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Conversations in the Dark

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      “Are you in a position to divulge the nature of the conversation?” Joe asked, his interest piqued.

      “I’ll reveal what I know. It was shared by someone who heard the conversation directly. I know UW's media team will have given you a full briefing, so you are probably aware of which news outlets and parties are involved.”

      “I am.”

      “Before I start, I need to tell you that I am in a relationship with Jamie Fraser. It is a loving, monogamous, and very un-Hollywood relationship.”

      It was an uncomfortable admission for her to make. Joe and Henry had been friends and colleagues. She and Henry had occasionally socialized with Joe and his wife over the years and they had been supportive and kind throughout Henry’s illness.

      Joe dispelled her discomfort immediately. “I’m happy to hear that, Claire. It was time for you to find happiness again.”         

      She nodded her appreciation and continued. “A couple of weeks ago, TMZ posted a story that they pulled from a random Twitter post with a picture of Jamie Fraser lunching with an unidentified woman in Seattle. That was me, but it was impossible to identify me from the picture. A few days later, they ran another story that featured Anja Baranov talking informally with a paparazzo about her most recent movie with Jamie. The pap mentioned Jamie’s alleged woman in Seattle, and Anja dismissed it. But the story got a fair amount of interest, and we learned that she had just been through a break-up, and to protect her femme fatale image, she hinted at an imaginary relationship with Jamie. Almost immediately after this, Jamie and Anja appeared on the Late Late Show. I’m sure you’re aware of the fall-out from that. It made the mainstream media too.”

      “Yes, I caught a short piece about that in my news-feed. UW Media gave us just the known data from TMZ’s posts, so it’s good for me to know some of this backstory.”

      “The night after Corden aired, Jamie and I took his sister and the twins to the Club for dinner. I was approached discreetly, out of earshot of everyone else, and a conversation was shared with me. I hope you understand that I can’t reveal my source, and he couldn’t reveal names.”

      “Of course.”

      “One of Fulton’s Trustees had played golf with his wife and another couple that day, and enjoyed some post-game socializing.” Claire carefully avoided mentioning the fact that they were in the bar for fear of implicating Julio. “I admit that I checked the members-only online golf schedule that night, and the only Fulton Trustee who played golf that day was Jack Wolverton. His co-players were his wife, and Club member, Leo Greenberg and his wife. Evidently, the couples socialize together a lot.”

      A small frown crossed Joe’s brow. Leo Greenberg was a wealthy, retired Seattle business icon whose family had made its fortune in the glory days of the timber industry.

      “The four of them were discussing the uproar that Baranov caused on Corden’s show. Greenberg’s wife mentioned that she had been following TMZ’s posts because her sister attended the Caledonian dinner and snapped pictures of Jamie and me on the dance floor. She had copies of them on her phone. They all looked at the pictures that Greenberg’s sister-in-law had sent to his wife’s phone. Jack made some disparaging comments about Jamie and me. I believe that his comments were about how unseemly it was that a Fulton professor was involved with Jamie, and the words he used were ‘the slut and the porn star’. It’s a reference to his intense sex scenes in a TV series a few years ago.”

      “Hmmmh.” Joe grunted in annoyance. “Completely unacceptable terminology for a man of his standing. And a Fulton Trustee!”

      “Greenberg agreed with him and his words were, and I’m quoting my source, ‘Time to get rid of the bitch.”

      Joe’s brows shot up, but he allowed her to continue.

      “Jack replied that I bring in too much money, and Greenberg told him not to worry, he was still working on FARCE or FARSE. My source wasn’t sure what that was, but he wrote it down phonetically. He heard Jack’s wife ask what it was, and Greenberg’s wife said ‘boring Foundation business.”

      “Were you able to find out more about this Foundation?” Joe asked.

      “I tried, but was unable to find anything pertinent.”

      “It might be too late to dig anything up - the vote is three days away. I will be addressing the Trustees ahead of the vote. Sexism will be a major theme of my address, you can be certain of that.” He shook his head in disgust. "The derogatory sexist terms Wolverton and Greenberg used are not sitting well with me."

      “I had to grow a thick skin during PILF.”

      “Claire, again, I am so sorry this is happening. I’m pleased you have Jamie to lean on. How has he been faring through all of this? I imagine it’s just as stressful for him.”

      “He’s been my rock. He just wants to protect me and the twins through all of this. I’m so blessed, Joe.”

      “I imagine he feels the same way, Claire. Let’s head back. I’ll give you a ride back home.”

 

      Jamie sat at the patio table, and looked at the girls, his face serious and full of concern.

      “Yer Mam shouldn’t be too long. I wanted to come out and see if there were any questions I could answer. I feel terrible about all of this, girls.”

      “It’s not your fault, Jamie,” Beth said. “Websites like TMZ should not be allowed to publish lies like this.”

      “Mom says we have to move past our anger and think of ways to respond politely but firmly if we’re confronted by friends.”

      “Aye, that’s wise advice, Ella.”

      “Do you think Mom will lose the professorship because of this.”

      He was quiet for a moment, trying to think of the best way to answer her question. Both he and Claire knew that it was a strong possibility. His silence told them more than words could have done, and Beth's eyes filled with tears. She dashed them away angrily.

      “That can’t happen, Jamie! She has worked so hard for it.” Her voice broke and she buried her face in her hands and sobbed. Ella brought her fist up to her mouth and tried hard to blink away her tears. Jamie was nearer to Beth, and he reached out and took her hand.

      “Don’t cry, leannan," he said softly. “I know this is hard on all of ye, but we are going to get through this. Please don’t cry, Beth.”

      “How are we going to get through this, Jamie?” Ella asked angrily. “Yesterday, we all sat right here with Aunty Jenny, and you and Mom said that it would be okay. That the Kanye story would pretty much kill Anja’s story about you. And that your PR guys would get on it. And that was for a story without Mom’s name in it. Now there are pictures and her full name. And even Fulton is mentioned. This is worse than PILF.”

      Seeing the twins in tears was more than his heart could bear. He glanced through the window into the kitchen, but there was still no sign of Claire. As soon as he could get back in that study, he would get Cal and Tara on a Zoom call. He was close to his breaking point, and it was time to get in front of Anja’s bullshit and TMZ’s fabricated storyline once and for all. But until Claire returned, the girls needed his comfort.

      “Ella, I will do whatever I can to fix this. You have my word on that.”

      He stood up and pulled Beth gently to her feet. Drawing her close with one arm, he reached out to Ella, and she allowed herself to be drawn into his comforting hug. Both girls stood weeping softly into his shirt. There was no awkwardness - the twins needed his reassuring strength at that moment and he was intent on providing it for them. Claire spotted them as soon as she entered the kitchen. Her heart ached at the sight of her girls’ distress, and at the sight of Jamie soothing them. She stepped out onto the patio and quietly joined in the embrace.

      As the girls’ emotions settled, they all moved to the patio sofas, where Claire gave them a brief summary of the meeting with her boss. When Jamie was satisfied that the girls had asked all their questions and were on a more even keel emotionally, he and Claire said goodnight to them, and he asked Claire to join him in a late night call to Tara and Cal. Both responded immediately. Their client was in crisis, and it was their duty and responsibility to be available for him. They shared more than a mere sense of professional responsibility to Jamie, and were more personally involved than they cared to admit. Jamie’s humility, humor, and strength of character endeared him to everyone he worked with, and Cal and Tara and their teams were no exception.

      Jamie didn’t have time to brief Claire on the nature of this discussion, but she sensed a shift in him, and the determined set of his jaw told her that he was on edge and ready to fight for her. Despite the gentleness with which he took her hand, she could still feel the tension radiating through his skin.

      Dispensing with greetings and niceties, he got straight to the point.

      “I’m done with this crap. I just had my heart crushed this evening. My girls were in tears over what’s happening with Claire and I’m responsible for their pain.”

      Claire tried to interrupt, but he turned to her, and pleaded gently, “Please hear me out, babe.”

      “Cal, I appreciate what you and Simon and your team have done, but we’re well past the point where tracking hashtags is serving a purpose. We need to do something definitive and bring TMZ’s storyline to a crashing halt.”

      Tara and Cal were caught off-guard by the resolve and anger in his voice.

      “Did you have an idea or strategy in mind?” asked Cal.

      “I want to go public with our relationship.”

      Claire looked at him in shock.

      “Jamie …” she started, “we-”

      “Hear me out, Claire. Please. It makes sense, I promise. Cal, I’m happy to do interviews with a reputable journalist like Hoda Kotb or Robin Roberts. We could offer People magazine an exclusive. We have personal photos and selfies that we can share that will prove we’ve been together for almost two months. Okay - closer to six weeks, but by the time they publish, it’ll be a couple of months.”

      “Jamie, are you sure you want to go this route?” Tara was concerned about his impulsivity.

      “Tara, at this point, I don’t care about the Oscar nom." There was a stunned silence from Claire, Tara and Cal, and Jamie continued, "Truly - the possibility of an Oscar nomination is not going to be the driving factor for all my decisions. I won't allow it any longer. Claire and the girls are everything to me. I can’t bear them having to deal with this over and over again until I’m out of the industry. Going public will shut down TMZ’s storyline - conclusively and permanently. Hopefully Anja’s too.”

      “It’s definitely a strategy we’ve spoken about within my team,” Cal admitted. “Remember all the rumors flying around a few years back about a Hollywood superstar who was purported to be HIV-positive. There was an insane amount of speculation, and names were thrown around like confetti. He was even blackmailed by people threatening to expose him, and finally, Charlie Sheen came out and gave an interview to Today. The craziness died down very quickly. It’s a great example of how going public takes the wind out of the tabloids’ sails. Can you give me an idea of the content you’d want to include in the initial draft.”

      “We’ll leave all the details to you and we’ll vet the drafts when they’re ready, but I’d like to fast-track this. Claire’s professorship position is up for a vote on Friday.

      “Wait, Jamie.” Claire’s frown was the first indication that his strategy was about to hit a brick wall.

      “I don’t think it’s a good idea to bring any more attention to myself right now. I haven’t had a chance to talk to you about my chat with Joe, but he feels confident in his ability to use his voice to influence votes in my direction. More publicity - even positive publicity - before the vote will just cloud that. It’ll give some of the voters more ammunition against me and support their argument that I keep bringing unwanted attention to Fulton.”

      Jamie rubbed a hand over his face. He was emotionally drained and exhausted by the onslaught from TMZ over the past couple of weeks.

      “God, Claire, I am so sorry. I didn’t think to ask you what ye thought first.”

      “To be honest, I think it sounds like a good idea, but the timing isn’t right for that yet. Can we wait until the announcement has been made next Tuesday, and then revisit the idea?”

      “Of course.”

      “I also want to say that while I understand your instinct to protect me and the girls, I don’t want you to jeopardize your Oscar nomination by doing or saying things in public that might anger Millennium or the Academy. I know how much the Oscar has meant to you, and there's no need to throw away your opportunity. Your Oscar nomination is as close to my heart as my professorship is to yours."

      Tara had been listening to the back and forth discussion, and she wanted to give Jamie a chance to get some of the anxiety and stress out of his system before she spoke.

      “Jamie, I think it’s wise to wait a few days longer. Give it until after the professorship announcement. You can sleep on it until then and think about it a little more.”

      “I’ll give it some more thought, Tara. Are ye still meeting with Millennium tomorrow?”

      “I am - in the morning. And a little bird told me that Anja and Bonnet have been called in to a Millennium meeting later - with the powers that be. My main purpose in meeting them is to rat her out about going on Graham Norton. Sorry, not sorry. She thinks she’s covered that up well, and I know for a fact that it violates their stipulations after the Corden nightmare. I will also drop a word in their ear about investigating Anja for the leaked footage from ‘Unauthorized Contact’. I’ll also speak to Millennium about you going public.”

      “Let me know how that goes, Tara. I’m interested in learning Millennium’s reaction to all of this.”

      “Before you go, Jamie, look out for an email today or tomorrow from DC and Panther regarding the Superman announcement next week. They are making a huge splash with this, unlike any cast announcement I’ve seen.”

      “Will do. I’m flying in and out the same day, right?”

      “You’ll have to overnight on Tuesday. They’ve set up a press conference early morning. All the details will be in the email.”

      Jamie ended the call and took both of Claire’s hands in his.

      “Claire, I didn’t mean to spring that on you. I should have let you tell me about the conversation with Joe first. When I saw the girls in tears, I couldn't take it. I know they are concerned about you - that’s what sparked their tears. Their anguish is killing me, Claire.”

      She caressed his face, and nuzzled his neck. “I know. It melted me when I walked in and saw you consoling them. They really needed that and I appreciate you so much, my love.”

      “Let’s go chat on the patio, leannan. I want to hear about your chat with Joe.”

      “Yes. I have a few other details to share with you.”

      “I’ll make us some chamomile tea. It’s supposed to be calming, and Jenny made me gallons of it when I was going through some rough times. It might also help us sleep better.”

      While Jamie made the tea, Claire checked the texts that she had been avoiding since the story broke. She opened texts from Armando, Melissa, Milo, Suki, and a handful of neighbors, colleagues, and book club friends. All of them had sent supportive, positive messages, and she sent quick replies of thanks, promising to call them in a day or two.

      She ignored messages from Jeff Campbell and some of the moms on the twins’ cheer and volleyball teams. She’d deal with them later.

      Jamie handed her a mug of tea, and eased himself onto the sofa next to her. Drawing solace from his warmth and strength, she snuggled in as close as she could, and sipped her tea.

      “Tell me about Joe.”

      “I’ll try to share verbatim as much as I can, so that you know why I was reluctant to go public right away. But I also want to let you know that our conversation included some information that Julio gave me at the club during lobster night last week.”

      Jamie look at her, eyebrows raised in question.

      “I didn't share with you because it was about some of the members discussing us in harsh and derogatory terms, and after the horrendous day you’d had right after Corden aired, I didn’t think you needed to hear yourself described as a …”

      “As a what, Claire?”

      “As a porn star,” she replied quietly.

      He nodded slowly. “I can tell that upset you. I got it a lot during and after ‘Clan Hearts’, and it still follows me around. Most second-rate interviewers bring it up, even now. Claire, I love you for trying to protect me against that kid of offensive talk, but I can handle it. Don’t ever feel you can’t share something that is rude, hurtful, derogatory - whatever description you want to give it. It’s my responsibility to protect you, not the other way around.”

      “No, Jamie, we do need to protect each other. When we said ‘I love you’ for the first time, I spent a lot of time thinking about how it took us to a very different - and beautiful - place in our relationship. We went from ‘you and me' to ‘we and us’. It anchored us and deepened our connection. What I’m trying to say, my love, is that I know your warrior instinct is to protect me and the girls. But we’re a ‘we and us’ now. I do feel a need to protect you, in a very different way than you want to protect me and the girls. We should protect each other in whatever way feels right and necessary.”

      He set his mug down, and took hers from her.

      “Come here, mo chridhe,” he said gently as he pulled her close and tipped her head back for a slow, loving kiss.

      “I love you so much. I love you for reminding me that we are a ‘we and us’. I love you for wanting to protect me from more stress. I love you for weathering this storm with me. Because in weathering it with me, you've become embroiled in an even worse storm yourself. And that hurts my heart.”

      “I love you, Jamie. And whatever comes at us, we can handle it together. These are tough times, but I do feel slightly more optimistic after speaking with Joe tonight.”

      "I'd like to hear what else he said."

 

      She continued with her account of the discussion with Joe, pausing when he interrupted her fiercely.

      “What! They used those words? Those exact words?” He was enraged at Wolverton and Greenberg referring to her as a ‘slut’ and a ‘bitch’.

      “I heard a lot worse during the PILF drama.”

      “Surely it’s completely unacceptable for a Trustee to refer to one of the faculty in those terms? Even if it was in a private conversation. They’d better hope I never run into them on the golf course.”

      His body was taut with rage, and he clenched his jaw hard. Claire quickly continued her summary to give him something else to focus on. As he listened to her talk about Joe’s plans to show his support for her when he spoke to the Trustees ahead of the vote, his body relaxed more, and he interrupted her again to ask about the make-up of the Board.

      “There are 23 members on the Board of Trustees; two of them are ex-officio faculty representatives, and because of the way Fulton’s Articles and Bylaws were set up, they can’t vote. They are there to represent the interests of the faculty. Joe is an ex-officio member and the Board relies on him heavily for guidance. We have an ‘old guard’ as he called them, who are conservative and rigid, and want to maintain a more stuffy image for Fulton. There are also some more progressive members, who want to revamp the image and make it more attractive to applicants who seek innovation and a stronger emphasis on 21st century competencies, which have been a big focus of my work.”

      “Why would this old-guard be so locked into traditional views of what a university should be? It makes sense that the next generation of business leaders is going to seek cutting-edge education in degree courses that prepare them for a changing world. How confident are you in Joe’s ability to convince the swing voters?”

      “He’s a compelling speaker, I’ve heard him many times. And he will be reminding them about how hard they had to fight accusations of sexism during PILF. The only thing nagging at me is the discussion between Wolverton and Greenberg, and whether they have something up their sleeves.” She sighed deeply. “It’s out of our hands, Jamie. My only hope is that nothing new emerges before the vote. I hope Millennium can silence Anja.”

      "Aye, I'm counting on that too. Let's go talk in bed. I just want to hold you in my arms right now, and lose my self in those curls and yer soft skin."

 

      They lay in bed and chatted late into the night, intentionally focusing on the positives in their lives. Jamie let her know that the county had approved Michelle’s expedited permit applications, and the Calhoun brothers were almost ready to start their long drive to Seattle. He teased her with his secrecy around her birthday trip to Paris, holding steadfast even when she promised him a whole repertoire of titillating favors to get some of the details out of him. They laughed, and kissed, and talked, and laughed some more; until he took her in his arms and made love to her with his mouth and hands and body.

      She slept in his strong, protective arms, enveloped in his love, and when he stirred, she awoke with him.

      “Babe, we’ve overslept! It’s almost 7:30. I’m so sorry - should have set my alarm.” He started to extract himself from the tangle of her arms and legs, when they heard a sound from the door. Both of them froze.

      “Mom?”

      It was Ella.

      “Yes, sweetheart? Everything okay?”

      “Yeah, totally. I made lattes for you and Jamie. I’ll leave them here outside the door.”

      There was a slight pause as Jamie and Claire stared wide-eyed at each other.

      “Thank you! I’ll grab them in a second.”

      “Ok. Beth and I are off to practice. We’ll see you guys later.”

      Jamie had been holding his breath, and he released it slowly.

      “Sorry, Claire. I should have woken up earlier.”

      “No, it’s okay, my love. It’s their way of telling us that they know we’re in here together. And that they’re comfortable with it.”

      “God, I love those girls,” Jamie said in relief. “They always make things so much easier for us than we imagined.”

      “I’ll grab the lattes, and we can start getting ready for whatever today brings.”

 

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

 

      Tara walked out of Millennium’s Executive Suite looking extremely pleased with herself. It wasn’t even 10:00 a.m. yet, and the day was already off to a great start. She had a really good feeling about the rest of the day. The minute she arrived at her office, she invited Jamie, Claire and Cal to a Zoom call. Claire and Jamie were anxious for some good news, but were prepared for anything.

      “This was a good meeting and I'm feeling pumped!" Tara began. “A lot of things fell into place. Millennium’s getting ready to throw the book at Anja. Jon Corzak led the meeting - he’s on the board of directors, so it doesn’t get much higher than that. And he also brought in Geillis Duncan, VP of Media Relations. Neither of them was aware of Anja's appearance on Graham Norton, and Corzak immediately reached out to Norton’s people in the middle of our meeting. Of course, Norton’s people took the call right away. When Millennium Studios calls, you drop everything. Corzak gently but firmly pressured Norton’s producers to drop Anja from the this week's show."

      "That’s a big ask!" Cal exclaimed. "She’s been in the news a lot, and she’ll bring in the viewers. How did Norton's team respond to that?"

      “There’s no way Graham’s going to go for that!” Jamie agreed with Cal. “He loves drama. The whole reason they wanted Anja on the show is that they're hoping she'll create another spectacle. It’ll be fantastic ratings and viewership.”

      “Not so fast, Jamie. Graham has a lot of control over what goes on in his show, so they’re going to talk to him urgently and get back to Millennium by lunchtime. My guess is that Norton’s team wants to strategize amongst themselves about getting some Oscar exclusives-”

      “How did they know about the Oscar campaign?” Jamie interrupted.

      “Millennium dropped it in the discussion. They did that very intentionally. Right now, I bet Norton’s team is salivating at the idea of snagging Oscar scoops, and they may agree to drop Anja this week in return for guaranteed interviews with you and the movie director. We’ll see what they come back with. Corzak will call me with an update after their meeting with Anja and Bonnet. They should have heard from Norton’s people by then too.”

      “Were you able to broach the subject of going public with my relationship with Claire?"

      “I raised that with them, and they were genuinely sympathetic to the difficulties you and Claire have been going through. They appreciate the professionalism with which you have conducted yourself throughout Anja’s crazed self-promotion campaign, and they are willing to work with you and Cal’s team on how to correct the damage she has done to your image.”

      “What does that mean, practically? What are the next steps?”

      “That will likely depend on this afternoon’s discussions - with Anja and with Norton’s team.”

      “What are their thoughts on the footage leak?” Cal asked.

      “I left the best for last. They launched an immediate investigation yesterday. I didn’t have to implicate Anja, she was already in their crosshairs. Corzak told me they have never regretted a casting decision as much as they regret casting Anja in ‘Unauthorized Contact’. They found out a few months into shooting that she was in a full blown affair with the casting director, despite the fact that she was seeing Cooper at the time. She basically seduced him into giving her the role. But that’s beside the point. The big news is this: Millennium’s legal team is leaning heavily on TMZ to remove yesterday’s post.”

      “Isn't that just shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted?” asked Jamie.

      “That’s what I thought, but they explained their rationale. Even though the post has been tweeted, re-tweeted, screen-capped - thousands of times, taking it off the site will still prevent thousands of potential views and help this mess die down a lot faster. Of course TMZ generally ignores requests like this, but this is different. Millennium’s legal team is throwing copyright infringement and theft of intellectual property and a host of other breaches and infringements at this. Their legal team worked through the night to counter every possible argument that TMZ might throw at them, including First Amendment rights and fair use. They’re ready to fly in constitutional law experts from the East Coast if TMZ doesn’t comply. Millennium doesn't mess around - not when there are Oscars at stake. Incidentally, they are not asking for a retraction. That will just bring more attention. They want the post removed quietly and without fanfare.”

      “Dang! Not sure I’ve ever heard of that happening before.” Cal was impressed with Millennium’s approach. “Jamie, once we get an update on this afternoon’s meetings I’ll reach out to Millennium’s PR team to work on a plan for going public without jeopardizing the Oscar nom, and without bringing negative attention to Claire.”

      “Thank you both. We'll reconnect this afternoon."

 

      Working on campus that day was out of the question for Claire. She knew it would be horribly awkward, despite the professionalism and support her coworkers would unfailingly show her.

      Buoyed by the positive slant of Tara’s update, Jamie and Claire chatted light-heartedly in the car as he drove her downtown to pick up her SUV from campus.

      “Let’s call Jenny. This will be blowing up in Scotland for sure, and she’ll be worried.”

      By her account, Jenny’s flight home had been mostly uneventful. Dougal drank himself into a stupor as soon as they were in-flight and slept for most of the way. This gave Jenny an opportunity to enjoy all the little luxuries of first class travel, and she regaled Claire with enthusiastic descriptions of the high-end toiletries and bottomless cappuccinos and endless champagne.

      Jamie broached the subject of the TMZ post cautiously, knowing that Jenny would have some strong opinions. She was already aware of the entire TMZ debacle, and had been expecting their call and an update on what was being done to tame this seemingly unstoppable beast. Jamie and Claire pictured her stern expression as her exasperated tone filtered through the car’s speakers. She was somewhat encouraged by their brief account of Tara’s meeting with the studio, and as expected, she asked how the girls were handling it.

       Claire assured her that the girls were their top concern, as always, and that they planned on keeping them informed every step of the way. They promised to keep Jenny abreast of any news from Tara’s ongoing discussions with Millennium.

 

      The covered patio beckoned them as soon as they returned from picking up Claire’s car. After a quick lunch, they remained on the patio, focusing on their laptops as they worked through emails, winery spreadsheets, student enquiries, and the texts that slid in with vexing regularity.

      Claire responded to all the messages of support she received. Armando wanted to meet her for coffee, but she suggested that he stop by the house on Thursday, as she wanted to lie low for a few days to avoid being recognized in public. He was relieved that he would get to see her and hug her - and excited at the thought of meeting Jamie at last. Melissa was in the middle a client meeting but promised to call on Thursday too. Suki texted that she had been meaning to call Claire for days, because she had a gut-feeling about her and Jamie, and she expressed how sorry she was that this had gone so bad and so public.

      The support and love from her friends was uplifting and encouraging. Even the official email from Dean Abernathy, requesting her presence at Friday's meeting with the Board of Trustees, didn’t dampen her spirits too much. She spent some time working on a list of questions that she anticipated the Trustees might ask, and when that was complete, she drafted some responses to those questions. Preparing thoroughly for the meeting would boost her confidence, and she was determined to go in - and come out - strong.

 

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

 

      Anja met Steve Bonnet in the ground floor lobby of Millennium’s office building. He smelled the alcohol on her breath as she hugged him, and glared at her in fury.

      “What the fuck have you been drinking, and how much?” he demanded through clenched teeth.

      “Oh my God, just chill out, Steve. I had a couple of martinis with lunch.”

      “Christ! Martinis! Pure alcohol, basically. How stupid are you? You know this meeting is critical to your career, and you think it’s okay to come in drunk?”

      “I’m not drunk,” she giggled, “and you know that, because you’ve seen me trashed before. Lots of times. I’m just a little … buzzed.”

      “Try to shut the fuck up and let me handle the meeting.”

      “Okay, baby, it’s all yours,” she shrugged as she stumbled into the elevator.

 

      Bonnet knew they were in trouble the minute he entered the conference room. Jon Corzak was there, as was Geillis Duncan, one of the bitchiest Hollywood executives he’d had the misfortune of meeting. There was nothing soft and feminine about the woman. She was tall, lean, and bony, and had an angular, strikingly attractive face, framed in tumbling red waves, almost as fiery as her temper. There wasn't an once of spare fat on her. Her tongue was sharp enough to castrate the men who crossed her, but soft enough to pleasure the women she lusted after. She looked fierce and formidable and her reputation as a tough negotiator was legendary.

      Four other attendees, dressed to intimidate and with expressions to match, sat at the table with thick folders in front of them.

      Bonnet had expected it to be just Corzak and one or two of Millennium’s PR team He figured they would review Anja’s contractual obligations and Millennium’s conduct expectations for publicity appearances related to the movie. He knew right away the four people dressed in dark suits and dresses were from legal. The threat of enforced penalty clauses loomed heavily over him.

      And clinging to his arm was his drunk client who literally didn’t give a shit at that moment.

      Geillis’ eyes narrowed as she took in the sight of Anja in six inch heels and a tight, short shimmery dress that clung to her body. Had the circumstances been different, Geillis would have been quite happy to remove that ridiculously inappropriate dress and explore all those surgically enhanced curves, but she felt nothing but disdain and anger towards this train wreck, who had just caused the studio massive PR damage.

      Bonnet tried gamely to cover up Anja’s intoxicated state by immediately guiding her to a chair and seating himself between her and the rest of the meeting attendees.

      Corzak introduced everyone, and announced in a tone that brooked no protest, “Let’s get right to it.”

      The next hour was the most uncomfortable of Bonnet’s career. Had he known what they were about to throw at his client, he would have brought his lawyer to the meeting, but it was too late for woulda, coulda, shoulda. The legal team passed out copies of the penalty clause section of Anja’s contract.

      "Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the contents,” one of the lawyers suggested.

       While Steve read and made some annotations on his pages, Anja gazed at the paper in front of her. She wasn’t in the least bit concerned - Steve had got her out of all sorts of sticky situations before, and she trusted him to do it again. She reached for her water glass and glanced at the men in the room.

      Which of them looked like he might be worth spreading her legs for?

      She raised the glass to her mouth, missing entirely and causing the water to dribble down her chin and splash audibly all over the papers in front of her.

      “Oops,” she giggled, and Steve groaned quietly. Grabbing her page, he shook the water off, and fixed her with an angry stare.

      “We have spare copies.” One of the legal team slid another copy across the table.

      “I can request a sippy cup, if you prefer,” Geillis fixed Anja with her icy glare.

      Bonnet intervened quickly before Anja could process the sarcasm. “She’s good. Let’s just get this done.”

      Corzak summarized the list of contractual infractions they had accumulated on Anja. Their prime concern was that she had repeatedly spoken out about ‘Unauthorized Contact’ before the studio had even launched the promotion campaign.

      “You can’t deny that she has brought a lot of publicity and awareness to the movie,” Bonnet interjected.

      “We were not ready to throw out publicity yet. She jumped the gun by several weeks. It’s also not the type of publicity we want or need for UC - we refer to ‘Unauthorized Contact’ as UC in-house. We’re going after Academy Awards here, and we’re not going to get them on TMZ.” Geillis impaled Bonnet and Anja with her icy glare.

      “Ms. Duncan is right,” added Corzak. “We’ve been working on our publicity campaign for months. We have a very targeted approach, and a very specific audience and demographic in mind. It’s a serious film, and one that will inspire a lot of thought and discussion amongst a certain caliber of viewer. Anja’s over-sexualized messaging about UC is in sharp contrast with what we want to convey.”

      “The issue,” Geillis continued the two-pronged Duncan-Corzak attack, “is that Anja has disregarded our requests to remain silent about the film until we are ready to reveal our campaign. And since she has brought so much unwanted attention to the film, we will have to accelerate the campaign - even though we’re not 100% ready.”

      “The Corden debacle was rough,” Corzak said sternly. “It rained negative publicity on her and reflected badly on UC."

      Anja rolled her eyes.

      “Anja, let me give you a little lesson in PR basics,” Geillis said in exaggerated sugary tones. “You need to understand the difference between your public persona and your industry persona. The public - your fans - might like all the titillating little things you throw out there, and the talk shows love it because it boosts viewership. But the industry - the studio owners, the directors, producers, co-stars - they don’t like that crap. No one wants to act with someone who’s going to trash their name in public. No studio wants to cast an actor who flouts state-mandated guidelines in the middle of a health crisis.”

      “Why are you guys-”

      “I think what Anja means,” Bonnet cut her off and kicked her foot under the table, “is that she regrets any negative publicity and attention that her recent actions have caused. I looked through the penalty clauses, and while some are borderline, she really hasn’t violated any of them outright.”

      “I think you might have a hard time defending that position in court,” one of the lawyers pointed out.

      Bonnet back-pedaled the minute he heard the word ‘court’.

      “Look, I acknowledge that Anja hasn’t been her best self lately.” God, he sounded like his ex-wife when they were asked to meet the principal to discuss their son’s bullying. “I think this is all fixable. What are you looking for from Anja today?”

      “We’re ready to enforce the penalty clauses, and as you know they run into the millions,” Corzak said. “However, we have an option that might appeal to you.”

      Geillis took over, “We have some addenda to add to the contract. Please review them, and take some time to discuss with your client. Once you are familiar with the terms, please decide whether you will sign the addenda or not. If yes, we will hold off on enforcing the penalty clauses. Until they are violated again.” She paused and locked eyes with Anja. “If you opt not to sign the addenda, you are in effect agreeing to Millennium enforcing the penalty clauses.”

      “I’ll summarize them for you, Mr. Bonnet, and then you can take some time to review with Ms. Baranov,” one of the lawyers suggested. “First, no more talk shows, unless specifically arranged and requested by Millennium. Second, no more statements or interviews with TMZ or any of the celebrity gossip websites, tabloids, blogs, vlogs - there’s a whole list that you’ll need to initial. Third, social media presence. There are several paragraphs there, restricting what Ms. Baranov can post during the UC promotion tour, which is coming up soon, and during Oscar Season, which starts in the fall and ends on December 31st, but may be extended due to the pandemic. Fourth, code of conduct. It’s very rare that we request a code of conduct addendum from one of our assets, but in this case it’s prudent that we do so. It covers public behavior, intoxication, and several other categories that you will need to initial.”

      “So basically, I’m a nun for the next few months? A mute, sober nun?” Anja blurted out.

      Six expressionless faces stared wordlessly back at her, and Steve buried his face in his hands.

      “Can you give me 10 minutes with my client?”  

 

      When the Millennium team walked back in, Bonnet looked fraught and Anja looked defiant.

      “Oh no she didn’t,” Geillis mumbled to Corzac under her breath.

      “Might be time to bring in the big guns,” Corzac retorted.

      “Against my advice, my client is refusing to sign.” Bonnet sounded frustrated and weary.

      “What you guys don’t realize,” Anja began in a combative tone, “is that I am about to land the biggest role of my career. All this publicity that I am getting for you - for free - is working in my favor too. I’m not up for any UC Oscars, so I really don’t care about your Oscar campaign.” The buzz from her earlier drinking had largely worn off, but the lingering effects of the alcohol made her bold and rebellious. “Not only did I just land this incredible, iconic role, but I’m also short-listed for three other roles.”

      “Word on the street is that you just lost three roles you were being considered for,” Geillis said, looking at her steadily.

      “They weren’t great roles anyway,” Anja brushed off the embarrassing exposure of her lies. “I have a new amazing role that will put my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”

       Geillis almost choked on her vitamin water and quickly composed herself.

      “Well, congratulations to you on the new role. However, we need to know your final response to the addenda.”

      “Sure! My final response-”

      “Wait!” Geillis interrupted, “I almost forgot. We know that you must have been upset by the appearance of stolen, proprietary footage from 'Unauthorized Contact' on TMZ yesterday. I know Jamie was upset that the footage appeared before the promotional excerpts were released.”

      “Uuuhhhh … yeah, I saw that on TMZ,” Anja squirmed slightly in her seat.

      “It was quite shocking for us to see the screengrab and the GIF - scenes that involved just you and Jamie. Distressing, right?”

      “Sure! But it did create buzz for the movie,” Anja rationalized.

      “Again, not the sort of buzz and exposure we want for UC,” Geillis explained with undue patience. “So we launched an internal investigation before we call in the FBI.”

      “The FBI?” Anja looked panic-stricken.

      “Yes, Anja, the FBI,” Geillis cooed in a mock soothing voice. “You know how at the start of every movie, there’s a copyright infringement warning and an FBI notice? It’s not there for decoration, they actually do investigate incidents of piracy, intellectual property theft, even incidents of footage from an unreleased movie appearing on TMZ. Feel free to school your paparazzo friend on that.”

      Corzac added, “We have our internal security team looking at security cam footage from the past week to see who might have been around Building C, where most of our post-production takes place.”

      Bonnet blanched at that. When he saw the TMZ post the previous day, he had a gnawing suspicion that Anja was involved, but he was clean out of patience for her shenanigans, and pushed it to the back of his mind. Now he was facing it head-on, as Geillis, that fake-ass bitch, was clearly pointing to Anja as one of the parties behind the footage leak.

      “How far are you with the investigation, and what action are you planning to take?” Bonnet asked Corzac. He did not want to deal with the ice queen for now. But the ice queen knew that, and took nefarious pleasure in answering his question.

      “Obviously we’re going to press charges, Steve. It’s theft! Our security team has reviewed everything through Sunday night, and they were starting to trawl through Monday’s footage this morning.”

      Anja cracked her knuckles, which Steve immediately recognized as a sign that she was anxious.

      “Can I have 10 more minutes with my client please?”

      The studio team left the room, and Steve pounced.

      You dumb bitch! I know you're behind the leaked footage - and so do they. I know damn well they already have you on their security footage. When were you at Building C?”

      “I didn’t go inside!”

      "When were you there?”

      “Monday. But I stayed in my car.”

      “And then?”

      “And then one of the tech guys I know from when we filmed UC met me and got in my car.”

      “And then?”

      “And then we drove out to a quiet parking lot behind a strip mall.”

      “Stop right there. I can imagine the rest. He gave you some files on a drive, right?”

      “Am I going to be arrested?” She had gone quite pale, and her bravado had disappeared.

      “I’ll do my best to prevent that. You’re going to owe me big-time.”

      “Steve, baby-”

      “Don’t ‘Steve baby’ me! I don’t want sex. This is going to cost you money! As soon as I’m done here, you’re signing an addendum to my contract. I’m taking 20% of box-office from your cut for UC.”

      The ferocity in his tone and his wild-eyed anger made her keep her mouth shut.

      Shoving the Millennium addenda under her nose, he growled, “Sign these. Now! Initial everything. Then get an Uber and leave - I’ll handle the rest.”

 

      Anja strutted out of the conference room and past Corzac, Geillis and the lawyers without even a glance.

      They walked back into the conference room and a defeated Bonnet slid the signed papers across to the lawyers.

      Corzac nodded to dismiss them, and he and Geillis sat down opposite Steve.

      “Why didn’t you just take this all the way to the prosecutor’s office? Get her out of your way for good?”

      “C’mon Steve!” Corzac scoffed, “You know our legal system and you know she’s a loose cannon. So, say we get charges against her. Then there's a prolonged investigation, and then the FBI and a bunch of Department of Justice task forces start fighting for jurisdiction, and in the meanwhile, she’s still running around for months, creating drama.”

      “Obviously we’re not happy about our footage being leaked,” added Geillis, “but to pursue legal and criminal avenues would bring more bad publicity. How would it look for UC to have its female lead arrested for violating copyright law? We’d rather focus on the Oscar campaign than an actress who’s about to become persona non grata in Hollywood. We basically wanted to scare the shit out of her here today - that’s the only way we can think of to subdue her. That and hopefully these addenda tighten up all the loopholes too.”

      “She was supposed to be on Graham Norton this week.”

      “That’s not going to happen - we spoke to Norton’s people.”

      “Thanks for coming in today,” Geillis smiled brightly, “I’m glad we got that resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.”

      Bonnet left the studio’s premises knowing that he would never secure another role from Millennium, no matter who the client was.

 

      Eagerly awaiting some good news, Claire and Jamie hastened to the study the minute Tara and Cal’s late afternoon Zoom call came in. Cal was excited to share his news, so he updated them first.

      “I’m happy to share that Millennium’s PR texted me a few minutes ago with good news. They leaned heavily on TMZ today, and the post was quietly pulled from the website about a half-hour ago. Anyone looking for that post, won’t find it on the site. Although pictures and tweets will still be findable in various corners of the internet.”

      “That’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Claire said, and the relief in her voice and body were palpable.

      “I just got off the phone with Corzak” said Tara. “Some interesting new developments, Jamie. I’ll come right out with it. Graham Norton agreed to drop Anja if he can get you for a short interview for Friday’s segment. Six to eight minutes. Millennium agreed to it, so it’s up to you now. Norton’s people are sending the questions so that Cal and Millennium’s PR can prime you. What do you think, Jamie? I know it's really short notice, and Cal's PR reps in Seattle would set up the background and the tech side of things for the taping - which would be done tomorrow."

      "I'm willing to do it if it keeps Anja out of talk shows for a while. I'd really like a look at their questions as soon as possible."

      "Cal will send them as soon as he gets them. Norton also wants to know whether you’re open to some questions about men being subject to sexual harassment and objectification in the entertainment industry. Based on the events on the Corden show, he thinks it would make for a good discussion, and he feels strongly about it. He interviewed Terry Crews last week - he’s been very open about being sexually harassed by an industry big-wig. Think about it and discuss with Claire. Whether you want to or not, Norton is excited to have you and it will be a positive experience. I sense that.”

      “He is a great host. Claire and I will talk about it. What happened with Anja?”

      “For starters, she arrived drunk. Seems she and Bonnet were a little reluctant initially, but they ended up signing addenda and tightening the overall contract.”

      “And they think that will stop her?”

      “They spoke about the footage leak without directly accusing her. When she heard that the FBI might be involved, she backed off fast. They’re using that to keep her quiet. They’re hesitant to press charges because that will bring negativity to the film, and they can’t risk any more as we move into Oscar season.”

      “I understand that, but I just hope having the sword of Damocles hanging over her is enough to keep her quiet. What’s your sense, Tara?”

      “Corzac said she seemed very happy and excited about a big new role she’s getting. If that’s true, then she won’t want to risk it by pissing off a huge studio.”

      “Overall, this is really good news,” he smiled at Claire and kissed her hand, as Tara looked on and grinned approvingly. “Thanks, Tara. You always look out for me, and I love ye for it!”

      “I love you too, you big softie. Now go snuggle with your sweetheart and have a restful evening.”

 

      Dinner felt a lot lighter and less stressful that evening. The specter of the professorship vote still loomed, but Jamie and Claire felt an overall sense of positivity and confidence in Joe’s ability to swing some of the undecided Trustees. There was also their optimism about Anja being effectively muzzled by Millennium’s threats.

      “I’m so happy they pulled that post off the website, Mom. It was just wrong and misleading.” Ella stood and started clearing the table.

      Beth joined her and reminded Claire that they were going to bake chocolate chip muffins after they had cleared away the dinner things.

      “Ah yes, for your volleyball team sunrise event. Can I steal one for Jamie and me to share - when they’re done?”

      "Of course!” she threw over her shoulder, disappearing into the kitchen with Ella.

      “What’s a team sunrise?” Jamie asked.

      “A very American tradition, but it’s so sweet. It’s a team bonding thing. Sometimes a class of high school seniors do it, lots of sports teams too. They take blankets and Starbucks or hot cocoa and find a great place to watch the sunrise together. Then they go to the coach’s house for breakfast. That’s why they’re baking - everyone contributes.”

      “Seems to me that we did a little ‘team bonding’ during our first sunrise, Sassenach.”

      “Yes, it was so sweet. I pretty much turned to mush when you took our first selfie - of our first sunrise.”

      Jamie was starting to relax more, and his sweet, sexy teases were back - a sure indication that he was feeling more positive about things. They smiled and snuggled closer as happy memories brushed away some of the stress that had settled over them in the past few days.

 

      Long after the girls had gone to bed, Jamie and Claire lay snuggling on the patio sofa, chatting in the dark, with only the fairy lights illuminating the outdoor area. They spent time responding to the constant influx of supportive messages and emails from friends and acquaintances.

      “Mark and Michelle sent a kind message of support,” Jamie said, showing her his messages app. “Michelle also confirmed that some of the big earth-moving trucks will be on site tomorrow, and the Calhoun brothers will be here to direct all of that.”

      “That is so exciting, Jamie! It’s starting to feel real."

      "Aye, it is," he smiled. "I just got an email from Angus at the Caledonian Society."

      “Angus reached out about the TMZ post?” she asked in surprise.

      “Not about the post - although he’s probably seen it. He’s inviting me and my plus-one to Caledonian's Highland Games in August."

      "That sounds like fun! I never got to go when I was living in Edinburgh with Uncle Lamb."

      "I might have a schedule conflict. The Lallybroch meeting is around the same time, but I'll check the dates with Jenny to be certain.”

      “Hmmmm. That would be too bad,” sighed Claire. “I was kinda looking forward to seeing you toss your caber.”

      He quirked his eyebrow and gave her his half smile. “Why don’t I take you upstairs and show you what else I can do with my caber."

     

      About thirty miles away in Medina, Seattle’s most affluent and prestigious suburb, and home to many of its billionaires, a sealed manila envelope passed from the ring-encrusted hand of Leo Greenberg to the clammy paws of Jack Wolverton.