I don’t — He — This — But how—?
Claire felt as though her brain was glitching, the neurons spitting out electrical impulses like wayward fireworks that skittered and sparked across the pavement.
The modern construction zone was so incongruous with her expectations that she couldn’t seem to connect the sight in front of her with the ancient stone facade. When Jamie had said that they’d gutted the building down to the stone, she’d pictured a ruin of sorts, full of mold and rotted wood and rat droppings.
Not an interior that looked like it belonged mid-way through an episode of Property Brothers.
She took a half-breath to speak, released it, and took in another. Before she could figure out how to form words, though, Jamie began apologizing a mile a minute.
“It’s only an option, Claire. I know it’s a massive undertaking. We—we’d basically have to start from the ground up, so I promise I willna be offended if it’s more than ye want to take on righ—”
“Wait. Wait…” Her poor husband fell silent as she raised a finger to gesture around the space in bewilderment. “So you— are you telling me this place is ours?”
A tiny smile plucked at the corner of Jamie’s mouth. He looked so strikingly young just then, yearning for approval like a little boy offering a bouquet of wildflowers.
“And the land around it too. The orchards ye saw on the ride in, and the barley fields to the east. Twenty acres, or thereabouts.”
Claire recognized that she was gaping like a codfish, but couldn’t seem to do anything about it. She kept running the math over and over in her head as if it would somehow make more sense to her with repetition. A typical suburban backyard was, what, maybe a quarter of an acre, so… eighty times that?! Surely that couldn’t be right.
For fuck’s sake, get it together before he thinks you’re having a stroke.
“Jesus H. Christ,” she settled on at last. An incredulous gust of laughter pushed past her throat as she stepped into his arms. “Jamie, this… I don’t even know what to say!”
“Are you happy?” he asked, eyes round and vulnerable with hope.
Snaking her arms around his neck, Claire blinked rapidly to try to clear the shock. “I—I’m stunned, I’m…” At the flicker of doubt on his face, she quickly clarified, “I’m delighted.”
At once, Jamie’s features melted into relief. “Thank Christ.” His whole body sagged against hers, and he let out a laugh. “Ye might have led with that, a nighean.”
Claire chuckled through a sympathetic wince as she rose on tiptoe to kiss him. “Sorry. I just—I’m a bit in shock, is all. I never expected any of this.”
Blue eyes twinkling, Jamie leaned toward her ear conspiratorially. “It was meant tae be a surprise,” he whispered.
She swatted at him, but made no effort to resist as he laced his fingers at the small of her back and began to sway her from side to side. They both hummed as they touched foreheads, sobering gradually into a comfortable, pensive silence. After a few moments, Jamie pressed his lips to her brow, then rested his chin there as he spoke.
“I wish I had more to offer ye than a gutted auld mill, Sassenach. I ken it’ll take a lot o’ work to get it to where it would function as a living space, but…” He wet his lips and shrugged a little, striving valiantly for neutrality. “It’s free, anyway. And this would—It’s an opportunity, at least, to put down roots at Lallybroch, if that’s somethin’ you want.”
Claire swallowed, rubbing her hands slowly up and down her husband’s arms. Whether or not he admitted it in so many words, it made perfect sense to her that he would want to settle on the land that was his birthright; his bond to this place was apparent in every story he told, in the way his eyes warmed with nostalgia any time he spoke of home. But so many of those fond memories were tied to the people, not necessarily the place — and given the way they’d left things with his family, a barb of worry snagged in her gut.
On the pretense of looking out the window, she took a few steps away to collect her thoughts, hugging herself around the middle.
“And it won’t… bother you?” she asked quietly, her gaze on the horizon. There were only apple trees as far as the eye could see, but she could almost feel Jenny’s animosity roiling and crackling like ominous storm clouds in the distance. “Being so close to your family and not being able to see them?”
For the space of several heartbeats, Jamie was silent. The floorboards creaked under his boots as he moved to stand beside her at the window, folding his arms over his chest.
“It wouldna matter if they were on the other side of the world, Claire,” he said, voice low, coarse as sandpaper. “Think it would hurt just the same.”
She’d been expecting a platitude of some kind — another deflection — so the raw honesty took her aback. Eyes immediately drawn to his face, she studied him in profile for a moment before leaning over to rest her cheek on his shoulder.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Blinking as if to clear the melancholy, Jamie drew in a sharp breath through his nose and released it in a huff.
“No,” he said resolutely, unfolding his arms so he could reach around to draw her against his side. “I dinna mean to let them steal this day from us, Sassenach. We left the door open for them whenever they’re ready. And in the meantime, like you said, we—we move on with our life together. Work on making a home for our family.”
Tenderness bloomed as a warm ache in her chest the longer she stared at him. He was trying so hard to put on a brave front, to fall back on the relentless optimism that had gotten them this far. It was just that little bit fractured now, though; how could it not be, barely an hour after the shattering blow of his family’s antagonism?
Her own instincts warned that such close proximity offered far too many opportunities for conflict, but she knew Jamie’s heart was here, in the only home he’d ever known. If he could summon the courage to take this risk, surely she could set aside her own lingering doubts.
She could be the glue that held him together when his hope threatened to crack.
“I like the sound of that.” Lacing their fingers with an upturned smile, she rose on tiptoe to kiss him. “So, Mr. Fraser… care to give me the grand tour?”
“And over here, I was thinkin’ we could put in a window seat wi’ a storage bench, like that, uh—that white and navy one ye liked so much?”
When Jamie glanced to his wife for approval, he found her positively beaming. “I can’t believe you remembered that.”
With a blush of pleasure to the very tips of his ears, he turned back to gesture around the broad glass pane. “And then we could do built-in bookshelves on either side, mebbe a—a hanging plant of some kind, some throw pillows. Make a bonny wee reading nook out of it.”
Claire’s fingertips skimmed his lower back as she approached him from behind, and he turned halfway to meet her.
“You’ve thought of everything,” she murmured, easing into his arms with a look of adoration that crinkled her eyes and warmed him to the bone.
Her reactions to all of his plans thus far had been better than anything he ever dared to imagine. Each concept he’d proposed, each suggestion for how the blank canvas of their home might take shape, Claire had embraced with unanimous, enthusiastic assent. Holding her hand in one of his and gesticulating animatedly with the other, he’d walked her through his vision of the layout for the main space: the open-concept kitchen and dining area, a walk-in larder with a trap door down to a wine cellar, a living room centered around the beautiful, original stone hearth. Seeing her flush with excitement, watching the wheels in her head spin as she chimed in with ideas and additions of her own, he felt as if he’d gone light as a soap bubble, and perhaps he would burst with joy.
God, he just wanted everything to be perfect for her. And he wanted so desperately for her to feel like this place was as much hers as his; just because he and his da had started in on the basics of the renovation didn’t mean that Claire wouldn’t have a hand in crafting every last detail of their home together.
To that effect, he deflected her praise with a half-smile: “Nah. To be fair, you actually came up wi’ most of it. I just tried tae keep a mental list of what ye liked whenever we had our late night HGTV dates.”
Claire’s laugh burst against his lips as she stopped just short of a kiss. “‘Dates,’ were they?”
“Mmphm.” He twitched a brow at her, eliciting more bonny giggles. “What, ye dinna count them? That was all part of my long game, ken, part of the plan to win ye over.”
“Oh, really?” Claire’s whisky eyes were a dancing, fizzling gold, and he was drunk on them, drowning in them. “You were planning our future house together the very first week we met?”
“Was that no’ obvious?” Too tempted by the nearness of her to resist any longer, he closed the gap between them and kissed her, long and deep. Only when the room around them began to spin precariously did he break away from her mouth, panting hard; it seemed all the oxygenated blood in his body had rerouted from his vital organs to feed his greedy, stretching cock.
“Aye.” His gaze locked on hers again, clear-eyed and serious. “Aye, even that first week, I wanted you, Claire. I wanted you more than I ever wanted anything in my life.”
Now it was her turn to lunge for his mouth with a desperate, hungry sound that made him dizzy with lust. He barely had time to open to the sweep of her tongue, though, before she dragged her kiss downward, teeth rasping over the stubble of his chin, his jaw, his throat…
“Wh—what’re you doing?” he panted as she wrenched his shirt up over his head and continued on her scorching path down the centerline of his body. Her slender fingers made quick work of his fly, and as soon as she had the zipper down and the button released, she sank to her knees.
Jamie’s heart lurched to a standstill.
“Claire—” he choked as she eased him out of his boxer briefs, and then his lungs gave out too.
Palming the length of his shaft in leisurely strokes, she looked up at him with a pensive smile. “I wanted you too, you know.” The ragged confession shivered over his skin, washing him in goosebumps. “I wanted… to do this…”
Her hand never stopped working as she laved her tongue along the underside of his cock, slowly tracing the vein that pulsed along its length.
Jesus Fucking Chr —
Swirling and sucking on just the sensitive tip, she took him in just enough to tease, just enough to make stars explode behind his eyelids.
“This…” she breathed, then swallowed him deep into the velvet heat of her throat.
The broken cry that shuddered out of him was one Jamie hadn’t even known was in his vocal range, dredged up from the very depths of his soul.
As each pass came faster and faster, he started to hyperventilate, every muscle in his body taut and shaking with the effort to hold still. Groping back behind him, he latched onto the windowsill with white-knuckled desperation — anything to keep himself from gripping her or guiding her, from interfering in any way with the goddess on her knees before him. Every time he glanced down, Claire’s eyes were locked on him as that perfect mouth slicked over his cock, and he had to look away again before he lost himself. It was already going to be over embarrassingly fast at this rate; while the bastards she’d dated had never reciprocated, it was obvious that she knew exactly what she was doing. Stretched with pleasure almost to the point of pain, Jamie was vaguely aware that he was begging her, gasping out a broken garble of nonsense that he had no power to stop:
“Please, Cl— mo nighean donn, I—fuck, fuck, I—I’m going t—”
But just as the pressure began to erupt in a flare of molten heat, right on the blinding precipice of orgasm, Claire suddenly released his still-erect cock with the wet pop of broken suction.
“Not yet,” she commanded, wiping her mouth and giving him a knowing look. As his features contorted with the agony of unfulfilled need, she pressed a quick kiss to his thigh, then grabbed for the button and zipper on her own jeans. “Wait for me.”
Dropping his head back, Jamie scrubbed both hands over his face with a sound somewhere between a laugh and a groan. “Ach, that was— Ye’re a cruel woman, Sassenach, to stop a lad just there.”
Her cheeks dimpled with a suppressed smirk that was not the least bit sympathetic. “It’s called edging , darling.”
“Oh, I ken fine well what it’s—”
“And you can thank me,” she continued, arching a wry brow at him as she wriggled free of her own jeans and knickers and tossed them aside, “when it feels even better once you’re inside me.” The moment she leaned back on her elbows and parted her legs in invitation, the smell of her arousal triggered something primal in him, something ancient and savage; he could almost feel his pupils dilate as he staggered to the floor, homing in on the glistening flesh like some sort of ravening beast. Christ, he wanted to drink her deep, wanted to drive her to the brink of madness with his mouth, but he knew damned well he didn’t have the patience to wait a moment longer, not even for retribution.
“I’ll get you back for this,” he swore, though the words were muffled against her skin as he kissed every bare inch of it he could reach.
“Looking forward to i— ah!”
She cut off abruptly, her whole body bowing in his hands as he thrust into her without warning. A sob of relief caught in his throat at the slick, throbbing heat of her, the pleasure so excruciating he thought it might well kill him. Needing his wife’s mouth, he kissed her lips open and smeared them messily with his, biting loosely, breathing the muggy warmth of her air. Mindless and desperate, he reached under her to take hold of her buttocks, gripping her to him with bruising force as he lifted her pelvis up off the floor and sheathed himself deeper, Jesus Christ, deeper…
By unspoken agreement, there was no gradual buildup; Claire crossed her ankles at the small of his back and bucked convulsively, fucking him just as hard as he was her. As the two of them picked up a frenzied, pounding rhythm, they quickly discovered that the empty room served as an erotic echo chamber for the sounds of their joining — the wet slap of flesh, the gasps for air coming faster and faster, the grunts and moans escalating to keening and begging and blaspheming the Lord’s name as they ascended like a column of wildfire.
Claire screamed when she came, her head thrown back and the veins in her neck straining against the confines of her skin. As her inner walls clamped down, Jamie pressed his teeth into her shoulder and hammered into her with abandon, the volcanic pressure gripping every last cell of his body as it burned its way up and up and—
“Oh God, fuck, Claire—”
He must have blacked out for some portion of time, for he had absolutely no recollection of collapsing on the floor beside her. When he came back to himself, he was on his left side, sweaty and shaking, clinging to his wife and she to him like survivors of a shipwreck, adrift at sea.
Claire’s eyes were still screwed tightly shut as she heaved for air, the fine hairs that framed her face damp from exertion. He watched through hooded eyes as a bead of sweat trickled across her upper lip, and dipped his head to kiss the salt away when it caught in the corner of her mouth. Too winded yet for more than a fleeting graze of lips, the two of them shared breath as their hands found one another, fingers twining and resting between their chests.
“Christ, Jamie,” Claire whispered at last, her smile curving along his. “That was…”
An incredulous burst of laughter passed between them — the twitch of lips on aborted breaths to try to say more, only to lapse into awestruck silence again.
Even with their hearts still pounding, the flush of exertion cooled all too quickly in the January chill; Jamie shivered as a draft blew over the ruin of his back, instinctively curling tighter around Claire to share his warmth. She had managed to keep her jumper on the whole time, but her bare legs puckered with gooseflesh when that same draft touched them, and she continued to tremble in his arms long after the aftershocks of orgasm should have faded. Reluctant as he was to break their physical connection, he nuzzled into her for one last, lingering kiss, then smiled apologetically as he drew away.
“Ye ken, I’ve heard freezin’ tae death is one of the less painful ways to go, mo nighean donn, but…”
Amusement twinkled in her eyes as she propped herself up on an elbow, reaching over to rub some warmth into his chilled bicep. “Mm. I was just going to say: you make a lovely radiator, but even your body heat can only do so much in the middle of winter.”
With a grunt of agreement, Jamie climbed to his feet and reached down for her hand. “Aerobed and blankets: first thing on the list, I promise.”
A flash of something — apprehension? excitement? — crossed Claire’s features as she stood, but she turned away to collect her clothes before he could gauge whether the reaction was positive or negative. “Are we going to stay here, then? Rather than at the hotel?”
Watching her carefully, he pulled up and fastened his jeans, then snatched his own shirt off the floor. “Well, it would certainly be cheaper in the long run. But I ken this place is in no shape to live in just yet, Sassenach. I dinna expect ye to—”
“What?” She turned to give him an arch look over her shoulder. “You think I’m too precious to sleep on an air mattress?”
Shrugging, Jamie dropped his gaze. “Ye shouldna have to, is all.”
Even without looking, he could feel the shift in the energy of the room as Claire’s demeanor softened. Padding the few steps back to him, she gently took the shirt from his hands and helped him into it, then smoothed her palms up to hold him by the shoulders.
“You know, I… I think that’s the third or fourth time you’ve apologized since we got here,” she noted softly. Tilting her head a little, she tried to get him to meet her eye, and a smile crept into her voice. “In case I didn’t make it abundantly clear, I’m… very grateful for my surprise, Jamie.”
Though he still didn’t raise his lashes, his mouth twitched reflexively at the wee joke. “Oh, dinna fash, Sassenach. I got that message loud and clear.”
Claire’s hum of amusement died quickly into expectant silence. When no further explanation came, she closed the last of the distance between them and wrapped him in a gentle, nuzzling hug. “Then what’s this all about, hm? Tell me what’s troubling you.”
For a long while, Jamie stood silent, staring over her shoulder with vacant eyes. With anyone else, he would have dismissed the question with a self-deprecating remark. The instinct was there even with Claire, but so was the recognition that if she was asking — and not for the first time either — then she already had a good idea what was wrong, and was simply waiting on him to muster up the courage to admit it.
He just… he wanted so badly to turn this terrible day around — to make a point of immersing himself in dreams for the future as though the encounter back at the house hadn’t gutted him to the fucking bone. As though his family’s opinion didn’t matter to him; as though their systematic dissection of the choices he’d made hadn’t left his self-confidence in tatters. Of course, their aim had been to villainize Claire in his eyes, but that was a fool’s errand, far beyond the scope of their ability.
Doing a number on his own sense of self-worth, though… that appeared to be well within their purview.
The difficulty in finding the words to explain that — to ensure Claire recognized that his doubts had nothing to do with her, or their marriage, but with his own failings — had bound his tongue ever since they’d left the house. And apparently, even a desperate, frenzied fuck on the hardwood floor hadn’t been enough to purge the tension of the words left unspoken between them.
So, closing his eyes, he finally leaned into his wife — his confidante, his very best friend. Buried his nose in her hair, filled his lungs deep with the comfort of her scent.
“Just once,” he admitted on the quavering exhale, “I’d like to give ye somethin’ more than promises, Claire.”
She went very still in his arms, barely breathing as the words settled over her. But to her credit, she didn’t challenge him outright, didn’t press him for more. It was one of the reasons he always felt safe to pour his heart out to her: she listened with hers wide open. Comforted by her inexhaustible patience, Jamie took in a breath to speak two different times, only to let each one go again.
“First it was the marriage, aye?” he managed on the third try, his fingertips drawing absent patterns around the ridges of her spine. “I gave you every part of me on that mountain, Claire, but as far as the law is concerned, we have no rights, no benefits. If somethin’ were to happen to one of us, a hospital wouldna even consider us next of kin.” He swallowed bitterly, shaking his head. “So that’s one. Then there’s this place. I can talk myself blue in the face promisin’ ye custom cabinets and built-in bookcases, but all it is now is just a gutted auld mill, just… drywall and dreams.”
Claire was thinking so hard he could almost hear her, the muscles of her torso pulled taut with resistance to what he was saying. The moment he felt her lips part on a breath to respond, he gripped her tighter and pressed on again, increasingly desperate for her to understand.
“I don’t even have a job yet. No prospects. And here I am promisin’ to provide for ye, to pay for renovations with an income I dinna have. And I…” His nostrils flared as each breath came sharp and quick, veering dangerously close to tears. “I swore up and down that my family would come around, and here we are not five feckin’ minutes down the road, and they—”
This time, when his voice broke, Claire jumped in before he could force himself on again, taking his face in the vise of her hands. “No. No, you listen to me, James Fraser…”
Despite himself, he almost huffed a laugh past the acrid burn in his throat.
It had been a good while since he’d been dressed down by the Velvet Hammer herself.
“I’ve spent the past twenty years wishing I had someone who cared enough to make me promises. Back in October, I was ready to bind myself to Frank fucking Randall because he was so charming and sophisticated. He—he was the master of saying all the right things, whether or not he actually meant them. And I was fool enough to think that all of those beautiful, empty words meant that he loved me.” Her chin quivered on a self-deprecating laugh as she dropped her gaze, then looked up at him through a sheen of tears. “Then you came along.”
Little by little, her grip slackened, her thumbs slowly brushing over Jamie’s cheekbones with exquisite tenderness. “You, with your lightsaber impressions, your… your perfect recall of every one of those little dogs on Paw Patrol. You know, most uncles will tell you how much they just adore their nieces or nephews, but when it comes down to it, they can’t even tell you the child’s favorite color. But you? You never needed to tell me how much they meant to you. Because you remembered… everything.” Her voice dropped to a reverent whisper, and a tear slipped down Jamie’s cheek, catching in the crook of her thumb. “ Everything that was important to them.”
Even amidst the fear of exposing the raw and festering parts of himself — his darkest, most debilitating insecurities — he had known somehow that Claire would have the words to soothe him if he allowed her the opportunity. But whatever he’d been expecting, he hadn’t been prepared for how deeply her esteem could heal, knitting the ragged edges into something whole again.
“That kind of love, it… defies words, Jamie. And I never thought… never dared to dream that I could have it for myself. But here we are, and you—you listened to everything I said.” She loosed a disbelieving breath of a laugh, and then she was crying too, tears spilling freely down her face. “Every stupid little thing that came out of my mouth while we were watching telly, you… you remembered it. And not only that, but then you bring me to this place that means so much to you, and you find a way to make me a part of it. Jamie, I—” Her voice cracked, and he instinctively shifted her closer, smoothing circles over the wings of her shoulders. “I didn’t know it was possible to feel so treasured.”
Jamie swallowed. Over and over, his muscles worked to clear the burning grit from his throat, but he could barely find air, let alone his voice.
It was just as well, though. Because the sonnets he wanted to weave for her, the endless litany of affirmations and assurances all coalesced into a single, rasping truth, the only words he could manage:
“How could I not remember the things ye say, the things that matter to ye? You are my whole world, Claire.”
The smile that broke over her face was resplendent as the dawn — a crown of sunlight born radiant into the morning, beaming up into the night sky to cast out the darkness.
“And you are mine,” she whispered, stroking the bristles on his chin with a bent finger. “Just the promise of having a place that’s ours, a place where we can build a life together… that means everything to me, Jamie. I don’t ever want you to feel that you have to apologize for dreaming about the things we don’t have yet, because someday we will . And in the meantime, the only thing I want is to be where you are. Whether it’s in a—a tent out in the yard, or an aerobed, or back at the hotel, it doesn’t matter to me.”
A tic of a smile touched his mouth as he stared down at her, her eyes so open and clear he thought he could see straight to her soul. Reaching up to take the hand stroking his face, he brought her knuckles to his lips without breaking eye contact.
“You are my home, James Fraser,” she said, her eyebrows curving with earnestness. “Don’t you know that?”
He began nodding, so faintly at first that he wasn’t sure she could even detect it, then stronger as he leaned in to press his forehead to hers.
“Aye,” he exhaled. “Aye, mo chridhe, I do know it.”
As soon as he’d said it, the troubles that he had allowed to plague him seemed so bloody frivolous. All the obstacles that loomed — the financials, the family disputes, the paperwork, the renovations — they would eventually resolve themselves one way or another, only for new, unanticipated ones to crop up in their place. Struggle and hardship were certainly nothing new to them; they had been to hell and back several times over, baptized by fire and forged into a union strong enough to withstand anything. If the pain of their beginning had taught him nothing else, it was that no matter how arduous the journey ahead of them, the path would be one worth taking so long as Claire was by his side.
He supposed he’d just needed a wee bit of reminding, is all.
Brushing his lips in whisper-soft kisses over her brow, her temple, her hair, he relaxed into his wife with a sigh of relief.
“I do know it.”