Chapter 36 – Da
The days after Jamie and Brian’s revelations passed in a blur, and before Claire knew it, the morning of Willie’s birthday had dawned bright and clear.
Her precious, tiny boy was six years old. Well, not so tiny anymore. He’d been growing like a weed lately—the top of his curly head reaching almost to her chest—but she could still remember the day he was born as if it had been yesterday. The downy tuft of copper hair on the crown of his head, slanted eyes impossibly blue as his pudgy little fist had clasped around her thumb.
Wondering where all that time had gone, Claire stood, gentle rays of early spring light flooding the kitchen and warming her skin as she stared out over the lip of her mug. Reminiscing about birthdays past and the ones yet to come, she was jerked out of her reverie by a sharp tapping against the kitchen window.
Her mouth dropped in an ungainly manner at the unexpected, but most welcome sight.
Geillis, in all her nearly-translucent-pale-skinned glory, was grinning at her through the glass panes, gesticulating to meet at the door.
Claire ran towards the entrance, yanking the door open with her mouth split into ridiculously fat grin.
“Gee!” she squealed, excited to have her best friend close enough to wrap her in a tight embrace. “You’re here!”
“Hen!” Geillis replied with similar bouncy excitement as she returned the bear hug.
“It’s so good to see you.” Amber eyes were glowing with warmth above a wide smile. “But why are you not ringing the doorbe—” she broke off, mouth hanging slightly open as she registered her friend’s appearance.
“What have you done with your hair?”
Geillis strode past Claire into the cottage, a small smirk accompanying her turn back over her shoulder as the sing-song voice explained, “It’s a verra novel thing they do these days, hen. It’s called dyeing.”
Claire rolled her eyes good-naturedly. She’d missed the easy banter.
“D’ye like it? I think it suits me verra well.”
“Yes, it does. It looks amazing.” She closed the door and took Geillis’ jacket as the other woman slipped out of her heeled boots. “But, it’s…quite a change.”
“Weel, that was the plan,” Geillis declared with a smug edge to her tone, gathering her now strawberry blonde mane into a high ponytail. “I wanted tae blend in wi’ yer new crowd, but I wasnae daring enough tae go full ginger.”
Claire snorted, grabbing her abandoned coffee and taking a sip as Geillis helped herself to a mug full of the invigorating brew.
“Bloody hell, you even did your eyebrows?”
“Aye, o’ course,” her friend replied, casually leaning against the kitchen counter. “I did the drapes, carpet, and the kitchen towels as well.”
Spluttering slightly, Claire coughed as a few drops of coffee had gone down the wrong way. “Too much information, Duncan.”
Geillis’s lips curved into a mischievous smile. “There’s nae such thing as too much information, hen.”
“I beg to differ,” Claire muttered as she began to prepare Willie’s favourite breakfast: parritch with raspberries and a dollop of honey. Deciding that it didn’t hurt to spoil her son a bit on his special day, she took out the bacon as well, setting it to fry in a pan.
“Since the others are not with you, I’m guessing you didn’t come up from Edinburgh?”
“No, I came from Glesga.”
“So, you’re still seeing that guy—what was his name again—then?” she asked, retrieving a pot from a cupboard. “Do you want some eggs?”
“No tae the eggs, parritch is enough. His name is Dougal, and aye, I like him fine sae far. Bit intense sometimes, but finally a man who kens hoo tae please a woman,” she said airily, face turned upwards in what seemed to be dreamy recollection.
“Speaking o’ which…” Geillis continued, moss-green eyes directing their sharp interest at Claire, ”…has the big Ginge still got his magic touch?”
Caught off-guard, Claire dropped the pack of oats and cursed, using the distraction to pretend that she didn’t know what her former roommate was getting at. “I beg your pardon?”
“Ye ken ye’re no’ exactly a great actress, hen?” The now-strawberry-blonde leaned against the kitchen counter, crossing her legs.
“Probably the reason I pursued medicine,” Claire shrugged, avoiding her friend’s look as she stirred the oats into the pot.
“Since ye’re trying tae deflect—no’ verra successfully, I might add—I’m guessing nothing…more has happened between the twa o’ ye since we last spoke?”
Pinkness crept up from beneath the collar of Claire’s long-sleeved striped shirt, but she didn’t answer.
“I take it that means I’m right.”
“There wasn’t exactly any time for that, if you need to know, Duncan.”
That seemed to take Geillis by surprise, eyebrows raised above curious emerald orbs. “Hoo can ye no’ have time fer that?”
Claire sighed as she stirred the oats and milk, a slight defensiveness creeping into her shoulders. “With work and his training, and getting everything ready for the party, there wasn’t much time to spend alone. I mean, I already told you we’re taking it slow, and we haven’t even been on a proper date yet.”
She wasn’t yet ready to admit it out loud—not even to her best friend—but even without a real date, the few hours Claire had spent alone with Jamie had easily been the highlight of her week.
Each night, after tucking William into bed, they’d sprawl out on the couch together. Sometimes they’d just talked quietly while revelling in the simple joy of holding each other’s hands; other times they turned on Netflix, only to abandon it after finding more thrilling entertainment in the other’s closeness than on the screen.
Jamie, ever respectful of her wishes, had let her set the pace she needed. He didn’t initiate anything beyond kisses—though those had certainly helped in moving things along—instead only following the precedent she set for what she was comfortable with; a demonstration of restraint even more remarkable for the vivid passion lurking beneath the stormy blue of his eyes.
Each day, they ventured a little bit further—and sometimes an inch or two beneath a hemline—delighting in the careful exploration of silky skin and taut muscles.
Last night, gentle, yet eager touches had slowly manoeuvred them from a seated into a horizontal position, lips to lips and heart to heart.
Lying stretched out next to each other on the couch, they’d kissed languidly as their hands wandered. Quite without thought, Jamie’s leg had moved from its perch between hers further up, causing a jolt of awareness to course through her as his thigh pressed the seam of her trousers into an exquisitely sensitive spot at the apex of her thighs.
“I’m sorry,” he’d apologised quietly, realising that he’d strayed further than intended.
Before he could retreat and resume a less intimate position, however, a slender but strong-fingered hand had stopped him, holding him in place. “Don’t.”
“Are ye sure?”
She’d nodded then, and kissed him, lightly pushing her pelvis down against him as his large hands cupped her backside.
“This okay, too?” The question had been breathless, blue eyes desperate for her to approve.
She’d given her permission wordlessly, covering his hands with hers and prompting him to squeeze—hard. Jamie had obliged only too willingly, keen on kneading the ample flesh and moving her against his thigh in small, rhythmic movements that made his own breath grow shallow.
A moan passed from her to him, trapped between hungry lips.
Feeling bold, Claire’s fingers travelled over half-bared biceps and a muscular waist to the front of his dark blue jeans. She hadn’t yet touched him but was close enough for him to feel the warmth radiating from her fingertips.
“This still okay?” she’d panted, placing her palm over him.
“Aye,” Jamie croaked in response, only just able to keep from bucking into her. Clearing his throat, he tried again, “Aye, more than okay.”
He’d already been halfway ready when Claire began to stroke him through the denim fabric. She was timid at first, scared that she’d somehow forgotten how to please a man in the years lacking such intimacy, but the way Jamie sought the pressure of her caress with his hips helped to overcome that nervousness, and she delighted in the greedy little sounds he made with each of her touches.
They’d fallen into a steady rhythm as they drove each other slowly but surely towards the climax of pleasure, their breathing laboured and eyes clouded with desire.
She’d reached her peak on another delicious roll of her hips against the hard ridge of his quadriceps, and Jamie spilled himself beneath her hand, hidden by the layers that were still between them.
If anyone had told Claire that one of the most arousing sexual encounters she would ever experience were to happen while both participants were fully clothed, she wouldn’t have believed it.
Afterwards, they’d lain quite still as their hearts came down from their high, hands and legs entwined, whisky eyes and sapphire blue smiling at each other.
Claire’s belly quivered at the tantalising memory of his touch, how he’d felt against her, face flushed with heat and longing.
“Sorry, what did you say, Gee?” she asked, trying to push those images to the back of her mind…for now.
For once unaware of her friend’s state of mind, Geillis made a dismissive sound. “I said that a busy week is a minor obstacle if ye ask me. Ye’ll always find the time fer a wee bit o’ horizontal exercise if ye want tae.”
“Well,” Claire blushed a bit deeper as she took the bacon off the cooker, brushing an escaped curl out of her face, “having my period didn’t exactly help, to be honest.”
Geillis chuckled, “Noo, that’s a reason I can accept, hen.”
“Anyhoo,” her willowy friend continued, tightening her ponytail, “tell me again what the exact plan fer taeday is.”
Claire sighed, rolling her shoulder blades to work out some of the lingering apprehension. It was going to be a long day, even if she was looking forward to the celebrations and seeing her friends again.
Geillis, approving of that point on the agenda, nodded.
“Jamie will come early to help set up the garden for the party. Brian will bring Mrs Crook and the cake she made, plus a couple of folding chairs, so he’ll be here early, too—but I don’t know exactly when. You have to distract Willie when the cake gets here, by the way.”
“Aye, aye, cap’n,” her best friend saluted with two fingers, signalling the mission was in good hands. “I’ll ask him tae show me his kite, or something like that.”
“Great, thanks,” Claire said, taking out three porcelain bowls. “The kids arrive at 1 p.m., and the gang will be here half an hour before that—last I checked in with them. I don’t think it’ll go longer than three hours. Thought we could all head out for dinner maybe, when the kids are gone.”
“Sounds like a plan tae me.” Geillis grabbed the spoon and ladled the porridge into the waiting bowls while Claire pushed the bacon onto a plate.
“D’ye think it’ll go well taeday wi’ Jamie and his father being in the same room?”
Claire would have lied if she’d said she hadn’t thought about that at all. She’d actively tried not to worry too much about it, though. She knew by now that the tensions between father and son were based on love rather than spite, and that gave her hope for the future. While she’d promised Brian that she wouldn’t divulge anything to Jamie, she had not made any such pledges to the father of her child, and maybe a gentle nudge at the right time would lead both men in the direction towards forgiveness and reconciliation.
“I think so. I mean, I know they’re not going to make a scene or anything, but…”
“It’s bound tae get a wee bit awkward, no? Hoo long have they no’ seen each other?”
“Jamie told me they talk about every month on the phone and send some texts, updating each other about the most important things, but they haven’t seen each other in almost a year or so. It’s not like they’re completely estranged or something like that. Just…”
“Aye, jus’ a mountain of misunderstandings and an ocean o’ hurt feelings between them,” Geillis finished for her. Despite all her forwardness and bold manner, her best friend had a distinct empathy that only the people closest to her ever got to appreciate.
Arms laden with porridge, raspberries, bacon, and other items deemed necessary for breakfast, the two women set the table.
With a smile, Claire turned to her best friend. “Would you do the honours, then?”
Geillis’ face split in a blinding grin before she rushed out to wake up her godson.
Pouring herself another coffee, Claire heard an excited, “Auntie Gee!” from her son’s bedroom.
It was going to be a great day.
Breakfast finished and the dishes taken care of, Claire and Geillis were lounging and chatting comfortably on the sofa. Willie, meanwhile, was absorbed in a re-enactment of a monumental toy fight between a hammerhead shark and a stegosaurus in the middle of the living room.
Watching William’s bright hair gleam like fire during a lull in their conversation, Claire’s thoughts inevitably strayed towards the man he’d inherited it from. Her closest friends—her chosen family, the people who’d stuck with her through it all—would meet her son’s father for the first time. Jamie wasn’t just Willie’s father, though. He was…so much more already. She desperately hoped they’d all get along.
As if Geillis had been reading her thoughts, she asked, “Sae, when’s the Viking going tae show? Didn’t ye say he’d be here early?”
Feeling a bit as if she’d been caught red-handed, Claire blushed, but recovered her cool quickly.
“Well, yes, but he has training sessions every single day. He’s cutting them short for today, though. He,” her amber eyes flitted towards the time on her microwave, “should be here soon. Why?”
“Jus’ wanted tae get a good keek at him before the others arrive.”
One eyebrow rose as she fought a smile. While her friend tried to appear nonchalant, Claire knew what lay behind that statement, and she loved her friend madly for it. Geillis had always been fiercely protective of her and William, so it wasn’t surprising that she’d make it her goal to personally vet Jamie before giving him her hard-earned seal of approval.
Thinking that a bit of teasing wouldn’t hurt, Claire asked, “Do I have to remind you that you have seen Jamie before?”
“Sae have the others. Except fer Greg, o’ course. But that was almost seven years ago, hen,” Geillis protested.
“Not to mention the pictures I sent you of Willie with him?”
Geillis shrugged that sound argument off. “Pictures are no’ the same as the real deal.”
Claire was about to call her friend out on her true motives when the doorbell rang.
She stretched her arms over her head and went to get the door, smiling at her friend on the couch. “Guess you’ll have your chance for cross-examination now after all, Duncan.”
A pffft sounded from behind her back, but Claire could feel green eyes watching intently as she turned the doorknob.
Even though she knew who waited behind the door, she couldn’t prevent the sudden quickening of her pulse. As blue eyes and a warm smile came into view, a tender feeling bloomed behind her breastbone.
“Fraser,” she said quietly, eyes sparkling at the sight of him.
“Sassenach,” Jamie returned the greeting, the same warmth evident in his lopsided smile.
Aware of their audience not far in the back, Claire went for a brief, soft kiss to his cheek—a gesture that wouldn’t arouse suspicion in William if he saw, but was intimate enough to make her lips tingle.
“Come on in.”
“Awright, where’s ma wee birthday man?” Jamie threw the question into the open living room as they entered together, the wee birthday man in question still absorbed in his toy fight.
At the sound of his father’s voice, though, the little boy’s red head whipped around. He jumped up in pure delight, and raced towards Jamie, leaving his toys to fight the battle on their own.
“Da!” Willie launched himself at Jamie with a dimpled grin plastered on his lightly freckled face.
For a moment, everything seemed to stop. The hands on the clock frozen, birds suspended in flight as the atmosphere around them changed, centring around William and the one word that had triggered the monumental shift.
Above Willie’s head, cheek pressed against his father’s hip, Claire sought Jamie’s eyes. The dark blue irises were blown wide and unfocused, shock and disbelief evident in the slackness of jaw and rigidity of his powerful body.
William sensed it too. “Da?”
That seemed to shake everyone out of it, and Jamie’s face transformed with a smile that came from deep within and made Claire’s heart soar. “Aye?”
“Did ye bring the cake wi’ ye?”
The adults burst out laughing, shaking their heads. Children had definitely different priorities.
Jamie ruffled his son’s hair. “I’m afraid I’m no’ the man wi’ the cake. Jus’ boring auld Da.”
He’d said it warmly and without any emphasis on the novelty of the title that William had so casually bestowed upon him, but Claire could sense the pride and awe rolling off the broad shoulders.
“Let’s get the garden ready fer yer big day, aye? I’m gonna need a strong hand—can ye help me?”
William’s smile broadened in answer, and whatever else was said was lost on Claire, too happy to take in anything but the sight of father and son in front of her, their smiles so bright they easily outshone the sun.
“God, I missed you guys!” Claire’s eyes misted over at the sight of the rest of her Edinburgh family squeezed into the small entrance hall of her home. With the addition of three more guests, her shoe rack was as crammed with footwear as her heart was with happiness. “Come on in.”
“You’ll meet Brian later, I’m afraid. He’s taking Mrs Crook back home again, she wasn’t feeling well, but still wanted to wish Willie a Happy Birthday in person. He should be back when the kids arrive.”
When Brian had appeared at her doorstep earlier, scones-magician-slash-birthday-cake-creator Agnes Crook and her baked masterpiece in tow, the tension she’d felt when introducing Jamie to her best friend had resurfaced in light of father and son coming face-to-face after almost a year.
While it hadn’t been the warm and eager greeting Claire had hoped for, it was certainly not as bad or cold as it could have been. Looking past William’s shoulder through the French doors, Jamie had made eye contact with his father, his posture stiffening only slightly, holding Brian’s gaze and nodding hello.
At least it hadn’t been necessary to distract Willie while Brian and Mrs Crook slipped in and stowed the cake in the back of the fridge. He’d been too preoccupied pointing out interesting cloud shapes to Jamie.
Although that first sort-of-meeting hadn’t gone down badly, the nervousness had still simmered close to the surface and made a reappearance now that she was ushering her friends into the living room, hoping that they would welcome Jamie quickly into their midst.
“Look who’s here, lovey,” she trilled, unable to conceal the tension in her voice, which earned her a raised eyebrow from Geillis.
Willie made his rounds, hugging each of the new arrivals hello as Claire took charge of the introductions, “Jamie, this is the rest of the gang. Isobel, Mary, and Greg.” Jamie unfolded his long legs and got to his feet, his expression friendly, inviting, despite his towering height.
Taking courage from his mere presence alone, Claire squared her shoulders and met her friends’ curious glances straight on. “Guys, this is…Jamie.”
They hadn’t yet defined what they were to each other. He was William’s father—as was clear to anyone with two functioning eyes—but introducing him as such would have indicated a personal distance that she and Jamie had crossed by miles, if not continents. ‘Boyfriend’ seemed inappropriate for one, because they hadn’t even been out for dinner or a movie yet, and because it was too soon to say anything in front of Willie. Looking from face to face, though, it was clear that her friends understood the significance of the slight pause before his name.
“He’s ma Da,” William chimed in, his round face tilted up, nodding importantly.
Up until today, her son had avoided calling Jamie anything, so the pleasure to hear him claim him now so openly as his father was immense, even though Willie hadn’t addressed Jamie directly this time. Still, the effect on the large Scot didn’t escape Claire’s notice. Sapphire eyes were bright and slightly glossy, the tips of his ears pink, and his mouth was stretched in a smile so wide she thought his face must hurt. It made her chest swell bigger with each breath, even as she briefly wondered when the newness of it would wear off.
“Aye, that’s sae. Wouldnae change it fer the world,” Jamie said, his deep timbre resonant with pride. “It’s really nice tae meet ye all.”
The party was in full swing, shrieks of childish glee echoing throughout the garden as the ‘hospital nursery gang’ celebrated William’s birthday at the top of their lungs. Crisps were strewn around the picnic table, carried away piece by tiny piece by a zealous colony of ants, where Tammas had turned a snack bowl over in his urgent pursuit of Lenny. At the heart of their impromptu play of tag had been the last pack of popping candy, filched from Tammas’ back pocket by the offspring of Claire’s favourite colleague, Joe. The wild chase not only scared off a pair of waxwings, but also sent half-filled cups of juice and pop flying, covering the backs of the poor souls standing too close to the epicentre—Brian and Greg—in a fine, syrupy spray.
Sticky little fingers were grabbing for more snacks than their bellies could hold and left prints all over the surfaces they could reach in their play—including Claire’s favourite pair of high-waisted faded denim jeans, to her regret. While Mary and Isobel’s wardrobe also fell victim to the boisterous little gang’s icky hands, Geillis’ experience as eldest of seven helped to keep her white shirt spotless—until she spilled coffee down her front, at least.
Amidst all the frivolities, there had even been a jousting match. Armed with bubble wands, the kids took it in turns to climb atop Jamie and Greg’s shoulders, doing quite an amiable job of pretending to be war horses, as they fought for kingdom, glory, and bragging rights.
Soap bubbles were floating around, bursting against chins and elbows and treetops, as the more subdued tones of Brian and Isobel’s conversation merged with the shutter noise of Mary’s camera. Meanwhile, Jamie and Willie galloped around the garden on a victory round after besting their last opponent, laughing triumphantly.
It was the best kind of mayhem there was.
The only thing that called everyone to order was the announcement of cake. The rumble quieted down, and everyone’s attention was fixed on Claire as she carried it to the table. Willie’s face lit up when he lay eyes on the cake. It was his all-time favourite: a mouth-watering, dense, chocolatey confection with two thin layers of apricot jam, covered in dark chocolate icing. Atop sat six lit candles arranged in a figure six, flickering merrily as the party broke out into a vociferous rendition of Happy Birthday to You.
As the off-tune singing began to fade out, Brian rose from his seat, surprising everyone slightly by claiming the spotlight.
His lined mouth moved softly as he turned to his grandson, “I hope ye’ll fergi’e an auld man, Willie, tae make ye wait a wee bit longer fer yer well-deserved cake. But there’s a tradition in ma family that I’d verra much like tae pass on tae you.”
William gave his non-verbal assent, copper curls catching the light of the candles with the nodding motion. He sat leaning towards Brian, as curious about what he had to say that couldn’t wait until after the cake as the other onlookers.
“It’s a wee blessing fer yer birthday.”
Smiling, the older man produced a small, black-hilted knife from his belt pocket and held it aloft in front of his heart, closing his eyes as he began to recite,
May there always be work fer yer hands tae do.
May yer purse always hold a coin or two.
May the sun always shine on yer windowpane.
May a rainbow be certain tae follow each rain.
May the hand o’ a friend be always near tae you and
May God fill yer heart wi’ gladness tae cheer you.
His voice was made for oratory, deep and smooth like finely oak-aged whisky, its natural rhythm commanding all attention from the guests, as their eyes remained fixed on the handsomely weathered face.
Moved beyond words, Claire was about to clap when he finished, when Jamie suddenly stood as well, speaking up, following his father’s words in the same poignant tone of voice as he extended the blessing with a hand over his heart,
May ye have the walls against the wind, a roof fer rain, and a long life tae celebrate yer birthdays up tae many hundred years.
Even Geillis jumped in to add a line,
Aye, and may those who love ye, love ye
And those who dinnae love ye,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesnae turn their hearts,
May He turn their ankles,
That ye may ken them by their limping.
“Hear, hear!” Claire raised her glass, golden eyes mirroring the smile playing on her full lips.
After the candles had been blown out, she handed her son the knife to make the first cut, helping him to keep his small hand steady as the blade sank into the glazed glory that was Agnes Crook’s version of Sachertorte. Tradition thus quite thoroughly observed, Claire took over to divide the rest into even pieces, handing them out until everyone was attended to.
The room was quiet, save for the lively smacking of lips and groans of delight as bits of icing were scraped off the plates and meticulously licked off forks. Afterwards, Willie wasn’t the only one patting his belly—Greg even went so far as to open the button of his jeans when no one was looking, sighing with relief.
They all sat around the table, mostly quiet and with dreamy contentment on their faces, relaxed into their chairs.
Then, it was finally time for presents.
At that prospect, the kids seemed to overcome their chocolate-induced lethargy, their curiosity spiked when Claire laid the pile of presents out on the coffee table. Eager to find out what their friend had been gifted, they prompted and pointed excitedly at which one William should open first.
“Which one is the book from ye, Mama?” he turned to Claire, dimpled face alight with pleasure.
Claire smiled fondly at her son. It wasn’t a surprise he knew it was a book—she always gifted him one to add to his own little library—but that he still seemed thrilled about it brought her no small amount of pride.
“That one, lovey,” she replied, pointing at the large, rectangular shape wrapped in grass-green paper, his favourite colour.
Willie reached for it, explaining with a proud tilt to his head, “Mama, Da, and I went tae see puffins fer ma birthday last week. That was the real present.”
The mention of the puffin trip triggered a warm feeling at the centre of Claire’s chest, lungs expanding to their fullest with joy. Seeking Jamie’s gaze across the table, she touched her heart when his eyes locked on hers, and smiled, trusting that he would know how she felt.
An enthusiastic exclamation pulled her out of the silent communication, and she returned her focus to William just as the little boy threw himself at her, eyes creased into small triangles of happiness.
“Thank ye, Mama!”
Apparently, her gut choice of an illustrated book about Great Whites featuring award-winning photographs from nature photographers had been spot-on.
Still smiling, Claire looked down at her son and brushed his curly fringe tenderly out of his face. “You’re welcome, lovey.”
William returned to his seat on the couch and reached for the next present. From his Edinburgh family, he received a small collection of presents—two colouring books, a new set of crayons (the good ones), and multi-coloured handicraft paper. On top of that, Geillis handed him a self-made voucher for a ‘Mama-free’ weekend at his old home, along with the promise of as much ice cream as he could stomach.
An assortment of new toys and favourite sweets were lying around the table, with two presents left to unwrap.
William reached for the thinner one.
“That one’s from me,” Jamie said softly, with a hint of nervousness.
Tearing into the wrapping paper, another book came into view. William stared down at the glossy cover of Discover Scotland’s Wildlife before flicking through it.
“It’s…” Jamie cleared his throat, “…weel, it’s got all the native animals o’ Scotland in there, wi’ the most important information. But there’s always a blank page next tae each one. Ye’re meant tae fill in the blanks wi’ the information about when and where ye saw the animal—ye can add pictures, too.”
Claire’s attention was on Jamie, her heart giving another squeeze at the thoughtfulness of his gift. He didn’t meet her gaze this time, though, seemingly holding a breath as he waited for his son’s reaction.
“Sae,” Willie began, tilting his head over his shoulder to face his giant of a father, “this means we have tae find them all, no?”
Wide lips stretched into an infectious smile as Jamie nodded.
Somewhere to her right, Claire heard Mary whisper something like “Oh my god isn’t that the sweetest?”
“Aye, that’s the plan. We’re gonna find them all taegether. We can take yer Mam as well, if ye like.” Jamie’s eyes flicked briefly towards Claire, letting all his hopes for the future show in that instant.
“We cannae do it wi’out Mama,” Willie declared, looking at his mother, then back at Jamie. “We’d get lost if she doesnae tell us where tae go.”
Claire snorted, and Geillis almost choked on her coke as the others laughed.
“He does have a point, you know?” Claire teased, cocking her head at Jamie, the memory of him taking the wrong turn twice on their way home still clear in her mind.
While Willie’s statement certainly had the desired effect of hilarity, the younger guests didn’t appreciate the delay much.
“Go on, open the last one,” Tammas urged, bringing the focus back on the more important task at hand.
Without much further ado, William opened the last of his presents.
When he retrieved it from the thorough packaging, impressed ooohhhs and adoring aaahhhhs reverberated around the living room.
It was a sporran; hand-made from black seal pelt, studded with an antique lattice cantle, and boasting three interlinked black bovine tassels crowned with polished pewter. It was a remarkable gift, and not just because traditional attire wasn’t exactly a bargain find.
One look at Jamie’s stunned face made it clear that there was more to Brian’s gift than the mere wish to make up for the birthdays he’d missed in the past.
“Wow,” Willie breathed, gold-flecked eyes almost round with admiration. He reached one stubby finger to trace the Celtic knot-patterns. “Is that really fer me?”
“Aye. E’ry Fraser man gets one around yer age,” Brian explained.
Claire’s insides fluttered at the realisation that it was as much a gift steeped in century-old tradition as a rite of passage, an introduction into the Fraser clan.
“But—” William began, a small frown appearing between ruddy brows.
“I ken ye’re a Beauchamp, lad, but ye’re a Fraser jus’ as much.”
Brian spoke with a steady voice, but the gleam of his light blue eyes betrayed the emotion that lay underneath as he caught Jamie’s eye, “Ye’re yer father’s son, there’s nae denying that.”
Jamie held Brian’s gaze with a vacant expression; large, blunt-nailed fingers tapping away at the seam of black jeans serving as the only obvious indicator to his emotional distress. Claire hadn’t seen him like that in a while; Jamie had stopped trying to hide his feelings behind a mask when he was with her.
After the initial excitement of such an unusual present had died down, the other children got antsy, prodding William to try out his new toys with them instead.
To say that the day had been an emotional rollercoaster for Jamie would have been a gross understatement.
He’d barely slept, way too anxious about what the following day would bring. Meeting the people that knew Claire and William best was enough to make a man nervous in his own right. Having to try and gain their approval amidst the chaos of the first of his son’s birthday parties he was able to attend was another matter entirely. The fact that his own father troubles would be in attendance had also curdled his wame, even though the prospect of facing Brian Fraser had seemed slightly less intimidating after getting it all out in his conversation with Claire.
The sight of her from last night, golden eyes melting with pleasure as he’d worked her slowly against his thigh; her hand, skilled and so eager to return the favour, had brought him to climax faster than he could himself. No, that image certainly hadn’t helped to calm him down, either.
Giving up on sleep sometime around 4:10 in the morning, Jamie had gone down to the gym and worked off the tension as best he could at the boxing sack. Hurtling violent punches at the seasoned leather, sweat dripping from his brows and running down his back, had actually proven effective, and he’d felt a lot more composed—if still nervous—when he rang the doorbell to Number 9 Drummond Road.
Seeing Claire always made Jamie’s heart leap in his chest, even more so when she was smiling just for him. The spot where she’d pressed her soft, full lips to his stubbled cheek was still tingling when they’d entered the living room together. What happened next, however, overshadowed even that moment of by-now-familiar-if-quietly-stolen happiness.
William had called him ‘Da’.
He’d not been prepared for it. Hell, how could he have been? Jamie had known the lad barely a month, and even if he hungered for it to happen eventually, he hadn’t dared believe it would.
The word had hit him like a punch to his solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him as he struggled to disentangle the knot of emotions squeezing his heart.
Once again, Claire had been his anchor; the slightly shocked but bright yellow orbs conveying a sense of security that held him steady in the moment, enabling Jamie to fully appreciate it.
The party had been a total success as far as someone who didn’t have much experience attending birthday parties for six-year-olds could tell. He’d got to know Claire’s friends and found that he liked them very much. Geillis, especially, was a hoot, but Jamie could tell from her covert sideway glances at him that she didn’t fully trust him yet—more than living up to her reputation as the fierce protective godmother he’d heard so much about.
He was riding on a high throughout the whole affair.
Then, the cake happened.
Or rather, what came after the singing. Up until that point, Jamie had successfully avoided spending too much time in close quarters with his father, and the two times he was thrust into conversation with him, he’d managed to keep it civil and light.
The recital of traditional Gaelic blessings, though, had crushed what little emotional distance Jamie had managed to put between himself and Brian Fraser.
If William calling him Da for the first time had been a heart-stopping gut punch in the most wonderful way, this had been a stinging slap to the cheek—not quite as powerful, but leaving an impression nevertheless. He’d heard the verses countless times before: at his and Jenny’s birthday dinners, at his mother’s and father’s, aunts’ and uncles’, too.
His Da had always started out—exactly as he’d done today—and his Mam had always ended with the last line. And before Jamie knew what he was doing, he’d stood up, filling his father’s expectant silence, and gave voice to the line his mother used to say.
May ye have the walls against the wind, a roof fer rain, and a long life tae celebrate yer birthdays up tae many hundred years.
Jamie was immensely grateful for Geillis adding her own bit, which had firmly steered the atmosphere towards hilarity again before he was completely swept up in the nostalgia of the moment.
Thinking that he was safe from another emotional assault, Jamie was proven wrong not much later. He’d pulled himself together again whilst Willie was opening his presents, delighting in seeing his son surrounded by people who knew and loved him so well, in seeing the joy on the round, dimpled face when he’d understood the intention behind Discover Scotland’s Wildlife.
When William had opened the last gift, Jamie didn’t know at first what to make of it. It was a big gesture, but one he wasn’t able to read. Seeking the answers on his father’s lined face opposite the coffee table, it took all Jamie had to keep his face straight as Brian pronounced his grandson ‘jus’ as much a Fraser as a Beauchamp’.
Meeting the icy blue gaze of his father, Jamie saw the pride and the hurt there as much as the wish to make things right, barely able to hold his own emotion back.
As the presents-induced excitement began to disperse again, the kids testing Willie’s new toys all over the living room, Jamie caught his father’s eye once more, tilting his heads towards the French doors, then stepped outside.
His father joined him less than a minute later, standing next to him, both facing out into the garden.
“Was that…is that?” Jamie began, finding it difficult to get the words past the ball of emotion stuck in his throat.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Brian nod.
“Aye, ‘tis the same as yours. The same as mine,” the deep voice said softly. “I finished it last night. I’m sorry I didnae warn ye aforehand, but I wasnae sure it’d be ready ‘til taeday.”
That explained the bags underneath his eyes, Jamie thought.
“Ye…” Jamie swallowed. “Ye didnae have tae do that.”
A strangled sort of snort erupted on his left. “Aye, I had tae. I…ye had a right tae know, but…” Brian sighed, his shoulders heaving as he angled his face towards his son. “I’m sorry, Jamie.”
They both knew this wasn’t about the sporran.
“Don’t,” Jamie croaked, his throat dry as his eyes began to water, still staring straight ahead. “Dinnae apologise. It wasnae yer fault.”
“Neither was it yers, son.”
He felt his father’s hand atop his shoulder, its weight warm and comforting.
“Da,” Jamie said quietly, twisting around to return the gesture, hoping it would convey the emotion he couldn’t put into words.
“Ye’re his Da?” asked a small voice.
Startled, Jamie and Brian sprang apart, looking down into slanted blue eyes, speckled with gold. Sharing a look, neither man knew quite what to say.
Brian coughed, shifting nervously from foot to foot under William’s scrutiny. “Weel, aye, that’s so.”
“If ye’re his Da,” William gaze shifted from the brindle-haired man towards Jamie, “and he is my Da… that means…”
“He’s yer grandda,” Jamie finished the thought.
“But…” Willie began, his brows knitted in a frown of incomprehension. “But why are ye ne’er taegether then, like you and me, Da?”
He’d hit a nerve.
Jamie took a steadying breath and crouched down to his son’s eye level.
Before he could explain, however, William’s eyes went round, a realisation dawning in the bright sapphire blue of his eyes.
“Were ye gone from his,” a small hand pointed at Brian, “life too because ye had that accident?”
Another direct hit.
“Aye,” both men said simultaneously.
Jamie swallowed, sharing a look with Brian. “Aye, that’s exactly why.”
“But things are going tae change again, now that we have him back,” Brian added, his lips quivering slightly.
“Weel, it’s good that ye’re back noo,” Willie proclaimed. “Dinnae do that again, Da.”
“Aye, verra good,” Jamie replied, chest expanding with love. “I’ll ne’er do it again. I promise.”
Brian left right after the kids had been picked up by their parents, wanting to make sure that Mrs Crook had everything she needed. And after indulging half of the day in indecent amounts of sweets and savoury snacks, neither of the remaining party guests—or hosts, for that matter—felt like going out for dinner anymore. Instead, they spent a quiet evening catching up and getting to know Jamie a bit more while William was breaking in his new crayons under Greg’s guidance.
When it was way after the birthday boy’s regular bedtime, Willie was tucked in by his parents in record time—without the need of a bedtime story, for once—and the Edinburgh gang made to leave for their overnight accommodation down in the city centre.
“Night, you lot,” Claire said warmly, hugging each one of them goodbye. “See you tomorrow at The Caledonian. Half ten.”
Jamie stood half a step behind her, his presence warm and comforting in the chilly evening breeze, smiling. They both looked on as Geillis, Isobel, Mary, and Greg—with the lazy step of having eaten too much, but in good spirits—retreated down the road and out of sight.
Back inside, with William snoring softly in his room and most of the party mess cleared away already, there wasn’t much left for Claire and Jamie to do. They plopped down on the couch close together, her curly head tucked against his shoulder—tired, but happy.
“I saw you talking with your father earlier,” she prompted.
“Mmphm,” Jamie made one of those thoroughly Scottish noises that could mean anything from ‘Keep your nose out of my business’ to ‘Yes, we had a brief heart-to-heart’. If her instinct was right, it was the latter. “He apologised tae me.”
Something akin to relief flooded through her. “That’s a start, isn’t it?”
Jamie was quiet for a moment, then nodded. “Aye, ‘tis.”
“Come here, Sassenach,” Jamie continued, opening his arms in invitation. “Let’s lie down a wee bit. It was a long day.”
She leaned into his embrace without hesitation, grateful for the warm shelter it provided. Stretched out on the couch, they settled against each other, the curve of her back fitting perfectly against the broad planes of his chest. Strong, hairy arms came around her as Jamie put his chin on her shoulder, kissing it through the cotton material.
Though their position was as intimate as the night before, their thoughts were focused on the day that lay behind them.
“He called me Da,” Jamie blurted out, as if he couldn’t possibly contain it any longer, the awe of today’s developments clearly audible.
The warmth she’d been feeling all day long in her chest intensified.
“You didn’t think he would?” Claire tilted her face back over her shoulder, looking at him attentively.
“I mean,” he paused, hugging her tighter to him. “I hoped fer it, o’ course, but…”
Claire thought she understood. “But you didn’t think it would happen so soon?” It did speak volumes that their son had accepted Jamie for his father after such a short amount of time.
“Aye, that’s it.” His lips quirked into a small smile against her shoulder. “I thought that wi’ me no’ having been part o’ his life until now that it would take a long time ‘til he trusted me enough tae stay.”
“He trusts you,” Claire said tenderly and with conviction, twisting a bit so she could cup his cheek. “As do I.”
Jamie looked at her then, seeing all that she was and all that she would be, the sapphire blue of his eyes brimming with love as one single tear escaped. “I cannae believe how lucky I am, Sassenach.”
“You better believe it, Fraser.” She wiped the tear away with the pad of her thumb. “I have no intention of letting you go anytime soon.”
“Good, I have no intention o’ going anywhere,” he replied, grasping her hand and linking their fingers together as he pressed a soft kiss to her lips.
They’d lain in quiet for a while, just gazing at each other and cherishing this moment of tenderness, when Jamie’s jaw cracked as he tried to stifle a huge yawn.
“It’s been a long day,” Claire stated in a sleepy tone.
“Aye, but a grand one.” This time, he couldn’t suppress the yawn. “Awright, I should probably get goi—"
“Stay,” Claire put her hand on his arm.
“What?” His lips parted in surprise.
Claire averted her gaze, suddenly and unexpectedly bashful, cheeks tinged pink. “Stay with me tonight. I don’t want you to go home.”
Putting an index finger underneath her chin, he tilted her face upwards, searching it for any sign of uncertainty, he asked, “Are ye sure?”
Brown curls brushed against his jaw as she nodded. “We could stay here on the couch. If you don’t mind.”
“Aye.” Jamie’s eyes were alight with pleasure at the unexpected invitation. “I’d love that.”
In answer, a radiant smile spread across Claire’s face, dimpling her cheeks.
She went to shut off the lights and returned quickly to Jamie’s waiting arms with a throw to cover them both for the night. Sighing with contentment and happily exhausted, they snuggled against each other.
Claire was on the verge of sleep, when Jamie’s whisper brushed her ear in the peaceful darkness, “He called me Da.”
Claire groped blindly for his hand and kissed the centre of his palm. “You are his Da. The best I could have wished for.”