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The Heart of a Vow

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"I won't hold you to it, you know."

Jamie turned around, shocked at the sound of Claire's voice. How had she managed to sneak up on him out here in the woods?

Laoghaire had done it too, only moments ago. He had been so torn over missing his wife that he hadn't heard the young lass coming until it was too late, and then he had been so flustered that he didn't know how to extricate himself from her advances. When she appeared by the river, her expression alone told him he was in over his head. He knew she cared for him in her naive way, and had wanted to hurt her as little as possible while sending her on her way.

He had stopped to gather his thoughts while she spoke. During the pause, she had gotten the wrong idea. He realized he had misled her into thinking he wanted her. It was only natural that she would assume he had taken her beating because he cared for her, but that was so far from the truth it was almost laughable. Yet he saw no value in saying so now. He knew from experience that rejection was painful enough without rubbing salt in the wound. While he stalled, she had taken off her cloak and put his hand on her breast before he could decide what to say. As she stood on her toes in an attempt to reach his lips, he couldn't help but remember the sensation of Claire's breath against his mouth and the softness of her skin under his hand. He needed his wife's touch like he needed air, and the second his body recognized that this was the wrong woman, he pulled away. He told Laoghaire the only thing that was her business to know, that he would honor his vows, thus trying to preserve what he could of her dignity by cushioning the blow with a little flattery. It hadn't helped. She had run away.

There was no point in staying at the river any longer, for she had spoiled its peace. He turned to leave, only to be immediately confronted by the very woman whose absence had sent him here in the first place, whose rejection stung more exquisitely than the lash, whose love he was so desperately trying to win, and whose trust he valued almost as highly as her life. He had already lost her trust, had never earned her love, and now she was staring at him with wounded, cold eyes. How much had she heard?

Enough, apparently. With a shaky voice she continued, "I understand, believe it or not. I know I wasn't your first choice. You weren't..." She cut off abruptly, but he heard the rest of the sentence nonetheless, and it shattered him to the point that he didn't correct her first mistake. Of course she was his first choice. She was his only choice, the one God had sent to him. It was just as his father had told him: when the right woman came along, he would just know. And he had. But he knew he wasn't her first choice. Was she thinking of her late husband? Or was there someone else, someone she had been trying to reach when they found her? The thought of her husband was galling enough, and the poor man was dead, never to see or touch the lovely Claire again. His ghost deserved pity for being separated from her, not jealousy. But jealous Jamie was, nonetheless, for the man had experienced Claire's love, while Jamie did not know if he ever would. And if there was a man living that held her heart, he might have to kill him. She tried to recover by clearing her throat and continuing, "You married me for your own reasons, and you don't owe me an explanation."

But he did. Laoghaire didn't deserve any explanation beyond common courtesy, but this was Claire, who was his heart, his wife. He could see how hurt she was, and he couldn't bear that he was the cause. He wanted only to comfort her, cherish her, love her. He simply wasn't certain she would let him, because she could not reconcile how he could strike her and cherish her at the same time. He had taken his belt to her so that she would be able to face the men again, to restore her standing amongst the group. Her passionate response had inflamed him, though he was smart enough not to try to touch her after, as badly as he wanted to. Since then the rift between them only widened. He reached out for her. If only he could touch her, reestablish their connection somehow, he could start to make it right. "Claire, you dinna understand..."

"I understand well enough." She backed out of reach and started hard at a point over his shoulder, squaring her shoulders and declaring, "You've done more than enough on my behalf. I owe you my life, and for that I am in your debt. You need not be shackled to me because of your overdeveloped sense of chivalry. So I won't stand in your way."

He stared at her, mouth agape. What was she going on about? What on earth did she mean?

When she received no response, she awkwardly continued, "I could go. There's... You remember I was on my way elsewhere to begin with. I can go, and you can be free. I may need your help, but it would be the last thing you'd have to do, and then y..."

"Are ye daft? Go where? I dinna always ken what yer tryin' to tell me, but you're makin' even less sense than usual! What're ye tryin' to say?"

Exasperated, she huffed, "I can leave. I don't think we can get divorced, can we? Is that done now? Not easily, I think, and I'm not sure it would leave you in a tenable position. But you can say something happened to me. You'll be a widower, which would be a much more..."

"Have ye lost yer mind?" he yelled. Panic welled in his throat, threatening to choke him. He grabbed her by the shoulders to force her to face him. "Leave? Widower? I've only just found ye! I've only just gotten ye back from that monster, and ye threaten to leave?"

She had the gall to look offended after what she had said. "It's not a threat! I'm trying to help you! You helped me, and now I'll help you."

He couldn't stand it. The thought of her leaving broke him. In response, he had to break something, and it couldn't be her. He let her go, grabbed a nearby branch, snapped it clean in half and cried, "Helping? What kind of help is that? You're tearing my heart from my chest and crushing it under yer heel!"

"But if I'm not here, you can be with her like you were supposed to in the first place!"

He threw the broken branch on the ground at her feet, stunned. "Laoghaire? Is this about Laoghaire?" The lass was no one to him. How could she come between them?

"Yes!" She started to pace. "No. Yes... I... She understands how things work. How things are supposed to be. She'll be a good wife for you, and she obviously wants to. I know you wanted to marry her before I complicated things..."

He grabbed her arm. She stopped, but would not face him. "I marrit you, Claire, not Laoghaire."

"Obviously!" She still wasn't listening. "But you were supposed to marry her, and I knew it as well as she did."  

"That's no’ true! I was never promised to her..."

She cut him off again. "Because you hadn't taken the oath to Colum. Well, if I go..."

"Stop sayin' that! I canna think straight when you say such madness, when ye threaten me so! I never wanted to marry the lass! I wanted to marry you!"

She was still looking past him rather than at him. “Yes. Because your standing as an outlaw couldn’t earn you a proper Scottish wife. You married me because Dougal asked you to. Isn’t that what you told her?”

It was true that he allowed Laoghaire to believe what she wanted, but not for the reason Claire implied. Yes, the marriage was Dougal's idea, since he wanted to guarantee that Jamie could not succeed Colum as the MacKenzie. But Jamie hardly cared about Dougal’s motivation. His uncle had offered him what he wanted more than anything else in the world: Claire. Beguiling, intriguing, beautiful, passionate, brilliant, bold Claire. He had lusted for her from the first moment he saw her, and he had loved her nearly as long. But he wasn’t about to say that to Laoghaire, not before he had even thought to say such things to Claire herself. And he didn’t want to tell her now, not in anger, not in desperation. He wanted her to love him back, and screaming in her face wasn’t the way to achieve that, even if his words were all of adoration. He stammered, “It isna her business why I married ye. And I didna know what to say to her. ‘Twould only hurt the lass to tell her the truth. She can think what she likes, but it doesna make it true! There’s nothing between us!”

Now she stopped and glared at him, anger and betrayal flashing in her eyes. "Do you honestly believe that? Are you only lying to me, or are you lying to yourself too? I saw you, Jamie. You know I did, that day in the alcove. Kissing her. Which was fine.” Of course, it was clear from the hurt in her eyes that it wasn’t, and he held onto that knowledge like precious gems. “I had no claim on you. But now? Just now, by the river..." She took a deep breath to fortify herself, but her voice still wavered. "If I have a claim on you, I release you from it. You can do what you please."

He wanted to shake her. He wanted to rattle her until she stopped blabbering nonsense, and then he wanted to press his mouth against hers to keep her from saying anything else. So that was exactly what he did. He strode forward, grabbed her round the waist, yanked her to him, and devoured her full, red lips. She trembled against him, clutching his shirt in her fists, and he told her everything he couldn't say with words. When they finally parted, gasping for air, he pressed his forehead to hers and growled, "This is what I please, Sassenach. Ye say I can do what I want? It's you I want. How do ye not see that?"

Her eyes were still closed to him. She kept them squeezed shut and shook her head. "But I saw you. I heard you. Then and now..."

"And did ye ever hear me tell her I wanted her? That I'd marry her?" he pointed out. He kept his grip firm around her with one hand, and with the other, cupped her neck in his palm and ran his thumb along her full lower lip. He knew from experience that it would keep her off balance. Her body was drawn to his even when her mind was spinning away.

She hesitated. "I wasn't there for every conversation."

"There were no conversations, lass. Ye never heard me tell her, because I never did. Because I never wanted to."

She tried to shake her head, but he held her fast. "But you took that beating for her. You said there was nothing between you, but that clearly isn't true. Even if it weren't for what I just saw, it's like she said, the way you kissed her after..."

"Aye. I ken why she thought I meant more, and I feel bad for it. I misled her, and I didna mean to do so. That's what ye just saw just now. I didna want to hurt her more than I had to, so I never told her why I took the punishment. 'Twas true, what I told ye before, that I pitied her, nothing more."

She tried to interrupt. "But..."

This time, Jamie wouldn't let her. He kept talking. "I wasna trying to impress her, Sassenach. I ken it was a foolish thing to do, but I was trying to impress you. And I was hopin' that ye'd lend me yer healing touch again. When you put yer hands on me..." He lowered his hand from her cheek to lace his large fingers through her delicate ones, and he kissed them one by one. "I've never felt anything like it. Do ye ken? 'Tis been so from the first."

She stopped squirming and finally stared at him. "Are you trying to tell me that you took a beating simply to get me to nurse you again?"

He ventured a crooked smile. "Aye. My sense of chivalry is no’ so well developed as I might ha’ let you think."

“But that's insane!"

"Perhaps you haven't noticed, but you drive me more than a wee bit mad, mo nighean donn .” At this statement, she relaxed a bit in his embrace, and he thought perhaps he would tell her a little more. He had to do something to bridge the distance between them. Perhaps a little more truth would do it. “I truly did not step forward that night for her sake, beyond that of pity. I’ve been burning, ye ken, since the day I met ye. I’d been havin’ such wicked thoughts, Sassenach, wicked thoughts o’ you. But I didna think I could have ye. So when she kissed me, I didna stop her. And when you saw us, weel, I'm no’ ashamed to admit that I might ha’ been a little more enthusiastic than I might ha' been otherwise."

Her jaw dropped open. "James Fraser, were you trying to make me jealous?"

He teased, "I've spent a great deal o' time being jealous o’ your late husband, and any other man has e’er turned yer head. It's only fair that ye feel in some small way the same."

Apparently it was the wrong thing to say. Instead of laughing at the jest, she yanked her hand from his and stepped back. "That isn't the same thing at all. My husband... He was..." She trailed off and restarted, "You never had to see us together. And he's been gone from my life since before you met me. Besides, it's one thing to kiss her when you and I barely knew each other. For God's sake, I even encouraged her. I knew you were interested in her, and I even tried to help get you together. But after we're married? Now I get to live with the image of your hand on her breast. I really don't think the situations are the same."

He was distracted by the thought of Claire encouraging Laoghaire, but he set it aside for later. "I'm sorry it happened, for your sake and for mine, but I willna take the blame. How long were ye standin’ there?”

Reluctantly, she admitted, “Since before she arrived.”

Her answer startled him. What had she been doing? “Then ye ken that she took my hand and put it there. I'm the one pulled away, I’m the one refused her, just as I did before. I didna know ye were there, Claire. I didna turn her away because I kent you were watching. I turned her away because I didna want her.”

“You told her you were sorry you'd married me!”

“That isna what I said! I was sorry I misled her, and that is why I apologized. She deserved that much, but no more. I could never be sorry for marrying you. I turned her away because now that I know what it is to be wi’ you, no one else will do. If I'd ha' wanted to bed Laoghaire, I'd could easily ha' done so. But it did not, and I do not. And if I'd wanted to marry her, I would have, MacKenzie or no, Randall or no."

Her shoulders slumped wearily, and she wrapped her arms around her middle. "You're a chivalrous man, Jamie. You wouldn't have let him take me."

He stepped toward her again, and this time she did not back away. He gently took her by the shoulders. "True, but marrying you wasna the only way to keep ye from him. When I heard what he meant to do, I thought of all the possibilities, and I chose the one suited me best. We might ha' fled, you and I. Or I'd ha' gladly taken up my sword against him and been happy for the chance. And there were half a dozen unwed men in our party, and more than one of those would ha' gladly taken ye for wife. But if they'd ha' tried, I'd ha' fought them for your hand."

“Fought them?” She was perplexed. "But why?"

"Because ye were meant to be mine, mo ghraidh . I kent it long ago. Aye, I’ve kissed other lasses. One’s as good as the next. Bonnie enough, and willing enough, and there. No’ worth fighting over, or bedding, or wedding. No’ like you. When I kissed another lass, I liked it, aye. All in good fun for a young lad. But you? If ye are no’ near, I must know where ye are. If you enter a room, I want ye by me.” He slipped his arm around her waist. “If ye touch my arm, then I want to take yer hand in mine.” Now he did, rubbing sensation into her cold fingers. “If you smile, I want to hear ye laughin’.” She smiled at this, and he pressed his forehead against hers. “If you rub your wee herbs in my wound, I'll hurt myself to get you to do it again, and then I want yer hands everywhere on me.” Now she did laugh, and he leaned down to breathe it in. “And if I kiss you…” He brushed his lips lightly against her smile. “I grow hungry for more.” Now he pressed his mouth against her yielding one. “And more.” He tasted her sweetness. “And more.”

This time he showed her exactly what he meant before she had a chance to argue again. He descended upon her mouth, devouring. Instead of resisting, she slid her fingers through his hair and pulled him closer. Her mouth opened to grant him entry, and a needy little whimper escaped. He swallowed it greedily, and he reciprocated with an answering groan. One hand slid down to her buttocks, gripping her curves tightly through her skirts. The other supported her spine as he bent her over in a deep arch so he could feast from her. He nibbled and nipped his way along her jaw, down her neck, and across her smooth shoulder.

After worrying at her soft skin with his teeth, he kissed the mark he made, wanting to imprint it permanently in her flesh for all to see. “Can ye no’ feel it, lass? What lies between us? What draws me to you…”

Words failed her, but her nails dug hard into his scalp, and he felt her nod. “Yes,” she breathed. “Yes.”

He pushed her back until she bumped against a broad tree trunk. The slight impact jolted a little grunt from her throat, one he had heard before under other circumstances. He wanted to hear it again. “I didna know such a thing existed afore I met ye, that such a force could be found in the world.” He took her lips again, invading her mouth until they both became dizzy with want.

When he lowered himself to the swell of her breasts, he heard a whisper so quiet that he thought he imagined it. “Neither did I.”

Had she just admitted that she felt something for him that she hadn't felt for her late husband? His voice broke against her. “Ah, Claire, I ha’ missed ye so.”

Jamie wanted to strip her bare, to tear away her clothes as he tore down her defenses. But he couldn't bear to separate himself from her long enough to do so. His grasping hands wouldn't part from her body, not even to undress her. He grabbed at her skirts while he tasted the soft skin above her bodice and suckled at the delectable, botanical flavor of her, and he reveled in the pink and purple marks he left across her chest. Even the most modest clothing wouldn't cover all of them. “Open your bodice for me,” he instructed her. He might not have the patience to remove all her layers, but he needed more of her skin.

Wordlessly, she complied. He took her newly freed breast into his mouth and suckled so hard that she cried out. The other he palmed, roughly squeezing. With fingers, teeth, and tongue, he tugged at the tender peaks until they were as red and swollen as her lips. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her hands tightly gripping grooves in the bark behind her. He glanced up at her face. She was flushed and panting. Her head was tipped back, and she was tossing it from side to side. "I can't… I don't…" He wasn't certain what she meant, but from the trembling of her knees, thought she might collapse to the ground were it not for the way he firmly pressed her against the trunk.

"Dinna fash, my own, for I have ye, and I willna let ye go." He lowered her to the forest floor and took a moment to rake his eyes and down her form. He committed to memory the wanton beauty that was laid out beneath him: wild curls framing her face, dusky pink heating her cheeks, whiskey eyes pleading with him, the marks of his possessive kisses scattered across her opal skin. "You are so beautiful. I canna believe ye are mine."

Her voice was thick. "I didn't know. I thought you didn't…" He wasn't certain if he saw a tear in her eye, or if it was simply a trick of the light.

He stretched out to cover her body with his own, shielding her from cold, from prying eyes, from anything and anyone that would separate them. As he tipped her chin up with the crook of his finger, he told her, "You were wrong. Because now ye ken that I do, aye?" She nodded, and he kissed her, this time gently and sweetly. "Dinna go from me, mo chridhe . I want ye here wi’ me."

“I thought you’d forget me if I was gone. And then when I saw the two of you together, I was sure of it.”

“Never. How could ye think that?” He buried his head in the crook of her neck and held her as tightly as he could without hurting her. “I couldna forget ye if I tried. Ye are burned into me like a brand.”

She answered him not with words, but by burying her fingers in his hair and drawing him in for a tender kiss of her own. She was hesitant at first, but he felt it the second she gave herself over to it. To him. She molded herself to him and finally turned her head to whisper, "Jamie, please."

There was no way he could refuse her request, though he knew he ought to be more cautious. Anyone could stumble upon them at any moment. They weren’t particularly far from the castle, and Laoghaire might still be near. But waiting was an impossibility. His body had ached for hers since the last moment he had parted from her. Ever since he first experienced the sublime sensation of joining with her, every inch of separation felt like a mile.

Jamie eagerly rucked up her skirts and and slipped his fingers between her legs. A sense of primal satisfaction rose from his gut when he realized just how ready she was. Without conscious thought, he brought his fingers to his mouth and sucked her flavor clean, growling wordlessly. Her eyes widened into surprised pools, and he couldn’t resist using the same fingers to trace her full bottom lip before descending upon her for a brutal kiss. There would be ample time for slow, tender lovemaking later. A lifetime, if he had any choice in the matter. Now, though, he had to claim her again, to remind her that she was his. He roughly pushed her legs apart, pulled his kilt aside, and entered her in one swift, bruising motion.

The sound of her sharp intake of breath, combined with the sublime welcome of her body, undid him. He had to hear her again, so he began to move. She rewarded him with little coos and gasps. Over and over he snapped his hips forward, gradually building momentum until he was slamming into her with wild, animalistic energy. He wanted to hold back, to make it last, but it was impossible. Pure sensation overwhelmed him where their bodies met, ricocheting up his spine and radiating out through his limbs. He knew the same force spurred her on from the way she moved beneath him, writhing and arching her back to get closer and closer, and from the increasingly desperate moans that issued from her throat.

She had intrigued him from the moment they met. Holding her so close that first night, when they rode together wrapped together in his plaid, her shivering against him clad only her shift, had caused his mind and his heart to run riot. He couldn’t help but think of her like this, though his imagination was a poor shade compared to reality. Yet even then, the urge to possess her, to own her, to master her, had risen within him. Soon it took over his heart as well. And now he had had her. He had learned what it meant to lie with her, to take pleasure from her body, and to return it in kind. Such knowledge had not satisfied him in the least. His hunger only grew deeper, gnawing at him. Now it took over his entire being.

He clawed at the earth, bracing himself for leverage. The force with which he took her caused her to slide away with every thrust. He slid one hand underneath her to grab her wickedly round arse to hold her still. His grip was tight, and he hoped the print of his hand would still be there in the morning. Surely the marks he’d left on her neck, shoulders, and breasts would remain to show everyone to whom she belonged. He nipped and suckled at her skin again, just to be sure. In response, she began to whimper and moan.

When she cried out his name, he wanted to howl in triumph. He answered her, punctuating each phrase with a deep thrust. "Claire, ah Claire! Ye are mine. Do ye understand? Do ye feel it? You gave yourself to me, and I willna let you go!"

She responded by pushing his shoulder back to tip him off balance, turning him onto his hip, and flipping him over. “And you’re mine, James Fraser. Mine alone!” She braced herself with her hands on his chest and began to ride him hard. As her skirts billowed out around them, he grabbed onto her waist to hold her down against him, dug his heels into the earth for traction, and ground his hips into hers. The sensation caused her to throw her head back with a loud cry. He felt the telltale clenching of her core around his cock, and with the last bit of sense left to him, slid his hands into her open bodice and rolled the swollen tips of her breasts between his fingers. She began to convulse over him and around him, and he followed her into oblivion.

He wasn’t certain how long he lay unconscious beneath her, but when he opened his eyes again, the sun had moved slightly in the sky, and Claire lay atop him like a warm blanket. Their bodies were still joined, and her breathing was deep and slow. Her wild curls tickled his face, so he gently smoothed them down. She picked up her head and blinked dazedly at him. “Why, hello.”

“Good mornin’ to ye, lass. Or should I say, good afternoon.”

He tipped her head back and lifted his chin to kiss her softly. She tasted delicious, and having done it once, it felt so good that he did it again, and again, and again. His cock stirred to life inside her as he came to full awareness.

She blinked at him. “Oh, God. Again, Jamie? So soon?”

He gave her a lazy grin. “Aye. Ye feel sae good.” He pushed down on her hips for emphasis, settling her securely around him. He had missed her so much. Now that she was here, he wasn’t about to let her go. “Dinna go from me.”

Her eyes softened. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Good.” He swallowed and worked up the courage to ask, “How long were ye out here?”

She lay her head back on his shoulder, and he wrapped his arms around her. He held his breath while awaiting her answer. Finally, she said, “A long time. I was watching you skip stones and trying to figure out what to say.”

He gently urged, “What did ye want to tell me?”

“I… I was hoping to fix things between us,” she admitted. “I know things have been difficult, and I didn’t want it to stay that way. I just don’t have your gift of language, and I couldn’t find the words.”

He squeezed her tightly, his heart breaking a little. The distance between them had hurt her too. He wouldn't let it happen again. He kissed the top of her head. “Ah, my brave, bold Claire. Ye came for me while I was being a coward, skulking off by myself. I’m so sorry for what ye saw. Ye ken now, though, that it’s only you in my thoughts, in my heart, in my soul. ‘Tis been so since I’ve known ye, and shall always be so.”

In a small voice, she answered, “I know.” But the tightness in her shoulders told him otherwise.

He smoothed her hair away from her face. “Look at me, Claire. I ken what I did to ye, now. I didna mean to, but I scairt ye, made ye fear me, and it breaks my heart. I swear to ye, on the grave of my father, that I willna raise my hand against ye, ever again. Do ye believe me, mo chridhe ? I dinna make vows lightly.”

She nodded, an expression of calm coming over her. “I do. Do you know why?” He quirked up an eyebrow. “Because I won't let you.”

He grinned at her, then he pulled her fist from where it was tucked between them and kissed it. He traced the silver ring on her finger. “Do ye ken what this is, Sassenach?”

She didn't know what he meant. “My wedding ring? You said it was made from something in your sporran.”

“Aye.” He smiled at her. “The key to Lallybroch.”

She was stunned. “Your home? Why?”

“I wasna going to tell you until I could take ye there, but I think ye need to know. I wanted you to understand that ‘tis as much yours as it is mine. I dinna ken when I can show ye the place, but I dinna mind so much any more.” He cupped her skull and brought her in for another slow, lingering kiss. “For you are my home now, Claire.”

Now tears did well up in her eyes, though they did not fall. “Oh, Jamie!”

For long moments, he did nothing but drink from her mouth and revel at being with her, being inside her. She tried to move her hips, but he held her still. “Not yet. I am verra, verra happy right here, right now, just like this.”

A brilliant smile lit her face. “So am I.”

“Kiss me again, lass.” Having possessed her, having opened his heart to her, his desire to master her transmuted into something else, something more. Now he wanted to merge with her, to fuse so completely that they could never be parted. From the way her body melted against his, from the blissful expression on her face, from the light in her eyes, from the sweet touch of her lips, he knew she felt it too.

When she became impatient for more, she tried to move again. He stopped her. “In a moment. I want to know what ye like.” He twisted them so that she was on her back again, careful to keep them joined.

While he maneuvered them, she began to giggle and blushed madly. “You know, neither of us will perish if you slip out for a second.”

“No, I’d die, I'm sure of it. I’m no’ leaving yer body unless someone pries me off.” He grinned back at her, awkwardly yanking off his belt and tossing his kilt aside. He had to admit that he was being a bit ridiculous, and it certainly would have been easier if he simply stood up, but he refused. Besides, every time he shifted, it felt blissfully good.

When he had finally rid himself of the extra cloth, he knelt between her thighs, pushed her skirts around her waist, and pulled her legs around his hips. She squirmed a bit, trying to increase her pleasure. He sat on his heels and simply watched her.

“Jamie? Why aren't you moving?”

“I want to look at ye. You are so beautiful, Claire,” he told her. She was an intoxicating sight spread out beneath him. Her stomacher lay somewhere on the ground behind them, and her laces still hung from the bottom loops, keeping her bodice half-open, half-closed. He pulled them free and opened the stiff fabric like a book, then tugged her shift down to her waist. It gave him the view he wanted. He took her by the hips and pulled her close so that her buttocks rested on his thighs. “I want to see ye. I want to feel ye. Show me.” Then he proceeded to slowly explore her, carefully watching the expressions that flitted across her face, feeling the reactions of her sex wrapped tightly round him. He stroked her breasts and ran his fingers along the soft skin of her thighs, eliciting tiny shivers. He bent over to taste her, to see if she preferred his fingers on her nipples or his tongue, and she clutched him close, gasping. He touched her body where they joined, circling the little nub at the center of her pleasure, alternating between a light touch or a firm one. She answered by grabbing his arm to keep him there, tossing her head back, and clenching hard on his cock. He memorized each one of her sighs and moans, relished every twist of her hips and arch of her back. He committed to memory every single detail. All the while, he let her sex grip his, but he didn’t thrust, didn’t rut at her like the animal inside him, since the beast had already been well satisfied.

When neither of them could take it any longer, when he had built the tension between them so tightly that it had to be released, he bent over, took her mouth with his, and began to move. This time he was gentle and affectionate, patient and sweet. If he wasn't kissing her, he was nuzzling his nose against hers or brushing her cheek with his lips. All the while, he stroked inside her, so deep.

It went on and on, each of them giving and taking, first as a question, then as an answer, and finally as a promise. And when she finally shattered around him, his name falling from her lips in an intoxicating mantra, he gave himself over to her completely.

As he rested on her breast and listened to her heartbeat slow under his ear, he breathed, “I canna believe Eve was borne from one of Adam’s ribs alone, mo nighean donn, for without ye, I felt a great void in my chest, like ye’d taken not a bone, but my whole heart away wi’ ye. ‘Tis as if before I found ye, I was only half a man.”

She took a long time to answer, but he knew from the tender way she stroked his scalp through his hair that she wouldn't hurt him with her words. Finally she quietly admitted, “I've heard people say things like that before, that they were two halves of a whole. I thought it was a romantic notion. Poetic and lovely. But now…”

She trailed off, not quite ready to say it. Instead she kissed him, long and deep, and he felt the truth in her touch.