“Nice place,” Garret said, looking around the dimly lit pub.
“Yeah,” I agreed, trying to look at the mahogany furniture, the tartan wall tapestries, and hear the soft plucking of guitar from the eyes of someone who’d never seen it before. But I was very familiar with Fraser’s Ridge…especially of late.
“Kind of kitschy though,” he said, and I bit back a retort of defense.
It had been like a second home in college, my friends and I had relied on it for a late-night greasy burger on school nights, and cheap beer and whiskey shots on the weekend. And when Frank and I had started dating, it had more or less become our place.
But after four years of dating, and an additional three years of engagement, I discovered that Professor Frank Randall was providing study help with a certain buxom, blonde student named Sandy that didn’t end with flash cards.
Maybe I shouldn’t have relied on my best friend Joe’s advice, which had been to get off the sofa, put away the ice cream, and get back out there and date. Date as much and as frequently as possible. And if those dates ended with a good shag, all the better.
Well, none of my dates so far in the four months since I’d gotten back in the proverbial saddle had ended up in my bedroom, but I had been rather hopeful that maybe Garrett would be the lucky one.
He was tall, handsome, and since we met at the gym I’d seen him shirtless and found the sight very pleasing.
But the way he was sticking his nose up at the pub was making me start to wonder if he wasn’t a bit stuck up himself.
Meanwhile, my other friend, Louise, had advised me against continuing to bring my dates to the pub.
“They’ll know you’re a regular,” she had said. “Someone is bound to ask about the other guy you took there last week. Not to mention it was where you and Frank used to frequent.”
But the pub was where I felt most comfortable, had been long before Frank, and I wasn’t about to let him take it away from me.
And besides, I had an unspoken arrangement with the owner and bartender, Jamie Fraser.
“First time here, lass?” he said, appearing on the opposite side of the bar, wiping a glass.
“Yeah, for the both of us!” I said cheerfully. “What do you recommend?”
“Our cheeseburgers can’t be beat,” he said, simply offering my favorite item on the menu.
“Sounds good to me,” I said. “And a whiskey, please.”
“Same for you?” Jamie asked Garrett, a little less cordially than he had spoken to me.
“God no,” Garrett wrinkled his nose and quirked a grin at me. “You think I got abs like this eating red meat? What vegetarian options do you have, mate?”
Jamie narrowed his eyes at my date, looking like he was just barely managing not to roll them. “Weel, ye can have a cheeseburger…minus the cheese and burger.”
“I’ll just have a wine spritzer,” Garrett said impatiently.
Jamie froze, his rag and glass hanging limply in his hands as he just stared at Garrett in disgust. His gaze slowly drifted to me, and I fixed my own eyes on a water ring on the bar instead.
“I’ll…just get those started for ye,” Jamie said quietly, and I looked up in time to see the bastard’s shoulders shaking as he walked away.
“Weirdo,” Garrett muttered before beginning to regale me on the amount of weight he was able to bench press.
Jamie returned a few minutes later with our drinks. One wine spritzer, and one whiskey – two fingers, a splash of water, exactly how I took it.
He gave me a quick searching look, then one of his characteristic “winks” which amounted to him just blinking with both eyes like a sleepy owl, before walking away again.
“Can you believe that guy?” Garrett said once Jamie was out of earshot. “Here you are on a date and he’s checking you out.”
“He is not,” I laughed. “He’s just being a good bartender.”
Garrett snorted. “Yeah. Sure. How much you think he lifts?”
I glanced over at Jamie, at where his biceps bulged under his rolled up sleeves. “How would I know?” but I did know that while he spent his nights working at the pub, he spent his mornings at his family’s farm, breaking horses, hauling hay barrels, carrying calves. I imagined he could probably lift twice what Garrett could, only in the form of bags of feed.
When I’d been in college, Fraser’s Ridge had been run by Jamie’s father and godfather. I had the fondest memories of Brian and Murtagh bickering behind the bar, teaching a teenaged Jamie how to mix drinks.
When Brian died, Jamie took over his father’s share of it, and the family farm had been left to Jamie’s sister and her husband.
Because I knew all of this, I knew Jamie hardly had time to frequent the gym.
The date never really looked up after that. All Garrett would talk about was exercising and clean eating, and he stared in disgust at my burger.
All of that didn’t stop him, however, from asking to come back my place.
“Um, no thanks,” I said, trying to remain polite about it. “I think I’m going to just call it a night.”
Garrett’s brow furrowed. “The hell you mean? I thought we had an understanding here.”
“Understanding?” I asked. “And just what does that mean?”
He scoffed. “Come on, you hit on me at the gym, flashing your low-cut tank top, invite me to a bar you admit is down the block from your apartment. I buy you some drinks and a burger. What am I supposed to expect?”
I straightened up on the stool, glaring at him. “You’re supposed to expect to have a nice evening of getting to know me. That’s all you get to expect. As for the drinks and burger, thanks, but I can pay for my own.”
“Don’t be a bitch!” he snapped, catching the sight of a shadow appearing over the bar beside him.
Jamie stood there, large and forbidding. “Everything alright here?” he asked, his voice calm and polite, while his eyes were anything but.
“Could I get another drink?” I asked quietly, resignedly. It was our code. If the night was over, but I had no intention of leaving the bar with my date, I’d ask for another drink. Jamie knew that to mean my date needed shown to the door.
“Aye lass, right away,” Jamie said, eyes never leaving Garrett. “You can settle your tab wi’ Murtagh over there, sir. And it will include th’ burger and whiskey.”
Garrett leapt to his feet, chest puffed out. “Like hell it will.”
Jamie slowly came around the bar to our side. What I don’t think Garrett realized was that there was a step there that brought Jamie up to his true height, which…even though Garrett was tall…Jamie had almost a whole head on him.
Garrett snorted and backed down, heading for the register where Murtagh was standing, glaring as forebodingly as his godson.
I sighed in relief once Garrett was gone, and slumped against the side of the bar. And here I’d gone and bought a brand new little black dress for this. Jamie sat down on Garrett’s vacated stool and eyed my sympathetically.
“Are ye alright, Sassenach?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Just…” I groaned. “Tired.”
“Well I must say, I didn’t think I’d ever see a date of yours I like even less than Frank, but that one came close.”
I chuckled. “Oh come off it, you didn’t dislike Frank when I was dating him. You only hate him because of why I do.”
Jamie wrinkled his nose, but it was considerably cuter than when Garrett did it. “Och, no. I only put up wi’ the bastard for your sake.”
I laughed and shoved at his shoulder. “Well you might have said something sooner! Maybe I would have dumped him before he had the chance to cheat on me.”
“If I’d known ye would have listened to your bartender, I would have!”
I smiled in thanks at Murtagh, who set two glasses of whiskey before us. “Come on, Jamie, everyone knows there’s no one in the world you can trust more than your bartender. Besides, you’ve known me forever.”
“Aye, I have,” he said softly, and I looked over at him puzzledly, wondering at that tone.
He shook it off though and straightened, taking a sip of whiskey. “How many is that, anyway?”
“How many drinks or how many guys?” I clarified, and he gave me a teasing look.
“I ken exactly how many drink’s ye’ve had, Sassenach.”
I rolled my eyes up to the ceiling. “That’s…oh God…six! Six different first dates in four months…and no second ones. What’s wrong with me, Jamie?”
“Not a thing,” he said firmly. “You’re intelligent, witty, no’ to mention gorgeous.”
My eyebrows raised in surprise. In all the years Jamie and I had been friends, he’d never showered me with compliments like this…nor had he ever looked at me that way before.
“Ye may no’ have th’ best taste in men though,” Murtagh muttered as he passed by.
“Be nice, ye auld coot,” Jamie chuckled.
“He has a point,” I admitted. “But I’m done. I am swearing off of men. I’ve lasted this long with only my vibrator for company, after all.”
Jamie had been mid-sip when I spoke, and he inhaled suddenly, causing him to cough and splutter and turn a marvelous shade of red that matched his hair.
“Christ!” he exclaimed, but whether it was about choking or what I’d said, I didn’t know, but I laughed hysterically either way.
“You’re so easy to fluster!” I cried, nearly falling off my stool.
He glowered at me, though he face was still pink. “Not as easy as that other guy. What, two, three dates ago? Karen?”
“Casey,” I corrected drolly.
“Casey,” Jamie scoffed. “Ye crossed your legs in that wee green skirt of yours and he near went into cardiac arrest.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, he was cute.”
“So why didn’t ye see him again? At least he was a gentleman.”
Shrugging, I re-crossed my legs, and didn’t miss the way the movement drew Jamie’s eyes. “I don’t know. I just didn’t feel any spark with him I guess. Hey wait…you remember what I wore three weeks ago?”
Jamie huffed and shrugged his own shoulders. “Oh…well…I didn’a know for sure. Lucky guess.”
“Sure,” I said, smirking. “So…how are things going with that girl you were seeing?”
“Annalise?” he asked. “Oh…no, we broke up months ago.”
I frowned. “Really? You didn’t tell me. What about that other girl? The one Murtagh said was following you around like…and these are his words…a dog in heat. Leghair?”
Jamie laughed, and my eyes were curiously drawn to the way his jugular moved. “Laoghaire? Christ no! After trying to let the lass down gently, I later found out that she’d gotten hold of a lock of my hair somehow and made a fucking voodoo doll!”
I laughed along with him, hand over my mouth. “How do you think she got your hair?!”
“Dinna ken…but I think she paid one of my nephews for it.”
I shook my head. “So basically we’re both bad at relationships.”
Jamie frowned in affront. “I’ll have ye know I’m a verra good boyfriend.”
“That so?” I asked, wondering how a man could smell so damned good between working at a farm and a bar.
“Oh aye. If you’re ever in the mood tae find out, just let me know.”
I glanced up at him in surprise, and found him looking away, his fingers tapping nervously on his jean-clad thigh. I reached over and covered his hand with mine, drawing his eyes back to mine.
“And just…what would you do? As my boyfriend?”
“Well…” he began, smiling shyly. “I’d start wi’ taking ye out to a nice dinner. Watching ye eat a burger is a treat tae be sure, but our first date should be different. We could go dancing, then walk through the park.”
“Sounds romantic,” I said. “And I suppose you’d walk me home?”
“Of course I would. Straight to your door, as is proper.”
“And then what?”
His cheek dimpled as he fought down his smile. “Weel, a kiss on th’ first date may no’ be proper, but perhaps if the night has gone well, I might ask if it’s okay.”
I let my hand run over his, delighting in the feel of the calluses on his palm. “And if I say yes?”
“Then I will,” he said quietly. “I’ll try tae make sure it’s one to remember.”
He chuckled. “And then I say goodnight, and that I’ll call ye the next day, only I’ll probably text you that night, since I can hardly wait to talk to ye again.”
“And…what if I ask you inside for coffee?”
Jamie affected a mock scowl. “Now then, lass, I’m no’ that kind o’ man. Ye’ll have to wait until at least the…third date.”
I nodded solemnly. “Quite right. No sense rushing. I suppose the only step now is…to ask me out.”
A hand suddenly slammed down on the bar next to us, making us both jump. Murtagh leaned over, eyes dancing behind his scowl.
“If you two dinna stop your blathering and get out of here, I’m going tae pour a bottle of seltzer on ye.”
“You heard the man,” I said, hopping off my stool and dragging Jamie with me.
“But all th’ restaurants will be closed now,” Jamie pointed out.
“You can still take me on a walk through the park. Besides, how many drinks have you bought me over the years? If you count those as dates, this has been our, what, fiftieth? Don’t you think it’s time to…come over for coffee?”
Jamie’s eyes widened comically, and I used his surprise as distraction so that I could stand on tiptoe and kiss him.
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t always somewhat wondered what it would be like to kiss Jamie Fraser. And right then the only thought it my mind was…
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ why haven’t I done this sooner?”
“My thoughts exactly,” Jamie whispered, and I blushed at the realization that I’d said the words out loud.
We left the pub hand in hand, Murtagh shaking his head at us as we went.