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Forget Me Not

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Warm mug of tea in hand, Claire Beauchamp descended the staircase that divided her flat from her charming florist shop below. She would open the store in approximately twenty minutes, but for now, the front door remained firmly locked, the “We’re Closed - Get Clover It” sign dangling in the front window.

 

Ever since she had opened her own business, she relished in her morning routine. Each day, Claire would head downstairs before opening hours. She would review her itinerary for the day - her scheduled meetings, daily deliveries, new orders - all while calmly enjoying her piping cup of Oolong, elegantly posed on an antique metal stool that was left on the property by the previous owner. It was everything her previous life lacked - order, safety, and peace. Finally, she was beginning to feel at home for the first time in her entire life.

 

Claire sighed as she settled onto her perch just behind the transaction counter and opened her leather bound journal. Pen in hand, she reviewed her to-do list for the day, jotting specific notes next to each item on her list.

 

At the top of her list was the Beardsley wedding. The happy couple were only having a simple ceremony at the registrar office; however, the mother of the bride insisted on providing a few nice touches to their special day. The boutonniere for the groom was complete, but Claire still needed to assemble the posy for the bride before the designated pick-up time.

 

Rolling back the thick sleeve of her sweater, Claire checked her watch. The mother of the bride would be arriving around 10, which left her plenty of time to craft the perfect bouquet for the young bride. As she shrugged her sleeve back into its proper position, her left hand caught her eye - particularly her now bare ring finger, the slightly-faded tan line mocking her now single lifestyle.

 

Next on her agenda, there were the arrangements for Mrs. Wilson’s wake. Claire had finished those the night before, and they were waiting in the fridge in the back storage room. She needed to schedule a courier to deliver them to the funeral home this afternoon. Although she wished she had the time to drop the flowers off herself (a personal touch her small business afforded her and something she prided herself in), Claire was needed in the shop for walk-ins and scheduled appointments - most importantly, her standing engagement with one James McTavish.

 

They had met six months ago, shortly after Claire opened her florist shop Forget Me Not Florals. Recently divorced and unemployed, she ran for the Scottish Highlands to begin her life anew. Starting over in her early thirties was a daunting endeavor, but Claire was never one to back down from a challenge. She quickly found a retail space in the shopping district of Inverness - which wasn’t quite as popular as Glasgow or even Edinburgh, but for the price and the flat on the second floor included, she couldn’t turn it down.

 

Her landlady Mrs. Fitz, who was equally charming and hospitable as the picturesque storefronts along her street, helped to connect Claire with a few local farms and businesses, once she was settled. Her nephew worked for Lallybroch Farms - the most successful historic, continuously running farmstead in the Highlands - and together they arranged a meeting with the director of sales. They planned to meet at a local cafe for what Claire assumed would be coffee with a side of business chatter, but when Jamie McTavish arrived in his best Barbour shirt, ginger locks tamed into a neat man-bun, and a bouquet of wildflowers in hand, clearly one of them had been mistaken.

 

Thoroughly embarrassed, Claire thought the meeting had been a cataclysmic disaster. They stumbled their way through awkward conversation, and as quickly as the meeting began, Jamie ended it, excusing himself to attend to an “urgent” conference call and leaving Claire alone with the check. She was utterly mortified. She could hardly imagine showing her face in town ever again - she would be the laughing stock of all local commerce.

 

An entire week passed, and she hadn’t heard a word from anyone in regards to her misadventure - let alone Jamie. Claire was beginning to think her fate was sealed as a total failure, completely forgotten in the history books… until one cold, miserable Thursday afternoon. She returned to the shop after lunch with her friend Geillis (the salon owner from a few doors down) to find someone had left a small gift on her transaction counter: a flower.

 

While a flower wasn’t exactly foreign in a flower shop, this particular bloom was. The freshly cut specimen had been particularly placed on the transaction counter, and the dewy, luscious yellow petals suggested that the plant had been cut just at it’s prime - by a knowledgeable gardener no less. The stem had been neatly sliced at the perfect angle and sported a tartan plaid ribbon - from which clan Claire couldn’t tell. However, she did notice the small, folded piece of paper dangling at the fabric knot.

 

“Och, looks like ye have a secret admirer,” Gellis teased as Claire untied the bow with a blush staining her cheeks as she opened the note to reveal its contents:

 

Sassenach, I think this is the blooming of a beautiful friendship - J

 

Claire pressed her hand to her mouth, stifling a small giggle that bubbled from her lips. Her heart fluttered ever so slightly at the thought of Jamie picking this flower, writing this note, and leaving the token in her shop - all just for her. She was so taken with this gesture of kindness she failed to notice the crisp, white envelope that had accompanied the flower and the contract inside (an contractual agreement for Lallybroch Farms to be the main supplier of Forget Me Not Florals’ every bloom, stem, and filler that it should require).

 

Ever since that afternoon six months back, Claire and Jamie met every several weeks to discuss the needs of the florist shop, to negotiate pricing on various bits of vegetation, and to become acquainted with one another. Each and every meeting grew longer as they spent time getting to know one another - as business partners and otherwise generally speaking over a dram or two of whisky.

 

These meetings quickly became the highlight of her week. Eagerly awaiting the next chance to spend time with the ever charming and yet challenging Mr. McTavish, she’d count the days on her calendar until they’d meet again. Following each encounter, Claire would hollow and lonely without his companionship, but her mood would always lighten a few days later. Jamie - with the help of Mrs. Fitz - would sneak into the flower shop and leave a small gift, a token as a reminder of their time together. Of course, it was always a flower of some sort.

 

Claire smiled as she spotted the petals of the first flower Jamie ever gave her - the sunny daffodil - peeked out from the edges of her journal. She saved each and every one along with the notes (sometimes silly but always sweet) he left for her. First she’d dry the the delicate blooms, carefully hanging them upside down from the store room ceiling to rid them of any excess moisture before pressing them flat within her journal for safe keeping. As she flipped through the leather-bound book each day, the the colorful fans of formerly voluminous blossom greeted her with a host of memories.

 

First, there was the daffodil. A flower of firsts and new beginnings, this springtime blossom heralded hope and joy and its sunny yellow petals symbolized affection and friendship. Along with the humorous yet sweet note, it was the perfect present to kick-off their relationship - professional and… potentially otherwise.

 

Then came a dahlia. This bloom represented elegance and inner strength, and coupled with its deep purple petals, it was the perfect gift for a creative type. Jamie had left her this particular flower after he spent an afternoon assisting a rather frazzled Claire put together several arrangements for a very posh dinner party. The order had fallen in her lap at the last possible minute as the original florist had mistakenly lost the order, and she had spent the morning frantically pulling her resources to complete the job.

 

In the days following, she nervously wondered if Jamie would ever speak to her again after witnessing her at her worst: bossy, loud, and demanding. However, her fears were put to rest when she found a beautiful burgundy dahlia waiting for her. This time the note read:

 

For a lady of grace… though ye’d make a bonnie wee swordsman the way ye wield those sheers. - J

 

Next was a peony. Full and fluffy like a ballerina’s tutu, peonies always represented love and affection, as they were very popular in bridal bouquets. However, coupled with their pretty pink hue, they suggested a flirtation… a budding attraction. For their fourth meeting, both Jamie and Claire had gotten their signals crossed. Jamie thought they were meeting, and Claire planned a night out with her girlfriends. She’d already locked up for the evening when her favorite Scot arrived ready to talk shop.

 

After she’d hurried downstairs and unlocked the door, she ushered him inside in a rush of apologies only to find him staring at her, completely besotted. Claire had blushed furiously as she mumbled apologies for the confusion and her less than professional attire - a curve-hugging red dress with a plunging neckline. Quickly, she wrapped herself in the spare sweater she kept on the back of her stool and gathered her riotous curls into a messy chignon atop her head before they settled down to business. Once more, Claire feared Jamie would end their partnership over her lack of professionalism, and yet again he surprised her with another gift. A few days later, Claire found a fluffy, pink peony awaiting her with a note that read:

 

I have a new nickname for ye, mo nighean donn - for I love the way your brown hair curls about your face (even if ye find it a nuisance). - J

 

More recently, it had been heather. The native flower to Scotland, this long stem covered with purple blooms stood for admiration. When last they met, Jamie had told Claire of his home in the Highlands near a town called Broch Mordha. His childhood had been a happy one, filled with glorious adventures through the rolling hills. When he spoke of home, his entire face lit up, beaming with pride for his land and his country. It warmed Claire to see him so animated and enthusiastic like a child on Christmas morning, but when Jamie in turn asked of her home and her family, she froze.

 

“I’m a bit of a gypsy, I’m afraid,” she had admitted timidly, eyes cast downward embarrassed and a bit fearful. “My parents passed away when I was very small. My uncle raised me… he is - was - an archaeologist, and we traveled constantly. I guess I never really had a home…”

 

A moment passed, and then another before Claire finally turned her gaze upward only to find Jamie staring at her intently with the corners of his mouth upturned in a small smile.

 

“That must’ve been verra lonely for ye,” the Scot murmured sympathetically.

 

She waved him off and blushed. “I became accustomed to it very quickly - saying goodbyes and all that. It’s why I have this…”

 

Claire gathered a handful of curls that covered the left side of her face to reveal a small tattoo just behind her ear. The delicate linework that formed the vines curled around the shell of her ear, and small flowers bloomed along their path.

 

“They’re mysotis - forget-me-nots,” she explained. “It’s my way of never forgetting all the wonderful people I’ve met, even if I’ll never see them again - I won’t ever forget them.”

 

Jamie’s smiled broadened then. “‘Tis a verra fine sentiment, Sassenach.”

 

A few days later, a small bundle of heather appeared with another note:

 

I’m off to Paris for a few weeks - for business. Will ye hold my home in your heart while I’m gone? - J

 

Claire returned the flowers and their notes to their homes in her journal and sighed. It had been nearly two months since Jamie left, and she missed him more and more with each passing day. It was unusual - whatever it was between the two of them. Whenever their hands touched or gazes met for longer for a moment or two, she felt this heat building deep within her, and she always felt as if she’d melt right on the spot. Jamie also matched her wit, always quick with a comeback or a clever pun. When he wasn’t making her laugh, he could captivate her for hours on end with various stories - no matter the subject.

 

No, the connection they shared certainly wasn’t usual, and it frightened her and thrilled her all the same.

 

The ringing bell above the door announced the arrival of a new visitor and broke Claire from her reverie. Her heart soared at the thought of Jamie waiting for her, his tall, strong frame clad in a crisp plaid shirt and his bright blue eyes smiling at her, but as she looked towards the door her daydreams halted in utter confusion.

 

In the doorway stood a different man - no one Claire had ever met before. His mousy brown hair was arranged neatly in a conservative, shorter style, not at like her Jamie’s flowing red locks, but he had a kind face all the same. He walked towards the transaction counter with an awkward gait, one leg limping just a beat behind the other.

 

“Are ye Claire Beauchamp?” the man asked with a raised brow.

 

“I am,” Claire said firmly as she stood from her perch. “If you’re for a quick purchase, I can help you, but I do have an appointment in about ten minutes.”

 

“That’s why I’m here,” he explained reaching out his hand to introduce himself. “My name’s Ian Murray. I’m with Lallybroch Farms, and I’ll be takin’ over yer account.”

 

Claire swallowed hard as she shook this newcomer’s hand. Fear gripped her, making her stomach turn over in knots with the various scenarios that played over and over again in her mind. What on earth had happened to Jamie?

 

“Before I forget…” Ian interrupted as he offered her is other hand, which held a small bouquet. “Jamie wanted ye to have these…”

 

Claire gasped and her eyes filled with tears as she recognized the small, lavender blooms firmly grasped in Ian’s hand - forget-me-nots. The bundle was wrapped with the same strip of tartan and came with one final note that shattered her heart completely:

 

Please forgive me Claire, but this canna continue. You are a rare woman - don’t forget me, for I certainly will never forget you. - J

 

To be continued…

Chapter Text

Claire allowed herself to wallow in her heartbreak for two weeks... well twelve days, twenty-three hours, and seven minutes if she was being precise… but what she was doing didn’t equate to the societal accepted norm of wallowing either. Claire wasn’t holed up in her apartment sporting her comfiest pajamas and eating pint after pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream all while binging terrible daytime soaps.

 

Oh no. That was not her style.

 

Instead, Claire went out on the town. Every night for twelve days straight, she painted the town red with her best girlfriend Geillis. They opened endless tabs at various pubs, pouring out their cash as the bartenders poured whisky in kind. They danced with handsome strangers until the overhead lights came on only to prove the allure these men held was in a mask provided by the hazy darkness of the bar. In the cold glow of the early dawn, they tripped over the cobblestone streets in their high heels as they wandered home arm-in-arm. At the end of the night, Claire would tumble into her own bed, burrowing into the fathomless sea of sheets as she surrendered to the gentle waves of sleep...

 

And this is how Claire wallowed, numbing the pain just enough that she could ignore its ever present sting. Between work and her exploits thereafter, she kept herself busy, constantly moving so she never had a minute to even to think. She filled every empty space between each passing moment in this manner to distract herself from the fact that the couldn’t fill the empty cracks in her heart... the ones he had vacated when he left.

 

The Scot.

 

Claire didn’t dare speak his name, let alone allow him to enter her thoughts… the waking ones at least. Sometimes at night, he visited her in her dreams. It was always the same dream, rather eerie and unnerving with its constant repetition. They were on a hill somewhere in the Highlands. The rolling landscape stretched endlessly in every direction, the perfect greenery accented by a smattering of heather. It was a rare, clear and bright day, the air thick, warm, and heavy with the promise of a blazing summer to follow this glorious late spring.

 

Standing at the bottom of the hill, she admired him, her Scot standing on the hilltop with his head held high and his stature proud. The sunlight glinted against his red hair setting it ablaze in a million different rich shades of auburn, copper, and gold. Though Claire failed to recognize the pattern, he wore a traditional kilt offset by a modern button down and waist coat, all of which only accented his toned physique and elicited impulsive thoughts as to what was hidden beneath that plaid…

 

But she was at the bottom of the hill, with her beloved at the top. Claire had no choice but to climb, and climb she did. She trudged slowly, placing one foot in front of the other with her eyes turned downward focusing on her feet as not to stumble… or worse, trip and fall flat on her face. Step after step, inch after inch, the distance between them only seemed to grow and the grassy knoll she scaled transformed into some sort of insurmountable precipice matching Mount Everest not only in height but in treacherous ascent as well.

 

It wasn’t until Claire nearly gave up that she reached the top, her goal - Jamie - within arms reach. Nearly collapsing with exertion, her knees buckled beneath her as she reached the crest of the hilltop. As she fell, she shouted, reaching for the man exonerated on the hill… and as her cries reached his ears, he turned to her, reaching for her embrace in return. With body and limb reaching, their fingertips met…

 

...only for Claire’s phone to ring, jolting her awake in the frigid confines of her lonely apartment.

 

Her hand skating across the littered surface of her bedside table, she sought out the offending device that interrupted her slumber. Claire blindly fumbled for her phone, the slick interface slipping dangerously through her fingers. She nearly dropped the device before she brought it to her ear and mumbled a disgruntled “Hello?”

 

“Claire!” Geillis’ deafening screeches echoed from her mobile. As the bellowing cries reached (and nearly broke) Claire’s ear drums, her head reflexively jerked away.

 

“Morning,” she grumbled as she freed herself from the snare of bed linens. She turned towards the bedside table, where her vintage alarm clock revealed the late hour, and she silently thanked whichever deity had given her the idea to make Mondays “by appointment only.”

 

“Or should I say afternoon… where are you?!”

 

Claire rose from her bed and stretched, the joints in her spine releasing with smalls pops and cracks as she flexed. Blindly, her feet shuffled against the wood floor in search of her slippers as Geillis chattered on about her latest conquest. The early-afternoon sunlight bathed her bedroom in a bright yellow light that was nearly blinding in Claire’s hungover state. The air was thick and far too warm as the heat of the day blanketed the second floor. A sheen of sweat formed across her forehead, and the room swayed in her vision. Before her churning stomach could fully betray her, Claire quickly turned on her heel and bolted for the staircase leading to the shop below.

 

A blast of cool air hit her face as she descended into the shop. Breathing deeply, Claire allowed the fresh scent of herbs and damp earth to wash over her and ease her unsettled stomach. She slowly eased her way down the stairs, gingerly taking each step one at a time just in case another bout of dizziness lurked waiting to upend her at any moment. The shop was blissfully quiet (something Claire appreciated as her brutal headache pounded behind her eyes). The nearly impenetrable stone walls muffled the sounds of the bustling street beyond its confines.

 

Breaking through the silence were the sounds of Claire’s slippered feet slapping against the wooden floor as she puttered through the shop. Her noncommittal hums echoed throughout the space as she appropriately responded to Geillis’ pauses - as few and far between they happened to be. However quiet her surroundings might have been, the shrill and ceaseless chatter streaming through her mobile was doing nothing to abate her splitting headache.

 

Claire ventured behind the transaction counter in search of the small refrigerator where she stashed an array of beverages for her consultations which so far had been so very slim. Once she placed her phone down and Geillis on speaker, she fished a bottle of water out of the fridge and twisted the cap off before downing the blessed contents in three large gulps. In this moment, she wondered if water always tasted this good or if her dehydrated, hungover state improved its taste.

 

Leaning her elbow on the counter top, Claire inspected the room. She took note of various bits of greenery and supplies that needed to be restocked (dusty miller had been rather popular this season and her ribbons were running low), tools that needed to be repaired (her sheers desperately needed sharpening), and projects she wanted to complete (she desperately wished to restore an antique card catalog and fill it with Polaroids of sample bouquets and arrangements to show clients). She spied the large pile of mail at the base of the front door, sighing as she counted the number of bill-shaped envelopes piled like a pristine mound of freshly fallen snow. As she reached the end of her count (eleven potential requests for her hard earned money), an outlier made its presence known, for at the very bottom of the pile rested a larger and blatantly tan envelope with an easily recognizable logo at its corner, the leafy branches just barely visible beneath the stack of bills.

 

Claire felt her heart leap into her throat as she raced to the door, collapsing to her knees as she reached the mound of mail at the shop’s entrance. In the background, Geillis prattled on, completely oblivious as to whether or not the person on the other end was actively listening. Claire tore through the pile like an eager child on Christmas morning, tossing envelope after envelope over her shoulder until the desired parcel was in her now shaking hands. She handled the package with the utmost care and reverence, as if it were spun of the most delicate Murano glass. She slowly flipped the envelope over, deftly slipped a finger beneath the flap, and released the seal before revealing its precious contents.

 

The packet was thick, laden with stylized type on thick, high quality paper, and it lay heavily not only in Claire’s hands but on her heart as well. Her fingers gently traced the ridges of print covering page after page, only allowing the words to formally sink in as she touched every single letter. As the confirmation reached her soul, she unleashed an earth shouting whoop of victory.

 

Ms. Beauchamp, Congratulations! We’ve accepted your entry, and we invite you to participate in the RHS Chelsea Flower Show Gardens...

 

She was going to Chelsea.

 

~*~

 

Six Months Later

 

Morning of the first day of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show dawned just like any other May morning. Birds soared over head, their large, overarching paths crashing above with a loud swooping sound as they cheerfully chirped the beginnings of a new day. Bees slowly infiltrated the grounds until their buzz created a low, electrifying hum surrounding the grounds. A fresh, spring breeze whistled through the trees and cut through the ever-present humidity of a lurking summer that had yet to dawn.

 

At ten minutes before eight, Claire stood proudly before her exhibit. She was entirely cool, calm, and collected… but on the inside, she felt the rope of her fortitude quickly unraveling. Behind her ribs, her heartbeat faltered and fluttered like the wings of the birds that flew above the gardens. Her nerves tingled with anticipation as if every inch of her skin had been stung by bees. With each gust of wind, every last inch of her resolve was shaken to her very core. Seconds ticked away, transforming into minutes and with each passing moment, Claire wondered how she’d survive the next five days.

 

The first two were the most critical to her and the fate of her exhibition. The opening of the show was reserved for RHS members (as they had earned the privilege of walking the show in its perfect mint condition in exchange for their precious fees) and for the judges (to assess and examine the exhibits in their peak form). The very thought of a panel of total strangers judging her work - judging her - was enough to set Claire’s head spinning and her belly churning with nerves. While she had no expectations of winning her category let alone receiving any sort of honors, she wanted her work at the very least to be well received. Six months of hard work couldn’t be in all for naught.

 

Six months Claire had spent half a year doting on and perfecting this patch of greenery. For the first month, she had burned the midnight oil researching her subject matter (a significant moment in history) and determining her design style (an homage to Calvert Vaux). She had worked her fingers to the bone sketching and building miniature models of her garden to the point that her pinky finger was now permanently crooked (from a break she didn’t allow to heal properly). She had dedicated herself to learning everything there was to know about fountains and almost flooded her shop when her half-scale model malfunctioned, dumping buckets of water onto the original 19th century hardwood floors. She had gained new muscle strength and physical toughness from hours of digging, shoveling, trimming, and preening every last square inch of this garden (and her back still ached with a lingering soreness). She had stretched herself in every way imaginable - creatively, mentally, physically, and even financially (by bringing on a student in sixth form whom she couldn’t pay but she fed and reimbursed at every opportunity).

 

With all the effort and heart she put into this plot of land, Claire simply couldn’t fail.

 

“Ms. Be-Beauchamp!” the shrill voice of her intern called, breaking her from her trance.

 

Claire sighed, “What is it, Mary? And for the last time - call me Claire!”

 

Mary Hawkins - the intern she had employed - stood before her now shaking like the leaves in the many trees that filled the grounds. Whether her tremors were born of her nervous nature or from the excitement of the showcase, Claire wasn’t entirely sure. However, the stammering and trembling temperament of the wide-eyed girl before her wasn’t doing anything to boost her confidence.

 

“R-right, Ms. Bea- I mean Cl-Claire!” Mary began before pausing to catch her breath and slow her speech. “Th-the gates ha-have opened. The show is st-starting.”

 

Alright, then. Here goes nothing.

 

Claire could not have asked for a better reception to her exhibit. It had been a slow start with only a handful of show-goers trickling past her garden and none of them showing too keen an interest, but after the first hour had passed, she was pleasantly surprised. The early arrivals had indeed come back which was indeed a rare sighting, but what was even more extraordinary was that these guest had brought their friends in tow. They even managed to lure a few judges (she easily spotted them by their stature and their oh so obvious questions) in their stead. In the spotlight, she truly shined; at the center of attention, she truly dazzled. Bees honing into the hive, they gathered around their queen, all flocking to her exhibit… and she couldn’t be happier.

 

Early in the afternoon, she caught a break. Many of the attendees had vacated the gardens in search of shelter from the harsh afternoon sun and sustenance of a mid-day meal. As much as Claire had reveled in the attentions and the praise of others, she appreciated the quiet moments alone with her work, the final product (as well as a brief respite to enjoy her brown-bagged lunch). It really was a masterpiece - the delicate balance that was really part science, part intricate story-telling, part art. Every time she looked at it - even in the early sketches on take-away napkins - she fell in love with this display all over again. From the fountain to the floating gardens to the plant life itself, every inch of of this garden called to her… it was almost as if she could hear it speaking straight to her soul...

 

“Sing me a song of a lad who is gone…” a voice intoned, breaking Claire from her thoughts.

 

“Say, could that lad be I?” the voice continued singing. Its low and husky resonance reminded her of the old Hollywood starlets with hooded lids and duplicitous natures.

 

Claire turned to face the direction from which the voice originated with a quick apology falling from her lips only to be suddenly surprised by her mysterious guest.

 

She certainly was a beautiful woman with classical features and eyebrows that put Ava Gardner to shame. Her suit set (Chanel to be sure) highlighted her trim figure and signaled a taste for finery that Claire could never dream of affording. Her raven hair was swept back and arranged in a neat French twist. A few silver strands glistened in the afternoon sunlight, revealing a refined wisdom one only earns with age.

 

With her piercing gaze set on Claire, she spoke once more. “Your exhibit - it’s the Skye Boat song, is it not?”

 

“You’re the only one who’s gotten it right off the bat,” Claire huffed as she stood, brushing the crumbs from her sandwich from her lap, impressed with this woman’s obvious intuition and intelligence. “What gave it away?”

 

With her chin held high, the woman waved nonchalantly as she gestured to the three floating islands in the middle of the pond. “These - the boats of white roses - they’re the sigil of the Stuart house, are they not?”

 

The very thought of a patron catching the smallest details of her work sent a thrill running through her, her pulse quickening and her breath catching at the back of her throat. Claire beamed with pride as she nodded, acknowledging the guest’s correct assumptions.

 

“Tell me about it,” the woman demanded.

 

Claire sighed before she began her well-rehearsed explanation of her gardens. She walked through her planning stages and sketches, highlighting our her decisions mimicked the sad tale of the Bonnie Prince Charlie (“See how the overall shapes are large, sweeping arcs? They represent the British Army closing in on Charles Stuart and chasing him out of Scotland… over the sea to Skye…”). She listed all of the fauna and flora used to create her display (“All plants native to the Scottish Highlands - with the exception of the white, English garden roses, which you spotted…”). She basked in her triumphs over the creation of her Isle of Skye - a island in the middle of a man-made pond with treacherous cliffs and rock-formations creating cascading waterfalls that fed into the pond below.

 

When she finished her dissertation, Claire felt utterly euphoric, her pulse soaring and lungs gasping for air as if she’d just run a marathon. She nailed the explanations her exhibit with the most glorious and poetic passion to a judge (for now she recognized this haughty woman’s for who she really was) who seemed to appreciate her creative genius. She was walking on air… she thought she might (just might) win best in show… until she looked into the eyes of her audience.

 

The woman was staring blankly with her eyes firmly trained dead ahead. It was almost as if she could see straight through Claire. With her head held high, she blinked, her heavy lids slowly closing and opening over her eyes as if she were an owl.

 

She was bored.

 

An eternity passed between the two women without either one of them speaking. Claire’s throat tightened, constricting and choking on the words she wished to cry out loud as anger bubbled beneath her steely surface. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep her words at bay ...until the woman finally mumbled a single word, drawing all four syllables languidly on her tongue as if they were individual parts of an entree that she hadn’t decided whether or not she’d swallow.

 

“Interesting.”

 

Claire rocked on her feet with a huff, shifting her weight into one leg as she placed her hands on her hips. She tossed her head back, holding her chin high as she dared to even ask, “How so?”

 

Without missing a beat, the judge launched herself at Claire and began pacing in front of the exhibit all while loudly lecturing her disapproval of the choices she had made.

 

“Interesting that a native Brit would chose such a… Scottish tale,” she spat, swiftly serving her brutally observations as if they were piping hot tea, “Especially considering you chose to follow Vaux’s style, I would’ve thought a take on Queen Victoria.”

 

Claire’s mind reeled, sifting through several insults she wished to hurl at this woman, who was probably no more than the wife of a rich aristocrat born and bred into privilege. She likely spent her days observing the world from her perfect bubble where she never had to question the actions of those less fortunate than her let alone realize that her comfort was built on their blood, sweat, and tears.

 

“Queen Victoria…” Claire scoffed as she approached her aggressor, charging the woman with little care to her status as a judge, “Another colonist, another invader. Do you not understand we seized someone else’s land? It belonged to the Scots first!”

 

She blinked, her chest heaving with labored breaths as her final arguments left her lips. A crowd had swarmed around them, encircling them and now trading gossip amongst themselves in low whispers that matched the easy yet threatening buzz of restless bees. The two women stood toe to toe, neither flinching for fear that whoever would move first would lose the upper hand.

 

“Is that right?” The judged posed her questions as she turned on her heel, taunting Claire as she sauntered away.

 

“Well then… I wish you the best of luck.”

 

With her words, Claire’s heart sank as she wondered if all hope was lost with her brash and bold sentiments.

 

~*~

 

As the week came to an end, Claire found herself alone in front of her garden once more. All around her celebrations erupted, heralding the close of yet another successful flower show at Chelsea, but she didn’t join the crowds in their jubilations. She was content in her solitude as she cradled her small trophy in her hands.

 

Second place.

 

The words etched in the metal plating winked at her, congratulating her on her accomplishments while still reminding her that her wicked tongue had nearly cost her everything. How could she have been so careless, so reckless? Claire knew the judges would be walking around, and some (like the woman she’d argued with) preferred to observe the exhibit on their own, hiding in plain site as to trick the exhibitors into letting their guard down (which is exactly what had happened). She cursed herself as a furious blush bloomed on her cheeks. Any of the guests could’ve seen the way she lost her nerve, the way she shouted at a judge over a simple question… she very well could’ve been asked to leave the gardens!

 

And yet… by the grace of whatever deity had smiled upon her this week, Claire managed to walk away not only as an honored victor but with quite a few potential new clients as well. Some had even approached her after witnessing the scene she’d made for they had admired her tenacity and strong opinions. She smiled to herself as she basked in the glow of her own small victories, which she had earned on her own without compromising her integrity.

 

Take that, Frank, she thought to herself as the memories of her awful ex-husband taunted her, threatening to ruin her joyful moment.

 

“It’s a shame you didn’t win…” a familiar voice called out to Claire, drawing her from her thoughts, “...your garden was truly exquisite...but as you can imagine, we wanted a truly English tale to take home first prize...”

 

Claire’s head snapped up only to meet the gaze of that judge - the very same woman who had challenged her exhibition earlier in the week. Anger surged through her veins as the woman continued to speak, her voice dripping with condescension and disdain.

 

“You…” Claire seethed through gritted teeth.

 

“I wasn’t finished!” she snapped suddenly before waiting for Claire to quietly nod, signalling that she should and could continue.

 

“I said it was a shame, but this is a contest held by The Royal Horticultural Society. We couldn’t award your telling of the tale first prize… even if it was more innovative, creative, and interesting overall.”

 

Well, this certainly was a turn in events. The judge’s change of heart in regards to Claire’s garden left her entirely speechless. She only could stare as this woman spoke, her expression nearly blank as if she had the brain of an utter simpleton.

 

However, I do have a proposition for you,” the woman continued. “My daughter is engaged to be married… in about four months time… to a Scotsman.

 

Claire pretended not to notice the way she spat the word Scotsman as if it’d left some disgusting taste in her mouth. Instead, she focused on mentally calculating the time and the effort it would take in order to complete such a daunting task. A full black-tie formal affair such as a wedding - let alone the biggest social event of the season - would require all of her attention and expertise to pull it off… but if she were to do so successfully, the possibilities for the expansion of Forget Me Not Florals would be positively endless...

 

“I’m sorry… you want to hire me?” Claire asked.

 

The judge balked at her question as she rocked back on her heels. “Who else should I hire when in front of me stands a perfect florist who not only grasps the perfect classical and whimsical modernism of Calvert Vaux but also can blend both English and Scottish tradition seamlessly?”

 

Claire’s heart stuttered and nearly stopped at the judge’s description of her garden. Any reservations she might’ve had went flying out the window.

 

“Alright… I’ll do it.”

Chapter Text

One week later…

 

For once in her life, Claire Beauchamp was early - a whole five minutes early to be exact. Granted the meeting was in her own flower shop with her flat just above her head, but nonetheless, she’d managed to be ahead of schedule and thoroughly prepared. Well… she was ready as she possibly could be, and on time - early even.

 

Louisa Dunsany (the persnickety judge she’d met last week) was due to arrive at her shop within the next five minutes with her eldest daughter in tow. They’d be discussing the logistics for said daughter’s wedding (what in God’s name was her name again? Jennifer? Gina?), and she was bloody determined to win this contract.

 

Claire was armed to the teeth for this battle. The shop was perfectly cleaned and organized after countless hours of filing and scrubbing (with much help from Mary… especially when it came to organizing her stores). She had several sample arrangements prepared along with a hard copy of her portfolio (printed on thick card stock and bound in buttery leather thanks to the sweet lad down the street who clearly had eyes for Mary and no one else). A lovely spread of salads, sandwiches, and scones had been ordered from her favorite cafe and were now artfully arranged on lace-laden platters. Boiling water awaited next to a variety of perfectly packed tea leaves, and champagne chilled in silver buckets of ice (thanks to Geillis’ insistent nature).

 

Even though her shop, her stocks, and her portfolio were in tip top shape, Claire needed armor herself. Her normal daily apparel (black leggings, comfortable trainers, and her unruly hair tied back in a messy bun) wasn’t suitable for such an occasion. She needed to be polished and poised, calm and collected. She was dressed professionally, yet casually to allow her body to stretch and bend as her job allowed (the front tails of her blouse tucked in the French style to appear tidy, the stretchy nature of her legging style slacks allowing her room to bend and move, the hem of her roomy blazer falling to the tops of her thighs). Her curls were tamed into soft waves with pieces pinned back from her face rather than have loose tendrils flying free, though she kept an elastic band on her wrist next to her watch (Uncle Lamb’s old time piece, antique gold fitted with a modern leather band to keep from sliding on her arm). Sighing, she rolled back the sleeve of her blazer to check the time.

 

10:57. Three more minutes.

 

Claire shrugged her sleeve back into place before crossing her arms across her chest in an attempt to cage her heart, which was beating wildly against her ribs. Her manicured fingers (again another one of Geillis’ mandates that she have clean, polished fingers instead of her dirt-clogged nail beds) tapped nervously against her forearm. Though she hadn’t slept in days (nagging thoughts of failure ran circles around her brain each night), she was completely alert. Every synapse in her body was firing, pinging rapidly as the tasks of her never-ending to do lists bounced back and forth like the metal ball bearing in a pinball machine. She felt herself slipping into the dark abyss of madness.

 

And for what?

 

Yes, this would be the biggest contract Claire had ever won - or ever would again - but again she asked herself the loaded question.

 

What was it all for?

 

She was selling her art for a fancy party, which grew even more trivial and meaningless with the size of the venue. The idea of such an extravagant party (not to mention the several elaborate festivities leading up to “I Do”) to celebrate vows that could easily be undone with sins of the flesh and the help of a lawyer seemed entirely foreign to Claire… an utter waste, really. Her arrangements would be a selling point, something to lure prospective clients for the bride’s father or to garner fifteen seconds of fame on Instagram for the bride and her mother. Her (prospective - she reminded herself) clients would pay for hundreds of blooms, and yet they’d never be as important to them as her own wedding bouquet once was to her (before the betrayal and the lies turned the garden of their love to ash).

 

Claire hadn’t even carried a full bouquet on her wedding day, which was a sudden and spontaneous affair. Frank had impulsively asked her to marry him as they walked passed the register’s office, where they witnessed a young bride and groom being photographed just after their hasty nuptials (clearly a soldier on leave and his sweetheart judging by his crisp, formal uniform and the small yet discernible bump that swelled beneath the flowing white fabric of her dress). They’d been on their way to meet his parents - Claire’s formal introduction to the family as it were (“I won’t be introducing them to Claire Beauchamp… but Mrs. Frank Randall,” he had beamed with such pride). She’d been wearing a sweet vintage grey suit (the roomy pencil skirt had been safety pinned into place), and conveniently a vendor on the corner had been selling flowers.

 

A single rose was the most beautiful artistry to represent her love that day, and now when she had the resources to weave a spectacular live sculpture for someone else, her art didn’t matter… not really anyway… not unless it could make someone else a profit. The very thought made Claire’s stomach turn, which only exasperated her nerves.

 

When she thought she couldn’t feel anymore sick from stress, the front door of her shop opened, creaking on it’s hinges, the bell above the entry suddenly chiming as it signaled the arrival of her guests.

 

Here we go...

 

“Mrs. Dunsany!” Claire crowed as she rounded the front desk to greet her customers. She plastered a fake smile on her face, nearly grimacing as she gripped the woman’s hand just a tad too hard. She pretended not to notice the way Mrs. Dunsany frowned and massaged her fingers once free from her all too eager grasp.

 

“Please, call me Louisa,” she assured her as she ushered her daughter forward. “This is my daughter - my eldest we discussed at Chelsea - Geneva…”

 

The girl stepped forward casually removing the sunglasses from her face and flippantly tossing her hair over her shoulder. As their eyes met, Claire felt as if she were living a dream… as if the moment unfolding before her were a dream or perhaps a nightmare. She stood toe to toe with someone who very well could be… her.

 

The resemblance was utterly remarkable. To the casual bystander, she could’ve been Claire’s younger sister, though there were some subtle differences. The girl was tall (and yet only an inch taller than she), and the length of her was only exaggerated by her tapered black slacks and stilettos. She was just as thin - but not emaciated like the models she had seen in magazines. S-shaped curves traced the lines of her body over lean muscle and graceful contours, much like the ballerinas she had seen in London when she and Frank had gone on holiday a few years ago (and suddenly she questioned the eclair she enjoyed last night after dinner even though Geillis told her she could spare to gain a pound or two). Her porcelain skin was clear nearly translucent and free from blemish (unlike her own cheeks instantly dusted with freckles whenever she stepped into the sun) and her chestnut hair was perfectly straight, hanging in a thick yet severe long bob around her face.

 

Buck up, Beauchamp! She’s just girl...

 

Claire licked her lips as she brushed an errant curl from her face. She’d travelled the world, received a PHD in botany in record time, and now started her life completely anew all before the age of 35. Who was she to be afraid (let alone intimidated) by a wee lass a few years her junior?

 

Determined, Claire inhaled deeply and shook the girl’s hand, finding her fingers matched the icy nature of her gaze.

 

“It is wonderful to meet you... Geneva,” she paused and committed the name to memory as not to forget it again before she gestured to the empty wing chairs (a newly refurbished steal Geillis had found in the back of an antique shop). “Please make yourselves comfortable. Could I offer either of you a drink? Maybe some champagne perhaps - we are celebrating a happy occasion after all!”

 

Geneva opened her mouth to speak, her eyes sparkled with a bit of excitement at the offer of refreshment. Before she could speak, Louisa silenced her with a look. Severe disapproval marked her face as she curtly shook her head and tsk-ed under her breath. Her eyes cast downwards like a pitcher waiving off a bad call from his catcher.

 

“Water, please. Sparkling if you have it.”

 

Claire bustled about the shop as she prepared refreshments for her guests. Nervous chatter fell from her lips along the way, words tumbling from her mouth before she could check her thoughts. She produced three glasses from a cupboard behind the transaction counter (“You’ll find my portfolio on the table just there. It contains a wider variety of my work since the exhibit at Chelsea was a bit landscape-focused”). She fished some Perrier from the small refrigerator; the smooth, green glass of the bottle was cool against her skin. She poured the contents evenly between the three glasses, the water bubbling as it flowed like a small stream (“I’ve also made a few samples - table arrangements… boutonnières… bouquets…”). She carefully carried all three glasses to the table (“Though I’ve never done an event of this size, I work with some of the top suppliers in the area, and I assure you, you will have my undivided attention during this entire process”).

 

Once Claire finally sat down and stopped talking, her heart sank - the Dunsanys were staring at her, blankly. Her leather-bound portfolio had remained closed, the scones untouched, and the sample arrangements completely ignored. Her breath came in shallow gulps, and the room began to spin around her. All of this work, a week without sleep… and the bloody aristocracy didn’t seem to care.

 

“I don’t mean to be rude, but I want to make this abundantly clear…” Louisa began, the corners of her mouth drawing downward in a frown. As she braced herself for disappointment, Claire bit the inside of her cheek, hoping she could mask any emotion that dared bubble to the surface (her glass face be damned).

 

“As far as we’re concerned, you’ve already been hired so there’s no need for the dog and pony show you’re putting on. We’re fully prepared to offer you this amount for your services…”

 

The older woman reached for her pocket-book, unbuckled the clasp at the top, and retrieved a plain white envelope from its depths. She placed it on the table and with tented fingertips pushed the paper towards the florist. A moment passed… and then another as Claire tried to control her nerves. With shaking hands, she retrieved the envelope and flicked open the unsealed flap. Inside, she found an itemized a list, an intricate and thorough budget for the costs associated with the flowers and services required for this wedding. Her eyes darted across the page as they quickly scanned the contents of the page until she found the final total at the very bottom.

 

She’d never seen such a large sum in her entire life… let alone just for flowers.

 

Her heart thundered back to life, sending her pulse pounding loud in her ears. Claire could hardly believe it. It was more than double what she was going to ask for, more than she’d even dare haggle over. The possibilities of what this kind of money could do for her business tallied quickly in the back of her mind. She could fix up the storefront and get some proper signage… she could even expand into the next shop over (if Mrs. Fitz was willing). She could afford to bring Mary on full time for the summer (she’d have to in order to have this wedding ready in three months and maintain her business). She could even consider looking for an assistant to alleviate herself from the daily, administrative dreck of her business (make appointments, manage the front desk, even help with the book-keeping). She’d be free to focus on her artistry and maybe even start a small greenhouse of her own. All this… and she hadn’t even thought of the business she’d bring in if she could pull this off successfully...

 

Forget Me Not Florals wouldn’t just merely survive… this business could really thrive and grow beyond Claire’s wildest dreams…

 

“Is that sufficient?” Louisa asked, her normal husky voice growing shrill as she interrupted Claire’s thoughts. “If it’s not, we’re open to negotiate…”

 

Utterly flabbergasted at the thought of even more money, Claire struggled to find her words. “No, no - this should cover everything. I’ll work up a contract and get it over to you by the end of the week.”

 

“Splendid!” Louisa chirped as she clapped her hands together. Though the woman was finally smiling, the pleasant expression did nothing to put Claire at ease as she caught the daughter cringing out of the corner of her eye.

 

“We’ll be issuing one of our own as well. Nothing too out of the ordinary. You see my husband is a very important man, and this wedding will be the social gathering of the season. We need to insure your discretion, of course.”

 

Claire had expected nothing less. When she’d asked for Geillis’ help in getting the shop ready, she’d divulged the name of her client. Dunsany. As Claire and Mary spent the first evening scrubbing every in of the shop, Geillis perched at the computer behind the transaction counter, the ancient machine painstakingly chugging through endless Wikipedia pages and gossip rags.

 

William Dunsany of Hellwater certainly was an important man. His family had spent years acquiring estate after estate, cultivating multiple farms and several champion race horses. He held a seat in the House of Lords (“passed along to him from his late father-in-law”) and a spot at the race track (“where he was rumored to be gambling away the family fortune”). His wife, Louisa, was well known in London society, which extended certain invitations to their older daughter Geneva (“It says here she was dating Prince Harry before he met Megan Markle! Who breaks up with a royal?!”). Everyone knew the Dunsanys, and the Dunsansys knew everyone (anyone who mattered anyways). While the high-profile nature of Geneva’s pending nuptials didn’t sway Claire away from the challenge, she was very aware of the harsh realities of life in the glaring spotlight.

 

“Completely understood,” she nodded. “Your privacy is my top priority.”

 

“After Geneva’s happiness you mean…” Louisa added under her breath, her voice low and menacing.

 

Claire’s eyes narrowed as she smirked. Though Geneva might’ve given up her shot at the crown, she was obviously still a princess in her parents’ eyes, and a princess always got what she wanted. She tilted her chin slightly, agreeing to Louisa’s statement even though the thought of being bossed around by a spoiled brat made her stomach turn.

 

“Is there anything else you’d like to discuss today? I’d love to hear more about the bride, the groom, their relationship…” she pressed on while reaching for her journal and a pen… “We don’t have to talk colors or vision now… just a few details to get me started on developing a conceptual palette for our next meeting.”

 

“It was a bit of a whirlwind romance really…” Geneva finally spoke, her cheeks flushing with the glow of a newly engaged women as the tale spilled from her lips. “We met in Paris!”

 

“Paris…” Claire repeated, the word turning to ash in her mouth as the memories of a redheaded Scot flooded her vision. The last they’d spoken he was going to France... She swallowed harshly against the lump that settled in her throat. “How… romantic!”

 

She turned her eyes downwards towards her journal. She scribbled a few nonsensical notes on the blank page as she tried to steady her breathing. She felt warmth creeping into her cheeks (a blush surely stained her pale skin), and she chewed on her bottom lip in attempt to mask her emotions, though she knew it was useless with her bloody glass face. Breathing deeply, she focused instead on the one word she’d written repeatedly in thick, black letters and underlined three times.

 

Paris.

 

Claire tapped her pen against the thick pad of paper as a thought slowly clicked into place.

 

“So if you met in Paris, why not get married there? Roses, champagne, couture fashion…” she suggested, prattling on a list of reasons that surely would be appealing to the likes of a well-bred girl with expensive taste...

 

“If you’ll recall our first meeting, Claire, I mentioned that the groom is from Scotland,” Louisa reminded her gently, though her words were harsh, biting with disdain at Claire’s error.

 

“Yes, Scotland is very near and dear to Alex’s heart - as is his family,” Geneva added.

 

Alex.

 

The groom finally had a name, and it wasn’t James (or any derivative thereof). Claire sighed in relief. When Geneva had mentioned Paris, her heart nearly stopped. The idea that Jamie had left her and met another woman on his trip was enough to make her reconsider this contract all together (money and success be damned).

 

But Geneva had said Alex… Claire’s mind raced with ideas of who this Alex might be. Perhaps he was the owner of some great, Scottish estate (a fitting match for the daughter of a wealthy landowner if disappointing compared to the hopes of a royal engagement). Whoever he was, he most certainly couldn’t be her Jamie.

 

“His family has lived and run the same farm for centuries, and it was Alex’s mother’s wish to see him married there - God rest her soul.” Louisa explained.

 

“Sounds like a lovely way to honor her memory,” Claire agreed as she continued adding notes to her journal. “Could you tell me more about it - the farm? Do you have any pictures on hand?”

 

“Oh no, dear, pictures simply don’t do the place justice!” The older woman scoffed.

 

“You must see it! Don’t you agree, mother?” Geneva chirped excitedly. “We’ll schedule a time for all of us to tour the estate - and you can even meet Alex! We can even send for a car to take you there. We can make a whole day of it!”

 

Geneva’s sudden enthusiasm sent Claire’s head spinning. Extravagant trips to the country and chauffeurs were far from her comfort zone. She was an orphan who’d spent more time sleeping under the stars with nothing more than the clothes on her back than she’d spent with a proper residence. Now she was entertaining one of the wealthiest families in England, sipping champagne, and haggling over exorbitant contracts. She was plain Claire Beauchamp and nothing more.

 

“That won’t be necessary,” she insisted. “I have an auto that will make the trip - it’s no trouble to drive myself, really.”

 

She thought fondly of the Tiffany-blue pick-up parked on the street outside. Besides the watch she wore on her wrist, it was the only thing she had to remember Uncle Lamb. Surely, it’d seen better days, but it ran alright with constant maintenance and trips to the mechanic (she mentally added her truck to the list of items that would benefit from the Dunsany’s contract). She cherished it - they certainly didn’t make cars like that anymore.

 

“If you mean that antique parked out front, then I really must insist,” Louisa reiterated her daughter’s request. “Besides we wouldn’t want you breaking down on the side of the road on the way to Broch Mordha - there’s nothing around for miles!”

 

Broch Mordha.

 

Claire had seen the name several times. It was listed on the business card Mrs. Fitz had given her just after she’d signed her lease. It was printed neatly at the top of the invoices she received every month. It was burned in her memories, Jamie’s voice lilting musically around the foreign syllables as he told her of his childhood home.

 

“I’m sorry… Broch Mordha?” She coughed as she tried to hide the tears that threatened to fall.

 

“Yes, oh I’m sure you’ve probably heard of it… and their estate, dear. The groom’s family owns Lallybroch Farms.”

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Three days later

 

The plans for the journey to Broch Mordha came together rather quickly. With the wedding date fast approaching, there was no time to spare. By midday Monday, Louisa’s assistant (a curt man with quite the attitude by the name of Nigel) had phoned Claire with all of the details for their trip. A car would arrive at her shop at 7AM sharp (Nigel had made a point to emphasize the word to the point Claire wondered if the Dunsanys knew of her penchant for tardiness) and whisk her away to the Highlands. The car (a completely tricked out black Audi Q3) the Dunsanys’ provided even came equipped with WiFi, so she could work during the drive…not that she could even if she tried.

 

Strange the things you remember...

 

Twenty years had passed since Claire had last visited the Highlands. She’d followed Uncle Lamb (trusted in his custody rather than face the perils of a vicious all-girl boarding school) on all of his archaeological adventures following the loss of her parents. They travelled the world together, and she saw more than most could expect to see in a lifetime all before she came of age: The Temple of Seti I in Abydos... Qinshihuang’s Terracotta Army in Shaanxi… Cueva de las Manos in Santa Cruz… Every adventure was totally unique and almost unbelievable, each trip a notable item on someone else’s bucket list… but none of them meant as much to Claire as her time spent with her beloved uncle in the Scottish Highlands.

 

It was the longest amount of time they’d stay put (at that point in time… or ever would again). Lamb had been researching a theory (following a hunch more like). After reading the studies of Alexander Thom, he was determined to find a missing link connecting all of the ancient stone circles in the country. When that wild goose chase ran cold, he fully immersed himself in the ancient clans of Scotland instead, tracing their origins, and recording their history. He wasted years buried beneath the many hills the country boasted, while Claire explored the world above them.

 

She discovered this wilderness all on her own as a young girl with no one to guide her, no one to protect her… and yet she never worried. Even then, something (buried deep beneath the grass, hidden the darkest pool of a burn) from the earth’s core called to Claire… beckoned her here to this place. Like the missing piece to a puzzle, she fit perfectly. Perhaps in a past life, Scotland had been her home. As a young girl, she imagined herself as a great Lady, the leader of a powerful clan waging war against neighboring foes and providing protection to her people. She was wild and carefree as only a girl of ten could be, and in these hills, she found more than never-ending adventures… she found the closest thing to home she’d ever felt.

 

When the time came that England could no longer be that place to her (the home she’d built with a man she once called husband), it was no wonder she fled to the Highlands. As Claire stared out the window on her journey to Broch Mordha, she fell in love with the land all over again. Its verdant hills rolled endlessly into a horizon of perfect blue sky with such perfection that she almost forgot the writhing ball of nerves that had settled in the bottom of her stomach.

 

Almost…

 

Three days had passed quickly with plenty of distraction in the brisk pace of these hasty wedding preparations, and three nights crept on as she struggled to settled herself to sleep. Her productive meeting with Louisa and Geneva should’ve eased any fears, any doubts, she’d once harbored during her preparation for that bid presentation… and yet, they’d only doubled in that time. While she had yet to see the size of Lallybroch, the way the Dunsanys spoke of it told Claire it wasn’t a small, quaint farm in the countryside. Even if it were, she had multiple events that required arrangements and her expertise (the bridal shower… the rehearsal dinner… and then there was the wedding itself) not to mention the blistering pace of it all.

 

Twelve weeks to prepare and execute the wedding of a lifetime at Lallbroch...

 

At the thought of it, Claire felt her legs turn to water beneath her at the weight of a single word. The air left her lungs when her brain tempted to fill in the unspoken blank space with a name she refused to speak aloud.

 

Deep breaths, Beauchamp…

 

Her heart raced at the thought of seeing him again… the redheaded Scot… Jamie (though she’d never admit aloud she considered him to be hers). Claire imagined their reunion over and over again in several different scenarios. In most, she was the perfect picture of casual coolness. She’d greet him with some perfect line (off-the-cuff, not rehearsed) and she’d dazzle him with the utter perfection that she was (though she was certain she’d absolutely muck it up). In others, they’d meet accidentally in some common place - a coffee shop… an art gallery... a pub. They’d awkwardly exchange pleasantries only to find that neither one of them was as perfect as the vision the other had imagined after all this time. They’d part ways in total disappointment (she didn’t dare let herself dream of finding happiness in love again… not after Frank… not after this latest heartache...). While it was entirely logical, she never once imagined that their paths might cross with work - he the director of sales for a very large farming franchise and she a simple florist.

 

No… that would be too transparent… too uncomplicated…

 

“Here we are!” Louisa’s voice called out, interrupting Claire’s thoughts.

 

The auto’s pace slowed, lumbering to a halt just before a stone archway. They would have to continue on foot as the opening was too low and too narrow for the SUV to pass through without damaging the vehicle and the wall itself.

 

As Claire exited the car, she surveyed her surroundings. The stonework of the entrance gate reminded her of the ancient Roman arches she’d seen all across Europe (London… Paris…). However, the keystone at its pinnacle was a decidedly Scottish touch (the proud head of a stag with thistle woven in his antlers). While her clients pressed on with the confident stride of belonging, she lingered at the entrance. Leisurely, she paced, her paths tracing intersecting lines as her footsteps weaved an intricate pattern of avoidance and hesitance on the ground. The gravel crunched beneath her with each step. It announced her arrival as a stranger - an outlander in these foreign and ancient lands.

 

Sassenach…

 

Even now, the wind crested off of the hilltops and called to her, echoing the word (his special name for her). It should’ve offended her. It was a derogatory word by origin after all… but it never did. Claire imagined him saying it, his blue eyes twinkling as the corner of his full lips tugged upward in a playful smirk. She swore she heard his voice, the unique yet melodic tilt of his accent, in the breeze that struck up as she crossed over the threshold to the private entry courtyard.

 

“Jenny!” The voice called again, this time more urgently and loud enough to break Claire’s thoughts. “They’ve arrived!”

 

She spun once, twice… and a third time beneath the archway before she caught the source of the interruption. As she slowed to face the house (an ancient stone building, sturdy and strong and centuries old), she caught the eye of a man. He paused at the stairs, his gaze locking with hers. There was nothing extraordinary about him (mousy brown hair, a plain yet kind face), but when he moved to enter the house, his awkward, shuffling gait like the stuttering rhythm of her heart (step step pause… step step pause…) struck a match, lighting a fire deep within her memories.

 

“Ian?” Claire breathed, her whispers barely loud enough to register above the passing breath and the crunching of cobblestones beneath heavy boots.

 

It’d been months since she’d first and last encountered Ian Murray. When Jamie (Claire swallowed hard against the offensive syllables of his name) had first left his post, Ian promised to oversee her account personally. However, they failed to reconnect following that first meeting. Between his inconsistent schedule (business and family - apparently his wife had just given birth to their third child) and her ambitious endeavors (first Chelsea… then the Dunsanys…), there wasn’t any time left for regular meetings face-to-face. Any business transactions occurred in the rushed spaces of the in between (responding to e-mails while brushing one’s teeth… negotiating contracts with a pen in one hand and a sandwich in the other… checking invoices as she debated various films on Amazon). She hardly remembered the man… but when the comforting lilt of his Scottish accent hit her ears, Claire found herself tumbling backwards in time.

 

“Ian!” A shrill voice cried from beyond the doorway.

 

Claire turned just in time to catch the whirlwind that followed: a cook with hands held high in frustration, a nanny arms outstretched ready to nurture, and two toddlers clutching at their mother’s heels. When the din cleared, a petite woman (no more than five feet tall) appeared in the doorway, cradling a small child in her arms (how she coaxed the infant to sleep amidst such chaos was behind Claire’s understanding). Her jet black hair was slicked back into a low ponytail at the nape of her neck. The severity of the style highlighted the sharp cut of her cheek bones and the catlike slant of her eyes.

 

When the woman turned to acknowledge her guests in the front courtyard, Claire’s stomach flipped. There was something eerily familiar about her (the cerulean shade of her eyes… the bow of her upper lip…). Even though Claire swore she’d never seen her before, she couldn’t shake the unearthly feeling of deja vu… An unseasonable chill ran down her spine telling her that somehow she knew these people… this place...

 

“Ian, I told ye to fetch me when Geneva and Louisa got here,” the dark haired woman chided him as she deftly passed the now sleeping child into the nanny’s waiting arms.

 

“Not to worry, Jenny dear. We’ve only just arrived,” Geneva interceded before stepping forward to embrace her soon to be sister-in-law. The bride to be pursed her lips and kissed the air on either side of Jenny’s cheeks before stepping aside to allow Louisa to greet their hostess in a similar fashion.

 

Claire waited, hovering by the archway as her clients finished their pleasantries. She distracted herself by naming (in Latin) each plant, flower, and fungi she could find in sight of the front drive. She debated counting every single stone in the facade to keep her eyes from Ian… and from her mind wandering to the ever pressing questions of her heart (It was ridiculous - what was she even doing here? Was Jamie lurking somewhere on the premises?).

 

“And this the florist - the one I told you about,” Louisa gushed as she turned and then ushered Claire forward towards the lady of the estate. “Claire… this is Jenny, sister of the groom and the co-owner of Lallybroch Farms.”

 

“It’s a pleasure tae finally meet ye, Claire. I’ve heard sae much about ye!” Jenny beamed as she offered her hand.

 

“Only good things I hope,” the florist joked as a nervous laughter bubbled from her lips. She took Jenny’s hand at shook it. As Claire looked into the woman’s face, she watched a fleeting look flicker across her eyes (both of recognition and instant regret), making the knots in her stomach twist even tighter.

 

“Though I’m curious as to whom is saying such things on my behalf…”

 

With Claire’s question, everyone grew quiet as idle chatter gave way to uncomfortable silence. Jenny’s gaze shifted from Claire’s to Ian’s and then back again. Their unspoken words spoke volumes of their uncertainty, their nervousness as their expressions changed from smiles to furrowed brows and pursed lips. A moment passed… and then another before a hawk cried overhead, its ear-splitting shrieks breaking through the awkward silence that had settled over their group.

 

“Och, Ian of course!” Jenny finally admitted through a forced smile with gritted teeth. “...and then when Louisa showed me photos of your exhibit at Chelsea, I was floored! I had no idea we were doing business with the most talented florist in Scotland!”

 

Claire nodded as Jenny spoke, her words grating at her already worn nerves (raw and threadbare). The way the woman grinned reminded her more of grimace with a forced expression of cheer plastered across her face that did little to reassure her. While her heart urged her to press her host for the scandalous details she hid behind pleasantries and a cheerful grin, her mind won out.

 

“Shall we get started then?” She asked with raised brows and a clipped tone that suggested she was more than eager for a change of subject and of scenery. Jenny nodded as she began their tour of the property.

 

The Dunsanys were right - pictures simply wouldn’t (couldn’t) do the place justice. Neither film nor digital photography could capture the ethereal magic of such hallowed ground where nature, history, family, and modern convenience intermingled pleasantly to no ill effect.

 

The property was reminiscent of a fairytale farm (so idyllic Claire waited to catch Princess Buttercup ordering Farm Boy Wesley about for a pitcher of water). The lush landscape and plentiful crops blossomed in vivid technicolor (verdant grass greens… sunny honeysuckle golds… powdery blue forget-me-nots), making her squint in their brightness. She wondered if the sky was always so clear, so blue (the familiarity of such a hue made her heart clench as she tried to shake off the memories of Mr. McTavish that lurked around every corner of Lallybroch) or if the color was reserved to this location alone. Free from the smog of city life, the air was so fresh and crisp inhaling felt more like taking a bite out of a fresh apple then simply breathing.

 

To compliment the perfect fanciful atmosphere, almost all of the original structures on the site remained - the stone walls of which were nearly integral to the rolling hills as the grass. Even the oldest monuments that had fallen into ill repair survived, and rather than demolish them, they allowed for the earth to overtake them slowly over time with winding limbs of ivy and damp bushy coverings of moss (Jenny gestured to a decaying tower, the namesake of their property and the oldest building on site). While the other buildings had been outfitted with modern amenities to support the farm and its owners, their exteriors remained untouched and therefore retained an authentic charm that couldn’t be described as anything else as pure (the turned stone structures capped with slate roofs reminded Claire of picturesque postcards she’d seen in gift shops… the scenes too idyllic to possibly be of reality).

 

If sites before her weren’t straight out of a painting in the Louvre, the people were absolutely fascinating. The employees of the estate bustled about the grounds tending to their work, though never completely disgruntled (they were in fact Scots after all). Each and every worker offered a heartfelt greeting (even when interrupted in the most arduous of tasks), as well as the animals they tended. A raucous chorus of dogs barking, horses baying, and sheep bleating welcomed them at every turn. It reminded Claire of the opening number of a musical she’d once seen on the West End: a pastoral setting with the residents scurrying about their daily chores, all bending to or pivoting towards a central character…

 

Jenny

 

Amidst the bustling chaos of a working farm, Jenny was a gracious host... and even more, a colorful story teller. As she showed them the notable landmarks of the estate, she skated effortlessly (navigating cramped passage ways, dancing around hidden rocks in the ground, beckoning wee farm animals to gather at her feet) like a fairy at one with the surrounding landscape. Stories flowed from her mouth and painted the estate in the hazy, swirling strokes of an Impressionist painting (blending the perfect strokes of bold facts with the misty water-colored renditions of her memory). Quick with a clever joke and a warm smile, she thrived in this place, as if her connection to the farm rejuvenated her, the earth recharging her spirit just as it gave life to the plants and trees around them… while Claire felt utterly drained.

 

They’d been walking for hours through the boggy grounds laid thick with mud as they only could be in spring, and she was bloody exhausted (and thankful at her fore site to wear her knee-high wellies for this trip). Her muscles ached with fatigue, and there was still plenty left to see. So far they’d covered the cottages (small and quaint guest homes where the groomsmen and the bride’s family would ready themselves that day), the church (or kirk as Jenny had called it… though they did not linger here as tension from an unfinished argument about the ceremony hung heavy in the air), the tower (an ancient, leaning structure that Claire was to adorn with flowers for the photos following the ceremony), several barns (one of which was to be cleaned out and decorated for the rehearsal dinner), and the fields (where a tent would be erected for the reception).

 

If the Dunsanys saw Lallybroch as a modest farm, Claire balked at the thought of the grand estate they called home.

 

When they finally stopped in the main gardens, Claire’s legs shook as she bent to examine a particularly beautiful rose. The vibrant blooms had caught her eye from outside the gate - sunny, golden yellow petals so rich in color they rivaled a summer sunrise. As she finally sunk to the ground, she sighed in relief, enjoying a moment or two to rest her weary bones. Louisa and Geneva continued prattling on behind her, warbling through their never-ending list of wedding details like a pair of birds (“Now, Claire, the flowers for all arrangements will be provided exclusively from Lallybroch…”). She hummed some sort of acknowledgment under her breath as she fished her leather journal from the deep recesses of her bag. Thumbing to a clean page, the world around her faded away as she began to sketch the beautiful specimen before her. She lost herself in the deep green stems (long and winding but riddled with sharp thorns), the thick leaves (dark in contrast to the lightness of the bush’s blooms), and the sumptuous petals (rich, full, and bright). She followed the lines and the curves of the flowers before her, only pausing to acknowledge requests from her employers (“Geneva will personally select the flowers for her bouquet and Alex’s boutonnière… well how’s that for timing!”).

 

Lost in the beauty of the plant life before her, Claire didn’t hear the sound of heavy footsteps behind her or the gate creak open. She barely registered the tone of Geneva’s already shrill voice rising to a pitch that only dogs could hear. What she did recognize was a voice - his voice - low and familiar and so bloody casual.

 

“Mrs. Crook sent me tae fetch ye, luv… she said lunch is just about ready.”   

 

She shook her head to clear the cobwebs. She was imagining things, she told herself. Inhaling deeply, she repeatedly reminded herself of everything Geneva had told her about her fiancé (his name, his position as owner of Lallybroch, how they met), and yet her hands still shook as she tried to cram her journal back into her bag.

 

“Alex!” Geneva squealed. Claire heard the gravel crunch beneath her feet as she skipped towards the fence. “We’ve brought the florist with us! You must meet her - you’ll positively adore her.”

 

She rose slowly, brushing the dirt and debris from her close. She cursed as she caught sight of her mud-streaked pants (what an impression that’ll make, Beauchamp). She attempted to tame her wild curls into submission before she turned around but found no help for it as the humidity had granted her hair permission to spiral into a further wild state.

 

Claire turned towards the gate only for the garden to continue spinning around her. Her breath caught, her throat tightening around words she dared to speak and wished to scream.

 

There he was - standing at the gate to the garden, not a care in the world. The Barbour plaid of his shirt set off the blue of his eyes, a blazing shade of sapphire almost unnatural to this world. His long arms stretched outward and wound around the waist of his betrothed. A small smile graced his lips as he pressed a kiss to her hair. Foreheads touching, the pair giggled and whispered hellos as only lovers do.

 

“Darling,” Geneva started as she untangled herself from her fiancé’s embrace and bounded across the garden. Claire’s chest tightened with each step bringing her employer (her adversary) closer and closer. She sympathized with the pebbles grinding beneath the young girl’s feet, which felt more and more like the shattered pieces of her own broken heart. “This is Claire, the owner of Forget Me Not Florals and florist extraordinaire…” the young bride gushed as she ushered Claire forwards. “Claire, this is -”

Geneva paused as she returned to stand by her groom. The moments between each word, every syllable dragged on for an eternity while Claire tried to gain some sense of composure. She blinked in the bright afternoon sun, grateful for the excuse of the blinding sunlight to hide the true reason behind her tears. Questions turned over in her mind as she tried to find the right thing to say. Instead, only one word came to mind - a name, his name - and it tumbled from her lips before she could stop them.

 

“Jamie?!”

Chapter Text

Claire blinked once… twice… several times, her lids sliding open and closed in rapid succession in time with her shallow breaths. Just before her eyes would open once more (the sharp light of day peeking through and already burning her retinas, straining her vision), she prayed the scene before her would change. If only she were simply dreaming, she’d be somewhere (anywhere) else once she awoke, and the vision of him before her would disappear as all nightmares did in the light of day…

 

And yet all of her dreams (haunting as they were) featured him (the very god of her desires and the bane of her existence) bathed in golden sunlight.

 

Jamie.

 

He was as dashing as ever (in her dreams… in her memories… even standing before her now, breaking her heart once more). Beams of sunlight reflected off of his rich, auburn curls and highlighted every astonishing shade of red in the spectrum of his burnt tresses (ruby… amber… gold and all of their jewel-toned cousins). His skin was bronzed from the late spring sun (though the tips of his ears were tinged slightly pink either from over exposure or possibly from the same embarrassment Claire felt presently). His eyes locked with hers, unblinking and refusing to break contact. She wondered if she’d ever seen a more brilliant shade of blue (even the beryl watery depths of Loch Rannoch couldn’t surpass them).

 

He was so beautiful like the perfect spring bloom on a vine (vibrant and proud and spry)… and how she wished to snap his neck like a twig.

 

How dare he do this to her.

 

No one moved, let alone breathed loud enough past a whisper. The five of them (Louisa, Jenny, Geneva, Jamie, Claire) stood firmly in their positions, rooted to the very ground they stood upon like saplings searching for an anchor in the tumultuous storms of spring time. Their gazes flickered and flitted from one to another like bees from flower to flower (Geneva’s to Jamie then to Claire and back to Jamie… Jenny’s to Jamie to Claire and then back to Jamie… Claire’s to the sky to the ground and anywhere else to avoid contact with any of the four individuals before her). Though the garden was spacious and grand as the rest of Lallybroch Farms, Claire felt its fences closing in tightly around her heart as she struggled to catch her breath. The pleasant early morning breeze had given way to stronger gusts with ominous clouds on the horizon (echoing the storm of emotions brewing in her heart).

 

“So…” Geneva spoke first as she shifted in Jamie’s embrace, turning to face Claire head on. She tilted her head, flicking her hair back as she faced her adversary head on. “You know each other then?”

 

Jamie’s eyes grew wide as Claire tried to negotiate an appropriate answer (one celebrities’ public relations executives would’ve clamored over) with a slight nod and the subtle raise of an eyebrow (as subtle as her glass face would allow). While they’d connected perfectly over frequent rendez vous, floral tokens, and love notes, they completely missed the mark in espionage.

 

“Yes!” “No!”

 

Their conflicting words collided, crashing in perfect cacophony as thunder rumbled low overhead (dark clouds looming over the horizon, heavy with the promise of a brutal storm). Jamie grimaced, his jaw flexing in frustration. Claire frowned in return, less than pleased that he failed to read her (what she thought was obvious) expression.

 

“No!” “Yes!”

 

They sighed simultaneously, nostrils flared and color flooding their cheeks. Claire rocked back on her heels as she crossed her arms against her chest, bracing for impact. She watched as Jamie twitched, the fingers of his left hand drumming furiously against his thigh.

 

“From another life…” the redhead Scot nodded with his brow cocked and a knowing smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth… but he never truly smiled (at least in the way she thought she knew… head tilted back, teeth bared, and nose scrunched). His lips remained tightly closed as if he tried to contain their shared secrets (a romance that was yet wasn’t… a tryst that never truly came to be… an almost love… ).

 

All Claire wanted to do was smack the cute expression right off of his smug face (true to her role as the spurned lover).

 

“Yes…” she seethed, agreeing with him through gritted teeth. “It’s as almost if we were completely… different… people…

 

She prolonged her final words with elongated pauses and over-ennunciated each syllable (her T’s snapping sharp enough to slice through Jamie’s thinly veiled facade, her P’s dripping with the pain of her wounded pride…). The sentiment hung in the air, mingling with the awkward atmosphere of familiarity and strangeness. Claire raised an eyebrow as she waited for a response. The moments in between ticked by slowly, only marked by the increasing cloud-cover overhead. The wind tossed the greenery in the garden before them as carelessly as Jamie and Claire had tended to each other’s hearts.

 

“Well! Better get inside before the rain hits!” Louisa interrupted (at last) as she stomped her way through the garden (her boots crushing wayward blossoms and weeds in her path). “We mustn’t keep Mrs. Crook waiting!”

 

Jenny nodded and ushered their party onward. Gravel crushed beneath their awkward and heavy steps, uneven and laden with confusion. While the group exited the garden, Claire didn’t budge (wouldn’t… couldn’t…). Ultimately guided by her heart, her legs refused to move. She nudged pebbles with the toe of her left boot and shoved her hands deep in her pockets. Her fingers fiddled with a loose thread that threatened to unravel and form a hole (much like her nerves that were slowly coming entirely undone).

 

With tear-filled eyes, Claire watched as her clients filed through the garden gate one by one (all blurred into watery amoebas by the threatening onslaught of full blown waterworks). First Jenny left, closely followed by Louisa and Geneva… while Jamie (or Alex as the bride had so called him) lingered, and the gap between him and his betrothed increased by the second until he completely separated himself from the pack. He turned quickly on his heel, and within a few long strides, he’d crossed the garden and stood before her, merely inches away. Keeping her eyes trained on his shoes, she refused to look up. If she did, the floodgates she’d kept at bay would certainly break free (the full range of hatred, of grief, of sadness, and of betrayal would be plain as day on her glass face).

 

There was a time she would’ve given anything to see him again (her Uncle Lamb’s truck… her favorite pair of trimming shears… maybe even her right hand)… but now, she’d give any one of those things and then some to rid him from her sight permanently.

 

“Claire?”

 

The sound of her name on his lips nearly broke her (the lilting airy lightness of the long A sound and the way he rolled his Rs at the back of his throat married a curse and a prayer all in one syllable). Her breath caught in her chest as she struggled to remember how to breathe… how to think… how to speak. She heard him sigh above her, his thin exhale whistling through his pursed lips. The fingers of his left hand drummed a tattoo against his thigh.

 

“Will ye join us then?” he asked, his voice low and resonant. The words rumbled deep in his chest like the booming thunder rolling in the distance, startling Claire. She looked up in surprise and instantly wished she hadn’t. His eyes swam with a pain and longing that echoed her very own heartache with every throbbing beat inside her chest. A strong gust of wind tossed an errant auburn curl across his cheek. Her fingers itched to brush it aside… to trace the strong profile of his jaw and feel the scrape of the stubble there…

 

Instead, Claire gripped the cuffs of her sleeves and pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes as she tried to stem the tears that leaked from the corners of her eyes.

 

“No… I… ah… I need…” she stuttered as she sniffled indelicately (inwardly cringing at how disgusting she must look sniveling, swollen, and teary-eyed). “… I should check the Green-”

 

“Will ye no’ stay?” Jamie charged, his hands balling into fists and muscles tensing beneath the plaid cloth of his shirt.

 

His words stung like a smack on the cheek (smart and quick like a desert viper). Claire rocked back on her heels, bracing for impact as his verbal attack his her square in the chest.

 

“Are you going to tell me what the bloody hell is going on?” she scoffed, tossing her chin in the air with the minuscule amount of pride she had left… the only piece of hopeful yet shipwrecked jetsam she could find in this hurricane she called her love life.

 

He reached for her, holding out his hand to her (what he probably meant to serve as an olive branch though Claire only saw as a bit of Euphorbia riddled with thorns) as he begged.

 

“Sassenach… please -”

 

“Don’t call me that!” she screeched, wrapping her arms across her chest as she recoiled from his touch.

 

They both froze, stunned into silence by the sudden bluntness of her words (all manners and politeness abruptly tossed out the proverbial window). Claire struggled to breathe, gasping for air like a fish on land (her instincts far more familiar with the watery depths of a solitary life to navigate this situation with any finesse). She felt her cheeks flood with heat, a telltale blush staining her pale complexion and damning her further than her glass face already had (not that it needed any assistance in that department). Her cries broke the very last edge of her resolve, and the dams of composure had begun to crack (with tiny rivulets of tears leaking from the corners of her eyes). When she thought of how Geneva (the name filling her mouth with the bitter, dry taste of ash before she could even formulate the connection) would react (with steely resolve and impossible coolness), she only found herself crumbling further into hysterical madness.

 

How she wished to be one of the plants in the garden before her (or better yet a seed so that the dark earth might swallow her whole)…

 

Instead, she cast her eyes toward the heavens. Overhead, the once a light and airy springtime breeze had suddenly intensified, bending leafy tree branches in its wake (the incoming storm showing off its might as a prized fighter beats his chest before a match). Sinister clouds (thick, bruised purple and heavy with rain) had long already swallowed any lingering beams of the afternoon sunlight. The echoing cries of plovers shattered all around them, surrounding them and mirroring the clamoring chaos that brewed beneath their awkward silence.

 

“I should go…” Claire whispered, choking on her words as well as her tears. “… I need to check -”

 

Jamie nodded, his eyes cast downward and a frown pulling at his lips. “Aye the Greenhouse… like ye said…”

 

His head bobbed up and down as he weighed his decision (his eyelids narrowing in concentration… the corners of his mouth drawing inward to a stiff pucker she wondered if he’d just sampled the sourest of lemons). His movements slowed, gradually halting in place before he turned his gaze to her

 

“Tis… fine…Claire…” Jamie acquiesced, reluctantly through gritted teeth and with heavy sighs before he turned on his heel and retreated (shoulders hunched and head hung low). At the sound of her name on his tongue, Claire forgot how to think… how to move… how to breathe. She stood frozen (limbs locked… every bone in her vertebrae perfectly stacked in a neat military issue column) as he departed the garden… away from her. With every second, he grew increasingly smaller to her. She feared if she blinked that he’d disappear all together…

 

She blinked again… and wondered how much of herself she’d lost in over-analyzation… in hypercriticism… in self-loathing… as she watched the many lives she’d imagined for herself (decorated botanist… trusted professor… wife… mother… friend) disappear all over again.

 

Snap out of it, Beauchamp.

 

The first crack of lightning struck… and Claire Beauchamp ran. Fast as her boot-laden feet could carry her, she sprinted through the fields. Blades of grass whipped passed her (lapping at her heels like the choppy waves of a rough sea). The sharp tips of the surrounding crops sliced her palms (the dagger-like tips sharp enough to draw blood). The colors before her overwhelmed her senses with their vibrant richness of verdant greens clashing against the violent shadows of stormy skies. She spun in circles that circumvented her idea of True North and tripped over upturned roots that redirected her path. She wandered blindly (stupidly believing she knew the land for what it was only to be surprised and bloody pissed when it wasn’t) until she found it…

 

The Greenhouse (all glass and steel among this ancient land of grass, mud, and stone)… and it was heaven to her eyes (the very bones of her called out to this modern sanctuary encasing the closest thing she’d felt to a religious experience…)

 

Thunder rumbled overhead as Claire tore through the door, nearly taking the slab off its hinges before slamming it shut behind her. Slowly, she eased down the aisles of beds, colorful flora and fauna at her fingertips. Raindrops fell… first staggeringly and slow (one tempting the other to take the dare… to fall…) until they gave way to an utter deluge, covering the glass planes of the greenhouse structure in thick sheets of water. Aimlessly, she wandered through the rows lined with greenery, her palms caressing each branch, learning each sprout by the knowledge of her own hand… until her roving fingers found purchase of something hard (cold and metallic)…

 

Deftly, Claire clasped the wayward sheers in her hands and set herself to work. She didn’t pause to look for thick gardening gloves nor did she hesitate when solid steel met her bare flesh (scraping against her skin and just nearly drawing blood)… She only answered, her hands diving deep into the rich soil as they’d allow and pruning the unruly vines that brushed against her fingertips. Yes, these were the menial talks of the average gardener, and yet she didn’t mind. She lost herself in the sharp flash of sheers and the crisp way plants snapped to her will that she didn’t even notice the door open (the groan of its un-oiled hinges lost to the storm brewing outside and furthermore to the raging tempest in Claire’s own mind)…

 

“I thought I’d find ye here…”

 

Her intruder slowly shuffled down the aisle, his metallic prosthetic dragging against the gravel in an exaggerated scrape that only heightened Claire’s own agitated state. However, she didn’t budge an inch… let alone falter within a fraction thereof. She focused on the task at hand (taming the unruly weeds of the Greenhouse as well as trimming the frayed ends of her heart). Her hands worked of their own accord, snapping at any stray branch that crossed her path (her sheers snipping at a fierce staccato to match the staggered steps of her visitor).

 

“If you think I’m any less furious with you…then guess again…” Claire bit back, eyes focused on her work (not once looking up to pay any attention to her present nuisance though the familiar cadence of his accent made her cringe).

 

He paused for a moment (the rhythm of his awkward gait giving way to the soothing pitter patter of the storm overhead). She acknowledged his hesitance and welcomed the tranquility that followed (…or as close to peace Claire could hope to find among liars and thieves). She inhaled deeply as her free hand gripped the edge of the potting table in an attempt to steady herself… only for a stray splinter to find the meaty flesh of her palm, and she had to bite her lip to keep herself from crying out loud (a steady stream of curses running through her mind as a new sharp pain stung her already frayed nerves).

 

Rocking back on her heels, Claire hissed abruptly (the sharp intake of breath whistling through the crevices of her clenched teeth). She felt positively everything, each of her senses heightened to match the deadliest of predators (she very well could’ve predicted the next several moments). She sensed every brush of a stray leaf before it grazed her skin and found the very root of each weed, no matter how deep it was buried. Her eyes caught the slightest of movements (the tremble of a leaf… the flex of a hinge on the door before it creaked open). Her ears buzzed, echoing in the wake of each crack of lightning… even before it struck. Even more so, she felt her fellow guest kick at the gravel beneath his feet, detected the very roll of his eyes, and heard the cluck of his tongue against the back of his throat before he even spoke.

 

“Come now, lass, tis a simple misunder-”

 

Her resolved snapped before his thoughts formed a coherent sentence, and her tongue lashed out, sharp as a freshly whetted sword.

 

“Piss off, Ian.”

 

Claire gathered a few unruly vines within her fingers and deftly clipped their ends as short as she delivered her response (her curt interruption). Despite the cool air that had settled from the storm, she felt her skin flush hot with Ian’s platitudes. How she wished to string them up (Ian… Jamie… the Dunsanys…) and torture them as they’d tortured her (what were deception and false pretense more than lies dressed in decadent finery). Each fabrication kept her prisoner, binding her wrists with thick rope and biting her at every turn like a trapped snake fighting its way out of a corner… And still she bit back, like her shears cutting away at the treacherous weeds that threatened to choke the very life out of this greenhouse.

 

“Jamie never meant to hurt ye…” Ian finally answered, his voice soft and low as if he were trying to tame a wild mare. The timber of his accent lingered, elongating certain syllables in a way that should have been comforting (rocking and soothing her into a calm, dream-like lull… swaying her heart and her conscience to see a different point of view).

 

Instead, the knowledge of Jamie’s rationale only fueled her anger (he could add his good intentions to that paved road headed straight for hell).

 

Claire continued on with her pruning. Her eyes narrowed with a laser-like focus to trim out the infecting fauna from the beds before her. Her fingers flexed, strong and steady. She snapped once… twice… three times… again and again she flexed, flashing the blades of silver held in the mercy of her own hands, proudly wielding the instrument of life and death in the microcosm before her.

 

“Jamie is it?” She sneered as she plucked a stray a dandelion from its roots and examined the plant (yes plant not weed in spite of popular opinion… annoying as the offensive species may be its existence was crucial to animal, to soil, to plant, and even to human though the later loathed it to the point of near damnation) before hiding it away for her own stores. An establishment as high and mighty as Lallybroch wouldn’t miss it… it’d most likely be thrown out with the rest of the rubbish (just as Jamie had cast her aside like yesterday’s newsprint).

 

“Jamie… McTavish? Or is it Alex…” she implored, though the thin veneer of her false bravado was beginning to vanish like the mighty thunder above them gave way to a soft, steady rain.

 

Claire paused, hesitating for a moment as she struggled to catch her breath (her lungs over-expanding to accommodate the rather short puffs of air that passed her lips). Her eyelids slid closed to offer the perfect disillusion of calm… of steadiness (all the while her heart drummed violently against her rib cage). Her face tilted upward toward the sky in an attempt to stem the flow that threatened to break free… all the while her dimpled chin quivered in rebellion (stiff upper lip and all that).

 

Her eyes fluttered open. In the distance, a final strike of lightning crackled in the clouds like a defeated firecracker fizzling out into a few stray sparks (pathetic glimmers of light flashing against the night sky before disappearing into inky blackness instead of bursting to colorful life with a beautiful display). She sighed, a shaky breath whistling through her lips as thoughts of Jamie (of what they might have been) erupted behind her closed eyelids. When she finally opened her eyes again, the tears she’d tried so hard to keep at bay tumbled in rivers down her cheeks.

 

“Why can’t he be honest with me?” Claire whispered (though she wasn’t sure if she was speaking to herself or to her fellow greenhouse companion or to whatever deity’d brought about this torrential downpour at the moment) as she released her iron-like grip on the sheers. Her fingers found purchase in the soil, anchoring her like roots and keeping her upright as a barrage of emotions threatened to take her to the ground (pluck her from this place like the strong winds of a tornado before swirling her around in their fury and carelessly tossing her to the ground).

 

“The truth isnae ever simple…” Ian offered as he placed a comforting hand on Claire’s shoulder. “…and I think that’s somethin’ ye ken good and well…”

 

The weight of Ian’s words came crashing into her, slamming the very breath from her lungs. She shrugged out of his embrace with a subtle roll of her shoulders before she turned sharply towards him. Brows furrowed, she stared directly into the face of the man before her. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously as she waited for him to explain himself. She held her body taught like a strung bow, ready to strike at any moment while hundreds of thoughts raced through her mind (what did he know… what didn’t he know… fond memories now tainted with lies and deceit… wretched nightmares of her past haunting her at every turn…)

 

Claire waited… until the corners of Ian’s mouth tugged upward with mischief (a half-smile playing at his lips as he tried to contain his amusement with the whole situation). She balled her hands into fists as a frustrated noise grumbled at the back of her throat only for him to raise his hands in submission.

 

“I can see why ye were such an easy target… so easily framed… poison bein’ a wumman’s weapon an’ all… but clearly they’ve never seen ye wield those shears. Ye make a bonnie wee swordsman, Claire.”

 

Ian’s admission hit her square in the chest, stopping her heart in shock before the muscle clamored back to life and beating wildly against her ribs. Though her tears had run dry, her hands found their way to her face (scrubbing at her cheeks and massaging her temples). Slowly, her right hand covered her mouth (hoping to stopper any damning words from leaving her lips) as her left arm wrapped around her waist, supporting the elbow of the opposite limb.

 

“Tis a simple background check is all,” Ian continued with his explanations through Claire’s silence. “Jen runs them on all of our associates - standard procedure.”

 

Unable to look Ian in the eye, her eyes cast downward, wildly searching the ground for answers as her mind raced. She thought she’d left that life behind (Frank… his student… the university… the criminal case that never came to fruition neatly tucked away with a few contentions and formalities…). She thought she was free from all of it. She hadn’t told a single soul of her past life since she’d came to Inverness (save for one night when Geillis had pried it out of her after a bottle or two of icy Sancerre)… and yet…

 

He knew… and if he knew, then that meant quite a few others were privy to her tumultuous past as well… H

 

er arms fell to her sides as the realization dawned on her. She turned her gaze back towards Ian, her eyes growing wide with fear. With one brow raised, a knowing look graced his features. Dread seized the marrow of Claire’s bones, holding her firmly in place unable to move or to flee. A sob ruptured deeply in her chest, her cries echoing off of the clean glass panes that surrounded them.

 

“Oh God!” She shrieked as she felt her knees buckle beneath her. The corners of her vision tinged black as she felt herself being dragged downward into the depths of fear and self loathing… until strong hands grasped her shoulders, keeping her upright and giving her a little shake for good measure.

 

“I didna tell him, lass!” Ian insisted, the urgency of his voice nearly breaking into a full blown roar and startling Claire back to full consciousness. He paused for a moment, allowing his confession to fully reach the florists ears. When he was certain Claire wouldn’t faint, he continued.

 

“Jamie doesnae know. It’s yer place to tell him - no’ mine.”

 

Relief washed over her, soft and cool like the rain outside. Her eyelids slid closed as she inhaled deeply (followed by a heavy albeit shaky exhalation whistling through her pursed lips). Claire repeated this routine of deep, full-belly breaths to calm her nerves as she tried to recall all of the plants in the greenhouse by their Latin names from memory (the average Pelargonium and Chrysanthemum next to the exotic and regal Bromeliads and Orchidaceae…).

 

Her secret was safe… for the time being. She’d have to tell Jamie eventually (before he heard it from the wrong person or at the worst possible time or with vital details missing from the story). It needed to come from her - the bitter truth of it all. She bit the inside of her cheek as she cursed herself for not telling him sooner (in one of their stolen moments alone in her shop)… and yet she wondered how he would’ve taken the news. The early days of what isn’t quite love seldom survive the baring of souls and the telling of the most appalling secrets.

 

No… it was right to withhold the truth from him. She’d wait until the timing was right, and until that time came to pass, all she could do was pray he’d hear her out (and that the Dunsanny’s hadn’t figured it all out and fired her for her past transgressions as well as being secretly in love with their daughter’s fiancé).

 

“And what if he doesn’t like what I have to say?” Claire sniffed as she flicked a stray tear from her lashes.

 

Above them, the rain had finally ceased, though the sky remained a dreary sort of grey that promised another squall before the day was done. Ian nodded, his brow creased and his mouth turned downward deep in thought. A moment passed… and then two before he offered his hand to her (an olive branch of sorts to accompany the sage wisdom of an old soul).

 

“Ye have yer secrets… and he has his…” Ian remarked plainly. “We all do… even the most beautiful rose has thorns, do they no’?”

 

To be continued…

Chapter Text

Claire never expected Ian Murray (father of three and husband to the co-owner of Lallybroch Farms) to be such a fabulous liar.

 

From the Greenhouse, he ushered her across the property and through the back door of the main house without a word (only after she agreed, at the very least, to make an appearance before running for the hills). He brought her to the kitchen (where he stole a sandwich from a tray on the island and passed it her way with a quick nod, “One for the road…”) and led her through a series of winding corridors that left her head spinning in confusion. Claire lost herself in the dizzying maze of hallways, the endless walls of tumbled stone that suddenly turned on her as she wondered how old this place truly was. Entirely distracted, she hardly paid any mind to where her guide was leading her until her toes caught the edge of a thick Persian rug, and she stumbled into the parlor. As she caught herself before a truly embarrassing fall, she brushed off her clumsy nature and looked up… only to find herself in the company of vipers more treacherous than the slithering corridors she’d left behind.

 

Jenny. Louisa. Geneva. Jamie.

 

Though she finally stood still, the world spun around Claire once more as she struggled to find her voice. Her words caught in her throat like the dry, crusty bread she held between her hands… until someone else spoke on her behalf. On a normal day, she would’ve been infuriated - a man speaking for her, a woman - but given the situation she chose (for the first time in her life) to keep her damn mouth shut.

 

“Claire has a migraine,” Ian declared firmly with a curt nod in her direction (the corner of his mouth quirked upward slightly as if to say, “trust me - I’ve got ye”). “I got her squared away wi’ yer assistant, Jamie, and ye and Geneva are all set for an appointment at her shop next week.”

 

A flurry of well wishes for Claire to rest up and to feel better filled the front parlor as she attempted to inch her way towards the exit. She kept her eyes trained towards the floor (micromanaging her legs to evenly place one foot in front of the other). Terror gripped her low in her gut, impossibly mortified that if she met the eyes of the company before her that her glass face would betray her (as it always had without fail). Her gaze turned inward, focusing on matching her breath with the rhythm of her steps - four steps to inhale, four steps to exhale, and repeat. Once she was sure she’d turned her back to her clients (away from him), she allowed her chin to tilt skywards, eyelids sliding closed to capture tears that threatened to fall… except she hadn’t anticipated the tripping hazard that presented by yet another thick Persian rug in the foyer.

 

Claire’s body toppled forward, her mouth opening indelicately wide as her joints jutted sharply forward (with the grace of a small child ice skating for the first time - a skill she never mastered). She was certain she would fall flat on her face in the hallowed halls of the ancestral Fraser manor, ruining the beloved carpet with blood from her own busted chin and mud-caked boots. For a moment, she teetered on the edge, entirely in danger of making a total fool of herself in front of her clients, who’d only proved themselves to be her greatest and most lethal enemies…

 

Until she felt her body being pulled back to earth in reverse (gravity was a fickle mistress after all).

 

Strong hands cupped her elbow and braced her lower back, gently guiding her upright before she could fall flat on her face. Gripping her shoulders, they steadied her before gently rubbing warmth into her shoulders. Claire sighed, melting into the comforting embrace (the calloused skin of working hands eliciting immoral thoughts and feelings through the thin cotton of her shirt). A familiar scent wafted across her face (freshly turned earth, rough hewn wood, and the spice of mulled wine). She turned in the arms of her savior - the person who prevented her total embarrassment…

 

… only to meet the piercing blue gaze of betrayal.

 

As their eyes met, they paused; their movements stilled, suspended in time and in space like a pair of Grecian statues (gazes locked, limbs entwined, and frozen for all eternity in some God forsaken museum). Claire found herself totally enamored with his face. She cataloged it all from the small scar that marred his right cheek, to the ruddy scruff that dotted his jawline, and even the crooked bend at the bridge of his nose (which begged the question as to when he’d broken it). She could’ve watched him for hours - measuring each breath and counting every beat of his pulse thrumming beneath her fingertips.

 

From the parlor, an annoyed cough broke through their reverie (a needling ahem properly placed to force others into the rigid constructs of society). Jamie’s jaw clenched before he swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing beneath the thin skin covering his throat. A blush bloomed across Claire’s face as the bubble of her illusion burst (the one where they were blissfully happy and totally in love). They were definitely not alone and they most certainly were being watched…

 

…by none other than Jamie’s fiancé.

 

Geneva. The owner of the cough and the keeper of Claire’s very livelihood.

 

“I… need to go,” she stuttered as she pulled herself upright and wrenched her elbow free of his grasp. She pushed through the front door and hurled herself into the car waiting for her in the courtyard - never once looking back to see the disaster she’d left in her wake.

 

With her tail between her legs, Claire fled, hoping the towering hills of the Scottish Highlands would swallow her and her bloody emotions whole.

 

~*~

 

“Geneva’s fiancé is who now?!” Geillis exclaimed as her (thankfully empty) whisky glass thundered onto the bar top.

 

Claire tossed back her fourth (or was it her fifth) shot. Warmth pooled in her belly and the world around her sported an amber glow - proof that the alcohol was in fact doing its job (thank God).

 

“James bloody Fraser!” The florist roared as she slammed her fist against the counter, the crystal rattling in her grasp.

 

Twirling her finger with enough ferocity to summon her own personal hurricane, she motioned for the bartender to bring them another round. He rolled his eyes at their request as he sauntered down the bar, visibly annoyed with their obvious intoxication as he tried to flirt with the patron he’d been blatantly favoring all night. The sandy-haired lawyer (or so Geillis imagined in their fun game where they assign strangers careers, lovers, and interesting back stories to color their own lackluster lives) had taken up residence at the far end of the counter, though these two lasses were too preoccupied to notice.

 

“Posing as wee Jamie MacTavish - just a local lad done good,” Claire mimicked an exaggerated (and horrible) Scottish accent with rolling consonants and flailing hands before her rage resurfaced. “When he’s practically a fucking Carnegie! Can you believe it?”

 

The bartender topped their glasses generously, excess liquid sloshing over the rims. They raised a toast rather touching glass to glass (which had proven disastrous around drink number three) before tipping back yet another drink.

 

“I can,” Geillis bluntly declared before indelicately wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. With her pointer finger, she tapped the wooden bar top, signalling the bartender to leave the bottle with them. “He’s full of himself - a total peacock.”

 

“Is that so?” the Brit questioned as she tried to cover her glass with her napkin before her heavy-handed friend could pour her another helping (her words felt thick on her tongue and the pub around her had taken on the bleary appearance of an Impressionist painting). “What makes you say that?”

 

“Hidin’ his true identity from ye for one - ” the Scot pinched the flimsy square between her fingers, carelessly tossed the scrap onto the bar, and quickly snatched her friend’s empty tumbler from her “- and leadin’ ye on when he’s shackin’ up with that minted Fleggy hoore, all the while thinkin’ he could gi’ away wi’ it!”

 

She raised a brow as she refilled both their glasses to the brim. Gently, she nudged the second shot towards her drinking buddy. Mischief twinkled in her clear blue eyes as she bit her lip, desperately trying to hide her impish grin. Whether it was staying in clubs past closing, filching small items from the corner pharmacy, or fake-flirting with men to get free drinks, Geillis was always the devil on Claire’s shoulder goading her into trouble. In times like these - when she needed to drown herself in a bottle or two - she couldn’t imagine a better friend by her side as she plucked her re-filled whisky glass from the counter and raised it for another toast.

 

Geillis lifted hers as well and offered her own pearls of wisdom (“Cock of the bloody walk, dearie.”) before they knocked back yet another dram.

 

“Well if you can imagine, it actually gets worse…” Claire explained after she found herself upright once more, reaching for the bottle. Her words bubbled forth and then trickled off slowly, matching the pace of the liquid (flowing freely before stuttering to an awkward pause).

 

“How could it possibly get worse than the love of yer life bein engaged tae an affy galla?”

 

“Remember Ian? The one who took over my account a few months back?” She explained as she handed Geillis her glass before draining her own. “Well he’s married to Jamie’s sister Jenny.”

 

“So?”

 

“Well…” Claire sighed before taking her shot and then pouring them each one more. “They know.”

 

Geillis threw back her drink and then posed her question, every action riddled with sass and accusation. “Whadaye mean ‘they know’? Know what?”

 

Claire paused before taking another sip and then another, only to swallowing the amber liquid whole.

 

“About me…” she admitted, fidgeting with the hair tie on her wrist. “About Frank… about Malva… about bloody all of it.”

 

“Fuck.”

 

She raised her brow as she poured them both one more generous drink while muttering under her breath. (“Pretty much” was about all the enthusiasm she could muster.)

 

Without missing a beat, Geillis stole the bottle once more, doling out shots and questions in equal measure. “So what did they say after they fired you then? Or did you quit before givin’ them the pleasure of tossin ye out on yer arse?”

 

“They didn’t.” Claire paused to inhale yet another shot of whisky before she admitted, “… and I haven’t quit… not yet.”

 

“What do ye mean ‘they didn’t’?!” Her counterpart spat in total disbelief as she stole the bottle from Claire’s grasp. She continued to generously disperse the whiskey between their two glasses as she offered. “I canna imagine that Monsieur Fraser and his pouffiasse would associate themselves wi’ someone who was accused of attempted murder!”

 

Murder.

 

The very word turned her blood cold. Every time the crime was mentioned, Claire’s stomach turned to knots and her pulse roared in her veins (much like the girl’s screams once the poison had taken effect). Time should cure all ills. I’d been nearly a year since her brilliant lawyer exposed the truth to the world, clearing her name and expunging her previously spotless reputation… and yet no matter how many months had passed, any utterance of the transgression robbed the very breath from her lungs.

 

“Jamie doesn’t know,” Claire said quietly as she fiddled with a loose thread that had unraveled from the cuff of her sleeve. “Ian said it wasn’t his place to tell him.”

 

Upon her admission, the bar grew quiet as Geillis had nothing to add - no biting quips or snide remarks fell from her lips. The lone patron at the far end of the bar rose from his seat, the legs of the stool groaning as they scraped against the wooden floor. The disgruntled bartender marched towards the only pair left in the establishment and slapped their check on the counter with a gruff mumble about how it was closing time. With the practiced familiarity of life-long companions, the lasses simultaneously rummaged through their purses for their wallets and silently negotiated the even split of the bill.

 

“But you’re going to - aren’t you?” Geillis finally asked, her loaded question filling the empty spaces in their silence. “Quit, I mean.”

 

Was she?

 

Of course, she should quit - out of moral obligation if for no other reason. It was a colossal conflict of interest. She was head over heels in love with the groom (even if he was a total tosser) for crying out loud. As Claire thought back to the events of that afternoon (the way Geneva pressed her body against his… the tenderness in Jamie’s voice when he spoke to his fiancé…), her stomach rolled, rioting against the sickening memories and the handle of whisky she’d consumed with the ferocity of an alcoholic pirate. It was enough to make her quit on the spot, to pick up the phone and tell the Dunsanys exactly where they could stick their precious money…

 

But where would that leave her?

 

The patronage of one of Britain’s most prominent families coupled with the high-profile nature of this wedding would certain put Forget Me Not Florals on the map. Claire had even taken some of the deposit to set some plans into motion - hiring a marketing firm to help guide her vision for her brand, ordering another cooling fridge to house incoming stock in her storeroom, and even bringing Mary on full time with a livable wage. Head spinning, she racked her whisky-soaked brain for any jargon in their contract that would damn her for breaking it (though she was sure Geillis would tell her to damn it all to hell). As she considered stepping down, doubt crept in, its icy fingers chilling her to the bone.

 

“I don’t know.” Claire admitted sheepishly.

 

“How do ye no’ know?! It’s obvious! Ye should quit and leave ‘em the lurch!” Geillis scoffed as she rolled her eyes. She rested her chin in her hand, deep in thought tapping her pointer finger to her lips. “Bloody arseholes deserve as much - if not worse.”

 

The redhead quirked her brow as the corners of her mouth tilted upward in a sly smirk.

 

“Don’t give me that look, Geil.”

 

“Wha’ look?!”

 

Claire slapped both of her hands against the bar top. “The look you’re giving me right now that says I should sabotage this wedding!”

 

“I most certainly am not suggesting that!” She gasped, gesturing to herself with flailing hands in feigned shock. “But if ye decide to enact a wee bit of yer own revenge plot, I’m the lass to back ye up.”

 

Her friends theatrics made the pair both erupt into a fit of giggles, leaving them both grasping the counter for stability, totally breathless.

 

“There’s only two ways out of this, and none of them involve maniacal revenge plots!” Claire wiped happy tears from the corners of her eyes as she sobered herself as best as she could for being absolutely plastered. Once the laughter dissolved, she explained herself further. “Option one: I bow out gracefully and hope my wee little venture can carry on without the Dunsany’s patronage.”

 

“And what’s option two?”

 

“I bite the damn bullet and soldier on.” Claire finished her declaration with a mock salute, and in her inebriated state, the swinging of her arm knocked her off balance.

 

“Alright my fierce wee soldier,” Geillis huffed as she caught her friend, supporting most of her weight awkwardly in her arms. “Let’s get ye home before ye teeter right off this stool.”

 

Without too much of a fuss, Claire tumbled into the back seat of the cab Geillis had hailed for her. She gave the driver her address through slurred speech as she struggled to situate herself into a seated position (up-right and buckled in for safety). As the car started and lurched forward, she pressed her face to the window and watched the scenery fly by through bleary eyes.

 

The small town of Inverness had gone to bed many hours ago. Tired lantern lights flickered on their posts that towered far above their heads, mimicking the dance of their gas-fueled predecessors. The afternoon’s storms long forgotten, the sky had cleared, leaving the heavens dyed as a rich, opulent shade of navy velvet fit for a queen. Stars dotted its face like rhinestones of some fabulous costume belonging to an Olympic figure skater.

 

It all felt simply magical (even if that was the alcohol talking).

 

Claire loved this time - she always had. Even as a young child (six - maybe seven years old at most) she liked to walk alone at night, no matter how it displeased her governesses and her uncle. She’d never known such serenity during the day and especially when she was crowded by people (namely authoritative figures). And yet at night, when she could walk alone weaving between the silent pauses of the empty plains and the vacant city streets, she found a time and a place to breath and to think. She discovered true peace.

 

As the cab hurled itself down the twisting, narrow allies, Claire felt entirely calm. She pressed her face against the window to spy the full moon reflected in the river, the perfect mirror image on a choppy, watery face. The rain-coated streets (smoothly paved and even the ones made of ancient cobblestone) shone like freshly polished silver following the storm. Starlight twinkled between the branches of the trees that framed the roads of the city. It was a perfect evening for two people madly in love. The driver pressed on, and Claire imagined the various possibilities for what could have been: a cozy night at home snuggled by the fire, a last minute stop at a bed and breakfast before continuing on some journey, or even dinner out with friends. Every scenario that crossed her mind instantly included him, included Jamie (her lover, her boyfriend, her husband, but yet never any of the character’s he’d portrayed to her on this day). She felt his presence so close to her that as her eyes slipped close his strong arms enveloped her, cradling her close to his chest.

 

“Home at last, m’am,” the cabby crowed as his vehicle lurched to an unforgiving haunt that sent Claire flying forward. Drowsily, she felt through her purse for a few spare bills to tip the man before paying her fare and exiting the cab. With heavy hand, she slammed the metal door shut and turned to face her shop - still standing, still hers, and yet…

… she caught a glimpse of something at her door.

 

In the dim evening light, Claire spied a poesy, tied to her doorknob with a bit of plaid - colors she recognized, if she had to bet her life on it. Raindrops clung to the tiny purple blooms, shimmering in the moonlight like precious jewels of an abandoned treasure. She sprinted towards the door with arms outstretched to gather the bouquet in her arms as soon as she met the landing. With the stems in her arms, a gasp fell from her lips. 

 

Hyacinths. Purple hyacinths bound in Fraser tartan.

 

On this night, Claire wasn’t the only one who was sorry.

Chapter Text

One week later

 

Claire crouched behind the transaction counter of her shop, perched on her tippy toes as she balanced on shaking ankles. Eyes level with the top shelf, she stared into the futuristic blue dim of her wine fridge, willing the champagne to chill faster (God bloody dammit). Her tongue snapped against the roof of her mouth as she nervously measured the passing seconds, mentally chiding herself for this and every mistake. Countless imaginings of an alternate universe laid siege upon the fragile city of her psyche, their sharp weapons piercing the thin and tattered veil that was her self esteem.

 

If only she’d remembered to replenish the refreshments last week (even though she’d been positively swamped with preparations for this meeting while Mary was on holiday). If only she hadn’t agreed to a late dinner with Geillis (who insisted that she needed a break for the love of God). If only she’d tucked the bottles into their refrigerated beds before she’d collapsed into the warm trappings of her own. If only she’d set her alarm to the correct hour. If only she’d given up this stupid circus of a wedding. If only she hadn’t fallen head over heels for the groom. If only...

 

Buck up, Beauchamp.

 

Claire exhaled slowly, her breath whistling between her teeth as her eyes slid shut (conceding to the game of chicken between her and the useless appliance). Her fingers gripped the counter above as her head gradually tilted forward. The heated flesh of her temple rested against the cool glass and the rigid structure of her vertebrae gave way. The tight muscles of neck, shoulders, and back released in a delicious blend of pleasure and pain that only reminded her that she desperately needed to revisit her yoga mat (and possibly a chiropractor).

 

An indelicate moan erupted from her lungs and ricocheted off of every surface in her shop (the shelves, the counters, the floors all scrubbed and polished within an inch of their lives and hers). Surrendering fully, Claire rode the waves of her emotions, lost in cataloging every last one (fear, doubt, mediocrity, and fear again). And yet, she found no absolution, no discarded slab of wood to cling to in her hour of need as her heart was tossed carelessly on the roughest of seas.

 

Instead, a lone bell rang, the graceful chimes tickling a playful rhythm through the thick atmosphere of the quaint florist shop.

 

Claire abruptly rose to her feet, her arms pushing her upright and her body launching forward - paying no mind to the lip of the countertop above. Her skull smacked against the unforgiving wooden edge with a sickening crack. Stars bloomed behind her closed lids as one hand pressed to the crown of her head. The other clutched the slab of butcher block just before the surrounding shop began to sway before her.

 

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” Claire hissed, breath seething between gritted teeth. A low chuckle rumbled from the front door, deep and resonate like the roll of thunder in the distance.

 

“Nae, Sassenach - just me.”

 

Jamie.

 

Her eyes flew open at the sound of his voice. Her spine straightened from its formerly slouched position (vertebra stacked upon vertebra perfectly like soldiers standing in line), and her hands frantically adjusted the frayed ends of her unkempt personage (smoothing away the wrinkles on her shirt and taming her wild tresses). She’d only just made a fool out of herself in front of her clients; she’d hate to appear totally disheveled in front of them too…

 

Clients.

 

There should be two of them, and yet, Claire had only heard Jamie’s voice.

 

“Oh shit, your -” she started (mind racing as she desperately tried to remember the girl’s God damn name) before Jamie held up a hand to silence her fears.

 

“Still outside,” he confirmed with a slight toss of his head back towards the street. “On a call negotiating some crisis - ” his long fingers curled into air quotations as he grimaced slightly “- with the wedding planner.”

 

Claire nodded as a noncommittal huff whistled past her lips. Her fingers still fiercely gripped the counter before her, even though the dizziness seemed to have passed for now. Her pulse throbbed behind her skull, a syncopated tattoo to herald the headache she’d have for the rest of the day.

 

“Are ye sure yer alright?” Jamie asked as he stepped away from the entrance and further into the shop. His right hand reached for her - palm side up - as if to offer his common decency as a proverbial olive branch. “Do I need to call a medic?”

 

She shook her head (wincing slightly as the action only aggravated her injury) and waved off his meager attempt at chivalry.

 

“No, no... just wounded my pride is all.”

 

Jamie paused before shoving both hands in his pockets and nodded, his muttered musings of “och, aye” echoed against the freshly polished wooden surfaces of the shop. Claire guessed he meant for his thoughts to be whispered, judging by the furious blush that crept up his neck, tinging the skin of his cheeks and his ears a brilliant shade of red to rival his curly locks. His shoulders shrugged, raised so high they nearly brushed the tips of his ears as he slowly began to meander through the shop.

 

She should’ve stayed behind the counter.

 

She should’ve offered him a beverage and the WiFi password so he could work while he waited.

 

She should’ve busied her hands with preparing an arrangement for some important event to wow him with her prowess.

 

She should’ve done a great many things.

 

Instead, she simply rounded the counter and crossed the divide.

 

Between employer and supplier. Between florist and groom. Between friend and lover.

 

Claire’s feet gently skated across the aged floorboards, delicately placing one foot in front of the other as if she were walking on a wire strung high above a major metropolis. She followed her client’s lead as he wandered aimlessly and took stock of the items that caught his attention. His fingers traced the rims of glass vases that emitted a low singing-whine that echoed throughout the shop. He examined the different shears and utensils she had carefully aligned on her workbench, ready to whip up a sample bouquet at a moment’s notice. As he strolled, effortlessly weaving through crowded yet organized aisles, he muttered to himself - soft Scottish noises exhaling from his lips and bits of Ghaidhlig phrases she didn’t quite understand - until he stopped suddenly before the front window display.

 

A small ceramic urn tucked in the corner held a small bouquet of hyacinths wrapped in a bit of plaid.

 

“These are quite pretty,” Jamie stated plainly with a small smile playing on his lips. His fingers pinched a stem, holding the bloom in place as his head dipped to inhale their sweet perfume. “Where’d you get them? A secret admirer?”

 

All the oxygen vacated Claire’s lungs in a whooshing gasp. Her heart firmly lodged itself in her throat as she struggled to respond. She could hardly breath let alone swallow or speak around the lump that threatened to suffocate her from the inside.

 

“Why yes,” she croaked, walking towards the display (towards him) with shaking legs belonging to a newborn giraffe. “He’s done this before - left me flowers with hidden messages.”

 

Jamie nodded solemnly as he crossed his arms in front of his chest. His left hand came up to his face, stroking his chin while his lips pouted thoughtfully before he lobbed his loaded question. “And what is the special meaning behind a hyacinth, then?”

 

The nerve of him, that bloody cad.

 

Her eyes slid closed and she exhaled slowly, mentally reciting the Latin classification to herself as she willed her heartbeat to decelerate. Plantae… Angiosperms… Monocots… Asparagales… Asparagaceae… Scilloideae… Hyacinthus… Orientalis… Once she’d regained control of her mind, body, and that traitorous glass face of hers, she responded.

 

“They can symbolize many things…” Claire explained. Emboldened by whatever little game Jamie was playing, she stepped closer to him until she stood mere inches from him - side by side, elbows nearly touching. “...but when they’re purple like these, they’re said to represent sorrow for a wrongful act.”

 

She’d forgotten how tall he was, how the top of her head barely crested his shoulder. If his towering height weren’t intimidating enough, his musculature would certainly frighten men of weaker metal (she resisted the urge to vomit when Frank came to mind). Jamie never made her feel small despite his Viking-sized frame, though she hoped to cut him down a peg or two before they finished this conversation of love languages and forgiveness.

 

He turned his head towards her, tilting his chin down as he quirked a brow. “Did you accept it then? Your admirer’s apology, I mean.”

 

Fucking bastard.

 

Claire rocked her weight onto her left foot as she placed her hands on her hips. With their close proximity, her elbow jabbed sharply at his rib cage. She tossed her head back, chin jutting proudly in the air as she heard Jamie grunt in response.

 

“For the time being…” her eyes narrowed, sizing him up as she spoke. “...though he still has an awful lot of explaining to do.”

 

“Noted.”

 

The pair lapsed into a not-so-comfortable silence, their tongues and their wits exhausted from their biting repartee. Claire clutched at the rage that roared deep in her belly, desperate to fan the flames of that hateful furnace. She wanted to hate him - she had every right to do so - and yet… Her skin tingled where her elbow had collided with Jamie’s diaphragm, and a whole new feeling bubbled to the surface. Thousands of butterflies had been released inside her chest, and their tiny, beating wings fluttered gently against her heart. As he turned towards her, the cotton of his shirt brushed against her arm (the softest whisper against her skin), and she instantly forgot how to breathe.

 

“Do all flowers have a message behind them? Like a language of sorts?” Jamie asked, his voice cutting through the thick blanket of stillness.

 

He faced her now. The buttons of his shirt nearly grazed her shoulder each time he inhaled. She froze, the proximity of him so all-encompassing it rendered her paralyzed. Eyes trained on the lone dust bunny on the floor (she mentally cursed herself for missing it on her warpath of cleanliness), she refused to look at him. Because if she looked at him, she might just lose herself completely in those fathomless blue eyes of his and forget every single reason why she was angry with him in the first place…

 

That he left her empty-handed with no answers as to why…

 

That he was engaged to an insufferable twit nearly ten years their junior…

 

That she almost… maybe… could have…

 

Baser instincts (pride, jealousy, lust) overpowered any higher level of thought and pulled at Claire as if she were a puppet on a string, guiding her feet and twisting her spine until she had turned to face Jamie.

 

“They do,” she drawled, her voice dripping with condescension.

 

She tilted her chin upward to meet his gaze and her heart thundered to life as their eyes met, locking in a winless battle. Claire reveled at the thought of firmly putting him in his place, all the while rampant fantasies of him doing just the same (lifting her with his strong biceps and pinning her to a wall) left her breathless. She bit the inside of her cheek and the coppery tang of blood blossomed on her tongue.

 

Get ahold of yourself, Beauchamp!

 

“Roses typically represent love in all forms - depending on their color,” she chattered on as she desperately tried to ignore the vivid shade of blush crawling up her neck, “and daisies symbolize innocence.”

 

Smooth, so smooth.

 

Claire cemented her mouth shut with a closed-lip smile, desperate to contain any other nonsensical blather that might cross her mind. She waited and watched as Jamie weighed the newly minted information in his mind (nodding slowly, frowning astutely while he squinted slightly in the bright morning sunlight). His gaze flickered down to hers once more. A smirk curled at the corner of his mouth before he leaned towards her, bending at the waist as he tucked an errant curl behind her ear.

 

“And what about unrequited love?” Jamie whispered, his lips just skimming the shell of her ear. “Is there a flower for that?”

 

“Daffodils,” she sighed breathlessly (as if she’d been drowning in a sea of her own solitude and only now had just come up for air).

 

Snorting, Jamie shook his head. “My mam always told me they stood for chivalry.”

 

“Some blooms have double meanings.”

 

A bell rang out from the front of the shop followed by a series of shortly clipped footsteps - a fierce staccato belonging only to a wicked pair of stilettos. In an instant, Claire stumbled backwards, her feet reactively withdrawing her body from the very intimate personal space of her client.

 

“I’m here! I’m here! Crisis averted - no thanks to the idiots at the printers,” Miss Dunsany sneered (her name no clearer in Claire’s mind as she now panicked at the girl’s sudden arrival). Ever the star of her own dramatic film, she removed her sunglasses with an exaggerated flick of her wrist before she deposited her Birkin tote on the floor with an indelicate thunk.

 

“Catch me up - what did I miss?”

 

Breath catching in her throat, Claire struggled to find her words… anything to explain away how she found herself in such close proximity to a client.

 

“I was just commenting on Miss Beauchamp’s beautiful arrangements,” Jamie boasted, rushing in with compliments to Claire and affections for his blushing bride as he reached for her (making the florist cringe). “She really is as talented as ye said, mo chridhe.”

 

“Miss Beauchamp?!” The bride mocked his thick brogue and antiquated formalities before dissolving into a fit of immature giggles. She swatted away her betrothed’s advances with feeble slaps before settling for a chaste kiss on her cheek.

 

“It’s Claire, silly… and you know how I feel about that barbarous language. It’s so rough I’m surprised anyone could understand you at all.”

 

Jamie’s hands stilled, his motions turning purely mechanical as if he were powered by remote control. Jaw clenched, he grimaced. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard against the bitter pill Genevieve (was that her name? Or was it Georgia?) had just force-fed him. 

 

“Please, sit,” Claire urged, interrupting her clients’ spat and diving headlong into the fray as she frantically gestured to empty stools at her workbench.

 

She offered her guests refreshment - which they declined - neither bride nor groom willing to partake in the less than cooled champagne (let alone water or tea). Eyes wandered to opposite ends of the shop: Jamie to the left and Geneva to the right, while Claire struggled to focus on the notepad before her (instead of observing the odd couple before her). The ancient timepiece on her wrist loudly annotated every passing moment, announcing each second with a resounding tick. First ten, then thirty… she lost count after two thousand seconds had transpired before she spoke, betraying the bitter silence.

 

“Well, we should probably get started,” Claire crowed, desperately trying to sound cheerful as the armor surrounding her heart began to splinter. “Who wants to go first - how do you imagine your wedding day?”

 

When Jamie spoke first, she tried to hide her smile by ducking her head and training her eyes on her notebook. A man so in touch with his emotions was a rare sight to behold, let alone one so honest and comfortable in his vulnerability. After years of lies and half-truths veiled in the cold sophistication that was so utterly Frank, Jamie’s unabashed sincerity warmed her heart - if only for a moment.

 

She paused as her sternum cracked, fracturing her breastbone neatly in two pieces. Slowly, the gates creaked open though on rusted hinges that threatened to firmly shut them forever.

 

Careful, Beauchamp. He’s not yours. He never was.

 

As Jamie spoke of his home, of tradition, of family, Claire blinked away tears of loneliness and solitude. Boisterous siblings and cousins, thick woolen blankets, and smokey bonfires colored his memories. He wished to pay homage to his family -and to Scotland with traditional blooms and full foliage all bound by the Fraser tartan (Claire’s heart clenched painfully in her chest at the thought of the same plaid fabric that bound his apologetic hyacinths in her storefront). Thistles, pillowy tea roses, and pincushion dahlias all picked from his mother’s garden. The blooms would be bold with color but nothing crass, dotted with the sage green of dusty miller to offset their violent hues. He believed in letting the foliage live and breathe naturally, not restraining or taming into unnatural positions. Jamie wished for low table arrangements so that their guests could see over them and converse easily. Each arrangement would be supported by the blue ceramic vases his mother crafted by hand - a personal touch he insisted upon including to honor her memory.

 

As Claire finished her notes on Jamie’s expectations, she spied Miss Dunsany (her first name still a mystery) over the spine of her journal. She watched as the junior miss fixed her make-up, updated her datebook, and answered several transactions via her mobile - allocating each action more attention than to her own fiancé. She coughed, clearing her throat loudly as she waited. Claire repeated the action three more times before Jamie’s fiancé (the combination of the two words turned her stomach sour) agreed to participate.

 

The bride launched into her fairy tale description of her most perfect wedding day. She spoke only of grandeur and opulent elegance: white flowers and structured blooms like orchids and calla lilies. She had little desire for the bright colors of a late summer wedding She measured one’s place in society by the height of their flower arrangements and the clarity of the sculpted glass upon which the blooms balanced with massive crystals dangling from their feeble stems. She envisioned artfully fashioned topiaries molded into unnatural shapes dusted with fairy lights lining the center aisle for the ceremony and framing the perimeter of the tent for their reception. And when Claire thought the girl couldn’t imagine any further extravagant splendors, she described a massive wall of white roses to be the backdrop for their wedding altar.

 

“Well, it seems that you two have very different ideas in mind…” the florist commented as she scribbled the last of her clients’ wishes, committing every detail to memory.

 

As Claire examined the list, her stomach began to turn, knots twisting tighter and tighter like snakes writhing in a pit. If she created a Venn Diagram of each of their visions, the two circles not only wouldn’t cross, they’d reside on two separate pages in different texts in opposite sections of a library. She never claimed to be a matchmaker, but it was clear that the couple sitting in front of her now simply was unwisely paired.

 

“But clearly one is better than the other…” the bride insisted eagerly, leaning forward on her elbows.

 

Pressing her fingers to her temple, she sighed as she quickly closed her eyes before her clients witnessed the obvious roll.

 

She was going to regret this.

 

Before her mind could catch her, pulling her back from the brink of disaster, the words left her mouth.

 

Actually, Gena, most celebrities are going for a far more rustic look to their floral arrangements,” Claire confessed as the dropped her diary onto the workbench with an unceremonious plop. “Didn’t Prince Harry handpick forget-me-nots for Megan’s bouquet?”

 

Jamie’s hand covered his mouth, which did little to muffle the snort that trumpeted loudly from his nose.

 

Miss Dunsany’s eyes narrowed, her lips curling into a cruel smile before she sneered, “I don’t really care for what he did with that gold-digging American.”

 

Claire pinched the bridge of her nose in hopes of stemming the aching pulse that now throbbed behind her temple. Her headache worsened with the ill-advised logic of the bride - that her glorious rose wall was her own original idea and not done before by the biggest gold-digging, fame-seeking American of all time.

 

“Sweetheart,” Jamie pleaded as his arm wound around the back of his fiancé’s seat (though never actually touching her back, her shoulders, or really any part of her, Claire noticed).

 

“We should trust Claire. She’s the expert after all.”

 

The blushing bride’s face flushed an alarming shade of scarlet as she crossed her arms over her chest. The flimsy, rummage-sale stool creaked beneath her as she shifted her hips, turning her back on Jamie. With a flip of her chestnut locks, she tossed her head back, eyes tilting skyward in an attempt to stem the flow of crocodile tears. Her lower lip trembled as she sniffed indelicately. The presence of a fully grown toddler in her shop rendered Claire speechless.

 

Daddy’s little princess, indeed.

 

“Why don’t I try to blend your styles, hm?” Claire suggested a last-ditch effort to save the appointment from certain disaster.

 

“We’re supposed to be celebrating your marriage, the two people becoming one,” Claire choked out before the words marriage and one stuck in her throat, gagging her reluctance with silence. “It’d be the perfect way to showcase the relationship by creating a unified aesthetic.”

 

The diva slid gracefully from her stool and collected her purse all the while grumbling what sounded like multiple obscenities under her breath. Dramatically, she fanned the forced blush from her face and flicked away nonexistent tears. Once composed, she strode towards the door in eight even-paced strides before she paused, one stiletto clad foot beveling into the arch of its pair. Her head swiveled as she cast her piercing gaze over her shoulder, zeroing in on her target like lasers determined to turn her fiancé into a pile of ash.

 

Jamie followed suit, lips pressed into a thin line as he rose from his stool and crossed the room to meet his betrothed. He reached her in half the steps she’d taken, his lanky limbs affording him an elongated gait. As he stood before his betrothed, his hands traced the lines of her arms, his palms hovering just above her skin (but once again not actually making contact, the florist observed). Heads bent, the couple leaned towards each other as they shared whispered secrets.

 

Watching her clients like this - her unboyfriend (as Geillis had called him) with his other half - left a queer feeling in the pit of Claire’s stomach. She was intruding - of that she was absolutely certain - and yet, she was a mere bystander, caught at the intersection of some bewildering traffic accident. Piece by piece, she tried to dissect it all - the where, the when, the how of this puzzling enigma of this particular couple. The room around her spun, and her knees buckled, her legs going to water much like the foundation of Jamie’s relationship with this spoilt child.

 

“I guess it wouldn’t hurt to see a few examples of what Claire has in mind,” Miss Dunsany acquiesced. The nasally tones of her snobbish request triggered a blinding headache that burst behind the florist temples. “Could you put a few samples together for us to review next week?”

 

Claire nodded and winced, the sudden movements of her aching neck only aggravated her impending migraine. “I’ll need to get a few things from Lallybroch - some blooms and the vases.”

 

“We can arrange a time for you to stop by…” the bride scanned her datebook before snapping it shut, depositing it in her purse, and turning her attention towards her fiance. “Alex, if you want to wait in the car, I have a few details for my bridal luncheon that I need to discuss with Claire.”

 

Jamie (or Alex - the nickname game still plagued her nightmares with dizzying, deceptive mazes) balked at the request. Stepping backwards, he pulled slowly away from his fiancé. Confusion and disbelief decorated his face with furrowed brows and parted lips (suspicion building in his mind and accusation forming on his tongue).

 

“We won’t be long,” his bride assured him with a demure smile and subtle shake of her head.

 

The groom paused, his gaze falling towards his feet as he nodded in agreement. His sullen footfalls echoed through the quiet shop as he found the exit. The door creaked open and then shut; the bell overhead rang out his departure. And still, the bride waited, eyes trained towards the exit with a hand poised on her hip. Frozen like the carved marble of ancient Grecian statues, she refused to move… to blink… to breathe.

 

Claire swallowed hard, her nerves squeezing the air from her lungs as a question squeaked past her lips. “What would you like to review? Your mother approved the final selections digitally last week -”

 

“I know,” her remaining client interrupted, her sudden confession as blunt as the ax that delivered the fatal blows to the Queen of Scots.

 

“I’m sorry - you know what exactly?” The florist implored innocently (though the sweat that collected in the bowls of her palms bore proof of her guilty conscience).

 

Giselle (or was it one of the several other G-names that floated through her hippocampus, just beyond her reach) pivoted sharply on her heel. While her designer pumps wouldn’t survive a quick sprint, she stalked the runway of wooden planks between the shop entrance and their meeting table with even longer stride than she had before - closing the gap within five and a half steps.

 

“About you! About Alex!” The bride cried, her hands slapping against the butcher block table that protected Claire from her wild (albeit true) accusations. “I knew he had feelings for someone else before we met in Paris, but I never imagined that someone would be so… common.”

 

Common.

 

The insult stung against Claire’s cheek as smart as an open-handed slap would. Common. She held her breath, precious oxygen burning in her lungs. She wanted to scream… to cry… to laugh. The spoilt brat had called her common - without any recognition of the many hordes of demanding daughters sired by wealthy lords. “...or that his feelings hadn’t truly dwindled.” Sputtering, Claire released the breath she was holding, the girl’s admission knocking all of the air from her lungs.

 

“Excuse me?” The florist wheezed.

 

Miss Dunsany tossed her head back as she barked out a cruel laugh. “Do you think I’m completely daft? I saw you two through the window before our appointment - you were quite cozy…”

 

Pushing off of the wooden counter, she launched herself backwards before rounding the only barrier dividing them, the last line in defense the florist had.

 

“…And you should hear the way he talks about you when you’re not around,” she sneered as her steps finally stilled, her face mere inches from Claire’s.

 

Her pulse thundered in her ears, and her breath came short. Beads of sweat gathered at the nape of her neck. A single drop trickled down the slope of her neck before staining her collar with the telltale sign of stress. The beet-red face of her client loomed before her, and Claire’s mind raced, grasping at the flimsy gauze of the tangled web she’d have to weave.

 

“Listen - Giuliana -” she explained as she placed two firm hands on the bride’s shoulders, holding the demon at bay and taking two steps back. “You’ve got it all wrong.”

 

The bride rocked back on her heels as she scoffed. “Do I?”

 

“Jamie - or Alex or whatever his bloody name is - and I were never together!” Claire shrieked, her frantic words colliding into a spectacular wreck that rivaled her own messy love life. “It was a brief flirtation at most.”

 

Her cries echoed through the nearly empty shop, ricocheting off of the many glass vases hard enough to splinter the delicate bowls, severing them into neat halves. Tears burned at the back of her eyes, threatening to spill over any second. Her throat ached, red and raw from her sudden confession. Though it wasn’t exactly the truth (Claire prayed that she hadn’t imagined the way Jamie looked at her all those months ago… or even this afternoon), it was the only saving grace she had… even if it broke her heart all over again to say the words out loud.

 

Miss Dunsany backed away slowly, taking care not to trip over her own two feet. With a subtle tilt of her head, she challenged Claire’s admission. “Is that so?”

 

“Yes!” Claire squeaked, stammering as lies blossomed on her lips. “In fact, I - I’ve been seeing someone else!”

 

The bride paused, her steps gradually stilling to a halt. She crossed her arms in front of her chest as she scoffed. “You’ve got a boyfriend? Alright then - who is he?”

 

“I’m sorry?” the florist questioned as her pitch escalated even further to the point she was certain only dogs could hear her.

 

She couldn’t have been any more wrong.

 

“Your lover,” Gianna demanded (for fuck’s sake what was the girl’s name?) as she took two steps towards Claire. “What’s his name?”

 

Bloody fuck.

 

Claire swallowed hard, her throat constricting against the many lies that tried to surge forth in her defence. Her eyes darted across the room. She scanned every visible surface for any possible hint of saving grace. She spied Ian’s name on a bill of receipt with the latest shipment of hydrangeas, mentally checking off his name as a potential pseudo boyfriend (too obvious). The idea of Frank crossed her mind, but she quickly nixed that option (too risky to name an ex-husband as a current lover).

 

Right at that moment, the metal flap in the front door of her shop provided her salvation with a resonant clap. A cascade of letters, bills, and various leaflets fluttered to the floor signalling that the post had arrived. Though she had rented the retail space for nearly a year, Claire still received mail addressed to the former tenant. It normally infuriated her, resulting in several angry phone calls voicing her displeasure at the inaccuracies and waste of finite resources. However, today she was thankful that a Mr. Thomas Beaton hadn’t had the forethought to have his bills forwarded to his new address.

 

“Tom!” Claire screeched, her voice cracking harshly in her throat. “His name is Tom.”

 

The bride nodded as Claire’s admission reached her ears. She shifted her weight back and forth from one foot to the other, as if she weighed the delicate information physically while it turned over in her mind. Her motions stilled, one brow arching upward as a wicked smirk curled at the corners of her mouth.

 

“Well then - I look forward to meeting Tom in the near future.”

 

Sharply pivoting on one heel, Miss Dunsany sashayed towards the door with confident steps and swinging hips. Claire exhaled, releasing a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Her chin dropped to her chest as the tense muscles of her neck finally released, the tension she held there ebbing with each passing second. Her ears followed the sound of her client’s shoes as the clicked against the hardwood, signalling her exit much to the florist’s relief… until they suddenly stopped.

 

“... oh, and Claire?”

 

At the shrill mention of her own name, her head snapped upwards sharply. She hissed against the pain of overly strained muscles and the renewed headache that blossomed at the base of her skull. The bride stood with the door to the shop - half inside, half outside. She tossed her hair over her shoulder as she called back to Claire, her voice low and threatening.

 

“My name is Geneva.”

Chapter Text

Later that night…

 

The throbbing base pulsed loudly around Geillis and Claire as they entered the club. Heavy and intense, the latter’s teeth rattled in her skull with every undulation. Acrid smoke billowed from a hidden fog machine and filled her nose with its bitter perfume. Neon lasers and phosphorescent lights cut through the darkness, a spattering of technicolor rays against a black canvas. With each flash, a new tableau of writhing bodies appeared - flickering scenes in the high contrast black and white of a classic film. A husky voice echoed from the speakers, hypnotizing the club’s patrons further into her clutches with her siren’s call.

 

Creeping around like no one knows

Think you're so criminal

Bruises, on both my knees for you

Don't say thank you or please

I do what I want when I'm wanting to

My soul? So cynical

 

And Claire wondered how in the hell she got here.

 

Geillis.

 

The moment Geneva (she carved the name in blood red ink and underlined it three times in her diary to commit it to memory) left her shop she’d texted her partner in crime.

 

S.O.S. I cocked it all up for sure this time. And btw we need to find a boyfriend named Tom.

 

It didn’t take much to rally the troops. Within half an hour, the blonde arrived at the flower shop, a flask of very potent whisky in hand. She cackled loudly, rivaling the witches of lore when Claire unearthed the champagne intended for her earlier meeting. Their giggles only increased after they’d drained a bottle each before venturing out to the club.

 

Claire squinted against the glaring strobes and blamed the bubbly spirit for her heightened sensitivities. Her surroundings reminded her of some perverse circus - too brash, too bright, too blunt. Typically, she preferred intimate pubs and live music provided by local entertainment - cozy yet worn upholstery, richly stained mahogany, and a pitchy tenor with a guitar. They were comfortable and casual like an old uni jumper… but she was on a mission where slubby, misshapen yarn would not suit.

 

“Tonight, I’ll make you my pet,” Geillis had promised.

 

Bubbly in hand, the pair had ascended the staircase to Claire’s messy flat, where they rifled through endless piles of laundry - all clean, but limp and wrinkled carelessly deposited in enough mounds to create a small mountain range throughout the florist’s bedroom. Geillis critiqued every article of clothing she owned, holding the offending articles with pinched fingers, arm fully extended and nose wrinkled until she found the ensemble worthy of bringing all men (and probably most women) to their knees to worship at the altar of St. Claire of Little Flowers.

 

“Black Orchid,” Geillis had explained as she spritzed her friend with some sickeningly sweet perfume. “It’ll drive the lads wild.”

 

Hair painstakingly straightened, eyelids dusted in smoky shadows, and torso tightly corseted in the thick wrappings of a crimson bandage dress, Claire leaned against the bar. First and foremost, she wished to relieve her aching feet from the tortuous stilettos that bound her ankles with flimsy ribbons (she wondered how ballerinas managed such feats of graceful athleticism when she could barely stand). Secondly, she gripped the cool stone ledge for balance as the swirling light show and the bottle of champagne (on an empty stomach, mind) left her feeling more than a tad off kilter. Thirdly, Geillis had vanished the moment they arrived at the club, abandoning her morals along with breaking one of the holiest laws in girl code: one does not leave one’s friend alone at a club.

 

Claire hissed as her elbows collapsed onto the sharp counter’s edge. Though it didn’t hurt much now with her ragged nerves numbed into submission with alcohol, her fingers massaged the tender skin of the joint. She’d certainly have bruises tomorrow, but she didn’t care. Nothing could rival the wounds that marred her heart.

 

Her reputation ruined…

Her competency questioned…

Her relationship with Jamie further tangled in the web of lies she wove...

 

“Oi!” The bartender’s cries rang out above the din, and Claire’s head snapped upwards suddenly in response. Hasty hands roughly push a glass across the counter towards her, sloshing excess liquid over the rim and onto Claire’s fingers as she intercepted the tumbler.

 

“From ‘im,” he explained as his head jerked sharply to the left, towards the opposite end of the bar where she spied a man.

 

A handsome one at that.

 

While the flashing lights against the pitch darkness of the club around them did little to reveal the specifics (the color of his eyes, hair, and skin a mystery in high contrast black and white), they highlighted his attributes brilliantly. He perched on a stool, reclining back against the bar on his left elbow as if he were sunning himself in the harsh rays of the violent lasers. The glaring strobes highlighted the peaks and valleys of his well-defined musculature visible beneath the simple cotton tee that clung to his frame. His right arm hung by his side, the fingers of his right hand gripped the top edge of his glass with casual confidence. He brought the dram (color and liquor choice imperceptible at Claire’s distance and state of inebriation) to his lips. He swallowed and his jaw flexed, clenching and relaxing as the liquid trickled down his throat. As she watched him, she found herself hypnotized by the stubble on his chin and the fullness of his lips, secretly wishing to taste them herself.

 

Even if it was only to wash away the bitter sting of lost love.

 

Pressing the glass to her lips, Claire tossed back half its contents (wincing slightly at the sharp tang of gin and lime on her tongue) before slipping into the crowd. A snake in the grass, she silently slithered through the narrow spaces between the bodies that separated her from her prey. She sought him out, lids narrowing as she honed in on her target. When fate left the seat next to him perfectly empty, she stole her chance, sliding onto the vacant stool.

 

“Thank you…” Claire bellowed, desperately trying to make her request breathy and wanton yet still heard over the throbbing base. Swiveling on her stool, she crossed one leg over the other and leaned in towards the man in question, tipping her chest forwards to offer him the best angle to appreciate her dress.

 

He didn’t turn, shoulders squared and gaze straight ahead as he sipped his drink.

 

“Thank yer friend,” he shouted back in between nips, nodding towards the throng writhing on the dance floor. “She said ye were lookin’ for me?”

 

Flipping her hair back, Claire cast a glance over her shoulder just in time to catch Geillis at the edge of the crowd. She shimmied in time with the music as she walked, her hand clasped firmly in the grasp of a much older man (the glare of blinking strobes against his completely bald head betrayed his age). She winked towards the bar and offered her approval with a quick thumbs up before disappearing behind the curtain to the VIP section.

 

That bloody witch.

 

“... I’m Tom,” he turned to her then as his introduced himself.

 

One eyebrow cocked, Tom flashed her a smile - an almost wolfish grin that revealed pearly white teeth. In the flashing disco lights, his eyes twinkled with a hidden mischief perfectly intended for nights such as these. The tip of his tongue darted out to wet his lips, and Claire wondered if he truly knew the affect his boyish charms had on women (and men for that matter).

 

“Tom Christie.”

 

With the second utterance of his name, the brilliant machinations of one Geillis Duncan slowly clicked into place in Claire’s inebriated state. She certainly found him handsome enough, and she thanked her past self for offering Geneva a first name (and a common one at that) for her aforementioned beau. She might even have a little fun playing this game of revenge with Jamie and his child bride...

 

“Well, Tom…” she repeated his name, allowing the letters to fill her mouth. The T zinged against the roof of her mouth and tickled her nose like the fizzy champagne she’d enjoyed just an hour ago. The O and the M blended together in a harmonious chant, a breathy moan rumbling deep in her throat.

 

The smile fell from Tom’s face, his expression turning mercurial. Claire smirked behind the lip of her glass before downing the second half of her drink. She slapped the empty tumbler against the countertop and grabbed for Tom’s hand, pulling him from his perch.

 

“Let’s dance, shall we?”

 

She took three… four… five steps before her elbow locked stick straight and her body recoiled backwards, the bungee cord of her tendons snatching her just before she fell. Rather than tripping over her own two feet, Tom gathered her to his chest, capturing her in the iron bands of his arms. The aftershocks of her near nose-dive rocked them both. With Claire nestled in the triangle of his thighs, they slowly swayed - nose to nose, chest to chest, hip to hip. Her pulse pounded in her ears in time with the thundering base in the club.

 

So you're a tough guy

Like it really rough guy

Just can't get enough guy

Chest always so puffed guy

 

“No’ so fast…” he murmured, his lips inches from hers as he released one hand to motion for another round of drinks. “Ye owe me a wee favor as well…”

 

“Oh?” Claire sighed, rocking back on her heels.

 

Their replenished drinks materialized, a magic trick produced with the snap of Tom’s fingers and his devious smirk. He tapped the rim of his glass against hers before taking a generous swig. Claire matched his pace. She found the icy yet tart liquid now refreshing as it cooled the boiling blood that now raced through her veins, flushing her skin pink.

 

He bent his head, bringing his lips to the outer shell of her ear to whisper all sorts of naughty secrets. The gesture flooded her mind with memories of that afternoon, when Jamie had done just the same… She shivered at the chill that ran up her spine, her body shimmying closer to her present admirer, and she felt him smirk against her cheek.

 

“Ye see her?” Tom whispered, his breath tickling the soft skin along her neck. His free hand left her waist to point towards the dance floor, where Geillis had been just moments before. Claire turned her head and brought her drink to her lips, using the glass to disguise where her eyes chose to wander. As she spied the girl in question, her breath hitched, nearly choking on her limey tonic.

 

She was a total stranger, though the florist’s stomach turned with queer recognition at the sight of her. She was a slight thing - petite in build and stature. Her milky skin glowed in the dark cavern of the club. Her willowy limbs danced above her head, swaying like branches bending in a breeze. Dark hair crowned her head, thick tresses gathered into a tight ponytail piled painfully high on her skull. Her lithe frame writhed against some guy (could’ve been Tom… could’ve been Jamie…) as her eyes narrowed to snake-like slits, zeroing in on her observer from across the room. Their gazes met through the murky lens of her drink, and Claire’s stomach dropped suddenly.

 

Tipping her head back, she finished the final dregs of gin before the glass slipped from her fingers and clattered loudly against the counter. She swallowed hard against the bile that bubbled at the back of her throat. Eyes shut, she inhaled deeply through her nostrils before slapping her hand down twice, signaling for a third round.

 

It couldn’t be...

 

Ghostly visions of Jezebel temptresses danced behind her closed lids. First, Geneva appeared with her cruel smile and child-like demeanor. Her ostentatious diamond glittered on her finger as she waggled it dramatically in front of Claire’s face. She spun suddenly, pivoting on her heel while she rolled her hips. When she returned to face the florist once more, she was gone… and Malva stood in her place. Her prized pupil mocked her with feigned sweetness, while poison dripped from her lips. Her fingers smoothed a striped tie dangling between her breasts. It’d been Frank’s… the very same silk that had bound the student’s wrists when she discovered them in his office one afternoon…

 

The glass bottom of a decanter met the wood counter with a loud thunk as the barkeep deposited two more drinks before Claire and Tom. She shook her head before she grabbed at the glass and greedily sucked down the liquid, hoping to quell any further nightmares staring the ghosts of mistresses past. Still, her hands trembled as Tom clasped one within his own.

 

“She’s my ex - Mona,” he spat, glaring daggers at the dance floor. “Cheated on me with my own brother.”

 

Cheated.

 

Claire knew the term intimately - strongly steeped in her morning tea, lurking behind the shadowy corners in the house she thought they’d made a home, hidden within the luscious petals Betrayal left the deepest of wounds weeping with infection, never to fully heal and scars always newly pink and raw. It was a vile toxin that flooded her body with jealous fevers and that left the bitter taste of uncertainty on at the back of her mouth.

 

“Care to help me make her jealous, hmm?” Tom’s question broke through her reverie.

 

Could she?

 

Claire’s eyes quickly darted between Tom’s smile and his outstretched hand and back once more to his face. Now with his face inches from hers, the steely blue-grey of his gaze turned her knees to water. He caught his bottom lip between his teeth, and the only thought dominating Claire’s mind was the image of her sucking the plump skin there between her own lips. Her mind cried out in protest, battered and war-torn with cautionary tales of what happened when she fell for mysterious men too fast… but the alcohol flowing freely in her veins encouraged her to be bold and to satisfy that hungry basal need gnawing deep in her belly.

 

She placed her hand in his, signing a deal with this silver-eyed devil.

 

With a hand gently pressed to the small of Claire’s back, Tom guided her to the edge of the dance floor where the undulating throng lapped at their limbs, brushing against them like the tempting, warm waves of a late summer sea. They swayed on the outskirts, hips pressed together as they slowly waded further and further from the shore. Bodies wound around them, a revolving current that held them in the deep. Entranced by the siren’s song that called out above the hypnotizing swell, they were drowning in an ocean of each other (skin, breath, heat)...

 

...but it wasn’t Tom Claire was dancing with…

 

Once she’d spun herself around in the circle of his arms, it was all too easy for her mind to wander. In the dark - and after so many drinks - he could be anyone. The strong hands that gripped her hips matched the make and model of a certain red-headed client, and her skin still erupted in goose flesh as he traced the lines of her body (just as he’d done in her dreams). The firm muscles of his chest that braced her back were the perfect balance of firm-meets-soft (just as she’d hoped when she thought of resting her head there). The small Scottish noises he mumbled against her ear brought her just to the precipice…

 

The base bottomed out with a gasping whoosh, the water in their imaginary sea sucked down an imaginary drain.

 

Claire’s eyelids fluttered open - completely unaware that they’d even been shut - only to meet the gaze of her arch rival.

 

Malva. Geneva. Mona.

 

She was back - the mysterious being who embodied all three women at once. Her piercing gaze bore holes straight through Claire’s chest, where her heart hammered against her ribs. Crimson painted lips parted into a sneer before a sinister cackle bubbled forth, taunting the florist with their youth and their beauty. Fear gripped her belly and pushed her over the edge. She pressed herself into the body (Jamie’s or Tom’s she was no longer certain) behind her. Her hands wandered over his frame before reaching upward and tangling her fingers in his unruly locks. He pressed his lips against the nape of her neck, sighing as she arched further into him. The siren faded from view, and it was Claire’s turn to smirk.

 

You said she’s scared of me?

I mean… I don’t see what she sees but

Maybe it’s ‘cuz I’m wearing your cologne...

 

Her head fell back against Tom’s shoulder as she pulled him closer, bringing his ear just to her lips.

 

“Let’s get out of here,” she murmured huskily before grasping his hand and pulling him through the crowd behind her.

 

The act of walking through a doorway is said to cause one to forget why they entered that room in the first place - a sort of temporary amnesia. Coupled with copious amounts of alcohol, however, crossing a threshold could wipe one’s memory completely clean.

 

Once Claire exited the club, her short-term recollection flew away on the wings the brisk night air. The rest of the evening came to her in a series of flashes, moments frozen in photographs preserved for posterity with the stories in between hazier than the early morning mist. First, they were in a cab, hands roaming while mouths greedily nipped at fleshy lower lips. Then, they were on the stairs of her flower shop, tripping on the uneven pitch and laughing at each other as they both fell flat on their backsides. Finally, they were behind the closed door of her apartment and tumbling towards her bed - shirt, dress, and pants all carelessly tossed aside before they sunk into the pillowy depths of her mattress.

 

And then it all went black.

 

The violent light of midday streaked across her face and blinded Claire even with her eyes closed. She scrubbed her eyes with balled-up fists in hopes she could block out some of the brilliant summer sun with her hands. The pulsing base from the club found a permanent behind her temples, painfully throbbing before she had even fully awoken. Her throat burned and her mouth tasted of cotton from the champagne and the three (or was it four?) gin and tonics she’d had the night before. Every muscle in her body ached from the tips of her toes to the crown of her head. She groaned aloud as she wondered if she’d gotten in some sort of fight last night (positive she’d have some bruises to make a seasoned boxer blush). An even louder moan followed her own whine, and Claire froze, each joint in her body becoming rigid. Her breath came short, panting as she tried desperately to fill her lungs to no avail before she finally cracked open one lid…

 

… only to find a naked Tom Christie lying next to her.