“Ready to dip your toes in the water, little bug?”
To Claire’s question, the baby only formed a spit bubble and glanced up toward the harking of the seagulls circling far above their heads.
“Okay,” Claire murmured, and kissed the baby’s soft cheek; she smelled of sunscreen and saltwater. “Here we go.”
The waves were gently lapping at Claire’s ankles as she helped lower her tiny companion until the baby’s bare feet touched the cool water. The baby let out an excited shriek and kicked her legs.
“No,” Claire laughed. “I can’t set you down. You’ll drift out to sea ‒ and what would your mother think of me then, if I let you go?”
At mention of Jenny, Claire glanced over her shoulder to be sure the others still weren’t within earshot ‒ baby Kate was easy to contain, but JJ and Maggie required more hands-on supervision, and so Jenny and Ian were presently preoccupied with their older children further down the beach.
She caught Jamie’s gaze instead, and felt her heart flutter. He must have been watching her with the baby from his spot in the sand, but he took her glance as an invitation to join her. She stood as he neared them, bouncing little Kate on her hip.
It was gloriously sunny ‒ the only day that it had been on their short holiday‒ and with the Murrays heading home tomorrow, they’d decided to make the most of the day at the beach.
Jamie pressed a kiss to her temple as he pulled her into his arms, his hands coming to rest warmly on the bare skin at the small of her back.
“You two look like you’re having fun.”
She hummed softly and kissed his freckled collarbone before pulling back a little. She was keenly aware of Kate’s presence between them, and the strange thing it was doing to her heart ‒ that knowledge of Jamie’s sun-warmed skin against hers with a precious, rosy-cheeked baby enclosed in their embrace. It felt like a promise of someday ‒ wonderful and yet too intimate a knowledge for having dated Jamie for only six months.
She pushed the thought away before the truly frightening one could settle— that she wanted that future someday, having loved him for only six months. “Did you want to hold her?”
“No,” he said quickly, smiling at the pair of them. “She looks content with her auntie.”
She felt her cheeks grow warm at the title that fell so easily from his lips. Jenny made a point of having the older children address her as Miss Claire to be respectful, and Claire understood. Their introduction to each other during the Christmas holiday had been nothing short of disaster, and she was still rather new to Jamie’s life. She understood, she did. But while Jenny drew a protective circle around her family to keep others out, Jamie wanted to include Claire in every part of his life. She’d never had a lover who made room for her the way that Jamie did, even pushing back against his own family to do so. She thought he might’ve done that even if Claire wasn’t reeling from the loss of her last living family member; that was just who Jamie was.
“What do you think, Katie-bug? Do you like your first ever trip to the beach?” Claire ducked under the flap of the baby’s beach hat and kissed her round cheek again. She didn’t have favorites among Jamie’s nieces and nephew, but there was something to be said for the fact that she had held a newborn Katherine Murray in her arms and seen the way that had made Jamie’s eyes soften. When they drove home from visiting Jenny and the baby at the hospital, he had been smiling absurdly for half the ride before she made him spit it out, whatever it was he was thinking about. He was sheepish about being caught, but relented. “I ken that JJ and Maggie adore you, but I was thinking about how for wee Kate, she’ll never know a time before ye came along,” he’d said, with such unabashed joy that she didn’t let the fact that he was thinking Claire would be in his life forever cause her any sort of panic.
The truth was that she kept waiting for the panic. The urge to cut her losses and run. She’d felt that before with other men, especially after uncovering Frank’s infidelity, and every time some small bit of hope or planning for a future with Jamie occurred, a quiet voice in her head told it was too much, too soon. But it was only ever that; a small voice, easy enough to drown out with the delight that was being with Jamie.
It wasn’t usual, what she had with Jamie. That much she knew by now. And not just with how they started out ‒ Jenny had called Jamie crazy for bringing “a near perfect stranger” to their family Christmas six months ago, but Claire had known, even then, that what they had was different from anything she’d known before.
Kate leaned her head against Claire’s shoulder, snuggling in, her energy no doubt leached by the sun and the excitement of the beach. The weight of the baby in her arms and the touch of Jamie’s embrace was about as close to heaven as she could get in that moment.
“See that? She prefers ye.” Jamie grinned and kissed Claire’s forehead. “Are ye hungry?”
She had no idea how long they’d been at the beach, but it certainly felt as though it had been hours.
“Good, me too. Let’s help Jen and Ian wrangle all the wee ‘uns and then we can go eat.”
The rental home was within walking distance to the beach, which had made it convenient to head back inside and work through a rotation of showering off the little ones caked with sand and then allowing the adults to cycle through the showers quickly.
They went out for a bite at Cucina Amore, an Italian restaurant that had become a favorite during their stay. The day had been a delight, and by the time they headed back for the house, Maggie and Kate were both passed out in the arms of Jamie and Jenny respectively, and even JJ’s steps were dragging along the pavement before Ian scooped him up and placed him on his shoulders for the rest of the way.
Jamie had reached for Claire with his free hand and tugged her into step with him, flush against his side, and Ian had said something that made Jenny laugh; Claire relished the moment, the brief stroll down the street with this bunch, arms full of sleeping babies and the last of the day’s sunlight warming their backs.
Her family had looked different, had always been a little small ‒ and she’d never minded. But, she thought, this was becoming her family, too. The one she’d never thought she could have — one with siblings, nieces, and nephews.
For all that Jamie and Jenny might argue and butt heads, there was a fierce love between them, the only two Fraser siblings to reach adulthood. They were still muddling through the first year without their father, and there had been plenty of strain on Jenny and Jamie’s relationship during that time, but they would pull through, Claire knew. And things might only be just short of cordial between her and Jenny, but that was a marked improvement from when they were civil.
By the time the sun had set, Jenny and Ian had disappeared into their room, having put babies to sleep and needing to pack for their departure in the morning. Which meant that Jamie and Claire had the rest of the shared space to themselves, and Jamie made his plans for the evening clear by tossing her bathing suit into her lap while she was sitting in front of the fireplace.
“Aye, now. Get changed, I’ll grab the wine,” he grinned.
In addition to being walking-distance from the beach, their rental had a jacuzzi on the back patio ‒ something they had been eyeing but hadn’t yet made use of.
Claire had only just settled into the hot tub when the back door slid open and Jamie emerged wearing his swim trunks and holding two glasses of wine.
“How is it then?”
“It’s lovely.” She leaned her head back against the edge of the tub, letting her limbs float and flutter through the water. “Get in here.”
“As ye wish.” He set their glasses on the ledge near her head and climbed into the hot tub, hissing at the first touch of the hot water.
She exhaled a laugh at him, and was promptly pulled into his lap as soon as he was seated. She already felt boneless from the heat of the jacuzzi, totally relaxed, but it was better still to lean her head back against Jamie’s shoulder and feel his solid body beneath her. His arms went around her, and he nuzzled into her neck.
“Are ye excited for our holiday to begin tomorrow?”
“Hmm, I would be, perhaps, if I knew what we were doing for the next three days.”
She could see Jamie’s grin out of the corner of her eye, no sign of remorse evident in his keeping her in the dark. “Is the anticipation killing you, then?”
She let her breath out in a huff. “You’re enjoying this entirely too much.”
He nipped at her ear. “C’mon. The anticipation is half the fun,” he said.
“Oh, is it?”
His broad fingers dipped below the edge of her bikini, softly stroking the skin there. “Isn’t it?”
There was laughter in his voice, but she suddenly didn’t give a damn what they were doing for the rest of the week, so long as he kept at what he was doing to her just then.
She felt the slight tug on the straps tied behind her neck, his fingers undoing the quick, careless knot she’d tied before she came out here. “And you’re sure your sister and brother-in-law aren’t‒”
“Aye,” Jamie breathed next to her ear. “We’re quite alone, Sassenach.” He managed to undo the second tie behind her back, and discarded her top, letting it sink next to them into the water. He kissed the side of her neck. “Let me help ye relax. We are on holiday, after all.”
Her nipples pebbled at being exposed to the cool night air, but rather quickly Jamie had cupped both breasts in his warm hands, rolling the nipples between his thumb and forefinger.
She reached up to cup the back of his neck, tilting her face up to kiss along his jaw. He did help her relax, even when the stress from work started to become unbearable or the grief unfolded in a new chapter. He always made it so good for her.
One hand slipped beneath her bikini again and she made a slight, strangled sound of appreciation. When he touched her, it was with reverence, almost worshipful, and it had need coursing through her veins.
“Dinna have to be so quiet on my account, Sassenach. You know I love your wee noises.”
“It’s not on your account, and you know it,” she muttered, eyes closed, her focus all but pulled to the dance of his fingers across her skin with the slight exception of‒
“There’s no one out here but us, and no one to hear ye but me,” he assured her, and she was momentarily annoyed at how easily he could read her. “Now, let me hear ye.”
He stroked her clit with firmer pressure and she bucked against his hand, losing all restraint on keeping quiet as well.
“That’s it, Sassenach.”
Her hand reached back between them and palmed him over his suit. Jamie made a sound of surprise and captured her wandering hand. He held tight to her wrist and draped his arm along with hers over her stomach, keeping her tight against him.
She turned her head to give him a questioning look ‒ she could feel him hard beneath her.
“No’ yet. I want to watch you first.”
She felt a shiver run through her despite the heat of the jacuzzi, and dropped her head back against his shoulder, completely at his mercy. At the start of their relationship, he’d taken the time to learn her body, to learn what she liked, and the work of his hands just then mimicked the way she would bring herself to climax on her own, but it felt better ‒ infinitely better ‒ when it was all him.
“Oh, fuckfuckfuck…” she gasped, and felt his laughter more than heard it. He always said he did love her filthy mouth…
She was too lost in his touch to think of much else, so she registered only vaguely that his arm loosened his hold on her, and then his fingers were massaging her breast again and toying with her nipple.
Her hips bucked in the water, seeking more of the delicious friction from his fingers against her clit, and she suddenly cried out as she came.
“Oh, God, Jamie, fuck…”
As her pleasure crested, she felt him leave a wet, sucking kiss to her neck.
He only chuckled, but still batted her hand away a moment later when she reached for him. “I want to be inside ye,” he growled, and she nodded ‒ God, yes, she wanted that too ‒ and moved with him to situate herself up on the ledge of the hot tub. The cool air was a relief on her overly warm skin. He had her lift her hips so he could divest her of her bikini, and she only felt a vague flicker of anxiety at being completely naked in the small garden; Jamie knelt in front of her, his body blocking her view of the door behind him, but that would mean no one but Jamie could see her. She was completely protected by him.
“C’mere,” she said, tugging him closer as soon as he’d shucked off his swim trunks.
He lined himself up and sunk into her, drawing groans of relief from both of them. Her legs wrapped around him to steady herself and to keep him close as he set the pace.
“Ye’re so perfect,” he breathed out, “So perfect. And ye’re mine.”
It was the note of awe in his voice that did her in, like he couldn’t quite believe it, and her chest ached with unspoken love for him. She grabbed his face in her hands and kissed him fiercely, swallowing his groan of pleasure. Poured everything she had into telling him with her body that he was hers as well, and she was so grateful for it, grateful for him.
And as she started to approach her second peak, she’d lost any inhibitions about being quiet, which only spurred on Jamie, his thrusts becoming erratic. They were both close. Jamie reached between them, his thumb circling her clit, and she cried out as a wave of pleasure hit. Her body convulsed around his cock, triggering Jamie’s own release.
“Oh God! Oh Claire!”
She clung to him, in part so she wouldn’t tip backwards over the ledge. “Don’t let me fall!” she laughed, half-hysterical, when he slumped forward against her, still catching his breath.
“I won’t,” he promised, his own words coming out in a breathy laugh. His arms tightened around her. “I’ve got ye.”
Yes, she thought, her heart tumbling in her chest, yes, you absolutely do.
In the morning, they said their goodbyes to the Murrays, giving out hugs and kissing the babies’ sweet little faces. Maggie returned Claire’s kiss with a sloppy one of her own, and appeared visibly upset when it clicked for her that they were leaving without her Uncle Jamie and Auntie Claire ‒ it made Claire’s chest ache to see it. She was very fond of Jamie’s nieces and nephew, that was no secret, but it touched her to see that fondness reciprocated.
And with Jenny, no words had been said on the matter, but Claire hugged her goodbye and felt like they’d turned a corner at some point during this holiday. Whatever tension that had lingered between them since Christmas was gone, and Claire wasn’t sure when that had gone away, but it left her a little dazed at the thought that Jenny had come around to accepting her presence with them after all.
Jamie only told her she would need to wear pants and close-toed shoes, and that was all the knowledge she was given to puzzle over during the drive. He drove them out of their little haven, along the seaside, past the golf course he and Ian had visited earlier in the week, and through farmland.
“Where are you taking me?” she laughed in mock exasperation.
“Almost there. You’ll see.”
They passed a sign just as she heard Jamie flip the indicator light and slow down for a turn.
“Seacliff Stables? We’re going horseback riding?”
Jamie’s sudden, brilliant smile was her answer. “I’ve never been here, but the trail is all on private land and it looked beautiful in the photos.”
Her heart warmed at his thoughtful planning. She hadn’t been horseback riding in years, but she’d gone a few times with her uncle growing up, and had loved it.
They were in a small riding party with a family of four and their guide, Fiona. After getting everyone properly attired with helmets, they were each introduced to their horse for the ride. Claire had been given a horse named Greg, a gentle old man whom she loved immediately. Jamie’s horse was named Gideon, and though he had an all white coat, the staff had warned Jamie not to think this meant the horse was in any way angelic; Gideon was a large horse, suitable for Jamie, but also had a penchant to misbehave if given any slack.
Jamie, having grown up with horses at Lallybroch, was quite comfortable still with Gideon and assured the staff he was up to the task.
And then they were on their way, exiting the stables in a line of horses with Jamie just in front of Claire. They rode first through a forest path before emerging out onto the grassy plains above the cliffs. They could see an old castle near the edge of a cliff, framed by the sea and sky behind it. Tantallon Castle, Fiona told them.
The sights were marvelous, and Claire lost herself in the beauty around her. Fiona led them to a wide, sandy path that would take them down to the beach, but they all had to pause while one of the young boys in the group had trouble steering his horse onto the path. Fiona hopped off her horse to go and help the boy, and they all waited while she brought him back into line with the others.
So Claire noticed the moment Jamie’s horse did something odd ‒ going down on its front legs like it was kneeling ‒ and heard their guide’s frantic voice when Fiona noticed it too, “Jump off! Jump off jump off!”
Claire’s heart leapt to her throat.
But Jamie was already acting swiftly, getting his feet free of the stirrups and jumping clear of the horse before Gideon rolled ‒ rolled ‒ onto his back as if he hadn’t just had someone on there. As if he wasn’t going to roll over into the sand anyway, regardless of whether Jamie had managed to get free of him or not.
Jamie was fine, sending Claire a reassuring smile to let her know as much, but her heart was still racing erratically in her chest from the fright of it all.
Meanwhile, Gideon wriggled on his back in the sand ‒ much like a dog would to scratch his back, Claire thought. She’d never seen a horse do that before. Their guide Fiona had left the boy to come deal with Gideon, apologizing profusely and making sure Jamie was okay.
“No harm done,” he assured her.
The unrepentant Gideon was directed back to his feet, and Fiona offered to swap horses with Jamie if it would put him more at ease. They were too far into the trail to quickly turn back and fetch a different horse for Jamie, Fiona explained apologetically. Truly, Claire was starting to feel as though this whole event had rattled her more than Jamie. Especially when he waved off Fiona’s offer and told her he was plenty used to dealing with horses, and that it might be for the best if he was the one to handle Gideon.
“Good Lord,” Claire muttered under her breath, as Jamie mounted Gideon once more. He sent a look to her over his shoulder. “I really don’t want to see you crushed by a horse, Jamie. That might put a damper on our holiday.”
He nodded, eyes twinkling. “Do my best, Sassenach.”
And as they rode further down to the beach, Gideon did behave himself. Jamie wasn’t likely to be caught off-guard again after such an incident, and that thought did allow Claire to relax a bit and enjoy the rest of their ride.
It was a stunning sight, the rocky cliffs ahead of them framing the picture-perfect beach, made all the more magical by being in that place on horseback. And by being there with Jamie, most of all.
He kept shifting in his saddle to look back at her, checking that she was enjoying herself. She wished only that he wasn’t so far away from her, wanted absurdly in that moment to share a horse with him instead, though poor Fiona would probably die of mortification if one more thing deviated from the usual order of her tours, Claire mused.
Jamie pulled her out of her reverie as she noticed he was taking a selfie with her framed over his shoulder. She smiled and flipped him off, which made him laugh.
Shortly after that, Fiona halted the group and dismounted, offering to take pictures of their groups, and helped arrange Jamie and Claire first, their horses side-by-side with the ocean behind them.
“Och, that’s lovely,” Fiona announced, as she passed Jamie’s phone back to him and led them off to the side to bring the family through for their picture.
“That is nice,” Jamie agreed softly, staring at his phone. She felt her phone vibrate in her back pocket and assumed he’d shared it with her.
Still. “You’re only going to post the one of me flipping you off, aren’t you?”
And didn’t deny it.
She’d never ridden a horse for that long ‒ over two hours, she realized ‒ and her legs nearly buckled beneath her as soon as she tried to stand.
Jamie, damn him, of course hadn’t had any trouble with the dismount and had come around just in time to see her near-collapse. But when she flung an arm out to steady herself, he caught her. “Whoa there,” he laughed. She had turned completely into his solid chest, holding onto him with both arms while her legs felt like absolute jelly. “Just the sight o’ me has ye weak in the knees, aye?”
“Shut up!” She couldn’t stop the laughter that bubbled up in her chest. She felt so utterly ridiculous that she couldn’t even stand on her own, and yet she knew it must look terribly funny. “I fucking… hate you,” she managed to say while gasping for breath between the laughter.
Jamie held her tight against him, so she had no chance of falling, and kissed her cheek, his own laughter rumbling in her ear. “Do ye want me to carry you to the car?”
“Oh…” she sobered slightly, gazing up at him to see if he was serious. Somehow the prospect of that was less embarrassing than trying to walk out of here on unsteady legs. “I actually do want that, if you’re truly offering,” she laughed.
He had her climb onto his back, still a bit of a task for her, but they managed, and she hummed contently, resting her head beside his as he carried her.
She told him after their lunch about her wish that they could’ve ridden together during the morning trail ride. They’d gone out to eat at a restaurant right on the water and had come back to their rental home so full from their meal, and had immediately crashed on the sofa together. Now her head was in his lap, and she saw the way his eyes lit at those words.
“We have horses at Lallybroch,” he reminded her. “That could be arranged the next time we visit.” His fingers gently played with her curls and her eyes drifted shut. If he wasn’t careful, she’d fall asleep again before they could do whatever he’d planned next for them. “Other than that, did ye enjoy yourself?”
Her eyes fluttered open and found his. She captured his hand and brought it to her lips, kissing the back of it. “I did, Jamie,” she assured him, and then rested her cheek against their clasped hands.
She didn’t know how to tell him how much it meant, all the effort he put into this time together. Even when she was with Frank ‒ her longest relationship to date ‒ when he planned a trip for them, it was always with his interests in mind. And she’d become used to that ‒ didn’t even realize she was used to it until this week, even though Frank was ancient history for her.
“Thank you,” she murmured sincerely, and watched his face light up, despite how inadequate those two little words felt. “For all of it.”
All of it… not just their holiday, the one that Jamie had thrown together for them with only a few weeks’ notice. But for… for being Jamie. For not running when she felt broken beyond repair and opened up to him about it.
She remembered the early months after losing her uncle, how unsettling it was to feel as though she was always one moment away from bursting into tears. She was vulnerable in a way she’d never known, felt like she was walking through life with her very heart exposed, scraped raw and bleeding.
And it was during this time that Jamie had entered her life ‒ she’d seen him before, the roguishly handsome neighbor with a kind smile who lived just down the hall from her. But he hadn’t really become a part of her life until he bumped into her on her way home from work after receiving the worst news.
That moment had been the first of many where she’d cried in public, but it had also been the moment that altered the course of her life, bringing Jamie into it.
He’d walked with her up to her flat and kept her company while the shock subsided. He’d ordered pizza, started a fire in the fireplace, and quietly let her know he’d recently lost his father and he understood the magnitude of her loss.
His kindness had touched her, and she was drawn to him in a way she couldn’t explain. It wasn’t long after that that their relationship had begun ‒ at break-neck speed to boot.
And then she was feeling everything. The loss of her uncle and the agony of being truly alone in the world, not having any family left to belong to. She was rootless and lost like never before. And in such stark contrast to that… the utter joy of being with Jamie, and feeling like maybe she did have somewhere to return to at the end of the day, a place and a person that felt an awful lot like home.
She felt all of this, all at once, and those early months overwhelmed her at times. Every emotion was heightened ‒ the highest highs and lowest lows. And that was just what she brought to her budding relationship with Jamie, which had to weather Jamie’s recent grief as well.
So she hadn’t been prepared for the moment it would stop, like the flip of a switch. When she would go from feeling everything to feeling nothing at all.
It was late when she returned home from her shift at the hospital and let herself quietly into the flat. Jamie had left a light on for her, and she spotted Adso prancing out of the bedroom on silent feet to come greet her, his tail lifted high behind him.
“Hi, buddy,” she whispered to him when he rubbed up against her legs. She bent down and scratched him behind the ears, right where he liked.
It was a far cry from the days she lived in the flat just down the hall, coming home at odd hours of the night to a dark and empty space.
She stood on the threshold to the bedroom and watched as Adso hopped back onto the bed and curled up next to a still-sleeping Jamie. She would wake him, no matter how quiet she was, once she started getting ready for bed. She always did.
So she watched him sleep, just for a moment, before she entered the room and broke the spell.
When she at last slid under the covers, Jamie reached for her. She let herself be drawn in, so close that her nose bumped with his in the dark. Somewhere on top of the blankets, Adso let out a sound at being jostled and was forced to resituate near the bottom of the bed.
“How was your shift?”
His lips pressed against her forehead. He sighed, long and drawn out, and soon he would be drifting back to sleep. Panic gripped her then ‒ she had to tell him, before she chickened out again. And here, in the dark with Jamie… it was the only place that felt safe to divulge such a confession.
She took a deep breath. “I think there’s something wrong with me. I feel… numb. All the time. I feel like I’m… like I’m shutting down, maybe?”
There. It was done. If he thought she was crazy, at least it was all out in the open now and she wouldn’t feel like she was fooling him. Still, her relief was short-lived as her stomach started to churn. Might he really think that about her? He hadn’t known her before her uncle passed away, and that person she was in the immediate aftermath ‒ crying every day over something or other ‒ that person hadn’t felt like her. She was never that emotional. But this version of herself of late… this unfeeling, stoic person didn’t feel like her either. Would she ever feel like herself again? Some part of her believed it wasn’t possible ‒ because who she had been before was someone with a family, and now that family was gone.
But there was Jamie in her life, loving her regardless. Yes, he’d told her he loved her, even though she couldn’t say it back. Couldn’t say it, even though she thought… she might love him too.
And how was this fair to Jamie? Sharing a life with someone so broken, who couldn’t even say three words to assure him that she felt the same way?
“Mo ghraidh,” Jamie murmured. My love, it meant. She felt her breath shudder out of her lungs, and when he pulled her forward, she went, her head coming to rest on his chest. She could hear his heartbeat in her ear, strong and steady. “S’alright. We’ll figure it out.” He kissed her hair. “In the morning,” he added, rubbing soothing circles along her back. “Sleep now, a ghraidh.”
She felt the pull towards sleep, surprising in its intensity ‒ she was more worn out than she realized ‒ and she knew he was right. They weren’t going to fix anything in the dead of night, and she’d feel better at least, after she’d had some sleep.
It was a few days after that night when Jamie asked her if she’d be able to take a few extra days off work for their trip that was already planned with his family, taking time for just the two of them, away from everything else. He’d asked nothing of her except that she show up. He’d taken care of the rest. And she wasn’t so naive to think one holiday would fix how she was at the moment, but… it had been helping, this time away with Jamie.
Those three little words leapt to her tongue again ‒ she’d been so close, all week long, to saying them out loud. Instead, she kissed the back of his hand still clasped with hers, and then squeezed it three times.
It was one of the few memories she had of her mother, holding her hand while they walked down the street. She’d squeezed Claire’s hand three times in quick succession. “Do you know what that means?” her mum had smiled. “I. Love. You.”
The thing about Jamie, though, was that he was damn near impossible to read. The corners of his mouth lifted into a soft smile, but whether that was because he had deciphered her code or if it was simply from her display of affection, she wasn’t sure.
“You have… an odd definition… of fun,” she huffed at him the following day, and then groaned.
“This is fun!”
“Most people don’t like to work for their lunch, Jamie. We could’ve just stayed in town. Gone to a pub. Not broken a sweat.”
Above her, Jamie grinned, unrepentant. “Almost to the top. The view will be worth it. Promise.”
She watched him scramble up the rocks with ease. Fitness was one of his many interests, and he took great care of his body, but she couldn’t even enjoy ogling him while her leg muscles were screaming at her and her lungs felt like they were on fire.
He took her on a fucking hike for fun…
Well, she actually didn’t mind hikes usually. And this one had started out fine, but this last steep stretch to the top of an old volcanic plug had her body protesting. Jamie had their lunch in his backpack, she reminded herself as her stomach growled ‒ because of course she was also ravenous. She just had to catch up to him. And then this torture would all be over.
He did greet her with a sweaty kiss when she reached him, and proudly patted her backside. “Ye did good, Claire.”
“Foooood,” she groaned, snagging her water bottle from his pack. She did think, belatedly, that it was nice of him to carry everything for them.
“Aye, alright,” he laughed.
They found a rock to sit on as Jamie began to dole out food between them ‒ sandwiches and fruit and veggies with hummus, all packed into reusable containers. Like something he might pack for work. She had the sudden image of him sitting at his desk in his classroom, eating lunch with the gaggle of boys in his P7 class who often joined him during the lunch hour during his previous term. Jamie had never said it, but Claire had deduced from his stories that these boys all had something akin to hero worship for their Gaelic Language teacher. She felt her heart warm at the mental image.
And… It was a nice view, she could admit, once she was no longer hangry.
Atop the North Berwick Law, they had a perfect vantage point to see for miles in every direction of East Lothian and out to the sea.
“It’s lovely,” she said, bumping her knee against his.
He smiled, a bit smug. “I promised it would be worth it.”
They explored the top of the Law, which had a fair bit more to it than just a nice view ‒ a whale jaw bone replica, an old military post from the world wars, and the remains of a signal station used in the Napoleanic wars. By now, Jamie was used to the way she stopped to read every plaque and sign that gave the historical context of the area ‒ a hazard of her being raised by an archeologist.
She stilled in her exploration of the 19th century military station ruins, finding Jamie no more than five feet away, just on the other side of the rock wall. That was why he chose this place. Not just for a hike, or for getting out into nature, but for the bit of history this place offered as well.
She had the sudden urge to kiss him, and let it lead her steps, closing the distance between them and catching him unawares.
“What was that for?”
“Just because you’re you.”
His brows rose at that and he smiled. “Oh?” he laughed. “Does that mean ye like today’s surprise then? An hour ago, I thought ye were about to wring my neck…”
“Oh, an hour ago, I was about to wring your neck,” she said with a laugh.
“Aye, lesson learned.” He nodded curtly. His hands had settled at the small of her back again and together they swayed slightly. “Next time, I’ll feed ye first before forcing ye on a hike.”
“Or before any similarly strenuous activity, thank you very much.”
His chest rumbled with laughter as he leaned down to kiss her.
And kiss her, and kiss her, until she was breathless again for an entirely different reason.
“C’mere.” She grabbed his hand and led him back into one of the corners of the stone ruins.
“What are ye doing?”
“What do you think? The only other people that we’ve seen up here went back down the hill as we were eating lunch.”
His gaze darkened as the corners of his lips tugged into a smile, and she couldn’t help framing his face in her hands and pulling him down to kiss her. Jamie deepened the kiss, hungry and insistent, and she found herself rather suddenly lifted by the thighs and held precariously between the rock wall and Jamie. She hooked her legs around him and sucked on his lower lip, drawing a low moan from Jamie.
He pulled back just slightly, the intensity of his gaze making her squirm. “You are a wonder,” he said at last, whispering this against her lips before sealing her mouth with his own. There it was again ‒ that trace of awe in his voice, that reverence in his touch, which made her feel cherished and wanted beyond words.
“You are a wonder,” she insisted, “if you’re getting sappy on me during a quickie out in the open.” Her words had their desired effect, and she relished the sound of his surprised laughter, the way it shook her with him while she was held by him. She rocked her hips against him, and then felt him shudder.
“Oh, I love ye, Sassenach,” he said easily, without any expectation on her to return the words. He’d told her many times, but this one utterance had a lump rising in her throat, in spite of the way Jamie was smiling at her. Because she loved him too ‒ desperately.
He set her back on her feet, an unspoken understanding passing between them that their time alone in this place might be limited and they shouldn’t waste it. She shimmied out of her athletic shorts and when Jamie hitched one of her legs over his hip, her fingers clutched helplessly for purchase at his back as he entered her in one swift stroke.
To be alone with Jamie was bliss, adventure, and absorption. She buried her face in his damp neck, hardly able to do more than simply hold on as he filled her, again and again. Pleasure was building within her with each powerful thrust and she reached down between their bodies to help herself along, earning sounds of encouragement from Jamie.
“That’s it, a nighean. Touch yourself. I want to feel ye‒”
His rough voice in her ear tipped her over the edge, and she cried out, felt his shudder and release in the next moment. Jamie dropped his head against the crook of her neck, panting heavily. She could feel her heartbeat in her ears, could feel Jamie’s racing heartbeat under her palm as she cupped his neck and held him against her. For a moment, she couldn’t differentiate between her heartbeat and his, drawn to the way it felt as though they were beating together in sync.
“Live for the moment, aye?”
Her gaze followed automatically to where he was pointing, but she already knew what was there ‒ a small stone pillar with those words painted on it. She’d seen if before they’d wandered down to the ruins.
Jamie fetched his backpack from their lunch spot and shrugged it on. His eyes were still sparkling from their shared delight in the corner of the ruins.
She felt her face flush just slightly, and couldn't help her own smile at the memory of it. “I’d say we’ve done a good job of that so far, wouldn’t you?”
The following morning, Claire woke up alone; it wasn’t unusual, with Jamie being the early riser in their relationship. The house was totally silent. Sometimes she’d heard him shuffling about making them breakfast during their stay, but perhaps they would go out for breakfast today. She rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom first. Afterwards, she found Jamie in the kitchen. He was standing with his palms braced on the counter, an untouched cup of coffee in front of him. It was the distant look in his eye that gave her pause, and she realized what day it was. Not just Sunday, but Father’s Day ‒ Jamie’s first without his father.
His expression was usually so carefully guarded, but he wasn’t yet aware of her presence, and the look on his face broke her heart wide open.
He hadn’t said anything, all week long or even in the weeks leading up to their trip. And while Uncle Lamb had been like a father to Claire, the two of them had never made anything of the day, so it quite slipped her notice. But it would be different for Jamie, and he’d planned this whole trip knowing the last full day would fall on Father’s Day.
Oh, my love…
His head tilted towards her once she approached, and he gave her a small, sad smile, but didn’t move. She ducked slightly under one arm and fitted herself between him and the counter, hugging him tight.
Jamie sighed and returned her embrace. “Sorry,” he murmured, “I didn’t think this day would get to me. I thought… I thought it might be easier anyway, if we were here, if we were busy enjoying ourselves. If we were at home, I might just… sit down wi’ a bottle of whiskey and my thoughts to keep me company, and weep.”
“It’s alright,” she breathed against his shoulder, pressed a kiss there for good measure. She’d never met either of Jamie’s parents, and never would have the honor, but they’d left a gaping emptiness in Jamie’s life when they died, a grief that could so easily overwhelm him when brought to the surface. So she needed only to know Jamie to see the persisting love between them in the person that Jamie was.
And, oh, how they must have loved him, too…
Her fingers tangled in the hair at the nape of his neck, and he rested his cheek against her head. “I love you,” she murmured, squeezing him tight, as if that might fix everything somehow; she just wanted him to feel as safe and cared for as he made her‒
She stiffened slightly, realizing what had slipped out so easily in the moment, when she just wanted to comfort him.
And she did mean it, she loved him so much that it scared her sometimes, but she wondered if he’d be upset that the first time she told him, it was on Father’s Day while Jamie was missing his own da, and without much thinking on her own part.
But Jamie simply turned and kissed the side of her head, and said with aching gentleness, “I know it. I love ye too, Sassenach.”
She let go of her breath and relaxed into his chest once more. “Did you want to do anything special today, to honor‒”
“No,” Jamie said firmly, without any hesitation. “Not… not this year. Maybe next?”
“That’s alright,” she agreed easily. Whatever he felt was best, they would go with it. She knew from the holidays and then her uncle’s birthday shortly after that the firsts without your loved one would be miserable either way. She pulled back to look into his eyes. “What would you like us to do today then?”
He smiled, a little rueful. “When I thought about this day approaching, I didn’t even want it to exist this year.” He sighed heavily, the backs of fingers coming to caress her cheek. She leaned into his touch. “I just want to spend the time with you, Claire, enjoying the last day of our holiday. But I didn’t plan anything for today. I thought, since this first half of this trip had been Jenny’s idea, and then I didn’t give ye much choice the last few days… if you wanted to decide for us, if there was something you still wanted to do while we’re here, something maybe I hadn’t thought of…” He shrugged.
A day of distraction. That she could do for him. She leaned up on her toes and kissed him, soft and languid. There was still a shadow in his gaze, but she felt bolstered by her own proclamation moments before, and in Jamie’s wish just to spend time with her. He’d planned this trip for her when she felt like she was shutting down. She could do the same for him while he was struggling. “Go get dressed,” she said at last, the beginnings of a plan forming in her mind. She loosened her hold on him, smacking his ass in dismissal.
“Ye are a bossy wee thing when you want to be.” His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, but she still flushed with pride, knowing what a hard-won victory it could be, just to smile when everything in life felt wrong.
She took him out for breakfast ‒ she knew by now that whatever she could offer up in terms of culinary skills would never quite be on par with his, and she wasn’t about to ask him to cook for her on a day like today ‒ and then drove them 20 minutes out of town.
“How did you know this would be here?” Jamie asked as they approached the farmers’ market, a little in awe.
She smiled slightly. “Saw a flyer for it yesterday when we were in town.”
The environment of the outdoor market made it easy to immerse themselves, walking the path of stalls, sampling food, and hearing the live music play from somewhere nearby. All the while, they were constantly touching, with clasped hands or Jamie’s arm around her shoulders, reveling in the simple intimacy they shared.
Jamie made friends with every vendor that he spoke to, and Claire was perfectly content to watch him, seeing his smile come a little easier each time. He was beautiful ‒ so beautiful, he broke her heart ‒ and so kind even despite the pain he was holding today.
And he was all hers to love. Her breath snagged in her throat, and she squeezed his hand, unintentionally drawing his gaze.
He paused in his stride and leaned down to kiss her.
“What was that for?” she asked him, echoing his words from yesterday.
“Just because. You looked damn near irresistible, Sassenach, and I thought I should kiss ye for it.”
They puttered around the rest of Haddington once they’d walked the farmers’ market, visiting some of the local shops. Their final stop was a charming bookstore where they did finally part ways to scope out their own interests and eventually wandered back to each other, both with a book in hand.
They stopped at a pub for lunch, in no hurry to be anywhere, and eventually drove back to North Berwick to walk the beach near their rental.
Jamie, for the most part, seemed to still enjoy himself despite the day, content to pretend with Claire that it was any other Sunday. It wasn’t until they were on the beach that Jamie brought up his da again.
“I wish you could’ve met him, Sassenach,” he said without any segue, but she knew immediately who he was referring to.
“Would he have approved of me, do you think?” she asked, trying to keep her tone light and playful. “Me being a sassenach and all.”
But Jamie’s gaze was weighty when it pinned her, not a hint of teasing to be found. “He would’ve loved you. That I do know.”
She felt a familiar pang in her chest, having often dwelt on how cruel it was that they’d never be able to introduce each other to the loved ones who had raised them. Her Uncle Lamb, who had bit his tongue more than once while she was dating Frank, would’ve adored Jamie and would’ve been so happy to see her happy. “I would’ve loved him too, if for nothing else than that I knew he’d raised a wonderful son. But from everything else you’ve shared about him, I’m sure I would’ve found more to love about him too.”
Jamie swallowed roughly and looked away, nodding his head slightly. “He loved my ma more than anything, and even though I was young when she died, he‒” He cleared his throat abruptly, and took a deep breath to steady himself. “He taught me to take care of what’s mine. And I do intend to do just that for the rest of my life, Sassenach ‒ or however long ye put up with me.” Surprise must’ve shown on her face, because he shrugged one shoulder a bit self-consciously. “Just in case you wanted to know where I see us going.”
It wasn’t a marriage proposal, but it might as well have been for all that it made his intentions crystal clear. He’d take care of her for the rest of their life together, if she wanted it.
It was her turn to breathe in sharply, clearing away the urge to cry. She framed his face in her hands, relishing the scratch of his stubble against her palms. “I do love you, Jamie Fraser.” And she tilted her face up to kiss him. When she pulled back, his eyes were shining with light, and she knew she had made herself crystal clear to him, in her own way.
On the morning they were to leave and drive back to Glasgow, Claire woke with an unexpectedly heavy heart.
They took their time finishing with any last-minute packing, and cleaned up the house from their stay, and still Claire couldn’t shake the sadness that had settled on her heart.
And then, to her utter mortification, when she saw Jamie reach for their bags to load into the car, she started to cry.
“Oh my god, I’m fine! I swear,” she hastily assured a wide-eyed Jamie, wiping furiously at the tears that had spilled down her cheeks. She couldn’t remember the last time she had cried, and now she was crying over their holiday coming to an end?
Get a grip, Beauchamp…
“Hey, it’s alright.”
She sighed heavily, and then Jamie was right there, pulling her in against the solid wall of his chest. He didn’t prod her to speak, simply swayed with her there in the hallway.
“I don’t even know why I’m crying.” Her words were half-muffled against his shoulder. “Our time here has been so lovely.”
She felt her throat clog at the memories she would take with her from here ‒ the warm weight of baby Kate when she fell asleep in Claire’s arms the first night, the small delight whenever JJ or Maggie slipped their little hands into hers, the care that Jamie showed her in planning out their days together, and the way he always drew her into conversations with his sister and brother-in-law while they were here. She’d spent the last few days basking in the warmth and light of his love, and feeling more at home with his family than she ever had, and tomorrow she’d return to the real world again.
“What if we go back, and then I go back to how I was feeling before?”
Or… wasn’t feeling, more specifically.
“If ye do,” Jamie said gently, “we’ll figure it out. But I saw how ye lit up this week, mo chridhe… Saw how ye laughed and played wi’ the wee ones, and how ye came alive as ye got to explore on horseback or on top of the Law. So beautifully alive, even more so whenever I held ye in my arms.”
Her chest tightened. You make me feel alive, she wanted to say, but a sob had risen in her throat.
Jamie kissed her head. “You’re not shutting down. Whatever this is, it’ll pass, I promise.”
She nodded against him, but he must’ve sensed she wasn’t completely sold on this.
“I was drowning six months ago, Claire. You got me through that. And my sister was horrible to you at Christmas, and still you were the one that made sure Jen and I worked it out, because ye couldn’t bear for me to lose the family I have left. And I’ve been drowning again more than once since Christmas, and you never give up on me in those times. I’m not scairt of your darkness, a nighean. Lord knows you’ve seen me at my darkest and you haven’t run. I’m not going to run either.”
She knew that at least. Down to her very bones, she knew that to be true.
“You carry so much,” Jamie went on. “You think about your patients when you’re off shift, wondering how they’re doing. You don’t let me go too long without talking to my sister, even if I dinna want to ‒ I have a better relationship wi’ my sister now than I did six months ago. And that’s because of you. And I ken Jenny is starting to see that as well. You have the biggest heart of anyone I know, Claire. Even when you feel numb, I promise it’s still there. You’re still there.”
She let out a shaky breath, and closed her eyes against the sudden rush of tears, burying her face into Jamie’s neck. This beautiful, caring man…
“Alright,” she breathed out, resolute, and squeezed him tight before pulling away. “Let’s go home. I miss our cat.”
Technically his cat, but…
“Christ, at this point, I think he’s just your cat, Sassenach,” he said with a laugh. “Whenever you’re home, I might as well be invisible for all that he cares.”
She laughed at that and shook her head. “That’s not true,” she argued, but still felt absurdly pleased to know she’d won over Adso. And thrilled all of the sudden by the thought of home. With Jamie.
“Aye, it is true.” He kissed the side of her head and moved to grab their bags. “And ye ken, I can’t even fault the wee bugger. You’re my favorite person too.”