Chapter 37 – A Wonderful Thing
Breakfast was a rumbustious affair with so many participants squeezed around one of the large tables at The Caledonian. Usually, Claire would have opted for one of the leather-seated booths that provided a great view of Inverness’ High Street for people-watching. With the seven of them in attendance and a large Sunday morning buffet on offer, however, the booth would have been an impractical choice—no one wanted to climb over three people just to get another helping of bacon.
Munching on a deliciously fried mushroom, Claire gazed across the table at Jamie. As he was leaning over to his right, listening to Isobel recounting an entertaining work mishap, the light caught the side of his face in a way that enabled her to make out all the different hues in the three to four days of stubble he was sporting. The base colour was a rich auburn, complementing the fiery waves of his hair; but there were darker flashes of roan and russet, contrasting handsomely with a few blonde hairs here and there.
She remembered the pleasant bite of his whiskers against her lips vividly; remembered how her breathing grew shallow when it rasped against the sensitive skin of neck and earlobe. With her heart rate slightly up, Claire gripped her fork tightly, trying to steer her thoughts in a more appropriate direction. Instead of focusing on what she couldn’t have right now, she recalled the last occasion she’d been in the cosy little establishment with Jamie.
It had been a very different setting than today’s. She’d been alone, for one, waiting anxiously for him to arrive. Jamie had been a stranger then, a man she hadn’t seen in close to seven years. While he’d been just as handsome that day, with his black dress shirt and the sloppy man bun, she’d still barely been able to stomach the tea she’d ordered as the plan with which she’d set out lay heavy in her belly.
A rueful smile sat in the corners of her lips, right next to a small daub of brown sauce, as Claire remembered how badly the revelation of his unsuspected fatherhood had gone down. The coldness that had clawed its way through her innards when he’d said that ‘he knew she had a child’; the way he’d tugged at the collar of his shirt and couldn’t meet her eyes; the sound it made when she’d smacked Willie’s photograph on the table and shoved it in his line of view; the sting of wind and tears when she’d fled down to the riverbank.
As if Jamie had sensed her thoughts, he turned his face back towards her. He was still listening to Isobel, nodding and responding in all the appropriate places, but his blue-eyed gaze was now fixed on Claire.
He remembered, too.
She could see it clear as day in his eyes: the regret over how that conversation had started, the gratitude for how it ended; the heartbreak that had shown in the lines on his face when he disclosed the deception that had kept them apart; the first touch of him —his cold, stubbled cheek so immediate under her fingertips; the warmth in the dark-blue gaze as he’d claimed William as his own.
‘He’s mine. Ours.’
A lot had changed in the six weeks since that encounter.
They now sat across from each other with a distinct sense of rightness between them. All the initial trepidation Claire had harboured about him dissipated into non-existence. While there were still issues to be addressed, such as child support and plans for when he was abroad chasing records on mountain slopes, there was no question about whether or not Jamie was going to play a part in his son’s life—or in hers.
The realisation made Claire smile, a gesture that Jamie was only too ready to reciprocate. His fingers seemed to twitch with the urge to touch her, and for a moment she thought he might throw caution to the wind and grasp her hand, but he held himself under tight control and reached for the salt instead.
A small sigh left her throat—something between relief and disappointment—when she felt a long, booted foot nudge hers gently underneath the table. Her heart fluttered, and it took everything she had to not get completely lost in his tender gaze as she returned the secret show of affection. Trying—and failing—to redirect her focus back on the conversation at hand, Claire was mopping up the remainder of her beans with a piece of toast, still staring at the fathomless blue irises gleaming brightly at her from across the table, when a question burst their little bubble.
Completely taken unawares, Claire almost choked on the toast. Jamie looked slightly alarmed, ready to jump over the table to thump her on the back, but relaxed back into his seat at the reassuring wave of her hand. Greg, Geillis, and Mary also glanced at her, making sure she was okay before returning their attention towards Isobel’s story.
“What?” she directed the question at William, her voice slightly croaky. There was still a crumb wedged uncomfortably in her throat.
“I asked where Grandda is,” Willie repeated in an unperturbed manner, taking in another forkful of eggs.
For once in her life, Claire Beauchamp had no idea what to say to her son.
“He’s no’ coming taeday, Willie,” Jamie jumped in helpfully.
Golden eyes widened with surprise and darted back towards Jamie.
Pouring himself another glass of water, he looked straight at Claire, amusement edged into the high cheek bones, mouthing, “I’ll tell ye later.”
She nodded dazedly, her gaze flicking between father and son, still stunned by the sudden discovery that she no longer needed to worry how on earth to introduce Brian as grandfather to William after months of spending so much time with the man.
Jamie watched in ravenous fascination as the chef behind the counter crafted eggs, goat cheese, tomatoes, and spring onions into an appetising omelette. Shuffling from foot to foot, his mouth was watering in impatient anticipation when Geillis sidled up to him, handing her own chosen fixings over the counter.
“Nice shirt,” Claire’s willowy best friend remarked with such contrived casualness that it was hard to miss the subtext.
Even without her comment, Jamie was very much aware that he was still wearing the same clothes as yesterday—a plaid shirt tucked into a pair of blue jeans. He would have preferred to change before meeting Claire’s friends again, of course, but there hadn’t been any time for that.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true.
He could have made time for it, but when faced with the choice of either spending more time exploring the sweetness of his Sassenach’s mouth or getting a fresh pair of underpants, the underpants didn’t stand a chance. The memory of waking up to a dawn of golden eyes and spending all morning with Claire in his arms—her warm cheek pressed against his shoulder, silky curls tickling his ear, hot tongues teasing despite their shared morning breath—caused heat to rise from his chest upwards.
He tugged at his collar to loosen the fit a bit, hoping Geillis would interpret the gesture as merely being hot from standing so close to the steamy food. Feeling her eyes boring into his temple, Jamie realised she was waiting for him to respond.
“Thank ye, it’s one o’ ma favourites,” he said, aiming for a similarly casual tone.
“Would have been ma guess, since ye’re wearing it fer the second day in a row.”
Claire’s assessment of her best friend fresh in his mind— ‘Geillis isn’t one to hold her opinions back’ —he shouldn’t have been surprised that she wasn’t willing to let it go this easily.
Still not meeting her eye, he shrugged and replied, “Weel, that and other reasons, aye.”
Shrewd green eyes fixed on his profile, she seemed to consider him for a moment as if to find the best angle of attack.
“I meant tae get ye alone fer some time, Fraser.”
There was nothing of Claire’s warmth or affection when Geillis called him by his last name.
Certainly no’ holding back, that one, Jamie thought as he turned to face her. He could sense what was coming when he looked down into that determined face.
“E’en if I didnae ken what was goin’ on between the twa o’ ye, you wearing yesterday’s shirt tells me hoo serious it already is.”
A peculiar mix of emotions built inside him—delight at hearing that Geillis thought that what he and Claire had was as serious as it felt, and worry that she might not approve of it. Her mien wasn’t exactly an encouraging one.
It didn’t seem as if she wanted him to respond, though, as she wasn’t done talking yet.
“From what I’ve seen these days, ye seem like a good man.”
It was clear that this wasn’t what she was getting at, but Jamie thanked her, nevertheless.
Geillis’ features were still graceful but lacked their usual conviviality as she continued, “But let me tell ye this, Fraser. Good isnae goin’ tae cut it. Ye need tae be a lot more than that. Claire and Willie mean more tae me than anyone else. They’re ma family—mebbe no by blood, but by choice. Ye better make sure ye deserve them, or ye’ll have me tae answer tae.”
There was something incredibly moving about the fierce protectiveness the slender woman in front of him was exhibiting. He’d heard from his Sassenach, of course, how important a part Geillis had played in both Claire’s and his son’s life, but to see that devotion burn in the emerald eyes gave him comfort, even if it didn’t erase the regret that it had been her, not himself, who was there for the most important people in his life.
“Aye, I will,” Jamie vowed, meeting her gaze straight on. “I’d do anything fer them.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, gauging his sincerity. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, her expression transformed with a beatific smile.
“That’s all I wanted tae hear.”
There was a brief moment of silence, when Jamie decided to seize the opportunity to say something that had been on his mind for a long time.
“Actually, there’s something I’ve been meaning tae tell you, as well.”
Fair eyebrows quirked up in surprise.
“I meant tae thank ye,” Jamie went on. Seeing the small frown deepening, he clarified with a jerk of his head toward the table at the far back. “Fer him.”
With understanding dawning, Geillis smirked in that slightly haughty way of hers. “Wrong address, big man. If ye want tae thank anyone fer the wee bean, it should be Claire, no’ me.”
“I ken,” Jamie replied with a quick look of longing over his shoulder at Claire. “But he likely wouldnae be here wi’out you either. If ye hadnae gi’en me her phone at the club, we wouldnae be standing here taeday.”
The smirk on her face vanished, and for a split second the cool façade broke, showing all the emotion lying beneath.
“I havenae forgotten,” Jamie added, his inflection earnest. “And I’ll ne’er will.”
Taking the finished omelette from the chef with a nod of his head, he turned to Geillis once more.
“Sae, thank ye. Fer ma son—and fer Claire.”
With bellies stuffed to the brim and in high spirits, the gang meandered leisurely along the River Ness towards the quaint bed and breakfast that Geillis, Isobel, Mary, and Greg were staying in.
Willie, who’d discovered the advantages and pleasures of a higher vantage point in the jousting match the previous day, rode on Greg’s shoulders while Claire and Jamie hung a bit behind, engrossed in their own conversation.
“Weel,” Jamie ended his recounting of how their son had found out about his own relation to Brian. “And that was it, really.”
Claire shook her head, chuckling softly. “I always thought William was smart, but my god…that he figured it out that quickly…”
Bumping his elbow companionably into her side, Jamie’s face split in an elated grin. “Aye, we made a good one there.”
“We did,” Claire agreed, whisky eyes twinkling. “And he saved us quite some trouble explaining, too.”
Jamie hummed in agreement. They were walking close enough for their arms to be brushing against each other, unconsciously seeking the other’s nearness.
“Geillis commented earlier that Willie is basically a carbon copy of you.”
“Did she now?” Jamie seemed to grow a foot taller, his deep timbre tinged with pride.
“She most certainly did. ‘Twa fuckin’ peas in a pod’ was the exact wording if I remember correctly.”
There was no denying that William took a bit more after his paternal side when it came to looks. He had the same thick copper waves as Jamie, his gangly, youthful limbs held the promise of similar height and strength, and if it weren’t for the specks of amber in the dark blue of his slanted eyes, they’d be an exact replica of his father’s.
“I hope that’s no’ a bad thing.”
He’d said it in jest, but Claire thought she detected a slight note of uncertainty in there as well.
Jamie was a beautiful man. With the broad set of muscular shoulders, the sinful invitation of a wide, good-humoured mouth, and the clean-cut angles of his face, he commanded the interest of more than one passers-by. But beneath all that lay a soul so kind and pure, it easily surpassed any physical attractiveness.
“No,” Claire replied, eyes creasing with a smile as she tilted her face up to him. “It’s a wonderful thing, really.”
His answering smile was so bright that it stole her breath away.
After Jamie had helped to fit all the overnight bags and rucksacks into the trunk, it was finally time to say goodbye. Mary, Isobel, and Greg were already seated in the car; the latter receiving instructions from Jamie about how best to bypass the traffic caused by an accident near Aviemore. Willie, too, was listening with rapt attention to his father, while Geillis took the chance to pull Claire away from their prying ears.
Oblivious to her best friend’s intent, Claire hugged Geillis close once more. “God, I hate to see you leave so soon. Can’t you stay?”
“I ken, hen,” Geillis replied, sympathetic. “I dinnae want tae go either, but I feel a lot better noo that I’ve seen ye’re in good hands.” There was a mischievous undercurrent in the sing-song voice now. “Big hands.”
Claire drew back a little, amber eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Big hands that seem verra capable o’ taking care o’ ye.” The bows of Geillis’ lips curved into a knowing smile as she patted her best friend on the shoulder. Then, she added in an undertone, “Give the sorrel stud a good ride, aye? I think his baws might be as blue as his eyes by noo, though I’m sure they’re jus’ as bonnie.”
Claire flushed furiously and shoved playfully at her best friend’s shoulder. “You’re bloody awful sometimes, Duncan. Grow up!”
“And where’s the fun in that?” Geillis laughed, green eyes crinkled with amusement.
Jamie raised a curious eyebrow at them, but Willie was more enticed by the promise of Mary’s homemade tablet when he visited Edinburgh next weekend than his godmother’s antics.
“Oi, Duncan! Get ye movin’!” called Greg with a definite note of impatience.
“Dinnae pish yerself, man, I’ll be righ’ there!” She tossed her long, strawberry blonde mane over her shoulder, unruffled by the designated driver’s insistence to get going.
Flicking her finger in Greg’s general direction, she leaned in, pressing a peck to Claire’s still pink cheek, whispering, “I like him, hen—he’s a good one. And he’s got it e’en worse than you.”
With that, she turned on her heel, strode over the gravel to the passenger side, and sank into the leather seat.
Still a bit embarrassed and trying to process what Geillis had just said, Claire stood close together with Jamie and William as they waved their friends off, watching the car turn around the corner, and vanish out of sight.
After they’d sent the Edinburgh gang on their way, the three of them spent the rest of the day at Drummond Road, playing board games and finishing off the rest of Mrs Crook’s delicious Sachertorte.
Youthful energy quite depleted by a weekend full of one excitement following another, Willie, yawning all throughout their dinner of halloumi salad, needed no parental persuading to head to bed.
About five minutes after William had ventured into the land of dreams, Claire had changed into a more comfortable ensemble of a cosy, loose-knit jumper and black leggings. Upon re-entering the open space of her living room, she found Jamie reclining with his arms spread out over the back of the couch, eyes closed, two gently steaming mugs on the coffee table.
The calming smell of peppermint permeated the air as she approached the large Scot on quiet feet. His chest was falling and rising steadily with each breath; so slowly, she might have thought him asleep if it hadn’t been for the lopsided smile appearing on his lips, and the large hand reaching out towards her in invitation.
“How did you know I was here?” Claire asked, grasping his hand as she sank down next to him, hip to hip.
A sigh escaped her lips as she felt the warmth of his body seep into hers, finally allowed to be near him openly; finally allowed to touch him. Opening his eyes, Jamie’s right arm came around her, holding her close, while the other let go of hers to brush a strand of hair behind her ear, fingertips grazing her cheek.
“I dinnae ken exactly,” he said softly, the pad of his thumb still caressing her cheek. “I jus’ can feel when ye’re near. It’s like…” Jamie broke off, his brow contorting as he tried to come up with an explanation. “It’s no’ like anything at all, I’ve ne’er felt something like this before.”
Claire knew exactly what he meant, even if she couldn’t explain it any better herself. It was as if her inner compass were drawn towards true north whenever he was around. The fact that he seemed to experience the same warmed her to the bone.
“I know exactly what you mean.”
She leaned in and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. Jamie, eager to reconnect and more than willing, reciprocated in kind.
“Lord, I missed being able tae do that.”
Chuckling, Claire tilted her head back a little. “You sound like you’ve had to go without it for a week. It’s been barely 24 hours since we slept on this couch together, Fraser.”
Her heart jumped a little at the memory.
“It sure felt like a week tae me, Sassenach,” Jamie countered with a teasing smile, though his statement rang with truth as well. “Tae be around ye, tae be sae close, but no’ able tae touch or kiss ye…”
“It was a long day for me, too,” Claire admitted, tracing the arch of his upper lip.
“A long weekend,” Jamie amended, nipping gently at her fingertip as his eyes sought hers.
For a while, they simply made up for the time they hadn’t been able to show their affection, quelling the urge to touch velvet skin and rough whiskers, kissing softly, but deeply.
When they finally broke apart, lips tingling and slightly swollen but with hearts sated, Jamie spoke.
“There was something I wanted tae talk tae ye about, Sassenach.”
He seemed shy all of a sudden—a rather strange change in his demeanour, considering that his hands were currently perched atop her buttocks.
“Weel, now that Willie’s birthday’s o’er, I thought that…mebbe… I wondered if…”
“You wondered whether…?” Claire prompted, squeezing his ribs encouragingly.
“Would ye…” he fumbled for words, “would ye mebbe…”
“Would I maybe what?” The smile was audible in her question.
“Ye’re enjoying this, aren’t ye?” Jamie asked, his deep bass marked with mock affront.
“Only a bit,” she admitted, propping herself up on an elbow to kiss the tip of his nose. “You were saying?”
He inhaled deeply, bracing himself for a renewed attempt. “Would ye go on a date wi’ me, Claire?”
“Yes.” The word had left her mouth even before he’d finished his question. “Yes, I want to go on a date with you, Jamie.”
The tips of his ears turned pink with delight. “This week, aye?”
“Aye,” Claire mimicked, kissing the tip of his nose once more, then pressed one to his mouth. “I very much want to go on a date with you this week. Tomorrow?”