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Conversations in the Dark

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      Tuesday dawned bright and warm. The sun’s rays poured through the windows directly onto the bed and the light crept slowly into Claire’s consciousness. She stirred slightly, and reached for her phone.

      6:10 a.m.

      She rolled over. Jamie was still asleep. They had made slow, sweet, gentle love deep into the night, prolonging their pleasure with lingering, soulful kisses, and whispering sweet nothings that were really sweet everythings. Whispered words of desire and praise and adoration for each other, coming as close to declarations of love as they dared. They spent hours caught up in learning every inch of each other with their lips and tongues and fingertips. And when both were completely spent, they snuggled, facing each other, whisky eyes locked with ocean eyes in the dim glow of the moonlight that filtered softly through the windows. She didn’t know who succumbed to sleep first, but it didn’t matter. They were so completely in sync, right down to their breathing, that they had drifted off within seconds of each other.

      Jamie was on his back now with one arm on the pillow above his head. The bed covers gathered below his belly button afforded her a generous view of his delectable V-line. She raised herself on one arm, and allowed herself the luxury of slowly inspecting the muscled magnificence of his upper body. Her eyes lingered on the faint line of hair that went down the middle of his lower abdomen and disappeared under the bed covers. She moved her gaze up to his pecs and shoulders and biceps - every defined line and hollow bearing testimony to the hours he spent working out. She bit her lip unconsciously as she fought the urge to reach out and caress his skin.

     “What are you doing, Sassenach?” His voice was a low, sleepy rumble and his eyes were still adjusting to the light.

      Startled, she blushed hotly and hesitated before answering him. “Uh ... okay, I can’t wriggle my way out of this one. I was ogling. You have a magnificent body, Jamie. You know that, because you work hard for it.  I … uh … I was being greedy and taking the opportunity to stare at it, uninterrupted. Until you interrupted me.”

      He chuckled. “Come here.” He pulled her down and she lay her head on his chest, his arm wrapped protectively around her back. Still feeling wracked with guilt about the way Dougal had attacked her yesterday, he kissed the top of her head, inhaling her fragrance deeply. They lay there in silence for a while - the only sound she could hear was his strong heartbeat in her ear. It felt comforting and reassuring. She rested her hand on his abdomen, her fingernail gently exploring the grooves of his toned abdominals. 

      “We should get up for our run,” she said softly. They both had a busy morning planned. She had a number of personal calls to make and emails to write, and she was also hoping to write a series of letters to potential donors. Jamie had a lot of follow-up calls and emails from the previous day’s meetings. No to mention the Dougal drama! He would need to ramp up the timeline on getting Dougal out of his business - and now out of his personal matters too.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      They completed a 3 mile run and returned home drenched and panting. It was going to be a 90º plus day, and they were already feeling the effects of the heat. It would take her longer to recover from the run because she wasn't accustomed to it, like Jamie was. She usually did twenty strenuous minutes on the step machine after her yoga sessions, so she was fairly fit, but her stamina was not at Jamie’s level.

      “I think you’re right! I need to do this at least twice a week to build up stamina.”

      “You did great - and yes, let’s do it again this weekend, when I’m back from the Grotto.”

 

      While Jamie did his weights workout, Claire took a shower, using the time to plan out her work day, and prioritize her tasks. She dressed comfortably in soft blue yoga shorts and a navy tank - it was too hot for anything else. She dried her hair as best she could and let it fall in natural curls. A quick application of her light daytime makeup and a spritz of Daisy, and she was ready to face the day. She headed to the kitchen, and started to prepare a light breakfast of bagels, lox, and cream cheese. Jamie was still upstairs in the shower, so she sat at the kitchen island and checked emails while she waited. She deleted the spam, flagged a few of them for priority replies, and there was one that she needed to discuss with Jamie.

      He joined her in the kitchen less than ten minutes later - hair still damp, smelling spicy and woodsy, and looking comfortably cool in white shorts and a soft blue tee. He hadn’t shaved, and his scruff was coming along nicely. Coming up behind her, he wrapped his arms around her and nuzzled her shoulder. She smiled and tilted her head so he could plant kisses from her shoulder all the way up to her ear. 

      “You smell so good, Sassenach.”

      She caressed his face for a moment, and leaned in to kiss him. And what started as a sweet kiss on the lips deepened into a long, sensual kiss that left them both wondering if they would be able to focus on the work they needed to take care of over the next few hours.

      “You are too damn sexy for your own good, Sassenach. How am I supposed to focus on my work?”

      “I could say the same about you! Good thing we are in separate work spaces.”

     

      Between bites of their breakfast, they coordinated their lunch time, planned to spend the afternoon at the pool, and made tentative plans to DoorDash their dinner.

      “Jamie, I know you have a ton of follow-up stuff to do today, but what does your day look like tomorrow?”

      “I kept it pretty open because I’m gone on Thursday and Friday, and I wanted to spend tomorrow with you. What did you have in mind?”

      “Frank and I bought the girls a car for their 16th, and I just got an email from the dealership. It’s ready for pick-up from this afternoon. I was wondering if you would come with me to pick it up tomorrow - early afternoon?”

      “Of course, Sassenach, I’d be happy to.”

      “Thank you. Liv comes tomorrow too - my house cleaner. If you have any laundry, she’s still happy to do it.”

      “I just threw in a load after my shower, but thank you. I’ll still leave her a note and a little extra money - she has more to do with me here.”

      “She'll be very thankful for that. We can grab a bite to eat in Bellevue when we pick up the car, and that gives Liv time and space to do her thing. Have you ever eaten at Din Tai Fung?” 

      “No - but I’ll go with any of your recommendations.”

     “Oh, you’re in for a treat!”

 

      They headed off to their separate work spaces and spent the next few hours working through their own to-do lists. At around 11, Jamie brought her some ice-cold water and a small bowl of fresh berries to snack on. 

      “Thank you! What did I do to deserve this?” He really was almost too good to be true.

      “I just needed an excuse to see you.” He bent down to nuzzle her neck with his scruff, and after a quick kiss, he headed back downstairs.

 

      Rather than text, Claire placed a call to Melissa. Mentioning her to Jamie last night had been a good reminder to check in on her friend and she wanted to hear her voice. 

      “Mel! I’ve been meaning to call, but it’s been completely crazy. How’s everyone doing? Any Covid spread in your team?”

      “It’s great to hear from you - I’m still so bummed I had to cancel last week. One more in my team is down, but the rest of us quarantined fast, so we’re all good. How are things with the professorship?”

      “So far so good. It’s ramping up now, so I’ll probably know within a few weeks.”

      “They have to give it you, Claire, there’s no one better qualified.”

      “Yeah, not so fast. They really like a guy from Wharton. I’m a little worried about a line of questioning from one of the selection committee. He dragged the PILF thing in.”

      “Asshole! I hope you put him in his place.”

      "I reminded him of the donations that came from power women who backed me. Shut him up fast. I miss you - still thinking of coming out?”

      “Yes! Maybe late July, early August. Does that sound good? Can’t wait to see you and the girls!”

      “Of course! Uh … Mel … there may be someone else here at that time.”

      “Okay - anyone I know? Nonna?”

      “I’m still working on Nonna, actually. No, it’s someone I met ...”

      “Claire! You met someone - and you haven’t said anything!”

       “It’s so new - I met him just over a week ago. Oh, God that sounds so bad. I’ll start at the beginning.”

      She gave Melissa the basic details of the most unlikely sounding story she had ever recounted.

      “I’m almost speechless with excitement and happiness for you, my friend. You sound so happy! Are you going to tell me his name?”

      “Yes, but only because you’re my closest friend and I trust you not to breathe it to anyone. It’s Jamie Fraser.”

      “Sweet mother of pearl! What?”

      “I know - I have to pinch myself daily. Multiple times a day.”

      “Uhh … he should be the one pinching himself, you know that, right? Claire …” Her voice trailed off, and Claire knew what she was thinking.

      “Mel, I know - it’s the Hollywood stereotype thing, right? Hard to move past that. I want you to know that I have done a lot of soul-searching over the past week. We’ve been together in this weird lock-down situation, from morning until night, for over a week now; three meals a day together, talking late into the night, every night. If that time was spread out over the course of a regular, non-quarantine new relationship, it would probably be four to six weeks of dating and getting to know each other. We’ve literally compressed that into a week. He’s an amazing man, Melissa. Not just hot and ... uh ... you know…”

      “Yeah - I watched ‘Clan Hearts’, and if that’s anything to go by, you’re not getting much sleep.”

      “Well beyond all that, we have an amazing connection. Hard to explain. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. You’ll understand when you see us together.”

      “I’m looking forward to that! You really deserve this kind of happiness, hon.”

      “Thanks, Mel."

       They chatted for a little while longer, and ended the call with promises to stay in touch about Melissa's rescheduled visit to Seattle.

      Claire checked her to-do list, and was happy with the progress she was making. A few more important emails, but first she needed to text the girls and call Nonna.

      Tapping her message app, she selected the basketball pic from l ast nigh t and texted it to the girls.

       omg mom, u guys look so cute! smiling face with heart-eyes

       yah! beth’s still shipping u guys hard, but she’s right. u kinda look like a couple

       ur shipping them too ella!

       c’mon girls, don’t get all silly

       how are mr. f's basketball skills?

       i had to work with him on his aiming skills. u will need to go easy on him

       no way - we’re ready to crush him

       ella, u are too competitive. good sportsmanship above all else, remember!

       we’ll be nice, mom, don’t worry. ella, u need to calm down

       i’ll facetime u girls later - still have some emails to send. love u face blowing a kiss

 

      Claire placed a call to Nonna, who was delighted to hear from her, as usual. She was still hesitant about travel, but had ventured out to play bridge. She had thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her bridge club friends, whom she’d known for many years. Claire was relieved that Nonna sounded more upbeat and positive than she had done during their last call. She had been concerned about the effects of so much social distancing and isolation on her elderly friend. It would take a little more work, but she was hopeful of convincing Nonna to visit within the next couple of months.

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      Jamie and Claire met in the kitchen at 12:30, and quickly put together cheese and ham paninis and a salad, which they ate on the covered patio with the ceiling fan turned up high.

      Jamie was unusually subdued at lunch, and she wondered if more problems had arisen with Dougal or one of the studios. Eventually, he took her hand and looked at her with some trepidation in his eyes and a little hesitation in his demeanor.

      “Claire, I want to bounce something off you. I hope you won’t be angry.”

      “Okay,” she nodded encouragingly, a little nervous about what he was going to say. 

      “Yesterday, I mentioned to Tara that you were really worried about the girls’ exposure traveling back on a commercial plane and through busy airports and the like.”

      “Mmhmm …” She wondered why he had shared that with Tara.

      “I asked her to put out some feelers with the studios to see who had a private jet out on the East Coast.”

      Her eyes widened as she realized where he was going with this.

      “All studios have multiple jets, and they're all over the country at all times. They fly actors and execs around all the time. If an actor gets a DUI in Miami or New Orleans or anywhere, you can bet a studio will be sending a private plane to pick him up while PR scrambles to spin it. It’s not a big deal for them.”

      “Okay?”

      “Turns out Stargate and DC Comics will both have jets in the New England area next week. I asked her to look into the DC Comics one - don’t feel comfortable asking Stargate after yesterday’s meeting.”

      She nodded, quite dumbfounded by the extent of his thoughtfulness.

      “So she got me all the details. It looks like one of the DC execs is heading out to his house in the Hamptons next week, and it’s just about an hour’s flight to Boston. The jet can pick up the girls at a small airport in Boston - there are several to choose from - and fly them home directly. The plane is a 14-seater Embraer Legacy 600 - it’s beautiful, I traveled in it earlier this year. I spent some time looking into the plane this morning - I’ll show you the website. It’s got a great safety record. The range is around 3700 miles, and Boston to Seattle is around 2500 miles, so no refueling stops. They are more than happy to bring the girls home. No other passengers will be on the flight, and they will provide an attendant, who is willing to Zoom or FaceTime with you in case you have questions or requests. Will you think about it, please, Claire? I canna imagine you having to road-trip. You are going to be in the midst of your professorship interviews and meetings.” 

      “Jamie …” she started. “I’m speechless, actually.”

      “Are you angry? I should have checked with ye first, but I didn’t want to get too excited until I knew there was a plane available.”

       “A private jet for the girls! I’m not angry, Jamie. First, I am just beyond touched by your thoughtfulness. But I have questions.”

      “Ask away, and I’ll try to answer them, or at least find the answers you need.”

      “Will it make things awkward for you in anyway? Will the studios expect some sort of ‘you owe us’?”

      “Not at all. Like I said, it’s very routine for them to fly all over the county. My name is not even involved. Tara has a lot of influence in Hollywood.”

      “I can trust the girls to keep this absolutely confidential, but I’m not quite sure what I would tell Frank. He might want to know who arranged it, how it all happened, etc. And he has a right to ask. How do I explain your involvement?”

      “I’m not sure how to navigate that part. I can think a little about how the PR people would spin it. They’re great at getting information across without revealing too much, and not blatantly lying about it.”

      “Yes, I’ll have to think about it too. When do you have to confirm with Tara?”

      “By tomorrow night.”

      “Jamie, thank you so much. I am so grateful.”

       He broke into a broad smile, “I think the lasses would get a kick out of it. It’s really comfortable. They can sleep, or use the wi-fi, or enjoy the endless snacks and treats.”

      “Are you kidding! They will love it! You are going to be their hero.”

      “That’s not what it’s about, Sassenach. I’m not trying to curry favor with them. I’m concerned for their safety too.”

      “I know that, and so will they. But you’ll still be their hero.”

      “Full Fraser honesty here - a road trip there and back would take you away from me for three weeks! How do you expect me to survive without ye for that long?”

      “I don’t think I could either.” 

      He kissed her fingers and released her hand.

      “Let’s get this cleaned up, and grab our swimsuits. It’s a great day to float around the pool together.”

 

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      They spent the afternoon on the floating island, occasionally diving into the water to cool off. Both attended to a stream of emails and texts. Claire connected her iPad to the hidden blue-tooth speakers, and randomly selected a recommended playlist from Spotify. 

      Tapping her message app, she selected ’Armando’, and sent him a quick text. Something had been on her mind since the previous day, and she thought Armando might be the one to help her figure it out.

       hey u! can u do lunch on friday?

      he responded almost immediately.

       of course! where are u thinking?

       University Village? i’m on campus in the morning, so it’s a quick walk, and it’s not far from ur salon.

       sounds perfect. 1:00 work for you?

       yes. meet outside Starbucks. also, can u share ur favorite summer playlist on Spotify. i’m not feeling the one i’m listening to right now.

       sure. what are u doing?

       floating around the pool

       with… smiling face with heart-eyes ?

       yes face blowing a kiss  

       ok - stand by. i’ll send my playlist in a few.

 

      Around 10 minutes later, she accepted his shared playlist and hit play.

      “I’m changing this mid-song,“ she warned Jamie, “my friend just shared his playlist - I needed something more upbeat.”

      “Sounds good.” Jamie reached for her hand distractedly, and kissed it before releasing it again. 

      “This is going to be one of my favorite pastimes of the summer, ye ken. Floating in the pool with you beside me - for hours and hours.”

      “I know - I could do this every afternoon too.” 

      Harry Styles’ ‘Watermelon Sugar’ wafted out of the speaker.

      Oh Armando, is that how you’re going to do this - wait until I see you on Friday!

      “Oh, this is more like it, babe! It sounds like beach party music.”

      “You know what this song is about, right?”

      “Sweet watermelons?” he offered.

      “Google it sometime.”

 

      She tapped out an email to Uncle Lamb, filled with general news about the her work, the girls’ trip to Boston, and news about her professorship ambitions. She avoided mentioning Jamie, sensing that it would be better as a phone conversation. They emailed a couple of times a month when Lamb was on an archaeological site and more frequently when he was home in Oxfordshire. Currently, he was on site in Egypt, so she knew she might not hear from him for a week or more. Lamb refused to come to grips with smart phone technology, so FaceTiming was a rarity. He considered emails quite cutting edge, and Claire indulged him.

      Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” replaced Harry Styles, and Claire suppressed a giggle. Jamie shot her a quick look:

      "Who's the friend sending you his sexy song playlist? Should I be worried? Tell me it's not Ashlee's dad."

      "Oh God, no! It's one of my dearest friends, Armando, who's also my hairstylist. You have him to thank for my choice of dress last Saturday. And no, you should not be worried. He has been happily married to a wonderful man for a good few years now."

      “In that case, I hope to meet him and thank him in person soon. Babe, what was the name of the restaurant you mentioned for tomorrow?”

      “Din Tai Fung”

      Jamie tapped on his iPad and explored the restaurant website. 

      “If it tastes as good as it looks, it’ll be an awesome lunch!”

      “It’s beyond delicious. It’s a very popular restaurant. I got us a table at 2:00.”

      “Sounds great. I see it’s right in the middle of all the Bellevue malls - I’m going to order a few things for in-store pick-up. Is that okay, babe?”

      “Of course! I might do the same - and the girls will probably want to order some clothes. We’ll get their car after that.”

      “Where are we getting the car?”

      “From Tesla in Bellevue - not the Mall, it’s at their main branch a few blocks away.

      “You got the girls a Tesla?”

      “It’s a pre-owned Model 3. Supposed to be one of the safest cars on the road - that was my biggest consideration. Also, it’s enviro-friendly and they won’t have to pay for gas. Plus, I already have the charging set-up all ready to go in the garage.”

      “Lucky lasses! Are they going to share the car happily, or will it become an issue?”

      “They know they're getting a car to share, they just don’t know it’s the Model 3, so that will be a surprise. And they’re completely okay with sharing. They might be very different in many ways, but they have mostly the same friends, and they’re both in cheer and volleyball, so driving to practice and hanging out with friends will work well.”

      “Frank’s okay with all of it too?”

      “Yes. Eventually. We went back and forth a lot. I had to handle it sensitively. He wanted to go fifty-fifty on all the expenses - a matter of pride for him. College professors don’t exactly earn the big bucks you know, and he has another family to take care of. So when I found this screaming deal on the Model 3, I jumped on it. It was less than a thousand dollars more than the next make we were looking at, and the pros out-weighed it. So he agreed. I’m not gonna lie - I was surprised he made the decision so quickly.” She chuckled wryly. “He probably just wanted to get it over with so he wouldn't have to field more phone calls from me.”

      Shakira’s distinctive warble was replaced by AC/DC’s gravelly “You Shook Me All Night Long.”  Claire could no longer suppress her reaction, and her laughter bubbled up as she looked at Jamie and shrugged, “What can I say - he has eclectic tastes.”

      “Nothing wrong with a bit of hard rock, Sassenach. This is a classic. But … English thighs.”

      She looked at him, puzzled.

      “Keep listening.”

 

      Jamie lay the iPad down on his chest and turned to her attentively. “I’ve avoided asking you about Frank because it made me so angry when you told me what had happened in Boston. Still does! How do you get along now? Are you co-parenting well?”

      “Well, I wouldn't call it co-parenting exactly. He allows me to set the terms and limits for visits and such, and when the girls are with him, he’s very attentive and engaged with them. They always have a good time in Boston - but I think a lot of that is due to Kelly. When they’re home, they FaceTime him weekly. He’s always interested in their grades and their successes at school. But the part he misses out on is them as people - who their friends are, what movies they like, their favorite ice-cream place, the great things they do at the stables for special needs kids, and all the other volunteering that they do. He wasn't there when they won state at cheer and volleyball, he’s never seen them in the school’s drama productions; he has no clue that Beth will read Emily Bronte poetry and drown in the angst of it all, while Ella will read John Green’s books because they’re more risqué and more relevant to today’s teens. He won’t get a read on their first boyfriends, or help them through their first break-up, or take prom pictures, or go to their homecoming game - all those important milestones. Obviously, I resigned myself to that all when I left Boston years ago. But it stings that Frank doesn’t take more of an interest. He’s never asked for the videos of their cheer competitions or volleyball games. He rarely asks for pictures - I always send him pics on their birthday. It’s just who he is.”

      “Makes you wonder what he’s like with the little kids - the girls’ step-siblings.” Jamie seemed fascinated by the fact that a man could be so disengaged from the lives of his own children.

      “I get the sense that Kelly really pushes him to be more involved. Frank was in a biking accident a couple of years after I moved in with Nonna. He was cycling to work and was hit by van. Shattered his pelvis, and Kelly was his physical therapist. She’s very caring, but very no-nonsense. He must have had some sort of epiphany during the months of rehab and recovery. I can’t imagine Kelly falling for the man I knew back then. It seems to have worked for them though. I like Kelly a lot - would far rather deal with her than with Frank, to be honest.”

      “Have you thought any more about what you might tell Frank about the girls’ flight home?”

      “I’ll probably tell him you’re a well-connected neighbor and have access to people who can easily arrange flights. Are you comfortable with that?”

      “Aye. None of it is a lie. Just a wee little secret in there.”

      “I know - but I do feel a little bad about not being entirely forthcoming. I just hope he doesn’t ask the girls anything about the neighbor. I can’t expect them to lie. I’ll hold off telling all of them until the weekend.”

      “The girls really don’t know any more than what you’ll tell him. To the girls and Frank, I am no more than a neighbor with some connections, as you said. You don’t owe him more of an explanation than that, babe.” He got a wicked little glint in his eye. “Unless you really want to share that the guy who arranged the flight is the one making love to you all night, every night. The one who can’t get enough of your kisses and who loses his mind when your hips start to move, because yours definitely don’t lie, and the one who brings out all yer wee noises when he-”

      “Yep - I get it, Fraser! You are insufferable and insatiable.” 

      “And ye love it!”

      “As much as it pains me to admit it, you are correct. I do love it. And now I am confiscating your iPad so we can make out like a couple of horny teens.”

      She took the iPad from his chest and rolled towards him as Selena Gomez’ ‘Come and Get It’ drifted from the speakers.

      “Oh Sassenach, I like this playlist more with each song! I’ll come and get it any time.”

      He rolled towards her and kissed her thoroughly. When the song ended, and ‘Perfect’ came on, they both smiled broadly. 

      “Remind me to thank Armando - this is quite the playlist! Maybe now I’ll get to kiss you for this entire song. From start to finish.”

      He rolled slowly onto her, and did exactly that.

     

- - - - - - - - - - - -

 

      By the time they headed up to the house to shower and change, it was almost time to FaceTime the girls. They placed a quick DoorDash order for pizza. It seemed like the perfect meal to end a simple, but productive day.

      They sat at the island and started the FaceTime call.

      “Hi girls,” Jamie and Claire spoke at the same time, and the girls had a fit of giggles over that.

      “You guys are so synced. What’s the deal with that?”

      Claire shrugged. “You girls do that too, sometimes. How was your day?”

      “It was good, but we’re really missing you mom! This week is dragging. I just miss my mom hugs and our Starbucks outings.” Ella sounded almost tearful, which was unlike her.

      “Me too, Mom! I just want to come and watch the sunrise with you and snuggle on the terrace like we do sometimes.”

      Claire swallowed hard. Jamie’s hand reached under the counter and squeezed her knee gently. She clutched his fingers and held on tight.

      “I miss you both so much too. Just one more week. Try to keep busy and the days will fly by. Do you want me to ship you some craft supplies to work on with the littles?”

      “Sure.”

      “Okay - text me some links and I’ll order on Prime. Tomorrow, Mr. Fraser and I are going to Bellevue to pick up some things. If you want to order any clothes or stuff from Sephora, I can pick it up for you. Use your allowance money and forward me the order confirmations.”

      “Okay. Thanks, Mom.

      “Can I order something for you, Mom? Early birthday present?” Beth looked excited about spending some time doing online shopping.

      “You don’t need to do that, Beth. There’s plenty of time.”

      “Yah, but since you’re going to be there anyway, you can pick it up.”

      “Where are you ordering from?” Claire wanted to ensure they kept it to stores within the mall area.

      "Uh … I’ll have to tell you in code.” Beth sounded secretive and just a little sassy.

      "Oh! I bet I know,” Ella jumped in. “Mom, it’s very special. You know - VS. Very Special.”

      “Yes,” Beth confirmed. “VS for verrrry special. Special like my friend Victoria, who is so secretive.” 

      Jamie made a valiant effort to keep a straight face, and did remarkably well.

      “Girls,” she said in a warning tone, “text it to me first.”

      She was used to the girls sending her links to hopelessly unsuitable dresses and lingerie.  

      “And text me the links or confirmations to anything you want me to pick up tomorrow.”

      “Okay, thanks Mom.”

      “Mr. Fraser, how are the house plans coming on?”

      “Actually, I have another meeting with architects this weekend. We’re going to talk about it generally, so they have an idea of what I want, and then they’ll start planning.”

      “That sounds so exciting. And the stables?”

      “Yes - I’m giving that more thought too. It’s looking promising.”

      “Yeah! Beth and I can help to look after the horses.”

      “Ahh, you girls are the best. Thank you!”

      “Okay, babies. You go and do your online shopping and text me all the links. Love you both so much.”

      “You too.” They blew kisses as she tapped out of the call.

 

      Jamie put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “It’s getting hard for them, isn’t it? They miss their Mam. I’m dreading being away from you for just a week, and they’ve been gone several weeks already.” 

      Her phone buzzed a few times as the girls’ links came in. A few craft items from Amazon, and a photo frame - she guessed they were going to take a picture of themselves and their step siblings and gift it to Frank and Kelly. The last link was to a lace baby-doll from Victoria’s Secret.

      “I approve,” Jamie said, raising a brow and giving her his killer half smile.

      “You stay out of this - you already told me you’d approve all their suggestions, you horny Scot. I’ll text her directly and tell her no. My girls should not be buying me this stuff. Boundaries, you know?” 

 

      They headed down to the stone patio with a bottle of rosé and glasses. Dusk had already fallen, and sunlight was draped over the top of the mountain peaks. It looked beautiful, and as they settled into the Adirondack chairs with their glasses, he unconsciously reached for her hand, as he’d done every time they had spent time chatting into the night. 

      “Do you know that you always hold my hand when we sit out in the dark and talk? From the night we met.”

      “Aye. I remember that first night. When you told me about that dreadful day with Frank and his student. I was so afraid that I had upset ye by bringing up painful memories, and I felt a need to comfort ye. And it just felt right every night since then. When I was just a lad and I did something naughty or mean, my Da would sit me down and have a long talk. And he always told me that I showed all my feelings and pain on my face, and he couldn't bear it when he reprimanded me and my feelings were hurt. So he always held my hand when he scolded me. He said it was a way to stay connected and a reminder that even though he was disciplining me, he still loved me, and that hand-to-hand touch was physical proof of our unbreakable connection as father and son. And I never forgot that. I never want to stop holding yer hand when we talk, Claire. Our hands will always connect us.”

      “I hope you never stop holding my hand when we talk, Jamie. I love to feel your warm hands holding mine. They are so strong and reassuring and comforting, and yet I know how very gentle and loving and nurturing they are too. When our hands are connected, our hearts are too.”

      He leaned across and kissed her lips, touched by the emotion in her words and voice. They sat steeped in their thoughts for a moment, until Claire eventually broke the silence.

      “Can I ask about Dougal? I haven’t wanted to mention him because I know it was a stressful day for you yesterday. Is it okay to ask?”

      “Claire, you should never feel like you canna ask me something. I will always answer you honestly, and if I don’t have the answer, I’ll tell ye that honestly too.”

      She nodded thoughtfully.

      “You’re right though, it was a very stressful day, and his attack on you was by far the most distressing moment. I so badly wanted to hit him and shut him up, but I didn't want to add more violence or tension to the event - especially right in front of you, in yer home, Claire.”

      “I’m glad you maintained that control, Jamie. I was fearful that you’d lose it and hurt him.”

      “It was out of respect for you, and for my Mam, Uncle Colum and Aunt Jocasta that I kept myself in check. I Zoomed with Colum and Jocasta this morning. We all agree that it’s time for Dougal to come back to Scotland. He could work in the MacKenzie businesses - probably the distillery. He’s also a shareholder in Lallybroch Farms - a small stake - so he could focus on that too. Murtagh has some ideas on that to share with me on the drive up to The Grotto. There’s a lot to keep him busy in Scotland. We’re going to Zoom with him in a day or two and tell him that he has a month to get his affairs in order in the U.S. I’ve worked out a decent termination package with some residual income for the projects he worked on for me. He did some good work for me in the early years, Claire, and I do owe him that much.”

      “Absolutely, Jamie. I completely agree. Just because he said some awful and hateful things to me doesn't mean that I want to see him completely crushed. He put his life on hold for you and Jenny when you needed him, and you’re doing the honorable thing by him.”

      “Colum and Jocasta want to protect his pride a little and call it ‘skill-set re-alignment’, rather than a termination. So they want him to use his strengths and management experience in the family business in Scotland, rather than meddling in my life. I really don’t care what they call it, as long as he stays out of my career plans and personal life.”

      They watched as the last of the sun’s rays faded from the mountain peaks, content to sit in silence, their fingers entwined, connecting them to each other.

      “Claire, can I ask ye something?”

      “Of course - you can ask me anything too, Jamie.”

      “I don’t want to bring up painful memories, so it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”

      “Jamie, we can talk about anything.”

     “Yesterday in the shower, you seemed quite stricken when I noticed yer wee scar, and I saw some pain in yer eyes that you tried to hide by changing the subject. Is it okay to talk about it?” 

     “Yes. You’re wondering why I reacted so strongly? I did try to hide my feelings - guess I didn’t do a great job of that.” 

     “I think we’ve learned to read each other verra well in a short time.”

      “We have,” she smiled, “and it amazes me that you can do that with me. I know I can be hard to read. After I had my babies, I spent six weeks with them in the hospital. During that time, the medical team took care of me too - my incision, you know. They dressed it daily and removed the stitches carefully - they were just awesome. I thought my scar looked pretty good and the team said it would heal well and the scar would start to fade nicely within a few months. I was anxious to get home with my babies, and wanted to try to make the best life for them with Frank. And I knew that we had to work on our relationship - every aspect of it.”  She paused and gathered her thoughts. “Doctors always tell new moms to wait about six weeks before resuming sex - sorry, this will be a lot of TMI!”

      “It’s okay, mo ghràidh.” His voice was gentle and reassuring, and his thumb caressed the back of her hand.

      “So by the time we went home, it was the six-week mark, and I wanted to make an effort to please Frank. A few days after getting home, I had a decent sense of the girls’ sleep routine, and I set up the scene in our bedroom to … uh … reconnect with Frank. I knew I only had a few hours while the babies slept, and I lit candles and put on some silk pajamas, and I thought he would be pretty excited. It started off well, but when he saw my scar, he … uh … completely lost … interest, if you know what I mean. He couldn’t … after that.” 

      Jamie’s thumb stopped caressing for a split second and then resumed.

     “He was so obviously turned off by my boobs, the scar - my belly wasn’t totally flat yet. And he refused to touch me sexually for months after that. When he did, the room had to be in complete darkness. And it was quick and dutiful.”

      He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it softly, not daring to speak, and clenching his jaw muscles hard.

      “Of course, back then the scar was nowhere near as faded as it is now! But when I saw that you had noticed it, I wondered if it might be a turn-off for you too.”

      “No, babe. I told you that I find every inch of you beautiful. That was not me trying to make ye feel better. It’s the truth. You are gorgeous and beautiful and sexy - in every way. Your scar does not take away from your beauty, it enhances it. Scars tell stories, and yours tells the story of a beautiful woman with inner strength and drive and determination. An intelligent, capable woman who is also an incredible mother and nurturer.”

      “You say the most beautiful things, Jamie. Even though I felt a surge of those painful memories when I realized you were looking at my scar, you instantly made me feel accepted and appreciated. I almost cried when you kissed my scar. In the 16 years since I’ve had it, no one has ever done that. It was such a loving gesture, and I was so touched by your gentle recognition of the fact that the scar gave me my sweet girls. You made me feel that I was still desirable to you in spite of it. I appreciate so much that you made me feel that way.”

      “I want you to know that I have never felt like this about anyone. Emotionally or sexually. You ignite all my senses. I can’t imagine an event or a time when I will not desire you or yearn for you. I think of you all the time, Claire, whether you’re with me or not. Your eyes, your lips, your hair, your body, your mind, soul, heart  - all of you. And I want you beside me all the time. I don’t know how I will make it through a week without you in LA.”

      “It’s going to be hard for me too, Jamie. I will miss waking up with you. Even with the girls here to keep me busy and distracted, I will miss you.”

      "Aye, I'm glad the girls will be back here with you." He seemed deep in thought for a moment.

      "Claire ..." he hesitated "... have you thought about the possibility of having more children?" There was a tentative, uncertain quality in his voice, almost as if he was afraid of her response.

      She was quiet for a while, and his hand tightened around hers almost imperceptibly as he waited for her answer.

      “To be honest, I haven’t really thought about it. Mostly because I haven’t had to. If you’re asking me whether I’ve ruled out the idea of having more children, the answer is no. I have not ruled it out. There’s no physical reason for me not to have children. I’m 34, and in good health. It would mean a lifestyle adjustment, but the joys of motherhood outweigh any challenges by a long, long way.”

      He listened intently and processed her answer for a moment.

      “How do you think the girls would react?”

      “I can tell you that Ella and Beth would love it - and I realize that a lot of teens would be mortified if their mom suddenly became pregnant. The girls are very aware that I’m a lot younger than their friends’ moms, and they know that children are a possibility for me if I was in the right relationship. When Kelly had Frankie and Lily, they were so excited. Of course they were younger then too, but for a while they wanted me to have a baby. Swore up and down to help me look after the baby, right down to getting up in the middle of the night.” She chuckled at the memory.

      ”What about you, Jamie? Do you see children in your future?”

      “I do Claire. I’ve always imagined having a family. I feel very deeply and strongly about raising children in a loving, safe environment. And the Hollywood bubble is not the right space to do that - not for me, anyway.”

      He had never felt more at peace about leaving the entertainment industry. Thinking about children and family validated all the difficult decisions he had made recently.

      A soft breeze whispered through the trees, immediately reminding him of some lines from an old classic rock song by the Scorpions:

                         musical notes The future's in the air,

                         I can feel it everywhere,

                         Blowing with the wind of change

      As the rustling of the leaves settled, the distant sounds of coyotes filtered through - a reminder that the night creatures were starting to emerge. Jamie stood up. 

      “Why don't we head indoors, Claire.” He held his hand out to her, helping her up with a gentle tug. 

      Holding both of her hands in his, he kissed first one, and then the other.

      “I verra much appreciate that you opened up to me about deeply personal things, mo ghràidh.”

      “That’s a new one for me, Jamie. What does it mean?”

      “It means ‘my love’.”