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The Longest Night

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Denny was calling again. Christ. 

Jamie answered for the thousandth time. 

“One last thing,” he said before she could growl something at him, “if they do show up you’ll need to arrange breakfast tomorrow morning. Owen’s number is on the sheet in my office, he’ll talk you through it, yeah?”

“I know how to fry a fuckin’ egg, Den.”

Denny laughed and Jamie almost let him have it—she could cook an egg for fuck’s sake—but he wasn’t even listening, he was laughing at something the kids had said.

“Hangin’ up now, Den—"

“Wait—they booked the Winter Solstice Package so you’re going to need to—”

“Fuck right off with that, I don’t know the first thing about maple tappin’ and wine tastin’—"

Refund it, I was gonna say,” Denny laughed. “Don’t worry, you’re the last person I’d want giving my guests a sleighride estate tour. Refund the package then give them a five-star experience. Swear to Christ, if Brumley Manor nabs first place from us in Vermont Traveler this year—" 

“Christ, imagine the shame.”

“Jamie."

He’d been like that lately. Unbearable. Ever since the statewide hospitality conference where there’d been rumors that a travel journalist was writing an exposé on all of Vermont’s privately-owned Inns. 

Jamie sighed. “Loud and clear, Den. I’ll lick their fuckin’ boots to keep your reputation—”

“To keep your free room and board, more like. Ingrate.” 

“Tosser.”

“Knob. Okay, they should be there by—”

“For fuck’s sake, goodbye, I’m not answerin’ if you call back again.” She hung up. Shook her head at the screen.

Outside the snow was still falling, thick and heavy with no sign of stopping. They were cancelling flights. Shutting down freeways. Biggest blizzard in fifty years, they were saying. And Jamie was going to soak up every minute of peace and quiet. In all likelihood the O’Mara wedding had been cancelled, poor sods. There was no fucking way they were showing up for their honeymoon.

 

They showed up.

A truck pulled in at three, chains on the tires.

A woman stumbled in, dragging a snow-covered suitcase behind her. “Sure is coming down out there.”

“Mmm,” Jamie nodded. “Incredible you made it.” Incredibly annoying, more like. 

“Are you Denny?”

“God, no. No, he’s down in Florida with his wife and kids. Disneyworld. Was meant to be back this mornin’ but,” she gestured at the snow. “Don't worry though,” she added, Denny’s threats of eviction echoing in her head, “I know how to run the place.” Mostly. “You’re in good hands.”

Something flashed across the woman’s face. A hint of a smile. Curiosity, maybe. Which was weird because—

“Your husband still outside?” Jamie peered around her to the door. 

“My—? Oh! No, he—” When the woman laughed it sounded forced, “it didn’t work out actually. The wedding.”

“Oh shit, that’s—Jesus, sorry to hear. And sorry about the, um,” she waved a hand, God she was not meant for hospitality, “the swearin’.”

The woman giggled and it was the brightest sound Jamie had heard in a year at least. 

“Anyway, I figured why cancel a perfectly good vacation. I’m Dani." The snowflakes had turned to tiny droplets on her long lashes and her nose was delightfully red. She was fucking gorgeous. Shit. 

“Jamie.” She shoved out her hand, already feeing awkward. “Denny’s kid sister. Not kid, just. Younger. Than he is. By five y—right, so your bags—” Jamie rounded the counter to grab her suitcase. "So unfortunately we’re gonna have to refund the Winter Solstice Package since Denny’s not here to do the whole,” she gestured vaguely, “tourism bit.”

“Oh,” Dani sounded distinctly disappointed. “You can’t do the whole…tourism bit?”

A sharp laugh barreled out of Jamie before she could stop it. “Not really my wheelhouse, sorry.”

Jamie led her up the stairway to the lofted second-story lounge. 

“Beautiful place,” Dani said, looking around. 

“It is,” Jamie had to admit. All reclaimed wood and log beams and warm colors. Denny had bought the massive property a decade earlier, intending to flip it, but he’d fallen in love with a local farmgirl and they’d turned it into The Taylor Lodge like a fucking Hallmark film. 

They made their way to the door of the luxury suite, Jamie made small talk on the way. Breakfast’s at 9. Wi-Fi code’s on the bedside table. Complimentary champagne’s in the—

“Shit.” Jamie looked over her shoulder, “So sorry, insensitive, that—reckon I can swap it for some whiskey if you’re—”

“Cancelling the wedding was sad,” Dani said, sounding like it was anything but, “and...kind of a relief? Champagne sounds perfect.”

“Brilliant. Right then,” Jamie shoved her hands in her pocket, “I’ll set out a cheese plate in the dining room, locally made cheeses, all…fancy and…um, local. I’ll be round if you need anythin’, otherwise I’ll see you for breakfast, yeah?”

Dani nodded. Smiled. “Thank you, Jamie.” 

“Afternoon, Dani.” Jamie could’ve punched her almost-husband in the nose, whoever he was. Idiot. She was so fucking beautiful. 

Jamie turned to go back down the hall. She could steal the kids’ PlayStation for the night. Set it up in Denny’s room. Eat crisps in his bed, wipe her fingers on the sheets. 

Just walk away and let it be.

But there was a blizzard and a beautiful woman and Jamie hadn’t made a single friend since moving to America. Nearly ten months and she’d barely left the Inn. She was fucking lonely.

“I, um. I could do it,” she heard herself say, turning back to face Dani, who was still standing there in the room’s doorway. She scrunched an eye and scratched at her forehead. She was the world’s biggest fool. “The tourism bit. The Winter Solstice Package.”

Dani’s smile was brilliant, all warmth and white teeth. 

Fuck. Denny was going to kill her. 

***

There was a sleigh somewhere. In the barn, she’d been certain—but all she found there were her gardening tools and Denny’s massive mowing tractor. Alright, in the stable then. 

But it wasn’t there either—at least not in any of the obvious places. How the fuck does an entire sleigh go missing?

Dani had followed her out despite Jamie insisting she keep warm inside til she’d hitched the thing to the horses. Which, to be honest, was less about chivalry and more about the fact that she had no fucking clue about sleighs.

Dani was cupping the nose of a white horse, whispering to it, looking like a goddamn mythical snow fairy.

Jamie leaned against the wall. “Bit of bad news about the sleighride.”

Dani looked up. 

“Thing is, the sleigh is, um. On loan.” Jamie sighed and tried to look grim. “Just remembered the, uh, the orphanage is borrowin’ it.”

“The orphanage?”

“Right, yeah they do a whole Santa thing for the orphans on Christmas, asked if they could nab it from us.” She shrugged. “Thought why not, ‘s for the kids.” 

“That is so generous,” Dani said, but there was a curl at the corner of her mouth that had Jamie’s nerves on edge. “Not to mention surprising, because I just read a piece about Vermont’s orphanages and how the last one closed in 1987.”

“Yeah, well,” shit shit shit, “they built a new one. Town was a mess, orphans runnin’ willy nilly—Jesus fuck!” She whirled around to face the horse that had just nibbled her shoulder. 

“He wants attention,” Dani smiled. “You should pet his nose, they like that.”

Christ. Jamie reached out a single finger from a safe distance away and touched the towering beast’s snout. He let out a huff and she jumped back, clutching her hand to her chest because the thing had massive piano-key teeth and could’ve maimed her with a single nip.

Dani was eyeing her. “Are you—are you afraid of horses?” 

“No.” Jamie looked at her. “A little.”

“You should’ve said,” Dani shook her head with a smile. “We can just tour the grounds on foot.”

“You sure? ‘S cold out—”

Dani smiled again, and then the most incredible thing—she grabbed Jamie’s hand, leading her out. 

“Doesn’t have to be,” she said, and Jamie was so incredibly fucked. 

 

 

The snow had slowed a bit and they made their way across the property, kicking up powder with their boots. Dani had linked their arms and Jamie was having a hell of a time thinking about anything other than the feel of her pressed against her side.  

Dani was a talker. Nervous habit, Jamie figured, but Jamie couldn’t look too hard at it because Dani was also a lip-biter and Jamie was one sidelong glance away from pushing her down in the snow and climbing on top of her and shit—Dani had asked her something just then—

“Hmm?”

“The Inn. It’s a historic landmark, right? I saw a placard—”

“Sure is,” Jamie nodded, because it probably was. Maybe. Sounded true, anyway.

“And I read that the original building was built in 1789? By the famous Lloyd family?”

“Mmhmm. Excellent year. Excellent family. Good genes, sturdy children.”

“I—I thought all five of their children died in infancy?”

“Right, they did, absolutely they did, was tragic, but they were sturdy about it. Didn’t go gently into that goodnight, that sort of thing.”

Dani was smiling at the ground. 

Jamie shook her head. “Sorry,” she said softly. 

“For what?”

“Shite tour.”

“I’m having fun.” Dani nodded decisively. “Maple tapping? Is that up next?”

“Yeah, think so, um—maybe we could stop inside for a minute first? Just need to—” Google what the fuck maple tapping is—

“Actually,” Dani turned toward her, “it’s already pretty dark out. Maybe we just skip to the wine tasting?”

Jamie almost gave up on it right then. Insisted on giving Dani a full refund. She didn’t know shit about wine either. But there was something in Dani’s eye, that same flash of mischief that had been there all afternoon. 

“Right. Wine tastin’ it is.” 

***

When their boots and socks were drying by the foyer’s radiator Jamie got to work making a fire in the library and setting out bottles from the cellar. Denny always put out snacks when he hosted the wine tastings, but Jamie couldn’t find a goddamn thing in the kitchen aside from Chex Mix and Gus and Georgie’s leftover Halloween candy (which had dwindled to nearly nothing with Jamie pilfering it over the last month.) 

Dani showed up just as she was arranging mini-Snickers bars on the table beside the wine glasses.

Jamie did a doubletake. “You look, um—nice dress. I didn’t—” She looked down at her jeans and flannel. 

“You look um too,” Dani said, “and so does this.” She settled into one of the large wingback chairs Jamie had arranged by the table. 

“’S not very classy,” Jamie shrugged.

“Says who?” Dani was already unwrapping a Snickers. 

Jamie sent her an appreciative smile. “So, this one is a…” Jamie checked the bottle’s label, which offered no help. She uncorked it. Peered inside. “Red.” She poured a bit into each of their glasses. “And it’s got notes of,” she swirled and sniffed her own glass, “wood. It’s real…lumbery, but also…edible? Edible wood, like a tree’s been roasted for dinner and, um.” She watched Dani finish it off in one large sip.

“Definitely lumbery.” 

“Right.” On to the next, and quick. “Here we have a white.” She poured. Sniffed. “Kind of like…flower water? You know, when you leave flowers in a vase and the water goes all murky and musty? Like a bog?” She sipped. 

Dani tried to stifle a snort as she sipped but Jamie caught it. 

“I don’t—really know wine,” Jamie winced. “Reckon you’re regrettin’ bookin’ the Winter Solstice bullshit.”

“Know why I booked it?”

Jamie couldn’t begin to guess. 

“Tonight’s the longest night of the year. That’s what the Winter Solstice is. The longest night, and I didn’t want to be alone.”

Jamie was staring at her. She was pretty sure she’d just fallen a little bit in love. 

“You’re the first person I’m talkin’ to since movin’ here. ‘Side from my brother and his family.”

A little line had appeared in Dani’s forehead. “Why?”

Jamie shrugged. How the fuck to explain?

“Got into some trouble back home, hangin’ round the wrong people. Served time. Nothin’—” she waved a hand, “nothin’ serious, just. Anyway, when I got out Denny offered me a job here doin’ the landscape. Free room and board year round, get me on my feet. Bit lonely, if I’m honest, but it feels like—” She shook her head. Christ. “The wine,” she laughed, “makin’ me say all sorts of—”

“Feels like what?” Dani was watching her. 

Jamie sighed. “Like I’m everyone’s burden. Like I haven’t earned the right to not be lonely. Feels a bit like my winter solstice is lastin’ fuckin’ years ‘stead of one long night.” She blinked, snapping out of it. “Sorry, this is—” She shook her head again. “Strong wine.”

“Probably the flower bog you’re feeling.”

Jamie laughed, and then Dani was getting up, coming around the table and taking Jamie’s glass from her hands. 

She stood in front of Jamie’s chair. “Wanna know the best thing about the winter solstice?” 

Jamie’s heart was skipping. “What’s that?”

Dani braced herself on the arms of the chair, leaning in. “Every day after is a little bit brighter.”

It took a moment to process the fact that Dani was kissing her because holy shit. Finally Jamie reached up to cradle her jaw, to kiss her back. 

Dani climbed onto the chair, into her lap, and it was definitely the wine, Jamie thought, but also maybe it wasn’t. 

Dani’s dress rode up and she sunk down and they both groaned at the feeling, her heat pressed so close to Jamie. Dani was writhing against her, making noises that should’ve been illegal and Jamie had to ask—

“Is this—Jesus, fuck—” Jamie felt her eyes roll back before forcing herself to use her brain for one goddamn minute, “Dani, is this—hang on, wait—slow down, is this because of the weddin’?”

Dani pulled back, looking puzzled. “The wedding?”

“Yeah, callin’ it off or whatever. If this is—if you’re feelin’ vulnerable or somethin’ I wouldn’t want to—” 

“Fuck the wedding,” Dani leaned down to whisper in her ear as she took Jamie’s hand and put it between her legs and okay yeah yup fine, that was permission enough for Jamie. 

“Upstairs,” Jamie managed, “wanna fuck you on every surface of that room—"

Dani’s moan was lethal and her smile was razor sharp and thank fuck it was the longest goddamn night of the year. 

***

“What happened?” Jamie asked the next morning, dropping a kiss on Dani’s shoulder. “With the weddin’.”

Dani was quiet for a long moment. Then,

“I was never engaged.” She shifted to look at Jamie. “I wouldn’t have lied if I’d known we'd…” She looked down where they were tangled together. “I’m—I’m a travel journalist writing an exposé on Vermont’s—”

“Fuck.” The way a day could change in an instant. Jamie was done for. “My brother’s gonna vivisect me. String up my inside bits like Christmas lights.” She went to tug on her jeans and Dani grabbed her hand, stilling her. 

“What’s your brother have to do with it?”

“Months now he’s been natterin’ on about the journalist and the stupid fuckin’ expose—sorry, not bein’ rude, I’m sure it’s brilliant—but it’ll bloody sink his business—”

“Why would it sink—”

“Was meant to give you the royal treatment, not—” She gestured to the bed, sheets strewn and clothing scattered. “And fuck, I forgot the fuckin’ cheese plate yesterday and there were some bloody good cheeses in that spread, I’ll have you know—”

Dani tugged on her arm, grinning as she pulled her back into bed, nudging Jamie’s nose with her own before kissing her. Softly at first and then more urgently. 

Dani pulled back and her cheeks were flushed. She searched Jamie’s eyes. “What makes you think you didn’t give me the royal—”

Suddenly there was a frenzy of footsteps on the stairs. Commotion in the hall.

“Aunt Jamie! We got you something in Disneyworld—"

Wanking monkey tits. This wasn’t happening. 

They barely had time to scramble beneath the sheets before Georgie was bursting through the door, Gus peeking around behind her. 

“There you are! We—” She seemed to process the fact that Jamie wasn’t alone. Her face changed.

“Georgie, don’t,” Jamie hissed, “please, I’ll give you candy, or—or money, how about money? I’ll pay you—” 

“Dad!" She screamed. "Aunt Jamie fell asleep in one of the guest rooms again!”

“And she’s naked!” Gus shouted proudly, grinning at Jamie like he’d helped her somehow.

Denny chuckled from somewhere nearby. “Long as there aren’t any guests in there with—” He was in the doorway. “Oh Jamie.” The blood drained from his face and he looked ready to keel. “You didn’t.”

Dani, to her credit, simply clutched the sheet to her chest and stuck out her hand. “Dani Clayton, travel writer for Places. I’m doing an exposé on every—”

”Oh, Jamie, no.” Denny looked like he’d just been diagnosed with terminal illness. His eyes slid shut and he scrubbed a hand over his mouth. He took a steadying breath, steepling his palms together as he looked at Dani. “I am so, so sorry.” He looked a minute away from tears.

“Sorry for what?” Dani smiled and it was incredible, the charm she exuded even while speaking to a total stranger after being caught stark naked with his sister. “I’m the one who should be sorry,” Dani giggled. “I should’ve come to your Inn first. I wouldn’t have bothered with the others.”

“What?” Jamie and Denny asked at the exact same time. 

“Five-stars,” Dani said. “Ten, if it was allowed. Better get your sleigh back from the orphanage,” she said, and Jamie shook her head at Denny’s confounded face, “after my piece comes out your Winter Solstice Package will be sold out for years."