A year and three months later
The last time Claire had attended a game of shinty otherwise known as camanachd in the Highlands, she hadn't expected it to lead to meeting the love of her life. The feeling was deeply evocative. Standing here reminiscing the not so distant past. Looking out into Broch Mordha's pitch and hearing the deafening cheers of people she'd become acquainted with and grown to love. Players' cleats and camáns skidding through turf and dirt, and feet thundering against the ground in wind sprints. She absorbed the excitement permeating the Highland air and acknowledged the moment of contentment for her new life and future. Gratitude wrapped around her heart and squeezed, threatening sentimental tears to spill. Mentally shaking herself, she inhaled deeply through the intense emotions of memory and refocused on the game.
Into the final stretch, Jamie dodged a tackle with lethal speed and powerful drives, launching the ball with his camán to his brother. In turn, Willie propelled it under the crossbar to the wild roars and applause of the spectators. Just as the whistle blew, signalling the end of the game and a win for Broch Mordha, Angus, one of the players, blew her a kiss. Jamie glanced up in time to witness it. She wasn't surprised at all. It was pretty uncanny how he could sense her presence and the attention she garnered from a distance as if he could perceive her every mood, movement and thought. Blue eyes penetrating hers from across the green, he slowly smiled, clearly oblivious to the celebratory backslaps he received from his teammates. Watching him jog purposely towards her, her attention was momentarily snagged once more by her flirty offender.
"Ach, bonnie, Claire!" Angus bayed theatrically, placing both hands over his heart. "Will ye lend me a kiss, my sweet lass? I promise to give it back to ye with returns."
Fully aware of Jamie's possessive streak, Claire bit back a smile as she watched him jerkily whipped off his helmet.
"Give it a rest, Angus," he barked. "And back right off. She's as good as married to me."
"As good as, ye say?" Angus grinned, loping beside Jamie. "That's no' good enough. I still have a chance, and I believe I have six weeks to convince Claire she's chosen the wrong lad to marry." He winked at her and gave Jamie a sideways shoved on the shoulder. "I'm gonnae take my chances."
Jamie abruptly tore his gaze away from her and dropped his camán and helmet to the ground. Grabbing Angus' by the neck, he playfully put his teammate into a headlock. "Over my dead body," he growled, slapping Angus' helmet for good measure. "Now leave my lass alone, ye manky git!"
Angus wheezed as he forcibly extracted himself from Jamie's clutch and lurched forward. "Away an' bile yer heid , ye numpty!" His hand flew to his neck and glared. "Ye shouldnae be let oot . Ye're bloody mad where Claire is a concern."
"That'll teach ye to flirt with my lass," Jamie replied with smug satisfaction.
Angus' scowl deepened. "Bloody hell, lad, dinnae get yer pish in a froth ... Claire's only got eyes for ye. Ye act like as if ye dinnae ken that." He dramatically kinked his head sideways to the right as if some damage had been done to his neck. "I swear to God, ye're more territorial than my chihuahua but not as cute." When Jamie lunged his way, he made a quick sidestep and began running backwards. Angus then brought his attention back to Claire, deliberately blowing her multiple air-kisses, clearly in an attempt to taunt Jamie. "Right, sweetheart," he called out to her. "Ye ken where to find me in case ye decide to leave this mardy bawheid . Mind ye, in case naebody has warned ye yet, his gene pool needs a good dose of chlorine."
"Bugger off, or ye'll be going home with a black eye or worse ...in a full-body cast!" Jamie warned.
"Wanker!" Angus hollered, launching Jamie the one-finger salute before heading out of the field.
Claire watched Angus' disappearing form and sighed. "Men! Insufferable, the lot of you." Her gaze flicked back to Jamie, and she shook her head at him. "Well, there ...what do you have to say for yourself?"
His hawk-like eyes immediately fastened to hers, luminescent electric blues like fire in water and midwinter sky. His coppery locks had turned dark with perspiration, beads of sweat sliding from his temples down the sides of his neck. He had several days worth of scruff hugging his jaw and a sport shirt that stretched against his broad, solid shoulders and trim waist, muscled abs precariously straining against the material. Powerful quads flexed as he moved, the bulge at his groin tucked away in compression undergarment still definable in his mud-covered white shorts, leaving little to the imagination and causing her to bite her lower lip. Damn, the sexy devil!
"Ye like what ye see, Sassenach?"
Her eyes snapped back to his, unable to reply, way too absorbed in admiring his physical attributes. She could only stand there and anticipate as he headed towards her, got hold of her jaw and brought her lips to his for a hard kiss. His display of proprietorship should have annoyed her, but it didn't. His calloused touch and firm grip were softened by deep affection and longing, telling the world he belonged to her as much as she belonged to him. It was as if they hadn't spent the past year planning their wedding and spending time together whenever their hectic schedule would allow. A period that was supposed to have tempered and slaked their passion and obsession for one another. Instead, time only served to intensify it at an exponential rate.
She sighed at how good he tasted and felt. He smelled of damp earth, the Highlands' breeze and all man. After a few days of separation, being kissed by him was like her first deep breath after surfacing from under the water. God, how I've missed him!
Humour shaped his mouth. "So ye missed me then?" he whispered as if reading her thoughts. His hand slipped underneath her top and caressed the skin on the small of her back, causing the words she'd wanted to say next to evaporate into thin air.
She breathed unevenly and eagerly kissed him back, twining her impatient fingers through his damp locks. "Uh-huh," was all she could manage in response.
"Good to hear, but I'm gonnae have to be straightforward with ye," he muttered between kisses, seemingly uncaring of the people in their vicinity and sallies of "get a room" directed at them. "I'm no' feeling sensible right now, so ye better have a very good answer for me." He bit her bottom lip hard before soothing it with a lick of his tongue. "Why didnae ye tell me ye're arriving early? I could have picked ye up at the airport."
"But I ..."
"Ye didnae even give me a polite warning," he interrupted, squeezing her hip. "Showing up here looking beautiful and giving the menfolk an eyeful in those tight jeans." He clucked and pressed his heated lips against her jawline. "It doesnae even help that I made it clear to anyone who has eyes, ye're with me in every way. And still, ye get these pesky attentions. What am I supposed to do with ye, eh?"
"Knock me out with your camán and drag me home hollering like a caveman that you are?" she bristled.
"Dinnae tempt me, Sassenach," he grumbled. "I told ye often enough I want to be the first to see ye the moment ye arrive in Scotland."
She tried to extricate herself from his hold, but his grip wouldn't allow it. There was no way around when he was so much stronger and more bull-headed. So she yielded and relaxed in his arms. "And wot? Allow you to miss this game? Not a bloody chance in hell. You've been looking forward to this game for weeks."
"Wrong answer." He playfully nipped her earlobe. "I decide if I want to miss the game or no'. Not ye."
Her head shot up, and she raised her chin in defiance. "And for your information, I decide if I want to be picked up or not."
He frowned so hard, a muscle popped on his cheek. He looked like he was attempting to choose his words wisely. After a couple of heartbeats of stare-off, he let out a heavy exhale, fanning her face with his warm minty breath. "I'm no' gonnae say anything to that. Only because I'm too happy to have ye back."
She arched an eyebrow at him.
"Fine!" He rubbed his face with a hand. "I dinnae want to bicker with ye. It's just that ..."
"It's just wot?"
His face softened, and he gave her an apologetic smile. "I'm so sorry, Sassenach. It's just that I've missed ye ...loads. And that touchy-feely editor of yers has spent more time in yer company than I have these past few months."
She slapped his chest. "His name is Alex, and I wish you would stop calling him names. He grew up travelling the Continent, and you ought to know, touchy-feely is a European thing. Besides, ..." She took a deep breath. "...allow me to remind you, he's more than an editor. He is John's best, and I'm fortunate he's been assigned to me. These past few months, he's bent backwards over to help me tie loose ends in my old job on top of assisting with the publication of my book and making the process as less stressful for me as possible."
His brows knitted together. "It doesnae mean I have to like his over the top demonstrative ways."
She sighed at Jamie's dogged determination not to be swayed from his opinion about Alex. But it was true, though, that she'd been spending more time with her tactile editor friend. The past few months had passed in a blur of settling in the Highlands, which had morphed from planning her wedding to frenzied rush getting her book published. It hadn't been her intention to publish her work so soon, but after Louise, a children's book author and a long time acquaintance, outed her as a closeted writer to her former boss, her life had been turned somewhat upside down. John Grey had immediately insisted on allowing him to read her manuscripts. After a lot of wheedling on his part, she'd conceded but not without a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
To her relief, though, John had fallen in love with her work, and he'd been over the moon when she'd told him she had more. He'd binged read the rest of the manuscripts that comprised the entire series, and when he'd returned her work, she was surprised there were minimal dreaded red-inked commentaries offering suggestions for changes. After a lot of discussions, John had pushed and managed to convince her that now was the right time to get her work out there to capitalise on the present trend and the uniqueness of her story.
Though she'd been hesitant at first, she'd agreed in the end but hadn't expected the fast pace of the publication process. But she hadn't been the least bit surprised since John was in dire need of fresh materials. And her manuscripts were as good as ready to go. She'd written them awhile back and edited herself countless times with her critical editorial acumen. As luck would have it, Alex had been relentless in ensuring everything was ahead of the production schedule. So, during these past few months, her time had been divided between meeting John's teams of professionals, planning her wedding and spending time with Jamie whenever their work schedule would allow for it.
Jamie pulled her closer against him, bringing her back to the present moment. "Let's no' talk about yer editor anymore. Ye're here now. But please tell me ye're no' flying to London again ...at the very least, no' anytime soon."
She shook her head against his chest. "There's just one more trip. And then John and Alex are leaving me alone ...at least until after our honeymoon."
"And what's this next trip about?"
She glanced up and touched the cleft on his stubbled chin. "I'm attending Mary Hawkin's publication day book signing in a couple of weeks at Foyles in London. Not only has Mary offered to endorse my book online, but she wants me to sit next to her during her interview. She thought it would give my new career a boost to introduce me as the new writer on the block. Both John and Alex thought it's a grand idea. I guess it will be great exposure for me before I make my own debut."
He drew slightly away and searched her face. "Why am I only hearing this now?"
"It's no big deal," she shrugged. "It's just a day trip."
"Nae big deal? It's actually quite huge, Sassenach. Hawkins will be endorsing yer book during her book's release when it's supposed to be her big day. I assume there'll be important people vying to adapt her book into a movie or something like that. Who knows, ye might catch their attention."
She grinned. "How do you know all that?"
His shoulders lifted casually. "Jenny's a fan of Hawkins' writing, and she told me there are rumours her previous books may be adapted into a movie. I must admit, though, I'm no' mad keen on Hawkins nor her writing style. But I cannae deny she is a heavyweight in the literary world. I think what she's doing for ye is quite generous." He smiled, bright and wide, his handsome face lighting up. "Weel, she owes it to ye after what ye've put up with her antics. But it's no' like ye need her to endorse yer book. I'm pretty sure ye can make it on yer own."
She smiled at his faith in her. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Jamie, but without John's influence, Alex's ingenuity and Mary's endorsement, the market will be a hundredfold harder to crack. I'm fortunate I know the right people and getting these opportunities for a good headstart."
His lips coasted over her brows. "Ye owe yer good headstart to yer brilliance, Sassenach. The moment I first read a snippet of yer writing, I felt it in my guts ye're gonnae go far. John's excitement about yer book is also a testament to that. Ye're very gifted, and on top of it all, a grafter to boot." He stared at her and brought her hand to his lips to kiss her fingers. "Ye've nae idea how proud I am of ye."
She stood on her tiptoes and gave him a quick peck on the lips. "You're biased when it comes to me, but hey ... I don't mind." She began to pull away but was yanked back against him. "Jamie! We best get going. You still have to shower, and your mates will be expecting you at the pub to celebrate your win."
He let out a groan and dropped his head into the crook of her neck. "Do we have to?" he grumbled.
"Yes, we have to," she said firmly. "You don't cancel on your friends just because I'm here."
"It's no' like our team is playing in the premier division. I'd rather we do something together ...alone. How about we do our own celebrating? Just us."
"And what are we supposed to be celebrating that you can't attend your team's get-together?"
"Yer homecoming for one," he whispered into her ears, pressing his hips suggestively against hers. "We'll start with a shower, and then ..." He trailed off and squeezed her arse. "We'll take it from there."
Her mouth went dry and warmth spread through her belly, but she refused to be tempted. "As enticing as your proposition sounds, I can't allow you to do this to your team." She pressed her hands on his chest to push him away, and when he didn't budge, she gave him an exasperated look. "Jamie, they're your mates, and they'll want to celebrate the person responsible for that winning pass to your brother. Which happens to be you. Anyway, you should be taking advantage of spending more time with your friends. Soon enough, we'll have a lifetime of doing many things on our own."
"I was afraid ye were gonnae say that." He reluctantly let her go and picked up his helmet and camán from the ground . "Why do ye have to be staggeringly reasonable?"
"And why do you have to be so whingy?"
"Am not." He straightened up and jerked his head. "Shall we then?"
Sighing, she closed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around his waist, forcing him to look at her. "Jamie."
She rolled her eyes when she saw he was trying to hide a smirk. She blew out a breath and mentally counted one to three. "Alright, how about this? One drink. That's all I'm asking. We won't stay long, and that's a promise. Just show your face to your friends, have a bit of blether, and then we're off. Unless, of course, you decide you want to stay longer."
A slow grin transformed his face. "Fine, it's a deal. But mind ...ye have a lot of making up for me to do."
She nodded and tamped down the urge to laugh. "See? Compromise isn't so difficult at all, is it?"
He arched an eyebrow at her. "Ye been reading Marriage 101 ahead of our wedding?"
"No! But someone here has to do a bit of adulting."
He playfully hit her bottom with the helmet dangling from his hand. "Cheeky!"
Laughing, they kissed some more and just as they were about to draw apart, a sudden uncomfortable and cold feeling washed over her. It felt like she was being watched. She froze on the spot waiting for the odd sensation to pass.
Sensing the change in her, Jamie stilled, too. "What's wrong?" he asked.
Before she could respond, a familiar voice boomed from somewhere behind her. "Claire, ye're back!"
She jumped, and her head jerked, knocking Jamie on the chin. Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! As she spun around, a sharp pain fired across her brow. She ignored it and forced a smile. "Tom!" she gasped, ignoring the twinge and the string of obscenities Jamie muttered under his breath. "Long time no see."
She was relieved to see it was Tom Christie. Like her, he was in the process of getting his book published and occasionally travelled to London for work-related stuff and to visit his girlfriend, Mary Hawkins. After six months of working intensively with Tom as his editor, they'd become fast friends. Even Jamie had started to warm up to him, but only after he'd found out that Tom was pursuing Mary.
Tom gave her a quick hug and slapped Jamie on the back. "Great game, pal!"
Jamie nodded absentmindedly and worriedly looked at her. "Ye alright, Sassenach? Ye're awfully jumpy. Ye look like as if something has spooked the hell out of ye."
"Aye," Tom agreed, his brows creasing deeply. "Ye look white as a sheet. I hope it has nought to do with me."
"Don't be silly," she winced, touching her brow and trying to get her breathing back to normal.
Jamie gently touched her forehead, where she'd banged herself against his chin. "Does that hurt? That was some impact."
"It'll be fine," she insisted, closing her eyes briefly at Jamie's featherlike caress.
She glanced at Jamie and then at Tom and then at Jamie again. When they continued to stare at her with a mixture of worry and confusion in their eyes, she let out an exasperated sigh and gave them her signature death glare. "Wot? I said I'm fine. It's not like I'm going to get a concussion out of it. The worst outcome will be probably some light bruising or a tiny bump." They didn't look convinced. Whatever they saw on her face was making them fuss unnecessarily, and it was all over their expressions. She inhaled deeply and blanked her features. "Honestly! Don't worry. Maybe I'm a bit jumpy. It's either just the frequent flying or the excitement about the wedding and my book causing my hormones to go haywire or spike my stress levels up. Nothing that an ice-cold cider and a good night's sleep can't fix." She softened her voice and touched Jamie's forearm. "You go and shower ...I'll wait at the pub. Is that alright?"
Jamie rested his camán on his shoulder and gave her a we'll-talk-about-this-later look before kissing her on the lips. It was apparent he still hadn't shaken off the concern out of his system. He glanced at Tom. "Ye'll accompany her, aye?"
Tom looked between them. "Aye, of course. It'll give us ample time to talk shop. And watch the Rangers and Celtic game."
Jamie's worried expression eased marginally. "I shan't take long." Then he pointed his finger at Tom. "Mind, keep the lads at the pub at bay until I arrive."
Claire gasped. What the hell! She was on the verge of suggesting that they headed for home instead of the pub so she could give him a right telling off when Tom stirred her away by the elbow. She glared at Jamie, who was already walking away and shook her head at his beastly behaviour. She wanted to call him out, but an inner voice shouted to clamp her mouth shut. Maybe it was the right thing because if she was honest with herself, she was more ticked off at the fact that Jamie was on to her rather than his boorish conduct. It was clear as daylight he'd sensed her discountenance, and she knew he wouldn't let her off easily. She decided to calm herself down and regroup. A night out in the pub was definitely a great idea and would do the trick. It would spare the needless interrogation.
Oh, for crying out loud, just tell him. What's the big deal?
And tell him wot? He'll go bonkers, or he'll think I'm going bonkers!
Stop being dramatic and just tell him.
Well, theoretically, there's really nothing to say.
If that's the case, what are you fussing about then? Have a drink and enjoy your night out.
Fine! Tonight, no resolutions needed to be made. It's just stress causing her imagination to run wild. It was her first night back after being away for almost a whole week, and there was no need to ruin the evening with what were probably nontrivial matters. It was time to drop the antsy attitude and just enjoy their time together.
Mentally gathering her wits about her, she hooked her arm with Tom's and changed the subject by asking him if he'd summoned the courage to propose to his girlfriend yet. To her relief, he dove right into the conversion without another mention of the earlier incident.