Actions

Work Header

Starting Over

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

James Fraser peered through his front windshield into the sunlight and wished he was back in his apartment in Edinburgh. If his older sister Jenny hadn't called earlier to drag him out of his blissful, mind-numbing slumber and reminded him of his nephew's birthday, he would have been still in bed. Instead of his usual routine of sleeping until past midday, eating junk food and washing it down with beer, playing Xbox and going back to sleep, he'd found himself putting on some fresh clothes and driving to Lallybroch. His sudden motivation had more to do with his nephew, wee Jamie. He wouldn't miss his birthday for the world, come rain or shine. Unfortunately, sunshine and children's parties seldom bode well for his mood while nursing a massive hangover.

It had been three months since he was last in Lallybroch - three months of avoiding his family and dodging questions about his future. He knew he'd hit his limit for grieving the untimely death of his career and feeling sorry for himself. It was time to face the world of adulting, and it was time for a change.  But what change? A job in the Fraser distillery?  It was his legacy and fallback plan, after all.

But he didn't need the money, and his brother-in-law, Ian Murray, was more than capable of overseeing its running. He considered going away to take an extended sabbatical and figure out what he wanted to do with life.

Not too long ago, he had been the nation's sports phenomenon until his sterling rugby career was prematurely cut short by a neck injury sustained during a Six Nations game against France. Later, it was discovered that he had a triple fracture of the vertebrae. Although he avoided any serious nerve damage and had worked with the best therapist in the country in an attempt to get back on the field, he'd been advised by his doctor and friend, Joe Abernathy to retire.

See it this way - you could have ended up in a wheelchair. Count your blessings, Jamie. You're still young, you have a fat bank account from your time in rugby and sponsorships, and the future is full of possibilities. How about going back to your roots? Like your family's distillery? 

Jamie pushed himself out of his black BMW SUV with an annoyed grunt and grabbed the toy bicycle from the back seat of the car. He could hear the loud, shrill screams of children and smell burger meat grilling on the BBQ. Tugging on the collar of his T-shirt, he grimaced at the perspiration running down his back. It was a warm day, and already a headache was starting to grow. From his vantage point, he could see the flowers in the front of the manor house in full bloom and the path leading to the rear garden where the party was being held. Colourful birthday buntings were hung, and balloons decorated posts and hedges. Whether he wanted to be surrounded by people at that moment or not, coming home always hit him with a sense of nostalgia for a time when life was less complicated.

Tamping down the sudden urge to turn around and walk away, he thought of his wee nephew and kept moving. He wondered what kind of reception he would receive now that his identity had been stripped away. He'd always been a rugby player and the game ran in his veins. However, it appeared that the end of his career seemed to have cast a shadow over his every interaction. Ever since he retired, the topic of rugby had been delicately avoided anywhere he went. He thought if someone asked him about the weather or complimented on how good he looks one more time, he was going to implode.

Is this how it's going to be from now on? Pretending as though ten years of his rugby career never happened? What was the point of all the hard work then?

Jamie came to a stop when he reached the back of the house and took in the scene before him. A few adults were clustered around the makeshift buffet, and some congregated around the BBQ. There were probably around twenty children surrounding an entertainer who was dressed as a cartoon character from Paw Patrol.   Conscious of his damp shirt sticking to him, he felt sorry for whoever was in the mascot outfit on this sweltering day. Somehow it made the state of his mood, and the complexity of his life seemed insignificant compared to the person earning a living dressed as a dog. Disgusted with his wallowing and despondency, he pulled himself together and took in a huge fortifying breath and braced himself.

"Uncle Jamie! Uncle Jamie! Ye're here!"

Jamie's gaze landed on the small figure hurtling towards him, hands flapping in the air. Putting the toy bike on the ground, he crouched down and grinned, opening his arms to catch his nephew. His lousy mood and discomfort dissipated all at once. " A chuilein ," he breathed, gripping the boy's small frame and lifting him in the air. He smelled of lollies, vanilla buttercream and baby sweat.

Wee Jamie squealed with delight as he was spun around. "I knew ye'd come, uncle! Ma said ye have lots and lots to do." As soon as he was released, he eyed the shiny red bike and let out a gasp. "Is that my pressie, uncle?"

He laughed. "Aye, that it is. Want to try it?"

"Ma! Look what I got from uncle Jamie!" his namesake shouted at the top of his lungs as he excitedly got on the bike. 

Jamie watched his nephew pedal towards his mother to show off his latest acquisition. 

Jenny turned, smiled and then she was coming towards him.

"Aah, the prodigal son is back home." Her face was flushed with heat, and her expression showed relief. He had been expecting reproof or anything of that sort. But his sister seemed genuinely happy to see him.

Guilt prickled his nerves. "Jenny ...can we talk?"

"Not now lad. We have plenty of time for that later. I'm just glad ye could make it." She stood on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek and stood back to get a better look at him, a platter dangling in one hand. "I need to get more buns in the kitchen. Can ye sort out the lass in the mascot costume for me? My purse is upstairs," she explained, jerking a thumb towards the children's entertainer.

"Aye, of course, I'll do that." There was a squeeze in his chest at the prospect of facing his whole family and explaining his disappearance. He knew it had to be done, and it was only a matter of time.  

..........

What have I gotten myself into? Argh, Geillis you owe me big time! 

Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp rolled on her back in the grass, gasping for air as half a dozen five-year-olds piled on top of her. The impact of hyper and sugar-high children nearly dislodged her mask. She wished she was dressed as a clown or some other cartoon character instead, and one that didn't require her to put on such a weighty headgear. Alas, the birthday boy was a Paw Patrol fan.

Under different circumstances, she would have enjoyed the company of children, but she felt like dying from heat and exhaustion. Sweat trickled down the nape of her neck, and the fusty smell of her mascot headgear was making her nauseous. Without looking at the mirror, she knew her hair was an untamed mass of frizz thanks to the humidity.

Surprisingly, she hadn't collapsed from fatigue after her back to back shift at the hospital. She had been up all night when she was called into trauma surgery during an emergency. Despite having very little sleep and her body crying out for a much-needed rest, she couldn't back out on her promise to help her best friend, Geillis. 

Geillis had just started her own business in children's party entertainment. The venture was still at its early stages, and because she was double-booked that day and didn't have enough money yet to hire extra staff, she had pleaded to help her do the Paw Patrol gig in Lallybroch. 

How could she say no? Claire was already guilt-ridden for the many times she had cancelled on their night outs. These days her life revolved around her job at the hospital, planning her wedding and Frank. It was the least she could do for her neglected friend and social life.

"Who's hungry?" a voice shouted from the designated BBQ area. "Burgers, hotdogs and chips are ready!"

Instantly she was relieved from the weight of tiny bodies holding her down. Sitting up, she adjusted her mask as the children abandoned her for food.

"Um, Geillis?" She looked up. It was Jenny Fraser, the mother of the birthday boy. Claire hadn't bothered correcting her and elaborating that she was a stand-in for her friend. After all, this was just one-off and favour for Geillis.

"Yes?"

"Listen, the other children's entertainer is here already, and the bairns are eating. I believe yer two hours are up. D'ye mind collecting yer fees from my brother? He's just arrived and..." Jenny shrugged, looking down at the empty platter she was holding. "...as ye can see my hands are full at the moment."

She stood up, and through the eyeholes of the dog mask, she glanced at the newcomer. 

Aah, bloody hell, it's James Fraser. The Highland's homegrown hero is back.  She wondered how she failed to make the connection. She was in Lallybroch, the childhood home of Scotland's rugby best and finest centre.

"Ah, of course, I don't mind."

Jenny gave her a grateful look and smiled. "And thank ye. I ken it's nae job for the faint-hearted keeping the wee bairns entertained especially on a hot day like this. Ye must be shattered. Not to worry, though, I promise to give a good review online for yer new business."

She bobbed her big doggie head and watched Jenny turn and approach her brother before disappearing into the house. 

After all these years, the sight of James Fraser could still make her heart kick into a gallop and the moisture in her mouth dry right up. What is it about this man that turned her into a lovesick teenager just by looking at him?

Easy now, Beauchamp. You're as good as married. Remember Frank?  The weight of the three-carat diamond engagement ring on her finger served as a reminder.  Think Frank! Frank! Frank! Frank!   But her head refused to obey, and she continued to stare.

The first and only time she exchanged words with James Fraser, he was half-naked in the men's locker room being treated for a hamstring injury during a game. Her friend, Joe Abernathy, was a Tournament Medical Manager for the team, and through him, she had been there to assist for her own selfish reason - to see a live rugby match, up-close. It hadn't been difficult for Joe to get her in since she was an intern from the Royal Infirmary Hospital, and was more than qualified to assist. 

She remembered only too well when she came face to face with the famous rugby player. He had been cocky as sin when she was caught staring awestruck instead of preparing the ice pack for his thigh. How could she not stare? Given his considerable height and athletic frame, he was one fine specimen of a man, gorgeous and bursting with character. 

"Like what ye see, love?" he asked in amusement, flexing his pecs to tease her.

Mortified at being called out, she felt the heat creep up her neck. Not one to be intimidated by the display of cheek, she swallowed her embarrassment and tilted her chin at him. "To be honest, I've seen better. Robbie Henshaw is more my type," she retorted, referring to another rugby player.

A ruddy eyebrow shot up. "A sassenach that fancies an Irish charm! Weel, that's funny. I had a feeling ye like looking at my arse."

Ooh, the arrogance!  "Sorry to give you the wrong impression Mr Fraser but, I thought I was looking at your face." Joe's snort and Jamie's frown sent her backing away to get the ice before he could respond. But by the time she returned, he was already surrounded by his manager and other paramedical crew, her presence and their exchange soon to be forgotten. It didn't come as a surprise since, in the grand scheme of things, she was just one of a myriad of faces he came across daily.

Later on, Joe teased her regarding the chaffing rejoinder she had launched at Jamie. "You should have seen his face after that comeback you did back there?"

"Sorry?"

"Come on, LJ ...stop pretending you don't know what I'm talking about. I saw sparks flying." LJ stood for Lady Jane, a nickname Joe had given her during her first year of internship at the Royal Infirmary Hospital. It all began when their mutual friends made fun of her voice, and posh English accent, jokingly pointing out that she sounded like she just had tea with the queen. The moniker remained ever since.

"Sparks? You must have mistaken it for my short fuse firing off."

Joe boomed with laughter as he walked away. "You definitely like the man ...no use denying it. Your mouth may be saying one thing, but your face tells another story."

"I most certainly do not!" 

"Oh, and LJ?" Joe paused and turned around, ignoring her vehement denial.

"Yeah?"

"Don't believe everything you read in the newspaper about Jamie. Most are just tabloid nonsense."

"Yeah, sure. Whatever."

Yes, it's true she had a crush on James Fraser and had religiously followed his career. But her infatuation was just that and nothing more, even though she was often teased by her colleagues in her early years of internship. She was realistic enough to admit he was way out of her league, especially when he had been photographed and linked to high profile women in the past and fawned over by over-eager fans. After the locker room incident, she crossed path with James Fraser a couple more times, and there was never any hint of recognition on his part. She simply put it down to her baseball cap concealing most of her face and her refusal to engage, in case the embarrassing episode of her ogling at him was brought up.

Over a year and a half ago, she'd watched him score try after try for the national team during the World Cup, along with everyone in the local pub she frequented. There had never been a doubt he was destined to become one of the all-time greats in the rugby world. But no one had seen the injury coming, especially Jamie. Claire could still remember the heartbreak in his eyes when he announced his retirement on live TV at the age of twenty-eight, despite the light-hearted joke about having more time to practice his golf swings. And just like that, he disappeared from the media circuit. 

After a while, rumours started to spread that he had gone off on a self-destructive bender. Joe Abernathy had confirmed the stories were true and he had tried to reach out to him, and so had the local community and his own family. Instead of being coaxed out into the light, James Fraser hid in his apartment, refusing to answer calls and emails. She thought what a waste if he ended up as a drunken slob as she'd never known him to be anything but a fiercely confident man even to a fault. Although she was a nobody to James Fraser, she had urged Joe multiple times to keep trying to reach out. Unfortunately, he didn't want the help and soon, even his staunchest fans began to lose interest. Except, maybe her.

Making her way towards him, she watched with interest as James Fraser smiled at his nephew whizzing about on his new toy bike. Russet coloured hair curled unruly over his brow and brushed the nape of his neck. He looked rather pale, and it was the first time she'd seen him with a beard. The uneven state of it told her the facial hair was a product of self-neglect rather than a style change. Her gaze dipped lower. With his feet braced apart, arms folded across his chest and at least his six-four height, he towered with an impressive bearing. Clad in faded black jeans that hung low on his hips and a white t-shirt that stretched over his muscular build, he looked like a modern Highland warrior.

"Hi there." 

Claire's thought bubble burst, and she quickly reeled in her dwindling focus and pulled it higher until she met his eyes. A pair of pale ice blue with piercing intensity momentarily froze her in place.  Right! What was it again I'm supposed to do? Oh yeah, collect the money, and get the hell out of here. Piece of cake.  "Hi." 

He gave her a forced smile as he fumbled at the back of his jean's pocket. "Ye've come to collect yer money. How much does my sister owe ye?" 

"That'll be seventy quid, please. And um, good to see you out and about, Mr Fraser."

He stopped and squinted at her as if attempting to see through her doggie disguise. "Ah, a sassenach!"

"Yes, I've been reminded often enough."

There was a moment of silence.

Puffing his cheeks, he dragged a hand through his hair and rapidly let out a lungful of air. "Christ, I didn't mean it that way. And please call me Jamie. Everyone else does. And nae need to be so formal!"

She nodded her big head. "Alright ...Jamie, it is then. And don't worry. I didn't take offence. I know you didn't mean anything by it."

He was about to pull a note out of his wallet, but he stopped. As if he was in search of the right words to say. "Ye have a beautiful voice. What's the word ...aye, husky. Kinda like a bedroom voice."

Her heart skipped a beat, and she searched his face. It seemed he was genuinely just attempting small talk. "Thank you."

"Would ye like a drink before ye go? It's a hot day. Ye must be parched."

"Ah, no, I'm quite alright. But thanks."

"Ye have a name?" He drew out a hundred-pound note from his wallet, pinching it between his fingers.

"Call me Chase. I'm one of the Paw Patrols." When he laughed out loud, she was grateful for the mask that hid her unexpected smile. 

"Weel, Chase I think ye sound bonnie." He took a careful step forward to peek through the eyehole. "Ye bonnie under there, Chase?"

Oh no, you don't!  She took two steps back.  This is getting bloody ridiculous.  In as much as Claire was enjoying the harmless blather with the handsome Scot, she knew she was running out of time. She had a couple of hours of nap to take, shower, and meet Frank for a dinner date. For the most part, he was affecting her in ways that no other man had made her feel. Including Frank. "I really need to go," she said hoarsely.

"Right. Just one request before ye go. I'll give ye this ..." He waved the hundred-pound note in front of her. "...and ye can keep the change if ye let me see yer face."

Claire felt a stab of exasperation.  Why does it matter what I look like?  She was exhausted, hot and bothered and all she wanted right there and then was to get out of the stuffy costume. "Why do you need to see my face?"

Suddenly he looked uncomfortable. "What I meant ..."

She didn't let him finish. "What if you don't like what you see? Do I have to give the change back? Don't you have enough girls fawning over you?"

His shame morphed into annoyance and then into smug. "Careful, Sassenach, ye're starting to sound a little jealous to me."

Ooh, he's back to his usual cocky self.  "Wot? Me? Jealous?" she fumed almost sputtering. 

"Aye, jealous." He looked like he enjoyed making her feel uncomfortable as a corner of his mouth lifted into a half-smile.

A cloud above her head darkened, lightning threatening to shoot at all sides. She knew it was the heat and exhaustion that was making her cranky and tried to take calming breaths. "You're presumptuous and rude."

"And ye're annoyed because I can see that the idea of girls fawning me irks ye."

That's it, I've had enough of this palaver.

Claire rolled her lips inward to plump them, then reached up and removed her mask. Gratification coursed through her when his jaw went slack, and his blue eyes turned a deeper shade.  That's right matey, I am not at all that bad!  As she took a step forward, he straightened his posture, a groan escaping from his throat. He saw the intention in her eyes and knew what was coming.

"Jealous, you say?" she hissed. Remembering the embarrassment Jamie had caused her during their initial meeting, she shoved him against the wall of the house, not caring if anyone was watching the spectacle she was creating. Surging up on her toes, she brought her face up close to his, their noses almost touching. "That's right, darling, I would rock your world."

Ah, what the heck ...I'm getting married soon, I might as well.  Not giving Jamie a chance to get a word in edgeways, she leaned even closer and merged their mouths together. To her astonishment, his lips parted, and the kiss hit the ground running in no time. One strong hand gripped her chin and pulled it down further, allowing him to slant his head and deepen the kiss more.  Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!  Shock exploded into her brain, and she swayed a little under the onslaught of heat. Jamie pushed his tongue deeper, making a low moaning sound, and she echoed it in kind. Then she felt his hand slide behind her neck as if he couldn't allow her to get away, and that's when she knew she was losing control.  What the hell are you doing Beauchamp? Remember Frank?

Claire pulled away and took a deep breath. With his mouth damp and parted, he too was trying to draw in as much air as he could, his face a mask of stunned disbelief. "Ye look familiar. Who the hell are ye?"

Swallowing the odd lump in her throat, she plucked the hundred-pound note out of his fingers. "I'm gone. I'll have a receipt sent over." She took a few steps, stopped and then turned around to look at him. "Oh, by the way, I sincerely hope you're done feeling bad about your rugby career. Circumstances mess everyone up once in a while. And I guess it's fair to say, you've been messed up really bad. But, please, don't lie down and play the victim. I know you're better than this. Look at this way, you've achieved more than anyone could in a lifetime. You did it, Jamie. You've already achieved what you set to do. And I wish you all the luck in the world." 

Taking advantage of the group of people approaching them, she hurried away.

"Hey ...wait, what's yer name?"

This time she didn't respond nor look back. With as much dignity as one could summon while dressed in a doggie costume, she ran as fast as she could.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"Weel, weel if it isn't my favourite sportsman, James Fraser."

Christ! What now? 

He groaned inwardly and turned to find a petite blonde walking towards him. Jamie had just escaped a group of old family acquaintances, evaded some uncomfortable questions about his disappearance, and the last thing he needed now was some more awkward conversation with a person he vaguely recognised. Prior to that, he'd briefly spoken to his parents, Brian and Ellen and his brothers, William and Robert. Like Jenny, they hadn't mentioned anything about his long absence. Instead, they'd welcomed him with open arms as if he'd never ignored their calls during the past few weeks. Grateful for the breathing space and respite, he knew eventually he would have to talk.

The blonde girl waited for him to say something as she sipped her white wine. With so many things occupying his thoughts, he could only summon an absentminded nod in her direction.

She flipped her long hair back with a flick of a hand and laughed coquettishly. "Ye don't remember me, do ye?"

"Eh ...ye look sorta familiar," he replied without matching her smile, his gaze briefly drifting somewhere else. "Ye're at my nephew's party, so I guess ye're a friend of Jenny."

Her cool floundered for a split second, but she quickly recovered. "Our parents are friends, and we went to the same school together. Laoghaire ...Laoghaire MacKenzie. Our families sometimes attend the same parties. I'm here with my nephew."

"Ah, right," he said flatly. "That explains why."

There was an uncomfortable silence, but he made no effort to ease the strain. He was thinking about the girl with the crazy, big hair.  And the mindblowing kiss.

Undeterred, Laoghaire stayed put. She looked like she was waiting for him to make some sort of move. Shoving his hands into the pocket of his jeans, he dragged in an impatient breath. Here at Broch Mordha, the village was somewhat removed from the rest of the world. What happened outside its bubble only mattered when it indirectly affected its inhabitants. Looking at her expression, his image as a ladies' man had penetrated that bubble. It's true, he'd had a few casual affairs in the past, but nothing long term. He'd appreciated them for what it was, treated whoever he was with well and was always forthright about not wanting anything serious. His focus had always been on rugby and everything that entailed the sport. 

Unfortunately, the media had made him out to be an unrepentant philanderer, thanks to the reputation of his uncle Dougal MacKenzie, a retired rugby union great and a former mentor when he'd first started out.  Like Uncle, like nephew,  so they'd whispered behind his back. Dougal had been a notorious womaniser back in his days, and his antics were often featured in the sports column.  How many wives had he had?  Jamie had lost count. So much for promoting a public persona that had nothing to do with his passion for rugby!  Since when did hard work, glory and distinction in sports become synonymous with the shallow world of celebrities?  In Jamie's case, ever since the camera had panned a close-up of his face during a televised game and the social media had erupted into a frenzy.   Suddenly, Jamie's looks and his relation to his uncle had become as important as his rugby skills when it came to attracting the lucrative endorsements and sponsorship deals that made him wealthy. But at what cost? A reputation that refused to shift. Maybe there was a certain amount of truth to what was being said about him. After all, his uncle's womanising ways had soured the idea of him committing to a relationship.

"So, ye're back," the blonde girl continued, seemingly unfazed by his lack of interest. "Maybe we can meet up for coffee or maybe..." Face turning red, she squared her shoulders. "...ye'll probably need help refamiliarising yersel' with the village and surrounding area."

"Why? Has Broch Mordha changed much?" He knew he was behaving like a complete prick. Over a year ago, his charm would have turned on involuntary around people, especially with pretty girls like the one in front of him.  Good old Jamie, the golden boy of British sports, always up for a picture or two or lay with some female celebrity or fan.  Everyone had wanted a piece of him until he'd announced his retirement. Then his phone had stopped ringing. But his agent had wanted to milk whatever was left of his fame by suggesting to go on the popular British television dance contest for celebrities,  Strictly Come Dancing What the fuck did that have to do with rugby?  Nowadays the only newsworthy thing about his name was his love life or some rehashed stories of his past. But here's a girl showing genuine interest so why couldn't he muster an ounce of enthusiasm? "Look, I'm so sorry. I haven't seen my family for a long while and ..."

"Ach, nae bother. Think nothing more about it," she interrupted with a wave of her hand. "But if ye change yer mind, call me." She rummaged through her handbag and extracted a card, handing it to him. "I've a boutique shop in the square. Sew in Style. I usually take a break between one and two in the afternoon."

Jamie forced a smile, shoving the card in his pocket without looking at it. "Aye, if I ever need a perfect wee black dress, I'll let ye know."

She laughed out loud as if he just uttered the joke of the decade instead of a sarcastic comment. "And, by the way, I'm home tonight so, if ye fancy a glass of wine or two after yer nephew's party...my private number is at the back of the card."

His forced laughter was toneless. "A wine."

"Jamie! A moment please." A voice behind him called out.  Joe?    Ach, thank fuck!   

Jamie knew instantly his African-American friend was swooping in to save him from Laoghaire, and he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. They weren't close, but Joe was more than a professional acquaintance and team doctor. In and outside his training, it was their talks that had kept him grounded throughout his career. And it was he who had kept in touch with his family during his therapy. When the title Rookie of the Year had threatened to inflate his head, Joe had reminded him not to get too cocksure as rugby career tended to be very short. Quickly making an apologetic shrug at Laoghaire, Jamie turned to face Joe, this time a sincere smile, if not relieved, plastered on his face. "How are ye, mate? Good to see ye."

Realising she was being dismissed, Laoghaire's expression went flat; nevertheless, she smiled, and with a small nod, and a muttered, "see ye around," she turned and left. Part of him felt awful for being rude, but the other half felt good to not play the charming ladies' man as portrayed by the newspaper.

Joe let out a whistle. "Whoa! Who are you and what did you do to James Fraser?"

"He's still here somewhere." Jamie clapped him on the back as they made their way to the table where his brothers and brother-in-law were sat. The guests were already starting to leave, and his parents have retired to the house.

"Jenny said you might come. So I stopped by," Joe said, grabbing his drink from the table. 

Ian, Jenny's husband, stood up and offered Jamie a beer, but he shook his head and zeroed in on the whisky instead. "I sent Joe to get ye. Ye looked like ye were suffering from a bout of gout talking to Laoghaire," he chuckled.

Jamie smiled pensively, pouring himself a healthy measure in the tumbler, and taking a seat between Rabbie and Willie. Despite his moodiness, he was glad to be around his brothers. Willie, the oldest of the Fraser siblings at age thirty-four, had his own construction company,  W.Fraser  while the youngest, Robert, better known as Rabbie, age twenty-three was studying Biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh. But Rabbie's passion was more into the woodwork, and in his spare time, he helped Willie create masterpieces out of wood or restored antiques. And so that left the Fraser Distillery to Jamie. Although unspoken, Jamie knew he was expected to take over the family business now that his rugby career was over. "Just a lot to take in at the moment. I didn't realise there would be plenty of guests."

The men nodded sympathetically as they supped their drinks.

"Here, ye wanted this," Rabbie said, breaking the silence and sliding a business card on the table "Got it from Jenny. Ye planning a party or something? Mind, it's a children's party company."

Sassenach!  Jamie grabbed the colourful card, read it and flipped it twice between his fingers. Giggle Beans Children's Party Planner. "Geillis Duncan ...the name doesnae sound English to me," he said thoughtfully.

Joe took a swig of his beer and frowned. "Geillis Duncan? I know her. She's a good mate of mine. The party planning is a new business she just started."

"Aye? Brown-haired lass?"

"No. Geillis is ginger. Like you."

"Weel, I heard Jenny calling the entertainer Geillis. Maybe she dyed her hair?" Ian suggested. "I never saw her face. I thought it was bonkers she had that dog mask on the whole time in this heat. I guess she didnae want to disappoint the bairns."

"I can call her if you wish. Like what I said, she's a close friend," Joe offered, taking out his phone. "Is it for a party?"

"Ahh, no. I ..." Jamie didn't know what to say, so he took out his phone instead. "No. I'll call." Reading from the card, he tapped the number on his phone screen and glared at everyone in warning to shush. No answer. Just an answering machine. After a while, he placed his phone back on the table. "What kind of business that's just starting out takes a week off?"

"Ah! It's to do with the wedding," Joe explained. "Our friend is getting married this weekend. I'm the man of honour and Geillis is the bride's maid."

Everyone laughed, and Rabbie's eyebrow shot up. "Man of honour. Never heard of that before."

Jamie ignored his brother. "Mmm, doesn't she have the staff to answer phone calls? It would make perfect business sense if she wanted to succeed."

"Not yet, but she has a few close friends helping her out for now," Joe shrugged. "I have no idea which friends though. Want me to call Geillis' on her private number?"

Jamie shook his head. "No, it can wait."

"If it's not about children's party, what is it ye calling for?" Ian asked.

"Wait a minute," Willie interrupted as if something just dawned on him. "Has this something to do with wee Jamie telling me that ye snogged the dog? His words. Not mine."

"Fuck, he said that?" Jamie choked.

"Aye, my wee lad told me something along those lines," Ian piped in, suddenly perking up. "I thought he's making stories up."

"Ye snogged the children's entertainer? The one in Paw Patrol costume?" Rabbie asked. "How'd ye manage that?"

"Alright, Jamie. I'm all dog's ears. What happened?" Joe dead-panned.

Everyone at the table burst out laughing.

"Fuck off!" Jamie split a frustrated look between his friend, brothers and his brother-in-law over the rim of his whisky. His younger brother, Robert, looked like he had tons of follow-up questions which Jamie could really do without. 

"He definitely snogged the dog," Rabbie confirmed with a smirk and a wink.

"Jesus, Jamie. Ye come out from yer cave for the first time in a long time, and ye snogged wee Jamie's party entertainer? Ye definitely need yer head looking at," Willie quipped, shifting on his seat. "What the hell happened?"

Although Jamie promised his mother to cut down on his alcohol consumption, suddenly, he wanted to straddle his hangover with a fresher one in an attempt to forget the kiss with the fiery English lass and to veer the conversation to something else. Feeling cornered and left with no choice, he complied and told them the whole story.

When Jamie was done, everyone shook their head like he'd just been crowned idiot of the year. "Ye actually bribed her with 30 quid?" Rabbie asked, slapping his forehead in disbelief. "Man, she must be a student like me, forever hard-up for dough. She must think ye're a self-entitled prick for that. Does she even know who ye are?" 

"Aye, she does. She was actually nice. She's the first person since I retired from sports to mention the subject of rugby."

Actually, Jamie had liked her even before she had taken off the mask. She'd had this mixture of vulnerability and tenacity that had grabbed his attention the moment she'd started speaking. He could have talked to her all day and not been bored. And then she'd taken off the mask, and he'd known there, and then he was flummoxed.

He remembered her big amber eyes flecked with grey flashing in anger and thought of how her lips had felt moving with his. He squeezed his eyes shut and groaned.

"So, tell me, how did she grab the hundred-pound note? With her furry paws?" 

Willie threw a beer bottle cap at the younger Fraser. "Leave it to Rabbie to ask the mechanics of every minute detail. Jamie had a snogging session with a dog, so let's just appreciate it for what it is."

Jamie took no notice of the jest. "It wasn't even a proper snog. It was more like  take-that, ye-prick  kinda snog."

"Oh, man. This is bad. Look at ye. Ye really have it bad, Jamie lad. Ye're paying for yer past mistakes. Aye, that's it! That's karma. That's what happens when ye leave a trail of broken hearts in yer wake. A taste of yer own medicine." Willie shook his head at his brother in mock sympathy.

"What do ye plan to do then if ye manage to get hold of her? Ask her out? Do ye even want to have a girlfriend? " Ian asked, seriously this time.

So what's the plan?  If for no other reason, he wanted to track the English lass down just to correct her misconception of him. And if he was downright honest with himself, he craved to kiss her again—a lot. "I have nae idea. Truly, nae idea. But one thing for sure, she and I aren't done," he muttered before downing the rest of his whisky.

..........

I can't do this. I have to get out of here.

The four walls of the room felt like they're closing in on her. Claire tried to regulate her breathing as panic slashed mercilessly at her guts. The bodice of her dress dug into her ribs, and the choker pearl necklace felt like a noose binding her. She started to hyperventilate, and she reached up and ripped off the pearl-encrusted lace veil. Bending at the waist, she placed her hands on her knees and gulped in air.

In fifteen minutes, she was getting married to Frank. She tried to picture him in his tuxedo, his chocolate brown hair neatly brushed back, flashing his perfect smile at their waiting guests, most of them his associates and friends. Earlier while she was getting dressed, a box of white orchids from her fiance arrived with a handwritten note. It read:  I can't wait to spend the rest of my life with you.  Beautiful. So why did those mere words sent a shiver down her spine? Everything was perfect. Frank was perfect. So what was wrong?

She thought of the people in her life. There were not many of them. Sure, there were plenty of acquaintances and work colleagues at the hospital, and she was well-liked. But those she held dear and was closest to, she could count on the fingers of one hand. Orphaned at the age of five, she was raised by her only living relative, her father's brother, Quentin Lambert Beauchamp, also known as uncle Lamb. Having spent her childhood travelling the world with her guardian while working on archaeological sites, their nomadic lifestyle didn't allow much room for close friendships and ties. At least until she started her medical studies when her uncle finally settled down to teach history at the University of Edinburgh. Although a loner, she had bonded with Geillis Duncan and Joe Abernathy one night while watching a televised rugby game at the local pub. Scotland had just won. After hugging as strangers in celebration and debating about  the man of the match  over pints of Guinness, they became steadfast friends ever since.

And then Frank came along. He was a specialist surgeon at the time when they first met. He was her boss and her mentor when she started her internship. Their shared love for the intricacies of medical and surgical art of healing brought them closer together, first as friends and eventually as lovers. He was a patient teacher, and she was an eager student, lapping up his knowledge and experience. But that's where their common interest ended. Outside work, they had different interests and sets of friends. Claire loved sports, hanging out in a pub, reading books and night-ins watching movies. She was laidback whereas Frank loved attending formal charity events and socialising with the upper crust professionals of Edinburgh. More often than not, their differences made her feel she had to make a choice between him and her friends.

Claire closed her eyes and tried to calm her rioting nerves. Over the past year, almost every instant she attempted to meet up with Joe and Geillis, Frank gave her a difficult time. Her fiance pointed out how limited time they spent together with their hectic work schedules and her little get-togethers with her friends were causing a division in their relationship. Although Claire considered herself independent, gutsy and opinionated, her resolve turned into mush whenever Frank turned on his charm and wholehearted devotion in getting his point across. And so she'd started making excuses. She hated lying to her friends, but Frank soothed her guilt by being more attentive and generous with his gifts.

He doesn't like your friends. He wants to change you. 

The voice in her head got louder, and her breathing became more erratic.

Run now before it's too late.

Lightheadedness threatened, and she staggered to her feet, swaying a little. She needed air so badly. Maybe the wedding pressure was finally getting to her. With her demanding job and long hours at work, she was bone-tired from fretting about every final detail of their wedding. Frank was a perfectionist, and he disliked disorganisation and lack of care. Every aspect of their nuptials needed to be perfect. And with almost four hundred guests, including the local press and his high-society associates, it was an event too important to muck up. It was her job to make sure everything was flawless.

What matters more, Beauchamp? Pleasing a bunch of hoity-toity or your friends? Is this really the world you want to live in?

She knew Frank didn't approve of her friends.  "They're a bit rough around the edges, darling. I hope they will not embarrass me at the wedding,"  he had said casually. But Claire had stood her ground and defended them. Besides uncle Lamb, Joe and Geillis were like family to her. They were her people.

The sound of violin music and the drone of voices drifting into the room alerted her. She knew Geillis, Joe and uncle Lamb were waiting outside, and soon the door would open. They left earlier when she told them she needed a moment alone. Any time now, they would come and fetch her. Feeling sick, she lurched toward the stained glass window and jiggled the knob. It budged a few inches, allowing hot air to flow through.  Breathe!  Why was she having second thoughts? Together they would be a power couple saving lives, attending charity events and helping change the world. So, what was the matter? 

Nothing is the matter. I love Frank. He's great, and he makes me a better person.

Ya-dah, ya-dah. What do you know of love, Beauchamp? You kissed the Fraser lad. Maybe the hot Scot is not for you, but if you really love Frank, the kiss wouldn't have happened.

The hot weather and lack of sleep muddled my brains.

Yeah, right. Get a grip, Beauchamp.

What now?

Get the hell out of there and run!

Sunlight caught the sparkle of her diamond engagement ring, making her wince. Quickly, she took it off and placed it on the table. No time for weighing the consequences, the rights and wrongs, the cost. No time to draw up statistical or pie charts and mull over percentages.

Trust your gut, Beauchamp. It has never failed you on the operating table.

But I can't leave him waiting at the altar.

Listen, you fool. Once you walk down that aisle, it's over. So straighten those panties and worry about the consequences later.

Her head was spinning in a frenetic circle, making her dizzy. Claire looked at the closed door and swallowed hard. What she was about to do would change the course of her life and maybe, the career she had worked hard for. But there was no time.

Go, go, go, Beauchamp!

Bugger it!  Heart pounding, Claire yanked the window with all her might, and to her astonishment, it opened like a shot nearly knocking her backwards. She didn't have time to analyse if it was her physical strength or the adrenaline increasing the blood flow into her muscles that made the window budge. Ignoring the judging eyes of the Blessed Virgin Mary statue, she squeezed her body through the opening and wriggled her way to freedom.

..........

"Thank you, Jamie. Sorry again to call you on such short notice. I owe you big time, mate," Joe said, saluting him as he opened the passenger door.

"Nae worries, Joe. Happy to help. Now, go before you miss the wedding," Jamie replied. 

Joe smiled one last time and got out.

Jamie waited and watched his friend run and disappeared through the door of the church before easing his car from the curb. The church bell rang, letting him know the ceremony was about to commence. There were a few reporters with cameramen lingering outside and thought, whoever Joe's friend was marrying must be well-known and newsworthy.

Joe had called Jamie earlier after his car broke down. Apparently, the bride's uncle had forgotten to bring something important, and Geillis had sent him to retrieve it, by hook or by crook. Luckily for Joe, he caught him as he was about to leave for Lallybroch for the weekend. 

Jamie was just turning right at the junction when a cloud of white material hanging out of a window on the far side of the church caught his attention.  What the fuck?   Not stopping to think, he slammed his foot on the brake and got out of the car, leaving it stranded in the middle of the road. He started to jog across the grassy area and over the bed of flowers, keeping his eye on the wriggling figure coming out of the window.  Christ, is that the bride?

Then his heart stopped and faltered. The person in the white dress was falling. His perception of time became distorted, slowing everything down until there was nothing, only the figure in white that was about to hit the ground.  No! No! Please, God!  Pushing himself, he bolted like a sprinter at the start gun, covering the uneven ground with a precise speed of a disciplined athlete, knowing full well his thighs had enough power to make it in seconds, each of his strides at least worth two of an untrained person. Barely breaking a sweat, he made it in the nick of time and caught the body in his arms.

His heart knocking uncontrollably against his ribs, he let out a massive sigh of relief and looked down at the bride. Her porcelain skin was flushed, and her fancy hairdo lay lopsided to the side with pins sticking out, making the dark curls spring wildly around her face. His gaze briefly landed on her parted lips before settling on a pair of snapping amber eyes. He fought past his lack of speech and wondered if the weeks he'd spent in a drunken stupor was causing him to hallucinate. "Sassenach!?!"

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

" Sassenach!?!" 

Jamie blinked twice and shook his head to eliminate the mental cobwebs. His brain had trouble kicking into gear, but his eyes scanned faster than he can compute, every part of him going on a standstill while his thoughts caught up. He had been thinking a lot about the lass in his arms, and if the repercussion was some kind of a hallucination, it was becoming progressively less amusing.  Was she trying to get herself killed?  He didn't even want to contemplate the state she would have been in if he hadn't made it on time. Or for that matter, the nick of his sanity.

He looked down at her face, wiped blank with confusion like her brain cogs couldn't turn fast enough to appraise the current situation. But, she quickly recovered, her huge golden orbs framed in black eyeliner and dark eyeshadow turning dark as she glared at him. 

"You, you ..." she sputtered, pushing herself away and attempting to wriggle out of his arms. "Wot are you doing here?" She was looking at him as though he'd sprouted horns.

Considering she just scared the bejesus out of his wits, he ought to have given her a good shake until her ears rang. Or maybe yelled at her for being so reckless. Or perhaps asked her to explain the kiss from a few days ago that had cost him sleepless nights. But he presumed like he was, she was still in a state of shock, so he kept his emotions in check and his grip firm. "I just saved yer arse. Are ye alright?" he asked, surprised at how calm he sounded. 

Her jaws unclenched, and her delicate features softened. "I'm fine. I ...I got stuck in the window, and then I lost my footing," she sniffed. "Please, put me down. Now." 

Hesitantly, Jamie lowered her gently to the ground but kept one hand under her elbow when he glimpsed the ridiculously high stilettos. Regaining her balance, she smoothed off the white dress as if jumping out of church windows were a normal daily occurrence. It was quite apparent that the seriousness of their circumstances hadn't quite registered in her muddled brain. Aware of the reporters just around the corner, he knew he had to act fast. "First things first, Sassenach. Are ye trying to run away or were ye just checking out the fire exit?"

"Wot?" Her eyes widened, and the ballsy attitude vanished.  That's right, my lovely, now I have your attention.  To Jamie's surprise, she twisted her elbow from his grip and took a step back. "I have to go," she whispered, picking up the skirt of her dress and toddling away.

Already anticipating her next move, his hand shot out to grab her wrist. "Ye won't get far with those shoes on." 

She turned around, a furrow forming on her brows. "I'm in huge trouble, aren't I? Oh, God, what have I done? Maybe I should go back," she said, starting to make a move in the opposite direction.

Jamie stopped her. Briefly closing his eyes, he took a few deep breaths. Any moment now, pandemonium and mayhem at the church would ensue when they find out the bride had gone missing. And if the English lass did decide to go back, there would be plenty of questions about why she wasn't in the clergy room. Decisions had to be made quickly. This was not the place nor time for any sorts of discussion. Explanations would have to wait, and he needed answers fast. And with the added problem of the reporters' presence, the last thing the lass needed was a picture of them together splashed across the tabloid papers on Monday morning. He knew he couldn't just walk away. But he could give her a way out of her predicament, and if she didn't take his offer of help, at least he would be able to sleep at night knowing he'd done his best. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he forced her to look at him in the eyes. "Listen to me, Sassenach. And listen to me good. This is very important. I need ye to dig deep into yer guts where it really counts and ask yersel' this...do ye love the groom?" 

"Ah ...I-I care for him b-but..." A mixture of shame and fear fanned out on her face as she searched for words.  Damn it!

"Sassenach, I asked ye a simple question. Do ye love him? Aye or no will do," he pushed firmly this time.

Although on the exterior, Jamie's appearance resonated calm, the tone of his voice must have struck a chord. She visibly withered before his eyes as if a sudden realisation had left her empty and exhausted. And then just like that, her face transformed into self-disgust before switching into anger. Anger that was evidently directed at him. "No! Alright!? I don't love him," she yelled, twisting from his hold and yanking the choker pearl necklace and flinging it to the ground. "I thought I did. Are you happy now? I bet your smug arse thinks it had something to do with the kiss. Go on, make fun of me. That's what you do best, you cocky bastard!"  She doesn't love her fiance!  Stunned, he let out a breath he didn't know he was holding and felt the tension ease from his body. More bewildered by his reaction than by her ranting, he hoped she hadn't noticed the relief on his face, because she looked like seconds away from beating him to a pulp with his own unattached arms. 

Cautiously, he took a step forward and touched her shoulder. He could feel a different type of pressure in his chest, waiting to take over, but he ignored and refocused. "It wasn't my plan to make fun of ye, Sassenach. And I'm sae sorry I had to ask ye something too personal because I cannae have ye having regrets later. Do ye understand where I'm coming from?" he asked, gently this time. When she didn't reply, he waited until she had calmed down before asking the next question. After a moment passed, he just went straight out with it. "Now, are we ditching yer groom or no'?" He offered her his hand and waited.

Her gaze locked with his, and for an instant, he saw uncertainty and suspicion cloud her features. And something else. Something akin to panic. "We? You want to help me? Why?"

Because the past few days had done nothing to dull the memory of your kiss.  And that's the top and bottom truth of it. Jamie had been desperate to see her again. And now that she was here, he was desperate enough to risk getting caught by the press with a runaway bride, no less. If they were found together, he knew the reporters would have a field day at the office. He couldn't allow that to happen, at least not at her expense. "Aye, we. There's nae time, Sassenach. I want to help ye because I know what those reporters are like. They are wolves. They'll tear ye apart and even more so because yer fiance, judging from the cameramen out there, seems like an important man. I ken my words dinna mean much to ye, but if ye truly do love yer fiance, ye wouldn't be out here having this conversation with me," he reasoned. He had wanted to mention their kiss but thought better of it.

She cast a reluctant glance behind her like she was taking stock of what she would be leaving behind. Her smoky amber eyes had turned thoughtful, if still slightly wary.  Maybe she's deciding between the lesser of two evils, and I'm one of those evils. Something terrible must have happened to make her run off on her wedding day and in as much as he would like to think otherwise, he doubted it had something to do with their kiss. Whatever it took to make it right for her, he vowed he would do it.

After a few heartbeats, she nodded in resignation as she placed her small hand in his, sealing her fate with a decision that could alter her life. Jamie knew, he too was now in the same boat as her and that his life was forever changed. Especially after that simple gesture of hands touching that sent a jolt coursing through his body and into his pants. If a mere touch could make him so hard despite the quandary they were in, he was in bigger trouble than he thought. For what it's worth, whatever happened next, there was no turning back.

With not much time to lose, he tugged her hand and manoeuvred them down the uneven paths, between bushes and over the flower beds. But after a few steps, Jamie realised they were moving too slow. The car wasn't too far, but neither were the cameramen.

"Lose the shoes, Sassenach. I cannae have ye breaking yer neck under my watch. We need to get moving," he demanded.

"But they cost a fortune," she wailed. "And they're..."

"Oh, for crying out loud!" Left with no choice and anxious to leave, he heaved her up into his arms and threw her over his shoulder, ignoring the muffled expletives she launched at him. "Dinna fash. The car is just over there." More curses and death threats came out of her mouth, but he was beyond caring. In fact, he prefered her anger to uncertainty. Only because it made him forget, even for a little while, the consequences of what they're about to do.

Sensing the chaos that was beginning to develop just outside the church, he began to jog, hoping no stray reporter would have enough sense to check the back of the church. 

When they finally made it to his car, he quickly opened the door and pushed her inside along with billows of satin and lace that made up her dress. There was no time for finesse nor gentlemanly acts, as he thrust her in like she was a sack of potatoes, making her squeak and snort in an unladylike manner. But he'd rather deal with her wrath any day than with those paparazzi vultures. 

By the time he got into his seat, she had gone quiet. He had wanted a fight or to hear her rant and rave, but it seemed she had withdrawn into her thoughts. He guessed it was to be expected after what she had been through. Pushing aside his concerns, he hit the accelerator and sped away from the church like the devil was after them, tires screeching and burning marks on the road.

Once they were in the motorway, he checked the rearview mirror to see if they were being followed. Satisfied they were safe, he allowed his mind to contemplate their next move. They needed to be away from prying eyes, and there were phone calls to be made. The lass needed clothes but going back to Edinburgh to retrieve her things was not an option. Her friends would be looking for her there, not to mention she would be tonight's hot topic on the local evening news. Lallybroch was out of the question. Although he could trust his family with a secret and they've had years of practice keeping the media at bay, he couldn't say the same for the village folks of Broch Mordha. They were well-meaning people, but they can't help putting their noses into everyone else's business.  Think! Think! Think!  The lass needed his head in the game, and he would have to come up with some plan.

Under the guise of watching passing scenery, Jamie stole a glance at her face. Christ Almighty, she's beautiful.  Her delicate profile reminded him of the statue of the Madonna of Brugges, serene but at the same time carved in stone. She stared out of the window as if she was watching her old life scatter to the four winds as they sped to some unknown destination. Sensing his gaze, she turned to face him and smiled. It was a weak smile like she had just come out from fighting a long drawn out fever.

"By the way, my name is Claire," she disclosed, extending an arm for a handshake. "Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp."

He looked at her hand and then her face. Too stunned and at a loss for words, Jamie burst out laughing.

"Wot?"

"Nothing," he said finally, after regaining his composure. "I think I like ye, Sassenach. I like ye verra much indeed."

And then he took Claire's offered hand in his and squeezed it tight. For the first time since Jamie retired from his rugby career, he felt alive.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Jamie retreated to his own private thoughts as they drove further away. He must have surmised she needed the space and Claire appreciated the gesture. Looking out of her window, she watched the world move in a blur of green, blue and white, the hiss of the tyres lost under the pounding bass of music blasting from the speakers. Perhaps, though being left with her own ruminations wasn't the best of ideas as the full horror of what of she'd done sank in, the festering guilt making her want to throw up.

Better to talk about it, Claire. Too much thinking is bad for ye,  Geillis would have said with a soft cluck of disapproval. How many times had her friend said that leading to her wedding day when she'd been caught staring into space more often than not? She'd withdrawn to herself more and more and had snapped at people for noticing when she should have been a picture of happiness. Not one to beat around the bush, Joe had simply gone straight to the point and had asked her if she was having any second thoughts about marrying Frank. Of course, Claire had brushed off the insinuation as ridiculous, excusing her mood for fatigue from work and wedding jitters. Looking back, she must admit her friends were more perceptive than she gave them credit for. The signs must have been quite obvious, but it was only now she realised she had been living in denial, believing Frank was the love of her life. Not that it mattered anymore as there had been no love lost between her friends and Frank.

Chalking up the acid taste of guilt, she stole a glance at Jamie. Although she couldn't see his eyes hidden behind the dark sunglasses, his body language screamed confidence, forearm muscles flexing as he worked the steering wheel. He was clean-shaven today, revealing a well-defined jaw and angular cheekbone. Taking advantage of his full attention on the road, she allowed her eyes to drift, and it wasn't until when he hit the brake did she realised she was staring at his mouth like a charmed snake stares at a pocket watch. Mortified at nearly being caught, she snapped her head forward, mentally cursing herself for behaving like a lovesick loon. 

Oh, how Joe and Geillis would laugh when they find out her getaway sidekick was James Fraser of all people. She remembered how they used to tease her mercilessly about her infatuation with Jamie. Regardless of the attraction, she'd declined Joe's offer of an introduction, that practical side of her knowing already he was far out of reach. But, it hadn't stopped her from admiring him from afar. She'd loved his brilliance and skill on the rugby pitch and his enthusiasm for the game. She could only envision his countless hours of training, perfecting the craft, every manoeuvre from the opponent covered, every detail examined and re-examined. His fans had loved him, and so did the media. He oozed an effortless charm, whenever he'd spoken about his passion for the game, holding the audience's and interviewer's rapt attention. It was an impossibility not to admire him, cockiness and arrogance notwithstanding.

Unwittingly, the memory of their kiss slithered in, and she was unprepared for the rush of conflicting emotions it evoked. One would think that at her age of twenty-eight years, she would know all there is to know about kissing. Not that she had kissed many in her life. The first time had been with a co-student while she was in the university, but the onion-smelling kiss had made her gag and given her a cold sore days later. The unpleasant encounter almost put her off kissing forever, well at least for a few years.

Then Frank came along. He'd taught and guided her in the art of love. There had been the odd spark here and there, but it never entirely lit the fire. Whereas Frank's lips tasted of liquorice and old wine and felt loose and spongy, she had been surprised to find Jamie's lips sweet as honey with a hint of whisky, firm yet soft and his breath warm as pie. And when he'd kissed her back, it was like the whole world opened up, and she'd fallen inside. He appeared to have enjoyed it at that time, but she wasn't born yesterday. Inexperienced as she might be, she knew a kiss like that took a lot of practice to perfect. Knowing he'd never been short of women's attention, she wondered how many he'd kissed like that. A betting woman in her would presume, a thousand perhaps?

Oh for heaven's sake, why am I even contemplating about that kiss? It probably didn't mean anything to him.  Annoyed with herself for getting distracted at a time like this, she reined in her lascivious thoughts. She hadn't even figured out yet where she was laying her head tonight. Unfortunately, his presence buzzed around her like a fly that she could never swat, making her flustered with his every word, movement and breath.  Damn him for looking so good!  

She forced her focus on Frank and wondered how he was. They've only been on the road for forty-five minutes, and she was sure that by now, all their wedding guests already knew that she'd absconded. They were hardly going to think she was kidnapped when they find her engagement ring on the table and the window to her freedom open. 

"Are ye hungry?" Jamie asked as he pulled the car into the Mark and Spencers parking lot.

"Oh ..." So deep she was in her thoughts, she hadn't realised they'd left the motorway. "I haven't really thought about food to be honest." In fact, she hadn't even thought about any plans either. All of her belongings had been moved to Frank's apartment the other day. She had no money, except for a pricey Vera Wang wedding dress she was wearing that Frank had insisted on buying, despite her protest at such extravagance. "But I'd like some water please."

"Okay. What's yer shoe size?"

"Size six," she replied, too mentally exhausted to asked what he was up to.

"Stay here and keep the doors lock. I shan't be long."

Claire nodded and watched him walked into the store. He was oblivious to the stares that followed him, mostly from women admiring his tall and muscled physique and maybe a few fans who'd recognised him. 

She wondered why Jamie was helping her, and what he thought of her running away from her own wedding. Maybe he felt guilty for his behaviour at his nephew's party. Or perhaps he felt responsible because he had been the one to catch her when she fell from the window. 

One thing was certain, though, no matter what other people thought, she didn't regret fleeing, but she did feel self-reproach for leaving Frank at the altar. But why oh why did she have to take that moment of all moments to decide to leave him? She could have saved him the humiliation if she'd listened to her guts. But then again, wasn't it Frank who dampened that trait from her? Frank despised impulse and decisions based on emotions, and he'd drummed into her time and time again to make judgements base on rational thinking. But of course, knowing her luck, this had to be the day she chose to reassert her independence and reclaim her intuitive reasoning. She thought about her job in the surgical unit at the Royal Infirmary, where her entire career was carved out, and Frank was the Chief Consultant.  Oh, good, God! How is that going to even pan out when I return?

She pressed her fingers to her temples, trying to soothe the headache that was beginning to bloom as more thoughts and images flooded in her head like a raging tsunami threatening to drown her.  What a bloody mess!

Moments passed, the door to her side opened, and Jamie thrust a bottle of mineral water at her. "Here, Sassenach, drink this first. Ye look like ye're about to pass out."

Grateful, she took the bottle from him and drank greedily. When she had her fill, she watched him load several plastic bags into the backseat. "May I borrow your phone? I need to call my friends. I'm worried about my uncle, and I-I left my phone at the church."

"I spoke to Joe already," he replied. Pushing his sunglasses on top of his head, he gingerly reached behind her and started to tug open the pearl buttons that ran down her back.

Startled, she slapped his wrist. "Wot in heaven's name do you think are you doing?" 

He jerked his chin toward the back seat. "I bought ye some clothes and shoes. I think ye'd be more comfortable in something less bulky." 

"Oh! Sorry ..." 

He nodded and gave her a tight smile. Up close, Claire studied his features and was surprised at how tensed he looked, as he resumed the task of unbuttoning her dress. This veritable ladies' man was trying hard not to look at her exposed shoulders but was failing miserably. Surely, she imagined it.

"So you spoke to Joe?" she asked, bringing her attention back to more crucial matters. Worry reared back up and nipped at her nerves as she waited for his answer.

"Aye. I told Joe everything that happened. He was baffled though when I told him ye were with me. So expect plenty of questions later," he answered, standing up and taking a step back once her dress was unfastened. 

"Did he mention my uncle?" Not bothering to go out through the door, she clambered between the front seats and wriggled her way to the back. "How is he?" She peered into the plastic bags and started rummaging through them. There were shirts, denim shorts, a pair of jeans, undergarments, slip-on trainers, and sandals. And snacks and beverages!  Wot the hell!

"Yer uncle Lamb, aye. He left the church immediately after he was informed that ye ran away. Apparently to celebrate at the pub. So yer uncle didnae approve of Frank?"

She couldn't help but smile despite the muddle that she was in. Her uncle Lamb thought Frank was too controlling and over-bearing.  Pompous ass,  he'd called him. "Well, my uncle didn't like him." Not wanting to speak ill of Frank, she instantly changed the subject. "And how about the guests and the press?" Clumsily, she tugged off her dress and quickly scrambled into jeans and t-shirt, yanking off price tags. The clothes were slightly too big, but definitely way better than walking around in a Vera Wang wedding dress.

"The guests were in shock as to be expected. But as soon as the press smelled blood, they stormed into the church. We were lucky to get out when we did." The thought of being photographed while running away from her wedding sent a shiver down her spine. "But dinna fash. Geillis is helping manage the guests and cancellations. It sounded like yer friends are happy to sort everything out for ye."

Relief coasted down her back, loosening her muscles. Finding a packet of makeup wipes in one the plastic bags, she scrubbed her face clean as if she was scrubbing the residue of that day's event. "And Frank?"   She squeezed her eyes shut and gulped a lungful of air. "Is Frank alright? Did Joe mention him?"

"Nae idea how he is. Joe said he disappeared into a room and haven't come out. I dinna think yer friends were that fussed about him. They were more worried about ye. Joe threatened to snip my bollocks off if I didnae treat ye right and Geillis shouted she would feed it to the stray dogs."

Typical Joe and Geillis!   "Joe is your mate, right? So why would he say such a thing?" Sifting through her hair, she worked out each of the pins that held her wild curls, and dug a small package of hair ties and scooped her tresses into a ponytail. Satisfied, she got out of the car.

A crease formed between his brows as he surveyed her. "Weel, it's a standing joke - I kinda have a reputation where the opposite sex is concerned. Maybe I've earned it."

"Don't believe everything you read in the newspaper about Jamie. Most are just tabloid nonsense."  She remembered Joe saying long ago.

Claire saw a flash of resignation on his face and something else, but it was quickly gone before she could decipher it. "I don't think Joe meant it that way, Jamie," she said softly.

"Aye? Ye think so?" 

"I know so. Joe had never spoken badly about you. Plus, you're not a joke. If it makes you feel better, I think I feel safe with you," she said, even though he looked like he wanted to spear-tackle someone to the ground. 

His lips quirked. "I can assure ye, ye're a hundred per cent safe with me, Dr Beauchamp." 

"Ah, so Joe told you I'm a doctor."

"He might have mentioned it." His face turned into a much deeper frown.

Looking down, she rubbed the palms of her hands along the sides of her jeans.  Maybe he's worried he bought the wrong size.  "Don't worry about them being too big. I wear a lot of baggy clothes all the time."

He shook his head and took a step forward, tilting her chin up. "Frank ... he didnae hurt ye, did he?"

The warm air suddenly turned cold, and her heart faltered. She understood what the question implied. "Jamie. I appreciate everything that you're doing here. Truly, I do. But now's not the time. I'd rather not talk about Frank." 

Jamie remained silent and didn't budge, clearly he was waiting for an answer. She certainly didn't owe him one, but he didn't look like he was about to give up that easily. Sighing and too exhausted to argue, she threw her hands up in the air. "Look it didn't work out between us. And I was too much of a coward to tell him. But he didn't hurt me physically, alright?" 

He didn't look convinced, but she wasn't in the mood to explain. Turning away from his deepening scowl, she made a move towards the front seat. But  Jamie's hand appeared above her head and smacked down to stop her from getting in. "Hang on a minute, Sassenach. We're not done yet."

Claire spun around to find him standing too close. "Wot?"

His cheek twitched twice, and he licked his lips. "Listen. About the other day in Lallybroch, I'd like to apologise. As my younger brother said, I acted like a self-entitled prick waving that hundred-pound note in yer face." The sincerity in his eyes captured her still. "I'm verra sorry."

Bewilderment slipped in. "You don't need to apologise, Jamie. You've redeemed yourself a thousandfold. Those things you bought for me and calling my friends and checking up on uncle Lamb...you thought of everything. I don't think I could have managed on my own. Not to mention, you saved my life."

Jamie stood back and crossed his arms, a vein popping out at the side of his neck. "But I'm not sorry that the kiss happened."

Caught unaware by Jamie's admission, Claire didn't know where to adjust her focus. One minute he was thoughtful and attentive, and then self-effacing and apologetic the next. And now of all times, when life was not making sense, he just had to mention the kiss.  Damn him!  She felt her temper simmer on the surface, but with not much battery life left in her brain, she bit her tongue. As a doctor, she knew, that a certain level of tiredness could equate to momentary insanity and having a meltdown now in a public car park would only draw unwanted attention. 

"I think we should go," she said hoarsely. It took a mammoth effort to turn away from Jamie's scrutiny, but she managed to get into her seat without any more further hindrances. 

Suddenly conscious of time and place, he cleared his throat and headed for the driver's seat. "Aye. It's getting late."

"Where are we going?" she asked, as soon as he got in.

"Cullen. It's a village in Moray on the northeast coast. My godfather, Murtagh, has a cottage on a clifftop by the seaside. He's in France at the moment. We'll stay there until the news dies down and you figure out what you want to do next," he replied, as he reversed the car from the parking lot.

She closed her eyes and surrendered to that moment. She was too worn and empty. With a sigh, she resigned herself to letting Jamie take care of things, for now. Tomorrow, with a clearer head, she'd make decisions and clean up the mess she made.

Once on the road, they drove in silence for the rest of the way, as they headed further north, eating up the miles. She was asleep by the time they reached their destination.

Too groggy to appreciate her surroundings, she allowed Jamie to guide her to the cottage and into her room. He muttered something about going to the shop and getting some rest before leaving her on her own. 

Once she was alone, she walked into the bathroom and turned on the light. She stared at the mirror and what she saw, shocked her. Her usual vivid amber eyes were vacant. The spark had died, and only a dull light reflected back at her.  How did this happen?  She'd always been driven and goal-oriented but basically happy. It's true, she worked long hours and took on a lot of responsibilities, always wanting to help, to heal and to comfort. She'd never stopped craving for knowledge beyond her profession, pushing to educate herself further. But over the past year, all she experienced was paralysing fear. The fear of knowing she wasn't good enough. Not good enough for Frank. Not for the world. Not even for herself.

Painful memories of Frank's words seeped into her heart and reverberated in her head.

Claire, must you wear those clothes? You look pudgy around the hips in it.

Aw, darling, I know you try your best, but this is just beyond your understanding. Here, let me handle things for you.

Sweetheart, you're a doctor now. Pick a hobby that isn't remotely childish.

Claire, stop cussing. You're embarrassing me in front of my friends.

Listen, dear. We're attending an important charity event here and not a circus. Please do something about those wayward curls.

Sweetheart, if you really love me, you'll suck my dick. No ...not like that, dear. A little bit more teeth.

Are you sure you want that dessert, darling?

You call this a steak? I'd be too embarrassed to serve this to a dog. Maybe you should attend a culinary school. 

A single tear slipped down her cheek, and then she turned away from the mirror. Turning off the light, Claire went to bed.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The notification beep tone on his phone went off for the umpteenth time.  Ah, fuck!  Carefully, Jamie deposited the bag of shopping onto the kitchen counter and reached into his back pocket. Voice mails, text messages, and missed calls had been pouring in non-stop all morning. Mostly from his family, Joe and an unknown number which he presumed must be from Geillis by the tone of the text message. But he'd ignored them to buy Claire some space and himself time to figure things out. Neither of them was up for the repercussions just yet. Especially when he hadn't wrapped his head around the fact that he'd run away with another man's bride. Or the fact that the lass sleeping in his godfather's spare bedroom was the one who'd kissed him a few days back.

He was supposed to be in Lallybroch this weekend, and he'd neglected to inform Jenny that he wouldn't be able to come. So he'd taken the easiest and not-too-many-question-would-be-asked route and called his older brother Willie instead. He hated lying so he'd told the truth. But a slightly different version of the truth. One that left out the fact that he was hiding a runaway bride who also happened to be wee Jamie's party entertainer,  the dog he'd snogged. Much to his relief, the excuse was accepted without further questions.

When the phone rang again, he hurriedly went out the back door, so as not to awaken Claire. He'd decided already to turn off the irritating device, but when Joe's name appeared on the screen, he swiped the button to answer. 

Jamie caught the heavy sigh, and the whispered " I got him"  on the other end. "Hey, buddy. How is she?" Joe asked.

"Um ...she's still asleep. She's been sleeping since we arrived. How are things back there?"

"It's not good, man. I didn't think Claire's running away would garner so much publicity. Rumours are spreading, and they're not pretty. The jilted groom is well respected around here, and the news is making it to look like LJ is caught up in some kind of dalliance. Where are you?"

He ran a restless hand against the back of his neck, mentally gauging their situation. "Sorry mate, I can't tell ye. I'll leave that one up to Claire when she wakes up. Besides, I'm not thinking straight at the moment. Give us a day. I need yer help to buy us time."

An impatient silence buzzed over the line. "Look, I have no clue what's going on. It must have been some sort of miracle that you just happened to be there when LJ fell out of the window. But I'll have to take your word for it that you have nothing to do with her plans on running away, even though I know it was her you kissed in that damn doggie suit. And don't even attempt denying it because Geillis already told me. But what bothers me, above all is, it's not like LJ to do something like this. She's responsible, and she faces her problems head-on. Something must have happened to make her runaway. Care to enlighten me?"

Jamie remembered the fear that had flittered in Claire's eyes when he'd asked if Frank had hurt her. The colour had drained from her face. "I think she's afraid of Frank," he admitted.

"What? Did he hit her or something?"

Jamie closed his eyes and drew in a breath. He felt like he was betraying Claire's trust. But he quickly reminded himself if Joe was Claire's man of honour, it meant they were very close friends. "I'm not sure, but something has happened to make her afraid. And I intend to find out. That's why I need ye and Geillis to back off for now and buy us time."

There was another long silence before Joe spoke again. "Alright. But we need updates. If Claire asks after her uncle, he's fine. The old man seemed to be taking everything in stride. I suppose he knows his niece better than anyone else. Anyway, I'll try and find out what Frank is up to and will let you know what's going on."

"Thank you."

"And Jamie ..."

"Aye?"

"I like you a lot, buddy but I like Claire more. Now that I know it's Claire you have been hankering after ever since that day in Lallybroch, I would suggest you rein in that attraction you are feeling right now for a later date. Now is not a good time."

Irritation swelled in his chest, but he understood what Joe was on about. "Listen, mate. Cool yer jets alright? I dinna fancy myself in a rebound relationship. I have my own shit to worry about. I'm just helping out."

"It's cool. Just needed to air that out, so we're both clear."

"Fine. I'll speak to ye soon."

He switched off his phone and stuck it back in his back pocket and went to check up on Claire. He found her sprawled in the middle of the bed, still with her clothes and shoes on. Her face was turned to one side, and he could see a streak of dried tears on her cheek. He wanted to take off her shoes so she'd be more comfortable but thought better of it. She was sleeping too soundly, and he didn't want to be the one that disturbed her peaceful slumber. Before he could change his mind and do something like hop into bed with her and give her a cuddle, he decided to blow off some steam and go for a run instead.

..........

Claire stretched herself out on the bed and then stopped. Something was different and then realised she still had her jeans and shoes on. Her eyes flew open, and she bolted right up. The sun was streaming through an unfamiliar window and the air smelt of wood polish and citrus ... and something else.  Sea-salt!  Puzzled, she scrambled to her feet, looking for something or anything to give her a sense of orientation. There was only the digital clock on the bedside table, and it read twelve-thirty. She soaked in her surrounding, as memories from yesterday's events came rushing in huge waves, hitting her like a bucket of ice-cold water thrown at her face.  

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!  She groaned out loud as she fell back onto the mattress. Despite the warmth in her room, the cold tentacles of realisation caressed her, prickling her skin with goosebumps. But in the same breath, it dawned on her, she was free of Frank. She allowed that to sink in for a moment and then closed her eyes briefly in a silent prayer of thanks. If she hadn't fled her wedding, she would have been on her way to the Maldives on her honeymoon right now. It's true she wasn't out of the woods yet, and even though she felt lighter, she also felt weighed down. Her situation might be far from ideal, but it was far better than being bound to a lifetime of regrets. She was where she needed to be, and soon enough, she would have to face the music. But not today.

A new awareness crept over her.  Jamie!  She hadn't thanked him properly yet, so consumed she was with fraught after the excitement of their escape. And since they've arrived, she'd slept at least for eighteen hours. All the long hours of wedding planning and work at the hospital must have caught up with her. Suddenly feeling invigorated by the sunshine and her new surrounding, she got out of bed and quickly showered. It was a warm day, so she put on a pair of denim shorts, a white t-shirt and the sandals Jamie had bought her.

When she finally stepped out of her bedroom, she realised, much to her relief, Jamie wasn't there. She was not ready to confront him just yet after he had dropped the bomb yesterday about not regretting their kiss. Since that admission, there had been an awkward silence between them on the road. Her life was already in a tangled mess as it was, and the last thing she needed was to complicate it even more.  

Pushing all thoughts of Jamie away, Claire took the opportunity to look around. The cottage was a traditional stonebuilt period home, and although cosy and minimalist, it was functional, and it had all the modern conveniences. In the kitchen, she found a note.  Gone running, be back soon.  

She opened the fridge and was surprised it was fully-stocked with food. She couldn't help the smile forming her lips.  Of course, Jamie thought of everything!  Unable to eat a morsel even though she hadn't eaten for over twenty-four hours, she drank some orange juice instead and went out of the back door. Stepping into the glorious sunshine, Claire sucked in her breath. There was a lovely patio garden with a large decked area overlooking the bay. The beach below stretched out into the distance like a horseshoe bending around the coastline, dotted with a smattering of people enjoying the gift of warmth.

Lured by the sound of tumbling waves, she decided to go for a walk.  Fresh air is always great for clearing the head!  Hurriedly, she left a note for Jamie and found a path which led directly down to the harbour and the beach. Although there were very few people, after walking a long stretch, she came across a group watching a demonstration on how to paddleboard. The crowd were gathered around a young man showing basic movements on balancing and handling the oar. Intrigued, she stopped to watch and was glad for the first time in a very long time, there was no place to go and nowhere to hurry to.

"Here, do ye want one?"

Claire glanced to her right and was surprised when she was offered an ice-cold bottle of fruit cider.

"Oh!" she shook her head at the friendly face. "I'm not part of the group. I'm just looking."

"It's alright. There's plenty more where it came from," the young man explained, pointing at the massive cooler box. Without waiting for her to reply, he opened the bottle and thrust it to her. "And ye're more than welcome to watch. That's my cousin there. He's starting a business teaching paddleboarding, kayak and surfing. Today is just a demo day. His business officially launches next week."

"Thank you," she smiled, accepting the ice-cold drink and a leaflet.  Oh well, why not! I'm here now.  Taking a sip at the crisp, fruity liquid, she paid attention to the demo. The crowd, mostly and notably young tourists and locals alike, listened with rapt interest, while some videoed and took photos of the demonstration. The whole procedure was quite laidback and full of easy banter, and not long after, Claire began to enjoy herself as the sunshine, the low drone of the instructor's voice and the cider relaxed her.

After seeing another group of four joined in, she made a mental note, to head back to the cottage once she finished her drink. But before her slightly intoxicated brain could catch up, her empty bottle vanished and it was replaced by another full one. The woman next to her gave her a light nudge on the arm. "Ye have to try this lass. It's pear cider. Far better than the mixed berries one," she grinned clinking her bottle with hers.

"Ooooh, pear? They must have seen me coming from a mile away," she murmured, giving the instructor a disapproving head tilt when he winked at her. "This is definitely the last one, though."

Claire knew she'd had more than enough to drink especially on an empty stomach, but it was too heady a fancy to bask in the warm sun and let the alcohol erased the memories of the mess she left behind in Edinburgh. And she needn't worry about Jamie fretting as she'd left him a note.

"Ye there, at the back ... what's yer name?" The instructor's voice brought her head up from the leaflet she was reading and noticed he was looking straight at her. "I need a volunteer. Do ye mind coming up here?"

"Me?" Claire croaked. Hesitantly, she passed her cider to the woman next to her, acutely aware of her tipsy state and everyone staring. "Why not ...sure."

She walked to the front of the crowd and extended her hand at the smiling instructor. "My name is Claire."

"Nice one, Claire. My name is Tom," he said, shaking her hand and then pulling her onto the surfboard in front of him and making her face the other way. He handed her an oar, and she was nearly knocked off. Quickly regaining her balance, she gave the laughing crowd a huge thumbs up and a grin.

"Alright, it's crucial yer feet is facing forward about hip-distance apart with knees slightly bent," Tom began, touching her legs to make it bend. "And keep yer core engaged tae help with yer balance." He placed a hand over her mid-section to show the audience where the core is. 

Cheeky bastard!  Claire noticed Tom was borderline too close, but she didn't want to interrupt him while addressing the crowd.

"Grip the top of yer paddle with one hand and place yer other at a comfortable distance about halfway down," he explained, moving closer, as his arms surrounded her and his hands seized the oar. "The angle in the paddle should face away from ye, which is the opposite of how ye would hold a kayak paddle."

Feeling his body heat behind her, she started to weigh the merits of whacking him with the paddle. The thought suddenly made her chuckle out loud.

"Care tae tell me what's sae funny ..." he whispered, his breath tickling her ear.

She was about to reply when two strong hands caught her around the waist. Unceremoniously, she was lifted off the surfboard and settled on the sand like she weighed nothing. She twisted around to admonish Tom but was shocked to find a scowling, red face Jamie instead.

"Jamie! What are you doing here?"

He didn't look at her. He was too busy glaring at Tom like he wanted to commit his looks to memory before beating him to a pulp. Funnily enough, in Claire's befuddled mind, Jamie looked like someone you would expect to come out of the swamp with war paint on their face to the soundtrack of helicopter blades. She thought of uncle Lamb's film video of Rambo and giggled. 

When Jamie's head snapped at her, Claire bit her lip. Suddenly worried that he might create a big scene for being drunk, she took his fist in her hand, taking him by surprise. "Everyone, this is my very good friend, Jamie," she announced with a slight slur, her face breaking into a smile.

"Hello, Jamie!" everyone chorused, making her giggle and earning her another scowl. She noticed for the first time, the group seemed to be in all varying degrees of intoxication, except for Tom, who exchanged a blank look with his cousin.

Jamie grunted something incoherent in reply as he grabbed her hand.

Taking no notice of Jamie, she addressed the instructor. "Thank you so much for having me," she said, smiling at Tom. "Earlier, I was off to look for Jamie, but then I got distracted by this very informative demo. I enjoyed it so much. Maybe if I have time next week, I'll come back for more lessons."

"Aye, we will see about that," Jamie mumbled tugging her hand. "Come on, let's go."

She wanted to keep up the pretence that everything was fine when some of the crowd started to show some concern. "Well, I guess that's us then," she chirped cheerily, waving goodbye. "Cheerio everyone! Hope to see you around!"

"Bye, Claire! Bye, Jamie!"

Tom's voice reached them as they began to walk away. "Claire, if ye come before ten on Tuesday, ye got yersel' a discount. And my number is on the leaflet ye're holding."

She wanted to say something back, but Jamie was already dragging her away. "That'll be right!" he grumbled, taking the leaflet from her hand to look at it before stuffing it in his jean pocket.

"You're like a cantankerous old git!" Claire muttered under her breath, trying to keep up with his long stride. "Why are you so rude?"

"And ye're drunk! I bet ye been drinking on an empty stomach. How many did ye drink?"

"I only had two bottles of cider."

"Where did ye get the money?"

"It was for free."

"No, it wasn't. I saw a sign. It was two quid, a pop."

"Well, that was very kind of them to offer me free drinks. Don't you think so?"

Jamie sighed, stopped and turned her around to face him. His scowl was replaced with concern. "Did ye really go looking for me? Are ye alright?"

"I went for a walk to get some fresh air. I did wonder where you were. But I'm fine. Why shouldn't I be?" Claire hiccupped, swaying side to side.

He searched her face, and then surprising them both, he hugged her tight. "Christ, I thought ye ran away again. I'm sorry for acting like a dick head. I was worried. Ye've had a bit to drink and ye could have got yersel' lost. Joe would kill me if something happened to ye."

Unsure what to make of his behaviour, she hugged him back, patting his shoulder blade.  What a confusing, odd man!  "It's alright. You've been kind to me. So there's no reason for me to run. Besides, I did leave you a note, didn't I?"

Letting her go, he laughed shakily. "Aye, ye did leave a note. But I couldnae help but worry. Anyway, how about we grab something to eat. I dinna want ye getting sick with just alcohol in yer tummy. A bit of grease in ye should do the trick. Are ye hungry?" 

The mention of food made her stomach grumble and his grumpy disposition was soon forgotten. "Famished! What do you have in mind?"

"How about fish and chips? I know a chippie take-away not far from here. They make the best."

"Sounds grand but one condition ..."

"Aye?"

"Can we get some more of those fruit cider, please? They were so good."

His laugh splintered the air, making her smile. "Fine but no drinking until ye've finished yer meal," he warned, grabbing her hand and not waiting for her to reply.

Feeling giddy, silly and free for the first time in ages, she refrained from skipping alongside Jamie. Coming to Cullen was good and a welcome distraction indeed. But when she threw a glance at him, admiring his beautiful profile, she started to think distraction might have been an understatement.

..........

Feeling sated after their meal of fish and chips, Claire laid out in the sun in the back garden of the cottage with her denim shorts and shirt sleeves rolled up while Jamie went for a quick dip into the sea. Her intention of drunken oblivion was keeping thoughts of Frank at bay. And of course, the excellent satirical war novel,  Catch 22  that she found in the living room was helping too. 

She was just propping herself on her elbow to reach for her cider when Jamie reemerged. He grabbed himself a beer and arranged a towel next to her. "What are ye thinking?" he asked, lying down and stretching himself beside her.

Reclining back, she forced herself not to stare at his half-naked body and looked up in the sky and sighed. There were a few wisps of clouds, and the trees were swaying to the gentle cool breeze. The alcohol in her blood gave the scenery just a slight beautiful blur, dulling all the sharp edges. "Nought. Just enjoying the sun. I think you're bloody crazy for going into the water."

"It's summer."

"No such thing in Scotland. The water is never warm here. I should be in the Maldives on my honeymoon."

He edged closer until their shoulders were touching. "Maldives is over-rated anyway. Ye won't learn anything about the locals holidaying there. The resorts there are Swiss-managed, and the wines served are European."

"Oh, did I mention to you about my wedding cake? I had it specifically ordered. It was five tiers of all my favourite flavours. I don't even know what Frank's favourite is. How sad is that?" she babbled slurring.

"Weel, I dinna how to bake, but I can make ye pancakes. My pancakes are to die for."

A smile touched her lips. "And Geillis and Joe pitched in to buy me this beautiful negligee from some high-end boutique in London for my honeymoon. It's supposed to look sexy on me. It would have pleased Frank a lot."

"It's just a negligee," he reasoned.

"I know it sounds daft, but Frank almost always dissed my uninspiring wardrobe and sniped how unsexy my lingeries are. He loved his labels you see. And finally, I get to own an expensive eyewatering scrap, I'll probably never have a chance to wear it. He's probably burned all my stuff by now."

Jamie propped himself on the elbow and stared at her. "If a man needs a woman to be dressed in a certain way to get off, then he's got issues. Ye're not missing Frank are ye?"

"No."

"How about the honeymoon part?"

"With Frank? Nope again."

He gave her a cocky grin. "Weel, if ye think ye're missing out on yer honeymoon and ye're feeling hard up, I'll have sex with ye. I'll let ye use my body."

That earned him a massive punch on the shoulder. "Jamie! You're unbelievable!"

"Just trying to help." he shrugged, chuckling.

She burst out laughing. "Says you." His image started to blur into two, and the sound of the waves crashing on the shore softened. Suddenly, her worries seemed non-existent, and she didn't feel afraid anymore. Problems would come looking for her soon enough, but for now, it was just her, the wind and Jamie being awfully nice.

"Ye feeling better, Sassenach?" He watched her open her next cider, took a swig and collapsed back on the ground.

"Much better."

"Just go easy on the cider. I don't want ye getting sick."

She giggled. "Frank hated me drinking. Did I tell you that? He said it didn't bode well for my reputation and it reflected on him and his job."

"I dinna think ye're a hard drinker. Ye're the only person I know ...weel, at least here in Scotland, who gets bevvied on fruit cider. It's like drinking apple juice."

"Oh yeah? Tell that to Frank." She swallowed another mouthful of the fruity beverage and stretched out on the ground, enjoying the delicious warmth coursing through her veins. She knew she was courting alcohol poisoning, and tomorrow her momentary happiness would turn to depression. But she was beyond caring. It had been so long since she let go of control.  Consequences, be damned!

Jamie rolled over and stared at her, his eyes suddenly looking like they had a thousand hues of blue.  Oh, such pretty eyes!  "May I ask ye a question, Sassenach? I just hope ye won't clobber me on the head with a bottle when ye hear what I have to ask."

The giggles overtook her, and she clapped her hands. "Ask away!"

"I feel like a prick for taking advantage of yer drunken state, but I'll ask anyway. I may never get a chance again. So here goes. Why did ye kiss me in Lallybroch the other day? I ken I angered ye, and ye were trying to prove a point. So what was that kiss all about?"

"Oh, the kiss. That is a good question, Jamie." She waved a hand in the air and tried to stifle another giggle building up when his eyes narrowed at her. "Frank said I suck in kissing and he even likened it to missionary sex. Boring, he said. He suggested and encouraged me, even, to widen my horizon by looking at porn to learn a thing or two. If somebody had told me that years ago, I probably wouldn't have given a flying fig what they thought of me and given that person a slap on the face. I guess when you're reminded over and over again that you suck in everything you do, you start to believe it. That day in Lallybroch when I saw you, I thought, here goes my last hurrah before I get married. I guess I just wanted to know if I still had it in me ...you know that bravado I used to have and that Frank hasn't totally broken me."

Anger laced his words, and she watched in fascination as the raw rage flickered over his expression and his strong jaw clenched and unclenched. "What a fucking, lousy arsehole!" Jamie seethed.  Oh my word, why is he so mad?  She almost laughed, but she dared not as he looked a tad bit too serious. "Surely, ye don't believe all that shite, Sassenach?"

Claire reached out and stroke his stubbled jaw in an effort to calm his temper, glad she touched the real vision instead of the duplicate one. "It doesn't matter what I believe anymore. I did try my best to better myself, though, but I guess my best didn't cut it for Frank. I've done him a favour by running away. He'd be happier without me."

He grabbed her hand and leaned really close.  Oh fuck, now there's three Jamies. Which one should I look at?  "Ye have nae idea do ye, Sassenach? It really pissed me off when ye walked away after that kiss the other day, not knowing yer name. Bloody hell, I couldn't think of anything else after that. Ye're probably going to hate me after this, but I'm going to prove to ye that ye kiss like a dream. I have to. Ye understanding me?"

"Oh! Oh, that won't be necessary. There is no need to prove anything, Jamie," she choked, her eyes widening as he moved closer. "I believe you. Honestly!"

"Too bad. A tit for tat." His warm breath caressed her cheek as he rose over her, his body pressing her back to the ground. Bracing his forearms on either side of her head, he lowered his mouth. "I hope ye'll remember this tomorrow," he muttered, cursing under his breath.

Before she could protest again, their lips met, and a loud groan escaped from his chest. Taken by surprise, Claire couldn't form a logical thought as Jamie gently moved his lips over hers, obliterating everything she knew about kissing and memories of Frank. His tongue nudged her mouth apart, tracing her lips before delving in to tangle with hers. Loving the texture of his lips and the scruff on his jaws, she met him halfway, kissing him back, as her own tongue stroked his, pushing and exploring. As if having minds of their own, her arms encircled his neck and her bare legs opened to cradle his hips, aligning their bodies perfectly.

Her head began to spin, trying to make sense of what was happening, but eventually, she gave up, yielding to the sensations blooming in her core. Totally lost, she fisted a handful of his hair and arched her back before her hand coasted down his back, feeling the need to get closer. A sudden lewd curse escaped his lips like he was torn between stopping and resuming. 

Finally, Jamie slowed the kiss to look into her eyes, and then gently pulled away, his head falling heavily to the crook of her neck. "Are ye listening, Sassenach?" he whispered, his breathing sounding shallow against her ear like he was having trouble talking. He took her hand and placed it in the middle of his chest, letting her feel the rapid pounding of his heart. "This is what yer kiss do to me. Ye understand me now?"

She couldn't speak, so she simply nodded, an odd whimper passing between her lips. The kiss had been too short and endless at the same time. It was everything. There was no more need for Jamie to convince her with words, as she could feel all the hallmark of an aroused male between her thighs.

"Yer kiss has turned me inside out, Sassenach. I could have easily taken ye here and now, but I won't. Not like this. And remember this, Frank is full of shite. He doesn't deserve ye. Ye understand?"

She swallowed hard and nodded again. 

"Good." When he slid off her, she nearly cried from the loss of pressure. Emotionally and psychologically spent, and dizzy with intoxication and lust, fatigue suddenly hit her. Feeling an overwhelming need for an anchor, she grabbed his hand and was relieved when he wove his fingers with hers. Lying side by side under the blue sky, she began to relax, his presence and the sound of his breathing a bone-deep comfort to her soul. She wanted to examine what transpired between them, but her eyes were getting heavier by the second.

Eventually, Claire gave in and succumbed to sleep but not before she said the words. "Thank you for everything, Jamie."

His response drifted to her ears like a dream and wondered what the other unfamiliar words meant. "Sleep now, mo nighean donn. I'll be here when ye wake up," he murmured.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jamie switched off his phone and made some coffee. Joe and Geillis were starting to get impatient, and they wanted to speak to Claire, but she was still fast asleep.  Again!  Geillis had shrieked into his ears and threatened him if she didn't get Claire to the phone. After pacifying the madwoman on the other end of the line and reassuring them that all was well, they finally calmed down when he promised, he would make sure Claire called them up at some point during the day. 

Thinking about what transpired before Claire fell asleep in the back garden yesterday, Jamie knew he'd made a huge mistake, and the thought caused a pit to grow in his stomach.  What was I thinking?  He'd promise Joe to lay off acting on his attraction towards Claire, and what had he done? He'd kissed her. Now Joe's words had come back to haunt him, despite reminding himself repeatedly he'd only meant to prove a point. Although he'd never been the type of person to act on impulse, when it came to Claire, every common sense, self-discipline and logic seemed to fly straight out of the window. It was becoming more apparent and frequent, his reaction to her didn't fall within the bounds of normal.

Though guilt and culpability stung his conscience, he didn't regret kissing her. He was guilty, yes, but he had no regrets. It was supposed to be only a brief kiss, but the moment their lips touched, his instincts along with his testosterone had gone into overdrive, and everything else had faded into nothing. His entire universe had suddenly whittled down to the softness of the body beneath him, and the scent of wildflowers penetrating his senses, sucking the air out of his lungs. Her kiss was sweet, almost-virginal and passionate at the same time, unmarred by any motive of seduction but to give. It became his salvation and torment all at once, and he burned the memory into his brain for safekeeping for the times he would crave for something beautiful and whole. He ought to have known better of the ramifications after their first kiss in Lallybroch. But his obsession for her had only grown with time, clouding all reasons and logic. Jamie had thought, he had everything under control, but by the time he realised how wrong he was, it was too late. He was already far too intoxicated under her power.

It's true, he was used to attractive women, but what made Claire more appealing and irresistible was her understated beauty that stemmed from her lack of awareness of how truly beautiful she looked. She'd reminded him of an untamed filly when he'd caught a glimpse of her fieriness in Lallybroch. He had wanted to be the one to tame her with no intention of quashing her spirit, but it was becoming more apparent, Frank had been slowly suppressing that part of her over the years.

As it was, there were far too many guilts already residing in his head, starting with his family's expectations. And then there's his inability to commit to anything that wasn't related to rugby. The last thing he needed was adding more to the growing list of accountability. What was he even thinking, taking advantage of a woman in her vulnerable state? What was he hoping to achieve? A relationship? He wasn't even sure if he knew how to be in one. But he had sought her out, hadn't he? And now what? 

Last night Claire had held onto his hand with complete trust as they laid side by side under the open sky. It was a trust that didn't demand anything in return - it was simply given. And that made him even more determined to do what is right. There was no denying that he wanted her but not while Frank was in the picture. Claire had loved that man at some point for her to agree to marry him, but she hated the man he'd turned out to be. If she hadn't cared about Frank, she wouldn't have been drinking to forget.  Christ!  He hadn't even met the bastard, and already he hated him with passion. But Joe was right. What happened yesterday could not happen again until she was free. He wished they had met under different circumstances, but right now, he would take anything that was on offer as long as he could get to spend time with her. Whatever happened beyond that, he could worry about it later.

He had promised Claire last night he would be there when she woke up. Picking up the tray from the kitchen counter, he decided it was time to wake her up.

...........

Claire heard the door creak and grimaced when she rolled to her side. Her head felt like a cannonball that had knocked a thousand castle walls and her mouth like it had been stuffed with cotton wool.

"Good morning, Sassenach."

She buried her head in the pillow. "Urgh, go away."

Footsteps neared her bed, and then the mattress to her side dipped. Jamie's scent of aftershave, sunshine and coffee filled her nostrils. "I'm no' going away. I let ye sleep in yesterday, and ye slept all evening last night. C'mon, time to get up. It's a beautiful day."

"Let me be. You sound too chipper. I can't do chipper today. You're usually grumpy."

"Look who's talking?" he chuckled. "Let's not waste this day, Sassesanach. I made plans for us."

She managed to raise her head and opened one eye. "What plans?" Unconsciously, she touched her locks. Holy Mother of God, why does he have to look so good? I must look like a poodle.  His hair was still slightly damp from a shower and fell in unruly waves around his forehead. He looked like a walking advertisement for summer with his plain white t-shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and a brand new tan.

"Ye just have to wait and see." He winked at her and placed the small tray on the nightstand.

She sniffed and managed to sit up, momentarily forgetting the state of her morning appearance. "Oooh, do I smell coffee?" 

"Aye and here ...take these first." He handed her two paracetamols and crossed his arms to watch her, his lips twitching at the corner and amusement dancing in his eyes. 

She took the pills and popped them in her mouth. "What's so funny? And why are you looking at me like that for?" she mumbled.

"Nothing is funny. I like looking at ye. Ye look adorable first thing in the morning. Did ye know that?"

She eyed him suspiciously over the rim of her coffee mug. "Oh yeah? What do you want? You want me to make breakfast or something?" Frank rarely ever saw her morning look. She'd made sure of that when one time she'd slept in late, and he'd made a joke about her hair blocking the sun from the window.

"Maybe another time. I have pancake batter already done."

"Pancakes?" Her stomach growled.

"Aye, pancakes," he grinned. "Now that I have yer full attention, I meant to tell ye that I spoke to Joe yesterday, but I never got the chance after ye disappeared on me. And um ...he called up again this morning. He says yer uncle seems not to be too overly concerned about ye, but yer friends are. I promised ye'd call them today, but if ye're not up to it yet, I'll try and hold them back for a little while longer. "

Of course, Uncle Lamb was not worried. Growing up in archaeological sites, she was often left to her own devices. Her uncle rarely fussed over her. " She's a smart kid ...she'll be back,"  he used to say whenever she'd gone missing. 

She sighed. "Why are you doing this, Jamie?" Taking a sip of her coffee, she looked at him and wondered why he was in a good mood. She'd been living in denial for a whole day and a half, and sooner or later, she had to start picking up the pieces of her life. Beautiful as Cullen might be, Jamie was acting like they were in some sort of holiday, and they weren't. She was in serious trouble ...at least where her career was concerned.  Doesn't he have his own life to sort out? Sure, he's Joe's friend and may feel sort of responsible.   But he barely knew her. All of a sudden, the thought broke off and then she stopped. Memories from yesterday came rushing in, and horror washed over her.  Oh no! Bloody hell, not again!   Her recollection might be a bit foggy, but her body remembered the kiss and the press of his arousal between her thighs.

As if reading her thoughts, he spoke the words out loud. "Oh aye, about that kiss yesterday. Dinnae fash about it. We were both drunk, ye were sorta sad, and looking pretty and I wanted to prove a point to ye. Nae need to feel guilty about it, ok? I initiated it. And to answer yer question, I'm doing this because, as I've said before, I like ye."

Her breath hitched, and her mouth dropped open. "Oh ..." 

"And also, from what ye've told me, I think Frank talks a lot of codswallop." He stood up and picked up the tray. "Let's not be awkward about this, alright? I'll leave ye to get ready, and I'll start up the pan for breakfast."

"Y-yeah, fine. And Jamie?"

Halfway towards the door, he paused and turned around. "Aye?"

"How was it? You never told me."

"The kiss?" A wicked grin slowly spread across his face. "Ye're an ace kisser, Sassenach. Took me ages to fall asleep thinking about it."

Her heart did a somersault, and before it could do a double backflip, she stopped herself. "Right, thank you, I think," she muttered, dismissing Jamie with a wave of a hand as she scrambled out of bed. "I'll get ready. I shall see you in a bit." She kept her head down so he wouldn't see the smile and crimson starting to bloom on her face.

He laughed out loud and walked out the door.  Unbelievable! He always says the right things. Why am I even surprised? He's a potential player. He's been there, done that and he knows his way in and out.  Too bad, she was beginning to like him a lot also. Crush or no crush, she reminded herself to keep her head above water with Jamie. Men like him are always a magnet for beautiful women, and she didn't think she could live with that. Not that he would be interested in her in a romantic way. Maybe a fling but she'd never done flings, and she wasn't about to start that habit either.

Moments later, feeling refreshed dressed in shorts, shirt and sandals and her hair scooped up in a ponytail, she made her way to the kitchen. The table was already set, and there was a fresh mug of coffee waiting for her.

She slid into the chair and immediately dove into a plate of pancakes drizzled with raspberry sauce. "God Jamie this is so good," she mumbled in between bites. "You weren't kidding when you said your pancakes are to die for."

"Glad ye like it, Sassenach. Ye'll need plenty of energy today." He sat opposite her and sipped his coffee.

"Why? What are we doing today?"

"I rented a couple of bikes. We're going sightseeing."

She shot him a look, her cutleries clattering, as she let go of them and leaned back on the chair. "No way. I'm still suffering from a hangover. And besides, I don't do outdoor sports."

"Fresh air and movement will be good for yer hangover."

"Says who?"

"Says me."

"I'm the doctor here. I say I should take it easy and get loads of fresh air while reading a good book out in the sun," she argued, defiantly crossing her arms across her chest.

"C'mon. It'll be fun. Where's yer sense of adventure?" Jamie challenged.  He's got the bloody nerve to look like he's holding on to his patience!

"Are you joking? Fun? I just recently left my groom at the altar. This isn't a time for fun."

"Aye, it is. Ye just saved yersel' from a lifetime of misery. You ought to be celebrating."

She blinked, pushed herself away from the table and got up. "I can't be dealing with this. Good luck with your adventure. I'm going back to bed."

He caught her by the waist and swung her around, his eyes settling on her lips. "Listen, Sassenach," he sighed, his long exhale of breath blowing a loose curl at her temple. Fascinated, she watched him tuck it behind her ear. "I'm sorry for pushing. I wasn't planning on riding long distances. We'll take wee breaks, I promise. It'll be good for me too. In fact, this trip has been really good for me because it stopped me from wallowing in my own shit. How about this? We'll ride into town and if ye're not enjoying yersel' we'll come back. How's that?"

Compromise! I like that.  She jerked her head up and looked into his eyes. There was no hint of amusement or cockiness lurking behind them. Just a questioning look and almost pleading. Suddenly she felt like a selfish, spoilt child. She almost forgot he had his own problems too and all he'd done was try to help. "God, Jamie. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to snap. I've been so engrossed with my own problems that I ..."

"Sssh, it's alright." He pulled her against him and hugged her. This was the second time in two days he'd done that. There was nothing sexual but gentleness with the touch, and it gave her a sense of well-being and security. If she wasn't careful, she could easily get used to it, and with the mess she was in, it could complicate matters. Mentally shaking away her thoughts, she gradually began to relax and laid her head against his chest. "Would ye like to call Joe or Geillis now?" he whispered against her ear.

She tilted her head back. "Not ready yet. Maybe later? After the ride?"

When his face broke into the most heart-stopping smile she'd ever seen, Claire decided that maybe, agreeing to go on a bike trip was worth it after all.

..........

It was the best day Claire had in a very long time. She was glad she'd agreed to take the bike trip with Jamie. They'd explored the town, walked along the beach with their shoes off, visited a castle, and now they're in a local restaurant finishing their bowl of Cullen Skink, a thick soup made of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. It was an ideal dinner, as the temperature had dropped down. Even though it was summer, it could still get nippy at night in that part of Scotland, and she was thankful Jamie had remembered that and brought with him a couple of cardigans for them to wear in his rucksack.

Her thoughts drifted to Frank, and she was reminded how she'd almost forgotten how much fun it was to let the day guide you and to be silly and impulsive without being criticised and reprimanded every second. It was almost like she'd been freed from incarceration after a very long time.

Was lack of freedom what she really equated life with Frank? He'd never shouted or physically hurt her, and he'd reminded her often enough how much she meant to him. He justified his controlling ways by saying he did everything out of love, to make sure they had a strong, solid relationship. And he reckoned, because of it, they'd become a better version of themselves.

"Sassenach?" Jamie leaned forward and looked into her eyes. "Ye in there?"

"Sorry ...got distracted." She pushed her bowl away and decided it was time to discuss the mess she'd left behind in Edinburgh. "About Joe and Geillis ...did they say how bad it was?"

"No. But Geillis threatened me with all sorts of horrible things she'd do to me if I didn't make ye call them back. That woman is scary."

She winced. "I guess it's understandable. I left them a huge mess to deal with. I'm such a bloody coward."

"Don't ever say that again! If ye are a coward, ye wouldn't have climbed out that window and ye would have stayed behind and married Frank."

"I think I should go back." Her voice was barely a whisper, as panic began to sink in. "I can't let Joe and Geillis deal with it on their own. It's not their problem."

"Ye think? Look, ye cannae go back without a clear head. There will be accusations, questions and ye'd be ripe for Frank's manipulation, and ye might end up doing something ye'd later regret. Call Joe and Geillis. I'm sure they'd understand and would want the best for ye. Go back when ye're ready. But on yer own terms."

She buried her face into her trembling hands. "I know, it's just that I haven't done anything like this before. God, this is so scary."

"Take all the time ye need. Do something for yersel' for once. I ken I'm no' Joe or Geillis, but I promise ye, whatever ye choose I will stand by ye. And if ye do decide to see Frank, I'll go with ye."

"W-what about your life? You've put it on hold for me. What will your family say?"

"Dinna fash about my family. I'll explain everything to them. As for my life, I've put it on hold for a while now. And I'm just beginning to join the land of the living again. I was a total mess locked up in my apartment for a long time. So me helping ye is not purely a selfless act. I'm kinda doing this for mysel' too. So what ye'd say? If ye wish, we could go to Skye ...a change of scenery, if ye will. I have a few friends there."

Her eyes widened. "I can't do that. Everyone will hate me."

"Not the ones who matter, Sassenach. In fact, if ye call yer uncle Lamb now, he'd probably encourage ye to stay away for a while."

The thought was tempting, and Jamie was right. She wasn't ready to face Frank yet. It had been a liberating couple of days not to be restrained by petty worries and expectations, and responsibilities. Surely a few more days wouldn't hurt. It wasn't like they were doing anything illegal or running away from the law. She used to be spontaneous and adventurous until Frank curved that trait from her. Time to regain her old self back.

"Alright, let's do it," she breathed, her body shaking with excitement. "We'll call Joe and Geillis when we get back to the cottage and explain everything."

Jamie grinned, signalled for the bill and took her hand in his. "That's my lass."

The waiter came and stopped halfway from clearing their tables and gazed at her. "I'm sae sorry for staring, but ye look ever so familiar. I was just wondering if I know ye from somewhere."

Claire studied him and shook her head. "I'm sorry, I don't think so, but I do meet a lot of people at work. Unfortunately, I'm bad at remembering faces."

"I beg yer pardon for the intrusion."

"No problem at all," she smiled.

Jamie handed his credit card and waited until the waiter was out of earshot. "Another admirer? Like the one from the beach yesterday? What was his name again? Oh, aye, Tom."

She rolled her eyes and smacked his wrist. "He was sweet. Just a tad bit touchy for my liking."

"Touchy?" He raised a ruddy eyebrow. "If I hadnae come, ye would probably have agreed to go out for a coffee with him ...or cider."

She laughed out loud. "Perhaps. With my self-esteem in tatters, Tom asking me out would have been good for my ego."

Jamie frowned at her, but before he could utter a word, the waiter glided back, placed the bill down for his signature and smirked. "Ah ken now where I saw yer face. Ye're in the paper!"

An icy chill of trepidation coasted down her spine, and she stiffened. "Wh-what paper?"

"The Edinburgh Post. Ye're the runaway bride. Yer pic ..."

Jamie jumped up from the table, threw the signed receipt down and grabbed her hand. "Haud yer wheesht, ye wee daftie or I'll more than yank yer tip from ye. Understood?"

The waiter's eyes widened and glistened in fear. Realising his error, he nodded shakily. "Aye, aye. I-I'm sae sorry. I didnae mean to cause offence. I willnae say a word."

Jamie ignored the waiter and grabbed Claire's elbow and led her down the street. The fresh air washed over her, but her thoughts were spinning round and round, and she couldn't stop it long enough for her to breathe. Her breaths came in gasps, and she felt she was about to pass out.

"Bend over and put yer hands on yer knees, Sassenach." 

She heard Jamie speak, but he sounded so far away like he was speaking from a narrow tunnel. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to calm her racing heart while gasping for air. Ye're the runaway bride, the waiter had said. The words burned like acid in her guts, making her want to throw up. She reached out for Jamie's hand and tugged it. "I-I have to s-s-see it ..."

"Sassenach, please. I'll try to get us a lift and ..."

"NO! I have to see it now."

He gave her arms a tight squeeze, the pressure from his big hands cutting through her panic and anchoring her. "Stay put."

Wrapping her arms around her chest, she waited in the darkened street. She tried to concentrate on the music drifting from the restaurant and the giggling couple that walked past her. When Jamie returned with the newspaper, the worried expression in his eyes confirmed it was bad.

With shaking hands, she gingerly unfolded it and read the headline.

Edinburgh's Wedding Of The Year - It Went Off Without A Hitch

Her gaze landed first on her engagement photo. She was wearing an elegant cocktail dress during a charity event, and Frank was holding her hand and staring adoringly into her face. Though she smiled for the camera, her eyes looked blank.

The next photo was of Frank, exiting the church surrounded by guests protecting him from intrusion and reporters thrusting microphones in his face. He looked lost, spent and broken as if she'd ripped his heart out and stomped mercilessly on it.

The world began to spin again as she forced herself to scan over the article. Several phrases jumped out:

Philanthropist and renowned surgeon ditched at the altar by his own resident.

Some speculate the bride ran away with another lover.

Family and friends rally around the groom, refusing to make any official statements.

Reality descended heavily on her shoulders like a metal cloak, and her hope of freedom suddenly becoming only an unattainable dream. She had done the unthinkable, and now it's time to pay.

Claire turned to face Jamie, her voice sounding foreign to her ears. "Take me home."

"Sassenach, let's take a moment and talk about this ..."

She shook her head. "Show's over. Take me home, please."

He muttered a string of vile curses before nodding in agreement.

A couple of hours and several phone calls later, they were on their way back to Edinburgh, her fingers still clutching the newspaper.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jamie felt Claire slipping away. Immobile and expressionless, she sat looking out the window clutching the damn newspaper, and he wished he could yank it away from her and burn it. He would rather have her anger, exasperation or impatience any day. But he got nothing. Not a word. She was completely removed from the present. He was tempted to turn the car around and head for Skye. Or drag her out of the car and give her a good shake. Or slam on the brakes really hard. Maybe, if he did any of those, he would be able to elicit a reaction. 

Instead, he turned the music louder, drove on and closed in on their destination - Edinburgh.

He'd phoned Joe and Geillis earlier to let them know they were on their way and then Claire had called Frank right after. To his relief, Frank didn't answer. Her awkward voice mail message had been disconcerting, and he had a niggling feeling, Frank's stranglehold and control over Claire were more serious than he thought. Her hand had shaken, and she'd stuttered as she spoke. In the short time he had known her, he'd caught a glimpse of a fiercely independent woman - stubborn, funny and passionate. The woman sat next to him was just an empty shell of her former self, and it made him angry Frank had caused it.

They reached Edinburgh at around two a.m, and Claire directed him to her address, a charming wee terraced traditional cottage in the outskirts of the city. He was just easing his car into the driveway when he heard Claire gasp.

Jamie followed the direction of her gaze. On her front door, the word whore was spray-painted in red. Muttering a curse, he immediately cut off the engine and jumped out. "Stay here, Sassenach." 

He used the flashlight from his phone to scour the vicinity in case someone was lurking around. When he was satisfied the perimeter of the garden was secure, he helped Claire out of the car. "It's safe. We'll deal with the paint in the morning. Let's get ye inside."

Too rattled and exhausted, Claire simply nodded and staggered out. Jamie thought of taking her to his apartment where no one would know of her whereabouts, but knowing there's always the odd reporter or two lurking outside the building he lived in, he would be taking the risk of getting their picture taken. 

Reminded of the repercussions of being recognised, he quickly gathered their things and followed her. "Yer place is sparse. Almost empty," he observed, looking around once they were inside. Although the cottage was small, it had been lovingly decorated with a mishmash of vintage furniture and fittings. The fireplace in the lounge and the exposed wooden floor gave it a homely feeling and added to its quaint charm.

"Most of my stuff is in Frank's apartment. I was planning on renting this place out, but he wanted me to put it on the market after we got engaged."

"Good thing ye haven't." He wondered if the reason Claire hadn't sold was that she had sensed something wasn't right between her and Frank. Without a doubt, having her own place had given her a fallback plan.

"I stood my ground on this one. It's a gift from my uncle when I started my internship. He thought I would be better off having a place of my own when my friends began to hang around his apartment. He prefers his peace and quiet, you see."

They stood there for a while, looking at each other, uncertain what to say next. Fearing for Claire's safety, Jamie didn't want to leave, but he wasn't sure if she would want him to stay. The surging possessiveness he was feeling was a novelty and way out of his comfort zone, and he had no clue how to deal with it.

When she let out a big yawn and swayed on her feet, awareness suddenly caught up with him. Taking her by the elbow, he ushered her to the bedroom. "Come, let's get ye to bed. I'm guessing Geillis and Joe will be here first thing in the morning." 

She nodded and allowed him to make the bed for her after finding some sheets in the wardrobe. Once she was settled in, he loosened her ponytail, sat on the bedside and pushed the unruly locks from her forehead. "Sleep now Sassenach and dinna fash about anything. Tomorrow will come soon enough. I'll be in the living room if ye need anything from me."

With a sigh, he stood up to leave, but her hand tugged his. "Jamie, I know it sounds daft but can you please stay with me? I'm scared." Her face reflected a child-like trust that made his heart squeeze. "I think I'd sleep better when I know you're here ...beside me.

Her face was pale, and her lips trembled, and she looked so vulnerable and tiny against the layers of pillows. Jamie didn't want to leave her like this. "Aye, of course," he smiled. She watched him with sleepy eyes toe off his shoes and lay down beside her. When he was settled, he turned her to her side and drew her back against him, soaking in her delicious warmth and softness. Her scent of soap swamped his senses, and it was so very unlike the expensive fragrances that he was used to. Though he'd had love affairs in the past, it was his first time to lie next to someone in a simple act of offering comfort, and the first time he was staying in someone else's bed for the whole night. For some reason that's unbeknownst to him, he liked the idea of just holding her close.

When Claire shimmied closer, he mentally cursed and held his breath. He tried to focus on his breathing and on images that didn't involve Claire, hoping to abate his growing arousal. It was a good thing he'd kept his clothes on, but unfortunately, sleep came too slowly.

..........

Claire woke up to incessant loud banging on her door. Muddled, she shot out of bed. It took her a few seconds for her brain to clear. When the banging resumed, her heart lurched and started to hammer.  Jamie is gone. What if there are reporters at the door?

Hunkering down, she crawled on all fours to her living room and peeked out of the window. She almost screamed when she saw Joe's and Geillis' face peering back at her.  Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!

"Hey, sweetheart, it's us ...let us in."

She fumbled with the door lock and flung it open. Shortly, she was enveloped in tight hugs and kisses, almost knocking her back. All the pent up emotions from the last few days came crashing down, making her burst into tears. Whispering soothing words, Joe and Geillis led her to the sofa and waited until she was spent from crying.

"See, what did I tell ye, Joe?" Geillis huffed, springing to her feet and waving her hands in the air. "I knew something was wrong. That fancy-pants, stuck-up, pompous prick was playing the reporters and making it look like he's the victim. I never trusted him."

"But I left him in the altar," Claire hiccuped, wiping the tears with the back of her hand. "Frank didn't deserve that. No one deserves that."

"Look at me, Claire." Geillis gripped her shoulders. "We've known for some time that something was wrong. Ever since Frank came into the picture, ye started to see less and less of us, and ye always made excuses. Lame excuses. And ye're a terrible liar, have I told ye that? Anyway, when we did see ye, ye almost always looked withdrawn, stressed and tired. Ye didn't look happy at all. And when Frank was around, he never acknowledged us. It's almost like he abhorred us. I had a sneaking suspicion, he was trying to isolate ye from yer support system, so he can have full control over ye."

The truth slammed into her like a sledgehammer, knocking the breath out of her lungs. "But I humiliated Frank by running away. How could I be so daft? Now the whole city loathes me. Did you see that vandalism on my door?"

Joe patted her knee. "We saw. I'm so sorry you had to see that. But you did the right thing not going ahead with the marriage. You must have known it for some time, but you were afraid to admit it to yourself. I just wished that you knew sooner. You could have broken your neck jumping out of the window. Good thing Jamie was there to catch you."

"Speaking of Jamie, where is he? When I get my hands on him, I will wring his ..."

The door suddenly opened. "I'm right here, and ye must be Geillis." Casually, Jamie walked in, deposited the paper bags on the table and offered his hand for a handshake.

Geillis ignored it and glared at him. "I'm pissed off with ye. Ye turned off yer bloody phone! Why the bloody hell did ye do that? We were sae worried!"

He shrugged and approached Joe. "Hey, mate. Good to see ye." They slapped each other's back in the act of camaraderie before Jamie turned his attention back to Geillis. "I took good care of yer friend, and I assured ye she was fine. Please tell her that, Sassenach."

"Ye calling her Sassenach?" Geillis harumphed, her hands flying to her waist and chin jutting out at him in indignance. "What a bloody cheek!"

Joe ducked and shook his head, and Claire pinched the bridge of her nose. "Geillis, it's alright. It's a pet name. He doesn't mean any offence. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have gotten far." Geillis' glare didn't wane, but she stopped talking long enough for Claire to notice something odd about Jamie. "Why are you wearing a hoodie on a warm day like today? Are you coming down with a cold or something?"

Grinning, Jamie tugged the front of his top. "Ach this? It's a disguise. Dinna want to be recognised out there."

"Too late, buddy," Joe sighed, whipping out the newspaper he had with him. "Someone recognised you at the restaurant last night and took a photo of both of you."

"What?!? Let me see that." Claire grabbed the paper and skimmed the page. Sure enough, the headline screamed Dr Randall's Runaway Bride and former Rugby Union Star James Fraser Looking Scrummy At Romantic Seaside Location. Under the caption was a photo of Jamie holding her hand and she was smiling back at him. "Oh, dear God, it's not what it looks like."

Jamie peered over Claire's shoulder, and Joe continued. "It was posted initially on Instagram. The internet had been buzzing all night with speculations. The good news ...you're trending on Twitter and the bad news ... the waiter confirmed to a reporter that it was you with Claire. The proof was in your credit card receipt. Problem is ... he might have exaggerated a bit with his account of the story. By the way, what were you thinking, Jamie? With your red hair and your muckle size, haven't you realised yet that you stand out like a sore thumb?"

"Fuck!" He dragged in a breath and knelt down in front of Claire, taking her hands in his. "Christ, Sassenach, I'm sae sorry. I'll make this right. Whatever it takes. I can arrange a press conference, and I'll set the record straight."

"Why would ye want to do that?" Geillis interrupted. "Ye don't owe anyone any explanation. It's quite apparent Claire didn't want to marry Frank. Joe would have done the same as ye did if he knew Claire was planning to run away. If ye arrange that press conference thingy, it will look like ye're being defensive. Unless of course, something happened between the two of ye."

"Of course, nothing happened," Jamie fumed. "All we did was talk these last couple of days. And yesterday, when we arrived, Claire got scairt after she saw the scrawling on her door, which is understandable. So I stayed behind, and we cuddled until she fell asleep." Realising he'd explained far too much, the colour drained from his face and gave Claire an apologetic shrug.

Joe and Geillis shared a look. "Just cuddled? Joe asked.

"Aye just cuddled. What do ye take yer friend for? Or me?"

Geillis looked at Claire, tapping her finger against her lips. "Why are ye blushing then?"

Claire groaned, burying her face in her hands. The memory of Jamie holding her close last night was branded into her brain. She had woken sometime during the night to find her head resting on his chest and his arm lying heavily across her waist. His breathing and heartbeats had relaxed her so much she had gone back to sleep even though she knew she should have untangled herself. "I blush all the time," she answered in a muffled voice. 

Geillis cocked her head at Jamie. "Weel, whatever happened or didn't happen, ye made it worse by not tipping the waiter. According to the article, ye were stingy and didn't give a tip. Maybe if ye had the sense to tip, he wouldn't have outed ye." 

"You didn't tip? That's piss-poor, Jamie," Joe whistled, shaking his head.

"The eedjit didnae deserve a tip. The waiter looked right smug when he recognised Claire. I should've boxed his ears."

Joe rolled his eyes. "Yeah but you're a minor celebrity, and there will always be someone who will recognise you. That waiter has really painted you in a bad light in retaliation to your threat."

"And maybe if ye hadnae switched off yer phone, this..."

Ah, shit!  "Stop!" Claire exploded, jumping to her feet, causing everyone to still and stare at her. "Please just stop! I appreciate what you're all trying to do. And really, I'm forever grateful for everything you've done for me. But this is my mess. I've brought this upon myself, and I will fix it. So please stop bickering. It's no one's fault but mine. First off, I'm going to see my uncle after I've had my coffee and then I will see Frank. As for the press, well, I will deal with it myself. And I hope eventually they'll tire of me and move on to the next big news."

Joe's face softened. "I'm so sorry sweetheart. Would you like us to come with you?"

She shook her head and offered a weak smile. "No, thank you, that won't be necessary. You all got your own life to deal with. I'll be fine. I promise."

"Are ye sure, hen? I don't want ye to be alone with Frank when ye talk to him. He's a manipulator," Geillis said, pulling her in for an embrace.

"I'm definitely sure. I'll keep in touch, I promise. Speaking of which, were you able to retrieve my phone?"

"Aye, I hid it before Frank could find it." Geillis pulled away from Claire to retrieve the phone from her bag. "Here ... ye have over a hundred missed calls from him. But I still think ye shouldnae speak to Frank alone."

"Geillis, I have to do this myself. If I'm in trouble, I'll let you know." She swiped the screen on her phone and took a swift glance. Seeing all the unanswered messages and missed calls, she quickly switched it off.  " Frank might be controlling, but he's not a monster. He won't lay a finger on me. That's not him."

"But ..."

"I'll go with her," Jamie announced, crossing his arms across his chest.

Claire's head snapped, and she stared at him. "No, you will not. Your own family must have seen the paper. You'll have your own explaining to do with them."

"Aye, that's true, but I owe yer uncle an explanation first. Technically, I'm involved now. My photo and my name are on that paper too."

Although his stance was relaxed, Claire knew deep down, Jamie wasn't going to budge. He had that look she'd seen before. And right now, all she wanted was the morning to start moving along and getting her life back together, and arguing with him would further delay that. Sighing, she squeezed her eyes shut and conceded. "Fine. But no meddling."

Grinning, Jamie gave Joe a high five. "No meddling," he repeated, as he retreated slowly, walking backwards as if afraid of a change of heart. "Weel, if that's it, I'll prepare breakfast, and ye can get ready. Joe, Geillis, I'll see ye around." With that, he quickly spun around and headed for the kitchen.

Claire could feel her friends' questioning eyes on her, as the sound of slamming cupboard doors and rushing water from the sink drifted in the air.

"Hmmm, Jamie looks quite at home, don't ye think?" Geillis noted, crossing her arms and cocking an eyebrow at her.

"Very," Joe agreed, steering Geillis towards the door. "Let's go, sweetpea. Claire is in good hands. There's not much we can do now. See you around, Beauchamp!" Before they stepped out, Joe called out to his friend. "Jamie?"

"Aye?"

"No hanky-panky, alright, mate?"

Claire groaned.

A kettle banged on the hob. "What sort of person do ye think I am?" came a retort from the kitchen.

"You're James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, that's what." 

"Bugger off!"

Then the door shut.

Claire burst out laughing. She realised how much she'd missed her friends - all their teasing, taunts and all the love radiating underneath. How she'd made it this long without them was beyond her. And who would have thought, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, of all people, would one day be standing in her kitchen, happily making her breakfast. She shook her head in disbelief. 

With lightness in her heart and smile on her lips, she went to her bedroom to get ready to face the day.

..........

Jamie glanced at Claire. She was biting her lip and fidgeting on her feet as she pressed the button to her uncle Lamb's apartment.

A deep voice answered. "Yes?"

Unconsciously, she squared her shoulders and tilted her chin up as if preparing herself for battle. Clearing her throat, she spoke out loud and clear. "Uncle, it's me, Claire."

"Oh, yes, dear, come in." The intercom buzzed, and Jamie pushed open the main entrance door to the building.

"Ye ready, Sassenach?"

Big beautiful amber eyes held his gaze for a few seconds, and she nodded. He was beginning to learn the subtle signs of what's going through her head, and he knew she was trying to mask her nervousness. Grabbing her hand, he winked at her. "It'll be fine."

She nodded and smiled feebly at him.

When they made it to the second floor, the door to Claire's uncle's apartment swung open, and there stood a tall, lean man in his early fifties. His hair was thick with a salt and pepper tint, and it looked like he'd dragged his hand several times through it. A reading glass was perched on top of his head and his eyes, although tired-looking, were the same amber colour as Claire's. He was wearing grey slacks, and a crinkled white button-down shirt with its sleeves rolled up to his elbow.

"Hello, dear. I wasn't expecting you this soon." He hugged Claire briefly as if the gesture was a rare occurrence between them. Despite the awkward display, there was warmth and affection in the older man's eyes. Shifting his attention, his gaze turned to Jamie. "And you're the famous, James Fraser. I'm Quentin ...Quentin Beauchamp. So pleased to finally make your acquaintance," he smiled warmly and shook his hand.

"The pleasure is mine," Jamie replied, noting the strong firm grip on the handshake.

Claire began making a move to enter the apartment. "Uncle, I'm terribly sorry for everything ..." 

Uncle Lamb raised a hand and shook his head. "It's alright, dear. There is a more pressing matter awaiting you in the lounge. Frank is here."

Just as Frank's name was mentioned and before she could react, Claire's ex-fiance appeared. "Claire, is that you? Thank God you're safe. I stopped by to check on your uncle. I had no idea you would be here." Ignoring Jamie, he stepped in front of her and gathered her in his arms.

"Frank, what are you doing?" Claire pushed against his chest and almost stumbled back. Jamie was all ready to grab him by the scruff of his neck if he didn't let go. "Is this some sort of mind game? You've never visited my uncle before. So why now?"

Frank cleared his throat and took her hand in his. "Can we please talk? In private?" he pleaded.

There was a long moment of silence, and it seemed to stretch for an eternity. Jamie didn't like it one bit that Frank was holding her hand, and he had to fight the urge to yank her away from the other man's reach. 

"Fine, we'll talk," Claire finally replied. "The sooner we get this over with, the better." Without looking at Jamie, she followed Frank to the lounge and closed the door behind them.

Jamie wanted to follow them, but he knew if he did that, he would be taking the decision away from Claire. He understood she wanted to do this on her own and he would give her that, but no way in hell was he letting her leave with Frank.

His thoughts were abruptly interrupted. "Well, Jamie, would you like to keep me company in the kitchen?" Quentin proposed, gesturing for him to follow. "I was about to make a pot of beef broth earlier when Frank called in unexpectedly."

"Um, how about Claire? Don't ye think we should stay here in case something happened?" he asked, jerking his thumb at the closed door.

Quentin didn't seem bothered. "She'll be fine. Come along now."

Hesitantly, Jamie followed the older man to the kitchen, and his gaze landed on the stand-alone butcher's block next to the island counter. It had some raw beef bone marrow waiting to be hacked. Settling himself on the stool, he watched Quentin put on an apron and pull out a massive cleaver from a drawer.

"So, Jamie, how does a famous former rugby player such as yourself come to know of my niece?" Quentin asked. The amber eyes that so reminded him of Claire's were looking back at him with severe intensity. Whack!  Jamie jumped with a start. The cleaver came down hard on the beef bone without warning, the older man's gaze never leaving his.

He blinked in astonishment and looked at the cleaver nervously. Claire and Joe had told him often enough that uncle Lamb was sweet, easy-going and laidback, but looking at him now, he wasn't entirely sure if they'd been talking about the same man. Whack!  His mind started to race, and the palms of his hands moistened.  What the fuck?  Adrenaline pumping and senses on high alert, he quickly realised that the man before him was not someone to be trifled with and that he had his work cut out in convincing Quentin that his intention with Claire was ...was ...exactly what?  Whack!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jamie swallowed hard and eyed the cleaver nervously. Christ, what did uncle Lamb ask again? Oh, aye ...he was asking how I know of Claire. 

"Joe is our mutual friend. Ye ken, Joe, aye?"

Quentin stopped what he was doing. "Yes. Joe is a family friend. While ye were away with my niece, he relayed everything that happened. Why did you go to so much trouble helping Claire?"

Whack!  Jamie jumped on his stool again. For fuck sake, what's wrong with me? I could tackle this git to the ground if I want to.  He ignored the feeling of unease and tried to remain calm. "Joe would have wanted me to help her and so would ye," he replied.   "Claire was desperate to run away. If I hadn't been there, she wouldn't have made it far. And from what I've heard, ye weren't overly keen on Frank marrying her. Surely, you must be elated that the wedding didn't go ahead."

Quentin ignored his last statement and went to the point. "Do you intend to ask her out?" he asked. 

Sweat broke out over his skin. Truth, Jamie lad!  "I like her a lot, and I would like to see her again."

"She's not like your girlfriends or the girls you go for. And if you ..."

"I've never had a girlfriend," Jamie interrupted, suddenly feeling annoyed. "And besides, seeing her doesnae mean there has to be something between us. As I said, Joe is our mutual friend, and I would like to be her friend too."

Quentin arched an eyebrow. "You expect me to believe that?"

His temper ratcheted up. "No. People will believe what they want to believe. Looks like you've made up your mind already."

"I wish to be enlightened. Tell me then, what is fallacious about the articles written about you?" Quentin asked, unperturbed by his outburst, throwing the hacked beef bones into the pot with loud clacks.

Jamie tunnelled his fingers through his hair and stared at the older man. He disliked talking about his public image. It was something he'd chosen to forget, hoping sports history will omit what the tabloids had written about him and solely focus on his contribution to rugby. A cold ball of misery fisted his gut. "I'm not a player if that's what you think. But I'm not a monk either. I've had consensual, brief affairs. Unfortunately, I've been photographed during an infamous walk of shame, and that stuck ever since. My life was strictly ruled by rugby ...until my accident. Most of the articles that were written about me that didn't pertain to sports are pure speculation. It stemmed from the public wanting to know all about my private life. And because I have nothing to show, tabloid writers made up stories. Every time I was photographed with a female during public functions, it was automatically dubbed as romance in the making. It's hard to fight it because fighting it only results in feeding the flame. I can't win either way. All I ever wanted was to play rugby and talk about the game."

"Is that all?"

Was that all?  He almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of the interrogation.  Why am I giving him my time of day?  Shaking his head, he let out a deep sigh of resignation. "Aye. One more thing. If something was to happen between Claire and me, it wouldn't work anyway."

"Oh! Why is that?" It was Quentin's turn to look surprised.

"I'm unstable, and I'm going through a phase. I have nae idea what I want to dae with my life. I had a call earlier from my agent. There is an opening for a rugby presenter on TV, and I was told I'd be great for the job since I know how to articulate the inner workings of the game. My only drawback is, I have a blemished reputation as a womaniser, and we're talking about representing a wholesome TV program where scandals are frowned upon by the board of directors. So I doubt I'll be given consideration. As for Claire, she needs to find herself. And if she's with me, the reporters will eat her alive. Furthermore, I dinna ken how to be in a relationship. My track record bears testimony to that."

"You honestly believe that about yourself? Unstable?"

Jamie didn't reply. A long silence settled in the kitchen and an odd calm over him. It felt good to verbalised the nagging voices in his head and share a part of him he'd concealed. Maybe it was for the best to quell any notions of Claire, finally accepting that they were both at a difficult point of their lives. In as much as he was physically attracted to her, a commitment right now would only complicate things.

"Well, son, we may have something in common then."

"Aye?" Jamie's brows knitted together and wondered what he was on about.

"You mentioned you don't know how to be in a relationship. Well, I don't know how to be a father, and to this day, I'm still figuring that out. I've raised Claire since she was five and yet, here I am, I'm still stumbling my way through parenthood. Like you, I had to deal with a life that I didn't ask for. It took a lot of heart and courage just to pull through. In the end, it was all worth it. Claire grew up to be a fine young woman, and I couldn't be more proud of her. Don't believe everything you tell yourself. They're just noises in your head. I learned from raising Claire, that love is strongest when you learn to trust the process despite the doubts." He stopped, coughed and looked at him directly in the eyes. "By the way, do you like brandy?"

"Huh?" Bewilderment swarmed his head. He hadn't been expecting a quick turnaround. "Ah, weel ...eh ...I prefer whisky, but I drink brandy once in a while."

"The snifter glasses and the brandy are on the far right cupboard. Pour us some if you please."

The request cut through his confusion, and he shot to his feet. "Aye, of course." He quickly prepared the brandy, half expecting to get whacked on the head with a cleaver, while Quentin washed his hands, 

Once the drinks were poured, Quentin took a glass and swirled it in his hand, before taking a whiff. Pleased with the aroma, he raised the snifter and gestured for him to do the same. "Here's to you and thank you for helping, my niece. I appreciate the lengths you went through in keeping her safe. How much do I owe you for the trouble?"

Jamie almost choked on his drink. "Ach, no! It was nae bother at all. I don't need the money."

"Very well." Quentin put his glass down and pointed at the bowl of vegetables. "Do you mind chopping those carrots and celery sticks for me?"

"No. I can dae that," Jamie answered, pondering what the older man will say or ask of him next. Uncle Lamb was proving to be an enigma and full of surprises, but he was beginning to worry about Claire.  How long have they been in the room?

As if reading his mind, Quentin smiled at him. "And when you're done, send Frank in, please and go and take Claire away from here. Frank and I need a heart to heart talk."

Grabbing a knife, Jamie bowed his head down and got to work, resisting the urge the smile. He wondered what uncle Lamb had to say to Frank, and if Frank will get the same meat-cleaver-treatment, he received.  Didn't Claire mention earlier that Frank had never visited Quentin? Was Frank trying to isolate Claire from her only relative too?

In no time, he completed the task. Just as he was about to go, Quentin stopped him. "Another thing. If you don't mind and if it's no trouble at all, may I please have a signed jersey from you? I'm actually a big fan of yours."

Jamie was stunned but kept his expression bland and bit his lip. He couldn't help doing a mock contemplation. It was good to know that behind the no-nonsense facade, Claire's uncle had a weakness. "Of course. I will have one sent as soon as possible. Maybe I'll throw in a ticket for the next home game in Murrayfield. A private VIP box perhaps?"

"That'll be grand," Quentin's face lit up. "And James?"

Ah, what now?  "Aye?"

"You have a lot of heart. I believe everything you told me."

"Thank ye, I appreciate that." To his surprise, a weight lifted off his shoulders and wondered why it mattered so much to have Claire's uncle's approval. He tamped down the urge to hug the older man. 

If only Quentin knew, how much those words meant after having difficulties in overcoming the stigma attached to his popularity. He could only hope Claire wouldn't judge him too harshly about his past.

..........

"Why did you leave me, Claire?" 

Frank had his back to her as he looked out the window. Hands shoved in his jeans and legs braced apart, an air of self-possession and authority emanated from his frame and carriage, his voice, rich and deep, just as she remembered them. 

It was a simple question which she had an answer to, but panic and dread welled up. She was ill-prepared for their confrontation.

As if sensing her trepidation, he turned around and approached her, his dark chocolate eyes that she once adored, never leaving her face. "Did I ever hurt you? I need answers, Claire. I need to understand what I've done wrong. Have I not told you often enough how much I love you?" he asked softly.

Her brain worked to form a logical reply, but simple utterances were proving difficult. "Ah, I ... I'm so sorry ...I ran away ...I couldn't ..." 

His face dissolved into understanding, and a hand reached out to stroke her hair. "I forgive you. You know I'll always forgive you. We're so good together. All I've ever done is love you, and everything I do is for you. For us."

"B-but ..."

"Sssh, no buts." Frank pulled her into his arms and whispered loving words into her ears. He kissed her cheek and stroke her hair. "It's my fault, my love. I was so busy at the hospital, and I thought all was well with us. I failed to see you were under a lot of pressure with work and with planning the wedding. It's me who should be asking for your forgiveness." A hand ran down her back with the expertise of an experienced lover, massaging and soothing the tautness in her muscle. Once it had been so easy to succumb to his display of tenderness and forget everything that had happened.

The conversation with Joe and Geillis popped in her mind, and her guts clenched. She had seen this side of Frank before. He knew what buttons to push and the words to say. How many times had she fallen for his promise of devotion and humbling plea for forgiveness, only for him to suddenly turn around so fast with a cutting remark or a cold look of objection that she thought she imagined the whole thing? He'd rewarded her with presents and gentle affection when she won his approval but punished her with hurtful words when she didn't live up to his expectations. 

Nausea slammed her with full force, and Claire stepped away from his hold. "Frank, I can't do this anymore. I've been unhappy for a long time, and I don't like the person I've become."

His brows furrowed, puzzlement evident in his eyes. "Claire, why are you speaking like that? I can understand you're confused because of the stress you're having, and you feel we've grown apart. It's normal to feel that way from time to time. Relationships cannot be likened to a walk in the park. It requires hard work. We'll have bad days sometimes, but that doesn't mean we don't love each other anymore. We're perfect together. Can't you see that? Everyone thinks so too."

She thought of Joe, Geillis and uncle Lamb, her towers of strength and the only thing consistent in her life. How many times had Frank excluded them from functions he'd arranged? It was almost like he was embarrassed by the company she kept. Geillis and Joe had tried their best to get along with him for her sake, but Frank never made it easy for them. And then she thought of her day-out in Cullen with Jamie. It was the first time in ages laughter had come easy, and there had been no expectations of her other than to be herself.  

"No, Frank, not everyone! My friends don't think we're perfect for one another. They believe you are keeping me away from them. You don't like them. You don't like me either. You're continuously telling me how to fix myself to make you happy. I'm so tired of living up to some standard. You want to change me, and that isn't what love is all about."

"What do you know of love?" he shot. He took a couple of steps forward, forcing her to back up against the wall. His calm demeanour was gone and in its place, a rage that she'd never seen on him before. Alarm seeped through, and she wanted to run, but fear froze her in place. "Do you even realise what you put me through? Imagine the humiliation I felt when I saw your picture on the newspaper this morning with that drunk former rugby player. The hospital is rife with gossip and everyone stares. Right now reporters are staking my home as well as my workplace. And did you even think of giving me a call? No, because you're so wrapped up in your own world and that James fucking Fraser. Mark my words, that man will use you Claire, and once he's done with you, he'll drop you like a hot potato. That's what he is, and that's what he does."

Anger bubbled up, and years of frustration found its voice. "What are you insinuating? I planned to run off with Jamie? I fell trying to escape through the window, and he caught me. If he hadn't been there, I'd be dead," she snapped, shoving him away from her. "And for your information, nothing happened between us. But by God, I was tempted. And you want to know why? Days before our wedding day, I kissed him in Lallybroch because I wanted to know if there was something wrong with me. You were always finding fault in our lovemaking, and I started to think something must be amiss. And guess what? You should have seen his face. I've never seen a man look at me the way he did. Desired and ..."

He flinched. "He's a player, Claire! 

"Do you think I care what he is, Frank?" she shouted. "The fact he made me feel whole and not broken and not undesirable was enough. I may lack experience when it comes to relationships, but I wasn't born in a bubble, and I'm not stupid. You treat me like a child ...like I can't think for myself. Give it a rest, Frank. Can't you see it? I'll never be enough for you, and you'll always find ways to change me."

The intimidation waned, and Frank's shoulders sagged. "Claire, the only reason why I asked more from you, is because I saw the potential in you. You are a brilliant doctor, and I didn't want you to settle. If I've caused you pain by pushing you, I'm so sorry. I'll change my ways. I can fix me. We can fix us together."

Guilt threatened to take hold, but she remembered how Frank treated her friends. "I'm so sorry, Frank. I don't want to fix us anymore. We're beyond repair. Let's not make this any more difficult than it is. It's over," she said softly. 

The unshed tears that glinted in his eyes nearly broke her heart, but she reminded herself to remain strong. "Please, Claire, give us some time. Take all the time you need. You're not thinking clearly right now. Don't throw away what we've built together."

Her body began to shake, so she wrapped her arms across her chest, to still the shiver skating over her body. "No, Frank. It will never work. We don't work anymore, and we haven't for ages. Just let me go. Please."

"We can work. I know that. But I won't push. You are understandably upset, and you need space." He reached out to touched her, but when she recoiled, he dropped his hand. "I will see you at the hospital next week, and we'll take it from there. I won't give up on us, Claire. I love you too much, and I know you feel the same way."

"No Frank, please don't do this ..." Her words trailed off when Jamie suddenly walked in.

She sucked in a breath as both men stilled and had a standoff staring at each other. She feared Frank might say something sharp and uncivil leading to a provocation. But to her relief, Jamie spoke first. "Uncle Lamb wishes to speak to you."

Frank nodded, glanced one more time at Claire and then left the room without another word.

Once they were alone, Jamie walked over to her and tilted her chin. "Ye alright, Sassenach?" 

"He won't let me go. I told him already it was over, but he won't listen."

"How about your things in his apartment?"

"I forgot to ask him. But I'll talk to him again next week when I go back to work, and I'll arrange a day to collect it."

"Joe and I will come with ye. Did Frank threaten ye?" He caressed her cheek, looking her over to check if she was harmed.

"N-no, nothing like that. It's Frank's mannerisms that is intimidating. He knows me too well. He plays on my guilt like a master, and his stubborn refusal to give up is making it all more difficult."

Jamie's face hardened, contradicting the gentleness of his touch. "Dinna fash, Sassenach. We'll talk more about it later. I need to get ye out of here. It's yer uncle's orders. By the way, yer uncle is not by any chance a murderer, is he?"

"Wot? Wot are you talking about?" Then a realisation hit her, and her eyes widened. "No! He didn't do the meat cleaver act on you, or did he?"

"Aye, he did." Jamie didn't look impressed, so she suppressed the laughter that was beginning to bubble up. "Weel, it will serve Frank right to get that treatment from yer uncle, intimidating ye like that. I nearly shat bricks when he was interrogating me." He tugged her hand and led her out of the apartment.

"That's why I didn't have boyfriends when I was the uni. He scared the hell out of them. How did you get away with it?"

Jamie glanced at her and winked. "I bribed him with a signed shirt from me. And a VIP pass for Murrayfield at the next rugby home game."

She stared at him in disbelief and saw the grudging smile trying to mar his handsome face. This time Claire let out the laughter, forgetting for a little while the heartache and worry Frank had caused and the problems that were yet to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Claire splashed water on her face, the refreshing coolness tempering her heated cheeks. Rotating her head and shoulders after a quick dry off, her joints popped and cracked. She looked at her reflection on the mirror and puffed out her cheeks. There were dark circles under her eyes, contrasting the paleness of her skin, and her curls stood out in places despite the hair tie and pins. She looked ghastly and was bone-tired and longed for a shower and bed. It was her first bathroom break in over eight hours, and she hadn't eaten a morsel nor drank anything. Squeezing her eyes shut, she took deep fortifying breaths and wondered how much more she could take.

Ever since returning back to work over a week ago, she had been alienated and cut-off by her colleagues at the hospital. No one, not even her once so-called friends, wanted to speak to her unless it was work-related. Once admired and applauded for her brilliance as a doctor, she was now shunned and spurned. They whispered and gossiped behind her back and sneered when they thought she wasn't looking. And the reporters who'd taken a keen interest in her, only made her predicament worse, almost getting herself arrested the other day on charges of assaulting a journalist. It happened while she was hurrying to an emergency and because of the photographer's sheer persistence to take a close-up photo, she'd shoved him out of the way, knocking him over. The charges were eventually dropped, but it didn't diminish her distress over the situation.

She'd known settling back to her old life wouldn't be easy, but reality hit her harder than she'd anticipated. She wondered how much Frank had divulged to the staff, as it was quite apparent that they had taken his side and taken matters into their own hands. Her stuff and charts started to get misplaced, her work schedules consisted of nights and double shifts, and senior staffs reprimanded and blamed her for the most inconsequential things. But she swore, no matter how bad the situation got, she would not break, even though she found it humiliating to have her life picked apart and scrutinised.

During the last few days, she'd tried to get hold of Frank to arrange a day to collect her things from his apartment, but it was becoming more obvious he was avoiding her. She knew he was playing his brokenhearted card after uncle Lamb informed her that Frank had taken a restraining order against him. When she'd asked her uncle what he'd done and said to him, he'd refused to share, citing that it was a conversation between two men and unfit for a young woman's ears. That alone was already quite telling and knowing her uncle, she knew it hadn't been pretty.

She sighed. Emotionally and physically drained, she slipped out of the toilet and went to the staff room. To her relief, it was empty. Taking a paper cup of water, she sat in the farthest area of the room and drank thirstily, trying her best to hold it together. Just another couple more hours and she was free to have her day and a half off.

"Claire?"

She stiffened. Though she'd wanted to speak to Frank for days, she didn't know if she had the strength right now. Who would have imagined being loathed by her work colleagues, would take so much out of her. She forced herself to meet his gaze. "Frank."

"Are you alright?" His normally neat dark brown hair was tousled, and he looked like he hadn't been getting much sleep either. 

"What do you think?" A sad smile formed her lips.

Sighing, he took a seat opposite her. "I know you're having a difficult time at the moment, but it will soon blow over. I was thinking ...maybe it would be a good idea if we took a holiday together. You know ...to reconnect and get some much-needed rest and get away from all this mess."

She stifled a groan of frustration.  What the hell? Why couldn't he get it?  "Frank, please. We've been through this already. A holiday cannot fix us. In fact, nothing can fix us anymore. Let's not do this again ...please. I'm tired, and all I want is peace of mind."

"No, Claire. You don't seem to understand. We belong to each other. You are confused because there are people in your life who are trying to separate us. And they are trying to make it out as if I'm the problem."

"Frank ..."

He reached out to take her hands in his, but she snatched them back. "Listen to me. They're trying to hinder your true potential when you could be much more. The only thing I'm guilty of is pushing you too hard to be a better version of yourself. It was a mistake, I know that now and I want to make it up to you. Please let me."

"Frank, this is unhealthy. I care about you, but I don't love you the way I used to, and you can't make me. Let's just learn from this mistake and move on. It is for the best."

His lips tightened, and determination carved out on his face. "Can't you see? Your friends are messing with your brain and feeding you all sorts of nonsense. And your uncle ... I believe he is not well. He should seek professional help. He is a violent man and could be a danger to society. And as for you, you need help too. It seems you are having difficulty functioning with the stress you are under. Let me help you, Claire, for the sake of your career and your mental health."

Dread snaked up her spine. "There is nothing wrong with my uncle. Whatever he said to you, he was just trying to protect me. This has nothing to do with him, my friends, my career or my mental health. Leave them out of it. This is between us, Frank," she grated.

He shrugged. "I've discussed you intensively with certain key people. I'm worried that after all that happened recently, it's affecting your ability to make the right decision under pressure here at work. Lives could be at stake if we don't address this. I've told them that your mental state had to do with the stress from wedding planning. I assured them I'd personally make sure your condition is assessed to see if you're fit to work."

"What are you trying to say, Frank?" Her body started to tremble with fury. 

He stood up, thrust his hands in his pants' pocket and spoke with controlled calm. "What I'm trying to tell you is, you are mine, and we are meant to be together. And I'd do anything in my power to get you back. The sooner you accept that, the better it is for your career. Oh, and by the way, I've changed the locks to my apartment. There is no need for you to collect your things. Eventually, you'll be moving right back in. And get rid of that James Fraser. He's not good for your image. Once you've made your decision, let me know. I trust you'll make the right one."

"You lying bastard! You can't do this! I'll report you to the authorities!" she seethed.

"Try me. I have friends in high places." He turned around to go but stopped midway. "And darling, please go home and get some rest. Those dark circles under your eyes aren't doing you any favour." And then he left.

Too shocked, Claire remained unmoving trying to grasp what just happened. The man she had once loved had turned into someone she hardly recognised. A part of her refused to think he was capable of blackmail and threats, but she had her uncle to think about. It was true what Frank had just said. He had friends at the high places, and it was his words against hers. 

She shoved her fear aside. There was no need to blow it out of proportion just yet when she was far too exhausted to think straight. It could only be that Frank was still miffed about the whole situation of their break up and he was saying things out of anger. She would play it out for a few more days, see how the next week pans out and then she will make her decision.

The pocket of her jacket buzzed, and absentmindedly, she grabbed her phone. Swiping the screen, she smiled when she saw a text notification from Jamie. She hadn't seen him since she started work as most of her free time was spent catching up on sleep. Although he'd called almost every day to check up on her, she missed his reassuring presence and their easy banter. She read the message and all thoughts of Frank and her tiredness slipped away.

Just remembered you're free tonight and tomorrow. Is it alright if I stop by? Got some news to share. x

A warm glow spread across her belly, and her heart did a gentle pitter-patter.  Ah, why not?  She didn't want to spend her first day off since coming back to work worrying about Frank. 

She quickly texted back. 

Come on over. I can't wait to see you. x

And she meant it.

..........

Jamie knocked and waited. He'd driven twice past Claire's cottage, and he'd recognised the paparazzi van parked just across her street. It was the same one that used to park near his apartment building.  Bastards!  Instead of parking on her driveway, he decided to park several streets away. On his way to her house, he jogged through a maze of residences and gardens, avoided the roads, climbed a brick wall, and now he was stood at her back door. 

He knocked again. 

Sensing movement in the kitchen, he leaned forward and whispered out loud. "Sassenach! It's me!" 

He heard Claire muttering as she unlatched the bolts. "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! You frightened the hell out of me! I thought you're a reporter."

The door swung open, and he lifted the carrier bag high. "Surprise! I have pizza and red wine. I hope ye haven't ..." His speech left him as his gaze landed on her figure.  Christ!

When it came to women and seduction, he was used to clingy, slinky dresses, stilettos, musky perfume and red painted lips. The woman before him was displaying none, but yet, the way she looked, made the blood roar in his ears and his cock strain achingly against his jeans. He gulped and tried to even his breathing. 

Her skin was damp, and her hair was loosely tied back, dark tendrils of wild curls framing her flushed face. She wore a white cotton shirt nightgown that fell above her knees, and her feet were bare. Although she was modestly covered, he could see the faint outline of her breast and the swell of her hips. The clean smell of shower gel drifted to his nostril, making him want to lift her up against him and bury his face on the crook of her neck.

"Jamie?" She waved a hand in front of his face. "Are you alright?"

"Uh, hey!"

"Hey? What kind of greeting is that?"

He shook himself. And with a lot of effort, kept his gaze on her face. "Have ye eaten?"

"Oh, sweet mother of God, get in here," she mumbled, grabbing him by the wrist and pulling him indoors. Electricity shot through his veins and his mouth dried up at her touch. "Haven't you notice there's a reporter's van outside?"

"Oh, that, aye. I-I saw ...," Jamie replied hoarsely, almost croaking.

She shut the door and eyed him suspiciously. "What's the matter with you?"

"What's the matter with me?"

"Do I hear an echo?"

"Ye dae?"

"Jamie!"

Fuck!  "I'm sorry. I'm out of breath. I parked the car far away from here and had to jog." 

She didn't believe him. When she crossed her arms across her chest, he couldn't help seeing the shadows of her nipples underneath the innocent white cotton. A moan almost escaped his mouth, and he was glad he had the carrier bag in front of him to conceal the strain in front of his jeans. "You're never out of breath, Jamie. What's up?" 

"What's up?"

"Jamie! You're doing it again! You're repeating what I'm saying."

Christ, what's wrong with me?  He was acting like a horny teenager, and if Claire found out, he was a hundred per cent sure she would throw him out.  Definitely, not happening!

"Here," he barked, thrusting the bag of pizza and red wine at her. "It'll save ye preparing dinner." He immediately regretted snapping at her, but to his relief, she simply rolled her eyes and took the bag from him. 

"You're really acting odd, but I won't argue with you. Only because I'm hungry and I haven't eaten all day," she chattered, placing the bag on the counter and pulling out the bottle of wine.  

While her back was turned, he took the opportunity to dive in behind the kitchen table. "So, has Frank spoken to you yet?" he asked nonchalantly, the mention of her ex-fiance slightly softening his erection.

He saw her shoulder brace, and she stopped what she was doing. "Actually, he did, today. But I don't want to talk about him."

He didn't like the subdued tone of her voice. "He didn't threaten ye, did he?" he asked softly. 

"Well, Frank said a lot of things out of anger and hurt. I don't think he meant any of it." She turned around and handed him the wine and the corkscrew. "He's still hoping we'd get back together, but I guess it's difficult for him to accept that we aren't. I'm quite sure in time, he would."

Mental alarm bells went off. "Frank's very persistent, isn't he? Just be very careful, Sassenach. I do not mean to frighten ye, but I think he is up to something dodgy."

She frowned. "Dodgy? What do you mean?" 

"I was handed a restraining order from the sheriff court on behalf of Frank this morning, and I have nae idea why. I've only met the man once, exchanged a few words and that was at your uncle's apartment."

"Wot?" She looked at him in disbelief. "My uncle received one as well! I can understand why he got one ...but you? And how is that even possible Frank could have restraining orders handed out like they were lollies? Isn't there a process in court for that?" 

Jamie shrugged. "I guess he knows the right people."

She blew out a breath. "Oh, God, I'm so sorry. I don't know why you're getting involved in this whole mess. This isn't even your problem, and I feel you're being dragged into it because of me."

Something was definitely off, but he didn't want her fretting. "Look ...dinna fash. I'll have our family lawyer look into it. Nae use worrying about something we don't know about. Maybe he had the restraining order sent as a way of intimidating ye. Just, make sure ye don't find yersel' alone with him. The good thing about the paparazzi outside, at least there'll always be someone watching over ye and the house."

She contemplated his words and sighed in resignation. "I supposed so. Intimidation seems to be his forte, but I'd never known him to be ruthless." She placed the pizza, plates and cutleries on the table and sat down opposite him. "Ah, what the hell, it's my day off tomorrow. So let's not ruin it talking about Frank. Tell me about your news."

"Right, about that," he began, helping himself to a pizza, glad of the change in subject. "My agent informed me that the network is considering me for the TV presenting job. There are other candidates, of course, but apparently, I've been mentioned on the big table more than once. I didn't even think my name would even cross their lips because of my reputation."

"Jamie, that's fabulous," she breathed. "I've watched you so many times on TV talk about rugby, and I thought back then you'd do a great job presenting sports. Your voice sounds great, and you've always looked comfortable on camera. And when you speak, the words just flow out of you. Of course, they'd consider you. That's no surprise there." 

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." Jamie couldn't hide his amused smile. It felt great to be talking about the sport he loved. Although it had been perceived as a touchy subject by most people he knew, Claire didn't walk on eggshells around him. "You really like rugby, don't ye?"

"I've always watched the rugby. Sometimes with my uncle and sometimes with Joe and Geillis," she explained, offhandedly, taking a sip of the wine. "And I've seen the game live a few times when I was assisting Joe and his medical crew for your team. I've even tended to you once."

His felt the heat creep up his face. "Aye, Joe recently told me. Nae wonder ye looked familiar when I saw ye in Lallybroch. I was such an arse to ye, wasn't I?"

"Bygones," she laughed, waving a hand in dismissal of the topic. "Anyway, I think you'll get the job. I've seen the other candidates' names on an article online, and I don't think anyone can surpass you. Your evident passion for the game is what's going to get you through."

"Aye?" Seeing her enthusiasm caused an uncomfortable tug on his chest, but he cleared his throat through it. He didn't know how much time they had together if he got the job, and that's a big "if." With her work schedule and a possible place on TV, he'd probably never see her again. "Let's not get carried away, Sassenach. There's still my reputation to consider, and that could be my downfall. My agent suggested I need a change of image befitting a family network."

"Oh! Change of image? How are you going to do that?"

He leaned back on his chair and exhaled deeply. "Christ knows! Maybe I should get a cottage in the countryside, plant loads of flowers and perhaps get two dogs."

They laughed at each other for a few seconds before Claire stilled on her chair and pink bloomed on her cheeks. "Oh, wait! I have a brilliant idea. One that doesn't require you to buy a property in the countryside. And I think it might just work," she whispered.

He looked at her warily. "Sassenach ...why am I getting a feeling I'm not going to like what ye're about to say?"

"Hear me out first. You've never been in a committed relationship, right?"

"Bloody hell! I told yer uncle Lamb that in confidence," he fumed, dragging a hand behind his neck.

"Oh, shush, will you? Listen! If you want to get rid of your player image, you need to look like you're not afraid of commitment. And there's a way to do that."

"Sassenach ..." His heart pummeled hard against his ribs.

"You could pretend to be my boyfriend," she blurted out.

"Have ye gone mad?"

"Maybe." Her cheeks turned from pink to dark crimson. "It'll only be until the network are convinced that you are not a commitment-phobe. And who knows, the journalists may even write an article about you in a good light. That should help your image."

"No!" 

"We wouldn't be actually ...you know, doing it." 

"Ha! Ye'd be the first person to date me without the perks! Sorry, no! Not happening!"

"No? Why not?"

"Because!" he snapped. "Yer stock will go in the opposite direction. Ye're a doctor for crying out loud, and if ye're connected to me in any way, ye'll never be taken seriously. Ye'll just be another notch on James Fraser's bedpost."

The light in her eyes dimmed. "Goodness, Jamie, you really do have quite a low opinion about yourself, don't you?" she whispered. "Answer me this. Are you only worried about people thinking I've made a wrong decision ... or do you actually believe it?" 

"It doesn't matter what I believe in," he muttered.

"Of course, it matters, damn it!" she argued. "You've been encouraging me to stand up to Frank. Now I want you to stand up to all the false rumours that were written about you. How do you expect me to listen to you ever again if you're not practising what you preach?"

"They'll drag your name through the mud and then leave ye hanging out to dry. I can take the beating, Sassenach but I cannot bear to see ye go through all that."

"They've done that already, Jamie," she said with a sadness that clenched his guts. "I've been labelled a whore, and a cheating fiancee. And Frank had already made sure to make my life at work a living hell. I have nothing else to lose, but I could help you get this job. At least, all the name callings and accusations will not be in vain."

Seeing the determination in her frame, Jamie knew he was fighting a losing battle, but he had another defence up his sleeve. "Pretending to be in a relationship to fool the press will not be easy."

"We'll work on it," she said firmly, her chin jutting out in defiance.

Christ, she's stubborn!  Although the idea was becoming more tempting by the minute, he needed to give her a chance to back out. He cleared his throat and leaned forward. "The camera will always be pointed at us, and we need to look convincing as a new couple. There'll be a lot of PDA when we're in public; otherwise, they'll smell foul play." 

"What's PDA?"

"Public display of affection. Like kissing and holding hands." His voice sounded mangled. The thought of kissing and holding her made his cock spring back to life.  Ah, fuck!

"We've done the kissing and holding hands already, so that won't be new to us. Besides, they think we're a couple already."

"It willnae be pretend-kissing," he rasped. "Those paparazzi have state of the art cameras and can zoom in from long distances. They'll know if we're faking it and they willnae hesitate to label it as such."

She didn't look perturbed at all. "Have I ever fake kissed you?" He nearly groaned out loud.  Down, lad, down!  He shifted uncomfortably on his seat and bit his lip hard to cut through his hard-on.

Ignoring her question, he soldiered on. "To be convincing, we can't tell anyone that we're in a fake relationship ...not even friends or family. We can't risk anyone slipping up. The less who knows, the better."

"I can live with that."

"We'd be playing a dangerous game ..."

"Frank likes to play games. Maybe this will sharpen my skills."

"Sassenach ..."

"What?"

"Are ye sure ye want to do this?"

Her face softened as she smiled, her eyes lighting up with excitement. "Yes, I'm quite sure. You helped me get away from Frank, so now let me help you get the job. That's what friends do for each other, right?"

Suddenly, hope started to emerge.  This could really work.  Didn't his agent say his only drawback was his reputation? If they manage to convince the network he was settling down, he could get the job he wanted. He would be presenting and talking about the sport he loved. In time, people would only see the sports personality that he was and not some philanderer the tabloids painted him to be. Maybe, somewhere along the line, he could also help budding talents break through the world of rugby or coach younger teams. 

He let that soak in for a while, but there was a niggling feeling that wouldn't quite settle.  How about Claire? What if I did get the job?  It would probably mean relocating to London. He tried to imagine not seeing her again, and he didn't like the idea one bit. Asking her to move away from Edinburgh would be crazy. She wasn't his, and he wasn't even sure if they would work together.

He should be happy that Claire was willing to help him. But how come it felt like an anvil had just fallen between them?

That's what friends do for each other, right?   She'd said.

Claire frowned. "What's the matter?"

He looked at her beautiful face. There was still time before the network announced who would get the job. Pushing his dark thoughts away, he decided right there and then, he would make sure every moment with Claire counts. "Nothing ... I was just thinking, maybe we ought to start practising on those PDA moves," he grinned, winking at her.

She threw a napkin at him and laughed. "Cheeky bastard!"

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Someone's following me!

Claire first noticed she was being watched when she'd glanced up from browsing a shelf at a bookstore. The man looked to be in his early thirties and was wearing faded jeans and a white shirt that had a logo she couldn't make out. He had thick brown hair and Jamie's height and breadth, and she'd sensed a familiarity about him. When their gaze met, he'd smiled at her, then turned and walked away. She didn't think much more of it after that, other than he was handsome and had a kind face.

Then she'd seen him again in her periphery at the coffee shop where she'd had a quick espresso, and later at the pharmacy while paying for her goods. Trying not to worry and seem paranoid, she put it down to coincidence. The last few days had been quite trying enough attempting to slot in back to work, and she was determined not to let her woes of Frank mar her day-off. But when the stranger took the same turns as her while strolling along the street, panic began to mount. A lot of thoughts tumbled into her mind, but one theory jumped out. The stranger could be someone Frank had sent to intimidate her.

She was about to flag a taxi down when she realised she wasn't far from where Jamie lived. He'd given her his address last night when he'd come over for a visit, in case she was in the vicinity and wanted to pop in. With no time to think, she ran all the way to his apartment building, shopping bags flapping at her side. She was relieved to see someone come out, saving her from waiting to be buzzed in. Swiftly, she slipped through the opening, and when she heard the running footsteps and the stranger calling out to her, she quickly pushed the heavy door shut and ran up the stairs.

In no time, she found Jamie's apartment on the second floor, and after a round of vigorous rapping, his door opened.

"Sassenach!"

Sweet Mother of Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!  He was shirtless, and his grey sweatpants hung low on his lean hips. Like a brazen hussy, her gaze automatically dipped to his beautifully sculpted abs, past his belly button. "I'm being followed," she wheezed, chest heaving, unable to tear her gaze from the trail of dark copper hair that disappeared underneath the waistband of his pants.

"What do ye mean ye're being followed? Frank?" 

She gulped air and shook her head, clutching her middle.  Oh, dear, God!  Her sides hurt from the exertion of running, and the sight of his naked upper body was making it even more challenging to talk. She definitely needed to do more exercise and to learn more restrain when it came to looking at naked bodies, all in that order. "I think he was sent by Frank ...a-a very tall man. He's been watching me all morning." Then she stilled, and her eyes flew to his face when she heard the main entrance door open, and heavy, resounding footsteps on the lobby's floor. "That's him, I think," she whispered. "He was right behind me. Someone probably let him in."

"Are ye sure?" he cocked his head toward the staircase. "It could be a reporter that was following ye. Have ye thought of that?"

Her eyes widened.  No.  She hadn't thought of that. When she'd left her cottage this morning, taking the bus instead of her car, she'd noticed the paparazzi van parked down the street, had disappeared. The saying  out of sight, out of mind  seemed to ring true as she'd forgotten about them. And even out in public view, no one had recognised nor taken notice of her, making her complacent and negligent.

"A reporter? We could get photographed." 

He arched an eyebrow at her dropped jaw. "Wasn't that the plan, Sassenach?" 

"Plan?" she squeaked. She remembered the idea she had proposed to Jamie and how they had agreed on it. But she hadn't been anticipating this to happen so soon. A sudden fluttering-butterfly-wings-feeling tickled her neck, and her attention funnelled down to the steady footsteps climbing up the stairs and the half-naked man before her. No one else was in the corridor of the second floor but them.  Uh-oh!

Caught unaware, he gently pried the shopping bags from her hands and placed them by the entrance. And then with deliberate slowness, he walked her backwards till she hit the wall and lifted his hand to cradle her jaw. "Ye still want to do this?" His sky-blue eyes turned dark as it strayed to her mouth. "It's yer call. We have an advantage ... we can decide what they see. And whatever happens, we're in this together." 

Her biggest worry wasn't the photographer. It was her heart. Claire had been crushing on Jamie for as long as she could remember and she'd accepted long ago, he was just a secret fantasy she'd indulged herself. But that was then and from afar. And this, here and now, was a totally different ball game. She'd seen sides of him she'd never seen before and every day she was beginning to like every discovery of that facet. Would she still be able to maintain that level of objectivity after their fake relationship was over? Standing before Jamie, she couldn't even summon to feel any sadness of her recent lost love, let alone conjure a memory of Frank's face.

The footsteps became louder, and Jamie inched closer, his rapid breathing creating havoc to her senses. "Sassenach?" he whispered, his mouth hovering over hers as he waited for her consent. 

Hesitation warred with need, but this had been her idea, and she wasn't about to let him down after everything he'd done for her. If the price for getting him his dream job was future heartache, she could at least console herself with the fact she didn't end up with Frank. Swallowing her nerves, she placed her hands on his chest and lifted herself on tiptoes. "What are you waiting for? Kiss me then."

Jamie drew slightly back, smiled and then their lips brushed. In an instant, she was swept up mentally and physically by the pulse-pounding sensation. It wasn't a kiss as such but more of a savouring the moment as they breathed each other's partially opened mouth. She felt his heart hammering against her hands, and his thumb caressing the underside of her jaw. It was heavenly, sweet and torturous at the same time as he continued to hold back. And then he moved in, so indecently close ...

"Oops, sorry I'll come back another time." 

Both their heads snapped to the direction of the voice, and she flinched at Jamie's muttered profanity. They had both forgotten the approaching footsteps.

"Willie!"

Giving her an apologetic look, Jamie drew away, but his arm remained around her. "This is my older brother, Sassenach. I wasn't expecting him until later." Then he tugged her hand, urging her to step forward. "Willie, I'd like ye to meet my ..."

"Claire ...my name is Claire," she interrupted, heat and pink fanning out on her face as she shook Willie's hand. She'd sensed Jamie was about to introduce her as his girlfriend, but she wasn't ready for their fake relationship to officially start. Especially not with a member of his family present. And as it turned out, Jamie's brother was the same man she had thought was following her. Up close, she can now see his slight resemblance to Jamie. They had the same intense blue eyes and frame, but that's where their similarities ended. Jamie's russet-coloured locks were a stark contrast to Willie's dark chocolate waves, and whereas Willie looked physically fit, Jamie had a more toned compact body of an elite athlete.

"Please to meet ye, Claire. I'm sorry for scaring ye earlier. Ye looked so familiar, and I couldnae help but stare and wonder." He grinned and then winked at his brother. "Dinnae bother about me. I can come back another time, but I'm glad to finally meet the beautiful runaway bride."

Jamie groaned. "Fuck sake, please don't refer to her like that again. She's getting enough pelters at work."

"Ach, keep yer heid, lad." Willie play-punched his brother on the shoulder before facing her. "Everyone in Lallybroch is dying to meet ye, Claire. We never had a chance the last time because Jamie here was too busy keeping ye to himself and snogging ye in secret."

"Willie ..." Jamie warned, his ears turning a deep shade of red.

"Oh, I guess the whole world knows now," she murmured.

Willie's mouth twitched in amusement. "Not quite but if ye come to ma's Sunday lunch this coming weekend, ye can tell us all about it. What say ye?"

Before she could reply, Jamie butted in. "Do ye mind if ye wait inside?" he asked his brother, jerking his thumb towards his apartment. "I need to speak to Claire in private."

"Ah, yes, of course ...sure." Willie smiled knowingly at them as if they were up to no good. "Think about Sunday lunch, Claire. Ma makes the best lamb roast, and it would be great to have ye there too," he added before disappearing into the apartment.

Once they were alone, Jamie let out a soft sigh and tilted her chin. "I'm so sorry about that, Sassenach. So, where were we before we got rudely interrupted?"

"Jamie!" she jerked her head up. "Are you serious?"

"Do I seem like I'm joking?"

"There's no paparazzi!"

"I'm aware of that."

Attempting to disguise her rioting nerves, she lowered her eyes. Jamie had already warned her last night they were playing a dangerous game. And even though it was against the one single rule, she'd made for herself, her body craved for his touch and his kiss. 

"You want to kiss me even without the paparazzi?"

Jamie gripped her chin. "I do. But fair warning, Sassenach. If ye agree to let me kiss ye, I'm not letting ye leave." His thumb brushed her lower lip. "I'm applying a lot of restraint here, so if ye want to stay, make the next move, otherwise ..."

"... don't allow you to kiss me," she finished off.

He stroked her hair and smiled wistfully. "I couldnae say it out loud ...it's too sad."

She almost laughed. In her current state, it was too easy to succumb to her physical needs, but he was giving her a chance to think it over and make a choice. She'd come to learn that although Jamie may be stubborn in a lot of ways, not once had he ever pressured her to do anything she didn't want. While he was best known for his ways with women, what she saw right now was not cockiness but confidence that came from a place of maturity and respect. And she liked that very much.

"Jamie, I ...umm ..." She frantically searched for words as desire and logic played tug of war.

"You're not staying," he sighed, his hands dropping heavily on her shoulders. Although he smiled, she saw a flicker of disappointment in his eyes. "It's okay, Sassenach. I understand. It's too soon."

It was hard to believe he was affected by a simple kiss as she was when he'd been with so many women. But she reminded herself Jamie wanted a job as a sports presenter and they're only required to be convincing in public, not in private. If she was to keep her head above water, she needed to have that in the forefront of her mind. 

Already regretting her decision to leave, she began to step away from the magnetic pull humming about them and scooped up her shopping bags. 

"I would love to stay, Jamie but I'm not ready. But don't worry, I'm sticking to our little arrangement with the pap walk, and we'll get you that job." 

He let out a humourless laugh, as he planted a hand on the wall and dropped his head forward. "Sounds like a grand plan, Sassenach."

"It's not a plan. It's a promise."

He considered her for a moment, then nodded stiffly.

Not wanting to leave things awkward between them, she reached out to him and touched his face. "I'm busy with errands for the rest of today and tomorrow I have a late shift. How about dinner at my place on Wednesday? I'll cook."

His face softened. "I'd love that. Shall I pick you up from work?"

She shook her head. "No. You can't be anywhere near Frank. There's a restraining order against you, remember? Besides, I'll have my car." Finally giving in to her urge, she leaned in and kissed his chin. "I'll see you at my place?"

"Try and stop me."

Somehow she managed to hide her smile until she left his apartment building.

..........

Claire made her way to her next patient. It had been total chaos for the last couple of days with the shortage of staff and beds. Although it had been an absolute nightmare, the workload was a welcome respite from the silent animosity treatment she'd been receiving from her work colleagues. More than ever, she focused all her energy on getting tasks done with efficiency and extra care, not allowing room for mistakes to give Frank ammunition to destroy her career.

"Dr Beauchamp!" She stiffened and turned around. It was Dr Lionel Brown, head of the A&E and good friend of Frank. "I need bed number five to be vacated. What's the status?"

She squared her shoulders and looked at him in the eyes. "I was just about to reexamine the patient. But I don't think it's advisable to transfer him just yet." The patient, Josiah Beardsley, a young man, had just had oesophagal surgery and was still in critical condition.

Dr Brown frowned at her with disgust. "Give me that," he barked, referring to the chart she had in her hands. He quickly skimmed through the report and shoved it back at her. "The surgery went swimmingly well. He will be fine. Get Mr Beardsley transferred to the recovery unit."

"With all due respect, I know the patient is borderline, and we need the beds, but the anaesthetists in the operating room had had already difficulty placing the breathing tube before the surgery. We need to wait until the inflammation has gone down before transferring him."

Ignoring Claire's words, he signalled the nurse and a doctor-in-training. "Get Mr Beardsley transferred. Now! We have an incoming patient, and we need the bed." And then he faced her. "Are ye seeing things that aren't there, Dr Beauchamp? Is the stress getting too much for ye that I have to continually make sure ye're doing yer job? Please don't waste my time again or else ..." And with that, he turned around, leaving Claire to stare open-mouth at him.

She bit back her frustration and went back to work. Turning her attention back to her patient, she was on time to find the head nurse and the doctor-in-training about to take the breathing tube. "Don't you dare do that if you don't want his life in your conscience. I swear to God, if anything happens to him, I will take this to the board." 

Although seemingly unsure whether to obey her or not, fear of the consequence prevailed, and they eventually followed her orders but with a look of contempt.

With a sigh of relief, she continued her rounds, checking on the other patients and ordering the transfer for those who were in a stable condition. She didn't allow Dr Brown's words to rattle her. Her gut feeling was screaming to keep an eye on this particular patient, and she wasn't about to back down just because she was unpopular with the rest of the staff. She was going to stick to her guns even if it meant facing disciplinary action.

In medical school, there was so much knowledge and learning to absorb, that her brain was perpetually on overload. But she'd always felt she had an innate instinctual response ability when it came to the art of healing. She realised that if she listened and looked beyond textbook facts and thought outside the box, allowing simple common sense to guide her, she discovered things that routine exams or logic didn't. Frank had nearly suppressed that ability when he'd continuously drummed into her to stick to evidence and facts only, citing that following gut instinct could lead to irreversible mistakes and chaos.

"Why is bed number five still not vacated?" Dr Lionel Brown's voice boomed.

She dipped her head and pretended to be going over a patient's chart. "I need to check on a few more things before I release him. But I've vacated three more beds so that will tide us over for the next two hours."

"He should have been transferred half an hour ago. What the hell do ye think are ye doing? Ye think ye're the one running the show here?"

Sweat trickled down her back. "No. I don't think that at all. Mr Beardsley has still severe swelling on the throat and needs to be under observation. Taking off the tube to transfer him could do more damage."

He gritted his teeth, and his voice dropped low. "Of course, there is still swelling. Mr Beardsley just had surgery, for crying out loud. Get him transferred! Now!"

"No! You are making a mistake!"

"Who the hell do ye think ye are?" he growled, his eyes looking like they're about to pop out.

"What's going on here?" Frank intervened.

Claire squeezed her eyes shut.  Oh, sweet Jesus! Just what I need.  She knew she'd overstepped the line but deep down Claire also knew she'd do it all over again, come hell or high water.

Brown narrowed his gaze. "Sort her out, Frank or I will. I cannae tolerate impudence in my A&E." And then he walked away with a snort of disgust.

Frank grabbed her elbow and led her to a corner. His hair was dishevelled, and he looked exhausted. She'd heard in whispered rumours that he'd been doing double shifts to drown his sorrows of losing her, making her out to be the bad guy.

"What's all these about, Claire?"

She kept her calm and her voice professional. "I'm so sorry, but Dr Brown wasn't listening to my concerns regarding a patient. I wanted to keep Mr Beardsley longer for further observation, but he refused."

"He must have a very valid reason to refuse. He's been a doctor way before you started your medical studies. He knows what he's doing."

Stubbornness claimed her. "I do not deny Dr Brown's superiority nor his experience, but we ...us ...doctors are not infallible."

"So you think you are smarter than any of us here and your decision is the way forward?"

She glared at him. "No! I followed my gut feelings. Mr Beardsley is not out of the woods yet, and Dr Brown was too eager to send him to the recovery unit. All I wanted was to do more tests."

"Gut feelings, huh? The same one that you followed when you escaped through the church window. Is that right?"

Claire winced. "Leave us out of this. This is all about work."

"All this has everything to do with us, Claire. You are under my direction. I made you and helped you with your career." Frank cleared his throat and closed the distance. "Have you made your decision about us yet?"

"There is nothing to decide. I've made up my mind a while back. I'm not coming back to you, Frank."

"So, just like that ... you're chucking everything we've hoped and built together away? Based on some insane gut feeling you have."

"If that's how you insist on wording it, then yes, Frank. I'm sick and tired of telling you over and over again, we're done. You're not the only one hurting here. This is difficult for me too. Why can't you just let me be and move on?"

His face remained impassive. "Very well, then. You leave me with no other option other than to start a formal disciplinary report on your file. You've disobeyed a superior, and you were going to go ahead with an unnecessary test that had been refused. I'll have Dr Brown lodge a formal complaint about your instability."

Her breath whooshed out of her lungs, sadness and fury swirling together in one big ball, threatening to explode. "Why are you doing this?" she whispered. "To get back at me? Is this how you treat someone you love?"

"It didn't have to be this way, Claire. You made your choice. You could stay and work here in the hospital if you wish but remember this, you are in my world, and I will not make it easy for you. I made your career, and I can easily shred it to pieces if I want to. And if you lodge a complaint against me, no one will believe you."

Her heart sank as her future unfurled before her. If she fought Frank, there's a possibility she'd not only lose the fight but also every bit of confidence in her abilities and her love for medicine by the time he was done with her. She could take the gossips, snide remarks and hateful stares, and she could also handle Frank's manipulative and controlling ways. But what she wouldn't be able to take was the slow disintegration of her skill and growth as a doctor. Frank was a skilled manipulator, and he could spin the story any way he wished, and people would believe him.

"Dr Beauchamp! Dr Beauchamp ...bed number five, something has gone horribly wrong!" a nurse shouted in her direction.

She cursed under her breath and gave Frank one last look before turning into full doctor mode, aware he was right behind her.

Her worse fear happened. The patient, Josiah Beardsley's endotracheal tube had been removed, and his breathing was speeding up as his oxygen level dropped dangerously. One of the doctors present was trying to reinsert the tube but was having difficulty. 

With utmost calm, she nodded at her colleague and took over. She flashed her penlight into the patient's mouth and saw a swollen mass of dark pink tissue.  Not good!

"Shall we bag him?" one of the doctors asked.

"No. He might vomit. Give him two milligrams of propofol," Claire instructed without looking up. Once he was sedated, she opened his mouth and inserted a laryngoscope to locate the vocal cords. Time was of an essence as she had four minutes before brain damage set in and the enlarged tissue was making it difficult to find the airway. 

When she finally found it, she quickly placed the tube into the mouth and down to the lower portion of the trachea. It seemed like an eternity before the device was properly placed, but she only allowed herself to breath, once Beardsley was connected to the ventilator. 

Stepping away, Claire realised an ashen-faced Dr Brown had been watching the whole scene, along with Frank and a handful of staff. "Well, that's sorted then, Dr Brown. Let's hope our patient here wakes up once the medication wears off." She looked at her watch. "That should be in fifteen minutes. Otherwise, you have some explaining to do to his family," she said calmly without any hint of smugness.

Everyone looked at her with a mixture of remorse and awe, but that didn't do anything for her. Not even when a hand patted her on the shoulder. She was done and spent. She was tired of constantly having to prove herself, and knew this battle with Frank was best left alone for the sake of her peace of mind. 

To the astonishment of the onlookers, she shook her head and let out a hollow laugh, as she lifted her arms and let them fall to her sides. It's done. It's over.

As if Frank had surmised what she was about to do, he took a step forward. "Claire ..."

She raised a hand. "You win, Dr Randall." And she looked at the rest of the staff that came to gather around them. "You all win." Tears threatened to spill, but she refused to give anything more of her. She'd given far too much of herself already for their daily entertainment. Silently, Claire grieved for the career she'd dreamed of since she was young and her love for a man she once believed in. She wanted to retain all that was good she had shared with Frank, but he had crushed all that in one blow. What she was about to do was for the best even if it meant destroying the final fragile thread between them. With a heavy heart, Claire finally spoke. "I am resigning from my residency. I shall hand in my formal resignation in a couple of days. I sincerely hope you'll all be happier without me here. Goodbye." 

And then numbly she walked out of the A&E, unhearing of the voices that were calling after her.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Geillis walked into Claire's bedroom with a tray of tea and placed it on a table. "Right, lass, start from the beginning. Tell us what happened."

Massaging the centre of her forehead, Claire took a breath. She hadn't been expecting Geillis and Joe to come this early in the day and bombard her with questions. She wished now she'd delayed sharing her news so she could wallow in her hangover. Alone.

After she'd walked out of the A&E last night, she'd bought a bottle of white wine, sent voice messages to her friends, including Jamie and her uncle explaining to them what happened and switched off her phone. She'd spent the night drinking and watching reruns of the stand-up comedian Kevin Bridges show, in the hope her favourite comic would somehow lessen the pain of losing her job. Then she'd ended up literally crawling to her bedroom and falling asleep on the floor until she was woken by her friends' frantic knocking.

Joe, who was sat beside her on the bed, squeezed her hand and gave her an encouraging nod.

"There's not much to say other than what I've already told you in the voice message," she sighed. "I had a showdown with Dr Brown and Frank, and when Frank threatened to destroy my career, I realised I've had enough. It's just not worth my peace of mind."

Joe stood up, clenching and unclenching his fists. "I'm going to kill that son of a bitch. I wish I'd done that a long time ago."

"Joe, I need you here and not in jail. So no more talks about killing, okay?" Claire coaxed, stifling a smile. "Come back here and sit down. Anger doesn't become you."

"But Frank can't be allowed to get away with that," Geillis fumed. "Ye need to get yersel' a lawyer and be advised appropriately on how to proceed. He's not that powerful that he can destroy your career. He's just a bloody doctor!"

Claire grabbed a newspaper at her side table and tossed it at the edge of the bed. "And a national treasure, according to The Guardian."

"Yeah, such a treasure that you want to bury him."

"So morbid, Joe," Claire clucked. "I know you both mean well, but let's drop the subject on Frank for now. Please? I left the hospital because I need to regroup. I can't fight him when I'm physically and emotionally drained, and Frank has been banking on my weakness to strategically manoeuver me back to his life. He's got the whole staff against me, and unknowingly, they're doing his dirty work for him. It's pointless reporting him now or getting involved with lawsuits when he's got the backing of a lot of important people inside and outside the hospital. What's important is I get to live another day to pick the right battle for me."

Geillis plonked herself on the bed and grabbed her hand. "So, what are your plans now? Transfer to another residency program?"

"No," she replied, shaking her head. "I'm taking a break for a few weeks. That should be enough time to sort my head and plan my next move."

"But what about your things?" Joe asked. "Shouldn't you call the police for that?"

"Frank can keep my stuff. I couldn't care less. While I was growing up with uncle Lamb, we had so little need for things because of the travelling we did. Actually, it's quite liberating not to have a lot of possessions to weigh me down.  Travel light  has always been my uncle's motto."

"Yes, but you're not ..."

They were interrupted by a loud knock on the door. 

Geillis, already looking on edge, immediately went on defensive and alert mode and jumped out of bed. "I'll get that."

Claire laughed. "That better not be Frank. Otherwise, he's skewered."

"Look who's morbid now?" Joe grinned.

A moment passed, and Geillis walked back in with a hamper encased in a decorative cellophane wrapping paper. "Is this Frank's way of trying to apologise or what?" she muttered trying to peer at the card.

"Wot? Let me see that." Claire got on her knees and reached out for the package. Impatiently, she tore the wrapping apart and was astonished to find an assorted collection of Thornton's and Lindt chocolate, beautifully set in a basket. In the middle of the sweets were a small stuffed teddy bear bearing the word smile and a card in a red envelope. With trembling hands, she slipped the card out. "It's from Jamie," she whispered.

"Whoa!" Joe exclaimed under his breath.

Geillis peered over her shoulder.

 

Dear Claire, 

I got your message last night. I tried to call you, but I guess you switched off your phone. So, here's a little treat to make you feel a bit better after the horrendous night you had. I wish I could bring this to you personally, but I have to see my agent. 

Jamie x

PS Don't cook for us tonight and don't eat too many chocolates. I'm taking you out.

 

"Weel, weel, what's this about? Is Jamie wooing ye?" Geillis asked, arching an eyebrow at her.

"Wooing?" Claire laughed nervously, opening a box of the Lindt chocolate and popping a sweet morsel into her mouth before offering it to them. "Are we in the eighteenth century or what?" She was about to change the subject when a thought came to her. She hadn't told Joe and Geillis about the arrangement she made with Jamie and she really ought to, before they were photographed and the story hit the newsstands. In as much as she hated lying to her friends, she couldn't tell them that it was all a stunt to get Jamie the job.  The fewer people know, the better,  Jamie had said. "Um guys, I have something to tell you."

Joe's brows furrowed as he settled against the headboard. "Ay, yeah? What is it, LJ?"

She held her breath for a few seconds, licked her lips and then hoped for the best. "Jamie and I are ... umm ... sort of seeing each other," she blurted.

A heartbeat passed.

Then as if in slow motion, she watched her friends' expression changed from concern to sheer shock and then confusion.

"What?!?"

"What do ye mean sort of? Either ye are, or ye aren't," Geillis pointed out, grabbing the card from Jamie to reread as if the clue would be found in his written words.

Claire looked at her friends and knew they were very perceptive, so she needed to up her game if she was to be believable. "Well, we've been kind of spending a lot of time together, and then ...one thing led to another ...you know ..." she trailed off, the lie tasting bitter in her mouth.

"No, we don't know. So have you slept together or something?" Geillis shot, tactless as usual.

"No! God, no! Of course not!" Claire stammered. "How could you think that? I-I mean we're not that far ahead. Yet. Umm ...There's an order to these things you know. Yeah, an order."

Joe gave her a questioning look. "An order?"

"Yes, an order," she responded, annoyed.

"So, chronologically speaking, in the sequence of things, where are you and Jamie at?" Joe asked, looking puzzled.

"Dinner date. Tonight." She grabbed Jamie's card from Geillis' hand and waved it at their faces, feeling triumphant and hoping that would bring the end of their inquisition. "See? We're going out tonight. We have a dinner date. That's where we're at."

Joe and Geillis exchanged a look. "Listen, hen. I don't mean to interfere with yer life and all, but don't ye think it's a little too soon? I mean after what happened with Frank."

She cleared her throat into the silence. "I thought of that. But I've stopped loving Frank ages ago. I just didn't know it back then, and I realised it almost too late. And this with Jamie, I wasn't exactly sure when it happened or even when it started. All I know for sure was that right there, and then, something was happening. And we both want to explore that and see where it leads us to. It might not amount to anything anyway as we're very different people, but at least we're willing to take the leap of fate."  Jesus, did I just sound earnest there? I'm getting good at this.

Joe let out a huge exhale. "Well, LJ, you're a big girl. Maybe Jamie is the distraction you need right now after all the palaver at the hospital. Just take care of that little heart of yours. I'm not saying he will break it, but he'd mentioned it once or twice he has commitment issues when it comes to relationships. It's not a secret."

Claire gave Joe a grateful smile. "I know that too. But hey, this is just a dinner date. Like what I said, it might not amount to anything." She got out of bed and stretched. "Right, I'm going dress shopping for tonight. I have nought to wear."

"Don't. I'll stop by later and bring ye a few of mine that I don't wear anymore," Geillis offered, standing up with her.

"Thanks. I appreciate that." She touched her friend's shoulder and looked at her. "Hey, I know you're not convinced about Jamie. I can see those little furrows on your forehead getting deeper by the second. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."

Geillis hugged her and patted her on the back. "Och, dinna fash, hen. I ken ye'll be fine. I'll make sure of it. I'm keeping my eyes on Jamie Fraser."

Uh-oh.  Knowing Geillis like the back of her hand, Claire could only hope she wouldn't prod too much.

..........

Jamie cut off the engine to his car and stilled for a moment. He was a tad bit apprehensive knowing that tonight could be the night he and Claire officially become a fake couple. She'd warned him earlier in a text that Joe and Geillis knew and soon the rest of the world would too. Maybe he should have just stuck to letting her cook at her place. Although wary about the idea of a fake relationship, agreeing to her crazy plan had given him an excuse to get a little closer to her. And last night, after finding out she'd walked out of A&E, he wanted to do something special. But he hadn't thought it through, and there was a possibility, being photographed in public together could go very wrong, making Claire's already delicate circumstance even more awkward. 

At this point, he couldn't care less what the tabloids wrote about him, but the thought of her life put out on display made his stomach sour. Hence, he'd made several restaurant reservations to give Claire an option, not just on what to eat but an alternative in case she changed her mind about being out in the open. He knew of places where they could dine together without the danger of being photographed.

Now that Claire's free of Frank, he wondered where and how he would fit in her life. He'd thought about it often enough causing him many sleepless nights. But, what would a smart and brilliant doctor such as her see in him? An ex-rugby player without higher education and perceived as a three-dimensional womaniser that's so totally wrong for her. And as if that wasn't enough to alarm him, he'd gone through the whole spectrum of feeling protective, possessive and missing her the entire time. All these strange and confusing feelings were foreign to him, and he hadn't a clue where to go from there.

But what if Claire decide to go ahead with their plan and it worked, and he got the job? Wouldn't that mean they had to part ways afterwards? After their encounter outside his apartment a couple of days ago, he'd found himself wanting to demand what was inside her head and to address the burgeoning attraction between them. But she'd left in too much of a hurry making him wonder if he'd frightened her.

He realised his hands were gripping the steering wheel and forced himself to let go. Swallowing an odd lump in his throat, he checked his mirror for any lurking reporter. When he saw the coast was clear, he quickly climbed out of the car and headed towards Claire's cottage.

He knocked twice and waited. The light penetrating the peephole darkened and then brightened again a couple of seconds later. He heard shuffling sounds from inside the cottage, but the door remained close.

"He's wearing casual, Claire," a familiar muffled voice said from the other side.  Geillis?  "And he didn't shave!"

His hand automatically rubbed the scruff along his jaw.  What the fuck!  "Geillis! I can hear ye in there! Care to open the door?"

"Ye have to wait. I'm helping Claire choose a dress I brought her. And she's only got a towel on, and we're in the living area. She has nothing to wear for yer date tonight, ye see."

Ah, Christ, why didn't I think of that!   Too bad, he wouldn't have minded seeing her with just a towel wrapped around her. Although at this rate, he wouldn't mind seeing her in a potato sack. "Geillis? How about ye let me in and I promised not to look? I'll go straight in the kitchen and wait there. How's that?" he wheedled, mentally counting backwards from a hundred so he wouldn't lose his patience.

A beat passed before she answered. "Fine." The peephole dimmed again. "Close yer eyes then."

Jamie obeyed. He heard the bolts unlatched before the door creaked opened. Then Geillis' hand wrapped around his wrist and tugged him through the entrance and guided him to the kitchen. "This is bloody ridiculous," he muttered to himself as he was being pulled along.

"Ah, haud yer wheesht," Geillis scolded, as they came to a stop. He heard her move about, shoes scraping the floor, a cupboard banging shut and then there was silence.

"Are ye just going to let me stand here looking like a prick or am I allowed to open my eyes? I'm feeling slightly at a disadvantage here."

"Okay, ye can open yer eyes now."

Jamie blinked and found Geillis sitting on the countertop wickedly grinning at him. Although he was annoyed with her, it loosened something inside of him and put his mind at ease. It was good knowing that Claire had friends who cared for her well being and were there for her through good times and bad. "Is Joe with ye?"

"Nope, it's just ye and me pal," she smirked. 

"Too bad."

"So, where are ye taking Claire?"

"None of yer business."

"I don't usually interfere with Claire's life, but after what happened with Frank, I'm making it my business."

"Are ye always this difficult?

"Is it true what they say about ye in the newspaper?"

He narrowed his gaze at her. "Sassenach?" he called out into the cottage. "Ye nearly ready?"

"Behind you."

His body tightened at the sound of her husky voice.  Finally, thank God!  Slowly, he turned to face Claire. The amusement in her amber eyes told him she'd overheard his exchange with Geillis. Maybe a little gratitude for putting up with her gobby friend. That's all he had time to gather from her expression before she sauntered towards him, and he became aware of her long bare legs, its length accentuated even more with the nude high ankle strap wedges she was wearing.

Claire's floral green short-sleeved dress wasn't even revealing, and the front buttons came up high enough that you could classify the attire as modest. Her usual swept-up hair had been replaced by soft curls left cascading over her shoulders. But it was the loose high hem that flirted with the middle of her thighs and the sheen on her bare skin that got his heart pounding wildly in his chest. His first coherent thought was how much he wanted to back her into her bedroom and lock them both inside it. He already had regrets for suggesting to go out for dinner tonight.

She stopped in front of him, and he felt a slow stirring in his belly as her fresh orange blossom scent went to his head like back-to-back shots of whisky. 

"Uh-oh, what's going on in that head of yours, James Fraser?"

If he'd told her the truth, she would probably cancel their date and lock herself in the room. Or in true Claire-style, escape through the window, never to be found again. Aware of Geillis' eyes on them, he knew he had to play the smitten boyfriend part which wasn't really difficult considering he was itching to get his hands on her. 

Slipping an arm around her waist, he pulled her in and brushed his lips against her cheek, soaking in her warmth and sweet fragrance. And when her arms slid around his neck, he felt a dull ache penetrate his heart. They weren't out in public yet, and the danger line was already precariously blurring. "Ye look absolutely stunning, Sassenach," he murmured for her ears alone before drawing away to look into her eyes.

Her lip-glossed lips spread into a smile. "Then my dress is doing its job." She pulled away and blew Geillis an air kiss with a quick gesture of her hand. "Thank you for doing this."

Geillis gave them the thumbs up and jumped down from where she was sat. "Have fun. I'll go and hang the rest of the dresses in yer wardrobe, and I'll lock up afterwards. I'll take yer spare key with me." She stopped beside him and poked him on the arm. "And ye ...Mr hotshot Jamie. If ye hurt my friend, I promise ye ... I will cut yer heart out and have it for breakfast."

Claire laughed. "Stop scaring him! We'll be fine."

Her friend nodded, winking at them, letting them know it was all just jest and banter before she left them on their own. Despite the lightheartedness in Geillis voice, it was quite obvious he had his work cut out before Claire's friend could trust him. And he was alright with that.  Bring it on!

..........

Claire's hand felt oddly natural in his as they walked into  The Devil's Advocate Bar and Restaurant. Of all the options he'd given her, she picked this place where he would most likely be recognised. The popular and often crowded establishment served the Fraser Whisky, and their distillery had held several whisky tasting events there in the past; hence the Frasers were known by the staff. After she'd forgone the fancy restaurants he'd suggested, he'd come to a conclusion Claire was definitely a pub girl. Casually cautioning her about the possibility of paparazzi in the area, she'd seemed to be unperturbed about it. "It's now or never, Jamie. Time to show the network you're not what the tabloids say you are," she'd said. Despite wanting to keep her to himself without the world watching, he'd conceded with a nod. It was their original plan, after all.

So far, so good, no one seemed to have taken notice of them except for some admiring glances launched at Claire. Not liking it at all, he tugged her closer as he led her to the bar area and helped her to a stool. "Drinks first?" he asked.

She nodded. "Whisky, please. Make it Fraser single malt. Neat."

Warmth pervaded his chest. "That's my lass."

He tore his eyes away from her smile and gave their order to the bartender. Jamie sensed the staff recognised him, but not a word was said as he prepared their drinks. Edging his stool closer to Claire's, he leaned in and took her hand in his.

"Oh, we're going to do this now, are we?" She gave him a conspirational wink. "Let me know if I'm doing something wrong." She turned on her stool to face him so that her legs were between his.

Jamie almost lost his smile as he gave her a tight nod. "It's alright, Sassenach, We're fine." He lifted her hand to his lips and felt a strange twinge in his chest. "One rule tonight. No mention of Frank's name. Deal?" 

"Deal," she whispered. "I haven't thought of him since we left the cottage."

"That's good then." He nodded a thank you to the bartender when their drinks arrived. "So tell me, why does Geillis dislike me so much? Can ye give me a clue as to why?"

She sighed. "She doesn't dislike you. She's just protective of me, just like Joe. I guess with everything going on in my life, they're worried."

"How about ye?"

"How about me, wot?"

"Do ye like me?"

A beautiful blush bloomed on Claire's cheeks, and her eyes lowered, looking at their intertwined hands. And then after a few heartbeats, she looked at him directly in the eyes. "I do like you, Jamie. A lot. And I like the fact that I have you in my life." Her soft gaze settled over him, making him feel as though they were the only people in the room. And then she leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. "So ...what's the game plan for tonight?"

"Game plan?" The question threw him off guard.

"Well, you know ..." she shrugged. "Eventually, someone's bound to look up and take a good look at you and put two and two together. I've never had a fake boyfriend, so I'm not really good at this."

"Ye didn't have to remind me." His tone came out a little too harsh, too late and cursed himself when her eyes dimmed in response. In a rush to make it better, he squeezed her hand. "No game plan, Sassenach, none at all," he said softly this time. "I asked ye out because I felt ye needed cheering up. That's all there is to it."

She seemed to lose her train of thoughts for a while and looked somewhat embarrassed. "G-goodness, I'm failing miserably at this, aren't I? I'm just feeling nervous, and you appear so relax. Can we start all over again?"

If only she knew how nervous he felt too. "Of course," he smiled, taking their drinks and putting one in her hand. He raised his glass to her. "To fresh starts?"

"To fresh starts," she echoed and took a sip of her whisky. 

When she was accidentally nudged by a customer at the bar, he pulled her stool closer, her knee now touching his thigh. "Are ye hungry? We have a table booked, and we can eat anytime if ye wish."

She shook her head and leaned in more so he could hear her over the music and the growing crowd chatter around them. Her face was just inches away from his, giving him a close view of a smattering of faint freckles he hadn't noticed before. "I'm alright at the moment. So, remind me again how many restaurants did you book for dinner tonight?"

A rumble escaped his chest. "I've lost count."

"Mmm, you're a little dangerous, did you know that?"

"Oh, am I? Why is that?"

"You're giving me the feeling of being in charge of this date when really you had this all thought out. I'm very impressed."

"I'm glad ye're buying it. My evil plan is working." When she laughed out loud, and her hand landed on his knee, an alarm started to build in Jamie's gut. Nothing about their date felt remotely fake, and he knew, to an observer they were definitely succeeding in being stamped a couple. He cleared a block in his throat and found himself twirling a curl of her hair in his finger. "Joking aside, I wanted to give you options, and you've chosen the busiest place. If ye're not careful, soon it would be so busy, you'll end up sitting on my lap."

"Ah there you go, I knew there was a plan." She took another sip of her whisky and ran a tongue on her lower lip, seemingly enjoying the taste of the peaty alcohol. He couldn't tear his gaze away from her mouth and wanted to be the one to taste the residual sharp bite of her drink on her lips. He was tempted to kiss her there and then, but he didn't know who was watching. All it took was one photo before it was out there for the world to see - James Fraser with yet another woman and Claire was anything but. "Oh, dear!" she whispered. "There goes that look on your face again. I think I know what you're thinking, James Fraser." 

Arching an eyebrow at her, he couldn't help being himself. "Ye might know the what, Sassenach but ye dinna ken the how." He heard her breath hitch and felt the pulse racing on her wrist with his thumb. She was definitely aware of the attraction between them, and it was made even more evident when she didn't pull away.  Damn the photographers, I'm going to kiss her.  Ignoring the warning echo in his head, he closed in.

"Jamie!" A hand clapped on his shoulder, turning him around to find his brothers and brother-in-law standing there grinning at him. His head fell forward onto Claire's shoulder with a groan. To his utter shock, he felt like weeping in despair.

Glancing back at them with an exasperated sigh, Jamie could only hope their presence was a blessing in disguise, preventing him from making a public mistake. Because at the rate he and Claire were going, he had a strong feeling that their fake relationship was either going to give him a heart attack before he got the job or start to feel far too real before it was done and over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Jamie quashed his growing irritation as his brothers happily hijacked Claire's attention at the table. After they've gatecrashed their date earlier, somehow, amidst the mayhem of surprise, introductions and small talks, he and Claire ended up joining them.  How the hell did this happen?

He resisted the urge to slam his whisky glass down on the table as he thought of how close he had gotten to kissing Claire. What exactly had he done to warrant this particular brand of torment? He paid his taxes, he'd brought joy to his thousands of fans over the years by playing top of his game in rugby, recycled like nobody's business, donated to worthy causes, and yet the universe chose to fuck with him big time. 

Although he loved his brothers, right now, he was very close to disowning them. Not quite, but close. Resigned, he watched Claire chat animatedly with Willie, Rabbie and Ian, looking delighted and in her element as banters and stories were exchanged. 

"So tell me, while growing up, did you all get along? Or are there a lot of sibling horror stories?" Claire asked, her twinkling amber eyes momentarily landing on him. 

Groaning, Jamie buried his face in his hands. "Christ, I knew this was coming."

"Och plenty of stories, I can assure ye," Willie replied, leaning forward to draw her in. "Once, my sister and I convinced Jamie that he was adopted. It wasnae difficult considering he's ginger, and the rest of us all have dark hair."

"And then Willie told him that his real last name was McTavish ..." Rabbie added.

Jamie cut him off. "Aye, and I got back at ye lot when I said I wasnae coming back after I was sent to uncle Dougal and aunt Maura in Leoch to train for the under twelves rugby." He turned to Claire. "I told them I was glad I wasnae their brother and wee Rabbie here, and Jenny threw a fit. Eventually, Willie sent a message and admitted it was a bad joke. I didn't reply for days. In the end, he was grovellin' for me to come back like a wee daftie."

Her laughter nipped at his heart. "Too bad, I don't have many family stories. My life revolved mostly around museums, archaeological sites and lecture halls. and we're constantly on the move." 

"Sounds pretty exciting to me," Rabbie grinned. "Say, have ye thought of where ye want to continue yer residency?"

Claire sighed, swirling her glass. "Just loosely. Nothing definite. I've thought of Glasgow and Inverness. Or maybe Boston."

Jamie nearly choked. "Boston? Ye better mean Boston in Lincolnshire and not Massachusetts." His voice sounded the furthest thing from normal to his ears.

"Oh, nothing is planned yet," Claire dismissed his question with a flutter of delicate fingers. "To be perfectly honest, they're just rough ideas."

"Weel, whatever ye decide, don't go too far, Claire. I dinna think our lad here would be tae happy to see ye go so early in yer relationship," Ian teased, winking at Jamie.

Ignoring the jest and the uncomfortable shift in his chest, he looked into her amber eyes. "Plenty of time to think things over, aye?"

She gives him a slow nod. "Of course."

"Claire?"

His head jerked up to find Frank Randall standing next to their table. A trickle of sweat beaded and slid down his spine as silent fury gripped his guts. A sudden realisation hit him then as he looked at the man that Claire nearly married and he was shocked to the core. Amid this blurring between real and fake, there's always a constant—which was his jealousy for Claire's ex. It was something he never experienced before. To know that Claire was once his, made him sick and want to throw up. But the unexpected gentle squeeze of her hand under the table immediately stopped the unwanted bout of paranoia in its tracks, taking him by surprise.

His brothers and Ian leaned back on their chairs, waiting for something to unfold as they eyed the doctor with caution. They knew Claire's story, and he could see they were prepared for whatever was to come, their bodies tensed and their faces impassive.

"What is it, Frank?" Claire asked, glancing nervously around the table.

His first instinct was to drag Claire's ex-fiance out of the bar and give him a sound beating. Too bad there's a restraining order on him. Despite wanting to tell him to fuck off, he kept his mouth shut, afraid of attracting attention from those who might recognise them. The thought of all three of them being photographed and their picture passed around on social media was enough for him to restrain himself. He knew it would devastate Claire if ever that happened.

"Sorry to disturb your meal, but can we talk? It won't take a minute."

"Ye don't have to do this, Sassenach," he murmured for her ears only.

"I know, but I must. It won't take long."

Helpless to do anything, he could only watch as she stiffly stood up and followed Frank.

..........

Claire peered over her shoulder and saw Jamie and his family looking at them with the intensity of wild cats ready to pounce. Not wanting to cause a scene, she refocused her attention on Frank and took calming breaths, reminding herself she was in control.

"What do you want, Frank?"

He shifted on his feet. "Claire, I want to apologise for ..."

She raised a hand and stopped him midsentence. "If we're going to rehash everything that happened between us, I'm not interested in hearing it. I don't want to talk about it anymore. I've said what I had to say to you, and nothing has changed." She made a move to go, but Frank's hand shot out and grabbed her elbow, making her jump. The sudden harsh sound of a chair scraping on the wooden floor told her someone stood up abruptly. She turned to look and found it was Jamie, his face looking like thunder. Even from where she was stood, she could see his jaw bunched and his massive chest rising and falling beneath his shirt. She could almost hear the cranks turning in his head. With a stern look in her eyes, she warned him to back off and faced Frank. "Let me go," she hissed in a whisper. "You've lost your right to touch me."

Frank flinched and let go, swallowing audibly when he looked beyond her. "I'm not here to talk about us. I understand it's over. I get it now. I only want to apologise for the things I've said the other night and to tell you that I want to return your belongings."

She looked into his eyes to judge his sincerity but witnessed only honest resignation in his steady gaze. Something had changed in him, but she didn't want to over analyse, still too fraught about what transpired at the hospital less than twenty-four hours ago. "Very well then, I'll get someone to collect it from your apartment."

"No need. I can drop it off at your place." When she eyed him suspiciously, he sighed. "Look, Claire, I said things the other night that I shouldn't have. I was so desperate to get you back no matter what. After you walked out of the A&E, I realised I went too far. I don't want to drag this on any more than you do. The sooner I have your things out of the apartment, the better it is for both of us. I'll have your stuff boxed, and I'll bring them to your place ...Friday at six?"

She wanted to think it over, but that would mean prolonging things between them. Frank was right. The sooner their connection was severed, the better for both of them. "Fine, Friday at six. You drop off my things, and then you're out again. I don't intend to serve you drinks, nor exchange pleasantries with you."

His expression turned grim; nevertheless, he nodded in agreement. "I'll see you at six this coming Friday. Enjoy the rest of your evening." And then he turned and left the bar.

She watched his retreating back as sadness settled over her. It was hard to imagine that she used to love him and that they had been happy once. Where had it all gone wrong? Had she been so blind to all the warning signs? How long have they been together before they started to lose their way? What made him turn so cold and vicious? She remembered the many hours they'd spent making love in the beginning. He'd worshipped her and told her over and over again how much he desired her. And then as time went on, his needs became a priority, and she was just a vessel to relieve his needs. He became more critical of their lovemaking, continually telling her that she lacked techniques to satisfy him until she began to doubt herself.

And then she thought of Jamie and almost laughed. She was drawn to a commitment-phobe and a sexually experienced man. So what were her chances in inspiring the type of lust and attraction to make someone like Jamie wholly want her?  Only in your dreams lass.

A hand grasped her wrist. "Sassenach, are ye alright?"

Claire spun around, and her eyes shot to Jamie's, startled by the intense emotions swirling from them. He looked on edge, the combined effects of worry and something else she couldn't put her finger to etched on his face. His grip on her wrist was like steel, and his shoulder muscles looked tight with strain as if his control could snap at any moment. The instinct to reassure him rose within her, and she lifted a free hand and touched his face. "I'm fine, Jamie. I think I'd like to go home now."

When he spoke, his tone sounded like it could cut glass. "Good. Stay here. I'll tell the lads and sort out the bill."

She wondered what was wrong as she waited for him. Did his brothers say anything about him dating a runaway bride? Did they disapprove? Was it Frank?  Unlikely . Most of the evening, he'd protectively slung his arms around her shoulders or had a hand on her knee, play-acting his claim on her, even though they were sat in the hidden corner away from prying eyes. If his family had been surprised to see that they were together, they showed no indication—only warmth and friendliness.

Scenes from earlier played in her mind, beginning with Jamie's parcel that morning and ending with the way he'd looked at her as if he wanted to kiss her. And in between, a whole lot of touching and holding. Reminding herself constantly that this was just a stunt to help Jamie get his job at the network, would be the smartest course to take. She couldn't mistake sexual attraction, albeit a powerful one, for anything beyond a bodily need. With her mind made up, Claire swore to keep it together, thinking her friendship with Jamie was more valuable than a passing fascination for her crush.

Seeing Jamie walked towards her, she smiled at him, but his face remained expressionless, as he took her hand and led her out of the bar without a word. When he hailed a taxi instead of taking his car, she surmised he'd had a bit to drink.

They rode in silence, but the quiet got too disconcerting. Claire opened her mouth to initiate a conversation and ask if anything was wrong, but she held back midway. His rigid posture told her now was not the time to talk. The air around them thickened and the longer Jamie remained silent, the more agitation gnawed at her. Something was definitely off.  What the hell is wrong with him?  Finally, when the taxi finally pulled up outside her cottage, she was about to thank him for the dinner when he took out his wallet and handed the driver a few pound notes.

"It's late Jamie. Aren't you going home?"

"We need to talk."

"Can we leave it for another day?"

"No."

She didn't like his short, clipped tone. "If you're planning to argue, maybe you ought to leave," she said, as she got out of the car.

She fished for her keys in her handbag, aware he was following close behind. "We need to talk."  Oh, such bloody arrogance!

Once inside the house, she threw her bag on a nearby table and faced him. "Fine! Stay. But only if you tell me why the bloody hell you're acting weird all of a sudden."

"Boston. Ye never told me ye were thinking of going to Boston."

"Wot? Boston?" This time she was confused. "It's just an option among many. I've thought of going there years ago before I started at the Royal Infirmary. Joe has friends there and knows people who can get me into a residency program."

"Ye belong here, Sassenach. Yer friends are here, and ye have yer uncle to think about."

How dare he question her choice when he would go to London in a heartbeat once their fake relationship was over! Inwardly she bristled but forced a sunny smile. "Well, I can say the same thing about you. All of your family and friends are here, and you have obligations that are expected of you. And yet, that wouldn't stop you from going to London once you get the job, now would it?"

"Your circumstance is different. There are plenty of hospitals here in the UK where ye can continue yer residency."

"I know that. But have you considered that maybe I need a change of scenery to find myself again? It's no different to you trying to find your identity and purpose in a new career. I'm supportive of your life choices, so why can't you be supportive of mine?

He pulled back at her words and scrutinised her. The idea of him moving to London made her think of a parade of women eager to get their paws on him. She didn't like the idea at all. But she'd rather die before admitting it. She turned away and sat down on the sofa, fiddling with the straps of her shoes, cursing her inability to remain indifferent. A moment passed before he finally spoke. "What did Frank say?" he asked.

Irritation coasted down her back. Jamie was avoiding her question, and if he thought he would get away with that tactic easily, he was sorely mistaken. "Not much." She slipped off her shoes and massaged the back of her leg. "Same old. Apologies and whatnots. 

She sensed his frown but refused to look at him in the eyes. "Is he still trying to get ye back?"

"No."

"Did he want ye to go back to the hospital then?"

She scooped up her shoes and placed them in a shoe cupboard in the hallway. "No. He wanted to apologise. And since you mentioned Boston, I'm beginning to think it's a brilliant idea. No one will know me there - at least not as the runaway bride. It will be a perfect place to start over again."

His eyes narrowed, and his lips tightened into a thin line. Did he look disappointed? Refusing to decipher the meaning in his expression, she made her way to the kitchen. He followed shortly after.

"If the tabloid stories about ye bother ye so much, why are ye doing this fake relationship with me then?"

She opened the fridge and got a bottle of white wine. "I told you my reasons already. I'm helping you get the job at the network which I'm quite sure you'll get. And meanwhile, while we're a fake couple, I can start planning what I want to do with my life." After grabbing two glasses from the cupboard, she finally glanced at him. "Wine?"

In the kitchen lighting, Jamie's blue eyes were shadowed and the scruff on his face more pronounced. He nodded at her offer, his gaze moving like a rough palm over her skin.  Uh-oh, not good.  Despite dampening her emotions with cold logic, her traitorous body was not having any of it, as her face heated at his perusal.  Damn him!  She hated not being in control. Quickly turning away, she poured the wine in the glasses.

"There's no need for ye to go so far to dodge the tabloid stories. In a year, it will all be forgotten."

"You have a point." She handed him the glass of wine and took a sip from hers. 

"Or ye can come to London if ye want to get away from Scotland. London is far enough," he said, looking directly into her eyes.

"Wot? London?" she gasped. "London is a crazy place, and rents cost a premium."

He placed his glass on the countertop with a clack. "Ye were confident earlier that I'll get the job in the network. Well, so am I. We can share a flat in London." 

She nearly laughed out loud. "Share a flat? With you?" All sort of thoughts and images leapt at the back of her mind. But the one that stood out the most is the ridiculousness of his suggestion. It could never work. "What if you want to bring a girl home? What then?" 

His face flushed, but his gaze didn't waver. "Not once have I ever brought a lass to my apartment nor to Lallybroch." 

"Oh ..." If he'd never brought a girl to his home, it could only mean he took them to fancy hotels. That thought brought a stab of pain into her heart. Life was already complicated as it was, and the last thing she needed was to hear stories of his escapades with his dates. Better scrap London off her list of options. "Well, London is certainly an alternative. So is Manchester and Liverpool. But I'm kind of warming to the idea of Boston," she said casually as she could muster.

"Ye can't just up sticks and move to a country ye've never been to before. Don't ye want to visit the place first?"

"I don't have to. I'm flexible, and I adapt quickly. My uncle and I have lived in many countries while I was growing up. I never had trouble adjusting."

"Sounds to me ye're running away."

"I'm not running away," she shot back. "I'm done with Frank. As I said, I need a change of scenery. I've looked up Boston on the internet in the past, and it seems like a fascinating place. Who knows, I might meet a cute American guy and end up staying there for good."  Who am I kidding?

Darkness clouded his face. "Ye are running away."

"I'm not!"

"Ye are. Ye are putting an ocean between ye and whatever ye're running away from."

Claire snapped. Somehow the thread holding her composure had been stretched so thin by recent events, there was almost nothing left. Red fogged her vision as she put her glass down to face him full-on and gave him her truth.

"Bollocks! You ... of all people have the gall to point out to me that I am running away from my problems. Ha! You can't even commit to anything or anyone that doesn't involve rugby." She shook her head at him. "I've never judged you on how you lead your life, so I would appreciate it if you do the same for me. And even if I'm running away, what business is it of yours? It's my life, and I decide what I want to do with it."

"Sassenach, I'm..."

"NO! I'm not done yet." She tilted her chin in anger. "In as much as I love Edinburgh, it is a reminder to me how I allowed Frank to break me to the point that I don't feel worthy. It's a bloody sad state of affairs, but hey, I am trying my utmost best to do what's right for me even if it seems like I'm stumbling in the dark." She let out a hysterical laugh and shoved her curls back, beyond caring what sprouted out of her mouth. "Do you have any idea what it feels like to feel undesirable and less of a woman? Frank used to criticise how I look, how I touched him when we made love. And, oh, how he would mock me endlessly when I gagged at the things he made me do, making me feel like I'm not enough to tempt a man to lose his mind and heart to her. So I remained with him thinking I'll never be good for anyone else. But you wouldn't understand, would you? Because women come easily to you."

He muttered a string of profanity as he took a step forward, but she pushed him with full force on his chest, making him stagger a step backwards.

"How do you do it, Jamie?" she taunted. "Do you have a small talk beforehand, letting a girl know it's just a bit of fun and you don't do relationships? At least you can make yourself feel better by saying you were honest and then walk away with a clear conscience and satisfaction on your face. How many orgasms does it take to assuage your guilt?"

Jamie remained silent, his gaze ensnaring her and refusing to let go.  How dare he remains so unaffected and calm?

And then she lost it. "Get out!" she screamed. 

"No."

"I said, get the fuck out!"

"I'm not leaving ye." Determination etched out the lines of his face.

"You won't go until you hear it, don't you?" she hissed in crazed vehemence. "Fine. I'm running away! There you have it! Are you happy now that you've finally figured me out, huh? I ran away from my own wedding, and I ran away from my job. Appears cowardly, doesn't it? But I'm too broken to fight, but one day I will get up, and I will heal. And I will find someone who will love me and my flaws."

He made a move towards her, but she stopped him. The last thing she needed was his pity and for him to see her tears that were threatening to spill. "Don't you dare feel sorry for me, James Fraser! I need you to leave now and let me be." Her voice cracked, but she pushed on. "I'm begging you. If you're a true friend, you'll do as I ask." 

Exhausted and nothing left to say, she turned and faced the window. Jamie didn't move nor speak, and the only sound that permeated the room was the ticking of the wall clock. She waited and mentally prayed for him to go so she could cry in privacy. Tomorrow was a new day, and everything would be alright. But tonight she felt precariously out of control, on the peak of something so intense, she didn't know how to handle it. 

The floorboards creaked, and she held her breath and waited for the blessed silence, but instead of walking out, Jamie stopped right behind her. His body heat enclosed, wrapping her in a protective blanket. She held the edge of the countertop in a deathlike grip, sensing him move closer inch by inch until his rock-solid chest pressed against her back.

"Sassenach, look at me," he said in a low gravelly voice. Although she wanted to remain still, she was helpless to resist his command. With no more fight left in her and feeling spent, she faced him but avoided his gaze. Then he tilted her chin up. 

To her surprise, raw lust shot out from his eyes, and his grip tightened, refusing to give her room to retreat. He crowded her space by leaning in so close, the edge of the countertop dug into her lower back. His scent of citrus and cotton steeped her senses, drowning out the voices in her head and their surrounding.

"I'm going to tell ye something, and I need ye to listen very carefully because I'm only going to say this once. Am I making myself clear?" 

Her eyes widened, and her lips parted. She could only summon a shaky nod, too mesmerised and unable to form words.

"I'm done with pretending, rationalising and civility. That wanker Frank has messed up yer mind that ye have nae idea the power ye have to grip me in a hold so tight I can scarcely breathe. I'm so bloody over analysing why I feel the way I do right now even though I still don't understand anything. I'm tired of walking around with a cock that won't go down and sleepless nights every time I think of ye. Are ye with me, Claire?" 

A swirling combination of heat, dread and anticipation diffused inside of her, turning it into a fierce ache coursing between her thighs and tightening her muscles. The way he easily made her body respond left her intoxicated, seizing her with a need she'd never felt before. "Y-yes," she whispered.

Then he spoke slow and deliberate. "Good, because tonight I'm going to make love to ye. If I were a true friend and gentleman, I'd do as ye asked and walk out of that door to give ye the space to rebuild your damn walls. Ye deserve that and much more. But I'm a selfish prick who wants ye so bad I'll trade my soul to the devil for a night with ye. Still listening?"

"Y-y-yes." 

"I'll give ye three seconds to get away from me and lock yersel' in the bedroom. That would be the wisest thing to dae. And if ye choose to walk away, I'll take it like a man, and we'll never mention this again. We'll go back to being mates, forget this whole incident, and go on pretending. But if ye're still here after that, ye're mine. Every inch of yer beautiful body. And I promise ye, ye'll never doubt your ability to cast a spell on a man so powerful and encompassing he'll spend the rest of his life comparing ye to every woman he meets and touches." 

Her head began to spin, as her brain scrambled to catch up with the meaning of his words. "Jamie this is ..." 

"We're done talking, Sassenach. One." 

Her heart lurched, and her stomach dropped to the ground as he moved closer. 

"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!" 

"Two." 

She gulped, her body poised for escape, knowing it could destroy their friendship, change their relationship forever, opening a door that could never be close again. 

"Christ, Jamie, I'm..." 

"Three. Too late, Sassenach." 

"But ..." 

"Nae buts." And then he kissed her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Bracing her jaw with one hand, Jamie cautiously brushed his lips over hers and then slightly drew away. He'd half expected her to deck him but gazing down at her face, her eyes were half-closed, and her skin flushed. She looked so damn beautiful even with her makeup smeared and her hair wild and messy. It took every ounce of his self-control not to pull her hard against him and kiss her thoroughly, torturously taking his time to give her a chance to push him away. But when she moved closer, and he caught the tiny whimper of pleasure escaping her throat, his blood roared in his ears, the feeling of triumph that she'd be his almost bringing him to his knees. Until he felt her hands slide up from his chest to the back of his neck, pulling him in and realised he'd belong to her just as completely.

"Sweet Jesus, Sassenach, please tell me ye want this as much as I do," he whispered hoarsely, pressing their foreheads together. "I need to hear it. I must hear it."

"W-want you ...need you." Her words came out slurred as she licked her lips and swayed.

"This better not be a rebound," he growled against her mouth.

"Call it whatever you want, Jamie. Just kiss me already."

The demand in her voice made his cock swell, and his skin grew hot and tight. With a pained groan, Jamie obliged, sinking his tongue into her mouth, the taste of her turning him into a ravenous beast, making him wonder what mediocre high he'd been chasing all these years when this woman was out there. Unwittingly, the weight of the many meaningless one-night-stands bore down heavily on his shoulders, catching him off guard. They slithered in to haunt him because nothing and no one had ever felt like Claire. His soul yearned to be reborn again and purge for his past sins, purifying himself in the clean smell of her skin, the tentative strokes of her tongue and featherlike fingertips sliding up his back.

Seconds ticked while he teased her with what was to come, noting her responses to every exploration of his hands. He wanted to know her secrets, coaxing them out with his kiss, subtly pushing her to reveal herself. Her mouth moved under his, eagerly, and so perfect. He adored the little sounds vibrating up her throat, ending where their lips met, but it was too damn much as lust pumped in his veins. He needed more. 

Unable to contain himself any longer, his fingers gripped her hips to lift her up. Satisfaction and relief surged through him when she wrapped her legs around his middle, her fingers tangling in his hair and holding on tight. Without releasing her mouth, Jamie walked them out of the kitchen and towards Claire's bedroom. He felt her hands grabbed at his back, frenziedly trying to yank up his shirt, her dress hiking higher above her thighs with her movements. His erection pushed painfully against his jeans. Knowing she wanted him as badly jarred his centre, and he fought for restraint as she pulled him into the current of raw emotion and need he'd never experienced before.

The next thing he knew, they were tumbling onto the bed, flattening her underneath him on the mattress. Still wedged between her thighs, he started to rock against her, her scent and the fragrance of her room surrounding him, a heady mixture of candles, wildflowers and freshly washed sheets.

"Christ," he rasped, breaking the kiss before his mouth coasted down the side of her neck for a taste. "Ye sure about this? I dinnae want ye having any regrets."

"Damn you, Fraser." She writhed beneath him, her ankles locking behind the small of his back. "You're asking me that now? What do you think?"

Bracing himself on one elbow, he gingerly unbuttoned the front of her dress with concentrated effort and a shaking hand. He was acting like a horny teenager, but it couldn't be helped when his cock was growing fuller and aching harder by the second. "I want to do this right, Sassenach. For ye. Exactly how ye wish it to be." 

"You're worried about that?" she gasped. "I'm concerned about whether it's feeling this good for you too." She let out a breathless laugh as she unbuckled his belt.

This lass who'd appeared during the lowest moment in his life and yelled him back into existence had bravely poked his sore spots and offered herself as bait to help him get a job at the network. She was innately a giver in all sorts of ways, but right now, he needed to convince her to be the taker. "I've never had my heart and mind in this before, Sassenach. I'm normally a million miles away, but with ye, I'm right here. Ye hear me? Right here with ye." Heart knocking wildly against his ribs, he dragged his open lips along her jaw, still fumbling with her buttons. "Ye're anxious it doesnae feel good for me? I'm trying my hardest not to bust like an eejit."

"Really?" she breathed, boldly unzipping his jeans and sliding a hand over his erection. Her sigh washed over his chest as she squeezed him, nearly making him shoot out of bed.

Jamie groaned at her touch. "Christ, ye're killing me. I just want it to be perfect for ye." He pressed his face against the crook of her neck as he continued to grapple with the last button of her dress, this time more impatiently.

"If you must know ...in my fantasy, I'd be wearing a red baby-doll nightie and serving you a dirty martini. So let's be over with the bathwater, alright?"

Laughter rose from his chest as he rid finally of her dress, drawing it from her body and throwing it on the floor. He found it endearing how she could make him laugh when his balls were on the verge of revolt. "Is that right? I dinna ken what a baby-doll nightie is, but it sounds verra interesting. Ye'll have to show it to me another time," he murmured, his eyes hungrily skimming down the length of her body. 

Unable to resist, he trailed a finger over the hollow of her stomach and around her belly button, biting his lip in satisfaction as her alabaster skin quivered under his hand. Her full breasts were restrained in cream coloured bra, and the juncture of her thighs barely covered with tiny transparent lace panties. "Gorgeous as ye are now in yer knickers, I want to see all of ye bare."

"Y-yes, Jamie."

"Yes, Jamie," he echoed, slowly sliding his hand in the inside of her thigh, making her squirm. "Why weren't you agreeable all those times I told you faking a relationship wasnae a good idea?"

"If you paid attention, you would have noticed I'm selectively agreeable."

He tamped down the urge to smile. "Smart-ass! Look where it got us. Ye had to be exactly what I need, stubbornly reminding me it was all for the show. Then driving me out of my nuts from wanting ye. Look at ye half-naked, and here I am with an ache, only ye can ease. What are we going to do about that, huh?"

"I-I don't want to fight it anymore."

"Neither do I." He kissed her hard then went back to being serious. "I tried hard to ignore it, but I can't stop myself from wanting ye." He groaned against her mouth, cupping his hand between her thighs. "I need to be inside this so fucking bad but ..."

"...you don't do relationships," she finished off for him, making him stiffen.

"Christ!" he muttered. "Ye certainly do cut to the chase, don't ye?" He ignored the odd lump in his throat and swallowed hard. Even though it pained him, he needed to tell her the truth. "It'll be more than a fling, Sassenach and even if it lasts only a few weeks or months or a year, it'll be the longest I've ever been like this with someone. I-I can't promise a happily ever after ...I don't have a family gene in me. I can't be that for ye, but I'll be damned before ye regret this."

"I understand. Our futures look different, and it could never work. I don't suppose I'll marry again so soon but if one day ..."

"... I won't stand in yer way of a chance for happiness. I will let ye go." He said the words earnestly and with conviction, but how come he didn't feel convinced he would do just that? But before any further train of thoughts could gather steam, he shut the laughing voices in his head. "Are ye in, Sassenach?" Jamie's heart rapped violently in his chest.

"Y-yes, let's do this," she whispered, her hands impatiently skating up and down his back. 

Gladdened by her answer, he pulled her against him, his tongue travelling along the curve of her lower lip before diving back into her mouth. "And one more selfish demand ... while we're together, there will be no one else but us until we decide differently. That work for ye?"

"Yes ...yes, it does ..." 

Before she could finish, he laid his mouth on top of hers, brushing his thumb back and forth across her sensitive spot between her thighs, making her stomach hollow and loins twist. "Christ ye're so wet for me."

"Oooh, yes ...feels so good." Her words emerged choked as her hands began to tug and dig at his shoulders. She needed him badly, and the proof was in every lick of her tongue inside his mouth, and the rushed exhale onto his skin.

Pulling away with a grunt, he sat back on his heels and hooked his fingers into the flimsy band of her lingerie, gently working it down her hips. Then he dropped the lacy scrap on the floor and stood up, divesting himself of his clothes and placing a condom on the bed. With anticipation, his eyes feasted on her exposed flesh, and it took a mammoth of self-control not to throw himself upon her and take her there and then. Pure amusement took over as Claire shut her eyes, refusing to look at him. "Sassenach, look at me."

Claire groaned as she slowly took a peek, her bright amber eyes pools of lust and doubt warring together. Her cheeks turned a deep crimson, and she swallowed audibly as she viewed his naked glory. "A word of caution," she whispered. "I'm not like the glamourous women you date or sleep with. I'm afraid I'll be a disappointment to you."

His heart twisted, shredding his voice to fragments. With Claire's insecurities and her feeling of uncertainty, he knew she needed him to be confident enough for both of them. "No, ye're not like any of the women I've been with, Sassenach," he said truthfully. "Because I've never wanted anyone this bad. I lived with the knowledge and torture during these last few weeks ...ye ... within reach, will never be mine to have. And yet here we are." He knelt between her thighs, gently spreading her legs wider. And then he took his cock in one hand and fisted it, causing her to blush even more. "Trust me when I say, I've never come close to a fraction of this kind of want. Ye can never be a disappointment." 

He leaned in, watching her eyes widen even more as he took her mouth in a slow, thorough kiss, pressing his erection against her heat and expertly undoing her bra and discarding it with a quick flick of his wrist. He keened out loud as their bodies locked together, her breasts and softness pressed against him almost robbing him of his sanity. Their breaths became loud and laboured in the quiet room, along with the sounds of their bodies shifting on the soft mattress, the springs beneath them sighing with their movements. 

Cupping her breast, his thumb circled her nipple until it puckered to a hard point. He felt her chest heaved for gulps of air, and her pulse beat wildly at the base of her neck as he prolonged their kiss. He relished the taste of her but never quite getting enough, wanting desperately to bury himself deep inside her. Although he was aching badly, he took his time wanting to commit every second and the feel of her to memory. When she tried to reach for his cock, he snagged her wrist. "No, Sassenach. I cannae allow it," he muttered too gruffly. "Not yet, anyway."

"P-please, now, Jamie. I'm ready." She seemed almost flustered by the lift of her hips as if she wanted to play it collected, but her body wouldn't allow it.

But Claire's sweet plea did it. Dragging his open mouth over her breast, he sucked her nipples hard, his tongue flicking restlessly, while he drove two fingers between her thighs. Claire's eyes rolled back in her head, her back arching and her legs spreading a little wider in an invitation.

Unable to hold on the sweet torture any longer, he slid down between her thighs until he was eye level with her swollen folds. He used his fingers to separate her flesh, lowering his mouth and licking her with the flat of his tongue. She twisted and moaned, her fingers gripping the sheets as he regarded her like a starved man, listening to her breathing go shallow and loving the taste and sight of her in the throes of passion.

"Oh, God, Jamie, it's too much. Please. Please," she sobbed loudly.

"So responsive, my wee sweet, Sassenach," he muttered between her thighs. "It's never too much,  mo chridhe ." 

Swiping her slit slow and deliberate, he tasted, nibbled and teased. He used one arm to pin her flailing body down, never hastening his pace, her cries charging the air with sexual desperation and frenzy. He inhaled her musky scent, rubbing the engorged nub, and pushing his finger in and out of her soaking channel. Her insides clamped down hard and tried to suck him deeper, but he continued to tease until she floundered and thrashed, like a senseless being on edge. 

"No more," she gasped, her amber eyes wild and past sanity. "Damn you, Jamie, no more. C-can't take ..." 

With a low chuckle, he took her throbbing nub between his lips and sucked hard, sensing her orgasm shimmering right there and so close. He cursed out loud, pumping two fingers this time and tucking a tongue alongside, in and out of her entrance. And then he drew back out, sliding up higher and driving in faster, her slickness making his mouth work.

And then she came, her body arching like a bow under his command. He absorbed all her sweetness in his mouth, continuing the suction motions so that she succumbed into another orgasm so beautifully, it made him wonder if he'd allow her to leave the bed ever again. She hung onto him with wild abandon and desperation he couldn't refuse. Sliding up her body, he worshipped every inch of her damp skin with kisses, pausing at her mouth to nip her lips and to cradle her face with his hand in the act of pure adoration.

Eyes unfocused, her head lolled to the side as she reached for his cock, once again, gripping it without finesse. "Want you now, inside me," she garbled. 

He let out a shaky laugh. "Easy now, Sassenach, otherwise I'll burst." Shoving back the reluctance, Jamie tore his lips away from hers and reached for the condom he'd left on the bed. He quickly covered himself in stretched latex and slid up her body, muffling her requests to hurry with a hard kiss. His cock was poised at her entrance as her tongue battled his and her legs locked behind him. Unable to wait any longer, he plunged deep inside with a single thrust and all the pent up emotions she'd awakened, immersing himself in her completely. 

He swallowed her cries as he stretched her with his width and length, her nails cutting through his skin, and her thighs squeezing him tight. He completely filled her, giving her no time to shore up defences and allowing no room for anything but the primitive demand to surrender. With every stroke, he claimed her while he drove inside her over and over. His hips rolling harder of their own volition with every smack of flesh and every whimper from her. And then just like that, with one perfect deep thrust, she convulsed underneath him in a climax. He listened to her moans of his name, treasuring the husky awe of them in his ears and around him. 

He tried to breathe and then tried to slow down, but there were too many emotions crashing over him to know anything but the need to make his mark. He'd never wanted anyone this bad and never felt wanted this much. Increasingly, a tightening began at the back of his neck and proceeded down his spine, curling at the base. Finally, letting himself go, he yanked her legs up and fucked into the storm for everything he was worth, chanting her name in reverence. 

His release was a flood that roared through him, creating a rush of white noise in his ears. His muscles tightened to the point of snapping before they unlocked. He shook violently, his lower body a battle zone of pleasure and pain and need and fulfilment. There's a harbour in the storm, though, and her body was already demanding him back, making the intense pleasure they've inflicted a beautiful thing they shared. With his insides razed and his mind blown, every cell in his body drifted toward Claire until they were wrapped together, arms and legs twined, mouths locked, their movements slowing little by little.

What just happened between them was the best everything in his life and nothing came close. Not even his glory days and triumphs in rugby.

In the past, usually, after sex came relief and it meant parting ways after the sweat had cooled. Jamie had never been anything but fine with that upshot because he barely knew the women to begin with. But now panic niggled at him, his chest throbbing painfully as his hand coasted over her body memorising her skin. If Claire asked him to leave now, he knew he wouldn't like it at all. 

Then her lips glided over his cheek, and he turned into them, inhaling through a lengthy kiss. His concern eased for a little while, a smile lifting at the corners of his mouth.

And then he realised something he never thought would ever happen - he'd never be able to touch another woman again without wishing for Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. He'd just made a pact with the devil, and now, he wondered, how in the world was he ever going to let this woman go?

..........

Claire slipped into the bathroom, careful not to make any noise. Jamie had spent the night and was sound asleep in her bed. He was facedown, spreadeagled, and his taut, naked arse a sight to behold. She put his sleepover down to him having too many drinks and leaving his car at the parking lot outside the bar where they had been in last night.

A sigh escaped her mouth, but she crammed it back up. She was a big girl and wasn't about to lose sight of reality and facts. Last night was nothing more than two consenting adults engaging in a temporary sexual relationship, and she reminded herself she'd agreed to it and any sticky feelings or thoughts of white picket fences had to be banished immediately.

Grabbing her toothbrush, she started to brush her teeth vigorously. She was beginning to sense like she'd set herself up for one epic downfall. What if Jamie suddenly realised that being in a permanent relationship wasn't a bad thing and found a different woman? Where would that leave her then?

Pushing all thoughts of the impending gloom away, Claire rinsed out her mouth and plonked her toothbrush in the glass. And then she laid out a spare for Jamie hoping that wouldn't cause an alarm and think she wanted more from him. But on second thought, maybe that was an unwise move. Muddled, she sighed and decided to wing it. It was just too bad she didn't have an example to look to.

She heard a deep groan from the bedroom, accompanied by the creaking of bedsprings. And suddenly, the memories of their lovemaking surfaced, making the inside of her thighs tensed, causing a twinge of soreness and muscle ache. Looking into the mirror, she found her face bright red and her eyes glowing. She looked   like an adolescent in puberty crisis.  Ah, fuck . Irritated, she fanned her cheeks with her hands, reprimanding herself for being silly and acting like a teenager.  So what if Jamie spent the night and he doesn't believe in happily ever after? You've always known the score! Suck it up, Beauchamp!

There was a knock on the bathroom door. "Sassenach?"

"Yeah?"

Jamie's tone dropped. "Do ye mind coming back to bed?"

Oh!  She'd been worried he'd wake up panicking like a cornered male in the light of day, but as it turned out, she was so very wrong. Taking a fortifying breath, she opened the door and was greeted by a fully naked Jamie with an erect penis. "M-morning..." she croaked.

Holding her breath, she blinked twice and then gawked at the naked male marvel before her.  Oh, sweet mother of God , Jamie was lean, mean, and toned. There was not an ounce of softness visible on his body, from the breadth of his shoulders, abs, powerful arms, and bulky thighs. 

Oblivious to his erection jostling between them, he backed her into the bathroom, bringing her attention back to the present. "My shirt looks good on ye," he grinned, sleepily. "Why are ye up?"

As her back met the sink, she remembered the packaged toothbrush and casually pushed it into the basket. "I wasn't sure if you're an early riser or not, so I thought I'd make some preps for breakfast."

Without missing a beat, Jamie leaned past her and retrieved the toothbrush. Frowning, he popped the package open and slipped it into his hand. "It's seven in the morning, and we were up all night making love. Breakfast can wait a little longer." 

"Right, yeah ...umm."

Jamie applied toothpaste to his brush and stuck it in his mouth. "Why didn't I get a good morning kiss?"

"A good morning kiss?"

"Aye," He brushed his teeth and waited for an answer. 

"Ah ...well, I was going to. You were sound asleep, and you know ..."

He leaned over the sink and spat "No, I dinna ken. Are ye acting weird because I didn't leave last night as ye expected?"

"No, of course not!" Not wanting him to see the heat creeping up her face, she busied herself, looking for a towel for him to use.

He rinsed his mouth and placed his brush next to hers in the glass. "It's funny. I always thought morning afters consisted of cuddles."

"Y-yeah, it does."

He stopped and crossed his arms. "Hmmm. Why did ye chuck the toothbrush in the rubbish basket?"

Oh, fuck!  She laughed hysterically. "I think the jury of the court will agree it was an unfortunate mishap."

"Sassenach, I'm beginning to get annoyed. I still havenae received my good morning kiss, and ye intentionally discarded the toothbrush."

She couldn't help the giggle escaping her lips as she eyed his morning erection. "Aroused and annoyed, that's a first."

Her words still hanging in the air, he lunged forward and placed his hands on either side of her and leaned in. "Next time, Sassenach, I want proper good morning with a cuddle from ye. I dinna ken what one looks like, but still, I'd like to have one. Just so that ye ken, I wanted ye lying there when I opened my eyes." His mouth tugged in the corner, but his eyes were dark and serious. "Preferably, I want yer hands all over me and yer lips on mine. And next time ye get out of bed without giving me both, I'm going to turn ye over my knees and backhand that wee bum of yers ye had mercilessly wiggled against me all night. Am I making myself clear?"

"Jamie!" she gasped. "That's unethical!"

Jaws clenched, his eyes dropped down to the apex of her thighs. "Trust me, Sassenach, I wasnae thinking of ethics when I was kissing ye down there last night."

She gulped, her pulse racing a million miles per hour. "Ethics ...overrated anyway," she mumbled, not making any sense with her words.

"Weel, then, I'm gonnae take a shower. Ye can join me or wait, that's entirely up to ye. Either way, I want to see ye back in bed when I'm done because I'll still be wanting my good morning cuddle. Are we clear?"

Without another word, she nodded and did as she was told. And that morning they made love twice more and didn't leave bed until after midday.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Claire padded into the kitchen, turning on the coffee machine as she went and then loading the washer with stray dishes. She grimaced now and again at certain use and movement of her muscles, a reminder of the night and morning she had with Jamie. 

Earlier in the shower, she'd noticed with shock, the discoloured blemishes and bruises on her skin in different parts of her body. Undoubtedly, Jamie had made his mark and bestowed her a gift she will never forget. He'd shown her what it felt like to be desired and wanted as a woman and knew from thereon, after being truly well-loved and served, she would never accept anything less. 

The floor creaked behind her, just as she was retrieving the mugs from the cupboard. Spinning around, she found Jamie leaning against the doorframe, a towel draped low on his hips and an amused smile plastered on his face. "Ye wearing my jersey," he observed, examining the oversized rugby shirt on her.

She shook herself mentally as her eyes drifted from his happy trail to his face. "I only bought it because they didn't have one of Alistair Price." 

He walked over and stopped in front of her, lifting her chin with an index finger. "Wee liar." His head dipped to kiss a bite mark on her exposed shoulder. "Do ye wear it often?" he murmured.

"Only when I'm lounging about the house."

"I like seeing ye wear it." Then their mouths met, and his hands pulled up the hem of her shirt, cupping her backside. 

Insatiable!  Warmth and contentment fanned out in her belly as he deepened the kiss. She was just about to wrap her arms around him when the phone rang. 

Half-heartedly, she pulled away and gave him an apologetic look. "Sorry, but I have to take that."

He gave her one last kiss before letting go, his eyes telling her that they weren't done yet. Composing herself, she answered the phone. "Hey, Joe, what's up?"

"LJ, hey, I have a temporary job for you if you're interested. It's at St. Leonards Medical Centre," he rattled excitedly.

"Oh!" With so many things happening all at once, she hadn't anticipated working so soon. "Well, I was kind of ..."

Joe interrupted. "You remember my ol' buddy Grey?"

"Grey ... Grey," she whispered, searching her memory bank. "Oh, you mean John Grey. Of course, I remember him." She stole a glance at Jamie and met his gaze. "He was part of your medical team during the rugby tournaments."

"That's right. Well, John is at the St. Leonards Medical Centre now. They're kind of short-staffed at the clinic as one of his colleagues broke his leg in a horseback riding accident. They're inundated with work at the moment, and I thought perhaps you could help while you get your life back in order. It's only temporarily."

She chewed her lip and played with the thought. The upside of working at a medical practice, the hours were more regular and less stressful. And moreover, she liked Joe's handsome friend. Besides having worked with him before, she found him funny, witty and kind. "How temporary?"

"Two weeks tops. There's a replacement coming from Glasgow in a fortnight, and then you can go back to residency program hunting. So what do you say, LJ? Will you do it?"

She reflected on it for a bit and sighed. She knew fully well how understaffed hospitals and medical centres were in their area, and it was only for two weeks. "Fine. When do I start?"

Joe let out a whoop in the other end. "Monday at seventy-thirty. The practice opens at eight. I'll text you John's number now in case you have further questions. And thanks a million, LJ. You're a star!" 

She smiled as she switched off her phone and faced Jamie, who was now leaning against the counter, watching her with his arms crossed. "It was Joe. He asked me if I could help his mate at the medical centre," she explained.

A shadow passed his features. "When?"

"Monday."

He tucked his tongue into his cheek. "I was hoping we'd have more time in case I got the job at the network or asked to go to London for an interview."

Her stomach bottomed out, and the feeling of contentment suddenly took a nosedive at the mention of his possible new job. Maybe because she would see less of him or perhaps because it would mean he would be once more in a public's eye where most women would want a piece of him. To her surprise, the thought of him going back to his meaningless relationships sent jealousy coursing through her veins. She immediately banished the dark thoughts with little result. "It's only for two weeks, and there'll be no night shifts," she reasoned, attempting to force down the melancholy in her voice.

As if sensing something was wrong, he sauntered towards her and pulled her into his arms, his eyes searching hers. "Are ye coming to Lallybroch this Sunday for lunch? With me?"

She was surprised. "Willie did ask me, but you really want me to come?"

"I want ye to meet my family. I'll ask Geillis, Joe and yer uncle too, so ye dinnae feel out of place. My family can be quite overwhelming. And let's say ...curious."

"But I thought ..."

A line manifested between his brows. "Ye thought what?

She sensed despondency in the air and had a strong feeling she'd hurt his feelings or made him worry. "Never mind."

With a sigh, he pulled her in for a long intoxicating kiss, his tongue delving in for thorough exploration, seemingly never tiring of her taste. When they finally drew away, he dragged a thumb across her bottom lip, his serious expression becoming more pronounced. "Sassenach, I'm not used to waking up with someone beside me and perhaps, what happened between us was too soon for ye. So, if I've pushed too far too much, I'll back off a bit."

In that instant, all she could think of was expelling the uncertainties she'd cause and getting them back to that comfortable place they've been. Shyly, she slid her palms over Jamie's chest and across his shoulders, her nails scoring his skin. "Last night was amazing, Jamie," she whispered. "And it was the first time in a long time I didn't check the windows and doors before going to sleep." She tilted her head to look at him. "With you snoring in my face, I felt safe and slept very sound."

He burst out laughing. "Snoring in yer face. Is that right?" He studied her for a moment before he spoke again. "Ye really feel safer with me here?"

She nodded. 

Satisfaction took over his expression as he tucked a curl behind her ear. "I like knowing that, Sassenach."

"And, a little reminder ..." she began, tracing a circle on his chest with a fingertip. "I want you to know that you're way more than just rugby. It will always be something you are passionate about and something that brings you joy. And then you can return to you, and that's okay. You're enough and complete without it."

His breath fanned her cheeks. "Am I?"

"You saved my life, you helped me escape my wedding and yesterday you spoiled me with a basket of chocolates." She twined her fingers with the hair, curling at the base of his neck. "You're scoring tries by the thousand in the gestures department, Fraser."

His eyes twinkled. "Was that an intentional rugby reference I hear?"

"I thought you'd appreciate it if we stayed on the theme." Claire felt how much she showed him at that moment. Ten years of putting down a crush as an adolescent's fancy and assuming what she felt for Frank was love, when really all that while she'd had no idea that this was what love felt like. This was it, so laden at times it couldn't be lifted and so light at others it made you capable of floating.  Guard your heart , a voice whispered in the back of her head.  He doesn't love you back ... then nor now.  With a forced smile, Claire gently pulled away. She immersed herself, making them coffee, her voice unnatural when she spoke. "Get dressed. I want to take you somewhere."

She didn't bother to find out his reaction as she occupied herself, knowing if she looked at him, he would extract her true intentions. A few heartbeats passed before Jamie left the kitchen and with a sigh of relief, she smiled, hoping what she had in store for him wouldn't backfire.

..........

The direction she took on their drive brought them to the Rugby and Community Sports Club. It was an idea she'd thought of this morning, inspired by her love for watching the game and Jamie's passion for it. Since the season wouldn't start for another two months, the open field sat deserted beneath a cloudy grey sky, automatic sprinklers spraying from a distance. 

Without looking at Jamie, she could feel the strain sneaking into his frame.

Lately, he'd started speaking to her more and more about rugby, especially ever since he'd shifted his focus on the presenter's job with the sports network. But the thought of actively playing the game again as a non-professional seemed to make him uncomfortable as if he wouldn't permit himself full enjoyment of rugby unless he could excel at it at a top-level. Sadness descended upon her. She could close her eyes and see him in his crisp navy blue uniform. She envisioned strong, powerful legs carrying him across the field, shimmying gracefully past a wall of defending opponents, and body-slamming anyone who got in his way while soaking the adoration and enthusiasm from the cheering crowd. He'd so obviously been the best in his craft, and no one ever challenged his superiority. In fact, like her, the whole nation celebrated it. 

Easing the car into the parking slot and remembering the earsplitting roars from the crowd in the past yesteryears, Claire's gut told her not to stop pushing him. She wanted him to embrace the sport again without associating it with his accident. More importantly, like she'd told him earlier, he didn't have to be the best rugby player to be the best Jamie.

"Sassenach ...what are ye doing?"

She didn't allow his warning tone to dissuade her. "I'm your number one fan, Jamie. And I'd like to play pass and catch with the nation's greatest. It'll be something to cross off my bucket list."

"We're probably not allowed to be here," Jamie mumbled, looking stressed out, his eyes warily darting to the view before them. He started to tap a finger on his thigh, a quirk she'd noticed when he was out of his comfort zone. "We should leave it for another time. Besides, I'm not dressed for sports."

She eyed his clothes. He was still wearing his jeans and shirt from the night before, and his shoes weren't ideal for running. Whereas her, she'd come prepared with a pair of yoga pants and trainers. But still, that didn't stop her from pushing her agenda. "C'mon, twenty minutes is all I ask."

"We don't have a ball."

"I have one," she winked at him and got out of the car before he could come up with another excuse. After quickly grabbing her backpack from the back seat, she headed towards the field and took out the ball, aware of Jamie not far behind. She began to position herself as if she was in a scrum, handling the ball as she'd seen a million times on the television.

"Christ, Almighty, Sassenach, ye have nae hopes in hell of doing a dive pass like that. Ye're supposed to have the ball below yer body."

"I used to play with Joe and his mates, and this is how Joe taught me."

Jamie had no choice but to move towards her. "Joe is more of a tennis man," he grumbled, grabbing her waist and pushing her back lower. "Ye need to angle yersel' this way."

She did as she was told and bent lower to her waist. "Like this?"

Jamie groaned and rolled his head on his shoulders. "Bloody hell, Sassenach, ye're killing me."

"Wot?"

"I ken what ye're doing," he growled, pressing himself against her rear and squeezing her waist. "Fine, ye win. We'll do a few passes and run towards the other end of the field."

She grinned as she watched him settle into his post opposite her, looking smooth and dangerous as a panther. "You do the dive and pass the ball to me," she instructed.

Jamie nodded, his shoulder muscles taut and stretched under his shirt. His warm breath puffed out onto her face as they imitated the scrum position, bent down and locking arms together. Over them, the sky darkened even more, obscuring their shadows on the ground. There was a heavy pressure in the atmosphere, a warning that soon the heavens would open.

As he counted, Claire had a moment of panic as she thought of his past injury. What if pushing him caused more harm? But there was no time to ponder as he grabbed the ball and straightened up.

Trying to keep up with his long legs, she was on her feet too and off running. She knew he wasn't even exerting much effort for her benefit so she could keep up. And then the ball came hurtling towards her, and with as much force she could muster, she leapt and caught it with a loud oomph and ran as fast as she could, the wind whipping her hair loose and cooling her heated skin. Halfway towards the end of the field, she twisted her body, to release the ball. With a snap of her arm and turn of her wrist, she gave him her best spin-pass.

Holding her breath, she watched as Jamie caught the ball with ease. It had been over a year since he'd held one in his hand, yet his body slipped right into the familiar movement. His legs were long, one hand carrying the ball as if it was glued there, not bothering to hook it under his arm, and his coppery locks were swept back by the wind. He was like an eagle soaring the skies of the highlands or a stag racing through grassy pastures, zig-zagging with grace and dexterity as he covered the rest of the course. Muscled legs twisting and body flexing, he was a magnificent sportsman and a work of art to behold. He reached the other end of the field and flew in the air to dive in for a heart-stopping touchdown.

Claire could no more check her loud shout of cheer than she could stop the drizzle that started to fall around them. Jamie spun towards her as he got up, an unmistakable grin spread on his face, his joy so palpable from where she stood. He didn't hesitate to pass her the ball for another round. And then another. Each round they did, caused Claire's heart to expand with pride. The rain grew heavier, drenching them to their skin, but they didn't stop until there was nothing left in her. If she had more energy and stamina, she would have continued until the sun was gone, watching him grow more confident with every catch and race across the field, but she couldn't have been any more triumphant when he dropped the ball to the ground.

Tears clouded in her eyes as he strode towards her, lifting her into a bone-crunching hug. She laughed without inhibition as he spun her in a circle, her arms fastening around his neck. "Show-off," she whispered into his ear. "How did that feel?"

"Bloody awesome!" he breathed.

Remembering their morning discussion about wanting her touch, a wall inside Claire cracked in the middle and crumbled down. She clung to him as he walked them away from the field, raining kisses on his neck.

"Christ, Sassenach!"

"Wot?"

"Thank you." His eyes probed hers, his hands firmly clutching her thighs. "For accepting me as I am and showing me, I can change for the better. How do ye do that?"

I love you, that's how.  Claire couldn't say it out loud, so she took his face in her hands instead and kissed him, hoping that when the day came to let him go, she would have the strength and courage to do so.

..........

There was an impatient, loud knock, making Claire jump. "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!" she muttered under her breath. "What now?" She'd been so deeply engrossed in her reflections of the recent events and packing for her overnight at Jamie's, she'd lost track of time.

After their afternoon at the field yesterday, they'd returned to her cottage, showered and stayed in to watch movies. They'd ended their evening making love on the living room floor, and that morning he'd left her to do some errands. But not before asking her to stay over at his apartment for the weekend. She'd hesitated at first, but she'd shut the nagging voices in her head and agreed. Next week there would be plenty of opportunities to occupy herself with her temporary job and think over her situation with Jamie. This weekend she was determined to enjoy their time together.

Another knock. This time louder.

Quickly glancing at her watch, she made her way through her living room, tying her bathrobe tight.  It was too early for Frank. And even more so for Jamie. Who could that possibly be?  Peering out the window before opening the door, she saw it was indeed Frank. He looked casual in jeans and a black button-down designer shirt. The only thing that was out of place was his unshaven face and restless demeanour which was very unlike the smooth and collected man she knew.

She opened the door. "You're early."

He marched inside without waiting for an invitation, making her automatically step back. "I see you still have that tattered bathrobe you like to wear so much. Didn't you tell me you got rid of it?"

Claire stiffened but refused to be unnerved. He'd always had an opinion about the clothes she wore and her taste. When he'd told her to get rid of the bathrobe, she'd defiantly hid it at the back of her closet. "It's my mother's," she reminded him. "Where are my things?"

"In the car."

"Can you please get it then."

"What's the rush?" he asked, critically eyeing the inside of her cottage with a disapproval shake of his head. Shoving his hands into his pocket, he spun around to face her. "You have somewhere to go?"

Feeling apprehensive, she tugged the tie of her bathrobe nervously. "In fact, I do, yes. Let's get this over and done with, shall we? I'll help you get my things from your car."

"Plans with Jamie?"

"None of your business," she snapped, already at the end of her tethers with the on-going drama called Frank.  Why can't he just let me be?

His lips turned into an ugly sneer. "Why so defensive, darling? Everyone knows you're fucking him."

A sting went straight through her heart. She didn't know the man before her anymore. What happened to the man she fell in love and once vowed to share her life with? "Think whatever you like, I'm beyond caring. I only want to get my things back." She made a move to go outside, but he yanked her back with force, causing her to lose her balance and bang her head on the floor with a loud thud.

He pulled her up without an ounce of care and shoved her against the wall. "You think you can humiliate me in front of hundreds of people and escape the consequences?" he snarled, his spittle landing on her face. "Oh no, my dear. You're going to pay."

Her heart pounded with fear, but she strived to remain calm. "Let me go, Frank, please. You're hurting me," she pleaded. She twisted within his grasp and saw the door was still open. If only she had the strength to push him away and make it outside. "Can we talk about this calmly?"

"I thought you said we're done talking." His hand began to tug the ties of her bathrobe and panic flooded through her. "I've come to claim what's mine. Now spread your legs and give what's due me."

She tried to bring her knees up, but he'd anticipated her move. His thighs pinned her against the wall, and his fingers dug painfully into her wrists. Above her head, he gripped her hands with iron strength, and the more she twisted and turned, the more she felt Frank's erection pushed between her thighs. "Please, Frank, don't do this."

"Come on, sweetheart, give it to me as good as you give to Jamie," he mocked, ramming his hips against her, one knee forcing her leg to part.

"No, no, please ..." She squirmed, trying to pull her hands from his grasp, but he was too powerful and too heavy for her to push away.

"I'm quite sure Jamie wouldn't mind sharing. He did steal you from me, after all." He seized her face and forced her to look at him. "Did you scream like a bitch in heat when he fucked you or did you fake it like you did with me?"

"No, no ..." she trailed off in a whimper as she felt his hand slip underneath the waistband of her panties. And when his finger slithered in further, that's when she lost it. The thought of Frank taking her right then made her sick to the point of revulsion, causing her to forget her fear for her safety.

She screamed, twisted and fought like a possessed madwoman. She was about to bite into his arm when suddenly the weight of Frank was lifted off her. Blinking and disoriented, she only had a moment to see his body flying backwards into the air and find Jamie standing over Frank's sprawled body.

Without giving Frank a second look, Jamie quickly got to her and made a quick assessment of her state, his eyes and hands searching for any signs of injury. "Are ye alright, Sassenach?" he asked, his calm voice a complete contradiction to the rage pulsating in waves around his body.

Unable to speak, she simply nodded and wrapped her arms around her body.

And then with a calculated move, Jamie straightened to his full height and menacingly approached Frank. He grabbed the half-daze figure by his collar to his feet, and Jamie was just about to throw a punch to his guts when the door was flung wide open.

"Police! Stay where ye are!"

Everyone froze, and Jamie let go.

A few seconds went by before Frank suddenly found his voice. "Arrest him, officer. This man has violated his restraining order. My name is Frank Randall ...Dr Frank Randall from the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and if you check your records, you will find I filed for a restraining order because I felt my life was in danger. As you can see, Mr James Fraser here is a very violent man."

Claire let out a gasp and realised she'd underestimated Frank. "No, no ..." She forced herself to speak, but her vocal cords seemed tight and constricted. Her ears rang, and her vision blurred. Mind racing, she did a quick self-diagnosis and realised she was experiencing the symptoms of concussion. It must have been caused when she'd lost her balance earlier and hit her head. 

Taking a huge gulp of air, she tried once more and strained her voice, fighting the darkness that seemed to engulf her at a rapid pace. But the only word that came out before she blacked out was, "Concussion..."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jamie dragged a hand through his hair and stared viciously at Inspector Campbell. "I told ye already ... Frank ...I mean Dr Randall was attacking Claire when I arrived at her house and ..." 

The gum-chewing Inspector stopped him midsentence. "So ye admit to assaulting Dr Randall with intent to cause bodily harm?" 

"I stopped him from hurting her!"

"By throwing him across the room?"

"Where the bloody hell are we? In the courtroom or what?" an officious voice interrupted. "My client has the right not to answer any more of yer questions!"

Campbell and Jamie glanced towards the door and watched a small middle-aged man in an over-sized grey suit march into the interrogation room, followed by a bumbling young police officer trying to stop him. Ned Gowan, his family and personal lawyer, stopped by his side and peered down at him through his spectacle. "Ye alright, son?"

Jamie grinned and nodded, happy to see a familiar face. He hadn't expected him to come this soon. When he'd called earlier, he was informed by Ned's secretary that he was unavailable. Nevertheless, Jamie had filled her in with what had occurred to save time.

"Mr Gowan, ye cannot simply barge in here during an interrogation," Campbell fumed. "Ye ken the rules."

Ned smiled at the Inspector. "Aye, that is true, but my client requested my presence. So, under my advice, Mr Fraser here will not answer any more of yer questions. So as far as I'm concerned, this interrogation is over. What are the charges?"

"No formal charges have been made yet," Campbell grumbled. "But Mr Fraser has violated a restraining order by visiting Dr Randall's fiancée."

"Ex-fiancée," Jamie butted in. "She left Dr Randall at the altar. Remember?"

Ned gave Jamie a stern look before proceeding. "Inspector Campbell, if you've checked the terms of the restraining order, you will come to the same conclusion as me, that no violation has been made. Now if you don't mind, I would like to speak to my client. Alone."

Begrudgingly, Cambell stood up, his chair scraping the floor noisily. "Fine. But we will still retain Mr Fraser for twenty-four hours until ..."

"We will see about that," Ned said firmly, placing his briefcase on the table and opening it to retrieve some papers and an Ipad. Once they were alone, he took the vacated seat and smiled. "Weel, Jamie lad, what trouble are we in today?"

Jamie leaned forward. "I need to get out of here as soon as possible. Claire could be in serious trouble. She was attacked by Frank, and that man cannae be trusted. He is unscrupulous, and he is playing his good-doctor-card to get away with everything. He brazenly lied to the police in front of me and made me look like the bad guy. "

"Aah, aye, the runaway bride. I've been briefed by my secretary on the way here. Yer friend Joe called Willie, and I've been informed by yer brother that Miss Beauchamp is safe and that Miss Duncan is with her." He paused for a few seconds, allowing Jamie to absorb his words. "First things first, though. There is something foul and rank about that restraining order filed against ye." He sifted through the papers and pulled one out. "There are no police reports, nor any official complaints recorded leading to the application —no prior evidence of misconduct on yer part. Looks like Mr Randall pulled a few strings here and there." His brows furrowed deeper. "How long have ye known Dr Randall?"

Jamie told him of his first encounter with the doctor at uncle Lamb's apartment and how he and Quentin received the restraining order the day after. He also spoke of everything that transpired during the meeting as well as pointing out it was Quentin's first visitation from Frank.

"Very strange indeed," Ned murmured more to himself. "From what I see, the restraining order was filed the day before ye met Dr Randall and Mr Beauchamp. Now I would understand why Mr Beauchamp would receive one but for Dr Randall to apply for one against ye and before meeting ye at that, is very peculiar. Ye haven't had any form of communication with him either via phone or any other form of an electronic device prior to meeting him?"

"No, not at all."

Ned scribbled some notes. "And what is Miss Beauchamp to ye?"

"A friend."

The older man stopped what he was doing and arched an eyebrow at him. "A friend? Is that right?"

Jamie beat down the urge to curse. The older man was way too perceptive. "A very special friend."

"Is there anything else I ought to know about Ms Beauchamp?"

"Ummm, she's a doctor ...and Frank has been making life difficult for her since she ran away from her own wedding."

"Aye, aye, I ken that. The jilted groom and the runaway bride, so on and so forth." Ned waved a hand. "What I meant is, anything about her that might be detrimental to yer case."

"Ned! Claire is the victim here, not me!" he pointed out irritatedly.

"Fine, fine, just making sure I have everything covered," he said, raising both hands in defence. "I should be able to get ye out in an hour. But I'm quite sure there will be conditions set already as the police will be anticipating yer release. Ye cannot leave Scotland until this is all resolved and make sure ye are accessible via phone anytime. Any further conditions, I will let ye know."

Jamie relaxed a bit. "Thank ye." 

"Ye're welcome."

Observing the older man gather his things, Ned hardly resembled a lawyer at all. In fact, if anything, he looked like a car salesman or a bank clerk despite him being the best in his profession around Edinburgh. Maybe it had something to do with his clothes not fitting him properly or his carriage or perhaps, he looked too fatherly. For as long as Jamie could remember, Ned had always been his family's lawyer, confidant and adviser. And for someone who frequented their dinner table, Jamie had never seen him out of his work suit. "Ned?"

"Aye, son?"

"Why didn't ye marry? I ken it's a personal question, but I've often wondered."

Ned stopped, pondered for a bit and then sighed. "There used to be a lass, but that was a long time ago."

Curiosity got the better of him. "What happened?"

He smiled wistfully. "What happened? Weel, I let the greatest love of my life go, that's what happened. I thought my career would be enough." He took off his specs and started to polish it with a handkerchief. "I realised too late, my achievement meant nought when I have naebody to share it with." He paused and then cleared his throat. "Ye see Jamie, the worse decision ye can make in life are the ones ye make out of too much logic and too little heart."

"That's the thing isn't it, ye dinna ken until it's too late," Jamie said thoughtfully.

"Aye, it's always easier to take the familiar route, ye ken - without the risks and surprises slinking around the corner." Ned grabbed his briefcase. "But just in case ye're seeking for some sort of answer, remember this - great love is, for the most part, an inconvenient sort. It's messy, and there's no guarantee. It'd take a massive leap of faith and courage to go down that road. No one could really predict what would be in store for ye - it could be the best thing ye will ever do in your life, or it could be yer biggest downfall. I, for one, will never know, and that's my biggest regret. So choose wisely, lad." 

And then Ned left.

A mental image of his bachelor pad made Jamie suddenly feel cold. Something was nudging him. A necessity he'd never felt before to put down roots, without the fear of his decadent past catching up on him and telling him he wasn't made for this. Why now? Why was he suddenly anxious to shed this final piece of his past so he could start creating something new? Did seeing Claire in danger earlier propagated the thought?

Claire's smile played and teased in his head, but he laughed it off with a shrug. No, a lasting commitment wasn't in his gene. It was sufficient for now that he was doing something to get his life back on track and concentrating on getting the job at the network.   An odd lump suddenly formed in his throat as he continued to think of Claire, how she'd felt in his arms and how natural it felt to start the day with her. And it was useless to pretend he made the conditions for the status of their relationship for no other reason than to be with her longer. To be there for her in case she needed him. To what end, though, he didn't know yet. But with the announcement at the network fast approaching, the idea of letting her go threatened his sanity. Would she take the risk of coming to London with him? But what risk was he taking in return?

..........

"Ach, there ye are!"

Claire looked up just as she was haphazardly signing her hospital discharge forms. "Oh, Geillis, thank God." She scribbled her signature on the last of the papers and handed the pen back to the head nurse. Shifting her attention to her friend, she noticed the worried look. "I'm fine. It's just a bit of swelling," she reassured her, a hand automatically touching the sore bump at the back of her head. 

"She has a concussion," the nurse interfered with a humph, clearly not convinced about her early release.

"A mild concussion," Claire corrected firmly. 

"Mild or no', concussions are not something to be trifled with, Dr Beauchamp and ye should know better." The nurse gathered all the papers and looked at her sternly. "Plenty of rest and don't do anything too exciting."

Ignoring the exchange, Geillis zeroed-in to the point. "What the hell happened, Claire? Joe was very vague over the phone and didn't get into details."

Claire waited for the nurse to leave and recounted the whole story, sparing nothing. After she'd regained consciousness earlier, she'd immediately called Joe so he could notify Jamie's family of the situation and her uncle. Joe had wanted to see her in the hospital, but Claire had insisted Jamie was in much bigger trouble. Conceding, he'd sent Geillis to her in his place instead.

"That wanker has gone too far," Geillis seethed after hearing what happened. "Ye can't let him get away with this, Claire."

"No, definitely not! I need to go to the police as soon as possible to clear things up for Jamie. Did Joe tell you to bring me some clothes and shoes? They brought me in, in my bathrobe." 

"Oh, yes, of course. Here." Geillis handed her the paper bag. "I'll take ye to the station once ye're ready. Last I heard, Jamie was taken in for questioning but hasn't been formally charged, and Joe said, Jamie's lawyer is doing everything to get him out of there."

Claire let out a sigh of relief and then stopped. "How about Frank? Have you heard anything about him?"

"No," Geillis replied. "I'd been half expecting him to be lurking outside the ward. Good thing he wasn't. I would have ended throttling his sorry neck and sharing the jail cell with Jamie."

Despite being worried, Claire managed a smile, glad to have Geillis on her side. Her friend's bark could be as bad as her bite if anyone got on the wrong side of her. "If you throttle him, I will look the other way," she joked.

Geillis laughed before her expression turned pensive. "By the way, has anyone from the police taken your statement?"

"No. Strange, isn't it? Frank probably made himself look like the victim and me a mere casualty." Her hands began to shake as she changed into her clothes. Deep down inside, she was deliriously mad. It was one thing Frank being manipulative and controlling but to try and force himself on her and get Jamie arrested was wicked and conniving. And that was putting it very mildly. 

How on earth had Frank kept that side of him hidden from the rest of the world? It wasn't only her he'd fooled but also friends, colleagues and the community who'd known and admired him for years. Even though it wasn't in her nature to be vengeful and vindictive, she knew it was time to step things up a bit, especially when Frank's actions were starting to affect the people in her life. 

Claire was just putting on her shoes when there was a knock on the door. Geillis immediately got up and opened it. "Yes?"

"Good evening, sorry for intruding. May we please speak to Miss Beauchamp?"

Geillis pulled the door a little wider and stepped aside.

"And you are?" Claire asked, assessing the two men dressed in jeans and plain t-shirts. Although one of them looked familiar, they didn't look like they were from the police nor member of the medical staff.

The two men shuffled apprehensively on their feet, eyeing each other as if prodding who should speak first.

Geillis rolled her eyes and threw her hands in the air. "Oh for crying out loud, the suspense is killing me! Speak up, lads!"

The taller of the men with a ponytail spoke up first. "Eh, my name is Rupert, Rupert MacKenzie. And this is my colleague, Angus Mhor," he began. "We are freelance investigative reporters, and we have been following ye ever since ye made headlines as a runaway bride..."

"And now what?" Geillis interrupted angrily. "Ye want a freaking interview? Ye think this is some circus show to entertain the mass?"

Angus looked nervously out in the hallway and licked his lips. "Oh, no nothing like that at all. We have something that will be of interest to ye."

Claire couldn't get a word edgeways as Geillis took over again. "Ah, I see. Ye have some uncompromising photos of Claire, and now ye want to bribe her, is that it? Ye cheeky gits! Get out of here, ye morons before I castrate the both of ye!"

This time Rupert stepped forward and put up his hands "Please listen to us. We are not here to bribe ye nor to ask for an interview."

"Why are you here, then?" Claire gave Geillis a warning look and nodded to the reporters to continue.

Rupert gave her a grateful smile before speaking. "Earlier, when we saw Dr Randall parking his car into yer driveway, we snuck up to yer window to take some photos. And then when we realised that he was hurting ye, I told my pal here, Angus to call the police."

Angus nodded. "Aye, I was the one who called the police. They werenae far and were there in a matter of minutes."

"And we have some incriminating photos here of Dr Randall that will prove Mr James Fraser's innocence of the whole incident," Rupert added.

"Wot?" Claire's jaw dropped, and her body shook. "You mean to tell me you were outside the whole time I was struggling? I was screaming my lungs out, and I was scared out of my wits. Why in God's green earth, didn't you come in to help me?"

Angus cleared his throat. "We saw Mr Fraser arriving and decided to continue taking photos. We knew the police were on their way. Ye see, Miss Beauchamp, my sister is a victim of Dr Randall's bullying too, and like ye, she no longer works here at the hospital. I've been issued a restraining order in the past when she threatened Dr Randall to tell her story to the news. Somehow he found out I'm a reporter, I dinna ken how. But he warned her, if she did that, he would make sure she never work again in any hospital in Edinburgh. I was determined to take as many photos so we could have enough evidence to show the world what Dr Randall is really like. I am truly sorry ye ended up hurt. But the pieces of evidence we have will mean justice for ye too."

She let out a huge breath she was holding trying to assimilate Angus' words into her brains. Frank hurting other people too? How could she have missed it? 

"Sassenach!"

"Claire, thank God!"

She glanced up and saw Jamie and Joe at the door. "Joe! Jamie, you're out!"

Ignoring the reporters and not caring who was watching, Jamie strode towards her and pulled her against him. "Thank Christ, ye're alright," he whispered, kissing her temple. "How are ye? Are ye hurt?"

"I'm fine, just a slight bump," she whispered against his chest.

"Erm, Jamie, there are reporters in the room," Geillis warned, patting him on the shoulder.

"Ach, we're not taking photos," Rupert reassured them.

"Nope, nae photos," Angus said, nodding his head.

Joe looked at the reporters warily. "You better not be; otherwise, you'll both regret the day you were born."

Everyone started to talk at once, but Jamie was oblivious to his surrounding as he continued to stroke her hair. His warm lips were pressed against her forehead while he whispered soothing Gaelic endearments. She wanted to melt into his embrace and forget the ugliness, but the unpleasant events of the night unfurled and caused a new wave of anger surging through her. Not even Jamie's familiar warmth can tamp the fury that was mounting by the second. After sustaining a concussion, she knew she ought to calm herself down, but the thought of Frank causing pain and trouble to innocent people made her sick to the core and her blood boil. 

As if her ill thoughts had conjured Frank, he walked in as casually as a doctor on his routine rounds, causing everyone to still in stupefaction. "What the hell is going on here?" his voice boomed.

And that's when Claire saw red. She didn't know if it was adrenaline or her own physical strength, but somehow she managed to twist away from Jamie's hold and grab a flower vase from a table. 

"Sassenach, no!"

Hands scrambled to get hold of her, and Jamie's arms went around her waist, her feet almost dangling off the floor. She stopped hearing their plea to calm down, everything becoming a blur, her focus centred solely on Frank's face that was now looking back at her in horror. Years of sadness, frustration, humiliation and resentment she'd endured turned into a ball of rage screaming to be unleashed. She twisted once more from Jamie's grasp and tested the weight of the vase in her hand. "YOU FUCKING BASTARD!" she hollered, tears streaming down her face. 

She flung the vase at Frank's head. He tried to duck to avoid the impact, but it hit him directly on the middle of the face. He collapsed on the floor with a bloodied nose and his body in a heap, no one from the room coming to his aid.

"Sassenach, what have ye done?" Jamie's voice sounded like it came from afar.

"What I should have done ages ago," she replied, before numbly walking over Frank and leaving the room.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jamie looked at his watch. Where the hell are they?  Claire and Joe should be here by now. Restless, he started to pace in front of Lallybroch manor house, withdrawn from the flurry of barbecue preparation activities going on at the back garden.

More than thirty-six hours ago, Claire had almost disfigured her former fiance's face. In the wake of her throwing a vase at Frank, she'd walked out of the hospital without a backward glance, followed by Jamie, Geillis and the reporters. Except for Joe, who'd stayed behind to get medical aid for Frank. Jamie had immediately called Ned to inform him what had ensued, and so far, much to his relief, there hadn't been a complaint filed.

He'd had intended to spend that whole weekend with Claire, but after the incident with Frank and her being discharged from the hospital, she'd opted to go home with Geillis instead, making him wish he'd been the one to throw the vase at Frank for ruining his plans. At least, after a lot of wheedling and cajoling, he was able to extract a promise from her to attend Sunday lunch in his family home before they went their separate ways. Geillis and uncle Lamb had graciously declined the invitation due to some previously arranged engagement, but Joe, not one to miss a good barbecue party, had assured him he would come by with Claire.

After he'd gone back to his apartment on that fateful night, he'd slept fitfully, thinking about her. He'd texted and sent voice messages throughout the next day but were never returned, propelling him to this foreign feeling of panic and alarm over a lass. Miserably he thought, this must be how it felt like for the girls who'd waited a long time for his calls. And now, as a consequence, he was being served a bitter taste of his own medicine by the universe. If Claire had changed her mind about them being together, he knew he was going to lose it. 

Jamie's muscles tightened as the sound of a vehicle approaching brought him back to the present. But when the car stopped and opened its doors, it was Laoghaire and an older couple who stepped out, instead of Joe and Claire. Laoghaire's company looked vaguely familiar. He'd probably met them before during one of those gatherings that his family had attended or one here from Lallybroch. He'd been away for ages at a time, he could barely keep up with everyone's identity.

"Jamie! So good to see ye," Laoghaire enthused, as she walked up to him, giving him a playful pout. "Ye never called! Ye promised ye would."

I have nae reason to,  he wanted to say. Ignoring the void in his stomach, he managed half a smile. "I've been busy," he said instead, half his attention riveted to the road, ears straining for the sound of Joe's car.

Laoghaire half-turned and waved a hand. "Jamie, ye remember my parents, don't ye?"

Unable to recall their first names, he nodded politely to the couple. "Mr and Mrs MacKenzie, I hope ye're well."

The older woman flirtatiously fluttered her darkened eyelashes. "Ach, Jamie, such a fine lad ye turned out to be." Her red-painted lips broke into a slow smile as she placed a bony hand on his arm and leaned in. "I remember a time when ye and Laoghaire were just wee bairns, and ye used to play together during our families' gatherings. Did ye ken, now that she's all grown-up, the lads here at Broch Mordha are beating the path to Laoghaire's door to ask her out?"

"She's spoiled for choices then," he half-heartedly teased, turning on his old-Jamie-charm a notch and wishing Joe and Claire would arrive already. The last time he'd spoken to Laoghaire, he'd been in a foul mood and was utterly rude to her, and it wasn't his usual way. His mother would have been appalled if she'd witnessed his behaviour, but today, he was determined to be on his best conduct.

Mrs MacKenzie's eyes twinkled. "Ye should come and visit us at the farm, one weekend before summer is over. And bring Laoghaire with ye."

He let out a nervous cough. "I'm quite sure Laoghaire has someone else in mind and is already spoken for," he winked good-naturedly at Laoghaire. "As have I."

Mr MacKenzie arched an eyebrow, glancing first at his daughter's flushed face before looking back at Jamie. "Is that so? Anyone, we know? Ye've piqued my interest, lad as I've never known ye to admit to having a lass."

"I'm sure ye'll meet her soon enough," he replied, praying the car he heard from a distance was Joe's.

"Oh, is she coming today?" Laoghaire asked, obviously knowing already the answer to her question and looking disheartened.

"She should be here any moment now," he replied, praying he was right.

"Ach, Jamie, there have been rumours, circulating around. About ye and an English lass," Mrs MacKenzie began. "But I dinnae listen to idle gossips and read tabloids, ye ken. Yer ma revealed ye helped a friend's friend flee her own wedding. But I dinnae understand for the life of me, how that lass could leave poor Dr Randall at the altar. He's such a good man, supporting important causes in and around Edinburgh. Surely that's not the lass ye're with."

Jamie's stomach plunged. Maybe it wasn't a good idea inviting Claire here after all. But how could he have known his family's supposed Sunday lunch was going to turn into barbecue affair? Possessiveness and the urge to defend her in her absence swelled inside of him. "Mrs MacKenzie, some of those rumours are inaccurate."

The older woman let out an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Ah, I thought so ..."

"What they say about Dr Randall is a total misconception. He might be a brilliant doctor, but he fooled a lot of people into believing he is an upstanding member of the community when, in actual fact, he is a certified prick." Jamie ignored the gasps of incredulity as his awareness latched on to the sound of car parking. He glanced towards the driveway and saw Joe and Claire through the windscreen of their car, and was hit with unexpected joy. Slowly backing away from the MacKenzies, he smiled. "And as for the English lass, that part of the rumour is the truth. I'm with her." He paused before continuing. "Anyway, enjoy the barbecue, and I shall see ye soon." Before they could pelt him with more questions and assumptions, he turned around and strolled towards Joe and Claire.

Joe carried a bag of, what Jamie surmised were bottles of wine from the sounds of clinking, and Claire, pretty as a picture, clutched a bouquet of flowers, looking a lot better than the last time he saw her.

"We're here!" Joe beamed.

"Ye're late!" Jamie pretended to be annoyed, but he couldn't help the grin spreading across his face as his eyes soaked in Claire. She was every inch the sweet girl-next-door in her loose yellow sundress until he came up close.  Ah, sweet, Jesus!  The low scallop neckline revealed the soft swell of her creamy breast enhanced by the upward push of her bra, sending blood rushing into his cock until it stiffened in his jeans. He remembered well how they felt in his hands and longed to touch her again. "And ye, Sassenach, ye didn't answer my texts nor returned my calls," he whispered against her mouth, his arm going around her waist and pulling her in. He didn't care who saw as couldn't help himself whenever she was around. The moment he saw her, all the irritation, frustration, and control evaporated and in an instant, forgotten.

Placing her hands on his chest, Claire drew away slightly. "I told you I was coming today," she breathed, staring at his lips. "I was only following the doctor's orders and having plenty of rest."

The way she was staring at his mouth told him she missed him too. Unable to resist, he leaned in for another kiss, but Joe slapped him on the back, reminding him they weren't alone. "Enough of that, you two. I'm not interested in playing the third wheel here when I can smell good food on the grill."

Jamie grunted, taking the flowers from Claire's hands and handing it to Joe. "Do ye mind taking this, mate? I need a moment alone with Claire. I might not get another chance today once my family hijacks her." And then Jamie noticed the MacKenzies were still stood where he left them, staring in unified shock. "And take them with ye too, if ye dinna mind" he added, subtly nodding in their direction.

Joe glanced at the Mackenzies and then scowled at Jamie. "They're not my problem. You're the host."

He was impatient to be alone with Claire. "Will ye make it yer problem if I give ye a season's ticket to the rugby?" 

There was a moment of silent stand-off, as Joe contemplated, making Claire stare at Jamie in disbelief. "How about making it two seasons' tickets. It's for my plus one," Joe finally said.

"Ye dinnae have a plus one," Jamie argued.

"It could be my bargaining chip to get a chick."

"Alright, two season tickets then." Jamie was getting desperate.

"Jamie! Joe!" Claire exclaimed, staring disapprovingly at them, but they both disregarded her.

"And if you throw in a private box with champagne, that would be a nice touch," Joe suggested.

Jamie frowned.

"Listen to me, buddy." Joe inched closer, his voice dropping low. "That older MacKenzie woman is way too touchy-feely for me, and her perfume makes me gag. Once I start talking to her, she'll never leave me alone for the rest of the afternoon. I need more incentive, man."

"Fine, but the private box and champagne will only be available and one-off if there's a lass to speak of."

"Deal!" Joe grinned. "Shall we spit and shake on it?"

"No! Now go!" he growled.

Joe walked away, laughing. "Have fun kids! Just make sure you're back before your ma starts asking questions."

"We won't be long," Jamie replied, already tugging Claire by the hand as he guided them between the hedges that led to a hidden alcove. Once he was sure they were out of sight from anyone who might be wandering the grounds, he impatiently pulled her to him.

Claire slapped his arm. "Jamie!"

"What?!" he muttered against her neck, inhaling the fresh, clean scent of her skin. His mouth found its way into her hair and a hand on her breast, every inch of him responding to having her body moulded to his hard planes. The unease that had been churning inside him all day yesterday and this morning settled, while a different kind of commotion took shape.

"You're terrible!"

"And ye're so bonnie ..." He nibbled the lobe of her ear, and when a soft moan escaped her lips, a stream of chemicals was let loose into his bloodstream.

"What you did there with Joe was bribery!"

"It's yer fault!

"How was that my fault?"

Jamie drew away and glanced down at her. "Ye didn't come home with me, and I missed ye." And he meant it, even though nothing was making sense anymore. Who would have thought, him, James Fraser would lose sleep over a lass? "I didnae want to argue with Geillis when she said she'd take ye home with her. She was too scary." His weak attempt to make a joke sounded lame to his ears, but Claire smiled.

"With my state that night, I wasn't allowed to get too excited, that's why I didn't come home with you," she teased, her lips parting on a nervous breath as she slid her hands around his neck, bringing their bodies closer.

A low thudding began, proliferating throughout his insides, starting in his heart and then going downwards. "Is that so? Do I excite ye then?"

"Hmmm ..."

He laughed when she didn't give him an answer. He was tempted to kiss her more, but then other pressing matters suddenly flittered into his thoughts. Gripping her shoulders, he forced her to look at him. "Listen to me, Sassenach. We need to talk about Frank. This is crucial. I didnae realised that Friday evening, he was coming to bring ye yer things. Why did ye not tell me?"

Chewing her bottom lip, she shifted in his hold. "I never thought in a million years that Frank would lay a hand on me," she reasoned. "Like you and everyone else, I was in shock with what happened. He's never done anything like that before that's why I never brought it up." And then she let out a humourless laugh. "I don't regret throwing that vase at him though, and I suppose, anytime soon the police will come and arrest me."

"No," he said firmly, pulling her once more in his embrace and placing her head against his chest. "No one is going to arrest you, and if it makes ye feel any better, Frank sustained only a cut on the bridge of his nose. What he did to ye was far worse, and I could have done something more damaging to him for it. If he is truly a smart man and wants to keep his reputation intact and his job at the Royal Infirmary, he wouldn't dare press any charges. We have enough incriminating proof to bring him down, thanks to those reporters. Ned, as we speak, is compiling pieces of evidence and data against him. Ye need not worry. I'll make sure he doesnae come anywhere near ye again." He stroked her hair and let his hand wander down to the small of her back. "And next time, don't keep anything like this from me ."

"Alright," she whispered, her fingers caressing the nape of his neck. "Shall we go now? Your family must be wondering where you are."

"Not yet. I want to kiss ye first. I dinnae think I will have yer undivided attention for the rest of the afternoon as soon as we walk out there."

She looked up at him and smiled, but he sensed her disconcertion. 

"Are you sure your parents are alright, having me for lunch?" she asked. "I saw plenty of cars out there, and I'm quite certain some of your guests will recognise me from the news. It might not look good for you."

"I dinnae care about the guests, Sassenach but I know my parents will adore ye." Of that, he was positive. He tipped her chin and brushed his lips against hers.  Christ! So, so sweet.  She was everything he never had before and everything he wanted. Attempting and failing to maintain an awareness of their surroundings, Jamie angled his hips and listened to her breath falter. 

"But this is huge, Jamie."

Aye, tell me about it.  Jamie shifted his stance as the strain in his jeans became more uncomfortable.

"I mean, I'm meeting your parents." Claire leaned back just enough to study his face. "And you've never brought a girl home. Why now?"

Instead of answering her question, he lifted her up by her thighs, her legs automatically cinching his waist on the way up. Her soft flesh fused against his hardness, and he took her mouth in a frenzied kiss, pressing her back against the hedges. When she responded in kind, Jamie's mind could barely function only aware that his senses turned on a clean slate that knew nothing of touch and taste. Her lips moved with sensual intention, synchronising his own, making him feel like the first and last man to ever be kissed by her. 

He broke their kiss and gazed at her half-closed eyes and swollen lips. "Sassenach, look at me." His voice came out rasped, and his speech sounding strained. "I said, look at me."

"I'm here, Jamie, I'm looking," she whispered, looking intoxicated. So far gone she was, he wondered if she was aware that his erection was pressing hard into the silk of her panties.

"I can't do it!" he muttered.

He felt her stiffen as she sobered up, and her eyes widened. "You can't do wot, Jamie?"

"I can't do it. I can't stop myself from thinking about ye. Worrying about ye. When I saw Frank touching ye ...I couldn't...oh, Christ..." He groaned against her mouth, his hands gripping her bottom and dragging her higher against him. "I was out of mind yesterday when ye didn't answer my calls. I need ye in my life. "

"Y-you do?"

Jamie pushed up hard between her thighs, making her hands grip tight on his taut shoulders. "I want ye to live with me."

A delicate line formed between her brows. "But Jamie ..."

"I'm still not promising happily ever after and I'm not even convinced if this will work." He let out a shaky exhale. "I want ye to understand I can't promise anything that I'm not sure I will follow through. The only thing that makes sense right now is how much I need to wake up beside ye every morning even if I have nae clue how to be a boyfriend."

"You want to be my boyfriend?"

Moment of truth.  He swallowed hard, his hands gripping her hips tight. "I want ye to come to London with me." 

"You got the job?" she croaked.

"No. Not yet. But it's looking that way." Jamie braced himself and thought this was the only way he would able to do his job if he knew she was nearby instead of her being hundreds of miles away from him. "I'm meeting some important people from the network in Glasgow during the British Sports Award presentation, and I want ye to come with me."

"British Sports Award ?!? But, Jamie! That'll be televised! The whole nation will know!"

The worry in Claire's tone caused a pang in Jamie's chest. "I know." His tongue wandered along the curve of her lower lip, urging himself to push further. "I'm asking you in the nicest possible way to be my girlfriend," he said. "And to come and live with me and be my date in Glasgow."

Claire's heart thumped furiously in her chest, sending vibrations into his body. "With your history in relationships, we might not even last a week."

His response came out choked. "There's that possibility ... that's why I'm not making any promises. I might not be even good in this exclusive thing."

"But you haven't answered my question yet."

"Ask me again."

"I'm meeting your parents in a matter of minutes. And you've never brought a girl home and never been in a relationship. I need to know why now?"

Good question. Why?  In the past, he'd never allowed anyone to catch a glimpse of his life unless it was pertaining to his rugby career, but of late, he wanted Claire to realise he was more than what the tabloids wrote about him. He sighed and pressed his forehead to hers. What could he say? This was unknown territory, and Claire was right. They might not even last a week together. So he stuck to the only truth he understood. "I've never seen my parents so excited to meet someone I know. Not even that time, I brought the legendary Jonny Wilkinson home for dinner."

The worry on her face ebbed a bit as she let out a winded laugh. "Jonny Wilkinson, huh? Well, I suppose the papers must have exaggerated things about me if they didn't find good 'ol Jonny impressive enough. I hope I will not disappoint."

Never.  Jamie's brothers adored Claire already, and he knew his parents and Jenny would too. The last time he talked to them, they'd been vocal about how intrigued they were by Claire after hearing accounts about her from his brothers. They were excited to meet her, not because of her story as a runaway bride. Nor because of what Willie and Rabbie had told them. But because he never introduced women to a member of his family as a rule. 

And inviting her to Lallybroch for lunch meant precisely what his family thought it did. Now if only he could overcome his fears and feel worthy enough to have something so pure and good such as Claire in his life.

"Jamie?"

"Aye?" he managed, the rapping in his chest echoing louder, knowing the answer he'd given to her question would not be enough to convince her to come to London with him.

"I'm not saying yes to London ..." His stomach hallowed as he bravely looked straight into her amber eyes. "...for now. But this doesn't mean no, either."

A wee bit of hope lit, and then he held his breath. "How about ye being my girlfriend part?"

A broad smile that reached her eyes emerged from her beautiful face. "I'm saying yes ...for now."

He wanted to celebrate already, but he wasn't out of the woods yet. One more hurdle. "And Glasgow? Will ye come as my date to the British Sports Award presentation?" Not wanting to scare her off, nor expose her to more surprises, he went straight out with the next bit. "I'll be one of the honoured guests, and I have been invited to speak and present an award. So we'll be sat in the front row, and there'll be cameras everywhere," he revealed nervously.

Claire's face was inscrutable, and she was stock-still for what seemed like an eternity. If she didn't want to come as his date and the cameras would be too much for her, he would understand. He knew very well what it was like to be under public scrutiny and the ugliness that came with it.

"I'll go," she whispered finally, causing a massive exhale to puff out of his chest. Claire's smile was so self-assured and supportive, he must have imagined the slight tremor in her fingertips, as she touched his face. "I'll come as your date."

Jamie didn't say anything as he eased his hips back, allowing Claire's legs to drop to the ground. To his astonishment, he nearly fell onto his knees when he let her go for a short while, his lower body feeling like it had the consistency of vapour and been through a full eighty minutes of a rugby match. If this is what it felt to be with someone, how the hell was he going to survive this relationship until it was time to go to Glasgow?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Claire felt like she was floating by Jamie's side, the warm, firm hand at her back the only thing keeping her grounded. He introduced her to guests as they garnered curious attention, delaying the inevitable meeting with his parents. After a quick glance to the far side of the garden, she saw Jamie's family busily fussing over food and serving drinks from a makeshift gazebo, still unaware of her presence. She tried to focus on the words exchanged, names and faces, glad that Jamie was doing most of the talking.

To her surprise, no one so far recognised her from the tabloids' stories. Maybe they were trying to be polite and didn't want to bring it up. Whatever was the case, there was an evident fascination when Jamie made it apparent she was with him. A hand was constantly and strategically placed at the small of her back, subtly sliding down now and again. Or pulling her in, whenever a man, young or old spoke to her, staking his claim in primaeval fashion. And the way he looked at her when she spoke, there was a softness in his expression she'd never seen before.

The last time she was here in Lallybroch, she'd been entertaining kids in a stifling doggie's costume in Geillis' place and was a week away from marrying Frank. So much had happened since then and she felt like she was caught up in a whirlwind that wouldn't let up. After Jamie had asked her to come and live with him in London and be his girlfriend, it had been like a culmination of her youthful daydreams coming true. But she wasn't naive. She knew she was setting herself up for an epic heartbreak.

Instead of fleeing far and fast from a renowned playboy and commitment-phobe, she'd decided to show him that being in a relationship wasn't so bad. Between agreeing to be his date at the televised British Sports Award and being his girlfriend, she'd intended to prove to Jamie he didn't have to spend his life wondering what it's like to be with someone. It would be her gift to him, as their time together would be his gift to her. She intended to hold at least a small part of herself back in the process, to dampen the blow when he eventually left. Or found someone else more compatible who would embrace the world of celebrated public figures. Or realised definitively long-term commitment weren't his thing, insecurities or not. 

The more time she spent with Jamie, the more he unveiled a part of him whether it was a piece of the past, a hope for the future, or a vulnerable side. In more ways than one, he'd proven time and time again he cared. How many times had he shown up for her? Too many to count in such short space of time. In the past, she'd thought herself in love with the cocky rugby sensation, but she was precariously falling for this newer, more complex man and way deeper than she ever could have with her youthful ideal of Jamie.

A hand touched her face, and she looked up. She realised they were alone now and Jamie was staring back at her. He had several days worth of scruff, lending him a rugged edge, the afternoon sun highlighting the worry in his eyes.

"There ye are," he murmured. "Are ye ready?"

Claire mentally shook herself. "Yes, of course." He was giving her an odd look, probably noticing too much, and she didn't have the nerves to explain what was going through her mind. So she gave him her best smile. "I'm ready ...whenever you are."

His eyes searched her face, teeth sinking onto his lower lip. "What's going on in that pretty head of yers?"

"Food and drinks."

He suddenly laughed out loud. "Is that so? And here I thought ye were thinking about us."

Unbelievable!  One minute he seemed so unsure, and in the next, he was cocky as sin. "Aren't we going to see your parents or have you changed your mind?"

"Changed my mind? Never." He grinned, his boyish charm pulling her in once again as he tapped an index finger on her nose. "My parents would never forgive me if ye left Lallybroch without seeing them." Then he straightened up and looked beyond her head as if seeing something there. "Do ye remember that day when I saw ye wearing that bloody awful doggie costume?"

A giggle snuck out. "How could I forget? I gave you some harsh upbraiding that day."

Jamie took a closer step in her direction. "That day, before ye took off yer mask, yer voice sounded familiar, and it reminded me of a time or someone I'd met before."

"Oh, but we've met before your nephew's birthday," she reminded him. "I treated your injured hamstring during a game ..."

"No." He blew out a breath, taking her hand in his. "I meant, it felt like I knew ye very well ...on some deeper level. It really bothered me a lot after ye left. And then that day when ye were trying to escape yer wedding, and ye fell into my arms, I realised I dinnae ken ye from anywhere. I just knew ye. Am I making any sense? Ye were familiar to me even though we hardly knew each other." 

She stayed motionless for some time, his deep and even breathing the only thing she was conscious of. Her innate curiosity dared her to look into his eyes and interpret his expression and demand him to explain further. Instead, she smiled and stared at the hollow of his throat. "James Fraser, you are really good at this relationship thing. If I didn't know you any better, I'd say, you've done this before."

He cocked his head to the left, trying to catch a glimpse of her eyes. "I'm glad to know I'm doing something right," he whispered. 

This time, she looked up and her eyes locked with his. "So far, you're earning brownie points by the bucket loads. Keep it up and ..."

"What?"

"I'll take you out on a date, Beauchamp-style!" she teased.

He arched an eyebrow, apparently very intrigued. "And what exactly is a Beauchamp-style date?"

A loud voice interrupted their private moment. "There ye are!"

Jamie shut his eyes and quickly planted a kiss on her forehead. " Ah, fuck!  Here we go! Remind me later where we left off."

Laughing, Claire turned and saw Rabbie coming their way.

"Ye keeping Claire all to yersel', aye?" Rabbie scolded, punching Jamie on the arm. "Ma was wondering what's keeping both of ye so long."

"Got held up by guests," Jamie shrugged, slinging an arm around his younger brother's shoulders. "I see ye're responsible for the cocktails. I can't believe Jenny is letting ye handle the drinks after ye replaced Da's vintage whisky with tea. Did ye trade yer balls for the privilege?" Jamie grinned.

"Fuck off, Jamie," Rabbie said, good-humouredly, shoving Jamie's arm away. Then he winked at her. "Joe says ye eat a lot of veggies. We have some grilled veggies on skewers." He pulled her in for a quick bear hug and a peck on the cheek. "When I told my pals, Jamie was bringing a lass home, of course, naebody believed me. Weel, it looks like ye just won me fifty quid." He slapped Jamie on the back. "I'm curious, Claire ... what do ye see in my brother? He's mardy most of the time, and on top of it all, he's ginger!"

Claire grinned. "It's all about the freebies in rugby, ye ken," she mimicked in her best Scot's accent. "And I'm banking on Jamie to introduce me to his former teammates. There's one there I'd been crushing on for ages."

Jamie grunted, and Rabbie roared. "I doubt that he'll introduce ye to his rugby mates, Claire. Better not warm up to that idea." He put an arm around his brother and knuckled his belly.

Jamie smirked. "Where's wee, Jamie?"

"He's taking a nap. He got sore belly after I fed him ice cream. Jenny doesnae know, but dinnae tell her though; otherwise, she'll throw a fit. C'mon! Ma and Da are waiting."

Jamie and Claire walked hand in hand behind Rabbie laughing. The easy camaraderie and playful banter between the brothers nicked at Claire's heart, causing a dull ache. From the stories she heard, the Fraser family seemed very close-knit, and she wondered what caused Jamie to be wary of relationships.

They approached the gazebo, and Claire noticed that the guests have clustered in groups at the tables scattered across the lawn.

"Ma, they're here!" Rabbie announced, grabbing two clean champagne flutes from the table and preparing Buck's Fizz. 

A woman tossing salad turned around and smiled. She was wearing a simple button-down white shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to her elbow and loose linen beige pants. Her auburn hair was neatly pulled back into an elegant chignon, and her cornflower-blue eyes lit up the moment she saw them. She gave Jamie a soft reprimanding look. "Ach, Jamie! It took ye long enough." Then her eyes met Claire's, and she beamed. "And ye must be Claire. Let me take a look at ye." She wiped her hands on a teatowel and came around the long table.

"Ma, we got held up by guests and introductions. Ye ken what it's like with the people in Broch Mordha." 

"Never mind that," she said, waving a hand at him. "So what do we have here." 

Jamie turned to Claire, amusement fanning out on his face. "Ma, this is Claire. Claire, my ma, Ellen."

"Och, but ye are so bonnie," Ellen said, pulling her in for a long hug. And then she held Claire out by the arms and smiled at her warmly. "I've heard so much about ye from Willie and Rabbie. I can see now why my darling boy is besotted. Ye have such pretty eyes and the palest skin I've ever seen." She took Claire's hand and squeezed it. "Ye must be hungry, dear."

"Famished," she smiled, glancing at the spread on the table. "Did you make all these? They all look scrumptious."

"Och, no," she laughed, linking their arms together. "Jenny made most of it. It's all easy summer recipes and mostly salad. The most laborious work is happening at the barbecue. I left it to Brian, Ian and Willie to do the grilling." She led Claire through the garden and patted her hand. "Ye'll meet Jenny soon enough. Her wee boy has a bit of a sore tummy and wants his mummy." They walked towards the barbecue area, talking about Jenny's cooking skills and Claire suggesting fennel tea for her grandson.

The garden was extensive, just the way she remembered it, with flowering bushes bordering it. The tables they passed were protected from the summer heat with huge umbrellas, and some of the younger guests, preferring the sun on them, were sat on the open grass. At the far end, was a large barbecue made of bricks fit for a professional chef, complete with chimney and a countertop for prep work.

When they finally got there, Jamie and Joe were already assembled by the grill, animatedly and loudly conversing with Willie, Ian and Brian about sports.

Willie saw them first. "Claire! Ye came." He gave her a hug and a loud kiss on the cheek, followed by Ian, while everyone spoke at once. She was fast becoming used to their trademark hugs, and if she wasn't careful, she could easily fall in love with Jamie's family.

A broad-shouldered man hunkered over a bag of charcoals looked up and smiled. He looked like an older version of Willie and Rabbie and nothing like Jamie at all, except for the clear blue eyes. His dark hair was peppered with grey, but his face looked youthful. When he stood up, he was as tall as his sons, his age and experience bestowing him a more commanding presence.

"Ah, Claire, we meet at last! I'm Brian." Instead of taking her extended hand, she was treated to another Fraser bear hug while Jamie grinned at her over his father's shoulder. When Brian stood back, he smiled warmly and took a glass of Buck's Fizz Rabbie was holding out and offered it to her. "Welcome to our family home. What do ye think of Broch Mordha?"

She took a sip of her drink and watched Brian flip some steaks on the grill. "It's stunning and peaceful. Thank you for having me," Claire replied. 

"Not at all. During the summer, Ellen loves to host parties, and it's a perfect excuse to get the whole family and friends under one roof. There's always the odd one from the village that makes it to the invite list, and I personally think, some of them are only here to pry on Jamie," Brian explained, as he plated some cooked meat and vegetables into separate platters.

"Now, now, dear," Ellen cut in, placing a hand on her husband's back. "Ye ken well the folks around here are protective of our Jamie." She turned to face Claire. "The people here are just a curious lot, ye ken. They mean no harm even if they seem like ...how shall I say it? Inquisitive."

Rabbie chortled. "Inquisitive?! That Laoghaire is a bloody pain in the arse. She has been bugging me for days asking me if Jamie is seeing someone." He looked at Jamie and tipped the bottle of beer at his brother. "I think she fancies ye."

"Robert Brian Gordon Fraser! Watch yer language!" Ellen scolded. "Laoghaire is a nice girl, and I didnae raise ye to be so uncouth towards our guests." Even though she gave her son a disapproving look, Claire could see the love radiating from her eyes, seemingly happy to have her whole family in Lallybroch.

Willie threw a beer bottle cap at Rabbie. "Ye're just miffed 'cos it's Jamie she fancies and not ye."

"Miffed? That'll be right, ye bawchops. That lass is as bright as a five-watt bulb. If I start talking to her about anything other than celebrities and fashion, her eyes start to glaze over."

"Rabbie! That's enough," Ellen gasped.

"What? It's true, ma! She thinks Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo di Caprio." All the men laughed, including Brian, but they sobered instantly when Ellen frowned at all of them. Unrepentant, Rabbie continued. "And just the other day, she asked me for the name of the boat in the film Titanic."

Ellen glared at the younger Fraser. And then at her husband as if to tell him to do something.

It was becoming obvious Brian was trying to suppress his own laughter but was failing miserably. "Here. Take this," Brian said gruffly, passing the platter of meat and vegetables to Rabbie. "This should haud yer wheesht."

The rest of the lads turned and busied themselves, smirks on their faces still evident. Each grabbed a platter to put on the buffet for the guests while Ellen looked on disapprovingly at them, letting them know talking about other people in a bad light will not be tolerated.

"Lads will be lads," Ellen clucked her tongue. "Come, lass, let's get ye something to eat." She pointed to the big table meant for the family. "Ye're sitting with us, that's if ye can stand all the raillery and wisecracks from my boys."

"I'm quite used to it," Claire smiled. "And I've heard worse. Growing up with my uncle, he's often in the company of mostly men from the archaeological sites. Although they're like family, some of their banters and stories aren't for the faint-hearted and those easily shocked."

"Ah, poor darling. Jamie told me ye were orphaned at a young age," Ellen squeezed her arm and gave her a solemn smile. "Ye must tell me all about yer adventures and how ye came to Scotland. But first, we eat. Go and sit down and I'll finish up the potato salad."

Claire was about to follow Ellen when two tugs at her dress grabbed her attention. She glanced down and found wee Jamie looking earnestly at her. Recognising Jenny's son from his fifth birthday party, Claire smiled. "Hello there," she said, crouching down and extending a hand. "You must be, wee Jamie. I'm Claire."

Wee Jamie looked her over with a keen curiosity only a child exudes. She waited patiently for his response. After a few heartbeats and glances to their audience, his face broke into a grin, and he planted a wet kiss on her cheek, his arms going around her neck. "Hello, Claire. Are ye an angel?" he asked, scrunching his nose and stepping back to get a better look at her.

"Oh." Claire was caught off-guard. "Actually, no. I'm a doctor," she replied, doubtful if she said the right thing to the child.

"I think ye are an angel because uncle Jamie said ye fell from the sky."

Willie hunched down next to the boy and whispered loud enough for Claire to hear. "She is an angel working as a doctor. But don't tell Claire about uncle Jamie snogging the dog at yer party. Otherwise, uncle Jamie will be in big trouble."

Wee Jamie's eyes widened, and his hands flew over to his mouth, causing the brothers and Joe to laugh out loud.

"Weel then, it looks like approval has been granted," an amused familiar voice said. 

Claire straightened up and came face to face with Jenny, who was half a head shorter than her. It was a wonderment for Claire that Jenny didn't inherit her brothers' height even though, her features bore all the hallmarks of the Fraser genes.

Jenny hugged her and whispered in her ear. "So happy to see ye without yer doggie mask on."

Claire grinned. "You know!"

Jenny smiled and winked at her. "Aye, Rabbie told me." And then she leaned in and spoke in a low voice. "And thank ye for bringing our Jamie back to us. We've all been so worried about him this past year. He looks healthier and happier now, thanks to ye," she said, clasping her hands.

Claire felt the heat crept up her face. "I didn't do anything, Jenny," she admitted. "It was Jamie who helped me." She didn't mention the wedding nor Frank as she wasn't sure how much Jenny knew about her story.

Jenny's blue eyes sparkled. "Either way, it doesnae matter. I'm just so happy that Jamie is in a better place than he was before. Now, come and let's eat."

She glanced over to Jamie and saw him watching her with a peculiar expression on his face. Concerned, she walked over to him. "Is everything alright?"

"Aye," he nodded, his thumb caressing her cheek. He looked like he wanted to say something more, but instead, he took her hand. "Come, Sassenach, let's eat. I'm hungry." 

Determined to enjoy this day and the lively company, Claire didn't press Jamie and let him guide her to the table. The hours passed with grilled meat, prawns, assorted salads and wine. By the time the guests have left, and only her, Joe and the family remained, a gentle buzz hummed in her blood, fueled by delicious food, great conversations and fine whisky. Jamie had edged his chair closer to her, and his hand now rested on her thigh. She glanced up at him as he enthusiastically delivered a rugby anecdote, relishing the laughter that erupted around the table.

Jamie looked happy and contented to be with her and surrounded by his family, a far cry from what he used to be all those weeks ago. He was attentive and caring, and all during their meal, he often touched her hand, made sure she was alright and kissed her on the cheek every time he got up. No one asked questions about how they got together nor mentioned anything about her story in the tabloid papers. It was as if, her and Jamie's troubled past had been forgotten or totally erased. Not wanting to mar the lovely time she had by examining every detail of her day, she leaned her head against Jamie's shoulder and allowed herself to relax.

She was beginning to get drowsy when Jamie's phone rang. Lifting her head, she watched him grabbed his mobile.

"It's my agent, Forbes," Jamie explained, looking down on the screen before answering.

Everyone hushed in deference, and Jamie nodded gratefully.

"Hey, mate, how are ye?"

As if sensing something momentous was about to unfold, nobody talked nor moved, except for Brian, who got up and refilled his son's glass with whisky. Even wee Jamie stopped making vrooming sounds with his toy truck and looked up at his uncle.

Squeezing her hand, Jamie looked at Claire and smiled. "Aye, aye, we'll be there in Glasgow for the award's night, and I'm bringing my girlfriend with me," he said to the phone.

"Aye, ye heard me right. I'm bringing my girlfriend."

There were a few nervous laughs around the table, as eyes landed on Claire. She shrugged and smiled, letting them know she understood that it was unusual for them to see Jamie with a girlfriend, let alone hear him say it.

A long silence followed, and Claire watched the different emotions that flittered across Jamie's face, wondering if it had something to do with the network job. In the end, his expression became too impassive to read as he listened and waited patiently for his turn to speak.

"No! Not happening!" Jamie snapped, suddenly standing up and walking away.

All eyes remained on Jamie, watching him pace back and forth at the other end of the lawn. Judging the way he walked and the rigidness of his back muscles, Claire could tell Jamie wasn't liking what was being said on the phone.

Not knowing what was happening, everyone at the table could only speculate with the worried looks being exchanged between them. Claire tried not to think the worse and occupied herself by playing with wee Jamie on the grass. 

A good ten minutes passed by before Jamie came back.

"Jamie, lad, what is it?" Ellen was the first to ask. "Did ye no' get the job at the network?"

Jamie let out a humourless laugh and looked at his mother. "The directors want me for the job, alright, and they dinnae mind me bringing Claire to the awards. But they dinnae want her sitting next to me in the front row nor photographed with me by the press."

Claire stood up and smiled at Jamie, relief spreading across her chest. "Jamie, it's alright. I don't mind if I'm not photographed with you, and I'm happy to sit anywhere at the awards if it means getting you that job." And she meant it. After her picture had been splashed across the newspaper a few weeks ago, she'd already decided she hated the intrusion. She was perfectly happy to stand in the shadows and let Jamie shine. "Besides, I'm not made for the limelight, and I'm hardly photogenic. I'll be cramping your style," she joked, hoping to ease the strain etched on his face.

Jamie blew out a breath and dragged a hand down his face. "It's a PR thing, Claire. They want me to be photographed and sat next to another sports celebrity."

Jenny shooked her head and raised her hands in the air. "Why do ye look like as if it's the end of the world or something? And who is this other sports celebrity? "

Everyone waited with bated breaths as Jamie looked at Claire nervously. "Geneva Dunsany," he whispered.

"What?!?" the whole family asked in unison.

Joe looked confused. "Whoa, who, what?!? Who the hell is Geneva Dunsany?"

Claire knew exactly who Geneva Dunsany was, after having followed Jamie's career right from the start and read every article that had been written about him, including all his supposed women. Geneva Dunsany was a three-time gold medallist and part of a rowing quartet team representing Great Britain and was the only woman to have ever been linked twice to Jamie. She was tall, elegant and attractive and she'd won Sport's Personality of the year twice in a row and awarded damehood by the Queen for her contribution to British sports. How in the world would she ever be able to compete with the British sports' poster girl?

She'd seen this coming, and even though she hadn't expected it this soon, she resolved to be alright about this.  Ah, well, it was good while it lasted. 

Grabbing a glass of whisky from the table and not caring who it belonged to, she raised a glass to Jamie and forced a smile. "Hey, at least, your date is in shipshape." She gave him a two-finger salute and downed the whisky.

It was supposed to be a joke on Geneva's rowing skill, to lighten things up, but Jamie didn't find it funny at all. In fact, to her astonishment, his face looked like thunder, and he looked like he was about to throttle her. 

Uh-oh!

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

She knows!  Jamie took one look at Claire and knew exactly what was going through her head. The moment he'd mentioned Geneva Dunsany's name, the air around them shifted into a slow-motion, catching every nuance of change in everyone's expression, particularly Claire's. The news from Forbes was the anticlimax to what should have been a perfect day, leaving a sharp taste in his mouth like a sour bomb had gone off in his guts and turning the whisky he'd drank into acid. The past always had a way of catching up, and it picked the wrong day of all days. This was his penance for the rest of his life, for all the one-night stands he'd had, and the cost could be Claire. But not if he could help it. Damn his past!

Geneva Dunsany was a name Jamie thought he'd never come across again. She was from another lifetime ago, and they'd first met at a London pub when her team won their first gold in rowing during a World Cup. He couldn't remember clearly the events of that night except that they'd chatted at the bar, had too much to drink, and somehow they'd ended up spending the night together in a hotel room. The next day, they'd parted amicably, and a picture of them was splashed across the papers. GOLDEN GIRL DUNSANY OF BRITISH ROWING SEEN HAND IN HAND ENTERING HOTEL WITH RUGBY BAD BOY FRASER.

Sports fans following their respective careers had been excited about the news, but nought had come out from the one-night affair. Their physical distance wouldn't have bode well for a relationship even if Jamie had been interested in one, especially between two dedicated elite athletes where focus and dedication to their craft were paramount. Soon the story was forgotten until Geneva got in touch with him through his agent.

When they'd met in Edinburgh to talk, Geneva dropped the bombshell and told him she was pregnant with his child. Jamie's sense of duty and responsibility immediately kicked in, and the only option he could think of was marriage. He may have been known for his playboy lifestyle, but one thing he never did was shirk from his obligations. Jamie took the news in the chin and asked Geneva to marry him, and she'd accepted. It was the right thing to do and what his parents would have expected of him. 

Although Jamie wanted their engagement to be on the quiet, the news of their upcoming secret nuptials still made it to the gossip columns, prompting Geneva's estranged sister, Isobel, to warn him that the child she was carrying was from another man. And sure enough, after confronting Geneva and demanding they both see the doctor, she admitted to the ruse with loads of tears, pleading and tantrum.

The wedding was cancelled in the end, and to his horror, Geneva had an abortion. She'd used the unborn child to trap him, and when she'd no more use for it, she terminated the pregnancy. It was cold and calculating, and whatever little respect he had left for the sportswoman, it was gone in an instant. 

The news of their engagement eventually died a natural death and was labelled as just another gossip. Still, parts of that story refused to die down. According to some self-proclaimed reliable sources, Geneva had been pregnant and was forced into abortion because Jamie had not wanted any part of it. Despite his irritation over the lies, he never attempted to address the rumours. What would've been the point, he thought. Nobody would've believed for one minute that womaniser, James Fraser was capable of doing the right thing.

Thinking about it now, Jamie knew being photographed with Geneva in one of the most important sports events would rouse gossip mongers to stir up old stories. Of course, the network had known that. They were pairing him with her for the sole purpose of increasing viewership and ratings because of their history. It was never about his know-how in rugby, nor his eloquence to discuss the game with an audience. The determining factor had always been how marketable he would be for the network company.

"Surely, they cannae make me do that or can they?" Jamie asked his agent over the phone.

"They can do whatever they like. It's their money." Forbes reasoned with mild exasperation. "Look, it's only for one night. Or maybe two ..."

"Two??" Jamie almost yelled. "What the fuck, Forbes. I finally have a girlfriend and now this? How do ye think all this palaver is going to look like to her and my family?"

"Listen, Jamie. Ditch the girl and think of your future. There's plenty more where she came from. You've never had problems parading yourself for a bit of PR before, so what's the fuss now? You and Geneva have a past, and by appearing together, it will generate publicity. All the network wants is for you to pull in more women audience. That's all. Competition is tough, and they know that women all over the country will love seeing your face up close on their TV screen. Do you think they're interested in rugby? Hell no! But don't worry, there'll still be real rugby fans who will tune in to your rugby analysis. And for such minimal trouble, you'll be getting a good contract. No! Allow me to correct that. A bloody great contract that could make you even richer. Think of the endorsements that will follow soon after once you're trending in social media. You will be able to set up that rugby academy you once told me about."

The rugby academy! That had been the dream before the accident forced him into early retirement. Jamie let out a hollow laugh. "Are you listening to yersel'?"

"Are you? What have you done to the old Jamie??"

"I like the new me," Jamie shot. "Ye said once that the network is all about clean image and representing those ideal. Now they want to parade me with someone who almost tricked me into marriage? It's not making any sense ..."

"But those stories about you and her were never confirmed. In their eyes, Geneva is wholesome and good for your image."

"Forbes," Jamie said in a low warning voice. "Do something about this. All I'm interested in is rugby. Fuck the endorsements and fuck Geneva. And next time you tell me to ditch my lass, ye'll be smiling on the other side of yer face."

Forbes sighed. "Listen. You're not just going to be a regular presenter during rugby games, but they're also dedicating a weekly rugby show with you as a host. It's a huge gamble taking you on to run the whole thing, even though they've seen you talk on live TV and liked what they saw. I'm quite sure they have faith in you to draw in the audience without having to go through the unnecessary superfluities. But they want their arses covered as you're getting a lot of money out of this; hence Geneva."

"And I have faith in you that you'll do whatever ye can to convince them that Geneva is not the answer ...as, like them, I want my arse covered too." And without giving his agent a chance to reply, Jamie switched off the phone.

How the bloody hell am I going to explain this to Claire if the network won't budge?  Jamie got angrier, the more he thought of Geneva. When Isobel had confided that her sister was manipulative, he had a sneaking suspicion that Geneva had started the rumour about his desertion during her pregnancy. Apparently, she had also been responsible for the break-up of Isobel's marriage after she had a short-lived affair, and he wouldn't put it passed her to stir up some more trouble.

"Hey, at least, your date is in shipshape," Claire said, drawing his attention to her once more. 

He watched her down his whisky, taking steps in her direction and grasping her elbow. When she winced, and her face paled, he realised that his fingers were digging deep into her skin, and she'd thought his anger was directed at her. He let go and took deep calming breaths. He was aware the whole family and Joe were staring at them, but he didn't care. The only person he was concerned about was Claire. "Sassenach, can we talk? Please?" he begged, his voice sounding rusty in his ears.

The uncertainty in her expression gutted him. "Jamie, you don't need to explain. I understand. Go. Go with Geneva to the award's night and do what you need to do. This is important to you." And then she whispered just for his ears. "We both know, this thing between us isn't going to last anyway."

Alarm bells started to go off, and he didn't like the tone of resignation in her voice. He shook his head. "No! I want ye there at the award's night, beside me. Please let's talk about this privately. What ye think ye know of Geneva, isn't true. Let me explain." 

"But why? Why do you want me there? You'll just risk annoying your future bosses and for what?" she said in a low voice.

Jamie combed a hand through his hair, unsure how to navigate the situation. Looking at the stubborn jut of her chin, Claire was obviously not going to go willingly with him to talk. Fortunately, his family sensed his predicament and got up and left. Once they were alone, he led Claire to a seat and knelt in front of her. "I want ye there because ye're important to me." When she remained silent, his heart constricted. He wanted to erase the sadness in her eyes and be the reason for her smile. "A-and I like the way ye look at me when I've done something good. Ye make me feel everything is right with the world when we're together. Am I making any sense?"

Her eyes went soft. "Jamie, but you are good, and you need to believe that. It's just that ..." She licked her lips and clasped her hands on her lap. "...we need to get real about this. If I came to the awards, I'd just be an added pressure, and that's the last thing you need. And I'm beginning to see this relationship is not a good idea at all. Look at you. You look so torn, and I don't want to be the cause of that."

"W-what? What are ye trying to say? That's no' the case at all." A sudden pain pierced through his heart, taking his breath away. "Are ye saying this is over? We haven't even begun, Sassenach."

"Look at it this way, Jamie ... I'm making this easy for you. Let's end this before everything turns ugly."

"No, no. That's not true."  Christ, this can't be happening.  The panic that gripped him felt like one massive snowball, gaining momentum and destroying everything in its path. He grabbed hold of shoulders and forced her to look at him. "Sassenach, when I asked ye to be with me, I never intended to hide ye from the world. So please, don't do this. I'm a better person because of ye."

Watching her close her eyes and roll her lips inward, he felt like his life hung on a balance, kneeling before her with his head on the block. He braced himself as if waiting for the axe to fall, hoping it would be painless and swift. He was just beginning to see the light after a long depression and was about to get a job that would keep him in the world of rugby, but somehow, his progress suddenly meant nothing if Claire decided to walk away. 

When she finally looked at him, he held his breath. Her beautiful amber eyes were bright and full of questions. "Jamie, do you want me there because you're trying to avoid Geneva and I'm just a means to keep her away from you?" she asked softly.

"No! Geneva never even crossed my mind when I asked ye to come with me to the awards. I asked ye to be my date because ye're my lass, that's the top and bottom of it." He took her hand in his and kissed her fingers, watching her closely with hooded eyes.

"B-but ..." She hesitated and frowned.

"But what?" he urged gently. "Ye can ask me anything, and I will tell ye the truth."

She took a deep breath. "Is it true you got Geneva pregnant and made her terminate the pregnancy?" 

"No," he said with conviction, squeezing her hands with both of his and looking directly into her eyes. "She was pregnant, but I wasnae the father. A lot of the articles written about me is untrue and twisted, and that's one of them. I wish I could stop the lies, Sassenach but, unfortunately, I have nae control over what people say, presume or write." He swallowed the shame and guilt of his past and soldiered on to give Claire the whole truth. "But I did sleep with her. Once. And it was the biggest mistake of my life. Geneva is a liar, and she would use deceit to get her own way." 

He revealed Geneva's underhandedness and her attempt to trick him into marriage, not sparing out any details no matter how difficult it was to admit the ugly part of the lifestyle he once led. Claire listened intently, probably searching his face for deception, but to his surprise, there was only understanding in her eyes and no judgement of his character whatsoever. 

When Jamie finally finished telling her the story, he felt lighter and emotionally exhausted, as if he'd just confessed a lifetime of sins and he'd been absolved by a priest. "That's the truth, Sassenach and I swear, I would never lie to ye," he said in the end.  

Her hand reached out to touch his face. "I believe you," she whispered. "I've never doubted your words. I only wanted to understand."

A ray of hope shimmered in the horizon as Jamie allowed his head to fall on her lap in relief, his arms going around her waist to pull her closer. "Thank Christ! I ken I've messed up a lot in my life, but I dinnae want to mess this ...us up. Please say ye'll come with me to Glasgow. Dinnae tell me we're over."

"I don't want us to be over too, Jamie ..." She ran her fingers through his scalp, making him shudder with need and desperation. "But if you go against the wishes of the network and show up with me at the award's, you might never get the job. And if you do get the job and we remain together, there will be other instances like this wherein you have to make difficult choices for the sake of PR. And I'll hate myself every time you choose me because it would mean I'm taking something that means the world to you away. Not to mention the intrusion I'd be subjecting myself to. It's too much of a hassle for a relationship that has an expiration date, Jamie, and one day, you'll resent me for the choices you made if ever your career with the network doesn't pan out."

He raised his head from her lap and cupped her face with his hands. "No, Sassenach. I can never resent ye for anything," he said softly. "Just give us a chance to see where this goes. Please."

Her cheeks were flushed from the summer heat, and her eyes glistened. He battled the urge to gather her in his arms and sink his face in whatever part of her was closest, but they needed to talk. He knew she suffered enough heartaches to last a lifetime, from the time she was orphaned to the abusive hands of her ex-fiance. And yet here she was, courageous, choosing to keep moving forward, instead of living in the past, and she was daring him to do the same.

She'd brought him out of the dark and challenged him at every turn, making him break the many rules he'd made for himself. When he'd debated in his head, he was undeserving of her, her kisses and touch told him otherwise. And every time she looked at him, she made him feel like more of a man than he ever had in his life, and not a piece of meat, to be passed around and prodded for someone's entertainment. So much so, he'd forgotten to disguise those ever-present vulnerabilities and laid them bare for her to see. He felt lighter, stronger, and a better version of himself. 

Although his passion for rugby had landed him numerous opportunities to make a name for himself and earn ridiculous amounts of money, he knew once the network had milked him for all he's worth, they'd spit him out faster than he can say his full name.

Claire was a rare gift, put into his path, and he knew he would never come across someone like her again. But she was pointing out reasons to end this relationship, and it was astonishing how much it was hurting him. It was like as if life was slowly being sucked out of his system, and there was nothing he could do about it. Why the hell have I put a time limit to this relationship then?  If he didn't sober up fast enough, she would meet someone, and by the time he made up his mind, she'd be lost to him. Forever. He didn't want to be anyone's entertainment anymore. Instead, he wanted to bask in Claire's light, and to love her and worship her with everything he had in him.

The sudden realisation hit Jamie like a sledgehammer, making his heart disperse into million pieces before assembling back together and settling into maddeningly accelerated beats. I love her. Christ, I love her. The newfound feelings felt outside of his control, a flame that fed itself, and had no way of extinguishing. 

"Jaime?? Are you alright?" 

"Huh?" He looked at her, not entirely understanding what she was saying. 

"Your pulse. I can see your pulse beating rapidly, and your face looks like you've seen a ghost. Do you have low blood pressure?"

"W-what?" He realised he was still holding her face, and she was staring at the side of her neck. "N-no pressure. No pressure at all."

Claire abruptly stood up, pulling him along to his feet. "Jesus, Jamie! You're not making any sense. Look at me."

He looked at her, as a gust of summer wind blew a strand of hair across her mouth. Mo Nighean Donn, so beautiful.  He tucked the wayward tendril behind her ear, and then he kissed her, taking the meeting of their mouths deep until she gasped into his lips. "There's something I need to tell ye ..." He ran his fingers along the curve of her shoulder, pressing a thumb to the side of her neck and massaging.  Not the time, lad! Start small even if it feels like you're about to burst wide open.

"You're saying?" she whispered.

Jamie's phone rang before he could say anything, making him utter a vicious profanity under his breath. He looked at the screen, but the number wasn't from his contact list. "I need to take this ...it could be the director from the network," he apologised, squeezing her hand. "Please don't go."

When Claire nodded, he answered the phone, walking a few feet away from her.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Jamie! Long time no chat!" a familiar voice answered.

"Who's this?"

"I heard you were sulking because you didn't want to take me as your date this Friday," a voice purred in his ears. "What's wrong? Don't you want to catch up for old time's sake?

"Geneva!" Realising the error he just made, he lowered his voice and hoped Claire didn't hear. He didn't dare turn, afraid of what he might see on her face. "How'd ye get this number?" he seethed.  Forbes!!

"Oh! Daddy dearest gave it to me."

Jamie was confused. "What? How?"

"Oops! You didn't know?" she chirped. "Daddy is one of the directors of the UKSC network."

His stomach hollowed and felt the colour drain from his face. Claire would definitely diagnose him with low blood pressure now. He almost laughed at the irony of his situation, tamping down the mounting anger, more for Claire's sake than Geneva's. "Weel, I supposed I shall see ye and yer daddy dearest on Friday."

"Can't wait!"

 "I'll be bringing my girlfriend with me."

Geneva cackled. "Girlfriend? Who is the flavour of the month? Or should I say, the flavour of the week?"

He had enough. Damn bitch.

Unable to put up with her taunts any longer, he switched off his phone and blocked the number. Bloody nuisance!  The network talk was beginning to feel like a thorn to his side that wouldn't shift, but he pushed that worry aside to attend to more pressing matters at hand. Claire!

But when he turned around to look at the spot where he left her, she was already gone. Fuck!

"Sassenach?" He shouted, jogging toward the house, praying she had only disappeared to use the bathroom. But deep down he knew, she'd taken the opportunity to get as far away from him as possible. 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Claire updated the last of the patients' charts from the morning consultation and then checked her phone. As soon as she saw the number of voice messages and unread texts from Jamie, she groaned and dropped her forehead on the desk.  Bloody   stubborn man! Why doesn't he get it?  Ever since she left Lallybroch three days ago, she'd been ignoring his calls, muting her phone and trying to keep busy. Unfortunately, cutting him out of her life wasn't going to be an easy feat. Besides sleep eluding her thinking about him, Jamie found creative ways to get her attention. 

On her first day at St Leonard's Medical Centre, there was a bouquet of flowers waiting for her, with a note wishing her good luck on her temporary job, signed  love Jamie . To her dismay, although her new colleagues were friendly and lively, they were also nosy and an inquisitive bunch, passing Jamie's wee card to one another and coaxing her to show a picture of the sender. She'd brushed them off with a smile and some excuse needing to familiarise herself with the clinic. But it didn't help her cause when not long after, coffee and croissants were delivered by staff from a nearby cafe and once again with a note signed  love Jamie .

Now everywhere she looked in the clinic, and at home, were reminders of him - flowers, plants, sweet treats, stuff toys, and also freaking balloons and pillow for neck support. What the hell?  She really ought to speak to Jaime, but what was the point? She thought she would be able to handle a fling and even courted the notion that Jamie might warm up to the idea of a long term commitment after meeting his parents. Of course, it was wishful thinking and unrealistic, now that the possibility of a job with the sports network was looming. She couldn't even last more than twenty-four hours in their arrangement. Talking to him now would only weaken her resolve and end up back in a relationship that had no future.

There had to be another way to get Jamie out of her system. She was cranky, tired and most of all, miserable because she missed him, and it was affecting her ability to function. And to make matters worse, the clinic was beginning to look like a gift shop, with all of Jamie's presents and offerings strewn about. Definitely not good when trying to make a good impression with the head of the clinic, Dr John Grey, an old friend of Joe and acquaintance of hers.

John was sympathetic when she'd apologised for the scene she was causing as everyone became caught up with the excitement. To her horror, bets were already being placed amongst staff, speculating whether the gifts were from an overly devoted boyfriend or a desperate suitor. Once again, her private life was generating interest, and even if it was on a smaller scale compared to paparazzi skulking around her home, it was still  bloody  intrusion.

It wasn't her intention to leave Jamie without a word. After being caught up with the beautiful day she had with the Frasers, her senses saturated in fine wine and Jamie kneeling before her, pleading not to break up with him, she'd been so close to revealing her feelings. It would have been the final humiliation if she'd bared her soul and heart to a commitment-phobe. If she hadn't known him any better, she would have believed Jamie was actually in love with her. The sound of his phone ringing had brought her back from the land of fantasy, and Claire sobered up quick. Without stopping to think, she'd ran and was grateful she'd caught Joe in time saying his farewell to Brian and Ellen. If Jamie's parents had been surprised to see her leave in a hurry with Joe, they'd shown no indication.

Now, she needed to get real. She'd had her Jamie and enough memories of him to warm her during the long, cold winter nights. She had to be happy with that. It wasn't Jamie's fault, and he had been forthright with her right from the start, giving her no illusions of a happily-ever-after. Time to get a firmer grip of reality and move on.

The door opened, and Mary, the senior receptionist, walked in. "Sorry about this Dr Beauchamp. I must have missed this." She waved a file folder in her hand. "Were ye about to go for yer coffee break? The patient can wait for Dr Grey instead. He doesnae look like he's about to die." She placed a cupcake on her desk.

Claire smiled. "It's alright, Mary, I'll take it. And thank you for the cupcake." No coffee nor croissants had arrived for her that morning, and her stomach was growling, having had no breakfast earlier. Maybe Jamie had given up, and that's the reason she was feeling a bit off. The cupcake should tide her over until dinner time. Sighing, she got up and put on her white coat. "So what's up with our patient?" she asked.

"The patient is Mr Alexander Malcolm. Heart palpitations, trouble with eating and sleeping, occasional hallucination, chest pains. He probably just over-indulged on curry and beer if I may say so. Some of these folks that come here doesnae need treatment and just want to get off from work. I'd say it's a bloody waste of NHS money," Mary scoffed.

Claire sighed inwardly. "Send Mr Malcolm to room 2. I won't take a minute."

"Aye, will dae." And Mary left.

Unfortunately what Mary said was true. Some of the people that came to the clinic were better off staying at home and resting. She missed the frenetic schedules she had at the Royal Infirmary and working under pressure at the surgical unit. All she'd done the last few days were diagnose patients with common ailments such as colds and flu, collect fluid and tissue samples for labs and administer or prescribe medications. It was a good thing she was only here for a couple of weeks.

Claire walked into room two with the patient's folder. "Good morning, Mr Malco ..." She stopped in her tracks when she found Jamie sat on the chair in front of a small desk. "What the hell ..."  Alexander Malcolm  ...of course, she should have known! He used his middle name. She'd been so distracted, the name hadn't immediately registered.

She made a move to go, but Jamie launched himself towards her and grabbed her hand before she could back out into the corridor. "Wait, Sassenach ...hear me out." Heart pounding hard, she stilled, as he pushed the door shut behind her. "I'm sorry for doing this. But ye left me with nae choice."

"Jamie ..." Her pulse started tumbling all over itself at the sight of him. He looked great except for the dark circles under his eyes, and his scent was making her giddy. 

"Please," he pleaded, his voice sounding like suffering.

He was standing so close, her fingers itched to touch him. But Claire steeled her resolve. "Fine ... you have two minutes. Let me remind you, you are wasting precious NHS resources."

He let out a breath of relief. "I'll pay for my way."

"That'll cost you. You have a lot of symptoms."

Hand still planted on the door, he stepped closer. "Then, ye'll need more than two minutes to diagnose me ..."

She placed a hand on his chest, stopping his forward progress. "Jamie ..." she warned.

Jamie dragged an impatient hand through his hair. "I wanted to see ye and ye wouldnae let me, alright? Ye left Lallybroch without a word, and I'd like to know what I've done wrong. Ye wouldnae answer my calls, so ye left me with nae other options. And I'm pissed off. I'm so pissed off like naebody's business because it scares the shit out of me that I may not be able to hold ye again." Taking advantage of her open-mouthed confusion, he leaned in very close, and his gravelly voice dropped low. "I ken I pushed too far too quickly. But all I ask of ye, is one chance, Sassenach. One chance. Tonight. I want to talk, and there's something I need to tell ye. But not here, though. And after we're done talking and ye dinnae like what I have to say, and ye still want to walk out of my life ..." He paused and swallowed hard as if he was having difficulty forming the words. "... I'll let ye go, and I'll never bother ye again."

His words bored an uncomfortable hole in her chest. "Y-you'll let me go?" she whispered. 

He dropped his head forward. "If that is yer wish," he muttered in a pained tone.

"Jamie, I thought I could handle this, but ..." Self-preservation constrained her from saying more.

He looked into her eyes and pleaded. "Have dinner with me tonight, Sassenach. And we'll talk."

Not a great idea.  "Fine, I'll come."

Jamie squeezed his eyes shut for a few heartbeats, and when he finally opened them, his face relaxed. "Shall I pick ye up here or at home?"

"No!" she said too abruptly. "I mean, I'll come in my own car and meet you." It was for the best, she thought. "Where shall we meet?"

"At my place. I'll cook. I hope ye like Italian."

Oh, so definitely not a good idea.  "Alright, I'll be there at seven, and I like Italian." 

She made a move to go, but Jamie stopped her. "How about my symptoms?"

Claire smothered a smile. "I'm giving you the all-clear and please, don't forget to pay at the reception." She left the room and headed out to see Mary.

...........

Claire stood outside Jamie's apartment door, fidgeting with the bottle of grappa. She'd arrived fifteen minutes earlier and snuck into his building when a resident came out of the main entrance. Now standing outside in his corridor, she couldn't bring herself to ring his doorbell. What could they possibly talk about that would make her change her mind about their relationship? Taking huge calming deep breaths, she let her head dropped to the left, then to the right of her shoulders, in an attempt to relax, the fragrance of tomato sauce cooking, making her mouth water, a reminder she hadn't eaten the whole day. Although hungry, she was not ready to confront Jamie yet, so she began walking in circles and counting backwards from a hundred.

"What are ye doing, Sassenach? I've been watching ye through the peephole for the last three minutes."

Claire jumped.  Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!   Bloody hell!  She took a deep breath and faced the door. "Alright, open up before I change my mind and go."

"I cannae have ye doing that." The door suddenly swung open, revealing a barefoot Jamie. His hair was still wet from the shower, and he wore a faded black t-shirt and grey sweatpants, a tea towel casually hung on his right shoulder. Crossing his arms, he leaned against the doorjamb and looked at her thoughtfully. 

She frowned at him.  Why does he have to look so good?  "How did you know I was out here?"

"I saw ye parking your car from my window. Ye really ought to practice more on yer parallel parking. Ye're terrible at it."

She scoffed. "It was bloody tight."

"I was waiting for ye to ring the bell so I could buzz ye in and when ye didn't, I thought ye'd gone to the wrong place."

"I was early."

"I'm glad ye're here now." He gazed openly at her, his eyes taking her all in, making her suddenly hot in the cool summery dress she was wearing.

"M-me too." Claire crushed the urge to throw herself at him and strived for calm and common sense. "Something smells good. What's cooking?" When he didn't say anything and continued to stare, she became self-conscious at the intensity of his perusal. "What?"

He sighed. "I'm still trying to decide how to greet ye, but after the way ye ran away the other day, I dinnae want to presume anything."

Her mouth went dry. "How about you let me in, and we'll take it from there?"

He straightened himself and turned sideways, opening the door only a fraction more, hardly giving her enough room to pass. As she squeezed past him, he stopped her and tilted her chin up with a finger. "May I?" he asked, looking at her lips.

Her heart did a double backflip.  Ah, what the hell!  Trying not to think about the hard muscles pressing against her, she licked her lips and nodded. Lowering his head, his eyes lit up, and he smiled. And when he kissed her, it was only a mere brushing of their lips, but it was enough to make her head spin.

"Hi," he whispered against her mouth.

"H-hi." Attempting to get her bearings back on even ground, she held up the bottle in her hand. "Y-you said you were making something Italian, so I b-brought grappa."

He arched an eyebrow. "Grappa? Normally, people bring wine to dinner."

"Ah, I figured you would have had the wine sorted out. This will make a nice aperitif or after-dinner drink. I just wanted to keep the Italian theme going."  God, oh God, he smells so good.  

"Sounds grand." He took the bottle from her hand and smiled. "Are ye coming in?"

"Of course, after you," she stammered, feeling slightly flustered.

"Sassenach?"

"Hmmm?" She was staring at his neck, imagining running her tongue along the column of his throat. 

"Ye're standing on my foot."

"Oh, sorry." She felt the heat creep up her face and darted past him.  Get a grip, Beauchamp! You're here to put an end to this non-relationship thingy!

The moment she stepped in, she instantly forgot her embarrassment and stared with awe at his apartment. The last time she was here, she'd been stood outside in the corridor and never got to see the inside. 

His apartment was bright and spacious and not what she'd expected at all from a bachelor's pad. The living space, kitchen and dining area all flowed into one big open plan. And although it had been modernised, it retained a lot of the Victorian era features with cornice moulding and high ceilings. It had solid oak flooring and beautiful exposed natural woodwork throughout, and sash and case windows. She'd expected dark colours and leathers. Instead, he had a plush L-shape red sofa, silvery-grey area rugs and matching curtains. He didn't have a lot of things except for the hardback books that lined the shelves and laptop and gaming accessories on the coffee table; nevertheless, the apartment looked lived in and very inviting.

"Jamie, your place is beautiful," she gushed. She turned around to find him watching her from the kitchen with an amused expression. After admiring the view from his window, she walked over to the granite island and slid into the stool. "And your kitchen is a chef's dream."

"I'm glad ye like it," he beamed, putting a block of parmesan cheese and grater on a wooden board. "I hope ye like pasta. Most women tend to stay away from carbs."

"I live for carbs." She began to relax as she watched him retrieve the wine and shot glasses and place the already opened bottle of Barbera on the counter. On cue, she uncapped the grappa and poured them their aperitif while Jamie stirred the sauce. "Do you cook all the time?"

"Here at home? Rarely," he replied. "I've only cooked for my brothers and sister when they come over to visit." He dipped a finger into the sauce and put it into his mouth to taste it. And then he grinned.

"Good?"  Oh Lordy, Lordy, he looks delicious enough to eat.

"Uh-huh. Very good." He added a pinch of pepper and stirred the sauce some more, winking at her.

Jamie looked at ease, working the kitchen and seemed to be in his element. It was a shame he wasn't the type to settle down, and the sooner she accepted that fact, the easier it would be for her to move on. "It smells heavenly. What's the sauce?" she asked, striving to sound cheerful.

" Sugo alla puttanesca , basically it's tomato sauce with anchovies, capers and black olives. It's a simple recipe Jenny taught me. It's done now. Want to taste?" 

Claire wondered why he was going through so much trouble just to talk, but she suspected he wanted to put her at ease after she did a runner on him a few days ago. She knew already more or less what he wanted to discuss about, but she'd already made up her mind. She wanted love and marriage and family, and she was never going to get that from Jamie. It was better to nip whatever they have in the bud before the heartache became too much to bear. For now, she was going to enjoy their last evening together before they go their separate ways.

Schooling her features, she got up from her stool and handed him a shot of grappa and picked up hers. "How about a shot first?" She needed one so badly.

"Sure," he said, taking the glass and raising it. "To ye Sassenach."

She sucked in a breath and raised hers. "And to all yer hopes and dreams, Jamie..." she whispered, meaning it with her whole heart and clinking their glasses together. "...may they all come true."

He smiled. "I'll drink to that."

They downed the shot in one go and slammed their glasses down at the same time, the clacking noise on the granite echoing through his kitchen. Claire grimaced at the heat that scorched her throat and Jamie's full lips, still moist from the alcohol, tilted into a mischievous smile. Her eyes watered, and she shook her head.

"Oh good, God, that was strong," she breathed, already feeling the effects of the grappa going into her head. She mentally reminded herself to go easy as she hadn't eaten all day. "I think I'm ready to taste that sauce."

Laughter bubbled out of his chest, and he took her hand and pulled her next to the hob. Scooping a spoonful from the pot, he blew into it and then held to her lips. "Open."

Her jaw dropped, and her mouth was filled with delicious herby tomato sauce. She let it swirl in her tongue and then she smiled. "Mmmm, yum."

He grinned and bit his lip. "More?"

She nodded, her stomach growling noisily.

They both laughed out loud as they heard the grumble.

"Your stomach must really love me," Jamie teased, holding the spoon next to her lips.

She giggled, enjoying the rich taste of the sauce and still feeling the pleasant warmth from the grappa they drank. "Not just my stomach, Jamie. All of me loves you," she said, before opening her mouth.

Jamie's head shot up, and he blinked as if coming to from a long sleep, and she caught the shocked look in his eyes. "What did ye say?"

"Huh?" Her eyes widened, and she clapped a hand over her mouth.  Oh, sweet mother of God, what have I done!  She slowly backed away from him. "What do you think I said?"

Oh, he knows exactly what I've just said.  Claire held her breath and waited for him to call off their evening. Maybe it's for the best now that he knew what she felt. That would probably scare the bejesus out of his wits and save her from long explanations why they couldn't be together. But instead, a slow smile formed his lips. "Ye ken fine what I heard ye say."

"But ..."

He closed the distance between them and lifted her up by the waist and settled her on the kitchen counter. Parting her knees, he pulled her against him. "Tell me again, Sassenach." Before she could reply, he closed his mouth over hers, not giving her a chance to push him away nor to think. His tongue delved into her mouth, plunging inside to mate with hers, his hands firmly gripping her waist.

Raw emotions came in waves and engulfed her, making it hard for her to breathe. This was too much. Jamie must have misunderstood.

Sensing her hesitation, Jamie paused and looked at her, worry marring his features. "What's wrong, Sassenach, speak to me," he whispered. "Did ye not say ye love me?"

Her eyes welled up with tears. There was no point in fibbing and denying it. Jamie had caught her off-guard, and she knew he wasn't going to let the matter go. Resigning herself to the fact he'd never be able to reciprocate the love she had for him, she took deep fortifying breaths and willed the secret deep in her heart to have its say. "I do love you, Jamie and I know you can't love me back. I just can't bear to hear you say it. A-and I know you don't..."

"Ah, Christ." He closed his eyes as if a realisation dawned on him, and Claire saw the sheer anguish that creased his face. He leaned in to tenderly kiss her, his tongue tracing the swollen flesh of her lips, a gesture that bespoke reverence and humility. And when Jamie finally opened his eyes and looked into hers, the air whooshed out of her lungs. He was letting her see it all and allowing her in. The truth was all there to see in his face. "I love ye, Sassenach. I've love ye ever since that day in Lallybroch when I first heard yer voice behind that mask. But I was too daft and full of mysel' not to realise it. I'm so sorry for everything. For the conditions, I've placed on us. Ye didn't deserve that. All of this is new to me, and I'm still grappling, and I ken it's nae excuse for how I've behaved. If ye'll have me back, I promise to make it up for ye."

She was stunned beyond words, disabling her speech for a moment, as joy and relief competed to overwhelm her, but it was too easy. She pulled slightly away from his hold, searching his face. "Jamie, I don't think I have the strength nor the will to compete with the other women."

A pained sound escaped his throat. "Sassenach, there's never been and never will be anyone for me but ye. I thought I had it all before ye came to my life, but now that ye're here, I see my past as nothing but meaningless existence. And the future looks bleak if I cannae see ye in it. There'll never be another woman for me as long as ye walk the face of the earth, and no woman will ever make me feel the way ye do. Ye made me whole, and I would like it to remain that way." His voice struck with intensity as he pulled her in tight and spoke against her lips. "Please, Sassenach, allow me to prove myself."

Her heart started to speed up. "Is this why you asked me to come for dinner tonight?"

"Aye," he replied, stroking her hair. "Because I wanted to talk about this and us, and beg for yer forgiveness. I was running out of ideas to get ye to speak to me that I had to bribe yer receptionist to help me get through to ye."

Claire stilled. "What?? Mary??"

"Aye, the very one." He gave her a lopsided grin. "She wasnae interested in rugby, and she said she's never heard of me before, so I couldnae bribe her with tickets. But I found out she has a weakness for cupcakes and chocolate eclairs." His face turned serious and his brows puckered. "If she knew how desperate I was, she could have asked me for anything, and I would've given it to her just for a chance to speak to ye."

"You could have made your life easier and came to my house ..." she whispered.

"I was tempted, but I thought ...no. There was that possibility ye didnae want to see me anymore, and I didnae want ye feeling trapped in yer own home. All I'm asking for is a second chance, Sassenach."

She wrapped her arms around his neck, unable to believe he wanted her as much as she wanted him. "Yes," she laughed, tears of joy spilling from her eyes.

"Yes?"

The wall she had carefully built around her heart shattered with full force, allowing him to feel and see the love she'd kept hidden for years. "Yes, Jamie. I've loved you for so long and from afar even before we met."

His body sagged against hers, hands roaming all over her back, pulling, tugging and caressing as his lips planted kisses all over her face. "Sassenach, come to the sports award with me, please."

She nodded vigorously as she kissed him back, extracting a ragged groan from him. This time there were no reservations, doubt or question hanging in the air as he lifted her up and carried her to the bedroom. Tonight's dinner could be put on hold a little longer and tomorrow's problems could wait. Because first, they needed to heal each other.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

With her legs wrapped around his waist, Jamie opened the door and stepped into his dimly lit bedroom. Staggering, he swivelled on his heel and pinned her back against the wall, hips pressing into her inner thigh.

He chuckled, lowering his head and his nose nudging her ear. His scent of soap, aftershave and man swirled in giddy circles, heightening her senses and making her wriggle to get closer.

As if he knew exactly what she needed, he hoisted her higher and pushed up the hem of her dress. He ran his palms on her buttocks, fingers slipping under the flimsy red lace of her panties and grinding his erection between her legs. Claire felt exposed, but the position felt deliciously perfect and indecent all at the same time. 

"I hope ye dinnae mind waiting a bit longer for food because right now all I can think of is making love to ye," he murmured against her neck.

Claire whimpered in frustration. She was dying a slow death, and her insides were throwing a spasm party, and here he was talking about food. She frantically tugged his shirt up and slipped a hand into his sweatpants. "Damn it, Jamie, you talk too much."

Jerking involuntarily at her touch, he let out a tortured groan and dropped his head onto her shoulder. "Ah, fuck. Are ye trying to kill me, Sassenach?"

"No," she gasped, eagerly clasping her hand around his shaft. "We can't have that. I like having you around."

Jamie grabbed her wrist, stilling her hand. "I'm glad to hear of it, but I must say, ye have a firm grip for someone as delicate as ye, Sassenach."

She squeezed his throbbing cock in retaliation. "I want you. N-now."

He shuddered helplessly in her grip, his restraint evident in the rigidness of his muscles and tensed jaw. "I'm trying to go slow for ye," he muttered.

"We've been there and done that." She grabbed a handful of Jamie's hair and drew his mouth down to meet hers. 

His arms immediately circled around her like steel, hauling her up against him as he sunk into the kiss. He joined their mouths with such force that she had to cling to his shoulders for balance. She could feel the change in his hard muscles underneath his clothes, tightening and moving over the light material of her dress. His scruff chafed her skin, and his hips forced her legs wider apart until a bolt twisted deep in her belly, and her limbs started to lose its faculty. Jamie licked inside her mouth and drew his tongue out slowly, all the while twisting handfuls of her dress's material.

She nearly cried out from the loss of pressure from his mouth, but his gaze willed her to look into his eyes, the translucent blue touched by storm clouds before a lightning hits.

"Why are you staring like that for?" she asked, with a crack in her voice.

Although his breathing was shallow, he smiled slightly. "Because ye are the most beautiful thing I ken and I can stare at ye for hours, and I'll never tire of it. I cannae believe ye're with me."

She forced her lungs to take in slow breaths. This man before her had the kind of face that stopped women in their tracks, and with his intrinsic charm, he'd cycled through them faster than his razor blades. And yet, those eyes, screaming out emotions, sought her approval and revered her.

He was beautiful, indeed, but his true beauty came from the depth of his eyes and the gentle expressions of his manner. There was something of the warrior in him, combined with a forbearance that made her heart reach out. She loved him most when he lost himself to the moment and forgot the mask he wore for others, as he did now. When he is older, the lines on his face will deepen, and he will still be handsome, but it is his soul she had a glimpse of, that will shine through. So tonight she would give him her heart and take his to keep safe.

The instinct to give all of herself had her hand trailing down his stomach toward his waistband once more. "No, Sassenach," he growled, snagging her wrists. "I need a fucking minute to get my head around the idea ye're really mine. Christ! Do ye have any idea how ye're looking at me right now and what it's doing to me?" His jaw bunched and his nostrils flared. "Ye touch me down there again, and I'll burst."

"I want to," she breathed, swayed by the desire to make Jamie lose his composure and see all of him. She wanted to see his needs on display so she could be the one who took care of them. "Please, Jamie." She pushed at his chest, and he had no choice but to let her leg down one at a time, carefully cradling her against the wall with his body, his laboured breaths heavy above her head.

His forehead fell onto hers. "Ye think I need a reason to want ye any more when it's already so much?"

Knowing she drove him near breaking point made her even more determined. With a smile, her right hand drifted lower and squeezed his cock, drawing out a low groan from his mouth. "Jamie, Jamie," she whispered, lowering herself onto her knees and pulling his sweatpants and boxer shorts down along with her. "I want to do this for you so badly." Her face came level with his trim hips and hard thighs and an erection that stood proudly between his legs. Licking her lips, she pressed her mouth at the head and cupped his balls.

"Ah, Christ, Sassenach," he gritted through his teeth. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then propped one hand on the wall, the other caressing her cheek. "I havenae earned this."

She gazed up at him and wrapped a hand around his girth. "I'll be the judge of that," she whispered, stroking him towards her lips. Her tongue darted and traced slow circles around the tip before closing her mouth around his thick weight in a long-drawn-out pull, her grip twisting and pumping in a slow, steady motion.

Jamie gave out a vicious curse, and he shifted closer, reaching out, to glide his thumb along the crease of her lips. "Easy, Sassenach, ye've got some mouth on ye, and ye're slowly killing me with it."

Keeping her gaze locked with his, Claire tightened her lips on a downstroke as she delved in for another hard suck, her right-hand continuously stroking and squeezing his sex. The taste and scent of him, all-male, earthy and raw, pervaded her senses and she couldn't get enough, excitement and arousal infusing her blood. His flesh jerked inside her mouth without conscious volition as she retreated with deliberate slowness, making his thighs crowd either side of her face.

He made a pained guttural sound. "Ah, fuuuck." As if he couldn't help himself, his hips rolled in, filling her mouth and forcing her head to tip back. The more his fist twisted in her hair, the more she took more of him, letting him penetrate her throat and listening to one profanity gruffly cussed after another. 

Her adrenaline spun like a hurricane out of control, the muscles at the juncture of her thighs tensing tight. Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she heard him shout  Enough!  But she was too intoxicated from the taste of him and too far gone, focused only on pleasing him.

He yanked her up on her feet and sunk his teeth in the exposed curve of her neck. She swayed, clutching his shirt to keep her balance. "Jesus, Sassenach, whatever is in that grappa, I like it verra much." He kissed along her jaw, his stubble prickling her skin. "If I'd known ..." Hands shook as they erratically worked together, dragging the dress off her body before he divested the rest of his own clothes. "... I would've bought a crate days ago." She tipped her head back, and he brushed his lips down, all the way to her breast.

"And if I'd known you're a mouthful ..." she trailed off.

Jamie paused, stared at her for a beat and then suddenly burst out laughing. "Ah, I have a wee comic in my hands, have I?" He playfully scooped her up into his arms and looked down at her, sky blue eyes radiating with lust and reverence that moved her. "And a beautiful one too, to boot."

He gently laid her on his bed, and she blinked and watched him retrieve a condom at his bedside table, apprehension tickling her belly. Confidence and pride reverberating from his aura, he was magnificent in his nakedness. Being adored by this man, having him admit to things she never thought would pass his lips, turned a crank in her chest.

He lowered himself over her, stripping off her panties, so she lay naked underneath him. Running his rough palms over her skin, he stroked, licked and sucked until her breasts were so sensitive and she was squirming to get closer. She wiggled and hooked an ankle over his thigh, opening herself up.

He softly bit the underside of her breast and chuckled. "Oh no, Sassenach, it's my turn to play. I'm going slow this time."

A moan ripped from her lips. "Oh, no."

"Oh, aye ..."

He took his sweet time, his hands gliding up and down her body in soothing strokes. He circled his tongue over her sensitive nipples, ducked lower, and nibbled the hollow of her stomach.

His lips trailed kisses over to her inner thigh, his hands keeping her spread open for him to play. She attempted to struggle, but his grip only tightened, and he shot her a warning glance. Shaking under the delicious tension, Jamie was building up, her entire body ached to have him inside her.

Ignoring her aching core, his head dipped behind her knee, licking the erogenous zone there, before proceeding over to her calf. He seized her ankle and lifted it up high, so she was completely exposed to him. "I'd never thought I'd say this after these last few days of hell, but ye were ...ye are worth every second of the torture."

Desire licked at her nerve endings, and her face flushed as his eyes feasted on every intimate inch of her. "W-what are you waiting for then? Come and take what you want," she whimpered. She swallowed hard, when he pressed his lips to her inner ankle and then on the top of her foot, flashing her a mischievous grin in reply. "Oh, God, I can't anymore ...please ..." 

He lowered himself between her legs. "On second thoughts, maybe we should have dinner first."

She gasped. "Jamie ..."

Her sob dissolved in her throat as his tongue licked her swollen fold with deliberate slowness, and his mouth closed-in on her throbbing nub. His hot breath and rhythmic flicks teased the inside of her thighs, using his fingers to rub and stroke until she was rocking against those experienced lips.

Arching her back, her hand automatically reached for the back of his head. "Oh, Jesus, J-Jamie ... I'm going to ..." Her hips bucked and she broke apart instantaneously, giving in to the exquisite release that shook through her body.

Still reeling, the sound of condom wrapper ripping resounded in her ears, and she felt him hover above her, his cock poised at her entrance. "Look at ye ...so bloody perfect and mine," he breathed. "Please don't ever take yersel' away from me again. Promise me."

His demand penetrated her consciousness, absorbing the meaning he was indeed hers, to love and to hold, even though the idea still seemed far-fetched and so new. "I promise," she choked.

His cock drove into her slowly, stretching her to the limit, until she closed her eyes to fight off the urge to scream, the fullness of him sending shock waves of ecstasy through her whole body. Expletives escaped his lips as he surged forward with unrelenting determination until he was finally buried deep. "I love ye, Sassenach ...never felt like this before ...never felt this good ..."

His admission caused all sorts of emotions to swell up within her, and her body opened and received his hard length, locked him deep and demanded more. His fingers held hers and gripped hard as he began to move, gently at first, joining her rhythm as she rolled her hips.

"Mo chridhe," he murmured. "Don't hold back. Let me see all of ye."

His words blurred, lost under the thrusting rhythm of his hips, propelling her higher and higher. He gripped her body and lifted her to meet him, allowing her no room to hide. For one brief heartbeat, doubt penetrated through the fog, and she tried to resist, fighting the maelstrom of pleasure crashing through her, but it was if he sensed it and wouldn't allow it. With a deep grunt, he raised her arse higher and punched his hips. It was a raw combination of carnal needs, wild and primaeval, and she embraced the honesty of their lovemaking as perspiration ran down his face and her nails scored deep into his back until she exploded.

She screamed out his name, her head thrashing wildly on the pillow as pleasure crashed over and over in waves. With a growl, he slammed his hips and joined her, taking her mouth in a deep, soul-stirring kiss. A groan wrenched from Jamie's throat, as he began to convulse and she watched him, triumphant in the arch of his neck, the vein popping out of his temple, and the sweat beading on his brows. He was wrecked, a servant to his own body the way it shook and heaved as it emptied and dropped onto her.

With her open mouth pressed against his chest, she could only whimper, glorying in hearing the repeated chanting of her name in a litany.

"Mine," he rasped. And then, more insistently, "Ye're mine."

Claire's delirious mind picked up on the change in Jamie's tone when his strong arms circled around her, gripping her too tight. He continued to mutter her name, his breathing turning erratic. Strangely so, even in their worked-up state. With his face embedded in the crook of Claire's neck, she only had to push him slightly away to search his face. She found his eyes squeezed shut, her name on his lips. "Jamie," she croaked, kissing his clenched jaw. "Look at me."

Wounded blue eyes found her and trepidation flared in Claire's chest. She wriggled in the circle of his arms, giving him no choice but to slip from her body. He fell onto his side and pulled her in to wrap her in a bear hug. "Fuck."

"What's wrong, Jamie?" She brushed a hand down the back of his hair. "Are you alright?"

A muscle worked up and down in his throat. "Ach, Christ."

Doubt crept in, and a sudden pain scorched her lungs. "Are you already regretting this thing between us now?"

Jamie shot up and frowned at her, his breathing harsh. "First of all, dinnnae call what we have a thing."

"Sorry," she mumbled, feeling confused.

"What happened just now was beautiful. It wasn't a thing." Jamie shut his eyes, missing the wonder that crossed her face. "Ye make me better, and I want to be better for ye." His arms tightened around her. "But I am jealous of every memory of yers that doesnae hold me, and every tear ye've shed for Frank, and every second ye've spent in another man's bed! How is that possible?"

Claire felt like she was breathing through a straw. "Are you saying you've never been jealous before?"

"Aye, I guess so," Jamie admitted, grazing their mouths together, his breathing back to normal. "When I was inside ye, I was thinking how beautiful ye looked. And for a split second, I thought of Frank having ye like how I had ye. And I didnae like that picture in my head at all. All of a sudden, I hated him and yer past. I ken I have nae right saying that to ye with my history and all."

Claire was shaken and amused at the same time. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. This man had blown her perception of him out of the water and replaced it with someone real, instead of some mythos rugby sex-god she'd conjured. "Jamie, whatever feelings I have for Frank is long gone. He's destroyed everything himself, the memories and whatever respect I had left of him. He no longer has power over me. Nor us."

"Aye, I ken," he whispered, his chest lifting and falling. "It's the two of us now."

Time stood still, and a hush fell.

Moving slowly, Jamie got up and removed and disposed of the condom. Claire watched in silence. When he came back to bed, he cuddled her against him and pulled a sheet over them. With a sigh, she laid her cheek against his chest, breathing in his scent. He stroked her hair and pressed his lips to the top of her head.

"I just want to hold ye for a little while before dinner," he said quietly. "Is that okay?" 

Nestling into the warmth of his embrace, she held him tighter and closed her eyes. "Yes."

For the first time, since leaving Frank, Claire felt safe and cherished. 

She never wanted to move from this spot. 

The only person she wanted was here, and the serenity of that moment combined with Jamie's affection made her relax in a way she hadn't known was possible. Like she'd been tense and jittery her whole life and hadn't even known it. 

There was them now. And a big scary world existed somewhere beyond this haven, where bad things happened, and people manipulated other people for gain or fame. And turn people to something they're not.

She silently vowed she would stand by Jamie, no matter what the network threw at him.

But tonight there was only him and her. 

And she was happy and grateful for this peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

He turned onto his stomach and reached out to the other side of his bed. Realising Claire had gone, he mushed his face into the pillow and groaned. Jamie inhaled the scent of their lovemaking, absorbing it into his bloodstream. She must have gone to work and hadn't bothered waking him up even though he'd insisted on making her breakfast. Stubborn woman!  What did he say about wanting a morning cuddle before getting up from bed, the first time they had made love? He made a mental note to emphasise that matter on her later on.

Suddenly invigorated, he got up, had a quick shower and threw on a rugby hoody sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. He went to the kitchen and started the coffee, pausing to watch the street below him rouse in the early morning light. His lips curled as he remembered last night's bedroom romp. 

He considered their relationship official, whether Claire still needed to slow things down a notch or not.

Jamie dragged a hand over the back of his neck and mused. He liked having her in his apartment, and after just one night, there were already reminders of her presence. Like her sweet, floral scent that still lingered in the air, the toilet seat was down, and the dishes from dinner were already washed and dried. Surprise flitted through him at the realisation. Deep down, even if he didn't realise it back then, he'd always known Claire was different from all the women he'd met, and her stayover last night proved why. Everything felt natural with her, just like the way their bodies fitted perfectly together. He loved their honest and uninhibited lovemaking. He loved the way she had clung onto him while she screamed his name. They had reached out for each other many times through the night, their desire insatiable. No one had ever surrendered everything to him as thoroughly as Claire had. At first, he'd been humbled by her trust. Then he'd simply lost himself in her. Although the physical experience was mind-blowing and depleted him to the point, he could barely stand, it was their mind and soul connection that had the most profound impression. The last thing he'd expected was her reaching inside his chest and rearranging everything. She made him feel things he'd never felt before and crave for more. 

Jamie poured a flask of the steaming coffee and took a moment in the kitchen to gather his thoughts. With the awards event tomorrow night coming and the possibility of work in London, they needed to have a serious talk. It might be too soon and happening too fast for Claire, but the fact of the matter is that their relationship had reached a fork in the road. After realising what he felt for her and having spent time together, he didn't know if he could turn back to the way it was.

There was really no option but to persuade her to come with him if he gets the job. Scotland might be her home, and leaving everything behind would mean giving up a lot, but there was the two of them now, and he vowed to make it work. But first, he needed to convince her he was here for the long haul. Jamie knew Claire wasn't dubbed the Runaway Bride by the papers for nothing having endured her proneness to disappear first hand. He just had to make sure she knew she had no reason or cause to run.

Satisfied with his reasoning and logic, he packed the flask of coffee into a backpack, grabbed his car keys and headed out of the apartment to drop off her brew and most importantly, collect his morning kiss from Claire. And after that, he needed to see Ned Gowan and find out what was happening with Frank's case. He wanted Frank out of Claire's life once and for all.

..........

He loves me!  Smiling, Claire stood up from her chair and stretched, but she flinched the moment she felt the residual effects of Jamie. She had whisker burns on her cheeks and neck, sore hips where he'd gripped and yanked her body, and a sensitivity between her legs that wouldn't wane.

After making love last night, they'd bonded over dinner and made love some more, something, which she believed, his previous flings could never boast. Knowing that relationships were a novelty to Jamie, she'd decided not to get carried away in case she send him running for the commitment-free hills. Her course of action was to take things gradually, even if it meant living separately for a while if he got the job at the network. If he truly loved her like she loved him, a long-distance relationship should be fine, until they worked out a permanent solution.

She'd just put on her white coat and was about to grab a patient's file when a murmur of female voices swelled outside her office door. She frowned, wondering what was going on. Clinic waiting rooms were never quiet, but this unusual disturbance had a strange tone. The high-pitched giggles and chairs scraping back caused her to still and listen more intently.

Then she heard Jamie talking to the head receptionist.

"Ach, Mary. Have ye done something to yer hair? Ye look absolutely gorgeous. And who is this working with ye? This must be where all the pretty lasses of Edinburgh work."

There were shameless cackling, followed by a lot of brazen innuendos and suggestive propositions.

"Beautiful as ye all are, I'm afraid I'm already spoken for," Jamie flirted, making Claire's eyes roll in disbelief.  Bloody unbelievable!  His admission resulted in a string of tittering and gushing. "If ye dinnae mind I'm actually here to drop Dr Beauchamp's coffee, and I promise I won't take much of her time. I know ye're all verra busy. But I brought something sweet for yer break later. Cupcakes, ladies?"

Claire opened the door and popped her head out. Immediately, Jamie straightened up, and their gazes collided, giving her a look that told her he only had eyes for her. Oh sweet Mother of God!  Although dressed down, he looked effortlessly good with his sweatshirt and jeans outlining his athletic body and accentuating the sculpted muscles beneath. He looked like he'd just stepped out of her fantasies to seduce her at work and scramble her brain. He flashed her a crooked grin, and she felt a tug at her heartstrings. She sensed he had the same effect on the rest of the women in the room and wondered if he was aware of it.

"Ach, there's the woman I came to see," he announced without taking his eyes off her. The female staff and patients fell back into their seats and sighed as they followed the direction of his gaze, making the men grunt and snort in disgust. Oblivious to the reactions, Jamie left the box of cupcakes on the reception counter and started towards her, not bothering to wait to be authorised. 

Bloody hell!?!  Claire opened her mouth to say something, but no words formed as she slowly backed into her office. Her buttocks collided into the desk, and she clutched the edge to remain upright. As soon as he made it through the door, he kicked it shut. She watched him advance with a mixture of awe, confusion and shock.

"J-Jamie, what the hell do you think you are doing? I have patients waiting to be attended out there."

Jamie propped his hands on either side of her and stared into her eyes. An appreciative sound vibrated from his throat as he leaned in and buried his nose against her neck. He took a deep breath and hummed. "I think ye forgot something this morning when ye left my apartment for work."

"I did?" She racked her brain, thinking.

"Uh-huh." She watched him lick his lips. "Ye forgot this." His eyelids fell to half-mast, and then he kissed her, brushing his lips tantalisingly on her own.

"Jamie!" she gasped. "Dr Grey could walk in any minute."

"This won't take a minute," he whispered, ignoring her fret. 

The creasing at the corners of his eyes made Claire smile despite herself.  Damn!  Caught in a swirl of shower gel scent, all she could do was give in and try to relax. She relented, slipped her arms around Jamie's neck and kissed him back. He smiled against her mouth, warm and wet, mint and coffee on his tongue. 

"That's better," he whispered, drawing away. "That wasn't difficult, was it?"

"Is that what you came here for?"

He ignored her question as he slid off the backpack from behind him. He pulled out a flask of coffee and a wrapped sandwich and placed them on her desk. "Ye didnae have breakfast. I thought ye might want this later."

Her surprise was eclipsed by gratitude. She hadn't had time to eat earlier when she left Jamie's apartment. She'd driven to her cottage, showered and went straight to work forgoing even a cup of coffee. "Thank you."

"Ye're welcome." He pulled into his jean's pocket, took her hand and planted something on her palm. "I'm cooking dinner tonight, and ye'll probably need this." Claire looked down and realised he'd given her keys. "Dinnae bother ringing the bell. And attach it to yer keychain, so ye dinnae lose it."

What?  Bewildered, she stared at the keys like it was some foreign object and held her breath. "What's the meaning of this, Jamie?" She raised her eyes to his. "You want to give me your keys?"

Jamie winked and shrugged like it was no big deal. "I'll be busy preparing food. I thought ye should just let yersel' in when ye come over. Saves me running to open the door in case I burn something." Then his face went a touch serious. "Ye can keep it. And umm, ... before I forget, I'll be seeing Ned today, and we'll try and get yer things from Frank."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Whoa! Back-pedal a bit. You want me to keep your keys?"

"Weel, it does make sense if we're going to be spending a lot of time together," he reasoned.

She snorted. "What makes you think the time we'll be spending together will be a lot?"

He grinned. "Unwavering, unrelenting persistence?"

She shook her head in wonder. Lately, Jamie had been full of surprises, and she could hardly keep up. Part of her wanted to slow everything down a smidge. But he seemed happy enough doing things for her and took his boyfriend role like a duck to water. If he wasn't making a big deal out it, she wouldn't either. She gave him a small smile. "Can we have dinner at my place instead? I have things to do at home, like laundry and stuff."

"Fine with me. I'll stop by the shop on the way," he said. "Ye need me to bring anything in particular while I'm out?"

She beamed. "You realise that repeatedly bringing me food and cooking for me is comparable to feeding a stray cat, right? You might never get rid of me now."

"Good," he said, pulling her in for a hug. "That was the plan." He tilted her chin and looked down at her. "Make space for my tuxedo in your wardrobe. I'll be bringing it with me for the award event tomorrow. Do ye have a dress for tomorrow night?"

Make space for Jamie's stuff?  She swallowed. She hadn't recovered from receiving his apartment keys yet, and now he wanted her to make room for him in her wardrobe. Unease warred with amusement. "Umm, yeah ...Geillis is lending me a dress."

"Good, that's sorted then."

She masked her mounting confusion and gave him an apologetic smile. "I um ...I best get back to work."

"Aye, of course ..."

She made a move, but he stopped her and pulled her in again. 

"Yes?"

He stared at her for a moment, something soft playing around the edges of his smile. Then he leaned over and kissed her. It was a short but gentle kiss, and when it was over, he stroked her cheek with his thumb. "I love ye, Sassenach."

"Oh ..."

Jamie arched an eyebrow. "Oh?"

She was not yet used to the idea of being with him. She was still months away or maybe even years from getting used to the idea that he was James Fraser. The man she'd been crushing for years. The only way she dealt with this fact was by not focusing on his semi-celebrity status. He was just a man like any other with insecurities and flaws.

He's my boyfriend, and he loves me.  She said it over and over again in her head. 

She felt flattered and lucky. Then she felt nervous and uncertain. She ran through a gamut of emotions as Jamie looked at her and waited for some reaction. He seemed happy to be with her and didn't mind her seeing this side of him. This was not the James Fraser from the articles written for the tabloids nor from the stories spoken in social media. She reminded herself this was her Jamie, the real and authentic, James Fraser the public never saw.

With a sigh, she stood on her tip-toes and nuzzled her nose to his. "I love you too, Jamie."

She was rewarded with a heart-stopping smile and a slap on the bum before he turned and left.  Unbelievable!

..........

"For crying out, Claire, will ye stop fidgeting. I cannae send ye out to the award's night with a crooked hem."

Claire looked down at Geillis, wielding a needle and thread like a weapon. Her friend knelt at her feet, furiously repairing the hem that had come undone.

The moment Geillis had heard about the British Sport's Award date, she'd insisted on lending the gown and had come prepared to dress Claire for battle, so she called it. 

"You must be tired after working all day with all those children," Claire sympathised. "You didn't have to do this. I can afford to buy a dress, you know."

She finished repairing and grabbed the steamer. "I've been looking forward to getting ye into this dress for a while, so it worked out fine. I bought this on the whim a while ago and realised too late it doesnae suit me because of my hair colour." She leaned back on her heels and inspected the material for any more creases. "This looks bonnie on ye and shows off yer beautiful skin. Now all ye need to do is channel the old Hollywood glamour."

Claire laughed. "It's a sports' award ceremony, not a red carpet event."

Geillis waved a hand in the air. "Aye, I ken. But the cameras will be on Jamie, and ye'll be by his side. Both of ye'd be like the Beckhams of rugby. Now go and check yersel' in the mirror and tell me what ye think."

She stepped in front of the full-length mirror and caught her breath.

The bold scarlet dress dropped low in the front, clinging just below her shoulders, and hugging her body before sweeping down in folds of glimmering material. Her hair was fastened high on her head, with corkscrew curls cascading around her ears and the back of her neck, and her red toenails poked out of her strappy nude sandals encased feet. Her lips were generously applied with cherry red lipstick and her eyes, dramatic and smokey. 

Claire turned to her friend. "Geillis! I can hardly recognise myself. And my boobs! They look like they're about to pop out!"

"Yer boobs are fine, and they aren't going anywhere," Geillis pointed out. "And ye look bloody gorgeous. Now, quit worrying while I go over the rules with ye."

Huh? Claire narrowed her gaze. "What rules?"

Rolling her eyes, Geillis got up on her feet and gripped her by the shoulders. "First things first. The problem with ye is, ye're too good. I dinnae ken much the type of people who will be at the awards, but if they're anything like the people in Frank's circle, ye need to keep yer wits about ye. Are ye with me?" Geillis gave Claire a long look and waited until she nodded. "Good. Now, there will be plenty of women out there who are gonnae hate ye because ye're with Jamie. So don't be too nice. Be a little mean but not too much that ye'd look like a bitch."

Claire's lips quirked in amusement. 

"I'm serious, Claire. Ye have to start believing ye're worthy. Because ye are. I hated it when Frank made ye feel otherwise. And there are a lot of Franks out there. Not to mention backbiting women who will have their claws out ready to take a swipe at ye. When that happens, connect with that surgeon in ye and be clinical about it. It willnae be personal."

Claire sighed and gave her friend a hug. "Don't worry, Geillis. I'll be fine. And thank you so much for doing this for me."

Geillis sniffed and fussed with her dress some more. "I ken, ye'll be fine. I just want ye to be on yer guard."

"Jamie will be with me," Claire softly reminded.

"Ach, speaking of Jamie. He is like seriously into ye. It's all o'er his face. I ken the look when someone's in love."

Claire smiled. "Well, he's cooked for me and brought coffee and snacks to work."

"Aye," Geillis nodded in approval. "That's one of the signs when a lad's into ye."

"And he gave me the keys to his apartment."

Geillis stilled and looked at her like she'd grown a second head. "No fucking way! Really?"

She grinned. "Yes, way."

Geillis' lips formed an O, and she shook her head. "Weel, weel, I never thought I'd see the day when the mighty James Fraser falls for a lass."

"Early days yet. And Jamie's new to this relationship thing. We don't know how it's going to pan out."

"So, have ye had sex with him?"

"Geillis! Keep your voice down!" Claire hissed, launching a look at the door. Jamie was in the living room, making some calls to his lawyer and agent. "You forget the walls are thin in this house."

"Weel?" Geillis asked, giving her crazy eyes.

Claire blanched. "Yes, a few times."

"Oh my God! And here I thought ye're making him wait and work hard for it. Ye and Jamie are certainly making history here."

"I didn't plan it. It just happened," Claire shrugged, attempting to push her breast into the dress.

"Hmmm. Is it true what they say about guys with big feet? Ye ken what they say ...the size of a man's feet can tell ye something about the size of his ..."

"I'm not telling you that!" 

"I was gonnae say, heart."

Claire glared at her friend. "Yeah, right!"

"I like him," Geillis declared, all of a sudden.

Claire looked at her friend with new eyes and grinned. "Aww, now who's making history here?"

"He's good to ye. And ye're happy. And I like seeing that."

Claire took a deep breath. "I am happy, Geillis." 

Geillis eyes went soft. "Good. Now hold on tight to yer lad and keep fighting for that happiness ye both deserve. I have a feeling it's gonnae be a wild ride. And make fucking sure that the world knows, no one can put Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp down and not come out unscathed." She took a step back, looked at Claire's dress with critical eyes and then plumped her breast. "Now go smash the Brit's award and show them what ye're made of."

..........

Tugging at the bowtie of his tuxedo, Jamie paced Claire's living room and glanced at his watch. Still plenty of time. He heard Geillis' high pitched chatter and Claire's softer low voice in the bedroom. Restless, he peered out the window and saw the chauffeur-driven Bentley waiting outside. To his amusement, the neighbours were slowly coming out of their houses to have a nosey.

He'd hired a chauffeur for the occasion so that he could hold Claire's hand on their way to the British Sports Awards in case she panicked. He couldn't blame her if she did as the paparazzi and the crowd could be intimidating and overwhelming. After all these years he still wasn't used to the media circus and loathed it.

The bedroom door opened, and he turned around and waited for the girls to come in from the hallway. A grinning Geillis came in first, and when Claire appeared, his jaw almost hit the floor. She looked insanely breathtaking, and he knew immediately she would stand out in her red dress, among the sea of blacks and whites favoured by the celebrated attendees. Her shoulders were completely bare, and his eyes were immediately drawn to the creamy swell of her breast.

Tits!  

Eyes fixed on Claire, he hadn't noticed Geillis approach and place a hand under his chin to close his mouth. She laughed. "Is that all ye can say ...tits!"

Ah, fuck, did I just say that out loud?!

Geillis fixed his bowtie. "By the looks of it, I think my job is done here."

"Huh?" He just about managed to tear his gaze away from Claire and glance down at Geillis. "Sorry?"

Geillis' cheeks dimpled as she smoothed out his lapels. "I asked what yer shoe size is."

He was confused. "Shoe size?"

"Don't answer that," Claire intervened to his relief. Geillis almost always gave him a headache, and she seemed to get a kick out of putting someone in an uncomfortable situation or confusing them with her crazy humour.

Jamie waited as the girls said their goodbyes, and as soon as Geillis shut the door after her, he let out a huge sigh.

"Sorry about that," Claire apologised, as she came closer to him. "She's mad, and she likes messing with me." Her eyes gave him a head to toe sweep, and she smiled. "You look dashing and very handsome in your tux."

Jamie's heart and body responded intensely to the vision of her that he could only stand there and breathe through it. He wished he was whisking her away to Paris right now instead of some event full of arse-kissers.

"You don't like the dress," she whispered, her dainty fingers tugging the top part of her gown in a futile attempt to cover her breast. "Geillis left me another dress to wear. I actually prefer it to this one. It's more conservative and fitting for where we're going."

"Sassenach ..."

"Geillis could be quite persuasive and pushy at times. It won't take me a minute to change. If you could just ..."

"Sassenach, ye look perfect. Ye are perfect in every way."

The worry in her eyes evaporated, and he felt like kicking himself for placing it there in the first place. "Thank you. Shall we go?"

"Not yet." He took her hand and pulled her in, his lips brushing her cheeks, careful not to ruin her makeup. "Did ye remember to pack extra clothes? We're staying overnight in Glasgow, remember?"

"Yes," she breathed, her arms sliding around his neck. "It will be like our first mini getaway together."

"Aye, it will be that." He looked down at her and had to restrain himself from kissing her. "Listen up. Ye stick by me all night, okay?"

"Of course." Her fingers caressed the nape of his neck, causing his chest to feel tight. "Are you nervous? Because I am."

"No." Jamie dipped his head and caught her earlobe between his teeth. When her head fell back, he couldn't help gliding his lips down her throat. "I wasnae sure what I was thinking. This plan of showing you off as my girlfriend ..." His thumb stroked the hollows of her cheekbones. "I dinnae like it. I dinnae think this far ahead."

Her eyes closed, and her lips parted.  Christ, she's gorgeous.  "You don't want people to know I'm your girlfriend?" she asked.

"Jesus! I want to shout out to the world ye're mine but ..."

Her amber eyes popped open. "I don't understand."

Jamie searched for the right words, but Claire's mouth kept distracting him. He shifted his focus to her eyes. "I-I dinnae want ye on display. I dinnae want us on display for the world to pick apart. Articles might be written about us, and sometimes the words are hurtful. I dinnae mind if they write horrible things about me, but I dinnnae wish that for ye."

Claire cupped his face with both of her hands and forced him to look at her. "Jamie. I'm made of sturdier stuff. I'm not going to break apart because of other people's opinion. Besides, I've been through worse ..."

He let out a humourless laugh. "Och, aye? What's that?"

"If you insist on hearing it ..." She wrinkled her nose. "Spurting blood on the operating table, disembowelled...

"Fine, I get it." He pressed his face on the side of her neck for the final time. "Just stand by me and stay close. That's all I ask. If it gets too much, ye let me know, and we'll go. Promise me that."

"I promise."

"Good lass." He started to pull away to get their bags.

"Jamie?"

"Aye?"

"We can do this, and it will be fine."

The last few weeks came back to him in a rush of colour and sound. Claire was forefront and centre of every memory. Calling him out for being too cocky when they first met in Lallybroch, catching her fall from the church window, agreeing to run away with him to Cullen, suggesting to be his fake girlfriend so he could get the job at the network, playing rugby in the middle of a rainstorm, sitting in her kitchen table and telling him he was more than the sport. Somewhere along the line, he'd started to see her strength and resilience and believe in her. 

Of course, they could do this. And it would be fine. If not, Jamie would do everything in his power to make it more than fine. And bugger with the network.

He smiled. "Aye, with ye beside me, it will be fine."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!  

Claire's heart started to beat a little faster as their hired Bentley slowly inched closer to the Hilton Hotel Glasgow. They were following a long line of fancy cars waiting for their turn to pull up, step out and parade themselves. She felt Jamie's gentle squeeze on her hand, but it didn't help quash the feeling of apprehension. She'd promised Jamie to stand by him but seeing the throngs of excited fans and reporters behind the installed barriers, made her want to curl up in a fetal position and not leave the car.

"Sassenach, are ye alright?"

Huh?  She turned and looked at him and saw the worried lines etched on his face. She gave him a feeble smile. "I'm fine," she lied, trying to convince herself as well as him. "I know events like this draw crowds ... it's just that I didn't realise it would be as crazy as this. I-it's one thing seeing it on TV or pictures, but this ..." She leans forward and waves a hand, the frenzy screams and shouts, giving her jitters. "There's a bloody mob out there. It's insane!"

Jamie gently drew her sideways against him, tucking her in under his arm. "Some people from the movie industry will be there too, that's why. Events like this like to invite big names to attract the media. And Prince Harry will be making an appearance as well, most probably to promote the Invictus Games."

"Invictus wot?" she asked absentmindedly, her attention fixated on the excited crowd outside.

"It's a paralympic-style sporting event for injured military servicemen and women. It's a foundation launched by Prince Harry," he explained, following her gaze.

Only half-listening, Claire closed her eyes and tried to breathe normally, focusing on Jamie's hand on her arms. It helped a bit to soothe her nerves. For a split second of weakness, she thought of suggesting to let her slip into the back entrance and meet him inside the hotel lobby after his pap-walk but remembered her promise to stand by him tonight and dropped the idea. "Does this get any easier for you?" Claire asked, glad for the darkened windows that hid them from the flashing camera lights.

"What? This?" He puffed out his cheeks and blew out air. "No. The public looks like the giant scary monster, but truthfully, I dinnae mind the fans. The problem is the media. The media isnae journalism as ye know it anymore. They turn everything into a bloody circus show."

She shuddered, remembering her indirect first-hand experience with the reporters and how they've made her looked like the cheating fiancée and Frank, the virtuous, pillar of the society, who could do no wrong. "Tell me about it," she whispered.

"Stations and news will gobble up anything - the more sensational the story, the better, anything for the ratings. Ratings are everything. Ratings mean money and lots of it. Perhaps it really is just a matter of time before they're funding the nefarious for the consumption of the people. There's nae more moral compass, only the most immoral become the victors in this industry, and so on. Morality is for losers, winners are the ones who "pushed the envelope." He looked at her, and she didn't miss the subtle change in his demeanour. "As I told ye before, the tabloids will feed the public some shite by publishing pictures, and when it's captured at a right angle, it could be taken in any context ye want. The news' outlets delight on that because the fans can make up their own stories and they write articles based on their speculations."

"Has it ever happened to you?"

"What? Speculations? Aye. Many times. With my reputation, I'm fodder for other celebrities' publicist, especially when movies or projects need to be promoted. I tend to get used for that end. I'm not saying my reputation was a made-up lie. I'm not proud of it, but I own my shit. The problem with this industry is when ye want to use their platform or be part of it, be prepared to whore yersel' literally or figuratively." He lets out a short laugh. "Thanks to them and the publicity stunts, I've increased my followings on social media, which of course, opened other avenues such us modelling for big-name products even if I've never done that line of work before. The upside - it made me loads of money."

"So, you reckon the network will want something from you?"

"Aye, most probably. But ye'll have yer say in it, Sassenach. This is nae longer just about me," Jamie's mouth pressed into a determined line. "This concerns ye too."

"But, this job means the world to ye, Jamie."

He twisted around to face her, and his hand stroke her cheek. "Dreams and priorities change over time, Sassenach. Ye come first now because I'll need someone who will hold on to my soul in that crazy world out there. But I'm warning ye. If ye agree to let me take on the job, there'll be a lot of things ye'll not like and perhaps disappointments. Whatever happens tonight, I'll need ye to trust me in this. Ye dae trust me, aye?"

Claire squeezed his hand. "Yes, of course, I trust you." She nervously glanced through the windshield and saw there was only one car left in front of them before it was their turn to get off. "I meant to go over things with you, Jamie. What do you need from me out there?"

His face softened. "Just be yourself and smile. Ye dinnae need to answer questions from the press if ye dinnae feel like it. If ye do though, dinnae reveal anything personal and give them an arsenal for future use." He leaned in and gave her a kiss. "And thank ye for being here with me. It means a lot."

She nodded and smiled weakly, still dazed from the surreality of the upcoming moment when they would step out as a couple. It was quite apparent they were both not looking forward to going out there, and for Claire, it was one hell of a circus show to go through just for a presenting job.

"Ye sure ye'll be okay?" Jamie asked. "There's still time to turn around if ye wish. There'll be nae hiding once we step out." His tone was guarded and tinged with concern. "I ken I asked ye to stand by me. But I can go out there by myself, present the award, listen to what the network has to say and if I dinnae like it, I'll leave, and we can enjoy Glasgow for the rest of the evening."

The suggestion was too tempting, and it would be an easy way out. But Jamie could lose out on his dream job because he would choose her. She didn't want that. Claire turned and saw him looking at her thoughtfully, earnestly waiting for an answer, as the ghost of past heartache resurrected in her head. When James Fraser loved, it was scary. The man put his entire heart out with the expectation that it would be crushed. Sometimes she worried at the way he looked at her and at the way she felt for him. It seemed too precious and too rare to explore knowing if it didn't work out between them, the heartache would be greater. If she ever lost this man, she would never recover. If he ever lost her, she feared for the man that he would become. She could only hope that their relationship would survive Jamie's new career.

Swallowing the odd lump in her throat, she gave him her best smile and summoned the courage. If he's willing to sacrifice his dreams, she was prepared to at least try and take this on too before he gave it up altogether. "Hey I'm a big girl, remember. I can tough this one out," she whispered, attempting to sound cheerful.

His handsome face lit up. Grinning, he leaned in for a final kiss before grabbing the handle of the car's door. "Weel, let's do this then, Sassenach.".

..........

Ah, bloody hell, here goes nothing!  

Claire inhaled deeply and took Jamie's hand as she stepped out of the car. She felt like entering into another realm as she was greeted by frantic screaming, knowing it had more to do with Jamie's appearance than her stepping out. It was very loud, more than she'd imagined it would be with a crowd such as this, and the deafening noise was reinforced more by all the shouting, cheering, camera flashes, instructions yelled out by photographers at celebrities, and security and ushers barking orders.

"Jamie! Jamie!"

"We love ye, Jamie!"

"Jamie, please sign this!

"Jamie! This way, please!

"Jamieee, selfie please."

Jamie's hand tightened and tugged her forward, her eyes blinking and squinting against the flashing of bulbs and set of lights beaming down on them. He leaned down to say something, but she couldn't hear over the screams of hysterical fans. Although she'd been a fan of Jamie for years, she couldn't understand the over-the-top hero-worship and grown women shrieking whenever Jamie smiled, winked or waved. People crying and all these hysteria for a retired rugby player was simply just beyond her.  Heaven forbid Jamie ends up becoming an actor. Unbelievable!

Jamie led her to the top end where the broadcast outlets were, namely BBC, ITV as well as UKSC, the network Jamie might one day work for. He subtly reminded her when to stop and where to look as the photographers furiously took their pictures. His eyes were on her the whole time, a knowing upturn tugging his lips and his hand always pulling her against him. He kissed her for the cameras as if it was his way of announcing she was his, and although Jamie ignored requests from the journalists to introduce her, she obliged them, despite herself, by smiling for their lenses instead. Claire was surprised not one of the photographers had recognised her as the infamous  Runaway Bride . She hoped her unknown status would remain for the rest of the evening, but she knew reporters were like a dog with a bone and it was only a matter of time before they caught on.

"Hey, Jamie, who's the pretty lady with ye?"

"Can we have a name, please?"

"The dress is gorgeous. Who designed it?"

"Jamie, a quick interview, please?"

"Sorry ye lot, time for us to go in," he deflected, pretending to look disheartened while putting one hand dramatically over his chest and another, tugging her elbow and leading her away from the crowd and into the double doors of the hotel. 

What a charmer!   Despite Jamie loathing the media, he had a way with the reporters, whether they were women or men. Not once he showed a hint of annoyance even if she could feel it pulsing from his aura. He was evasive when people asked questions but somehow managed to get away with it with a smile or a wink, lending them a sense of mystery. Maybe Jamie was born for this. He did everything with ease and was full of self-confidence in front of the watchful eyes of the public. Whereas, her, she felt like she was caught up in a current, whirled and tossed in every direction. Her face hurt from endless smiling, hand numbed from Jamie's constant hard grip and her feet already throbbed from the ridiculously high stilettos. She hoped Jamie's charms would be enough to tide her over when the media finally finds out who she was.

One hurdle down, a million more to go!  Once they made it through the hotel's lobby, her first thought was to grab a flute of champagne from a passing waiter, but Jamie kept walking and steered her through groups of people, nodding and acknowledging with a smile those who glance their way. 

"It wasnae so bad, was it?" Jamie murmured against her ear as they positioned themselves at the least populous area of the lobby. "Ye look so beautiful tonight, and everyone thinks so too. Ye've captivated the press and the fans." He took a couple of champagne from a passing blonde waitress who was beaming up at him, but he didn't notice the awed gaze.

"Captivated? More like inquisitive," she replied, taking a huge gulp from the bubbly Jamie gave her and scanning the crowd. "The press is probably running my picture through some facial recognition software as we speak. I hope with the amount of makeup Geillis plied on my face, they'll fail at their attempt."

"That's not how facial recognition software work, Sassenach. The app distinguishes a person based on the person's features and shape."

"I was afraid you were going to say that. Let's just hope the software they're using is crap or dated."

Jamie laughed, taking a step closer in her direction "Dinna fash. Sometimes media exposure can work to yer benefit."

Claire looked up and saw the amusement in his eyes. "What do you mean?"

"Weel, for one, Frank will surely leave ye alone now. He wouldnae want to jeopardise his career in case ye talk to the press. I'm presuming he'd be thinking, ye've been considerably unpredictable ever since ye jumped out of the church's window. Controlling people don't like unaccounted for surprises. And ye're likely to do something spontaneous."

"I guess you have a point ..." She sipped her drink and quickly changed the subject. "What happens now?" she asked, watching the elite and sports' celebrities rub shoulders together, exchange air-kisses and posed for the cameras with subdued interest.

Claire had never seen so much pretentiousness in one room, and she'd mingled often enough in Frank's circle to make that distinction. The need to impress was so palpable in the air when, in actual fact, almost every individual present was talented and gifted in their own way. It was too showy and flashy for an event that was supposed to be all about honouring sportsmanship and sports in general. The only thing that seemed genuine was the designer clothes they're wearing and their expensive perfumes wafting through the air. It seemed like the long tentacles of the world of celebrities have crept into the world of sports, blinding them with glitz and glamour. It was definitely not a scene she could get used to, and she felt, Jamie couldn't either no matter how much self-confidence he exuded and wanted the job.

"We're just waiting for Forbes," Jamie explained. "I told him I'd meet him here and he's supposed to update me on his talks with the network." 

"Forbes is your agent, right?"

"Aye. And speaking of the devil, he appears." Jamie gestured toward the tall, blonde and handsome man in a dark blue business suit, walking confidently through groups of celebrities. "Showtime," he whispered, shifting on his feet.

She downed her champagne in two mouthfuls and watched Forbes stopped and shook hands with Andy Murray, Scotland's professional tennis player. It was apparent Jamie's agent knew a lot of famous people and appeared comfortable around them as he greeted and addressed a few more.

"Jamie!" Forbes strode towards them in a way a famous person might. His smile Hollywoodesque as he shook Jamie's hand. He was younger than Claire thought, midway through his thirties and almost as tall as Jamie. "Sorry to keep you waiting," Forbes apologised. "Got held up in the office and then stuck in the traffic."

Jamie nodded. "Nae bother. We haven't been here for too long." He put an arm possessively across her shoulders and pulled her in. "Forbes, this is Claire, my girlfriend." Forbes took her hand and kissed it, smiling over it when she blushed. She felt Jamie stiffened, indicative of his lack of credence towards his agent. 

"Call me Gerald. Forbes is my surname. I'm a long time friend and confidante of Jamie. I'm surprised he hasn't introduced you sooner, but I've seen you in the papers. Have to say you caused quite a stir in Edinburgh, and the pictures that were published haven't done you any justice at all. You're even more beautiful in person." He dipped his head as if his next words were meant only for her ears. "Jamie's reputation precedes him. As we all know, he has a keen eye for beautiful women."

Claire swallowed and yanked her hand back. "A keen eye for beautiful women, you say?" She glanced up at Jamie before looking at Forbes squarely in the eyes. "Too bad it doesn't extend to his instinctual perception on human nature. Jamie is too trusting for his own good."

Taken off guard by her reply, Forbes stared at her for a few seconds, trying to gauge her meaning. When she didn't smile, he was left with no other choice but to give out a fake laugh that was so over-the-top and loud, a few people glanced their way. Jamie disguised his choke with a cough.

"That's sports agents for ye," Jamie remarked, squeezing her shoulder. "Cannae live with 'em ..."

"Can't sign a deal worth a damn without them," Forbes added, plastering his toothpaste advert smile back on his face and dragging his attention away from her. "Well, Jamie, shall we go somewhere private and talk business?"

"No. We can talk here," Jamie said smoothly, releasing Claire to grab more glasses of bubblies from a passing waiter. "It's simple, really," he started, passing a glass to her and then to Forbes. "It's either the network and I are on the same page or not. So which is it?"

The mega-watt smile on Forbes dimmed, as he cast a quick glance at Claire before looking back at Jamie again. "I reasoned with the directors, and they've invited both of you at their table for further talks."

"And?"

Forbes tugged at his tie. "They still want you to do a pap photo with Geneva tonight. And it would be wise if we told the press Claire is your PA in case her identity leaks out."

"I'll do a promotional photo with Geneva if that's what they want," Jamie said firmly. "As for Claire's identity, the press or some random fan has probably already figured it out who she is. The fans aren't stupid." 

"Fine, so what if they've figured it out," Forbes sighed, lifting a hand in the air. "Just release a statement saying Claire's working as your PA while she's out of a job or something. Or a close friend who came with you as your plus one for tonight. Or just say nothing at all, and I'll release a statement to the press for you."

Noticing the tension between the two men, Claire placed a hand on Jamie's arm. "Shall I leave you both alone. I'll be just right over there," Claire intervened. She knew how important this job was for Jamie, and she was more than willing to remain hidden from the public if that's what it took.

"No," Jamie replied, grabbing her hand, in case she did walk away. "Please stay." He gave her a pleading look. She couldn't say no, so she simply nodded hoping they would come to some kind of resolution. Satisfied she wasn't going anywhere, Jamie turned his attention once more back to Forbes. "You will not release any statement on my behalf, and I will not discuss my personal life to the press. I've never had, and I'm not about to start now. Anyone who's got eyes knows Claire is with me and hundreds of pictures have already been taken when we arrived. The only thing I am willing to talk to the press about is my work."

"Jamie, there won't be any work if the directors found out you are with the  Runaway Bride  and even more so if the word gets out," Forbes argued impatiently. "We can make those pictures disappear, and nobody has to know about Claire. And it's for her own good too."

Claire tried not to flinch, but both men noticed. Forbes gave her an apologetic look and Jamie squeezed her hand.

"The directors said they specifically wanted that?" Jamie asked in disbelief.

Forbes sighed. "They want an unattached Jamie."

"And yet, they want me to parade myself with Geneva? That doesn't make any sense at all," Jamie countered.

"Look there's something I need to tell you about Geneva. And you can't tell another soul ..." Forbes paused and eyed Claire.

Jamie noticed Forbe's hesitation. "Claire won't say a word. She's a doctor and has a duty of confidentiality to her patients. So this won't be any different," Jamie reassured his agent.

Forbes nodded and lowered his voice. "There are rumours within the IOC that Geneva used performance-enhancing drugs during the Commonwealth Games and Beijing World Championships and she may be consequently be stripped off her medals ..."

"And how is that my problem?" Jamie challenged.

"Well, this is where you come in. You know that Geneva's dad, William, is one of the directors of the network, right?" When Jamie nodded, Forbes resumed. "The IOC isn't the problem, and the majority of the committee can be bought, but it won't stop the rumours circulating. So daddy dearest wants to paint a nice picture of Geneva for the public by giving her a few stints on the sports network. They want you both to host the London World Championship during rugby off-season. Her exposure will unveil her to the public as a clean-living athlete, and so when the rumours grow its head, the public will dismiss it as mere gossip. And also, they want the public to perceive you both as a couple. There'll be no need for you to announce you both are. A few pap photos here and there and the fans will do the talking. You're the ideal person for the partnership with Geneva because well, you know ... you were well-known for your discipline in rugby. No drugs, no alcohol, five times best player of the year, Scotland's national treasure and all that shit. Get my drift?"

"And why me?" Jamie asked warily. "Surely, there are other candidates with the same background in sports as I have, a better reputation and could talk comfortably and eloquently in front of the camera. I can think of five on top of my head, and they're all living nearer to London."

Forbes shook his head as if he couldn't comprehend why Jamie still hadn't understood yet. "You come from an old family, Jamie. A family with a solid background, good reputation and the public is more forgiving with your past indiscretions compared to your peers. And that alone carries a lot of weight in William Dunsany's eyes."

Jamie gave a burst of short mirthless laughter. "And here I thought I was being considered for the job because they saw a potential in me." He shook his head in disbelief and slapped Forbes on the shoulder. "Sorry mate, thanks but no thanks."

"Jamie! We're talking about a million-pound contract here and a place in the network for two years. That's an incredible amount of money for someone who doesn't have experience in mass media. No one is asking you to break up with Claire. Just keep things between the two of you under wraps. That's not difficult, is it?"

"Aye, it is! Have ye lived under the watchful eye of the press? Claire will be living with me. How am I suppose to keep our relationship under wraps? The answer is no. I'm not putting Claire under that pressure."

"William Dunsany is desperate. Maybe I can arrange a better deal for you," Forbes offered.

Jamie arched an eyebrow. "Why is he desperate?"

"William Dunsany is about to be bestowed a knighthood by the Queen, and he can't afford any scandal or gossip tainting his family name. He thinks Geneva being linked to you would shift the focus away from the rumours."

"Sorry, Forbes. It's one thing piling this whole shite on me but ..."

Forbes raised both his hands and gestured to both of them. "Talk about it, the two of you. And I'll go and talk to Dunsany and get you a better deal. I'll give you both half an hour to decide." And then he turned and strode away before either of them could say a word.

Jamie took Claire's glass and set it on the nearby table and faced her. "Do ye want to talk about this, Sassenach?"

"I think we should," she whispered.

Without another word, Jamie took Claire by the elbow and led them to an empty conference room. Once alone and away from the crowd, they sat on a nearby table facing each other.

Claire spoke first. "Jamie, I totally get it. The money doesn't mean anything to you, and I know you love me, and I also know you're willing to walk away from all of this because of me, but ..."

"Sassenach ..."

"No, Jamie, hear me out first, please," she insisted, wringing her hands as she searched for the right words. "You're here because you want to be part of that sport you love so much and want to start your own rugby academy with the money you'll earn. I know we talked about this in the car before we got here, but I don't want to be the reason for giving up your dreams. I can't live with that. When two people love one another, they nurture and support each other. I want you to do this thing in London and build your academy."

He smiled and took her hands from across the table. "Sassenach, I appreciate what ye're saying but it doesnae matter. Besides, I get the feeling ye dinnae like London much and the whole palaver with the paparazzi, and I cannae do it on my own if ye decide to send me away. I'd miss ye terribly."

It was true what Jamie said. She hated London, but she'd also hate it if she didn't get to see him every day and see where their relationship go. Maybe this was a test and opportunities like this only come once in a lifetime. Of course, they could make their own opportunities, but more often than not they are sprung on you like a dare to test your skills, to see if you could take that leap of faith to make whatever it was a success. To continue to be dictated by fear, an excellent opportunity might slip away. Frank already took away so much by inspiring self-doubt in her, and she didn't want to be afraid anymore. She needed to take that leap first, for the sake of both of them. And although Claire didn't like the idea that William Dunsany could get a knighthood from her life-changing decision, Claire had a feeling Geneva was being manipulated by her father. She wanted to be beside Jamie to make sure it wouldn't happen to him and at the same time reach out to Geneva and help her.

Confident she made the right decision, she stood up, walked over to him and sat on his lap. Linking her arms together around Jamie's neck, she planted a kiss on his lips and smiled. "What if I said I want to come to London with you, would that change your mind?"

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"What if I said I want to come to London with you, would that change your mind?"

Jamie stilled. What Claire had just said sounded like music to his ears. But that wasn't the point. The point was, he knew how much she hated the whole shenanigan that was happening beyond this room. Like him, she wasn't impressed with the limelight, the attention nor the glamour and wealth on display. He'd seen the discomfort in her demeanour and the distress in her eyes. And yet, here she was, despite knowing what it would mean for her to move to London, she was urging him to follow his dreams. There was no consideration for what she was signing herself up for or what she'd be giving up. She wasn't doing this for gain. She was doing this for him. Even though it was naive of her, he thought it was a selfless act on her part altogether, and it made him fall deeper in love with her.

Claire's shoulders had slumped the moment Forbes mentioned Dunsany's lucrative offer. Any other girls would have perked up at to the tune of a million-pound contract, but not his Sassenach. She'd probably thought he would have jumped at the offer or reasoned, it would be the only way he'd ever achieve his vision of building an academy. Perhaps that was true, but offers like this are designed to skew perspective and lure one to a false sense of security. He'd been there and done that and never again. In retrospective, although the endorsements and exposure in this industry made him wealthy enough to live comfortably, it hadn't given him any sense of fulfilment, and he knew neither would the offer from Dunsany. If there were going to be other strings attached to the job, besides tonight's pap walk with Geneva, the network and Forbes could shove the proposition up where the sun don't shine. 

But first, he needed to pick Claire's brain and find out in her own words, what she thought about living with him. She'd looked dubious the other day when he'd given her the key to his apartment.

She shifted on his lap, her arms still around his neck and her beautiful amber eyes taking in his expression. He felt her shiver despite the stifling warmth in the room and knew she was trying to put on a brave act. "Well, aren't you going to say anything?" she whispered, her lips ghosting over his.

He leaned in and captured her mouth for a brief kiss. And when he drew away, he held her eyes craving for that connection that made him whole. He wanted her to see all of him, the way he was seeing her. "I'm glad ye want to come to London with me, Sassenach. It would be good to stay away for a few days ...just us. There'd be nae work and nae one to bother us. We could stay at my place if ye wish. Perhaps once yer temp job is over?"

Claire pulled away, confusion marring her face. He tamped down the urge to chuckle. "A-a few days, but aren't we ...I don't get it ... Y-you have a place in London?"

He nipped her bottom lip, and she squeaked. He loved the little noises she made especially the ones when he took her by surprise. He couldn't wait to be in their hotel room and listen to the other sounds she'd make when he finally got her naked in bed. Smiling, he cupped the back of her neck, his thumb caressing the soft skin beneath. "Aye, I have a wee terraced house in Chelsea. One of the first thing I bought when I first started out in rugby. I thought it'd be an excellent investment, but I'd never got around to renting it out because I use it whenever I'm in London. More privacy when ye have yer own place, ye ken. But I have two other flats which I'm renting out. One in Knightsbridge and one in Mayfair."

"T-terraced house?? In Chelsea?" she stammered. "A single bedroom flat in Chelsea cost almost a million. And flats in Knightsbridge and Mayfair too?"

He shrugged, fascinated by the wisps of hair that had escaped from her perfectly styled up-do, his index finger unconsciously weaving in one of the loose curls. "It didnae cost as much back then. I bought the one in Chelsea six years ago after my ma advised me to invest in properties instead of leaving my money sitting in the bank. She reckoned London was a good bet to buy since the prices of the properties there are rarely affected by house market slump; hence, I could still sell it for profit even if there's a recession. I bought the other two with the money from endorsements. I'm glad I did now. A career in professional sport tends to be fairly short."

"Jamie!" she exclaimed, looking suddenly exasperated. "I'm happy you'd made some smart investment, but haven't you heard what I just said? I'm coming to London to live with you. Wasn't that what you wanted?"

He tucked a curl behind her ear. "I heard ye just fine, Sassenach. And I ..."

The door to the conference room suddenly opened, and Forbes strode in, not bothering to hide his annoyance at seeing them both wrapped in each other's arms. "Are you both mad? Anyone of the staff could have walked in here, seen you and all our hard PR work would have been for nought."

Claire jumped up to her feet and glared at Forbes. Mischievous thoughts overtook Jamie and wondered if there had been a vase in the room, would Claire have thrown it at Forbes? She had such a perfect aim last time she launched one at Frank. He would have loved to see a repeat performance.

"Well?" Jamie said, remaining seated and ignoring Forbes' diatribe as he tugged Claire's hand. "What did Dunsany say?"

Forbes impatiently took a sit opposite Jamie and clasped his hands over the table, warily eyeing Claire before shifting his focus on Jamie. "Okay, here is the deal and an excellent one at that - one that you can't refuse." Pleased with himself, he gave Jamie a smug smile. "Against all the odds, Dunsany still wants you on board, and he's adding an extra half-million to your contract. Conditions remain the same. And he says, he hopes the extra five hundred grand will ease the pain of the inconvenience. So what do you think? Ready to sign the contract?"

Jamie's face remained impassive as Claire pulled her hand away from his and walked to the nearest window. He purposely furrowed his brows at Forbes. "Umm ... Let me think about this for a second." Then clearing his throat, he leaned forward onto the table. "No."

Ignoring Claire's sharp intake of breath, Jamie watched his agent's face go from white as a sheet to beet red in a matter of a few seconds.

"No?" Forbes sputtered.

"Aye. I said no," Jamie replied firmly, feeling Claire's eyes boring into the back of his neck.

"Are you raving mad?" Forbes hissed. "Dunsany just offered you one and a half fucking million pounds. Am I missing something here?"

Jamie shrugged. "Seems like it. I showed interest in this job before the money came into the picture. As I recall, the job description was a sports commentator and analyst and weekend host for sports review. Now ... if I'd known right from the beginning, the job entailed parading myself as Geneva's boyfriend, I wouldnae have bothered. I told ye already on the phone, and I told ye out there, I wasnae interested. But ye were a persistent bugger. So much so, ...hats up to ye ...ye manage to play on Dunsany's desperation and increase the money for the contract." Jamie shook his head and let out a low laugh. "Ye have the power of persuasion, I must give ye that. And that's a special kind of talent. But for the love of God, Forbes, use it for something good. And if I were ye, I wouldnae touch Dunsany. Ye'll end up doing his dirty work."

"Fuck you, Fraser, you sanctimonious smug shit!" Forbes seethed. He gave Claire a dirty look. "Just 'cause ye're with that bird now, you think that makes you a better person? Will listen to me pal ... here's the news. You and I are the same. That's why we worked well together and made loads of money. Without me, you're nothing. In a month, you'll tire of her, and you'll drop her like a hot potato, just like with the other women in your life. You're never meant to be tied down, so don't kid yourself. A leopard never changes its spots." And then Forbes looked at Claire. "No offence love. I can see in your eyes you know deep down I'm speaking the truth."

Jamie tensed as he heard Claire gasped. He dared not look into her eyes, frightened of what he might see in them. He loved her so much and wished she didn't have to see the ugliness that had become him. "Ye're fired, Forbes," Jamie said in a low warning voice. "Now get the fuck out of here before I give you a reason to sue me for grievous bodily harm."

Forbes' mouth opened and shut like he was about to say something but changed his mind. Instead of speaking, he gave each of them one final glare before stalking out. Jamie hadn't realised he was trembling with rage until he felt Claire put her arms around him.

He turned to her and took her face in his hands. "Sassenach, I'm so sorry ye had to see that ...I -I dinnae want to be part of this circus show anymore. This isn't how I envisioned working for a sport's network ..."

She ran her hands over his chest. "And I'm sorry you're not going to have the job you wanted so much."

"But I'll have you ...weel, that's if ye'll still have me." He lowered his head and held his breath in anticipation of her reply, hoping Forbes' words hadn't changed her mind about him. He couldn't even count how many photos had been taken of him with some actress or model, and he was quite sure Claire had seen them all, even the ones where his tongue had been down their throats. He almost winced at the thought as shame gnawed into his guts.

"You have me, Jamie," she whispered, looking into his eyes with her heart wide open, pulling him in deeper. In as much as their relationship had started as a charade, he didn't know what he would have done if she'd decided she didn't want him anymore after Forbes reminded them of his old ways. He would have probably gone on his knees and begged.

When she stood on her tiptoes, he didn't wait for a second longer and kissed her. There was just the two of them, standing in the middle of the room in each other's arms, the glamourous event outside the furthest thing from his mind. She tilted her head, and his tongue slid deeper into her mouth. He'd told her already he loved her. But it wasn't enough. He wanted what they have now for keeps. 

Burning with the need to consume her, he gripped her waist and leaned his body over hers, forcing her to arch her back, and kissed her more desperately. He put everything he'd started to feel for her in those past few weeks into the kiss and gave it back to her. If they hadn't been clinging to each other, the way his world was spinning, the whole emotion of it all would have brought him down to his knees. She was giving him something he was desperate to have from her and only her, even though he hadn't realised he needed it, until now. His heart was ready to be hers if she wanted to take it for herself and keep it for an eternity.

When they finally drew apart for air, he stroked her cheek. "In all ways that matter, Sassenach, I want ye to know ye're my first," he said hoarsely, placing her hand over his heart. "And I want ye to be my last."

She pulled gently away, looking at him with that glazed look every time he kissed her and a little bit of surprise in her eyes. "And you were my first, Jamie."

He grinned, his heart feeling a lot lighter than he did when they first arrived. "While my brain is still functioning from that mind-blowing kiss, let's get out of here before I take ye here and now. We'll leave after I've done my duty presenting the award. We dinnae have to stay for dinner. Unless of course ..."

"I vote for having dinner in bed," she murmured in a soft voice, her eyes dancing mischievously.

He laughed out loud. "Good. Let's get this done and over with. I'm famished."

..........

"Are you nervous?" Claire asked him, looking down at the pamphlet on her lap. "You're up soon."

"I'm fine," Jamie replied, squeezing her hand. "I'm so glad ye're here."

"Where else would I be?" She leaned over to kiss his cheek and then wiped away the lipstick she'd left behind. "Did you write down your speech or are you just winging it?"

He turned her way and grinned. "No. I've not prepared anything. Talking about sports come naturally to me. I'll just say whatever comes to my head and I'll speak from the heart." Her distraction seemed to be working as his index finger stopped tapping nervously on his thigh.

"Uh-oh! Speak from the heart, you say? Should I be worried?" She glanced a few seats away from them and saw Geneva Dunsany curiously looking at them. And next to her was her father, William, staring straight ahead and looking rigid in his seat. He hadn't said a word when Jamie had greeted him earlier.

"No, nought to be worried about." His fingers played with hers. "I received a message from Jen earlier. She said the whole of Broch Mordha is watching us on TV." He leaned in closer and smiled. "The people from the village can't wait to meet ye. They think ye look like a movie star. And I'm inclined to agree."

She smiled at him and refocused her attention to the host, John Quincy Myers. He'd just finished telling a funny anecdote about rugby players during a friendly game between the Scottish and Welsh National team and was waiting for the audience to wind down from their enthusiastic response.

Once the audience had quietened down, John Quincy Myers proceeded and made eye contact with Jamie. "And speaking of rugby, we have a special guest to present one of the most important awards tonight. He is not just another pretty face, but also Scotland's national treasure and all-time sporting great." A few whistles went through the crowd. "Well known for his intense work ethic and dynamic physical style of play, he was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame twice, the youngest to ever captain the National team and hold the record for most international points in Scotland. In the Six Nations Tournament, he was named Player of the Tournament three years in the row and has the record for most tries scored by any centre. Here to present the Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports 2017, please welcome James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser."

The audience erupted in applause, and Jamie's picture from his early days in rugby started rolling in on the screen. Even though he wasn't receiving an award, Claire knew this was BBC's way of honouring Jamie's contribution to British sports.

"Jamie! You have to go up there," Claire laughed, nudging him with her hand and beaming at him.

He grinned and gave her a kiss before jogging up to the stage. She ignored the camera zooming in on her and centred her attention solely on Jamie.

He waited a long while before he could utter a word as the crowd continued to applaud and cheer him. He tapped on the microphone before he spoke. "Good evening, everyone!" 

The crowd whistled and hooted, but he raised his hand. It was quite apparent he was admired and respected despite what the articles had written about him in the tabloid papers.

"Thank you, BBC, for hosting this event," Jamie began. "And thank you for granting me this privilege to present this special award. It is an honour to be in a room full of dedicated and talented sportsmen and women, and to speak before the national audience." He turned to look at the host, who'd stepped aside to his left. "Hiya, Quincy, ol' mate, long time no see."

The host and the audience laughed.

Jamie cleared his throat. "Sports may often be deemed nothing more than a silly game, but they've played a significant role in our society. Being involved in sports isn't just about winning or training to become the next world record holder. It's so much bigger than that. It's about being a role model; it's about being professional, relatable and inspiring."

He held up the envelope in his hand, opened it and smiled. "And I am very excited to be the one to announce the Lifetime Achievement Award. As most of ye know, I was forced to prematurely retire from rugby, and I thought back then it was all over for me. The title Lifetime Achievement Award just reminded me that a career in sport doesn't mean I have to be a professional player to inspire. There are other avenues and ways to motivate people to be the very best of themselves and be a role model and still build a legacy for the sports that I love."

"The winner of this award is England's pride who specialised in multi-eventing disciplines in track and field. This person is a 2012 Olympic champion, a three-time world champion and a European champion. Today this person continues to inspire us through their new career as a sport's spokesperson for BBC and run their own health and fitness app. And to add to that, this dedicated person is a columnist for The Times newspaper, an ambassador for the Jaguar Academy of Sport and a patron of both the Sheffield Children's Hospital charity and Barrie Wells' sports foundation. Without further ado, may I present to ye the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, the beautiful and talented Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill."

There was another deafening applause as Claire watched Jamie hugged and hand the award to the former athlete on stage. She was so proud of him, for the man he'd become and for the man he would one day be. And in her eyes, he'd won every freaking award that night. He spoke well, was concise and didn't ramble like most of his peers. He was right about being a natural when it came to talking about sports. UKSC had just missed an opportunity in the form of Jamie. Instead of seeing him for his talents, they had wanted to exploit him for their own gain. After Jamie returned to his seat, he gave her another kiss. "How did I do?"

"You were fabulous," she beamed, straightening his bowtie. "It was a perfect speech, and it packed a punch."

He took her hand and brought it up to his lips as he caught the camera zooming in on them again. "How about during the interval, we slip out of here?" He gave her one of his mysterious winks. "I remember ye saying something about dinner in bed."

Claire giggled and nodded in agreement.

Twenty minutes later, during the music interval, they slipped out and headed for their hotel.

..........

Jamie shoved their hotel room door open so hard, Claire thought it would slam into the wall. But Jamie didn't seem to care. He walked her backwards and kissed her again, her hands gripping him by his tux jacket, so she didn't fall. 

As soon as they were inside their room, he kicked the door closed and pressed her back against it. She was giddy and breathless, by his desperation, as well as her own. She wanted to gather time around them and live in these long moments of him pulling at her clothes. She loved how feral he became when he roughly tugged and unzipped until his fingers were able to push into places that made her squirm.

"Oh, Christ ...Jamie..." By now, he knew every single secret her of her body and each sweet spot and erogenous zone. He made all of them scream for his touch.

She moaned as the tension inside of her spun out of control. She impatiently tugged at Jamie's tux, his shirt, his pants. And he joined her, desperate to get their clothes out of the way.

"I love ye," he groaned, between short breaths. "By tomorrow, everyone will know ye're mine." He yanked down her panties, then his pants and boxers. "I need to show everyone ye're mine. And I'm yers."

He pressed her back into the wall and pulled a leg up to his hip. When he bent his knees and pushed inside her, everything she was feeling suddenly became too much. She clung unto his shoulders as his hot desperate kisses smothered her moans.

"Christ, Sassenach. All I could think of all night was this."

He moved in and out in slow, strong strokes, every thrust pulling her tighter. For the longest time, she hovered, impossibly high, just stretching and tightening, and squeezing her eyes shut as she fought to get enough breath.

"Ye ken ye ruined me the first time we made love, aye?" Jamie muttered, increasing his pace. "Look at me."

She couldn't. She was so close, and she wanted to hold on to that moment. 

"Sassenach, look at me."

With effort, she raised her head away from the wall and looked at him. His face, beautiful, flushed and glorious.

"Look at what ye do to me." He clenched his jaw as if he was trying to show her how she affected him. "Ye're everything to me, ye understand?"

He kissed her again, then he moved so fast and hard she couldn't hold off any longer. She screamed as the coiled tension snapped, and an intense orgasm crashed through her.

"Ah, fuuuck," Jamie muttered. He grunted, thrusting a few more times, his hands gripping her hips. Then he froze and groaned against the hot skin of her neck.

They stood there for a few minutes until their breaths evened out. When they could move again, they untangled themselves from their mess of half-removed clothing.

"Are ye hungry?" he asked, pressing soft kisses against her lips and neck. 

She ran her fingers through his hair, enjoying his warmth and closeness. "Famished."

"I'll order room service then."

She headed to the bathroom and cleaned herself. After a quick shower, she slipped into the bed. Jamie was not far behind after he ordered a light dinner and a bottle of champagne. He gathered her up in his arms and settled them under the covers while they waited for their room service. She felt his hands slid up and down her arms. 

Not too long after, she began to drift off to sleep, totally spent from the day's event.

..........

The next morning she woke up to the sound of her phone ringing and found Jamie's arms wrapped around her waist and his leg over her. She tried to ease herself away from him, but his arms tightened.

"No," he muttered, his voice clouded with sleep.

"Jamie, I need to answer the phone. It could be my uncle," she reasoned, squirming from his hold. It took a few seconds before he released her, turning on his back to display his glorious nakedness and his morning erection.  Ah, sweet mother of Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!

"Hurry back," he mumbled.

Oh, I will, don't you worry about that!  She quickly got out of bed and searched for her phone. It was on the table by the window next to their untouched dinner and unopened champagne they'd ordered last night. 

Damn!

Looking at her phone screen, she noticed it was Geillis. She swiped to take the call.

"This better be good," Claire whispered impatiently.

"Good morning to ye too, sunshine!" Geillis announced, cheerily. "Have ye seen the news?"

"Wot?"  Oh dear God!

"Ach, never mind ...obviously not. Ye're probably too busy since last night, shagging Jamie. I'll send ye two links in a text message. I willnae tell ye what it's about as I dinnae want to spoil the fun. Happy reading!"

Before Claire could answer, Geillis was already gone.  Bloody hell!   Before she could cuss some more, she received a notification from Geillis' text message.

Claire clicked on the first link Geillis sent and read the page where it took her to.

 

 

SCOTLAND'S RUGBY ROMEO JAMES FRASER BRINGS RANDALL'S RUNAWAY BRIDE TO BRITISH SPORTS AWARD 

Just months ago, Scotland's former rugby star, James Fraser, 29 shocked his fans when he was rumoured to be suffering from depression. His injury from the previous year and early retirement from rugby had led to various personal problems, most notably alcoholism. While the rumours were never confirmed by his representative, some anonymous sources have verified the talks had all been true. 

However, in these photos from last night's British Sports Award, Fraser seemed to be a picture of health and happiness with his date and rumoured new girlfriend, Dr Claire Beauchamp, 28, the runaway bride of Edinburgh's Chief Consultant Dr Frank Randall. 

Although known for being notoriously private about his personal life, Fraser was openly affectionate with the English beauty in his arm. He seemed completely smitten with her, leaving a trail of broken hearts and angry responses among his female fans.

Beauchamp, who was previously engaged to Dr Frank Randall, refused to be interviewed but held hands with the handsome Scot throughout the evening.

Fraser and Beauchamp first sparked romance rumours a few weeks ago when a picture of them holding hands in a restaurant in Cullen, Scotland started to circulate in the social media. But the photo had been too grainy to be confirmed.

Friday night's display at the British Sports Award comes as a shock to many as Fraser has never been known to be in a serious relationship before, but was often linked to beautiful actresses and models, dubbing him as the Romeo of the sport's world. Witnesses claimed this could be the end of Fraser's bad-boy image, as more photos of them gazing lovingly at one another circulate the internet.

 

Claire shrugged and clicked on the second link. And when she saw the headline as soon as the page opened up, she gasped. 

Oh, holy sweet bloody bleeding pickles! 

"Jamie!! Wake up!"

 

 

 

JAMES FRASER DISAPPEARED WITH RUMOURED GIRLFRIEND BEFORE HE WAS ANNOUNCED BBC SPORTS PERSONALITY OF THE DECADE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"Jamie! Wake up!"

Jamie jolted awake, his sleepy eyes colliding with hers. Momentarily confuse and bewildered, his brows knitted together, probably taking in her morning wild hair appearance. She wouldn't be surprised if she'd shocked him into a heart attack. It wasn't her best look, as Frank had often enough pointed out in the past, but she didn't care. Claire cared more about telling Jamie about the award he'd missed. Surely, he should've known he had been nominated for the award. How could this have happened? His moment of glory gone because they've decided to leave the awards early last night.

Jamie adjusted his focus, and as he gradually lowered his eyes to her naked breasts, a slow, slumberous smile began to spread across his handsome face. He looked so soft and boyish in the morning sunlight streaming in from the window, making his eyes almost translucent.  Damn!  Her heart skipped a beat, and her mouth went dry, already forgetting what she wanted to tell him. His hair, wild and unruly, was lazily mussed and intertwined into beautiful coppery chaos reminding her of burnt orange sunset over Cullen Bay. Before she could utter a word, he suddenly yanked her against him.

"Jamie ..." she protested, her voice sounding whiney to her ears. She barely had time to register what he was about to do next when she was suddenly pushed onto her back and her wrists pinned above her head. He settled between her legs, making her aware of their nakedness and his impressive erection. "Jamie, we don't have time for this. We need to ..."

"Good morning," he whispered, bracing himself on his elbows and nudging his nose onto hers.

She twisted in his hold. "Good morning to you too, but let me up first and let me get my phone. I have to show you something."

"No!"

"Jamie!"

"Sassenach," he said, in a warning tone. "This is not up for discussion, especially at this time of the morning. I've been looking forward to this weekend, and we have naewhere to go to. I'm no' letting ye out of this bed anytime soon. Ye can either get on board with that, or I'm going to have to subdue ye. Understood?"

"Jamie ...you don't understand. The news ...I was just reading ..."

"I dinnae care about the news." He lowered his face, his lips brushing hers. "I ken already we'd be on the papers after last night. Ye shouldnae be reading it. I'm already expecting a lot of speculations from those reporters because they didnae get an interview from us."

Jamie's phone rang from the bedside table.

"You better get that. It's probably about the award you ..."

Ignoring his phone, he growled and shoved his face into her neck, and she wriggled and laughed as he nipped and bit at the sensitive skin. When she continued to struggle, he laid his full weight against her to keep her still.

"Yield," he ordered into her ears.

"Never in your life!" She tried to buck him off, but it was an impossibility. With all those hard muscles and his height, he weighed a ton. She huffed in defeat and went still. "Fine. You win."

"Good lass." He gave her a self-satisfied smile before rolling off and pulling her back into the cage of his arms. One hand slid down her back and slapped her bum. "On a related note, how suspicious do ye think everyone would be if we both turn off our phones, sneak out of Glasgow and fly to Paris?"

She smiled. "Very. But it might be worth it to avoid all the questions that are about to come your way. But imagine all the speculations you'll stir if we go missing, not to mention how worried your family or my uncle would be."

He closed his eyes and held her tighter. "Och aye? What speculation do ye think the reporters will come up with this time?"

She lightly ran a finger over his shoulder and watched in fascination as goosebumps appeared on his skin. "They'll probably think we've eloped," she whispered. Realising what she just said, her eyes widened.  Oh, fiddlesticks!  Claire hadn't meant to say that, but it just came out of the blue. With Frank, she always had to be careful what came out of her mouth, but with Jamie, it was so easy to speak her mind.

He cracked one eye open and grinned. "Now there's a thought." 

She'd half expected Jamie to jump out of bed, after that comment she made, but surprise, surprise, he didn't. "It was a joke!" she grumbled, annoyed with her slip-up.

"Jokes often have hidden meaning."

"Not this one!"

"How come ye're blushing then?"

"It's warm, and you won't let me go!"

Jamie chuckled. "Ye want to marry me," he teased.

"No, I don't!"

He arched an eyebrow, his lips twitching in amusement. "Ye don't?"

"Nope!"

"Ye'd be the first then."

Arrogant bastard!  She slapped his arm and tried to wriggle out of his hold once more. "Jamie, enough of this silliness and let me up. You have to read the news. You're never going to believe this ..."

He looked down at her and seized her chin. "Stubborn woman, what shall I do about ye, huh?" he murmured, against her lips. When she continued to struggle, he lowered his head and kissed her softly, deep and languorous until she softened in his arms and the world fell away. When they finally drew apart, she was breathless, and he was smiling. "So ...now that I've had my morning kiss ..." he whispered, in between teasing her with his lips and tongue, "...what is it ye so badly want to tell me? Mind, whatever the press wrote, I wouldnae be surprised. Nothing shocks me anymore with those lot."

Claire took a deep breath and put a hand on his chest to stop him from distracting her any further. "You won an award last night, and we left before they could present it to you," she blurted out really fast, in case he interrupted her again mid-sentence.

He frowned and went quiet. 

"Jamie?" She palmed his cheeks, relishing the feel of his stubbles against her hand.

He sighed, flopping onto his back and pulling her into him. "That's impossible, Sassenach. There were only eight awards. By the time we left, seven had been already announced, and the final award couldnae have been for me. I havenae played rugby for over a year. There must have been some kind of mistake or misunderstanding. That Quincy bloke did go over the top when he called me up on stage to present the award like I was the one receiving it."

She grinned. "You really have no idea how special you are. There were two more awards announced after we left. And the very last one was for you. And it was Prince Harry who announced and presented it." Before he could tighten his hold on her, she scrambled away and grabbed her phone from the foot of the bed. She swiped the screen and opened the link Geillis had sent her. "Here, read this."

Sitting up and leaning back against the headboard, Jamie took the phone from her hand and read the headline. Claire watched the confusion unfold on his face. "B-but there's nae such award ..." he muttered.

Claire snuggled closer to his side and looked at the screen of her phone with him. "Ssshh! Just read it!"

 

 

 

JAMES FRASER DISAPPEARED WITH RUMOURED GIRLFRIEND BEFORE HE WAS ANNOUNCED BBC SPORTS PERSONALITY OF THE DECADE

 

Scotland's former rugby union star and captain, James Fraser rode a wave of public support to become the BBC's Sports Personality of the Decade, the first award of its kind to be presented by BBC.

Fraser has been shortlisted several times for BBC Sports Personality of the Year since the beginning of his career and came second of the public vote two years in a row before he was forced into retirement due to a sporting injury. When it was announced in the press Fraser was bowing out of rugby union, his fans united behind the sports star by garnering more than 70,000 signed petition sent to BBC requesting to acknowledge his dedication and contribution to sports.

The petitions didn't only come from fans but from various sports foundations supporting youth around the UK and social media platforms with the popular hashtag #scrumitlikefraser. It was only recently reported that Fraser, over the years, often donated a considerable amount of money and offered his time to give a speech of encouragement to underprivileged youths without any press coverage. Fraser's charitable works were never made public as he'd requested in return for his time and money, reports of his activities on social media were to be prohibited, essentially not wanting to draw news outlets' attention to himself.

A spokesperson for the BBC revealed, the 29-year-old received endorsements from several big names in sports who knew about his aid work despite him not having played rugby for over a year. Jonny Wilkinson, a former English rugby union player and a 2003 winner of the BBC award, amongst others on social media, helped to rally the vote and the fans' petition, surpassing the public vote on Mo Farrah, this year's BBC Sport's Personality of the Year winner.

After Prince Harry gave a passionate motivational speech to end the evening's sports event, he surprised the audience by revealing the new category to the award and announcing Fraser as the winner. Unfortunately, the former rugby union star had already left after presenting an award himself earlier that evening. Realising Fraser wasn't there to claim his trophy, the young prince grinned for the camera, and gave his parting words, "James Fraser, wherever you are, congratulations, and I hope you're enjoying your win."

 

Jamie dropped her phone on the mattress after he was done reading the news article and let out a long whistle.

"Well?" Claire breathed. "What do you have to say about that?"

He gave her a lopsided smile as he settled her at the crook of his arm. "Weel, upside to leaving early, I didnae have to do tedious interviews. Might as well, as the reporters would have been more interested in asking who ye are than about my win."

"That's probably true. But what I was trying to point out was, you have real fans out there who admire you for your achievements in sports and charity, and they're the ones who pushed BBC to recognise that. Those fans knew the real you. I had no idea you were helping some sports foundation. I bet the news outlets hadn't a clue as well. They're more intent on digging stories about your private life than concentrating on your contribution to society."

He stroked her hair. "It doesnae matter, Sassenach. That's the nature of being a public figure. I will release a statement later on Twitter thanking the fans and BBC, but I will not be doing any interviews. I will no' have much to say to the press anyway, other than what I will write on social media."

She slid her arm across his waist and laid her head on his chest. "You're amazing, you know that? That's why I love you."

As soon as she said those words, he tipped her chin, his face a moving range of emotions. "A lot of people say that to me every day - people who don't even know me. But ye ... ye're the one person I crave to hear it from. I wouldnae mind if ye say it more often." He cupped her face and stared into her eyes. "I used to think that I'm no' meant for a relationship like Jen and Ian or my ma and da. But I have a feeling that fate brought us together. Because of all the people who had to be there as ye were trying to jump out of the church window on yer wedding day, it had to be me. I sort of knew it already that day ye kissed me in Lallybroch, but ye were too bloody stubborn to recognise it, and ye had to run away. But I'm glad I found ye again."

He kissed her and pushed her onto her back, covering her body with his. When Jamie was like this, it was almost too hard to handle. There were so much strength and vulnerability wrapped around his sweet heart, she wanted to weep.

"You do say the sweetest things, Mr Fraser," she whispered, feeling breathless. "Keep it up, and I'll never be able to resist you."

"Mmmm ..." He dragged his lips along her jawline and pressed his erection between her legs. "So does that mean if I asked ye to live with me when we get back to Edinburgh, ye'll say yes?"

She laughed, lifting her hips and urging him forward. "How about we start off with sleep-overs at each other's places and take it from there?"

"Sounds fair," Jamie replied, his voice sounding tight. He let out a quiet moan as he slid inside her before going still. "Does that mean I get a key to yer wee cottage too? It does need a lot of repairs, like yer wonky curtain rail and a missing hinge in yer kitchen cupboard."

He began to move, slow and restrained, and she breathed in time with his thrusts. "A-an excellent deal ...a key for repairing bits and bobs around the house. I definitely can't turn that down."

He leaned in to kiss her. "And I can cook too." He closed his eyes and muttered a curse when she grabbed his buttocks and pressed him deeper against her. "And make mean pasta sauce ..."

"And you talk too much." She gripped his hair and pulled him for another kiss to shut him up. They made long, sweet love all morning. It was one of those moments where everything else other than him retreated into the background, and he came into perfect focus - beautiful, hopeful Jamie. Even though she knew they have to sort through a few messes along the way to make their relationship work, she was convinced more than ever Jamie was here for the long haul.

..........

The following weekend, they all piled out of two taxis and stood outside Lulu Nightclub at George Street. They as in, all the Fraser siblings, Ian, Geillis and a handful of Joe's friends from work. They've just had a lovely dinner celebrating Joe's birthday at Bodega, a laidback Mexican restaurant in the busy port district of Edinburgh, Leith. With the night still young and Margaritas humming in their veins, they all decided to extend Joe's birthday celebration at a club.

There was already a throng of people waiting to get in by the time they arrived at their destination. With everyone in their own party loud and buzzing with excitement, it didn't take long before they caught the attention of a handful of clubbers and Jamie was recognised. Despite the unwanted attention, being a minor celebrity also came with handy perks.

The moment the bouncer saw Jamie, they were all quickly ushered in before they could be swarmed. It may have been unfair to those who had been waiting in the queue, but chaos was instantly prevented.

Taking Claire's hand in his, Jamie put his other hand at the small of her back and guided her through the club, the rest of the group not far behind. They were approached by a smiling beautiful blonde who ignored her and had eyes only for Jamie. By now, Claire was used to it.

"Good evening, Mr Fraser. What a surprise! My name is Morag, and I'm here to take care of yer needs," the blonde cooed, fluttering her eyelashes seductively. It seemed the security had been quick to alert the staff of their arrival and blondie looked thrilled to be assigned as their hostess.

Claire tamped down the urge to roll her eyes as Morag continued to openly flirt. As if reading her mind, Jamie curled his arm around her waist and pulled her in. "We're a party of twelve. If we can have a private room or an area with some privacy, that would be grand," he replied.

Giving Claire a dismissive glance, Morag kept the smile plastered on her face. "Very well, if ye can all follow me, this way please," she said before turning to lead the way.

Although the flashing lights were distracting, Claire noticed the gold velvets, cut glass lighting and state of the art, backlit wall. In as much as she appreciated the decor, she wasn't used to nightclubs and had always favoured pubs to over-priced establishments. R&B music blasted through the speakers, as gyrating bodies jammed the dancefloor and staff shimmied in and out of the crowd.

By the time they all made it to their private room, she relaxed a bit and sat at one of the high tables, while the rest of the group plonked down at the plush sofas. She was surprised it wasn't cut off from the rest of the club. There was a glass wall that gave you a perfect view of the dancefloor. She wondered if people from the outside could see them.

"There is a bouncer right outside, and ye'll have yer own bartender to prepare ye whatever you want from the bar," Morag explained. "The champagne we've placed on the table is on the house. If there is anything else ye need, just ask the bar staff or ask for me."

Jamie thanked Morag and turned his attention to her, wrapping his arms around her waist. "Happy?" he murmured next to her ear. She turned her head and felt his lips tipped up into a smile against her neck. 

"I'm happy when I'm with you," she replied, feeling the music working its way into her bloodstream. "But this place is so posh. The drinks must cost an arm and a leg."

He pulled her against him, resting her head on his chest as she watched the dancers on the dancefloor. "It's a one-off, Sassenach. We're not only celebrating Joe's birthday, but we're also celebrating the end of yer temp job."

"And your award from last week," she added, smiling. "But I'm officially unemployed. Again!"

"About that," he started, linking their hands together and pressing kisses at the side of her neck. "I'm going to see my lawyer, Ned first thing Monday morning. There's a possibility ye could go back to the Royal Infirmary to finish yer residency."

"But Frank ..."

"I ken," he said, tightening his hold around her. "We'll see what Ned says and take it from there. There are other hospitals where ye can apply for yer residency program. All I know so far, Frank is suspended and still under investigation by the board."

"Good." She closed her eyes and tried to relax, but she couldn't help the shudder that coasted down her back. 

"I won't let anything harm ye, ye know that don't ye?" he murmured.

"I know," she sighed.

Geillis suddenly appeared in front of them, breaking their connection. "I was gonnae say, get a room, but I want my friend, Jamie. Ye've been hogging her all week."

Jamie laughed out loud. "By all means," he said, unlinking their hands and hesitantly stepping away. "As long as ye both dinnae get into too much trouble." He turned to Claire and gave her a brief kiss. "I'll be with the lads."

"I'll join you later. I feel like trying the dancefloor..." Claire trailed off as Geillis started to pull her away from Jamie and tug her out of their private party room.

"C'mon lass, let's go to the main bar. It's the only way I'll find my own Jamie," she shouted over the loud music.

Claire rolled her eyes. "Fine, but it's my treat."

"Suit yersel'," Geillis grinned. "Yer the one with a millionaire boyfriend."

Claire glanced back at their glassed private room as they walked further away to the main bar. Although it was dimmed, Jamie and the rest of the group were still visible to the outsiders. She could only hope no one would notice Jamie and that the bouncer would be enough to keep any lurkers at bay.

The main bar was crowded, but they were served swiftly enough. After getting two Dirty Martinis, they settled on the barstools and turned their attention to the dancefloor.

"We'll dance in a bit, aye?" Geillis chirped.

Claire was only half-listening as she saw a familiar figure on the other end of the bar. "Oh fuck," Claire muttered. With so many bodies moving about, she wasn't quite sure if he was with someone.

"What? What is it, hen?" Geillis craned her neck forward and tried to follow the direction of her gaze.

"Jamie's ex-agent," Claire shouted to her friend's ear.

"What? Where? That hot blond there?"

Claire nodded. "Don't go near him, Geillis. He might be easy on the eyes, but he's a rat!"

Geillis took a sip of her drink and slumped. "Ah, bloody hell! All the good looking guys are either taken, a rat or gay."

Claire waggled her eyebrows. "Willie is single," she suggested.

"Not my type," Geillis grumbled. "I like 'em dirty blonde."

"You like them dirty, period," Claire laughed, turning sideways to face Geillis so that Forbes wouldn't see her. She was about to take another sip of her drink when her phone started to vibrate in her purse. Holding up a finger to her friend, she answered her phone and began to move towards the main entrance. "Mrs Crook? Sorry, give me a sec. I'm in a club, and I'm just heading out."

Geillis followed her outside. When they finally faced each other, her friend's brows drew together, giving her a questioning look.

Claire listened to her uncle's neighbour, who she only knew as Mrs Crook. The elderly lady rambled about her uncle collapsing outside of his apartment and being taken to the hospital. 

"What? Which hospital?"

"At the Royal Infirmary, dear. Please hurry. I dinnae ken what's wrong, but he was complaining about a pain in his chest. The ambulance has whisked him away."

Claire tried not to panic, as she took huge calming breaths. "Thank you, Mrs Crook. I'll head immediately to the A&E ..." Without warning the battery on Claire's phone suddenly died.  Ah, bloody hell! Just what I needed.

Claire looked at Geillis. "I have to go. My uncle was taken to the hospital. Please tell Jamie I'm heading to the Royal Infirmary. I can't call him. My phone battery is dead."

"No fucking way ye're going alone. Frank could be there. I'm coming with ye. I'll call Joe to tell Jamie where we're going."

Claire didn't bother explaining to Geillis that Frank was suspended from work, too worried and numb to think of anything else. Uncle Lamb was her only family, and she hoped and prayed she wasn't too late.

Geillis hailed a taxi, quickly hopped right in and before long, they were heading to her former workplace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Geillis and Claire were sat in the waiting area of the A&E holding each other's hands. The doctor assured them, to their relief, that uncle Lamb had suffered only a severe case of indigestion, but they needed to do more test and find out why he'd collapsed outside his apartment. Claire surmised uncle Lamb must have thought he was having a heart attack and had decided to settle himself on the floor where he was more likely to be found. Uncle Lamb was clever and practical like that. Except of course for instances when he refused to have a mobile phone, and it frustrated the hell out of Claire whenever she couldn't reach him.

"Good ol' Lamby is going to be just fine," Geillis reassured her, squeezing her hand.

"Of course. Uncle Lamb is a tough cookie," Claire agreed, nodding. "I can almost see him fretting about all the fuss once he finds out he's only had indigestion. It's a good thing they're looking him over. He's far too stubborn to go and see a doctor or let me check him when something's not right. I worry sometimes." 

"Aye, and not to mention, he gave us a hell of a scare!" Geillis added, clucking her tongue.

"That he did, indeed." 

Geillis shook her head in amusement and checked her phone. "Still no answer from Joe. But dinnae fash lass ...he will see our message soon. He's usually always checking his Twitter account."

Meeting her eyes for the first time since they'd left the club, Claire gave her a small smile. "Thank you, Geillis."

She huffed. "For what?"

"For being such a great friend. For jumping into the taxi and coming with me without a second thought." Claire's eyes began to water, but she had a small grin on her face. "I'm sorry you're missing out on chatting up some cute guys in the club."

"Ach, ye would've done the same for me," Geillis remarked with a wave of a hand. "Jamie would be miffed though when he finds out ye're missing. But I'm pretty certain he'll understand. Lamby is yer family." Geillis gave her a dimpled smirk. "And save those tears for Jamie when he gives ye a hard time for running off just like that. He'll be out of his mind knowing ye're here at Frank's workplace."

Claire laughed nervously. "About that ...Jamie told me Frank is suspended from work and under investigation by the board. He even suggested I can probably come back and finish my residency program here." She sighed. "Jamie's lawyer is compiling a case against him so he wouldn't be able to hurt me in any way anymore. Frank will probably just end up going back to England to save face."

Geillis let out a huge breath. "I can so see Frank doing that. The board might be mostly his friends, but those hoity-toities wouldn't want to be dragged into his legal problems. Joe told me, Jamie's lawyer is a beast in court, and he'll pull all the stops to win. And ye have a solid case, and there's a picture of Frank attacking ye from those reporters who were lurking outside yer house. Frank's cronies will probably advise him to move to save himself from a full-blown scandal, especially now that they ken ye have the media's full attention because ye're with Jamie. Ye ken what Frank is like ... he's all about maintaining that clean image."

"Jesus, I wish it didn't have to come to this. I don't want Frank to lose his licence. He's too much of a brilliant doctor."

Geillis put an arm around her. "Dinnae feel sorry for him, hen. He made his own bed ...ye ken what they say. Just think of all those years Frank made ye miserable. Sometimes I wished it had been me who threw the vase at his smug face."

Claire laughed. "Enough of that talk," she gently chided. "Any news from the lads yet?" 

Geillis had left Joe several messages earlier that explained where they were and what had happened and asked him to call back before charging into the hospital. It was Joe's night, and Claire didn't want them worrying or ending their celebration. Nor did she want Jamie to leave the party abruptly when there was nothing he could do at the hospital.

Geillis shook her head. "He's no' picking up. I left him five voicemails already. I'm sure he'll get back to me when he sees it."

So they settled down in their seats, grabbed a couple of magazines left lying about and browsed while they waited.

After two hours, uncle Lamb was wheeled out, ready to be taken home. 

And after all this time, there was still no call from Jamie or Joe. So they decided to take uncle Lamb home and help him settle for the night.

..........

It was 2:00 AM, and uncle Lamb persistently refused to go to bed. After they all arrived at his apartment, much to Claire's mounting frustration, her uncle immediately went to his study to go through some paperwork. Resigned, she and Geillis sat in the kitchen drinking herbal teas, the alcohol from earlier already wearing off.

Claire's thoughts drifted to Jamie, getting more worried that Joe hadn't responded back. At first, she thought maybe Joe had lost his phone, but then Geillis had already left two messages on Jamie's number after she'd given it to her. Perhaps they're all too drunk and having too much of a great time to realise they're missing.

"Ye're staying here for the night?" Geillis asked in-between bites of shortbread cookies. "If ye are, ye willnae be able to charge yer phone."

"I'll stay here for the night, and I'll just have to do without a phone. You already sent a message to Jamie and Joe we're here with uncle Lamb. No need to chop and change and confuse them unnecessarily, especially if they had a lot to drink."

"Weel, then if ye're staying here, I better get going soon ..."

"It's late Geillis. You can stay. There's plenty of room. And I have a few clothes here you can borrow."

Geillis shook her head and smiled. "Thanks but no thanks. I like my own bed. I'll finish my tea, and then I'll go."

"Uncle Lamb makes a mean fry-up, and he's got proper coffee," Claire proffered, making a funny face at her friend.

Geillis laughed. "Aye, he does too. The breakfast is tempting, but I have a few gigs coming up for a back to back children's party, and I really need to organise that tomorrow."

"Fine, let's finish up and get you a taxi. I'm getting tired, myself."

They were just washing down their butter cookies with tea when the phone on the table began to vibrate non-stop. Thinking it could Joe or Jamie, Geillis quickly swiped the screen. 

Claire apprehensively watched her friend's face changed from eagerness to read the message to utter shock. "What? What is it? Is it Joe?"

"Holy Mother of God! My friend just messaged me. Ye're never gonnae believe this," she muttered, furiously swiping the screen. "There's a photo of ye circulating in Twitter saying ye left the club hastily because Jamie was caught cheating on ye. Someone must have recognised ye at the club, took a picture and posted it ..."

"Oh, bloody hell!" Claire bristled, raising her hand in the air in frustration. "Turn that off, Geillis. Jamie was right. I shouldn't read what's written about him online. People will always translate a photo into something that's not. Let them speculate. By the time weekend is over, Jamie's fans will be onto something else."

"B-but ..." Geillis face had turned red.

"What?!?"

Geillis handed her the phone.

Claire glanced at the grainy photo of Jamie with Morag leaning close to his ears as if she was whispering something, and she enlarged it to get a better look. She shrugged and thought nothing of it as it had been evident from the start, blondie was openly throwing herself at her boyfriend. Then she read the comments, skimming through every hashtag about Jamie.

Jamie Fraser getting cosy with a blonde who is most definitely not his girlfriend.

Already trouble in paradise for new couple Fraser/Beauchamp.

Poor Beauchamp left the club crying.

We all know how the saying goes: "A leopard can't change its spots."

And then more photos began to emerge, and what she saw next, she definitely didn't like. "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ ...I swear to God I'm going to cut off his balls and make Haggis out of it!!"

..........

"Hey, buddy, wake up!"

Joe?

Jamie tried to push through the haze and open his eyes, but the mounting pressure on his skull was like a balloon slowly being inflated under his cranium. Efforts to move, to breathe or to think, made the ache in his head ebb and flow like a cold tide and caused nausea to tumble in waves. 

He felt deft fingers pressed the pulse on the side of his neck and heard the scuffling of shoes. 

"I think we should get him to the hospital or call the emergency," an unfamiliar voice said.

"I'm a doctor. He'll be alright. Can you get him a bottle of water please?" 

Joe's calm response soothed him. Knowing he was in good hands, Jamie began to relax and tried to slip back into the depths of unconsciousness where his head didn't hurt. Joe had been his former rugby team's doctor and had mended him countless of time during sporting injuries. Without question, Joe would take care of him. 

He felt a light tap to the side of his face. "Jamie, I need you to wake up. Can you hear me?"

He forced his eyes open. "W-what? ..." he rasped, the brightness of the light above him hurting his brain.

"Alright, easy now, buddy," Joe hushed, helping him sit upright.

He squinted at Joe's worried face, and then slowly scanned his surroundings. He was half-lying on the club's sofa in the VIP room. Through the glass wall, he saw Willie and Rabbie talking to a distressed-looking Morag and the bouncer. The place was lit, the music low and all the clubbers were gone except for the staff who were busy clearing up. He jolted up, and the sudden movement brought a stabbing pain to his head.

He groaned out loud.  Christ Almighty, how much did I have to drink?

Joe took the cold bottle of water from the bartender, opened it and gave it to him. "Here, drink this first."

Nodding gratefully, Jamie took the bottle, pressed it against his temple before drinking the whole thing to the last drop. He slumped back and grimaced. He felt like he had been run over by a truck. "Where's everyone else?"

"How do you feel?" Joe asked, ignoring his question and taking the empty bottle from his hand and placing it on the nearby table.

"I feel like shit," Jamie muttered. Then he looked up when Willie and Rabbie walked into the room. They didn't look any better than he did. "Where's Claire?"

"Listen," Joe cut in before Willie or Rabbie could say anything. "How about you go to the bathroom first and splash some cold water to your face? And then we'll talk."

Jamie frowned. "Joe," he said in a low voice. "I asked where Claire is."

There was a long silence as Jamie watched his brothers and Joe gave each other a knowing look.  Why couldn't they just give me a straightforward answer for fuck sake?  Jamie began to worry as his breath got caught in his chest and knew fear for Claire's safety was rapidly gaining in on him.

"Oh for crying out loud! I asked a simple question! Where is Claire?" Jamie pressed, hoping that their behaviour had to do with Claire having had too much to drink and wanted to hide it from him. "I swear to God if I..."

"She's with Geillis!" Rabbie finally said, throwing his hands in the air like he was annoyed or something. 

The look Willie and Joe gave Rabbie didn't go unnoticed. Straightening himself up, Jamie gave them all a warning look. "And where are they?" he demanded, raising his voice a notch, even though it hurt his head to do so.

"Look before anything else," Joe began, "We have a bit of problem we need to address. I think your drink has been spiked. In fact, I'm a hundred per cent sure your drink was spiked."

What the fuck?  

"What?!? What do ye mean spiked?" he shouted, shakily pushing himself up to his feet and ignoring the sharp pain that shot through his brain. He faced Willie, who seemed to be looking at him oddly. "Where is Claire? Why isn't she here? Please tell me I didn't do anything stupid," he said in a low voice to his brother.  Please, please let Claire still be here!  But Willie's face was already telling a totally different story.

"What was the last thing ye remember?" Willie asked calmly, searching his face.

Jamie cudgelled his brain, trying to think back, but something was off. Where there should have been recollections was a blank space, like a white wall bereft of photographs.  What the hell was the last thing I remember?  He remembered entering the private room with Claire and the rest of the group. He remembered Geillis coming to take Claire away and watching them head to the main bar. He hadn't liked the looks from men that followed them, but Claire seemed oblivious and so happy. He also remembered refusing the champagne given to them by the club, opting for a bottle of water instead. And then Morag came in with someone in tow.  Fuck! That was it?  That was all he remembered, and after that was nothing.

Jamie shook his head, hoping the action would clear some of the cobwebs in his addled brain. "I remember everything up to ye giving me grief for drinking water, and Joe ordering whisky and then Morag coming in with someone behind her. But that's it. The rest is blank."

"That's it?" Willie asked, running a hand through his hair.

"Aye. The rest I cannae remember."

"Sit down," Willie ordered.

Jamie hesitated at first but did as he was told. He plopped down on the sofa and massaged his temples, steeling himself for whatever was next.

"It was Forbes that came in with that blonde hostess," Willie explained. 

Jamie's head shot up. "What? What was he doing here?"

"Shut up and listen, will ye," Willie barked. "When ye asked Forbes what he was doing here, he said he'd seen Claire and thought to go looking for ye. He apologised for his behaviour at the awards, and then ye both shook hands. And then Forbes insisted on ordering a round of drinks as a peace offering. When both of ye started to talk shop, we all got up and headed to the dance floor to meet some lassies, and Jen and Ian left." Willie looked at Joe. "Want to take it from here, mate?"

Joe nodded, taking the seat opposite Jamie and bracing his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands. "After a while out there at the main bar, I started to wonder where Geillis and Claire were. Rabbie and I looked everywhere, and we couldn't find them. We even checked the ladies' room. So I pulled out my phone and realised I had missed calls from Geillis. She left a voice message saying she and Claire had gone to the Royal Infirmary because Quentin was taken ill and that Claire's phone battery had died. Since it was an emergency and the club was crowded, they've decided not to waste time and took a taxi. They didn't know how serious the situation was, and Claire wanted to be by her uncle's side without further delay. Geillis instructed me to relay the message to you as soon as possible. Knowing you would want to know immediately, I came here at once and saw ..." He jerked a thumb towards the main bar outside and swallowed hard. "...blondie sat on your lap. It looked like you two were making out. Her hands were all over you."

"What?!?" Jamie's eyes widened in shock, and his heart began to pick up speed, hammering so hard he thought his chest would burst. He got up from the sofa and clenched and unclenched his hands, unsure what to do with them. He noticed the bartender from earlier had already slipped out of the room, and Rabbie unusually quiet, was sitting with his head bowed. "Are ye all messing with me? This better be a fucking joke!" he roared. When no one replied, he clasped his hands behind his head. "Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck! I wouldnae! I swear to God, I didnae. I wouldnae do that to Claire!" He picked up a whisky tumbler that was on the table and threw it at the glass wall, bleakly watching it smash into pieces. That's when he saw Morag being escorted out of the club by the bouncer.

"Jamie for fuck sake! We believe ye!" Rabbie finally spoke up, making Jamie spin around and look at his younger brother. "I was right behind Joe when we saw that lass in yer lap. Ye didnae look like you were doing anything except leaning back and looking daze. But she was all over ye and Forbes was gone. The look in yer face made Joe realised yer drink was spiked. Ye didnae look yersel', and ye were muttering, Sassenach. Even if ye werenae with Claire, ye wouldnae have made out at a place like this. I was about to punch the daylights out of ye, but Joe convinced me ye were acting weird. As soon as I asked the lass what the hell she was doing, she just jumped up from yer lap and left the room. Willie and I warned her already that if we found out she had something to do with spiking yer drink, she'll never work in Edinburgh again."

Jamie absorbed what his younger brother just said and let out a sigh of relief. He didn't know what he would have done if his own family and Claire's best friend accused him of cheating on his lass. "Have ye tried calling Geillis again?" he asked Joe, calmly this time, his breathing and heart rate somewhat back to normal.

Joe winced, and Jamie didn't like the look. "Yes we've tried several times, but there's no answer. And..." he added hastily as if afraid Jamie would explode all over again. "I tried Claire's phone too just in case she managed to charge it up. But no answer as well. They're at Quentin's apartment now. The last update I got, he suffered severe indigestion mistaking it for a heart attack. I'll keep calling, and maybe ...meanwhile, you can head ..."

"Tell him the rest of the story," Willie said in a solemn tone.

"What rest of the story?" Jamie glanced between the three of them.

Rabbie sucked in his breath and grimaced as Willie's face remained impassive.

Joe gave Willie and Rabbie a look of exasperation. "Fine, I'll tell him." Then he turned to Jamie. "A photo of you and blondie has already leaked out on Instagram and Twitter, and some moron with a fake account tagged you. It's only a matter of time before the news outlet gets hold of it and they ran the story of you cheating. We reckon it was Forbes who spiked your drink after catching on blondie having the hots for you and took the pictures. That man is a snake and is set to ruin you. We should have thrown him out when he came in here and ..."

Before Joe could finish his sentence, Jamie was already out the door. He needed to find Claire and sort this mess out. He didn't want to wait the following day because there was the possibility if he did, it would be too late. 

...........

Jamie rang the doorbell of Claire's uncle's apartment. He figured Claire and Geillis would still be up after reading what's been going on the social media. To his surprise, he was immediately buzzed in. By the time he reached Quentin's floor, the apartment door was open, and Claire's uncle was in the hallway waiting for him.

"Quentin, ye're alright. Thank God." Jamie had been expecting resistance, anger and probably at the least, Quentin's disapproving look. But there was none of that. He'd come prepared already bracing himself for the retribution that he expected to come his way. But there was nothing.

"Yes, yes. Just indigestion. Must have been the curry takeaway I'd eaten," Quentin dismissed with a wave of his hand. "I suppose you're here for my niece."

Jamie swallowed hard. "Aye, is she still here?"

"She's asleep already. Come in, come in, I have the kettle on for tea."

Jamie warily followed the older man inside and closed the door behind him. "Ye're not by any chance making stock at this time of the morning are ye?" he asked.

Quentin laughed. "No, don't be daft," he replied, leading the way to the kitchen. "I'm just about to crush some walnuts, and while I'm at it, ye can tell me what the hell is going on."

Jamie winced at his reply the moment he saw a handful of walnuts in a ziplock bag on the kitchen counter, all ready to be crushed with a hammer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Jamie watched Quentin pour hot water and drop a teabag each into two mugs. He felt queasy from the effects of his spiked drink, and restless and at unease waiting for Claire's uncle to say something. Anything at all. Instead, the man bloody hummed. Jamie didn't really want tea. Right now, he prefered wrath, accusation and finger-pointing instead of not knowing anything or what Claire had said. Maybe anger was good because it kept him focused and stopped the spinning sensation in his head. 

After what had happened at the club, he would have happily got into a fight with anyone. Especially with someone named Forbes. Unfortunately, he couldn't deck Quentin.  Bloody hell, why does it have to be Quentin I have to face of all nights?

Jamie took deep cleansing breaths and loosened his muscles as Quentin placed a mug of milky steaming tea in front of him and ordered him to sit. Feeling like a fifteen-year-old again, he rubbed the back of his neck and did as he was told. 

He smothered the urge to gag at the offensive looking beverage. He guessed the sick feeling in his guts had more to do with the alcohol and drug that was in his bloodstream. He was about to ask for cold water when Quentin started to speak.

"I don't like the reason you are here, but it's still good to see you, Jamie," Quentin began, walking to the other side of the counter and eyeing him over his specs. 

Jamie thought he saw a small smile playing on Quentin's lips, and wondered if it was an evil smile or the drug was causing him to hallucinate. Glancing at the hammer next to the bag of walnuts, Jamie cleared his throat. "It's also good to see ye too, Quentin and I'm glad ye're well."

Quentin nodded. "Well, I'm going to cut to the chase. Here's the thing, Jamie ...Claire is not saying much, but I know she's upset over something. She normally talks to me when something is bothering her. I presume she is upset because of something you've done. So I'll need you to be the one to tell me exactly what's going on. I want to hear it in your own words, not some speech your publicist or agent or whatever you call them prepared for you."

Jamie frowned and shifted on his stool. "No one has ever prepared my speech, and I have nothing to hide ...from ye. I'll tell ye anything ye want to know," he said truthfully. 

"Very well then ..." Quentin waved a hand.

With a slight hesitation, Jamie proceeded to tell everything that had happened at the club, from what he could remember and what Joe and his brothers had told him about Forbes and Morag. The longer he talked and explained everything, the more he revealed things about himself, including what had happened at the awards and his life before meeting Claire. Maybe the drug in his drink and the alcohol from earlier was helping him loosen his tongue. Whichever the case was, Quentin listened carefully and attentively, his face devoid of judgement and his stance relaxed like as if they were just chatting over some sport's highlights they'd seen on TV.

When Jamie was done talking, he felt depleted; nevertheless, lighter but still nauseous. There was no point omitting things he didn't like about his past when he knew Quentin was a rugby fan and had probably heard or read stories about his escapades.

Jamie hoped Quentin wouldn't think he wasn't good enough for his niece after his revelation, but then, on the other hand, even if that was the case, it wouldn't have stopped him going after Claire. In fact, he would have torn the apartment apart if anyone got in his way, including Quentin.

"It is none of my business, and I don't normally interfere with Claire's decisions and choices, but since you're in the mood for sharing, what is it exactly you want from her?" Quentin asked. "You said you've never been in a relationship before. So what is this? A trial run? To see if a relationship is your thing?"

Christ!  All he wanted to do now was go into Claire's bedroom and talked to her, but Quentin had mentioned she was asleep.  Is she alright? Is she angry or sad? Disappointed?  He might as well stay put and try to get as many details as he could.

Jamie lifted his head and looked squarely into Quentin's eyes. "I'm in love with your niece."

Quentin took the hammer from his chopping block and smashed the walnuts in the ziplocked bag. "And? Has Claire said she feels the same way?"

Jamie didn't flinch nor break eye contact. "Aye," he admitted. "She told me so hersel'." He paused, thought for a minute and then continued. "And I'm hoping that is still the case."

"I don't know, Jamie. She retreated like ..."

"I'm not Frank!"

Letting go of the hammer, Quentin sighed and crossed his arms across his chest. "Listen, son, I might as well tell you this. I like you. Truly I do. I can tell you've always spoken the truth ...right from the beginning. As for Frank, I've never liked the man." 

Jamie felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, and the urge to pump his fist in the air was strong, but he quickly tamped down the impulse. 

"He was unhealthy for Claire, and I don't think she loved him ..." Quentin paused, his brows coming down to a perceptible frown. "Well, at least not like how a person should love someone they're supposed to marry. It was probably more like she was at awe with his brilliance as a doctor. But what I think about you and Frank is neither here nor there. What I worry about is the speed your relationship is going. I see that same awe she had for Frank whenever she talks about you. Maybe because Claire's been infatuated with you ever since she'd seen you playing rugby. I guess it's fair to say she's in a happier place with you compared to when she was with Frank. But there is a slight problem. Frank has done a lot of damage to her confidence, and somewhere along the way, she's developed some trust issues. And it certainly doesn't help when there are people out there who want a piece of you, and you're some sort of celebrity."

"What are ye trying to say?" Jamie asked, confused.

Taking a piece of cloth from his pant's pocket, Quentin took off his specs and began polishing it. "What I'm trying to say is, she'll always keep running away until she's resolved those issues. I figured, with all that's happening between the two of you, she sees similarities she had with Frank ..."

"Hang on a minute ...how could ye ..."

Quentin held up his hand, and Jamie shut his mouth. "Deeds, Jamie. Deeds! You and Frank have tried to impress her to her eyeballs with your money and what it could buy. Claire is a simple girl, and she'd led a semi-nomadic life most of her life. Expensive dinners and gifts don't do it for her. And what you're doing right now ...Frank did all that in the beginning. So in her head, she's just waiting for the same pattern to repeat itself again. Your relationship hasn't even begun yet, and she's already bracing for something to go wrong."

"Christ!" Jaime rubbed his face with both hands. "So what do I do?"

"That's for you to figure out," Quentin answered, bashing the last of the walnuts. "Besides, what do I know. I've never married."

..........

Claire was woken to careful movements of someone getting into her bed. Without opening her eyes, she knew from the scent that ensnared her senses, it was Jamie. She tensed but didn't stir and tried to even out her breathing as her heart started to beat a million miles per hour.

"Yer uncle told me I can sleep on his couch tonight, but after he'd gone off to bed I sneaked into ye room," Jamie whispered, snuggling in closer till her back met his chest. "If ye're angry with me, Sassenach, please try no' to make too much noise; otherwise, yer uncle will kick me out before I get a chance to speak to ye. And to be honest, I dinnae feel very well at all." He paused for a few heartbeats. "This is kinda weird. I feel like a schoolboy slinking into yer room behind yer uncle's back, but I couldnae help it knowing ye're probably sleeping fitfully because of what happened tonight."

She didn't move nor say anything, but he continued.

"Christ, Sassenach ..." He let out a long sigh. "I dinnae ken where to begin." He slowly pulled the duvet down and slipped his hand across her waist, his hand splaying out over her stomach. "I was so worried when Joe said Geillis wouldnae answer the phone, I thought I'd go out of my mind."

A long silence ensued, and the only sound she could make out was the steady rhythm of his breathing and the movement of his throat when he swallowed.

"I'm wondering if ye can feel my touch in yer dreams ...if that's why yer heart is beating a little faster. Is yer heart still beating for me, Sassenach?"

She squeezed her eyes tighter, and her chest constricted.

"Does your heart still belong to me,  mo chridhe ?" he asked softly, his voice low and pained. 

She rolled her lips in to suppress the sound threatening to come out of her mouth, his words seducing her heart before her mind could put a stop to it. The sadness in his voice made her doubts and follow-up questions go in a thousand and one random directions, almost cancelling each other out and confusing her even more. At that moment, all she could do was hold on and feel.

"I wonder, if I kiss ye, will ye kiss me back? Or has the pain from what happened tonight, made ye love me a little less?"

His warm lips coasted along her shoulder, sending a shiver travelling down her spine, and a small gasp to escape her throat. Jamie proceeded as if he hadn't noticed her breath hitching.

"Do ye hear the things I say to ye, while ye sleep? I cannae tell ...maybe 'cos I'm drunk. I hope my words will filter through yer dreams and soothe the doubts in yer heart." He sucked in a breath as he moved closer, resting his head on top of hers. "Maybe with words, I can paint ye a life ye deserve, one where my past cannae touch ye and yer subconscious would approve of. And perhaps I can find a way to take what is broken inside of you and make it whole again so that nae matter what forces set to break us apart, we'd remain solid because we have trust." 

A single teardrop slid down her cheek.

Sighing, his fingers absentmindedly stroke her hair away from her face, and he stiffened when he felt the wet on her cheek. "I ken that my words wouldnae mean anything to ye if I didnae have yer trust. Yer trust matters, Sassenach ...it matters whether ye still want me or no' because ye matter to me. So I want ye to know, whatever happens, ye will always have me, and only ye can have me. I will be here to wrap ye in my arms when something threatens to pull you under, every time ... that's if ye will let me. Ye dinnae have to believe me now, I'm not even asking ye to, but I will prove it every day because I love you."

She opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. She couldn't even string words to form a sentence. Besides, what could she say? This buildup inside of her was so unusual, and it ached. She had no idea what kind of words it would produce, and she was still wondering how Morag ended up on his lap.

"From day one, ye've had me walking on a tight rope, and I wasnae sure if I'd ever make it to the other end or fall. The not knowing is quite scary. But the thing is ...I wouldnae want it any other way because every moment with ye is worth it. I guess this trust can be likened to developing a photograph. It needs light for the picture to be well-formed. But I can see it already in my head even if it's no' ready yet. I'm leaving the timing up to the wisdom of the ol' man up there. If we only get one shot at this, I want it to be the best, and though the waiting will pain me, I'll do whatever it takes to get you and me right."

He found her hand and linked it with hers, but the doctor in her thought his palm felt clammy and cold and concluded it must be the effect of alcohol poisoning.

"Whatever it is ye read tonight in the social media, it was inaccurate. But before I tell ye my side of the story, I'd truly appreciate it if ye dinnae run away from me again. If ye do, bear it in mind, I will always come after ye, and I will find ye. And that's a promise, Sassenach. I want ye to remember that. That being said, I will never give ye a reason to run away from me either."

More tears started to pool in her eyes, and she tried to blink them back before they could escape. But it was a futile attempt.

"I guess ye saw pictures of Morag sat on my lap. The thing is I cannae remember that part. Now ye might think I had a lot to drink after ye left the private room, but that wasnae the case." She felt his chest expand as he took a massive deep breath. "The last thing I remember from last night is kissing ye before ye left with Geillis and joining the lads on the sofa. Apparently, Morag came in with Forbes soon after. But I couldnae remember the part when Forbes came in."

Her eyes flew open.  Oh, sweet Jesus!  She'd forgotten all about Forbes and seeing him in the club. After she had that emergency call from Mrs Crook telling her that her uncle had been taken away by the ambulance, she had been so beside herself from worry that she couldn't think of anything else.  Oh my God, oh my God! Why didn't I warn Jamie as soon as I saw that wicked man?  She'd already known he was trouble, but Mrs Crook's phonecall had distracted her.

"The lads had nae idea what kind of man Forbes is. Do ye want to know how Joe found me?"

She flinched and braced herself, but instead of continuing with his story, he shifted them both so she was lying on her back and he was on his side holding her against him. She shut her eyes.

"Ye're shivering,  mo chridhe," he whispered, tightening his hold and scooting closer. He pulled the duvet over them and rubbed her arms.

When her shaking finally stopped, he let out another long sigh, his warm breath fanning her hair.

"I dinnae ken how I'm going to make ye believe me, Sassenach, but I hope ye will. Joe and my brothers found me passed out on the sofa with Morag on my lap. Joe immediately knew something was wrong 'cause I wasnae myself. Weel ...so he says. He figured my drink had been spiked and ..."

Spiked?  All of a sudden, she felt sick as the dots started to connect. "Your drink was spiked?" she echoed hoarsely. "Why the bloody hell didn't you tell me? Jesus, Jamie!

"Ye're awake!" Jamie grumbled, propping himself on his elbow.

"Of course, I am awake you dafty." She threw the covers off and scrambled out of her bed. "Get up this minute, Jamie! I'm taking you to the hospital."

"Ssssh, please, Sassenach. Dinnae shout. Ye're making the room spin, and yer uncle will hear us," he whispered loudly while attempting to get hold of her hand. When he grabbed air, he fell back onto the bed. "Ach, Christ! I think I'm gonnae throw up."

After turning the bedside lamp on, she went quickly to his side, touching his face and feeling his pulse.  Ah, damn, damn, damn it! Why didn't Joe take him to the hospital?  "Jamie! Listen to me. I need you to help me to get you to the hospital. We need to determine what drug was used to spike your drink. I have a feeling your blood pressure is very low, and I can hardly feel your pulse," she explained in her no-nonsense doctor way, pulling him up in up-right position. "And that's not very good."

"It'll ssh pass when morning comes," he muttered waving his hand. "I'll sleep it off."

This time Claire noticed the slight slurring and she knew this didn't have anything to do with alcohol anymore. "Jamie, please, my love," she begged, tugging and using all her strength to budge him out of bed. But it was beginning to prove an impossible feat with his weight.

Suddenly the door to her room opened. "You bloody git! You sneaked into my niece's room! Did you think I wouldn't notice? Get ..."

"Uncle Lamb! Please! Not now! Call the ambulance! Jamie needs medical attention!"

Quentin just stood there, confusion etching his face as his gaze went from Jamie to Claire and then back to Jamie again.

"Uncle!!" Claire shouted.

"What?! How?"

"Uncle," she said in a low warning voice. "Emergency now, questions later!"

This time, her uncle listened and quickly backed away. By the time Quentin left the room, and Claire refocused her attention to the immediate problem, Jamie was already snoring very loudly. She stroked his hair back and felt his pulse again. To her relief, this time, it was slightly stronger. 

Carefully, she turned him to his side in case he vomited and ran her hand up and down his back. "Don't worry, darling. I'll make sure Forbes pay a heavy price for this," she whispered, mentally vowing she would do just that. "And if you can hear me, rest easy, my love. I'm never leaving your side."

She sighed and got up to dress.  

Ah, bloody hell! What am I going to do with you, you sweet-talking man?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

As soon as she heard Jamie cough, Claire immediately got up from her uncomfortable hospital seat and went to his bedside. His eyes were barely open, but when he gave her a weak smile, she knew he was lucid if not still groggy. Her gaze travelled over every inch of his face and his body, making sure nothing was amiss, and she hadn't overlooked anything. He looked tired and worn out, but at least he had colour back on his cheeks.

It was late afternoon already, and she'd had nothing to eat all day. The moment they had arrived with the ambulance at the hospital sometime around five AM, she'd automatically gone into doctor mode. Even though she no longer worked at the Royal Infirmary, she'd barked orders at the nurses and junior doctors instructing them what to do. To her relief, no one had opposed her and had followed her demands and requests. 

Once Jamie had gone through all necessary tests and was settled into a private room, the senior doctor on night duty, having heard what had happened, had immediately reported the incident to the police. Not long after, two officers arrived, and Claire was briefly interviewed. She had given them a concise account of what transpired and provided them with the name of the bar they had been in and her suspects, namely Gerald Forbes and Morag. 

Satisfied she'd done everything she could do, she'd sent a text to Willie, after her calls to him had been unanswered and Geillis, explaining everything. Lastly, she'd vented on a voice message to Joe, reprimanding him with a lot of cursing and name-calling for overlooking Jamie's conditions. It wasn't a choice. It had to be done even though Joe was her best friend and had been under the influence. 

When Jamie's family started to trickle in one by one sometime late morning, she'd excused herself and snuck out. She'd taken a taxi to her cottage to retrieve her car, check on her uncle and stopped by Jamie's apartment to grab some fresh clothes and his razor. 

Looking at her watch once again, she knew she had to eat something if she wanted to remain upright for the rest of the day. Exhaustion was slowly seeping in, but she didn't want to leave Jamie's side.

"Sassenach?"

She searched his eyes. "Hey, how are you feeling?" she asked softly, brushing his hair back and leaning down to press a lingering kiss on his forehead.

He reached for her hand and kissed her palm before placing it on his chest. "I feel shite," he replied hoarsely, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I have a terrible headache, and my tummy is no' any better. But I think I'm good."

She heard the door open, and after a quick glance, she saw Geillis walking in on tiptoes. 

Geillis gestured with a wave of her hand to not mind her as she took the seat Claire vacated moments ago.

Claire reverted her attention back to Jamie. "Would you like some water?" 

He slowly shook his head, and his eyes fluttered as if the movement was too much of an exertion.

"My uncle sends his regards. He stopped by earlier," she whispered, taking her hand from his grip and stroking back his hair.

Jamie tried to frown, but even that took a lot of effort. "Is he still mad at me?"

She stifled the urge to laugh. "No one is mad at you, Jamie. We were all worried."

He lifted his hand, and gingerly touched her face. "Wee Jamie is right, ye know ..."

Huh?  She was slightly distracted by stubbles hugging his jaw. "Sorry?"

"My nephew ...wee Jamie," he explained, swallowing audibly. "He said ye're an angel. Ye do look like an angel. So ye must be one." The crinkle at the corners of his eyes deepened. "How do I get to be so lucky?"

Ah, hell!  She smiled. Even in his state, Jamie could charm the knickers off a nun. Earlier, Claire had seen how some of the younger nurses and interns sighed in awe and recognition the moment they'd seen their famous patient. It was a blessing in a way that he had fans at the hospital. With her reputation in tatters as Frank's ex-fiancee, she wondered if they would have been as helpful to her if the patient hadn't been Jamie.

His eyes darted around the room, as realisation dawned on him. "We're in the hospital. It's that bad, is it?"

"No. You were just knocked out. The doctor had to take a couple of tests to determine what drug was used to spike your drink. Sometimes urinalysis in inconclusive, so I've asked for a blood test as well, just to be sure," she disclosed. "You have nothing to worry about. Other than you looking sleepy and adorable, your vital signs are perfect."

"Have they figured out what drug was put into my drink?"

"Not yet. But the doctor has a sneaking suspicion it was Rohypnol. But you have nothing to worry about. You're in good hands."

Jamie's head bobbed, trying his best to listen to every word she was saying, but he was probably still too worn out to concentrate. Claire was about to suggest he should get some rest when he spotted Geillis. "Geillis!" he croaked. "Didn't see ye there. Ye're quiet for a change."

Grinning, Geillis got up and stepped forward. "And ye look like death warmed up. Dinna fash, yer good looks is still intact."

A small laugh came out of Jamie as Claire rolled her eyes at Geillis. "I knew I could always rely on yer honest opinion." He eyed the paper bag Geillis had in her hand. "Ye have something for me?"

Geillis put her package on Jamie's bedside table. "Aye. I got ye some Dundee cake. They're sliced already into portions. I dinnae ken if ye're allowed one now though. Maybe after ye've eaten or something later for yer supper?"

Jamie nodded. "Thank ye. But I'm no' up for anything yet ...I think. I still feel a bit off." His eyes were starting to look heavy and close on their own. "But ...aye, something for supper later ..." And then just like that, he drifted off to sleep.

Claire gave Jamie a quick kiss and signalled Geillis to meet her outside. Once they were in the hallway, Claire hugged her friend. "Thank you for coming. You didn't have to, you know. Jamie should be out by tomorrow."

Geillis waved her hand in dismissal. "Ach, it's nae bother at all. I just wanted to see if Jamie looked good in a hospital nightgown. Is it open-back by any chance?"

Claire laughed. "I haven't checked but will send you a text later and let you know."

"Mind, to send a picture as well with that text," Geillis joked, her cheeks dimpling. And then her face suddenly turned serious. "So, his former agent spiked his drink, huh? Have ye notified the police?"

"Done all that. The doctor on duty gave a statement to the police as well," she replied, stuffing her hands at the back of her jean's pocket. "I'm not sure though if that would be enough to prosecute Forbes. From what Jamie told me, he's kinda like Frank. Forbes knows people in high places." She bit her lip as she felt the business card between her fingertips. "I have a plan, though ..."

Geillis pursed her lips and eyed her suspiciously. "Uh-oh, I dinnae think I like the look on yer face. Care to share the plan?"

Claire sighed. "I know you're my best friend, but I'd rather not tell you ..." When Geillis frowned at her, she changed strategy. "Well at least, not yet. I need to go over things in my head, but you can help me with something though ..."

Geillis eyes lit up. "Anything!"

"Is your morning free tomorrow?" she asked, crossing her fingers behind her.

"Aye, but I have to be in Glasgow by two in the afternoon."

Claire let out a sigh of relief. "Oh, that's alright."

"What do ye need?"

"Can you be with Jamie here tomorrow?" Claire licked her lips nervously when Geillis frowned again. "Only until before twelve. I'm meeting some people," she explained hurriedly. "I want you to be here in case Jamie is released. His family will probably be here too, but Jamie will be asking questions about my whereabouts. So I need you to be here to reassure him ...umm ...that I won't be gone for long ..."

"Claire ..."

"Please, don't ask questions, pretty please," Claire pleaded, hoping Geillis won't back out on her. "I'll tell you all about it tomorrow. I promise."

"Ye're not doing anything stupid, are ye? Because if ye are, I want to be part of it."

Claire laughed nervously. "I'm not sure if it's stupid or not," she admitted. "But ..."

"Whatever ye're planning, is it safe? Geillis interrupted, searching her face. "That's all I need to know."

"Hundred per cent safe. I promise. And I won't be alone."

Geillis relaxed. "Fine. I'll be here tomorrow to entertain yer boyfriend. Maybe Jamie will let me know if his hospital nightgown is open-back or no'. And maybe I could extract some rugby freebies from him."

Claire laughed and hugged her friend. "Thank you, thank you. You're the best ever."

Geillis arms went around her and hugged her tight. "Just keep yer promise ye'll be safe, Claire. That's all I ask."

"I'll be safe," Claire promised.

..........

Breathe in, breathe out. Go for it, Beauchamp!

Claire nervously tugged the collar of her simple white button-down shirt, smoothed down her grey skirt, and opened the gilded double doors. Taking deep fortifying breaths, she walked to the reception counter, where a blonde woman, who looked more like a model than a secretary, took her name and told her to have a seat. Looking around the waiting area, everyone seemed to be either wearing designer clothes or the latest trend in fashion. Obviously, they were here to impress and become the next big thing. But that didn't surprise her at all as  Gerald Forbes Talent Agency was the most successful and sought after agency in Scotland. And from what she heard, Forbes personally hand-picked his own clients. Most probably trying to discern which of those that came to him would make him the most profit.

She subtly glanced down at her own attire before taking a seat, and she couldn't help but think how out of place she must look, but she didn't give a flying fig. It had been a deliberate choice of attire to wear for this meeting. She was here to confront Forbes and not to dazzle him. 

Taking in the lavish setting of her surrounding, she settled back on her seat watching staff walk in and out of offices as the ringing of phones drifted in the air. The wall behind the reception area was emblazoned with a large red logo of the company, and the foyer was dotted with comfortable leather chairs and small tables with magazines. The main desk was a chic contrasting of white and dark grey graphite tiles and boasted a variety of high-tech gadgets. Everything about this place exuded money and plenty of it, just like the clothes and perfume Forbes wore.

Claire had done her homework thoroughly, but it hadn't given her much. An extensive and time consuming online search informed her Forbes had razor-sharp business skills and never failed to deliver on his promise of success and prestige. His name was well-known in the industry where celebrities courted him to build them up and make them the best in their field. It was Forbes' job to step in, turn their career around for the better and get the best offer for their work. His record and reputation were impeccable, and he was known to possess the golden touch to raise and boost any profiles and have their talents if not nationally, internationally recognised and promoted.

He might have status and respect in this industry, but she wondered if there were others who have seen through his perfect facade and know him for the person he was.  And the million-pound question is, why does Forbes have such a keen interest in Jamie?  James Fraser was a former rugby player who no longer wanted any part in the celebrity world, other than to host or present rugby shows in a sports' network. Surely, with Forbes' reputation and his agency in demand, there were enough willing candidates who would be more than happy to make him more money. It didn't make any sense at all.  Were Jamie's endorsements all that lucrative?  One would think there were more profits to be made with his more renowned clients who were already under his wings.

"Ye may go in now, Ms Beauchamp."

Claire snapped out of her thoughts. She took a deep breath, forced a smile and grabbed her handbag. She was led down a complex maze of hallways to a modern cherrywood double door. A cold shiver abruptly raced down her spine, and she hesitated.  You can do this Beauchamp! Go and get him!  Before her bravado could desert her, she dug deep, reached for the doorknob, and marched right in. 

Forbes' office was decorated in dark woods and wine reds. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves took up the wall behind him with endless leather spines amidst odd figures of statues. The left wall had wood panelling and displayed the company's logo. His massive cherry desk took up half the room, probably its intention was to intimidate or to boast his importance. Forbes was perched on his red leather throne, studying her with an assessing air that stripped her of niceties and social barriers, somehow leaving her a bit vulnerable.

"Ah, Claire, we meet again. What do I owe the pleasure?" Forbes greeted, showing his perfect white teeth. "May I offer you coffee or tea?"

To Claire's annoyance, Forbes looked far too comfortable in his own skin, and he had that irritating smug grin plastered on his face. It was pertinent to go on the offence immediately. She decided to forget the script she'd mentally prepared for this meeting and aim straight to the point.

"Cut the bullshit, you bloody knob-head. This isn't a social visit. I know you were the one that spiked Jamie's drink and you used that girl in the club to do your dirty job," Claire accused, unable to contain the anger bubbling inside her. "You could have killed Jamie!"

He laughed. "Don't be so dramatic. He's fine."

"You fool! He'd already had alcohol before you spiked his drink. He was unwell, and he could have drowned in his own vomit. Did you ever consider that?"

Forbes didn't react, nor did he looked guilty. If anything, he seemed like he was enjoying himself watching her all riled up. "Ah, such a little spitfire you are but so, so naive," he sniggered, clasping his hands on the desk as he leaned forward. "What are you going to do? Tell the authorities? You have to prove it, darling, because I got myself and all evidence covered. And in-between I've even done a background check on you just in case you became trouble. And if you think anyone will believe you and your accusations, you have another thing coming. I've been in this business for far too long. And if you speak a peep about this, Jamie's fans will only see you as a trollop who left their fiance at the altar because you were having an affair with a former rugby star and I will make sure to back up that story with a few quick calls at the news outlets. They love stories like these, did you know that? Maybe I should give Dr Randall a call and arrange with one of the newspapers to do an all-inclusive interview."

"B-but it would be just one side of the story, and everything would be taken out of context because what Frank would say in the interview are not how things are."

Forbes gave her a smug triumph look. "It doesn't really matter how things are or what the real truth is. All that will matter is how they seem and how they are perceive by the public, and I'm a total pro at making people believe whatever the fuck I want."

Ah, bloody hell! Where is a vase when you need one?  Thank God, Forbes didn't know the extent of Ned Gowan's investigation on Frank and the evidence that was piling against him. They weren't serious criminal offences, except for his attempted attack on her but severe enough for him to lose his licence and ruin his reputation. The inquiry had been made as quiet and understated as possible. As far as the news media knew, Frank was having a vacation to heal his broken heart. Nobody, not even his work colleagues, except for the board, knew about his suspension at the Royal Infirmary. It was all done in a hush-hush out of respect for the hospital.

She really needed to reign in her temper to get Forbes talking some more about the incident in the club.

"Why, Forbes? Why are you so hell-bent in destroying Jamie? Like what you said, he's a former rugby star ..."

"I made him a star," he interrupted, raising his voice. This time, the smug grin melted away and in its place was a wicked sneer. "Do you think he'd be as rich as he is today without me? That wanker should be kneeling before me and thanking me for all the things I've done for him. And not making noises about wanting a private life. There is no private life once you sign up for my agency. Stars have no privacy."

"You didn't make him a star, you twit!" she almost spat. "Jamie was good at what he did because he worked hard. He didn't rely solely on his innate talent. Jamie grafted and trained longer and was more driven than his peers. You think he received BBC Sports Personality of the Decade because you happened to be his agent? Get a grip of yourself! He won it on his own merits. You were just someone who swooped in on him when he began to make headlines early in his career. You saw the potential to make money out of him, and you wanted a piece of the cake. And now he's a retired rugby player, you want to squeeze out every penny you can get out of him. Where does it end, Forbes, huh?"

He casually reclined back on his chair with his hands at the back of his head and placed his Italian designer shoes clad feet on the edge of his desk, crossing them at his ankle. He was studying her intensely as if trying to figure out if she was a threat to him or not. She needed to be careful what came out of her mouth if she wanted to keep him talking. 

"It's nothing personal, and it's purely business," he shrugged unaffected by her agitation. "This is my business, and I'm here to make money, and the only way I can do that is to ensure my clients get top cash and recognition. One thing you need to understand ...Jamie is a brand and all I was doing whatever's necessary to ensure he continued being valuable to me. But ever since he met you, he'd become a liability. Yeah ...yeah sure ...you lured him out of his cave and yadah - yadah, thanks to you, Jamie's whole again. But he would have done that on his own eventually. He needed time to sulk and get used to the idea of not ever playing rugby again, but I had a job with a fat contract lined up for him. Something I knew that would perk his interest. And I didn't work this hard and used valuable resources and time to get him the best deal so that he can throw that privacy card at me. It's bollocks. He knew what he was signing up for when he came to me. And now he's throwing that all away because of you? Well, no one fucks with me and gets away with it. I can end him in a blink of an eye and I will."

"Yeah ...end him by spiking his drink? What did you hope to gain by doing that?" she whispered, a sickening coldness coasting down her back.

He let out a sinister laugh. "Ah, you catch up well. I must say you're not just another pretty face. But I shouldn't be surprised. You're a doctor, and you're supposed to be the smart one." He sighed. "Yes, I spiked his drink and invited the lovestruck Morag to join us. The lovely lass was infatuated and couldn't keep her hands off him, and drunk-high Jamie thought she was you. But unfortunately for me, I underestimated you. You're a resilient one ...a resilient pain in the arse. I didn't think you'd still want to be associated with Jamie when their photo went viral. I guess love conquers all and all that bullshit."

"You ...you were the one that made that photo go viral!" she hissed.

"Of course, I did. The whole scenario was like a godsend, and I couldn't waste such an opportunity," he gloated. "And I wasn't about to let Jamie get away lightly after everything I've worked for so he could just nail a nobody like you who gives me zero promotional traction."

In all her life, she'd never wanted to physically hurt someone nor had she ever wished ill of anyone, but right now, she was itching to knee Gerald Forbes' hard on the groin. "You evil bastard! I bet it was you as well that sold the rest of the photos and video to the news outlet."

He lifted his shoulders without a hint of guilt or shame. "Someone needs to profit off the bottom-feeders, and I figured it might as well be me."

"You're the lowest of the low ..."

Forbes looked at her with feigned sympathy. "Did you really think you and Jamie would work as a couple? Answer me, honestly." The condescending tone in his voice made her blood boil. "It's true he might not need me now, but for how long? Getting his dream job would be the least of Jamie's problem after the award he received. Offers and endorsements will pour out by the bucket loads, there's no doubt about that. But picture yourself next to him in a public event. I mean, sure you're beautiful and photogenic, but at the end of the day, you're a nobody. In every single photograph, you'd be constantly cropped out, because his fans and the media don't give a fuck about you. Your fifteen-minute of fame as a runaway bride is steeped in scandal and gossip, and every time Jamie makes the headlines, your story will always be brought up, and if he hadn't fired me, it's something I could eradicate with a snap of my fingers. And without my help, all the negative publicity will eventually harm his career, and your presence won't be doing him any favours, especially if he wants to work for a family-friendly sports network. And as for you, the best you can expect is to be ignored, but most likely, you'd be hated and trolled online. And one day, he will wake up and realise his mistake, and he will blame it all on you. All the women who love The Jamie Fantasy would see you as an obstacle to their fantasy. "

Claire gasped. "And Geneva isn't an obstacle? Are you even listening to yourself?"

"No, Geneva is the fantasy despite the doping gossip surrounding her. But I'm working on it to banish the rumour. In mostly everyone's eyes, she is Britain's sport princess. And it helps too that Jamie and Geneva have a history, and the fans love the idea of them together. They would have been the  David and Victoria Beckham of rugby , rich, successful and beautiful as a couple. And you ... you'd only be the harsh reality. And let me tell you, in this industry, the fantasy is going to win out every time. The best thing you can do right now if you truly love Jamie is to talk some sense into him and make yourself scarce. Let him thrive in the world he's meant for, and you can go back to playing doctor where you're meant to be."

Bile rose to her throat. "You're unbelievable, you know that? You're willing to whitewash Geneva's wrongdoing all because you want to sell an image or save her reputation? How much did her father pay you for that?"

Forbes suddenly got up and pressed a wooden panel behind him. It noiselessly opened up, revealing a minibar. He poured himself a whisky and gestured with a wave of his hand if she wanted one. She ignored the offer.

Shrugging, he sat back down and smirked, twirling the whisky tumbler in one hand and sniffing it. "William Dunsany paid me enough to afford me a five-bedroom property in Devon," he answered finally, looking mightily pleased with himself.

"People like you are what's wrong with the world. You are part of a small group that taints sports or whatever you touch. You have no integrity and no honour. And one day you'll pay heavily for this, mark my words," she fumed. She straightened her spine and jutted her chin. "And meanwhile, if you know what's good for you, you'll stay the bloody hell away from Jamie ..."

"Or what Claire?" He gave her a menacing look, making goosebumps prickle all over her arms and behind her neck. He had the same blue eyes as Jamie but Forbes' was cold and odious. "...you'll wave your scalpel at me and shoo me away? Well, do your worse. As I said, I have everything covered, and nothing and no one can touch me. And as for Jamie, I'm not done with him yet ..."

She couldn't bear another second in his presence. Without a word, she turned around and walked out of his office, her heart hammering painfully in her chest. His repulsive laughter echoed in her ears as she navigated the intricate hallways.

Go! Go! Keep walking!  When she finally made it to the foyer, she relaxed a bit, and without glancing at the receptionist, she hurried out of the entrance. Once outside, she put on her sunglasses even though it was a cloudy day and crossed the road. Halfway, the backdoor of a white van parked at the curb opened. She looked to her left and then to her right. Satisfied no one was watching her, she quickly hopped into the back of the vehicle.

"How did I do?" she breathed, whipping off her sunglasses and tugging the wires under her shirt. "Did you get everything?"

Rupert MacKenzie and Angus Mhor, the two investigative reporters who'd been lurking outside her cottage and Jamie's apartment building weeks ago, grinned at her as they high-fived each other.

"We have everything loud and clear," Rupert laughed, rubbing his hands together.

"Och aye, Forbes will regret the day he messed with Ms Claire Beauchamp's boyfriend. This is pure gold!" Angus chortled, opening a bottle of whisky and pouring a glass for her. "Here, ye'll need this to calm yersel' down."

Claire didn't hesitate as she took the glass and downed the drink in one go. She winced as the heat burned her throat, but it did help to soothe her nerves.

"So, what now?" Rupert asked, a huge smile still plastered to his face

"Take me to the Royal Infirmary, please. I have a patient to take care of."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Claire jumped, nearly dropping the knife in her hand. "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!" Her body tensed for a heart-stopping second, and after a few more muttered curses, she gradually relaxed and rested her head against his chest. "It's you!" she whispered. "You should be in bed."

His arm circled around her waist, nuzzling her hair with his nose and breathing in her scent. She smelled deliciously of vanilla, espresso and floral fragrance. "Aye, it's me. Were ye expecting someone else?" Jamie chuckled softly.

"No," she sighed, placing the utensil on the plate and turning around to face him. 

"Good answer." He leaned down and placed his hands on the edge of the counter, caging her between his arms. When their eyes met, he couldn't help but notice the subtle concern marring her expression. He figured, either worrying was inherent in all doctors, or perhaps she was still shaken from the events of that weekend. He softly kissed her lips and then drew a few inches away. Her hair was up in a messy bun on top of her head, with loose curls framing her beautiful face and she was wearing leggings and an oversize rugby sweatshirt with his name on it. "What's up Sassenach?"

She scrunched up her nose. "You're up. You ought to rest some more."

"I'm feeling loads better already," he smiled, his eyes dropping down to her hand, and watching it travel up and down over his forearm, caressing, seducing without her even noticing what she was doing.

"Well, if that's the case, that's good. Your brothers should be here any minute."

My brothers?  He groaned, dropping his head on her shoulder. He'd forgotten they'd texted him to say they were coming over for a visit. After the hectic morning he'd had earlier at the hospital, he was hoping for some quality alone time with Claire. She'd been away all morning, and he'd been surprised when he'd woken up to find a grinning Geillis in her place instead. He thought he'd died and gone to hell, especially when she'd asked, the moment he opened his eyes if his hospital gown was open-back. Ignoring the question, he'd asked for Claire and was told she had some errands to attend to. 

He'd deliberately avoided reading the news and the social media knowing he was making headlines once again for all the wrong reason. Instead, he'd used the time waiting for Claire's return to catch up on calls, texts and emails on his phone while Geillis kept the autograph and selfie seeking staff at bay. He'd already decided he would deal with Forbes later after his release from the hospital. To his relief, Geillis didn't mind his lack of interaction with her. Although she was a nice enough lass, he found it difficult to relax in her presence, finding her too odd and most of the time, disturbing. To this day, he still had no idea how to take her, but for the moment, it was enough to know she was a fierce and loyal friend to Claire. 

When Claire did finally show up looking highly strung and jumpy, he was already being discharged by the doctor, and his parents were just arriving. He'd badly wanted to take her in his arms and ask her if everything was alright, but with people coming and going in his private room, he hadn't had a chance to be alone with her.

By the time everyone had gone their separate ways, and they'd arrived at Claire's cottage, it was already shortly after one PM. The morning madness took its toll, and he'd fallen asleep in the taxi on the way from the hospital. To his amusement as well as dismay, Claire had immediately and bossily, marched him off to bed. Still mildly feeling the effects of the drug that was used to spike his drink, he'd done as he was told and hadn't bothered arguing. He'd known from early on, it's a fruitless endeavour to do so whenever she's in one of those doctor modes. The only drawback was that she'd refuse to join him in bed and insisted she had things to do.

"Shall I call them and tell them to come another day?" Jamie suggested, running his lips along her neck. "It's no' like that they haven't seen me for ages. But ye ...on the other hand, it feels like I havenae touch ye for an eternity."

He got a smack on his bicep for that. "Jamie! They're on their way. And I've prepared something."

"Have ye now? I thought I smelled something nice." He leaned closer to look over her shoulder. "What's that?"

"Brownies to serve with coffee and tea." She bit her lip as she looked over shoulder to glance at the sweet she was slicing. "I know it doesn't look very pretty, but it's yum ... I've had a taste."

"I bet it is but you didnae have to do that." He tried to go for another kiss, but she arched away from him. 

"Jamie! Your brothers will be here soon, and the living room is a mess, and there's..."

"Relax, Sassenach. Ye dinnae need to tidy up because of them," he murmured against her throat.

She put a hand on his chest. "Fine but there's something I need to tell you first before your brothers come. I've meant to tell you this since I arrived at the hospital this morning, but I never got the chance."

He sighed and drew slightly away. "Aye me too. I have something to ask ye."

She dropped her hands and held on to the kitchen counter. "Alright then, you go first."

He stole one more kiss before moving away to get a bottle of mineral water from the fridge. "I ken it's slightly short notice, but I'd like ye to come to London with me tomorrow ... that's if it's alright with ye."

"London?" she asked, turning around and picking up the knife. "Why? Did you get a job offer from one of the TV networks?"

He noticed a slight frown on her face as she sliced the brownies into pieces. "I do have a few job offers ..." Jamie replied, uncapping the water bottle and taking a quick slug. "But that's no' the reason why I'm going to London. It's a personal business trip ...real estate properties and stuff. I thought maybe after I'm done with my affairs, we can have dinner, stay the night at my place down there or a hotel if ye wish and perhaps go shopping the following day before flying home. So what do ye think?"

She sighed as she carefully sliced into the brownies. "Jamie, I can't. I really need to sort out my residency applications and ..."

"But ye just finished yer temp job last week. Ye've earned a wee break surely. And it's no' like we're going to be away for a week." He downed the rest of the water and disposed the bottle into the recycling bin. "Is that what ye've been doing this morning? Applying for a job?" He crossed his arms and leaned his hip onto the counter.

Jamie frowned when her shoulders tightened. Instead of answering him, she went to the sink and washed her hands, taking her sweet time. He remained quiet, waiting patiently for her reply. When he thought she would turn his way, she began up to plate the brownies, and with each passing second, her frame stood more rigid, and he began to worry.

"Sassenach?"

She picked up a kitchen towel and finally looked at him, wringing the cloth in her hands. Her chin rose, ever so slightly, her eyes shining with something that resembled determination. "No, I wasn't out applying for a job. I went to see Forbes."

He straightened up. "What?"

She tipped her chin up higher and threw the kitchen towel over her shoulder, her posture mirroring his as she crossed her arms. "I said, I went to see Forbes."

He studied her face, a million thoughts rushing through his mind like a blue arsed fly.  Has she gone raving bonkers?  "I heard ye fine the first time, Sassenach. Care to explain why ye went to see Forbes?" he asked, slowly and deliberately, trying to check his mounting anger.  What the hell was she thinking?

She licked her lips and uncrossed her arms and then spoke in a steady voice, "I told him off ..."

"Ye told him off," he echoed.

"Yes, I told him off while I was wearing a recording device."

He snapped out of his shock and took a few steps toward her. 

Her body froze, but she didn't lose her stance. 

"What have ye done, Sassenach?"

"I-I made him t-talk, and I was hooked with a r-recording device," she stammered, her amber eyes widening. "H-he had no idea, and he j-just went on and on. I was so angry, and he was pissed too ...and...but I have everything on audio. E-everything Forbes said was on recording device...and..."

"A recording device."

She rotated her head and puffed out a huge breath. "Jesus, Jamie, are you just going to stand there and repeat every word I'm saying?" She raised her hands in the air and allowed them to fall by her side in exasperation.

"Obviously I will, aye," he snapped, his voice coming out harsh and making her flinch. "Because I'm finding it hard to believe the things that are coming out of yer mouth. What the bloody hell were ye thinking?"

"I was trying to help and ..."

"While I was knocked out cold!" he bellowed. "He could've hurt ye!"

"That's the point. Forbes could have killed you!" She screamed at him, her face turning red in anger and frustration. "He probably wouldn't have meant to, but his bloody ignorance could have sent you into a coma."

He walked towards her until they were toe to toe and grabbed her arm. "Well, that didnae happen did it now?" he barked, getting up close to her face. "Ye've gone over the top, and ye over-reacted and put yoursel' in danger despite me warning ye about Forbes. But of course, ye wouldnae listen would ye. Here's a fact, Sassenach and get it into yer head ...people get high and drunk every day and sleep it off!" 

She tried to yank her arm from his grasp, but he only tightened his grip.

"And ye had nae business going to Forbes and interfering with my mess," he seethed, his fingers digging deep into her skin. "Ned was already on the case, and he'd even suggested wire-tapping that dickhead. Now because of ye, ye might have jeopardised the investigation."

"Not my business? Not my business, you said?" This time she managed to twist her arm off his hold and shove him away from her. "Forbes put a fucking depressant into your drink!" she yelled at him, a vein protruding out of the side of her neck. "Apparently, a healthy dose of it too. And do you know what made it even more dangerous, huh? It was mixed into the alcohol you were drinking. You think it's no bloody big deal and it's something you could just sleep off but here's the news. What Forbes did could have severely damaged your respiratory system. And what I'm so frigging mad about it is, you're taking this so lightly, and the fact that Joe overlooked the danger and sent you on your merry way makes it even worse. Of all people, he should have known better!" She pushed at his chest some more and kept doing so even if he didn't budge on his spot, her face contorted in anger and something else. He felt a mixture of shock and awe, having never seen her so angry before. She was even more beautiful in her fury.

She took huge deep breaths and continued, the red on her face getting darker by the second. "Your heart rate was already so low by the time I found out what happened, and the moment you passed out in my bed, you shaved ten years off my life. By the time we got you to the hospital, you were already in the process of going through respiratory depression. And you know what would have happened if you'd gone to bed alone? You could've drowned in your own vomit or deprived yourself of oxygen due to your breathing being impeded. And you know what occurs when you're deprived of oxygen?? Do you have any bloody clue at all? Brain damage, coma and at worse death! And you know what the attending doctor said? If the same thing had happened to a man half-your size, he'd be in a coma by now because of the dosage you got. So excuse me if you think I over-reacted! And excuse me if I wanted to pay Forbes a visit and slap the daylight out of his smug face. Because after the night I had, thinking that I nearly lost my uncle to a heart attack, worrying that I might come across Frank in the hospital, and later seeing that blonde bitch sitting on your lap when in fact your drink has been spiked, I have every right to do anything THE FUCK I WANT!"

His eyes flicked down to her hands, and he noticed how tightly they were balled into fists. "Sassenach ..." 

She shook her head, her eyes dropping to the floor. Her posture relaxed a touch, but the set on her jaw told him there was more to come.

"I'm not done yet," she warned, giving him a stern look. "Don't even think for one minute I didn't think everything through before I went to see Forbes. I had help ...it was those two investigative reporters who'd called the police after Frank hit me. You met them at the Royal Infirmary. You know who I'm talking about? The ones who were lurking outside your building."

Jamie nodded.

"To cut the story short, I remember them leaving me their business card. So while you were passed out, I gave Rupert a call, and they came to see me in the hospital. I only wanted to ask them for advice about using my phone to record audio. But after vaguely telling them my reasons for asking, they somehow caught on. They've already seen your photo going viral on the net. It was only a matter of time they put two and two together since they've heard through the grapevine that Forbes wasn't your agent anymore. So they propositioned to help me under the condition if any news were ever to be released, they would have exclusivity. When I agreed, that's when they told me they had a more sophisticated device for covert listening."

He frowned. "But, Sassenach, how did ye get away with it? Forbes' office has electrical and radio frequency detectors that would have alerted him immediately if he was being tapped. The man is paranoid and neurotic when it comes to business dealings or private conversations. He's made enemies in the past, and he knows of some people who want to see him go down. Also, his office, car and home are regularly swept for bugs. Are ye sure ye managed to get the audio? Did he say anything at all that would implicate him?"

She closed her eyes briefly and licked her lips. "Angus was aware of the sensors, and he warned me about it. He'd attempted the stunt before at Forbes' agency for some other unrelated incident and failed. But an uncle of his friend works in IT for some surveillance company. He managed to get hold of an advance prototype of the wire I was supposed to use. Apparently, if the gadget worked, it should remain undetected because of the latest technology they employed in it. Before me, it has never been tested, so there was the risk ..."

"What?" he choked, just about managing to restrain himself from shouting. If the drug in his system hadn't killed him yet, Claire's antics probably would.  Oh, Christ, help me from this stubborn woman!  He rubbed his face with both hands and then stared at her, almost afraid of what she'd say next. "So ye were basically their guinea pig?"

"If that's how you wish to call it. Yes, I was basically that."

"Oh for fuck sake," he groaned in disbelief, shaking his head in his hands.

"Well, it worked!" she countered, annoyance lacing the tone of her voice. "So you can stop your grumbling. Forbes was so bloody confident and certain of his own surveillance technology, he complacently boasted and described how he spiked your drink and his plans to bring you down. And as a bonus, he also revealed taking bribes from Dunsany and admitting that the doping rumours surrounding Geneva were all true. Angus and Rupert have delivered the audio to Ned Gowan to get advice on what part of the audio should be released to the media and what would be used in court."

He stared at her in disbelief. "Christ Almighty ...ye certainly have thought it through, but how ..."

"Hard to believe that a woman is capable of thinking on her feet and following through something like that, huh?" she huffed.

"Sassenach, I wasn't..."

She forged on. "And guess what? That was Forbes' biggest mistake. His arrogance and the fact that he could never conceive he is not infallible are his downfalls. I'm not saying I wasn't scared. In fact, I was terrified, but his remorseless and egoistical manner made me so angry ...and in that split moment, everything I had planned to say to him went out the window and I ...I was worried he would find out I had concealed wires on me."

He dragged in a breath. "I've never doubted yer ingenuity and resourcefulness, Sassenach. It's one of the things I love about ye. It's just that ...if he'd hurt ye or anything happened to ye, I would have gone mental and ..."

"Hello there! Is it alright to come in now?" a deep voice interrupted.

Claire and Jamie turned towards the doorway to find Willie looking at them with a nervous smile. "I knocked, and no one answered," he explained. "So I tried the knob, and it was open. Well, it looks like ye've both calmed down, but if it's a bad time, I can leave."

Jamie pinched the bridge of his nose. "It's a bad time ..."

"Stay!" Claire insisted, her utterance sounding more of a demand as she glared at Jamie.

"I can come back another time ..." Willie mumbled, already backing away.

"Please do," Jamie said, frustration beating in waves and simmering in his gut.

"Jamie! How rude!" Claire gasped. Then she turned to Willie. "I said, stay!"

Willie froze at Claire's command.

"Claire!" Rabbie strutted in as if everything in the world was just fine and rosy and ignored Jamie. "Ye're looking a bit flush ..." Before she could say a word, he'd taken her in his arms and gave her a brotherly hug. "...and beautiful as ever."

Ah, fuck! Brothers!  He tried not to sulk, which was so beneath him, but he already saw a small smile forming in Claire's lips. And he guessed that was a good thing.

Rabbie then gave him a playful punch. "And ye, glad to see ye up. And oh, by the way, we overheard ye're wee shouting match - no need to be awkward. I think it was a courageous move to go and see Forbes and give him a right telling off."

"Thank you," Claire murmured, walking away to prepare tea and coffee.

Irritation itched at his skin. Jamie clamped down on his emotions and reminded himself Rabbie was just being Rabbie.  Nae big deal.  "Aye, she was brave," he conceded. "But, irrelevant of the result, I still think it was a daft move. She could have been ..."

"Oh, are these brownies?" Willie cut in, glancing at the plate Claire had prepared. "They smell delicious. May I try one?"

Jamie clenched his fingers and breathed deeply. He suddenly felt like a bad boyfriend rather than someone who cared for his love one.  What the fuck is going on here?  "Aye they're brownies," he muttered, miserably.

"Help yourself, Willie, that's what they're there for," Claire chimed in as she retrieved something from the cupboard, not once glancing his way. "Rabbie can you get the milk out of the fridge, please."

"Aye nae bother," Rabbie replied merrily, walking to the fridge like he'd done it a million times before.

"I'll get the plates," Willie offered.

"They're in the cupboard to the right of the hob," Claire pointed out, peeling back the cling film that was covering the mini sandwiches she made earlier.

Ah Christ!  He was officially reduced to the bad guy. But the humour of the situation made him want to laugh out loud. Despite how the situation was panning out, Claire amused him with her bossiness and the way she seemed to have his brothers wrapped around her tiny finger without her even being aware of it. "Can I help with anything, Sassenach?"

To his surprise, her eyes gentled, and she smiled at him. "We're good. Just bring the sandwiches to the table and ..."

"I smell brownies!" Joe's voice boomed. "Ah, here you all are!"

Ach no! Bad timing, Joe!   He watched Claire's face gradually darkened like storm the moment Joe stepped into the kitchen. Just when her mood was just beginning to shift, the other object of her anger had to walk in.

"You! You! ..." Claire sputtered, her face scrunching up in a fury.

Knowing what she was capable of when she was angry, Rabbie immediately seized the teapot she was holding, and Jamie grabbed her by the waist. 

"LJ? You alright sweetheart?" Joe looked confused if not shock, his mouth opening and closing like a floundering fish.

Claire twisted in Jamie's hold. "Let go of me. What the bloody hell are you doing?" she gasped, clawing his forearms.

Jamie hesitantly let go, but he stayed close, ready to grab her in case she attacked Joe. "Sassenach, please, easy now ..."

Claire glared at him before facing Joe. She was so angry at her best friend, she was speechless, and her hands balled once again into tight fists. 

"LJ? Honey? ..." 

"Arghhhh! I can't do this!" She turned and faced them all, her face red as a ripe tomato ready to explode. "I haven't slept for the last forty-eight hours, haven't eaten for the last thirty-six, I reek because I haven't had time to shower and on top of it all, I had to put up with that bloody Forbes earlier this morning. So ...I'm going to take a shower, and then I'm going straight to bed. And you lot will enjoy your tea, coffee and everything I've prepared. If you can't finish them all, take the rest with you home. And when you're done, please clean up and turn the lights off before you go." And then she turned to him. "And you Jamie, we'll talk when you come back from London. Goodbye. Have a lovely afternoon, evening or whatever. I've lost track of time ...and sorry for being so rude ..." And then just like that, she walked past Joe, leaving them all stunned.

They all stood there in silence until they heard the bedroom door slam.

"Holy shit! Have I missed something?" Joe breathed, his eyes almost bulging out. 

Jamie ignored the question and started to move, but Joe grabbed his arm.

"Let her be mate. Just give her space," Joe advised. "What happened?"

He shook his head. "We had our first big fight on top of everything that happened this weekend. I guess she just lost it."

"First big fight in a relationship is always good," Rabbie declared, as he placed the teapot and cafetiere on the table and sat down.

"This is not the time for smart-ass remarks, Rabbie," Willie warned in a low voice, giving him a dirty look.

"What?" Rabbie asked innocently, biting into the sandwich Claire had prepared. Then he grinned at Jamie. "See it this way ...think of all the make-up sex ye'll be in for and ..."

Willie didn't let Rabbie finish the sentence as he slapped his younger brother at the back of his head.

"Hey, what's that for?!?"

..........

After Jamie cleaned up in the kitchen and emptied the rubbish bin, he took a shower and snuck into Claire's bedroom. It was early evening, and he wasn't about to leave her alone and let her stew in her bad mood, no matter what Joe had said. It was their first fight which, looking back now, seemed silly in the aftermath. He let the towel fall to the floor, slid under the cover and scooped her against his chest. He smiled when he realised she was wearing one of his t-shirts.

"Jamie?"

"Aye?"

"You stayed ..." She turned on her other side to face him, and a hand curled against his cheek. "I'm so sorry for being in a lousy mood today."

His lips caught her palm and kissed it. "Ach, all forgiven," he whispered, lifting her thigh over his hip and kissing her forehead. "And I'm sorry too. What ye've done earlier was incredibly brave. Even though I still think it was very foolish of ye to go after Forbes the way ye did."

She giggled against his chest. "I'll agree to disagree."

He pulled her higher against him, so they were nose to nose. "Ye cheeky imp."

"You bloody, Scot," she whispered against his lips.

She wriggled closer, her soft flesh pressing against his own hardness.  Christ, her body is on fire!  He groaned deep in his chest as he took her mouth, plunging his tongue deep. It couldn't be helped when she was so close and so sweet. He'd almost expected she would stop his advances, but to his relief, she didn't. And even if she did, he would have been more than happy to just simply hold her in his arms and sleep.

As their kiss became more urgent, he impatiently tugged her shirt off, baring her breast to his sight. Her nipples immediately rose hard and tight, and he sucked them into his mouth until she arched like a bow in his arms. Her sweet scent flooded his nostrils, and the connection between them sizzled with electricity. She opened her thighs to him in an invitation, and his fingers dove into her wetness, coating her folds and tantalising her to that first climax. She quivered and dug her nails deep into his shoulders. Jamie watched her come apart with deep satisfaction, but he was nowhere near done, barely skimming the surface of what he wanted to do with her body. 

He kissed his way down her stomach, his hands tugging down at her panties. Once she was completely bare, he parted her folds and rubbed his lips over her core, alternately rubbing his scruff on her trembling inner thighs, his tongue teasing and licking until she tugged at his hair and squirmed beneath him, succumbing to her second climax. He continued to lap her essence to keep the orgasm going, pinning her thighs down to the mattress and licking her folds. His fingers worked in and out of her channel, and his cock throbbed painfully. But he refused to be done yet. He wanted to submerge himself in every part of this beautiful woman who'd jumped hurdles for him and crashed through all his barriers. He momentarily left her side and reached out for the condom in the drawer of the bedside table, rolling it over his straining erection, and pushing her thighs wider apart.

He slid in, and she clenched him in a tight grip. He groaned out loud in pleasure, the sensation of being held so tightly, making him burn from inside out. He kept still for a few heartbeats, enjoying the wet heat that branded him as hers. Slowly, he slid back all the way, before thrusting back into the hilt, keeping his movements easy and slow. She fought and clawed him like a wildcat, arching up and willing him to go faster and deeper, but it was too good, too soon to be over. 

He rubbed his thumb over her nub, and she dug her heels into his arse, writhing madly from side to side. Jamie laughed low and caught her nipple between his teeth as he picked up the pace. Faster and faster, his hips thrust and pistoned until he hit her sweet spot and she screamed out his name, her body buckling under him. His fingers twined with hers, holding her down and slamming into her again and again. The piercing pleasure bordered on pain, taking him to the edge and over until he exploded.

He spilt his seed, her name ripping from his lips. Skin damp with perspiration, he rode out the last of the aftershocks muttering endearments against her neck before slipping out. Claire collapsed onto the sheets, arms and legs flung wide, her breath coming in and out in choppy waves. He disposed of the condom in the bathroom, climbed back into bed, and pulled her close. Gathering her against him in his arms, she laid her head against his chest.

After a long silence, each of them lost in their own thoughts, Claire spoke up first. "You mentioned earlier about London," she whispered.

He smiled and pulled her closer. "I have some real estate business to sort out. The invitation is still open if ye wish to come."

She shook her head, a fingertip playing with his chest hair. "I'd love to, Jamie but I need to sort out my residency. The longer I wait, the harder it will be for me to get back to work. I really need to do this." She sighed and snuggled closer. "So this real estate business you're talking about ...are you planning to buy more properties or what?"

"No. I'm putting all my properties in the market."

Her head jerked up, and she looked at him with shock. "What? But why? I thought they were your source of income."

He shrugged. "Aye that's true, but I'll need all the penny I can get. I want to buy a property here ...closer to home."

"Why on earth do you need to sell all properties? The price of your apartment alone in Mayfair is probably worth five to six detached houses here in Scotland ...or maybe more."

"I'll need a huge property, and it might get pricey ..."

"Are you planning on buying a castle or what?" she half-heartedly joked.

"No, Sassenach. I'm buying an abandoned privately owned sports complex ...for my rugby academy."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

.

 

 

Geillis sat at her kitchen table, looking bright and chipper and way too put together at seven AM Tuesday morning. Geillis had invited herself over for breakfast and coffee before Claire started her shift at The Royal Hospital for Sick Children. It had been ages since they've seen each other, and a much-needed catch up was just what they both needed.

Before she'd started her new job, it had been a tense and hectic past few weeks. While Jamie had been away most of the time in London, Claire had been preoccupied applying for a residency program and meeting for job interviews. When the news of Gerald Forbes' arrest, Geneva Dunsany's stripping of gold medals and investigations in William Dunsany's business' dealings reached her, she'd dreaded her name would be mentioned in the newspaper and evening prime time news. To her relief, Ned Gowan had made sure that didn't happen. Only certain parts of the recording were released to the media, specifically the section where Forbes admitted to spiking Jamie's drink and accepting bribes from Dunsany. Since her voice was disguised with an audio editing application, it had been automatically assumed the sting was done by an undercover reporter; hence, no questions were further asked of the identity of the voice.

The days that followed were even made more stressful after Frank pleaded her to drop the charges against him and requested an out of court settlement, offering her monetary compensation instead. Not having the heart to see a licence stripped away from a brilliant doctor, Claire conceded under the condition he wouldn't practice medicine in Scotland for five years and that he would work for Doctors Without Borders for at least two years before returning to England. Frank agreed without contest, and a settlement was made and signed. But it was only when she had her belongings that he'd been keeping, returned and was informed he'd left Edinburgh for good, was she able to relax and concentrate on her future.

"So, Jamie is back in London again," Geillis remarked, in-between bites of her toast. "Another business trip?"

Claire filled their mugs with coffee and sat down. "I guess you can call it that. Jamie was invited by BBC to a morning show interview," she explained. "And while he's there, he's doing a few photoshoots for some razor commercial and finalising the sale of his properties. He should be back by tomorrow."

"Oh that's good but why aren't ye staying over at his place? Besides me wanting to have a nosy in his posh apartment, it's nearer to yer work and more convenient for him to see ye when he returns from London. And hello ...less carbon footprint."

She took a sip of her coffee and leaned back on her seat, twisting her head from side to side to relieve the tension in her neck. Her new job wasn't as demanding as in the Royal Infirmary; nevertheless, she felt the effects of the long hours at work. "Jamie already suggested that but he's away most of the time and I kind of like my place and ..." she trailed off, shrugging.

"Aaand ... it's a huge commitment and too soon after ye've just got yer stuff back from Frank and ye think he's more into parading himself in the public's eye than he's into ye," Geillis filled in the blanks before scooping some egg into her mouth. 

Claire didn't answer, as she toyed with her fork.

"Ye miss him, aye?"

She nodded, giving her friend a wistful smile. She did miss Jamie a lot. Ever since the problems with his former agent settled, she'd seen less and less of him. She knew he was trying to put together something for the future, but at the worse of times, she felt mildly resentful not seeing him as much and hated herself for feeling that way. They've been wrapped up in their own bubble of bliss, she hadn't thought about where their relationship was heading to. Their feelings were out there, larger than life and scary as hell, and now they have to find a way to make this thing work in the real world with their conflicting schedules. But lately, with Jamie's numerous endorsements pouring in, to represent big-name companies and merchandises, she wondered if their relationship could survive and if there was even a hint of truth in what Forbes had told her that Jamie was meant for the limelight.

"Ye think Jamie is going to be lured back to his celebrity lifestyle and ye're waiting for the bomb to fall, is this what's this about?" she asked as if uncannily reading her thoughts.

Damn the girl for being so perceptive.  She straightened up on her seat and smeared butter on her toast. "What makes you think that?" she asked, trying to look nonchalant, which was silly really considering Geillis could read her like a book.

Geillis rolled her eyes and sipped her coffee. "It's pretty apparent ye're not too thrilled with the load of work he's getting. But if he's going to start this rugby academy ye were talking about, all the exposures and the money he could earn from those adverts will help."

"You're beginning to sound like Forbes," Claire scoffed, pointing the butter knife at her. "And I don't like it."

"And ye're letting fear and doubt grow its ugly head," she quipped, toast shrapnel spraying out from her mouth.

"Good God, Geillis ... that's gross. Don't talk when you're mouth is full."

"Stop changing the subject," Geillis admonished. She crunched down on her toast and gave her a false smile, deliberately exhibiting bits of food between her teeth. "In a perfect world, ye could both get what ye want, dream job and time for each other. But that's no' the case, so ...if ye have issues with Jamie's work and wotnots, ye should be more proactive in addressing them instead of sulking." 

"I'm not sulking ...or maybe I am a little. But here's the thing ... I've only seen Jamie for two days for the last couple of weeks. Even when he's here in Edinburgh, either he is unavailable and rushing off somewhere to meet someone important, or he's in the gym. When I'm at his place, he's either too tired to do anything, asleep already, or he has to wake up early ...so there's really no point of me staying there. It's nuts really, I'm seeing less of him now that we're together than when he was trying to pursue me. We talk and text a lot on the phone, but it doesn't make being separated any easier. This evil paranoia is constantly nagging in my head that he's bored with me and finding limelight more exciting. But then he makes up for his absence by regularly checking up on me or having food delivered either at my workplace or here at home because he knows I forget to eat sometimes. And my distrustful and illogical side creeps in and tells me he's just keeping me interested. But when he's holding me, all those whispers in my head shut up."

Geillis wiped her mouth with a napkin and reached for her hand. "Ach, hen, he loves ye. Ye ken fine I have this built-in radar inside me that can detect bullshit from miles away. That man of yers lights up like a Christmas tree whenever ye're around. Why not talk to him and tell him how ye're feeling."

"God, no. I sound already petty and clingy hearing myself talk. Not going to happen."

"Hmmm, have ye been reading things written about him in social media again?" Geillis asked, already knowing the answer and looking on disapprovingly. "Jamie already told ye not to."

Claire sighed and slumped back in her chair. "I can't help it sometimes," she reasoned. "I see something nice written about him, and that makes me happy, and I look for more, but then I end up reading gossips about him that aren't true. I'm supposed to be prepared for this. When Jamie and I first got together, I knew what I was getting into, and I knew our relationship would have some degree of disappointment and compromise. I understand Jamie's work is very important to him, and quite rightly so. But it's still difficult to accept that I'm someone whose boyfriend is lusted after by thousands of women and the way my work colleagues talk behind my back and look at me, serves as a reminder. I thought those days in the limelight would be over when he told me about the academy, but it seems the interviews and photocalls have doubled. I need to find a way to be alright with that because I know those public appearances will help promote his academy. It's just that when I rarely see him, it's so hard and I can't help but think it's the start of our end."

"Quit that rubbish talk for crying out loud! Ye just have to remind yersel' its just work," Geillis pressed in a firm tone. "Whatever is happening right now doesn't change the way he feels about ye." She got up, taking her plate and mug over to the sink to rinse them and put them into the dishwasher. "His popularity has a short lifespan, Claire, most especially now that he's turning down work left, right and centre from other networks. Once the academy is up and running and the talk about his BBC award dies down, the news will be onto something new. And as for Jamie, he will eventually fade into the background as he wouldn't have time for anything else other than building his new business venture. Nobody knows how long this ride is going to last, so he might as well take advantage and get as much exposure out of it."

"I know, I know. You're right with everything you said." Claire cleared the rest of the dishes on the table and stood up. "That's why I don't want to say anything to Jamie. You taking Jamie's side when you've always taken mine can only mean I sound really downright pathetic."

Geillis dried her hand and turned around to face her, giving her a thoughtful smile. "Not pathetic at all and I understand why ye're worried. Not everyone would have been able to handle being in a relationship with Jamie. God, if he was my boyfriend, I'd never let him out of my sight because he's too pretty for his own good. But as an objective bystander, I can hundred per cent assure ye, that man is working his arse off to get that business of his going so he can have a normal life with ye."

She packed her laptop in its case and drank the rest of her juice. "That's what I tell myself all the time. It's just hard when we hardly have a moment to ourselves and when I'm left alone with my own thoughts, that's when it becomes dangerous. All these niggling doubts surface from out of nowhere and play havoc with my logic." 

"Ach, Claire. Sometimes I wish ye could see the way he looks at ye when ye're not looking. He looks at ye like ye're the sun itself and it makes me want to puke seeing all that lovefest spewing out of him."

This time Claire laughed out loud and allowed the tension and uncertainties of the future to slowly fade away. Thank God she had Geillis to talk sense into her. After everything that happened recently, she really needed to exorcise all those demons that Forbes and Frank left behind because unless she did that, they would continue to rule her waking hours, even though they were no longer in their lives,

..........

Claire stripped off her clothes and climbed into the shower. She had forty-five minutes to get ready before Jamie arrives. She'd received a text earlier while at work telling her he was in the airport in London waiting to get into the plane and he would be heading straight to her as soon as he landed and they would go out on a dinner date.

The water was hot, and it felt good just to stand there and let it run over her skin as she tried to release the tension in her muscles. It had been a long day at work running from ward to ward, and although she loved her job, working with sick children was often challenging since it affected her more on an emotional level. They were innocents and should be untouched by illness and injuries and be out there thriving and healthy instead of being in the hospital. Despite trying her hardest to remain professional, it still proved difficult to not get attached to her young patients.

Suddenly realising the water was getting colder, she quickly lathered some shower gel on her skin and shampoo on her hair. When she turned around to rinse herself, she nearly screamed when she saw Jamie on the other side of the shower stall, leaning against the wall with his arms folded across his chest and a lopsided grin plastered on his face. 

"Jamie! Bloody hell! You shouldn't sneak in like that! Jesus! You nearly gave me a heart attack," she scolded, quickly washing the suds off her body.

Jamie chuckled, as he took a huge towel from the rail. "Ye didn't answer when I called out yer name. So I just waited for ye to finish, hoping to hear yer rendition of one of Paloma Faith's songs before ye notice I'm here."

She turned off the water and stepped out of the shower into the towel Jamie was holding. He wrapped it around her and smiled. 

"Hi!" he whispered.

She tried to step back. "I'll ruin your suit. I'm all wet."

"I dinnae care." He pulled her back into his arms, and she stretched up on her toes to kiss him briefly. 

When she drew away, she stared up at him. "Let me dry my hair first. I shan't be long."

"No' yet." She held her breath as Jamie leaned down and kissed her tenderly.  Oh God, how I've missed him!  His lips were so soft and warm, making all the air rush out of her lungs. He sucked at her bottom lip before pulling back and angling his head to kiss her again. Though his body was tensed and hard, the delicate way he moved his mouth over hers demonstrated leashed restraint like he wanted to savour the moment instead of giving in to the hormones that were raging between them. If his intention was to make her forget what she was about to say or do, he was succeeding immensely.

Gradually his kisses became more intense, and she gave up trying to think and allowed herself to just feel, letting her muscles melt against his body. He cupped her breast, and when she moaned and gripped his shoulders tightly, he grunted in frustration and gently drew away.

Glancing down at her, he tucked his tongue into his cheek and shook his head. "Ye should get dressed before I give ye a reason to go back and shower again." He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. "Christ, I've missed ye so much."

Her heart did a pirouette. It was so  bloody  absurd that after the all this time, Jamie could still make the air catch in her chest and her blood rush with force, just by looking at her. "I missed you too," was all she could muster, feeling the heat creep up her face.

He cleared his throat. "I brought some Thai takeaway. You get dressed, and I'll prepare the table."

"Oh! I thought we were going out," she said, unable to hide her disappointment.

He swallowed and nodded, the muscles in his jaw, working overtime as he took her hands. "I'm so sorry, Sassenach. I had a last-minute phone call from this guy who'll be rewiring the sports complex. He's coming all the way from Glasgow, and I need to show him the floor plans and the list of gadgets I need installing. I'm just as disappointed as ye are that we can't go out." He linked his fingers through hers. "The next few weeks are going to be crazy as hell, but I'm doing everything I can to make sure we'll have more time together. That's a promise."

"That's alright," she murmured, trying her best not to act like a child whose lolly had been taken off her. This was the sixth time he'd cancelled their date, and it didn't help that they hadn't been out together for weeks and that she hadn't seen the sports complex yet. Her brain concocted tons of reasons for all the cancellations, and not one of them was good, but she immediately tamped down the thoughts when she saw the worried look on his face. Sighing, she gave him a reassuring smile. "You go ahead a prepare the food. I'll just quickly dry my hair, and I will be out soon."

Before she could turn away, he hauled her back into his arms, and then cupped her face with both hands and kissed her deeply, almost making her believe everything was fine.

"I love you, Sassenach" he said against her lips. "I promise I will have more time for us soon."

He held her for a few more heartbeats, and then with an effort, he pulled away and headed out the door.

When he left, she leaned her forehead against the damp bathroom tiles. "I love you too Jamie. So much it hurts to breathe sometimes," she whispered to the wall. 

..........

Another three weeks went by, and Claire was determined to ignore her growing sense of apprehension about Jamie and her inability to deal with his lack of presence in most of her everyday life. She felt like she had a countdown timer running in the backdrop, and she was just waiting for it to reach zero when it would reveal they were over for good.

She sighed and ferociously tug the weeds out of her garden bed, venting her frustration in her back garden vegetation. Her mood didn't improve when she envisioned herself becoming one of those women who obsessed about their man, fearing they wouldn't be able to cope once the relationship was over.  Shut it, Beauchamp! Stop being pathetic and grow a pair!

Nearby, Geillis was collecting all the weeds she'd pulled out and placing them into containers for compost. She didn't want to heap more of her relationship worries on her friend, thinking she's beginning to sound repetitive and whiny.

Even though Jamie was away a lot, he would drop by a few times, helping her with shopping when she didn't have the time to refill her pantry and repairing things that needed fixing in her wee cottage. She tried not to pressure him about sleepovers since she'd refused a few times to stay at his place. Not that Claire didn't want to be with him, but he was hardly in his apartment, and when he was, he spent his time catching up on sleep or speaking with important people on the phone. Over time she realised, he was workaholic, mostly when it involved something he was passionate and excited about. And it made her wonder if that was the reason he never had any proper relationship during his rugby days.

Jamie had often enough apologised for not always being there for her and asked her to give him more time and trust him, and she was trying her utmost best to do just that, even though patience and trust are two things she was beginning to have a short supply of.

"It's yer day-off. Aren't ye seeing Jamie today?" Geillis asked, getting up on her feet and kicking the dirt off her boots.

"Nope. Apparently, being interviewed by some local radio station and filming for Irn-Bru commercial is more appealing than spending time with his girlfriend." She cringed inwardly the moment her pettiness came out in full force, unable to contain what she truly felt any longer.

"Ach, hen. I ken it's been a difficult time for ye both with yer long hours and his busy schedule. Surely, ye ken he'd rather spend time with ye."

"I know, Geillis. Don't mind me at all. I'm just in one of those moods. Think nothing more of it." She dusted off her hands and got up. "Anyway, I'm trying not to dwell on those things. I have to get ready and meet up with John ...you know John Grey from St Leonards', where I did my temp job?" When Geillis nodded, she continued. "He's got a day-off too, and his boyfriend is on a business trip to France. So we thought, since we're both boyfriendless today, we'd hang out together. You can join us if you wish."

Geillis waved her hand. "I'll pass. I have a gig tomorrow for a group of seven-year-olds. Need to organise their party hats and goodie bags. I'll clean up and go." Then she pulled her in for a hug. "And enjoy yersel' and try not to worry about Jamie. He's probably thinking the same of ye ...ye not having enough time for him with yer long hours at work. Just have a little faith with the man, alright?"

"I will," she smiled, kissing her on the cheek. "In case you finish early with your prep for tomorrow and change your mind about joining us, we'll be in The World's End."

Geillis pulled back and made a face. "I doubt it. It's a bath, chamomile and books for me tonight and then early to bed. Need to save my energy for those bairns tomorrow. Kids nowadays are so hyper and fueled with so much sugar, I can hardly keep up with them. But ye go enjoy yersel', and I'll stop by one of this morning for breakfast." And with that, she spun around and headed towards the house.

As she put away her hand garden tools into a bucket, she took deep calming breaths and made a decision to stop thinking so negatively. It had been ages since she'd been to the pub and maybe a change of atmosphere and a few beers with her friend John would improve her mood. She wished she could talk to Jamie right now, but she knew he was working and was probably in the middle of an interview or shoot. She would just have to wait later to send him a message once she's come back home.

As if thinking of Jamie willed him to call, her phone buzzed in her jeans, and when she looked at the screen, it lit up with his number. A wave of elation rushed through her cancelling all her earlier doubts. "Hey, I was just thinking about you and wondering when it's best to call you up. I wasn't sure if you were in the middle of something."

"I have a few minutes before I go on air." He sounded slightly hoarse if not tired, but still, she could hear a smile on his voice. "How are ye today, Sassenach?"

She reminded herself he was working hard for his sports academy, and she needed to be a more understanding girlfriend. "I'm great," she replied, trying to be more cheerful than she felt. "I'm just cleaning up after a bit of garden work, and then I'll head out for a few drinks."

"With Geillis and Joe?" 

She picked up her bucket of tools and headed towards the shed. "Actually, no. I'm going out with John."

"John? Who's John?"

She thought she heard the clipped tone in his voice but shook her head, thinking she imagined things. "You know John. The head doctor of St Leonards' where I did my temp job. We both have a day-off, so we thought we'd hang out together for a couple of beers. It's been ages since I've been out and I thought it would be a nice change."

"How come Geillis or Joe is not coming with ye? Are they working?"

"Joe is away somewhere ...God knows where. And I've asked Geillis to come, but she has a gig to prepare for tomorrow." She opened the door to her shed and slid in her tools before closing it again and heading back towards the house. "It'll just be a couple of drinks, and then I'll head back home."

There was a long pause in Jamie's end. "Jamie? You still there?"

"Aye, I'm here," he sighed. "The air is getting colder, Sassenach. Make sure ye dressed up warmly when ye go out."

"It is getting a bit nippy," she admitted, looking at her watch. "Listen. Got to run. I'm running a bit late."

There was another silence for a few seconds before he spoke. "Ye ken I love ye, don't ye, Sassenach?" he asked.

She took a deep breath and smiled. "Of course, Jamie. And I love you too. But I really have to go. I'll speak to you soon ...well, as soon as I get back home. I promise." And then she turned off the phone before he could say another word since she was already running late. As she stepped into the house, she felt loads better already than she did earlier after hearing Jamie's voice. In fact, she was beginning to look forward to having a night out with John and having a refreshing pint. Maybe, later, if she's not too tired, she would pay Jamie a visit to his apartment and surprise him. With that in mind and with more lightness in her heart, she showered and got ready for her night out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Claire stepped out of the pub, inhaled the fresh cold Autumn air and plucked the phone from the back of her jeans pocket. She'd decided to give Jamie a call to find out if he was still working. She listened to the phone ring while navigating the pavement filled with people coming in and out of pubs and restaurants. The time spent with her friend John had been pleasant and refreshing. It was great to talk to someone who wasn't from within her social circle and not had to go into discussions about Jamie and her present concerns. For the first time in ages, she felt more optimistic. Maybe it had something to do with the change of scene after being stuck in the repetitive work, home and sleep cycle. Or perhaps it had to do with her decision to stop moping and thinking the worse of what's to come. Being alone with her own thoughts at the moment wasn't a great idea by a long shot, which could cost her at the worst of times her peace of mind. Geillis was right. She needed to be more proactive about her issues instead of dwelling on the negativity.

Jamie's voicemail came on, so she terminated the call, weaving through a small group of revellers as she came closer to her destination. If he wasn't home, she knew he would be soon. Mildly tipsy, she'd left John at the pub not long after a couple of his friends had joined them at their table. She'd made it a point that a pint of lager and a dram of whisky was her limit for tonight if she was going to make it to Jamie's place whole and without staggering. 

The sky was overcast and dark by the time she made it to Jamie's building and slipped the key into the main entrance, opening the heavy, wooden door. She hadn't seen his BMW parked anywhere in the street and thought he must still be working. Shivering and feeling the cold, she rubbed her hands together, craving for a nice mug of tea and the comfort of the snug recliner. She made a move towards the stairs, the sounds of her clunky boots echoing in the hall and the retro-styled wall lamp dramatically illuminating the interior as she started her ascend.

When she finally made it to the apartment, she slid the key into the lock, opened the door and slipped in. She heard jazz music coming from the surround system, and the lights in the hallway were dimmed.  Jamie's home!  Anticipation bloomed in her heart. He must have taken the taxi and left his car somewhere, a habit they both had when they'd had a bit to drink. Humming, she pulled off her jacket and hanged it in the cloak wardrobe. She stopped by the console table to deposit her keys and phone, and saw several post-it notes in Jamie's hurried writing and crumpled receipts. She absentmindedly glanced at them and lifted her head when she heard movements in the kitchen.

Impatiently, she toed off her ankle boots and headed towards the door that led to the open-plan room, a smile curving her lips when the smell of pizza made her stomach growl. It was a stranger's voice that froze her smile, a distinctly soft feminine laugh. She opened the door slowly, the lit kitchen illuminating a brunette girl with only a towel draped around her body. The girl was tall, and her long dark hair fell in soft waves just below her shoulders. She was pouring wine into two glasses.

Her head pounding and chest tightening, Claire stepped into the room. A part of her was screaming for her to leave immediately, but the other half wanting to see this through, to look Jamie in the eyes and show him she would not disintegrate. Although her feet weighed like lead, she took another step. And then another, the thin string of control almost at its breaking point, ready to snap at any moment. 

When the girl finally turned and realised she wasn't alone, she let out an ear-piercing scream that sent a pair of heavy feet running towards their direction and almost busting Claire's eardrums.

Claire's hand clenched, her fury pushing hard through her veins. She ignored the girl's screams and waited for Jamie to come out.   But ...

"Claire? What are ye doing here?"

Holy sweet Moses!  Instead of Jamie, she was greeted by a stark naked Rabbie. Flusteredly pointing her finger at his dangly bits, she clapped a hand over her eyes and looked the other way. "Oh for the love of God, Rabbie put that ...that ...that thingy away." Tall as Jamie as he was but a gangly version, no way was she ever going to look at Jamie's wee brother the same way again. And to say the very least, there was certainly nothing wee about him.

"It's a penis," he said, his voice tinged with amusement. "Jamie's got the same, ye ken?"

Oh God, he's even as cocky as his brother.  A hand still covering her eyes, Claire stomped her foot to make a point. "Rabbie!! I know what it is, for heaven's sake ...just put it away and put some clothes on, will you? I'm not speaking to you unless you're fully clothed."

"Roberto? What is the meaning of this? Who is this woman? What is she doing here?" the brunette girl rapidly launched the questions in a thick Spanish accent. 

" Tranquila querida, it's only my future sister-in-law," he soothed. "Come, let's get dressed."

Future sister-in-law? Oh, whatever next?

"But she saw your berenjena,"  the brunette pointed out, a sulk evident in her tone.

"You calling my cock an aubergine?" Rabbie gently chided. "Now that's uncalled for."

The girl giggled as Claire heard them move away, and only when she was certain she was alone, did she take her hand off her eyes.

With shaking knees, she collapsed onto the nearest chair and wondered what the hell just happened.

..........

Jamie checked his phone as he headed towards the parking lot and noticed he had a missed call from Claire. She hadn't left a message, and when he'd tried to call back, she didn't answer. He'd just finished a session of photocalls for a sports magazine and was hoping to catch up with her in the pub. And find out more about this, John.  But which pub?

His thoughts zeroed in on Joe and immediately called his number.

"Hey, buddy." Joe sounded merry, and there were music and loud voices in the background. He thought maybe he joined Claire at the pub.

"Hey, Joe. Is Claire with ye?"

"Claire? No, sorry, mate. I'm out with the lads from work. Have you tried calling her?"

"Aye, but she's not answering. She told me she's going to a pub, but I didn't have the sense to ask her earlier which one."

"Mmm, we usually frequent The Last Drop. Maybe you ought to try looking for her there."

"I will do." Jamie found his car, got in and closed his eyes, only half-listening, trying to remember his other purpose for calling.

"I hardly get to see you nowadays, buddy. Claire told me you've been really busy, and she barely gets to see you too. But then, work is work isn't it? Can't turn your nose up when the opportunity knocks. Got to take it by the ..."

"Joe." The moment he said his name, Joe stopped talking.

"Yes?"

"Claire went out with this doctor bloke ...whatshisname ...John from St Leonards. What do ye ken of him?"

"John? John Grey?"

"Aye."

"He's sound. Pretty straight-up guy, ace doctor and hilarious as fuck."

Jamie coughed, an uncomfortable weight settling in his chest. "So ye ken him good, aye?"

"Of course I do. I got Claire that temp job, didn't I? He's a good pal of mine."

Jamie got straight to the point. "Why is he hanging out with Claire? Doesn't he know ...eh ... she's with me?"

A few seconds went by before Joe let out a loud unrestrained laugh. "Whoa! Who are you, and what have you done with James Fraser?"

He muttered a curse under his breath. "Look, listen ...I don't have time for this. I haven't been around Claire lately, but that's all gonnae change very soon. It's just that I've been so busy with the sports complex and interviews and other stuff, I thought she might feel I've neglected her and all. And I was wondering if she'd said anything to ye or ye'd had any hints of her going off me and started seeing other people."

"Well, mate that's what happens when you don't keep an eye on your lass ...you snooze, you lose," he replied laughing.

Irritation skated his back. "Stop taking the mickey, Joe! If ye ken something, spit it out."

"Hey! Hold yer horses, man," Joe countered, this time his tone sounding more serious. "You can't blame me for taking the piss. Are you even listening to yourself? You start asking stupid questions, you'll get stupid answers. Fuck, Jamie ... sometimes you're a picnic short of a sandwich. What do you think of Claire? Do you think, just because you don't have time for her, she'd start seeing other people? She's got more depth than that."

Jamie banged the back of his head against the headrest of the car seat, biting his tongue so he'd not say anything he'd regret later. "Ah, bugger it."

There was a long silence on the other end. Jamie wondered if he had better luck calling up Geillis, but at his state at the moment, he didn't think he had the patience for her usual smart-ass remarks.

"John is gay." Joe finally spoke.

He straightened up. "What?"

"John is gay, and he has a boyfriend, but that isn't the point here. Even if John wasn't gay, you don't have anything to worry about Claire's devotion to you. And my piece of advice ...if your conscience is bothering you not spending much time with her this much, then I suggest you do something about it. She's been messed about a lot. And I sometimes wonder why she chose to be with a man who has a past like yours. But hey, I'm not judging. So if it feels like she is a little bit distant, it's just her self-preservation mode kicking in. She doesn't ask for much, Jamie ...but a little reassurance that you're there for her will go a long way. That's all I have to say to that."

Something loosened up inside of him, and he realised he'd been holding his breath and clutching the steering wheel in a tight grip. He allowed himself to slowly relax and breath. "Thanks, Joe," was all he could manage. Nursing unnecessary worries was probably the universe's version of biting him on the arse for all those times he'd broken many girls' hearts even though he'd told himself many times he'd never led anyone on. But right now, he needed to put those excuses and insecurities aside and focus on Claire and making their relationship stronger.

"Jamie?"

"Aye?

"Welcome to the incredible world of jealousy. For the price of admission, you get an inferiority complex, palpitations, cold sweats, and a nearly irresistible urge to commit murder, But don't worry, buddy it's all just part of the teething problem. You'll survive."

Jamie let out a laugh, said goodbye and hung up. 

Having Claire in his life was worth the self-doubt and every pain in the arse things that came with it. But Joe's words' kept repeating over and over in his head.  Well, mate that's what happens when you don't keep an eye on your lass ...you snooze, you lose.  It was meant to be a joke, but he didn't like that one bit at all. Just a glimmer of risk to his relationship, suddenly, all he'd worked hard for, lost all of its meaning. Back when his entire life was all about making money out of fear for a shortlived career, he'd been ready to sell his soul. Then he met Claire. He'd said he was done with Forbes, done with the paparazzi, done with everything but the feisty Sassenach that turned his life upside down. However, not much had changed from his old life. He was still running around, trying to court big names in the celebrity world to sell his brand. Then the realisation hit him hard that there's a possibility he could lose her for good if nothing changed and he couldn't, at that moment, ever imagine another man with her. If that happened, it wouldn't be a laughing matter. And if that happened, he would never find another woman like her and all he'd have to show for in his life were the long hours at work but with no one to share it with. Just like what Ned Gowan once told him not too long ago. He closed his eyes to keep those horrible visions at bay. But somehow the images still managed to seep into his consciousness, and it terrified the hell out of him. 

It dawned on him, he would give up everything, pay every cent of his fortune to keep Claire his.  What the hell is happening to me?  Maybe it had something to do with the time he'd spent with her when he didn't need to be anyone other than himself. Perhaps it was the way that, through her, he had taken a good hard look at himself and wanted to change. But he needed to do more to guarantee she wouldn't slip away.

But first, he needed to find her.

.........

Claire poured hot water over the chamomile tea bag in the mug and then a healthy measure of whisky in a tumbler. After the horror of seeing a half-naked girl in Jamie's kitchen and Rabbie in the bare scud, she needed the soothing effects of the herbal brew and the immediate heat of the alcohol to calm her nerves.

She lifted a hand and saw it was still shaking. She'd already taken the pizza meant for Rabbie and company out of the oven and washed the dishes to keep herself busy and pacify her jitteriness. Even the sight and smell of melted cheese couldn't entice her to have a piece of their untouched dinner, her earlier appetite gone and dissipated. The feel of walking into what's supposed to be a romantic setting clung to her, as did the guilt for doubting Jamie ...and if she kept thinking about it, she was going to need more than a dram of whisky.

Dropping down on the nearby stool, she allowed herself to simply be and for once to stop overthinking. So far it hadn't done her any good, only given her sleepless nights and probably making Jamie worried with her constant display of disappointment. These small acts of dubiety against her practical nature were starting to become a liability and a bad character trait. She really needed to pull herself together and give Jamie some credence.

Rabbie walked into the kitchen, hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans and a tinge of red highlighting the tips of his ears. "Hey," he said, clearing his throat.

They looked at each other for a moment and then burst out laughing.

He ran an impatient hand through his hair. "God, that was embarrassing."

She wiped the tears from her eyes. "You didn't seem embarrassed when I saw you bollock-naked."

"Oh, that ...no. I'm not embarrassed about that." He jerked a thumb towards the living area. "Ye weren't supposed to know what we were up to ...I meant, at least not here in Jamie's apartment."

"Your girlfriend?" she asked.

"Maria ...aye ...weel, it's complicated. We've been on and off for the last six months. Tonight wasnae supposed to happen. I called Jamie earlier if I could crash here for the night and he said yes since you hardly come here anymore. On the way, I stopped by the pub and saw her. We had a few drinks, and then one thing led to another, we came here for some privacy and then ye appeared. She's still rattled about ye being here, and she's gone all shy. I'll introduce ye another time since she desperately wants to go."

"It's getting late, Rabbie. You can stay. There's enough room."

"Thanks but no thanks. We're good."

She gave him an apologetic look. "Sorry for ruining your evening."

"Ach, think nothing of it," he reassured with a wave of a hand. He was about to turn and go when he stopped on his tracks. "Ummm ...Claire?"

"Yes?"

"Please don't tell Jamie I brought a girl here."

"If he doesn't ask, I won't say a word," she said, smiling. "After I've drunk my tea and whisky, I'll go straight to bed, so I don't think Jamie will get a chance to ask questions."

"Thank you," he said gratefully. "umm ...I cleared all evidence in the guest bedroom."

"Good."

"See ye around, Claire."

She nodded and waved at the girl, thankful she didn't have to go through small talks with Rabbie's on and off girlfriend. As much as she would have loved to know more about the beautiful exotic looking girl, she couldn't wait to be on her own. Suddenly feeling spent from the roller-coaster emotions she'd been through that day, she downed the whisky in one go. She and Jamie needed to talk. Jamie wasn't the only one dealing with these massive changes in their lives. In the space of three months, there had been enormous upheavals in both their personal and professional lives, and she needed to tell him exactly what she was feeling even if only to vent and release what was troubling her. Constantly letting her imaginations run away from her wasn't healthy and certainly not good for their relationship.

Satisfied with her logic, she went to Jamie's bedroom, undressed and put on one of his t-shirts. And then she went to the kitchen and poured herself another dram, forgoing the tea, and taking it with her to the living area. Placing it on the coffee table, she plonked herself down on the massive leather recliner. It was her favourite place to snuggle into beside Jamie's arm. It had a remote, a seat warmer and it reclined into full position. Pulling the tartan blanket over her, she made herself comfortable. Forty winks were all she needed to regenerate and rid herself of today's troubles before Jamie arrives.

As she began to relax, a sense of peace settled over her. She murmured occasional comments to herself, reminding her of the things she needed to tell Jamie and making a mental to-do list for tomorrow. Gradually her limbs became heavier, and her lids closed, the image of the list floating away with her awareness.

"Claire?"

Her name sounded like dark syrup and caramel, rolling from a tongue. She sighed and lifted her face upward, too drowsy to raise her arms - the distinctive scent of Jamie, soap, and a hint of aftershave connecting to her senses. 

"Hmmm?"

Calloused fingers caressed her cheek, and she leaned against that warm hand and kissed his palm. A low mutter escaped his lips. "Christ, Sassenach, I've been looking everywhere for ye."

"I'm here" She stretched, her muscles contracting and releasing in anticipation. She sighed. "And you smell delicious."

"Sweet Jesus, ye're killing me."

The foggy haze of sleep clouded her brain waves. She blinked and reached out to brush back a strand of curl that fell on his brow and trace the edges of his soft, full lips with a fingertip. "You're so beautiful," she murmured. "Far too beautiful for me, though. Aren't you, Jamie?"

"A dhia. What am I going to do with ye?"

His lips brushed over hers, warm, firm, and sure, sipping from her mouth like he was savouring an expensive glass of whisky. The taste of him exploded on her tongue, and she whimpered, opening to him fully. He kissed her slow, without any concern about taking his time, tasting and sucking languidly until she dissolved into the recliner and the flesh between her legs throbbed with need. 

Just when she was fidgeting to get more of him, he broke the kiss and stared into her eyes. "I was out of my mind searching every pub in Edinburgh for ye. And when I went to yer cottage, and ye weren't there, I thought ...I thought ...Christ I dinnae even want to say the words. Just thinking about it is tearing my guts out."

A little butterfly fluttered in her belly. "I'm sorry ..."

"No." He swept a hand over her hair and cupped her cheek, an unfamiliar light gleaming in his blue eyes. "I'm the one who owes ye an apology."

The unfiltered display of concern, dread and hope was visible in his face, making her want to alleviate the burdens on his shoulders and erase the worries she'd caused. He was trying so hard for her, a terrain she'd never encountered before when she was with Frank. She straightened and laid a soft kiss on his lips. "Well, I guess we just need to talk things over and ..."

Jamie gently pushed her back down onto the recliner. "Where do ye think ye're going?"

She frowned. "Ah, well, bedroom ... that's if you don't mind me staying over for the night," she mumbled.

"Is that so?" he whispered, a flicker of amusement lighting his eyes.

"Huh?"

"No."

"No?"

"Open yer thighs for me, Sassenach," he murmured, a muscle popping in his cheek. Without waiting for her reply or reaction, his lips coasted along her jawline, his hot breath on her skin, sending shivers spiralling down her spine.

"Jamie!"

"Sssh, let me love ye, Sassenach."

She wanted to object. There was so much she needed to say, express and unload, but her body had other things in mind. Her legs parted of their own accord, her desire to feel Jamie more potent than she realised.

Shifting on his knees by the recliner, Jamie slid his palm up her inner thigh. He stalled when he reached her centre and planted two fingers over the soaked seam of her panties, stroking the sensitive flesh underneath with deliberate slowness. Every particle of oxygen in Claire's lungs rushed out of her, lust turning the corner like a horse set free and thundering across the paddock. She could only close her eyes and allow Jamie to slip his hand inside the tiny scrap of garment that hid her modesty.

When his fingers slid down her wetness, her hips jerked on a moan and heat flashed in Jamie's expression. 

She grabbed his shirt, drawing him in for a kiss, to taste more of him.

"No," Jamie muttered.

"Please, Jamie. I need you. I want you inside me." They weren't the words she'd planned to say tonight. But she still meant it in a way that went beyond her physical need. She needed his presence, his heart, his love, his mind, his spirit, and everything that makes Jamie, Jamie.

"No, Sassenach," he whispered, shaking his head and biting his lip. His fingers parted her folds and teased her nub in a tight circle. "I want to watch ye."

Head dropping back, her brain started to short-circuit, and her pulse boomed in her ears. She almost cried out loud when Jamie's touch abandoned her briefly to push the blanket away and strip her panties off, baring her for his perusal. Not that she could find an ounce of shyness left to care at that particular moment. The way he was touching her, rid the last vestige of finesse and decorum she had left, writhing wantonly to the movement of his skilful fingers. She was so hot, she thought her skin would surely scorch if touched.

"Sassenach, look at ye. So fucking beautiful, so bloody perfect I could do this for eternity, and it would never be enough."

Jamie rubbed her swollen nub with his thumb, chuckling when her back bowed with a groan. His laughter subsided when he lowered his head and sucked the tip of her breasts through her shirt. Just when she thought she couldn't take any more of his ministration, he caught her nipple between his teeth and simultaneously, twisted his middle finger up inside of her.

"Oh God, oh sweet Mother of God," she whimpered. "I can't...oh, Jamie, please. It's too much."

"Aye, ye can,  mo chridhe," he said hoarsely, adding a second finger and pushing up her shirt to suck her nipple. "Move your hips more."

Jamie's command only drove her urgency higher. Unable to reply, her body did the talking and obeyed his instructions, her body thrashing as sob after sob escaped her lips. Her movements became more frantic when a coil inside her wound tighter and tighter, and his fingers delved in deeper. With her nerve endings going off like little bells, Claire moved her hips in time with his fingers. They drove in and out of her, faster and faster until she almost couldn't stand the oncoming onslaught of an impending release. It built, engulfed and intensified around her, just like in an opera when the act reaches a crescendo.

"Oh, my God, Jamie ...Jamie," she cried out, seizing the front of his shirt. "I'm...yes, yes, yes."

The climax billowed through her and clutched her muscles, blowing cinders at her nerves until she swore she would combust. Jamie's finger found her sweet spot and stroke it with swift, sure movements, a scream forming in the back of her throat.

"Aye, scream yer little heart out, Sassenach. That's my lass."

And she did, making her orgasm more luminescent and sweeping like she could jump into it and disappear. Perhaps she did for a few heartbeats, because when she finally opened her eyes, there was only the smell of Jamie's neck, the feel of his strong arms around her, even though she had no recollection of him pulling her close.

He kissed her softly, a small smile lighting his handsome face.

After her heart had settled into its usual rhythm, she reached out and touched his face. "Jamie, we need to talk." When he frowned, she quickly gave him a reassuring squeeze with her hand. "No ...it's nothing bad ...or anything like that. It's just that I have a few things I need to get off my chest."

Relief descended on his expression, softening his face, almost making her feel guilty she was the cause of the worried look. "Aye, tomorrow, we'll talk ..."

"But you're working, and we'd been putting this off ..."

"Are ye working tomorrow?" he asked, his thumb caressing the base of her neck.

"I have a late shift and ..."

"I'll take the morning off, and we'll talk." When she didn't answer, he pulled his phone from the back of his jeans pocket and made a demonstration of turning it off. "Phone off. Tomorrow, we'll have breakfast and talk. But tonight I just want to hold ye, is that alright, Sassenach?

She nodded, sighed and went limp, suddenly feeling drowsy but a lot lighter in her chest.

Moments later, he carried her boneless body to bed and laid her carefully down on her back. After a quick wash in the bathroom, Jamie stripped off his clothes, climbed into bed, and curved his front to her back, holding her tightly in the dark.

Just before sleep claimed her, she heard Jamie whisper, "Ye're mine, Sassenach as I'm yers," his arms pulling her in closer as if afraid she would get up and go. Before she could dwell on it, his words danced away with her consciousness into the oblivion of deep sleep.