It's the heat that pulls her from a restful slumber, straight back into reality. A sweltering heat that has sweat pooling in the dips of her body, her dampened curls plastered to her skin.
She shifts away from the furnace at her back, feeling the warm furs cocooning her body and curses her heavy limbs for not having the energy to escape the heat. It's a far cry from days past, temperatures so frigid that she shivered in her sleep, teeth chattering away in the darkness.
Claire knows the reason for this change, but she's not quite ready to face it.
To face him.
Her new husband.
She begins to shrug her way out from beneath the furs, seeking the sweet relief of the chilly morning air, sighing as she feels the sweat cooling on her skin. It's still early, the sky only just beginning to lighten, and the tavern beneath them very much silent.
The only sounds she hears are the light snores coming from behind her.
Inhaling deeply, she finds her senses clouded with the smell of them, sex and sweat and a note of something strangely comforting. She can't quite put her finger on it, the scent that is soothing her frazzled nerves but is grateful all the same.
She lies there, stark naked, and allows her thoughts to drift.
She thinks of her first wedding night, of her first husband. There had been no hurried consummation, she'd known him intimately long before their impromptu wedding.
Her first marriage hadn't been a choice.
Frank had suggested they go through with the ceremony, both dreading the war looming on the horizon, and she'd agreed because there was no other option. And then they'd gone their separate ways.
She returned from France a changed woman.
He'd become just another casualty of the war.
The golden ring he'd once given her now lies in a pile of discarded clothing, and she finds she has no desire to wear it anymore.
The silver band on her right hand is rough and beaten and barely polished.
Imperfect in every way.
But she cannot forget the look in Jamie's eyes as he'd slipped the ring onto her finger, the reverent way he'd brushed his lips over it later on.
She allows her eyes to flutter shut as she relives the memories of the previous day.
Their wedding ceremony, rife with tradition and customs that she didn't quite understand but knew were meaningful.
The journey back to the tavern, how he'd kept his hand on her back the entire time, almost possessive.
Their first time, awkward and not quite satisfying, but she hadn't lied when she whispered she liked it. Liked the weight of him pressing her against the bed, the way his curls tickled her cheek, feeling him hot and hard inside her.
Their second, when she'd lost control and cried out so loudly surely the whole of Scotland had heard.
She feels herself flush with need as the memories continue to play, remembering the intimacy they'd shared, culminating in his gift to her, the pearls he'd slipped around her neck. When he'd whispered how precious she was to him, her heart had almost skipped a beat, thundering away in the confines of her chest.
Could she truly already love a man she hardly knew?
Taking one more shuddering breath to steady herself, she turns towards him.
Not the blood-soaked highland warrior that had once threatened to put her over his shoulder had she dared to run.
He's softer now, bathed in the light of dawn, one arm thrown over his head and chest rising and falling with even breaths. His long lashes skim the skin above his cheeks, ears protruding from the side of his head— just a little, and his lips curved into a faint smile. He looks so young and innocent, a ghost of the boy he once must have been, before the horrifying ordeals he'd suffered at the hands of a cruel and sadistic demon.
But even cruelty hadn't been able to break Jamie.
The light in his eyes each time he offers her a smile is unmistakable.
She traces the bridge of his nose with one finger, smiling when it twitches beneath her touch. His lips are soft and full, his jaw sharp and his stubble prickles at her skin. She wonders what it might feel like between her thighs.
And when she leans in closer, propping herself up on her elbow, intent on moulding her body against his, now desiring the warmth she'd shied away from earlier, his eyes open.
An endless depth of blue.
Like an ocean on its finest day.
He smiles, wider than the one he'd worn in sleep, and reaches up to tug at her curls.
"Mo nighean donn," he murmurs, hand drifting from her hair to her cheek. She feels impossibly small as he cups her jaw, thumb brushing her bottom lip.
"Your brown-haired lass?" she offers in response, shifting forward until she's half draped over his chest, thigh hooked over his hip.
His lips capture hers then, his hand once more finding its way into her curls, drawing her closer. He kisses her with the same enthusiasm he had each time before;
Like a man drowning-
- and her, his final breath.
They drink each other in, uncaring that they both reek of whisky, and she smiles against his lips as his other hand finds purchase on her arse, fingers gently kneading her flesh.
"I thought ye might be a dream. That ye'd run away in the dead o' the night and I was here alone, pretendin' ye hadna left me."
It's a confession whispered as they pull apart, one that makes her chest tighten and brings forth a dull ache in the pit of her belly.
"I ken my thoughts are foolish, Sassenach. I've given ye my body, my spirit, but the choice tae become my wife wasna yers tae make."
His words are tearing her apart at the seams.
Even now, curled up together, naked as the day they were born, he's still convinced that she's here only as a prisoner, with no free will of her own.
Yes, she'd resisted the marriage, having no desire to let fear dictate her road in life. She'd accepted his friendship but shied away from his touch, afraid to return the lingering glances or acknowledge the heat that flared within her each time she caught him staring.
That first night at Leoch, she'd felt this almost irresistible pull towards him, and she'd chosen both flight and fight.
Tried to distance herself.
Ignored her burgeoning feelings at every turn.
Only to wind up here and now, willingly bound to a man with enough courage and bravery to rival an entire army and yet still enough sensitivity to note her changing moods and demonstrate care and affection through glances and touches and incredible gestures.
She thinks of the stones that had brought her here, and for the first time, there's no anger and resentment.
Jamie watches her, poorly concealed concern in his eyes and she knows he's trying to analyse each and every one of her thoughts. Her glass face never ceases to reveal her emotions, but she's not sure he sees the contentment amongst the conflict and uncertainty.
Sighing, she tips her head forward, resting her forehead against his, brushing the tip of his nose with her own.
"Til our life shall be done," she whispers, moving her hand to rest over his heart, wondering if he can feel the cool band of her ring against his skin.
If he's surprised by her words, he doesn't show it, simply nuzzling at her cheek and then moving to pull her into his arms. She shifts, turning her back to him, craving the feel of his body surrounding her own.
He presses gentle kisses to her shoulder as his chest moulds to her back, her arse tucking neatly into the cradle of his thighs. When he drapes an arm over her waist, she grabs his hand and settles it over one breast, humming as he playfully strokes her nipple. His cock is half hard between them, and it would be easy enough for him to sink inside her.
Take her the back way, like horses.
But it's comfort they seek at this moment, not bliss.
"Mo ghràidh," he whispers into her hair. His voice cracks as he speaks and she knows without turning that there must be tears in his eyes, for she feels a stray drop making its way down her shoulder and over her clavicle.
"What does that mean?" she wonders, craning her neck so he can bury his face further into her curls.
"I'll tell ye some other time, I promise."
She believes him.