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Ginger Snap

Chapter Text

The shriek of the fire alarm was the final straw.  I’d just stepped out of the kitchen for a minute, but that was all it took for calamity to strike.  Opening the oven door in a panic, billows of smoke engulfed me before I slammed it shut again.

“Shit.  Shitshitshit.  Shit!”

Waving a damp dish towel back and forth like a flag of surrender above my head caused the head-splitting siren to finally desist.  I blew a rogue curl off my sweaty brow and gave myself a pep talk.

“Time to woman up,” I sighed before donning the oven gloves and cautiously cracking the door once again.  More smoke escaped, smelling of burnt pastry and ruined hopes.  Once it cleared I could see the charred carcasses of what were supposed to be vol au vent shells.  I carefully extracted the cooking sheet from the oven and dropped it with a clatter onto the quartz countertop.

“Dinner is D.O.A, Doctor Beauchamp.  Now what the fuck are you going to do?”

***

Thirty minutes were spent cleaning the evidence of yet another cooking fiasco and ventilating our flat by opening every available window to let in the moist Edinburgh breeze.  I now had less than four hours before Frank and three other members of the university faculty would be descending, expecting a home-cooked meal and polite chitchat.  I was in no position to offer either.

In a last-ditch effort to salvage the evening, I googled “sophisticated home catering in Edinburgh” and started dialing.  The first four numbers yielded either an answering machine or the news (unsurprising) that at least two days’ advanced notice were required to book their services.  Nearly resigned to ordering in Italian and facing Frank’s wrath, I startled when a woman’s thick Scottish brogue flooded my ear.

“Ye’ve reached Ginger Snap, this is Jenny speaking.  How may I help ye t’day?”

I poured out my tale of culinary woe, laying it on a bit thick, but I was truly desperate by this point.

“Aye, we’ve a chef available this afternoon.  What sort of menu were ye planning?” she asked.

“Really?  Oh my god, you’re a lifesaver!”

I gave Jenny the number of guests and a broad idea of what I’d hoped to serve, although I was in no position to be choosy.

“Never ye fear, Ms. Beauchamp.  We’ll pick up the necessary items and our chef will be at yer flat by four.  Tha’ should leave jus’ enough time tae have everything ready fer your guests.”

Thanking her profusely and not even inquiring about the charge, I stood triumphant in the middle of my immaculate yet useless kitchen.  Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner?

***

The buzzer rang as I was re-arranging the decorative objects atop our sideboard.  I was aiming for the artless sophistication featured in Frank’s favourite design magazines, but instead I defaulted to lining each item up in order of descending size, or grouping them by historical era.  A second buzz had me trotting to the intercom where a male voice crackled.

“This is James Fraser from Ginger Snap Catering.  Can ye let me in?”

Moments later I stuck my head into the hallway to find four organic cotton tote bags bursting with produce at my doorstep.  Footsteps echoed down the stairs, where I assumed the chef had retreated to collect more supplies.  I set the first load on the kitchen counter where I began to unpack foodstuffs the likes of which I’d never seen.  Not knowing what else to do to be helpful, I began sorting them; green leafy things here, round crispy things there.

“Hallo?” the same voice called from where I’d left the door ajar.  Wiping my hands nervously against my slacks, I went to greet him.

Standing in the doorframe, almost filling it with his immense size, was a young man who seemed more suited to a rugby pitch than haute cuisine.  He had loose tawny curls, two days’ worth of stubble and wore a faded grey henley, dark wash jeans that clung to his muscular legs and utilitarian workman’s boots.

“Claire Beauchamp?” he interrupted my visual inventory.

“Hmm? Oh, yes.  Sorry.  Pleased to meet you.”

Something funny happened when our hands met in a firm shake.  A tachycardic blip, my internal medicine professor would have called it.  There was no time to analyze this response, however, as he was already on the move.

“James Fraser, at yer service.  I’d normally spend more time getting to know ye and yer style of entertaining, but we’re short on time, so let’s get straight to it, aye?”

I gave the chef a hasty tour of our kitchen, stumbling over the names of various implements and opening the wrong cupboard when looking for my saucepans.  I blushed as he raised an expressive eyebrow, but shook it off.  I was paying for his cooking proficiency, not his opinion on my lack of domestic competence.

“I ken ye spoke tae Jenny about yer menu, but I took a few liberties at the market, based on what looked freshest.  I recommend starting with a simple salad o’ nettle and radish, garnished with a wee round of goat cheese and rye crumbs.  Loin o’ lamb with new potatoes and pancetta fer yer main.  An’ a simple rhubarb custard fer dessert.  There’s none with food allergies, aye?”

“Aye,” I replied, then corrected “umm, no, rather,” at his concerned look.  “Are you sure you can manage all that in only,” I glanced at my wristwatch “ninety minutes?   It seems like an awful lot of work.”

“Och, tis no’ much.  Lamb cooks swiftly, ye ken.  Tis why I chose it over pork or poultry.”

My saviour rolled up his sleeves, preparing to wash his hands and get down to work.  There was probably something I should be doing elsewhere in the flat to prepare, but I didn’t want to appear completely useless to this unflappable man.

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

He looked dubious and seemed prepared to politely decline, but then his expression softened.

“Aye.  Ye can wash the tatties an’ chop the rhubarb while I dress the lamb, if ye dinna mind,” he suggested.

“Scrubbing in and wielding a knife happen to be two of the only transferrable job skills I bring to cooking,” I joked, taking my turn in front of the massive Belfast sink.

He emitted a low Scottish grunt of amusement before we each settled into companionable silence, focusing on our respective duties.  I glanced over at him surreptitiously, envying the ease with which he moved from task to task, lean and nimble hands working alchemy where I only succeeded in producing dross.

“Ye’re a doctor, then?” he asked after my chopped rhubarb had been set on the stovetop to stew and the lamb was marinating in a bath of lemon and fresh herbs.

“Umm, well, I was.  My partner and I moved here from Boston, where I trained as a surgeon.  I haven’t yet obtained my license to practice in the UK, so I’m afraid I’m just a culinary liability for the moment.”

It was a current source of strife in my relationship with Frank.  He liked the idea of me keeping house, entertaining and eventually settling down to raise a family.  I chaffed at this narrowing of my horizons.  But until I passed my licensing exams, it was rather a moot point.

“I’m sure ye’re far more than that,” he replied kindly, before breaking into a sneaky grin.  “I’ve ne’er seen stalks of rhubarb cut quite sae... uniform.  Ye’d have a fine career in quality control, if ye wished.”

I faked throwing a dish towel at him while we both laughed.

“What about you, Mr. Fraser?  How did you get into the catering business?”  It wasn’t polite conversation.  I was really quite curious to know more about him.

“I’ll tell ye, but only if ye call me Jamie.”  At my nod, he continued. “Twas my Mam.  She was always a great cook.  Then my Da passed suddenly and she with three bairns under the age of ten tae raise. She needed tae work.  We moved tae Edinburgh an’ she laboured day and night tae save enough tae start her own catering business.  Since I was a lad, whene'er I wasna in school I was in her kitchen, watching her and eventually helping out.”

His striking face took on a faraway expression, and I knew he was remembering those days with a mixture of wistfulness and love.  I recognized the look from my own reflection, when I thought about my dead parents.  Without realizing it, I lay my palm over his muscular forearm where it had stilled above my butcher’s block.  His eyes were the same hue as midsummer blueberries, and they regarded me with silent inquiry.

A timer made us both jump, my hand falling to my side.  What was I thinking, caressing this stranger who I was paying to cook dinner for my boyfriend’s guests?  I really needed to find a hobby, so my mind didn’t latch onto any feeble excuse for stimulation.

Brushing my hands against my thighs, I quickly excused myself and left to get properly dressed for dinner.  Only thirty minutes remained before Frank and his colleagues were due to arrive.  

I spent more time than was strictly necessary away from the kitchen, afraid I’d made things awkward with Jamie.  By the time I returned, he was plating the lamb and putting the custard in the refrigerator to set.  I tried to think of something to say that would re-establish the easy rapport from earlier on.

“I’ve opened the wine tae let it breathe,” Jamie said without looking at me.  I wished there was a similar process for blundering Englishwomen.

“Jamie, I really don’t know how to...”

The sound of the front door opening interrupted me and Frank’s nasal voice rang out from the front room.

“Claire, we’re here!”

“Fuck!” I exclaimed.  Jamie tipped his head sideways in question.  “I never explained to my partner that I hired your services.  That’s the dean of his faculty out there, and...”  I broke off, looking frantically around the room as though a trap door would suddenly materialize. 

Jamie understood the situation immediately.   The kitchen windows were still wide open to the evening breeze.  With surprising grace for one so large, he slid through the opening and onto the fire escape.  

Bon appetit, Doctor Beauchamp,” the ginger chef intoned, a mischievous smirk lighting his whole countenance.  I stood, mouth open in shock, as he gave an abbreviated bow and then scampered down the metal ladder just as Frank entered the kitchen behind me.

“This smells delicious, darling.  We're going to make a gourmet cook out of you yet.”

Chapter Text

I checked my phone for the third time, confirming I wasn’t lost.  

We moved to Edinburgh over the summer, just in time for Frank to start his position as Associate Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh. Despite our years spent in America, neither of us cared overmuch for driving, so we chose a flat (or rather, Frank chose a flat and I concurred) not far from campus.  Therefore, this was the first time I’d ventured as far afield as Leith, a maritime enclave just to the north of the capital that couldn’t seem to decide if it wanted to be grittily working class or artistically hip. 

When I finally reached the address, I had to smile.  No main street pretensions or non-descript commercial frontage for Ginger Snap Catering.  Before me stood a two-story red brick fire station, still emblazoned with the crest of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Services.  The two massive truck bays were now enclosed by see-through doors that could be drawn back on a sunny day.  Through these a warm yellow light spilled onto the damp pavement.

A petite woman with dark hair manned the small reception area, a red-haired toddler clinging to her like a marsupial.  She held a phone to one ear while simultaneously pacing the polished concrete floor.  I stood as unobtrusively as possible near the entrance, but in such an open space it was impossible not to overhear her side of the conversation.

“... they willna take ‘im back until ‘is fever goes down...  aye, an hour ago when I picked him up but it hasn’t... nay, i dinna think it’s... tis jus’ terrible timing with two weddings t’morrow... Could ye?  Och, I owe ye Mrs. Fitz, a million times o’er... Anytime, we’ll be here.  Alright, soon.”

The speaker turned to me, the harried look of a working mother sharpening her already honed features.

“I apologize fer keeping ye waiting.  What can I do fer ye t’day?”

Before I could respond, the young boy, probably no older than two, began to fuss, rubbing his flushed cheek against his mother’s shoulder.

“Och, mo ghille, Mam kens ye’re poorly.  Mrs. Fitz is coming as fast as she may.”

Unable to quell my instinct to diagnose and then cure, I spoke up.  

“I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation.  Based on his age and the way he’s rubbing that cheek, it may be an ear infection.”  At the woman’s penetrating look, I hastened to explain: “I’m a doctor.  Would you mind if I took a closer look?”

Permission granted, I carefully palpated the boy under the jaw and peered as best I could without an otoscope into the offending ear canal.  Confident in my diagnosis, I recommended treatment with a warm compress, an over-the-counter analgesic ear drop, and children’s paracetamol to control his fever.  If, after twenty-four hours the symptoms had not improved, they could consider seeing his pediatrician for antibiotics, but these were only truly necessary for a persistent infection.

“Och, ye ‘ave no idea what a relief it is tae hear ye say so, lass.  He’s my first bairn, ye ken, an’ I can ne’er tell if I’m over-reacting or being negligent.   Can ye say thank ye tae the nice doctor, Wee Jamie?”

My stomach jumped.  “Wee Jamie?  Is he related by chance to Jamie Fraser?”

“Aye, tis his nephew.  I’m Jamie’s sister, Jenny.  Ye ken my brother, then?”

The pieces fell into place, and my insides settled.

“We’ve spoken before,” I explained.  “I’m Claire Beauchamp.  You and your brother helped me with a dinner party emergency last Tuesday.  I came to return your market bags, and to thank you again for coming to my aid during my hour of need.”

Jenny and I spoke for another ten minutes, sharing the superficial narratives of two strangers brought together by circumstance.  She was warm and thistly by turns, and I felt a longing for the honesty of female friendship that I’d given up when we left Boston.  Eventually a matronly woman arrived to collect Wee Jamie.  I carefully wrote down the exact names and dosages of my prescribed remedy.

After Mrs. Fitz and Wee Jamie had left, it occurred to me that Jenny needed to get back to work.  I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do, even if I hadn’t thanked Jamie himself.   As I began to make my goodbyes, however, Jenny interjected. “If ye’re no’ in a rush, why dinna ye join our afternoon cooking class?  My brother will be demonstrating how tae make quiche.  Tis the least we can do, after ye helped Wee Jamie.”

Which was how I found myself standing behind one of six cooking stations arranged across the fire station’s main area, a bright red apron covering my black slacks and saffron turtleneck.  My impetuous curls were slowly breaking ranks from where I’d slicked them into a bun that morning.  I worried I looked like a human Pez dispenser.

I glanced at the workstation immediately to my left.  A slight woman who I guessed to be roughly my own age was engrossed in her phone, a cheeky smirk playing on her berried lips.  Her strawberry blond hair was swept into an effortless chignon that made me twitch with envy.  She looked up from the screen and caught me looking her way.

“Geillis Duncan,” she said, offering a well-manicured hand.

“Claire Beauchamp.  Pleased to meet you.”

“Is it yer first time taking a class, Claire?”  At my nod, she leaned in and whispered conspiratorially: “Ye’re in for a treat.”

Before I could enquire what she meant, a murmur amongst the other students (all women, save one) was accompanied by the heavy tread of work boots on polished concrete and a familiar Scottish burr.

“Good afternoon, everyone.  Thank ye fer joining me on this dreich Scottish day.  I ken a few of ye are new, so let’s start with a brief overview of yer stations and some basic safety reminders, before we tackle the quiche.”

Today Jamie was wearing a pair of olive pants that tapered down his endless legs and a technical shirt that clung valiantly to his upper body.  He looked like he’d just stepped off the nearest rock climbing pitch.  I wondered if he owned anything that answered to the name of a professional wardrobe, but I couldn’t deny that he looked impressive, in an athleisure sort of way.

“See what I mean?” Geillis hissed at me as Jamie made his way to the front of the hall, speaking now about optimal burner temperatures.  “That man is a dozen kinds of yes.”

I concentrated on each step of the ostensibly simple recipe.  Pie crust had been the previous week’s assignment, so I had only to blind bake the prepared dough already at my workstation.  Once I had the crust centered exactly in the pie pan, pierced with a fork in orderly rows and placed in the oven, I rushed to catch up with the others.  I’d missed Jamie’s instructions regarding pan frying the bacon, so I increased the flame, thinking I could make up a little time.  The fatty meat crackled pleasingly as I set it in the lightly greased pan.  I was inordinately proud of myself.

Things went very badly, very fast.  First, my eyes wouldn’t stop watering as I meticulously peeled then dissected the onion into near-transparent crescents. Tears obscured my vision and I tried to wipe them away without contaminating my hands.  To my left I could make out Geillis skillfully cracking eggs into a glass bowl, her pie crust already elegantly filled with crispy morsels of bacon and caramelized onion bits.  

A vague sense of having forgotten something important tickled my mind.  My pie crust!  Grabbing a silicone glove (I wasn’t making that mistake twice) I rushed to the wall oven and extracted the pan.  Giddy with relief, I saw the dough was only a little dark around the edges.  

Before I could return victorious to my station, Jamie uttered a Scottish noise of alarm from his vantage at the front of the class.   We both rushed across the room to where my rashers of bacon now resembled blackened shoe laces obscured by a heavy veil of smoke.  With practiced ease, Jamie lifted the entire skillet into the adjacent sink and turned on the cold water.  A cloud of steam enveloped his head, highlighting his auburn curls.  I bit my lip as he looked my way in amusement.

“I hope ye werena planning on serving quiche to yer faculty guests t’night, Doctor Beauchamp?”

I stood meekly next to Geillis for the remainder of the class, no longer trusted around open flame without adult supervision.   She graciously allowed me to extract her quiche when it was done baking.  It looked like a magazine cover.  Meanwhile, my workstation looked like the scene of an industrial accident.

While we were waiting for her quiche to cook, Geillis and I got to know each other a little better.  She was a Highland lass from up near Inverness.  Married to a wealthy older man, her life sounded like an endless quest for diversion.  Despite this, or because of it, she had a sharp-witted frankness that I appreciated.  She was also a hard-core gossip.

“Wee besom,” she remarked with a nod towards a blond girl who was currently monopolizing Jamie’s attention with endless questions punctuated by manufactured giggles and flicks of her pin-straight hair.  “Tha’s Laoghaire Mackenzie of the Mackenzie brewing dynasty.  They’ve a live-in cook, so there’s only one reason she attends these classes, and it isna for the quiche.”

I watched Jamie laugh over something the girl said, mineral eyes alight and his perfect white teeth on display.  I suppose I couldn’t blame her.  I hadn't come for the quiche either.

The interminable ninety minute lesson finally ended.  I thanked Geillis profusely and we exchanged numbers before she rushed off for her reiki treatment.  Gathering my trench coat and purse, I tried to slink away without calling any further attention to myself.

“Doctor Beauchamp!”

I cursed under my breath, then turned to face him.

“Please, call me Claire.  After I nearly burned down your place of business, we should probably be on a first name basis.”

Jamie chuckled. It sounded more natural and lived-in than his earlier response to Laoghaire, but I was likely fooling myself.

“Och, wha’s a cooking demonstration wi’out a wee bit of drama.  Will ye be joining us next week?  We’ll be making ceviche, sae I willna need tae put the fire brigade on stand-by.”

“Bastard,” I replied to his cheeky smirk.  “Alas, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a cook.  It appears to be the one science I can’t master.”

“Cooking isna science, Claire,” he explained with sudden intensity.  “Tis an art.  Perhaps tha’s the root of yer struggle.”

“Perhaps it is.  But in that case, I may as well give up now.  I haven’t an artistic bone in my body.”

His languorous perusal of said body lit a different kind of flame in my belly.  Geillis was right; he really was a dozen kinds of yes.

“I canna say as I agree.  Come back any time if ye’d like tae try again.”

I blushed, thoroughly discomfited by his blatant flirting.  He knew about Frank.  He’d fled from him onto my fire escape, for Christ’s sake!  Maybe when you looked like James Fraser, every interaction with a woman was merely a chance to hone your craft.  Or maybe he was truly ignorant of his effect.

“I’ll take that under advisement.  Thank you again, Jamie.”

“Until the next time, Arsonist.”

Chapter Text

I appraised my reflection in a plate glass window.  Today was my thirtieth birthday.  I’d spent most of the day at a fancy salon having assorted hairs waxed, plucked and uncoiled.   Twenty minutes in the capricious October wind, and my sleek hairstyle was on the verge of mutiny.  I smoothed it down as best I could with my palms, mentally shrugged my shoulders, then entered the upscale restaurant.

“Happy birthday, darling.”  Frank left a dry kiss on my cheek, careful to not mar my make-up, as he greeted me.  “You look very beautiful with your hair straight like that.”

It was clear why Frank had chosen the Witchery for my birthday celebration.  Nestled against Edinburgh Castle, it radiated history with its dark woods, tapestry-covered walls, burgundy banquettes and faux Tudor painted ceiling.  Everywhere crystal and silverware reflected the bountiful candlelight.  I pictured Jamie’s thick-soled work boots striding across the antique Persian carpets towards the kitchen and had to suppress a giggle.

Frank stood respectfully while the maître d’ pulled out my chair.  He played the part of the genteel academic to a tee.  Ten years’ my senior, he sported thick-framed glasses, a full head of dark hair and a trim figure that spoke more to abstemious habits than vigorous exercise.  Still, he was wearing his best tailored suit and the tie I’d bought him for Christmas.  I reminded myself that I was lucky to be in a relationship with a decent, courteous and dependable man who offered me the stability my tumultuous childhood had been sadly lacking.

We conversed quietly as we each perused the leather-bound menus, the noise of other diners a discrete background hum.  Frank told me all about the history of the sixteenth century oak panels that lined the room, and I listened politely.

“It’s so refreshing to see an establishment buck the trend of those horrendous open-style kitchens,” he pronounced with a dramatic shudder.

“Oh, I don’t know.  I rather enjoy watching the orchestrated chaos that goes into making my meal.  It’s like dinner theatre,” I contradicted.

“Some things are better appreciated unseen, darling.  It’s like that gaudy museum we visited in Paris.  Ductwork and elevator shafts on display along with the art.  It’s tremendously distracting, and not at all the point.”

He was referring to our visit to the Pompidou Centre the previous summer.  I had found the juxtaposition of modern art and naked architecture fascinating.   Frank much preferred the Louvre.

I was saved from having to defend my opinion by the arrival of our waiter.  Using a well-manicured fingernail to indicate his choices, Frank ordered for us both.

“The lady will have your Grand Cru Mambourg.  I’ll start with a Lagavullin 16, and proceed to the Chambolle-Musigny with my main course,” he said with conviction.

“Very good, sir.”  The waiter collected the enormous wine menu and decamped, having failed to even look me in the eye.  A little ember of resentment glowed in my belly.

“How did you know what wine to order when I haven’t told you what I’ve chosen as my main course?” I challenged once the waiter was out of earshot.

Frank looked perplexed, as though we were acting in a play and I’d suddenly said the wrong lines after countless perfect dress rehearsals.

“It’s your birthday, darling.  You always get lobster for your birthday.”

I thought about this.  He wasn’t wrong.   I liked lobster.  The first time we celebrated together in Boston, on my twenty-fifth birthday, it had felt like a sophisticated, grown-up choice.  But I never intended for it to become my only option.

The rest of the meal passed without event.  Frank was more animated than usual, reaching across the table to caress my hand twice and joking that his Angus steak tartare appetizer made him feel like a veritable red-blooded carnivore.

Once our plates were removed Frank cleared his throat and squared his shoulders in a way that reminded me of the day he announced that we would be moving to Edinburgh.  Now what? I wondered.

“Claire.  Darling.  I think you know how happy you make me, and how delighted I am that we’re building this new life together back in the UK.  Your thirtieth birthday is such a special occasion, and it’s fitting that we mark it with something momentous.”

He reached across the table and took my left hand in his right.  His skin was cool and dry against my oddly numb palm.  I considered whether I might be going into cardiac arrest.  My heart felt untethered in my chest, leaping towards my throat and then plunging into my gut.  I concentrated on taking short, sipping breaths so that I didn’t regurgitate lobster all over the pristine white table linens.

Frank continued, unaware of my turmoil.  “I’d like us to be married within the year.  That way, our children will be born before you enter the high-risk years.  A late-spring wedding sounds lovely, don’t you think?”

He looked at me expectantly, so it must be my turn to speak.  The problem was I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

“I’m sorry, are you asking me to marry you?” I managed to ask around my stomach, which had joined my heart in my throat.

Frank chuckled.  “Of course I am, darling.  Isn’t this what we always planned?”

Strictly speaking, it was what Frank had always planned.  He’d certainly never made any secret of the fact that matrimony and a family were what he saw in our future.  So why was I blind-sided?  It felt as though I had been driving a practical four-door sedan with an excellent crash test rating at highway speed, only to suddenly realize that nothing happened when I pumped the brakes.

I said the next thing that came into my malfunctioning brain.

“What about my licensing exams?”

“There really won’t be time, darling.  Planning a wedding is a full-time job in itself, from what I hear.   We need to get moving if we’re to have two children.  You aren’t getting any younger, you know.”

I nodded weakly as though this made some kind of sense.  Frank took the gesture as silent acceptance of his hyper-practical proposal, clapping his hands together in delight in a way that made me jump.

“Marvelous.  Now, I know that you’re very particular about jewelry, so I thought it best that we shop for a ring together.  But I wouldn’t dream of celebrating your special day without giving you something tangible.  Happy birthday, Claire.”

He pulled an envelope from his inside jacket pocket and slid it across the table.  My fingers trembled and twitched as I tried to open the seal.  Inside was a certificate printed with a familiar logo.   I looked at Frank in shock.  How did he know?

“I know how much you want to learn to cook.  This place has an excellent reputation, despite their ridiculous name.  They offer group lessons, but only at their location in Leith.  I suppose the rent is cheaper there, but clearly that was out of the question.  Fortunately, I was able to arrange something more suitable with the owner, so you’ll be learning at home from a private chef!”

At that moment our waiter reappeared carrying a bowl of dark, rich-looking pudding.  As he placed it on the table in front of me, the spicy vapours of whisky assaulted my nose.  With a flourish, the waiter extracted a long-handled lighter and ignited the liquor.  Through the ensuing burst of purple flame, Frank’s familiar features transformed into something far more sinister.

Chapter Text

I glanced around the sitting room, trying to see it through a stranger’s eyes.  Well, not a stranger.  Through Jamie’s eyes.

We had sold most of our furniture before leaving Boston, not considering it worth the expense of shipping across the Atlantic.  Frank hired an interior decorating firm to furnish the third floor Southside flat before we arrived.  The overall impression was stylish, if a bit soulless.  Having grown up a virtual nomad, there were no mementos or heirlooms to speak for my personal journey.  For the first time, I regretted their absence.

The buzzer rang, and I shook away my wistfulness.  Jamie’s tousled curls and reckless grin greeted me as I opened the door.  Today he wore a fitted navy jumper, faded grey jeans with frays about the ankles and the ubiquitous work boots.  A messenger bag was slung across his broad chest.  

“I hope I wasn’t supposed to supply the ingredients for today’s lesson, because my cupboards are bare,” I remarked after inviting him in.

“Jus’ as well.  I wouldna squander yer food.  I have all we need right here.”  Reaching into his bag, he removed a clear container filled with chunks of pink meat swimming in a broth of blood.  I wrinkled my nose in disgust.

“What sort of dish will I be making with those?”

Those summer eyes shone in merry provocation.

“No’ a dish, Arsonist.  An experiment.”  

Two saucepans were set on the stove.  Jamie had me place a few pieces of meat into the water of one pot before it warmed.  To the other I added a pinch of salt and a clove of garlic, but waited until it came to a boil before adding the chicken.  After five minutes, I used tongs to move the now-pale flesh to waiting salad plates.  Neither looked particularly appetizing, but the first pot yielded a glutinous blob.

“I suppose this is the control group,” I remarked, looking at Jamie where he leaned against my countertop, ankles crossed like a cover model.  “I’m already quite familiar with what culinary failure looks like, thank you.”

“No’ failure.  Variability,” my teacher argued.  “See here?  If ye want meat tae dissolve til it doesna hold its texture, low heat is key.  An’ if ye want tae infuse it with flavour, always combine heat an’ seasoning at the same time.”

I took a small nibble of chicken from the second pot, and sure enough it tasted mildly of garlic.  It was otherwise quite bland, though.  When I commented on this, Jamie nodded in excitement.

“Aye, verra good.  Nature seeks equilibrium, as ye well know.  Sae now ye have poultry tha’ tastes o’ water and water tha’ tastes o’ chicken.  If ye were makin’ a stew or stock, t’would be a good thing.  Fer anything else, tis shite.”

I laughed, getting into the spirit of his well-executed game.

“Have ye any music?” he asked while we cleared away the results of round one.  “I always cook better with a bit o’ background noise.”

There was a high-end stereo system in the living room, but I doubted Jamie would be interested in Frank’s collection of Brahms, Mahler and Celtic harp.  Seeing my hesitation, Jamie dug out a portable speaker from his bag.

“Do ye mind?”  I shook my head and soon my kitchen hummed with guitar chords and plangent vocals.

The lesson lasted far longer than the scheduled hour.  Jamie had me bake, fry, roast and braise different samples, each time explaining why a particular technique might be used and insisting I taste the result.  It was so much fun, I shed my habitual reticence while cooking.

“An’ now fer the pièce de résistance,” Jamie announced in dramatic tones.  From his seemingly bottomless messenger bag he removed what appeared to be a miniature flame thrower.

“What the fuck is that?” I asked, forgetting myself.

“I wanted ye tae ken there’s a place fer fire in the kitchen, Arsonist.  Tis only a question of picking yer moment.”

With a flick of his lighter, he set the butane alight and handed me the small kitchen torch.  Using extreme caution, I seared the outside of the two remaining morsels until they were a rich caramel colour.  Jamie then wrapped them in foil, placing them in the oven to finish cooking.  When they were cool enough to sample, the outside was pleasingly crunchy and sweet, while the inside swam in moist chicken-y flavour.  We both declared them the winner.

“Tis a funny thing about fire,” Jamie remarked as he packed up his bag to leave by the more conventional front door route.  “It can remain hidden beneath the surface, burying its secrets deep inside.  Doesna mean it doesn’t burn, though.”

I thought about what he’d said long after he was gone, leaving me alone with his signature scent of rising bread and salt air.

That weekend, I blamed the poor weather when I declined Frank’s offer to shop for an engagement ring.

***

The next week, instead of asking to be buzzed inside, Jamie requested that I join him downstairs.

Grabbing a Mackintosh, my purse and slipping into comfortable walking shoes, I met Jamie outside my door.  He was particularly animated, despite the foul weather.

“We should ha’ started wi’ this lesson, but t’wasn’t the right day fer it,” he explained as we walked towards the farmers’ market that took place twice a week in the shadow of Castle Hill.

I considered protesting that I already knew how to shop for food, but Jamie’s enthusiasm was contagious.

We stopped at every stall, sampling the foodstuff on display, which was surprisingly varied despite it being November.  Jamie knew most of the merchants by name and our progress was regularly halted by conversations on topics as varied as his family’s health, the latest rugby results and Scottish politics.  I envied his wide circle of acquaintance and apparent ease interacting with them.  There was no pretense, no stiffness, just a man who inhabited every square centimetre of his life to the fullest.

Jamie insisted that I taste various produce before adding it to the cloth bag he’d provided.  Honey-crisp apples.  Peppery radishes.  Herb-infused venison sausage.  

“Close yer eyes,” he instructed when I was practically dizzy with all the flavours.  Still, I complied immediately.  A rubbery moisture tickled my lips.  “Open,” he said simply.  I opened.  “Tell me what ye taste, Arsonist.”

I chewed the morsel of cheese thoughtfully, letting the texture coat my mouth before finally swallowing.

“Creamy.  Thick.  Salty.  Sorrel.”

I opened my eyes only to fall into the inky vortex of Jamie’s pupils, which had expanded to almost eclipse his irises.  His hand still hovered near my mouth, muscles frozen in abstraction.  The cheesemonger let out an awkward little cough.  Jamie blinked, and the moment vanished.

“Sorrel?” he asked a bit gruffly.

“Yer lass has a fine palate, Fraser.  My sheep graze in fields full o’ it.”

I allowed myself a smug little smile.  Neither of us corrected the merchant’s presumptive pronoun.

Later that evening, I sat cross-legged before the fire with a picnic for one.  Frank had called from his office earlier to say he was working on notes for an upcoming symposium.  Before me lay the results of the afternoon’s market adventure.  Closing my eyes as I ate,  every mouthful set my senses ablaze.

We never found time to visit the jeweler that weekend either.

***

The next week, I fell ill with a miserable head cold.   Frank was in Oxford for his symposium, so I called Ginger Snap myself and explained to Jenny in a hoarse voice that Jamie should avoid coming to my flat at all costs.

I was curled up in a mentholated daze when there was a series of knocks.  It took several minutes to free myself from my blanket cocoon and shuffle to the front door.  Glancing in the entryway mirror, my hair called to mind an electrified poodle and my nose was twelve shades of raw, but I opened the door anyway.  No-one was there.  Leaning out to peer down the hallway, I practically tripped over a brown paper bag resting at my feet.

Inside was a metal thermos, still quite warm to the touch.  As I unscrewed the cap, my stuffed nose was assailed by fragrant steam.  Homemade cock-a-leekie soup.  I felt a glow fill my chest that had nothing to do with my fever.  Pouring a helping into a mug, I shuffled back to my couch-nest.  I felt better already.

***

The following week, Jamie was distracted.  I’d thanked him profusely for the soup, and asked if he could show me how to make it for myself.  As the chicken thighs and stock began to warm, however, I caught him glancing regularly at his phone, fingers drumming against his thigh.

“Are you expecting an important text?” I finally asked.

“Hmm?  Och, Arsonist, I’m verra sorry.  Tis only that we got a last-minute request tae cater a big corporate Christmas party, an’ Jenny is beside herself wi’ worrying.”  He tucked him phone into the pocket of his cargo pants.

“When’s the party?”

“T’morrow,” he confessed.

“What!  Jamie, what are you doing here?  You should have called me to reschedule.”

“T’wouldna be fair, what wi’ us missing last week on account of yer sniffles.  An’ wi’ Christmas ‘round the corner, I didna ken when I’d... er, when we’d have time for another lesson.”

I turned off the burner with a decisive twist.  Jamie opened his mouth to lodge a protest, but I beat him to the punch.

“Jamie, the soup will keep.  Growing your business is more important. I wish there was something more I could do to help, but under the circumstances...”

“Come wi’ me?” he blurted out.

I was nodding before the words finished leaving his mouth.  Notwithstanding the fact that he had just literally been teaching me how to boil water, I didn’t want to lose his company so soon.   We likely wouldn’t see one another again until after the New Year.

It was a thirty minute walk to Leith.  Jamie could have covered the distance in half that with his long strides, were it not for me trotting along beside him.  We stopped at several shops along the way to pick up provisions, arriving at Ginger Snap with our arms laden with the freshest food Edinburgh had to offer.

I had expected Jenny and Jamie to be working alone, but the fire station was abuzz with activity.  I was hastily introduced to Angus, a distant Fraser cousin; Mary, a childhood friend of Jenny’s; and Murtagh, Jamie and Jenny’s godfather.  They worked together like a well-oiled machine, and I stood awkwardly to one side, wondering what the hell I was doing there.  I was preparing to make my excuses when Jamie called me over to a spare station.  He gestured to the commercial-sized sink, which was full of vegetables of every dimension and colour.

“Claire, I need ye tae rinse and then cut these inta nice even pieces.  Can ye do tha’ fer me?”

"Consider it done, chef,” I said with a jaunty salute.

There was a feeling of camaraderie as we each went about our assigned tasks.  I chopped.  Mary baked.  Angus filleted.  Jamie cooked, and Jenny plated the various canapés, salads and sauces and stored them in the enormous refrigerators that lined the back wall.    Murtagh’s role seemed mostly to keep the troops in line with an assortment of verbal barbs. 

Music played in the background.  Volleys of witty banter flowed between us, but never at the expense of the work or anyone’s feelings.  Angus nicked himself with his filleting knife, and Jenny sent him to my station for treatment, saying I was the team’s resident doctor.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so at home.

Time passed quickly and before I knew it, it was dark outside.  The bulk of the work was done and the pace slackened, the pressure of the looming deadline relieved.  One by one we cleared our stations, meeting at the small seating area to share a well-earned drink.

Jenny sunk into the couch beside me and let out a loud sigh.

“Ouf, I canna believe we got it all done.  Claire, ye were a godsend.  Normally I do most o’ the prep work, but it leaves me no time tae arrange the dishes.”

I demurred, uncomfortable with the praise.

“Nay, Arsonist, ye were amazing,” Jamie began to object, but he was interrupted by my phone buzzing.  Glancing down, I felt my face fall.   I’d completely forgotten about Frank.  Now he was texting, asking me where I was.  I quickly fired off a reply, then stuffed the phone into my pocket.

“Everything alright?” Jenny asked.

“Oh, yes.  It’s only my fiancé, asking when I might be home,” I answered, still distracted by my uncharacteristic lapse.  As I glanced up, I ran straight into Jamie’s iceberg gaze.

“I didna realize ye were engaged,” he looked pointedly at my bare ring finger.  “Congratulations.”  

He said the word as though every syllable pained him.  I quelled the urge to explain, to say it wasn’t a real engagement because I’d never agreed, that I’d only been looking for a sense of security, but somehow found myself in a cage.

Instead I hastily finished my drink, called myself an Uber and quietly wished everyone a good night, all while avoiding the many questions written across Jamie’s expressive face.

Chapter Text

Geillis Duncan drove much the way she approached life, which was to say without much regard for rules and at white-knuckle speed.  I gripped her Range Rover’s leather cushion and swallowed any exclamations of dismay as we ricocheted through Edinburgh’s late afternoon traffic.  When we finally slid into an underground parking spot and emerged into the bustling festivity of the Princes Street Christmas Market, I felt the tension of imminent disaster abandon my shoulders.

“Where to first, then?” Geillis asked, looking far too animated by the prospect of accompanying someone while they did their Christmas shopping.

Geillis and I had kept in touch and met for coffee a few times over the past months.  When I explained that I wouldn’t be taking any more cooking classes at Ginger Snap because Jamie was giving me at-home lessons, her reaction was a moonbeam grin.

“Look at ye, wee vixen!  I ne’er wouldha thought ye had it in ya, Claire.  Tho I canna say as I blame ye.”

No matter how much I protested that I was together with Frank and that my relationship with Jamie was purely professional, she refused to believe me.  The ongoing absence of a ring from my left hand didn’t help.

“Now,” Geillis exclaimed once we’d taken in the sights and sounds of the market, “let’s have a keek at yer list.  Where should we start?”

I pulled out my phone and opened the Notes app.  As she read, my friend’s nose wrinkled in confusion.

“Trouser socks, shoe stays, Moleskine notebook, Rive Gauche...  who are ye shopping for, yer grandparents?”

“No,” I protested.  “The first three are for Frank.  The perfume is for me.”

When I explained that Frank had made a list of the items he would like to give me for Christmas, Geillis grew incensed.

“Ye mean he has ye doin’ his gift buying fer him?  Tha’s the least romantic thing I’ve e’er heard.  Do ye even like Rive Gauche, Claire?  And dinna lie tae me, fer I can read yer feelings all o’er yer face.”

Truthfully, I didn’t much care for the flowery scent.  My personal taste ran more towards woodsy or herbaceous aromas.  But it was Frank’s favourite, and it pleased me to please him.  Or it had.  I was beginning to wonder when it would be my turn to please myself.

“Right,” Geillis interrupted my thoughts.  “Marks and Sparks will do jes fine for yer wee granny list.   And then you and I are going shopping fer yer real gift.”

Geillis was a force to be reckoned with in a retail environment.  She navigated like a guided missile from one department to the next.   Twenty minutes later, we were back on the pavement, which glistened with the colourful reflections of decorations strung above.

“Your car is the other way,” I explained as Geillis turned left.

“Aye, tis, but our destination is right o’er here.  House of Fraser.  See?  Tis practically calling yer name, Claire.”

Inside the venerable old building was an astonishing multi-tiered arcade reaching over five stories to a massive skylit ceiling.  The central space was dominated by a fifteen metre-high Christmas tree (a Fraser fir, of course) and every archway of every arcade was dripping with lights.  The impression was like stepping into a Fabergé egg.

Geillis dragged me, slack-jawed, towards the ladies’ wear section.  Circling the racks like a hawk on the wind, she eyed my body, sizing me up quite literally, then thrust several pieces into my hands.

“Geillis,” I hissed, wary of the sales staff hovering nearby, no doubt smelling an excessive commission in the offing.  “I don’t need a new outfit.  And I certainly don’t need,” I shook the garments in question, “something like this.  Wherever would I wear it?”

“Well, fer starters, ye’d wear it tae dinner t’night.  I dinna wish tae offend ye, Claire, but I canna in good conscience allow ye tae set foot in the Timberyard dressed fer a job interview as a primary school teacher.”

With that she shoved me in the direction of the changing rooms.  Deciding to humour her, I was unbuttoning my top when two lacy bits of nothing came flying over the door.

“Start wi’ these.  And dinna think I willna notice if ye’re no’ wearing them!”

I stripped down to my panties, bemusedly wondering how she knew my exact bra size. 

Upon seeing me exit the dressing room in her choice of clothing, Geillis let out a squeal of delight.   She insisted I rip out the tags and leave the store wearing my new outfit, declaring it was her Christmas gift to me.  

I felt tremendously self-conscious as we walked towards the restaurant.  The aubergine velvet jeans clung to my legs in an unfamiliar way and the black turtleneck, while technically not revealing, hinted at kink with its many heavy zippers and fastenings.  Together with my unruly hair, unbound for once, I looked like another woman entirely.  I didn’t recognize her, but I felt like she might be someone I’d like to get to know.

The Timberyard was a modern restaurant in a rugged old warehouse, not far from the farmer’s market I’d visited with Jamie.  We were joined there by several of Geillis’ friends, and we ate, drank and laughed until my sides were sore. 

As I wobbled to the loo, I noticed the bartender following me with an appreciative gaze.  It had been a long time since a man had looked at me that way, and it gave me a guilty thrill.

Outside the restaurant, I pulled Geillis into an impulsive hug.

“Wha’ was that for, hen?” she asked.

“Nothing.  Everything.  Just, thank you for being you, Geil.”

“Och, tis my pleasure, lass.  I only want tae see ye happy.  Now, what do ye say to a digestif?”

After only a slight protest on my part, the two of us piled into an Uber.  Our destination was another restaurant, this time in a converted whisky warehouse by the harbour in Leith.  It was well past last sitting, but when I mentioned this to Geillis she explained away my concern. 

“I ken the owner, who’s also the chef.  Tis a popular spot fer locals in the restaurant scene tae meet fer a few  drinks after they close up and afore heading home.”

Inside, the walls were rough stone, supported in places by industrial metal beams.  The kitchen was open to the main dining area, and I grinned as I thought of Frank’s strong opinion on the matter.  Near the back of the room, lit by dim naked bulbs and the glow from several open fireplaces, was a huge square table surrounded by nearly twenty chairs upholstered in bright yellow plaid.  Around the table was gathered a motley assortment of men and women, all talking and laughing and sipping on a variety of drinks.  And in their midst, his copper hair shining in the firelight, sat Jamie.

A shout went up from the table as Geillis approached.  I hung back, tugging at the hem of my new turtleneck as though I could stretch it to cover my arse.  Besides Jamie, I recognized Jenny, Angus and Murtagh, but I only had eyes for the big ginger chef.  He sat at one corner, probably in deference to his long legs which were stretched out before him, wrapped in black denim.  A black leather jacket hung over the chair behind him.  He looked dangerous.  It suited him.

Dragging me by the elbow, Geillis nudged and bumped Angus to one side despite his vulgar protests, then practically pushed me down into the chair directly next to Jamie.  With a smug smile of satisfaction, she then retired to the opposite side of the table.

I looked anywhere but directly at him, but I could feel his butane eyes on me.  I was certain he would scorch right through my outer layers and down to where Geillis’ choice in lingerie burned against my tender skin.  The noise from the rest of the table faded away.

“Ye look bonnie t’night, Arsonist.”  His voice was low and gruff and it sent a quickening through my veins.

“Thank you, Jamie. It was Geillis’ Christmas gift to me, and I feel, well... let’s just say it isn’t my usual look.”

“It suits ye, I think.”  He reached out and lightly touched the silver tab of a zipper that ended near my wrist, setting it swinging.  I swallowed and looked around.  Several open bottles of liquor stood nearby. Grabbing the nearest one, I poured myself a generous serving and knocked it back, all in one go.  I tried to steady my breathing.

“Look, Jamie...”

Just then a blond man in chef’s whites called to Jamie from across the table.  An exchange involving a lot of Scottish cursing and an off-colour reference to someone’s lobster pot ensued.  I tried to convince myself I needed to leave.  It was late, I was half-drunk, and whatever I intended to say to Jamie should definitely wait for another moment.  Maybe never.

A hand on my thigh broke my preoccupation.

“Sorry, Arsonist, ye were sayin’ something?”

I wet my lips, frantically trying to recall anything but the feeling of Jamie’s strong fingers, stroking me through the velvet of my jeans.

“I...”

At that moment, the woman on Jamie’s far side broke into song.  The rest of the table cheered and clapped along, and it was impossible to hear anything except the concussive pounding of my heart against my eardrums.

Jamie grabbed my clammy hand.

“Come wi’ me,” he instructed, grabbing our outerwear and pulling me towards the door.  Geillis watched our departure with all the excitement of a child on Christmas morning.

Outside the air was dense and cold, a briny slap after the smoky warmth of the restaurant.  Jamie obviously had a destination in mind, and we walked hand-in-hand along the cobbled streets for several minutes before finally emerging at the port.  A jetty struck out into the inky sea, and it was there that we ended up.  Besides a few gulls and the winking of a nearby lighthouse, we were all alone.  The sodium street lights caught Jamie’s curls and made them burn.

“Forgive me, Arsonist.  I couldna hear myself think in there.  Tho, come tae think of it, tis no’ much better now.”  Rather than release me, as he spoke Jamie stroked my hand, running calloused fingers over each vein and knuckle.  I don’t think he even realized he was doing it, but it stole every thought from my head.

“No ring,” he remarked, stroking the finger in question.

“No,” I whispered in response.  

And then it burst out of me, like a tidal wave of feeling that I never saw coming.  I told him everything.  My childhood roaming the globe with my uncle, pre-occupied and rootless, dreaming of stability.  Meeting Frank at Harvard, and realizing that he represented all the things that my life to date had lacked: structure, security, a solid foundation, a home.  And how it took moving to Scotland and coming into contact with a group of near-strangers to make me realize that the price I had paid for that stability was higher than I’d ever imagined.  I’d given up my dream of becoming a doctor. I’d become so lost in Frank’s vision of who I should be that I’d almost lost sight of who I actually was.

By the time the flood of words left me, I was in Jamie’s arms, crying into his leather jacket.  He hushed me with quiet murmurs and languorous stroking of my hair, as one would a child who has woken from a nightmare.

I stepped out of his embrace and rubbed my sleeve across my face.  I must have looked an absolute mess, but he still watched me with those earnest, patient eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I began, “I don’t know what...”

“Claire,” he interrupted.  I’d never before realized just how many consonants were in my given name.  “Ye dinna need tae apologize tae me.  But ye may want tae consider an apology tae yerself.”  At my raised eyebrow, he continued.

“I’m no’ the kind of man tae tell another what they should and shouldna do.  But ye strike me as someone who’s made decisions fer the right reasons, yet ended up in the wrong place.”  Here he paused, as though carefully weighing his words.  “There’s no sin in changin’ yer mind, Arsonist.  Tis very well tae be hungry, so long as ye ken what ye hunger for.”

“And what do you hunger for, James Fraser?”  The provocative words had left my lips before I had the chance to censor them.  His answer came in the form of a blistering look that left no doubt as to its meaning.  Then he gathered himself, banking the fire I’d unconsciously ignited.

“Many things.  Regular, ordinary things, mostly.  My family’s health and happiness.  A faster bike.  My own restaurant.”

“Like your friend's there?” I asked, gesturing towards the harbour.

“Och, Tom is a braw chef, and worthy o’ every accolade tha’s been showered upon him.  But the hospitality scene in Edinburgh is cut-throat, an’ suitable locations cost a fortune.  Nah, Jenny and I want tae buy back our childhood home in the Highlands.  Tis called Lallybroch, and when our Da passed, our Mam sold it tae her brother.  We’d turn it inta a country inn, wi’ Jenny running the lodging side o’ things and I the dining.  Tha’s the dream anyway,” he ended with a shrug.

I rested my hand on his forearm.  “That sounds like a wonderful plan, Jamie.”

Before he could reply, an enormous yawn burst from my lungs.

“Time tae get ye home tae yer bed, Arsonist,” Jamie grinned.   “Come, I’ll give ye a ride.”

“Wait, haven’t you been drinking?” I inquired as we walked back down the jetty.

“Three years sober,” he explained with no hint of embarrassment.  “I went somewhere pretty dark after my Mam died, an’ it took a near-fatal crash tae scare me straight.”  His eyes squinted in a poor approximation of a wink as he added, “Besides, there are better ways tae chase a rush than in the bottom of a bottle.”

“Such as?” I asked brazenly.

Which was how I found myself on the back of a black motorcycle, my arms twined around Jamie’s waist.  Rather than take me directly home, he steered us north, following the coast.  It was very late, with hardly another vehicle about.  We merged onto the motorway, and Jamie picked up speed.  My thighs tightened around his lean hips, the vibration of the motor beneath us shivering up my spine.  As we emerged beneath the hastate lights of the Queensferry Bridge, I stretched my arms wide, icy air ripping against the sleeves of my jacket.  I laughed, although no-one could hear me.  I yelled, and only the wind yelled back.  I was flying.

***

It was nearly dawn when Jamie pulled up in front of my flat.  My legs thrummed, my eyes were dry with fatigue, and my heart ached, but I felt better than I could ever remember.  I handed Jamie back his spare helmet and shook out my curls.  He watched me in that half-sleepy, half-vigilant way of his that I now recognized as desire.

“I don’t know what I could ever say to thank you, Jamie.”

“Ye needn’t say anything at all, Arsonist.  Nae matter what ye decide, it has been my very great honour tae get tae know you.”

Without another word, he kick-started the engine and drove off into the early morning mist.

“Goodbye,” I whispered to his vanishing shadow.

***

The lamp above the couch was lit, and Frank lay still beneath its glow.  I realized he had fallen asleep waiting for me to come home.  Instead of regret, what I felt in that moment was pity.

The sound of my jacket being unzipped woke him.  He blinked in confusion and then in shock.

“I’m very sorry if you were worried,” I began.

“Worried?  Do you have any idea what time it is?  My God, Claire, I don’t know what to make of you these days.  You’ve never behaved irresponsibly before, and now you’re out at all hours and you’re dressed like a...,” he gestured wildly with his hand at my new outfit which I had, quite honestly, forgotten I was wearing.  “And your hair, Claire!” he finished, as though the manic state of my curls was definitive evidence of my fall from grace.  Despite my exhaustion, I stood tall.

“Frank, we need to talk.”

Chapter Text

The next five months were some of the most difficult of my life.  

After our talk, Frank and I agreed that it would be best that we parted ways.  The Southside flat was close to the university, plus I’d never truly felt at home there, so it made sense for him to keep it.  Fortunately, we’d never combined our savings and I still had money tucked away from my time as a medical resident in Boston.

Geillis wanted me to move into her sprawling Murrayfield home, at least temporarily, but I knew that I needed a place of my own.  To stand on my own two feet, as it were.   Which was how I found myself moving my few belongings into a modest Morningside walk-up as the rest of Edinburgh celebrated Hogmanay with fireworks and drunken revelry.

I scheduled the written component of my medical licensing exam for February.  This was likely foolhardy, but I’d already wasted enough time.  As a result, almost every waking hour was dedicated to studying.  The flat remained an empty box whose naked beige walls bore witness to my rudimentary existence.

Geillis called regularly, reminding me to eat and to occasionally step outside for a breath of fresh air.  Returning up the high street from one of our weekly coffee dates, a bright flash in a shop window caught my eye.

I stopped and stared as the afternoon sun lit the vase like a shard of stained glass.  It was a profound shade of blue: the colour of a field of indigo, of the night sky in a Byzantine icon, of Jamie’s eyes when he laughed.  It sat proudly on my windowsill, filled with the season’s first daffodils, as I pored over practice exams.

***

“Geillis, I passed!  I fucking passed!”  An elderly woman seated across from me on the bus muttered under her breath about vulgar Sassenachs, but I was too elated to care.

“Of course ye did, ye brilliant disaster.  Now I can brag tae the neighbours I have my own personal physician.”

“Not so fast, Duncan.  I still need to pass the clinical exam, and that’s no small thing.”  My gut twisted just thinking about it, but unlike the written exam, there was little I could do to prepare.  Either I knew how to perform as a doctor or I did not.  The long months since I’d last treated a patient loomed like a large shadow over that question.

“Och, yer bum’s oot the window Claire,” my friend dismissed blithely.  “Ye’re gonna do great.  When do ye head down tae yer homeland, then?”

“May first.”  The practical examination took place in Manchester and needed to be scheduled three months in advance.

“Sounds like ye’ve got some time on yer hands.  Whate’er are ye going tae do with yerself?” Geillis asked in a singsong voice.

Fortunately for me, spring was Edinburgh’s most pleasant season.  Its many gardens and laneways erupted in carpets of buds and blooms.  The air smelled fresh and green, like biting into a tart apple.  I took long walks and fell in love with the city I now called home.  There were secondhand bookstores to explore and a weekly craft market where I gradually amassed an assortment of items that made my flat feel like a home as well.  With each passing day, my existence felt more and more like a life; one I defined for myself.

I also started to explore my options for employment, hoping for a job offer from one of the city’s hospitals that was conditional upon my successful completion of the licensing process.  It was to that end that I found myself walking down the corridor of The Royal Edinburgh hospital after what I hoped had been a rather successful interview with the deputy director of surgery.

“Claire?”

I recognized her voice immediately.  Before turning around I closed my eyes and sent out a fervent appeal to the universe.

“Jenny, hi.  How are you?”

She looked just the same, her straight black hair such a contrast to her brother.  Next to her stood a man, but not the man I had conjured the moment I heard her voice.  I was unclear whether that meant my prayer had been answered or not.  Seeing my gaze stray, Jenny jumped to introductions.

“This is my husband, Ian.  We’re here fer treatment on his leg.”

“Nothing serious, I hope.”  

“Jes a fitting fer a new prosthetic.  Jenny keeps beatin’ me o’er the head with the old one, ye see.”  I laughed, instantly liking his easy-going manner, so in contrast with Jenny’s intensity.

“Ye must be the Claire I hear sae much about,” he went on, and I wondered what had been said about me in the Fraser household.

“Nothing bad, I hope.”

Ian smiled warmly.  “Only good things, I promise ye.”

“What brings ye tae the hospital, Claire?” Jenny interjected.

I explained how I was in the process of qualifying to practice medicine in Scotland, provided I could pass my exams.  Jenny and Ian were both delighted, congratulating me as though I’d already accomplished my goal.  As we spoke about Wee Jamie’s latest exploits and the ongoing growth of Ginger Snap, I couldn’t help notice that Jenny was staring at my hands.  At my left hand in particular.  Finally, I couldn’t resist temptation any longer.

“And, how is Jamie doing?”  I tried to sound casual, but I was certain my faltering voice betrayed me.

“Very well,” Jenny replied.  “Busy, as ye can imagine, but he thrives on chaos.”

I nodded, trying to be satisfied with the news that he was well.  It was the most I could hope for, really.  Jenny eyed me shrewdly before continuing.

“He’s a good man, my brother.  Any lass would be verra lucky tae have him.  I’d like tae see him settled, but he refuses tae be rushed.  Says the right woman is worth the wait.”  She paused before adding,  “I reckon ye ken wha’ he means.”

“Yes,” I breathed.  “I know exactly what he means.”

***

I took the overnight train from Edinburgh to Manchester.  It meant I was likely to arrive at the testing centre deprived of sleep, but I rationalized that most of my residency could be characterized as one long evaluation under similar conditions, and I hadn’t killed anyone yet.  Still, as the velvety darkness slipped by outside my window, studded by the lights of passing farms, my doubts got the better of me.

I texted Geillis, looking for moral support.  For once she didn’t reply immediately.  Another name on my laughably short list of contacts caught my eye.  I deliberated for all of a minute, but the late hour and creeping panic made me impulsive.

Hello.

Best to start with something innocuous, rather than the slightly more revealing “I miss you.  I think about you every day.”  A reply bubble appeared immediately after I hit send.  At least I hadn’t woken him up.  A small tempest stirred in my gut.

Arsonist.  Hello.  How are you?

I tried to picture him.  Was he at home?  Working late?  Or, in a scenario that played out far too often in my mind, on a date?

I’m alright.  Well, to be honest, I feel like I’m going to puke and cry.  Not necessarily in that order.

Och, lass.  Do you need me to come over?

Damn it, this man.  I had done nothing to deserve his unswerving loyalty but mislead him and then disappear for months on end.  And yet here he was, willing to come to my aid on the flimsy pretext of a late night text.  Guilt and tenderness warred for possession of my heart.

That may prove a bit difficult, Jamie.  I’m on a train to England.

There was a long pause, and then a two letter reply.

Oh.

I realized at once that he’d leapt to the wrong conclusion: that I had left Edinburgh for good.  I rushed to correct the error.

I’m taking the second stage of my examination to practice as a NHS doctor tomorrow.   It’s all hands-on situations, and the licensing facility is in Manchester.

Arsonist, that’s wonderful news!  I’m so proud of you.

I blushed, then leaned my heated cheek against the chilled pane of glass.  It had been a rash impulse, but this conversation was exactly what I needed.  I wasn’t alone in this.  Geillis and Jamie were in my corner.

What has your stomach in a twist, then?

What if I’ve forgotten what to do?!  It’s been almost a year since I’ve so much as used a stethoscope, Jamie.  The exam is eighteen real-life situations and you’re given eight minutes to respond to each one.  Not a second longer.  I’m just...  what if I fail?

And there it was.  The kernel of fear that lived at the heart of everything I did.  What if I failed?   What if my best wasn’t good enough?

Claire, listen to me.  You’re a doctor, just as I am a chef.  It wouldn’t matter if I had not set foot in a kitchen in ten years, I would still remember how to cook, and I know that it’s the same for you.  I believe it with everything in me.

On some level, I knew that he was right.  But it still comforted me tremendously to hear it from someone I trusted.

Alright.  That helps.  I should let you get to bed.  Thank you for talking me off my ledge, Jamie.

Anytime, Arsonist.

As I got ready sign off, another text bubble appeared.

Oh, and Claire?  Don’t burn down their wee laboratory, okay? ;-)

I laughed out loud, muting my phone and reclining my seat.  Outside, the stars shone brightly, tiny fires in the firmament to guide me on my way.

***

It was a lovely late spring day, and the retractable doors to the fire station were open to the warm breeze.  I could hear Angus’ voice as he led a cooking demonstration for a group of young women; a bridal shower by the look of their ridiculous costumes.

“Mind the coriander, lass.  Tis a verra powerful aphrodisiac, ken?  I willna be held responsible if ye canna resist my considerable charms after ye eat yon soup.”

There was an outburst of giggles as I rounded the corner and entered the reception area.  Jenny was on the phone.  She halted mid-sentence when she saw me walk in.  I rubbed my hands down the front of my jeans, trying to stay calm.

“He’s in the storeroom, in the back,” Jenny prompted before I could even offer a greeting.  I smiled gratefully, relieved I didn’t have to make small talk.  I had only so much courage stored in reserve, and I didn’t want to use it all up before reaching my destination.

The storeroom was long and narrow, lit by a single naked bulb and girded with shelves.  Jamie stood with his broad back to the door, his curls absorbing the light like amber.  He had a clipboard in one hand, performing some kind of inventory.

“Jes how many lentils dae ye reckon we need, Janet?  There’s nine cans of them here already, and ye have us ordering ten more.”

I’d almost forgotten how much I loved his voice, the undulating grit and silk of it.  I had to remaster the art of speech before I could reply.

“It’s not Jenny.  It’s me.  Claire.”

If it weren’t for the sudden rapid flow of his breath I would have assumed he hadn’t heard me.  To fill the silence, I blurted out, “I like lentils.  You should listen to your sister.”

“Claire.”  More sigh than word.  He slowly turned.  It was when our eyes met that I knew nothing had changed for him.  It was still there, after all these months.  That look that told me I was the map to his journey, the focus to his vision, the reason to his why.  

Hopefully he could read that same certainty on my face.

“I passed my exams,” I began.  “I’m a doctor again.”

“Ye never stopped bein’ a doctor.  This jus’ makes it official.”

“I’m still a disaster in the kitchen,” I continued.  “Last week I ruined two saucepans.”

“Tha’s only a tragedy if ye dinna have someone willin’ tae cook fer ye,” he replied with a strange squinting motion I understood was meant to be a wink.

“I’m still learning who I am.  How to be true to the person on the inside,” I confessed.  This is what had kept me away for so long, worried that I would escape from Frank’s orbit just to be caught up in another.  Jamie never once expected my submission, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t offer it out of habit.

“I’ll let ye in on a secret.  Sae is everyone else,” he replied.

Without realizing it, we’d both been moving until we were crowded together amongst the dried herbs and canned goods.  My hand rested against the solid metronome of his heart.  Just one more confession to go.

“I burn for you in a way I’ve never burned for anything before.”

There.  It was said.  A thousand wings of rapture beat against the cage of my ribs, clamoring to break free.  Jamie carefully pushed a loose curl behind my ear before cupping my jaw.

“Wee arsonist.  Come, set my life on fire.”

Chapter Text

I scrutinized my reflection in the antique glass.  The local hairdresser had collected my curls atop my head in way that both tamed and embellished them, braiding in tendrils of lily of the valley to create an unmerited halo.

Jenny’s double joined me in the mirror, holding a strand of seed pearls.  She carefully lifted them over my head and fidgeted with the clasp.

“These belonged to our Mam, given tae her on her weddin’ day.  I ken she would want ye tae wear them.”

“Jenny,” I breathed, fighting back tears.  “I’d be honoured.”

With a curt nod that indicated her limit for sentimentalism had been reached, my soon-to-be sister-in-law returned to her usual businesslike manner.

“They’re all set outside.  Are ye ready, Claire?”

I took one last glance in the mirror and a sanguine woman looked back.  I’d never been more certain or ready for anything in my life.

“Absolutely.  Let’s do this.”

***

With the proceeds from the sale of Ginger Snap and by combining our life savings, Jenny, Ian, Jamie and I managed to purchase Lallybroch from their uncle six months ago.  Since then, Jamie spent the workweek in the Highlands, investing sweat equity into the massive endeavour of converting the eighteenth century manor and its outbuildings into a hotel, spa and gourmet restaurant.  On the weekends he joined me in Edinburgh, physically exhausted but blissfully happy.

One such weekend, we had been walking hand-in-hand down Grassmarket when Jamie pulled me towards a nearby shop.  

“Are you thinking of getting a tattoo?” I asked when he didn’t immediately explain our unexpected halt.  He was looking intently through the window, but I got the impression he wasn’t really seeing the designs and various body jewelry on display.

“Aye,” he started out slowly.  “In fact, I was thinkin’ perhaps we both might.  As a symbol, if ye will, of who we are tae one ano’er.”

I’d never before considered getting a tattoo and was tempted to dismiss the idea out of hand, but something about Jamie’s seriousness tempered my response.

“That’s a mighty permanent symbol, Fraser.”  His cobalt eyes sparkled when he looked at me.

“Aye, tis.  What dae ye say, Arsonist?  Are ye ready tae belong tae each other, under our skin like blood and bone, until our lives be done?”

Which was how I became engaged to Jamie in the most unconventional way imaginable, standing in front of a display of Celtic knots and navel rings with tears in my eyes.

***

Downstairs, Lallybroch was a mess of step-ladders, idle carpentry tools and drop clothes.  I stepped around a bucket of half-solidified plaster on my path to the front door.

This hadn’t been the plan.  I was meant to finish my three year contract as a surgeon at the Royal Edinburgh, Jamie was going to oversee the restoration and opening of Lallybroch, and only then were we going to get married.  

Somewhere along the line, we got a bit ahead of ourselves.  I rested my hand against the tiniest hardening of my lower abdomen.  Roughly twelve weeks ahead of ourselves, and counting.

Ironically, it was Jamie who insisted we move up the wedding.  Apparently the few traditional scruples he maintained all converged around our child being born out of wedlock.

I stood on the steps of the Lallybroch courtyard under a lapis blue sky, staring down an improvised aisle of borrowed chairs and white muslin.  Common wisdom held that it was the bride who was the centrepiece of a wedding, but Jamie took my breath away.  He wore his Fraser tartan, a brilliant white shirt and tweed vest, his hair a sea of burnt sugar waves.  His already lean physique now had the consistency of marble, brought about by long days of hard labour.  He stood tall and proud, a lighthouse calling me home to port.

No family accompanied me on my short march to his side.  No violins trilled a romantic tune.  To my left, an arched gateway was clad in ugly scaffolding.

But it was perfect.  Perfect, because I moved forward of my own volition.  Perfect, because the song love sang in my heart was endless.  And perfect, because the man I approached had reminded me to see past the surface of things, to the strength and beauty that lay within.

Jamie greeted me with a watery smile and an outstretched hand.  Where his cuff lifted, I could make out the text of his tattoo, written in my own hand.  He’d chosen his inner wrist, so that he could always see it as he worked.  The words were from his invocation, spoken in a Leith storeroom so many months ago. 

Come, set my life on fire.

I’d given my own tattoo a great deal of thought, that giddy day in Grassmarket.  As a doctor, I didn’t feel comfortable having it visible while I worked.  The text was still more important than the location, and I considered and discarded several options before settling on one that encapsulated the essence of our relationship.  Whispering the words in Jamie’s ear so that he could write them out in his slanted script, his gratified look told me he appreciated their meaning.

That tattoo was on display to our entire acquaintance as we recited the vows that were both mere formality and eternal promise. Just above the ivory back of my dress, between my scapulae, where wings would grow if I was able to fly.

Hold a space for me to be free.