Chapter 1: Prologue
It was the kind of shaking that came from the viscera, extending out from the very core of my being. I was certain, if anyone were around to look at me, that it wouldn’t make itself obvious in my extremities, but I felt it nonetheless, as though my intestines were trembling against the walls of their fleshy cavity and my ribs had shrunk to half their size, tight and unforgiving against any attempt to fill my lungs.
As it was, when I finally managed to crane my neck and look back along the road, there was no one around. I wasn’t surprised by this—I’d been almost completely alone on the same two-lane road for miles, putting what was now an unnerving amount of distance between myself and the closest town of any notable size. It felt like only moments ago that I’d glanced at the map on my phone where it sat affixed to the dashboard and sighed a little, relieved that I had made so much progress since stopping for a quick bite in Perth. The drive from Oxford to Aviemore, where my parents had recently elected to live out their retirement among the beauty of the Cairngorms, was eight hours on a good day; a foot of snow on the ground and more coming down, coupled with the fact that I had barely slept four hours after assisting in an emergency cesarean with numerous complications, did not denote this as a particularly good day.
Still, as the initial bewilderment of the slide from road to ditch wore off and I took stock of things, it became obvious that it could have been far, far worse. All things considered, as frightening as the slip had been, especially with the impaired visibility that came with a proverbial winter wonderland, the car was still upright and facing more or less in its original direction, and I hadn’t so much as bumped my head. While my Prius was neither large nor particularly mighty, it didn’t seem at all impossible that I’d be able to back out of the shallow ditch and get back on the road.
Tying my hair up and out of my face, I put the car in reverse and pressed gingerly on the gas, grinning when the wheels found purchase. I released the gas when the progress halted and gave it a moment before I tried again, tapping the pedal just as lightly and hissing a quiet yes when the car moved. Just as my shoulders began to make their way down from my ears, though, the slow but steady progress halted and the car began to rock back and forth in place as the back wheels spun on a patch of ice. I pulled forward and tried again, and again, and again, turning the wheel this way and that in an attempt to find whatever traction I could, all to no avail. Eventually, a little sweaty from frustration, I threw the car (perhaps with more force than strictly necessary) into park and snatched my phone from its mount.
Two bars. Not great, but better than nothing. As I waited for my search results to load, imagining the earful I was sure to get from my father for not having roadside assistance in my contacts when I finally made it home, I clicked on the hazards and scanned the road once more, only to confirm my suspicions that I was well and truly alone.
After numerous dropped calls, I finally managed to stay on the crackly line long enough to actually request service, and was given a wait time estimate of 90 minutes at best.
I gave them my most cordial thanks and hung up the phone, then let it fall with a bounce to the passenger seat. That was not the answer I had been hoping for. With the sun well into its descent and the unusually low temperature hovering just below freezing, it occurred to me for the first time since sliding off the road that not only was this an inconvenience, it was potentially dangerous. A woman alone, in the dark, on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere sounded a whole lot like the start of some crime procedural.
“Fuck!” I cried, throwing the back of my head against the headrest and staring up at the roof for a moment.
Looking down at my phone again—just one bar now, how nice—I groaned with the realization that I had to call my mother. They’d be expecting me around 3:30, but that was certainly out of the question now, and while I didn’t want to worry them with my present situation, I didn’t want to worry them by not showing up without a word, either.
After a few minutes of shameless avoidance, I rolled my eyes in an entirely teenage fashion and called their new home number. I had suggested when they first moved that perhaps they didn’t need one, but they’d brushed it off and diligently shared their new line with everyone they knew. That one had made it into my contacts.
“Uncle Lamb! I didn’t know you’d be there already. How are you?”
“Oh, good, good now that I’m here. Glad to be out of Paris for a while, I’ll say that much. Have you been to the new house yet?”
“No, I’ve only seen pictures!”
“I suppose you aren’t getting much time off these days are you, my dear? What with being a junior doctor and all.”
The pride that sounded in his voice at junior doctor brought a smile to my face despite my predicament.
“No, that I am not. Saved up my vacation days for months so I could do Christmas and New Year’s up here with you four. Speaking of which, how are they getting on with David?”
David and Lamb had been together for over a year, much to my excitement and my parents’ quiet chagrin. Their point of contention, fortunately, wasn’t that David was a man; it was the age difference that did them in. At 44 and 65, it wasn’t insubstantial, but it wasn’t as if they’d met as teacher and student or anything of the like. They’d come together very much as equals, in fact: David was a guest lecturer at the University of Paris, where Lamb taught, in the Art Department. Lamb, having a fascination with all things Ancient Roman, despite his specialty being Ancient Egypt, had attended the lecture, loved it, and happened upon him in a bar later. What I suspected was intended to be nothing more than a week-long fling had simply never ended. I’d never seen Lamb with a serious partner before, and found it entirely endearing.
“They’re quite chummy, actually! I think they’re still a touch...confounded by the whole thing, but of course they’re perfectly cordial. He and your mother are getting along swimmingly, actually.”
“Good! Well, on that note, I’ve some—unfortunate news, actually.”
“Oh? May I direct you to one of your parents, then?”
“Uh—no. You may be a better messenger than I,” I replied, sucking my lips in and scrunching up my face as I awaited his response.
Lamb huffed good naturedly on the other end of the line, and I could practically hear the shaking of his head. As an only and very coveted child, my parents could be a touch overprotective, and this was far from the first time that I’d utilized my uncle as something of a go-between.
“Out with it, then. What’s happened?”
“I—well, I, ehm, slid off the road? I’m fine, the car is fine, it’s nothing to worry about. But it’s stuck, and they said it’d take about 90 minutes for someone to get here.”
After the expected amount of fretting, I talked Lamb down from setting out himself—he wasn’t known for hiring practical cars when he traveled—and hurried my way off the phone when I heard my mother’s voice in the background in hopes that he’d deliver the news and that would be that.
That, of course, was a foolish assumption, and my parents called back—together on speaker, no less—in under a minute, but after a much longer and far more anguished chat, I was once again alone in the warm cabin. With a silent prayer of thanks that I’d had the forethought to download some podcasts for the road, seeing as nothing else was loading, I scrolled through my options before settling on something about a historical murder, which I figured would hold my attention without too closely mirroring my current situation.
While the story of The Lizzie Borden of Michigan did indeed hold my attention, the staring into space was getting to be monotonous, even with the beauty of the early evening snowfall. So much so, in fact, that when I saw headlights in the rearview mirror I hardly registered them.
It made sense, there being no one else on the road: I knew highlanders, and they were all bright enough not to be driving around on nights like this. Perhaps whoever elected that this was a time for travel between towns wasn’t who I wanted to help me, but it was better than nothing.
Double checking that my hazards were still on, I slipped my taser from my purse to my pocket and then began pulling on my winter gear as the car grew closer. When it pulled to a stop behind me, flooding the car with light, I couldn’t help but hiss out a victorious yes, and stepped out of the car into the freezing winter air.
“Run into a wee spot of trouble, did ye?” the man called out, and my stomach dropped directly out of my body.
I’d recognize that voice, the red curls peeking out from beneath his black winter hat, anywhere, even after seven years.
Chapter 2: December 22nd
I was so thrilled by the love I got on the prologue! Thank you for your kind words, kudos, and the overwhelming support I am always afforded when I share my work here. You all rock!
The bulk of this chapter was beta'd with such care by the dynamic duo themselves, Ness and Susan, but the last little section hasn't been seen by anyone else because I am nothing if not a procrastinator. So any mistakes are my own.
“Let me at least scrape yer windows and such before we go,” Jamie said as we stood several feet apart at the boot of his car after loading in my bags.
After a fruitless attempt wherein I reversed the car as Jamie pushed from the front, it became clear that nothing short of a tow truck was going to deliver any progress, much to my frustration. Jamie, on the other hand, had been entirely chipper about it, if a little reserved, and popped the trunk to relocate my bags into his car before he even asked where I was going. I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of finishing out my drive with him of all people, but then, of course the first time I set foot in Scotland since I was twenty I’d run into the poster boy himself.
“Oh, good idea, let me get mine and I’ll help you,” I replied, ducking my head against the thick snowfall as I started toward the back of my car.
“Dinna fash, I’ll take care of it. You just pop into my car and warm up.”
He was already approaching with his snowbrush, looking upsettingly handsome haloed by the sunset and flurries.
“I haven’t been out here any longer than you and you’re still standing. We’ll be on the road faster that way.”
“Havena changed a bit, I see.”
It was difficult to make out, muttered as it was, but I was almost certain of what I’d heard.
“I’m sorry ?” I snapped, head popping up over the boot so I could glare at him.
“Nothin’ at all, Sassenach, just talkin’ tae myself,” Jamie replied easily, flashing me a crooked smile before he started on the hood of the car.
I’d heard that one before, and though I briefly imagined myself thwapping him in the head with my snowbrush, I let that idea recede into a small, bitter corner of my mind and set to work.
Indeed, we were done in only a minute or two, but it was then that I found myself standing dumbly in the open passenger side door of Jamie’s car. It was enticingly toasty inside, but now that I was truly on the brink of spending forty-five minutes in a confined space, alone, with him, I balked.
When I’d left our small university house all those years ago, I was confident that I didn’t want to see Jamie Fraser ever again, under any circumstance; and more than that, I genuinely didn’t think I’d have to. Even when my parents announced their move to Scotland, though it stung a little initially, Aviemore was so far from Lallybroch—it didn’t seem like a real possibility.
Yet here I was.
“Are you getting in then, or am I merely tae transport yer bags?” Jamie asked casually, with the charm of someone who had always had that certain draw about them.
It was upsetting in a strange way, that he seemed so relaxed. Subconsciously, I suppose I’d always thought that he’d at least be a little thrown if he ever saw me again. But it seemed as though the thought of driving around with me for an undisclosed amount of time didn’t make him uncomfortable in the slightest.
“Yes, I’m getting in,” I snapped, and though I immediately felt a little guilty for being so harsh with him—he was saving my ass, after all—I didn’t say anything more as I hefted myself into his Wrangler.
The car was thick with silence as he pulled out onto the empty road. Not too keen on jumping into conversation, I took the opportunity to dig around in my purse for my phone so I could call off the car service and tried to ignore the smell of him as it wrapped itself around me. He wore a new cologne; I hated myself for noticing, and then even more when the smell of smoke and earth and man beneath it was so familiar that my heart began a painful crawl up my esophagus. I pressed my lips together and took four box breaths, drawing the lines in my head, mindful to be small and quiet about it so as not to draw any attention to myself.
“I’m going to call the towing service and cancel,” I mumbled as I brought the phone to my ear. Luckily, my cell service stayed consistent enough that I was able to complete the call.
“D’ye mind telling me where exactly I’m taking ye?” Jamie asked tentatively once I’d hung up.
“Right, sorry. Aviemore. I’m—my parents live up there,” I answered. “I’ll GPS it.”
“Thank ye. I didna ken they’d moved. How long have they been there?”
You’d have no reason to, I thought, and I was only barely able to subvert the connection between the left hemisphere of my brain and my mouth to keep it to myself. Instead, I told him that they’d been there since the end of summer.
“Must be lovely. The Cairngorms are beautiful.”
“I’ve never done more than driven around the outskirts, but the pictures they’ve sent are breathtaking.”
I regretted it the moment I said it. My whole life in Scotland, up until this trip, had been with Jamie; the only times I’d ever driven near the Cairngorms in the shitty Vauxhall he drove in university.
“You’ve no’ been yet?”
I became aware of the way I was picking at the chipping varnish on my thumb as I considered how much information I was willing to share with him. A simple no would answer the question, but that was so standoffish. As much as I didn’t want to be where I was, where we were, I didn’t want to make it any worse than it already was.
“I haven’t,” I answered before too much time could pass that it became odd. “It’s difficult to get time off with specialty training, so I’ve been saving my time to be able to be with them for the holidays.”
“Yer a doctor, then?”
He sounded truly excited, as though it took effort to tamp down the elation in his voice. It reminded me of how proud he’d always been that I was going to become a doctor, the genuine interest he met me with whenever I talked about my studies and aspirations. I could see him in my mind’s eye, sprawled across my small bed on his stomach as I unpacked my bookbag and chattered about whatever I’d learned that day. The image was so clear I couldn’t help but peer over at the man beside me out of the corner of my eye, as if to see if the boy on the bed was still there. They were the same, yet wildly disparate, both a person that I had allowed to see all of me and one who didn’t know me at all. The air felt heavy with spectres; too many iterations of myself and him in such a confined space made it hard to breathe.
“Junior doctor,” I corrected, swallowing the lump in my throat.
Jamie nodded, the right corner of his lip twitching up.
I said nothing. He had called me that, Sassenach , the very first time we’d ever spoken. I was lugging an especially weighty moving box down the stone path that led to the front door of the uni house, hissing expletives and stopping every few feet to readjust my hold.
I heard him coming before I saw him, lumbering down the staircase inside and out the door.
“Let me get that for ye, Sassenach,” he said, jogging the rest of the way when he saw me and holding out his arms for the box.
I sputtered in surprise and gaped at him, but somehow I could tell that he didn’t mean it as an insult even before he explained as much, with a hand at the back of his neck and red tipped ears.
I had become Sassenach in that moment, only and always to him.
Jamie’s voice as it was now, richer and fuller than when I’d known him, pulled me from my thoughts, and I unsuccessfully searched the recesses of my subconscious to see if I’d picked up what he said.
“I just asked how yer family is doing.”
“Oh. Ehm, they’re—good. I suppose nothing much has changed, besides the retirement,” I trailed off. I knew he’d get a kick out of hearing that Lamb had a boyfriend—we’d spent a good amount of time with him as a couple and always got a laugh out of his bachelor lifestyle—but I didn’t want to tell him. Still, politeness got the better of me after a stretch of silence, and I asked him the same question in kind.
He shared much more readily than I, updating me lovingly on the lives of his brother and sister, their growing families, and the success of the vacation cottage rentals his parents had been building on their estate when we were in college. I was grateful for it, filling the space and pushing the ghosts into the peripheral. I had always been so fond of his family, and they accepted me with open arms. Having grown up in a small family, I loved the joyful chaos of our many visits to Lallybroch, bustling as it was. I had once pictured myself as a part of that, as a daughter-in-law, an aunt.
As Jamie’s wife.
Now, it was unexpectedly difficult to content myself with merely hearing about them. I had a sudden urge to see them, one that I thought I had let go of years ago. In the aftermath of our breakup, I had missed them in a different way than I missed Jamie. They hadn’t done anything, after all, but I lost them just the same.
“I’m sure they’ll be glad to ken I’ve seen ye and you’re doing well,” Jamie said sincerely, his eyes flickering off the road toward me for a moment. They were so blue and bright they would be icy if it weren’t for the warmth and geniality that radiated from his very soul, and I fixed my own back on the snowy road.
“Do give them my best,” I said, with more enthusiasm than I had yet shown in his presence.
“Give yer family mine, as well,” Jamie replied, glancing down at the map on my phone where I now held it so he could see. “Nearly there. Are ye excited to see it, then? The house?”
I hummed in the affirmative but said nothing more. I could feel myself winding tighter and tighter as we drew closer. I hadn’t called my parents to warn them of my impending arrival, hoping that I’d be able to get in, and Jamie out, quick enough that they wouldn’t have a chance to thank the kind stranger who’d brought me home, but suddenly that felt less likely. My mother was the type of woman who’d be at the front window the second she heard tires, and where she went, my father was sure to follow.
Though I told him it wasn’t necessary, Jamie insisted on hopping out to get my bag. It annoyed me, just like it had when I was twenty, but I didn’t put up a fuss. It would take all of fifteen seconds, and then he’d be back on the road, tucked neatly into the past where he belonged.
Unfortunately, that was all the time my parents needed to take note of the commotion, and they came spilling into the yard just as he shut the boot, hastily pulling on their winter gear as they went.
“Claire, I didn’t know you were bringing someone home!” David exclaimed, looking up from the stove with a twinkle in his eye.
“I’m not ,” I rather snapped, dropping my purse on the kitchen counter and collapsing on a barstool. I regretted my tone the instant I saw the shocked look on his face—David, of course, had no way of knowing. I was at an age where I should have been bringing dates home to meet my family, but only two had been invited since I left Edinburgh, and even then, none had attained holiday status.
Instead, very much against my will, the last man to make the cut—and the only one who’d left any kind of a lasting impression on me—would be joining us for dinner. My mother, much to my annoyance, had swept him into the house like a tidal wave after I stiffly recounted the story. At present, she was fussing over him in the opposite corner of the kitchen.
“David, this is Jamie Fraser; he drove Claire home,” she chimed in with a smile, and Jamie extended a hand to David.
“Nice to meet ye. Claire and I went to college together,” he supplied helpfully, though of course that didn’t even begin to cover it.
“Pleasure to meet you as well,” David replied, looking positively dwarfed beside Jamie. He’d been ladling out mugs of what smelled like hot toddies and handed the first to our guest, who crossed the kitchen in two long strides and set it in front of me.
Leaning in over the counter, he murmured an apology.
“Yer mam was so adamant, I didna ken how to say no,” he explained.
Lamb sailed into the room before I could say anything, his booming exclamation of welcome to me cut off abruptly when he laid eyes on Jamie.
“Mister Fraser, I can’t say I expected to see you here tonight. To what do we owe the—pleasure?” He spoke a little haltingly, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t glad for it.
Lamb and I had always been close, and I was certainly more comfortable divulging the more intimate truths of my life to him than I was to either of my parents. He, more than almost anyone, knew the details of the breakup, the how and why of it all. I was glad that he had taken them to heart, that even after all these years, he was still just as hesitant about Jamie’s presence as I.
“Jamie, uh—rescued me from the side of the road and was kind enough to drive me home. Mum invited him in for dinner,” I explained as he engulfed me in his arms. When I whispered, “Please kill me,” against his ear, I could feel his belly shaking with concealed laughter.
“Well, my thanks to you for getting our Claire here safely,” Lamb said when he pulled away, clapping Jamie perhaps too harshly on the back as he went to retrieve my luggage.
“How are you doing?” Lamb asked gently, abandoning my rolling bag in the middle of the room and coming to sit beside me on the bed.
“Oh, about as well as I can be. A bit much of Mum to invite him for dinner , don’t you think?”
“Yes, but very much like your mother. He did save her baby from being stranded in the middle of nowhere, after all.”
“I didn’t need saving,” I grumbled.
“I know you didn’t.” Lamb gave my shoulder an affectionate squeeze, and I tipped my head to rest on his shoulder. “But I’m happy you’re home sooner rather than later. It’s just one dinner my dear, then he’ll be on his way.”
I took a long sip from my hot toddy, eyes watering as I willfully endured the slightly too hot liquid.
“I’m just—I didn’t think I’d be this—I don’t know—rattled by it?” I admitted, not meeting his gaze when he looked at me. “And he’s...not? He’s so bloody—”
“Do you still have—”
“No!” I grunted immediately. “I just—didn’t expect it. And I hate that I’m so thrown.”
“It’s alright to be thrown, dear girl. Hell, I won’t lecture at Cambridge anymore for the simple fact that there’s someone there that I don’t want to see. Though I imagine it might be easier now that—well, David.”
He smiled at that, and I couldn’t help but join him.
“With some people, those feelings never go away,” Lamb continued, and patted my knee.
“Why thank you, how very encouraging.”
I brushed him off and stood, mug clutched tight as I made for the door. Apparently I was on my own tonight.
“That’s just the truth of it—I’ve had days when I don’t like that any more than you do now. It doesn’t mean that you want them back or any such thing, or that the relationship was necessarily a good one. But you can’t take back the experiences you shared with someone, the way they shaped you and made you feel. And I think a small part of us will always be the person we were with them; that part gets a little louder when that person is around, that’s all. Perhaps Jamie is one of those people for you. I hope I’m not overstepping when I suggest that he might be—the only one of those people for you? So far? You’re confronting something new, seeing someone who once meant so much to you. New is uncomfortable, but uncomfortable isn’t the enemy.”
Leaning heavily against the doorframe, I sighed. If I weren’t so damn willful, I might have cried. I didn’t particularly want to admit the depth of the effect seeing Jamie had had on me, but Lamb had always had an innate ability to unearth my feelings in their most genuine, unfiltered state, and tonight was no different.
“I just—I didn’t expect it,” I whined under my breath, forcing down the lump in my throat with another healthy sip. I felt distinctly immature, pouting like I was. But this was supposed to be a carefree week with my family, away from the pressures of work and life, not a run-in with the goddamn Ghost of Christmas Past. It didn’t feel fair, and that thought only made me feel more like a teenager.
“Come now, we ought to get back before they wonder what we’re plotting up here,” Lamb said, rising from the bed and taking me by the hand as he so often did when I was a girl. “Just one dinner. I’ll make sure your cup stays full.”
Situated strategically between Lamb and David, the only other innocents at the table, I kept to myself for the most part during dinner, pushing food around my plate and watching as the minutes ticked by on the grandfather clock in the corner. Try as I might to focus on anything else, I couldn’t help but catalogue the barrage of information that Jamie shared over the course of the conversation going on around me.
He was, by all accounts, making a great life for himself. Based out of Edinburgh, he oversaw the main offices of Fraser Distilleries, while his brother Willie (who had finally retired his bachelorhood for Grace, with whom he was expecting twins in February) remained on their ancestral lands to run the production and distribution side of things. Jenny and Ian, unsurprisingly, had been married going on five years, and already had Jamie (his favorite uncle’s namesake), Maggie (already as stubborn as her Mam) and little Kitty (who was fresh off her first steps). Both of his parents were in good health, and after kicking off their retirement with a two-month-long caravan trip down Route 66 in the States, they’d settled into the next phase of their life spoiling their grandkids at Lallybroch. Ellen had even begun painting updated portraits of all their family members, to be hung on the opposite wall of the main hallway. Jamie himself wasn’t seeing anyone, and as much as I wanted to smack my mother for asking, I understood why one might commit homicide at once when she told him that I wasn’t, either.
Thankfully, Lamb stayed true to his word, ensuring that my supply of hot toddy never waned, and though I didn’t think I’d been going noticeably faster than anyone else at the table (with the exception of Jamie, who still had to drive home) I found myself a little lightheaded when I stood to clear my plate. I steadied myself on the chair, then reached out and surreptitiously yanked the hair at the nape of Lamb’s neck as I passed him on my way out in exchange for his snicker.
As I dumped my dish into the compost, I heard a chair scrape across the floor in the dining room. Jamie’s soft but purposeful footfall, familiar to me even now, followed, and I steadied myself with white knuckles on the edge of the sink for a moment. I wanted to be alone with him just about as much as I wanted to hack off my own hand, but as quickly as his footsteps faltered in the doorway and I felt a momentary thrill of hope, they started up again.
“Compost?” he asked, and I directed him to the small bin on the counter.
“I’m sorry tae put you out like this, Claire, I really am. Ye were so quiet during dinner...made me feel awful.”
“I didn’t make you feel any way. Maybe you felt bad because you know you shouldn’t be here.”
I could see the way he winced from the corner of my eye, and I felt immediately remorseful. He’d been nothing but kind to me tonight, had gone way out of his way to help me, and here I was, shitty and evidently more bitter than I even knew over things that had happened a lifetime ago.
“I’m sorry, Claire. I’ll—I’ll go, I’m sorry.”
“No, no, I’m sorry. You didn’t—deserve that. You can—I mean—I don’t know why you’d want to stay, but you don’t need to—hurry out.”
Jamie started to speak but hesitated, mouth moving silently, infinitesimally, before he started again.
“All’s forgiven, Sassenach. I imagine yer feelin’ a bit like me at the moment,” he said with a nervous chuckle, staring at something near the floor and rubbing the back of his neck.
“Oh? And how might that be?” I asked, leaning back against the counter and crossing my arms.
I surprised myself with that particular question, and felt a flush that had nothing to do with the alcohol I’d consumed crawling up the column of my throat. That could almost have been misconstrued for flirtation. When I dared a glance up through my lashes at Jamie, he appeared to be in a similar state, his eyes wide as he looked back at me and shook his head a little, as if to dispel an errant thought.
“Just, ahh—Christ,” he huffed, “surprised, I suppose? I didna...expect ye, tis all. Just as ye likely didna expect me.”
“I didn’t,” I replied with a laugh and a tilt of my head. I felt a little better, knowing that I had had some effect on him, even though it hadn’t shown. He’d always been so bloody good at concealing his feelings. Unable to think of anything to say, I crossed one leg over the other and stared at the door, hoping perhaps to will someone else into appearing and offering a reprieve of being the sole focus of Jamie’s attention. I didn’t want to kick him out of the house, but I didn’t know what else either of us had to offer each other.
“I hope I’m no’ overstepping when I say I’m glad of it, though,” Jamie said softly a moment later. “Tae see ye, I mean. Ye look—ye look good, Claire. And judgin’ by all I heard at dinner ye’ve made a great life for yourself all around. Brings me joy, tae know that.”
I breathed out a little shakily and rubbed at my collarbone, my gaze at Jamie’s feet. I hadn’t noticed before, but he was wearing the same pair of Frye lace-ups he favored in uni. A new pair, to be certain, as the others had grown to be rather beat up by the time I last saw them, but they were the same make that had once sat beside mine in the entrance hall.
“I—uhm—thank you. I didn’t—expect all that, sorry,” I stuttered, and reached for a fortifying sip of my rapidly cooling drink.
“I’m sorry, I didna mean to—”
“No, don’t be, it’s—you...look good, too. And I’m glad things are going well, with—the distillery, your family...”
I jumped, not having heard David approaching from down the hall, and Jamie covered his mouth to stifle a laugh as I pressed a hand to my racing heart. Having gone a little silly with drink, I bit back a grin and flipped him a V sign, mouthing fuck you for effect. He only smiled in return, and for a just a moment I was thoroughly charmed by him, just as I had been at eighteen.
The man had a hell of a smile, there were simply no two ways around it.
But I wasn’t that girl anymore, regardless of the way she’d made her presence as an enduring part of me so painfully known tonight. I knew things she didn’t, had understanding and vocabulary and perspective that she simply hadn’t. I had those things now largely because of Jamie, and though I wouldn’t have changed a second of it, I certainly didn’t want to repeat it.
He could be charming, and I could be charmed, and it didn’t have to be anything more.
Just one dinner, and then he’ll be on his way.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before my mother sent him off with a tin full of holiday biscuits to bring back to his family, and I made my exit for the night as quickly as I could after we waved him off down the drive. Part of me, and certainly not the best among them, wanted to berate my mother for having invited him in, but I didn’t want to kick off our week together like that. If I still felt the need to say something tomorrow, when I’d slept it all off, I’d cross that bridge then.
Much to my surprise, Gillian answered my FaceTime on the second ring. Judging by the Almost Famous poster behind her white wrought iron headboard, she was at her parents house, not out at some pub charming old acquaintances as I’d expected.
“You are not going to believe what the fuck just happened to me,” I huffed before she could say a word, flopping back against the veritable mountain of pillows my mother had selected for “my” guest room.
“Oh, do tell! Yer family driving ye to drink already?” she asked, shifting her glance pointedly between my eyes and the glass of red wine I held in my free hand.
“You have no idea,” I deadpanned, taking a sip to steel myself. “I just had dinner with Jamie .”
“ Jamie Jamie?! How in the hell did that come about?”
I launched into the story with no further preamble. For the umpteenth time in our near decade-long friendship, I was so, so thankful for her presence in my life. The two of us had met through Jamie, and though she had known him far longer than she had me, she had somehow managed to remain genuinely loyal to both of us in the aftermath of our breakup. She was a shoulder to cry on when I desperately needed it, a wing-woman when I tried to sleep my way through Edinburgh that summer. She kept me from spinning out completely, blaming Jamie for everything and writing a false narrative of how things had gone, and how they had ended. It would have been far too easy, had I been alone, or relying on anyone but her, to convince myself that I wasn’t responsible for any of it, that I’d done all the right things and Jamie was simply the worst. That was where the growth had come for me, really—in recognizing my part in things. I doubt I would have done that when I did (or at all) had it not been for her gentle guidance and grounding.
“And he really told ye ye looked good?” she asked with a glint in her eye when I finished.
“Yes,” I answered begrudgingly. I had hoped she’d focus on the absolute injustice of my mother inviting him to stay for dinner, but then, with her I could hardly have expected that with Jamie's comment on the table.
“Weel...Lallybroch’s none too far from Aviemore, really ...could be a bit of holiday fun.”
“Oh my god, Gillian, no! Absolutely, unequivocally, no . I’m looking very much forward to not seeing him again, this week or any other time.”
She let it go, but if she’d been within reach I’d have smacked her for the doubtful look on her face.