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Off The Cuff

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Claire Beauchamp had never really enjoyed Paris, nor did she understand the appeal.

She had read about it in poems, heard songs about the City of Love, and saw what Paris looked like through Brassai’s lenses — which were all at fault for her disappointment with the real thing the first time she had stepped foot into the city.

She came to Paris four to six times a year, at the very least. Every time, it was for fashion week, might it be ready-to-wear or couture. Sometimes, she would come for a photoshoot or some urgent meetings, which meant she was here a lot.

From the moment she was an assistant, to now being the editor in chief of one of the most prestigious fashion magazines, she walked through the streets of Paris without much attention to things around her. She never noticed how beautiful the sunlight reflecting onto the buildings was. She never focused on the people sitting at the cafés, enjoying time passing by.

She was always in a rush, phone in hand or against her ear as she worked on one thing or another while making her way through the city, heading towards another presentation or a meeting. She was usually followed closely by an assistant, one she never bothered to remember the name of since she went through them like tissues.

It never helped her mood that Paris Fashion Week was the last one in the fashion month calendar. After New York, London, and Milan, it was the week where all the big names had runway shows, parties, and lunches; which meant there were not even five minutes for her to stop and take a breath.

She was photographed and interviewed every ten minutes. Eyes were glued on her to carefully study her reactions to whatever clothing she was seeing going down a runway. The only respite was when she’d shut the door to her suite and collapse on the bed.

Alone in her room, she could let her guard down, let the mask fade away. She would order room service — tonight it had been a pizza, a glass of red wine, and strawberries and cream for dessert. Then, she’d get into a bath with a book and turn down her phone, letting her assistant deal with whatever call or email was trying to reach her.

In some ways, Claire was looking forward to heading back home to London, to return to the office and start working on the magazine. The time after fashion week was always the most productive, with ideas for various editorials and stories. She loved to see her team come together to make a beautiful product. Yet, going back to London meant going back to the mess that was her personal life.

A fresh divorce, with two teenagers to take care of.

If anything, for once in her life, Claire would have been rather glad to stay in Paris for a bit longer than usual.

She had just come out of the bath when the telephone rang. Putting on her robe, she returned into the bedroom, curly hair messily tied up on her head, to pick up. The only reason she didn’t turn off this one was because she knew the girls would reach her this way.

“Allo?” she said, sitting on the bed.

“Hi, Mummy!” Came from two voices that were starting to sound like her own, posh English accent and all.

“My darlings,” she smiled instantly, hearing her daughters on the other end of the receiver. “How are you?”

“Good,” answered Sarah. She was the oldest of the two, by three minutes and twenty-eight seconds, but she liked to mention it whenever she could.

“How are you, mum?” asked Lily over her sister’s voice.

“I’m doing well, a bit tired but only two more days and I’ll be home. I might even bring back some pastries for my babies.”

“Mum, we’re thirteen now!” They both chuckled, most likely looking at one another in a mortified manner. “Not really babies anymore.”

“Well, the thing is,” Claire said, grabbing her glass of wine to finish it. “You’ll be my babies forever, I don’t care if you’re thirteen or sixty-two.”

“Oh Lord,” Sarah groaned.

“Anyways,” she grinned. “What have you been doing today? Was school all right?”

“Yeah, school was all right.” Lily was the one answering. Out of the two of them, she was the twin who looked most like Claire: dark hair, brown eyes, and stubbornness for days.

“Then, we went to Daunt Books with Daddy to get a couple of things and now we’re about to be off to eat.”

“Sounds like fun.” Claire leaned back, glad that the twins and their father got along so well.

The divorce was hard on everyone, but the girls seemed to be the ones handling it better than their parents.

“Do you want to talk to Daddy?” Sarah asked, a faint hint of hope in her voice.

“I’m afraid I have to get ready for a dinner, darling,” Claire lied, taking the last sip of her drink. “Say hello to him for me, all right?”

“Okay, we will, Mum.”

The disappointment in her daughter’s voice broke her heart, but talking to Thomas was the last thing she wanted right now. They had agreed to be cordial, to keep bringing up the girls as a team, but the wound was too raw to pretend everything was the way it used to be. They were co-parents, not friends.

“I can’t wait to see you, darlings. Paris isn’t fun when you aren’t here with me.”

“We’ll come next time when it’s the holidays!” Sarah exclaimed happily, remembering the memories of the times Claire took her daughters to work with her when they didn’t have school.

“You sure will,” she smiled, “Have fun at dinner, okay? I love you.”

“We love you, Mum!” They said in unison before hanging up.

Putting the phone aside, she looked at the clock and realised it was barely 8 p.m.

She had dined, bathed, and drowned a glass of wine. She was exhausted, the packed agenda for tomorrow running through her mind; and yet, she decided she didn’t want to stay alone at the hotel tonight.

Tonight, she was going out.

The walk-in closet was bigger than her first apartment in London. It looked like a store, really — packed with clothes she had bought, clothes that designers had specifically designed for her, and clothes that were waiting for her when she arrived a few days ago. It was a rather simple rule in the fashion industry: if Claire Beauchamp wore it, it was good.

She had made a name for herself as a fashion critic for The Herald Tribune then, moving on up to become a fashion editor at Vogue, and then the Editor in Chief and Direction of Operations of Condé Nast, overseeing all art direction for their multiple publications. She had been offered a post in New York but never accepted because London had her heart and it was the city where the twins were born. She was career-driven, but not enough so to displace her family in the States; plus, The Big Apple gave her a headache.

At forty, her curls were still flying all over the place, but their brown colour had slowly started to leave space for grey ten years ago; making her hair a lovely mixture of salt and pepper, something that became her signature look in the industry. She barely wore makeup, something she picked up when she interned for some French editor in her early years as an assistant; and since she didn’t like to waste time in the morning, she relied on a couple of staple pieces and brands that she knew were perfect for her.

However, tonight, her eyes gravitated to a vintage Gucci suit from the Tom Ford era. Sharply cut, made of black suede that might look emerald green given the light. She decided on this, with a pair of classic loafers, giving the whole look a tomboy vibe she particularly appreciated. To be sure, she wore the jacket as a shirt and put on a black lace bra.

Her cellphone stayed off on the bedside table, she wouldn’t need it tonight.

*******

The bar was not very crowded, but she didn’t mind. She enjoyed sipping her drink — a gin and tonic — observing the few people around her, listening to the music. She couldn’t remember the last time she had done this; the last time she wasn’t thinking about work nor about her failed marriage.

Most of the time, the latter topic was an easy thing to ignore. It had been six months now since she and Thomas had separated, starting the proper procedure to divorce. She had kept the house, while he relocated somewhere in the neighbourhood, which was easier for the girls.

The press had had a blast of the news, plastering pictures of them on tabloids, blaming her schedule and her career for the failure of their marriage. She didn’t usually care for things concerning her; but when it touched her children, it was another story.

Things had calmed down now, and normality was starting to return again. But she couldn’t help feeling like a divorcee — like a failure after wasting the past twenty years with a man she thought would be her husband for the rest of her life. Of course, she could never regret any of that time because she had the twins. And to Claire, the twins were the best thing that ever happened to her.

When she thought she wouldn’t be able to have children, when she spent countless nights on the bathroom floor crying at yet another negative test…one morning, she woke up with an upset stomach — she was in Milan.

When she got home to London, she still didn’t feel better and decided to visit her doctor, who happily announced she was expecting. That alone was a shock, but it was nothing compared to the one when she was informed she was carrying twins.

Claire was so busy reminiscing about her children that she didn’t notice someone coming over to the bar. She turned around and came into direct contact with a giant — and his drink that now covered most of her jacket and was dripping inside her bosom.

“For fuck’s sake!” she winced, taking a step back. Her back hit the bar and she cursed silently, her annoyance already shot up.

“Christ,” his eyes widened, “I’m so sorry!”

“Please let me.” He grabbed a napkin and tried to damp her jacket.

“No, don’t.” She raised her eyebrows, pushing his hand away. She grabbed a napkin herself and started to clean up.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated, running his hand through his hair.

Sighing, Claire finally looked up at him, taken aback. He was beautiful, with copper hair and the bluest eyes she had ever seen. He had a straight nose and perfectly defined lips that looked…quite appealing, if she was honest with herself.

Then, she realised he was wearing a red tartan shirt that clashed rather heavily with his green tweed trousers and some beige Clarks shoes. The poor man probably wouldn’t know he had just ruined a precious Gucci suit.

She didn’t know why, but she couldn’t help herself and smiled, “It’s…it’s fine. It’ll dry.”

“Thank Christ it will.” He smiled in turn, relaxing now. “I insist on taking care of the cleaner’s bill.”

“You’re Scottish.” The observation escaped her lips before anything else, and his smile only grew at that.

“Aye, I’m afraid Frenchmen are more delicate than I am.”

“Since I’ve never had a Frenchman ruin my clothes with his drink, I’ll have to say yes,” she grinned.

“I canna blame ye,” he chuckled, leaning against the bar. “Since ye dinna want me to take care of the cleaner’s, may I at least offer ye a drink?”

“It depends. Do you plan on pouring it all over me again?” Her eyebrow raised in question and she quite enjoyed the way his cheeks turned crimson.

“I promise I’ll do my best not to.”

“Then yes, I’d like a drink,” she smiled, sitting upon the stool. “Whatever you may think would suit me best.”

“I’m always up for a challenge,” he winked, or she presumed he did, since both of his eyes closed at the same time, making him look like he had just sneezed internally. It was rather charming.

Claire watched as he ordered the drinks in a perfect French dialect, her eyes studying his body and the way he was carrying himself. He was rather sexy, she had to admit. A bit rugged around the edge and all. His sleeves were rolled up at the wrists, showing up his toned arms. Arms she’d like to be wrapped into.

When was the last time she thought about a stranger in such a way? She didn’t know.

“You know,” she cleared her throat, emptying her head of lusty thoughts. “I’ve had this suit for more than half my life.”

“Oh really?” He turned to look at her, smirking. “When did ye buy it, then? When ye were twelve?”

“That was a smooth one,” she grinned, taking the drink he was presenting her.

“Aye, thank ye,” he chuckled, blushing again.

“I do wish I still was twenty-four, but alas, it is a bit more than that.”

“Ye dinna look a day older than that.” He held up his glass to cheers with her.

“A lady never reveals her age,” she clinked her glass to his, winking. “But thank you.”

“Can ye at least reveal yer name? I dinna want to see ye go into the night wi’out knowing that information,” he smiled, leaning against the bar.

“It’s Claire…Claire Beauchamp.”

Usually, her name made people shiver with fear or admiration (or both) of her reputation, but not him. He was blissfully unaware of who he was talking to, and she was grateful.

“Jamie Fraser.” He held out his hand to her. “James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser, if we want to be precise.”

“That sounds rather important,” she smirked, taking a sip of her drink. Whisky.

“I’m afraid my family has been farmers for generations, no royal titles or anythin’ like that.”

“Are you a farmer?” She watched him, enchanted by his eyes.

“I used to help around when I was a lad, but no’, I’m a sculptor actually.”

“Oh,” she smiled again; what the hell was happening to her that she smiled so much? “Now that is very interesting. What kind of art do you do?”

“I work wi’ marble mostly,” he shrugged, taking a sip of his drink. “What do ye do?”

“Me? Oh, I work in fashion.”

“I should have guessed that, seein’ how well dressed ye are,” he grinned, rubbing the back of his neck. “Twas the first thing I noticed about ye from behind.”

“Was it, uh?” Her tone became flirty, as if she was back to being a twenty-year-old in a pub.

“Well, maybe no’ the first thing, but a close second,” he admitted, biting his lower lip not to reveal any more.

“The first thing I noticed about you was this horrendous shirt.” She let her finger run over the material of said garment, her lip flicking up in a grin.

“I’m sure ye’d steal it if ye could.” Jamie put his drink away and took her hand.

“I don’t see how I would find myself in a situation where I had the chance to steal that shirt, unless I take it off your back one way or another…”

“Are ye flirting wi’ me?”

Was she? She hadn’t flirted with anyone in a very long time, she barely could remember what it was like.

“Yes, I guess I am.” She finished her drink. “Do you mind?”

“Nay, I dinna mind,” he smiled, leaning closer to her. “I’m verra flattered, actually.”

“Do you live in Paris, Jamie Fraser?”

The Scot shook his head; they were so close, she was almost practically sitting on his lap.

“I’m here for a few days for work.” He looked down at her, his breath tickling her cheek.

“So am I. I’m going home in two days.” She toyed with one of the buttons of his shirt, suddenly feeling very bold.

“Do ye wanna go on a walk wi’ me?” He stroked a grey curl away from her face, smiling gently.

“Does that walk bring us to your hotel?” she asked, smirking.

“I’m a gentleman, I will only bring ye to my hotel if ye want me to.” He brought her hand to his lips.

“Well,” she said softly, tiptoeing to kiss his cheek. “I’d like that very much.”

Smiling, Jamie paid for the drinks before looking at her again. “After ye then, Sassenach.”

Claire was the first one out of the bar, closely followed by the Scot. It wasn’t what she had in mind when she left her hotel earlier — rather, it was quite the contrary.

She thought her evening would be boring, and it promised to be anything but that.