Jamie returned to work on Monday with a sense of cautious optimism. Even as he broke the news to Colum that sponsoring the Reekie Rollers would likely not be an avenue to solving their current dilemma (news which did not go over well) and even as he spent his lunch hour on the phone placating distributors and clients threatening to sever ties over Dougal's indiscretions, he kept one eye on the phone.
Claire had said no to another date, but she'd taken his card. Jamie clung to that all day. And then the next. His mood dampened by degrees each day that passed without hearing from her. By Friday afternoon, six full days since meeting her, Jamie left for the weekend in poor spirits. For a moment, he considered forwarding his office phone to his cell...just in case. But he conquered the urge, nearly running from the building before he could change his mind. Besides, the prospect of possibly arriving Monday morning to a voicemail from her kept him from descending into full melancholy for the next two days.
Day nine, then, he burst into his office, practically sprinting to his phone. Five missed calls over the weekend. His heart hammered as he half listened to each voicemail, waiting for that posh English accent he'd grown so fond of beneath the fairy lights. But, after writing messages down from a supplier, a reporter, Ian, and deleting two robocalls, he admitted defeat.
Blowing a disappointed breath out through pursed lips, Jamie wished he could expel Claire from his mind just as easily. There was too much to do today. Public outrage had largely waned since the first reports of Dougal's lechery had leaked, but Jamie still spent much of his time mending damaged relationships with the business contacts who were now wary of association with the Mack brand. He squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his fingers into the sockets as he regulated his breathing, willing himself to focus on the day's tasks and forget about the curly-haired skater and her whisky eyes.
By two o'clock on day ten, all hope that Claire would call had dissipated. Grouchy, short-tempered, Jamie felt his colleagues' and family's unease as they gave him a wide berth.
There was no explaining the morose distemper within him that had yet to ease. Disappointment wasn't quite the right sentiment. More like he'd discovered the holy grail itself only to bungle it, dropping and shattering the treasure with his own ineptitude. Like he'd glimpsed the painting God had made of his future before striking a match and watching the masterpiece disintegrate to ash.
Some part of him knew this was not a rational reaction to rejection. If it had been a random woman in a bar, any other woman, Jamie knew he would've shrugged it off with hardly a second thought.
Why couldn't he now?
He was just shy of four years since his last relationship had crashed and burned. Again, by his own hand. Since he'd stepped back from dating at all and, really, any extended companionship outside his immediate family.
Four years was a long time to be alone, though it hadn't been as difficult as he would've expected. The time to himself had been good. Grief and insecurity still haunted him on occasion, but in many ways he felt steadier than he had in as long as he could remember. Calmer, too. For all his professional dissatisfaction, Jamie had reached a peace within himself and with his family that had long ago been broken.
And that was the rub, then. In all that time, he'd never really missed what he'd banished from his life.
Not until he'd seen her. Then he'd yearned for it, desperately.
So now, the not having ate away at him. Four years of delayed loneliness swelled in his chest over mere days. Pressure built so quickly and surely he knew he'd explode from it.
The ringing of his office phone sliced through the dense air. Grunting in frustration, he picked up the handset and cradled it in his shoulder, attention still on the spreadsheet before him. "James Fraser, Mackenzie Distillery," he mumbled by rote.
"Hi, Jamie, it's--"
"Claire." His eyes shot wide, head straightening so the phone nearly rolled off his shoulder. Gripping it in hand, he turned away from the computer screen. "I'm sorry, I didna mean to interrupt ye. I..." He couldn't have hidden the breathless ghost of a laugh if he'd wanted to. "I'm glad to hear from ye."
Her own exhalation rustled over the line. "It's nice to hear you, too," she responded.
The line fell quiet for a moment as Jamie waited for her to speak. With every shared breath, anticipation mounted. "Is...ah..." Nerves set his skin to crawling as he swiped his fingers through his hair. "Is there somethin' I can help ye wi', then?"
"Yes, actually," she answered. Her voice -- God, that lovely, smooth voice his memory had absolutely not done justice to -- took on the air of an actor throwing herself into a script. "I actually was hoping to discuss that sponsorship you'd mentioned before for the team."
Jamie deflated a bit before he gave his head a good shake. If talking shop was the only way he could see her, he'd take her through every business plan and press release and meeting agenda and branding kit until kingdom come. "Aye? That would--"
"To be completely transparent," Claire continued, voice raised ever so slightly, clearly indicating who was the lead on the call, "we're going to reject the offer. But I thought you may want to hear the news in person. One on one. Maybe over some dinner."
A grin creeped up his face. His pulse echoed in his ears. A writhing in his stomach brought his breath up short.
"Is that so?" Jamie leaned back in his chair, eyes trained to the ceiling as his face began to ache with the smiling. "Ye ken Colum was truly hopin' for a partnership. So if that's the case, it may even call for a drink. To soften the blow, ken?"
"Seems perfectly reasonable," came her casual response.
"So when will this...negotiation take place, then?"
A shaky breath, hardly a whisper over the phone line, was his first hint at Claire's own nerves. Somehow, sharing the feeling with her lightened his own. "I'm on shift today and tomorrow. Thursday night would work, if that's--"
"Aye," Jamie agreed immediately. "Do I get to pick the place this time?"
"Like I picked before?"
"Well, the team picked the bar, so ye picked by extension." Jamie spun his chair with his feet like a child to exorcise his suddenly boundless energy. That is, until the phone cord twisted around him and pulled him up short.
Christ, he was a mess. But he still couldn't stop beaming.
Heat prickled from his scalp to his toes at the sound of her laugh, full and deep. "Fine," she relented. "You can pick."
"Wise decision." Glancing at the caller ID screen, he added, "Assumin' this is yer cell number, would it be all right to text ye the details?"
"Excellent. For now, plan on Thursday at six. Leave the rest tae me." Jamie affected an all-business tone as he added, "I'll be in touch with all due haste, Ms. Beauchamp."
He could practically hear her eye roll, but she played along. "Of course. We are looking forward to...working closely with you." The pitch of her voice lowered slightly as she finished her sentence, hitting him square in his chest. How would he survive actually seeing her again when her very voice disarmed him to his core?
Another heavy silence descended over them. Jamie didn't want to say goodbye, but he had to work, and if Claire was working, she'd likely need to hang up soon, too.
"Claire?" he finally said, a barely there tremor in his voice. He fiddled with a corner of the paper on his desk. "Thank ye. For callin'."
There was no immediate response, but Jamie imagined she was smiling. Hoped she was. "I'll see you Thursday, Jamie," she finally said, voice warm.
"See ye Thursday, Sassenach."
"Oh, you did not!" Claire exclaimed, elbows on the table as she leaned forward toward him. Never had anyone looked so bonny, Jamie thought as he raised his glass for a sip.
Jamie had labored over his restaurant selection, wanting something nice enough that she'd feel special without slipping into the territory of ostentatious. Casual but romantic. Now, halfway through dinner and each on their second glass of wine, the space between them hummed and he couldn't care less about the food or the atmosphere. All that existed was the bubble surrounding them and the smile that hadn't faded from her lips all evening.
When she'd opened her apartment door to him earlier at a minute to six, he knew she'd heard his gasp. Blood had rushed to her face as she failed to suppress a smile. But what else could he have done, framed in the doorway as she'd been in fitted black jeans and a blue blouse that popped against her fair skin? Curls pulled back loosely at her neck? Confident and sexy in heels, whisky eyes shining like she knew exactly what she did to him?
She stunned him continually.
"Och, aye," he responded firmly, glass of wine still in hand. "Nicked the master key for all o' campus from maintenance, then filed copies -- by hand, mind -- and distributed them. Just to trusted friends, to be sure," he added in a confidential manner.
"Oh, of course," Claire agreed.
Another sip of his wine, another inch he leaned over the small table. Wicked delight oozed from him as he ran a hand through his russet curls. "O' course, the administration had some...idea what was happening but could ne'er catch me. Woulda been a serious offense if they had. One time, my hand to God, they came searchin' and the damned key was sitting right in the open drawer of my desk. I was lookin' straight at it, heart racin' so fast I was nearly sick right on the hall advisor's shoes." Boyish pride nearly a decade old pulled the corners of his lips into a mischievous grin. "Lucky for me, they only made me empty my pockets and my bag."
Claire shook her head, laughter bubbling through her chest and past her lips. "Well, teenaged Jamie sure sounds like a hellion."
"Quite," he agreed. "But I was the hero of the dorms."
"Is that a fact?"
"Aye," Jamie answered. "Well, at least among the canoodlin' ones lookin' for a spot of privacy in the wee hours here and there on campus."
Jamie watched as she stabbed her final bite of steak and popped it into her mouth. "So," Claire asked when she'd finished, "what lasses was fifteen-year-old Jamie Fraser taking to dark classrooms for a bit of...'canoodlin',' was it?"
Azure eyes narrowed, and his crooked smirk climbed up one side of his face. "No one particular. I enjoyed breakin' the rule itself more than anythin'."
"Uh-huh." Claire leaned back in her chair with one eyebrow cocked. "Color me convinced."
"Enough of my yammerin' on, Sassenach," Jamie said as he leaned even harder onto his elbows. "I don't believe I ever heard the story of how ye ended up in Edinburgh."
A perfect brown ringlet fell into her face then, and Jamie found himself mesmerized by it. Then by the adorable face she made as she swiped it away from her eye, blowing sideways out the side of her mouth.
"Oh, not much of a story really," she demurred.
He raised an eyebrow of his own in invitation.
When Claire sat forward again, weight on her elbows against her side of the table, scents of vanilla and patchouli washed over him. Images of those very curls burying him, smothering him with that sweet aroma assaulted his senses, and Jamie fought to contain the near growl of desire that rose unbidden to his throat.
"Well, my parents died when I was a child, so I was raised by my uncle."
A gut punch tore through him at her casual statement, his own wounded heart bleeding anew to hear it. "I'm sorry, Sassenach."
Though she shrugged, a certain cloudiness masked her features before she shoved it aside. But not without visible effort. "I loved my life with him. He was an archaeologist, and every summer, we'd travel doing his research. By my twelfth birthday, I'd visited more than twenty-five countries. It was an...exciting way to grow up."
"Still," Jamie said, tone solemn for the first time that evening. "Those are losses that dinna leave ye."
Claire's eyes bored into him. The golden hue of them paralyzed him, and he sat powerless to break her gaze. Until without a word, she simply reached over and touched his hand. Her fingers grazed his for only a moment, an acknowledgment of what he left unsaid, before she pulled back.
Even without sharing a word of his own darkness, Jamie had never felt so seen as in that moment.
Shifting in his seat, Jamie combed through his hair again, regaining composure. "So," he prompted, grasping for the lighthearted demeanor that had carried the evening thus far, "Scotland?"
She nodded. "When I was around ten, Uncle Lamb began fostering the child of a colleague of his who passed away. He eventually adopted him, as well, and hence my brother John came into the picture. He was only about two years older than me, so we grew up close. He moved to Edinburgh with his partner -- now husband -- after Uncle Lamb died, and I knew I'd move to follow him when I finished with nursing school. And...so I did. That's about it."
Jamie pondered her story before responding. Cursory though it was, Claire had shared a lot with him through it. The loss of both parents, her uncle. Picking up and moving countries to stay with the last bit of family she had. He felt honored, truly, for her to have trusted him with so much. Layered in, too, was a feeling of kinship. That connectedness between them that had germinated on the patio at Leoch Tavern seemed to thrive and blossom with each shared memory, every arresting glance. That briefest brush of skin.
Linked by loss, yes, but something more, as well. Something that sent shivers rattling down Jamie's spine.
"So," Claire said on the end of a sigh, clearly keen to shift focus back to him even as he itched to hear everything he could about her. "What other salacious boarding school stories do you have to share?"
Draining his glass and leaning back, Jamie grinned. "I canna go spillin' all my best stories tonight, Sassenach. If the well runs dry on the first date, how on earth will I keep ye comin' back?"
He didn't miss how her gaze flicked down to his chest then back up to his hair, down to his lips before settling back at eye level. Assessing the bit of him she could see. Jamie felt it as though she'd run her hands along his body instead of her eyes.
"I guess we'll have to see," she answered, voice low.
Their food had long ago been finished. Wine glasses now both empty once more. Claire tried to cover the check when it came, but Jamie was quicker, pulling his wallet out and sending his card away with the waiter.
"Tell ye what." Jamie donned his jacket and stood to help a still-grumbling Claire from her chair. "My favorite coffee shop is just 'round the block. Buy me a cup?"
Awaiting her answer, breath held, Jamie counted heartbeats.
By the time he and Claire found a quiet corner of the coffee shop to nurse their drinks -- hot cocoa for her, Irish coffee for him -- Jamie felt the pinkness of his cheeks. His entire being, in fact, felt pink. Raw and warm and giddy. The low purr of the radio and handful of mumbled conversations echoed the tingling he'd felt beneath his skin from the moment he'd laid eyes on her at her door.
She sat beside him on the over-loved sofa. Each sat with their body angled toward the other. Jamie laid one arm atop the back of the couch. Claire, rather bright-faced as well, had slipped her heels off and tucked her feet beneath her, bent knees pointing directly at him. More laughter, more giggling as the night carried on, each moment perfection. Emptied mugs sat forgotten on the end table, and the hands of the clock seemed to race through their rounds. Even as he knew Claire would likely need to leave soon, Jamie dreaded calling the night over.
Finally, though, she sighed and glanced at her watch.
"About that time, then?" he asked, trying and failing to keep the whine from his voice.
Her rueful smile quickened his heart. "Nearly," she admitted.
Jamie cocked an eyebrow. As he opened his mouth to speak, Claire did instead.
"Not to sound presumptuous, but this went...fairly well, didn't it?" Her whisky eyes glinted with glee, though Jamie sensed a genuine query in her voice. As though the night could've been deemed anything other than glorious.
Smirking, leaning in closer so the outside of his leg butted against her knee, he lowered his voice as he answered, "Fairly."
Her dark curls bobbed a bit as she nodded, face reddening. "I agree. And on that note, I have a bit of a disclosure."
"Oh?" Intrigued, he moved closer. If he dropped his arm from the couch, he could easily envelop her within it. "Do I get to guess, then?"
An arc of her eyebrow invited him to try. She raised three fingers wordlessly into the air.
Jamie stroked his chin, pretending to ponder deeply. "Are ye...a hired gun, sent on assignment tae 'off' one or both of my uncles and usin' me tae gain intelligence?" he guessed first, swinging his head back dramatically toward her to underscore the sarcasm.
She bit her lips together and folded in one finger.
"Well, couldna be blamed if that were the case, tae be honest. But no. All right," he inched closer again, eyes locking on hers. Her knees layered atop his thigh. Plump lips drew up in a pinched smirk as though holding the secret hostage just behind them. Jamie tried not to be distracted with only moderate success.
"Then...are ye on the run for whistleblowin' or some other high-stakes corporate-slash-government espionage?"
That earned him a cackle as she lowered her second finger. "Because the most prudent thing to do in that case would be to tell a stranger all about it."
"Och, but we're no' strangers anymore now, are we?" he asked, tone still jovial. She simply gave her head a single shake, eyes so alight they seemed to glow.
One guess left.
An exaggerated sigh escaped him as he flopped his head onto the back of the couch in faux exasperation. Wracking his brain, Jamie considered his actual deal-breakers. In truth, he could only think of one. He lifted his head.
"Are..." He averted his gaze. "Are ye married? Or...or wi' someone?"
Kindness beamed from her as she folded in her final digit, holding a fist in the air.
"You, Mr. Fraser, are a bad guesser."
The pink feeling returned as he chuckled alongside her. His guesses spent, they sat for a moment as their giggles subsided. Gold attracted blue like a magnet, and Jamie found himself sucked into the hypnotism of her gaze. Second by second, Jamie felt his heart quickening. The longer they held contact, something akin to dizziness swelled over him.
Finally, Claire broke their trance with a nearly imperceptible shiver and turned to grab her phone. The sounds around them -- which had seemed muted, far away for the last few minutes -- made themselves known again. Jamie took a breath as she freed him, all but panting as though he'd been underwater and his face had just finally broken the surface.
They were close now, their torsos nearly touching. Her knees still hovered over his own. Even as his curiosity began to spiral, Jamie spent a moment considering the wisdom of placing his hand just there. A glance at her face told him to hold off. She still looked undeniably radiant, joyful. But a sense of resolve had eked into her features. Jamie wanted to give her the space to speak freely.
"I'm not married," Claire said, words and tone measured. "But...there is someone in my life."
Before Jamie had time to puzzle over her meaning, she turned her phone toward him, showing him the photo on her lock screen. Claire was surrounded by orange and red. A tunnel of trees behind her, leaves littering the ground. Yellow sunlight danced off her curls. In her chunky beige sweater and jeans, she was the essence of autumn come to life.
As was the lass in the burgundy velvet dress and matching curls on her hip.
Jamie exhaled, and a grin overtook his face as he eased the phone from her hand and took in the image. He cut his eyes up toward Claire. "She's beautiful," he said.
Truly, she was. A miniature of Claire in so many ways. The long, wild curls blowing in the wind. The way both their noses crinkled as they smiled, showing them to be genuine. Love shining brighter than the light on her hair radiated from Claire's face as she laughed with her child.
Jamie felt her eyes on him as he studied the photo, and it didn't escape his notice how she still seemed to be bracing for impact somehow.
"What's her name?" he asked, handing the phone back.
"Elisabeth Quinn Beauchamp." Claire took the phone and, after a wistful hum of contentment at the sight of the image, replaced it in her purse. "I call her Quinn. Quinnie, sometimes. It was as close as I could get to honoring my uncle without naming the poor girl 'Quentin.'"
Buzzed more from relief than the splash of whisky in the coffee he'd finished hours ago, Jamie laughed, head thrown back and lips wide. "Aye. Charitable of ye indeed, Sassenach."
Now, he did place one hand over her knee, squeezing briefly. After spending the entire night dying to touch her, starved for it save for one brief brush of their fingers at dinner, he relished the charge that jumped between them. "She's lovely, Claire. Truly."
Her squared shoulders finally sagged a bit as she collapsed on her side into the back cushions of the couch. "She is, isn't she?"
After a beat of silence, Jamie asked, "How old is she?"
"Nearly four," Claire answered. "She was born not long after I arrived in Scotland, actually."
Jamie nodded, fingers tracing hesitantly over her kneecap. He wanted so badly to wrap her in his arms, chase away the doubt he saw haunting her features. "And her father?"
"Not in the picture," she responded, effectively shutting down that avenue of conversation.
Signaling his understanding with a nod, Jamie moved on to lighter topics. "Does she get to watch ye play?"
Delight exploded over her face in a thousand-watt smile. "Sometimes. John brings her to the games, then takes her for the night so I can go out afterward." Her eyes settled on his hand, still resting on her knee. "I honestly couldn't have done it without him."
"Well, yes," Claire responded. "That, too. He lives in the same building, two floors up. But I wasn't going to join the team. She was only a year old. I was barely twenty-two and just getting my feet under me at the hospital. And John and Hector helped so much when she was born and I was starting here. It seemed like too much to put that on them, too. But he pushed me to, insisting they could handle it.
"I think..." Her eyebrows knitted together as she gathered the words. "I think he saw how much I needed it. I love Quinn so much, and I love being a mother. But..." She stopped, dropping her eyes to her fingers in her lap. "Especially with her so young, it can feel like you're a bit...subsumed into the identity of parenthood. Like you don't really exist as you anymore. You're 'Quinn's mum,' and anything outside of that comes secondary."
When she stopped, Jamie squeezed her knee again in encouragement. She lifted her eyes to his and leaned her head sideways onto the cushions, head bumping against his arm still resting there. "It's nice to have a space where I'm not Mummy for a few hours. Where I'm just Claire or Sass N Whack, just a woman with a team and friends. My own person."
Jamie nodded, thumb swiping up and down her jean-clad kneecap. "I understand it. As well as I can, anyway. My sister, Jenny, she has three bairns and twins on the way."
"That's a noisy house for sure."
"Aye, 'tis," Jamie agreed happily. "And I ken she loves them all tae bits. But she still leaves them wi' Ian a few weekends a year to travel wi' her girlfriends. The way she explained it, ye can give them more if ye give yerself a little something every so often."
The noise of the coffee shop had died down considerably. Jamie knew closing time was likely approaching. Yet neither moved to stand. For his own part, he wished they could stay throughout the dark hours, just as they were here. Sharing. Learning.
Coolness over his knuckles sent goosebumps erupting up his arms and down his spine. Claire's eyes were homed in on his hand resting on her leg as she traced over his fingers before lacing hers between them. Jamie felt the corner of his lips pulling up, chest tight.
"Can I ask you something, Sassenach?" Emboldened, he brought his other arm down from the back of the sofa and traced the curl that had fallen to frame her face.
"Yes," she answered, breathless. He swore her eyelids fluttered.
Sighing, twirling his finger through the near-perfect ringlet, he asked, "Does it really give you such trouble, bein' a mam?"
She shrugged. Lightness had returned to her face these past minutes, but he still sensed some...uncertainty? hesitation?...behind her eyes. "If it didn't, it would be conversation, not a disclosure."
His eyebrows furrowed, and he dropped his hand from her hair. As little as he liked the thought of Claire with other men, Jamie liked the idea of Claire being rejected because of her child even less. "I'm sorry," he said softly.
"I liked that, you know," she said, pointing to her abandoned curl. Smirking, Jamie resumed his ministrations.
"And don't be. Not like there's been so very many of them, and certainly no one worth fussing over. Most of the time after I tell them, they ask all the right questions and are perfect gentlemen, then I just never hear from them again." She chuckled before adding, "Then there was the one guy. Nice enough chap. And halfway through the third date, I was going to tell him. Until he came back from a phone call with his brother, apparently panicking over a lost blanket their toddler couldn't sleep without. 'That is one fucking mistake I'll never make,' were his exact words when he sat back down." She shrugged. "Finished the appetizers then told him I needed to get back home to my own little 'fucking mistake.' The ride home was...awkward."
A hollow chuckle rocked through her as she rolled her eyes at the memory. Jamie tried to smile, mirroring Claire. She was a strong woman, he'd known that. But though she hid her hurt behind sarcasm and jibes, Jamie could still see it. In the darkening of her amber eyes, the tautness of her smile, her thumb tapping against her thigh.
She didn't worry about him running away, he hoped. Did she?
Jamie clamped his fingers more tightly around hers where they rested on her knees. "Och, well, any man scared away by a wean isna much worth havin' around, if ye ask me," Jamie replied, hoping to comfort her. Though she smiled, beautiful as ever, he could suddenly see it, written across that open, honest face. And he understood then why she'd said no when he first asked to take her out, why it had taken ten days for her to call.
She was preparing to be let down.
If only he could fold her up in his arms and show her exactly how un-scared he was. How just seeing her wee lass on the screen filled him with an eagerness to meet her, compare mother to daughter, see which traits and habits and mannerisms had passed on. To share the jokes and tricks that made Jenny's bairns giggle like hyenas. To learn just what Quinn's little laugh would sound like.
Somehow, though, he doubted the words would offer the assurance he wanted. How many silver-tongued pricks had come before him, playing the "perfect gentlemen," as she'd said? How many had asked about her daughter and said how beautiful she was, scrolled through photos and oohed and awed only to disappear once the night had ended?
"Sorry, folks," came a voice beside them. Both their heads snapped that way to see a teenager in a dark green apron standing before them. "We're closin' shop for the night."
Reluctant, sighing, Claire and Jamie exchanged a look before disentangling themselves and standing. He helped her into her coat. As they walked through the door, Jamie took her hand in his again, unwilling to surrender the softness of it yet.
The stroll to his car took four minutes. By the time they climbed in and headed toward her home, he had a plan.
"You look happy."
John didn't waste time on a greeting as Claire let herself into the apartment. At nearly eleven o'clock, Quinn would have long ago been put to bed. Hector, too, had likely retired early, as was his custom. John's dark, unkempt hair fell into his face, eyes glimmering with suggestion.
She huffed a sigh and rolled her eyes. "I didn't put out, if that's what you mean." She and Jamie hadn't even kissed goodnight, though, God, she had wanted to. All night sitting across from her in that gray button-up shirt, that black leather jacket, his curls tousled just so and mussed further as he coursed his fingers through them in a nervous habit that touched her with its sincerity...she'd burned for him. Electricity still surged from the spot on her knee where he'd caressed her, the side of her face where his skin just barely skimmed her own as he toyed with her curls. Her hand still held the heat from where first she, then he had reached out to twine their fingers together.
But when he'd walked her to the door, in that second when both were weighing how to say goodnight, she'd leaned in for the hug. To his credit, she'd never felt so secure in an embrace as she did when Jamie wrapped her in his solid arms and held her against his chest. And her heart had fluttered to feel his lips press a kiss to the crown of her head.
No matter how badly she'd wanted to kiss him, she couldn't. Not yet. Because to experience what it was to kiss this man then lose him would eclipse the pain any of the others had caused.
John scoffed and followed as Claire made her way down the hall to the guest room (lovingly dubbed "Q's room" when she stayed over). "Happiness isn't only shagging, Claire," John said quietly as the door creaked open.
She didn't respond as she eased into the room and looked upon her sleeping daughter. Quinn looked so peaceful in slumber, like a cherub statue come to life. Brown curls, the exact shade of her own and carefully brushed by her uncles before bedtime, flowed around her head like a halo. A spot of drool darkened the pillow just beneath her open mouth.
"Any trouble?" Claire whispered as she always did, picking the girl up and resting the tiny head on her shoulder. Quinn wrapped her arms around her mother's neck by instinct and curled into her body, never waking.
"Never," came his habitual answer, John trailing behind as they made their slow way back toward the door. Claire caught his tender smile and soft pat on Quinn's curled head.
If anyone loved her daughter as much as she, it was John.
Meandering toward the door, Claire felt her phone vibrate once in her back pocket but, hands full, couldn't answer it.
"Seriously, Claire." He moved to block her path to the door. "You look happy. Is he a good guy?"
The million-dollar question. Every cell in her screamed in the affirmative. But past experience told her to tread carefully. As had become evident the last almost-four years, so few twenty-somethings cared to dive into a relationship with the added complication and responsibility of a child.
Daunted by the sheer weight of the emotions already at play, her brain bade her heart to err on the side of safety. If safe even existed anymore.
"I hope so."
John smiled and hugged them both before bidding them goodnight. Claire made her way down the two flights back toward her apartment. As she approached the apartment, she saw something on the ground outside her door.
A wallet sat neatly in the middle of the doormat. A wallet that had definitely not been there when Jamie had dropped her off, nor when she'd left again after dumping her coat and purse before heading upstairs to John's. Confused, she stepped over it and went inside. She quickly put Quinn back to bed, leaving a kiss on her forehead before rushing back out to the door and picking up the wallet.
It was Jamie's. Even if the ID on the inside hadn't confirmed as much, she recognized it from when he'd paid for dinner. Had he come back when she went up to bring Quinn home?
Claire pulled out her phone, ready to text him and find out. Only to see an unread message. She touched to open it.
Sassenach, I left my wallet at your place. I'll have a hard time taking you out again without it.
Tears welled in her eyes. Shaking her head, heart pounding, Claire reentered her home and typed back, Good thing I'm not on shift again until Sunday.
The three dots appeared almost immediately.
Then you're free for lunch tomorrow?
Depends. What's my finder's fee?
Breaths came fast, heavy. Her pulse thrummed in her ears. Three dots bounced on the screen.
I'll surprise you.