takeaway. Annalise did mention something about sorting dinner out tonight.

“And Claire?”

“Yes?”

“Your upbringing hasn’t been the most ideal. Enjoy the money and treat yourself. Don’t spend your life doing things that don’t bring you joy.”

She smiled. Her uncle must have had a rude awakening of some sort to sound so philosophical. Or probably, he did meet someone special. Either way, she wasn’t going to push for any answers for now. She really needed to get out of bed, do a few stretches and have a shower before Annalise, and Willie arrived. “I’ll try,” she finally said.

“Good. I’ll let you get back to whatever you’re doing.”

“Sadly, yes.” She shut her laptop and got out of bed. “Take care of yourself, alright? And I’ll phone you sometime next week after I’ve figured out our time differences." 

"Absolutely, sweetheart. Talk soon." 

"Love you, uncle Lamb." 

"Love you, too." 

She terminated the call with a swipe on her screen and rubbed her eyes. She’d been working for seven hours straight, and her eyeballs felt like they’re made of sandpaper. Glancing at the corner table, she smiled when she saw Jamie’s gifts. Willie had brought them with him when he arrived last night from Inverness. She knew Jamie was making up for his absence, but it couldn’t be helped when there’s the danger of his PTSD condition worsening in the city. To her delight and surprise, he’d sent her a leather-bound journal, a framed selfie photo of them together, driftwood bookends he made and a box of her favourite Lindt chocolate.

With a contented sigh, she made a mental note to call Jamie after dinner. And to ask her boss first thing Monday morning if she could take her work to Scotland the following weekend to surprise her boyfriend. After all, she was just taking her uncle’s advice, and after the work, she’d put in the last couple of weeks, and the extra hours she planned to do the next few days, she deserved a little joy in her life.

……….

Claire leaned forward, and nervously examined her best friend’s face. Annalise was hunched down, scrolling her laptop, tongue darting out as she read the paragraphs on the screen. 

What’s that look for? Doesn’t she like it? She couldn’t tell. It was the first time she’s showing her work to anyone, one of the stories she had written during her spare time before embarking a career as an editorial assistant for Dreamcatcher Publishing Company. She needed to hear her friend’s opinion to know if she even had a small chance of becoming a writer.

Annalise took her sweet time, and Claire wasn’t sure if her inscrutable expression was a deliberate act to prolong the suspense, or if she genuinely had no reaction to what she’s reading. If it was the latter, Claire would definitely kiss her dream of being a writer goodbye. If it’s the former, she’s going to strangle her friend for making her suffer. 

She heard the door to the apartment open and close, followed by the sound of keys jangling and heavy footfalls, announcing the arrival of Willie. He’d stopped by to order some food at a local Indian takeaway while Annalise headed straight home to prepare the table for dinner. Instead of calling out to him, she held her breath for Annalise’s response. 

Just when Claire was starting to accept her hope of being a writer would never amount to anything other than a pipe dream, she saw the reaction she impatiently waited for. Annalise’s mouth formed a comical O, followed by her eyes’ widening and random shallow sighs. 

Yessssssss! 

This was massive. Despite Annalise having seen works from established authors Claire had edited for, she’d never witnessed her friend looked this excited. Annalise simply couldn’t hide her gobsmacked expression, even if she tried.

"Oh, dear Lord,” she whispered, her gaze flicking to Claire and then back to the screen. “Why didn’t you tell me you had this? I knew you wanted to be a writer, but this …”

“So?" 

Annalise took a massive deep breath, her fingers almost shaking. "Oh my God, Claire." 

"Oh my God, wot? Oh my God good or oh my God, bad?” Claire asked, even though she already knew deep in her bones, what the answer was. But she desperately needed to hear the words.

“This is bloody good,” she said, as she went back to a previous page, and reread it all over again. After a couple of minutes more, a slow smile started to spread across her face, as she stole a few cheeky glances over at Claire.

Claire knew she could rely on her friend to tell her the truth. If her work had been bad, friend or not, Annalise would have been forthright and told her the hard facts. Nevertheless, she tamped down her own growing excitement. “The question is though …is it good enough for the mass?" 

Without hesitation, Annalise nodded vigorously, her blue eyes big as saucers. "Oh, Claire, are you kidding me? You really have no idea, have you? Of course, it is! I need to read the rest. Please tell me it’s finished." 

Claire relaxed for the first time and slumped back against the headboard of her bed, relief soothing her wild heartbeat. "It’s finished.”

Annalise let out a whoop as she gripped the laptop tightly. “Oh my God! Give me everything …I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I don’t read at least one more chapter of this story." 

"I’ve got ten more finished materials.”

“Oh my God, oh my God! You’re killing me. I want it all.”

Willie poked his head by the frame of the doorway to her bedroom and eyed them suspiciously. She wasn’t sure what he expected to find, but his eyes narrowed when he saw Annalise’s flushed face. 

“What are ye both up to?” he asked, frowning. “Ye sound like ye’re looking at porn on the internet." 

Annalise grinned and motioned him over. "Sort of." 

Willie hesitantly entered the room. "Sorry?”

“In actual fact, much better than porn …” Annalise announced, smirking at Claire.

“Annalise!” Claire wheezed when it dawned on her, her friend must have been reading the sex scene part.

Annalise reached out and reassuringly squeezed Claire’s hand whilst looking at Willie. “Take a look at this. Claire wrote it.”

Annalise handed the laptop to Willie, and both of them earnestly watched his face to gauge his reaction. As he sat down on the edge of the bed and read, Claire knew he would be the real test. Willie being a bloke, she didn’t expect him to have the same reaction as Annalise, but she hoped he would appreciate the storyline and plot. Claire already understood, if her story was going to be good enough to be published, its success would be based on women’s purchasing power. If he liked her style of writing even a smidgen, then she would be laughing. 

Claire held her breath in anxious anticipation, and approximately a minute and a half later, she got her response. 

His eyes bulged out, and then the tips of his ears glowed with red. In all sort of ways, he was so similar to Jamie but yet so different. But there’s no mistaking how vibrantly their ears always lit up when they’re embarrassed. Or moved. 

“Kind of explicit,” he commented hoarsely, before tucking a tongue into his cheek as if trying to find the right words to say. “But it is an intriguing story with great flow and interesting characters. It’s no’ the genre I would typically read, but the first few paragraphs of what I’ve seen so far are riveting. It makes me want to read more.”

Annalise, enthusiastically nodded in agreement and waved a hand in the air. “There it is." 

"Ye have a gift, Claire,” Willie added, eyes still fixed on the screen and working overtime as his focus became more intense. “The dose of mystery ye’ve woven into the lines is remarkable and intelligent.”

She felt herself beaming in vindication. “Thank you." 

He briefly glanced up at her. "Now that I remember, Jamie did vaguely mention ye wanted to be a writer.”

“That’s the plan,” she beamed.

“Good. Because if ye can produce something like this, then yer talent is wasted on editing other people’s work.”

“She’s got ten more finished stories,” Annalise piped in.

Willie arched an eyebrow at Claire and continued reading, and when he finished, he shook his head and let out a low whistle. “Is Jamie the inspiration for this story?”

Her face heated. “I …ah …wrote that years ago. And …um, I’ve revised and edited it a million times in the past. I wanted Annalise to read it first and find out if it’s good enough to be published.”

Annalise grinned at Willie, still looking a little flush like she was having a physical reaction to the few lines she’d read earlier. “So what do you think?”

Willie didn’t miss Annalise’s excited reaction to the story. “It’s verra good but I didnae realised graphic scenes affected ye so much. Ye’re beet red!" 

"Only when it’s very well written,” Annalise smirked, taking the laptop from his hands and moving towards him to sit on his lap. 

Willie pulled Annalise closer and kissed her, and Claire sighed. It’s both beautiful and terrible being in the presence of people, so in love. While she’s ecstatic to see her best friend smitten and happy, it made her sad that Jamie couldn’t be here with her. She missed him terribly, and it’s only been a fortnight since she had last seen him.

After a few seconds of watching them unashamedly snogged in front of her, Claire clapped her hands, and they both immediately pulled away. “Right, that’s enough you two. So, where’s the dinner I was promised?”

Suddenly looking self-conscious, Willie promptly lifted Annalise from his lap, plonked her down onto the bed and jumped up, and Claire couldn’t help but grin at him.

“Right on it,” he muttered, before disappearing from her bedroom.

Annalise laughed and playfully shoved her shoulder. “Passion killer.”

Claire ignored the jest. “So you really think I should publish my story?”

Her friend nodded excitedly. “Absolutely! You should have let me read it sooner. From what I’ve seen so far, you have good, solid material, and I’m convinced, when I read the rest, it will not disappoint.” She stood up and smiled. “Come on, in as much as I’m all fired up after reading your story, I’m famished.” She got up and left the room.

Instead of moving from her position, Claire stared at her work for a few seconds and just breathed. Although Willie and Annalise were sincere with their praises, she couldn’t help but still feel nervous. This next step in her life could either turn out to be huge, or it could get her mocked out of a dream career she loved. 

Pushing aside her doubts and thinking of Jamie, she quickly compressed a copy of her story’s file and sent it to him via email to read, hoping he would like her written work too. Who knew, maybe, after reading it, he would be as fired up as Willie and Annalise. 

After hearing the whoosh of the email sent, Claire launched herself off the bed to join her friends, looking forward to Jamie’s reaction later and daydreaming of a future in Scotland with her love.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Jamie walked into his cottage and was greeted by his dog Rollo and cat, Adso. He tossed his keys on the dining table as he absentmindedly rubbed his pets alternately behind the ears and scrolled through his phone. He smiled. There was an email notification from Claire and a text letting him know she would be calling after dinner. After turning on his laptop, he shrugged off his jacket, placed it on the back of his chair, and then went to the kitchen to feed his companions, thinking his own dinner would have to wait, too eager to read Claire's email. 

Feeling the chill, he put firewood onto the grate and set it alight, before making a mug of black tea and heading back to the dining table. Once there, instead of immediately opening his email, he stared at his desktop photo. It was of Claire, wearing nothing but his shirt and sitting cross-legged by the fireplace with a bowl of breakfast. Without conscious volition, he touched the picture on the screen and then brought his fingers against his lips.  Miss you, Sassenach.  Although work and obligations had filled his days, time seemed to go so painstakingly slow, his mind constantly wandering to her. It pained him not to have her by his side, but he knew it was a little sacrifice for what lay ahead of them.

Sighing, he opened the email.  Please read and tell me what you think, love C,  it said. 

After clicking on the attachment, he extracted the content and found a file with Word documents. He enlarged the first page, skimmed through the paragraphs and realised it was Claire's work. After taking a sip of his tea, he proceeded to read from the beginning.

A few paragraphs later, he was hooked. Not because Claire wrote it, but because of the beautiful marrying of emotions with words. He was instantly captivated. How could she have downplayed her talent when she had this innate gift? She once mentioned, there were talks among her peers, that editors were just frustrated authors.  Weel, not this editor!  he thought.  But more than the mental images her storyline evoked, it was the words that moved him. It was as if he was reading a personal confession disguised in the characters she'd created and it spoked straight to his soul. He continued to read, and when he came upon a particular plot, his eyes slightly misted. 

From across the room, her gaze locked with his, and for a moment, she forgot to breathe. A live wire crackled and sparked, launching showers of tiny fireworks to light every dark recess of her weary soul. 

It was always going to be like this every time she saw him, she sighed. After all these years, nothing had changed. 

In their youth, she'd believed, they were bound together, not by something tangible, but by a profound, powerful connection that is ancient and older than the planets. It was as if she'd envisioned them a million times aeons ago and the stars finally heeded and arranged for their paths to cross. 

It had started with a touch, a soft kiss, a subtle stirring of their souls, and as if by magic, their story began to write itself from thereon. His strength had been her protection, her heart, his shelter, and in each others' arms, they were home. For at one time, love between them had been powerful than the fate and deeper than a naked eye. But that was then, she reminded herself ...before he found out she was from another place and time. Out of this tragedy, which altered the course of her life, was the infinite curse she must bear alone. But she couldn't blame him. It was her fault.

As a tiny sob escaped her throat, a man bumped into her, jarringly breaking her reverie. Annoyed with herself for feeling weak, she straightened her spine and squared her shoulders. And as she slowly made her way over to him, she hoped and prayed her face would not betray her emotions. There comes that significant point in life when one had to choose to either turn the page, write another book or simply close it. She chose the latter.

Jamie's heart drummed, and he puffed out a lungful of air. Settling back on his seat, he rubbed a hand over his face. He had this sudden burning urge to bundle Claire's story and gift it to the world.  Why has she waited this long to pursue her dream? This is bloody insane!  In each of the characters, he saw her - beautifully flawed and full of heart. She wielded words in her story as if she was tearing apart her own issues and exposing her loss and regrets, the courage and honesty so palpable, it jumped right off the screen. Och, Sassenach!

He needed more time to go through the story at a leisurely pace, so he skipped a few chapters out of mere curiosity and what he read next, made his heart rate doubled.

As soon as they were alone, she grabbed at his belt, her shaking fingers tugging the zipper. She'd waited for far too long and needed him now. Dropping down to her knees, she lowered his jeans to take him fully in her mouth, feeling him throb and jerk at her touch ...oh how she'd crave for the taste of him. She was hungry, oh so hungry, to feel his most private pulse beating against her palm. Despite the urgency she was feeling, she didn't rush as she wanted to savour every moment and taste of him.

He swallowed and realised his jeans were becoming too constricted.  Ah Christ!  There were only so many blows to the system a man could take and what he just read sent all the blood in his brain rushing southward so fast it nearly knocked him out of commission. Who would have thought a sex scene in a romance story could affect him so much?

He read a few more excerpts from the story, and when he eventually looked at the bottom right corner of his screen, he realised it was nearly ten. He'd been so engrossed with reading, he hadn't noticed the time. Claire was supposed to call.  But maybe she's fallen asleep.

Reaching for his phone, he got up, shifted the bulging discomfort in his jeans and headed for the fridge. As his screen lit up, he tapped Claire's name and waited.

"Hello?" she answered, her voice thick and muffled, causing a sudden pulsing rush of longing in his stomach. A fog of cataclysmic lust descended, increasing the weight between his legs.

"Sassenach?" He grabbed a tin of beer, popped it open with one hand and made his way to the living room. "It's me." 

"I know." She yawned. "What time is it? Are you just coming home?"

"Ummm, no. I got yer email earlier." Smiling, he sat on the armchair and toed off a shoe. "I got caught up reading yer story, I forgot the time."

"A long day then. Sorry, I was supposed to call, but ...." He heard some rustling sound and then quiet.

He got his second shoe off and rested his feet on the coffee table. Right now, he wished he could teleport himself to Claire's side and slip in bed next to her. He'd wanted to come to London, but he'd been advised by Willie it was still too soon, and coming along could trigger his PTSD. Although the nightmares had stopped and he'd been following the meditation exercises Claire had told him to do, there were still times when panic attack got hold of him. They weren't as bad as before, but still, it was there lurking, ready to pounce at any time. He hadn't dared told his sister, Jenny, in case she nagged him to attend the therapy conducted by her friend Geneva. He knew what his sister was up to, and he wasn't about to fall for her matchmaking schemes.

He was just contemplating the merits of dropping everything and flying to London when he realised Claire had gone too quiet.

"Sassenach?"

"Hmmm?"

"Did ye just fall asleep on me?"

"Oh, umm, a little," she responded, utterly lacking in apology.

"Shall I let ye sleep? I can call again tomorrow."

"No!"

Relieved, he smiled. "So working too hard, I presume?"

"Yes," she mumbled. "Worked for seven hours straight. Then had too much food and wine, and too little fresh air. It made me drowsy afterwards. It's Willie's and Annalise's faults. They overfed me over dinner." 

"Mmm, in as much as I appreciate why ye're doing it, I dinnae want ye to become ill because of it." He heard another yawn and imagined her long, lean body stretching, her hair all wild against the pillow and her breast bare. When he realised where his mind was wandering to, he immediately put a stop to it.  Christ, get a grip!  With a steel will, he extinguished his filthy thoughts. "Ye should take care more of yersel', Sassenach."

"I'm fine ...honestly."

He was unconvinced but didn't push. "By the way, I read yer story. It's bloody good. No ...correction. It's great!"

"You like it!"

"I love it. Was that a story ye wrote a while ago? Or did ye write it recently?"

"A while ago," she hummed, her words muffled as if she had a pillow over the phone. 

He loved the way she sounded when sleep laced her voice. 

"Hmmm, a question ...how'd ye learn to write a sex scene like that, when ..." He needed a couple of seconds to find the right words. "...when ye were a virgin before we met."

"I might have been a virgin, but I never said I was a nun." 

He laughed out loud. It couldn't be helped. Though Claire could be shy at times, she always spoke her mind. "I'm sorry I didnae mean to laugh, Sassenach," he apologised when he finally sobered up. "It's just that ye wrote the sex part so vivid and graphic, it made me wonder how ye could have known the mechanics of lovemaking when ye were still a virgin at the time ye wrote that story."

"Well, I suppose I should confess ...before I met you, there might have been on a few occasions, that I had ..." 

"Watched porn?" 

"Yes ...but for research purposes," she said rapidly, her voice not sounding muffled anymore. She must have rolled on her back. "But what I meant to say was, I've had ...um ..." She trailed off.

He frowned. "Had what?"

"Physical contact, of course!" she replied with mild exasperation. 

Something heavy rolled over in his stomach. "Excuse me?"

She sighed. "When I use to date, dates sometimes end up in making out, kissing and petting, and I sort of got the gist of what normally happens afterwards." He heard her swallow. "I -I mean nothing happened of course ...at least, not in the biblical sense anyway. W-what I'm trying to say is, before we met ... I've never made it to the Old Testament with anyone. B-but you ... you're pretty special because you and I ...well, we're almost at the Revelations."

What the hell?  She was rambling, and he realised she was becoming flustered. Her attempt to calm him down using the books of the Bible for analogy put a dent on his jealousy. He puffed out a breath. "I get it. I get it. Just do me a favour, Sassenach, will ye, huh? In the future, dinnae mention physical contact with other men ever again to me even if it's no' the biblical variety. It's bad enough we're separated, and here I am missing ye loads ..."

"Sorry, but you did ask how I knew about the mechanics of ..." she stopped and then sighed. "Let's change the subject, shall we?"

"Of course." He slugged back a mouthful of beer and placed it on the coffee table, before leaning back once more on his armchair. "We were talking about yer writing. I've read a few chapters, and I'm really enjoying it. Cannae wait to read the rest."

"I'm glad. Willie and Annalise liked it too," she replied, a smile in her voice.

"I'm not surprised. Ye should have published it a long time ago. Ye have a gift, Sassenach, one that I'm verra proud of." 

"Thank you. Writing does take a bit of time, and I needed a job while I was at it. I'm still glad I waited, though."

He shifted uncomfortably on his seat and paused, contemplating if ... "Are ye in the bedroom? Or did ye fall asleep on the couch?" 

"In my bedroom. I couldn't stand watching a movie with Willie and Annalise when all they do is snog in front of me. So I left them to it, thinking I'll rest my eyes for a few minutes before calling you. And that's when I fell asleep."  Ah, the poor thing, she must have been so tired.  At least she sounded a little more alert compared to earlier. "Seeing them cuddled up like that made me miss you loads," she added, huskily, "...and think of our time together."

Ah, hell!  Her voice wasn't the only thing that was alert. His cock suddenly needed a wee adjustment. Again! He unzipped his jeans, purely for ease and comfort and to give himself room for a breathing space.

"You should sleep in tomorrow and get some fresh air too," he suggested, inhaling deeply through his nose as he felt the effects of the beer, reminding him he didn't have any food in his stomach.

"Definitely, I will have a sleep in." She drank something audibly and let out a sigh. "As for that fresh air, it will depend if it's raining or not. Annalise mentioned we're in for a horrendous weather tomorrow." He heard another delicate gulp.

"What are ye wearing, Sassenach?" His words came out before he could think and put a stop to it. It sounded much more sexual than he'd intended, gruff and hoarse, his dirty mind wandering to that explicit scene he read earlier.

There was a few seconds of silence. "Why?"

"Because I want to know ...if ye're warm enough."

"I'm warm enough." 

"So what are ye wearing?"

There was another moment of silence before she replied. "Oooh, I know what this is, James Fraser" she throatily laughed into his ears. "And, we are so not doing this." 

"Doing what?" he groaned, this time pulling out his cock. He couldn't deny himself any longer, when this woman on the other end of the line, rained havoc to his good sense. Running a calloused hand down the length of himself, he gave his throbbing erection a nice hard squeeze. "I'm only asking solely out of concern for yer health. It's cold, and I worry ye might catch ...umm ...pneumonia." He almost laughed out loud at his lame logic.

"Pneumonia? You don't have to worry, Jamie. It's warm in the apartment, and it doesn't take much to heat a small place,," she said with a hint of amusement. "And I'm not naked ...not totally anyway."

"Oh," he gritted, fisting his cock from the base to the head, as a blow of harsh breath escaped his mouth. He felt like a depraved, desperate man, but it couldn't be helped when his cock was so achingly stiff, and he wanted relief. No amount of wanking in the shower earlier had eased his need for her. In fact, it only intensified it.

As he continued to stroke himself, the house's interior closed in around him, the sounds of fire popping doing nothing to reduce the extreme feeling of airlessness. At this moment, as far as he was concerned, they were the only two people in the whole wide world awake, right here and right now, and he would die if he didn't get any release soon.

"I'm wearing undies," she finally said.

Allelujah!  His fist tightened around his hardness, moisture seeping from its head. "Ah, Sassenach," he murmured. He imagined her, stretched out on her bed, the duvet kicked off, and how she had looked in those tiny cotton knickers. "And a pyjama top?" he muttered. 

"No," she sighed in sweet response, a slight shyness creeping in her next words. "I forgot to turn off the radiator before I went to bed. It's so warm I must have yanked off my top while sleeping." 

"Sweet Jesus!" He stilled his hand and cupped his balls, seeing her creamy breasts in his mind's eye. 

"Jamie ...what are ye doing? I mean, I think I know what you are doing. But I've never done this before," she whispered. "Maybe I should go and let you ...um ...finish your business?"

"No! Please." He closed his eyes and slumped deeper into the armchair, his feet spreading apart and his head falling back. "I need ye." 

"I ...I don't know how ..." 

"Sassenach." Saying his pet name for her was a mild distraction from the throbbing ache in his hand, as he swiped a thumb over the head of his erection and spread the moisture seeping out. "My cock is so rock hard, I think I might black the fuck out from wanting ye. Dinnae torture me by leaving me hanging."

Her breath hitched, and it was the most beautiful sound in his ears. "So you really are touching yourself?" she asked on a huffed breath.

"Jesus, Sassenach! Ye have nae idea, do ye? I wank every day and night to yer image in my head ...stroking so hard I can hardly breathe, thinking of our last night together ..." he swallowed with difficulty, his hand busy fisting himself. "It's so lonely without ye, and every waking moment is filled with thoughts of ye naked in my bed and every night ye haunt my dreams. What I would give to touch ye right now and plunge my cock between yer thighs." 

She gasped, and he wished he could feel her hot breath on his neck. "Jamie ...I don't even know what to say ... I ...this is out of my comfort zone.." 

"Touch yersel', and tell what ye're thinking," he commanded as he closed his eyes, the heels of his feet pushing against the floor and his muscles thighs tightening hard. "Have ye ever touched yersel'? Tell me." 

"Before you came along, there's been no one, and you know that," she said haughtily. "Giving myself an orgasm is the only reason why I remained a virgin for so long. I call it self-service." 

He let out a burst of pained laughter despite himself. "Ah, Christ, I'd love to kiss that smart-arsed mouth while taking ye hard ..." 

"I like it when you ..." she cut in, and he held his breath, agonisingly waiting for her to complete the sentence. "...kiss me between the legs." He heard her voice fade a little and swishing movements. "I think of you doing that when ...um, my hand is between my thighs."

"Is yer hand between yer thighs now?"

"Y-yes ..."

"Slide yer fingers in, Sassenach. And tell me ...are ye wet?"

"Yes ..." she softly moaned.

"How wet?"

"Very."

Ah, fuck!

He always thought dirty talks were arousing, but each shy admission by Claire was too bloody erotic for words, it made the already taut and strained tether of his self-control about to snap. He uttered her name with a litany of invocations to the saints, his hips shifting against the soft of his seat and his breathing becoming heavier. "Ye ken what I'll do to ye when I get to finally see ye? I'm no' letting ye out of bed," he groaned. "I'm gonnae worship that beautiful body of yers with my mouth until my lips are branded to your skin, and yer scent embedded in mine and yer taste in my mouth. Ye still have yer fingers inside ye?"

"Yes ..."

"Now imagine it's my tongue lapping ye up."

She sobbed, a whimpering sound full of longing and his heart twisted in a knot, creating a cluster that descended down to his belly and found its way to his cock, making his balls draw higher. His exhale came out like an animalistic grunt as Claire's breathing became more shallow. She gasped out his name, a soft plea that he badly wanted so much to pacify.

"Oh, sweet Lord, I want you so much, Jamie. I miss your hands on me," she whispered, her voice enveloping him, he could almost feel her breath on his heated skin. "Please don't stop talking ..."

"Ye think I could stop, Sassenach? I'd sell my soul just to hear ye come." Something told him the cries coming from Claire's mouth would ring in his head for days to come. Broken, sweet, desperate moans, interrupted by her breath hitching. Like she was drowning, just like him. "Ye miss me touching ye, is that right? Weel, let me tell ye something," he said hoarsely. "I spend every night looking at the bloody ceiling of my bedroom, envisioning yer sweet tits bouncing like wee temptations while ye ride me on my creaky bed. It hasn't creaked the way it used to, ever since ye left. And on some nights, I would lay on my tummy and grind myself against the mattress just to hear it creak and pretend it's not the bed I'm fucking," His hand went into overdrive stroking himself, fast and relentless. "But we both know we want the real thing, don't we now?"

"Yes, yes, yes," she whispered in a husky loop.

"Jesus, so sweet, my beautiful Sassenach ..." A drumming began in his head, inflicted by the raspy sound of her voice, the way her breath became laboured when he talked dirty to her. 

The pressure within him rose, and his breath came out in short, head-spinning gulps of air, his senses more heightened for knowing who the cause was for his predicament. Claire.  Ah, Christ , he'd never anticipated for the possessiveness that tightened around his heart with a permanence that didn't alarm him. In fact, he'd always known, right from the beginning, she was the one for him. She was the only one who moved him to take a risk in love, to abuse his body for relief ...

"Jamie ...oh God ..."

Hissing out a wounded groan, Jamie fisted the base of his cock and pumped furiously. "I'm here, Sassenach," he whispered. "I hear ye. Always here for ye."

"I'm coming ..." she moaned. "Oh, my God ..."

His heart expanded as he listened to her, her breath shallow, his name a whisper, and he could picture her, turning and twisting against the sheets with her hand between her thighs. He was so close, it hurt. When he couldn't hold off any longer, he let go, his own orgasm coming in full force, spouting out of from his cock, seizing his body in an almost paralysing bliss. It went on forever, his seed spurting into his hand and thighs, his shouts reverberating off the walls and ceiling as the pleasure surged through him and rearranging everything in its route.

Finally spent, he slumped back on his seat, his breathing coming out in choppy waves as his chest rose and fell. After a long stretch of silence between them, he put down his phone and whipped off his shirt to clean himself up. By the time he grabbed it back and placed it against his ear, Claire's breath was calmer.

"Jamie?" There was a trace of doubt or maybe guilt in her voice.

Knowing Claire's strict Catholic upbringing in the boarding school, he didn't want her thinking what they did was wrong as it would only cheapen what they just shared. He needed to reassure her. "Sssh, Sassenach, I ken what ye're gonnae say. What happened between us was ... incredible. And ye ken, why?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Because we love each other. Ye understand?"

There was a long pause before she replied and he imagined her biting her lower lip in contemplation. "Yes," she replied eventually, her voice barely a whisper. And after waiting a few seconds more, he heard her soft snore and even breathing.

Smiling, he murmured good night and turned off the phone. He was just about to close his eyes to savour the moment when the doorbell rang, and a spooked Adso suddenly leapt onto his lap.  Bloody hell!  He plopped the cat down, righted his jeans, and quickly got up, and as he peered through the window, he saw Mrs Fitz, the owner of the Airbnb from across the road, holding a dish in her hands.

What the ...?  He opened the door. "Mrs Fitz!" The scent of freshly baked apple pie wafted from the dish she was carrying, making his stomach grumble. "It's kinda late. Is everything alright?" he asked, eyeing the aluminium covered plate. 

"Aye, son," she said, frowning, her eyes bypassing him as if she was in search of something or someone. "I saw the light, and I thought ye might like a bit of pudding ...for after tea perhaps or for breakfast. Yer lass ...Miss Beauchamp, I mean Claire is not here so I thought I'd check up on ye."

Jamie thought the older woman was acting a bit odd, the way she was trying to strain her neck to look beyond him. "Oh, Claire ...I was just on the phone with her."

Both her eyebrows arched. Then the frown on her face dissipated, replaced with a relieved smile and a reddening on her plump cheeks. "Oh, of course. I thought I heard some strange sounds. Ye must have been talking to her." She pushed the dish towards him. "Very well then, now that everything seems to be in order, I must go." Without waiting for him to reply, she whirled around and hurriedly left.

As Jamie stared at her disappearing figure, it slowly dawned on him, Mrs Fitz must have heard the sound he'd made while in the throes of self-love passion. Groaning inwardly, he realised Claire's writing studio shed wasn't the only place that needed soundproofing. If Claire was going to stay with him, he needed to soundproof the whole cottage.  Bloody nosy neighbours!

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

It was early Monday morning at Dreamcatcher Publishing, and although it was empty, Claire knew, her boss, John Grey, would be already in. He was always the first to come in and the last to go. After taking off her coat, she shook off all thoughts of the previous night's phone sex with Jamie. It was bad enough it had preoccupied her head all Sunday to a point she couldn't focus on anything. If she was going to get anything done today, she had to get her head in the right space. The last thing she wanted was looking flustered in front of her boss. Taking a deep breath, she pulled the folder from her satchel, grabbed the takeaway coffees from the desk and headed to John's office. When she walked in, he was staring intently into his computer screen, his chocolate touseled hair gleaming in the morning light. 

He looked up, eyed the hot beverage in her hand and beamed. "Ah, coffee!" 

"I thought you might like this," she said, smiling back at him.

He leaned back against his chair and motioned for her to sit. "What do you have for me?"

"Just bits and bobs that I need you to look over - contracts, sales figures and some fresh new materials." She handed him the hot brew and folder and sat down. "And I was hoping to ask if I can work away for a while."

He arched an eyebrow at her before flicking through the sheets of paper. As per usual, he looked boyishly handsome in his conservative grey crew-neck jumper worn over a crisp white shirt and black-rimmed specs that accentuated his blue eyes. If she hadn't known he was into men right from the start, she might have ended up crushing on him these last couple of years. Not only was John an attractive man, but he was also kind, highly intelligent and supported a lot of worthy causes she was passionate about. She was going to miss him terribly when she finally left her job for good. 

After going through the papers, John carefully shut the folder and placed it on his desk. "But what about Mary? You're supposed to be attached to her hip working on her book."

Mary Hawkins was the publishing company's star author who'd gone on a long hiatus after making a back to back bestseller a few years ago, and now that she'd returned with fresh materials, everyone at the office was abuzz with excitement. Claire had been assigned to work with Hawkins before she met Jamie. Although she'd handed in her notice two weeks prior, she'd promised John she would see through the publication of Hawkin's book before leaving. But that was proving to be a difficult feat ever since the diva author slipped away to France. And that frustrated the hell out of her as she wanted to see more drafts and work more closely with Hawkins to get the ball rolling.

"I'm done with the drafts you sent me, and I'm waiting for the rest from her. But I can't work any further when she disappears on a whim and refuses to answer my email. We were supposed to go over her book cover with the most perfect illustrator for her story I could find, and she's not here. So, I figured, while Miss Hawkins is busy galavanting in France, I might as well work away from the office for a while."

He frowned and took off his glasses. "I know Mary can be quite challenging to work with, but we need her sweet. Before she announced her comeback, we haven't had anything spectacular or exciting, and you know as well as I do, she's always lived up to the hype she creates." 

"We work on deadlines, John," she said, a tad sternly. When she realised how she sounded like in her ears, she winced inwardly. It wasn't John's fault she was frustrated, but it couldn't be helped. She had a life too. Waiting in Scotland to be precise.

"The company needs the money this book will generate, Claire," he said, cutting through her thoughts. "And I'm counting on you."

She sighed. "I understand she's a big deal. And really, I appreciate you entrusting such a big-name author to me. I'm not complaining ...I'm just stating facts."

Unperturbed, he took a sip of his coffee and placed it back on his desk. "So you want to work from home for a while?"

She shifted on her seat and cleared her throat. "About that ...I was planning to take my work to Scotland ...in the Highlands. For a long weekend perhaps and if Hawkins isn't back, maybe a week at the most." 

"In the Highlands?" he interrupted, looking surprised.

She took a deep breath and braced her shoulders defensively. She'd already rehearsed her counterargument. "Look, John, you know I can practically work from anywhere ... that's what modern technology is for," she started. "I've put in a lot of hours ever since I started working here and I've worked overtime for the last fortnight. And I've done every single big assignment I was given, and as for the rest, I can operate from wherever. If you're concerned about who'll do the errands for you, there's the junior editor for that."

"No ...no, what I meant to say is, that's a brilliant idea," he said breathlessly as he started to type on his keyboard, making her mouth dropped open. "Look ...give me a chance to explain. There's this hippy, bungee-jumping bloke really passionate about the Highlands, and he's got this blog full of articles and stunning photos of well-known and unusual and probably, never seen before landmarks in print. If you can look past the terrible website, the content is ..."

"Wot?" she gasped, her mind running away with her. "Hang on a minute, John." Claire stood up from her chair and crossed her arms in front of her. "I meant what I said two weeks ago when I handed you my notice. After I'm done with Hawkins, I'm out of here. I'm not taking on any more big projects if that's what you're on about. I don't mind doing the other small stuff ..."

"No, no ...I'm not asking you to take this on, but I do need a favour while ye're at the Highlands." He ignored her irritation and gestured for her to look at the screen of his computer. "Before anything else, I want you to take a look at this first."

She gave him a suspicious look, but eventually relented and glanced at the screen, reading the posts through the eyes of an editor. As she skimmed through the paragraphs, her annoyance lifted. She realised why John was excited. Although the blogger's writing was all over the place, his knowledge of the Highlands, enthusiasm, passion and eye for photography was astounding. And as she clicked on his Instagram link, her breath caught.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking, Claire?" John whispered, seeing her reaction.

She noticed the blogger had over a million followers which meant among all those fans, there were readers. Which also meant, there could be a good portion of them who would want to buy his book and a potential to increase his followership with proper marketing if that ever came to fruition. She knew Dreamcatcher was struggling financially and along with Hawkin's promise of a bestseller, this could ease the financial burden on John's shoulders. She clicked on a grainy photo of the blogger and gasped. No wonder he had a lot of female fans. It wasn't just the photos that looked beautiful. The blogger was as rugged and pleasing to the eye as the Highlands' pictures. And not only that. He interacted with his followers with just the right amount of charm and flirt, and the women were enthralled by the whole package. Now she understood why this particular blogger caught John's attention.

She looked at John. "And what are you suggesting?"

"I need you to convince him to publish his work as a travel or guide book with us. I want you to sell him a dream. That's all you need to do. His name is Thomas Christie, and he's from Broch Mordha, a village on the outskirts of Inverness."

"Wot?"  Ah, hell, what are the odds? 

..........

Jamie put away the grocery shopping in his pantry, whistling a tune. Although it was a cold, dreich and cloudy day, it didn't stop the strains of Pharell William's song, "Happy" playing in his head. He was having one of those days where he had the world on a string, and it felt like nothing could thwart his good mood. His Sassenach was coming tomorrow, and she'd be staying with him for at least a week. She already warned him not to make too many plans as she had work to do, but he didn't care. He would be waking up every morning for the next few days with Claire in his arms, and they'd eat dinner together when their day was done. That was all that mattered.

He was about to turn around and make his way into the living room when he saw Jenny leaning against the far end counter, her arms across her chest. It only took Jamie a second to deduce his sister had been standing there a while, her grin saying it all. 

"Jenny!"

"I called out to ye when I came in, but ye didnae hear me. Looks like someone is happy," Jenny observed, smirking. "What's up with ye?"

He didn't bother denying anything, since village gossips always made it to his sister anyway. "Claire ...ye ken Claire. Ye met her over two weeks ago. She's coming over to stay for a few days. With me." 

Her smile waned a little, annoying him the tiniest bit. "She's back so soon? Doesnae she have a job in London?" Her brows knitted together. "Or did ye ask her to come because ye couldnae go to London in case ye have another one of yer panic attacks?"

A blistering burn began in his belly, twisting up to his throat. "And what if I did? What is it to ye? What I do in my life is none of yer business."

"Good God, Jamie ...look at ye." She pushed off the counter and took a step forward. "None of my business? Is that right, aye?" She stabbed the air with her finger, stubborn chin jutting out at him. "Ye're my brother, and I love ye dearly. I've seen ye go through hell and back ever since ye came back from the Middle East. Every time ye have those panic attacks, it's us ...yer family that has to pick up the pieces. Or have ye forgotten that? So excuse me if I am making it my business."

Even though Jenny told the truth, she had no right to question his life's decision. He knew she was only behaving like this because she had his welfare at heart, but he didn't feel like arguing. Nor did he want to fall out with her. This was so not the time. "Are ye finished?"

"No! How long do ye think it would take before Claire tires of yer situation, huh? She's from London, used to city life and people from down there are a restless lot. You and this place is a novelty to her, that's probably the only reason why she's interested." Having made her point, Jenny's mouth tipped up on one end. "Ye're setting yersel' up for a major heartbreak, lad."

Jamie waited for doubt to kick in. Waited for visions of Claire telling him it was over between them like some grainy phone video in his head. But they never came. Instead, he felt her arms twining around his neck as she whispered her love for him in his ear. He saw her giggling while sat barelegged on his kitchen counter, as he happily made breakfast for them. And beneath it all, he felt soul-deep confidence in their new relationship. He saw himself and Claire having a united front against the naysayers. Jenny didn't know Claire. His sister didn't know either how much of a difference Claire made to his well-being. Nor did she know how much he'd grown. But he wasn't about to admit that. Only the future outcome would prove his sister wrong. 

Suddenly he wasn't angry anymore. Thinking of Claire had that effect on him. He only needed to focus on her to find his centre and calm. Shaking his head, he sighed. "Jenny please, let me be. Just go home and worry about yer own family. I'll be fine. I promise," he said, calmly.

His sister looked at him oddly. She had probably been expecting a row, which usually happened whenever they both stubbornly disagreed with one another. She took a step closer and searched his eyes. "Have ye been taking yer pills, lad? Ye dinnae seem doolally to me."

He almost laughed out loud. Two months ago, he might have had a shouting match with his sister. Not today, though. He had so much to look forward to. "I haven't taken pills for over a year. Now go home, Jen before I start taking one because of ye," he said lightheartedly.

Her frown winded down in degrees until he could almost see her cogwheels springing into a different direction. "Ye're no' taking weeds by any chance, are ye?" she asked, sniffing the air. "It's a new-age medicine, ye ken."

"No," he said firmly, determined not to engage in any further conversation with his sister. "Now go."

She took one more long look at him and then shrugged. "Fine," she huffed. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket, and walked backwards a few paces, keeping him in her sights, before whirling around and walking out of the kitchen. 

He felt the laughter bubbles began to pop in his belly but tamped down the urge to break down into laughing fits. When he heard the door closed in the front room, Jamie finally smiled. He smiled so wide it split apart into a belly laugh as he made his way to the bedroom to change the bedsheets.

In that gleaming, enlightening pocket of time, he realised he wasn't laughing because of the look on his sister's face. But because he realised he was a changed man. And no one, not even Jenny nor his panic attacks was going to get in the way of his happiness.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Jamie eased his car into the parking lot, focusing on his breathing when his heart began to pummel against his chest. He'd known this might happen, and he'd come prepared ...or at least he hoped so. Taking his key out of the ignition, he reassured himself Claire would be with him soon enough, so he tried to remain calm. 

He leaned back against his seat and shut his eyes for a moment.  Breathe in, breathe out, repeat. C'mon Fraser lad, ye got this.

Claire had initially planned on making her own way to Broch Mordha, too worried for him, in case he had another one of his panic attacks. But Jamie had vehemently insisted on picking her up despite her protestations. There was no way he was going to sit around in his cottage, waiting for her to arrive when he could be with her sooner. Every second spent in her presence was precious, and he wasn't about to give up any opportunity to be with her.

When he finally gathered himself together, he noticed his knuckles had gone white from gripping the steering wheel and a dull throb slowly working its way up to the back of his head. Every noise, every reflection of sunlight bouncing off the windshield was a torment.  Ah, shite! Please, not now!  His jaw already ached from its constant clenching and unclenching and his molars grinding during the drive, an attempt to smother the anxiety threatening to bubble up. He'd just arrived, and already he felt like he was going to suffocate. 

All the way from Broch Mordha, he'd centred his thoughts on Claire, afraid that if he allowed his mind to wander, the panic attacks would get out of hand. In his head, he'd pictured her laughing, full of life and excitement, and the way she made him feel. And he'd thought, if he could hold on to those images, he might just be able to keep the anxiety at bay, long enough until Claire was by his side.

Taking a deep fortifying breath, he exited his car, the noise around him giving off a static buzz, rivalling the one crackling in his head. On cue, an onrush of whirring sound intensified and just when he thought he was going to pass out, he caught a familiar scent as a blur in beige walked past him. Surprisingly, the din between his ears subsided into a distant hum, and his head shot up in time to see a man in an old fashion trenchcoat and a flat cap, hurriedly zig-zagging past oncoming and ongoing crowds.  What the ...?

He felt drawn to the man like it was pertinent to get hold of him right this instant, not quite comprehending why. "Hey ye!" Jamie shouted after the bustling figure. "Wait up!"

The man stopped as if he'd heard he was being called, long enough for Jamie to see his profile.  Harry? Harry ...as in Claire's father? Surely not! It cannae be. 

Before Jamie could make sense of what he was seeing, the figure began moving again, and so he picked up the pace. "Harry?!? Hey! Stop! It's me, Jamie," he shouted.

Jamie began to walk quicker, straining his neck so he wouldn't lose sight of Harry, but the man was fleet, occasionally stopping, looking for someone or something before rushing off again. Although Jamie was agile himself on his feet, he couldn't seem to catch up, and it wasn't long before Harry disappeared through the glassed entrance.  Bummer!

He ran this time. When he eventually made it inside the airport, all he could see was Harry's head, bobbing up and down among a moving group of bodies heading in the direction of the arrivals' waiting area. He continued to follow, wondering what the hell Harry was doing here. The last time he'd seen the man was before Christmas, and after that, on an old photograph, Claire had shown him.  Ah, fuck!  Jamie thought he must be losing his mind.  Is Harry alive, or is he a ghost?  Claire did tell him that Harry or Henry, or whatever he was called, died in a car accident.  So what the hell is happening? Is his condition making him see the deceased or is Harry a figment of his imagination? 

His eyes scanned the crowd, but Harry's head was replaced by an image of a bouncing oversized red beanie. Jamie continued to walk forward, dipping and diving, not wanting to lose him, but red beanie head was waving an arm, and it kept getting in the way.  Ah hell, where did he disappear to?

Irritation coasted down his back, and his eyes landed once again on the red beanie head, walking towards him, just a few feet away. Underneath the brightly coloured headgear was a mass of dark curls that framed a rosy cheek face with crystal clear amber orbs and a smile that tugged at his heart. Gradually, as if coming out of a trance, everything came into focus, and the backdrop and the noises dissolved. His heart stopped as realisation kicked in.  It's Claire!

"Sassenach," he whispered. His lungs dislodged every iota of oxygen in his body, the world seeming to suspend around them expectantly.

Before his brain could compute what was happening, Claire dropped her bags and launched herself into his arms. Her warmth, scent and breath enveloped him, soothing his soul. In that instant, everything in the world felt right again as she buried her face against his neck. 

"Oh, God Jamie, I missed you," she whispered, her grasp tight around his neck. "You came, even when I told you not to. Stubborn, stubborn man!"

The tension in his muscles loosened, and the feel of her body was worth the stress he'd put himself through coming to the airport. He drew away slightly and gazed down at her beautiful face. "I had to come so I could do this," Jamie murmured, ensnaring Claire's mouth with his own. 

Her lips parted on a breath, and his tongue delved in, claiming her. Reminding them both and anyone in the vicinity who was watching, to whom she belonged. She must have sensed the psychological toll on him being in a busy place and what it took out of him to drive here, and his need to be grounded and centred. She clasped his face in her hands, forcing him to withdraw the kiss on a groan. She glanced up at him and searched his face, and when she was satisfied that he was alright, she gave him a smile that caused his throat to tighten with emotion. His heart pounded so hard, she placed her hands on his chest as though to keep it from bursting free. Wanting to feel more of her, he hoisted her up and pressed her closer against him. When he lowered his head to reclaim her lips a second time, she playfully nipped at his lip, before taking control of the kiss, reminding him he belonged to her too. She tunnelled her fingers in his hair and tilted her mouth over his, kissing him fervently until they broke away, gasping for breath.

She giggled, sliding away from his grasp, only for her arms to encircle his waist. "That was some welcome. I'm tempted to come more often now if I get to receive a kiss like that every time I arrive."

A harsh sound escaped his mouth. "Ah, Christ. What universe am I on that I get to keep ye for mysel', huh?" he breathed, running a thumb across her lower lip.

"A universe tucked away in a Highlands, one that I'm so chuffed to have found because you're in it," she replied, smiling, her breath ghosting on his chin as she looked up to meet his gaze. "Though I must admit, I wasn't too thrilled when you insisted on picking me up. I have faith you'll get over your anxiety one day, but you shouldn't push yourself too hard. Healing takes time, Jamie."

He tipped her chin and smiled, oblivious to the hustle and bustle of their surroundings, finding his calm in her presence. "I ken ye still worry, but I'm getting better every day. I promise. The meditation playlist ye sent me helps a lot, and it works even if I get leg cramps out of it as a result. Next, ye'll be suggesting yoga, but I'm warning ye, that's where I draw the line, Sassenach. My limbs are fine as it is."

She scrunched up her nose at his attempt to downplay his condition. "So, no more anxiety attacks? How about nightmares?"

"No nightmares," he reassured her, picking up loose curls resting on her shoulder and letting them slide between his fingers. "Though I still wake up sometimes in a cold sweat and occasionally, I have wee attacks when I'm under stress. But they're manageable as long as I remember the breathing exercises."

"That's good, Jamie," she said, sliding her hands up and down his back. "For a minute there, when I came out, and first saw you, I thought you seemed rather pale. You looked past me like there was no recognition in your eyes, but your colour returned when I got closer. I have been worried about you coming ...so I must have imagined the whole thing."

Ah hell, Harry!  He'd forgotten about him. He looked beyond her head, even though he knew Harry was long gone. Knowing it was a futile endeavour to even contemplate Harry's whereabouts, let alone start looking for him, Jamie cleared his throat and brought his attention back to Claire. He didn't want to lie to her, but there was a time and place to talk about Harry. He knew he'd delayed it for too long, but it had to wait just a wee bit longer. "Ye didnae imagine anything, Sassenach. I felt the beginnings of the panic attack, but when I saw my mate and started to call after him and follow him, I realised the distraction helped suppress it. He was going in the direction where ye came from. And then right after I lost him, I saw ye."

She cocked her head and looked at him curiously, amber eyes inquisitive, always reading between the lines. Even though he knew she appreciated that piece of information, there was still something niggling at her. "Are you sure you're alright?"

"Aye, I'm certain now that ye're here."

Claire studied him. "Well, the distraction from your mate helped for sure. Or at the very least, it took the edge out of the anxiety."

Jamie gave her a reassuring smile. "Indeed, it has. Shall we go?" he proposed, eager to get going.

She visibly shook herself and nodded as he stepped away from her embrace and made a move to collect her bags. Once they got going, he twined their fingers together, powerless to stop himself from kissing her knuckles and brushing them with his thumb. The noises in his head had already ceased, and with Claire by his side, not even the drone of a busy airport could yank him back into the grips of immobilising anxiety bouts.

Although seeing Harry earlier had helped quell down the panic attacks, he knew it wasn't a permanent fix. As Claire had once told him over the phone, part of his recovery included finding a healthy way to let go of the past and forgive himself. It was taking time for sure, but the more he acknowledged his demons, instead of burying it deep down into his subconsciousness, the easier it got. The more he talked about the death of his best mate, Simon MacKimmie, the lighter the load on his shoulders became. There might still be lingering guilt and the image of Simon's death deeply embedded in his memory, but as Claire often had, and time and time again said, real progress took time. Jamie understood the fix needed to be on a mental level, and that was on him. 

Despite it all, he felt incredibly blessed to have a lass who was willing to walk with him through it and not for him, something perhaps his sister should take note of. He'd shared with Claire his living hell, and still, she found something beautiful in the midst of so much ugly. He was convinced more than ever, with Claire everything was possible and he was looking forward to their future.

As they made their way out of the airport and into the parking lot, Jamie squeezed Claire's hand and smiled. "So what are yer plans today, Sassenach? Do ye have to work?"

She beamed up at him. "No. Work can wait until tomorrow. I think these past few weeks I've worked enough ...not to mention missing out on a lot of weekends. I think I deserve a break."

"Aye, that ye do. So, lunch perhaps, then?" Jamie suggested, releasing her hand and clicking the key fob as his car came to view. "Ye must be hungry."

"Did you make something?"

He swiftly deposited her bags into the boot and shut the door before kissing her on the forehead. "No. But I can always whip us up something, or we can stop somewhere on the way to grab a bite ...if ye wish."

Claire shied away, for once looking reluctant. "I'm not really hungry, to be honest."

"So do ye have anything particular in mind ye want to do?" he asked, his curiosity spiking when he noticed a bright shade of red rising from her neck to her face, causing her face to flush prettily. 

She chewed her lower lip. "Are you working today?" 

He grinned. "No. I took a day off." And he'd arranged with Willie he wouldn't be starting work until ten tomorrow morning.

"Well, ..."

"Weel what?"

"I think I'd like to go to bed."

To bed?  He searched her face looking for any evidence indicating she was unwell or fatigued. After all, she'd been working a lot these past few days. But he found none. Instead, her eyes betrayed what she had in mind. Still, he could be mistaken and wanted to be sure. "To bed or to sleep?" he asked slowly and cautiously.

She stood on her tiptoes and brushed her lips against his, making his stomach flipped. "What do you think?" she whispered against his mouth.

There was an awareness on Claire's face that revealed she felt the wild rapping against his rib cage. Both of their breathing changed, and in an instant, the closeness of their bodies was no longer means to keep anxiety at bay.

His heart rate suddenly became an equivalent of a man running from a bull in Pamplona. "Ach, Sassenach, couldnae ye wait until we were nearer to home to tell me that?" 

Her shoulders lifted. "Well, you did ask ..."

He walked her backwards against the car and pressed their forehead together. "Ah, damn it! Here I am trying to block images of what I want to do to ye the moment we're alone and be a decent boyfriend and treat ye like the sweetheart ye are. Now all I can think of is ..."

"What?" she asked innocently, her lids fluttering, her pupils obstructing out some of the gold of her irises. "What are you thinking of?"

Ah, bloody hell!  He certainly didn't want to answer that. Not here at the airport's parking lot anyway. He blew out a shaky breath and adjusted his jeans. "Get in a car." The growl that broke from his throat sounded foreign to his ears, but it couldn't be helped when the sudden urgency to have Claire was thrumming in his veins. "And not another word, until we reach home."

She smiled and made a motion of zipping her lips as she got into the passenger side. He groaned inwardly, hoping and praying for another distraction. But this time for an entirely different condition that was tormenting him. 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Claire watched Jamie in her periphery as he slowed the car and rolled into the cottage's driveway. It started to rain heavily, a stark contrast to the sunnier weather that had greeted her in Inverness. But she was too preoccupied focusing on him to notice anything else. 

"It's nice to be back," she whispered, smothering a smile as she unfastened her seatbelt.

He grunted something incoherent. Claire could tell he was trying his hardest to keep himself together by the way his jaw ticked. Given she was operating on adrenaline ever since that kiss upon her arrival, she realised she shouldn't have teased him with that naughty innuendo before they'd left the airport. 

"I think I'd like to go to bed,"  she'd said. Jamie's expression had changed when he read the meaning in her eyes. She'd thought his reaction was adorable, but now, with her skin feeling too tight for her body, she understood his predicament. With two and a half weeks of sexual frustration swirling in the air between them, she suddenly felt sympathetic. She'd even gone as far as doing as she was told after he'd ordered her not to speak another word on their drive back to Broch Mordha, even when he drove above the speed limit. But the silence between them only served to intensify the atmosphere more. 

"We'll get yer bags later ..." He turned off the ignition and briefly glanced at her. "...when it stops raining."

Claire made a move to get out but was surprised at how quick Jamie clambered out of the car and skirted to her side. He opened the door, their eyes meeting when he offered his hand. Feeling the intensity of his regard, she allowed him to help her out and pull her towards the house, squealing when she was blasted by an icy torrent.

Once inside, he booted the cottage door shut behind him, shrugging his jacket off and shaking the rain from his hair, propelling driblets everywhere and making her laugh as she did the same. But her laughter was soon cut off by the low sound he made in his throat, his slow, deliberate advance, the muscular chest he exposed when he peeled off his sodden top. The wind pelted rain on the windows, thunder reverberating, lightning flashing and illuminating the semi-dark living room in irregular intervals.

She shivered, but she knew it wasn't from the cold. "Where's Rollo and Adso?" she asked, her bottom hitting the back of the sofa as she walked back.

He unbuckled his belt. "At Willie's. I wasnae sure if we were gonnae be out the whole day or no'."

When he dragged his zipper down, she hissed on a gasp, watching his shoes come off and jeans sloughing onto the floor in record time. She swallowed audibly. "Oh, so no distractions then," she squeaked. He didn't reply. Instead, he reached out to tug her top off. When his eyes landed on her white lacy bra, he swore harshly under his breath. "Perhaps some tea first, to warm us up?" she suggested, feeling shy all of a sudden, her arms coming up to cover herself. It was clear their time apart, though not really that long, made her a tad bit bashful.

"Tea?" he said in a low voice, his hands prying hers. "Dinnae fash, Sassenach ..." He unclasped her bra and let it drop to the floor. "I'll keep ye warm."

He undid her jeans and slid his hands inside to cup her buttocks, pulling her in and dipping his head forward to lock their mouths together, obliterating all thoughts and reason with each expert sensual slide of his tongue. He groaned into her mouth, and she could barely remain upright from the onslaught of feeling and need, an intoxicating, heart-stopping desire that made every part of her body scream. 

When they broke apart, she shakily toed off her shoes as he impatiently tugged at her waistband, sliding down her panties along to expose her most intimate part, glad she'd made time for a bit of body pampering. It was a decision she'd made on a whim, thanks to Annalise's cajoling to accompany her to the beauty salon. In all her life, she'd never once considered doing it since she'd always been the type to keep the 70s vibe alive in her pants. The loose string of curses he uttered and the shudder that passed through his body told her the pain, and the effort had not been in vain. "Ah, Christ, Sassenach, nae wonder ye're cold, ye're all bare down there." 

She didn't know whether to die of embarrassment, laugh, or hit him on the head for that remark. But those feelings were only fleeting when he shoved down his boxer briefs and fisted his heavy erection, his head dropping down to her neck to rain kisses on a sensitive spot he knew so well. "I don't want a condom between us, Sassenach," he said hoarsely. "I want ye to know I'm clean, and I'm serious about us. But if ye're not on a pill, I'll put one on for ye."

Her head lolled to the side, his hot breath on her skin making her breathless and unable to think straight. "It's alright. I'm on a pill. I want to feel all of ye. There's only been you ...you know that."

"Sweet, Jesus." With one swift motion, he lifted her, her legs automatically encircling around his waist. He crushed her against the wall, the force of it causing a hanging art to drop to the floor. Both of them vaguely noticed, only focused on getting as close to one another as possible. She palmed the wall behind her with one hand for balance as he lifted her higher to take her nipple into his mouth, tongue flicking and teasing at the sensitive bud, making her moan. She threw her head back and arched, her fingers tangling into his hair.

"C-can't wait. Please. Now. Jamie!" she commanded, clawing his back.

He hauled her from the wall and strode over to the sofa, almost toppling over Rollo's rope toy. Then he shoved the box seat with his knee, and a pile of books with his game consoles spilt onto the rug. 

His laughter blew out on a puff of warm breath, stirring strands of curls that rested on her cheek. "Sorry, Sassenach," he mumbled, carefully stepping over the scattered heaps. 

"Don't care ...just want you."

He dropped onto the sofa and eased her on his lap to straddle him. Every inch of her skin prickled and thrummed as his fingers traced the curves of her breasts and hips.

"Jesus, I've missed this ...us like this," he murmured into her ears. "Look at ye, so bloody beautiful, and ye're mine."

His words rang in her ears. She had to force herself to stop fidgeting as he skated his hands along her thighs to her backside, drawing her nearer to his hardness. She could feel the heat of his erection against the softness of her belly and his fingertips igniting her skin anywhere he touched. Her reserve vanished when he gently pulled her in for another deep kiss, their simultaneous moan rending the atmosphere and every neuron in her brain shorting out. 

She broke their kiss, gasping for air, and he stared at her with barely constrained desperation, lifting her by the waist as she held on to his shoulders. Guided by his strong hands, she slowly lowered herself onto his thick length, inch by inch, their mouths dropping open and exchanging breaths. When their bodies locked together like two halves of a whole, they stared at each other in wonderment, sharing a mutual appreciation of the fact that their lust-filled late-night phone conversations paled in comparison to the reality of blinding pleasure.

Unable to take her eyes away from his face - the face of a man who bore so much weight on his shoulders, she tightened her muscles around him, extracting a broken groan to pass his lips. She wanted to be the one who eased his burden, take away all his guilt and anxiety and rid him of his nightmares. He'd been through a lot and, while she had a vague idea of the extent of it, a man who's about honour and duty was good to the core. Looking at his tortured expression, an intense ache bloomed to life again.

"I love you, James Fraser," she whispered, digging her fingernails on his shoulders and working her hips in rhythm to his upward drive.

Jamie made a hoarse sound and pulled her down to brush his lips against hers. "I love ye too, Sassenach. Not being with ye, even for a day …it hurts so much." Lightning slashed through the room, and she saw his handsome face shadowed, his hair dishevelled from her desperate fingers. "Christ, a man like me should have to barter his soul to the devil to have someone like ye. But ye love me. Yer love is everything, and ye're saving this dark soul. What have I done to deserve ye?" he rasped on a harsh exhale.

Claire wanted to tell him he didn't have to change anything to deserve her. She loved everything about him, even that dark side he harboured. Together they could work things out. She hoped she communicated that with her eyes before he lowered his face into the crook of her neck and started bucking into her in rough strokes, his broken versions of her name on his lips.

The rain continued to drum against the windows, turning Jamie's cottage into their own private world where they were the only two people who existed. "Jamie," she whimpered, tugging the hair at the nape of his neck. He squeezed her bottom before lightly smacking it, grunting deep in his throat as she rocked against him at a faster pace. "Oh, God, I'm going to come. It feels so good."

Jamie reared with sharper and faster thrusts, answering every grind of her hips, and she sobbed, bracing herself on his shoulders. "Christ, Sassenach. Ah, fuck!" He lowered his head to suck her nipples, making her seized up around him.

Her pleasure exploded, vivid and bright, and when her thigh muscles slackened, Jamie surged up into her heat for the final time and roared, their peak vibrating between them with such force, her lungs were robbed of air, and her vision dimmed. There was nothing but their love spilling from their hearts. They clung to each other for a long while as the sound of rain switched from loud drumming to a pitter-patter, their mouths engaging in a slow, mating dance, their hearts beating closely together as if it sought to merge into one.

As their hearts calmed and their breathing slowed down, Jamie wrapped his arms around her to nestle his head in her neck. The sound of rain against the roof echoed through the cottage, and they remained motionless for a long time. When they did move, it's only because Jamie was aroused again, and their second time around ended up leaving trails of shambles and mess. A floor lamp and a vase were knocked over, and Rollo's basket bed accidentally kicked to the other side of the room. By the time they made it into his bedroom, a curtain had been yanked down, and apples rolled off the bowl on the dining table, leaving the living room in a state of disarray.

After another rigorous bout of lovemaking, they both collapsed into each other's arms. As they regained their breaths, Jamie released a satisfied sigh before closing his eyes with a smile. There was enough time for a talk later. But right now, all she wanted was to relish being cocooned in the warmth and safety of his arms. 

"Jamie?" she murmured as his breathing evened out. 

"Aye?" He was barely conscious, and she couldn't help but grin as she listened to the soothing beat of his heart beneath her ear. 

"You're definitely a keeper."

She watched as the sweetest smile formed on his tired but handsome face until sleep finally claimed him.

..........

Jamie had awoken earlier with Claire snuggled into him, their skin a wee bit sticky and damp from their body heat and yesterday's marathon sex. Coming out of a deep slumber had more to do with his thickening arousal than the internal body clock and the birds' chirping outside. It had made him wonder if his desire for Claire would ever wane, but it was quite apparent, after last night, he was still left with wanting more. But he'd let her sleep, knowing they both had jobs to attend to.

After they had awoken sometime during the night, they'd raided the fridge for something to eat and then went straight back to bed to talk about their work and their plans for today. Their energetic bed activity had left them depleted, but the intimacy of holding each other while conversing in the dark had restored his soul, resulting in a deep, restful sleep.

Although he'd told Willie he would come late to work, Jamie felt so well-rested, he'd decided to start early and let Claire do her own thing. It was a good idea, too, because after the freak storm yesterday, there were quite a few trees that had been damaged and needed to be cut down or remove for safety purposes. And Claire had many things to sort out, like getting in touch with some bloke for her boss' publishing company. 

He was working behind the village church, the area bordered with hawthorn, rowan and alder trees. He and Willie had already safely removed one of the damaged trees threatening to collapse on the church's roof and was just about to start uprooting a rotted tree stump when his godfather, Murtagh, came out of nowhere. It wasn't unusual seeing him there. It was part of his godfather's duty, as he called it, to pop up once in a while to check up on any of the Frasers.

"Ach, there ye are," Murtagh greeted with a half-smile. "Willie told me I'd find ye here." He took out a thermos flask from his rucksack and began to unscrew the top. "I thought I'd stop by and see what ye're up to. Heard the Beauchamp lass is back."

He wiped the sweat off his brows. "Aye, Claire's back. Picked her up yesterday."

Murtagh poured some tea into the thermos' cup and handed it to him. "Sounds like it's serious between the two of ye." He winked as Jamie gratefully took the cup and sipped the hot brew. "If she's anything like her mother, I'd be careful not to let her slip away. I made that mistake once, lad ...dinnae let that happen to ye too."

He frowned as he recalled seeing Harry at Inverness airport yesterday. "About that ...ye mentioned once over dinner that ye knew Claire's father, Harry ...I mean, Henry."

"Aye ...Henry, that prick, bless his soul," Murtagh muttered before making a sign of the cross. "I thought he was my mate. Did ye ken that pillock stole my  burd  from right under my nose?"

"I remember ye saying that. But tell me more about Henry."

"Ye were probably too young to remember." Murtagh shifted on his feet and shoved his hands into his jeans' pockets. "Before he met and married Jules ... Claire's mother, that is, we were the best of mates and hanged out a lot in the pub whenever he was here. Sometimes we'd take ye and Willie along when we went fishing or hiking. While I concentrated on teaching Willie how to hook a worm, Henry would be showing ye how to throw a pebble on the surface of the water. Or how to start a fire with sticks. Stuff like that. I could see from early on he was fond of ye."

Jamie searched his memory bank for that particular image, but he found none. "I have vague memories about fishing ..aye, but ye've taken Willie and me out with a lot of yer mates, especially summer when school was out." He wiped his dirt streak hands down the thighs of his jeans. "But I cannae seem to recall Henry."

"Hmmm ...nae wonder." Murtagh dragged a booted foot back and forth on the dirt. "It wasnae a pleasant memory the last time ye saw him." He swallowed hard as he looked into the distance. "After Henry married Jules, I didnae hear from them again. And it was a good thing too, because I think I would have given him a right good pounding after what he did. I dinnae think they would ever return, and I was surprised because they both loved this place and had made quite a few friends here ...even before they met."

Feeling the cold chill on his neck, Jamie turned up his sleeveless jacket's collar and zipped up his front. "So what happened the last time I saw him?"

Murtagh puffed out a breath. "The last time ye saw Henry, he was in a car accident ...with his family."

"What?" he choked.

Murtagh turned tired-looking eyes on him, and there was a deep sadness in them that startled him. "It was the day they were coming back to Broch Mordha for the first time in years. I heard talks around the village that they've rented a wee cottage from Mrs Baird. And also heard words about a wean. I didnae want to stick around to find out. I thought I'd take a wee trip to Skye and stay there until Henry and his family were gone. I was just packing when ye came barging into my hoose tellin me that a car had smashed to a tree. I came running oot like a gudgeon with ye right behind me. Ye must have been nine or ten. It wasnae far from where I lived then. By the time I got there, Henry was still alive, and Jules was unconscious. He ordered me to get the bairn first and then Jules. My first thoughts were to save Jules, but the wee child was screaming, and Henry was begging me to save her. Between the two of us, we managed to get wee Claire oot, and I ordered ye to take her as far as possible from the site. And that ye did. But I couldnae save Harry and Jules because the car caught fire and Henry lost consciousness. When I smelt gasoline, I had to run, and that's when the car exploded."

"Oh dear Lord." Jamie fell a step back as faint memories flying about like bits of a jigsaw puzzle flooded his brain, his mind struggling to fit the pieces together. Every time he managed to recall something, he couldn't hold on to it long enough to construct that day's event. 

He had so many questions and wanted to ask Murtagh more but drew up short when the crew of workmen, working for him and Willie rounded the church. Four sets of eyes landed on them, greeting them with a nod and grunt. Thinking this was not the place to discuss such things, Jamie cleared his throat and shook his head, his way of telling Murtagh they'll discuss this another time.

Murtagh grabbed his shoulder as he turned to pick up his equipment. "Look, lad," Murtagh began in a low voice. "Ye probably cannae remember because ye were so traumatised that day that ye're ma made ye attend some counselling. It took a year for ye to get over it. For as long as I've known ye, ye have this tendency to bury pain and grief. Just do me a favour, alright. Leave the past in the past. Talk to Claire about it by all means, but for fuck sake, dinnae tell yer ma I told ye. She'd be on my case like a rash. She thinks ye got enough on yer plate ever since ye came back from the Middle East without me dumping this on ye. Are we clear?"

Jamie nodded and watched his godfather turn around and leave. Claire's parents' accident wasn't news to him, but the fact that he had apparently been a witness, it was just too mind-boggling beyond words. It's hard enough to reconcile that there's a possibility he'd been communicating with a ghost for the past year and a half, and now, with Murtagh's latest revelation, he felt like he's going to implode with bafflement.

Mentally shaking himself, he banished any further thoughts about Harry and concentrated on doing as much job as possible to be with Claire sooner. Operating heavy machinery while his mind was elsewhere was dangerous. So he poured his concentration onto work.

Later that day, when he returned to the cottage, Jamie found Claire sat at the dining table with her laptop on, her dark curls tied loosely in a bun. There was a fire going already in the hearth and his home smelled of cooking. She sat cross-legged on the chair, and he realised she was talking to someone via video conference. Not wanting to disturb her, he quietly shut the door. But Claire had already seen him and beckoned him over with a motion of her hand.

She got up from the chair and stood on tiptoes to give him a kiss. "You're just in time," Claire smiled. "I'd like you to meet someone."

He returned the kiss and pulled her in close, inhaling her sweet clean smell. "I hope it's not yer boss."

She tugged his hand and laughed. "No, don't be silly."

He leaned down to look at her laptop, but there was no one there. Instead, a little rectangle showed him in the corner of the screen, making him winced when he saw his own image. He looked like he'd been hauled through a thicket in the rain and his hair laid around his face in thick, damp clumps. It was definitely not the first impression he would have chosen for meeting anyone associated with Claire. 

"Umm, Sassenach, naebody's there," he said, looking at her.

"Just hang fire," she replied, stealing another kiss from him.

He smiled. And when he finally glanced back down at the laptop, he nearly choked. Right there on the screen, peering up at him, was a cantankerous-looking, crocodile Dundee version of Harry. Same eyes, the same face, and though a handsome fellow, this man's skin looked weather-beaten, and he had a scary scowl on his face.

"Jamie," Claire giggled. "I'd like you to meet my uncle ...Quentin Lambert Beauchamp, also known as uncle Lamb. Uncle Lamb, this is Jamie, James Fraser ...my boyfriend. I'm staying with him at his place for at least a week."

"Is that right?" the man on the screen harumphed with a growl as he stuck a thick cigar between his teeth. "Not what I was expecting."

Ah, holy fuck!  Though uncle Lamb looked like Harry, Jamie knew this man was nothing like Harry. Harry was ...or had been a polite, refined and jolly ol' chap with a very posh accent. This man was far from the polished look Harry presented. This man looked like he'd seen the world and confronted danger and probably wrestled crocodiles as a hobby. Convincing uncle Lamb that he's good enough for Claire was not going to be a walk in a park. Jamie knew he had a long evening ahead as he gingerly sat down in front of Claire's laptop and braced himself.

Jamie cleared his throat and sat up straight. "Good evening, sir ..."

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Jamie had a dream. It was unlike any other dreams he had before.

He was cycling down a road, the cold wind stinging his cheeks, a plastic container of pastries in one hand. Excitement rose within as he followed the familiar route to Murtagh's house, huffing and puffing when he picked up speed. He was dropping off his ma's freshly baked treats to his godfather, hoping Murtagh would have time to go fishing.

An ear-splitting screech of brakes echoed in the air, along with mangling metal crashing and twisting. 

He stopped. The plastic container dropped from his hand, and his bike collapsed to the ground. He began walking towards the crash site, sensing with every step, he was nearing a metamorphic truth that would change him forever.

Despite the trepidation mounting in his chest, he couldn't stop moving towards the wreck. He quickened his pace and then began to jog, and then he ran. Faster and faster. 

He ran until the breath whooshed out from his lungs in burning gasps, and he slowed to a standstill in front of the harrowing scene that was before him.

The wind picked up, and the clouds dimmed the sun. The acrid stench of burnt rubber and engine oil filled his nostrils. A familiar face appeared through the cracked windshield, calling out his name in desperation. For a second, his heart ceased to beat, and his breath caught in his throat.

Harry?

"Save her ...please ..." 

The plea struck his ears, and he tried to move, but he was stuck on the spot. He twisted his body and stretched out his arms, willing his feet to budge, straining and grunting and chanting a soundless prayer for strength. A piercing scream jolted him out from his struggle, unfettering him from the invisible force holding him in place, almost tumbling over from the abrupt release. He realised they were cries from a child.

He moved towards the car and wrenched the back door open, seemingly the only side still intact from the collision. A child, no more than the age of five with angry red blotches on her cheeks and wild curls, was restrained by the seatbelts. Her pudgy wee arms were outstretched as she screamed on top of her lungs, crying out for her mummy.

He stared in disbelief, immobilised by the uncertainty of his next course of action. 

"Save her, Jamie ..." He glanced up to see Harry's face contorted in pain, eyes imploring. "There's not enough time."

"But ..."

"Go! Take her with you ...Now!"

Spurred by adrenaline and fear, heart pounding against his chest, he began to move. He unfastened the strap across the wean's body and grabbed her from the seat. Wee arms and legs wrapped around him as he spun around and headed for the moor. Holding tight to his bundle, one hand bracing the tiny head pressed against his neck, he ran as fast as he could. When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw Harry watching him through the window and then the car exploded.

Jamie woke up lurching upright to a sitting position, his top clinging to his clammy skin and his heart racing like a freight train. Swallowing air in big gulps, he yanked off the duvet and swung his legs out of bed, trying to even his breathing. Then he began to shake as he heard the distant roar from the deep recesses of his brain, and the floodgates of memories swung open in vivid hues. It came in massive waves, raising recollections and visions to the surface that had been submerged under the basement of time. A deluge of dispersed images merged into one, and a stream of realisation emerged. Suddenly everything was as clear as day. Everything that Murtagh had told him of Claire's parents earlier was now clicking into place.  The child they'd rescued that fateful day was Claire!  Except, in his dream, he'd been the only one to save her.

A cold shiver passed through him when a suppressed but very visual memory of Harry sprung into his head just before the car had exploded. Harry had just regained consciousness and had looked straight at Jamie with a sobbing wee Claire tight in his arms, the look on his face branding his consciousness forever. Though it had been relief carved out on the doomed man's face in knowing Claire would live, it had done nought to appease his soul. He glanced over at the woman beside him. She slept peacefully, her soft snores confirming she hadn't been affected by his fitful sleep.

Reliving the sequence of that event, he remembered now how the horror of that day had haunted him. It had been so bad, he'd been coerced to attend counselling by his mother. Too young to process Harry's demise, he'd literally felt on the edge of a nervous breakdown. After a year of refusing to talk about the ordeal, he'd shifted his focus elsewhere to stop the nightmares. There had been this unabating need to atone for Claire's parents' death, the urge to help and protect growing like a snowball, morphing into an avalanche to flatten and destroy any unpleasant memories and replace them with something good. He'd rescued animals and sheltered them in his father's barn. He'd defended kids against bullies at school. He'd volunteered for causes that involved helping the vulnerable. He'd enlisted to be part of the British Armed Forces, hoping to make a difference to the plights of those afflicted. He'd even gone as far as making a promise to his dying friend, killed in action during his SAS days. Jamie had felt so guilty for his inability to protect his best mate, Simon, he'd asked his friend's widow to marry him. Though thankful now the marriage had never taken place after having met Claire, his efforts to appease his guilt had been a struggle. All these years, he'd buried the horrors of war, the memory of losing Simon and images of Harry going up in flames with layers of what he'd thought were reparations. But what he hadn't known, his failings continued to fester below the surface. It was like a wound that refused to heal.

Had Murtagh's revelation triggered the suppressed memories to resurface? Or did it have something to do with his conversation with Claire's uncle Lamb? His mind wandered to their discussion earlier.

"Jamie," Claire giggled. "I'd like you to meet my uncle ...Quentin Lambert Beauchamp, also known as uncle Lamb. Uncle Lamb, this is Jamie, James Fraser ...my boyfriend. I'm staying with him for at least a week."

"Is that right?" the man on the screen harumphed with a growl as he stuck a thick cigar between his teeth. "Not what I was expecting."

Jamie disregarded the not so subtle dig. "Good evening, sir ..." he began.

Claire laughed. "Don't call him that, Jamie. It's too weird!" She glanced over her shoulder as she walked away. "If he's giving you "the look," don't worry. Uncle Lamb is all bluster."

"I heard that," uncle Lamb grumbled.

"Play nice, then!" she shouted from the kitchen.

Jamie eyed the man on the screen and squared his shoulders. He wished he'd been more prepared for this or at least looked presentable. Instead, he resembled a drowned cat after just having arrived home from work. Claire hadn't told him much about uncle Lamb and wondered if she'd said anything about him to the older man. 

He stared at Harry's look alike.  Does uncle Lamb ever smile? Or is that scowl permanently etched on his face?  He wasn't sure. Maybe it had something to do with that cigar hanging loosely in his mouth.

Sizing him up, Jamie presumed they're roughly the same breadth, and if uncle Lamb was anything like Harry in stature, they should be the same height too. It's a good thing they were meeting via video conference. If they had been facing each other in person, he might be less inclined to shake hands, seeing how the older man looked like he was capable of committing murder.

An amused Claire came gliding out of the kitchen with a bottle of beer, seemingly unfazed by tension emanating from her laptop screen. "Don't mind his mood, Jamie," she chirped. "He's just grouchy because five of his men came down with food poisoning. And work is being delayed again." 

Uncle Lamb growled. "Don't remind me."

Claire wagged a finger at her uncle before kissing Jamie on the forehead and handing him the bottle. "I'll go prepare dinner."

He took a deep breath as he watched her head back to the kitchen. Uncle Lamb could frown all he wanted. Ultimately, if need be, he would go through twenty uncle Lambs to show the world how serious he was about his relationship with Claire. 

Jamie noticed the older man watching him very closely. 

"So how are ye?"

"I don't like surprises," Quentin announced, obviously wanting to get straight to the point.

"Neither do I," he returned. Facing off each other for a few silent seconds, Jamie deliberately took a slow slug of his beer. He placed the bottle back down on the table and wiped his lips with the back of his hand.   "But surprises are nothing new to me. I was trained to be prepared against any surprises," he added, referring to his SAS past .  

Quentin ignored the remark. "Claire told me ..." He leaned forward and rolled his khaki sleeves up, exposing tanned sinewy, muscular arms. "...you met just before Christmas."

"That's right, sir ...I mean unc ...I mean Quentin." The older man raised an eyebrow at him, and Jamie raised one back. 

"Things seem to be moving along. Fast!"

"Claire and I have acknowledged that."

"She was there with you only a few weeks ago for her holidays. She's just got back to work. Did you persuade her to come back?"

"She's got a mind of her own."

"Are you serious about her?"

Jamie tried not to look rattled as the older man bombarded him with questions. It was only natural to be concerned about his niece. "Aye, I built her a shed."  Ach shite, wrong answer  ...w hat the fuck was that, ye clot-heid?  He felt like kicking himself.

Quentin watched him in stony silence. "A shed?"

He inhaled deeply, careful not to show any signs of frustration. "Actually, it's a writing studio," he explained, feeling the heat crawling up his neck. "For when Claire comes over for a visit. She can work undisturbed there. I've even soundproofed the walls, and it's been comfortably furnished ." 

Quentin said nothing. Instead, he slowly placed the cigar on the ashtray, raised his brandy snifter to his lips and drank.

Determined, Jamie pushed on. "Claire has handed her notice to her boss, and once her commitments in London are done, she'll be moving here ...to Broch Mordha." He tamped down the rising emotion from his throat as he thought of Claire preparing dinner for him in the kitchen. "Look, I may not look like the man ye hoped for, for yer niece, but ye dinnae ken me. I admit I come with a lot of baggage, but I'm working hard on it, and she's helped me tremendously in dealing with ..." He trailed off. He didn't want to pull the PTSD card out. This was about Claire, he reminded himself. "I ken her history. I ken she's moved a lot, lived in boarding schools, nae home to go to during the holidays, following ye half-way around the world when school's out. She told me she's never felt any sense of belonging anywhere ..." Quentin glanced away. "I want ye to know, I willnae be just another stopover for Claire. And even if she has to travel long distances to visit ye, she'll always have a place to return to. I have roots here, and I can give her..."

Quentin crossed his arms. "Give her what?"

Jamie cleared his throat. "What I'm trying to say is, I'm serious about taking our relationship further. As ye can see, she's staying here in my home until she goes back to London. Though there is this unspoken understanding between Claire and me, I dinnae want to be presumptuous ..." Jamie rolled his head to ease the tension in his neck. "...in thinking, she will move in with me when she relocates here to Broch Mordha. But I plan on asking her. And it would be verrae nice if ye could give yer blessing and ..."

He shook his head. "No!" His grin was more like a baring of his cigar-stained teeth. "Ask me again in a year."

Jamie ran a hand through his hair. "All due respect, I ken she will say yes when I ask. And I ken she's stubborn enough to make up her own decisions with or without yer blessing. But I'd rather I have it ...for all our sakes. I'm no' sure if ye are aware, but I have my own business that I share with my brother, I own a house, I have no mortgage, and I make enough to provide for both of us with enough left for savings. She can pursue her dream of writing to her heart's content without worrying about finances."

"You overlook the fact that she's a city girl. What if her writing career never takes off? What are her possibilities in the Highlands?"

"Oh, but it will take off. I have faith it will. She's very passionate about pursuing her dream, and rightly so, because she's a talented writer. I can attest to that because I've read one of her finished works."

Quentin's face softened just a tiny bit. "You have?"

"Aye, I have," he hedged. "Claire should have published her work ages ago, and I plan to encourage her to do just that. Her writing would be a wonderful gift to the world."

"You're doing a lot for someone you barely know."

"Quentin," Jamie sighed, swallowing his exasperation. "I'm in love with yer niece. I'm aware everything between us is happening fast, and I dinnae suppose there is a timeframe or formula to follow when it comes to relationships. I'm just winging this and going along with my guts. And my guts are telling me Claire is the one. I still cannae believe someone like her is even real and that she loves me back. I sometimes wonder if I'm dreaming. She brings the best out of me, and I want to do the same for her. So if helping her realise her dreams is all I have to do to keep her, that's what I'll do." 

A few heartbeats of silence and watching each other closely passed before Quentin spoke again. "What did you say your last name was? I didn't quite catch it."

Ach, Christ, he's gonnae do a background check on me!  "Fraser," Jamie replied. 

The older man let out an impatient grunt. "Yes, yes, but which Fraser do you belong to? There are a lot of Frasers in the Highlands." 

"My parents are Brian and Ellen Fraser," he replied, resisting the urge to roll his eyes.

Quentin's brows knitted together, and his stubbled jaw flexed twice. "You mean Brian and Ellen from Lallybroch?"

Jamie shifted in his seat. "Ye know them?"

"And you're Jamie?" Quentin asked, ignoring his question.

Confusion descended over Jamie as he saw the transformation in Quentin's face. "Aaaye," he said slowly and deliberately.  Where in the bloody hell is this going to, now?

"And Claire wants to move in with you?"

"As I've said, I havenae asked her, but I think she would like the idea of us living together. It would make perfect sense since we do love each other."

He grabbed the cigar and pointed the tip in his direction. "You have my blessings." Ignoring Jamie's sharp intake of breath, he tipped back the rest of his brandy. "Conditions are, there should be once a week phone-calls. Video or facetime ones or whatever you call it. And when I'm on British soil ..."

Jamie suddenly straightened up on his seat. "We'll visit, or ye can come and stay with us." 

Quentin shot up on his feet. "Very well then, welcome to the family, Fraser. Go and get your dinner ...you wouldn't want your wife ..." he coughed, his face turning red. "...I mean your girlfriend reheating what she's just lovingly made."

Jamie got up as well, ready to shut the laptop, relief and confusion at the sudden turn around washing over him in waves.  What the fuck just happened?  Too bewildered for words, "Of course," was all he could muster. 

Quentin hesitated, as if in search of the right words, his throat working overtime. When he finally spoke, Jamie couldn't help but hear the emotion in the older man's voice. "If Claire's father was alive today, he would think his daughter has made a fine choice."

His jaw dropped involuntarily. "He would?" 

There was no reply. Too shell shocked, Jamie stood there staring at the screen for a full minute, long after Quentin had signed off.

When Claire reappeared from the kitchen, she launched herself into his arms and whispered, "Hungry?" 

His bewilderment evaporated, happiness shrouding around him in such a way he knew everything was going to be alright.

Puffing out a breath, Jamie shoved a hand through his hair and made his way to the bathroom. He knew he wouldn't be going back to sleep for a while, so he might as well washed off those vivid dreams of Harry and clear his thoughts of that conversation with uncle Lamb. He felt like he was living in the Twilight Zone and badly needed to get his equilibrium back.

The silence of the night closed in around him until the soothing spray of the shower hit his skin. He wondered if Claire would remember anything from her parents' accident. She'd mentioned a couple of times, she had been five when they passed away. Considering that Claire was now in a happy place, content and well-adjusted, it was probably not the brightest of ideas to conjure up her past. But then, on the other hand, he suspected she might want to know what had happened that day. After all, she did have the right to know her history, no matter how painful. 

The image of Claire's bright amber eyes and husky laughter flashed in his mind. 

Jamie sighed, turned off the shower, and quickly dried himself off. When he realised Claire wasn't in bed, he made his way to the kitchen. He quietened his pace when he found her dropping teabags into two mugs, wearing only his t-shirt and a pair of woollen socks. She didn't hear him approach at first, looking deep in thought as she waited for the kettle to boil.

Moonlight streamed in through the kitchen window, creating a halo out of the wisps of curls framing her face, the whole scene reminding him she was everything he wasn't, a shining light where he watched her in the shadows.  Sorcha!  A force within spurred him towards her, needing to touch that light, hoping it wouldn't fade with his damaged soul.

"It's late, Sassenach. What are ye doing up?" he asked, walking towards the fridge.

"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!" she jumped, hands flying to her chest. She tucked a loose curl behind her ears and faced him with a sigh, a small smile slowly forming her lips. "You weren't in bed, so I thought you probably had one of your nightmares. I'm making us some chamomile tea. It helps with sleep and relaxation."

He wasn't sure if this was the time to tell Claire about his dreams, so he dismissed it with a wave of a hand and smiled. "Just a strange dream. Is that one of yer herbal remedies?" he asked, stirring the subject to something neutral.

She lifted a shoulder. "Something like that."

He opened the fridge and found a rainbow of colours of fruits, vegetables, yoghurts and juices. Claire hadn't been kidding when she'd said she went food shopping today. Obviously, root vegetables, eggs, cheese and a container of hummus he'd bought wasn't enough. Smiling, he grabbed a pear and shut the fridge door. "Do pears go with chamomile tea?" 

Her face lit up, making his heart expand. "I suppose so." She poured hot water into the mugs and brought their teas to the dining table, Jamie following close behind her. "And it's good for you. You ought to eat more fruits."

"But you bought enough pears to feed an entire village, Sassenach," he pointed out, biting into the succulent fruit.

Claire giggled as she sat down. "The other bag of pears are for the sticky toffee pear pudding I'm going to make. Uncle Lamb loves making it for me whenever he comes over for a visit. So I thought I'd make some for us. He told me the recipe he uses was from my mum."

The way she smiled fondly at the memory made him want to draw her into his arms, but he took a seat instead. "With pears? I've only ever had normal sticky toffee pudding," he said, sipping some tea. "My ma makes it sometimes."

Her eyes twinkled. "I was told my mum loved to bake. And apparently, according to uncle Lamb, my favourite was cream buns."

Curiosity started to niggle in his belly at the mention of Claire's mother, even though he rebelled against it.  Is this the time to talk about the death of her parents?  Before he could change his mind, he came straight out with it. "Sorry to change the subject, Sassenach, but I have something to ask. What made ye come to the Highlands every Christmas?" he asked. "Ye mentioned once, ye like coming here during the Holidays. I mean, it's a great place to spend Christmas and all, but is there a particular reason?"

For a long moment, she stared at him with a faraway look. He realised he was holding his breath, half of him already regretting asking the question. There was a possibility her answer could lead to resurrecting a tragic event and snuffing the light out of her. And he needed to bask in her light some more. What was he thinking?  Leave the past in the past,  Murtagh had told him. He didn't know what lay on the other side of bringing up her parents' death. Either way, Claire didn't need to be dragged down with a sad memory. 

Feeling suddenly foolish, he put down the pear he was eating and reached out to touch her hand. "Ye know what. Dinnae answer that. It's getting late. The tea is working its magic already, and I think I'm ready to go to bed."

A delicate frown marred her brows. "Are you sure you don't want to know?"

Am I sure? No, not really.  "Go on, tell me then."

She suddenly beamed like the light that she was. "The reason why I love coming back to the Highlands every year is, this is the place where my parents met and fell in love. I'm not quite sure where exactly, but it was somewhere around here. As far as I know, the Highlands was their happy place where they made loads of happy memories and great friends, and every time I come here, it makes me feel closer to them. You might find it odd, but I do feel most at peace here. There's something that draws me to come every year. Call it gravitational pull or whatever. But it feels like it's my parents' way of sharing their happiness with me. Am I making any sense?"

His breath of relief released in a slow rush, lightness invading his chest, as he realised she didn't remember anything of her parents' death. Or at least he presumed so. But, if it's his burden to carry the truth of Claire's parents' death alone, so be it. Why bring up something dark that has no place in their lives anymore?  Maybe one day ...in the far future.  Her hand still in his, he stood up, pulling her to her feet before lifting her into his arms. She squealed in surprise. "It doesnae matter if it makes sense or no', Sassenach. If it feels right to ye, then it must mean something. Who knows, maybe the reason ye're probably drawn to the Highlands is that ye were conceived here. Have ye ever thought of that?" 

Claire slipped her arms around his neck and smiled. "Or maybe ..." she leaned in to nibble at his earlobe. "...because I was drawn to ye. Have you ever thought of that?"

Jamie laughed as he started to walk them towards the bedroom. "C'mon off to bed with ye ...I have an early start tomorrow."

Claire eyed him mischievously as she snuggled closer. "To bed or to sleep?"

With a guttural groan, he lowered his head, brushing their lips together as he gave his answer in kisses.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Claire sat at her desk in her newly built writing studio, contemplating what to do about Thomas Christie next. For the past couple of days, she'd attempted to reach the elusive blogger by all means of communication: phone calls, email, comments on his posts and private messages in his Instagram and blog account. But her efforts, to her frustration, were to no avail. She'd even asked around the village for information on his whereabouts, but each answer led to nowhere. Though he had a resident address, it's quite apparent he wasn't in. She'd thought of asking Jamie for help but decided not to. It was her project, and she's determined she would accomplish it with her own research skills.

Sighing, she leaned back against her seat and stared at the ceiling. Her boss, John, was counting on her to convince Christie to publish with Dreamweaver Publishing, and so far, she had nothing to show. Looking out the window facing the open fields, her gaze settled on the tractor bumpily navigating a small ragged lane, the rumbling of the engine soundless. She smiled. True to his words, Jamie had more than adequately soundproofed her workspace, shutting out any distracting noise. But with no sign of life from Christie, her work had been brought to a standstill.

Ah, hell!  Claire glanced at the time. It was already mid-morning, and she'd been sat there staring blankly at Christie's blog all morning. What to do, what to do?  She switched tabs on her browser and looked at his Instagram account, and realised he'd just posted a photo circa a minute ago. She decided to strike while he was online and send a message. Go for it, Beauchamp!  With huge calming breaths, she rolled her shoulders and began to type, her fingers flying over the keyboard.

Hello Mr Thomas Christie. My name is Claire Beauchamp from Dreamweaver Publishing Company, London. I have been trying to reach you for the last couple of days to offer you a proposal that may be of interest to you. Some time ago, we came across your blog, and after having read through the content, we've come to realise it has an enormous potential to become the ultimate guidebook to the Scottish Highlands in print. Your knowledge, passion, and enthusiasm for Scotland and your keen eye for photography have captured the public interest, our company and myself included. We'd love to assist you in reaching your highest potential and expanding an even broader following should you be interested in authoring a book. I will be in Broch Mordha for the next few days if you wish to speak to me in person, and I will be more than delighted to explain the details. Any feedback you can give me at this point would be highly appreciated. Best regards, Claire.

Thinking Christie would appreciate the option, she included her phone number and her professional email address and then clicked send. After going over her message, she randomly liked his posts and commented on a recent photo for good measure, hoping it would be enough to get his attention. Oh, please answer this time!

Satisfied for now she'd done everything she could, she decided to make a coffee. She was just about to get up when her phone rang, making her jump in the process. Oh, sweet Mother of God!  She must be more on edge than she thought. Clearing her throat, she gingerly tapped the answer button on her screen.

"Hello?" she squeaked. Damn it! I sound weird. 

"Miss Beauchamp?" a deep, heavily accented voice answered. "Thomas Christie here."

"Mr Christie! You called!"

"Please, call me Tom. I'm no' much for convention and formalities. May I call ye Claire? If that's alright."

"Of course," she smiled, regaining back some semblance of composure. She'd already prepared a presentation in her head, but looking back now, it sounded like a pitch from a realtor selling a million-pound property. She reminded herself, Thomas Christie was a nature buff and liked to live an uncomplicated life, if not minimally, when travelling around Scotland in his restored Westfalia Volkswagen Camper. If she'd learned anything from his posts, it was that he wouldn't be easily persuaded with a promise of fame and monetary gain. There's no option but to start improvising.

"I heard a pretty lass was looking for me," he drawled with a hint of amusement in his voice. "I was informed ye were asking around. At first, I thought ye might have been from the council trying to get hold of me because of my unpaid council taxes. If that had been the case, I would have made an exception and come and paid my dues after seeing the photo my mate has taken of ye. Shame it wasn't a better close-up."

"Photo?"

"Aye, photo. My mate took it when ye werenae looking and sent it to me. Ye are bonnie, I must admit."

"Oh!" Holy, is he flirting?  Claire wouldn't be surprised. This man's charms had drawn quite a lot of female fans to his site, and it was apparent that he's attempting to weave it on her. He probably thrived in his devotees' admiration, making him aware of his own appeal. This kind of cocksure behaviour wasn't a novelty, so she ignored the teasing but attempted to maintain a fairly laidback attitude. "Well, as you can see, I'm not from the council. And if I were, I wouldn't be making a noise about it now, would I?"

He laughed out loud. "You're right. So, what can I do for ye, Claire?"

"Have you read my message?"

"I have," he said quietly. "But I want to hear from ye why ye think my blog would be good enough to be published."

"Well, as I said, your passion and enthusiasm for Scotland are very apparent in your writing. Your words are ... how shall I say it, so visceral. But I'm not going to lie, though. We would need to make a lot of adjustments before we could present it to the mass. A bit of tweaking here and there and ..."

"Tweaking? I thought ye liked my work as it is?"

"Oh, I do," she said hurriedly. "You misunderstood. We wouldn't want to take the essence out of your writing. It's just a process every book has to go through before it's published. Like polishing your sentences, making them smooth and clear, ensuring that they don't have unnecessary phrases and repetition. And of course, there's the design and typesetting ...oh, well, that's for much later on. It's all standard drill in the publishing process."

"I see ..."

When a long silence lapsed, she checked her phone screen to make sure they were still connected.

"Tom?"

"Aye, I'm still here." He took a huge deep breath. "And what's yer role in this, Claire?" 

"I'm the editorial assistant for Dreamweaver, and I'm here to make this proposal and answer all your questions."

"Right ...Weel, ye see, this is my concern. I'm an avid book reader, and while I'm pleased with all the attention my online journal is getting, I highly doubt that my writing would make it among the best selling list, let alone would anyone, for that matter, be too giddy with excitement to buy it. So what's all the fuss?"

The ambiguity in his voice wasn't lost on her. He may be this self-assured, nature-loving, nonconformist bloke as he'd portrayed on his online travel journal. But clearly, some of that attitude needed to rub off on his self-belief for his art.

"Oh, but that's where you're mistaken," she reassured. "My boss, John Grey, is totally sold with the idea of your adventure stories around Scotland, and he thinks with the proper structural development, design and marketing, it would be a hit. Especially with your fans. The concept is refreshing, and it would be different from any travel guides out there. And besides, it would be an excellent boost for Scottish tourism."

He made some muffled noise and then cleared his throat. "What about ye?"

"What about me?"

"Are ye sold on the idea of my blog?"

Part of John's faith in this book's promising prospect clung to Tom's admirable physical qualities. But for her, that wasn't the main selling point.

She straightened up from her seat and leaned over her laptop. With a flick of her wrist, she brought her computer to life and right there on the screen was his Instagram account. She remembered John's words, Sell him the dream!  But she didn't need reminding. Tom may not be the most proficient writer, but his contents were great, especially the picturesque panorama photos. She read a few snippets of his post and smiled.

"Tom ...this opportunity Dreamweaver is offering you would be great exposure for your travel journal. By publishing it in print, you'll be able to reach a broader audience. Your knowledge of this wonderful place is beyond incredible from flora to fauna, the lands' history, the weather phenomenon that can only be termed as typically Scottish ...the whole package is simply amazing. Your passion and enthusiasm for this place make me want to go on that adventure you so love …" She inhaled deeply, searching for the right words. "And I know deep in my guts your future readers would feel the same way. And that's what a great travel book should do, great adventure stories that inspire readers and challenge them to step outside the comfort zone ...even for a little while. This is the kind of book that could encourage people to explore, make them realise that escape from the daily drudgery doesn't mean expensive trips halfway around the world, and that adventure can be found in one's own backyard or a few miles trip down the road. I say you should share this with the world. And to answer your question ...yes, I'm totally sold."

She was out of breath by the time she finished, so she leaned back on her seat and crossed her fingers, hoping for a positive outcome. It was all now down to Tom. She didn't want to push, but the longer the silence between them went on, the more she felt like she was forcing him into a snap decision.

Ah, hell!  "Look, Tom, there's no need to decide right now. You have my number. Why don't you think about it for now and call me up when you've made a decision. How about that?"

"I have a better idea. How about we discuss this further in person before I decide? Let's say ...over a dinner date?" he suggested in a low voice.

The word date resounded loudly in her ear. Oh, dear, God!

She needed to play this right without making it look like she was turning him down. Hoping for the best, she laughed nervously. "Of course, it only seems fair to meet first in person before you decide." She swallowed hard and squeezed her eye shut. "But I would hardly call it a date. We can meet at the Inn's pub in the village square and professionally discuss everything over lunch if that's alright. And just to be clear, I already have a boyfriend." 

"Ah, damn!"

She flinched. "Oh, dear!"

He laughed. "Relaxed, Claire. I get it. Ye're taken, and I'm no' surprised. But ye cannae blame a lad for trying, could ye?"

"N-no, of course not ..."

"So business lunch it is then. I'm away for a few more days, so ye have to wait a bit more. I'll give ye a ring when I get back. How's that?"

Yess!  She made an effort not to sound too relieved. "That's perfect, Tom! I'll see ye in a few days!"

"Great!" Then the line went dead. 

She let out a massive sigh of relief. So damn close!  Feeling elated at the outcome of their conversation, she shot to her feet and did a happy dance. She couldn't wait to call John and tell him everything. If she did her work well and laid out all the finer details of the publishing process and projected outcome, she knew Tom wouldn't be able to turn down the proposal. Invigorated, she immediately went back to work and began typing her outline. Ah, life is good!

..........

Jamie killed the chainsaw engine and pulled down his safety goggles when he caught sight of Jenny's car approaching. He had a bird's eye view of the driveway from the tree and could see everyone's coming and going.  What the bloody hell is she doing here? She didn't usually come to job sites; nevertheless, he decided to come down since it was nearly lunch break. Wondering why her visit couldn't wait until work was done for the day, he gripped on to his harness and made a slow descent.

His sister got out of the car, stopping to greet some of the workers and subtly launching glares at him. Alertness immediately snapped in Jamie's shoulders as he realised something was up. 

He dropped to the ground, his work boots landing on a combination of mulch and wood chips debris. As he laid down his chainsaw, he watched his sister approach and noticed the forced smile she had for the workers a few seconds ago, waning from her face. He braced himself as he waited for her to say something, unease slithering like a snake up his spine. This was definitely not a friendly visit.

"What's this I hear, ye havenae been attending therapy?" she hissed. "Have ye gone, daft?"

He glanced above Jenny's head to see if anyone was watching them before glowering down at her. "For fuck sake, Jen, ye're no' my ma," he said in a low voice. "Whatever's about to spew out of yer mouth, this is no' the time nor the place for this."

"Ach aye? Wait till ma hears about ye missing yer therapy!"

"Oh, what's this? We're back in primary school or what? Rushing off to ma to tell her everything. Why cannae ye give ma and me a break, eh?"

"The therapy is for yer own good!"

"I'm fine, Jen! I told ye that many times! What part of 'I'm fine' cannae ye understand?"

"Ye've been telling everyone that all yer life. Everything's fine ... I'm fine ... dinnae fash," she mimicked his voice, her face scrunching up. "Ye say that all the time even when, in actual fact, most of the time ye werenae. So why do ye suppose I dinnae believe ye?"

Jamie looked up at the sky and let out a massive breath. "Aye, there's truth to what ye say. But this time ...I swear, I've never felt better."

"Bloody hell! All this time, I thought ye've been attending therapy. I wouldnae have known if Geneva hadnae asked after ye."

"Weel, if ye'd asked, I would've told ye!"

"No, you wouldnae. And that's always been yer problem."

Christ, why can't she just shut up?  He glanced up and noticed his men were looking towards them now. He tugged at the neck of his shirt and winded his head. "Jenny, stop! I cannae do this right now."

His sister stepped forward and was right at his face. "Ye think I'm telling ye off for fun? Weel, here's the news. Everyone wants the best for ye, but ye dinnae care, do ye? Ye're acting like one selfish prick!"

"Jenny ..." he warned, feeling hot and cold all at once.

"No, dinnae Jenny me ..."

"Jenny, shut up! I cannae ..."

"Ye could've at least had Geneva assessed ye. Is that too much to ask?"

Jamie shut his eyes. When he opened them again, he realised Jenny's voice had become distorted, and the grating sound of the stump grinder and helicopter whirring above his head grew more punctuated. Without a hint of warning, a bomb suddenly detonated inside Jamie, and his world began to move in slow motion. Seeing nothing but red, he was only vaguely aware that his angry bellow brought everyone in the vicinity to a standstill.

"What the fuck, Jamie!"

Jamie came to his senses when an arm landed across his chest. He realised Willie was standing between him and Jenny. He glanced at his sister, and her expression caused something inside of him to still. He looked down and saw his fists were two rocks, shaking as if prepared to do some severe damage.  Oh, God!

"Jenny ...Willie ..." Jamie whispered. "I ...ah ..."

Hands curled up under her chin, Jenny's eyes were as big as saucers, and she looked terrified. Of me?  His heart nosedived to his boots so swiftly, he wondered how he remained upright. The fury evaporated in an instant, and all that remained was shame. He'd felt that kind of guilt before but never with enough punch to knock the air out of his lungs. For crying out loud, this is my sister. What was I thinking?

"Jen ..." He attempted to reach out to his sister, but Willie's arm restrained him. Realising the cause of his older brother's concern, he forced his fists to unfold, aware of Willie watching closely. "I'm so sorry. Oh, Christ, I wasnae gonnae hurt ye," he rasped. "I could never lift a hand to ye. Ye must know that."

He swallowed a lump when Willie appeared reluctant to let him go. But Jenny patted their brother's arm, nodding to let them know she was alright. When Willie took a cautious step back, Jamie immediately gathered his sister into his arms and cradled her against his chest.

"Jen ...forgive me. I didnae mean to shout," he said thickly. "Ye ken I wouldnae physically hurt ye, aye? For Christ sake, ye're my sister, and I love ye. Ye looked so frightened. I couldnae bear the way ye looked at me ..."

"Jamie ...I wasnae scared of ye ..." Jenny whispered. "I was scared for ye."

He pulled slightly away and searched her face. "What do ye mean?"

"Even though ye've been to war, I ken ye dinnae like fighting and violence. Ye abhorred it. I was scared ye might do something ye might regret and make yer condition worse. I dinnae want that for ye."

Jamie stared down at her. "Jenny ..."

"Look, Jamie. It was my fault. I shouldnae have pushed knowing yer condition, and ye ken what my temper is like when it gets out of control. It's like ..."

"Like mine ..." Jamie finished off for her. Drawing her once more into his embrace, they stood like that for a while. Soothing, apologising and hushing each other.

Willie stared at them and shook his head in disbelief, mumbling a sequence of profanities. It wasn't the first time he'd seen their outburst with such intensity. But it was probably the first time Jamie had seemed out of control. Reassured that peace had been restored, for the time being, Willie spun around and left them alone. Exercising his authority at their workers, the older Fraser barked warnings that gossip coming from their workplace would not be tolerated and anyone found guilty would be subjected to an immediate suspension. And with that, he stomped off, leaving them all to stare at his disappearing form in shock.

..........

"There ye are," a deep voice mused.

Claire jumped, making her slam the fridge door and Adso bolt out of the kitchen. She took a deep breath before turning around. 

"Jamie! You're home early. I was just about to prepare dinner."

"Willie didn't need me for the rest of the afternoon, so he sent me home early." His chest was bare and heaving and glistening with sweat. He must have taken off his top as he came in. "I ran all the way from work. I think I may have far too much energy," he explained, slowly approaching her. His hand reached out and placed it behind her neck, and drew her in for a slow wet kiss, knocking the air out of her lungs. His other hand slid under her sweatshirt and squeezed her breast. "Tell me, what am I suppose to do about it, Sassenach."

She pulled away from him and scrunched up her nose. "Jamie! You're dirty."

"And here I thought ye like me dirty." There was no amusement in his tone, and his bunched jaw told her he was on edge or maybe stressed? 

"Why don't you take a shower while I make us something to eat, or better still, how about a bath to help you relax? I'll even bring you a beer," she suggested, feeling a tad concern as she eyed him questioningly.

"How about ye come and have a shower with me," he wheedled, tugging her closer. 

She drew away and took a step back. "Jamie, I've just had one, and I'm all clean." 

"No' a problem. I can get ye dirty in no time." Jamie hauled her into his arms as she tried to dodge. Squealing, she slapped his chest. Once more, his hands wandered, causing a tingling sensation to coast all over her body. "There we go, ye're as dirty as me now." Pressing himself against her, he inhaled her hair as his breath came faster, fingers twisting in the hem of her top. "Ye definitely need a shower now." he gritted.

Laughing, she peered up at his face, and what she saw made her do a double-take and swiped the smile off her lips in an instant. Oh, sweet Mother of God, he looks worse for wear.  Something must have happened at work.  Didn't he say Willie sent him home?  Looking closely, she noticed he looked weighed down with need, and it wasn't just the sexual kind. It was something more and urgent. He'd had almost the same look the other night when he woke up from a fitful sleep, but she hadn't pushed to find out. His hands were all over her now, frantic and desperate like he was trying to grasp onto something to anchor himself, his breathing becoming more shallow and harsh, and his eyes beginning to glaze.

"Jamie stop! Stop right this second."

He immediately stilled and loosened his grip, shame marring his face. "Ach Christ, Sassenach, did I hurt ye? I did, didn't I? Tell me! Oh, dear God ..."

He was about to turn away, but with her hands, she forced his pained face to look at her, a moan barely subdued in his throat. She could already read what was going on through his head. No way would she stand by and let him take any blame, feel shame or guilt. Not this time. And not anymore. He'd made mistakes like everyone else and would continue to make them, but he needed to believe he was a good soul. This had to stop now. "Look at me, James Fraser," she demanded in a firm voice. "Look at me! Whatever is going through that damn mind of yours, don't you even bloody dare entertain it. Are you listening to me?"

"Sassenach ..."

"No, Jamie! I don't know what happened to you today, but let me tell you this ...shit happens all the time, alright? And sometimes we don't get to have any control over it. That's just the way it is. Tonight we're going to talk, even if it takes the whole bloomin' night. But first ..." Before she could change her mind, she stepped away from him and yanked off her top and pulled her leggings down. When she was fully naked, she took his hand and laid it on her bare breast. "Take whatever you need, Jamie."

He baulked. "Sassenach ...ye shouldnae want this in my state. It's wrong. I-I was too rough. I could have hurt ye." His voice sounded hollow and agonised. 

"But you didn't."

He palmed her breast. "Christ, do I have a shred of decency left?"

"Do you love me?" she asked, undoing his jeans button. She saw he was already highly aroused and his skin covered in goosebump.

"With all of me," he groaned when she pulled down his zipper. "And ye ken that."

Determination licking through her veins, she stood on her tiptoes and spoke into his ear, her hand sliding inside his jeans to caress the ridge of his hardness. "If that's the case, what we're about to do is not wrong."

A voice raced through her consciousness, telling her this was the way forward. She knew he needed his control back before he would be able to speak to her. So she got down on her knees and pulled his pants down. 

When he wrapped her hair in his fist and tilted her head back, she smiled. "Now, let's get dirty and exorcise those pesky brain chatter, shall we?" Before he could reply, she took him full in her mouth and worshipped him with her love, absorbing every frustrated growl that ripped from his throat and every emotion that poured out of him with every roll of his hips. 

She pushed him to the edge and over until he found his release, and his loud cries echoed in the air. When he shattered around her, his body slumped onto the floor and into her arms.

Claire knew they had a long night ahead of them, so she cradled him, waiting patiently for his breathing to calm. Later after she bathed him, they would talk, but for now, she was contented just to hold him a little while longer, as she wondered how many of Jamie's demons she would have to slay tonight and if love would be enough to conquer his hell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Jamie reached over to the other side of the bed and stilled when all he grabbed was air. His eyes instantly flew open, and he wondered why he was in bed. He jackknifed into a sitting position, his muscles tensing against the sudden alarm that spiked through his nerves, but when he saw the sliver of light under the door and heard Claire's movement in the bathroom, he eased back onto the mattress with a sigh. 

Memories from earlier suddenly came rushing back to him. He'd arrived home, reeling with the need to expend energy, but not in the healthiest of ways. He'd ran from work after Willie had sent him home, and when he'd arrived to find Claire in the kitchen, the rush of adrenaline had buzzed through him like mad. Though he'd made up with his sister after their confrontation, the run to the cottage hadn't relieved the buildup of anxiety and guilt, but one thing had been clear throughout ...the need to see Claire had been paramount. She'd sensed something was off, but he hadn't anticipated her reading what he'd needed at that moment when he'd himself had no words for the volatile sensation raging within him. Ever since she'd arrived in his life, she'd been unintentionally rearranging everything, and all the painstaking layers he'd patched together over his broken parts were slowly being stripped away, little by little, to reveal what he'd buried underneath. 

Earlier, she'd ripped another layer off when she'd offered her body for his own release. Despite rebelling against it, his body had a mind of its own, taking his fill like a starved man and pacifying the storm within. It had troubled him to see her pleasuring him on her knees and not had been able to reciprocate back, but she'd soothed him with words and her hands. He recalled the shame and fear that had shot through his bloodstream when he thought he'd hurt her with his rough play, but the moment she'd touched him, he'd lost track of everything, the mind-bending pleasure obscuring all reasons, making him feel depleted and whole at the same time. After she'd bathed him as if he was a bairn, she'd towelled his body dry and massaged his back until his limbs had gone pliant and heavy. And just before he'd dozed off, she'd whispered into his ears, "Rest now, my love and later we'll talk." He couldn't argue, even if he'd wanted to. Because, in her, he found his equilibrium, and his skeletons didn't rattle as much whenever she was around. 

He'd just switched on the bedside lamp when the bathroom door opened, and Claire walked in wearing his bathrobe, the sheer size of it almost drowning her small frame. He couldn't help the smile forming his lips. It looked ridiculously too big on her but at the same time too adorable for words. He pushed himself up and patted the space next to him.

Watching her climbed the bed and crawl on all fours, he extended his arm out in an invitation to nestle against him. "How long was I out?" he asked. 

"An hour tops," she replied, kissing him on the lips. Instead of huddling into his arms, she sat cross-legged, facing him, a touch of worry dimming her eyes. "You were knocked out."

"Really? Only an hour? I had no intention of falling asleep. I must have been tired. I feel like I've slept the whole night." Feeling slightly disappointed he couldn't put his arms around her, he took her hand instead and twined their fingers together. 

"Willie dropped off your car, and I have your keys here," she said, pulling them from the pocket of the bathrobe and placing them on the mattress. "How are you feeling?

"Relaxed."

"That's good," she whispered, squeezing his hand.

His thumb brushed the inside of her wrist. "What ye did earlier ..." He felt a stirring in his loins when he remembered her mouth around him. "I would like to verra much do the same for ye if ye'd allow me."

"Jamie ..." she sighed, giving him a small warning look.

He shrugged, his mischievous smile telling her,  Oh well! I tried.  They eyed each other for a few heartbeats, a silent understanding passing between them. Jamie knew she was patiently waiting for him to initiate  the talk . There was no way around it. Not even sex was going to get in the way. It had been a long time coming, and he owed her some explanations. "So ye want to talk ..."

"Would you like to have your dinner first? You haven't eaten yet."

"No, I'm good."

"Good. Let me know if you need anything."

"Aye ..." He moved into a more comfortable position. "Let's get this done and over with."

She gave him an encouraging nod. "Take your time. Whenever you're ready."

"Just a wee warning, Sassenach." He winked at her when he noticed her frown. "If this starts to feel like a therapist appointment, bear in mind I've noted all the available exits," he joked to lighten the mood.

It worked. The corner of her lips twitched. "I'll try my utmost best to keep that in mind."

He settled against the headboard and took a couple of cleansing breaths. It cleared his head a wee bit, allowing him to formulate the right words. Words that wouldn't sound like he was losing his mind. "Guilt," he began. "I told ye already before ...I have a bad case of it." His throat closed up. "It's what keeps me awake most nights, replaying all those things I didnae do right. As most insomniacs would know, nothing solves sleeplessness like a nice warm glass of despair and regret."

A flicker of worry flashed across her face. "Jamie, you told me you were feeling better." She scooted closer to him. "Have you been keeping the truth from me? Because if you are, it's not helping matters."

"No, Sassenach." He shooked his head. "I was telling ye the truth. I was feeling better, but there have been many strange things happening in the past that's just coming to light. The more I try to piece things together, the weirder it gets." He massaged his temple with his fingers. "Christ! Where do I begin?"

"Alright, one thing at a time." She paused, and he saw the cogs behind her eyes, turning. She appeared to be contemplating the best way to make it easy for him. "Did something happened at work earlier?" she asked.

He sighed. "Aye. I blew my top at work. It's unlike me to lose my head like that, especially in front of the other workers. It's kind of frightening when your emotions are beyond your control."

"Did it have anything to do with your episodes?"

"Probably. I'm not sure anymore."

"When you came home earlier, you really looked stressed, Jamie."

He stared at her and thought of the events that day.  Ah, shite! Why is this so fucking difficult?  They're only in the early phases of their relationship, and already she's tangled up in his web of messed-up issues. Surely this wasn't what she'd bargained for when she decided to take a chance on him? She only had a few days before she returned back to London, but here they were, it's early evening, cooped up in his bedroom trying to sort out his fucked-up head when they could be out on romantic dates. No one, except for his family, had really seen the true depths of his issues, and he'd coped fine for a long time without talking about it.  Man up, Fraser - get to the bottom of it! Think of Harry!  

"My sister and I had a fight," he finally said. "But I dinnae think the fight triggered anything. Or maybe a little. Ye see, it's no' the first time we've had a squabble like that. I think the beginning of the episode has more to do with something that has been building up for the last few days. Odd dreams, memories coming to the surface and such. And the sibling bicker was the last straw."

"What do you mean?" she asked. "Has this something to do with your dream the other night? You told me you had a strange dream and you had trouble sleeping."

His heart lurched as he recalled the dream. "Aye. But it goes way before that. Partly, it has something to do with that ..." He hesitated for a moment. "...and with ye."

"With me?" She visibly braced herself, a worried frown appearing on her brows. "Jamie ...if you're concerned about me not being able to cope with your condition and leaving you, you thought wrong. I care for you, and I want to help. But I can't help you if I don't understand what's going on. Whatever you're going through, we'll face it together."

He felt encouraged by the hopeful look she gave him. "But ye dinnae ken half of it."

"No, I don't," she agreed. "But we'll get through it together. Painful as it is to talk about what's hurting you, suppressing it will only make it worse, and there's a danger you could lose yourself and forget the person you are and all the good you have done in the process. If you're waiting for time to erase all those emotional pain, it's not going to happen, Jamie. I know this because I carry a lot of pain, too, and time has done nought to erase it. You just have to acknowledge it and learn to let it go." 

His heart pounded. "This can open up all sorts of hurt, Sassenach ...for ye."

She studied him closely. "Why are you so worried about me getting hurt, Jamie? Ye're the one suffering from this condition."

His gaze lifted to meet hers, and a throbbing began underneath his collarbone. He wondered how much he could reveal about her parents' death without him disintegrating in front of her and scaring her away for good. This is the part where the room would normally close in on him, and then he would start to fidget and eventually clamp up. An uncomfortable pressure stretched against his rib cage, making it difficult to suck in a breath. They were already at the point of no return. But Claire's eyes instantly grounded him, turning the chaos in his head from a bright, blazing red to a cool, soothing blue. 

He swallowed his mounting anxiety, focusing on healing what had been damaged inside of him. "Before anything else, Sassenach ...what do ye remember about yer parents' death?"

"Wot?" Her voice sounded throaty. "Why is it relevant?"

He loathed the sudden uncertainty sneaking into her expression. He wished he could go back and take back the words. "I'm sorry, but it's pertinent that I know."

She let go of his hand and rubbed her palms repeatedly along her thighs. "I -I was with my parents when the accident happened. I never told you this part before."

The image of young Claire trapped at the back seat of the car flared to life. His head fell forward with a groan, and when she touched his shoulder, he waved a hand and motioned for her to go on.

"I don't remember much except for the feeling of being very frightened and wanting to be with my mother. After that, everything was a blur."

"Have ye ever talked to your uncle about it?" 

"Sort of," she said, scrunching up her shoulders. "When I was old enough to understand. But never in-depth." She stopped and eyed him suspiciously. "Jamie, what's with the questions about my parents? Are you trying to change the direction of this conversation?"

"No! No' at all!" He shifted position and squeezed his eyes shut for a beat. When he opened them again, he puffed out a breath. "Your parents ...the car ...I was there when it happened." She looked bewildered, but he didn't stop. "I was on my way to see my godfather. I-I was ten. And I had this ..."

"What do you mean you were there?"

Oh, God, give me strength.  "I saw yer parents' accident," he said rapidly. She gasped and cupped a hand over her mouth. Shaking his head, he continued. "I ...I always thought my condition began right after my best mate died in the war zone. But it was way before that. I saw something that a child should never have to see, but I did. I would have told ye all these sooner if I had known. The dream ...I had the other night brought back all those horrific memories. Christ, Sassenach ..." He dropped his head into his hands. "I wish there's an easier way to say this. I'm so sorry for bringing this up, and I just cannae ..."

"Jamie ..." 

Then the dam shattered, and everything came pouring out of him. He told her how Harry had first appeared into his life, coming to his aid in Glasgow when he'd fallen down onto his knees while going through an episode. And the mysterious ways the older man would pop up whenever he was in dire need of help. He spoke of his suspicions of what or who he'd thought Harry might have been after his family had questioned his friend's identity over New Year's Eve lunch at Lallybroch. And how his theory had been further validated the moment Murtagh had mentioned having known Claire's parents. Then his voice faltered when he told her what his godfather had told him the other day, about him being witness to her parents' accident as a young boy. And how seeing uncle Lamb's similarity to Harry had triggered the dream and brought back all the suppressed memories. He told her how he'd held her that fateful day and how the memories of that event changed him forever, vowing to himself nothing like that would ever happen again under his watch.

By the time Jamie finished, he felt weightless. Like he'd been lugging around sandbags on his shoulders all his life, and they'd just been ripped open, dumping their contents onto the ground.

When he finally glanced up, Claire was immobile, staring at the wall behind him. The unfocused expression he'd seen the other night when he'd asked about her parents was back, only this time she appeared more thoughtful.

"Sassenach?"

Her gaze cut to his. "So you knew my dad."

"I did." She must have sensed his sincerity because she closed her eyes and her lips quivered a bit as if she's trying her hardest to keep her emotions in check.  Christ , he wanted to drag her away from all the pain he'd just brought up. He didn't like seeing her like this. He'd told her more than he'd been prepared to, and they should call it a wrap for now. But he needed to know if there were any mental scars she'd been nursing and if so, he wondered if he'd made it worse. If he did, he'd never forgive himself. "Sassenach, please tell me ye're alright."

Her gaze lifted to meet his, and she hugged herself close. "I think so," she whispered. "Just give me a few minutes to let it all sink in, alright? Don't give up on me just yet." They simultaneously took a deep breath, making her smile at the realisation. He resisted the urge to pull her onto his lap and focused on what she had to say. He'd already said his bit, and now it was her turn. So he listened. "That moment at the pub, when I first laid eyes on you, I had this strong feeling we've always known each other. I even said to myself, maybe we did ...in another lifetime. All this while we had no idea we were both connected through my dad."

"Aye, I felt the same way, Sassenach, and I put it down simply to a strong attraction between us. I even thought it would pass, but the more I got to know ye, the more I wanted more of ye. It frightened the hell of me, firstly because of where ye live. I didnae think our relationship could work with my condition. And secondly, because I didnae want my burden to be yer burden. It would kill me if ye had to go through what I've been going through almost all my life."

She seemed transfixed as she made a move towards him, reminding him of the way she'd looked just before they're about to make love. Pressure rolled off him the moment she straddled his lap, leaving him almost light-headed when she tenderly placed a hand against the side of his face. "Do you realise what an extraordinary man you are?" She tunnelled her fingers through his hair, making his eyelids fall to half-mast. "You see, Jamie ...only good men feel the load of their burdens. And exceptional ones like you persist on taking more. Because of you, I want to be a better person and take some of your burdens. The same way you've carried the burden of my parents' death all this while." She laid her head into the crook of his shoulder, snuggling into his neck in a way that somehow mended a broken part of him. "Growing up without them has been hard, and it still pains me a lot when I think of what could have been. But I realise now, sometimes death has a heart, and we can't beat ourselves up for recognising it." A few heartbeats passed before she met his gaze. "Out of tragedy, we found each other, and that means their death must count for something, don't you think?"

The simplicity of her words, her acceptance of their past, the vulnerable girl he saw underneath the confident woman she was today reached every damaged corner of his being. There was no choice but to press their bodies together.

He pulled her closer and gently combed his fingers through her curls as he brushed his lips against hers. His thumb caressed her cheek before cupping it in his hand. When she smiled, his fingers tugged her chin to bring her mouth back to his. The kiss deepened, his fingers fumbling with the ties of the bathrobe she's wearing before pushing it down over her shoulders. Fluidly, never breaking contact, his lips travelled down her throat, her back arching to offer her breast. He was about to take a nipple to his mouth when he noticed a band of bruise circling her arm. He jerked back and realised there was an identical one on her other arm.

A sick feeling settling in his gut, he touched one of the bruises with his index finger. "What's this?" he asked, even though deep inside, he knew the answer already.

She rubbed it with a hand as if it was nothing. "Jamie, don't worry about it. I have pale skin, and I bruise like a peach."

He ground his teeth and shook his head. "I did this earlier, didn't I? When I came home from work, right after the fight with Jenny."

When she flinched, he felt like a bucket of ice-cold water had been thrown over him. He lifted her off his lap and got out of bed, and went to stand by the window.

"Jamie, it was nothing. We were playing rough, and these things happen."

He could feel the darkness coming back again, trying to shroud him. He needed to concentrate on his breathing. When a woman like Claire loved with such fierceness, surely that love should have enough light to push the dark away. But he was coming down hard and fast, and the sick feeling in his guts was trying to make its way up, making him want to gag.

He heard her approach, and he steeled himself when she wrapped her arms around his middle and laid her head on the centre of his back. "Jamie, you didn't hurt me. You have to believe me."

How could he want Claire's love and feel the unshakable compulsion to run away at the same time? Her arms were circled around him so tight, he thought she might be trying to join them together as one. A huge part of him wanted them joined together, but the darker side of him was scared to death. He'd allowed her to soothe him with every word, every touch. But now it was high time to get rid of the blinders. His chest hurt, and every fear he'd succeeded to overcome throughout the last few days poured down on his head.

Claire shouldn't want the man he'd become, who had a tendency to inflict pain and bruises on her skin when under the influence of his episodes even if it wasn't intended. He thought of Jenny earlier and the frightened look on her face, his fists curled, ready to cause injury. This relationship with Claire would be over as soon as she realised she'd saddled herself with a sick man with the potential to be violent, and he knew he wouldn't be able to bear it when that day came. It was up to him to make sure she didn't make this mistake because she deserved more, and he loved her too much to allow her to be blinded by their love. He didn't want her to make that error. 

"Claire ...I need to go."

Claire turned him to face her, weariness dimming her normally bright amber eyes. He'd done this to her, snuffed out the light in her. But she was so beautiful, her curls, wrecked and wild, mouth puffy from their kisses. "I'm not letting you go, Jamie. We're in this together. You have to believe me when I say you didn't hurt me and that you are a good man. You don't have it in you to hurt anyone."

Her words were hot irons branding his insides. "Dinnae say those things in the heat of the moment. Ye're too good of a person to realise when something bad is standing right under yer nose."

"You're not making any sense Jamie. Come back to bed, please ...and we'll talk it over." She was close to tears, and it was breaking his heart to see her like this. "I meant it when I said I love you and nothing ...not even this condition that you have will drive me away from you."

Jamie exhaled a sharp breath. "I need to clear my head." He walked away from her and grabbed the jeans, hanging neatly over the chair.

"I know what you're trying to do, Jamie. I can see right through you. You want to leave me because you think you're a danger to me. You're wrong." She tugged his arm and attempted to pull him towards her, but he remained still, looking anywhere but into her eyes. She grasped his face with both her hands, forcing him to look at her. "Look at me! I want you to know I'm not afraid of a fight. Just tell me what I'm up against so I can knock it down for you."

It took a lot of willpower to remain upright and resist the urge to voice out his fears. He knew she would be able to defeat his doubts, but for how long? Those fears would grow back even bigger and more persistent once time had passed and the outside world began to encroach on them. "Let me go, Sassenach."

"Never, Jamie. You said on the day before I left for London we were in this together, you and I. I'm holding my side of the bargain, and I will not let you go. So you better get used to that." 

He turned away and started to scramble for the rest of his clothes. When he finished pulling up his jeans and putting on his t-shirt and shoes, it took him what seemed like an eternity to face her. Her face was ashen as she drew the bathrobe around her. "I'm done talking, for now, Claire."

Tears streamed down her face as he grabbed his phone and keys and made his way out. He couldn't get out of the cottage fast enough. His heart hammered, his ears started to ring, his lungs squeezing out the last air. He'd hurt her. He'd seen the bruises with his eyes, and now she's crying because of him. He needed to get out fast to clear his head.

She followed him closely behind. "Please tell me where you're going, Jamie. At least give me that," she pleaded.

He couldn't stand to see her tears anymore or hear the plea in her voice. He was doing what's right for her because he loved her too much. He wasn't even sure where he was going or if anyone would be safe in his presence. All he could think of was how frightened his sister had looked at him and the bruises he'd inflicted in Claire's arms. He needed to get as far away as possible, away from the people he loved.

He got into his car, slammed the door, and started the engine. 

Claire banged on his window, her face wet with tears. "Don't do this, Jamie. We can fix this together. Please don't go. I'm begging you." 

"I love you, Sassenach. I love you so much," he mumbled under his breath as he jerked his car into gear, reversing from his driveaway. The wheels spun and screeched as he pulled away, his body shaking and his heart shattering into tiny pieces. 

Claire's safe now , he reassured himself, gripping the steering wheel tight,  safe and far from the stifling darkness closing in.   

..........

Claire watched Jamie's car disappear into the darkness. She wanted to scream and crumple to the ground out of sheer despair and fear. But she realised her presence of mind was needed at this moment. She needed to call someone and alert them to what happened. Jamie could be in danger.  Willie!

She ran back to the house and grabbed her phone. With shaking fingers, she wiped the tears from her eyes and tapped on the screen. She'd just managed to find Willie's name when her phone rang. She saw it was her uncle Lamb.  Oh God now's not the time.  Though frustrated, she answered. "Hello?"

The line crackled before uncle Lamb spoke. "Sweetheart, it's me. I hope the Scottish weather is holding up because I'm on my way for a visit. We had another setback at work, and I didn't want to hang around, scratching my arse doing nothing. I'll be arriving in four days. I hope you'll still be there; otherwise, I'll change my flight ticket to London."

Not wanting to alert her uncle with her worries about Jamie, she cleared her throat and tried to sound cheerful. "That's great! I'll be here, and I can't wait to see you! But I really need to run along. So many things going on." It wasn't a lie, but she would call him back once she'd sorted out this mess she was dealing with. "I'll call you later."

"That's fine, darling. I can't wait to meet, Jamie ..."

Oh, dear, God, please help me.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The sun blazed through the windows, but instead of feeling delighted with the promise of a beautiful day, Claire felt hollow.

Earlier, moving on autopilot, she'd numbly climbed out of bed, showered and gathered all the will and strength she could summon and prepared to face the day. Though a part of her would rather curl into a ball under the duvet until Jamie returns, she made a Herculean effort to stay positive for sanity's sake. It should have given her comfort knowing Jamie was safe after Willie had informed her he'd been spotted at three in the morning at Lallybroch's driveway in his car and was now resting in his childhood home. But her eyes would prickle with tears every time she stood still and stared into space. So Claire kept herself busy, feeding Jamie's pets, letting them out of the house, doing a bit of laundry and setting up her work station for the day on the dining table. Currently, there were things that needed attending to, like her own work, and anytime soon, Willie would be arriving.

She was just about to open her laptop when there was a knock on the kitchen's back door.

She knew it was Willie. "Door's open," she croaked. 

Willie walked in and stopped. A line formed between his brows, reminding her so much of Jamie she felt the beginning of tears welling up. "Hey, how are ye?" he asked.

With more enthusiasm than she had in her, she gave him a small smile. "I'm hanging in there. How's Jamie?"

"He's asleep ...last time I heard from ma."

"How about you? You look like you didn't get much rest either."

"Knackered," he replied, shoving his hands into his jeans' pocket. "The bloody git sent us on a merry chase. And now he gets to sleep the whole day while I'm left to pick up the slack at work."

Claire knew Willie was trying to make light of things. Needing to move, she stood and made her way to the kitchen, having the sudden urge to keep her hands busy. It would have been easier if she'd asked Willie to take her to Lallybroch. But there had been a reason for her decision to stay put. She needed to remind herself, there's a probability her presence could make Jamie's condition worsened after having seen his reaction to her bruise last night. Even if in the light of day, nothing seemed good enough excuse to be separated from him. 

"Would you like something to drink? Coffee or tea?" she offered. "I could use a strong cuppa."

"Coffee would be grand."

Conscious of Willie watching, she went through the motion of taking out cups and switching on the coffee machine. When she opened the fridge to retrieve some milk, she accidentally nudged one of Jamie's magnets on the door, sending a post-it note to slip down. Automatically bending down, she picked up the piece of paper from the floor. 

As she turned it the other way round and read it, a cross between a sob and a laugh broke passed through her mouth. It was a note Jamie had written to her just the other day.

Gone to work. Bought some croissants, and they're in the bread bin just in case Adso gets his grubby paws on it first. Can't wait to see you later. Missing you already. Love you. X

"Oh, damn it." Claire leaned over the countertop, pressing the note with one hand on her chest. "I-I can't do this."

Willie came up behind her and touched her elbow, gently turning her to face him. "Ye cannae do exactly what, Claire?" he asked, a look of concern etching his face.

"Pretend Jamie is fine." She squeezed her eyes shut, and when she opened them again, she let out a lungful of air. "When we first met, he was in a good place. And I have this strong feeling that I am making his condition more frequent and worse."

"No, Claire ...dinnae speak like that."

She glanced down at Jamie's note, and when she felt prickles behind her eyelids, she slipped the piece of paper in her jean's pocket and shook her head. "How can Jamie and I be together if I'm the one triggering his nightmares and anxiety? Before I came along, his episodes were a rare occurrence. And now here I am making that classic mistake of attempting to fix a man." Her breathing suddenly became laboured, like she'd raced ten miles. "I wish I could be by his side. I know it's selfish wanting to be with him right now when I'm the reason for his distress. But I do. On the other hand, logic tells me, it's probably a good thing all those memories he hasn't dealt with are finally coming to the surface, so at least we have something to work on. I just wish there was a less unpleasant way for Jamie to handle all of these." She glanced out the window, unseeing the beautiful view in the sun.

When the silence dragged on for too long, Claire turned to face Willie and was surprised to see him smiling. "Cannae ye see it yet, Claire? Ye are not making Jamie's condition worse. In fact, ye have been helping him heal all this time."

She frowned. She was confused. "What do you mean? I don't understand."

Willie took the portafilter and began filling it with coffee for her. "Ye said it yersel'. The suppressed memories are coming to the surface." He shrugged as he worked the coffee machine. "Meaning, after all these years, Jamie can finally confront them head-on, deal with it and lay it to rest once and for all. Isn't that what his dreams are trying to tell him? He's forgone dealing with grief and issues that it had nowhere to go to except present itself as this monstrous nightmare and panic attacks. And then ye came along, and somehow, ye've extracted more out from him than all his therapists put together."

A nervous laugh gurgled from her throat. "I might have been able to do that, but at what cost? Jamie could've hurt himself last night." She'd worried at the speed he'd taken off, thinking if anything grievous had resulted from it, she would have been so utterly devastated, she'd blamed herself. "He needs professional help, Willie. It can't go on like this."

"He does," he agreed, pressing the button on the coffee machine. "But Jamie needs you too, more than ever ...even if he believes he's a danger to ye."

"But he didn't hurt me."

He pushed the stop button on the coffee machine. "May I see the bruise?"

"Of course." She rolled up her sweatshirt sleeves. "I told him I bruise easily. I have an iron deficiency which I'm taking supplements for."

Willie studied the markings on her arms. "They're not that bad."

"No, they're not. I tried to convince him, but he won't listen. I only need to pinch my skin, and I bruise. It's a symptom of being anaemic."

Willie sighed. "Jamie won't be easily convinced, though. Weel ...at least not until he's calmed down."

"He used to have a therapist. Why isn't he seeing one now?" she asked, curiosity getting the better of her. "I know he's against taking pills for his condition, but surely talking to a professional would help him a lot."

"He has nothing against seeing a therapist ..." he replied matter-of-factly as he handed her the coffee. "...just a particular one."

"Oh!" She took the cup from Willie and watched him make another one for himself. "May I know why?"

"Her name is Geneva Dunsany. She's the only available therapist in Broch Mordha. She took over Jamie's former therapist after he left for England." He paused to look at her. "Ye see ...a few years back, my da remortgage Lallybroch and then when the recession came, our family was hit hard financially and had trouble paying the bank. To cut a long story short, Jenny, our meddling sister, knew Geneva was infatuated with Jamie. Since Geneva comes from a well-off family, Jenny thought by playing matchmaker, she would solve everyone's problems single-handedly. Ever since then, my sister has been trying to get them together. So when she heard Jamie's therapist left for England, she encouraged Geneva to take the job even though she already had one in another town. Jamie is quite perceptive, though and knew what our wee sister was up to. Hence he refused to see Geneva."

"That's a bit sneaky."

"Ye can say that again. Geneva might have a wee crush on Jamie, but I dinnae think she's aware of Jenny's meddling, even though they're friends. Jenny thinks she's doing Jamie a favour by finding him a lass who lives here and can help him with his condition. Jen is practical like that."

"I've met her, actually. The therapist that is. We were introduced ...just before I went back to London," she explained, thinking back to the day when she first met Jenny and Geneva.  And she's beautiful too,  she thought grudgingly. Although Jamie had never given Claire reason to feel jealous before, every muscle in her body had gone rigid, hearing Willie's account on Jamie's would-be therapist. Jealousy continued to roll in like a lick of a flame as the image of Jamie pouring his heart out to a beautiful woman burned hot in her guts. The sudden urgent need to see him made her want to sprint out of the cottage at full speed, but a dose of decorum kept her rooted on the spot. "So, Jamie wasn't interested, huh? Not even the teeny, tiniest bit?" she squeaked, annoyed at the sudden change in her voice.

She thought she saw a muscle twitched along Willie's jaw, but she must have imagined it. Looking like he was sucking the inside of his cheek, he shook his head. "No. Never. And ye have nought to worry about, Claire. Jamie only has eyes for ye."

She swallowed the bitter taste of doubt. "Not worried," she lied, sipping her coffee. But in the true sense of the word, she already felt loads better after the enlightening conversation with Willie. It had taken the edge off her worry over Jamie's condition, even though she still couldn't erase the thought of Jenny pushing Jamie towards Geneva.

"Maybe ye should attend a therapy session with Jamie ...at least initially," he suggested, eyeing her closely as if trying to read her thoughts. "That way, it would put Jamie at ease, and Geneva would realise he's taken already."

Claire slowly placed her cup on the countertop. "Why do I get the feeling this meddling thing is inherent in your family?" she asked, feigning disapproval.

Willie put his own cup down. "Not inherent, Claire. I have my own selfish motive. Ye're the best friend of my Annalise, and I wouldn't be helping my cause if she finds out I've done nought to help ye." When Claire gasped, he grinned. "Kidding aside, even if Annalise wasn't my girlfriend, I want ye to know, I really like you for my brother."

Claire could barely see through the tears she hadn't been aware that was building up. "You sound so sure."

Willie placed his hand over hers and squeezed it. "Are ye sure about my brother?"

"With all my heart," she whispered.

"That's all I need to know."

..........

Jamie slowly opened his eyes and took in the familiar surroundings of his old room. His heart throbbed when he realised the last time he'd slept here had been on New Year's eve, with Claire tucked snuggly on the crook of his arm. Bracing himself up on his elbows, he heard his mother talking to Jenny and his da downstairs. They were probably in the kitchen discussing his state.

He rubbed his face with one hand, feeling the beginning of a day-old stubble, exhaustion washing over him in waves. A mixture of self-loathing and guilt rose within as he replayed the incident from the night before. He couldn't decide what pained him the most, the bruises he'd inflicted on Claire or the fact he'd left her in tears standing in his driveway.

When he'd taken off from his cottage, his heart had been heavy and thoughts dark, not having had any clue what he wanted to do or where to go, only determinedly pushing himself to get as far away from Claire as possible. A few hours later, he'd found himself parked outside his childhood home after Willie and Murtagh had woken him up in his car. So far, he'd only talked to his older brother Willie, and he hoped it would be enough to keep the rest of his family's questions at bay.

Sitting up, he realised he was still in his clothes. He searched for his phone and found it on the nightstand. Swiping the screen, he saw he had a few missed calls from clients and a voice message from Claire. Willie must have switched his phone to silence.

I should call her,  he thought. It wouldn't be that difficult. Her voice would soothe him, and her lack of judgement would make him feel like he's on solid ground. He could show his worst, and he knew she'd still be there, smiling and soothing him with words, just like last night. Every hour that passed without seeing her or hearing from her put him a little more off centre, and he could see how too reliant he was becoming on those breaths of fresh air that sprung from her. He shook his head. She was too precious to be with someone who had this nonstop ugliness embedded in the insides of his head. It would only be a matter of time before he dragged her into his hell. He couldn't do that to her.

He was about to tap on Claire's voice message when he was alerted by a double knock on the door.

"Jamie, are ye awake, son?" It was his father.

"Come in," he answered, his voice still hoarse from sleep.

The door opened, and he saw his mother walk in first with a mug of tea. "My darling boy," she smiled, placing the hot brew on the bedside table. "I thought ye could use a bit of something warm in yer belly. How are ye feeling?" She stooped down and kissed him on the forehead.

Jamie scooted back to the headboard to make space for his mother while his father took the chair. "Exhausted," he said honestly. Although he'd slept all morning, it hadn't been a restful sleep.

His father, Brian, cleared his throat. "So ... what's going on with ye, lad?" he asked, cutting to the chase as usual.

Ellen sent her husband a warning glare before refocusing her attention back to Jamie. "Whenever ye're ready, darling," she reassured him, patting his thigh. "Willie vaguely told us what happened, and Jenny is beside herself thinking she triggered yer panic attack yesterday. And Claire ...ye never told us she's here. She's worried sick about ye."

Jamie sighed. "What's there to tell." He leaned back and stared at the ceiling. "It wasnae Jenny's fault. It's just the same old, same old. The only difference this time is, I made a stupid mistake getting Claire involved with me. And I'm hurting her in the process."

Ellen briefly looked at her husband. "I find that hard to believe, Jamie. Ye're such a gentle soul, ye could never ever hurt a fly even if it's bugging ye to bits. Did ye two have a fight? Did Claire say ye were hurting her?" she asked Jamie gently.

"No. I just know I am."

"Oh, darling ..."

"So that's it ..." Brian raised his hands in the air before letting them drop to his sides. "Ye're giving in to this condition ye've fought hard against all yer life when the chance for happiness finally present itsel' to ye because ye THINK ye are hurting Claire. Is that what ye're trying to tell us? Because believe ye me, we didnae raise a violent or abusive son. So enlighten us ...where in heaven's name is this all coming from?"

"Brian!"

"It's a futile fight," Jamie blurted before taking a deep breath. "Trust me ... I'd like to have what ye both have. But at what cost? Look at the state of me. Is this the kind of man Claire deserves? She's willing to turn her life upside down for me, and for what? Only to find out later she'd saddled herself with a mentally ill man. So perhaps it's for the best she lucked out early before its too late for either of us."

His mother moved closer to his side and took his hand. "So let me get this straight. Ye're staying away from Claire because ye like her a lot, and ye're afraid to hurt her." Pain clenched tight on his vocal cords, incapacitating him to answer, but she interpreted his silence as a yes. Even though it's far more complex than that. "Oh, sweet lord, how youth is so wasted on the young," she clucked.

"Aye, perhaps." He rubbed a hand behind his neck. "But trust me, I ken fine what the problem is."

"Oh, is that so?"

His father's sarcasm wasn't lost on him, but he ignored it in favour of the pressure sinking into his chest. "I ken I hold back a lot from everyone, and I ken too that's wrong. When things get too much, I keep my mouth shut. And I dinnae realised at first that suffering in silence damages, instead of helping. Though it's easier said than done, I'm working on it. All I ever wanted was no' to be a burden or be the cause of anyone's pain. Claire deserves more."

Ellen sighed. "Jamie ...Jamie ... ye're never a burden. Ye're a delight, and we're so proud of ye. Ye need to understand, ever since ye were a wee bairn, ye've always needed a purpose, like fixing everyone's problem because it gave ye satisfaction to see ye've righted someone's world. Whenever someone was hurting, ye're always the first to reach out." Her shoulders lifted in a shrug. "I thought it was endearing at first until it began to take over yer life. The trauma you've gone through only amplified yer true nature to a point it wasnae healthy anymore. And the guilt that came with it when ye can do nought and thought you've failed ...almost destroyed ye every time." She shifted on the bed. "Jamie ...ye have to stop denying yersel' a chance for happiness because ye're afraid of hurting or failing someone. Pain is part of life. It's inevitable. Though it's good of ye to think of others first, sometimes, it's also good to let others carry that burden for ye and help ye. Running away because ye're afraid of hurting someone is no' gonnae to do anyone any good. Ye'll only end up hurting yersel'. And when that happens, who's going to help ye?"

His mother's logic made sense, but the chatter in his brain continued to hold its ground. "Claire's been through a lot, ma."

"And so have ye, son," Brian interjected, firmly.

"But what if I make things worse for both of us?"

"Oh my sweet boy, what if ye end up happy together?" Ellen smiled. "I ken a crystal ball would come in handy right now, but because we dinnae have one, the only way to find out is to take the risk and hope for the best. Just like what Claire is doing."

Jamie shut his eyes for a while and pictured them together. Every fibre in his body was screaming to get in his car and drive back to Broch Mordha and start making it up to Claire. But his mother was right ...he needed help. He didn't want to put Claire through all that misery again, so he decided right there and then he would start attending therapy afresh. It was the way forth, and he'd held off attending therapy for too long, which might have worsened his condition. But first things first. He needed to be in the right headspace to start doing anything.

"Fine, I'll call the clinic later for an appointment but do ye mind if I rest some more. I'm still feeling a bit off."

The chair scraped the wooden floor as Brian stood up. "Aye, of course. Ye look worn to a frazzle."

Ellen reached out and pulled Jamie into her arms and kissed him on the cheek. "I'll be downstairs if ye need anything." She got up and ruffled his hair as if he was still a wee boy. "And I've made leek and tattie soup in case ye're hungry."

"Thanks, ma."

His parents were just about to walk out when Jenny strode in. "Hey."

Jamie rubbed his forehead with his fingers. "Jenny, can we talk later? I'd like to be alone for a bit."

Brian and Ellen gave his sister a warning look as they left the room, but she just shrugged. "I promise this willnae take long. Please, Jamie?"

Jamie waved a hand. "Fine. What is it?"

He watched his sister retrieve something from her jeans' pocket. "Mrs Fitz from the Airbnb gave me this. One of her clients staying over her place left an Oxford Mail newspaper a couple of weeks ago. As she was browsing through it, she came across Claire's name." She handed him a newspaper clipping. "Looks like yer wee girlfriend is an heiress."

"What? Let me see that." 

Jamie skimmed through the short article about some property in Fox Lane, Boars Hill in Oxford. It said it was formerly part of the Berkeley Castle Estate. The original part of the house had been designed by the celebrated architect Sir Ernest George for Lord Berkeley, a family ancestor from her mother side. The house had apparently garnered loads of interest among the local rich after being recently vacated by a local MP. It mentioned the original owners' name as Henry and Julia Beauchamp,  deceased,  and the heiress as Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. 

Was this the South Lodge property Claire had been talking about she'd inherited from her parents? He hadn't really given it much thought ever since she'd casually mentioned it. This was a far cry from the cabin in the woods he'd envisioned.

"Three million pounds for a house!" Jenny broke through his reflection. "Doesn't it make ye wonder what else she inherited?"

Jamie looked at the paper again.  That's what the house is worth? Ach, Christ!  Even the Oxford gossip found its way to Broch Mordha. He knew Claire would be mortified if the news of her assets became everyone's favourite topic of conversation.

Folding the note, he handed it back to his sister. He saw Claire a little differently now. All that money in the world and all she only ever wanted was a place to belong to. Suddenly he felt awful for leaving her last night. He shook his head at his sister. "Not a word about this to any of yer mates!" he warned her. "Or else ..."

Jenny's eyes widened. "What do ye take me for?"

"A babble merchant," he ribbed, unsmiling. "Now, let me be."

"Ye're no' angry at me still, are ye?"

"No," he sighed. "I'm just exhausted."

"Can I do anything for ye?"

He puffed out a breath. Jenny was looking at him earnestly, and he knew she only wanted to reach out. "Aye, in fact, ye can. Ye can arrange that appointment with the therapist for me."

She smiled, seemingly happy to please. "Right on it. If ye need anything else ..."

"Aye, aye, I'll let ye know."

Jenny left, and somehow, he felt a little less heavy in the heart than he did when he woke up earlier. Grabbing his phone, he tapped play on Claire's voice message.

"Hey, it's me. Just letting you know how much I miss you. I felt a little sad earlier, so I wandered into a cafe in the village centre after Willie left. They had this upbeat music playing in the background. It's an old song. Probably from the eighties or nineties, I'm not quite sure. It's pretty cheesy, but it brought a smile to my face. And now I can't get the music out of my head. Maybe if you listen to it too, it will bring a smile to your face. It's from Rick Astley, Never Gonna Give You Up."  There was a pause before she spoke again.  "Right, I'll let you rest. Willie told me that's what you've been doing. I'm going to take Rollo out for a walk now and try to get some work done. I'll text and send you a voice message later. I love you."

Ah, Sassenach!  He swiped the screen to phone her, but his phone beeped and died.  Ah, shite!  He wanted to go and see her now but stopped. He had to take steps to make himself better first. He needed to put in the hours to help himself. She deserved the extra time he would put in because she's not getting half-arsed from him again. But for now ...

He scrambled out of bed and opened the bedroom door.

"Ma!" he called out.

"What is it, dear?"

"Do ye still have all yer old music from yer university days?"

"Anything in particular?"

He cringed inwardly.  Ah, fuck!  "Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley?"

He thought he heard females sniggering downstairs.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jamie was removed from the noise of Lallybroch's homely routine when he stepped inside the shower that barely allotted for his breadth and height. He stroked the erection he'd been sporting since he'd woken up from his dreams of Claire, his elbow occasionally hitting the wall. If he kept this pace up, there would be some damaged tiles to answer for by the time he finally climaxed.

Creamy pale skin and amber eyes seeped through his mind, and he stifled a groan, the throbbing flesh in his hand swelling to the point of anguish. It was the reason he'd escaped to the shower when his dad had woken him, the image of Claire still vivid and the need to spill urgent. But the act of pleasuring himself was tainted with guilt. It didn't feel right using the memory of them together to find completion when he'd left her on her own. Not only did it make him a sick lecherous human being, but his action defied all reason and logic. 

Anyone in their right mind wouldn't be depriving themselves if they had what he and Claire had, but instead, here he was, on self-imposed retreat, his hungry thoughts reliving that time she'd been on her knees taking his entire length in her sweet, sweet mouth. Depravity kicked in, and his body responded to the memory in a fast, fluid rush. Every moral compass he'd had, went from dried cement to loose sand, and nothing could contain the rampant desire to relieve the pressure between his legs. 

He propped his left hand on the wet wall and quickened the pace of his strokes, the tight fist travelling from the base of his hardness to the engorged tip. 

"Christ," he gritted, hoping he could finish without the repercussion of self-loathing and feeling like an unredeemable bastard. 

Ye left her! In tears!

It's for her own good. I'm taking steps to make myself better ...for her.

What if she gets sick and tired of waiting for ye to sort out yer issues?

No, no ...she understands. 

Ye havenae called her.

I'll see her after the therapy, for fuck sake.

Guilt made him want to dim the image of Claire sucking him, but the heavy sack hung between his thighs wouldn't be wheedled into emptying without envisioning her. 

He was so close. He replayed Claire's most recent voice message in his head, her voice husky and yearning. She must have been in bed wearing nothing but his shirt.   I love you, Jamie. I wish I could hold you right now and ease your pain.

"Ah, fuck!" Jamie groaned as convulsion racked his body. "Christ, Sassenach." His seed spurted from his cock in what felt like an endless surge of the tide. Back and forth until he was compelled to release his flesh to brace himself with both hands on the tiled surface while the remnant of his release washed down onto the shower floor.

The water had turned tepid by the time reality came streaming back in. Steeling himself, Jamie waited for the chitter-chatter in his head to start reprimanding, telling him what a sick bastard he was, but nothing came. It was quiet. Notably quiet, in fact, and the prolonged silence was too unusual for comfort and almost deafening. The voices had been his life long companion, and it seemed like someone had muted the noises. The only sound he heard was the sound of his breathing and the shower spray hitting the surfaces.

He almost jumped at the loud rapping on the door. "Jamie! Ye're gonnae be late for yer therapy appointment," Willie called out, impatience lacing his voice.

He blew out a breath. "Two minutes!" he shouted.  Damn it!

"Two minutes," Willie repeated, and he strode off, the sound of his heavy footsteps making creaking sounds on the wooden floor.

Therapy!  He wasn't looking forward to it, but if it would mean bringing him closer to living a normal life with Claire, he'd take his chances. He had his future waiting for him in his cottage, and God knew what was going through her mind with his prolonged absence. There's a possibility she could decide right there, and then, she'd had enough, and he could be returning to an empty home.  Fuck that! No' gonnae happen.

Wrenching a curse from the depths of his soul, he grabbed a towel and dried himself in record time. No more messing about. It was time to regain back the rein to his life. After his therapy, he was returning back to his Sassenach.

..........

Jamie hadn't replied to Claire's multiple voice messages, so she'd stopped sending them, thinking he needed a break. If it hadn't been for Willie checking up on her, Rollo needing to be walked and her own work keeping her busy, she would have gone out of her mind. 

She found solace in knowing he was safe with his family and sorting out his issues and tried not to dwell on the theory that she might be the reason for his worsening condition; otherwise, it would mean giving up on them and walking out of his life for his own good. They'd both had a traumatic start to childhood. If anything, their shared experience should bring them together ...well, at least she was hoping that was the case.

As long as she was busy, she was absolutely fine. But it hurt being apart from Jamie. The minute she unwinded from her daytime activities, the feeling of abandonment crept in, and she felt lost and empty. An all-consuming gloom would lurk, overwhelming her, and tears would start to fall. It had been only two days since Jamie left, but she was already fearing she'd return to London without seeing him again. It's just not fair. It was as if the universe was conspiring to keep them apart, and if that was the case, they'd never really had a chance from the start. Such thoughts would lead to a part of her wishing they'd never met because it was like being shown what happiness with someone you love could be, only to be yanked back out of reach.

She glanced out the kitchen window and realised it had begun to rain, the grey skies echoing her sombre mood. Frustrated, she mentally shook herself. There were a lot of things to do, and her uncle would be arriving in a couple of days. She hadn't mentioned anything to him about what had happened with Jamie, but that was a worry she'd have to deal with later. Because of all days, Tom Christie had called earlier, arranging to meet with her this afternoon to further discuss his book's publication. She hadn't anticipated meeting up with him for another week or more. Maybe it was a good thing he'd decided to show up. It would certainly be a much-needed distraction from the growing worries she had of Jamie. But first, she needed to book a bed and breakfast room in the village centre, a request her uncle had explicitly stressed as he didn't want to stay in Jamie's cottage to watch them canoodle, as he'd gruffly pointed out. But Claire highly doubted there would be any danger of his uncle witnessing that anytime soon.

Grabbing her coat and bag, she headed out. She was just stepping across the threshold when she caught sight of Jamie's sister walking towards her.  What is she doing here?  The last time she'd seen Jenny was when they were first introduced, and back then, she hadn't failed to notice the lukewarm reception. She'd tried her best to dismiss it as overly protective sibling behaviour. But something had been niggling in her mind lately ever since Willie mentioned Jenny's meddling with Jamie's love life.

Bracing herself, she forced a smile. "Hi, I'm just on my way out. Does Jamie need some fresh shirts?" She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "I can quickly grab some if that's what you came here for."

There was an awkward silence. "I ...ah, I'm here to see ye." Jenny held up a plastic container. "Oh, and ma made these ... it's rhubarb pie. And she's asking after ye."

"Oh, that's thoughtful. How are ..."

"Do ye have a moment?" Jenny interrupted out of the blue.

Claire paused. Though feeling like she was in this weird bubble filled with fog and not in the mood for small talk or niceties, she stepped back and waved Jamie's sister in. "Sure. I suppose I can spare a few minutes."

Jenny nodded gratefully and stepped inside the cottage. Claire watched her cross the room to place the rhubarb pie and her shoulder bag on the dining table. She started to wring her hands, possibly because she'd realised Claire wasn't going to initiate the talk. 

"Jamie is taking steps to get better," Jenny began, facing her.

"I know."

"Of course, you do."

Claire tamped down the urge to roll her eyes. "From what Jamie's told me, that's what he's been doing all his life, hasn't he?"

"Yes, that's true."

She sighed, impatience beginning to creep in. "Jenny, why are you really here? Please let's not pretend that you like me. You practically ignored me when we first met, and you've made no attempt whatsoever to get to know me. I am not expecting us to be the best of mates just because I'm with Jamie, but I do expect manners. So, I am asking very kindly if there's a reason for you taking over my precious time, please spit it out."

Jenny's eyebrows hit her hairline. "I ...uh ...I came because I wanted to see you. To check if ye're alright."

"Willie's been doing that but thank you anyway." She had no time for pussyfooting around. Pulling her coat tighter around her, she made a move to leave. "Well, I need to get going. Please thank your mum for me for the pie. I'll have it later with coffee when I return. And regards to your da as well." She pulled the door open.

"Wait ..."

"Yes?"

Jenny let out a rickety inhale. "I'm sorry, okay? I came to apologise. You're right. I was downright rude." Her lips barely moved when she said the words. It was as if it's taking a lot out of her to admit to her faults. "I have no right to meddle in my brother's affairs, moreso make ye feel unwelcome when ye're the one Jamie wants to be with." Her shoulders lost most of their tension, but the lines of her body were still strained tight. "I was worried about my brother making trips to London, and ye ken the reason why. I thought by not acknowledging ye, ye would eventually go away for good. I ken it was wrong. I shouldn't have behaved the way I did."

"But making me go away wouldn't have made a difference to his condition. Jamie would have continued to have those panic attacks."

"I ken," Jenny shrugged. "It was a dumb move, and I feel stupid for it. I realise that now. I dinnae ken what I was thinking. I'm so sorry, Claire. Can we start all over again and be friends?" 

Claire felt a spark of sympathy for Jenny. In that brief moment of admission, she'd kind of started to like the girl in front of her. Though she knew it would take a while before they could converse without feeling awkward, at least this was a start. Claire smiled genuinely for the first time. "Of course. I understand now why you felt the way you did." She glanced at her watch. "But in as much as I'd like to continue this bonding, I really need to go. I have a few errands to run. Shall we talk another time?"

"Oh aye, I completely forgot ye have someplace to go." She whipped around to grabbed her bag but knocked it to the floor instead, spilling its contents. "Ach, so clumsy of me," she muttered, getting onto her knees. "Ye go ahead, Claire. I have a spare key. I'll lock up once I'm done,

Claire immediately crouched down to help, grabbing feminine bits and bobs that were scattered on the rug. "Two pair of hands are always quicker getting the job done," she assured her.

"Aye, I guess so," Jenny mumbled as she skimmed the area with her eyes looking for anything she missed.

Claire scooped the loose pennies that had rolled off and slotted them into Jenny's bag. Then she picked up a slip of paper and was about to hand it to Jenny when she realised it was a newspaper clipping with her surname printed on it. Curious, Claire unfolded it and was surprised to see it was a small article from Oxford Mail about her family home, including a small line mentioning her as an heiress. Though she was aware of the article's existence, she was shocked to see it in Jenny's possession.  What is Jenny doing with this?

Blood drained from her face when she recalled Willie's story about Jenny playing matchmaker between Geneva and Jamie.  Didn't Willie say Geneva comes from a well-off family, Jenny's perfect solution to Lallybroch's financial problem?  Claire skimmed the familiar article once more, the worth of her property jumping out of the paper: three million pounds. A sudden sharp pain slammed into her chest.

Claire held up the newspaper cutting to Jenny's face. "Why do you have this?" she whispered through numb lips.

Jenny's face was white as a sheet. "I ...it was given to me."

"Is this the reason why you're suddenly nice?"

"No!" Jenny licked her lips, thoughts racing behind her blue eyes. "I swear to God, I meant what I said earlier ...that I'm sorry. It has nothing to do with ..." She waved a hand towards the paper Claire was holding. "...that."

Claire scrambled to her feet. "You're sorry?" Her voice was high-pitched and unnatural, but she couldn't help it. There's a rumbling earthquake beginning to take place inside her. "When did you start feeling sorry, Jenny? After you read this?" She crumpled the piece of paper and threw it on the floor. "Did you really want to be my friend? Or was that all hogwash too?"

"Claire, please." Misery slashed across her face. "I realised my mistake when Jamie took off with his car the other night, and Willie spent hours looking for him. My parents, husband and I were up, and we were worried sick. My constant meddling has made him fled and taken him away from ye." She wrung her hands together. "I was a bloody idiot for thinking I was doing what's best for my brother when, in fact, I was making things worse. And Jamie's now miserable because he thinks it's all his fault when really, it's mine. Ye have to believe me when I say that piece of paper was given to me. I never sought it myself. It was handed to me."

"Good God, are you listening to yourself?" Her voice had been reduced to a whisper. All she could see was Jamie's guilt and tortured face that day when he'd told her about his fight with Jenny. His pained expression before he'd sped off to the night and her fear of the unknown. The many times he'd excused and apologised for his sister's behaviour because he thought Jenny was doing it out of love when Claire could clearly see it was all out of selfishness. "Let me get this straight ...you only recognised your mistake because you became worried sick after your brother took off. Are you even aware that you've been treating him like an imbecile all this while as if he can't decide for himself? This was never about him, Jenny, is it? You're only thinking about yourself. The other night scared the bejesus out of you because you knew well you were part of the reason he took off. Tell me this ...how does it feel like to be riddled with guilt now, huh? Try multiplying that guilt by a thousandfold and remind yourself that's what Jamie feels every day of his life. And if you think saying sorry will make things right again, you need your head thoroughly examined. Jamie loves you despite all your meddling, and you unashamedly continued to manipulate him. So excuse me if I have trouble believing a single word you're saying now. Because you know what the bloody hell this looks like? Your apologies to me sound like you're trying to manipulate me as well. And all because I happen to own an impressive three million pound property."

"No!" Jenny shook her head in despair. "Everything else is true ...but not that about yer property." There's a tremor in her voice and shame in her eyes. "I stopped by yesterday to apologise to ye, but ye werenae home, and when Mrs Fitz from across the road saw me, she handed me that newspaper clipping. I swear to God, Claire, I came to ye even before I knew ye had that property."

Claire couldn't stand there and listen anymore, not after what she'd gone through the last couple of days. She needed to let all her frustration out, or she'd implode. "I don't trust you, Jenny. If drivel could bounce, you'd be in the bloody orbit by now. Unfortunately, that won't happen, so I'm out of here. I can't stand being here any longer." The words exploded out of her and popped in the air like bright red fireworks. 

Jenny fell back a step and gasped. Claire was shocked too with the words that came out of her mouth. But she took that opportunity to rush out of the cottage, not caring if it was still raining, only focusing on getting as far away from Jenny as possible.

She'd just crossed the street when a vehicle screeched to a stop and reversed. Claire kept on walking, still reeling from her conversation with Jenny.

"Miss Beauchamp?"

She stopped and glanced into the Land Rover window that stopped by her side and noticed a familiar face. "Yes?"

The man tipped his baseball cap on his head and smiled. "It's me, Tom Christie."

"Oh ... it's you ... you're early!" was all she could say, too surprised for words.

"Actually, I'm on my way home to change clothes before our meeting. Do ye need a ride? I noticed ye dinnae have a brolly with ye, and it's raining."

Claire glanced back at the cottage and saw Jenny standing at the doorway, looking at her with that still ashen face. She'd heard rumours in the village about Tom being a ladies' man and knew what it would look like to Jenny if she got into the Land Rover with him. But she didn't give a flying fig.  Let her gossip!  Smiling, she nodded at Tom. "Yes, please. To the village centre if it's no trouble."

He grinned. "Nae bother at all. Hop in."

..........

"Remind me again why I'm here," Willie mumbled under his breath as they followed a young woman down a long hallway lined with modern paintings. "I thought I made it clear it should be Claire attending this therapy with ye. In case ye need reminding, I got our business to run."

Jamie sighed. "I'd rather ye're here. Ye ken my condition better than anyone."

"Is it Geneva ye're worried about?" his older brother asked in a low voice.

"God, no. I'd be more worried if Jenny came with me. Christ, she'd been pushing Geneva and me together for as long as I can remember. I ken the lass took a fancy in me, but that's all it ever was. I'm just concerned it's gonnae be weird since we ken each other."

Willie glanced at him with understanding. "There's nae avoiding it, lad. We live in a small village, and everyone knows everyone. It's the bane of living in such a place. We just have to make do with what we have."

"Aye, that's true."

The young woman in front of them turned. "The last one on the right," she smiled, pointing at the white door. Jamie wanted to say he knew his way around and that it was the same office as his former therapist but decided not to and returned her smile instead.

With Willie close behind him, he stepped forward and knocked lightly against the door. A feminine voice answered from the inside, "Come in."

Pushing the door open, they were greeted by a familiar, cosy space and Geneva, dressed in a black pantsuit with her hair done in a bun. She was sat in a dark leather armchair, looking them over with her transparent-rimmed glasses. If she was surprised to see Willie with him, she hid it well. 

"Mr Fraser, it's nice to see you again." Smiling warmly, she stood up and held out her hand for him. Taking it, she gave him a firm handshake before doing the same to Willie and motioning them towards the over-size beige leather sofa arranged in the middle of the room. "Please take a seat." Like a couple of schoolboys, they both did as they were told. 

"Before anything else," she began, looking at Jamie. "I have you here for one on one therapy. Is there a reason why you brought your brother with you?"

Jamie cleared his throat and licked his lips. "I, ah, wanted him here for moral support." 

"Fair enough. So what can I do for you?" She smiled, crossing her legs and reclining back into her armchair, a clipboard resting on her thigh.

Jamie anxiously glanced at Willie, but his brother only shrugged. "I dinnae ken where to start. Ever since yer predecessor left, I havenae been to therapy because I didnae feel comfortable seeing a therapist who knows me on a personal level. It kinda feels odd."

She steepled her fingers together, her blue eyes narrowing on him. "I understand this is out of your comfort zone and probably, for some, highly unusual. But I'd like to make it clear that I take my job seriously, and I hold myself to the highest professional standard. Whatever friendship I have with your sister will have no effect whatsoever on what would transpire within these walls. If you wish to proceed, please take a few deep breaths and just forget that you know me. In here, I am Dr Dunsany, and you are Mr Fraser."

Jamie considered her words as she waited patiently for his reply. After a minute of contemplation, he finally nodded and took a few cleansing breaths. "Fine."

She smiled. "So, first things first. What prompted you to finally see a therapist?"

He leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands together. "I'm in a serious relationship." Jamie thought he saw an ever so slight arching of her eyebrow but immediately dismissed it as his imagination. "And my condition and the panic attacks are hurting our relationship. I figured in order for us to move forward, I needed to take steps in getting better."

Geneva picked up her clipboard and started scribbling. "What do you believe your girlfriend thinks about your condition?"

Jamie smiled briefly at the thought of Claire. "Weel, she's very understanding and very patient, and she's taken my condition in a stride. Like the rest of my family, she thinks I'm suffering from suppressed guilt and emotions."

Geneva paused and closely appraised him. "Why do you think she thinks you have suppressed guilt and emotions?"

His heart began to increase its pace, and his throat tightened. "Because we were both there when her parents died. She was able to move on, but I couldnae," the words came out rapidly.

A whoosh of breath came from Willie.

"Why do you think she was able to move on and you couldn't?" she pushed, seemingly unaffected by Jamie's revelation.

A bead of sweat formed on his forehead. "Because it's my fault that she grew up without a family."

He heard Willie's breath hitch, but Geneva ignored his brother.

"And why do you think it's your fault?"

His mouth became dry, and his tongue thick. "I didnae run fast enough to get help when their car crashed. If I had, she wouldnae be orphaned today. If I was stronger, I wouldnae have needed to run off and get my godfather, and I could have pulled the door open myself and saved her parents as well."

"You look like a strong man, Mr Fraser. Why do you think you needed to run and get help to pull the door open?"

"I wasnae big enough back then. I was only ten." He dropped his head into his hand. "And she was so wee ...crying for her ma. All I could do was hold her." 

He started to hyperventilate as the image of Harry staring at him through the window, sprung to life. It was the last image he saw before the car had exploded.

Sensing his discomfort, Geneva stood from her armchair and retrieved two bottles of mineral water from the mini-fridge, handing them each to the brothers. They both gratefully accepted, taking large gulps.

When he got his breathing back under control, she proceeded. "I understand now your frustration at not being big enough to carry the task out yourself and why you had to get your godfather." She scribbled a few more notes on her clipboard. "I'm going to go back to the question you haven't answered yet. Why do you think your girlfriend was able to move on from her parents' death?"

He squashed the empty bottle of mineral water. "She was too young then to understand any of it, just a wee bairn when it happened."

"And so were you."

"She was five, and I was ten. I was old enough to be able to do something about it, but I couldn't."

"Your godfather, who was old enough and stronger than you, was unable to do anything further. Do you think it was your godfather's fault?"

"No! Of course, not. He tried his best. We got her ...Claire, who's m-my girlfriend now, out first and my godfather made me take her to safety. But the car caught fire, and it exploded."

"So it's not your godfather's fault, and yet you think it was your fault."

"Yes!"

"Why would you think, after all the efforts you and your godfather have done to try and save your girlfriend's parents, it's still your fault?"

"It was the way he looked at me."

"Who looked at you?"

"Claire's father. Just before the car exploded."

"How did he look at you?"

"He was just staring at me."

"And you can't get that out of your head?"

"No."

A mild frown of concentration descended across Geneva's face as she flipped through the notes on her clipboard. She reached out for a manila folder on a coffee table by her side and browsed through it too. "This is a great start, Mr Fraser," she continued. "From what I've here in your history with your former therapist, this is the first time you've ever talked about an experience from your childhood. This is highly interesting. Care to tell me why you've never talked about this before."

"It's a memory that I've forgotten, and it's just resurfaced recently."

She arched an eyebrow. "How recently?"

"A few days ago."

"Can you remember what triggered the memories to come back?"

"The night I met my girlfriend's uncle on video chat."

"So, prior to that night, you had no recollection of the forgotten memory, is that correct?"

"Aye."

"Why do you think your girlfriend's uncle triggered all the memory to come back?"

His fingers began to pick at the water bottle label. "He looks exactly my girlfriend' father."

A long silence ensued.

Geneva placed the clipboard by her side and uncrossed her legs. "That will be all for today, Mr Fraser. We've covered enough to have something to work on."

Jamie's head shot up. "So that's it? That was quick," he pointed out, glancing at his watch.

"Oh, we're far from done, Mr Fraser, but you've revealed more than I anticipated, so I decided to stop while we're ahead. Thank you for answering all questions as openly as possible."

"So what's yer diagnosis?"

She tilted her head to the side. "I believe you have a lot of misplaced guilt about your past that may be hindering you from moving on. So ...what I would like you to do is ...I want you to think about how you want your future to look like. Think really hard and try to dig deep. Next time we catch up, we'll discuss everything in details." She stood up, and Jamie and Willie followed suit. "I'll see you next week. My assistant will write down the date of our next meeting. You can pick up your appointment card on the way out," she smiled, opening the door and ushering them out.

The brothers walked out quietly together, both lost in their own thoughts.

"That wasnae too bad, was it?" Willie asked as they stepped out of the building.

Jamie shook his head. "No, no' at all." His head was still buzzing from the session, so he didn't really have much opinion to offer.

"Perhaps next time, ye can bring Claire with ye."

At the mention of her name, he pulled out his phone from his back pocket. He'd silenced it all morning as he'd prepared himself for the therapy but was disappointed to see there was no new message from her. "She hasnae messaged."

"I'm no' surprised. You havenae been returning her calls. And ye have no excuse, lad, because I left ye a charger at Lallybroch."

Jamie followed his brother close behind as they made their way to the car. "How do ye know I've no' been returning her calls?"

"She told me."

"How is she?"

"Find out yersel'."

A familiar bright red Fiat slowed down next to them just as Jamie was about to get into the car, and Ian, their brother-in-law, poked his head out of the window. "Hey, lads, guess who I just saw back in town?"

The brothers looked at each other and shrugged. 

When Ian stalled, Willie blew out an impatient breath. 

"Out with it!" Willie grumbled. "I've been away from work for far too long already."

Ian grinned. "Yer pal Christie."

Jamie waved a hand in the air in dismissal and turned to open the car door, not particularly interested in hearing the latest coming and going in Broch Mordha. "I'm pretty sure the lassies will be thrilled he's back."

"Aye, ye're probably right, but I dinnae think ye'd be too pleased to hear if one particular lass is enjoying his company."

Jamie whipped around. "What do ye mean?" He sounded like someone just launched a flying rugby pass onto his stomach.

"Saw Claire and Tom through the window of Slater's Arms. Probably sitting down for late lunch."

His heart and brain must have swapped places because suddenly, his heart seemed twice as heavy, and his brain thumped against his skull. "M-my Claire?"

Willie tipped his head like he's on the brink of calling Ian an eejit. "Hold up, this could all be just an innocent thing. Wasnae Claire supposed to be meeting with someone from here for some book publication?"

"Nae way!" Ian shook his head. "Christie doesnae look like the type to string a sentence together, never mind write a book."

"Alright," Jamie breathed, propping his hands on the edge of the car's roof. His brain was barely functioning because it was knocking against his temple, making him see red. He'd completely underestimated his ability to let her go, thinking he was doing it for her own good. Claire hadn't called today because she thought he'd given up.  Ah, shite!  He felt he was going to be sick. "I need to go and see her. Now."

"Fuck!" Willie muttered. "I'm coming with ye." Then he bent down to Ian's eye level and pointed his index finger at his brother-in-law. "Next time, run this kind of info by me first."

Ian smirked. "Fine. But I'm coming too. I'm up for seeing a bit of nefariousness."

Jamie was already in the car, fastening his seat belt. "Let's go!" 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Claire hurriedly made her way to Slater's Arms to meet Tom Christie. They'd arranged earlier to meet at the pub after he'd dropped her off at the village centre to do her errands, so she was surprised to see him waiting outside. After exchanging a hurried cursory hello, he allowed him to guide her through the half-filled bar, his hand ever so lightly touching her elbow. They were greeted by a string of boisterous sallies from the locals, to which Tom good-humouredly responded with a couple of wisecracks of his own. It was becoming pretty clear they were in his local haunt and was well-liked by its patrons. But she also suspected there could be whispers going around, wondering what she was doing with him. Despite those thoughts, she kept her head up, and a smile plastered to her face.

After navigating through the narrow maze of tables and chairs, they opted for an empty space by the window, away from the bar where a heated football discussion was just about to begin. They simultaneously slid into their seats, sitting opposite each other, his lopsided grin and lax manner putting her immediately at ease. He was seemingly oblivious to the curious stares around them, but Claire paid no heed to the attention they were garnering and pushed her earlier encounter with Jenny away from her mind. This was a professional meeting, a welcome distraction even though it was proving an impossibility not to picture Jamie across from her. Suddenly missing Jamie, she allowed her thoughts to momentarily drift and wondered what he was up to.

"Hey."

Claire snapped out of her reverie. "Huh?"

"I asked if ye're hungry."

"Oh! Well, I'm not sure," she murmured, squinting at the specials scrawled on the blackboard hanging behind the bar. "Sort of, I guess."

"Sort of?" he laughed. "What kind of answer is that?" He passed her a menu. "Here. Ye ought to try their haggis tweeds. They have the best in this area."

She snorted, taking the menu card and skimming through it. "Really? I've never met a Scot who liked haggis, and yet every one of you lot I've met recommends it to non-locals."

"Aaahh," he leaned forward, propping his elbows on the table. "To be honest, I dinnae like haggis myself when cooked the traditional way. But the haggis tweeds are different ...more palatable. They're rolled into balls, breaded and deep-fried. I'm quite sure ye'll like them."

"Hmmm ..." When she glanced up from the menu, she met his thoughtful gaze. Though smiling, he had an odd expression on his face. "Wot?" She smoothed her hair, thinking it must be all over the place. She dreaded what her hair looked like after being caught in the rain earlier on. She wished now she'd tied it back before leaving the cottage. "Anything wrong?"

Tom shrugged his shoulders. "Just noticing ye dinnae look as upbeat as ye sounded on the phone the first time we talked. I was expecting ye to be more excited about selling me the idea of publishing my travel book. Ye kinda look as if something is bothering ye. Is anything the matter?"

She let out an exhale and placed the menu down. "I'm sorry. I've just had a rough day."

"Boyfriend problem?" he asked slowly.

She arched an eyebrow at him. Friendly as Tom was, Claire wasn't prepared to share any details of her personal life. "I just have a lot of things going on, and then you threw me out of the loop," she explained, not wanting to lie but not wanting to over-share either. "I was caught off-guard when you phoned earlier, and I wasn't expecting your call until, at least, sometime next week."

"Ye could've told me to meet at a later date. I wouldnae have minded."

"No! Today is fine," she assured him quickly. "I'm probably slowly weaning from the fast pace of hectic schedules in London, that at the first sign of change, I stumble a bit."

He grinned. "Weel, whatever is bothering ye, I dinnae like you looking so downcast. Maybe we can do something about it right now and tell ye a bit of good news. To cheer ye up."

"I like good news ..." she remarked, perking up, guessing he probably had a new picture or post on his blog he wanted to show.

"That's much better," he said when he caught a hint of a smile forming on her face. "As I was saying, I have a bit of good news. I've been giving your proposition a lot of thought ..." he shifted on his seat and took a deep breath. "I've decided I want to go ahead and publish my travel blog in print."

She blinked and swallowed before finding her voice. "But you haven't seen the projected sale and all the ..."

He waved a hand. "I'm quite sure after that impressive pitch over the phone, yer projected whatever and other wotnots ye wish to go over with me will be just as equally convincing. The idea is sold, and I'm on board."

"Just like that?"

He nodded his head, his eyes twinkling with amusement. "Aye. Now that I've met ye in person, I'm pretty confident ye'll make sure I'll get a fair deal for my book. I'm a good judge of character, and I trust ye'll do what's right."

"Of course."

"So it's settled."

"Well, that's ...that's fabulous," she breathed, her mind rushing in all sorts of direction.

"This calls for a celebration, don't ye think?" he smiled, waving at the waitress.

Before Claire could reply, her purse vibrated. She pointed an index finger at Tom. "Hold that thought." She opened her bag and grabbed her phone. It was her boss, John Grey.

"Oh, hi, John! I'm in the middle of ..."

"Claire, I'm sorry to dump this on you," John said rapidly in a panicky tone. "Mary Hawkins just phoned and said she expects you to pick her up at Inverness Airport."

"Wot?!? But how? Why?" She glanced at Tom and noticed a light frown lining his brows. "She hasn't been answering any of my emails. What the hell is she doing in Inverness?" She knew it wasn't professional to be discussing another author over the phone with a potential client in front of her. But it couldn't be helped. At the moment, she was far too agitated to care. Mary Hawkins, the publishing's star author, had been elusive ever since she disappeared to France, and she'd been the reason Claire had decided to take a break in Scotland only to be given another job in the form of Tom Christie. "Please don't tell me you sent her here. I have enough on my plate as it is." She gave Tom an apologetic look, to which he just shrugged and smiled in understanding.

A frustrated sigh came from John. "I swear to God, this isn't my doing. She arrived yesterday here in London, and when she demanded to start work right away on her book, I assigned another editor. But she wouldn't have it. She insisted on working with you. So I told her you're in Inverness doing another project. And then she called a few minutes ago, demanding you pick her up at the airport. I swear I didn't know she was planning on flying to Inverness."

Oh, God!  "John!" she whined. "I can't just drop everything and pick her up. I'm an editor, not a chauffeur! I'm in the middle of talks with Mr Christie."

"I'm terribly sorry for this mess, Claire but, isn't there anything you can do? Your boyfriend, perhaps? You know how Hawkins is a big deal for the company."

She took a deep breath and squeezed her eyes shut. Claire felt she was being put in a position she didn't want to be in. On top of it all, her uncle would be arriving in two days, and there was the added worry she had with Jamie and potentially Jenny. The day was definitely getting worse by the second, but Claire reminded herself she was John's only hope, and he was a friend and had always been good to her. When she finally had the strength to open her eyes again, Tom mouthed something she couldn't quite catch.

Wot do you mean?  She mouthed back, shaking her head.

"Claire, are you still there?" 

"Yes!" she snapped, tamping down the urge to curse. "I'm here!"

"Well?"

She let out a frustrated breath. There was no way out of it. "Fine, John! But you owe me big time! I'll see what I can do."  Damn it!

"You're a star!" John said, relief lacing his voice. "I knew I could rely on you. I'll text Hawkins to let her know you're on your way, and then I'll text you her private number. I don't think you'll have that. It's one of the reasons you couldn't get in touch with her. Anyway, let me know later how you get on."

Before she could answer, the line went dead. What the bloody hell just happened?

Claire dropped her head into her hands and groaned. She wanted to bawl, throw stuff and pull her hair out in frustration.

"Problems?"

She raised her head and looked at Tom. "I'm sorry you had to witness that. I have to cancel our meeting. I need to somehow get to Inverness and pick up this author I'm working with." Without going into too many details, Claire quickly explained her predicament, almost forgetting to breathe. By the time she finished, she was gasping for air and wondering if Tom understood what the hell she was on about. "As you can see, I probably have to organise her accommodation as well. So I really must get going." She stood up and grabbed her bag. "Raincheck?"

He got on his feet as well. "Look, I'm not doing anything for the rest of the day. How about I drive you to Inverness. I can even help you set her up."

"Tom, you don't have to."

"Hey, I'm about to get a book deal from your boss. Let me at least prove to ye what a perfect travel guide I am as I've portrayed on my blog."

Claire stopped to collect herself. On second thoughts, she did need Tom's help, and she couldn't well impose on Willie to drive her to Inverness when he'd been taking time off to check up on her ever since Jamie left. Maybe she could kill two birds with one stone and talk him through his own book's publishing process on their way to the airport. It was a brilliant idea, and hopefully, by the end of today, John would be able to draw up a contract for Tom. With a resigned smile, Claire appreciatively accepted the offer. "Alright then, but we do need to get going now."

"Absolutely. We'll go through the back door." When Claire looked at him curiously, he grinned. "I've parked the car in the staffs' parking lot. I'm good friends with the owner, so I get the privilege to walk through the kitchen and use the backdoor," he explained. Then he leaned closer to her ear and spoke in a low voice. "And if the chef is in a good mood, he might allow us to taste today's menu."

Claire laughed out loud, attracting attention from the pub's clientele. She ignored the curious stares. It was good to laugh again after the last couple of days of feeling down, and she owed it to herself to steer negativity and worries from her thoughts. "We'll stop by the cottage to get some clothes. Knowing my client, she'll probably want to stay in a posh hotel in Inverness and want to start working right away. She doesn't do bed and breakfast or small places. So I doubt she'll want to come to Broch Mordha."

Tom nodded with a smile as he took her hand and lead the way.

Heading to the back of the pub, Claire made a few mental notes on what she needed to take with her. She also reminded herself to message Willie about taking care of Rollo and Adso while she's away, hoping he would think nothing of it when he hears from the village gossip of her meeting with Tom.

...........

Jamie caught Willie's livid expression before the car started, and they were driving down the small country lane. He knew his brother was miffed with Ian, who'd sped ahead of them after revealing Claire's whereabouts with Christie. Though common sense told him he had nothing to be worried about, it had been still a punch in the gut to hear Claire was out with another man.

"Can ye speed up a bit?" Jamie muttered, shifting restlessly on his seat.

"We're not in a bloody motorway, and there are speed limits for a reason," Willie growled, his fingers flexing on the steering wheel. "And it will do ye a lot of good to use this time to calm down before we reach Claire. It's obvious ye're not thinking clearly."

Jamie almost wished he'd taken a ride with Ian instead. They couldn't see their brother-in-law's red Fiat anymore as it disappeared at a bend further ahead. But he knew Willie was right. He wasn't thinking clearly. It's just that, why it had to be Thomas Christie of all people Claire had chosen to go out with. He had nothing against the bloke, but he was a renowned player. What if Claire had grown tired of his condition and fell for Christie's charms? It wouldn't be a difficult feat as the bloke oozed charms by the bucketload. Hadn't he lost a girlfriend in the past because of Christie? Or was it because of his condition? He couldn't be sure anymore. Either way, knowing Claire was with Christie at this very moment was burning a hole in his stomach. "So ye're an expert on my thoughts now, are ye?" Jamie grunted, unable to think of a better excuse for his behaviour.

"I dinnae need to be an expert to know what ye're thinking ... it's written all o'er yer face," Willie retorted. "If ye'd called her up in the first place, then ye would've had a fair idea why she's meeting Christie, and ye wouldnae be in this stinking shite thinking the worse. The lass has been worried sick about ye, and she's put up with yer silence more than what could be expected of her. So do both yerselves a favour and calm the fuck down, aye?"

Jamie knocked back the claustrophobic sensation and forced himself to breathe. This had always been his trouble with his PTSD. He always had these intense emotions that always grew out of proportion to a point it would suffocate him, especially negatives ones like a feeling of lacking or guilt. Wasn't that what Geneva had said? There was a lot of misplaced guilt involved? And no matter what he did to get better, it was a bloody never-ending cycle that always brought him back to square one. But despite the shortcomings, he knew it would kill him if he didn't give himself a fighting chance with Claire. He might as well die trying. She was, after all, either going to be his reason for living or the reason he died. It was all right there, shining in front of him like a floodlight. 

With a sigh, he tried to relax. Jamie knew justifying his earlier behaviour was a bad idea in both their current edgy states, but nothing would stop him from seeing Claire right now. It was like a need that required satisfying, and he couldn't wait to finally see her. He focused on the road ahead of them and listened to the radio to take his mind of negative thoughts.

It's a dreich Thursday afternoon, and here's another trip down memory lane with Mac's Classics here at MFR, with the biggest hits and the biggest throwbacks. Next up is a song sure to make ye forget the dreary days ahead – Let's get rickrolling with Never Gonna Give You Up. 

"Turn it up," Jamie said suddenly, surprising his brother.

"What?" Willie glanced at him like he'd grown a pair of horns.

"I said, turn the bloody volume up!"

"Ye're joking, right? Rick fucking Astley? Nae chance pal!"

"Just do it," Jamie huffed, not caring what his brother thought of his song choice. When Claire had told him it had made her smile listening to it in the cafe the other day, he'd listened to it as well on his mother's antique record player. It was a bloody awful song, but for some strange reason, it had made him smile too.

Scowling and cursing under his breath, Willie eventually complied, and they listened to Rick Astley's song for the rest of the way. When they reached the village centre, Willie illegally parked outside Slater's Arms, carefully avoiding bumping into the menacing bollards. They were just about to get out of the car when Ian appeared from the pub, shaking his head.

Willie stuck his head out of the window. "What's the matter?"

"They're gone," Ian replied, shrugging, perplexity evident in his expression. "Spoke to Angus, and he said they didn't even order anything. They just got up and left."

Jamie got out of the car. "Did he say where they went?"

Ian narrowed his gaze at him. "I didnae ask."

Jamie ran a hand in front of his face and got back in the car. His brother had to work. There was only one thing left he could do, and it was to go back to the cottage, and if Claire wasn't there, he'd give her a call. He turned to Willie, letting out a sigh of resignation. "Just drop me off at the cottage. I've taken too much of yer time already."

"Ye sure?" Willie asked quietly. "I can drop ye off at Lallybroch. Yer car is there. Ye'll most probably need it soon, especially with more bad weather to come."

Jamie shook his head. He was certain Claire would be at home, and if not, surely later. He wasn't planning on going anywhere anytime soon but had every intention of making up for lost time with her. "It's time to go home," Jamie sighed, waving goodbye to Ian. "No more running away," 

Willie smiled, starting the car. "Good choice!" 

It was a short drive to his cottage, and by the time they pulled up outside his house, the sun started to peek out for a splinter of a moment, his driveway though occupied by an unfamiliar vehicle. As soon as he saw a man's profile sat on the driver's seat, he immediately knew it was Christie. As if anticipating his next move and before he could yank off his seatbelt, Willie slapped a hand across his chest.

"What?" Jamie wheezed.

"Claire's in the cottage. Talk to her first and find out what's going on before ye jump to any conclusions."

Jamie breathed through a laugh, but he could hear it was edged with doubt. "What if I've fucked this up?"

"Ye havenae. And it's up to ye to keep that way. Now go to her. Ye'll find out soon enough there's a perfect explanation for Christie hanging about."

Words were fighting to leave his tongue, but he clamped his lips together and held them back. Vocalising the feelings raging inside his chest would only allow his emotions to run away with him. He reigned them in and took a deep breath. Whether it's a consequence of PTSD or not, he couldn't expect Claire to understand every time. So instead, Jamie gave Willie a reassuring nod and hoped his brother was right. 

He got out of the car and walked straight to the cottage, refusing to acknowledge Christie. He knew he was being rude and could feel his brother's eyes boring into his back as well as Christie's. He didn't care because right at this moment, his primary focus was Claire. 

As soon as he opened the door and saw Claire hooking a bag onto her shoulder, he bounded across the room, dropping his face into her neck and breathing for the first time in days. "Sassenach," he whispered. "I'm so sorry for leaving ye. I wasnae thinking. Please forgive me."

Claire dropped her bag on the floor, wrapping both arms around his neck. "Jamie, you're here," she breathed into his ear. "Are you alright? God, I've been so worried about you."

"I'm alright now that I'm here and ye're here," he rasped, lifting his head for a moment and eyeing the bags on the floor. "Why are yer bags packed?"

She followed his gaze. "I ...ah ... it's work, and I have to ..."

"Ye're going back to London?"

"No!"

That's all he needed to hear. Unable to wait any longer for an explanation, he pulled her into his arms as urgency pumped in his veins. He badly needed to absorb as much as he could of her, breathing her in, in huge gulps of air. His mouth travelled over her neck, into her hair, across her lips, whispering for forgiveness, his hands restless as he touched her everywhere.

"Hey, look at me ... there's nothing to forgive," she murmured, drawing away. She placed her hands on both sides of his face and searched his eyes. "I understand what you've been going through, and I know you're fighting your hardest. It's going to be alright."

"I've missed ye." He turned his face to kiss her palm before placing her hand on his chest. "I-I thought ye're better off without me. I thought I could walk away from ye, and it would be enough knowing ye're safe from me. But nothing was right. I was sick to the soul, knowing I've left ye. I wanted ye to be with a better man than me, but now ... I'm gonnae be selfish and beg ye to let me be that man by yer side."

"Jamie, where's this coming from?" she queried. "I was worried and afraid for you, but I haven't changed my mind about us." She sighed. "Your brother told me yesterday, you were seeing a therapist this morning. Did you go today?"

Jamie swallowed and nodded, unable to still his hands, touching her everywhere, needing to assure himself he was really holding her.

"Is this why you're talking like this? Has the therapy dug up a lot of unwanted issues? Because if it has, it's perfectly normal."

"No!" He let out a frustrated breath. He'd been so unpredictable with the symptoms of his PTSD coming and going, she wasn't taking him seriously when he needed her to hear him out. "No, please listen and look me in the eye. I panicked when I saw the bruises on yer arms, and without thinking, I left. I did what I did because I didnae think I could ever be the man for ye ...a bloody disappointment, constantly causing ye grief. But I understand now why my condition is out of control at the moment ... it's because I have suppressed emotions that need to come out. It's been coming out more because all this while, ye've been the key to my healing. So I'm handing everything inside me over to ye because I trust ye, and ye're the only one who can make sense of me. I cannae promise smooth sailing, Sassenach, but there is one thing I know ye can depend on and will always be constant despite my condition. And that's my love for ye. I can guarantee ye with certainty ye can rely on that. This isnae a result of my therapy talking, alright? I willnae let ye go for anything. I can work around my condition with ye by my side, and I'll work twice as hard to get better."

"Jamie, I love you too, and I have no doubt that ..."

"Then why are your bags packed?" he questioned accusingly. "And why is Christie outside waiting for ye?" 

With a sharp intake of breath, Claire quickly explained everything from the call she received from her boss to Christie's involvement and an impatient Mary Hawkins waiting for her at the airport. 

He could tell she was itching to go by the way she tried to subtly glance at her watch, but he was feeling too selfish. "How about I drive ye to Inverness?" he cajoled, his hand stroking her hair. "Willie is still outside. We'll get my car in Lallybroch, and I'll drive ye." He suddenly felt like a bastard keeping her from doing her work.

"Jamie, no!" she said gently but firmly. He knew she was restraining herself from rushing off, wanting to make sure he was alright first. "I can't be fretting about you being in a city when I have work to do. There's a possibility I'll be back tonight, but if Mary wants to work straight away on her book, then I have to stay in Inverness for a couple of nights, tops. Besides, I need to explain to Tom about his book's publication and make sure he hasn't changed his mind. Until we've drawn up a contract, nothing is certain." Her hands smoothed the hard muscles on his chest. "Besides, I need you to be here when my uncle comes. He'll be hiring a car, so he won't require picking up."

"What? Ye're uncle is coming here?" he almost shouted.

"No. I mean, uncle Lamb won't be staying here in the cottage even though you told him he could. I've already booked him a place in the village centre ...close to the amenities."

He let out a sigh of relief. He didn't think he was ready to bond with Harry's look-alike ...yet. If anything, he dreaded it, afraid of other suppressed memories dying to come out and choke him with guilt.

"Jamie, I really ought to go. I promise I'll call later and explain everything."

With a groan, he pulled Claire in once more in his arms and kissed her thoroughly, and she responded with a whimper that told him she was enjoying the kiss. He hadn't even had a second to savour getting her back before the prospect of letting her go again struck him like a baseball bat between the shoulder blades. But he wanted to give her something to remember while she's away and what she'll be missing if she didn't hurry up with her work. He slipped his hand under her cardigan, caressing her nipple with the calloused pad of his thumb and pressing his burgeoning erection against her belly.

"I love ye ...always remember that." His mouth coasted along the lines of her jaw, his hands squeezing her waist. "I ken ye've been patient and understanding with me, but just try to be extra tolerant with me for now. Can ye do that?"

She nodded, her face red from beard burn. "Alright, but I do need to go, Jamie." Her eyes flashed. "And you have nothing to worry about. So please rest up tonight because you'll need a hell of a lot of energy when my uncle comes."

It's the way she looked at him, pleading for understanding that became his undoing as if she's reading his thoughts, and despite everything he'd done, she couldn't find fault with a single one. He needed to be a better man and control his emotions and needs. Her work was important to her, and she was important to him. "Fine, I'll walk ye to the car." He stooped down to get her bags and followed her outside.

They stopped beside Christie's car, and Jamie watched the other man climbed out, both men grunting a greeting at each other. 

"Am I still driving ye to Inverness, Claire?" Christie asked, avoiding Jamie's eyes.

Claire nodded. "Yes, please, if that's still alright with you. I'm so sorry I took so long."

"It's nae bother, and of course, I'll drive ye to Inverness," Christie smiled warmly. 

A long silence stretched as the three of them just stood there. Christie rocked on his heels, and Jamie held on to Claire's bags like it was his lifeline. 

Caught up in the awkwardness of the moment, Claire bit her bottom lip. "Well, I guess that's settled then. We best get going before Mary does something like bite some poor soul's head at the airport." Claire's attempt to sound cheerful lessened the tension in the air but not the one on Jamie's shoulders. She turned to him and tried to take her bags off his hands, but he couldn't seem to let go. "Jamie ...my bags," she whispered, her hand running up and down his forearm as if to tell him everything was going to be alright.

But instead of giving Claire's bags back to her, he begrudgingly handed them to Christie while launching if looks could kill look over her head. They had a few seconds of stare off until Claire's hands on his face forced him to look at her.

"Jamie, kiss me, goodbye?"

He didn't hesitate at her request and sucked on her bottom lip as she made a sobbing noise. That wee noise she made jolted something free inside of him, and he, too, wanted to cry. He couldn't remember wanting to openly cry before. Not like this. He couldn't control it, and it dragged him down, stealing oxygen from his lungs, but Claire's touches soothed him. 

"I don't want to go," she murmured against his mouth. "Not one bit. But I'm doing this for us, remember that. The sooner I'm done with work, the more time we can spend time together." 

He allowed himself to wade into the shallow waters of comfort Claire was starting to represent. He'd lived with this reality for too long that he wasn't enough. Or probably worse, he was too much. For years, these memories of loss and guilt and shame had been subdued. Now they're coming out with guns blazing, and he felt totally defenceless. But with her arms around him, he felt cocooned in her bubble of protection. So he clung to her like a drunk with his last shot of whisky, the desperation inside him going into overdrive, and he was practically mauling her lips with no care whose watching, drawing her onto tiptoes so he could get all of her from every angle.

"Jamie," she whispered shakily, gently pulling away. "My phone is going off every second. Mary is probably wondering why I haven't called her." 

Breathe, lad, it's going to be alright. Don't lose yer cool, or ye'll drive her away.  He let go and opened the car door for her, not taking any notice of the man waiting patiently at the driver's seat. "I'm sorry," Jamie mumbled.

"It's alright." She smiled in understanding, squeezing his hand. "I'll be back before you know it."

He held on to Claire's eyes, the only tangible thing he could grasp, giving him a renewed determination to manage the condition that had ruled him all his life. At that moment, the world suddenly made sense, and he was veering into a place he didn't recognise ...a place of calm, where the voices in his head had lost their dominion over his thoughts.

He watched as Christie's Land Rover drove away and was surprised when a hand landed on his shoulder. Jamie turned around to discover Willie stood there, a smile etched on his face. Jamie had forgotten about his brother, too caught up with Claire's departure and the intense emotions he'd nearly let out of control. 

"Ye did well, bràthair. I'm so proud of ye."

Jamie dropped his head forward and let out an exhale, feeling a lot lighter in days. He knew he'd only scratched the surface of their relationship, but Claire was giving him all the time in the world to get back on his feet, and he was determined not to disappoint her. Though it had been a struggle not to let his emotions take control, it was at least a start. He glanced up at his brother and smiled.

"Ye alright there, Jamie lad?" Willie playfully slapped him on the back for good measure.

"Aye, I think so." This time Jamie meant it and believed his own words. He threw an arm around Willie's shoulder, squeezed it briefly before stepping back. "And thank ye for sticking around. I owe ye one."

"Aye ye do," Willie grinned. "How about repaying me like right now and coming to work. It should keep yer mind busy and help me catch up with a long list of jobs."

Jamie didn't need prodding. His mouth curved into a smile, and he nodded his head. "After seeing Christie, I think I'm in the mood for uprooting trees."

They shared a wicked glance and then laughed out loud.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"The monster is only scary while it is in the closet.

Once in the light,

you can see its many flaws

and weaknesses.

And often,

we end up laughing,

at what we shield our eyes from

no more."

-Tom Althouse

 

Meticulously scanning the busy vicinity, Claire stopped in the middle of the airport's arrival area and whirled on the spot, impatiently tapping her phone against her thigh.  Come on, Hawkins, where the bloody hell are you?   Though she and Tom were painfully late, she didn't want to blame their tardiness on Jamie, so instead, she held the gridlock on the motorway and the rain responsible.  And whyever not?  If it hadn't been for Mary coming to Inverness unannounced, she would be with Jamie right now, making up for lost time and talking about his therapy from this morning. Why in heaven's name had the responsibility of Mary landed on her shoulder of all days? She sighed. It must be another perk of being John Grey's ultra-reliable and never-can-say-no star employee, she reminded herself with an inward groan. 

On the way to the airport, Claire had been quiet throughout the drive and was grateful to Tom for not prodding about what happened. To her relief, he'd just given her an understanding smile and drove. Thinking of Jamie's tortured face when he'd arrived at the cottage, it had taken a lot of willpower on her part to get into the car and leave him by the roadside looking after her with a forlorn expression. His words had played on repeat until she had to do a mental scold to remind herself she had work to do and assured herself she'd see him soon enough. She'd wanted him to be alright before she left to ensure him she hadn't changed her mind about them. Though she'd hurt not hearing from him after he'd disappeared, she knew his actions had been done in consideration of her, and that notion prevented her anger from taking over. Her feeling of abandonment over what he'd done was also tempered with her annoyance at Jenny. Jamie's sister's meddling was just so wrong on all sorts of level. In the middle of Jamie leaving her, Willie checking to make sure she was alright, and Jenny coming this morning, she'd gone back and forth between a place of strength and feeling like a lamb in the eye of a hurricane. But now, as she attempted to find the anger, the rage she'd felt after discovering the newspaper clipping about her house in Jenny's possession and the interference with Jamie's love life, she couldn't find it anymore.

Sensing Tom approaching, she recentred herself and smiled in his direction. "There you are.".

"Any luck?" he asked, coming to stand next to her and looking around.

"Nope," she replied, pressing her fingers to her forehead and massaging a sudden ache as she was reminded of the reason why they were there. "How did you get a parking space so quick?"

"I have my ways." When she arched an eyebrow, he grinned at her. "I have a disabled parking permit."

Claire stopped and glared at him. "Tom!"

He ignored her disapproving expression and shrugged. "So, who are we looking for?"

She shook her head and looked around for Mary once more. It shouldn't be this difficult to spot her because she usually stood out. "An overdressed, attractive petite brunette with loads of attitude," she replied, absentmindedly. "And probably with a trolley full of luggage."

More people walked past them making their search more difficult. She was about to make another phone call to Mary when Tom whistled under his breath. "Weel, weel," he murmured, his gaze ticking past her shoulder and turning thoughtful. "I wonder if the lass walking towards us is yer Hawkins." His lips twisted into a smile. "She looks mighty pissed."

"Wot?" She spun around and drew her brows together as she saw a familiar figure approaching them.  What the hell? Is that Mary?  It could only be her. The woman struggling with an oversized suitcase on wheels stood out like a mini bolt of lightning in her designer four-inch heels, pristine, skinny white jeans and black fur-lined down jacket. But there was something different about the way Mary looked, and it took a few seconds before Claire realised she had done something to her hair. She nearly gasped out loud.   But as soon as Mary made eye contact, Claire immediately braced herself for some telling off for being late. Mary stopped, her mouth opening and closing as if she couldn't find the words to voice her displeasure. Claire schooled her features and met her leaden glare without flinching. "Mary? I hardly recognised you."

Mary's brown eyes prettily widened, and her expression softened as some kind of realisation dawned on her. "Oh! Of course ...you couldn't have." A sound of delight puffed out of her. "I had my hair done in Paris. Now we have the same curls. If only I was as tall as you, we'll probably be mistaken as sisters." She missed Claire's intake of breath as she ran her delicate fingers through her locks. "Do you like it?"

No, I don't! What have you done to your beautiful hair? You look like a poodle!  Claire swallowed hard, tilted her head to her side, and contemplated the best way to tell Mary the truth. But she didn't have the heart to say it. Instead, she opted for something closer to the truth. "Well, for starters, it looks unusual. I'm so used to seeing your beautiful straight hair. I guess it will take time getting used to," she admitted. But when a slight frown drifted across Mary's face, Claire felt bad. Taking a deep breath, she laughed nervously as she fluffed her own hair. "Look at these ...after all these years, I'm still not used to mine, and I have a bit of hate relationship with it, especially when it gets humid or when I looked at the mirror first thing in the morning. So bear with me if I'm not much into curls."

It took Mary a long time to respond. "Oh, well," she replied with a subdued smile. "You should have seen John's face when he first saw my hair. He looked shocked." She shrugged. "But in the end, he did say it was beginning to grow on him. I guess everyone's used to my limp, lifeless hair."

Ah, bless John.  Claire knew his expression wouldn't have been able to hide what was on his mind, and it wouldn't have bode well for him if Mary had been able to read his face. Mary was their star author whose new book could likely save his publishing company from potential financial ruin, and anyone pointing out her disastrous new hairstyle would probably only result in tantrums and more delays in publication. She sighed. "It wasn't limp, Mary. You had beautiful, straight hair. You have no idea what I would give to have manageable straight hair like what you had." And that was the truth.

Mary perked up a bit and rolled her eyes. "Oh, God, don't make me like you even more."

They shared a slow smile, and Claire was about to make a different compliment that didn't include Mary's hair when Tom cleared his throat and stepped forward, giving them a charming smile. "Ladies, sorry to interrupt, but shall we get cracking? My car is not parked in the most ideal of places."

"Oh, of course, I'm so sorry ..." Claire had almost forgotten about Tom, too fascinated by Mary's new hairstyle. She gave him an apologetic look and turned to Mary. "Oh, by the way, may I introduce you to ..." she trailed off and stopped.

Mary's expression looked like the heavens had just opened up and bestowed them an angel. Her lips moved, but no sound came, but when she did finally found her voice, it sounded raspy. "Is this your Jamie that John was talking about?"

Claire pried Mary's hand from her suitcase. "No, this is Tom. He's offered to drive me here to pick you up."

Tom grinned and offered his hand in greeting. "A pleasure to finally meet ye, Mary. I've read a couple of yer books, and I must say, not only are ye a talented writer but a beautiful one too."

Claire mentally groaned but kept the frustration from her face at bay. Tom must have noticed Mary's reaction and had taken his flirting a notch higher. When Mary continued to stare, Claire gently nudged her with her elbow. "Mary. Shake Tom's hand, and let's go."

Mary shook her way out of her trance and smiled. "Oh, I think this is going to be a very, very interesting visit," she gushed, finally back to her being her old self again. But instead of shaking Tom's hand, she hooked her arm into his, leaving Claire with the suitcase. "So Tom ...can you recommend a perfect place to eat? I'm quite famished and can't work on an empty stomach."

Tom obliged and patted Mary's hand. "Dinnae fash, I ken just the place."

With that, Mary looked over her shoulder and winked. All Claire could do was smile back and hope they would be able to get some work done. Because if not, and there's any more cause to delay Hawkin's books, come hell or high water, she's quitting Dreamweaver.

...........

Two Days Later

Stepping out of the shower, Jamie immediately zeroed in on his phone just in case he'd missed a call from Claire. They'd briefly talked last night, and she'd reminded him of uncle Lamb's arrival, which should be between now and the evening. If all goes to plan with Mary Hawkins, Claire should be coming back too. Hopefully, tonight, he thought with a sigh. It was already late Saturday afternoon, and his work was done for the weekend. Plenty of time left to get his shit together. 

Since Claire had left for Inverness, he hadn't had time to think. His brother had kept him busy with tasks and paperwork, and, on top of it all, he'd been distracted trying to comfort a distressed sister. Jenny had told him what had transpired between her and Claire. And how she'd been out of her mind, thinking she'd ruined their relationship. He'd consoled her, and in turn, she'd apologised profusely for her meddling. Her sincerity had touched him, but moreover, he couldn't help feeling amused at the thought of Jenny finally meeting her match. Though Claire was a gentle and thoughtful soul, he knew she was not the type to be bossed around. And in as much as he loved his sister, he was glad Claire put Jenny in her place and hoped after everything had been said and done, they can all move on from that incident and forgive.

Despite barely having time to be alone with his sometimes chaotic thoughts, he'd still managed to feel anxious about Christie. Jamie learned he hadn't returned to Broch Mordha, which led him to ponder if Christie was spending time with Claire. It was a lapse of insecurity, and that notion had been rubbished straight away since he knew how important Claire's work was to her. So there should be no pressure on his chest or icy tingling along his spine. 

There shouldn't be, but somehow there was.

Jamie was just shrugging into a fresh sweatshirt when his doorbell rang. He glanced at the wall clock and wondered who it was. Claire hadn't given a specific time for Quentin's arrival, and if it had been her at the door, she should've let herself in with the spare key he'd given her.

"Coming!" he shouted as the doorbell rang once more. He took a deep breath expecting uncle Lamb to be standing out there. Bracing himself. he flung the door open and was surprised to see who it was. "Ge- ... I mean Dr Dunsany!"

"Hi, Jamie!" Geneva greeted. "You may call me Geneva, you know ...since we're not in my office. May I come in?"

Jamie narrowed his gaze and looked past her shoulder. He could see Mrs Fitz from across the street pretending to fuss over some leaves in her garden when really he could tell she's prying into his business. There were talks already surrounding Claire being seen with Tom, and it wouldn't do him good if words of Geneva coming to his cottage got around, no matter how innocent the visit was. He gave Geneva an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, I'm kinda busy," he withdrew, glancing casually at his watch. "I ... there's... I'm expecting a visitor. "

"Oh! But this won't take long." She stood there with laid back confidence that lured most men to look their fill. He neutrally eyed the slim-fitting turtle neck that hugged her breast and tight jeans that hung low, her scarlet painted lips pursed in a pretty pout. "I wanted to talk about the session we had the other day," she added quickly.

Jamie crossed his arms across his chest. "Couldn't this wait until our next appointment?"

She took a cautious step closer, her expensive scent drifting in the air. "I'd rather talk about it now. This is just not about your therapy." Her blue eyes seductively landed on his lips. "I want to discuss something personal too."

"Sorry, personal won't do, I'm afraid. Ye're my therapist."

"Jamie, how long have we known each other?"

"Long enough ..."

She smiled, her hand brushing something away from his shoulder. "What's wrong? Surely your girlfriend won't mind your therapist coming over to check up on your progress, will she? We live in a small place, and we all know each other here."

"Her name is Claire ..."

"And I heard she's with Tom? Is that right?"

He smothered a sigh as he could tell what this was all about. Though Geneva was an attractive lass, he'd always only felt a minor buzz for her, which paled to the mind-blowing reaction Claire caused with just a single look. Where Claire was never more than anything but herself, Geneva always tried too hard. And it wasn't just all physical with Claire. It was their connection to each other's mind and soul. The way she made it easy for him to allow her to see his vulnerability and the way she'd let him in when no promises had been made on his part when they first met. Thinking back to the other day, he shook his head. He'd known the steaming anger that had risen within him when he'd first heard of Claire meeting with Tom and how that rumour almost made him lose his sense of judgement. He could not allow room for any gossip to go around, especially when Claire was away. Geneva should definitely not come in. 

"Look, as ye can see, I'm fine. I dinnae think it's a good idea us meeting like this. Let's keep personal stuff away and keep this professional, aye?"

She took a while to accept his dismissal. Sheer frustration swept over her face before she managed to compose herself. He tried to offer any semblance of an apology, but she cut him off. "I'm the one who understands your condition and how tough it is to live a normal life with your PTSD. And I know better than anyone else right now how to handle it."

Irritation coasted down his back. "There's no doubt you're a brilliant therapist, Geneva. But I am much more than a textbook scenario. Something Claire has always understood."

"But for how long, Jamie?"

"That is none of your concern," he said cooly. "Now, please go as I have things to do."

Her back straightened with steely dignity, and Jamie could tell every movement was measured to create the most dramatic effect. It was another detail he found unattractive and probably why he'd never acted on Geneva's crush for him. "Here's my theory," she began in a low voice. "You're just with her because you needed to fix someone, and she fits the bill. That's what you've been doing all your life - fixing everyone's problem. You'll never be happy, Jamie, if you keep repeating the same pattern over and over again."

He swallowed his anger. "How I choose to live my life is my concern, and if it means repeating the same pattern, then so be it. Forcing me to see things the way you want me to will only piss me off. So while I still have patience, please go."

He took a tentative step backwards, waiting for her to leave so he could close the door. Instead of walking away, she took him by surprise and threw herself against him, looping her arms around his neck and pressing her lips against his.

Christ!  Repelled by the assault, he grasped her shoulder and pushed her away. "What the bloody hell was that?" he gritted angrily.

Face red, she squared her shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes. "Mark my words, it's just a matter of time before Claire is unable to deal with your PTSD anymore. I know the pattern, and I've seen it a million times. Most men with this condition end up alone because no one fully understands the extent of what they go through. Oh sure, the people in their lives say they understand but do they really? It's a scary thing for most and an uncomfortable situation to live in. As for me ... I know, and I understand, and I can handle it because I've studied and worked with people like you. And when that day comes, and she leaves you for good, know that I'll be here waiting." 

"Just because you know my history, it doesn't make ye an expert in knowing how my life will turn out to be. And ye don't know a thing about Claire, her heart, her resilience ..."

She snorted in disgust. "You just wait and see." With that, she turned around and walked off. 

He almost choked.  Has the lass gone mad?  His skin crawled with icy foreboding as he glanced across the street, his eyes searching for his neighbour. To his relief, Mrs Fitz was no longer stood in the garden to witness Geneva's kiss. A sudden ugly thought came to him, and he wondered what Claire would do if she'd been in his position. Jamie shook his head and immediately dismissed the notion. Tom wouldn't dare. Jamie had already made sure, loud and clear, that Claire was off-limits.

When Geneva's kiss drifted back to the forefront of his mind, he grimaced. His first impulse was to ignore the whole incident. But on second thoughts, he should tell Claire in case words of it reached her before he could explain. He wasn't a hundred per cent sure no one had witnessed that weird occurrence, and if someone did, it would surely be tonight's topic on every dinner table in Broch Mordha. Worriedly, he glanced up and down his street and only saw an unfamiliar car and driver on the phone. Probably Mrs Fitz's new guest, he figured. Satisfied with that thought, he shut the door.

Attempting to get his composure back before he called Claire, he headed for the sideboard in his dining area, grabbed a bottle of whisky, and poured himself a measure. He threw back a shot, his eyes watering slightly in deference to the burn that slid down his throat. He was about to pour another one when the doorbell rang. Again.

What does she want now?  He slammed the glass down on the dining table and made his way back to the door. This time he was going to tell Geneva to cancel his therapy appointment. The lass was mad, and he hadn't known the extent of it until today. He'd always thought of her crush for him as a harmless fancy, but obviously, with Jenny's meddling, she'd set her hopes up. This time, he's had enough. With irritation simmering in his guts, he opened the door ...

And was met by an imposing figure obstructing the daylight. 

Jamie heard an unintelligible grunt in greeting, and the smell of tobacco invaded his nostrils. He peered at the face, but it was shadowed by a wide-brimmed fedora hat and several days worth of stubble. He blinked to rid the cobwebs threading patterns on his brain and forced his body to straighten to its full height.

"What's that on your mouth?" the man growled.

What the ...?  "Quentin?" 

"You got lipstick on!"

Horror swooped in as Jamie realised he was still exhibiting the evidence of Geneva's kiss. He immediately swiped the back of his hand across his mouth and instantly felt nauseated when he saw the smudged scarlet on his knuckles.  Jesus!  "It's not ... it's..."

"It's not my niece's," the older man finished with a cock of his bushy eyebrow.

"It's not mine either," Jamie retorted without thinking.  Ah, bloody fuck! " I mean ... it's not what ye think."

"I would certainly hope it's not yours." Quentin narrowed his eyes at him, taking his measure. Jamie did the same to him. He wondered what the man was thinking, but Claire's uncle spoke again before he got a chance. "Well, are you letting me in, or are we just going to stare at each other like a couple of dafties?"

Who the fuck does he think he is?  But he quickly reminded himself this was Claire's uncle, so he slightly softened his stance. Swallowing the sour taste in his mouth, Jamie took a step back and motioned Quentin into his home. "Come in." 

Ignoring Jamie's dark look, Quentin strode into his cottage, but he's brought up short when he saw the whisky and shot glass on the dining table. He plopped his sling bag onto the chair, opened it, pulled out a tequila bottle and placed it on the table. Then he turned around and slid his hands into his pockets. "You and I, lad, are going to talk before my niece arrives." 

Jamie shut the door and eyed Quentin, carefully pondering his words. As he'd suspected, Quentin was very much like Harry but with broader shoulders, an intense darker face, and eyes that seemed to flash with diabolical laughter. It was a face that had probably seen too much in his lifetime. All his mannerisms were large, confident and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild cat, and when he stood in his space like this, he appeared to be a wild animal held in a cage too inadequate for it. His features might be similar to Harry's, but yet, their difference was like night and day.

A scoff rasped his throat. "I've had enough forced therapy for the week, thank ye very much."

"If I didn't know you any better, I would have bloodied your nose after seeing that lipstick on your mouth."

"If ye're dying to punch me on the face, then give me yer best shot. I dinnae have to explain anything to ye. I've done nothing wrong."

"No, you haven't," Quentin sighed, nodding his head. "I saw what passed."

Jamie absorbed that while keeping his features impassive. "And yet ye're still judging me."

Quentin's mouth twitched, but his eyes remained serious. "I'm not."

"Right from the start, it felt like ye've been giving me the first degree."

Quentin disregarded his words with a shrug. "I was just making sure Claire's in good hands. She's all I have."

Jamie understood the sentiment. He would have probably done the same if he'd been in Quentin's shoes. Christ, hadn't he felt like committing murder when he'd first found out about Tom?

"We've met before, you know?" Quentin interrupted his thoughts.

Jamie's head shot up.

"Way before our video chat," the older man revealed. "But I figured you don't remember."

He didn't, so he shook his head.

Quentin took off his hat and slapped it against his thigh before placing it on the table. "Claire recently told me she just found out that it was you and your godfather, ...Murtagh...I believe his name was, who saved her from the car accident. She asked me if I knew." Quentin paused to discern Jamie's expression. When he couldn't seem to read anything, he proceeded. "I admitted I did and ..."

"Ye knew who I was?"

"No. Not until you told me your family name and mentioned Lallybroch near the end of our video chat. I thought Claire would be angry for not telling her, but she didn't say much else except that both of you have been clueless all these years. So if you have any questions about what happened, I'll fill in the void for you if it'll help you move on."

Jamie shoved a hand through his hair. Feeling suddenly restless, he went to the drinks' cabinet to retrieve shot glasses. He grabbed the tequila bottle, uncapped it, and poured two equal measures. "So now you want to diagnose me? Is that it?"

"Diagnose you for what?"

Jamie realised Quentin knew nothing of his condition. Claire hadn't told her uncle. He ignored the question and handed the shot to Quentin. "Why bring it up now?"

Quentin took the offered glass, raised a silent toast with Jamie, and simultaneously threw back the shot. They both flinched at the heat. "I owe you the truth," Quentin replied, placing the shot glass on the table. "Take it or leave it. I've been silent about it for years. Tell me what you remember, and I'll tell you everything you want to know."

Did he really want to know? The past would eventually catch up and come out, that much Jamie knew, so he might as well have it out in the open. Taking a deep breath, he paced to the window and with his back to Quentin, he began recounting what he could remember from the accident. He waited for the white noise or the torture to start swarming in his head, but to his astonishment, they never came. Though the memory of that fateful day was more vivid than ever, its power to hold him in a choke was diminished. The words flowed with ease, and it began to feel like he was describing someone else's story. When he was done, he turned around and saw just in time a shadow passed across the older man's face. He looked like ten years have been shaved off his life.

Quentin took a seat and clasped his hands together. "I lied to you the day when we first met."

Jamie stilled and looked at Quentin. "What do ye mean?"

"I was in Cairo when I heard the news of the accident. I immediately took the first plane out and headed here. I was told Claire was being taken care of by your parents and that both of you were inseparable. When I arrived at Lallybroch, you were holding Claire in your lap like she was the most precious thing." Quentin paused and smiled at the memory before descending back to that sad place in his head. "But when you laid eyes on me, that's when you lost it and started screaming. Claire screamed along with you ...God, it was awful. At that time, it hadn't truly sunk in what happened to my brother and his wife, and it was torture to see you kids in such pain." Quentin shook his head. "You were shouting something like ...I should be dead and that you've seen me go up in flames. You see, I've been told beforehand you'd witnessed the accident, and that's when it occurred to me you thought I was Harry. So I did what I thought was best at that moment ...I knelt before you and fibbed. Only because nothing could calm you down, and I wanted to ease your distress. I pretended to be Harry and told you I wasn't dead, and when you asked how I got away, I made up some story like managing to crawl out the last minute. Somehow that little white lie quieted you down."

"I honestly don't remember that part," Jamie whispered, taking a seat across from Quentin. "But in saying that, all the memories of that day are just beginning to resurface. I'm just starting to remember again. It all began when ..."

"When you met Claire for the second time," Quentin finished for him.

Jamie nodded with a small smile as he watched Quentin stood up and poured them another shot. 

Quentin gazed at him with all the seriousness. "May I ask you a question?" 

"Ask away." 

Quentin pushed the shot glass towards him. "What if, instead of Harry, you were the one that died that day?" He paused and looked directly into his eyes. "What do you think would you have missed in the years that came after?" 

Jamie frowned. "Why would ye ask such a thing?"

Quentin sighed. "Because lately, I've been asking myself the same question every day. I've searched for the answer going back through almost twenty years, and I've come up with almost nothing. Besides Claire coming into my life, I have nothing to show. Of course, there were a few memorable moments when I was granted an acknowledgement of merit for my work. And then there were a few rare occasions I got to spend time with Claire. But between those scraps of time, there's only a grey empty void. The rest of my days were spent going through the motions, keeping a barrier between me and the world. I realised, ever since my brother died, I've been living in fear that the same fate could befall me ... that's why I've never married. So you see now, Jamie, I haven't been living at all. And I don't want you to make that mistake."

Jamie gave a wistful smile. "I see that, and with everything happening, I'm just starting to understand. We all have to walk around lugging a past, getting from one step to the next. Just need a healthy way to release it, as Claire often reminded me enough." When Jamie saw Quentin nodding in agreement, he saw an opportunity. He cleared his throat and straightened himself. He'd just bonded with Claire's uncle, so surely that should mean something. "So ....Quentin," he began nervously, "does this mean ye're fine with me being with Claire?"

Claire's uncle went back to looking like he wanted to rip a head off. "No. I've just arrived after a long flight, and you haven't offered me anything. I haven't eaten in the last six hours, and you're asking me if I'm okay with you being with Claire? So far, all you've done is open the tequila bottle without thanking me for it and nought to impress me."

Ah, shite!  Hearing that, he pushed himself to his feet. "I ken a few good places that serve excellent pub grub," he said rapidly.

"Do you not have food in your kitchen, lad?"

"Aye, I do, but since ye're starving, I thought it would be easier if we got something out," Jamie reasoned. "So, what do ye have in mind?"

Quentin glowered at him before slugging back the rest of his shot. "Somewhere where they serve greasy food."

Jamie stopped. "But Claire said yer heart ..."

"The greasier, the better," Quentin growled.

It was clear to Jamie he's still miles away from wholly winning over Quentin. He reckoned he's probably not going to win that battle today, and one plate of greasy food was not going to kill Claire's uncle.  Ah, hell!  Didn't his ma once said that the way to someone's heart is through one's stomach? There's a chance that this could still work. But before he could say anything, his phone buzzed, and he almost knocked over the chair, trying to grab it. "It's Claire."

Quentin rolled his eyes.

Jamie quickly read Claire's message and smiled.  Ah, there's a God after all!  He glanced up at Quentin. "She's coming back home tonight."

"I knew that! Now, how about that nosh you were on about."

"Aye ...right ...I ken just the place."

..........

Five Hours Later

"This is a shithole!" Quentin grumbled, slurring his words and shoving his unfinished plate of Bangers and Mash away from him.

Tough shite!  Jamie glanced out the window and then looked back at the time on his watch.  Damn it!  A plate of food each, five pints of lager for Quentin and three pints for him later, still no word from Claire, and if she didn't come home soon, Quentin would drink him under the table. As it was, he's feeling rather tipsy already.

"You know what?" Quentin tipped the bottom of the pint glass in his direction. "Since we arrived here, you kept looking out that window every few minutes. Am I boring you, or is there something interesting out there? If so, care to share?"

Jamie blew out a breath. "Just wondering when Claire's coming home. Haven't heard from her since her last message.."

"Is that why you're looking outside? Does she know we're here?"

"No! Christie is bringing her back from Inverness." 

"Who's Christie?"

"Some bloke."

"So what's outside? You keep looking out there."

Damn, so many questions!  Jamie pointed his finger towards the window. "See that red door over there? Christie lives in that building, first floor, window facing the street. We'd know when they've arrived."

"Is that why you brought me here so you could check every once in a while if Claire's arrived?"

The older man was on to him, but Jamie wasn't about to admit it. "You wanted greasy food, did ye not?"

Quentin shrugged without answering. 

Jamie checked his phone again and agitatedly rubbed a hand behind his neck.  What's taking them so long?  Wicked thoughts were beginning to seep in.  Has Claire, by any chance, heard about Geneva's visit and kiss?  It wouldn't be an impossibility as rumours tended to make their way out of Broch Mordha. A part of him knew that the alcohol was dulling his reason, so he mentally shook himself. He should have called Claire earlier, right after Geneva left and told her what happened, but of course, Quentin's arrival had interrupted him from doing just that.

"Stop fidgeting. You're making me nervous."

"I'm just worried Claire would hear about that kiss ye witness earlier before I get to explain myself." 

A heartbeat passed. For the first time since Jamie had known Quentin, his tough demeanour slipped, and something akin to amusement flashed through. "Don't worry. If she's heard about it, she would have given you her two pennies worth by now, and that's putting it mildly. Of course ...worst-case scenario, you'll end up with your ears ringing for days after she's done telling you off." He smirked and raised his pint to his lips, his actions revealing he was only teasing. Jamie reined in his frustration and let it go without comment.

Obviously emboldened by Jamie's silence, Quentin leaned forward. "So, have you bought flowers for Claire for when she returns?"

"No."

"Why not? It would help your cause in case Claire heard about that kiss."

Jamie glared at Quentin. "Thanks for rubbing that in. But I dinnae have time. I was too busy entertaining ye. Besides, I bought her fruits. She loves fruits. I even bought her a variety of them."

The older man's eyes bugged out. "She's got you eating healthy too, huh?"

"Nothing wrong with that," Jamie muttered. "She likes chocolates too. I got her a big box of it. Lindt."

Quentin glanced out the window to his side and perked up. "Hey, someone just went through that red door. I don't know what Christie looks like, but it could be anyone."

Jamie followed his gaze, and sure enough, the red door was just closing. He glanced back at his phone on the table, and though he knew he would hear the sound of notification, he still needed to look to assure himself. There was still no message.

"First-floor window light just went on," Quentin observed in a low voice. "That's Christie's place, right?"

His head snapped up. "What?"

"Oh, look, that's Claire, looking out. I know that hair anywhere."

Jamie looked and saw Claire just in time before she moved away from the window and pulled the curtain. He swallowed the odd lump in his throat.  What the hell is she doing in Christie's place?  Then it all came rushing in, in full force. He'd left Claire on her own because of his stupid panic attacks, and when he'd finally come to his senses, it was probably too late because Christie had already entered the picture. And now everything that Geneva had told him earlier was coming to fruition.  No, no!

A split second later, Jamie burst out the pub's front entrance and ran across the street, Quentin not far behind him.

This cannae be happening. This is the worse nightmare ever. Ach Christ, please dinnae let this be true. Please. She's my lass. Mine. No, no, no. Oh fuck, I need her.

Thunder roared in his ears, and he'd only vaguely managed to process Quentin's remark on his overreaction and something about alcohol consumption. But all he could think of was how he and Claire needed to talk, now. He couldn't accept their relationship was over when it hadn't had a chance yet. 

Jamie stopped in front of Christie's building and looked up the window, shouting Claire's name, while Quentin manically pressed the buzzer for the first floor. A few passersby eyed them warily, and a voice called from somewhere,  "what the bloody hell, Fraser!"  probably thinking they'd gone off their nuts, but he couldn't give a fuck. His heart hammered wildly, unable to think straight. All he could see was Claire with Christie, together. He groaned miserably, the very thought chilling him to the bone.  Oh, please, God no!

No one responded to Quentin's incessant buzzing, and when he tried to yank on the knob, it didn't budge. It remained lock.

Jamie gathered a few stones that he could find on the cobbled street and started pelting Christie's window, roaring Claire's name on top of his lungs. His effort was rewarded when the curtain slid open, and he saw Claire looking down, her hair all wild and loose. But by now, they've also attracted a wee crowd that stood in a semi-circle behind him. He didn't take notice and focused his attention on the woman above.

"Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp! Don't ye dare leave me!" He shouted. "We love each other, remember? I was a prick for leaving ye on yer own when ye came to Scotland to be with me. I promise ye this will never happen again. And whatever problem we have together, we can fix this. Ye understand me?" He fell on his knees, grateful for the pain shooting up his thighs because his heart was breaking into thousand pieces. "I ken I could be a selfless arse, but I'm working on being a better person for ye ...for us. We've only known each other for a short while, but it's enough for me to see that ye're the one for me. Forever. I love ye with all my heart, Sassenach, and I cannae imagine life without ye."

Jamie paused to get his breathing back to normal and give Claire a chance to respond. But she remained immobile and continued to stare down at him. The crowd behind whispered and tittered, probably thinking he'd finally lost all his marbles. He even heard someone murmuring about him having had a bit too much to drink. But he didn't care even when he saw Quentin's shaking head, most likely in disgust at him. A hand touched his shoulder, but he shrugged it off, only focused on getting through Claire. "What do I need to do to make ye, believe me, Sassenach? Ye ken, I'll do anything to prove to ye how much I love ye. Does he ken the things I do? Like ...like what song makes ye smile? I can sing it for ye if that's what it would take." When the silence lingered, except for the hush sounds from behind him, Jamie puffed out a silent curse. "Christ ... I'll do it. For ye, ye hear me? I'll sing that damn song. Just so ye ken, I meant every word I said." 

Then he stood up from his kneeling position and gave Rick Astley a run for his money. 

..........

Hands on her chest, Claire stood inert behind Jamie, listening with interest as he belted out Rick Astley's  Never Gonna Give you Up  in a scratchy voice. She tilted her head to the side and watched in fascination his stiff, sparse hip movement that went with his song. She'd wanted to alleviate Jamie's suffering and save him from further embarrassment, but midway through his moving speech, she'd caught a glimpse of her uncle. He'd given her a warning shake of his head, telling her to let Jamie finish pouring his heart out. So with a sigh, she stood back and waited. 

Oh, Jamie, Jamie!

This beautiful, rugged giant of a man and former SAS soldier was singing to her as though his life depended on it. How could he think she'd left him? She needed to put her arms around him and reassure him that he's the one for her too and that there's been nobody else but him.

"Jamie!" she rasped. When he didn't hear her, she cleared her throat and tried again. "Jamie! It's me, Claire!"

Jamie stopped and whipped around, his eyes taking her in, in total disbelief. "Sassenach?" he whispered. "It's ye."

Her throat constricted. "Uh-huh."

His head jerked back up to the window and then back to Claire. He looked as though he wanted to believe he was really seeing her but could not see past his fear just yet. "To whom the bloody hell was I proclaiming my love to then if ye were stood here all along?" he asked, throat working with emotion.

"You were singing to Mary Hawkins, Jamie," she croaked. "The star author of our publishing company."

"And what the hell is she doing up at Christie's place?"

Claire grimaced. This was really a sensitive subject, and they were talking about a public figure, and a small crowd was watching them. So she stepped closer and spoke in a low voice. "I think Mary and Tom have a thing for each other. And I have a sneaking suspicion ..." she glanced up at the window above where Mary still stood. "Tom is not going to be please when he finds out it was you who interrupted whatever they're up to."

"James Fucking Fraser!"

It was Tom, wherever he was shouting from. Jamie didn't wait to find out because, in one quick movement, he took Claire's hand and made short work of getting them into the dark alley to the applause and cheers of the bystanders. Laughing, they ran and ran until they were far away enough from prying eyes. And there in the darkened path, its only illumination coming from the full moon above, they found one another once again in each other's arms.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The full moon illuminated Jamie's and Claire's path as they made their way to the cottage into the cold night. It seemed they were the only two people in the world, walking in comfortable silence, lost in their own respective thoughts, and the only sounds to be heard were their footfalls and the dance of the trees. Inhaling deeply, Jamie pulled Claire into the warmth of his body, gently kissing the crown of her head, and in turn, her arm slid familiarly under his jacket to settle around his waist. For the first time in five days, every cell in his body was alive and buzzing, and it felt amazing to hold and have her close again.

Earlier, after the excitement and stramash outside Christie's apartment building had settled, they'd gone back in search of Quentin. It hadn't taken them long to spot him where he'd leaned on the wall outside the pub working his phone, most probably trying to call Claire. Though Quentin had looked like he could go for a few more round of drinks, to his relief, he hadn't put up much of an argument when Claire had firmly suggested it was time to call it a day. They'd escorted him back to his lodgings, making sure he had everything before heading for home.

It had been a surreal day, and Jamie knew it was far from over. He'd sensed Claire wanted to talk, and who could blame her? They had a lot of things to discuss, but his depraved mind had other ideas. His alcohol-fueled bravado from earlier had long waned to be replaced with an urgency that pulsed heat below his belly. But he swiftly reminded himself to be an attentive boyfriend first and clear the air between them. 

After what he'd put himself and Claire through the last few days, he was done being a prisoner of the past and mistrusting the future. Here, at this moment with her, he was whole, and just having her beside him was healing invisible wounds all over his body. He needed her, but her needs came first even though her sweet scent and the sound of her soft sighs were piercing holes in his self-restraint. At nearly midnight, the air was icy cold, and yet, there was a fine layer of perspiration on his skin brought about by the anticipation of being finally alone with her.

When they eventually reached the cottage, Jamie had a hard time giving up her body's warmth to retrieve his keys, so he turned her to face him and locked her in an embrace. Savouring the feel of her, he wondered how the hell he'd managed to keep his distance; moreover, allow her to go to Inverness with Tom. 

"Home sweet home," Claire murmured, breaking his thoughts. She made a move to pull away, but he grabbed her hand and pressed his lips to her icy fingers instead. "I think I need a drink," she said, shivering, "It's been quite an eventful night, don't you think?"

Jamie shook himself and nodded. "Aye. It's been a riot." He finally let go of her, quickly fishing for his keys in his pocket and unlocking the door, letting her pass first. They were welcomed by two happy, hyper animals who circumvented him to get to Claire. Ah, wee traitors!

He shut the door and watched with amusement as Claire immediately fell on her knees, her arm going around Rollo's neck while her free hand scratched Adso's back ear. Jamie grinned when both nudged closer and let out chesty whimpering sounds as they were treated to Claire's lovefest.

His eyes landed on her unpacked bags on the floor. She must have left the cottage as soon as she'd arrived. "How'd ye know where to find me earlier? Ye never called," he remarked, divesting his jacket and dropping it onto the chair.

She looked up at him and smiled. "I didn't. When Tom dropped me here, I realised I forgot to hand in some documents for Mary. I kind of figured you might be out with uncle Lamb. So I thought before calling you I'd walk over to Tom's to drop the papers for Mary and well, ..." she shrugged, her eyes twinkling. "I was about to phone you, and who did I find outside Tom's apartment building? My boyfriend serenading Mary Hawkins, no less."

Almost completely sober by now, his head dropped to hide his embarrassment, his pained groan barely subdued in his throat at the reminder of the recent event. "Oh, Christ!"

She stood up, walked over to him and encircled her arms around his neck, forcing him to glance at her smiling face. "I thought you were adorable." She kissed his chin. "And I think Mary was chuffed to bits hearing your love declarations. She'll never leave the Highlands now, what with Tom as her new love interest and you serenading her in front of an audience. She probably thinks she's heaven's gift to Broch Mordha and vice versa." 

Her fingers playing with the hair at the nape of his neck made it difficult to concentrate on what she was saying. "Ye should be righteously pissed at me for thinking ye were with Tom. And even if ye were in his apartment, I shouldnae have jumped to conclusions."

She contemplated his words. "We all get our jealous moments," she said quietly. "Well, I certainly do ...at least."

"Ye? Jealous? I only have eyes for ye, Sassenach. Ye have nothing to be jealous about." Then the image of Geneva's kiss came to mind, and his throat tightened. With everything that had happened today, he'd already forgotten about it ...until now. He knew only too well how the truth had its way of coming out, and he couldn't just dismiss it as an afterthought even though it didn't mean a thing. He needed to tell her before she finds out from someone else.

"Geneva," she whispered as if reading his mind. "I heard ..."

"Ye heard what?" She's already heard about the kiss?  There was no stopping the weight of dread from settling in his belly. "Whatever stories ye heard about her and me, there's a perfect explanation for it, Sassenach. I can assure ye."

She didn't seem to notice his sudden discomfort nor heard the words he'd just said, her gaze too busy following the movements of her hands as they travelled down to his shoulders and over his chest. "While you were in Lallybroch, Willie came to check up on me once in a while to see how I was fairing. I thought it was rather sweet of him to do that." She cleared her throat. "Anyway, he mentioned something about Geneva fancying you, and that didn't sit well because I know she's your therapist, and Jenny preferred her for you." Her eyes suddenly dimmed. "Oh, God! Why am I even telling you this? It's so primary school."

"Sassenach ..." He brushed his lips to her forehead. "It's not ..."

She visibly shook herself. "No, let me finish. I know it's silly, but I couldn't help feeling the way I did. It was torturous knowing you were suffering, and I could do nought about it. I feared that night when you left, I may have made things worse by pushing you to talk about the past." True to her words, her expression was troubled as she chewed her bottom lip. "You see ...I want to be the one who can make things better for you, but I also recognise there are things about your condition that are beyond my understanding no matter how much I try to help or learn about it." She took a deep breath. "Geneva's your therapist, and she knows what she's doing. Sooo ...I have to put aside my petty jealousy and let Geneva do her work. But it doesn't mean I have to like her or the whole situation. So for the sake of ..."

"No, Sassenach. Stop right there." He dropped his mouth to prevent her from saying more, punctuating his words with a kiss. Their breaths collided, his fingers gripping her shoulders hard and digging into her skin. "Ye have every right not to like the situation. Because I dinnnae like it either." He searched her face, but her eyelids were at half-mast, and her gaze seemingly focused on his lips. He tipped her chin up. "I willnae be returning to therapy. So ye dinnae have to worry about her."

Her eyes widened in surprise. "Wot? But why?" She stopped and looked at him suspiciously. "Wait. If this is your way of making me stop seeing Tom, sorry mate, not going to happen. This is work. And I'm not stopping you from going to therapy just because it's Geneva either."

"Woman, will ye let me finish?" He took a few cleansing breaths. "I'll wager ye a pound to a penny that ye willnae allow me to attend the therapy when ye hear what she did." 

She arched an eyebrow at him. "Why? What did she do?"

"She kissed me."

She stiffened and took a step back. "Wot?" Her expression of softness she had just moments ago made way for disbelief. 

He tried to rid the sudden tangle in his throat. "She stopped by today. She said something about wanting to talk about my progress. I told her I was busy. Then she threw herself at me and kissed me. It's nae biggie." 

"Nae biggie?!" Her eyes flashed, and her mouth open and closed. And then opened again. "Where did she kiss you? Lips or cheek?" 

Her question caught him like a surprise right hook. On any other occasion, he would have probably been amused with her display of jealousy, but the way she was looking at him now, was causing his heart to pound painfully against his ribs. "O-on the lips, but I ...ah ...immediately pushed her away. I swear to God, I did nothing to inspire it." 

She rolled her head as if preparing for a fight, and when her eyes landed on the bottle of tequila he and her uncle had been drinking earlier, she made a beeline for it. "On the lips, huh? Did you like it?" She poured herself a healthy measure in one of the used glasses without offering him one and downed it in one go.

Christ!  "No!" 

"Any tongue involved?"

"Of course not!"

"You sure?" She slammed the glass down on the table, making him flinch.

What the bloody hell?  The questions she was throwing at him was making him squirm on his feet, and for the first time, Jamie realised how similar Claire and Quentin were when trying to extract an answer. Both would undoubtedly make great interrogators if ever they'd decided on a career change. "What kind of question is that? The kiss happened so fast, taking me by surprise. I didnae have time to think. She might have tried to put her tongue down my throat, but I stopped her."

"And where did this happen?"

"What do ye mean? I already told ye she stopped by. I was here ...at home." 

"I mean, did it happen inside or outside the cottage?" 

Jesus!  "Outside." 

"Outside," she repeated, more to herself. 

"Aye, outside. She wanted to come in, but I told her I had things to do and was expecting a visitor ...yer uncle, that is. Anyway, that aside, I didnae think it was a good idea to allow her to come inside, knowing that she's my therapist and fancied her chances with me."

"Hmmm ...so when she threw herself at you, you pushed her away, is that right?" 

"Aye." 

"Where did her hands go?" 

Confusion seeped into his already muddled head. Is this some kind of trick question to catch me of any wrongdoing?  "What do ye mean?" 

"Geneva's hands. Did it go around your waist, neck or what?" 

"Oh, um ...around my neck." 

"And what about your hands?" 

Huh?  "What about them?"

"Where were your hands when she kissed you?"

"They were by my side. The only time I touched her was to push her away from me. Ask yer uncle. He saw the whole thing. I didnae even know he was there." 

"And he didn't sock you?"

"Why would he?" he almost shouted. "I didnae do a thing. It was Geneva who initiated it!"

"Fine."

"Fine?" he gasped in confusion.

She didn't answer. Instead, she turned around and took off her jacket. That's it? What the hell just happened? I gave her the truth, and that's supposed to be good, right? Or am I missing something?  He followed her strained movement, and he helplessly watched her grabbed her laptop bag and rummaged through it, the silence pulsing around them bordering on awkwardness. This was definitely not how he'd envisioned their reunion, he thought miserably. 

"Sassenach," he began, choosing his words carefully. "I can tell ye're upset about the kiss. Ye ken ye've no reason to be, aye?"

She shook her head, refusing to look at him. "No," she agreed, relief washing over him. "I've no reason to." She pulled out sheets of paper from her bag, looked at them and haphazardly stuffed them back in again, seemingly going through the motion of keeping her hands busy. 

"Then why are ye cranky all of a sudden?"

She let go of her bag and grabbed the bottle of tequila, sloshing over the rim of the glass as she poured another shot. "I'm not." She grimaced as she threw back the liquid.

"Ye are." When she poured another drink, he frowned at her. "Go easy on that tequila, Sassenach."

Her head spun halfway round in his direction, reminding him of that wee girl in the film, The Exorcist. Her mouth dropped open, and she glared at him.

He forced himself to remain patient. Claire was visibly upset about something, and now he wasn't sure anymore if it had to do with Geneva's kiss. "Sometimes, I associate alcohol with bad judgments and choices," he began calmly. "My own, especially. But ye've helped me make a lot of good ones in the past, and ...I just want to do the same for ye. Talk to me, Sassenach. What's really bothering ye?"

She huffed and balled her fingers into tight fists. "Fine! Do you want to know the truth? I want to start a fight."

"A fight?" He reined in his frustration of not being able to understand and took a step closer to her. "Why would ye wanna do that?"

A deep scarlet soared from her neck to her cheeks as she threw her hands in the air. "The last few days were trying, alright? It wasn't only you who was having a rough time with it. God, I've been worried sick about you. I've been trying to keep it together ever since you left, wondering if I'll ever get to see you before I return to London. And then ...and then," she hiccupped, her hand flying to her mouth to stifle a sob. "One bloody thing led to another. First, I got into a fight with your sister because of some stupid newspaper clipping she had in her possession. Then, not long after that, in the middle of what was supposed to be an important meeting with Tom, my boss dumps the responsibility of babysitting Mary onto my lap, and I had no idea how I was going to manage that with my uncle on his way. Then I got to Inverness, hoping to get at least some work done with Mary to finish her book so I could finally leave London for good and start a new life here with you. And you know what?" 

Jamie stood immobile. He longed to soothe her, but he wasn't sure if she wanted to be touched yet, so he waited even though he was slowly dying inside to hold her in his arms.

Her inhale became stuttered, and her eyes darkened with defeat. "I was grasping at straws to keep Mary to sit still long enough to extract a measly one thousand seven hundred words worth of work when I know she could do more in a day. But that's all I got for my efforts because she was too busy galavanting in Inverness with Tom. And speaking of Tom, I still haven't managed to make him sign the contract for his book and when my boss asked me why I couldn't even give him an answer and gave him some lame excuse. The only good thing that came out of Tom is, he convinced Mary to come here. If Tom hadn't been with me, I'd still be in Inverness with Mary. And now ...now I find out Geneva tried to kiss you while I was away. God, I want to scratch her eyes out. But I can't do that, can I? Because she isn't here. So I asked you those dumb questions to find a fault and start a fight because I wanted to vent after the last few days I've had. But even that, I can't do because you've done nothing wrong." She let out a groan of exasperation. "How sad is that?"

Suddenly, it all made sense to Jamie. Claire always put others' needs before hers with no thought for herself. He had to take better care of her. It had been easy to rest all his hopes and fears on her shoulders, and because of it, she was a massive part of his motivation to want more out of his future and be a better man for them. But if they were going to be together, his condition shouldn't always be her fight, and her burdens should be lighter with him by her side and not more. This lass had given him hope, and he's not going to rest until he gave her the same. Until she, too, knew her needs were just as important as everyone else's.

The boyfriend in him wanted to wipe the look of upset in her eyes. Confront the people that pushed her to act out in a way so unlike her usual self. Demand answers to find out what else was troubling her. He sensed, however, that questioning was the last thing she needed. So doing his best to be the protector this time, he opened his arms, relieved when she quietly walked into them. She laid her head on his chest, wrapping her arms around his waist, and he held her, resting his chin on her crown.

After a few minutes of silence, she spoke haltingly. "I'm so sorry, Jamie. I didn't mean to pick a fight. It's just that ...." Her fingers tugged at the edge of his jeans, and he shut his eyes. He could hear the slight slur in her words, making him realise she'd drank tequila on an empty stomach. "The last few days have been mad, and I -I ...oh, hell, never mind. I'm just acting pathetic."

Jamie frowned against her head. "Sassenach, look at me." He drew slightly away and held the sides of her face in her hands, the unshed tears in her eyes crushing him to the core of his being. "First of all, ye have nothing to be sorry about. If anything, Tom, Mary, yer boss, my sister, including myself, owe ye an apology. And ye're no' pathetic and dinnae ever say that about yersel', ever again. Ye do far too much for others, including me, and it's about time ye did something for ye. The rest of the world can wait, and other people getting their act together is no' yer responsibility."

She blew out a breath, bright amber eyes holding his steady.

"As for Geneva, ye have nothing to worry about her. There was never anything between us. I'll talk to my sister and let her know what her friend has done. If Jenny refuses to do anything about it, I will make a formal complaint about Geneva's behaviour to the clinic's head myself. And perhaps, propose a new or my old therapist be reinstated."

"Jamie, I can't be responsible ..." 

"Ssshh, Sassenach. Ye're no' responsible for Geneva. She overstepped the boundaries, so it's only right she takes responsibility for her own actions." He pressed their foreheads together and looked her in the eyes. "I chose to be with ye as ye did with me, and I cannae have anyone disrespecting that, no' even Jenny. We're together, and we're supposed to be stronger as a unit. I need to step up my game and be there for ye as ye've been for me. For so long, I was so fixated on my own condition, I ceased seeing other people's difficulties." He pulled back and caressed her cheek with his thumb. "Then I met ye, my feisty wee, Sassenach ...for the second time as a grown-up ...and ye taught me all about selflessness and courage. I want ye to know ye're important ...more important than what I want or what Mary Hawkins wants or what yer boss wants. And the things that hurt ye, they're no less painful than what I go through. Things are gonnae change from now on, and it can't be just all about me. I'm so sorry for abandoning ye and for not being there when ye needed me most."

The worst of the troubled look in her expression faded and was replaced by a wobbly smile. "There's nothing to forgive. We were both trying our best to deal with circumstances that were beyond our control."

He smoothed her hair back, picking up the locks and twining his fingers through them. "No, ye were doing all the heavy lifting. Every moment ye spent with me was a trial of fortitude ye were too stubborn not to meet. It would have been easy for ye to give up on me, but ye didnae. Ye always thought I was enough despite my shortcomings. Ye taught me second chances, and because of that, I dinnae want to believe anymore I deserve no' to have ye." He took a deep breath. "I thought my realisation came too late when I thought ye were with Tom, and I was willing to go at any lengths to win ye back and make ye see what we have is worth fighting for. After what I did out there tonight, I ken I'll be teased for the rest of my life for singing like a fool at the village square, but it's all worth it because I get another chance with ye."

"Another chance with me? I never left you, Jamie. I may have been miffed and hurt, but I've always been yours." 

He shook his head, more at the error of his ways. "Deep down, I ken that but the mere thought of Tom with ye, all reason and logic seem to fly out the window. In the future, I promise to keep those thoughts at bay. It's no' good for my sanity." He smiled at her. "Shall we kiss and make up?"

Laughing, tears spilt from her eyes. "I thought you'd never ask."

The urgency that had been building up inside him went off like a gunshot. He drew her in closer. "Christ, I love you, Sassenach and always will." His mouth descended over hers, impressing his vow with a thorough tasting of her lips, savouring the earthy, semi-sweet taste of tequila on her tongue. His thumbs traced her cheekbones and jawline, and when she swayed closer, and the softness of her breasts flattened against his chest, he let out an animalistic groan.

His heart started to pound, every muscle south of his belt tightening. It was as though he'd been in a dry spell for five years instead of five days. His mouth went dry, his palms itched with the need to touch her naked skin, and his body was on fire as the pent-up desire from the past few days burst in a torrent of heat. He was ravenous for her taste and for her hand to encircle his hardness, and he indulged in her eager response that was opposite her usual shyness during lovemaking.

Restless fingers tangled into his hair, clasping his head in place as she kissed him back and met his demand with urgency. When her hips impatiently pressed against him, her scent invading his senses, his cock grew uncomfortably heavy.

He dragged his mouth from hers, twisting her hair in his fist. "Jesus, if ye dinnae take it down a notch, I'll burst in my pants like a schoolboy."

She blinked as if coming from a long sleep, her lips wet and puffy from his kisses and cheeks bright pink. She gave him a slow smile that promised unspoken pleasures, sending his heart up to his mouth. "Not my fault," she hummed, going up on her toes to teasingly brush her mouth over his. "You made me wait this long." Maintaining eye contact, she took a step back and stripped off her clothes, revealing her matching red bra and panty. "So enough talk, Jamie. I can't wait much more. I want you now," she whispered huskily.

Her words did it. His lust-filled brain only gave him a split second to process what she'd just said before the need to be inside her dismissed everything else. That urge he'd felt to make up for lost time raced out of control. He could only see Claire with her dazed eyes, parted lips and loads of naked skin.

He seized her hips, walking her backwards and crowding her against the dining table, pushing the chairs aside to make space. Her breath rose and fell in a choppy rhythm as his mouth dipped for a desperate kiss.

Her mouth moved in perfect unison with his, wee sounds vibrating up her throat, ending where their lips frantically worked together. Lust pumping in his veins, he roughly settled her sweet bottom on the table and gingerly hooked his fingers into the lacey band of her knickers, shoving it down her legs. When she began tugging at the waistband of his jeans, he groaned into her mouth, knowing she needed him just as bad.

"I planned to make slow love to ye tonight. But now I cannae ...because I cannae wait to have ye." His hand slipped between their bodies, and he palmed her between her thighs.  Ah, sweet Jesus!  Sliding a finger deep into the wet heat of her entrance, he tested and teased, revelling the way her fingernails dug onto the skin of his shoulders in response, his head spinning at the feel of her moistness. "Christ, ye look so needy, ye're giving me nae choice but to take ye right here ...like a wild beast."

"Oh, shoosh, Jamie. Quit talking about it now. You want it just as bad." She began to undo his belt buckle, nipping at his neck as she yanked and shoved. When he was finally freed, he nearly fainted at the relief of no longer being restrained to his jeans. The relief was fleeting, though, when her smooth hands encircled his throbbing cock, her tight grip moving up and down, twisting at the base, preparing him when the only thing he needed was to be inside her. Ah, Christ, but it feels so good. Far too good ...

He couldn't take it anymore. He knew he wouldn't last long. "Enough!" he gritted. 

She gave him a look like he'd just taken her favourite toy. She unhooked her bra in retaliation and pushed her breasts up like an offering. His breath caught in his throat, stunned by the vision, her eyes, a translucent gold gleaming with arousal, beckoning him to take his fill.

He parted her legs and fisted his cock before rubbing its tip at her entrance. "I've missed ye so much. I might not last long, but I want this to be good for ye," he whispered hoarsely. "I may be a bit rough," He dipped his head, forcing her back to arch like a bow as he bestowed kisses on her breasts. "Are ye alright with that?" 

She nodded, feeling her shudder with anticipation and need. 

"Is that what ye want?" 

"Yes," she whispered. "Take me however you want." 

He whipped off his top and lowered his hand to her buttock, coasting his palm over the firm, rounded flesh and squeezing it tight. "Wrap yer legs around me."

Claire's legs wrapped around his middle and her arms around his neck. Her thighs glid around his waist with such exquisite perfection that he had to bite the tender flesh on the side of her neck to stop from shouting. The friction of his cock sliding between her legs where he'd touched with his fingers was too much. Almost propelling him past his breaking point. Too impatient to take the time to savour, he gripped himself and pushed deep into her entrance.

Watching her teeth bite onto her bottom lip as if to stop a scream from escaping, he groaned out loud as he pushed inch by inch, his focus whittling down to Claire and the heat enveloping his cock. Everything ceased to exist. He pulled out slightly before thrusting again, their mutual moans resounding on the walls of the cottage.

He shifted closer, needing to feel and touch all of her as possible. Keeping their lips locked, he seized her hips and started to move to the ancient dance of mating. There were no words to express the rough, grinding pace of what he did to her. It only bloomed more intense when she began matching his moves, widening her thighs and rolling her hips like she couldn't get enough.

"Oh sweet Lord, ye feel too good," he muttered against her mouth, hips pounding furiously. "How did I stay away from this?" 

She gripped the back of his neck. "I missed this too," she gasped. "Please don't stop." 

"I'm not hurting ye, am I? Tell me if I'm too rough." 

"No ...no, don't be gentle. I need you to take me hard." 

A tide surged inside him, mounting and building like a storm. Jamie roughly raised her hips to reposition her, dragging her arse to the edge of the table, her sweet moans telling him she'd like that. Unable to think past how she wanted it harder, there was no easing down now. He could only yank her leg higher and demand she keep up, ramming into her rough and fast. Her sighs and breath came out like hot rushes of air, thighs squeezing around him and starting to tremble. When her internal walls clenched around his cock, it warned him of her imminent climax, making his balls drew up so tight they ached. He dragged her flush to his body and buried his face in her neck, grunting with every deep thrust and muttering her name while his own release clamoured in his belly. 

"Jamie!" she screamed, convulsing against him. He immediately silenced her cries with a deep kiss, but she flung her head back and squirmed, tightening up where their bodies joined, pulsing and throbbing. "Oh my God."

He couldn't wait any longer. Hooking his arms under her legs, he pumped his hardness in jerky hauls, faster and faster until his visions blurred. The whimpering noises she made launched him higher, signalling his own peak, and he soared towards it, his climax made more intense from the knowledge that it was Claire who got him there. He thrust into her one final time and thrust deep, growling her name into her hair and squashing her to his chest as he'd borne the full force of what they'd done.

"Oh, Christ, Sassenach." 

Her hands ran up and down his back as she continued to take huge gulps of air. He knew he was crushing her, but he wasn't ready to let go. He wanted to remain buried inside her, holding her like this. With her heels digging into his arse and her arms around his neck. They fitted perfectly, her softness cradling his boneless heap, making him hard as steel again. Some part of his brain must have still been functioning because he jerked and reached out for her bra to cover her when his doorbell rang. Christ!  Forcing his body to move with marginal success, he yanked her up and pulled up his jeans.

Claire slid off the table and grabbed her clothes. "Who could that be?"

"That better not be yer uncle or ..." Jamie trailed off, muttering curses under his breath, annoyed at the disturbance as he was just revving up for part two of their lovemaking. When he opened the door, a sense of deja vu hit him when he saw Mrs Fitz standing there with what seemed like a plate of a lemon meringue pie. What the fuck?

"Mrs Fitz!"

The older woman didn't bother to hide her curiosity this time as her eyes tried to peer past his shoulders. "Heard ye have company, lad, and I havenae seen Miss Claire the last couple of days."

He was about to say "none of her business"  when Claire came up behind him, dressed back in her jeans and top. "Mrs Fitz, how are you? Is everything alright?"

Jamie stepped back and observed how Mrs Fitz's eyes widened in pleasant surprise. He figured instantly, his neighbour must have seen that kiss from Geneva earlier and that she'd probably thought the worse of him after hearing Claire's passionate screams. Right there and then, he decided, this time, he definitely needed to soundproof his home from eavesdropping neighbours.

"Ach, I saw light in yer windows," Mrs Fitz beamed, ignoring Jamie's glare. "Ye see, I've made too many pies and thought ye might like one. I remember ye enjoying this when ye stayed with yer friend over at my place this past Christmas."

"Oh, how lovely," Claire gushed, taking the plate from Mrs Fitz. "Thank you so much. Just what Jamie and I need right now ..." She blushed profusely, contemplating her words. "...after a long day."

Mrs Fitz clapped her hands. "I thought that!" 

Seeing how thrilled Claire was looking at the desert, Jamie tamped down the urge to say something sarcastic and just scowled at his neighbour.

Mrs Fitz must have read his thoughts as this time it was her turn to crimson, a probable sign of her guilt for being nosey. Suddenly at a loss for words, she rubbed her palms at her sides. "Weel, ye both enjoy it. I must get going as it's rather late. Good night, both of ye." With that, she whirled around and disappeared into the night.

He shut the door and sighed, and followed Claire to the kitchen. 

"Lovely lady," Claire remarked, sniffing the pie before placing it on the counter.

He turned her around and kissed her slowly, groaning when she opened her mouth for him without hesitation. "Ye're lovelier," he said against her lips. "But I'm not done with ye yet."

She grinned. "Pie first?"

Realising he'd never be able to compete with Mrs Fitz's homemade pie, he laughed out loud. "Absolutely ...why not?"

Chapter Text

 

 

Six Days Later

Claire's heavy eyelids fluttered open, her brain still addled by sleep. It took her a while to gather her thoughts and remember how she'd made it to bed last night. She shifted slightly in bed, but there's a two-hundred-fifty pound of hard-muscled, naked male restricting her movement. Jamie's arm was draped across her waist, securing her against his chest, her legs confined under his heavier ones. She could feel his soft, steady breathing blowing warm air on top of her head, reminding her how well he'd been sleeping the last few nights. There had been no night terrors or unpleasant dreams interrupting his sleep, and she put it down to his workload during the day and their physical activities between the sheets at night.

Today was Friday, and the realisation caused a huge smile to spread across her face. Last night she'd worked late until past ten, and Jamie had found her fallen asleep in front of her laptop in her studio shed. He'd scooped her up in his arms and helped her get ready for bed, and just before sleep claimed her, he'd whispered he had a surprise for her today. 

She wondered what the surprise was and guess it would probably be a long lie-in for them and breakfast in bed. Looking back, the past few days had flown by in a blur, packed with work and catching up with her uncle Lamb during nights. Ever since her emotional reunion with Jamie, her work-related things had gone from a shamble of mess to running smoothly. It's as if the universe had decided to grant her reprieve as everyone went out their way to appease her. Even her boss John seemed to have given her space and was allowing her to work in peace. Somehow, deep down, she had a sneaking suspicion Jamie had something to do with it. 

It had all began at the start of the week when Jamie had been at work. Tom had stopped by the cottage to hand her a signed contract agreeing to his book's publication. By the time she'd told John the good news, he'd been in his element detailing his main point plan for getting the word out and announcing the book deal to Tom's adoring followers. She'd thought her boss would demand to get her and Tom on the next plane to London, but instead, John had told her he'd arranged a team to fly to Inverness for a formal meeting with their new author. As if that wasn't enough, two days later, Mary had produced enough drafts for Claire to work on and promised there would be more on the way. Her uncle, sensing work was piling, would occasionally stop by either to whip up something to eat or bring food while she'd been ensconced in her studio shed. Not that it was unusual for her uncle to perform domesticated pursuits; however, it's still surprising that he was going the extra mile to help around the house when he had the Highlands at disposal for his adventures being an outdoor person that he was.

It's becoming clear this week was proving to be a period of many turning points. She had no idea what the future had in store for her and Jamie, but she knew something had shifted in their relationship, and it was definitely for the better. Though she's still the same girl who's still trying to find her place in the world and fit in, she knew she'd changed, too. A few months ago, she would have probably backed down from any forms of conflicts, citing life as complicated enough without adding more complications. But she'd learned how to respond, choose fights that are worth fighting for and cast aside that wasn't deserving of her peace of mind. She'd also learned that once in a while, it's good for her sanity to give propriety and rules the middle finger when a situation called for it. 

It's hard to believe she's planning her life in the Highlands, the place where her parents had met and found love in each other. In her quest to get to know them more, she'd spent her holidays here to be closer to their memories and live that adventure they'd so craved. Now, she was involved with a man tormented with demons. If her parents were still alive today, she wondered how they would receive Jamie. Would they have been like Jenny or her uncle, suspicious and sceptical of their relationship? Or would they have been happy with her choice just like Willie, Brian, and Ellen have been with Jamie's?

Deep in her heart, she knew that her parents would have taken one look at them and understood that Jamie was special and meant to be her life adventure. From what Claire had surmised from uncle Lamb's stories, her parents have been that kind of people, magnanimous of spirit and always saw the best in others. Jamie was like that too. He'd taken a gamble with her despite their differences and the geographical challenges ahead. Though it seemed she was helping him with his condition, unbeknownst to Jamie, he too was helping her heal the part of her that became an orphan. In some invisible way, he was repairing something in the fabric of her world that had been torn down the middle when her parents passed away. She absorbed that thought and was reminded of what Uncle Lamb once told her, that her father always had a peculiar sense of humour. With that in mind, she'd like to think that just maybe her father had sent Jamie her way on purpose. His way of telling her to let go of the past, not over-think, embrace the Highlands as much as he had and just love.

Lying next to Jamie in bed, she felt totally at peace. They might have had a crisis of faith, but she was confident they'll find their way through whatever path was laid before them. Their love wasn't and probably never going to be easy, given their journey had been emotional, tangled with roadblocks, denials and self-preservation. Still, she wanted to find her way with him. She'd just discovered this strength she didn't realise she had, and Jamie continued to surprise her with his single-mindedness purpose to be cured. Someone once said there's no fulfilment without a bit of struggle. Just like in the stories she hoped to publish one day, the heroes had to break down first and bleed before earning their happy ending. Well, if that's the rule, she couldn't envision facing life's trials and tests with any other person to stand beside her other than Jamie.

Her smile was still in place when her thoughts were suspended by a rush of heat as Jamie's hand coasted over her hip to disappear between her thighs. A sudden thrill shot through her, making her breath catch in her lungs. He shifted the leg holding her thighs down and deftly opened her to his touch, stroking the sensitive flesh in between. She felt his shaft stir against her bottom as she scooted closer to him, eliciting a guttural sound to escape his lips.

"I can practically hear the cogs turning in yer head, Sassenach," he muttered thickly, his breathing turning shallow at the back of her neck. He nipped her earlobe between his teeth and tugged. "What's going on in that mind of yers?"

"Oh, this and that and how you've been sleeping soundly ...these last few nights." She gasped out loud when he rubbed her nub with a calloused thumb. She tilted her head back to look at his face, and her lips were met by a long-drawn, possessive kiss. By the time their mouths parted, she was panting for air and squirming against him mindlessly. 

"Christ, ye're ready for me. Why did ye no' wake me up?" He thrust his finger deep inside her, fondling the spot he knew drove her wild and frantic. "Next time ye want me, wake me up."

"I-I couldn't. You were sleeping so peacefully." 

He paused his ministrations. "That's no' the answer I was hoping to hear."

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!  "Y-yes, next time, I'll wake you up!"

"That's my lass." He sank another finger into her entrance. But as she tried to clench around him, his fingers slid out, using her wetness to coat her nub and gently rub her aching flesh. She wanted to scream at him for teasing her, but he only softly chuckled against her neck. At that moment, she needed to come more than she needed air. She hoarsely whispered his name in a plea for release. "Ach, no' yet, Sassenach ... ye listen better when I'm touching ye." She yelped when he suddenly yanked the covers away and flipped her on her stomach, the crisp morning air caressing her heated skin. "Let me see first that beautiful arse of yers." He shoved a pillow beneath her hips, putting her in a highly arousing position, her face mushed against the mattress and her bottom in the air. "Such a beautiful bum."

"Jamie ..." 

He kneaded the curves of her buttocks as he let out a frustrated male groan. "Let us talk first. This is the only time I'm pretty sure ye're no' gonnae argue with me with what I'm about to say. Ye listening?"

"Yes, yes ...get on with it, damn it!"

He laughed out loud just before his lips travelled along the path of her spine, kissing and nibbling her flesh. One hand slid around her belly and down the apex of her thighs, slipping blunt fingers into her folds as his mouth moved to her neck. He lingered there, biting hard and then soothing the sting with a lick of his tongue. Anticipation pulsated within her body, and goosebumps erupted on her skin as the weight of his erection slid against her upturned bottom, and Jamie positioned himself behind her. When he hefted her higher with his forearm, she let out a squeak. "Ye'll no' be working this weekend."

"Jamie," she whimpered. "B-but I can't."

"Oh yes, ye can." Skilled fingers stroke her sensitive nub, and with one thrust of his hips, he completely filled her, taking her by surprise. She nearly screamed, pressing her mouth against the mattress, suddenly mindful of nosey neighbours. She remembered what Jamie had told her about Mrs Fitz and muffled her moans on the covers of the bed.

"Oh, God, this is not fair," she breathed on an uneven exhale.

"I told ye last night, I have a wee surprise for ye. Ye've worked long enough this week. Ye're taking a wee break this weekend." When she didn't respond, he stilled his hips and took out his fingers from inside her. "You need a break, Sassenach. Now, for the love of God, just say yes, Jamie."

When Jamie drew out his hardness and plunged deeply back into her, heart-stopping sensations coursed through her whole body. Something about how he positioned her, the fluid, smooth drives of his movement made her mad with need. She wanted to urge him to go faster, but she clamped her mouth shut. He was deliberately torturing her and forcing her to agree with him. So she decided she was going to get her own back. Contracting her inner walls, she clenched around him. From experience, she knew the more he had to work to push into her, the wilder he would become. Just when she thought she finally got the upper hand, he paused and dropped his weight, stopping just short of squashing her. "No, no, no! Please don't stop!" she wailed.

"Oh, aye." He pushed his lower body tight to her bottom, his erection throbbing inside her. When she tried to wriggle her bum to urge him to start moving again, he firmly gripped her hips in place. "Ah, I ken what ye're up to," he whispered hotly in her ears. "I'm no' taking no for an answer. Ye owe this break to yourself."

"You don't play fair."

"Neither do ye."

Thinking she could compromise later after spending the whole morning with him, she finally conceded. "Fine. Just keep moving, for God's sake!" she hissed.

He let out a pained laugh and pressed his lips on the crook of her neck. "Good lass, ye ken it makes sense." Then cursing under his breath, he moved all the way out in one smooth slide before deliciously gliding deep back. "Christ, I can feel ye want to come, but ye're going to stay with me a little longer. Ye fell asleep on me last night, leaving me with a painful cockstand." 

"Jesus, Jamie."

"Aye," he rasped hoarsely into her hair. "I said the same thing when ye wriggled that pert arse against me and fell asleep immediately."

The way his thickness was invading her from an angle almost sent her hurtling over the edge. And it gave her a new appreciation for math. The thought almost made her laughed out loud if it wasn't for the pulsing pleasure between her legs.

"Christ ...look at ye," Jamie gritted, his voice sounding raw and almost severe. "So bloody perfect." 

He nudged her legs wider and changed his movements to short, strong strokes, increasing his pace with primitive energy that left her gasping for breath. With the sound of their slapping bodies, the earthy scent of arousal, the sweaty slide of skin, her belly began to tighten and coil.

"I just want to make ye happy, Sassenach," he groaned, bearing down his upper body more, his hips relentlessly pounding into hers. "So just say yes to my wee surprise, aye?" 

"Yes, yes, yes." Their voices sounded so far away, and her initial hesitation about taking a break from work almost forgotten. Not entirely, though. She tried to grasp that mental note about emails to be sent, but the hand gripping her hips moved, and fingers slid to rub her nub, stroking and pushing her further towards her peak. She gave in and widened her thighs to let him fill her more. But it left her no time to prepare for the release that shattered her apart, her love for him and the physical pleasure fusing to intensify the sensations blasting through her. It threatened to overwhelm her, but Jamie's presence anchored her as he followed her over, groaning her name, gripping her hips with a fierceness as he claimed her for his. 

Moments later, he pulled her boneless body in his arms and tucked her into his chest, tugging the covers over them and curving his front to her back. He held her tightly as the morning light streamed through the windows. 

Battling to keep her eyes open, thoughts of work slithered in, but it kept flittering away with her consciousness before she could dwell on it. Maybe just for a minute, she thought. But Jamie smelled so good, and his tender strokes enticed a hazy sleep to claim her muscles, dragging her down into the dark.  Just one minute. 

As she eased into sleep, his whisper drifted toward her unconscious. "It's still early, Sassenach. Sleep a wee bit more. Your wee surprise will come soon enough."

..........

Claire woke for the second time that morning with an unladylike shriek when the mattress dipped and moved. Muddled, she jackknifed into a sitting position, eyes scanning wildly around the curtain-dimmed room for a trespasser. Claire knew someone was there, her gut instinct telling her it wasn't Jamie. Summoning her eyes to refocus, she collapsed with relief when she realised who it was sat at the foot of the bed.

"Surprise!" Annalise squealed, clapping her hands.

"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!" She swiped her bedraggled hair out of her face. "You scared me bloody witless."

"Bloody hell, you're jumpy." Annalise shifted a hip on the bed. "Jamie's bad dreams rubbing off on you now, are they?"

"That's not something to joke about," she glowered at her friend, pulling the covers up to her chin.

Annalise' smile waned a bit. "Hey, what's up? I'm not making fun of Jamie's nightmares, and you know that." Her shoulders slumped. "In case you don't know, bad dreams can happen to anyone. In fact, I had a bad dream a few days ago. I was being chased by a pirate."

Suddenly feeling bad for snapping at her friend, she mentally dispersed the sleep fog in her brain and gave Annalise an apologetic smile. So this was her surprise, she thought. Not that Claire wasn't happy to see her friend, but she'd expected Jamie's surprise to be a romantic weekend with him. She let out a sigh. "Chased by a pirate, huh? Let me guess ...sunken chest and no booty?"

Annalise perked up at Claire's feeble attempt to sound less grumpy. "Har de har har! I didn't realise you could be funny before coffee. A total package for a marauding pirate if I may say so."

"Tell that to Captain Beard," she mumbled, getting out of bed. 

"Aye, matey!" Annalise mischievously winked. "That's if he happens to be in Isle of Harris this weekend. Which is where, by the way, we're going, as in, now! So get packing!"

Claire stilled and shook her head. "Wot?" She began to shake her head, tugging the covers around her as she made her way to the dresser. "Oh no, no, no! I'm not leaving this place for any man or woman, including you, blondie! I've got a pile of work to do. You know I have deadlines."

"Oh no, you don't. You stop right there, missy! Have you forgotten you agreed with Jamie to take a weekend break?" 

Claire's eyes widened. "Oh, did he also tell you how he got me to agree?"

"No. But you can tell me later on the plane."

"Plane?" Claire dropped her face in her hands. "Oh, God, I can't believe I agreed to this. Jamie never told me anything."

Annalise stood up from where she was sitting and crossed her arms across her chest. "Hmmm, you don't look too happy to be spending time with me."

She puffed out a breath. "It's not that ..."

"We haven't had girly time in ages, Claire. Jamie thought it would do you a world of good to have a bit of fun."

"So now what? You and Jamie plotting and ganging up on me behind my back, is that it?" Claire accused. "What about Willie? Surely, you miss him more than me. When was the last time you saw him?"

Annalise grinned. "Don't worry about Willie. We have been doing a lot of catching up all night last night, and you want to know what he did?"

Claire's face crumpled in disgust as she held up a hand. "Oh, gross! Too much information. I don't want to hear about your sex life."

Annalise laughed out loud. "Fine, I won't discuss our sex life if you start packing now. Besides, you wouldn't want to waste the tickets Jamie worked so hard for, now, do you?"

Oh dear Lord, save me from well-meaning friends!  She didn't really want to leave, but if Jamie had spent money organising this trip, she wasn't about to let it go to waste.  But ...  "How about uncle Lamb? He came to see me, and I can't just leave him."

"He knows all about the trip, and I've been told he's got a few excursions planned around the Highlands." 

"Oh, well ...if that's the case, I need to call Mary and John and let them know what I'm up to this weekend."

Annalise grinned. "Jamie's sorted it already."

"Wot?" she exclaimed with disbelief, her hands landing onto her hips. "Jamie's been planning this with you all along, hasn't he?" She shook her head. "I-I can't believe it!"

"You better believe it."

Claire blew out a breath of exasperation. "Fine! Grab my suitcase. It's in the airing cupboard."

"Yay!" Annalise whirled on her feet and pumped her fist in the air. Claire couldn't help but smile as enthusiasm began to wiggle its way through her system. Maybe Jamie was right. She owed it to herself to have a break, and probably a change of scenery was what she needed. After Mary had delivered the goods, Claire had worked herself to the bone all week and sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. She was already in her second round of edits on the extensive manuscripts Mary had submitted and must admit they were indeed making progress. As for Tom, her job with him was done, and the team organised by John should be arriving next week. It was definitely time for a bit of fun. 

On second thoughts, though it was generous of Jamie to arrange the trip, it would have been nice if he could come along too. But the idea of Jamie's condition worsening with something as simple as weekend trips away brought a feeling of melancholy to descend upon her. She had no doubt Jamie would be cured, and they'd be able to travel together one day, so she forced herself to shake off the momentary bout of wistfulness when Annalise came bounding back with her small suitcase.

"So ...you talked to Jamie. Where is he, by the way?" she asked, grabbing clothes from the dresser and throwing them in the bed. "He left early this morning."

"Oh! Jamie said he needed to be somewhere important, and he'll see you when we return. Willie will be driving us to the airport." When Claire frowned, Annalise came up behind her and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, we'll only be away for two days, and you'll see him again Sunday night."

It was apparent to Claire she'd been at a disadvantage waking up to the news of the weekend trip because if Jamie had suggested it a few days ago, she would have definitely put her foot down and refused. Unfortunately, Annalise and Jamie knew her too well; hence they'd planned this trip in secrecy.

Claire absorbed that for a few heartbeats and felt a tad of guilt. It had been a while she'd spent time with Annalise, and once her job was done in London, she'd be living with Jamie. Plus, who knew when she'd have another chance to hang out with her best friend ...just the two of them and in the Isle of Harris at that. Besides, they always had a great time together. There was no sense in spoiling their spontaneous weekend with her stubbornness. She might as well make the most of it.

Claire turned to face her friend and smiled. "Do I have time to shower?"

"Plenty of time," Annalise beamed. "While you get ready, I'll make some coffee. I know what you're like without your cuppa first thing." And with that, she danced out of the room, whistling, leaving Claire to shake her head in amusement.

Later that morning, as they drove past the motorway exit for the airport, Claire shifted restlessly in the backseat of Willie's car, watching the familiar structure pass by in a blur outside her window. She frowned. Willie must have forgotten to take the turn.  Uh oh!  But before she could say anything, Willie veered to a different dual-carriageway. She tried to relax back into her seat, thinking there was probably a different route to the airport she didn't know of.

Eventually, they pulled to a stop in front of a building that didn't resemble a terminal, but there was an airfield and a charter plane coming out of the hangar. When Willie stepped out of the car, a man with worn jeans, a black leather jacket and a pair of aviators waved. He looked kind of familiar, but Claire was unsure.

"Who is that?" Claire asked quietly.

Annalise followed her line of vision. "Oh, I thought you knew that guy." She frowned when Claire shook her head and squinted to get a better look. "I was told the guy flying our plane was the soon to be famous Highlands' ultimate guide to Scotland." As if on cue, the man removed his aviators and started walking towards their car, a smile plastered to his unshaven face. When he waved at them, Annalise giggled, and Claire's eyes widened in confusion. "You probably can't recognise him from afar ...it's your author, Tom Christie," Annalise announced with a satisfied smile and to her utmost shock. "He's flying us to Stornoway."

What the bloody hell? Jamie arranged this?

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Claire stood in the quaint wonderland of whisky, gin and assorted spirits, also known as The Island Spirit Whisky Shop. One side of the store was given over to the whiskies, while numerous craft gins and spiced rums were on the other. Absently, she touched one of the bottles of liquid gold, mentally calculating how many bottles she could fit in her small luggage to bring back as presents. When she heard laughter, she glanced up to find Annalise sampling a dram with the owner, effectively ending her dithering and opting to grab just a bottle of single malt in front of her instead. They'd just arrived in Stornaway over an hour ago and decided to put her gift shopping spree on hold.

Annalise raised a whisky glass and winked. "You better start getting busy. Our driver isn't going to hang around and wait for us all day. Found anything you like?"

Claire approached her friend and showed the bottle. "Aberfeldy, sixteen years old. For us tonight."

"Very nice. Glad to see you warming up to this trip for a change. How long has it been since you last checked your phone for Jamie's message?" 

"Five minutes," she replied, scrunching her nose at Annalise for bringing up the sore subject. She handed the bottle and her credit card to the shop owner before facing her friend. "I've sent Jamie a message, and he hasn't replied yet. He's got some explaining to do ...sending me away like this with too little notice." She let out an unladylike grunt. "Why can't our men be here? We're in a beautiful location ...romantic even ..." She waved a hand in the air to prove a point. "I don't understand why you're not so bothered not spending time with your boyfriend when you rarely see him, and you're only here until Monday."

"Oh, poor us girls! Without our men! God help us!"

Claire fought a smile. "Hey, now, if I recall correctly, I had to listen to you moan endlessly about not seeing Willie enough. What was that again, you said just a week ago over the phone?" She tapped her chin and pretended to go through her memory bank. "You can't stand living without him."

"Correction, missy. I told you I couldn't stand living on my own in London. Which means I'm not used to not having you around."

"Ah, my mistake. Must have misheard that part." Annalise snorted a laugh and went to grab a bottle of gin from the shelf, leaving Claire once again to thoughts of Jamie. Any day now, John would summon her back to London, probably with Mary Hawkins and Tom Christie in tow. Though she dreaded going back, she'd placated those thoughts by telling herself she'd be moving to the Highlands soon. 

Despite the valuable inroads to their relationship, Claire wondered if she would have given up London and her job so soon, supposing that Jamie hadn't had PTSD. Would their relationship have moved this fast? She immediately quelled that thought because deep down, she knew in her heart whatever their circumstances might have been, they would have chosen to be together whether it was too soon or not.

She glanced once more at her phone, inwardly debating whether to call Jamie or not.  What the hell is he up to?  She hadn't heard a peep from him since she'd left the cottage. Something was definitely up, but she couldn't put her finger on it.

"So, this work of yours is moving along fast. I bet you can't wait to start your life in the Highlands with your love, no less. So, what's the plan? Are you and Jamie buying a bigger property together, or will you be staying in the cottage to see how the relationship pans out?" 

"His cottage for now. As for what lies ahead, we haven't talked about that far into the future yet."

"Quite right. Future planning is tedious, anyway. It's pretty obvious you and Jamie are meant to be together, no matter what. I saw it coming from a mile away. The way he looks at you ...you can literally see smoke coming out of his ears." Annalise comically waggled her eyebrows as she eyed the other sample bottles on the counter.

"Well, since we're talking about the future and wotnots," Claire began, lowering her voice, "I have been doing a lot of thinking myself. For starters, I want to have Jamie's babies one day." 

Annalise's eyes widened. 

She frowned. "Wot?"

"Babies?"

"Yes, babies." When Annalise continued to stare at her, Claire groaned. "Not now, though, silly! Our relationship might be going at full speed, but God ...I have other plans in mind before that happens."

"Yes, I get that ...but ...but have you and Jamie talked about babies?"

Claire gave the store owner an apologetic smile and pulled Annalise into the alcove by the window. "No. As I said, we haven't talked anything about the future. What's wrong with you? I know it's too early to be talking about babies, but everyone knows where our relationship is heading to. Eventually, somewhere down the line, starting a family would be the next step. Or did you think my move to the Highlands is experimental?"

"No! Of course not! It's not that ... it's..."

"It's wot?"

"I, ah ...the babies part."

"Jesus, Annalise, what's your fret about babies?"

"There's no fret!"

"What is it then?"

"I, ... I'm not sure if I should be the one telling you this, but ..."

"Tell me wot?"

"I thought you knew because why else would Jamie ..."

"Know what? For God's sake, spit it all out! It quite apparent you know something."

Annalise shook her head and sighed. "It's something Willie told me. It was right after when Jamie started to remember bits and pieces about his past. Willie thinks Jamie may have been deeply affected by what he'd learned. You know ...him witnessing your parents' death and you becoming an orphan at such a young age." She puffed out a breath. "Jamie confided to his brother that ...he doesn't want to have children because he doesn't think he'd be able to bear it if they would go through something as horrible as what you've both been through. I know that's not really Jamie talking, and I understand those fears are coming from a place brought about by his condition. Maybe it's something both of you should talk about. I thought Jamie might have already mentioned it."

Claire paused for a few heartbeats, absorbing Annalise's words. Should I be worried?  A part of her knew it was his PTSD symptoms amplifying those fears in Jamie's head. The other part, she wasn't too sure. But he'd made so much progress, she thought. She waved a hand in dismissal and let out a humourless laugh. "Oh ... don't worry about it. I'm pretty sure Jamie didn't mean to say that in its entirety. You know how men are like ...they tend to have reservations about children and stuff like that in the beginning. Besides, he understands how his condition affects his reasoning, decisions and emotions. He's very aware of that. He told me so. So him saying not wanting to have children is not a projection of what's truly in his heart." She gave her friend a reassuring smile even though a smidge of uncertainty was starting to creep in. "Jamie and I are in love," she said with all the conviction she could muster. "And we've proven that with love, we can achieve anything. As for his current views about not having children, they will eventually change. After what he's been through, it's understandable he'd be worried about history repeating itself. He's slowly but surely recovering, and as soon as the new therapist arrives, it can only get better from there. I'm quite sure of it"

"Claire ..."

"There's nothing to worry about," she said firmly this time. 

Annalise grabbed her hand. "Claire ...I have no doubt that he loves you. Even a blind man can see that. But think about this. What if ...what if he can't give you what you want? I mean babies. That's what you want one day, isn't it?" When Claire nodded, she continued. "You should talk to Jamie about your dreams of having children one day before moving here to Scotland. I don't want you to invest your time and emotion in a relationship that will probably end in regrets. I like Jamie, and I love you, and I love the love you have for each other. But I don't want to see the both of you hurt ...just because you failed to see each other eye to eye. Please promise me you'll talk about this with Jamie before turning your life upside down and moving here to Scotland and start playing house. There's a lot at stake here, Claire. Please, just talk to him. At least you know if you're both on the same page or not."

"Fine. I'll talk to Jamie. But under one condition." Annalise nodded in response. "If we're going to have this break together, promise me to refrain from any more baby talks."

"You started it."

Claire sighed. "Yes, I did," she admitted. "But it ends now."

"Alright, but I'm only going to say one more thing and then we can go back to holiday mode." Annalise made a broad gesture. "I can see that our little talk rattled you a bit. And don't you dare deny it!" When Claire shrugged and made a gesture to carry on, she proceeded. "I just want you to know, despite the uncertainties you may be harbouring right now, ...thanks to my big mouth, nothing changes the fact that Jamie loves you. I'm sure after you've talked, you'll arrive at some compromise about this baby thingy."

Despite herself, Claire laughed out loud and rolled her eyes. "Holy hell, we sure are a bizarre duo, aren't we? Poor Jamie. Here we are talking about babies when he probably hasn't even thought about marriage. If he could hear us talk right now, he'll probably put me on the next flight to London."

Annalise looked at her sheepishly. "Or perhaps not. Shall we get going?"

She raised a dubious eyebrow at her friend. "Hey. What's that look for?" 

Annalise wandered back to the check-out counter, laughing. "That was my wise, venerable sage look. You like?"

"No, knock it bloody off!"

..........

Jamie pressed the cold pack against his throbbing eye and tried unsuccessfully to tamp down his irritation at Quentin. Stood in the cottage's open space lounge, which comprised the kitchen and dining area, he turned away to face one of the floor-to-ceiling windows. For the first time, he noticed the stunning vistas before him. Looking out to the south, there's the view of the village and valley, and the west the vast, beautiful beach, and to the north, the rolling hills. Under normal circumstances, he would have enjoyed the sceneries, but the crunching sound of Quentin's meat mallet on walnuts might as well have been a tree stump grinder splintering his skull.

"Do ye mind?" Jamie muttered, turning around to glower at Claire's uncle. "That godawful sound is making my headache worse." 

"Stop whingeing." Quentin didn't bother to glance up from the chopping board on which he seemed resolved to make continuous head-splitting rackets. "Because of you, I haven't eaten all day. What kind of boys' trip is this anyway? There's no food or booze except for the bottle of expensive champagne... these walnuts ...and that ..." He jutted his chin at the fruit basket and shook his head in disgust. "Sorry I can't accommodate your headache." He watched the walnut shell fly across the counter when his mallet hit the chopping board. "As for the black eye, I'm sorry about that too."

Willie chuckled from behind his open newspaper as he lifted his feet to rest them on the coffee table. "Everyone will now think Claire dropped one on ye. How did it happen again? I didnae quite catch the whole story since both of ye were too busy grumbling at one another when I arrived."

Jamie glared with one eye. "As ye've already gathered, Quentin did this." He pointed his index finger at the evidence and adjusted the cold pack with a free hand. "And I cannae for the life of me understand why it was supposed to be a good thing."

"I told you already ...we had a bit of miscommunication," Quentin shot.

"Miscommunication?" Jamie sputtered, throwing a hand in the air in disbelief. He spun around and faced Willie. "I said to him if I start having one of my panic attacks on the ferry..."

"...you wanted to be knocked out," Quentin interjected.  

"Jesus Christ! I never said that, and I wasnae having a panic attack. I was feeling queasy."

"Yes, so queasy he turned green," Quentin added, hammering the walnut with more force this time, making Jamie flinch at the offensive sound. "And here I thought he was having a panic attack. He never mentioned anything about being prone to seasickness. So when he started to act all weird on me, I decked him."

"On my eye of all places!" Jamie shouted, slamming the cold pack on the kitchen counter. "When I said I'd knock myself out, I meant I'd take my medication and sleep it off in the car." He pointed a finger to his eye. "Look at this ...I look like I participated in a pub brawl."

Willie glanced up before turning a page of the newspaper. "Aye, that ye do."

"Well, you should have told me more about your condition," Quentin stressed, pointing the mallet at him. "How was I supposed to know what a panic attack looks like?"

Jamie blew out a breath. "Even if it was a panic attack, what made ye think socking me on the eye is the answer?"

Quentin shrugged. "I guess I get panic attacks too, ...now there!" When Jamie turned away in frustration, he pressed on. "Look at the bright side ...I got rid of your seasickness and saved you from having a relapse."

"I told ye already I wasnae having a panic attack, and I havenae had one for some time now!"

"Hey, may I remind you that I offered to drive Claire and Annalise to the airport and fly in later as Willie did? Your brother would have been in a better position to deal with your condition. I know you wanted to talk more about that bloody bench, but ..." Quentin shook his head as if remembering something. "Say ...I still don't understand why we haven't gone altogether. All this palaver with keeping this whole thing a secret and Willie taking the next plane after dropping off the girls." He paused, his eyes narrowing. "Another thing, no one's told me yet where the girls were heading to."

Jamie gave his brother a warning cough.

Willie sighed and lowered his newspaper. "The lassies are somewhere having fun. Anyway, ye'll be getting yer wish granted. Ye'll be flying in my place when we return back to the mainland. Jamie told me CalMac ferries banned ye for a year."

Jamie bit back a smile at Willie's smooth change of subject.

"So Jamie told you." Quentin popped a walnut in his mouth. "Did he also tell you he didn't even try to explain to the police that it wasn't my intention to knock him out cold? That my intention was to help."

Jamie took a slow breath. "How could I? My head was still reeling from your punch. The police could only take in reports from eyewitnesses." 

Quentin cast the mallet aside and flattened both hands on the counter. "All right, all right ....never mind that. What's done is done, and I apologised already." He paused for a few beats and frowned. "So ... what's happening now? Why are we sitting around in this cottage when we could be organising some grub and booze?"

"Just hang fire for a little bit more." Jamie took out his phone and pretended to fiddle with it. It was becoming more difficult to distract Quentin by the second, but he needed to do this right if his plan was going to work. "The landlord is supposed to stop by. It shouldn't be long now."

"Well ..." Quentin glanced at the wall clock. "If the landlord doesn't come anytime soon, I'm going to find the nearest pub. I'm starving. And don't tell me to eat fruits. I want a proper hot meal. And I need a drink after the morning we had."

Not happening!  Jamie couldn't have him doing that. "Look, dinnae start lining yer imaginary shots just yet. Pubs open much later here. Maybe while we're waiting, ye can show me that bench we were talking about." He gave Quentin a meaningful look. "Remember? It's one of the reasons why we came here for. Ye've delayed it long enough bashing those walnuts."

Quentin lifted an eyebrow. "Can you blame me? If we'd eaten first, we wouldn't be having this discussion, and we could be looking at that bench already. As it stands, I have to settle for walnuts. Besides, can't the bench wait? You said this trip would be entertaining. And smashing walnuts is not my idea of entertainment."

Jesus, why does everything have to be difficult with this man?  

Willie finally took pity on Jamie as he regarded them both with a mixture of impatience and amusement. "Look, I ken ye're both a bit on edge and didn't have a good start to the day." He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "I know ye're hungry, Quentin, and I know yer eye's in pain, Jamie, but bickering at one another is no' gonnae help yer cause." He clasped his hands and gave Jamie a knowing look. "Why don't ye both go and look at that bloody bench while I wait here for the landlord. That way, we're getting something done. Fair enough?"

"Fine." Jamie and Quentin said simultaneously.

Willie's head briefly fell back, and he heaved a relieved exhale up at the ceiling. "Finally, they agreed on something."

Quentin ignored Willie and looked at Jamie. "Right, we might as well." He made a sweeping gesture with his arm. "If you'll follow me," he instructed before heading for the front door.

Jamie glanced at his brother, who just nodded and returned back to reading the newspaper. Rolling his head on his shoulders, he followed Quentin out of the house and to the back garden. 

Halfway, Quentin glanced back at him. "So ...about that bench, you still remember this place?"

"Only vaguely," Jamie responded quietly, overcome with acute nostalgia as he began to take in his surroundings. 

The last few nights, while Claire had been cooped up in the shed doing edits, he and Quentin had been trying to piece their history together, mostly to help Jamie understand the past. It had been a frustrating feat at best for Quentin, trying to unravel Jamie's memories as a toddler that they'd almost laid the past to rest. Until Jamie had mentioned a bench with engravings in a garden of a coastal retreat, he'd once visited as a wee bairn. To his astonishment, Quentin had immediately known the place. The more they'd talked about it, the more the memory of that day made sense and became vivid until an idea came to Jamie's mind ...to use this trip for his plan.

When they reached the back of the house, they came to a stop, and there in the middle of the freshly trimmed lawn was the bench. Fragmented images began to flood Jamie's brain, colliding together to form a vivid picture. As if being pulled by an invisible force, he made his way towards the seat. Laying a hand on the surface, he caressed the weather-worn wood, relying on his heart to know what to search for. When he found the familiar yet foreign carving, he knew he'd made the right decision to arrange this trip. "Here it is."

Quentin stooped down beside Jamie to take a better look. "Jesus, it is really here," he whispered. "Just as Henry told me." He glanced at Jamie. "And you remembered. How old were you when you were last here?"

Jamie sat on the bench and briefly squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them again, he took a deep breath. "At the most, I must have been four. It was summer. My ma needed a break from us boys, so Murtagh took Willie and me on a trip here to visit Harry. Jenny stayed behind. I cannae mind what Harry was doing here, but I do remember him showing me this when my godfather disappeared into the house." His fingers traced the engraving. "I never understood then what it meant when he read it out to me. He'd told me it was our wee secret."

"It was a secret, alright. Henry wouldn't have wanted Murtagh to know." 

"Aye, I sort of caught the gist of it then even though I was too young to understand."

Quentin spoke with a distant look in his eyes. "Henry told me everything that happened that day and how it had been difficult for him to keep their trip here a secret from Julia. It was supposed to be a surprise."

Jamie couldn't help laughing out loud. He knew the feeling. "Aye, I can imagine," he replied, hoping Quentin would finally take the hint and see the real reason behind this trip.

"Did you know Henry had always wanted a son for his firstborn?" Quentin asked out of the blue. "Don't get me wrong, though. Claire was the light of his life, and he loved her. So much so, he would stare at her for hours while she slept. So Julia told me anyway. But he'd always said he wanted a son. I think it had something to do with him spending a lot of time with you and your brother during the summer, even before he met Julia." He smiled at Jamie. "He had fond memories of you and your brother, and it was very apparent from the stories he told me of you."

"A son," Jamie murmured, shifting on the bench as another memory popped up. "Aye, he'd mentioned something about wanting a son. He used to joke about having one, one day ...a strong lad like me were his words." He got up from his position and scoured the seat once more with his fingers and eyes, trying hard to remember where the other etching was. "I seem to recall myself asking Harry what if the baby turns out to be a girl. I cannae mind his reply, but he told me to pick a girl's name because he'd already had one for a boy. After I picked one, he carved both names we came up with on this bench ... it's here somewhere."

"Really?" Propping his specs on his nose, Quentin hunched over and began to search. "Can you remember the name you chose?"

He shook his head. "I probably came up with something daft ...like some cartoon character Jenny used to watch. "

"Or perhaps not." Quentin hunkered down, gliding his hand over the wooden surface of the edge of the bench. "Take a look at this." He stood up and took a step back to allow Jamie to see better.

What Jamie saw next took his breath away and only confirmed that niggling feeling in his guts. It hadn't been a misplaced memory nor a dream. He unseeingly watched Quentin squat down again to take a better look at the engraving, barely able to formulate words to express his emotions over the thoughts running through his head. Was this Harry's way of sending him a message ...a blessing of some sort? Or was it just some quirk in the universe, and everything had been purely coincidental? If it was the former, he'd been taken on a merry rough ride, and he could almost envision Harry's delight at his handiwork, watching them by the sidelines. Like Quentin, he was momentarily at a loss for words.

"You know, Henry's been gone for years," Quentin finally spoke after a long silence. "And it astounds me that you refer to him by his nickname with such familiarity. Only Julia called him Harry. As a matter of fact, now that I think of it, sometimes you talk about him as if he's still alive. You may have forgotten many of your memories of Harry, but it's quite obvious the special bond you had with him is still there, and it must have made an impact on your life."

Jamie almost laughed out loud. If only Quentin knew. He debated whether to say anything about Harry's mysterious appearances, but after a few indecisive heartbeats, he thought,  bugger it.  He might as well let the cat out of the bag. "Harry has appeared to me," he blurted rapidly before he could change his mind. "Numerous time. As solid and as real as we are standing here right now."

Quentin frowned. "What do you mean?"

Briefly, he filled Quentin in on the mystery that was Harry, from the first time the appearances began and everything in between and watched an array of expressions register on the older man's face. "I've only shared this story with Willie and Claire, and now ...you. It's not something I like to share with just anyone. But because ye're Harry's brother, I thought ye ought to know as well."

Quentin let out a low whistle. "That's some story. I don't know what to say. I've never believed in all these mumbo-jumbo spirit sightings, but ..." He let out a huge sigh. "...though your story is bizarre, strangely enough, I believe you. That night when you mentioned this place and this bench, I dreamt of Henry after. For the first time in years. He was sat right here, not saying a word. That's why I agreed to go on this trip. The notion that he may be trying to say something did occur to me and thought I might as well see this special place of Henry and Julia for myself."

Jamie let out an exhale of relief just as he saw Willie walking in their direction. His brother made a motion of tapping his watch, which could only mean one thing. He needed to make a move. Straightening up to his full body height, Jamie faced Quentin and cleared his throat. "Speaking about this place ..." He swallowed and braced himself. "I haven't been entirely honest with ye."

"Is that so?"

Willie came to stand beside them, a slow smile spreading across his face.

Jamie disregarded his brother's knowing smirk. "There's also another reason for this trip that I meant to tell ye."

Quentin muttered a curse. "You're going to tell me this isn't the all-lads trip you'd been going on about, is that it?"

"Aye ...no! I mean ..." He tunnelled impatient fingers through his hair. "What I meant to say is ...with everything falling into place ...Harry, the engravings on this bench a-and how our history are sort of intertwined together ...I -I thought ...right here and now would be a perfect time."

"Perfect time for?"

Jamie puffed out a breath. "Perfect time to ask for your blessing."

"Blessing for what?" Quentin's brow puckered, but by then, he knew Jamie well enough, and it only took a quick study of the situation to determine exactly what was going to be asked. Quentin's eyes widened at the realisation. "Holy hell, Jamie! Are you bloody kidding me? Is this what all this has been about?"

"It's been coming to this, cannae ye see it?" He worked to steady his voice. "Ye dreamt of Harry sat on this bench. That must mean something, and ye know it. Everything that's happened to me ...Claire coming to the Highlands ....those ..." He pointed at the bench. "...those engravings ....they didn't happen by chance. All of it has led to this day.."

"Jesus! I can't believe you're making me want to thump you a few hours after I just walloped you on the eye and apologised for it." He rolled up the sleeves of his top. "I was just beginning to warm up to you, lad. But it has to be done. It's a rule."

"Rule? What bloody rule?" He watched Quentin clenched and unclenched his fist. "Ye really are gonnae thump me, is that it?"

"Rule is rule," Willie murmured, watching them closely while sneaking glances at his phone. "But best get this settled soon because we dinnae have much time left."

"Time for what?" Quentin shot. "What the bloody hell is going on now?"

Jamie's patience was swiftly deteriorating. "Look, Quentin ...ye can thump me later, alright? I'll even offer ye my good eye. But right now, I need yer blessing." 

Quentin laughed incredulously. "Listen, son, you don't get to schedule your own thumping." 

That was the last straw. Whatever patience Jamie had left dissolved. There was no time for pussyfooting. He took two steps forward and brought his face close to Quentin's. The older man looked too shocked to react, so Jamie took advantage. "Listen to me, ye cantankerous ol' git. I tried being patient with ye because I know ye like me even if ye have a funny way of showing it. But this intent on giving me grief for whatever demented reason ye have and deriving joy out of it is bloody mental. So, I'm asking ye in the nicest possible way ...give me yer blessings. Ye're gonnae give it to me anyway. So cut out all this shite and give it to me now."

A tense silence between the men ensued, and they all stood stock-still waiting for each other to give in, and the only discernible sound to be heard was the waves crashing on the beach.

When the phone notification went off, Quentin and Jamie momentarily forgot their stand-off and whipped their attention to Willie. "So gentlemen, what is it going to be? It's nearly showtime."

Quentin's eyes narrowed. "Showtime?"

..........

" Òran na Mara ," Claire read out loud as they drove past the hand-carved wooden sign. "Song of the sea. How very fitting."

"I think it's romantic," Annalise whispered in response, smiling at her from the passenger seat in front. 

"Weel, here we are," the driver announced as they pulled into the driveway. "Welcome to yer home for the next few days." 

Claire leaned forward to take a better look at the cottage with a thatched roof and stone wall. Though it retained its traditional features, the beautiful structure had all the subtle hallmarks of luxury, and she could tell it had been sympathetically modernised without compromising its original character. She smiled when she caught a glimpse of the white sand beach and the turquoise Atlantic ocean. "This is gorgeous, Annalise. Jamie's outdone himself with this surprise."

"He certainly has," Annalise grinned. "Shall we?"

They both hopped out, and while Annalise sorted out the driver, Claire could only stand there in awe of the surrounding. Everywhere she turned, there was something to look at - beaches, rolling hills, and islands on the horizon. She was so taken by the natural beauty around her, she didn't even notice the car drive away. 

"Wait till you see inside. Jamie showed me pictures of the interior." Annalise walked up to the house and opened the wooden door, and Claire followed, hefting her luggage.

Inside was just as breathtaking as outside. "Wow," Claire breathed, admiring the views from the numerous windows. "This place is huge. There's probably enough room to accommodate ten people here. What are we going to do with all this space? The boys should have come."

Annalise just shrugged and smiled as she opened the glass door that led to the back garden overlooking the beach. "Why don't you go out and enjoy the view. There's a seat over there. I'll go and find us something to drink."

She stepped out of the cottage and sucked in a deep breath of salty air, and immediately felt at peace. Shading her eyes from the sun, she surveyed the curved bay of the beach and the peninsula in the backdrop. As far as she could see, there wasn't a soul in the area, nor were there passing cars to be heard, just the sound of nature, white sands and blue skies ahead. Oddly enough, the scenery uncannily reminded her of her mother's painting, which hung in her family home in Oxford, making her momentarily wonder if it was still there.

Sighing, she pulled out her phone and swiped the screen. There was still no message from Jamie. She decided it was no use pining over him when he must have spent a fortune sending her here to have some quality time with her best friend. He was thoughtful that way, even though sometimes to a fault. With a shake of her head, she shoved her phone back in her jeans, but something brought her up short as she made her way towards the bench. A familiar scent.

Before she could turn around to seek for the source, a pair of strong arms slid around her waist, soft, warm lips gliding along the back of her neck.

Exhilaration snapped in her veins. "Jamie," she breathed, turning around to wrap him in her arms. "You're here."

"I'm here," Jamie returned gruffly, his big hand rubbing circles on the small of her back. "Did ye really think I'd let ye out of my sight for a whole weekend when ye could be returning to London anytime soon?" He buried his face in the crook of her neck, nuzzling his nose against her skin. 

"A part of me didn't think so." She tipped her head back and forced him to look at her. When his face came to view, she did a double-take. "Your eye! What happened?"

His lips twitched. "Dinnae fash, Sassenach. It's just a minor accident. So, do ye like yer surprise?"

Her lungs released the pent-up breath she was holding in a rush. "I love it and even more so now that you're here." 

He smiled and took a moment to search her eyes before their mouths joined, warm hands cradling her face. His tongue parted her lips and stroked with the utmost tenderness in a slow, savouring kiss making her aware of their hearts pounding in unison.

"Sassenach ..." He trailed off to brush his lips against her temple. "Before anything else, there's something I have to show ye."

She arched an eyebrow at him. "Another surprise?"

Tongue tucked into his cheek, he momentarily glanced over her shoulder before his gaze ticked back to hers. "I suppose ye can call it that. Have ye been here before?"

She noticed the immediate gravity in Jamie's expression as he kissed her brow. "No. I haven't. But I must admit this place does feel familiar."

"How so?"

"The views ...it reminds me of my mother's painting. She's probably been here at one point."

He brought her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. "She was."

"She was? How do you know? Uncle Lamb told you?" she asked rapidly.

"Patience, woman! Too many questions all at once." He tugged her towards the bench, and when he let go, he stooped over the seat and ran a hand over the wooden surface. He glanced up at her and smiled. "Come here and take a look at this."

Claire did as she was told, and as she crouched down, her eyes landed on a string of words carved in what looked like a feeble attempt at calligraphy.

 

Henry and Julia - At the end, as at the start, through all the in-betweens, until the world stops spinning.

 

A choppy breath passed her lips as she ran her fingertips over the etchings. "It's my mum and dad."

"Aye."

"They were here." She stood up and looked around her, this time, trying to see the surroundings through their eyes. "It makes sense dad brought mum to this place. It's so romantic, and from stories I've been told, he was just ...that. And I can imagine my mum sitting here on this very spot, capturing the moment with her artwork." An intense wave of gratitude suddenly rose, almost making the moisture in her eyes spill. Jamie had done this for her because he knew, just like him, she was trying to put the pieces of her past together. "God, this is bloody insane. I wouldn't have seen this if we hadn't met."

"Ye want to hear the best part?"

She gave him a wobbly smile. "Go on then."

"Yer da proposed to your ma on this very bench."

She let out a soft expulsion of breath. Something expansive and extraordinary stirred within. It was as if, in this very moment, Jamie's revelation had taken back to her parents' past and was there to witness it. "I don't know what to say." 

"The carvings on the bench was yer da's tribute to the day he proposed to yer ma."

"And you know this, how?" she asked quietly.

"Yer uncle and I put two and two together," Jamie explained, with a one-shoulder shrug. "I told ye ....some memories of my childhood have started to come back. Weel, this was one of them. When I mentioned to Quentin about how yer father showed me his handiwork on this bench when I was a wee lad, he'd figured this was the place Harry proposed. Yer father must have spoken of this place to yer uncle. I didnae understand any of it back then. I was too young. I wouldnae have realised the significance of it if I hadn't told Quentin about it. After some thoughts, I knew I had to come back and see it for myself just to prove I hadn't imagined any of it."

"But did you have to put me on a charter plane?" she softly admonished. "With Tom Christie? Are you mates with him now?"

"Tom is often hired to fly some goods to Stornoway for some restaurant. When I heard he'd be flying today, I thought it fitted perfectly with my plan. I must admit it pained me to ask him to take ye girls, but he was happy enough to sneak ye in."

"We could have flown here together."

"Aye, we could have." He took her hand in his and played with her fingers. "But I wasnae sure how I'd fare in the plane with my PTSD. Besides, I had a few personal businesses to attend to. 

"Such as?"

He shook his head in amusement and kissed her lips, lingering there before drawing away. "Ye're distracting me, Sassenach and I still have something to show ye."

She heard Annalise's laughter coming from the cottage. "I presume Willie is here with you too."

"Your presumption is correct. Now stop asking questions and take a look at this." He pulled her towards the other end of the bench.

She sighed. "Alright, let's see it then."

Jamie let go of her hand and tapped a finger on the spot. "Take a look."

Claire leaned forward and read the inscription.

 

Jamie/Claire - the promise of greater things to come.

 

She frowned as confusion settled upon her. "What's this?" She traced the grooved marks of the words with a fingertip. "This has the same indentation as the other engraving. And it looks old. This couldn't have been recent."

"Yer da wrote it."

She straightened up. "Wot? But what does it mean?"

Jamie blew out a breath. "He wrote the names he would name his firstborn. He chose my name for a boy, and I got to pick yers."

Her eyes widened. "You picked my name?"

"Apparently," he grinned.

A laugh bubbled out of her. "God, so much to take in. Whatever next?"

"This." Jamie picked up a paper bag she hadn't noticed before by the bench and pulled out a padded envelope. "It's from yer workplace." He read the sender. "Dreamcatcher."

She sighed, still reeling from what Jamie just told her. "It's probably from John," she murmured more to herself as she took the envelope. She tore it open and was surprised when she pulled out its content and realised it was a children's book. "It's from Louise." When Jamie gave her a bland look, she sat down on the bench and stared at it. "She's a good friend of Annalise and a children's book author as well as an illustrator. I convince her to publish with Dreamcatcher when she showed me her work. I admitted to her a while back I wanted to be a writer. Every time our paths would cross, she'd asked me if I'd done anything about it. And every time I told her I was still working as an editor, she would give me a disappointed look." She smiled and shook her head. "I wonder why she sent this to me." Admiring the colourful print, she ran her hand over the cover. "What a talented woman."

"So ...what is the book about?"

Claire examined the book. "It's about The Unicorn and the Lioness," she answered, reading the title and leafing through the pages. As she suspected, each page was beautifully and colourfully illustrated. "Well, shall we see what we have here?" She opened it to the beginning and began to read aloud.

 

There once was a unicorn

That fell for a lioness. 

She surprised him with her charm,

And her comeliness.

 

She grinned as she flipped the page. "Unusual pairing," she observed, making a face at Jamie. "...but hey ...the unusual ones tend to be the best." 

She licked her lips and continued reading.

 

The two, you see, 

Were from different worlds 

So it made him wonder, 

How'd it all unfurled?

 

"Ah ... makes me wonder too," she added softly. "This is getting interesting."

Jamie laughed, angling his body so he could also see the pictures.

 

In spite of their differences, 

It was love at first sight. 

Their feelings grew quickly, 

Their hearts took to flight.

 

She smiled and turned to the next page.

 

The unicorn, his life, 

Once troubled and scattered 

Now calmed and on the mend

In all ways, that matter.

 

She glanced up at him and grinned. "Well, love heals, so they say," she remarked with a wink. "And love is all there is."

"Love is all there is," Jamie echoed with amusement.

She took a deep breath and resumed where she left off.

 

There were simply no words 

For how lucky he'd become. 

Without her by his side 

Life would be hopelessly glum.

 

She paused for a beat as a peculiar inkling tugged in her guts. Swallowing the odd knot in her throat, she forced herself to say something.  Anything!  "We wouldn't want the unicorn feeling glum now, would we?" she managed, suddenly unable to draw breath. 

"No," he replied. "A glum unicorn would be a tragedy."

Oh, lordy, lordy! Is this what I think what's happening?  She took a fortifying breath and lifted the next page with a shaky hand. 

 

It's hard to believe 

Just how happy they were. 

He could not conceive 

Even one day without her.

 

"Happy is good," she squeaked, working her throat to be heard. 

"Happiness is always a good choice ...grab it while ye can," he returned quietly.

Unable to get a grip of her runaway thoughts, a dull pounding began in her chest, gradually accelerating and drowning out the noise in their surrounding, portraying the moment with a dreamlike quality. She peered up at Jamie. Underneath his handsome exterior, she could see he was anxious, the lines around his mouth more noticeable than usual. The bruise on his eye, as much as she didn't believe it resulted from an accident, added a mixture of masculinity and vulnerability.  God, I love this man!  She wanted to stand up and hug him and let him know she knew where he was going with this. But now was not the time to ease his anxiety. She needed to pull herself together to see through what Jamie had probably painstakingly arranged for this moment.

"Weel, are ye gonnae finish reading it?" he asked, interrupting her thoughts.

Batting a speck of non-existent dirt from the book, she filled her lungs, nodded and read the next lines.

 

So he got on one knee

To hand her a gift 

A tiny velvet box

Holding a silver piece

 

A silver piece?  A record-scratching moment descended upon her like a heavy lead.  What's a silver piece?  Had she misinterpreted Jamie's intention? But when she glanced up from the book, there he was kneeling in front of her. Holding an expensive-looking velvet ring box, looking determined and brimming with adoration.  It's not a ring, Beauchamp! It's a silver piece ...whatever the heck that is. Get a grip.  She mentally shook herself. Of course, it couldn't be a ring. It's too soon for him to be asking her hand in marriage. The tiny box had to contain a key to his cottage, ....but he'd already given her one.  Perhaps he bought a new house?

"Are ye gonnae to open it?" he asked, breaking her thoughts.

At a loss for words, she took the velvet box with trembling fingers. She reminded herself to calm down. She wouldn't want to embarrass them both into thinking Jamie was proposing.

"It's no' gonnae open itself, Sassenach. Or do ye want to keep holding it until ye're ready?" His lips twitched at its corner, and a spark of amusement lit his eyes.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled. She took a deep breath and opened the tiny box. When she glimpsed its content, she could only manage a weak "Oh!" Nestled in the case was a shiny one-pound coin where the ring should have been. Too confused for words, she gave him a questioning look.

On his knees, Jamie edged himself forward and took her hand. Keeping his eyes on her, he kissed the inside of her wrist. "Sassenach ...ye ken how I've always talked about how fate in some strange, mysterious way brought us together?" Claire slowly nodded in response, unsure where he was going with this. "Weel, to this day, I still dinnae ken how it all works. This may sound mad. But with everything that's led to here and now, I firmly believe some force, unknown or known, has had a hand in bringing us together. And every day, I thank whoever is listening up there for bringing ye into my life." 

Her heart swelled with love. "Jamie, you don't have to do this," she said, laying a hand on his cheeks. "I know what's in your heart."

"No." He took the coin from the box and pulled something from the back of his jeans. "I want to do this." Whatever he reached out for inside his pocket, he kept it hidden in his hand. He cleared his throat and gave her a small smile. "Loving ye is the best part of my life, Sassenach. You brought light and colour in, and for that, I'll always be grateful. Ye brought me back to life when I didnae even realise I'd stopped breathing. From the moment I first laid eyes on ye, I wanted ye for keeps. I want to be yers and for ye to be mine, and I promise I will always try my utmost best to keep ye happy."

"I've always been yours. And always will be. My move to the Highlands should have made that clear enough for you."

"Aye, I had no doubt about that. But I ken that stubborn, practical side of ye will try to argue what I'm about to ask ye is too soon." When he opened his hand, she gasped. On the middle of his palm was a three-diamond stone engagement ring with two smaller ones flanking a bigger brilliant round centre. Emotions tangled in her throat as he raised the one pound coin with his other hand. "If ye, like me, believe destiny ...the universe ...yer da or whatever ye wish to call it ...conspired to bring us together, I'm gonnae dare ye to leave it up to fate with this one-pound coin I have here."

"Wot?" Now she was utterly confused.

"I'm proposing a coin toss. The rules are simple, and it only takes five flips. If it comes up heads each time ... ye'll wear my ring. We dinnae have to marry right away. We can wait a day or ten years. Either way, I want ye to know I plan on loving ye straight through eternity. If the coin comes up tails, weel ..." he trailed off, shrugging. "I guess I have no choice but to wait until ye're ready."

She looked down at Jamie's opened palms, a coin in one hand and a ring in the other. He was doing this so she wouldn't feel pressured to marry but feel secure enough in the knowledge he'd always be waiting for her no matter how long. She squeezed her eyes shut and crammed her fingers to her lips to keep a cry from escaping. She was not interested in tossing a coin to prove they're meant for each other. What they felt for one another wasn't based on fate or luck. They'd met, fallen in love, and now they're taking their relationship to the next level. It's something that happened all the time. They may not love each other the easy way, but their hearts were in the right place every single time. They're rock solid, and she didn't need a flipping coin to tell her that. 

When she opened her eyes, a sound broke free in her chest. "Bloody hell, Jamie! Just stop with all this silliness, and put the damn ring on my finger," she hiccuped, giving him her hand. 

Jamie's shoulders drained of tension as his breath released in a rush. "Did ye just agree to marry me?"

Hot tears rolled down Claire's cheeks as she let out a watery laugh and fell back on the bench, right where her father had proposed to her mother all those years ago. Though it felt right, a slight uneasiness tried to sneak in when she remembered what Annalise had told her about Jamie's doubt about having children of his own. She searched his face, and all she could see was his love and promise to make her happy.  Isn't everything supposed to fix itself when two people are in love?  She made a decision not to bring it up ...for now. "Yes, Jamie. I did. I want to marry you too," she breathed as she watched him take her hand to slip the ring on her finger. When she gazed at it, she could only make out the twinkle of diamonds through her tears.

"Christ, I cannae believe ye ditched the coin toss. and agreed to marry me ...just like that."

"I don't need the coin toss to know we're meant for each other," she pointed out. "And you shouldn't either."

He gave her a boyish lopsided grin, one that he was very aware always had an effect on her.  Damn!  He rose to his full height, tugging her along with him. "Ye have no idea how happy you made me, Sassenach," he breathed, pulling her roughly against him and grazing her earlobe with his teeth. "Now, for the love of God, give yer man his engagement kiss."

Committing this moment to her memory, she slipped her hands under his top to feel the warmth of his skin. Standing on her tiptoes, she tipped her head back and laid a soft kiss on his lips. She smiled when his chest and stomach muscles strained and swelled underneath her touch. "Is that better?" she whispered.

Jamie muttered a curse under his breath, rolling his forehead side to side against hers. "Sassenach, I said kiss. Ye cannae touch me like that when there are people that could be watching us from the house."

"Why?"

"Jesus!" Jamie's exhale came out hot against her forehead. "Why? How am I going to walk back in there in this condition? Ye look at me so innocently when ye ken well I feel a little crazy right now. It wouldnae take much to get me going. Look at what ye do to me."

They both dropped their attention to the bulge straining against his jeans. "I see," she whispered with a shrug, drawing away. "Too bad. I guess we just have to have that celebratory kiss later ...when we're alone."

Looking pained, his hand dug into her hair, pulling her back in, in his hold. "Not too fast." His lips swept over hers before his tongue dipped inside to give her his own brand of teasing. Seconds ticked by while he tantalised with a deep kiss, causing a moan to pass her throat. She felt the shudder that passed through him, the ecstasy of this second, his love, the pressure of his lust pressing between their bodies, the awe and gratitude. It was their own private celebration, drowning everything else out and ...

A throat cleared gruffly. Jamie stiffened and dragged his lips from her mouth, pink blooming on the tips of his ears. Just beyond his shoulder, she saw uncle Lamb averting his eyes and rocking on his heels. 

"Uncle Lamb?" Claire croaked. "Don't tell me you're on this as well?"

"Trust me, sweetheart, you're not the only one who's been bushwhacked."

"Bushwhacked?"

"I guess this is the part where we say, congratulations." Willie's voice cut through her surprise at seeing her uncle, causing her head to drop forward on Jamie's chest. As the reality of their surroundings slowly began to encroach, Claire somehow found the willpower to unwind her arms from Jamie's neck and turn around. Three pair of eyes were trained on them with a mixture of amusement and joy for their happiness and mild annoyance from her uncle.

"Aye, we're officially engaged," Jamie announced, his arm going around her waist to pull her back against his chest. He pressed his lap to her backside to let her know the situation in his pants. 

Claire stifled a giggle and put on her best smile, fully aware of Jamie's mild discomfort. "We are, indeed," she grinned, leaning back to kiss the underside of Jamie's jaw. "I must admit, I never saw this coming." She lifted her hand to show them the ring.

Annalise whooped and clapped her hands. "Well, this call for a celebration then," she beamed, skipping towards them. "Let me see it." 

Squeezing her hip, Jamie let her go. She smothered the urge to laugh when she supposed that probably nothing loses a man's erection faster than a sight of her uncle Lamb's tetchy demeanour. Dismissing her silly thoughts, Claire splayed her hand out for her friend. "It's gorgeous, isn't it?"

"Stunning. I'm so happy for you." She looked Claire in the eye and spoke for her ears only. "Did you tell him what we talked about earlier?"

"Which one?"

"Babies. Hello?"

Claire sighed. She didn't want to lie to her friend, nor did she want to taint the occasion by bringing the subject of future babies up. There was a time and place for that and now wasn't appropriate. She hugged Annalise briefly and spoke into her ears. "Everything is going to be fine."

Annalise brows furrowed, but when she saw how happy Claire was, she immediately dropped the subject. "If you say so."

"I know so," Claire smiled, pulling away from her friend at the sight of Willie approaching. "Now, scoot and celebrate with us."

Annalise did an eye-roll and let Willie through.

"Congratulations!" Willie broke in, raising the bottle of Moët in his hand and giving Jamie a high-five with the other. He dropped a kiss on Claire's cheek and grinned. "Welcome to the family, Claire. My not so wee  bràthair  doesnae mess about, does he?"

"Thank you," she smiled. "And, no, he certainly doesn't."

Jamie received a back slap and a hug from his brother while Claire watched her uncle slowly approached them, shoulders strained, and hands shoved in his pocket. Something was amiss. Quentin was avoiding her eyes, and she noticed his face was devoid of emotions. She strode to his side. "Seriously, uncle?" she hissed, disbelief colouring her tone.

Quentin ignored her. "You sneaky piece of shit!" he barked at Jamie. 

"Oh, dear God, here we go again," Willie muttered, rubbing his hand over his face.

"Again?" Claire gasped as she noticed Annalise and Willie's eyes ricocheting between Jamie and Quentin. She was about to scold her uncle when his face broke into a grin. She held her breath and stilled in anticipation.

"Congratulations, son! I couldn't think of a better man for my niece!"

"About time ye realised it, ol' man," Jamie grinned.

"Who are you calling an old man?" Quentin ground out in mock displeasure.

Annalise, Willie and Claire gaped at Quentin.

"What?" Quentin chuckled. "If I'd come right out and told Jamie right at the start, I couldn't think of a better man for my niece, he would never have fought for her the way he did."

"What kind of logic is that?" Claire fumed.

Jamie crossed his arms. "Oh, this is gonnae be gold."

"It's a men thing, sweetheart and complicated," Quentin muttered, giving Jamie a dirty look.

"I'll try and keep up. Explain."

Quentin released an impatient sigh. "Men in your generation have none to too little backbone. Jamie had to realise he was good enough and strong enough for you. And you had to make him realise it. That's the top and bottom of it."

Her uncle was right, Claire thought. A few weeks ago, Jamie wouldn't have thought himself capable of coming this far with his condition. She might have been instrumental in pulling him out of the darkness where he'd lived for so long, but all the hard work had come from Jamie.

When Quentin took her hand and pulled her into an awkward embrace, she relaxed. "I'm not going to be around forever, darling," he said gruffly before pulling away to look her in the eyes. "I wanted to make sure you were in good hands if anything happened to me." He glanced at Jamie. "I had an inkling when Claire first told me about you, and we talked for the first time on that video chat, that your relationship was serious. The second I found out Henry's connection to you, I had to delve more into your history. When you started talking about fate and all that tripe, I didn't believe in it ...but these last few days, after spending time together, you made me believe in you. I saw something in you." 

Quentin gestured toward the double-headed one-pound coin Jamie had left on the bench. "So when you tried to extract a blessing for this proposal after dragging me here under the pretence of a boys' weekend, I thought I'd have a little laugh and grant it by giving that coin Henry gave me and challenging you to leave it to fate ...without telling you it was double-headed. As you know, I was still a bit miff with you for not letting me into this big secret thing. But you surprised me when you agreed to take the challenge and told me you'd leave it to Claire to toss it. You really believe in all that destiny nonsense, don't you?" He shook his head in disbelief. 

Jamie just shrugged and smiled.

"Uncle Lamb! How could you?" Claire huffed indignantly, crossing her arms across her chest. "For your information, we didn't toss the coin even if Jamie suggested it."

Quentin's eyes widened. "You didn't?"

"I don't need a damn coin to make my decisions, for God's sake."

Jamie slipped his arm across her shoulder and squeezed her. "It doesnae matter, Sassenach. All that matters is he gave us his blessings and that we love each other."

"I know," Claire whispered before glaring at her uncle. "As for you, no more tricks up your sleeves, are we clear?"

"Jamie caught me off guard with this marriage thing. Can you blame me for what I did?"

"Uncle Lamb! That's not the issue here." She pegged him down with a look. "You've been giving Jamie a hard time from day one. No more tricks and no more taunting Jamie. I love you both, and I want you to get along. Promise me."

Quentin raised his hands in the air before placing them on his chest. "Promise. Jamie's read me the riot act earlier today, and you're speaking to the converted. And I meant what I said when I told him I couldn't think of a better man for you. Honestly, I'm happy for both of you." He opened his arms to her. "Forgive me, sweetheart?"

With a roll of her eye, she stepped away from Jamie's hold and threw herself in her uncle's arms. "You know I'll always forgive you," she mumbled against his neck, hugging him close. "Despite you being such a grouch, I want you to know I am happy that you're here."

"Me too, sweetheart, me too," he said gruffly. "Now, shall we start the celebration? I'm parched and starving." 

"About time," Annalise chirped with a little dance and fist pump.

Laughing, Willie popped the cork on a bottle of Moët while Jamie handed out the crystal flutes. 

Claire watched as their drinks were being poured and smiled. She said a silent prayer for her parents and thanked them. There were so many things to be grateful for. Life was good, and her heart was full. She was moving to the Highlands, start her career as a writer and marry the man she loved. This was what she wanted, and she was prepared for this whatever may come their way. Her only wish was, her parents could be here today, so her father could see what a fine lad Jamie had grown up to be.

Her attention was brought back to the present when Annalise nudged her with her foot. With champagne finally in everyone's hand, they all raised their glasses to their new beginning.

"To Jamie and Claire," Willie began.

"To your happiness," Annalise added.

"To family and friends," Jamie beamed.

"To what's next," Claire breathed.

"To my next meal," Quentin snorted. "Now drink up, and let's go. I'm bloody starving."

..........

"Did you really mean what you said earlier?" Jamie asked Quentin once they were alone, and the rest of the party walked ahead of them on their way back to the cottage from the pub. "About believing in me and being happy for us?"

Quentin glanced at him. "I always say what I mean, son. Best get used to it," he grumbled.

"Right ..." They walked in silence, watching Claire, Annalise and Willie as they began singing the chorus of  Living on a Prayer  for the umpteenth time. "About that double-headed one pound coin ..." Jamie began.

"That was a clever touch, huh?" Quentin grinned. "Would have come handy for you if Claire had decided to use it. You still got it?"

"Aye." Jamie handed him the coin. "By the way, I have a confession to make."

"What's that?" Quentin asked, taking the coin and shoving it in his pocket.

"The reason why I readily agreed to that coin toss you suggested earlier is that ...Harry gave me one too." Jamie dug his own coin from his pocket and showed it to Quentin. "I knew the coin ye were giving me was double-headed."

Quentin stopped to look at him. "You suggested the coin toss to Claire even though you knew it was double-headed?"

"Aye."

"If Claire had agreed, would you have used the double-headed or the normal coin?"

"The double-headed, of course," Jamie admitted.

"What about all your bloody talk of fate and destiny and all that?"

Jamie shrugged. "Oh, I still believe in fate, but I couldnae take the chance. I love yer niece too much. I think ye would be inclined to agree that the universe has an odd sense of humour, and I needed to cover my arse just in case it decided to turn against me." 

Quentin scowled. "Is it too late to change my mind about you?" 

"Aye." 

They watched as Annalise and Willie, doubled with laughter, latched on to Claire's arms after she stumbled onto the curb.

"Well, then," Quentin grunted. "What the hell are you doing here still babbling to me? Go join the fun."

Jamie shook his head. "Oh no, ye don't, spoilsport. Ye're here to have some fun too. Ye're joining in."

"I'm too old for all that. Now go and leave me in peace."

Jamie narrowed his gaze at him. "Is that really what ye want? To be left in peace?"

Quentin blew out an exasperated breath, but Jamie caught the sheen in his eyes and the smile he was battling. "No. I want you to get used to me showing up," he growled.

Jamie pretended to sound annoyed so as not to embarrass the older man. "Fine, as long as it doesn't involve ye decking me."

"Deal."

..........

Jamie looked up from the mock children's book, smiling when he heard Claire doing her nightly routine in the bathroom. The book disguising his marriage proposal had been Annalise idea. As soon as she'd heard of his intention from Willie, she'd made the suggestion, desperately wanting to play a part in surprising Claire. She even had him adding a few of his own words to the poem. How Annalise's friend managed to illustrate and have the book printed on such short notice, he had no idea. But he must admit,  The Unicorn and the Lioness  book had been a nice touch.

Claire walked into the bedroom, looking fresh in his t-shirt, her face still flushed from the champagne earlier. He watched her shiver a little, rubbing her arms to generate heat. The sight of her bare legs kicked his heart rate up a notch. He smiled and drew the bedcover back in an invitation to get in.

As she snuggled under the crook of his arm, she smiled when she saw the book on his lap. "I never got to read the ending," she said with a yawn, her arm sliding across his waist.

He kissed the crown of her head and pulled her in closer. "Shall I read it for ye?"

"Yes, please."

"I'll start from where you left off."

"Alright."

Jamie got comfortable and cleared his throat. "Here goes ..."

 

So he got on one knee

To hand her a gift 

A tiny velvet box

Holding a silver piece

 

Claire giggled. "You got me right there."

"I know," Jamie chuckled, turning the page. "Now wheesht and let me finish."

 

Confused and bewildered

That it's not a ring

It became apparent

She wanted the real thing

 

So still on his one knee 

He uttered the plea: 

"My dearest lioness, 

Will you marry me?"

 

He felt his heart beating 

Right out of his chest. 

He could do nothing but wait 

And hope she'd say YES.

 

When he ended and a few moments of silence ensued, Claire twisted from her position and looked up at him. "That's it?"

"Aye," Jamie replied, handing her the book. "Louise said you're a writer, so she left a blank page for you to write the ending."

"Is that so?" she said, laughing, reaching for her specs. "Well, let's see what I can do."

Jamie grabbed a pen from the nightstand and handed it to her.

After adjusting the pillow, she sat up and began scribbling, reading the words out loud as she wrote.

 

When she finally answered 

He could not stop grinning 

Because he knew, in his heart, 

This was just The Beginning!

 

Claire closed the book and took off her specs. "How was that?" she asked, sliding back under the covers.

"It was good, but I'm left hanging. I'm dying to know what happened after?" 

"Hmmm ..." She climbed on top of him and nipped his lips with her teeth. "They celebrated with their loved ones, ate a lot of food and drank too much champagne." She drew circles on his chest. "Although I have a sneaking suspicion, their night is not over yet." 

Jamie flipped her on her back, making her yelp. He scanned her face for a few heartbeats. "Ye're absolutely right. He's gonnae tell her how happy she's made him," he whispered, his words thick with emotions. "And show her in so many ways how much he loves her." 

She blinked away the tears blearing her vision and smiled up. "Well, he's got all night to prove he's not just a bunch of talk."

He arched an eyebrow at her. "A bunch of talk, huh? He's a big man, Sassenach, and he makes love twice as long."

She slipped her hand past the waistband of his boxer brief and gripped him hard, making him catch his breath. "We'll see about that," she challenged. 

He rewarded her by grabbing her hand and slowly pressing his hips into her. "You're on, Sassenach, you're on," he groaned into her mouth before silencing her with his kisses.