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Six Years

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Sighing deeply, I opened the chest that contained all of our Christmas decorations. They looked pitiful to me as I saw them all there, tangled and in a heap. They were put away in haste last year because Jack and I got into an argument over the tree being there for too long. He hadn’t given me any inclination that he was annoyed with the tree being there, it was only the 28th, but I could feel the energy shift as he walked through the door that evening. 

 

I could hear him kick my shoes out of the way as he entered the house, grumbling as he went. I cursed myself for not moving them earlier. Wincing, I stood up and went to the kitchen to check on dinner, though there wasn’t anything to check on. I opened the oven to see the casserole baking, still needing no assistance from me. I loitered in the kitchen, getting plates out, though there was still another half an hour before we’d be eating.

 

I was hyper aware of the sound of his footsteps coming back down the stairs, and I could tell by the pace that he was in a mood. I took a deep breath to steady myself, hoping I was wrong. Hoping every hair standing up on my neck was wrong. I immediately missed him, the him that he used to be. The him that he was when he had awareness of how his behavior affected me. 

 

We had many conversations in the past about how his tone of voice could be piercing. He told me I was too sensitive. I told him that his reactivity made me feel like I needed to walk on eggshells. He said I was silly and there was no need. But his behavior when he was irritated told me that was exactly what I needed to do. Not just that, but I needed to anticipate his moods, his wants, his needs, his reactions. And I was responsible for all of them. If I didn’t anticipate them, I was accused of being selfish, of not making him happy, of not being a team player. And I would get punished. Do not underestimate the power of passive-aggressive behavior.

 

I could hear him banging around in the living room, the mini fridge opening and closing. Great, just what we needed, to add alcohol to the negativity. Trying to convince myself, again, that I was wrong, that my intuition was off. I put on a smile and joined him. “Hey! I thought I heard you! How was work?”

 

“Fine,” he grumbled, shutting the mini fridge with less force than I expected. 

 

“What’s wrong?” I asked in the hopes that I could become his ally instead of his enemy. 

 

“Didn’t grab Heineken for me like I asked I guess?”

 

Fuck. I wasn’t sure if I should just admit that I forgot, though I was already scolding myself for it, or make something up. I went with a lie. “I went to a couple stores and they didn’t have any, so I just thought I’d run out later because I wanted to come back to get dinner on.”

 

“Why didn’t you go earlier? Or let me know. The one thing I was looking forward to was a nice cold beer at the end of my day, and now I can’t even have that.”

 

“I’m sorry, Jack, I can run out right now.” I was already reaching for my keys before he cut me off. 

 

“Seriously, don’t worry about it. I should have known not to count on it. It’s just really frustrating when I ask you to do something so simple and you don’t do it. It just seems like you don’t give a shit. I know it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal to you, but it just shows me that you don’t want to prioritize me.”

 

I wanted to argue, because it was fucking beer. Get it your Goddamn self. But I also wanted to argue because I shouldn’t feel the need to lie, or cower, or be ashamed because I forgot something. Like humans do. But I knew this was just an opportunity to vent. A reason to be annoyed. A focus for the emotions he had been holding onto all day. I was hoping the evening would still be salvageable. I was hoping I would catch a glimpse of the man I yearned for. The understanding one, the kind one, the one who respected me.

 

I wondered how the fuck I let it get to this point. How in anyone’s right mind this would be tolerable. But it was such a slow slope back into this behavior that I almost didn’t notice it until I was back to this exact spot. He would snap out of it, treat me well, apologize, make excuses, sure, but he would come back to me. The one who made me feel seen, feel loved, feel invincible. And I wouldn’t notice him slipping away until I was already screaming internally. 

 

I could hear my voice; it was unrecognizable. It was pitiful. “I’m really sorry. I don’t mind running out. I hear what you’re saying. I hope that you don’t let it ruin our night.”

 

“I’m not ruining anything. I’m just disappointed. I’m allowed to have emotions, too.”

 

I frowned and shook my head. The confusing part of the conversation had begun. “I never said you weren’t. And I apologized.”

 

“Ya, I guess I'm just kind of sick of apologies, and would actually just like to know I can rely on you when I ask you to do something so simple. 

 

“You can.”

 

He scoffed. “And what about the tree?”

 

“What do you mean?” I could feel my heart begin to race accompanied by an adrenaline rush through my body. What did I forget? What did I do wrong? Fight or flight?

 

“I told you I wanted the Christmas tree stripped and out before our New Year party.”

 

My face contorted in confusion. “I know, it’s still days away.”

 

“Ya, days! You don’t want to get a jump on it? You’re just going to leave it to the last minute and then I’m going to end up doing it after work one day because you ‘forgot’ or ‘ran out of time’.”

 

“What are you talking about?” I regretted the edge in my voice. It was only going to fuel him.

 

“You know how you are, Claire.”

 

“Ya, I do. And I know that if I said I’d get it done, I will.”

 

“Like you got me beer today? Like you sent that letter last month that I asked you to send? Like calling the vet like I had to remind you to do three times?”

 

He had me there. I did forget to do all of those things. But it didn’t mean it was a character trait. I scolded myself again, and could feel my face getting hot. Half of the time I was so wound up worried I was forgetting something, that I would end up forgetting. It didn’t matter how much I tried to avoid confrontation, or avoid upsetting him, he would snap, or talk me into circles. I would get so confused that I would walk away from the conversation assuming I was a complete idiot, only to replay it later and realize I had been manipulated. It was such a trap. Such a cycle. I wondered how much damage this was doing to me long term. I had spent so much time trying to master the system Jack had, but having the rules changing at the drop of a hat made it feel like I was in a video game that was constantly upping the difficulty.

 

I finally snapped at that point, feeling the build up in my body. “Jesus Christ, Jack. Well, if I’m so terrible, if I’m that much of a fucking moron, then why are you with me?”

 

“Oh, here we go,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. Though, I could feel the energy shift again; this is what he wanted. He was baiting me so that he felt justified to release his anger. I walked right into the trap. Again. “I tell you that I’m disappointed because you aren’t prioritizing things I’m asking you to do, and here you are turning it around on me. You are making me the bad guy yet again. I’m supposed to feel sorry for you because you can’t remember to do a few simple things for me. Real nice, Claire.”

 

I had already dragged the Christmas box out and was snatching ornaments from the tree, bits of tinsel coming with it, and haphazardly throwing them in. “I feel like I can’t make one fucking mistake in this house without you pouncing on me. It’s like you ask me to do more than necessary because you’re hoping I fail.”

 

“Listen, if you can’t handle these simple things, then just tell me. I just thought since you’re my wife, you’d want to help me out, especially considering how busy I’ve been. I thought you’d want to work as a team. I thought you’d actually be interested in supporting me.”

 

His continued use of the word “simple” didn’t go unnoticed. So condescending. There was so much to unpack. But there was no point. I was giving him more ammunition by fighting. 

 

That was when I clammed up. Then of course he tried to bait me by attacking other aspects of my life, including my family, my school, my job, the amount of money I spent. I felt tiny. Like he was the great white, and I was the remora, praying he would toss me some scraps to sustain me. Because all the while, I was still just hoping he would realize how hurtful this was. I wanted him to see how much I needed him to snap out of it and hold me. 

 

He didn’t.

 

Not until later, when he was craving my body. And I gave it to him, to keep the peace. I pretended he was who I needed. Who he used to be. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of utter shame from my skin as he moved inside me.

 

I snapped back, out of that memory. I untangled the ornaments as I went, and discarded the old tinsel while I was at it. No tinsel this year. I didn’t want any of it this year. The tree, the ornaments, the music, the husband. I was exhausted. It hadn’t gotten worse, but my tolerance was thinner. I had started going to therapy, against Jack’s wishes. He said it was a waste of time, a waste of money, and that I was just going to have my head filled with nonsense. 

 

The longer I went, the more awareness I gained. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I was appalled. I was torn. And yet I was still in this marriage. I was still here. I was still invested. I was still begging a broken man to love me in a healthy way. 

 

I hated myself. For so many reasons. For allowing myself to get into this position. Me. A strong-willed, smart, educated, witty, kind, loving, self-assured human being. How did I become such a shell? When did keeping the peace evolve into pieces of me that I bartered away? And for staying. For staying for so long. I knew he was good, underneath. I knew he was damaged, and hurt, and life just kept putting more and more pressure on him. But understanding him didn’t make his behavior appropriate. It didn’t make it right. It didn’t mean I should tolerate such treatment. And yet, I was. It was such a progressive experience, giving in once, then again. The manipulations were so discreet, masked in logic so that it created questioning of myself. He wasn’t hitting me. He wasn’t cheating on me. And he loved me. He did. I found myself saying “if only” several times a day. If only he could see. If only he understood. If only he could acknowledge his mental health. If only he could see how this breaks me. If only I was enough to help him heal. If only my love was enough for him to want to.

 

But it wasn’t on me. His behavior, his reactions, his opinion of me. It all came from an unhealthy place. Through a filter that I had no control over. I had to either decide that I was what he told me I was, or who I knew I was, his approval notwithstanding. Because I would never be able to force awareness on him. And me shouting at him that I’m a good person did nothing. It didn’t fit his narrative of me to warrant justification of his behavior. 

 

Yet it all came back down to this commitment I had made with him. What did divorce even mean? What did it look like? I am a woman of my word, when I make a vow, I mean it. I said forever, and I meant forever. But as I grew, and recognized what I was doing to myself, I realized the vows were already broken. It killed me. The last thing I wanted to do was walk away, but he refused to work on it with me. Or even admit there was a problem. Not consistently. Only in early mornings, when the brain was still foggy from pleasure, or moments when he thought he pushed me too hard. But those words were nothing but a rope to pull me back, a noose disguised as a safety net.

 

I jumped at Jack’s cheerful voice. “Hey! That looks great! Can I help?”

 

Trying to shake off the resentment, I nodded and handed him the next ornament. He kissed me on the cheek as he took it. “Thanks, baby!” He hung it on the tree and turned back. “I was thinking we could order Pho tonight. I know how much you love it.” 

 

I could feel the anxiety sliding off me. I really wanted to enjoy this good mood, though I knew it was temporary. I wondered if he would notice that I was distant? Or if he would accuse me of always assuming the worst in him. I couldn’t even own my emotions without him claiming and renaming them.

 

“Why are they all tangled up?”

 

I calmed my voice. “Remember last year? When we argued about the Christmas tree still being up?”

 

He smiled sheepishly. “Ugh, yes I do. I’m sorry. Work was insane that week, and I was in such a shitty mood.”

 

Well that makes all the microaggressions tolerable then, thanks. “I remember.”

 

“It’s different this year, though.”

 

“Ya?” I had no idea where he was going with this. It hadn’t gotten better. And not much had changed. Just his cycle of lashing out wasn’t landing on the same exact number on the calendar this year around. Though I’d noticed a pattern with special days like birthdays, weddings, holidays, they all seemed to put him more on edge.

 

“Ya!” he reassured me. “I mean, we’ve been fighting a lot less. You’ve been really trying to prioritize me, I’ve noticed that for sure.”

 

It pissed me off that I felt a sense of pride at his words. I wanted his acknowledgement. I wanted his praise. And I fucking hated that. I felt like a child. “Thanks,” I choked out, hoping he didn’t catch the annoyance in my voice. 

 

Jack put on some Christmas music, and we finished decorating the tree. We were waiting for the Pho to be delivered, and I started relaxing into the old routine of light-hearted Jack. We were laughing before I knew it and dancing around the living room. I remembered why I had such a hard time untangling myself from this man. He truly knew how to charm me. And beneath the childhood trauma, the gaslighting, the manipulation he used to protect himself, he was a vulnerable, kind, hilarious, generous man. I wanted to stay in this moment forever. And I actually started convincing myself that things could change, that it could be this way. I allowed hope. 

 

We flopped down on the couch together laughing, and he kissed me. It was familiar, and comforting. There was such an inexplicable draw toward this man, call it chemistry, energy, mechanics, but whatever it was, it always seemed to be the hardest to shake. How I felt in his presence, how important it felt to be in his presence. His hand reached underneath my sweater and I closed my eyes, melting into his arms. His mouth moved to my ear and he whispered, “Let’s make a baby.”

 

I stiffened. “What?”

 

“Let’s make a baby,” he repeated. 

 

I knew instinctively that I had two options, agree with him, or ruin the night. I stupidly thought there was a third option, rationality, but as usual, my mind was wrong. “A baby?”

 

“Ya,” he said, pulling back smiling. “We’ve talked about having kids before.”

 

“Sure, but not seriously. You said you wanted to focus on your career, being a lawyer is so demanding.”

 

“I mean, sure, but once you’re done with medical school, we can hire a nanny.”

 

I knew the look on my face was not what he was hoping for. “We’re talking about having a baby so we can hire a nanny to take care of it? I’m still in school for two more years, plus I’m working. There’s no way we have time for kids right now.”

 

“I didn’t say ‘kids’, I said ‘a baby’.”

 

“Those turn into kids.”

 

He grunted his annoyance and sat up. I adjusted my sweater to cover myself, suddenly feeling overexposed. 

 

“I mean,” I started, trying not to rock the boat, “we can talk about having a baby, but I’m not ready to make one right this second.”

 

“You used to be spontaneous.”

 

My anger flared. How dare he? Seeking out an insecurity, making a dig, during what should be a mature conversation about bringing another human being into the world. And with our marriage in the state it was, there was no way in hell I’d be on board for something so permanent.

 

And then it hit me. There was no fucking way I would bring a child into this mess. So why was I allowing myself to live in it? And with him so oblivious to the fact that it was a mess at all. Everything in our lives suited him, why would he change? Throwing a tantrum got him everything he wanted. Why wouldn’t he defend those behaviors, those patterns? They allowed him to create the exact life he wanted. But still he wasn’t happy. So why was that good enough for either of us?

 

“I’m not going to be offended that I’m not spontaneous about such an important decision. I’m in med school, you just got going at that firm, and no nanny would want to live in this house right now.”

 

“What the hell does that mean?”

 

I could feel myself falling out of my own grasp. What used to keep me in line didn’t matter anymore. I had nothing to lose at this point. So why not say what I wanted to say? “It means, our house is fucking toxic. You manipulate situations, you do your best to trigger guilt in me, you belittle me, you treat me like shit. You don’t think that would make someone feel a little uncomfortable?”

 

“Oh, now I treat you like shit?”

 

“Yes,” I laughed. “Yes.” It felt good to say it. It felt empowering. “You have somehow managed to convince me that I’m less than what I am. That your way is the only way. That I’m completely irrational half the time.”

 

“Don’t put that on me. I can’t make you feel any way.”

 

“You’re right, but you’d think that my husband would want to build me up and encourage me. Not point out every single thing I do as a negative, set me up for failure, test me.”

 

“And what about all the shit I do for you?” His volume was rising. “Take care of the bills while you’re in med school, put a roof over your head, groceries in the fridge, insurance on the car you drive.”

 

I matched him. “I did all those things for you when you were in law school. I won’t feel guilty over something that you happily agreed to reciprocate.”

 

“Oh, so that shit doesn’t matter now because you did them for me years ago?”

 

“No, I just mean…” I stopped myself. Fuck he so good at steering the conversation into something I felt I needed to defend. This argument was about how he treated me. Not my lack of appreciation. Because I did appreciate it. And resented it. “Listen, you’re not going to ever fully understand how your behavior affects me. And I sure as shit won’t bring a baby into this rollercoaster of a relationship. I don’t want our child to be walking on eggshells wondering if they forgot to put their shoes away properly, or bring their water glass downstairs in the morning, or have them hear their name and panic wondering if they did something wrong.”

 

“That’s childhood.”

 

“It’s abuse.”

 

“Oh for fuck sake’s Claire! Everyone is too fucking sensitive these days. What? We aren’t supposed to punish kids anymore? We aren’t supposed to have standards for them? We can’t teach them right from wrong because someone’s feelings might get hurt?” He dismissed me with his hand and walked over to the mini fridge. “Fucking ridiculous.”

 

For some reason, I found an attempt to keep the peace fall out of my mouth instead of telling him how I really felt. But here I was, trying to braid that last string of hope into something stronger to hold onto. For whatever reason. “Listen, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Maybe if we do some couples therapy, or you could go on your own like I do. Maybe if we heal our own traumas, we would have a better relationship and be better parents in the future.”

 

Jack took a long swig of beer. “You go do whatever you want, Claire. But if you think I treat you like shit, you’re wrong. Everything I do is for you. If you can’t see that then maybe you need to find someone else to be perfect for you.”

 

“I’ve never asked for perfection. I’ve asked for kindness, and respect.”

 

“Well, you’re not going to get those things all the time, Claire, sorry.” His apology was sarcastic. It pierced. His words were clear. “I am the way I am Claire. You either love me, or you don’t.”

 

“Your behavior isn’t who you are. And I don’t believe that your defense mechanisms are a personality trait. You feel out of control on the inside, so you grasp for control on the outside.”

 

He chuckled darkly. “Says your therapist.”

 

“Says me.”

 

“Sure.” He chugged the rest of his beer. “This is who I am, take it or leave it. If you think you’re so hard done by, and you can’t deal with real life, and a real relationship, no one is stopping you from leaving.”

 

“So you have no desire to improve? To do self work? To feel balanced, calm, happy?” I could feel the panic rising up. I was reaching. Hoping. It made no sense to me why someone wouldn’t want to work on themselves. And if their partner in life was begging them to gain awareness, how that would be something so easily dismissed?

 

“We don’t live in a fucking cartoon, Claire. People are going to be angry sometimes, and say things they don’t mean, in a tone you might not like. That’s just how it is.”

 

The doorbell rang. Pho.

 

Jack disappeared for a minute. When he returned, he put the bags on the coffee table and turned around. “Here’s your food. I’ve lost my appetite.”

Chapter Text

“Signal Lost.”

 

I reached for my cell and held it up at different angles, assuming it would accomplish nothing, but I had seen it in movies. “Come on.”

 

I had been on this dirt road for almost an hour, the snow was getting deeper, and though it was beautiful, I had no interest in camping in my car overnight. The sun had just slipped behind the mountains, and I knew the residual light would fade quickly. I had a quick flash of a time where Uncle Lamb and I ran out of gas in the Sahara. We had to sleep in the car, both of us freezing, and the next day we ended up getting towed in the vehicle by camels to the next town. 

 

Then I was hit with a wave of shame when I wondered how that adventurous girl fell so hard and fast for someone who slowly and meticulously stripped her of the things that made her so unique. Never Again.

 

I hit my brakes when I got to another fork in the road. “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.” Jack used to hate when I said that. I smiled. And said it again. 

 

I got out and trudged through the snow, kicking the wood base of a signpost. To the right: Big Bear Lodge. To the left: Big Bear Lodge.

 

Great.

 

After a moment, I decided on right, hoping I didn’t choose the scenic route. But five minutes later I arrived at my destination. My body flooded with excitement. I almost shamed myself for that as well, but rerouted the thought, and expanded the feeling instead. 

 

I was so proud of how far I had come in only a year. The night Jack and I fought, I stared at the food on the coffee table for a long time before calmly getting up, passing Jack in his office, going straight upstairs and packing. I took only what I could pack in two suitcases, left the Bruins tickets I bought for Jack for Christmas poking out of the pine needles of the tree, and left. 

 

I never went back. Not even for the furniture I had carefully picked out, or the ornaments, or the china set we got as a wedding gift, nothing. I packed my clothing, toiletries, a pair of earrings Uncle Lamb bought me before he died, my laptop, and my medical textbooks, which took up nearly a whole suitcase alone. It felt good to shed the majority of materials along with the emotions as I walked out of the house.

 

Making my way inside, I was surprised to find so many people bustling about, but the concierge desk was abandoned. I rang the bell. 

 

No one came. 

 

I rang it again. And waited. My finger hovered a third time before a flustered man came running out. “So sorry, ma’am, are you checking in?”

 

“Yes, I am.”

 

“Oh!” he said happily, “You’re from England?”

 

“Originally, yes. I live in Boston now.” I handed him my drivers license so he could check me in. 

 

“Oh, wow. What brings you to Colorado?”

 

“A friend of mine gave me a gift certificate, and she highly recommended it. I wanted a quiet place to spend Christmas, and the mountain views are spectacular.”

 

“They are at that.” He handed my card back, then a keycard. “We have you in Kodiak Cabin.” He rang a buzzer behind him and a young man promptly appeared beside me. “This is Claire, she is going to Kodiak Cabin. Ronald here will lead you up and help you with your bags. There is a direct line from your cabin to the main lodge, so don’t hesitate to call if you need anything or have any questions.”

 

“Thank you.” I said, turning to follow Ronald out of the Lodge again. I regretted not fully appreciating the main building. The ceiling was high, beams proudly displayed, an enormous two-way fireplace perfectly situated to allow the feeling of privacy, even with many people scattered throughout. I made note of the bar at the far side, and I caught a glimpse of the restaurant tucked away as well. I hoped I felt a little more secluded once I reached my cabin, considering that was the whole reason I came out here. 

 

I got in my car and followed Ron, who was in a company vehicle in front of me, down another winding, snow-covered road, through towering trees. Some friends from school kept insisting I stay in Boston and have Christmas with them, but I couldn’t shake the desire to be away from everyone, everything. It had been a year since leaving Jack, but I still felt like I hadn’t had a minute to breathe, to just be. I had thrown myself into med school, upped my hours at work, and moved in with another med student to keep costs down. I forgot how much I loved being alone; I had really missed it. And if the drive from Boston was any indication of how cathartic it would be, I was wholeheartedly ready for every delicious moment of solitude I could grasp.

 

Ronald helped me bring my bags in, and I instantly fell in love with the cabin I had booked. I knew from the pictures what to expect, but being here was beyond my imagination. It was incredibly cozy, with a small wood stove in the corner, which had already been lit. All of the amenities were modern, but I still somehow felt transported back in time. The smell of the wood, the exposed beams, the loft overlooking all of it. Then, of course, the sweet festive touches. A small white tree was set up in the living room, white lights were wrapped around the banister that led up to the loft bedroom, stockings were hanging from hooks on the wall. It wasn’t a big space, but it was adequately comforting. 

 

I wandered to the back, where I had a private balcony, and I spotted the two person hot tub that had sold me on this cabin in the first place. Not a twinge of sadness that it was for two people. I didn’t miss being in a relationship at all. And I couldn’t wait to float in that thing completely alone. The view from the balcony was awe-inspiring. White capped mountains, trees for miles, a river breaking up the boundaries at the base of it all. I could live here. 

 

Ronald cleared his throat. “Can I get you anything else, Miss?”

 

I shook my head, feeling the tightness in my cheeks from smiling. “No, this is perfect.”

 

“Great. There is wood beside the stove and extra around the side of the cabin. We can bring it in for you as well if you just ring down to the lodge. If you’d like to come down for dinner, feel free to call ahead so we know you’re coming and get a table ready, otherwise, the menu is beside the phone at the desk in the living room. Room service is fairly quick. If there is anything else you need, don’t hesitate to call down to the lodge. Enjoy your stay!”

 

As soon as he left, I brought my clothing bag upstairs and unpacked it, taking note of how comfortable the bed looked. King size, down duvet, soft sheets. I had to talk myself out of retiring right then. 

 

Back down in the tiny kitchen, I put away the snacks I brought. I didn’t want to be ordering room service the whole week, plus I knew my tastes were particular, and I wasn’t counting on a lodge in the middle of nowhere to know or understand my late night cravings. I put the white wine and champagne in the fridge, and left out the red and the bottle of scotch. Apparently I had high hopes for the amount of alcohol I would be consuming while enjoying my stay.

 

I pulled out my cell phone. No service. I flipped through the booklet by the phone and found the wifi password. I was adamant that I needed wifi, I could use some uninterrupted study time between soaking in the hot tub, watching Christmas movies, and sleeping in. 

 

I called my friend Anne. “Hey!”

 

“Hey! I was starting to get worried! You made it?”

 

“Yes,” I said, still looking around, “I did, and it’s incredible. Look.” I held the phone up and showed her the bulk of the cabin. “It’s so adorable.”

 

“Oh good! I’m so glad!”

 

“You should really let me pay you for this, though. I feel horrible that you don’t get to experience this yourself.”

 

“Oh, pfft,” she said dismissively, “like I told you, my mom’s company gives her gift certificates to places like that all the time. Whatever she doesn’t want to use she gives to me, and whatever I don’t want to use, I give to friends. Seriously, it’s all good! You deserve a vacation.”

 

“Well, you’ll at least have to let me take you to dinner when I get back.”

 

“Obviously!”

 

***********************************

 

After soaking in the hot tub, watching The Holiday, ordering an incredible pasta to the cabin, and walking around naked with a glass of wine, I found myself comfortably tucked in, a perfect temperature, the perfect weighted duvet, stars outside the window, and a crackling fire lulling me to sleep.

 

**********************************

 

I startled awake and sighed. “Fuck,” I whispered. I had been dreaming about Jack, about arguing in circles with him. I tried to leave, but every doorknob I tried just kept turning in my hand. It put me in a foul mood. Not exactly what I had in mind for my first full day in my private oasis.

 

I spent the rest of the day trying to shake off the resentment. I had spent the last year consistently going to therapy, healing the wounds from that relationship, and trying my best to understand the trauma so I could move forward in confidence that I would never lose a part of me again. The person I was with him felt so unfamiliar to me now. The pieces I had chipped away were glued back together, though you heal differently than you break. You don’t look the same. You don’t feel the same. But it’s still familiar. And comforting. 

 

When I made my way down to the main lodge for dinner, I quickly realized they were in some sort of crisis. Staff members were bustling about between groups of guests, phones were constantly ringing, there was even a baby’s cry hovering in the distance to complete the chaos. 

 

A red haired man standing in the lobby, leaning casually against the concierge desk, calming down a staff member, caught my eye. He was looking right at me, still speaking low to the woman next to him, but all the while following me with his gaze. It felt invasive. And flattering. And… annoying.

 

I frowned and pulled my stare from him. No men. No thank you. That peacoat was sexy as hell, though. 

 

I pushed the feeling in my body away, the one that still sometimes yearned for a gentle caress, a firm grip, and a not so gentle thrust. 

 

I made my way to the entrance of the restaurant.

 

“For one, ma’am?”

 

“Yes, please.” I glanced around the lobby behind me. “What’s going on?”

 

“The shuttle to bring guests back into town is late, so the turnover is overlapping. I’m sure they’ll have it all sorted out soon.”

 

I nodded before catching myself craning my neck to check if that man was still at the desk, and if his eyes were still on me. They weren’t. And I hated that I was disappointed by that.

 

*************************

 

After eating way more than I thought possible, I found myself walking through the lobby again. I also found myself glancing around the room trying to spot the man in the peacoat. I scolded myself quietly. I wasn’t here for that. I didn’t need or want attention. I didn’t need or want to have anyone else in my space. I didn’t need or want sex. Well, I didn’t need sex. I shook my head. Stop it, Claire.

 

When I exited the lodge, I noticed the drastic increase in snow. It had dumped at least a foot since I was last outside. As soon as I hit the gas, I could feel the tires spinning, and the back end of my vehicle started swinging to the side. I stopped immediately and began rolling backward toward a group of trees. “Shit.”

 

I hit the brakes and started sliding, pushing down harder and praying I didn’t hit anything. Thankfully, the slope wasn’t steep enough that I kept rolling, but now I was awkwardly parked, and not confident enough to try to maneuver myself out of the position in the amount of snow that was on the ground. Considering there was already a couple feet on the ground when I had arrived, at least another foot added, plus the fact that it was still snowing heavily, I realized now that the shuttle might have been delayed due to poor road conditions. And if that was the case, conditions weren’t improving. 

 

I made my way back into the lodge and back to the concierge desk. I felt horrible adding to the current chaos. A woman appeared quickly, slightly out of breath. “Good evening, Ma’am, can I help you?”

 

“Erm, yes. I seem to have kind of slipped my car into a precarious position in the parking outside, and it’s so slippery, I didn’t want to risk running it into the trees or another vehicle. I was wondering if I could get someone to move it into a spot that isn’t in the way, and I’ll just walk back up to my cabin. I don’t have the best winter tires on, so I just didn’t want to risk an accident.”

 

“Oh, of course ma’am. I could get someone to bring you up to your cabin if you’d like. We have a couple side by sides.”

 

“Oh, that’s really not necessary”

 

“I insist. With everything that’s going on, the last thing we need is someone getting lost in the snow on the way back to their cabin. May I have your keys?”

 

“Certainly.” I handed them over, slightly disappointed that I didn’t get to experience a quiet evening walk in the snow. But I also didn’t see any lighting along the road to my cabin, so perhaps it was for the best.”

 

The woman grabbed a radio on the desk and spoke into it. “Can I get an escort to Kodiak, please?”

 

“Negative, we’ve all come down to try to clear the path for the shuttle.”

 

“Shoot.”

 

“I’ll take her,” came a voice to my left. There he was, taller than he looked when I first saw him, still relaxed, standing at the edge of the desk.

 

“Jamie,” the woman said with relief, “thank you, that would be great. Is there another side by side available?”

 

“Aye.”

 

“No,” I cut in.

 

“Aye, there is,” he assured me, his tone teasing.

 

“No, I didn’t mean,” I was flustered, “I meant, no I can just walk up, or better yet, I’ll give driving my car another go.” I put my hand out for my keys.

 

“It’s no bother. I have tae bring some linens up to Grizzly anyway. It’s on the way.”

 

“Well,” I wanted to protest, but at this point I was bringing more attention to myself arguing than I would be if I just let the man drive me up, “alright.”

 

He hitched his head toward the far hallway that led to the rooms in the main lodge, and I followed him down. 

 

“So, do you work here?” I asked.

 

“Sort of,” he answered vaguely. But I didn’t press him.

 

We passed by a large indoor pool, a cozy library, a maze of hallways jutting out in every direction, and finally a solarium. It wasn’t huge, but I was in love. He must have noticed my eyes widening as we passed because he commented on it.

 

“Ye like growing your own food?”

 

“Yes,” I breathed, eyes still scanning, legs slowing to take more in. “I’ve barely had the chance to have my own garden, but this would be like a dream. Growing all year round.”

 

“Aye. Did ye want to stop and look?”

 

“No,” my autopilot said, not wanting to inconvenience him, “I should get back to my cabin.”

 

“Ye’ll have to come down and explore it tomorrow then.” He half smiled at me, a genuine curl at his lip sending a shock of sensuality through my body.

 

I nodded.

 

“Maybe one day ye’ll find a man who wants to build one for ye.”

 

I felt like I had been dipped in boiling water, my anger rising quicker than my awareness. “Or,” I suggested forcefully, “I will build one for myself. Or I’ll pay another human being to build one for me. I don’t need to have a man to make my dreams come true. I am perfectly capable of accomplishing such things on my own.”

 

I could see his cheeks flush, but his tone remained steady, as did his demeanor. “I meant no offense, lass. I just meant that partners tend to want tae help make dreams come true.”

 

“I’m glad you’ve found that in your experience.” I huffed, a little embarrassed that I couldn’t hold my tongue, and yet, knowing that even if I could have, I still probably wouldn’t have. “I just don’t like being told that I need someone else in order to be complete as a woman.”

 

“I can see that ye don’t.” He stopped in the hallway, unlocking a door to a large walk-in closet, grabbing some linens and placing them in a waterproof bag.

 

I suddenly felt disappointed, though I refused to allow that feeling to take hold. 

 

He led me out a door where a side by side was waiting.

 

We didn’t say much on the way up to the cabin, the loud engine deterred conversation. I kept wanting to ask him questions, and I was suddenly aware of how I looked. I didn’t put much thought into my appearance when I went down for dinner, but now I wondered what I looked like through his eyes. For all I knew he was married. Or a jerk. That comment before definitely didn’t please me. Maybe he was a chauvinistic asshole. But that wasn’t the feeling I was getting from him. 

 

He seemed strong. Self-assured, but not arrogant. His eyes were kind, gentle, but hungry. His lips looked inviting, and the accent that passed through them was quite enticing as well. I felt a fire in my belly I hadn’t in years. Not since the early years with Jack, when he was still who I thought he would be forever. I willed it to go away. It got me into trouble last time as well. 

 

When we got to Kodiak, he walked me to the door and nodded. “Again, I apologize if I offended ye earlier.”

 

I wanted to smile, but I could tell it came out as more of a scowl. My defense mechanism had kicked in. “Thank you for the ride.”

 

“My pleasure.”

 

****************************

 

A couple hours drifted by, and I was trying to study, though I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was grateful for the distraction when the reception phone started ringing. 


“Hello?”

 

“Hi, ma’am. I’m so sorry to bother you, but we’re experiencing a bit of a crisis situation here. The shuttle arrived with more people, but unfortunately we had a tree come down across the main road that leads back down into the city. There were some people stranded up at the ski hill, which connects to our road, and now that the main road is blocked, they were also brought here. We’re asking guests if they would mind helping us accommodate an extra guest or two so we can get everyone in a bed. Your couch turns into a hide-a-bed, and we were wondering if you would mind if we placed someone in your cabin with you?”

 

I really didn’t like the idea, considering I had come up here for solitude, but these poor people were stranded. I knew I was inevitably going to help.

 

I think she could sense my hesitation because she added, “We will, of course, be comping your room for three nights to make up for any inconvenience. This should be cleared up by tomorrow. We really do apologize having to ask at all.”

 

“No,” I said unconvincingly, “I don’t mind at all.”

 

“Amazing. Thank you so much. I’m not sure who we’re sending yet, but they will be up there soon. Thank you, again.”

 

“Of course.”

 

**********************

 

Half an hour later there was a knock at the door. I had a glass of wine in my hand and had spent the last bit of time getting used to the idea of having someone in my space. Maybe some company wouldn’t be that bad, and it was only for one night. Worst case scenario, I could just sneak up to my loft and go to sleep. 

 

I opened the door. “You!”

 

“Aye. Me.” 

 

He was standing there, peacoat hugging his shoulders perfectly, with a duffel bag hanging from his hand. 

 

“Why did they send you?”

 

“Can I come in?”

 

“I just— don’t you work here?”

 

“Sort of.”

 

“You said that before. But don’t you have a room or something that you are staying in?”

 

“I gave up my suite for a family of five. I could get the manager to send them up here instead of me if you’d like. I think the six month old just started teething.”

 

I immediately wondered if I had anything with me that could soothe that poor baby’s gums, but then again, how would they all fit in this cabin? I’d end up sleeping on the floor. “Come in,” I grumbled. 

 

“Thank ye,” he said, shuffling in, dropping his bags and rubbing his palms together, encouraging circulation. “I’m Jamie.” He reached his hand out and I took it firmly, though the roughness of them surprised me and sent a jolt slightly south of my belly. I pulled my hand away. I needed a distraction. He had been here for half a minute and I was already rattled. “Care for some wine?”

 

“Aye, wine would be nice.”

 

“Red or white?”

 

“Red, please.”

 

An awkward silence fell around us quickly, though whether it was awkward to him I couldn’t say. He seemed perfectly at ease, stoking the fire, adding another log before sitting on the couch. 

 

“So,” I heard myself say, having no idea why I spoke in the first place, and frantically grasping for a conversation starter, “you’re from Scotland, then?”

 

“Aye, originally, yes.”

 

“When did you move to the States?”

 

“We moved over when I was fifteen. My dad wanted to expand the business.”

 

“And what business was that?”

 

“Hospitality.”

 

“Oh,” I said, putting the pieces together, “so this Lodge is your family’s? Which is why you keep saying you ‘sort of’ work here.” I passed him his wine, taking a seat at the opposite end of the small couch and tucking my feet underneath me. Thank God for the warm wool socks I packed.

 

“Thank ye,” he said under his breath as he took a sip from his glass. “Aye, my family owns this Lodge, though I’m really the only one actively involved anymore. Only just recently have I been helping out more with the business side of things.”

 

“What had you been doing before?”

 

“Well, see, when I moved over here from Scotland, this property was actually my grandad’s farm. He had moved from Scotland after my dad was grown and bought this property, developed the land, and built a beautiful log house. We didna visit much growin’ up, but when we moved over, it was because my grandad was getting too old tae run the farm. He needed help, but my dad wasna interested in farming, so they struck a deal. We’d help him keep some of the farm going if we could build a lodge and run it as a business.”

 

“Is that what your dad did in Scotland before you left?”

 

“Aye, he had a very successful string of resorts across the country, but after my mom died, he lost a bit of the spark that kept him going, the part of him kept him tied to Scotland. I think bein’ there gave him an ache he couldna soothe.” He stared at his glass, watching the light reflect off of it. “When my grandad asked him to come, I think it was the out he was lookin’ for.”

 

“How about you?”

 

“What do ye mean?” He shifted slightly, but not from discomfort. He seemed to be enjoying the conversation.

 

“Did you want to move?”

 

“Naw,” he chuckled, “no overly. I had a girlfriend at the time, and I was captain of the rugby team at my school. It was no ideal for me to leave everything behind to move to a remote location in America to do farm work.”

 

“But…?” I pried.

 

“But, once I got here, I realized I quite enjoyed doin’ the work. I enjoyed working wi’ the animals, and the school I went to was welcoming enough. I played football, which seemed quite tame for me after rugby. I did alright. But I found my place, workin’ wi’ my grandad, learnin’ about the horses in particular. I had a knack for it and wanted to spend most of my time trainin’ and ridin’ them.”

 

“Do you still have animals here?”

 

“Aye. It’s a smaller scale now, as most of our revenue is from the lodge itself, so keeping it running as a farm isn’t as big of a priority. When my grandad was still alive, we raised and sold cattle, rehabilitated horses and sold them, even grew and sold crops locally. It was lucrative. But not as lucrative as the lodge has proven to be. As it grew, we phased out what took more work than was worth. We still have horses, they are a draw to guests, and we have a small animal petting zoo for the kids where they can feed goats, donkeys, ducks and the like. I still enjoy workin’ wi’ the horses, but since my dad has retired I’ve found myself more often behind a desk than hands on wi’ the animals.”

 

“Do you miss it?”

 

“Yes and no. It’s hard work, runnin’ a farm, taking care of animals on that big of a scale. I like that I have more time to do other things I love, and I get to socialize with the guests more now.” He paused, deep in thought for a moment. “I do think I need to prioritize spending more time than I have wi’ the horses, though.”

 

I took a sip of my wine, trying not to swoon over his genuine openness. The willingness to share his story with me and the authenticity behind his words was so refreshing. He was so sure of himself, but there wasn’t an arrogance, or even a flirtation in his tone of voice. There wasn’t an ulterior motive, and I was shocked to find that it made me more suspicious than if there obviously had been some sort of motive. I made a mental note to bring that up to my therapist. Trust issues? Check.

 

“It was just you and your father that moved then?” I licked my lips before taking another sip and saw his eyes dart to them. He immediately glanced to the side, but there was an unmistakable flip in my chest that I tried to suppress. 

 

“Uh— no. No. My sister was wi’ us as well, Jenny. She’s a couple years older than me.”

 

“What does Jenny do now? Is she involved with the family business also? How many lodges does your family own by the way?”

 

“No, Jenny doesna have much to do wi’ the business. She had a talent for it, mind ye, but she found another passion.”

 

“What was that?”

 

“She bought one of the locations from my father and turned it into a home for single mothers in need.”

 

I could feel my eyebrows raise. “Wow, that’s very admirable.”

 

“I agree.”

 

“And, how many lodges?”

 

I could see him blush slightly, almost embarrassed to answer. “We have twenty nine locations across the country.”

 

“That’s very impressive.” He was humble. He didn’t want to brag. He even tried to avoid the question, but didn’t lie when I asked point blank. It seemed like such a small detail, but it spoke volumes about his character. He should absolutely be proud to be running such a successful family empire, and you could tell he was. But he wasn’t into bragging about it, or using it to elevate his status or impress me. And it wasn’t in a fake way, either. He wasn’t playing modest. He was down to earth, more excited to work a farm, to do what felt honest for him, than be popular or rich. I admired that as well. 

 

Maybe it was years of reading between the lines, years of analyzing subtext and subtleties, of experiencing microaggressions, of words not matching behaviors, that actually gave me a skill beyond the simple process of getting to know someone. Small movements told me stories, a glance was a chapter, tone spoke directly to my cognition. It was like a sixth sense I didn’t want or ask for, but suddenly was grateful for. To be able to see this man in his truth, in his strength, freely showing vulnerability, it was like a crescendo to a melody that was already hair raising. 

 

And yet, I still doubted myself. What if he was just good at being well-liked? What if he was a master of deception? Or charm? I didn’t know shit. And I wasn’t about to fall at a man’s feet because he told me a bit of a backstory and potentially pretended to be modest about it all. 

 

I realized we had eyes locked on each other and I took a sharp breath, looking away and shifting my body, bringing my knees up to my chest. 

 

“Hey,” he started gently, hesitant to go on, “I— I would just like to apologize again for the comment I made earlier.”

 

I knew exactly what he was talking about. “Which?”

 

“About finding a man to build ye a garden. I didnae mean to offend ye. I didna mean to imply or overstep. My dad—” he shook his head slightly, “och, I— I’m just… sorry.”

 

I wanted to know what he was going to say, but I wasn’t going to pry.

 

“More wine?” he asked, changing the subject.

 

I passed my glass, but glanced at the clock on the wall. It was past eleven. And I did feel exhausted. “Actually,” his movements into the kitchen slowed as I spoke, “I think I’m going to go to bed. I’m really tired.”

 

Placing the wine glasses on the counter, he leaned against the fridge. “Aye.”

 

“Do you have sheets and everything for the couch?”

 

“Aye, they’re in the hall closet, I’m all set.”

 

“Great.” I turned to go up to the loft, but stopped on the stairs when he continued.

 

“I’ll have tae be up fairly early to try and sort out the mess with the roads and tend to guests. I’ll try not to wake ye when I go.”

 

I nodded before scurrying up the steps. The flex in his jaw when he spoke was starting to make me think indecent things. I was not going to have a fling with the man who owned the resort I was trying to find solitude in. Out of the question. Plus, for all I knew he was married. I didn’t get around to asking him that. Stupid.

 

I changed into my short silk nightie and crawled into bed. I was worked up, my body felt electric. I didn’t realize how much he was affecting me until I was out of his presence, like waking up from a dream that rocked your core. There was a shuddering in my loins, and I wanted to relieve myself. I knew my bed was out of view from downstairs, but I couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t be able to hear me, and though I knew I was being paranoid, I decided against it. 

 

I thought for sure it was going to take me ages to fall asleep, but thankfully, it came quickly. My dreams, however, betrayed me. They were of him. Not all of them made sense, not all of them were coherent, but there was a theme. Sex and trust. I didn’t have sex with him in my dreams, but the sexual tension was there. It was palpable. And the feeling of trust for him, the reassurance in his eyes, how I fell, knowing he would catch me. It was such intriguing imagery, not completely cohesive, mostly in metaphors, until I woke up, an absolute throbbing between my legs. He had awoken a desire in me, and I resented him for it. 

 

After Jack, I didn’t want to be closed off. He and I were having sex pretty regularly, which was surprising looking back. I didn’t feel connected to him, but I didn’t want him to have any reason to fly off the handle, so I remained physically available to him long after I was emotionally unavailable. I had started to detach myself emotionally, but since I am so connected to my body, it was like a betrayal. Every time I allowed myself to be with him physically, while disconnecting mentally and emotionally, it was like I was throwing my body to the wolves, praying it would come back with minimal damage.

 

I understand so much of it was self-preservation. So much of it was subconscious. But it wasn’t until I slept with another person a few months after the break up that I realized how detached I had been. 

 

It was one of my roommate's friends. He was nice enough, attractive enough, interesting enough. I enjoyed the attention, the spark, the excitement. But I had spent those months putting all the pieces of me back together. Understanding how I had pulled them all apart and deprived myself of feeling every bit of who I was. And what parts of me I wanted to shed. I didn’t want to separate any of those pieces anymore. When that man was touching my body, something else broke inside of me. I hadn’t been vigilant with my dedication to myself. Another betrayal. 

 

He left the next morning, and after reaching out once, with me being transparent about not wanting to pursue anything further in response, he didn’t call again. 

 

But that man didn’t breathe life into my bones like Jamie just did. I didn’t even know this man. Plus, who was to say I wouldn’t experience the same reaction if I slept with him? Maybe I would weep, or get angry, or regret it. I tried to take a deep breath and remind myself of how far I had come. I had done so much work. I had truly taken the time to heal. But I wasn’t done. And I didn’t want to be derailed by a good looking man with a sexy accent. No matter how genuine he seemed.

 

I was suddenly parched, and decided to sneak downstairs for a glass of water. I draped a robe over my shoulders and tiptoed down the stairs. I saw Jamie sleeping on his stomach, his back rising and falling rhythmically. I paused for a moment, hoping my eyes would adjust quicker so I could see more details of his body, before reprimanding myself and forcing my legs to take me to the kitchen. I should have just brought up a bloody bottle of water, that would have saved me from this nonsense. 

 

I moved meticulously, not wanting to wake him up, so it took me ages to move a few items around in the fridge and reach to the back for a bottle of water. I also grabbed an apple, just in case, and closed the fridge quietly, though once the light went off it was pitch black for me. My eyes hadn’t adjusted, but I felt confident enough to walk around the few items of furniture by memory and feel. My hand was gliding over the back of the couch when I ran into, what felt like, a warm brick wall. I shrieked and stumbled backwards, feeling hands wrap around my arms, catching me awkwardly. I was suspended in the air, held by his strength, barely a foot from the floor. 

 

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I said, panting, “you scared me half to death!”

 

“I’m sorry, Claire. Are ye hurt?”

 

My eyes had adjusted enough to realize his face was only inches from mine, and the concern on his face was so goddamn adorable. It took a fraction of a second for my lips to reach his and I heard him grunt his surprise. 

 

His mouth tasted like mint, and the sensation of pleasure that coursed through my veins was like nothing I had ever experienced. And I had enough experience to know, this wasn’t any ordinary kiss. It scared the shit out of me. But I wasn’t done.

 

I could tell his grip was slipping, and his knee slowly dropped down, my body was lowered to the floor. I released the items that I was clenching, both of them falling to the floorboards. When his hands were free from holding me up, one found its way up to tangle in my curls, and the other fell to my hip. I pushed my tongue into his mouth and savoured the feeling of closeness I had been craving. It was the best first kiss I had ever had. 

 

It was deepening quickly. I hadn’t realized I had opened my legs, and he was easily positioned between them. He wasn’t trying to remove my clothing, or touch me beneath them either, he was simply kissing back, allowing me to lead. I could, however, feel the slight buck in his hips, as his growing hardness yearned for a warm, welcoming place. 

 

I could feel an annoying growing panic in my chest, the one that didn’t trust myself with a man anymore. The one that told me I was a bad judge of character. The one that got me into such a devastating situation in the past. I stiffened slightly. 

 

He could feel the change, though I was still reaching up for him. A part of me wanted to prove I was in control, that I could do this, sleep with a man, invested or not, and not fall apart. I told my hand to move between us, to feel him, but it was frozen, my heart rate increasing with every second that passed. 

 

He pulled back from the kiss, hovering above me, panting. “Ye alright, Claire?”

 

I nodded.

 

He cocked his head slightly. There was no disappointment, no questioning, only curiosity and concern. We stayed like this for a moment, eyes locked in the darkness, before he pulled back completely. He reached for me, hands wrapping around my ribcage and picking me up easily, placing me back on my feet. He bent down to grab the bottle of water and apple, handing them back to me. I had to keep adjusting my focus to be able to see his face in such low light.

 

Reaching down again, he grabbed the robe that had slipped off my shoulders and draped it around me again. He took a deep breath and moved a piece of hair from my face. “Thank ye, Claire. That was… incredible.” He leaned down, placing a warm kiss on my cheek and lingering there. I thought he reached his hands up to touch my arms, but I didn’t feel contact. He didn’t move, and I could tell that he was waiting for me. He didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable, or embarrassed, or regretful. He was so damn respectful, I thought I would burst into tears. 

 

I climbed the stairs quickly, without a word back to him and crawled into bed. I willed myself to go back to sleep, but my restlessness couldn’t be quelched. I tossed and turned with a pleading clit for hours before I finally heard him leave. I glanced at the clock, five AM. A moment later I could feel myself drifting off. 

 

********************************************

 

I didn’t see Jamie for most of the day, even though I went down for breakfast and lunch. When I went down for dinner, the lodge was still packed, and it didn’t seem like things were going all that well. They assured the guests that they were fully stocked and if there ended up being another night of the same, that at the very least they had tons of provisions to accommodate everyone. I found myself hoping that they wouldn’t get the roads cleared, and that Jamie would have to spend another night in my cabin. 

 

Then, of course, I felt instantly guilty for wishing such a thing, especially considering the amount of people who were being put out because of this. As well as, I wasn’t sure how I would feel having him there for a second night. I didn’t want to want him. It. The situation.

 

As if on cue, I felt a gentle hand on the small of my back. “Claire,” Jamie said under his breath.

 

“Hi,” I stuttered back, rolling my eyes at my body’s reaction.

 

“Listen,” his voice was low, clearly not wanting any of the guests to overhear, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to get the roads cleared tonight. Would it be a huge inconvenience if I stayed in your cabin again?”

 

I felt a jolt in my belly and a tingling on my skin as his breath moved past my ear. “No— not at all.”

 

“Once everything dies down up here I’ll head over. I can let myself in if that doesnae make ye uncomfortable. If I’m later than expected, I don’t want to wake ye up.”

 

“Sure,” I heard myself squeak. 

 

“I truly am sorry about the circumstances.”

 

“No,” I insisted, gesturing with my hand that it wasn’t a big deal, “this is unprecedented. I’m happy to accommodate. It is technically yours after all.” I cringed at myself. “And I know this isn’t normal protocol. There are worse places to find yourself during a natural disaster.”

 

I had no idea what I just spouted. It felt like gibberish. I scolded myself for being so stirred by Jamie. But when he looked down at me, a half smile of gratitude, I all but melted, and forgot how to be angry, even with myself. 

 

By the time I made it back to the cabin, I had walked in knee deep snow, I was freezing and irritated. The hot tub was calling my name. I changed quickly, and wore the robe down, in case Jamie showed up when I was in transit. 

 

I sunk into the steaming water and sighed happily as the snow fell gently. I could see the outline of the mountains in the distance still, even though the light was fading quickly. It was comforting. 

 

Jamie startled me when he poked his head out the back door. “Mind if I step out?”

 

I pushed my floating body down to more of a sitting position, “Please do.” He crossed his arms, guarding against the cold. “Everything sorted?”

 

“No,” he laughed, “it’s been a pretty interesting succession of events. Trucks breakin’, chainsaws malfunctionin’, snow making it near impossible to maneuver. They are sending in the big guns tomorrow so we should be out of the woods then, so to speak.” He blew air on his hands and rubbed them together. 

 

Before I could stop myself, an invitation came flying out of my mouth. “You’re welcome to join me if you want to warm up.”

 

He raised his eyebrows, pleasantly surprised, and paused, perhaps waiting for me to retract my invitation. But my lips stayed pressed together. “Sure, I mean, if I’m not imposing.”

 

I shook my head.

 

“I’ll just get changed.” He stopped at the door, “Do ye want a drink? I brought some red wine tae replace what I drank last night.”

 

“Oh, you didn’t have to do that.”

 

“Tis nae bother.”

 

“I’d actually love some of the scotch if you don’t mind.”

 

“I was eyein’ that bottle up last night,” he admitted with a guilty laugh. 

 

“Help yourself.” I loved how his accent sometimes slipped from a deep rooted Scottish accent to nearly nothing depending on the phrasing. I wondered if another English person would think the same of me after being in Boston for such a long time. I imagined I had a hybrid accent as well. 

 

My stomach flipped in anticipation as I waited for him. I wondered what he looked like in swim trunks, and was positively giddy at the thought. There wasn’t enough light the night before to get a good look. I could tell he was relatively well sculpted, even through his clothing, but I knew it would be different seeing bare skin. 

 

And damn was it ever. He pushed the door open with his shoulder and backed out onto the covered deck, a glass of scotch in each hand. His chest looked broader, more chiseled. I could see a healthy bulge through his shorts, even though he kept boxers on underneath his swim shorts. I followed the lines of his body as he moved toward me, how his muscles flexed beneath the skin. He truly was built well. And it wasn’t helping me resist the pull I felt when I was near him. 

 

He handed me a glass and climbed the steps gingerly before sinking into the warm water. It was a little tight, as it was only a two man hot tub, but we had sufficient room to stretch our bodies without touching. “The cabin rules say that glass isn’t allowed in the hot tub.”

 

He winked, “I trust ye.”

 

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” I teased, taking a sip of the amber liquid and relishing the warming sensation as it slid down my throat.

 

“Clumsy, are ye?”

 

I shrugged, thinking of the night before. The curiosity I had earlier overtook me in an instant and I blurted out, “You’re not married, right?”

 

The forceful nature of my question had him choking on his scotch as he laughed. “I wasna expecting that.”

 

I blushed deeply. “I’m sorry, I— I just wanted to make sure.”

 

“No, I’m not married.” He chuckled again. “Why? Are ye plannin’ on takin’ advantage of me, then?”

 

The question hung in the air, and the heartbeat in my ears blocked out any other sounds. I tipped my chin down, looking up at him through my lashes and I could see the hope in his eyes. He said it jokingly enough that I could brush it off, but I had a sneaking suspicion that he would know the truth. That I absolutely wanted to take advantage of him. That I wanted him to touch me, desire me, pleasure me. 


My defense kicked in and my autopilot kicked on. “I’m not planning on it.”

 

I could see the slight drop in his face, but he smiled anyway. “Let me know if ye change yer mind.”

 

It wasn’t my mind I needed to convince; it was already turning on me. Thinking of how it would feel to have his rough hands on my soft body, caressing my skin, reaching down between my legs, exploring the folds of my…”

 

“This is fairly decent scotch.”

 

If he wasn’t in this hot tub with me I’d be turning the jets on and masterbating to my heart’s content. Though, I doubt it would last long. My clit was basically pleasuring itself at this point. I sighed deeply. 

 

“Ye dinna agree?”

 

“No, I agree, I like this scotch. My Uncle Lamb bought it for me years ago. It was one of the few things I took with me when I moved.”

 

“Moved from where?”

 

I sunk down deeper in the water, trying frantically to think of a way to dodge what this conversation could potentially become. “Uh— moved houses. I was moving to a different area of Boston, closer to school.”

 

“School? Ye’re goin’ to College?”

 

“Yes, I’m in medical school. One more year before I start interning.”

 

“That’s incredible! Wow!”

 

I was slightly taken aback. He seemed so genuinely excited for me. “Thank you.”

 

“What made you want to become a doctor?”

 

I glanced to the side as my mind quickly ran through the memories that brought me to that decision. Uncle Lamb, traveling, seeing the poor, sick, downtrodden, going on a tour through a prestigious hospital in London, volunteering at a make-shift shelter in Somalia. “I think it’s just always something I’ve been drawn to. It’s incredibly intriguing to me to be able to acquire skills that can save a life. I don’t like feeling helpless.”

 

He was nodding at me earnestly. “That’s admirable, truly.”

 

“Thank you,” I said, though I felt myself tense. Still expecting that ulterior motive.

 

“Are you hoping to get residency in Boston, then? Is that where you’d like to end up ideally?”

 

“No,” air whooshed out as the word barreled past my lips.

 

“Oh,” he chuckled, “not a fan of Boston, I presume?”

 

“No,” I said lightly this time, “it’s not that.”

 

“Bad memories?” he asked gently, picking up easily on my vague responses.

 

“Something like that.”

 

He waited. I didn’t like talking about it much with anyone, other than my therapist, and even that I could do without sometimes. I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to share, so I decided to give him the G-rated version. “I was in a very— unhealthy relationship. We broke up last year. I’m actually hoping I can get residency somewhere else. And eventually I’d like to join Doctors Without Borders so I can periodically help in other countries as well.”

 

I was hoping the change in topic at the end would deter him from asking more questions about Jack, but it didn’t. He seemed genuinely curious, but he was gentle in his delivery. “What made the relationship unhealthy? Was it abusive?”

 

Maybe I should have been offended at the brazen question, especially considering the answer was so deeply personal. But I wasn’t. 

 

“Yes.” I cringed. It took me many many months to admit that I was in an abusive relationship. 

 

Physical abuse is clear, there is an obvious line that has been crossed. Your body is suffering at the hands of another person. Emotional abuse isn’t as clear. It didn’t feel like abuse to me. It was progressive. It was manipulation, gaslighting, confusion, blame, shame, and a million other tiny things used to erode the trust and love I had for myself. But saying ‘he hit me’ felt much more definitive, and sometimes more valid than ‘he slowly wore me down for years’. It made me feel like a whiner, it made me feel weak, it made me feel crazy.

 

“What kind?” He cocked his head and leaned forward. “You dinna have to answer if ye dinna feel comfortable.”

 

The fact that he simply understood that “abuse” didn’t always mean physical abuse made me respect him imminently more than I already seemed to. “It was mostly emotional. But mental and financial as well.” I held my breath for his reaction. 

 

He reached over and took my free hand. “I’m sorry, Claire, truly. No one deserves such a thing. Especially from someone who is supposed to be a partner.”

 

I could feel my eyes welling up. “Ya,” I choked out, swallowing the lump in my throat, “it was definitely a mind fuck.”

 

He released my hand, I think not wanting to impose himself on me beyond letting me know he was there for support. It was so damn sexy, I was almost annoyed. “My sister Jenny’s ex-boyfriend emotionally abused her for years. I didna know at the time, but lookin’ back I can see what she went through. How it changes ye. Out of need for survival. She described it to me like being in constant fight or flight mode, havin’ tae make choices ye never woulda made before. Havin’ to accept and accommodate what ye never would have tolerated before.”

 

I cleared my throat, grateful to be able to talk about it without having the focus be on my story. “Is that what inspired her to create a space for single mothers?”

 

“Aye. She truly is one of the strongest people I know. It was shocking to me to find out she had endured such abuse, right in front of all of us. That’s part of what makes emotional abuse so horrible I wager. The fact that it can be done in such little ways over time, that it creates a control over someone and can be imposed on them in front of everyone.” He clenched his jaw. “I regret not seeing what was happenin’.”

 

I adjusted my leg and it rested against his. I didn’t move it. “Even if you did, in so many instances it still takes a long time to register what is happening. To even understand that it’s a form of abuse. Our upset gets dismissed. We create excuses for them. And that keeps us in the cycle.” My eyes darted around. “And, many other things, of course.”

 

“Do ye feel embarrassed?”

 

“Did Jenny?”

 

“Och, aye. She said that was one of the most prominent emotions. She’s so strong, ye ken. Like you.”

 

“You don’t know me.”

 

He should have been offended by how it came out. It sounded callous. But he wasn’t. He smiled, understanding. “Ye’re right. But ‘tis no hard tae see, Claire. The bellboy would probably describe ye as such as well.”

 

I pursed my lips, trying to stop the smile, but it pushed through as a pout. I was fucking flattered. And grateful that he lightened the mood. “I’m sorry,” I stuttered, “I’m still—” I frowned, searching for an appropriate word, one that wouldn’t make me loathe myself like damaged or broken, “healing.”

 

“Aye. I would imagine it would be lifelong.”

 

“Feels that way.”

 

“I’ll handle with care then, aye?”

 

My stomach flipped, or was it my uterus? I couldn’t stop the subconscious sarcastic thought: Put a baby in me. Something my friends and I would say when we saw someone undeniably attractive. “No,” I replied, my voice shaky, “I’m not fragile.”

 

He tipped his chin up, what I took as a little, I told you so nod to my strength. “I agree, Claire, but a box of diamonds would still be handled with care, aye? Bein’ so valuable.”

 

Fuck sakes. The fact that he could build me up, flatter me, make me feel like more of a woman that I ever had, turn me on, and empower me all at once was unnerving. And impossible to resist. 

 

I rushed forward, the water between us pushing out of the way, sloshing over the side of the hot tub. I was so close our noses were nearly touching. I looked up at the nervous anticipation on his face, feeling the control he was gladly giving me. My hand came out of the water, and I gently moved my fingers along his jawline. The slow sound of dripping as droplets hit the surface and our staggered breathing was all I could hear in the muted landscape. 

 

I moved forward slightly, looking up again, watching as his eyes closed and his breathing nearly stopped. His lips were slightly parted and inviting, but patient. When our lips finally touched, it was as if I granted him permission to reach out for me, and I felt his arms pulling me closer. Kissing in a hot tub is a unique experience in itself, everything is wet, the sensation of the water sliding between the smallest spaces between our bodies made me hyper aware of which parts of us weren’t touching. 

 

His hands pulled at me gently, one at the base of my back, just above my bathing suit bottoms, and the other at my hip. I stood slightly, and his eyes popped open, offended at the parting of our lips, but he nodded an approval as I spread my legs and straddled him. Our skin slid against one another, and he groaned, leaning back and tipping his head up, silently asking for more. I obliged, my lips covering his mouth again. 

 

The kiss was extraordinary. We were wordlessly exploring each other, asking what we liked, intrigued. “Christ, Claire,” he whispered as I licked his bottom lip, reaching around and guiding his hand to the back of my top. 

 

He didn’t need to be told twice, and I felt the knot come loose, the one at my neck as well. The measly fabric floated away. He leaned back more and pushed against my ribcage, creating space to allow him to look. 

 

It was the first time I had been so exposed and vulnerable in a long time. Trusting. There was a mixture of desperation and terror, but my body didn’t tense. Instead, I was eager.

 

His face was one of wonder, like a child’s when they’ve seen something new for the first time. Like this was the first time he had ever seen a pair of breasts. I appreciated it, even if it was exaggerated. But the way his hand reached up to explore told me he was thoroughly pleased with the task. 

 

I thought I was going to burst. His hands on my tits, then his mouth, I had forgotten this feeling. It was ecstasy. My hand was tangled in his hair as he traced his tongue around my nipple before teasing it with his teeth. I could hear myself whimpering and I pushed my hips down, my clit searching for something to rub against. We still had multiple layers between us, and it somehow felt stifling. I reached down to free his cock, but before I could feel him with my hand, his grip tightened around my arm. His attention had been caught. 

 

“What is it?” 

 

“Sounds like one of our side by sides.”

 

“And?”

 

“They might be coming up here.”

 

“Shit.” Before I could even turn to search for my bathing suit top, the roar of the engine was right around the corner of the cabin. I unceremoniously threw myself off of Jamie, and covered myself up with my arms as best I could before I saw the lights come into view. 

 

I put my back to whoever it was, and covered my mouth with my hand, trying to smother my laughter and embarrassment. I glanced over at Jamie who had a guilty smile splayed across his face. He tried to block me, but given the angles, and the size of the tub, there really wasn’t much use.

 

“Jamie, hey!”

 

“Hey, Logan, what’s up?”

 

“Sorry to bother you, but Paul really needs to talk to you, he told me to come up and let you know.”

 

“Aye,” his eyes were darting between Logan and myself, “I’ll give him a shout straight away.”

 

“Oh,” Logan stammered. My eyes shut, understanding that this poor man had just realized he had cock blocked his boss and there was a topless woman doing her best to be modest and not draw attention, “sorry, Jamie. Sorry— uh— ma’am.”

 

“It’s alright, Logan. I’ll call Chris straight away.”

 

“Paul.”

 

“Paul, aye, Paul. I’ll call— Paul.”

 

I heard the side by side fire up and speed away. 

 

It was quiet for a moment before Jamie broke the silence, “I don’t think he noticed you.”

 

I laughed and swatted at him. “You’re horrible.”

 

He reached around me, pulled me flush to his body and kissed me with intent. It felt like we had been doing this for years. 

 

“Don’t you need to call Paul?” I asked, leaning back to look at him. “Or was it Chris?” I teased.

 

“Neither one of them kiss this well,” he replied, pressing his lips against my smile, a giggle catching in my throat.

 

I stood up while Jamie grunted in protest, and exited the hot tub, reaching for my robe. “Why did they come up here anyway? Why didn’t they just call?”

 

I saw the frown on his face when the fabric covered my body, “I told them I was going for a hot tub and was leaving my phone inside. They knew where I was, and I suppose it must be urgent.” He sighed his discontent.

 

“Are you coming then?” I asked, hitching my thumb toward the door.

 

“Would ye mind terribly bringing it out to me? I—uh— I might need a minute. To calm down.”

 

I blushed and bit my lip. I had half a mind to refuse. But reluctantly agreed. 

 

**************************

 

After showering, changing, and trying to find something in between my silk nightie and my two sizes too large sweatpants, I descended the stairs to find Jamie hidden behind the open refrigerator. 

 

“It’s so bloody hot in here.” I said, making my way over to him. 

 

He slammed the door of the fridge, “Och, aye.” He was wearing plaid pajama pants, his boxer briefs hugging his waist just above them. He had no shirt on, and I silently thanked God for making this man. “I started the fire and then took another phone call outside. I forgot the dampers were wide open. It’ll cool down quickly. Sorry, Claire.”

 

I shrugged, still following the prominent lines sculpting out his muscles. “I’ll live. More scotch?”

 

He held up a finger and reached for two tumblers, filled with the amber liquid. He grabbed a bowl of popcorn and grinned at me, hitching his head toward the living room.

 

I wasn’t sure exactly what I was expecting, but watching White Christmas wasn’t necessarily what I pictured. Jamie was so fucking adorable, eating popcorn, sipping his scotch, one leg stretched out, completely at ease. Every so often he would reach for my hand, moving his fingertips against mine absentmindedly, or his palm would rest on my thigh. It felt so comfortable. I wasn’t sure if he was biding his time, hoping I would make a move, or if he truly just wanted to enjoy a movie with me. And though things got extremely heated in the hot tub, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to have sex with him. I knew my body wanted to, but it was harder to dig out the emotions that were tied to it. I knew that after our conversation about abuse, he was being gentle with me. I appreciated it, but also felt bitter about it. That nagging voice in my ego was pushing me to prove that I didn’t need protection. 

 

*****************************

 

I took a sharp breath, my eyes popping open at the feeling of falling. Jamie’s arms were still around me, and I felt the bed beneath me. “What’s happening?”

 

“Sorry, I didna mean to wake ye, Claire. Ye fell asleep,” he turned on the dim light beside the bed, it was barely bright enough to illuminate his face, “I was bringing ye up to yer bed.”

 

I looked around, confused. How could I have dozed off when my body felt so alive next to Jamie? I could even feel the fibers of my very skin reaching for him as he sat next to me. Before I realized what was happening, I felt his lips on my forehead. They lingered for a moment, his hand running gently down my arm, raising goosebumps. Then he got up and left. I waited for him to come back, but he didn’t. I was confused. I thought he was being respectful, but maybe he was respectfully declining. Not that I was exactly offering , yet I wasn’t denying , either. 

 

Disappointed, and a little disoriented, I laid down and pulled the blankets over me. Maybe it was for the best. 

 

I could feel myself slipping off the edge of consciousness when I heard a loud crack and Jamie yelling, “Christ!” from downstairs. I bolted out of bed and ran to the edge of the loft, leaning over the banister barrier to see what happened. 

 

Jamie clicked the light on to reveal that the corner of the pullout was broken and leaning at an odd angle. The mattress was sliding off and the whole mattress was covered in red. 

 

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! Are you alright?”

 

Jamie looked more disappointed to see me awake than he did at the wreck in front of him. I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered or offended. “I didnae want to wake ye. I made the bed, but I couldnae fall asleep, so I thought I’d get a glass of wine, but I was doin’ it all in the dark. I tripped and landed on the corner, which,” he leaned down closer, “It clearly snapped wi’ my weight,’ and my wine, well,” he made a wide gesture, presenting the beautifully red stained mattress. “And I woke ye after all. I’m sorry, Claire.”

 

Goddamn it. If this was an act, it was a perfected one. He could fuck me in that wine soaked bed for all I cared. He just cared. He gave a shit . He cared more about me in those two days, with more earnestness than Jack did in our entire marriage. Which was a hard realization. It wasn’t that Jack didn’t show affection, or get me gifts, or do me favors, of course those are things that naturally happen after time. But it was self-serving. It was there to eventually be used as a manipulation, as a way to point out how much he did for me. As a way to hold it over my head. As a way to get attention from me. Not simply for me. 

 

I still didn’t know Jamie, and I knew my standards were low. Going from Jack to someone who simply had integrity and awareness of self would be an improvement. But Jamie was beyond. 

 

“Come upstairs,” I said, feeling the smile on my face. 

 

“No, Claire, I’ll fold this up and sleep on the couch. I dinna need the bed.”

 

“That couch is not going to be comfortable to sleep on all night.”

 

“I dinna want to impose.”

 

I held back a laugh. “I’m inviting you. Plus, you don’t have to touch me. We’re both adults. We can share a king size bed just fine.”

 

I could see him hesitate slightly before reluctantly agreeing and joining me in the loft. Once the light was off, we climbed into bed and lay facing each other. There was room for another person between us, but we left the space open. I knew I wanted him, but I could feel the hesitancy. Whether it was coming from me, him, or both of us, I couldn’t be sure. 

 

As our eyes adjusted I could make out his face, and his hand reached out for mine. He moved closer, but still allowed a reasonable amount of space. I knew if we started kissing that would be it. I remembered how quickly I lost inhibitions when I had his mouth on me. And I was truly wondering if I was ready. This wasn’t a quick fuck like it was with my roomate’s friend. I wasn’t out to prove a point or scratch an itch. This was a moment of healing as much as any of the hours I spent in therapy. Just as important as the epiphanies I had experienced over the last year looking back at my relationship through hindsight. This realization shook me. 

 

This was a healing of my body. Of putting myself in someone else’s hands again, physically, enough to trust that I wouldn’t allow those hands to mold me into anything other than who I already was. I allowed Jack to mold me, slowly, over time, like I was made of clay. I was manipulated by words, shame, guilt, and confusion until I was left to harden into something I didn’t recognize, but that Jack deemed more beautiful. More beautiful than every single piece of me that was already exactly as it should be. 

 

Jamie’s words jolted me from my thoughts. “I— I dinna want ye to think that I dinna want to kiss ye. I do. Verra much. But—”

 

“But…?” I asked. 

 

“I also dinna want to chase ye away by sayin’,” he paused, frowning for a moment, “I really like ye, Claire. No just yer body, but yer mind, yer wit, yer depth.” 

 

I sighed in relief and smiled. “Likewise.” I also had to stop the comment my brain automatically ran to: You don’t even know me. But it was in this moment that I didn’t want to say that to back him up, but to warn him. Like maybe if he got to know me, he would see me the way Jack did, and would treat me that way. Like less. I tucked that awareness away for later.

 

“I am grateful ye opened up to me and told me a bit about yerself. I want to know more. I want to know everything.”

 

“But?” I questioned again.

 

“This,” he took my hand and laid it on the bed, palm up. He ran his hand up and down it, mirroring them, feathering his fingertips along my skin, “what it is between us, it’s different, aye?”

 

The reassurance that he felt an undeniable draw as well was comforting. I nodded slowly, taking a deep breath in. 

 

“I dinna want to rush ye. I dinna know what it means.”

 

“Do we have to know?”

 

“No. But tonight, I want ye to feel my body against yers. Not because I want somethin’ from ye, but because I want to feel this between us.”

 

“So,” I clarified, “you don’t want to have sex?”

 

“Och,” he choked out, “if ye could see how hard I am for ye, Claire, ye wouldna be asking such a thing.”

 

I was turned on, too. Maybe more than I ever had been before. I was desperate for him to touch me. But after each moment of recognition that unfolded as the night wore on, I didn’t know if I could truly say that I was ready. But he took away the pressure, and though I wondered if I was denying myself instead of respecting the experience, I was grateful to not have to decide. Or say no if I changed my mind last minute. 

 

Before I could continue my internal argument, he reached out and pulled me into his body. My leg lifted up and landed over him, and I gasped. “Jesus, you are so hard.” And huge. Holy hell. 

 

He closed his eyes and pulled me into the crook of his arm, “Shh, if we’re quiet he’ll go to sleep.”

 

“But how am I supposed to sleep when he’s being so loud?” Seriously, something needed to be done with such a specimen. How wasteful.

 

He reached his free hand over and began stroking my hair. I felt his lips press gently on my forehead while his fingers ran through the strands. “Ye’re a very special woman, Claire.”

 

Though I imagined we would eventually give up on sleeping and end up fucking all night, I found myself drifting off quite suddenly. He created a space for me where I could feel something I hadn’t with another person in a long time. I felt safe. 

 

********************************

 

I woke up with that same boner pressing against my arse. I moved slightly as I surfaced from my dreams, wiggling my body closer to his. He pushed into me, still asleep. His breathing was steady, and it gave me a moment to consider where I was, how I felt, and what I wanted. 

 

Being here in this cabin with him, the place I came for solitude, the place I hoped to celebrate all I had found in myself again, I could see the parts in me that still needed more healing. I also saw what I couldn’t heal alone. 

 

I didn’t know what would become of us, and our few days together, but I had this moment, and this opportunity. I was happy to seize it. And I was finally ready to. 

 

I rubbed my arse against him, he was so hard I wondered how he was comfortable enough to sleep. He groaned and bucked his hips into me, his hand snaking over my hip. I could tell he was still dozing. 

 

I reached my hand in between us and grabbed his dick through the fabric. I took a deep breath in anticipation, and my clit pulsed in anticipation. 

 

“Claire?” His voice was hoarse from sleep. 

 

I didn’t reply, but my hands did. I pushed down on the boxer briefs, freeing him finally. I pushed down my own shorts and kicked them off the bed. 

 

It was when skin hit skin that he became fully alert. I was rubbing him against me, my one leg lifting, allowing access, and I lined him up. 

 

“Do you want me, Jamie?”

 

“God, yes. I want ye so bad I can scarcely breathe.” He propped himself up slightly and grabbed my hip in his hand. “Are ye sure, Claire?”

 

God was I ever. And my body was too. I was wet, aching, and open for him. “Fuck me, Jamie.”

 

He pushed his cock into me hard before our simultaneous moans filled the air. His mouth quickly fell to my shoulder and neck. We found an easy rhythm and savoured it, not rushing. 

 

I could feel myself surrendering to the vulnerability that I was desperate to expose to him. He nurtured it, handling me with a firm gentleness. His hand reached around to my breasts, and I gasped my approval. “Christ ye’re beautiful, Claire.”

 

My body opened to him; wherever his hands wanted to touch, I allowed access, not cringing or worrying that I wasn’t enough. I could feel myself unfolding, not just for him, but to remind myself of who I was. How I would trust myself to never go back to that space, ever again. 

 

I pulled his hand from my breast and guided it to my pussy. I needed to be touched, to be pleasured. He obliged immediately and enthusiastically. His hips thrust harder, and I could hear the slight rasp in his breathing as he tried to hold himself back from cumming. 

 

His dick was pounding me, and the internal pressure coupled with his fingers stroking me was fucking ecstacy. I refused to hold off my climax. “Do you want me to cum?” It was rhetorical. 

 

“Christ, yes,” he choked out, fighting himself, “cum, Claire.”

 

I cried out as the orgasm overtook me. It was wave after wave, his fingers rolling over my clit, and his cock relentlessly pushing into me. I lost my breath and I was shaking, lips going numb as the pleasure crashed all around me. 

 

I heard him swear under his breath, his hands abandoning my pussy when he knew I had finished completely. He grabbed my hips and pumped into me hard and fast before withdrawing and finishing on my arse. We were covered in sweat, and I felt so satisfied I couldn’t move. 

 

“Jesus, Claire, I’m sorry.” He gestured to the mess on my arse. 

 

I laughed. “I’m not. I didn’t even think to ask if you had a condom.” I didn’t care.

 

He leaned over me, turning my head so he could reach my lips. He kissed me gently. “Happy Christmas, Claire.”

 

I smiled, elated. “Happy Christmas, Jamie.”

Chapter Text

I hung the last stocking by the fire and adjusted the angel on the tree before flopping back onto the couch and into Jamie’s arms. “How does it look?”

 

“Perfect,” he replied, but when I looked at him, he was looking at me. 

 

It had been a year. The most incredible year of my life. Jamie found a way to allow me space to heal, while holding me up, and holding me together when I thought I would fall apart. He taught me how to trust again. He showed me what a partnership could look like when both parties were invested. He also knew himself, and knew how to love me in a selfless way. We both felt seen, deeply recognized, and fully loved. It felt like a lifetime.

 

Jamie had spent most of the year in Boston, traveling frequently for work. I applied for an internship in Colorado after graduation in June and got it. Both of us were relieved. Boston had its perks, but we were ready to go back to where we found each other. Though Jamie said he was happy to live wherever, as long as he could be near me, I knew his heart wasn’t there. And neither was mine.

 

Though we couldn’t live up the mountain, at least not yet, we decided to start fixing up his Grandad’s original log cabin on the Big Bear Lodge property. The bones were strong, and it was satisfying when we started to make progress. With the wood stove going, and a new bed in the living room, it felt perfect for our second Christmas together. 

 

Though our relationship was still fairly new, by all accounts, the way we melted into each other was comforting. We had our own lives, our own careers, but we chose each other, every day. We chose to share the mundane, the hardships, and everything in between. We fell into it gracefully. For the first time in my life, it was easy. Nothing could describe the ease I felt when I had Jamie’s arms around me. Everything else fell away and I was free to be completely naked with him, emotionally, mentally, and physically. 

Chapter Text

I came down the stairs in the log house, anticipating decorating the tree with Jamie. When I rounded the first landing, I saw him at the bottom. I noticed there was a freshly hung mistletoe. He was on one knee, and his eyes were glistening with tears.

Chapter Text

Jamie packed the bags into the log house and I stumbled in after him. It was dumping snow outside and we had arrived later than expected. I was thrilled to be here for Christmas again.

 

There was a new hospital being built at the base of the mountain, and I had already been approved for a transfer there when it was done. We were finally going to be able to move into the log house at Big Bear Lodge permanently. 

 

Jamie had been spending most of his time up at the lodge anyway, and we had gotten sick of the condo in town. I wanted a home with him, complete with a garden, and where he could be close to the horses. I was sick of the city. It was sheer luck that they decided to build a hospital so close to where we wanted to be. Fortune or fate. I was fine with either. 

 

Jamie set to work building a fire in the wood stove, and I brought our bags upstairs. Most of the house was restored now, and I marveled at it. The huge, beautiful logs that held up the beams, the spacious rooms in the loft, the completely renovated bathrooms, the brand new kitchen. It was the best of both worlds, modern and rustic. 

 

By the time I came back down, Jamie had put on slow Christmas music and was tacking up a mistletoe at the bottom of the stairs. “I couldn’t have picked a better place for it,” I whispered as his lips pressed against mine. 

 

He had proposed the year before, on these very stairs. It was just the two of us, how we liked it, a couple glasses of champagne, and a stunning ring. I thought I would burst with happiness. 

 

He led me through the house to a back door out the kitchen. I knew this was the last part of the renovation Jamie had been desperate to finish. “Close yer eyes.”

 

I smiled and humored him. I could hear the door open, and he led me through. It felt humid and warm, and it smelled tropical. “You didn’t,” I shouted, opening my eyes without permission. 

 

My hand flew to my mouth as I took in the details of the small solarium I stood in. “Jamie,” I breathed.

 

“I figured it was time ye had somewhere to grow yer wee herbs and vegetables since we’ll be livin’ out here soon.”

 

“It’s beautiful,” I said earnestly. “You even brought plants in here already. And hanging baskets. I love hanging baskets.”

 

I could see the pride on his face. It would never get old, him reveling in my happiness. I turned to him, cupping his face. “Thank you.”

 

I thought back to when he told me about his father building his mother a greenhouse. How her face lit up, and how he would never forget the love he saw between them. How that was the example that led him to Claire. And how he knew their connection was special.

 

I looked at him intensely, wanting to know he heard me. “Your parents would be so proud to know that they raised such a thoughtful son.”

 

His lips lowered to mine, pulling me into him.

 

How did I get so damned lucky? How did I think this didn’t exist?

 

I protested when his lips abandoned me, but when he reached for my hand and led me to the living room, I was happy to follow. He turned the lights on the tree, lit the candles on the mantel and turned the volume up on the stereo. 

 

Jamie pulled me into his arms and swayed me, kissing me with intent.

 

I pushed my tongue into his mouth, asking for more. Before long I found myself on my back, breathless, the fire crackling beside us. I pulled at his clothing, and assisted him in peeling off mine. 

 

He held himself above me, pausing. “Do ye want to make a baby wi’ me, Claire?”

 

Jack came back to my mind, but not how I expected. He was gone, a memory, a ghost, and I realized how far my life had come since then. Since who I was then. Tears began streaming from my eyes.

 

“Claire! Ye alright? I’m sorry I—” he tried to pull me up, but I held him in place. 

 

I started laughing, tears still sliding down my cheeks. Poor Jamie looked confused, concerned, and worried. We had talked about having kids before, we both knew we wanted them, and we had spoken about a general timeline. This wasn’t a surprise. But I’m sure he wasn’t expecting my response. “I’m so happy,” I said, through my laughter. 

 

I sniffled through my smile. “Yes, Jamie. I want to make a baby with you.”

Chapter Text

She was perfect.