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Conversations in the Dark

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      By the time Jamie and Claire returned from their visit to the Santa Monica Pier, Claire had just a half hour before her red carpet teams descended. She needed full hair and makeup and required more prep time than Jamie. Her glam squad would be there a full hour before Jamie’s team. He used that time to squeeze in a workout in the hotel gym. The butler blocked gym usage at that time, and Jamie had the entire facility to himself. 

      Claire showered and wrapped herself in her robe before giving herself over to the expertise of Armando’s colleagues, Gemma and Rae, in the secondary suite. They took great delight in telling Claire that they had done hair and makeup for Beth and Ella during the cast reveal.

      “I can’t thank you enough for being a part of their first Hollywood experience. They spoke so highly of you when they got back.”

      Claire took a selfie with them and sent it to the girls right away, and the girls replied with a selfie and sweet message for Gemma and Rae.

      While Gemma started to work on Claire’s hair, Rae set out her makeup at the dressing table. Security admitted the Prada fitters, who arrived with a small rolling garment rail, garment bag and the lockable case with the De Beers jewels. The fitters immediately set to work with a final steaming, then stood aside as Gemma and Rae put the finishing touches to their handiwork. 

      Gemma had dried Claire’s hair straight and coiled it into a smooth, twisted chignon, low on the neck, revealing Claire’s toned shoulders and décolleté.

      Because her dress was quite toned down and devoid of glittery embellishments and color, Gemma suggested going for added intensity in her makeup. She applied a dramatic smokey eye and added subtle shimmer to enhance Claire’s already striking amber eyes. Layers of Thrive mascara added volume and length, and a deep red Dior lip color finished her look to perfection.  

      Claire silently thanked Armando for recommending Gemma and Rae. She felt completely relaxed and comfortable in their capable hands, and the three of them shared some belly laughs as they recounted a litany of hilarious Armando stories from his Hollywood years. 

      “Give me all the dirt, girls. I’m going to get so much mileage from these stories when I get home. Tony and I will rip poor Mando in the worst way. Of course, Jamie and the girls will come to his rescue.”

      By the time they finished working their magic, Claire was thrilled with her look. She felt and looked beautiful and glamorous without being horribly over-done. It was one of the few times she didn't feel the need to rush off and re-apply her makeup or tweak her hair after having it professionally done for a formal event. She thanked them both profusely, and tipped them generously on Venmo, even though their services had been covered by Millennium.

      They packed up all their items, and just before heading out the door, Gemma reminded Claire that she and Rae would be in the Squad Zone throughout her red carpet walk. 

      “If you need anything, just make eye contact with us and we’ll be ready for you. Lipstick, powder, hair tuck - whatever you need. We’ll follow you and Jamie inside, and if necessary we can make a whistle stop visit to the restroom so we can touch up any time during the evening.”

      “You’re ready for your gown now,” Rae said, as she tugged her rolling makeup case, and the two fitters stepped forward to take over.

 

      Jamie’s team had been entirely arranged by Millennium, and at his request, they kept the primping to the absolute minimum. His MUA airbrushed a light layer of natural foundation on his face to help even out skin tone and ensure that Jamie wasn't overly shiny under the glare of the camera flashes. As soon as his hair was dried and styled and sprayed into place, he allowed the Saint Laurent team to help him into his shirt and tux. One of them handled the bow tie, while the other smoothed all the seams and rolled a lint roller over it to ensure no unwanted fibers or tiny threads stuck to the fabric. The adjusted jacket fit perfectly, the cut emphasizing the breadth of his shoulders and subtly drawing attention to the bulk of his arms, without looking like he’d been stuffed into his suit. He pulled on the Louboutin loafers and took one last look in the mirror before heading to the living room and helping himself to a San Pellegrino water from a tray of refreshments that the butler had set out earlier.

      Claire’s team had smoothed subtly luminescent body lotion on her upper body and allowed it to dry thoroughly. It would give her soft milky skin a lustrous glow under the harsh lighting. She spritzed on some of the Chanel Nº 5 the girls had gifted her after her promotion to Vice Dean. Not only was it Jamie’s mother’s favorite perfume, it was one of Claire's top three favorites, and it would remind her of her sweet girls and the excitement they were feeling for her right now.

      The fitters helped Claire step into her gown and shoes, with all the tugging and pulling and smoothing that she had come to expect. The moment they fastened the necklace and earrings, Claire felt a frisson of anticipation. She looked at herself critically in the full-length mirror - her hair and makeup were immaculate; her dress was steamed and perfectly smoothed over her curves; her jewels dazzled as they reflected the ambient lights in scintillating little sparkles.

      The worries that had flitted in and out of her thoughts over the preceding weeks collided with each other now. Would she look good enough for a red carpet appearance with Jamie, or would her gown be too much or too little? Would it be too sexy, or not sexy enough? Could she balance the whole experience with her own public persona as a high profile educator and Vice Dean in one of the West Coast’s leading universities? While she had no desire to be objectified as Jamie’s ‘sexy piece of ass’, she also wanted his adoring fans to know that in addition to all the qualities that had attracted him to her - including her intelligence, humor, compassion, philanthropy - she was also stunning and desirable.

      She needn’t have worried. She looked breathtakingly beautiful and couldn't wait to see Jamie's reaction to her look. He had texted to let her know that he was waiting in the living room. She thanked her fitters, saw them to the door, and made a quick stop in the primary bedroom area before joining Jamie.

      He was standing at the window looking out over the L.A. skyline and turned around the moment he heard her heels clicking across the floor. She slowed down as they saw each other across the room. His jaw dropped slightly, and a low whistle escaped him as he held his hand out to her.

       “Jesus, Claire!” he said, his voice a low rumble. “You just took my breath away. You are always beautiful, ye ken, but tonight you are absolutely stunning. Your dress is perfect. I love how the neckline makes yer wee boobs peek out a little here,” he traced a finger slowly along the contour of her sweetheart neckline. “Your skin is so soft. And just a wee bit sparkly.” 

      He trailed his fingers up towards her neck. “The diamonds look killer on you.” Lifting the necklace with his fingertip, he pressed light kisses along her collarbone. “And you smell quite delicious too. Turn around for me, babe.”

      She did a slow 360 for him.

      “Ah yes,” he smiled, as she turned to face him again, “I definitely love how the dress hugs this sweet arse.” He reached behind her and placed both hands squarely on her derrière, pulling her a little closer. 

      “And most of all, I love how these flowy bits float around your legs.” He brushed a hand over the drapes on either side of the split. “I love that the split is high enough for me to do this …” He slipped his hand through the split and dragged his fingers up the smooth skin of her thigh, pausing and narrowing his eyes slightly. “Is tonight an official date night?” 

      “It’s more of a work night, really, isn't it?” she replied, and he scrunched his nose a little in disappointment. 

      “I can’t take that risk, Jamie. Not with so many photographers around.”

      “I know, babe. But I can’t help wishing-”

      She placed a finger on his lips and whispered, “Why don't you let your fingers continue their little journey ...”

      He quirked an eyebrow and did as she suggested, his eyes widening a little when his hand stopped between her thighs. One of his low grunts rumbled deep in his chest.

      “Is this one of the pearl thongs we bought yesterday?” he murmured.

      “It sure is. I slipped it on in our bedroom after the Prada ladies left. Couldn't exactly rock the pearl thong while they were dressing me,” she giggled.

      “Is that going to get uncomfortable?” he asked, as he ran his forefinger lightly over the strand of tiny pearls that ran through her slit and held the fabric of her panties together. “It’s right up against your-”

      “I know exactly what it’s up against,” she smirked.

      “Oh my God. I’ll not be able to get that thought out of my head. I’m already imagining those pearls pressing on your own wee pearl all night. Please God, don’t let me get a big old boner right there on the red carpet.”

      “Do you want me to change panties?” she asked, suddenly serious.

      “Hell no. That’s the last thing I want. I’ll be fine. There’ll be so much going on, and they’re keeping me apart from you for most of the red carpet walk. That’ll help keep my junk under control.” He smiled his crooked half smile at her. “It’s going to be a challenge though. I can't get enough of how gorgeous you are.”

      “You look pretty hot too,” she smiled as she stood back and allowed her eyes to drift slowly over him from head to toe. “If it wasn't for the fact that we’re lipsticked and powdered, I’d be kissing you quite passionately. I love how the jacket emphasizes these shoulders of yours.”

      She pressed her fingers into his shoulders and slid her hands down to his biceps. 

      “It’s a good fit isn't it? They did a great job with the jacket - it hints at the size and power of your buff body. I love that I’m the one who gets to enjoy it every night.”

      She slid her hands the rest of the way down his arms and he captured her fingers in his hands, tugging her closer to him.

      “Me too, babe,” he nuzzled the curve between her neck and her shoulder, carefully avoiding her hair and makeup. “And I love that I have you by my side tonight.”

      In the dozens of Hollywood events he’d attended over the years, he always felt like he was merely fulfilling his duties. He was contractually bound by studios or networks to attend certain events to promote a show or a film. They were a valuable source of visibility and exposure, and Tara and his PR team had insisted that he attend awards shows, premieres, fashion shows, Comic Cons and similar elite events to maintain his high profile and A-list status. While he was dating Natalie, the events he attended were marginally tolerable. As actors, they both understood the importance of fulfilling their contractual obligations, and they did so effectively. But after they split, studio PR execs saw the benefit of linking Jamie Fraser with targeted young starlets, or actresses whose profile needed a boost for an upcoming project. He was ‘persuaded’ to attend a slew of events with young women he didn’t know. It was uncomfortable and awkward, and Jamie grew to resent the events more than he cared to admit.

      Tonight felt so different. It felt special and personal and exhilarating. To have the person he loved most in the world beside him, and to feel her love and pride for him, elevated this from an event he would otherwise have attended perfunctorily, to a special occasion that he wanted to savor and enjoy with Claire. One that they would always remember and cherish.

 

      The phone in the living room rang and Jamie answered it promptly. He responded with a “yes" or two, an “okay” and a “thank you for letting us know”, and hung up.

      “It was the butler letting us know that our red carpet posing experts are about ten minutes out. Let’s FaceTime the girls and Nonna while we have a few minutes. They really want to see our red carpet looks and we can’t do it justice from inside the limo.”

      They had exchanged a few brief texts with Nonna and the twins over the course of the morning, but schedule conflicts between the girls’ online classes and Claire and Jamie’s meetings had precluded them from chatting over FaceTime. 

      “Yes! Let’s do it,” Claire agreed. “They are dying for all the scoop about Elevate and Rami Malek - and everything else.”

      “All the tea, as they’d say,” Jamie chuckled as he initiated the call.

      Beth answered the call within a couple of rings. “Whoa! Are you guys ready for the premiere? Nonna! Ella! It’s Mom and Jamie - they’re ready for the red carpet.” 

      Jamie and Claire watched the ceiling of the hallway and kitchen rush by on Jamie’s phone as Beth hastened to the kitchen. She propped her phone up on the island and Nonna and Ella gathered around with her. 

      “Oh my God, we’ve been dying to see what you guys look like!”

      “But before you show us your whole look, we need to know what happened with Rami Malek. How did you guys get that picture?” 

      The girls leaned forward and took in every word as Jamie and Claire retraced their steps through their night on the town in Hollywood, and how they met Rami at Elevate. 

      “I mean, I have no idea who Jack Nicholas is -”

      “Nicholson,” Claire corrected Beth.

      “But if Rami Malek thinks he's cool, then he must be pretty awesome!”

      “Oh, he is, leannans. We’ll watch some of his movies over the next few months. You’ll understand why he can pull off that level of swagger.”

      “Even I know who he is, amori. He’s a phenomenon.”

      “Jamie and Nonna are right, girls. He’s a Hollywood legend, and I was so honored to meet him.”

      “That’s awesome, Mom. It’s like when we met Khalid and Harry Styles at the cast announcement.”

      “You could say that, Ella,” Claire grinned. 

      “I love your hair and makeup Mom!”

      “Hold on, lasses, I’ll step back from yer Mam so you can see her dress. You won’t believe how stunning she looks until you see the full effect. Babe, walk towards me so they can see how the dress flows around you when you walk.”

      Claire walked to the far end of the living room, and turned to walk towards Jamie. She and Jamie heard the three simultaneous gasps and chuckled.

      “Oh my God, Mom!”

      Claire stopped and put on some exaggerated red carpet poses, turning sideways and to the rear, and blowing them kisses over her shoulder.

      “Wow, Mom! You could still model, you know? You look ah-mazing!”

       “Cara,” Nonna blinked away an unexpected wave of tearfulness. “Cara, you look so happy and excited! I don’t remember the last time I saw you so … so ... vivace!” 

      “Thank you. I’m so happy to be here with Jamie. Miss you guys, of course, but it’s been so much fun to explore some of Jamie’s favorite places.”

      “Jamie, amore, thank you for taking such good care of my Claire. She looks so beautiful. Bellissima!”

      “Aye, she does. She’s going to own tonight, that’s for sure.”

      Beth and Ella shared their twin look - they had totally predicted Jamie’s starry-eyed reaction to Claire’s gown and red carpet look.

      “Thank you for taking care of our girls, Nonna,'' he continued. “We wouldn't have been able to enjoy this as much if they weren't in your loving care.”

       “I echo that, Nonna. Thank you so much - and thanks for all the compliments. I feel really good about my choices. Did you see my shoes? They’re Prada too. Black satin with crystals.”

      Jamie panned the phone down her body and zoomed in on Claire’s feet.

      “I love them, Mom!”

      “Me too. I had so many great shoe choices from Millennium’s glam team too. I’ll take a pic of them tomorrow morning - all their stuff is still in the suite. I’m going to take the phone from Jamie now so you can see how handsome he looks in his Saint Laurent tux.”

      Claire took Jamie’s phone. “Walk towards me like I just did.”

      Jamie walked to the same spot Claire had started from just minutes earlier. 

      “Jamie, that’s awesome! Even better than the one you wore at the cast announcement,” Beth commented.

      “Yeah, I really like the cut of the jacket. Walk towards Mom.”  

      Jamie did an over-the-top rendition of a catwalk model as he strutted towards Claire, finishing off with a flourish as he held heart hands up for the camera.

      All four women burst into delighted giggles.

      “Oh yeah, someone's watched too many Victoria's Secret fashion shows,” Claire teased. “That’s a whole lot of bluster. We need to get you some wings!” 

      He chuckled and drew Claire into his arms as she held up the phone.

      “Here we go - schmoop alert!” Ella groaned playfully.

      “No time for schmoop right now,” Claire pointed out. “Millennium sent two red carpet experts to give us pointers for posing as a couple. They’re due any minute, so we’ll have to say goodbye for now. But we’ll call you tomorrow - probably late morning.”

      Nonna and the girls wished them a fun evening and they said goodbye with their customary avalanche of kisses.

      Claire and Jamie took full length pictures of each other and a joint selfie, and texted them to Jenny. It was the middle of the night in Scotland, but she’d be excited to see the pictures of Claire’s first red carpet event as soon as she woke up. Jamie knew she’d scour the tabloids for coverage of the event and she’d get a kick out of getting a private preview directly from him and Claire before seeing all the press and social media updates.

 

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



      Twenty minutes later, Claire and Jamie were stepping out of the elevator, escorted by Avi and Eli and a large contingent of hotel security. Across the vast lobby, every head turned. Eyes widened and jaws dropped as guests and staff stopped what they were doing to watch Jamie Fraser guide his glamorous fiancée to the waiting limo. Security kept them at bay, but many ran forward, phones already recording video or snapping stills of the smiling, relaxed couple as they made their way across the black and white marble floors. Photographers had gathered outside the entrance to the hotel, and Avi and Eli rushed Jamie and Claire to the limo as camera flashes exploded wildly around them.

      The buzz around the premiere had escalated sharply after Jamie and Claire’s picture outside Mastro's trended on social media. Crowds of fans, starved of glitzy Hollywood events during the pandemic, descended on the roads around the Beverly Hilton, the highly publicized location of the premiere, in hopes of snagging that elusive autograph or selfie with Jamie Fraser.

      As the stretch limo rounded the corner within sight of the red carpet area, its progress slowed to a crawl. Pedestrians spilled from the sidewalks onto the street, all moving towards the barricaded Fan Zone opposite the red carpet. Several police cruisers with flashing lights were parked at haphazard angles, as traffic officers abandoned all hopes of maintaining traffic flow, and focused on keeping the pedestrians safe. 

      Many of the VIP guests had already arrived at the event, and a TV screen in the back of the limo showed live coverage of the scene on the red carpet. Claire slipped her hand in Jamie’s and took a deep breath.

      “You okay, Claire?” he asked. “Not nervous, right? You’ve nothing to be nervous about."

      “I’m okay, my love. Geillis’ reminders are still fresh in my mind.” She ran through the most important ones, counting them off on her fingers. “Wait for you to exit the car and greet fans, step out and wave with you, pose in Pap Zone while you cross the street to Fan Zone, wait for you in the Plus-One Zone while you’re in the Live Interview Zone, touch-ups in Squad Zone if needed.”

      “Sounds spot on. You’re going to blow them away tonight, babe. I’m so excited to stand there with you. I can’t remember being this pumped about a premiere, and it’s because I have you by my side, ye ken.”

      “I’ve been looking forward to this, Jamie. I can hardly believe your big night is already here! I’m so proud of you.” She smiled softly and tapped her mouth lightly before pressing her fingertips to his lips. “Don’t want to risk getting lipstick on you. Social media would be commenting on that for sure!”

      "Jamie Fraser's lipstick stains would trend all day tomorrow!" he chuckled.

     The limo drew to a stop and event security and the additional former military operatives hired by Millennium surrounded the vehicle within seconds. Avi and Eli jumped out first and hurried to the ballroom, per Geillis’ security plan. Camera operators from the TV networks moved towards the car, held back by the human cordon created by event security. 

      Cal, Simon, and Tara were a few steps away, and they nodded their greetings at Jamie as he emerged from the car. A roar arose from the Fan Zone across the street, and he stood and waved, scanning the breadth of the designated fan area, his movie star smile dazzling them as they captured stills and video on their phones. Tiny cell phone flashes merged with powerful bursts from the photographers’ professional cameras, and the flickering lights illuminated Jamie as Claire watched and waited for her cue to exit the limo. One of Geillis’ PR interns was a few steps from Jamie, dressed as Geillis had described, in black and grey. She made eye contact with Claire and nodded, then moved forward and said something to Jamie. 

      He waved one more time to the crowd gathered in the Fan Zone before stepping towards the door of the limo and leaning in. “You ready, babe?” he smiled.

      Jamie took Claire's Judith Leiber clutch from her and held her hand as she unfurled herself elegantly from the limo. She smoothed her gown and its ruffles with a few brushes of her hands, before reclaiming her purse with a brilliant smile. Social media posts would later gush over the way ‘thoughtful and doting fiancé, Jamie Fraser’ held her purse, enabling her to emerge from the car without having to fuss with it. Others would comment on the smiles they exchanged, and the obvious ‘heart eyes’ they had for each other. 

      There were negative posts, of course, mostly from ardent Fraser fans who were incomprehensibly incensed that he would dare to fall in love. Their social media rants were quickly shot down by the army of fans who heartily approved of Jamie and Claire, and were significantly in the majority. They launched a profusion of gushing posts to drown out the negativity - undoubtedly influenced by Jamie’s obvious and unapologetic devotion to his fiancée.

      Claire took her place next to Jamie, standing shoulder to shoulder with him as they faced the Fan Zone. Another roar went up, followed by piercing whistles and cheers and slowly escalating chants of “Ja-mie! Ja-mie! Ja-mie!”

      He waved even more energetically, and muddled chants followed, hard to discern initially from behind the face masks, until Jamie realized what they were chanting. 

      “Where’s her ring? Where’s her ring? Where’s her ring?”

      He glanced at Cal, who nodded slightly and Jamie leaned into Claire to say something close to her ear. The crowd responded with a fresh wave of cheers and whistles.

      “They want to see your ring, babe. I know they’re a good distance away, but I’ll hold yer hand up anyway.”

      She grinned at him, and he held up her left hand, pointing at the sparkling ring on her finger before bringing her hand to his lips and kissing it tenderly.

      Cheers erupted from the fans, and the paparazzi and photographers went crazy, raising cameras over each other’s heads to try and capture Jamie’s impromptu and unchoreographed little love fest. Fraser was not one to pander to red carpet requests, and the photographers were thrilled to see his exuberant display of affection towards his fiancée. Unlike the fans, who ‘awwww’ed audibly across the street, the photographers’ delight was motivated by the knowledge that a good candid image of this moment would fetch a decent payout from the picture agencies. 

      One of Geillis’ PR interns placed her hand under Jamie’s elbow - a reminder that he needed to start the red carpet process and get the evening officially started.

 

      The intern guided Jamie and Claire, still hand in hand, to the start of the Pap Zone. They were closely followed by Cal and Tara, while Simon made his way to the Live Interview Zone at the far end of the red carpet to line up Jamie’s interviews and provide reminders of some key talking points to a few of his most trusted entertainment show presenters. 

      The photographers were all behind the cordoned off area, and as soon as Jamie and Claire took up their poses, a blinding series of flashes began, amid a cacophony of camera sounds and shouts from the photographers, all hoping to get the ‘money shot’.

      “Jamie, look this way.”

      “Claire, you too!”

      “Claire, Claire! Can you move your hand? We want to see the ring.”

      “Both of you - this way, please.”

      As they had practiced in their suite earlier, they wrapped an arm around each other's waists and angled their bodies slightly, connected from shoulder to hip. They worked the photographer zone, walking slowly hand in hand and stopping every few yards to pose, pan, and scan. Jamie couldn't hide his pride in walking with Claire, grinning widely and repeatedly leaning in close to her ear to reassure her.

      “You’re doing great, babe.”

      “They love you!”

      “They’re calling for you more than they are for me.”

      The photographers captured all those sweet and tender candid moments in addition to the practiced poses. Claire and Jamie continued to walk the breadth of the Pap Zone, trying to make eye contact with as many of the photographers as they could.

      As they neared the far end of the Pap Zone, Jamie leaned in close to her ear again.

      “How are those wee pearls doing?”

      Claire broke into a flirty little smile and edged closer to Jamie. “They’re awesome. But I’m kinda nervous about the strand breaking and releasing a cascade of pearls all over the red carpet.”

      He looked at her, startled, and she burst out laughing.

      “I’m kidding, my love. I checked, and the strand is knotted between each pearl. They won’t roll off the string.”

      He smiled and pulled her close, pressing a kiss to her temple, almost oblivious to the Pap Zone until a significant uptick in the clicking and flashing of the cameras drew his attention back to the photographers. 

 

      When they had completed a full walk from one end of the pack of photographers to the other, Cal and Tara approached Jamie to guide him across the road to the Fan Zone. He reached for Claire’s hand and drew her closer, kissing her lips softly. A renewed surge of camera noises and flashes ensued as photographers scrambled to capture the best shot of the tender red carpet kiss that would trend hotly overnight and well into the next day. Jamie released Claire into the care of a Millennium intern, who took Claire by the elbow and guided her to a spot where she repeated the whole pan and scan process for her solo pictures. 

      Her long-ago model training more than prepared her for all the posing, and she did so with the confidence and knowledge that she looked her best. She changed poses a few times, turned sideways and to the rear, as prompted by the photographers, and made eye contact with as many of them as she could. The intern took her glittery clutch after a few minutes, allowing Claire to pose without it and provide photographers with more opportunities for the big money pictures.

 

      All the while, across the road, excited fans focused on Jamie, who was mere inches or feet from them. 

      The shouts of frenzied fans drifted across the street.

      “Jamie! We love youuuuuuuu!” 

      “Jamie, I sketched this for you.”

      “Can I have a hug, Jamie?”

      “Jamie, I made us matching t-shirts.”

      “Looking hot, Jamie.” 

      Claire ignored them all and focused on the photographers who were shouting questions of their own at her.

      “Who are you wearing, Claire?”

      “Do you go by Professor or Dr.?”

      “Have you met Anja?”

      “When’s the wedding, Claire?”

      “How did Jamie propose?”

      “Was it a romantic proposal, Prof?”

      “How big’s that diamond, Claire?”

      Claire kept on smiling and moving her head, focusing on a different photographer every few seconds. She caught wind of Millennium's PR team answering most of the questions on her behalf. Many of the questions focused on her gown and the design house behind it.

      Jamie had briefed Geillis a couple of weeks earlier about Prada’s generous offer of a donation to Msimu in return for Claire agreeing to wear one of their gowns. As soon as she learned that Claire had opted for the Prada gown the previous evening, Geillis asked Millennium’s Corporate Communications team to draft sample responses for her PR interns and reps to memorize so they could adeptly and accurately answer questions about Claire's gown. While Geillis was perfectly okay with ensuring that Jamie and Claire got some much needed exposure for their fledgling foundation, she also knew that getting the word out there about Jamie's philanthropy would raise his profile amongst the socially and politically conscious members of the Academy. 

      When Claire finally reached the far end of the Pap Zone, she looked for an intern, and allowed herself to be escorted past the waiting interviewers to the Plus-One Zone behind the large posters.

      A young man stepped forward and introduced himself to Claire.

      “Hi Dr. Beauchamp, I’m Lucas, and I’m here to keep you company in the Plus-One Zone, and to help you in any way you need.”

      “Hi Lucas. Please call me Claire. Geillis mentioned that you’d be here. Thank you so much.”

      She glanced around her at the small group of plus-ones, but didn’t recognize anyone. 

      “A lot of the VIPs have already walked the red carpet and headed into the ballroom,” Lucas explained. He lowered his voice. “Red dress is Jake Gyllenhaal’s plus-one; guy with hella beard, kinda looks like Willie Nelson ... that’s Jen Aniston’s date. Yoga guru. Their other halves are about to start their solo walk on the red carpet.”

      Claire nodded and looked around her again. Smaller clusters of guests chatted together near the entrance to the hotel. She glanced at the decent-sized crowd in the Squad Zone, where personal assistants, MUAs, hair and wardrobe stylists, and PR reps waited patiently.

      “How many VIPs behind Jamie?” Claire asked. “I thought we’d be pretty close to the last ones to arrive.”

      “Yeah, we thought so too, but we got a ton more fans than we expected and roads were backed up. That affected traffic quite a lot.” He glanced at his phone and scrolled through what Claire assumed was a group thread to keep the PR team updated. “So, it looks like we still have at least 15 to 20 more A-listers waiting to walk the red carpet. Can I get you anything while we wait for Jamie?”

      “Do you have access to water? I’m parched.”

      “I’ll hunt some down for you. BRB!”

      Claire turned her gaze to the red carpet, where Jamie was approaching the end of his solo session.

      “Jamie, give us a serious face over here please.”

      “Jamie, big smile please.”

      “Jamie, who are you wearing?”

      He fixed a dazzling smile on his face and moved his head slightly every few seconds so that the swath of photographers could capture him from several angles. A minor kerfuffle at the beginning of the red carpet caught Cal’s attention, and he stepped across to say something to Jamie. Jamie nodded, and walked towards the beginning of the red carpet again. It appeared that some of the photographers at that end of the Pap Zone felt Jamie hadn’t given them enough time to capture the shots they wanted. Cal suggested he start the pan and scan over again, with a little less time at each pause. Jamie Fraser was the undisputed star of the night, and it made sense that his PR team wanted to ensure that the photographers captured all the shots they needed. He turned and caught Claire’s eye, winking and waggling his brows at her in silent appreciation for her patience. She blew him a kiss and he started his second tour of the Pap Zone.

      Claire smiled proudly as she watched him work the red carpet. This was his night, and she was thrilled at the outpouring of love and attention from fans and photographers alike. He had earned his reputation as one of Hollywood’s good guys, and tonight was the embodiment of that. 

      She looked for Lucas with her water, but he was nowhere to be seen. Turning her focus to the Squad Zone, she spied Gemma and Rae in the midst of the frenzied group and gave them a thumbs up sign. Rae tapped her lips and mouthed “Touch up.”

      Claire nodded and moved out from behind the privacy of the large posters that shielded the Plus-One Zone. She, Gemma, and Rae would step behind the accordion screens for the touch-up, which would take a minute or two at the most. As she walked the short distance, Claire took in the people gathered in the Squad Zone. They were almost exactly as Geillis had described. Many wore dark clothes, some held small jeweled purses on behalf of their VIPs, while MUAs and hair stylists held mini train cases and larger totes filled with whatever essentials they might need for touch-ups later. All wore lanyards.

      In the clamor and hysteria of the paparazzi’s frenzied attempts to get the best pictures of Jamie, no one noticed the man in a dark grey suit and navy tie squeeze between two stanchions and remove himself from the cordoned-off Pap Zone. He moved quickly to join the group of people in the Squad Zone. He certainly looked the part, carrying a small sequined purse in one hand, and in the other, an iPhone 12 Max. He also wore a lanyard, and no one looked at it long enough to notice that it said Pap Zone Press Pass, rather than Squad Zone. Security was focused on the A-listers gathered at the start of the red carpet, and no one paid any mind to the man who appeared to be just another VIP’s personal assistant. 

      A renewed commotion swept through the Fan Zone and Pap Zone when Idris Elba arrived and joined Jamie on the red carpet. It was a happy reunion marked by bro hugs and laughter as the two men greeted each other warmly. Elba had a powerful and significant cameo in Unauthorized Contact, and the flashes lit up the night again as photographers captured a fresh round of pictures featuring Fraser and Elba together.

      Claire turned her attention to the red carpet, along with almost everyone in the Squad Zone. The joint appearance of two A-listers on the red carpet was noteworthy, and everyone wanted to watch them navigate the Pap Zone.

      Photographers hollered requests at Elba and Jamie, and Claire saw Jamie turn and look briefly towards the Plus-One Zone. The appearance of Idris Elba would add a few minutes to the red carpet, and he was seeking Claire out again to see how she was doing. He frowned slightly when he realized Claire wasn’t there, and she raised a hand to give him a reassuring wave, but amid the melée, he didn’t think to look as far as the Squad Zone. Turning back to the photographers, he put on his celebrity smile again, but a feeling of unease had settled over him. Claire was torn between skipping the lipstick touch-up and going back to the Plus-One Zone in case Jamie sought her out again. 

      “Claire, Claire!” 

      The male voice came from inside the Squad Zone, and she turned toward the sound, hoping it was Lucas with her water. She scanned the area looking for the tall, lanky youngster but didn’t spot him, and for all she knew, there were any number of Claires in the Squad Zone. She focused straight ahead of her, watching Jamie and Idris Elba work the red carpet and the paparazzi like the seasoned pros they were. She was about to turn around and signal to Rae that she was ready for her touch-up when the same insistent voice called out again.  

      “Dr. Beauchamp! Professor Beauchamp … are you relieved that Anja’s not here to spoil your evening with Jamie?”

      She spun around in shock and locked eyes with the man behind the voice.

      He wore a charcoal suit with a navy tie, and he carried a woman’s evening bag in one hand. In the other, he was holding up a phone, and it was evident that he was recording her reaction.

      Claire recognized him immediately from the first TMZ video that linked her and Jamie and Anja. The one in which Anja had called her ‘irrelevant’. She couldn’t remember his name, but she recognized the paparazzo’s distinctive undercut hairstyle and his neat beard. He took a few steps closer to her, and she tried to side step him, but in their eagerness to get a better view of Jamie and Idris Elba, several of the personal assistants and glam squad members had moved forward, and she was surrounded by PAs, PR reps, and MUAs.

      She was effectively trapped in a small cluster of people, and the paparazzo was bearing down. He stopped two feet away from her and eyed her steadily, still recording their entire interaction.

      “Are you okay with me using the PILF nickname with this video when we publish?” he asked, keeping his expression neutral as he waited for her reaction. He spoke loud enough for his voice to carry over the ambient noise, but not enough to attract unwanted interest in their conversation.

      “I mean, you’re looking pretty hot tonight, Vice Dean Beauchamp. Anyone would agree that PILF's the perfect nickname for you.” 

       Claire almost gasped, but forced herself to remain calm. She bristled at his audacity. If it had been any night other than Jamie’s big premiere, she would have given the pap a piece of her mind - maybe even swatted his stupid phone out of his hand. But she had to stay calm, for Jamie’s sake. She no longer had the protection and privacy of the Plus-One Zone, and standing in the Squad Zone put her in full view of the Pap Zone a few yards away. 

      Geillis' words over breakfast echoed in her head. 

      “This premiere means everything. It’s our chance to woo a lot of voters for Oscar noms.”

      “... we need everything to go suuuuuuper smoothly tonight.”

      There was no way she was going to be at the center of another Jamie Fraser scandal when so many Academy voters were in attendance. She also didn’t relish the idea of bringing negative attention to Fulton, and God forbid this asshole in front of her should revive the PILF mess.

      The TMZ pap was just inches from her now, capturing every nuance of her reaction. Her frown gave away her distress, and she turned to look for Jamie. Tara and Cal were approaching him, ready to spirit him away from Elba and move him towards the live interviews. 

      Claire desperately scanned the red carpet area, where she spotted no fewer than five of Geillis’ t-shirt clad PR reps. All of them were hyper focused on what was happening in the Pap Zone. She looked for Lucas again, and thought she caught a distant glimpse of him in the lobby of the hotel - still hunting down that elusive bottle of water. 

      A small shiver of panic rippled through her. She so badly wanted to tell this dreadful man what she thought of him, but common sense prevailed and she held her tongue.

      “C’mon Prof, gimme a smile and a small soundbite and I’ll leave you alone,” the paparazzo persisted.

       “A smile? A soundbite?” she asked, her voice and expression haughty and dismissive. After what he had done and after everything he had put her through, he had the temerity to ask for her cooperation? She didn’t care if she came across as a bougie bitch, she was now close to snapping point.

      “How about you get out of my way so I can find my team?”

      “What team?” he asked, still recording her. “So you’ve hit the big time as Fraser’s fiancée, huh? You have your own team to make you all PILF-worthy?”

      Fuck! He’s not going to drop the PILF thing, is he?

      Claire gritted her teeth and turned to look for Jamie again. Tara glanced back at that exact moment, planning on signaling Claire a heads-up that they would need about ten more minutes in the Live Interview Zone. The arrival of Idris Elba had thrown their timeline off a little, and Tara knew that her ever-doting Jamie would start fretting about leaving Claire in the Plus-One Zone for so long. Her eyes made a futile sweep of the Plus-One Zone, then moved across to the Squad Zone as she tried to locate Claire amongst the clusters of people. They finally made brief eye contact and Tara instantly registered Claire’s look of concern. 

      Her gaze re-focused on the man behind Claire. He was in the Squad Zone - why was he taking a video of Claire? He lowered his phone for a second, and she recognized him at once. 

      Rahim from TMZ.

      “Shit!” she muttered under her breath. She needed to let Jamie know before he turned and saw for himself. His reaction would be swift and decisive, and it would undoubtedly cause a stir. 

      Tara turned to Jamie and beckoned him closer, holding his arm firmly with both hands as he bent down so she could talk near his ear, preventing others from eavesdropping or lip-reading.

       “Jamie, you need to stay calm when I tell you this. Tonight is not the night for drama or scandal.” He frowned, wondering what she was getting at. “Paste that smile back on your face, you’re being photographed.”

      He did as she directed, and waited for her to continue, fake grin plastered to his face.

      “Rahim from TMZ has cornered Claire,” she murmured near his ear and tightened her hands on his arm. “Keep. Smiling. Jamie.”

      Jamie’s jaw muscles went into overdrive and he straightened up and looked across the red carpet. His eyes locked with Claire’s instantly. She looked worried and frazzled, and Rahim was capturing both their reactions now. Jamie’s fake smile wavered for a moment and the muscles in his jaw rippled again as he took a step away from Tara. She held onto his arm tenaciously and looked at him sternly.

      “Do not make a scene. I’ll grab Daniel Dae Kim and distract the group of paps closest to Claire. I’ll also try to alert security. Try to find Cal or Simon - they’re in the Live Interview Zone. Let them handle it. Go now.”

      Tara hurried off to find Daniel Dae Kim, who was chatting with Emma Watson at the start of the red carpet. She took him by the arm and led him towards the paparazzi. Kim had been her client for several years, and he’d just landed a sought-after leading role in a legal drama that was due to start filming in February. She knew the paps would be all over him now that Jamie was no longer on the red carpet. 

 

      Jamie ignored Tara's instructions to seek out Cal and Simon. He reached Claire within seconds and put his arm around her. Leaning close to her ear, he asked urgently, “Are you okay, did he touch you?”

      “He didn’t touch me, but he’s been videoing for a few minutes and throwing PILF comments freely. He knows my entire career progression, and addressed me as Claire, Dr., Professor, and Vice Dean. It's creepy and frightening. Jamie ... Jamie I can’t be on TMZ again.”

      “I’ve got this, babe.” He dropped a quick kiss on her temple and turned her around so that they both stood face-to-face with Rahim. Jamie kept a protective arm around Claire's shoulder and stepped closer to Rahim, who was forced to walk backwards a few steps. The tightly-packed crowd in the Squad Zone prevented him from moving any more, but Jamie had maneuvered him to a spot where they were surrounded by PR reps and not easily visible to the paparazzi. Most of the people around them were too busy craning their necks trying to locate their VIPs, and the rest were checking their phones for social media notifications. 

      “Rahim, I’m going to tell you this one time only,” Jamie spoke low and slow, his diction clear and measured. Claire’s eyes shot up to his face. She had never heard him this resolute and this cold - not even when Dougal verbally attacked her in her own home.

      “Either you delete the footage you took of Claire and me, or I will. Your choice.”

      Rahim stared at him defiantly and continued to video his reaction. He’d been in enough of these situations to be entirely unfazed by celebrity posturing. Besides, this footage was gold. 

       Jamie Fraser about to lose his shit with a pap? Right before Oscar noms? I’m already tasting my bonus.

      Their eyes remained locked. Jamie was a good six inches taller than Rahim, and intimidatingly wider. His right hand squeezed Claire’s shoulder reassuringly, and his left hand moved slowly towards his midriff. Eyes still fixed on Rahim’s, he unbuttoned his tuxedo jacket, and took a step closer.

      Rahim’s eyes dropped to Jamie’s hand and he looked up at him again, startled. 

      Fuck!

      Rahim swallowed hard. Fraser was way bigger in real life - even more so since he’d been working on Superman. The fact that he’d unbuttoned his jacket was a clear indication that Jamie wasn’t bullshitting. There was so much unspoken in that gesture. A challenge ... a threat … and a confirmation that Jamie meant every word he said. 

      The last actor who had unbuttoned his tux jacket for him was Mark Wahlberg three years earlier. Rahim’s beard covered the surgical scar, and his jaw still ached occasionally after that incident. Sweat beaded on his temples and below his nose, and his armpits felt wet and clammy under his suit.

      “Rahim,” Jamie had a fake grin plastered to his face for the benefit of anyone who happened to glance at them, “I will break every one of your ten fingers. And I will enjoy it immensely. I don’t give a fuck who sees me do it.”

      Rahim wondered fleetingly where the nearest bathroom was, and slowly lowered his phone.

      “Show me,” Jamie ordered. He released his hold on Claire, and moved to stand beside Rahim, dropping a casual-looking, but steely arm around his shoulder. Even if Rahim had entertained any hopes of fleeing back to the Pap Zone, he was now imprisoned by Jamie’s heavy arm.

      Jamie’s hand closed firmly around Rahim’s upper arm, and Rahim realized with a sinking feeling that his fleeting idea of squirming out from under Jamie’s arm was no longer an option. 

      Lucas came running up to Claire at that very moment, breathless and panting and holding a bottle of Perrier water in his hand.

      “I’m so sorry! They all think I’m under 21, and I left my wallet upstairs in our prep room, and security wouldn't let me near the bars-”

      His eyes widened when he saw Jamie. Regardless of the fact that he worked for Millennium Entertainment, where actors and A-listers were almost part of the furniture, this was Lucas’ first encounter with Jamie Fraser, and he was completely star-struck.

      Jamie never took his eyes off Rahim, and Lucas picked up on the tension right away. He frowned at Claire, an unspoken question in his eyes.

      “Lucas,” she said urgently, “go to the ballroom and find our security guys. Two big Israeli men, both shaved bald. Their names are Avi and Eli. Tell them we need one of them here. Stat. Now!”

      Lucas bolted, Perrier bottle still in his hand.

      Jamie’s attention hadn’t wavered from Rahim throughout the brief diversion caused by Lucas’ arrival.

      “I’m waiting, Rahim. And I’m not fucking around. Show me the video footage you just took.”

      Rahim clenched his teeth and hesitated for a second. Jamie’s hand slid down a few inches and tightened painfully around Rahim’s bicep. He was in decent shape, but no match for the big Scot, who, with his naturally large build and commitment to working out, was in the best condition of his life.

      Rahim tapped his photo app and selected two videos of Claire and Jamie. He tapped the trash icon.

      “And from the ‘Recently Deleted’ folder too.”

      Rahim obeyed without objection. 

      “Go back to your pictures page.”

      Rahim did as instructed.

      “Start with the most recent one and swipe until I say you can stop.”

      Jamie looked at each picture, checking timestamps as Rahim swiped, and when he got to the images taken just before Jamie and Claire had arrived at the Beverly Hilton, he was finally satisfied that he hadn’t captured any other stills or videos of them. 

      “You can stop. Give me your phone. Smile while you do it.”

      Rahim vacillated again, and Jamie's hand moved another almost imperceptible inch down his arm. It was a reminder that Rahim wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. To add to his woes, security was on its way, making his predicament even worse. 

      Reluctantly, Rahim pasted on a smile, and handed his phone to Jamie, who accepted it with an enthusiastically fake grin. 

      Jamie held the phone up to Rahim’s face, but he turned and looked away to prevent it from unlocking. Jamie’s hand tightened painfully on his bicep.

      “Turn your fucking face and look at your phone. It’s not a suggestion, Rahim.” Jamie’s voice dropped a notch, rumbling close to Rahim’s ear. “Turn yer face here now.”

       Rahim turned grudgingly and allowed his phone to unlock. Jamie angled the phone towards himself, shielding it from Rahim’s view. He deactivated face recognition, then selected the “change passcode” option, tapped in Jenny’s date of birth, confirmed it on the next screen and tested it.

      “What the hell are you doing on my phone?”

      Rahim tried to snatch it, but Jamie raised it a few inches out of reach and glared at him. Dropping his arm, he stayed within inches of Rahim and turned to face him. 

      The men stared each other down for a long moment. Claire shifted uncomfortably and glanced towards the hotel lobby, hoping to see Lucas on his way with either Avi or Eli. She bit her lower lip nervously. 

       Rahim broke first. “Fuck you, Fraser. I’m just trying to earn a living here.”

      “No. They’re trying to earn a living.” Jamie tipped his head in the direction of the photographers in the Pap Zone. “Those men and women take this seriously and want to capture the best possible images they can. They’re officially sanctioned, professional, and do the job they're expected to do without trying to fuck up people’s lives. Look at them, Rahim. I said look at them!”

      Rahim turned to look at the photographers in the Pap Zone.

      “See how a lot of them are squished in there, jockeying for the best possible position and angle? They’re kind of all lumped together as ‘paparazzi’ but a lot of them are much more than paps. They are trained, talented, creative artists who have served apprenticeships under superbly experienced professionals. Some of them have two, even three heavy cameras. The sweat is pouring off them. They take their jobs seriously. Their images are enjoyed, collected, saved and re-distributed on social media by fans everywhere. That’s what drives the industry - fan support and the exposure our fans give us and our movies. The rude and intrusive questions and attempts at stirring up scandal that come from some of the people in the Pap Zone? That’s all from the likes of you. You’re not trying to earn a living, Rahim. Look at you - with your fake ladies’ purse, trying to masquerade as a personal assistant. You’re fake as fuck, and everyone knows it. And the worst of it all is that you’re trying to cash in on a big bonus by dragging my fiancée into whatever drama you can create here. You’re bringing up things from the past that you have no business doing. What you do is unethical and what you did to us this past summer was unconscionable.”

      Jamie let it all sink in for a few moments before moving to Rahim’s side again and placing his heavy, forbidding arm around his shoulder. 

      He thrust Rahim’s phone in his hand. “Here you go. I secured it for you with a new passcode.” 

      Rahim wriggled and shrugged his shoulders a little as he tried to unlock his phone, but Jamie’s arm felt more restrictive than ever. Rahim clenched his teeth as multiple attempts to unlock his phone failed.

      “Screw you, Fraser. What’s the code?”

      “It’s …” Jamie frowned and scratched his chin theatrically. “Damn it all, I’ve forgotten it already. Never mind, Rahim, you can try to figure it out later. Or call Apple Support tomorrow. Shouldn't take more than a few hours of holding and listening to awesome music while you’re on hold.”

      “Don’t be an asshole, Fraser. You know it’ll take forever to get that shit figured out.” Rahim looked over at the photographers again, desperate to join the safety and familiarity of his Pap Zone.

      “You’re right, Rahim. It’s a little mean of me to leave you to figure out the code. Hang on.”

      Relief washed over Rahim as Jamie took the phone out of his hand and unlocked it - holding it up high where Rahim could neither reach it nor see the screen. 

      Jamie tapped on Settings and selected the General option. He scrolled to the bottom of the page with his thumb and selected Reset. He tapped on Erase all content and settings. A new window popped up. Do you want to update your iCloud Backup before erasing? Jamie ignored that option and selected Erase now.

      He held the phone for a moment longer and then returned it to Rahim. 

      “There you go, Rahim. Since we couldn't figure out the passcode, I thought you may as well start from scratch.”

      Rahim’s jaw dropped in horror. All his content - his pictures, his apps, games, contacts, emails … all of it was gone.

      “You’re an asshole, Fraser.” Rahim’s eyes flashed angrily.

      Jamie shrugged nonchalantly. “Call me what you want, it doesn't bother me. Look at me, Rahim.” Jamie’s arm was still clamped to his shoulder, and he looked awkwardly up at Jamie’s fake smile. “If you come near me or my family again, so help me, I will take you apart with my bare hands. Consider Wahlberg’s little ouchie on your jaw a wee appetizer. The same goes for your friend in Puyallup.”

      Rahim looked at him in confusion.

      “Puyallup … you know?” Jamie repeated. “Small town at the foot of Mount Rainier. South of Seattle. Where your friend Nick lives. Nick has some good research skills, I believe. Wasn’t he the one who fed you all sorts of information about my fiancée?”

      “Uuuhh ….” Fresh beads of perspiration broke out on Rahim’s upper lip and forehead as he looked from Jamie to Claire and back to Jamie again. 

       How the fuck does he know who Nick is, let alone where he lives?

      “Nick might want to start researching alternative careers. Because if he comes near me or my family in Washington, he’ll be researching long-term physical therapy options. For himself and for you.”

      Rahim swallowed again. 

      “You and Nick need to stay well clear of my family, Rahim. My PR team, my agent, and any studio I work for will be instructed to ban you from all events that I attend in the future. If I so much as suspect that you're around, we'll extend it and impose an industry-wide ban on you. Harvey will be so proud of you.”

      Rahim snorted derisively.

      “Snort all you want, Rahim. Tara Lewis has the clout and influence in this town to make that happen. You know it as well as I do.”

      Jamie released Rahim as Avi and two burly security officers reached them, almost skidding to a halt.

      “Lucas said you need help, Mr. Fraser.”

      Jamie nodded at the men. “I believe Rahim here needs help finding his way back to his vehicle. He appears to be at the wrong event. Avi, I need you and Eli to shadow Claire while I do a few live interviews. Get Eli here now, please. No one comes within 6 feet of Claire. No one so much as points a cell phone at her.” 

      Geillis came running up to them, a cell-phone in one hand, walkie-talkie in the other. The head of event security was just steps behind her.

      “What’s going on?” she demanded, looking at the group in front of her, before her angry gaze settled on the head of security. “What's happening here? I got a Code 10.” She looked at Jamie. “That means our top VIP is in distress - in other words - you, Jamie.”

      “I’m fine, but Rahim here was harassing Claire and looking to create a situation.” Jamie’s tone was clipped and tinged with barely controlled fury.

      Geillis looked down her nose at Rahim and eyed each of the two security operatives holding him.

      “Get him the fuck out of here. Take his pass, record his name, and send it to me. This is the last time he’ll work a Millennium event,” she spat out, livid at the idea that the paparazzo would disrupt the smooth flow of her big night.

      The two security officers stripped Rahim of his press pass and took him firmly by the arms, leading him down the side of the hotel and away from the red carpet, well out of view of the Pap Zone.

      Geillis turned to look at the head of security. “Clear the Plus-One Zone now, and let’s all move behind the posters. We’ll start attracting attention soon.”

      It took a matter of seconds before security was able to usher the small group of plus-ones to the lobby of the hotel. Geillis pounced on Avi as soon as they were shielded from the fans and photographers.

      “Avi, what are you doing here? My instructions were for you and Eli to keep an eye on things around Jamie’s table in the ballroom.”

     “This is not on Avi, Geillis,” Jamie inserted furiously. “Claire called for him and he brought the two security guys with him. And thank God he did, because things were about to get ugly. This is completely unacceptable. I don’t care if you need to assign two preschoolers to look after me tonight, Claire takes precedence over everyone. I will not allow her safety to be compromised like it was here. Jesus, Geillis! How the actual fuck does Rahim even get an official press pass after the Anja debacle? He’s the one who published the leaked footage and caused all sorts of mayhem for Millennium  - and for me and Claire personally.”

     “I’m so sorry Jamie,” Geillis said, her face reddening. “You’re right, and this should never have happened. It was a bad oversight on our part. I’ll take care of it right now. We’ll make changes to ballroom security immediately."

      “I want your best people with Claire, Geillis. That means Avi and Eli - I want them both here now, and I want them with us until we step on that plane on Wednesday. Make whatever goddamn changes you need to make to the security plan.” He eyed Geillis and the head of security soberly, his jaw muscles rippling slightly as he fought to control his anger.

     “I’m on it. Avi, you heard Jamie. Get Eli.” Geillis and the head of security turned and hastened into the hotel to re-deploy operatives and secure the ballroom.

      Lucas stood by awkwardly through the entire discussion, the bottle of Perrier still clutched in his hand, a few beads of condensation clinging to the glass. He rolled his head from side to side, stressed out by the situation that had just unfolded. It was uncomfortable for Lucas to hear one of the Millennium execs being taken to task in his presence, even though he knew it was for valid reasons. He wondered if he could have prevented any of it by sticking closer to Claire. He dismissed the thought after a moment. His job was to keep her company and tend to her needs or requests outside of security matters. Geillis’ assistant, Mia, had made that plain in their pre-event briefing. 

      “If your VIP asks for something, you make it happen,” Mia had said.

      Claire had requested water and he’d made it happen, despite the fact that he was blocked by security at three different bar stations. He suddenly realized that he hadn't given her the bottle of water yet, and quickly screwed off the cap before handing it to her.

      "Thank you, Lucas." Claire drank thirstily, making a mental note to go for her lipstick touch-up while Jamie was in the midst of his live interviews.

      “Eli is on his way. I’m sorry this happened, Mr. Fraser, Dr Beauchamp.” Avi was disappointed and distressed that an incident like this had happened on Jamie’s important night. Technically, it was not on his watch. He was executing his duties elsewhere, as instructed. But Avi felt a strong sense of responsibility for Jamie and Claire’s overall security, and this breach of Claire’s personal safety would torment him for weeks.

      “It’s Jamie,” he reminded Avi, feeling and sounding considerably calmer after his angry outburst. “This was not on you or Eli. I know you had different orders for this evening, Avi. I just feel better knowing that you’re with Claire.”

      Avi nodded his appreciation as Eli joined them. The pair positioned themselves and Claire where they had better access to an exit route. Together they prepared to maintain a 360º watch over Claire and her immediate surroundings.

      Jamie reached for Claire and placed a protective arm around her again. He walked her a few steps away from Lucas and Avi.

      “You sure you’re okay, mo chridhe? God, I feel awful. I’m so sorry that fucker Rahim dragged PILF into this. Way to ruin things for you tonight!”

      “I’m fine, my love. It was scary there for a minute, not gonna lie. But as soon as you got to me, I knew it would be okay. Holy crap, I’ve never seen you that angry. Geillis looks mortified. Rahim looked terrified. Thank you for making him delete the video footage.”

      “I’m sorry you had to see me behave like that. Not very gentlemanly, was I?”

      “Are you kidding? He had it coming. You went all Highland warrior on Rahim’s ass and I loved it.” She leaned up close to his ear. “Not gonna lie, Jamie, it’s making me feel all tingly in my … uuuhhh ... my lady parts.”

      He raised a brow and gave her a half smile. “Is that due to yer Highland warrior or those wee pearls?”

      “A bit of both,” she smiled. “Don’t give it another thought, Jamie. This will not mess up my evening. It was just a tiny blip, and we have the whole night ahead of us. It's going to be wonderful, my love. Rahim won't bother us again after this. And I feel so much better now that Avi and Eli are with me. I know you and Geillis will kiss and make up later. Don’t be too angry with her.”

      “I’m not going to allow anyone to take chances with yer safety, babe, Geillis included. But you're right - she and I will enjoy a wee dram at the after party and all will be good. Things will be a lot less hectic as soon as we can get off the red carpet and into the safety of the ballroom. Avi and Eli will take good care of you now, and I’ll keep an eye on things from the Live Interview Zone. I’ll be back in less than ten minutes. Then we’ll leave this mayhem behind and enjoy the rest of the premiere.”

      “Looking forward to it. Where is Tara, by the way? She and I made eye contact briefly - just seconds after I was cornered by Rahim.”

      “Tara’s distracting the paps somewhere out there,” he tipped his head towards the red carpet. “She knew that something was amiss, and told me right away. I was a little concerned when I didn’t see you in the Plus-One Zone, but figured you were probably chatting with one of the guests elsewhere. Never thought you’d be stuck in the Squad Zone with that jerk. Tara literally had to hold me back and talk me down. Thank God for her composure in any situation, because if it wasn't for her, Rahim would be at Cedars-Sinai right now getting his phone surgically removed from his arse.” 

      Claire snorted and shushed him, looking around to ensure that none of the bystanders were within earshot.

      “I love my Highland warrior so much.”

      “Love you too, babe.” He planted a soft kiss on her lips and smiled as he pictured Rahim’s frustration over losing all his iPhone content. It felt like a modicum of vindication after the tremendously damaging stress his shenanigans with Anja had inflicted on him and Claire.

      Jamie reached into his tux pocket. “I have something for you. The fans gifted me a bunch of stuff - they usually do at these events. Geillis’ interns collected most of it tonight.”

      “Stuff like what?”

      “Cards, fan art like drawings and sketches, buttons with selfies they took with me at prior events. I even got a crocheted willy warmer once. This one is special though.” 

      He withdrew his hand from his pocket and opened it to reveal a pressed forget-me-not embedded in a small glass pendant.

      “Ohhhh,” Claire gasped. “That is beautiful!” 

      She picked it up to examine it more closely. The teardrop-shaped glass was set in a gunmetal frame, polished to a beautiful patina.

      “Aye I thought so too. The forget-me-not was a recurrent symbol of enduring love in Clan Hearts. It struck me that this pendant is a great reminder of one of our favorite quotes. The one that ends with - I’m never not thinking of you.”

      “Jamie,” her whisper was barely audible in the noisy surroundings. “Even on a busy night like tonight you still manage to make me feel like I’m your sole focus. Like I’m the most important person in your life.”

      "You are, mo ghràidh!” he smiled sweetly and dropped a kiss on her nose, as her fingers traced a path down his chest before re-buttoning his jacket. 

      “I’ll attach it to my keychain so it’s a daily reminder of this incredible night - and of the fact that we’re always thinking of each other. Tara’s headed this way, my love. I think you need to go to your live interviews.”

      Jamie squeezed her hand and nodded at Avi and Eli before turning to walk briskly back to the Live Interview Zone to join his team, buoyed by the knowledge that Rahim would never again cross his path or that of his precious family.

      Claire took a couple of minutes for a swift lipstick and powder touch-up, and a few bursts of hairspray, under Eli's attentive gaze. They quickly rejoined Avi, and Claire watched as Jamie moved from interview to interview, chatting in his usual animated and spirited way. There was a lot of smiling and laughter as each presenter welcomed him with a hug or an expansive gesture that indicated their admiration for his red carpet look. Jamie’s expression moved easily from smiling warmly to frowning and nodding somberly as he answered a few pre-planned questions about the film.

      Her pride in Jamie was palpable, and she silently willed the interviews to end soon so she could once again be at his side as the rest of the night unfolded. She glanced at the forget-me-not pendant still in her palm. It felt solid and reassuring, somehow. She knew that when she thought back on this night, Rahim would barely register. Her lasting memory of her first red carpet experience would always be of Jamie’s love and attention and protectiveness, and how he was right there when she needed him. 

      Smiling softly, she slipped the pendant into her purse, and watched her Highland warrior make his way back to her, hand already outstretched to take hers. 




 

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