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The Sweetest of All

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Good evening,

My name is Claire Beauchamp. I’m writing you today because I’m hoping to adopt a puppy for Christmas for my son and would like to set a time to come by your rescue.

Do you have set hours? How does this work?

Claire

Closing the lid to her laptop, Claire sighed. She wanted to make this a special Christmas for Fergus...

Her son.

Claire hadn’t expected to be a single parent, or a parent at all, really; she had always wanted children, always loved them, but with uni, then med school, then moving to the states and building a career, there just hadn’t been time to find someone, fall in love, the whole bit.

So she was alone, mostly, and happy, generally. She’d learned from a young age to take care of herself, to find fulfillment outside of other people.

And yet.

A billboard she saw on her drive to work one early fall day caught her eye and changed her life.

A state agency, promoting adoption.

It was cloying and saccharine, and yet, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. An orphan herself, she’d been fortunate enough to have been taken in by family — these children, though, weren’t so lucky.

And so, after a long conversation with a colleague (Joe, the super father) about raising children, there was the submission of an application.

Home visits and inspections, interviews, and then, a call just a few months ago asking if she’d be able to take in a seven year old boy.

Claire agreed, and met Fergus.

And became his adoptive mother.

Fergus was a sweet, bright child, one who didn’t deserve to be shuffled from home to home the way he has been for much of his young life. It broke her heart, the way he seemed to constantly expect to be moved again even as the weeks of his living with her turned into months, and Claire just wanted to do something to truly create a sense of a family unit with him. He loved animals; his excitement at seeing people walking dogs through the park the couple times they’d gone out so far hadn’t escaped her notice; nor had the absolute joy in his eyes when he was allowed to pet one of said dogs. A little artist, he drew them constantly, and though he’d never asked for one — he never really asked for anything — she once found one of his drawings under his pillow (a brightly colored image of what Claire assumed to be him, herself, and a dog, playing in the park), she knew that a canine family members would be a welcome addition.

By some bizarre stroke of fortune (and thanks to a very, very charitable mood of whoever was taking scheduling requests at work), she’d been able to somewhat rearrange parts of her schedule when Fergus came to live with her in such a way that she would also, she thought, be able to responsibly care for a pet.

Claire knew that buying from a breeder would be prohibitively expensive... not to mention, all things considered, she had a soft spot for animals that legitimately needed a home, and felt it was only fitting, all things considered.

So, a rescue.

Fraser’s Ridge Animal Rescue had come up on her search early on; it was immensely well reviewed and not a horribly drive from their small house in the city. As she did more research, the more convinced she became that it was the organization that she would adopt from.

And now she’d sent them an email, taking the first step.

“Mam— Claire?” A small voice called, tearing her from her thoughts. He was still unsure of how to address her, it seemed, and though Claire didn’t mind his use of her first name, the way he caught himself every time he almost called her “mama”, “mom”, or anything similar made her heart clench, just a little.

“Coming, Fergus,” she replied, and went to check on her new son.

*****

Mrs. Beauchamp,

Good morning,

I was pleased to receive your email; we do have several dogs of all manner of ages, breeds, and sizes that you might wish to adopt.

If you could fill out the attached documents, we can then schedule a home visit — just basic procedure to make sure we find the right pet for your family.

If you haven’t already, you’re more than welcome to look at our available animals on our website.

Warm regards,

Jamie Fraser
Owner, Fraser’s Ridge Animal Rescue

Claire quickly clicked open the attachments on the email; it was fairly standard — information about the size of the family, living space, experience owning pets, and the like — there was also a place for a reference from a vet. Claire hadn’t had any pets since her cat (who had gone through uni and med school and even a move to the states with her, and passed peacefully of old age a few years prior), but knew she could still get ahold of her old vet without issue.

Glancing over the email again, Claire snorted. It didn’t really matter that the owner — this Jamie Fraser — thought she was married... but somehow, the assumption amused her a bit. No, she was entirely single, much to the chagrin of her friends and colleagues. Work as a surgeon was hard and time consuming, and even with her newly reduced workload, Fergus was her priority.

In any case, Claire clicked the link in the signature line through to the Fraser’s Ridge website; the image on the front page made her smile — a photo of several animals in festive attire, “Santa’s Helpers” at the top of the image. A particularly rotund, elderly Beagle stared directly at whoever had taken the photo, looking quite indignant.

“I get that,” Claire muttered to no one in particular, and set to finding the list of adoptable dogs.

Fraser’s Ridge was a rescue and sanctuary for all manner of animals, from horses and cattle to cats and, apparently, the occasional rodent (two guinea pigs — Boo and Hillary — caught Claire’s eye as perhaps easier pet options), but she knew deep down that it would be a dog that joined their family.

And there were several to choose from. A smaller dog made the most sense to her; while there was room enough in their house and yard for most animals she knew that a larger dog might be too much for her, to say nothing of Fergus.

So she skipped past a few larger breeds — hounds, pittie types, a beautiful golden retriever…

And then a small, reddish spaniel with soulful eyes stared back at her through the screen. His name was Chester, and he was five years old. The few notes about him said that he was house trained, loved walks and his playing fetch, and that he never went anywhere without his little stuffed Lambchop toy. His adoption fee was a bit higher, but still reasonable.

“Chester,” Claire murmured. He was perfect.

*****

Good afternoon,

I’ve attached the documents you sent; please let me know if you have any question about anything! I haven’t had a pet in a few years, but I’ve included the contact information for Doctor Beaton’s clinic — I took my cat there for quite a while.

You have a lot of very sweet looking dogs, but I have to say that Chester caught my eye. Can you tell me more about him?

And when would you like to set up the home visit? I would like for this to be a surprise for my son, so perhaps when he’s at school?

Claire

Jamie leaned back at his desk, stretching his arms out above his head. Running through the dogs he currently had, he had to agree that Chester sounded like a good option — in truth, he was a model rescue dog in a lot of ways.

He knew better than to get attached to a dog like that; they were always the first to go (and thankfully, almost never were returned). There were a few dogs over the years — more lately — that had become permanent fixtures at his rescue, for no real fault of their own. Whether it was a physical impairment that was too much for an adopter to handle or a disposition issue where a dog just wasn’t meant to live with people, but thrived when given a job to do, some dogs just needed a little extra care, a slightly different approach, and Jamie was more than happy to give it to them.

But the success stories — like this one was like to be — were just as rewarding, and he made a mental note to call Doc Beaton later this afternoon. Chester would likely be in a new home for the holidays, and that meant that Jamie could likely take a new dog in.

*****

At exactly ten o’clock two days later, Claire heard a knock at the door. She’d spent the morning cleaning, making sure she would make the best possible impression. Not that she was concerned — if she had been able to adopt Fergus, after all, she was fairly certain that her standard of living would also be agreeable for an animal.

“Mr. Fraser?” She said as she opened the door and immediately had to look up. She was not a short woman, but she still had to tilt her head upwards to meet his eyes.

“Aye, but ye can call me Jamie,” the giant said.

“Right, then. I’m Claire,” she said, extending a hand. “And you're… Scottish?”

“Aye, I am,” he said, his eyes crinkling just a bit as he smiled. “And you’re a Sassenach.”

“I suppose that’s technically correct,” Claire replied, brows raised. “Though if we’re being truly technical, I’d say you’re an outlander as well.”

He laughed. “Aye, I suppose you’re right.”

“How did you wind up here, if you don’t mind my asking?” Claire continued. She hadn’t been sure of what she expected the owner of the rescue to look like, but it wasn’t this... and, well, she’d not had a lot of opportunities for interactions with adults near her own age — or at all, really — in some time, so if their visit was a little more on the conversational side, well...

“Opportunities,” he said, shrugging casually. “And ye?”

“The same, more or less. I moved here for med school and just kind of never left,” she said. He was remarkably easy to talk to, making her feel instantly at ease; she could only imagine how he must be with the animals at his rescue.

“Ah, will your husband be joining us?” He asked. Ordinarily, the query would have bothered Claire, but somehow, the way he asked it didn’t feel intrusive or sexist.

“Oh, I’m not married,” Claire said, perhaps slightly too quickly even so. “No. Fergus — my son — is adopted—”

“Och, I’m sorry, then—” Jamie started. Claire might have been wrong, but she could have sworn that he was blushing just a little bit.

“It’s no problem,” she assured him. “Can I get you something to drink? Water? Tea?”

“I’m fine, thank ye,” he said, back into what seemed to be his typical warm, efficient demeanor after the little slip up. ”Shall we?”

“Yes, let’s,” Claire said, as she began to lead him through the house.

As she had anticipated, nothing seemed to really be a cause for concern; the fence in the back yard was tall and sturdy, and anything that might cause danger to an animal was carefully secured away. As they walked, they talked idly; he explained more about how he’d come to have an animal rescue after moving to the states to study a particular training technique — something called “natural horsemanship” — with a famous trainer, and she explained her background that led to her pursuit of medicine.

When they found themselves back in her living room, she sighed. “So, that’s it — did I pass?”

“Well, I’ll have to consult my notes,” he said, a mock-serious expression on his face. He then broke into a brilliant smile. “But aye, I think ye did.”

“Good,” Claire smiled, and then, without knowing fully why, continued — “but are you certain I can’t interest you in any tea?”

“Ye ken, actually, tea would be lovely,” Jamie said, his gaze making her heart pound in a not at all unpleasant way.

“Alright, then,” Claire said, and went to put the kettle on. Jamie followed her into the kitchen — which didn’t feel odd, considering the fact that she’d just given him an entire house tour — and they chatted as she set out mugs and a few packages of biscuits.

“So, Chester,” Jamie said.

“Hmm?”

“I think he’ll be a good fit,” Jamie said. “Your house is braw for a dog, ye ken what you’re doing, and he gets along well wi’ kids. Ye’d like to meet him before, though, I reckon?”

“I think that would be a good plan,” Claire agreed. “Just to make sure, you know, he doesn’t hate me or anything. I’m not worried about Fergus — all animals love him.”

“I’m sure all animals will love ye,too,” he replied warmly.

“Oh, you haven’t seen me around goats. Nasty little things, and I’m certain they all want me dead.”

“Goats? Nae, they’re sweet — I’m certain they just dinna ken how to show ye they love ye. Harmless, truly.”

Claire laughed, shaking her head. “Why do I get the feeling that you’d say that about any creature on earth?”

“Because it’s probably true,” he joined in her laughter. “I do have a soft spot for animals who arena always easily loveable. Except chickens. Verra poor company,” he said with a smirk.

“Ah, I knew there had to be an exception,” Claire snorted. “But still, that’s a good thing that you take care of even the difficult ones,” Claire said as she handed him his tea.

“Someone has to take care of ‘em,” Jamie shrugged. “I’m glad it’s me.”

“Indeed,” Claire smiled, and their eyes met. Warmth filled Claire’s stomach as he smiled back at her.

“So, um, do you have family stateside?” She asked, unsure of the cause for the nonsequitur.

“It’s just me here,” Jamie replied. “My family’s all back in Scotland.”

“Will you be traveling back for the holidays?”

There was a slight moment of silence, and Claire wondered if she’d said something wrong.

“No’ this year,” Jamie said softly.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Claire imagined there was more to the story, but didn’t wish to pry.

“It’s fine,” he said, with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “The rescue canna run itself, after all.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“Would ye like to come see the rescue?” Jamie asked suddenly, impulsively. “If you’re free? Ye can meet Chester.”

Claire glanced at the clock on the stove. It was only just eleven. “I would love to.”

*****

As his truck was better suited to the occasionally rough gravel road out to the rescue, Claire had accepted his offer to drive them both and then drive her home again. NPR played quietly in the background — she noticed with a pang of homesickness that it was the BBC segment they occasionally played — and they chatted amiably as they made the half hour drive. A lot of what they discussed was what they missed about the UK — and also, what they didn’t.

It was during a rather lengthy diatribe about Boris Johnson that Jamie pulled up, finally, in front of a large, faded red barn. “Well anyway,” he said, sounding a little sheepish about his rant, “we’re here.”

He hopped down, and before Claire could even unfasten her seatbelt, Jamie was on the other side, opening her door for her. The gesture touched her in a way she couldn’t quite articulate, especially as he extended a hand to help her down. “It’s higher than it seems,” he said, by way of explanation, so she took his hand and let him help her down.

The sound of the truck and their voices had apparently caught the attention of several horses, Claire noted, who all seemed to be eager for some attention from Jamie.

“You’ve got some friends here,” she commented, indicating in particular to one rather impatient looking pale palomino horse at the fence.

“Och, that’s KJ,” Jamie said, indicating that Claire should follow him over. “She’s just a girl wi’ spirit,” he said, standing calmly at the fence as the horse danced about. “That’s a good thing,” he continued over his shoulder, his eyes crinkling as he spoke.

“Hmm,” Claire acknowledged the comment, not certain that the double meaning was intended.

His gentle presence clearly had a positive effect on the horse, as her pace slowed and she came to meet him over the fence. “Ye wanna pet her?”

“I suppose,” Claire said. She’d ridden a bit as a child, but was far from an avid equestrian. Even so, she knew to extend the back of her hand so KJ could get her scent, then gently reached up to rub behind her ears.

“See? Told ya she likes ye,” Jamie commented as KJ leaned her head against Claire’s chest.

“Alas, I don’t think she’d quite like living in my backyard,” Claire replied, running her fingers through the horse’s mane. She’d missed this, in an odd way.

“Probably not,” Jamie agreed, and gave KJ one final scratch. “Now Chester, though…”

“Hmm, true,” Claire said, stepping back from the horse. “Where is he?”

“Just this way,” Jamie said, indicating towards the back of the barn. “On nice days like today, I like to let wee playgroups stay outside,” he said. “They dinna get themselves into trouble if they’re of similar sizes and ken each other, and the air and exercise are good for them.”

Claire nodded. “Is that him?” She asked, gesturing towards a shiny mass of reddish brown fur. He was curled up on a soft looking mat, by all appearances sunning himself.

“Aye, that’s him,” Jamie said, slinging a leash over his shoulder and letting himself into the yard. “I’ll bring him out to meet ye.”

Claire waited outside the small yard, making sure to give the little dog enough space when Jamie brought him out. Outside of the yard, he was an energetic little thing, clearly very excited to be going somewhere — anywhere — with Jamie, and he only grew more excited when Claire crouched down and gently extended a hand for him to sniff. Having decided that Claire was an acceptable new friend, Chester slipped his head under her palm and bumped it.

“Well, alright then,” Claire laughed as she scratched behind his ears. “You’re awfully friendly, aren’t you?”

“Aye, he is,” Jamie said, kneeling next to Claire. Chester flopped over between them, rolling over onto his back. “Och, alright, ye braw wee laddie,” he snorted, giving Chester a belly rub that sent his little legs into a frenzy.

“He really likes that,” Claire commented. “And you said he likes children?”

“Oh, aye,” Jamie said nonchalantly. “I took him in from a family who woulda kept him, but was moving and unfortunately couldna take him too. Their kids were a bit older when I took him in, but they had him as a puppy and he grew up around weans.”

“Good,” she said, reaching over to contribute to Chester’s belly rubs — Jamie’s hand brushed up against hers accidentally, causing her to blush just a little bit.

“Will he work?” Jamie asked, grinning at her.

“Oh, I should say so… he’s perfect.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Jamie said. “He already loves ye.”

“I think I’m already quite fond of him, too.”

And she raised her eyes to meet Jamie’s; he smiled brilliantly at her.

“Oh, aye?” was all he said.

*****
With the rest of the day off, Claire spent her afternoon wrapping Christmas presents for Fergus. Some were practical — he hadn’t come with much more than the shirt on his back, and while Claire had procured various necessities for him in his time in her home, it never felt like quiet enough — and others weren’t, necessarily, but she so badly wanted to make up for the things he had lacked before that she may have gone just slightly overboard.

He deserved it, though. The poor boy had been through so much in his young life — Claire would do anything to make it up to him now.

She had also bought a few things for herself — ordinarily, with no close family to speak of and only a few close friends to spend money on, she would treat herself a little bit at Christmas. This year, she decided to go on and continue the illusion of Santa for Fergus; so, though it felt rather silly, she put a few gifts in bags for herself to unwrap with him on Christmas morning.

As she wrapped, she found her mind kept slipping back to Jamie Fraser. He was truly a remarkable man — kind, intelligent, and clearly incredibly compassionate, if the business he ran and the way his animals responded to him was any indication.

Feeling only slightly silly about it, she wondered what he had been up to since he had dropped her off at home…

And before she even really knew what she was doing, she’d sent a text off to the cell number he’d given her when he dropped her off. “So we can conspire on how Santa can deliver wee Chester to your son,” he had said.

“Hey, it’s Claire...sorry to bother you — I forgot. I should get food before of course — what kind does Chester eat?”

A reasonable text; surely it wouldn’t be a bother to him.

“Claire! No bother at all. I was just thinking of writing you… I feed them Purina One. Chester doesn’t have any allergies or sensitivities, so the regular version should suit him fine — though he does also particularly like the lamb kind (refined taste, of course)”

Claire couldn’t help but smile at his rather wordy message.

“Purina One, got it. Might need to run out and get some — I’m drowning in Christmas presents and wrapping paper right now!” Claire had barely set her phone aside when it vibrated again.

“Be careful, Claire — I’d hate to have to come desire you from a pile of gifts and baubles.”

Claire shook her head, laughing — he was a thoroughly ridiculous human, but she couldn’t say she minded at all.

“I’ll be sure to keep my phone within reach, just in case,” she replied.

And smiled to herself as she began to wrap again.

*****

Jamie texted first the next time; a few days later, Claire had just gotten Fergus settled with an afternoon snack (she’d found that even when he was off on winter break, a routine was very beneficial for her young son) when her phone vibrated again.

“I have some wee toys and treats that Chester likes in particular — would you mind if I bring them with him so he’s got some familiar things when I drop him off with you?”

“Not at all,” she sent back. “I would really appreciate that.”

“Aye then, consider it done. Does he suspect anything yet?”

Claire glanced at Fergus, who was happily fiddling with a small toy car as he snacked. “No, I don’t think so… I also don’t think he has very high expectations for Christmas.”

“Puir lad… well, you’ll make this Christmas magical for him, though.”

She hoped Jamie was right — he’d looked longingly at the tree and the new pile of gifts beneath it, but had almost seemed afraid to actually look at any of them to see if they were, in fact, meant for him.

“Fergus,” Claire said. “How would you like to go look at Christmas lights tonight? Maybe get some cocoa and cookies for a snack, too?”

Fergus looked surprised for just a moment, then grinned. “Can we?”

“Of course,” Claire said, reaching out to rumple his hair gently. The smile he gave her melted her heart. Maybe he was finally beginning to feel like he belonged.

The two loaded up in Claire’s car, accompanied by a tin of Christmas sweets and two small travel mugs of cocoa.

“Well, cheers,” Claire said, toasting Fergus’s mug with her own as they set off. She had learned which neighborhoods in their small North Carolina town had the best lights, and also of the drive through “winter wonderland” (or so it was advertised) that had just started the year before. She turned the radio to a station that played primarily Christmas music and set off on their adventure.

She discovered that Fergus was a big fan of displays with vibrant, flashy, LED lights; his exclamations and “oohs” and “ahhs” at each new and exciting setup thoroughly delighted her. Though she’d learned that Fergus was by no means a quiet child — when he was comfortable — Claire was nonetheless a bit surprised at his expressiveness when faced with the seasonal joy before them.

But after about an hour of driving, Fergus began to fade; his empty mug tilted in his hand as his head began to droop.

“Shall we go home, then?” Claire asked quietly; Fergus just smiled sleepily.

The way the little boy had stolen her heart…

Claire knew that adopting him was the single greatest thing she’d ever done in her life.

After a relatively quiet car ride home, Claire gently carried Fergus in; he was a slight thing, a bit below average height and weight for his age group, so she didn’t have any trouble at all (she had, however, elected to leave the remnants of their treats in the car to deal with tomorrow).

Carrying him up to bed, she whispered a soft good night and gently pressed a kiss to his forehead.

She tucked him in, turned on his nightlight, and went to get ready for bed.

A slight glow from the phone on her night stand caught her eye; it was a message from Jamie.

She swiped her phone open to see a selfie of Jamie and Chester; the latter attired in an adorable little Christmas outfit. “He’s freshly bathed and groomed and ready to go to his new family,” the message read.

“Absolutely adorable,” she texted back. It was. On both counts. Oh Christ, she had it bad.

The telltale dots appeared, then disappeared several times before a reply appeared.

“Happy Christmas Eve, Claire,” the text simply read.

“And to you as well,” she replied, smiling.

*****

The next morning, like most children, Fergus awoke with the dawn. It might have bothered Claire — after all, she had been up all hours providing evidence of “Santa” for the little boy — but not having to spend Christmas alone was more than enough of a trade off.

“Happy Christmas, Fergus,” she said, groaning slightly as he lept onto her bed.

“Merry — happy Christmas to you, too,” he replied exhuberantly.

“Shall we see what Santa brought you?” Claire asked.

He nodded eagerly and all but flew down the hall. Claire laughed, following behind him.

He stood there, silent and still, at the doorway to the living room. Piles of presents surrounded the tree, and meticulously laid sooty footprints marked the (washable) rug Claire had laid down. An empty milk glass and half eaten cookie were on the mantle, completing the illusion.

“He came,” Fergus whispered, grabbing her hand excitedly.

“So he did,” she smiled. “Where do you want to start?”

Fergus looked around the tree; Claire tried to guess where he would start. Perhaps one of the larger boxes, or his stocking filled with sweets —

“Here,” he said instead, grabbing a poorly wrapped present that Claire hadn’t seen tucked behind the tree. Shiny red paper, complete with a bow, and an abundance of extra tape guaranteed that there could really only be one person responsible.

“What’s this?” She asked, her voice just a little thick.

“It’s for you,” he said shyly. “My teacher Miss Kate helped me make it.”

“Thank you,” Claire replied, and gently began to unwrap it.

If Claire had been near tears at the thought of Fergus making her a gift, the actual sight of it got her there completely.

Inside all of the wrapping was a shoebox, and inside that — Fergus had made her a small book. It was several sheets of folder construction paper, bound with colorful yarn. “To my Mom,” the cover read in Fergus’s bold, block print.

Through the little book, he’d drawn more pictures — one clearly meant to be Claire at work, another of them playing in the park together, and various other activities — each with a short sentence about things that he liked.

The last page — nearly covered in red and green glitter — read simply “Merry Christmas, Mom”.

Claire closed it and held it to her chest for a moment. “You made this for me?”

“Yeah,” Fergus said. “I got done with my art early and did that instead.”

“And you kept it a surprise?” Claire asked.

“Well, it’s Christmas,” Fergus giggled.

Claire put an arm around Fergus’s shoulders and squeezed, just a little bit. “I love it,” she said. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Fergus bounced. “Can I open one of mine now?”

“Of course, love,” she said, and she and Fergus opened their gifts — though Fergus, of course, didn’t know that the best was yet to come.

As they sat there, blissfully surrounded in paper and tissue, Christmas crowns on their heads, Claire’s phone vibrated. “Just parked,” the message read.

“Come on in :),” she shot back quickly, her heart leaping just a little bit.

“Fergus,” Claire said. “I just found out that Santa left one more present with a friend of mine…”

“Another present?”

“Yes, love. Do you want to help me get the door?”

He nodded fervently, taking her hand.

“Let’s go then,” she said. They’d just reached the door when the knock came — “that’s him,” Claire said as she turned the deadbolt. “Go on, open it.”

Gently, as though he didn’t wish to scare whatever was on the other side of the door, Fergus opened the door.

“A puppy,” he cried, and knelt to the ground.

“Careful—“ Claire started, but Chester had taken it all in stride and was currently mercilessly licking Fergus’s face.

Instead, she looked up. “Hey,” Claire said softly.

“Hey,” Jamie replied. “Happy Christmas, Claire.”

“Happy Christmas, Jamie.”

“They seem to be getting on well,” Jamie said, indicating down towards Fergus and Chester.

“They do,” Claire said. “Fergus —“

“Huh?”

“This is Santa — and my — friend, Jamie. Can you say thank you for bringing Chester from Santa?”

“Thank you,” Fergus smiled up at Jamie, then looked down at the dog. “His name is Chester?”

“Aye,” Jamie said, crouching down to Fergus’s level. “See, he has a tag so he never forgets it. Your mam will have to put your and her name on there, too, so he always knows where home is.”

Fergus nodded and immediately resumed petting the dog.

“Thank you,” Claire said. “Would you like to come in?”

“Och, no, I cannae impose,” Jamie replied sheepishly.

“Jamie,” Claire said. “Stay for Christmas dinner. It’s the least I can do.”

Without thinking, she realized she’d reached out and taken his hand.

Instead of pulling away, he gave her hand a squeeze.

“I suppose — to get Chester settled in, ken?”

“Of course,” Claire smiled.

It would be the first Christmas of many the four spent together —

And while it was the only Christmas that Jamie joined without being part of the family — figuratively, and then, of course, after one particular Christmas surprise that he and Fergus engineered together, legally — in some ways, the memory of that first Christmas together was the sweetest of all.