"Shit, shit, shit!"
"Mummy, you can't say that!"
One time-out a year ago for repeating a naughty word, and she had her very own swear police. Claire closed her eyes in frustration and heaved a breath. "You're right, Q. You're right."
Who knew three-year-olds could be so damn judgmental?
Garments rained down about the room as Claire emptied the hamper, dug through her drawers, and upended the infamous "chair pile" in search of her favorite sweater. The deep blue cabled one that managed to be somehow both cozy and cute. All the while, she mouthed the forbidden word without giving it any volume.
It wasn't half so satisfying.
But finally, she found it. (And not even in the mountain of dirty clothes, much to her relief.) With a sigh, she pulled on the oversized sweater and checked herself in the mirror. She looked relaxed but put together in her black leggings, sweater, and socks. Curls sprang from the haphazard bun atop her head, but there was nothing to be done for that.
Then again, he liked her curls. With a smirk, she pulled one curl out at her temple, giving it a tug until it fell just right.
Over the last few days texting Jamie, she'd been sure to mention that her home was a strict casual-only zone. No way was she adding the pressure of looking sexy on top of dinner and introducing him to Quinn and...whatever else came about this evening.
Claire was tense. Had been for two days. Shoulder-aching, jaw-clenching tense. Because if tonight wasn't at least a moderate success, things with Jamie would have to end. An unpleasant chill stabbed through her chest at the possibility of tonight being the last night.
She focused on keeping her expectations low. Quinn was sociable enough with other children but could be standoffish with adults, at least at first. It needn't be love at first sight between them. Awkward was acceptable, as was polite. A for effort, as it were. Barring meltdowns from Q or open hostility from him, Claire assured herself, she'll have won the night.
By the time the knock came at six on the dot, adrenaline vibrated beneath her skin and cast her mind into a fog.
"Mummy, it'sa door!"
Quinn's voice reached her muted and distant, as though her ears were stuffed with foam. With a shake of the head, Claire breathed deep and crossed from the kitchen to the sofa, holding out her arms. "Should we go see who it is?"
Abandoning her book she'd been "reading" aloud from, Q stood on the cushions and gave a little hop as Claire scooped her up. Arms and legs locked around her neck and waist as she settled her little monkey on her hip and stepped toward the door. Resting her hand on the knob, Claire shut her eyes to draw a long inhale.
Here we go.
The door opened, cool air rushing into the warm apartment. All the breath in her lungs dissipated at the sight of him. Red curls brushed back from his face, plain grey t-shirt and jeans, black leather jacket.
She suddenly felt frumpy in comparison.
"Good evenin', Sassenach," he said with his trademark half-smile. His blue eyes shone, one eyebrow arched as he hit her with a look that raised goosebumps along her arm.
"Hi!" Quinn piped up from her hip. She raised her hand in a floppy wave before tucking it back beneath her chin and curling against Claire's shoulder.
Jamie then aimed his jovial smile to her. "Well, hello, wean. How are you this fine evenin'?"
Her lips pursed and brows scrunched in a quizzical expression as she pointed a finger to her chest. "I'm ween-in?"
Claire chuckled and pasted a kiss onto her cheek. "Yes, you're the wean. Do you want to invite our guest inside?"
"Come oooon in!" Quinn sang, bouncing once on her hip and giving a swooping gesture for Jamie to follow. Shooting him a wink, Claire stepped aside.
"Thank ye kindly," he said as he entered. Jamie looked back to Claire as he added in a softer tone, "I've grown quite familiar wi' yer door these last few weeks. I'm excited to see the inside."
A blush reddened her cheeks as she closed the door behind him. As she looked about the room, she tried to see it as he was now. The shoe rack behind the door with trainers for feet big and small. A secondhand television winged by bookcases filled to bursting with books, movies, board games, notebooks, and albums. Photographs that sat upon the coffee table and hung on the walls. A bright pink painted handprint dried on clay hanging over the light switch. Quinn's play kitchen and dollhouse arranged in the corner by the window. Handmade derby trophies resting on a shelf out of reach of little hands.
After she was lowered to the ground, Q immediately took shelter behind her mother's legs, all bravado apparently expired in the greeting. Claire placed a soothing hand atop her head but otherwise let her be. Clearing her throat, she fiddled with the edge of her sweater with her other hand, feeling suddenly vulnerable as he took in her home for the first time. "Not much, but it's ours."
"It's lovely, Claire." Jamie faced her then, smiling. "It feels like a home. A well-loved one."
His face was relaxed, his words comforting, but she didn't miss the tapping of his left forefinger against his jeans or the minute widening of his eyes. He was nervous. Somehow, seeing his nerves -- evidence that he, too, cared how tonight went -- eased most of her own.
"I, uh, brought these for ye." Only then did she notice the small cluster of wildflowers in his hand. A few daisies with a combination of purple, pink, and yellow-petaled blooms. She couldn't remember the last time a man had brought her flowers, if it had ever happened at all. Not that it had ever bothered or even occurred to her. Even dating in secondary school and uni, she'd never cared about receiving corsages or bouquets. Yet as she wrapped her hand around the bundle of stems, her fingers grazing over his in the transfer, she finally understood the appeal.
Jamie then crouched on the balls of his feet, eye-level with Quinn still hiding but peeking out with curiosity. "And I brought this one especially fer ye, Miss Quinn." From his back pocket he pulled another flower out, this one a plush made of soft velvet. Fuzzy purple petals surrounded a smiling yellow face, and Claire's stomach flipped.
He remembered her favorite color.
Q's amber eyes widened as she clutched the stuffed stem in her hand, fingers tightening into the velvet with her other arm still hooked around Claire's leg. "For me?"
"Aye, lass, 'tis fer ye."
A fluttering erupted in her stomach. He wasn't just tolerating her child. He was good with kids. And he liked them. Indulged them. After the numerous duds over the last few years, she'd have settled with patience and acceptance. To have so much more in Jamie felt unreal.
The soft pressure of her daughter's arm around her knee vanished. "I go put in water!" She'd taken only a few running steps before Claire caught her around the middle.
"Who taught you your manners, you little beast?" she asked with no bite, bent at the waist and swinging Quinn to face Jamie again. "What do you say to Mr. Jamie?"
Once Claire set her down again, Q stood on her tip-toes with her flower held in both hands before her. "Thank you!"
"Yer welcome, a nighean."
God, the softness of his eyes, his voice...it invoked in her the contradictory desire to shove him back against the door and devour him. Blood warmed her cheeks as she tempered the impulse. For now.
"Q, lovey, go put your book away and we'll put the flowers in water before dinner." Socked feet padded on the floor as Quinn ran around the couch with her flower clutched in one hand, picked up her book with the other, and sprinted into her room.
Claire and Jamie stood in silence for a moment, air heavy with some mix of anticipation and shyness. It had been days since they'd seen each other in person. Not since before his letter. Just the thought of his words on paper -- bits and pieces memorized, she'd read them so many times -- made her stomach drop. She laughed nervously on an exhale, waving her hand to encompass her ensemble. "I wasn't kidding when I said casual, you know. You look great, but you'll just have to suffer through yoga pants and jumpers galore on my end."
"Suffer, Sassenach? Christ, yer..." His neck flushed, as did her cheeks. The naked want she recognized in his eye made her skin buzz. It made her feel as though she stood before him in silk and pearls. And it made her bold.
Claire took a slow step toward him, heart thumping. Flowers held in one hand, she lifted the other to caress his clean-shaven cheek. She delighted in the hiss of his barely there inhalation, how his darkening eyes flicked to her mouth as she leaned ever closer.
"Hi," she whispered before ghosting her lips over his. He hummed on the contact before his hands sprawled across her lower back and pulled her flush against him, sealing the kiss. Their lips alternated, hers over his top lip and him gently nuzzling her bottom. Tender. Tame but no less scorching than any of their others.
But they weren't alone. He pulled away after only a few seconds. "Hi," he finally replied with an elated grin. His fingers at her waist flexed gently, as though resisting the urge to pull her to him again.
Quinn colliding against her legs interrupted her reverie. With a huff, she bent and lifted Quinn to her hip again. She was small for her age, but Claire's heart ached to feel how much she'd grown. Before long, she wouldn't be able to lift her up like this.
Claire looked to Jamie, cocking a brow. "You hungry?"
With Quinn situated on her left and Jamie walking on her right, they meandered toward the kitchen. "Tell Mr. Jamie what we Beauchamp girls do on Friday nights."
Jamie's eyes went comically round as he clapped once and rubbed his hands together. "Oh, wow, how'd ye ken that was my favorite?"
"Whats'at? What's kin?"
"It means 'how did you know,'" Claire answered. "Did you know Mr. Jamie loves pizza?"
She shook her little head and buried it again in her mother's shoulder.
Jamie chuckled, his hand resting on the small of Claire's back. "Och, well, 'tis just somethin' we have in common, then, lass."
Stepping into the small kitchen, Claire gestured to the table laden with ingredients in plastic packages and bowls, three small crusts on a pan in the center. "I'm a dreadful cook, to be quite honest. Hector -- John's husband, you'll remember? -- he takes good care of us food-wise. We normally order in on Fridays, but I thought this would be marginally less pathetic. It's nothing fancy or extravagant, I know, but--"
His lips on her cheek cut her off. "It's just fine, Sassenach."
"No, it's wack!" Quinn corrected Jamie with a stern furrowing of her brow. "Say it right."
Between her daughter's admonishment and Jamie's apologetic expression, Claire struggled to contain her laughter.
"I'm very sorry, a nighean. Yer right, o' course." Clearing his throat, he amended himself. "It's fine, Sassen-wack."
"And don't you forget it."
After filling a vase for her flowers (and putting Quinn's into a waterless one beside her own), the next ten minutes unfolded like her daydream at John and Hector's come to life. Her guiding Quinn's hand to spoon and spread the sauce over the crusts. Jamie drizzling cheese over all three (and flicking a pinch into Quinn's giggling face at the last second). And then both adults taking direction from the preschooler on what ingredients to pile on top. Pepperoni, bacon, ham, and -- Q's favorite -- black olives.
"There, how's that?" he asked after plunking down a measly three olives.
Brown curls swayed over her shoulders as she shook her head with vigor, a tiny pout pulling down at her lips. "No, more!"
"More? How many more, then?"
"Mmm, about...about this many," she said, cupping her hands to form a bowl. Tiny because of her almost-four-year-old hands but still large enough to hold a fair number of olives.
"Oh, that many, then?" he asked, astounded. "Would be easier to just have ye eat them from the jar."
Quinn shook her head again, brushing a wayward hair from her face. "No, Mummy...um, Mummy not like that."
"Oh, she doesn't?" Jamie asked with a gleeful look up toward her.
Claire rolled her eyes and gave her child a brief tickle in the belly. "No, she doesn't." Shrill little-girl laughs filled the room and eased her soul; Quinn-giggles always did. She ceased her onslaught and looked back to Jamie. "Hector left the jar open on the counter one night before supper. How she can still stand to eat them after that tummy ache, I haven't the foggiest."
"Well," Jamie said, scooping a spoonful of olives out and holding them so Quinn could sprinkle them over her food. "Ye can have mine, how about that? Dinna much care for olives myself."
Between her thumb and forefinger, she plucked the little black circles from the spoon one by one and placed them around her pizza as she asked, "Why?"
"Och, tastes of metal to me," he answered. "But that's okay, lass. Means more for you, aye?"
Claire giggled and leaned in for a smooch on Quinn's round cheek. Not one to be distracted, Q continued arranging her olives on her pizza, tongue between her lips in concentration.
As she looked up, Claire found Jamie's eyes glued to her, the blue of them vibrant and glittering. Her heart beat extra hard against her ribs, and she caught her breath. Quinn had only parroted what he'd said, but hearing that wee bit of Scots spoken in her sweet voice did something to her.
They didn't look away from each other, even as her daughter chattered away beside them. In that space, she felt as though she could read his mind. Beyond words, his every emotion passed between them like a current. And foremost among them, she found gratitude. He was grateful to be here. That realization stung behind her eyes as she blinked back moisture.
"Ye all right, mo chridhe?" he murmured so Quinn couldn't hear.
Claire nodded, brushing the backs of her fingers along his jawline. "Aye," she said. "Perfect."
All the energy she'd expended worrying over how Quinn would behave around Jamie, she decided, had been a total waste. Throughout the making of dinner, the waiting for it to cook, and then the eating of it (all without burning the food or the house down, to Claire's genuine relief), Q hardly ever stopped talking. Stories from daycare that week and of helping Uncle Hector bake muffins and of the grocers they'd visited that afternoon spilled from her in a constant barrage such that Claire wondered when Jamie would fatigue of it.
Instead, he, too, surprised her at every turn. Every story received his undivided attention, and he prompted her with questions of his own. In between those moments, he'd glance to Claire, and they'd drift for a moment to that unreachable place, silent and soft and warm, until they both turned back to Q and carried on over the night.
After dinner, they gathered in the sitting room and let Quinn dictate their activities for the night. Two minutes later, she'd gathered all her play cutlery and dishes and foods, declaring she was playing kitchen.
"Hector would be so proud," Claire murmured to Jamie beneath her breath as Quinn ran to her play kitchen in the corner. "His little sous chef can't get enough of it."
He chortled. "She's capable for her age, is she no'? Granted, her taste in toppings is questionable," he smirked to Claire, who rolled her eyes, "but how she layered it all so neatly. I'd have expected a lass her age tae be more haphazard wi' it."
They lowered themselves to the couch. Claire's propped her elbow on the back cushions and leaned her head against her hand while Jamie crossed one ankle to rest on the other knee. He grabbed for her hand between them and stroked his fingers along hers, sending sparks flying up her arm.
"As much time as she's spent upstairs with Hector, I'm not surprised. He's an illustrator by trade, but he is an amazing cook. She's spent a lot of time with him and John, so she's been in the kitchen with him since she could stand and hold a whisk."
As the words left her lips, the old, familiar guilt washed over her. Claire swallowed, the corners of her lips turning down as she attempted to banish the pang of self-doubt. That she foisted Quinn onto her brothers too frequently, was too selfish. That she wasn't home enough. That she wasn't enough, period.
Jamie's fingers contracting around hers brought her out of it. One corner of her mouth quirked into a thankful smile as she squeezed his fingers back. His thumb grazed back and forth over her knuckles, and she marveled at how serene such a motion could make her feel.
Quinn served up a scrumptious second dinner, bringing over plate after empty plate of imaginary fare. Both adults encouraged and teased, Jamie earning a particularly adorable glare as he shivered theatrically at the mention of marshmallow and chocolate pizza (but was instantly forgiven as, eating his own words, he insisted he'd devoured every crumb).
"Okay, is time for tea!" Q announced as she brought over her plastic yellow mugs, handing one each to Jamie and Claire.
"True little sassenach, aren't ye?" Jamie whispered to Claire with a wink before leaning forward and taking the proffered cup. To Quinn, he said, "Och, thank ye so much. I've been absolutely parched." He raised his cup, pinkie out, and pretended to drain it. A moment later, he lowered it with a dramatic ahh of satisfaction. "Is toil leam tì gu mor. Tapadh leat, a nighean."
Claire had heard his Gaelic on occasion, the natural lilt of foreign sounds and syllables creating poetry even if she had no clue what it meant. Usually, it rolled from his tongue, smooth and constant like a cat's purr. As he spoke it now, though, the words were slowed and distinct, patient and measured. The rhythm of a teacher, she realized with a jolt.
He wants to teach it to her.
Quinn giggled behind her hand, eyes flicking to Claire as though unsure how to respond. When Claire nodded, she stepped closer to Jamie. "Whats'at?" she asked.
"'Tis the Gaidhlig. The language of the Scots."
A finger twirled in her hair as she tilted her head. "How d'you know that?"
"Well, I'm a Scot," he answered. "And my mam and da spoke it when I wee so I'd ken it as I grew older."
"What's a Scot?"
"It's someone who's from Scotland."
Claire bit down on her lips to hold back her laughter, Jamie beside her apparently struggling just as much. "Well, it's where we live."
"Oh, okay." Undeterred, Quinn looked back to Jamie. "Do...um, is your mummy still doing gal-egg?"
His face never faltered, but Claire heard his breath catch as he froze. After a brief squeeze of his fingers, she let go and stood from the couch. "All right, my little muppet, it's time to brush teeth and get in bed." Claire grabbed Quinn's hand and began to walk around the couch but stopped to look back at Jamie. "You'll wait here?"
Pale-faced even as he was, he nodded with a shaky smirk. "Aye, Sassenach. I'll be here."
Fifteen minutes later, teeth brushed, hair braided, and pyjamas donned, Quinn ran around the couch with her mother hot on her heels. "She wanted to say goodnight," she explained.
Standing at the edge of the couch, Quinn waved her hand at him. "Night, Mister...um...."
"Mr. Jamie," Claire reminded as the "mister" in question chortled. She was glad to see color back in his cheeks and his smile easy again.
"Night, Mr. Jamie," Quinn said, her j sounding a bit more like dj. To both their surprises, Quinn jumped on the couch and, rocking on her knees, linked her arms around Jamie's neck. Tears warmed Claire's eyes as, after the barest hesitation and a questioning glance at her, he encircled her tiny body in his arms in return. "Nighty-night, sweet lass."
After Q had been tucked into bed with a kiss and extra hugs from Mummy, Claire eased her bedroom door closed and joined Jamie on the sofa again. Her cheeks ached from grinning as she perched on the edge, arms crossed over her knees with one hand raised to prop up her chin. "You did well tonight," she said.
"'Twas easy," he answered, leaning back against the cushions. "She's an angel, Claire. Truly."
"She is," Claire agreed. "Mostly. Just wait till you see her on a non-pizza evening. You may reassess after watching a veggie tantrum."
He squinted at her slightly, lips parted just a hair before he pulled her against him. Settling into his side, she rested her head on his shoulder as he stroked his fingers up and down her arm. "Ye ken I'll no' be scared away by a...a tantrum or a cranky toddler, aye?"
She swallowed and rubbed her face against his cotton t-shirt, inhaling him.
"I know it in my heart, Jamie," she interrupted. "And soon my head will, too."
He tilted her face up to look at him. Looking into his eyes felt eternal, somehow. A swirling, boundless space that drew her in. That she leapt into willingly. Her arm rose as if on a puppeteer's string, and her fingertips skated along the lines of his cheek and jaw. She thrilled at the tremor that ran through him. "I trust you," she whispered.
For the first time since they'd met, they found themselves in true privacy, away from colleagues or friends or the general public. When he kissed her then, something deep in her cracked. Walls of ice constructed within her soul fractured, overcome by the flames licking up at them. Heat, sweltering and consuming and roaring unlike anything she'd felt, ripped through her. She fought for breath as his tongue requested entrance and she granted it, her own meeting his. Beneath her touch, he shook. Desperate power barely restrained. The dichotomy of it -- the fierce warrior felled by her touch alone -- only fanned her inner fire.
His hand flattened against her neck and swiped its way down over her shoulders, her back and waist and hips until, after a breath of a pause, it landed on her arse and pulled her closer. She gasped, and he groaned.
"Christ, I've wanted tae ken how this would feel in my hand since I first saw ye," he breathed before diving for her lips again.
Minutes ticked by. Or they must have, at least. She had no notion of how long they spent there, lips locked, his hand gripping at her as she stroked his face and hair. She wasn't aware, either, of rocking backward or of pulling him with her. Only when she felt the tentative warmth of his fingers on the bare skin of her waist did she pull back and, panting, take note of their prone position. They lay facing one another, her back pressed into the couch cushions and him on the edge.
His hands stopped. "Sassenach?"
"Yes," she breathed, nodding. "Not...I mean, not that, not yet. But what you're doing is fine."
Claire cradled his face between her hands and kissed him again, sliding her tongue along his. One of his arms wrapped beneath her, hand still clutching at her arsecheek as he anchored her against him. His other rested beneath her sweater and began a steady, agonizing exploration. Every inch of her sang as he moved from hipbone to the small of her back, upper back over the bra strap, then back down. Palm skimming over the dip of her waist, Jamie groaned into her mouth and crushed her further against him. Against the hardness of him. "Christ, yer so soft."
As the words tumbled through her like a body in free fall, her own fingers itched to feel him. Eyes opening and kiss paused, she latched onto his sea blue gaze as she lifted the hem of his shirt. "Is this..."
"Aye," he answered immediately. "Please, Sassenach."
His gasp when her fingers fell on the taut skin of his stomach, the contractions of his muscles as they trailed up his obliques melted her. She slid her hand along his stomach and around to his back.
Both of them panted as she shared breath with him again. Just for a moment before he pulled away. She felt bereft, but only until he tasted the skin at her neck, kissing at her pulse point before the tip of his tongue traced along the side of her neck.
The same moment he nipped at her earlobe, his palm cupped her breast over her bra. How her heart didn't tear from her body and knock him clear across the room, she had no idea. Somehow, though, it remained lodged (and pounding) in her chest as his fingers clenched around her before dipping back down to her ribcage. As the tip of his thumb nudged beneath the edge of her bra, swiping along the bottom curve of her, it stopped beating altogether.
"Fucking hell," she breathed, back arching toward him as her nails dug into his back, likely leaving red marks as she begged for more. He granted it, his hand -- bolder, surer -- slipping fully to engulf her as she ground her pelvis against him.
Sensation flooded her and spun her head. He was everywhere. Her ear, her breast, her nipple, her arse, her neck. Foreign sounds filled the air around them as he kneaded and teased her. Keening inhalations and choppy, choked exhalations. His and hers, mingled so as to be indecipherable.
It had been so long since she'd been touched like this. With affection and reverence and hunger. Certainly not by the one man she'd been with since Quinn was born, perfunctory as it had been. Not even Frank.
With Jamie, she felt like something more than human. And to listen to him -- his breathing, his noises, the words he muttered beneath his breath -- to know that merely feeling her evoked such a response in him was transcendent. Her inhibitions evaporated completely, leaving behind only raw need.
To hell with not that, not yet.
But as her hands traced down his torso again and toyed with the edge of his jeans, he stiffened. She stopped immediately.
One breath, two breaths, three, four. He still didn't move.
Claire moved her hand away. "I'm sorry," she whispered, breath still ragged.
"No, mo nighean donn," he answered in an equally breathy tone. "No, lass, it's all right."
"We can stop." Half of her hoped he wouldn't. She prayed he would simply lean in and take her lips as his again. Instead, though, his hands both retreated and he righted himself, pulling her to sit beside him. She clasped one of his hands in hers. His other cradled her cheek and pulled her forehead to rest against his. They breathed, letting stillness descend over them as they returned to themselves.
"Are you all right?" she asked after a few moments.
"Aye, mo chridhe. Christ, Sassenach, I want ye with everything I am. I...it just..." His lips landed against her forehead before he sat back, weighing his words. "In the past, it's no' always been how I'd have hoped it would be. So I just...I want to be careful with this. If that makes...any sense." His lips twitched up in a nervous chuckle.
She nodded without hesitation. "It does." With a smile, she combed through his messy curls. "Would you want some tea? Or wine? You don't have to leave just yet."
His smile could have illuminated the deepest of caves as he nodded. With a cock of his head toward the plastic cups still sitting on the coffee table, he said, "I've filled up on tea, so how about some wine?"
Escaping to the kitchen, Claire took an extra two minutes to recenter herself. When she returned to the living room, glasses in hand, Jamie was standing at the bookcase. He eyed a photo near his shoulder level.
"Is that yer uncle, then?" he asked, taking one of the glasses from her.
Nostalgia and a dull, familiar pain twinged in her chest, but just for a moment. "Yes," she answered. Her fingers caressed the cold glass. Behind the pane, she stood in all her seventeen-year-old glory, curls blowing in the wind and her sundress whipping around her legs on her first day of uni. Beside her stood Uncle Lamb, bespectacled and wild-haired and grinning so wide nearly all his teeth showed. His arm hugged her around the shoulders, still strong and healthy.
"That was his last good year. He'd already been off for a while by this point. A year later..." The lump in her throat prevented any further speech as she caressed her uncle's image again. Jamie leaned into her, kissing her temple and resting his head against her own.
Clearing her throat, she said, "He's the reason I went into nursing, you know."
Claire took a small sip from her glass, nodding. "Kept putting off going to the doctor, insisting he was fine. Until he wasn't." A shaky breath she tried and failed to hide. "It was in his bones. And by the time he finally went in, it was everywhere.
"Toward the end, when he stayed in hospital longer and longer," she continued, "the doctors were all very nice. They did their jobs well. But the nurses...they knew how he liked his sandwiches cut and which radio stations he couldn't stand. They knew when I had exams and they needed to kick me out to go home and study." She rolled her eyes and leaned her own head atop his.
"I went in one time, earlier than they were expecting me. Not long before he..." She swallowed. "I'd never seen him cry before. I don't even think when my parents died. But he was sobbing to her, and she held him and comforted him. Because he wouldn't in front of me.
"He was in this...cold, sterile place, but they made it as close to home as it could've been. I don't think I've ever admired anyone so much. After he was gone, that's what I decided to do."
Jamie's hand rubbed up and down her back. "Do ye get to do that so much in A&E? Stayin' wi' individual people, I mean."
Claire shrugged. "Not so much. But it still makes a difference. And when I hired in, they had the shifts I needed to take care of Quinn." Another sip, a peek at Jamie to her side. "Don't worry. I love my job, even if it's not quite what I'd planned on."
Grabbing his free hand, she led him over to the sofa. They sat, bodies turned toward each other. She tucked her feet beneath her, as per custom, her bent knees grazing over his. Claire remembered that first night at the coffeehouse, their tentative proximity. How she'd watched the debate in his eyes before he placed his hand on her knee. Now, he did so with hardly a thought, his grip sure.
"I'd wager he was a wonderful man." He tilted his glass up for a drink.
She nodded with a sad smile. "The biggest disappointment in my life is that he never met her. But I try to make sure she knows him."
Jamie nodded but didn't speak. Both sipped on their drinks for a few silent moments.
"My da..." He swallowed, setting his glass on the side table and twining his fingers with hers. For strength, perhaps, or comfort. "He passed more than four years ago now. He...he and my brother both."
Sympathy surged through her like an electric shock. "Oh, Jamie..."
"Willie was the eldest of us, six years older than me. Christ, he was my...hero. Since we were bairns, I thought he was the brawest person who e'er lived. And he always took me 'round wi' him, even when his mates gave him grief fer it. Taught me how to swim, how to fight, how to brush a horse and how to be gentle wi' 'em."
His accent thickened as emotion mounted in his voice, and Claire gripped his hands in hers, an anchor amidst a tumultuous sea. The barest flick of the corner of his mouth served as thanks before he carried on.
"And Da taught us both about whisky and distillin'. I was but ten when he took me to the still for the first time. Dinna tell yer sister yer samplin' the wares, a ruadh, he'd say," Jamie chuckled. "Wee as she is, she'll take the strap tae all of us, ye ken, lad? But we'd spend hours out there, the three of us, him teachin' us how tae craft and savor it."
The knuckles of his hand shone white as he gripped hers, and his brows cinched together over the bridge of his nose. "I was doin' a year abroad in France during uni, and he was livin' in Glasgow when we got the call from his roommate that he'd just...dropped. Aneurysm."
Claire scooted closer to him.
"'Twas hard on all of us, but Da...it broke him, Sassenach. My mam passed when I was wee, and her loss nearly did him in then, but he had three bairns tae care for. But then, to lose one of us too..." The tear that dripped over his cheek and dropped off his jaw shredded her heart, and she squeezed his hands again.
"We buried him five weeks after Willie. His heart just...couldna take it."
Without thinking, she wrapped her arms around his neck and guided his head to rest on her shoulder. He curled into her, arm encircling her waist. She felt the breeze of his measured breaths on her neck. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. They held each other there, a mutual giving and receiving of solace.
She thought back to that first dinner, the clouds in his eyes when she'd mentioned her own parents' deaths. The way, just for a moment, his face had fallen grey, eyes dimmed. How when she'd reached over and placed her fingers on his hand and his gaze attached to hers, they'd sat that way until the light returned. She just wanted to hold him until the pain disappeared. Which, of course, she knew would never happen.
"Those were the...lowest months of my life. 'Tween that and--" He stopped himself, swallowing. When he started again, his voice shook. "I was lost in it, for awhile."
"There's no shame in that," she whispered back, hugging him closer. "It's natural. And you found your way out."
He sniffed. "Jenny's the one who brought me out of it. For a time, it wasna at all clear I'd make it out myself. But she told me if I left her tae be the last one of us, that she'd never forgive me. 'Twas the last thing I wanted to do at the time, but I forced myself to...to rejoin the world. And after a while, it got a little easier."
Claire grabbed his hand at her side and brought it to her lips. "You're brave, Jamie. And strong. I'm proud of you."
His arms tightened around her, and they hovered there for another moment. Jamie pulled away first, placing a gentle kiss on her cheek before sitting up again. As pained as she was by his story, she was humbled even more. To share that kind of heartache, to risk that kind of vulnerability...
No more hiding.
"Well, since we're talking about fathers," she started slowly, "there's one more you should probably know about."
His brows pinched together in momentary confusion before he realized who she meant. "Sassenach, ye dinna have tae--"
"Yes, I do." Chin jutted out, their four hands woven together, she met his gaze. "We're in this, right?" Eyes still wet from the baring of his own soul, Jamie nodded as a fresh glean shone from his eyes. She nodded back. "Then you deserve to know...about Frank."
Claire reached over and grabbed her wine glass, taking a sip before starting in.
"It's not like it's some big, dramatic story. Rather mundane, really," she said, eyes cast to their joined hands. "He was a grad student in Lamb's department. I'd seen him coming and going every so often, but we met again at a function in Lamb's honor halfway through my third year at uni. They named one of the conference rooms in the history department in his honor. A small thing, but..." She shrugged, shooting him a nervous smile before continuing.
"We dated for about four months. Frank was a decent guy, but there just wasn't much beyond the physical between us." Claire tried to ignore the flush that rose to her cheeks; of course, her daughter sleeping in the other room left little ambiguity to the matter of her past sex life. Still, her stomach squirmed to relay the details to the man she hoped to know similarly someday. "By the end of the semester, he broke up with me. Which was really fine, as I'd been trying to find the right time to do it myself. We split amicably, and that was that."
Claire paused. Jamie's fingers squeezed her own, and that's when she realized just how tightly she was clenching his. With an apologetic glance, she loosened her grip.
"But?" he prompted.
She nodded. "But then two months later, I found out I was pregnant. Don't know how. We'd...well, there had always been...protection."
"Does he ken? About her?"
Barely stifling her scoff, Claire rolled her eyes. "Of course."
No doubt sensing her unease, Jamie raised her hands to his lips, placing kisses on them both. "I'm sorry. Keep goin'."
"Well," she said, "I asked to meet with him, and I told him. His first response was to offer me money to 'have it taken care of.'" Jamie bristled beside her, and she squeezed his hands in comfort. "I believe in choice, Jamie, but I told him point blank that that wasn't the choice I was making.
"Next, he offered to marry me. But that wasn't an option either."
"For one thing, I only had my practicals left before graduating, and plans had already been made for me to follow John and Hector to Scotland. And he was in the middle of a research grant at the university and had a five-year plan for his master's and doctorate, a ten-year plan for a professorship, so on and so forth." Claire shook her head. "He was just as rooted there as I was unrooted."
He leaned his shoulder back against the couch cushions without breaking their contact. "And the other thing?"
Claire followed him, collapsing into the cushions with a deep sigh. "When you end a relationship, you're meant to have some sort of emotional reaction, positive or negative. Whether it's sadness or heartache or relief, anger or...or joy, feeling something after a relationship ends shows that it had meant something to you, or that you at least learned something from it. That it wasn't an utter waste of time.
"And when we broke up, I felt...nothing. It was like...returning a library book. Just the end of something. And I refused to sign up for a lifetime of that. But I would never deny him access to his child if he'd wanted it. I told him that if he wanted to be in her life, that we'd figure something out." She shrugged. "But without the full familial unit in tow, he wasn't interested in trading off co-parenting duties. On top of everything else, he had a fairly...old-fashioned view of marriage and child-rearing. I guess it was easier to just let us go and wait for the trophy wife to come along and give him a real family."
Jamie's face was difficult to read as he masked his emotions. It made Claire nervous. "What then?"
"There's no formal legal way for a man to release his parental rights. But we signed an affidavit and had it notarized. He relinquished all paternal rights, and I forfeited any claim to spousal or child support of any kind. He gathered as extensive a medical and family history as he could, in case she'd need it, and that was that.
"And that's really the whole thing. I squeezed in my last practicals over the summer and autumn terms and moved to Scotland after I graduated in December, and Quinn was born the last week of January. And I haven't seen or heard from him since we finalized everything. And that's it."
She felt her heartbeat in her temples and behind her eyes as she waited for him to speak. His lips drew together then parted as his tender eyes fell upon her. "Christ, yer...yer a brave thing yourself. To do it on yer own for so long."
Well, I had John. The contradiction died on her lips as his blue eyes bored into her. In truth, despite everything John and Hector did to care for her, for Quinn, it wasn't the same as a partner. His fingers brushed against the shell of her ear as he tucked a curl behind it, his smile genuine as he added, "I'm proud of you, Sassenach."
For years now, she'd clawed her way through life. Every time she'd felt like a failure or when she was so bone-achingly exhausted she felt like a zombie, she'd borne it without fuss. She'd known she deserved it. She'd chosen her path, chosen to go alone.
No one had said those words to her, not even John. Now, the force of them stole her breath. Jamie pulled her against his chest before the first of the tears rolled down her face. She felt so safe there, and it all fell away. The self-doubt, the loneliness. The guilt and desperation that had filled her first years of motherhood as she'd sought desperately for a suitable father for her child, convinced that no matter how much she gave, Quinn would be missing something without one. The defeat that had chilled her heart when she finally relinquished that dream.
As his scent filled her nose and the steady warmth of him enveloped her, she allowed the tears free rein. Her hand covered her mouth, muting her sputtering sobs so as not to wake Quinn. And all the while, he cradled her.
"Aye, Sassenach," he whispered above her. "Yer strong, too, and ye've done well wi' her. And I am so, so verra proud of you."