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Renewal

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By the time I had finished taming my hair and putting on a touch of makeup, Jamie had already gone down to the party. I could hear the renewed roars of excitement from my window as he stepped back out into the yard.

I tried not to hurry myself through the end of my ablutions, though I could feel my heart thrumming in excitement at the thought of experiencing a kilted Jamie in all his glory. I hadn’t yet gotten the chance to see him in a kilt, but I’d spent much of the last week picturing it.

My own outfit was a bit less traditional, but I hoped it would work for the occasion. Jenny had helped me pick out my dress—a strappy, figure-skimming number in a red and navy plaid that flared out into knife pleats below the knee. She had tried to push me into a true Fraser tartan, but I resisted, not willing to give the gossips anything more to speculate about. I somewhat reluctantly layered a grey turtleneck underneath; the red of the thin straps and tailored bodice were flattering against my pale skin, but it would definitely be too chilly after sundown for uncovered shoulders. Black heeled ankle boots and a dainty freshwater pearl pendant finished the look. It was certainly the most polished I’d looked since my arrival, I thought as I surveyed the effect one last time in the mirror.

After a moment of dithering, I spritzed a bit of my favorite perfume into the air and walked through the mist as a final touch before I went down.

I decided to stop in and check on Mrs. Fitz in the kitchen before heading out to the party. She had graciously offered to organize the food and drink—for a fee, of course. But she had always helped Jamie’s mother Ellen to create the elaborate Gaelic feasts Lallybroch had been known for when Jamie was just a child, and Jenny and I agreed it would be worth it.

The stout, grandmotherly woman was barking orders to her minions (who I had been told were all her relations, in some shape or form) when I entered the kitchen, but seeing me, she broke into a wide, gap-toothed grin.

“Ah, lass, don’t ye look bonnie!” she cried, stepping forward. “Jamie will jest die when he sees ye.”

I felt the heat rise in my cheeks, and a couple of the younger kitchen helpers shot narrowed eyes in my direction.

“How are things going in here?” I asked, opting to ignore her commentary.

“Och, we’ll be done in nae time,” Mrs. Fitz assured me breezily. “Jest a few more things tae get oot, an’ we’ll join ye fer the dancin’.”

Looking at the organized chaos, I wondered if she was underplaying the situation. But I also knew I couldn’t really be of help to her with the cooking.

“Well, can I take something out for you?” I asked.

Not one to stand on ceremony, Mrs. Fitz loaded me up with an overburdened tray of freshly baked mutton pies and shooed me out the back.

“Through the kailyard is easiest,” one of the girls suggested helpfully as she opened the door for me. “Tis the only path no’ pure hoachin’ with people.”

She was right; the courtyard was teeming with life. It seemed Jenny’s plan had brought every last person in the Highlands to our door.

I spotted one of the few tables with space left for more food, just outside the garden fence. I balanced the edge of the tray against one hip and pushed Jamie’s beautiful gate open with my free hand.

I don’t know what made me look up at that moment. But there he was, standing on the other side of the dance floor.

It was all I could do to keep hold of the tray. Jamie was a vision in his dark waistcoat, jacket, and cardinal red Fraser kilt. But it was his expression that brought me to a standstill. He had a look of such naked hunger as he watched me that I felt my knees instantly go to jelly. His eyes, dark even in the still-bright early evening sun, were locked on mine, and I couldn’t have looked away anymore than I could will my hammering heart to stop beating in my chest.

It felt like hours that we stood that way, but it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. A man grabbed Jamie by the shoulder, breaking the spell of our eye contact. 

I sagged slightly against the sturdy post of the arbor, feeling as though I needed to catch my breath. I had seen Jamie look at me appreciatively before, and I was keenly aware of the attraction that simmered between us. But this...this was something else entirely.

“Claire, darling, let me help you with that,” a kind voice offered. I looked up to see Lord John Grey, himself in a more subdued green and brown kilt and grey tweed jacket, arms outstretched to take the tray from me.

I let him, grateful for the respite in my somewhat shaky state. “Thank you, John,” I said, trying to sound casual.

“He’s quite a sight, isn’t he?” he asked wistfully, nodding in Jamie’s direction. He was now caught up in conversation with the portly old man who’d tapped him on the shoulder, though I could see him stealing occasional glances our way.

“That he is,” I agreed. 

“Where shall I…?” John held up the platter a bit, and I pointed out the open table. I followed him as he went to set it down.

“Good Lord, those are bloody heavy,” he laughed as he set the silver tray down. “It all looks so wonderful—I should have eaten less at lunch!”

I smiled. I liked John; he had very few pretenses, despite his standing. “Well, we had to do something to get Jamie out of the way for a couple hours,” I said, leaning against the edge of the table. “Good thing you wanted to take so many landscape photos.”

John looked at me ponderously, dark head tilted. “Tell me,” he began, “how much of all this was for Jamie’s benefit, and how much to lure me into featuring Lallybroch?”

I couldn’t help it—I threw my head back and laughed. It seemed to startle John, but he quickly recovered and started chortling himself.

“Well, it was a cracking good plan,” he admitted. “This place is a wonder.”

“It was mostly Jenny’s scheme,” I said, somewhat apologetic. “But really, she just knew if you could see it how Jamie always pictured it, full of life and tradition…”

“That I’d fall in love?” John finished. He wore a peculiar half smile, and he looked out over the crowd. “I rather think she was right. How could you not?”

I saw then that he was looking at Jamie again. I followed suit. He stood a full head over most in the crowd, his cinnamon-roan hair gleaming in the golden hour sun.

“Quite right,” I murmured under my breath.

 


 

I was buffeted about by the natural flow of the party for a bit, with curious Scots grabbing me for a chat right and left. The questions turned ever more probing as large quantities of cordial, punch, and ale were consumed. I had begun to feel quite harried and was looking for a spot to hide for a moment when I felt a familiar hand at the small of my back.

“Come wi’ me,” a voice rumbled in my ear. 

I shivered, and not from cold. I had known who it was instantly, and Jamie’s low voice (deeper, even, than usual) sent the same heat to my core that seeing him across the dancefloor had earlier.

He guided me gently but firmly through the gap between the barn and his shop, back towards the storage shed. I let him steer me with no complaint—the crowd parted for his bulk much easier than they had for me, and I was happy to let him take me somewhere quieter.

Jamie sighed in relief when we got inside, shutting the door firmly behind us.

“Thank God,” he groaned. “Laoghaire just wouldna leave off.”

I stifled a chuckle and slumped into a dust cover-draped chaise. Jamie sat on the other end and patted his lap.

“Put yer feet up, Sassenach,” he offered. “Ye’ve been up and about all day.”

I raised an eyebrow, but slipped off my boots and did as instructed. My skirt bunched up a bit over my knees, and the scratch of the wool kilt that covered his thighs tingled against my bare calves.

Ever-so-coolly, Jamie took one of my ankle sock-covered feet and started rubbing the arch with a strong thumb. I let out a hiss of pleasure as he hit a particularly sore spot.

“Tell me if I tickle ye,” he said quietly, and I nodded.

“What did Laoghaire want?” I asked after a moment, trying to be nonchalant.

Jamie’s teeth flashed white in the dim room, and I knew I’d failed miserably.

“Och, she just doesna take no fer an answer,” he said. “I’ve known her since we were bairns, and she didna used to bother me much. But she’s been a pain in my arse since I came back from France.”

I giggled at that. It seemed my jealousy at the bank had been somewhat misplaced—for which I was shamefully glad.

“So she’s hoping to jump the embers with you, then?” I teased.

“Aye,” Jamie responded. His hands stilled for a moment, and his expression turned suddenly serious. “But I told her there’s only one lass I’ve an eye to go a-Mayin’ with, and it isna her.”

My eyes widened, and I inhaled sharply.

“I’m sorry tae bring it up again, but I know ye feel it, too.” He spoke softly, but insistently. “When I saw ye tonight, at the garden gate, lookin’ at me like that—Christ, Claire, I cannae ignore it any longer.”

I was utterly speechless. Jamie took his hand away from my arch and turned toward me. His eyes were black pools as he reached to gently touch my cheek.

“I can tell yer afraid,” he continued. “But I promise ye, Claire, ye have nothing to fear from me.”

“I know that,” I said, my voice thin.

Jamie smiled, his hand drifting down to cup my chin. His broad thumb gently brushed my bottom lip, and I shivered.

“I’ll wait, as long as ye need,” he said, finally. “But I’m done pretending that what’s between us doesna exist.”

He dropped his hand from my face to pat my knee softly, before lifting my legs off his lap to stand.

“I’ll see ye out there,” he said over his shoulder as he crossed back to the door, and then he was gone.

I sat still for some time, feeling dizzy. Suddenly, I found myself entirely unable to recall any of the reasons I’d come up with to not jump in with Jamie. It was as though the intensity of his desire had blown up my objections entirely, and I was utterly defenseless.

Finally, I bent down to pull my boots back on, and left the shed to rejoin the party.

The sun had just slipped behind the mountains while Jamie and I were in the shed, and someone had turned on the string lights despite the fact that the sky was still light.

“Claire!” a high, clear voice called as I stepped into the packed courtyard. I turned to see Geillis Duncan, who owned the garden center in Inverness. She was smiling slyly, and I let out a sigh. I hoped she hadn’t seen me go off alone with Jamie.

“Ye look like ye could use a drink,” she said conspiratorially, handing me a glass. “The punch is deadly, mind, so dinna drink that too fast.”

Despite my reservations about Geillis’s motives for chatting me up, I took the drink gratefully and sipped. “It’s lovely to see you, Geillis,” I said, and found that I meant it. She was unabashedly a gossip, but I found her impish manner and cutting wit endearing.

“What a wonder ye’ve managed in that kailyard,” she complimented. “And such a fine arbor yer wee fox cub has built for yer roses.”

I rolled my eyes at her, but couldn’t help smiling. “Not mine, Geillis,” I admonished lightly. 

“The roses, or the man?” she teased back.

I threw up my free hand in mock exasperation, and she let loose her crystalline laugh.

“All right, hen, I’ll leave it,” she finally conceded. “But I’d keep a canny eye on yon laddie tonight, if I were you.” She raised her chin meaningfully at a pair of girls tittering in the corner. 

I followed their gaze; they were staring at the dance floor, where Jamie was whirling a very red-faced Mrs. Fitz with complete abandon. I smiled at the sight. He caught my eye and grinned, the seriousness of our discussion minutes earlier clearly forgotten—or at least laid aside for now.

“Though it seems ye’ve nay reason to fash,” Geillis said dryly, taking a sip of her drink.

The song was ending, and Jamie bowed gallantly to Mrs. Fitz. “Off wi’ ye, ye gowk!” she squealed, rapping her knuckles playfully on his exposed skull. He laughed good-naturedly and kissed her cheek, which turned her even redder, if it was possible. And then he was crossing the floor, headed our way.

 “Hope ye've got yer dancing shoes on, hen,” Geillis murmured, and then melted away as Jamie stepped up to take my hand and pull me out.

“I don’t know the steps!” I protested.

“Och, dinna be daft,” he said. “Just follow my lead.”

I quickly gulped down the punch, which made Jamie laugh. Geillis materialized again out of nowhere to take the empty glass as the music began anew. Jamie pushed me by the shoulders into a line of women, then took his place facing me. His smile was pure mischief, and I felt aglow as he gave me that absolutely insane double wink.

“Gird yerself, lass,” the middle-aged woman next to me in the line-up warned with a grin. “Tha’ one’s naught but trouble!”

And then we were away, coming together and flinging apart, then crashing back to spin in wild circles. The lady beside me let out yelps of encouragement, guiding me when Jamie could not, and I let myself fall fully into the flow of the dance.

Jamie dragged me through six or seven songs in a row, until I was so dizzy and out of breath that I could barely stand. He guided me chivalrously off the floor and to the nearest refreshments.

“A drink, milady?” he offered in an absolutely outrageous imitation of an upper-crust accent. I would have laughed aloud if I’d had the breath; as it was, I just wheezed.

He sniffed disdainfully at my appalling lack of decorum, but poured me a cup of punch all the same.

“You are a ridiculous man,” I chided, grinning.

“Perhaps,” Jamie replied in his normal burr, “but ye like me all the same.”

I couldn’t deny that, so I just snorted and took a deep drink. It was well dark now, and I was starting to get hungry.

As though reading my mind, Jamie took me by the elbow and guided me towards one of the other tables, which was full of a dozen kinds of finger food.

“How did you know?” I asked as I grabbed a sausage roll and bit in eagerly.

“Yer awfully easy to read, Sassenach,” Jamie said, lip twitching up. “Ye started lookin’ around at all the tables whilst ye drank, and it’s been hours since lunch.”

I hummed thoughtfully as I chewed and swallowed. “You really have me figured, don’t you?”

“Weel, I’m certainly tryin’, mo ghraidh,” he said lightly.

The music, which had continued apace since we left the floor, suddenly stopped, and we both turned to see what was the matter. Ian and Jenny were on the stage, motioning futilely for quiet. Finally, exasperated, Jenny lifted her fingers to her mouth and let out an ear-splitting whistle, which cut the chatter instantly.

“Tha’s better,” she grumbled, and everyone chuckled. “I want tae welcome ye all to Lallybroch—whether ye’ve been before or no. Now, all of ye ken we’re here tae wish my knuckleheided brother a happy birthday.”

A cheer rose up at that, but Jenny quieted them down again with a wave of her hand. “And the auld coots among us might recollect the days when our mam Ellen and da Brian would hold parties fer all the fire feasts.” 

The older guests nodded their heads fondly, many smiling. “Tonight, we’re honoring Jamie Fraser, who—daft as it may be—is building back what our family created. But we’re also honoring the memory of Brian and Ellen, who showed us how best tae care for this land and our people.” Jenny raised her cup high, pointing it towards Jamie as she met his eyes firmly. “To Jamie, may he live long and love well. And to Brian and Ellen, our parents. Sláinte mhath!” she cried, and the whole party lifted their glasses in salute.

Sláinte mhath!” their voices roared.

I lifted my own cup to Jamie and drank with the crowd, watching him intently. His eyes were dry, but his right hand drummed against his kilted thigh, and I could see his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed hard.

“Now, enough sentimental shite,” Ian called from the stage. “It’s time to light the fires!”

The crowd cheered again, and there was a mad rush for the refreshment tables as everyone gathered provisions for the walk ahead. I looked at Jamie meaningfully but he just smiled and pulled a surprisingly large flask from his sporran.

“I came prepared, lass,” he said. “Grab yerself a pie, we’ll be gone a while yet.”

 


 

Jenny and I had enlisted Rupert and his friend Angus Mhor to set up the bonfires on the hill behind the broch while Jamie was showing John around the house. As Jamie and I led the crowd of people up the path, I started to wonder if we ought to have provided some measure of supervision.

“My God, they're huge!” John exclaimed somewhere behind me. “Are we really going to light those on fire?”

Jenny, freed from the responsibilities of mothering three small children for the evening by one of Mrs. Fitz’s many young relatives, laughed tipsily. “Oh aye!” she confirmed. “Best be sure yer feeling sprightly afore ye get tae jumpin’ any—ye dinna want to singe yer bawbag under tha’ kilt!”

Ian, also somewhat in his cups, snorted, and John made a choked noise.

“Leave the poor man alone, Janet,” Jamie laughed.

John and I were both panting by the time we reached the top, but the Highlanders, damn them, were all fresh as daisies, trained by a lifetime of hillwalking. Angus, who I’d only met once, was waiting for us, grinning like a loon.

“Happy birthday, Seamus Ruadh!” he greeted, opening his arms wide for a hug. He was much shorter than Jamie, and his head barely reached Jamie’s pecs. There was much back slapping and general merriment, making me suspect Angus also had a flask of something strong in his sporran.

The hill was filling with people now, throngs of locals finding space on the flat top and then spilling down the sides. I really had no notion of how many had shown—certainly in the hundreds. And they were a sight to behold in all their finery. Most of the men wore kilts, and the women were in a mix of period costume and modern dresses like mine. I had admired them all in the courtyard, but up here, on the dark hillside with nothing but the moon and stars to illuminate them, they looked otherworldly.

When the steady stream of arrivals had slowed, Jamie stepped away from our little group, to stand where he could be seen more clearly by the crowd.

Beannachdan Beltane!” Jamie’s voice boomed, and the upturned faces called back the greeting enthusiastically.

“I thank ye all for being here. This tradition meant so much to our parents, and it means even more to me now,” he continued.

John shifted beside me, and I noticed him surreptitiously extracting a much smaller camera than the one he’d been using earlier from inside his jacket. I smiled to myself—this was exactly what Jenny had hoped might happen.

“My ancestors have tended this land for nigh on seven hundred years,” Jamie said. “They cared for it, protected its people, lived off its bounty—through feast and famine, in peace and at war.”

He had them all in the palm of his hand, I marveled. He truly looked like a warrior of old, commanding his clan. And for my part, I knew I would follow him anywhere.

“The days of the Lairds of Lallybroch are long gone. But tonight, I honor their spirit and their sacrifices. And I ask for their favor, that this land and its people may prosper in the year to come.”

To my right, Angus appeared from behind the massive stack of wood, carrying a lit torch. He handed it to Jamie, who accepted with murmured thanks. He held it high, and the flickering light illuminated the waves of his hair until it looked like it, too, was made of flame. I heard a camera shutter click quietly.

“I offer this blessing to the Holy Father, and to the saints that watch o’er us.

Beannaich, a Thrianailt fhioir nach gann,  
Mi fein, mo cheile agus mo chlann, 
Mo chlann mhaoth's am mathair chaomh 'n an ceann,  
Air chlar chubhr nan raon, air airidh chaon nam beann, 
Air chlar chubhr nan raon, air airidh chaon nam beam.

Jenny and Ian both murmured the words along with Jamie, and as he continued on to the second verse, I could hear more people joining in—mostly the elders in the crowd, but some young folk, too. The sound of dozens of voices melding together sent a chill up my spine, though I had no notion of the meaning.

Jamie watched me out of the corner of his eye for the third and fourth verse, and I found myself desperate to know the translation. I mentally made a note to ask Jenny later.

The cadence was rhythmic and beautiful, and I found myself able to join in for bits and pieces as lines were repeated. By the end, the multitude had become one voice, booming and strong, and the sudden quiet felt heavy and thick. Despite the crowd’s silence, the air hummed with shared anticipation as Jamie turned toward the first bonfire. He caught my eye as he swung round; his lips twitched and he gave me the subtlest of double-winks. I had to bite my lip to keep from reacting.

Slowly, solemnly, he lowered the torch to the kindling. Apparently, Angus and Rupert had prepared the spectacle well; I smelled lighter fluid, and the second the torch touched the wood, it burst into intense flame.

The crowd gasped, and Jamie crossed the gap to light the second fire—which seemed to catch alight even more spectacularly than the first. A cheer erupted, and pipes began to play. Soon the bodhran joined in, and a fiddle, and the merriment had begun anew.

The heat from the fires was intense, and I was suddenly very warm. Jamie seemed to note my flush and jerked his head towards the back side of the hill, which was less crowded and offered a place to step away from the roaring flame. I nodded, and he took my hand and led me between the fires to the respite on the other side. It was much cooler, and we sat down together in the grass, looking out over the dark valley. The sound of the party was much quieter on this side, with the crackle of flame in between.

“Well,” I said as Jamie rummaged in his sporran, “that was certainly something.”

He chuckled and handed me the flask. I took a sip, instantly recognizing his father’s best aged whisky. “Highlanders do love a spectacle,” he said. “We’re a superstitious lot.”

I passed him the flask, and he took a lingering draught, savoring the flavor. He looked at me as he swallowed, smiling faintly.

“I dinna think I’ve told ye how bonnie ye look tonight, Sassenach,” he said.

I flushed.

He reached out and touched the fabric of my skirt, feeling the weight carefully between his fingers. “Tartan suits ye,” he said, voice husky. “We may just make a Scot of ye yet.”

I tried to laugh it off, but found I could not. Instead, I took the flask back and took another mouthful.

“Does it make ye uncomfortable?” Jamie asked, letting go of my skirt and leaning back on his hands. “When I compliment ye, I mean.”

I looked down at my lap. “Well, a little,” I said slowly. “But I like it.”

I could almost hear the smile curling around his lips. “Then I’ll no’ stop.”

The lowing of a cow just below us brought Jamie to full attention.

“Oh God,” he laughed, having spotted something in the dark below. “Ye didn’t!”

I saw the lumbering silhouette of Rupert’s bulk moving up the hill, and he popped up into the light with a satisfied grin on his broad face.

“Wha’s Beltane with no kine?” Rupert said with exaggerated indignance. “Yer Sassenach was goin’ tae skip it altogether, if ye can imagine!”

I laughed and swatted Rupert’s arm. “We just didn’t want to trouble you with anything more!”

Rupert scoffed. “Nay trouble, lass.”

“Where is it?” I asked, peering down the slope.

“Where are they,” Rupert corrected, smug. “I brought three. McNab won’t miss ‘em for a night. I’ve got a pen down there, just a temporary one, mind.”

The spell of our solitude thoroughly broken, we let Rupert drag us back to the crowd. Some clever soul had filled a fleet of wheelbarrows with drinks, and the party was turning rowdy. I spotted more than one couple sneaking off towards the wood on the other side of the path.

“Claire, dear, have a Beltane bannock!”

Mrs. Fitz appeared from the crowd. Her hair was mussed and her nose red from drink, but she was remarkably steady on her feet. She handed me an oatcake from the basket she carried, and passed another to Jamie and Rupert each.

Jamie waved me up to the fire again, standing with his back to it.

“Throw a bit over yer shoulder as ye eat,” he instructed, plucking a piece off the edge of his own bannock.

“Here to ye, wolf, spare our sheep,” Jamie said solemnly, throwing the piece into the fire behind him. Then broke off a piece for himself and popped it into his mouth.

“We don’t have any sheep,” I teased.

“It’s the principle,” he replied haughtily. “Now you.”

Grinning, I twisted off a piece. “What shall I say?”

“Do one for the foxes, I suppose.”

“Here to you, fox, spare our cat."

Jamie snorted. “A fox couldna take on yon cheetie. He’s a braw laddie.”

“That’s my offering and I’m sticking to it,” I said firmly, and tossed the bit into the fire.

 


 

The supply of oatcakes was soon exhausted, and the crowd turned to dancing again—though with less organization and quite a few more falls, owing both to the uneven footing and the collective alcohol intake. I found myself whirling with John Grey, his camera stowed and he looking quite glassy-eyed by now. We laughed together like schoolchildren as we stumbled through steps we tried to copy off the other couples, and I realized I was nearing drunk myself.

“I need a break,” I gasped, and he threw a companionable arm around my shoulder.

“Ah, Claire, don’t leave me!” he beseeched. I giggled, and pulled him towards the flattish spot where the wheelbarrows had been left.

“Look at you twa, stoatin’ about.” Angus Mhor was rummaging through the drinks himself, and he handed me a bottle of water. I gulped it down thirstily.

“The fires are getting lower,” he said, nodding up the hill. “Rupert went tae get the kine, if ye want to watch. An’ it’ll soon be time tae jump the embers, so best find yer sweethearts now.”

He gave me a suggestive look, waggling his eyebrows, and I snorted.

 “C’mon, John, let’s go watch.”

But John was already ahead of me, pulling the camera out of his jacket pocket.

“That one’s so small,” I said, pointing at his camera as we made our way up the hill. The crowd was thinner now, as people emptied away to sleep—or find a private spot to canoodle.

“It’s film,” he said, fiddling with the settings. “Bit titchier for firelight than digital, but the results are so worth it. And it’s much easier to carry about.”

We could hear mooing now, and the sound was attracting the remaining revelers to the top of the hill. We could see Rupert now, a staff in hand and three shaggy Highland cattle huddled close beside him before the bonfire.

He saw us too, and gave a little wave. With most of the party now watching intently, Rupert turned to his work, gently pushing the horned beasts forward with his long staff. They lowed in protest, but started moving forward, and a ragged cheer came from the crowd as they stepped between the fires.

Rupert paused them for a moment, letting the smoke wash over them, before tapping their haunches lightly to drive them forward once more. He circled the left fire first, then came back through the middle, and circled right. The crowd was invested now, crying out encouragement. Rupert completed his final circle, and stopped again in the middle. He turned to the crowd and bowed with a dramatic flourish of his staff before driving the cattle down the hill, back to their makeshift paddock.

The crowd gave a final cheer of approval, then turned back amongst themselves, intoxication shortening their attention spans.

I, however, was watching the flames. They were burning low now—it had seemed impossible that fires that size would ever burn out, but I supposed with the lighter fluid they’d burned hot and hard, consuming the fuel quickly. Though, I reasoned, it had also been a few hours since Jamie had lit them; it had to be past midnight by now.

“They’re a bit high yet fer jumping, Sassenach.”

Jamie’s voice in my ear made me jump, and I whirled around. He was grinning foolishly, and his eyes were bright.

I blushed. “I wasn’t thinking about that,” I said defensively. 

“No?” he asked, teasing. “I think ye may be the only one, then.”

I looked self-consciously over my shoulder, and saw more than one pair of eyes glancing our way.

Jamie leaned forward and touched my hip with his far hand, where it couldn’t be seen by the onlookers, making my breath catch. “Meet me down the hill, in the trees round the back,” he murmured. “Sneak out when they look tae see who jumps first.”

I nodded dumbly, and he pulled away, giving me a slow blink. He turned to Angus then, and wrapped an arm around his shoulder.

“Och, Angus, mate, I’m positively foutered,” Jamie said loudly, affecting a slur. “Help me down, would ye?”

Angus, bless him, cottoned on straight away, and the two of them stumbled down the path. I snorted at the two of them as they bobbed and weaved, then looked for my own exit route.

Somewhere under the haze of whisky and cherry cordial, my rational mind was churning. Just what, the sober part of me wondered, did Jamie have planned for this little sojourn? The tension between us was at its absolute peak, a quivering soap bubble that filled my chest, ever-expanding. Meeting him was, I knew, a Patently Bad Idea, particularly in my present state.

But then, a handsome couple in their early twenties stepped up to the fire, laughing, and the whole crowd turned to watch them, shouting in excitement. Before I could overthink it, my feet turned down the slope of their own accord.

At first, I walked. But whether from the building momentum or my own undeniable excitement, my feet quickly began to churn. I was being pulled by a force far greater than logic, greater than my own fear. I had no care for the uneven footing, the too-tall heels of my boots, the slickness of the grass. There was no room for thoughts anymore—only action.

When I reached the bottom of the hill, my eyes had adjusted enough to the moonlit night to see the flash of his hair in the trees ahead. He was watching me.

I ran to him, pulled into his orbit by an inexplicable gravity. And when I reached him, he opened his mouth as if to say something. But I was done with words. I simply crashed into him, wanting, needing—and pulled his mouth to mine in a searing, desperate kiss.