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Conversations in the Dark

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      Despite the twins’ best attempts at leaving the house quietly a half hour before sunrise, Jamie and Claire awoke to the distant sound of the garage door rolling open, and then rolling shut again after a few minutes.

      Claire glanced out the window and scanned the pre-dawn cerulean skies. “Looks like a good morning for their team sunrise. Mostly clear skies with a few wisps of mist.”

      “It’ll be a fun morning for them, mo ghràidh. And I love that I can lie here with you every morning and not worry about sneaking out before the girls see me.”

      He lay on his back, deep in thought, staring at the ceiling with a small frown. She rested her head on his chest, seeking the familiar and comforting echo of his heartbeat in her ear. He slipped an arm under her to pull her closer. Immersing herself in the loving protective cocoon that his arms and body and heartbeat wove around her, she lay quietly for a while longer.

      Eventually she asked softly, “What’s making you so pensive this morning, my love?”

      “I was thinking about the interview taping today. How do you feel about me talking to Graham Norton about the male harassment issue?” He wound his hand into her curls and played with them gently.

      “I absolutely support you discussing it with him. I know that you have to tread carefully, but as I already said, the MeToo movement will undoubtedly support anyone who’s been subjected to harassment, regardless of gender. How do you feel about sharing your feelings publicly?”

      “It’s a little nerve-wracking, to be honest. I don’t want to downplay the fact that it’s far more prevalent against women, but at the same time, it’s important to bring awareness to it, because it happens to men so much more than people realize.”   

      “I’m proud of your willingness to lend your voice to this issue.”

      His fingers were still playing with her curls, lulling her into a near-somnolent state.  

      “I’m going to drift back to sleep if I let you keep playing with my hair. Should we get our running gear on?” she asked.

      “Sure, I’ll meet you back here in a few minutes.”        

      “We should move your clothes into my closet - our closet - this weekend. There’s no need for you to keep using the guest room bathroom either. Are you comfortable with that?”

      “Of course. I wanted you to be okay with it, and figured we’d eventually get around to it. No pressure from me.”

      “You are always so thoughtful and considerate. I’m completely fine with it.”

      "Come lie on me for a minute, Sassenach."

      He gently pulled her over and she stretched out over him, their bodies pressed together from chest to foot. She rested her head in the hollow between his neck and shoulder.

      “God, I love when ye lie on top of me and relax completely like this. It feels so ... calming, ye ken?”

      “So I’m your human weighted blanket - is that what you’re saying?”

      He chuckled. “No weighted blanket ever felt this good.”

      His hands ran lazily down her back and over her butt, where they paused to knead her yielding flesh ever-so-gently. She felt the beginnings of his arousal as his hands moved slowly downwards. 

      “I thought we were going for a run,” she teased.

      “We were. But this is so much more fun.”

      “Couldn't agree more,” she smiled as she pushed herself up to straddle him.

 

      They sat at the kitchen counter and planned their day over breakfast. Both had full schedules, and they always felt more grounded when they knew each other’s plans and movements. With so much going on, they needed to sync any free time they had so they could reconnect with each other, touch base with the twins, or Zoom with Tara and Cal, in case any new issues had arisen.

      “My day is going to be crazy right up until early afternoon. I’m Zooming with Cal and Millennium’s PR people in a half hour, so we can go over Norton’s questions about the movie. Then I’m rushing over to Seattle at 10:00 to the PR offices to tape the segment with Graham. They’ve set up a backdrop, minimal lighting, all the video and tech - even hair and makeup.”

      “Wow! They’ve gone to great lengths. Hats off to the team for pulling that all together in record time.”

      “Honestly, I would have been happy to do it from the study here, but Millennium wanted to make it all look sharp. The taping is at 11:00, and they need eight minutes of footage, so I’ll be done in under an hour. Then I’m coming back home for a call with DC/Panther about next week’s announcement at 2:00. That should take an hour, and after that I want to head over to the property and check in on the Calhouns."

      “Whoa, Jamie. That’s back-to-back stuff almost all day. Millennium all morning and DC/Panther all afternoon. You’re going to be wiped by tonight.”

      “I’ll probably need a late-night stint in the hot tub to decompress. With my Sassenach. In her blue swimsuit.”

      “James Fraser! You are insatiable and incorrigible and impossible and -” 

      “In love,” he inserted, pulling her towards him and kissing her soundly on the lips. “Tell me about your day.”

      “I’m going to be on campus until around lunchtime. I could work from home, but I know it’s going to be awkward seeing my co-workers after rushing off campus when the post went live on Tuesday. PILF is trending, and that brings unwanted attention to their place of work. I want to get this first awkward post-TMZ encounter behind me, before the vote tomorrow. I’ll be nervous enough about that as it is.”     

       Jamie’s heart tightened as he thought of the humiliation and distress the article had rained down on Claire. It had made her physically sick, and her growing anxiety about the meeting with the Trustees weighed heavily on him. He took one of her hands between both of his and brought it to his lips. No words passed between them in that moment, but each knew what the other was thinking.   

      I’m sorry I couldn't prevent this.      

      Please don’t blame yourself.       

      “How do you think your co-workers will react?”

      “I feel like most of them will be supportive. They’ve been rooting for me for the professorship, and I’ve no reason to think they’ll stop supporting me just because of a ridiculous gossip piece.”

      “My gut feel is also that they’ll support you. Walk those hallways with yer head held high, Claire. Your professorship is about your excellence at what you do, not what some online rag publishes, or what hashtags are trending.”     

      “I plan to, my love,” she sighed. “I should be home by 1:00. I might head over to the stables with the girls and hang out with Calypso while they work with some children with special needs this afternoon. I haven’t had a chance to see him since you got him for me.”

      “I’d love to go with you, but that’s right when I’m meeting with DC/Panther.”

      “I know, my love. It’s okay - we’ll go see him together next week. I just feel I need to see him today too. It’ll be comforting and therapeutic.”     

      “I think it’s a great idea. Calypso’s so loving and gentle. It’ll do your soul the world of good to spend some time with him.”

      “After that, I’ve got the afternoon and evening pretty open. Armando wants to come and see me. Would you mind if I asked him to stay for dinner? We can DoorDash something.”       

      “Absolutely. I’m looking forward to meeting him, actually. He’s such a good friend to you.”

      “Okay. Our schedules seem to fit together and work well. Crossing fingers that there are no surprises anywhere.”

         

      - - - - - - - - - - - -

         

      Claire called Nonna from the car as she drove into work. With such a busy day ahead, the half-hour commute would have to pull double-duty as phone-call time. During their regular weekly chats, Claire had told Nonna about her relationship with Jamie, and she’d been skeptical at first. “Cara, these superstars mess around with so many women! I don't want you to get hurt."

      It had taken some convincing, but Nonna began to appreciate Claire’s growing happiness, and the girls had shared snippets of information that reassured her that Jamie was a man of character who was deeply in love with her precious Claire.           

      This morning, she needed to hear Nonna’s calm, reassuring voice, and it was also an opportunity to check in with her to see how she was doing. They made small talk for a few minutes, and Claire was relieved to note that Nonna seemed unaware of the TMZ scandal. She was not on social media, and celebrity gossip didn't interest her in the least, but Claire worried that members of her bridge club might have read something and shared with her.      

      Nonna asked about the professorship, and sounded surprised that the vote was just a day away. “You mentioned that to me already, cara, but I forgot that it was so soon. I’ll walk to church and say a prayer for you. It will get me out in the fresh air and I need the exercise too.”

      “Thank you, Nonna! That means so much to me. I’ll call you on the weekend and let you know how it goes. I also want to ask you how you feel about coming out for a few weeks in October?”

      “I’m starting to feel a little better about getting outside more, always with my mask and hand sanitizer. But the travel worries me.”

      “What if Jamie arranges a private jet, like he did for the girls?”

      “I don’t know, cara. I would have to think about that. What’s happening in October?”

      “Jamie is taking me to Paris for my birthday - just 4 or 5 days. I would be so grateful if you would keep an eye on the girls for me, and they would love to have you to themselves for that time. And after Paris, I get to spend the rest of the time with you. I miss you so much, you know that.”

      Nonna knew full well that the girls could easily stay at Ashlee’s, or Hannah’s - or any of their friends during Claire’s absence. But Claire knew that Nonna wouldn’t refuse her request to look after the girls, and it was her strategy to finally get her over to Seattle for a visit after months of asking.

      “Okay, amore. I’ll think about it and we can talk on the weekend.”

    

      She called Melissa next.

      “Jesus, Claire! What the fuck is going on there?”

      “Please tell me it isn’t all over the East Coast too.”

      “It made some news channels, but it’s not as big as it is on the West Coast. After you told me about Jamie, I had some of my media specialists track Jamie Fraser tags. You know I deal with crazy stuff every day, and I wanted to look out for you. They’ve been tracking that fool Baranov since the first TMZ segment where she mentioned Jamie and the sex scenes. So I’m aware of some of the comings and goings over the past couple of weeks. What's the latest?”

      “The good news is that TMZ was forced to pull the most recent piece, which was the worst one by far. It was taken down quietly, no retraction. Taking it off the site is helping to slow the trajectory.”     

      “Good move! When do you hear about the professorship?”

      “The vote is tomorrow and we’ll know the result next week. Abernathy is backing me quietly, but he doesn’t have a vote. PILF is hot again, as you can imagine. I hope he has enough influence over the undecided Trustees.”

      “Like I told you before Claire, there’s no way you’re not getting this. I looked into the Wharton candidate and he’s nowhere near as well-suited for the position. Fulton doesn’t need more accusations of sexism either.”

      “I appreciate your confidence in me. How are things with you?”

      “I’m neck-deep in helping a couple of Senators with a sticky little problem that will hopefully never make the news. It’s going to keep me busy for the next month or two. It’s an election year, and shit’s coming out of the woodwork everywhere. I’ll check in with you next week. I want to hear everything then. Good luck tomorrow, hon!”

  

      - - - - - - - - - - - -

      

      Jamie and Claire arrived home within minutes of each other and walked into the kitchen to find Beth and Ella making lunch for all of them. 

      “You girls are the best. I keep telling ye that, but I truly mean it.”

      “It’s just sandwiches and salad,” Ella shrugged. “That’s all we could of think of for a quick lunch when mom texted that you were both on your way home. We know it’s a busy day for you.”      

      An explosion of color in the family room caught Claire’s eye. Her blue Daum vase was filled with gladiolus stems in a variety of vivid colors. She gasped and walked over to the vase.

      “Those were delivered while we were out. Beth and I prepped them and put them in the vase. There’s a note.”

      She opened the envelope.     

       “There’s a telepathy between some hearts where no words are needed and all is understood.”  (Karen Salmansohn)

       My heart hurts when yours hurts. My soul feels what yours feels.

       I love you. 

       Jamie  

      She blinked away the tears that threatened and he walked over and wrapped his arms around her. 

      “Thank you, my love,” she whispered. 

      He touched his forehead to hers and looked into her eyes, “Don’t try to be strong for me, mo chridhe,” he murmured, “I know what you’re going through. Lean on me all you need. I’ll be here to catch you if you fall.”

      The girls were reluctant to interrupt a sweet moment, but lunch was ready, and they summoned Jamie and Claire to the kitchen counter. As they ate, the girls filled them in on all the details of their sunrise and breakfast event. 

      “Sounds like so much fun, girls. I must remember to text Coach Kate and thank her for hosting breakfast. Maybe next year we’ll offer to host. We’ll be in the new house by then.”

      “For real?” they looked at Jamie.

      “If your Mam says it’s okay, then of course we’ll host!”

      “As soon as we’re done with lunch, we can head over to the stables. Jamie has a video call, so it’ll be just us, girls.”

      “When you girls get back from the stables, do ye want to walk over to the property with me and see what the Calhouns have been up to?”

      “Yeah!" Beth said, enthusiastically. "I can’t wait to see what they’ve been doing. We saw a bunch of huge trucks and diggers when we turned into our driveway earlier. “

      “Sounds cool. Will they have printouts of the plans? I love looking at that kind of stuff,” Ella asked.

      “More than likely,” replied Jamie.

      

      They finished their lunch and while the girls went upstairs to put on their riding gear, Jamie and Claire got up to speed on each other’s mornings.

      “I thought of you all morning. How did it go?”

      “Not as bad as I expected. Of course, not everyone is working on campus, but the coworkers I saw in the break-room or hallways were all polite and cordial. My departmental coworkers were fantastic. I had a steady stream in and out of my office for the first couple of hours when they heard I was in the building. They all expressed how sorry they were that this was happening to me again.”

      “You felt you had their support?”

      “Yes, definitely, especially from my department. A few asked about you. They couldn’t resist asking if we were actually together, or whether the Caledonian picture was a once-off,” she chuckled.

      “What did ye tell them?”

      “I told them that we are in a relationship, and that we are very committed to each other, and that you are a wonderful, ridiculous human being.”

      “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”

      “No, actually, you haven’t,” she teased, “The last time was about a half hour ago when we got home. Tell me how it went with the taping.”      

      “It went great. Graham focused mostly on the movie. That’s really what Millennium was after. It was straightforward stuff that PR had prepped me for.”

      “And the MeToo issue?”

      “He didn’t spend as much time on that as I expected, to be honest, but I feel like I answered his questions in a way that was true to myself, while also acknowledging how much more widespread it is for women.” 

      “Not an easy topic to navigate. No matter what you say, someone will think you said too much or too little.”

      “True. And as I anticipated, Graham couldn't help going off script a little. He raised the issue of ‘recent media reports’ about me and a professor from Seattle. I was honest, and admitted that I was in a loving, committed relationship, and that I couldn't reveal more because it was part of my private life.”

      “That’s a reasonable response, Jamie. You said nothing salacious or controversial. I can’t imagine that your answer would make waves with Millennium or the Trustees - if they ever got to hear it.”

      “The show airs tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. our time, right when you’ll be in your meeting with the Board. We can watch it together in the evening.”

      She nodded and leaned over to rest her head on his shoulder, catching sight of the flowers again as she did so. “Thank you for my flowers, they’re just what I needed today.”

      I’ve been remiss about sending you flowers since LA week, and I wanted you to have something bright and colorful to make you happy.”

      “They make me happy because they remind me of you.”

           

      As soon as Claire and the girls headed out to the stables, Jamie sat at the desk in the study and connected with the DC/Panther team to learn about the top-secret details around the cast announcement. A grid of faces appeared before him. 

      Tara, Cal, Simon, and Luke Beyer, Panther’s VP of Production, were all familiar faces. Jamie had been dealing with Luke from the outset of the Superman negotiations, and they got along well. There were three unfamiliar faces: one was Yoonah Cho, DC Comic's Head of Media Relations and Publicity, and the other two were representatives from Marula Event Planning, a huge organization that planned and managed most of the big awards shows in Hollywood. Clearly, DC/Panther wanted to make a huge splash with this cast announcement.

      Luke Beyer started the meeting by reiterating the need for utmost secrecy. "All of you have binding NDAs, and I’m impressing on all of us the importance of observing the terms of the agreements. The event is just five days away and we want to maintain anticipation and excitement around it. I’m going to ask Yoonah to take over and share her vision for the announcement.”

      Yoonah explained the premise for going so over-the-top for their announcement. "First and foremost, we are beyond excited to have Jamie Fraser in this role. The news that you’re our new Superman is going to be extremely well-received by the fandom. You’ve topped the polls for fan choice for months. Luckily, it’s the best-kept secret in Hollywood right now. Diminished social interaction has really helped us there.”

      Jamie smiled and nodded his thanks, and Yoonah continued.

      “In coming up with our 'extreme cast announcement', we looked at what was going on around us with the pandemic. It feels like a big pause button had been pressed on all our lives. Everything has ground to a halt - for everyone. In our industry that means that movie theaters are  shuttered, production has stopped on most movies, movie premiers and film festivals have been cancelled, awards nominations and awards shows are cancelled or delayed or modified. The bottom line is that Hollywood has become a sad and miserable shadow of its former self. DC and Panther want to bring back the glam and glitz with our announcement. We’re doing it in the format of an awards show ceremony in a big star-studded event at the Hollywood Bowl. It's a massive production! I’ll hand over to one of our event managers from Marula to give you the finer details.”

      An energetic young man from Marula Event Planning took over and shared some slides so that everyone could better picture how all the elements of the announcement would work.

 

 

      “Limos will drop off all the guests at the red carpet, and there will be the usual fanfare with paparazzi and press interviews. We are setting up red carpet areas, VIP zones, hospitality … everything you would expect at a big awards show. We even have swag bags to die for. We hand-delivered 100 top-secret invitations to a select group of A-listers earlier this week and another 100 to industry execs. They know it’s a cast announcement event, they know it’s red-carpet dress, they just don’t know what the movie is. The big rumor is that it’s a Mission Impossible movie, and that’s okay with us, because it throws people off our scent. Rodeo Drive has been buzzing all week, with stores and designers working frenetically to get everyone dressed for the occasion. We have live music from Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, Khalid, and Ariana Grande, and dance performances from the winners of ‘World of Dance’ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance’. There will be big screens, amazing lighting and laser effects, and fireworks once it gets dark. It will be live-streamed on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram."

      He paused to invite reactions and questions.     

      “It all sounds fantastic,” Jamie said. "How will the actual reveal work? And when do I finally find out who my co-star is?”

      “This is the best part. The whole stage will go dark, and short clips and snippets of previous Superman films will flash on the giant screens. The Superman theme song will blast out over the audience, and guests will catch on instantly that it’s a Superman announcement, so there will be a lot of buzz around the arena. Then Jamie’s going to walk out on stage under a small spotlight, and we’ll reveal him with sparks and lasers and lights and music as the spotlight grows. It’ll be hella spectacular. You’ll be standing there in your tux, and behind you on the giant screens, we’ll have pictures of you in your Superman costume. They'll be CGI’ed for some amazing effects.”

      “Love it!” Tara enthused. “It’s going to be the event of the pandemic, no doubt. When and how will the female lead be announced?”

      Yoonah Cho took over. “That’s where we had to get creative. We had a shortlist of four potential Lois Lanes after months of auditions. We’ve finally made our choice, and she just signed her contracts. We’re excited, and we think Jamie will be too. As far as her reveal goes, Marula came up with this great idea to build tension and anticipation. All four actresses on the short-list will be at the announcement event, hidden in their dressing rooms until we’re ready to call our Lois Lane to the stage. We’re going to have Jamie announce his co-star, awards-ceremony style. He’ll open an envelope and read out the name - it’ll be a surprise to everyone, including Jamie.”

         “Well, that’s really different!” Tara exclaimed, “How did you get the actresses to agree to that? Normally, they would come in for an audition and find out pretty quickly that they didn't get the role. You’re asking them to sit there and go through the humiliation of not being called up by Jamie?”

         “No, no,” Yoonah interjected quickly, “we’re being very discreet and thoughtful about it. It’s not like an awards show in the sense that the cameras focus on the nominees’ faces and capture all the reactions, good and bad. The actresses won’t be in the audience at all and they will not have cameras on them while they wait. We have four dressing rooms set up for them, and each actress will have her own hair stylist, makeup artist, and wardrobe stylist. They will wait in their dressing rooms until Jamie opens the envelope, and when he announces the co-star, one of our production team will escort her on stage, where she will be welcomed by Jamie. No hugs, no kisses, we have to observe pandemic guidelines. Jamie will go through several rehearsals on Tuesday, but the actresses won’t, for obvious reasons. They will arrive at the arena 15 minutes apart and will be whisked off to their dressing rooms. They have no idea who the others are, and no-one knows who they are, apart from us. It’s super discreet, and we are being very protective of their identities. All four have been decently compensated, and all of them agreed to hold off on other commitments until after the announcement.”

      “Why didn’t you just tell the winning actress that she’s the one? And then let the others know they didn’t get the role. Lock the winner down with an NDA, like you did with Jamie?” Tara was fascinated by the elaborate secrecy of their smoke-screen.

      “Frankly, we didn’t trust all of the actresses to keep their mouths shut if we told them they were in or out. It takes just one drink too many, one quick share with a friend or relative, and it’s guaranteed to leak. We figured there was a one hundred percent certainty that it would get out there if we did it the standard industry way. This way they are all in the dark, and we keep it that way right until the end so that they don’t tweet or Instagram anything before the reveal.”

      Luke added, “They’re a competitive bunch, these action-movie actresses! I think they’re quite fascinated by our whole process, and each one is excited to know whether it’s her or not. They were given the opportunity to withdraw, but they all agreed. We knew they would - they're excited to be on the shortlist, and no one’s done a cast reveal like this before.”  

      “That all sounds good - very elaborate and spectacular! I fly in Tuesday morning and out Wednesday morning?” Jamie asked.

      “Yes,” Luke responded. “The jet will land at Van Nuys Airport so you can avoid the paps at LAX. A driver will bring you to the studio for costume and tux fitting. We’ll have a team lined up to grab some pictures and CGI footage for the big screen reveal. Then we’ll take you to the Hollywood Bowl for rehearsal. The announcement extravaganza will likely end at around 10:00 p.m. We’ve booked Delphine restaurant for all of us from DC and Panther, you, your co-star and your teams. We'll enjoy a late celebration dinner, and there’s a 9:00 a.m. press conference at Panther Studios on Wednesday morning. Thirty news outlets by invitation only. TMZ is not one of them. It’ll be a panel style press-conference with execs from DC and Panther and you and your co-star. Live-streamed, of course. We’ll have you back at the airport by 11:00 a.m. for your flight home. Look for an email later with a detailed schedule.”

      The meeting was starting to wrap up and Yoonah thanked everyone for attending. Before closing, Luke addressed Jamie directly.

      “Jamie, I spoke with Tara earlier to verify some things, and I’m aware that you have a special someone in your life. TMZ did you no favors there, man.” He shook his head ruefully. “Will she be joining you at the announcement? She’s more than welcome, and we’ll assign her one of our PR team to accompany her throughout the day while you do what you need to do. She'll be our VIP guest.”

      “That's very kind of you. Yes, Claire is my very special someone.” Jamie’s expression softened, “I appreciate you thinking of her, and I’ll discuss it with her tonight. She’s in the middle of a big work event herself, so I’m not sure it’ll work out. However, she has 16 year old twins who might want to come? The girls would love this! Is that okay with you, Luke and Yoonah?”

      “Absolutely!” Yoonah replied. “How exciting for them! We’ll add an extra room to your hotel reservation. It’s no big deal."

      "We’ll assign one of our younger PR interns as well as a PR staffer to accompany them around our studio complex and the Bowl," Luke added. "They can go backstage and meet the performers, or hang out in the VIP Lounge. We’ll make sure they get swag bags too.”

      “That’ll be awesome - my girls are going to be blown away! I’ll confirm with you tomorrow. They might have some sports-team commitments, and Claire will need to okay it too.”      

        

      Claire and the twins returned from the stables just as Jamie was wrapping up his call with DC/Panther. Before telling the twins about the possibility of a trip to LA with him, he would need to discuss it with Claire, so he held the news back until later.

      “How’s Calypso?”

      “Oh, Jamie, he’s beautiful! He nuzzled and snuggled the whole time I was with him. I didn’t ride today, but I really want to do that next week.”

      “I’m so pleased you got to spend time with him. Hopefully we can get out and ride together next week.” He bent down and kissed her gently. “I’ll tell you all about my Superman call after the girls and I get back from our property visit.”

      “Any preferences for dinner? We’re DoorDashing, remember?”

      “What about that Mediterranean we had for the winery meeting? That was so good.”

      “Great idea! Armando will love it too.”     

     

      Jamie and the twins were amazed at how much had been accomplished on the property in just a day’s work. Trucks and land clearing equipment were parked and silent until the next day, and Jamie led the way over the freshly cleared path towards two Airstream trailers attached to Ford F150s a short distance into the property. A table was set-up outside one of the trailers and the Calhoun brothers were leaning over some papers and printouts that were spread over the table. They looked up when they heard Jamie and the girls approach, and broke into wide smiles, immediately removing their stetsons.       

      “Well, hello, y’all,” Beau walked over and shook hands with all three, and Colton followed quickly behind him.

      “Welcome to Snoqualmie,” Jamie grinned. “I’m impressed with how much has been cleared in such a short time. Do you guys have everything you need?”

      “Oh yeah, we’re used to roughing it, Jamie. We have two portable generators to power our computers and other essentials. We have hot-spots for connectivity. The porta-potty is in the trees back there, and we have a great Airbnb house in Preston.”

      “I love these Airstream trailers,” Beth enthused. “They are so cool and retro! What do you use them for?”

      “This one here is our portable office. We have all our computers and tech, printers, filing cabinets, paperwork - all of that stuff is in here. That one is our portable break-room, I guess you could call it. It’s where we can sit and eat our lunch, or have a hydration break, or hide out if it’s really hot, or if there’s a storm. Do you girls want to look inside?”

      “We’d love to,” Ella replied.

      “Just a sec,“ Colton said, “Our nephew is with us - he’s helping us as an intern all summer. I’ll get him to show the girls around. While he does that, we can go over the printouts with Jamie and point out what the next steps are.”

      “DEACON!” Beau hollered across to the second trailer.

      A few seconds passed, and a head appeared at the doorway.

      “C’mon over here and meet the folks we’re working for.”

      Deacon stepped out and walked across to the waiting group. Jamie and the twins had expected a college-age intern, but Deacon seemed younger - maybe 17 or 18. He was a tall, good-looking teen, with dark hair and the same eyes and facial structure as his uncles. Dressed in dark jeans and a faded denim shirt, he approached them with a wide smile and friendly demeanor. Removing his stetson and placing it on the table, he waited for one of his uncles to make the introductions.

      “Deacon, this is Mr. Fraser. Jamie, this is Deacon Marshall, my sister’s son and our favorite nephew.”     

      They shook hands. “Please call me Jamie.”

      “Honored to meet you, sir. I’m a big fan of your movies.”

      Colton continued with the introductions. “And this is Ella and Beth.”

      “The other way around. I’m Ella.” They shook hands.

      “And I’m Beth.” She smiled shyly and Deacon’s smile widened as he shook her hand.     

      “Deacon, please give the young ladies a tour of the trailers, while we show Jamie what’s next.”       

      He led the girls into the office trailer first, and they looked on with interest as he pointed out the different areas and equipment in the office area.

      “What will you be doing in here all day?” Beth asked, genuinely interested in what his job entailed.

      “I'll be doing the paperwork and filing, checking emails and responding to most of them. I also make calls to contractors, make sure all the bills are paid, see to it that there’s enough gas for our generators, order lunch or drive out to pick it up, depending on what everyone wants. I do whatever my uncles need.”

      “Is it your first time doing this?” Ella asked.

      “I helped a lot last summer too, but that was all local stuff in and around Caldwell in Idaho. This is my first time traveling to a site.”

      “Are you starting college after this summer?” Beth asked casually.     

      “Nah, going into senior year. What about you guys?” He addressed them both, but his eyes were locked on Beth.

      “We’re going into junior year,” Beth replied.

      They stepped out and walked to the break-room trailer, where Deacon pointed out the little features and creature comforts that kept them all happy and comfortable on site. On one side there was a full-size refrigerator and standard trailer kitchenette, with a small dining table and benches. The other side was dominated by two RV recliner chairs and a large plush sofa that could easily accommodate a tired cowboy in need of a nap. A large screen TV hung from a secure bracket.

      “That’s a big TV for a trailer,” remarked Ella.

       “Yeah,” Deacon chuckled, “my uncles don’t want to miss football games when they're working late on a site. And the Snake River Stampede is on right now, so they want to stream footage whenever they can.”

      “What’s the Snake River Stampede?” Beth asked.

      “It’s a week-long rodeo that’s part of the national circuit. It’s a huge deal in Caldwell, even though it’s hosted in the next town. There are tons of community events too - festivals, parades, dances, music. It’s pretty cool.”

      “Are you bummed to be missing it?” Ella asked.

      “I was a little, to be honest. But this job for you guys is going to be pretty cool too.”

      He slid another look at Beth.

      “Do you want to sit?” He gestured awkwardly at the sofa. “I can get a Coke from the fridge for you guys.”

      “I’m good,” Ella smiled. “Thanks though. I’m going to go look at the plans on the table outside.” She stepped out and walked over to the office trailer.

      “I’d love a Coke, thanks,” Beth smiled as she curled her legs under her on the sofa.

       Deacon handed her a Coke bottle and sat on one of the recliners.

      “So-”     

      “Are-”

      They both started to speak at the same time, and laughed for a moment.

      “You first,” Deacon prompted.

      “I was going to ask if your friends and girlfriend are Snapping you pictures and updates about the festival and rodeo - to keep you in the loop?” God, she hoped that didn’t sound obvious.

      “I don’t have a girlfriend, but my friends are snapping me a ton of stuff. Are you on Snapchat?”     

      “Yeah.”

      “Can I add you? In case I have questions about local stuff like stores and restaurants? We just got here and we don’t know anyone.”

      "Sure ... here you go.” She leaned over and showed him her profile, and he added her username to his friends list.       

      Outside, Jamie and the Calhouns had walked over to the edge of the cleared area, and the brothers were pointing out some of the finer details of the stables and horse trail. Jamie had several questions, and they discussed everything in detail.

      Jamie noticed Ella walk across to the table and examine the printouts. His eyes drifted over to the break-room trailer, and he wondered when Beth would emerge. Beau noticed that Jamie had become a little distracted as they spoke - his eyes darting to the trailer every now and again.

      “Jamie … uh … I can see that you're concerned about one of the girls being in the trailer with Deacon. I want to assure you that he’s a real good kid. Not just because he’s my nephew, he is genuinely a great kid. Respectful and kind. He’s never had a girlfriend and he’s not one to mess around with girls like a lot of boys his age.”

      Colton added, “He’s way too into his studies. Determined to nail that 4.0 and get into a good college.”

      “But just to set some boundaries and expectations, I’ll talk to him tonight,” Beau added. “I don’t care if he’s 17, he’ll get the first ass whooping of his life if he said anything disrespectful to your girls. I can’t imagine that he has, but please know that we’re on it.”

      Jamie chuckled. “Thank you for the reassurance. I’m sure an ‘ass whooping’ won’t be necessary.”

      They heard distant laughter, and Deacon emerged from the trailer. He turned and held a hand out to help Beth down the narrow trailer steps. Jamie's eyebrow quirked a fraction at that. He'd also noticed that Deacon called him 'sir'.

      “It’s probably time for us to head back anyway,” Jamie said. “We’ll come by tomorrow after the trucks and equipment have stopped for the day.”

      They said their goodbyes, and in his peripheral vision, Jamie spied Beth turning around and smiling at Deacon, who was leaning up against the trailer, smiling back at her. 

             

      Armando arrived for dinner still bristling with two-day old anger at TMZ for causing so much pain and worry for his friend. His feelings were tempered by the excitement of finally meeting Jamie Fraser in person and seeing first-hand the intensity of the love between him and Claire.

      Claire was looking forward to seeing Armando, and hastened to pull open the front door, with Jamie just a few steps behind her. Armando wrapped her in a tight hug and held her for a long time. Jamie waited patiently, his heart warmed by the genuine affection between them. Eventually, they pulled apart, and Claire introduced them.

      “Jamie, this is my dear, dear friend Armando. ‘Mando, meet the man who owns my body, heart and soul.”

      “Whoa - quite the intro there, hon! Jamie, I’m so pleased to meet you.”

      He extended his hand, but Jamie gave him a bro hug instead. “Anyone who loves Claire as much as you do is family to me. It’s good to meet you at last, Armando.”

      

      They enjoyed a patio dinner, and the delicious meal was marked by relaxed, comfortable banter, punctuated by frequent belly laughs from all of them. Jamie and Armando traded Hollywood stories and the girls sat wide-eyed in disbelief at some of the ridiculous celebrity dressing room requests ‘Mando had heard about over the years. He showed them pictures of dressing rooms his stylist friends in LA had shared with him, showcasing some of the crazier requests.

      “Oh my God, who wanted a bison head on the wall?”

      “Who is going to drink their way through six cases of Evian water?”     

      The girls excused themselves after dessert, freeing the adults to speak more openly without adding to their concerns for their mom.

      “Hon, I need to know that you’re doing okay.” He looked directly at Claire, and she knew she couldn't fob him off with ‘everything’s okay’. 

      “It’s been tough, ’Mando, and I would not have coped without Jamie.” She reached for Jamie’s hand, and played distractedly with his long fingers as she continued, “It’s all the humiliation of PILF, but with the added stress of a high-profile promotion that has gone very public, thanks to the Seattle Times article and now TMZ.” 

      “I remember how godawful PILF was for you! How are the girls doing?”

      “They’ve been amazing. We tell them everything so they can be prepared for whatever social media drama that comes their way. We aren’t aware of any snark or bullying yet. I know that if I don’t get the professorship, they will be completely crushed. They were in tears over that on Tuesday night. That sent Jamie over the edge, and he almost went public with our relationship.”

       “I’ve thought about that, actually,” Armando remarked. “Right now, you have this two-pronged problem - Anja and her craziness, and the PILF thing. Going public would take care of Anja, at least.”

       Jamie replied. “We talked about that a lot. Going public will bring a surge of attention to Claire, and that will exacerbate things with Fulton. I'm respecting her wishes on that, but truly, I canna wait to have it out there.” He raised her hand and kissed it gently.

      Armando almost squeed at how tender and loving Jamie was with Claire, but he held it together and replied, “Yeah - that makes sense. How confident are you, Claire, going into tomorrow’s meeting?”

      “It’s going to be an uphill climb , but I’m confident in Joe’s ability to speak convincingly in my favor. They were hit hard by accusations of sexism last time and won't want more of that now.”

      “If you don’t get it, ‘I Stand With Doc B’ will come back with a vengeance,” Armando said with conviction. 

      “And that will be lovely, but it will be in vain. It will be too late to do anything by then.”

      They chatted for a while longer about more pleasant topics like the new house plans, Calypso, and the work that had just started on the property. Claire relaxed visibly in the quiet, loving support from Jamie and Armando. She appreciated that 'Mando didn’t inundate her with questions, instinctively knowing that she would share what was comfortable for her. Jamie noted and appreciated that too. Having to face and answer the same questions repeatedly would add to her stress and wear her down. 

      Armando left earlier than he normally would, reminding Claire to get an early night. Before he left, Jamie asked him if they could trade cell numbers.

      “I might need to call you in the next day or two to ask for a referral for a reliable hair stylist and MUA in LA.”

      “Sure,” Armando said, "I still have lots of connections in the industry."

 

      “He’s a great friend to you, Claire,” Jamie remarked as they waved him off at the front door. “He intuitively knows how much to ask you and when to ask you. More importantly, he knows when not to ask questions and just let you talk.” 

      They moved naturally into each other’s arms as they spoke on the front steps. 

      “Yes, he is. I appreciate him so much. Are you ready to jump in the hot tub?”

      “Are you up for that, or do you need an early night?”

      “What I need is for you to wrap those strong arms around me and hold me tight. I need you to play with my hair, and nuzzle your scruff in all the parts of my neck and chest that … you know ...” She raised an eyebrow at him.

     “Make ye squirm and writhe?” He raised an eyebrow back at her, and they locked eyes.

      “I’ll wear the blue swimsuit.”

      “I’ll be waiting."  

 

      Minutes later, they were floating lazily side by side in the hot tub, allowing the stresses of the previous few days to seep out of them. Steam wafted from the surface of the water into the cool night air, and the tranquil silence of their peaceful neighborhood descended over them.

      “Claire?”

      “Mmmm?”

      “I haven't told you about the Superman announcement yet.”

      “I know! I’ve been dying to hear about it, but we’ve been so busy all afternoon. Did you finally learn the name of your co-star?”

      “No, but that’s a whole long story in itself. I’ll give you the whole event run-down tomorrow. DC/Panther asked if you wanted to attend the event as a VIP guest.”

      “Oh that’s really sweet and thoughtful. Not sure I can pull it off though - it’s so close to Fulton’s announcement. I’m not in the right headspace.”

      “Aye, that's what I feared. Also, there’ll be a red carpet, and they’ll inevitably capture pictures of you. I know you don't want those out there.”

      “You’re right, Jamie. Even though the Superman event is after the vote and won't affect the outcome, it will send the wrong message if I’m partying it up in Hollywood while Fulton is fighting all this negative media attention. I need to lie low for a few weeks. I’m sorry, my love.”

      “Don’t be sorry. It won’t be too long before you can attend a red carpet event with me and I can walk it proudly, holding yer wee hand in mine.” He interlaced his fingers with hers, and she sighed a long, deep sigh.

      “Do ye think the twins might want to come? There are some music performances that they’ll really enjoy.”

      “Are you serious?” She sat up and looked at him in disbelief.

      “Mmhmmm. I asked DC/Panther if the girls could come if you declined, and they said yes. The girls would fly there and back on the jet with me, and they’ll appoint a couple of PR people to be their guides and chaperones while I’m doing pictures and rehearsals. They can walk the red carpet, go to all the VIP areas, meet the music artists, and get swag bags. Panther will book them a hotel room next to mine.”

      “Oh my God, the girls would love that! What an amazing opportunity! They don't have anything red-carpet appropriate to wear, though.”

      “I can take them to Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom tomorrow - or wherever you want me to take them. It’ll keep their minds off worrying about your meeting too. I’ll call Armando and ask for a hair stylist and MUA referral so they can get all gussied up. I want a personal recommendation from him for someone reliable who'll do a good job.”

      “Thanks for always looking out for the girls, my love. I’ll have to run it past Frank, of course. Not sure how he will take it.”

      “Is he aware of the TMZ situation?”

      “I don’t think so. He’s in his own little bubble where all that matters is his academic reputation and getting kudos for his research. I think Kelly would have reached out if they were aware. Nonna didn’t know, so it’s probably not hitting mainstream media there. It seems to be more of a big deal on the West Coast, where everyone is more celebrity focused.”

      “I hope Frank doesn’t object. It would be an unforgettable event for them.”

      “I’ll call him first thing in the morning. The girls don’t have practice tomorrow, so they can spend as much time as they need to find dresses. The only problem is that I’ll be too busy to vet their dress choices. So it's on you.” She giggled at the thought of Jamie trying to help the girls figure out their dresses.

       “Och, Claire, I’m hopeless with stuff like that. I’ll probably say yes to whatever they choose, but you might think it’s too low, or too high or something.”

      “They’re generally pretty good about picking things that are age appropriate. Have them text pictures to Armando. He’d be happy to help.”

      “I’ll remind them. Did the girls say anything about the visit to the property?”

      “No. How did it go?”

      “Great, actually. When things are quieter over the weekend, I’ll walk over there with you and show you what they’ve done, and what’s happening over the next week or two.”

      Jamie almost told Claire about the little flirtation he’d noticed between Beth and Deacon, but decided to delay that until the next afternoon, after the meeting and Board vote were behind her. 

      “I'm still in shock that the girls get to go on this amazing adventure with you to Hollywood. They won't be able to sleep between now and then."

       "I’m already looking forward to having my girls there with me."

      "I don't even know how to thank you, my love."

      "I can think of some ways ... come lie here on me."

      "Uhhh ... last time I did that - "

      "Was this morning. And it ended quite well, as I recall. Come here so I can kiss ye."

      He tugged her hand and she drifted over to him. He promptly claimed her butt in both hands, the cut of her swimsuit allowing him direct access to her soft, firm flesh. 

      “I thought you wanted to kiss me, not grab my ass. That’s a total honey-trap. You should be ashamed.”

      “Babe, you come with quite a benefits package. I may as well avail myself of all the perks.”

      His fingers ventured beneath the fabric of her swimsuit, and delved gently between her legs. 

      “Speaking of honey …”

      “I’m waiting for that kiss you promised me.”

      He took her mouth in a prolonged and passionate kiss that left her tingling all the way to her core; and while his tongue explored the warm recesses of her mouth, his fingers teased their way between her legs and into her folds.  

      Her hips pressed into his, and he knew that an early night was no longer an option.

     “Claire, I want you so much,” he murmured against her lips, “but you needed an early night.” 

      “I need you more,” she murmured back, teasing him with her slow, rolling hip movements.

      “Mmmm ..." His moan reverberated sensuously against her throat as he kissed his way down her neck. "And you call me insatiable ...”

      “You have only yourself to blame. You can’t go all warrior on me, and expect me not to want to make love to you.”

      “Are we okay to ...?

      “Their bedroom lights are out and we’re surrounded by trees.”

      Her fingers were already working the drawstring at his waistband.