I pull into my parking space in front of the Leoch building in an excellent mood. It is a fine Spring morning in Boston, I have a cup of coffee and a bagel in hand, I am a branch manager of Leoch Foods Inc., well paid, well respected, and, though I say it myself, well dressed.
I walk though the front door and greet Mrs. Fitz – our cheery, redoubtable receptionist, and then step blithely into the elevator that opens the very moment I walk up to it, as if by magic.
Life is so good, it's almost too good to be true.
And so, of course, it is.
Mary Hawkins, my secretary, comes up to me the minute I get out of the elevator, saying in a low voice, "M-miss Claire? Y-you have a visitor, m-miss."
"At this time of day? Who?"
She looks instantly highly uncomfortable, "H-him." She gestures vaguely.
I wrinkle my forehead in confusion, "Him?"
"Who is "him"?"
She gestures again, "Y-you know. Him."
My eyes go wide, "Him? He has the gall to show his face around here? After last year?"
"You've put him in my office?"
I hand her my coffee and the small bag containing my bagel. "Guard these, will you Mary?"
"Yes m-miss," she smiles, and walks before me into our office space.
I give a bit of a nod to most of the folks who say hello to me from the general office area, but most of my attention is on the clear glass wall of my corner office – behind which I can see the tall, imposing figure of my visitor.
My highly, highly unwelcome visitor.
I smooth the front of my skirt suit, and shake my curls back behind my shoulders, and walk boldly into my office.
I sit down behind my desk, turn on my computer, and do most of the rest of my morning set-up routine before I let myself acknowledge him, and even then I don't say anything – choosing instead to merely stare expectantly at him.
"Weel, an' a right good mornin' tae ye as weel, Ms. Beauchamp," he says, huffily.
"What do you want, Dougal?"
"Weel now. A polite good mornin' for a start. . ."
I clench my jaw, "Good morning. What do you want?"
His eyes twinkle, slyly, "Ah yes, ye'er always a businesswoman furst, a'course, Ms. Beauchamp, how could I ha' forgotten?"
"How indeed," I say flatly, "What do you want?"
"Weel now, tha's nae small question. Y'see it's this way. . ."
He launches into an over-wordy, and clearly rehearsed spiel, so full of flattery and flowery language it would be positively indecent to repeat it, but a few key phrases do stand out.
"My nephew. . ."
"Green card. . ."
"Really, all quite legal. . . "
"It would be a shame if. . ."
"The children, you see. . ."
"An' all because of a stupid clerical error. . ."
"Wouldnae need tae be any real inconvenience tae ye at all. . ."
By this point, I've had quite enough.
"Stop, stop, Dougal. . ." I sigh, "Let me see if I'm understanding you, okay?"
He shrugs, "Go ahead."
"Your nephew needs to get married in order to continue to live and work in the U.S. Right?"
"And, presumably, he wants to marry a woman, yes?"
"And due to a highly unfortunate clerical error, this marriage needs to happen within the next two days."
"Ye'er three fer three."
"So. . ." I rub my temples, "The first person – the first person – you thought to ask for such a massive favour. . . was the woman who won a workplace harassment suit against you last year?"
"Aye, a'course," he nods, "Ye'er the perfect choice."
"Now see, that's where you lose me. . ."
"Agch, come on – isnae it obvious?"
"Not to me, it isn't."
"Now then, las-," he checks himself sharply as he remembers the exact terms of our court settlement, "Ms. Beauchamp," he amends, "Don't ye see? That lawsuit means ye'er the last person in the world tae be marrying wee Jamie for convenience – an' ye most ceartainly wouldnae be doin' so as a personal favour tae me!"
My lips twist into a sneer.
"Correct on both counts. So why should I? Why would I? At all?"
He takes out his phone and taps it a few times, handing it to me once he's brought up the right picture, "Heer. Tak a look."
The photo is of a tall, red-headed, shockingly handsome man, sitting on a towel at the beach, grinning ecstatically into the camera while he plays with four little girls – the two larger of which have his long red curls, while the third has long brown braids, and the smallest - heartrendingly tiny – is almost impossibly blonde. They are all grinning at the camera too, even as they clamber all over his legs and arms.
"He's a widower, y'see," says Dougal, smoothly, "He's only in this country for his job, an' he only works at his job sae he can support his girls. Think of it as doin' them a favour, no' me, aye?"
I scoff, "As if I'd ever do you a favour."
"Precisely," he nods, and takes back his phone, "Sae will ye do it?"
I cross my arms and narrow my eyes at him. I'm still suspicious. He hasn't yet explained what he is getting out of all of this. And I'm sure he is getting something – Dougal MacKenzie isn't the man to go to any trouble for purely altruistic reasons, let alone this much trouble.
But the thought of that smiling, caring father, and his four loving, happy girls has touched me, I must admit. Dougal always did know how to play the sob story angle. In fact, if it hadn't been for a very canny judge, he might have had my harassment case against him thrown out of court. He came within a hair's breadth of it anyway.
But thankfully, the Honourable Geillis Duncan had seen through him, right enough. Just like I can now.
But, that man, and those girls – they aren't just a sob story. They're real, and in need. In need of something I can do.
I think again of those wide, joyous smiles, and that sweet-eyed, handsome face. . .
"Give me until lunchtime to think about it."
He shrugs, nonchalantly, "Aye, fair enough."
After he leaves, I retrieve my coffee and bagel from Mary, in a towering, despicable, horrendous mood.
As I walk up to the Castle Leoch location nearest my workplace, I'm not nervous.
Instead, I'm thinking about the first time I'd heard of Castle Leoch – the day it won "Best New Themed National Restaurant Chain" from the Restaurateurs Guild Of America. I had been in-between jobs that day – had been in-between jobs for six weeks longer than I had planned to be, in fact – and such an up-and-coming business like Leoch caught my eye. No doubt they were still in the risk-taking stage of their business – the part where hiring a female with a masters degree in business management to an actual management position is not only allowed, it is encouraged.
Thankfully, my hunch had paid off for both of us, although, I'm glad now Colum had hired me to run the parent branch of Leoch Foods, rather than the Castle Leoch chain itself.
Running a restaurant chain at all has been hell the past few years. I can only imagine what running a themed restaurant has been like. . .
Probably like some unnamed circle of hell Dante never mentioned, where mariachi bands play nothing but Billy Ray Cyrus and the Baha Men on an endless loop, and the only thing to eat is Cup Noodle ramen and lime Jell-o, and the unit of currency is the word "moist". . .
I shake my head.
No. I'm not nervous AT ALL.
I told Dougal at lunch that I would not marry his nephew – not unless I could meet and speak to him first.
"And at least give him a chance to propose on his own," I'd said, "Poor fellow."
Dougal had agreed, only slightly reluctantly reserving the private dining room at the nearest Castle Leoch location for just two people tonight.
The two being me and this "wee Jamie" Dougal is so harping on. In between the bouts of lavish praise I don't believe a word of, I did manage to get him to tell me a few more facts, however.
This nephew's real name is James Fraser.
He has been a widower for two years.
His wife's name was Annalise.
What story we want to go with – how we met, how long we've been dating, why we decided to get married, all that – will be completely up to us.
After the green card interview, all deals are off – given a positive result from said interview, of course. We will then be free to annul or otherwise dissolve our marriage at any time we choose.
"Oh, and Leoch Foods will be paying any and all expenses I may incur from this scheme, Dougal. Up to and including a Vera Wang wedding dress and a honeymoon cruise to the Caribbean, should they be necessary. Are we clear?"
He had grumbled at that, but agreed.
And so, here I am, at the nearest Castle Leoch location, not being nervous.
I briefly consider going in by the service entrance, but quickly decide I want to see how the new socially distanced table layout is working. Fitting into the cultural and culinary gap between Medieval Times and Chipotle, Castle Leoch has always been far more flexible about seating arrangements than your average sit-down establishment, and far more open to delivery/no contact options than your average fast food or pickup place.
As it turns out, Scottish food travels well. Meal kits and deliveries have skyrocketed in the past two and half years, putting serious strain on our haggis supply chain for the first time since I've been working for them.
And, as it turns out, staged recreations of famous Scottish battles, including kilts, bagpipes, fake blood and real horses, make for one rip-snorter of a popular YouTube channel. In fact, I had just spoken to Angus Mhor – Castle Leoch's performances coordinator – a few days ago, to look into expanding our YouTube presence with two or three "behind the scenes" channels, featuring some of the more popular characters from the shows.
As I cross the main floor on the way to the private dining room, I see this evening's claymore wielding chieftain has just reached the climax of his performance, shouting something utterly incomprehensible in Gaelic before charging headlong into simulated cannon fire. The rapt audience cheers heartily – making quite a din, despite the tables being so much more widely spaced than they would regularly be.
That's good, I think to myself. We're at capacity on the ground, and with such spirited performers like that in our employ, is it any wonder Angus told me Leoch's entertainment branch currently has three separate offers to do Netflix specials?
That whole running with your eyes wide open into certain disaster thing is quite compelling, I must say.
Oh. . . right.
I settle myself for a second before I go into the private dining room. There's no reason this has to be a certain disaster. No reason at all.
I fling the door open.
Jamie is pacing around near the window that looks out over the performance area, visibly almost as nervous as I definitely do not feel.
He jumps as soon as he sees me, running to my side, and extending a hand.
"Ms. Beauchamp?" he asks, almost pitifully eager, "I'm sorry, but Dougal didnae tell me your full name. . ."
I reach out to take his hand, "Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp," I say, confidently, "And I'm glad to hear Dougal has been keeping my name out of his mouth."
The energetic and almost disturbingly handsome young man in front of me blushes to nearly as dark a red as his hair, "James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser."
And then, our hands touch. Briefly, but firmly. His skin is hot and dry, but he is trembling a little bit.
I tell myself that's why I feel an electric pulse thrill through my fingers at his touch. Of course, that's it. That must be it. That must be the reason why a sweetly painful warmth jolted though my arm and has now settled in my stomach, radiating a sudden aching, a hungry neediness all the way to my toes.
"Shall we sit?" he asks, cupping my elbow, and gesturing to the table.
His words are warm honey, poured over soft, fluffy pancakes, and covered in rich, melty butter.
I trace the outline of his lips with my eyes, and wonder what his tongue would feel like, gently caressing against my own. . .
I'm suddenly having trouble breathing.
"Y-yes," I say, absently, "And order us a whisky. A large one."
He grins boyishly at that, and this time my heart stops working as well as my lungs.
Okayokayokay. . .
Now I'm nervous.
"So that's how wee Bree had ta get her first haircut," Jamie chuckles, "An' a'course none of the girls have been allowed ta have bubblegum in the house ever since."
I smile easily into my bread pudding. Jamie has turned out to be a far better storyteller than his uncle ever was, and I have highly enjoyed his many and varied tales of life with four young girls. Almost as much as I have enjoyed my meal.
Which I did like, as usual – free access to the Castle Leoch kitchens being one of my favourite perks on this job – but nothing about it was anywhere near as luscious Jamie's frankly intoxicating presence.
"Care for another dram?" he asks, gesturing with the bottle. His voice is low and smooth, full of quiet, lyrical dignity, and rich, rolling "r's".
"Mmm, please." I hold out my glass, eager for more of the mild single malt he ordered for us. I've been sipping on it throughout the meal, and it accompanied the minced beef pies, cheesy broccoli, and mashed buttered turnips excellently.
Now to see if it goes equally well with dessert. . .
The cuff of Jamie's jacket brushes the sleeve of my dress as he reaches over to pour my drink.
I pull away a little bit, and take another bite of bread pudding, desperately trying to ignore the sweet, tingly sensations spreading all over my arm from that point of contact.
Contact? What contact? We didn't even touch that time.
What on earth is wrong with me?
I've never been this aware of a man before. . .
"Weel now," he says gently, pouring his own drink, "Ye've listened very prettily ta me natter on and on about my girls, but we both ken they arenae why ye'er here-"
"Oh, but aren't they?" I interrupt, "I mean, I highly doubt being forced to move to Scotland would hurt any of you very much – so I assume your wish to stay here is for their benefit, for the most part, and therefore, my involvement – ultimately – is really only for their benefit as well, right?"
He blinks, mouth still open in the middle of a word, "Hphh, weel, I suppose tha's one way ta put it. . ." He muses, "Really it's only this clerical error, y'see," he pulls his passport out from his hip pocket and presents it to me, open to the relevant page, "Which makes it so's I cannae stay here past midnight this upcomin' Friday, unless I'm married."
"Which is nonsense," I say, sharply, "Since you're working, and well established, and your wife died in this country." I gentle my voice considerably, "May I. . . ask how?"
"The first wave of the pandemic," he sighs, voice slow and rough with the kind of grief the whole world was feeling then, "She was still low after having given birth ta Joanie eighteen months before, an' a virulent 'flu like that jus'. . . took her. There wasnae any warning, an' we didnae get ta say goodbye – no' properly. Two days in the hospital, an' no visitors allowed. . ." he trails off, lost in the bleak injustice of it.
The hollowness of his voice, and empty look in his eyes wring a sympathetic pang from my heart. The true-hearted widower, devoted to his children and the memory of lost love. . . was there any more patently romantic figure in all of Western society? I mean, other than sparkle-skinned vegetarian vampires, of course. . .
I take a sip of my whisky, and tell myself to stop being such a fool.
"I'm so sorry, Jamie. Sounds like you've had a terrible time."
"Aye, it wasnae easy there for a bit. An' what with one thing an' another after that. . ." he shifts uncomfortably in his seat, "I feel such an edjit. . ."
"Surely not. . ."
"Oh, aye – I let the girls' passports lapse, y'see. So if I'm deported, it'll be six months or so before they could join me in Scotland."
"Oh," I say, realizing, "But that's not legal Jamie – they can't separate you. That new law, wasn't this sort of thing exactly what it was all about?"
"Weel, maybe that would apply ta Sally an' Joan, but Faith an' Bree were born in Scotland, so that just adds a whole other layer ta it – an' who can say how long the official machine would take, untanglin' such a mess?"
"Surely you could tell the passport office about the clerical error – try to fix the problem in that direction, I mean. Or maybe you could apply for emergency child passports. You must be in fairly good standing overall, surely you'd qualify for those? In fact, I think families in your position automatically qualify for them now."
He sighs deeply, "Ye aren't wrong, Sassenach, but ye really hit on something when ye said I wanted ta stay here for the girls' benefit," He twirls his glass slowly, and takes a contemplative sip, "Y'see, Colum wants me back in Scotland – he's aiming ta train me up ta take his place in the company. But I don't want ta be a CEO – nor anything close. I'm happy doing what I do – it gives me time ta spend with the girls, and doesna stress me out too much." He gives me a sidelong glance, "An' since you'r you, I'll tell ye this too – Dougal has his eye on the CEO spot, an' will do jus' about anything ta keep me in this country, away from Colum."
"Ahhh, so that explains it!" I exclaim, "I was wondering why he cared so much about you."
"Mmph. He doesna. No' really," he shrugs, "But with the situation so tangled, and the deadline so close, we agreed that me getting married was much the simplest way – provided that the woman was willin', a'course."
There is a long pause. I lean back in my chair.
"And so, here we are."
"Aye. Here we are."
Silence falls again.
I think of the three relationships I've had that might be classified as romantic. Tom Christie, my highschool boyfriend, had made out with me behind the gym, and taken me out to dinner and to movies, and had taken me to the prom, but dropped me like a rotten potato the minute I refused to put out. Then there was John Grey, the first boyfriend I had in college, but he was deeply in the closet, and liked me specifically because I refused to put out. When he finally found a boyfriend, I had rebounded into the arms of Frank Randall, and spent two months feeling deliciously naughty over making out with a professor. That was until I realized he was such a deathly dull human being he actually thought inviting me to his office so we could research his family tree together made for a good date.
I was out of there the minute I realized he was being literal when asked me to "collate some documents", not euphemistic.
I had dedicated myself to my career after that, deliberately choosing it over the traditionally expected domestic life. Of course, I never gave up my personal life - I've made lots of friends over the years, both male and female, and been on lots of dates. But since Frank, I've never been out with anyone more than once, and there's never been more than a handshake or a peck on the cheek to say goodnight. It isn't that I don't want more – it isn't that I can't handle more. It's only that no man I've ever been out with has inspired a connection deep enough to convince me more would be anything worthwhile.
I look over at the richly curling auburn hair and deeply glimmering blue eyes of the man so prosaically asking me to marry him, and a shiver runs up my spine.
I've never felt a deep connection to a man. . . until now.
"Well," I say, softly, "I'm willing."
He smiles thinly, "So, the fact that I have four children doesnae bother ye?"
And truly, it doesn't. I've always loved children. My choice not to have them up until now was personal, not ethical. Four girls sounds like a lot - no doubt it will be a lot. But, this thing I feel for Jamie. . .
Some part of me just knows - in this case, the effort will be worthwhile.
However. . .
Perhaps it's time to see if this connection I'm feeling runs both ways.
I give a mischievous smirk, and meet Jamie's eyes squarely, "Not unless it bothers you that I'm a virgin."
The silence between us is long and profound.
Jamie's eyes widened at my statement, but otherwise he doesn't react. Which in itself is impressive, really. I've used my virgin state more than once to successfully frighten off certain kinds of over-interested dates – it's the perfect scare material for the sort of men who are instantly turned off when you suggest an encounter with any kind of meaning to it. Jamie though, is taking it as well as anyone ever has – merely looking at me with an unblinking disbelief that slowly morphs into confusion, and from there, into wonder.
The word is written across his face, so clearly there's no need for him to speak it.
"Oh, not that I'm ignorant, of course, or anything near to it," I say cheerfully, "I'm hardly a nun. I've done everything but the deed, with more than one man, and myself, thank you very much."
He finally opens his mouth to speak, but it still takes a few seconds for his words to emerge.
"Lass, I dinnae. . . I never meant. . . I never intended – I never thought that ye. . . that we, I mean. . ." He looks around awkwardly, and then, with gentle, tentative earnestness, he puts a hand on my shoulder, "Claire. Ye've kent me less than a day. An' with the ceremony ta happen in two days at the latest, I never expected ye ta. . . Christ, Mary and God above. . ." He puts his head in his hands, "I'm making a right bollocks of this, aren't I?"
I reassuringly pat the top of his head, "No, quite the opposite, really. I'm sorry Jamie - I usually only spring that on men I want to scare off. . . But I'm glad to see you don't scare that easily."
He looks up at me, "D'ye want ta know the truth?"
"When I asked Dougal for help finding someone, I was expecting him ta produce some sort of dry, uninteresting secretary, or a plain, passionless manager type – someone more interested in her ledgers and Leoch's stock price than in helpin' a random stranger wi' his personal troubles." He leans both elbows rather heavily on the table, "I was expecting all this ta jus' be a straightforward business proposal, with us exchanging our signatures two days from now, an' then spending just enough time together after that ta pass the green card interview in a few weeks. An' then an annulment in a month or two, wi' the whole thing forgotten by this time next year."
I nod sympathetically. That's pretty much what I had expected too. Or rather, had somehow dreaded. . .
"T'was all goin' ta be so simple, so easy. . . so. . . " he gestures vaguely, "emotionless. . ."
He looks at me intently, "Exactly."
My stomach clenches, "And now?"
"Now?" he huffs a laugh, "Uncomplicated went out the window the second ye walked in, Sassenach."
I give him a slightly dubious glance, "That's the second time you've called me that. I know what it means, you know. . ."
He waves a hand, half in apology, half in dismissal, "But I like the differentness of ye, Claire. Whatever Dougal was thinkin' last year, he had ta have been plain daft ta have even tried it." He leans towards me, and puts a hand down softly next to mine, "The second I saw ye I kent ye were no' ta be meddled wi' – neither yer mind, nor yer person, nor yer emotions. Ye'er special, mo nighean." He brushes his fingers up against mine, "Unique. Too good for a dry, businesslike marriage – an' far too good for a foolish auld mug like me. . ."
My stomach unclenches, and swoops dizzyingly at his touch. I desperately want to grab his hand, and slide our fingers together to a frankly obscene extent. . .
Then his words register, and I blink.
"Wait - did you really just tell me I'm not like other girls?"
"I. . . suppose I did."
"Wow," I say, grinning, "That should feel awkward. And cliché. And horribly, horribly flat."
He looks down at our still touching hands, and then back up to my eyes, "But. . . ?"
"But. . ." I run my fingertips over the ridge of his knuckles, and down the back of his hand, thrilling to the warmth of his skin, "I can't explain it. Not sure if I want to. . ." I meet his gaze, my heart leaping at how frighteningly easy it would be to get lost in those fathomless blue eyes, "I'm completely under your power, James Fraser. . . and happy to be there."
He nods, a somber look hardening on his face, and he scowls down at the table. Then he jerks himself upright, shoves his chair backwards, and is suddenly on one knee before me, gently clasping one of my hands in both of his.
"If we do this, we'er goin' ta do it right."
He fishes a plain silver ring out of the pocket of his coat, and proffers it to me, "Claire Beauchamp, will ye marry me?"
I present my left hand to him, and he slips the ring onto my third finger.
"Yes," I say simply.
We have our stories yet to settle, a wedding to plan, green card interviews to prepare for, and we have to meet each other's families, not to mention who knows how many other laborious and complicated things that may yet get in our way. . .
But now. . .
Right now. . .
I'm not quite sure how the kiss started, or which of us started it, but his mouth is warm and delicious, he smells like whisky, his hands are in my hair, my fingers are digging into his back. . . and for the briefest, most infinite of moments, the entire outside world doesn't matter.
I keep my eyes closed for several long seconds after his lips leave mine, needing the space that darkness gives me, and the separation it puts between us. Desperately, I try to reconstruct at least a fragment of the woman I was before I walked into this room.
It has only been a couple of hours, but it has been at least three lifetimes too, and I've lost track of exactly who I am. . .
If I open my eyes, I'll have to speak to him.
I've never fallen in love at first sight before. I have no idea what to say.
But my arms are still wrapped around him, and he's so big and solid and warm, and his wide, dry palms are still braced behind my jaw, warming the tips of my ears. . .
The imprint of his mouth is still tingling across mine. If I licked my lips I could taste him.
Presumably, I'm going to have to say something.
And, very likely, it would be wise to say something other than "Oh god, I love you, I love you so much, I didn't know it was possible to love anyone like this, please god never stop kissing me," over and over and over – which is all I feel like saying at the moment.
Come on Beauchamp! Get it together!
If I could face down Dougal MacKenzie, a man I despise, then I can face up to Jamie Fraser, a man I definitely do not.
I take a long, slow, deep breath, and tentatively peer up at him.
And it turns out I don't have to say anything at all.
He's wearing such a soft, sweet, wondering look. The kind of look that doesn't demand answers, or any conversation, only asks that the moment be experienced.
Well. That sure is something, isn't it?
He holds my glance just as gently as his hands are cradling my head, almost like the touch of even my eyes is precious to him.
Something warm starts in my bones. Something that feels remarkably like. . . trust.
Then he rests his forehead against mine, and slides his hands down around my shoulders, holding me closer.
I lean into him, blinking slowly, as though wrapped in a hazy, blissful dream, full of fragrant flowers, swaying trees, and distant, misty sunsets. . .
All of which makes it a highly inconvenient time for me to realize that neither of us have actually said "I love you" yet. . . and that he may not in fact feel the same way I do at all.
He said I was better than a dry, businesslike marriage, and that whatever we do, we were going to do right – but he hasn't actually said that our marriage will be more than that, now, has he?
One earth-shattering kiss and a really good hug do not a relationship make. They don't even promise that there will be a relationship.
We met less than three hours ago. We know very nearly zilch about each other. And we're getting married in two days time.
My glowing dream evaporates in a burst of good, solid practicality, and I just barely manage to keep myself from dying of embarrassment.
My arms fall limply to my sides.
Where were we?
"Well," I say, with a false brightness that is all too obvious, "We have a story we need to invent, don't we?"
He looks quite confused for a second or two, poor fellow, but mercifully he lets the moment pass.
"Aye, I suppose we do."
"No 'suppose' about it – we have to come up with something thoroughly plausible." I pull my phone out of my pocket and start making notes, "How we met, why we met, why no one saw us meet, why no one has seen us together until now, how long ago that was, why we started dating, how long we've been dating-"
"Whoa, whoa, lass," he puts a light hand on my wrist, "One thing at a time, aye? An' let's start easy – is it at all likely that we met because of work?"
"I don't know – is it?"
"Weel, I ken ye'er branch manager over here. Colum is yer direct superior, aye?"
"Pretty much. Technically I answer to the board of directors, but Colum has all of them nicely tamed. Apparently I'm in good with Colum ever since I didn't badmouth the company during the lawsuit last year – but I haven't tested the connection. Mostly I just want to live a modest life and be left alone. . ."
He chuckles a bit, "I ken the words of yer wee court order, Sassenach. T'was all over the papers at the time."
I wave my notoriety away, "Never mind all that. I'm a branch manager for Leoch Foods. Okay then. So what do you do? Up until now, I didn't even know for sure you worked for Leoch. . ."
He shrugs, a bit vaguely, "I'm head meal designer over in R&D."
"Aye. I've personally developed at least fifty percent of Castle Leoch's menu, an' it was my idea we start selling meal kits when the lockdown happened."
I smile. I've made liberal use of Leoch's meal kit delivery service over the past year and a half, ever since I fell in love with their signature slow-cooked creamy chicken stew. I've only just eaten, and still my mouth waters at the thought of it. . .
It takes a minute for my brain to catch up with the rest of me.
"Oh. Oh, wait. . . so that means. . . you're Alex MacKenzie? The chef who writes all the instruction cards?"
He smiles a bit ruefully, "Aye, that's my nom de plume - or nom de cuisine, more like. Colum insisted that Leoch needed ta present a united MacKenzie front for marketing purposes." He shrugs, "I remain unconvinced it's necessary. But it's two of my middle names, so why not?"
"Why not indeed?"
"So, how did ye ken that name of mine, lass?"
"Oh, I'm one of the official in-house testers for our meal kits. And I buy them quite often too." I grin, "Your meal instructions have taught me the right way to fry an egg, and how to sear a steak, and make mashed potatoes from scratch, and poach fish, and make chicken noodle soup, and, oh! - dozens of things!"
He jerks back a little, surprised, "Christ Sassenach, ye couldnae do any of that before?"
"Well, I could open tins and heat stuff up over a campfire, and pour hot water into dehydrated food packets, of course," I shrug, "But besides making the best hot dogs and sausages, and a truly smashing cup of coffee – even if I do say so myself - that sort of cooking didn't really teach me how to do much of practical everyday value. You see, there's really no point in learning how to make a proper omelet when all you have to work with is boiling water, dehydrated eggs, milk powder, and tinned mushrooms."
His nose wrinkles in barely restrained disgust, "What were yer parents thinkin' of, Sassenach?"
I shake my head, "Not my parents – my uncle Lambert." I smile affectionately, "We all call him Lamb, though. He was an archaeologist. He took me on one of his digs almost every summer during my school years. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Greece, Crete, even Israel – I've been all over the Ancient Near East. Mother and dad said it would be educational – and it was, of course – just not terribly classy when it came to the camp grub." I smile into the rush of fond memories, "But other than that they were beautiful experiences, and I'm glad I had them." I pause, and just let myself remember for a bit. "Lamb's retired now – and he lives with my parents, so you'll get to meet him."
"Aye. I look forward ta it."
"And you can develop a dish called 'Uncle Lamb's Stew', and I'll make it for him, and everything will be right under heaven. . ."
He smiles indulgently at me for a second, but then his expression morphs into something far more contemplative.
"Weel now, tha's an idea, isn't it?" he asks.
"For our story, lass. You came down ta the R&D building one night, for whatever reason, I was workin' late, an' that's how we met. I made ye my world-famous cranachan-"
"Mmm. I do love a good cranachan. . ."
"Naturally. A'course ye do - ye'er a woman of eminent good sense," he tosses his head and smiles with a highly amusing false hauteur.
I can't help but chuckle.
"Are ye laughing at me, Sassenach?" he presses a hand to his breastbone in mock offense.
"I most certainly am!" I reply.
His face sobers quickly, and his eyes gentle into something quietly earnest, "Weel. . ." he muses, "Tha's promising."
After a few seconds, I pull my eyes away, afraid that if I look at him too long, I'll find myself helplessly kissing him again.
I clear my throat, though rather unconvincingly, "Well, go on then – what happened after you made me your world-famous cranachan?"
For answer, he leans arrogantly on the table, smirks in a most unfairly attractive manner, and says in a broad, purring Scottish drawl, "An' t'rest is hestory."
And heaven help me, I almost believe it.
"We. . ." I lose my voice for a frustrating second or two, ". . .we had better be a little more specific than that. . ."
We spend the next hour or so coming up with ideas, ironing out details, making plans, booking flights, and taking full advantage of Dougal's promise to fund the entire venture.
At last, we sit back, savouring the final two nips in our bottle of whisky.
He gives a long, deep sigh, "We'ev accomplished so much in such a short time I ought ta feel accomplished Sassenach – but all I am is tired."
"Mm," I hum, and pass a hand over my eyes, "I hear that. Let's leave the rest of the heavy lifting for tomorrow, okay?"
"Ughh," he moans, "Tha' means packing. I hate packing."
I lightly swat his knee, "It's for your wedding, silly. Suck it up."
"Oh, I ken, I ken. . ." his face brightens suddenly, "Will ye help me? Tonight?"
"Jamie, I don't think-"
"Jus' with the formal clothes, a'least? I'm hopeless wi' tie pins and cufflinks an' all the vital fripperies like tha'. They need a woman's touch. . ." he looks at me pleadingly, "Please? Jus' ta get it ovar wi'?"
"Jamie. . ." I sigh tiredly, feeling myself beginning to weaken. . .
But before I can continue the thought, he gives a distinctly Scottish grunt, has finished his drink, called an Uber, slipped on his outdoor jacket, and has extended a hand to me.
"C'mon lass. Let me show ye my home, aye?"
Trembling a bit, I finish my own drink, and then, very slowly, I put my hand in his.
I keep expecting the Uber ride to get awkward. Like one or the other of us will finally realize that we've shared too much between us far too fast, or that there's only the slimmest chance even half of our plans will work at all, or simply that we're two strangers in a third stranger's car, and isn't that weird?
But the awkward feelings never come, chased away by our easy, friendly chatter. We talk about food, and sports, and household chores we like and don't like, and which vegetables taste the weirdest after being frozen, and our childhood fears, and our favourite animals, and how cool it would be to live on Mars.
A tiny, distant part of my brain is utterly flabbergasted at how easy this all is. I wasn't even this friendly with Joe until that semester we both took way too many units and ended up pulling a frightening number of all-nighters at the same Starbucks together. We had known each other well enough to speak to before that, but The Semester From Hell was when we became a team. He's HQ, and I'm LJ, and together we are Double Stuff.
Don't ask me to explain – because I quite literally can't.
All I know is this – once you stay awake for 36 hours, subsisting on Fair Trade chocolate, BBQ potato chips, and green tea kombucha, shit gets weird. But, once you see someone's "awake for 36 hours" face, and decide to be friends anyway, weird is okay.
And that's how I feel with Jamie. Sure, this is weird – all of it is weird. But, with him, for some reason, weird is okay.
And then we're pulling into his driveway, and he's paying the driver, and I realize the trip went so fast I haven't even noticed my surroundings until now.
It looks like he lives in a nice part of town – with the streetlamps illuminating fences and trees and little gardens all up and down street. Everything looks clean and quaint, and almost stereotypically American.
I smile a bit at my too staunchly ingrained British sensibilities. I was born here, but my parents raised me to be English, and nothing else. Fortunately, I had Lamb too, and I absorbed a good bit of his philosophy of scientific pragmatism as well. I usually try to go with whatever works the best in any situation, and if I turn out to be wrong, well, no harm no foul – I just alter my ideas and try again.
Jamie comes up next to me, having said a few extra words to the Uber driver, and guides me by the elbow up to his door. There is the chink and rattle of keys, and then we're standing side by side in the warm, stuffy dark of a hallway.
"Porch light s'broken," he murmurs, and shuffles his way over to a nearby table, and clicks on a little orange-shaded lamp.
In this new rush of warm light, his hair shines even more richly red than before, and with a little sigh, I lean against the wall, slightly tipsy with the thought of running my fingers through those curls, thoroughly mussing them – and then delicately brushing them back from those clear blue eyes of his, and with one fingertip tracing the line of bone above his brows, down his temple and across his cheek, to end in the little dip in the softly curved bow of his lips. . .
"Has anyone ever told you you're beautiful, Jamie?" I murmur unguardedly.
His eyes snap to mine, "No' unless they were tryin' ta. . . extort somthin' from me. . ." He comes up close to me, and gently takes my chin in his hand.
"Not even your wife?"
He clicks his tongue, "Mm. No. Y'see, Annalise was so wee – such a tiny, delicate, exquisite creature, it hardly mattered how I looked – I always seemed a great lumbering brute next ta her. . ."
He leans on the wall behind my head, slowly inching our faces closer.
"Oh?" I breathe, and slide one hand up his chest and curl my fingers around the solid joint of his shoulder, "A wonderfully big, strapping man like you – and no one has ever genuinely told you you're pretty?"
He shakes his head, so close now his nose briefly brushes mine, "An' ye'ed bettar be careful, Sassenach."
"Oh really?" I bring my other hand up, and slip it behind his neck. My fingers thrill at the touch of his clean, smooth skin, and the workings of the sinewy, heavy cords of his throat, "And why is that?"
"Ye'el. . ." he pauses, and swallows noisily, "Ye'el be givin' me a swollen head. . ."
I can feel the breath of his whispered words now – tiny puffs of warm air against my waiting lips.
"Well? There are worse things. . ."
His mouth is just sinking against mine when a loud, reproving voice rings out -
"Jamie!? Ye're home very late."
He sighs – I feel his chest heave – but he manages not to make a sound. We both turn, and a small, brassy blonde, with wide, accusing eyes has just entered the hallway from the still dark portions of the house.
"Yes Laoghaire," he says, curtly annoyed, "I said I might be. An' did I no' make it clear I preferred ta be called Mr. Fraser?"
A twisted, haughty, and creepily possessive look crosses her face, "Awright then, Mr. Fraser," she drawls suggestively, "I hardly thought ye were serious – ye still call me by my furst name, after all, an' what wi' us havin' been childhood sweethearts-"
"I was nine," he interrupts her sharply, "An' ye were five. An' I dinnae even remember the incident ye speak of myself. Miss MacKenzie."
A dark look comes into her eyes, and she just barely holds back a sneer.
Finally, she looks at me. Briefly, coldly, and altogether suspiciously.
"Sae whoo is this then?"
"This," Jamie growls, triumphantly taking my hand, "Is my fiancé."
A cascade of emotions completely overtake her, and she stands there, rooted to the spot, utterly speechless.
I admit I enjoy the sight a good deal more than I really should.
"B. . . b-but. . ." she starts, but Jamie sweeps past her into the main rooms of the house, and catches up her arm to pull her after him.
I follow, at a slightly more deliberate pace.
I see him snap on two lights, and scoop up a small paper booklet that obviously contains checks. Then, he forcefully pulls her around, and makes her face him.
"I dinnae answer ta ye in this, Miss MacKenzie," he catches her eyes and continues, very deliberately, "In this, nor in anything else."
Swiftly, he sits down at a desk, clicks a pen, and scribbles out a check. Then he pulls out his wallet and extracts a few bills. He hands them to her, along with the check, with an air of utter finality.
"Thank ye for watching the girls. I assume evarything went well?"
She takes her pay and nods, curtly, but says nothing.
"Good. There's an Uber waitin' for ye. If there's any cash left over, use it ta tip him. An' say hello ta Mrs. Fitz for us, when ye get home, will ye?"
Jamie gestures in clear, lordly dismissal.
Laoghaire's eyes tighten, her teeth grind, and she makes two fists, but then without a word she whirls, stomps out of the house, and slams the door behind her.
"So, you've been breaking hearts since you were nine, have you?"
I speak lightly, and all at once the air between us is clear again.
Jamie smiles, "Nah, Laoghaire's jus' a kid. I only hired her ta babysit in the furst place as a favour ta Mrs. Fitz – she's her granddaughter, ye understand. It can be difficult ta find a proper job these days, after all."
I snort softly, "True, but that's no call to impose an unwanted crush on your employer. . ."
"Aw, ye think she has a crush?" Jamie waves his hands dismissively, "S'nothing compared ta Geneva Dunsany's."
Involuntarily, my eyes go wide.
"Geneva Dunsany? Who on earth is Geneva Dunsany?"
"My first stalker."
"Your. . . hold on. . ."
I collapse onto a convenient nearby couch, and lean my forehead in my hands.
"Okay. Let's back up a step, here. Your FIRST stalker?"
"Just how many have you had?"
"Officially? Wi' restraining orders an' all? Three."
Well now, that's a stunner, for a start.
"My god, Jamie. Three? Most people go through life without one."
He shrugs a little, "Aye, weel. Isnae my fault."
"Christ, Jamie, I didn't mean to imply it was – just. . . just. . ."
I gesture vaguely, at a loss for words.
Confidences like this. . . they aren't part of the plan. . .
"Geneva had an impregnation mania, an' fixated on me ta be the one ta father her bairns. Didnae matter how often I refused her, so we ended up in court. It wasnae how I wanted it, but. . ." he gestures ruefully, "She ended up dyin' in childbirth nine months later. Dinnae ken who the father was."
I just shake my head.
"Aye, t'was quite a distraction during the first year of college. I did well ta pass my exams that semester."
"I bet you did."
He sighs, long and deeply.
"An' then there were Jack Wolverton and Duke Sandringham. So-called leaders of my college fraternity."
I catch a note of dark bitterness in his tone, and there is a very long pause. He contemplatively taps two fingers against his thigh, as though debating how much to tell me.
"Jack's currently in Wentworth, doing life without parole for murder, an' Duke ended up in the Ardsmuir Hospital For The Criminally Insane."
I blink. Several times.
"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ," I breathe.
"Aye," he smiles thinly, "I'm lucky ta be alive. An' doubly lucky ta be able ta only call them my stalkers, no' my rapists."
A pit opens up in my stomach, and I shiver with the horror of it, "Oh my god. Jamie!"
"Aye." He pauses again, then gives a wry half-smirk, "I didnae pass my exams that semester."
I chuckle, slightly frantically, "I certainly don't blame you. . ."
"But a'tennyrate – what's a silly crush from a distant cousin when compared ta that? I was goin' ta let the lass crush on me all she liked, jus' so long as she respected my boundaries an' took good care of the girls."
I raise my eyebrows, "Was?"
He meets my eyes earnestly, "Of course was. Now, not only has she crossed the lines I put down, she's also insulted my wife."
He stands up, and reaches out to me. It takes me a second or two to realize he not only wants me to go to him, he means me when he says 'wife', not Annalise.
I step into his arms, and lean my head on his chest. His arms go around me, strong and gentle and warm.
"An' I willnae stand for any such thing, Claire," he whispers into my hair, "No' while I'm yet alive ta prevent it."
His breath is hot against the top of my head.
"This wasn't the kind of conversation I was planning on having with you tonight, Jamie," I mutter into his jacket, "Rather the opposite, really. . ."
"I ken, I ken," he pets the back of my head soothingly, "I'll go ahead an' choose my cufflinks myself if ye'ed' rather go on home now. . ."
I look up at him, "No. Now it's the bloody principle of the thing. I'm going to pick out your cufflinks now, or die trying," I say, solemnly, even though I can't keep my lips from twitching at how ridiculously melodramatic I sound.
Jamie looks amused too, his eyes twinkling, his mouth soft and slightly open.
But before I can begin to imagine kissing him again, he's leading me up the stairs to his bedroom.
I look around me appreciatively. He's obviously not a neat freak, not by any means, but he manages to keep things livably tidy, so far as I can see. There are a few scatters of toys and clothes here and there, and a few stacks of books and magazines where they maybe shouldn't be, but everything smells nice, and I don't automatically feel the need to wash my hands after touching something. Rather a miracle in a house with four children under ten, I have to say.
The bedroom itself still shows signs of feminine occupation – fancy pictures on the walls, a delicately gilded vanity table with jars of creams and powders still in evidence, and vases of silk flowers arranged atop a pastel-painted vintage armoire – but most of the signs of actual recent use are clearly male – a towel draped over the back of a chair, socks and t-shirts tumbled carelessly into the same half-closed drawer, the bed rumpled and unmade, with a single, solitary pillow set at the exact middle of the headboard.
It's all pretty much what I expected to see. Which is comforting, in its own way.
Jamie retrieves a small carved wooden case from a shelf inside the walk-in closet, and deposits it on the corner of the bed, gesturing for me to come take a look.
"I'll need a set of cufflinks, a tie pin, a kilt pin, an' a shoulder brooch." He opens the case, "Pick whatever ye like. I'll go get my kilt, so ye can match wi' it. . ." He disappears back into the closet.
I'm surveying his admirable collection of cufflinks when he returns, and drapes the long piece of tartan cloth over the edge of the bed. "Here ye are," he says.
I immediately find the soft grays and blues appealing, in a way I find hard to describe. It looks. . . homey. Warm and inviting, and simple, without being childish.
I pick a pair of silver cufflinks set with freshwater pearls, a matching tie pin, a mother-of-pearl kilt pin, and a large silver oval shoulder brooch, engraved with Celtic knots in the shape of leaves and thistles.
When they're all laid out on the thick piece of wool, they look. . . at peace. Like they were meant to be there. I nod. Not bad.
The soft smile on Jamie's face tells me he agrees.
Slowly, his smile fades into a serious, contemplative mask. Then, he goes over to the vanity table and extracts something from the jewelry box there.
He comes back offering a hand to me, something concealed in his large fist.
"Ye'el need 'something auld', will ye no'?"
I reach out my own hand, and he puts a heavy, coiled string of pearls in my palm, which then unfolds into a long, glimmering rope of pale, creamy beauty like I've never seen before. They're baroque freshwater pearls – none of them are perfectly round – but the play of colours and light across them. . .
I've never been unduly impressed with diamonds or sapphires or the like. But these. . .
These. . .
Their thick, smooth surfaces beg to be touched, to be worshiped, and I run them through my fingers, entranced.
"Jamie. . . I. . . I couldn't possibly. They're too beautiful."
Too much the woman who came before me. Too much Annalise.
He shakes his head, as though he knows my thoughts, "No, mo nighean. They were my mother's, and her mother's before her. They are meant for my wife – whoever she may be."
With that he takes my chin in his hand, and together we finish the kiss that we had barely started before Leoghaire interrupted us.
After we finally pull apart, he hums against my cheek, "There's a guest room next door, Sassenach. Please stay. Meet the girls before we catch our plane."
I shake my head, not without regret, "No. We have a plan, Jamie, and we need to stick to it. We've already done enough tonight that goes against the plan. I'm going to meet the girls after you have had a chance to prepare them, and after I have had a chance to prepare for them. Not all at once first thing in the morning after waking up in a strange bed."
He looks mildly disappointed, but nods anyway, "Aye, ye'er right. An' ye have ta pack yer own things too, a'course."
"Yes, there is that, but I've also got a lot to arrange at the office tomorrow – there's about a billion things that need to be put on hold – and I've got to get someone to feed my cats, and I have a business lunch I can't put off, and I have to pick up that dress I ordered. . . and that's all before we meet up at the airport." I sigh heavily, and lean my head on his chest, "Adulting, am I right?"
He huffs a laugh. "Aye, ye'ev got that right. A'least let me call ye an Uber?" he asks, his phone already in his hand.
I nod yes, and tell him my home address.
A very few minutes later, he drops a kiss on my knuckles, and hands me into the back of the car as though it were a royal carriage.
I cradle the pearls in my hand all the way home.
I've been in rather a wide variety of airports in my time. From Cairo, to Izmir, to Istanbul, to Rome, to London, to Los Angeles, to Boston - and there is one thing I can honestly say – mostly, they are all the same. Unpleasant little packets of land with ugly buildings all over them, filled with impatient people, food vendors with magnificently hiked prices, and far, far more noise than any reasonable Human can adequately anticipate.
But the Las Vegas airport is different in one distinct, though not entirely surprising way.
It is the only airport I've ever seen, anywhere in the world, that has more slot machines than candy kiosks. In fact, the entire airport might as well be a casino – albeit a casino with rather more uncomfortable seating than is generally standard, and rather more non-Keno related announcements over the PA than might be expected.
At 2 AM, all of this is just enough of an unexpected occurrence to make my extremely tired brain shut down entirely.
I'm unsure how Jamie gets us from the exit gate to baggage claim, and I'm even more unclear how we got from there to an Uber, and from there to our hotel, but here we are, and here I am – swathed in an enormous white duvet, plopped into the embrace of a huge leather couch, and sipping a homemade whisky hot toddy whipped up by Jamie himself. Slowly, inexorably, I begin to feel the peace of all creation, and the blessed possibility of unconsciousness finally starting to creep into my soul.
I've never been able to sleep on airplanes. And I didn't sleep much the night before. So when you consider that our flight left at 10 PM, our journey took about seven hours, and then factor in the time difference, that means. . .
That means. . .
I just barely register my empty toddy mug clunking onto the floor as I fall into the world's most blissful sleep.
When I open my eyes again, all I can see is the crisp white cotton cover of the gloriously squashy feather pillow under my head. I yawn luxuriously, and gleefully punch it out of my way, so I can look around me.
And the honeymoon suite of the Highland Glen Hotel and Casino is more than worth looking at. It is perhaps the most jaw-dropping blend of incredible luxury and thoroughly ridiculous kitsch I've ever witnessed. And yeah, that's saying something.
There are at least half a dozen full sheepskin rugs, hugely fluffy, scattered around on the dark hardwood floors. The glass-topped coffee and end tables near me are all made from deer antlers, and crammed with brass candelabras, fancy blown-glass lamps, pewter beer steins, stacks of leather-bound books, and unopened bottles of single malt. More deer antlers hang from the two-story timber-beam ceiling, the collective tangle of them supporting a few dozen tiny lamps, in chandelier fashion.
The wall behind me has been papered in the most flamboyant red and green tartan imaginable, and hung with gilt-framed scenes of hunting and fishing. In between these are huge stuffed deer heads, mounted trophy fish, whole rows of tam o' shanter caps of various tartans, and about a dozen randomly placed shelves holding brass trophy cups, shadow boxes full of hand-tied flyhooks, fancy tobacco pipes, engraved shot glasses, and small framed sepia photos of people in fishing gear holding fish, and people in hunting gear holding guns.
In front of me is an eight-foot wide gas fireplace set into a simply massive stone surround. Twelve feet wide and at least fifteen tall, this pier of stacked, seemingly uncut stones really is the center of the room, looking like nothing so much as the rubble spoil that used to come out of Lamb's more rocky excavations. Above the brass fittings of the fireplace, there are two brightly coloured fishing poles, displayed crossed like swords, and above them, three bagpipes, displayed peacock-like with their pipes fanned upright. Which would be impressive enough, but there are more fishing poles above them, and bagpipes above them, ascending in alternating rows - row upon row - all the way up the craggy wall of rocks.
To one side of this monstrosity of a fireplace surround is an enormous oval dining table, encircled with heavy, tartan upholstered chairs, and hung over with another deer antler chandelier.
And to the other side is yet more rock, this time forming a water feature that cascades down into the stone-surrounded depths of the largest in-room hot tub I've ever imagined, much less seen. I can only see half of it from here - the other half extends into the other half of the suite.
Wonderingly, I shake my head. The online photos hadn't looked anything like this – though, granted, those were of the standard rooms, not the honeymoon suite. . .
But still. . .
I mean, there's over the top, and then there's over the top.
I've only seen the first half of what is to be our home for the next three days, and already the effect is of a brass-studded, tartan-encrusted, gilt-edged, antler-bristling, stone-rubble nightmare - like the Madonna Inn, but re-imagined by Groundskeeper Willie.
And yet. . . somehow, the whole thing works. It sounds insane, but it holds together. It's madness, but it's coherent madness. It's three parts utterly ridiculous, two parts confusing, equal parts truly astonishing and deeply mortifying. . . but somehow. . .
Somehow I can't help loving it.
Well. If nothing else, that's Vegas for you. . .
I decide to embrace it.
I throw off my enfolding duvet, and go in search of some breakfast.
Shuffling around the heavy oak table, I get my first look at the second half of the room.
This side of the fireplace is just as ridiculous, with alternating rows of claymores and crossed Scottish flags decorating it up to the ceiling, but this half of the suite is truly dominated by THE BED.
I can see the capital letters in my mind as I think the words.
I've never seen a bed this big – forget King size, is there an Emperor size? And it isn't just big, it's massive. There are flipping stairs to get in and out of it, and the turned wooden posts at each corner look big enough to be sections of telephone pole. The curtains and canopy are the same gaudy red and green tartan as the wallpaper, but mercifully the four duvets folded at the foot, the clean expanse of fitted sheet, and the veritable snowdrift of pillows at the head are all crisp, perfect white.
Or rather, three folded duvets. It's quite clear now where Jamie got the things I've been napping on.
And speaking of Jamie. . .
There's a big bar and kitchenette filling the corner next to the hot tub – where I assume Jamie had made my toddy from earlier – but he isn't there now.
No, he's sitting in the bubbling, gently steaming water of the hot tub, shirtless, cradling a glass of whisky in one hand, eyes closed, his head leaned back against the stones.
He looks so wonderful sitting there, so relaxed, so perfectly free. . . and god does he look hot. Bits of me start twitching at how incredible he looks. If I thought he was beautiful before, that did not adequately prepare me for seeing his naked chest.
Pale skin, flushed with the warmth of the water, and dusted over with a dark sprinkling of deeply auburn curls, his tiny nipple buds sparkling from condensed steam, just begging to be licked. . .
I must make some kind of noise, because he blinks his eyes, and grins over at me.
"Oh good, ye'er awake. Ye'ev got ta try this wee pool, Sassenach." He groans and stretches, long and luxuriantly, like a cat.
My heart nearly stops at the sight and sound of it. Oh god, the sounds he makes!
Certain parts of me stop twitching, and start liquefying.
The Plan, Beauchamp. Remember The Plan!
Basking in the godlike noises and ogling the touchable muscles and edible skin of my soon-to-be husband isn't part of The Plan.
The Plan is we're going to get married, and move in together, and pass the Green Card interview, and be good friends to each other, and see where we are in six months.
Neither of us can deny our attraction to each other, so we agreed not to try. But The Plan says it doesn't matter if we're married or not, we are going to let our feelings develop naturally. A kiss here and there, sure. Flirting? Absolutely. Sleeping in the same bed. . . very probably can't reasonably be avoided. But no hanky-panky until we've given it some time.
Six months is time enough for this level of attraction to develop naturally, right?
So why does it feel so natural now?
"Maybe later," I grunt, voice still gravelly from sleep, "What time is it?"
He reaches over to his phone, lodged safely on a shelf in the rock a few feet away from the water.
I nearly whimper at the sight of his damp curls brushing the great, solid curves of his shoulders. . .
The Plan, Beauchamp. Keep your mind on The Plan.
"S'jus' gone ten AM, Sassenach. An' the wedding's no' until two," he puts his phone down and settles back into the water, "There's no rush."
Delayed-action adrenaline finally jolts through me.
"No rush?" I nearly squeal, "What's the matter with you? Four hours is barely enough time!"
I run my hands through my hopeless mess of curls, "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! Where is my garment bag?"
He nods at the huge door in the wall behind the oval dining table, "In there."
As I leap for the door handle, his words follow me, "Mine's there too – mind ye don't mix 'em up!"
I slam the door on his great roar of a laugh, and begin to search through the bathroom, frantically preparing for my wedding day.
I smile a bit as I place the last shimmering little clip into the curls now artfully piled atop my head.
Well – hopefully artfully piled. I have been in a bit of a rush this morning. . . I turn my head this way and that, studying the effect in the mirror.
I am inordinately proud of these little clips. Shaped like tiny seashells, and covered in pale turquoise rhinestones, they are my 'something borrowed' and 'something blue' all in one, and I'd only had to vaguely hint that I was going to a formal function before Mrs. Graham was practically begging me to take them.
I was next door giving her my keys, so she could take care of Adso, Rabbie and Stuart, when she'd asked me why I was going away. I've asked her to look after my cats a few times before, but never on quite such short notice, and never in the middle of the week. At the barest hint that I might be dressing up or going out, she became effusive in her generosity. She's always after me to be dating, to find a man - "Or a woman, of course, my dear, I know how things are these days." - and "settle down". I've never gone so far as telling her that I am fairly well settled in our little apartment building, and really have no need or desire to date more than I currently do, because she always follows up such a comment with a cheery - "It's all written in your hand, my dear! A long life, a loving partner, and lots of children – Fate, you know! But you'd better be about it soon, or you won't have time!" And then she always winks, and I get this weird feeling that she knows more about my future than I do.
I always shake the feeling off, though. Ridiculous. But it does add extra zest to my having got these clips from her without her knowing what I really wanted them for.
I deliberately leave a few curls free at my temple, and then hold up my little fascinator cap, so I can position it to the best advantage. It's a tiny thing, really – the main body of it no more than 5 inches across, but it's frilly and fancy and I love it. It's made from pale grey felt shaped like an abalone shell, complete with an artistic row of holes, and topped with a few ridiculously long white feathers that curl up in a crisply elegant narrow fan. At the base of these is a fluffy sphere of black down, subtly iridescent, and in front of them both is a puffy little white tulle bow that manages to imply something veil-like without being anything of the kind.
I position it just right, and pin it to my hairdo with my vintage black-pearl headed hatpin.
I glance at the screen of my phone – 12:11.
Not bad. That's a shower, a shave, my hair, my makeup, my underclothes and my cap done, all in just over two hours.
Not bad at all.
I pull on the huge fluffy bathrobe provided, and go out into the main room, by this point so thoroughly ravenous I'd even resort to eating. . .
I stop in front of the big oak table.
There is a shockingly lavish breakfast laid out before me, the main ingredient of which appears to be oatmeal.
I hate oatmeal.
"Ye'er hair is quite bonny Sassenach," Jamie says cheerily, bringing a large pot of coffee from the kitchenette to the table, "Sit in an' enjoy. Ye've got great timing – I was jus' about ta come an' tell ye I'd got it all ready."
I look down at the orange juice, toast, poached eggs, bacon, strawberry jam, butter, cream, runny honey and porridge, and my jaw drops. "You. . . made all this?"
He looks mildly offended at my surprise, "Aye. A'course I did. I'm a chef, mo nighean."
"But – we're at a hotel!"
"Aye. A hotel in Vegas tha' thinks if they put enough claymores an' bagpipes on the walls they c'n call the place Scottish." He shrugs, and pours me some coffee, "A'least Castle Leoch is a classy place."
I raise my eyebrows at that.
"Weel, classy enough," he amends, "It's themed an' all, but if ye jus' want a proper plate of haggis, neeps and tatties, and a mug of ale, ye can get it. No frills attached, no overdone cheesy tut required."
"Whereas here?" I ask, amused.
"Whereas here," he gestures disparagingly at the room-service menu, "I'm no' entirely sure I'd trust the fish and chips, let alone the rumbledethumps."
I giggle a bit. The Scots term for bubble and squeak has always made me laugh.
"So, instead of room service, you went shopping for groceries on your wedding day?"
His expression twists up into a full-face grin, "No, I had groceries delivered on my wedding day, Sassenach. Totally different thing. An' besides, I'd much rather pay a delivery boy for fresh oranges an' organic rolled oats than be taking any chances on dodgy Scotch pies and highly questionable bacon stovies."
"Oh no, not dodgy Scotch pies," I say, deadpanning.
He rolls his eyes, "Every dish has little toothpick Scottish flags in, if the pictures are anything ta go by. An' the menu actually says "eggs fried in whisky butter". He shudders, "Nevar thought I'd see the day I'd find whisky unappetizing, but. . ."
I grin, "You want to know something?"
"What's that, Sassenach?"
"I actually kind of like it here."
I sit down, and begin to spread jam on my toast, enjoying the mildly stunned look on his face.
Suddenly, he throws his head back, claps his hands, and lets out a great roar of a laugh, "Ah, ye really are something else, Sassenach." He shakes his head and smiles at me, "If ye dinnae mind it being a terribly overdone sort of Scottish Disneyland, this place isnae so bad, I suppose. But one of these days I'm goin' ta show ye the real Scottish Highlands. An' after that, this place'll be nothing but a particularly gaudy memory ta ye, I promise ye that."
I chuckle around my toast, "I did know what I was doing when I booked this place, you know. I didn't expect it to be quite this bad, but I was booking a room at a Vegas casino, Jamie – not signing us up for an international cultural tour." I take a bite of my poached egg, "As if I ever once thought this was an accurate depiction of Scotland," I scoff, "One of the tam o' shanters in the other room is of neon pink and purple tartan – even I'm fairly certain that's not traditional."
He snorts, "That's the first non-traditional piece of tut ye noticed-"
"No – it wasn't," I interrupt, "But the point is – the silly kitsch is everywhere you look around here." I sigh, and brace a hand against the table, "I work for Leoch Foods, Jamie. I know the difference between an accurate reproduction and a dumb caricature. But when it comes to dumb caricature, I find this place weirdly charming in its own way. I mean," I gesture all around us, "Vegas, am I right? It's definitely its own thing, whatever else can be said of it."
"Weel, I cannae argue wi' that, mo nighean," he takes a long drink of orange juice and changes the subject, "Ye arenae eatin' yer parritch, I see. . ."
Shit, he noticed. . .
He's a Scottish chef, Beauchamp. No duh he noticed.
I shrug uncomfortably, "I've never liked most-"
"Then I insist you try it," he says, forcefully, "My parritch isnae like most. If ye try it and dinnae like it, I'll never say a word on t'subject again, I promise ye. But jus' this once – I insist."
For a father of four, I might have expected his voice to have gone into the coaxing, pleading, condescending tones parents use with children while he says this, but no. He is conversing with me adult to adult, professional to uninitiated amateur.
It is this, much more than his insisting, that leads me to take a tentative bite or two.
He's right that it isn't like most oatmeal – the whole rolled grains have been toasted and boiled just right so that the texture is more like soft, fluffy rice than the usual thick, gloopy sludge I was expecting.
And after I add enough cream, butter, honey, and dried cranberries, I even concede that I don't object to the flavour.
"But it'll never be my favourite, Jamie, I'm sorry."
He shakes his head, "Nothin' ta be sorry for, Sassenach. I only wanted ye ta try it. My parritch is a point of pride wi' me."
I smile indulgently, "Well, you can be very proud then. You're the first person who has ever gotten me to eat more than exactly one spoonful of oatmeal in my entire life. Which means it's by far the most phenomenal oatmeal I've ever encountered, bar none. But this," I take a huge bite of bacon, "This's wha I pref'r. An hash brawns." I quickly chew and swallow, "Hash browns with cheese. And HP sauce." I hum, remembering some of my favourite breakfasts, "Mmm. And spinach and mushroom crepes on special occasions. . ."
"Point taken, Sassenach," he grins, and takes his own bite of bacon.
We finish our food in highly companionable silence.
Jamie is just gulping back the last of his coffee when he takes a look at his phone.
"Mmm. Almost one. Jus' time enough fer me ta shower an' change." He gets up, pausing next to my chair, "Where d'ye want yer wee garment bag then, mo nighean?"
"On the bed," I say, finishing up my orange juice, "And thank you for breakfast. It was grand."
"Even though ye dinnae like parritch?" he digs a teasing elbow into my side.
"Oh, especially because of that," I tease back, and get up to clear the table.
"Weel, ye ken it keeps ye regular, Sassenach."
I jolt to a stop, nearly dropping the stack of dishes I'm holding, "What?"
"The dietary fiber," he says, eyes wide and innocent, "It keeps ye good'n regular. S'one reason ye English are so uptight, historically. Too many of ye'ev nevar had a good clean shite."
With this, he plants his fists in his hips, like Superman imparting some timeless wisdom of the ages.
I just manage to hold myself together long enough to tumble the dishes into the sink, but then I shamelessly collapse into helpless laughter.
"Oh. . . oh Jamie," I giggle and gasp a bit, and peer at him through streaming eyes, "What. . . oh," I bite my lip and try to get myself under control, "Oh god help me! Jamie! Dietary fiber? Really? You have to be the first straight man I've ever heard mention the stuff, let alone care how much of it is in his diet!" I laugh heartily some more, then finally sigh, and look about me, trying to track down a kleenex. I spot a whole box of them built into the side of the kitchen counter and remove one so I can dab carefully at my mascaraed eyes.
I takes a few more seconds for me to notice the silence between us.
"An' who said I was straight, then?" says Jamie, a split second before the quiet becomes uncomfortable.
My jaw drops, and now the silence is uncomfortable for entirely different reasons.
"Uhhhm. You did? When we talked about our genders and sexualities two nights ago?" I crinkle up my forehead, suddenly doubting my memory, "I mean, a lot has happened in two days, and I can't pretend to remember every word we've said, but I could swear you said cis/het/mono. . ."
"Ye ken bi is a thing, do ye no'?"
"Of course I do, Jamie – and it isn't het!"
"No – it isnae." He raises an eyebrow, "Would that be a problem for ye, then?"
My discomfort coils up in my stomach, transforming into suspicion.
"Not if you are, no. But that you didn't say – yes, it probably would be." I look at him hard, "But you aren't, are you?"
There is another small pause, but then he grins, and shakes his head, confirming my suspicion, "Nah. I'm het. But my sister Jenny is bi, and she's been after me practically m'whole life ta remember that bi-erasure is a thing."
I smile at him, all the discomfort between us relaxing back into our easy camaraderie. Jamie has mentioned his sister and brother in law and their three kids more than once in the two days I've known him.
"That it is. . ."
"Aye. It's been 'specially hard on her since she married my best mate. She's always havin' ta say ta folks - "My marrying Ian doesnae make me any less bi, ye ken". Drives her mad."
"Folks?" I say, raising an eyebrow, "Your parents, I take it?"
"Aye, them. But also Ian's parents too, an' more than a few people around the village."
I nod in understanding, "My best friend from college is bi. He ended up in a het relationship too. He says it's like wearing two masks at the same time, and any group he happens to meet only acknowledging one of them. Either way, he feels cut in half." I shrug, "I may be het myself, but I get the frustration."
"Aye," he heaves a sigh, "Weel. . . I could stand here talking ta ye all day, Sassenach, but. . ."
I wave at him in mock fury, "Get out of here you renegade! Go! What are you doing standing around when there are things to do? Chop chop!"
He chuckles, and retreats into the bathroom.
He comes out a few seconds later with my garment bag, which he drapes gently over one side of the bed, but he doesn't speak to me while doing so. I can hear the sink running, and little puff of steam came out with him. He quickly goes back inside.
I finish clearing the table, and wash my hands before going to put on my wedding dress.
I'm drying my hands on the blue and orange tartan dishtowel when it strikes me, and not for the first time, just how remarkable this man I'm marrying really is. Even in superbly uncomfortable circumstances, I can't deny the pull between us. It's like an instinct. Like something that's always been there, recognizing its long-lost other half.
It's true I barely know him – two days ago I didn't know he existed. . .
No, no, that's not quite true.
I've known Alex Mackenzie for nearly two years. I've liked and respected him too.
But this man, whose name I've only half-known, is rapidly becoming more than half my heart.
Every hour, nearly every minute since I realized I loved him, I have wanted to say it – to shout it – to scribe it on every wall and street and solid surface for miles around – I love you. I love you, James Fraser. Forever and ever, to infinity and beyond, I love you. I love you more than space, more than time itself. . .
I don't know how I'm going to get through the next few days without saying it.
I love you.
The words echo through my mind as I unzip my garment bag.
Tenderly, I remove the pale cloud-blue satin underdress, and the lacy gray silk net overdress, and lay them out on the bed, ready for me to put on.
The satin is my 'something new'. I've had the net overdress for several years, but I've never worn it with a dress of a colour lighter than itself. Usually, I wear it with black, or dark navy blue, so the soft, pearly shimmer of the gray silk shows up to best advantage.
I slip into the pale blue satin, and twist to zip myself up. There's a floor-length mirror on the wall near the bed, and I settle my skirts in front of it, turning a bit to study how it fits me. It's just a touch tight over my hips – the waist being perhaps an inch too long before the skirt flares out, but all in all, not bad for a dress bought online less than a day ago.
Far from not bad, actually. Pretty impressive, more like.
I go over to my phone, determined to leave a 5 star review and a nice comment for the online vintage store I bought it from.
I'm just finishing doing so when a few ideas for my lists occur to me, and I scroll through my phone to add them to my notes.
I scan through the lists contemplatively. I shake my head - this will never be enough. "Lists" though. . . that's quite right. Right in the medieval sense, of course. As in lances, and the tiltyard - the place where two personalities went crashing into each other with shattering force.
I put my phone down. There's nothing I can do about that right now.
I drape the grey net over the blue satin, pleased to note the subtle shine of both is retained, and that the fine, lacy design does not at all resemble fishnet stockings – which this look sometimes can, if the colour pairings aren't right. I turn once more while I button the net around me, making sure it falls correctly into all the drapings of the satin skirt.
Satisfied, I fasten Jamie's pearl necklace around my neck, and take a step back to survey the overall effect.
I don't look like a traditional bride, that's for certain. But subtle blues and grays and pearly shimmers aren't so far out of line that I think any eyebrows will be raised.
I smile, pleased. I have always been adamant that it is incredibly stupid and wasteful to buy a wedding dress that you'll only wear once, and my plan ever since high school has been to get something like this – something I not only could wear ordinarily, but would wear, at any formal function. I've pushed myself with it a bit – I don't often go for pastels of any kind, preferring dark, elegant colours for business, and bright, flowery or geometric prints for everyday - or solid fire-engine red when I'm feeling particularly feisty. But – I make a grotesque face in the mirror - I like this too. Soft and subtle. Everything Vegas is not. Everything I am not, if I'm being honest. . .
A pang of worry slices through me. Can I do it? Do I have it in me to be enough, to be the person he - they will need me to be? I've never been a wife before. I've never been a mother before. How. . . ? How do I. . . how will I. . .
"Christ, ye'er bonny," a soft, awed voice comes from behind me.
I smile past my self-doubt, "Not Christ. Just me."
Then I turn, and see him.
Now, I have always known that the full Highland regalia is an impressive look – I've seen it look impressive on old men – and it doesn't matter how bent, crusty, ill-favoured, toothless and mostly blind they may be, the proper clothes of a proud Scot sit nobly upon them, not like armour, but like a second skin, resplendent, alive – real.
On Jamie – he being neither old nor bent, crusty, ill-favored, blind or toothless – it looks like a costume only a king would wear. Magnificent isn't even the word.
As I look him up and down, I notice his plaid is pinned around him with the brooch I chose, and suddenly I am part of his splendor – an equal participant in it, both the beauty, and the responsibility carried behind it.
Then, I meet his glowing blue eyes, and I everything I thought I knew evaporates into history.
We have yet to say our vows, and neither of us has even said 'I love you' out loud. But, in this moment, we are married.
In a split second it's irrevocable – done, finished. Fate has closed the book.
It's forever now. For better or worse.
"We should go, mo calman geal," he says, reverently, "The limo is waitin'."
He offers me his hand, and I take it, threading my fingers through his, needing to feel his touch.
We are in the back of the limo, more than halfway to the chapel, when the realization overtakes me, stealing into my soul like the rose-gold light of a summer dawn.
I have to hold back tears at the beauty of it. At the shining, immortal truth of it.
I no longer have any reason for self-doubt, because there's two of us now.
We're third in line for this afternoon's bookings at the Happy Snappy Weddings Chapel. The waiting room is decorated in the standard billows of white tulle and drifts of pink and red roses, and yet somehow, the place smells of canned beef chili. Don't ask me how, because I'll never know.
A bell dings, and the couple in front of us are ushered into the wedding chamber, affording us a brief glimpse of what awaits us in a few minutes time.
We glance at each other, slightly disconcerted.
Jamie had been adamant - and so had I - that we not be married by an Elvis impersonator. Well, from the looks of things, a tired-eyed, bored sounding person of indeterminate age and gender will have to suffice.
And at this point, why not? Tough, tacky and tawdry - Vegas, am I right?
The bell dings again, and it's our turn. The white-painted doors open, and the ushers gesture us inside. A few seconds of the Wedding March play tinnily from some hidden speaker as we advance to the rose-bedecked alter. The waxy surfaces of the pink and red petals hardly seem real.
Perhaps they aren't.
This room smells even more strongly of canned meat, and the officiant looks even more jaded up close.
For a second, I hardly feel real myself.
The actual ceremony is brief and unremarkable. A few spoken words in front of the officiant and equally bored-looking witnesses, and the thing is done.
More memorable is the full half hour's worth of paperwork that follows, in a thoroughly depressing little olive green painted anteroom, that instead of chili, smells weirdly like burnt cinnamon. Jamie and I take turns to scan through the stunning amount of lawyer-speak before finally scribbling our signatures to all the places needed to make us legally married.
By the time we're done, I have cramps in my hand - I've never signed my name so many times in so few minutes before.
"Weel now," says Jamie, taking a deep breath of the cool, dry Vegas air as we finally re-emerge, "I think we've earnt our tea, don't ye agree? Mrs. Fraser?"
"Mmm, very much so. Mr. Fraser." I take his arm, and go up on my toes to peck him on the cheek, "Though, if that's a taste of the kind of paperwork it takes to make something legal, I'm not sure I want to know what it would take to legally change my name."
He waves a hand dismissively, "An optional extra, at best, mo nighean – a vestige of the time when wives were chattel – I'd never ask it of ye."
I smile up at him as he hands me into the back of the limo, "Has anyone ever told you what a wonderful husband you are, James Fraser?"
He holds my hand tighter for a second, and a strange look crosses his face, but other than that, he doesn't answer.
I decide not to press him.
He gets in next to me, and slips an arm around my shoulders, "So. Italian or Greek?"
"Lunch," he chuckles, "I have reservations at two places, because I didnae ken what ye'ed be wanting after. . ." he nods at the retreating chapel, "After." He pulls out his phone, "So – Italian or Greek?"
I smile, and lean into his embrace. This was part of The Plan. I was to book our flight, choose our hotel, and plan the wedding – he was to plan the honeymoon, and book the flight home.
And now that the wedding is over. . . it's his turn to take charge.
The very thought is incredibly relaxing.
"Italian," I murmur.
"Aye." He taps things into his phone, and clicks the intercom to tell the driver where to go.
I just sit, and lean against him, surprisingly emotionally drained after such a mundane wedding.
At last he sighs, and leans back next to me, cuddling me closer. "No' ta criticize ye, Sassenach, but I'm afraid ta say we ought ta have sprung for the deluxe package at that chapel. . ."
I chuckle darkly, "That was the deluxe package."
"Oh yeah. Three hundred dollars extra for there to be music playing as we walked up, and fresh roses in the chapel."
"Those were real roses?"
I shrug, "Who can say?" I sigh deeply, "I'm sorry Jamie – that was NOT the quality advertised. . ."
He half smiles, "Was it legal?"
"It better be, after all that paperwork!"
"Aye, the paperwork was genuine – we both ken that well enough." He looks at me, eyes soft, a tiny smile around the corners of his mouth, "Ye'er mine, an' I'm yours. Tha's all that mattars. . ."
His hand curls around the back of my neck, and he pulls my mouth to his, completely enveloping my lips, and running his tongue along mine in a way that feels far better than I ever imagined it could.
He surfaces with a gasp, "I ken ye want ta wait 'til we ken each other better, but-"
"No," I say, hurriedly, "Kissing is part of The Plan. It's fine. It's good." I slide my hands up his lapels, and pull urgently at his collar, "It's good. Very good. . ."
"Oh, thank God," he groans, and lowers his mouth to mine again.
Very quickly, I learn just how long I can survive without oxygen. It's a surprisingly long time for someone who never learned to swim. . .
Wait a second.
He might need to know that. . .
The next time we have to stop and catch our breath, I tell him.
"I can't swim."
He stares at me, baffled.
"I never learned how to swim, Jamie." I look at him, pointedly, "You might need to know that, someday."
"Oh," he says, his voice strangely bland.
"Yeah. Oh. That's what we agreed to, isn't it? To tell each other everything we think the other might need to know? We can keep secrets if we want to, but we won't tell lies? That is The Plan, right?"
I pull out of his arms, and sit up straight, "Right?"
He doesn't say anything, instead leaning forward, and putting his head in his hands.
He takes a few very long, deep breaths.
"The last time someone told me I was a good husband was just over two years ago, Sassenach," he says, in a slow, aching voice, "An' it was Annalise, telling me I was too good a husband."
"Too good?," I gasp, "What? How. . ."
"That I was too good a husband, an' too good a man," his voice lowers to a whisper, "An' that's how I found out she was havin' an affair."
"Oh, Jamie. No. . ."
"Aye. I kent she was low an uncommon long time after Joanie was born, but I thought. . . I always thought she'd come to me, that she'd ask me for help. . ."
His hands make slow fists in his hair. I reach over and gently run a palm up and down his spine.
Very slowly, some of the tension eases out of him.
"Sally an' Joan arenae mine, Sassenach-"
"Yes they are," I interrupt.
His head snaps up, and his tortured gaze meets mine.
"Yes they are," I say, more forcefully, "If not yours, then whose? There isn't anyone who could care for or love them more, Jamie. I've only known you two days and even I know that."
A tiny bit of the pain leaves his face.
"Aye. I love them. As my own flesh and blood and bone."
"And that's all that matters."
This time, when he meets my forceful stare, there are tears clouding over the brilliant blue of his eyes.
"Aye, that's all that matters."
With that, he gathers me sharply to him, and seals his mouth over mine.
The limo driver has to make use of the intercom several times before we notice we've arrived at our restaurant.
Letting Jamie's take charge of today's plans was the best idea either of us have had yet.
After a delicious lunch, he takes me to a place that specializes in indoor mini-golf. There are five courses to pick from, and we choose the "Fairy Garden Experience". We spend the next few hours putting our brightly coloured golf balls through marvelous landscapes of huge fiberglass flowers and vines, oddly coloured stones, twisted tree root arches, mushroom windmills worthy of Smurf-ville itself, and even two or three rooms lit only by black light and covered in glow-in-the-dark neons.
The whole experience is a bit like a blend of that Fern Gully movie, and that one giant mushroom level from Skyrim - only there aren't any slime villains, and not once do we get attacked by giant bugs.
Which is to say it's just a tiny bit disappointing, really. But after this morning's debacle, I'm in no mood to criticize, and in no place at all to judge.
Jamie absolutely walloped me when it comes to overall score, but he is forced to concede that I am very, very good at trick shots. I actually win a free round by making a hole in one at the last hole, but since Jamie doesn't win one too, I take my free voucher to the desk, and trade it in for twenty dollars of their arcade tokens.
"Arcade tokens, Sassenach?" he arches an eyebrow at me.
"Just you wait," I say, feeling in my bones that any place so devoted to the genuine mini-golf experience is bound to have a first-class arcade.
And I turn out to be right. The game room is enormous, lit by nothing but neon and strobe lights, and is an absolute shrine to 80's and 90's nostalgia.
Jamie's mouth twists in several directions before he leans over and murmurs, teasingly, "Bet ye a cold drink I c'n beat yer socks off at Street Fighter."
I grin ferociously, and purr, "You're on, mister wise guy."
And the long and the short of it after that is - he's been buying me a steady stream of Mike's Hard Lemonades for the past two hours now, and he still owes me at least four more.
And he's been calling me Chun Li, which I have to say, hasn't been at all bad for my ego.
I can't quite remember how we got from the arcade to the dance club we're at now, but to be fair to me - gloating is distracting work.
Jamie plunks a basket of hot wings and a plateful of deep-fried mozzarella sticks down in the middle of our table, and slides me another bottle of lemonade.
"Only three left ta go now, Sassenach," he smirks, ruefully.
I pull my chair closer to him, and slip an arm through his, "Will you ever be able to forgive me, do you think?"
"For bein' better than me at an arcade game?" he dips a cheese stick in the marinara sauce and takes a bite, "I think I'll manage ta get over it eventually." He sighs, and looks at me, eyes twinkling, "Jus' so long as ye arenae better than me at making a hollandaise sauce, I might even find it in my heart ta let bygones be bygones."
"Teach me how to make a hollandaise sauce, and we'll call it even."
The expression on his face is warm and sweet, and his eyes are focusing on my lips. Slowly, very slowly, his head leans closer to mine. . .
He. . . he wouldn't.
Not in public. . .
Most of the songs up til now have been things I either don't like or don't know, but suddenly, music I recognize starts playing.
"Ooo, I love this one!" I exclaim, jumping up from our tiny table and practically skipping over to the nearby corner of dance floor.
I know it's only a temporary distraction, but good lord do I need a distraction right now. . .
High dive into frozen waves where the past comes back to life. . .
I rock my hips, and tap my heels to the beat.
Fight fear for the selfish pain, it was worth it every time.
I raise my arms, and get lost in the music. . .
Hold still right before we crash 'cause we both know how this ends. . .
A clock ticks 'til it breaks your glass and I drown in you again. . .
A deep, magnetic hum pulses through me, and somehow, piercing through all the noise and dark of the room, my eyes find Jamie's.
'Cause you are the piece of me I wish I didn't need. . .
Chasing relentlessly, still fight and I don't know why.
If I thought this music would be an escape, I was wrong.
Funny how little I want to escape now, though. . .
If our love is tragedy, why are you my remedy?
I can feel the touch of his eyes on me. . .
If our love's insanity, why are you my clarity?
I writhe and twist, but now, I do it for no one else in the room – not even myself. Just for him. . .
Only for him. . .
Walk on through a red parade and refuse to make amends. . .
It cuts deep through our ground and makes us forget all common sense.
Our eyes meet again, and he's half out of his seat, wanting to come to me, but just barely holding himself in check.
Only my gaze holds him in place. . .
Don't speak as I try to leave 'cause we both know what we'll choose.
If you pull, then I'll push too deep and I'll fall right back to you. . .
He narrows his eyes at me, his face frozen into an emotionless mask that doesn't fool me for a second. . .
'Cause you are the piece of me I wish I didn't need
Chasing relentlessly, still fight and I don't know why. . .
But I do. I know exactly why. . .
If our love is tragedy, why are you my remedy?
If our love's insanity, why are you my clarity?
At this point the relentless motion of the dancers around me pulls me a bit deeper onto the dance floor, as though trying to swallow me up - but I grasp at the almost physical connection between myself and my husband, and manage to lever myself back to our table, just as the song ends.
Breathless, I slide back into the seat next to him.
He hasn't stopped staring at me for what feels like several hours now.
I lower my eyes and my voice, in a deliberate attempt to be flirtatiously demure, "Did you like watching me dance, Jamie?"
My tone is light, but his answer is very sober and serious.
"We'd better be getting home, Sassenach. I've a long day planned for us tomorrow."
"Ooo, you do?" I smile, and take a long swig from my berry-flavoured lemonade, "What are we doing?"
"Mmphm," he shakes his head, "That would be telling."
"Yes! Yes it would!" I bark an incredulous laugh, "It would be telling me."
"Aye, an' tha's jus' what I'm no' goin' ta do, mo ghràidh."
"Ugh, you're such a tease!"
At that, his hot hand clasps me around my wrist, and pulls my palm to his lips. The kiss he gives it is soft, and entirely chaste, but somehow. . . intimate. Secretive. Private.
I shiver. Yes. Going home would be a very good idea right about now. . .
"No, Sassenach, a tease is ye swingin' yer fine round arse at me while ye dance. That's a tease." He puts my hand back on the table.
I trace the faux wood grain of the table's surface with a fingertip.
"So. . . you did. . . enjoy it, then? Watching me, I mean?"
He exhales, slowly, "The only fault I found in it was that ye werenae doing so while wrapped in my arms. . ."
"Dance with me, Jamie," I make a motion to get up, but he holds me firmly in my chair.
"But. . ."
"I havenae liked any of the music so far. No' enough ta dance ta it, anyway."
"Oh." I wave a hand, "Well. Make a request then."
He lifts his chin, indicating the rest of the room, "Nah. They wouldnae like what I would request. . ."
"A fig for what they would like." I say, sharply, "It's your wedding day. Make whatever outlandish request you want, give the DJ a hundred bucks if he protests, and come dance with me. . ."
Jamie huffs a laugh, and shakes his head, but he does get up and go over to the DJ's booth.
I gnaw on a few hot wings while waiting for him, suddenly wanting to escape again.
What, oh what is wrong with me?
The problem is, you know exactly what's wrong with you, Beauchamp! You are only too aware of it!
I sigh at my inner voice, wishing I could, for once, get her to shut up.
Except that's part of the problem too, isn't it Beauchamp? You want to shout it, don't you? You'd like to stand here, in this club, and scream to anyone near enough to hear - "Jamie Fraser is mine mine mine!" - wouldn't you? So far from not wanting him to kiss you in public, you're afraid you wouldn't be able to stop at a kiss, aren't you? Aren't you?
Oh, shut up, voice in my head. . .
"And now, a very special tune, from one lad to his lassie, on a very special day. . ." The DJ's voice booms throughout the club, and at once sweet, melodic violins start playing over the speakers.
Not everyone clears the dance floor either. In fact, six or seven couples immediately start waltzing.
Say, it's only a paper moon,
Sailing over a cardboard sea.
But it wouldn't be make-believe,
If you believed in me. . .
A hand appears next to my elbow. I look up.
"May I have this dance, Sassenach?" Jamie asks, conspiratorially.
I put my hand in his, appreciating how clever he's being. Let the first verse play before we even take the floor, and it won't be immediately obvious who the requester was.
Of course, the full Highland costume might clue some people in to who the "lad and lassie" are, but he's being subtle. Thoughtful. Ingenious.
Incredibly attractive. . .
He slots one of my hands into his, settles his other hand on the swell of my hip, and with a few steps to find our pace, we're away. . .
Yes, it's only a canvas sky,
Hanging over a muslin tree.
But it wouldn't be make-believe,
If you believed in me.
His eyes are twin pools of deep, cool water, just waiting for me to dive into them, and in this moment, blithe, carefree, I do. . .
Without your love,
It's a honky-tonk parade.
Without your love,
It's a melody played in a penny arcade.
The frightening part about James Fraser isn't that I'm now married to a man I barely know and only met three days ago. No. The scary part is that when I look inside myself, I find him, already there. As if he's been a part of me since I was born.
It's a Barnum and Bailey world -
Just as phony as it can be. . .
We're always told how wonderful it will be when we find our soul mates.
But we're never told that they will hold a mirror up to our very selves, showing up all the flaws as well as features, turning us inside out at the same time they make us whole. . .
But it wouldn't be make-believe,
If you believed in me.
The violins go on a little while longer, and then die away.
Everyone claps politely, before going back to their usual hard, thumping dance beats.
Without another word, Jamie escorts me out to the limo, and tells the driver to take us back to our hotel.
Playlist for this chapter -
I sit, half sprawled, on our leather couch, sipping a dram of fragrant single malt, comfortable in soft flannel trousers and oversized cotton t-shirt, staring into a softly humming gas fireplace, replete with an excellent fried fish supper.
Jamie had decided he did trust the Highland Glen's hotel kitchens as far as fish and chips after all, and, thankfully, they came through handsomely. So handsomely, in fact, that Jamie has just gotten up to put the two large leftover chunks of beer-battered cod, and fully half the chips away in the refrigerator, for us to reheat and enjoy later.
As a chef, Jamie deplores wasting food.
Yet another thing to admire about him, I think, sleepily.
I watch the silent, bluish flames flickering in the otherwise dark room, appreciating how they make mesmerizing, almost living patterns in the brass fittings and gilded picture frames surrounding me.
The cheesy ridiculousness of the room is much reduced by firelight. None of the overdone features seem silly anymore – rather, they loom, and glower, and would in fact be altogether menacing if I was here alone, or for some nefarious purpose. . .
Jamie returns, silent on bare feet, and eases himself onto the couch beside me. He replaced his formal outfit with sweatpants and t-shirt almost as quickly as I did upon returning to our rooms, and this easy, altogether Human shape of him fits in next to me delightfully naturally. I shift against him a little, and he raises an arm, so he might tuck me into his side.
He sips his own drink, and we stare into the flames, content.
He is lightly dragging the tips of two fingers up and down the sleeve of my t-shirt when he murmurs, "May I ask ye a question, Sassenach?"
"Of course," I say, stifling a yawn.
He pauses a long time before continuing, taking several deep, considering breaths.
"Why. . . did ye agree ta marry me?"
I look up at him, surprised, and more than a little confused.
"Because you needed to be married, Jamie." I push myself up a little, so I can look at his face, "And we agreed that we are attracted to each other, and like each other, and that we would want to be friends regardless of the circumstances, so our being married or not was a nearly negligible formality."
His mouth hardens at that, but he says nothing.
"We can date, and get to know each other, and have conversations, and meet each other's families just as well married as not – and so, why not? Why not give it a try for six months, then see where we are? No-fault divorce is a thing, and so are open marriages-"
He opens his mouth to speak, but I hurry on,
"And I know you don't like the idea of either one of those – and that's all well and good – but the fact still remains – they exist. Legally, neither of us are trapped in this marriage, Jamie. We're both just as free now as we were this morning–"
He raises a hand in protest, "But-"
I catch his hand and grip it tightly, "Commitment to a relationship isn't slavery Jamie – it's growth. Mutual growth. It's trust – hope – that a relationship will become the strongest and most important in both lives involved." Gently, I push his curls back behind his ear, and run my fingers along the back of his neck, "It's giving of yourself – willingly – and knowing that what you give will always be accepted." I meet his eyes, "If that's not freedom, what is?"
The look on his face softens considerably, and he brings a hand up to caress my jaw, "But. . . the risk of it. . ."
"There's always risk," I say, gently taking hold of his wrist and turning my lips into his palm, "In everything, Jamie. Always."
He meets my eyes again, and says, softly, "But. . . why? Why did ye take a risk on me? Why?"
I sigh at the simple question, wishing heartily that it had a simple answer.
"A lot of reasons, really. Firstly because. . . well. . . you were asking for help. In my book, anyone who asks for help should get it." I pat his hand, "Granted, you're an able-bodied white male – chances are you'd find support of some kind no matter where you turned for help – but, in actual fact, you turned to me. And that's not nothing – or at least I don't consider it to be nothing."
I wrap my arm around his, and lean my head on his shoulder.
"Secondly, because I know what it's like to have a clerical error in my passport."
He laughs incredulously, "Really now?"
"Really really," I say. "It's such a strange feeling. This thing that's part of something so much bigger than you – but in a very personal way it also is you – and it's wrong. It's like finding out there's something wrong with your body - like cancer, or something - it isn't your fault, but somehow it's your responsibility. And there's this quiet, frantic voice in the back of your head, terrified of what might have happened if you hadn't noticed. . ."
Jamie nods, "Aye. Tha's right enough."
"And I'm a natural born American citizen, Jamie. I can only imagine what those feelings would have been like if I'd had to worry about deportation into the bargain."
He disentangles his arm from mine, then slides it around my shoulder, holding me tight.
"Thirdly – I know four couples who had quickie marriages with no lead-up and less fanfare, and one couple who actually married for green card purposes."
"Mmm," he hums, skeptically, "And?"
"And, of the four, three have been married for at least ten years, and the fourth for over twenty."
"An' the one?"
"They've been married forty six years next July. They knew each other two months before getting married – so, not quite as drastic as us, but he was a student, and she had a good, steady job, so she offered to buy a house with him, and see if they could make a go of it. It took them eleven years to have a child, but they've been happily married all that time, and-"
"Sassenach," Jamie interrupts, his voice equal parts amused and suspicious, "This couple. . . how do ye ken them?"
I lick my lips, and pause. There's no reason he shouldn't know, but it still feels like a big thing to tell him, somehow. . . I sigh a little, and take the plunge. "They're my parents, Jamie."
At this, he sits bolt upright, turns, and stares at me. "Yer parents married for green card purposes?"
"Officially? Yeah," I say, mildly.
His face darkens, "But? In reality?"
"But," I say, lightly, "Do you know what my mother would always say whenever I'd ask her what to look for in a man?"
"She'd say. . ." my voice goes dreamy, remembering, "She'd tell me I'd be able to look at him and know – know in my bones – that he was the one. That my heart would be safe with him. And that his smile could warm me from across the room. That he'd earn my respect and my trust, and everything in between, and in return he wouldn't be afraid to be vulnerable with me. That there would be plain, grey days, and mundane chores, and the long, ordinary routine of daily life, but there would always be. . . something, something about him - the same something I could see, and know in my bones, that would make every day special, and wonderful, just because he was in it. . ."
My voice trails off, my eyes staring fixedly at the pale flames of the fireplace.
Silence falls between us, deep and heavy. The air is thick with questions we can't ask – not because we wouldn't get answers, but because neither of us is ready for those answers yet. Hot and cold thoughts run back and forth around us, like currents in the sea, fast, and broad, and unending.
The world shrinks down to the rhythm of my breath, and slow, steady beat of my heart.
Eventually, he gets up. Without a word he finishes his drink, stretches, yawns, and pops his neck. In the still deep silence of the room, I hear him sigh.
Then, his big, warm hand rests gently on my shoulder. When he speaks it is with great tenderness, but also with deep, assured, impressive finality.
"Come ta bed, Sassenach."
I silently look up at him, eyes wide and blinking, for a few very long and agonizing seconds.
Then his own eyes go wide with realization and horror, "Ta sleep, Sassenach, nothin' else. . ." he curses quietly for a second or two, grimacing at himself, "Weel. That's no' quite true. I do want ta hold ye, if ye'el let me. I dinnae think either of us are ready for more – no' just yet."
I have pity on him then, and smile at him, and let him help me up.
I have often gauged a relationship by how well we can share a bathroom, and in this, as in so many aspects I've noted already, Jamie comes through in spades. He doesn't crowd the sink while we brush our teeth, he's neither picky about my mess of cosmetics still spread out from this morning, nor is he particularly touchy about his own toiletries. He is extremely polite about toilet smells, and apparently just as scrupulous about hygiene here as I know Alex Mackenzie is in the kitchen.
I've just finished removing my makeup when he clears his throat.
"Yes?" I prompt him.
"In. . . the interest of tellin' each other everything we think they might need ta ken. . ." he scratches behind his ear, somewhat awkwardly, "When the girls arenae around I. . . I like ta sleep in my birthday suit."
"But when a certain amount of modesty is called for. . . I normally wear boxers and an undershirt." He gestures at the small pile of cloth he has laid on the countertop.
"Jolly good," I say, with only mildly forced brightness, "In the interest of reciprocity, I think I ought to tell you that I do not own a single piece of sexy underwear."
He has just begun taking a sip of water, and he immediately chokes, splutters, and sprays the water everywhere. He coughs into the sink for a minute, then reaches for the toilet paper to clean up the mess.
It is all I can do to keep from laughing.
His eyes streaming, he glares at me.
"Lord-" he coughs, "Lord love ye, Sassenach, have some pity on a man, aye? I'm only feckin' Human."
I do laugh then - "Really Jamie? The thought of me in sensible, no-frills, work-a-day white cotton underwear gets you going that much, does it?"
He groans, "Ye have no idea, Sassenach."
The plain, simple longing in his voice hits me surprisingly hard.
"Jamie I. . . don't know how to do this."
He smirks, casually, "Furst time for everything."
I don't reply for just a second too long.
His eyes go wide and he curses quietly to himself again, "God in heaven help me, will I never no' say the wrong thing at the wrong time!?" He takes me gently by the shoulders, "I didnae mean that, Sassenach, Christ above, I didnae mean that."
I see care, and. . . and admiration in his eyes, and finally I lose it, "Will you forget about my being a virgin for one flipping second Jamie?" I take a handful of his shirt - unable to either pull him to me or push him away - "I know how to be that. I know how to do that. And I know how to be a friend, a girlfriend, a housemate, and a lover. But god help me I have no idea how to be a wife." My voice catches, and suddenly I'm on the verge of tears, "And soon – so very very soon. . . to be a mother. . . I. . . I've never. . . god this is embarrassing. . ."
He shakes his head, "No, no, Sassenach. Dinna fash yourself. C'mere."
He opens his arms, and I don't hesitate to go into them.
"I've never even shared a bed with anyone, Jamie," I whisper into his shoulder, my cheeks flaming, "Not even platonically. Not since I was a little kid having sleepovers, and even then we were usually in different sleeping bags. I. . . I don't. . . know how to do this."
My fists drum against his back in impotent frustration.
He rests his cheek on the top of my head, "Ah, Sassenach. I was only teasing ye. Ye'er so capable, mo nighean, always. This really must be the furst time ye'ev no idea what ta do, I swear it must be. I mean, ye practically moved mountains ta get us here, didn't ye?"
I scoff, sharply, "You can say that, when I booked us this hotel, and that wedding chapel?" I pull away so I can look in his eyes, "So far this weekend, your plans have been wonderful - my plans have been bloody shite!"
He chuckles, "Ye believe in truth in advertisin', mo nighean. An' I mean really believe in it. An' that means sometimes a huckster can get past ye if he's quick and polished enough." He gently pats my cheek, "Just give ye a minute ta think and I doubt anyone or anything could get past ye, but if there's been one thing lacking this weekend, it's been any abundance of time ta think. Tha's all."
His eyes are soft, and his voice is painfully sincere.
"My god, you believe that!"
"What's ta believe, Sassenach? 'Tis there ta be seen – just how much good ye'ev been for Leoch Foods. An' it hasnae been by any crooked means, that's plain as plain. An' how ye took on Dougal? I dinnae ken there's one woman in R&D doesnae want ta straight up be ye. An' more than a few of the young men do to, for their own reasons, nae doubt. An' why shouldn't they?"
I lean my head on his chest again, and for a few long minutes, he just holds me.
I run my hands along his spine, enjoying discovering part of the pattern of his bones and muscles.
At last, some tension eases out of me.
"So, you don't. . . you don't mind that I have no idea how to share a bed with you, Jamie?"
"Ah, Sassenach. What could be simpler?"
I can hear the grin in voice.
His hug tightens around me a little bit, "If evar there was a bed big enough ta share, it's this one, aye? Ye could probably roll over twice in the same direction an' no' evan ken I was there." He pushes me away from him, just far enough to look into my eyes, "An' if that's no' enough, ye'ev prooved the couch is more than comfortable. I'll sleep there, an' gladly, if tha's what ye want."
My eyes rove all over his face. His dear, dear face. This stranger, my husband.
My best friend, this stranger. . .
He's being sincere. There isn't a particle of hesitation, or even disappointment in his eyes. He'd do that – he'd do ten times more than that – and on his wedding night, for my sake.
"No," I say, stolidly, "That's not what I want. I don't know what I want. Or. . . no, I guess I do know what I want, it's just that I'm not ready for what I want. . . or, maybe it isn't what I want, exactly. . ."
Gently Jamie puts two fingers to my lips. Somehow, this instantly stops my helpless babbling.
He takes my hand, and leads me into the main room, and around to his side of the bed. He spends a minute arranging pillows and unfolding duvets, and then, half grinning, he gets in, scootches himself backward towards the middle of the bed, and flips back the duvet, showing at least four feet of empty space.
"There's more than enough room for ye, mo ghràidh . . ." he holds out his arms, "But. . . will ye let me hold ye?"
One of these days, I'm going to have to ask him what all his pet names for me actually mean.
I swallow. The clean, white warmth of the bed, and the steady sweetness of his arms beckon to me. . .
"On one condition."
"Annything, mo nighean."
"You don't apologize in the morning."
A baffled question crosses his face.
Helplessly, I blush, "I know what. . . what's likely to happen. To. . . to you. In the morning."
He blinks rapidly, and a wave of fiery red crosses his own cheeks, "Sassenach, I. . ."
I can feel the "I'm sorry" on his lips, and I stamp my foot. I have to stop him from saying it.
"Promise me you won't apologize for it. Please Jamie. I. . . might be able to do this. . . sleep here, I mean. . . if. . . if I know for sure you won't regret it tomorrow."
He lowers his arms for a minute, and says soberly, "I could never regret it, Claire. No' for a single moment. No' any of it."
"Then promise me, Jamie."
"I promise I wilnae apologize for anything. . . involuntary. In the morning or otherwise. Fair?" He raises his arms to me again.
"Fair," I whisper, and this time I ease myself down into the comfort of the bed, and the embrace of his arms.
I cuddle my shoulders into his chest and sigh. His hand comes up, and rests on my elbow, steadying me against him. Slowly, his warmth seeps into me, calming my stomach, my mind, and my soul.
And then, stirring them all up again. . .
I didn't expect. . .
Oh god, I never knew. . .
Just this, just lying next to him in bed is so good, so absolutely wonderful, it's almost too much. Jamie is here, pressed against me, surrounding me, the scent and pressure of him so close, so present, so beautifully and intoxicatingly real. . .
I hardly know what to do with it all.
Again, I don't know what to say.
What would a wife say?
What would a wife do. . . ?
I twist in his embrace, until I am facing him. I wind an arm around him, holding him tighter to me.
Yes. This is much better.
I feel his breath on my forehead. There is a tension in him that wasn't there a minute ago.
His lips brushing my eyebrows, he whispers, "I very much want ta kiss ye, mo nighean. May I?"
"Of course, Jamie."
His hand tilts my chin up, and he lowers his mouth to mine.
We've kissed before now, in at least a half a dozen ways – frantically, gently, quickly, fiercely, softly, passionately, chastely – but never before easily.
His mouth slips over mine in a soothing caress, and his tongue massages against my lips with a delicate touch. I let him in gratefully, inhaling the subtle, complex scent of him at the same time. I drink deeply from the kiss, and dig my fingers into his back.
I expect to feel a burst of fire in my stomach, or a shower of tingles all up and down my spine, but that isn't what happens at all.
Instead, a sweet, cool breeze touches my soul, sighing into every hidden place inside me, dulling every sharp edge, easing every tension, smoothing over every aching, burning spot with clean, beautiful peace. . .
There's nothing passionless or impersonal about his kisses, but they contain far more of the passion of care, rather than the passion of. . . well, passion.
Again and again he kisses me, and every time I feel freer, softer, sleepier. . .
I suddenly realize - he isn't winding me up – he's easing me down.
From the press of him against me, I can tell it isn't because he doesn't want me either – it's because. . .
Because. . .
Because it isn't time yet.
We've packed a lot into these past few days. A lot of changes. A lot of realizations. A lot of confessions. A lot of growth. We are quite literally different people now than we were a few days ago.
I suspect he knows even better than I do that piling sex on top of all of that would likely be the worst thing we could do, at least for tonight. We'd probably only half enjoy it anyway, given how tired we both are, and I'm certain we'd never fully process it. Which isn't what either of us need. . .
Add to that all the complicated things he's still feeling over Annalise, and the fact that I'm a virgin? No. He's right. Not tonight.
But soon. . .
Soon. . .
A flavour of hope enters his easy, gentling kisses. Hope. . . and promise. . .
Yes. Very soon.
I'm just dropping off when I realize – no one has ever kissed me to sleep before.
But, as Jamie says, there's a first time for everything.
I awake to sizzling sounds, and the smell of freshly ground coffee. I half-open my eyes, and see Jamie in the kitchenette, pouring batter from a jug, flipping pancakes, draining bacon, and humming tunelessly along with an oldies station he has playing on his phone.
I smile, and sigh contentedly. It's an idyllic image – one I would be more than happy to wake up to for, say, the next fifty years or so.
But still, somehow. . . it's incomplete.
Slowly, one by one, I add in some of the things he's told me about the girls.
The loud, thudding feet of the nine year old twins, Bree and Faith, who always run everywhere, and the correspondingly loud voice of Bree, asking - or more likely demanding - specially shaped pancakes from her father, while Faith sits incongruously quietly at a bar stool, watching Jamie's technique in pouring the batter.
Followed by a soft pat-pat from the tiny angel-feet of three and a half year old Joanie, being led down the passage by the ever-moving, slippy-slidey feet of nearly six year old Sally, who always wears socks, and sings each and every moment of the livelong day, and dances while she sings.
These second two seem to act far more like twins than the first two, sitting down together on the corner of an area rug, babbling softly to each other in their own private language, and beginning to play a sweet, incomprehensible game they have invented, using large wooden beads, shoelaces, and their stuffed bears, completely in harmony, even their motions coordinated.
The long red curls and pert, upturned noses might seem at first glance to be all that is alike about the older two. Faith is thoughtful, studious and methodical, Bree is impulsive, eager and adventurous. Faith is already studying to be an artist – Bree has yet to be convinced she can't make a living shooting elephants in the Brazilian rain forest. They refuse to be dressed alike, sometimes even growing angry when they are referred to as "the twins".
But for all that, they love each other fiercely, and though they usually play dramatically different games, they often do so in the same room, each keeping an eye on the other, even while they play alone.
In the eye of my mind, all four of them converge around a large, honey-coloured kitchen table, Faith spreading her napkin demurely on her knee, and Sally rhythmically kicking the leg of her chair. Jamie distributes plates and silverware, and then serves up tiny silver dollar pancakes for Joan, a small Micky Mouse shaped one for Sally, a perfectly neat stack of midsize ones for Faith, and two large bunny rabbit shaped ones for Bree. He makes sure they all take a serving from the bowl of fruit salad he passes around, and then everyone quiets down as he says grace. . .
There. That picture is complete. And it's just as idyllic, in my opinion.
Suddenly, a part of me can't wait for the weekend to be over. I'm ready to meet them. I want to meet them, in a way I haven't until now. Up until today, the girls have been nothing more than faces in pictures glowing on telephone screens, or funny little people in some of Jamie's best stories.
They've been ideas. Features. Almost. . . accessories.
But today. . .
Today, they are children.
Out of all the parts of our plans, the bits about the children are the most up in the air, the most unpredictable, the most likely to go completely pear-shaped. . .
And the most vital.
Jamie and I may be walking a thin line when it comes to the U.S. Passport office, but that's nothing when compared to the lines we'll have to walk with these four small Humans.
I've always loved kids, but four at once is a tall order. . .
"Dinnae think I cannae tell ye'er awake, Madame Lazybones," Jamie's cheerful voice breaks into my reverie, "Now get out of that bed and come make us some of that smashing coffee ye said ye could make – I've the grounds here, all ready for ye."
I grin then, and stretch, but I don't reply to him otherwise. I sit up, leisurely, and slowly pad down the three little stairs to get out of the bed. I run a hand through my riot of curls, and yawn.
"Lemme go do something with m'hair, m'kay?" I say, voice still thick with sleep, "M'be right back."
He gives me a bright, teasing glance, "Go on then. But hurry back, aye? I need my sous chef."
I go though my morning routine quite mechanically, those two words echoing through my brain, drowning everything else out -
I can boil water, fry an egg, and just about bake a potato. If I have all the ingredients to hand, and I follow instructions very carefully, I can even make a fairly complicated stew. But I'm not any kind of chef.
I know he was speaking metaphorically, but my woeful inadequacy to be anything of the sort on a practical front really digs at me.
As I wash and dry my hands, my jaw sets. As Alex MacKenzie always says – prepare your work space, go one step at a time, concentrate, and never give up.
I smirk a little at that. I really have known Jamie a lot longer than three days, haven't I?
Of course, after last night, it feels like I've known him for years.
But if I'm honest with myself, it's felt that way for even longer, really. Last night merely clinched it – I don't just want to live with this man – I want to make a life with him. Up to and including more children, if and when we're ready.
I exhale sharply at myself.
Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, at least meet the four he's already got before you start having his babies, Beauchamp!
Something within me flares, hot and sweet and shivering, at the very thought of having Jamie's babies.
Oh. . .
Yesyesyes. . .
C'mon, get yourself together Beauchamp!
I square my shoulders, re-enter the main room, stride confidently over to the kitchenette, and without a word, take total charge of french press.
There is coffee to make, and it's time to prove that I can make a smashing cup of coffee.
Jamie spends nearly all of breakfast coaxing stories of my trips with Lamb out of me.
I don't initially take too much notice – he's curious about my past, of course he is - but after my fifth long ramble about the dust and the heat, or the mud and the rain, and always the sweat, and the stink, and the grime, and the recalcitrant animals, and the local political skirmishes, and just the sheer amount of work involved with traditional field archaeology - usually with what looks like not a lot more than some tumble-down piles of rubble and a few bits of scraggy pottery to show for it. . .
"You don't really want to know how Lamb taught me to tell the difference between Neolithic and Bronze Age flint knapping do you, Jamie?"
"Oh aye, I do, Sassenach," he nods vigorously, and sops up the last bit of maple syrup on his plate with his final bite of pancake, "S'fascinating stuff, all this diggin' up of ancient cultures." He pops the bite of pancake in his mouth, and hums around it, "M'a l'il bit surprised ye didna go in for sumthin' a' th'sort yerself – when it came time for ye ta be choosing a career, I mean."
"Well, I nearly did, if you want to know the truth."
"What kept ye from it, then?"
"Well. . ."
I stand, and begin to clear our plates.
"I do think it's something I ought ta know, Sassenach," he smiles over his shoulder at me, "But yer face lights up whenever ye talk of Lamb. I'd gladly listen ta ye talk of horse shite if it makes ye look as happy as that. . ."
Suddenly, I nearly implode, trying to keep myself from laughing.
All this talk of Lamb. . .
And here I'd almost forgotten. . .
The memory is not entirely polite – but it is funny, and it is the reason why I never went in for field archaeology. . .
Well, part of the reason.
Okay, a lot of the reason. . .
If Jamie notices my face turning red while I hold my breath with indecision, he wisely says nothing.
I exhale sharply, "Well. . . okay. . ."
I launch into the story, trying to keep the more technical details out of it – and signally failing, as Jamie's often confused look shows – but eventually getting around to the part that has Lamb literally pushing a donkey up a hill, while half of our dig team stare at us in amazement.
". . . so then Lamb turns to me and says, "And that's why you never poke an ass in the ass." And he hands me the stick-"
Jamie has pretty much dissolved into laughter at this point, but he pulls himself together enough to gasp out - "Please, god tell me ye threw it away!"
"No, I had it bronzed and I display it on the shelf next to my masters degree."
He sits up then, mouth open, eyes wide with horror.
I snort a laugh, "Of course I threw it away, Jamie! But only when the local archaeologist wasn't watching, because he'd seen the whole thing, naturally, and even though he didn't speak English, he'd have been able to tell something was up if I'd just tossed it there and then – so I ended up spending the next half hour in that blasted hill trench with Lamb, staring at literally nothing, but pretending it was full of the most interesting archaeology imaginable, holding that stick, just waiting for the local archaeologist to leave so I can throw the bloody thing away and go home for tea!"
Jamie chuckles, shaking his head.
"And the whole debacle kind of put me off the idea of pure field archaeology. Rewarding as it can be, I knew then I was cut out for something a little more. . . predictable."
Jamie snorts. I elbow him in the shoulder.
"Alright – less messy, then!"
He barks a laugh. I wave him off with a rude gesture, but he only grins.
"I almost went into experimental archaeology – and I'm still deeply interested in the subject. They utilize such a wide variety of processes - more than any other profession I've ever heard of. An experimental archaeologist is never bored, that's for sure – and they're frequently less messy than your bog-standard field archaeologist is – but my forte had always been the management side of things, you see. Talking to our team of local diggers, planning menus, buying replacement camping kit whenever things got damaged, balancing the budget, making sure everyone and everything got where it needed to be on time and in one piece. . ." I shrug, "In the end, a degree in business management just made more sense."
Jamie nods, seriously, "Aye. I can see that now. . ." his eyes glint, "An' nae doubt ye deal with significantly fewer. . . asses. . ."
"I'm not entirely certain about that!" I say, joining him in laughter, "More like graduated up to the really stubborn cases. Just look at Dougal-"
"Agch, do I have ta?"
"No, not really, but even you have to admit he's something of a case study when it comes to being an arse."
"Aye, that's true enough."
With a slow, lazy twist, Jamie stretches, and yawns. I'm just putting our coffee mugs into the dishwasher, so my back is to him. I allow myself a delicious shiver at the sounds he makes, and for just a few seconds, let myself dwell on the image I had of him yesterday around this time - shirtless, shining with steam and sweat, his curls dark and damp, just sweeping the strong curve of his back, his arm casually to one side, gently cradling a crystalline glass of whisky. . .
My breath hitches when I suddenly realize. . . I have literally no idea what his other hand was doing. . .
"So, ye ready for me ta tell ye where we're going today, mo ghràidh?"
I take a deep breath.
Get it together, Beauchamp!
"Yes, I am!" I say, with a tone of mock offense.
"Mmm. Too bad I'm no'," he smirks at me, eyes alight with mischief.
"You devil," I hiss, and punch the dishwasher's buttons with more strength than is strictly called for.
His smirk widens into a smile, "I promise ye'el like it, Sassenach. Wear something for outdoors, an' something ye dinnae mind gettin' wet."
Briefly, his eyes run over me, in a way he hasn't yet let them, to my knowledge. . .
His look is like a touch, and every nerve ending in me fires, shocked with how blatantly naked just a glance can be.
I've been leered at before. This is not that. It is. . . something else entirely. Something I'm not sure isn't unique to Jamie himself. I only know that no other man in the world has, or could ever, look at me like this.
When he speaks, his voice is low, and suggestive.
If his intention was to make me melt on the spot, then, mission accomplished.
Things have been so easy, so playful up to this point. . .
I take a shallow, ragged breath, not quite sure where I am with him. Are we friends, getting to know each other, transparent and open, without a care in the world, just laughing and talking. . .
Or, are we dancing lovers, hooded and smoldering, our every word hot, flowing foreplay, our every action double-edged, pressed tight to skin flushed with blood so near to the surface the very pulse may cause us to burst. . .
Or are we somehow both – sweet spun sugar with a core of rock candy – a cool, soft cloud enveloping a sultry, seductive pool of dark, steaming water - sensible, no-frills underwear on warm, desirable bodies, aching with want. . .
The memory of last night shoots through me. The feel of him pressed tight to me. . . the smell of him. . . the taste of him.
And all we did was hug and kiss. . .
We both know we want more.
If he's willing to do this – to push at the soft, slippery boundary between us, to play delicately with the curls of feeling as they unfurl within and without our living, vibrant flesh, to caress the keen edge of temperature that hovers between cool, calculated teasing, and pure, boiling hunger. . .
If he's willing to do all that, then, that's a game which two can play. . .
I look at him from underneath lowered lids, and I consciously angle my body so he can't miss the curve of my hip, just where it emerges from the loose waistband of my flannel trousers.
"I did tell you that I can't swim?"
My voice is much lower than usual. Soft. Smoky.
Slowly, I push a fall of curls back behind my ear, and I give a tiny smirk, "If things get too. . . wet. . . then you'll have to dive in after me."
His eyes, usually the colour of a bright summer sky, are now two spots of luminous black, tense and ravenous.
"Ye ken I will."
"I do." I say, echoing the words I said yesterday in front of the officiant, only this time I imbue them with passion, trust, desire – and, most importantly, love.
He hears it, hears it all, and his expression changes, in ways I don't even try to describe to myself.
I lower my eyes, and turn, and walk into the bathroom, closing the door quietly behind me.
I feel his eyes on my back all the way across the room.
Saturday, March 12th, 2022. 11:30 AM, just outside Las Vegas Nevada.
I will always remember this as the day, place, and time that I, James Fraser, finally impressed Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp.
My wife. . .
It's still strange to call her that. It has only been true for 21 hours 31 minutes.
But hey, who's counting?
The past four days have totally upended my life, in more ways than one.
To be fair, discovering exactly how much of a fool you've been, and being shown exactly how much you'll have to grovel and beg to make it right will do that to any man.
If only I hadn't deluded myself about Annalise. I could have called it quits six years ago, taken Faith and Bree, gone back to Scotland, and she wouldn't have protested. I doubt she'd have even noticed. And then none of this would have happened. None of it. . .
I pull myself up short.
That's right - none of it would have happened.
Not Sally. Not little Joanie.
Or, if they had, they wouldn't have been mine. . .
And not Claire. Claire would certainly never have happened. Not to ordinary, working-man me. High-flying, fine-businesswoman, famous-for-taking-down-her-abuser Claire Beauchamp would never have taken a second glance at me.
And really, why should she?
I could hardly believe it when she introduced herself that night at Leoch. I had thought for sure Dougal had to have meant some other Ms. Beauchamp. Not Claire Beauchamp. Not the woman who had not only publicly exposed him last year, but had soundly trounced him as well. . .
What, on God's good green earth, had he been thinking?
Clearly, he hadn't been.
Or, rather, he had, but with the wrong head.
I shift a little in my own trousers. I can't quite blame him for that – though I can and do blame him for how he acted on it – because I do have to admit, there isn't a single thing about Claire Beauchamp that isn't instantly and overwhelmingly intoxicating.
From those snapping amber eyes, to her gloriously wild curls, to her razor-keen mind, to her incredible, petal-soft skin, and rosy, delectable mouth. . .
Her mind, Fraser. Remember how attracted you are to her mind!
Because that was what had truly impressed me, that first night at Castle Leoch. This woman's ability to jump straight into a thoroughly unlikely situation, break it down into a myriad of steps, rearrange them into a viable plan, and then somehow pick the whole thing up at once, turn and twist it around in her mind, rigorously reviewing every facet, ruthlessly examining it for flaws, accepting or rejecting it as likely to be completed, and then making a myriad of suggested alterations "to improve the likelihood of success".
She had made at least half a dozen suggestions that I would never have come up with on my own – never mind the fact that we were talking about her marrying a complete and total stranger in two days time. . .
By the end of the evening, I knew Dougal ought to be immeasurably thankful this woman hadn't wanted his head on a platter.
But even more, I knew I'd be thankful for anything she chose to give me.
Like that beautiful, impulsive, delicious first kiss. . .
My mouth is still tingling from the pure, exquisite shock of it. That she's kissed me several times since hasn't dulled the feeling in the least.
Virgin? The woman's a vixen. But that she hasn't yet found a man who lives up to her standards of sleeping with isn't a surprise to me at all.
My arms throb with the memory of holding her last night. I really did that. I got to hold her, kiss her, care for her, tend to her.
I highly doubt she's let a man do that for her since she's been out of diapers.
An independent woman, my wife.
I smile, thinking of our banter this morning. Even though I have to yet again adjust my trousers at the memory, I found her enthusiastic flirtation highly encouraging. She's been nicely receptive to my attentions this weekend, but she's never taken charge like that before.
I get the feeling taking charge is her natural state of being. To see her employ that in an active attempt to seduce me. . .
As if I needed seducing at this point. . .
My heart thumps, painfully.
Maybe we can parley this undeniable connection between us into a real relationship.
Her eyes light up when she sees the Precious River Interactive Tours sign and staging area. Not the same light as when she talks about her beloved uncle, but a similar, wild, adventurous light. In that moment, I know.
I did it. I impressed her. I made her happy.
I am capable of making her happy.
My heart swells with pride, almost overshadowing the core-deep, yawning ache there is in me that simply wants her.
She turns to me, eyes wide, "We're going silver panning? How did you know?"
I've never seen anything as beautiful as the delighted grin now gracing my Sassenach's face.
"Ken what, Sassenach?"
"That I've always wanted to do this?"
"I didnae know that, mo chridhe. . ."
The truth is, when she'd asked me to plan the honeymoon, my immediate instinct was to look up anything in Vegas that was not casino-related. The very thought of subjecting my beautiful Sassenach to a series of Vegas stage shows turned my wame.
Silver panning was the third result on my search page. Simple as that.
Her arms go around my neck, and her lips touch my cheek. "You're an absolute marvel, James Fraser," she whispers.
Is it possible to die of joy?
Maybe no one ever has.
Reckon I'd be the first. . .
We spend the next half hour getting kitted out properly, and meeting our ravine-walker horses that will take us to the panning site.
Old Alec, the tour guide, takes us both in hand, showing us how to manage our animals.
He doesn't have to spend much time with me – I'm used to horses from growing up on my family's Highland farm.
But Claire isn't so lucky, and it takes her some minutes to get the knack of it.
But, in the end, she does. Of course she does.
And then, with a toss of her head more wild and free than the restive beast beneath her, an eager grin, and not a glance behind, my Claire turns her horse, and leads the way into the ravine.
I smile, take up my reins, and follow her.
My wife is an independent woman.
And I wouldn't have her any other way.
The sun is finally westering, on one of the most beautiful days of my life.
If I had spent the day indoors, reading, or just sitting quietly, merely in the same room with Jamie, it would have been beautiful enough – but to have spent it outdoors, knee deep in the crystalline water of this bend in the river, breathing sweet, clean air, surrounded by the red-gold striations of the ravine, and the fresh, open, spring-blue of the sky, accompanied by the soft plish-plash of the water in our pans, and the occasional crunching stamp of a hoof from underneath the nearby pavilion sheltering our horses - not to mention a glorious picnic lunch, and Jamie's lovely, cheerful presence throughout – all that has made it a red-letter day, a day to be remembered, a day for the books – a day I will cherish in my memory, like a particularly rare gem.
And twice in the past two hours, I have seen the bright grey sheen of silver dust on the bottom of my pan, and called Jamie over to see it. Each time, he has proudly carried it over to the sluice-box and washing trays, and carefully transferred it to the small vial that contains our combined finds.
As I understand is usual with these sorts of experience tours, whatever silver we find today is ours to keep. Old Alec had given us two vials back at the staging area, but Jamie insisted on putting whatever showed up in our pans into the same tiny glass tube.
"There's a kit can turn a glass vial like that inta a necklace pendant, Sassenach," he'd said when I protested, "We'll no' be making more than one of those if we go that road. It'll be unique – I insist upon tha'."
I had smiled indulgently at him, and relented.
I touch the silver of my wedding ring - the small, foreign object on my hand that Jamie placed there less than four days ago. It still feels strange between my fingers - a hard little ridge, warm from contact with my body, but shining with the distant, cold distortion of a convex mirror, elongated and alien.
I realize now that the tiny amount of metal dust we've gathered today is actually far more symbolic between the two of us than the ring is. After all, we've found it together, to the surprise and joy of us both, in a place and time that no one could have predicted, with mutual labor and patience.
And in a delightful, exquisitely beautiful setting. . .
The light, which has been so clear and clean all day, is turning orange at last, with the few wisps of high cloud that show above the ridge to the east beginning to glow gold and pink and lavender against the sky.
I wade over to where Jamie is panning out his last find for the day, and lean on his shoulder while he swirls the water round and round on the base of the pan, washing the frail, gleaming smear of silver dust over and over with the clear, cold water. The thin 'swish-swish' sounds and the motions of his arm are hypnotic, and I close my eyes, basking in the warm light, and the new nip in the cooling wind.
Briefly, madly, I want to stay here forever. Just like this, leaning against him, in the rich light of an early spring evening, listening to the gentle sounds of sweeping winds and flowing water. I want the two of us, alone, separate from all the noise and cares of the world, in such easy harmony that our very breathing is synchronized. In this crazy, mad moment, I want to be immortalized in stone, frozen here for eternity, the peace and joy I'm feeling right now shining across the ages, glorious and perfect.
But then I open my eyes, and smile at him, and the mad impulse fades.
I don't want immortality or isolation – I just want him. Him, all of him, any way I can get him. . .
"Thank you for a wonderful day, Jamie."
He looks at me, and smiles that devastatingly charming smile of his, "My pleasure, Sassenach."
I sigh happily, "Mmm. Mine too."
It's a little difficult to tell, the light being so golden at the moment, but I think he blushes.
Suddenly, I want to do much much more than thank him. I want to give him an experience as wonderful and as meaningful as today has been for me.
My own cheeks warm a bit, because I can only think of one thing I could possibly do to give him that, and. . .
I clench my jaw.
I am not going to sleep with a man – any man, but especially Jamie - just because I feel I owe it to him.
He may be allowed to hold me, but I'm not beholden to him.
No, you're not beholden to him, Beauchamp. . .
It isn't him you're beholden to, Beauchamp.
What the hell. . .
You're beholden to you, Beauchamp. To yourself. And you're beholden to the truth. Don't you owe him that much? The truth? The whole truth?
Oh, please, just shut up. . .
C'mon Beauchamp! You know it's the right thing to do. You might even enjoy it. . .
Sometimes, I really hate the voice in my head.
I get out of the water, and sit down at our little picnic spot to dry off my feet and put my hiking boots back on.
I hear Brimstone nicker quietly, and take a long drink from her water bucket.
She knows what shoes mean, right enough. They mean I'm going to be on her back again very soon. Poor girl. It's been at least twelve or thirteen years since I last had anything to do with horses – and while it's true you never forget how, it's also true that you can get terribly rusty, and I didn't have very extensive experience in the first place. Added to which, Brimstone is a high-class lady, quite unlike the nags which used to be all Lamb's expeditions could usually afford, and my rough and ready method of riding quite offended her sensibilities, the poor thing.
Donas, Jamie's horse, nickers back to her, and lays his head across her neck, as if to say, "Don't worry lass, the one I'm carrying won't let anything bad happen to you either."
Jamie finishes up putting his last find in the vial, and then he joins me on the large blanket we have spread out on the riverside.
It takes him several minutes to dry himself off and put his shoes on. When he's done, he pauses. Without turning to me, or saying anything, he reaches his hand out to mine, and laces our fingers together.
We haven't talked much today, but I've never felt closer to anyone than I do now.
At last, I understand something my father told me once, not long after I had started dating for the first time. "Silence," he'd said, seriously, "Silence is a great test of a relationship. Perhaps the greatest. If you can be comfortably silent with someone, you can live with them. If you can't, then forget it. Life is lived in silences – just like solid objects are 99 percent empty space."
He never gave me any other dating advice than that, but, I have to say, it's been an incredibly good gauge so far.
Jamie is the only one I've ever been this comfortable with in silence.
He packs up our kit, smiling ruefully at me when he has to take up the blanket to fold it, but still not saying anything, preserving the fragile magic of the evening.
Unhurriedly, we walk over to the horses. Jamie loads up their saddlebags with our kit, clucking soothingly at them both. Almost as an afterthought, he hands me the little vial. I slip it into the breast pocket of my shirt, and safely button it closed.
The horses trust him. I trust him.
He trusts me.
Still without a word, he helps me into Brimstone's saddle, and with one swing of his long legs, he settles himself astride Donas.
With each gravelly thump of a hoof on the long, winding pathway, I desperately try to gather courage. All the courage I know I'll need.
Because it's true. I do owe it to him. And it is the right thing to do. And I will enjoy it.
After all, I've been wanting to do it for days now. And I know, I know – my heart is safe with him.
At the ridge of the ravine I look back into the deepening sunset, trying to find in that immortal light at least a fragment of inspiration.
Because, no matter how true it is, the thought of saying it aloud is still scary.
Life may be lived in the 99 percent silence, but the 1 percent is life too – and all the more weighty, perhaps, for being so much rarer.
As we ride slowly back to the staging area, I feel the solid presence of the man beside me, and know.
I have to.
I want to.
I will. . .
He ties the horses up at the hitching post, and comes around Brimstone to help me out of the saddle.
I slide gratefully into his arms, and twine my own about his neck. For a brief moment, I rest my forehead against him, and ghost my lips across his, in a chaste but intimate kiss. Then I lean back a little, and look into his eyes, glimmering darkly ultramarine in the purple light of dusk.
The silence between us is complete.
I don't know where the strength comes from, but I open my mouth, and say it.
"I love you."
I was expecting shock.
I was expecting a long, awkward silence, wondering looks, baffled stares, perhaps even some stammered, unfinished questions.
I was even expecting a little bit of horror at the suddenness of my declaration.
And Jamie does all those things.
But whatever I was expecting him to do next, him leaning his head on my shoulder and bursting into tears certainly wasn't it.
And yet here he is – head bowed, his arms wrapped so tightly around me he's nearly lifting me off the ground, his face buried in the side of my neck, with great, wracking sobs shuddering though him.
I don't know if I expect him to say I love you back or not, but oh, god do I hope. . .
His tears only last a few seconds, giving way almost immediately into quite incomprehensible phrases muttered into my skin -
"My Sassenach, tha thu mìorbhuileach dhomh mo nighean donn, tha gaol agam ort - a Dhia, mo Sorcha, Cha mhòr gun urrainn dhomh a chreidsinn mo leannan, tha gaol agam ort, mo chridhe. . ."
It's difficult to be sure, but I think I make out at least three new pet names. . .
That can't be a bad reaction, can it?
He kisses up my neck and across my face, so frantically he only twice brushes across my lips.
It's not enough.
It's not nearly enough.
I catch his head between my hands, and pull his mouth to mine. He relents willingly, devouring my lips with the same frantic vigor he was giving my neck. His hands clutch against my back, pressing me so tightly to him it is doubly hard for me to breathe. . .
My god, why is he so desperate? He's acting like if he doesn't hold on to every part of me he can reach, I'm going to dissolve away into thin air, or disappear straight though solid rock or something. If I didn't know better, I'd even say he was scared of losing me.
I can only think of one reason, and that's if. . .
If. . .
A sickening knot of ice water settles in the pit of my stomach.
If he doesn't want to say it back.
If he doesn't want to say he loves me, all this desperation could well be him trying to fill the space with the nearest approximations to it he can come up with on a spur of the moment.
Or. . . maybe it isn't that he doesn't want to say it.
Maybe it isn't true. Maybe he doesn't love me.
Maybe the promise of truth between us is the strongest thing binding us together, and everything else is merely the reactions of our meat-machine bodies, automatically and soullessly recognizing our all-too obvious chemical and physiological compatibility.
The kiss between us deepens, and his hands migrate to my arse, but the cold knot in my stomach only grows.
Up until now, my lusting after Jamie has felt special. Timeless. Clean. Almost. . . pure. As though there was far more behind it than could ever be expressed, so I need not try.
It all seemed like. . . foreplay. Not a sham. . .
But maybe that was all only because it was happening so fast. . .
He finally pulls away from my mouth, gasping for air, groaning like a dying man, "O dhia, tha mi a 'smaoineachadh gu bheil mo chridhe a' dol a spreadhadh, mo ghràidh. . ."
As I catch my breath, the future stretches out interminably before me. I'm fairly sure I manage to cram all the doubts and fears of a twenty-year relationship into something like twenty seconds.
For the first time in the last four days, I feel terror.
If it has all been fake. . . if it has all been for nothing. . . I. . .
Somehow, in just the few short hours of these past four days, James Fraser has completely spoiled me for other men.
If I can't have him, then I'll never have anyone.
And frankly, I don't want to live in a world where Jamie isn't mine.
"Wh-what does all of that mean, Jamie?" I stammer, shaky, but determined to snap myself out of the sudden horrible sinkhole my brain has thrown me into, "Mo grai, and mo hrear, and mo kneein doun, and all the rest of it? Is it Gaelic?"
Jamie's arms slacken around me. He steps back a little, then takes me firmly by the shoulders. In the glow of the newly lighted signage over the Precious River Gift Shop, his face looks even more shocked than when I'd said I love you.
"Claire," he says, in a thoroughly disbelieving tone, "Ye dinnae ken the Gàidhlig?"
My mind flips and flops and squirms under his gaze, but I'm just as confused as he seems to be.
"Of course not! Why on earth would you think I do?"
He blinks rapidly, "Ye. . . ye said ye kent what Sassenach meant-"
"One word doesn't make a language, Jamie!" I nearly shout, "Of course I picked up what Sassenach meant – working for Leoch, I've been called that more times than I've been called a cold-hearted bitch for not putting out!" I gesture incredulously, "And of the people who don't think I'm a "dammed Sassenach" which of them do you think has the time or inclination to teach me ancient Scottish? Dougal?"
His eyes and jaw tighten, and suddenly, a dangerous look comes into his eyes. For a brief moment I see the hot, wild core of him – the true son of fierce, relentless Highland warriors – and in an instant I understand the elemental, vital power of his race of men – the sort who would willingly, joyfully fight a losing battle, forever if they may, if the reason they fight is for life and for love.
That soothes me a little. If just the mention of Dougal brings out flashes of the territorial fighter in him, then what has gone between us hasn't all been for nothing, surely. . .
"I know Alba gu Bràth, and Sassenach, and that's about it, Jamie," I say, confused and discouraged, and oh, so forlorn.
He hears it, and his eyes tighten again, about a thousand different emotions crossing his face at once. Then, he steps near to me again, and puts one finger gently beneath my chin, drawing me eye to eye with him.
"Aye, I've been a fool an' I'm sorry for it, Sassenach." He kisses me softly, almost reverently, on the lips, "I promise I'll tell ye what it all means – evary word. Bu' no' heer." He looks around us, at the bare, empty Precious River staging area, bleakly lit by cold, flashing neon, "No' now."
Reluctantly, I nod.
"Good," he whispers. Then he straightens up to his full height, and I don't think I'm imagining the slightly forced note in his cheery tone, "An' for sure it has been a lovely day, aye? Let's go get something ta remember it by. . ."
He turns, and leads the way into the gift shop.
I pull myself together, and follow him, desperately trying to convince myself not to be heartbroken that he still hasn't said he loves me.
Tha thu cho mìorbhuileach dhomh - You are so wonderful to me
Tha gaol agam ort – I love you
Cha mhòr gun urrainn dhomh a chreidsinn - I can hardly believe it
O dhia, tha mi a ’smaoineachadh gu bheil mo chridhe a’ dol a spreadhadh - Oh god, I think my heart is going to burst
I leave Claire to her own devices in the gift shop and go at once over to the custom jewelry counter. I scan the room for the shop attendant at the same time – I am in a hurry.
There is a hollow, aching look in my Claire's eyes, and I mean to get us back to our hotel and deal with it as fast as humanly possible.
I'm about to grab the Memento Vial transformer kit, deeply, painfully aware of how little it is to give her, especially when I must make this big of an apology, when my eye falls on a small rack of locally made fine jewelry, and I hesitate.
What was it Murtagh always says? "Nevar underestimate a woman, lad. 'For the female of the species is more deadly than the male' - now tha's a verrah true sayin', it is."
Given that Murtagh is a crusty old bachelor, and nearly all women are his natural enemy, that's not entirely bad advice, considering.
But, fool that I am, in my efforts to never underestimate her, I went and did the opposite.
Of course she doesn't understand the Gàidhlig, Fraser! And you deserve everything she gives you for ever once thinking she did!
Simply, the connection between us has been such that from the very beginning, it has felt natural to speak to her in the language of my heart.
Well. Natural it might have been. But I was still forgetting that it is highly unlikely she's ever had a chance to learn the Gàidhlig, much less come to love it as I do.
It's my first language. Deep in my mind, I still form my thoughts in it.
And when I heard those words from her – those blessed, holy words, from the mouth of a woman so much better than me I might labour two hundred years and still not deserve her. . . well.
You ought to have told her, Fraser! Told her just exactly what the Gàidhlig means to you, and how likely you are to use it when you feel deep emotion!
It was a mistake. A foolish, selfish mistake. And now there is pain in her eyes – a pain I put there – and I must do all I can, now, at once, to remove it again.
But not here. Not by cold, impersonal neon light, in the place she chose, and I failed to appreciate properly.
Slowly, I spin the little case of jewelry, not knowing at all what I am looking for, but, somehow I knowing I'll know it when I see it.
My father always says to bring something other than words when you make an apology. He says it doesn't have to be much – but it must be something. He says it shows you're thinking beyond just being forgiven, and actually want to change the behavior that led to your mistake.
I don't know if that's true or not.
All I know is I want Claire to feel the same beauty I did when she told me she. . .
I can't even think the words without the same warm rush in my stomach, and hot tears starting into my eyes.
Annalise used to say it, but always with a teasing lilt to her saccharine-sweet voice. Like she was just humouring me.
Geneva used to say it, but always desperately, madly – never calmly or softly. That was how I knew it wasn't real.
And Black Jack said it once too. . . but I do my best never to think of that.
But when Claire said it. . .
She chose her moment gracefully, perfectly, and said the words so truly. . .
I love you.
The memory warms me through, and will do, for the rest of my life.
And now, I must give such a memory to her.
In the last compartment of the small rotating jewelry case, there is a large amber pendant, on a darkly antiqued golden chain. The setting is a square of filigree, hung by one corner to make a diamond shape, but the amber itself is a perfectly domed circle, about the size of a quarter.
It matches her eyes, and her hair.
I hold it up to the light, and I see there, embedded in the center of the stone, is an ancient dragonfly wing, its beautiful lacy pattern at once impossibly delicate, and immortally tough.
I buy it right there at the jewelry counter, along with the transformer kit, and four small packs of hair clips I noticed in a basket by the register – one in each of my daughter's favourite colours.
I smile at the thought of my girls.
Faith likes light blue – though she will gladly take blue of any kind, Bree prefers dark green – camo if she can get it, Sally is my pink princess girl, and Joan, being only three and a half, hasn't yet made up her mind, but her preference generally swings between yellow, orange, and magenta.
I've missed them an awful lot more than I thought I would this weekend. I've gone away before, but I've never been this disconnected.
Or rather, this wrapped up in someone else.
Ah well, only two more nights away. . .
I nearly run into Claire as she swings around a nearby aisle. She is carrying an inordinate number of gift bags – far more than I ever thought she would buy for herself. . .
And then I see. The bags are blue, green, pink, and orange. I see colouring books in all of them, a spyglass in the green one, a pack of paintbrushes in the blue one, a large bottle of bubbles in the pink one, and a magic wand topped with a magenta crystal star in the orange one.
There are obviously more things in each bag, but the rest of it is hidden by drifts of tissue paper and the handfuls of fruit snacks piled on top.
My mouth goes dry, and my heart speeds up.
It is easy to love quiet, neat, creative Faith, and angelic, delicate little Joan. . .
But these gifts incline just as much towards outgoing, adventurous Bree, and generous, practical Sally.
As I often tell them – I have four favourite children.
Claire doesn't just love me. She loves my children.
All of my children.
"So what is all this, Sassenach?" I ask.
I know, but I want to hear her say it.
"Well," she stammers a little, "I. . . I wanted the girls to know we were thinking of them while we were away. It must have been a surprise to them – you leaving so suddenly like you did – and I just thought they should know we. . . that they. . . really were here with us, in spirit if not in body."
She brings something up on her phone, and shows me, "See? I've been keeping track of all the things you've told me, and all the ideas I've had about what-"
She breaks off, blushing adorably.
"Oh. Is. . . is that creepy?"
If I ever doubted – and God help me, I have doubted, more than once, this weekend – if our instantaneous connection could possibly last, if I loved her enough to make her a good husband, if Claire was the best sort of woman to bring into my life and into my children's lives so abruptly – but all those doubts are swept away now.
The hollow look hasn't left her eyes. She must be suffering. And still – still! - she is thinking of others and not herself.
Thinking of the children.
Thinking of them like her own, on their own, and not just appendages to me.
Christ in heaven help me, I've never wanted a woman more. . .
Slow down, Fraser! You have to make things right with her first!
So I do. So I will. And if she banishes me from our bed afterwards, then I will take that as my due.
"No' at all, Sassenach. Very natural – an' useful too. Four kids under ten s'no joke. Ye'll need everything possible ta recommend ye when ye meet them – an' I have no doubts t'will no' be easy at furst."
She nods. "That was what I was thinking."
"I'll call us an Uber while you go and pay, aye?"
She nods again, and goes to the register.
My original plan was to stop by a restaurant on our way back to the hotel, and get some take-out for our supper.
But there is food in the room already, and reconciling with my wife is more important than eating.
Making the mother of my children happy is perhaps the most important thing I will ever do. . .
Our ride home is tense, and quiet. Uncomfortably so. The only thing keeping me from blurting out my feelings there and then is the knowledge of what I have planned for as soon as we get to our rooms.
Just as soon as we get there. . .
Claire swipes the key card, and holds the door open for me, as I am carrying all our purchases. Then she goes directly to the restroom, murmuring that she needs to freshen up.
I don't stop her, since it gives me a minute to prepare.
I open a bottle of wine, and lay a light supper of olives and brie out on the coffee table in front of the fire. I turn the flames on, and the lights down low.
I am contemplating lighting a candle or two when she returns, looking dubious, and so fragile that it cuts my heart afresh to see her.
I draw her down next to me on the couch, and take her slim, soft hand in both of mine, like I did that night, so long ago now, when I asked her to marry me. I look into her wonderful, living golden eyes.
I don't beat about the bush.
"Claire. I love ye."
My reactions to hearing him say the words at last are eerily similar to his.
Shock. Wonder. Speechlessness. A rush of questions that pile on each other so fast I can't actually ask a single one of them. A tiny bit of horror that I thought all the awful things I did.
And then joy.
And gratitude. And pure, vibrating relief.
And then I bury my head in his chest, and burst into tears.
I cling onto him, and his arms go around me, settling me close, and he murmurs to me all through it – using Gàidhlig words again, but this time with their translations tagged onto the end of them.
"Tha thu cho mìorbhuileach dhomh, mo ghràidh. . . You are so wonderful to me, my darling. . ."
Slowly, he strokes my hair, speaking softly against my forehead, "Mo nighean donn, feuch nach caoin thu, feuch, tha gaol agam ort, tha gaol cho mòr agam ort. . . My brown-haired lass, please don't cry, please, I love ye, I love ye so much. . ."
He lifts my face to him, and starts kissing away my tears.
"Such a wonder and a blessing ye are, Claire mo calman geal. . . my white dove. . ."
Holding him to me isn't enough. I'm hungry, starving for him. . . I reach between us and pull on his shirt until the hemline comes free of his jeans. Then I slide my hand under it, and run my fingertips along the taut softness of his stomach.
"Mo leannan. . . my sweetheart. . . that ye should love me. . . Cha mhòr gun urrainn dhomh a chreidsinn. . . I can hardly believe it." He soothes his hands across my back, and runs his fingers behind my ear, caressing the back of my head.
My tears slow, eased by his gentle openness.
"Have I forgotten anything, Sassenach?"
I hear the rueful smile in his voice.
"Mo hrear," I murmur, stroking my hand up to his breastbone, tugging out another several inches of his shirt as I go.
He looks particularly abashed at having to explain that one.
"My heart," he says, simply.
He grins, suddenly cheerful, "Tha's yer name - Claire. Bu' it also means 'brightness'," he looks earnestly into my eyes, "An' so ye are, ta me. My light, my Claire. . ."
He gives me a rueful, feather-light kiss across the temple.
"And the last thing you said, right after kissing me in the parking lot?"
Even in the dim light of the fireplace, I see his cheeks go red.
"I said I thought my heart was going ta burst. . ."
"Mmm," I hum, soothing my hand along his breastbone, very much enjoying his warm, smooth skin, "I'm glad it didn't."
Swiftly, I grab a tissue, wipe my eyes, and blow my nose, my outburst of relief turning now, very naturally, into curiosity.
"Why couldn't you believe that I would love you, Jamie?" I ask, slipping my hand back under his shirt, "Because I did, you know. Almost from the first moment."
"Weel. . . I. . ." he exhales sharply, sighing, "Mebbe it's because ye'er the furst woman ta say it ta me since my mam."
I blink, "No, Jamie! Surely not!"
"Say it an' mean it, aye," he nods curtly.
"But. . . the girls. . ."
"Ah!" he smiles softly, "Them. Aye they've said it too. Bu' I meant as a grown woman says it, no' a lass."
"And. . . your sister?"
He barks a laugh, "Jenny has ways of sayin' it wi'out saying it, ye ken?"
I nod. I may be an only child, but I understand that kind of relationship well enough.
"And. . ." my voice goes very small, "Annalise?"
He leans forward a little, pressing one of his hands against the one I still have up his shirt.
"I was a fool over Annalise, mo Sorcha. A fool, and young enough ta think it was love. An' stubborn enough no' ta let myself see it when t'was shown ta me it wasn't." He sighs deeply, "Aye, she used ta say it. But nevar like she meant it."
"So. . . when I said it. . ."
He leans back, eyes dreamy, "Ah, Sassenach, when ye said it like that. . . I knew. I knew this connection that we have – t'was somethin' real after all." He threads one finger though my curls, tucking them behind my ear, "An' I'm heart sorry I fell inta my mother tongue ta respond ta ye. T'was thoughtless, an' selfish of me."
I smile at him then, so far beyond forgiving him I'd actually forgotten to expect an apology until now, "That's all right, Jamie. I love the sound of it, truly I do. Just tell me what it means when you speak it, okay?"
"Aye, I will."
Suddenly, he jumps up, and goes over to the dining table, and rummages in one of the bags there. He returns with a small, clear plastic box. "Nae mattar how easy ye forgive me, I'll still be makin' it up ta ye for a while Sassenach."
He hands me the box, and I look with astonished pleasure at the lovely gold and amber pendant inside it.
"When ye'er raised as Catholic as I was, penance is almost instinctual, y'see, mo ghràidh."
He runs one fingertip down the line of my neck.
"Ye'el let me make it up ta ye, aye? So I c'n let it go?"
I put the box down, before the trembling in my fingers makes me drop it.
It really is remarkable, what this man can do to me.
For the first time in ages, I feel powerful. And not just that, but sexy.
I haven't felt sexy in. . .
In. . .
Well, in a pitifully long time, that's how long.
It suddenly strikes me, just how absurd this entire situation is.
Here we are, two adults, legally married, who like and love each other, and he, at least, is the hottest thing since Chris Hemsworth, and all we have done is kiss and hug each other a little?
That's not just absurd, that's a downright crime. . .
"So. . . what you're saying is. . ." I lick my lips, "You owe me?"
"Aye. I do."
"Right then," I smile wickedly, push him back into the couch, throw a leg over his lap, and settle myself firmly against him. His chest and thighs are solid and warm beneath me, his neck and chin in easy reach of my lips. . .
"Firstly," I smirk, "I want you to know that I am currently wearing completely sensible, plain, white cotton underwear."
His eyes go wide, "Christ, tha's playin' dirty Sassenach. . ."
I laugh pitilessly, "Of course it is. That's the idea."
He groans, lolling his head from side to side, "Ye'el be the death of me, mo Sorcha."
"And secondly," I say, pushing past his protests and grabbing his wrists, "You put your hands on my arse in that parking lot, and I was so worried and confused I couldn't enjoy it." I bring his hands to my sides. "I expect you to rectify this at once. At once, do you hear me, Fraser?"
Achingly slowly, his hands curl around my hips, "Yes ma'am," whispers, teasingly.
A crackling fire sprouts in my belly, and I set my teeth into the skin of his jaw, the short, rough stubble of the day grating against my lips, leaving a pleasant tingle behind. I nip and suck at his skin, perhaps hard enough to leave a mark, but at this point I don't care - "Do you love me, Jamie Fraser?"
He leans his head back as I bite and lick my way down his neck, "Aye. I do. More than I'll evar be able ta say. . ."
I pull back, and do what I have wanted to do since almost the first moment I saw him – I run my hand though his curls, down his cheek, and my fingertips across his lips. I want to memorize the shape of him, the texture of him. . .
"And I love you. . ."
His hands lock behind my head, and he kisses me so deeply neither of us can speak for several minutes.
"And. . . we're married," I pant against his cheek when he finally releases me.
"Aye. We are," he says, just as breathless as I am.
"And we're both committed to making this work."
"And neither of us is currently drunk."
His hands tighten on me – not entirely in agreement, "No' wi' wine – tha's for sure. . ."
I smirk at him, "And we're both over eighteen. . ."
He chuckles sharply, "Dhia, I fervently hope so, Sassenach. . ."
I sit up a little, and look down into the twin sapphire rings of his passion-blown eyes.
"And so, tell me, Jamie. . . just what exactly is stopping us?"
Chapter rated soft M, for non-graphic married nookie. If that ain't your bag, then feel free to skip this chapter. (But let's be honest, this chapter is why 90% of y'all are here. ;) Enjoy, my lovelies!)
His hands go still in their slow exploration of my body, and he leans back, his mouth working dubiously.
"Protection?" he asks, flatly.
I shake my head, "IUD. And I have a dose of Plan B in my toiletry bag."
He stares at me.
"Y'know – just in case?"
I scoff lightly, "The incredulity in your voice is hardly called for, Jamie. It's our honeymoon. Are you seriously telling me you didn't plan for just in case?"
He shakes his head, "I nevar once dreamed that. . . that ye'd. . . that we. . . would. . ."
He swallows heavily, his neck muscles contracting beneath my fingers.
I smile, "You know, if I didn't have. . ." I press closer to him, "Very solid evidence to the contrary, I might be in danger of interpreting that as you not wanting me."
His jaw drops, "Not want ye? Jesus, Mary and Bride, I'd have ta be in a coma not ta want ye, mo ghràidh – an' even then I'm no' entirely sure yer mere presence wouldnae wake me up good and proper. No. . . I was more askin' about. . . weel. . . safety. . ."
I roll my eyes, "I'm a virgin, Jamie."
"Lest we forget," he groans.
"Exactly," I say, practically, "And my last serious relationship was in college. And you have been a widower for two years. A widower who literally had to ask his uncle to set him up with someone suitable to marry." I laugh a little, "When you're asking Dougal to produce a possible partner, I think I can deduce how many possible partners you've had lately. . . And even if I'm wrong, given what I know about your attitude towards hygiene, I have difficulty thinking of you as anything other than clean."
"An' ye'ed just trust me on that?"
"Well, we have promised each other the truth, right?"
I push away from him a bit, and cross my arms. "Fine then, let's be blunt. Jamie Fraser, am I safe with you?"
His eyes rake over every inch of me, very seriously. "Aye. In evary way, Claire, evary part of ye is safe wi' me."
I sigh theatrically, "Now, that is a shame. I was looking forward to a little danger. . ."
His eyes blaze at me, "Oh, were ye now?"
"Yeah. Just a little. . ."
"Mmphm. Consensual danger."
I nibble on his neck a bit, to show him what I mean.
He downright growls in response.
"Be bloody careful what ye wish for, Sassenach. . ."
Then, with a pounce, he throws me over his shoulder, so incredibly casually his strength is frightening. In a very few seconds, I find myself up against a wall, with two-plus meters of extremely determined Highland Scot pressed tight between my thighs. His kisses are rough and biting, and I hear a few stitches rip somewhere, but I am far too engulfed in him to care from what or where.
I am just beginning to wonder how I will manage to pry him off me long enough to remove my clothes, when he suddenly sets me on my feet, and backs away a step or two.
"Are. . . are ye sure, Sassenach?"
His eyes are intent, and the hand he brings up to cup my face is almost excessively gentle. As though this is the last chance either of us have to make a choice.
I, for one, don't have to think about it.
"Ye. . . ye'll nevar get another furst time. . ."
I grin, "Well, if we do this right, I'll never have another honeymoon either."
His expression darkens, and for one wild second I wonder just what exactly I've let myself in for. . .
But then he yanks his shirt off, and I don't have any more coherent thoughts for an embarrassingly long time.
The next time I surface, the rest of our clothes have gone. . . somewhere. . . and I'm laid out flat on the bed, Jamie between my knees, kissing the swell of my calf with the same fervor as if it were my mouth.
I reach down, bury my fingers in his hair, and pull the weight of him across me – my very own, king-sized, Scottish duvet.
He sets his teeth in my neck, not very hard, but firmly, and a thoroughly ecstatic jolt runs though me.
"Mmm," he hums against the new, lightly stinging bruise he's made, "Enjoying yerself, Sassenach?"
I mumble a response that is two parts desperation, two parts threat, three parts profanity, and several thousand parts pure, animal want.
He chuckles, voice thick and deep with his own desire, "Patience, Sorcha. We'el get there, I promise ye. . ."
And then his hands are everywhere, followed soon after by his mouth, and I am lost once again in simple, delicious, thoughtless feeling.
This part lasts much longer than I expect it to, running the gamut between desperate and feverish, to gentle and tender, to playful and teasing, to slow and languid and back again, at least twice, for what seems like hours, until I can scarcely speak, much less beg, which is all I want to do, though I can barely recall what for. . .
I incoherently moan his name a few times, and he seems to understand.
"This. . . might hurt, mo chridhe," he husks into my ear, "I'm sorry. . ."
I pull at him, not caring at this point.
But there is neither pain, nor even discomfort, really - only an unfamiliar pressure from an angle I'm not used to, and then a full, satisfying feeling unlike anything a toy has ever given me.
In truth, there is just Jamie, warm and passionate and delightful, the connection between us sweeter, and deeper, and more profound than it has ever been before.
I cry out at the wonder of it. At the sheer, joyful discovery of it. . .
Before this moment, I never knew "making love" could be literal.
We loved each other before. We love each other more now.
It is simply, vitally true, though I don't ask how.
Mostly because I can't think of anything except for the man currently entwined with me. . .
A thin mist of sweat makes the air heavy between us, his shoulder muscles are hard beneath my hands, his breath is hot against my neck, and he mutters snatches of Gaelic I can't understand and don't try to disentangle, but I know I hear both versions of my name in there somewhere. . .
And then. . .
Then. . .
I jumped off a waterfall once. Ran and jumped, into the pulsing, hungry air of a Mediterranean summer. Jumped and dove, head first, into the crystal-pure, ice-cold waters of the sea.
It was like the universe held its breath, and the world yawned wide before swallowing me whole.
I was never more alive than in that moment – flung into space, and falling as though to my death, but then, into the elemental embrace of time itself.
If poor words can describe it at all, what I felt then is something like what I feel now.
But it falls far short.
I am awakened from my light sleep by my wife stirring in my arms. I briefly try to pull her closer to me, but she twists away, grunting the word "toilet", and I let her go.
The word brings me fully awake, and I watch her shadowy form pad across our darkened hotel room, only to be illuminated briefly by the caustic white light of the bathroom, her skin glowing an overexposed pearly pink for a second before she slips through the door.
She walks in beauty like the night. . .
I grin ruefully at myself. I've been known to get rather soppy and emotional after sex, to the point of quoting truly terrible amounts of poetry at my lovers, to an almost Vogonish degree. I have reams and reams of the stuff at my recall, and I have discovered there's nothing quite like a broad Scots accent to make even the most mundane quotes sound deeply romantic. My abysmal singing voice notwithstanding, there was even a period during my college years that I laboured under the nickname of "Jamie the Bard". I do admit that most of my girlfriends actually appreciated the majority of it - especially Shakespeare's sonnets - but even Mary MacNab, the most patient girl I ever dated, eventually told me to please shut up.
And here, now, with Claire, all of that seems like what it ultimately was - just so much showing off. Oh, I'd happily recite the entire text of The Tempest to her if she asked me, but to try and impress her with my high-class knowledge seems absurd, unnecessary, and weirdly manipulative. Claire fell in love with ordinary, work-a-day James Fraser, not the jumped-up intelligentsia scholar from my school days.
I tuck my hands behind my head and allow myself a smug grin.
Claire fell in love with me.
Claire is in love with me.
Slowly, the smugness fades out of my soul, and I only stare in wonder, at and beyond the horrendous gaudy tartan of bed's canopy, which I can see only dimly by this light.
The truth is, I haven't done this in a very long time. Closer to seven years than two. I had almost forgotten what it was like to touch, and stroke, and kiss, then listen, and kiss again, and then. . .
I've never been someone's first before.
I've never had sex without protection before either.
Which I know is an odd thing for a man with four children. . .
How I fathered twins while wearing a condom is hardly one of the mysteries of the universe. If I never know for sure how it happened – and it is certain now that I won't – then that's no tragedy. Two girls with my hair, eyes, and instinctual love of porridge – not to mention the promise of my height – well, who needs a paternity test after all that?
Of course, years later, the thought has occurred to me more than once that there are other tall Scottish men with red hair in the world. . . but I am nearly certain Annalise still loved me then.
Or, at least what passed for love with her.
By now I've accepted the idea that I was never more than a plaything in her eyes. I'm a grown man – I can endure the fact that a woman isn't devoted to me body and soul – though it did hurt that I was married to such a woman. But what I really came to despise was the fact that playthings were all children were to her too – Human-shaped dolls she could dress up and make cooing noises at. But just let one of them have a nightmare, or come to her with a scraped knee. . .
She loved having children. And somehow hated being a mother.
When she got pregnant with Sally I was suspicious. I was still under her thrall then, but I could still count – and the long dry spell between us and her business trip to Prague added up to three months without, so how she could come home six weeks pregnant. . .
And still I told myself it was because I didn't love her enough.
Or, to be more accurate, she told me I didn't love her enough.
She was the tiniest of women, but she delighted in making me feel small.
Two years of therapy later and I'm still not sure I can love any woman enough.
Enough that they won't emotionally abandon me and my children, anyway. . .
Dr. Fitzgibbons is more Highland Scots Catholic than I am, but even he says I ought to have divorced her years ago, and why did I put up with the emotional abuse for so long?
I told him I supposed I put up with it because when you've spent the majority of your life feeling so huge and lumbering you habitually give yourself even odds on whether or not you can walk through an ordinary sized doorway without permanently injuring several body parts, occasionally feeling small is something of a relief.
He had pointed out, and rightly, that this didn't explain why I would allow her continued access to my children.
Little Joanie had just turned two that week. The first birthday in the house after Annalise had died.
The first birthday in the house without a mother.
The first birthday that was allowed to be about the birthday girl, and not about how Annalise had planned it, and decorated for it, and designed the cake especially, and how she had taken inspiration from a dress she had seen in Milan. . .
That was the first birthday I felt free – free to lavish attention on my girls, free to spoil them a bit, free to plan their futures with them in mind, not Annalise. . .
It wasn't until that moment I realized I hadn't been protecting the girls like I thought. . .
I had broken down then – though Murtagh had called it a "break-through".
I'm still not convinced they aren't different words for the same thing.
I had promised myself a long break from any kind of relationship after that, and was doing pretty well keeping it, thank you very much, until I looked over our family's set of identity cards while planning a trip to Scotland for this summer. . .
One look at Claire has changed my whole life.
Everything – everything about her is different.
How she thinks, how she reacts. How she feels. How I feel.
I've never felt small around her. Well, not small exactly. . . more like not less-than. . .
But not more-than either.
Something in between.
Capable. That's it.
Claire makes me feel capable. Capable of doing things, yes, but also of not doing them if I don't want to. Capable of all the little ordinary things of life, as well as a few extraordinary. . . well – extras.
Like pushing her up against a wall and holding her so tightly to me I manage to rip a few stitches in her jeans.
Like feeling her beneath me, delighted and shuddering, crying my name aloud to the heavens. . .
Making love with Claire has done something to the matted tangle of heartstrings wadded up inside my chest. It's almost as if one or two of them are emerging from their long confusion, and entering into a world not engineered to entirely destroy them.
I'm not sure if I'm hopeful, excited, terrified, or some incredible combination of all three.
But I do know I love Claire, and she loves me.
I'm not quite sure how I've managed to stay mortal in the midst of it all. Put Claire in my arms and I feel like God himself.
Or a god, at least. With his goddess. And we both live to worship each other.
She's only been gone a minute and already my arms ache for her.
At this moment she emerges from the too-bright little room - a deliciously curvy back-lit silhouette this time, instead of the glowing pearl-skinned statue she went in, but she pads with the same soft footsteps into and across the main room. Only she doesn't get back into our bed, instead walking round to the kitchenette, and opening the refrigerator.
The pale light makes an eerie blue-white mask of her face, but even this can't obscure the wry twist to her lips.
"What's wrong, mo chridhe?" I whisper.
"I'm starving, Jamie," she gives a sultry chuckle that does positively indecent things to parts of me I thought I had nicely tamed for the rest of the evening. . . "We haven't eaten since the picnic this afternoon."
"Weel. No' food. . ."
I make eye contact with her across the room, and even in the weak, indirect light from the still-open refrigerator, the connection between us is powerful, undeniable – almost a physical, visible thread between us, glowing spring-green and summer-gold.
She closes the refrigerator door, and glides across the room to me, bending over the side of the bed to give me a long, soft, lingering kiss.
I almost pull her under the duvet with me, and use every skill I possess to make her forget everything but my name. . .
Then she pulls away from me a little, tilting her head, prompting me to follow her.
"C'mon Jamie," she says in a siren's voice, "Come teach me how to make a hollandaise sauce."
I keep getting in Jamie's way as he cooks.
I had one arm around him while he made the toast and opened the packet of smoked salmon, and two arms around him while he fried the eggs, cobbled together a double boiler, assembled the hollandaise ingredients, and melted the butter.
Now, I keep bumping my hip into his, slowly sliding our legs together while he butters the toast, layers the fish on it, and then the eggs on the fish.
He keeps giving me bemused glances, but never actually manages to tell me to stop.
Finally, he turns on me, seemingly in exasperation, and presses me between the cold block of the refrigerator and the warm length of his body. The double thickness of our bathrobes is the only thing separating us at all. . .
"Now then, Sassenach," he rumbles, giving a very good impression of an annoyed professional – but there is a rasp of passion behind it all, and the way his hips are pressing into mine does not convince me he is in the least annoyed - "D'ye want ta learn how ta make this wee sauce, or don't ye?"
My eyes fix on the curves at the base of his neck, just visible behind the soft, folded collar of his robe, "Oh, yes. I want you to show me everything," I purr, and nudge my face into his smooth, hot, fragrant skin, nipping and sucking on his collarbone, "Everything, Jamie – don't leave anything out."
He growls, either in reaction or response I'm not sure, and then he picks me up entirely, spins us around, and twists me by the shoulders so I face the stove. I make a noise which is very much like a squeal, but he ignores it, instead taking one of my wrists in each of his hands, forcefully showing me what I must do.
And then his body is flush up against my back, his breath whispering instructions hotly in my ears.
I smirk. This is what I wanted, but it is also much much more than I ever expected. . .
"Ye start here, mo ghràidh, wi' these things here, in the pot like this," he puts the sauce ingredients into the double boiler, "An' ye take that-" he clamps one of my hands around a whisk, "An' that-" and wraps my other hand around the bowl to hold it steady, "An' now – don't stop."
He makes the hand I have holding the whisk begin to whip the mixture – quickly and unceasingly.
And then there are all kinds of swishing noises from the egg yolks and the mustard, and a sharp, pattering clack-clack from the whisk wires, and the slow, slippery dripping of butter, and a soft, steady hum from the gas stove, and all the rustling, shifting sounds of two active bodies dressed in nothing but bathrobes, but behind it all is the deep, almost tangible silence of midnight, and behind that - two hearts, beating wildly, two sets of lungs, gasping for air, two pairs of dry lips finding moisture only in each other, and the slick, restless pulsing of-
"Don' stop," he whispers again, slowly streaming in melted butter from a small jug.
I try and focus on the pale, creamy mixture developing in the bowl, desperate to hold back the great waves of memories I seem to be living in at the moment.
Not to mention that I seem to involuntarily shiver every time he touches me now. . .
He pours another long, thin stream of sweet, oily butter. This time his lips brush the rim of my ear as he whispers, "Tha's it, ye'er almost thear. Keep goin'."
I shudder, and almost drop the whisk, but I brace against his solid bulk behind me, get a firmer grasp, and actually speed up.
"Aye, tha's perfect, mo chridhe. . ."
He streams in more butter. . .
I draw my lower lip between my teeth, knowing I can't keep it up for long. . .
"An' ye'er done."
In one smooth motion he sets down the empty butter jug, turns off the stove, and lifts the bowl with the finished sauce. Then he pours it into another jug nearby, using short, smooth sweeps with a rubber spatula, not wasting a drop.
With a long, long sigh of relief, I lean against the counter, and lick the whisk.
Jamie gives a great guffaw of laughter, teasingly bumping his hip into mine.
"Wow indeed, Sassenach."
He pours a healthy – or rather, probably very un-healthy – portion of the sauce over our salmon and eggs on toast, then lifts both plates over to the dining table, wordlessly indicating for me to follow him.
He sets both plates down in front of just one chair, then he seats himself, and reaches his arms out to me, smiling a silent question to me at the same time.
Indulgently, I smile back, and settle myself on his lap.
We lift our toast at the same time, tap the edges together in salute, and proceed to dig in.
It's so good, I can't help talking with my mouth full, "Hmmmm, ish so tangy, Jamie. An creamy an rish an smooth. . . "
He smiles softly at me, using his thumb to flick crumbs from one side of my mouth, "Oh, aye. An' the sauce isnae so bad either."
Briefly, we put our toast down, and I give him a long, sweet kiss. In fact, it lasts so long, it is decidedly not sweet by the time I pull away.
The arm he has steadying me on his lap tightens convulsively, his glazed eyes meeting mine in a look that practically crackles.
Want that knows what it could be having right now, and is practically screaming from its deprivation. . .
But I shake my head at him, and give a tiny wink, mouthing the words "not yet". My heart races as I peck him on the chin - I'm feeling more and more delightfully like the world's naughtiest tease by the second.
His free hand comes up, as if to grab the collar of my robe and pull it down. . . but brushes past me and picks up his toast again instead. I smirk, and follow suit.
"So does this dish have a name?" I muse, "It isn't eggs Benedict, exactly. . ."
He grins and takes another bite, "Mmphm. Aye. It does. Eggs Fraser."
I chuckle, and he leans his forehead on my cheek. It's such a sweetly intimate gesture that all of a sudden my throat thickens with tears. This man.
He. . .
He. . .
I put down my toast, and clutch him to me, running my fingers through his hair, across his shoulders and up and down his back.
I know so little about him still. What his childhood was like, what he used to do over the summer holidays, if he's ever broken a bone, if he can make an origami crane. . . Does he like licorice? Can he change a tire?
But at the same time I know things about him I don't know about people I've known my whole life.
I know the sounds he makes when I run a fingernail up his neck and behind his ear.
I know how steady he is on his feet, even when a frantic wild woman is trying to remove his jeans. . .
I know how soft his heart is, and how sensitive his soul.
I know he is wise, and strong, and kind, and generous, and funny, and interesting, and passionate, and yes, horribly stubborn.
But I know I trust him with my life. In fact, I trust him with even more than that.
I trust him with my pride.
And I know he trusts me with his.
We're friends. Best friends. Allies. Comrades. I don't just have his heart, I have his respect as well. And he has mine.
And holding him in my arms feels like having an army at my back.
I've never become friends with anyone this fast. Never. Let alone. . .
I scritch the back of his neck, and he purrs, sidling his shoulders and arching into my touch like a cat. I reach beneath the collar of his robe and scratch lightly along the skin of his shoulders, and he groans, his eyes rolling back in ecstasy.
"Och, I'll give ye forty thousand years ta stop that, Sassenach."
"Mmphm. Tha's one way ye might put it. . ." he gives an exaggerated stretch and a yawn, and then picks up his toast again.
I shift in his lap, and pick up mine again as well.
Whatever this is between us, it is clearly meant to be. Fate, or destiny, or what have you. There's no other explanation for each of us just finding our soul mate – just being effortlessly delivered to each other like we were.
Here he is – the love of my life. And I didn't even have to look. . .
"So. . ." Jamie says, slowly chewing and swallowing his last bite, "Now that we've eaten the breakfast I'd planned fer tamorrow-" he glances at the clock above the stove, "-nine hours early – d'ye have any suggestions as ta what we should do for breakfast tamorrow?"
I shake my head, and grin knowingly, "No. But I have a few educated guesses."
"Oh? D'ye now?"
I wipe my fingers and mouth, and hand him a napkin so he can do the same. Then I coil my arms around his neck, and cuddle into his lap a bit, "In the first place – there have to be porridge fixings-"
"But ye dinna-"
I hold a finger against his lips, "Let me finish – that's just in the first place. Second place – leftovers. I know we still have some. You can make me some authentic rumbledethumps – how about that?"
His eyes glitter, and his mouth twitches, "Oh aye, tha's fine. . ."
"And thirdly – we can ask room service to send us some bananas, and baked beans, and some fried ham, and maybe some mince and skirlie-"
"But – Sassenach. . ." he pauses, looking genuinely confused, "Why would ye want all that for breakfast?"
"Oh, I won't," I grin mischievously, "But you might."
He only looks more confused. I lower my head to his ear, and whisper, with long, drawn-out vowels,
"Prooteein. . ."
After that, I can tell by the look in his eyes that neither of us is going to be getting much more sleep tonight. . .
But, what little we do get is surprisingly refreshing.