Until the moment the Uber pulled up to the curb in front of her flat, it truly hadn’t occurred to her:
She hadn’t been back in a car since the night of the accident.
She wasn’t even sure it was intentional; there had been no strict need to drive anywhere, as her flat was within easy walking distance of the hospital and the corner market where she bought her groceries. But judging by the way her blood chilled at the sight of the idling vehicle, Claire had to admit that perhaps there had been an element of subconscious avoidance in play.
Which was absolutely ridiculous, she scolded herself, as she watched Jamie sling her duffel into the boot and climb into the back seat without a second thought.
Jamie, who had been thrown through a windshield and spent six weeks in a hospital bed.
Jamie, who had bled out his entire vascular volume three times over.
Jamie, who had been septic, untouched, and morphine-dependent, even when it made him so sick, even when the retching ripped at the gashes and the road burn and his fresh graft sites, and—
And yet she was the one who was hanging back, wringing the straps of her handbag and chewing her lip until she tasted blood. It wasn’t until he ducked his head to look at her, an eyebrow quirked inquisitively, that Claire climbed in beside him.
Her hand was pale and shaking on the door handle as she pulled it shut.
No child lock on this one, she reassured herself, and forcibly exhaled the breath she’d been holding.
She discovered rather quickly that keeping her eyes squeezed shut only heightened her awareness of her other senses: the rumble of the engine, every bump and curve in the road, the whoosh of other cars passing too close, Jesus H. Christ, too close…
So, when the glare of Jamie’s mobile screen brightened the black-red of her eyelids, Claire slowly peeled one eye open, then the other, needing to focus on something else — anything but the drive itself. She watched him scroll through his contacts, texting his close friends and family members one at a time to give them the heads-up that she would be accompanying him home.
As the responses began to flood back in quick succession, he immediately dropped his mobile lower in his lap and angled it away from her, making a valiant effort to shield her from every cutting remark that flashed across his screen.
For his benefit, Claire feigned oblivion.
But she saw.
Are you out of your damn mind? No, seriously, are you pissed right now? Because that’s about the only explanation I can come up with for this level of idiocy.
????? wtf mate?!!? the lass wae hit ye wi her car???? 😳
Jamie, I say this to you as your best mate since we were in nappies: you’re thinkin w/your cock, man. This is insane.
Murtagh took the longest to respond. Given Jamie’s description of his “auld coot” of a godfather, she could almost imagine him hen-pecking the words one painstaking letter at a time. They were pulling up at the curb outside the international terminal by the time his reply finally came through:
No.Very ba D idea.
Claire was silent and glassy-eyed the entire walk into the terminal, listening to the relentless buzzing in Jamie’s pocket as every last person he loved replied with some variation of the same theme.
For his part, Jamie ignored the deluge of texts all the way through Immigration and Customs, his face a perfect mask of nonchalance. It wasn’t until they were in the queue for security that he pulled out his mobile again, careful to stand behind her so she couldn’t see the responses. Minute by minute, though, she could feel the tension building in him until he was practically vibrating with fury — flushed to the tips of his ears, teeth gritted, typing so fast his thumbs were a blur. The TSA agent had to remind him twice to remove his belt and coat and place them in a bin before he could proceed through the security checkpoint.
As soon as they’d collected their belongings on the other side, he latched onto Claire’s waist with almost bruising force, clutching her to him the rest of the way to their gate. She laid her head on his shoulder in response, stroking the small of his back with gentle fingertips.
It’s all right, she promised him silently, letting her eyes close. It’s all right.
She hadn’t harbored any delusions that she would get to keep him.
Her job was to get him home safely. Once he was there, his family and friends would see to the rest.
For as much as they despised her, Claire couldn’t help but feel an odd sense of camaraderie with these people — these fiercely protective strangers half a world away who loved Jamie as much as she did.
It was a comfort, knowing that they would take care of him when she couldn’t anymore.
As it turned out, Jenny Murray made quite the formidable Velvet Hammer herself. She’d sent an essay’s worth of texts by the time they took their seats on the plane. Jamie skimmed quickly, so Claire only caught glimpses here and there, but it was more than enough to get the gist of it:
—only saying this because I love you. You’re all I have left, and I don’t want to see you hurt again, or worse—
—a fucking con artist, Jamie. We talked about this. She’s a sociopath, and she’s using you. Think about it. Use your God-given common sense. You notice how her story suddenly changed when Randall offered you substantial funds to settle?—
—and I don’t trust her to be around the bairns. If she did anything to hurt them, God forbid, you’d never forgive yourself either—
—so I won’t be picking you up from the airport, and that psycho is not welcome in my home. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it’s going to be. I talked to Ian just now, and he agrees—
Jamie powered down his mobile with a clenched, trembling hand. As soon as he’d shoved the black screen into his pocket, he lifted the arm rest between them and pulled Claire into a crushing hug.
“I love you,” he whispered, his breath shaking in her hair.
Claire’s eyes burned, her throat swelling so tightly she couldn’t say it back.
Not yet. Please don’t ask me to say goodbye to you yet.
Swallowing against the knot in her throat, she pressed her lips to his Adam’s apple, his jaw, his cheek, then snuggled back into the curve of his neck, refusing to cry when their plane hadn’t even pulled back from the gate yet.
On the night Jamie had left, she remembered so vividly wishing that she could have five more minutes… just five more minutes to hold him.
The first leg of their flight, from Boston to London Heathrow, was seven hours long.
It was more time than she ever thought she’d have with him again. She refused to be anything but grateful for that.
And for her part, she didn’t plan on wasting a single second of it.
It was like the long nights in the ICU all over again, where she could take her time to study him, to commit every last detail to memory by sight and smell and touch and taste.
Only this time… this time he could hold her too.
For the length of that one perfect flight, they would have each other. No sickness or pain, no call lights, no coworkers, no secrets. No family members desperate to rip them apart.
It would be enough, Claire promised herself, nudging her nose tighter against his neck and breathing him in. Seven hours with Jamie Fraser would be enough to sustain her for the rest of her life.
It would have to be.
“What about something like that in a light gray?”
“For an entryway?”
“Mm… it’d show too much dirt, I think.”
Jamie tilted his head. “Could we no’ just get a rug?”
“Rather defeats the purpose if we’re covering up the flooring you want.”
He shoved a Dorito into her smug wee mouth, then kissed away the bit of orange dust that caught on her lips. “Smart arse.”
Claire hummed in amusement, her whisky eyes twinkling as she looked up at him. But as her stare lingered — a beat or two longer than it might normally have — the sparkle slowly dulled back into the terrible sadness that had haunted her face ever since he’d returned to her.
It would take time, he knew, for her to be able to believe in this. In them.
Time, and patience, and infinite, unconditional love.
Claire had been starved of it for so long that she didn’t know what to do with it now that she had it. That much was plain to him in every gesture, every glance. She’d been tracing the lines of his body during lulls in their conversation; her fingertip followed the ropes of his veins from wrist to bicep, stroked the delicate skin in the crook of his arm, drew feather-light circles around his moles and freckles.
Memorizing him, as if he might disappear at any moment.
He’d given her promises back in Boston — bonny words that he was only too happy to repeat as often as she needed to hear them. But right now, it was his touch she seemed to crave more than anything. She’d always been tactile, and so was he; from the very beginning, it seemed to be a common language between them, more profound than words.
So as soon as the seat belt sign was turned off, he’d unclipped them both and reached over to draw her in, bringing her thighs over top of his so he could hold her in his lap. It had taken a bit of maneuvering, with the gaps between the seats and the limited leg room, but with some trial and error they’d eventually managed to find a position that was comfortable for both of them. She’d tucked her face into his neck, and he’d wrapped his coat around her, and for the first time since they’d left her flat, it felt like they could both breathe again.
Still, there was a quiet desperation in Claire, a restless need for closeness that seemed almost insatiable no matter how tightly he held her. He tried to soothe her with slow, deep kisses, with lingering lips and lethargic strokes of his tongue. But no matter how unhurriedly or how thoroughly he kissed her, she chased his mouth every time he began to pull away, whimpering as though she expected never to be kissed again.
Please don’t leave me, she begged each time. And each time he answered her: Never.
Christ, he wished he could have her skin to skin again. He could show her, then; kiss every inch of white velvet skin, worship her with his hands and lips and tongue until she let him inside of her, until there was nothing left between them... until she knew in every cell of her body that he was hers.
In the meantime, he did the next best thing he could think of: he turned HGTV on the screen in the seat-back in front of them, and ordered two coffees, Doritos, and cookies off the flight attendant’s trolley. Resting his cheek on Claire’s mop of unruly curls, he tried to meld the nostalgia of their first dates with the promise of a future together. He encouraged her to dream up a home with him; asked for her thoughts on color schemes and furniture and lighting fixtures and cabinet pulls. She was quiet at first, reluctant, but with a bit of gentle persistence his wee fixer-upper’s opinionated streak had finally started to shine through.
Hardwood on the main level. Carpets for the bedrooms.
Earth tones for accent walls.
A rain shower head and heated tile in the master bath.
Abundant greenery in every room — hanging ferns, potted plants, a fiddle-leaf fig tree.
He briefly considered keeping a running list on his mobile for future reference, but his stomach soured at the mere thought of turning it on again.
His family and friends had only heard the first draft of the story of the accident — the one he’d gleaned from Frank Randall — so Jamie had fully expected them to tear him a new one when he announced that he was bringing Claire home with him. But even braced with that expectation, he hadn’t been prepared for the level of vitriol they’d hurled in her direction, nor the physical reaction it roused in him to read it. It had literally bristled the hairs on his neck, made his blood run so hot he started sweating.
They needed to stop flapping their feckin’ gums long enough to let him get a word in edgewise, but at the same time, he recognized that this story was one better told in person. So he’d responded to everyone with some variation of “There’s more to the story. She isn’t what you think. Trust me, aye? I’ll explain when I get home,” then powered the bloody thing off, and planned to keep it that way as long as he could.
For the rest of that flight, he refused to give their words any more real estate in his head. There would be plenty of issues to sort out once they landed — a rental car and hotel room, for starters, since Lallybroch was apparently off the table.
But they would keep.
He and Claire had fought too long and too hard for this — for the ability to find comfort in one another’s arms, to kiss openly and freely, to laugh again — for him to waste a single moment worrying about problems for another day.
“What do ye think about those sliding barn doors, Sassenach? I like the look of ‘em fine, but I canna help but think I’d feel like a horse if that’s meant tae be the entrance to our bedroom…”
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. As we begin our final descent into London Heathrow, the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. At this time we do ask that you please make sure your seatbacks and tray tables are in their full upright and locked position, that your seat belt is securely fastened, and that all carry-on luggage is stowed in the overhead bins or underneath the seat in front of you—
She would not cry.
Claire had been repeating the mantra for the past hour as Jamie slept, curled loosely around her and using her head as a pillow.
When she closed her eyes, she could map the contours of his body in her mind: the notch in his chin, the lines of his palms, the knobs of his collarbones and wrists and ankles.
She could remember the smell of his hair when it was slightly damp with sweat, or fresh out of the shower, when his own scent mingled with the vanilla and lilac of her shampoo.
She could hear the sound of his voice, and his laugh, and the soft hum he made when her tongue slid forward to graze his.
She had memorized as much as she possibly could in what precious time they’d had.
The hardest part now was trying to let go of all the things she would never know.
She remembered so clearly how Jamie’s voice had cracked when he told her about his mother’s birthday — about how it had finally struck him that she was truly gone when he realized that he would never learn anything new about her again.
Claire understood him now. God, she understood.
For the past hour, the solid weight of Jamie’s head had pinned hers in place, with her eyes locked on a tiny white half-moon scar behind his ear. She’d first discovered it in the ICU all those weeks ago, when she’d helped to peel the seizure probes off of his head and mistaken it for a streak of adhesive residue. When it wouldn’t rub off, she’d chuckled softly and kissed him there, asking his unconscious form what sort of mischief he’d gotten up to as a boy to etch a scar in such an unlikely place.
“You’ll have to tell me about it sometime,” she’d told him quietly.
But she’d never asked again, not when he could hear her. It hadn’t been important at the time.
It wasn’t important now, for that matter. Of all the things to be upset about, it was ridiculous that this was what she’d latched onto in their final minutes together. But when the announcement of their plane’s descent woke Jamie with a snuffled breath, it occurred to her that this would be her last chance to ask him about it. Irrational though it might be, it was imperative, somehow, that she knew.
She swallowed twice — hard — to be sure her voice didn’t break.
She would not cry.
“Tell me about this,” she whispered, tracing the tiny white mark with the edge of her fingernail.
The flesh of his neck rippled with goosebumps at the delicate touch, and he made a soft, contented sound in the back of his throat. “‘Bout what?” he murmured sleepily.
“You have a scar, just there. How did you get it?”
Jamie was silent for a long moment. She was beginning to think he might have fallen asleep again when he finally chuckled, “Ah. I think that one was probably Adso.”
“Adso?” she echoed, shifting her head on his shoulder so she could see his face. His eyes were only half-open, the glassy grey-blue of a lake in the early morning, but the corner of his mouth twitched with the promise of an entertaining story.
“My mam’s cat. He’s an affectionate wee thing most of the time, but he was caught out in the rain that day, and none too pleased about it. I heard him yowling all the way from the barn and went to bring him in the house. Found him hiding under one of the wheels of Da’s truck.” He paused for a moment to kiss her hair, humming in amusement at the memory. “I tried to tuck him in my raincoat, but he, ah, apparently didna appreciate the gesture overmuch. Bit my hand and clawed his way up my neck like a tree. Bled like mad at the time, but I didna realize it had left a scar.”
Claire pressed a trembling, watery smile to his neck, exhaling in a tight laugh against his skin.
It was the perfect last thing to learn about him. Silly, tender, altruistic, humble.
So quintessentially Jamie.
… Christ, she thought her lungs would collapse from the grief.
The words came spilling out of her before she could stop them, her voice wavering and threatening to crack. “Don’t tell anyone else, okay?” She pressed her lips to the scar and held them there, as if she could seal that secret away where no one else would ever find it.
Please, just let this one thing be for me. The woman you wind up spending the rest of your life with, she’ll know everything else, all the other stories I’ll never learn, but… let this be one thing I know about you that no one else ever will. Just one piece of you that’s mine.
A streak of hot tears escaped from her lashes before she could squeeze them back, dripping onto Jamie’s neck. His whole body tensed beneath her, and then he was moving, gripping her close, and she could feel his heartbeat pounding in his carotid.
“What’s wrong?” He tried to nudge her up to look at him, but she stayed burrowed against his neck, heaving in deep breaths, trying to get herself under control. “Claire, talk to me. What’s the matter?”
The mental curses she lobbed at herself put his family’s scathing texts to shame.
This was the last thing he needed. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t cry, that she wouldn’t make this any harder on him than it needed to be. Yet here she was, once again, failing him with her own fucking selfishness.
“Nothing,” she whispered, kissing the juncture between his neck and shoulder and smoothing her hand comfortingly up and down his arm. “I’m okay.”
“Ye’re not,” he insisted.
She willed the tears back this time, drawing in a deep breath through her nose and letting it out through pursed lips. “I will be,” she promised.
Jamie was quiet for a moment. At long last, he nodded, then drew the tip of his nose along her cheekbone and back into her hair. “Aye,” he whispered, his breath warm against her ear. “Aye, mo chridhe, you will be.”
Their plane landed twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Jamie was grateful for that; their layover would have been a tight one otherwise, and he wanted to get some food into Claire before their connection to Inverness — some actual, substantive food, not just the rubbish they’d been snacking on during their flight. They’d have to pass through Immigration and Customs first, recheck their bags, and go through security again… but still, he reckoned he should pull up the map of the terminal on his mobile, so he could see which restaurants were near their next gate.
The moment he powered it back on, though, Jamie immediately regretted it; his mobile erupted in a vibrating fit as seven hours’ worth of texts, WhatsApp and Facebook messages came through in a veritable avalanche.
“Oh fer fuck’s sake,” he hissed, watching the names of every distant relative and vague acquaintance from grammar school blitz across the top of his screen.
His sister had rallied the troops, apparently.
Because of course, Jenny couldn’t very well just give him the benefit of the doubt, leave her neb out of his business for one feckin’ day…
Every time he swiped to dismiss a notification, two more seemed to pop up in its place. He hissed out a Gaelic curse as he led Claire up the jet bridge, and felt her thumb brush a comforting arc over his knuckles.
“Sorry,” he said, half-glancing at her over his shoulder as they stepped out into the terminal. “Dinna mean to ignore ye, Sassenach, just tryin’ tae find us a place to grab a quick bite. What’re ye hungry for? It’s been a while, but if I remember right, I think there’s a Pret and a sushi place…”
“Jamie,” she interrupted softly.
A chill passed down his spine before he’d even managed to get a good look at her face. There wasn’t anything inherently strange about her tone, he simply knew that something was wrong.
Claire’s fingers closed around his, tugging him gently off to one side, out of the stream of traffic of the other deboarding passengers. The gate opposite theirs was practically empty, with only a few stray people charging their mobiles at the sockets along the walls, and he felt the sense of foreboding sink deeper in his wame when she led him in that direction.
Whatever she’d been holding back throughout their flight, it seemed she had a mind to tell him now.
She stopped amid a row of empty seats, and turned to face him head-on, taking both of his hands in her own.
They were both silent for a long moment.
She couldn’t look at him.
He couldn’t look away.
At last, Claire took a deep breath, and said steadily but quietly, “Text your sister back, Jamie. Tell her she… she should be there to pick you up from the airport. I’ll get off here.”
He felt as though a lever had suddenly been released in his abdomen, and all of his guts had plummeted.
He hadn’t realized she’d been reading his screen. Christ, he should have been more discreet, should have just waited until she was in the loo, or…
But regrets wouldn’t help him now. She’d seen.
His mouth worked soundlessly for a few seconds; he had absolutely no idea what to say.
“No,” he managed at last. “No, I told you, Claire, I w—”
She closed the gap between them and silenced him with a kiss.
Panic began to course red-hot in his veins then, sending his heart straight up into his throat. Immediately, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her flush against him. He’d hold her there, if need be. He’d physically refuse to let her go.
She wasn’t leaving him.
Claire broke the kiss first, but stayed close, her forehead resting against his. “It’s alright,” she whispered, smoothing her palms up and down his back. “I promise, everything’s going to be alright. There are so many people waiting at home who love you, Jamie. They’ll help you get back on your feet, and… and build that start-up you’ve always dreamt of…”
“I dinna want it,” he insisted, gripping her tighter.
“No, listen to me. I mean it, Claire. I don’t want any of it wi’out you. If ye dinna want to go to Scotland, then we’ll leave here, now, together. We can go anywhere ye want, we… we can make a fresh start, just you and I…”
She shook her head slowly, nuzzling her way back to her favorite spot in the curve of his neck. “I won’t take you away from them, Jamie.” Her lips pressed to his pulse point and stayed there for several beats before she whispered, “I lost my family. Do you think I could ever be the reason you lost yours?”
“But you are my family too.”
Claire’s ribs hitched under his hands at that. He could feel her resolve slip just a notch, and he gentled his hands and his voice, swaying her slowly from side to side.
“I’ll no’ lose anyone, Sassenach. Ye dinna need to fash yerself on that account. Okay? Look, right now, they just… they dinna understand what’s going on. I haven’t had the chance to explain it to them, and they’re jumpin’ to conclusions before they have any clue what they’re runnin’ their gobs about.”
Claire took a few shaky breaths, then sniffled. She was quiet for several moments before she spoke again, so softly he could barely hear her. “But they’re right about me.”
“Oh, aye?” He leaned down to kiss her temple, letting a slow smile spread against her skin. “Are ye a con-artist out for my millions, then, Sassenach? ‘Cos I’m sorry to say ye’re about tae be sorely disappointed...”
The wee joke didn’t even earn a flicker of a smile. She stood silent and deflated in his arms, and he sobered immediately, brushing a hand back into her hair to stroke her curls as he rocked her.
She didn’t make any move to pull away from him. He took that as a good sign.
Still, the words she said next were so quietly devastating that he felt his heart break for her all over again.
“When everyone you love and respect in the world is telling you the same thing,” she rasped, her voice paper-thin, “At some point you have to believe that there’s some truth in what they’re saying.” He felt her throat constrict with a swallow, but her voice broke anyway. “I know I don’t deserve you, Jamie. Your family and friends know it. So I’m just… w-waiting for the moment when you look over at me and realize it too.”
For a while, all he could do was shake his head, lacking any words strong enough to negate that sentiment. With enough time, he could write an entire dissertation about how wrong she was, or a passionate speech that would convince her that he—
And suddenly it occurred to him.
It was a risk. A huge one. The biggest one of his life.
But he knew what he needed to do.
And he knew what he needed to hear from her first, if he was ever going to be able to summon enough courage to try it.
Very gently, he shifted her off his shoulder, curling a finger under her chin and lifting her face to look at him.
“Do you love me, Claire?” he whispered.
Her tear-filled eyes went round as they locked on his; it clearly wasn’t what she’d expected him to say. “What?”
“Do you love me?” Jamie repeated slowly, softly.
He already knew her answer. In his bones, in his soul, he knew. But he needed to hear her say it. Just one time, and then…
Claire’s chin dimpled in the split second before she released her breath in a sob. A fresh trickle of tears escaped down her cheek, and Jamie thumbed it gently away, waiting, watching.
She leaned into his hand, letting her eyes slip shut.
Took another shivering breath…
And finally, finally, whispered into the flesh of his palm, “More than you’ll ever know.”
Jamie hadn’t realized tears were dangling on his own lashes until he collided with her on a sob, tasting salt on her lips that could have belonged to either of them. Neither one could hold a kiss for long; he held his trembling lips against hers, hard, until a lack of oxygen forced them apart, panting into one another’s open mouths. He held her face to his, grinning like an absolute idiot as he smudged her tears ineffectually with his thumbs.
“Alright then,” he exhaled, pressing a kiss to each of her cheeks, her temples, her brow. “Let’s get out of here, Sassenach.”
“Jamie…” She was shaking her head, but with less conviction now.
“We can still make our way to Scotland, if that’s what ye want. But there’s someplace I need to take ye first, before we go home.”
Claire sniffled, looking up at him uncertainly.
He dropped his forehead to rest against hers and closed his eyes for a moment, drawing strength from her as his own wame fluttered with nerves.
A Dhia, please let this work.
“Trust me?” he whispered.
And with a deep breath, she took his hand.