"I canna believe ye went on not one, but two dates wi' the fox in a single weekend and didna say a word to me about it!"
Awake since 5:00 a.m. Working since 6 a.m. And very nearly late for practice at 7:30 p.m., which would commence in four minutes sharp. After twelve hours in the A&E and over an hour of a fussy Quinn who'd recently decided that vegetables -- all vegetables -- were persona non grata in the Beauchamp household (and announced same by eating said abominations one agonizing lick at a time and howling at the top of her lungs as though they were coated in acid), Claire was hardly in the mood for a lambasting.
Even if the subject of said interrogation made her stomach turn somersaults at the mere thought.
Claire rolled her eyes and rushed to lace her skates before the first whistle sounded and she was officially late. "Gillie..."
"No, no, it's no' like I'm the one who convinced ye to e'en speak to the man. Faaar be it for yer best friend tae ken when her matchmakin' skills lead to what's apparently been the best sex ye've had in recent years."
"Geillis!" Claire hissed, brows constricting as she swiveled her head to check her surroundings. But they were the only ones still gearing up, the rest of the team skating laps to warm up. Sighing, Claire let her shoulders drop as she bent to tend to her laces again.
It wasn't that she cared so much if anyone knew she was dating (or...dating) anyone, as the case may be. But for the first time in years, hope outweighed the voice constantly chattering away in the back of her mind, insisting no man could handle her, her life, her kid. Or would want to. In the space of a long weekend, though, she'd begun to believe that maybe, perhaps something could grow between them. And he'd made her believe so.
But that didn't mean she could ignore the voice completely. For a time, while the excitement was fresh and the hope fragile, she'd keep him to herself. With one notable exception.
Geillis Duncan, after all, was not a woman to be denied.
"So ye did, then? How was it?" Geillis took a seat on the bench beside her, one red brow arched as her lips drew up in a fiendish grin. "Does he look as good out of his clothes as in them?"
Claire huffed a sigh, sitting up and grabbing for her elbow pads. "No, as a matter of fact, we haven't. Not that it's any of your business, Ms. Duncan."
"Well, somethin' happened," her friend pressed. "Yer poker face is shit, and ye've been glowin' since ye arrived, e'en frazzled as ye are. So tell me, then."
They'd set lunch for 1:00 p.m. at a small eatery just around the corner from Claire's place. She and Quinn passed the morning with a trip to the market, then the shoe store -- Jesus H. Christ, how she'd already outgrown her last pair was beyond her -- before finally folding the laundry together with Mary Poppins on the telly for domestic inspiration. (Quinn's very important job: sock matching. Which, while an engaging enough task for a toddler, had the added benefit of sparing Claire from her least favorite aspect of the chore.)
By the time Claire dropped Quinn at John's -- his smug look speaking to his suspicions about her midday plans, her traitorous pink cheeks confirming them -- and began the walk toward Glenna's Cafe, her heart raced faster than a hummingbird's wings. Thoughts zoomed through her head at nearly the same pace.
What if the spark from those first meetings was just the result of the booze? The adrenaline from the bout? The inherent sensuality of the late-night hours that tinted everything just that much more thrilling? With the sun shining above, stone cold sober, would the allure of him still draw her in? In her everyday clothes -- stretchy jeans, well-worn olive green button-up blouse, and black jacket -- would hers even exist at all?
She wasn't overly worried about being stood up; she did have his credit cards, ID, and cash bouncing in the bottom of her purse, after all. But after handing it back, would he scarf down his meal and then leave? What if they'd talked themselves out the last two times they'd met? How would she extricate herself if, in the daytime, he turned out to be incredibly boring or an arsehole?
Had she misremembered how it felt when his skin touched hers, the jolts that had coursed through her as tangible as static shock? Or what if she were simply hard up enough for companionship that she'd created this feeling where none existed?
A bell dinged over the door as she entered, six full minutes early in her nervous haste. Perfect, she'd have a chance to catch her--
Head snapping to her left, Claire felt her stomach clench and warm. The sun, uncharacteristically bright in the Edinburgh autumn, glinted off his gorgeous red locks through the floor-to-ceiling front windows. His hair, his skin, his eyes, his smile...all of him seemed to glow.
And he most definitely drew her in.
"Jamie," she responded, walking over toward him as her own smile responded to his. He stood from the tiny, circular table in the corner as she approached, and Claire wondered if the elation on his own face -- relief, even? -- mirrored her own. Joy radiated from him, infecting her to the point of near giddiness as he wrapped her in another of his sturdy hugs that banished all doubt that the swooping feeling in the pit of her stomach was anything but organic.
They held the embrace, neither quite wanting to pull away. But as they parted and as Claire began to speak, he leaned in and pressed his lips to her cheek. A quick peck, the same kind of kiss John would've given her in greeting, or Hector, or Lamb, or even Geillis. Even so, as Jamie pulled away with a blush to match her own rising color, that innocent touch sent shockwaves roiling through her, goosebumps prickling across her skin.
A rolling whistle jarred Claire from her tale, and she grabbed Geillis's arm to join the rest of the team, gathering around to begin their warm-up drills.
"So yer grinnin' ear tae ear ower a peck on the cheek?" Geillis shook her head. "Feckin' Christ, Beech, ye may no' survive when ye finally--"
"There was more than that," Claire cut off her friend in a whisper as they slowed to a stop with the main group, half listening to the instructions. "I'll tell you after practice, okay?"
She should've known better than to dangle the carrot before her best friend. Green, determined eyes glinted as Claire turned her attention to the coach. For the next two hours, every water break, every drill, every two seconds where Claire stopped to breathe, Geillis materialized by her side, expectant and hungry. When Phaedra tried to partner with Claire for a blocking exercise, Geillis swooped in and all but shoved her out of the way, shrugging off their teammate's annoyed eye roll as Geillis badgered Claire for a steady fifteen minutes. Claire brushed her off each time, though, keeping her focus (with no small difficulty) on practice.
Finally, with ten minutes left, coach announced the 27/5 lap qualifier. Sharp fingers wrapped around Claire's bicep and pulled her to the outside of the track.
"Ye got yer laps back in February, Beech," Geillis responded as they took up a leisurely skate around the outside of the track. She huffed a sigh as she swept a stray curl out of her eyes and under her helmet. True, of course, that she had long ago attained her lap goal. By now, with two months left on the season, only newbies hoping to roster for the last handful of games generally skated the dreaded 27/5 each week. Claire, though, participated whenever space allowed for the endurance practice.
As she opened her mouth to say just that, Geillis shot her with a look of warning. "If yer openin' yer gob for anything other than tae tell me if ye let the lad cop a feel, I swear to God I will hip check ye into the wall."
Biting her lip, Claire glanced around. Four skaters had lined up on the track, faces taut in concentration. The rest of their teammates had either moved to one end or the other to work on individual drills or were cooling down with a relaxed skate around the outer track, as she and Geillis were now. No one paid them much mind as the whistle blew and the skaters on the track took off at a sprint.
Scoffing and rolling her eyes as she suppressed a smirk, Claire knocked her elbow pad against Geillis's. "Fine, you bloody brute."
"Glad tae see ye," Jamie said as he pulled the chair out for her to sit before circling back to his own.
Beaming, heart still racing, Claire replied, "You, too."
"If fer no other reason than I'm absolutely skint and desperately need petrol in my car." His upper body pitched toward her slightly over the table, one eyebrow raised and his crooked smirk rendering her nearly mute.
"Call it a lesson in the consequences of forgetfulness." Elbows pressed against the table, hands folded together, Claire leaned forward. "Besides, I have yet to see my finder's fee."
Rugged features darkened with mock solemnity as he emitted a guttural grunt she'd long ago concluded every Scot was programmed with at birth. "I need proof o' life, Sassenach."
Claire bit down on the inside of her cheek, her lips scrunching to the side in a pinched definitely-not-smirk. She reached slowly into her purse, never breaking eye contact, and pulled out the wallet that had sat so casually on her doormat the previous night. A small brown rectangle, half an inch thick and slightly larger than a credit card. "Proof enough for you?"
"Aye," he answered, hand raised to accept it.
But Claire wanted something else in exchange for her hostage.
Both dark eyebrows shot upward as she pulled the wallet out of reach. "And you really have no spare card? Didn't pull one out before 'losing' your billfold?"
His baritone chuckle sent tingles down her spine. "Would my fuel gauge restin' on the E be proof enough for ye?"
"Well, then," Claire said before sliding the wallet into her back pocket. "I'll hold onto this until after lunch."
"Ah, ah, ah," she cut him off with a wag of her finger. "My turn to treat. Then you may have your money back."
"So...ye robbed the lad?"
"Fine, fine. Continue. Fuck."
Settling back in his seat, Jamie frowned at her as he crossed his arms. But a gleam danced in his eyes. "Fine, ye wee beast, ye win. Lunch is on you, then."
Two and a half hours, two servings of shepherd's pie, likely an entire pot of tea, and a shared blackberry tarte later, and the Scotsman and Sassenach still sat, heads close together, at the secluded corner table of the cafe. Twenty minutes in, he'd scooted a quarter way around the table and angled his seat toward her. She'd been sharing a Quinn story from earlier in the week, and he had curled his fingers around hers with a tentativeness that set her heart fluttering.
"I'm sorry," she'd apologized, taking another bite of food with her free hand. "I know I can go on. Probably mundane to anyone who's not me."
But he'd only shaken his head and compressed his grip around hers. "I doubt any story of yours could be mundane, Sassenach. No' when yer face lights so wi' the tellin' of it." Claire had studied his eyes, his face, searching for signs of polite but feigned interest. She'd found none.
As she'd finished her story, the nerves that had driven her to distraction all morning finally dissipated.
"All right, that's a wrap! Wycked, Sass, sweep up!" Coach hollered the order at them before blowing a rolling whistle to signal the end of practice.
"Well, let's hurry then," Geillis said, picking up speed to grab the push brooms from the closet in the corner. "There's no way yer beggin' off tellin' the rest because of work in the mornin'."
The warehouse had likely never been swept so swiftly as Geillis and Claire worked up a fresh sheen skating back and forth with their brooms. Finally, debris and dust collected and disposed of, they de-geared just as quickly. Once they'd packed everything away, Geillis accompanied Claire to her car in the near-empty car park.
"All right. Out wi' the rest of it, then."
"So, what are your weekend plans?" Claire asked, taking a sip of her tea. A small sip, as she knew that once they'd finished this round, she really should return and collect her child for the evening. At after 4:00 p.m., John, too, would be insufferable and insatiable for details about a lunch meeting (as she'd described it) taking most of the afternoon.
Spending time with Jamie was like stepping outside the space-time continuum. Hours slid by, and neither even noticed, ensconced in a delightful warmth that only intensified the longer they basked in it.
Jamie adjusted his hand so his fingers filled the spaces between hers, loosely twined and resting on the table. "I head up tonight tae Lallybroch."
"Your family home up north, right?" He'd spoken of it so fondly the night before, detailing summer vacations passed on the ancestral estate.
"Aye," he affirmed, the briefest flick of his eyebrow betraying his pleasure that she'd remembered. "Ian has a cousin gettin' married."
"And Ian is your brother-in-law?"
"Two fer two." Jamie smirked, draining his glass. "Likely the last wedding Jenny can run 'fore the bairns come. She's only five months along, ken, but she's already huge. But dinna say I told ye so," he added in a conspiratorial -- and, perhaps, genuinely abashed -- tone.
"Your secret is safe with me," Claire promised.
Jamie waited a beat before continuing, his eyes holding hers captive as his thumb swept the outside of her own. A quality somewhat dreamlike colored his voice, and a tremor seemed to pass through him as he smiled at her again and continued on with his plans. "We rent out the place fer a few weddings a year that Jenny coordinates, and can usually make enough to pay the property taxes. Then, of course, all the family weddings are at Lallybroch, too. It's...unbelievable up there, really. I ken I've described it for ye a wee bit, but till ye've seen it, it's difficult tae do it justice. If ye didn't work Sunday, I'd--"
His eyes shot wide as he halted, lips clamping together and thumb ceasing its steady path against her skin. Claire had an idea what he'd been about to say. So she turned her chair to face him fully and placed her free hand on top of their joined ones. "You'd what?"
Ice blue eyes broke from hers, then, flicking between their hands and the tabletop. Heaving a breath, he mimicked her so that all four hands wove together as he looked up again. "I was gonna say...if ye hadna switched shifts for Sunday morning, I'd ask if ye and the wean wanted to come. Tae see it." A swallow. A tightening of the jaw with a minute shake of the head. "I'm sorry. It's--"
"Jamie," Claire hushed him. The inner corners of his brows turned upward, and his chin tucked slightly, his eyes regarding her with timidity.
"I'm sorry." Pressure increased on her fingers, and his shoulders bunched together and rolled back before he continued."I dinna mean to...to push."
"Jamie, it's all right," she assured him again. Inhaling softly through her nose, Claire ran the backs of her knuckles and nails against the inside of his wrist just at his pulse point. "It doesn't bother me."
Between her words and touch, Jamie relaxed again, a nervous ghost of a laugh bursting from his lips. And for all she'd meant her caress of his arm to allay his self-consciousness, Claire found a surprising intimacy in the motion. She didn't stop as she spoke again.
"I'm glad you brought it up, actually. I wanted to...to say something, and I hope you can understand." One nod of encouragement, and she carried on. "I like you, Jamie. I...am drawn to you in a way I can't fully explain to myself let alone put into words." Pausing, averting her gaze as she felt the heat swarm her chest and face, Claire tightened her grip on his hands. By now, they were both clutching the other with a near-desperate force. "But...I have to be careful who I let into my daughter's life. Especially now that she's old enough to really remember people. To miss them if they suddenly aren't around anymore.
"So until I know for sure where...where we're going, I..."
"Ye dinna want me to meet her yet," Jamie finished for her. She raised her eyes again and was relieved to see him smiling. All the air whooshed from her lungs at the sight.
"You're not angry?"
"Nah, lass," he whispered. "Yer a package deal, and she comes first." Gleaming eyes still locked to hers, he lifted their tangle of hands until he could press a kiss to the back of each of hers in a gesture that would've made her weak in the knees had she been standing. "I understand."
Warmth prickled at the inner corners of her eyes, but she kept any moisture from escaping as she beamed at him.
"And on that note," Jamie said, glancing out the window to the waning afternoon light. "I bet the lass is missin' ye, then."
"Probably so. And you'll need to be getting on the road, too?"
Jamie pulled a hand free to tuck on of her dark curls behind her ear. "Aye."
Claire settled the check before meeting Jamie outside the door. He took the lead then, the matter of whether he'd see her home clearly not being in question. Hand in hand, they didn't speak much as they ambled the three blocks toward her apartment. But their fingers slid together and apart, stroking, thumbs twirling round each other and massaging into palms. The blood pounded in Claire's head without pause, heat spreading from that point of contact through her like watercolor, staining her entire being with bliss.
Finally, they halted before her building. With a triumphant smirk, she pulled his wallet from her back pocket. "Well, here you are. Fill up your tank so I don't worry about you running empty on the way up to Lallybroch tonight."
"Tapadh leat," he said before stowing his wallet away with a grin. "As fer yer finder's fee...bear in mind I only had a fiver on me, so..." Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out a clear package and handed it over. Inside the plastic baggy was a chain of multicolored discs on an elastic string.
Her cackling echoed in the still evening air. "Candy bracelet?" she said, opening the package to examine the treat, stretching the elastic between her thumbs and raising a skeptical brow. "I've never had one, actually."
"Dinna knock it till ye've tried it, Sassenach. 'Tis a fine delicacy," Jamie insisted as he pulled a second one from his pocket. "And I could afford two for under five quid."
With more awe than likely called for considering the trinket at hand, she reached for the second baggy. His words spoken not even fifteen minutes ago rebounded in her mind. Yer a package deal.
When she looked to him again, she knew he'd see the moisture pooling in her eyes this time. Grinning to quell the rising emotion, Claire slipped the bracelet on her wrist and chewed experimentally on one of the pastel discs. Tartness exploded and stung behind her jaw.
"Oh!" Her face scrunched up as she laughed, eyes squeezed shut. "It's sour!"
"Ye said ye liked sour," Jamie said as he grabbed her free hand again.
"I do like sour." She finished chewing the piece in her mouth and swallowed. "Thank you."
Dragging her bottom lip between her teeth, their giggles subsiding, Claire found herself falling again into the abyss of his gaze. A light breeze blew, and the scent of him -- hints of cedar and cinnamon and something indescribably him -- filled her senses until she was dizzy with it. Blood thrummed beneath her skin as the tension between them mounted, the minutes until he left now numbered. Another goodbye she didn't want to say. But at least tonight, she knew how she'd say it.
"You missed before," she said, taking his hands in both hers.
"What?" An adorable quizzical look crossed his face.
Claire took one step closer. "When I first arrived at Glenna's, you kissed me on the cheek." Short of breath, heart pounding, she pulled his hands to rest on her waist. His breathing shifted then. Short and shallow as she extricated her fingers and raised them, so slowly, to frame his neck. Rough stubble scratched her skin as she glided her thumbs over his jawline. "You missed."
"How foolish." The words rushed from him, breathless, as he struggled to volley the banter. "I havena done this...in some time...I must have..."
The rest of the bit was lost as Claire closed the distance between them, touching her lips to his. For a moment, they stood still as statues, the shock of that first contact freezing them both.
Then his hands migrated to the small of her back and crushed her against his body, torsos pressed together. Mouths opened, and Claire ran her tongue alongside his own. A growl rumbling deep from the back of his throat sent bolts of heat through her, yearning building low in her belly, more intense and immediate than she could ever remember. Both, nearly blind with desire, fought for proximity, the better to slake the sudden unquenchable thirst they shared. Red curls tangled between her fingers as her grasp pulled his lips harder against hers.
His arms -- Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, those arms solid as steel -- encircled her entire frame and anchored her against him as he sucked her bottom lip between his teeth. She whimpered, a soft vocal catch of her breath, as she dug her fingernails into his scalp, eliciting a gasp of his own. One of his hands cradled her face, smoothing his fingers along the edge of her jaw. Fire erupted in its wake. She trembled with the force of it.
Lips and tongues slid together, attacking and surrendering. Each pounding heartbeat reverberated through her every bone at a gallop. The world around her began to spin. Oxygen. She needed to breathe. But just the notion of allowing any space between them had her stretching on her toes to close the gap that existed.
As the tip of his tongue carved a path along the inside of her lip, Claire actually swayed on the spot. Dipping to the side, she pulled away by instinct just as he reacted to catch her. Panting, Jamie grasped her by the hips as he rested his forehead against hers. "Ye alright, mo chridhe?"
"Yes," she whispered, gulping in air herself. In his grip, she felt small and safe, like a pearl nestled in an oyster, insulated and precious. Never in her life had a man made her feel so, as though the simple act of sharing words and time with her were a gift. Not until Jamie. Everything thus far -- his touches, his looks, the smallest kindnesses and every moment surrounding them -- exuded respect, tenderness, even gratitude.
Jamie reached up to dry the droplet that leaked from the outer corner of her eye before it began its descent. "I apologize if 'twas that bad, Sassenach," he murmured, and she felt his lips -- only a breath from her own -- quirk up in a wry smirk. "I'm outta practice, ken?"
Claire sniffed and grinned, pinching his arm. "Oh, hush, you."
Before he could toss another joke back, she huddled into his chest. Arms desperate to hold him close tightened around his large frame. A contented sigh hissed from above her as he copied her, hands rubbing up and down her back as he laid his cheek atop her head. They stood there until the streetlights flashed to life around them. Squinting against the harsh light, Claire turned her face into his chest and moaned. "That probably means I should go inside," she whispered.
When he stepped away, he sought and captured her gaze. She recognized his expression as a reflection of her own, delirious want that cast his ice blue eyes several shades darker. She could drown in them, she thought with fascination, those mood-changing irises.
Her heartbeat timed the seconds they stood in the growing darkness, staring. Seven until he dipped his head to kiss her again, calmer this time. Nine until he parted, placing another one on her forehead. Four until he murmured, "I dinna want to leave ye, mo chridhe, but I must."
"You said that before. What does it mean?"
Three before he raised her knuckles to his lips, bowing as he kissed them, those deep blue eyes never breaking away from hers. "I'll tell ye someday," he answered. Two until he bade her a, "Goodnight, Sassenach," and eleven until he turned the corner and vanished from her sight.
Geillis leaned against her hand, elbow propped against the top of the car. "So...yer glowin' from a make-out session?" Claire figured her blush and the grin that grew of its own volition across her face served as answer enough, so remained quiet. With a low whistle, Geillis shoved away from the car. "Well, all I'll say is when he finally does bed ye, ye may wanna prime yerself wi' some porn or something beforehand, or yer likely tae feckin' pass out at the sight of his cock."
"Seriously, G!" Claire aimed a swat at her arm, which Geillis dodged with a cackle. But she was laughing, too. She'd never admit it, either, but having been on the receiving end of Jamie's kiss, she wasn't unconvinced of her friend's assessment, meant in jest or not.
Three times she'd seen him, perhaps ten hours in total. Yet Jamie had managed to embed himself within her, vines crawling and weaving through stone, changing its very structure until neither could exist without the other. Thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.
Of course, nothing was that simple. Every step of the process, of this...relationship?...had to be meticulously planned, Quinn at the heart of each decision. Deep as she already was, Claire knew she could never commit fully until she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could accept Quinn, that she would accept Jamie. Because if that pairing didn't work, neither would hers.
But Claire recalled the look of delight when she'd presented Quinn with her matching candy bracelet the next day, her overflowing glee as they sat on the couch, watching a movie and munching on their sour candies together. All because Jamie had spent his meager few dollars on an extra treat instead of petrol. After having abandoned his wallet on her doorstep as an excuse to see her. And her worry abated further.
Her friend's face softened as a genuine smile filled her face. She ran her hand along Claire's arm. "Ye look happy, and from what ye've said, he cares about ye and the lass already. Which makes him a winner in my book. More'n any of the others, at least. Just ken if he so much as breathes on ye wrong, I have connections and no one will ever hear from him again." With a peck on the cheek, Geillis grabbed her gear and turned toward her own car a few spots away before Claire could respond.
Chuckling to herself, she loaded up her bags and was just about to climb in the driver's seat when Geillis shouted for her attention.
"Ye said he called you somethin' in Gaelic. I could probably tell ye what he said if ye remember what it sounded like."
Standing behind her open door, Claire thought back to the timbre of his voice when he'd said it both times, low and rough. The way his eyelids had fluttered, how his fingers had clutched at her as though dreading the moment he'd need to release her. And she shook her head. "That's all right. I'd rather hear it from him."
Jamie checked his watch again, and Jenny scoffed. With a roll of her eyes, she stood from the couch and made for the kitchen. "'Tis only two minutes further along than the last time ye looked, brother," she called back in a teasing lilt.
The wedding had gone off without a hitch, and the festivities continued late into Saturday night. Family members not felled by hangovers Sunday morning partook in a quieter, more intimate day of celebration before the newlyweds left for their honeymoon in the evening. Jamie had stayed behind Monday to help his sister and Ian break down the decor and close the house up before they all departed the next morning.
Exhausted from a long weekend, they'd put the bairns to bed and all collapsed around the fire in the sitting room after supper, the men enjoying drams while Jenny nursed sparkling grape juice. Ian had already retired an hour hence, and so Jenny and Jamie caught up alone. Though, he admitted, he'd been somewhat distracted as the night grew old.
He checked again. 9:49. Claire's practice ended at 9:30. She'd said that by ten o'clock, she'd likely be in for the night.
Three days since he'd seen her, since he'd kissed her (or, really, since she'd kissed him), and he craved her nearness fiercely. He knew with another 12-hour shift the next day and his own work obligations after taking a day off, it would likely be several days or even the weekend before they could see each other again.
Until then, he'd have to make do with texts and FaceTime.
When Jenny returned to the room, a glass of water in hand, his eyes were cast down once again to his watch.
"She's special, then?" Jenny asked as she sat beside him, sipping on her glass.
Even if he'd wanted to, he couldn't have quashed the smile that lit his face. "Aye, Jen. She is."
Jamie hadn't spoken much of Claire since arriving on Friday night, though Jenny knew him well enough that she'd immediately demanded an explanation not only for his tardiness but the giddiness still bubbling over. He'd laid out the basics, then answered sporadic questions in the subsequent days. But as much as he could, he wanted Claire to himself for a time. It had been so long since he'd been with anyone or even wanted to be, and she was special beyond description. Jamie wanted to delay sharing her, even the idea of her, with anyone just yet.
A long, heavy sigh sounded from Jenny to his left. She massaged a hand over her belly. "Brother, I ken ye like her. 'Tis plain as the nose on yer face," Jenny started, her tone growing serious enough to warrant a look up from his watch. "And I dinna mean to...disparage her or discourage you. But just...tread carefully. Datin' a woman with a bairn adds a whole new layer of complications. And she hasna told ye anything of the father, where he is or whether there's anythin' to worry about there. Wi' everything ye've gone through, all ye've done tae move beyon--"
"I appreciate it, Jen," Jamie interrupted. On some level, through the haze of agitation, he did. He recognized that his sister's comments came from a place of care, not malice. Of knowing how far gone he'd been for a time and of watching him claw his way back.
Smothering the urge to lash out, Jamie attempted a placating smile in her direction. Truth was, even if he'd wanted to heed her advice, he'd long ago ceded control to the fast-growing attachment. From the moment he'd seen her with gold glitter sparkling on her cheeks and selling plastic cups of beer in a warehouse, a seed had been planted deep in his soul. Every day, its roots dug further into him. With every conversation, every meeting, every wondrous laugh that set his heart to booming, its stalk grew and bloomed with increasing speed, each flower more radiant than the last. If ever came the time to dig it up and toss it out, Jamie knew the damage would break him.
So he settled for the best version of the truth he could offer. "I'll do my best."
She fixed him with a searching look, lips pressed tight together. "I'm glad yer happy, Jamie. Truly. I just...dinna want anythin' or anyone to hurt ye."
The smile came easier this time, and he reached out to take his sister's hand, holding it in a moment of silence.
His phone vibrated in his pocket, and he nearly dropped it as he pulled his hand back and scrambled to pull it out. 9:56.
Any idea where I can find broccoli that tastes like sour candies? Asking for a (very tiny) friend.
Jamie exhaled a laugh, hand rubbing over his mouth. Dinnertime tonight must've been a hoot, he thought.
"Go on wi' yerself, then. Give her a call." Jenny shooed him away in a playful tone. Standing, he leaned over to kiss her temple before leaping up the stairs as quietly as he could at full speed.
As he closed the door to his room and laid across the bed, typing back his response, another message came in from Claire. The blowing-a-kiss emoji. His stomach flipped as though she'd actually kissed him again. Pausing in his typing, his finger traced over his bottom lip as he replayed for likely the thousandth time the memory of how she'd lunged in and taken it between her own, the tingling that had lingered nearly until he'd arrived at Lallybroch hours later.
A voice came, unbidden, to his mind.
When I met yer mother, a ruadh, every cell o' my body lit up like lightnin' when she was near. 'Twas God tapping me on the shoulder, showin' me the soul he'd crafted to walk through life beside me. He'll tap ye someday, lad, and show you yers, too. Just be patient.
For once, the ache of remembering his father never materialized. Only fondness and gratitude. Lifting his phone, tapping on her number, Jamie silently let his Da know that he'd been right. His wait was over.