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Conversations in the Dark

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      “You’ve got to be bloody kidding me!” She heard the helicopter before she saw it.

      How dare you interrupt my peaceful evening!

      She fixed her eyes in the direction of the sound as she waited for it to appear. It rose slowly above the peak of the mountains, rotors spinning in a blur. It was a 6-seater, not a news or traffic chopper as she had expected. She guessed it must be a private tour of the Central Cascades. Tourists to Washington state loved to explore the mountain ranges and volcanoes from the air. She set her laptop aside, and picked up her glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc.

      From the comfort of her outdoor living area, Claire had a phenomenal view of the magnificent peaks and troughs of the Central Cascades in a 270º sweep. Acre upon acre of unspoiled open wooded land lay between her and her view of the mountains and she had always hoped it would remain that way permanently. However, the greater Seattle area, and particularly the area known as ‘the Eastside’, had exploded in recent years, and developers were buying up land at a frenzied rate. New neighborhoods were springing up all the time and Claire just hoped she could enjoy her private, peaceful oasis - her Eastside home - for as long as possible. She knew it was inevitable that some of the land around her would eventually be bought up and developed into a small neighborhood with single family homes, roads, a park or two, and lots of noisy families. Before Henry’s illness, they had even spoken about buying up a decent chunk of the land to retain their privacy and uninterrupted views. But as his cancer progressed, their lives were focused on far more important things than open land and trees. And now, two years after her husband’s death, Claire still hadn’t given much thought to the land and whether she should seriously consider snapping it up.

      Sighing, Claire took a sip of wine and waited for the helicopter to start bearing west towards the peaks of the Cascades. She swept her gaze across the mountains, and tried to imagine what the helicopter passengers were seeing. It was mid-June and most of the snow caps had melted, but she could still see snow clinging to the very tops of some of the peaks. The tourists were in for a treat, no doubt about that. She watched the helicopter, mentally urging it to start heading west towards the central peaks, but instead, it started to bear down, lower and lower, and began to make low sweeping passes over the land adjoining her property. It hovered over a certain area, then moved on, and then swept back around to hover over a different area. All the while, it moved closer and closer to her terrace. When it was quite close, it swept back and forth a few times, and Claire had the distinct feeling that the occupants could see her clearly. She could make out some human forms in the cabin, and they were peering out of the windows on all sides of the chopper.

       Wait, are you seriously waving at me? You come and invade my evening by flying way too close to my home, and now you’re waving at me!

      She squinted into the cabin of the chopper. Hard to tell, but she thought she counted 4 people, including the pilot. She could tell that the frantically waving man had a shock of white hair, and wondered what on earth he was up to. She wasn't sure whether to wave back or flip him off, but before she could decide, her phone buzzed next to her. It was a text from Milo Lukic - a dear friend.

      Milo and his wife, Suki, were Henry’s college friends, and after Claire moved to Seattle seven years ago as Henry’s bride, they had become her closest friends too. They had been there for her throughout Henry’s illness. They were in the room with her when he took his last breath. They held her when she sobbed her pain and howled her grief and yelled her anger at the unfairness of losing her husband. At the unfairness of her twins losing their beloved step-dad. At the unfairness of the world losing a business genius and philanthropist. A widow at 32.

      Milo and Suki had loved and supported her in those raw, dark days. Wiping her tears and snotty nose. Sustaining her and helping her through the funeral arrangements and Henry’s celebration of life. Standing by her side as she received an endless stream of visitors and flowers and meals. Even a couple of news crews from local TV channels. Henry’s position as Professor Emeritus at Fulton Business School and appointment to the boards of several large companies had afforded him a fairly high profile in business circles, and there was a surge of interest in the life and death of one of Seattle’s business personalities and his young widow. Two of the boards immediately dispatched their media relations teams to help Claire deal with the press. And after the turmoil and frenzy of those first few weeks had abated, after the meals and flowers had dwindled, and the visitors stopped coming, Milo and Suki were still there. Still bringing meals for her and the twins, still holding Claire’s hand as she dealt with yet another surge of grief. Still ferrying the twins to and from school and events and activities, and dealing with the lawn service, and club memberships, and insurance and minor roof repairs after a windstorm. Still standing with Claire as slowly, slowly, she started to pick up the pieces and began her return to motherhood and work and life.

       I see you!

       She quickly texted him back:

       Milo! Is that you - I can see your hair from here!

       How are you doing, my beautiful English rose?

       Doing well, thank you! Just getting some grading done. Student case studies and project reports.

       Hah! Look at you, Professor Beauchamp.

       Nope - still Dr. Beauchamp. Still Associate Professor. But interviewing and negotiating hard - there's a professorship in the works. We need to grab dinner so I can tell you all about it. Are you and Suki hardcore quarantining, or you up for dinner? Also, WTH are you doing flying over my house!

       Looking at the land for a potential client. Top secret. I’ll call you from my car in about an hour or so. I need to chat with you about something.

       OK. Later.

      As happy as she was to hear from Milo, her heart dropped a little too. If he was looking at the land, then chances were quite high that there was a development in the offing. Milo and Suki were among Seattle’s top five realtors. She wondered how many houses would be built there. Construction would be hard to tolerate - a minimum of two years of noise, dust, and activity.

      With another deep sigh, she picked up her glass and her laptop, and headed indoors. Time to throw together a quick salad and FaceTime the twins.

 

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

 

      Milo’s call came just as she was wrapping up her FaceTime session with the twins.

      “Hey sweetheart, how are things?”

      “All good, Milo! How are you and Suki doing?”

      “We are fine. Quarantining dutifully like everyone else. We’re doing the distancing thing, but we have a fairly good idea who we can and can’t associate with. We’re so ready for this to be over! We’re heading to our place in Arizona in a couple of weeks for a change of scenery. You and the girls are more than welcome to join us. How are they doing?”

      “Aww, you’re so thoughtful, Milo! I might take you up on that later in the summer. Right now, I am super busy with project reviews and managing a summer cohort, and I’m in the middle of discussions about a potential professorship. Oh - and the girls are with their dad in Boston.”

      “Oh? Since when? You must be missing them like crazy!”

      “Oh, I am! Three weeks since they left! I know last time you and I spoke, they were just completing their online schooling and semester finals. Frank wanted them to fly out earlier this summer and spend more time with him and his family. They'll be there for a couple more weeks, and then home for the rest of the summer.”

      “Wow! I bet they’re missing you big-time, but probably enjoying the time with their step-siblings. Please send them my love next time you talk to them.”

      “Will do. Milo, please tell me Seattle’s top realtor has not found a buyer for the property next to mine.”

      “Hah! I think I heard you swearing at me from the helicopter - in your poshest accent!” Milo chuckled, imagining Claire’s annoyance at the disruption of her peaceful evening. "Well ….” he continued, “it’s good news and bad news. Bad news first - yes, we have a potential buyer looking at it fairly seriously. I know, I know - you were hoping that the land would always be there, undeveloped. The guy’s from the U.K. and he's only seen it on Google Earth and drone footage, but he knows the area from previous visits. He’ll be out next week to look at it in person. In fact, I was planning on asking you if you’d be willing to meet him briefly - observing social distancing rules, of course. A quick meeting to talk to him about the area, pros and cons of living there, schools, shopping, property values, walking trails - you know all the usual questions potential buyers have. It’s always helpful to have a friendly neighbor to talk to.”

      “Of course!“ Claire responded, trying not to sound hesitant or disappointed.

      Sure, she would love for the land to remain unspoiled forever, but she knew that was not realistic. Besides, Milo and Suki were practically family - she would do anything for them. “What’s the good news?”

      “He’s not a developer. He wants to buy all 26 acres. He’s a private man with a very public profile, and just wants something secluded and spacious. He’ll build something beautiful and classy, and will likely keep horses. He’s already said that he’ll stable the horses as far away from your house as his land will allow. No smelly horse poop to deal with,” he chuckled.

      “Hmmm. Well, if I have to give up my privacy, I’m really glad it will be to a single family. I’m really relieved about that, to be honest. How old are the kids?"

      “Actually,” Milo said, “there are no kids. He’s not married. We found him a 6-week rental on Lake Washington last October-November, and he was on his own for most of that time. His sister and her family came to visit for a couple of weeks. So no kids of his own for the moment but likely some family visits from time to time.”

      “Why was he renting on Lake Washington?” asked Claire, puzzled.

      “He loves the Seattle area and has been planning to buy property here for a while. He wanted to spend time in the area to see what grabbed him and where he might want to settle. While he was staying at the Lake, Suki and I took him to all the usual affluent neighborhoods to view properties - but he really wanted something on the Eastside. He is nuts about mountains, so he really can’t do better than Washington. And since he wants to be in the Greater Seattle Area, I feel like your neighborhood is a really good fit. We drove him out there in November and he says it reminds him of his home town in Scotland.”

      “So he’s from Scotland? What does he do?” asked Claire, a little more interested. Scotland was high on her list of places to re-visit. She had spent a few years there as a teenager and young adult, and really wanted to go back and explore some more.

      “Well, that’s where this gets tricky,” Milo replied. “This is one of those top secret deals where Suki and I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement because he’s a celebrity. We can tell you a little, but we’d rather do it face-to face. What are you up to tomorrow?”

      “Hah!” chuckled Claire. “Don’t judge me, but I’m taking advantage of the loosened restrictions and have planned a full morning of self-care and pampering. Mani-pedi, facial, massage, and hair. I’ll be done by 1:00’ish.”

      “Yeah! Good for you, Claire! No judgment here. You totally deserve it. In fact, I’m going to encourage Suki to do something like that soon. She deserves it too after putting up with me at home for weeks on end! Why don’t you come grab a light lunch with Suki at home when you’re done with pampering tomorrow? I have to drive to Bellingham for the day, but Suki has all the info about our client and the transaction, and I know she’s dying to see you.”

      “That sounds divine! Please let her know I’ll bring dessert. It’ll be somewhere between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m. Can’t wait to catch up with her.”

      As Claire curled up on the sofa and set her phone down next to her, she couldn’t help feeling intrigued by the private, nameless celebrity who might become her neighbor.

 

Chapter Text


      Maybe scheduling lunch after hours and hours of pampering was not the best idea. Claire felt positively drowsy as she drove parallel to Lake Washington en route to Suki and Milo’s stunning lakefront home. The sight of the large expanse of gently undulating water only added to her somnolence. She felt completely relaxed and warm, and the after-effects of her facials and a deep back and scalp massage made her want to lie flat on her back and give in to the sun’s warm, soothing rays. Parking her SUV on the driveway, Claire grabbed the paper bag filled with a half-dozen mini bundt cakes and two bottles of wine. 

 

      “Claire!” Suki squealed as she threw open the front door and wrapped her friend in a strong embrace. She clasped Claire's face in her soft hands and deposited a huge noisy kiss on each of her cheeks. “Our English rose! I have missed you so much! You look beautiful. Turn around, let me see your hair!”

      “Oh Lord,” groaned Claire. “I just had a facial and don’t have a stitch of make-up on. You are so sweet, Suki, but I must look bloody awful!” She obliged Suki and did a 360, allowing her to admire her freshly cut hair and balayage color treatment. 

      “Oh, I love it,” she breathed, gently running her hands through Claire’s soft curls. “The color is beautiful.”  

      It certainly enriched the rich espresso hues of Claire's hair with tantalizing hints of auburn and bronze. Her stylist, Armando, had also transformed her tight curls into loose ‘beachy waves’, and the overall effect was stunning. Claire knew that the twins were going to love it. She couldn't wait to show them on FaceTime later.  

      “Thank you, Suki,” she smiled, “the girls convinced me to do the balayage at Christmas, and I really loved how natural it looked while still enhancing some lowlights and highlights in my own color. But look at you, Ms. Glam! You look ah-mazing!” She admired Suki’s sleek bob, her black hair lightly veined with a few streaks of grey. The overall effect made her willowy friend look even more elegant, distinguished, and chic. 

      “Oh stop!” Suki protested, giggling and ushering Claire into the kitchen! “A few weeks into quarantine, I realized I was fighting a losing battle with my hair color, so I decided to go natural. I’m 53 this year, and figured I’d dye my hair until I was at least 65. I felt like letting the grey grow out would age me too much, but honestly, I think I really like the grey streaks. Milo loves it too - or so he says. Mind you, he’s been completely grey-white for years now, so I don’t think he even notices my grey,“ she laughed. 

      “Well, you look absolutely wonderful,” gushed Claire, as she placed the dessert and wine bottles on the counter.

      ”Did you run into any protests or unrest on your way here?” Suki busied herself uncorking a bottle of wine and arranging the mini bundts on a platter. 

      Wave after wave of protests and demonstrations had been sweeping the country since May, as activists and communities from all sides made their voices heard on the issue of racism and police brutality. Amid rumors of disbanding police forces in some big cities around the nation, Seattle had just seen the establishment of a police-free neighborhood, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ. There were still tensions between the authorities and the protesters, and it felt like all of Seattle was in wait-and-see mode. 

      “No. Most of my drive was on the interstate.” Claire and Suki enjoyed talking and debating about politics, social, and community issues, and she knew that part of their lunch conversation would veer towards the state of the country.

 

      They plated up a deliciously simple meal of baked salmon, asparagus and salad, grabbed their wine, and headed down to the lakefront. Suki’s outdoor living area was cleverly designed for maximizing privacy and optimizing the lake view. Her favorite part was the small, slightly sunken patio next to the boat dock. It was here that she and Milo often took their meals, and it was here that she and Claire settled into their comfortable dining chairs. Over a leisurely lunch, the women talked politics and protests, and caught up on each other’s family news. They laughed at each other’s Coronavirus frustrations, and reflected seriously on the loss of life and general devastation that the dreaded virus had left in its wake. 

      Claire was excited to share her news about the professorship she was chasing at UDub’s Fulton Business School. Suki clapped enthusiastically, and reached over to hug her. Her eyes were watery, and Claire knew that she was thinking about Henry and how proud he would have been of her success in academia. 

      For her part, Suki was just starting to plan her daughter’s wedding, slated to take place next summer. She updated Claire on all the fine details of the plans. It was a location wedding in Hawaii, and would no doubt be an unforgettable occasion. 

      “Thank heavens they didn’t set the date for this summer!” exclaimed Claire, "what a mess it has been with so many event cancellations.”

      “Tell me about it!” Suki rolled her eyes. “Wedding planning is stressful enough without a global pandemic getting in the way. Milo tells me the girls are in Boston?”

      “Yes,” sighed Claire, “Frank wanted them to spend the earlier part of the summer with him and the family. We FaceTime every night, sometimes twice a day. I miss them terribly. They turn 16 next Wednesday. I’m trying not to think of the fact that I won’t be with them on such a big milestone birthday.” Claire swallowed hard and blinked furiously. Suki reached over and gently squeezed Claire’s hand.

      “I’m so sorry, Claire. I know it will be a tough day for you. You should come over. We’ll go out on the boat and enjoy the lake for a bit.” 

      Claire smiled a sad little smile. “Thank you, Sook. Melissa is visiting from Atlanta next week. We’re going to spend Wednesday in Woodinville. Now that restrictions have been eased and we can enjoy patio outings at restaurants, I figured it would be good for the soul to enjoy a day out - even if we’re wearing masks all day. I’ve booked a patio table at Columbia, and space in a tasting room at La Ville. Figured I can pick up my club wines while I’m out there too.”

      “That sounds wonderful! Please remember to say hi to Melissa for me.”

      “I will. Now - what can you tell me about the man from Scotland who wants to take away my peace and quiet forever?”       

      “Ah! Yes, our lovely Scot!” sighed Suki, and broke into a wide smile. “Milo told you about the NDA, so you know I have to tread carefully, right? We’re working mostly with his business manager, who’s also his uncle - Dougal MacKenzie. These celebrity clients always have some sort of entourage! MacKenzie is a nice enough man, but a little intense and uptight. He’s very protective of his nephew. Wanted a watertight NDA. He’s the go-to guy in the negotiations when our client is busy, and he was in the helicopter with Milo yesterday.”

      She paused to take a bite of her salmon, and chewed thoughtfully, pondering what she could and couldn’t tell Claire. “The nephew is in the entertainment industry.” She paused again and took a small sip of wine. “Oh screw it! I’m sure I can tell you this much at least! He’s an actor.”

      She let that sink in for a few seconds, then took a deep breath. “He’s very well-known and has a huge fan base of ardent female fans. You can imagine the lifestyle, right? He is chased whenever he’s in public - it’s a never-ending saga of autographs, selfies, social media drama - women throwing themselves at him left, right, and center! His past girlfriends have received threats and all. It’s ridiculous and very intense, and he seems to want to get back to a life with some sort of normalcy. Milo and I spent quite a bit of time with him last year when he was just starting to look at Seattle properties. We arranged a six week rental just a little way down from here, so we went boating with him a few times, and we had him over for dinner. He opened up a little. Shared with us that he wants to buy a business here. Milo put him in touch with a friend in the wine business and they’re in advanced talks about that too. That’s why he wants to make Seattle his base in the United States. Currently he splits his time between Scotland and the US. His advisors are trying to convince him to settle in LA, because that’s what makes the most sense for his movie career. But he is adamant that he wants to get out of the entertainment business within the next 5 years. He’s in his mid-30’s - right around your age, Claire - so you can understand his need to settle down a little and create some stability and balance for himself. For an unmarried, childless man, he’s very family oriented, and finds the obsessive female fan thing a bit much now. Weird, huh? Because what man wouldn't want beautiful women offering themselves to him on a platter? I get the sense that he is just over it. His sister and her family visited while he was in the rental, and he was in his element with his niece and nephews. It was quite cute to see. I don’t know what to make of it all, but he seems to be a decent man. I hope he gets it all figured out in his head.”

      “Hmmm,” Claire mused as she processed all the information Suki had given her. “Milo said he’s coming to view the property next week, and that he wanted to stop by for a quick chat with me. How can I help? What would you like me to do?” 

      “Just be your friendly, welcoming self,” Suki smiled, warmth and sincerity in her voice and soft, expressive face. “Buyers love to know that they will be living near good people. Nobody wants the neighbor from hell. Answer whatever questions he might have honestly. I don’t think we would expect any more from you than that. And neither would our client.”     

      Claire bit on her lower lip - a clear sign that she was nervous, stressed, or deep in thought. It seemed a little daunting to her, if she was completely honest. She knew that the property was a high-value, very desirable piece of prime land. Developers had been after it for years, but it had been in the hands of one of Seattle’s wealthiest and most well-known families for decades. The land had passed through three generations already, and the latest owners were reluctant to sell. Trust fund babies all of them, and they certainly didn’t need the money. For Milo and Suki to have negotiated it this far was really quite impressive. Claire did not want to mess things up for them. They were enormously successful realtors, and this deal was not about the financial reward. As they nudged closer and closer towards retirement, a big deal like this would really crown their careers. It was undoubtedly the thrill of the chase and the challenge that pushed Milo and Suki on this one.

      Claire desperately wanted to do right by them, even if it meant helping to sell the tranquil oasis that felt like an extension of her home and her soul. 

      “OK,” sighed Claire softly, somewhat comforted by Suki’s encouraging words. "W hen and what time?” 

      “Monday. Milo is picking him up at the airport at 3:30 p.m. He’s flying in from Glasgow, so by the time he clears customs, they should be at your house by 5’ish. Milo thinks they’ll spend maybe an hour with you, and then he’s dropping the client off at his hotel downtown after that. Seems he’s going to be wrapped up in all sorts of meetings for the business he’s buying, so he wants to get the property deal over and done with right off the bat.”

      “Sounds good,” Claire responded. She was already thinking about what to prepare for her meeting with the mystery man. She wanted to make him feel welcome, but didn’t want to go overboard and give him the impression that Milo and Suki were overly eager. “I’ll have some wine and light appetizers ready, just in case.”

      “Oh that would be wonderful, Claire. Maybe some time on your terraces with t hose spectacular views will give him the push he needs to make a decision either way.”

      Claire felt a teeny surge of anxiety again - a lot was riding on that brief visit. Suki sensed that and reached for Claire’s hand to pat it reassuringly. 

      “He’s a lovely, lovely man, Claire - you need to know that. I know it sounds all cloak and dagger because of the NDA. But really, he’s just a man who is trying to make some important life choices and decisions. Don’t be intimidated.”

      Claire allowed herself a sneaky little smile. “So you can’t give me even a little hint about who he is? What if I throw out some names, can you tell me yes or no? Or can I guess one of the movies he’s been in?"

      “Claire, you are so naughty,” teased Suki, but her eyes told Claire she was enjoying this bit of mischief that had crept into their serious conversation. “I will have to be be very careful about the NDA, but let’s hear your guesses.”

      “Gerard Butler?”

      “Oh God, no! Can you imagine?” Suki rolled her eyes.

      “Okay, that’s a relief - I can’t imagine him as a neighbor - I feel like it would be non-stop parties and a stream of sexy young starlets.”

      “Remember - our client’s looking to settle down somewhat. Not a big party guy at all,” Suki reminded her gently.

      “Okay, Ewan McGregor?”

      “Nope.”

      “Liam Neeson? Oh wait - he’s Irish. And in his sixties, not mid-thirties as you mentioned. I’ve always harbored a little crush on him, you know? Why am I always drawn to men who are a fair bit older than me?” Claire pondered wistfully. 

      “Oh hon,” sighed Suki. Claire knew she was thinking about Henry again. “No dear, it’s not Liam Neeson.”

      “Okay. Ummmm.” Deep in thought, Claire tried to remember all the recent shows and movies she had seen with Scottish actors. She gasped suddenly. “Oh! Oh! Who’s the guy from The Bodyguard? He’s pretty hot.” Claire frowned as she tried to remember. “Richard Madden! Oh my God, Sook, please tell me it’s Richard Madden!” She clutched at her heart and pretended to fall back in a swoon.

      Suki laughed heartily at Claire’s over-the-top antics and shook her head. “You are so crazy, hon! Okay, I’ll give you one more little clue -”

      They were interrupted by Suki’s cell phone ringing. “It’s Milo! Let me put him on speakerphone.”

      “How are my favorite ladies?” Milo asked. He sounded tired but was clearly happy to be heading home after a long day of grueling negotiations up north. 

      Claire leaned over Suki’s phone and said, “Milo, I’ve had the most wonderful afternoon. Your wife has spoiled me and made me laugh.”

      “Glad to hear it,” Milo said chuckling, “I take it she briefed you about Monday?”

      “Yes, I sure did, honey. Claire’s all briefed and ready to roll.”

      “Okay. Thank you, Claire. We appreciate it so much.”

      “Well, to be honest,” Claire had mischief in her eyes and voice, “your wife is keeping me on the edge of my seat wondering about the identity of this apparently amazing man. She won’t give me any clues either.” 

      “Well, you know we’d love to answer all your questions, but I think they will all be answered in the next week or so.“ Milo sounded upbeat and convincing, and Claire took comfort in knowing that he and Suki would always put her and her daughters above all else. There was no way they would unload a dodgy neighbor on them. Not after all she’d been through.

      For the second time in two days she wondered why she was getting that curious feeling about the private, nameless mystery man. It wasn’t unease or discomfort. In fact, it wasn’t a negative feeling at all. More like a flutter of anticipation somewhere between her chest and her belly. 

 

 

 

Chapter Text


      Claire changed three times before finalizing what she would wear for the meeting with Milo and his client. She had spent much of Saturday getting the guest room ready for Melissa’s visit. Melissa had been part of her Masters degree cohort at NYU, and they had remained firm friends over the years, meeting each other at least once a year. They always met at a destination city - New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago - exploring each city’s delights and attractions while catching up with each other. Melissa had taken her background in PR and Communications and built a hugely successful crisis management firm. If a CEO was caught having an affair - Melissa would step in with her team and ‘mitigate’ as she called it. If a senator was caught in some kind of campaign scandal, Melissa and her team to the rescue! She enjoyed her reputation as a skilled and very expensive fixer and her success at ‘mitigating’ was unparalleled. Claire knew that was code for calling in favors, bribing, nudging, finding skeletons - maybe the odd bit of mild intimidation too. Whatever strategies Melissa and her team used, they worked, and Melissa had saved many well-known business, professional, and political asses over the years.

      Early on Sunday morning, Melissa called to cancel her trip to Seattle. One of her team had been exposed to a friend who had tested positive for Covid, and her entire Atlanta office was required to self-quarantine for fourteen days. It was a huge disappointment, but Melissa promised to reschedule for sometime in July - as long as everyone was clear and healthy. Claire spent the rest of the day grading case studies.

      Now she wished she had taken some time to at least think about what to wear for the meeting with the mystery Scot. Who, sadly, is not Richard Madden.

      Milo had texted forty minutes earlier to let her know that they were just leaving the airport. That meant they would be on her driveway any minute. She had already rejected two summer dresses as too “lunch-with-friends”. This was just a casual meeting with afternoon drinks. She finally pulled on her skinny white jeans and a loose-fitting butter yellow top in a silky crepe. The narrow shoulder straps gave way to a soft draped neckline that flattered her breasts without drawing too much attention to them. The soft, flowy fabric gathered in a knot right on the waistline of her jeans, enhancing her waist and showing off her rear end and long legs. Claire was justifiably proud of her figure. She worked out several times a week, and paid particular attention to her butt, which had always been the envy of her friends - and frenemies. She wasn’t a vain woman, but her years of part-time modelling as a student had given her an appreciation of her natural beauty, and she knew exactly how to make the most of her best features. Taking in her reflection in the bathroom mirror with a critical eye, she looked and felt summery and fresh. Thank God I had all the stuff done on Friday.

      Her hair was freshly washed and she had tamed her curls so that they fell in soft waves below her shoulders. The pale yellow top accentuated her unusual amber-colored eyes, which were further enhanced by soft make-up. Nothing too over-the-top for this meeting - she didn't want to look like she had spent hours fretting over her appearance.

     Grabbing tan Michael Kors flats from her closet, she ran down the stairs just as her phone app pinged to announce that someone had turned into her driveway. For the umpteenth time that day, she thanked the weather gods for a sunny, cloudless day. Perfect weather to enjoy sun-downers on her patio, and to really showcase the magnificent mountain views. Sliding her feet into her sandals, she headed to the front door, pulled it open and took a few steps forward, waiting at the top of her front stairs.

     Her heart was beating faster than expected. Just who was this mystery ‘lovely, lovely man’? Suki’s description, not hers. Milo drove his dark blue BMW past the garages, around her circular driveway and came to a stop near the front steps. She could see a figure in the passenger seat, but with the tinted side windows and the sun’s glare off the windshield, she couldn’t make out any features. Milo’s door was closest to Claire, and he had his head turned toward his client. They were clearly having a humorous discussion, as Milo threw his head back and laughed heartily.

      What is so damned funny? Just get out of the bloody car already! I’m dying to know who’s in there. 

      The driver and passenger doors finally opened, and Milo unfolded himself from the depths of his seat and stepped towards Claire with his arms outstretched. Claire gave a little squeal of delight and ran down the wide, shallow staircase right into Milo’s huge, enveloping hug. Even though they had spoken over the past few days, it had been a while since they had seen each other, and Claire basked in the comfort and warmth of Milo’s embrace. He rubbed her back gently and swayed with her a little, then placed a gentle kiss on the top of her head before saying softly, “It is so good to see you at last! I’ve missed you.” He freed Claire from his grasp, and then took her hand as he walked a few steps towards the front of his car, where his client had been waiting and watching their warm, lengthy embrace. Claire finally had an unrestricted look at the mystery Scot.

      She may have temporarily stopped breathing at that point.      

      “Claire, I’m delighted to introduce you to Jamie Fraser. Jamie, this is my dear friend, Claire Beauchamp.”

 

 

Chapter Text


      Jamie’s arm moved slightly, as he started to reach forward to shake her hand. Claire started to reciprocate, but they both stopped awkwardly half-way, suddenly remembering social distancing etiquette. They burst out laughing at the same time, and dropped their hands.

      “Jamie, it’s such a pleasure to meet you,“ she smiled, with a calm outer confidence that she definitely didn't feel inside. “Don’t you just love the awkwardness of quarantine introductions?”

      “Yes! It’s starting to get really old, really fast, isn’t it?” he replied in a soft Scottish brogue, his r’s rolling softly off his tongue. “It’s good to meet ye too, Claire. Thank you for opening yer home to me and allowing me to get an inside look into this neighborhood.”

      She had seen his smile in hundreds of magazines, movies, interviews, social media posts. But none of that prepared her for being on the receiving end of the real deal. Dazzling blue eyes sparkled and shone in the bright sunlight. His smile was warm and genuine and left her with a warm, fluttery feeling in her belly. Like butterflies.

      She pulled herself together long enough to blurt out, “Not at all! It’s a pleasure, really. A complete pleasure. Oh, I just said that, didn’t I?”

      Oh my God!  What was wrong with her? She was having a hard time articulating her thoughts and forming coherent sentences, and she was sure both men were looking at her like she had lost her mind.     

      Get a grip! You are a grown-ass woman with teenage daughters. You are also a widow and well past the point of appealing to this ridiculously handsome man in front of you. Plus - you are an associate professor at a respectable university and you’re about to snag a full professorship. Now stop being starstruck and act your damn age!

      “You have a beautiful home, Claire! I canna believe these views,” Jamie said in wonder, as his eyes took in everything from the large house in front of him to the mountains and woods all around them. 

    “Thank you! Let’s head inside, and I’ll show you around a little.” Claire led the way up the front stairs, across the porch and into the large, cool foyer. The late afternoon sun streamed through the massive windows all around them, and she was pleased she’d turned up the air-con earlier. It had ended up being an 80º plus day, and the cool interior of the house was a welcome relief from the heat of the driveway. Jamie stood in her foyer and took in all the huge windows. They revealed incredible mountain views, and Claire remembered Milo telling her that it was these very mountains that had drawn Jamie to this part of Seattle in the first place. He turned a little, and took in the beautiful marble floors, the sweeping curved staircase on the left, and the soaring ceilings. The entryway reinforced the home’s sense of elegance and grandeur. Much like the owner herself, Jamie mused, with her gracious manners and English accent.

      The house was truly magnificent, and she and Henry had taken enormous pleasure in planning and designing every tiny detail with the architects and builders. Milo and Suki had brokered the deal, of course, and she and Henry were eternally grateful to them for finding them their own private sanctuary.

    “This is verra grand, Claire. Beautiful! I canna get over the views from this room!” His voice was soft, almost reverent, as he turned to look out over the mountains again.

    “The views from outside are even better!” Claire smiled. She always delighted in receiving compliments on the stunning home she had created with Henry.

    The foyer led into a large open formal living room, and Claire led the way through the sun-drenched space. She threw open the French doors to the outdoor living area.    

     If the interior of the house was gorgeous, then the terraced outdoor area was truly spectacular. To make the most of the views, she and Henry had created several outdoor seating areas over three terraced levels, all furnished with comfortable, durable all-weather furniture.     

     The trio stepped out onto the upper terrace, which was dominated by a large covered outdoor patio, open on three sides, but with a solid roof, so that they could enjoy being outdoors even on Seattle’s greyest, most drizzly days. The covered area featured a dining area, and two plush sofas arranged around a fireplace. A large flat screen TV hung on the wall. The space was also equipped with an outdoor kitchenette. Small wonder the twins and their friends always opted to hang out in this part of the house. It was made for entertaining people of all ages. Lush lawn and colorful flower gardens filled the remainder of the upper terrace, and at its edge, wide stone steps led to the middle terrace just below.

     This terrace featured an open seating area with three large sofas clustered around a fire table, and a huge cantilevered umbrella stood, unopened for now, but ready to provide protection from the sun. On the far side of the manicured terrace was a hot tub that evidently afforded its occupants a relaxing experience with wonderful views. It was nestled in lush ferns and shrubbery and was stippled in sunlight from a canopy of tall trees growing around it. Stone features and surrounds made it meld right into the background.

    “Well, now!“ Jamie‘s eyebrow lifted a smidge as he surveyed the hot tub in its beautiful setting. He moved towards it for a closer look and turned to Claire. “May I sit here for a sec?”

      She nodded, and he eased himself down onto the stone surround, looking out over the mountains.

      “This is something else! Do you use it much or is it one of those things that you get so used to, that it starts to lose its appeal?” He looked directly at Claire, awaiting her response with interest.

      “Actually, I’m in here almost nightly in the summer, unless we’re in the middle of a stormy downpour, which happens every now and again in Seattle, although the summers are generally hot, cloudless, and sunny. I actually use the hot tub during much of the rest of the year too, as long as it’s not drizzly or really cold. My ‘sanity hour’, I like to call it. Do you see the rocks with built-in speakers? I blast my music through those and soak my day away. Nothing beats it.” She gave him a bright smile, anxious to come across as friendly and neighborly.

      “Mmhmmm.” Jamie smiled slightly and held her gaze a fraction longer than she expected, causing that weird thing between her chest and belly to flutter again.

      What the heck is going on - you’re way too old to have butterflies in your tummy over a man. Especially an unattainable, ridiculously hot movie star. Dear God, Claire! Stop fangirling all over him.

      She nipped her lower lip and forced herself to focus. Jamie still held her gaze, so she smiled slightly and gestured for the men to follow her. “Let me show you the pool.”

      The men followed as she led them down another set of stone steps, and past a low hedge. There, on an expansive stretch of lawn - the third and lowest terrace of her outdoor living area - she showed off the large pool and a sport court with basketball hoop and volleyball net in the far corner. The pool sparkled and glittered in the late afternoon sun. With a few hours of sunshine still to go before sunset, and the heat of the day as yet unabated, the pool beckoned invitingly.

      Jamie nodded towards the pool, “May I feel the water temp?”

     “Of course!” Claire was struck by his politeness and manners. He appeared genuinely respectful of her and her home, and the fact that he asked to sit at the hot-tub and asked to feel the pool water was quite endearing. Suddenly annoyed with herself for even thinking those condescending thoughts, she admonished herself that just because he was a celebrity didn’t necessarily mean that he was an ill-mannered lout. She watched as he strode over to the pool. She hadn't been able to get a really good look at him until now. Quite simply, she didn't want to get caught staring. But as he walked away from her towards the pool, she took in as much as she could from her vantage point. He was tall and well-built; a statuesque 6’3” or 6’4”, by her estimation, and it was clear that he worked out. A lot. His shoulders were wide, and she could tell that under his cream-colored long-sleeved Henley shirt, his back muscles were toned and taut. His jeans fit snugly around his butt - a part of his anatomy that she was well acquainted with. From afar - at least - and on a big screen. She smiled a small wry smile as she realized that millions of moviegoers were acquainted with that perfect ass. But to see Jamie’s jean-clad rear-end in real life was a special kind of thrill.

      He stopped at the edge of the pool, turned to look at Claire, and promptly busted her staring at his ass. He gave her a quick eyebrow raise, and the tiniest crooked smile, which widened as he saw the pink flush move up her neck until it hit her cheeks. She turned to look at Milo, hoping he hadn't noticed that awkward and embarrassing moment. The last thing she wanted was to make a fool of herself in front of his VIP client. But Milo was engrossed in his phone, rapidly tapping out texts.

      Jamie finally saved her dignity by bending down and plunging his hand into the icy pool water. He drew in a little gasp and looked back at her with a grimace. “That is a wee bit cold!”

      “Yes,“ Claire grinned back, “I haven't turned on the water heater yet. If the weather stays this nice, I’ll probably do that in the next few days.”

      “How warm do ye keep it?” asked Jamie. “I think jumping into a bracing cold pool like this on a hot day must be quite pleasantly invigorating.”

      Claire walked towards him. ”Around 80º to 82º, generally. I have two teenage daughters - twins - and they like it slightly on the cooler side - especially after playing on the court for an hour or two.”

      “Lucky lasses,” Jamie looked at her with an inscrutable expression. Was it pity? She knew Milo would have told him a little about her before arriving at the house. He likely knew she was a widow raising two daughters whose father was across the country. She bristled at the notion that she was pitiful, but put her game face on and smiled a tight little smile.

      “Truly, Claire. What a wonderful home to grow up in! Surrounded by all this nature, beautiful amenities, and a loving Mam.” 

      Her smiled deepened and she softened a little. “Let me show you the view from the edge of my property - it overlooks the land you’re considering buying, but there are plenty of trees protecting your privacy. The mountain views from there are gorgeous. In fact, it’s my favorite view spot.”

       They walked side by side away from the pool. Milo glanced up from his phone, but continued texting, secure in the knowledge that their initial awkwardness had passed, and Claire’s warmth and personality would inevitably shine as she answered Jamie’s questions and extolled all the virtues of this beautiful neighborhood. As they reached the sport court, Jamie stopped to ask Claire a few questions about court options, sizes, surfaces, and maintenance. Clearly, it was something he was mentally filing way for deeper thought and discussion when he was ready to start planning a home of his own. Claire answered most of his questions as thoughtfully and thoroughly as she could, even offering to get her court maintenance guy on the phone for the questions she couldn't answer.

      “Oh, no need, Claire, thank you. It’ll be a while before I need to build one, ye ken.” He sounded almost wistful, and she was reminded of Suki’s impression that Jamie wanted to move away from his movie star lifestyle and find a little more balance in his life.

      Together, they moved towards the edge of the property, where Claire had promised to show him her favorite view spot. The lawn gave way to more rugged terrain, and a narrow stone path made navigating it somewhat easier.

      “We’ll have to go single file here,” she said, “this path’s a little narrow.”

      “After you,” Jamie gestured politely. Claire was almost certain he did that weird thing again - held her gaze a little longer than necessary.

      Mentally shrugging off that notion, she led the way through a profusion of lush green ferns, purple hydrangeas, crimson rhododendrons and blackberry bushes heavy with unripened berries. The path soon opened onto a rugged stone patio. Four all-weather Adirondack chairs were arranged around a fire-pit. Without turning around to look at Jamie, Claire did a grand sweep with both arms, encompassing the mountains and acres of spectacularly tall firs ahead of them.

      “How’s that for a view!” she exclaimed.

      “Oh, aye! The best view yet, fer sure!” She turned to look at him and found him a few steps behind her, looking somewhat flustered and a little flushed, hurrying to meet her at the edge of the stone patio. A fleeting frown crossed her face.

      Did he deliberately hang back to get a look at my ass as I led him along the path? 

      It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that had happened to her, and most certainly wouldn't be the last. She couldn't get all uppity about it either. Hadn’t he just busted her while she was ogling his ass too?

      “Uh this is the view I mentioned earlier.”

      He stood next to her, his arm almost touching her shoulder. From the edge of her patio, she pointed out that the land beyond was all part of the neighboring property - the parcel of land that Jamie was considering. It sloped away into a deep basin, and was covered in magnificent conifers, spruces and several varieties of firs - some as tall as 80 or 90 feet. They were splendid and impressive and Jamie stared in open-mouthed wonder.

      “Wow,” he breathed, “this is truly spectacular. I can see why this is your favorite view.” They stood side by side in silence for a few minutes, just breathing in the scenery in front of them. Claire sneaked a look at Jamie as he studied the landscape carefully. Since her previous inspection of him had been rudely interrupted when she was caught admiring his rear, she took the opportunity to continue her scrutiny. She heartily approved of what she saw. His deep russet hair was slightly longer than the neat shorter cut he had sported in his latest movie and his trademark curls were just starting to form at the back of his neck. He had very chiselled features - his cheekbones, nose, jaw, and chin all in perfect alignment, setting off his brilliant blue eyes and creating a face so movie-star perfect, that Claire had to suppress a deep sigh.

      What would he think if he knew you had pretty much obsessed over him during his 4-season run as lead actor in 'Clan Hearts'?  

      Mortified at the thought of being busted for that, Claire turned her gaze to the scenery in front of them.

      “So, ye built up here and installed a retaining wall to create the stone patio, right?” asked Jamie.

      “Yes,” she confirmed, and explained that the edge of the stone patio and the retaining wall that ran for about seventy feet on either side of it made up one of the boundary lines of her property.

      “So all of this would be my property then?” He waved his hand beyond the patio and retaining wall, encompassing the valley, the trees and the large expanse to the right. “I’ve yet to walk this with the land surveyor, so I havena had a chance to see all the stakes and markers that indicate my property.”

      “Yes. All of this is yours.” Her inner butterfly fluttered a little again. ‘My property’, he had said. She felt inexplicably happy about him already calling it his property. Having known him for only a half hour or so, Claire instinctively knew that she could do a lot worse than have him for a neighbor.      

      She spent the next fifteen minutes telling him what she knew about the Cascades and the Olympic mountains. She mentioned the amazing hikes, walking trails, and bike trails. He asked some questions. She answered to the best of her ability and he listened intently to all of her answers.

      “I canna tell ye how much I appreciate yer willingness to answer so many questions. It is truly, truly beautiful out here. Ye seem really settled. Where in England did ye grow up?”

      “In Oxfordshire, mostly. I was raised by my Uncle Lamb after my parents died in a car accident when I was six. Lamb - it’s short for Lambert - was an archaeologist and researcher, and when I wasn't in boarding school, I traveled with him to Namibia, Egypt, Greece, Guatemala, and Peru. It was exciting, interesting, and sometimes quite crazy. But I absolutely loved it. When I was 15, Lamb was offered a position at Edinburgh University. He was filling in for a professor who had taken a one-year sabbatical, and after that they offered him a permanent post as a lecturer. He decided to accept it for a few years so that he could provide me with more stability as I started to approach decision time about my tertiary education. I studied at Edinburgh University for a time.”

      “No kidding!” He seemed genuinely delighted by that bit of unexpected information. “So you were a Sassenach in my homeland for a while there?“ His teasing grin made her feel warm inside.

     “Yes,” Claire countered, dryly. “I’ve been called that a few times.” She smiled at him and for a moment neither spoke. They looked at each other for a few more seconds, suspended in an easy silence.

      “Um … are you ready to head back to the house for a drink and nibble? I have some light appetizers.”

      “Aye, I’m always ready for a nibble,” he said softly with his little crooked smile.

      Damn you, that smile will be the death of me!

      They headed back in single file through the stone path, Jamie a few steps behind Claire, who was still trying to process that nibble comment.

      Are you merely a little peckish, or was that a teeny little flirt?

      As they emerged from the shrubbery onto the manicured lawn of the lower terrace, they saw that Milo was on a cell phone call. He held the phone away from his face, and called out, “I’ll join you in a moment.”

      “Okay, we’re going up for a drink,” Claire called back.

      “And a wee nibble,” Jamie said softly, just behind her. 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

      “Would you prefer to sit out in the open or under cover?” Claire asked. 

      “If it’s not too much trouble, I would love to sit out here - the middle terrace. I can help ye with the umbrella, of course. It’s just such a perfect day, and I would like to take advantage of it and enjoy all the views from here.”

      “No trouble at all. What can I get you to drink? I have beer, wine, whisky, tequila ...”

      “If ye have a chilled lager, I would make short work of it.” He grinned. His killer smile reminded her yet again of how surreal this felt. Jamie Fraser. In person. In her home. And she was about to pour him a beer.

      “Can I help ye carry the drinks out?”

      “Don’t worry Jamie, I’ve got this. Claire, I'll help you with the drinks.” Milo was striding across the lawn towards them. Having completed his call, he was ready to rejoin the conversation. However, the quick pointed look he gave Claire alerted her that something was going on. “Take a few minutes to catch up on your texts, or just enjoy the peace and quiet out here. We'll bring out the drinks in a few.” 

      “What’s up?” asked Claire as soon as they were in the kitchen, concern clouding her features. She knew Milo well enough to know that something was amiss.

      Milo took a deep breath, puffed up his cheeks, and slowly released a sigh. “I’ve been on the phone with Anton.”

      “Your brother?”

      “Yep.” He looked at her, and she could tell he was worried. Anton Lukic was the Attorney General for Washington State, so this had to be somewhat serious.   

       “What is it Milo, you’re freaking me out a little.”

      “Sorry, hon. It’s serious, but not critical yet. And again - sorry to spring another secretive thing on you - this is even more top secret. For now.” She nodded. “Anton has been in meetings all day. The unrest in Seattle is getting worse. There has been some violence in CHAZ - or CHOP, I think they're calling it now.” 

      “Okay - that’s been brewing for a few days though.” Claire knew the situation was unsettled, but she was puzzled about Milo’s demeanor. She pulled out two trays and started to gather glasses, cocktail plates and napkins to carry down to the terrace. Milo, in the meanwhile, grabbed a selection of lagers, opened a bottle of Claire’s favorite sauvignon blanc, and placed them all in a large stainless steel ice bucket. He filled it with cubes from the ice-maker, and looked at Claire.

       “This is the top secret part. The authorities are considering a complete lock-down across downtown Seattle. The entire city has been on high alert, and businesses and hotels have been quietly evacuating. Jamie has a two-week reservation at the Seattle Hyatt. Right in the heart of the action.”

      “Oh God!” Claire groaned and shot a quick look out at the terrace, where she could make out Jamie’s head and shoulders. From the angle of his head, she knew he was busy on his phone - completely unaware of the drama unfolding in the kitchen - and in Seattle. 

      Milo continued, “I didn’t want to freak Jamie out before I had all the info, so I quietly made some calls to Bellevue hotels while you were talking on the patio. They are all full. Presidential suites - everything! I tried some of my rental contacts, but no-one is willing to do anything in the thick of Coronavirus fears and quarantine restrictions. Too much of a liability. I’m desperate enough to start calling the smaller hotels in Redmond and other nearby towns. They’re not exactly the lap of luxury though, and Jamie is used to - well, you know. He’s used to the VIP treatment. I’m also worried about how well some hotels are adhering to sanitizing requirements.”

     “Shoot! What do you think the chances are of a lock-down happening soon?”

     “I think it’s not if anymore, it’s when. And I think it will happen tonight or tomorrow morning. You know the Governor - he’s likely to err on the side of caution. I was thinking of offering up our guest room to Jamie. Suki won’t mind, but we’re heading to Arizona next week, and I don’t want to just leave Jamie to fend for himself.”

      Claire bit on her lower lip and nodded somberly. “It’s not what any of us wanted to deal with. Let’s get all of this out to the terrace, Milo. I don’t want to leave our guest out there hanging.” She opened the warming oven and pulled out a bacon and asparagus quiche. Reaching for the charcuterie platter that she had prepared a little earlier, she added it to the tray and took a quick last look around the kitchen to ensure that she hadn’t forgotten anything. She glanced up at Milo, concern written all over her face. “This is a tough one. I can’t imagine being stranded in a strange city. Please let me know if you find out anything more.” Milo nodded and followed her outside with the drinks tray. 

 

      The trio enjoyed their drinks and appetizers while Milo and Jamie talked about property values in the area, and year-on-year appreciation. The numbers were definitely appealing. Property on the Eastside had appreciated markedly over the past few years, and there was no denying what a solid investment it was. Milo pointed to the increase in value of Claire’s property, further highlighting what an attractive proposition a decent parcel of land would be. Jamie seemed quite convinced, but asked astute and probing questions about zoning, property taxes, easements and building codes. Milo and Claire answered all of his questions - apparently to his satisfaction.

     “I’m looking forward to seeing the land from the air,” he enthused. “Helicopter’s scheduled for Thursday morning, right?” 

      Milo nodded in affirmation. “Yes, I’ll pick you up here at 10:30.”

      “I’ll wave at you from the chopper if ye're home, Claire,” Jamie said cheekily and did a little eyebrow raise.

      That eyebrow got her every time! Ignoring the butterfly, she smiled back.

      “Don’t go encouraging the pilot do any wild tricks now. You know I like my peace and quiet out here." 

       Jamie turned to Milo. “The whole team will be here on Thursday, and I feel like the helicopter ride is just a formality - although I’m keen to see it from the air too. Will ye please send me the paperwork for an initial offer? We can chat tomorrow about the details. I really love this area. The views, the greenery, the sense of peace out here. Even the neighbors are … okay’ish,” he turned to wink at Claire, but failed dismally and both eyes scrunched into a quick blink.  

      Okay’ish! I beg your pardon,” Claire feigned indignation, but dissolved into laughter along with Jamie and Milo.

      The conversation turned to the pandemic and the challenges of conducting business during quarantine. Jamie was on his second beer, and he and Milo had depleted most of Claire’s appetizers.

      Jamie turned to her. “Claire, thank you for yer hospitality. Truly, I canna thank you enough for all yer troubles today.”   

      It sounded like he was getting ready to wrap up the meeting, and Claire hoped that she had done enough to secure Milo and Suki their deal. She was about to respond when everything changed.

   

      Her phone and Milo’s buzzed at the same time. Then Milo’s buzzed again twice in quick succession. Claire’s phone buzzed for the second time in mere seconds. She and Milo exchanged a quick look, and Jamie looked up from his silent phone, puzzled.  

     “Is this one of those Amber alerts?” Jamie asked. “I remember being on set in LA when an Amber alert came in, and the crew’s cell phones started going nuts!”

      Milo and Claire reached for their phones at the same time, not wanting to answer Jamie just yet. 

      “Shit!” Milo pressed his lips together. “King 5 News alert - you too, Claire?” She nodded, grim-faced. Milo sighed heavily. “Downtown Seattle has just gone into a lock-down, Jamie. You know that CHAZ situation I mentioned to you en route from the airport? Well, it has been growing increasingly unsettled, and the authorities have decided to prevent all non-essential movement in and out of Seattle.”

      “No way! Well that’s going to put a spanner in the works fer me fer sure. I’ll not be able to access my hotel, correct?” His brow furrowed, concern etched all over his face. “I have several meetings planned over the next two weeks. It’ll be a beast to change them all. And I’ll have to find a new hotel.”

      “Jamie, I was tipped off earlier this evening that this might happen sometime this week, so I took the liberty of making some calls while you and Claire were on the stone patio. Just a little back-up plan. I called all the big hotels in Bellevue - that’s somewhere between here and Seattle. It’s an affluent area with high-end hotels.”

      “I’m a little familiar with Bellevue from my previous visits here,” Jamie inserted. “A lot of big hotels there, as I recall?” 

      “I made several calls there - all Bellevue hotels are booked solid. Even the luxury suites. I called a number of my highly-placed contacts hoping they might wield some influence. The problem is that they’re already dealing with restricted occupancy thanks to quarantine restrictions mandated by the state. And now, with the surge of people from Seattle hotels due to the unrest over the past week, and especially today, Bellevue hotels are all at max capacity. Your uncle Dougal always stays at the Hyatt in Bellevue. Do you know when his reservation starts?”

      “Aye, and he’ll be here for Thursday’s meeting. I’ll text Dougal and see what he has to say. He’s in LA, so there’s no time difference.”   

      For the next few minutes, all three of them tapped away on their phones. Claire tapped Milo’s name on her message app. She needed to conduct a clandestine text exchange with him.

      If the uncle thing doesn’t work out, Jamie can stay here. I have 2 guest rooms, and the bigger one is ready, fresh linens and all. My friend from Atlanta cancelled her trip at the last minute so I am completely guest-ready.

      Milo looked up at her startled, then started tapping.

      No Claire. You can’t be expected to take this on. 2 weeks is a long time to have a guest. 

      I feel terrible for Jamie. You’re going to be in AZ with Suki. At least here I can help with some meals  - not all of them, don’t worry squinting face with tongue My house cleaner comes weekly, she would be happy to get extra pay to help with his laundry or whatever

      I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with you having a relative stranger in your home

      They looked up at each other over their phones, and Claire shook her head slightly and continued tapping. 

      You’re kidding, right? He’s so well-known, there’s no way he would do anything weird and risk his reputation. He knows I’m a widow and a mom, he’s been a perfect gentleman all day. I don’t foresee any problems.

      Oh Claire. You're a gem. Let me see what Suki thinks. She might nix this before it gets started. You sure you’re comfortable with him being here?

      Absolutely. He’s been really respectful of my home and me from what I’ve seen. No concerns at all.

      OK. Checking with Suki.

      Claire glanced over at Jamie, who was tapping away with a worried frown, and the occasional small shake of his head. He looked up at her, and shook his head again. “Dougal flies in early on Thursday - his reservation starts that morning. He’s checking with Murtagh, but I’m pretty certain they all fly in on Thursday morning.”

      “Uh, Jamie,” Milo began, shooting Claire a look and giving her the slightest nod. “I was texting with Suki, and we thought we’d offer up our place, but we’re going to be heading to our home in Arizona.” He looked at Claire, and she stepped in. 

      “Jamie is welcome to stay here.” She directed this at Milo, and then turned to Jamie. “You are more than welcome to stay here. I have two guest rooms. My daughters are away right now, so it would be quiet enough for you to get some work done. I’m in the middle of reviewing case studies and project notes for my summer cohort at the university, so I’m in and out, and would not be in your way.”

      She stopped momentarily when Jamie held his hand up, and she sensed he was getting ready to reject her offer. She ignored his hand and continued: ”I’d far prefer that you stay here, than find a random hotel that may or may not be maintaining the required amount of cleaning and sanitizing required by the state.”

      OMG, did I just go all mom on him?

      Jamie released a sigh, stood up, and walked to the edge of the terrace. He looked out over the trees for a long moment, and then turned around to face Milo and Claire, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

      “I can’t put you out like that Claire. Ye’ve been nothing but kind this evening, but I feel it would be an enormous imposition.”

      “I insist,” she countered. "I'm not about to send a fellow Brit and possible new neighbor to figure this out in the middle of a pandemic, not to mention the unrest."

      "Thank you, but I can't impose on ye like that, Claire. There must be another solution."

       "I can't think of one, to be honest. It's an emergency situation, and we're at the mercy of the authorities." She bit her bottom lip for a second, then continued, “If it’s bothering you that much, I have a business proposition for you. Come and sit back down.” She smiled enigmatically.     

      With a raise of his eyebrow, he reclaimed his spot on the sofa and looked at her expectantly. Milo, too, was all ears, a questioning look in his eyes.

      “I mentioned earlier that I had lived and studied in Edinburgh for a few years.” Jamie nodded. “Well, I have wanted to visit the Highlands for the longest time because I never got to go there during my time in Scotland, and it is the number one thing on my bucket list. If you agree to help me plan my itinerary and pick out some great places to stay and visit, we’ll call it even.”

      Jamie pursed his lips and looked into his beer glass, apparently seriously considering the idea. He finally looked over at Claire and his face broke into a wide smile, “I’ll go one better, I’ll host you at my family home, Lallybroch. It’s been in our family for a few hundred years, and we've converted part of the estate into a B&B and event venue. My sister lives there with her family, but there are plenty of rooms for guests. It’s my home when I’m in Scotland and need a break from Glasgow. Your girls must come too - we have plenty of room for all of you.”

      Her heart squeezed a little when he mentioned her girls. The fact that they immediately came to his mind reinforced Suki’s comment that he was very much a family man. According to Suki, he had cherished his time with his niece and nephews when they visited him at the lake. It appeared that under the celebrity facade, there was a genuine, decent man. She looked over at Milo with what she hoped was an ‘I told you so’ expression. 

      “Do we have a deal?” Jamie asked. He held his hand out to her, and she immediately took it in hers - momentarily discarding quarantine etiquette. They shook hands firmly. His hand was big and warm and strong. He held her hand and her gaze for a few long seconds, and then Milo stood up, interrupting the moment. 

     “Jamie, I’m sure you are jet-lagged and tired. I’ll help you get your bags out of my car so you can start settling in.”

   

      While the men headed out to the car, Claire hastened to the guest room to give it the once over. It had been cleaned just days earlier, so she knew it was probably good to go. She grabbed a new loofah and a tube of YSL men’s shower gel from her storage closet, and placed them in the en-suite bathroom. There was shampoo and conditioner in the recessed shower shelf, and on the vanity, a basket filled with supplies that a guest might need - everything from nail clippers to disposable razors. If he needed anything specific, she hoped he would feel comfortable enough to ask her. Opening the closet, she took out a white bathrobe and hotel-style slippers and lay them on the king-size bed. The other guest-room had a queen-size bed, and she knew Jamie would appreciate the bigger mattress. This guest room was a spacious corner room, so it had ample windows, and also included a sitting area arranged around a bay window. Two large plush recliners faced the window, which overlooked an endless stretch of trees and mountains in the distance.

       She heard the men heading up the stairs towards the guest room, and moved away from the bed to stand near the window, feeling a little awkward. They placed Jamie’s luggage on the floor near the bed as soon as they entered. 

     “I’ve given you this room, Jamie, because it has a bigger bed and bigger en-suite, but if you like, I can show you the other guest room, and you can decide.”

      “Ye had me at ‘bigger bed’. This is perfect. In fact it’s more than perfect. A big improvement on the Hyatt, fer sure.“

      ”Flattery will get you my world famous tiramisu for dessert,” Claire smiled. “Seriously though, if you need anything at all. If you’ve forgotten something, need toothpaste, need a book to read - whatever - promise you won’t hesitate to ask.”

      "I promise, Claire. This is more than I ever expected."

      Milo put an arm around Claire’s shoulders and looked at Jamie. “I’m going to head out now. Check your email later. I’ll send you the initial offer paperwork ASAP. Let me know if you need anything." Shaking Jamie’s hand, he turned to go, and then turned back around to look at him. "Oh, and if I were you, I’d take her up on the tiramisu."

     “I’m planning on it,” Jamie chuckled, “thanks again for everything, Milo. See you on Thursday.”

      “I’ll walk with you, Milo,” Claire began. "Jamie, p lease feel free to use the closet and drawers for all your things. No need to live out of a suitcase. If you want to grab a shower or get some rest, just head on down to the kitchen when you’re done. I’ll give you the WiFi password, and show you what you need to know to make your stay as comfortable possible.”

    “Sounds fantastic. I’ll jump in the shower. See you downstairs shortly.”

 

     After hugging Milo goodbye and reassuring him once again that she was plenty comfortable with the arrangement, Claire cleaned up all the glasses, bottles, plates and leftovers from the terrace and headed indoors. Her next target was the office. Looking around the room, she figured she needed about 10 minutes to sort it out. It was decorated in the classic style that Henry had preferred. Deep mahogany furniture, leather chairs, and an entire wall of mahogany bookshelves filled with hundreds of books. Everything from business manuals, academic textbooks, leather-bound first editions, classics - even the odd trashy novel. The leather-topped desk was hidden by a haphazard collection of her things. Files, folders, books, laptop - it was a bit of a mess, really. Gathering her things and placing them in a plastic tote, she quickly wiped down all the surfaces with disinfectant and furniture spray. She checked the printer cabinet for paper, and made sure there were some notepads and pencils. After depositing the plastic tote upstairs, she headed back down to the kitchen. 

     Dinner was going to have to be relatively simple that night, as she hadn't really planned beyond the quiche and charcuterie platter. She had thrown together a pretty decent home-made pesto the previous day, using basil from her herb garden. There was plenty of penne in the pantry, so it looked like it would be penne pesto tonight. The fridge also yielded all the fixings for a decent salad. She hoped Jamie wouldn't be disappointed, and fervently wished she had thought to make a decent meal for tonight. 

     It wasn’t that she had an aversion to cooking or anything. In fact, Claire loved cooking and was quite an accomplished cook. Every couple of weeks, she and the girls binge-watched The Food Network together, each one picking out her favorite recipe, which they would then all try to recreate together. The twins were becoming quite proficient in the kitchen. Ella gravitated towards cooking full meals, and had recently made a delightful French onion soup on her own. Beth was the undisputed baking queen, and her lemon meringue pie had been the perfect accompaniment to Ella’s soup. 

    Claire gathered all the ingredients for the pasta dinner and set them on the kitchen island. Perching on one of the stools, she grabbed her iPad, tapped the FaceTime icon and waited. It was a little later than usual today, but she had texted the girls earlier to let them know she would call them as soon as she could.

      “Hi babies, how are you?” she squealed as her beloved girls appeared on the screen. She blew them an avalanche of kisses - her usual greeting.

      “Hi mom,” they said in unison, huge smiles on their faces.

      “What’s going on, Mom,” asked Ella in a near whine, “you’re not usually this late.”

      “Ella!” admonished Beth, “Be nice! It’s not even that late. It’s like 7:00 at night in Seattle, and only 10:00 here.”

      “I know, I know,“ Claire sounded apologetic. “I’m sorry, it’s been a crazy day. Listen girls, I need to talk to you. Are you in your room? Door closed?”

      Their heads swiveled together, as they checked the bedroom door behind them, and both nodded. Beth gave a thumbs up for added confirmation.

      “Okay. I’ll get right to it. Uncle Milo has a VIP client who wants to buy the land next door to us - “

      “Nooooooooo!”

      “Settle down, girls. It’s not as bad as it sounds. This must stay between us only, okay? Uncle Milo brought his client over today to look at the property and chat with me a little about the neighborhood and stuff. He wants to buy up all the land for himself and his family - it’s not going to a builder to create a whole new neighborhood or anything. Anyway, you know the CHAZ issue we spoke about? Well, it escalated quite a bit over the last few days, and the governor has put Seattle on a strict lock-down. Stricter than quarantine, even. No-one can enter or leave downtown until they lift the lock-down.”

      “Okaaaaaay?” the girls were clearly wondering when she would get to the point.

      “Well, it turns out that the VIP client had booked a hotel in Seattle, and obviously he can’t get there now. So-"

      “Oh no, mom! Is he stranded? You should have offered to let him stay at our house. Things are so crazy there right now!” cried Beth.

      “No!” gasped Ella, looking at her sister in horror. “He’s a complete stranger - you should know better, Beth!”

      Claire sighed. “You both have a good point. We want to do the right thing and be hospitable and kind, but we also have to ensure that we are being safe and careful. So yes, Beth, I offered to let him stay until the CHAZ issue is resolved. Ella, Uncle Milo has known his client for some time, and he and Aunt Suki are in full agreement about him staying here. He is a very nice and decent man.”

      “Okay mom,” said Ella grudgingly. “I totally trust Uncle Milo and Aunt Suki. They would never put you in a risky position. Is it going to be totally awkward having to entertain someone you don’t even know?”

      “Well, he’s here to conduct a whole lot of business stuff, so I don't need to entertain him. I’m also really busy with student papers right now, so it’s unlikely that I’Il see him much, other than maybe breakfast or dinner on some days.”

      “Okay then. But if anything about him freaks you out, you need to let Uncle Milo know.”

       Claire's heart tightened a little at that. Her girls were terribly protective of her, and it warmed her heart to know that they were growing up to be sensible, compassionate, intelligent young women.

     “Of course, honey, you know I would never place myself at risk. You both mean too much to me. You have to promise me that you won’t say anything about this to anyone for now. The man is a VIP, and he is quite well-known, although you probably wouldn't know who he is.” Claire felt bad deceiving the girls about that, because she knew that they might remember Jamie from their mom’s obsession with his show, 'Clan Hearts', and his movie career had raised his profile in recent years. On the other hand, the girls were probably more focused on their favorite YouTube stars and social media influencers than a movie star in his mid 30s.

     “Oh, mom!” huffed Ella, “You know we can keep a secret. You always had VIPs visiting and other confidential stuff going on with Henry and his work, and sometimes we weren’t allowed to talk about who had visited us because it could affect a business deal or something.”

      “Right. You girls were always fantastic about that. Maybe in a few days I can tell you more, but for now please keep it to yourselves. So what did you get up to today?” Claire was anxious to change the subject in case Jamie appeared in the kitchen at an awkward moment. She listened and hmmm’ed and laughed as they told her about their day, and how they had entertained their step-siblings, aged 4 and 6. She had never begrudged the girls their time with Frank and his family. In fact, she loved that they got along so well - if anything happened to her, she had the comfort of knowing that the girls would be loved and taken care of.

   

     Jamie entered the kitchen just as she was wrapping up her call with the girls. His hair was damp from his shower, and he wore black jeans and a black T-shirt. He looked really good in head-to-toe black, and Claire had to remind herself not to stare.

      “God, I feel so much better after that shower. Were ye chatting with yer girls?”

      “Yes, we have a nightly chat. I miss those little scoundrels so much, and FaceTime and Zoom are basically my new best friends. Umm, Jamie, I need to apologize - I didn't plan a hearty dinner for tonight. Would you be okay with penne and homemade pesto  - with a salad? The tiramisu will have to be tonight’s saving grace.”

      “Dinna apologize, Claire! That sounds great. I love pesto - especially if it’s homemade. How can I help?”

      “Do you cook?” asked Claire, surprised at the enthusiasm in his voice.

      “Aye, I love cooking. My sister and I cook together at Lallybroch whenever I can spare the time. Now then, what can I do to help?”

 

   

Chapter Text


 

      Dinner ended up being much more successful and relaxed than Claire had anticipated. The afternoon heat had dissipated, and they opted to eat al fresco on the patio, just outside the kitchen. It was still light out, and they enjoyed the cooler evening air while chatting over their meal. Jamie had offered to cook the penne, and he had done so to al dente perfection. Claire toasted some pine nuts to sprinkle over the pasta, and the simple salad was the perfect accompaniment.

      “This is really good, Claire. I dinna think I could have managed a huge meal after the quiche and appetizers earlier, so this is truly perfect.”

      “Glad you like it. The basil is from the herb garden around the corner there,“ she nodded her head towards the far end of the upper terrace. "My girls planted a lot of herbs this past spring - quarantine boredom, I guess - and now I get to enjoy the benefits."

      "And your girls are away for a while, you said earlier?”

      “Yes, they‘re with their Dad in Boston.”

      “How did he end up in Boston and you here?” He was looking at her earnestly.

      “Oh Lord - it’s a long story.”

      “I have all night,” he smiled. 

       God - the way he said that! 

       Damned fluttering. Be still, butterflies!  

      “Okay, I’ll try to give you the Cliffs Notes. I met Frank when I was a student in Edinburgh. I was 17, and wanted to study English and History. Frank was ‘Dr. Randall’ back then - he’s a professor now. He was 30 at the time, and one of the history department’s rising stars. I was a TA for one of his colleagues. They shared a large office, so we were always running into each other while I was doing TA duties for the other Prof. Well, one thing led to another and we fell in love or something approximating it. Of course now in hindsight, I know that he took complete advantage of me. He would never get away with it nowadays.”

      She paused and took a sip of wine. Jamie nodded encouragingly. “Uncle Lamb was not happy with the whole thing from the start. A few months into our relationship, Frank was offered a post at Harvard. He wanted me to go with him. Lamb put up all sorts of arguments and objections, but I had just turned eighteen, and he finally agreed that it was time for me to spread my wings and make some of my own decisions.”

      Suddenly embarrassed that she might be boring him, she said with finality, “So we moved, and I lived there for a few years until I ended up in Seattle with Henry.”

      Jamie smiled his little half smile. “Now, now, Sassenach, it seems ye’ve left out big chunks of the story. The twins? How you actually ended up here? Please continue. I’m intrigued.”     

      “Okay - let me top up your wine. Frank helped me arrange a transfer to Northeastern University so that I could continue my studies. I worked part-time as a model to help pay for my tuition. Lamb also helped me by freeing up some of the small inheritance from my parents. We had only been in Boston for two months when I discovered that I was pregnant. Frank was not happy. In fact he was pretty pissed off.”

      A slight frown flickered across Jamie’s brow.

      Claire continued. “He slowly came around though, and promised we’d get married after the baby’s arrival. I should have seen it coming. He …uh … he started to spend more and more time at work. Late nights eventually turned into nights away. There was a distance between us that hadn’t been there before, but I was so wrapped up in the excitement of having a baby and my pregnancy had been easy up until that point. As luck would have it, my neighbor was a wonderful Italian woman, Giovanna. We still call her Nonna - Italian for ‘Grandma’. She was my rock throughout my years in Boston and helped me when things with Frank started to unravel. When I was just over three months pregnant, I went in for an ultrasound. I was on my own, because Frank called to tell me that something had come up at the last minute and he was unable to make it. It was during this appointment that I found out I was carrying twins. I was soooo excited to go and tell Frank and show him the ultrasound printout. I raced over to his office at Harvard after the appointment, planning on sliding the printout under his office door if he was busy. But I heard noises behind the closed door and I opened it quietly in case he was on the phone."

      A quick sip of wine.

      "He wasn’t.” She hesitated.

      Another tiny sip of wine.

      “He was behind his desk with a student on his lap. They were … uh … making out, I guess you could call it. She seemed to have lost her shirt and bra in the process.”

      Jamie’s face was expressionless, but she noticed the muscles in his jaw moving.

      “Christ, Claire. I canna imagine how hard that must have been. And you - so excited to share …” his voice trailed off as she blinked away the tears that threatened. He leaned across and took her hand gently in his.

      They sat like that for a long moment. Neither of them speaking or moving. Her hand in his. Strong and warm and comforting. It felt so right at that moment. 

      Eventually, Claire cleared her throat quietly. “I believe it’s time for dessert. You up for that?”

      “Claire,“ he said quietly, ”if this is hard to talk about, I completely understand.”

      “No, I’m okay. It was so long ago,” she smiled a wistful little smile. “Before, I finish this long saga of mine, let’s do a quick walk through the house, so that I can show you where everything is. If you’re going to be here for a couple of weeks, I’d like you to be familiar with everything. We can grab our tiramisu after that.” Jamie nodded.

      After clearing up and loading the dishwasher together, Claire led Jamie through the kitchen and into the hallway.

      “I think we’ll start here. This is the office. I just cleared it of all my stuff, and it’s exclusively yours while you're here. There are charger cables for a MacBook and Apple products there, and the printer is in the corner cabinet. There’s plenty of paper in there if you need to print out paperwork or documents. Writing materials and notepads are in the desk drawers. Please feel free to use anything you need.”

      “Claire,” Jamie started to protest, “I don’t expect you to rearrange yer life because I’m here. Ye don’t have to give up yer study.”

      “It’s no trouble at all, Jamie. This study has a good solid door, so you can close it and conduct your calls and business in private. I moved my stuff upstairs to the girls’ study - it’s in an open area between their bedrooms, so it really wouldn't be suitable for you. It’s great for me because being in their space will be a sweet reminder of them. Honestly, this is the best solution.”

      Claire,” he ran his hands through his hair, “the last thing I want is to put you out even more.”

      “Hush now. The only reason I’m doing it is to ensure you give me the best Highlands tour imaginable.” She smiled her cheekiest smile, and he reciprocated with his little crooked one. 

      Jesus, that smile is undoing me bit by bit. 

      “Oh, ye’d better believe it. I will create the Sassenach tour of a lifetime.”

      She giggled her distinctive little giggle, “I can’t wait! Okay, let’s continue our walk-through.” 

      She led him through the hallway, and around various corners, pointing out things that he might find useful. They stepped into the media room. A sloped floor and two rows of movie theater seats - eight in total - ensured that everyone had a perfect view of the massive screen at the front of the room. Along the rear wall was a built-in bar, cabinets and an old-fashioned popcorn machine.  

      “Feel free to help yourself to anything from the bar. The under-counter fridges are stocked with beer, wine, and bottled water. All glass bottles though, we’re trying hard to minimize our use of plastic. I’ll grab a bottle for your room.” She took out a bottle of San Pellegrino, Nonna’s favorite brand, and the one Claire still bought years later.

      “Do you have a sweet tooth? Because if you do, you need to remember where I stash all the snacks.” She pulled open two of the cabinet doors to reveal baskets filled with all manner of candy, chocolates, chips, and caramel corn. If you see anything you fancy, feel free to help yourself any time.”

      “Mmhmmm,” he mumbled, the deep timber of his voice going straight to her butterfly zone. Jamie looked at her and she willed him not to give her ‘the smile’, because that on top of his ‘mmhmmm’ would be too much. But he did. The right corner of his mouth slowly lifted into his crooked smile, and his eyes crinkled a little. ”Thank you Claire, I would verra much like to help myself to some of yer snacks.”

      Jesus H! He is so not flirting with you, Claire! Stop reading things into his words.  

      But the butterflies continued to flutter.

      Claire continued to show him through the rest of the lower level. She pointed out the formal dining room, bathroom, and mud-room. In the kitchen, she showed him the pantry and invited him to help himself to anything in there or in the main kitchen fridge.

      She led the way upstairs, Jamie close behind her. “This is the laundry. There’s a laundry hamper in your closet too, so feel free to throw your clothes in there, or just toss them in the hampers here. I can wash them when I do a load. Alternatively, my house cleaner comes every Wednesday and I was thinking of asking her to stay a little longer and help with your laundry, if you’re more comfortable with that.”

      “Aye, Claire. I’m happy to pay her whatever she wants and more. I’ll not have ye put yerself out so much, and then wash my undercrackers on top of it.” He looked mildly embarrassed, and Claire smiled reassuringly.   

      “I completely understand - I’d feel the same way.” The laundry was adjacent to Jamie’s room, and she handed him the bottled water she had taken from the media room fridge. “Do you want to place this on your nightstand?” She deliberately didn't ask to enter his room, wanting him to know that she valued his boundaries. It was important to her that he felt he would enjoy the same level of privacy that he would had he been in his hotel room.

      Jamie rejoined her and they continued their tour. Next up was the girls’ section and the study area between their bedrooms. 

      “See? I have a great workspace up here too. I’ll be perfectly comfortable and productive here. And to be honest, if I’m going to be working at home at all, I’ll likely be outdoors, now that summer has finally made its appearance.“ 

      When they reached her bedroom door, Claire hesitated a little before showing him. Was it weird to take Jamie in there? Would it seem over-familiar? Jamie made the decision for her. 

      “And this door’s yer bedroom, I take it? Looks like ye might have have a similar view to the one from the foyer.” 

      “Yes, it’s practically the same view.“

      She pushed open the double doors to reveal an expansive room that took up almost a third of the upper level. The king-size bed dominated the room, its soft cream summer-weight quilt and multitude of pillows in varying shades of cream, blue and grey lending it a feeling of serenity and elegance. A grey tufted bench filled the area at the foot of the bed. The alcove seating area was furnished with a large grey tufted sofa, accented with smaller throw pillows in blues and creams. Over time, Claire had added decorative touches like wall art, accent pieces, and beautiful rugs.

      She led him to the bathroom. Jamie had politely hummed and nodded his approval and reactions throughout the tour, but her bathroom drew a soft gasp. A large free-standing tub sat at the far end of the room, in a slightly raised area surrounded, by full-length windows that revealed breathtaking mountain views. The tub and its faucets and fixtures were positioned so that nothing impeded the view from the tub. Baths were always a treat for Claire, and although she rarely indulged, when she did, she made an occasion of it, scenting the water with bath salts and bubbles, and pampering herself with luxurious gels and lotions. 

      “That’s one-way glass around the bathtub, in case you were wondering,” she said lightly. 

      “I was indeed wondering, Sassenach, since this room overlooks my property,“ he replied, and she knew, without even looking at him, that he was smiling that crooked little smile. She couldn’t resist turning to look at him, and yes, as expected, the smile was there in full force, accompanied by the raised eyebrow. 

      Claire blushed hotly, and quickly moved towards the walk-in closet, where Jamie made some more of his approving noises at the large well-organized space. They headed downstairs, and Claire could finally breathe a sigh of relief that the awkwardness of that moment had passed.

      “Almost done, Jamie. Just one more thing to show you.” They walked back towards the kitchen, which opened onto a large family room. 

      The family room was Claire’s favorite room during the colder months. Its beamed ceilings and huge stone fireplace lent it the air of a Colorado cabin, and Claire liked nothing more than to curl up on one the oversized sofas with her girls and a good book. Custom fitted shelves and wall-to-wall wood paneling surrounded the fireplace. 

      “I love this room, it reminds me of the family room at Lallybroch - similar fireplace.” 

      “Wait - it’s not the one I wanted to show you, you’re going to like this even more.” Claire smiled a cheeky smile as she pressed firmly on the panel to the left of the fireplace. It appeared to be part of the fitted shelves, but it swung open heavily and they stepped through to a large room that featured a pool table as its centerpiece. There were some arcade games along the back wall - including an old-fashioned pinball machine and a Foosball table. In the far left corner, opposite the secret panel, was a full, well-stocked bar complete with bar stools and a weathered wood counter top. Two burgundy leather Chesterfield sofas created a comfortable conversation area, and to the right of the room, an expanse of French doors and windows opened onto the upper terrace. This part of the room also housed a treadmill, step machine, yoga mats, free weights and a home-gym system.

      “Oh my God. This has to be every man’s dream man-cave,” Jamie said in open-mouthed astonishment. 

      “I wanted to show it to you and let you know that you can use the equipment any time. I noticed that you … uh … seem to work out …” her voice trailed off as she realized how that must sound.

      “Mmhmmm,” said Jamie, eyes fixed on her, waiting for her to continue. 

      You’re enjoying my awkwardness, damn you! 

      “Well, I meant that if you feel the need to work out, I have limited equipment, but feel free to use whatever you want.”

      “I wouldn't describe this as limited, Sassenach. You have pretty much everything I would need right here.”

      “The gym section looks like a bit of an after-thought in here - and actually, it was. After the situation -” she stopped suddenly, her face reddened slightly, and she quickly swallowed and continued. “Well, Henry, my late husband, was kind enough to give up part of his man-cave so that I could work out from the comfort of home.”

      Jamie narrowed his eyes slightly and looked at her for a moment. He hadn’t missed the fact that she was about to say something but quickly changed her mind. He wondered what that was - clearly it brought discomfort - or maybe sadness. 

      “Thank you, Claire,” he said, hoping to dispel the awkwardness of that moment for her. “I’ll definitely take you up on that. Working out and maintaining my fitness is important to me. I dare say to you too?” Yes, Dr. Beauchamp, I have noticed your toned body. And your arse? Oh, that arse is giving me some frisky thoughts about you. 

      “I do mostly yoga and the step machine, but yes, I try to maintain my fitness and health as much as possible. And now, ironically enough, I’d like to suggest that we grab our tiramisu. I know that jet-lag must be catching up on you.”

      

      It was well past 10:00 p.m. by the time Claire plated up generous helpings of dessert. They sat side by side at the kitchen island, and Jamie groaned deeply when he took his first bite. He looked at her with wide, smiling eyes, silently expressing his hearty approval.

      “This is better than the best tiramisu I’ve had in Italy!”

      “It’s Nonna’s secret recipe,” Claire revealed, as she enjoyed hers too. “I’m the only one she ever shared the recipe with, or so she says. She was widowed quite young, although not as young as me, and has no children. Nonna shared a lot of her secret recipes with me. I miss her a lot. She really is a grandma to my girls. We fly her out to visit us at least once a year, but this year has been hard with travel restrictions.”

      “Thank you, Nonna,” Jamie said, dramatically. “If I ever meet her, I will bow down to the Goddess of Italian desserts.”

      “Oscar-worthy right there,” Claire eyed him through a raised eyebrow of her own, and he chuckled at the silliness of the moment. 

      “Jamie, it's so late! You need to get your sleep or you'll be jet-lagged and exhausted. Let's continue our chat tomorrow. We can also go over what's ahead this week. I certainly don’t want to be all up in your plans, but you mentioned you had some meetings set up, and I want to know how I can help. I’m heading to campus at some point tomorrow to work on papers. Maybe we can chat a little before I go - whenever you get up - I’m not on a strict timeline at all. Only fixed thing I have is a lunch appointment.”

      “That’s a braw idea, Claire. Again, I am so grateful for yer help and hospitality.” He reached for her hand and raised it to his mouth. Without taking his eyes off hers, he kissed the back of her hand softly, and gently released it again. 

      Her butterflies didn't flutter this time. They positively attacked her! 

      Jesus! When is the last time a gentleman kissed the back of my hand? Holy crap. I’m a mess. Stop the madness, Claire! He’s an award-winning actor! And a player. Stop reading things into his words and actions.  

      “I’ll help ye lock up, Claire, and then we can turn in for the night.”

 

      Twenty minutes later, Claire was standing under a hot shower. Just yards away in one of her bedrooms, and probably already asleep, was Jamie freaking Fraser. A man who had been the subject of her fantasies for a good number of years - along with millions of other women who devoured each episode of 'Clan Hearts'. Jamie’s portrayal of Hamish McLean, a Highlander whose wife was captured by the English, had riveted audiences globally, and his fierce love for her had women around the world falling in love with the notion of the hopelessly romantic Scottish warrior. The graphic and intense love scenes were scintillating and very risqué - adding to Jamie’s appeal as an international heartthrob and sex symbol.

      Of course all of this spawned an ardent fan base that encompassed the spectrum from the mildly infatuated to the dangerously obsessed. Claire remembered interviews during which Jamie had addressed disturbing stalking behavior and even threats against women he was dating. He had lamented the fact that maintaining any kind of relationship was difficult and stressful. He seemed to go from event to event, always with a new stunning starlet or model on his arm. None of these ever seemed to become long-term girlfriends, and that in itself spawned more rumor and speculation. As interest in Hamish McLean dwindled after the show ended, Jamie had gone on to bigger and better things - starring roles in big Hollywood movies. The frenzied attention of the 'Clan Hearts' fans also abated somewhat, no doubt a huge relief to him. He still had a large global fan base, but it had established itself as an audience that recognized his outstanding acting talents in several critically-acclaimed roles, while also appreciating his appeal as a sex symbol. Claire was squarely among the fans who had progressed to a more mature appreciation of the man as an actor.  

      I do enjoy your movies and appreciate your talent, but it sure doesn’t hurt that you are so dang hot. How on earth have you ended up as my house guest?

           

Chapter Text


      Claire woke up just after 5:00 a.m. Pulling on her black yoga pants and a soft pink tee, she padded downstairs to the kitchen. She had slept soundly, but woke up early, and lay in bed for about ten minutes, still in disbelief that she had Jamie Fraser in her home. Wondering what he might want for breakfast, she made a mental note to point out all the breakfast options in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Claire had always been an attentive host, and her concern for her current guest had more to do with the fact that she wanted everyone to feel relaxed and welcome in her home, than the fact that he was a well-known celebrity. Pulling a few ingredients from the pantry, she tapped the Pinterest app on her iPad and pulled up the recipe for lemon and poppy seed scones. It took her about 10 minutes to prepare the dough, and while they baked for the requisite 20 minutes, she brewed herself a mug of coffee, and headed outside to the covered patio, iPad in hand.

      The sun was about to rise over the mountains and she loved to see the vivid pinks and oranges in the early morning sky. This morning was somewhat cloudy, however, so she curled up on one of the sofas in the covered patio and opened Safari. She entered ‘Jamie Fraser’, and started to click on random articles and links that grabbed her attention. It was the usual profusion of interviews, movie promos and twitter posts. She tapped 'Images', and a grid of pictures appeared before her. Jamie shirtless and buff. Jamie modeling for high-end men's clothing lines. Jamie promoting fitness clubs and gear. Jamie holding glasses of whisky. Jamie with sunglasses and a baseball cap. But most of all, Jamie with an endless array of beautiful women. On the red carpet; on the beach; on yachts; on a coffee run to Starbucks. Jamie with blondes. Jamie with brunettes. Jamie with redheads. Jamie in the midst of a deep soulful kiss. Jamie with his arms around a beautiful blonde in Paris. Jamie holding hands with a sultry brunette in New York. Jamie looking annoyed at the paparazzo taking his picture. The timer went off, startling her and forcing her to close the iPad and head indoors to retrieve the scones. The kitchen smelled delightful and citrussy and fruity. As she waited for the scones to cool, she made a quick list of things she needed to share with Jamie - the WiFi password, the code for the garage and front door, her cell-phone number, and WhatsApp details. She poured the glaze over the scones, set out some plates and mugs for breakfast, and headed upstairs to get ready for the day.

      She stepped into the shower, where she always did her best thinking, and thought about the images she had seen on her iPad. They were a sobering reminder that while Jamie may have made a few flirty comments to her over the course of the previous night, he had unfettered access to the world’s most beautiful and glamorous women.   

      Calm the heck down, Claire! He is so far out of your league. Yesterday was all about him turning on the charm and using his acting skills. It’s time to focus on the important stuff. Review those papers and get that professorship.

      Her self-motivating talk in the shower inspired her to go all-business in attitude and appearance. She had a lunch appointment - socially distanced on the large patio of her office building - with some faculty members. She wanted to make a good impression on them as she vied with a lecturer from the Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania for the professorship in her department. Additionally, she needed to show Jamie that as attractive as he was, she could be immune to his charms and she was certainly not going to go all googly-eyed over him.

      Pulling on black, slim-fitting ankle length pants, she looked through the hangers for a top that was flattering, yet business-like. Slipping on a draped, sleeveless blouse in soft white silk, she checked her overall appearance in the mirror and was satisfied that she looked professional, without being too severe. Black, block-heeled Cole Haan sandals completed the look. Her hair was in disarray, of course. Having washed out yesterday’s beachy waves, she now had a mass of unruly damp curls. Brushing vigorously, she gathered her hair into a bun - not entirely messy, but not overly staid either. She applied her usual work make-up - keeping it as natural as possible. Soft mocha shadow on her lids, brown eyeliner to accentuate her eye shape, and black mascara to coat her long lashes. A lick of tawny blush and matte lipstick, and her professional look was almost complete. Her final touches were small silver stud earrings and a spritz of Michael Kors perfume. Stopping by the girls’ study area, she placed her laptop and papers in her laptop bag and headed downstairs. Jamie was already sitting at the kitchen island, phone in hand.

      He turned as he heard her heels click lightly on the wood flooring in the kitchen. 

      “Good morning!” he said brightly with a huge smile. He stood up as she walked into the kitchen. 

      “Good morning to you too.” Her smile and upbeat mood matched his.  

      Ah! A morning person, thank God! This whole hosting thing would be a bloody pain in the ass if you were a morning grump. Also, did you seriously just stand up when I walked into the room? My butterflies are back and you’re not making my attempts at maintaining a polite, professional distance from you very easy. 

       His hair was still damp from his shower, and he had dressed in blue jeans and a blue toned plaid shirt. He was barefoot, and Claire chalked that up as a small victory. Clearly, he was feeling comfortable enough to not bother about wearing shoes in the house. That warmed her little hostess heart.

      “Are you a morning person, Claire?” he asked. “Because I am irritatingly cheerful in the morning.”      

      “Oh, I’m definitely a morning person,” she said, “and grumpy morning people annoy me. Did you sleep okay?”

      “Oh God yes! The bed is really comfortable, and it’s so quiet out here! No endless sirens and city noises to get used to. When I stay in a big city, it takes me a few nights to get used to all the noise.” His smile was warm and sincere. “Have you been baking this morning? It smells heavenly in here.” 

      “I made some lemon and poppy seed scones,” she replied, pulling them out of the warming oven. She arranged them carefully on a large plate, and placed them next to the breakfast plates and mugs.  

      “Let me show you how to work the coffee maker. It does regular, lattes, and cappuccinos.” Quickly and efficiently, she made herself a latte, demonstrating all the steps so that Jamie could learn from her. “Your turn.”

       Jamie set about making his latte, following all the steps perfectly, but not quite getting the hang of frothing the milk for a latte. 

      “May I?” Claire asked. Jamie nodded and she continued, “It takes a little practice. Hold the jug and I’ll show you. She closed her hand over his large one as he held the milk jug. “Watch the steam nozzle carefully. You need to work it in and out of the jug slowly and carefully so that it doesn’t blow the milk all over the place.” 

      “Mmhmmm,” he murmured, and Claire looked up straight into his eyes. He raised both eyebrows, and the effect on her inner butterflies was instant.

      She kept her hand on his and moved the jug up and down in small, slow motions to allow the steam nozzle to froth and bubble the milk - horribly aware that the whole scene could be interpreted as quite suggestive. Something that Jamie clearly enjoyed thinking about too. She sensed, rather than saw his smirk. 

      “Watch the jug, Jamie. Use slow, controlled movements for a richer foam. You need to be a little careful because you definitely don’t want a steam burn.”  

      “Sorry, Sassenach.” His smile was evident in his voice, but she refused to look up. He refocused his attentions on her frothing tutorial, and his finished latte looked just as good as Claire’s.

      “Nice work! Please feel free to help yourself any time the need for caffeine grabs you.” 

       As they sat down to enjoy their breakfast, Claire was still focused on making a list of essential information for Jamie.

      “Mmm!” Jamie groaned, reaching for another scone. “These are so good. Thank you. Ye look all business today, Sassenach. I like that look on ye, if I can be so bold.” 

      “Thanks, I guess,” Claire grinned at the awkward compliment. “Before I go, I wanted to give you a list of things you might need.” She reached for a notepad, and made a list of important information.

      “WiFi password, check. Keypad codes for the front door and garage, check - just in case you go out for a run. My full address is here, in case you call a cab or limo or something. We're technically in Snoqualmie, not Seattle. My cell number and my WhatsApp details. Spare face-masks are in a drawer in the powder room. Can you think of any info you might need that I haven‘t included?”

      "It looks pretty thorough to me. Thanks for all that. Here, let me add my cell number and WhatsApp details to yer phone." She unlocked her phone and handed it to him, watching as he entered his contact details into iMessage and WhatsApp. He saved them as 'Jamie F', and then sent himself a quick text from both apps on her phone. He looked up at her with a teeny smile, and saved her details as ‘Sassenach’ in both apps.

      “There. Now we have each other’s details saved in case there’s a need to call or text.”

      “Thanks, Jamie."

      Well, that was pretty slick. Clearly, entering your number into women’s phones is a move you’ve had a lot of practice in

      “Before I head out, please know that you can help yourself to anything from the pantry or fridge. There’s lots of sandwich stuff, ciabatta bread and sliced wheat bread in the bread drawer and frozen meals in the freezer. Nothing is off limits. Make yourself at home, and I hope you have a productive day. I’ll be back some time between 4 and 5 this afternoon. Call or text if you need anything."

      “Aye, I will. Just so ye know - I have a dinner meeting scheduled with the local representatives of my PR team tonight. They’ll pick me up around 5 p.m."

      "Sounds good. I’ll see you later,” and with a quick smile, she grabbed her phone and laptop bag and headed to the garage.

 

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

    

      By the time Claire pulled into the garage that afternoon, it was 4:40 p.m. and she was drained. Lunch had been decent, but one of the faculty members had asked a series of awkward and uncomfortable questions. She felt like she had answered him well, but wasn’t sure what the rest of the group thought of his line of questioning. It had bothered her all afternoon, and she needed to do some yoga. The deep stretching and quiet meditation would help dissipate some residual stress. 

     She entered the house through the mudroom door and headed to the kitchen. It was quiet and there was no sign of Jamie. She sat down at the kitchen desk, and eased her shoes off. Leaving her laptop bag on the desk, she went over to the sink, soaped up her hands and rinsed them off. It was a pandemic-inspired habit now, and she also insisted that the girls do a thorough hand-wash whenever they arrived home from anywhere. Grabbing a paper towel to dry her hands, she glanced out of the corner window and saw Jamie seated on one of the sofas on the middle terrace - where they had sat with Milo the previous day.

      He was staring straight ahead at the trees and mountains on ‘his property’, apparently deep in thought. 

      She headed out to say hi, and he immediately stood up to greet her. 

      Oh God, if your smile doesn’t kill me, your impeccable manners will. 

      “Sassenach!” His smile and genuine enthusiasm at seeing her made her forget some of the stresses of her day. “How was yer day?”

       He was wearing slim fitting navy pants with a pale blue chambray shirt and tan shoes. The combination of blues set off his eyes beautifully, and Claire was reminded yet again why he had become such a heartthrob. Next to him, she suddenly felt wilted and very plain. 

       “It was a long day,” she admitted, smiling gamely. “Happy to be home, though. How was your day? Did you get a lot done?”

       “Oh, aye. I got a lot of my calls and emails squared away. I’ll fill you in on all my upcoming meeting details later, if that’s okay. I think my ride is almost here.”

       “Okay - I hope you have a great evening. I need some yoga. You have the front door code, right?"

       “Right here in my phone.” He patted his back pocket.

       They walked back to the house together, and right on cue, Jamie’s phone buzzed, and he headed off to the front door with a parting smile. 

       “Later, Claire. Hope ye can decompress a little.”

 

      After streaming her most strenuous yoga class and working up a drenching sweat, Claire showered and put on a deep blue swimsuit. The yoga had helped her work through some of the kinks in her shoulders, but she knew that being suspended in the warm water of the hot tub would be the best way to unwind. 

      First, she needed to FaceTime Ella and Beth. Neither girl could suppress her excitement - they were just hours away from turning 16. It was a bittersweet chat. While Claire shared in their excitement at reaching this milestone, not sharing it with them in person would be painful.

     They chatted excitedly about their day. Their step-siblings had baked cookies with them - Beth leading the process, of course. Afterwards, Frank had dropped them off at Nonna’s, where they had enjoyed a pre-birthday dinner of to-die-for lasagna and homemade gelato.       

      “Mom, she asked us to send you a huge hug,” said Beth, dutifully delivering Nonna’s message.

      “Yeah - and don’t worry, we didn't say anything about the VIP man to her, or anyone else. What did you guys do today?” asked Ella. 

      “Well, we didn't do anything really, Ella. Remember, he’s just a guest here because of the emergency. It’s not like I have to entertain him and show him all the sights. We can't do that anyway because of quarantine and lock-down. I went in to work today, and he stayed home and did a lot of his work from here. Right now he’s out having dinner with some business associates.”

      “Is he being good about quarantine requirements, or does he think it’s not too serious?”

      “He’s a little like us, I guess, Beth. We didn’t shake hands - uh, when we first met. And I noticed that he washes his hands quite frequently. So yes, he’s aware and doing all the right things to protect himself and others.”

      Wrapping up their chat a few minutes later, Claire reminded them that she would be calling at around 7:00 a.m., Seattle time, for a virtual breakfast party. It had become their special tradition for her to make them crepes for breakfast on their birthday, and they were excited to do it via FaceTime first thing in the morning. 

      “I promise to make you crepes again the first morning you’re back in Seattle! Love you both so much!” She blew them an avalanche of goodnight kisses, and tapped out of the app. 

      Moments later, her phone buzzed. It was Suki.

      “Sook! How are you doing?”

      “I’m well, thanks, but the reason I’m calling is to see how you’re doing? Can you talk?”

      “Yes - Jamie is out with someone from his PR team.”

      “Well first - thank you from the bottom of my heart for opening your home to Jamie. Is everything okay? Awkward? Comfortable?”

      “Everything is great, Suki, I promise. I’d let you and Milo know right away if anything felt uncomfortable. He is so much more down to earth than I expected.”

      “I hate to say I told you so - “

      ‘But you did,” Claire smiled, “You said he was a lovely man, and you were right. He is respectful, helpful, humble - not at all what I expected from a movie star.”

      “Yes, Milo and I thought that too when he was on the lake last year. Just a regular guy in a ridiculously hyped industry. Well, it all sounds good with you - I’m glad to hear it’s going smoothly. You’ll see Milo on Thursday. Be sure to let him know if anything has come up that you need to talk about.”

      "I will Suki, but it’s all good. I appreciate you checking in.”

      ”Okay, love you hon.”

      “You too.”

    

      Armed with an ice-bucket, a bottle of sauvignon blanc, wine opener, a stemless wine glass, and her iPad, Claire made her way to the hot tub clad in her swimsuit and a fluffy white terry bathrobe. Draping the robe on the nearby towel rack, she pulled off the hot-tub cover, and eased herself into the steaming water. Before immersing herself completely, she selected the Spotify app on her iPad. Tonight, she felt like her ‘Unwind’ playlist would do the trick. It was a long list of her favorite relaxing songs, most of them older tracks that brought up memories of her student days and Uncle Lamb's eclectic taste in music.

       Tapping Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years”, she slid into the tub and completely submerged herself from head to toe. Drifting back up from under the water, she lay back, took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, allowing herself to float face up. Time seemed suspended as Claire lay there, the warmth of the water and soothing music lulling her deeper and deeper into a state of complete relaxation. She wasn't sure how long she lay like that, but in the far reaches of her consciousness she thought that a song ended rather abruptly, only to be replaced by the gentle strains of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. But she was so relaxed, so comfortable, that she didn’t want to waste energy thinking about the skipped song. When she felt a fleeting movement across her face, she thought it might be an insect, or a fallen leaf perhaps. She was still too deeply relaxed to give it much thought. But her consciousness continued to play tricks on her. Was someone calling her name? Her ears were submerged in the water and the music surrounded her. Suddenly, her hand was gently captured in another larger hand. She frowned slightly and slowly opened her eyes. Jamie was gazing down at her from the edge of the hot tub.

     

Chapter Text


 

      Jamie was perched awkwardly on the edge of the hot tub, leaning over to touch her hand. His brow was creased in a look of concern.      

      She sat up, blinking water out of her eyes, and tugged a few tendrils of hair from her face.

      “Claire, I’m so sorry!” He looked distressed and embarrassed all at once. “I couldna tell whether or not ye were asleep. I didn’t want to leave ye here in case ye fell asleep in the water. You seemed so stressed and tired when ye got back from work. And I noticed the bottle of wine in the bucket there, ye ken …"

      " and you thought I polished it off and passed out in the hot tub.” She finished his sentence for him with her characteristic giggle. “I haven't even had my first glass yet.”

      Jamie buried his face in his hands, clearly embarrassed and annoyed with himself. “Och, I feel terrible for disrupting your ... sanity hour, ye called it?”

      “Please, don’t give it another thought. I appreciate that you were so … uh, concerned. How was your dinner - you’re back earlier than I thought.” She glanced at her iPad - it wasn’t even 7:30 yet.

      “Good, actually. We got a lot done. The PR firm sent a couple of youngsters - they have great ideas for social media presence and all. I really dislike all that stuff - maintaining the correct profile and presence. The studios want me to get it right though, so they’re prepared to pay for it to be done well. Which is code for they want it done their way. These two young 'uns were in their early twenties, and really astute and “woke”, I think they called themselves.”

      “Ah yes, my students love to think of themselves as very woke too. Most of them are, actually. So I take it they want to help you comment on social media about quarantine, protests, social justice, etc.”

      "Aye, they’ll help me draft statements. I want it to be my voice, but they will just give everything the once over so that I don’t end up pissing everyone off. That’s happened a bit in the past."

      “Hmm. Yes, the joys of social media. It’s a blessing and a bloody curse too. That’s my background, you know? Public Relations and Communications. Knowing how to deal with the media - especially social media - is critical to corporate as well as career success.” She frowned and sighed deeply. “We should chat about your meetings. I am more than okay with you hosting them here, you know? I have lots of outdoor areas, covered and open, so social distancing requirements won’t be an issue.” 

      “Aye - we should chat about schedules - when do you want to do that?”

      “We can do it right now, if you like. Or later on the patio, if you prefer. My ‘sanity hour’ just started though. You’re welcome to join me in here, or I can just cut it short, and join you on the patio.”

      “I would never dream of depriving you of your sanity, Sassenach.” He smiled broadly, releasing several of her butterflies in the process. “I’ll be right back.”

      “Bring a wine glass,” she called after him.

 

      Within a few minutes, Jamie was back. He had his terry bathrobe from the guestroom draped over his shoulder, and was wearing a pair of striped blue swim shorts. Tossing his bathrobe next to hers on the rack, he placed the wine glass next to the ice bucket and eased himself into the tub, sitting opposite her.     

      Sweet baby Jesus! Your body looks just like the pictures I saw on Google this morning - and I thought those were bloody-well Photoshopped! Frigging 8-pack! You truly are a beautiful man. Also, our swimsuits match.   

      There was a moment of slight awkwardness as they both became keenly aware that they were in a body of sensuously warm water, almost naked, and within mere feet of each other. It was a challenge to keep limbs from brushing up against each other, even with only two of them in the 6-seater tub. Jamie submerged himself and sat up again, running his hands over his face and through his hair to wipe off some of the water. 

      “Should we get some wine, Sassenach?”

      “Yes, of course.” And then she realized that the wine and glasses were right behind her. Too late to do anything about that. She turned to kneel on one of the raised molded seats in the hot tub so she could reach the wine more easily, but she still had to lean way over to reach the ice bucket. Damn! She wished she had worn a more conservative swimsuit. This one wasn’t a thong cut, but it revealed way more butt than she wanted to show right now. The knowledge that her rear looked as good now as it had in her modelling days was small comfort to her. 

      “I’d give you a hand there, but ye seem to have it all under control.” She could hear the smirk in his voice.

      She did not have it under control, and was fumbling horribly with the wine opener. Why hadn’t she opened it in the kitchen before coming down to the tub?

      “Uh ... I’m okay. Give me just a sec.”

      “Take yer time, Sassenach. I’ll just enjoy the view here.”

      The cork finally popped out, and she hoped he hadn't noticed how badly she bungled the whole process. She turned to look at him quickly. His eyes were firmly fixed on her rear end. He didn’t even try to hide it - in fact, he raised his eyebrow and looked her straight in the eye.

      He cocked his head to one side. “I’m happy to help if ye need.”

      “No. Thanks. I’ve got this.”

      She poured two glasses of chilled wine and handed him his glass. Taking a large gulp, she resumed her seat with relief and leaned back so that her head was resting against the tub.  

      “So where did the woke kids end up taking you for dinner?”

      “The Rainier Club - corporate office in LA arranged it, or it would have likely been a pizza joint, if the wokes had any say in it. They served us out on the patio, so it was perfectly in keeping with restrictions. There was hardly anyone there, and all the employees were wearing gloves and masks. I felt like they did a really good job with the distancing and guest safety. Food was good too.”

      “Yes, it usually is. I’m a member there, but haven’t been since March.”

      “Tell me about your day, Claire. You seemed stressed earlier.”

      “Long story. Boring one too.”

      “Don’t say that, Claire,” he said gently. "You said it yesterday too - or something similar. Ye’re an intriguing woman, with a very interesting life story - I just wish I could hear it all. But we keep getting interrupted.” He raised both brows in a pointed reference to the fact that Claire seemed to be avoiding telling him her full story. 

      “It’s not that I’m particularly secretive or anything - I just don’t want to bore you. You’re surrounded by interesting, beautiful, successful people all the time. To listen to the life story of a boring college lecturer can’t be that intriguing.”

      “I’m just going to sit here in silence until you tell me.” He took a sip of wine, looking at her expectantly over the rim of his glass. His eyes didn’t move from hers.

      He waited.

      She took a deep breath. 

      “Okay. Where d’you want me to start?”

      “Where ye left off last night. We can talk about my meetings later. You … uh … you had just walked in on Frank and his student.” He looked pained that he had to bring up the story at that awful point, but Claire nodded stoically.

      “Well, after that, Frank seemed very remorseful. Apologized repeatedly. Swore it would never happen again. I believed him of course, and forgave him. For a few weeks after the office incident, he was home by late afternoon, came with me to a prenatal appointment, and was generally more attentive. But within a month, I noticed that he started to come home later and later again. He was short-tempered, criticized me for everything. My cooking, my poor housekeeping skills, and by that time my baby bump was starting to show, and he seemed quite … grossed out by it all. He commented on my food intake and wanted me to wear flowy things that hid my belly.” Jamie’s jaw muscles rippled, and his brows drew together briefly.

     “Throughout this time, I confided in Nonna. She had a few choice Italian names for Frank. Let me know if you ever need some Italian swearwords.” They both smiled. “I honestly would not have made it through without her. By the time I was 5 months along, Frank had only been to one medical appointment, and I realized he would probably not come to any more of them. Nonna started to accompany me to my doctor visits. My doctor noticed that the babies were somewhat underweight. Nonna voiced her concerns to my doctor about the extreme emotional stress I was under. She’s not one to hold her tongue. I was classified as higher risk, and placed in the care of a specialist team. But the stress was too much, and I delivered the babies via C-section at 29 weeks. 38 weeks is generally considered full-term with twins.”

      She stopped there, and took a deep, shuddering breath. It had been so long since she had shared this story with anyone. 

      “Claire, I …”  She held her hand up, and shook her head slightly.

      “I just need more wine, I’m okay.” Beyond caring about the cheeky swimsuit at this point, she stood up to grab the wine bottle and topped up both glasses. Replacing the bottle in the ice bucket, she continued, “Frank was at the birth only because it was a C-section. He had already made it clear that there was no way he would watch babies being delivered any other way. My babies were tiny - 3.2 and 2.9 pounds. They had the expected preemie respiratory issues - it was so, so stressful. My medical team was phenomenal, though. They allowed me to stay there with my babies for the entire time. The head of the team was involved in a research study on ‘the relevance of maternal stress on premature births’, and later it became ‘the importance of maternal proximity in NICU babies’ - or so he said. I came to believe afterwards that he realized at the birth what a jackass Frank was, and wanted to keep me in an emotionally safe space, close to my babies. So I became his ‘research study’. There’s a special place in heaven for that man.”

      To her surprise, she teared up somewhat, and blinked them away swiftly. Jamie slid over and sat closer to her, taking her free hand in his. His sincerity and concern was exactly what she needed right then, and she knew that despite his flirtatious nature, he didn't have an ulterior motive for wanting to sit closer to her in this moment. This was not Jamie pulling a move on her. This was Jamie being the ‘lovely, lovely man’ Suki had described.

      She allowed her hand to relax in his. “So, the medical team set up a private room for me, and I stayed there for the full 6 weeks of the babies’ stay in NICU. Nonna was there almost every day. Bringing me soups, and pastas, and homemade ciabatta.”

      “And tiramisu,” Jamie interjected, bringing a little levity into their chat.

      “Yes,” she giggled, “and tiramisu. And so much love and support. Mind you, Frank was deeply concerned about the babies and their progress. He spent the first week at the hospital with me, sleeping on the sleeper sofa in my room. When the twins started to gain weight, he started to sleep at home and visited for a couple of hours every night.”

      “Hmmm, and you were 18 at the time, aye? Just a child yerself. Frank would have been 30? 31?” She could have sworn that a flash of anger crossed his face. Or maybe it was pity. 

      “When we were finally able to take the babies home, Uncle Lamb came over to help for three months, bless him. Between him and Nonna, I made it through those difficult first months, and the girls started to thrive. Over the next few years, I joined some mommy groups, and started to expand my social circle, while ensuring a constant round of baby play-dates, music classes and such. I had to shelve my studies, of course, but by the time the girls were almost four, they were enrolled in pre-school, and I had started distance learning again. I was 22 and felt like I had a handle on the mothering thing. Hah!” they smiled at each other.

      “Aye, I’ve been around my niece and nephews enough to know what that laugh means.”

      “Still, I forged ahead. By this time, things between Frank and me were beyond saving. We weren’t married - or even engaged - so it was not a messy split from a legal standpoint. We were able to come to a decent arrangement for child support and co-parenting. I started to look for a town-home to rent, but Nonna insisted that the girls and I move in with her. It took a while for her to persuade me, but I realized that she needed it just as much as we did. She was quite lonely, and apart from her friends from book club and bridge, she didn't have much of a social life. You know, looking back, it was one of a handful of moments in my life when the stars aligned and things worked out well.” She took another sip of wine, Jamie nodded encouragingly. He was still interested in her story, apparently.  

      “We struggled along initially, and then I went back to do some more modeling to earn extra money. It helped a bit with tuition and Nonna’s rent, which was ridiculously low compared with other town-homes I had looked at, but still a hardship for someone without a full-time job and in the midst of her studies.”

      “What type of modeling did ye too, Claire?”

      “Okay - this is where it gets a little embarrassing.” Both his eyebrows shot up.

      “No, no! It’s not what you’re probably thinking. I was too much of a prude to do anything salacious. Since I was too short to do runway modeling, I focused on catalog stuff. No big designer brand campaigns or anything like that.”

      “Why would you think that’s embarrassing?”

      “Well … I specialized as an underwear model. And swimwear.” She flushed slightly.

      “Aye, and I can see why,” the corner of his mouth lifting into his naughtiest smile yet.

      She flushed slightly. "Now d’you understand why I was embarrassed.”

      “No, Claire. From my perspective, ye’ve nothing to be embarrassed about at all.” He was quite serious. “First - you were providing for yer family. Second, you were using yer God-given … uh … gifts. No different to me using my acting talent and experience to earn a living by making movies.”

      “I was a butt double in a movie once, actually. They flew me out to Chicago for three days. We shot for hours and hours, and when the movie finally came out, my ass was on display for maybe five seconds. It was the most uncomfortable experience of my life.” 

      “Aye, I ken verra well what ye mean. So how did you end up here in Seattle?”

      “By the time I was 25, I had completed my undergrad studies, and the girls were in elementary school. I really wanted to study further, so I enrolled in the MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communications at NYU. I picked New York because it was close to Boston. Most of the course was distance learning, but I had to travel for cohort studies a few times. I was gone for a week at a time for that, but thankfully, I had a great support system for the girls in Nonna, and of course Frank was just next door. While I was on one of my cohort trips, I met Henry Benson, my late husband. He was 43 - yes, a fair bit older than me - and a guest professor from Seattle, on loan to NYU. I couldn’t believe it when he started to show an interest in me. He wasn’t one of my lecturers, he had just stopped by to observe one of our seminars, and we all met at a bar around the corner for drinks afterwards. We started chatting, drinks turned into dinner, and he started to very carefully and respectfully pursue a relationship with me.”

      Even though the conversation had moved from her most deeply painful memories to areas that were lighter and more positive, Jamie did not release her hand. Claire made no move to withdraw it either.

      “After three months of dating, he asked to meet the girls, so we went to spend a weekend with him. He had an apartment in New York at the time, and had asked a decorator to come in and transform one of the rooms into a fantasy bedroom for the girls. It was just lovely and colorful, sparkly girl stuff everywhere, and a whole chest of dress-up clothes. He had never been married, and a bout with cancer in his twenties left him unable to have children, so he absolutely doted on my girls. We ended up spending almost every weekend in New York with him. Nonna was thrilled, even though we felt awful about leaving her behind. She came with us to New York to babysit quite a few times, so that Henry and I could have an adult night out.” She smiled wistfully, and Jamie nodded, squeezing her hand lightly. 

      “Henry did a months-long ‘movie festival‘ with the girls. He lined up all the kid-friendly movies that were shot in Central Park, and we watched one every weekend. Then we would head to Central Park the next day. We’d rent bikes, or take a pedi-cab tour to try and find the locations from the movie we had just seen. Their favorites were “Elf” and “Stuart Little”. We must have watched them at least 6 times.” She giggled her deep, throaty giggle, and Jamie realized how much he had come to enjoy that sound. 

      “How was Frank with all the weekends away?” Jamie asked.

      “Honestly, he didn’t mind at all. He seemed relieved mostly - being released from parenting on the weekend allowed him to pursue his own … ummm … interests.”

      “When did ye eventually leave Boston? Or New York?”

      “About a year into our relationship, Henry asked me to marry him. I said yes. The following weekend, he did the sweetest ‘step-dad proposal’ with the girls. Presented them with ring pops, took them shopping at Saks for beautiful new dresses and shoes. Then off to a salon for mani-pedis, and that night they went for a fancy dinner in a chauffeur-driven limo, all gussied up in their new outfits. Just the three of them, mind you. I was not invited,” she said, feigning indignation. “They had a wonderful time, and I knew he would be the most amazing step-dad.”

       She gently withdrew her hand from Jamie’s, took his empty wine glass and placed both glasses on the edge of the tub. “So when I was twenty seven and the girls were almost nine, I became Mrs. Henry Benson, and we moved to Seattle with him. He remained on the faculty at the Fulton Business School as Professor Emeritus, but he scaled back active teaching because he was in demand in the business arena. His field was tech start-ups, and he served as a director on the boards of several large companies. In the meanwhile, I had finished my Masters, and worked as a junior lecturer at Fulton. I received my doctorate three years ago, and have been an associate professor ever since. Currently, I’m in the running for a full professorship at Fulton. It is such a huge deal for me, and I’m a little stressed about it. My lunch today was an attempt to schmooze some of my faculty colleagues as they start the vetting process. It’s between me and a candidate from Wharton Business school in Pennsylvania. One of my colleagues had some unnecessarily awkward questions for me at lunch. So cross your fingers for me please!”

       Jamie gave her a huge grin, and held up his hands with all fingers crossed at ridiculous angles. “All ten crossed for good measure, but I have a feeling you have this in the bag. You seem so competent and self-assured.”

      “Thank you, Jamie,” she grinned back. “I wish I shared your confidence. The saddest part for me is that if I do get the professorship, Henry …“ she trailed off. “He would have been so proud.”

      “Aye,Claire. I’m so sorry, I know it must be painful for ye. What happened?” he asked gently.

      “Right around the time that I got my doctorate, we learned that his cancer was back. It had progressed to the point where the doctors knew that conventional treatments would have very little effect. In fact he was placed in the care of a palliative medicine team almost immediately. We were determined to enjoy what little time he had left, and we made it so, so special. For him, for me, for the girls. Of course, Henry spent the first couple of weeks getting all his affairs in order. He wanted me and the girls to be taken care of, and we will never want for anything materially. But his loss has left a big hole in our hearts and in our lives. He passed away two years ago in May. Just eight months after his diagnosis.” She took a deep breath, exhaled, and smiled a pensive smile. “Jamie, I have prattled on and on about myself all night. That’s my whole story right there. You know it’s your turn now, right?”

      “Hmmh,” Jamie grunted one of his trademark noises that she hadn't quite learned to decipher yet. 

      “How about we head inside, grab some cheese and crackers - I kind of forgot to eat this evening - and head to the stone patio to see the last of the sun’s rays on the mountaintops?  We can talk schedules really quickly, and then it’s your turn to share your life story.”

      “Right,” said Jamie, “I”ll grab the robes.” He took Claire’s robe off the rack and stepped back up onto the wide stone surround of the tub. He held up her robe as Claire emerged from the tub and slipped into its comforting warmth. Taking her gently by the shoulders, he turned her around to face him. He wrapped the robe around her midriff and tied the sash in a firm knot at her waist. Then he wrapped his arms around her and held her for a few seconds. His lips were against her temple. She stood perfectly still, barely breathing. Then she slowly raised her arms and wrapped them around his waist. 

      “Thank you, Claire,” he murmured. “I ken that some of that was very hard for you to talk about. I thank ye for trusting me with yer story.”

 

Chapter Text


     

      They stood completely still, wrapped in each other’s arms in the cool evening air. Her ear was pressed against his naked chest, and she could both hear and feel his solid heartbeat. Any other time, she would have had a more carnal response and her butterflies would have been out of control. But she was drained from sharing so much of herself. Being pressed up against Jamie with his strong arms around her brought out an emotional response in her now - a sense of peace and safety and acceptance and warmth.  

      “Thank you for listening,” she murmured. 

      He tightened his embrace, and moved his lips slightly on her temple as he spoke very, very quietly. She couldn’t understand what he said, but recognized it as Gaelic. 

      “I was serious, Jamie. I would love to know your story too. Let’s grab some wine and watch the sun disappear. We have about 30 minutes before it goes down completely.” 

      They hurried back to the kitchen, where she arranged some crackers and a small assortment of cheeses on a plate, while Jamie picked up a bottle of Cabernet from the wine rack in the pantry. 

      Minutes later they were on the stone patio, still wrapped in their robes, side-by-side in the Adirondack chairs.

      The terraces enjoyed a beautiful, unobstructed sunrise view every morning, while the sunset view was well out of range somewhere behind the house. But although their properties didn't get a direct view of the sunset, residents of this neighborhood still enjoyed watching the evening shadows creep up the mountains from the ground up. And every evening, the sun's rays held onto the peaks for as long as they could, before finally surrendering to the night. 

      Neither spoke for a while, reluctant to disrupt the sense of absolute peace and tranquility. Eventually, Jamie turned to Claire.

      “Did I tell you I signed the initial offer for the property? Milo will submit to the sellers tomorrow.”

      Claire gasped softly, “How exciting, Jamie!” She held up her hands with her fingers all crossed together, mimicking Jamie’s earlier gesture. “I’m crossing all ten fingers that it goes well for you too.” 

      “Thanks, Sassenach.” He leaned over to the table, and cut a small chunk of brie, placed it on a cracker and handed it carefully to Claire. She smiled her thanks, a teeny bit flustered by the intimacy of his gesture. 

      You need to stop moving your thoughts in this direction. You had such good intentions to remain aloof this morning; and now, hours later, you have hot-tubbed with him, poured your soul out to him, hugged him for a loooooong moment, and now you’re letting him practically feed you by hand. Get. A. Grip.

      “Jamie,” she began, quietly, “I want to hear about your childhood - and whatever else you feel comfortable sharing.” 

      “Aye, Claire. We’ve both suffered some painful losses, ye ken. It’s been hard for me to open up and talk about some things, but I feel I can trust ye the same way you just trusted me. You are also aware that parts of my life seem to be an open book? Between the tabloids and social media, it seems everyone thinks they know ‘the real Jamie Fraser’. There is a perception that I lead the fabled life of a celebrity. That it’s a glamorous, champagne lifestyle - all tuxedos, limos, and a revolving door of beautiful women. Honestly, Claire, my real life - the life I want for myself - is so far removed from that.”

      She nodded reassuringly. “Jamie, I know that in the career you have built, and the lifestyle that often goes with it, there are many challenges and difficulties. It must be very hard to trust anyone, and I imagine there is a constant fear of sharing too much, and then finding your words twisted and misrepresented in the media days later. I want you to know that I will hold whatever you tell me in absolute confidence. It’s entirely up to you to decide what you want to share.”   

     He watched her intently as she spoke, and nodded silently. “I grew up in my family home, Lallybroch.” He began slowly. “It’s near Inverness in the Highlands, and has been in my family for a few centuries. I mentioned to you before that my sister lives there. Jenny is married to Ian - one of my best friends when we were growing up. They have four kids, three boys and a girl, aged between four and thirteen. She’s four years older than me, is Jenny - 38 this year. We had an older brother, William, who was seven years older than me. He lost his fight with leukemia when he was fourteen years old. I was gutted. Still am. Willie was my hero.” He paused.

      “Jamie,” Claire whispered, her voice filled with emotion. 

     He looked out at the mountains before him and said, “I love how the sun’s rays have crept up the mountains over the past twenty minutes or so and are now at the very tippy top of the mountains. This is really a great spot for sundowners.”

      “Yes it is,” she said simply, comprehending his need to shift gears and process some of his feelings before continuing. Reaching toward the cheese platter again, he sliced off a chunk of smoked Gouda, placed it on a cracker and handed it to her, waiting until she had taken a bite of it before he picked up where he had left off. 

      “My Mam died of breast cancer when I was eleven. It completely broke my father. Broke Jenny and me too. But my Da, oh Claire, my Da was a mess for a long time. They shared a love like nothing I’ve ever seen. Ye ken how so many couples continue to love each other after years together, but that fire and passion - the ‘being in love’ - tends to fade away? The giddy, crazy, romantic love, I mean. The deep love is still there, ye ken?” Jamie glanced at her and she nodded slightly. “Well that never happened with my parents. They were like teens in love all the time. I remember them sneaking kisses and little touches any time they could - like they couldn’t keep their hands off each other - even after years together and three kids! Jenny was always grossed out by their sappiness, but I didn't mind so much. Some nights, my Da would play one of their favorite love songs - anything from Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole to Barbra Streisand - and sometimes even stuff from the 80s or 90s. If the lyrics aligned with what he was feeling, the song was fair game. ‘Listen to these beautiful words, Ellen,’ he would say to her, ‘Musical poetry’.” Jamie mimicked what must have been his Dad’s stronger Scottish accent with a wistful smile. “And then he would grab my Mam by the hand and slow dance right there in the kitchen or family room or wherever the mood took him. To this day, I’m more drawn by a song’s message and lyrics than the melody or rhythm.”

     Somewhere in Claire’s consciousness, she vaguely remembered floating lazily in the hot tub earlier that evening. Had the music changed suddenly, or had she fallen asleep momentarily? 'The first time ever I saw your face, I thought the sun rose in your eyes ...”' A brief frown crossed her brow. The Roberta Flack classic wasn’t even in her ‘Unwind’ playlist. She pushed away the fleeting thought and focused on Jamie’s words.

      “The rest of the family rallied around to help us. My Mam’s brothers, Dougal and Colum, my aunt Jocasta, my godfather, Murtagh. All of them became a permanent fixture in our lives. They're still very involved in our lives and the family business - and Dougal and Murtagh are a part of my business team too. You’ll likely meet them this week or next.”    

      Jamie reached for the wine bottle and topped up both wine glasses. He prepared another cracker with a sliver of cheese for Claire and sat back to continue his story.

      “My father struggled to pick up the pieces, but he forced himself to give Jenny and me as much routine and normalcy as he could. He never got over it, though. When I was fourteen, he had a stroke. Three days after that, he passed away.”     

      Jamie leaned back against the angled Adirondack chair and stared up into the sky. It had darkened a little, and more stars were becoming visible. The mountains were becoming shadowy silhouettes in the distance.

      “If it hadn’t been for the extended family surrounding me and Jenny, I reckon we would have been a mess. But they were determined that we would continue our education and do my parents proud. I had done some wee plays and musicals at school as part of drama class, and really loved it, so I asked to be enrolled at the Edinburgh School for Performing Arts. Jenny studied hotel management and culinary arts. She always loved to cook and putter around in the kitchen, but when she started her formal education, she appointed me her sous chef at home. I had to help her whether I wanted to or not. No-one says no to Jenny. Wait until ye meet her, Claire, she’s a force of nature to be sure.”

      "Yes, I imagine she’d have to be to keep her younger brother in check." Claire teased and he responded in kind. 

      “I canna lie, Sassenach, I was quite a handful. But I cleaned up my act and helped Jenny a lot in the early stages of the B&B - our family business. It’s officially called Lallybroch Farms. We converted some of the barns and built a few new ones. There are currently 63 rooms and suites, and we operate at between 70% and 100% occupancy throughout the year. I say ‘we’, but truly Jenny and Ian do all of it. I’m a silent partner. Murtagh and Dougal are also shareholders, and they help with marketing and events. Lallybroch hosts about 25 weddings a year - and a few other events. It’s a busy place, but the business side of things is set a good distance away from our family home, so we can maintain some privacy and separation from the business, ye ken. It’s our family home, and we want to keep it our special place and haven. Despite all the sadness that it’s seen, there’s a kind of magic about it. That’s where you and the twins will be staying during the Ultimate Sassenach Highlands Tour.”

     "The Ultimate Sassenach Highlands Tour, is it?” Claire’s brows shot up, and she giggled heartily. “I can’t wait. Can you give me a preview of some of the highlights?”

      "Of course not! It’s exclusive, top secret, and a surprise to boot. But dinna fash. I offer a comprehensive satisfaction guarantee."

      "Hmmm. I’ll bear that in mind.”

     

     By now, Claire had eaten her fill of cheese and crackers, considerately and almost absent-mindedly prepared for her by Jamie, and they were nearing the last of the Cabernet. Jamie turned to her, looking more serious than she’d seen him. 

      “Claire, if we’re going to talk about syncing schedules and meetings, I’ll need to share some information with ye. It’s about a business transaction that I’ve had to sign an NDA for, to protect myself and my business associates.”  

     There was that term again. Non-Disclosure Agreement. It sounded intimidating and menacing, and for the second time in a matter of days, it drove home to her how very public and open the life of a celebrity must be. How tiresome it must be to have to require people in your circle to sign legally binding documents in order to maintain confidentiality on transactions that were regular events in the lives of regular people - like buying a home. Or investing in a business. She couldn't fathom a life like that - it would feel so restrictive and intrusive and limiting, in so many ways.   

     “I canna tell you a whole lot yet, and believe me I would love to share my exciting news.” He grinned with an almost childlike enthusiasm and Claire knew that whatever it was, it must be a big deal for him. “But what I can tell ye is that it involves wine, and it should all be signed and sealed in a matter of days. The meeting on Thursday is about this transaction. So, looking at the schedule then - in the morning, I have the helicopter ride - Milo will pick me up here for that. When we get back, the team will be with me and it will include my Uncle Dougal, Murtagh, two of my legal team and three guys representing the other side of the transaction. I expect the meeting to take between 2 to 4 hours, and I’ll pay for whatever refreshments are needed for the day. Maybe you and I can come up with some ideas after we’ve outlined my schedule?”

      “Of course. I’m more than happy to help. We’ve hosted many similar business meetings here over the years. I’ll work from home on Thursday so that I can be here if you need anything.”

      “Thank you, Claire. You’ve no idea how much it means to have your help and guidance. I am anxious to get this one right. Without sounding overly dramatic, my entire future is wrapped up in this deal.”

      Gee, thanks Jamie - no pressure. But I have to admit I’m curious now. The wine business, huh?

      “On Friday,” he continued, “I have no meetings scheduled, but I will likely be making a lot of calls and sending loads of emails throughout the day.”

      “Yes, I imagine it will be a heavy 'paperwork' kind of day for you after Thursday’s meeting."    

      “On Monday, it’s all movie business. My core business team will be here - Dougal, Murtagh, and the two lawyers. Plus my agent from Aster Talent Management and two PR people. There will be a few reps from Panther Entertainment and Stargate Productions.” Claire recognized the names as key players in the movie and entertainment industry. “It will be a long day,” he continued with a sigh. “Dougal and I have been at loggerheads about which way I want my movie career to go. He’s siding with my agent and PR people on the whole thing. Monday will be a come-to-Jesus meeting fer sure.”

      “What about Murtagh?”

      “Ah, Murtagh is a gem, Claire. Ye’ll like him. He wants what’s best for me, for my heart and my soul - not just the fame and the money. He wants me to be happy, but knows the importance of keeping a clear head in the business, so he gives me a lot of really good advice. Murtagh keeps me grounded and he’s not shy to tell me when I’m being a git. He’s been a father figure since my teens.” 

      She smiled at the thought of Jamie having someone to keep him from letting the movie business get inside his head too much. 

      “I’m looking forward to meeting him and Dougal. What about the rest of next week? Is there anything planned that I can help with? More meetings to host?”

      “No meetings planned yet - but sometimes they come up at the last minute. Next Tuesday and Wednesday will likely just be a lot of calls and emails. I might take a hike or two. And if the weather’s good, I might also take advantage of yer pool, if that’s alright.”

      “Of course. Please feel free to enjoy all of it,” she waved her hand behind her, indicating the entirety of her home and its amenities. 

      “Thank you. Next Thursday and Friday, I’ll be driving east, a little way past Wenatchee. It’s for the business transaction - a continuation of this Thursday’s meeting. The week after that, I’m supposed to be in LA.”

      “Okay - it all sounds really busy for you. Hopefully the meetings and transactions all go smoothly. My schedule is really flexible, and I work equally well from home or campus. If there’s any way I can help, just holler. What about tomorrow? You haven’t mentioned anything about tomorrow yet.”

      “I’ve not got any meetings tomorrow, it’s a quieter day for me. I’ll spend some time reading a few documents and contracts for Thursday’s meeting. Probably go for a run too.”      

      “Tomorrow is the twin’s 16th birthday - I may have already mentioned that. It’s been our tradition for me to make them crepes on their birthday. So first thing tomorrow morning, I'll be doing a virtual crepe birthday breakfast. When the crepes are almost ready, I’ll FaceTime them and wish them a happy birthday, and we’ll do a virtual celebration. It sounds and feels so weird to think about it, but I guess online parties and drive-by birthday parades are the new normal.’ She paused, and swallowed hard. “It’s only the second time I haven't been with them for their birthday. Frank and his wife took them to Disneyland for their 12th.”

      “I imagine it will be a tough day for ye.”

      “Yes, it will be a little tough. My friend Melissa was due to have visited me this week from Atlanta. But she had to cancel due to Covid exposure. We had planned to go to Woodinville tomorrow to distract me from the fact that I am missing my daughters’ huge milestone birthday. I’m still planning on going. I booked a patio table and a tasting room, and I’ll be damned if I’m giving up the opportunity to enjoy an outing after so many weeks - months, actually - of isolating.”

      “Woodinville, huh? That’s a braw little town. Last year, when I spent six weeks here to get a sense of the place, Jenny and Ian visited me with the kids for a couple of weeks. November is a quieter time at Lallybroch Farms, and she needed a vacation. I took her to Woodinville for the day, and she fell in love. It’s got such a unique character and appeal. She loved that it had some big wineries, like Chateau and Columbia, and some wee, quaint tasting rooms too. It was a good day.”

      “You know … you’re very welcome to join me, if you get all your calls and things done. My patio reservation is for 12:30.”

      He looked at her for a long moment, head cocked to the side. 

      Shit, was that too forward? Does it sound like I’m asking him out? On a date?

      “I would love that, Claire. I’m tired of isolation too. We’ll make it a fun afternoon to keep ye from dwelling too much on the birthday, aye?”

      “Sounds great to me. Should we head indoors, Jamie? We seem to have a handle on the schedule now, and we can chat tomorrow about what to do about food and such - for the meetings. I’m also very aware that you are still jet-lagged.”

      “Aye. It’s been a long, but lovely evening - getting to share our lives a wee bit.”

      He stood up, offered her his hand and gently pulled her to her feet. After sharing almost two bottles of wine, she felt a little tipsy, and was grateful for his steadying hand. After gathering the plates and glasses, they made their way back to the house. 

      “I’ll see you in the morning, Jamie. Crepes okay for breakfast?”

      “I canna think of a better breakfast, to be honest. I love crepes!” He sounded genuinely excited, and she chuckled at his enthusiasm. 

      “Good night, Jamie. I’ll see you whenever you get down here. Go on upstairs, and I’ll lock up down here.”

      “Good night Sassenach.” With a last, quick smile, he headed up to his room.

 

 

 

     

Chapter Text


      Claire stood under the warm shower for a long time. Her thinking place. She washed away the hot tub chemicals and conditioned her hair for as long as possible before finally rinsing and stepping out of the shower to dry off. As she towel dried her hair vigorously and pulled it up into a pony tail, she thought ruefully about how wild it would look in the morning, but she’d deal with it then. Pulling on her standard sleepwear of silky lounge pants and a soft tee, she swept aside the profusion of grey and blue decorative pillows from her bed, climbed under the duvet, and wriggled into a comfortable sleeping position.

      Thoughts from her shower still in her head, she contemplated some of the moments she’d shared with Jamie over the preceding hours, and wondered how on earth they had managed to squeeze so much into one evening. She felt like she had given and learned so much about herself and about him. Both of them had bared their hearts and their souls, connecting over deep losses that had fractured their hearts and left scars. The scars were fading, but not entirely gone. A reminder that the events that caused them would continue to shape them as people. She mulled over some of the things Jamie had said - and the things he hadn’t said. He hadn’t spoken about his more recent years - other than a brief mention about people thinking they knew the ‘real Jamie’ based on his public persona. He hadn’t spoken at all about his romantic relationships. Maybe he assumed she knew about them, because they played out so publicly. In her Google search that morning, she hadn’t seen anything about a recent or new relationship. She knew that didn’t mean anything - in fact, based on what he had said about protecting his family’s privacy, she wondered if perhaps he had a ‘special someone’, and was fiercely protecting the relationship.

      Yes, she decided, exhaling long and slow, that’s exactly what it was. He was deftly avoiding talking about a special relationship, wanting to keep it in a safe bubble. She couldn’t begrudge him that. After years of Hollywood relationships in the public eye, he deserved some happiness and privacy away from public scrutiny. His flirty teases and that long hug - they were just the signs of a new and budding friendship. She turned onto her side and closed her eyes.

      There’s no way he is single. He’s just not ready to open up about his love life - give him time. You’re destined to be good friends and neighbors, nothing else. He’ll marry her, whoever she is, and you’ll all be good friends. You’ll share recipes, and you’ll have cookouts and 4th of July parties, and you’ll keep an eye on each other’s houses when you're traveling. The twins will nanny their kids when they're home from college - Jamie and his wife will like that. It will all be great. Perfect, in fact. 

       Claire drifted off to sleep, and in the far corners of her mind, she thought she heard the soft strains of … she was so, so tired … floating in the hot tub … crepes tomorrow … did she remember to buy blueberries … 'The first time, ever I saw your face ...'

 

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

 

      Jamie turned off the water and leaned back against the shower wall, eyes closed, water dripping off him. He shook his head, wishing he could shake off his thoughts of Claire as easily as he could the water droplets. How was she getting under his skin this quickly - he’d known her for less than two days! Trying to convince himself that the connection he was starting to feel was all about her physical attributes, he stepped out of the shower, and grabbed one of the towels. He pulled on a pair of boxers - a respectful nod to the fact that he was a guest in someone’s home. The last thing he wanted was to be caught naked in some weird middle of the night emergency. He drew the bedcovers down and sprawled in the middle of the bed. Yes, it was definitely down to her looks - and the fact that he was in a self-imposed sex and relationship hiatus for just under six months now.     

      To be 100% accurate, it was really Jenny-imposed, but he was a co-operative participant. And the result of almost six months of abstinence had made him think lustful thoughts in the shower. That’s all it was - he was a man, and men were hard-wired to think of sex multiple times a day, right? It was all about her incredible eyes. He wanted to gaze into them and carefully analyze how the various shades of amber and gold and honey merged to create the unique shade that reminded him of a tiger’s eyes, or whisky, or a sunrise. It was all about her mouth. That lower lip of hers and her habit of biting it when she was deep in thought, or sharing the darkest moments of her life with him. He imagined pulling her into a deep, soulful kiss and gently nibbling and sucking that lower lip of hers, and relishing its soft fullness between his lips. And it was all about that arse. That sweet, prefect arse. It was the perfect amount of roundness and fullness. It would fit so perfectly in his hands. He knew that without a doubt. Ignoring his body’s reaction to his suggestive thoughts, he pulled the bed covers over himself, and turned to lie on his side. 

       Bullshit. It’s not just about her looks, and ye ken it. Why were ye so angry at Frank, that ye had to bite down and control yer words when ye heard how he mistreated her? Why were ye filled with relief when ye learned that her life with Henry was so much better, and that he cherished her as she should be cherished. She’s goddamn beautiful, but that’s not even the half it, ye walloper! Ye're a fucking mess, Fraser! Ye're taken with her warmth, her kindness, her ability to take a difficult situation and make it better. Ye're blown away by her resilience and the way she has bounced back every time life has knocked her down. Ye're impressed with how she’s built a successful life and career for herself. Ye're challenged by her quiet intelligence. And ye're a wee bit envious of her ability to live her best life - despite all the loss and pain. Ye want a part of it, ye want to be in her aura and her space, but she’s at a different point in her life. The life ye lead, the work ye do, and the things that go with it are not for her. Ye shouldna’ try to impose all of that on her. She is someone to be adored and protected by a man who can offer her stability. And safety. Ye'll bring her nothing but trouble and pain. She will be a wonderful friend and neighbor. Ye’ve got to accept it for what it is. Ye’ll get to see her and spend time with her, but it will be on a different level than the one ye’re imagining. Friends and neighbors.

      He inhaled deeply. His breathing slowed into a rhythm that brought him to the verge of sleep and his thoughts jumbled into exhausted, incoherent snippets … wine tasting … her hand in his … crepes for breakfast … “I thought the sun rose in your eyes…”

 

 

Chapter Text


     She awoke with a tightness in her chest. Like each of the twins’ birthdays before this one, Claire's thoughts went right back to the stress and angst of their birth. It was always a fleeting thought before she focused on celebrating their special day, and today’s heartache was due more to the fact that she wasn’t bursting into their rooms singing ‘Happy Birthday’ at the top of her lungs and having a hug-pile on one of their beds.     

     Quickly pulling on blue yoga pants and a white linen shirt, she released her hair from its pony tail and subdued most of her curls, rubbing a tiny amount of Argan oil into her palms and over the curls to help the taming process. During her three-minute toothbrush cycle, she let her thoughts wander to Jamie and last night’s revelation - entirely of her own making - that he was nurturing a private relationship and protecting it by keeping it to himself. She reminded herself that 24 hours ago she had stood in this very room admonishing herself to remain professional and maintain a friendly distance. Today, she would need to redouble her efforts. She was determined to regard everything he did and said as entirely platonic. The two of them were squarely in the ‘friend-zone’, as the girls would say.

     And that took her straight back to thoughts of her sweet Ella and Beth. How was their day going in Boston? Had Frank and Kelly made enough of a fuss of them in the morning? Had they showered the girls with love and kisses? Kelly had been fantastic about agreeing to help with Claire’s plans. She had hidden the huge balloon bouquet Claire had ordered and agreed to place it outside their bedroom door. The girls shared a bedroom at Frank and Kelly's, and the balloons would be the first thing they saw when they emerged from their room. Claire had also shipped the girls’ gifts directly to Boston. They would open them during their FaceTime call.  

      Moving quietly in her bare feet between the kitchen island, the pantry, and the fridge, she gathered the ingredients and toppings for the crepes as quietly as possible in an effort to avoid waking Jamie. It had been a late night, and he was only just getting over his jet-lag. She mixed up the batter while two skillets warmed up on the range. Brushing the heated skillets with melted butter, she poured the first two crepes, and while they cooked, she started to prepare the toppings. Within the next twenty minutes she had made about half the crepes and all the toppings were lined up: cinnamon sugar, caramel sauce, sliced bananas, strawberries, blueberries, and lemon juice.     

      Grabbing her iPad, she propped it up on the ledge behind the range and started the FaceTime call. 

      “Eeeeek,” she squealed when her girls appeared on the screen. “Happy birthday, sweethearts”. 

      “Thanks, Mom,” they smiled together, sporting sparkly, glittered tiaras - clearly a craft project created by their young step-siblings. 

      “Oh my, that’s a fun new look. Did Frankie and Lily make those?”

      They nodded together, Ella throwing in an exaggerated eye-roll for good measure.

      “I miss you guys so much. Wish we could be together, but it’s important to spend birthdays with your Dad and the littles too.”

      “We know Mom. But we miss you too,” Beth seemed close to tears.

      “Did you get the balloon bouquet?” Claire asked quickly, hoping to stave off tears. 

      “Yes, thanks Mom! I totally called it though. I told Beth last night that there was no way we would not be waking up to your balloons first thing in the morning.”

      “She did! But it was still awesome. Thanks Mom.”

      “Did Kelly give you the gifts from me?”

      They both held up small gift bags in the distinctive color and packaging of Tiffany & Co.

      “We’re soooo excited, Mom. When can we open them?” Ella could barely contain herself.

      “You can open them now if you like.”   

      They didn’t need any more prompting. Both girls dived in and retrieved a small box from layers of tissue and the little Tiffany drawstring bag. They opened their boxes at the same time to reveal their gifts. In perfect harmony, their hands flew to their mouths as they stifled cries of excitement. Ella stood up and jumped up and down in a circle, squealing excitedly. Beth buried her face in her hands and sobbed. 

      She looked up in full ugly cry and said, “I’m so sorry Mom, I’m sorry I’m crying. I just love it so much!”

      Claire had overheard the girls ooh'ing and aah'ing over Tiffany T rings a few weeks back while they were seated at the kitchen island waiting for her to put the finishing touches to their dinner. A Tiffany ad had popped up on their Instagram feed, and they discussed the virtues of the various designs as they swiped through the rings. The only style they agreed on was the T ring. Claire had looked on the Tiffany website later and decided it was perfect for the girls - age-appropriate, not too showy, and quite timeless. It just seemed like the perfect 16th birthday keepsake gift. She immediately ordered the rings - in white gold for Ella and rose gold for Beth.

      “Put them on. Show me. Do they fit well?” They immediately flashed their rings at Claire, nodding their confirmation that both rings were a perfect fit.

      “Great! I’m so glad you like them. The crepes are almost ready, by the way. Let me show you.” She picked up the iPad and took it over to the island where she had set two breakfast settings and arranged the toppings neatly in a cluster between the plates. She swept the iPad around so that the girls could inspect the breakfast set-up.

      “Moooooom! I’m so jealous. Wait! Did you forget the Reddi-Wip?” asked Beth.

      “I kind of skipped that, since it’s only you girls who like it. We’re just going with the basics here.”

      “Who’s ‘we’?” asked Ella, eyebrows raised in question.

      “Are you eating our crepes with the VIP man?” asked Beth. “Oooh, I bet he’ll love them.”

      Claire went back to the range and flipped two more crepes, “Yes, of course I’m sharing the crepes with the guest. I can’t eat all of this on my own.”

      Right on cue, Claire heard a noise behind her, and turned around to see the secret panel leading from the man-cave to the family room opening.

      Jamie was in workout shorts, no shirt, and a small towel thrown over his shoulder - about to emerge from his workout. She widened her eyes at him, silently communicating a warning. He realized immediately that she was on a FaceTime call with her girls, and gave her an apologetic grimace. She held up two fingers and mouthed “two minutes”. He nodded and retreated back into the man-cave quietly and pulled the panel almost shut. She knew that the girls wouldn’t have seen him or her exchange with him from the angle of the iPad, so she continued.

      “Okay girls, we’ll have to get breakfast finished here soon. I’m reviewing student papers and my guest has work to do too.”

      “Wait, Mom. You were going to tell us more about the VIP Man.” Beth looked at her, waiting for Claire to continue.

      “Yeah,” Ella interjected, “since he’s eating my birthday breakfast, can we at least know more? You said he was well-known, and it was all a big secret.”

      Oh God, she hoped he couldn't hear clearly from behind the panel. 

      “Well, you girls know how important it is to maintain confidentiality and privacy. We already talked about it.”

      “Yes, but he’s been there for two days now, and we want to know if you feel okay with it. It’s not like weird or anything? He’s not creeping you out or whatever?” 

      “No Beth, I feel perfectly safe. Nothing weird at all.”

      “Can’t you at least tell us what he does? What’s he well-known for? We’re not going to Tik-Tok it or anything!”  

      “Is he a big name in business, like Jeff Bezos?” Beth probed.

      “No - girls, we don’t have time to -”

      “Is he a singer? Like for older people music?”

      “No, Ella,” replied Claire, a little exasperated.

      “An actor?” offered Beth.

      Claire’s eyes widened slightly - she wasn't going to blatantly lie to them. There was a moment of awkward silence as she grasped for a response.

      “Oh my God, he is! He’s an actor!” Ella was way too astute for her own good.

      “Oh!” Beth gasped. “Who is it, Mom?”

      “She can’t say, Beth. You know that! Give us tiny clues mom.”

      “No - I can’t do that, girls. He’ll be down for breakfast in a minute. I have to get going.”

      “Okay, we’ll stop talking when he comes in. Is he cute, mom?” Sweet Beth. 

      “Uh … yes. He is. He’s cute.”

      “Like cute, nice? Or cute, hot?”

      “Ella!” Claire blushed visibly.

      “Mom you’re all red! He’s hot, right?” Ella turned to her sister, “Yep, he’s a hot one, Beth. Look how Mom’s gone all blushy and shy.”

      “Oh, Mom,” Beth gushed, holding her hands over her heart. “Is he single?”

      “Girls! That’s enough. I really need to get on with breakfast.”

      “Mom, it’s our birthday, you can’t cut us short us on our birthday,” argued Ella. “Is he single or not?”

      “Unlikely,” said Claire hoping again that Jamie couldn’t hear this ridiculous conversation, but also aware that girls’ reactions were rather loud and excited. She dropped her voice, “Girls, even if he is single, I’m not int-”

      “Stop Mom! Don’t you say that you’re not interested or that he wouldn't be interested. Mom, you are so beautiful. Ashlee’s dad is like, obsessed with you. He asked me for your cell number way back because he wanted to 'coordinate a pick-up time' when we were over there. I told him he should email you to ask for it. It was so awkward.”

      “Yes, I know, Ella. He emailed me and I gave him my number. For parent-to-parent communication.”

      “Mom, you know Ashlee’s dad is kinda cute - like in a divorced dad way - but is this actor VIP cuter?”

      “Oh my God! Girls! Enough!”

      “Mom, seriouslyyyyy! I hope he’s cute, and I hope you start low-key crushing on each other. It would be perfect.” Beth, ever the romantic, had a dreamy far-away look in her eyes.

      “Yeah, Mom! Perfect!” Ella immediately launched into Ed Sheeran’s hit ballad. ‘I found a love fo-o-or me, Darling, just dive right in, and follow my lead’.

      Beth was not about to be outdone. “Well, I found a gi-i-irl, beautiful and sweet…”

      “Girls, I love you both so much, but I’m going to send you off to enjoy your day. We’ll FaceTime again tonight, okay? I want to hear all about your day later. Love you both.” She blew them an avalanche of kisses. The girls blew an avalanche back and waved energetically, and before she could end the call, she heard them sing at the top of their voices. "Barefoot on the grass, listening to our favorite song …” 

    

      She stared at the blank iPad for a few seconds. ‘Mortified’ didn't come close to describing how she felt. She wasn’t sure how much Jamie had heard, but she was sure it was enough to annoy him. He probably thought that she had revealed his identity to two teenagers, and potentially compromised his privacy. Oh God, Milo would be so mad! His property deal with Jamie was so close to completion - she hoped this wouldn't affect it.      

      She heard the panel open again.   

      Jamie emerged with his T-shirt back on and his face hidden by the towel, which he was using to rub over his face and head. She wondered what his reaction would be. He was usually the perfect gentleman, so she was hoping he wouldn’t yell or get in a huff over it. Maybe he would just politely but firmly ask her to refrain from talking about him to the girls - or anyone else. She would apologize and grovel a little, and all would be good.

      Either way, can you just get it over with? The outburst. I’m a big girl, I can cope. 

      She stood there waiting for the confrontation. When he finally pulled the towel away, his lips were tightly pressed together, his face was bright red, and getting redder by the second. He was struggling mightily to hold in a laugh. He lost the battle, and let out a snort, and then a hearty laugh started deep in his chest and filled the room. He laughed so hard that he had to lean up against the wall. She looked at him in shock. Then a slow smile started to work its way across her face.

      “It’s not bloody funny!”

      “Ohhh, Sass-” another snort broke free, and he laughed again. He walked towards her with a huge smile and laughing eyes. He composed himself and shook his head slowly. “Oh, aye it is, Sassenach. It's ‘bloody’ hilarious. Oh my God, what I wouldn't give to have seen yer face.”

      She was blushing furiously again, but a giggle broke free, and she laughed with him.

      “They sound like a couple of braw wee lasses, Claire. Congratulations on their 16th birthday. I know that when ye think about this day 16 years ago, it mustn't be easy, but look at them now. Smart, funny ...”

      “Cheeky, sassy, naughty,” Claire supplied.

      “And talented wee singers, too!” he teased.

      “Oh, God,” she groaned. 

      “Ye ken I’m going to milk this for a long time, right?”

      “I imagine you will, you bloody Scot.” She glared at him in mock anger. 

      He chuckled again. “I’m going to dive in the shower, and will be down shortly for breakfast. Those crepes look fantastic.” 

      He backed away from her, eyes fixed on hers, and started humming “Perfect” in a low hum. Successfully dodging the scrunched dishtowel that she flung at him, he continued backing his way out of the kitchen, then turned and hummed all the way up the stairs.  

    

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

 

      Over breakfast, they discussed catering for the meetings. They had become so engrossed in each other’s stories over the past two evenings, that planning had fallen by the wayside, and Jamie’s meetings were looming.

      “Both meetings are pretty casual, and no one is expecting a fancy served meal. Let’s order in from a restaurant.” Jamie suggested. “Do you have any nearby favorites?”

      “I’ve done a Mediterranean bar a few times, and it always goes over well. You’ll no doubt want to hold the meeting in the covered patio, right?”

      Jamie nodded.

      Claire continued, “We could set the food bar up on the covered patio. Things like pita bread, Greek salad, hummus, baba ganoush, lamb and chicken, fallafel. What do you think?”

      “That sounds like a braw idea. If only so I have an excuse to enjoy the baba ganoush. Did ye know that it means ‘pampered daddy’?”

      Claire chuckled, “I did not know that.”

      “Truly though, I think it sounds great, Claire. Can we stop at a grocery store on the way home from the wineries and stock up on drinks?” She nodded her agreement.

      “Now, for Monday - the big meeting with the studio, and where hopefully, you and Dougal will control yourselves. That’s a whole lot more people - sounded like maybe 15? What I’ve done for larger groups in the past is a street taco bar. I have a favorite barman at the Rainier Club who moonlights at private parties. Julio’s done several parties for me. His wife, Alma, runs a catering company, and I know she’s hurting for business during quarantine. She does an excellent street taco bar. I mean, who doesn't like street tacos? They always work for me as “package deal” - Julio handles the drinks - he’ll serve, clear away, make cocktails - whatever you want. He also helps Alma set up and serve. It’s pretty slick, and no-one will have to lift a finger.”

      “That sounds fantastic! Let’s do that. Will they be available on such short notice?”

      “I’ll call him right away. It’ll take me 10, maybe 20 minutes to set this all up. Feel free to grab a latte and more crepes. Any known food sensitivities in these groups?”

      “One vegetarian, as I recall, otherwise nothing that I can think of.”

      She stepped out to the patio to plan the catering and provide all the information the restaurant and caterer would need. By the time she re-entered the kitchen 25 minutes later, she had confirmed catering details for both meetings.

      “All done. We are good to go for tomorrow and Monday.”

      In her absence, Jamie had cleaned up, loaded the dishwasher, placed leftovers in containers in the fridge and made them each a latte. 

      “Thank you, Claire, I am truly indebted.”

      “Thank you for the latte. You’ve certainly mastered the foaming,” she eyed her well-frothed mug. “We have a few hours to kill before the wineries, and I need to review some papers. Still have about 11 of them to go. I’m going to work out on the patio - let me know if you need anything. We should leave here at around noon for our patio reservation.”

      “No problem, I’ll be ready.”

      “I also wanted to remind you that the house cleaner will be here while we’re out. She’s agreed to do your laundry, so don’t forget to toss it in the hamper.”   

      “Ah, that’s fantastic, Sassenach! Is it okay to leave her a wee tip with a note of thanks in my room?”

      “Of course - that’s really thoughtful Jamie. Her name is Liv.”

      “Great - I’ll square away the rest of the expenses for her services with ye later, aye?”

      “No worries. Okay - I’m off to the patio to work,” she smiled. “See you back here at noon.”

        

 

Chapter Text


 

      A little before 11:00 a.m., Claire gathered her laptop and papers and headed indoors to get ready for the winery trip. As she walked towards the stairs, she could hear Jamie still on a call in the study. It had been an early, busy morning with the twins’ birthday breakfast and the hasty planning for Jamie’s meetings. Since she hadn’t had time to shower first thing after waking up, she took a quick shower as soon as she got upstairs, and then set about managing her hair and getting it dry enough to style with a curling wand. Giving her hair a few minutes to cool down after blasting it with a dryer, she pulled a few dresses from her closet to review her options. It was warm and sunny - perfect weather for a summery dress. She decided on a cream and blue floral dress with fluttery cap sleeves and a scooped neckline. Setting it aside, she returned to the bathroom to curl her hair into softer waves like Armando had taught her. She had become quite proficient at softer beachy waves during isolation. Applying her make up in natural shades of mocha and cocoa, she added earrings and a spritz of Marc Jacobs Daisy and then slipped on her dress. It was bias cut and hugged her body, gently flaring to a few inches above her knees, the soft skirt teasing flirtatiously around her legs when she moved. She paired it with a pair of block-heeled Botkier sandals in cobalt, and pulled the look together with a soft tan Michael Kors purse.   

      Jamie was in the kitchen leaning against the island, checking his texts. Looking up as she walked in, he pushed off the counter and stood straight up, taking her in from head to toe. He let out a low whistle that roused her butterflies from their slumber. 

      She smiled, “You don’t look so bad yourself … uh, in fact, we look a little coordinated here.” 

      He was wearing light tan chinos with a lapis blue shirt that matched the blues in her floral print, and soft beige Derby shoes. His stubble was starting to turn to scruff and he looked breathtakingly sexy. She hoped he kept his scruff a little longer, although she knew that he looked just as handsome clean-shaven. Right now, he looked like the movie star he was, and Claire wished her butterflies would settle down. He grabbed a baseball cap and sunglasses off the counter, and she recognized them for what they were - the standard disguise of celebrities trying to avoid recognition. Her heart squeezed a little in empathy. How vexing to always have to prepare for the possibility of being spotted and attracting unwanted attention. Spontaneity must be a precious and rare commodity in the life of a movie star.

      “Do you want me to keep those in my purse?” she asked, and he gratefully passed the cap to her. 

      “Thank you, Claire. I’ll probably need the sunglasses in the car.”    

      In the garage, Claire led him towards her SUV, but he stopped in the farthest stall to admire the Tesla Model S Performance. It had been Henry’s pride and joy - purchased only months before his diagnosis. Claire didn’t drive it very often, but she occasionally took it out ‘to put it through its paces’, as Henry used to say. 

      “This is on my list,” said Jamie running his hand lightly over the rear of the car. “I have been in a regular Tesla a few times, but never a Performance model. I hear the acceleration is insane.”

      “Ludicrous Mode,” said Claire, nodding. “Yes. Scared the bejeezus out of me the first few times. Let’s take it today.” She took the Tesla key from the hook while Jamie disengaged the charger cable and held the driver’s door open for her, before moving around to the passenger seat.      

     They chatted easily during the drive. Claire, a confident driver, was not at all fazed by the winding mountain roads and tight hairpin bends of the route that would bring them to Woodinville. She desperately wanted to address the FaceTime incident from that morning - needing to reassure him that she had not broken his confidence or told her girls anything that would put him at risk.

      “Jamie, I-”, she started, and then stopped abruptly.

       He turned to look at her, and frowned a little at her hesitance. “What is it, Sassenach?”

      “I .. uh … I wanted to let you know that at no time have I revealed your identity to my girls. I had to let them know that Uncle Milo’s client was staying with us because of the issue with CHAZ.”

      “Dinna fash, Claire. I know you would never do that. Of course ye had to tell them ye had a guest at the house. Imagine I accidentally walked past ye during a FaceTime call? They would be wondering who I was. Don’t give it another thought, Claire. I trust ye completely.”

      She shot him a quick smile and released a sigh of relief.

      He chuckled. “I canna believe that was stressing you out, Claire. I’m more fashed about ‘Ashlee’s dad’, honestly. Does the hot, divorced dad have good intentions, or is he going to keep obsessing over ye?” He had a teasing grin on his face, but there was a subtle undercurrent of ... something. She couldn't quite put a finger on it. 

      She shook her head and giggled a little. “My girls are not shy about trying to find me decent male suitors. It’s the weirdest thing, most girls their age are grossed out even thinking about the traumatizing possibility that their parents might be having sex. My girls feel nothing of the sort. They text me screenshots and links to sexy dresses and shoes and … lingerie. Most of them horribly unsuitable, I might add.”

      “Hmmm. If ye hand me yer phone, I can do some quality control over some of their choices if ye like. But be warned, I’ve a feeling I might approve most of them.”

      “Of course you would!”

      “Truly, Claire, it’s really special and sweet how much they care about ye and yer happiness. l look forward to meeting them soon.”

      “They would be thrilled to meet you - unfortunately, your travel schedules don’t align this time. But they will no doubt enjoy having you as a neighbor.”

      “That reminds me - Milo called while you were getting dressed. The sellers have made me a counter-offer. Not a terrible one, at that. I told Milo to do what it takes to seal it. I know he will represent me well.”

      “Yes he will. He is a brilliant negotiator and knows his game really well,” confirmed Claire, pulling into a parking spot at Columbia Wineries.    

       Jamie came around to the driver side door and held it open for Claire. Holding out a hand, he gently helped her out of the car, releasing a few more butterflies in the process. She had been around many educated, polite men in her life - Henry included - but never had she experienced this level of chivalry and attentiveness. It made her feel noticed and appreciated, and was more than a little intoxicating. They put on their face masks and walked up the steps to the patio. Jamie had placed his hand gently on the small of her back, and as unexpected as that was, it also felt so right. 

       She turned to him quickly, “Do you need your cap?”

       He shook his head slightly. “Let’s see who we have here first.” He had become adept at reading a room - or patio, in this instance. He knew his fan-bases and their demographics, and today’s patio patrons didn’t seem to worry him at all. There were only about a dozen or so people at tables placed at the requisite distance from each other. “The face masks are the best disguise right now, but if I need the cap when we take them off, I’ll let you know.”

      When the hostess approached them, Claire asked for a table close to the breezeway, as it was less populated, and had less foot traffic. Once seated, they were able to remove their masks and chat comfortably. Jamie looked around casually, but all the patrons were minding their own business, and he relaxed visibly. They decided to try the white wines at Columbia, and would focus on reds at La Ville’s tasting room. She noticed that Jamie was very interested in everything about the wines - he asked their server a series of questions - about grape-picking, oaked or unoaked wines, filtering, bottling - his questions revealed a decent knowledge of the wine business, and this was not altogether surprising, given their chat on the stone patio the previous night when he revealed a pending transaction in the wine business. Claire wondered if he was collaborating with a winery to create an exclusive wine for Lallybroch. Jamie seemed keen to find out all he could about the whites, and took a genuine interest in the server’s answers. She, in turn, was only too delighted to share her knowledge with someone who knew something about the business.     

       They both ordered paninis and salad for lunch, and their conversation remained light and neutral while they ate. They spoke laughingly about their best and worst vacations, sharing horror stories and highlights. They admitted to their most embarrassing TV show obsessions and what they binge-watched. 

       “You do not watch ‘90-Day Fiancee’!” Claire teased him mercilessly.

       “Shhhh!” he joked, holding his forefinger up to his lips.

       “Full disclosure,” Claire was blushing slightly. “I watched 'Clan Hearts' twice. Back-to-back.” He raised his eyebrow, and fixed her with an intense look.

       “What did you like about it so much?” he asked casually.

       “I loved seeing the lengths that Hamish went to for Aileen. There were scenes that were so incredibly intense that I found myself barely breathing, wondering how they would possibly survive. He said the most beautifully romantic things to her. And did the most romantic things too. Plus, the leading man was fairly decent-looking.” She looked at him with a teasing smirk.

       “Oh he was, was he? I’ve heard he’s a right twat.” Jamie smiled at her, and then focused his gaze a few inches to her left. Their server was approaching the table, and he watched as she came and stood at the required distance away from their table, nervously plucking at her black pants with a restless hand. “Excuse me - I’m so sorry to bother you.”

       Claire’s eyes widened at him and he answered with a slight eyebrow raise. 

       “Here we go - one of your fans no doubt,” Claire muttered so that only Jamie heard it. 

       They turned to look at the server, their expressions neutral, not wanting to encourage a fan moment in any way.

       “Uhhh … aren’t you Dr. Beauchamp from UDub? Fulton Business School?”

       Claire looked stunned for a moment. Then she straightened up and bristled, and the color seemed to drain from her face.

       “Claire?” Jamie began, but she raised her hand slightly to let him know it was OK.

       She turned back to the young server and said, “Yes. Yes, I am. And I would very much -”

      “OMG, I knew it! I wanted you to know that I am so grateful to you for the way you handled the whole #PILF thing a few years back. The way you stood up for yourself and for women everywhere  - it … it gave all of us a voice. Anyone who has ever been objectified and then tormented for it and roasted on social media. You gave us all the strength and confidence to fight back. My ‘Girl Up‘ group in high school made t-shirts that said “I stand with Doc. B”, and because of you, I am doing my Masters in Women’s Studies when I’m done with my undergrad. So, thank you. Thank you from so many women who drew strength from your experience. Again, I’m so sorry to disturb your lunch. Thank you for listening.” And she scurried off to attend to another table.

      “Are you okay, Claire?” Jamie reached over and took one of her hands between both of his. 

      “I’m fine,” she said, still a little shaken. “I was a little startled - it’s been a long time …”

      “What was that all about? I’ve never seen ye so agitated.” 

      “It’s a long story,” said Claire.

      “Claire,” he began sternly. “Ye said that before, and I didn't like it much then either. Please don’t shut me out.” He was still holding her hand, and started to stroke his thumb across the back of her hand, eyes never leaving hers.

      “Ok,” she exhaled. “A few years ago, right after I received my doctorate, I ran into three students at my gym. It was a large gym in Bellevue, Galaxy Fitness. Henry had been a member there for years. High-end, but a lot of my students come from wealthy families, so I wasn’t all that surprised to see them at Galaxy. I was working out in proper gym gear, yoga pants and a short-sleeve tee. The students saw fit to take pictures of me working out, and before you know it the pictures were all over campus, and other parts of Seattle, and #PILF was trending.”

      “PILF?” Jamie cocked his head quizzically. 

      “Uh .. you’ve heard the term MILF?” He nodded. “Well, the P is for Professor.”

      “Oh, Claire,” he groaned, and the muscles in his jaw moved. He shook his head. “Christ! How did that all play out?”

      “It was excruciating. It hit the mainstream media in Seattle, and was painfully embarrassing for Henry and me. He was Professor Emeritus by then and on the board of directors for a handful of companies. The Business School leadership was furious - it’s one the top business schools on the West Coast, so to have this awfully embarrassing situation where one of the lecturers is plastered all over social media in awkward pictures  - they were desperate to shut it all down. Henry and I were called into top-level meetings - he was a valuable member of their faculty and they wanted him involved in trying to find a solution. There were some comments made about putting me on administrative leave for a few weeks until the whole thing blew over. Guess they didn’t want me around campus making things worse. Henry lost his shit - I’ve never see him so angry. He was incensed that they would immediately put the responsibility on the female, rather than on the young men who created the situation. Henry’s business contacts were huge donors to UDub generally, and Fulton in particular, and even though he never brought that up, UDub knew they had to do some damage control or risk losing donors - especially in the midst of the ‘MeToo’ movement."

      She took in a deep steadying breath, and he pressed her hand gently in encouragement.

      "They brought in a crisis management team who met with me right away. I told them exactly how I felt, and they used that as the basis for their strategy. Basically, the message was that it was not okay to keep pointing fingers at women for the poor behavioral choices of men. Henry and I did an interview with King 5, our local news station, all orchestrated by the crisis team. There was a huge outpouring of support for me - the ‘I stand with Doc. B’ thing that the server mentioned trended for about a month. UDub suspended all three boys, but they were vilified on social media and quickly transferred out of state. Of course Fulton came out looking golden for ‘handling it so well’. Anyway, it’s all water under the bridge now, and they have treated me with kid gloves ever since. And honestly - I feel good about being a positive role model for young women. I feel awful that I was so rude to the server - I didn’t even thank her for her kind words.”   

      “That’s why Henry set up a wee home gym for ye?” 

      She nodded, recalling how she had almost blundered while showing him around the house on Monday night. 

      Jamie placed a gentle kiss on the back of her hand, and then turned it over and placed another kiss on her wrist. He inhaled the soft perfume there, and she realized she was holding her breath, and then the moment was broken by the appearance of the awkward server with their bill. Claire smiled warmly at her, and Jamie immediately reached for the folder and settled up swiftly. 

     “Ye can leave a wee note for the server here, if ye like.” He turned the invoice over, slid it across to Claire, and in the blank space, she wrote “Find your voice and never be afraid to use it. Thank you for your kind words today. Doc B.”

      As Jamie enclosed her note in the black folder together with his signed credit card slip, she noticed that he had left the server a $500 tip.

    

      After picking up her club wines, Jamie carried the sturdy box back to the car for her, placing it in the trunk before opening her car door to help her in. It was a short drive to the next winery. La Ville Wineries had just built a beautiful new facility in Woodinville - a multi-story building with a series of tasting rooms and event areas. There was a rooftop patio that would undoubtedly become a fan-favorite when pandemic restrictions were finally lifted. Jamie asked the hostess several questions about the facility and its design. He was interested in the reasoning behind each area. La Ville boasted several intimate tasting rooms for groups ranging from two to twenty and Claire had reserved a two-person room, an elite member privilege. Removing their masks, they sat side-by-side on the small leather sofa. Their wine specialist brought in their glasses and some crackers, along with a printed sheet of tasting notes. She poured a sample into each of their glasses, gave them a run-down on the wine, and then left the room. Jamie scooted closer to Claire so that they could read the tasting notes together. In the small, intimate space, she was keenly aware of Jamie’s sheer size as they sat shoulder to shoulder, his leg pressed against hers, completely and comfortably in her space. She could smell the lingering fresh, slightly spicy aroma of the YSL shower gel she had placed in his bathroom. She smiled slightly at that and inhaled deeply. They swirled and sipped the small wine sample, penciling notes on the sheet in case they wanted to buy a few bottles later.

      As their server brought in the next few wine samples, they continued to sip and critique the wines, adding more notes to their tasting sheet. They spent some time chatting about various wine clubs that Claire belonged to, which ones she preferred, and why. Jamie listened attentively and asked pertinent questions, clearly appreciating her perspective as a wine lover and club member. All the while, they worked their way through the wine samples, and Claire was starting to feel the effects of the alcohol as a slight giddiness set in.  

      “Jamie, I think I need to scale back on the wine. It’s starting to go to my head and I have to drive home.”

      “Dinna fash, Claire. I can drive us home. Or, if necessary, we’ll Uber, but I weigh a lot more than you, so my blood alcohol is well below the limit. I want ye to relax and enjoy the afternoon. It’s been a while since anyone has been able to enjoy an outing, ye ken. And if I can be selfish for a minute, I’m loving this facility and the way they run their club and tasting rooms.” He leaned close to her ear, and said in a low voice “I’m doing some industry research ye ken, scoping out the competition.” His deep, low voice and warm breath in her ear, coupled with the proximity of so much of his body was doing things to her that she really didn’t want to think about too much.

      She turned to him laughing, "Aaah - so this is an information-gathering outing! Can I be your research assistant?”      

      He picked up his wine glass and turned his body to face her a little more, extending his arm along the back of the sofa behind her. She turned to face him too, tucking one leg under her, her other leg almost touching his. Their thigh contact was broken when they shifted but the connection between them felt more intimate now than it had before.  

      “Ye’ve not been interviewed yet for the position of research assistant, Ms. Beauchamp. Can you tell me about yer credentials and experience?”

      Emboldened by the effects of the wine, she looked directly into his eyes for a long moment. “Well, I know my way around wines. I can speak intelligently about slowly enjoying a robust red with a long, smooth finish.” 

      “And ye like this robust red ... with a long, smooth finish, aye?”

      “Yes, I find it perfectly agreeable.”

      “Mmhmmm.” That low rumbling sound of his went straight to her core. 

      Every. Single. Time. 

      “What else can ye tell me about yer wine knowledge?”

      “I’m quite partial to wild fermentation. I find I quite enjoy the rougher finish … occasionally.”

      “Mmhmmm … continue, please …”

      He had started to play with her hair.

     “Uh … Mr. Fraser, I’m not sure that’s appropriate behavior for interviewing candidates.”

      “It’s part of assessing yer suitability, Ms. Beauchamp. I need to determine whether yer curls might entangle themselves in the vines when we’re out closely inspecting the vineyards. Liability for me, ye ken?” His hand slid under the mass of soft waves and his fingers started to lightly stroke the delicate skin at the back of her neck. She bit her lower lip, and forced herself to ignore the explosion of butterflies. He narrowed his eyes, and his hand drifted deliberately and gently over her shoulder and around her neck, fingers trailing over the soft skin above her collarbone, until the tip of his forefinger rested briefly in the hollow of her throat. His fingertip traced a slow, slow path over her throat, under her jaw, past her chin, and paused in the little hollow just below her mouth. She was startled by the intensity of her response to him. A dull, tingly ache started low in her abdomen, and threatened to move lower if he continued along this tantalizing path. He dropped his eyes to her lips, and murmured something softly in Gaelic. His thumb moved over her mouth, gently prying her lower lip from between her teeth. He stroked her lower lip, taking in its soft fullness. Time seemed to slow to a halt in the room, and Claire was only vaguely aware of the noises outside their tasting room. The odd wine glass chink, light laughter, heels clicking on the wood floors. Slowly the noises faded out, until she could only hear herself breathing. She felt her reaction to his caresses in the warmth between her thighs, and wondered fleetingly if he had any idea how much she wanted him to kiss her at that moment. The tip of his thumb moved gently across the inner edge of her top lip, lightly brushing over her teeth. Inhibitions cast aside, she closed her lips around his thumb and allowed her tongue to tentatively touch its tip. She grazed him gently with her teeth, eyes fixed on his.

      “Claire,” he breathed. Slowly … so, so slowly, he moved towards her, his lips coming within inches of hers, searching her eyes for any hesitation. His warm, wine-scented breath mingled with hers, and they moved towards each other, inexorably, unstoppably …

      “Oh! Excuse me. Uh, Dr. Beauchamp, we have an invitation for you.” Their server entered and stood at the table, blushing awkwardly. Claire and Jamie moved apart quickly and turned to face her. 

      “I’m sorry, what?” Claire asked brightly, with an overly friendly smile. 

      “We’re releasing some limited edition wines, and there’s a series of small quarantine-friendly launch parties next week. Here are the details - just call us if you’re interested in attending one.”

      “Thank you, I will.” Claire took the proffered invitation. “Uhhh ... I think we’re all done here,” she glanced at Jamie who nodded in agreement. “Can I collect my club wines downstairs on the way out?”

      After loading the box of La Ville wines in the trunk, Jamie opened the passenger door, helped Claire in, and then settled into the driver seat. He adjusted the seat for his height, and Claire showed him how to save his seat preferences on the car’s touchscreen. He noticed that there were two other driver-seat profiles - Henry and Claire. It was a sobering reminder to Jamie that she wasn’t his to take. She had been through too much loss and pain in her life, and for him to impose his lifestyle and the havoc it might wreak on her world was unthinkable - especially in light of what she had shared over lunch - the awful situation with Fulton. The near-kiss in the tasting room was a mistake, and he needed to control himself a lot better.    

      Ye’re making it difficult for me, Sassenach. But oh, God, being that close to ye was heaven. You biting yer wee lip and teasing me with yer sexy wine talk. I ken ye felt it too, but we’re both going to have to back down. Friends and neighbors. For now. 

      They drove in silence for a few miles, Jamie getting used to the slightly different way the Performance Tesla handled. Once he got the hang of it, he relaxed into it and asked Claire if she would find a good playlist. He thought that some music might provide a welcome distraction from the slight awkwardness that hung between them after the tasting room. He hoped she wasn’t offended or embarrassed by it - they had both been so caught up in the moment. But she was the first to dispel the awkwardness in the car.

      “That was a fun outing - disappointed that I didn't get the job as your research assistant, though.” She was tapping on the touchscreen, looking for music.

      “I might have to bring ye back for a second interview.”

      Jesus, Fraser, you didn't even last five minutes before getting right back to the flirting. Ye’re a feckin’ numpty!

      “I’m on an 80s music kick right now. Is that OK?”

      “Aye, I love some of those oldies too.

      “This is one of my favorites.” The instantly recognizable first bars of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ had both of them responding to the music right away.

      “Crank that up, Sassenach, and sing wi’ me.”

       Claire notched the volume up, and they commenced their loud and methodical butchering of the song.

                         musical notes Just a small town girl

                         Livin’ in a lonely world

                         She took the midnight train going’ anywhere

                         Just a city boy

                         Born and raised in South Detroit

      Jamie reached across and pressed pause.

      “Do Americans pronounce it Detroit, or Detroi?” he asked.

      “Detroit. Hard ‘t’.”

      “Then why didn’t Journey come up with a city that rhymed with 'boy?’

      “I don’t know. Just sing, you ridiculous human being.”

      Unpause.

                         A singer in a smokey room

                         The smell of wine and cheap perfume

      Pause.

      “He should have been in our tasting room. No cheap perfume in there. My Sassenach is a classy gal.”

      Unpause.            

                         For a smile they can share the night

                         It goes on and on and on and on

      She hadn’t quite recovered from “my Sassenach”, and missed a few beats, but recovered quickly. They went outrageously loud in the chorus.

                         Strangers waitin’

                         Up and down the boulevard

      Pause.

      “Where do you think this boulevard is, Sassenach? What city?”

      “Uhhhh - I’m going to guess Broadway, New York. You? 

      “Las Vegas.”

      Unpause.            

                         Their shadows searchin’ in the ni-i-ight

                         Streetlights, people

                         Livin’ just to find emotion

                         Hidin’ somewhere in the night

                         Workin' hard to get my fill

                         Everybody wants a thrill

                         Payin' anything to roll the dice just one more time.

      Pause.

      “See, I told ye. It’s Vegas. They’re rolling dice and gambling.”

      Unpause.

                         Some will win, some will lose

                         Some were born to sing the blue       

                         Oh, the movie never ends

                         It goes on and on, and on, and on             

      Pause.

      “Wait a minute. Can I change my answer - he’s singing about a never ending movie. It’s got to be Hollywood Boulevard.”

      “You cannot change your answer. Too late. And if you pause again, I’ll thump you. Now sing, you bloody Scot!”

      Unpause.

                         Strangers waiting

                         Up and down the boulevard

                         Their shadows searching

                         In the ni-i-ight

                         Streetlights people

                         Livin' just to find emotion

                         Hidin' somewhere in the night

                         Don't stop believin'

                         Hold on to that feelin'

                         Streetlights, people ....

      “Ye went badly off key - completely ruined the song,” he teased.

      “I ruined the song? I ruined the song? You kept pausing it, threw off the rhythm completely.”

      “Good thing I’m not a singer of ‘old people music’ then, aye?”

      “Oh boy! You did warn me you were going to milk it.” She shook her head ruefully - he now had a wealth of Ella and Beth quotes to torment her with.

      “Claire, can I ask ye something?” He sounded serious, so she turned the volume down.

      “Of course.”

      “When ye FaceTime the girls tonight … would it be alright if I said hi? I know they were messing around a bit this morning, and it was a good laugh. But deep down they are concerned for ye, because they love ye so very much. I want to reassure them that I am a decent guy. Anytime you mention ‘actor’, people get a stereotype in their mind right away. I don’t want them to have that in their thoughts. I’m not like that at all, Claire, as ye know, and if we’re to be neighbors, I want them to know that. I want them to know that while I’m in their home, there Mam is safe and I will be respectful and honorable.”

      Claire swallowed hard. He was so incredibly thoughtful and genuine and kind and considerate. So different from any man she had met. “I think that would be lovely, Jamie. Thank you for even thinking of that.”

      “Aye, of course! Let me know when we’re close to a grocery store - we’re picking up drinks for the meetings, remember?”

      “Actually, we’re not far off now. We’re almost in Redmond - home of Microsoft, so the traffic may get somewhat heavier now. There’s a great curry restaurant there - you up for take-out tonight?”

  

       A half hour later, Jamie was negotiating the hairpin bends on the way back to Claire’s home. The trunk was full of wine, beer, a range of spirits and mixers, and a choice selection of his favorite whisky.

      “That curry smells so good! I’m starving all of a sudden,” Claire groaned. “Let’s eat right away, and we can FaceTime after that.”

        

 

Chapter Text


 

     “You were right - that is really good naan and biryani! And yer mango lassi too - I’m sorry I downed so much of it.” He smiled sheepishly. “I’ll help ye clear up.”

     They had arrived home two hours earlier and unloaded the trunk, putting away all the drinks so they’d have the rest of the evening free to enjoy dinner and the FaceTime session with the girls. It was a perfect Seattle summer day, and they ate on the patio, pairing their meal with one of the club wines from La Ville. They chatted comfortably about inconsequential things - moments from their childhood and schooling, favorite ice-cream flavor, whether they preferred Mission Impossible or The Bourne series - little nuggets of information that filled in blanks here and there as they learned more and more about each other.

      They cleared up quickly, leaving their wine glasses and remaining wine on the patio table.

      “Are you ready to FaceTime?”

      He hesitated. “Ehm - okay. Aye - I think so. Wait! Let me wash my hands.”  

      He seemed uncertain all of a sudden, almost reluctant, and Claire wondered if he regretted asking to meet the girls. Maybe he had been a teeny bit buzzed on wine when he suggested it, and now it didn't seem like such a good idea. 

      “Jamie, if you would prefer to do it another time -”

      “No! No, Claire - I want to do it. To be honest, I’m just a wee bit nervous.”

      Her eyes widened. “Nervous! Why?” She was quite taken aback. Jamie Fraser, heartthrob and celebrity, who appeared before hundreds and even thousands of strangers at panel interviews, meet 'n greets, and awards ceremonies, was nervous of meeting two teenagers? Over a video call?

      “I don’t know! I guess I really want them to like me. And for them to know that their Mam is safe with me here.”

      “Jamie,” she said softly, “they will like you. Just relax and be yourself. I’ll be right here. Let me start the chat and I’ll let them know they’ll be meeting you. Then you can come and say hi. If anything gets uncomfortable or awkward, nudge my foot and I’ll find a way for you to ease out.” Jamie nodded, his face serious and thoughtful.

      Claire sat at the end of the kitchen island and tapped the FaceTime icon. As soon as the girls appeared on the screen, they were brimming with excitement and blew her an avalanche of kisses. The kisses quickly morphed into heart hands, with the girls wanting to show Claire that they were wearing their new rings. She returned their kisses and heart hands enthusiastically, while Jamie watched from across the island, a slight smile on his face. 

      “How was your day? Tell me everything.”

      “Frankie and Lily baked us cupcakes,” started Beth.

      “They were pretty good, but way too much frosting,” Ella whispered the last part conspiratorially.

      “Dad said we could have anything for dinner, so we got Chipotle.”

      “Sounds yummy,” said Claire, smiling - she knew how much they enjoyed their burrito bowls.

      “Dad gave us tickets to Khalid for his November show in Seattle. I hope we’re not still quarantining,” Ella grumbled.

      “Well that all sounds great. Seems like you had a fun day, and that makes me so happy. Girls, I wanted to -”

      “Mom, how come you’re wearing that dress? And your hair looks so pretty. Where have you been?” Oh, Beth!

      “Uh, I went to Woodinville for lunch and to pick up some club wines.”

      “Wait - wearing that dress? Whenever we suggest that you wear it, you say it’s too sexy for the occasion. What was the occasion today?” asked Ella.

      Claire pressed her lips together and shook her head in disbelief that this was happening again.        

      “Mom!” Beth was whisper-shouting dramatically. “Did the actor VIP go with you to Woodinville?”

      “Well, yes, but -”

      “Oh my God!” the girls said in unison, and then stared at each other wide-eyed.

      Claire slid a look at Jamie. He was leaning up against the counter, arms folded across his chest, shoulders shaking in a silent laugh. She subtly gave him the stink-eye and looked back at the girls, who were still freaking out. 

      “Ashlee’s Dad will legit die. Was it a date, date?” Ella asked.      

      “No! He very kindly came along, and he came to, uh, you know, enjoy the wine, and we went to Woodinville, and went to ... uh ... taste wine, and we went there to pick up wine.” 

      She was messing this up badly. 

      Taking a deep breath, she tried again. “Girls, I want you to say hi to him. Is that okay? You don't have to have a long chat or anything, but I know you were worried about me here with a relative stranger. He is really a nice man, and I want you to see that. He wants to meet you too. It’s still confidential, though. You can’t share this with anyone, okay?” She looked at them sternly.

      “Of course, Mom,” they replied in stereo, equally serious. “Pinky swear.”

      “Okay.” She looked at Jamie, nodding encouragingly.

      He exhaled through pursed lips and walked over to perch on the stool next to Claire. He was now in the girls’ line of vision. Breaking into a wide smile, and looking quite adorable in his nervousness, he waved at the girls as they waved back at him.  

      “Hi girls. I’m Jamie Fraser. Happy 16th birthday! It’s good to meet you - yer Mam has spoken so much about you, so I feel like I know you a little bit.”

      The girls gasped with their hands over their mouths, eyes wide as they looked at each other in shock. 

      “OMG, Jamie Fraser is going to be our neighbor!”

      “He has a real accent!” Still talking directly to each other.

      “Girls!” Claire began, but Jamie carefully moved his hand onto her knee under the counter and gave it a little squeeze, letting her know it was okay. 

      “Sorry! I’m Ella, and this is Beth. Welcome to the neighborhood - or almost.”

      “Thank you! I promise to be a good neighbor - no crazy parties." he said to the girls. “But I will need a favor." The girls nodded energetically. “Yer Mam tells me you’re both great athletes. I’m going to need one or both of you to help me with some basketball skills. I tried out yer court yesterday morning, and it took me about four minutes before I finally netted one.”

      “For real?” Ella asked. Jamie nodded. “Even Mom can do it in less time than that.”

      “Did you just roast me? And yer Mam?” He asked playfully. 

      Both girls giggled and Ella said “Yah, we did. Roasted!” 

      “How long are you staying at our house?” asked Beth.

      “About another week and a half. I have a lot of meetings and things to work on while I’m here, so it’ll be a busy time.”

      “It’s awesome that Mom has someone in the house with her. We knew she would be lonely without us, and harder with the quarantine restrictions,” Beth continued.

      “Will we meet you in person when we get back?” 

      Claire answered. “No, Ella, Mr. Fraser will be gone by the time you get back. You miss him by two days.”

      “That’s right,” Jamie corroborated. “I need to be in LA that week. But if things go well with the offer to purchase the property next door, I’ll be back quite soon.”

      “Will you be working on a movie when you’re in LA?” asked Ella.

      “In a way, yes. I’ll be doing some voice work for a movie that’s in post-production. We needed to add some dialogue lines, and tidy up some other things.”

      “That sounds so cool! Did you take acting classes at school?” asked Beth.

      “Aye, I went to a performing arts school, so a lot of my classes prepared me for my career.”

      “I might do a drama elective at next school year,” said Ella. “Beth and I were both in the spring musical, and loved it. It would be fun to do it all year.”

      “Well, I can tell ye that taking drama classes really helps with yer confidence, thinking on yer feet, decision-making, collaboration, and critical thinking. It’s a lot more involved than people might think.” 

      “You might both want to consider a drama elective,” suggested Claire. “Those are all valuable life-skills that Mr Fraser just listed. Okay girls, you can chat again another time. Have a great night, and I’ll see you tomorrow. Happy birthday again! And I love you so much!” She blew them the customary avalanche of kisses.

      “Love you too mom,” they said in stereo again.

      “Bye Mr. Fraser,” they smiled, waving.

      “Goodnight girls. It was lovely meeting you.”

      She and Jamie looked at each other, smiling broadly.

      “I thought that went well. What did ye think, Claire?”

      Claire’s smile wavered, and she felt suddenly and inexplicably emotional. She bit her lower lip to try and regain control, but her chin wobbled a little, and she quickly got up and went over to the sink, apparently overcome by a sudden need to wash her hands. But Jamie had seen her chin tremble, and he suspected that the emotion of not being with her girls on their milestone birthday had finally caught up with her. He got up, walked over to the sink and gently wrapped his arms around her from behind. He nuzzled his face in her soft hair and inhaled the fragrance of her shampoo. Slowly, she turned around so that she was facing him. Burying her face in his shirt, she wrapped her arms around him and let the tears flow. He held her, his face buried in her hair, and allowed her warm tears to seep through his shirt to the skin beneath. He stroked her hair gently, over and over again, and spoke some soothing words in Gaelic. Eventually she sniffled and sighed, and he reached for some paper towels and gently wiped her tears with one, and gave her another so she could wipe her nose. 

      “I’m sorry," she whispered.

      “Don’t be sorry. I ken why ye’re crying, and there’s no need to be sorry.”

      “That’s two evenings in a row you’ve held me like this and comforted me. Sorry about your shirt.”

      “Shhhh. Both evenings have called for a little extra … something. I’m glad you found me to be a comfort.”

      “Thank you, Jamie. And to answer your earlier question, yes, I think it went very well with the girls. They like you - you connected on their level, and they appreciated that. I must look a mess. Let’s change into something comfy and head outside for sun-downers. Or did you have something else planned?”

      “There’s nothing I’d rather do tonight than hang out on the patio with ye.” 

      “You are quite the charmer tonight, Mr. Fraser. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve changed.”

      “Do you need any help getting out of yer 'sexy dress'?” He waggled his brows teasingly.

      “I think I’ll manage, but thanks for the offer.” 

      Bloody Scot!

      

      Claire splashed her face with cool water and lightly repaired the damage caused by her tears. Her mind drifted to the near-kiss, and she berated herself for coming so close. She still wasn’t sure of Jamie’s relationship status, but assuming he was indeed involved with someone, she would never have forgiven herself if they had kissed. Their level of intimacy in the tasting room was unacceptable for someone in a committed relationship. She tried to avoid judging, but it worried her that Jamie insisted he was not the typical Hollywood celebrity, yet his behavior fit the stereotype of the celebrity womanizer. Messing around with someone else's man was something she would not be a part of. She had been scarred by Frank’s infidelities, and thinking of Jamie doing anything approaching that was troubling. 

      But you know none of that aligns with what you've learned about him in the past couple of days. This man who takes your hand when you're stressed, holds you when you need to cry, generously tips a server who made your day, wants to reassure the girls that he's one of the good guys, opens doors for you, teases you, and makes you laugh. 

      She was so confused and torn. Shaking her head to chase out her tangled thoughts, she pulled on black yoga pants and a lightweight long-sleeved white tee, and headed back downstairs. Jamie had changed into black sweats and a grey tee, and was on the patio, grabbing their glasses and half-full bottle of wine left over from dinner.

      “Do you want to sit on a different patio tonight? Similar view, with more of this eastern part.” 

      “Sure. I don’t think you have a bad view anywhere on yer property, so I’m happy to sit wherever ye like.”

      She led him to the end of the upper terrace, where a set of shallow steps curved away from the outdoor living area, around the corner of the house, and opened onto a small wooden deck, recessed into a small alcove directly beneath the master bedroom. It enjoyed a similar view, overlooking Jamie’s property and the Cascades beyond that. Recessed into the ceiling above the deck were outdoor heaters for cooler nights, Bluetooth enabled speakers, and soft lighting. Two roomy wicker recliners with soft cushions were placed side by side on the deck, a small weathered teak table in front of them.

      They placed the glasses and wine on the table and settled into the recliners. While Jamie tested the recliner settings, Claire connected the Jazz playlist on her phone to the ceiling speakers, and turned the volume down low. After Jamie’s ridiculously detailed analysis of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, she realized how deeply attuned he was to song lyrics, so she deliberately selected an instrumental playlist that would allow them to talk without distraction. Jamie was still messing with the recliner settings, making her giggle.

      “It flattens out quite nicely. I’ve fallen asleep here many a time.” 

      She set hers so that it reclined just a little. Jamie matched her angle, and then reached for their wine glasses and handed Claire hers. 

      “What a day, Sassenach! I feel like it was jam-packed.”

      “It was! Lots of good laughs and crazy moments. Starting with my girls on FaceTime. I must remember to thank them for giving you so much good material to torment me with,” she said dryly. “And then the server incident - thank you for tipping her, Jamie. That was so kind of you.” He grunted one of his generic grunts. “And great wine tasting all around. One little weep at the end of the day. Thank you, you were there for me through all of it. Tomorrow will be busy for you. Can I do anything to help you prepare?”

      “I don't think so. Milo will pick me up for the chopper ride at 10:30. Then we’ll come back for the meeting. It should all be over by 5:00 p.m. And then you and I can have some patio or hot tub time.” He smiled gently, almost melting her.

      She couldn't help noticing how he just accepted that they had started to settle into a routine of sorts. This would be the third consecutive night of chatting from dusk until nightfall. And it sounded like Jamie wanted to continue the pattern into the next evening too.   

      “Claire, do you have any plans for Saturday night?”

      “Why? Are you asking me on a date?” she teased.

      “Yes, actually.” He was completely serious and looked at her expectantly.

      She was shocked. “Uhhhh … you’ll need to give me more info …”

      “The Caledonian Society has its annual gala dinner on Saturday."

      “Ah yes, I'm familiar with the Caledonian Society. They host some great events.” 

      The Caledonian was the largest Scottish organization in the Seattle area, geared at promoting and supporting Scottish culture and heritage. Their events were always lively affairs, with lots of whisky, bagpipes, and rich Scottish accents everywhere. She and Henry had been invited to a few fund-raisers, and if anyone knew how to party, it was the Scots.

      “Hmmh, well, for whatever reason, they saw fit to invite me as guest of honor this year. It’s usually around 250 people, but they have limited it to 75 this year, as required by the state for Phase 2 of quarantining, and they will observe all the guidelines for social distancing. Large round tables with three couples per table. They're screening for fever at the door, and there will be masks and sanitizer readily available all night. My PR team texted me all that information earlier. If ye’re not comfortable with those arrangements, I completely understand.”

      “I’m okay with those arrangements. But I have to ask you, Jamie … Oh, God, this is so awkward.”

      “What is it, Claire? I think after the way we have opened up to each other over the past two days, you shouldn't be reluctant to ask me anything.”

      “I know, but I noticed some omissions when you shared your story with me last night. So I’ve been wondering … and now you ask me to a formal event, and I … uh…”

      “Out with it, Claire. The best way is to ask straight out.” 

      She took a deep breath.

      “Are you in a relationship with someone?” 

 

   

Chapter Text


      Jamie stared at her, wide-eyed.

      “You didn’t mention your love life at all when you shared your story last night, and I’m wondering if you are protecting a relationship that is very special to you, and that’s why you are not willing to open up about it. And of course if you are in relationship with someone, that is wonderful, and I would be very happy for you. Because you deserve to be happy. But I would feel uncomfortable accompanying you to the Caledonian event if there was a girlfriend out there - in spite of the fact that I would be there as a platonic plus-one, it would feel wrong.” Her words tumbled out, and she didn't know if she had made sense at all.

      “Claire, you think I have a secret relationship back in Scotland?” He looked quite distressed.

      “Or LA, or anywhere really,” she shrugged.

      He shook his head in disbelief. “No, absolutely not. In fact, I am on a strict six-month relationship hiatus, imposed by my sister Jenny. Actually, it’s a sex and relationship hiatus.”

      “What? Why?”

      “The way the industry affects peoples’ lives is very insidious, Claire. It messes with yer head. I’d had it up to here,” he held his hand at chin level, “and so had Jenny. I told you that no-one says no to her. She’s very protective of me. Told me I needed to take a six-month break from dating and relationships and sex, and figure out what I want to do with my life.”

      “Okaaaay.” She nodded slowly, contemplating his explanation. "How’s that been going for you?”

      “It was going fine until Monday.” He looked at her with an inscrutable expression in his eyes.

      She didn't even want to unpack that comment just yet. There was so much in the little that he had told her that needed explaining. 

     “Claire, ye need to know this about the Frasers: we may have little secrets here and there, but we value honesty above all else. If ye ask me something, I will answer ye honestly. And I ask the same of you. You may have things and wee secrets ye want to keep to yourself, and that’s okay. But if we’re to be … ehm … neighbors and friends … I ask that we’re always honest with each other.”

      Neighbors and friends.

      “Agreed. You have my word on that.” 

      “I just told you a secret and a truth. My secret is the 6-month hiatus and my truth is that I am not seeing anyone.”

      Claire nodded slowly and thoughtfully again.

      “Can you tell me more about how the industry and studios messed with your head? What happened in your relationships?”  She paused momentarily. “If it’s too painful, I understand.“ She bit on her lower lip.

       “Aye, Claire, I’ll tell ye everything. But first …” he leaned over and, just as he had done in the tasting room, gently pulled her lower lip from between her teeth with his thumb. “Did you know ye do this when you’re stressed or upset? I’ve known ye two days, and have already seen ye do it too often. And I canna lie ... I find it a wee bit ... distracting."

      And by 'distracting' ye mean ye find it sexy as fuck! Guess ye'll classify that as a secret, Fraser.

      He brushed his thumb over her lip again, and then moved his hand down to capture her fingers, interlacing them with his own, and bringing their joined hands to rest where the two recliners met.      

      “My first big break in the entertainment industry was the role of Hamish in 'Clan Hearts'. I was cast when I was 27, and I don't think anyone expected it to become the success it became. Honestly, I would have been happy if it just made it through the first season. But when it was renewed for three more seasons, I was ecstatic. The crux of the show is the romance of course, so the fan base was largely female, and the studio’s hope was that viewers would fall in love with the hero and keep coming back for more. The show has aired in over 60 countries now, and the ad revenue and accolades and royalties are still rolling in. It was a cash cow for Stargate Productions, and they protected it at all costs. All of us had to sign non-frat contracts to prevent actors from forming relationships with each other and potentially causing conflicts or chemistry issues among the cast and crew. I started dating Natalie Berry halfway through the first season. She was not on 'Clan Hearts' - or any other Stargate production.”

      “I remember you dating her,” Claire said. She remembered them breaking up too - it had been all over social and mainstream media.  

      “We dated for over a year, and I thought she might be ‘the one’. We both thought it was a forever thing.”

      “What happened?”

      “In a lot of shows with a strong romantic character as lead, parts of the fan base inevitably conflate the character with the actor who plays him. So fans who had fallen in love with Hamish thought they were in love with me too. God, it’s so embarrassing to even talk about this. Do I sound like a prat?” 

      “No, of course not!” She squeezed his hand gently, and he responded by absently circling his thumb slowly in the palm of her hand.

      “Fans created Instagram and Twitter accounts in my name and posted pictures and videos that I had nothing to do with. Many made lewd and obscene suggestions - publicly, on social media. Hundreds of women private messaged me photos of themselves in all stages of undress, and doing things I can’t even describe. Then they started to target Natalie. She received threats and ugly photos of awful, unpleasant things. People posted hurtful, insulting comments about her on social media. Ye’ve had a wee taste of that too, Claire, and I’m sure ye can imagine what it’s like to have it happen constantly. 24/7 all year round.”

      “Jamie, I had no idea it could be this bad.”

      “It got so bad, that she was followed and taunted and insulted out in public too. Her car tires were slashed. One social media threat was really frightening - we had to involve the authorities - and it pushed her over the edge. She started drinking and became addicted to prescription drugs. It completely changed her and messed her up. Of course our relationship couldn't withstand that kind of onslaught, and she ended it. That messed me up. I felt that it was my fault, that I should have done more to protect her. I went home to Lallybroch for a while. Knew that Jenny would know what to do. I didn’t do drugs, but there were times that I was reckless. I was binge drinking every few nights over a period of a few weeks. I was miserable and hungover and it was awful. Jenny threatened to kick me out and told me she would not allow me to see the kids until I cleaned up my act. That was a turning point. I love my niece and nephews so much, and the thought of her keeping them from me completely broke me. I stopped binge drinking that night and sought counseling.”

      He paused again, and stared at the mountains for a while.

      “What ended up happening with Natalie?” Claire asked tentatively, realizing that after the well-publicized relationship and break-up with Jamie, she hadn't been covered in the media much - if at all.  

      “Her family sent her to rehab in Switzerland. Took her six months of rehab and therapy, but she finally healed. She withdrew from the entertainment industry completely. She’s married now, with two little ones. They live in Africa - Malawi to be exact. She and her husband run an animal sanctuary for zoo and circus animals.”

      “Ohhh, I’m so happy to hear that things worked out for her.” Claire felt genuine relief that Natalie’s story had ended well. A different ending would likely have destroyed Jamie too.

      “How did things progress for you after Natalie?”

      “After Natalie, I didn’t want to date for a while. It was hard enough to deal with the crap on my social media, and I didn’t want to subject anyone else to it. After a year of not dating, questions arose about why I was never photographed with women. Some rumors started surfacing that I was gay, and honestly it didn’t bother me in the least, but it messed with the image that Stargate Productions wanted me to project. They wanted me to retain their female viewership, so to kill the gay rumors, ‘the parade’ began - Jenny’s term, by the way. It was a constant stream of red carpet appearances with a whole slew of rising young stars and wannabe actresses. Any movie premier or awards show they could snag tickets to, I was off in a tux with a complete stranger. We turned on the dazzling smiles, arms around each other or haids clasped, and then as soon as we were in the auditorium, we would be on our phones or otherwise occupied. I hated it! It was awkward and uncomfortable.” He paused here, released her hand and stretched his arms and neck to release some of the pent-up tension.   

      “How about a top-up?” suggested Claire, “I need a drink just imagining all of this insanity.” Jamie poured a little of the wine into each glass and immediately reached for her hand again, kissing her wrist softly before continuing.  

      “This has been the story of my love-life, Claire. It’s all lived out on social media and ET and TMZ, and I don’t even know most of the women involved. When the studio decides it’s time to make Jamie Fraser look like a player or a heartthrob or a bad boy, I’ll have to do photo-ops or pap walks at some pre-arranged destination - Starbucks, a trendy restaurant, a park - and all the red carpet events, of course. Then the social media crap starts almost immediately, and that’s the part that messes with my head. It takes so much time and energy to deal with it - meetings and calls with the PR company as they try to spin things and respond for me on social media. I’m tired of being linked with women that I would never date in real life, ye ken. I’m tired of spending time dealing with this crap when I should be enjoying better things in life. When I look at Jenny and Ian and the kids …” He frowned deeply for a moment. 

      Claire nodded, and he continued.

      “More honesty here Claire, okay?” She nodded. “I haven't exactly been a monk. There has been the occasional quick fling. I’m only human, ye ken. That need for a physical connection can be overwhelming at times. I also had two relationships in the past couple of years. One with an actress in LA, and the other with a tech executive from London. I’m only telling you this, Claire, to be completely open and transparent, aye?”

      She nodded again, and gave him an encouraging smile. 

      “Both were short-lived, and largely due to the craziness that follows me on social media. Both women were targeted on social media, and neither wanted to deal with that. It has improved a lot since the end of 'Clan Hearts', but picks up again for a few months after I release a movie. It is so hard to maintain a genuine relationship for any length of time. Some can do it successfully. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Hugh Jackman, Pierce Brosnan, Meryl Streep. They all seem to do well. Matt Damon married outside the industry, and that has worked well for him. I don’t know how they’ve done it, actually, but it is a rarity. The entertainment industry is littered with broken marriages, broken hearts, broken souls. I looked around me and saw what it was doing to others in the industry too. It's pretty pervasive. Jenny saw what it was doing to me, and she said “No more.” She feels that it's robbed me of my happiness; she doesn't see me smile much any more, and I don't seem fulfilled. She's probably right. I told her that for some time now, I’ve been thinking that it’s time for me to change paths. Initially she wanted me to just quit and join the family business. But I told her I wanted to withdraw a bit more gradually. I have a tentative 5-year plan for that, because I think it will draw less attention if it’s a carefully paced thing. Jenny asked me to promise I'd speak to the studios about no arranged dates for events or photo ops, just for 6 months so that I could have space to breathe and think and sort out my priorities without social media interference. I pushed the mental health and they agreed to 6 months - no forced dating, no studio-arranged dates. Jenny was ecstatic. So was I, actually.”

      “Has it helped?” asked Claire. 

      “In some ways, yes. Instead of worrying about what’s happening on my social media, and spending hours dealing with PR people because of it, I've had time to really look for investment opportunities and develop other areas of my life so that I can focus on life after I leave the industry. I was in Seattle just over a year ago filming a movie, and that’s when I fell in love with the Eastside. It reminds me so much of home. A few months after filming ended, I came back to spend 6 weeks looking around a little more. I knew I wanted to have a base here, rather than LA, while I work myself out of the industry. Milo and Suki were introduced to me as top realtors, and after we met, they seemed to know exactly what I wanted. Milo made quiet inquiries about this land. He had to be careful because he didn’t want to attract the attention of property developers who would want to put in a whole neighborhood. He spent a few months schmoozing the current owners, and in February he told me it was looking good, and now ... here we are. Milo was also the one who approached me about the wine business. He became aware of it through one of his college friends. Seems these fraternities aren’t just about getting drunk and partying, as all the movies seem to indicate.” He smiled cheekily, and turned serious again. “I hope that after tomorrow’s meeting, I can tell you more about the wine thing. We're very close to finalizing it.”

      She nodded. “So what are you looking for, Jamie. What happens when the hiatus ends? The studios will have lined up a new parade, right?”

      “That’s what Monday’s meeting will be about - but they don’t know it yet. I expect fireworks from Dougal. Between you and me, Claire, my agent is bringing scripts and initial paperwork for roles in DC Comics and James Bond. There’s the potential for a Superman deal, and a three-picture deal as 007.”

      “What! Wow! Congratulations, Jamie!” Claire was genuinely impressed and understood the impact of those roles on his career. Every decent actor on the planet had been campaigning for the James Bond contract.

      “Thank you, but see, that’s the thing. I’m not that excited about it right now. The James Bond thing is something I chased after for a long time. But my hiatus has shown me a calmer, more peaceful, more important side of life that I didn't even realize I missed until now. Jenny knew it though.”

      He paused and looked out over the trees, a slight frown creasing his brow. Claire had come to recognize this as his ‘thinking face’.

      “How far into the hiatus are you?”

      “Just over five months.”

      “You have some more time to think about it then, Jamie. In a few weeks' time, you might find that you’re refreshed and renewed and ready to get back into it all. Or you might find that you’re ready to plan your five-year exit strategy from the industry. I think your biggest ally in this will be Jenny. She wants the best for you, Jamie. No hidden agenda. You may not agree entirely on the approach or timeline, but I sense she will always protect your heart - and your soul.”       

      They were both silent for a while, the only sound was the soft strains of the jazz track from the overhead speakers. 

      “I canna believe ye thought I had a hidden relationship,” he chuckled, and then went very serious, as if suddenly reminded of something very important. “Wait a minute, ye thought I was involved with a woman even after what happened ... even after that moment in the tasting room?” 

      She flushed at the memory of that, and grimaced. “I know, I didn’t know what to think, really.”

      “Claire, ye should know that if I was in a relationship, I wouldna be sneaking around doing things like that. I wouldna be having these moments with ye, I wouldna be saying naughty wee things to ye, and holding yer hand.” He looked at her earnestly.

      “I know, Jamie. I don’t know what’s come over me. I’m not usually so ... uh… forward. And yes, it shames me to think that even though I thought you might be in a relationship, I didn’t try to stop you in the tasting room.”

      He gazed at their joined hands on the wicker chair for a while, deep in thought.      

      “Thank you for letting me share all of that with ye, Claire,” he said eventually. ”And for sharing your story with me too. It’s emotionally draining, aye?”

      “Yes it is. I haven’t opened up about my life to anyone in a very long time, and certainly not in so much detail. Thank you for letting me do that.”

      He looked into the distance. The peaks of the Cascades were shrouded in the last rays of sun, and it would be dark soon. 

      “D’ye think this is usual, Claire? To get so emotionally close to someone so soon after meeting. To feel like ye can tell them anything and know that they will keep it in their heart. To be able to bare yer soul and know that they will take yer story and cherish it and keep it in their own soul for ye. Is this usual - what’s going on between us?”

      She could barely breathe as she considered the impact of his words. The raw honesty and trust in opening himself up to her like that. And she with him.

        “It’s not usual, Jamie. I have never known this immediate emotional connection before either. It’s not usual at all. It’s unique … and incredibly special.”

       He raised her hand to his mouth and placed a soft, gentle kiss on her wrist. And another on the back of her hand. They sat in silence as the night darkened around them, the soothing sounds of the music enveloping them.

       “I never gave you my answer, Jamie, about the Caledonian event. Yes. Yes of course I’ll go with you.”

       A slow smile spread across his features. “It’ll be a braw night, Sassenach. C’mon, it’s almost dark now. Let’s head inside. Tomorrow will be a busy day.”

       

       

 

Chapter Text


 

      Claire awoke earlier than usual. From her bed she could see bands of mist still threading through the trees in the soft dawn light. The sky was starting to pink up a little, and she so wished that Jamie was up to enjoy the sunrise. 

      She had fallen asleep by 10:30 the previous night. The emotional toll of so much soul-baring over the previous three nights had caught up with her, and she needed a good, restful sleep. 

     It was almost 5:00 a.m. now, and the sun would start peeking from behind the mountains in a few minutes. She had time to run downstairs, make a latte and grab a blanket so she could watch the sunrise from the sofa on the middle terrace.

     As she frothed the milk, she hoped that the sounds from the noisy steam nozzle wouldn't carry upstairs and waken Jamie. A rustling from the family room made her turn. The panel swung open and Jamie emerged from a workout, smiling instantly when he saw her. He was toweling his hair, and had clearly worked up a sweat. He was shirtless, and she took in his muscular arms, shoulders and pecs, all covered in a faint damp sheen. She didn’t dare look at his well-defined abs, having noticed from across the room that his gym shorts were slung low on his hips. There was no way she could trust herself not to let her eyes follow his V-line to parts of his body that she really shouldn’t be imagining right now. Her butterflies were apparently awake and enjoying similar thoughts.

      “Sassenach! You're a sight for sore eyes. And sore muscles. You’re up early, did ye not sleep well?”

      ”I could ask you the same question,” she replied cheerfully. 

      “I slept verra well, actually. But my body clock is still a wee bit off from the jet-lag. I woke up at 4 and decided to get an early workout in.”

      “I’m really glad you’re up. You’re just in time to grab a latte and watch the sunrise with me.”

      “Och, Claire. I'm a sweaty mess. I’ll have to grab a shower first.” 

      “No time. Sunrise is at 5:11. and it’s 5:04 now.” 

      And by the way, I used to fantasize about your sweat all over my body, so, yeah, I’m OK with sweaty.    

      “Watch me!” And with that, he raced up the stairs. While he was in the shower, Claire made his latte. He was downstairs in fresh workout gear by 5:08.

      “Did you take a cold shower? That was really fast!” 

      “Aye, it was quite refreshing. I’ve only done weights so far, still heading out for a run. I’ll take a warm shower after that. Thanks for my latte.” He followed her out into the cool morning.      

     The first time they had sat on the middle terrace, Milo, Jamie and Claire had each opted for their own sofa, clustered around the coffee table, chatting and making small talk. So much had changed in three short days. Now Claire was selecting the sofa that would afford them the best view of the sunrise, patting the seat to her left, indicating where Jamie should sit for the best view.

     Placing her mug on the table, she unfolded the blanket and spread it over both of them, struck by how an act as basic as sharing a blanket could feel so intimate with the right person. They settled into the sofa, quietly sipping their coffee, completely enveloped in silence. The only sounds were the birds trilling and warbling at each other in a range of melodic calls. Some of the misty wisps had started to dissipate, but many still lingered, lending the trees and mountains an ethereal feel. The cloudless sky was now painted in large swaths of intense pinks and oranges.

      “God, Claire, this is beautiful,” he whispered.

      She looked at him and smiled. He fixed his eyes on her and she noticed with mild relief that he had not shaved, and his scruff was looking sexier than ever. She took a quick sip of her coffee to distract her thoughts from moving into areas that she was studiously trying to avoid.

      “Foam,” he said, still holding her gaze as she lowered her mug. 

      “Hmm?” she looked at him, not tracking his meaning.

      He reached over, and with his index finger, swiped the foam off her upper lip and licked it off his fingertip.

      “Thank you,” she smiled, turning to look back over the mountains. The colors of the sky had deepened.

      “I need a picture of this so I can remember it forever. Our first sunrise, Sassenach.” He said this in a low voice to avoid disturbing the quiet peace, but the sheer sensuality of his already deep voice in an even lower register made her heart skip a beat, and it took her a few seconds to process the content of what he had said.

      Our first sunrise.

      She took a deep steadying breath. He had no qualms about revealing his innermost thoughts and feelings, and she found that refreshing and endearing. But with last night’s revelations about his relationship status, she had to wonder where this was all going. And whether it was going anywhere at all - hiatus or no hiatus. 

      She heard his soft gasp, and they watched together as the first rays started to appear over the top of the mountain.

      “In a very short while, we wont be able to look at it anymore. It’ll be too bright,” she warned quietly.

      “Aye,” he replied, disappointment evident in his voice. “I wish we could sit and watch this for hours.”

      As soon as the sun rose a little higher, and the bright orb began to emerge, she tugged the blanket off them, and he stood first, extending his hand and pulling her upright. 

      “Turn around, Claire." He pulled her in close, wrapping his arm snugly around her, and she could feel his scruff on her temple and the side of her face. “Quick selfie,” he said. He snapped and showed her the picture.

      “Oh, I love that!” she exclaimed. They were both smiling broadly, chest-to chest, heads together, his free arm just visible around her upper back. The sun was just a bright blur behind them, but some of the beautiful color streaks were visible in the background. “Will you send it to me please?”

      “Sure.” As they made their way back to the kitchen, he tapped the picture, selected ‘Sassenach’ from his contacts, and hit send. 

      “I’m going to do a yoga class and then I’ll get some things ready for your meeting. You go and enjoy your run.”

      “Thanks, Claire - please don’t put yerself out on account of the meeting. I think it’ll go pretty smoothly.”

 

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

 

      She was looking forward to unscrambling some of her thoughts during her post-yoga shower, but she wasn’t sure that it was particularly helpful this time. In fact, she was more confused than ever.

      Before last night’s talk, she had been enjoying the light flirting and banter that went back and forth between herself and Jamie. And now that she knew he was not in a relationship, she expected that he would continue to flirt and tease - that was his nature. She felt quite flattered, if she was totally honest. She’d had a decent number of suitors over the past year or so, ‘Ashlee’s dad’ by far the most ardent of them. But despite her admirers finding her attractive enough to pursue, she was held back by her insecurities, and these were magnified when it came to Jamie. He had his pick of the world's most beautiful and glamorous women, only too eager to hop into bed with him, no strings attached. Always one to be brutally honest with herself, she wondered if his attentions were largely due to the isolation and proximity imposed by quarantining. Was their ability to share so openly with each other just the result of being in each other’s space so much and having no one else to talk to? Was it the yearning for a human connection that was absent in both of their lives? Or was it something else entirely? A deep and instant emotional connection that was so rare that few people experienced it; and when they did, it was because everything aligned in just the right way, at just the right time.

  Her heart was telling her that the immediate and unusual connection was unique and warranted further exploration. It was her darn head that was getting in the way, warning her to tread lightly. 

      This could end up being one of his flings as soon as the hiatus is over, Beauchamp. Are you sure you're okay with that? Or do you need to work harder on keeping this on a solid, friendly basis. You’re about to be neighbors, for Pete’s sake.

    

      Jamie was incognito in his sunglasses and cap. He enjoyed running in the brisk morning hours, before the air became heavy with heat and traffic. Quickly getting into his rhythm, he allowed his mind to wander to Claire. God, she was gorgeous. And hot. And sexy. And that little minx had a naughty sense of humor that drove him wild. And an arse that drove him to distraction. Revealing his story to her last night had felt like a huge unburdening. He hadn’t shared as much about his true feelings and hopes and dreams with anyone else - apart from Jenny. Claire didn’t judge or try to persuade or dissuade him in any way. She asked probing questions that made him think more deeply, and she had encouraged him to keep thinking about his options before making his big decisions. He admired everything about her, and yearned for the kind of life she had. Apart from the hiccup with the PILF situation, she lived in privacy and anonymity. She had a successful career that was on a great trajectory, she had two beautiful daughters for whom she had created a safe and loving home. His heart tightened when he thought of how much loss she had suffered. How he would love to ease those painful memories by creating new ones with her.

      Their connection was so immediate, so intense, so real - and she felt it too. She made him feel grounded and she made him laugh and she made him want to spend time with her. She was now the first person he thought of when he awoke, and the last one on his mind as he drifted to sleep. 

      She has worked her way so far into yer heart already, ye sappy walloper! And you're quite okay with that. But you need to get yer shit figured out soon, or ye'll end up being neighbors and nothing more.

   

  

Chapter Text


     

      Claire let her hair dry naturally, and quickly applied her usual daytime makeup. She dressed in slim-fit, light khaki pants and a soft blue sleeveless blouse. Eying herself critically in the mirror, she decided she looked semi-professional and comfortably casual - exactly the look she wanted to project. She slid her feet into tan Tory Burch flats, added gold hoop earrings and a spritz of Daisy - her go-to daytime perfume.

      After unloading the dishwasher, she set about making a quick checklist of things to do before Jamie’s meeting. He had returned from his run and was upstairs in the shower. She gathered a range of glasses - wine, whisky, water - and took them out to the covered patio, where she set them up on the granite counter. A few trips back and forth between the patio and the kitchen, and she had checked most of the items on her list. Plates, napkins, and silverware were all set out and ready for the afternoon meal. She wandered over to her flower beds to see what flowers might look good in a vase for the countertop. Her lawn service did a great job with her yard overall, but she always liked to potter around in the flower beds to see what might grow from her efforts. She was not blessed with a green thumb and Henry had playfully teased her about her tendency to commit ‘horticultural homicide’. She wandered through the beds on the upper terrace and made a mental note that the yellow and white peonies looked quite good, but she wanted to check the area at the end of the terrace.

      “Noooooooo,” she moaned aloud.

      “Claire?” She turned to see Jamie walking towards her. He looked neatly casual in khakis and a navy Henley shirt that hugged his muscled torso and arms quite deliciously, she decided. The scruff was still there. Good thing she wasn’t in the meeting, she would never be able to focus on the discussion.    

      Our outfits match again, Jamie-boy. This is getting weird. 

      “Everything okay?” he asked.

      “Yes, kinda,” she said ruefully. “I’ve managed to kill my gladioli. Again! They’re one of my favorite types of flowers, and I try to grow them every year, but I really need to admit defeat and move on. The peonies are looking good. I’ll cut some of those instead.”

      “I’ll hold them for ye,” he offered. And as she cut them, he collected them from her, holding them gently in his big hands. He brought them into the kitchen where she arranged them in a few small square vases, and placed them on the patio to add a dash of color. 

      “Claire, thank you for doing all this,” Jamie looked around the patio. “You are incredible.” She blushed and shook her head. She was never entirely comfortable receiving compliments.

      “Are you ready for your helicopter ride?”

      “Aye, I canna wait to see all of this from higher up.” He looked out over the trees around them. “I’ll go and work on some emails. I need to FaceTime Jenny and the family too.”

     "Jamie..." she began, "good luck with the meeting today. I know that this wine business thing is something you've worked hard on, and there's a lot riding on it for you. I hope it all goes well."

     He seemed genuinely touched by her words, and put his arm around her shoulder in an awkward side hug. "Thank you, Claire. Truly."

 

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

 

      Claire reviewed more student case studies in the upstairs study space, only coming back down when her phone pinged to let her know that Milo had arrived.  

      “Claire, you look lovely as always. How are things going?” asked Milo, giving her a warm hug.

      “Everything is going just fine. Hopefully Jamie thinks so too.”

      “Oh, I’m sure he’s more than happy, Claire. You are a marvelous hostess.”

      “Hey Milo,” Jamie emerged from the house. “Sorry to keep you - I was getting last-minute instructions from Jenny to take lots of pictures.” 

      “No problem,” smiled Milo. He had met Jenny when she visited Jamie on the lake, and knew she could be a little intense. “Claire, we should be back around 1:30. If you’re out back in around 45 minutes, look out for us. Grab your binoculars - we’ll wave at you.”

      “See you later, Claire.” Jamie gave her his two-eyed wink out of Milo’s line of sight. She smiled and waved them off.   

      Back in the kitchen, Claire brewed herself some herbal tea, grabbed her iPad and binoculars, and headed to the middle terrace - where she had been when she first spotted Milo in the helicopter exactly a week ago. She cranked open the umbrella, and sat with her feet up, catching up on texts, emails, and social media. Her mind drifted to the formal dinner on Saturday night and she made a mental note to go through her closet later. She opened her message app, and tapped ‘Armando’.

      Hey you! Busy on Sat afternoon, say 1’ish?    

      She waited a little, but there was no immediate reply so she continued going through her email. Ten minutes later, Armando’s reply slid in at the top her screen.

      Hey girl! i have 2 appointments in the AM but free after that, so i'm all yours in the PM. what’s going on?   

     I have a formal dinner at night. was hoping u could come over and do a nice up-do?    

     OMG, Yes! we’ll do something soft - a few loose curls - stunning.  i’m gonna need more deets on Saturday. who, what, why - whole 9 yards. 

     LOL. love u! see u Sat.    

     smiling face with hearts  

   

      Almost an hour later, she heard the rotor blades of the chopper and set her iPad aside. She picked up the binoculars, and walked to the edge of the terrace. Within minutes, the chopper appeared and moved towards Jamie’s property. Just like it had done the previous week, it started making wide sweeps over the area, hovering over particular spots. There was a little more hovering today, and she guessed that Jamie had a few more areas that he wanted to scrutinize closely. As the chopper got closer and closer to her terrace, Claire picked up the binoculars and peered through them. She followed the chopper on a long sweep down the length of the property, as it made its way closer to the terrace. She could make out Milo’s distinctive white hair, and when she was able to focus, she saw his face fairly clearly. She adjusted the binoculars a little, and saw that Jamie was in the seat that faced Milo, but he had turned his body towards the terrace. She thought he was waving, but when she focused and zoomed in a little, she realized he wasn’t. The goober was making heart hands at the window! His body angle was a deliberate move to conceal the gesture from the other occupants - no way he would risk it with Dougal and Milo in there. She saw that he had grabbed his binoculars, so she dropped hers, and waved with both arms. Seconds later, the chopper turned towards the west; evidently the aerial property tour was complete.

     Back on the sofa, she picked up her iPad, tapped the messages app, and selected ‘Jamie F’.   

      Cheeky bugger! hope ur uncle didn't see that - or Milo

      Nope - too busy looking at the snowcaps. u look quite bonnie down there. missing me yet?

      See u later, bloody Scot 

      face blowing a kiss  

     

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

 

       By 2 p.m., there were three cars in the driveway, ten people spread across the patio, and the meeting was well underway. Some wore masks, others were less fastidious. Jamie had asked them all to wash their hands as soon as they arrived. Claire had also placed hand sanitizer and spare masks strategically in the powder room and on the patio. They were taking as many precautions as possible. Jamie had introduced her to everyone, but she knew that the only names she would remember for now were Dougal and Murtagh.

        Dougal was a big, imposing man, almost as tall as Jamie, and heavy set. He had the same blue eyes, but set under bushy brows, and a severe looking permanent frown. He was completely bald, and boasted a trimmed salt and pepper beard. His eyebrow shot up when he met Claire, and he held her hand for longer than felt comfortable, looking her over from head to toe. Murtagh was a good few inches shorter, slim and wiry, with black beady eyes, and an unruly black beard. He had a full head of black hair, only lightly threaded with silver. Clearly he had inherited the good genes when it came to greying hair! He was polite and friendly, but Claire suspected that those black eyes of his missed nothing.

 

       Wanting to stay well out of the way, she worked on student papers upstairs.  Jamie would text or call for her if he needed anything. At 3:00 p.m., Claire took delivery of the food and texted Jamie.

       Food’s here LMK when safe to bring out. don’t want to walk out if ur talking private stuff

      Seconds later, Jamie was in the kitchen.

      I don't expect you to handle all of this on yer own, Claire. Give me instructions.”

      “Okay, why don’t we unpack all of it. I want to give it all the once-over, make sure it looks presentable, then you can carry it out and set it on the counter. I left serving utensils out there already.”

      As they busied themselves, Dougal wandered into the kitchen, somewhat unsteady on his feet. He looked Claire up and down again, and asked in a thick Scottish brogue, “Could ye direct me to the restroom, love?”

      “I’ll show ye, Uncle.” Jamie bristled at the way his uncle had overtly ogled Claire. He led Dougal out of the kitchen and down the hallway towards the powder room.

       “She’s a bonnie wee piece of arse, Jamie. Just like you to find a willing woman - even in the middle of a pandemic.”

       “DOUGAL!” Jamie raised his voice, and then instantly dropped it, but Claire could hear him quite clearly. “I’ll not allow ye to disrespect Claire. She has been nothing but kind and welcoming, not only to me, but to you and all my business associates. I consider her a good friend and neighbor, and I’ll thank ye to show her some respect. I’ll also thank ye to stop drinking for the day - it’s making you verra unpleasant to be around.”

       The powder room door clicked closed and Jamie re-entered the kitchen, looking pained.

        “Claire, I’m so sorry. He had no right to talk like that. He’s had too much to drink, and he’s so inappropriately old-school. Please accept my apologies.” 

        “No need, Jamie. I’ve been around enough drunk men to recognize when a man is a little past his best self. Did you see I ordered some baklava for dessert - theirs is to die for. Let’s get these platters outside, and then we’ll assemble the salad.”

       They set the platters of food out, and then returned to the kitchen where they opened all the separate containers of ingredients to assemble the Greek salad. Jamie sampled a chunk of feta.

       “Mmm. This is good feta - creamy, not overly salty,” he declared. “Here ...” He held a small chunk of feta up to her lips, and she closed her mouth around it as he carefully withdrew his thumb and forefinger.  

       Dougal chose that very moment to return from the bathroom. He froze momentarily, fixed the pair with a raised eyebrow, and then continued out to the patio with a knowing look. 

      Claire turned to look at Jamie with a wide-eyed look of concern, but he merely shrugged and went over to the sink to wash his hands. “Let’s get this salad out there, aye? Will ye join us for the meal, Claire?”

      She shook her head. “I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but I’d rather just grab a bite later. You may want to continue discussions over the meal, and you can’t do that if I’m there. I’ll be working upstairs, just text if you need anything.”

 

      Claire retreated to the upstairs study, and continued working through student papers from the summer cohort. Within twenty minutes she heard Jamie call her, his voice sounding closer as he approached the study area. She swiveled around in her chair, and her heart stopped momentarily.       

       He had plated up her meal and brought it up to her.

       “It’s a wee sampling of everything. If there is anything you want more of, I can bring it up.” 

       “Oh Jamie! You are a sweet, sweet man!” She shook her head in disbelief.

       “I thought I was a ‘cheeky bugger’!” He said in mock confusion.

       “That too!” she said, dipping a piece of pita bread into the hummus.

       “Try the baba ganoush,” he suggested.

       She did as requested, and responded with a groan. “So good.”

       “I didn’t forget your baklava. Saved us both a piece to enjoy in the hot tub or on the patio later.”

       “Thank you, Jamie,” she said, eying her plate, “this is perfect.” 

       “I’ll come and get you when the meeting’s over.” 

 

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

 

      It was almost 6 p.m. when her phone pinged, alerting her to movement in the driveway. The meeting was clearly over.

      Claire felt good about what she had accomplished over the preceding few hours. She had FaceTimed the girls, who had seemed disappointed that Jamie was otherwise occupied and they wouldn't get to chat with him. She had also spent some time going through the formal section of her closet. It had yielded two good options for Saturday’s event, and she planned on asking Armando’s opinion when he came to do her hair. 

      Jamie joined her upstairs and collapsed onto one of the girls’ oversized bean bags. 

      “That was exhausting! Dougal is a prick when he’s had too much to drink.”

      “How did it go - apart from Dougal?”

      “Really well. I’ll tell ye downstairs - are you up for the hot tub? I could use that warm bubbly water to wash away the stress.”

      “Of course. Get your swimsuit and robe, and meet me downstairs in a few.”

      “Sassenach?”

      “Yes?”

      “I’m quite partial to that cheeky swimsuit ye had on the other night. Just sayin’.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

      Claire wriggled into a red one-piece that offered better rear-end coverage, but was a little lower cut in front. She wrapped her robe tightly around herself and tied the belt in a knot. Jamie was not in the kitchen yet, but she was taken aback at what she saw. The kitchen counters had been cleaned, the dishwasher was running, and the glasses and dishes that didn’t fit were stacked in the sink, ready for loading. Glancing out at the patio, she saw that it too had been cleaned. 

      “I’ll load those after this load is done,” he appeared in the kitchen, and gestured towards the sink and dishwasher.

      “I can’t believe you cleaned up! I would have helped you.”

      “I would not have allowed ye to. Murtagh helped me - while Dougal poured himself another drink. Good thing Murtagh’s driving the rental.”

      “I’m dying to hear about the meeting. You ready to go outside?”

      “Aye. How do you feel about taking some whisky down there tonight, instead of wine. I picked up some good stuff at the store yesterday.”

      “I’d love it. Grab the bottle, I’ll bring glasses.”

      They set the whisky, glasses and their iPads next to the hot tub, draped their robes over the towel rack, and eased into the steaming water. For a few seconds they allowed their bodies to get accustomed to the stinging heat. 

      “Sassenach, would ye mind finding music - your favorite playlist is fine. I need to spend a few minutes on my iPad. I’m sorry - I hate to be so rude, but once I’ve taken care of a wee thing, I’ll give ye an update on the meeting.”

      He tapped away on his iPad while Claire selected a favorite playlist that combined oldies from the 80s and 90s. The strains of Queen’s ‘It’s a Kind of Magic’ soon filled the space around them. 

     “God, I love Queen!” Jamie didn't look up from his iPad, but his mouth lifted in a crooked little smile. “Ye ken this is from the movie 'Highlander', aye?"

      “Yes. You can’t live in Scotland in your teens without seeing it at least 5 times at various sleepovers. Christopher Lambert was quite a hottie in his day, so it really wasn’t a hardship to have to watch it multiple times. He rocked that kilt!” 

      “Mmhmmm. A hottie, huh? Ye like a man in a kilt then, Sassenach?” He still hadn't looked up from his iPad.

      “Depends on who’s wearing it.”

      “And ye ken the Highlander’s clansmen were enemies of the Fraser clan, aye?”

      “Still a hottie,” she insisted playfully.

     “Done!” He set his iPad on the hot tub ledge. “I’d like to make ye dinner tomorrow night, Claire. I just placed the grocery order. It’ll be delivered in the morning. I would have asked ye first, but ye’d have said no.”

     “I would have said no. You don’t need to go to all that trouble.”

      “I knew ye’d say that. It’s no trouble - it’ll be really simple. One of Jenny’s recipes that she makes at the B&B.”

      “I’m looking forward to it. And I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Now - tell me about the meetings.”

      

      Jamie stood up and reached for the whisky glasses. He had brought down a bottle of Kilchoman single malt, and handed Claire a glass of the rich amber whisky before pouring his own. Sitting across from her, he took a sip of his whisky and cocked his head slightly. 

      “We should be toasting this with wine, but I don’t have the right wines, and feel like it would be disloyal.” 

      She frowned, “Disloyal? What do mean? What are the ‘right wines’?”

      “Ehm …well, Claire ...  ye’re looking at the new owner of The Grotto.”

      Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened. “The Grotto? The winery?”

      “Aye. The winery, the resort, the tasting rooms - all of it.”

      “Oh my God!” She was stunned for a few seconds. “The whole nine yards?”

      “That’s a verra American expression, but yes, the whole nine yards.”

      “Oh my God!" she said again, still processing. "Congratulations!” She leaned across, planning on giving him a chaste kiss on the cheek, but at the last minute decided that this moment was quite extraordinary and warranted a much bigger gesture, so she flung her arms around his shoulders and hugged him tightly. “I’m so, so excited for you.”

      The hug caught him off-guard and whisky sloshed over the side of both glasses. He was clearly delighted by her excited reaction, and wrapped his free arm tightly around her before she could return to her seat. 

      “Sit here, and I’ll tell you about it,” he patted the molded seat closest to his. The 90º angle of their corner seats meant that their legs would inevitably get tangled together, but she ignored that, and focused her attention on what Jamie was saying.

      “I ken that you and Henry were good friends of Milo and Suki - and that the three of them were friends from college days. I assume ye ken Rob Raymond?”

      “Yes. Very well. He was part of the frat group that remained friends over the years. I’m not as close to Rob and Susan as I am to Milo and Suki, but they are friends - good people. He built up The Grotto from nothing. Started with just the winery, and then added the tasting rooms there and in Woodinville, and slowly built the resort at the winery over the next few years. It's magnificent ... it overlooks the Columbia River valley and some of the rooms are recessed into the rocks and cliffs. I assume you know this all better than me by now," she smiled. "I had no idea he was selling it.” 

      “Milo knew that Rob was not ready to retire 100%, but he was keen to start divesting and preparing for eventual retirement. Their only child was killed in Iraq, so he had no one to take over the business. When Milo mentioned it to me, I was apprehensive at the thought of taking on a business in an industry I know nothing about. Still am, if I’m honest.”

      “I don’t think that you would have embarked on this journey if you didn’t feel you could do it, Jamie. You asked so many pertinent questions at the wineries yesterday. It’s clear you have a deep interest and decent knowledge about it already. Tell me more about the deal.”

      He acknowledged her words of encouragement with a smile “I brought in my business advisor from Glasgow, and he and my local lawyers helped structure a deal that appealed to both sides. I have a 65% stake right away, and Rob keeps 35% for the next five years as I learn the industry. It’s a good way of keeping him involved while I learn, and a big enough stake for him to stay committed and keep building on the winery’s success. It also means that he can slowly get used to retirement over the course of a few years. After five years, I acquire the remaining 35%.”

      “How are you planning to balance your movie schedule with learning the ropes? Will current management stay on for the full five years?”

      “Aye. That was written into the deal. The entire management team is locked in for five years. They were well incentivized for that. Rob thinks most of them will stay on beyond that. More than half of them have been with him for ten years or more. Murtagh will be spending the next six weeks up at The Grotto. He will be my eyes and ears, and will learn more about the industry faster than I can with my commitments. After my week in LA, I’ll be back here to spend some time at the winery and start my ‘on-the-job’ training.”

      “It all sounds really exciting. Your purchase deal sounds solid and it seems you’ve locked in everything you needed. I love that Murtagh will be involved to keep an eye on things.”

      “Aye. He has a keen business sense, has Murtagh. He spent nine years in France working for a cousin who is a wine and spirits merchant there. He runs a huge enterprise, and Murtagh learned things from the ground up, until my Da passed away, and he came back to help take care of us.”

      “How perfect that he has some background in the industry. I have a really good feeling about this for you, Jamie.”

      “Aye, me too,” he chuckled. “Me too.”

      Jamie stood up to replenish their whisky.

      “Go easy on mine please, Jamie. I can’t be getting tipsy in front of you every day.” She was already feeling the effects of the whisky’s much higher alcohol content. 

      “Dinna fash, Sassenach. I’ll take care of ye. I won’t let ye drown.” He winked his goofy wink at the reminder of Tuesday’s hot tub moment when he thought she had fallen asleep.

      He sat down with his drink and their legs got entangled in their attempts to settle back down into their previous positions. Claire considered moving to sit across from him, or on the same side of the tub at least, to try and avoid the inevitable confusion of legs. She didn’t know if it was the effects of the whisky or just her growing level of ease with Jamie, but she untangled her legs from below the water, and eased them up and across his lap. 

      He slid her a quick look, but she had rested her head against the edge of the tub and closed her eyes. 

      “Sorry,” she said lethargically, ”I’m too lazy to move - and legs are always a mess when you sit in the corners."

      “Did ye hear me complaining?” Her eyes were still closed, but she knew he was smirking.

      “So you’re going to come back after LA?” she asked casually.

      “Aye, there’ll be a lot to take care of with The Grotto. And if I get this property deal finalized, I’ll want to start working with architects, builders and the like.”

      His fingers started to draw lazy circles on her foot, carefully avoiding the ticklish zones when she flinched slightly. She was still pondering the fact that she might get to see him when he was back in Seattle after LA. Why did that make her feel so warm and fuzzy? Or was that the result of Jamie gently caressing her foot under water. Water made everything so much slower and sexier.  

      You’re getting into dangerous territory here. Where’s your resolve?

      She took another sip of whisky.

      His fingers were softly exploring her ankle. 

      “Jamie?” she opened one eye.

      “Mmmm?”

      “You promised me some baklava.”

      “I did, didn’t I? Do you want me to go get it now?”

      His fingers traced slow whorls and circles up her shin.

      “Uh uh. Not yet.”

      He chuckled, and his fingers continued their slow, sexy exploration. He reached the area behind her knees, and she squirmed at the sensation of his fingertips in this particularly sensitive spot. Her back arched slightly, and he paused briefly.

      “Do you want me to stop?” 

      “No,” she sighed, her head still resting against the edge of the tub. “But you’re neglecting my other leg. That’s favoritism.”

      “Well, then. I can't be accused of favoritism, now can I? He reached for her other foot, and began a very thorough sensory tour of that leg too.

       She was breathing a little faster and shallower now. And there were things going on between her thighs that she hadn’t felt in a long, long time. She didn't dare open her eyes because if she looked into his blue eyes now, she would lose herself in him completely. She bit her lower lip and heard one of his deep, rumbling grunts. 

      “Jamie?”

      “Mmmm?”

      “What did that little grunt mean?”

      “Grunt?”

      “Yes. You make all sorts of Scottish noises, and I never know what they mean. You’ll have to make me a glossary of your grunts.”

      “A glossary of grunts?” He chuckled. “Aye, I’ll get right on it.”

      His hand was on her knee now, and slowly making its way north. She opened an eye again. He had also leaned his head back against the edge of the hot tub, eyes closed.

      By the time he reached her mid-thigh, she knew she was in the danger zone. 

      Oh God, there's some serious stuff going on in my lady parts. I don’t want you to stop, but …

      Her head was a little woozy from the whisky, but he was awakening feelings and reviving sensations that she hadn’t felt in so long, and she wanted more. Much, much more. Maybe they should slow down a little.

      “Jamie?”

      “Mmmm?”

      “I think it’s time for that baklava.”

      His hand stopped in its tracks, and she sensed his disappointment.

      “I’ll be right here, Jamie. Too lazy to move.” 

      “Sip yer whisky - I’ll be right back.”

      

      She sensed the water level rising slightly as he got back in the hot tub. Having downed the last of her whisky, she thought she still had her wits about her - mostly - but she was feeling dangerously uninhibited. 

      She smiled lazily at him and said, “You poured me way too much whisky. I’m going to have to stay out here for the night.”

      “I’d never leave you out here all night, Sassenach. I’ll carry you back to the house, dinna fash. You ready for your dessert?”

      “Mmhmmm. Very ready.” She hoped she wasn’t slurring. And she hoped she could keep it together - she tended to get a little naughty when she drank whisky. 

      She held her hand out to take the Baklava, but Jamie pulled it back out of her reach.

      “Uh uh. You took care of so much for the meeting today. Time for you to relax. I’ll feed it to ye. Scoot over a wee bit.”

      She was still reclined in a comfortable, floating slouch, and lazily moved aside to make room for him, sitting up a little higher. Holding the wedge of syrupy, honey-drenched baklava between his thumb and forefinger, he brought it to her lips.

      “Take a wee bite.”

      She obeyed, and immediately groaned at the decadent deliciousness of it. 

      “Oh my God, it is so good. Try it Jamie.”  

      “I’ll get mine soon, this one is all yours.”

      His body was very close to hers, leg pushed up against her thigh. Her languid semi-slouch had her right at eye-level with his chest, the perfect vantage point to take in his well-formed pecs and strong, defined biceps. She wondered what it must be like to lay her head on his chest and feel those arms wrapped around her, keeping her close to his heart. His voice, so close to her now, interrupted her thoughts.

      “Another wee bite,” he prompted, bringing the baklava slowly back to her mouth. A single drop of thick honey dripped off Jamie’s forefinger onto her chest. She looked down in mild surprise and saw the bead of honey on the swell of her breast. She started to raise a lazy hand to wipe it away, but Jamie gently pushed her hand away with his wrist, the last bite of the baklava wedge still balanced between his thumb and forefinger. Looking into her eyes for any hesitation and finding none, he slowly lowered his head, bringing his lips down to her breast, over the bead of honey, and gently licked it off. He heard and felt her soft gasp. He raised his head, eyes fixed on her lips, which had parted as she drew in soft, shallow breaths. Reaching for his hand, she guided the baklava back to his mouth, silently encouraging him to accept the last bite. Then she brought his hand back to her mouth, and took his sticky, syrupy forefinger between her lips and slowly, so very slowly, licked the honey off. 

      “Sassenach…” he breathed.

      When his forefinger was clean, she took his thumb into her mouth, and sucked and grazed the honey and flakes of pastry that lingered there. She released his thumb slowly and he dragged his hand lightly across her shoulder and down her arm, below the water, with exquisite tenderness. He moved his hand around her to the small of her back and traced a slow path up her spine to the base of her neck. Weaving his fingers into the damp curls at her neck, he cupped the back of her head gently in his large hand. She was almost breathless in anticipation, biting her lower lip and keeping her eyes focused on his. His eyes dropped to her lips, and he groaned a little when he saw her lower lip between her teeth. It did things to him. Things that were beyond his control. 

      “Claire …” She nodded a tiny nod and he eased her up towards him slightly, lowering his head at the same time. His eyes didn’t move from her lips until his mouth was just inches from hers. He shifted his gaze to her whisky eyes, and found them looking into the depths of his eyes. God, she was beautiful. He wanted her desperately, but he intended to take it slow. He wanted to be sure that she was completely ready for this step. Slowly and tenderly, he touched her lips with his and let them linger there, mouths barely touching. She released her bottom lip, and he took it between his lips, softly kissing away any indents her teeth may have made. They parted briefly, eyes locked. The tip of his tongue peeked out, wetting his lips slightly, and he moved towards her mouth again.   

                         musical notes I found a love fo-o-or me,

                         Darling just dive right in …

      They froze. 

      Seconds went by as they stared each other, motionless.

                         Well I found a gi-i-rl, beautiful and sweet …

      “That did not just happen!” Claire’s face started to crease into a laugh, and within seconds her giggle erupted from the depths of her belly. Jamie straightened up and then collapsed against the back of the hot tub with a groan. Then he started to laugh. They sat side by side laughing in disbelief that a love ballad, of all things, could ruin such an intense moment.

      “This must be destined to be our song, Sassenach.”

      “Oh, Jamie, I am so sorry.” She giggled. “That was bad timing. I didn't even realize this was in the playlist.” Her speech sounded lethargic.

      “D’ye think yer girls mentally telepathied that to us? Is that even a word?”

       Another giggle. “Possibly. I FaceTimed them earlier and they were bummed that you were too busy to speak to them.”

      “Claire!” he chided her, “you should have texted me, I’d have come up to say hi.”

      “You were too busy buying wineries, remember?” More giggles.

      He turned to face her again - he was so ready to pick up where they had just left off, but something about her voice and giggle bothered him.

      Please, please don’t be tipsy, Claire. I want you so much, I ache. But I’m not going any further if you’re not fully aware of what ye’re doing.

      She sighed deeply, and lay her head on his shoulder. Tentatively, she placed her hand on his chest. He held his breath for a moment, and exhaled slowly as her fingers explored the firm contours of his chest - the hard nipples and firm pecs, the little hollow between them, the sprinkling of soft russet hair. Her hand slid lower and it was obvious to him now that she was feeling the effects of the whisky quite markedly. There was no way he would be continuing what they had just started unless she was completely clear of the effects of alcohol.

      He gently took her hand and held it in his. Kissing her fingertips, he looked into her eyes, which were a little less sharply focused than usual. 

      Damn! Why did ye think whisky was a good idea tonight? She's a small wee thing, and it's gone right to her head!

      ”To be continued.” His voice was low and tinged with disappointment, but his words were full of promise.

      “Mmmm,” Claire murmured. 

       “l’ll grab the robes.” And like he had done on Tuesday evening, he carefully and tenderly wrapped her in her robe, lifting her off the ledge by the waist, and placing her carefully on the grass. Pulling on his own robe, he rested his hand on her back and guided her back to the house. She was steady enough on her feet, but he knew from her general lethargy and slight giggliness that it would take a couple of hours to clear her system. 

      It was a little after 8:00 p.m., and Jamie suggested that a movie might be a good way to end the evening. It would also be a good distraction from the lingering heat and longing between his legs. 

      “A movie sounds like a great idea. What do you want to watch?”

      “Your choice. Let’s change out of our swimsuits. Ehm … I’m going to need a quick shower. Let’s meet back here and you can pick the movie while I get us some snacks.”   

      Claire took a quick shower too, downing a bottle of water between the kitchen and her bathroom - she knew she was headed for a hangover in the morning if she didn't hydrate well. By the time she reached the kitchen, she was feeling a tiny bit less woozy. Jamie was in his grey sweats and a navy tee, brewing some herbal tea for her. No more alcohol tonight. She was also comfortably dressed in yoga pants and a soft tee. They headed into the media room together.

      “Are ye hungry? I can make you up a wee plate.” He handed her the tea in a travel mug so she could keep it in the seat's cup holder. 

      “Thank you,“ she smiled gratefully, taking a small sip, “I’m not hungry, but please grab something for yourself.”

      “I’m okay too. I’ll grab you a bottle of water and some snacks. What are we watching?”

      She scrolled through the recommended movies based on her preferences, and stopped at one she knew was good.

     “How does the 'The Equalizer' sound? Denzel Washington. I've seen it, but it's so good, and I've been wanting to see it again.”

     “Yasss! I love action movies. I've seen it too, but I want to watch 'Equalizer 2', so I'll gladly re-watch the first one. I'll re-watch anything with Denzel. Great choice.”   

    She dimmed the lights, and they picked the two middle seats in the back row as it gave them the best view. The deep red leather seats reclined quite far back, so they set their seats at the same comfortable angle and settled in to watch the movie. Jamie reached over and took Claire’s hand, interlacing their fingers. 

   

      When he awoke three hours later, the screen was blank, and they were still holding hands. He looked over at Claire, sound asleep in her seat. She looked beautiful and peaceful, and he hated to disrupt her sleep, but he certainly didn’t want to leave her there all night. 

      He leaned over, brushed a curl from her face, and stroked her cheek softly with the back of his forefinger.

      “Claire,” he whispered. 

      No response.

      "Claire, wake up, mo leannan.” He continued to gently stroke her cheek.

      “Huh?” She stirred, blinked awake slowly and yawned deeply. “Oh God, I am so sorry. I can’t believe I fell asleep on you.”

      “You were out within 20 minutes and I didn’t last much longer - just woke up myself.”  

      He stood up and held his hand out to her. Pulling her upright, he steadied her for a second as she adjusted to wakefulness from a deep sleep.

      “I’ll help ye tidy up in the morning. Let’s get a good night’s sleep. Take some more water up with you.”

      They headed upstairs together. At the top of the stairs, he pulled her into a firm hug and held her there for several long seconds. Kissing her temple, and squeezing her hand, he let her move away from him. They smiled a little awkwardly at each other.

      “Good night, Jamie.”

      “Good night, Sassenach.”

        

      

Chapter Text


 

      Claire awoke well after sunrise - unusually late for her. She had the tiniest headache and groaned when she thought of her tipsy behavior the previous night.

      Seriously! The man is on a friggin’ hiatus that is really important to him, and you’re getting all tipsy and up in his stuff. 

      She felt slightly ashamed for her wantonness.

      New day, fresh resolve. You got this.

      But this was the fourth day in a row of telling herself to renew her resolve and she had failed every time. God, he had been so freakin' sexy in the hot tub. She was so turned on and ready. And she knew he was too. That was about to be the hottest make-out session of her life.

      Damn you, Ed Sheeran!

      How would they ever survive the next week together without messing up his hiatus?

      She swallowed a Tylenol before taking a long, hot shower, pushing all thoughts of Jamie out of her head. Focusing on the impending professorship process, she made a mental list of people she needed to connect with. Faculty members who would give her useful advice as Fulton started to seriously vet her and her competitor. She also needed to reach out to some of Henry’s business contacts for advice and guidance. She was good at networking - Henry had taught her well - and his circle of contacts would provide valuable wisdom and insight. Pulling on grey yoga pants and a soft peach shirt, she headed to the kitchen.   

       She could see Jamie through the window, sitting out on the middle terrace. The umbrella was up and he was sprawled on a sofa, a document in one hand, and latte in the other. She made herself a latte and headed over to the terrace. 

      “Good morning!”

      “Sassenach!” He sat up, and she quickly shook her head.

      “Don’t get up. I’m about to do some croissants and cinnamon rolls for breakfast. Does that sound OK?”

      “That would be a great breakfast, thank you. Can I give ye a hand?” 

      “Nope. Thanks though. Have you been up for a while?

      “Aye, I’ve been for my run, and I’ve FaceTimed with Jenny and the kids. They are very excited about The Grotto. Now I’m just going over some of the final details from Milo - about the property deal. Keen to get that sorted, ye ken.” 

      “Fingers still crossed for you.” She held up her ten-digit mess of crossed fingers, and he chuckled. “I’m going to check the cinnamon rolls and will be right back.” 

    

      She set some preserves and fresh berries on the counter, checked on the cinnamon rolls, and set the oven timer. While the rolls baked, she grabbed her iPad and went back to the terrace, settling into one of the sofas while Jamie finished reading his document. After a few minutes, he put it away, and she set her iPad down.

      “Are you going to work on campus today?”

      “No, I can do everything from here. I need to make a ton of calls to colleagues and business contacts. The professorship thing.”

      “Aye. It’s important that you focus on that. I’m glad you got a good night’s sleep before tackling all that.” He smiled cheekily and they laughed at how they had fallen asleep during the movie the previous night.

      “I think we should try the movie again tonight - after I’ve made yer dinner.”

      “That sounds like a good idea. No whisky, though. I can’t be trusted around it.”

      He narrowed his eyes, then his crooked little smile lifted the corner of his mouth. 

      “Good to know. I’ll have to remember that.”

      “Jamie … I need to apologize for my behavior last night. I should not have been so … you know? Frisky … or whatever.” She blushed a little. “I want you to know that I respect your hiatus, and your need to spend the time thinking about your life and what you want to do going forward. I should not have messed with that.”

      “Claire, you realize there were two of us in the hot tub last night, aye? You didn’t do anything that I didn’t want. If ye recall, I was a very active participant. I’m a grown man, and if I feel like the hiatus has run its course, that’s a decision I’m comfortable making. Please don’t mistake the fact that we didn't continue after the song for reluctance on my part. Or because I’m too hung up on the hiatus. I knew that you were still a little under the influence of the whisky, and I respect you too much to take advantage of a situation while ye don’t have all your wits about you. No matter how badly I wanted you. And I wanted you so badly."

      He paused and continued to hold her gaze.

      "Our first kiss - or first anything - is not going to happen in a haze of alcohol.” He looked at her with an intensity that made her heart skip a beat. 

      She nodded slowly. His phone buzzed.

      “I need to take this call,” he said apologetically.

      “Go ahead, I’ll make you a fresh latte.”

      Jesus! Thank God for that call. I need to unpack all that! First kiss. First anything. He wanted me so badly? He’ll decide when to end his hiatus. Jenny’s going to hate me. And he refused to take advantage of me in my drunken state. I need that coffee.

      As he paced around the terrace, seemingly in an intense conversation, Claire made him a fresh latte and set it on the patio table for him. He nodded his thanks and continued his conversation. She returned to the kitchen to clean up. The croissants were ready and the cinnamon rolls would be done soon.    

      She had just finished wiping the counter top, when Jamie entered the kitchen, latte in hand. His eyes were alive with excitement, and she could tell he was bursting to tell her something. She looked at him quizzically, a silent question in her expression.    

      “I have some good news, but I’m afraid to tell ye.”

      “What? Why?”

      “Because last time I told you some good news, ye launched a stealth offensive on me, and caused me to spill my whisky all over myself. And now I’m holding a very hot coffee.”

      “Jamie …” she said, very slowly and deliberately, “… set … the coffee … down.” She had a little suspicion about what the good news might be and her heart was thumping. “Are you going to tell me what I think you’re going to tell me?”

      “I don’t know what you think I’m going to tell ye,” he teased.

      “Stop tormenting me!”

      “Okay, okay! I need a sip of coffee first.”

      “Jamie!” she threatened.

      He set the coffee mug on the counter.

      “The property is mine. That was Milo on the phone.”

      She squealed and launched herself on him, throwing her arms around his neck. He wrapped his arms around her and they hugged tightly.

      “Congratulations! We’re officially neighbors.”

      “Mmmmm.”

      “See, there’s one of your grunts. That needs to go in the glossary.”

       They were still hugging, her head on his shoulder and his face buried in her mass of fragrant curls. She moved to let him go, but he tightened the hug.

      “I need to enjoy this moment a little longer.”

      “I know, I’m excited for you.” God, she would stay wrapped in those strong arms of his all day if she could.

      She raised her head and planted a gentle kiss on his cheek.

      “Congrats again! I need to get the rolls,” she said softly.

      He released her and she pulled the cinnamon rolls from the oven and set them on the range to cool.

      "This calls for a wee celebration, Claire. Do ye have any champagne?”

      “I do - and some orange juice. We can make mimosas.”

      “I canna wait to go check out my new property. Will ye walk it with me later? It’s a bit rough and rugged, but we can wander around a little and check it out.”

      ”I’d be happy to. Wait - let’s take our breakfast over there and have a celebratory picnic. There’s so much to celebrate this morning!”

      “Braw idea! How can I help?”    

      They gathered the croissants and cinnamon rolls, jams and preserves, fresh berries, and the mimosa ingredients and loaded it all into a cooler bag. Claire grabbed a thick picnic blanket, paper plates, knives, and two mimosa glasses. At the last minute, she pulled open the freezer and pulled out a small box of macaroons from Le Panier. They would thaw quickly. Pulling on sneakers and gathering their picnic supplies, they walked down her driveway, and made their way to the overgrown bushes and long grasses into the large expanse of property.

      “Watch out for wee rocks and things, Claire, I don’t want you spraining an ankle. Especially just before our big date night tomorrow.”

      “Oh, it’s a big date night, is it?” she teased.

      “Aye, I’ve arranged a limo, so we don't have to worry about driving. And I plan on dancing with you, so ye need those wee ankles in good shape. I already ken they’re in pretty good shape, though.” 

      “Mmm, I’m sure you do.” Her thoughts wandered to his thorough investigation of her legs in the hot tub.

     

      They walked a little way into his property, until they found a space that would allow them to spread the blanket out fully. 

      “It’s a bit rough, but this should do just fine,” she said, patting the blanket to flatten the overgrown grasses below. They set out all the picnic items, and while they ate, Jamie peppered her with questions about the house designing and building process.

      “I can recommend architects and builders if you like. Milo and Suki will have a list of great ones too - reputable firms that design and build custom homes. You might want to meet with a few of them and decide who you connect with.”

      “Aye, I think I’ll do that. I love the layout of your house Claire. I’ll be picking your brain to find out if there are things ye might have done differently.”

      “Oh there are definitely things I’d have done differently.”

      “Like?”

      “I’d consider a separate gym for starters. You might also want to think about a separate little guest house - you have so much space here and it makes sense. You’re likely to have a lot of guests visiting from Scotland - Jenny and her family and others. A ‘casita’ or guesthouse would give them some privacy. Also consider that if you have babies and small children in the main house, it’s easier to maintain a routine if you have some separation between visitors and your home life. My girls are older and we love having guests, so it’s never been a problem in our home, but if they'd been babies here, I would have been stressed out about routines.”

      Jamie nodded thoughtfully at this. “Makes good sense fer sure.”    

      “I can think of a few other small things, but I’ll let you know as I remember them. Suki mentioned that you might want horses out here too?”

      "I haven't given that enough thought yet, but when I found out how big the property was, I thought it might be worth considering. I love horses. They played a big part in my role on 'Clan Hearts'. There’s nothing like a long horse ride to clear your mind. They are such gentle, intuitive animals. If I did keep them, it would be as far from yer house as possible.”

      “We’re horse lovers too - the girls each have a horse. They’re stabled a few miles from here. They’ve been riding since we moved to Seattle. Both girls volunteer at the stables to help kids with special needs ride horses and ponies. As you said, they are intuitive and gentle, and it’s amazing how therapeutic they can be.”

       Jamie popped the cork on the champagne and mixed their mimosas. He handed her a glass. She knew he was going to make a toast, and assumed it would be a generic toast to new friends and neighbors.

      He raised his glass: “To new beginnings. To family and children and loving homes and horses and happiness.” It was both lighthearted and heartfelt. They tapped glasses and sipped.

      No ‘friends and neighbors’.      

      “Your turn, Claire.”

      She raised her glass.

      “To new beginnings for you, Jamie. To making the right decisions. To filling your new home with laughter and love and passion and children.”

      They tapped glasses and sipped again.    

      Having eaten their fill, they tidied up, loaded the leftover breakfast things in the cooler bag and stretched out on the blanket to enjoy the warmth and peace of the surroundings. The sun wasn’t very high in the sky yet, and they enjoyed the dappled shade from some nearby trees. Claire lay back and squirmed into a semi-comfortable position on the uneven ground.

      “I might lie here for the rest of the day instead of working. I love how unspoiled and peaceful it is out here.”

      “I used to lie like this under the clouds as a kid. Lay there for hours at a time with Willie and Jenny. It’s sad that when we become adults, we get so wrapped up in our lives that we don’t take the time to lie back and do absolutely nothing for a moment. Force away all our thoughts and just enjoy our surroundings.”

      “Mmmm. I agree.”    

      After a moment, Jamie turned to Claire. “Can I ask ye something Claire?”

      “Of course.”

      “We spoke a lot about my dating life the other night. Have you been able to think about how that will unfold for you going forward. I mean dating and such?” He sounded tentative and hesitant. “I know you have men interested in ye. Ashlee’s dad, for one. The one who’s ‘legit dying’ right now. I hope it’s okay that I asked. If you’re not comfortable talking about it, I completely understand.”

      “No, I’m okay with it. I had just started to dabble in dating before the pandemic. Last year, I went on a few one-and-done dates. There are some crazy people out there. Two of them thought that since I’d been widowed for well over a year, I must be desperate for sex, and they thought they’d be the ones to break my drought for me. Acted like they were about to do me the favor of my life. One of them suggested a threesome with our server! In both cases, I got an Uber home - no way was I allowing them to drive me anywhere.”

      “Jesus, and I thought things were weird in Hollywood!” 

      “A couple of Henry’s old business connections have asked me out. That felt strange, I must admit. I declined one, and had dinner with the other several times. Really great guy whose wife left him for someone else. He’s not a player in any sense of the word. On our last date, he brought me home, and I asked him in for a drink - not planning on anything beyond that, because I just wasn’t ready.”

      “Mmhmmm”

      “We were out on the patio, and he kissed me and I just shut down completely. It just felt wrong. And I felt awful because he was such a gentleman about it.”

      “Why d’you think you felt that way, Claire? Did you feel disloyal about being intimate with someone in the home ye shared with Henry, or was it because he was Henry’s friend? Or just no chemistry?”

      “Probably the last two, to be honest. It was weird that he had been a close friend of Henry’s, but to be blunt, there was zero chemistry. I knew that from the first date, but thought maybe it would develop, but it didn’t. Thinking about intimacy in the home I shared with Henry was a concern for me when I first started dating. I even sought grief counseling for that. When Henry was … near the end … he made me promise I wouldn't turn the house into a shrine with his pictures everywhere. He told me he wanted me to find happiness, and if that happiness brought someone who loved me and cherished me into our home, he would be happy. But he said it wouldn’t work if I had pictures of him everywhere. He told me I could keep one picture of him up - he even picked it out - it’s the one of him in a frame in the office. Smallish one on the shelf. All his other pictures are in albums or saved digitally for me to look at when I feel I need to.”

      “He sounds like a good man, a wise man, who loved you very deeply, Claire.”

      “Yes, I was so very lucky.”

      “The grief counselor that you saw was helpful, aye? What did he or she advise?”

      “She was a very experienced counselor and helped me work through some things. Primarily about bringing a new man into Henry’s space. She did not think that selling our home and finding a new one would be helpful to me or the girls. Henry was much more of a Dad to them than Frank - and they were devastated when he died. It would have added to their heartbreak if I moved them from the happiest home they have ever known. So the counselor suggested that I completely re-decorate my own space - the master bedroom - and I followed her advice. My room is so completely different in every way from the room I shared with Henry.”

     “And ye’ve not shared it with anyone yet?”

      “No,” she said quietly.

      “Where does Ashlee’s dad fit into all of this?”

       She giggled, "He doesn’t really. Too much of a playboy. He’s a Microsoft exec, but far from being a tech geek, he’s a bit of a ladies’ man. I’ve been boating with him on Lake Washington and we went to a Seahawks game a couple of months before quarantine. Nice guy, but really wants a trophy wife, and that’s not me. I have no plans to move this forward. It’s a little awkward, because the girls are very good friends with Ashlee. They don’t know about the dates with him, and think we were all out in a group, like teens, you know." She chuckled. "It would be awkward for the girls and Ashlee, and I have no desire to add myself to a sleepover there anytime soon. He’s working it hard though."

      Jamie was watching her intently. 

      “And there you have my sad little dating life, in a nutshell. A university lecturer with two teenagers isn’t exactly the most sexy image for dating, ye ken.” She teasingly borrowed one of his expressions, and he smiled.

      “Ye’ve got be joking Claire. You are the sexiest woman I know, and I’m not one given to flattery. Teasing and playing around, yes, but not needless flattery. You are intimidatingly intelligent. Do you know how sexy that is? And you are beautiful Claire. In every way.”

      She plucked at a thread on the blanket, still gazing at the sky. Compliments made her so uncomfortable.

      “Full disclosure, Claire - when Milo told me he was introducing me to my neighbor to talk about the property, he gave me the basics. Associate professor, widow, two teenagers, English. I was expecting Helen Mirren - and know that I love Helen and think she’s a classy, beautiful woman. But that was the image I had of the neighbor I was going to meet with Milo. When he first pulled up at your front stairs with me in the car and I saw ye standing there, I told him ‘I thought ye said the kids were out of town’. He almost died laughing right there in the car, and told me ‘That’s your new neighbor. I think you’ll find that she’s pretty great, actually.' And he wasn't wrong.”

      Jamie rolled onto his side to look at her, propping himself up on one forearm.

      “And then you came around to the front of the car and I saw ye up close, and I saw your eyes for the first time. Christ, Claire! Did you know yer eyes are the color of whisky? And sunrise?”

      She turned her head to look at him and giggled. “Well I’ve heard them described as honey-colored, or amber, or sometimes tiger-eyes, but leave it to a Scot to say they’re like whisky!”

      He smiled at that. And they held each other’s gaze for what seemed like an eternity. Jamie rolled over a little more, bringing his body closer to hers. She could feel the heat off his chest, and she could smell the subtle spice of his shower gel on his skin. He moved his hand to her face, gently tucking her curls behind her ear. He curled a tendril around his finger.

      “You have no idea how stunning you are.”

      Her butterflies were suddenly on high alert. He was sober, she was sober. Whatever was about to happen here could not be explained away by alcohol. And no matter how much they had tried to self-talk themselves into trying to fight the attraction, and to find every logical reason why it would be a mistake to surrender to the desire and the hunger and to keep the relationship on an even keel - friends and neighbors - they kept failing dismally. If the intense emotional connection they had was ‘not usual’, then the insane sexual chemistry that accompanied it threatened to overwhelm them completely. 

     His finger released her curl and traced a lazy path behind her ear, around her neck and along her collarbone. Then he lowered his head and his lips traced the same path along her collarbone in a series of tender kisses. She moaned and gasped softly and felt his mouth smile into the little spaces around her collarbone. His scruff tickled her lightly, driving her mad with desire. He had zeroed in on one of her most sensitive areas and he knew it. He tilted her head back a little to expose more of her neck and lay down a new path of kisses and tiny licks in every shallow little groove he could find. He nibbled and licked and kissed, until she could stand it no longer.  

      “Jamie,” she breathed. 

       Having teased her mercilessly, thoroughly kissing and nibbling every available inch of her collarbone and neck, he focused his attention back on her face. He moved to gently position himself over her body, one forearm on either side of her head. She parted her legs, allowing him to move into the space between them. Bringing her knees up a little, she tilted her pelvis into a more comfortable position, which also meant they were groin to groin. She brought her hand up to his face, stroking his scruff slowly, gaze locked with his. Her hand rested along his jawline, and she stroked him with her thumb, relishing the bristly softness. Moving both her hands around his back, she slid them under his shirt and felt his warm bare skin under her fingertips. His back muscles rippled slightly as he adjusted his position to lift some of his weight off her breasts. She felt the tingly warmth between her legs at the same time that she felt Jamie’s growing arousal pressing into her groin.  

      “Close yer, eyes, mo leannan.” She didn't understand the Gaelic term, but it sounded so sweet, so loving, that she melted even more under his warmth. He gently kissed her eyelid, and traced a path of kisses to her ear, down her cheek and along her jawline, kissing all the way across, up her other cheek and finally kissing her other eyelid. She opened her eyes and gazed into the deep blue of his eyes.

      His mouth hovered inches above hers, his breath fanning her lips. 

      “Claire, I-”

     He didn’t finish what he was going to say. Instead, he lowered his lips to hers, and left tiny, delicate kisses all the way across her lower lip. He pressed his mouth over hers and breathed something in Gaelic onto her lips. His breath was warm and she knew he would taste of the mimosas they had just shared. She parted her lips and the tip of her tongue brushed along his lower lip. Her hands now out from under his shirt, she brought them up to cradle his face, and her lips traced a path of soft, dewy kisses along his upper lip. 

      A low groan escaped his lips, and he moved his mouth over hers again, gently pushing it open with his tongue. He pulled back almost immediately and placed more soft kisses on her lips, raining them down gently but firmly. His tongue pushed in between her lips again, and the tip of her tongue reached for his, but he teased it back and tugged her lower lip tenderly between his. She was achingly aroused now, her body wanting so much more than he was giving her. She tried to suppress her little pants and sighs, but he heard all of them, and each one went to the core of his own arousal. Her hips started to move infinitesimally against his groin, and she felt his arousal move against her lower abdomen. He couldn’t hold back another deep moan as her hips moved against his. Lifting his head a little, he looked into her eyes, and then brought his mouth down on hers and pushed his tongue into her mouth, exploring hungrily, greedily. She tasted of cinnamon and berries and celebratory macaroons. She responded to his kiss with the same feverish intensity; her tongue caressing his, his tongue stroking hers. He tasted of mimosas and strawberries. Their kiss deepened, and everything else fell away around them. The trees, the birds, the hard ground beneath - nothing existed but the warmth and taste and feel of each other. Their bodies were in perfect alignment, hip to hip, chest to chest; and their lips met in an exquisite union of softness and fullness - at times seeking, at times yielding. When they broke apart, breathless, but still desperate for each other’s mouths, she reached up to hold his face gently in her hands. Their gazes locked, amber and azure, whisky and ocean; each wanting to drown in the other, to stay in this moment as long as possible. Their first kiss.

      “Claire,” he whispered, “Christ -“

      “Shhhhh,” she place a finger on his lips, “just kiss me.”

      He claimed her mouth again, gently sucking on her lower lip, savoring the softness as she surrendered to the passionate demands of his lips. He released her lip, and she captured his mouth in hers, her tongue finding his again as a primal desire moved his hips in perfect tandem with hers, his hard length pressing into her abdomen with every movement. Their kiss became more fervent and they were completely lost in each other now. They pulled apart - panting, breathing each other in. 

      “Sassenach ….” he whispered, and peppered tender, healing kisses all over her swollen lips. He left a trail of nibbles and kisses along her jawline. She knew where he was headed, and she waited in breathless anticipation, as he zeroed in. In an agonizingly slow burn, he brushed his scruff lightly over her skin in a tantalizing path from her jawline toward her shoulder and along her collarbone. He was immediately rewarded with the deep, slow, rolling movement of her hips. Her arousal was almost painful in its intensity.

      “Jamie,” she gasped, as he continued his downward path of kisses and nuzzling. He paused at her breasts and raised his head to look into her eyes. She met his gaze with unashamed longing. His hand slipped under her shirt and found its way to her breast. He thumbed gently over her nipple through the soft fabric of her bra; every part of her was on fire, and her hips moved up against his with more urgency.      

      An aching, desperate need took over her senses, and she reached for his waistband, fumbling awkwardly with his buckle. He reached down to help her, and then stilled for a moment, a frown furrowing his brow.

      “Claire, are you … I don’t have anything… protection, ye ken?”

      She released a long deep sigh. “Oh God, Jamie. We should have …”

      He remained frozen for a long moment, face suspended above hers, both of them trying desperately to process their thoughts and their options against the urgent need they had aroused in each other. Their eyes were still locked together, and a look of anguish slowly replaced the passionate yearning. 

      He slowly rolled off her onto his side, still nestled up against her.

      “Christ Claire, I’m sorry … I should have … I wasn’t expecting...”

      “I know, Jamie, neither was I. It’s okay.”

      “It just felt so right - it feels so right. I can’t see you lying there Claire, without wanting to kiss you. I don’t want to keep fighting it.”

      “I didn’t try stop you, Jamie.”

      “I’m so sorry, Claire. I feel terrible - this is so awkward. I should have thought of this sooner, but ye ken, it’s been a while since I’ve had to think about it.”

      She touched her fingers to his lips. “It’s okay - it’s on me too."

      They lay in silence for a while, allowing their bodies to slowly come down from the intense highs they had just shared. A sense of disbelief and disappointment settled into the space around them. 

      “Claire,” his voice was barely above a whisper, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to keep fighting this … this thing between us.” 

      She nodded. 

      “We need to talk about what we’re going to do, Claire - what it all means for us emotionally and what we’re going to do about protection. We have to be responsible about it.”

      “I know, Jamie. I’ve never connected this strongly with anyone. I don’t think we can deny it much longer. I don’t want to fight it either.” 

      She paused for a moment, appreciating how very considerate he was, and how he had the ability to make an awkward situation feel so comfortable. 

      “I … uh … when I first started getting back into the dating scene, I was fitted with a contraceptive implant, a Nex. But that was so long ago and I haven’t given it any thought at all since I got it. Haven’t needed to. I would have to check with my physician - whether it’s still effective - and I think it might be, but we need to be sure. I’m so sorry Jamie.”

      “No, Claire, don’t apologize. I want you to know that I am scrupulously careful about my health and I have a full medical every year, including all the testing. My last one was in March. Completely clear on all the tests. And since I haven’t been … active since then …”

      She nodded.  

      He reached for her hand, and she rolled over to face him. They interlaced their fingers, and she smiled a slow, shy smile, lips still tingling from the intensity of his kisses.

      “I’m glad we had this talk.”

      He nodded; regret, longing, want written all over his face.

      He pulled her close again and kissed her still-swollen lips slowly and tenderly. There was no urgency in his kiss, just a softness that said so much without uttering a word.

      He stood up and helped her to her feet, immediately gathering her into a comforting embrace. They held each other for a long moment, and eventually, he gently kissed her temple and they moved apart. Collecting the things they had brought with them, they walked back to the house in silence.

 

      Jamie’s groceries had been delivered, and they carried them into the kitchen. Once they had put the groceries away, Jamie pulled her close again and wrapped her in his arms.

      “You’re going to drive me to distraction, Claire. I can barely keep my hands off ye.”

      She rested her forehead on his shoulder. “Oh, Jamie, we’re in trouble here, aren’t we? Let’s try and focus on our work this afternoon. We both have lots to do. I’ll start with my medical records.”

      He nodded. “I’ll start preparing yer dinner at 5:00’ish.“

      He gently tipped her chin up with his forefinger and place a soft, lingering kiss on her lips.

      “That’s not helping, you cheeky bugger!” They both chuckled, then headed to their separate work areas.

   

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

      

      It ended up being a very productive afternoon for both of them. Jamie worked on his speech for the gala dinner and made several calls about the winery. He FaceTimed with Jenny again. She knew him well enough to notice a levity and buoyancy in his voice.

      “I ken that lilt in yer voice verra well, Jamie. Ye’d better not be taking a hiatus from the hiatus!” 

       “Jenny! Back off!” He was mildly annoyed. “I’ve been really good about it, and it has already given me a lot of time to think and sort things out in my head and my heart. Ye need to trust me. I may be yer baby brother, but I’m a grown man. I ken what I’m doing.”

       “She’d better be worth it.”

       “Mmhmmm.”

         

      Claire had immediately placed a call to her OB-Gyn, with whom she had a great relationship. She knew that Glenda would call her back as soon as she heard her message, but decided to speak to her assistant too - just to ensure that her call was prioritized. Glenda’s assistant let her know that she was performing some out-patient procedures, but would call back as soon as she could. Claire then focused on work matters, making calls to faculty members and business associates. Two colleagues who had become professors in recent years offered to meet for coffee or lunch. Business contacts were delighted to hear from her - most of them had learned a lot from Henry, and owed large parts of their success to his business advice and acumen. They assured her of their support in whatever way she needed. Most of them were well-connected, and Claire had a deep understanding of the importance of networking. She was feeling more and more confident about the professorship. The remainder of her work time was spent on planning curriculum for an online course she was offering later in the summer.   

      Her phone buzzed at around 4:45. The caller ID was “Prima Medical”. It was Glenda’s assistant, letting her know that Glenda needed to check Claire’s records for some important information, and would call her that evening or first thing in the morning. 

        

      Jamie was already in the kitchen setting out his ingredients. He had poured her a glass of wine and it was waiting for her at the end of the island. 

      “Sassenach! Did you get a lot done?”

      “Yes! Tons, how about you?” 

      “Oh, aye. Milo is picking me up for brunch tomorrow morning. We’re signing the paperwork, and he’s lined up two meetings with architects. Figured there’s no point in delaying. I’d like to see what initial ideas they have.”

      “That’s fantastic! It’ll be good to get multiple viewpoints before you appoint your architect. Remind me what time our limo is coming?”

      “5:00 p.m. There’ll be pre-dinner drinks at 6:00, and dinner starts at 7:30.”

      “Sounds perfect. I have a mani-pedi in the morning, and my hairstylist is coming at 1:00.”

      “Ye’ll look beautiful no matter what, Claire. It makes me happy that you’re looking forward to it. Now, where can I find those wee herbs you’ve been growing in yer garden?”

      “They’re around the far corner - near my dying glads. While you get what you need, I’ll FaceTime the girls.”

      “Aah,” he smiled. “I’ll pop my head in and say hello, if that’s okay.”

      “Of course.”

        

      The girls appeared on screen, full of excitement and energy, as always. After the kiss avalanche, they were ready to share all their news and find out Claire’s too.

      “We saw Nonna, again. She seems kinda down, mom.”

      “Oh no! I have neglected her this week. I’ll FaceTime her tomorrow for sure. What else have you girls been up to?”

      “Not a lot. Is Mr. Fraser available?” asked Beth, expectantly.

      “He will be soon - he’s making dinner tonight and just went to pick some herbs.”

      “Oh my God mom, that is such a couple thing. A guy making dinner for a girl is so ‘coupley’,” Beth beamed excitedly.

      “Yah, Beth is totally shipping you guys.” Ella rolled her eyes. “I mean, he’s definitely cute, Mom.”

      “Girls, please - no embarrassing comments tonight.”

      Jamie walked in with a handful of fresh herbs and placed them next to the sink. He looked at Claire questioningly and she nodded. He walked over to the iPad and pulled up a stool.

      “Hi girls!”

      “Hey Mr. Fraser,” they said together, huge smiles on their faces.

      “Did yer Mam tell you the news?”

      “Couldn't get a word in,” said Claire wryly, giving the girls an exaggerated look of exasperation. “Why don’t you tell them?”

      “Oh my God, let me guess,” said Beth, “you guys are dating!”

      “Beth!” cried Ella in shock.

      Jamie and Claire shot a quick look at each other, trying to maintain blank expressions.

      Jamie jumped in quickly. “My good news is that the property deal went through this morning, so we are officially neighbors.”

      “Yay - that’s awesome,” both girls clapped their hands excitedly. “Congratulations.”

      “When will you build your house?” asked Ella.

      “As soon as possible. There’s quite a lot to do before we get to that point. I’m also considering building stables, and I hear you lasses have yer own horses?”

      “What?” They stared at Jamie in disbelief. ”You’re getting horses?” They looked at each other and squealed. 

      Jamie laughed, “It’s something I’ve given some thought to. I’ll let you know what happens. I’ve gotta go make yer Mam some dinner.”

      “Thanks for being so awesome to her, Mr. Fraser,” Beth smiled.

         

      Jamie started to prepare the meal while Claire chatted a little longer with the girls. Wrapping up their chat, Claire said, “We’ll chat earlier tomorrow. I have an event in the evening.”

      “With Mr. Fraser?” asked Ella.

      “Well … yes, but it’s a big dinner with dozens of people.”

      “I called it!” yelled Beth triumphantly. 

      “You guys are so dating!” whispered Ella. Beth sat next to her making heart hands and a kissy face.

      “Love you girls, good night.”

         

      “You’ve raised two amazing young women, Claire. I’m going to enjoy getting to know them.” He was trimming chicken breasts at the sink, and when those were done, he assembled the herbs to rinse and chop.

      “They may get a over-little excited by things occasionally, but they are really good girls at heart. I’m proud of how they’ve bounced back from some hard knocks, you know? Can I chop the onions or grate the Parmesan?” offered Claire.

      “No, thank you. I’ve got this. You get the night off.”

      “Umm … we’ve mostly had take-out, so it’s not like I’ve done a lot. I’m happy to help.”

      “Ye’ve opened yer house to me, Claire. That is a pretty big thing, ye ken. I want to do this for you. Sit back, relax, and enjoy yer wine, mo leannan.”

      “You’ve said that to me more than once, what does it mean?”

      “It’s a term of endearment. It means sweetheart or darling.”

      She sipped her wine, and mulled that over. 

      Why am I so warm and fuzzy over the fact that he is already so comfortable using a term of endearment with me.

      Unable to shake off her discomfort about not doing anything to help prepare the dinner, she waited until he was busy at the sink; then she moved silently to the chopping mat, picked up an onion and a knife, and checked the recipe printout to see if it called for sliced or chopped onions. Sliced. She set the onion on the mat, and prepare to cut into it.

      Before she could make another move, Jamie was behind her, pushing his body into her back, nudging her hips right up against the counter. She could feel the heat of his body along the entire length of hers. Her breath hitched and she froze, waiting for him to say something.

      He moved her curls aside and lowered his head to her ear. Sucking softly on her earlobe, he nipped it gently between his teeth and in a low rumble that awoke every nerve ending in her body, he admonished her, “Dr. Beauchamp, you’re not a very good listener.”

      He gently nuzzled his scruff into the sensitive area behind her jaw and brushed his chin gently down her neck.

      “I thought I asked ye to sit back and enjoy yer wine.”

      Her breath came in little gasps and pants, and she felt his little smile of triumph on the side of her neck. It hadn’t taken him long to learn exactly what to do to her to make her start losing herself in him. Moving his jaw back up to her ear, he started a trail of gentle, wet little kisses in a line from her ear lobe all the way to her collarbone, the lingering moisture a torturous reminder of their picnic and how his kisses had left her wanting more. So much more.

      “Drop the knife, Dr. Beauchamp.” His voice still low and commanding.

      “Just trying to help,” she whispered weakly.

      He turned her around by the shoulders. “Ye can help by sitting and keeping me company.” He lowered his head and kissed her lips gently. Before he could move away, she took his face in her hands and placed a series of kisses on the scruff along his jawline. 

      “I’ll sit back down if you promise not to shave for a while.”

      He smiled his crooked, one-sided smile. “Well, I’ll need to shave tomorrow for the formal event, but I promise to grow it back next week.”

      “I’ll hold you to that, Fraser.”

      “I’m a man of my word, but we can seal it with a kiss if ye need more than that.” 

      One hand threaded through the curls at the back of her head, while his other hand found its way to the small of her back and firmly pulled her hips closer to his. He tilted her head back a little, and lowered his face to hers. His lips were a hair’s breadth from hers and his breath was on her mouth, but he teasingly withheld his lips from touching hers until he heard her tiny groan. With infinite control, he softly brushed over her lips with his in the lightest butterfly touches, all the way across her lower lip, and all the way across her top lip. Desperate to take his mouth and kiss him deeply, she forced herself to exercise the same restraint, every nerve fiber in her body ablaze with longing. He paused for a long moment, lips barely on hers. Slowly, slowly, he pressed his lips on hers, and the tip of his tongue pushed gently into her mouth. Her lips parted and her tongue met his in the gentlest of touches - caressing lightly, delicately - for what seemed like an eternity. Both of them felt the familiar stirrings of their need. The soft, slow touches started to give way to a deeper, more urgent exploration of each other’s mouths, and they kissed long and deep with a fervor and intensity that left them both gasping as they pulled away, lips swollen and glistening and still desperate for more. Her hips were pressed against his, and they both knew they were dangerously close to can’t-turn-back territory. His eyes dropped to her mouth and she sensed that if her kissed her again, there would be no holding back.

      “Jamie,” she whispered. “You know where this is going. We-”

      “Sassenach …” his voice almost a whisper, “did you call your doctor? I’m so sorry to ask, but, God! You drive me crazy with thoughts of what I want to do with ye.” He pulled her close and released a deep sigh over the top of her head. 

      “It was the first call I made. She was performing procedures all afternoon and will get back to me tonight or first thing tomorrow. Wants to check my records for all the correct information. I’m so sorry.” She reached up and held his face in her hands, thumbing gently over his lower lips. He touched her forehead with his own, and they nuzzled for a moment.

      “Claire ... you should probably sit back down while I still have a measure of control.”

      She returned to her seat, acutely aware of the yearning their kiss had aroused deep in her core.

      “We need cooking music!” she announced, looking for anything to break the sexual tension. “I’ll pick a playlist, if that’s okay.”

      “Of course, I love music while I prepare dinner.”

      “Do you like country music?”

      “I was never that into it. It seemed like every song was about a man and his dog in a truck, on a country road, singing about his broken heart. But when I started attending more events here in the U.S., I also attended awards shows for the music industry - usually a publicity appearance orchestrated by the studios or my PR. I found I really started to enjoy some of the country music. The songs all tell a story. And the writing comes from the heart. Musical poetry, ye ken.”

      “Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I was also not a huge fan of country music until I attended Watershed last year with the twins and some of their friends and a few moms.”

      “Watershed?