It was good fortune, stumbling into Dani Clayton. The best kind of fortune, the kind Jamie isn’t sure she’s done anything to deserve. For Dani to even walk into her life was a gift, the unreliable outcome of too many cosmic dominos for Jamie to count. For her to feel for Jamie what Jamie tried so hard not to feel for her is pure majesty.
It is the best fortune of her life, learning to love Dani Clayton.
Which is, she supposes, why the rest of this blasted house is so hell-bent on getting in the way.
The kitchen is, perhaps, not the most secure location in the manor for two people trying to find a little alone time. Not that Jamie cares. This kitchen is a sanctuary, a beautiful nest of warmth in the world--the very place she first met Dani’s eyes, what already seems a lifetime ago. This kitchen is absolutely glorious, and all the more so this morning.
“This is,” Dani says, mid-kiss, “a bad idea.”
“Doesn’t feel like a bad idea.” Jamie isn’t sure anything with this woman could be a bad idea. Ever since spilling her secrets to Dani last week, every moment they can scrounge feels like the greatest gift the universe has to offer.
They are moments, though--life at the manor hasn’t slowed in the least. Kids are still kids, and Hannah’s not the sort of woman who takes kindly to being left to juggle other people’s business. Dani, for her own part, wouldn’t abandon her tasks for all the horrendously-brewed tea in England.
Moments. Stolen moments. It’s not nothing.
“There has to be a better way to do this,” Dani mumbles against her lips. Jamie, hands sliding around her waist, skidding up the back of her jumper, makes an agreeable noise.
“There is. But someone isn’t interested--”
“Didn’t say that,” Dani interrupts, gasping as Jamie drags light fingernails along the small of her back. “That is very unfair.”
“Making the most of what time we--” Jamie groans, not the least bit bothered at being cut off as Dani presses harder against her. The woman can certainly kiss.
The woman can do anything she likes, just so long as she’s doing it to Jamie.
She’s angling Dani back against the counter, pleased with the way Dani lets her head fall back to give Jamie better access to her throat, and it feels right. Feels like home already, though they’ve been doing this only a single week--and not nearly as often as either of them would like, besides. Still, there’s a certain glorious good luck in the way Dani arches under her hands, uttering tiny breathy sounds that run like music up Jamie’s spine.
Good, she thinks happily, testing the jump of Dani’s pulse under her tongue. Best thing I’ve ever been allowed, maybe. It hasn’t been long enough to tell for certain if Dani feels the same, if Dani, too, has spent a lifetime feeling unworthy of this kind of attention.
She suspects, given what she knows of Dani’s past, they’re treading similar ground.
Suspects, given the way Dani is gripping at her shirt, the way she’s sliding a hand up the back of Jamie’s neck into her hair, Dani is equally thrilled to have this kind of attention now.
She closes her eyes, trailing slow kisses along Dani’s skin, burying her face in the juncture of neck and shoulder where Dani--a week ago, upstairs in bed--had cried out from the gentlest bite. She considers repeating the move now, one hand splayed across the middle of Dani’s back, the other tracing the line of Dani’s jaw. Dani hadn’t been particularly quiet the last time, and the idea of making her make that noise again, that strangled, beautiful noise that had sent Jamie’s eyes rolling back in her head, is just--
Dani’s hands, once so gentle, pull hard on Jamie’s hair. Jamie turns her head, face still half-tucked against pliant skin, to find Owen standing in the kitchen entryway with one hand over his glasses.
“Sorry to interrupt.”
Dani is pushing Jamie back, extricating roaming hands from under her clothes. Jamie resists a sigh.
Every time. Every time they get close to a little space, someone finds their way in.
“You’re early,” she points out, fully aware of how grumpy she sounds. She’d thought they’d have ten more minutes, at least, until the breakfast shift.
Owen, still holding his eyes hostage behind one broad palm, says sheepishly, “Grocery day.”
“Do--” Dani clears her throat, her voice just this side of awkwardly hoarse. “Do you need help putting them away?”
“No, no. All good here.” He, at least, has the grace to sound embarrassed. It’s more than Jamie expects these days. “Gonna have to, uh...”
“Get to work, yeah, yeah.” Jamie pushes her hair back, trying not to be irritated. It isn’t Owen’s fault, really. Not anyone’s fault that work has been demanding, that neither she nor Dani is willing to let responsibility slide in the name of particular urges.
Dani, eyes gleaming with a heretofore-unseen mix of mortification and desire, is grinning a little. The sight is more than enough to improve Jamie's mood.
Well. Somewhat, anyway.
She's still gazing longingly at the counter, the place where Dani had leaned back with such a willingness to let Jamie pin her, when Owen nudges her shoulder.
“Going to have to bleach that now, you know. Unsanitary.” He looks entirely too pleased with himself. Jamie elbows him in the ribs.
Mornings, it becomes swiftly apparent, are not the time for what Jamie has in mind. Mornings are brimming over with little tasks, with kids waking re-energized, with Owen bustling about the kitchen and Hannah sweeping the halls. Inconveniently, Dani looks entirely too tempting most mornings, her face soft with the lingering caress of sleep, and Jamie wishes she could simply greet her the good old-fashioned way: without having left at all.
But such is the nature of good fortune, of newly-planted seedlings. Space. Time. Breathing room. It’s all critical, especially so early on.
Anyway, Dani feels uncomfortable with the idea of regular sleepovers. Something about Flora asking, the morning after their first rendezvous, why Jamie had slept over without telling anyone else had made her uneasy. Fair enough, Jamie thinks. There are some things too precious and too private to share with the family.
Still, the idea of missing out on mornings with Dani--her hair rumpled, her eyes not yet primed to sweep for tantrum or tattling--is shameful. Someday, Jamie promises herself. Someday, mornings will be everything.
In the meantime, they make do. A stolen kiss here. A wayward stroke of fingertips there. Jamie puts herself to work tending the endless lawn, pruning roses and picking weeds. The solidity of earth beneath her hands makes her feel less like she’s going out of her mind.
It might be easier, she thinks, if Dani were less prone to remain within eyeshot. If Dani were inside with the gremlins, spending her day teaching them the finer points of arithmetic and how to stay out of Jamie’s hair, Jamie could try to forget what she’d much rather be doing with her time. If Dani weren’t so inclined to stride the grounds with the kids, chasing after Miles, spinning stories with Flora, Jamie could maybe pretend the world is little more than soil and spade and sunshine without her.
It’s already getting difficult to imagine, a world that doesn’t have Dani Clayton in it.
Already getting near-impossible, in fact, though she’s not entirely sure what to do with that fact.
And with Dani standing just out of reach in a denim jacket and bright smile, Jamie can’t imagine looking at anything else. Can’t imagine finding true joy in the work, when she could be taking Dani’s hand, pulling her into the trees, finishing what they’d started that morning with Dani panting into her shoulder--
“You look distracted,” Dani points out, sidling past with Flora’s hand tucked into her own. Jamie tries not to scowl.
“About what?” Flora asks, genuinely interested in the way only a very small child can be. Dani, one hand on her hip, her smile tilting toward mischief, nods.
“Good question. About what?”
The hole Jamie is digging is quite deep enough already; even so, she shoves the spade into the dirt, rounding out the edges with a frustration she’s certain Dani can read on her face. “Lost chances,” she says. Flora looks perplexed.
“That doesn’t sound very nice.”
“No,” Dani agrees, so pleasantly, Jamie could kiss that smirk right off her lips. “Not nice at all.”
“You,” Jamie mutters when Flora has darted away in pursuit of a butterfly, “are making life very difficult today.”
“Me?” Dani skirts a hand along Jamie’s arm, fingers wrapping gently around her wrist to keep from getting dirty. “I’m not the one who interrupted. Think I was actually the one encouraging the whole--”
“Miss Clayton!” Flora bawls from the other side of the property. “Come here, please! I have to show you this butterfly!”
Jamie laughs. Can’t help it. It’s impossible to be upset with a kid like that.
“Later,” Dani says in a low voice. “After I’ve put them to bed. Okay? You’ll stick around?”
Jamie, who has been having significant trouble convincing herself to leave at the end of the workday, has been sticking around like she’s haunting the damn place all week. Hannah has been polite enough not to snicker too loudly. Owen, she suspects, is nearing the end of his capacity for silence.
“Set your place for dinner?” he asks every night, and every night, Jamie considers rubbing flour into his hair. It’s nice, in its own way, she supposes--having people who laugh without knives hidden in the lining of their mirth. It’s nice to know they’re only laughing because they’re happy for her.
Nicer still, that the kids go to bed at nine.
The couch is as safe a place as any--safer than Dani’s room, where they both know they’d never leave should the door shut behind them, and safer than the kitchen, where Owen and Hannah are still making pleasant conversation. Good for them, Jamie thinks. Maybe it’s time they get their act together, too.
Not that it’s her business. Her business extends exactly as far as this couch, upon which she has lain with her back against the cushions.
Dani, stretched alongside her, hand braced against Jamie’s cheek, is kissing her like she’s more than mildly wishing they hadn’t both decided the bedroom was a bad idea.
“Remind me,” Jamie says, almost conversationally, even as she’s pulling Dani’s braid around one loose fist, “why we’re doing this to ourselves.”
“Because we are mature, responsible adults,” Dani says, leaning back just enough to gaze into her eyes. Does a lot of gazing, Dani, with those impossibly blue eyes of hers. It never fails to make Jamie dizzy.
“And mature, responsible adults have a dislike of beds...?”
Dani laughs, and the laugh turns into a kiss, and the kiss turns into Jamie forgetting the conversation entirely. This is infinitely more interesting: Dani’s legs tangled with her own, Dani’s chest pressing into hers with every drawn breath, Dani kissing her like kissing has replaced all need for oxygen.
Making out on a couch like a couple of kids, Jamie thinks, knowing full-well she’d never been this giddy as a teenager. Had never felt this safe with a woman in her arms, particularly one who rubs against her with this distinct lack of self-consciousness. Dani is rapidly finding ways to make her forget there’s anyone else in this house, anything to keep track of apart from the lit fireplace, the tug of Dani’s hands at the collar of her shirt, the heat of Dani’s kiss on her lips. She allows Dani to deepen with tongue and sigh, allows Dani to press so firmly against her, her body threatens to push Jamie’s into the couch for the rest of time.
Wouldn’t be so bad, thinks Jamie, hand sliding around Dani’s waist. She can hear herself making a series of raw, reckless sounds as Dani’s tongue flicks lightly against her own, curls, urges her to explore Dani’s opening mouth. There’s no one else in the world, she thinks, with Dani’s hand cupping through her shirt. No one else in the world, with Dani’s hips starting to roll against her own. No one else in the--
A noise. Dani pulls away, rolls to look over her shoulder at the doorway, just in time for a small figure to pad into the room.
What is this timing, Jamie thinks, too flustered to really be upset. Flora’s face is miserable, the clear expression of a child who has just woken from a nightmare.
“Bad dream?” Dani asks, like Jamie doesn’t still have her hip in a rather telling death grip. She’s already shifting gears, already setting down her ready to grind like teenagers on this couch persona in favor of her no problem is too small for the au pair one. Jamie releases, watches her roll off the couch and move to Flora like they hadn’t been moments away from closed-doors behaviors.
She’s good at it, she thinks with no small amount of approval as she sits up. More than. Dani is great with these kids, even when it’s least convenient. Even when she’d rather be doing something else, anything else, these kids always come first. It’s just as it should be.
“I’m sorry,” Dani murmurs twenty minutes later, leaning against the front door to kiss Jamie goodnight. “I think I’m going to stay up with her a bit, let her talk it out.”
Jamie shakes her head, smiling as though her skin isn’t red-hot with the urge to push Dani against this door and pick right back up where they’d left off. “Kids,” she says. “They come first.”
Dani looks relieved. It is, Jamie realizes, maybe the first time she’s ever been told as much by someone who had spent the evening kissing her.
“Honestly,” she says, dipping to brush a final soft kiss against Dani’s lips. “You’re doing great. See you in the morning.”
She wonders the whole ride home if, even with her mind on Flora’s nightmares, Dani will miss her taking up space in that bed tonight.
The room at night is not safe territory. The room at night is too great a seduction, too yawning a temptation. If they step inside while the moon is high and the shadows long, they will absolutely not make it back out again until morning.
“Won’t they miss you?” She’s not sure why she’s arguing. Not sure what fool in their right mind would complain, with Dani dragging them up the stairs by the front of their t-shirt.
“They’re on post-lunch clean-up. We’ve got fifteen minutes.”
A lot can be accomplished in fifteen minutes, particularly if your partner-in-crime is as determined as Dani Clayton. Before she knows it, Jamie finds herself shoved up against Dani’s desk, Dani groping for the hem of her shirt.
“There’s a bed right--”
“If I get you into that bed,” Dani says, yanking Jamie’s shirt off and tossing it toward the offending mattress, “we’re going to be a lot longer than fifteen minutes.”
Jamie can’t fault that logic. Particularly not with Dani jerking her own shirt over her head, dropping it to the floor, grabbing for Jamie with hands that are nearly trembling.
She finds she likes Dani this way--standing between her legs, fingers digging hard into her upper arms as she presses in close. There is something about Dani already learning to take charge, already learning what it is she wants from Jamie, that makes Jamie feel as though anything they have to go through to steal these moments is worth it. Dani, who had spent that first night nervously-eager, tracing each inch of Jamie’s skin as it presented itself from under her clothes, has needed only a week to grow bold. She’s kissing Jamie with a heady fervor now, sliding her hands up Jamie’s arms, across her shoulders, as though every part of Jamie that goes untouched is a personal affront.
Something about the way Dani kisses her in moments like these, her mouth sliding hot and hard across Jamie’s, reminds her of how lucky they are--and how quickly luck can sour. Take the moment now, Jamie thinks, tracing the bare skin of Dani’s back with hungry hands. Take it now, because there might not be a later.
It’s an old way of thinking. A quick-fuck-and-say-goodbye way of thinking. Dani hasn’t given her cause, even for a moment, to think it will be the same with her--but Jamie can’t help instinct. Can’t help years and years of sense memory telling her to learn Dani now, to treasure Dani now, because there’s no way of telling when Dani will be gone.
“You’re thinking,” Dani says around a kiss so desperate, it’s nearly bruising. Jamie hums, letting her hands drop to tuck into Dani’s back pockets.
“You--” Dani groans, hiking her hips forward agreeably when Jamie squeezes, pulls her closer. From this position at the edge of the desk, there’s a tempting, too-little friction she finds deliciously frustrating.
“I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be,” Jamie insists, absolutely delighted with Dani’s decision to bow her head and bite at her collarbone in answer. She hisses, buries a hand in Dani’s hair, urging her lower. Fifteen minutes isn’t enough time for everything, but it’s enough for the way Dani’s hand is sliding up her thigh, the way her thumb rubs along the seam of Jamie’s jeans in time with her mouth opening against the front of Jamie’s bra--
Lips parted around a groan, hand cupping the back of Dani’s head, Jamie finds herself not much caring about time, about luck, about anything except Dani’s teeth closing lightly around her through thin cloth, Dani’s thumb pressing hard little circles through denim. This is a good room, she thinks distantly, groaning less softly when Dani’s tongue draws a tight circle to match. This is a good room in which they should spend absolutely all of their--
“I’ll check,” a voice from the hall says. Jamie swears, her hips still chasing Dani’s rough strokes even as Dani’s hand is falling away.
“For the love of Christ,” Jamie growls, head tipping back against the mirror with a thunk. Hannah’s heels are clipping nearer with every second and the door, she’s just realized, never latched properly. Dani stumbles back, bending to retrieve her shirt, laughing nervously when Jamie trips in a dive for her own.
“Erm,” Hannah says, just near enough to the door that Jamie’s sure she’s heard something of their struggle. “Children, I was mistaken. Miss Clayton is not up here. Down in the gardens, perhaps. Let’s just...let’s just make sure tea is ready for her when she arrives.”
Dani, who appears to have thrust an arm through the head-hole of her shirt by mistake, makes a choked noise of displeasure. Jamie, fully dressed and fully electric with the damp memory of Dani’s mouth plastering her bra against her skin, flops back on the bed.
“We could stay,” she says hopefully. “Maybe they’ll forget we were ever here.”
Dani makes another noise, evidently stuck inside her shirt. Jamie sits up, helps her free, cradling her face in both hands when it reappears over the collar.
“Telling you,” she says seriously, “if we don’t get a moment’s space from the rest of that lot, I’m going to--”
“Behave yourself, because we love them very much,” Dani finishes for her, dropping the world’s quickest kiss on her lips. Jamie sighs.
“Probably, yeah. But you could at least pretend to humor me.”
There aren’t many places one might call private, even in a house this big. There ought to be, Jamie thinks sometimes. A place like this, with endless doors leading to endless ornate treasures, there ought to be some secrets.
When she parses it all out on paper, however, only three locations come to mind:
The cellar--which she writes off instantly on account of too bloody creepy. Flora won’t venture down those stairs, it’s true, but Jamie’s not sure the kid’s got the wrong idea.
The forbidden wing--which goes the same way almost before she’s thought of it. There’s something vile about the idea of trying to stow Dani away in those rooms, which belonged once to Dominic and Charlotte, and should be allowed their silent dominion forever, where Jamie’s concerned.
And, finally, the greenhouse.
The greenhouse, she decides, will do nicely. It is, as much as anything save for the secret grove of moonflowers, Jamie’s. Hannah never bothers with the place; too humid for her skin, she insists. Owen, similarly, is put off by the sheer volume of dirt--and, though he’s not likely to say so, the insect life natural to any outdoor establishment. Not a man for spiders, Owen Sharma.
The greenhouse is Jamie’s territory, well-loved and well-tended. She probably should have thought of this sooner.
“You’re sure?” Dani says. “Shouldn’t you be working out here?”
“Different kinds of work,” Jamie replies slyly. Dani laughs, cheeks pink in the afternoon heat. She has not, it appears, forgotten yesterday’s debacle in her bedroom.
Too goddamn right, Jamie thinks. Jamie hadn’t been able to forget a second of it, lying awake in her small, lonely bed a mile away from Dani’s. She’d thought about using the moment to her advantage--almost did, wondering if Dani was doing the same in the quiet of her room--but the idea just couldn’t compare to the real thing.
Could drive back, she’d thought dazedly, letting her hand drop uselessly against the blankets. Could drive back and see if she’d like to go for a drive anywhere else...
She hadn’t, of course. It would only have startled Dani, to have Jamie turning up at her door like some sort of beast in the night. Want her as she does, Jamie has no desire to turn Dani into some object of expectation, a figure of lust to be prowled after without warning. If she wants Dani, she wants Dani to feel the same.
There are times--when they’re all together, when the kids are bickering and Owen is making bad jokes and Hannah is pretending to sip her tea in implacable peace--she does wonder. If Dani feels it the way she does. If Dani, too, is wired too hot beneath her clothes, every article sending her nearly out of her skin as it shifts. If Dani looks at her and remembers the way Jamie had kissed her in the rain, the way Jamie had teased her beneath the blankets of a bed she hadn’t ventured into since.
Maybe she doesn’t, she thinks sometimes--particularly after a moment like yesterday, which had left Jamie shifting uncomfortably in her chair as she’d gulped tea like one dying of thirst. Dani had sat primly, her smile perfect, making conversation as though she hadn’t half an hour before been tracing Jamie through her jeans with the ridge of her thumbnail.
And there are times, like now, where she feels foolish for even worrying. Times where Dani looks at her with blue eyes gone dark, a smile like sweet smoke, and says, “Well, if it’s work...”
“Put me to it,” Jamie suggests, folding before her on the greenhouse floor. It isn’t what she’d call comfortable, the stone unyielding beneath her knees, but when she slides one of Dani’s legs over her shoulder, she finds she doesn't care. It should have been this all along, after all. Dani leaning back against the sofa cushions, watching fixedly as Jamie pushes her skirt higher, bends her head low, kisses her for the first time in over a week.
It’s all worth it, she thinks again, for this. For Dani’s fist clenched around her bunched skirt, her fingers loosening only when Jamie slides a hand into her lap and notches her own into place. Dani squeezes her hand, watching with lidded eyes as Jamie nuzzles into her, kissing in along each thigh, tracing tense muscle with the tip of her tongue
Dani is nodding, the desperate, shaky nod of one who has needed this for days. Her free hand is loose in Jamie’s hair, careful not to pull, and Jamie presses a soft kiss between her legs. She listens for the telltale gasp, for the inhalation to tell her Dani thinks it’s too much--but Dani, instead, sighs her name. Sighs her name and arches off the couch to meet her, coaxing Jamie on.
Forever, thinks Jamie through a throb of her own arousal. Could do this with her forever. She strokes Dani softly, slowly, winding her up with gentle pressure. The world is warm and sweet, the air heavy in the best way, and she follows each rhythmic squeeze of Dani’s hand around her own with flat pressure, gentle kiss, teasing lick. Dani, each time, releases a sound like the first time she’d really let go, really allowed herself to kiss Jamie without fear of anything watching.
All day, thinks Jamie. She could spend the rest of the day, while away the sunlight with her head bobbing between Dani’s legs, drinking her in as Dani writhes beneath her. The rest of the day, with Dani’s skirt to her waist, Dani’s hand tightening in her hair, pushing Jamie closer, pushing until Jamie relents and tugs down ruined underwear, slides her tongue in, gives Dani exactly what they’ve both been chasing for--
She nearly tumbles backwards in her haste to pull away, Dani swearing under her breath. Seconds, she registers. They have seconds to make themselves presentable, Dani hastily arranging her skirt, Jamie pawing at her lips in an effort to rid any evidence of Dani smeared across them.
Who the fucking--
“Jamie?” Miles looks uneasy, poking his small head around the doorframe. Miles doesn’t much like it out here--far from the books and the comfort of the house. Miles would only be out here for an actual reason.
“Here,” Jamie says, trying to look as though she’s been scrounging in one of the pots on the floor for something. She takes a beat to collect herself, all too aware of Dani sitting straight-backed on the edge of the sofa.
“Sorry to bother you,” Miles says, and he genuinely looks it. The boy is so goddamned unpredictable, she thinks, swinging from you’re pretty when you blush to sheepish smiles at the drop of a hat.
“No bother,” she says, like the adult she’s meant to be. His arms hang at his sides, his face almost forlorn. “Something the matter?”
“Broke a light,” he says miserably. “Hannah said to come tell you.”
Bless, Jamie thinks with wry affection. A ten-year-old boy made to tell on himself. Hannah really is picking up on Dani’s affinity for holding these children accountable.
“Broke it how?” she presses, holding his attention. Behind him, Dani is smoothing her skirt down, her breath gradually returning to a normal cadence.
“Ball.” He rubs his nose. “Bounced wrong. I didn’t mean to, I swear it, I just was trying to--” His shoulders slump. “It’s my reading lamp.”
“Bulb or the whole beast?” She finds Dani’s eyes, still dilated. It’s entirely too distracting a picture for this conversation.
“Bulb, I think,” he says. He looks tired. A boy his age shouldn’t even know the meaning of the word; Jamie doesn’t think she truly understood tired until she was in her mid-teens.
Earlier, probably. But that was a different time. Different battles.
“I’ll be up in five with a fix,” she promises, squeezing his shoulder. “Tell Hannah not to bother with the glass, I’ll take care of that too. Steer clear, all right? Don’t need you cuttin’ yourself to hell and back.”
He nods, glancing awkwardly at Dani. “I really am sorry. It was an accident.”
“You’re not in trouble,” Dani assures him. Her voice is, incredibly, perfectly normal. “But we’re going to have to set some rules about playing ball in the house.”
He slouches off, looking embarrassed. Jamie watches him go, feeling very much as though someone ought to be talking to him more. Walking him down a more careful path, maybe. Keeping him out of trouble, maybe.
Shouldn’t be me. All I ever did at his age was court trouble.
“Every time, huh?” Dani says. Her hands are winding together between her knees, knuckles nearly white from the pressure. Jamie bends before her, covers both hands with one of her own.
“Kids,” she says ruefully, meaning it despite it all. “They come first.”
It’s worth all the lost moments, Dani smiling at her this way.
When there’s nowhere to go, Jamie thinks maybe it’s better to just stop trying so hard. Maybe it’s the universe offering a sign that they aren’t--
“--meant to be enjoying each other’s company, as such,” she says, a bit more grumpily than intended. She’s stretched out on her back in the grass, enjoying the incoming chill of evening as the sunset plays over her skin.
“Don’t say that,” Dani chides. Jamie raises her head off the arms folded behind her head.
“And why not? Seems to be the truth of late.”
“The universe has nothing to do with it. We just...have bad timing.” Dani is picking grass, holding thick blades between her thumbs and pressing them to her lips in an effort to produce a strange buzzing sound. She’s managed it twice, briefly, and laughed like a little kid both times.
“Timing,” Jamie repeats. “We’ve tried all the times. Morning, noon, and literal night, Poppins. What’ve we got left?”
Dani, smiling, tosses grass into her lap. Jamie brushes it off, drops flat to the ground again.
“Tellin’ you. There’s a design. We are not designed to get friendly.”
“Oh,” Dani says, crawling across the lawn until she’s hovering just over Jamie’s prone body. “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Wouldn’t you?” All week. All week, they’ve been trying for a bit of alone time, and all week, it’s been a parade of unwelcome feet and unasked-for requirements. She can’t really be angry about it--but there’s a strange, unpleasant sense to the situation all the same. She finds herself flashing back to an old assertion of Hannah’s--Romances don’t fare well at Bly, do they?--with an uncomfortable lurch of her stomach.
“Anyway,” she says, trying to swat the idea away. “Don’t see you looking quite so bothered. What’s your secret, Poppins? Got a trick for satisfaction you haven’t shared with the class?”
Dani, she finds with delight, blushes faster than anyone she’s ever kissed. She leans over Jamie now, her hair falling to curtain both their faces from prying eyes. “No,” she says softly. “I’m just used to it.”
“Used to what?” Jamie cranes her neck, liking the magnetic way Dani seems to drift ever-closer. Her gaze keeps darting from Jamie’s eyes to her lips, lingering a little longer every time.
“To wanting. And not having.”
Jamie swallows, her stomach lurching again in a considerably more pleasurable sense. “Shame,” she says softly. “That’s a problem needs immediate correction.”
“Mm. Seems to be getting worse, actually.” Dani brushes a kiss against the corner of her lips. “Never used to want quite this much.”
“Yeah?” It ought to be embarrassing, how quickly she’s waking under the barest pressure of Dani against her side, Dani leaning over her this way. “Who’s to blame, I wonder?”
“Can’t imagine.” Her smile, Jamie thinks, should be bottled. Her smile should be offered at faerie markets to preserve youth, kindness, all the good fortune the world has to offer.
Her kiss, Jamie thinks with selfish delight, should be shared only with those lucky few deemed worthy. If that’s Jamie--if it’s Jamie for even a little while--all the tiny dark corners of the world are worth their shadows.
She touches a hand to Dani’s cheek, holding her up even as Dani presses down into her. Dani kisses like there is nothing else to be done for it, like kissing was invented for the sheer purpose of Dani being allowed to do it. Her fingers trace Jamie’s brow, the line of her nose, the bow of her lips, and she follows every stroke with a kiss that makes Jamie feel as though she could fly.
Forever, she thinks again, that same stupid certainty. Could do this forever. Lying in the grass with Dani, dirt smudged on her cheek and Dani’s lips soft on her skin, she could make a whole life out of nothing more. Nothing but Dani’s arm under her trailing fingertips, Dani’s leg between her own, Dani seeking a lazy rhythm against her thigh as she kisses Jamie with that sweet, familiar abandon Jamie can still feel in her dreams.
Her fingers are tugging at Jamie’s belt.
Her hand, gentle, nervous, is popping open the button of Jamie’s jeans.
Jamie, one hand in her hair, the other sliding around her waist for something to hang onto, feels as though they are testing all the gods. And maybe that’s fine--maybe that’s right--maybe there aren’t enough people pressing up against the boundaries set by gods who can’t, won’t, care for those they oppress.
“Seems,” she murmurs into Dani’s neck as Dani turns from her kiss to focus on the path her hand is following, “a bit dangerous, don’t you think?”
“Kids are inside,” Dani says. Her fingers are deft at Jamie’s zipper. Her smile is still the best thing in Jamie’s world. “Hannah promised she’d keep them occupied until dinner. A personal favor.”
“You told Hannah we--”
“Needed a little time,” Dani says simply. “I did. Are you complaining?”
Jamie isn’t. Jamie can’t think of anything stupider than to look up at this woman, with her blue eyes and her summer smile, and complain about any of it.
She is kissing Dani with firm, feverish desire, and Dani is sliding a hand into her jeans, and the sunset is red-gold in Dani’s hair, red-gold on Dani’s skin, red-gold on this moment Jamie has been searching for since maybe even before Dani Clayton walked onto these grounds.
There’s good luck, she thinks, and good fortune, and kind stupidity to a universe that arranges itself to allow for such soft grass, for such a glorious sky, for Dani making a sound of surprised pleasure at finding Jamie ready for her with little coaxing. Good luck, as she presses toward Dani’s hand, and good fortune, as Dani pulls her lip between gentle teeth, and kind stupidity as she is sighing--
The voice is stuffy, stiff, embarrassed. It’s been a very long time since Jamie has thought of herself as a violent person, but she thinks she could quite happily punch someone tonight.
Dani’s hand is gone, her face a bright red that has nothing to do with the vanishing light. Jamie, sitting up, wrestling her belt back into place, grinds her teeth.
“Listen,” she snaps at the man-shape in the growing dark, “I appreciate the sentiment, but we don’t give tours after-hours.”
“Jamie,” Dani whispers.
“We don’t give ‘em at all unless you call ahead, in fact. So if you’d like to take it up--”
“Jamie,” Dani hisses. Jamie shakes her head.
“No, s’all right. If you’d like to take it up with Lord Wingrave’s secretary, I’m sure she’d be only too happy to schedule you in for--”
“Terribly sorry,” the man says, actually sounding it. “I know I should have--I mean, I probably should have called ahead--oh, there’s no good way to do this, is there?”
“Mr. Wingrave,” Dani says, in the wheezy sort of voice of one who has recently been punched in the stomach. Jamie’s own gut clenches.
Dark. Distracted. Haven’t heard or seen the man since the fucking funeral, who was I to-- “Sir. Sorry--I didn’t realize--”
If Henry Wingrave is furious to have found two of his employees using his grounds in a manner not at all befitting a great, good place, he is at least genteel enough not to show it. If he’s furious, beyond that much, to have one employee not even recognize him, he tucks that detail far from Jamie’s observation.
“Anyway,” He clears his throat. “I was--that is, I thought it was high time I...past time, really, I visit the...”
“Children,” Dani says, in the brisk tone of one who has been raised in utter politeness her whole life. “Of course. They’re with Mrs. Grose inside, helping prepare dinner.”
“They’re--helping cook?” Henry looks perplexed. Jamie, despite the roller coaster of emotions still sweeping her along, hides a grin. Only a matter of weeks, and Dani’s already left an impression on the world not restrained to her job description.
“We,” she murmurs to Dani as Henry hastens his stride--to get away from them, she suspects--and sets off for the house, “are cursed.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Dani mutters back.
The words reverberate around Jamie’s head for days. Not if I have anything to say about it. It had sounded so like a promise when Dani had said it, a rebuttal of the very cosmos. It had sounded like Dani was planning on taking matters into her own hands.
The days, however, seem to have different intentions. Henry just being here throws off the rhythm of motion around the manor--no one seems quite sure of what to do with themselves with the risk of him coming around the corner. Hannah has taken to cleaning every surface two or three times a day; Jamie feels as though, to keep up, she shouldn’t set foot inside the house at all unless summoned to make a repair.
Dani, alone of all of them, hasn’t changed her routine. She moves about the grounds with the kids, constantly pleasant, constantly keeping up conversation. Some of the time, passing Jamie, she pauses to chat; more often, she catches Jamie’s eye, smiles, looks as though she has no idea Jamie has spent three days replaying the moments before Wingrave had intruded.
Not that there’s anything to be done about it. Not that she can, in good conscience, abandon her work with the boss onsite. Not that she would, anyway, because this job is important, these people are important, and Dani needs to be here for these kids--
“You look...tightly-wound,” Hannah observes on the third day. Jamie, whose every muscle is aching from overuse, having been put to task digging beds for the next season’s vegetables, looks at her with wild eyes.
“Don’t know what you mean.”
“He’ll only be here the week,” Hannah goes on. Jamie gives a grin she’s aware borders on a grimace.
“Man owns the house. Man can stay as long as he likes.”
She wishes he would go. Wishes things would go back to normal--even a normal that meant she and Dani are doomed to a thousand daily interruptions. It’d be better than being able to steal no time at all.
Good luck, Jamie thinks dully. A concept which, when expected, often flees the scene.
She can’t blame Dani for keeping her distance. She, certainly, has been doing much the same, too aware of Henry Wingrave’s awareness of them. Something about being walked in on by a person’s boss really does shatter the mood.
“You all right?” Owen asks on the fourth day. “You look ready to skin a man.”
“Offering your services?” she asks through gritted teeth. Dani is upstairs, running the kids through morning chores. Owen tsks, tearing off a hunk of bread and stuffing it into Jamie’s hand.
“Eat. No better remedy for impending murder.”
“Shows how many men you’ve murdered,” Jamie teases, taking a bite. He raises his eyebrows.
“Not for lack of trying, I can assure you.”
She’s fine. She can be fine. Dani is fine. There’s a simple maturity to the way she moves around Jamie at meals, the way she touches Jamie’s hand with the lightest of brushes. She smiles at Jamie like a woman perfectly at home, turns to make conversation with Henry like he’s been here all along. Just a member of the family.
A member who has earned daily, detailed reports on his niece and nephew, in fact. Jamie conceals a little grin each time Dani launches into a summation of the day, determined to pass on every scraped knee and lesson learned. Henry Wingrave has yet to master his expression of overwhelmed surprise.
“So,” Dani says at dinner the fifth day. “That’s how we learned Miles may have a mild citrus allergy. Something to keep an eye on.”
“Right,” says Wingrave, looking somewhat terrified.
“And Flora has almost mastered multiplication tables up to five,” Dani goes on, “so she can always use someone to run through those with her.”
“All right,” says Wingrave, fumbling for his water glass.
“And I will be back by lunchtime tomorrow,” Dani says pleasantly, “so don’t worry. I’m sure they can’t lock you into too many closets in the meantime.”
“Closets?” says Wingrave, truly bug-eyed now.
“Back?” Jamie says, her throat going dry.
Judging by the grins Hannah and Owen exchange, she’s starting to think she should have paid a bit more attention to the dinner conversation.
“What happened,” she asks Dani in a low voice, watching Dani toss a change of clothes and a toothbrush into her backpack, “to putting the job first?”
“Henry’s here,” Dani says, like it explains everything. “They’re his family. I think a night alone with them will be good for everybody.”
“But--you got him to agree to it.” Henry Wingrave, who hasn’t set foot in this house in years. Henry Wingrave, who has been so absent, Jamie almost forgot what he looked like. “What fuckin’ magic spell did you weave?”
Dani hoists her bag over one shoulder, offering a positively sunny smile. “I simply reminded him how much the kids have been missing their uncle. And how they could all use a little time to themselves.”
“Right,” Jamie says slowly. “They could use the time.”
Dani hums, sliding past her into the hall. There is no subtlety whatsoever in the way she runs a hand down Jamie’s arm on the way, her nails dragging gently as she passes. Jamie shivers.
“Coming?” Dani asks pleasantly.
A great deal of self-control goes into the wishing of goodnight to all, Jamie trying her best not to look as though she’s about to stride headlong into a personal Christmas. Dani bends to hug Flora, ruffles Miles’ hair, looks for all the world like she truly is sorry to leave them for the evening. Henry, hands in his pockets, looks as though he’s dimly considering taking back the offer of a night off.
“You’ll be fine,” she assures him in a voice the kids seem not to hear. “They really have missed you.”
She’s kind. Kind, and well-mannered, and not looking at all like the idea of spending a night at Jamie’s flat has been her plan for days without letting Jamie in on it.
“You could have told me,” Jamie says when they reach the truck. “Been thinking for days you were doing just fine--”
“Well, what if it had fallen through?” Dani replies, buckling in with that same easy smile she’d been wearing as she waved goodbye to the others. “I’d already gotten your hopes up enough, I thought.”
Jamie makes a mock-irritable noise undone immediately by the force of her own grin. “I didn’t know better, I’d say you did it on purpose. Just to watch me squirm.”
“Does that sound like me?” Dani wonders. Jamie moves to lean across the console, fully intent on kissing the smile off her lips, and she ducks her head out of reach. “If you start that now, they’re going to find a way to keep us here.”
Dani is cheerful the entire ride, delighted with the prospect of seeing Jamie’s home for the first time. Jamie doesn’t quite have the words to explain that her flat is simply a warm place to land, somewhere to store her boots and keep her head down. Home, she thinks, is a bustling manor full of too many opinions. Home, she thinks, is Dani’s smile, Hannah’s laugh, Owen’s bad puns.
Still, there’s something sweet about Dani making conversation about home and hearth and having a place of her own someday. She says it that way--my own--but she’s looking at Jamie when she says it, trying to tamp down a too-big grin, and Jamie has to bite down on the impulse to offer her a key here and now.
Soft, she reminds herself, easy. Let it grow on its own time.
The pub is too alert to risk, Jamie terrified if they set foot inside, something else will step between them. She leads Dani around to the back entrance, up a flight of stairs, to the simple door with its simple double-lock.
“Isn’t much,” she says, working the key. “But it’s clean, at least. You know, if you’d given me better warning, I could have put up streamers--”
Her door has barely shut again when Dani’s hands close over her shoulders, Dani dragging her bodily into the meager living room. Jamie laughs, startled, nearly tripping over Dani’s bag where she drops it unceremoniously at their feet.
“A drink, maybe?” Jamie teases. “Some light conversa--mmph.”
Dani, all polite pretense gone, shoves her down into an armchair. She follows in short order, straddling Jamie’s lap and pulling her into a hard kiss that does wonders for erasing any nerves Jamie had been entertaining about showing off her living quarters for the first time.
“We could,” Jamie suggests, as Dani moves to bite at her earlobe, her hands jerking Jamie’s shirt up in a single rough motion. “We could talk?”
“Do you want to talk?” Dani leans back, breathless, Jamie’s shirt wadded up in her hands. Jamie shakes her head.
“Great,” Dani says, tossing the shirt over her shoulder. She grasps Jamie’s jaw in one hand, slides her fingers around Jamie’s wrist with the other. Almost before Jamie can register the motion, she’s guiding Jamie’s hand up her skirt, sighing into Jamie’s mouth.
Jamie makes a deeply undignified noise. She had expected cotton; she discovers already-wet skin, instead, Dani pushing impatiently against her fingers.
“Honestly,” she groans, “you had a plan and you didn’t tell me.”
“More fun this way,” Dani pants. “Like a--like a surprise--”
Jamie groans, fingers tracing slick skin, feeling very much as though she’s skipped to the best part of the movie without realizing. Dani has returned to her favorite activity: kissing Jamie like she was put on this earth to do it. She holds fast to Jamie’s wrist, as though afraid letting go would give the universe an opening to interrupt. Something about the tension in her fingers, in the way she slides her hand up to cup Jamie’s, is almost too much to bear.
Something, too, about how she casts her head back and her hips forward, how she grips at Jamie’s neck and closes her eyes. Dani, who has spent the last week looking so unruffled. Dani, who has spent days behaving as though she hasn’t minded in the least not touching Jamie.
“You,” Jamie murmurs, “got used to wanting, huh?”
Dani makes a thin noise that might be shut up, even as she’s shifting in Jamie’s lap, spreading her legs to offer Jamie greater access. Jamie presses her face against Dani’s shoulder, heat climbing at a nearly unendurable rate up her own neck as she thrusts upward, as Dani clenches around her fingers with a low moan.
“More often,” Jamie says, unsure which of them she’s urging. Dani is rolling her hips, rising and falling in small motions as Jamie curls. “We can come here more--”
Dani is nodding, grinding herself down on Jamie’s hand, heedless of how she looks with one hand in her own hair and the other grasping Jamie’s shoulder hard enough to leave marks. Jamie can’t quite settle on where to fix her gaze--can’t quite settle on any one part of a glorious image. On the way Dani is biting her lip--or the outline of her own hand moving under Dani’s skirt--or the distinct look in Dani’s eyes when she opens them and stares at Jamie’s mouth.
Dani kisses her, wiping the rest of it away, all tongue and gasp and low, wicked groan. Jamie follows the pace she sets, careful despite herself not to push too hard. It’s all still new, she reminds herself, even as Dani is bucking, squeezing at her shoulder with nails dug deep. It’s new, and it’s magnificent, and Dani is in full control, her hand urging Jamie as deep as she can manage with convulsive little jerks.
She’s repeating Jamie’s name as if unaware of doing it, the syllables muffled against Jamie’s lips. Jamie leans back, eyes open, watching her come apart with the shuddering desperation of a woman who has been craving this for weeks.
“More,” Jamie repeats, sliding her free hand around Dani’s back to support her as she arches, “often.”
Dani, trembling, shattering, her grip around Jamie’s wrist going slack, makes a long sound that can only be agreement.
It’s tempting to just stay here forever. To just stay in this chair, with Dani curled against her chest, her forehead slick with sweat. Jamie, still buried deep, gives her fingers an experimental twitch, and Dani makes a noise she suddenly wants to coax forth every day for the rest of her life.
There is so much to catch up on, she thinks, as Dani begins kissing her neck. So many surfaces of this flat that have gone unchristened, unblessed by the presence of Dani Clayton. She shivers, whimpering a little as Dani shifts her hips and eases Jamie free, inspecting glistening fingers with interest.
“Not that I’m complaining,” Jamie says, drawing a deep breath when Dani raises her hand to soft lips and licks gently at one finger. “But what sparked this plan? Thought--fuck, keep doing that--thought we’d decided the job came first.”
Dani seems to think it over, watching Jamie as she carefully, methodically cleans each finger with slow curls of her tongue. At last, apparently satisfied with a job well done, she presses Jamie’s hand against her chest and says, “I was going crazy.”
“Didn’t look crazy,” Jamie counters. “Looked upsettingly sane, all things considered. I was going crazy.”
“Are you feeling better now?” Dani’s doing that thing again, that too-polite voice that makes Jamie uncomfortably warm. Or maybe that’s just the way she’s sliding down out of Jamie’s lap, making herself comfortable between Jamie’s spread knees.
“Could always improve.”
Dani nods, hands roaming up Jamie’s thighs, nails dragging along denim as though she hasn’t a care in the world. Jamie grits her teeth around a smile, unable to restrain amusement.
“Pleased with yourself, aren’t you?”
“Oh, very.” She’s working open Jamie’s belt slowly, taking her time, leaning in to kiss Jamie’s stomach as she goes. “Are you not?”
“I could be convinced,” Jamie says in a thin voice that sounds, to her ears, very unlike herself. It’s nearly impossible to sound cool and collected, she thinks, with Dani kissing her this way, her fingers sliding Jamie’s belt free of her jeans and dropping it to the floor. Impossible to look together in the least, with Dani sliding the zipper down one perilous tooth at a time, her head dipping as she licks a hot stripe along Jamie’s waistband.
“You sure you don’t want to, uh--see the bed?” Jamie shifts awkwardly, helping Dani to undress her, laughing with almost idiot giddiness when Dani shakes her head.
“Later. I like you here.”
Jamie inhales. Like you anywhere, she thinks, and understands it’s the truth--that she’d like Dani in her bed, or back at the manor, or anywhere Dani gets the urge to explore while holding her hand. There is no place in the world that wouldn’t benefit from the warmth of Dani’s smile.
“You’re thinking,” Dani accuses, making short work of the remainder of Jamie’s clothes. Jamie shakes her head, shivers when Dani kisses her inner thigh.
“Most definitely am not.”
“You’re welcome to try,” Dani says pleasantly. “Might even impress me.”
She stops talking after that, her mouth occupied with infinitely more agreeable actions, and Jamie doesn’t even try to take on the challenge of crafting thought. Not with Dani finally, finally granted this invitation to taste and explore and taunt with small, too-light laps of her tongue. Not with Dani finally, finally given the time to push apart Jamie’s thighs and bury herself in Jamie.
She is in no hurry, even as Jamie rocks restlessly to meet her. Her progress is slow, teasing, seeming to cherish every second of Jamie shifting beneath her, straining to press closer, straining to urge more contact.
“Impressed,” Jamie says, when she manages to recover the ability to see Dani around sparks of black and gold behind her eyelids. “Yes. Very.”
Dani lays her head against Jamie’s lap, closes her eyes, sighs across still-sensitive skin. “You sure? I haven’t had much practice. I could, uh...” She’s tracing swollen nerves, tracking with the tip of her finger the place she’d just stroked her tongue until Jamie broke. Jamie’s eyes roll back.
“Not a very big flat,” she says breathlessly, pushing clumsily up from the chair and pulling Dani to her feet. “But plenty to break in, all the same.”
Dani’s gaze roams curiously over table, countertop, floor. She settles on the far corner, on the switch of thin fabric hung from the ceiling to break up the room.
“Bed, I think,” she says, almost shyly. “I’ve been looking forward to your bed for a long time.”
It is, Jamie thinks, the best fortune she’s ever been granted, just to feel Dani drag her by the hand. It is the best fortune she could ever ask for, watching Dani toss her head back and laugh as she spins on her heel, kisses Jamie again, again, again all the way to the bedroom.
The absolute best fortune of her life, loving Dani Clayton.