Jamie was sorely tempted to drag Claire back to bed the second she was finished eating, but a text from John had set her on a mission with single-minded focus.
“He’s sending the barn photos right now,” she protested, laughing as he tried to pull her into his lap at the kitchen table. “I want to get the listing up!”
He rolled his eyes at that, but relented, freeing her his grasp. Yesterday’s drama over the article might as well serve a purpose, he supposed, and the sooner the photos were on the website, the sooner they could start booking reservations.
Claire padded barefoot back to the study to retrieve the laptop, while Jamie took a moment to tidy up from breakfast.
When he finally followed her out of the kitchen, he had to stop in the hall for a moment to take in the sight. He could see her on the chaise in the parlor from his vantage point, belly-down but propped up on her elbows to scroll through the photos on the computer. Her lower legs swayed idly in the air above her knicker-clad arse, and his t-shirt—which he could now see would inevitably become hers—hung off one shoulder most alluringly.
He must have made a noise without realizing it, because she turned her head to him with a brilliant smile.
“See something you fancy?” she teased, and Jamie had to force himself to exhale. “Here, come help me pick.”
He sat on the edge of the chaise, hip pressed against hers to look over her shoulder at the screen. A small portion of his attention, however, was on her wild mess of curls and the rest was sliding down over her back to the lace-covered curve rising below the hem of her shirt. But he made the right noises as she clicked through the album of photos John had emailed her, satisfied to listen to the sing-song of her voice as he admired her.
It was, Jamie reflected for the hundredth time in two days, absolutely stunning to him that he was allowed to touch her now. And more than that, to be free to watch her as she came undone, to bring it about himself. The pleasure she had given him with her mouth had been dizzying, better than he’d ever had, but giving the same to her had been an almost spiritual experience.
Jamie glanced at Claire’s face, wondering if she had any idea where his mind had wandered to, but she was engrossed in the photos, debating the merits of two almost-identical shots of the tower with the mountains behind.
“Aye, yer right,” he said automatically. Almost immediately, he felt a little guilty—he would have hung on every word she said under different circumstances, but as it was, he couldn’t imagine how he was supposed to concentrate on anything besides that crease of skin where arse met thigh.
She shot him a narrow look, lips curling wittingly, but continued on, clicking through to the interior shots.
Jamie returned to his thorough examination, determined to memorize every inch of her. He wondered if, when he finally drove himself home within her, she would cry out in the same way she had at the feel of his mouth on her hot, wanting slit.
Now ye’ve done it, he thought to himself ruefully, feeling his blood pulse directly to his cock. But really, he couldn’t help it; Claire had fully bewitched him. His fingers ached at the memory of her clenching against them, his tongue wanted to taste nothing but her ever again. He felt as if he’d go to his grave still burning for her, no matter how many times he had her before then.
But he was getting ahead of himself; he hadn’t even had her once yet, not properly anyway. He wondered if it would ease his desperation, or fuel it.
Jamie had a hunch, but he was more than willing to test the theory.
He knew Claire wanted it too, but after their conversation that morning, a thought had been forming at the back of his mind. It would be easy, he knew, to just slide into everyday domesticity, living as they did under the same roof. And he wanted that intimacy with her, but not at the expense of the romance she so deserved. Already they’d skipped a few steps that seemed to him crucial in the adoration of a woman like Claire.
Jamie intended to rectify the oversight. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from re-exploring familiar territory, nor did he want to. But he could take the time to woo her a wee bit before he gave in fully to his basest need, to make it special for both of them.
“What are you thinking about back there?” Claire asked, laughing nervously. “You look like you’re about to devour me.”
He smiled at her and leaned forward to kiss her generous mouth. “I was just thinking, Sassenach,” he began, “that I’d like to take ye out on a date.”
Her eyebrows rose in feigned skepticism, but he could see that flush of pleasure rising on her throat that always inspired lust in him. “Well, that’s very forward of you,” she said dryly, and he chuckled.
“I’m serious,” he said, nudging her shoulder. “Nice dinner, nice wine, goodnight kiss at yer door—the full monty, ye ken.”
Claire tipped her head, pretending to consider his offer. “Well, I think I’m free tonight…”
He shook his head. “No’ tonight. Friday.”
Five days. That would give him enough time to put together something worthy of her.
She rolled her eyes, but smiled. “Fine,” she said, and he kissed her again.
Their first few days as...whatever they were felt like a dream. With the work in the barn complete and the next project as-yet unstarted, they had more time to simply be than they’d ever had before. They fell into an easy routine, as natural as breathing. Jamie always woke before Claire, eager to spend some time watching her. The flickers of dreams he could see playing out across her face were fascinating, tiny windows into the corners of herself that she hadn’t yet revealed to him.
Whenever he finally found the strength to tear himself away, Jamie would slip downstairs to make her coffee. The scent of it always pulled her toward the surface of reality just as he slipped back into the bedroom. He would race the flutter of her dark lashes against the bloom of her cheek to be beside her before her eyes were fully open, just so he would be the first thing she saw.
They spoke little in the morning, Claire being one to appreciate some time to stumble into full wakefulness. But Jamie didn’t mind. After almost two months of seeing her at the end stage of her morning routine, when she was dressed and brushed and hidden behind some measure of propriety, he was only too happy to bask in her unvarnished, sleepy presence. The fact that she was in his bed and generally in some state of undress was, of course, a bonus.
After coffee, Claire would shower. It took Jamie a couple days to work up the courage to ask to join her, and she teased him for his prudence—a small price to pay for the pleasure of hearing the echo of his name reverberate around them as she cried out, the ripples of her satisfaction playing out over his hand.
Once they were dressed (a leisurely process, punctuated by wandering hands and lingering looks) Claire drifted off to the garden, or the study, or to the spare bedrooms, leaving him to start the preparations for converting the hall bath into an ensuite for her room. Being without her, even just in a different part of the house, left him with a sharp pain in his chest that amazed and frightened him. It was as if she were Eve and he, Adam, aching for the lost rib he could only reclaim by pressing her body tight to his own.
But he bore his burden cheerfully enough. Living together at this early stage left so few spaces for Claire to hold for her own, and he felt instinctively that she needed the chance, now and again, to miss him.
They would come together again for lunch, as they had before. Though now, Jamie made an effort to make the meal a bit of an experience for her, rather than a perfunctory refueling. He tried to use the late spring produce that was now bursting forth in the kailyard, and she was thrilled to enjoy the fruits of her labor. Tender lettuce, crisp cucumbers, peppery radishes—even some early strawberries, small and sweet, which she pressed to his lips by hand, gasping as he tasted her juice-stained fingertips.
Wednesday was bright and approaching warm (or at least a few degrees above chilly), so he packed a picnic and took her out on the ATV, up the back road where he’d first met her. He could hear her delighted laugh as she recognized the spot where her car had been stuck. He was tempted to take her all the way down to where he’d first seen her, pulling at the pine boughs to hide her lily white legs, just so he could kiss her there. The urge had hit him like a truck that day, when she stepped out onto the road and he got a proper look at her in the anemic March light. It would have felt like poetic justice to taste her lips in that place now.
But no, he had a different destination in mind, and he turned up a track that was little more than two bare ruts in the mossy soil.
“Where are we going?” she said into his ear, her lips brushing the lobe in a way that made the blood drain from his head.
“Ye’ll see,” he replied over his shoulder.
The track went almost straight up the mountainside, and she clung to him with a bit of alarm. She seemed relieved when they stopped and he helped her off the seat, though that seemed to quickly turn to confusion as she looked around the rather nondescript section of forest around them.
He just smiled at her and took her hand, pulling her through a gap in the brush.
Claire gasped at the sight on the other side of the thick bramble.
“Oh Jamie,” she murmured, awestruck.
They stood on a broad, flat rock that jutted out from the mountain below, worn smooth from millennia of wind and rain. A cold meltwater spring splashed over the next rock over and tumbled down the side. And below them, a sun-glistened loch, surrounded by forested hillsides and the rugged mountains beyond, still capped with snow.
“My da used to bring my mam here,” Jamie said, feeling suddenly self-conscious. “After she died, he brought me an’ Jenny up now and again, to tell stories and help us remember her. It seemed easier for him to speak of her here, somehow.”
Claire turned to him, a tender smile on her face. “It’s beautiful,” she said earnestly.
They laid out the blanket on the rock and unpacked the basket he’d prepared. It was simple fare, just a ploughman’s lunch with a thermos of still-hot tea, but Claire ate with her usual relish.
Being back in that place opened an almost-forgotten pathway in Jamie’s heart, and he found himself recounting memories of his parents.
“They were so in love, even after two bairns and more’n a decade together,” he said, smiling fondly. “Always kissin’ and pawin’ at each other. It used tae make Jenny an’ I howl, when they’d get all moony while we were around.”
Claire, finished with her bread and cheese, nestled herself against his side, and he wrapped an arm around her shoulder.
“It must have been awful for your father to lose her,” she said quietly.
Jamie felt the familiar stab of old grief, but Claire’s head on his chest was a balm that held the worst at bay.
“Aye,” he responded, rubbing her upper arm. “I was only eight, so I dinna mind it so well. But I do remember coming home after the funeral. He started cryin’ as we drove up to the house, and sent us in wi’ Ian’s da. Said he couldna bear to go inside wi’out her.”
She turned in his arms to kiss him gently, and he squeezed her in gratitude.
“He came through it, eventually. He said she would ha’ had his hide if he didna care for the two of us properly.”
They were quiet together for some time, watching the springwater sparkle its way down the mountainside.
“Are you much like him?” Claire finally asked.
It was a question Jamie wasn’t sure how to answer. “I look more like her,” he said slowly. “He was dark, like Jenny, an’ no’ quite so big as I am now. But in all the rest...” He paused, feeling his throat tighten. “Well, I...I can only hope so.”
It was late afternoon when they made it back to the house, chilled but happy. They had, as was their wont, spent plenty of time kissing and touching on the blanket. But the wind had a sharp bite that convinced them against anything more than warming their hands under each other’s clothes. Now, Jamie’s blood thrummed with unfulfilled arousal.
Restraint was harder than he had expected, despite the multiple times a day they fell into gratifying one another. Or perhaps, he mused, because of. It was like drinking from the sea; no matter how much he consumed, the thirst was never quenched.
As she always did after lunch, Claire scrambled off to the speak-a-word room to check all the booking sites where they’d listed the cottage. Jamie lingered in the hall, wondering if it was cold enough to start a fire; he really did love the burnish her hair took on in the light of a flame.
Before he could make a move to fetch some wood, however, a sharp cry from the back of the house brought him running to the study.
“Claire?” he called as he rounded the corner.
But she was laughing, jumping up and down in excitement.
“Jamie!” she cried, leaping into his arms. He caught her automatically, despite his bewilderment. “We got one! Our first reservation!”
“Yer jokin’!” he said, peering over her shoulder at the laptop on the heavy antique desk.
She wriggled out of his arms but took hold of his hand to pull him to the chair. She pointed triumphantly at the screen, where the booking system from their own site was pulled up to show the request notification.
“A whole week in June! And look, they paid in full!”
Jamie sat down in the chair heavily, pulling Claire with him. She twined her arms around his neck and kissed his shocked mouth with a slow sensuality that stole the last of his breath.
“I seem to be sayin’ this a lot recently, but thank ye, Sassenach,” he said when she released her hold on his lips.
She laughed—perhaps his favorite sound in the world, outside of the ones she made when he touched her. “I barely did anything,” she demurred.
Jamie snorted. “Oh aye? I’ve had the run of this place for two years now, but two months after ye drop from the sky an’ the money is rollin’ in.”
She giggled, cheeks pinking. He kissed both of them in turn, and then pressed his lips to hers again.
Thorough perusal of the business inbox revealed that they had actually managed to draw three separate reservations, all in June and July, though the other two were only for long weekends. Claire, perched on his knee, hunched over the keyboard as she scrolled through the details. She was frowning at the screen, eyebrows drawn together.
“Ye look mighty fierce, Sassenach,” Jamie teased, running an inquisitive hand up from her waist to brush the side of her breast, soft and pliant under her thin sweater.
“Well, I just don’t understand it,” she said, distracted. “Three all at once, and all off the official website.” She scooted back against him, leaning into his touch. “It would make more sense if people had found it on AirBnB or one of the other listings. But we haven’t done anything to promote the website yet aside from setting up our Instagram. Do you think that’s where they found us?”
Jamie abandoned his exploration, seeing that she was not going to be so easily distracted.
“I havena looked at the account today, have you?” he asked, wriggling his phone out of his pocket. “Mebbe there’s a hint there.”
Claire gasped when he opened the app. “Well, would you look at that!”
There were quite a few notifications, and he clicked into the tab to see what for. Admiring comments on a tagged picture filled the phone screen. He pulled up the photo, and couldn’t help but smile.
It was from down near the mill, looking out over the glistening pond with the main house and broch visible behind, mountains in the distance. The light was golden and rich, illuminating the whole scene vividly, and a few puffy clouds threw blue shadows. And in one corner, on the banks of the pond, he and Claire stood close together with their heads bent towards each other, small against the vastness of the landscape. But even on the tiny screen, he could just spot the speck of her white hand in his.
“I didn’t know they would post anything so soon,” Claire said, sounding nervous.
Jamie glanced at the account handle; it was @countryhousemag. The caption read “Couldn’t resist posting a sneak peek of the dreamy property that will grace our June cover. Welcome to Lallybroch.”
“Dinna fash, Sassenach,” he said. “If it’s getting bookings, it’s fine by me.” His finger hovered over the photo again, feeling the urge to reach out and touch her heartbreakingly small figure on the screen. “And ‘tis a bonnie photo.”
Her flesh-and-blood hand blocked his view to tap the screen twice, turning the little heart red.
“It only seems polite,” she said uncertainly, and he laughed, then leaned down to kiss her soundly.