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Never Meant (To Fall in Love)

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“Loving you was like going to war; I never came back the same.” –Warsan Shire


Then

2009

Rain fell heavily outside, yet the occupants inside the office gathered around the large conference table, hardly noticed. The mood was somber enough and the gloom inside seemed to have a direct effect on the weather outside. The tension in the room was thick as final details were confirmed. Papers would be signed for the final dissolution of a five year marriage.

Agreements were negotiated by third parties as the two represented parties merely stared at one another across the table. Not a single word was exchanged between them during the last few months. They watched and listened as others talked on their behalf. Few words were spoken once a decision was agreed upon three months before, and contact was to be restricted between them.

Distant blue eyes stared almost pleadingly into tired, broken brown eyes. The light disappeared sometime in the last two years and had yet to return. Sometimes he wasn't sure if it had ever been there.

Time had turned them into battle hardened warriors. The life had been stripped away until not much was left of the people they once were. They were mere shadows of the young, fresh faced graduates waiting to set out in the world. The fights stopped and soon enough the bed emptied. Hearts broke as the struggle continued daily. The struggle to talk without arguing, or to listen without objecting and passing blame. The passion remained, but the love was torn away and twisted into something unrecognizable, something ugly and destructive. They were empty shells, and not the people they were supposed to be.

“I need you to sign here Mrs. Fraser.” The woman brushed away a tear as she picked up the pen. Her hand slowed as it moved towards the paper and she hesitated. Her eyes lifted and caught his. He stared at her and his eyes dropped to her hand. There was sadness, but he didn’t protest as her hand moved in brisk flourishes across the paper.

She pushed the paper away, wanting it as far away as possible from her. It was a representation of the end of ten years of her life with the man across from her. The woman’s head turn away as tears fell freely down her face. She knew it was truly over between them now when he couldn't speak the words to stop her from signing.

He didn’t want to make it any more difficult for her, so he quickly added his signature to the documents. It was the last time their names would sit beside each other on documents listing them as married. “Okay, from here we will file the paperwork. There will be a hearing date where the judge will decide whether or not to approve your divorce petition and the custody agreement. For the most part, you're done with the process. Once the judge approves, a temporary judgment of divorce will be entered after thirty days. It will become permanent after ninety days.”

The announcement caused a knot to form in her stomach. They weren't words she imagined she would ever hear. She was officially getting a divorce. 

Mrs. Fraser stood up and quickly exited the room before Mr. Fraser could approach her. Mr. Fraser was on his feet instantly and grabbed her hand before she had the chance to make her escape. She pivoted to face him, anger swirling in her dark orbs. He took a step back.

"What do you want?"

He shuffled, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Can we talk?"

She scoffed. "I think we've done a lot of talking. I just want you erect," she closed her eyes, her fingers rubbing her temples as she muttered incoherently to herself. "I've seriously got to work on that. Regardless, I want to erect some space between us even if you are leaving soon because I- every time we are in close proximity I'm confused. I mean I'm not confused about the events that led us here because hello we were both very clear on that and what transpired and blonde harlots who desire other women's husbands and so not the point at the moment. I need time to figure myself out after this disaster." She straightened her shoulders, her face hardening as she stared at him expectantly. He had a purpose for stopping her and she wanted to know what it was. She sighed as she hadn’t meant to lose her temper. The fight faded from her and she lowered her shoulders. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said all of that. I did mean some of it about the time and space because Jamie ten years is a long time and I need to figure out how to separate myself from you.”

Mr. Fraser lowered his eyes as he finally saw it, the cracks in her facade. In truth, he hadn't given much thought to how she was handling the situation after they decided this was their best option, but he never imagined he would see her unravel. As it dawned on him, his carefully prepared words drifted away. He didn’t want to put anymore stress on the situation. "I get it." 

For a moment, her face slipped and he saw the old her before she put her mask in place again. She nodded at him. "Bye Jamie," he heard the catch in her voice as she turned away from him. He watched her walk away, helpless to do much but give her what she wanted. They tried and they cashed and burned. It was time for them to pick themselves up off the floor and start anew.

"Goodbye Claire," he whispered to the empty lobby. 

The drive home seemed to take longer than usual, but it allowed her time to think, to reflect. She thought about the day they met, the day they married, and everyday between then and now. It was as if she were on a tightrope. She kept trying to balance it all. There was school, marriage, family, and work. It was hard and the fragments in her marriage began to show. Each year, the cracks spread farther and farther apart until one day she discovered she slept next to a stranger. It was unbelievable, almost unthinkable. She had known the man for so long, and could barely hold a conversation let alone look at him anymore. All she felt when she stared at him was an overwhelming amount of sadness and guilt. Most of all, she felt alone.

Her phone dinged as she pulled into her driveway. She debated whether to peek or not. With a deep sigh, she picked up the device and felt her heart break all over again.

JF

Claire, I’ll always be there for ye and the lasses. The end of our marriage changes nothing for me. Don’t forget that.

She didn’t have it in her to respond back to him. So many tears were shed over this man, and she wanted to start anew. A clean break was what the doctor ordered. The damage had already been done and now it was time for some repairs.

While they were tied in technical terms, their romantic relationship was over. 

Now

CPOV

I entered the house to pure chaos as two girls shouted back and forth. “Gran, where’s my favorite hoodie?” My eldest child’s voice called out impatiently. I was tempted to scold her for her tone. She and her sister were running around the house in an attempt to gather the belongings they wanted to bring with them for the summer.

I found Bree first as she dug around in the hall closet, while her sister was pounding around somewhere on the second floor. “What’s going on here?” I asked, placing my hands on my hips.

Bree paused and craned her neck. “Oh hello mom, I’m trying to find my riding boots. Daddy got a new horse on the estate and said we could ride it.” I ran a hand through her wild, red curls. They normally were much more tame, but it had rained most of the day causing them to frizz. “We got home late so we haven’t had much time to finish packing.” Their flight was leaving at ten tonight to make the time transition easier. Jet lag was horrid, especially for children. We purposely scheduled their flights so they could sleep on the plane and be less likely to sleep after traveling.

“This is why I told both of you to start packing a week ago.” She smiled sheepishly and my heart stopped at the sight. Bree was the spitting image of her father, and sometimes it hurt to have the reminder. It didn’t stop me from loving her, it actually caused me to love her more. “Your boots are in the car from the last time you went riding.” She flushed a light shade of pink before running out the front door.

I shook my head in defeat. I could lecture the girls until I was blue in the face to stop procrastinating and they still would, probably to spite me. They were this way about everything. It was definitely not something they inherited for me. There was too much of their father in them. I preferred everything to be neat and orderly.

I made my way up the stairs of our Cambridge townhouse to find my mother standing in my daughter’s doorway. She smiled at the sight of her granddaughter attempting to stuff as many things into her suitcase as would fit. Her room was in complete disarray as she tossed her shoes and clothes. 

“Isla, love, it would be so much easier if you actually folded your clothes before placing them inside.” Isla wasn’t phased at all and continued to search for more items in her room that she could bring with her. The girls acted as if they were packing for a year abroad instead of a couple of months.

I rolled my eyes and entered her untidy room. I usually re-packed their suitcases for them as neither was particularly organized. “How was your last day, darling?” Isla an all girl’s Catholic school. Bree was at another school until fifth grade when she would switch over to her sister’s school.

We considered as a family allowing them to attend through eighth grade at Bree’s current school, but after looking into other schools we found Newton Country Day. It was 5-12, which kept the girls at the same school through high school. I much preferred this option. Luckily, both schools were each about twenty minutes away from my workplace. I could be there at a moment's notice in case of an emergency. My mother took both girls to school each morning. Bree was dropped off first as her school was the closest to the house. It took some time for us to fully settle into this particular area of Cambridge. We used to live far closer to the Harvard Medical campus when I was a student, but after the divorce, I could no longer stay in our former apartment. There were too many memories. I wanted something that would be mine instead of ours where I could build a new life.

My mum came over from England about a year after Jamie moved back to Scotland. She knew how much I struggled with managing two younger children, and one just beginning to start school. She was a true godsend.

“Mum, do you think you could assist Bree?” She sent me a tender look and chuckled. “I’m afraid her suitcase might look something like this as well.”

My mother, Julia Beauchamp was a force to be reckoned with for sure. She raised me and my brother all by herself after my father died. She was left with a broken heart, yet somehow stayed strong enough for us. She was my hero. She was moving out in a few weeks, which meant more changes on the horizon for our family. 

“Of course love, I was already planning on intervening before your arrival. I fear your children are far too much like yourself.” I shot her a dirty look quite offended by her accusations.

I was not nearly as terrible as my children when it came to packing for holiday. They made everything so bloody hard and insisted on several trips to the store; often with remarks such as “I’ve run out” or “it’s eight weeks” or my favorite “they don’t have that in Scotland.” I found it hard not roll my eyes constantly at their ridiculousness.

“Mom?” I glanced up from my folding to find Isla Faith with a pensive look. “Do you wish that we didn’t have to go?”

I stared uncomprehendingly at my daughter. She was older than her sister and was able to remember the years after the divorce a bit better. “Come here sweetheart,” I patted her bed beckoning her to me. She cuddled up beside me and I loved it. As she grew older, moments like these were few and far between as she claimed she wanted her independence. Although sometimes I could entice her into my bed for a good cuddle session. “I don’t mind you guys going to visit your father. I lost my own when I was five, and I don’t begrudge the time you spend with him.” I stroked her dark red hair. It wasn’t as bright as her father’s or sister’s. “I do get lonely, but then I think about all the time I have with you that he doesn’t. He lives an entire ocean away and relies primarily on FaceTime and phone calls to get him through until your next visit.”

The custody situation was decided on when he chose to move back to Scotland. Both of the girls were born in the United States. While the girls hold citizenship in the U.K., neither of them have lived there for a period longer than two months. They only use their U.S. passports as it was easier for them to leave and re-enter the country without any issues.

“Would you ever get back with dad?” From the moment she had a good grasp on the situation between her father and I, it was the question she thought about and asked the most. She liked to think she remembered what it was like when her dad was around. She was almost three at the time, so it was clear whether or not her memory was reliable or not. It was fuzzy for her, but she told me she remembered how I kissed her father when he came home from work every night.

I pressed a kiss to her strawberry scented hair. She smelled like strawberries, outside, and something that was just Isla.“No darling, your father and I don’t fit together anymore. We live here and he lives in Scotland. It’s already hard to manage a long distance relationship, imagine having an intercontinental one. However, we both love you and your sister, and that won’t ever change.” It was perhaps the only thing we agreed on at the end. We wanted to do what was best for our children, and I think ultimately we have. I try to give him as much time with them as I can without compromising their schooling or my plans. She nodded, seemingly okay with my answer. I knew she would never fully be satisfied with anything I told her. Like any child of divorced parents, her dream was for us to get back together. It was evasive at best, but explaining the situation to an eleven year old was difficult. It was an adult problem, nothing little girls needed to worry about.

“I’m kind of nervous about going to dad’s.” I hadn’t the slightest idea why. She loved going to Scotland every summer. No one else in her class regularly spent their summers abroad. “Now that my body is starting to go through.. you know… changes, it’s weird. I can’t talk to him about these sorts of things. Like what if I get my period? He’s a boy, and dad isn’t the greatest at female stuff.” Her face was one of horror at the mere thought of starting puberty with only her dad around. I couldn't imagine how Jamie would handle it either. I could only imagine what Jamie managed to mangle with her. It wasn’t until we were married that he would go out and buy tampons for me.

I knew it was a worry of hers, especially now that she would be twelve soon enough. Several of her friends had already started their cycles, and she was eagerly anticipating and dreading when it would happen to her. She so desperately wanted to be a woman, when I just wanted her to remain a little girl forever. She was growing far too fast for my liking. I don't recall being this way, but I'm sure my mother would contradict me.

I chuckled. “If it does, you can always have your father call your Aunt Jenny. You can also call me at any time. I’m only a phone call away even if you call and wake me in the early hours of the morning.” I smoothed down her wavy hair.

She reddened at the reminder of her first visit with her father. My baby had not quite grasped the concept of time zones, and forced her father to ring me at two a.m. east coast time. I couldn’t stay mad though as soon as I heard her voice. She cried a bit because she missed me and home. She was a mere three years old, and didn't quite comprehend why she couldn't see me. Trying to explain distance wasn’t an easy task, and it was years before she fully comprehended how far it was. At that point in time, it was only Isla visiting her father. Bree was still too young as she was still several months away from being two and I couldn't subject my mother to two cranky toddlers. My mother flew with Isla to deliver her to their father. Jenny flew with the girl back and visited for a few days with us. We still talked, but she knew well enough not to mention her brother in my presence. There were topics that we ignored to maintain a balance and to help me keep my stability.

“How was your last day of school?” Isla recently finished sixth grade, and she was such a magnificent student. A change of topic was best to distract her from her favorite topic.

She beamed happily at me. I knew then that I asked the right question. “It was great. Ms. Andrews gave us time to sign yearbooks during homeroom. She signed all of ours. Then during assembly we shared our plans for the summer. I wish I was going to be here so that I could participate in the summer service project.” She was such a generous soul. I knew it came from her father, who was always willing to help out the tenants who rented out land on his estate. He would argue it was a trait inherited from me.

They had such huge hearts and did everything to help those in need. “My big sister gave me a gift. Soon enough, I get to be a big sister.” Big sisters were eighth graders assigned to the students in the 5-7th grades. Each girl received one during orientation. It was good for building relationships between grades and creating a positive school dynamic and tradition.

Isla’s big sisters were regulars at our house. It was usually filled with many of their classmates during the weekend. There was no shortage of noise in our house. The school year was busy, and I relied on my mother and the other parents at school to assist with getting the girls to their activities.

“We had our last mass this morning. It’s going to be weird to attend mass with daddy again. We always go with grandma or you when you are off work. It’s different there though with the whole accent thing. Sometimes I can’t always tell what’s being said. I’m going to miss choir and seeing my friends everyday." She dropped her eyes to the floor. "We mostly cried today though. Kara is moving to California. I won’t even be here for her goodbye party.” Her face crumpled and a tear fell down her cheek. I brushed it away with my thumb, wanting nothing more than to hold her in my arms forever.

I was completely gutted by this revelation. It was hard to realize the things my children were deprived of because they had divorced parents living in different parts of the world. Eight weeks of their freedom was spent in the British Isles where aside from family, they didn't know anyone.

“I’m sorry.” It was all I could offer her. Kara had been one of the first friends she made at her new school. They were on the same sports team and hit it off immediately. 

She shrugged. “I also have to figure out how to practice for field hockey.” Isla and Bree were quite the athletes. I didn’t have a single athletic bone in my body, but my daughters sure did. They took after their father in that respect. She joined the team this past school year. She also played softball in the spring. Isla started with T-ball at four and continued on from there. She showed such an aptitude and the coaches were impressed with her skills, especially since I knew nothing about the sport. 

Bree was a soccer player as the Americans called it. She played all year round. Nothing could distract her when she was in soccer mode. She played club and for her school.

“Maybe your dad will practice with you,” I suggested. I’m sure he could figure it out. He went to a few baseball games, and it wasn't all that different from softball.

We eventually finished packing her suitcase and carry on. I doubled checked her backpack for all of her travel documents including the notarized letter, her passport, their itinerary, her money, and her tablet and charger. Her hand was constantly attached to her phone. 

There was extra room in her suitcase for when she ended up bringing home more things than she left with. It wouldn’t be the first time. Jamie tended to indulge the girls wants when they visited. It mostly gave me an excuse to clean out their rooms at the end of summer.

After we were done, we went to check on the progress of her sister. Bree and my mother were just about done themselves. “How about some take out?” I suggested, not in the mood to cook after being called in at four a.m.

I knew with all of the excitement, my mother hadn’t had an opportunity to start on dinner. Both girls cheered excitedly as they did whenever we ate out. It was a rare treat in our house. “Vietnamese,” they agreed upon immediately as they shared a look.

It was our last family dinner for eight weeks. It was one of my favorite nights of the year because it was spent together gathered around the table telling all kinds of stories. Sometimes we shared new ones, and other times we talked about our favorites. It was such a wonderful tradition as I enjoyed time with both of my girls. Their faces lit up and their eyes sparkled as we all talked and laughed. 

It amazed me every year how much they had grown. Bree was nine years old heading into the fourth grade. She was becoming more independent with each passing day. Many mornings passed where she no longer wanted me to style her hair. She worked on school projects by herself without requiring any assistance and when shopping for clothes she preferred to search without me hovering over her shoulder.

She was so young when Jamie and I first split, and I wasn’t sure how that would affect her in the long run. In retrospect, she probably had the easiest time with it. For her, having divorced parents wasn’t unusual. She essentially never knew any other way to live and it was just life. It wasn’t entirely uncommon amongst her classmates despite it generally being a taboo in Catholicism. Some of her friends from soccer had divorced parents though, and I'd overheard her on a few occasions talk about what a struggle it could be. Her friends leant a sympathetic ear, and they all passed along advice.

“Do you remember the first time Bree and I visited you at the hospital together?” My face flushed with remembered embarrassment. Bree had been four years old at the time. She knew the general idea of where babies came from, and she interacted with her first pregnant woman. I was coming around the corner at the time when I heard her exclaim, “I see your belly. I know what you did.” The woman she encountered flushed delicately and quickly scurried away in mortification. The nurses who observed the whole ordeal still had a good laugh about it now.

Isla chortled as Bree moaned her mortification. “I was four.” She protested loudly. Laughter surrounded us, and I knew the next few weeks would pass us quickly.

“Remember when you got your first official Valentine from a boy?” I asked Isla. She smiled weakly at me as she attempted to hide behind her hair. “Isla comes home from third grade with this card and a flower. She tells me this boy has been telling everyone he has a huge crush on her. He wanted her to be his girlfriend. I asked her if she liked him back. Isla then says ‘boys are too gross for a pretty girl like me’. When he asked if she wanted to have a play date, Isla told him she only played with girls.”

Isla covered her red face as Bree giggled uncontrollably. “That’s so funny. You were a snob.” The two of them traded barbs back and forth in that way only siblings could. I knew it was how they expressed their love for one another. It only bothered me when there were slamming doors and yelling/shoving involved.

The girls cleared up the dinner mess and soon enough the car was loaded up with their suitcases.

While the girls weren’t departing until ten, they had to go through TSA. I had to check them in and wait for someone to escort them because of their age. There was a special process for unaccompanied minors, especially since this was an international flight. 

I parked my SUV in short-term parking as I helped them unload their massive suitcases. We checked their bags and print out their tickets. I waited with them for the airline representative to arrive to take them through security.

I forced back tears as I hugged and kissed them for the last time for eight weeks. It was always the hardest part of when they left. I watched them as they disappeared into the fold. It took a while for their red heads to mesh into the crowd.

Now I needed to keep myself busy until they returned to me.

Chapter Text

                                            

J POV

The airport was busier than usual as people bustled around me. There were tearful reunions, stiff pleasantries exchanged, and some people were simply there by themselves. My favorite time of year had come around once again, and I was prepared for another summer with my daughters.

The lasses were growing up, and I struggled sometimes with the distance between us. Often we connected through video chatting where they regaled me with tales about school, sports, and other anecdotes from their daily lives. They frequently left out mentions of their mother, and sometimes it hurt more than I could express. Jenny told me they noticed how my mood dipped when Claire was mentioned. I didn’t want them to feel as if they had to monitor and edit their stories to prevent me from hurting. It was difficult to share those sorts of feelings with children as I knew they merely wanted to protect me in what ways they could. I wasn't bothered by their modifications, but it always made me wonder what they were omitting from their stories.

I watched through narrowed eyes as another group of people came down the escalator. I recognized my two red heads in the fold, and waited patiently as the airline representative escorted them to me. I brought out my identification and signed the documents releasing them into my custody as quickly as I could. The girls exchanged goodbyes, and then it was the three of us.

“Hi daddy,” Bree exclaimed happily, throwing her long arms around my middle. The first thing I noticed about her was her height. In the last six months, she had grown at least two or three inches. She was gaining height on her sister, and growing up so fast. It seemed there were other changes from the way she wore her hair to the way she carried herself. She exhibited self-assuredness in who she was. It was becoming increasingly harder to ignore that she was on the cusp of adolescence.

I hugged her a bit tighter to me than normal, savoring this moment when she was still my little girl. Soon enough, I would be the last person she’d want hugging her in public. Isla was already withdrawing from any sort of affection. I enfolded Isla into our family embrace even though she generally shied away from public displays. Everything was embarrassing to her these days. 

Isla was a bit more mortified by my antics than her sister. She slid out of my grasp and smoothed down her hair with flushed cheeks as her eyes darted around the concourse. I struggled to compose myself because at Hogmanay I assumed it was other outside issues that kept her distant from me. Unlike her sister Brianna, Isla couldn’t be classified as merely a child any longer. While there were noticeable differences in Bree from when I last saw her, it was Isla who had completely transformed unbeknownst to me. 

Isla was never particularly girly or cared for her looks much when she was younger. She rarely brushed her hair unless Jenny or her mother wrangled her and outright refused dresses and skirts. She loved rough housing with her male cousins, playing sports with her family, and being boisterous. I hadn’t paid much attention the previous summer, but she was in the midst of a change. I attributed her behavior to a mere phase and even dismissed the changes at Hogmanay. I recalled Jenny being fickle at the same age, and thought that’s what it was. 

It wasn’t until a FaceTime call a few weeks ago where I saw for the first time the differences in her. She was becoming a lovely young woman. It wasn’t just her appearance either, but how she spoke. Her voice no longer carried that childish high pitch and instead sounded deeper. Her hair had further darkened, her face thinned, and gone was the little girl who believed I could touch the sky. 

She wasn’t my wee bairn anymore, and I wasn’t was okay with that. I remembered holding her in my arms the moment she was cleared by the doctors, and thinking I was the luckiest man in the world. “Look at ye, ye’ve grown so much.” She was nearly as tall as her mother after spending much of her childhood significantly shorter than her cousins and her peers.

“Thanks dad,” she shifted uncomfortably under my gaze. Her attention was redirected to the luggage and she pointed out their suitcases to me. I lifted them with ease off the conveyor belt, and was about to roll them when they resisted. “Dad, we can do it ourselves. Mom says it’s important if you can do things for yourself.” Somehow i could hear more in that statement than what was explicitly said. It sounded like something Claire would say. She wasn’t one to generally allow me to do things for her as she despised being considered helpless or incapable. “How was your flight?” I shifted the topic to something easy. It was hard transitioning into our relationship after ages apart.

“It was good. The movie selection was okay, but that’s why mom let us bring our tablets. She let us buy three new movies for the trip each. It was a long one though. We didn't have time to nap before we left home yesterday. We kinda had some last minute packing to complete.” Isla ducked her head to hide the blush adorning her face. I was amused because it was definitely a trait they inherited from me. I was a notorious procrastinator, whilst Claire was notorious for planning out every single detail.

I noticed both girls were dead on their feet and were dragging as we made our way to the car park. While they were excited to see me again, they had a layover in London that got delayed for an hour. It was already a long journey from the States, and I figured it was best to get them home for a little kip.

I purchased the house not long after I returned to Scotland. While Jenny offered me Lallybroch, I didn’t feel comfortable taking it from her. She and Ian were raising their family and I only had a part time one. They were settled in the house; it seemed unfair for them to have to relocate if I only had the lasses with me in the summer. The house and estate were meant for a family.

I instead found a place in Edinburgh for me to reside. It was a detached family home, and while the girls wouldn’t necessarily be with me all the time, they needed somewhere to come home to when they visited instead of a flat. The garden was big enough for a playhouse and a trampoline. Although, the playhouse hadn’t been touched in two summers. I couldn’t bear to part with it though. The girls planted flowers a few years before that I tried to keep up with when they were gone. 

The sitting room was surprisingly spacious, and they never complained otherwise. They spent the majority of the time in front of the telly or in their rooms. I knew they lived in a fairly spacious house with their mother that they had grown up in. They were friendly with their neighbours and spent time with some of their elderly neighbours who took a shine to them. I never asked for full specifics, but occasionally I caught glimpses when they were moving amongst the rooms in the house. I had only been inside a few times, but only in the entry hall and kitchen and that was eons ago.

 It was hard enough realizing that my daughters were growing up city children when I spent my childhood in the Highlands, but they were also Americans. It was a different culture. They were experiencing an entirely different way of growing up from what I knew.

Prior to starting school, they had similar pronunciations of vowels as Claire and her mother, but as soon as Isla regularly began to attend preschool, she adopted the same accent as her peers. Bree picked it up from her sister. It wasn’t an issue, but it created a sort of distance. There were aspects of their lives I couldn’t relate to as we had entirely different upbringings. Even Claire had grown up in the city, so there was that commonality shared between them.

 I hadn't been stateside often unless it was business or an emergency, and I wasn't as caught up on events as I should've been. I knew it was strange for them to come to Scotland as people stared at them strangely when they spoke. I noticed the questioning glances people gave me as soon as the American accents were detected. It wasn't for them to pry, and the only ones who truly knew the situation were family, friends, and coworkers. It was odd as people expected the three of us to have the same accent. Worse than that was when strangers assumed I was still married. I was babbling idiot as I tried to explain we were divorced. 

As soon as we were in the car, they were fast asleep. The long night seemed to have caught up with them, and neither were resistant to the soothing vibrations of a car in motion. I couldn’t help but think it made them appear younger. Their heads lolled against the windows, and sweet Bree slept with her mouth open. I figured now was as good of time to make the call to their mother to inform her of their arrival. Isla had likely sent a text when they landed, but it was my duty to make sure she knew they were safe.

I dialed the familiar number into my mobile and waited as it rang. The phone clicked, and I was rewarded with a breathy “hello” on my speaker.

“Good morning Claire, the girls have arrived safely.” I informed her. It was a courtesy call we extended to one another whenever we exchanged the children. 

There was a hesitation on her end, and I would’ve thought she had hung up if I hadn’t heard her breathing. “Thank you for letting me know. I always worry when they travel.” I caught the tears in her voice, but didn’t comment knowing it would make the call more tense and awkward. We didn't talk about certain things anymore out of respect for one another’s privacy. “I’m sorry. I’m being silly and emotional. You would think after all these years I would be okay with this, but it never gets any easier.” I pictured her watery, whiskey colored eyes and her long fingers gently brushing away stray tears as she tried to choke back sobs. “Can you tell them to call me? I’m sure they’ve long entered the world of dreams.”

“Yes, I can do that for ye. Ye’re no’ being silly. I feel the same way when I send them home.” The middle of August was a difficult time for me. It gutted me to see them walking away from me in the airport and then spending the next several months not seeing them. We alternated holidays, so this year they would be with Claire for Nollaig and Hogmanay. Sometimes I had them for easter depending on their school holidays, but our time together was usually reserved for the summer. “Is there a specific time you’d like them to ring?” I knew she worked crazy hours, and it wasn’t always easy to get in touch with her depending on her shift.

She sighed on the other end of the line. “Well I’ve actually just been called in on my day off, but I will have my phone with me in surgery. I really have to go Jamie. Goodbye.” She ended the call before I had the opportunity to return the sentiment. It was typical of our exchanges.

Our shared conversations over the years were stilted, awkward, and often revolved around our daughters. It was the only safe topic we generally agreed upon. I knew there were areas of her life I was no longer privy to, and I tried not to push too much into her business unless it directly affected our children. In the intervening months of our initial separation and our divorce, I struggled immensely to respect her boundaries. I was accustomed to knowing all of the details of her life, and to suddenly not know anything was an adjustment. 

In the end, it was better to have a little bit of her than nothing at all. She tried to provide me as many chances to take part in my daughters’ lives despite a distance of some three thousand miles. I was allowed to partake in the conversation of selecting schools for them when it came time for enrollment in kindergarten. I assisted in providing the tuition payments, despite Claire telling me it wasn’t necessary. I made sure she was aware, we were equally responsible for providing financially for them. Their teachers emailed me during conference time, so that I was aware of their school performance. I was on the mailing list for their school newsletters.

I sent monthly child support payments, but she informed me, she set aside the money to pay for the girls to go to university in the future. At first. it stung that I wasn’t able to directly provide for my children, but I worked on getting over it. I was proud that Claire had made a good life for herself. She did use some of the funds for their multiple activities, but as far as day to day went, she provided for their needs. 

Sure it did clash with the innate responsibility I felt towards them and that had been ingrained me by my father, but it was important to maintain the status quo. Claire was a stubborn woman. I knew she wasn't doing it to hurt me, but to show me that she was able to take care of the girls. It wasn’t as if my money wouldn’t contribute in the future. University was expensive. 

At least during the summer, I had time to shower them with attention and gifts. I never went overboard as most of their things had to stay in Scotland. While they certainly carried treasures back, there just wasn’t enough room to bring everything. The summers were for us. 

We arrived home a little after half past two. My weary travelers were barely conscious. Bree looked around with sleep in her eyes as she unbuckled her seatbelt. She leaned into the car as I unloaded the bags, while Isla rested against her sister. While I could see all the changes in them and how they had grown up, it was nice to have this reminder that they were still my wee ones.

“Alright, girls I will bring your bags in since both of ye can barely stand upright. Why don’t ye go rest?” Neither responded to me, they used each other as a support to walk up the driveway. Isla used her key to unlock the door and they disappeared inside. I had to wonder why neither lass slept on the plane. They had been up for over twenty-four hours if what they had said was true. 

 Both girls slept for a few hours, and I use the time to handle some work calls. I checked in with my employees at the brewery and the pub, and then called Jenny and Ian about the arrangements for the weekend.

Eight weeks always went by far too quickly. I wasn’t a planner in the extreme sense though as sometimes life was unpredictable. Some days the lasses and I went out and allowed the adventures to find us, or sometimes we stayed inside. We would make forts, pop some popcorn, and watch movies all day.

“Daddy?” Bree called as she came down the stairs. Her hair was all mussed and she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. It reminded me of when was a bairn. She was such a wee thing with her gingery curls and big blue eyes. Despite what Claire said, I always saw more of their mother in them than myself.

I patted the sofa and she snuggled into my side. “What is it Bree?” I pressed my lips to her hair and inhaled her lavender scent.

“I missed you. I know we talk on FaceTime all the time, but it’s not the same as when we hug. You can’t help me with my homework. Next year I’m starting French, and while mommy knows French, she doesn’t have a lot of time.” While many would say she was so much like me, it was moments such as this when I saw Claire in her. Bree wasn’t someone who edged around the truth. She told people how she felt. "I'm not as good as Isla either. I mess up my conjugations."

I sighed and pulled her onto my lap. It was hard to believe she turned nine and would be ten later this year. She was going to be double digits. When Claire and I divorced, she was nothing more than a wee babe. She had only managed to say a few words: La (Isla), ma, da, and some others mixed in.

Here she was now nearly ten years old and I was missing all of it. I had no idea what a gulf our divorce caused. It was if this were my side of the world and that was hers. I had made a few trips across the pond, but she hadn’t returned at all. “Ye ken Bree, I understand what ye’re going through. I feel the same.” She laid her head against my chest. In my mind, I hoped she would never find herself too old for a cuddle with her old da.

“The fact is that ye live with yer mam. She would be awful sad if ye stayed forever.” I wouldn’t mind it, but Claire didn’t have much as far as close family was concerned. 

She had her mother, her brother, her grandparents and our children. “Did you know that I got a new cousin daddy?” Her voice took on a different tone. “His name is Charlie. He’s really eensy.” She showed me with her hands and I smirked.

“Ye ken you were that little once too?” She pulled her back her head, her curls whipping me in the face, affronted by my statement.

Her head began to shake in disagreement. “I don’t think so. It’s impossible. I don’t look that tiny in pictures.”

I kissed her forehead and let her go on believing what she wanted. Children would believe what they wanted anyway regardless of what adults said on the matter. Bree was stubborn as her mam.

“Can we order pizza for dinner?”

“Sure, why not.” I told her. I knew they didn’t eat out much as Claire preferred home cooked meals with the occasional take out. “What kind of pizza do ye want?”

About half an hour later, Isla finally made an appearance as the delivery man pulled away. “You know I think you’re just trying to bribe her.” She said with a teasing grin.

“Well I have to figure out how to win points. So tell me about school.” I knew they attended different ones, but in another year, Bree would be transferring to her sister’s school. Isla loved her school, perhaps more than she had ever enjoyed her previous one. Her face lit up as soon as she began to tell me about her friends.

They entertained me with tales from the last six months. “During Easter mass, this boy yells out ‘wait! Mom! Jesus died?’ Everyone laughed including our priest. Then our priest tells the boy to tell his mom that it’s okay to come to church every week, not just on Christmas and Easter.” Both girls giggled madly as Isla told me the story.

“Do ye go to church every week?”

They nodded. “Mommy usually goes with us, but sometimes she gets scheduled or called in. Nana always makes sure we attend. We also have mass every Friday at school.” If there was one thing that we easily agreed upon, it was that our children would be raised Catholic. 

“So what are our plans for the summer daddy?” Bree asked in what she probably considered a conversational tone. I knew better after knowing her mother for so long. She was fishing.

My lips twitched as I watched her attempt to be nonchalant and Isla slid down in her chair as she shook her head. “Well I figured, we could make a visit to Lallybroch. You’re Aunt Jenny has missed you guys something terrible. The rest we can take as we go along.”

They nodded their heads in unison. “Do you think we could do some service work?” Isla questioned me.

I crinkled my brow in confusion. “Service?”

She rolled her eyes in a similar manner to her mother. I didn’t need three guesses to figure out where she acquired that skill. “Yes, you know like doing good deeds for others. Every summer girls at my school complete service projects. Since I’m not there, I thought I could do something here to earn my hours.”

I understood what she meant. I was merely confused about the context of her question. “I suppose we could. I can look into some things for us.”

I took a sip of my water just as the words “so dad, are you going to get back with mom since you and what’s her face broken up?” left my eleven year old daughter’s lips. We were apparently still stuck on that one. 

Chapter Text

                                         

CPOV

I sat in my office reviewing charts and filling out paperwork. My residents made a few errors in  their charts, and now I was responsible for fixing them before my departmental chief noticed. Each class struggled in the first year, and it was a bit hard to transition them from being students to being surgeons. Whilst they were still learners, they had to step up. As a professional, there wasn’t always going to be someone there to cover up their mistakes. I sighed as the words began to blur together on the paper. The girls had already been gone two days and I was more than exhausted and lonely.

My shifts were practically endless as I volunteered for the graveyards. I barely left the hospital. There were still regulations about the amount of hours I could work a week, so I couldn’t work all the time. I leaned back in my chair and sank into the coziness. The bones in body cracked as I stretched my tight limbs. A groan fell from my lips. I needed a massage. My eyes slipped shut as my body finally had a chance to relax from the stress of the last few days.

2000

I took my seat on the train. I lucked out and managed to grab one by the window. It was fuller than usual, but it was the end of the weekend and people were heading back to London. I rested my head against the window as I waited for the train to depart. I crossed my fingers, hoping no one would sit across or next to me.

My eyes fluttered drowsily as I attempted to fight off sleep. It had been a long weekend. My uncle had me assisting him with his research, which was boring. I rather enjoyed history on occasion, but even I had my limits. My mum allowed me to skive off school for Thursday and Friday, and somehow helping my uncle was worse than sitting through my lessons. I wouldn’t have even minded my maths class, although my Uncle Lamb was still adamant about me completing my own schoolwork after our time in the archives. It was bloody torture. 

“Do ye mind if I sit here?” My eyes popped open to find a boy who appeared about my age staring at me expectantly. It took me a moment to remember what he asked. 

 My brows furrowed. “Uh sure...” I gestured to the available space around me. It was a free country. I sat up and adjusted my position for polite company as my mother called it. I tried not to stare at him, but I couldn’t help but sneak glances at him. He was quite good looking, by far more impressive than any of the wankers who attended school with me.

He had the loveliest ginger curls with strands of gold and copper woven throughout that made me think of sunsets as the colours blended seamlessly together. The shade was beautiful and so very opposite of my own dark coloured strands. His eyes were a deep blue with swirls of grey and he had strong Nordic features that spoke of his Viking ancestry. He had a lean build with wide shoulders, and was by far out of my league. He could have any girl he wanted without uttering a single syllable, so it was an impossibility he would view me that way. 

I caught his eyes on more than one occasion as he blatantly stared at me. My skin warmed under his heated gaze and I felt my cheeks turn pink. I couldn’t deny my attraction to him, which was unusual for me. For nearly the last year, I remained indifferent towards boys. There were better things to spend my time on. There was something different about him that made me want to know him and hang on his every word.

“I’m Jamie,” he introduced himself with a shy smile when he finally cued onto the fact that I wasn’t going to introduce myself. His eyes crinkled at the corners, and his blues seemed brighter. How was that possible? I was jealous. I had wanted blue eyes like my brother. 

I felt my lips curling up into a smile. “My name is Claire.” I held my hand out for him to shake, which he seemed to do with a fair bit of amusement. As our skin touched, it was like electricity went through me. His touch lingered on my skin as he removed his hand from mine. What the hell was that?

The absence of his touch left me feeling bereft and I wanted to touch him again, in a platonic way (lie). A coldness embraced me and I wanted the warmth of his touch again. I was shocked at myself because he was a perfect stranger and I swore off the opposite sex. “Are ye from England?” He carried a natural charisma and confidence that I envied. Most of the time I talked too much and too fast, and several boys didn’t care much for what was between my ears. They preferred what was between my legs, which didn’t get them a second date.

“Yes, I was born and raised in London. Where are you from?” I leaned forward in my seat before I realized what I was doing. My face flushed at how obvious I was being, but my attraction to him was undeniable. I wasn’t one of those daft girls who went all silly as soon as a man flashed them a smile. He was the exception. I noted he hadn’t seemed to mind my moving closer. He seemed pleased.

“I’m from a village a couple of hours outside Inverness. I was home visiting family. I attend school in London whilst living with my uncle.” He was an open book to me. I hadn’t expected his candid response. Most of the people I knew were pretentious arseholes, then again the circles I frequented were likely not the ones he was accustomed to if he was from a small village. 

“How old are you?” It wouldn’t be an issue if he were a university student, but I would be embarrassed about my behavior if he turned out to be an older guy. Older was the equivalent of way out of my league. I had little experience and what experience I did have wasn’t positive. 

“I turned sixteen not too long ago. What about you?”

I was in a reciprocating mood, which was lucky for him. “I’m sixteen too.” Somehow I managed to talk to him for the entire train ride back to London.

I had never connected with someone so quickly before, but I wanted to know him. The more he gave me, the more I wanted to share with him. It baffled me that I could feel this way for someone who I just met. He was unlike anyone I had known and I liked who I was with him. He didn’t know my entire history and judged me before knowing me. He listened to what I said without his eyes straying too much. He was a man and I can’t say my eyes stayed on his face the entire time either. He was a beautiful specimen, practically carved out of stone.

“Well my stop is the next one, but here’s my number. Feel free to ring if you want.” I smiled at him as I got up. The train jerked to a stop and I fell directly into his lap.

I moaned in mortification and attempted to push myself off his lap . His arms tightened around me, “I got ye. Sassenach.” His rough whisper was like a caress on my flushed skin. His voice was low and seductive, and caused my body to tingle in anticipation. Of what? I was unsure. I squeaked in surprise. To make matters worse, I sniffed him. It wasn’t discreet either. He smelled amazing; it was something woodsy and possibly sandalwood. It was addicting like ambrosia and I wanted to bottle it up. I couldn’t believe I had done that, but he was too alluring and I had no restraint.

"Oh my god, I'm sorry that happened. I mean I didn't mean to fall all over you like that." As I tried to push myself off of his lap, my hand brushed against his upper thigh and he nearly jumped out of his seat. "Oh shit, fuck I apologize. This cannot get any worse. I doubt you want me groping you, not that it was what I was doing because we're on a train and there are people around to see us, but I- let me backtrack for a second because you do have a nice lap, very lovely and I'm sure girls enjoy being in it-" I covered my face as I felt heat creep into my cheeks. I knew they were stained a bright pink and there was no salvaging the situation. I had to get out of there before I said something worse related to girls riding his lap. It was on the tip of my tongue.

I scurried off the train with nothing more than one last parting look to escape the situation. I had no idea what happened to me on the train. I was a complete disaster and stalker. He was never going to call after that humiliating display on the train. I resigned myself to the inevitable. He probably believed I was a total slag with the way my body responded to his touch. In his presence, I was reduced to a brainless twit. That didn’t spell success for our future interactions if I couldn’t handle close proximity to him. I mean I sniffed him. Who does that?  

My mum was there with a motherly smile and a warm hug as soon as I got off the train. Despite being sixteen years old and only gone for a few days, I missed her dearly. She wrapped her arm around my shoulders and we began the walk to our flat.

“What’s wrong love?” Julia had a second sense for knowing when I needed her.  She picked up on my moods and was there with tea and biscuits and a sympathetic ear. “You look down on your luck, ducky.”

Before the words could come, the tears arrived first. My mother was gobsmacked by my over the top behavior as I was generally more composed than this even at my worst. “Something occurred on the train, and I never want to leave my room again. I’ve humiliated myself enough for the entire century, hell maybe the entire millennium and it just started.”

My mother wanted to have a laugh at my expense, but she kept herself fairly controlled in order to comfort me. Her arm wrapped around my shoulders and she gave me a good squeeze. “Oh darling, I promise you’ll live through this. Why don’t you tell your dear old mum exactly what happened? It’s entirely plausible that you’re over exaggerating and perhaps a bit tired.”

As we made our way home, I told her all about the boy I met on the train and the many ways in which I embarrassed myself in front of Jamie. The mere thought of it made me want to die. Perhaps, I was being a bit melodramatic, but it wasn't as if she was the one who unintentionally groped a boy and then mentioned other girls enjoying his lap. 

“I don’t think there’s any need for that or any of your histrionics. I know it seems as if it’s the end of the world, but Claire you’re such a resilient young woman. From what you tell me about how he reacted, I don’t think he had any issues.” She winked at me.

I swiftly covered my face with my hands as I changed colors for the second time that day. My mother found ways to continuously surprise and mortify me, and this was just another opportunity for her to do so. “Never say anything relating to sex in my presence again. Aren’t you like celibate?” I definitely didn’t want to think about my mother having sexual relations with anyone. It was revolting. 

The flat was quiet, meaning my brother was most likely out with friends. The two of us sat around the table in his absence drinking tea. Tom hated our little chats and called us a bunch of biddies. This time together often soothed me and this time was no different. I calmed down enough to evaluate the situation rationally with a clear mind. “You know you’re right mum. He probably won’t even remember this come tomorrow. He’s probably accustomed to females hanging all over him. “ I grumbled unhappily. It figured.

There was something in her smile I couldn’t quite read, but it was almost knowing. I hated when she kept stuff to herself. 

The phone rang and my mum left to answer it. I sipped at my tea.“Beauchamp residence?” I rolled my eyes because it was unlikely it was someone we didn’t know. We had an unlisted number. “You’re calling for Claire?

Hang on a moment.” She covered the receiver. “Claire, it’s for you. It’s Jamie.” Her tone matched that knowing look she gave me.

I jumped up so fast that I knocked the chair over, nearly spilled my tea, and tripped over my feet. I snatched the phone and was in my bedroom before my mother could make any teasing remarks. “Jamie?”

“Hello Sassenach,” he greeted. His voice was silky smooth like honey.

I couldn’t believe it. “You actually called.” I sounded incredulous, but I really wasn’t sure what to think with the way we ended things on the train, or rather how I reacted when he caught me.

“I gave ye my word, didn’t I? I’m not someone who easily breaks promises Claire.” My name sounded different on his lips. It was said with reverence as if it were the most important word he knew. “So what are ye doing?” I let out a girlish giggle and covered my mouth in shock. What was happening to me? 

We spent two hours on the phone that first night. My brother pestered me for the rest of the evening about how long I talked with Jamie.

“Stop being such a tosser.” I flicked his head and he shoved me in return.

“Oh piss off,” he muttered. “You really shouldn’t get too invested. He’s probably a dog with two dicks, and you’ll just be the next notch on his bed post.” As soon as he said it, I could see the remorse in his eyes. “Claire, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

I nodded, but I wasn’t quite ready to forgive him for his callous and unthoughtful words. “Good night Tom, we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

His face fell in disappointment. We rarely argued, but sometimes he took things too far in our sibling spars. “Night Claire, I just want you to know, I’m just scared one day you won’t be here. You’re such a great girl and any guy would be lucky to be with you, and then you’ll no longer have time for your annoying younger brother.”

Tom was younger than me by a year, and he knew my aspirations to attend medical school in the future. He knew my greatest desire was to leave London. I hadn’t dated anyone in a while so he had grown accustomed to not competing for my attention. “Yeah,” I said as I brushed him off and went to my room.

I wasn’t really mad at my brother, but I was hurt. He didn’t seem to trust me to pick out a decent guy.  Granted I didn’t have the greatest record, but he didn’t seem to trust that I had learned from my past. Jamie wasn’t like the knob heads I had shown interest in. He listened when I talked and shared personal details about himself. 

There was an intimacy shared between us, I hadn’t expected. He was gentle despite his rugged exterior. He contributed to the conversation in a thoughtful manner, not merely offering up one or two words in passing. He told me he enjoyed hearing me talk. 

Laying in bed, my mind drifted to thoughts of him. He had lovely ginger curls. His were much nicer than mine, which were frizzy and uncontrollable. My mother wouldn’t let me do anything to tame them either. He was much taller than my 162 centimeter frame, at least 30 centimeters. His sinewy muscles helped contribute to his overall hotness. He was a beautiful specimen to marvel at, and my eyes had done a lot of marveling. It was hard for me not to stare when he was seated right there in front me like some ancient Greek statue. He had to have been sculpted from clay. 

Much of the attraction came from his accent. I didn't actually know many Scots, but I loved when he spoke Gaelic. Of course, I didn't understand any of it, but it was fascinating nonetheless. I know he came from the Highlands and his family had lived there for ages. He was outdoorsy and loved horses. He wasn’t a lover of the city, but could appreciate certain aspects of it. He was unlike anyone in my world. I couldn’t be happier about it.

I couldn’t wait until our next phone call. 

 

Chapter Text

                                            

We took such care of tomorrow, but died on the way there.

-Warsan Shire



JPOV 

I held back a smile as the girls eagerly bounced in their seats, the anticipation almost too much for them. Our first week had breezed by us as we spent the time acclimating. Our first week was always for us. I didn’t have much time with them as it was, and I had to savor every single moment I could.

I took the girls to the beach. I laughed as they screeched when the water lapped at their legs. They shivered and buried themselves in towels afterwards, but the smiles on their faces were genuine. The chill of the water didn’t stop them from playing. Their laughter still echoed in my ears, and it was a moment that will be imprinted in my memory forever. 

They were accustomed to warmer waters as they lived on the other side of the Atlantic. Neither was used to living so far north, and they usually went on holiday with their mother after their time here where they enjoyed a warm beach. “So tell me about the trip you are taking this year?” Most of the time, they went to their beach house.

“Well mommy said we are going to the Vineyard. We used to stay at her friend’s house until mom bought ours.” While they usually stayed in Massachusetts, there were summers where Claire took them on holiday somewhere else. “We went last year too. It was fun. We went shopping and ate at really nice restaurants. The beaches are pretty nice. The house sits on a bluff that overlooks the ocean. It’s beautiful.” Isla’s voice took on a dreamy sort of tone. Bree eagerly bobbed her head in agreement with her sister. 

“Do ye go on holiday elsewhere?” 

Isla and Bree exchanged looks as if debating whether or not tell me. It was apparent what the answer to my question was. “Well, we often take mini trips for our birthday. It can be the weekend before or after, sometimes it falls on our actual birthday. Mommy lets us pick the destination and she makes all the arrangements.” Bree informed me as she shot her sister a worried glance. “There’s also our school breaks, and mom can occasionally get time off. We’ve been a few places. We told you about some of them.” 

I hummed in response. I tried to push down my sea of emotions, especially when the oncoming wave was envy. “I see.” I murmured more for the girls’ benefit than my own. 

“Are you okay daddy?” I heard the concern in Isla’s voice. I grunted unintelligibly. “I guess we didn’t tell you everything because you aren’t there with us. We thought it might hurt your feelings to know all the stuff we do. We know you’re busy, and it’s really expensive to fly to Boston for a weekend.” 

It wounded me more knowing my daughters believed they had to protect me from their life and that they understood my absence. Money shouldn’t be an excuse. “I am not offended love.” I peeked at her to find her eyes full of skepticism. It reminded me of Claire. “I ken, you and yer mam have your own traditions. I wish you wouldn’t omit details to appease me. It’s disrespectful to your mother.” I never wanted them to hide parts of their live in an attempt to bolster my ego. 

I read the remorse on their faces. I knew they hadn’t considered their mother’s feelings if she knew they felt the need to hide details. “We’re sorry. If you want we can tell you about those other places we’ve been.” 

The remainder of the drive was spent with them sharing stories about their travels. Last year for spring break, Claire had taken the girls to California. They spent the week at the beach, Disneyland, shopping, and bonding. 

There were things I did with them too. I had taken them to Disneyland in Paris. I didn't necessarily shower them in gifts, but there were a few. I tried to expose them to Scottish culture. I wanted them to know about where their family hailed. 

“You know you could always visit us.” Isla hinted not so subtly. “I mean there’s a lot of stuff we could show you.”

I knew what she wanted, but I managed to deftly avoid responding to her. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have a response prepared. I wished I could resolve the issues between Claire and myself, but there was an ocean literally and figuratively between us. 

She made it clear how she felt about me at the end. And we both had said things in the end we couldn’t take back. 

July 2009 

“If you’re going to leave then just do it.” Her voice was cold, lacking any emotion. Her face was expressionless. 

From the moment I met her, I could read almost any emotion that flashed across her face. The last few weeks, or I should say months, she closed herself off to me. I couldn’t fully put the blame on her for it either.

My eyes held my own shock at her statement. Divorce wasn’t the direction I thought we were going, then again I didn’t know where we were headed. We were permanently stalled.

I knew she received no pleasure from delivering the final blow to our marriage, but we were unsettled around each other. She was a woman suffering. “Can we talk about it?” I don’t know what I was offering, or if I wanted to save what we had. There were a lot of things coursing through me. Panic was at the forefront of mind because what was I without her? We were Jamie and Claire. 

She turned away with her shoulders up to her ears. Her arms wrapped tightly around her torso. “I hate you.” She meant it. “I don’t know when it started, but damnit I hate you. It’s your fault all this happened and I can’t find it in myself to forgive you. I try not to think about it, but then I do.” 

I hadn’t forgiven myself. How could I expect her to do the same. I touched her shoulder and she flinched away from my hand. Stung, I backed away from her. Never before had she rejected affection from me. 

“Claire,” I pleaded softly. My eyes filled with moisture as I realized what was happening. “I’m not blameless.”

She swiveled, her eyes flashing dangerously. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“God damnit, everything is always about YOU.” Her expressive brown eyes widened in shock. I had rarely raised my voice at her, at least not without proper provocation. “I came to America because of you. I dropped out of school so that I could support our family and you could stay in fucking medical school. With the kids, school, and your part-time job, you don’t have time for me. Do you even see me? Am I invisible to you? You’ve never asked my feelings in all this time. Either you’re daft or incredibly selfish, and we both know it’s not the former.”

“Fuck you! You told me to stay in school. You said Claire this is yer dream.” She mocked me. “I couldna bear if ye gave it up for me. Is this a punishment? I’m sorry that I barely have enough of myself to give away. It doesn’t absolve you of your wrongdoings. Couples go through rough patches. All you’ve done is walk around in this somber state, ignoring me, staring at me with your sad, pathetic eyes, but you’ve never asked me properly to forgive you. You know what that tells me? You’re a fucking coward James Fraser.”

My blood boiled. She was baiting me, and I fell for it. “Oh that’s rich coming from ye. Ye had an issue with Britney long before ye said anything. Nothing ever happened, but that dinna stop ye from accusing me of adultery. So she was a bit friendly, I made it clear where we stood.”

She scoffed derisively. “Yeah after she kissed you. I suppose I should count myself lucky you didn’t fuck her. Tell me, Jamie how close were you to falling into bed with yer little American whore?”

“Och well at least my cock would’ve seen some action. I have one bad reaction in nearly ten years together, and then all of a sudden my wife wants nothing to do with me. I apologized, but of course ye dinna ken how to see reason. Ye take everything so personally.”

“Piss off. I was trying to make it right when I caught you with her hands all over you. How is a wife not supposed to read more into that? Please, you were probably aching for her since your wife wasn’t satisfying you.”

I stepped right into her personal space. My body shook with barely controlled rage. “Ye’re such a control freak and ye always have to be right. There’s no room for discussion. We are all wrong because in yer world, there’s no grey. Ye’re a stifling bitch.” I had taken it too far. We both had. 

She took a step back as her eyes lowered. “I see.” She murmured softly. “I’m sorry that I’ve suffocated you for all these years. My apologies.”

“Claire, I dinna mean it.”

“Jamie, you and I know that we rarely say things we don’t mean even in our anger. Words can’t be washed away with apologies.” Her eyes glittered with unshed tears as realization dawned in them. Whatever came next was going to have lasting repercussions for not only us but our children.

“I’m not doing this to hurt you. I don’t want you think that, but I want a divorce. I can’t see your face without hating you. I don’t want to feel this way. We keep hurting each other. This isn’t the first time we’ve fought these last few months. Whenever we talk, it turns into an argument. We say things, pretend nothing was said, and go on in this limbo. I’m tired of it. For so many years all I did was love you, but I can’t anymore. I’ve been trying so hard to make our marriage work, but the damage has been done. We poisoned it from the inside.” Her knees gave out and she fell back onto the sofa. 

Her small body crumbled in on itself as she shook with sobs. She was right we killed our own marriage.

It was far from our last conversation or argument on the subject. It was just the one that defined our relationship from that point. She no longer wished to be my wife. I pledged to make her happy when we married, and I was fulfilling my end of my duty. I was giving her what she wanted. It didn’t mean I had to wear a smile and pretend I wasn’t dying on the inside. 

We pulled into the courtyard of the estate. The girls were out of the car before I could put it in park. 

Maggie, Kitty, and Janet were out the door the moment they heard the car coming down the drive. I had no doubt they were waiting for our arrival. Maggie was almost sixteen years old, but she doted on her younger cousins. She was fascinated by anything related to America, and Bree and Isla told her about everything. The girls were quite the novelty here in the village. 

Kitty was fourteen and quite the smartarse. She knew how to drive anyone mad with her quick wit. The youngest was Janet, although she preferred Janie. She was eleven years old. She had a gentle and motherly nature. She spent much of her time in the garden or taking care of the animals. I had a fondness for her as she reminded me occasionally of my Bree. 

They didn’t favor one another in looks as Janet had brown hair and brown eyes. None of Jenny’s kids looked like mine. Although, when they were younger, Ian and Bree looked a bit alike. He was significantly younger than my girls with his seventh birthday in a few months. As of last summer, Bree no longer had the patience to entertain her younger cousin. She called him a baby, although I’m not sure where she received the impression that she was so much older than him. They had played amicably until one day they didn’t. 

Michael used to spend much of his time trailing behind Isla and his twin Janet. Then he decided girls were gross and fled from them when the opportunity presented itself. 

My namesake was headed off to university in the fall. He had chosen somewhere in the States, surprising not only myself but his parents with his decision. He loved his mother, but he knew that if he stayed close for uni, she would never give him peace.

I sometimes envied Jenny having loads of children. When one left, she still had a bunch of others to mother and nurture. I recalled the conversation we had when I told her about the divorce. She was none too pleased me with me when she discovered what transpired, not to say she didn’t share her ire with Claire. 

September 2009 

“Jamie, ye’re a fool if ye do this.” She warned me over the phone. She wanted to come over to knock some sense into my thick skull. “I canna believe ye would truly allow this-this divorce to happen.” She spit out the word like it was a curse. Jenny was far more religious than most people knew, and part of her reticence to our separation was the Church. “After everything this year, ye’re going to let this break you apart?” 

I buried my face in my hands. “She hates me.” I cried. “I find myself loathing her too. Ye should’ve heard the racket we made. The neighbors almost called the police. It was fortunate the children weren’t there. It isn’t the first time we’ve had a go at each other in the last few months.”

I could feel her softening over the phone. Jenny had been my rock since our mother passed. “She’s suffering and so are you. At the moment, ye’re the one in front of her. She needs someone to blame and it’s you. I dinna think she hates you. Ye could never hate each other.” 

I had to disagree with her. The fury barely held back in her eyes clued me into her feelings for me. She never displayed such hatred before and I had to say my feelings for her weren’t clear either. “Ye have no’ seen her since May. Things have changed. The tension between has only increased. Polite conversation when our daughters aren’t present has declined.” I ran my fingers through my hair. “I canna talk to her without making a blunder. Everything I do upsets her. If I can give her this one thing, I am still keeping to my vows. And Jenny, when I look at her, it feels as if I’m staring at a stranger. I try to find anything that reminds me of who she used to be, or think of things I love about her, but I’ve been struggling.” 

“Jamie,” she sighed with pity. “I canna tell ye what to do. It is yer decision. However, I will warn ye, it will be its’ own burden. This is permanent and ye canna go back. Divorce is not something to take lightly. What about the church?” 

“Well we’ve already began the paperwork for a church annulment. I haven’t seen her smile in months, at least not around me. She gives me scathing remarks and icy glares. We haven’t slept in the same bed in ages, and then I moved out of the apartment two weeks ago. I feel like I can breathe again. I’m sure she feels something similar.” 

Jenny was silent on the other end. I knew she was thinking. She was the biggest champion of our relationship, taking an instant liking to Claire. It perturbed me in the beginning because Jenny was your typical rough and tumble kind of girl. She didn’t have lofty aspirations. She had a college degree of course, but she was perfectly fine being a stay at home mother. 

She and Claire bonded when I brought her home for the first time. Neither of them would tell me what happened during the visit. All I knew was that they spoke to one another regularly.

“Did she not tell you about it?” I wouldn’t be surprised if she hadn’t. 

“No, but I think she expected you to tell me.” She blew out a long breath. “If you think this is the best decision for yer marriage, well go ahead with it. Claire will still be my sister and friend.” I knew she was essentially saying she wouldn’t cut off contact with her despite the state of my relationship with her. They were separate.

“Fair enough.” We never spoke about the divorce again. 

When she picked me up from the airport, she avoided the topic and instead commented on my weight.

Jenny walked out with a wide smile. “How are ye?” Her eyes sparkled with unbridled happiness. She enjoyed spending time with her nieces. 

“Tired, the girls don’t nap anymore.” She chuckled at my expression. “They’ve grown up so much in the last few months.” 

She nodded knowingly. “It is the way of children. Dinna borrow trouble though, they are still young yet.” She guided me into the house where Ian laid on the couch with his video games. “Did ye have that talk with Isla?”

I shook my head. She pursed her lips. I was saved by young Ian passing by and distracting her.

“Ian! Say hi to your uncle.” She commanded in a tone reminiscent of our mother. 

The boy barely lifted his eyes from his game. “Hi Uncle Jamie,” he greeted before redirecting his attention back to his game. 

His mother shook her head. “I tell ye, he never wants to do anything that’s social. All he does is play that game of his.” 

“The girls are like that with their iPads. They spend a lot of time on them.” I wasn’t sure what they actually did either. Isla tried to explain to me once, but it mostly went over my head. 

We sat around the kitchen table drinking tea. “Ian’s with Jamie shopping for school things.” Her eyes held barely contained sadness. “I canna believe he is leaving.” 

“Well at least he won’t be completely alone. Claire lives over there, and if need be can fly out to him if something happens.” 

Jenny bit her lip but agreed. “Yes, but it is no’ the same as his mother. Do ye ken how she is?” Somehow we shifted into a different subject. A topic I preferred to avoid. 

I quirked a brow. “I figure ye probably ken better than me.” 

She was bemused. “She’s fine. I talked to her a few days ago. She’s a bit lonely with the girls here, but her job keeps her busy.” Her eyes held a secret. A secret she didn’t want me to know. “Ye still dinna answer my question.”

I sighed. “I haven’t talked with her about it. I figured the grounding was good enough. It- well I just- gah- no one told me raising a girl would be this difficult. She doesn’t want to talk about Hogmanay, and I’d rather avoid it too.”

“She is almost twelve. She doesn’t need ye coddling her from her behavior. Mother would’ve strung us up if we had ever behaved in such a fashion. She dinna tolerate disrespect and ye’ve allowed her to get away with it since her grounding happened at Claire’s.”

“Ye dinna understand.” My shoulders slumped. “My time with them is supposed to be about the fun. I ken I am the parent and it canna always be fun, but we’ve had such a good thing. I dinna want to ruin it with something that happened months ago.”

“Jamie, we know she’s not remorseful. She told Claire as much. She knew what she was doing.”

“I know.”

“Ye dinna have to have it now, but before she goes home, I think ye should address it with her. She canna always have her way. You and Claire are allowed to move on without worrying yer children won’t be happy about it.”

She kissed my head. “It is fine to be a bad guy. The good and the bad come with the territory. Ye willna be doin’ her any favors.”

“Why do ye always he be right?”

“Because I’m older.”

I made a face at her. 

Chapter Text

                                           

CPOV 

I was a mother. It was the first word I would use to describe myself. Everything in my life came secondary to that role. After, I would say doctor, sister, and daughter. Wife was one I gave up when I realized we were no longer working.  

However, I wasn’t a nun and my whole life didn’t revolve around my daughters. In the beginning, I tried to make them my everything; my mother encouraged me to expand my interests and forge new relationships. She didn't want me to spend the rest of my life alone given that one day my daughters would inevitably leave home. They couldn’t remain my whole world forever; it wasn’t the natural way of things. 

I knew she was hinting at something deeper. It was different for her as she was a widow, not to say she remained single often. Somehow she attracted quite a few men including some younger ones, and I never asked much about it unless it became serious. I was certain I didn't want to know the details of her personal life. We did keep clear boundaries whilst living together.

She wanted me to put myself out there, not necessarily exploring my dating options. She felt I had given up on having a life outside of home and school and then work.

After my divorce, I didn’t date immediately, nor was I open to the prospect of dating. Finding Jamie was an act of serendipity. He was simply there and showed genuine interest in me. I hadn’t gone searching for him. He appeared at the perfect moment when I was beginning to allow people to get close to me. I had been spurned and had decided that I was done with boys. Then there he was like shining star, bringing the light with him.

For most of my life, I preferred solitude. My parents thought it odd behavior when my reception teacher mentioned it to them. She thought I was an only child. In reality, I liked playing by myself as I could play by my rules. Sometimes I was bored with the silly girls in my class, and all of the boys believed girls were gross. 

As an adult I wasn’t much different, but I was a bit more social. My friends managed to convince me to go out on several occasions. There were different versions of drunk Claire. There was weepy, love-sick, and depressed Claire. There was party girl Claire. There was flirty and bold Claire. I never knew exactly which personality would come out for the night. Although, weepy girl tended to appear on movie night where we watched rom-coms and drank wine. Luckily, she fit right in with my friends. All of us would back in our misery, except Melody and her wife. They sympathized, which was good enough for the rest of us. 

It was fortuitous when I did finally meet someone new whom I was open to dating. Peter smashed right into me as I was exiting and he was entering the elevator. His scalding coffee spilled all over me. While my skin made it out intact, my blouse was stained brown. Peter tried to help with his napkin, which ultimately made the situation worse when he realized where his hands were. His face darkened and he averted his eyes. It was endearing and he was adorable. 

Peter was an anesthesiologist I had worked with on a few occasions, but I hadn't an opportunity to get to know him outside of the OR. We didn't regularly cross paths in our work. He was a couple of years older, and had come from the west coast. 

If he wasn’t as engrossed in his files, he wouldn’t have slammed right into me. I was surprisingly forgiving of the entire thing. I told him he caught me on a good day. He offered to pay for my dry cleaning, and then next thing I knew I was agreeing to a date. I even bought him a replacement coffee as I felt guilty about the situation. I wasn’t as observant of my surroundings either as I used my time in the elevator to check emails.

I had no idea what made me say yes to him that day. It could’ve been the excitement someone was interested in me after such a longtime, or temporary insanity. I didn’t know how it happened, but I then found myself dating after a few years of being perpetually single. Peter took me to clubs with live music, sports events with the girls after they had been introduced, and sometimes cooked dinner for me after a long shift. It was perfectly lovely. 

Peter Janssen had a way of sneaking up on a person. It was quieter than the love I experienced with Jamie, but I cared for him deeply. I refused to compare them as it wasn’t fair. Peter cared for my children, knowing they had a relationship with their father. He was extremely understanding after his own messy childhood with divorced parents residing on opposite coasts. He never asked for more than I could offer. He took what I gave and never complained. He patched me up after I thought I wouldn't - no couldn’t love again. 

Jamie and Peter were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to their appearances. Peter was tall with enough muscle definition to hint at his activeness. He was blonde with bright grass green eyes. He was clumsy, far clumsier than I would attribute to someone in his profession. He wasn't ruggedly handsome like Jamie with his strong, Viking cheek bones, wild red curls, and his smirk; he was more of the Hollywood variety of beautiful. I considered men who looked like him to be way out of my league. Yet, Peter set his sights on me when any woman and a few men in the hospital desired him. Waitresses had ignored me when we went out, paying particular attention to him, all the while his eyes never left my plain in comparison visage.

With the girls abroad, we had more time to spend together. He adored them, but it wasn't always easy to arrange time to ourselves when my mom had her own plans or during the school year when Isla and Bree had busy schedules. 

Peter decided a date night was in order to take my mind off the girls being gone for the next two months. He knew how much I missed them, especially given the unique custody arrangement I had with Jamie. He missed them too. 

He wrapped his arm around my shoulders. “Oh Claire,” he murmured softly as I nuzzled into his side. It was a bit chilly out for June. “You know I enjoy being with you.” We were by the harbor, and the dark, filmy water was gorgeous this time of night with the lights of the city reflecting off it displaying the city of Boston. 

I kept silent, knowing he was building up to something. A knot formed in my stomach as nerves got the best of me. My anxiety skyrocketed as this couldn’t be going where I thought it might. Were we ready for that step?

In a move that was entirely unexpected, Peter dropped to his knee, quite smoothly I might add. My mouth fell open in surprise. “Claire, I love you more than I’ve loved anyone. When I spilled coffee on you all those years ago, I never thought you would agree to an actual date with me. You took me by surprise and haven’t stop since.” We shared a nostalgic smile of that long ago day. “I’ve fallen more in love with you as time passed by, and I love your daughters like they were my own. I know you were a bit nervous when we started dating, but I’ve seen you. I see your beautiful soul and spirit in the way you interact with your children, your patients, and everyone around you. You’re the kindest person even when you don’t think you are. You have such a big heart and took a chance on me. I’m going to ask, but you don’t need to answer at this very moment. I will give you all the time you need to think about it. Will you do the honor of agreeing to be my wife?” 

Tears swarmed my cheeks as I was utterly speechless. No words came to mind. Peter wasn’t dismayed or disheartened by my reaction as if he prepared himself for it. He flashed me a smile and gave me the box. His lips were on mine and it didn’t matter if I had an answer for him yet or not. I let his lips take me away. I pulled back to find his eyes shining brightly. “Yes,” I whispered.

Hours later as I slumbered in the comfort of my bed, my eyes fluttered open at the ringing of a cellphone. It was sometime after nine, but we were quite knackered after all of our celebrating. “Hello?” I answered groggily, not fully conscious. My body ached in the best way possible.

“Claire?” The fogginess swiftly cleared from my head as soon as I heard his voice. “I’m so sorry.” He apologized, and my heart sped up because there were very few reasons why he would be apologizing to me on the phone. All of them had to do with our children. 

“No…no… what’s wrong? Who’s hurt? No one died, right? Please Jamie, say something to me.” My brain had started imagining the worst possible scenarios. My mind raced a million miles per second. “This can’t be happening again.” I cried. “Please tell me.” 

He was crying and it was hard to understand him. “We were staying at Lallybroch. Isla had gone with Jamie into the village, and on their way home, another car hit them.” 

Peter was staring at me with inquisitive, empathetic eyes. He presence was keeping me from losing it entirely. He squeezed my hand to offer me comfort, but I didn't want his comfort in that moment. I wanted to be across the ocean with my children safe in my embrace. 

I booted up my laptop to start the process of booking a ticket because no matter what I couldn't stay here without worrying about how she was. “Is she okay? Was she unconscious? What are her injuries? Jamie, I need you tell me what’s going on.” I couldn’t believe this was happening. It was always a worry of mine when I sent them to visit their father. I was terrified they would be injured or worse and I would be too far away to do anything or to say goodbye. 

“I-I, C-Claire we are at the hospital. She hasn’t woken up yet. The doctors haven’t said much, but they were taking her into surgery to repair a fracture.” The tears fell quicker. “Please don’t cry, I can’t handle your tears. Please,” he begged me from three thousand miles across the ocean. “She was transferred to Edinburgh. The doctors are going to do everything within their power to help. She’s got some lacerations, a broken rib, some bruised ribs, but their primarily concerned with her leg. She also has a concussion.” As he listed her injuries, I did my best not to panic. 

Jamie shared the details of what hospital she would be at, and what the doctors told him so far. I was trying to stay calm, but everything was screaming on the inside. I couldn’t stop thinking about the worst outcome. The surgery could potentially cause the bone to shorten. There so many things that could go wrong. 

Peter helped me pack my bag. I didn’t even know how long I’d be there, only that when I came back one or both of my children would be with me. “Take a breath,” he held my hands in his. “My mother always said not to borrow trouble. At the moment, the doctors say she’s stable. Until they perform tests, you know she’s perfectly fine. Isla is a strong girl.” He kissed my hands and I found myself relaxing under his warm, tender gaze. I don’t know how he did it. ”She's in a city where the best hospitals usually are. Jamie wouldn’t let some hack operate on her.” 

He was right. I was automatically going to the worst case scenario. I needed to relax, or I wouldn’t be of use to anybody. “What did I do to deserve you?” I asked him. “You always know what to do.”

He merely shook his head and smiled tenderly at me. He dropped me off at the airport on his way to work. “Send my best to Isla.” Isla wasn’t necessarily his biggest fan. I knew she still had dreams of her father and I getting back together. She didn’t mind Peter, but he was far from her favorite person. She tolerated him, and on occasion fell for his charm. She tried her best to keep a distance between them, but I think she was beginning to understand her dad and I getting back together wouldn’t happen. I hated to disappoint her, but it wasn't feasible. Bree adored Peter though, and was always running off in the hospital to find him. On occasion when she let her guard down, Isla had fun with Peter and enjoyed his company. She was merely stubborn and tried to maintain her indifference to him.

I was on a plane five hours later with a short layover in London. It was the best I could do under the circumstances. I didn’t even take a minute to consider the price of my late minute booking. 

I wanted to be there the moment Isla woke up, or at least be there to comfort her during her hospital stay. She hated hospitals. When she was five she had her appendix removed, and spending time around the other sick children scared her. She was terrified she was going to die. 

For the duration of the flight, I was unable to stop fidgeting. I was too jittery to take a proper rest. I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I was with my children and saw Isla. 

My seat companion sent a few irritated glares in my direction, but I ignored her. I stared pointedly ahead. I wanted no distractions. I put on some mindless drivel, but paid no attention to it. My only focus was getting to my daughter. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t count on my body succumbing to exhaustion as I hadn’t had a proper rest the night before with the celebrating and then the phone call from hell that no parent wanted to receive. 

October 2000 

It took Jamie two months to gather up the courage to finally ask me on a date. I was rather infatuated with him by that point, and tried my best not to be too obvious. It was refreshing to have a new crush. Jamie was the breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed. 

I kept hinting, hoping he would clue into my feelings. Either he was oblivious, or he was intentionally ignoring it. I wasn’t sure which one I preferred. At least if he was unaware, it didn’t mean he wasn’t interested. I refused to think about the other one. That possibility would hurt in the worst way possible because I couldn’t stop being friends with him. I loved being around him and hearing his take on things. He wasn’t afraid to disagree with me or have a friendly debate. It bordered on flirting, not that he noticed. It felt as if I were throwing myself at him.  

He stayed with his uncle in the city while he attended school, and during school holidays went home to the Highlands. However, he might as well have been living with me for all the time he spent at my family’s home. It was during one of our Saturdays together, where he asked me out. 

I hadn’t noticed the nervous energy he carried with him the week leading up to it all. I attributed it to the stress of sixth form. He was under a lot of pressure from his family, and he carried it all fairly well. He was dedicated to his studies which I admired. He was in several language courses and had a real knack for them. I loved watching how his mouth moved when he spoke in a different language. It was beautiful to me. The only languages I spoke were French and English. Jamie was fluent in four languages and conversational in another two. I couldn’t understand how he had a natural aptitude for it. He excelled in maths too, and was leaning towards studying business at university. 

I felt the heat of his gaze on me when I returned from the kitchen with our beverages. There was something different in his eyes that had been absent in all of our interactions. I hadn’t seen it since our initial meeting on the train when I first noticed the spark of attraction. I tried for weeks to ignore until I couldn’t any longer. My heart and body refused to compromise with my brain. I realized with a start it was bold confidence. 

Without asking, he took a step forward and brushed his lips against mine. It was a slight press, which he deepened immediately when I didn’t protest, but instead moved mine in tandem with his. My arms wrapped around his neck as his enveloped my waist. There was so much heat in the one kiss. I craved more. The kiss held all of the longing and confusion we had for the last two months, threaded with unrestrained desire and relief. 

For longer than I cared to admit, I forgot how to feel. I buried my emotions under a mountain and shoved them down when they threatened to come out of hiding. I didn’t want to feel or care for anyone  outside of my family. As I focused on the warmth of his body, the taste of him, and the comfort of his presence, I realized that my emotions weren’t swallowing me whole. They linked me to the moment where I irrevocably gave my heart away. 

His hands squeezed my hips and pressed me tighter against his body. It was just so natural how we fit together like two puzzle pieces. He was my missing piece all this time. I was complete there in his arms. I had gone through a gamut of boys, trying to fit myself to them, only to discover in the end, they weren’t the right one. 

His scent surrounded me, and I’ll admit my brain went a bit fuzzy. I loved his smell. Hadn’t I embarrassed myself that first day when I sniffed him on the train? His heat enveloped me or was that his tongue? All I felt was the shape of him, and I knew then we belonged together. 

My eyes drifted shut the moment his lips landed on mine. I could taste him. His mouth was sweet and savory. His lips were soft and fit perfectly with mine. We moved in sync, and my brain swirled with the new information. I had kissed boys before; the difference was it never felt like this. Jamie was gentle and went at a comfortable pace. When I kissed him, the whole world disappeared. It was the two of us and no one else existed. We were in our own personal Eden.  

I clung to him as his lips became more insistent, applying a deeper pressure. His hands were buried in my hair. The intensity reached an apex, and I pulled away gasping for breath, our foreheads touching. I needed that connection to ground me. His breath was as heavy as my own. 

My nerves were in a frenzy as I tried to compose myself. I felt heat rush to my nether regions. A kiss had never gotten me this worked up. Jamie’s were dangerous and addicting. I craved him. “Wow,” I breathed as I traced my lips, wanting his again. 

Jamie appeared quite smug, although it wasn’t the only expression floating in his eyes. There was a tenderness I never expected to see there. Had he felt the same all along? He fondled a curl before tucking it behind my ear. His knuckles gently caressed my cheek. I leaned into his touch, wanting to feel the warmth of his skin on mine. I was so warm. I was feeling a great many things all at once; I didn’t know where to start in digesting what just took place. There was too much to process.

“I would like to take ye out on a date Claire.” He stated with intent, hooded eyes. Shivers went up my spine at the look he was giving me. “I’ve had feelings for ye for some time, and I wanted to know ye before taking the next step. I couldn’t ascertain when we first started spending together if ye were attracted to me, but then I saw how ye looked at me. I couldn’t not kiss ye after that. I’ve wanted to for so long. So will ye go out with me?” 

His compassionate nature was perhaps what attracted me to him the most. He cared about my opinions even if the topic didn’t necessarily interest him. He wanted to know all my secrets and stories, and shared more than a few of his own. When we weren’t in one another’s presence, we were on the phone talking. He was patient and decided on the long game. I had never craved anyone’s attention before, but I needed Jamie like I needed air. It sounded melodramatic to my brain, and I had sworn never to be one of those stupid, silly girls at school. It was impossible when I was around Jamie.  

The problem was he snuck in without me knowing it. In those early days of our friendship, it really was lust. “Yes.” The end result was a huge grin before he kissed me again. He put everything into the kiss and I returned it with equal fervor. My lips chased his, and I pulled him down on top of me. "Wow, he wants to go on a date with me."

His eyes sparkled delightfully, and it occurred to me that I said the last bit out loud. "Why wouldn't I?"

"I mean you're you and I'm me. Awkward, bumbling can barely get a sentence out without making some weird euphemism or innuendo Claire."

He cupped my face, stroking my cheeks with his thumbs. "I love when ye canna control yer mouth." My mouth fell open at his innuendo. Did he know what he said? "See yer no' the only one who  accidentally makes innuendos, but ye're amazing Claire. Ye're smart and funny, and I look forward to when we spend time together. I've been wanting to kiss for a long time."

My eyes darted down to his lips and I leaned forward, my mouth inches from his. "Then do it." I challenged him.

He swooped down and he slanted his mouth over mine, slipping his tongue in. We didn’t do anything except kiss, but it was fine. We had time for other things. 

Although time had become an issue when my mother arrived home to find us with our tongues down each other’s throats. I had never seen him turn that particular shade of red before, but he wore it well. My mother merely smirked as he babbled incoherently and then said he would be by later for our date. 

She fell into a fit of laughter. “Oh love, you’ve found yourself a good one.” I stared at her in shock. Jamie and I had just touched the surface of what was between us, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to define it as of yet. We hadn’t even gone on our first date. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he was planning his whole future with you at the center.” I flushed a deep shade of red at her knowing looks. 

“Mum,” I scowled. 

Mothers possessed some sort of extra sense and knew how to perfectly embarrass their children. I was convinced of that. 

By the time I landed in Edinburgh, it was the next day. It was around six in the morning and I was exhausted from all of the travel. Jamie managed to invade my dreams again, and it was likely my anxiety flaring up as the time neared for us to see one another after so long. While it hadn’t been a decade since I last saw him, it felt like it in many ways. The few times where we endured one another’s presence were excruciating. I did my best to minimize contact. Every time I set my eyes upon him, it was like a knife to the heart. 

A sigh of relief escaped me when I saw it was Jenny picking me up from the airport and not her brother. She wore a tired grimace, but wrapped me up tightly in her arms nonetheless. “Oh Claire, I’ve missed ye. Although, this is not the way I wanted to see ye.” I couldn’t disagree with that. 

She took my bag from me and led me to the parking lot. It was strange to be back in Scotland after actively avoiding it and England all these years. “Has there been any updates?” I asked once we settled in the car. Jamie left a message when I was in the air that Isla was out of surgery. It went well and she was in the recovery ward. 

“Aye, she’s woken up some. The doctors say it could’ve been worse. They’ve got her on a lot of pain medication. She’s confused every time she manages to wake. There were tears and she asked for ye.” 

I burst into tears. Jenny was far from alarmed by my reaction. She knew what I feared most of all in the world. She pulled over to the side to comfort me. “It’s alright. She’s a tough one. She’s a Fraser and a Beauchamp. If anyone can pull through this, she can.” 

I sniffled, knowing she was right. “Are you ready?” There were several ways to interpret her question, and I wasn’t prepared for any of them. I could only nod and pray I could get through the my time here without destroying myself.  

Chapter Text

                                          

CPOV 

It was an immense relief to have Jenny with me in this moment as opposed to Ian or Jamie.  

I had known her nearly as long as her brother. Jamie had taken ages to finally declare his intentions and feelings, which left me with mass of confusion until he made his declaration in my mother’s sitting room. Our first date occurred the same night as our first kiss. It turned into one of the greatest dates I had gone on in my entire life, sort of as the middle was rough, but the end was memorable. Jamie was meticulous and ornery, which aren’t qualities that work well in combination. The date almost concluded on a bad note when suddenly Jamie made a bold move that turned the whole night around and made me reconsider everything. 

Lucky for him, I was understanding and forgiving of his horrendous behaviour during the course of our date. After the first night, we didn’t have much time for one another with our school schedules and our mountains of homework. We tried to ring each other every night and talk for at least an hour. 

Jamie had used the time to make plans to take me home to meet his family as he had already met mine. It was curious the considerable amount of time my mother was spending on the phone, but it turned out it was all part of Jamie’s plan. She corresponded with Mr. Fraser, Jamie’s father, as we were both sixteen year olds with raging, uncontrollable hormones. She saw direct evidence of that when she walked in on us snogging on the sofa. 

It was all arranged as a surprise for me. 

October 20, 2000 

Mum was acting strange, well stranger than normal, which had me suspicious of her behavior. She kept sending me secret smiles with her eyes twinkling merrily with mirth with a long held secret burning to reach the surface of her lips. I deduced it was related to plans made for my birthday. Seventeen meant there was only a year left until I was an adult. Mum never did anything elaborate as I wasn’t the type of girl who wanted a huge fuss, however as Tom and I aged, each birthday was a little melancholy with mum covering up her tears with a soft smile. 

I preferred my birthdays simple and memorable. We usually went to dinner, the theater, or whatever suited my fancy that year. However, mum had yet to address anything related to celebrating my seventeenth year of life. I was more than a little surprised when I woke up that Friday, and she hadn’t said a word to me. It was bothering me, but I didn’t want to address it. It would’ve been humiliating if my family had forgotten and I reminded them. 

Breakfast was on the table. She and Tom sat relaying their plans for the weekend, and yet no one mentioned the significance of the day. They barely noticed my presence at the table, only issuing a murmured 'good morning' before returning their attention to their breakfasts. It was disconcerting.

As I’ve stated I don’t make a huge deal about my birthday, but Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, it was still my day. I wanted some acknowledgement especially as it was my last year before I became legal. Mum was usually invested in things like that, and became more than a bit teary about how much we were growing. She grew depressed whenever either of us mentioned going off to uni in a few years. 

I plopped down into my chair with a little more force than was required. I angrily folded my arms across my chest, which effectively erased all sense of my maturity. It was a childish reaction. My mother would’ve pointed out I was still a child, especially with my flamboyant, attention seeking behavior. 

However, mum barely glanced at me the entire time as I glared daggers at her. She simply regarded me with a lift of her eyebrow. I scowled in return at her complete and utter ignorance of the day. She was delighted by my response. Confusion swept through me as I realized something was happening, and I was the only one unaware of it. My frown deepened. 

Tom snickered and I kicked him in retaliation. I had no qualms doing it either. It was our relationship. We antagonized one another and then mum scolded us. He glared at me as he slathered more jam onto his toast. “You’re always such a ray of sunshine, aren’t you Claire? With that sunny disposition of yours, it’s a wonder Jamie keeps coming back.”

I threw a sausage at him. “You’re such an instigating little shit.”

“Claire! Tom!” We mostly ignored her.

“God, Claire you would’ve thought someone pissed in your breakfast with how you’re being this morning. What do you have to be angry about this early? Maybe you should stuff your face and you’re lovely personality will come back… oh wait.” I narrowed my eyes at him. He was pushing my buttons. “Eat your delicious, nutritional eggs mum made for you.”

I rolled my eyes with a huff. Was it honestly too hard to have anyone remember the date? It was October 20, right? My mother and Tom resumed eating their breakfasts. Tom hurried out the door upon finishing his with a quick kiss to our mother’s cheek and a playful shove for me. Then he was gone without so much as a Happy Birthday. 

“So Claire, what are your plans for the weekend?” My mouth fell open. Was she serious? I wanted to cry. “Close your mouth love. Did you not have any arrangements with Jamie? You’re usually attached at the mouth from Friday to Sunday.” 

I could feel the blush on my cheeks. I still was uncomfortable discussing him with her after what she walked in on. She was like a dog with a bone and knew what to ask and to perfectly embarrass me. It was some strange talent of hers. “I mean with the way you two constantly talk and the little display I saw, I would’ve expected you have to loads of plans for the weekend.” 

I sank down into my chair. “I don’t know.” I answered. “He hasn’t said anything about it. He’s busy with school and sports.” I wasn’t upset as we didn’t have any standing plans. If we had free time, then we spent time together.  

Before I could elaborate, I was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was odd as we never had visitors that early. Mum jumped up quickly before I could even get out of my seat, almost as if she were expecting it. My eyebrows rose as I puzzled over her exaggerated reaction. Was this what she had been expecting all morning?  

When she returned, she wasn’t alone. Jamie accompanied her, and I knew they could tell I was confused by his appearance. “Wh-what are you doing here?” He had an early morning practice, or that’s what he told me when he abruptly ended our call the night before.

He rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably. “Yes, well I wasn’t entirely truthful with ye. I’ve arranged a surprise for yer birthday.” He and mum chuckled at my surprise. 

Mum glowed with delight. “Happy birthday darling,” she crowed happily, throwing her arms around my neck. I returned the hug.

I rarely had a delay in my thought processes, but I was thoroughly baffled by what was happening. “Uh, we have school.” I said dumbly. She never let me skive off school. 

“I’ve already called to tell them you won’t be in.” I shot mum a look. She let me get ready for school, knowing all along I wasn’t going. “Jamie is taking you to his home for the weekend.” She was more excited than I was. “Don’t worry about packing a bag, I already took care of it.” 

She pointed to me weekend bag by the door. The pieces were slowly coming together. Mum’s strange behavior all week suddenly made sense. I caught her in my room two days previous, and she said she was putting away my laundry. I thought it weird as she normally made me do it myself. I thought it was her being nice because of my birthday.“Tom?” 

“Oh, he knew as well. He wanted me to tell you happy birthday from him, and that you’ll have to wait until you return to get your present.” 

Everyone had pulled a quick one on me. I truly believed they had forgotten. I felt terrible for thinking so lowly of them. “Well, you have a train to catch, so go change out of your school clothes. Again happy birthday.” 

She ushered us out the door as soon as I returned before I could ask further questions. She didn’t want to ruin Jamie’s carefully laid plans.

I smiled shyly at Jamie as he took my bag and my hand. Everything was new between us still, and we hadn’t perfected the natural ease of long term couples. It wasn’t uncomfortable though. Inside, I was all warm and tingly, and enjoying his thumb rubbing the back of my hand. 

The train ride was memorable. It wasn’t lost on either of us that we met on a train. We shared stories, laughs, and enjoyed each other’s company. Somewhere along the way, I fell asleep on his shoulder. When I awoke, he was stroking my curls and whispering sweet nothings in my ear. I feigned sleep as I enjoyed his touch. I didn’t want to make him feel awkward about it. We were making developments in our shared new status as a couple. I thanked god I hadn’t drooled on his shoulder either.

It was around five when we arrived in Inverness. I was quite tired after the long journey from England and Scotland. The air was a bit cooler as we were farther north than London. Luckily Jamie expected this and wrapped his jacket around me. I suspected my mother had packed one of my warmer ones. 

I beamed gratefully at him as he led me through the station to the car park. Waiting for us was a girl not much older than us. She had black hair and the same dark blue eyes Jamie had. Her skin was fairer than mine, and I noted she was quite a bit shorter than me. 

From the way Jamie spoke about her, I was expecting someone closer to his height I was surprised he was terrified of her. She looked perfectly harmless. He was a giant in comparison. 

I felt her eyes on me as took in my appearance. As we got closer, Jamie placed a hand on the small of my back. “Dinna let her fool ye,” he whispered. “Her bite is as vicious as her bark.” 

I hid a smile. Somehow I didn’t find that same conclusion. From all the stories he shared, his sister had a temper, possibly one to rival his own. It was probably the Fraser in them. Although I had heard about red heads and their temperaments. 

“Jenny,” he greeted her with a kiss on her head. “This is Claire.” His eyes were pleading for her to be nice. 

She rolled her eyes at him. “It is nice to meet ye Claire. I’m sure this dolt has been fillin’ yer head with all sorts of nonsense about me.” 

I giggled into my hands at Jamie’s affronted glare. “Dinna believe her Sassenach, tis her jealous side. She is green because I am the better Fraser out of the two of us.” He puffed out his chest, brimming with pride, and I was strongly reminded of Tom. 

"So was yer ride okay?"

"Yeah we found a way to keep busy," her eyes roamed over our appearances and it dawned on me what she assumed we had done. My eyes widened in horror. This wasn't the impression I wanted to make. "Oh no, not like that kind of a busy ride, oh I just made it worse. We haven't slept together if that's what you're thinking. We've just kissed and have gone on a single date. I'm not that loose- I'm not loose and I'm just going to stop talking because my filter has disappeared and I'm making this worse."

I was startled by Jenny's chortles as her stern expression disappeared and her shoulders shook with her uncontrolled laughter. "Ye dinna say she was so funny brother." At least she didn't think I was some bumbling, lovestruck girl who could barely string a few coherent words together. 

Jamie threw his arm over my shoulder, pressing his lips to my temple. "That's my Claire for ye, she always keeps everything interesting unlike you."

Jenny and I shared a look of contempt. What was it about antagonistic younger brothers? “Oh lord, Jamie if ye want the girl, that willna impress her at all. Put the bags in the boot, ye eejit.” 

She led me to the passenger side and I slid in, leaving the backseat for her brother. “He isna used to bein’ around girls he hasna grown up with. All the girls he knows are local. It’s fascinating he would fall for a Sassenach. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with bein’ English, but the wee idiot used tae tell stories about how he was going to marry a Scot. Imagine the family’s shock when he told us about a Londoner named Claire. The way he goes on about ye, it was Claire is so smart and Claire wants to be a doctor every time he called home.”

“Ye’re  exaggerating Janet.” His adorable pink face said otherwise. “She’s dramatic.” 

“Buckle in.” She ordered in true older sister fashion. “He’s only embarrassed that I told her he’s been going on about ye for two months.”

“Ah Dhia,” he grumbled. 

Once Jamie was fastened in, we made our way to the family property. He spoke about his home constantly. I could picture it perfectly from his stories. He spoke of hunting with his father and fishing with his best friend in the summers. He told me stories about the history of the property, how his ancestors had married in the eighteenth century against their families wishes. There was an agreement for the couple to live on a freehold to prevent any trouble as they weren’t supposed to be together. He regaled me with all of his boyhood mischief, sitting patiently as his mother painted, and the loneliness and sadness that crept through the house after his mother’s passing. 

There was a small village surrounding the property, Broch Mordha. There were also several tenants who farmed on the land. 

The family home was built in 1702. Over time though, the family modernized the house as while it was quite with the times, the house required updates every few decades. Then electricity and plumbing came into existence, and the whole house needed a remodel. They tried not to change the overall architecture.

When we pulled up to the structure, I was more than a bit surprised and amazed. I imagined it fairly smaller, despite Jamie’s stories. It was a handsome three-story manor of harled white stone, windows outlined in the natural gray stone, a high slate roof with multiple chimneys. [1] 

It was beautiful. I easily pictured a younger version of the boy in the backseat running around the property, driving everyone around him mad with his antics. He seemed to be the restless type with perhaps too much energy in his stores. I glanced back at him to find his eyes glued to the house. His eyes met my own and a grin formed on his beautiful face. Those slanted blue eyes crinkled at the corners. He was experiencing joy at being able to share all of this with me. 

It was quite the birthday present. 

Now 

“How is yer work?” She asked casually, although her tone suggested it was anything but. She was trying to distract me. I had other things in my life to do that than small talk. 

I pursed my lips. “I have a confession.” Her eyebrows rose, but her eyes remained on the road. “The man I told you I was seeing, he… proposed.” The last part was whispered as I still hadn’t quite processed it myself. “I said yes.” She was the first person I’d told. These weren’t circumstances I imagined telling anyone about what should be a happy occasion. 

If anything, her brows traveled further up her forehead. “Is that not a good thing? I thought you loved him.” Jenny was the only person I knew would understand. She had been there from the beginning. “Or is there something else bothering you?” 

Tears clung to my lashes. “I’m the worst person in the history of the world.” I sobbed. “I should t allowed to feel any sort of happiness, not with my daughter in the hospital.” I sighed. “It was unexpected to say the least. Peter has been good for me. I’m nervous to tell Jamie and the girls about the engagement. I can’t imagine what he’ll say about it.”

“Weel, I’m not going to tell ye what to do Claire. Yer almost thirty-five years old, and ye canna figure Jamie into the picture. We’ve all done this before. I’ll admit I was more than devastated when ye first separated and then pursued divorce legally and through the church, but ye’re allowed to move on. He dinna need his approval. Would it be nice if he did? Yes, but this is yer life.” This was why I’d always loved Jenny. She put everything into perspective when I overanalysed. “Don’t ever feel guilty for how you built your life up again.”

Jenny was the only person I confided in following the aftermath of my marriage. She encouraged me and listened with a somewhat impartial ear. She never revealed to Jamie things I told her, or else he would’ve been back in a blink. I was a wreck following everything and didn’t know what I was going to do. It was rough time for me, and Jamie probably struggled as well. Promises of forever weren’t meant to be taken lightly. No one intended to get a divorce upon marrying. Life happens. It certainly happened to us. 

“I guess it’s more than strange to be engaged again to another man. When I agreed to it the first time, well I thought that would be it. I meant my vows and the whole forever thing.” My eyes fell to my hands and my ring finger. “I haven’t really seen the man in the last decade. I hardly know what I feel for him. Along the way, the contempt disappeared. I was angry for longer than I should have been. He took the brunt of it then.” Jamie was a complicated figure in my past. He wasn’t the only one responsible for how we fell apart at the end. Neither of us behaved maturely or rationally. In the end, we hurt each other. 

“It’s natural for bitterness to go away after a time. Ye took the brunt of his anger.” She glanced at me skeptically for a moment. “Every love is different, Claire. It should feel different. It doesn’t always have to be a loud love. Passion and love come in all forms, and every time you give a part of you you to someone else, it’s different. There was actually someone before Ian.” 

I tried to cover my shock, but I did a poor job of it. I knew they hadn’t started dating until they were both in university. However, it was obvious to everyone who knew them that there was something between them. They sent shy and secretive glances across the dinner table, went on walks, and were a bundle of nerves in close proximity. They jumped when accidentally touching, the flushed face, etc. 

“I dated a boy named Callum during my first two years at university. I’m ashamed in many ways because I was harbouring feelings for Ian. However, I think I needed the relationship. It helped me to realised if I never got to be with him, well it would be okay. I would be fine.” She was silent for a moment. “He was kind to me when I was homesick. He didna know anything about me and hadn’t seen me grow up, yet he was interested. He listened to me talk all the time, mind ye.” Her eyes caught mine briefly. “I learned that you can love more than one person in a romantic way. They are never the same, but why should that matter? You can have multiple loves. Callum was my first because as much as I cared for Ian, I couldn’t classify those feelings as love either. We didn’t know each other outside of being friends. We hadn’t shared a kiss or admitted any feelings.”

“I could’ve easily been happy with him. I suppose we set our minds on one person, but bear in mind no matter how much ye may want something, you canna always have it. We shared something special, and I hold a fondness in my heart for him. He taught me about love.” She admitted. “We dated for a time too. We only broke things off when he graduated and took a job offer abroad.”

I didn’t know what to say. “I thought it was Ian. I thought he was all of your firsts from the way you interacted.” 

“Yes, well I never told ye about Callum. He was what I needed at the time, and sometimes I think about him. It’s not to say I don’t love Ian or what we share, but it’s strange sometimes to imagine how different paths could lead ye to a completely different life. As I said, I loved him. I wouldna have minded being his wife. It didna work out that way. I don’t want ye to think of Jamie when ye think of marrying Paul. I know you believe in soulmates. The truth of it is that we make our own soulmates. There’s no one person out there that we are destined to spend forever with. That’s movie nonsense.” 

I finally understood what she was getting at with her story. Even though I had a long and sordid history with Jamie, and there were still plenty of things left unsaid, I couldn’t allow myself to get caught up in it. While pieces of my heart belonged to him, we tried. We put so much effort into our marriage, but by the end it couldn’t erase the feelings of contempt. In the end, we couldn’t handle it. We clung to our feelings and wielded them like weapons. Sometimes we intentionally inflicted pain just because we could. We spewed words of hatred and watched as they had their intended effect. It was tainted. 

I wasn’t sure if I had the chance to fix my mistakes with him if I would. It seemed so long ago. I barely identified with person I was then, and I could hardly expect Jamie to be the same. Another chance with him was too frightening to consider. I buried the thought. 

Jenny allowed me to have a moment to myself while in the car park. She stood at a respectful distance from the car as I had a good cry and cleaned myself up. I was distressed about a great many things and needed to get it all out. 

My daughters didn’t need to see me post-meltdown. “Ready?” She held a hand out for me, which I took gratefully. 

“Ye ken I thought it was just the girls that were American, but Claire yer not as English anymore.” The corners of her lips twitched, and I knew she was teasing me. “You’re so emotional now. Aside from you know… I’ve never seen you properly cry.”

“Well if you can’t beat them then join them.” The elevator doors opened and she led me onto the ward. 

I saw Bree before she saw me. She was sitting patiently outside a room with her legs swinging back and forth. Her curls were a mess and I saw tear tracks on her little face. She was so defeated and seemed smaller than her larger than life personality. 

I rushed to her and pulled her into my embrace. “Mommy?” She cried into my neck. “It was so scary. She was only going out and then…” she hiccupped as tears continued to fall. I rubbed her back soothing as I had when she was an infant. It was a gesture that always seemed to calm her down. She pushed back with water blue eyes. “They were supposed to be gone for a little bit. Cousin Jamie invited me along too, but I wanted to help Aunt Jenny in the kitchen.” The guilt was in her eyes. 

“Bree, it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known what was going to happen. I think your sister will be just fine. She’s hurt at the moment, but she will get better.” I brushed away tears and ran my fingers over the contours of her face. It was pathetic how much I missed her. She had  been gone just over a week, and it felt as if ages had passed since I last held her. “She sustained some serious injuries, but she will heal. I know it’s scary to feel helpless,” my mind flashed back to a pool of blood. “But you couldn’t have known this would’ve happened. It’s why it’s called an accident.” I saw my fingers reaching for the phone just out of my reach. “You were very brave and strong for your dad and sister. I know it can be terrifying to feel useless, but there’s nothing you could’ve done to prevent this. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” She smiled a little. The worry wouldn’t fully disappear until her sister was all healed and not in hospital. 

“Now what’s going on with your hair?” She shrugged her shoulders. Bree hadn’t mastered the skill of styling her own hair.  

I pulled a hairbrush out of my purse and began to try and detangle it. It allowed me a few more minutes to compose myself. Jenny sat beside us, but focused her attention on her phone. She was checking in with Ian.

I plaited Bree’s hair and kissed her head. “I’m going to go check on your sister now.” She nodded. “You stay here with your Aunt Jenny and be a good girl.” 

The door was closed, probably so Isla could get some rest. I hesitated for a second before pushing open the door. 

Isla was tiny in the bed, or at least it was my perception. Her face was covered in scratches and a few bruises. Her leg was elevated and swollen. It was going to be a long road of recovery for her, at least a year. Isla wouldn’t like it. It was going to change her plans especially sports. 

She was asleep. I imagined the drugs they had running through her system were assisting with that. 

At my entrance, a mop of red hair popped up. His blue eyes found mine and it was if it were seventeen years ago. 

“Claire,” escaped him before he even realised his lips were moving. 

“Hello Jamie,” I said in return. My eyes roamed over him. The years were good and somehow he was more handsome and rugged.

There was a sleepy look in his eyes, but from the dark circles underneath, I knew sleep was hard to come by. I supposed I wasn’t looking much better myself. I couldn’t judge him either as he had seen her before the surgery and before she had been cleaned up. I shivered. 

I moved to Isla’s side and stroked her face. Her face relaxed in her sleep. “That’s the first time she’s looked like that since they transported her here.” I detected the sadness in his tone. 

“She’s not used to being sick without me around.” I explained as I took a seat, my eyes never leaving her prone figure. “She hates the hospital. When she had her appendix out, another kid on the ward died. It frightened her, and she was terrified she was going to die.”

My hand grasped hers. Her fingers twitched slightly. 

“I didna think this would happen. Jamie is a careful driver. The driver in the car was speeding and didn’t stop at the intersection. He slammed right into the passenger side. Isla took the brunt of it.” 

I held up my free hand to stop him. “It’s alright. I know you would never let anything intentionally bad happen to either of them.” He turned away his face to wipe away his tears. His mind a million miles from here. “Accidents happen. We will discuss with her doctor the situation with her leg. I promise I don’t blame you.” 

Although at one point in time, I blamed him for all the wrongs in my life. 

“Thank ye, is there anything I can get you?” He was trying his best. “You must be exhausted after yer trip.”

I shook my head. “I’m not hungry. I think if I tried to put anything in my stomach, it would come back up.” 

He nodded, absorbing my words with a mindful look. He had aged as I expected he would. I suppose in my mind he stayed twenty-five years old. I did my best to avoid talking him face to face and saved those interactions for the girls. All of our business was conducted the old fashioned way over the phone. There were few times where we crossed paths. I tried not to look too hard. Seeing him made me ache and not in a good way. 

His hair was a bit longer and darker. He had a few more laugh lines around his eyes and mouth. He aged quite well, and although he wasn’t happy at the moment, I knew he was happy overall. He had dated. He found an occupation he loved. He wasn’t miserable as he had been ten years ago when it seemed life was crushing us from all sides. 

He was nothing like the dour, regretful man who carried around his guilt like a blanket. There was a lightness he didn’t possess before, something that disappeared the moment everything went to hell in a hand basket. He was eating regularly again and regained what he lost. There was more muscle. He looked good. 

“Ye look good Claire,” he was being kind. I wasn’t exactly ready for the cover of Cosmo, but him, if he had a suit on, he was ready for GQ. “Have ye talked with Bree?” He was trying, but it was hard to have a conversation. I vowed to myself that I would never put myself in a situation where the two of us were alone again. “She should’ve been outside. The lass couldn’t stop crying when she was in here.”

I sighed. “I did. She’s tired. If you want, I’ll stay with Isla. You can take Bree to your house to sleep.” His eyes narrowed as he realized my choice of words regarding his home. I hadn’t meant them the way he took them. Or maybe I had. I was uneasy knowing that Jamie was aware of all of those little idiosyncrasies. Most people would’ve waved it off, thinking nothing of it, but Jamie saw through me. I more than implied it was home and not our daughters. 

He left the room in a bit of a huff, annoyed with me. I ignored it because miscommunication was normal between us these days. Five minutes had to have been some sort of record between us. Normally it took a bit longer for one of us to push the other out. 

“I’ve made a dog’s breakfast of this.” We had to tolerate each other for however long it took for Isla to be cleared for long distance travel. There was no escaping him. How were we supposed to coexist when we couldn’t get past the awkward exes stage? We mostly skipped that step with his move and only have spent time together in very small doses since the divorce was finalized. It hardly qualified as being a mature adult, but we tended to get under each other’s skin. We knew where to push to get a reaction. 

We weren’t doing our best so far to navigate post-divorce life. I decided to make it a goal to be comfortable in his presence and to be cordial for my children’s sake. 

Isla was still in her bed. It was a bit odd to see as she normally tossed and turned. She was a side sleeper, so I knew it was uncomfortable for her. 

The lacerations didn’t look to poorly and there was only one deep enough that it required stitches. It would barely leave a scar. “Oh my little love, I promise we will get you all better. I can’t believe this happened.” 

Like a dam breaking, tears spilled down my face when I could no longer hold them back. I thought I had gotten it all out in the car, but seeing her in the bed, so broken and tiny, it made the situation real. It was one thing to know something, but it was a wholly different thing to bear witness to it. For a while, Isla’s life was going to be different and that was if there weren’t any complications. “Baby, I’m so sorry you’re in pain. It feels like my fault even though I wasn’t there. Just know I won’t be leaving your side again anytime soon. I love you.” I kissed her hand and held tight to it. I needed the closeness, the assurance she was still alive, with me.

I just needed to keep my shit together for the next few weeks. If I could do that then everything would be fine. The problem was when I was around him, my mouth tended to speak before my brain caught on to what was coming out. “Keep it together, Fraser.” I could do this. It was just a few weeks. How hard could it be?

[1] Outlander, chapter 26 

Chapter Text

                                            

JPOV 

I slid lower in the chair as my eyes drifted shut. The last twenty-four hours were catching up to me, and not in a good way. I was exhausted. I refused to sleep while she was in surgery. All I could do was pace, sit, then pace some more. Jenny attempted to force me to eat, but the thought of food was revolting. 

Before they took her to x-ray, I was allowed in to see her. I nearly broke something at the sight of my little girl bruised and swollen, looking far too small on the gurney. There was a lot of dried blood, so it was difficult to determine how bad it all was. What I did notice was the size of her thigh. She was unconscious, but they told me she cried at the scene until she lost consciousness. Mostly, she called out for her mother. I had gone with her when they airlifted her to the hospital in Edinburgh, not once did she regain consciousness.

Jenny drove up with Bree, while Ian stayed back with the kids. Jamie had some minor cuts and bruises. His concussion was mild; he was upset about the accident and apologized profusely. 

Making the phone call to Claire, gutted me. It wasn’t a call I had ever expected to make. While accidents happen, I never thought anything like this would happen. Bree was distraught and cried the entire drive over until she wore herself out. Jenny said she refused to calm down. She wailed about how it was her fault and she should have agreed to go with them. 

They were worried about her femur. They had to do surgery to repair or risk further damage to her leg. I would’ve preferred Claire to have been there as she knew more about what they were saying. It was just a whole lot of medical jargon. There were some injuries to her ribs and she had a concussion from the impact, but it was the leg that would cause the most problems untreated. 

Claire was still in the air by the time Isla was moved to recovery. I still called and left a message. I didn’t want her panicking after her flight. It was unlikely she had slept during the trip. She wouldn’t have been able to control her emotions enough and her anxiety would have gotten the best of her. 

Jenny had gone to pick Claire up from the airport as I refused to leave Isla’s side. She somehow managed to catch a last minute flight out of Boston with a small layover in her hometown. Most of my night was spent comforting when the medicine began to wear off. The nurses would come back and administer another dose to help her sleep. 

The ribs would heal on their own. Her cuts weren’t too deep. Overall, she was lucky. It could’ve been much worse, and I couldn’t stop thanking god that it wasn’t. 

The worst part of the night came when Isla woke up and cried for Claire. I tried to soothe her, but she pushed me away. “Mommy,” she sobbed, her face red with exertion. It was made worse by the tiny cuts on her face. “I just want my mommy. Where is she? I need her!” 

I sympathized with the lass as I recalled a few hospital visits myself after my mother died. I loved my da, but there’s something about the presence of a mother. However, I was jealous. Part of me hated that it wasn’t me she was crying for. I felt guilty for feeling that way when I reminded myself where we were, but my heart clenched every time she called for her mother. 

Bree stayed with Jenny at my house after I calmed her down when they arrived. Bree had made it known she wanted Claire as well. I was helpless for the first time in years. It reminded me of the first summer where I had Isla and Bree. Bree was two and Isla was four. Isla knew me far better than her sister, as a result Bree spent several nights crying for her “mama.” I had to call Claire, which was sometimes awkward because she was usually at work. 

It took a few summers for Bree to not repeatedly ask to call her mother multiple times a day. Isla was more independent, not to say she wouldn’t hop on the phone if her mother was on the other side. She tried to hide it, but she missed her mum. 

Those were the moments I regretted leaving Boston. My daughters were growing up on the other side of the world believing it was perfectly acceptable to have a father who saw them a few times a year. Sure we supplemented with phone calls and FaceTime chats, but it could never make up for the dance recitals, sports games, school plays, and teacher conferences I missed out on. Everything came secondhand. I was never the first to know. 

When I left, I never imagined this would be the life I was leading. I wasn’t thinking clearly at the time about the ramifications of my choice. I needed to get away from Claire and all reminders of her, unfortunately it was my children I hurt the most. Sometimes it felt as if we barely knew each other even with all the time we talked on the phone. Sure there were things i experienced with them that Claire missed out on, but she had months on end with Isla and Bree. She witnessed all of their highs and lows. 

Isla’s brow scrunched in her sleep as she shifted. A painful murmur of “mommy” left her lips. 

“Shh,” I stroked her hair. “Your mother is almost here. I promise lass, just a wee bit longer.” She must have understood as her body relaxed in slumber. I knew she was uncomfortable. She hated sleeping on her back. 

It wasn’t much longer until Claire arrived. My body knew the exact moment she was near. I could almost smell her perfume waft into the room. My body senses heightened in anticipation of her presence. I frowned as she hadn’t entered, then I heard voices in the hall. 

I almost forgot about Bree. She was out in the hall with no one to watch her. She was on her iPad watching a movie or playing games. She couldn’t enter the room without crying, and I didn’t want to traumatize the lass. It was the last thing anyone wanted or needed. As soon as Isla cried the first time, Bree fled the room in tears. We decided it was best if she stayed out unless she felt she could handle it. 

After what seemed like forever, she finally entered the room. The first thing I noticed about her was her hair. She wore her hair straight. The last time I saw her, she was still wearing her curls. She had never liked them, but I did. Her locks were shorter than I had seen them. 

I noticed how knackered she appeared to be. Her eyes were fixated on our daughter. She hadn’t seemed to register my presence in the room. 

It gave me extra time to fully take her in. She was thinner, having shed the remainder of her baby weight. While we had crossed paths in the years since our divorce, there was never enough time for me to get a good look at her. Claire was always slim, so that hadn’t changed much. She still filled out her jeans quite nicely. I also noticed the slight tan to her skin. It was strange as Claire usually burned. 

When I thought of her over the years, I imagined her constantly in the hospital or driving the girls around. It never occurred she had something resembling a private life. There were things we never talked about, too many. I supposed it was naive of me as I had my own life. Why shouldn’t she? I knew there was a man in her life, and only because I saw her. She did manage to share the news with me, and only because she didn’t want me to hear it from Isla or Bree. 

Somehow, within minutes of her arrival, we were already quarreling. The worst part was that it was an overreaction on my behalf. She knew how to get a rise, and while part of me believed the words slipped out of their own accord, another part knew she meant what she said. 

Claire was an intelligent woman. She had been bright and precocious from the time she was barely more than a babe. She never said anything she didn’t mean. I learned the hard way in the past how cruel and cutting her words were, and how I never wanted them directed at me again. Words were her weapon of choice. She knew how to perfectly wield them. 

What she implied with her biting comment was the temporary nature of our daughters’ stay here in Scotland. It was my home, not theirs. She meant Bree and Isla belonged in Boston with her. She wasn’t wrong. When people asked Isla and Bree where they were from, they always responded with Massachusetts. It garnered quite a few stares, especially from friends and coworkers. I was Scottish, but my daughters were not. 

I had at least considered my home to be a second home for them. While it wasn’t their primary one, it was theirs. They could visit whenever they liked. 

The problem with Claire’s anger was she let it speak for her. All of these years of peace between us were a result of thousands of kilometers in distance between us. I didn’t have to see her, and she didn’t have to see me. It worked for us. It was the easiest path. There were few occasions where we were forced to share the same air. Some of them we refused to acknowledge. 

I collected Bree, who was dozing in her chair outside Isla’s room. I carried her to the car. Her warm weight was comforting to me. She kept me grounded, and holding her in my arms was perfect. I inhaled her sweet scent and felt her tiny breaths against my neck. I laid her down in the backseat and buckled her in. 

The drive home was uneventful. There weren’t a lot of people out this late on a weekday. 

My mind kept replaying the words we said and the ones we didn’t. Her eyes were a swirl of emotions. I couldn’t identify all of them. There was one I knew all too well though, grief. I’m not sure it ever went away. Mine didn’t. 

Jenny agreed to stay at the hospital with them. She was running on far more sleep than I was. As soon as she saw my stricken face, I was pulled into a tight hug. “She dinna mean it. She’s a mother worried about her child. She hasna had time to think through it all yet.” I nodded despondently. “She hasn’t slept and neither have ye. Everything will look different in the morning.”

I hadn’t agreed. If Claire could not forgive me in nine years, I doubted she could in a few hours. 

The next day I awoke later than normal. 

I laid in bed pondering over yesterday’s events. Christ, she was beautiful and ornery. I saw the fiery passion and devotion in her eyes the moment they landed on our daughter. She was determined to see to Isla’s care, and comprehend the situation fully. She had likely bullied some of the doctors and nurses last night. She was a bulldozer. 

I knew Claire. While there were changes, underneath it all she was the same girl I met on the train all those years ago. Perhaps not the exact same, but she wasn’t unrecognizable either. Or maybe I didn’t want to acknowledge that she had become someone else. She accused me years ago of not seeing her.

July 2009

“Ye canna be serious Claire!”

She had gotten a lawyer and she desired to start the process for mediation. She didn’t want this to turn into a contested divorce scenario where it could drag out for years. She wanted minimal involvement from the courts. I had to agree with her. I didn’t want to put our family through that, but still I wasn’t entirely behind this divorce.

We could work it out. We had gotten through the hard times in the past. Why did this have to be different?

“Do I look as if I’m joking?”

I conceded. “I thought we could talk it through. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

She glared at me. “Jamie, do you hear yourself? Sometimes I think you don’t. You have this complex about fixing things when some things simply can’t be repaired.”

“What- what do you want from me?” My voice cracked. I was struggling with everything after these last few months. So much had occurred and my mind was spinning. I couldn’t up with it all. It was happening too fast. “I-I can’t lose you…”

She buried her face in her hands and cried. I froze. A huge part of me yearned to go over and comfort her, but I knew my touch wasn’t welcome. It would make the situation worse. 

“Please don’t cry, I just I don’t know how we got here.”

A few moments passed where the only audible sound was Claire’s crying. “I’m not doing this to hurt you. I’m doing it to save you and me from a lifetime of misery. Do I make you happy?”

My mouth popped open and I was stumped by her question. I hadn't taken the time to evaluate my emotions throughout the last few months to ponder about the state of my happiness. Was I happy? Maybe not at that moment, but everyone went through periods of unhappiness. It was normal. We would get through this. “Claire, it’s normal for us to have a rough go at things every once in a while.”

She shook her head, disagreeing immediately, a sad smile on her lips that doesn't belong there. “That wasn’t my question. I inquired about your happiness as it relates to me and our marriage. Do I make you happy?” A void of silence opened up as neither of us spoke. With those words, she had  inadvertently brought forth our overdue demise, and I had to wonder if it was as unexpected as I originally believed. The way things stood wasn't something I was proud of; Claire wasn't either. I was certain of that if nothing else. 

What was there to say? My lack of answer was proving her correct. I couldn’t say she made me happy, at least not the way I imagined when we exchanged vows. I hardly recalled what happiness was after the haze settled over my life. I had experienced everything but that pesky emotion in the last seven or so months. Was I content? Comfortable? Those were different questions.  They however weren’t the one she was asking. Were we settling for what was familiar? How had we gotten to the point where we contemplated our existence as a couple? Once upon a time, I hated the thought of sleeping because it meant I couldn't see her. I stayed awake long past her to watch her as she snoozed in my arms. Her warmth breaths washed over me and she tucked herself closer, soaking up my heat. We hadn't shared a bed in some time and when we did, there wasn't any intimacy. She slept on her side and I kept to mine. 

A single tear fell down my cheek. I took a seat across from her, uncomfortable with the difference in our height. It wasn’t about power or persuading her to not go through with the divorce. This wasn't an attempt to intimidate her into doing what I wanted. I had to understand. 

“May I ask how you knew?”

Claire was startled. She was caught off guard by me. It rarely happened that I managed to turn the tables on her. “You mean aside from the nasty business with Britney?” I grimaced, displeasure finding a home in my chest as she brought up a sore point between us. “Sorry that was uncalled for and was a cheap shot. It didn’t happen suddenly if that’s what you’re wondering. I progressively realized even before…” she cleared her throat uncomfortably, her eyes flickering away for a moment. My fists unconsciously clenched with the desire to reach across the chasm to grab her hand. I restrained myself. “I was unhappy with the way things were. We were barely talking. Then one day, I saw how you looked at me at breakfast. It looked as if you were trying to work out a puzzle as if I didn’t make sense to you. I started noticing how you barely knew me. You would order food I hated or rent movies that I would never watch. You never wanted to talk before we went to bed. We always did that even when we were having a row. I would want to share all these details about my life, but you weren’t really listening. You would hum here and there and make other noises to signify you were sort of paying attention. You didn’t see me anymore. Then I got to a point where I didn’t care. I figured we could get over it and then well you know. Everything changed.”

I looked up to hold off my own tears. Was that where we were? Had I ignored her without realizing it? Were we playing the roles of dutiful husband and wife? I hadn’t noticed when she stopped making tea for me in the morning, or when she left my food wrapped in the fridge instead of waiting for me. She used to pack for me when I went away on work trips. She stopped popping in for lunch on her days off. When had we become this? 

“I didn’t even realize. I was wrapped up in my life and you were in yours. I didn’t notice you hadn’t done anything for my birthday.” There were gifts from my family and my daughters, but Claire herself didn’t do anything. “Why didn’t I notice?”

Her face softened, although I thought I detected a hint of pity in her solemn gaze. “Jamie, I didn’t either. I would’ve told anyone who asked we were having a rough patch and that we would work it out. I didn’t know it had become a massive problem. We didn’t trust each other. We never talked unless it was to pick a fight. We’ve been drowning for so long, we didn’t know what it felt like to breathe.”

It was an aptly put metaphor. All this time my head had been under water. “Where do we go? Can we really not fix it?”

“No, I don’t think we can. The last time we talked, or I suppose argued would be a better way to describe it, we said stuff we can’t take back. We’ve said a lot recently that we can’t take back. I could forgive you, but I would never forget. I don’t think you could either. I saw the hurt on your face when I accused you of adultery. Regardless of whether it was physical, there was an emotional component, a connection you forged with her.” Her eyes were shiny and red as she held back her tears. “I could perhaps forgive physical, maybe, I don’t know.” She tugged on her hair as her mouth twisted into a grimace. “But the truth is you shared private things about us with her. You unburdened yourself with her instead of me.” She smacked her chest to emphasize her point.

The hurt was beautifully captured on her face as tears spilled onto her flushed cheeks and her pink lips trembled. Her shoulders lowered in defeat. She was crushed, more devastated than I had seen her.  

“I’m your wife, but most of the time I feel like your housemate.” She tried to brush away the tears, but they continued to fall with reckless abandon. “You told her about loads of things it never occurred for you to tell me. You felt comfortable enough with her, and if that doesn’t bode well for a relationship, I don’t know what does. I’ve been frustrated every time you dismissed my concerns and it reached a boiling point. I’m not blaming you as I’ve got my fair share of the blame. I closed myself off after a while and put more distance between us. We haven’t been working for a long time. I can’t pretend anymore.”

Neither could I. While I loved her, those were insurmountable obstacles. I wasn’t prepared to tackle all of them. This had been building.. I was frustrated with her too. As much as I didn’t see her, she didn’t see me either. We put everything else in our lives above our marriage, and it was finally catching up to us. 

That day was a revelation. Despite our newfound agreement on the state of our marriage, we still were rather contentious in our interactions. We couldn’t always help it. We did try to keep it away from our daughters. Our negotiations with our lawyers weren’t peaceful by any means. 

Throughout all of our difficulties however, my emotional and physical responses to her hadn’t changed when she was in close proximity. It was like every nerve ending in my body. I felt when she was near, and I automatically craved the touch of her skin. I wanted her hand in my mine, smooth against rough. I wanted her small hands engulfed in mine as our fingers slid into place, reminding us we were home. I needed her to acknowledge me, or talk to me. Something continued to draw me to her even when I wanted nothing to do with her. 

She frustrated me to no end, but I was fully aware I’d never love another woman like her. It didn’t mean I couldn’t love again, but that it would never be as all consuming as my love for her. 

I rubbed the ‘C’ tattoo on my ring finger where I knew Claire had a matching ‘J’ tattoo. I pledged myself to her, not for the moment, but for the rest of existence. There was never going to be a single second where I didn’t want her. In the end, it still didn’t equal long-term compatibility. 

My actions spoke otherwise about my eternal devotion. I was caught up in my own world back then. I let the best thing to happen to me go without a fight. I stared at her as she signed away any ties to me. I didn’t raise a single protest when we filed the documentation to end our marriage or when I made the choice to move out. I accepted my losses.  

My bedroom door opened to reveal a bleary eyed Bree. Her fists rubbed furiously to get the sleep out of her eyes as she trudged closer to me. “Daddy?” Her voice floated across the room. “Can we go back to the hospital now? I miss mommy and I want to see Isla.” 

When we were both ready to leave, Bree slid into the backseat and stared out the window as we drove through the city. She maintained her steely silence from the moment I set her down in her bed until we reached the hospital. 

Her reactions were quick as she unbuckled herself and opened/closed the car door. She waited impatiently for me by the entrance. Her hair was still braided from the previous night. I swallowed a sigh, knowing it was another thing I was unable to do for my daughters. It was ridiculous to feel such a way, but I found myself often measuring my parenting against Claire’s. 

Claire was like superwoman. She cooked, parented, worked insane hours, taught, and loads of other stuff. She managed to balance it all. She kept up with our daughters’ busy schedules. She found time last night to plait Bree’s hair. 

It was hard not to envy how effortlessly she performed her tasks. 

Jenny was gone when we arrived. I figured she probably found a room at a nearby hotel. She was bone tired, and I felt guilty for taking her away from her family. Jamie didn’t come away entirely unscathed from the accident, but he was fairing better than Isla. Still, I didn’t know how Jenny wasn’t panicking. In ordinary circumstances, she would’ve been there at young Jamie’s side smothering him with her mothering. 

If I tried to shoo her away though it would only backfire in my face. She wouldn’t leave until she had something good to report back on the homestead. 

Bree bounded into the room without a thought. I followed directly behind her. Claire’s head was buried in Isla’s lap as she slept soundlessly. Her hand clutch Isla’s smaller one tightly. 

What was surprising was Isla’s wide blue eyes were open and staring at her sister. Her face attempted to mask the pain, but from what the doctors told me it would be a while before she wouldn’t be in any pain from her injuries. It was why she was on such heavy pain medications. 

“Hi dad,” she croaked. 

I poured her some water and held the straw to her lips. She tried not to move too much to allow Claire some rest and to prevent any pain from her ribs.

Bree sat beside her sister. “You were sleeping for a long time.” I heard her choke back her tears. “I was scared you wouldn’t wake up.” 

I scooped Bree up and planted her in my lap. “It’s okay. Both of my little loves are going to be fine. Isla is awake now, and while she’s got a long recovery ahead of her, the doctors believe she will heal perfectly.” There was no need to worry either of them. There was always a chance of complications, but that wasn’t for them to think about.

Isla’s eyes darted to ward her mother’s head. She licked her chapped lips. “How long has mom been here?” 

“She arrived yesterday. Bree and I went home and slept for a while when she took over.” 

Both girls chewed on their lips nervously. “Daddy, you didn’t seem that happy when you left Isla’s room last night.” I hadn’t realized how apparent my anger was. 

“We had a bit of a disagreement. Your mother and I had a misunderstanding is all. I am happy she’s here to make yer sister feel better.” 

They exchanged glances and I knew they were having a conversation with their eyes. “It’s okay if you want her here too.” Isla said. “We know you’ve missed her. You were friends first right?” 

I pursed my lips thoughtfully. She wasn’t wrong about how our relationship started, but I suspected she had ulterior motives. Personally, I never thought about how we were the cliché related to best friends falling in love. There were only usually two end results. The first was that they remained perfectly happy together. The other was they pretended they would continue to be best friends, but in reality what they shared was gone. There were of course areas of grey, but Claire and I fell firmly into the latter. 

“Yer mother was my best friend.” I admitted to them. “I can’t imagine never meeting her. We wouldn’t have the two of you.” If there was anything that came out of our marriage, it was our daughters. 

“How did you meet?” Isla asked, her face scrunched up. I had never shared the story with them. 

“Weel, it was on the train from Inverness. See yer mother had visited her uncle for a few days. He was doing research in the area. I was leaving home to attend school in London. I was to stay with my uncle in the city, which was a new experience for me. When I had gotten on the train, yer mother was already sitting. I asked if I could take the seat across from her. I ken my presence annoyed her as she held back a scowl, but remained polite and curt. Then I somehow managed to charm her by introducing myself. We spent nearly the entire trip sharing about ourselves.” I closed my eyes as I pictured that long ago day with a young, fresh faced, pensive Claire. 

The years were kind to her as she grew into her beauty. She was one of those women who looked even better as she aged. “I thought she was beautiful. I almost told her, but I was embarrassed.” I noticed a slight shift of Claire’s body. “I thought this girl had to be way out of my league. She was intelligent, had a good sense of humor, and was undeniably gorgeous. Although, I dinna think she believed it.” She told me often enough how it was hard to believe it when I told her. The only reason she didn’t deny it was because she saw the sincerity in my eyes. 

“We exchanged numbers, but the best moment was when she got up to get off at her stop and the train came to an abrupt halt. She fell right into my lap. I held her waist and her tiny frame to my own. I smelled her hair. I kent I shouldn’t have done that, but it was hard to resist the temptation. God kent there was no other woman for me on the planet, and chose that particular day to introduce me to the other half of my soul. She gave me a good sniff as well, and then jumped out of my lap and rushed off the train. I rang her later after I got home and we spent hours talking.” 

I knew Claire was awake, but I wasn’t willing to call her on it. She was allowing me a moment with our children. She was also probably trying to stave off my mortification at admitting such a thing. 

“So do you miss her as your friend?” Bree asked, snuggling into my chest. 

I deliberated my answer not wanting to appear too zealous. If I was too earnest well the girls would hope for something that would never come to fruition. I didn’t want them to get the wrong impression. 

CPOV 

I waited for his answer, feigning sleep. I had awoken at the start of his story. Most of the things I already knew, and it was nice to know I hadn’t imagined him sniffing my hair. It was funny we both had gotten a good sniff in. 

While most people would think he was waxing poetic, I sensed the truth of his words. Jamie was a man of his word. It was one of the important life lessons his father instilled him at a young age. 

The hurt look on his face gutted me. I experienced my own form of devastation. The tears freely poured from my eyes, and it was a rough night. I shouldn’t have treated him as if he were nothing because it wasn’t true. He didn’t deserve it. 

I supposed the distance allowed me to control my emotions and learn how to channel them. However, it was easier because I didn’t have him in front of me. 

There wasn’t a daily reminder. The pain wasn’t constantly pressing in on me. My lungs weren’t constricting as I struggled to control my breath and anger. I wasn’t losing control. I had control. I knew my therapist would be proud at how I’ve managed the situation so far. She wouldn’t be pleased by my cold shoulder treatment, but she would praise me for not losing it. 

One of the first skills we worked on was forgiveness. Yet, sometimes I wondered if I possessed the ability in my heart and soul to forgive. I carried around all the nasty, angry, heart wrenching feelings until I was ready to burst. And burst I did, right in the middle of an anatomy lab. 

“I cherished the friendship yer mother and I had. We didn’t immediately jump into a relationship. We spent time getting to know each other. I suppose what hurt the most when we divorced was losing all those years of friendship. I canna blame yer mom for the failure of our friendship to thrive. Sometimes life is hard, and adults can’t always stay friends. It’s easy to say, but hard to do.” 

Silence settled comfortably in the room. The girls were quiet and likely contemplating their odds at rekindling the relationship between Jamie and myself. I knew what they desired, but I had my own news to share with them.

I made a big show of stretching and yawning. From the sparkle in his merry blue eyes, Jamie was on to me. “Good morning darling, how are you feeling?” I switched into mommy doctor mode as Isla called it. 

“I’m fine,” I fixed her with a look and she amended. “Okay so I’m in some pain. My leg really hurts.” 

There wasn’t much to be done for her leg except medication and eventually physical therapy. She didn’t know the full extent of her injuries, and I hated to be the one to tell her. 

“You’re going to be feeling some pain for a while. It was a femur fracture. They had to do surgery to repair it. It involves screws and other hardware to correct the alignment. Unfortunately, it also means that there won’t be any sports this year.”

Tears clung to her dark lashes as she rested them against her cheeks. “When can I play again?”

“Oh love, you won’t be able to play until next year at the very least. Fractures take time to heal, and you’ve got to let it. You will need physical therapy at some point to build back up strength and flexibility. For the most part, you should be able to do your normal every day stuff.” She nodded absentmindedly. Her mind was somewhere else. There were other things like blood thinners and compression stockings to discuss, but for now I would leave it. 

I glanced over at Jamie to find Bree asleep in his arms. The situation was wearing on her, and my heart clenched for my little girls. Isla’s eyes drooped and she tried to fight off the medicine, but her body was weak and tired. Her body needed to heal. 

“Jamie-“ 

“Claire-“ we both blushed and glanced away. “Go first,” he said. 

I attempted to make eye contact, but found myself unable to hold it. “I want to apologize for my egregious comment last night.” His lips twitched. “It was never my intention to offend you.” He clutched Bree tighter. “I guess it’s been a long time since I had to share them with anyone. I never fully learned that particular lesson as a toddler.” I smiled wryly. “When you left Boston, it was my assumption we wouldn’t have to have many face to face interactions.” His crestfallen face caused an ache in my heart. 

“Before you say anything, I suppose my problem was knowing the possibility you were happy. It’s almost easy in a way to sign the dotted line and your rights away, but the aftermath…” I inhaled sharply, unsure of where I am headed. “What’s left when happily ever after ends, you learn to pick yourself up. For a while, it’s simply pretending until one day, the ache you feel every morning isn’t there anymore. I was terrified all these years about the twinge of pain I expected to feel.” 

I lifted my eyes to find his own staring back at me. His face was pensive. “I guess it is somewhat a relief to know I can be around you.” I forced out a laugh. 

The last time we were together without lawyers present or children involved, we were two broken individuals trying to find solace through anything we could. I turned to the girls and he to his work. 

We skirted around each other. We were tentative and anxious because we both feared what we would say when forced to confront the situation, what truths would be revealed about our relationship.

Then again that wasn’t really when we last crossed paths intentionally without our children present. I forced myself not to dwell on that night. Those memories were best left tucked in a locked box. We didn’t need to dredge up ancient history.

His face drawn and there was something off. “Claire, ye ken it was never my intention to leave you such as I did. We said many hurtful things that ordinarily we wouldn’t have if we weren’t struggling as we were.” 

My thoughts drifted to a time left unspoken about. “Do ye still wonder…?” Tears filled my eyes and spilled onto my cheeks. “I know I do. I think about it every day how I left ye alone and-“ 

“Please,” my voice shook uncontrollably. “Please don’t do this. We’ve gone through this and there’s no use bringing it up again. We seriously fuc-fudged up and I don’t want to talk about it again.” 

“But we must Claire, I canna have ye hatin’ me for the rest of our lives. I dinna think ye do, but I also don’t want yer pain to cause problems now.” My eyes moved to the sleeping figure in the bed. He still knew my heart and soul well enough to know how I processed information. “It seems a verra long time ago now, but really it’s been eight years. I guess I was like you in a way.” I snapped my head up at his words. “I didna want to ken about your life or how happy yer were. I mean I wanted ye happy, which is why I signed the papers. Ye deserved a happy and safe life where the burden of the past was forgotten.” 

I wet my lips with the hope of interrupting him. “You think I hate you?” I was incredulous. There were many emotions I associated with him, but hate was taken off the table years ago. “I don’t hate you. I don’t blame you anymore either. The truth is I haven’t for a longtime. It would’ve happened with or without you. Some things aren’t meant for us. We can want them, but we can’t have them.” 

The problem with hate was that it wasn’t in fact the opposite of love. No, that was indifference, and indifference was something I never felt towards him. Hate implied there were strong emotions involved, underlying passion and anger. The issue was it was never nothing I felt for him, and that was too much for me to handle.

His eyes sought mine and I read the emotion in them. I was something he wanted, but couldn’t have. Bree began to slowly move as sleep left her. I worried she overheard the conversation between us. 

Her eyes opened as she blinked a few times to clear them. She took in our expressions and frowned. “What’s wrong?” Her eyes moved quickly to her sister, and she relaxed back into Jamie upon seeing Isla merely resting. “Why are you upset?” 

“Mummy and daddy were talking. I promise sweetheart there’s nothing for you to worry about.” I used my soothing voice that usually put her troubles to rest. 

Bree seemed in rare form today, and wasn’t going to allow us to escape easily from her questions. “Why were you crying then?” She turned her accusing eyes onto her father. “Did you make mommy sad?” I almost smiled at her protectiveness. 

“Bree,” my voice snapped. “That is no way to talk to your father. Apologize to him.” 

She pursed her pink little lips. Her freckles shone on her pale skin. “I’m sorry,” she grunted. 

I sighed. “We were talking about some hard stuff. Nothing you need to worry about.” My eyes pleaded with her. 

“What like Gabriel?” Jamie’s head swiveled in my direction and a new emotion crept into his steely gaze. “That always makes mom cry. She tells us to not worry about it.”

“Claire?” There was alarm in his voice.

I sighed. We were really going to talk about everything.

Chapter Text

                                            

JPOV 

My eyes lingered on her as she quickly excused herself from the room following Bree’s statement. The tears overflowed and spilt onto her cheeks. She needed her privacy, and I attributed it to the English in her. She hated to be vulnerable in front of anyone and rarely showed her emotions when in company or publicly. She firmly believed in having a stiff upper lip. 

She had an inner strength unlike anything I had seen before and am unlikely to encounter again. She carried herself with confidence and poise that she didn’t possess nine years ago. As a thirty-four year old woman, she had matured into the best version of herself. There wasn’t that uncertainty about who she was cloaking her.

The years had been good to her. She had a few lines around her mouth and eyes, which told me there was happiness in her life. It pleased me to know I hadn’t stolen all the laughter from her life. If anyone deserved to be happy, it was her. I put her through so much over the years, and I was a bit saddened to realize how much better off she was without me. She was thriving. 

Her career was solid. The girls told me how the hospital relied on her, and how she was considering starting a private practice in a few years. They said she was being groomed for chief of cardio when the current chief finally retired. They loved her and I imagined she loved being there. I was envious of how medicine could consume her. She knew what she wanted from the beginning, while my dreams languished. I grew angry over the time she dedicated to her studies and all of the friends she was making. 

Years ago when she first told me about her dreams and goals, I encouraged her to reach for the stars. She was bright, far brighter than I was and had boundless talent. She possessed a self-assurance, yet remained shy about accepting who she was. By the time she applied to medical schools towards the end of uni, she had loads of offers. Several schools in the UK , France, and the States were practically begging her to attend. She had her sights set on Harvard from the beginning. She spent her life in England and France and wanted a chance to explore somewhere new, where no one knew her. 

I didn’t mind following her at first. I applied for Master’s programs in all the areas she had. Boston University was far from a bad school and it had the program I desired. I dropped out of my program and entered the workforce when our circumstances changed. We couldn’t raise a child on two minimum wage jobs, while also completing our studies. We didn’t have a support system in place to assist us, so we knew we would have to pay for childcare. There was the matter of health benefits as the health system was very different.

At first, I hadn’t minded. I would go back and finish my degree when things were more settled. It was after Brianna when I grew embittered about how it was all turning out. I withdrew from Claire as she further enmeshed herself in her medicinal studies. It was easy to find new things to nitpick and get disgruntled about. Then there was Britney, and it all fell apart from there. 

I sighed thinking about all the decisions and little moments that lead us to here. I thought we would reunite under better circumstances, not a tragedy. I didn’t want to be responsible for Claire suffering another loss. 

Bree and I moved into the family room on the floor to allow Isla to rest easier. She was a little high on painkillers. Bree settled herself comfortably on my lap. I knew she was exhausted by her fatigued movements and her silence. Bree was a chatterbox. I ran my fingers through her silky curls and she sighed sleepily. “Daddy, why was mom upset? Why did she leave after I mentioned Gabriel?” I knew Claire shared the story of Gabriel with Isla and Bree, but I wasn’t aware of all they knew about the situation. It was never something I addressed with them. I tried not to dwell on it unless I wanted to fall into an endless abyss of emotion. “I don’t understand why she’s so sad.”

A part of me wanted to wrap her up tight and never let go to prevent her from feeling life’s disappointments. While I never wanted her to know what it was to lose someone whether that be a relative or friend, I knew the day would come eventually. With luck, she would never lose a child, but she would know loss and come to understand some of what her mother and I went through in the past. 

I glanced down to find her eyes fluttering, fighting off her body’s natural inclination to rest after a stressful couple of days. “It’s something i never want you to understand and hope you don’t. It’s complicated and not for children to comprehend.” She answered with a soft snore.

As she rested, my mind drifted to that last day in Boston. I had gone over Claire’s house to say goodbye to the girls and pack up the remainder of my belongings. 

November 29, 2009 

I took my time on the stairs, slowing my progress to avoid the inevitable. The ink on the papers was dry, and our petition for divorce had been approved by the judge. Tomorrow would mark thirty days since our court proceedings and the temporary judgment would be entered. It was still another three months until everything was permanent, but officially for all intents and purposes we were no longer a married couple.

 We would both have to go through the Catholic church for an annulment. I knew she respected her beliefs, and wouldn’t want to be considered in bad standing with the church. 

She also wouldn’t want it to affect our daughters either. It wasn’t entirely uncommon amongst Catholics to get a divorce, but many people in the Church never openly addressed the action. It was still frowned upon with many devout Catholics including my sister. An annulment essentially meant our marriage wouldn’t be acknowledged by the church, almost saying we were never together. It was depressing to think about. 

My feet carried me to the door and I resisted the urge to use my key like I had in the past. It was no longer my apartment and we didn’t have that sort of relationship any longer. I raised my fist and inhaled a deep breath before knocking. I was steeling myself for what came next. 

I could hear her in the apartment. It was easy to distinguish the sound of everyone’s footfalls. Isla’s were usually quick and heavy. Claire’s were light and sluggish. Bree’s were clumsy and she usually fell on her bottom with a giggle. 

The door opened and there she was. Her hair was pulled up into a knot. She wore an old Oxford sweatshirt and jeans. Her soulful brown eyes were tired and devastated. I knew the situation was hard on her, yet there was nothing I could do to lessen the pain for either of us. I tried to give her everything I thought she wanted. I wasn’t sure if I ever had. I failed her in many ways, and there wasn’t much I could do to rectify it now. She disappointed and frustrated me. We were ill matched and a touch too young and naive. Our idealism got the better of us, and here was the end result, our failed marriage.

She gestured for me to enter the residence and I slid past her, afraid she would bar me from entering. I avoided touching her at any cost. There was a chill. I was positive it was her. “I’ll be in the living room while you…” she waved her hands around, words failing her. 

I nodded curtly and set to work packing up my belongings. There wasn’t much I had left to pack. I had two boxes with me that would be sent off to Scotland before my departure from Boston tomorrow. I had sent off most of my things gradually.

 I didn’t look back at her. I was afraid of what I would see if I stared too long. 

Isla was in her room, playing with her dolls. She flashed a smile at me when she heard me enter. Her teeth were tiny and sharp, and I had been on the wrong end of them a few times. “Daddy!!!” She screeched as she ran at me. Her pigtails swinging behind her in little twirls. Her little bows were lopsided in typical Isla fashion.

She grabbed onto my leg and I carried her with me. “Sweetheart,” my eyes filled with tears as I prepared my goodbye. It was harder than I thought it would be. It was the first Christmas we would spend apart. It would be the longest we wouldn’t see each other. Money was tight until I found a new job, and I couldn’t regularly fly to Boston to visit them. “Daddy is going to be leaving.” 

Her head tilted curiously. “Where you goin’?” Her dark blue eyes stared into my own. She was puzzled. She didn’t understand what made this trip different than the one’s I had taken for work. 

“Well,” I licked my lips. “You, mommy, and Bree live here.” She nodded slowly. She knew that. It took her a bit to understand I no longer lived with them, and why she came to stay with me at the apartment I was renting. “I used to live here too.” Again she nodded her head with narrowed eyes. She was quite precocious for her age. “Mommy and I aren’t together anymore, you know like married like Ariel and Eric. I’m going to move back to Scotland where Aunt Jenny lives. It’s really far away.” I knew she didn’t understand the concept of distance, but she knew her aunt couldn’t visit all the time. 

Her lower lip trembled. “I not see you?” She threw her tiny arms around me and wailed into my neck. I held her close to me for several moments and rubbed her back as I attempted to soothe her. Her body shook with the force of her sobs. 

“Shhh… it’s okay. I promise you’ll see me.” I couldn’t promise how frequently it would be, but I wasn’t going to just leave her. “You are going to be here with mommy and yer sister. We can talk on the phone and computer until we see each other again. Will ye do something for me?” 

Her eyes peered into mine, so trusting. “Can you look after mommy? She’s going to need you.” She didn’t need me, I thought bitterly to myself. “She will need your help with yer wee sister.” It had taken time before she warmed up to the idea of her younger sister. She would call Bree ‘my baby’ to anyone who asked. 

“I make her smile. Don’t worry Daddy.” She told me with such confidence, I struggled to believe she was three years old. “I look after Bee Bee. No be sad, ‘kay?"

I kissed her head and she kissed my lips. “I’ll miss you.” A few tears fell from her eyes. 

I brushed them away with my thumb, my whole hand cupping her face. It was tiny. I wondered how much she would grow in my absence. It seemed as if she was a wee bairn yesterday, and then all I did was blink and she transformed into a toddler. 

The situation was easier to explain to her when she barely had a concept of things like marriage and divorce. She understood that Eric and Ariel from The Little Mermaid were married. If she had been older, I knew it would’ve been far more complicated to explain what happened between her parents as kids wanted to know the whys. At the moment, she was accepting of the changes in her life. It helped I hadn’t lived with them since mid-July. 

I left her to play with her dolls, but she was a little less shiny and enthusiastic. She kept frowning at them. I wasn’t going to make our goodbye harder because she was hurting too. 

Once I moved to the bedroom, it didn’t take long for me to finish my original task. I had a few clothes and some books.

After taping up the boxes, I set them down in the living room. It was time for me to say goodbye to sweet Bree. She sat in her crib playing and talking to herself. She was such an easy baby except for those first few months with colic. Her eyes sparkled when she noticed me in the doorway. She held her arms up for me to pick her up and I did. 

“Da,” she patted my face with her small hands. I kissed each little finger. She giggled merrily, enjoying my attention. “Da dada,” she babbled happily in her sweet baby voice. She loved to talk even though most of it was nonsensical. 

I sat with her in the glider. She laid her head against my heart. Her hand beat out a rhythm. I was going to miss all of her milestones. She was walking and had a few words in her vocabulary. She knew some sign language, but I would miss her first sentence, first day of pre-school, but there was no going back. I knew I couldn’t remain in Claire’s vicinity. There were too many conflicting emotions and I didn’t know what would express itself at any given moment. Did I love her? Yes. Was that enough? I thought it was. I was tired. We hashed out every little thing and it got right nasty between us. I didn’t understand how I could want to throttle someone one minute and then desire to make love the next. It was confusing and I needed to get away to sort out my head. 

 I was also aware my presence pained Claire, and I wouldn’t be responsible for causing her anymore harm. We’d done enough of that these last six months. 

Besides our children, there wasn’t much keeping me in America. My job had quickly become my least favorite place to be, and I was looking forward to returning to Scotland. The highlands called to me, or maybe it was the coward in me looking for the easy escape. It was effortless to run away if there was somewhere to run away to.  

“I’m going to miss ye Bree.” She sighed softly as she snuggled closer. She was a cuddler. “I hope ye will be good for yer mam. She’s a wonderful woman. I want ye to ken that about her. I know it’ll sometimes seem as if she’s being unfair, but it’s only her loving ye.” I knew it was the absolute truth. 

A few tears escaped my eyes, but I didn’t wipe them away. I continued rocking and stroking her fine baby hair. Her breathing slowed and I knew she was asleep. I felt her tiny snores against my chest. I sat with her a little longer, savoring these last moments, before settling her in her crib. She barely moved as I stroked her hair one last time. 

My last goodbye was for Claire. 

I cleared my throat to alert her to my presence. She stood up to face me with an unreadable expression. “I-“ 

“I-“ we both closed our mouths. She gestured for me to talk. “Claire, I know this isn’t what you expected all these years ago. Neither did I, truth be told.” Her face was still. “I promised better to ye, and I failed in that. We both screwed up. I can only say I’m sorry for my part in all of this. I want ye to be happy, and if this is the way…” I shrugged in defeat. 

Her mouth opened and closed as she composed herself. “Jamie, don’t be a stranger. The girls will be gutted if you don’t call. I promise I’ll send them to you in the summer, although it might be too soon next summer to send Bree. We will work something out. I want you to be happy too. We seem to only know how to make each other miserable. I’m sorry too.” Her eyes were tender and warm, and her sincerity rang true. 

She reached out a hand, which I quickly grasped. I pulled her to me and we held each other. Her warm tears dampened my shirt, but I stayed silent. Her face tilted up as I looked down, and we shared a parting kiss. 

Her lips brushed softly against my own. I tasted the goodbye, the finality of our relationship, of everything. This was it. All we shared in the end was two little girls and a history of almost ten years. I relished each second of the kiss and found heaven and hell all over again. My hands cupped her cheeks as we both cried. Our foreheads briefly touched before we pulled ourselves apart. I didn’t want to linger at that. 

Her smoky eyes glistened with tears, and I would never forget the expression on her face. It was a mix of regret, sorrow, and something I couldn’t quite place. All I knew was that it was the end. 

We shared a parting glance before I gathered my boxes and left. “Have a safe flight Jamie,” she breathed softly. Her voice quivered, but I chose not to look back. If I did, I would never leave. “Call when you get there, Isla will want to talk.”

Bree continued to sleep and I stroked her hair. It reminded me of the moment we shared before I left. The curls were shorter and lighter when she was younger. She was more of a strawberry blonde at birth than a full ginger. Now she was an actual person with complex thoughts, opinions, and emotions; she could say more than ma, da, la, dog.  She could walk without falling on her butt. She had all of her teeth. She wasn’t an infant, but a child nearing puberty. 

It was strange what time did to us. Claire and I rarely spent time together as an unspoken rule. We never wanted to make things awkward as we hadn’t fully worked out our own issues. It was done in increments. We had to remain cordial to provide an example for our children. Mostly, it was never much of an issue unless it was an emergency with one of our kids. 

If anything, Claire was a stronger woman after all these years, and it happened without me there to witness it. She didn’t need a man to take care of her or love her, well there was Peter. She managed to turn something that could destroy some people and turned it into motivation to move forward with her life. I wasn’t sure how she did it. For the first few months after I returned, I barely managed to crawl out of bed without proper incentive (Jenny). The depression was overwhelming. I slept and cried nearly all the time.  

I found myself listless without any purpose. The girls’ phone calls were the one bright spot in my week. During that time, it was harder to arrange regular calls because of the time difference, Claire’s job and school, and given that Isla and Bree spent several hours of their day in daycare. When her mother moved to assist them, she worked as a private nurse in the morning and wasn’t able to grab them until late afternoon. Most of our calls occurred during the weekend as a result. 

What I didn’t know then was that Claire did come into money after her twenty-sixth birthday. It occurred after the divorce settlement was discussed and was a contributing factor to why she refused any alimony. I was aware of its’ existence, but hadn’t thought much about it when we decided to go ahead with the divorce. Her father’s family had some massive business in France and Claire inherited her part of his estate along with his shares in the company on top of the money previously set aside for her long becoreIt was a hefty sum, which she used to buy a house. 

I sent money regularly after I got a job in my uncle’s importing business. It was a few years later when things became more settled for me financially. I started a business with some relatives, and I was able to send more money. I helped pay for my daughters’ schooling. 

It was some time after my first Hogmanay after moving home when Jenny took me to speak to someone. Dr. Clarkson was the saving grace I needed in my life. She listened to me for the first several sessions without pressuring me to talk about anything specific. She saved me after I hit my lowest point. It started when she prescribed anti-depressants. I was diagnosed with depression. I didn’t immediately feel a difference, but I noticed after a few weeks that my thoughts were lighter. I no longer felt as if I were drowning all the time. 

She became my friend, but that came after she no longer treated me. It would’ve been a conflict of interest and she was all about ethics. She recommended a colleague of hers for me to talk with afterwards. 

She put a lot of things in perspective for me in regards to my relationship with Claire. 

Mary told me hindsight wasn’t a privilege we had until after an event occurred. Claire and I were drowning in our own problems separately, which then affected our marriage. Communication ceased between us as we allowed the outside into our relationship. Talking became yelling, and leaving became the norm. In the moment, I was unable to evaluate my actions. I hadn’t considered what talking to Britney would cause Claire to assume about interactions with her. The worst part was the realization that I had emotionally cheated on her, which hurt more than physical cheating. 

I was ashamed at how I treated her like a jealous harpy and refused to consider her point of view. While I was working, she attended school and was raising our two children, while I neglected my duties. Mary was quick to inform me not to pin all of the blame on myself as a relationship involves two people and sometimes they fall apart. It was what a person did in the aftermath that defined them as a person. A person had to be willing to build themselves back up and understand that not everything is going to happen the way they wanted. I had to learn how to let go of the things I couldn’t control and focus on the things I could. 

I vowed to be a better brother, father, friend, and partner in the future. I wanted to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them again. 

I leaned my head back against the wall as my thoughts drifted around. Seeing Claire again brought my battered heart stuttering back to life. There were some unresolved, residual feelings, but neither of us were in a place where it was a good idea to act on them. 

The problem was I knew she didn’t want me and I had moved forward in my own life. She was here for our daughter and would be gone in a flash when Isla was well enough. It was the reality of our situation. 

The doctors told Claire to wait as long as possible before returning to allow the swelling to go down. There were a lot of risks involved in air travel, and they needed the documentation about the metal in Isla’s leg to fly.

Claire was planning to take her home as soon as she was discharged, leaving Bree here for the remainder of the eight weeks I had left with them. I understood her reasoning for not wanting Isla to stay here. Isla needed time to adjust to her new situation and to build a routine here only for it to be disrupted upon returning home wasn’t beneficial. She required stability, and if she stayed here she wouldn’t receive that. 

I hid my disappointment. There was no room for it. This had to be about Isla’s overall well-being. 

I rubbed my face. I sensed someone watching me and glanced down to find a replica of my own eyes staring up at me. “Do you have a new girlfriend after Ally? I know Isla sort of you know… messed it up when she said all that stuff at Hogmanay.” 

I sputtered incoherently to find a response. “Wh-wh-what?” I asked her stupidly. 

“Well mom has Peter, and I don’t want you to be alone forever. I think they’re going to get married.” I kept my face neutral at the revelation as I was unaware of how serious the relationship had become. Then again, they had dated for years. What could I expect? 

“They are?” 

Bree nodded, confusion in her eyes. “What’s wrong?” I cursed myself for showing too much interest on the subject. Claire was free to marry whoever she wanted. It wouldn’t affect me, but I was leery and hesitant about what it meant for our children. “Is it because I told you about mommy and Peter are probably gonna get married?” 

“No, it’s not.” I played with the ends of her hair, avoiding her state. “Your mother is allowed to get married without my approval. We aren’t married anymore even in the eyes of the Catholic church.” She nodded her head. “I guess it’s strange to think that I won’t be her only husband. I do date. I was thinking about introducing you and Isla, but it didn’t exactly go well last time.”

“I guess that’s okay. Do you like like her? Is it Ally?”

I snorted. “Is that what they’re saying these days?”

“I don’t know about everyone, but that’s what my friends and I say. There’s liking someone and there’s like liking someone.”

“Weel, I really do like her. It is Ally. We had to talk a bit after what happened. She was hurt about what yer sister said.”

“Do you love her like you did mommy?”

I hesitated. While I did possess deep feelings for Ally, we weren’t at a stage in our relationship at least on my side where I considered furthering it. I didn’t know what it would mean to be in love with someone else. I wasn’t ready. “If I did love her, it wouldn’t be exactly the same. How you love someone is different for each person you love.”

She didn’t understand. “Okay well do you love your mom and sister the same? Or Peter and Joe?” She shook her head. “That’s how it is even if you’re in love. It’s different and unexpected. You can’t feel for someone else what you felt for another person. All relationships are unique.”

“I suppose so. Can we go back in Isla’s room?”

That was that as far as she was concerned until she slid Peter into conversation with her sister when she awoke. 

“Peter is nice enough.” Isla said. “He and mom have been dating for a few years. Maybe they will get married.” Claire hadn’t mentioned how serious it was. Was she engaged? Is that why Isla and Bree kept mentioning it? Did they want to soften me to the idea? “He’s okay. He does love mom and I guess she could do worse..” She admitted begrudgingly.

I sent her a sharp glare. 

“I understand it’s hard. You don’t want it to seem as if you’re replacing me if you enjoy spending time with him. A part of you also imagines this fairytale where yer mam and I reunite. It’s okay to love someone else. I’m still yer dad.”

Isla pressed her lips together to refrain from commenting. It meant she held strong opinions about what I said. It struck a chord with her. 

“Doesn’t it make you mad or sad?” 

“No Bree, I dinna mind if someone else loves my children.” Was I jealous about the amount of time he would get to spend with them? Yes. It wasn’t within my ability at the moment to pack up and move. There were logistics to consider and paperwork to file. “It’s hard growing up. You don’t want anything to change, but change is a part of life. It happens whether we want it to or not.”

Isla frowned. “Dad, you haven’t been serious with someone. I mean yeah there’s what’s her name, but you and mom could be happy. You have great chemistry and you’ve got kids together.”

I didn’t realize how fervently Isla was holding onto the fairytale she concocted. “Isla, would ye want to be with someone who makes you happy, sad, or mad?”

“Happy, duh!”

“Watch yer mouth. There’s no need for the cheek.” She rolled her eyes. “Would you stay with someone who made you sad or angry?”

“Of course not,” she held back on the snottiness, but some of it spilled out. I was letting her behavior slide for the time being given her current state. She was agitated and I didn’t blame her. She hated hospitals. 

“Do ye think people should stay married if they aren’t happy but have children?”

She turned her head to avoid answering. I knew what she would say and so did she. 

“Well don’t you and mom love each other? How can you forget about all of those years together?”

“She did, we did, but it was a long time ago. It could never work now. I live here, and you guys live in Boston.” I pointed out to her. “I haven’t forgotten about our time together, but I have to be realistic about my expectations. While I don’t talk about our marriage or when we were dating doesn’t mean I don’t keep them close. It was a special time in my life. She was my first love, and you never forget that.”

“I guess so.” I didn’t know how to convince her if she refused to see reason. “Are you sure? I mean can’t you move to Boston? You could figure it out.” 

Pulling out my teeth was less painful than this conversation. Isla held tightly to her dreams, and while I never wanted to discourage that, it wasn’t right to give her false hope. “Isla, it could be ages before I could get a visa to move over to the States. I ken this is no’ what ye want to hear, but you can’t always get what you want in life. This is something your mam and I decided.”

“That’s not fair. It doesn’t only affect you. Why does it have to be absolute?”

“Isla, what’s not fair is you continuing to bring this up when it’s been settled for years. Ye’re refusing to listen to me because what I’m saying to you upsets you.”

She wiped away her tears. “But you’re not listening to me. You and mom could be so happy. Like yeah it didn’t work forever ago, but there was Gabriel and other grown up stuff happening. You haven’t talked about, not really. It does upset me because I know you would be happy together.”

“How? You’ve barely seen us interact with each other. You don’t know what we want in another person. This is about what you want.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s selfish.”

Her mouth dropped open and then snapped shut as she glared at me. “Yeah, well so are you and mom. You were selfish for divorcing and forcing us into this crap life. I think you really moved here so you could avoid your responsibilities. Maybe we are better off with you here.”

“Watch yer mouth, or ye will no’ like the consequences.”

“Whatever,” she muttered and turned away from me. 

Bree’s eyes darted to her lap as she tried to slink into her chair. The conversation hadn’t gone the way she would’ve preferred and turned into a disagreement instead. She wisely removed herself from it. 

I knew they were unhappy when they chose to remain silent and ignore me. I wasn’t going to give into them on this. I and their mother had the freedom of choice, and I didn’t have to justify that to them. Claire had chosen someone else to spend her life with, and it was unfair of them to use that against me. 

I needed the time to gather my own thoughts. Until she showed up in my life, I was convinced the feelings on my end were more of a platonic nature. She was the mother of my children, yet there was this increasing awareness that I had never stopped loving her. However, I refused to act on it. I wouldn’t screw up her life. 

I saw bits and pieces of the woman she was, but there were unfamiliar facets of her too. She wasn’t the grief-stricken woman who couldn’t stand the sight of me. 

I never considered that she and Peter were at a place where the next step was to further their relationship in matrimony. It had been nearly ten years, and there was no reason for her to live as a nun. I wasn’t celibate and had been in two relationships with only one lasting past six months. It wasn’t fair if I judged her for not sharing with me how things with Peter were progressing. It was more than I would ever want to know anyway. 

I spent so much time wallowing in misery and then accepting fate. I wasted my chance with her. When I realized what I wanted, it was only for me to discover she had someone in her life. He didn’t seem to mind she came with children and understood the doctor side of her. Peter wasn’t awful. I had spoken to him on the phone a time or two, but I still wanted to dislike him. 

Claire was likely eager to get back to him. Peter was the current owner of her heart, and I didn’t think anything ever hurt my heart more than that. The cracks were there and they were deep. I ached for her, but the sentiment wasn’t returned. I didn’t expect her too either because she was a beautiful woman with an amazing capacity to love. She would disagree, but I knew.

She was young, only thirty-four. She shouldn’t have to spend her life alone because of my inadequacies. A woman like her deserved the best. 

A thought occurred to me. “Bree?” Her eyes rose to meet mine. “Why did ye mention Gabriel earlier?” 

A little divot appeared between her brows. “Well when mommy and grandma are having adult conversations, it’s usually about you, Gabriel, Peter, her job, or some other boring grown up stuff.” 

I sighed. “Well what do they say about Gabriel?

“I don’t know. Mom never lets us hear them talk. It’s hushed or she closes the door. I think nana just wants to make sure she doesn’t get super sad again. You think about him too, don’t you?” 

“Yes,” I answered. When she realized she wasn’t going to get anymore information out of me, she dug into her bag for iPad. It was amazing how quickly she became absorbed in the wee device. I wondered how Claire dealt with it. There must be some sort of limit. 

I relaxed my head against the back of my chair. There were too many thoughts in my brain. 

A hand gently shook my shoulder, and my eyes flashed open to an eye full of Claire. My eyes darted to her cleavage causing me to swallow painfully. I don’t think she noticed as her eyes were focused on Bree. “I think Isla wants to talk.” Her smile was warm and reached her eyes. 

She went over to Bree whose iPad was in danger of slipping out of her grasp. 

I turned my head and watched as she held our daughter close. Although I could’ve sworn her eyes moved in my direction. I wanted to confront her about Peter, but it wasn’t the time. Our priority was the recovery of our child. Truth be told, I had no right to ask her about her private life unless it was in relation to Isla and Bree. If I asked, I knew it would’ve been for my own personal knowledge.

She and Bree decided to go get food. “I’ll leave the two of you.” She sent Isla a look. Isla smiled guiltily. “We were going to get out of the hospital for a bit. I think she could use some fresh air. Before you ask again, no I will not bring you outside food. The doctor hasn’t approved it. When it does happen, I’ll be the first to bring you a cheeseburger.”

“Fine,” Isla grumbled. 

I snickered. It wasn’t just me. Isla really was just getting to that age. 

“Did you want anything? We can order something for you?” 

I wasn’t particularly hungry. “No, I’m fine.”

“If you do get hungry before we come back, text me.” I nodded. She and Bree left with Bree leaning into her mother. 

“So, I suppose we should talk.”

Chapter Text

CPOV 

I hoped to continue avoiding him or limiting my time around him, but he trapped me in the chapel. I was praying. I knew god heard my prayers. It took a long time for me to accept that god had a plan and it wasn’t always in accordance with my own.

I wasn’t surprised he discovered my hiding place. Whenever I was worried or stressed, I turned towards God. He did too. There was a time I had turned my back, and he had at one time as well. 

“I was wonderin’ if I would find ye here,” he said softly, sitting beside me on the pew. 

I remained silent. “Claire,” he grabbed my hand. “It shouldna be this hard to communicate with you, but then again, there were all those months where we talked but never listened.” 

Tears burned my eyes. “Please not here,” I pleaded with him. I didn’t want to discuss it while we were in a hospital. This time was for our daughter. 

“When then? We almost lost Isla.” He choked back a sob and buried his face in his hands. I instantly missed the warmth from his touch. “She could’ve died. We would’ve lost another one.”

I gingerly rubbed his back as his emotions caught up to him. “She’s perfectly alright. The doctors believe she’ll make an amazing recovery. She’s strong. She gets it from you.” He fell into my embrace, and I held him. 

His sense of guilt was undeniable. I hadn’t helped. I came in with a fierce and unapproachable body language. “Jamie, I owe you an apology.” 

He pulled back and began stuttering. I covered his mouth with my fingers. “No please, let me say this. I spent a year hating you, absolutely despising everything about you. But then, when I grew tired from all of my negative feelings, I had to figure out a way to reign them in as they were getting the best of me. It wasn’t productive, and I was unable to compartmentalize how I felt about you.” I was ashamed in all honesty. “You didn’t deserve how I treated you, and you certainly weren’t at fault for what happened.” 

His eyes swirled with a million emotions. “I didna understand.” Confusion was prominent. 

I sighed and adjusted myself on the pew. “The miscarriage while the stress from our marriage certainly wasn’t conducive, I was going to lose the baby regardless of anything you think you had done. It isn’t always clear why it happens. My doctor said I would still be able to bear children, and there was no indication it would happen again.” I lowered my eyes guiltily. “For me, I needed someone to direct my anger at. I already blamed myself for what happened, and then you weren’t there.” Tears spilled onto my cheeks, and before I had a chance to brush them away, his thumbs were. “You were with her.” I choked out. 

It was hard to admit all these years later that there was someone else in our marriage whether Jamie wanted to acknowledge it or not. While he was clear that they’d never done anything more than her kissing him and he returning it for all five seconds, he shared private things about our marriage with her. I was alone when it all happened while he was away at a conference with her, and it was difficult to separate my feelings surrounding it. They were compacted. 

I leaned into his touch, still not meeting his gaze. “Tell me about it, please Claire.” 

I never shared with him the full detailed explanation of what happened that day. I attempted to move on, and I brushed him off every time he attempted to address the topic. I thought if I could bury it underneath all of our other issues, I could make the problem disappear. 

June 2009 

I groaned in frustration. My exams were two weeks ago, and I was inadequately prepared. The semester had been hard on me with the new baby and the surprise pregnancy. Somehow I had managed to pull off decent marks. I didn’t know if I would be able to continue my studies with three children under five. I could re-enroll when I was ready to resume, but there was uncertainty as to when that would be. I was on a student visa and there would complications with establishing residency. It would be an entire mess to sort out. 

While I would never classify either of my daughters as a mistake, they were surprises. We had planned on having children later on after I finished medical school. It seemed to be the ideal time. Life rarely ever went according to plan and we discovered that we would have to make some adjustments. 

Then something unexpected occurred. I was afraid to tell Jamie because barely two months after Bree, I found out I was pregnant for the third time. We weren’t as careful as we should’ve been, but I wasn’t expecting to have the test read positive. We had been exuberant in our celebrating of the holidays, especially since I was given the all clear by my doctor to resume sexual activities. 

Now here I was in my fifth nearly sixth month of pregnancy for the third time. I wasn’t pleased by the timing, and Jamie wasn’t either. There wasn’t any time between this pregnancy and the last. Irish twins were not in the plans. 

His work required him to spend a lot of hours at the office. He was an asset to his team. He was sent out abroad a few times to negotiate deals particularly given his multi-lingual abilities, and two days ago we had a fight about him attending a conference with his work colleague Britney. I told him she had her sights set on him, and he refused to believe me. He defended her like she was bloody Mother Theresa. It was aggravating as I was trying not to come off as the jealous wife who didn’t trust her husband. 

He said, “Claire, yer bein’ absolutely ridiculous. She doesn’t see me in that way. We just work on a lot of projects together. It isn’t anything for you to be worried about. We are friends.” 

I snorted derisively. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me Jamie. You can’t possibly be that naïve. I mean shit! How many times has she requested your help in the last few months? She even rings on the weekend. You go to your little work lunches and dinners together. She’s been on a few of those trips you’ve taken. I’ve seen how she looks at you.”  I refused to budge from my position on the subject. I was right. Jamie was blind and wanted to see the best in people. He trusted too easily. 

“Are ye jealous of her? Is that the problem Claire? Am I not spending enough time with ye?” His face was red and his chest heaved with the force of his breaths. “Ye’re basing this off speculation. Has she outright told ye her feelings about me? Maybe ye’ve gone barmy with all yer wee hormones, but she doesn’t feel that way for me.”

I brushed away the tears. It was not the time to be hormonal. His constant dismissal of my legitimate worries bothered me. I tried to take his concerns seriously, especially after he voiced his insecurities regarding Joe. I limited my time around him, and tried to include Jamie more often in our conversations. I didn’t take it personally as he had.  

“How can you not to see it?” I was baffled at his obtuseness. Every time I saw her with him when I brought Isla and Bree to the office, her eyes were narrowed into slants at the sight of us. She glared at me and doted over the girls. She made snide remarks about how I kept getting pregnant. She only did it when Jamie wasn’t within hearing range. She accused me of trying to trap him. 

I walked in on her two months ago, massaging his shoulders with adoration in her eyes. He claimed innocence and I believed him. It was her I didn’t trust. She was a slag the way she constantly draped herself over a married man. It was as if she didn’t have any morals. Britney wasn’t bothered by his marital status. “If you can’t see it then why do I bother?” I threw up my arms angrily. 

“I work to provide for you and the girls. Britney is a work colleague and nothing more. Do ye not trust me to remain faithful?” By my lack of reply, he assumed I didn’t. 

“Oh come off it. This has nothing to do with you and absolutely everything to do with her.”

“No this is you being paranoid and rowing unnecessarily with me. What do I have to do to get ye to trust me and her?”

I threw up my arms, frustrated by his constant turn around. He was aggravating. Somehow if I didn’t trust her, it was me not trusting him. I wasn’t certain how he correlated the two. They were separate issues. 

Before I could retort, he snatched his suitcase and stormed out of the apartment. “You’re being a child.” I yelled as he closed the door. 

I had more of an issue with her. She picked Jamie knowing we were having difficulties in our marriage. Jamie practically broadcasted our problems to the entire world. She knew he was an easy target. She all but admitted she was attracted to him. The only one who stubbornly dug his head in the sand was Jamie. He wouldn’t see reason. 

I was quite irritated with him, but I was also extremely horny. The hormones were taking over my body and sometimes arguing with Jamie heightened my libido. Regardless, the cow he worked with had ulterior motives. She advertised it enough, and her blouses were a bit too low to be appropriate. I felt undesirable compared to her as I hadn’t had the opportunity to get my body back before I was pregnant again. It was going to be a nightmare to work off two pregnancies.

From the time I woke up that morning, I had experienced uncomfortable pains in my back. I wasn’t worried as I hadn’t seen any blood or felt any other symptoms. I had done research with my first pregnancy, and I had finished my third year of medical school. 

A sigh escaped me as my mind couldn’t focus on my book. I gave up for the day and crawled into bed. The girls were already asleep thanks to small blessings. 

It was hours later when I woke up to find blood everywhere. The pain in my back and abdomen was agony, and I stretched to reach my phone and dial 9-1-1. There was something seriously wrong. I was scared I had already lost him. I had lost consciousness as the pain increased. 

The beeping of medical equipment woke me from my uneasy sleep. The bed was uncomfortable, but my doctor requested I stay the night instead of AMA. Although, it was the option I preferred. I wanted to escape the confines of the hospital, one of the few places I was myself. All of the machines surrounding me reminded me of the reason why I was there. My baby died.

It was in the darkness of the room, I noticed his prone figure. I could hear his soft snoring, and I hated him. I tried not to. Subconsciously, I understood it wasn’t his fault it happened, but he was there or should I say not there. He left me. I had to deliver a dead baby alone.

Tears pricked at my eyes. I had cried endlessly when they explained what was happening. I didn’t want it to be real. It was only the previous week I heard his heartbeat. Last night, he kicked me. Today, he was gone. 

The pain came in intervals. I clutched the standard hospital pillow to my face and released my anguish into the starched sheet. There were short pauses as I attempted to recover my breath, but my grief was still under the surface. It burst forth like a dam, and I didn’t want to turn it off. I wanted to feel it all because it seemed to be the only real thing. 

I delayed the inevitable after the birth. I was traumatized and the doctors made the decision to sedate me. I was shut off from the agony of knowing my child never drew his first breath. He was dead before he left my body. My guilt crippled me as I had to have done something wrong for this to happen. Bad things should only happen to bad people. Logically, I knew there multiple reasons for a placental abruption, but I couldn’t allow myself to escape my sorrow and shame. 

It was slow at first when I came back to myself. My memories hadn’t caught up to me, and for that I was grateful. I expected the moment the birth came back to me as I screamed and pleaded for the doctors to do something to save my baby to hurt the most. Their apologetic eyes and faces full of pity and empathy meant nothing to me as they delivered my stillborn son. All I wanted was my baby, and they couldn’t do anything. My baby was gone. He never had a chance. 

I tried to scream into my pillow, but it was soundless. No sounds came forth. My throat was hoarse. My hands smacked the bed as my body shook uncontrollably with the force of my sobs. 

One day ago, I was expecting another child and now I would be burying the same child. I wanted to die. I desired my release from this life to be with my unnamed baby. My baby who never was given a chance. He was taken because I didn’t deserve him. I was selfish for blaming him for my current problems. It was never his fault. He was innocent like his sisters. 

His arms came around me. He tried to pull me into his embrace, but I resisted him. I didn’t want his comfort. I wanted nothing from him. My hands smacked against his arms as I screamed obscenities at him. “It’s all your fault, you fucking bastard.” I said over and over again as more tears poured from my eyes. My eyes burned with them. “Why?” I asked him. “How could you leave me?

I couldn’t make out his expression in the dark, but I didn’t want to. I couldn’t bear to see his heartbroken eyes and the apology that would follow. I didn’t want it from him. “Please leave,” I wanted to mourn on my own without him there. He didn’t have to hold a dead baby. To see the pallor of death on skin that never pinkened or eyes that would never open. The stillness of a baby who wouldn’t experience life. 

“Claire, please love let me hold you.” His voice was hoarse with his own tears as he begged me to let him in. “I’m so sorry.”

I tried to feel something, anything but I was hollow inside. I was empty. I didn’t have anything for him. “Please Jamie, give me this. If you love me, you’ll leave.” My lips trembled with each passing word as I forced myself not to cry. I knew my eyes were red and swollen, and my face all blotchy from the tears. I wanted the privacy to mourn. I couldn’t share it with him. 

His shoulders dropped in resignation. I felt his lips in my hair, but I sat there in a daze. I’m not sure I processed much of anything that followed. 

He took the hint and left. The moment I was alone, I turned my head back into my pillow and continued to cry. It was all I could do until I couldn’t cry. 

I hated God, Jamie, everyone. I didn’t know why I was being punished. My mother would tell me it was God testing me, but it seemed too cruel. My baby was gone, in another place without me. 

I cried for myself, for Isla, for Bree, for Jamie. I didn’t know what else I could do. It seemed the only way to empty out my emotions. I fell into a troubled sleep, and when I awoke my mother was there. Her eyes were sympathetic and understanding. While she never lost a child, she did lose a husband. She knew something about loss and how it can overwhelm you. 

“Oh Claire, my love,” her arms came around me in a tight embrace. She rocked me side to side as I buried my face in her neck. The tears fell in a flurry. “You’re going to get through this sweetheart. I know it seems hard now. Sometimes things happen we can’t explain.” I enjoyed the comfort of her arms. I took solace and strength from her presence. “It doesn’t mean you did anything to deserve it.” She knew me well.

She stayed with me through most of the morning before excusing herself. I slept restlessly in her absence, but when she returned, she brought the balm to soothe my soul, my babies. 

Isla clutched her grandmother’s hand warily as Bree was her usual happy self. I opened my arms for her and my mother deposited her into them. Bree snuggled into my aching breasts. I knew what she wanted, but I was pumping and dumping. My mother placed the diaper bag on the bed. 

“I’ll be back in an hour for them.” She winked at me. 

Isla had climbed up to snuggle in the bed with me. “Mommy, you ‘kay?” Her sentence structure was developing quite nicely. 

I kissed her fiery head. “I’m much better now that you’re here.” I answered honestly. It was the truth. They were the best medicine a doctor could prescribe. 

Bree cuddled closer and I found myself feeling lighter for the first time since it happened. I was by no means over what happened. I just needed to focus on what I did have. “I wanted to tell you something Isla.” While she didn’t really understand what it meant for me to be pregnant, she did know she was going to have a sibling. Her eyes turned on me shining brightly with innocence and trust. “You know how mommy and daddy told you, you were going to have a new brother or sister?” She nodded her tiny head. “Well,” I inhaled sharply, the loss stung sharply. “I’m not going to have a baby anymore. The baby went to heaven.” 

“Why?” 

How did I explain to a toddler, sometimes people die for no reason. “God called him. He needed your brother there instead of here.” She accepted the answer easily enough. 

I knew one day I would need a better answer to explain what occurred for now I took solace in her never remembering. 

Bree dozed off as I fed her a bottle, her rosebud lips slackened around the nipple. I readjusted her limp body. Isla soon went down for a nap against my other side. I held their bodies tightly to my own and thanked god they were still with me. 

I wouldn’t ever be okay with what happened, but some of my guilt ebbed away. I had two perfectly healthy children. I had much to be grateful for, and I regretted wishing I was taken too. Remorse settled over me because I never wanted to give up watching my two babies grow up. It was selfish of me to think such a thing. 

Five Days Later 

I stood at a grave staring at the tiniest coffin imaginable. It was unfathomable such a thing could exist or was necessary at all. Yet, I knew infants died. 

My mother took care of all the arrangements with help from Jamie and Jenny. I couldn’t have any involvement. It was too much, too painful.  

When the morning arrived, I wanted to stay in my bed and ignore the day ahead of me. Nothing was ever going to hurt me as much as burying my child. The tears subsided after the visit from Isla and Bree, but at night, I heard phantom cries. My hand drifted to my stomach where there were no kicks to be felt. The one thing I was thankful Jamie had done was to remove all of the items we purchased for our son. 

There was no evidence another child was expected to join the family by the time I was released from the hospital. It was more than fortunate it occurred after the semester semester ended as I had already sat my exams and received my final marks. There was no longer any need to worry about how I would handle next semester. I felt guilty for thinking about it.  

Many of my classmates signed a card with condolences and sent an arrangement of flowers. I appreciated the gesture, and I knew Joe was responsible. 

My professors had sent their own flowers. I was touched. 

My brother flew in two days before with his girlfriend. Her name was Elizabeth. She was actually quite lovely, and I found myself on more than one occasion wondering what she was doing with my brother. 

“Hey Claire,” he greeted me as he entered my bedroom. 

My eyes snapped to his and he was holding me instantly. “I can’t believe this happened.” He let me fall apart in his arms. While we had our differences, Tom was my first friend. Barely a year separated us in age. He was my best friend. 

We laid there in my bed as he told me about his job and other events in his life. We didn’t have much of an opportunity to chat often with both of our busy lives. “We’re getting quite serious. I’ve considered proposing.” He informed me much to my shock. It was hard to consider my baby brother as someone’s husband or being in a long term commitment. Tom was rarely serious about anything. “I had intended for you guys to meet under better circumstances than this.” His voice was soft, much softer than I thought Tom was capable of. 

I grimaced at the allusion. “I’m sure I’ll love her. I’ll make sure to tell her about all of your troublemaking ways and past flings.” We kept the conversation light, which was what I needed. 

It brought me to today. He waited patiently for me to get dressed. He tidied the pearls around my neck when I made no move to straighten them. He held my hand in the back of the car as we made our way to the cemetery. He was my rock. 

I was useless for the past several days. The girls spent a lot of time in my room, snuggling and watching television. I couldn’t bear to be parted from them. It gutted me when they were absent from sight, and I knew my family understood. At least, they hadn’t said anything about it. I did allow my grandparents to dote on them. 

Jenny was there, but Ian stayed back in Scotland. It was by far easier than arranging for their entire brood to come. I appreciated her presence as I knew Jamie needed someone to support him through this. It just couldn’t be me at the moment, or possibly ever. 

I hesitated the moment I caught a glance of the tiny casket. Tom held me close and I buried my face in his shoulder. 

My baby was in there about to be buried six feet below. He was going to be alone. 

I barely listened as the funeral began. My thoughts were somewhere else, and I knew it was perhaps for the best. What I wasn’t expecting was Jamie to stand in front of everyone. 

He smiled faintly, but I saw the suffering in his eyes. He was hurting as much as I was, but he was putting up a better mask. “I would like to share a poem.” He carefully composed himself as if knowing the tears threatening to break loose. 

“The world may never notice 

If a rosebud doesn't bloom: 

Or even pause to wonder if the petals fall too soon. 

But every life that ever forms, 

Or ever comes to be Touches the World in some small way 

For all eternity. 

The little ones we longed for 

Were swiftly here and gone. 

 the love that was then planted Is a light that still shines on. 

And though our arms are empty,

Our hearts know what to do 

Every beating of my heart says "I Remember You" –Unknown”

I was deeply affected by his words because of the truth in them. Neither of us would forget Gabriel. While no one else in the world would miss him or notice his absence, we would for as long as we lived. 

Jenny escorted Jamie away as he began to sob. I ached to hold him in my arms, but another part of me held back. I was unable to speak. If I went up there, I would only breakdown and it wasn’t something I wanted to do in public. 

Many of the attendees left after paying their condolences. I received hugs and pats, but none of it registered to me. I didn’t feel the contact. My mother tried to get me to go with her and my grandparents, but I needed to stay. I had to watch them bury my son. Something compelled me to stay. 

It was sometime before he was in the ground with a fresh mound of dirt on top. I squeezed my eyes to prevent another onslaught of tears. It was a bit cold for late spring, and I hadn’t worn tights underneath my dress. I at least wore a light black coat, which I kept buttoned. The chilly air felt comforting against my skin. It was as if greeting a long lost friend and I welcomed it. I needed to feel something, anything besides grief and loss. 

The headstone wouldn’t be completed for a few weeks. We decided not to put any dates on it. It was the only decision I made in my days of madness. His name was Gabriel Thomas Fraser and he was the baby of our hearts. 

He was in his fifth month of gestation. While he wasn’t a fully developed baby, he looked like one. He had his organs and fingernails. He was a surprise. I was raised to believe all children were gifts from God and there were no mistakes. 

We weren’t as careful with protection as we should’ve been and he happened. He was loved from the moment I knew he was inside me. 

A hand touched my shoulder, and I looked into his glassy blue eyes. I knew mine were much the same. “Come on Claire, ye should be home.” 

I allowed him to lead me away from our son. I glanced back at the fresh mound of dirt covering my baby. I couldn’t help but ask myself why some children had to die. Life seemed to deal the cruelest hands when you weren’t expecting it. 

Now 

He peered at me, sensing his curiosity I turned towards him. I raised an eyebrow, providing him the floor so to speak. He cleared his throat. “Do ye,” he made a gesture with his hands, “visit him often?” 

I sank further into the pew as I considered my words. I didn’t need him to clarify his statement. “The girls and I go every year on his birthday or Christmas.” I made no mention of it being his death date as well. “We bring flowers, the girls sometimes write notes or draw pictures.” They put effort into what they wanted to tell him. They made wishes for him. He was still their little brother. 

The two of them never considered him to be a baby, but someone who was growing with them. They knew he was in heaven, and imagined he aged like they did. Each year, their letters were longer as their thoughts and vocabulary expanded. “The first time we went as a family was probably the hardest. Isla was seven and Bree five. I hadn't told them about Gabriel before, so they didn't know where I went every year on his birthday. All they knew was they had a date with grandma in which she spoiled them rotten. I took them for the first time at Christmas because of something they said.” 

The concept of death didn’t strike either of them until they were around seven. Isla’s second grade teacher died in a car accident in the second half of the school year. The school asked all the parents to sit down and have a conversation about it with their kids, and then they talked about it at a school assembly. Many of the students prayed for Mrs. Smith’s eternal spirit including Isla. I had heard the name mentioned more than a few times in her nighttime prayers. 

For Bree, it was visiting the grave of her brother. If he had been born, her whole life would’ve been different. She could’ve bossed him around and teased him endlessly because it was an older sibling's prerogative to torture their younger sibling. They would’ve been about ten months apart in age. 

The death hit Bree hard, and she didn’t talk for a week afterwards. Prior to that moment, she had never thought about her brother being an actual person. He was abstract, but a friend’s mother gave birth to a baby boy at the time. She became keenly aware of her own loss she hadn’t known she suffered. Her friend gushed over how cute her brother was and how she couldn’t wait until he was big enough to play with. Bree cried into my chest and I held her all night. We fell asleep holding one another. We talked about it and how she hadn’t known what she lost until her friend and her brother. She was envious for some time and refused for ages to visit her friend because of her new brother. 

“The funeral is Isla’s earliest memory.” I informed him and watched the pain settle over him. I didn’t relish in it. There was a point where I would’ve. I lowered my gaze apologetically. “She told me about two years ago the first thing she could remember was being in a black dress at a cemetery. She remembered the tiny coffin. She doesn’t know the specifics or anything of that nature. I had to deal with her nightmares for months afterwards.” Flashes of screaming and sleepless nights invaded my memory. 

Those were the nights where she shared my bed despite being nine years old. Her arms wrapped tightly around my torso as she drifted off to sleep. My own kept her close to my heart. I would awaken to find both girls in bed with me, not that I minded. I enjoyed the closeness we shared because I understood the gifts they truly were to me. While Gabriel was taken, God still gave me two perfectly healthy children who were my entire life. 

I hadn’t shared the information with Jamie. In a way, it was too intimate. There were topics we strayed away from to keep the peace and space between us. While I was comfortable broaching almost any subject related to the girls, I couldn’t talk about Gabriel. The scars ran too deep. I sometimes thought if I had been able to have a conversation about our mutual loss, our marriage could’ve survived. Then again we had other issues than the miscarriage.

His absence was still a wound on my soul. There wasn’t a day that passed where I didn’t think of him at least once. 

“I thought about visiting.” I snapped my gaze to him. I tried to hide my shock at his statement. “I couldn’t bring myself to come at first, but I’ve been once when Isla had appendicitis. I have many regrets about what happened.” 

“It was hard the first time I made it out to the cemetery after everything. It was months before I could visit.” I swallowed. “I went by myself. It was around Christmas. It should’ve been his first one. I cried more than I care to admit. I had flowers for him.” I remembered the flowers on multiple graves and watching others come to visit their loved ones. “I sat there for hours before I started talking to him. I told him about his sisters. It was cathartic, and perhaps the first step in the healing process for me.” 

He was silent as he contemplated my words. “I saw a therapist.” He admitted somewhat embarrassed. 

“So did I,” I offered. “I wasn’t coping.” 

We were both quiet. He reached over and held my hand in his as we prayed. I imagined we prayed for similar things, our son, our daughters, and ourselves. 

We were by no means fixed, but there was a lightness in my heart at having shared one of the hardest moments of my life with him. 

“Thank ye for telling me Claire,” he smiled. 

Chapter Text

                                              

IPOV

I glanced down at my lap, ashamed at what I said, but a part of me didn’t regret it. I wouldn’t include that in my apology. I wasn’t insane. 

“La, that was mean.” 

I glared at her. “I didn’t know I was going to say that. Why do you always take their side? You’re my sister.” 

She crossed her arms with a huff. “That’s not fair. You’re the one who keeps pushing it. There’s nothing wrong with Peter. You like him. Mom and daddy aren’t getting back together.”

“What’s wrong with me wanting my parents back together?”

She sighed. “Nothing. It’s not the same for me. There aren’t lots of happy family photos after I was born. They look sad.” 

Way to bring down the mood Bee. “It isn’t about wanting them together.” She gave me a look. “Okay… so it’s the main thing, but don’t you want dad closer? We see him, what, three times a year if we’re lucky. My old friend Taylor sees her mom all the time and she lives in California. Maybe not all the time, but it’s more than we see him.” I flicked my thumb in my dad’s direction. “It isn’t fair. It’s always awkward at first. He talks about how big we’ve gotten and asks about school when he knows the answer, but he doesn’t know how to talk about the normal stuff.”

“You’re not the only one who misses him. Your baby book has way more pictures than mine. Your calendar was filled out by both mom and dad. I get sad too.”

We hadn’t talked about it much with one another. It never occurred to me it bothered her. She usually told me everything. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

I couldn’t read her face, but I had a feeling it was because of me. Bree was a good sister and tried her best to protect my feelings. We got into a scuffle with another kid when we were younger. A fifth grader was teasing me when I was in third grade. Bree’s class was walking past the playground at the time the girl pushed me over. She stomped over and bit the other girl. She ended up with a bruise on her face, and I hurt my ankle. While mom lectured us for like ever about not hitting or biting, Bree and I shared a secret smile. I knew she had my back. Besides, mom wasn’t that mad anyway. She was angrier at the principal and the other adults for allowing the situation to happen. 

“I know how much you want it. You watch The Parent Trap, both versions like all the time. You want that.” She wasn’t wrong about how often I watched. They were my favorite movies and made me realize how badly I wanted my parents to get back together. “It’s just sometimes I don’t know if you know it’s a movie.”

“I do. I know it doesn’t work like that in real life, but there are couples who were together forever ago who get back together. Why can’t that be them? It would be the best of both worlds. Dad would be closer, and they would be happy.”

“How do you know?” That stopped me short. “There’s Peter. I know you pretend you don’t like him when you really do. Do you want his feelings to get hurt? If mom and daddy got back together then she would have to break up with him.”

Peter wasn’t bad. I did enjoy spending time with him. We went hiking together, and he let me eat lots of ice cream after I got my tonsils removed. He went to all of my piano recitals and we played together. He was fun. It was easier at times to act as if I didn’t like him. I didn’t want my dad to think I was replacing him, especially if I talked about Peter all the time. 

It would hurt his feelings since he rarely got time with his. I saw the ring on my mom’s finger. While she hadn’t said anything, I knew what it meant. Peter proposed and she said yes. A big change was coming no matter what. If they got married, that was it. Peter would be my stepdad which was like a dad. He and mom would probably have their own kids, and it would be different. 

Did I want Peter to get hurt? Was that fair to him? He hadn’t done anything except love us and mom. He was easier to talk to at times than my parents. “Does it make me a bad person if I say that I never thought about what it would mean for him?” She scrunched her face. “Yeah, I thought so. I’m selfish.”

“No,” she protested half-heartedly. “Maybe a little. I feel like you too sometimes, but I don’t want or need it as much. It scares you.”

“I don’t like change. Yeah it would change everything if dad came back. How could it not? I just,” I tugged at my hair. “It’s a dream I’ve held onto for so long. I wouldn’t know what to replace it with or how to let it go.”

Silence stretched between us. It wasn’t something my sister could solve for me. It was a mess of my own making. I was the one who continued pushing the issue even after my parents on separate occasions told me it was settled. 

“You should apologize. You know what mom says about letting the sun go down on your anger.” I rolled my eyes. 

“Mom says a lot of things.”

“Doesn’t mean they aren’t true.”

“When did you get wise? Aren’t I the older one of us?”

She grinned cheekily. “You’re barely the taller one,” she teased. 

“Hey!” 

She giggled as I pouted. When we were younger, people knew who the older sister was, but as she gained height and was closing in on me, some assumed we might be fraternal twins or she was the older one. I had a couple of inches on her. “Play your stupid game.” She continued to laugh.

I snatched my own iPad off the bedside table. “Stupid sisters and their dumb, good advice,” I grumbled much to her merriment. 

I drifted off into a light doze. My leg was bothering me. I didn’t want to go to sleep either. My mom said it was the best medicine, but I was tired of resting. I wanted to be doing something

“Hey my little love, how’s the patient?” I snapped awake. 

Ahh mom, usually it was easy to distract ourselves so we wouldn’t think about how much we missed her. No matter where we were, we were missing someone. Guiltily, I think I missed her the most. I was accustomed to her late nights and when she would sneak into the house, or her coffee maker in the morning. She pretended she didn’t drink it, but we knew she did. 

I missed all the things that I considered annoying about her. Two months wasn’t that long, but sometimes it felt endless. She wasn’t the only thing I missed about home, but she was at the top. 

I shrugged and tried not to wince at the pain in my leg. “I’m okay.”

“I see your dad and sister decided to nap. Did you get any rest?” Again, I shrugged. There was a disapproving frown on her face. “What’s wrong?”

I hated mommy-doctor mode. She was at her most annoying. When we were sick, she went completely overboard. If we so much as had the sniffles, she was all over us. “My leg hurts a little. It’s fine. I can handle it. If it hurts too much, I know what to do. I’m really just bored.”

“That won’t change much when we leave. You’re going to need physical therapy and give your leg time to heal. It can take up to a year, and that’s without any complications.”

“Can we at least see if Kate is available? She was great when I messed up my shoulder playing softball.”

“I’ve already asked and she said yes.”

“That’s something to look forward to I suppose. When will we be able to go home? I miss my bed.”

“It’ll be another week or two, nothing definitive as of yet. I want you to feel comfortable bearing some of your weight and getting around on crutches. I don’t want to risk further damage to your leg, and flying is risky. You also won’t be able to go up and down the stairs yourself at first. I’ve hired a private nurse for the first few weeks.”

My summer officially sucked. Everyone was going to have awesome stories about what they did, and mine would be I was in a car accident. “How long will I need the crutches?” I glanced disdainfully at them. I hated using crutches. 

“I don’t know. I didn’t specialize in ortho. I did a rotation, but that was ages ago. Have you been walking around a little with the nurse or your dad?”

I huffed. “Yes, but this still sucks. I used the walker instead. The worst part is I can’t have any fun. I’ve got a freaking nail in my leg. I can’t play sports. What can I do?”

“First of all, you know I hate when you use that word.” I rolled my eyes. “Stop that. You can still play piano once your ribs heal and you can sit up without any pain. You can walk. I think you would be more appreciative of what you can do instead of focusing on what you can’t. That isn’t productive thinking. The crutches will only be necessary the first few weeks as you get used to walking again. It’s not forever.”

“Easy for you to say, you’re not the one who is crippled.”

“You’re hardly crippled. This is all temporary.”

“Life is temporary, mom.”

“Don’t be flip. You know that not what I meant.”

“Can you just like once not try and make me feel better? I want to be upset.”

“I’ll restrain myself.”

“That’s all I ask.” 

“Why do I feel as if that’s not the only thing bothering you?” Ugh, how did she always know? She had some sort of magical mom powers or something. 

“Well…” I hedged. 

“What did you say?” She sighed. My mouth had gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years. I told mom I learned it all from watching her. She didn’t like that; it was too late by that point to try and change it. Mom and I were alike, and just as she was set in her ways, I was set in mine. It was why we clashed so often. “You might as well tell me, or your dad will.”

How was it possible they could barely stand to be in one another’s presence, but as soon as I had done something wrong, she was quick to pull out the dad card?

“Ugh fine, dad and I had an argument. He told me it was over and done with. I wouldn’t let it go. He called me selfish.” I mumbled,

“What was that? I’m sorry I couldn’t hear you.” 

I folded my arms, not amused. “I said he said I was being selfish. Happy?”

“Were you?”

If she had asked around a hour ago, my answer would’ve been no. “I guess so, yes.”

“Do you need to apologize?”

I made a face.

“Bree and I will go get some food, and it’ll give you time to patch things up with your dad.”

“Yeah, yeah don’t let the sun go down on my anger. I know mom. I’ve heard this lecture about a bajillion times.”

“Watch your tone.”

Soon enough, it was dad and I. Alone. I didn’t know how to start the conversation. It was easier with mom. I knew her expectations and it was familiar to me. With dad, he rarely had to discipline us. We wanted to be on our best behavior. For so long, we thought our visits were contingent on how we behaved. We wouldn’t do anything to risk our time with dad. We didn’t want him to know about the mischief we got into and we attempted to limit our sisterly fights. We didn’t want anything to mar our time together. 

Dad had a great poker face. I knew I would have to fold first, and I was the one in the wrong. I didn’t deserve to be snapped at either, however I shouldn’t have continued to push when dad told me to drop it. It was his business not mine what he did with his private life, and Bree was right. I couldn’t continue to push this. It was unfair. 

“I guess I should start with sorry.” His eyebrows shot up. I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the reaction. I hated apologizing. “I should’ve stopped when you asked a long time ago. While I’m apologizing I should say sorry about Alison. She was nice enough.” I still don’t like her. “I maybe went too far- okay I did go too far. I know I didn’t just hurt her feelings. I hurt you too dad. And I’m sorry for that. I embarrassed you when you only wanted me to meet her.”

“Why did you?”

I played with the stitching on the blanket. My reasoning wasn’t all that good in hindsight. It sounded childish and wasn’t I trying to prove I’m not a child? I exhaled softly. “It was another hurdle in my plan to reunite you and my mom. If you had someone, it meant you weren’t thinking about her.”

He furrowed his brow. I knew he didn’t understand. His parents weren’t divorced. He didn’t know what it felt like to straddle two different lives. There was mom’s Isla and there was dad’s Isla, there was overlap, but they weren’t the same.  

“I don’t know if I can explain in a way you’ll understand. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I just want you to know I won’t continue to push it any longer. I’m sorry I made you angry with me. You’re right I’m selfish.” 

He sighed and leaned forward. “No, you’re not. There’s a difference between acting selfish and actually being selfish. I’m sorry I spoke that way to you. You didn’t deserve it.”

I shook my head. “I deserved it. You’ve told me to knock it off lots of time. I refused to listen, but you know you don’t listen to me either.”

“What do ye mean?” There was genuine surprise on his face. 

I could see my eyes in the mirror behind him.

They were a dark blue. The shade was one I couldn’t figure out, but I saw my frustration. There was a pain I constantly denied and refused to express to avoid dredging things up that were better left alone. I never wanted to hurt his feelings, but in the process, I hurt myself. I had unresolved issues with him. 

Grey occasionally swept in at the edges of my eyes creating a stormy effect against the blankness of my face. Mom sometimes said my eyes made her feel as if she were thrust right into the midst of a raging hurricane when she stared too long. The colors swirled beautifully. They were different from my sister’s; Bree’s eyes were lighter by a shade or two and often reminded me of the sea or the ocean like dad’s or Aunt Jenny’s. Mine sometimes turned grey depending on the lighting. 

“Dad, the accident has put things into perspective for me.” My eyes dropped to focus on the fraying thread of my blanket. I couldn’t look him in the eye and say what I needed to.

“I spent a lot of time hating you because you weren’t there. Sure if I called you answered, but there were times when I couldn’t. It was too late or early. I tried not to hold it against you.” Sometimes I refused to talk to him because I was angry with him. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I loved and missed him, but I didn’t want to talk when he called. “I saw what the other kids had and it made me mad. I was jealous. I wanted my dad to play catch with me at the park or cheer for me at my games.” 

I felt the sting of tears. “All I wanted was my daddy. My friends talked about how their dads scared away the monsters from their closets. I remember when you did that for me.” I faintly smiled when I thought about those summers. He would hold me afterward until I fell asleep. “But then I would go home, and you weren’t there. Yeah you came when I got my appendix and tonsils out, but you weren’t there when I sprained my ankle or injured my shoulder. You didn’t drop me off at the first day of school. You said you were sorry, but things were so busy for you with your new job. Then you started your business and I was proud. I bragged to everyone my daddy had his own business. I realized it was worse than before because you had less time to talk. You were traveling more.”

“There was the first daddy/daughter dance at school, and I skipped it. I had no dad to take, and it seemed silly to ask you to fly across the world for something as dumb as a dance. I told my friends you couldn’t make it when the truth was I hadn’t asked. I didn’t want to be disappointed and you did that. You disappointed a lot. I learned to stop asking.” 

I saw the pain on his face, and cursed myself for putting it there. The agony reflected in his eyes made me turn away. It seeped from him and filled the room with dark clouds. “I’m sorry I wasna there for ye. I wish more than anything I could’ve escorted ye. I wish I had been there for you on the first day and held yer little hand.” He choked out.  

I wiped my forehead, brushing aside loose strands of dark red hair. Hints of gold peeked out at the edges. “I don’t need you to say it now. I wanted it then when it would’ve made a difference. I did so many different things back then from community theater to dance. I had my first piano recital at four, and I wanted you there to show off how well I could play. I flubbed a note and cried right there for everyone to see.” My mind drifted back to that day when I could’ve used my dad’s arms as comfort. “It was the first time I was aware that I didn’t have a dad, at least not like everyone else. I remember calling and inviting you. You said sorry Isla, I can’t this weekend. There’s a huge event happening and it wouldn’t work with your schedule. All the other kids had both of their parents there.” 

I saw his emotions reflected on his face as I laid out the things I had neglected to tell him over the years. I wanted to preserve the status quo even when it meant my own disappointment. It was bad for Bree too, but she kept her happy smile. We didn’t want mom to know.

“Mom coached my first T-ball team.” I cracked a smile. “She barely knew anything about baseball, but she did all this research so that she could coach our team to the best of her ability. She traded shifts for some really crappy ones just so she could coach my team.” I sniffled. “None of the other teams had moms coaching them, but mine did. I realized I had a dad when you weren’t there. It was my mom.” I saw how it gutted him to hear me say that. There was betrayal in his eyes at my admittance. “She coached our team to a championship as surprising as it sounds. We were just a bunch of six, seven, and eight year olds. She was great. She would take us out for pizza after, and even if it was for a little while, I could forget about the person who wasn’t there. I always made my mom send those videos of my games to you because I wanted you to be proud of me, to see how I improved.” 

I peeked at him from the fringe of lashes. They were a shield protecting me from anything that had the potential to hurt. It pained me to see dad like this, and I didn’t want him to hate me. 

“I’m not as angry as I was then,” I admitted, my fingers absentmindedly picked at the thread. “I’ve learned to accept it’s something I can’t change. I spent so long being mad that I often cheated myself out of things. My friend Makayla’s dad invited me along with them to the father/daughter dance every year. Makayla and I have been attached at the hip since pre-school, and I’m close to her family. I could’ve gone. Mr. Miller isn’t my dad, but he’s like one to me and he was being nice. I wanted to invite you so badly, but I knew what you would say.” 

“Relax Isla,” he inhaled sharply. “Ye’ve never done anything wrong, and you’re right you cheated yourself because ye waited for a man who was too busy for his own children. Ye deserved better than me. I’ve loved ye since I first heard yer heart beat, but it was the moment I held you for the first time and I kent I would love you forever. I wish ye had been more forthcoming over the years about what was happening in yer head and heart, but I suppose sometimes it felt like I was a complete stranger?” He posed it as a question.

It was hard for my dad. He didn’t know us as well as mom did. It wasn’t exactly his fault, but it was hard not to feel like it was. Sometimes he was a stranger. 

“Yes, I guess that’s the right word. It’s easier to talk to mom about stuff because well...” I hesitated with an uneasy glance thrown in his direction. “She knows me better. I know I’m not the easiest, and I don’t spend as much time on the phone like I used to. I mean even if you and mom aren’t together, it’s annoying that you’re on the other side of the world in a different time zone. You’re busy. I see you in the summer, every other Christmas, and every other easter. Maybe if I’m lucky you pop into town for a quick visit. Do you know how that feels?” I cried. “It makes me feel like I mean nothing to you dad.”

He slid his hand over mine and I relished in the warmth. It reminded me of when mom would do something similar. “I dinna blame ye on that count, especially as you’re becoming a young woman.” I couldn’t help but blush at the mention of puberty. “I wish we had done things differently because there are so many things I can’t get back. I didn’t witness yer first lost tooth, or yer first day of school. I can hear stories about it for as long as I live but I can’t go back and get those moments back. I dinna ken how ye got that scar on yer leg. I should’ve made more of an effort to involve myself in yours and Bree’s lives. I could’ve figured out a way to stay in Boston after I quit my job. I should’ve visited more often to see you play. I should’ve taken time off when you had your first recital or when ye went to that competition in New York.” I opened my mouth to interject, but he held up a hand to stop me. “Edinburgh is a second home, but yer first home is always Boston. I should’ve made an effort to see you in your own home.” 

My shoulders fell. I couldn’t deny about which I considered home. If I were being honest, it wasn’t the cozy house he picked out for us here. It was the place I spent the majority of the year, and the friends I’d made. “I feel awful dad. You’re being so understanding.” 

He cupped my cheek. “I think I needed to hear it. Bree is such a sunny and cheerful child, and she would never tell me. You wouldn’t have if not for the accident. I’ve been a bastard of a father, and it stops now. Ye deserve better, and I’ll have to figure out how to make it work. But I will. You’ve never done anything wrong. You and your sister meant the whole world to me, and it kills me inside to know I made you fell anything but.” 

“You know she’s not always sunny. Sometimes she can be horrible, cranky, and a real rain cloud. We try to be on our best behavior because the time with you is fleeting. It’s like if we blink, we might miss it. We don’t want to waste it being angry with one another, but in Boston we fight all the time like cats and dogs. I play pranks on her and she gets back at me. We get in trouble all the time. I just got my phone back before we came here.” 

“So I can expect next summer for ye to be two raging bulls?” 

I began to laugh. It felt good to do, almost like I had forgotten how. “You should ask my mom some stories about us. She likes to make up things and make it sound worse than it actually was. Only one window got broken and it was a vase she didn’t like that fell. The way she tells it was that it was some gift from papa and mimi.” 

“I love you Isla Faith Fraser. I dinna want ye to ever forget how much ye mean to me and how lost I would be without ye in my life.” 

He closed the distance between us and wrapped me up tightly in his arms. “I love you too dad.” He squeezed hard, but not enough to bother my ribs. “If you want, I think my next recital is in October. You could make the trip for my birthday too.” I winked at him as he pulled back. 

He laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Hey La, did you say sorry?” 

“Ugh Bee, yes.”

“Where’s yer mam?”

“I think she went to the chapel.” 

Chapter Text

CPOV 

I excused myself, needing a moment to freshen up. It was good that I had forgone make-up these last few days. Still as I stared at my face in the mirror, I cringed at the red, puffy eyes, runny nose, and pink cheeks. It wasn’t a look. I splashed my face with cold water.

It felt amazing on my warm skin. 

What happened yesterday was something I never dreamt of. Most parents ideally would mourn together, but one of my faults was time alone to process my feelings. When my dad died, my mother wanted to comfort me and talk about him, however I shut her out. I wanted to do it at my own pace, not because she was forcing me to think about him. It took me years to properly mourn my father. It was the same with Gabriel. I wasn’t ready then to to really let go of him. 

Jamie and I were different in that way. He wanted to talk it out then and there to rid himself of whatever was plaguing him. I was aware it irritated him that i couldn’t be the same way. I tried. Part of me wanted to let him in then, but the other half was deeply hurt. I didn’t know what to do his thing, fling, emotional affair, or whatever it was with HER. I never forgave him for it. While she was to blame for her knowingly throwing herself at a married man with children, he ignored my warnings about what type of woman she really was. 

I still burned with anger thinking back on those days when I had to wonder exactly what was happening during those late nights at the office. What was worse and what I couldn’t admit was my raging jealousy. She didn’t have any real responsibilities and had the time to put effort into her appearance. I could admit she was a well put together woman even if she had seriously questionable morals. 

“What are you doing Claire?” Why was I agonizing over history? I wasn’t bothered anymore. I was being stupid. “Pull yourself together. You can't let yourself get pulled in by his chiseled features, or his adorable dimples. And you've got to stop thinking about his incredibly hard chest. Stop it!” 

My therapist helped shift my thinking in the intervening years. She clarified a lot of things for me, and was the first person I could openly talk to who had no personal connection to me. I told her things I had never shared with anyone. She also called me on my crap and forced me to admit that part of me was still attracted to Jamie. She said physical attraction didn't have to imply love.

What I learned in therapy was mourning was a personal experience, not everyone wanted to share the burden. Some couples couldn’t handle the distance in their relationship. It didn’t make them awful for not being able to unload on their partners. Hell, it took me a long time to recognize I needed help to express my grief over the loss of my child and the destruction of my marriage. My feelings of that time were all tied together. 

Sarah, my psychiatrist, was lovely and compassionate. For our early sessions, she allowed me to blather on about anything. It was a stream of consciousness. I kept talking and talking. She asked questions intermittently about my family, my feelings,  and Jamie. When I was more comfortable with her, she began to help me dig deeper into my issues. One of our established rules was honesty.  

I resented Jamie. Some of it was fair and some of it was unjust. It was those six months where our relationship broke down. Apparently it was natural to have feelings change for someone in a short amount of time. Sarah reminded me that given how I tied my emotions to events, it was wholly possible I didn’t hate Jamie. I convinced myself I did to protect my battered and bruised heart. I barely trusted him by that point. Using my feelings for him during that time was how I made the decision to dissolve our relationship. 

I cried in her office too many times to count after that revelation. Sarah refused to coddle her patients.  

“Claire, you’ve talked about the state of your relationship in the months leading up to your miscarriage. You said there was less intimacy between you, he was constantly working, and how frustrated you were with his dismissal of your feelings regarding his work colleague. The lack of intimacy and his close working situation with another woman along with pregnancy hormones and stress from your every day life resulted in him being an easy target for you. From the outside, his life wasn’t affected as much as yours.” 

He didn’t gain a billion more pounds. My body wasn’t my own with the hormones and extra body weight. I had all these responsibilities stretching me thin. Trying to maintain perfect grades was hard when I had a colicky baby and a toddler throwing tantrums when she didn’t get her way. Jamie was working late nearly every night on a new account, so I was left to sort things out on the home front. 

I hated that she was right. “It isn’t awful and you’re not horrible. You’re human. You aren’t the first person to ever feel that way. His absence when you needed him caused you to redirect your anger and grief. You needed someone unleash it on and he was there, the perfect target. He was the one never around, he left for another woman,” she shot me a look to prevent an interruption. “While you know he wasn’t having a physical relationship with her, it still felt as if he was choosing her over you that day.”

The truth was it really wasn’t like that, but that was how I perceived it. Jamie had responsibilities and he had to fulfill them whether I liked it or not. He couldn’t refuse as it was a huge opportunity for him. They trusted and valued him. If he made a fuss about working with Britney because his hormonal wife didn’t like it, it wouldn’t have been good for his future in the company. Still when we had that argument and he walked out, it felt like he picked her. I felt small, insignificant, and undesirable. 

“He didn’t directly deal with the loss of the baby only the aftermath when he came back. You were the one who delivered a dead baby by yourself. Tell me about holding your dead baby.” 

Tears clung to my lashes as I hoped to continue avoiding this line of discussion. I didn’t like thinking about anything related to that day. 

My mind unconsciously drifted back to the hospital room where the nurse brought in a small baby wrapped in blankets. His eyes were closed because they never opened. His skin was cold. There was no flush to his cheeks. He appeared to be sleeping, and I wished so much it were true. I had never prayed harder for anything in my life.

“I remember his weight in my arms. I tried to imagine what it would feel like if he had managed a few more months inside. I didn’t want to cry and ruin the only opportunity I would ever have to hold him. I wanted to savor our time because we wouldn’t get anymore. I blamed God. I praised and cursed God, praying that it was all a nightmare.” I choked back a sob. “One tear fell and soon more followed until I couldn’t see. Jamie came to see me that night. I felt undeniable rage inside of me when I woke up and heard him sleeping. I know he had his moment with Gabriel, but I wanted him to have been there with me when they handed me my dead baby.” 

“I prayed to God.” I let out a harsh laugh. “I prayed for a miracle that I never got.”  I stopped attending mass after I lost Gabriel. I couldn’t take communion because I refused to enter confession and admit my hatred and disappointment. I cursed God for being cruel and stealing my happiness. I wasn’t ready to let go of those feelings. 

“Who are you really angry at?” I froze. 

Everyone in my life was content to move on from what happened. My mother while not ignoring what happened went about her daily life. She helped me raise my children and worked. It didn’t have a massive effect on her. Tom called infrequently, but he talked about everything except the miscarriage. The girls were young, and aside from their father’s absence not much changed in their lives. Things went on fairly the same. The only other major change in their lives was the move following my graduation from medical school. 

I turned my ahead away to avoid her knowing gaze. I was predictable in my avoidance tactics. Sarah was adept and aware enough to know when pushing me would get us somewhere productive. 

She sighed and slid her pad to the side. “Why are you here Claire?” It was truth time. There was no bullshitting this. 

“To deal with the past in a way that doesn’t inhibit me going forward. I don’t want what happened in June to happen again. I don’t like not feeling in control of my life. It scared the shit out of me. I’ve been walking around in this haze for too long. On the outside I appear the same as always, but on the side I’m struggling every damn day. I want to be at a point where I can cope with my personal tragedy without cracking. It’s difficult because some days I wake up and I’m perfectly fine. Others, I fight with myself to crawl out from under my sheets.” 

She nodded satisfied somewhat. “What are your other reasons?” 

I brushed away tears. “I don’t want to blame Jamie anymore. He doesn’t deserve my scorn and hatred, especially because I drove him away.” It was a hard admittance. I was self-aware enough to know my actions preceding and following May 2009 contributed to the dissolution of my marriage. “It’s tiring to continue resenting a man three thousand miles away. He has his own crosses to be bear.” 

“I’m proud of you for being honest.” 

“That stung.” 

“It was supposed to Claire, a few weeks ago you would’ve never revealed that to me.” Her assessment was a bit hard to accept only because of the accuracy. “Therapy is a place where you learn to be honest, to become the best version of yourself. I don’t necessarily require you to be truthful to me, but I need you to be honest with yourself. You do a great disservice if you can’t speak the truth.” 

I exhaled slowly before glancing back at her with watery eyes. “When I held Gabriel, I cursed the world for being awful and cruel. I hated everybody. The nurses were sympathetic and expressed their condolences, but I was a monster to them. My ob/gyn was sad and apologetic, and I couldn’t talk to her anymore. I saw how perfect he would’ve been. I couldn’t help but picture his life. He would’ve had dark hair, his father’s eyes and smile, and his sisters would’ve loved him more than anything. As I stared down at my still baby, my heart cracked. I felt as if it were my fault and I had done something to not deserve him.” 

I buried my face in my hands and cried. 

It was well over a year before our sessions became infrequent to the point where I visited her office maybe twice a year. We kept in contact through email and I sent pictures of my daughters. She was there when I needed her, but I tried not to need her services. She had prepared me well. 

Bree found me in the restroom, she was likely bored or seeking comfort. Isla wasn’t able to do too much. Her doctor wanted her on her feet as much as possible, but her ribs were killing her and there was the concussion. She wasn’t in a state to be around visitors, and Bree was suffering. She hadn’t seen anything outside of the hospital in days aside from her father’s home. This was supposed to be her summer vacation. 

“Mommy?” I hummed in response. “Can we go somewhere?” 

I considered her proposition. There was likely not to be a change in Isla’s condition, and I didn’t want to neglect Bree. She had been cooped up for days. “You know what Bree, let’s get out of here. I wouldn’t mind leaving the hospital.” 

She perked up instantly. “Are you serious? We can really leave?” I felt horrible it had come as such a shock to her. Had we been putting that much focus on her sister?

“Yes,” I kissed her curly head. “Let me tell your father.” She nodded eagerly in anticipation. 

We headed in the direction of Isla’s room. I hadn’t been able to sit in a room with Jamie following our conversation in the chapel. We were both a little raw after that revealing moment, and I wasn’t ready for that sort of directness between us. 

Jamie worked on paperwork diligently, while Isla dozed. I admired his strong profile, especially with his glasses. He appeared quite distinguished. His head popped up at my entrance. “Everything okay Claire?” 

I nodded shyly. “Yes, uh Bree and I are going to go out for a bit. She’s feeling stir crazy and it’s been sometime since I enjoyed Scotland in the summer. I figured Isla wouldn’t notice if we were gone.” Walking around with the walker this morning had taken a lot out of her. She had a rough night and barely got any sleep, so she was crankier than usual. It was good she was finally resting. 

He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Did ye plan to go somewhere specific with her?” 

“I thought we might do some shopping.” I shrugged helplessly. The girls were growing like weeds. “Did you need anything while we were out? I could pick it up for you.” 

He shook his head. “If ye like, yer welcome to use my car. I’m staying here with Isla, so you might as well.” He offered his keys to me. 

I accepted them in surprise, which he noted. “I figured we might take a trip over to Princes or George street, perhaps both depending on how Bree is feeling.” He nodded. “If you need anything, I’ll have my phone. Well I’ll… uh… see you later.”

After yesterday’s revealing moment, I was felt awkward in his presence. We cleared the air of some things, but there was still a wall between us. 

As we headed to the parking lot, Bree grabbed my hand. “Mommy, do you remember that you can’t drive on our side?” 

I nudged her a little for teasing. “You’re forgetting I’m from this part of the world. Until I was in my twenties, it was perfectly normal to drive on the other side.” It was more than strange to adjust to the position of the steering wheel and to get used to driving over here again. I had been living in America for twelve years. 

Back home in Boston, people were quite vocal at expressing their sentiments regarding the driving capabilities of others on the road. I had gotten into the habit myself of using some unsavory language. I tried to keep it away from Isla and Bree, but I had slipped on too many occasions.

We ended up on Princes Street. Bree was in complete awe of the ancient castle. “It’s so pretty. We don’t have anything like it at home.” I chuckled at her excitement. “Dad’s never really taken us here before.”

“Oh love, castles aren’t uncommon over here. I spent several years going on field trips to castles growing up in England. It’s actually very dull.” I informed her. “Although Buckingham Palace and Hampton Court were nice when I was a kid, but really I just wanted to meet the Queen or Princess Diana.” Life in England seemed like an entire lifetime ago. I wasn’t the same dreamy eyed girl I was when I left. 

She was silent and pensive. Her face scrunched up adorably. “Do you miss living in London?” 

I considered her question, only because of how seriously she asked. “No I don’t. I love living in Boston with you and Isla. Everything is different, and while there are things I certainly miss about England, I wouldn’t trade our life for anything.” She squeezed my hand tightly, and I knew she felt much the same. “There wasn’t much for me there anyway.”

We managed to find a few outfits for her in some of the clothing shops. I didn’t buy anything for Isla as it was Bree’s time. She needed to feel normal if only for a few hours. “What was it like growing up in England?” I loved how inquisitive she was being. She never asked about my life before her.

“Well,” I said as we were seated by the hostess. “It was lovely. I grew up London as you know, and it was amazing. We took the Tube to get most places, although sometimes we got a cab. It’s not always smart to do so, but if you’re in a hurry, it’ll do. The fridges aren’t as big so we went to grocery store a bit more regularly. I enjoyed my childhood. I had several close friends, but we’ve drifted apart over the years. It wasn’t far either to visit my family in France or my other grandparents in Ireland.” 

Bree stared at me curiously. “Is it weird I can’t imagine you having any other friends besides the ones you have?” 

I giggled into my water. “Actually it’s perfectly reasonable. Joe is my best friend now, and most of my friends I’ve met through the hospital or church. It’s strange in a way to think about my old friends.” We took a few minutes to browse our menus. I ordered a few tacos and Bree a burrito bowl. She and her sister had ordered from Chipotle as often as they could. 

“What did you do for fun?” 

“We did normal things. We played outside, or watched movies. It’s not much different than what you do, maybe less technology. There weren’t iPads and cellphones had a practical use. We used them to call people.” She made a face causing me to laugh. “I went to a couple of music festivals. Sometimes I traveled and visited my Uncle Lamb. I spent most of my summer holidays in France. My grandparents made each grandchild work for the family business when they were old enough.” 

“That’s boring.” She laughed. “I guess it’s not that different. Do you think we could go visit London sometime? It’s just we’ve seen where dad grew up, but we don’t go to England. Uncle Tom visits us.” She played with the edges of her napkin. 

“I’m sorry if it seems as if I were hiding a piece of myself. Sometimes it makes me a little sad to think about my old home. There’s a lot of memories.” She nodded understandingly. “I met your father on the train back to London when I was sixteen, and from there we became friends and slowly progressed to more. Also I guess I feel a lot less English these days as opposed to when I first moved.” 

She scrunched up her face in confusion at my admittance. “I don’t get it.” Her eyes squinted curiously. “You sound English to me, all fancy and stuff.” I chuckled. 

“Well my accent used to be a lot stronger, but it’s changed after living in America for so long. You kind of lose your ties to places after such a lengthy time away. I use a lot of American terms instead of British ones. I’ve become a citizen as you know, and while I still retain my English citizenship, it’s not the same as it used to be.” 

“I guess,” she shrugged, digging into her food. “Do you ever want to call your old friends?” 

I thought about the friends I left behind. Most of our correspondence was through Christmas cards and scattered emails. They attended my wedding to Jamie, and were some of the first to know about my first pregnancy. “I suppose, but I sort of feel terrible for not keeping up as much with them. I’ve known many of them since reception and others since primary school, and then I moved without ever looking back.” 

“Well I think they would forgive you if you explained. I mean you’re a doctor and busy like all the time.” It was wise words coming from a nine year old. “Besides real friends always forgive you even if you’re wrong. You say that all the time.” 

Bree learned that particular lesson the hard way during her time in third grade. The girls in her class had gone through some drama. Parents were called in and the entire situation was a mess. Bree and her friends learned about forgiveness and accepting that they might not always be right. It wasn’t fully resolved by the time school concluded for the year, and there were plans to separate some of the girls into different classes. 

“Are you done?” I asked her. She had really dug into her food, and I loved seeing her have an appetite after the week she had. 

She nodded. “Yes, I’m full.” A smile graced her lips, and my breath caught for a moment. “Thanks mommy, I don’t think I could’ve been in the hospital for much longer without going bananas.” Her childish giggles were music to my ears. 

I paid and we headed back to the hospital. “You know Bree there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you.” 

“Can we get a dog?” 

I fixed her with a look. “Nice try, but you guys can’t even keep your rooms clean and there’s our cat.” She grinned anyway. 

Chapter Text

It had been another three days before I found myself in her company. She was skilled at wrangling her way out of spending time with me alone. I was slightly impressed at her evasiveness. 

I stared at her as we ate dinner in the cafeteria. She and Isla were due to leave soon. The arrangements had been made so that Isla could properly begin physical therapy. They would remain here for a few more days and then Claire would disappear from my life again. I had limited time to talk to her, to openly discuss everything that transpired between us through the years. My mouth was dry and my throat closed off every time I attempted to foster conversation with her. I wasn’t sure how to address the elephant in the room. 

Many of the issues we had in the past were a direct result and consequence of our inability to properly verbalize our issues. We lacked communication as time went on, and eventually we began to blame one another for our lot in life. It was quite terrible because there wasn’t anything terrible about the life we built together, aside from us living separate lives. 

With a huff, she set down her spoon and fixed me with a piercing glare. “Jamie, just say whatever it is on your mind. I can’t handle constantly feeling your eyes on me as I’m eating. It’s giving me anxiety, and it's really bugging me. I mean have you ever just had someone stare at you like they're seeing through you or picturing you naked, not that you really have to struggle in that department, and wow you should really start talking now. I'm done.” She zipped her lips, and I bit back a chuckle. 

I quirked a brow as she cut off her rambling. As we spent more time together over the last week and a half, I saw the layers peeling back and peeks of the girl I knew. There were all these facets to her that I hadn’t noticed, or they hadn’t existed when I knew her or had disappeared for a time. 

In many ways, she was the same person, but there were edges to her now. She was open but still a closed book. I couldn’t fathom how she had managed that. She had come into her own as a parent from the woman who constantly doubted her abilities to be a good mother. I cleared my throat and shifted uncomfortably under her dark gaze. 

“Alright,” I held my hands up innocently. “I guess I’ve been wanting to address stuff about the past.” 

Her face fell sadly. It was never her intention to be here where she was out of her depth. She liked to feel comfortable, but at the moment she was a fish out of water. She was supposed to be working in Boston in the life she made for herself after ours fell apart. She should’ve been with her boyfriend; my eyes quickly darted to her ring finger, perhaps it was fiancé now.

There were lines around her eyes that weren’t there before, and the laugh lines around her mouth were deeper. All sorts of stories behind each one that I didn’t know about. No amount of story telling would allow me to be in those moments. She still looked young for all her years. The years were good to her, very kind.

I watched as she composed herself and brushed a few stray tears away. “What do you want to talk about specifically?” Her face was blank as she held in her emotions. 

I swallowed back the bile threatening to come up. “Was it really about my work partner?” 

A choked laugh escaped her, and I watched the surprise dawn on her face. I must have caught her off guard with that particular starter question. “Partly,” she admits, refusing to meet my eyes. “When I went to therapy, I ended up on anti-depressants. I didn’t go as soon as you did and my symptoms worsened. I was even hospitalized after I had a full on mental break. That resulted in more therapy.” She smiled wryly.

“My therapist diagnosed me with depression and a host of other things. I didn’t enjoy therapy in any form in the beginning, and I fought her on the medication. I guess doctors really do make the worst patients.” She sighed. My lips twitched a bit because she was a terrible patient. “I wasn’t only unhappy with you. It took me a while to discover that I had postpartum depression, anxiety, and severe stress. To add to it, I was refusing to deal with my grief.” 

She anxiously ran her fingers over the rim of her bowl as she measured her words carefully. Claire preferred to face a situation directly instead of beating around the bush. She would run the words through her head before saying them out loud. “I was jealous of Britney as you know. She did make it clear she wanted you by the way if the way her gaze lingered on you and how she draped herself all over you. Honestly, it was nauseating. It wasn’t as if I was completely mad. She told me. You refused to listen to me.” 

“I believe ye,” I told her earnestly. Britney made some advances, but I was firm in my rejection of her. It was too late by then as I had inadvertently led her on. Perhaps a part of me was consciously aware of what I was doing, but it was never my intention to hurt my family. The shame was the worst bit of it when I thought about my soon to be ex-wife and my two kids at home. “You were right about her. She expressed her desire to be with me and made some advances. There was a kiss. I stopped it, but I don’t think it makes much of a difference. I had shared intimate details of our life, and I can never fully express my regret over that.” 

Her lips thinned considerably and her eyes burned with jealousy. It wasn’t an emotion I thought I would invoke in her again, yet here we were, or maybe it was tied to another woman going after her husband. “I see,” she said through clenched teeth. “I can’t say I’m surprised. I suspected something like that after she sent the massive arrangement to the funeral addressed only to you. She was always a cunt.”

I was unsure of who she was upset with. It was possible that it was a combination of the three of us.

Her eyes glanced upward, and her lips were moving. I realized she was counting. “I want ye to ken I dinna return her feelings.” 

Irritation flashed through her dark orbs and I forced myself not to recoil in fear. “Did you return her affections? I know you revealed private details, which is what allowed her to feel close to you.” 

I avoided her gaze guiltily because I hated to admit my own weakness. “Yes, but then no. I told her I was going through too much in my personal life to start anything with her. I was in love with you, and I couldn’t use my frustration with you as a justification.” 

Her head bobbed as she absorbed the full impact of my words. Her hands tightened around her cup of water as everything settled over her until her shoulders slumped in resignation. 

It was interesting to observe the updated version of her. She wasn’t reactive as she had been in her youth. She was a hot head then and often jumped to conclusions. She was quick to anger and just as fast at apologizing. In the last decade, she had matured and mellowed. There were still some of those rough edges, but they weren’t nearly that sharp. Life had a way of sneaking in and changing a person. The Claire I knew best no longer existed and someone else came in and replaced her.  

I enjoyed all these contradictions in her character. I was meeting a new person. I kept expecting her to be the way she was because in my mind she had been frozen at twenty-six. 

“I’m not angry.” She finally said after a few minutes of silence stretched between us. “I forgave you a long time ago. I had to for my own state of mind. I was holding onto all of that anger, but when I decided to go back to the Church, I let it all go. I didn’t want to be burdened with it. Also, going to confession would've been such a fucking nightmare if I refused to release all of that hatred and negativity. My priest was already up my ass about leaving in the first place, which is odd since they're supposed to be all accepting and encouraging. You should've seen the faces of the old lady brigade when I decided to return. They barely liked me before, but their judgey sides really came out after that because I was a single, divorced mum of two. Ugh, I really despise them and then to add fuel to the fire, they implied it was good I managed to trick a nice, successful man into being with me. You can bet I laughed my arse off when Mrs. Caruthers husband ran off with her best friend who was her second in command.”

My brows crinkled and I squinted at her with obvious bewilderment in my eyes. She couldn’t have said what she did. That was the last thing I expected from her given how her interactions with me were usually clipped and tense. Was this the same Claire? Was her babbling a positive sign? She hadn't done it in years, at least not with me. The last time it happened was after we signed the papers. Although, I wished she had managed to slip in an innuendo. 

A fond smile appeared on her lips. “Believe it or not I’m not as unreasonable as I was at twenty-six. Things have happened.” She shrugged. The guarded expression disappeared from her eyes, and a twinkle replaced it. “It’s not as if I can get jealous now. I have no attachment to you besides as my co-parent. Sure, we were together for a long time, but I shouldn't notice things like how hard you are- by hard I mean um how big your muscles have gotten. You know you weren't that big then... you didn't work out a lot, and I've got to develop a filter at some point. This is embarrassing.” My lips twitched. I was wondering if this version of her would make an appearance during her time in Scotland. For someone who was generally composed and verbose, she often slipped up in her wording. 

She was right though. We had moved onto other people. The only reason we were forced to orbit each other was our children. We had a responsibility to them as their parents to put our differences aside for their well-being. We sometimes failed in that regard, but it was never too late to try. My talk with Isla had gotten me to thinking about ways to be more involved in their lives. I had things to discuss with Claire about that. 

“If I had known then, well things might’ve ended up worse than they did. I probably would’ve confronted her and called her out in front of your whole office, maybe even slapped the little tart for trying to pursue my husband as if you were available for her perusal. Like couldn't she find someone else in the building to eye fuck? I was close to marking my territory despite all of our issues because she had it coming.” I had no doubts about what she would’ve done. “At least I now have confirmation she was a home wrecking twat with no moral compass. Is there anything else? You seem like you’ve had a lot on your mind. I hate to think I’m the cause.” 

Before I have a chance to censor myself, the words leave my mouth as if knowing I need to know the answer. “Why didn’t you stop me?” 

“Would you think less of me if I said I hoped you would come back instead of going to that conference?” 

I sat back in my chair as I openly stared at her small figure. She was of average build, but it was her larger than life personality that made her seem taller. She had a way of taking command of a situation, and ordering everyone around. Most people were surprised by her stature. The doctors and nurses involved with Isla had even deferred to her a wee bit. 

Her long fingers rubbed her temples tiredly. “I thought you would choose me. Then after Gabriel things got worse between us and the cracks were visible. It was like the Mariana freaking Trench. We were arguing and we created a terrible home environment for our children. I couldn’t trust you anymore, and that was the hardest part. My mum was right about when trust is broken, it’s difficult to get back. Every time I looked at you, I saw you with her, how you chose her. We argued plenty about money and you avoided all discussion surrounding the release of my trust fund. When I asked for the divorce, you mildly protested and then you accepted it without question. Sitting in the office, I wanted to call the whole damn thing off, but when you didn't say anything when I picked up the pen and hesitated, I figured I was giving you what you wanted.”

My hand scrubbed at my face as I processed her words. “I thought you couldn’t stand the sight of me. Actually I think your words were somewhere close to you hating seeing my face and hating me. In truth, I hated you too. I wasn’t trapped, but I blamed you for choices I made. I wanted you to hurt.” I ignored the tears. "And you're not wrong about the money aspect. It made me uncomfortable thinking about the millions waiting for you. I never grew up in that environment. Every penny counted for us."

“We really mucked it all up. The more we talked, the more frustrated I was with you. You made me angry all the time. I kept thinking back to your face after Gabriel, and I swore I saw relief in your eyes.” 

“Claire,” I attempted to touch her hand, but she pulled back from me. 

Her eyes dared me to try and touch her. “Don’t.” There was steel in her voice. “If you don’t recall you walked out when I told you I was pregnant. You were angry at me.” 

March 2009 

Turning the key into the lock, I attempted to be as silent as possible. It was late and the girls were likely in bed. When I entered the apartment, I immediately heard the cries of a colicky infant and saw Isla covering her ears in the living room. Tears coated her red cheeks. 

Claire paced up and down the hallway, gently bouncing the screaming Bree. I was amazed I hadn’t heard it from outside. Isla glanced nervously at me and motioned me closer. “Baby crying.”

“How long?” Her fists rubbed at her eyes and a huge yawn escaped her. 

“Long time.”

It was amazing how big she had gotten. She would be turning three in seven months, and I constantly found myself marveling at her growth. I remembered the day they put her in my arms. She was a squabbling, red faced infant finally healthy enough to live outside of her incubator. She was a fighter from the first day. 

She was tiny. I thought I would break her if I touched her, but the nurses and Claire calmed my nerves. The moment I held her, I knew I would do anything for her. She and her mother were my entire world. Then she opened her eyes and I gasped. They were slanted and blue. It was possible the color would change as what sometimes occurred with infants, but I secretly hoped they wouldn’t. She had some blonde fuzz on her head with a reddish tint. 

I saw some of Claire in her lips, and I hoped she would have her nose as well. I needn’t have worried about because aside from the eyes and hair, she was a miniature version of her mother. Then again people saw what they wanted to see in babies. 

“Come here,” I opened up my arms and she crawled into them. I held her and gently rocked her as her eyelids slowly fluttered shut. Her dark lashes rested on her chubby cheeks. It was mesmerizing watching her sleep. Her perfect features astounded me. I helped create her and it still seemed impossible she came from me. 

Claire eventually settled Bree and set her inside of her crib. She eased the door shut and brought out the baby monitor. 

Bree was a difficult baby. I loved her as much as her sister, but nights were tough when I needed to get up at five the next morning. Bree rarely slept longer than an hour.

“I’m sorry about that,” Claire said as she collapsed on the sofa. There was a nervous energy in the air, and I was immediately on alert. She had been strange and distant for the last week or so, and at first I thought she was coming down with something. Being the primary caretaker for our children and attending school was running her down. She was stressed all the time. I found her crying in the bathroom a few times, but she passed it off as hormones. Unwilling to push, I settled for it. 

I wished she would sit closer, but my touch seemed to annoy her. “It’s fine. I don’t think it is out of the ordinary for parents to come home to upset children.” She shrugged and I could see the lack of sleep on her face. I felt like a shitty parent for being absent and allowing my wife to pick up all the slack. “Is something the matter Claire?” 

She was silent and contemplative. She chewed on her plump bottom limp nervously as she stared at me. Her eyes had a glassy sheen, and I was instantly worried about her. “Jamie… I don’t how to tell you this.” I was apprehensive she was going to ask for a divorce or say she found someone else. I wasn’t expecting the next words out of her mouth to be, “I’m pregnant.” 

I gaped, slack jawed at her. My eyes widened in absolute astonishment before I pushed myself off the couch and stood over her. “What do ye mean you’re pregnant?” I whispered harshly, mindful of the sleeping children. 

Her mouth turned down. “I took a test and went to my doctor to confirm. She says I’m around two months. I don’t know how it happened. We were careful.” She pressed her hands into her face. “I- what are we going to do? After this term, I still have two more. The apartment isn’t big enough for a family of five.” She was rambling, but I was still stuck on the word pregnant.

“Are you fucking joking? Is this an early April Fool’s Day prank because it’s not funny?”

It wasn’t the right thing to say, and I knew as soon as I saw her get up. “Why would do something like this to take the piss out of you? I didn’t ask for this. Maybe if you had been more careful with the protection, we wouldn’t be in this position. You’re the one who ignored me and convinced me it would be fine even though I’m almost a fucking doctor. I should’ve known better. This is unbelievable.”

I turned away from her and walked out, unable to deal with the present situation. It wasn’t the best decision I could’ve made under the circumstances, especially given my wife was hormonal and dealing with two kids and another on the way. We should’ve been discussing what to do instead of pinning the blame, but the blame game had turned into a favorite.

I needed air. My lungs constricted painfully as I sucked in a harsh breath in the bitter winter air. I tried to focus on taking one breath at a time as I thought about the news she dropped on me. 

We just had Bree and then she announced there was another one. I barely had time for the two we had. How was I to be there for a third one? Claire struggled enough to take care of Isla and Bree by herself, and while I was making great money, Boston was an expensive city. We couldn’t afford at the moment to move to a large apartment or afford a nanny to take care of the children when Claire was at school.  Daycare was expensive enough as it was, and we couldn’t move until Claire finished school. Harvard had given her a substantial amount and she had tons of other scholarships. It was out of the question for her to quit when she was nearly there. It was the reason we were in Boston.

We were Catholic so abortion was out, not that I would ever ask her to get rid of a child we created. I pressed my palms into my eye sockets as I cried. I didn’t know how we would do it. We didn’t have the fortune of having relatives nearby, and most of our friends were childless. 

I never imagined years ago when we made our commitments to one another that this was where we would be. I didn’t know if I could do it. This wasn’t part of the plan. Did I want more children? Yes, but I thought we would be settled in a house with lots of rooms to fit them. This wasn’t ideal timing. 

By the time I made my way back home several hours later, Claire was in bed. She was on her side and putting as much distance between us as possible. I didn’t ask her how she felt about the news. How did it happen? We tried to be careful as she wasn’t back on birth control yet. She was breastfeeding Bree. There was already a deep sense of regret filling my insides when I thought about how I overreacted to the news. Shame stirred in my stomach as I observed Claire's sleeping frame. 

The pale light from the moon bathed her in a blue-ish glow, and illuminated the dried tear tracks on her face. I had done this to her. As I slept that night, I heard her cry and ignored the tense feeling in my gut that told me it was my fault and to fix it. 

I turned away in shame because she was right. I hadn’t behaved rationally when she dropped her big bomb. While neither of us were exactly thrilled with the timing, it was no reason for me to walk away when we were having a disagreement. We were both responsible for the life inside of her. 

“I owe ye an apology.” She raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t expecting you to tell me you were pregnant. We were already drowning with our financial issues and childcare, and the pregnancy only seemed to push us further apart instead of drawing us closer together.” This time when I reached over to grab her hand, she turned over her palm and allowed me to old her hand. 

The softness of her hands always amazed me. It was fascinating how something so delicate could be strong enough to save lives. I forgot how well our hands seemed to fit together and how they would never again. 

“I did want him, ye know and yes I was angry about the timing. You were also pissed because I refused to ask yer family for financial help.” 

A solitary tear slid down her cheek. “I know.” She squeezed my hand to reaffirm her statement. “You felt his loss as much as I had. At the funeral, I focused entirely on you. I saw you arrive with Jenny, and you sat on the other side of the aisle. I don’t even remember crying during the funeral, but I remember with clarity the poem you read to sum our feelings about losing Gabriel.” 

I studied the light blue veins in her wrist. I remembered receiving the news of her admittance to the hospital, and thought about the possible absence of her life. Losing a child was difficult, but I wouldn’t have survived if she were gone to me as well. In the end though, I lost her too. 

She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “I like this look of yours.” A nice rosy complexion bloomed on her face. “I didn’t imagine you ever going for the straight haired look.” 

She ducked her head shyly. “Yes, well I invested in an expensive hair straightener, and try to maintain it for a few days until I wash it. I just don’t have the time to deal with the curls, and in the morning I can do a French twist or some other simple hairstyle without worrying about constant tangles. I always disliked my curls.”  

I sympathized with her. I used to watch as her face pinched with frustration at a particularly difficult knot in her hair. I didn’t know how she did it. “You look mature. It frames your face nicely.” 

A soft smile appeared on her face. I noticed as the week passed less scowls and glares popped up, and I enjoyed the softer side of Claire. 

“You should visit him.” 

My grip tightened. “I don’t think I’m ready for that.” I admitted. The sorrow still bubbled at the surface, and I couldn’t make a graveside appearance without falling to absolute pieces. “Just a little longer,” I told her and she nodded. “How did it feel your first time there?” 

“As I told you, I went alone because I didn't want to subject the girls to that so early. I was already distraught at the idea of seeing the headstone with his name. Aside from his death certificate, it was the only place his name ever would be.” I stroked away the cascade of tears. “I've taken them to visit him though. Bree and Isla in the beginning played some sort of game, and I sat there, caressing his name. I couldn’t afford to break down without scaring the girls. I could’ve left them at home, but I wanted them to be there. He was their brother. It was the only way they'd ever meet until the end of this life.” 

I should’ve been there with her that first time. “It’s okay,” her thumb stroked the smooth skin on the back of my hand. “It’s hard to think about all the things he will miss out on and already has. It’s easier as the years go by, and I don’t find myself holding my breath anymore.” I knew what she meant. My throat closed up and my lungs constricted painfully in those first months after we lost him. 

“You’re so strong.” She shook her head embarrassed by my candor. “No you are. Some people let the darkness swallow them whole, but you didn’t. As I sit here with you now, I find myself impressed.” I meant it. 

“I’m not really that strong. I’ve had my battles, and have had to rebuild my life from scratch when it crashed down on me. My struggles are what allows me to be here now.”

“Why do you think we didn’t last?”

“Because we were stupid kids who threw away a good thing because they couldn’t recognize what they had.” I wondered if she already had the answer prepared, or if someone said something to her. “When I divorced you Jamie, I realized I also left my whole life in the UK. I don’t keep in contact with any of my old mates. It felt too personal, and they all knew us as a couple. I feel like an asshole for how I acted afterwards. They were trying to be supportive and I pushed them away.” 

“I doubt they hold it against you. You were going through a rough time, and you were alone across the Atlantic with two American children.” I teased her, and it got me a tiny smile. 

It never failed to amuse either of us how American our daughters were. It was a running joke between us when Isla began to talk. Claire hoped desperately for her to keep the English accent, but with preschool and the nursery at church, it was a lost cause. Claire was completely resigned to raising American little girls. I wouldn't want them any other way. 

“I’ve visited when I’m in London, and they always ask after you. I never have anything to say aside from what the lasses tell me, but I think overall they just want reassurance you’re okay. They do miss you.” 

“I plan to initiate contact, and possibly pop into London one of these days.” I knew it was a huge step for her to consider possibly visiting her former home. “I never have much of a reason. Tom visits or we see him in France. It allows me to avoid London.”

“I was going to take Bree to the beach tomorrow, would you mind joining us? Jenny wanted to bring Maggie and Kitty by to spend the day with Isla if that’s alright with you?” 

I saw the hesitation and the immediate protest before she closed her lips and murmured a soft “yes.” 

I knew how wary she was to spend any significant amount of time with me, but I didn’t want her cooped up in the hospital or her hotel room. She and Bree were there when they weren’t here. Bree rarely went back to my house unless her mother was staying overnight at the hospital. She latched onto her mother immediately, and I tamped down my jealousy at the closeness shared between them. It was irrational as I had done it to myself. I needed to step up.

I refused to be envious as I watched Bree and Claire play on the beach, Yellowcraigs Beach in The Lothians. The cove was beautiful this time of year, and the view of the lighthouse on Fidra Island was spectacular. Although according to Bree, lighthouses were boring. There were plenty in Massachusetts and if a person saw one, they had seen them all. 

The water was a clear blue as it lapped at the shore. I inhaled the salty sea air, and felt my body relax for what seemed like the first time in weeks. The waves came in and broke white against the rocks, spraying water everywhere. Bree and Claire laughed as water splashed them and they chased each other. 

Claire was carefree and joyful and it surprised me as I compared her to the emotionally distant woman who arrived. “Mommy,” Bree cackled as Claire caught her around the waist and tugged her closer. 

Their interactions were pure and innocent, and I saw the love they bore for one another. Claire had a look that was exclusively for our daughters. It was hard to describe the serenity I felt when I saw it. Her lips curved up, and the apples of her cheeks popped out. Her eyes were bright and alive with a hint of mischievousness behind those orbs. 

There were some topics we hadn’t addressed like her potential engagement and marriage, and the possibility of me spending more time with our daughters. 

More laughter followed as they played together. Claire beckoned me over with such a lighthearted expression on her face. I ran over to her and Bree who was completely soaked. 

Bree looked as if she had never been happier in her entire life. Her ocean eyes sparkled in apparent delight as she threw herself into my arms. “Daddy save me from mommy.” She giggled merrily, and I realized what I was missing, my family. I had deprived myself of it. 

Chapter Text

You are terrifying and strange and beautiful, someone not everyone knows how to love.

-Warsan Shire


I plopped down beside her on the blanket. She kept a watchful eye on Bree as she played with another girl she met. Seeing Bree interact with someone outside of the family was interesting. She was open, trusting, and warm. I was amazed at how easily she could start conversing with a stranger. 

“It’s mesmerizing. Bree has always been able to make friends upon meeting them. She came home from her first day of kindergarten raving about all of the new people she had met.”

“I wish I had been there.” She smiled sadly. “I was caught up in my life and let my relationship with them deteriorate. I thought I could make up for it with our time together in the summers, but Isla called me out on my shit. She told me it wasn’t enough.”

Claire sighed. “I had the feeling she would. Isla is a lot like me in that respect. She holds her anger close, so she doesn’t get hurt. She wanted to spare you until she realized she was hurting herself. I’ve seen her devastation. She puts on a good brave face, but her eyes are a give away.” 

I wasn’t surprised by that knowledge after my talk with Isla. I watched her closely and saw how torn up she was by our conversation. “I needed to hear it,” I admitted. “I’ve made some poor excuses over the years. At the time, it all seemed important, but then she talked about her first recital and the father-daughter dance.” I was disappointed my own child felt that I was too busy for her. She was right. I put a lot of my focus on building up my business instead of being there for my children. “It kills me. They deserve better than me.” 

“Ow!” I rubbed my aching arm and glared at Claire. “What in the hell was that for?”

“Stop having a pity party and figure out how to do better. You keep saying all of these things, but Jamie I’ve often found my biggest pet peeve with you is you lack conviction. You offer up all of these pretty words and then fail to come through.” She cut herself, holding herself back from further commentary. “I’m not going to do this here.”

“No, go ahead.” There was no better time than the present. This was something she had been holding in for a while.

“I promised myself I wouldn’t, but you’ve given me the go ahead. Look, you’ve made some promises to Bree and Isla over the year and then broke them. You told Isla you would come to one of her piano recitals, and it’s been nearly eight years since she started. With Bree, she’s forgiving well not really, but she pretends she’s okay. You promised to watch her soccer games.” She made a face. I chuckled as I knew it was about the use of the word soccer. “I’ve gone all American. That’s beside the point. Every time you let them down, it makes it that much harder for them to trust the value of your words. They love you and want you to be proud of them for all of their accomplishments, and while they would never admit it to me as I’m just their mother, they feel you don’t care about them and enjoy limited involvement in their lives. I know you and yes you’ve got your shortcomings, but I never thought you would be the type of father who skips out on promises.” Her face was red. “Sorry,” she mumbled unapologetically. She wasn’t wrong and I had never thought about it from their perspective. I needed to hear it from her more than anyone else to affirm that I was making the right decision. 

The whole day was surreal. Being here with the two of them like this was like a dream, one I had never dared let myself hope for. We hadn’t taken a beach trip together since before Bree came along. 

By the time Bree’s first summer arrived, we were having too many issues and on our way to divorcing. I knew that Claire took the girls to the beach every summer. They had gone up and down the east coast, but most of the time stayed at Claire’s house on Martha’s Vineyard. I was aware she had come into her inheritance/trust fund or whatever it was around the time the divorce was going through the legal system. She didn’t have to work, but Claire disliked being idle.

“I forgot how cold it could be even in the summer.” Her voice was soft as she shivered lightly, a result of the brisk sea air. “I’m used to warmer, sometimes humid summers.”

Appreciation swept through me at the swift change of topic. We were getting too heavy, and it wasn’t the time or place for any of that. I enjoyed this new dimension of her far more than the tentative, recalcitrant, quarrelsome side of her. It was nice to simply appreciate a moment without us aggressively at each other’s throats. 

“I realized it’s the first time I’ve ever been to the beach with you and Bree.” 

Her lips tipped up, but it was only a half smile. There was a hint of melancholy attached, and I understood it well.

She leaned back onto her elbows. “The first time I took Bree to the beach, her eyes were dazzled by the water. I swear they were the exact same blue. It was such a deep color, almost like cobalt.” I closed my eyes and tried to picture it. “Isla was three and managed to get away from me. She headed straight towards the water. My friend Mel caught her before she got too far. They were such water babies. The water was a bit cold, but it didn’t bother Bree at all. She laughed and splashed. She cried when we pulled her away, and stretched her arms out towards the water as if was beckoning her.” 

A fond, nostalgic grin formed on her face. “Do ye have pictures?” Even if she didn’t currently have them on her person, I wanted to see them at some point. Claire sent me pictures every week, but not every moment I missed could be captured or sent. 

She pulled out her phone. Her lock screen was a picture of Bree and Isla with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. I had similar one from when I took them to Disneyland. She scrolled through the years, and my heart clenched as it physically and mentally hit me how many more pictures and time she’d had with the them. It wasn’t her fault or anything, but it pained me to have the evidence presented to me. I had slacked in my role as a father. 

She handed the phone over when she found the right folder. Bree was tiny; it was nearly impossible to believe she was the same girl fifteen feet away. In the picture, her eyes were fixated on something in the distance, and I assumed she had heard the call of the sea. There were tiny freckles dotting her nose. “We put a lot of sunblock on, but well the girls seemed to come home with more freckles.” I wanted to touch hers, which weren’t covered by make-up. I had to remind myself it wasn’t acceptable to do that. There were boundaries we couldn’t cross. 

In another picture, Bree and Isla were in the sand giggling about something lost to time. Their eyes crinkled and heads tipped back. Bree’s hair was bright red, while Isla’s was darkening to the deep red color she had now. “They’re so wee.” 

Claire nudged my shoulder playfully. “’They were. Sometimes I remember when Isla climbed into my bed every morning and we cuddled. It’s hard to get her to do it now. She doesn’t like it when I treat her like a baby.” I sensed the dismay she felt at the fact the lasses were growing up. “Bree is tactile though. She still crawls into bed with me on mornings I’m home. She hugs me in public and will hold my hand on occasion. Isla says I’m embarrassing. On weekends when I’m off, we watch movies in bed and eat ice cream.” 

I easily pictured the life they were living, and I wished desperately I was a part of it. I didn’t have a relationship like that with them. “Yer house is lovely. The girls have given me some brief tours through our calls.” I had only been in the foyer and the family room, and that was ages ago. 

She had found the house after the judge signed off on our divorce, but hadn’t moved in until after I was gone. She required a place closer to where she was doing her residency, and it was always the intention for us to find a bigger place for our daughters to grow up. The apartment was meant for a couple starting out or college kids needing a cheap place. It was never meant to be forever.

“It was strange when we first moved to the house. My mum moved in after we had settled in the house, so I got some friends to assist in moving furniture. I donated most of ours and bought some new pieces. I wanted a fresh start.” Her eyes flickered in my direction before moving back to our daughter. “I couldn’t sleep in the bed we shared anymore.” I nodded as a heaviness settled over me. “I actually slept on the couch for a while, or snuck into Isla’s room.” I winced at the thought of her sharp toddler limbs. 

Isla was a mover in her sleep. We put her in the bed with us occasionally, and usually ended up with her above our heads or across our chests. One time she kicked me in my balls. It was excruciating. Claire took her out for the rest of that day as I iced my privates. 

“We’ve been happy there and my mother has moved out. My mum thought it was time, especially as she’s not needed as much around the house.” I was surprised when Claire first dropped the news her mother was leaving England to cross the pond. Julia was a true Englishwoman and had never left her home for more than a few weeks. “She doesn’t want to move back to England, but I know she’s planning to spend a few months with Tom. I think she doesn’t want to leave me alone whereas Tom does have our family in France.” 

“I heard he had a baby.” 

Her eyes rolled in Bree’s direction. I knew she was aware of who dropped that particular bomb. “She meant well. She was excited to have a new cousin. She has all of Jenny’s kids, but it’s different when it’s her Uncle Tom’s. To be honest, I’m surprised he found a woman to settle down with.” I smirked at her appalled expression and bumped her shoulder with mine. “You know it’s true.” 

“Yeah I know,” she laughed easily. I can’t explain the difference in us recently, but something changed the other day after our discussion. “She’s good for him though, and he seems to love her. Mum travels frequently over there, although Tom is possibly going to be transferred to Australia for his work.” 

It was hard to imagine the acne ridden, angsty teen Tom as an adult. He was almost a year younger than me and could be quite the smart arsed punk. He constantly teased Claire and I for our relationship. He was also the first to note when we lost our virginity to one another. 

August 2001 

I took Claire back to my home nearly a year after we met. She and Jenny had become quite good friends, often ringing each other, infringing upon my already precious time with her. I swore my sister was doing it on purpose. 

My Sassenach and I made the trek up to our spot where we could see the Broch and all of the rolling hills of the highlands. “It’s peaceful,” she hummed as I settled behind her. “I love it here. It’s so different from home.”

She leaned back into my chest as my arms wrapped around her. Her head turned and the light captured her just right. She was truly radiant. Her hair shone with streaks of auburn and her eyes were dangerously dark. She pulled her lip into her mouth, and my eyes tracked the motion. 

I gently tugged it out before taking her lips with my own. My tongue brushed against her lips and she opened up her mouth to give me access. I explored the depths of her sweet mouth and took all she had to offer. Her eyes fluttered shut the moment we made contact with each other. 

I never tired of seeing her reaction to my ministrations. We had yet to have sex, but we had done some exploration of each other’s body. Her head tilted as she pressed her lips harder to mine. I gasped at the change in pressure and my hands settled on her hips. My forehead rested against hers as we tried to steady our breathing. “Wow,” I grinned feeling immensely proud at her disheveled appearance. My hands worked themselves into her hair. The curls were a wild mess, but she never looked more beautiful to me. 

When I kissed her I saw possibilities. I saw picnics in the park, gazing at the stars, white dresses and tuxedos, and red haired children. I saw the future all wrapped up in her. I wanted it. I wanted everything with her. Most would say I was too young to know what I wanted, but I did. It was her.

Then she stared at me peculiarly. It was a look I had never seen from her, but I would come to recognize in the future. “Jamie,” her voice was a soft whisper. “I want you to make love to me.” 

My eyes nearly popped out of my head in surprise. It must’ve shown on my face because she placed my hand on her breast. “I want you, right here. This is the place where I saw a future with you for the first time. I want you to make me yours.” I raked my eyes down her body and hesitated. 

I didn’t want us to make any rash decisions. She was possibly reacting from the heat of the moment instead of rationally, and I didn’t want her to regret the loss of her virginity. “Are ye sure Claire?” There were moments where her name was required. 

We were having a serious one. I needed assurance that what was about to happen was what she desired. I had no intention of ever taking advantage of her. She nodded her head. Her dark stare was quite piercing in the fading sun. I laid her down on the blanket and kissed her. Our lips fell into a well-known rhythm. This was familiar. I could do this. 

It was going to happen. We were finally going to claim one another in a moment that would change the entire dynamic between. Neither of us required sex as the ultimate assurance of intimacy. We were close without it, but this step was a huge undertaking for us. It was a pledge, a promise between the two of us that what we had was real. 

I peeled the shirt off her body and openly gaped at the midnight blue bra and how it contrasted nicely with her fair skin. Her collarbone was littered with tiny freckles, and I peppered kisses across it. Her moans were music to my ears. Her hands were in my hair, pressing my face further into her skin. “Like that,” she groaned. 

I eventually moved my attention to her breasts. They were actually perfect and fit just right into my hands. I reached behind her to remove the clasp and slid the bra from her body. Her nipples were a dark rose color and puckered by her arousal. I had never seen them before as I kept my touching respectful during our make-out sessions. My hands never went under the shirt, no matter how much she begged otherwise. 

My hands slowly and gently covered her breasts. I squeezed, testing the pressure. Her eyes were shut, but I knew she enjoyed it. I lowered my mouth to capture a hardened nipple between my lips before fully latching on, lathering attention to the breast with my tongue. 

She wrapped her arms around my neck and called out my name as I divided my attention between her breasts. I wasn’t ignorant or naïve enough to believe I could get her to orgasm that way. I talked with my friends about how to pleasure a woman. I was extremely nervous, but Claire somehow had a way of making it all better. She eased my anxiety about the whole situation. 

Her body arched against my mouth as tiny pants left her mouth. Her pelvis gyrated against my abdomen and breathy sighs escaped her as she cried out “oh God.” I was hard, but I wanted to make it perfect for her. I needed for it to be a memory she wouldn’t forget and not one where clumsiness was involved. 

Her nails scratched against my scalp and her hips rotated beneath me. She required more now, and I was happy to oblige her. Her eyes opened and I saw my entire world in their depths. There was an intensity in those dark brown orbs. I was reminded of the earth and found myself rooted in the moment. I saw the warmth and I was like a moth to the flame. They glistened with mystery, but there was an overwhelming amount of love shining through. 

I was taken aback for a second. We exchanged I love you all the time, yet it was the first time I saw how much she meant the words. Her breaths came hard and fast, and I found myself in disbelief that this was my Claire underneath me. A year passed since fate interfered and I sat down with a beautiful girl on a long train ride home. The same gorgeous girl fell into my lap before her stop and a lovely pink color stained her cheeks at her embarrassment. It was in that moment I knew I wanted to know everything about her. 

I moved back to her lips and settled myself at the apex of her thighs. Aside from her lack of shirt and bra, we were still fully dressed. She wrenched her mouth away from mine and must’ve thought the same thing because she quickly divested me of my shirt. 

Her mouth latched onto available skin and she sucked hard. I knew she was marking me. A part of me was pleased she felt possessive of my body. 

My erection bulged painfully against my jeans, but I made no move to remove my pants. It was Claire once again who removed my jeans and observed how big I was just in my boxers. Her eyes were wide and I saw a bit of fear. 

While there were rumors about Catholic girls and their illicit activities, Claire was perhaps one of the most innocent girls I knew. Further along in our relationship, we talked about things of a sexual nature. She’d never even masturbated before because she felt guilt, good old fashioned Catholic guilt. It took several minutes and her steely glare before I stopped laughing at her. She didn’t appreciate my sense of humor. 

She was on birth control, so that part was handled. She had female issues, and I left the explanation at that. 

“We don’t have to do anything.” I told her as I planted tiny kisses on her neck. “I’m perfectly fine with what we have.” She shook her head immediately and slipped her jeans off. I gaped at the tiny panties she wore. They were the same blue color as her bra. I think I even gulped because we were actually going to do it. 

My hand brushed against her thigh and moved closer to her sex. I felt the heat emanating and swallowed my moan. 

I was going to be the first and hopefully the only person to know her so intimately. Slowly and carefully, I lowered her panties and they slid right off until she was revealed before me. She wasn’t 

overly hairy, but she kept things neat. Her eyes were nervous and I planted a kiss on her stomach to reassure her. 

Soon enough my boxers were gone. There were no layers separating us. I sucked in a breath as I pitched into her. I couldn’t resist the warmth her body was offering. She was my siren, and her body was calling me to sea. I settled between the valley of her thighs. My erection nudged at her opening, but neither of us made a move. 

“I love you,” I murmured to her. I wanted her to know. “I don’t think I shall ever love a woman like you. We may be young, but Claire you’re everything to me, Sorcha,” I breathed against the sensitive skin of her long neck. She shivered against me. 

Our eyes locked and she grabbed me in her hand to guide me inside of her warm insides. Tears pooled in her eyes and her jaw clenched as I began to push inside. I paused as I saw a tear fall. “Are ye alright? Do ye want me to stop?” She shook her head and begged me to continue. 

As I slid inside, I was almost done in by how hot and wet she was. I had never known pleasure like this, and my friends couldn’t adequately describe what it felt like to be with a woman.They hadn't loved the girls they lost their virginity to which made all the difference. My experience was better because it was Claire, the woman I pictured the rest of my life with. I couldn’t imagine sharing it with anyone else except her. She was my salvation. 

Her eyes were squeezed shut, but I continued to press forward. I knew the moment her maidenhood was gone as she shed a few tears. I kissed them away. Once I was fully sheathed inside of her, I stilled to allow her time to adjust to me. I didn't want to cause her anymore pain. 

I had a difficult time of it because it was my first sexual experience. Aside from my hand, my cock didn’t see any action. 

Before that moment, I never noticed how small she was either. She was still a good seven or so inches shorter than me, but it never occurred to me. Her natural disposition made her seem larger than life. Also, her school uniform hid her figure and her regular clothes weren’t form fitting. She was generally insecure about her body, and my assurances didn’t really help. She claimed I was biased, which I was but I loved her body. 

She was lithe with sinewy muscles, although from what I couldn’t say. She did yoga, but generally speaking she wasn’t athletic. 

As I continued not to move, I tried to take in everything. I absorbed how her walls felt around me, how she clenched and how tight she was. She breathed deeply as her body attempted to relax at the intrusion. 

I brushed my lips against her eyelids down to her lips where my tongue sank into her mouth and I enjoyed her tongue playing with mine. 

The connection between us grew. I could almost sense what she was thinking and feeling. I tried not to get too excited about the fact I was actually inside of her. I wasn’t expecting anything more than some cuddling as the sun set, but Claire had a way of sometimes making things even better. 

She pushed into me with her pelvis and her hips rocked frantically. “Please,” was all she said. 

I knew it was time to move. I pulled almost all the way out before pushing back in slowly. I did this several times to help her adjust. My face ended up buried in her slender neck once again. I sucked the skin into my mouth and at one point I think I bit her. The rhythm was slowly and steady as the sun made its descent behind the hills. The light created a perfect effect, and I knew what was happening 

would be permanently etched into my memory. Her skin glowed beautifully and her eyes were brighter than I'd seen them. She was a goddess. 

I lost myself in her. It was the feel, the smell, everything, all the tiny noises she made when I hit a particularly sensitive spot. When I thought about this moment since we started dating, I never imagined reality to be better than my dreams. Rarely in my experience did it happen. 

I stared down at her and watched as she drew her pleasure from me. Her curls were spread out under her on the blanket. Her eyes fluttered and her rosebud lips parted in ecstasy. I knew whenever it did happen, it would be perfect because it was us. 

She understood me in a way no human ever had. She was patient and attentive, and she loved every minute of the time we spent together. Even when we weren’t together, we were probably on the phone. I’d never connected with somebody on this level, and I wasn’t prepared for the emotions associated with this act. I knew then I would do anything for her as long as we lived. I wanted to make her happy. I would give anything to make sure she stayed happy. 

Her lips sought my own and we continued to kiss as our bodies moved together in the most natural way. I wanted her to understand how serious it was for me to do this with her here. I was making a commitment to her, despite the fact we were seventeen years old and most people would claim our relationship wouldn’t last. I needed her to know this wasn’t just for now but forever. My life and hers were forever intertwined. 

My movements sped up and she responded in kind. Her body met mine thrust for thrust. I slid my hand down to her bundle of nerves because I wanted her to come. She tightened around me and I almost came then. 

She smiled languidly at me as if there was no one in existence but the two of us. I lost myself in her. She plunged her tongue into my mouth as my lips descended upon hers. Her legs wrapped themselves around my waist as my pace quickened. As I was about to hit my plateau, her thighs clenched around me and she yelped as her body tensed and shuddered. No longer able to hold back, I gripped her hips and pumped into her a few more times before I released inside of her. 

My body fell on top of hers. My head rested on her soft mounds, and her fingers tangled in my curls. We simply lay there as we attempted to catch our breaths. 

It was such a beautiful and tender moment shared between the two of us. I’ll never forget the content expression on her face or the flush when she noticed all of the love bites I left on her. Although the pleased look on her face after she saw mine was more than enough for me to know how she felt about the marking thing. 

When I returned Claire home, Tom was there with a smirk. “Oy Jamie, were you mauled by an animal?” The collar of my shirt didn’t do much to hide the hickeys. “It must’ve happened to you as well Claire.” His eyes sparkled with mirth at the situation. “The police did say something about animal attacks in Scotland on the telly.” He doesn’t miss a beat before he adds a follow up. “ I had to call Jenny to make sure you weren’t attacked but I guess you were if your neck is anything to go by. She did say she heard some animal noises out there. Was it loud?”

Claire blushed and covered her face as her brother cackled. “You’re an arsehole and totally dead.” She lurched towards him and he darted around her.

I was reminded of how much time had passed. Tom was a husband and father. We didn’t keep in contact after the divorce. He wasn’t angry at me; he sympathized with my position. We were never as close as Claire and Jenny though, and in the end Claire was his sister. 

After the funeral, he and I sat by the harbor and watched the ships come into port. We barely exchanged words. He seemed to instinctively understand what I required was silence to process what happened. 

I never forgot what he told me. 

“Jamie, Claire’s mourning, but he was your son too. You’re allowed to hurt and cry, to feel pain. I know my sister and she feels she has a monopoly on feelings, but she doesn’t.” His mouth was downturned. “If you don’t survive as a couple I won’t blame you.” He was hyperaware of the issues in my marriage, but he wasn’t throwing it in my face. I was certain his sister, my wife vented to him. He was offering acceptance and resignation, I didn’t understand why. 

“It’s weird because I think of Tom as the annoying little brother who called us out after we had sex the first time.” The words fell from her lips without hesitation. I was astounded she mentioned that day. It didn’t fall under our safe topics of discussion. 

I watched as the sunlight hit her and was reminded of her youthful innocence that night. Part of her was still that girl who lost her virginity outside in the Highlands. There were so many pieces of her, and I wasn’t positive if I ever had any of her at all. 

Bree squealed loudly as ocean water sprayed her. She and her new friend Caitlin were enjoying the water and the ease of youthful friendship. 

“Tell me a story Claire.” Her eyebrows shot up. “One the girls probably haven’t. They edit their stories so they don’t hurt my feelings, but I want to know these things. Ye ken?” 

She was perhaps the only person who did. I was under no illusions that our children redacted their adventures. I adored how protective they were of us, but at the same time disappointed they didn't want to share everything. 

She pressed her body into the blanket until she was in a supine position. “Okay,” she licked her lips nervously. “When Bree was five, I took the girls to Disney World. We talked about doing it then because they’d were old enough to appreciate it and not need someone to carry them around.” I tipped my head in acknowledgement, while trying to fight my burning jealousy. It was always the intention when Isla was five, but then Bree came along and we modified our plans. I had taken them to Disney, but it wasn’t for their first time. 

“We stayed at one of the resorts. I can hardly remember now because we’ve made a few trips now and the girls pick a different one each time. We took the ferry the first day, and I got to watch as their faces lit up when we walked through the gates. They saw the castle and their mouths fell open. It was different than seeing it on television. Their heads turned in every direction until they dragged me into the Emporium. I purchased their first pair of ears.” She pulled out her phone and scrolled through her photo app. 

I stared hungrily at the image of my daughters at Disney World for the first time in their lives. They were standing with the castle in the background. This was after they spent the summer with me. I knew Bree had lost her front teeth shortly after an incident with a football. Bree was missing a few teeth and so was Isla. Their ears were firmly placed on their heads, arms were wrapped tightly around one another, and I saw the love they had and the excitement burning in their eyes. “They didn’t want the hats. They wanted something girly.” Her eyes crinkled in the corners as she laughed. “Somehow every time we’ve returned I buy them a new pair. They bring all of them so they can wear a different pair each day.” It wasn’t that surprising to anyone who knew our daughters. I was extensively familiar with the word accessories. “With Bree as tall as she is, we had no problems riding the rides in Magic Kingdom. We ate so much junk that day, but thankfully no one got sick. What made the experience for me was watching the reflection of the fireworks show in their eyes. They use the castle as part of the show, and they were completely mesmerized by the whole display. Actually they still are and it never gets old watching it with them.” 

Another photo showed two tired yet completely wired little girls. Their heads were close together as they stared up in utter amazement at the sky. I saw an explosion of color in their eyes and could almost picture what the moment looked like in person. 

“Bree fell asleep tucked into my side and Isla had her head in my lap as we took the ferry back across the lake. A woman next to us found the scene to be adorable and took our picture.” Tears pierced my eyes as I saw the three of them cuddled together. 

Claire’s face was soft and motherly as she had an arm wrapped around Bree and the other in Isla’s hair. It was a beautiful scene of her loving our daughters. I wanted to kiss her, but I held back knowing she wouldn’t be receptive to the idea at all. She was engaged. It was a mantra I had to keep repeating. She hadn’t mentioned it, but from the smile that appeared when her phone rang and the wya she slipped out of the room to take her calls, it was serious. 

Isla was relaxed in sleep, trusting her mother to protect her from the world. Her freckles were more apparent than usual against her sun kissed skin. I wasn’t aware she had the ability to tan. Bree had half her face buried in Claire’s chest with her mouth partially open. She still slept like that. “Thank ye,” I handed her back her phone. 

“They love you. I know they’re probably different here, but they cherish this time. They start talking about their trip as early as February. By May, they’re begging for new wardrobes,” she rolled her eyes. “On the last day of school, they’re hyper and jumping around. This year their departure actually fell on the last day, and they were so excited. Overall, they don’t mind missing out on some things happening back home.” Her hand inched over to cover mine. “You’re a good father. They know you love them. They want you to be involved, so you’ve got to try. They’re only this age once and then it’s gone.” 

I glanced skyward as I tried to control the onslaught of emotions coursing through me. It was some sort of role reversal or something. “I regret not being there enough. I missed a lot of their first. I’ve never seen them play sports, except for the videos recorded or when they play with their cousins. I don’t get to cheer them on like all the other dads.” She bobbed her head, a soft smile reserved for me. “I am proud of them. They’re amazing and the best things I’ve ever done in my entire life.”

“I don’t make it to every game, but all you have to do is try. You’re welcome in Boston whenever you like. You can visit at Christmas or Hogmanay if you’d like to see what it’s like when they’re in Boston. There’s loads of things I think they want to share with you. Halloween can be a bit of a nightmare with two indecisive girls who wait until the last minute to decide on their costumes. You could come then and take them out around the neighborhood. It’s an experience. They’re able to stay awake for longer than an hour now, and you’re the one tired by the end of the night.” My lips quirked up at her woes. “It’s one of the most exhausting things I’ve done, and one time, I got called in to do a double shift because all of the morons seem to pick that night to do stupid shit.” 

“I’m amazed how you balance work and motherhood. I mean being a surgeon is one of the toughest jobs in the world but so is single motherhood. How do you do it?” 

She blew a strand of hair of her eyes. “I’m not some saint and certainly not perfect. I make mistakes. The girls and I occasionally fight.” I tucked the loose strand behind her ear and she gazed at me gratefully. “I receive a lot of help from friends and my mother. Whenever I find myself getting upset with the girls, I take a breath and ask myself will it be important tomorrow? If I don’t find it to be I let it go.” 

“As simple as that?” I questioned. I rarely had issues with the girls, but they were on their best behavior when here. To them, visits to me were a treat and so I received a different kind of treatment from them. Although there were times when their frustration with each other could no longer be contained. 

She shrugged. “Not always, but I learned to pick my battles. It saves a lot of time and we have a rule to never let the sun go down on our anger.” 

It was another one of those strange observations where I compared present Claire to the one of the past. She struggled to control her compulsive tendencies and the little things that aggravated her. Here in front of me was this relaxed version who let the small stuff go. She tried not to get worked up and found coping mechanisms to help. 

I opened my mouth to ask her another question when Bree tackled me in a hug. Her clothes were soaked all the way through. Luckily, we packed her an extra outfit, foreseeing the inevitable. Claire was prepared for every eventuality and she knew Bree.

She placed her wet head on Claire’s stomach. The old Claire would’ve cursed at the coldness and the wetness, but instead her fingers ran through the knots of our daughter’s hair with a lazy smile. “How about some dinner and then we can go to the hospital to see your sister?” 

Bree yawned tiredly as she snuggled into her mother with the rest of her body in my lap. “Sure,” she agreed. We shared contact information with Bree’s new friend’s parents, so the girls could keep in touch if they desired. “I’m really hungry.” She patted her tummy as it gurgled loudly. Claire laughed at her antics, her eyes filled with mirth.

CPOV

We waited until we were closer to the city to stop for food. Bree’s eyes were wide and bright as we entered the family friendly pub. I wasn’t sure what sorts of eateries Jamie took the girls to when they visited with him over the summer. 

They generally skipped over the food, especially after they informed me about how he took them out somewhere to try haggis. Isla and Bree did not respond positively to the dish and vehemently swore to never eat it again. We went to a franchise pub I was familiar with for dinner. 

The food was decent and inexpensive, which was what we were going for tonight. I tried to teach the girls the value of a dollar because I wanted them to fully appreciate what they had. We ate at expensive restaurants only for special occasions; also it wasn’t really our style. I enjoyed living a comfortable, laid back lifestyle when I wasn’t at work where everything was high stressed or I was expected to attend some charity gala. 

Bree changed out of her swimsuit, t-shirt, and shorts into a white ruffled top and denim skirt overalls. I loved her outfit, and didn’t mind she refused my offer to help pick out clothes during the shopping trip. She threw on a cardigan over it. 

She clutched Jamie’s hand as we waited to be seated. “Dad, did you know this is my first pub experience? I mean technically we went to the Leaky Cauldron at Universal, but that doesn’t really count.” Bree had a tendency to babble. She hated long silences. She was more talkative and outspoken than her sister, and never hesitated speaking her mind. “Mommy isn’t big on eating out, but she does let us get Postmates. So that’s nice. Mostly we can only eat out on weekends, but sometimes everyone is so busy that there’s no time to make dinner.”

“She wasn’t big on take-away when we were together either.” He caught my eye and winked playfully. 

I hid my smile at his forwardness. “Yes, well how will you get all of the important vitamins and minerals?” 

An impish smile appeared on her lips. “I don’t think you really need them” All of her teeth were on display as her smile widened. “Besides mommy, it’s vi-tamins, not vit-amins.” I rolled my eyes at her correction. From the moment she discovered the difference between my pronunciation of words and hers, she began to correct my incorrect version. She shook her head sadly, her red braids swinging with her. 

Jamie tugged on one of them to tease her. “Lass, ye need all of that if you want to be strong and tall when yer older.” 

“I’m already tall,” she informed him, affronted by his insinuation she was anything but. “Besides I’m strong too. I’m the best kicker on my whole soccer team.” Bree was a proud creature. It wasn’t without merit she was one of the best players on her team, but I had to teach her a little about humility to prevent her from constantly bragging about how good she was. 

“You can always be stronger and taller,” he told her as he tickled her side. She squealed loudly drawing the attention of some of the other patrons. 

I ignored them and checked my emails. It was strange being around him like this. Prior to the dissolution of our marriage, we hadn’t had very many family outings after Bree was born. We were too busy and drowning in our own perceived failures. 

We stopped taking the time to arrange something, anything together. Instead I spent the weekends in the library, buried under hundreds of books, while Jamie watched the girls. During the week, I was at home when I wasn’t in class. I couldn’t say the last time the four of us did anything as a family, and besides when she was born, I don’t know when we spent time with Bree just the three of us. 

At the time, we were running on instinct and primarily thinking of ourselves, and not how our decisions would affect the rest of their lives or ours. In a way, I was glad for the events that led to the present. I would never actively wish for my children to be injured, but it was giving us time to right some of our past wrongs. 

We would never capture what we had in the past, but it was my fervent hope to rebuild the friendship we had to have a better co-parent relationship. I didn’t want him to feel as if he had to stay away to prevent us from reacting negatively in one another’s presence. Our daughters wanted and needed him in their lives. 

Bree’s blue gaze peered curiously at the menu, and I watched as her brow dipped in uncertainty. As soon as I caught the children’s options I knew what she would order, but I allowed her to pretend she was considering all of the meals offered. 

My youngest was less open to trying new foods and I didn’t begrudge her. She was picky from the moment she tried solids at seven months. Vegetables were her favorites, but she despised fruits. She didn’t have much of a sweet tooth except on the rare occasion when cake or mint chip ice cream was involved. 

Her dentist was impressed with her brushing and the lack of decay. Isla on the other hand was the exact opposite. She hated flossing. She loved her junk food, and while she brushed thoroughly had come away with a few cavities. It amazed me constantly to see the ways in which they complemented each other’s personalities. They were night and day. 

Jamie watched Bree with amusement. I wondered if he was aware of what would choose. “So what are ye thinking of ordering Claire?” 

“Fish and chips,” I answered succinctly. He knew good and well there was no other place in the world where I would eat fish and chips. It didn’t quite capture the same sort of feelings if I ate it anywhere other than the British Isles. “I haven’t had it in some time.” I perused the drink options, and thought about ordering an ale. 

“Why do they call them chips instead of French fries?” Bree settled her inquisitive gaze on Jamie. He knew random facts like that. 

He smiled bemusedly at her question. “Well, it’s believed French fries, which are called frites in French, originated in France. So the Americans and Canadians call them French fries.” I saw the adoration Bree had for her father, and how impressed she is with the wealth of information he kept stored in his brain. “We just call them chips.” 

“I still think’s it’s weird and you didn’t really answer my question. I mean chips are what you guys call crisps.” She wasn’t entirely impressed with his answer and it showed on her face. “So mom are we going on vacation when I get home?” 

Her non-sequitur question caught me off guard resulting in me staring at her blankly for fifteen seconds too long. I shook my head, hair falling loose from my clip. “Sorry, uh well I don’t know. Isla’s injury has caused me to put a hold on our end of summer plans, but we might be able to make it out the house for a weekend” Apparently, it was the correct response because she squealed happily and began to list in detail all the things she planned to do when we got there. 

“How long have ye been going?” Jamie asked me as Bree was in her own little chatter world. 

I picked at my napkin. “Melody, a friend I made during my residency, she’s become my best friend actually. She helped me a lot after the divorce, and when summer rolled around invited me to her family’s summer house on the Vineyard. It took a lot of convincing on her part, but she wore me down. Then I bought us a house. It was a good investment.” I shrugged.  

“Aunt Mel is good at that.” Bree chimed in. “Like when Isla and I stay with her, she’s good at getting us to go to bed. We are also good at getting her to take us to fun places. We played paint ball last time and totally crushed her.” 

Melody couldn’t resist their sweet faces and ignored their devious behavior. She knew they were manipulating her and didn’t care. She allowed them to talk her into everything from trips to the zoo to laser tag. They almost managed to convince her to take them to New York for the weekend. She rarely used the word no. “Anyway, we try to make the trip every summer. Sometimes we go for Memorial or Labor Day weekends. It depends on the year.” 

His eyes were downcast, and I was terrified to ask what was wrong. I had an idea given our subject matter. For the both of us, we were realizing everything we were missing. Our daughters lived two different lives. 

When they were with Jamie, they were someone else. They acted different and were a bit shyer. The time with him was precious and sacred because it was only a few weeks out of the fifty-two in a year. They had Christmas and Easter on alternating years, but it wasn’t the same as spending unlimited time with their dad. All of their time with him had an expiration date. 

I hated how little time they spent with him, but there was nothing for me in England. I had a promising surgical career in Boston, and the girls had lives there as well. Everything they’d ever known was in America. 

While I joked with my friends about them being Americans, I loved it. I couldn’t imagine them turning into Brits or Scots because it simply wasn’t who they were meant to be. I wish I knew a way where they could spend more time with Jamie, but three thousand miles was a formidable obstacle. It was hard to arrange with school, sports, and everything else they had going on. Money wasn't an issue either as we had plenty of that to spend on plane tickets, but it was unbearable to watch my daughters board the plane. 

“Sometimes we go on ski trips with Aunt Mel too. Although I like snowboarding better,” she aimed the comment at me with am impish smile. 

I wasn’t in favor of her learning, but Mel and her wife managed to convince me to allow her to take a few lessons. Jamie’s head swiveled towards me with a strange look on his face. “What?” I asked defensively. 

“Ye let the lass snowboard?” 

I wasn’t sure about his tone, so I barely contained the venom in my voice. I was trying to remain amicable for Bree’s sake. She didn’t deserve two argumentative parents after basking in her solo day with us. “Yes, she takes lessons with an experienced instructor. She’s quite good too. I told you about it.” I stuck out my chin, daring him to question my authority as Bree's primary parent. I would never allow the girls to participate in anything if I feared they would end up injured. There was a risk in everything. 

He backed down and his shoulders slumped sadly. He looked a bit pathetic and I sighed. “Winter sports are something New Englanders do, and I want to give them all the experiences I can provide. Isla prefers skiing. We’ve been going for five or six years now.” I was certain I informed him about her taking lessons. He was likely passively listening as I told him about their upcoming activities. “I’m not trying to shut you out. I swear I told you and I’m sure Bree did.”

Bree had a repentant expression and realized she neglected to mention it. I never wanted her to look like that again because it wasn’t her fault she was caught between two divorced parents. I settled my hand on her leg and gave it a tiny squeeze. “I’m sorry daddy. Sometimes we also just forget you know. When we call, we get excited to talk to you, but there’s so much always going on and we can’t tell you everything.” The sorrow on her face caused my heart to skip a beat. “I didn’t mean to lie.”

“Hey Brianna,” Jamie tipped her chin up. “Don’t ever feel guilty. I guess sometimes I forget how much time passes before I see ye again. I’m glad yer mam gives yer sister and yerself such amazing experiences.” His tone indicated he was the one with the guilt and I shared the sentiment. “Now tell me about snowboarding.” 

The server brought out our food by the time Bree finished regaling her father with stories about snowboarding. She wiped out a few times when she first began and wanted to quit almost immediately. I held her to her promise though. We made a deal that if I paid for lessons, she had to complete them for the season. We would re-evaluate at the end of winter if she wanted to continue the next season. 

“This winter I get to do a lot more. My instructor wants me to move up to a different slope.” We were going to purchase her first snowboard. “Mommy says I also get to pick out my own snowboard. She feels I’m responsible enough to take care of my equipment and cause renting can get expensive.” 

Jamie wore a thoughtful expression and his eyes showed he was light years away throughout the rest of our meal. 

Bree drifted off to sleep as soon as we were on the road. I knew it would happen. Cars always lulled her to sleep. “I’m sorry about the thing. I really do forget the lasses have all these adventures when I’m not around.” I noticed his upturned palm and before I talked myself out of it, I slid my fingers through his. His hand was warm and familiar in my own. I enjoyed the rough feel of his palm against mine. 

If he was surprised, he didn’t show it. “I feel the same when they’re here. We don’t do anything out of the normal though. We take a few holidays, but most of the time we are running around from one activity to the next. Isla plays both field hockey and softball, and luckily has yet to pick up a winter sport. She has piano lessons, but it’s through the school and her one lesson on Saturday. Bree plays football all year round. She plays for her school and club, and the club requires her to travel to tournaments. Club sports occur outside of school. It’s much more competitive than the school teams.” 

I rarely had the opportunity to attend her tournaments. I hoarded my vacation days so I could take the girls places. My days off rarely coincided with her games. It was a relief to have my mother around, but sometimes Bree traveled with a friend’s family because we simply couldn’t manage to take her. I’ve made it to a few tournaments with a bit of luck and maneuvering, convincing coworkers to cover my shifts in exchange for taking over their midnight shifts. I wanted to support her as much as I possibly could. 

“Is she good? I’ve seen the videos, but it isn’t the same as seeing it up close.” 

I considered his question. I was perhaps biased because she was my child. “She is. She’s highly competitive and not the slightest bit humble. Sometimes she displays poor sportsmanship, but she’s improved on that as she’s gotten older. She congratulates the other teams on a well played game and means it. Her team actually chose her as their MVP at their banquet at the end of spring.” 

Bree cried when they announced whom all of her teammates voted for as the most valuable player of the season. She was in a daze as she made her way to the front of the hall where she thanked all of her friends and coaches. She placed the trophy on the center of her shelf. It was the most important trophy in her possession because it was decided upon by her teammates. 

Jamie’s lips turned up at the corners in a paternal smile. “How about Isla? Field hockey and softball aren’t the same at all.” I chuckled. 

“Isla has the same competitive spirit, but she focuses more on strategy. She pitches for her school team. She used to play outside of school, but now practices run so late into the day, she stopped. As for field hockey, she picked it up in the sixth grade. She went to a few games because her school mentor was on the team. Then she decided she wanted to play. If you walked into my house, you would find sports equipment everywhere. The girls are terrible at putting their belongings away. Cleats rarely end up in the hall closet. Sports bags are dropped by the door.” I rolled my eyes at the girls’ messy natures. 

I was constantly on them about picking up after themselves because I wasn’t their maid. I wanted them to learn how to take care of their things. “Luckily, we don’t have a yard or the girls would be leaving their things in the garden. If they want to practice, they go to the park a few blocks away, or to one of their friends’ houses.” 

“Do they have a lot of friends?” 

Did they ever? “Sometimes I think it’s too many. On any given weekend, I have hoards of adolescent girls running through my house. Some of them are from the neighborhood, but most of them are from school. We attend the same church with most of them.” It took a while for us to depart from the church parking lot after mass thanks to their constant socializing. “I’ve become quite good friends with their friends’ parents. It helps when my mum has other plans.” 

“Isla has her piano, which will help keep her distracted until she recovers. So at least she won’t be bored out of her mind.”

He nodded and for the remainder of the drive was silently contemplative. I wanted to ask him about his thoughts, but I didn’t feel as if I had the right any longer. Ten years ago, I would’ve asked and there wouldn’t be any hesitation in his response. 

When we pulled into the parking lot, I glanced back at Bree. Her head fell on her shoulder and her rosebud lips were slightly parted. “I’ve got her, ye can go check on Isla. I know you want to.” I smiled gratefully at him and made my escape. 

“Auntie Claire!!” A brown haired blur nearly bowled me over with her enthusiasm. 

I gently pulled back and was met with the sweet face of Maggie Murray. I couldn’t help but stare at her because she had grown into a lovely young woman. Her hair was still strawberry blonde, and it was longer than it had been in her youth. Then, she preferred short cuts as she traipsed after her older brother and his friends. Her mind solely focused on keeping up with all the boys in the village; she had no patience for cute hairstyles involving plaits and ribbons. Jenny tried a few times to corral her into a dress only to be met with complete failure. 

“Look at you, you gorgeous girl,” I placed my hands on her shoulders and stared at her. I knew when she was born she would turn into a beautiful girl with Jenny as her mother. “You’ve grown so much.” Jenny sent pictures of the kids, but it wasn’t the same as being there and seeing them in person. Maggie had gotten taller since I last saw her, not that I hadn’t expected it. 

I’d known Maggie from the second she was born. I’d known all of them except for Ian since they were little babies. I was still in awe that Jenny gave birth when I was there. I was the only one with Jenny at the time and we had to rush to the local hospital. Ian made it just after the birth, and Jenny allowed me to hold her first. She was tiny and I was convinced I would hurt her if I touched her. I was honored to be the first official person to hold her warm body in my arms. 

I was twenty at the time, and Jamie and I were a ways off from being married. “Wow Aunt Claire, I love yer hair.” She gushed happily as her fingers raked through my hair. Her blue eyes sparkled merrily and I was reminded of a rambunctious toddler hanging onto my every word and plastered to my leg at all times. “Ye look so good.” Her gaze was appraising and proud. “Mam told me ye had a boyfriend?” 

I flushed hotly under her knowing gaze. I was unaccustomed to this sort of directness from her. “Yes well we don’t need to discuss my personal life at this particular moment.” I kept my tone stern for her to understand my meaning. 

Her pretty eyes rolled in her head much the same way Isla’s tended to do when she thought I was being dull. “Fine but I want to ken about him later.” Her eyes lowered to my ring and she winked. 

I smiled fondly at her and kissed her cheek. 

“Aunt Claire, you’re actually here.” Kitty was the image of her mother. “Mam said you’d be here later, but we weren’t sure if we’d see you before we left. Ye ken since ye were out with Uncle Jamie.” She waggled her eyebrows, her sister flicked her head. Bickering broke out between the two of
them. 

“Don’t be an ignoramus.” 

I covered my laughter with a cough. “The two of you will never stop arguing.” I shook my head at the familiarity. From the moment, Kitty started talking and a bit before that, the two girls rarely if ever got along. Their personalities clashed. They barely agreed on any topic, and I assumed they were intentionally contradictory because they could be. 

“Where’s Uncle Jamie?” Maggie peered over my shoulder as if her uncle would magically appear. 

I smoothed her hair down. “He’s with Bree. She’s tired after a day at the beach, and fell asleep in the car after we stopped for a bite to eat.” The girls nodded in understanding. They had younger siblings. “I’ve missed you two though.” I gently cupped their sweet faces and thought about how funny time was. 

It was perhaps the most studied concept in the entire world, and yet as humans we barely scratched the surface of how it worked. Time ebbed and flowed and existed outside of our understanding. I’ve known the two young women before me since they were newborns, yet somehow time escaped me and they grew. They were well on their way to adulthood. The roundness of youth almost gone from their faces. 

I recalled the sterility of the room. The walls were a standard white, the lights bright and fluorescent, and the smell of antiseptics. I heard the squeaks of soles on the linoleum floor as doctors, nurses, visitors, and other hospital staff traveled. The dull sound of the intercom echoed across my memory as Jenny squeezed her eyes shut. 

“Ah Dia, Claire where’s Ian?” The pain radiated in her voice as sweat dripped down her face. I almost smelt the salt heavy in the air from her physical exertion. 

Aside from a video in one of university courses, I’d never seen a woman give birth. I was slightly horrified by the scene displayed before me. The veins in Jenny’s hands were visibly as her hands tightly clutched the sides of her bed. Her toes clenched as each contraction passed. She was already nine centimeters dilated as labor came on quicker than with her pregnancy with Jamie. 

I scooped out an ice chip and held it to her cracked, dry lips. Her eyes shown with heavy exhaustion and new lines appeared on her face. On the inside, I vibrated with anxiety. I wasn’t equipped to deal with my not quite sister-in-law in this condition. I tenderly offered my hand for her to grasp, hoping to provide some sort of comfort. 

My hand spasmed painfully in her hold, but I kept silent. It was as if I were in a horror film as the birth progressed and the blood appeared. Despite studying medicine, I wasn’t mentally prepared for what happened next. 

Jenny and the baby were in distress as the contractions became more intense. Something was wrong as her breathing quickened; the doctor ordered oxygen. They were going to deliver the baby via C- section as they suspected the cord was around her neck. Her heart rate slowed each time Jenny tried to push. “Jenny, we’re going to prep ye for surgery. We need ye to stop pushin’.” 

Her frightened eyes met mine, and I swallowed nervously as I watched a line of sweat fall down her face. “I promise I’ll be right there with you Jenny.” 

I can’t say what happened next as the world seemed to spin around me. It was quick and disorienting, and clarity only came the moment a baby cried out for the first time. I marveled at the slimy, mucus covered baby. She was covered in birth matter, but somehow I found her to be the most beautiful creature I’d seen in my life. 

They held her up for Jenny and then placed the infant on her stomach as they prepared to take out the afterbirth. “Claire,” Jenny addressed me directly. Her eyes were clear and focused, quite surprisingly for a woman who just gave birth. “Would ye mind cuttin’ the cord?” 

I gaped at her, my mouth popping open in an undignified and unattractive fashion. “Y-y-you really want me to?” I stuttered over my words, but I was in shock. She nodded her head and the doctors clamped the umbilical cord. A nurse showed me where to cut. 

A few tears slid down my face as I cut the physical connection between Jenny and the baby. They took the newborn to clean her up. 

She was returned with freshly cleaned pink skin and strawberry blonde curls. “I want ye to hold her first because without ye, I would’ve been all alone. I want to make ye godmother, if that’s alright with ye?” 

They placed the warm, solid weight of the baby in my arms and my heart melted. I promised her I would do anything to help make sure she lived a happy, healthy life. “You’re such a gorgeous girl,” I cooed softly to her. She mewled her agreement before her mouth began to root around. I knew what she wanted and carefully transferred her into her mother’s arms for her first feeding. 

It was later that Jenny and Ian told me their daughter’s name was to be Margaret Claire as they couldn’t imagine naming their child after a better woman. I felt a rush of uncontrollable emotion. I recalled turning away to discreetly brush away some tears. I attributed it to my hormones going wild in the presence of a baby. 

There was a shuffling noise behind me, and I spun on my heel to find Jamie behind me with a sleepy Bree in his arms. She made a snuffling sound against his neck and tucked her head in tighter. I knew the feeling he was experiencing as I've carried a sleeping Bree. Sometimes I still picked her up and relished in the contentment of her in my arms. She was almost too tall for me to continue doing it, but she was my baby. 

“Uncle Jamie,” Maggie greeted happily, a warm smile on her face. “Did ye have a great day at the beach with Aunt Claire and Bree?” I detected something more than a simple inquiry in her tone. 

Jamie glanced briefly at me before focusing his gaze on his niece. “Yes, it was enjoyable.” There was confusion on his face. 

“We should wake up Bree, otherwise she’ll never go down tonight.” He nodded absently and began to rub her back to rouse her. 

“Brianna,” he crooned to her in a soothing tone. His voice a low murmur as he helped our daughter transition into the land of consciousness. Bree pulled back with mussed hair, creases in her face from the car and sleepy eyes. 

She slowly slid down her father, and stumbled slightly as she tried to acquire her balance. I found her half awake state to be one of the most adorable qualities about her. “Why don’t you pop in and say hello to your sister?” Her head nodded. I wasn’t sure if she heard what I said. I placed a kiss in her hair as she walked passed me. 

Her cousins guided her into the room, leaving Jamie and I alone. I was disconcerted in his presence. The day was lovely and reminiscent of days long past. “How much did you hear?” 

His eyes shifted to a point behind me as he pursed his lips. “I kent about yer boyfriend or should I say fiancé.” There was something peculiar in his voice, but I didn’t know what to make of it. “Congrats,” his lips tipped up into an almost smile. 

I glanced away, not prepared to have this particular conversation with him. I was avoiding it and waiting until I was back on my own territory to share the news. His reaction was a wild card, and I would rather deal with that unpredictability on the phone as opposed to in person. I didn’t want to hurt him. This was big for us as it further pulled us apart. He would no longer be the only person I married. There was someone else. With the last few days, everything had gotten confused and we had established a closeness between us, but I couldn’t go there with him. He deserved happiness. It wouldn’t be with me. I had resolved myself to that years ago. 

“Can I be honest wit’ ye Claire?” I quirked a brow at him, nodding. “I’ve been back stateside a few times since our divorce and not related to medical emergencies or work related.” My mouth was dry all of a sudden, and there was a vicious knot in my stomach. I felt the dredges of anxiety gnawing at my insides. When had he come back? Did he come back for me, or was it for our children? The last thought was my guiltiest. Why didn't he say anything to me? Did I mean so little? Had he realized I wasn’t worth the effort? Why am I thinking about this? I’m engaged to another man. This shouldn’t matter, but it did. 

He grabbed my hand with a furtive glance at Isla’s room before dragging me down to the family room. Luckily, there were no occupants currently in the room and he situated me in a seat, realizing I had yet to move past his last sentence. 

“Explain.”  

Chapter Text

JPOV 

I ran my hands nervously through my hair as she stared at me with those dark eyes of her. There were flecks of green, and I found myself in a forest. I had never noticed them. I was realizing there were a lot of things I hadn’t noticed about her. Did I ever have the full picture?

 Her face was dangerously tight. It wasn’t the time to wax poetic. She wanted answers about my unaccounted time in America. 

September 2012 

Surreal was the word that perfectly described my life. Nothing had gone to plan and the last three years exemplified that. Moving home had provided the balm to soothe my soul, but hadn’t cleared it of the perpetual ache I experienced when my thoughts inevitably drifted to her. Some days it was easy enough to distract myself and keep busy so I wouldn’t think about her. Others were a test of mental strength and endurance. 

Often it seemed as if I were living in a never-ending dream state, that this wasn’t my life. Those days had become fewer from a licensed professional’s help, but still she nagged at me. I tried to forget her, at least the parts of her that weren’t the mother of my children. 

She made it distinctly clear where we stood the last time we were together outside of our joint parental responsibilities. “Stop Jamie, this- this… it can’t… no it doesn’t work. What are we doing?” I knew whatever answer I provided, it would be unsatisfactory to her ears. She was searching for a quick escape, and found a way to stump me in the process. “We agreed. You agreed not to do this.”

I released her after that as I intended to keep my promise to her. I had sworn I would let it go and follow her rules. We created them for a reason and as a contingency in case one of us got any ideas. It was another way for her to keep structure to her life and prevent any of our messiness from slipping in. So I turned away unable to bear the sight of her walking away from me. We had been here too many times. It never got easier. The weight on my chest felt heavier than ever. 

With the passage of time, I thought I could finally rid myself of her once and for all. She and I weren’t meant to endure the test of time. I had to force my mind into that line of thinking to lift the heaviness off of me. The problem was that despite my continued efforts to push her from my mind and soul, she was still there. 

There was nothing for me to do except go to her. It was my only solution. We had things to work out and it was time we finally addressed it instead of pussyfooting. Her calls were shorter with me than they had been. She limited our talk time to a minute or less before she was passing the phone onto our children. She was conveniently ‘out’ running errands when I made one of my bi-weekly video calls. I was aware of what she was doing.

She was avoiding me. I knew that. I understood it. Everything that happened couldn’t be processed at the snap of a finger. It was still unbelievable to me what transpired, but I never pegged Claire as a coward. 

The situation was overwhelming and confusing enough without her avoidance of the issue involved. I was conscious she likely thought differently about it than I had, and I was perhaps making something out of nothing. A part of me couldn’t let it go. It was unresolved and I hated to leave things like this between us. I hated feeling unsettled. 

I couldn’t forget what happened. My brain refused to erase it, but I needed to know what it meant to her, if it meant anything. Did we have a future?

On a whim, I booked a ticket to Boston. I lied and told Jenny I was going to France to conduct business when I was going much further to handle personal affairs. I was taking the advice she gave me and running with it. Hopefully I wasn’t burned in the process, but I had to try. This was my chance to fix it. We made a dog’s breakfast out of our relationship and everything after our divorce worsened it. 

Before I knew it, I was there. I was in the place where it all ended. I couldn’t fault the city as some of the best moments in my entire life happened here. This was where Claire and I settled as husband and wife. Our children were born here. They were growing up here. 

Claire had given me the address when she moved residences. It was where my family and I sent all of our gifts for Brianna and Isla. While reluctant to share at first, Claire grudgingly told me it, so I knew where my children resided. I knew if it weren’t for the two humans we created, she would’ve severed all ties with me. 

My course of action was to show up on her doorstep. 

As the cab slowed to a stop, my eyes moved to the brown house with the tiled roof. It was bigger than anywhere I knew Claire had resided. She had lived in flats her entire life. She told me when we had kids, she wanted somewhere where there was a big garden for our children to play and us to have barbecues. She didn’t want our children surrounded by the loudness of the city. 

As I paid the driver, I had to say the house was perfect for her. I had pictured, perhaps not something exactly like it, but similar. There were flowers lining the path and chalk drawings covered the pavement. 

I saw Isla’s distinct handwriting. She was practicing writing her letters and numbers. She had done that all summer whenever she had access to paper and pencils. 

I spotted the bike my nearly six year old daughter spoke in great detail about after her last birthday. It leaned against the detached garage with Isla’s helmet hanging off the handlebars. Bree’s tricycle was next to it. A pang of sadness hit me when I recalled Isla’s excited chatter when I answered her late night call (late for me). She proudly recounted her first time without her training wheels. She scraped her hands, but the best part was she got back on even though it was super scary. Her words not mine. 

Claire managed to convince her she would be fine and wouldn’t let go of the bike until Isla told her to do so. At first, Isla was petrified, but as she grew comfortable with the constant pedaling and balancing herself, she told her mom it was okay. She circled the block with Claire at her side, and only fell one more time. She even got back on by herself and started herself off without her mother’s help. 

I cheered for her, but my insides were tearing me apart. I should’ve been nothing but proud of my daughter, yet a piece of me was envious that it wasn’t me. I wasn’t there to catch her if she fell. I didn’t teach her how to ride a bike, or go with her to pick up the bike. There were all these moments that I was missing. 

Unfortunately, it couldn’t be helped anymore with me in the process of starting a business with my cousin. I didn’t know how I would make it work as the whole trip was a whim, a long-awaited one at that. We would have to figure it out as we went along. 

I walked up the path, anxiety pooling in my stomach. I rubbed my palms on my jeans to rid myself of some of the extra perspiration. I shook out my hands to clear myself of the nerves. “You can do this,” I muttered. 

Standing in front of the door nearly sent me into a mass hysteria. I was actually there. I was standing in front of Claire’s door. I was doing this. I rang the bell and waited. Turned out, I didn’t have to wait too long. 

A man answered the door. I frowned, wondering if I had mixed up the addresses, but then remembered the bikes and chalk drawings. This was the right place. 

The man had cropped brown hair and was around my height and build. His eyes were brown and his skin had a golden hue. “Can I help you?”

“Er… um I’m looking for Claire.”

His face turned apologetic. “Oh man, sorry but she’s out of town for the week. Did you want to leave her a message?” 

Was this her boyfriend? Why was he here if she wasn’t?

“Is Julia around?”

Again his face was regretful as he informed that she was out of town. “Maybe come back next week, I’m really sorry. It’s just I’ve got to pick the kids up from school.” The kids as in my children who were in this unknown man’s care. 

I wanted to make a rude remark, but he hadn’t done anything to deserve my ire. “No, it’s alright. I got some wires crossed. Thanks anyway.” I turned away and heard the click. 

I was a fool. 

“You traveled to Boston and didn’t send me a heads up. What the hell? If you had left a message, I would’ve gotten back to you. I was in France at my cousin’s wedding, which is why my mom was gone. Jackson was Isla and Bree’s babysitter. He’s a friend. They still spend time with him. I love him,” my face froze. “Like a brother. If you had said something, I could’ve arranged for you and the girls to spend time together.” 

I really was a fool. 

I covered her hand with mine. “Well I hadn’t told anyone about the trip if it makes ye feel any better.” 

“Wait... you said there was another visit.” Her eyes were probing and I sighed. 

“There were two other ones.” I admitted to her. “The first was before ye moved to yer townhouse. It was months after I moved back to Scotland. I knocked on the door, but someone else answered.” A divot formed between her brows as she stared at me in confusion. “It was a man.” Her brow furrowed further. 

“What did he look like?” I described him, and her face dawned in understanding. “Oh, that was Sebastian. He’s gay, but not in an obvious way. We were in a study group together, and sometimes he came over to watch the girls. You should’ve called. You probably believed me to be promiscuous with all these men who have only ever been friends. ” 

My face flamed in embarrassment. “It explains some of his comments.” He was hitting on me. I interpreted the events differently as him comparing us. “Well I feel like an arse.” 

She doubled over in laughter when I recounted some of the things her friend said to me. She wiped tears from her eyes, and I grinned at the ease of our exchange. She sat up when she realized i still had one more visit I hadn’t explained yet. “Jamie, what happened during your last one?" Her face was serious, and I suspected she knew I was reluctant to share this particular visit. 

 

January 2014 

I spent all of Hogmanay thinking about Claire and the things left unsaid between us. I realized one day there was a huge river between us. It was dark and deep and full of the secrets we hid from one another. I stood on one side of the shore, and she stood across from me. 

As time passed, the gap widened. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get across to the other side. There was such a divide between us, and I didn’t know when it began. Through it all though, I found my love for her remained in its’ purest form. 

If anything, it grew over time. In the beginning, there was nothing except my crippling sadness and defeat. I knew it was a mistake the moment I stepped on the plane. I wanted to get off, but it was too late. By the time I arrived in Scotland, puffy and red eyed, I couldn’t go back. I wasn’t in the right sort of mind set to make a desperate plea to my ex wife. It would’ve been a step back in the wrong direction. I couldn’t go back into the war zone. 

I was aware of what her eyes begged me in that room. She glanced at me and it was if everything else fell away but the two of us. We were the only two people in the entire world. I saw my world in those brown orbs of her, and my hands clutched my thighs desperately as I tried not to stall her hand from signing. I noticed the hesitation as she took the pen in hand. The tension in the room thickened, and I chickened out. She presented me an opportunity to cancel the whole proceeding, and I did nothing but watch her sign documents terminating the life we created together. When we went before the judge, I remained silent as our lawyers did all the talk for us. 

I was still stuck on the day where it all became real. It was no longer negotiations and somewhat civil discussions. I looped my name on official documents and watched her leave. She disappeared into the rain, leaving me bereft and helpless. It didn’t take long before I realized she was the missing piece I left behind. 

I walked around for months empty on the inside and trying desperately to find what was no longer there. At night, my heart attempted to claw itself out my chest to return to the rightful owner. Some mornings when the feeling of loneliness was too much, my stomach gurgled and nausea set in. It wasn’t long before I was on my knees in front of the toilet. I clutched desperately at the edges as the contents of my stomach erupted from me. 

I visited my doctor who informed it was a response to the stress and the changes in my life. He recommended therapy for me and printed a list of some therapists in the area. I thanked him profusely. Months passed before my weekly morning activities ceased. 

The problem with my departure was the way in which we left things unsettled between us. There was no proper resolution, merely two strangers sitting across a table, allowing their lawyers to discuss their personal matters as if they hadn’t spent the better part of nearly ten years together. Communication was one of the first things to disappear in a dissolving relationship and that had been the case for us. 

I was bitter. My memories were tinged with something characterized as melancholic and an unidentifiable amount of rage directed at her. I didn’t want to remember Claire that way. I also didn’t want to recall the shadow of the woman I knew. A black cloud hung over me and followed wherever I went to rain down on whatever happiness I dredged up. 

After four and a half years, I screwed up my courage and braced myself for another trip to Boston. It took countless hours on a couch talking to my therapist for me to arrive at the conclusion I could live without Claire. I had done so now for about as long as we were married. We were co-dependent after we moved to America, and we had developed poor habits when dealing with the unsavory aspects of a relationship. While I disliked saying it, our break-up had forced me to change. I had to work on myself. 

However, my ultimate realization was I didn’t want to be without her. I simply couldn’t find the desire to want to bridge the distance we forced between ourselves because we couldn’t bear to stare across a kitchen table or share a bed with someone we considered a stranger. 

Only I was self-aware enough to understand we weren’t strangers. We were lost. When the river flooded, we ended up on different banks. We couldn’t find a way to be together because we couldn’t meet in the middle. We’d arrived at all sorts of conclusions and made accusations that in my darkest moments I wanted nothing more to take back. Regret was an acrid, bitter taste in my mouth. 

I imagined she felt similarly as in the moments following a passionate discussion, I saw in the hollowness of her eyes the shame and remorse seeping through as we both paused to catch our breaths. Our chests heaved with the righteousness of our anger and the justification of our words. We used our words as weapons with our aim direct and true. There were no white flags to wave as we went for all or nothing in battle. 

We aimed and fired without a single thought of consideration for the other as we believed ourselves to be the right one and justified in our actions. The problem was we were wrong. We blamed, yelled, pushed, pulled, and ultimately cried as we dragged one another below the water. We nearly drowned as we reached our opposite sides of the shore. 

She sat on her side drenched, coughing up lung fulls of water as her eyes hurled angry accusations. She spewed her venom until her eyes dimmed with despondency, her shoulders sagged in loss as she laid back on her side. The silence dominated us as we eventually turned our backs on one another. If I didn't face her, I didn't see the sadness. I didn't have to see how she dug listlessly in the sand, searching for something that wasn't there any longer. I could ignore her. 

I finally understood love wasn’t a possession. Part of me wanted to consume Claire, to own every piece of her. I struggled constantly with this aspect of my personality during my sessions. I feared deep down she didn’t need me like I needed her. She was bold, confident, and not afraid of braving the world on her own. I followed her because she was sure of her direction. She'd known from a young age what she wanted out of her life, while I went into the unknown making decisions based on feelings of rightness. 

Therapy taught me how to look at the bigger picture instead of only focusing on the little moments. Claire’s love was a gift, one she bequeathed to me and could be taken back when she desired. It was a weakness of mine to want to wrap her up in my love and keep her for myself. The problem was she wasn't a woman who required a man at her side. She certainly enjoyed having me there with her to support and cheer her on, but she could survive without my love just as I could without hers. 

I learned perspective and saw she was trying to give as much of herself to me as she could without losing herself in the process. She had her own issues, and I never took the time to think about how she felt about the news of the pregnancy. I was absorbed with my own thoughts about the news and poorly handled the situation. In hindsight, it was a shock to the two of us as we weren't planning on another kid for at least a few years if ever. Our lives were hectic with the two children we already had, work, and school. Adding another child to the equation would've made our situation messier. Then she lost the baby, and I regretted every horrible thought that flew through my head during those precious months she carried Gabriel. There was the Britney of it all and Claire’s pushing me away. 

When I went to see her, I knew she was at the hospital as Bree told me her mom was working a long shift and staying overnight in the room with all the beds. I took a cab straight from the airport to Mass General. I needed to bare my soul to my Sassenach. I wanted her to know the depths of my soul, and for her to fully comprehend everything I had was still hers if she wanted. I had worked on myself and was willing to put in the effort to make sure we would last this time forever. 

The hospital was a hot bed of excitement as ambulances pulled in and out of the bay. Employees went to and fro. People crowded around injured loved ones or sat in the waiting room for news. I walked up to the nurses’ station where a woman around my age sorted through charts. 

“Fill out this paperwork and wait for someone to call you back,” she hadn’t lifted her eyes at all. 

I cleared my throat, waiting patiently for her to meet my eyes. “Actually, I’m looking for Dr. Claire Fraser.” 

Her gaze was appraising and made me feel vaguely uncomfortable. “I think she’s in cardiology.” She gave me directions to my destination. I thanked her for her assistance before quickly departing. I sensed her attraction, then again she wasn’t subtle, but I wasn't going to give her false hope when there was someone else plaguing me. 

There was no need to make it all the way to cardiology. I spotted her from a distance. The problem was she wasn’t alone. She sat beside a blonde haired man as he told her something or other and made her laugh. She threw back her head in a carefree manner and her laughter rang out across the room. I forgot how rich the sound was and how it could lift me out of my darkness. She hadn't laughed like that in my presence in years. Our conversations were stiff and formal and centered around our shared children. She made it clear after the last time we shifted our focus onto ourselves that the relationship we had now was strictly as co-parents. 

It was when his head tilted closer to hers, their lips brushing together that I felt the world spinning out of control. At first, I saw red. The embers of rage burned hotly inside of me until I caught the expression on her face. There was such a raw tenderness on her pretty face. I hadn’t seen her look like that since before she told me about the third pregnancy. 

She slid a hand up to cup his face and brought his closer to hers where their kiss became not so chaste. His hands reached into her hair until he pulled out her hair tie. Her hair tumbled down in unfamiliar soft waves as he buried his hands in it. I could practically feel the phantom silkiness against the pads of my own fingers. 

Almost as if she felt the pull of my gaze, she wrenched herself free, her eyes searching as I ducked out of sight. I wouldn’t allow her to feel guilty about what occurred. My greatest desire in life was her happiness. If this made her happy, who was I to interfere with that? 

I tried not to stoke the stirrings of jealousy bubbling in my stomach and pushed it back to a mild gurgle. Someone else was doing what I couldn’t, and she was a free woman. I peeked around the corner once more to find him teasingly stealing sips of her coffee. Her eyes rolled skyward as she stole a kiss from him. 

I froze as her voice floated across the room. “Well I’ve got to go Peter, my surgery is in fifteen minutes.” I knew she had only one year left of residency, and I wondered if she was performing solo surgeries now. “I’ll check the family schedule for this weekend and get back to you about going hiking with Isla and Bree.” She left him to finish the coffee before departing. 

There was an extra pep in her step. She radiated light and joy, and I almost thought about chasing after her. Instead I turned around to let her live her life. Perhaps someday fate would choose to reunite us again. If not, I still had the memories of the years we spent together. Maybe it was time for me to go and find my own happiness. I couldn’t continue to dwell on her and what we shared. That was the past and this was present. 

Tears sparkled in her eyes until the dam seemed to break and I held onto her as she sobbed into my chest. I held a few details back so as not to make myself entirely pathetic, but as soon as the words started coming out, I was a man possessed. I needed her to know how much she still meant to me even if we couldn’t be together. I didn’t want her pity either. 

It was some time before she pulled back. I ran the pads of my fingers under eyes, rubbing away the remnants of her crying. Her skin was soft and silky under my touch. She leaned into my touch instinctually. “Ye kent I love ye.” 

She nodded sorrowfully, her lips jutting out in a tremble. Her body shook with barely repressed sobs. “Why didn’t you-“ she cut herself off as if rethinking her choice of words. “I would’ve talked to you. What you don’t know is Peter and I were serious, but it isn’t like now. Jamie, we’re engaged. I can’t forget about that even with you dredging up the past.” 

Her tone indicated the status of her relationship was much different now. “So this is real? You’re going to marry him?” 

She flicked her eyes between the doorway and me. A sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach told me I didn’t want to know, but I was a masochist. If I no longer had a chance with her, I wanted official confirmation she belonged to another. 

Tears fell in reckless abandon down her face, but I made no move to clear them. I hated the distress on her face, but I needed to hear the words. Finally with a deep breath, she admitted, “Peter proposed to me the day of Isla’s accident.” Her eyes told me to stay put as there was more. “I- yes, Jamie, it is real. He asked and I accepted.” A tear slipped out. “You waited too late.” 

I did the only thing I could do. I kissed her. 

Chapter Text

I savored the taste of her on my lips. At first, it was as if I were kissing a stone wall. Claire froze, and I was afraid she would pull away when she did the last thing I expected. She kissed me back. 

Her lips parted as I deepened the kiss, and immediately my tongue sought hers. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be so deeply connected and intertwined with another individual. I was claiming her as mine, and perhaps she understood this as her lips sought my own hungrily. 

Her tongue flicked against mine, taunting me, and the stirrings of arousal awoke inside of me. With Claire, it never took much for me to become hard. 

I cupped her face, the kiss deepening between us until she wrenched her face from mine as she attempted to catch her breath. My own came out in pants as I rested my forehead against hers. 

Up close I saw the tiny freckles she hid with make-up. There were some new ones, probably from all the sun she had back home. Her eyes shone brightly with love and arousal, but the dilation of her pupils almost completely overtook the deep brown color of her eyes. 

“Oh god,” she began to panic. “No…no…. no… this can’t be happening.” She pulled away from me, her face contorting painfully. She was five seconds from falling apart. “Jamie, no- this… I- can’t ugh, this can’t happen between us. I’m serious. I apologize if my actions have led you to believe that there’s potential for anything else, but Jamie I’m engaged.” She cried, her face red. “You can’t go around kissing people, especially not exes. Oh my god, fuck, I’m dreaming.”

In all of my years of knowing her, I had never seen her like this, so on edge. She had been stressed when she had to sit for her exams, but that was minor in comparison to what was happening. 

She was pacing and running her hands through her hair. She muttered intelligibly and occasionally tugged on her hair. Claire stopped, stared at me, then continued with her pacing. i was ill equipped to do anything. This was entirely new to me. I had seen her have meltdowns, but nothing on that level. 

In the distance, I heard the vague ringing of a cellphone, but I ignored it. It wasn’t mine and given the way Claire was behaving, it was unlikely it was hers. There was a good possibility it hadn’t registered with her. She was in her own little world that I had inadvertently invaded when I kissed her. If I had known, she would flip out, I would’ve resisted the urge. 

My thoughts were invaded once again by the ringing, and it wasn’t until she halted our activities, I realized the phone was in fact hers hers. 

The color left her face as she paled and her face morphed into one of horror. She quickly jumped up, whilst answering the phone. “Peter,” she said quietly as she left me to my thoughts. 

I rubbed a hand over my face as it fully caught up to me what we did. I hadn’t recognized or acknowledged my feelings for her in such a long time. I wouldn’t allow myself to go there. She was in a relationship. I had waited too late. There were all these supposed obstacles in our way, but the truth was that it was my own cowardice separating us and poor timing. if I had arrived before she had gotten seriously involved with Peter, would things be different between us? I hated what ifs. There were too many outcomes to consider. 

An immense amount of shame flooded through my system as I thought about the kiss we shared moments ago. While she certainly participated, I was the one who initiated the kiss. I pushed her into it. There would be an argument over free will, but I was the main perpetrator. I misread the signals. I didn’t want her to destroy the relationship she had with this Peter because for what I knew about him, he was a good guy. He cared about her and respected her. He cared about my children and they cared about him. 

They obviously were serious to the point where he assumed the next step was marriage. Claire had agreed and they were going to move forward with their lives. She was doing everything I had wanted for her, so why did it hurt so much?

My head leaned back into the wall and I cursed loudly, thankful for the lack of people around. What was I thinking? 

She came here to be with our daughter, and to eventually take her home after the accident. It had helped to resolve some of our lingering issues, to make the situation easier on our children, but I was certain it was never her intent when she flew across the world to end up in a lip lock with her ex. Claire wasn’t that type of woman. I wasn’t that type of man, or at least strove not to be following the Britney incident. 

I enjoyed it, but I knew eventually Claire would feel the ramifications of that kiss. It was not something to take lightly. It wasn’t touched by the melancholy or tenderness of our last kiss as a semi-married couple. The kiss we shared in this room was full of promise, hope, and love. Perhaps a wee bit of passion was mixed in there, but it shouldn’t have happened. She could possibly deny the feelings behind the kiss, and I wouldn’t put it past her to do it. I recognized a Claire shut down mode when I saw it. 

Almost twenty years had passed after a fateful day on the train, and yet some things were still universally true about her. I had catalogued a lot of observations and facts regarding her over the years, and while I would never claim to know every detail about her, I knew enough. 

Some of them came later in our relationship as we discovered each other in different stages. There was the friendship where we were tentative yet full of inquiry as we tried our best to share basic facts about ourselves. As the months flew by, we shifted into a different phase where we acknowledged the chemistry and passion that sizzled between us. We shared stories and feelings we had never revealed to another soul. We were baring ourselves for the other to see and praying they wouldn’t run in the opposite direction.  

It was during the transition to something more when I saw the different dimensions of her. As a friend, she didn’t have to share every detail about herself or inform me when she wasn’t up to sharing. She was allowed to not talk, not to say I forced her to do so when we were dating. It was still her choice, but I always made sure she was aware that I was there if she needed someone to listen. 

As a couple, we explored our feelings on a deeper level. I wanted to know everything about the girl I saw and talked to nearly every day. 

She had a wry sense of humor. It was strange as most people assumed she was serious all the time, but my Claire could be as crude and witty as they came. Most of the jokes she made were highly inappropriate for polite company, but I enjoyed hearing them in private moments shared between us. Sarcasm was her third language. It was natural to her, but part of her charm. 

Then there was the emotional/hysterical version of her. It was perhaps the most interesting facet of her personality as she rarely showed it to anyone including myself, which inevitably led to tension between us as I knew she intentionally kept things from me. She buried her emotions deep inside of herself, which then came spilling out during emotionally trying situations. I didn’t know during those times what to do to calm her down. The first time it happened was in the days following Isla’s birth. 

October 2006 

Claire adamantly refused to leave our daughter’s side in the hospital. I tried to coax her multiple times to at least go home to rest, but she shook her head with a stubborn determination and her chin jutted out prepared for any argument I could think up. 

It was the first time the baby in the incubator stopped breathing and the staff began their attempts to revive her I saw how it affected her. 

She would never admit when she needed help or anything from anyone including myself, which at times was a point of contention between us. I confronted her on several occasions about it; I knew deep down she didn’t need me the way I needed her. She could live without my presence as a constant in her life and perfectly live after without any suffering on her behalf. I was the one who knew I had to have her by my side for the rest of my days because she completed me. She made up all the best parts of who I was, and while I wasn’t entirely sure anymore where she began and I ended, I didn’t feel as if it mattered anymore that we became one entity. 

Claire would beg to differ, but that was a different matter altogether. 

The doctors sat us down to explain Isla was struggling to breathe because of her underdeveloped lungs. She’d arrived so early, and the steroids given to her were helping, but not as much as the doctors liked. Her heart was also struggling, and she would require heart surgery. 

I saw the conflict in her eyes, read it on her face, and observed it in her body language. She was tense as she considered in her mind the best option for our child. I generally deferred to her for medical opinions. She was the one studying to become a doctor. While she was still in her first year, she still had more knowledge about what was happening with our child than I did. 

Her eyes flashed between a variety of browns never settling on one as her emotions were becoming too much for her to handle. It was as we sat by our daughter’s side when she began to crumble in front of me. 

I had never seen one of her meltdowns in my life, but I was aware of them. Her mother told me about her inability to share what she was feeling and how at times when she could no longer handle the pressure and the stress in her life, she completely fell apart. 

She’d gone to therapy following her father’s passing at five, but had yet to find a way to fully cope. She channeled everything into her work and family without dealing with the real problem, which was why she had gotten into some trouble in the year leading up to our meeting. 

Her fingers brushed against the small upturned hand of our unnamed daughter. She was simply Baby Fraser. We thought we had more time to think of names for her as she wasn’t supposed to be born until December. 

The infant didn’t react to the touch of her mother. Her eyes were taped shut, and her chest moved up and down frequently with the harsh sounds of the ventilator. There were so many wires and tubes around her, and I was terrified. She was smaller than any of Jenny’s children at a mere three almost four pounds. Her skin was almost translucent and the minuscule veins visible. 

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, which was what every parent said when their child was born prematurely. The baby still had several more weeks to gestate, but Claire was diagnosed during her second trimester with preeclampsia resulting in a total placental abruption. The doctors had no choice except to deliver the baby by a Caesarean. They couldn’t quite explain to me why her condition caused the abruption only that it was one of the known causes. 

Claire quickly removed her hand and herself from the NICU, but not before I saw the stream of tears falling down her face. It startled me how beautiful she was despite the crying. Hers was a silent pain, one she refused to share with me. 

I stared longingly at my daughter. I wanted to remain with her; I knew however, her mommy needed me more and perhaps for the first time in our relationship equally as much as I needed her. I wouldn’t let her down. I promised her the world and a healthy child, and I couldn’t allow myself to think of any scenario except us leaving the hospital with our child. 

I found her in the chapel. She turned to faith when life threw her a wrench. I strained to hear her words, but I knew it provided her some sort of solace to pray to God. Sometimes her faith came into conflict with her studies, and she attempted her best to resolve the conflict between religion and science. Normally she picked one over the other, and prayed to God she made the right decision. 

“Please don’t take her away from me, I can’t fail her. I know it might not be in your plan, but I don’t know if could survive her death.” It made me wonder which prayer she chose to start. She finished with, “O my God, I firmly believe that Thou art one God, in three Divine Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; I believe that Thy Divine Son became man and died for our sins and that He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the holy Catholic Church teaches, because Thou hast revealed them, Who canst neither deceive nor be deceived.” She was finding faith in something tragic. If that wasn’t the most Claire thing, I didn’t know what was. 

Her eyes sparkled with tears, her face flushed with emotion, her nose sniffling, and her skin pale with worry. “I thought you would come.” She said upon noticing my arrival. 

“The prayer of Faith?” I questioned her, curious to her reply. 

A sigh fell from her drawn lips as she scooted over to allow me to sit. “I think we could use all the faith we can get at the moment. Our baby sh-“ the words were swallowed into her sobs as her hands covered her face and her body shook uncontrollably. 

I sat there for a second before gently lifting her and placing her body in my lap. My arms wrapped around her petite form, and I held her as she released all of her pent up emotions. 

I knew what she was feeling as mine probably mirrored hers. There was anger for our child suffering and not having enough time to form inside her mother where she should still be. There was an infinite amount of sadness for what Claire was going through and for all the possible surgeries we were facing. Then there was the worry that I would never have the opportunity to hold my daughter. The baby wouldn’t have a chance to live, and I found my heart unable to handle the amount of pain the thought brought me. I buried my face in Claire’s hair and cried. 

I think it terrified her to realized how broken I was. Her own crying ceased. She raked her fingers through my hair as she shushed me. “It’s alright honey,” her voice held promise, I wasn’t entirely confident she believed it would be. 

It scared me there was a chance our baby girl would die without us having named her. “What can I do?” She croaked into my ear. Her arms were tight around my neck, but I enjoyed the warmth she brought. Her touch was like the sun shooing away all the gray and gloomy clouds. “Please,” she begged me. 

“I want to name her.” Claire pulled back with her brows pulled together. “I can’t allow her to continue living without a name.” She also caught the words I didn’t say. I can’t allow her to die without a name. 

The tension left her frame as her shoulders relaxed and she settled into my chest. Her fingers played with the hair on my arms as she pondered names. 

“Did I ever tell ye where my mam lived as a girl?” She shook her head and I sensed her confusion at what she assumed was an unrelated segue. “Well while t’is true she spent her later years in the Highlands, she is actually from an island called Islay. It’s in the Inner Hebrides, which is an archipelago off the west coast. It’s the southernmost island in the Inner Hebrides. It’s six hundred and twenty kilometers, so fairly large for an island surrounding Great Britain. It’s not huge by most standards with around three thousand people, but the main business is whiskey distillation.” I paused as I thought about when my mother took Jenny and I when we were young on holiday. 

“It’s popular for bird watchers too. My favorite part of the islands are the views from the bluffs. It’s absolutely gorgeous with the red and green cliffs. The water is so blue and vast. I loved watching the horizon and all the shifting colors at sunset. It was different than what I knew at home. We didn’t leave the Highlands often.” 

I continued to describe the coastline of the island with the ports and towns and the simplicity of it all. I wanted to share something with her I coveted for myself all these years. I hadn’t felt the desire to share and kept the memories in my heart after the passing of my mother. It hurt too much to think about all those special holidays where I practiced my Gaelic. 

“Jamie, first you sound like a travel agent.” Her lips twitched a little. She turned in my arms with confusion in her eyes to what I assumed was the rest of her thoughts. “Secondly, I don’t understand why you’re telling me this. I love that you’re sharing about your mum, but how does it relate to picking a name for our daughter.” 

I always counted on her to keep me in the moment. “Well a somewhat popular name came from the name of the island.” She raised a brow. “Isla, I want her to have a piece of my homeland.” 

I saw as she worked it over in her head. I don’t think she minded I chose the name of our child. “Do ye like it?” I tried to hide the excitement on my face, but I knew she saw through me. 

A small smile formed on her own. “I do. I was thinking Faith could be her middle name.” I gave her a gentle squeeze. 

“Isla Faith Fraser,” I murmured and felt a warmth spread through my body. It was her name. 

While it took some time before our baby was able to go home, Claire suffered emotionally and went back to Church. She regularly went to confession, and I yearned to know what she told the priest; it wasn’t my business however as what she shared was between him, her, and God. I respected her right to privacy, but it pained me all the same she felt there were things she couldn’t tell me. 

She wanted to protect me from her thoughts and feelings, and while I appreciated it, it created a divide between us. Claire seemed only to be able to share half of herself with me. I didn’t know how to feel, knowing she was in agony and couldn’t tell me. 

I cooled off enough and went in search of Bree. Jenny was lurking somewhere around the area, and I desperately required her advice for how to proceed going forth with Claire after what I had done. It was apparent we weren’t to be trusted by ourselves any longer as the tension and passion was too overwhelming for us to handle. I wish it weren’t the way it was, but we needed to bridge some distance. It would ultimately hurt a lot less for me when she and Isla left in a few days and definitely when she married Peter. My fists clenched at the thought. 

I spotted Claire in the distance with her free arm waving about, a scowl on her pretty face, and I imagined the sort of tone she was using. It wasn’t any of my business however what she was discussing with her fiancé. 

My head poked into Isla’s room to find it devoid of human life. My brow furrowed in worry as panic arose inside of me. Where the hell were my children? I quickly rushed over to Claire. “Where are the girls?” I asked her. 

She turned to face me and covered the mouthpiece of her mobile. “What are you talking about Jamie?” She was barely restraining her fury, but her worry over our children won out. 

I tried not to let my impatience and irritation show, but the woman knew how to work my last nerve. “I mean the girls are not in Isla’s room.” 

“What?” Her face pinched with worry and terror. “I’m going to call you back Peter.” She slipped her phone into her pocket. “I don’t understand, they were just in there when I checked on them.” 

“Clearly, they aren’t there now. Where could they have gone?” Isla was only a few days post-surgery, and her leg made it so she couldn’t easily travel. She required the use of a walker or her crutches, and there was supposed to be someone around when she wasn’t in bed. 

She glared murderously at me as if I were accusing her of something, which with my tone I probably was. “I don’t know.” She growled at me. As quickly as panic set in, relief took its place. The girls came around the corner with an unfamiliar woman. Isla sat in a wheel chair and I exhaled slowly. Bree hung on the arm of the woman, and my nieces were mesmerized by the newcomer. 

I glanced over to Claire to ask her about the woman when she took off. She threw her arms around the woman’s neck and squeezed for dear life. “Oh Claire, enough with the histrionics. This isn’t high school.” Ah an American, I thought and was beginning to understand it was a friend. “Your mother told me what happened, and I was in Manchester at the time. I decided to come check up on my favorite eleven year old.” Isla flushed and waved her hand dismissively. 

Bree’s words only confirmed the identity of her mysterious stranger. “Auntie Mel says she’s going to fly home with you and Isla. I wish I could go.” A deep pout set in on her face and my breath caught. “But I will have daddy to myself.” Her eyes fell on me and she smiled. “Still, Aunt Mel makes everything fun. I bet you’ll get to eat lots of junk food.” Melody nudged Bree and they stared at each other mischievously. Bree giggled and held a finger to her lips. I shook my head. They weren’t fooling anyone.  

She moved over towards me so she could tug me in the direction of a woman who had spent more time with my children than I had. “Auntie Mel, this is my daddy.” Bree proudly announced with a toothy grin. 

Melody was a beautiful woman, but very different in comparison to Claire. They were polar opposites. She was a natural blonde. Her eyes were sea green and the sun kissed look of her skin made them appear more vibrant. They were around the same height with Melody an inch or two taller. There was a ring on her finger, and I supposed Claire likely forgot to tell me about that. 

“Hello Jamie, I’ve heard a lot about you.” She held out her hand and firmly shook mine when I offered it. Claire glared daggers at her and I wondered what that was all about. “You look just like I expected. I see exactly where these gingers get it.” She tugged on Bree’s braid as I had done earlier. “Although you’re quite tall. I wasn’t actually counting on that, but now I know why Bree is so tall. She was always taller than all the other kids.” Bree beamed at the praise offered to her. 

“Bree has told me all about beach trips at the Vineyard and skiing and snowboarding.” 

“Yes, Bree is quite prodigious actually, she mastered her skills for her beginner lessons quickly. The instructor was so impressed. He wasn’t expecting it all.” Bree ducked her head bashfully, and it was strange to see this side of her. “She’s my adventure partner. These two would rather ski and drink their hot chocolate by the fire.” Bree grinned. 

Claire intervened to remind us of Isla who was still in the chair. “I’m going to help Isla get settled back in bed. Mags and Kitty come, I may need your assistance. Bree, I need you to clean up your things in your sister’s room.” 

Bree’s face contorted into annoyance. “Mommy,” she whined, her voice becoming quite high. “That’s not fair. I didn’t even leave a lot of crap out.” 

“Now Bree,” Claire commanded. Bree stomped ahead to the room as the girls followed in her wake. “And I’ve told you about using that word.”

“I guess you’ve never really seen that side of Bree before, huh?” Melody asked me with a gentle smile. 

I shook my head. “Normally they’re on their best behavior when they visit me. I’ve seen a few rows between them, but I normally never have to ask more than once for them to stop.” I informed her. 

“Would you like to get some coffee?” I appreciated her extending an olive branch. 

I wasn’t sure why but I felt as if I were in a competition with her. She hadn’t done anything to me, but it was hard not to feel green with envy of a woman who spent so much time around my children. She knew them better than I did. “Sure.” I agreed because I did want to know her better. She was a huge part of my family’s life. She was bestowed with the title aunt.

We sat across from one another in the cafeteria and she sipped at the coffee. “It’s the only thing hospitals can do right.” Her face was serene as she inhaled the warm, bitter smell of coffee. I preferred my tea. It helped with my nerves. 

I forgot she was a surgeon like Claire. She had mentioned they met during their residency. “So ye and Claire were residents together?” 

She tipped her head back, her blonde curls following. She hummed softly in agreement. “Yes, we had the same resident. It was actually during one of our breaks when I caught her crying in the locker room that I chanced it and decided to speak to her.” 

My eyes dropped to my steaming coffee. It wasn’t hard to figure out the cause of Claire’s crying. “I don’t know what to say to ye.” I admitted out loud. She was disarming in her approach as she remained mostly silent. 

“You still love her.”
My eyes widened and I sputtered. “N-no don’t be s-so ridiculous.” 

“It’s alright if you do. I’m sure you know about Peter.” I firmly nodded. “He’s been good to her, but sometimes I get the impression she’s not always with him in her head. Obviously I don’t want my best friend to ruin her relationship especially for a guy living on the other side of the Atlantic and with as many hang ups as you. No offense or anything, but I don’t want her to get hurt.” 

I sort of sensed where she was leading the conversation, but I was still confused. “But?” 

“I like you. Your girls praise you to the moon and back. Claire’s never spoken a bad word about you and she’s had plenty of reasons. I always wondered what sort of man you were.” I hung my head in shame. “There’s nothing wrong with self-care. Sometimes the first time an opportunity comes around we don’t know it’s the right one. Now if we’re really lucky, we might get a second one. It’s what we do the second time around that makes all the difference.” 

My head snapped up as I openly scrutinized this woman, Claire’s best friend. What exactly did she mean? Claire made it apparent she was in a relationship and it was more than a little serious. He proposed marriage, and she was giving the decision thoughtful consideration. I couldn’t interfere with that process as I already screwed up her life enough, and I wanted her to think about the situation without me factored in as a possible option. 

A coy smile appeared on her lips as she regarded me once more. “I never told her about your Christmas visit.” I sat back and gaped like a fish out of water. “Why didn’t you follow my advice then? It would’ve saved you some trouble.” 

December 2011 

I hadn’t informed Jenny of my decision to fly to America. It wasn’t a conscious one either. I simply woke up that morning tired of all my loneliness. 

The walls were caving in and I was suffocating under all of it. Every morning was repetitious where I stumbled out of my bed into the bleary morning, where nothing changed. I simply continued to exist without any true joy in my life. 

If there was one regret I had, it was the ease in which I exited my marriage. As soon as she said the forbidden words, I left her life. I hadn’t attempted to argue or fight for our marriage, and I was a coward for that. If I loved her, I wouldn’t have allowed her to so freely withdraw from everything. I knew after Gabriel’s premature death she struggled endlessly to return to whatever sort of normalcy she could, and I didn’t assist in making her life easier. 

She disconnected from me, and I didn’t stop it. 

I hated watching as she withdrew into herself with each passing day. Some days she stared listlessly out the window looking out onto the street with tears blurring her vision. She wiped her eyes with the corner of her sleeves as I entered and sent me a shaky smile, but I knew it was as fake as the one my uncle gave me when I married Claire. 

Yet through all this time, I discovered she wasn’t a stranger during that time. I recognized all the bits of her, but had never seen them commingling together. It was so much for me to handle. 

My attempts at flattening my hair were abysmal, and I stopped when I reached the door of her house. I double checked the address on the piece of paper before ringing the doorbell. 

I did my best to not fidget or shift anxiously as I awaited for someone to answer the door. It wasn’t Claire who opened the door but a blonde woman. Her eyes were the color of a stormy sea as she coolly looked upon me. She had an athletic build and was a bit taller than Claire. Her hair was thrown up in a messy, blonde bun. She wasn’t someone I would’ve assumed Claire to be friends with considering past associations. She rarely had female companions. 

“Yes, can I help you?” I figured her accent for a New England one right away. She had the coldness down pat, and the manner in which she carried herself, I pegged as someone who vacationed on the coast and who had grown up with money. 

I shifted uncomfortably under her unnerving gaze. Her face was growing impatient as I continued to stand there on my ex-wife’s door step. I coughed to clear my throat. “I’m looking for Claire Fraser.” At least, I was positive she continued to use my surname. I wasn’t sure if she reverted back to Beauchamp or not. 

One of her eyebrows rose quite spectacularly. “Who are you? Is she expecting you?” She crossed her arms over her chest and her stance changed to a defensive position. “I’ve never seen you and she hasn’t mentioned anyone stopping by.”

“My name is Jami-“ She cut me off as she reached for my arm and dragged me inside. I supposed she knew who I was if she never gave me the opportunity to finish introducing myself. 

I glanced around the house as she led me down the hall, and was impressed by the homeyness of the place. All of the flooring was hard wood including the staircase. There were photos of the girls lining the walls. Many of them I had copies of myself, but some I hadn’t seen before. At the head of the stairs was Isla’s school picture from kindergarten. Next to it was a pre-school picture of Bree. 

There was a bench carefully placed in front of the half wall of the staircase. There were cutesy cushions decorating it and a lone stuffed animal. Two child sized backpacks leaned against it. In the living room, there was a fireplace with pale wood framing it. The couches were white, and the rug had some sort of intricate design. The place screamed Claire. We hadn’t decorated much at our apartment, preferring to save our money instead.

In her kitchen, she had pale wood cabinets with a granite countertop. The place felt airy with all of the windows flooding light into the house. It was a stark contrast to the apartment in which we previously resided. There were skylights allowing light further access to the room. 

We sat at the polished wooden table and I marveled at her home. There were pictures of the girls on the walls. A calendar next to the fridge had all sorts of activities and appointments listed for each day of the week. It seemed as if Claire was out with the girls at a dentist appointment. It was circled in a red marker. 

“I guess ye ken who I am?” I asked her friend, who still didn’t have a name. 

She watched me with a strange gleam in her eyes. “Claire’s told me about you, but even if you hadn’t said anything Bree is the image of you. Honestly, I was more shocked by your appearance here than anything as I know you live in Scotland now.” There was a hint of disapproval she didn’t voice aloud, but I heard it all the same. 

“I suppose ye have some sort of feelings about it?” 

Her eyes dropped to her folded hands on kitchen table. “No, my parents divorced when I was six. I spent most of my childhood with my mom, pining away for my dad. He sent for me during the summers, but hired a nanny to cater to my needs. I rarely saw him. He died before I graduated from medical school.” Her eyes held a watery sheen, but not a single tear fell from her grassy colored orbs. “I’ve grown attached to your daughters, and I don’t want that life for them where their craving someone who is never there when needed.” 

A deep furrow developed between my brows as I understood her implications. “I would never allow someone else to watch over my daughters when I can. I’m trying to be there for them in the best way that I can.” I was trying my best to not allow my temper to get the best of me. 

She held up her hand with apologetic eyes. “That’s not actually what I meant. My parents hated each other, but just seeing Claire when she accidentally talks about you or your eyes when I say her name, there’s still something there.” She frowned when I opened my mouth to immediately disagree. Yet she was right considering I was there in Claire’s house. “Is that the reason you’re here?” Her eyes softened and brightened immensely. “To get her back?”

“Yes,” I sighed. 

She sat back in her chair. “I’m Melody by the way. I suppose I forgot to mention it when I opened the door.” I grinned a little. “Claire and I met on our first day of our residency. She’s an intelligent, beautiful, amazing woman. You’re truly lucky.” My eyes must have showed my disbelief and bewilderment. Her laugh was the sound of chiming bells, and I saw how she fit into Claire’s life. “She’s remarkable. She never says one negative word against you even when other people question your absence. She says it’s none of their business, and that you’ve worked out an agreement so that you can maintain a relationship with Isla and Bree.” 

As I listened to Melody speak, I realized something about her. She was in love with Claire. It wasn’t obvious at first, but her eyes sparkled when she told talked about her. She spoke of her with affection that I had only ever heard from a few people, myself included. 

“You may not believe it, but I secretly think she’s waiting for you to return. She rejects all advances from both males and females, and spends a lot of time here with the girls. Are you here to get her back?” I was gob smacked by the brazenness of her question. It wasn’t any of her business what I did. 

I scrubbed my face as I considered all of my options. If what she said were true, Claire wanted me back. She was waiting for me to cross the divide we created over two years ago. “Why do you care?” I was curious about her involvement. 

Her lips pursed uncharacteristically for what I knew of her so far. Then she flattened her palms onto the table. “I’ve seen her hurt. I actually met her because she was crying in the locker room after some asshole commented about how she was a hot divorcee and he wouldn’t mind coming over to soothe her woes.” She rolled her eyes. “I thought at first it was the stress of our first shift and the shit for brains until I realized there was this brokenness in her eyes. As we got closer, she opened up about you and told me your whole history together. There was a lightness to her when she spoke about the past, well until you know the more recent shit. Her demeanor shifted and she vibrated with life when talking about the love you shared.” I heard the longing in her voice. “Your daughters adore you more than anything, and I know it would benefit all of you if you were back here.” 

Her phone buzzed and she quickly excused herself to the next room. My gaze swept over the kitchen, and I easily pictured my children and Claire sitting down for breakfast. There was a box of some sugary cereal on the counter. I imagined Isla begging her mother to allow her to pour her own cereal and Bree making a mess. 

The refrigerator was massive, but I was accustomed to the sight after my time here. It was an American thing. Art, pictures, and school reminders decorated the front. The dish cabinet had glass doors, and I saw the matching dish sets. It was a proper home. The problem was I didn’t know if I fit in it. There were hints of Christmas around the house and outside. I didn't check to see if Claire had gotten a tree yet or not. It would serve no other purpose than to remind me I wasn't spending Christmas with them. 

Was Melody right? Did Claire want me the way I wanted her? 

Melody re-entered the room with an apologetic look. “I’ve been paged to the hospital. I need to leave. If you decide to stay, you’ll definitely improve my view of males. Even if you don’t, I’m rooting for you in the long run. Lock up if you leave, there’s a key buried on the right side of the little glass frog.” Just like that she was gone with a click of her expensive heels. 

“Still rooting for me?” I asked boldly.
Her arms folded unhappily across her chest and she analyzed me. “Should I? By all accounts, Claire is happy with with Peter.” 

I deflated at her question because it wasn’t without merit. “I can’t screw up this thing she has with Peter.” I would feel awful about it, and it wouldn’t endear Claire to me. “They’re engaged.”

She waved her hand dismissively at the mention of Peter. “There’s something to be said for a second love that follows an indescribable first love. Most people use the term quieter, more subdued. They don’t necessarily love the person less, but it’s a different sort of love than the one you previously had. Ultimately, yes your goal isn’t to ruin her relationship. You want to make her aware she has options. As far as your concerned, she no longer believes you’re available to her that way. You want her to see that you’re the best option. She’s not married to Peter yet.” 

I honestly believed the woman’s talents were wasted on medicine. She had an insight into the mind and motivations of others. Perhaps it was a side effect of the turmoil of her parents’ relationship. 

“As I said, I honestly am rooting for you. The amazing thing is you’re not pining away for her. While you still want her by your side, you’re not demanding her to return. You’re being yourself, and let me tell you Bree was very chatty. She told me all about the trip to the beach.” 

Bree was an interesting combination of traits. She never grasped the concepts of privacy or secrecy. She told everyone everything, and then erupted in giggles when we figured out the culprit. It wasn’t intentional; she simply couldn’t hold it any longer. 

“It was reminiscent of the past. Claire and I spent a lot of time at the beach when we were younger. I realized we hadn’t ever gone with Bree together though. In many ways we cheated her more than her sister. We talked though and it was different than in the past. We’ve opened up.” 

“You weren’t talking at each other with the sole purpose of making the other see the validity of your argument or intentionally hurting one another. You were listening and contributing, and communicating the way you should’ve all along.” She sipped her coffee. “It’s hard when you’ve been with someone for so long. You know all of their little quirks and annoyances, and it’s easy to become short tempered with them. You sort of lose sight at some point. It happens to the best of us.” She shrugged with a helpless sort of look. 

“I don’t know. I want to chalk it up to timing. I’ve had some bad timing.” Something in her eyes shifted and she became quite uneasy. I wondered about the mysterious, dark glint in her eyes. “What is it?” I had a feeling it was about Claire. 

Her eyes casted a dark shadow and I wondered if I wanted to know what gave her that haunted look. “I-I don’t know if I’m the one who should share this with you or not.” Her lips were bleeding from the pressure of her teeth. I sensed the seriousness of what she wasn’t saying. “Jamie, did anyone tell you Claire almost died last year?” 

The color drained from my face at her proclamation. “What? When? Isla and Bre-” 

“It happened during the summer when the girls were here with you. She was in a car accident and spent six weeks in the hospital. She didn’t want them to know. She was worried they would cut their time short with you, and hated the thought of ruining your time together.” 

I shook my head, refusing to accept her words. “You’re lying.” I accused her. “The girls FaceTimed her twice a week. They would’ve noticed if she was in a hospital all banged up.” 

Her face saddened and she shook her head. “Julia, a few nurses, and I covered her face in make-up and used her hair to cover some of the other lacerations. She had some stitches around her hairline from when her head smacked the window. Luckily, the head of plastics adores her and is fantastic at her job. She broke her leg. There was a fractured wrist involved, and her collarbone broke when the airbag finally deployed. It was delayed and turned out there was a malfunction.” My mouth fell open as she listed Claire’s injuries. “There was surgery to repair the damage done to her leg. She was in physical therapy for a while as the bones were slow to heal. When the girls came home, she told them she’d just broken a leg.” 

I leaned back into my chair as I took in her words. I understood the underlying message she was attempting to convey to me. I’d almost unknowingly lost Claire forever because I couldn’t get the courage to say what needed saying. If I continued the way I was, I would lose her in one form or another. I was constantly worried about my timing, but if she had died, that would’ve been it. 

My hands rose to cover my face to hide the weakness of my tears. I had no problem crying, but it had always embarrassed me to do so in front of others. 

Her hand removed one of mine from my face and she held it in hers. “It’s alright to be upset. She should’ve told you. I told her you deserved to know at least as the girls’ father, but you know how she is.” 

Aye, I did. “If ye don’ mind I think I need some air.” I rushed for the nearest exit as I tried failingly to fill my lungs with air. I bent over with my hands resting on my the tops of my thighs. 

I felt the wetness on my cheeks as tears streamed down my face. What would I have done if she’d left me? Would I have known before receiving the call? I imagined I could sense such a thing if it occurred, but I came to the conclusion I would rather be there by her side. 

Someone began to tenderly stroke my hair and I glanced up into the most stunning brown eyes. They were sympathetic and full of worry, which I realized was solely for me. “Why did ye not tell me?” I sobbed out as she cradled my head against her stomach. 

“What would I have said to you over the phone? There wasn’t anything you could have done, and I didn’t want your pity.” 

I removed myself from her grasp to tower over her. I’d always appreciated her small size in comparison to mine. She’d lost weight from the last time I saw her in person, and her figure was more than a wee bit tantalizing. She could be every man’s desire if she so wanted. “Ye think what I feel for ye is pity?” 

She lowered her eyes, her eyelashes resting against her cheeks. “No,” she replied. “I know very well what it is you feel.” Her eyes rose to meet mine and I saw all the conflicting emotions. “I didn’t say anything because I knew you would come regardless of the situation between us. But it wasn’t your place. We can’t ever have that type of relationship. I’m marrying Peter. You’ll always be special to me, but- but I can’t allow anything to happen between us. It was wrong.” She raked a hand through her hair. “I’m already trying to figure out how I’ll break the news to Peter. 

Well she had me there. “Blame it on me, Sassenach.”

I stroked away a tear. “Don’t cry, please,” I begged her. 

“We’ve made a dog’s breakfast of everything. We could go round and round until we’re blue in the face discussing the merits of timing and everything else, but Jamie, I am doing my best to stay strong and keep everything in. I’m barely holding it together. I feel like I’ll fall apart if I don’t. You’re making it confusing for me. I need a clear head and being around you isn’t conducive to that. I understand that you want to fight me, but is this really the time? Yes, I should’ve called you when it happened. I didn’t though and here we are. If it weren’t for this set of miserable circumstances, we wouldn’t have had reason to be orbiting each other again.”

“How can ye say that after last time?” I asked of her. I knew she hadn’t forgotten and neither had I.

“What about it? It was well… a mistake or a lapse in judgment. I don’t know. It wasn’t real. If it was real, we wouldn’t have needed to do all that we did. I’ve basically forgotten all about it anyway.”

She was trying to dismiss it. “Horse shit. You and I know that’s a fucking lie. Ye’ve told some big ones to me over the years, but I remember it vividly from the smells and the touches, so there’s no way you don’t. Are you actually going to stand there and tell me you are unaffected by it all?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because when ye love someone, ye fight for them.”

She scoffed. “Like when you led me to believe that you slept with that skank?”

“You’re lashing out. You only do that when you’re trying to push me away.”

“Okay Dr. Phil! I’ve had enough of your psychoanalytical bullshit. You’re going to stand there and fight for me when you’ve had literal years. You came to Boston more than once I might add, and instead of staying to do something, anything, you took the coward’s way out. You left. Then again, I’m not surprised. It’s what you’re good at. I don’t need you to fight for me now. Jamie, I spent years desiring that, but you’re too late. You can’t come back when my life is finally good. You can’t do that to people.” Tears spilled down her cheeks. 

“I told you I loved you.”

“And I said it wouldn’t work. You’ve made a life for yourself. You have Jenny and the kids. There’s your business and your friends.”

I took a step closer and she took one back. She wanted to keep her distance from me. “Look I know how this seems.”

“I doubt very much you do.”

Snarky Claire, I wasn’t wholly surprised she made an appearance. “So that night meant nothing to you?”

She rolled her eyes. “What do you want me to say? Seriously? What answer will appease you? Why do you continue to harp on a single night that happened ages ago. I’ve put away. I had to. I needed to let you go for good reason. We aren’t good for each other. Look at you practically groveling for me to give you chance and me being argumentative. This is what we do to each other. I’ll no further part in it. I’m sorry Jamie but I can’t.”

“Can’t or unwilling?”

Claire stopped. She didn’t turn around. “Both.”

By the time I made my way back to Isla’s room, Claire and Bree were nowhere to be seen. Isla regarded me with a frown. “Ugh dad, what did you say?”

“Nothing.. It doesn’t matter.”

“It obviously was. My mom was really bothered and twitchy. She rushed Bree out of here.”

“Just drop it.”

She shrugged. “Whatever, but you’re the one screwing it up.” I fixed her with a stern look. “Go home. Aunt Mel is here and you could use a breather. Take a load off and nap, eat, do something. I think you need to let mom chill out because she’s on a warpath and she will destroy you if you get in her way.” 

I winced, knowing Claire’s current mood was a result of my pushing her. Isla and Bree took the brunt of it, undeservingly, but were the only ones around for her to vent. 

“Also like when you see her again just apologize. It’s weird enough between you guys. Night dad.”

“Night Isla.” I kissed her head and hugged her. 

 

 

Chapter Text

CPOV 

I stared at the ceiling of my hotel room. Bree was snuggled in close with her face buried in my neck. The puffs of her warm breath tickled, but I was unbothered by it. My mind was somewhere else with someone else. 

I was confused. The last 48 hours had been enough to get my head spinning. 

The event that precipitated it all was Jamie kissing me. We were talking about the past as we had been for the last two weeks. We kept coming back to it. Part of me wanted to avoid discussing it as the feelings ran deep.  I didn’t mean for Jamie to get the wrong idea. 

My fingers drifted up to my lips. It was not to say our kiss was unenjoyable, however it should have never happened. I was engaged to a man I loved who hadn’t moved across an entire ocean to get away from me. A man who chickened out when he felt there was competition. Jamie deciding to fight for me now was giving me a migraine. How could he do this to me when my life was finally on track? I had locked him in his box and tucked it away. I knew nothing could happen between us. I had to do it for my own sanity.  

Then there he was at the hospital again yesterday making all sorts of declarations and inviting me over for dinner. I should’ve rejected the offer as soon as he made it, but I thought there would be no harm when I made myself clear about where we stood. 

Jamie had other plans. 

16 hours earlier 

We spent most of that day in the hospital, Jamie arrived hours later looking rested but strained. If Isla and Bree noticed the tension between us, they didn’t comment. 

He had decided to bring Isla’s suitcase and carry on with him back to the hospital for Isla to pick out her going home outfit. 

She expressed her delight at finally having an opportunity to not wear her pajamas. It was a change as she loved wearing pajamas at home, but I supposed the effect was different when you weren’t allowed anything else. She spent most of her day in bed, and there was no need for her to wear actual clothes. 

Tomorrow was the day where our plane would carry us back across the pond to home. It was strange that after the last two weeks, I was somewhat saddened by our departure. Barring the kiss, my time here had been pleasant and much needed.

I missed home. I longed to go back to work, particularly given the fact that I had left some critical patients of mine in the capable hands of my colleagues. The reality was this was a reprieve from real life. Jamie hadn’t come to the same conclusion as of yet. He was stuck reliving the past, but I was focused on the future. I couldn’t stay here even if a small part of me desired to remain in Scotland.

I knew I had to return home. My mother was watering my plants and feeding the girls’ fish and cat, I left behind in my haste to be by Isla’s side through her recovery. I had nearly forgotten my domestic responsibilities in the abrupt aftermath of Isla’s accident, but luckily my mum never allowed a crisis to overwhelm her. She was cool and collected and managed to keep her hair on. I don’t know how she managed it, but Julia was a formidable woman. She was planning to go shopping, so that there was a fully stocked fridge upon our arrival home. She didn’t want me to leave Isla alone or bring her along. 

Isla and Bree were currently on a FaceTime call with her, and I left them to their privacy. Jenny was driving back up the following day to take Isla and I to the airport. Bree was tagging along, not wanting to be far from us any second longer than she had to be. We agreed it would be easier for Jenny to take us as I was limiting my time around Jamie. 

Bree was absolutely gutted we were leaving her behind, but Jamie would find ways to distract her from her sadness and make the rest of her time with him worth it. It was difficult to picture a sad Bree, but it happened. She was normally such a bright ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreary sky. She radiated warmth, joy, and hope. 

I sat outside the room thinking about the day she was born. It was a less intensive labor than the one with Isla or Gabriel. She went past her due date in a way that was entirely Bree. She was content to rest and soak up her remaining days inside of me. She was a cuddle bug. 

She was supposed to arrive around the second week of November, but my darling girl didn’t make an appearance until November 23. The doctors were close to inducing me before she came. 

November 23, 2008 

I groaned as I readjusted the books in my lap. Jamie was watching Isla as I studied in the library. Technically I was supposed to stay off my feet, but my second pregnancy compared to my first one was a completely different experience. 

The doctors had marked it as a high risk pregnancy because of the complications I had with Isla. Yet, there wasn’t a single difficulty aside from my morning sickness lasting well into my second trimester. Other than that, the baby inside me was calm. During the day, the baby kicked quite a bit, and Jamie was convinced we had a future football player. I indulged him with silly smiles. 

I was so happy. I lucked out as the early and middle stages of the pregnancy were carried out during the summer break. I was absolutely huge, and couldn’t imagine carrying around my stomach during some of the hottest months of the whole year. 

We decided not to find out the gender and allow it to be a surprise. Neither of us cared either way since we already had one precious miracle. Isla turned two last month, and looking at her now, there was no way to tell she was ever premature. She had caught up to other children of her age, and was quite advanced in some of the skills she was able to do. There was an intelligence in her eyes that was slightly disarming. I started to teach her how to read the alphabet, and she recognized all of her letters. It was impressive, and I imagined by the age of three I would have her reading books to herself. Isla loved books. 

I’d explained as much as I could to an almost two year old about the new baby. I showed her pictures in her books about mommies having babies. She then looked at my constantly growing bulge, pointed and said “da bee bee.” Then she placed her fingers back in her mouth and that was the end of the discussion. She rarely had anything to say, but she would kiss my belly. 

I was sure that when the new baby arrived her reaction might be different. At the moment, I knew she couldn’t think in abstract terms. It would be some years before her thinking transitioned from the concrete to the abstract. She only knew what she could see, so to her my stomach was the baby. 

I groaned at my aching back, but I needed to continue studying as I had a test coming up right after the thanksgiving break. There was a definite tightness in my lumbar muscles. I hadn’t considered the possibility I was in labor until my water broke in the library. The experience was different with Isla as I hadn’t had a choice. 

My eyes closed as I took deep, steady breaths to control the pain I was experiencing. It wasn’t anywhere near the level of what I had with Isla. So far, they were quite moderate and very far apart. I picked up my phone and typed in my passcode before clicking on Jamie’s name. “Sassenach? Did ye need anything while yer at the library?” He’d been so lovely and compassionate during my second pregnancy. Memories of Isla’s traumatic birth haunted us.

He occasionally bordered on hovering, and my hormones didn’t exactly agree with that. I snapped at him constantly when his presence irritated me, then cried immediately afterwards because I felt guilty for snapping at him. He went out whenever I had a craving even if it was at three in the morning and he had to get up at six for work. 

“No,” a smile formed on my lips as I pictured him. “I’m going to drive over to the hospital.” 

My obstetrician/gynecologist was located at the Brigham, and it was only a few minutes away from the campus. “Isla, is at the sitters and I’ll call to tell her the news.” 

I knew he was trying not to panic, especially after what happened the last time. I tried to reassure him often how textbook this pregnancy was. It was more than a bit incredible given my last pregnancy, and I found myself immensely thankful for the difference. 

By the time Jamie arrived at the hospital, I was already admitted. They’d put an id bracelet on me, and had one in place for Jamie and the baby. I was only five centimeters dilated when he came rushing in with a flushed face and hair clinging to his temples. 

I bit back my grin as I watched him come closer. His eyes were tender and excited, but I saw the nerves lingering on the edges. I grasped his hand and placed it on my stomach. The baby had started a few days ago transitioning in preparation for the birth, so I knew it couldn’t be much longer. They were already so stubborn like their father. 

“Are ye okay Sassenach?” He clutched my hand tightly. 

I stroked the back of his with my other hand. “I’m alright love. Dr. Heath has stated the labor is progressing nicely the last time she checked. If anything it should be quicker because it’s a second birth, but our baby doesn’t seem to want to come out.” The lines faded from his face, but I knew I didn’t ease all of his fears. 

Two hours later he held my hand as I bore down with all of might and delivered a healthy baby. “It’s a girl,” Dr. Heath announced, her eyes bright and shiny. She’d also helped deliver Isla, and that was an altogether different sort of birth. It was a redemption for her. 

The baby began to cry as they cleared her passageways. A nurse placed her on my stomach and I marveled at her. Isla was completely bald at birth, and when her hair finally started coming in, it was blonde. She also had bird like features because of how tiny she was, but her sister wasn’t at all bald nor did she resemble a bird.  

Her sister had curly, bright, red hair that was matted down with birth matter. Her face was scrunched in annoyance at the sudden briskness in which she arrived. Her tiny body shivered at the cold as Jamie cut the chord and they carried her away to clean her up. 

She returned all swaddled up in a yellow blanket and lowered into my arms. I marveled at her perfect features and saw bits of her sister in her once Isla put on weight. Her Apgar scores were high, and I released the breath I was holding. She was a full seven pounds and twenty inches long. “She’s going to be tall,” I informed Jamie as he stared down at her over my shoulder in total awe. 

“Thank ye Sorcha, for blessing me with not only one lass but two.” His lips descended on mine. They were warm and pliant against my own. “She’s a beauty like her mother.” He leaned his head against mine and we watched as her mouth opened. 

She began to root around and I knew the drill. I lowered my gown and brought her to my breast. I helped her latch on and she did the rest. “A breast man like her father,” I murmured softly. 

Jamie grinned proudly and ran the pads of his fingers over her silky skin. 

“Are we agreed on the name?” I asked him. He nodded and I glanced back down at her. “Brianna, welcome to the world.” We both wanted a way to honor his parents, and naming her second born after them was a good way to do it. 

Their giggling ceased and I imagined my mother had to go. She’d been rather busy as of late and secretive, and I wondered if she was dating someone. She hadn’t said anything. 

I reentered the room and found them sitting on the bed together. Their bodies were pressed tightly together, and I saw a few tears drop from both of their eyes. My own were flooded, but I didn’t want to cry anymore on this trip. There had been enough of that going around. 

“Cheer up girls, there’s only a few weeks left. Bree, you and daddy will have loads of fun.” She sniffed disdainfully. I sighed as I took a seat beside the bed. “Bree, I know you want to go back home with us, but your dad would be absolutely gutted if you chose to do so. He would never say so because he knows how you feel, but he really wants you to stay and spend some time just you and him. I promise time will fly, and you’ll be back home before you know it.” 

She and her sister exchanged a silent conversation, and she reluctantly nodded her agreement. “But I don’t want to fly all the way home by myself.” I was prepared for the resulting whine. 

“Your Uncle Tom has agreed to escort you home lovey.” Her face morphed into the biggest grin possible as she squealed. 

“Are you for real serious mommy? That’s so awesome! I’ve never flown with Uncle Tom.” 

“He has agreed to fly here and the two of you will take the train into London. You’ll spend the a day there with him and your auntie before flying to Boston.” 

I knew the news would get her excited. Isla shook her head at her sister’s antics, but there was a hint of smile on her lips. “Dork,” she muttered. 

“Whatever, I’m going to London.” Bree stuck out her tongue. “So mommy I was thinking since Aunt Jenny is staying in our hotel with us tonight, why don’t Isla and I hangout with her while you and daddy go eat? Isla has been wanting to go to the movies.” 

I didn’t miss the way they shared secretive glances, and I suspected they were up to no good. “I don’t know,” I hedged, not sure I should spend anymore time alone with Jamie. “Isla must be exhausted, and I’m not sure she’ll up to going to see a movie.” 

“I feel fine mom, if there’s a problem Aunt Jenny and Auntie Melody will be there. Come on, you and dad have barely gotten along the whole time you’ve been here and I think you got in a fight or something last night. You were all annoyed with your pinched face and stern voice, and dad was all pouty and short tempered.” She pushed out her bottom lip and her sister mirrored her. “Come on, please.”

It was at that moment Jamie decided to finally make an appearance. I hadn’t seen him after we kissed and he had been running errands all day. It was code for, I’m avoiding you. “What’s going on here?” He asked upon seeing the girls’ expressions. 

I knew how this was about to play out. Our daughters were master manipulators, but rarely got anything past me because I knew their tricks. I employed the same ones at their age. 

Within minutes they had Jamie convinced and I essentially had no say. Isla was ruffling through her suitcase to find a suitable outfit to leave the hospital in. She chose her dress with the cherry print. It ended about mid-knee. She grabbed her jean jacket and her white converse as well. Her hair was in loose waves as she’d worn it in a braid her entire stay. 

I was at the nurses’ station working on her discharge papers when Jamie settled beside me. “Ye dinna have to actually do anything with me. I know the lasses want it, but yer welcome to tell them to mind their own business.” I felt the intensity of his eyes on me, but refused to look at him. “Especially after what happened. I would understand if ye dinna feel comfortable in my presence.”

I wasn’t prepared to confront everything that went on inside my head and my heart. There were so many conflicting feelings for the man, the father of my children and my ex. I exhaled slowly and raised my eyes from the papers. “It’s fine Jamie. It’ll make their night, and besides I’ll be lonely otherwise. They’ve already made plans.” I pouted playfully for him to show him I was okay with the situation and understood he wasn’t behind it. 

I had a sense of uneasiness, but I didn’t linger on it. I would push through and tomorrow I would be back home. 

Jenny and Melody were waiting in the car park for us. They were chatting and smiling, and I could only imagine what it was all about. I rolled Isla’s suitcase in front of me as Jamie pushed the wheelchair. He picked her up gently and lowered into the backseat. Her crutches were in the trunk. The doctors preferred she not strain herself too much before the flight and to keep her leg elevated as much as possible. 

Kisses and hugs were exchanged as we parted ways. A part of me wished I was going with them. “I wondered if ye mind if I cooked for you tonight.” 

I blinked at him unseeingly as I processed his words. I wasn’t positive I wanted to know where he lived. It would make it that much easier to picture him and to think about him in those moments where I pretended I didn’t. It made me uneasy, knowing that I wouldn’t have an escape route. 

He noticed my hesitation and I dropped my head to my chest. Was I ready for this? We still had some things to work out, and if I refused his offer, I knew what it meant for the rest of the night. “Okay,” I finally said. I prayed I hadn’t made the wrong choice.

I tried to ignore the butterflies that erupted inside of my stomach at his radiant smile. His whole face lit up at my mere agreement to dinner at his place. 

“So when are ye due back at work?” I knew he was attempting to prevent an awkward silence from settling. 

“Actually my mother is picking Isla up at the airport and Melody is dropping me off at the hospital. I have a twelve hour shift and I’m in charge of rounds the following morning. My students have been distributed amongst other doctors in the hospital.” He tapped his fingers in rhythm with the music playing. “My mum is going to watch Isla for the afternoon and then a friend and her mother will pick her up. She’ll stay the night and I’ll pick her up in the morning.” 

“Does that happen often?” His tone was inquisitive. 

I furrowed my brow, unsure of the meaning of his question. “What?” 

“The girls staying with other people if yer working?” 

“Oh,” I mumbled. I didn’t want to go on the defensive. There was a good chance he didn’t mean any offense. “Well sometimes other teammates of Bree’s take her to the tournaments. The girls spend a lot of their weekends at friends’ houses for sleepovers. We do a carpool in the mornings, so my mum picks up some of their classmates. Then another parent will take the kids home or keep them.” I laughed. “It’s a system we’ve worked out, and it benefits all of our busy schedules.” 

“Do ye ken them from church?” 

“Some of them, but some of them attend a different one. Most of the kids at their schools are Catholic, although there are a few who aren’t. We’ve formed a community of parents though. It helps when someone is in a bind. Isla asked for it too. She’s been bored and hasn’t seen anything outside of the hospital.” 

I saw him purse his lips before licking them nervously. Somehow his next question made him feel anxious. “Is it hard?” 

“What? Raising them?” He grunted in agreement unable to vocalize. “Well at first sure,” I admitted to him. “I had the summer to sort of prepare myself for what was coming, but it was during the semester after you left where I had to figure it all out on my own. Let me tell you, raising a baby and a three year old is perhaps one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” I didn’t regret having them. In his absence, they reminded me he was real and once mine. They made the whole separation and subsequent divorce easier to swallow. “Do I wish you were there? All the time.” I told him truthfully. “They grow and change a lot in the beginning, and I always felt guilty that I got to be there and witness it.”

I didn’t want him to think for a second I wanted him across the Atlantic. There were many days I wished he was beside me, helping me with the girls but also just with me. Those months following his move were hard and stressful. I was trying to maintain my distance and not give him the wrong impression. 

I had a complete nervous breakdown, resulting in my mother signing me into the psych ward for 72 hours while she took care of my daughters. I slept most of the time I was there aside from when they made me talk to a therapist. When I was released, they set me up with a therapist who helped me immensely over the years. 

I was finally able to voice those feelings that escaped my notice. We talked and talked until eventually I didn’t need her as much. I figured out my own problems and I had enough tools to know how to solve them without becoming overly worked up. 

“Why do ye think we let it fall apart easily?” His dark eyes flickered in my direction, and I shifted uncomfortably. 

It wasn’t the question because I sort of figured out those answers a long time ago. It was the shade of blue in his eyes. It reminded me of our youth and the seriousness he carried around inside of him. Whenever he got that glint in his eyes, clothes were generally shed. I shook my head. I shouldn’t be thinking about that. It was inappropriate.

I wet my lips and took a deep breath. “Well first and foremost we were dumb. We got married before we were properly settled. It wasn’t exactly the smartest idea either because the most stressful part of our lives was yet to come. We figured it would help us to be married, but I think it only caused us to struggled more.” 

“And then we had a baby before we knew it. I love Isla with all of my heart, but it wasn’t the right time for us to have a baby. I’m not sure there is a right time, but we were still in school, neither of us had a steady income to raise a child. We didn’t have a support system, so we had to figure out a lot on our own. We weren’t ready, not that anyone is. It all happened so fast. You dropped out of school and took that job, and well we both know how it ends.” 

He blamed me for a host of things like him leaving school and taking the job. I hated his guts for giving me the impression that he and Britney had been having an affair behind my back and for his less than stellar reaction to the news of my pregnancy. I despised him for leaving to attend that conference. I hated myself for never feeling as if I were good enough for him. It was a toxic cycle, and if we had carried on the way we had, we would’ve done much worse to each other. Ending it was the best choice as we were suffering and struggling. We intentionally hurt one another after we were hurt, and that was not okay. 

He removed his hand from the steering wheel to cover mine and offer support. I was touched by the platonic gesture. “Ye ken very well ye were not the only one who fucked up. We were young and ye had school. I had my job. Then we had the girls. We stopped talking and listening because we were yelling. We tried to drown one another in our own superiority.” I didn’t disagree with his assessment of the situation. “I cared more about winning an argument than yer feelings afterwards. I ignored when ye cried, and went out with my work colleagues. And yes there’s all the shit with Britney.” 

I blinked back tears because I hadn’t thought about it in years. I hated how insignificant he made me feel and how I convinced myself it was my fault he was unhappy. I dragged him to a country he would’ve never lived in if he hadn’t met me, and he was living in misery. We both were. 

“I forgave you.” My voice was choked with emotion. “It took a long time and loads of therapy, but I was culpable too. I didn’t attempt to stop the fight, and I instigated quite a few myself. I want you to know I’m sorry. I was sorry then not just in the present when I have hindsight to show me how wrong I was. I ached to tell you, but my pride refused to allow you the win.” I closed my eyes and leaned back into the seat. “They were hollow victories believe me, but and I’m ashamed to admit this, I wanted to hurt you the same way I was hurt.” It didn’t make me feel as good as I thought it would. 

I recalled staring into my face in the mirror. I hardly recognized the person who stared back. Her eyes were lifeless and dull. There were large, dark circles around her eyes. Her lips were downturned, and she appeared as if she lost the fight and zest for life. It was hard to believe I had become her. 

At our wedding, I promised Jamie we would change together. We would grow and become these new people who still loved one another. Yet, we failed. I failed. He failed. We dragged each other down.

Before the conversation continued, we pulled into the driveway of a tasteful looking detachable home. Jamie ran around to my side of the car and opened the door for me with a tilt of his lips. He offered his hand and I took it. I released it as if shocked. 

I’d always felt a gentle tingle on my skin when he touched me. It made me feel alive and desired, and that was the opposite of what I needed. I had to keep a clear head. He unlocked the door and I walked into his home. The floors were wood like mine, but that’s where the similarities ended. The floor plan and color scheme were different. 

Photos peppered the walls leading to the kitchen. Some were of the girls and others were his nieces and nephews. Then there were pictures of him, his siblings, and his parents. Jamie had never been one for decorating, and I surmised it was his sister who picked the furniture for the place. He was a nightmare when it came to shopping of any kind. 

He led me into the kitchen which was nice, but made me miss my own. He began to dig out ingredients to make some sort of pasta dish. He was intent and focused as he filled the pot with water and set it on the stove, as he cut up veggies, as he mixed in herbs. It was honestly quite erotic watching him get domestic. Stop it Claire, I warned myself. This wasn’t the time or place. He wasn’t the man I was supposed to be thinking about.

“I want to tell ye something.” I quirked a brow as I stared curiously at him. “It’s not the first time I’ve met yer friend Melody.” My face scrunched up, perplexed. I hadn’t met her until after he moved away and I started my residency. There was a good seven or so months between the two events. “There was another visit in 2011. I found myself unable to stay away any longer and I came before Christmas.” 

I was not comprehending what he was saying. I would’ve known if he had returned. How had he come back all those times without uttering a single world to me?

He poured some vinegar into the salad he was tossing. “I dinna ken ye weren’t home, but I had yer address. Yer friend Melody was there and we chatted. It was after she left and I looked around yer house, I realized how much I was missing. Ye created this whole life for yerself, and I dinna want to ruin it.” 

Our eyes met across the counter and I broke. I wept into my hands because Jamie thought I had a life without him. It took a longtime before I had anything resembling a life because I couldn’t bear my existence without him. “If you had stayed, I promise you wouldn’t have ruined anything. I was close to cracking and ringing you. I wanted you back desperately, but I couldn’t do it to you either.” He lowered my hands from my face. “We are quite a pair.” 

Under his smoldering gaze, I felt an acute dampness in my panties. If we allowed ourselves to get there tonight, it would create several problems. I refused to do that to Peter, or to further complicate my relationship with Jamie. Sex was easy, but when there were emotions involved it was complicated. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. We had done in the past and it turned out poorly for us. Feelings were always involved and there was no sense in pretending otherwise. 

I was the one who needed to get my shit together. This wasn’t a seduction. He plated the pasta and put the salads in bowls before carrying them to the table. He grabbed a bottle of white, and I knew the night would get interesting. I was onto him. It wasn’t going to work. We weren’t going to let our pesky hormones get the best of us. 

The food was delicious, but Jamie was always a marvelous cook. It was one of the benefits to having a husband who knew his way around the kitchen. He enjoyed it as a hobby, and usually had dinner ready by the time I arrived home. 

Later, towards the end, he stopped coming home early to cook. It was when he lost his passion for cooking that I knew there was no turning back. Something broke. 

I sipped my wine as we exchanged stories. We weren’t delving into the past, which allowed me the necessary breather. It was suffocating to think and constantly discuss that which was gone. I had been stuck there for too long, and had resolved myself years ago to always look forward. If we kept our minds firmly there, we could never face the future. 

“It was Bree’s second Christmas, and she was still new to the whole present thing. Isla kept hiding her presents when she turned her head. She would place them back under the tree. Bree frowned and then reached for the same present again. It went on for about ten minutes before I put a stop to it.” 

“What do ye usually get them?” 

I chewed on the inside of my cheek as I thought about the sorts of things I purchased. “We have a tradition where the girls receive a new pair of pajamas. It’s a surprise so I set them on their beds while they shower. It varies year to year based on their lists and what I think they need. Last year they both received iPads as their expensive, frivolous gift. Thirty minutes before bedtime, they have to bring me their tablets for the night. I place it on their dressers the next morning. Bree got a new bike. Her last one was stolen because she forgot to chain it when they went to the park. Isla got a new bed.” I shrugged my shoulders. I preferred to get my children items they would actually use. “Neither of them play with dolls anymore. We donated most of their dolls and old toys. It happens rarely that they might play, but I don’t buy them new toys. I buy them clothes or give them money. They like picking out their own things.” 

“Do ye think I can visit this year for Christmas?” 

I knew he felt uncomfortable around me and I him in the years since our divorce, but I would’ve never begrudged him any holiday. He could’ve visited. Yes, we exchanged holidays and those Christmases without my daughters sucked, but I had more time with them. We usually did early Christmas those years. 

I set my fork down and focused on him. “Jamie, you are welcome to visit them anytime. I don’t want you to feel as if I’m some sort of obstacle to overcome. You’re their father, and I wouldn’t have told you to step up your game if I hadn’t meant it.” 

The laughter began as he told me stories about his employees. It was incredible he built a business for himself. He was always good at taking an opportunity and making something out of it. Soon our plates were cleared, pans soaked in the sink, and we sat inches apart. 

“I shouldn’t indulge,” I told him as my eyes fixated on the chocolate cake. “I’ve cut back on sweets.”

A dangerous gleam appeared in his eyes. He picked off a piece and placed it at my lips. They opened for him of their own accord, and soon enough most, gooey chocolate cake was on my tongue. I savored the taste and slowly chewed. He swiped some icing off the top and traced my lips with it before covering them with his. 

Before I knew it, our lips were eager and fast. Our tongues met somewhere in the middle and tangled languidly together. I tasted the chocolate on his tongue and moaned loudly. My hands tangled in his hair as I pulled him closer. 

No, stop it! You can’t do this. I pushed him away. “Stop, this isn’t right. Not like this.” 

“Why not?” His eyes were liquid pools of desire and his lips were swollen and red. I did that to him. 

Resist Claire, you must resist. “I’m engaged and it shouldn’t be like this. You can’t say all of these things I’ve waited years to hear and then expect me to fall at your feet. I know what it feels like to have three people in a relationship and I would never do that to Peter. It’s wrong. I think it would be best if you took me back to my hotel room. I’ll forget about this incident and not hold it against you. You’ve just lost your better judgment is all.” Or maybe I have.

He wasn’t pleased I put a halt in our evening activities, but it would’ve made a hypocrite out of me if I had let it go on any further. A kiss could be explained as getting carried away with the moment, but sex was something different. Sex was crossing too many lines. Neither Jamie nor myself believed in sex without intimacy, and I couldn’t go back there again with him. We had done that and both suffered. He had come to me after with the intention to fight and then gave up, but now when I was really with someone, he had no qualms interfering. How was that fair to me that now was the time?

He was sending me confusing messages. He dropped me off in front of the hotel. “Good night Jamie. Our flight is at ten, so we are leaving around eight. I’m truly sorry about everything, but I think you know too that it wouldn’t have been right if we had continued. There’s no future for us, and it would be wrong to think there is.” 

“Before ye go, you calling me the coward is comical given our position. Ye’re running scared. You push people away and one day ye’ll be lonely. Do ye think Peter will forgive you if you tell him?” 

I squeezed my eyes shut, willing myself not to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. “Yeah I do. At least I’ve got someone. I know you’re just trying to hurt me, but you know that’s not what I was trying to do. You talk a big game, but you never put your money where your mouth is. Why is it you wait until the worst possible moment to finally find your bollocks? You’ve had years. You can’t be mad at me for moving on. I told you in Paris about what happened when you allow feelings to infiltrate. If you honestly think that I moved on that quickly from you, then maybe you never knew me at all.”

I slammed the door and turned away without looking back. 

JPOV

The next morning was not something I was looking forward to. Isla and Claire were leaving for Boston. 

Things with Claire and I ended on a sour note. I had pushed her too far, but she was being unreasonable. Granted, she made a valid point about cheating. While I hadn’t physically cheated, there was an intimate aspect to my friendship with Britney. With Claire engaged, she would’ve been committing physical and intimate cheating. She was right that it wasn’t the time and saved us from making a mistake. That’s what it would have been if we had gone further as I had wanted and part of her had wanted to do it. I saw it in the smokiness of her eyes and the way she panted after we kissed. 

We couldn’t start another chapter like this. 

When I arrived at the hotel, Claire was at the desk checking out. She wore an expensive looking pair of jeans that hugged her ass. Her navy blazer prevented me from seeing the shirt underneath. Her shoes were a pair of flats that she would exchange for heels upon arrival at Logan. This was her business casual look and how she planned to appear when she arrived for her shift. Her hair was tied into some knot with a few pieces framing her face. I hadn’t ever seen her in her element at least not like this.

She was conversing with Melody at the counter, her giggles carrying through the lobby. Her smile faded when she turned and spotted me. That answered the question regarding her opinion of me following last night. Her face smoothed out and she turned back around as she signed her bill. “Have a safe flight and we hope you had an excellent stay, Mrs. Fraser.” 

She smiled. “Thank you and have a wonderful day.” As she approached me, a spot of nerves hit me. The way we left things last night wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination. “Jamie,” she greeted coolly. 

Mel was polite enough not to comment on Claire’s attitude. “It was good seeing you and I hope to see you around more.” We shook hands and exchanged smiles. She winked at me and whispered, “Don’t let her fool you.”

Claire narrowed her eyes as her friend sauntered out of the building. “Well, it was good seeing you, and honestly last night was I don’t know. I apologize. I was out of line. Please feel free to visit Boston and Isla and Bree whenever you’d like. I can send you Bree’s soccer schedule for the fall. Please don’t let what happened between us last night affect anything with them.”

“I wouldn’t. I should apologize myself. You were right. That isn’t the way we should do things. It wouldn’t have been right. This Peter has been good to ye and deserves better. I’m sorry if I pushed ye or was inappropriate.”

“Bree and Isla are already at the car. So uh yeah, um you should say goodbye… well not to Bree since she’s staying and you’ll see her later, but definitely to Isla.” Claire only babbled when she was nervous.

It was raining outside and I slipped and stumbled into Claire’s back. “Careful that you don’t slip into me… I mean fall into me. It’s slippery out.”

I snorted. She hadn’t made a Freudian slip in years. Was she nervous?

Bree and Isla were in the back of the car, hiding from the rain. Bree looked as if someone kicked her puppy, and my heart ached for my baby girl. The last two weeks were the closest she ever had to something resembling a proper family, at least in her memory. 

She was arguably quite upset, but she was putting on a brave face. I opened the backdoor to give Isla a fierce hug. I tried to be gentle and mindful of her existing injuries. While she appeared to have healed since her accident, I didn’t want to risk causing her any excess pain. “I love you dad,” she kissed my cheek. “Don’t worry about mom.” She whispered in my ear. “She’ll come to her senses, but also maybe . Lay the foundation and you’ll have a sturdy house.” 

I stared wordlessly at her and she winked. I was terrified about what my daughter had learned in school all of a sudden. I thought she was attending a Catholic school.

“Have a good flight sweetheart, and ring when you get home.” She nodded and sent me a glittering smile. “I love ye.” 

I nodded at Bree who was seeing her mother and sister off at the airport before Jenny dropped her back round. It would be the first time I would be alone with Bree since she was an infant. Although back then it wasn’t much as I usually had Isla with me as well. There were a few midnight feedings of just the two of us. 

Claire’s glassy orbs met mine. “You’ve got to go or ye’ll miss yer flight.” She nodded but made no attempt to move. Jenny watched us with sharp eyes, warning me not to do anything. “Go on,” I opened the door for her and she hesitantly slid in. 

“Goodbye Jamie,” she whispered softly. “I am sorry.”

I choked back a cry as I watched her struggle. I meant what I said when I told her that it wasn’t her fault. I was too pushy and she wasn’t where I was. She had commitments she couldn’t forget about, nor would I want her to. Timing sucked. 

I covered my face, trying to push down the urge to chase after them. I couldn’t do that. Claire didn’t need that from me. She needed me to stay. She had too many other things to worry about than me interfering. This wasn’t me waving my white flag. I was biding my time and making my plans. Claire didn’t see me as a viable option at the moment, but she would one day view me as the only option. 

I got in my own vehicle and headed home. It was time to start laying my foundation. 

CPOV 

I watched as he disappeared from the rearview mirror. I wiped away my tears with my arm and turned towards the window to avoid Jenny and Mel’s knowing gazes. They knew something was bothering me after they arrived back with my children. They rushed Isla and Bree into Mel’s room and Mel let them order anything off room service. 

Jenny and Mel hadn’t known what to do to cheer me up after I explained what happened. They understood both points of view. Neither could tell me what to do. My head was all mixed up and my heart was confused. I meant what I said about him waiting years to tell me all those things. I was frustrated with him and angry with myself. 

The girls were silent and melancholic in the backseat, and my heart went out to them. They’d never spent more than a weekend apart in their entire lives. The next three weeks would be agonizing for them as they tried to figure out how to not be around one another. I knew for as much as they fought, they fiercely loved one another. Isla was Bree’ biggest defender and vice versa. 

It was a strange situation all around. Bree was staying in Scotland, and not coming home with Isla and myself. 

All of us remained in our own heads for the rest of the car ride. Jenny parked in short-term parking as she and Bree would escort us in and walk with us as far as security allowed. Melody took care of printing our tickets, while we waited to check our bags. 

Melody's blonde hair was thrown up into a casual bun, and she was dressed in a Boston hoodie and jeans. Bree threw her arms around her. I knew Bree was struggling with the idea of separation from not only me but her sister. If she didn’t have one of us, she usually had the other. 

Melody played with the ends of Bree’s braid. “Hey kiddo,” she attempted to cajole my daughter who wasn’t having it. “Come on Bree, it’s only a few weeks. Then we will spend sometime on the beach at the Vineyard.” Her little red head pulled back slightly and I imagined there were tears. 

“Promise?” Her voice croaked out. She held out her pinky. 

Melody smiled at her cuteness because Bree was still a little girl underneath it all. “I pinky promise.” They swung their pinkies together basking in these little moments left to us. 

My monkey unwrapped herself from her pseudo aunt before clinging to me. I leaned down to kiss her head and inhaled the scent of kid’s shampoo. “Awe Bree, mummy promises it’ll only be a few weeks. You’ll spend the rest of the time with your dad. That’ll be fun, right?”  Her face was miserable as she shrugged her shoulders. “I guess. I miss Peaches and all of our fish. I miss my bed and now that I’ve seen you, I’m going to miss you lots.” 

“You can call whenever you’d like sweetheart. The time will fly before you know it and then you’ll be back in my arms, annoying your sister, and cuddling Peaches.” 

Her blue eyes glistened as she refused to cry. I knew she was keeping a tight wrap on her emotions, and I hated the situation we were all facing. There wasn’t anything to be done about it because I had to go back to work. 

Isla was going to see the same physical therapist she saw when she injured her shoulder playing field hockey. Her physical therapy this time around would have an increase in the intensity as there was much more to heal. I wasn’t overly worried. On those days, she would travel with me to the hospital and spend two hours there before the private nurse I hired would pick her up and take her home. 

However, my heart ached for my young daughter as she would inevitably miss summer conditioning for field hockey and the whole season. Isla and I emailed the coach who said that Isla could participate as the team manager, while Isla would’ve preferred to play out on the field, at least she could still be with her friends.  

There was a wheelchair waiting for us at check in for it was easier for Isla to get around the airport. We had her crutches, but didn’t want her hobbling across the airport. It was going to be a long enough day. 

Bree tried to put on a brave face as she and her sister exchanged goodbyes with each other, but her eyes expressed her sadness and her lips were downturned. “I’m going to miss you. Who’s going to play with me?” I pretended to not hear their conversation. 

Jenny caught my eye and motioned me over. “It’s okay Claire, I think my dolt of a brother will be fine. Ye clearly worked things out.” 

“Or something. We apologized. I don’t know much beyond that. I don’t want this to interfere with anything else.”

“He’s an eejit. He’ll figure it all out. I’m sorry last night didna go as planned.” 

I ran a hand down the side of my face. I screwed up my face as I held back my own tears because it shouldn’t be so complicated. We created a new series of problems for ourselves even though we had sorted through our previous ones. It was an endless, nightmarish cycle. When would it end?

Jenny pulled me into a fierce hug and I shed a few tears in her loose hair. She rubbed my back and shushed me. “Dinna cry sister, I canna stand yer tears. What the two of ye require now is some time and space to think. Ye have just dealt with a difficult, emotional situation that forced ye to come together after all these years. It’s alright if ye dinna ken how things will progress from here.” 

I nodded, desperately wanting to believe the words she was telling me. I squeezed her tighter before pulling away from her. I was already a mess, and was more than a little thankful I hadn’t put any make-up on my face. 

Jenny moved over to Isla and they said their goodbyes, before the three of us headed towards security. We waved at them as we began the process of going home. I couldn’t help but feel as if I left mine, and I knew he probably had similar feelings at the moment. 

I forced myself not to think about him as we made our way through and to our gate. It only served to hurt me to think about him after last night. 

His touch was still on my skin. The warmth filled me with something indescribable, and I ached for his presence. It was wrong, so wrong, and I told myself it was all the time we had spent together recently. 

I watched through the windows as our plane stopped at the gate. They would begin boarding soon enough and the distance would be there to prevent further physical contact. Thank god. I had made a fool out of myself. What was with all of the babbling nonsense and had I really said slip into me? I was mortified. 

My eyes slipped shut as tears burned my retinas because I wanted to go back to last night. I had to tell him we could figure it out, but I couldn’t make those sorts of promises. It was unrealistic. From all accounts, there was a woman in his life even if I hadn’t met her during my time here, and I had Peter. 

We were doused in a bucket of freezing water. Reality had come back to us. My skin prickled at the cold. Drenched from head to toe in ice, and I saw him. 

His eyes glowed a dark blue as he stared at me in the distance. A divide forged as we dug our sticks in the ground. Where brightness once lived, darkness came in and stole its’ place. It claimed us and took everything we had to offer. The river flooded until the fire disappeared entirely. On the other side he lived and went on. 

I shivered and wrapped my arms around my body, seeking warmth I couldn’t provide myself. I clutched at my skin until my fingers turned white. My lips tinged blue and my hair clung to my face as I cried out for that which I knew was no longer mine. 

The river grew until an ocean formed and the distance became unbearable. It wasn’t a matter of swimming across any longer for I knew I was drowning. 

A hand on my shoulder woke me from my light sleep. My eyes popped open to the sight of Melody smiling sadly at me. She didn’t have to ask about what happened for it was there in her eyes. “Come on Claire, time to go home.” 

My head nodded as I draw myself up from the uncomfortable airport seat. Melody made all of the arrangements and changed our seats, but it was easier to sit Isla in first class in the front. Her leg didn’t make air travel easy for us, but between the three of us, we managed to create something comfortable for her. I had given her some pain medication, but I would give her the stronger one on our second flight where she could sleep for longer. 

She fully charged her iPad the night before, and in her bag, a summer reading book remained untouched. I took the window seat beside her, and Melody was across the aisle from us. She was only going to the hospital to check on some of her patients before driving halfway across town to visit the practice she joined. 

As the plane filled with passengers, the countdown was on until we were in the air. 

My eyes watched as we taxied the runaway. I felt as the plane picked up speed until the beginnings of flight happened, and then we were finally in the air. We rose higher and higher in the air, and I saw the city of Edinburgh below us. Jamie was down there somewhere. I placed my hand on the window and realized how empty I was on the inside. 

I was drained after the events of last night and the early hours of this morning. “Sleep mommy,” Isla murmured to me. 

I sank back into the seat and closed my eyes, letting my dreams float me away from the reality of what I’ve done. 

When I awoke we were preparing for our descent into London where we had a one hour layover before a straight flight into Logan. Isla was drowsy as I roused her from her sleep. She had to take her pain medication soon for her leg. 

“Do you want me to get you any food?” Her head bobbed a bit. I saw her energy was depleted and wondered what exactly she and her sister got up to last night. 

As we made our way to our gate, we stopped briefly for coffee, juice, and pastries. There would be a meal on our next flight. While I wasn’t a huge fan of plane food, I knew Isla needed to eat something to take her medication. 

Isla and I waited for Melody to come back from the restroom in silence. It was oppressive and I felt judgmental waves rolling off of her. I knew she wanted to address it, but there are also topics you don’t have the right to bring up with your parents. “Oh out with it already!” I finally told her, unable to take it anymore. 

Her dark blues widened impressively as her gaze swiveled in my direction. I saw her conflicting emotions and wondered which one she would go with first. We hadn’t much privacy in the hospital as there were always visitors and staff around. 

She chewed on her lips with a pensive expression on her pretty face. She was still fair, especially after the last two weeks in the hospital. “Did you and dad fight last night?” 

I thanked God I hadn’t taken a swig of my coffee at that moment. “Isla,” I tried to hold her hand, but she pulled it back with a stubborn look. I sighed tiredly, not entirely read for this conversation. “I know what you want. The problem is it’s hard to give to you.” 

“Do you love him?” 

I wished fervently it was as simple as children believed. There was the Beatles song as well, but love wasn’t always enough. “I think you know the answer. Regardless the fact remains we live over three thousand miles apart, and we are divorced. I am engaged to Peter. I know you know.” 

Isla was tenacious and saw beyond my reasons. “People can get remarried. I mean you haven’t been all that mindful of Peter’s feelings when I see you staring at dad.” 

My face hardened immediately as her disrespectful words. I was tiring of her impertinent behavior, and she crossed a line. “Look, I understand your anger is directed me because I am an easy target for you at the moment. However, your dad is a grown adult too. We make our own decisions, and this is a choice.” 

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah a stupid one. Why couldn’t you just be nice to him?”

I dug my nails into my palms. “How do you know it was my fault?”

“It’s always about you and your ego. You’re being so stubborn. Why?”

 “Why are we even having this conversation?”

“Because you asked.”

“Well I won’t make that mistake again.”

“Yeah, you’re too busy making others.” She crossed her arms and turned away.

My face hardened instantly. She knew my opinion on disrespect. “Excuse me, you better watch your tone young lady. I’m still your mother and you won’t talk to me like that. Is that understood?” She mumbled something. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t hear that.”

“I said yes,” she ground out.

“I’m warning you Isla Faith Fraser, if you use that tone one more time, you will be grounded. I don’t care if you’re injured or not. You don’t get to disrespect me because you don’t like how I handle my personal affairs.”

Her face was screwed up ready to argue back when Melody returned from the restroom. She folded her arms angrily across her chest and faced forward, ignoring me for the remainder of our wait. Melody and I exchanged seats on the flight to allow Isla time to cool down before we were home. I knew the reason was she had too much of me in her and not enough of her father. She was forgiving and generous when she desired, but as she’d gotten older those traits came out less often. She was single minded and stubborn, too much like me. Our personalities tended to clash as she got older. 

The majority of the time we were alright as we navigated our relationship, but it was always after time in Scotland when I received the silent treatment and loathing glares. 

Somewhere over the Atlantic I fell asleep and slept the entire way back to Boston. It was a dreamless sleep, and I was okay with it. 

I was minutes from full on sobbing, but I managed to hold it in. I was crumbling in my failures. “Oh darling,” my mum said upon catching sight of me. She pulled me into her arms and mumbled sweet things. “You’ll be alright Claire.” 

I smiled a little with some difficulty before kissing her on the cheek. “I love you mum.” 

I knelt in front of Isla and tipped her chin in my direction. “I respect you, and I want you to respect me. Daddy and I love you and your sister. Adults don’t always have the answers you want. I’m sorry you’re hurting, but I don’t want to confuse you. I’ll pick you up tomorrow after rounds. Have a nice afternoon with your grandma and tell Ellie’s parents hello for me.” I kissed her head. 

“I love you too mom.” She said before we went our separate ways. It was just after noon, and I wasn’t feeling all the way rested but I needed the distraction work would provide. 

“So should I bring it up or will you?”

I blew air out of my lips as I wiped the sweat from my brow. “I’m not sure what there is to say.” 

“I feel as if you know your statement is bullshit. Bear, it’s alright to be scared of the future. Do you think you made a mistake?” 

I ducked my head because it was the answer it shouldn’t be. “No,” I said, sliding into her Mercedes. “He was being an arsehole. I did apologize for taking it too far.” 

Her eyes peered at me and I saw the love she bore for me. It was no longer romantic, but sort of how one regarded a sister. When she met Callie, her whole life tilted on its’ axis and she was swept away in the aftermath. I officiated the wedding and Isla and Bree served as flower girls. 

I knew Mel wasn’t the biggest fan of Peter. She believed I was settling for someone because I couldn’t have what I truly wanted. She was aware I had genuine love for him, but it wasn’t as strong or all consuming. 

I didn’t always know. In the beginning, it took time for me to warm up to him, and it was because I wanted someone else. It was unfair how I treated him. I had to tuck Jamie into a box and lock it because I couldn’t allow him to invade my life. I had to move on and figure out who I was outside of our relationship. I had no idea if I could be in another relationship  or how to be in one. I had to figure it out along the way. Luckily for me Peter was patient.  

The glass was cool against my skin, and I wished I wasn’t empty. My phone buzzed in my lap. I ignored it. 

“Sometimes Claire you make things harder than they should be.” I was finding that to be the truest statement about my life. “I worry about you because sometimes you’re the loneliest person in the room.” 

“What the hell do you want from me Mel?” 

“Honesty.” She stated. 

I blamed the raging humidity outside, but my face brightened probably three shades of red. “I don’t know when I’ve lied.” I said rather tartly. I didn’t appreciate her insinuations. 

She sighed and readjusted the sunglasses on her face. “Honey, I’m not implying you’ve intentionally lied to me at any point during our friendship. My issue is with you not being honest with yourself. You hold everyone to the same standard when it comes to the truth, but you lie constantly to yourself. I saw the glances exchanged between you and Jamie. You stared at the man as if he filled in the missing pieces of your soul.” I looked away as she continued. “He looks at you the same way. So I’ll ask once, and only this one time. Did you wish something would’ve happened last night?” 

“Yes.” 

“Do you regret not going further?” 

“No.” 

“Why?” 

“There’s the Peter of it all. I could never do that to him. It would be wrong. I love him.” The honest to God truth was I felt sick on the inside.

She squeezed my shoulder sympathetically, but I didn’t appreciate the pity directed my way. I deserved to feel wretched about what happened.

The drive to the hospital was quicker than usual as most people were already at work for the day, and afternoon traffic wasn’t due to start for several more hours. We slid into a parking spot close to the building, and I exhaled in relief as the environment inside the car was stifling. I had no plausible explanation for more actions, nor did I have any sort of plan in place going forth. 

I pulled my hair back into a bun as I didn’t want to imagine the state it was in after all of the traveling. Mel grabbed my arm before I started to walk away. “Don’t beat yourself up about this Bear. You get to make your own choices about your life. It’s none of my business what you do, and don’t ever feel pressured to do anything because of the wants of others. It’s your life.” With those parting words, she brushed past me into the hospital and I only saw the bounce of her blonde waves as she disappeared into the crowd. 

My phone rang again, and I finally decided to turn it off. At the moment, my only focus was my work. I didn’t have any available space left in my brain for the other details of my life. 

The residents were floating about and some greeted me as they noticed me. “Hello Dr. Fraser,” one of my residents with potential called. 

“I hope you’re daughter’s doing well,” another said. 

My residents were notorious for sucking up to me when they saw it as potential for advancement in the program. Most of them were bright with a few needing extra encouragement and skills labs to catch up to their classmates. I had no room for coddling those incapable of following my instructions. 

A few times I saw the blonde hair of Peter and ducked around a corner to avoid him. It wasn’t mature of me, but I was self aware enough to know if we spoke, everything would spill out of my mouth as a stream of consciousness. The guilt burned in my chest. I was reminded of the Tell-Tale Heart. 

As far as he was concerned I was faithful to him. I didn’t want to imagine his reaction when I revealed what occurred in Scotland. The shame nearly toppled me over, it was strong and pervasive, and I knew I couldn’t in good conscience continue on as if I hadn’t shared a couple of kisses with my ex-husband. It was unfair and cruel to do that to him. He’d done nothing to warrant such behavior for me. I had to be honest. 

I planted my head on my forearms as I stared at the dark paneling of my desk. I was an absolute wreck. A knock on my door distracted me from my musings. 

“Hey Lady Jane, I was wondering when you’d grace these halls with your beautiful face.” 

An unencumbered smile grew on my face as Joe entered the room. “Well you’re a sight for sore eyes.” 

“What’s wrong?” I’d known Joe for longer than Mel, and he read my moods as well as I did. “Oh Claire,” he groaned, already figuring out I was a mess. “How’s Jamie?” 

I swallowed heavily, bile threatening to come up. My throat tightened and sweat poured out of my body. It seemed as if the world was closing in on me and I couldn’t breathe. Everything spun around me until blackness took over. 

 

Chapter Text

CPOV 

The stillness of the night created an atmosphere perfect for silent contemplation. 

The phone taunted me from the corner of the nightstand. I was tempted to call and make a plea for forgiveness and love. I was prepared to grovel if it came to that. 

It was all of the alcohol coursing through my system that had me believing it was a wonderful idea. Ordinarily, my thoughts weren’t fuzzy and I could talk myself out of something ludicrous. 

I indulged in spirits with my friends at a party celebrating all of our successes and achievements. I begged off in the past not wanting to deal with the hassle of finding a babysitter or cajoling my mother into watching the girls for me while I went out. She did offer, I usually rejected it. I always felt better when I was with them, and hated worrying about who was watching over them. Secretly, it was because I knew they didn’t actually need me hovering over them like I did when they were younger. They wouldn’t cry or throw a tantrum if I was gone for a night. My mother spoiled them when I was gone.

It was likely somewhere between my second shot of tequila and the rum and coke where things were a bit hazy. Mel had invited me over to stay the night and I fumbled with my phone as I struggled to type a message to my mum. My head flopped back into the arm of the couch as Melody settled me. “You know Claire, sometimes I forget how much fun you can be. You handled those shots like a pro.” 

I squinted my eyes at her as I struggled to clear the fogginess in my head. My tongue reminded me of lead, and I found it difficult to open my mouth to express my thoughts. I merely nodded, which was somewhat safe for the moment. I knew in the morning, I wouldn’t appreciate my decision to drink as much as I had. I hadn’t drank that much since uni.

Melody sat on the edge of the coffee table with her hands in her lap as she regarded me sadly. I recognized pity when I saw it, and I didn’t appreciate the sight of it on her face. “Oh don’t look at me like that,” I muttered disdainfully. “I’m perfectly alright.” 

One of her carefully sculpted eyebrows arched. “You’re a mess.” She stated plainly. 

“No I’m not,” I scoffed, attempting to push myself off the couch and regain my misplaced equilibrium. “Just had a bit too much.”

Her face softened, the lines relaxing as she tucked her hair back. “Honey, you drank more than your weight’s worth of alcohol tonight. Do not lie there and tell me false truths. I’ve known you for too long now to believe that. If you won’t be honest, then don’t talk.” I had wounded her with my dishonesty. I saw it in her face before she masked her emotions. “The guest room is ready whenever you pull yourself together. Good night,” she said before heading up the stairs. 

I finally managed to get myself steady enough to make the excruciating trip to the guest room. I crawled up the stairs and then used the banister to pull myself into a standing position. I stumbled and flopped onto the bed like a fish out of water. There was delayed pain from stubbing my toe on the bed post, but it was numb from the amount of alcohol I consumed. 

My headed pounded angrily against my skull, but luckily I wasn’t feeling a hint of nausea at the moment. In the morning, I probably wouldn’t be as fortunate. Everyone shared stories and laughter over the course of the night, but all I thought about were my own failures. I was in my thirties, divorced with two children, my mother lived with me, and my ex went as far as he possibly could to get away from me. I wasn’t the person people were clamoring to be despite how it appeared on the outside. My life seemed sort of picturesque or idyllic in a way that it actually wasn’t. 

I sat there in the darkness with strange shadows lurking and silence reigning supreme. My eyes fell on my phone and before I knew what I was doing and could stop myself, my fingers were unlocking and dialing. My actions hadn’t fully caught up until I heard a “hello.” 

I froze and pulled the phone away from my ear as I stared at the name on my screen. What was I doing? I shouldn’t have called anyone in my inebriated state, and should’ve gone straight to sleep. I hadn’t reached to call him impulsively in years. I had trained myself not to. He wasn’t available to me that way anymore. Why was it him? 

“Sassenach?” His voice sounded raspy. “Claire, I can hear ye breathing.” 

I bit my lip and scrunched my eyes as I attempted to consider my options. My brain was on the sluggish side, and I was having a difficult time processing any sort of information. 

“Ah Dhia, are ye drunk?” 

I sighed because of how well he knew me. Despite years and distance separating us, no one knew me quite like him. He understood what made me tick and all of my little idiosyncrasies. It was like him in a way to appreciate all of me including my quirks. “Yes,” I finally answered him. My tongue was heavy in my mouth, but I pushed through with a little effort. “I went out with some friends. There were shots involved.”

I heard rustling on his end and wondered if I interrupted anything. There was an ocean of possibilities for what he was currently doing. “Have ye had any water?” 

“No,” I murmured. “I’ve only settled now. I’m in someone else’s bed.” It took me longer than I wanted to process my words. “Not like I just had sex and am calling you because yeah that would be bad, and inappropriate. I’m calling from a friend’s guest bed. She’s a lesbian, which there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’m not her type and yeah she’s just letting me stay the night. I’m going to shut up now.” My head was still a bit foggy, but some of my thoughts were quite clear. Somehow my mouth decided to keep the conversation going. “I’m not sure why I called you.” I admitted to him. 

There were some other noises in the background. “I think we both ken that’s a lie.” I swallowed back bile. “Do ye want to tell me the real reason?” 

My eyes darted around the dark room. “I’m lonely. I fear I’ve made a mess of everything in my life, and what if I never find happiness again? Maybe I’m destined to be alone and watch others find their own.” I was entirely unable to follow the process of my pity party that particular night. “Mel is in love and if you had met her, it would’ve seemed impossible that she would find someone, not that she’s not worthy of it. All of my friends are getting into relationships and married, and I’m getting invites to these weddings. Their only expectation is I bring our children. Am I that pathetic?”

It was the end of one journey and beginning of another, but Jamie had missed my start. He washed his hands of me, and I wondered often if the whole situation was more my fault than his. I carried around my own guilt like a well worn blanket. 

I imagined him as he licked his lips. His eyes would pinch together and his nose crinkled as he conjured up the right words to relay to me. “Claire, sweetheart I think you’ve also had too much to drink, but I also believe that ye will find happiness again. Yer such an intelligent, beautiful, strong, compassionate, compelling woman that any man would be lucky to call ye his. You know love is unexpected and sometimes it just happens when you’re not looking for it.” 

Tears stung my eyes at his words, and I suddenly wished there was a lack of distance separating us because I would’ve crawled into his arms and never let go. “Do you consider yourself among them?” I wanted to smack myself as soon as the words left me as I was hyper aware of the awkward position I placed him in with my question. 

“Always,” he replied softly. “I canna pretend as if ye weren’t the love of my life. I ken some people believe we have multiple, and while I dinna necessarily believe in one right person for ye, I do think we have choice. We choose to love that person every day. So even if I have lost ye, I continue to choose to love ye.” He finished and I felt empty at his words. 

I wanted to reassure him and comfort him, to confirm that I was always his heart and soul. I was his in blood and sweat. We’d made our vows. We had small tattoos on our ring fingers. I had a black J and he had a C. I normally covered it with make-up so I didn’t have to think about what it represented and the sorts of feelings it conjured. It was part of my commitment to him because if I was willing to permanently mark my flesh, then I had to be all in. I wanted to prove to him that our relationship would last through everything the future had in store for us. 

Perhaps I was wrong, but I still had yet to regret the decision to permanently mark my skin. If anything it reminded me if I were to find another in the future, he should consume me just as Jamie had. Those weren’t necessarily the correct words to describe the sentiment. Maybe it wasn’t they weren’t strong enough to describe what Jamie symbolized in my life. 

He was the ocean in which I drowned myself. There was no sense of coherency or comprehension when I allowed myself to fall for him. When I knew for sure, there was no going back to the way things were. 

I hadn’t tried to use logic or reason to justify my relationships, and maybe that made all of the difference. When I met men, I thought of the long term. If I couldn’t envision any sort of future for us, I cut my ties with them. It was cruel and screamed apathetic, but I’d already put myself through the wringer in the aftermath of tragedy. 

“Is it pathetic if I told you I still loved you?” 

“Would ye pity me if I told ye, I could never love anyone like you?”

I choked on some tears as released a well deserved laugh. “Maybe one day,” I told him. 

“Get some rest, drink water, and be happy Claire. The future will come.” I wiped away the lingering wetness on my cheeks and clicked the end button. I was still all in, blood and sweat. My tears, my blood, everything that I was, it was his. 

- May 2015


I scrunched my eyes and groaned as light began filtering through my eyelids. I remembered the suffocating and the heat I experienced before I blacked out in the confines of my office. The shock on Joe’s face was more than enough for me to know I hit my head on the way down. It explained the dull ache at the base of my skull. 

I carefully peeled an eye open to find myself hooked up to an IV with a hospital bracelet and everything. I sort of imagined this scenario occurring the moment I registered my fading consciousness. 

Everyone kept confronting me about my decisions and my relationships, but the truth was I absolutely had no idea. I hadn’t thought that far ahead because I could never think in terms of the future. My life until now had been done in stages, and there wasn’t a lot of room to think about more than tomorrow. 

I attempted it once in my whole life when I was pregnant with Gabriel, and the disappointment I suffered afterwards was more than enough to thwart me from trying it again. I was practical and logistical, and relied on the tangible to see me through. I wasn’t a wonderer with a flight of fancy like Jamie. Jamie would say my father’s death had a profound impact on how I viewed life, but truthfully I was already like this when he was alive. He always said I was a serious child, especially in comparison to my younger brother.

What I told him was the honest to goodness truth about what I was currently experiencing. We rushed through the whole process before, and in the moment I was ready to tackle the responsibility of being a wife and eventually a mother. Then I had no idea the twists the roads of my life would take, and the form my eventual pain would come in. 

I thought about the dream I had. Three years ago, I was fresh off my residency and celebrating with my coworkers. We could hardly believe we survived all those years of hell. We were forced to take shitty shifts, or do the grunt work of attendings. We had to fill out hundreds of charts and monitor patient vitals at all hours. We made nice with the nurses and forged friendships to last a lifetime. We learned the craft of surgery and perfected our techniques. Some of my friends stayed, while others moved onto new destinations. We still chatted and they visited occasionally. It was different. We had grown and matured into professionals. 

Of course, the one way most people who were relatively young celebrated was by hitting the bar. We did a fancy dinner with all of us before deciding throwing darts and playing pool was much more fun and a better way to release five years’ worth of stress and sleepless nights. 

I couldn’t say even in the present what caused me to indulge so much, but I’d forgotten about the phone call I placed that night. I was completely plastered, and the next morning I woke up with my hair flattened by my pillow, my make-up smudged, and my mouth felt like something died in there. It wasn’t pleasant in the slightest. 

It wasn’t until around two in the afternoon I resembled something human looking. I didn’t arrive back home until nearly six as my equilibrium was still not up to my usual standards. Mel smiled sympathetically and passed the painkillers. She made me a late lunch which I nearly tossed in the toilet soon after, but we never spoke about the night again. 

It was sort of embarrassing to have that sort of clarity in my life again. I was unaccustomed to needing someone. Want was a different word and had all kinds of connotations, but wanting and needing were two distinctive things. 

I hadn’t considered then that where Jamie was concerned it was always both. The problem was I had no clue what it meant in realistic terms with us separated by more than just an ocean. Sometimes it seemed as if the river between us wasn’t as wide as if our two banks were mending the gap. Those two weeks we spent were some of the best in the last few years of my life. 

Did it make me an awful person to think such a thing? I wanted to bury my face and release all of my feelings into it because what was I supposed to do? I had a perfectly lovely man who I did love, but was the quantity the same? Did I love him as much or less than? Was it quantifiable or fair in the first place? 

I pushed back my tears of frustration and shut my eyes once more. 

Sleep was my escape from the screwed up love triangle I made of my life. The problem was one third of the triangle didn’t know about the other. 

He had done nothing wrong except love me. Yet, here I was thinking of another man. While I was not an actual adulterer, I was a cheater. There was no way to misconstrue the facts on that one. Kissing someone and having feelings for them whilst in another relationship was a betrayal.

To find relief from my traitorous thoughts I drifted back to sleep where my conscious mind no longer had any control. 

A nurse woke me every hour to monitor my concussion. Luckily, I never quite woke up from my slumber, and found it more than easy to fall back into unconsciousness. I was exhausted mentally and physically, and my body sought rest from all the current stressors of my life. Everyone expected something from me, but I had nothing left to give. 

I’d stretched myself beyond my limitations. My heart had mixed emotions and my head didn’t know what to think. It was rare they were in sync. Normally, my head told me one thing, while my heart told me the opposite. At the moment, they were confused and didn’t know what to do. With Jamie gone from my life again, Peter was the rightful option. He was the safe choice. He didn’t have the power to hurt me. 

“Hello Dr. Fraser,” Macy one of my favorite nurses greeted as she entered my room. It was half past eight in the morning, and with a bit of luck they would discharge me after morning rounds. “You’re looking much better.” I could’ve gone AMA, but there was no one at home to monitor my condition. I could’ve called Peter, but then to assuage my guilt, I would’ve told him the truth. 

I smiled wanly. I was a bit mortified by yesterday’s fainting. I had never done that before in my life, and for it to occur at my place of work was the icing on the proverbial cake. I was positive I was the topic amongst the nurses and residents, not to say the attendings were above gossip, but many of them feared me in a way. The residents did too as I was tough on them. 

I expected the best and had high standards. I was never harder than they needed. Some required extra motivation and more than a little push, while others needed just the slightest hint of encouragement. It was all about balance. 

The rumor mill was dangerous at work. I could only imagine what they were saying. 

“I feel much better. Do you think I’ll be able to go home today?” I tried not to appear to eager, but the hospital environment was making me uneasy. It was not a feeling I was accustomed to as I’d always enjoyed spending countless hours here, but my skin was crawling.

She checked my vitals. “Well we mostly kept you for observation because you hadn’t regained consciousness. I imagine Dr. Evans will have no issue discharging you after rounds. You just need some rest and a few pain killers. Your fall left a nasty bruise, and you did need four stitches. It might scar a bit, but nothing that won’t eventually fade.” Her eyes darted to the door before resting upon me once more. 

I sighed and gestured for her to take a seat. “What is it Macy?” 

“Well,” her hesitation unnerved me. She was never someone to mince words, and I had the impression she was holding back something. “There are all sorts of rumors floating around the hospital about you...” her voice petered off, and I felt for her. 

While we were friends, I wasn’t normally a talkative or open person about my personal life. “What are the rumors if I may ask?” I was nervous about what my coworkers were saying. 

Macy’s grey eyes showed her reluctance to ask the question. Her face was full of indecision and silence descended over us. The tension was palpable, and I suddenly became anxious. Nervous thoughts crept into my brain because no good could come from what she was holding back 

“I’ve heard in the break room you’re pregnant, or there’s a popular one spreading that you and Peter broke things off after he proposed to you.” 

Immediately, I sat up in bed with surprise written all over my face. “I beg your pardon?” Where did people come up with such vitriol? I expected my colleagues to behave as mature adults, and not involve themselves in my affairs. It never bothered me in the past when someone became hot gossip for weeks, but I was slowly understanding what a curse it was. 

Her face colored as she lowered her eyes in embarrassment. “I truly apologize for any offense. I don’t believe anything unless it comes from the horse’s mouth. I thought you should be aware of what people were spreading about you.” I considered offering her words of comfort, but my head refused to wrap itself around what people were saying. 

It was understandable the rumors about Peter and I. Normally we spent much of our free time at work with one another, but I had disappeared right after he proposed to me. The pregnancy thing  would explain why I fainted to them even though it was dehydration and stress. They preferred drama over facts. 

“I was out of line for telling you all about that,” she finished checking my vitals. “I hope Isla is doing better. I heard she was in a car accident.” 

I cleared my throat and silently thanked her for the quick change of topic. “Yes, she’s recovering at a friend’s house currently. I’ll pick her up on my way home. She had a femur fracture that required surgery and she’s not happy about what it means for her life in the short term. However she should be as good as new with some physical therapy and rest.” 

“Well you tell her she’s in my prayers, and I hope you feel better too Claire.”

I smiled at her. “I’m not wholly bothered by what you said.” I told as she was about to exit. “I’m not pregnant and I haven’t broken things off with Peter.” 

Her shoulders slumped in what I thought was relief. “Rest up, they’ve started rounds. We will have to make plans soon.” 

By the time rounds finished, I was well on my way to being discharged. Not surprisingly the person waiting for me at the nurses’ station was Mel. She wore her worried mother look, and I knew I would get an earful from her. 

“What the hell Claire?” 

I rubbed my forehead wearily as I filled out paperwork. “I was dehydrated and stress. I promise it wasn’t anything serious. They really kept me overnight to monitor the concussion., I hit my desk on the way down.” I glanced up as I felt the bitter sting of tears. It seemed I would never be done. 

Mel wrapped an arm around my shoulders and guided me to her car. Her face told me everything and I tried to ignore it. I rested my head against the window and fell back to sleep. 

Somewhere along the way, we picked up Isla, but I was too tired to notice. “Mom?” Her voice held a hint of worry, and I smiled sleepily at her. 

“Don’t worry about her, she’s on painkillers.” 

“What happened?” I knew Melody’s words weren’t meant to throw Isla into a panic, but considering her own recent hospital stay, I doubted the word painkillers would be used in any sort of positive context. “Why does she have stitches?” 

“She fainted and bumped her head. She has a slight concussion, but she will be just fine. She needs some rest. Which is why I’ll be staying with you guys tonight?” 

In my sleep altered mind, I didn’t appreciate the thought of her hanging around. I longed for someone else to take care of me, but was more than self-aware enough to know I wouldn’t call him. I needed time to think and decided what I was going to do. 

I found myself in my own bed and sunk into its’ comforts. 

JPOV 

I tried Claire on her mobile more than a dozen times and reached her voicemail. Eventually, it went straight to voicemail instead of ringing. I didn’t know if she was avoiding me or if her work was busy, or her phone died. 

I kent very well she arrived back in Boston. I checked online for arrivals, and her flight arrived early. 

Isla texted me from her phone. She was on her way to stay with a friend for the evening as her mother had a late shift to work. She told me their flights were fine and her grandmother picked her up at the airport. 

Bree sulked her way into the house and I wanted nothing but to see her smile. She was upset about being left behind, and I sympathized with the lass. She pushed food around her plate at lunch before excusing herself to her room. 

Jenny smiled sadly. “She was upset at the airport. There were a few tears on the way back. She’s not used to being on her own. I think if ye give it some time, she’ll adjust.” 

I hated that her mother and sister’s departure was having such a negative effect on Bree. I missed my smiley girl. In her place was doom and gloom. She spent much of the night in her room crying and I was useless to stop it. I had never really done it aside from when she was a bairn and the reasons for her tears were easier to determine. 

As soon as she left, I knew it was a mistake for me to allow her to leave like that. 

“What are ye thinking?” Something on my face must’ve registered to Jenny because she was instantly suspicious of me, and rightly so because I was slowly formulating a plan. “Are ye really considering what it is I think ye are?” Her face reflected her feelings on the matter. Her eyes held caution, but there was a small spark of hope as well. 

I ran a hand through my hair. “I dinna ken what ye are talking about. My priority at the moment is to make sure Bree is alright. I haven’t had time with her like this in years. Say hello to Ian and the whole family for me, and dinna worry so much Jenny.” I kissed her head and walked her to the door. 

I loved my sister dearly, but she meddled far too much in my life. She meant well, but she couldn’t help but mother me after the death of our mother. She took on the responsibility, and while I was thankful I preferred her to simply stay my sister. 

She didn’t particularly enjoy being reminded she had no control over my life, but she backed off and chose to give me a hug with a look that said “I hope you know what you’re doing.” I hoped I did as well. 

I glanced at the paperwork I started months ago. I had made a final decision. 

CPOV  

Four weeks later 

Rest and no stress did wonders for me. There was still a dull throbbing sensation in my head, but the pain was much less intense. I had some pain medication Melody picked up for me on the way home, and there was a glass of nightstand with two pills ready for me. Within a few days, the stitches were removed and there was only a tiny scar along my hairline. 

Melody and her wife were godsends. Callie helped with Isla, as I was mostly on the receiving end of the silent treatment. My eleven year old refused to speak to me unless it was absolutely necessary, and even then there was an exchange of glares. 

She hadn’t forgiven me for what happened between her father and I. In the beginning, she was mindful of my concussion, but as soon as I returned to work, her attitude did a complete 180. My sweet child was replaced with a gloomy, angsty adolescent. 

There were a couple of slammed doors resulting in a few screaming matches between the two of us, which was an entirely new development in our relationship. I preferred not to raise my voice, but the child was driving me mad. I believed it was her intent. Every time I attempted to talk to her, she refused my presence and shut down until I left. I heard her chatting with her friends through FaceTime until I finally took her iPad away from her. I wanted her to talk to me. 

Then the intensity of her anger increased tenfold. She delivered her first “I hate you”. Her eyes smoldered a deep blue as her nostrils flared. Her cheeks were flushed with the force of her words. Immediately following her proclamation she ran up the stairs to her bedroom and didn’t come out for an entire day. Loud, angry music reverberated throughout the house, and I had to yell at her several times to turn it down. 

The weeks were rough and the only time we were in each other’s company for a significant amount of time without an argument was when we video chatted with Bree. We pretended as if everything were fine on the home front. Neither of us wanted to upset Brianna.

My poor little baby girl was miserable. While she relished in all of the alone time with her father, it was never her intention to be there all on her own. She didn’t know any child aside from the little girl she met. They’d met up a couple of times over the course of the past month, but Bree missed her friends at home. She missed her bed and her friends. She wanted to be home already.

“Mommy,” her face was wet with her tears. “I just want to be there.” My heart ached as I longed to hold her in my arms and sit with her in the rocking chair. “I’m glad Uncle Tom and I fly out tomorrow.” 

She left Jamie’s yesterday with Tom. They flew into London and he showed her some of the sights like the London Eye and Big Ben. Then he took her to a favorite pub of ours from when we were children and they had fish and chips. 

I smiled. “Well soon enough I’ll get to hold you and I won’t let go until next year. How does that sound?” I asked her. I considered Isla’s disposition might change as soon as her sister returned. I was missing the sunny girl who radiated warmth and love, but somehow lost that side of herself. There was a stranger currently inhabiting her body. I worried about what it meant for the next several years of my life. Was this going to be my new normal?

Part of her frustration was the slow going pace of physical therapy. While she made strides, there was always room for more improvement. Her leg was improving and she could get up and down the stairs with minimal assistance. She still had some twinges of pain and days where she relied on her crutches. It didn’t help that field hockey tryouts were that week. She had to miss out on it. She would be at the tryouts as part of her duties for team manager, but she was disappointed that she couldn’t do anything. 

A Cheshire cat smiled spread across Bree’s face. “I can’t wait. Do you think I could get a cheeseburger when I get home?” I bit back a smile at her request. “I want something very American.” 

“Yes, anything you’d like lovey. You’re my weary traveler after all.” 

Her head turned and low murmurs were exchanged. “Uncle Tom says it’s time to sleep. I love you so much mommy.” 

“And I you sweetheart. Good night and I’ll see you in the morning.” 

I sighed as we ended the call. I missed her entirely too much over the last few weeks. It was strange with only Isla and myself occupying the house. It was different from our usual summers. I tried to do things with her on my days off, but she wasn’t as receptive to the idea. She shrugged me off when I suggested anything.

The front door opened and luckily didn’t slam for once as Isla returned home. She was in a surly mood when she left last night, and I fretted the trend might continue. 

She entered the living room with her hair tied up in a knot. Her shorts clung to her legs and her t-shirt was knotted at the side. Before my eyes seemed to transform into a young woman, and I had no idea when it happened. We would have to go shopping to replace some of her wardrobe. 

“Mommy,” her voice trembled as her delicate features crumbled into despair. 

I was off the couch and wrapping my arms around her as she dissolved into tears. I held her tight and waited until she felt ready to talk. 

Her sobs eventually turned into sniffles as she slowly pulled back. Her grip was still tight around me. “My stomach hurts. And then there was blood.” 

My face softened as comprehension dawned on me as to what happened. “Your period started. Oh darling, come on.” I ushered her up to my bathroom. “We’ve talked about it, and I did give you a pad to keep.” 

She nodded her head pathetically. “It was a shock. There was a lot of blood in my underwear.” 

I seated her on the toilet and began a mini explanation. I didn’t fall on clichés. “It’ll happen once a month, and sometimes it can get irregular especially if you stay active. It’ll last somewhere between three to seven days. You might have symptoms that allow you to know when it’s coming.” 

“Why does my stomach hurt?” I silently enjoyed the childish innocence in her voice. 

I smoothed back her loose hair. “Well your uterus expands during this time, and your experiencing mini contractions that we call cramps. They range in intensity. Some girls never get them. They can usually be controlled with pain medication like Midol or Advil. Any sort of pain reliever works.” I pressed a kiss to her head. “It’s really your body transitioning to being a woman. It won’t always be this bad. You were unprepared for it.” 

She buried her face in my stomach and I ran my fingers through her tangled locks. “It’s all right.” I said soothingly. “How about I make your favorite for dinner and we binge on ice cream afterwards in my bed?” 

She nodded. “Can I take a nap before then?” Her bottom lip jutted out into a pout. 

I was reminded of how young she was, and how she still needed me in her life. Eleven wasn’t that old. In that moment, I found myself thankful she was there with me because I could share in this special time in her life. “Here’s two Tylenol, it should help relieve the pain. After your nap, you’ll feel much better.” 

She swallowed both pills with some water. “Tuck me in?” I grinned and followed her into her bedroom. It was a disaster area as she wasn’t up to cleaning, and I wasn’t in the mood for anymore arguments. “I’m sorry mom.” I lifted my brow as I considered her. “I’ve been terrible to you for the last month, and I want you to know I don’t actually hate you. It’s been frustrating not being able to do anything. Practice starts in a few days, and I still have physical therapy. The team has been picked and I’m sad.” I tucked a strand behind her ear as I just listened to whatever came out. “I was really excited for the season.”

Isla was never able to mask her emotions and I saw the conflict in her eyes. “I guess I didn’t know how much I truly wanted you and dad back together until I saw you guys in Scotland. But then Bree reminded me of Peter, and that there were other people involved. Peter isn’t bad and it wouldn’t really be a bother if you married him. He’s pretty cool.” 

It was hard to hide my deep sigh. “Honey, I know it’s a confusing time for you. There have been a lot of changes in a short amount of time, but I want you to know that you and your sister will always be my first priority.” I tapped her nose as she frowned thoughtfully. I knew she didn’t fully understand the situation, nor did I expect her to as her age.

“Your dad and I were good together a longtime ago, but sometimes people aren’t meant to be with one another. We weren’t ready for it.” 

“I guess. I don’t think I really understand.” Her brows crinkled. 

“I know in the movies and television love seems almost simple. If you love someone, you inevitably end up together, but real life doesn’t work out the way you want. Love can be like a fairytale, but the truth is it’s hard work. It isn’t magic. There aren’t any guidelines for what to do, and sometimes they fall apart. It doesn’t mean you never loved that person. It doesn’t negate the experience either. You discover new things about yourself. Falling in love is the easy part, it’s the making it last that’s hard. It’s why all the movies end when characters get together. People don’t always want what’s real.”

Her lips were downturned and the room was silent. Her eyes were shut and I almost thought she fell asleep. “I get it mom. Hollywood is full of lies.” I snorted. “Soulmates are just perpetuated by the movie industry to help people escape reality.”

“You’re funny. Now go to sleep.” I kissed her hair. “I love you.”

“I love you too, mommy.” She murmured. 

Chapter Text

CPOV 

Dear Jamie, I started in my journal. I never intended for him to read the words I wrote but in the beginning my therapist encouraged me to write letters to him as a way for me to express the things I could never say when we were together. It was a cowardly approach, but I would never be able to admit any of this to his face. 

All of my life I relied on the usage of words to assist me in whatever endeavor I was going through. If I needed to argue, I had the words to properly make my case and assure a victory for myself. If I needed an apology, I knew the sorts of words that made forgiveness easier for the receiver to hand out. 

My mother told me when I was thirteen, one day words would betray me if I kept wielding them like they were a sword to protect me from all the hurts of the world. I built a wall around my heart to safeguard my feelings because if experiencing the pain my mother suffered after my father’s passing was any indication, love was a lot more trouble than it was worth. Even now there’s still some truth to that. I’ve loved a few times, and the pain sucks. However, it reminds me that I’m here. 

I ruminated heavily throughout my early teens as I considered how many sorts of things had to go right in the world for a person to discover someone that was right for them.

I went through a fascination with the gods of old and discovered how man and women were once one creature with a shared soul, but the gods were jealous of tis fact. They punished humans by separating the soul so that a person regardless of if they were man or woman walked around with only half a soul. They traipsed through searching for the other half to make them whole. 

While that’s nice in theory, I think soulmates are hogwash. It’s about making it work with someone. I was talking with Isla and I realized that I fell out of love with the idea of a perfect match. There can never be someone who is wholly perfect for you. It’s about being ready. You’ve got to be ready to earn someone. Timing plays a huge role in the durability of a relationship. You and your significant other have to be ready and want the same outcomes. 

While we had similar goals in our relationship, we weren’t on the same page about how to achieve them. We had never sat down and planned out how envisioned our future beyond us finishing school. That’s on us. We weren’t prepared for what came next. 

I’ve always had a fondness for poetry, Walt Whitman is one of my favorites. He wrote a poem about passing strangers. 

Passing stranger! You do not know how longingly I look upon you, 

You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream,) I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me, 

I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only nor left my body mine only, You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone, 

I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again, I am to see to it that I do not lose you 

The crazy part was I understood the exact meaning after I met you. We were two passing strangers on a train to London, and somehow during the ride we’d connected on a deeper level. We kept meeting again because we were both aware there was the potential for more. Our story together was just beginning.  

I’m not sure if you were aware, but I wasn’t good at socializing with my peers. I’d had the same friends since reception. I never spoke to strangers, yet you intrigued me and challenged me in a way no one ever had. Part of me was praying that you wouldn’t talk to me. I had formulated my own macabre views about the world and had decided I didn’t need anyone else in my life.

The more time we spent together, the more I began to see how all the strings between us interconnected to create a beautiful tapestry. 

I could’ve simply gone on from that day without acknowledging your presence again. It was years later, I realized a stranger could be someone you knew. I slept beside you for months, but I marveled and wondered at the stranger next to me. How did I go from knowing everything about you to suddenly feeling like an outsider in your presence? It baffled me and I hated it. 

The day we signed those papers, I realized perhaps it wasn’t in the cards for us during this lifetime. We’ve had many where we enjoyed one another’s company and others where death and life separated us. It’s chilling in a way to think that sometimes we have to circumvent fate. In this life, I think we were too stubborn and persistent to wait for our time. 

The thing is we are out of time. I waited for a long time. I struggled in the aftermath of Paris. My heart was in ruins for ages after. I thought I pushed you away forever and resolved myself to accepting that. Then it turns out you came back more than once. I keep telling myself it wouldn’t have changed anything, but I can’t honestly say that

It is possible that things would be very different if the line had been straight and not forked. It didn’t work out like that and Jamie, I’ve had to let you go. I can’t stay in relationship limbo. I can’t put my heart out there again. I guess I’m a coward too. There are too many risks where you’re involved, and I can’t take them. I’m going to marry Peter.

All my love,

Claire 

The pen slipped from my fingers with a gentle thud onto my desk. I’d harbored a resentment against him for a longtime, but with every passing moment in Scotland, I realized those feelings of hurt never want away. I got better at hiding them. Too many times we tried to recover something that couldn’t be saved. We kept coming together, but every time we failed. The universe was sending us a message. We would never be able to get it right. 

The door was thrown open and several preteen girls rushed inside. With the return of my daughters, their friends were welcomed back into the fold to create an atmosphere of loud squeals and screams at most hours of the day. 

Isla’s walking had improved after six weeks with her no longer needing the crutches. Her spirits were brighter and she smiled more often, but still it lacked warmth when directed at me. 

I tried to continue my method of patience with her, but my frustration steadily increased as she continued with her ignoring me policy. Apparently her starting her period was a temporary ceasefire. 

Bree was different. There was an air of maturity surrounding her that hadn’t existed when she left Boston or when I left her. It clung to her like a new dress, and I found myself in constant surprise how she adopted the role of mediator and helped out regularly around the house. 

She remembered to pick up her sports equipment without my having to issue any warnings. Her team eagerly welcomed her back for the season, and she was anticipating the upcoming tournaments. They were traveling to Florida in a few months for a huge one, and she was excited because her team was taking a trip to Universal Studios whether they won or lost. 

Long arms wrapped around my neck as lips met my cheek. “Hi mommy,” Bree greeted happily. “What are you doing?” Her eyes peered curiously at my journal, which I promptly closed. 

My secrets were my own, and I didn’t need my daughters mixed up in matters not concerning them. “Just some writing,” I told her as she left the room for the kitchen. 

They said teenage boys ate a lot, but they honestly had nothing on a room full of preteen girls. I was constantly shopping for snacks and asking who was staying for dinner to get an idea of serving portions. The house was busier than ever with the constant hustle. 

We left for Martha’s Vineyard the day after next, but the girls were already packed unlike at the beginning of summer when we rushed to finish their last minute preparations before they departed for Scotland. I triple checked they’d packed everything they’d need for the trip. It was going to be a short weekend trip.

I needed the time away to gather my thoughts and relax with my daughters and our friends. I hadn’t had any downtime all summer. There were multiple doctor’s appointments, my job, the few weeks I spent in Scotland, and my concussion. 

“Hey Mrs. Fraser,” Reagan Thompson, one of Bree’s friends greeted me upon entering the room. I’d known her since Bree was in pre-school, and it was amazing to watch all of these children grow up. 

Her parents were lovely and helped out with the girls as often as they could. Reagan’s dad was a stay at home dad while her mother started her own law firm. “Hey Rey, how are you?” She recently returned from her own vacation. 

She sat across from me with her chestnut colored curls fluttering behind her as a gentle sigh fell from her rosebud colored lips. “I’m okay,” she shrugged her shoulders. “My mom lost a baby.” My heart went out to Mia Thompson. They tried for years to have a second baby, but it seemed luck wasn’t in their favor. 

“I’m sorry,” I slid my hands across the wooden tabletop to cover hers. 

Her fingers were long, delicate, and nimble. I had experience with the pain her mother was suffering through, but I didn’t know what to say to comfort a young child. Her small features crumbled until she dissolved completely into tears. I rounded the table and drew into my embrace. “Shush, lovey it’s quite alright.” I rocked her as sobs overwhelmed her young body. 

Eventually, Reagan pulled back, brushing away her tears. I pushed her hair away as I cupped her face. “I promise it’ll get better. I know you were looking forward to being a big sister, but sometimes life doesn’t work the way we want it to. It’s hard to understand at nine.” Lord knows I didn’t accept that until I was much older than her. “Right now, you should be there for your mom and dad. I’m sure they need you a lot.” 

She nodded against my shoulder as her fingers dug into the skin around my ribs. “Thanks, Aunt Claire,” it should’ve occurred to me when I was addressed as Mrs. Fraser something was off with her.  

I was a bit preoccupied however with the decisions I made in my own life recently. I had been inattentive regarding a lot of things.  

“Why don’t you go find Bree? She might have her own story to tell,” I patted her backside to move her along. “You can always come to me Rey.” Reagan briefly turned around to offer a smile before leaving the room to find Bree. 

It was something I never desired to have in common with Mia. She was a good friend and I would never wish sorrow like that on my worst enemy. She and Chris tried for ages and she had just made it into the second trimester. I wearily rubbed my brow as I thought about sending a flower arrangements and a card. When we returned from our holiday, I would pop by for a visit to cheer her up and ask if she needed anything. 

Although I expected the answer to be no because I knew the loss she felt. She would brush away any help.

2013 

Dr. Meadows stared at me with those patient, understanding eyes of hers. She was keenly aware of my denial, et didn’t force me to come to any sort of realizations. Instead she provided me the space to work through my thoughts and somehow a breakthrough on my own was the real progress. 

“Claire, tell me about what you wrote.” Dr. Meadows was around ten years older than me with a kind, open face. It was a little round as she’d recently given birth. The dark tinged circles under her eyes told the story of her sleepless nights, yet she appeared weekly at our sessions, ready for anything. Her caramel colored hair was pulled back into a casual French twist, her make-up soft and light. 

I fingered the pages of my journal as I tried to find the words. My brain possessed them, but my mouth refused to translate the struggle occurring inside of me. 

“Every morning I wake up Jamie, and for those first few waking moments I’ve forgotten. I don’t remember the seemingly endless arguments, the constant disagreements over pointless things that mean nothing now. It’s in those innocent times when I open my eyes to the sun filtering through my curtains that I can still pretend.” The tears came steadily and fell onto the page creating a few ink smudges. 

The smudges reminded me of my life with Jamie, a circle with blurred edges. We were a perfect circle in the beginning until the flood came and ruined it all. 

I stared at them briefly before continuing to read the words that flowed onto the page. “The memories hurt worse each time. I remember how we stayed in bed until the absolute last second and talked about everything. The first time we woke up together, I was swept away in the wonderful feeling of your arms and the silly things we said. Then it hits me like a tidal wave. The memories unwind and play quickly through my brain, and then I’m saying goodbye to you all over again. My heart is breaking all over again, and I can’t stop it. Then I get stuck on Paris, and wish I could take it back.” 

Before I can continue, Dr. Meadows gently covered my hand with her own. Slowly, my eyes lifted to meet hers and I saw how I affected her with my words. The glassiness of her eyes clued me into how she tapped into the pain of my emotions. 

She pried away the journal from my fingers before retreating to her side of the room. “Claire,” a sigh escaped her as she tried to figure out exactly what she said. I’d never seen her speechless before, and my heart constricted at the thought of breaking my therapist. She tucked an errant strand of hair as her eyes fixated on the notebook in her hands. “Does it hurt to write the letters? Please be honest. We don’t have to continue with this exercise.” 

If I couldn’t tell the truth, I chose not to speak. While it wasn’t my choice to start therapy, the benefits were astounding. For the first time in my life, my mind wasn’t bogged down with dark and depressing thoughts. I felt lighter. I wasn’t straining myself when discussing uncomfortable topics. 

“In the beginning, I felt like glass. It hurt and I broke each time. I shattered on the floor, but then it helped the more we continued. If I couldn’t tell him in person, I wanted it documented somewhere. It hurts more because I want it the way it was. I want to go back to the simplicity of our relationship, but I know it’s impossible. It’s like a hurricane. At first, it’s a light rain. Then it turns into a pour down with fast paced winds until it floods and trees are uprooted and nothing is like it was.” 

She leaned back into her recliner as she absorbed the full impact of my words. “I want you to continue to write if you think it helps. Sometimes writing it down helps a person to let go. Issues remain unresolved if you,” she points her index finger in my direction. “Don’t have a conversation. You don’t actually need the other person to respond because the issues are more with yourself than with them. Unfortunately as humans, one of our problems is our inability to forgive ourselves for our perceived mistakes. I want you think about what I’ve said as you write to Jamie.”


JPOV 

Her sea blue eyes stared at me with a hidden depth. While there was an innate sadness hidden in her ocean orbs, I knew the emotions brewing underneath. She was lonely and lacking the people in her life who offered and provided comfort to her. She wanted to go home, and I couldn’t begrudge her that. I remembered being her age and being away from home.

Her hand clung to mine as we entered the airport. There was giddiness in her vibrating body. In 48 hours, she would be across the Atlantic with her mam and sister. 

Shyly, she peered up at me with an unasked question in her sparkling eyes. “Daddy, are you sure you’ll be fine?” 

Bree was a kind, headstrong soul who loved freely and fiercely. Her heart was gentle and she despised the thought of any poor soul in pain. She was protective. “I’ll be fine baby girl.” I picked her up into my arms and her legs wrapped around my hips. “Soon enough I willna be able to do this anymore.” 

A giggle tickled the small hairs of my ear and I relished in the youthful sound. “Are you going to miss me?” Her voice came out far more vulnerable than I expected. 

The last several weeks were a strange mix of madness and fun as I spent individual time with my youngest daughter for the first time since she was an infant. It was strange for me to realize she and Isla were two completely different people with contrasting personalities that strangely worked well together. 

On her own, Bree was different. She was open and adventurous, but could flip a switch and become the exact opposite. She had a temper and hated when she didn’t get her way. It was fascinating to be with her like this. 

“I want to be taller.” She informed me cheerfully. “I want to be as tall as you.” Her arms squeezed tightly around my neck. 

I placed her back on the ground and she beamed up at me. There was a small gap where she lost a tooth over the summer. I’d never played tooth fairy before, but I called Jenny and asked her about it. I placed a few pounds under her pillow. She crowed the next morning over breakfast about how the tooth fairy was international and brought different money depending on the location. She said it was more than she got at home. Oops. 

A week ago, she came to me begging me to take her somewhere to get her hair cut. She wanted a different look. Her curls now rested an inch or two below her shoulders. 

“Dinna wish to grow so quick, aye?”

“Aye da,” she immediately agreed. 

I couldn’t keep the grin off my face as she imitated the Scottish brogue. They were American through and through.

Claire’s accent had lessened over the years, and had a hint of American in it too. It wasn’t unpleasant, just strange to hear. 

It was how I knew where she had made her home. She was a stronger woman who knew her place and had finally allowed herself to settle. Claire spent all those years searching for a home after the one she had was ripped apart by her father’s death. We made a home together, and it was one of the first times in her life where she felt protected and loved, where she knew she belonged. 

I sighed at the thought. I hadn’t heard from Claire since she left. Isla said her mam constantly worked and spending her time with Peter. Apparently, she and her mother hadn’t been getting on recently, and Isla was disgruntled with her current grounding. 

I grasped Bree’s little hand as I rolled her suitcase. Her backpack was stuffed full of books and whatever else nine year old girls carried around with them. Bree found a bookstore and purchased several books about Scottish history, clans, and anything else that caught her interest. She fancied herself a junior historian. 

“It’s my ancestors’ story daddy,” her eyes were wide and wanting. I couldn’t deny her, her heritage. 

We walked to over to the check-in where we were met with Tom Beauchamp. “Hello Jamie,” he had such an easy going smile. 

Everything always rolled off of him like rain. I’m sure he had his struggles like everyone else, but Tom never allowed things to fester inside of him like his sister. He preferred to be honest about his feelings and to express himself. He was the polar opposite of Claire and it was almost refreshing. 

“Good morning Tom,” we exchanged hugs and Bree grinned at him. 

He pretended to be surprised at the sight of her. “Are you sure I have the right girl? She’s tall and skinny like a bean pole. I honestly think you’ve messed up mate.” He winked at her before lifting her up and spinning her around. “Look at you gorgeous girl,” he kissed her hair before setting her back on her feet. “You’re going to be taller than your mum soon. You don’t get that from your mother, but your looks definitely come from our side.” 

Bree giggled into her hands as she glanced at me not so covertly. “Alright my ruadh bhàn a ghalad,” I handed over her suitcase to Tom as I kneeled and took her hands into mine. “I’ve had a wonderful summer with ye, and while it didn’t quite go to plan, I wouldna change a thing about it. We’ve had some fun, and I had ye all to myself. When ye get to yer Uncle Tom’s, I want ye to call me and before you leave tomorrow back to Boston.” 

Her hair slid forward as she dover for my arms and I received a mouth full of ginger. I spit out her hair as my arms wrapped around her small body. It seemed impossible she was almost ten when I easily recalled the day she was born and how she barely fit in my arms, yet it seemed they were meant to hold her. 

“Tha gaol agam ort,” she whispered into my ear and I nearly cried. I kent very well she loved me, but hearing it in my tongue was even better. “I practiced a lot this summer because I wanted you to know even though you’re far away, you’re still my daddy and I love you.” Her cheeks reddened at her admission. I couldn’t love her more if I tried. 

“Thank ye Bree,” I gently tugged on a strand of her hair before gesturing for Tom to cut in. “I’m going to miss ye.” 

Her eyes sparkled with unshed tears as she clutched tightly to her uncle’s hand. “Bye daddy,” her voice trembled as they headed for security. 

I waved at her when she turned back towards me and nearly cried myself at the sight of her departing. I was alone again. 

1 month later 

I smelled the salt coming off the water and smiled as the memories washed over me. It was nearing the end of summer and soon enough the water would cool and wait until next year to warm once again. 

“You know I would say you’ve got quite the bollocks.” A voice taunted.

 I smirked as she joined me on the bench. “Why would ye say that?” 

“Well you don’t call, text, or tell people about your plans.” Her eyes glittered with mischief as she joked with me. “A girl might start to get a complex when a guy calls her for the first time to tell her he’s completely lost his mind.” 

This woman was honestly too much. “I didna think madness has taken possession of me.” 

She scrutinized me carefully. “I would have to agree. You’re not the type to be motivated by such things. However, you’ve got a battle ahead of you with one of the most stubborn creatures to ever walk the planet. I hope you’re ready to fight because she’s not going to come easily.”

“Do ye think I’ve made the right decision?” I tried to hide my anxiety. While I tended to the impulsive side of things and allowed life to carry me in multiple directions, I still felt the sensation of apprehension when there was a high probability of everything going wrong. 

Her eyes softened slowly as she fully appraised me and I saw the worth shining back at me. “Well duh, I’ve been silently rooting for you all along.” There was a calming effect associated with her, and I wondered what it was about her that allowed a person to bare their soul. She listened without the need to interrupt or speak, but presented a person with the opportunity to lay their perceived sins. “You’re a good Catholic man, and I know how much religion means to you.” She added with a meaningful look. “It’s one thing to attend church weekly, but you go to confession, you’re a god fearing man, and you allow him to guide you in life. I can appreciate that even if I don’t follow it myself. She does though.” 

It seemed strange to hear someone explain me in that way, but it was accurate. I lived by certain testaments in my life and I tried to follow when I could to the path god chose for me. I didn’t always like where he led me, especially in recent memory as those places were filled with some of the lowest moments of my life. 

“Jamie, what do you miss most about her?” My therapist knew me quite well to ken very well I was avoiding the topic of Claire in our sessions. 

I froze at her question because there were so many things I missed about her. There was a Claire sized gaping hole in my life, and it wasn’t easily replaced. The problem with finding one’s other half early on in life was the difficulty in keeping them there at your side for the remainder of it. Statistically young marriages didn’t work. Perhaps it’s the folly of youth and the conceited nature of young people as they began the journey from adolescence into adulthood. 

I found myself wrapped up in everything but my wife. “To be honest with ye, I miss just talking with her.” Before we were ever Claire and Jamie, we were friends who talked on the phone and spent their free time together. There was no added pressure of a relationship and the need to constantly spend time together. It was optional, and we chose to do so instead of feeling the pressures of society. 

I didn’t mind being around her, in fact I preferred my life when she was near me. It was as if I could breathe for the first time in years. When my mother passed when I was twelve and my father when I was nineteen, it seemed as if my life wouldn’t be okay ever again. 

I met her in the in-between period and somehow with her there at my side, everything was made better. I felt as if I were whole again. “In the beginning, we were friends who told each other everything. We talked about losing a parent, siblings, school, our interests, and anything else we could think of at the time. I could talk to her for hours on end and never find myself bored.” 

A wrinkle formed between her brow as she regarded me silently before jotting down some notes in her notebook. When our sessions first began, she was worried about my mental state in the aftermath of a huge development in my personal life. The better part of a decade was with one person who constantly occupied my every living thought. 

“Why do ye avoid talking about her when ye love her still? Does it still hurt to mention the profound impact you’ve had on one another and how much space in her life she occupied?” 

I rubbed my sweaty palms onto the harsh fabric of my jeans. The world shrunk to the size of the office, and the world shone in clarity. All of my senses were heightened and I heard the tick of the clock, her breathing, my breathing, the scratch of the pen across paper, and every other little noise in and out of the room. 

My eyes slid shut as I forced myself to concentrate on the provocative questions. I intended to deliver an answer to her, but the problem was I didn’t know how to answer truthfully. 

Divorce was never discussed between us until those last few months where the weight of the world nearly crushed us. Atlas couldn’t have stopped it from falling on us. 

We were two individuals sailing off in different directions without knowing we were doing so until the gulf between us widened and stretch until it resembled something quite different from where we started. It was strange how that worked. 

“Her name brings me unbearable agony, and when I hear Claire, I picture her face.” 

“How does it make you feel?” 

I dug my nails into my palms and felt the sting of air on an open wound. It was how it felt to hear Claire’s name. Every time she was mentioned, it was the metaphorical salt. “It hurts so much. It’s hard because then the memories assault me. I dinna want to always remember the good and bad. It comes so soon and I canna prevent it. I hear her voice sometimes, and it pains me all over again because I kent very well where she is.” Blood trickled out of one of the crescent shaped marks, but I ignored it. 

She folded her hands on her lap. “What do ye wish happened Jamie? I ken what occurred between ye, but do ye wish it had gone differently? Where do ye think ye’d be if it had?” 

My eyes drifted close again as I thought about the relationship I shared with her. We had our highs and lows, and the lows nearly always obliterated us. The water kept rising and rising until we were basically drowning in our own love. “I’m not sure I’d change it at least how it all ended. The moments leading up to it, I would’ve behaved differently, but that’s a privilege that comes with hindsight. I know I would still travel miles just to hold her hand or hear her voice. I just want to be around her, and sometimes in the haziness of the morning I forget. I’m convinced for a few moments, nothing has changed. Then it hurts again to realize how much it has changed.” 

Her face remained impassive, but the air in the room thickened at my admission. She wasn’t all too sure what to say about my co-dependency. She made it clear she thought it was unhealthy, and we worked on ways for me to allow Claire to remain in the past instead of clouding my future. However, the problem was she was my future. 

Every waking moment hurt because I constantly felt like I was breaking into tiny pieces, which refused to be put back together. 

“Can I ask you something?” I jerked my head. “Why do you focus on her instead of yerself? You talk about your feelings in relation to her, but you never go into depth about your feelings outside of her. You’ve expressed a bit of yer frustration, but I think that’s only the tipping point.”

The problem was she was too observant. If I talked about those other things then it would open the gates for other things to come through. Jenny had told me it was time to focus on myself and leave Claire behind. None of this was about her. It was about what I needed. 

I sighed. “I hated her.”

Her brows scrunched together in confusion. It was the last thing she expected. 

“Perhaps that’s too strong of a word, but I did resent her. I was frustrated with how she took control of everything and her privilege. I quit school to take care of my family. I dinna regret that. However, I was angry. It wasn’t her who had to drop everything. I was the man of the household and my father had taught me to take my responsibilities seriously. So I did.” I had pushed it all aside. 

“Is that what you wanted?”

“No, but I couldn’t let her drop out of medical school. She had worked hard for that.”

“You worked hard to get your master’s. Why should one negate the other?”

“I ken what ye’re saying, but I did it. We got into a fight about it later. She was angry I had done it without consulting her. I took a job from a company I had interned with. The benefits were great and so was the pay. The babies just kept coming.” That was horrible to say. “I love my children, but Claire and I should’ve talked more openly about our timeline. We hadn’t planned much beyond finishing school, and then there was Isla, Bree, and G-Gabriel,” I stuttered over his name. “We really needed a house and not an apartment, but we were living solely off my income. Neither of us wanted to ask for a handout, and then she mentioned how she would have her trust fund. She wanted to use it to buy our house.” My fists clenched. I wasn’t over that discussion. 

“You didn’t want to use the money.” It wasn’t a question.

“She said some things about my ego and we fought some more. It’s different for her. She’s had money her whole life. My parents had a farm. My father worked hard to send me to school and when he died, I worked to put myself through school. That money is Claire’s not ours. I couldn’t use it for something that would’ve been ours.” She did use it to buy herself a home after I left. 

“You wanted balance.” 

I nodded, agreeing with that. “I suppose it was why I could talk to Britney. She was like me. She didn’t come from money. She came from a small town and worked to better herself. I did share too much with her in the end and we crossed some lines that we shouldn’t have. They blurred and I regret that.”

“You’re human. You can make mistakes, not every little thing is your fault. I know it feels as if it is, but Jamie, things happen. Was getting emotionally involved with another woman the right choice? That’s not for me to decide. You can choose to feel guilty about it for the rest of your life or you can work towards moving past it. You want to shoulder everything, but the only thing you have control over is your own reactions, feelings, and thoughts.”

“You’re one of a kind Jamie Fraser, I hope you’re aware not many are like you.” She nudged my shoulder softly. “I was jealous of you in the beginning. You leave quite an impression and a spot that’s not filled by anyone else.” 

“Then how did I lose it all?” 

A sad smiled appeared on her lips. “Shit happens. You couldn’t have stopped the train coming.” 

I recalled the coldness that enveloped me then and how I allowed it to fester and grow. I was scared and I permitted it to take root inside of me until it ruined all aspects of my life. “Yer right, shit happens. We did the best to save ourselves from a sinking ship, the ship being our relationship. I… well she pegged me as a coward, and while I dislike that she called me one, it’s not entirely inaccurate. I ran. I was scared.” 

A proud sort of look took up residence on her face as she peered at me. “When we are young, we do all sorts of stupid shit. We don’t have the life experience to know we are screwing up our lives and it’s entirely our fault. Being twenty something is still like being a child. You might have lived a bit, but you’re still maturing and trying to figure out your place in life and who you are. You had two kids, a wife in medical school, applying to residency programs with another child on the way, and a full time job to provide for all of you. There was another woman giving you attention that you weren’t getting at home and you were unhappy with how your life was turning out, not that it excuses anything.” I was always embarrassed by the way I acted when I was twenty-five. 

To most people, a twenty-five year old wasn’t all that different from a twenty year old. At the very least, they were out of could for about three years. However, they’re still just beginning in their career and setting up their lives. In hindsight, while I was a bit more mature than others my age, it was a direct result of the direction my life had gone. Losing my mother and brother affected me deeply, and then to watch as my father suffered in the aftermath of his heart attack, I aged faster. I had to grow up. 

When I met Claire, it finally felt like I was the correct age. She gave me a fresh take on life and provided the hope and faith I was searching for in my life. She allowed me to be whoever I wanted and provided a sense of stability in my otherwise unbalanced existence. 

“I think you’re a man with a lot more figured out now than ten years ago, and I think in the long run that’s what makes the difference. Don’t screw it up. I’m not sure I can cheer you on a second time if you ruin it.” Her lips twitched as her greenish eyes danced merrily with mirth. She was enjoying herself at my expense. “Well I’ve got places to be and people to see.” 

She held out her hand for me to shake, but instead I pulled her into a hug. “Thank ye,” I told her. 

Her eyes possessed confusion, but I shook my head as I’d explain it to her another time. “I’ve got to go, or else I’ll be late.” 

“Good luck Jamie,” she sent a thumbs up my way before rushing down the street with her keys in hand. 

It was now or never as I headed towards my own rental. “You can do this,” the whispered encouragement slid over my skin, warming me like a jacket to beat off the string of winter’s cold. 

Chapter Text

JPOV 

The car slid into the parking spot with ease as I observed my surroundings. I had never been here, but had been regaled with stories about the building before me. There was a flurry of cars, children, and parents. It was organized chaos.

I imagined all the tales told to me about this place and saw all them play before me like a movie. Cars lined up down the block as bodies exited quickly with hasty goodbyes and embarrassed kisses. Some people gathered on the sidewalk with tiny hands clutched in their own as they conversed with others. Nervous expressions lined the faces of more than one adult as they escorted a small child into the building. 

I saw the hair of a new fourth grader as she skipped merrily beside her mother, wearing a floral aqua colored backpack that was almost too big for her, but somehow it worked for her. The bag was filled with all of her school supplies and was nearly bursting with her belongings. I knew from our FaceTime call all about her new school supplies. It was one of her favorite things to do each year, especially as the years passed new supplies were added to the list. This year the teacher required black or blue pens. She had never gotten to use pens in school and it was exciting. 

Her plaid jumper complimented her fair coloring, and underneath she wore a short sleeved white blouse. It was green and blue, and she wore blue knee high socks. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail with a blue ribbon. A plaid hairband was placed on her head to match her jumper. She was ready for her first day. 

Bree’s mouth moved eagerly as she chattered away to her mother who smiled patiently down at her as they moved towards the school. It seemed a familiar routine for them, and I was suddenly nervous I was intruding on some sacred tradition. Claire and her mother had done all of the first day of school stuff up to this point. 

I hesitantly took a deep breath before exiting the car and moving towards them. It was now or never, and I wanted to show I was serious about my involvement in my children’s lives. I had a different plan for Claire that would take longer to enact. She wasn’t easy to win over. She would hold out and I was prepared for it.  

As if she sensed my presence, bright red hair swung in a short ponytail as the owner’s head swiveled in my direction. Her eyes widened comically as her mouth stopped moving and she dropped her mother’s hand before running in my direction. “Daddy!!” She screamed eagerly and a few heads turned in our direction, and more than one curious glance was sent my way by a few passing parents. 

I caught Bree in my arms as she lunged for me and held on tight to her petite form. I’d never had the opportunity to consistently marvel at the changes in the features of my children as my time with them was irregular. There were long stretches of time between visits, so the changes were more drastic. It was easy to note how in a few weeks she’d grown at least an inch taller. When a year passed there were always changes in the girls, and it scared me how easily a year passed. 

It was the small differences that made it hit home just how much I’d missed with raising my daughters and my heart ached for the lost time we could never recover. She pulled back to stare me in the eyes. Her eyes were a storm of excitement and conflict. “What are you doing here?” A divot formed between her brows as she considered the multitude of reasons for my sudden appearance. I had never escorted her or her sister to school once since they began attending school. 

“Well, my little girl is in the fourth grade, and it is her last first day at the school she’s been attending since she was five. I figured I should come for support.” 

The crease deepened and in my peripheral I noticed how Claire fidgeted at my presence. There was something off about her I couldn’t quite figure out. 

Bree carefully deliberated my words before seeming to accept them. “Well you know fourth grade isn’t that big of a deal,” she shrugged her shoulders self-consciously. “I mean next year is fifth grade and I’m going to a new school.” 

“I’ll be there then as well.” I knew what she was hinting at with her words, and I was providing her the reassurance she sought. Whether or not Claire and I worked out, I was remaining in Boston to watch my daughters grow up and to actively partake in raising them instead of performing the task from afar. 

Her arms wrapped tightly around my neck and I felt her hot tears as she buried her face in the crease of my neck. I kissed her hair, doing my best not to muss her hair. Slowly, she slid down as if suddenly realizing where she was. 

Her face warmed as she peered around. I supposed it was embarrassing to be caught embracing your father once you reached a certain age, and I guessed nine was where it was no longer cool. She grabbed my hand as her eyes caught mine. They were a beautiful shade of blue that was purely hers. “Come on, mommy is waiting. School doesn’t start for thirty more minutes, but I want to introduce you to some of my friends. Let’s go,” she ushered me over to her mother. 

We exchanged an awkward hug. “Hello Jamie, it’s good to touch you.” She paused. “I mean it’s good to see you.” She shook her head in confusion. I hid my smile. 

I felt her questioning gaze on me as we walked the halls of the school. I imagined the walls decorated with student artwork as the school year progressed. Bree pointed out her former classrooms to me as she waved at her old teachers who did double takes as we passed. 

Lots of people stared as we passed by them, and I realized it was more than likely the result of knowing Claire, Bree, and Isla. I kent that despite her busy work schedule, she was an involved parents and came to just about every school function. She was part of the PTA. She helped organize functions. I wanted to become heavily involved with their schools. 

The teachers gawked as we passed, and I knew many of them had Isla as well as there were only two teachers for each grade pre-k-5. I waved awkwardly at them, but mostly ignored them. 

We finally reached her classroom. Bree dropped our hands as she rushed to a group of girls who threw their arms around one another and squealed loudly. I’d heard stories about her friends, but it was the first time I had ever seen any of them. I was out of place. Bree had gone to school with most of these girls since pre-k/kindergarten. 

Her mouth and theirs moved rapidly as they caught up with one another, though I doubted it had actually been long since they last seen one another from what Claire had told me. Bree gestured at me without looking at me, but I saw as her friends stared at me with gaping mouths. Was my presence that unexpected?

What seemed like an agonizing slow pace was perhaps a few seconds before they surrounded me. “Daddy, I want to introduce you to my friends.” Her eyes were wide as she began her introductions. “This is Katie,” a blonde girl waved nervously at me from Bree’s left side. “This is my bestest friend ever Reagan,” she had chestnut colored hair and it was braided into two Dutch braids. Bree spoke about her the most. “This is Lucy, but we call her Luce.” Lucy was a strawberry blonde with similarly colored eyes as my own daughter. She had far more freckles than either of my children. She and Bree could almost pass as relatives with their similar appearances.

The girls all greeted me with a polite hello before excusing themselves as they flittered around the classroom. 

A woman a few years older than Claire and myself appeared before us, and Claire chatted with her. I realized belatedly it was the teacher. “This is Jamie Fraser, Bree and Isla’s father. Jamie, this is Mrs. Nicholson. She was Isla’s teacher three years ago.” 

Mrs. Nicholson had a few lines around her eyes, but a kind and welcoming smile. She held out her hand, which I firmly grasped. “Good morning Mr. Fraser, it’s lovely to meet you. Your daughter Isla was a delight to have in class. She’s in seventh grade now?” Her voice was tentative, but she sounded mostly sure. 

“Yes, she’s at Newton, and she adores the school.” Claire replied. “She’s grown a lot in the last three years, practically a teenager now. This is Bree, her little sister,” Bree stood nervously in front of her mother and twitched a little as Claire gently placed her hands on her shoulders. “This is her last year here too before we move her over into Isla’s school.” 

Mrs. Nicholson smiled delightedly. “I remember at the awards ceremony last year you won a special academic achievement award. You seem like a bright young girl and I heard from Ms. Tate that you are well behaved and a great helper. I look forward to having you in my class.” 

Bree’s face transformed before my very eyes as she suddenly stood taller with her chest slightly puffed out. “I achieved the highest marks in the third grade.” Bree never mentioned being the recipient of a prestigious school award. 

Soon enough we were saying goodbye to Bree as other parents began their departure. I knew she was in good hands, and she waved goodbye to us while shooing us out the room to begin her first day. We wouldn’t be missed. 

We were standing outside the school soon enough, and Claire hesitated over what to say. There was indecision carefully displayed on her face as she debated over several courses of action. “Jamie, I have something I’d like to show you before we have any conversations. Would you mind following me?” I shook my head in reply. 

She nodded simply as she headed towards her sleek SUV. She always drove a regular four door sedan in the past, but I supposed the girls were older and had a lot more things to pack in the car. 

I read her plates and bit back a smile: I06B08. She had customized her license plates with our daughters’ first initials and their birth years. 

It wasn’t until we were nearly at our destination that I recognized exactly where I was. I almost turned back more than once, but I made a promise to her. I refused to shy away from this. If we were to make any progress going forward whether it be friends or something else, at the very least this was something we should put to rest. 

I followed her through the gates and along the winding road with rows of stones each with a person gone but not forgotten. 

My eyes watered painfully as I refused to blink because I knew as soon as the rain came, it would flood with my tears. I couldn’t allow a downpour because I wasn’t sure if I could get it to stop if I started. I hadn’t visited since the day we left him here. 

Her car slowed until she parked on the side of the road. I parked mine behind hers, and I saw the day again almost like a movie playing inside of me head. 

“Jamie,” Jenny called softly to me, her voice a soothing caress. “Are ye ready?” Her dark blue eyes were wet, her cheeks flushed, and everything about her demeanor somber. It was the last phone call she had been expecting, but she had flown out immediately to support me. She had stood by my side at every funeral in my life and she would stand by my side as we buried my son. 

Of course she was sad, I thought bitterly. I hadn’t enjoyed a single happy thought since I woke up that morning. Almost immediately upon opening my eyes, I was swept away with an assault of memories. I recalled the phone call about my wife in the hospital, delivering our child. The pre-eclampsia caused her to deliver far too early, and Gabriel wasn’t developed enough to survive outside of her womb. 

When I laid my eyes on the tiny, carefully wrapped infant, I wept. 

The tears flowed until I was sobbing into his cold skin. I would never hear his heart beat outside of his mother, or listen to his first words. I wouldn’t watch him take his first steps, or as he fed from his mother’s breast. He wouldn’t have any firsts, not even a tiny puff of air would escape his lips. 

His minuscule features were birdlike, and there was no telling who he’d look like. His head had no hair, but I imagined he would’ve had tufts of brown fuzz. His skin should’ve been a nice peachy color with flushed cheeks. 

Instead in my hands was a baby that never lived. Gabriel was only an idea, and every morning I hesitated to wake because my dreams were far better than reality. 

As soon as Claire left the hospital, I checked into a hotel because I couldn’t bear to see her face. I felt responsible for the loss of our child. If I’d been there instead of out of town, I could’ve gotten her to the hospital. Yet, I was off on some trip with a co-worker who used the time to make a move for my affections. I fucked up again. The pressure was too much and it had boiled over. Hearing the news about Claire made everything worse. 

Claire wasn’t wrong when she accused the woman of having ulterior intentions. If she was right, what else was she right about? Were we quickly heading toward the edge? I realized immediately that I didn’t want Britney. While she was nice to talk to, she wasn’t the one I wanted to unload all of my woes to. I should’ve told Claire about my doubts, but I hesitated. Part of me didn’t want to. Talk to Britney was nice because she had no involvement in the situation. It was that weekend, I discovered she had ulterior motives all along. 

Claire was still asleep when they showed me my son. I cried for her, us, our family because there wasn’t a way for us to escape the unbearable pain of losing a child. It didn’t matter if we’d never met him. He was ours and then he was God’s. My eyes burned with the ferocity of my tears. I sniffled as I imagined the warmth his tiny body would’ve emanated. I called forward the image effortlessly after remembering his sisters as infants. The way his body would’ve molded to my own form as he buried his face in the warmth of my chest, seeking the solace of a parent’s comfort. 

I saw him chasing after his screaming sisters. Isla and Bree would’ve undoubtedly spoiled him and forced him into their games. He would’ve pestered them as they all aged and tried to spy when they no longer wanted to spend time with him. 

A drop fell onto his perfect, unmoving face. I saw him learning how to ride a bicycle, asking for advice about kissing girls, punching any boys who dared to mess with his sisters, and countless other events he’d never have a chance at. 

Slowly but surely, I lowered my head to tenderly place my lips on the cold skin of his forehead. For a moment I convinced myself he was alive, but it was all in my head. 

I gingerly tucked the blanket tighter around him before placing him back down. As soon as Claire awoke, they would bring him to her if she asked. The birth was a traumatic experience for her, and she nearly bled out as a result. She almost died, yet I was out there angry at her because of the row we had before I departed. 

Jenny flew in by herself, leaving the kids in the care of Ian. She told me she couldn’t allow me to go through this by myself. I tried to refuse her to no avail.

She placed my clothes out for me as I barely found the motivation to roll out of bed. The last several days had been too much for me to process let alone handle. Claire rejected my calls, refused my visits, and I stopped trying. In her mind, she associated Gabriel’s death with my actions, and I couldn’t say I wasn’t feeling that unbearable guilt myself. It nearly crushed me. I deserved the blame for what happened because I wasn’t there when she needed me most. I failed. 

It squeezed and tugged and pulled me further down. No one was blaming me (at least to my face), but I blamed myself. I hurled accusations at Claire when she revealed the pregnancy to me several months before. I implied a lot of things that night and then walked out. 

I drowned in my own guilt in the aftermath of that particular fight. The dried tear tracks on her cheeks haunted me in my nightmares. I did that to her. It seemed all I did was bring misery to everyone. 

The next morning she went about as if nothing occurred, but there was a wall in our relationship. It was one I couldn’t penetrate no matter how hard I tried. A layer of frost covered her, and nothing I did melted it. 

She tensed at my touch until I removed my hand. She slept as far from me as she could in our bed. She spoke to me when necessary. I started working later, spending time with my friend Britney, and otherwise ignoring Claire. If she thought it was hard on her, it was undoubtedly harder on me. I had to factor in the costs of another child, how we would afford a bigger place, and continue to pay our bills and feed ourselves. 

Claire and I were raised in vastly different lifestyles. She would deny being a spoiled rich kid, but there weren’t a lot of ways to describe it. Her mother didn’t need the money from her job. Her husband’s estate left her wealthy. Claire had a trust fund long before her father died thanks to her family’s business. She never had to worry about how she would cover the expenses of her schooling and uni. Most of her tuition was covered by scholarships, and her family paid the rest. I grew up on a modest sized farm. We were comfortable and it never bothered us we didn’t have more.

Claire sometimes had a cavalier attitude towards money. It wasn’t necessarily her fault, but we clashed on the subject on several occasions. The money would be available to her by the end of the year and she suggested we use it to buy or rent a house. We argued over it. It was her money. It was my responsibility to provide for our family and to figure out how to support our growing family. It was one of our many disagreements regarding the changes on the horizon. She called me an egotistical asshole and I called her some nasty names in return. 

It was in the aftermath of it all that regret seeped into my bones. We acted horribly. We should’ve sat down to figure it out how to stretch our budget to afford somewhere with more square feet. No matter what a child was a blessing, regardless if it was planned or not. By our actions, Claire and I conceived him, he hadn’t chosen us. We created him, and we were supposed to protect him. All I did was fail. 

I hadn’t meant the words I said to her, but the thing about words is once they’re spoken, you can’t ever really take them back. They are always there ready to be throw back in your face. They’re there in all of the unspoken arguments.The problem with words said in anger was some part of you always meant them. Claire and I meant what we said. We wanted to hurt each other.

Which brought us to this particular moment where we had to bury our child in the earth. We were officially giving him to God and the angels for protection, and he was no longer ours to nurture and take care of. We had to accept our shortcomings and failures and set it all aside for the funeral. 

I dressed myself on autopilot as I held back the sobs threatening to burst from my chest. There was an emptiness inside myself that I had no idea how to fill. It was just there the moment I let go of my son. 

Jenny tried to force a smile for me, but it came off as more of a grimace. I appreciated the effort, but I didn’t want her to coddle me today of all days. I wanted to freely feel the pain of my son’s death without anyone attempting to soothe me. I needed this. I had to do it alone. 

I nearly collapsed when I caught my first glimpse of the coffin. It was unbearably tiny, and coffins that size shouldn’t exist. The body inside was even smaller, and I was devastated. It took everything in me not to fall to my knees and wail and rage at God for the unfairness, from what he stole from us. 

I sat on one side of the aisle and Claire on the other. It was my river metaphor all over again. We couldn’t even manage to be together in the aftermath of losing our son. She had her support system and I had mine. Our paths no longer connected but forked and we took our own paths to wind up on opposite sides of the same river. 

Claire’s hair was pulled back into a simple knot with a few curls escaping. Her black dress was simple, and she wore the barest amount of make-up. It was enough to cover the puffy, dark circles under eyes and cover the redness of her face. There was total and utter devastation embedded within the contours of her face that I honestly didn’t know what to do. It felt like all my prayers had gone nowhere. They were meaningless. Was God there? Did he hear them? Was he even listening to me anymore? 

What happened was the last thing I would ever want for Claire or myself, yet somehow here we were. After knowing how her father’s death affected the rest of her life, I never wanted her to suffer through losing someone like that again. I didn’t want to go through another loss after losing the majority of my family. Sort of stupid in retrospect as I can’t prevent what life has in store, and I certainly can’t circumvent someone’s death. While I fully believed God had a plan for all of us, it was hard to reconcile that belief with my son’s death. 

Was he never meant to live? Was he always meant for the angels? Were we meant to mourn what we couldn’t have? It didn’t seem right. 

Somehow I made it through. I made my way to the front when it was time to read my poem about the loss of a baby. I swallowed back hot tears and managed to keep my face neutral. A few tears dripped onto the paper, but I continued to read until I finished every stanza. 

It was through my teary gaze I saw her. She was an ethereal being with her flushed cheeks set against her ivory skin. Her wet cheeks made her seem almost otherworldly. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in her grief. 

It was after I finished when I lost all purpose for life. How was life fair? Why did some live when others never had a chance to breathe? 

I was bereft as it all caught up to me at once and I found myself gasping for air through my choking, gasping sobs. Jenny rushed to my side immediately to hold me up and get me far from there and that moment. I saw Claire’s arms twitch as if she wanted to be the one holding me instead of Jenny, but I think it was my imagination playing tricks on me and me seeing what I wanted. 

Jenny and I sat in the car and she held me in her arms like she had at our mam’s funeral. She rubbed my back like one of her bairns as she allowed me to simply cry. “It’s okay, yer gonna get through this. Ye’ll be stronger for it. Shh...” my cries tapered off, but I stayed there in her embrace as people began to depart. “Do ye want to go back?” 

I shook my head in the crook of her neck. She reminded me of home. “Chan eil, I just want to stay here a bit longer.” I felt her lips in my hair and sighed. It was like I was a boy again when I ran to her room during thunderstorms. She always opened her blankets for me and allowed me to cling to her. 

When I finally made it back to the site, Claire was sitting there by herself. She was huddled inside of her coat and it was as if she were trying to make herself as small as possible, more than likely wishing away her existence. I understood the feeling very well. She stared at the fresh mound of dirt piled upon our son’s grave. He was under there, and we were up here without him. 

Did he know us? Was he sad he wasn’t to be with us? All of these questions continued to float through my head as I stared. This was real. All the dreams and hopes I had for him had withered and died in an instant. 

I made my way over to her where I hesitantly placed my hand on her shoulder unsure if she’d be receptive to my touch or not. Tears blurred my vision, but the time for crying wasn’t there yet. Her eyes connected with mine and I saw the same things I was feeling reflected in her glassy eyes. 

I cleared my throat, not sure if I even possessed the ability to speak still. “Come on Claire,” I told her. “Ye should be home,” with our daughters went unspoken, but was understood. 

She slowly placed her hand in mine and allowed me to lead her away from this place of hurt and despair, and away from our son. Somehow we both looked back at the spot where our baby boy was buried and a fresh round of tears began. He was really there instead of inside of his mother’s belly where he would’ve been safe and warm. We somehow made it inside of my car where Jenny was ready behind the wheel to take us from here, from where we left a part of ourselves that we would never get back. 

I slowly exited my car as I stared in the general direction where I knew he lay under the ground. The last time I was here, there wasn’t a headstone. It was still being prepared, and I refused to visit the day they placed it over his grave. I couldn’t come back. I struggled to face what happened. 

Claire appeared by my side and offered her open hand to me. We would do this together, the way we should’ve then. 

We both carried around a mountain of guilt about the events preceding and succeeding her miscarriage. In our own right, we believed it was entirely our fault, but maybe Claire was right and it wasn’t either of our faults. Things happen. 

We walked at a snail’s pace, and Claire seemed to know without words that it was a process. She intuitively knew it was a struggle for me to finally be here, but perhaps she knew it was a step we needed. I had to finally come to terms with everything. She had already told me she came here on her own and with the girls to visit Gabriel. It took her time to accept all that happened and to move on with her life. She never forgot him. She kept him close to her heart, but she refused to let his loss or any other loss affect the rest of her life. 

Her hand slipped out of mine as we approached the grave. I was grateful to her for providing me the time alone with him. It had been long enough. 

I fell to my knees at the headstone as a dam of tears burst forth from me. Once I started, I couldn’t hold them back any longer. He was here. My fingers traced the letters of his name. 

Gabriel Thomas Fraser 

He was my only son, but before today, I had never had the nerve or the courage to come and see him. I had flowers delivered every year, but it wasn’t the same as seeing it with my own eyes. I wasn’t ready before to acknowledge the loss I felt deep inside of my bones. It was hard for me to admit how much his loss affected me, and how I handled subsequent relationships. I showered my children in love and attention, but at the same time it was easy to keep them at a distance. I couldn’t hurt them if there was an ocean between us. 

In our hearts is where you’ll be 

I bit my lip at tears silently dripped down my face. It was almost too much for me because he was a child of my heart. It was the only place he existed besides Claire’s. 

The hairs on the back of my neck rose the minute she closed the distance between us. She had given me my time, but ultimately it was time we recovered from our mutual loss. I reached out for her and she slid herself into my embrace. Her head tucked itself under my chin, her spot. There was nothing romantic. It was two parents coming together to mourn. 

“Why did ye not put a date?” My head tilted down as hers tilted upward. 

Her eyes held the sorrow she still carried around with her. It wasn’t as prominent as it was. I squeezed her hand. “I couldn’t bear it. He never lived and I couldn’t bring myself to give him a birthday.” She sniffled against my chest and I felt my shirt dampen. My lips pressed a soft kiss to her hair. 

We sat on the ground, comforted by the sounds of people visiting their long gone relatives. Flowers populated the area, and I noticed there was a fresh bouquet on Gabriel’s. 

I played with her long fingers. “It’s hard to believe he would be about nine years old.” 

The dam burst forth and I held her close as she sobbed. All the anguish, hurt, and love she buried away was purged from her as we finally mourned our loss together. “I couldn’t look at him when they offered at first.” She admitted vulnerably. “Then I changed my mind because I wanted to know he had been real. I thought I failed him. It wasn’t until later after talking with my therapist and my ob/gyn I came to understand that these things happen. I didn’t do anything wrong. I am a doctor.” She sighed softly. “I suppose in my profession we tend to make terrible patients and we have a harder time accepting what we can’t change. It’s the God complex.” 

I didn’t want to tell her that it was in her nature prior to her profession to not accept she couldn’t change everything, but I doubted the words would be appreciated. It would be like beating a dead horse. 

“So what now?” I murmured into her hair. Her presence was like a drug, one I knew I was forbidden from having. 

She turned around with a perplexed look. “What do you mean?” 

“I mean between us.” I gestured to our current position. 

“Oh… yes I suppose we left things rather messy between us the last time we talked. I mean properly talked.” She turned her head. “It wasn’t my intention to give you a false impression, but I can’t give you false hope either. Please don’t fight for me. I know I said a lot of things about you saying all of these things I had wanted to hear, but it’s not right anymore. Your priority shouldn’t be me.” She turned towards me with her forehead doing that crinkly thing it did when she was worried about something. “Wait how long are you here for? Why didn’t you say anything?”

I hadn’t expected that turnaround. Then again it was Claire. “I’ll be here for a while at the very least. I had been considering expanding to the U.S. I just hadn’t decided on a location. I knew I would choose somewhere on the east coast, but this summer made it abundantly clear that I needed to implement some changes in my life and re-prioritize. Isla and Brianna are growing up and they won’t be children forever. I don’t want to miss anymore of their lives than I have. So it made my choice all the easier to start up here in Boston. I’ll have to fly back and forth to manage over in Scotland. But I figured this could be my home base. The paperwork for the visa and the business had already been in the works before everything else, if you’re worried I made a spur of the moment decision without considering all the facts.”

From the way her face flushed that was exactly what she was about to say. “Okay, that’s great Jamie.”

The time away had limited some of my ability to read her properly. It was difficult to determine if she was being genuine. I didn’t want to doubt her, but this was a massive change for us and would inevitably affect the established custody arrangement. It wasn’t my intention to start demanding any changes as it would be unfair to my daughters without discussing it with them. “Do ye mean that?”

“I wouldn’t have said it otherwise. I know things between us are what they are, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy for you and what this means for Isla and Bree. Isla will be over the moon. She’s had a rough go the last few weeks. She wasn’t happy about not being on the team and has been moody.” She bit her lip. “Just a warning to the wise, uh well… Isla isn’t a little girl anymore. She would be humiliated if she knew I was telling you, but I expect they’ll be spending time with you when you’re settled, it’s better you know. She would never tell you.”

My eyes widened when it dawned on me what her words meant. My daughter wasn’t a wee girl any longer. She was changing. “Och, I dinna want to think about that.” 

She shrugged. “I figured I would tell you as it has attributed to some of her surly mood as of late. She’s a nightmare that’s currently grounded. We had a long discussion about why she’s grounded and the ways in which she can change her behavior, but I had given her enough warnings.”

“What did she do?”

“She’s a hormonal tween. She picks fights with me, and I resist the urge to yell back at her. It’s tiring and doesn’t get us anywhere. So I wait her out. She calms down eventually. She’s mad at me for loads of injustices,” she rolled her eyes. “She’s grounded for her cheek though. She’s forgotten that I’m her mother and she can’t speak to me however she wants. So be on the look out for that. She’ll push your buttons.”

I nodded, taking note of what she was telling me. Isla wasn’t in the best of spirits the last time we talked on the phone. She grumbled unhappily about her grounding and how inhumane and unjust her punishment was. It wasn’t my place to interfere, especially as she had done wrong. “She did try to spin the story very differently and turned you into the villain.” It was how I knew that there was more to the story than what my daughter said. 

“Of course she did. She’s testing us. Being twelve or almost twelve is a strange time. Things are confusing, but I know she’ll find her way.”

“I’ve got no doubts about that. She’s got a wonderful mam who would doing everything to help her.”

Claire’s eyes shifted. “There’s something we need to talk about, but I don’t have the time at the moment. My shift at work starts soon. My students are waiting. I said I would come in late as it was Bree and Isla’s first official day. I hope you don’t mind me cutting this short.” She was at least apologetic.  

“Oh...” I replied unsure of what to do next. It hadn’t occurred to me that she would have to work. Although it really should’ve. Just because I had spontaneously appeared didn’t mean she could neglect her other responsibilities. 

Her expression morphed once again as her face brightened. “How about you drop by for lunch? I get actual time for that instead of the maybe fifteen minutes during my residency, and we can talk then. All you have to do is drop by the nurses’ station and they’ll direct you to my office. Does that work for you?” Her expression was earnest and open. 

I nodded my head as her mind roamed about a million miles. What did she need to tell me that seemed pressing enough for us to meet again?


CPOV 

I left him at the cemetery as I only had an hour to make it into work, and I was some distance away from the hospital. The morning had sort of gotten away from me with his sudden appearance at the school.

It was an utter shock to the system to find him standing there outside of Bree’s school, and more than surreal to stand beside him as we talked to her teacher. I knew we would be the talk of the parent and staff community by the end of the day. It was a well known fact that Jamie lived in Scotland. The school wasn’t big and the gossip circulated instantly. 

That was another headache I would have to deal with at some point. I didn’t want any false rumors spreading as parents tended to talk when little ears could hear. I didn’t want this to hurt Bree. The school community was quite gossipy and far too small for something like this to slide by unnoticed. 

I scrubbed my face in irritation because this wouldn’t be easy to navigate. There were several factors to consider. A proper introduction would have to be made between Jamie and Peter, which reminded me that I would have to tell Peter about Jamie’s sudden appearance. Peter wasn’t pleased when I told him about what transpired in Scotland, but he was also understanding about the situation. He knew that things with Jamie had been unresolved; I made him aware that I had no intentions of allowing anything to happen between me and Jamie. That was the past and he was my future. 

While I admired him mending bridges between himself and our daughters, I was leery about what it meant in regards to our relationship, not that we had a relationship like that. I just didn’t know how it would affect our co-parenting go forward. There would have to be discussions about what it would all mean. We had to be realistic about our expectations. Isla and Bree would be ecstatic to know his stay wasn’t a one off and more of the permanent variety, however, they were old enough to be involved in talks about where they spent their time. It would take effort on all of our parts.

I was anxious. This was a good thing, so why did I have that sinking feeling in my gut? 

I tapped my fingers impatiently as I waited in traffic. According to the radio, there was an accident on the interstate up ahead, but I knew once I passed whatever it was, I would just barely make it to the hospital on time. I had to hope people were not gawking at whatever tragedy befell some poor soul. My interns were probably getting a little nervous and twitching all over the place, wondering when I would appear. They were sort of terrified/intimidated by my mere presence. 

I honestly didn’t mind though because I sort of enjoyed their skittish movements and their stuttering words until we had a better chance to get acquainted when they realized that I wasn’t a monster as hospital gossip would suggest. Past residents would tell the new residents about which attendings were the toughest and somehow that translated into horror stories centered around me. 

“Hello,” I answered after pushing the phone button on the wheel. I hadn’t been expecting a call. 

“Hey Claire, I wanted you to know that I can’t make dinner tonight. I’ve been schedule into surgery and it’s supposed to be a long one. It’s not until later either, so I’m using my time to get some extra rest. Can I get a raincheck?” 

It would be all too easy to inform him over the phone about Jamie’s reappearance, but I knew it wouldn’t go over well if I couldn’t see him. I wanted a face to face interaction. 

“Yeah sure Peter, that’s fine. Why don’t we have coffee or something before your surgery? What time is it?” I didn’t have any surgeries scheduled.

There was some ruffling in the background. He was in bed. “It’s at three. We can meet at two. How did drop off go?”

“Oh it was fine. Bree practically ditched me the moment she was her friends.” Not a lie. “Isla took the carpool this morning, so I won’t know about her morning until I get home later.” Isla had left in a flurry, throwing out a quick goodbye as she snatched a bagel off the table. 

“Technically yesterday was her first day and she said it was fine.” He had picked her up from school and took her to physical therapy. “She likes her history teacher and she said being manager isn’t that bad. She would still rather play, but at least this way she gets to stay involved.”

That was more than she told me when I had a chance to catch up with her at dinner. She answered all of my questions with ‘fine’. 

“Wow, she told you all that?” I wasn’t jealous. Isla and Peter had their little friendship. She often gave him a hard time, but then something shifted. They would go on hikes together and he would play catch with her. He helped her with English and history. He wasn’t her dad and he knew that, and never tried to fill that role. 

It always made me happy that he enjoyed spending time with my kids and never felt as if they were in the way. Isla sometimes shared with him things she wouldn’t dare to tell me or Jamie. It had taken a long time for her to warm up to him. Bree liked him instantly. 

“Yeah, I think it’s hard for her. She can’t do everything she’s used to doing. She wants to be active and she can’t. She also says you’ve been hovering.”

That was somewhat true. “I can’t help it.” He chuckled. “I just want to fix everything for her, and I feel useless that I can’t. She’s mad at me for grounding her. I took her phone away except during school, but she’s only allowed to text and call you, me, my mum, and her dad. It’s not helping. I’ll talk with her later. I’ve got to go. I’m pulling into work now. Love you.”

“Love you too.” 

I went through my regular routine and allowed my brain to operate on autopilot. I was sort of in a daze when there was a knock on my office door. “Come in,” I called absentmindedly, completely forgetting I invited Jamie to lunch. The day had gotten away from me. 

His eyes roamed my shelves of medical books and journals, the pictures placed strategically around the room until they finally landed upon me. 

“Hello,” I said shyly to him. 

A tentative grin formed on his lips. “So lunch?” 

“Yes,” I said. “Um lets go.” I had a lot to tell him and none of it particularly good, but it was time to start clearing the air. We had started back in Scotland, and it was time to continue the process. He deserved to know a lot of things.

Chapter Text

                                       

CPOV 

“Do you mind if we go to my house for lunch?” What I had to tell him was something meant for private ears, and I didn’t want to be in a public venue when I told him. His reaction could be one of several and I had no way of knowing which he might go for after I told him. We were finally resolving some of the differences we had, but this one could definitely make or break it in terms of a friendship going forward. 

He nodded his assent. “Should I follow ye in my car?” He was quite unsure about what to do, but I smiled and nodded. 

If he wanted some after I told him my news, I would understand. I wanted him to have an escape route in case everything went wrong and what I told him wasn’t well received. I had kept something massive from him again. 

I followed him to the parking lot and waited as he pulled up behind me. 

My eyes flitted to the windshield and my cheeks warmed suspiciously. I didn’t want him to see that I was watching him in the rearview. I used the time alone to prepare myself for what was to come. I tried to predict the different ways he could react and there were a lot of possibilities. Anger was the one I kept coming back to you. He had always accused me of harboring secrets and this was one I had kept for a long time.


March 2014

Ordinarily, I wasn’t the type to do something like this. It was stupid, not really, but it wasn’t smart either. If I wanted to protect my heart and his, this wasn’t the way to go at all. Our approach risked both of us. However, I couldn’t fight the urge any longer and we needed this. 

Our planning was conducted over the phone. 

“Tu as pu tout organiser?” We chose to do all of this in French to prevent anyone from overhearing our conversations. The point was to keep it under wraps and not draw attention. While my mother knew enough to get by, she was by no means fluent and she would ask a lot less questions. (“Did you make the arrangements?)

“Oui, tout est prêt. Tu es sûre de vouloir faire ça, n’est ce pas ? On peut encore tout annuler.” (Yes, everything has been taken care of. You don’t have any regrets about this, do you? We can call it off.)

“NON!” My reaction was a tad over the top, but if there was one thing I wasn’t feeling, it was regret. There was some anxiety and anticipation about what was to come. “Je ne veux pas annuler. Je sais que ça peut te choquer, mais non, j’en suis sûre. C’est ce que je veux.” However, there was no denying how much I wanted and needed this. (I don’t. I know that shocks you, but I’m sure. I want this.)

“Tant que tu n’as pas de doute. Veux-tu attendre avant de se rencontrer?” (As long as you’re not having any doubts. Do you want to wait to meet?)

“Oui, je pense que ça améliorerait l’expérience.. on ne va pas vraiment être nous-mêmes, souviens toi!” (Yes, I think it would enhance the experience. We aren’t exactly going to be ourselves. Remember.)

“D’accord, donc on se retrouve la bas et on laisse la soirée suivre son cours. Je peux faire ça. Comment saurais-he que c’est toi?” (Right, so we’ll meet there and then let the evening take its’ course. I can do that. How will I know it’s you?)

“Tu le sauras.” (You’ll know.)

April 2012 

I presented research with my attending at a conference in Paris. We had worked on the trial together, and we published the research together. 

From the moment Jared knew I was going to be in Paris for a week, he had been adamant that I tend some fundraising gala. It was a masquerade ball. I was wary when he first mentioned it until I discovered one of the guests. Then everything changed and I accepted an invitation. 

Jared had arranged for a visit for me at a shop a friend of his owned. I had thought about doing my shopping at home until he presented the offer. 

“Bonjour!” The shopkeeper greeted as soon as I entered. Her store was lovely with beautiful, hand crafted masks in the windows and on shelves. “Vous êtes Claire?” (Are you Claire?)

“Oui,” I held out my hand to shake. “Camille?” I asked her. 

Her coffee colored eyes sparkled magnificently as her smile widened. It appeared almost painful, but I realized it was just her. She was a friendly woman. 

“Oui. Jared a dit que vous auriez d’une robe de soirée pour ce soir.“ I nodded instead of verbally replying. “Vous aviez un modèle en tête?” I shook my head. (Yes, Jared said you would need a dress and a robe for tonight. Is there anything specific you had in mind?)

She started by measuring me as I didn’t know my specific measurements. I never had a need for tailored clothes. It wasn’t something I required for my every day life. 

“Vous avez des enfants ?“ I didn’t mind her making small talk. (Do you have children?)

“Oui,” I answered.“J’ai deux filles.”

“Vous êtes française? Votre prononciation est très bonne.” (Are you French? Your pronunciation is very good.)

I had heard that from other people. “Mon père l’était,” I told her not wanting to elaborate further. “Je suis anglaise mais je vis aux États Unis.” (My father was. I’m English, but I live in America.)

Camille finished the rest of her measurements. I appraised her from the blonde bob that clung to her face to her lithe body. She wore a fitted black shirt and long tailored black pants. Despite the simplicity, she pulled it off. I wished my own body looked like hers. 

She clapped her hands excitedly, startling me out of my reverie. With wide eyes, I followed as she dragged me through the store in search of something. We were in her sewing room as she began to rush around. “J’ai une robe parfaite pour vous. On devrait avoir besoin de la retoucher un peu mais cela ne devrait pas prendre trop de temps.” (I have the perfect dress for you. We might need to alter it a little, but that shouldn’t take too long.)

What she pulled out was an absolutely gorgeous red gown. The material was satin and it felt amazing against my skin. I noticed it was simple and within the range of my style. The skirt was pleated and the back lace-up. My imagination was running wild.

I tried on the dress and stared at myself in the floor length mirrors. It fit nearly perfectly. The hem dragged a little, and the waist needed to be taken in a little. Other than those details, it was the perfect dress. 

I knew most of the woman attending the event would go for more overstated looks and less vibrant colors, but I wasn’t like them. I rarely attended formal events outside of hospital functions. I preferred simple and comfortable. 

She gave me one of the elaborate black masks from her display case. I nearly wept at the sight of the prices, but when I went to take out my credit card she waved me away. While I did have a trust fund, it wasn’t what I relied on. I preferred to keep the money set aside. 

“Tout ami de Jared est le mien. Je ne peux pas accepter votre argent. Mais j’accepterais que vous portiez ma robe et que tout le monde vous admire dedans . N’oubliez pas de mentionner mon nom si on vous demande d’où elle vient.“ (Any friend of Jared is a friend of mine. I can’t accept your money. What I will accept is you wearing my dress for all to see. Don’t forget to mention me either when they ask about your dress.)

I couldn’t accept that sort of generosity. The dress alone must’ve taken her a long time to complete. “S’il vous plait,” I begged, once again offering her my card. It was too much.  

“Non je suis désolée mais je refuse de prendre votre argent. profitez bien de votre soirée.” I pouted, but I knew when a battle was lost. (No, I am sorry Claire, but I refuse to take your money.)

“Je le ferai,” I promised her. “Merci infiniment… vous pourrez faire livrer la robe à mon hôtel quand vous aurez fini les retouches. Je ne sais vraiment pas comment vous remercier.” She waved me off. (I will. Thank you so much, just have the dress delivered to my hotel when you’re done with the alterations. I really don’t know how to thank you.)

The shoes were the easy part. I only had to visit one store for them. 

The dress had been dropped off later that day. I was going to do a dramatic make-up look with my eyes to accentuate the mask. I went for a silvery shimmer look with winged liner and fake lashes. Mine weren’t nearly as impressive as my daughters. Then to complete the look, I went for a bright red lipstick. All in all, I was pale. I added a hint of blush to give me some much needed color. 

Someone knocked on my door, and I swore. I didn’t know anyone except my attending, and she was out for a night on the city. It was rare we ever had so much time off from work.  

I pulled open the door and shrieked at who was on the other side. It was Jared. “How did you know my room number?” I didn’t recall telling him, only that I was staying at the hotel. 

“I said we were family,” he hugged me. 

I smiled, happy he still considered me part of his family. “Thank you,” I kissed his cheek. “You’re friend Camille is also lovely and gave me the perfect dress.” It was laid out on my bed. 

“You’ll be the belle of the ball.” I rolled my eyes at him. 

“You’ve always been a bit too complimentary.” He shrugged and squeezed me again. “I must say I was surprised by your invite.” 

“I know how much you love a good cause and it’ll be good for ye to get out. How many people have you talked to since arriving that weren’t a fellow médicin?” 

I felt the heating of my skin as he knew what the answer was. His question after all was rhetorical. “Fine,” I gave him a punch in the arm and shooed him out. “Is there anything else you wanted before I close the door?”

“No, I’ll see you out there.” 

I sighed in relief. The night would be fine. 

“I’ll see you later Jared.” 

By the time I arrived, there were so many people already there. Jared had gone all out to decorate the place and give it a magical feel. The lighting was low as candles lit up the hall. Expensive draperies hung around the room with fairy lights strung low across the ceiling. 

People chatted idly at tables, while some danced to the live string quartet. 

I meandered my way over to the side of the room, collecting a glass of du vin on my way, to support Jared. 

“Bonsoir,” a voice said from behind. I turned to find a man with sea green eyes gazing at me. “Vous êtes ravissante. M’accorderiez vous cette danse?” (You’re lovely. Would you like to dance?)

“Non, mais merci.” I was curt, not wanting to give him the wrong idea. I was interested in the portion of the evening directed at raising money. It was my last night in Paris. I had other plans for how my night would turn out. 

A hum crept over my skin until there was a rushing sound in my ears. Something stirred inside me for the first time since I said goodbye to Jamie. I was alive. The air thickened around me.

“Bonsoir,” he greeted me. He had a strong, captivating jaw line. I couldn’t tell in the lighting what color his eyes were, only that they were dark as they feasted on me. They could’ve been blue or grey for all i knew. His hair appeared dark and was slicked back. “Vous êtes très belle.” The deep huskiness of his voice did things to me and a blush crawled down my neck. (You’re very beautiful.)

There was something about him that captured my attention. I couldn’t pinpoint a singular thing, but he certainly captivated me with his dashing looks and suave lines. I enjoyed the way he made me feel. I knew French wasn’t his native language, but I couldn’t detect the underlying accent. Jared knew people from a number of countries in part because of his business associations, so there were people from numerous countries in attendance.

“C’est gentil de dire ça,” I wanted to be gracious and I was flattered by his attention. Besides, it wasn’t everyday complete strangers complimented me. A little flirtation wouldn’t hurt anyone. (Thank you for saying that.)

He must’ve decided I was interested as he followed himself up with, “Vous êtes venue seule?” Thankfully I was alone, or I would’ve missed an opportunity. I didn’t want him to think I was waiting for anyone to join me. (Are you here alone?)

“Oui, je suis venue seule. Il n’y a que moi, enfin vous et moi mais vous comprenez ce que je veux dire. Je n’ai pas de cavalier ce soir.” Thank god for my dad’s French side of the family as I would’ve been screwed trying to converse with him. There was no way of knowing if he spoke English or not. Besides it added to the mystery of the night as I think he detected a hint of another accent in my own dialect. His lips turned up into a smile as I babbled. He was amused. (No, there’s no one here with me. It’s just me, well me and you, but you know what I mean. I didn’t bring a date.)

I saw his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. “Voulez vous danser avec moi?” It was the best offer I had heard all night. (Would you like to dance with me?)

I nodded my assent and took his arm as he led me out to the dance floor. I couldn’t stop staring at him. The mask covered a fair amount of his face, so it was difficult to make out some of his features. I knew he was gorgeous. 

“Comment vous appelez vous?” (What’s your name?)

Fuck! We had arrived at that portion of the evening. “My name is...” I hesitated for a second as I tried to think of what to tell him before settling on my middle name. “Mon nom est… Elizabeth. Et vous?” I didn’t want to be Claire tonight. Claire was a divorced, single mom, whose mother lived with her, and who rarely saw the outside of a hospital. 

The name gave him pause. “Alexander, mais vous pouvez m’appeler Alex.” (Alexander, but you can call me Alex.)

I gulped as the air seemed to thicken. The intensity of his eyes was my undoing. How did he make me weak in the knees?

I kept my attention on him. He led me around the floor and we drifted into our own existence. There was nothing but us and the music as he twirled and dipped me. 

I could tell he was a man accustomed to leading, and I let him. I wanted him to take control. I was tired of having it. It was amusing and I let him do it as I sensed it made him feel good to be in charge. 

3 hours later 

I groaned as my body slammed against the hotel door. It was painful and jarring, but not enough for my lips to separate from his. There was an urgency to our movements as he guided me down the hall to my room. I hadn’t felt this need for anyone in so long, and while I started the night with no intention of having sexual relations with anyone, I knew I would fall apart if didn’t get him inside me. 

The night was going to end with us together. 

He finally managed to get the key card into the slot and opened the door as he rushed me into the room. The loud thud of it closing made me realize it was happening. I was going to have sex for the first time in four years. He attempted to turn on the lights, but I wanted to keep with the theme of the night. 

The lighting in the halls had been low so we hadn’t gotten a good look at one another. “Non, n’allume pas la lumière,” my voice, a husky whisper. “J’aime quand c’est comme ça.” (No don’t turn on the lights. I like it like this.)

His lips descended onto my neck as he sucked and nipped. My body was on fire as the connection stirred between us. I shivered at how amazing it felt. 

We kept our masks on as I wanted to maintain our private identities. This would be a one night sort of event, and then we would never see each other again. We couldn’t.

When he unzipped the dress, his eyes were drawn to my breasts. I had forgone a bra as it didn’t work with the dress. He seemed to approve of the omission. His laser focus was slightly disconcerting as he had yet to say anything and I was growing self-conscious. I tried to cover myself when he stopped me. 

“Tellement belle,” he whispered in my ear. Shivers traveled down my spine at the silkiness of his voice. (So beautiful.)

He rushed forward, his lips welcome on my lips and his tongue more than appreciated when it brushed against my lips and entered my mouth. I was surprised by how forward he was, but I wasn’t complaining. It had been too long. 

Slowly, my hands roamed down his body until I came into contact with his pants. Then I slid a hand into his pants and he jerked forward. His reaction propelled me. He wanted this as much as I did, perhaps even more so. I wouldn’t deny him.

His skin was so hot against my own. I removed my hand and began to unbutton his shirt. With each button, I kissed any available skin. He smelled like sandalwood, and I was entranced by the scent. “Je n’ai pas envie de déchirer ta chemise.” He would need it when he left, and while the French were known for their amorous nature, I don’t know that he felt that comfortable with possibly leaving without a shirt when others could potentially see. (I don’t want to ruin your shirt.)

“Tu es si beau.” It was worth saying after he faltered for a moment. His eyes were soft, despite the desire running in them. (You are so handsome.)

He shed his pants and followed me to the bed. I laid back on my elbows. “Alex,” I moaned as he began to kiss down the length of my body. No skin was left untouched by him. His lips left my skin tingling. I was under his spell. He paid special attention to my legs. His eyes were hypnotizing and his movements sensuous. It was a slow seduction. He knew he was driving me crazy and he relished in that. It was his goal to drive me insane with want. 

He crawled into position, but I was more than ready down there. I needed him in me. “Non,” I pulled him to me. “ Ce n’est pas nécessaire.” I saw on his face he could smell my arousal and it heightened the experience for him. I felt him grow against me and groaned in response. We were doing this. 

His fingers traveled down encountering my curls before sliding through to my arousal. I was so wet and willing. Then he slid inside and all was lost. I no longer knew the date, the year, or my own name. All I knew was him and the feeling of him pressing into me. My eyelids lowered as pleasure overwhelmed all of my senses. He certainly knew what he was doing as he began to slowly pull out before quickly pushing back in. 

My hands roamed his backside, urging him on, pulling him closer to me. I needed to feel all of him. He made me finally feel full and complete. I was coming home. 

His skin shocked me, fueling me, giving me the energy to continue. His mouth was on mine again and I pressed harder, deepening the kiss and our connection. Everything felt like magic. My skin sizzled under his touch. 

He slowed his strokes to hold off his own pleasure and to prolong mine. It was as if we were sharing each other’s thoughts, and we both needed the night to last as long as possible because morning would inevitably come and take it all away. He plunged back in and my eyes shut as I gave myself completely to him. He could use my body however he liked. 

When his hands were on my breasts, I nearly lost it and released a moan. His touch was electric. He teased and kneaded the flesh, and I fought hard and failed not to groan at the sensation. It was sensory overload. It was all too much for me as I threw back my head in total, utter ecstasy. The passion was so great and unexpected. His lips brushed against the sinewy skin of my shoulder. He was going to leave a mark. 

I clenched around him, but he still didn’t cum. “Tu peux jouir,” and I felt him jolt. “Ne t’en fais pas, tout va bien.” I was on birth control. I could tell he was trying to make me go again by the quick pace of his hips against mine, it was almost painful but in a good way. His fingers joined his strokes, and the feeling built up inside of me again. I could feel myself reaching the peak. I squeezed him and spurred him on, needing his body to cover mine. I needed to feel him all over me. (You can cum. Don’t worry, it’s fine.)

My walls fluttered around his length until I clamped down on him. That was enough for him as he let out a string of curses before releasing inside of me. As the height of my orgasm hit me, I whimpered and cried out “Alex!” 

Then to add to the intensity, he bit into the juncture of my neck. As he finished spasming into me, I rubbed his back, encouraging him, not wanting to part. He had a few more lazy strokes before finally pulling out. He collapsed on top of me, and I closed my eyes reveling in the intimacy. I played with hair at the nape of his neck. 

I was amazed I hadn’t accidentally called out Jamie’s name. He performed amazingly and for the first time in a long while, I was satiated. I wasn’t empty inside. I thought I didn’t know how to feel like this anymore, but I was wrong, so wrong. 

I fell asleep with him curled around me. His warm body was a comfort. I wanted to cry. 

When I awoke in the morning, there was some confusion especially with the dull ache between my legs until I remembered the previous night. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I wanted to laugh and smile as it was a beautiful night with unexpected surprises and wonders. The morning brought with it reality. Reality could go fuck itself. Then again, we shouldn’t have done it. A night of pleasure wasn’t worth the confusion, no matter how beautiful it was.


Upon arriving at my house, Jamie was instantly at my door, assisting me. While I appreciated the gesture, I could exit a car on my own. “Thanks.” I mumbled.

“What’s on yer mind Sassenach?” I ignored the way my heart skipped a beat at the endearment. “I can see ye are thinking hard about something over there with your big brain, and I dinna want ye to strain yerself.” I shoved the key into the lock, trying to push aside my emotions. 

Hearing the title brought back hundreds if not thousands of memories of us in all sorts of places. I wanted the comfort and ease which once guided our friendship because it wasn’t always awkward between us. There was a time when I held not a single doubt about the man, but time had built insecurity around my heart until I no longer knew down from up let alone how to speak to him without feeling tense. Jealousy blossomed and grew in my heart and suspicion replaced trust in my brain. Then trust died along with everything else. 

Quite a leap to make, but what was I supposed to think when he spent more than the regular 9 to 5 in the office, especially after I found Britney giving him a massage. 

March 2009 

Things were strained between us, but I was hoping a family outing could help us bond as a family and Jamie and I work on some of the issues in our relationship. Ever since I dropped the baby news on him, he’d been distant, or perhaps that was me. 

I certainly wanted no part of him when he returned to the apartment after I told him I was pregnant. His reaction to the news was appalling, and while I understood the shock he was experiencing, I despised him for simply walking out the way he did. I had no way of knowing if he’d return or not, and he left his phone so there was no way to contact him. 

I spent the remainder of the night crying into my pillow because we’d screwed up again, and this time it might actually destroy our marriage. Jamie certainly hadn’t planned on another one anytime soon. We were already on tenterhooks and at any moments could fall. 

The girls were certainly easy to get dressed. Isla stood there patiently for once and did as I asked when I told her to raise her arms or lift her legs so I could pull up her pants. She was such a good girl, and most of the time was quite obedient. 

Bree enjoyed kicking her chubby legs and blowing spit bubbles as I dressed her. She wriggled on the changing table and tried to roll herself over the edge. She was a little worm who couldn’t stay in place. She smiled at me as if she knew what she was doing, and my heart swelled with love for the tiny being before me. 

I loved her so much, and I worried endlessly before she was born if I could love her as much as her sister. While I read books about second children, it still gnawed at me that I simply might be unable to muster as much love for her. It was all for naught because as soon as they placed her in my arms, I knew I’d love her just as much. My heart expanded and welcomed this new addition. Nothing could ever make me stop loving either of my daughters. I would do anything to protect and love them for the rest of my days. 

Bree’s sunny smile never failed to make my day. Even when I was frazzled with frizzy hair, unkempt clothes smelling eerily of vomit, and dark circles under my eyes, my children made it all the struggles and problems in my life completely worth it. 

I wouldn’t exchange a single day with them for anything. 

Isla’s eyes stared precariously out of the car window as the city passed by in her eyes. They weren’t the same exact shade as her father’s. They were a bit darker like her aunt Jenny’s. Her hair also darkened from the strawberry blonde fuzz that started on her head when she had grown some. Originally she was bald as a cue ball. 

It had fallen out only to come back a deep auburn color. Jamie was delighted as no one in his family had dark red hair, at least not in a few generations. It certainly hadn’t come from my side of the family as we were all brunettes and blondes. 

Her hair was far straighter than either of ours. She was her own little mosaic. She had all the best parts of us. 

The outside world fascinated her curious mind, and I often found her openly observing the people around us as if she was trying to understand. I could picture tiny cogs moving inside of her head. 

Bree, I knew was asleep, otherwise she’d scream up a storm as she didn’t enjoy being confined. Her energy was a restless sort, and she much preferred rolling around on her baby blanket or preparing herself for some sort of movement. I knew soon enough she’d be pulling herself up, preparing for her first steps. She wasn’t one to allow the world to slow down for her, but wished to be in on the action. Perhaps I was reading too much into her behavior thus far, but I was learning quite fast. They were both so different, and their personalities were complete opposites. 

I pulled into the parking lot and went through the arduous process of waking up a fussy Bree. Isla waited patiently in her seat for me to release her and then stood at my side as I unbuckled her sister. “Ma, see da?” Her eyes were wide and trusting. 

I nodded my head as moved Bree’s arm out of the strap. She whined unhappily as I struggled. “Yes, we are going to see Daddy. I’m hoping he can join us for lunch. Would you like that, lovey?” 

Her headed nodded eagerly as her hair tumbled into her face. The barrette managed to stay in place and I sighed in relief. Isla wasn’t the most patient or easygoing child when it involved doing her hair. She screamed bloody murder every time I came near her with a brush. I wasn’t sure why, and she accused me of ‘urtin’ her. I thought she was a tad to melodramatic, but Jamie sympathized with her. 

We made our way into the building, and Lucas in security waves us through. “Good afternoon Mrs. Fraser, I see you’ve brought your little girl, oh and is this the newest one?” He was friendly to me whenever I visited, and we talked on occasion about our children. He had a son a bit older than Isla. “What’s her name again?” 

“Brianna, but we mostly just call her Bree.” 

“Bee, Bee,” Isla squealed happily at the mention of her baby sister. She’d grown to care for her over the last month or two. “I luv Bee.” She informed the man. 

He beamed down at her and patted her tiny head. “I’m sure you’re a good big sister.” She nodded enthusiastically. “Well you know where to go, I’m not sure if he’s in his cubicle or not, but he hasn’t left the building for his lunch break yet.” He winked at me. 

I thanked him profusely before we made our way over to the elevator. Bree had a chunk of my hair in her mouth as she laid her down. She was in unfamiliar surroundings and desired comfort over anything else at this point. 

Isla had been to work with Jamie a few times, and somewhat knew her way around. Sometimes she got herself lost, but could almost always be found at the desk of a secretary with a lollipop. 

“Ma, you love da?”

I hummed, unsure of what she was actually asking me. “Love da, love Bee.” I frowned before it hit me. 

“Yes, I love your daddy. I also love you and your sister so much.” She nodded her head affirmatively before facing forward again. 

I wondered what went on in her little head. I imagined an amazing mind was under there, and once she had the communication skills to let it be known what she thought, the world would become hers. 

The doors opened and she took off immediately in the direction of her daddy’s cubicle. Her chubby legs were quite fast, and I wasn’t able to keep up with her. 

Bree was in my arms and hit me when I tried to chase after her sister. She didn’t appreciate the jerky movements of my running with her. When I caught up with Isla, she was frozen in place with a strange look on her face. “Love, what’s wrong?” I asked worriedly, kneeling to her level. 

Her eyes were fixated on something in front of her and when I turned, I saw Jamie. The problem was he wasn’t exactly alone. The person who sat at the cubicle beside him was with him as well... with her hands all over him. I wanted to march over there to slap him and throttle her. It was reality slapping me in the face reminding how I could never have everything I truly wanted in life. It wasn't possible. 

Her hands were on his shoulders as she dug her thumbs into the tender flesh. His eyes were closed and his face expressed the bliss he felt at her touch. A moan escaped him as she hit a particularly sensitive spot. Her face was turned downwards toward him, and I saw the love in her eyes. She was devoted to him. 

I wasn't sure what I was feeling. It was some mixture of heartbreak, embarrassment, and all encompassing shame. Shame because my husband had a relationship with another woman, and it clearly meant something to him. While Jamie was a friendly person, he didn't allow just anyone to touch him. 

Never once in our passionate and often times tempestuous relationship had I imagined him to be someone unfaithful to his partner. We’d both talked about infidelity and our feelings on the matter, but I supposed opinions could change. 

I turned away and snatched Isla into my arms as I carried both girls and we made our way to the exit. I felt like a damn fool for believing everything was okay between us. How could it be when I was carrying a child he’d shown absolute disdain for? My eyes watered, but I refused to let the tears to fall. He didn’t deserve anymore of my tears. I shed too many where he was concerned. 

“Ma, who dat?” Isla finally asked me, her eyes unreadable. 

She clearly sensed something wasn’t right with the woman. Children were good judges of character. She had never seen another woman draped over her father either aside from me. “That’s daddy’s work friend Britney,” I tried to keep the bite out of my tone, but I don’t think I managed it. 

Isla was silent as we ate lunch and played with her food. I chose not to correct or scold her because of what she witnessed. “Da luv Bit?” 

I sucked in a breath, nearly choking on the weight of it. I didn’t know what Jamie fancied himself doing, but honestly it would hurt probably a trillion times more if he was actually in love with her. An affair without emotions was different. When emotionally betraying your spouse, there was an unforgivable act committed. Would I want him if he had physically betrayed me? I wasn’t sure as to the answer of either. All I knew was that my heart couldn't handle the crushing blow if he chose to leave. It was already in tattered pieces, what would it take for it to completely shatter and I was left feeling nothing? 

It nagged at me. I had no idea about the newfound closeness between Jamie and his work colleague. How long had it been going on? Was it because of the baby? Did he feel trapped in this life he never asked for? He was simply expecting to live here a few years as I went to medical school. Now we had a family with another child, and he had to drop out of his degree program because he refused to rely on my trust fund. He thought of it as cheating and not his money, despite my argument that anything that was mine was his. He refused because he believed it to be his job to be the bread winner for our family. His father educated him about honor and responsibility, and to Jamie the two went hand in hand with one another. 

“I don’t know Isla. Mummy needs time to think. Eat your food before it gets cold.” 

Her sharp eyes narrowed, but she did as I asked. I was thankful for the moment to myself. 

The problem was while I told him I had forgiven him for the entire Britney mess, I couldn’t forget it. It was forever imprinted in my mind. I was spurned and completely lost to the emotional wreckage of heartbreak. It was a new experience for me, and not one I was keen to repeat ever again. It was another reason to keep him at an emotional distance. I was devastated and crippled with the loss of something amazing. I knew I wouldn't find the equivalent of that feeling in my life again. So I resolved myself to protect my heart from that. 

He stared at me expectantly with his clear blue gaze. “Ugh I hate you know me so well,” I grumbled. I wanted a few more moments to compose my thoughts before I assaulted him with what went on inside of my head. I exhaled calmly through my teeth as I thought of my meditative breathing. “Can you just give me a moment?”

The entire situation was weighing heavily on me. I was completely nervous about what to expect, not knowing how to navigate the tentative relationship we had at the moment because all that was currently between us aside from two daughters was our screwed up past. 

I was terrified as soon as I told him the news, he would unleash all of his hurt and anger on me. He would voice all of those things that he had wanted to say, but had avoided. It was unfair and I was certainly projecting, but as much as I knew him in the past, there were clearly aspects of him I wasn’t familiar with. I also didn’t fully know all the ways in which he’d changed over the years, nor was he aware of how I had as well. In some ways, we were strangers meeting on a train again. 

Could I do it again? 

JPOV 

She was jittery and flustered, and I wasn’t sure what to make of her unfamiliar behavior. Claire was many things, but insecure was rarely something I associated with her. She was one of the most confident people I knew with her bossiness and taking the helm of situations. Yet, there was something off with her, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. She had some big secret that she was waiting to unveil and it made me nervous. 

Following Claire in the car gave me time to think. It also made me realize that this was Claire’s home. She drove flawlessly and when we hit some traffic, she knew how to navigate around it. 

When we first moved here, we had to learn our way around together. It was unfamiliar to us, and it was strange. The seasons were different, particularly summer. Or celebrating holidays like the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. It was hard not to when friends constantly invited us to events. 

We only had each other to rely on in those early months. It was fun deciding to get lost in the city together on weekends as we found restaurants, clubs, local grocery stores, and everything else in- between. Claire had spent nine more years living here than me, and probably knew the city better than she knew London now. 

She appeared comfortable behind the wheel, which was not something she was used to when we first arrived. There was never a true need for driving in London with all the forms of public transportation the city offered. 

She entered the house and disarmed the alarm.

“When did ye become so comfortable behind the wheel here?” I asked her out of curiosity. During our last months, she was still hesitant and overly cautious whenever driving, afraid she might hit something or someone. 

At first it appeared as if she hadn’t heard my question, but I kent very well she had. Just as I opened my mouth to repeat, she answered. “Probably around the Christmas after you left. Road conditions during the winter aren’t always the best, and it can get quite icy. I had to learn how to not be so uptight whilst driving and to relax. I used to take a couple of deep breaths before driving, and then I would finally go.” 

I listened as she told me about her many driving adventures. “I was in a bad wreck last summer with some serious injuries. It’s why my contact with the girls was so spotty. Every time I FaceTimed them, we had to cover up all the bruises and hide the fact I was in a hospital.” 

Mel had told me as much back in Scotland, but it was different to hearing it from Claire herself. She was forthcoming and relayed all the details about it. “I still have some scars, but they’ve faded for the most part. I think most of them are trauma related. I went back to my therapist for a few sessions following the accident because I was terrified to get behind the wheel again. She told me to consider taking driving lessons with an instructor to build up my confidence. It helped immensely honestly.” 

There was so much about her life that happened in my absence, and it worried me. How many opportunities would we get? Life was quick and could be brutal to the best of us. We’d dealt with premature birth, miscarriage/still birth, divorce, and so much more. 

I knew in my heart I was unable to walk away from the woman beside me. If I did, I wouldn’t get another chance. I was more than aware of that. However, I was playing the long game. I couldn’t reveal my hand just yet. 

The house appeared much the same. 

The house was quite large no matter how you looked at it. “How many bedrooms?” I asked her. 

“There are five and three and a half bathrooms as well. Isla and Bree do not share one. Since they’re both older now, they’re each responsible for cleaning their own. The skylights are mostly what sold me on the house though.” I recalled them from my last visit. They certainly let in a lot of light. 

She set her purse on a table by the door. The house had changed some since I was last here. There were far more pictures of our daughters on the walls spanning multiple years, and some of them replaced the ones that were previously there. 

They were in ornate silver frames and really highlight Claire’s classiness. She wasn’t generally into opulent possessions, but she believed in pictures having nice homes. 

I stopped in front of the stairs to observe the new pictures. When I visited seven and a half years ago, it was a kindergarten Isla and pre-school aged Bree decorating the walls. 

Instead of two small children, one barely out of toddlerhood, it was two young girls well on their way to becoming young women. Isla beamed expertly for her sixth grade photo with her face angled just right to capture the light. Her hair was perfectly coifed in curls with some sort of braid running down the side. I had the same photo at home, but it was still strange to see all the ways in which my little girl wasn’t so little anymore. My mind was still stuck on her becoming a woman. 

Next to her was a third grade Bree. Her normally wild mane was styled into a braid with a ribbon tied at the bottom. She was missing a tooth in her bottom row. Her eyes seemed almost unnaturally large for her face, but were bright and happy. 

There was a photo of the two of them in front of Cinderella’s castle. They had their ears on and Bree was trying to lick Isla’s face. “I put that one up to embarrass them more than anything. They’re such silly girls. I have a nicer one on my bedside table. The picture there is when Bree won her first football game after she joined a new team or soccer as she prefers.” She rolled her eyes playfully. Bree had corrected me a time or two. “Those are a few of her teammates. They’ve played together for about two years.” 

She directed me to the opposite wall with a huge family portrait of the three of them. Claire sat on a chair with a girl on each arm of the chair. Isla wore her hair in loose waves, while Bree’s was in a high ponytail. They all shared the same smile, and their teeth were on full display for the camera. Claire had an arm wrapped around both girls as if it were the most natural thing, which it probably was. In the next one, Isla was on her stomach with Bree on top of her. Their grins were wide and eyes sparkled merrily. 

“They look a lot like you. I ken ye disagree, but when I see them I see your smile, or the little sparkle in yer eyes. They’re so much like ye, it’s sometimes incredible.” She ducked her head bashfully, although I caught sight of the flaming of her cheeks. “What’s this one?” 

It was a picture of all three of them, They were at the beach. Bree’s two front teeth were missing, and Isla’s hair was shorter. “Bree was almost five, which puts Isla at six nearly seven. Ages mattered significantly to them. We had spent two weeks on Martha’s Vineyard. It was our last day there and we were just walking, and Mel well...” she rolled her pretty brown eyes once again. “She enjoys photography, her wife jokes about it being her second career. Anyway she caught us as we were playing in the waves.” 

I saw the carefree expressions of joy on their faces as Bree was preparing to splash water at her sister, Claire was chasing after her, and Isla was trying to run from her sister. They belonged there in that moment. It was a moment preserved and saved from the funny tricks of passing time. I almost felt as if I could reach right through and be in the moment with them. But it was one of theirs, not meant for me. 

The pictures on the wall told their story after I left. As we made our way to her family room, I froze at the sight of a picture on the wall. I turned to her with tears clinging to my lashes searching for confirmation of what I was seeing. She nodded her head as she slid her hand into mine. “I didn’t want to pretend as if it never existed.” 

In front of me was the only family portrait we had of the four of us. Bree was perhaps no older than three months, Isla was newly two, and unbeknownst to us in Claire’s belly was Gabriel. Bree was held delicately in her mother’s arms, while Isla sat on my lap. I had an arm wrapped around Claire as we all smiled for the camera. “I remember it took ye feeding Bree for her to stop crying long enough to take the picture. We were both ready to tear our hair out. I had to bribe Isla with ice cream for her to sit still.” 

I heard her sniffle. My eyebrow lifted of its’ own accord as I hesitated about what to do. “Are ye okay Sassenach?” 

She nodded her head, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. “Let’s go eat. We have some leftovers from our back to school party last night.” I stared at her strangely. She shrugged helplessly with a tiny smile adorning her lips. “It’s a tradition we started a few years ago. It isn’t always hosted by us, but it was our turn this year. We have all their friends over, and there’s food, laughter, maybe a game of something. It’s a good way to send the kids back.” 

She pulled out Tupperware from her fridge and began piling them onto her counter. “We’ve got burgers, hot dogs, potato salad, pasta salad, baked beans, taco salad, uh... let’s see ribs, and barbecue chicken. We also have some sliced fruit and there’s veggies.” 

“Dhia, were ye feeding an army?” 

She smiled wanly. “Close, a bunch of preteen girls who are going through all sorts of whatever. I’m constantly at the grocery store because of how fast we go through food.” 

We settled down with our plates at their dinner table. “The skylights let in a lot of light.” I commented. She didn’t need to turn on any lights. 

She swallowed before taking a sip of water. Her face transformed as she began talking about different features of the house. “We’ve lived here for about eight years now. It’s a short commute to my work. My mother or one of the other parents in our carpool usually takes the girls to school. When they were younger, they went to daycare after school until they picked up sports, dance and piano lessons, and whatever else they’re doing. I remember when I first showed Isla the house, she stared at it as if it were a mansion. I suppose after living in a two bedroom apartment up until that point it probably was. She looked at it then at me and asked ‘is this our house?’ I told her yes and she began running through the halls screaming excitedly. Bree was nearly two at this point and did whatever her sister did.” 

I chuckled at the picture she painted. “I guess it was love at first sight.” 

The light illuminated Claire’s skin providing a nice glow. Although some of it seemed to radiate from her being, and she was truly a picture. Her dark hair was shiny and hung down her back. Her porcelain face was relaxed, her freckles hidden just beneath the light make-up she wore. There was something tremendously beautiful about her, and I couldn’t tell if it was her inner or outer beauty. 

“If you want, you are welcome to pick them up from school. Bree’s school gets out at half past two, and Isla’s ends at three. Bree doesn’t have football today, but Isla has practice. You could watch the field hockey team. She’s the manager.” Claire’s hands were moving quickly, and I sensed her anxiety skyrocket yet again. 

Whatever news she had to tell me wasn’t helping her nerves settle. “I ken yer nervous about something, so tell me what it is. I dinna like to see ye worked up,” my hand covered hers and I squeezed gently reminding her I was here. 

She took a few deep, calming breaths, but it didn’t help her. Her hand was shaking under mine and I caught her glassy orbs. “Please Mo Nighean Donn,” her head snapped up as the term of endearment slipped past my lips. 

Her mouth uncharacteristically fell open as she simply stared at me for a few lingering seconds. “Y- you haven’t called me that since...” she glanced skyward as she tried to think about it. I had stopped calling her that long before we made the decision to end our marriage. We were always unhappy, and it seemed as if everything I called her in the past wasn’t her anymore. “Well I don’t really remember,” she murmured quietly. 

“What is it? You’re bothered by something.”

She steeled herself before saying the words that changed everything. 

“I was pregnant after that night in Paris.” 

Chapter Text

JPOV 

I stared at her in complete shock, overwhelmed by the news she dropped on me. I thought by the way she ignored all my attempts to address that night that it hadn’t meant much to her. She avoided my calls and passed the phone to Isla as soon as she realized it was me calling. Once or twice, I could’ve passed it off as a coincidence until it happened every time. It was her refusal to speak to me that precipitated a visit that fall. Our morning after wasn’t idyllic. Far from it. There were too many things said and left unsaid. 

Morning After

We had done it. Last night, we pretended to be perfect strangers. It eased our guilt about sneaking around like we were randy teenagers. I needed a pretense to see her, and it happened to be that she was going to be in Paris around the time of Jared’s gala. 

We had sworn it would be a one time thing and that we wouldn’t let our feelings interfere and ruin it. I don’t know about Claire, but I knew that I would break that promise. I couldn’t separate my feelings from the act. There was no way I would ever be the type to sleep with a person and then forget about it. My father had taught me too much about respecting women, and it didn’t seem right. 

However, I had tried to keep my emotions at bay. It went hell the moment I saw her enter the hall. Her fair skin shimmered in the minimal lighting of the room. She was stunning. Her lips were bright red and kissable. I wanted to march up and kiss her then and there, but we had made a promise. There was a basic script we were supposed to adhere to, and I was intrigued. 

I nearly lost my damn mind when I saw another man approach her. While she held a mild interest in whatever he was saying, I didn’t like the idea of another man speaking to her. She would say it was the caveman in me and I wouldn’t disagree. It was difficult not to see red, especially when his eyes lowered to enjoy the view of her chest. 

The dress was cut to highlight the curves of her body and the red complimented her perfectly. I was struggling to rein in my hormones and not drag her away to my hotel room. We eventually met and went through our little charade, and then we made love. There was something primal about it. I couldn’t resist biting her at the end or later when we went for another round. 

I awoke before her and stared at her. Her make-up was smudged and there was glitter all over face, but she had never seemed more beautiful to me. Her hair was in loose waves, well really knots after our third go around. Her lips were pressed into my neck and I never wanted to leave the moment where I had her in my arms. 

Over two years since I had seen her in person, and my attraction to her hadn’t faded one iota. In fact, I was more attracted to her now. It seemed impossible. 

Seeing the way her body had matured did things to me. She had shed all the weight from her pregnancies, and her body was glorious. I loved her ass the most. It was firm and round. She rolled her eyes when I told her last night. 

Staring at her, I realized I didn’t want her to disappear from my life. How could I let her go after what we shared? It was proof that what we had was special, infinite, and there was no going  back. I was irrevocably in love with her. 

Her eyes scrunched tightly and little puffs of air escaped her lips as she began to wake. I held tight to her as she tried to push herself away. “Jamie?”

“Hmm…”

“Do you think you could let go of me?”

“No, I dinna think I will.”

“I’ve got to pee.” That was one way to effectively kill the mood.

I heard the flush of the toilet moments later. Still, she didn’t come out. She was panicking. She was attempting to figure out a way to extract her from what was inevitably coming. 

With a sigh, I slid out of bed and knocked on the door. “Claire? Please open the door.”

There was a sniffle. “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. Please.” 

The lock clicked and I opened the door. She sat on the toilet with her knees drawn to her chest. Her eyes were teary as she stared at me helplessly. The make-up had been washed away and she looked even younger. I softened at the sight of her. Of all the reactions I had prepared for, this one hadn’t come to mind. 

“Are ye okay? Are you hurt?” 

She stared up at me with those golden orbs and my heart broke. There was so much vulnerability and insecurity, I had to turn away. She shook her head. 

“Did I do something wrong?” She shook her head again. I was at a loss to explain her tears. Had she always been that small? “Are ye mad at me?” Again her head moved in disagreement. “Why are you crying?”

“I thought it would be easy.” She whispered. I had to strain to hear her. “We weren’t married, but we are familiar. It sounded like a good idea two months ago when we started discussing it, but now…” her lids shut and all I could see were her dark lashes. My heart was shredded when I saw the first tear. Her eyes were open and wet. “Now I don’t know what to do. I thought I didn’t have feelings for you, or at least I convinced myself of that. How could we do that? Insanity must have come over us to think we could successfully have sex without it affecting us.”

My heart stuttered and my breathing halted for a moment. “What?”

She shook her head. “Last night shouldn’t have happened. We… we… just when you appeared and we started dancing, I couldn’t take my eyes off of you. Your touch burned in a good way. I thought I was dead inside and was unable to feel anything resembling sexual attraction. Then last night happened, and we were like magnets. I couldn’t stay away. I was a moth to a flame, helpless to resist the charms of the flickering fire. You really rose to the occasion,” snorted and shook her head. "I meant that literally, although I suppose figuratively fits just as well."

I sensed a but. “But?”

Her eyes lowered. “What does it mean? We agreed to not allow our personal feelings towards each other get in the way. This was supposed to be a one time affair. I don’t know what I should do. My home is in Boston and you’re creating a life in Edinburgh. This is impossible. I don't have it in me to be in a relationship. I thought- I really don't know why I thought this was a good idea. We are smarter than this, but we allowed ourselves to give into temptation. None of this changes the past.”

Reality came to punch me in the face. We had spent four months flirting and pretending this was something it wasn’t. The gala was an excuse to finally see one another. We told ourselves we were itching a scratch and that this didn’t have to mean anything. Neither of us believed it wouldn’t have some lasting effect. “What do ye want me to do? I love you. I’ve never stopped and yeah there are times where I’ve wanted to wring yer neck, and where I came close to hating you; but I can’t stop coming back to you.”

She cried harder. I wanted to go to her. “We would still have the same problems. Those don’t disappear. You hate my job, the fact that I come from money, and sometimes you hate me. You said so yourself.” I did. “You dislike that I’m a control freak. And don’t lie, but you resented me when you dropped out of school to take that job. In some ways, my life hadn’t changed. I still got to attend school, while you worked grueling hours and worked hard to distinguish yourself in a job that you had never really wanted. I knew then.” She sniffled, wiping her nose on the hotel robe. 

I tugged at my hair, unable to deny the truths she voiced. “Ye’re right.”

“I know,” she murmured. “I tried to pretend not to notice. Money was a sensitive subject and well from there everything dissolved into chaos. Can you tell me that anything has changed?”

I would always be bothered by the disparities regarding the way we each viewed money. I had resented her. She was the one who pushed out our children, but she didn’t have to give up her aspirations. It was taking time for me to get my life together. I had decided to start a business, but I had to save up the capital and find some investors. Claire bought a house without blinking at the price. 

“I hated you too. For too many things. Always working. Spending time with that tramp.” Her eyes hardened. “Never having enough time. Forgetting about dates and other commitments. It was happening before Bree was born. I wish it was only those last six months, but we started drifting before that. When you had forgotten our third wedding anniversary, I did my best not to be hurt. I pretended I forgot too.” 

“I’m sorry.”

“I am too, but Jamie be truthful. This can’t go anywhere. We’ve got too many issues together and apart, and when we’re together we bring out the worst in each other.”

I disagreed. “I dinna believe that’s true. We had our problems, but it wasn’t all bad.”

“When was the last time you were happy with me? Bree’s birth doesn’t count. I keep trying to remember, but I can’t.”

“Why are you doing this? We can work through all of that.” Her arms tightened around her legs as she tucked her head. “I-we weren’t always the best, but we could fix it. There’s too much between us to let go.”

“Maybe that’s why we should.”

I stumbled into the door frame. “You canna mean that. I love you. I dinna care about that other stuff bogging us down.”

“Yes, you do.” Her voice was somber. “I do too. We can’t pretend to be something we’re not because of loves. That’s not right.”

“Last night changed everything. It put it into perspective for me.”

“That’s hormones speaking. You’re still on a sex high and haven’t come down from the bliss.”

“I don’t think ye believe that.”

“I do. You’ve got to stop. Please.”

“Why?”

“Stop Jamie, this- this it can’t… no it doesn’t work. What are we doing?” She picked her head up and look at me with clear eyes. “We agreed. You agreed not to do this. Wanting something and actually having it are two different things. Last night wasn’t real. This isn’t our real lives. We were pretending because we both know deep down that this won’t work. Love isn't some end all be all. It doesn't magically solve everything.”  

I let her go. I didn’t know what to say to convince her. Had we fallen back into what was familiar and that was why? It plagued me for months not to have the answer until I realized in the end she was the answer. We had issues, but what couple didn’t? If we were together, we could work towards finding solutions. Running away wasn’t the answer, but it was the easiest. We spent too long running.

Her face was tense with her fists clenched in her lap and her eyes squeezed tightly as if in preparation for a negative reaction from me. I didn’t know what I was feeling in that moment. How was someone supposed to react?

“I dinna ken what to say.” I was speechless. She was pregnant. What happened?

“I was nervous to tell you,” she admitted, her face burned with apparent shame. “After that night, everything was messy between us. I didn’t know how to talk to you. I was contemplating how to tell you when I suffered a miscarriage. It broke me. I spent some time in an outpatient facility. It was the real catalyst for me in taking my therapy seriously.”

“Well I canna say I blame ye after what happened with Gabriel. I wish I could’ve been there for you. Is that why you avoided me in the months that followed?” She nodded. “Why didn’t you tell me? Even afterwards?”

She sighed and fiddled with her fork. “I…” she licked her lips. “When it happened, I could hardly process it. It seemed unreal. It was later when I realized I had screwed up with my birth control and I was the one who insisted on not using protection. Then I lost the baby, and you would never have to know about it. I’ve pushed it aside over the years. Losing a second baby made me feel like I was a failure. I had made all of these crippling mistakes and it seemed as if the world was paying me back for all my wrongs.”

She had believed that. It was one of the many ways in which we were similar. She thought she had done something to deserve the loss. “That’s not how it works.”

Her lips lifted slightly. “I know. I’m a doctor, but knowing something and believing it aren’t the same. Therapy helped shift my thinking a lot. I know miscarriages just happen. I can’t really answer why I never told you.”

“Would you have told me about the baby?”

“Yes,,,?” It came out as a question. “Look I want to say yes, but I don’t know. I was really messed up. Me rejecting you in Paris had more to do with me than you. Sounds like a stupid line, but i wasn’t in a good head space.” Something about her expression reminded me of that day when she sat on the toilet crying. 

I wasn’t sure who reached first, but we were in one another’s embrace again. I smelled the vanilla of her shampoo and felt the downy softness of her hair against my cheek. I was home in her arms. It wasn’t right to relish in this as she was engaged to another man, but I would enjoy it while it lasted. 

I shed a few tears into her hair and felt the shuddering force of her sobs as she finally let go of the secret she had been carrying. The day had turned out far different than I imagined. 

After visiting Gabriel’s grave, I couldn’t ignore the feelings inside of me that screamed for him. I hadn’t told Claire then, but I struggled with my own faith in the aftermath of our son’s death. I wondered endlessly if it counted as death if he’d never lived. He hadn’t taken a single breath, instead he was a small baby, no longer a fetus, but he was something otherworldly altogether. 

Gabriel reminded me of the tales my mam told my siblings and I when we were young. She tucked us in with our eyes wide and full of wonder as she regaled us with stories of mythical creatures including fairies who stole away with human children and replaced them with their own. 

As I cradled his body to my chest, Gabriel reminded me of a child belonging to another realm. His tiny, almost un-human like features would remain so forever. 

“Sometimes I think I don’t want to have anymore children. The risk is high. I haven’t had good luck in three out of four pregnancies. I don’t know why I’m sharing this with you, but I’m talking. I’m scared to tell Peter. He loves Isla and Bree, but I know he would like children of his own. I just don’t know that I can do that.”

I had to stop her. It wasn’t the type of thing she should be telling me. “I think you should talk to him. He’s a medical professional and he’ll understand your fears.” I had the same ones, but it wasn’t my place to comfort her at least right now. My job at the moment was to be her friend again. 

“What made ye choose to live in Cambridge?” We hadn’t decided on a location when we were planning to move out of our crowded apartment. We hadn’t gotten beyond us needing to move. There were too many disagreements about money, location, and it never came to fruition. 

Her eyes found mine. I saw the spark of life in those whiskey colored orbs. “Well it was really my realtor. I wanted something not too far from the hospital. I didn’t care about school districts as I knew then I wanted them to attend Catholic schools. The house was probably our second or third showing, and it was perfect. As I said, I knew from the beginning. Besides saying Cambridge sort of reminds me of home on occasion.” I saw the whites of her teeth as she beamed at me. 

“So aside from the sky lights, is there any another part of the house ye like?” 

I wanted to hear her talk. I didn’t particularly care about the subject matter. It was being in close proximity and hearing her voice in person and not through a grainy speaker. When we were friends we talked all the time. 

“The bathrooms are quite nice, but I suppose my favorite room is the sitting room. The window seat overlooks the garden, and it’s lovely during fall. I curl up with a book and usually have a nap. There’s always a blanket nearby as the girls do the same. It’s comfy and cozy, and perfect for lazy days where we don’t go anywhere and sit at home.” 

The image filled my heart with love as I saw it. Claire always enjoyed days where she could relax. She was a workaholic and was restless if she was without a purpose for too long, but if she had a day off, she would lay there with a book or sleep all day. Sometimes she watched trashy television or her secret favorite movies. She would stay in her pajamas, usually plaid bottoms and a t-shirt she nicked from me. Her hair was stuck in a bun on top of her head. Casual Claire had to be one of my favorite versions of her. It was the her no one else really saw, and was reserved for her family. \

“Claire,” she hummed in response as she focused on munching on her fruit. “So ye said Bree was almost five in the picture of the three of ye at the beach, how did she come to lose her two front teeth at age four?” All I would ever have is the stories of what happened in my absence, but I still wanted to know. It wasn’t a story I was familiar with. I had recalled the first video call where I noticed, but Bree never shared the story. She spoke about pre-k and football. 

Her eyes crinkled in obvious mirth as a snort escaped her. She began chortling and I was worried about her sanity. “Sorry,” she apologized as she attempted to control her laughter. “It’s really not funny, but at the same time it is. Bree was already playing football by that time. Well she was quite angry at me one day, and went out into the garden to play. One of her angry kicks resulted in the ball hitting the pole of the net and then smacking her right in the face. It knocked out both teeth. She had a lisp until they grew in, and it reminded me a bit of Sylvester from the Looney Toons.” 

“Was she okay? No other injuries?” I was worried about an incident that occurred five years ago. With each passing tale, I ached for the lost time together. 

Claire shook her head. “No, she cried, but it was more from shock than being hurt. You should’ve seen her. She was tiny back then and fierce with an independent streak a mile long." I couldn't fathom where she would've gotten that. Claire ignored my look. "She had this pissed off expression and her eyes were narrow slits, her lips pinched tightly together, and she threw a tantrum as she stormed through the house. I ignored it that day as my mum said giving her attention was exactly what she wanted.” 

It wasn’t hard to imagine because I knew quite well from experience where Bree inherited that particular expression. I had seen it dozens if not hundreds of times on her mother’s face. 

“What?” Claire asked. 

“Nothing.” 

“Liar, you’re smirking over there and I want to know why.” 

I cackled as soon as she made the same expression as the one she just described. “Jamie, you’re such an ass.” 

I couldn’t stop laughing because it felt good. I felt so much lighter than I had in ages. It was a relief not to have a weight constantly pressing down on me. These last few weeks I was a wound up ball of anxiety and confusion. I didn’t know how well my relocation would be received. It was a risk. 

“Oh shite,” she grumbled unhappily, her body pushed away from mine as she stood up. “I’ve got to get back.”

Her hand reached out for the table as she tried to steady her balance after getting up too quickly. She sat back down at the table and watched as I cleared lunch. I caught the slightest twitching of her lips, and I wasn’t offended in the slightest. I kent very well what she thought was hilarious and I chose to ignore her with a fond roll of my eyes. 

I hadn’t been one for assisting in the kitchen when we were married. It wasn’t that I believed a woman’s place was in the kitchen, but I was normally a clumsy clot and broke more than a few of our nice dishes. I also just hated doing dishes. It was my assigned chore as a lad, and I did anything I could to get out of it. Jenny finally switched me to floor dirty after we had to replace a few dishes. 

Claire’s eyes blazed angrily when I broke some of our wedding china. We hadn’t been using it, but she’d been gingerly cleaning them because according to her they were collecting dust. I tripped into her, the dish went flying out of her hands, and then smashed into the kitchen floor. The ferocity of her anger caused me to fear for my manhood, and I swore to stay out of her way in the kitchen after that incident. 

After I rinsed off our plates and stored them in the dishwasher and returned the remaining leftovers to the fridge, I offered my arm to her and assisted her to her car. 

Her lips were pinched tightly together, which meant she was biting back a sharp retort. I appreciated the gesture as I understood she was trying her best not to let her temper get the best of her. She was making the effort for me. She wanted to stay on good terms.

“Let’s get ye back to work. Are ye okay to drive?” 

“Yes,” she nodded as she locked up the house and set the alarm. “Bree will disarm it when you pick her up later. She knows how to do it.” 

“Why did ye apply for citizenship?” I knew it was a non-sequitur, but I remember when the girls first told me about their mam being like them. 

It niggled at me greatly, but we weren’t on such great speaking terms at the time. There was no way I could’ve asked her such a thing. 

The lines around her eyes appeared as she wondered what my purpose was for asking in the first place. While there were differences in Claire from when I was most familiar with her, her facial expressions never changed and almost always gave away her thoughts. If she wore a mask, her eyes were the best way to tell the sort of mood she was in or what was going through her mind. 

Her tongue darted out to wet her luscious, pink lips. I followed the movement with my eyes tempted to kiss her, knowing that I should discontinue that line of thinking. “Well it was easier honestly. I applied for a green card before you left actually and was on a visa until I got it. I think they approved me around the beginning of 2011, and I completed the requirements of a permanent resident. I hadn’t left the U.S. during that time as I was fairly busy with the girls and my residency, and it was just easy to stay.” 

“What sorts of things were required for citizenship?” I’d heard about the difficulty in becoming a citizen, but if anyone were up to the challenge, it was Claire. 

“You have to possess knowledge about the constitution, civics, pretty good understanding of the English language,” her lips twitched. “And have good moral character. It’s an interview process, not terrifying in the least. I actually filled out the forms three months prior to completing my residency requirement because it gave me a jump start, especially as I was ending my surgical residency.” 

Claire was nothing if not efficient. She never had time for chaos in her life, and preferred to have her tasks completed early so that she didn’t run the risk of forgetting about it in the end. 

Our time together was almost over as I recognized how antsy she was gettin standing beside her car. “Why become an American though?”  

“Because our daughters were citizens and I knew I wouldn’t ever go back to England.” At least she was honest about her intentions. I couldn’t fault her for her answer because I’d asked her, and expected it in all fairness. “I love my homeland, although I’m still disappointed about the World Cup, but I’ve now lived here for twelve years, and England sometimes seems more like a fantasy than anything tangent if that makes any semblance of sense to you.” 

I nodded because it did. It was how I thought about her after I moved back to Scotland. Our time together almost felt like a novel, something not real. I often felt as if I’d imagined the whole thing, but I wasn’t nearly that creative. The longer you’re parted from something, the less real it feels. 

“Thank ye for lunch,” I couldn’t look at her because I knew I would ask her to not go back and stay with me for the afternoon. I couldn’t ask that of her, not yet. She wasn’t ready for that type of closeness. 

“I wish I could stay, but I’ve got patient files to review. One of my residents has their first solo surgery later and I’ll be in the O.R. with them. I hope you don’t mind me leaving like this. I don’t know what time I’ll be back, but Isla and Bree know what they’re supposed to do.”

I understood what she was trying to tell me without her needing to voice it. There was a chance she might work later than she expected. “Isla still has no clue about you being here, but she’ll be over the moon. She does have practice today and Bree has practice at four. Bree gets picked up from school through a carpool, but I can text her friend’s mum and tell her not to worry. Before I forget,” she unlocked her car to retrieve a piece of cardstock with a number on it. “It’s so Bree and the school know which car she’s getting in. Anyway, her coach texted earlier when you were using the bathroom that they were going to have a last minute practice as she’s cancelling Thursday’s. Isla will stay after school for practice which ends at five thirty. You can pick her up then or see her during practice, and I’ll text my mum and tell her the ride is all taken care of. Isla finishes at one, but she will just stay after. She’ll likely be sitting on the bleachers.” 

I marveled at the woman before me as she had parenting down to a science. She was constantly aware of our daughters and their active schedules, and found ways to stay involved with their lives. 

“Don’t let them con you into a pizza. It’s leftover night, and they’re perfectly aware we’ve still got food at the house. They each have a house key, and you can stay until I get home.” 

“It’ll be fine Claire. I’ve taken care of them before this.” They did stay with me two months every summer. “I haven’t poisoned them yet.” 

Her brows nearly rose to her hairline, and I was surprised to find they could go higher. At least that was my perception. “They’re talented at getting their way, and they’ll have you believing I never cook for them and we eat take-out regularly. I’m just saying watch out because Isla has all the numbers on speed dial.” She winked at me as we shared a brief hug. I could’ve sworn I heard her whisper ‘so nice’, but when we pulled apart, her face gave away nothing.

“I’ll call when I’m on my way home.” Her lips came awfully close to mine, but she diverted and kissed me cheek. “Thanks for doing all of this.” Our new relationship needed some discussions, but they were better left for when she actually had time. 

I had a lot on my mind as I backed out of her driveway. So many things she had never told me. At least I had a better idea for why she ignored my constant bombardment of calls and texts. 

Communication was going to be a work in progress. It was a skill we had been lacking in all along. We were married when we were twenty years old. It wasn’t a wrong decision, but if I reflected on the time, we weren’t ready for the responsibilities. We wanted to be tied to one another permanently without conscious thought about how it fully affected our future and what sacrifices each of us might have to make. We hadn’t thought of the possibility of having children while Claire and I were in school; it was always a thought for later and when Claire’s period skipped, we freaked out. 

It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility as we tried to be careful with birth control, but sometimes we couldn’t keep our hands off one another to grab a condom. 

I didn’t regret my children. Each one was a blessing given to us by god, and I cherished my daughters for the joy, love, light, and just everything else they brought to my life simply by existing. 

I had some time to spare before school ended and decided to check out the apartment where I would be living. I had my work cut out for me in the coming months. Things weren’t nearly as awkward with Claire as they could’ve been given our previous encounters, but it wasn’t how it used to be either. 

She didn’t trust that I was here for the duration. Before showing her my potential as a partner, I needed her to be secure in the knowledge that I wasn’t going anywhere (permanent) ever again unless she was by my side. 

Isla and I discussed some of this when it was just the two of us in her hospital room. She told me how there was a time she hated me. When she realized how far Scotland was from Boston, and how I never attended any of her school programs, sports games, and everything else that made up her life. She played the violin, which I didn’t know about. I knew about the piano as she practiced on the one at Lallybroch, but I had never heard her play the violin. 

At first she couldn’t figure out what she was feeling when she saw other dads congratulate their kids or give their daughters flowers, and then with a sinking feeling in her stomach she realized she was envious. Other kids had something she only had for two months out of the year barring years they spent Easter, Nollaig, and Hogmanay. It rarely happened as it was such a short time for the girls out of school. It was also one of the busiest times of year for me with the brewery and pub. 

Isla was tearful as she informed how every time they traveled home, she found more reasons to hate me and wrote them down so she could stay angry. It made her feel better to hold onto because without it, inside she was empty. It all disappeared when she saw me again, but as soon as she was on the plane back home, the feelings of abandonment came back to her. 

Her lifelong hope was the rekindling of my relationship with her mother. She never thought it would actually happen because the two of us never spoke unless it concerned our daughters. She picked up at a young age the tension between us. It never escaped her notice how I clenched my jaw or how Claire needed a glass of wine before she rang me. If Claire was particularly anxious, she would twirl the glass and balance on one leg to give herself something to focus on aside from her nerves. 

The hours passed and before I knew it I was picking up Bree from school. A huge grin was in place as she waited on the curb for pick up. She chattered to her little friends and her face was animated as her hands moved wildly. She was enthusiastic in her movements. 

Claire had given me the numbered placard for pick-up as that was how they determined which child’s turn it was to leave. Bree must’ve heard her name as she began hugging her little friends before making her way to the car when she spotted me. She slid into the backseat with ease and a giant grin. 

Her dress was a bit wrinkled, but none the worse for wear. She sported her hair in a French braid instead of the ponytail it was styled in earlier that morning. The ribbon was tied to the end, and her hairband was nowhere to be seen. I chalked it up to a girl thing. 

Her backpack was emptier than it was when we walked her inside this morning. “How was yer first day?” I had always wanted to ask in person. 

It was clearly the right question as her face lit up and she began to rapidly talk. I knew she liked to talk, but I had never heard so many words come out of her before. 

“Oh Mrs. Nicholson is so awesome and nice. She let us pick our own desks, and told us she’d only move us if she found our seating arrangements to be a problem. I’m sitting with my friends and I’m so excited. Last year we sat at different islands because our teacher kept moving us all around the classroom. She wanted us to get to know all the kids in class and have a chance to work with them. Hopefully we don’t get moved.” She inhaled quickly before continuing on with her day. “Then we were assigned our cubbies. It’s alphabetical,” she explained. “So I was close to the beginning since our last name starts with F. Then we put our supplies in little baskets at the bottom of our cubbies. Only our pencil boxes went in our desks as Mrs. Nicholson hates clutter.” She emphasized her statement with a hand gesture. “We didn’t really do much today except some back to school worksheets. There was this cool emoji activity we did where we cut out emojis and placed them on a sheet that looked like a tablet to show how we felt about different things like the first day and last day, or math, lunch. Then we filled out an all about ourselves sheet. We also read letters from last year’s fourth graders. We will write our own at the end of the year. Isn’t that exciting? This year is going to be awesome.” 

There was so much exuberance exuding from her, I was almost worried I had the wrong child in the car. 

“That is cool. Ye should definitely think over the school year what kind of advice you want to pass onto a kid next year.” Her head bobbed seriously as her eyes frosted over with consideration. “So it turns out ye have practice tonight for football. Yer mother received a text about a cancelled one later this week.” 

“That’s fine. We haven’t had a practice since Thursday because of a Labor Day Tournament. The coaches care more about our physical improvement than if we win though. The tournament went okay, but there’s always room for improvement. I’m excited to beat my personal best this year and to work even harder than last year.” I saw the determined gleam in her eyes. 

We played over the summers, but it was always more fun on my side. I never knew how seriously she took the sport, but if her face was any indication, it meant a lot to her. “We have a game this Saturday. Do you...” her voice trailed off and I glanced in the rearview mirror to catch her eyes. 

“Do I... what?” 

“Well parents are welcome to attend games. Sometimes with mommy too busy I ride with my friends, but if you aren’t busy I wouldn’t mind if you came.” She said shyly. It wasn’t a trait I had ever associated with her.

I wracked my brains, but aside from meeting with a few realtors and meeting with investors, I didn’t have anything pressing. I still had yet to reconnect with my friends from the city, so my schedule was wide open for whatever my girls wanted to do. “Where is it?” 

“I can’t remember exactly, but coach will probably tell us at practice. We play in the NEP/NEC league.” I crinkled my brown in confusion at what seemed to be a colloquial term. “It’s the New England Premiership and New England Championship,” she simplified. “We play more games in the fall as spring prepares us for the championship. We just had a tournament over Labor Day weekend. It’s usually only holiday weekends we have tournaments. Sometimes we go out of town.” 

“When did ye try out?” I wasn’t sure when they held tryouts, and sometimes I worried if them visiting me affect the opportunities they had waiting for them back home. 

She worried her bottom lip as she tried to recall. “It was the beginning of June, I think the fifth and sixth. They have us tryout based on when we were born because that determines our team. Our season starts in August and we train about twice a week. During the winter, we move our practices indoors and I play on a futsal team since our practices are only weekly. Then in March, we increase practices for NEP and NEC.” 

I was astounded by how informative she was and how well she knew her stuff. She didn’t take her participation lightly and was responsible for what she had to do. I was proud of her. 

“What’s yer favorite position?” 

It took her a while to ponder this as we made our way to her house. “Well I really enjoy being a striker because I love making goals. Defensive midfielder is probably my other favorite. We switch positions so we don’t get too comfortable and have an opportunity to play each position. I hate being goalie.” She bemoaned and told me about the injustice of standing in a net and waiting to catch the ball. “I like being in the action. I’m also terrible at blocking.” 

I pulled into the driveway, and it was kind of strange but in a good way. Bree grabbed her backpack. I turned off the GPS on my phone and followed behind her. 

She unlocked the door and disarmed the alarm just as Claire said she would. Her bag was plopped right by the door as she headed straight to the kitchen for an afternoon snack. She pulled out apple slices and went to the pantry for peanut butter. Then took a seat the table before getting back up for a glass of milk. She was self-sufficient and was comfortable with her afternoon routine when she got home from school. 

“Isla’s practice doesn’t start until three thirty. She has piano right after school and then she goes to practice. So we don’t have to leave yet. Do you want one?” 

I sat down across from her and simply marveled at this marvelous creature. It was incredible how she started out as a defenseless baby with tufts of bright orange hair and grew into this child who could certainly talk the ear off anyone. 

I snatched an apple slice from her plate and she giggled. “Did anyone ever tell you, you talk to0 much?” 

Her laugh was a tinkling sound. “All the time, my mom says I need duct tape all the time. Isla offers to use her own if I can’t shut up.” She shrugged her shoulders as if it was just her life. Which I guess it was. “You will have to drop me off at practice, or I can call my friend’s parents ask if they can pick me up from Isla’s school. Her practice doesn’t usually end until five thirty.” She chomped on another apple. “Not that she’s doing much. She’s responsible for the equipment and things like that.”

I studied her. She was more freckly than when I last saw her, and her arms had a bit of a tan. Both of my daughters were very fair. They had no chance, yet somehow managed to get a little color on them. Brianna’s hair was streaked with lighter strands, a result from playing in the sun. “So how far is the field?” 

“It’s like twenty minutes from here and Isla’s school. Either way you take I-90 or I-93. The field is by Pleasure Bay, so it can be cool sometimes. Mommy takes the longer route because she hates paying tolls, but if we are running late on the days she does carpool, she does go through them.” 

She polished off her apple slices, and we still had some time before we had to leave. “You know Isla actually started school yesterday but it was only a half day. They got out at noon. Today was when classes started and sports practices.” 

Bree was a fountain of information and honestly talked as long as someone allowed her. “Come see my room,” she tugged me behind her as we made our way to the steps. 

Her room was the second door at the top of the stairs. The floor was a beautiful wood. They kept the floor polished which gave the wood a shiny appearance. 

On Bree’s door there were little things to indicate it was hers. Her name was stenciled in calligraphy with multicolored paper flowers placed from top to bottom. It screamed Bree. 

She opened the door to her room. The walls were painted a soft pink with matching pink curtains adorning her windows. The curtains were open and let in light to further brighten the space. On the walls, were stick on gold polka-dots. She had a little pink chair in a corner where I imagined her curling up to read. A string of fairy lights were placed on the wall above her bed with pictures clipped of family and friends. The bed was a white wood four poster queen. She had a pink bed skirt, and I only imagined the things she kept under her bed. The blanket was a white, interfering with her pink color scheme. She had two teal decorative pillows with a pink one between them. Behind were two regular pillows in white pillow cases. Across from her bed was a white five drawer dresser some pattern painted on in teal. She had a white rug with a teal pattern.  I was slowly understanding she preferred bright colors.

The room was surprisingly tidy. She had two dolls placed on her bed with a familiar, well worn Teddy in between. “The rest of them are in the play room. Mommy won’t let me keep my toys in here anymore. She doesn’t like when my room isn’t clean. She kept stepping on legos and blocks.” 

Ah... that made sense. Bree had difficulty picking up after herself at my house too, and I constantly reminded her to clear her things when she was done with them. “Did you decorate it yourself?” 

“Oh, it was a birthday present last year. I wanted something that wasn’t baby-ish.” She made a face. “My walls used to be lavender and I had a twin bed. There were butterflies and other little kid things, and mommy and I got some ideas from Pinterest. She loves that website.” 

I coughed to hide my laughter. “I like it. It’s very you.” 

She straightened her back and her dimples popped out of her cheeks. She was pleased by my compliment. “Thanks,” then she turned from me and headed for her closet. She dug around until she pulled out a black backpack. 

Cleats were thrown in the bag along with a hairbrush, deodorant, and other things she used when she went to practice. “My ball is downstairs. I’ll get it before we leave, and I think my water bottle is in the dishwasher. I’m going to go change for practice.” She pointed to a door across the hall, which I assumed to be her bathroom. Claire had mentioned Bree and Isla having their own. 

She grabbed athletic shorts and a t-shirt from atop her dresser and scurried across the hall. She was back five minutes later. The blue ribbon was gone. She grabbed a hoodie from her closet and stuffed it into her bag. “It can get cold.” 

I trailed behind her as we moved back downstairs where she gathered the remainder of her things. She was efficient and knew what she needed. She filled her water bottle with ice and water. She grabbed two granola bars and a Gatorade from the fridge. Then she packed her bag, and shoved the soccer ball into it’s netted pocket. “Okay, I’m ready,” she informed me as she headed towards the door. She grabbed her key and began setting the alarm. 

I found myself in awe. Where was my little girl? Bree was different when she stayed with me during the summer, but she didn’t have an established routine. We varied our days and I didn’t require much of them responsibility wise. They kept their rooms neat and cleaned their shared bathroom weekly. 

“I can tell you how to get to Isla’s school so you don’t have to use GPS. It can get confused sometimes and take you through traffic.” She guided me through several streets and we pulled into the parking lot of NCD. 

It reminded me of something I would see on a university campus instead of a school for children. It was massive. I was reminded of some English country estates as I stared up at it. 

Bree grabbed her bag and I followed her to the fields. The girls were just beginning to filter out, and some were already on the field playing. 

I spotted Isla instantly. Her hair was pulled into a long ponytail atop her head. She was on the field, conversing with some of the team. 

Bree handed me her bag and ran the length of the field, calling her sister’s name loudly. The other girls were nonplussed and treated it as an ordinary occurrence. A few of the girls smiled and greeted Bree as she passed them. Isla moved to the sidelines and dropped the sticks she was holding to embrace her sister. 

I slid my phone out of my pocket to snap a pick of the two of them. These were the moments I didn’t get enough of, and had missed way too many. 

“Excuse me, sir,” a woman in shorts and a NCD t-shirt came out, brandishing a clipboard. Her whistle was poised at her lips. “I will not hesitate to call the police. This is private property, and we do not-“ 

“Coach, wait he’s my dad.” It seemed to stop the woman short and several of Isla’s teammates turned their heads in my direction. It reminded me of Bree’s school all over again. “I promise he wouldn’t hurt anyone. He’s never been here, but I can vouch for him. He got in from Scotland early this morning. I promise he’s not a pedo.” 

Those seemed to be the magic words as the coach relaxed her posture and smiled at me. She offered her hand. “I’m Coach Thomas. You’ve got a fine young lady here. Isla is a talented center forward and we will be lucky to have her on the team again. Right now she’s wonderful as our manager and my assistant coach. Warm-ups begin in five Isla,” she told her as she headed towards the other girls. 

Isla stared at me in complete wonderment. “Am I hallucinating?” She rubbed her eyes and blinked a few times, but the image was still the same. I was there at her school. “Dad, you’re actually here. Does mom know? Oh my gosh,” she squealed happily as she threw her arms around me. 

It was amazing the progress she’d made since I last saw her. She was on pain medication and had all her injuries visible for everyone to see. She didn’t have the crutches with her and could walk. There was a slight limp, but it wasn’t too noticeable.

“I’m actually here,” I kissed her head and relished in the feeling of knowing I’d made a right decision. “I think yer team is waiting.” 

She pulled back with pink cheeks. “Right, you can sit over there.” She pointed to a set of bleachers where Bree sat. “We will talk after practice.” She winked at me before running to her team. 

The whole day was a surreal experience, and it wasn’t over yet. 

Chapter Text

JPOV 

I watched mesmerized as Isla assisted her coach. Before they even began work on the field, they had their warm-ups. The girls ran a few laps around the field, stretched, and did some other basic exercises to get their heart rate up. Isla did some of the warm-ups, but she wasn’t back to running. She had two weeks left of physical therapy and then she would start to integrate her old workout routines. 

Bree read a book and didn’t seem the least bit interested. Occasionally her head bobbed up when the girls took to the field with sticks in hand. 

“She was terrible last year,” she informed me quietly, her finger keeping tabs on her page. “At tryouts she was great, but her nerves got the best of her at the first few games. She got really good by the end of the season, and had such an amazing turnaround. It sucks that she doesn’t get to play this year.” 

Often, it surprised me the sorts of words the girls knew. They used all of these big words that I don’t think I began using until I was quite a bit older than they were. 

“Isla was going to be the center this year. She and coach had talked at the end of last season about switching her position. She was a wing last year, but she practiced a lot in the spring.” 

I was making mental notes about all of the different activities Bree and Isla were a part of, so that I was aware at all times of their regular routines. I was beginning to understand there was a difference between school related events and outside events. Isla played for her school softball team and another one in the spring. Her other team participated in tournaments much like Bree’s football team did. The spring was busy with the two of them traveling constantly. 

It baffled me how they balanced everything with their schoolwork. Isla had music lessons after school and every other weekend. I could help carry some of the responsibility in transporting them to where they needed to be, and I couldn’t wait to attend games, recitals, and school functions. I didn’t want to miss a thing. 

“How does Isla have time to sleep?” I asked Bree seriously. 

She stuffed her fist in her mouth to stifle her giggles. “Daddy,” she groaned and shook her head. “We do have weekends. All of Isla’s school games are on weekdays and sometimes they leave school early just to go. The other games are on Saturday usually and then she has Sunday. She does all of her homework as soon as she can to have time for stuff. The team manager has to go to all of the games, but she does get a little downtime during practice.” 

Did they have fun? All I saw was them constantly going from one thing to the next. “Do you have fun?” The words slipped past my lips without me knowing. 

“Of course, mommy always says if we don’t have fun then we should stop, but I can’t imagine not playing soccer. Isla likes being busy. She hates having downtime because she doesn’t like being bored.” Her ocean orbs rolled skyward at such an absurd notion. “We go on vacations. She doesn’t have any winter sports, so she’s home all the time. She’s a member of a few clubs and she’s thinking about joining student council.” 

At a quarter to five, Bree left with her friend to go to her practice across town. Her backpack was draped over a shoulder as she and her little friend walked towards the parking lot, talking animatedly. 

I hadn’t met any of their friends in the past because they were always visiting me, and it wasn’t easy to make friends especially as the children were still in school during part of their visit. As they got older, I think it became harder for them to spend so much time away from their friends during their only time of freedom.

Isla cheered on her teammates and conversed with the coach as she watched the field. Her eyes were intense and focused on the players. She had a good eye. 

It was different watching her in this setting. She and Mags played one on one back at Lallybroch, but there was something different about watching her on the sidelines. While she did possess a competitive spirit, she loved noticing the improvement in others. She said it was the best part about being on a team. 

Practice ended five minutes early. The coach came over to apologize yet again for her earlier mistake. “Nah,” I waved her off. “I dinna mind in the slightest as ye were just protecting the girls from someone you believed to be a predator. I’m Jamie Fraser, by the way,” I offered up my hand. 

We chatted briefly before one of the players took her attention away with a few questions. 

Isla soon arrived back on the field after changing back into her school clothes. I’d never seen how either girl dressed for school. Claire occasionally sent a picture from the first and last day, but it wasn’t the same as seeing it all in person. I hadn’t received pictures from today, then again it was different from the norm. 

As I observed her choice in clothing, it was hitting me that Isla wasn’t a wee one any longer. She would be twelve in a little over a month, and Claire had told me puberty had begun for our darling girl. Isla was embarrassed by all of it, and preferred no mentions of how her body was changing into that of a woman’s, not that I wanted to address that with her either. She was my little girl, and I wasn’t prepared for her to be a teenager in just over a year. 

She wore a gingham button up tank with a black cardigan and black skinny jeans. On her feet were red high top converse. I was suddenly assaulted with visions of a teenaged version of the girl in front of me. Only a few summers ago, she wore Disney princess shirts and pigtails. Where had the time gone?

How long before she found spending time with her dad was embarrassing? Was she already in that state? 

Claire didn’t talk much about what the girls were like here in their comfort zones where everything was always familiar and comfortable for them. I didn’t know what sort of music Isla listened to or what television shows captured her interest. There were all these things I never thought about in the past because I only had them for a short time. We barely spent time indoors, preferring to get out and see the world. I didn’t know the last time I sat them down and we talked. 

Her backpack was full and she carried a gym bag on her shoulder. She offered a tired smile to me as I wrapped an arm around her and took her sports bag. 

“So you showed up at Bree’s school?” I heard the curiosity she tried to bury and the burning jealousy simmering underneath. 

I unlocked the car and threw her bag in the trunk along with her stick. “Well I canna miss anymore time with ye. You’re practically a teenager, and I want to go to games and recitals, concerts, whatever because you’re my daughter. I couldna be more proud of ye if I tried. You were right this summer when you said that what I was doing wasn’t good enough to ye. So this is me trying. I’ve gotten a flat, but there’s three bedrooms. I’m expanding here to the U.S. with the brewery.” 

She discreetly turned to wipe her eyes and I hid a smile at the reminder of her mother in her. “Thanks dad,” she mumbled softly as more tears fell down her freckled cheeks. “Do you know your way to the house?” Bree had navigated me down too many streets, and I wasn’t sure which ones I needed to return. Isla chuckled and shook her head. “Trust Bree to take the shortcut.” 

Isla directed me and shortly later we pulled in front of the house. I didn’t park in the driveway as that was Claire’s spot and I would end up blocked in when she arrived home later that night. 

I followed Isla up the driveway to the door. She unzipped her front pocket and drew out her key, which she slid into the lock and turned with a soft click. The alarm sounded, but she was quick to type in the code. Her bag dropped next to her sister’s, and then she went to the hall closet where she dumped her gym bag. 

“Uh, you can sit in the family room. I’ve got to drop this off in my room. Bree won’t be home until seven. We can watch a movie or something.” She shrugged nervously and I saw how uncomfortable she was with the turn events. Claire was the same way. She wasn’t good with spontaneity. It threw her off and she was flustered and it sometimes made her babble.  

Everything went a specific way and then when it didn’t, Claire went into a complete frenzy. It’s one of the reasons she had anxiety attacks in the past, or why she continued to talk even when she didn’t need to.

I placed a hand on Isla’s shoulder. Her eyes drifted over to where I gently gripped her. “Sweetheart, I dinna want ye to get worked up. Soon enough, this will all seem normal and there won’t be any of this nervous energy between us. It’s new for the both of us, and I’m going along with it just like ye.” 

Her shoulders relaxed under my touch and she took steady, deep breaths to calm herself down. “Can we order pizza?” 

I smirked at her attempt to con me. “Yer ma already told me ye have leftovers.” 

She rolled her eyes and stomped dramatically up the stairs. “Ugh,” she groaned. 

My daughters seemed to be throwing me into the wolves’ den with their surly behavior. Claire had informed me Isla especially wasn’t always sweet and helpful. She had a nasty side when she was angry about something, and made it quite known to anyone in the vicinity of her tantrum. I was beginning to see that Isla really had been wearing a mask. 

Part of me enjoyed knowing she was comfortable enough to show her true colors, and that she wasn’t worried about me disappearing from her life. Hadn’t she admitted they were afraid if they weren’t well-behaved they wouldn’t get the opportunity to visit me?

I walked into the living room and smiled at the window seat. I saw Bree laying there on rainy days, staring miserably at her wet surroundings. I pictured Claire on a cold, nippy winter day curling up with a fire raging and a book in her lap, a satisfied smile adorning her face. Finally, I imagined Isla doing her homework, erasing answers in her frustration or listening to music and tapping her fingers to notes unheard by everyone else. 

I saw hours spent watching movies and eating popcorn, despite Claire protesting the unsaturated fat in movie theater butter popcorn. Although, she hate half the bowl herself, but typically denied she’d eaten a single handful. I always smiled and popped another bag and brought her a glass of water. 

There was a bookshelf along the wall with medical, children, and young adult titles. There were a few pictures carefully placed on the shelves to as a way to showcase the family. 

In one of the photos, Bree and Isla were a few years younger and dressed for Samhain or I supposed Halloween was the best description for what happened here. Bree was dressed as some sort of princess and Isla was too. 

“Oh that’s the year we were Anna and Elsa. They’re Disney royalty. Anna is the little sister and Elsa is the older one.” I jumped, startled by her sudden presence. I hadn’t heard her return. 

“Ye scared me,” she grinned as I returned my attention to the photo.

I was amazed how the blonde wig complimented her pale skin. “Bree didn’t have to do anything because Anna has reddish hair. We braided her hair, but we did have to find a white blonde wig for me. This was Halloween almost four years ago. I was eight and Bree was five.” She sounded wistful, not a word normally associated with someone as young as her.  

“We were really into Frozen, nearly drove mom nuts with how many times we played the soundtrack or the movie.” Her eyes held a far away look. “We sometimes still watch it on lazy Sundays and if mom is off, we do it to annoy her.” She smirked at me. “She still hates the main song.”

My eyes drifted towards another framed photo placed higher on the shelf. “That was Bree’s first snowboarding lesson. She face planted so many times. Mom was sure by the end of the day, she’d want to quit, instead Bree proclaimed it to be the best thing ever.” Isla shook her head in amusement at her sister’s antics. There was a fondness in her expression. “At the end of the day, she was smiling so hard and didn’t want to part with the snowboard. She was an icicle and drank two cups of hot chocolate.” 

Bree wore bright pink snow pants with a white puffy jacket. She had a pink hat with a puff ball and snow goggles. Her hair clashed horribly with the brightness of the pink, but I felt the happiness radiating off of her. I’d say the picture wasn’t long after the Samhain one. I recalled our conversation over the summer in the pub when she informed me happily about finally having the opportunity to own a snowboard this upcoming winter season. 

My eyes landed on a third frame. “That’s from when we went to Cape Cod before going to the Vineyard. We loved seeing the lighthouses. The active ones are so cool. We wanted a picture because it was so pretty.” She gushed, her finger stroking the still images. “I think this was two summers ago. We had never taken the time to visit the coastal areas.” 

The last photo drew my attention finally. “That’s from my first piano competition when I was seven. My instructor realized how at ease I was and how my fingers seemed to flow smoothly on the keys. I remembered my music and knew where all the notes were without having to check. He decided to talk to mom about entering me into a competition. We traveled to New York City. I actually placed third. Winners get to perform at this prestigious music hall. It was a really big thing.” Her voice tapered off, and I was reminded of what she told me. Had I been too busy to notice? I had this smart, funny, talented daughter and I missed out because starting my business was more important. 

In the photo, Isla wore a royal blue dress embroidered with flowers and a bow on the waist. She had on black tights and black dress shoes. Her hair was in a fancy braid with a matching ribbon. She was all smiles in the empty musical hall. She looked happy. There was something sad about her too.

“I play more for fun now with everything else I have, but I do keep up with my lessons. Back then, I only had T-ball, which was in the spring. It left a lot of free time for me.” She shrugged helplessly. “Bree does soccer year round, but my sports are seasonal and rely on good weather.” 

I noticed she changed her clothes when she was in her room. Instead of her school clothes, she wore leggings and a school hoodie. “Mom loves pictures and has so many around the house. It’s so embarrassing.” She groaned as she moved into the kitchen and began digging food out of the fridge. “I mean who wants to see geeky photos of themselves everywhere?” 

I wasn’t all that hungry after lunch with Claire. I figured I’d eat when Bree arrived home. 

Isla made herself a plate and warmed it up as she cleaned her mess in the kitchen. “Mom’s a neat freak and gets so uptight when we forget to clean. You leave out a few dishes once or twice, and suddenly mom is on your case. We only had to call the exterminator once. Also happens to be the reason we aren’t allowed to have food in our rooms.” She grimaced. 

She had a piece of chicken and a hot dog. Then she scooped some potato salad and fruit onto her plate before coming to sit at the table. “What do you think of our house? I know you’ve never really seen it.” 

“I like it. Yer mam has made a home for herself and you and yer sister, and it seems to be filled with a lot of love and happiness.” 

She nodded as she stuffed her face. “We change things every once in a while. We replaced our old couches last year with the white ones and then got all those throw blankets. We have a little basket and wash them weekly.” Everything ran like clockwork in the house, and I was impressed with Claire for having them trained so well. “Not to say it’s always clean around here. Now that nana has moved out, it’s going to be interesting. She cleans after everyone even mom.” She added.

“How was yer first day back?” I found an opening for the topic I was most interested in regarding her. She hadn’t contacted me yesterday on her official first day. 

She lifted her cup to her lips to take a drink of water. Her forked pushed some food around her plate as she thought about her answer. She was more contemplative than her sister, whereas Bree told every single detail about her day, her sister was less than forthcoming with the particulars. 

“It was good.” She finally said, before staking a slice of potato. “We didn’t really do much except go over the syllabi. Typical first day stuff. There was the assembly. Today we did some review in a few classes, and gym sucks since I can’t fully participate until I get a note from my doctor.” 

I was beginning to believe it was the age she was. In a month’s time she would be twelve years old and wouldn’t feel inclined to indulge me with every detail about her life. 

I observed her as she ate her food. Her cheeks had filled out from the last time I’d seen her as she put weight back on. She didn’t like the hospital food much. The bruises that marred her skin were completely gone. While her bones would always show the truth of her injuries and she’d have a scar from the ordeal the rest of her life, she was healing. 

“Tomorrow I’ll probably come home with piles of homework. I’ve got to get a head start because the first game is next week. I’ve also got to decide which position I want to run for on student council. I’ll probably go with treasurer. Last year’s treasurer misplaced all the money for the sixth grade retreat.” 

Isla was as Bree said. She maintained a busy lifestyle for someone so young. Bree and Isla were constantly on the move like their mother and couldn’t hold still for a single moment. “Do ye need to get ahead?” 

Her eyebrows climbed up her forehead. “Of course dad, if I want to maintain my four point GPA. It helps to have your work completed because you never know what can happen. Besides homework is fun.” 

If I didn’t know better I would think my daughter was switched at birth, but then I thought about Claire who encouraged me to spend time invested in my home and school work. Her books were always open and if I couldn’t distract her with my lips, she made us do our homework. 

Isla stared at me from across the table with a curious expression upon her not so small face. I saw how her face had aged from the small round head that barely fit into the palm of my hand. I saw her chest struggling to breathe. I remembered the tape on her eyes that prevented us from seeing what was underneath those translucent lids. There wasn’t a hint at the time what color her hair was because there wasn’t any, and her eyebrows were nonexistent at the time. She was a painting waiting for the artist. 

She tilted her head in question and I realized I was staring at her as well. “Sometimes I remember how tiny you were and how your mother and I spent hours at your side wondering if you would live just one more night. We hoped and prayed, and then we finally decided that if we wanted you to stay with us, we needed to give you a name. Your mother also didn’t want you to die without having one either.” Her lashes lowered and nearly rested on her cheeks. They were so dark. “I remember when I first saw you in your mother’s arms. She cried so much because we thought the day would never arrive. She nursed you for the first time that day.” 

November 2006 

Isla spent the first five weeks of her life in an incubator, struggling for breath, attached to a ventilator. She was given artificial substances to assist with keeping her lungs expanded. They weren’t fully developed because she was born six weeks too early. She had issues with jaundice. The sickly yellow of her skin horrified me at first because it was such an unnatural color. She was undressed and placed under specific lights with her eyes covered. The neonatologist wasn’t worried in the slightest. He had patients in the past who were born much earlier than our daughter, and didn’t find any reason for concern. 

Claire expressed her milk and the hospital stored it with labels. Isla was gaining weight and slowly but surely her breathing was improving. We were lucky. Still it was unnerving to watch her.

As Isla wasn’t born too early, her lungs weren’t as undeveloped as some preemies who required long term oxygen treatment. The doctors happily informed us of her progress and how she was maintaining her weight at five lbs. 

They’d taken her off the ventilator earlier that morning and she seemed to be holding her own. They had begun weaning her off the oxygen to determine the strength of her lungs.

Her face was fuller, not much, but it was a better sight than the tiny baby we saw when she was first born. 

“Alright, which one of you would like to hold her first?” While my arms ached to hold my baby girl, I’d seen the distress Claire experienced over the last few weeks. She carried such a deep guilt over not being able to carry our daughter to term. 

She blamed herself for all the pain our daughter suffered since she was born. It was unhealthy how many hours Claire spent at the hospital. I tried multiple times to coerce into sleeping at home in her own bed, but she wasn’t easily dissuaded. She was adamant she was to stay for however long our daughter’s stay was. She contact her instructors early on, and she went on medical leave from the school. 

I nodded at Claire with her hopeful, watery eyes. “Why don’t you sit Mrs. Fraser?” The neo-natal nurse suggested, noticing the nervous energy surrounding Claire. 

Ever since she heard the possibility of finally holding our daughter, not just touching her, there was a glow about her. 

Claire licked her lips and did as the nurse suggested. She sat and I saw her mentally preparing herself for this momentous occasion. The nurse opened the incubator to reveal a tiny infant with pink flushed skin. It was a stark contrast to the baby with the yellow skin. She lifted her gently into her arms, and then set her into Claire’s shaking ones. 

Instantly before my eyes, my wife transformed into a full fledged mother. It wasn’t a title for her anymore but a reality. There was a human being depending on her/us for everything. We were responsible for how she turned out as a person, her education, and everything else until we were both long and gone. She may not agree with that position one day, but I don’t think either of us cared. 

The role of parent wasn’t something we imagined so soon, but with her here, it was hard to picture a life where she didn’t exist. She was everything we didn’t know we wanted or needed. We’d always had more hypothetical conversations about children and it was more of a concept than anything concrete. 

Claire brushed her fingers against Isla’s tiny cheek, and Isla turned her head into the warm touch of her mother. She already knew how to seek the comfort her mother would readily offer at any moment. 

I pulled out my phone and snapped the moment. Claire didn’t noticed with her attention so focused on our daughter, but the nurse winked at me. 

“Do you want to breastfeed Mrs. Fraser? Isla hasn’t fed in two hours.” Claire’s startled orbs sought mine and I nodded at her. They both needed the time to bond and breastfeeding was one of the easiest ways for mother and child to form an everlasting connection. 

The nurse instructed Claire on what to do and how to help Isla to latch on. It was a natural instinct for babies to root and latch. All they required was a bit of an assistance and then they knew how to suckle all on their own. 

Tears dripped down my nose as I stared at my two girls. It wasn’t just the two of us anymore, but the three of us. We were a family. 

Claire kissed her little, bald head. We were assured the hair would come in and some babies stayed bald for a longtime. There was no reason to worry as it was likely she probably would’ve been born without hair if she hadn’t come early. 

“I love you so much, more than I thought I could,” she whispered to the nursing baby. 

Isla was content to stay in her mother’s arms as she fed. It was too beautiful for my eyes. I wanted to keep this moment close to me forever because we were parents. We created the miracle baby with our love. I knew Claire would agree if I said she was the best work we’d ever done in our life and would forever remain our greatest accomplishment. 

I had to amend the statement two years later when her little sister decided to join us and make our family complete. 

Isla smiled shyly as she fought to control her emotions. “Sorry,” she apologized as a few tears sprinkled her cheeks. Our family always seemed to be crying for one reason or another. “Mom doesn’t really talk about that time at all. I guess it makes her sad. Could I-“ her voice died off and she broke eye contact. 

“Could you what?”

“See the picture sometime?” She bit her lip with an anxious gleam in her eyes. 

I pulled out my phone and unlocked it. I opened my photo albums and began searching for the picture. I slid it across the table for Isla to take a look. She tried to appear as if she wasn’t all that curious, but she grabbed the phone and stared mesmerized at the sight of her and her mother. 

Claire’s hair was thrown up into a messy bun. She wore a Harvard hoodie and jeans. Her face was scrubbed clean, although she didn’t really wear make-up in those days. 

Isla was all limbs. She was a wee bairn with a sweet face. “I was so tiny,” she murmured, eyes still glued to the screen. “Are you sure that’s me?” 

I chuckled at her. “Of course, I think I would know my own daughter. You came six weeks too early and spent five weeks in the hospital. I can’t even begin to explain how it felt to take you home. I was nervous to have you in the car, and nearly drove your mother mad with how slow I drove. She wanted to be at the apartment already to get you settled, but I was worried because we had precious cargo.” 

Her cheeks flushed with mortification. “Dad,” she warned playfully. “Let me clean up my plate, and then I’ll give you the official house tour. Mom always forgets when people haven’t been to the house before and never shows them around.” 

She rinsed her plate and placed it in the dishwasher. She then set her water glass on the counter. “I use it when I go to bed so I don’t use a bunch in a day. Mom has a rule. If we are only drinking water, we use one glass a day. She hates when all of the cups are gone and she finds them around the house filled with water.” 

I followed her into the family room. “This is the family room, but you’ve already seen it. We have our bookcase with most of our books. Those are the ones we share as a family. Bree stores hers under her bed and mom has an office. I keep mine in my closet.” She led me into another room. “This is the formal dining room. We mostly eat in here on special occasions like birthdays, thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. You get the idea. It leads out to our terrace.” She opened the glass paned door, which opened up to their terrace and their back garden. There were a few trees and I saw Claire’s flower garden nestled in between two trees. On the other side was a little house. 

“Mom plants her flowers and some herbs every spring. That’s our old clubhouse. We don’t use it anymore.” We went back into the house. She led me through another doorway. “This is the formal living room. We host guests in here. Although I guess we should’ve thought about the white furniture.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Sometimes we use it for family pictures like Christmas cards.”

There was a giant fireplace occupying an entire wall. It was between the two doorways. On the other wall, there was a giant entryway from the foyer. They had two white armchairs and a white loveseat with a light blue rug. In the center was a small coffee table with a small potted plant. The walls were decorated with art, which was something I’d always known Claire appreciated. She thought paintings created a nice aesthetic. The armchairs had little blue pillows. All of the furniture in the room was fancy and displayed Claire’s expensive taste. 

I was surprised not to find a single stain. “Mom doesn’t allow food or drinks in here.” Isla explained to me. 

Their family room had been a little less formal with a long, white sectional and lots of pillows. There was a decent sized television mounted above the fireplace. It was an airy house with lots of light flowing through the place. 

She led me out of the formal living room and down the hall to a lone door. “Down there is the basement, we mostly just use it for storage. The laundry is also down there and so is our big freezer.” 

Then she went up the stairs and I followed her. “I’m sure Bree probably showed you her room.” I nodded my head affirmatively. “This is her bathroom.” She opened the door to reveal a pristine bathroom. It was neat and orderly, and way cleaner than their shared bathroom at my house. I suspected it was Claire’s doing. 

The walls were Tiffany blue with some sort of swirl texture that was glittery and popped out of the wall . She had a marble sink with a hair accessories organizer thing. I saw all of her hair ties, ribbons, clips, and hair bands. She had a lot. Her name was stenciled onto the white wood container. In the corner was a woven owl hamper with wings and eyes. Her shower curtain was mostly the color of a pool with a shock of royal navy at the bottom. She had a matching bath mat. It was a different color scheme than the one she had in her room.

She had white wooded shelves with several polka dotted towels in multiple colors. I also noticed a waterproof speaker in the shower. “Bree listens to a lot of loud music when she showers. She sings a lot too. But she has terrible taste.” 

When we exited the bathroom, she took me further down the hall which I had yet to explore. She opened a different door to reveal an office area. “The sofa is a pull out. Mom does some work in here on days where she works from home, which is usually when we are sick.” 

There was a little white sofa with black decorative pillows. She had more framed photos of the girls, and a bookshelves built into the wall with dozens more titles. A computer desk sat on one wall with a Mac desktop. A kindergarten school photo of each girl sat on both sides. She had an organizer for her pens, pencils, and highlighters. There was also a brand new pad of sticky notes. Claire had a fondness for leaving reminders for herself everywhere. Next to the keyboard was a leather journal. I had given her a set of journals for her twenty-fifth birthday because I knew how much she enjoyed having somewhere to express her feelings. I was glad to see her still using them. 

Isla closed the door. “So this is my room.” She led me into the large space. 

There was a skylight which added to the overall brightness of the room, although the sunlight was slowly fading. She had another window, which she decorated with a navy colored valance. 

In the center of her room was a queen sized, iron framed open canopy bed. Curved and angled arches met in the center to form the canopy. Hanging from the center was a sheer golden colored canopy that twisted along the curves and down the poles of the bed. Her bedspread was white with a ruffled sort of look. She had a white fringe bed skirt. Gold stars hung along her walls, providing a wonderful effect against the white of her walls. She had a string of lights, but unlike her sister, there weren’t any photos clipped. Her lights were wrapped around the poles of her bed, although they were currently turned off. 

She had a basic, white fuzzy rug. Seeing their actual bedrooms, solidified the differences between my daughters. While the pink in Bree’s room was muted, it was still a bit more on the girly side. Isla preferred something less showy. 

On the wall, were little musical note decals that traveled along the length of her room and stopped above her desk. Her desk was organized. She had her music organized into binders in a magazine caddy. She had two different pencil cups. One was filled with pens and mechanical pencils, and the other with her color pencils and a pair of scissors. Next to the desk was a pin board divided into thirds with white boards. One whiteboard was a calendar with Isla’s schedule written out for the next month. She had practice three days a week with a game every Thursday. On Saturdays, she had music lessons from nine until one. 

Sundays were the only days she had marked as free. There was the occasional Friday, she left blank. 

Her To Do List was marked with reminders for the day. Her pin board held cards and pictures of her with her friends and family. She had so many, and I realized she never talked about them. The same few girls appeared in multiple photos. 

In one of the photos, she was positioned between two girls who looked a bit older than her. “Those are my big sisters, not like my real ones since I only have Bree, but they’re my school ones. The one on the right with the brown hair is Ellie. She’s in tenth grade this year. She was my first big sister. The blonde is Sarah. This was taken at my birthday party last year.” 

Isla wore a green sweater and jeans with a gigantic smile on her face. Her hair was in a side braid. The two older girls had their arms wrapped tightly around her. “They’re really cool. The school assigns eighth graders to the girls in the lower grades to help with the transition. We all ended up on the blue team. We have a school wide competition between the silver and blue teams. The teams earn points during the school year and the one with the most wins the Blue-Silver trophy.” She pointed to a picture of her from what was clearly last year. Her team had won the trophy. “This is my last year to be assigned a big sister as next year I get to be one.” 

Her walls also had little star hook mirrors which she draped necklaces and scarves around. “I don’t actually use those mirrors. I have one on my bathroom door. I chose them because they looked cool.” 

She had photo box frames that comprised of a photo of her and her sister. They were standing outside St. Peter’s together on what was clearly Bree’s first day of school. In the next photo, she was surrounded by a bunch of other girls and their hockey sticks. They were in full uniform and smirked at the camera as if they were too cool to actually smile. In another photo, Bree and Isla were at a park. One laid on one bench and the other on the bench next to it. They made goofy faces for the camera. 

It was strange to note how different their lives were. Their wholes lives were wrapped up in this one city, and I felt guilty for missing so much of it. I shook my head to clear it of my regrets. They had no place in this new life I was building. It was time to let them go and focus on the future where I would spend time with my children. I would familiarize myself with their schedules, assist with homework, and support them.  

“Dad,” Isla waved her hand in front of my face. I blinked hard, slightly disoriented. “Earth to dad, are you okay?” Her face was the picture of concern. “Do you need water?” 

“I’m fine. I just got a bit in my head.” She smiled unsure of my honesty. “Show me yer bathroom.” 

Her bathroom was attached to her room, but had a second door that led to the hallway. “Well this is my bathroom.” It was a ruffled white shower curtain and I was starting to understand how much she adored the shade of white. 

On her counter, she had a hair straightener, a curling wand, and a blow dryer. “Sorry, I forgot to move these when I cleaned my bathroom.” She opened the cabinet doors underneath her sink to reveal organized white baskets. Inside, she had all of her hair accessories. They were in labeled pouches. She wrapped up the cords and put them in the styling tools basket. 

She had a white rug adorning the floor. There were tiny rhinestones embedded into the walls of her shower. She also had a Bluetooth speaker in her bathroom. She had a stack of cotton bath towels in bright colors. “I would show you mom’s room, but I’m not allowed in there without permission. But there’s the playroom. The office used to be Nana’s room. but we had started clearing it out before she even moved out. She has a little house she moved into, but waited until school was over to officially moved.” 

At least they respected their mother’s privacy when she wasn’t around. I snooped in my parents’ room all the time when I was younger. I called it an adventure. 

The playroom was an assortment of dollhouses, a stack of board games, a table for tea parties with a display of fake pastries, two toy boxes, a large television with a game system and Blu-ray player. “The closet has some of our old costumes and other stuff we’ve stored there. Neither of us play much with the stuff in here, so mom has talked about putting in a couch or something. Right now we just have the bean bags.” She pointed over towards the corner where blue and pink bean bags were stacked. “Well that’s it. We’ve got a crawl space, but aside from the upstairs Christmas decorations and our suitcases, there’s nothing in it.”

Isla led me out into the hallway and we traveled downstairs into the family room. She turned on the television. “I have to wait a few minutes if we want to watch Netflix or Hulu. The TV has to connect to the Wi-Fi first.” It was already seven. 

Bree would be home soon enough and I would have alone time with the girls for the first time since Isla’s accident. 

Isla switched from cable to Netflix. Her watch list was full of teen shows. It came with the age to no longer want to watch shows directed at children. She picked some show called Arrow. 

“I’m only on season three,” she told me as she continued from where she left off. 

Ten minutes into the show and I was fascinated. I was a bit confused as to the events prior, and Isla tried explaining but was too distracted by what was happening onscreen. 

Around half past seven, a key was heard in the door. The distinct sound of a bag dropping alerted me to the presence of my youngest daughter. Bree traipsed into the room and flopped down onto the couch. “Move over,” she shoved Isla’s legs out of the way. 

Isla aimed a kick at her sister and soon it was resolved before I had to step in. “How was practice?” 

“It was okay. We had three kids not show up, which was annoying. They didn’t text coach or anything so next practice we all have to run laps.” Bree sounded weary and upset. “It isn’t even fair. Coach wants to teach the team a lesson about commitment and responsibility.” 

“Aw I’m sorry little sis. Well how was your first day of school? Did you think Mrs. Nicholson was awesome?” 

The show was on pause as the girls caught up with each other about their days. “I’m going to go eat dinner.” 

“Oh I think dad said something about eating with you.” 

Bree did a double take as if only just now identifying my presence. “Oh my god, daddy I forgot you said you would be here.” 

Clearly, I thought dryly. “Yes, yer sister and I have spent some quality time together. She gave me the full tour of the house.” 

“Well come on, I’m starving.” She dragged me into the kitchen where she began to pull out the leftovers. “There’s one steak left from two nights ago. Mommy didn’t want it. She doesn’t eat steak that often.” 

As we ate together, she told me about practice and the drills they ran. “Lucy caught all of the balls when we tried to make a goal. She’s the best goalie we’ve ever had.” She boasted proudly. “We joined at the same time, but she was originally defense before we switched positions. She plays goalie at all of our games.” 

Bree prepared herself a cheeseburger, grabbing a slice of American to put over her burger before she reheated it. She then proceeded to pull out slices of tomato, lettuce, ketchup and mayo. She grabbed the plate with the steak and offered it to me. I took it from her. 

She moved around the kitchen with ease. “Mommy doesn’t let me use knives yet.” She told me as she spooned fruit onto her place. “She pre-cuts everything. She says I can use them when I’m more attentive.” Her eyes rolled. “Isla was allowed to use a knife at ten,” she grumbled unhappily.

Her attention diverted to the beeping of the microwave and then she was dressing her burger. I watched the whole thing with a sense of pride for my offspring. Claire raised them well. They both seemed to have a healthy sense of fear of their mother, and didn’t disobey directives. They cleaned after themselves. They knew how to operate within a kitchen. They knew their routines without constant reminders, and I wondered how long it really took Claire to drill all of this into their heads. Isla and Bree were willful. 

Bree grabbed an open bag of Lays off the counter. She held her fingers up to her lips. I decided to allow her the one treat after all it was her first day and she had a surprise practice. 

I reheated my steak. “There’s steak sauce on the side of the fridge,” Isla mentioned as she entered the kitchen. 

She went straight for the freezer, grabbing a carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream. She opened a cabinet and pulled down a bowl. She searched in a drawer for the ice cream scooper and then grabbed a spoon. She scooped her ice cream, then grabbed some chocolate sauce from the fridge. She rinsed the scooper, but left it in the sink. 

The three of us ate at the table and it was the most normal thing. I hadn’t expected that feeling to overcome me. This was what I wanted, to spend school nights with my daughters and talk. “So dad, what are you going to do while you start your business? Doesn’t it take forever to do?” Isla spooned some ice cream and took a big bite. 

Bree’s attention was on me. Her eyes stared unblinkingly at me. She was waiting for my answer. 

“Ye’re right it does. I have someone interested in being my partner and then we’ve got a few investors lined up. We’ll be scouting locations. Once a month I’ll fly black to check on things, but for the most part the place runs itself. My place is here with you.” 

Isla frowned at me. “What about mom? Are you here for her too? It would be kind of messed up to ruin her engagement. Is it appropriate for you to be messing with her feelings?” 

I sat back and scrutinized her. Isla had a fierce protective glint in her dark eyes. Her protectiveness was for her mother who she didn’t want hurt if I revealed myself early on as a potential suitor. I could understand her hesitation after everything she had gone through between her mother and I . 

Her mother was the most important figure in her life, and she didn’t want her emotionally destroyed by heartbreak. 

“I thought ye didn’t like Peter.” 

Her arms folded across her chest as her look hardened as she bit her lip. A few seconds later it softened and she dropped her arms. “I like Peter. He’s cool and like I told you it was wrong of me not to think about him. He’s been great to mom and us.” I heard the sincerity in her voice. Peter was a prominent figure in their lives and had been for several years now. “I- well it’s not… he’s good. He takes me hiking and recently to PT. I guess I don’t want you messing around with a good thing when you’re not sure what it is you want.”

She was a smart girl. Wise, probably too wise for her age, but that was the thing about Isla. She’d been a precocious tot from the moment she discovered the world. By two, she’d caught up with all of her milestones, and one would never know the toddler running around, observing the world was a premature baby. Isla preferred to observe and her eyes held a wisdom. 

“I don’t want to beat around the bush. Are you here to win mom back because if that’s the case I think that would be a horrible idea.” I blanched. “Yeah… yeah I know, shocking. But if mom’s relationship fails, it shouldn’t be because you tried to steal her away. She’s got to decide herself.” Her eyes cut to Bree before returning to me.

Bree matched her sister’s look and crossed her arms. 

I cleared my throat uncomfortably, taken aback by the turn of events. The entire day they’d displayed nothing but enthusiasm over my sudden appearance, and while that may have been their initial feelings on the matter, they also had other thoughts about why I was in Boston. 

I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “I am not here to do anything to jeopardize her relationship. I support her in what she chooses to do with her life.” Even if it hurt like hell to watch. “I want to be involved in your lives. You’re growing up and living in Scotland has prevented me from seeing much of that. Every day you change and I don’t to miss anymore. I want to go to yer games, or help make posters for student council. If anything, I want to rekindle my friendship with yer mam. We were friends before anything else, and I’ve missed that.

“When we made the decision to get divorced, we thought more about ourselves than the two of you. I was angry at her.” Their faces scrunched up adorably as they tried to understand my explanation. “Sometimes people can be selfish. It’s sort of like when you do a math problem.” Their eyebrows rose up in confusion. “All of the numbers are important together, but if you only focus on one number, you can’t figure out the problem. Yer mam and I only focused on one part instead of the whole thing.” 

Bree was the first to ask the follow up question, I expected. “What were the other parts?” 

“Ye ken ye had a brother?” They nodded their heads. “Well yer ma and I were having difficulties. I worked a lot. Yer ma had the two of you and school, and we weren’t handling it well at all. We shirked on our responsibilities.” 

“What does shirk mean?” 

I traced patterns on the table. “It means avoiding or neglectnig something. I was supposed to be home for dinner and our nighttime routine. I worked on weekends instead of being home. Then when yer mother got pregnant with your brother, I was mad at her.” 

“Why? Our priest says babies are a blessing.” Isla was suspicious of me and regarded me with a healthy dose of skepticism. 

“Bree was barely two months old, and we were going to have another child. We lived in a small apartment, only two bedrooms and one bathroom. My job expected a lot from me. Yer ma and I were drifting apart, and there were other issues; which is all you need to know. Everything was complicated.” 

Bree bobbed her head as Isla pursed her lips with judgment in her eyes. “What about Ally?” 

I coughed loudly aware their full attention was on me. They wanted to know my intentions in the long run. In their eyes, I wasn’t someone who stuck around. I was their dad when they visited for two months or when mommy was being unfair 3000 miles away. 

“Well I,” I shifted in my seat, not sure what the right answer was to the question. “She and I decided to end our relationship permanently this time. She was ready to move forward, but we knew that with the distance it would be too complicated. It was a mutual agreement to break things off.”

Isla sensed there was something else at play. She didn’t come outright and say it, but I saw it in her eyes, the accusation.

“You’re on probation,” Isla declared and Bree supported her sister’s decision. “We will be watching you dad. If mom cries once because of you...” she let the threat hang in the air as she began to clean her and her sister’s mess. Bree was appreciative of the offer and wiped down the table when I got up to clean my own dish. Bree then swept the floor as Isla took out the trash. They were a good team, and I was glad they had each other. Everyone needed a sister. It was almost hard to picture one without the other at this point. 

Bree missed her sister more than she would admit over the summer. When Isla returned from the outside, the two of them trekked upstairs to get ready for bed as it was school night. 

I missed when they were young and required assistance for every little task. I supervised brushing teeth, I read stories and tucked them in, and I gave goodnight kisses before checking the room for monsters. There weren’t any monsters anymore, at least not the fictional kind. 

They returned downstairs around eight thirty in their pajamas. Bree’s hair was undone and wet. Isla placed her wet hair in some sort of knot on her head and took her position back on the couch. 

“Let’s watch a movie. I don’t like Arrow. Marvel is better.” Bree snatched the remote from her sister and selected the last Thor movie. Isla didn’t object although there was a scowl firmly in place on her face and her tongue poked out of her mouth. It was a blink and you’ll miss it moment. 

At some point, I drifted from the excitement of the day and the traveling from the night before. My body was physically exhausted. A warm hand pressed against my cheek. My eyes fluttered open to the sight of a worn out Claire. “Claire,” I murmured softly. 

Her lips tipped into a tender smile reserved only for me. She held a finger up to her lips and gestured to the girls who were curled up on the couch. A blanket was draped over both sleeping forms. 

“I guess they were tired,” she whispered, her eyes lingering on them fondly. “Did they eat dinner?” I nodded. “Is the kitchen clean?” Another nod. “Oh good, sometimes they forget to put back food or clean up, and then we have ants in the kitchen.” 

Ah, it all made sense why the girls were worried about the state of the kitchen. Isla made mention of an exterminator. I was aware of my ex’s status as a clean freak. She couldn’t stand for any sort of disorganization. When the girls were young and played in the dirt, she immediately bathed them upon returning home. Their cheeks were pink from the efforts of Claire’s scrubbing. 

CPOV 

I was tired as I finished the end of my shift. My feet ached and I was a bit fatigued. I wanted to crawl into my bed and never wake up. However, I knew the next morning as soon as my alarm went off that particular dream would die. 

I didn’t hate work. It was just exhausting. I also had less patience than usual with my residents, which didn’t help matters. They were more terrified of me than usual. I was a bit irritable and less forgiving of their mistakes than normal. 

Joe sent some strange looks in my direction whenever I chewed out one of the residents. “Are you okay LJ?” His face wrinkled with concern for me. 

I waved off his worried. “I’m fine.” I went back to reviewing charts for surgery the following day. “Just a lot to think about.”

I could tell he wasn’t satisfied with my response, but I had a lot on my mind with the sudden resurgence of Jamie in my life. I hadn’t shared the news with Peter, but what was I supposed to say. ‘Oh hey, remember my ex husband who I was in love with for years and who kissed me a few weeks ago, yeah he’s back.’ That was sure to go over very well, not. It was complicated as Jamie had revealed to me the depth of his feelings, and if I was different sort of woman, I would have taken him up on his offer. However, I wasn’t.

I refused to allow myself to go back to that place again. Friends, I could. It wouldn’t be easy in the beginning as we tried to navigate our way around our failed marriage, but it wasn’t about us. We had two daughters who counted on us. I had to make an effort for them, while maintaining a firm boundary. The lines had blurred too much in Scotland, and that couldn’t happen again. 

Joe’s lips thinned considerably, but he didn’t contest my words. He suspected I was hiding something from him and in truth I was. I hadn’t told him about what happened between Jamie and I nor that he had returned to Boston. I figured he would find out at some point. 

I stretched my arms over my head to help lower the tension in my lumbar region. Spending time on the ground at the cemetery had been terrible for my back, especially after my accident last year. 

Joe remained silent, but he kept glancing at me from the corner of his when he thought I wasn’t paying attention. I was annoyed with him for not believing me even if I was lying. Regardless, he should know I would tell him the truth when I was ready. 

Before I had the opportunity to address his staring issue, I quickly got up and rushed for the restroom, knocking the chair over in my rush. 

The anxiety was getting to me. There were too many things toiling around and causing me to stress. There weren’t any books about this particular situation, and I really didn’t want to go to my therapist with this. She would give me that look and I would tell her far too much about my thoughts and feelings, which were confusing me. 

There was a knock on the door, and I sighed irritably. I pulled open the door angrily and stopped short at Joe with raised brows. His eyes were narrowed, but I saw the emotion in his dark eyes. He was extremely worried about me. I’d been acting strange, and he probably heard me retching. 

I walked with him back to the break room. “Okay Joe, why don’t you ask?”

“Are you sick?” 

I was taken aback by the bluntness. My face must’ve registered my shock because he shifted under my gaze. “No, it’s my anxiety.” 

He was stumped. “You haven’t had a reaction like that since we were residents. What’s going on? You’ve been acting weird for weeks and I can’t figure out the cause.” 

I sighed. “So my trip to Scotland wasn’t as straightforward as I made it out to be.” His interest was piqued. “I didn’t cross any lines, at least not the kind you’re thinking. Being around Jamie after six years of minimal contact was confusing as hell. He brings me back to those days when things were good and simple between us, which is insane since I mean we’ve always had a checkered relationship. You know he’s never liked I had money and then there’s the whole school thing, and yeah but then we talked and sorted some things out. We even discussed Gabriel.”

Joe blinked at me slowly as he processed my words. They just came out. I couldn’t help myself. “Why do I have the feeling that we haven’t reached the bottom of the barrel?”

“Because we haven’t.” I led him back into my office. “I think we… no I know we crossed some boundaries in those two weeks. Seeing him again was refreshing, and I should not say that because I’m with Peter. Anyway we kissed maybe once or twice, possible three times. I don’t know.”

“You kissed?”

“Yes.”

“I see.”

“Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“With that Joe look of yours that conveys how disappointed you are. I didn’t mean for it to happen. He was there and he was looking very hot- I mean not hot because god that would be terrible. I don’t think that about him at all. It was the emotional  high. We were worried for Isla and bringing up the past, and it got away from us is all.”

“I’m still getting the feeling that’s not the end.”

I groaned and buried my face in my arms. “You would be right. We had dinner. Jamie and I kissed. He told me he loved me in no uncertain terms. I turned him down.”

He was silent. I peeked out my head to find him staring at me with a strange gleam in his eye. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you reject him? I mean you were clear enough in the head to have dinner with him. What stopped you?”

I was appalled. “Excuse you! I could never cheat on Peter. Granted what occurred was the definition of emotional cheating, but he knows about that. I wouldn’t do that to him and I can’t go back there with Jamie. My head is all wonky whenever in close proximity, which isn’t good. I need to think clearly. Did I want to? Maybe a little, but the truth is that what Jamie and I had is in the past.” He didn’t believe me. The skepticism was all over his face. “Why don’t you believe me?”

“I’ve been your friend for over a decade Claire.”

“So?”

“I think it’s interesting that you pushed him away when he gave you signs that you’ve been wanting from him for years.”

“That was before Peter. Jamie had literal years to give me a clue that things weren’t as dead after the Paris fiasco.” I shuddered thinking about that time. While it had been a good idea in theory, the execution destroyed something fundamental between us. We weren’t prepared to answer questions of what came next. Neither of us had dealt properly with our issues and it only compounded the situation further. Jamie never quite forgave me for brushing him off that morning, but I couldn’t in good conscience let anything happen between us. It wouldn’t be the right choice. We were thinking with the wrong parts of our body.

He pursed his lips. “So you’re committed to Peter?” I nodded. “And he knows everything?” i nodded again. He hummed thoughtfully. “So then why are you all anxious? This was six weeks ago, so why is it bothering you now?”

There was the one detail I neglected to tell him. “Jamie has come to Boston?”

“Like for a visit?” 

I shook my head. “No, he’s decided to move here. Apparently he’s been planning it for months. I can’t help but think that what happened this summer propelled him though. I mean isn’t it convenient that after six weeks, he pops up here ready for a fresh start.”

“You do have two children.” He pointed out unhelpfully.

“That’s never seemed to matter before,” he made a face at me.

“Now you’re being unfair and spiteful, which means this has you rattled. You know that Jamie needed to leave for both of your sakes.” I hated that he was right. “I’m sure his moving here has nothing to do with you. Isla’s accident probably reminded him that anything can happen and he doesn’t want to miss a moment.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right.” Although, I still believed there was more to it than that. I wouldn’t voice it. 

“When did he show up?”

“This morning at Bree’s school, one minute we were holding hands about to walk in, the next she’s running towards him. We spent part of the morning together and had lunch. I told him about the miscarriage.”

“Finally!” He exclaimed. He had been telling me for years to tell Jamie about what happened even if we weren’t together. He deserved to know. “How did he take it?"

“He was pissed. He tried not to really show it, but it was obvious. It was just another one of my omissions and controlling the situation. I didn’t want to hurt him.” In my mindset at the time, there was no point in him knowing when the pregnancy had terminated itself. What good would it have done? “He came a few months later when I was out of town for my cousin’s wedding. He thought the babysitter was my boyfriend and he left. He didn’t call or anything as usual.”

“The course of true love never did run smooth.”

“Okay William Shakespeare, there is no true love here. It was obviously the universe, God, or whoever telling us we weren’t meant to be. All of this missed opportunities happened for a reason. Our timing sucks. He may be ready now, but I won’t risk it again. It’s not- I have Peter.”

“I’m sorry LJ. I’ll leave you alone about it.” Joe had seen all the destruction and havoc, but he was also there during the good times. There were good times where we were undeniably happy and the couple everyone envied. They loved our little girl. “You and Jamie were just that couple we all thought would last.” 

I remembered in the last year how he stopped showing up at parties and dinners with me and my friends. He was always ‘busy’. We picked fights because it was easier than talking through our issues. 

I rested my head in my palm. “You know Joe I thought that at one point too, but we weren’t ready. You and Gale had talked it all through before getting married, granted you were a few years older. However, Jamie and I decided to be spontaneous. The spontaneity turned into something completely different. We made each other miserable on purpose and that wasn’t good.”

He held his hands up when he caught the defensiveness in my tone. “I’m not here to judge you. I’ll support you with whatever you want to do. It’s your life and no one can decide it but you. All I’m saying is that you keep saying it’s all in the past, but you’re also using the past as your justification.” 

“I’m no-“

“Yes you are. It sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself of all the reasons why you can’t ever give him another chance. I’m not saying end things with Peter because he’s great and you’re happy with him, but stop lying to yourself too. If the past is irrelevant like you’ve told me then you can’t continue to use it as your defense.”

He was the worst. No, he wasn’t. He told me things I didn’t want to hear. “Thanks for listening.”

“Anytime.”

By ten, we were packed and ready to leave the hospital. “I’ve got to relieve Jamie. He’s had the girls since they got out of school. I’m sure he’d like to go home and get some sleep.” 

Joe gave me a warm hug. His hugs had the ability to comfort and soothe and make all my worries disappear. “Love ya, LJ. You’re strong and you’ll learn how to navigate this new world you’re entering. I’ll talk to the wife and invite you and the girls over this weekend for dinner.” 

I waved goodbye before unlocking my door. By the time I reached home, all I wanted was to crawl into my bed and never leave. 

Jamie’s car was parked on the street and I sent him a silent thank you for his thoughtfulness. I wasn’t in the mood to have to move my car for him to leave. I unlocked the door and disarmed the alarm. I would arm it again after Jamie departed. The house was dark except for the light coming from the family room. 

I peeked my head in and the sight before me warmed me to my very core. Jamie had his head tilted back in our recliner. Both girls were curled up in their pajamas. I grabbed blankets from our basket and tucked them around each girl. I’d let them spend the night on the sofa and if they woke up, they could walk themselves to their bed. 

I cupped his cheek, warm from sleep. He leaned into my touch as his eyes slowly fluttered open. “Claire,” and I couldn’t help the silly grin that formed on my face. 

Fondness overcame me as I stared down at him. I shook my head because I had to stop reacting to him like that. Seriously what the hell was wrong with me? I promised myself to maintain my boundaries and I was already slipping. 

“I guess they were tired,” I whispered, my eyes focused on the sleeping forms of our daughters. “Did they eat dinner?” He nodded. “Is the kitchen clean?” Another nod. “Oh good, sometimes they forget to put back food or clean up, and then we have ants in the kitchen.” 

It was one of my biggest pet peeves with them. They were improving on that particular problem. They tried to clean up either as they were doing whatever it is they do in the kitchen, or right after they ate. 

After the last row we had about it, they knew not to cross me about the issue again. I’d grounded them for two weeks. It was miserable for all three of us, however so was calling an exterminator. It was why he had all the rules. 

“It’s getting late, I figured you didn’t want to camp out on my sofa. It’s comfortable enough for a nap, but I don’t think it’ll be kind on your back.”

“Are ye calling me old?”

“Maybe,” my lips twitched.

“That’s not very nice.”

“Never said I was.”

Chapter Text

JPOV 

I wagged a finger at her. “Ye think yer clever?” 

She nodded her head, her lips quirked up in an almost smile. “Thank you for delivering them home.”

I stared at her. So much of her was the same, but there were moments where someone else shone from her eyes. “You don’t have to ever thank me for that Claire.”

Her eyes unfocused for a moment as she bobbed her head. “Right yeah, um but still it was a lot to ask when you’re just settling in. Do you even have furniture or anything? I didn’t think to consider that you’ve got other things happening.” 

My lips curled up and I nearly laughed from the silliness of it all. She was nervous. “Do I make ye nervous Claire?”

“N-no why would you think that? This is just me, plain, homely, talks too much Claire.” 

“There’s never been anything homely about you.” My voice had hardened. “You’re beautiful and that’s not a pick up line. it’s a fact.”

“Right,” she nodded. “Do you want to eat me tomorrow? I-I mean, fuck, I mean eat dinner with us tomorrow? I know Bree and Isla would be delighted.”

I snorted. Was my presence having an effect on her? “Are ye sure?” I didn’t want to intrude.

“It’l be fine, and you and Peter can meet properly. He’s off tomorrow and I know it could potentially turn awkward, but this would be great in going forward, you know? But if that’s a problem I mean you don’t have to. I understand if it’s uncomfortable and would never want to put you in that position so y-“

I rested a hand on her arm. “It’s fine Claire. I’ll come.”

“Really? Her face lit up. “Just be here around six.’

I took my cues from her as I didn’t want to wear out my welcome. I wanted our relationship to work, and part of that was respecting boundaries she had in place. I respected her enough. In the end, it was her choice. While my feelings were involved in the matter, I would never jeopardize her chance for happiness. 

She followed me as I walked to the door. “If you’d like, you’re welcome to take the girls to school tomorrow. I’m sure they’d enjoy that. Tomorrow I’m not scheduled to go in until ten and I have two back to back surgeries, and a few consults with some colleagues. I also have a skills lab to teach.” My eyes flickered to her hands as she rubbed her fingers together. It was what she did whenever she was unsure. 

“What time should I arrive to pick them up?”

She blinked. “Uh yes right um well half past six would be best. They’ll be eating breakfast and then you can take Bree after. I forgot Isla’s got carpool and she’ll want to ride with her friends.” She rolled her eyes. “We’re embarrassing and shouldn’t be allowed within five hundred yard of her school.”

“Okay, and ye’ll tell me if you need me take them to school?”

“I can do that,” her lips tipped up in a soft smile. 

I ached for her warm touch again. “Alright, I’ll be by for Bree in the morning.” 

“If you arrive early enough, you can be here for breakfast. It’ll be something, I haven’t decided what I’m making.” I had missed her cooking over the years.  

It was difficult to remember the last time I was awake that early in the morning, especially as I was in a completely different time zone that was five hours behind the one I left behind.

It would be an adjustment, but I wanted to have these family moments with my daughters, to savor everything because soon enough the girls would be gone and getting on with their lives. They were young, but it seemed as if they were just little monkeys climbing all over the place and then suddenly they became fully capable people. The years were disappearing and it unsettled me. 

“Also, the girls aren’t always so tidy. You probably received the full tour, and the only reason everything is clean upstairs is because we cleaned over the weekend for the party.” Her lips twitched and I watched with the dim light from the television as mirth filled those golden colored eyes of hers. “Don’t let them convince you our home is always in order.”

Well that made a lot more sense. The girls and I usually battled about them cleaning their bathroom. They disliked the mere suggestion of it and fought me tooth and nail. Bree hated picking up her toys or art supplies she left lying around. 

Isla’s room was usually a dumping ground for all of her clothes. I wasn’t sure how she managed to have so many at my house, but they were all there. It was scary in a way to think it wasn’t her entire wardrobe either. She had her winter clothes at home that she probably got more use from than the spring-ish clothes she brought with her to Scotland. 

Claire’s eyes fluttered tiredly. She was exhausted and probably wanted to crawl into her bed. I kissed her cheek. I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t resist the urge. Her skin was warm and soft. She clutched her cheek as I pulled away as if she couldn’t believe what I did. Her eyes were wide and surprised. 

“You’re incredible,” I told her. “You’re doing an amazing job with our daughters and they think the world of you. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. I should take my leave now, so I’ll see you tomorrow bright and early.” 

I waved goodbye to her awkwardly, resisting the urge to pull her body to mine. The ultimate goal was to demonstrate that this was our time, she wasn’t ready for that. She had things to work out and there was the Peter of it all. I had made a promise to my daughters and they had to be my first priority for the time being. Still, I could think about her.

Claire was the most beautiful girl I had seen. There were girls who desired me at home and at my school, but none of them captured my attention the way she did on the train that day. She sat there with her head against the window. She blinked and her lids lowered each time until she was nearly asleep. She was fighting sleep.

I noticed how her fingers were crossed in her lap. She was all alone, and I wanted to give her company. I would talk to her everyday if she would allow it. 

There was something captivating about her that wasn’t like all the other girls. She had a spark. There was the marked intelligence, or the witty comebacks. Perhaps it was her reliance on sarcasm or the casual way she was always fine when in fact she wasn’t. Or the endearing way in which she babbled and her cheeks would flush a delicate shade of pink when she said something embarrassing.

Claire was someone I spent time trying to figure out. She was a puzzle that I was still solving after finding another piece. Back then, I spoke to her nightly because I wanted to know every facet of her. Anything she told me, I made a mental note about it to review later and possibly question her more on the topic. 

While anxious wasn’t a word most would associate with her, talking to people with special notice to strangers, Claire was always anxious. She worried endlessly over how her words would be perceived, if the people she was talking to actually liked her or were pretending to, and found herself more comfortable having a conversation one on one with a person. 

She built walls around her heart to keep people out. Somewhere along the way, she had lost the key to her gate and was trapped inside without anyone there until a dashing, young man came to save the beautiful, fair maiden from her own heart. 

Her head ruled triumphant and was the ultimate authority she trusted as her feelings often betrayed her. 

“Alright Jamie, I think it really is time, otherwise I wouldn’t want you to ever leave. I mean you’ll end up on my semi comfortable sofa.” Her face was horrified. I coughed to cover my laugh. I had missed this side of her.  

A part of me wished I didn’t want to do what was right. I would lay out the entire truth before her and plead for our chance, despite knowing there was another man involved. However, I was better than that. I had to be. Rushing Claire into something she wasn’t ready for would only backfire on me. Claire was right to turn me away in Scotland. Why risk it all for a few guilty moments of gratification when I could have her forever?

“Good night Claire,” her lips curved in the glow of the television. 

I was tempted to steal a kiss from her. It was proving difficult, but I resisted. I wanted a lifetime. 

I opened the door prepared to take my leave when her hand grasped mine and she gave it a gentle squeeze. “You’re remarkable Jamie, and don’t you ever forget it. I may have been somewhat harsh on you before, but I know you’re an amazing father. You love them as much as I do, and would do anything to keep them happy. You don’t have to try so hard. They’ll see it by you just being you.”

“Promise?” My voice sounded weak to my ears, but it was a fear of mine. 

“I promise.” Her lips curved up and I was graced with a real Claire smile. It was beautiful and transformed her entire face. “Now you should probably go.”

“Thanks again.”

“No need to thank me, now shoo. Off my property Mr. Fraser.” She made a little shooing gesture and I was charmed by her. 

She stayed at the door until I pulled away from the curb. If I didn’t know better I would say she was flirting with me. I spent the drive to my apartment thinking about the day’s events. The day went beyond expectations, but also unfolded in an unexpected way. 

While i knew I risked a lot by popping up at Brianna’s school without warning, I didn’t want to give Claire the chance to second guess anything. The pleasure I experienced escorting my daughter into school for the first time was unimaginable. The pure joy that radiated through her was evidence enough that I made the correct choice. 

There had been some emotional moments that I hadn’t anticipated, but appreciated nevertheless. Visiting Gabriel’s grave was cathartic. I had held him close all these years, but I didn’t need to any longer. I would never forget him or what it felt like to hold him for those few glorious moments. Then Claire told me about the aftermath of Paris. I was undeniably angry about it. I understood why she never told me, but I was entitled to my frustration over the situation. It wasn’t technically a lie; however an omission wasn’t the truth either. She intentionally kept me from knowing. 

We screwed up in Paris by not thinking through our actions. We thought that it would be fine. The whole thing seemed serendipitous and we couldn’t squander it. In reality, neither of us knew what came next. We were lying when we said that it didn’t have to mean anything as sex with a history like ours inevitably meant something. I wasn’t prepared for her inquisition the next morning. I was running on a high from the night before and thinking with my head stuck in the clouds. We would’ve struggled as she correctly pointed out my issues with her inherent wealth and my unresolved feelings regarding all of our problems. 

Seeing Claire these years later, interacting with her forced me to see the work she had done. She wasn’t the same woman who cried on a toilet. She had become braver, stronger, and more compassionate. She was confident in who she was and she wasn’t letting anything hold her back. She needed that time to figure out who she was just as I did. 

Six years ago, I didn’t know what I wanted except her and that wasn’t good. I had to discover myself outside of the context of Claire. I created goals and had my own dreams that didn’t involve her. It was freeing. I realized that as much as I did love her and was in love with her, I didn’t need her. That had always been one of our problems. We relied too much on the other to make us feel good about ourselves and their judgment shaped our opinions about ourselves. It wasn’t healthy for either of us to remain in that situation. We had to save ourselves before we could be ready for each other. 

Now, eight years later, I was a changed man with a purpose and a new dream.

CPOV 

I pushed, my body tired. I wanted to give up.

Nothing went to plan and I was in agony. Everything ached as tears flowed freely down my face. 

Faces covered with surgical masks stood over me as they argued. I couldn’t hear their words as they blurred together. I was alone. 

I screamed in pain. “The baby is in distress.” One of the doctor’s voices drifted over to me. The words sounded distant. “We will have to perform a C-section.” 

Faster than I knew, a scalpel was cutting me open. Blood splattered everywhere. I was gushing it. “We’ve got a bleeder.” They began working quicker, and I felt the tugging. 

Then they pulled out something grey. “It’s dead.”

I screamed.

“Mommy,” a voiced called to me. “Please wake, it’s a dream.” 

Slowly, my eyes fluttered open to the worried blue eyes of Isla and Bree. Even in the dark, the color was piercing. They were terrified if their frightened faces were any indication. I swallowed painfully, my throat dry. 

“Are you okay mom?”

I could barely nod. Was I okay? The dream had freaked me out, and waking to my scared daughters did nothing to settle me. “I’m well I’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure? We could stay in here with you?” Her voice was a soft whisper as she stared at me tenderly. When had she grown up?

I threw back both sides of my duvet and scooted towards the middle. Isla and Bree crawled in and cuddled close. “Do you want to talk about it? You always say that it helps.”

I did, but I knew sharing that with them would give them nightmares too. “It was just a bad dream. Now I have you guys to protect me from that.”

I shivered suddenly cold as the memory of my dream washed over me. Bree tightened her hold on me and laid her head over my chest. “I love you mommy and we’ll protect you from the bad dreams like you do for us.” I didn’t know what I did to deserve them, but I was thankful. They were everything I could ever hope for.

Even Isla had put our petty differences aside to comfort me. She had scooted closer, her head resting on my shoulder. “I love you mom.” 

“I love you ladybug.” I kissed her head. “You as well my little clinger. Let’s try and get some sleep, you’ve got school tomorrow.”

“Ugh mom,” they groaned and I chuckled. 

“We could hum you a song if you still can’t sleep? It makes us feel good and safe after we’ve had a nightmare.”

“Why not?” I acquiesced. 

At first they began to hum a distinctly Scottish tune when their voices took over. 

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone, 

Say, could that lad be I?

Merry of soul, he sailed on a day Over the sea to Skye 

Mull was astern, Rum was on port, 

Eigg on the starboard bow.

Glory of youth glowed in his soul, Where is that glory now? 

Give me again all that was there, 

Give me the sun that shone.

Give me the eyes, give me the soul, Give me the lad that's gone. 

Billow and breeze, islands and seas, 

Mountains of rain and sun;

All that was good, all that was fair,

 All that was me is gone. 

I loved when Jamie sang that to me or the girls. While it wasn’t polished or perfect, it revealed that they were in fact their father’s daughters, which made it perfect. They wanted to console me and they did. They gave me a piece of my past, and I couldn’t love the more for it. 

“I love you,” sleep coated my voice. I was tired and sleep came easily. 

“Love you too mama.” 

I slept content for the first time since returning from Scotland. Somehow during the night our positions shifted. I awoke with Isla’s face pressed into my neck and Bree sleeping half on top of me. I closed my eyes to appreciate the moment a little longer. This was everything. 

The moment couldn’t last forever. The day was to start soon as the sun began its’ ascent into the sky. I silenced my alarm before it woke them, giving them a few extra minutes. We couldn’t remain in bed too long as they did need to get ready and eat breakfast, and Jamie was coming over. 

At a quarter to six, I got them up. “Come on girls, it’s time to start the day.” Isla burrowed her head further into my neck as Bree clung tighter. “You’ve got to get going. There’s school. Isla, you’ve got violin after school, followed by PT and Bree, your reading tutor sent me the schedule for this semester. Your first session is today.”

I heard groans and moans as I forced them into consciousness. “No m’mmy, too tired.”

“Go morrow.”

“No, you are going to get up now and get ready. It’s the first week of school.”

“Ugh,” Isla groaned as she rolled away and off the bed. She trudged grumpily out of my room and I heard the door to her room shut. 

I stroked Bree’s knotted hair. “Time to get up sweetheart. I know you don’t like waking up, but you’ve got to go to school.”

It took another five minutes of coaxing, but I finally got her out of bed.

The girls weren’t quite adept at making their own breakfast aside from oatmeal, cereal, and pop tarts. The first week I usually put forth more of an effort to make breakfast to ease the transition back to school and to coax them into waking up a little more before I sent them off for the day. Usually, I made breakfast for them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Saturdays we made it as a family. Someone got to pick what we were making Friday afternoon, so we could run to the store for possible ingredients. 

Sundays we went out to brunch after mass. The rest of the week, it was up to the girls to decide what they wanted to eat for their breakfast. Some days, they chose to grab a granola bar, some sort of fruit, and filled a glass with oat milk. Neither liked the taste of cow’s milk. Occasionally, we ran late enough where they only had time to grab the granola bar and eat on the way to school. 

The further into the school year we got, the more likely the last scenario was to occur. Sports dominated their schedules and homework consumed the night. The morning was a struggle to get them out of their beds. I haven’t hesitated in the past to dump water on them when they refused to get out. Wet sheets and hair made for grumpy, unpleasant children, but I had no choice as they knew school came before anything else in their lives. 

Mornings were my least favorite time of the day during the school year. Towards the end of year, it was easier to get them out of the house. They were ready to be done and didn’t want to prolong anything. 

I grabbed my housecoat and made my way downstairs after I relieved myself. I had stayed in bed a little longer, not feeling the normal morning rush. I didn’t have anywhere to be anytime soon and it was a relief. 

In the kitchen, I pondered over my options for breakfast before deciding on French toast and bacon. I didn’t eat bacon, but the girls preferred it over turkey. 

I searched the cupboards for ingredients. I double checked I had milk, cinnamon, eggs, and vanilla. Then I began mixing up ingredients and turning on the stove to heat the pan. 

I soaked my bread and began frying it. I cooked the bacon in the oven to prevent any accidents. 

Isla came into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes and yawning widely. My lips twitched as I remembered the sleepy faces she made as an infant. Her knot had fallen to the wayside and strands fell loose during her sleep. “Good morning love, I see you still haven’t gotten dressed.” She would have time after breakfast to get ready. 

She nodded tiredly as she took her seat at the table. Her head fell onto her arms as her eyes shut. I shook my head. The first week was always the hardest as I tried to get them back into the routine of waking up. Last night was a bit out of the norm, so I was cutting them some slack.

The week before they went back, I made them start getting up earlier to make the transition easier. Suffice to say the girls weren’t exactly morning people. They would sleep to nearly noon if I allowed them to. 

Bree made her way into the kitchen five minutes later looking just as sleepy. Her hair was a mess of knots and angry furls. I dreaded running a brush through it later because if I left it to her, her hair would never get brushed. She hated detangling it because she claimed it always hurt, and used to scream bloody murder if I came within five feet of her with a brush. 

She sat across from her sister who was sleeping and her head thudded into the table. The food was nearly done so I let them rest their little heads a bit longer. They deserved it.

Six thirty was always when we sat down for breakfast together unless I had an early or late shift. Then the girls made themselves cereal. We usually ate in about fifteen to twenty minutes and then got ready for our days. This year Isla was in a carpool as my mother was busier after taking on another client and also she lived farther from us instead of down the hall. On certain days, Bree would be picked up by a friend and her mother, or I would take her. It all varied depending on my work schedule, which I informed the other mother about ahead of time. We alternated taking the two of them to school. 

“Alright girls, budge up, time to eat,” their eyes popped open just over the crease of their arms. Two glares were directed at me, but they eventually sat themselves up as I brought the food and plates to the table. A pitcher of orange juice was placed on the table for them to pour themselves. I set the powdered sugar and syrup out for them along with cut up slices of strawberry.

There was a knock on the door, not that Bree and Isla noticed over their squabbling. I rushed to answer it as I knew it was Jamie. He was standing on the poor with a sheepish smile. “So is breakfast still available?”

i grinned at him. “Come on.” 

Jamie walked into the kitchen and the girls halted their movements as they tracked him with their sleep dazed eyes. Bree blinked a few times to assure herself it was actually her dad in the kitchen before deciding she was too hungry. 

Jamie took a seat next to Isla. Her eyes darted to him before focusing on her food.

Breakfast was mostly a silent affair this early into the school year. Later in the year, the girls talked about their schedules or dreams, or anything big coming up at school. “So lasses, are ye ready for school?” 

I glared at him and shook my head, but he didn’t seem to grasp the hint I was throwing his way. Isla finished chewing and looked at her dad. “Too early for conversation.” She told him then continued eating. “No talking. Eat.”

Jamie was taken aback by her less than sociable behavior. Isla and Bree weren’t friendly this early in the day. I had learned the hard way when they were both finally in school, and I nearly got a finger bitten off when I tried to wipe Bree’s face. 

The girls honestly hadn’t noticed I placed down an extra setting, but then they rarely noticed anything this early. By the end of breakfast with a little food in their system, they were a bit more awake and ready to start their days. Bree collected the dishes and took them to the sink. Isla wiped down their spots at the table and then they went upstairs to get ready for the day. 

“I was trying to warn you about talking to them. They’re like rabid little beasts this early. Neither of them wants to chat. Later in the school year once they’ve adjusted, you’ll find them to be quite sociable. Don’t take it personal, this is how they are with everyone.” I told him as I began cleaning breakfast. I didn’t want him to feel as if it were him. 

We worked alongside one another, cleaning the mess. He scrubbed while I dried, and it was nice to have a partner. “Ye ken, ye’ve done a wonderful job with them,” he handed me a dish. “I know I told you last night, but I wanted to emphasize it again.” 

I avoided eye contact as my cheeks flushed. It was strange hearing him compliment me on our children. “I’ve tried my best.” It was a bit self-deprecating, but it had been hard work. There were a lot of tears shared between the three of us out of sheer frustration with one another. 

He stopped his movements and turned towards me. His wet hands dripped soapy water onto my kitchen floor, but I ignored that as he stared me in the eyes. “I meant it. They’re such amazing, intelligent, beautiful little girls and that comes from you. They are polite.” He cracked a smile. “Most of the time,” a nervous laughter bubbled out of me at his attempt at a joke. “Ye’re a good mother, and don’t ever forget that because I know they don’t.” 

I nearly pecked him on the lips out of an old, almost forgotten habit. “Thank you,” I told him quietly as we finished our tasks. I didn’t need his affirmation, but it felt good too. 

The girls came back down, dressed for the school day. Bree had on her dress with the pressed white shirt. She had three of them. In the beginning, she used Isla’s old ones, but at some point she became taller than Isla ever was when she attended the school and the dresses became too short to be accepted for dress code. They couldn’t wear skirts until they were in the upper school.  

Bree’s hair was brushed, probably the influence of her sister. She wore her hairband from yesterday and left her hair down. 

Isla wore a red, button down flare dress with a ruffled sleeve. To complete the look, she wore a faded jean jacket and black converse. She tidied up her top knot and pulled strands down strategically. She had become obsessed with her hair and clothes. 

“Teeth brushed?” They nodded. “Beds made?” Isla nodded and Bree half nodded, which alerted me to her lying. I pointed to the hall and she went back upstairs to make her bed, muttering angrily along the way. 

“I filled out all the back to school forms, they’re in your backpacks.” 

Isla nodded her head and crossed the kitchen to hug me. “Thanks mom,” her voice filled with appreciation. 

“Here’s your phone,” I handed it to her. “If you remain on your best behavior, I’ll consider ending your punishment Friday.” 

“Seriously?” I nodded. “And I’ll get full privileges back like texting my friends and the Internet?”

“Yes,” I laughed. “That does mean not being a brat, no rolling your eyes, and listening when I ask you to do something.”

“i will mom. I’ll do anything.” She was exuberant for this time, but I knew that getting her phone back was the cause. “This is the new me.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Jamie watched the interaction with a wistful look in his cerulean eyes. 

Bree trotted back into the kitchen, her spirits cheerful again. “Morning daddy,” she acknowledged his presence. 

I cupped her face, her cheeks still a bit chubby from youth. “Daddy is going to take you to school today.” She bobbed her head happily. 

Isla grabbed her water bottle from the fridge, a granola bar, and a bag of grapes. She then grabbed her lunch box last and an ice pack from the freezer. “Hey dad,” she said as she passed him. Jamie patted her shoulder as she walked by, knowing ruffling her hair would end in disaster. 

Bree retrieved her things from the fridge. Her lunchbox sat waiting for her, and she grabbed her water bottle, filling it with ice. Instead of grabbing a granola bar like her sister, she snatched a pack of fruit snacks and animal crackers. 

Isla was out the door with her backpack. “I love you,” I called to her as she climbed into the van. A bunch of girls called out a greeting to me and I shook my head in amusement. 

Bree had a little longer until she and Jamie had to leave. She decided to have her own version of the Spanish inquisition with her father. She was questioning him. “So you’re taking me to school?” 

“Yes,” I heard. 

She nodded her head thoughtfully with pursed lips. “I see,” she said. “You’re not going to walk me in are you? Cause that wouldn’t be cool. It’s a first day only thing.” 

“Bree!” I called sharply. 

She turned toward me with wide, innocent eyes and a “mama.” 

I kissed her head and ruffled the curls a bit. “That was rude. You could’ve said that a lot nicer.” I grabbed her chin to force her to look at me. 

“Yes,” she agreed. 

“Go put your lunch in your bag. Don’t forget nana is picking you up today.” 

She stuffed the lunchbox into her backpack, and I heard the crinkling of papers. I smiled fondly because that was my Bree. “Alright come here love bug,” she came willingly to my arms. 

Jamie had gone to start his car and Bree would meet him out there.“I love you so much. I hope you had a wonderful first day.” 

“Fourth grade is awesome. We have recess with the fifth graders. There was a huge game of tag we played yesterday. Apparently it’s a tradition, and the person who was last it, is still it today at recess. My teacher is also super cool and nice.” 

I ran my fingers through her hair. “You be good for your dad on the way to school. Just talk to him about normal things.” At my pointed look, she acquiesced. “Have a good day darling Bree, I’ll be home around six tonight. Your dad and Peter will be here for dinner, I was thinking of ordering out.” 

Bree squealed loudly as she threw her backpack on. “Okay mama, I’ll hold you to it.” 

Jamie came back in and I laughed as he nearly stumbled when she grabbed him by the arm to drag him back out the house. 

We could do this. We could be a different kind of family. 

Chapter Text

CPOV

What had I done? What was I thinking inviting Jamie over for dinner with Peter there? While Peter wasn’t upset about what happened, at least not angry enough to call things off, he was visibly hurt. I didn’t know what to do to fix that. 

The worst part of the situation was Peter still didn’t know. Coffee yesterday was nice and it seemed wrong to address the Jamie of it all before he spent several hours in an OR with a lot of time to ruminate. It was less problematic when Jamie was over 3000 miles away as opposed to living in the same city. 

“What is wrong with you?” 

I lifted my head to find Mel and Joe staring at me with looks ranging from mild horror to outright amusement. I stuffed a few more fries into my mouth to avoid saying anything. If I opened my mouth, I would never be able to shut it. I was a powder keg waiting to explode. 

They sat down across from me, concern marring their faces. “Claire, why are you stuffing french fries into your mouth? You barely eat fried foods.” Mel spoke softly to me in the way an adult might talk to a child. “Don’t you normally pack lunch?"

“Nothing is wrong,” I swallowed my food. “I’m fine, see this is me perfectly okay. What would I have to worry about? Everything is just perfect from ex’s that are still in love with me but pretending they aren’t and confusing me to fiancés who don’t know that said ex is back in town and planning to stay here. There’s nothing to worry about even though I’m having them both over for dinner and there’s not a chance of anything going wrong, well maybe Peter and Jamie getting into a fight because I mean hello who wants to look at the man who kissed his fiancée. Other than that there’s absolutely nothing that’s the matter.” I shoved more food into my mouth because when it was empty I said way too much. I hadn’t meant to reveal all that.

Joe and Mel stared at me, turned towards each other and did that silent communication thing they did whenever they were worried about me. Joe sighed and took the lead. “If you’re fine LJ, then I’ve won the lottery.” I wasn’t amused. “So you invited Jamie over for dinner?” 

I groaned and dropped my head to the table. “Yes,” I moaned. Was it too late to cancel?

“You can’t cancel, you’ve already issued the invite.” I said that out loud. “Look I’m sure it won’t be as terrible as you’re thinking.”

“Yes it will. Or what if they become friends and do all that male bonding instead of posturing. Not that there’s anything wrong with them being friendly, but it would be super weird. Right now I’m what they have in common, oh God what if they talk about me? Could you imagine?” I don’t think I’m ready for something like that. “I’m not regretting the action per se, but there’s a lot that can potentially go wrong when all I want is for everything to be okay. I want Jamie to be happy. I want my daughters to be happy. And Peter too.”

“You’re overreacting. Neither of them would do that. Although you are behaving rather odd. Is there something else going on?” Mel quirked a brow. I wasn’t getting into the mess that was my heart and brain. “You didn’t mention yourself in that little spiel of yours.”

“No, of course not. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go poke around in some patients. I mean check on them. Damnit!” Joe snorted as Mel giggled uncontrollably. “Oh shut up, you know what I meant.”

Their laughter echoed in my ears as I exited the cafeteria. They were terrible friends, laughing at me while I was having a crisis. I loved them. I frowned as I thought about Jamie not having any support. Did he remain in contact with the friends he made in Boston? I didn’t know. I hadn’t asked him. It was definitely food for thought. 

This day was the worst. I knew the one thing that could brighten it, my favorite patient. Lyla had been one of my first patients after I picked my specialty. I had worked on her case from the beginning. She was born with a congenital heart disease and needed a new one. She was at the top of the list, so we were just playing the waiting game now. 

“Hey Dr. Fraser,” she greeted as soon as I entered. 

I smiled at her. “Hey Lyla, how’s my favorite patient?” Her pallor was concerning. 

“I’m alright all things considered.” 

I picked up her chart and checked her stats from morning rounds. Her numbers weren’t great. She would need that transplant soon and it wasn’t only her heart any longer. She needed new lungs. 

“That bad, huh?”

“I think that’s something to discuss when your parents are present.” Her grin dropped. “Why don’t you tell me about school.”

She rolled her sea green eyes as she attempted to sit up. “Not much to tell since it’s home school and boring. I miss going to school. I’m supposed to be in high school going to dances, getting into trouble, and I’m stuck in a hospital bed. My friends barely come to visit anymore as they’ve got their own lives and the whole thing sucks.”

I sympathized with her, reflecting back on my own time in the hospital last year. It was weeks before I went home and slept in my own bed. My friends stopped by frequently at first, but I wasn’t the most pleasant to be around. I was a rain cloud of misery and made everyone aware of it, aside from the nurses. I knew not to piss them off. 

I took a seat on the end of her bed. “I’m sorry Lyla. If I could, I would let you leave, but it’s too risky in your condition.” 

She sighed dramatically. “I know. It still isn’t fun. I’m so bored I’ve taken to reading horoscopes. What’s your sign?”

“What?”

“You know your star sign? Sagittarius?”

“No, I’m a Libra.”

“Huh…” her eyes roamed over her computer screen as she searched for what she was looking for. “I can totally see you as this. Libras are cooperative and diplomatic. I’ve seen how you handled crises with your residents. Fair minded, gracious, and social are perfect words. I’ve seen you at church and you talk to everyone.” She also attended the same church, which made the world incredibly small. “Indecisive,” described me to a tee. It was hard to make decisions, especially once I analyzed all of the potential outcomes. “It does say this is a month full of personal pleasures for you and that you should re-think the suitability of your romantic relationships. Something about the alignment of the planets or whatever. You may have to revisit old issues with your partner or children, or there could be some communication problems. Uh something about arguments with a lover being blown out of proportion. Look for meaning in words instead of harping… yada yada or relationship might not move forward. Could seem stagnant but good time to review and rest. Basically re-examine issues instead of communicating about them prematurely and keep status quo for the time being.”

“You’re kidding. It did not say all that.” 

She grinned at me. “I swear Dr. Fraser it most definitely did.”

How did everything come back to my love life? “Aren’t those horoscopes divided into different sections?”

“Yeah but that’s not fun to speculate about unlike romance. Besides my boyfriend dumped me last week, so give me this doc.”

I softened at her puppy dog expression. She knew I wasn’t immune to her charm. “Fine, fine whatever. I’m perfectly content in my love life though, not that I’ll give you any specifics.” She pouted. “That’s private. And your ex-boyfriend is an idiot if he dumped you because you’re in hospital.”

Her mood soured as she redirected her attention. I had hit a sore spot. “He says he doesn’t think he can handle if I died. He doesn’t want to be known as the dead girl’s boyfriend.”

“Boys at your age can be stupid. You won’t always be the sick girl. Something better is coming for you.” I had faith. 

Lyla beamed at me, her smile lit up the entire room, pushing away all the darkness. “I know you can’t promise anything, but I believe in you.”

My eyes watered and she rolled her eyes. “Here I am getting all emotional over you, and you’re being a typical teenager.” She grinned. “i’ll check on you again before I leave. Tell your parents I want to talk to them when they return.”

“Sure, sure Dr. Fraser, let me get back to reading the horoscopes. Oh looks like my friends Talia is about to have a crappy month, serves her right for flirting with my ex behind my back.”

I shook my head as I departed, wanting nothing to do with whatever teen drama was unfolding. I wasn’t looking forward to when Isla and Bree would bring home their own, particularly Isla as she the more temperamental and irrational of the two. I continued check up on my patients and my post-ops. 

On my way back to my office, I ran into Peter and grimaced. I couldn’t allow him to be blindsided by this. Jamie knew about the situation and it was only fair. “Hey sweetheart,” he pecked me on the lips and my skin flushed. I checked to make sure no one had noticed our little display. Everyone knew we were together, but we didn’t have to advertise it at work. 

“So you’re still coming by for dinner? I know you would’ve said if you weren’t, but I wanted to check in with you just in case. Wait what are you doing here?” It was his day off.

His eyes narrowed. “Jeff is out sick and I got called in. What’s wrong?”

“Wrong? Wh-why does something have to be wrong?”

“You’re doing that rambling thing you do when you’re anxious about something. What is it?”

I cursed him for knowing me as well as he did. I sighed. “Damn, okay so Jamie is here, well not here here but he’s here in Boston, and before you ask, it’s in a permeant way not like he’s on vacation. He decided to branch out with his business and chose Boston. He turned up yesterday and spent the afternoon with the girls, and I may have, no I did invite him to dinner with us tonight. I hope that’s alright. I wouldn’t want you to be uncomfortable.” i was uncomfortable enough for all of us. The last thing I imagined was the three of us ever being in a room together. “I figured this would be a great opportunity for you to officially meet, but it’s totally okay if you’re not ready.”

I would be stuck between my ex and my fiancé, what could possibly go wrong there?

“Calm down Claire, deep breaths. In,” I inhaled sharply. “You can exhale now. It’s fine. It’s been a busy week with Isla and Bree going back to school, and Jamie showing up.” His cheek twitched, but he continued. “I will still come to dinner. It’ll be good for us to talk if he’s going to be in your life, well then I’ll get used to it.”

“You’re amazing. Dinner is at six. I’m ordering out, so you don’t need to bring anything except yourself.” I was saved by a page. “I have to go. See you tonight.” I kissed his cheek and ran off. 

That was one issue out of the way. 

By the time I arrived home, it was a quarter to six. I had picked up Chinese on the way home. It was easiest and everyone could pick and choose. The great part about the evening was that I knew it would end. I had a long day ahead tomorrow and I was on-call. I had a legitimate excuse to cut the night short if things went in a negative direction or became too awkward. 

“Hey mom,” Isla greeted as I shuffled into the kitchen. “Need any help?”

“I got it. Why don’t you set the table? Where’s your sister?” I started unloading the food. 

Isla shrugged. “I think she’s in her room reading. Nana said to call her later by the way. Apparently you forgot to yesterday.”

Shit! I had completely forgotten that she wanted me to call her. She had something important to tell me, but yesterday hadn’t gone the way I imagined and it slipped my mind. 

“Uh mom that’s five dollars in the jar. Too bad it wasn’t the other one because that’s ten.” 

I grumbled unhappily as I sorted through my wallet. “Here, go put it in the jar you little miser.”

“Gladly.” She smirked at me. 

I made a grabbing motion as her laughter trailed behind her. She had busted me for swearing. We started the jar as a way to curve my swearing around them. Normally, I did fairly well. Tom had been the donor of most of the money and often prepaid. 

She came back in and continued setting the table. “So it’s the three of us, dad and Peter, correct?“

“Yeah.”

“Great.”

I placed the food in the center of the table as Isla set out the glasses. “Juice or water tonight, no soda.” She nodded as she finished her task. “Also I’m on call tonight, so if I have to go in nana will come and stay with you guys.”

She brushed over my worries. “Mom, we’ve done this like a million times. It isn’t new for us. You’re a surgeon. Until you go into private practice, this will be your life. We get it. We’ll be fine.”

i wrapped my arms around her. “What would I do without you?”

“Be crazy, oh wait,” she cackled.

I grabbed a dishtowel and whipped it at her. “Hey!”

“I’ll show you crazy.”

“Come on mom, you’re totally insane, in a good way.”

“Go get your sister and wash your hands.”

“Aye aye captain.”

“And they call me crazy.”

“I heard that.” 

“You were supposed to,” I called after her, the smile still on my face. The nerves had mostly disappeared. I prayed tonight would go smoothly for all of our sakes. 

JPOV

I knocked on the door at exactly six. I waited in my car until a minute before so that I wasn’t early or late. The door opened and Isla was there. She was still in the clothes she had worn that morning. 

“Hey dad,” she greeted with a smile. “You’re right on time.” There was a hint of surprise in her voice. “The food is already here, but we are still waiting on Peter. You can follow me.”

“My little hostess,” she groaned. “How was school?”

“It was school. There isn’t much to tell. I’ve got math homework and my history teacher is already talking about partners for some project. My violin teacher is up my butt for not practicing over the summer. I mean you can’t really practice sitting down, which is what I spent like the whole summer doing.”

Isla was opening up to me in a whole new way, and I liked it. She wasn’t holding back anymore in what she shared with me. “How was yer physical therapy?”

“It’s PT. It’s not meant to be fun. I just want my stupid leg to be like it was already. It sucks watching my team play without me.” I sympathized with her. I saw how miserable she was as her team practiced yesterday. “It’s not as bad since I still get to be a little bit part of it, but I would much rather be running the field and getting bruises that way.”

“There’s always next year.”

She sighed as we entered the kitchen. Bree was perched on the counter, her eyes on her mother as she snuck a piece of chicken. They were in the midst of a conversation as Claire had her back turned. “Come on mommy, it would be Friday night and they can take me to the game on Saturday. You’ll just meet us there. Then you don’t gotta get up so early on Saturday, especially since you’ve got to work right after. Aren’t you on-call again that night?”

“I’ll consider it Bree and drop the chicken.” Brianna’s eyes widened as her mouth fell open in shock. “Eyes in the back of my head sweetheart. Hello Jamie.” She tossed out a greeting as she put the finishing touches on the table. “We’re having Chinese. I hope you don’t mind. It’s Bree’s absolute favorite.”

“Yeah, which is why I’m hungry.” 

“We’ll eat in just a bit.”

Bree huffed as she crossed her arms. She reminded me of her mother. While she had my coloring, many of her expressions were that of Claire’s. I marveled constantly at the similarities. “Wanted to eat now.”

Isla shoved her sister and laughed as she leaned back against the counter. I glanced over at her, noticing for the first time a drawing on the fridge. My brow furrowed in confusion. Isla turned her head and then cackled loudly as her younger sister’s lips thinned. “It’s not funny.”

“It totally is squirt.”

“I’m like as tall as you.”

“Whatever, I’m not the one who drew a serial killer picture for school.”

“It’s not a serial killer,” she glared at her sister. “You know that.”

Isla glanced thoughtfully at the drawing before a Grinch like smirk appeared on her face. “I don’t know, there’s knives, blood everywhere, and a huge smile. Sounds very sadistic killer like to me.”

“You suck!”

“Hey! I’ve warned you both about that word. Isla, stop teasing her.”

“Come on mom, we all know she drew you as a serial killer, which is the reason you’ve never been able to look Ms. Smith in the eyes.”

They were speaking too quickly for me to understand what was happening. “Wait, what?”

Three sets of eyes turned towards me as if they had forgotten my presence. Bree’s cheeks turned a bright shade of red. “Oh god!” She moaned. 

“So here’s the story dad. When Bree was in first grade, her class assignment was to draw a picture of her parent’s job. Naturally Bree drew one of mom in the OR, except,” she removed the drawing from the fridge and handed it to me. “If you look, there’s a scalpel or knife in both hands. There’s a lot of blood. She sort of made the body look like that game Operation. The smile on mom’s face doesn’t help either as it looks sinister. To make a bad situation worse when mom was there for parent teacher conferences, she told Ms. Smith she enjoyed slicing people. By the time she tried to correct herself, it was too late. She totally made herself sound like some murderess.”

I stared at the drawing made by my seven year old. There was a lot of blood, and the scalpels were sharp. The smile looked more like a smirk. I could see how the teacher would get the wrong impression. 

Bree’s hands were covering her face as I gave the picture back to Isla. “We hung it up on the fridge after because it was really funny and embarrassing for mom and Bree.”

There was a knock on the door, and Bree was off the counter and out of the kitchen before I could blink. When she re-entered, she was tugging a blond haired man. He was around my height, more slender, but he worked out. His eyes were green. He was handsome. He gave me the vibe that he came from money, much like Claire. “Hello,” he said with confidence. “We’ve never really had the pleasure of meeting. I’m Peter.” He held out his hand with a friendly grin. His voice was a low timber. 

I grasped his hand and shook it. It would be impolite and there was no need to start off things horribly. He didn’t seem like a bad guy, and he had affection for my daughters, which seemed to be returned. “I’m Jamie, it’s nice to meet you too.”

“Oh good, we can eat.” Claire smiled uneasily. “Let’s all take our seats.” Once grace was said, the food was passed around the table.

“So yer a doctor Peter?”

“I’m an anesthesiologist. It’s still a doctor, but I could never do what Claire does.” 

I hummed thoughtfully. “Are ye from Boston?”

“No, I’m from Connecticut. I moved to Boston during my residency.”

“Did ye always wanted to go into medicine?” Claire’s hand gripped her fork tightly as she glared at me. 

“I was a bio-chem major in college, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I just decided to go to medical school and the rest happened. There weren’t any well thought out plans or dreams.. The pay is good and I like my job. Did you want to become a business man?” 

I would admit I deserved the turnaround. I had questioned him. “Not until sixth form when I realized how much I loved math. Starting a business came later. When I moved back home, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to work for another company, so I started working for my cousin. It worked out, and he was one of my first investors.”

“Dad’s brewery is super awesome, and there’s always tons of people there for taste testings. The pub is cool too.” Isla grinned at me. “We’ve never had any, but the visitors always say it’s good.”

“Did you come up with flavoring yourself?”

“Aye, I knew that I wanted it to be completely mine.”

“Jamie has always been very attentive and hands on.” Her cheeks darkened as she lowered her lashes to cover her embarrassment. “What I mean is that he pays attention to details and likes to be involved.” 

“Claire is correct. I wanted to be heavily involved from the beginning, and found some good people along the way that I trusted to help. I figured it was time to expand and this was a wonderful way to be closer to my daughters.”

He regarded me silently, meeting my challenge straight on. He seemed unfazed by my declaration, but his eyes twitched ever so slightly. If I hadn’t been watching him, I would’ve missed the movement. Something in what I said bothered him, but if he was worried about his status with Claire, he shouldn’t have been. She was his. She made that abundantly clear time and again, although as she kept repeating it, it was losing its’ intended effect. It was as if she needed the constant reminder about her affiliations. That was a problem for another time.

Dinner progressed and we made light conversation. Bree and Isla chatted about school. “By the way mom, so you said as long as I’m good until Friday I’m ungrounded. So if that happens, which it will,” she added hastily. “Can I go to Kelly Baker’s back to school party?”

Claire bit her lip. She had told Isla her punishment ended on Friday if she stayed on her best behavior, and there wasn’t any reason for her to not go to the party. I wasn’t hesitant to interrupt, partly given my inexperience. I didn’t know Kelly, and was likely to say no on those grounds alone. Claire was giving it serious thought. Isla chewed her lip as she stared back at her mother pleadingly. 

“Will Kelly’s parents be there?”

I watched with rapt attention. I wanted to know how to handle these situations as they came. Isla resisted the urge to roll her eyes, but I did catch how she almost did. She had stopped herself mid-roll. It was smart of her. “Yes,” her tone bordering on annoyance. 

Claire narrowed her eyes and exhaled slowly. “Fine, but your dad or nana will have to take you. I’m working all Saturday.”

My eyes widened at this. I was involuntarily volunteered for a drop off, not that I personally minded. It was a chance for alone time with Isla to talk. We hadn’t done much of that the other night as she watched television. Her eyes turned towards me and I melted like butter. Claire teased me when Isla was a toddler about how she had me wrapped around her finger. It still held true. “Dad, do you think you could take me?” Her voice was soft and sweet, the opposite of how she had spoken to her mother. 

“I dinna have any other plans aside from yer sister’s game in the morning. Ye’ll have to let me know where this Kelly lives.”

“Yeah sure dad, thanks, you’re the best.” I belatedly realized I had been conned. 

“Mommy are you going to eat that egg roll?” 

Claire glanced down at her place. “Uh no, it’s too thick- big and I’m stuffed already.” I wanted to laugh, but it would’ve drawn attention. Isla and Bree were too innocent to know the other connotation of their mother’s words. I knew she never said it on purpose. It never failed to make me laugh. 

Claire glared at me across the table catching my bemused expression. She sniffed and I snickered. 

The evening was going fine until an overweight ginger fluff ball jumped onto the table and began to lick the sweet and sour sauce. “Fuck!” Claire exclaimed, jumping back. “Peaches@ Isla I told you to lock her in your room.” 

“I forgot.” Isla said as she tried to snatch the cat. Peaches hissed at her and raised a claw when she tried to grab her. Bree dove towards the cat who gracefully leapt of the table and ran away. 

“Ugh go get her and put her in your room Isla.” The dinner mood had effectively been eradicated as Isla and Bree chased after their cat. 

“I apologize. Peaches… well there’s a reason that she’s supposed to be in Isla’s room during meal times. I’m just going to clean up.”

Peter and I sat at the table awkwardly staring at one another. I yearned to help her, but I figured she needed the time to collect herself. She had high expectations for tonight’s outcome; it hardly went perfectly from the start. Peter was okay. He wasn’t as awful as I pictured in my head, then again he was unexpected. We didn’t have much in common. He preferred baseball whereas I was into football. He cared for my children, so he wasn’t terrible. However, there was tension at the table. I suspected he didn’t care for me at all. 

From the triumphant shouts coming from the family room, it sounded as if Isla and Bree had caught their wayward pet. Peaches was a late Christmas present that had been waiting for them when they arrived home from Scotland. She had been only three months old at the time. My daughters were in love the moment they saw her. 

I grew uncomfortable under Peter’s gaze and decided to assist Claire with the clean up. It would give my idle hands something to do as opposed to tapping on the table. “Thanks,” she said as I took the dish from her to rinse. We worked in silence, which was for the best with Peter sitting there. 

Isla and Bree came back down and collected the remainder of the dishes. They helped put away the remainder of the food. “I’ve got to head out Claire, walk me to the door.” She nodded, her eyes on me. 

“I’ll be back,” she whispered. 

She came back five minutes later. Her face was drawn and her eyes ringed red. I didn’t ask. It wasn’t my business. “I know tonight wasn’t well perfect, actually it was far from perfect. I just wanted everyone to have a chance to meet and I stupidly thought hosting a family dinner at my house would be a great way to bond. I’m sorry that it was uncomfort-“

“It wasn’t,” I lied. She was miserable without worrying about me. “I was fine. It wasn’t a total disaster.”

“Are you sure?” Her voice was small and she huddled into herself. What had he said to her?

I nodded. “I’ve had worse dinners.” I shuddered, recalling some of my past attempts at dating. It was why I forbade Jenny from ever interfering in my love life again. 

The tension from her shoulders disappeared as she lowered them. “I don’t know what I’m doing. That wasn’t supposed to be as painful as it was. You were fine. It really wasn’t you. Peter behaved oddly and I’ve never seen him treat anyone so distantly.” I had an idea of why Peter treated me the way he did. “Whatever the reason you didn’t deserve it and I told him.”

“Did you fight? Is that why you were crying?”

Her eyes lowered and she shook her head. “No, I uh wasn’t crying.” She hadn’t improved in her ability to lie. Claire avoided eye contact when she lied. “I had something in my eye is all.”

I wanted to call her out for lying, but I didn’t want to push. She was upset and she and Peter had obviously fought about me. “I’m still your friend.”

Her lips tipped up at the corners. It wasn’t a smile, but it was an improvement over her sad face. There was nothing that made my heart ache than seeing Claire or my daughters upset. “it’s fine Jamie. You didn’t do anything. It’s Peter’s little problem. Not like he’s little or anything like that, just his issue. He has stuff to think about and can’t do that with me around. He thinks I have feelings for you and thinks I lied about what happened in Scotland.”

The cause of her problems was me. He would’ve never thought anything happened between us if I hadn’t kissed her. “I know what you’re thinking, but it does take two to tango. I kissed you back and didn’t stop you immediately. I’m just as much to blame. Part of me wanted it too, but it was wrong of me to do that to you or Peter. I never said sorry.”

“It’s nothing. I initiated the kisses and I knew he existed.”

“Doesn’t make my reaction right. I hurt him. This is my cross to bear not yours.”

It didn’t erase the guilt. Still, she admitted that the kiss wasn’t one sided. I wasn’t alone. 

 

Chapter Text

JPOV 

I was up early for a Saturday, which were usually the days I had a lie in. Today, however I had a promise I intended to keep to my nine year old daughter. Her match was at nine as her team was scheduled for one of the first games of the day. 

The game was at the field she practiced at on Wednesday. I hadn’t seen Claire since the awkward dinner two days ago. I figured she needed time to sort out her thoughts and feelings with Peter, and it wasn’t my place to interfere with that. Watching her trying to cover up her tears tugged at my heartstrings. The reality was that any attempt to comfort her would’ve made her retreat further into herself. She wasn’t at the point where she could reciprocate and Claire did prefer to cry in solitude. So I bid goodnight to my daughters and sent a smile to Claire before taking my leave. 

Isla texted last night to remind me about the game and to ascertain whether or not I was still taking her to the party tonight. She told me it would devastate her sister if I didn’t show as Bree was looking forward to it. There was no chance of that happening again after finally having a permanent place in their lives after so long. I wanted to show them they could depend on me for anything and everything.  

                                                                                                 

                                                                                

Isla wasn’t the type to use text slang. She preferred grammatically correct sentences, but she used emojis and whatever GIFs were. She had remained on her best behavior and Claire ungrounded her yesterday, so Isla had her full phone privileges returned to her. To say she was ecstatic would be an understatement.

I checked my email for the directions as she sent me the team’s entire schedule for the season, including links to where all the games would be. I set my alarm and pre-programmed my GPS ahead of time to save myself any trouble in the morning. 

Claire and Isla were already at the field when I arrived. I had seen Claire’s SUV in the lot when I pulled in. I sent Isla a quick text as she forgot to mention which field Bree was  playing on. 

                                                                                     

                                                                                             

I found the field easily enough and spotted Claire and Isla almost immediately. Claire chatted with one of the other moms. Lots of smiles were exchanged and Claire laughed quite a bit. She hadn’t noticed me, which gave me time to watch her. Claire wore a hoodie to support Bree’s team and a pair of jeans. It was the most casual I had seen her all week. Today, she was just Bree’s mom and one of her biggest supporters.

Isla was on her phone oblivious to the world around her and ignoring the attention a boy was paying to her. She rolled her eyes every time he tried to talk to her. She wasn’t interested. Her phone was her main priority, and I had to roll my eyes. 

I was not prepared for her to grow up at all. She wasn’t even twelve yet, and boys were already starting to notice her. Claire and I would be discussing the dating policy because there was no way in hell she was allowed to have any sort of boyfriend before she was sixteen. I refused to budge on that. I knew what went through their randy minds.  

Isla wore black leggings, the Under Armour logo was hard to miss as I came closer. She wore a grey Under Armour fleece pullover. The girls seemed to have particular tastes about what they wore. When Bree pulled out clothes for practice a few days ago, most of hers were of the Nike variety. 

I spotted Bree easily with her team as they did warm ups. Her bright hair stuck out quite vividly. Her hair was tied back into a basic ponytail with a green ribbon. I had noticed she liked hair accessories. 

She was in her team uniform and looked adorable. She had a serious, concentrated expression upon her face and was ready for the game to begin. She broke for a minute to shoot me a smile and threw a wave in my direction. 

Claire spotted me first and gestured me over. Her companion’s face was curious, but not entirely surprised by my appearance. I supposed Claire had shared with her the news. I didn’t know how I felt about that. “Jamie, this is Jenna Anderson. She’s the mom of one of Bree’s teammates. We’ve known them since Bree started football, and the girls have been on a team together since they were four.” She pointed out a blonde girl next to Bree. “That’s Remi. If you can find one, you’ll always find the other.” 

I shook Jenna’s hand and shot her a friendly grin. “So you’re Scottish right?” 

“Aye,” I answered. 

“So I’m guessing you use football as well?” Claire rolled her eyes and nudged her friend. “Do you play?” 

“I’m not very good. Bree tends to score a lot of goals.” 

“She’s a striker. She’s terrible at goalie. Luckily, they have her playing her best position today. Hopefully, they’ll win.” It was strange to meet a woman who knew a lot about my daughter. 

I studied her as she watched the kids out on the field. She was more of a honey blonde with light brown eyes and a smattering of freckles in the upper regions of her face. She wore no make-up. She had on a team hoodie as well and dark jeans. Next to her was a cooler. “Does your daughter go to school with Bree?” 

“Oh yes, Remi and Bree have been going to school together since pre-school. It’s actually how they originally met. They got into a bit of a skirmish the first day, but then Remi stood up when a boy tried to steal Bree’s soccer ball.” Her eyes focused on the team as they finished their final warm ups. “We were late the first day of school, otherwise we would’ve met then.” 

I was wondering why Bree hadn’t introduced her friend to me if they were as close as Claire and Jenna were saying. “We usually take Bree to soccer and drop her off at home afterwards, although on some weekends she comes home with us after a game. She stayed with us last night.”  

This was probably the family Bree talked about when she said she often went with a friend’s family to tournaments. If they had known her since she was a little bean at three, then Claire must’ve trusted them to watch out for our girl. It warmed my insides to know there were people caring for my family when I wasn’t around. I could’ve been jealous, but I wasn’t. All of their friends who surrounded them loved and cared for them like family, and I couldn’t begrudge them that. I had made friends like that in Edinburgh, whilst surrounded by my family. 

Isla had yet to greet me as she was far too interested in what was happening on her phone. I plucked the device right from her fingers. Her head lifted and I was treated to a steely, dark blue glare. “Yer sister is about to play, and I would rather ye watch than play on yer phone.” 

Her eyes turned to her mother. “Mooommm!!!!” She whined. I rubbed my ear at the pitch of her voice. “Tell dad he can’t just take my phone away from me. This isn’t fair. Becca is having a crisis right now.” I wondered what qualified as a crisis to an almost twelve year old. 

Claire scowled disapprovingly at Isla. “Your father probably had a valid reason for taking away your phone. Readjust your attitude, or I’ll take it back. You just finished a punishment.” Isla’s cheeks darkened and the corners of her eyes tightened. 

Mother and daughter had a stare down and neither were backing down. I knew it was tense between them with Isla’s recovery, her attitude, and her grounding, but I hadn’t seen the full evidence of it. 

Isla blinked first. She rolled her eyes and muttered an angry “whatever” as she turned towards the field. 

Claire wore a murderous expression, but chose to ignore Isla’s behavior. Isla crossed her arms and angled her body away from us to watch the game. It seemed things hadn’t improved at all between them even with the return of Isla’s precious phone. 

I didn’t have much time to ponder on what to do about it before the whistle blew and the game started. I was riveted. Bree showed determination and passion for her sport, and worked well with her teammates. She was attentive when her coach told them their plays and focused when on the field. 

She managed to score two goals by the end of the match. The game ended in 2-1. The other team was fairly good, and the players walked passed one another giving high fives. Bree murmured words to each player as she made her rounds. 

The coach talked with the team afterwards and they did a team chant. All the kids left smiling and hugging one another as the coach gave them each a pat on the back before sending them on their way to us. Bree ran straight for my arms with arms held out wide. 

I scooped her up and swung her around causing her to squeal loudly with an abundance of enthusiasm. “I am so proud of ye.” She beamed at me abashedly. “Not just for scoring because it isna always about making the points. Ye worked with yer team, and ye told the other members of the team good job. That’s what a true player does. Ye’re growing into a fine lass Brianna.” 

Her eyes had a glassy sheen as she looked up at me. As I set her down, I heard her sniffling. I ruffled her messy hair and she shook me off as she went to her mom. 

Claire kissed her fiery head and whispered something to her. Bree nodded her head and mumbled something back to her mother. Claire released her and passed her onto her sister. 

“Nice job squirt!” Isla playfully shoved her sister away from her. “You kicked some major a-butt.” Claire’s ears caught part of that and she sent a sharp look to Isla.

I was focused on what she called her sister. It was funny and a bit ironic she called her sister squirt as there wasn’t much of a height difference between them anymore. Bree was quickly gaining height on her sister. 

Claire handed Bree a hoodie and a different pair of shoes to replace her cleats. Then she reached into the cooler to bring out a water bottle, a bag of grapes, and a sandwich. Bree garbled her thanks to her mother through a full mouth as she dug into her food. I hid my chuckle as Claire chastised her for her lack of manners. 

Isla held out her hand, and I placed the phone back into her grasp. “I want ye to interact with the world and not just your phone. Friends are important, but so is family.” 

She nodded, although I’m not sure of how much she actually absorbed. Her red head was already turned downwards at her phone as her fingers began flying across the screen. She made all sorts of weird faces each time her phone dinged. 

“Just ignore it, she acts like she can’t be parted with it. I’ve learned to let it slide for the most part.” Claire whispered into my ear as I continued to watch our oldest. “If you’d like, I’m taking the girls out for ice cream to celebrate, although we get ice cream anyway, win or lose, but Bree says it does taste better after a victory. Remi and Jenna will be joining, and a few of her other teammates. It’s a bit of tradition” 

I debated internally. It was a crucial moment. I realized there wasn’t any decision to make. If I wanted to improve my involvement in my daughters’ lives, it was necessary to integrate myself into every moment I could because in the end, it was the moments they would remember. “Yes, I’ll come.” I was choosing to become an active member of the family, and that meant partaking in their traditions. 

I obviously made the right choice as Claire’s eye lit up. “Great, you can just follow me when we leave. The kids usually eat some sort of snack before we head out for ice cream.” 

Bree finished her entire sandwich, her grapes, and drank just about all of her water within minutes. She and Remi were talking and making a lot of excited gestures to one another. “I’m so happy. We won and the school barbecue is this week.” Their lips moved rapidly, I only caught snatches of their conversation. “-graded by the end of this week.” 

“I think I did well... fingers crossed anyways. So that’s your dad?” 

I turned and pretended to watch as other teams warmed up for their game. I didn’t want Bree to know I was listening in on her conversation, but I was more than curious about what she would say. 

“Yeah, he got in on the first day of school that wasn’t really the first day, but it was.” Claire later explained to me how both girls started school on a Tuesday but it was just an opening day. The kids went and dropped off their supplies, there were assemblies, and other bonding activities, but no actual learning took place. The first official day was Wednesday when they spent time in their classrooms.

There was a pause. “How do you feel about it?” Nine year olds were clearly quite perceptive and smarter than most people gave them credit for. “Like is it good?” 

My eyes darted in her direction and I watched as she shrugged uncertainly. “I don’t know. It’s different I guess. I only saw him today, Wednesday and Thursday.” A frown tugged at her lips. “I’m used to him being far away, and I don’t know how to be with him here. We had this weird family dinner with Peter, and then Peaches jumped on the table. It ended right after that. I don’t think my dad and Peter like each other.” She had caught that. I was ashamed. I thought I had hid my dislike for the other man. He was too pompous for my liking.  

“That bad?” Remi giggled a little. 

Bree’s slanted eyes squinted and she wore a curious expression upon her angular face. “I don’t know. It was awkward. Peter and my dad kept sending these looks and mom kept talking like she does when she’s nervous.” 

“Do you think your mom and Peter are going to break up? Like will she date your dad now?” 

Bree’s eyes lowered to the ground. I watched as a single tear dripped down her face, and I felt my heart crack the slightest. I knew it had been Isla’s mission to get us back together all these years, but I never knew Bree’s feelings on the subject. She’d been less obvious about it. She was accustomed to the arrangement we had because she had never known any different. If she saw pictures of our family in the past, she didn’t know what happened or how happy we once were. They were things she couldn’t actually remember. She had stories and that was it. 

Peter had been around for nearly half her life. He was familiar. I wondered if she wished he was here instead of me. “I don’t know. Everything is changing so fast. It’s confusing.”

Remi hugged her friend. It was strange to see a kid taller than Bree after realizing how tall she was in comparison to her peers. Remi was at least four inches taller. Bree pulled back and wiped her face.

“Hey dad, mind if I ride with you?” Isla asked, coming up to my side. 

“Ahhh,” I jumped, surprised to find she had snuck up on me. She cackled, her eyes sparkled with mirth. I swatted at her and she laughed harder. It sounded like tiny chortles, which I would make sure to mention to her friends and potential boyfriends in the future. 

“God dad, you scare so easily. That’s probably why they say it’s wrong eavesdrop.” I whistled innocently, my eyes looking anywhere but at her. “We aren’t upset you’re here. Honest!” Her eyes were earnest and glittered with truth. “You’ve always been so far, and I guess we just don’t know what to expect. Are you going to start disciplining us like mom? Will you take us to school more often? Come to school events? It’s hard to know what’s going to change and what will stay the same. Dinner Thursday was totally awkward. I don’t know why Peter was being weird. He’s really cool usually.” I wrapped my arm around her shoulder as we began walking towards my car. 

She gave me a lot to consider because it was one of those things we needed to discuss. It was new for all of us, but for so long the family was just the four of us even in our separate corners of the world. Change was difficult to handle at any age, especially changes that affected all aspects of life. For children, it was harder. They didn’t always have the words to express what was happening in their brains. Isla and Bree were experts at covering their emotions.

I squeezed her to my side. “I dinna ken. We havena really talked about it.” Her face scrunched as confusion blossomed in her eyes. The shape of her eyes was like her mother’s, but the color was darker than Jenny’s. She was a perfect blend of our two families. “There’s so much we need to work on, and while part of it is how to get to a point where it’s all natural, we have to take it slowly. We have to figure out where everyone belongs.” 

She peered up at me with sage eyes. Sometimes I wondered if she was really eleven, or if she was two hundred. “Why?” 

“Well, I don’t want to push you guys into anything. We made bad decisions before and it cost us our family and marriage. As humans, we have a tendency for selfish actions, and we always want to protect ourselves from getting hurt. Yer mam and I weren’t in a good place to make good decisions and hurt each other a lot.” 

I unlocked the door and slid into the driver seat. I recalled the