There were so many things he had missed about Claire.
There were the visual and tactile aspects he had memorized. The way her amber eyes sparkled, whether in fury or delight; the same eyes that would catch his own and read his scattered thoughts in an instant. The slight uptick her lips assumed whenever she found something he’d said amusing, accompanied by a soft laugh that had always warmed him to his bones. The unruly silky curls that his hands always found their home in.
He had missed the way she melted into him, her arms wrapped around his waist while her solid head rested against the beating thump in his chest. Every inch of his body had desperately ached for her touch for the knowing hands that could both bring him to the edge of pleasure within seconds and heal the scars he bore. He had missed the ease in conversation that he found only with Claire.
But he never knew how much he had missed watching her sleep until he found himself standing at the entrance to their bedroom, overwhelmed at the sight of his beautiful wife curled up in their bed. She was still clothed in her navy skirt and bodice, and several curls had escaped the messy updo she preferred to wear as a doctor. Her journal remained open beside her, an ink pen loosely held in her right hand. Her lips were slightly parted as a faint snore accompanied the rhythmic movements of her lungs. Jamie could feel his own weary muscles fighting the urge to collapse on the spot, fueled by the sympathy he carried towards her exhaustion.
Over a month had passed since he and Claire had wrestled with an exhaustion of a different kind, stripping away the loneliness and grief they’d each shouldered on their own. They placed the burdens of their eighteen years apart at each other’s feet, overwhelmed by the daunting realization that they had spent six times the number of years separated as they had together. With the first rays of dawn peeking through the windows of the House of Joy, they had made the decision to fight for a life that they wanted; a life rooted in the love they had never lost for one another.
They had moved out of Madame Jeanne’s and into the bright and open space above Claire’s new surgery. Jamie and Claire had spent a weekend scrubbing (or, as his wife liked to call it, disinfecting) every nook and cranny of her new professional abode and rearranging the furniture into a suitable layout for her first day as the new healer in town. Distracted by the whirlwind days they’d spent moving and settling into their new life, Claire showed no signs of nerves until the two of them hit a natural lull that Sunday afternoon.
“Doesna look too bad, aye?” Jamie concluded, leaning against the front door and admiring their hard work. He ran a stained cloth over the developing layer of sweat on his forehead, the combination of the three roaring fireplaces and their physical exertion leaving them both on the verge of overheating, despite the blustery February winds outside. “Tis ready tae receive your first patients tomorrow. Have ye got everythin’ ye need?”
Her unusually subdued response prompted Jamie’s head towards her, and he immediately sensed the unease that coursed through her — from her wringing hands, to the way her glances darted across every corner of the room while she chewed on her lower lip.
The term he’d reclaimed in endearment for her. When she quickly answered his call through the turn of her head towards him, he could feel his body relax with relief that time hadn’t weakened the feelings he laced in that word. Her face was in full view as Jamie erased the bit of space between them and gently framed her flushed cheekbones.
“Tis normal to be nervous, but dinna fash. You have a great doctor who’s excited tae work wi’ ye. You’re ready.”
Her shoulders slumped and a nervous smile crept along the corners of her mouth. “I know, but I sometimes wonder if agreeing to this was too much too soon.”
Jamie’s hands moved towards her crossed arms and slowly began traveling up and down her taut muscles. He followed the flickers of doubt crossing her face, the silence resting between them and giving Claire room to think.
“I’ve only been here a few weeks, Jamie. I know you’ve been nothing but supportive of all of this,” she stated, her head nodding towards the impeccable surgery that was now hers. “Am I really ready? I practiced medicine in a different time, with technology and other advantages. I don’t want to let my patients or Doctor Morgan down.”
“First, mo nighean donn,” Jamie began, tilting his head to catch her slightly lowered eyes. “Ye’re forgettin’ that you already know how to heal in this time. Ye didna even have the training back then that ye do now, and look at what ye did from the moment we first met. And every night these past few weeks, I’ve come home tae you wi’ yer wee nose in all sorts of books, studyin’ at all hours.”
Claire looked upwards, and while he knew that he’d somewhat relaxed the stressful entanglement she’d weaved for herself, she still felt tightly wound.
“Is this too much for us?” she blurted out quickly, the last syllable bringing every ounce of tension towards the surface.
Ah. There was the question. The previously unspoken fear buried within her.
“That’s not what I meant.” Her hands sought Jamie’s on her arms, squeezing them reassuringly. “I want this. I know you want this for me. It’s only—” A sigh of frustration forced itself out, her words unable to capture the dueling anticipation and fear in her eyes. “We’ve never done this together — settling down, establishing ourselves so permanently in one place. And we’re still learning one another again.”
His fingers laced through hers as he brought one of her hands to his lips, pressing a featherlight kiss against her knuckles.
“All I’ve ever wanted is a life wi’ ye, Sassenach. Tis more than I ever thought I’d have wi’ ye again. Everything else is just an added blessing.”
He moved behind her and wrapped his arms underneath her breasts, tugging her towards him and feeling her relax against him as they surveyed the physical foundation of their new adventure. “You have a gift of helpin’ people that makes ye happy,” he continued, his breath falling just above her right ear. “That should always be a part of any life we make together. This will never be too much.”
Claire angled her head towards him, and Jamie was momentarily captivated by the bright golden flecks of her gaze before she rose to her tiptoes and met his lips. Once they parted, she broke from his grip and hugged him tightly, and the sparks exploding throughout Jamie’s body were a stark reminder that he still hadn’t quite deemed himself worthy enough to have her here with him. The sensation grew stronger as she nestled herself in the crook of his neck, smiling at his increasingly erratic heartbeat and taking a deep breath.
Claire officially opened her surgery the following day, and it only took her patients a few minutes to completely fall in love with her. Her charm and warmth could put the shyest bairn or the most skeptical auldjin at ease. As her days steadily grew busier with her increasing popularity throughout Edinburgh, Jamie began to lose count of the number of nights he’d come home and find her hunched over her examination table, using the firelight to excitedly jot down what she’d accomplished that day with a focus that only strayed at the sign of his presence.
His need to hold her finally outweighing the hesitancy to wake her, he carefully dropped his bag, removed his coat and tricorn (both necessary to counter the skin-piercing winds that lingered in the Scottish springtime), and crawled onto the bed, mindful not to disturb her. Inch by inch, Jamie’s left side met the downy comforter; but despite his best efforts, a low-pitched hum departed from Claire as her body began to unfurl. Eyes still closed, her left arm extended towards him and landed on his vest, and the sweetest smile immediately formed upon contact.
“Hello, Sassenach,” he whispered into a teasingly intimate kiss, her slightly louder hum indicating its success.
“I missed you today,” she observed through a sigh as her eyes fully opened, hazy clouds of whisky taking her in. “You’re home late.”
“Ach, our dear friend Cameron wouldna stop running his mouth when he spotted me on my way home.” Though Jamie kept his focus on her, he shifted onto his back and placed his right hand behind his head, resting it against the pillows. “Nearly an hour and a half of askin’ me about which products he’d have the best chance sellin’ as a silversmith. Christ, the man can talk.”
That quietly electrifying chuckle he had missed so much rumbled through her as she continued emerging from slumber. “Is he switching up his market again? He’s been doing so well with woodworking.”
“I dinna ken. That man changes his mind every day; Susanna is a saint for puttin’ up wi’ him.”
Claire scooted closer, her head fitting into the space between his arm and shoulder, and her left arm sprawling across his waist. “I’m glad you’re home.”
He wrapped his arm around her and pressed a kiss against her forehead. “Me too.”
Jamie had loved introducing her to the people he’d come to know during his year in Edinburgh. Listening to the “story” of how they found one another again (the one they’d tested on Ian and Jenny, who knew both of them far too well to be satisfied with it), the community had welcomed Claire with no shortage of both curiosity and kindness. And Jamie was most thrilled by the fact that Claire had already begun to develop friendships of her own.
There was William Byrne, a young man around Fergus’s age who ran his father’s jewelry shop down the street and lived above it with his wife and newborn son; Agnes and John Baxter, talented and once-penniless pianists in their thirties who’d recently joined the Edinburgh Music Society; and, of course, the ragtag group of men Jamie had employed in his print shop, all willing to spar with Claire’s wit and humor in a way that their Highlander family had done so long ago.
And then, there were the MacNeils. Susanna and Cameron — both in their fifties, they’d become well known during their thirty years and counting on High Street for their spirited personalities. Susanna was the best midwife in Edinburgh; and Cameron, a Renaissance man of sorts, somehow successfully changed jobs with every sunrise. While Jamie had become acquainted with the MacNeils, it was Claire’s arrival that bonded the four of them. Upon hearing the news that his long-lost wife was a healer herself, Susanna made it her mission to take Claire under her wing and teach her all the secrets and gossip of the city. They’d become a constant presence in their lives, and Jamie realized one night that they now had friends of their own making.
Friends who knew them as the Frasers and nothing more — an unusually normal but incredible feeling.
“How was your day?” Jamie asked at just above a whisper, Claire’s wandering hand fiddling with his vest buttons and reassuring him that she was awake.
“No major tantrums from my younger patients and no projectiling of body fluids, so overall a lovely day. How was yours?”
“Good. Fergus and his friends are getting the hang of the shop, which is a tremendous help wi’ the paper’s demand growin’ so fast.”
“That’s a relief.” Placing both hands on his chest, she rested her chin on top of them and flashed a tired half-smile at him. “I’d much rather him be with you than out there smuggling Christ knows what. We need to have him over for supper again soon.”
“Aye, that’s a braw idea, Sassenach.”
Her smile widened in contentment, and Jamie couldn’t resist unwrapping the pearl-colored ribbon that kept her few obedient curls tied up. They let the minutes pass them by in peace, Claire’s eyes blissfully closing as his fingers weaved through the beautiful waves that tumbled against her porcelain skin. Though his heart sank at the idea of disrupting the rare quiet bubble they had created, he had something to tell her.
Her eyes snapped open as she shifted once more, seemingly alert to both Jamie’s tone and the absence of the numerous Gaelic names he’d preferred calling her.
“Ned came by and brought me the papers this morning.” His hand paused its movements and rested against the back of her head. “It’s official. Wi’ you back in this time, Laoghaire doesna own and never owned any claim to me, neither before God nor the law.”
Any hesitation the two of them had carried in the wake of their reunion had disappeared the night Claire found out his hidden past with Laoghaire. Instead, with both of them now painfully aware of the lows they’d faced during their time apart, they spent evenings sharing more long-buried stories. It was a daily choice he and Claire both had to make; but over time, Jamie grew hopeful as they slowly rediscovered the freedom that he’d found only with her, and she with him.
Even with the progress they made, Jamie still carried the fear that he’d wake up one day and find her gone. It was irrational and grew easier for him to quash over time, but he had promised her that she had that right to go back if she wanted. It was the same fear he now swallowed, face-to-face with the raw vulnerability in Claire’s expression.
“Are you all right, a nighean?”
Claire nodded slightly, inching closer.
“I know it’s silly.” Despite the shakiness in her voice, her eyes only temporarily flickered downwards before confidently matching his unwavering stare. “But I’m glad you’re mine again. I don’t want to share you with anyone else ever again.”
Her response nearly broke his heart from guilt and selfish gratitude, and his hand automatically traveled down her jawline, stroking her cheek. “I ken my decisions may have led ye tae think otherwise, but my heart has always been yours, Sassenach.”
“I know.” Her hand met his traveling fingers and she squeezed them tightly, her smile reflecting the truth of her words. “It was the same for me.”
A rush of tenderness spurred Jamie on; and at that moment, he remembered how much he’d missed the little hitch in Claire’s breath that awaited him right before an especially needy kiss. Starting off slowly, he cherished the softness of her lips before her mouth opened against his, begging him to venture deeper. A wee groan signaled her impatience as her tongue traced his bottom lip, and he gripped the back of her head and pulled her closer. An embarrassingly loud moan left Jamie’s mouth as she swung her left leg over his waist, every inch of their upper bodies now touching as their kisses grew more intense.
And right as his hands started to untie her bodice, his empty and demanding stomach made its presence known, immediately killing the mood by sending Claire into a fit of giggles.
“There are some bannocks and jam in the kitchen, I’ll go grab them.”
Claire kissed him on the cheek before crawling off of him and heading out their bedroom door. With his back screaming at the uncomfortable position he’d assumed on the bed (and his very immediate frustration at his body betraying him), he slowly shifted his upper half and stretched out his cramped legs. As Jamie grabbed Claire’s journal off the bed to place on her nightstand, several inserts fell from in between the pages she had already carefully documented her days’ worth of adventures on. Once he picked up the scattered paper squares, however, he realized they were the farthest things from random scraps.
Their daughter was smiling back at him through glimpses of her childhood captured from the future: Brianna as a toddler, his blue eyes and her mother’s heartstopping smile shining as she proudly sat on a rocking horse; as a five-year-old, standing against the front door in a purple ruffled dress and matching bow in her hair, posing mid-laughter for her mother; as a thirteen-year-old, smirking behind her fiery red hair and underneath a plaid blanket while reading in front of the fireplace; and as a sixteen-year-old, her mouth open in surprise and two thumbs sticking up as she held what Claire had explained to him as a key to an automobile.
The photographs spanned the entire length of time they’d been apart, and the familiar crushing weight of grief returned to the pit of his stomach. He could never completely accept what Claire and he had lost; however, the knowledge that their sacrifice had not been in vain made him smile.
Brianna was alive and safe. And Claire had done the most brilliant job raising her.
“I like to keep her with me.”
So lost in their daughter’s world, he jumped at Claire’s voice and turned to find her leaning against the door jamb with food cradled in her hands, bittersweet adoration gathered in the glowing amber of her gaze.
“Those would probably send me straight to a witch trial if anyone found them, but it didn’t feel right to keep them locked away forever.” Perching herself on the edge of the bed, she grinned sheepishly before handing him a bannock in exchange for Brianna’s photographs. He swung his feet over the bed and scooted himself towards Claire, their shoulders touching while they both looked at their daughter.
“I ken what ye mean, Sassenach,” Jamie responded fondly. “My office stays locked because I work with people who canna keep their noses out of other’s things, but I keep several photographs of her in my desk at the shop.”
“Do you?” Claire’s eyes glittered with both humor and tenderness.
He nodded, placing the bannocks and jam on his nightstand before returning to an image of a seventeen-year-old Brianna, her tongue sticking out while doing schoolwork at her desk.
“It was just the two of us for seven years,” Claire added while Jamie’s fingers traced the outlines of Brianna’s face. “She became my best friend, and she unknowingly kept me going through so many dark days.”
The gathering tears highlighted her whisky color, and he wrapped his arm around her and pulled her towards him.
“I’ll never forget what ye gave up to come back to me, Sassenach.”
“Brianna wouldn’t have accepted anything else.” Her head tilted towards him, their faces only inches apart. “She was the one that gave me the final push I needed to come find you.”
“Our daughter has her mother’s courage,” he choked out, an unexpected wave of emotion making the words more difficult for him to speak.
Claire placed her hand at the back of his neck and their gazes locked.
“And her father’s heart.”
“She’s the best of both of us.”
“It’s Penny Lane! I don’t know why you’re arguing with me over this, you nerdy Scot,” Brianna teased, too focused on the bumper-to-bumper traffic in downtown Boston to stick her tongue out at her rambunctious passenger.
“ Whoah , no need for name-callin’.” Roger ruffled the troublesome brunette waves off of his forehead before turning towards her, his glasses and nose previously hidden in a souvenir guide he’d picked up at Logan Airport on Sunday. “The DJ’s clues were that the song was by a band that was part of the British Invasion, and that it peaked at #1 on Billboard this month. If you ask me, those are pretty vague clues, and I think they could describe Ruby Tuesday by The Rolling Stones.”
“You’re forgetting his third clue — a song based in nostalgia. Penny Lane is where Paul McCartney grew up!”
“But what if he’s playin’ loose with the definition? A song about an ex-girlfriend can be nostalgic, and—”
“Shhhh!” Immediately recognizing the transitional jingle, Brianna waved her hand in his direction before turning the radio volume back up.
“ On a sunny Wednesday morning in Boston, it’s 8:56 a.m. and I’m Dale Dorman with WRKO….”
Brianna resisted the urge to let out an exhausted groan, kicking herself at agreeing to not only host a bright-eyed and curious historian during her Spring Break, but also being naive enough to believe that there was no way he’d force her out of the house before 10 a.m. while on holiday.
“ Ladies and gents, it’s the final song of The Breakfast Club.…..”
She automatically leaned closer to the radio, as if a shorter distance would give her a head start on the song name reveal.
“Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs…..”
“YES!” After pumping her right fist upwards in victory, she flattened her palm and thrust it in Roger’s direction. “Last bit of donut, please.”
She didn’t even have to look in his direction to register his stunned jaw drop in response to her demand. “Listen, we never agreed to that. Two glazed donuts — one plain and one chocolate — and one cake donut; perfect Bostonian treats to share between us.”
“And I guessed correctly while also being the one to drive you around on your bookish adventures this week, pal.” Her arm still extended, she refused to relent. “We can grab Dunkin Donuts again tomorrow, but that last piece of chocolate glazed is mine.”
Biting her tongue to ward off her laughter at his indecipherable mumbling, she thanked him graciously before stuffing the sugar bomb into her mouth and reveling in the way it melted against her taste buds.
“Aye, I guess it’s the least I can give ye as thanks for spending your morning combing through records wi’ me,” he surrendered, making no attempt to hide the feigned defeat in his tone.
“You’re giving me a reason to explore the city I’ve called home my entire life, Wakefield,” she responded, pulling into a lucky parking spot right in front of the Massachusetts State House. “For example,” she continued, peeking out the windshield and pointing towards the imposing golden-domed building, “I don’t think I’ve been inside since we took a class trip in third grade. And I’ve never been down to the archives.”
“Ah, so ye’re admitting ye’ve liked these — what did you call them? Bookish adventures? — this week?” he quipped, his stare likely anticipating her reaction as he unbuckled his seatbelt and exited the car.
“They’ve involved a lot more research than I’m used to doing on school break, but they’re not intolerable,” she conceded as she shut the car door and they began their short walk.
“Speaking of research, how’s yer second-year history paper going? Have ye figured out a topic?”
“Well….” she drifted off, hesitant if she should finally say what she’d been seriously contemplating the past month. Roger would be the first she’d confided in about this — but with him, she only questioned it for about ten seconds before spilling the beans.
“I might be switching majors soon. Harvard has an architecture program that would let me get a graduate degree after five years, and I think I might give it a go next fall.”
At that point, the two of them were halfway up the mountainous set of stairs leading to the State House when Roger stopped and quickly spun towards him. She anticipated being met with some sort of “are ye mad, woman? ”, but instead nearly sighed in relief when she took in his pleasantly accommodating reaction.
“Well, how about that. Architecture?” Smiling, he elbowed her playfully after she’d taken the few steps to catch up with him.
“I think so,” her verbal confirmation surprising even herself as their feet propelled them forward in identical stepping time. “Maybe . It’s just — when I research nowadays, I’m becoming less interested in the events and people that occupied a certain location and more fascinated with the buildings themselves. The design, the structure, how everything is precisely crafted to keep a design weighing hundreds of thousands tons standing upright. Like for example,” she tugged Roger closer to her as he followed her upward glance towards the State House, both of them shivering as a burst of wind seeped under their layers of clothing. “I haven’t been inside this place in over a decade, but I’ve come down to the park and sketched it several times. It’s one of my favorite buildings in the city.”
“It sounds like ye’ve made up yer mind then.” Roger tugged his scarf closer to him and they continued up the stairs. “Are ye still plannin’ on Edinburgh this summer?”
“Yeah, I’ve already paid for the history courses for the summer at the university. And it still sounds like a great opportunity.”
“I’ll have to come meet ye in the city one day and take ye to The National Archives there. The architecture is stunning — and it’s a gold mine of research, a place where ye could find the history of anything and anyone that walked the streets of Edinburgh.”
Brianna rolled her eyes in an exaggerated manner, letting out a mocking groan. “Well gee, for a second it sounded like you were about to suggest something fun. ”
“Ah, hush.” He laughed momentarily before turning his face towards her. “But really, that sounds brilliant. Ye’re also a gifted artist, which’ll serve ye well as an architect.”
Brianna hid her growing blush as she dug in her tote bag for a map of the State House’s interior that she'd grabbed from Joe. “You don’t think it’s strange that I’m not following in Frank Randall’s footsteps?”
“Ye’re yer own person, Brianna.” Pausing outside the entrance, he blindly searched in his worn leather bag for the black spiral notebook he’d been using to document his research this week. “While ye have a family and history ye were born into, what ye do wi’ it is yer choice.”
She paused as he proceeded to stroll inside, his casually-spoken remark hitting her square in the chest. Roger’s visit to Boston — jam-packed with sightseeing and research for his upcoming project on the Great Awakening’s beginning movements in the Colonies — had marked the first time they'd interacted in the past year that hadn’t included some veiled reference to her mother or to Jamie Fraser. She could tell he was being intentional about avoiding discussions of them, but even his well-intended advice brought her thoughts back to her parents.
Her mother had been gone for over a year. And though she had trained her mind to instantly bury the more melancholy thoughts, she constantly wondered what had happened to her.
Was she happy? Were they happy? What did those papers at the Reverend’s manse say?
The entrance door opened and Roger’s head popped out, clearly searching for Brianna.
“It’s freezing out there, Randall, come on.”
Twelve hours (four spent meandering through the Massachusetts Archives, occupying herself with records from the early days of the Salem Witch Trials) and nearly ten miles of city-walking later, Brianna and Roger dragged their weary feet through the front door of her childhood home.
“Hello! We’re back!” Brianna called as they shed their coats and scarves in the entryway, thawing out after a chillier-than-normal spring day.
“Hello loves! In here!”
Gail’s honeyed greeting, accompanied by the warm lighting and the sounds of WRKO’s Top 40 evening show, led Brianna and Roger to the living room. She was sprawled on the couch and underneath a peach blanket, while Joe sat in the neighboring armchair, completely immersed in a medical journal.
Claire had granted the deed of their home to Joe and Gail until Brianna had turned eighteen, and the three of them now encountered some form of analysis paralysis any time they discussed what to do with the house. Joe and Gail had their own family home in Cambridge that they didn’t want to part with, while Brianna lived in the dormitories at Harvard during the school year and with the Abernathys during the holidays and summer. But once a month, they'd head over together and spend a weekend there — an unspoken agreement that she wouldn’t have to spend nights alone in a place frozen in time. They would flip the lights, dust off the furniture, and breathe a bit of life back into the house.
There were days where Brianna wanted to throw out everything that was inside — the vast majority of items in the same place they’d been the day her mother left — and never look back. But on other days, she was grateful she could return to the time capsule their home had become. Her stomach twisted whenever she moved something from its spot, which didn’t help the current struggle she was facing with the house. It was paid off and Claire had put more than enough money away to handle the tax and utility bills every month, but Brianna knew she needed to make a decision soon.
“How was day four of Boston?” Gail inquired, eyes glancing up from her magazine and smiling at the sight of them.
“Well, my feet may say otherwise, but it was a fun day,” Roger replied as he slumped against the stairwell.
“He got some research done, and I took him around Boston Common.” Brianna plopped on the couch next to Gail, her aching legs grateful for the relief. “We walked around Downtown Crossing, Back Bay, and eventually along the Charles before walking back to the car at the State House.”
“Jesus, Bee, how are you two still mobile?” Distracted by the extensive map of Roger and Brianna's day, Joe perked up from his studying, adjusting his glasses against his surprised expression.
“I’m asking that same question myself, Joe, hence I’m outright knackered and headin’ straight to bed,” Roger responded humorously, waving once as a farewell. “Night, all.”
After the three of them bid him goodnight, they caught each other up on their days. Brianna became so immersed in listing all of the tourist traps she'd taken Roger to, she hadn’t even noticed the late hour until Gail excused herself to bed. With Joe as her fellow night owl, he walked over to her mother’s bar cart and poured two glasses from the bottle of whisky he’d brought to the house.
“Cheers to peace and quiet,” he toasted after handing off her drink, the two of them clinking their glasses together.
Joe returned to his medical journal and Brianna pulled out her sketchbook, anxious to finish the drawing of the State House’s lobby that she started after growing bored in the archives. The music of The Supremes, The Monkees, Marvin Gaye, and others occupied the living room, the two of them humming along every so often while in their own mental grooves. However, as the radio blared a set of drums and chiming guitars, the familiar intro immediately left Brianna transfixed as her surroundings disappeared.
They say we're young and we don't know
We won't find out until we grow
Well I don't know if all that's true
'Cause you got me, and baby I got you
Babe. I got you babe….
“Now that’s a song I haven’t heard in ages .”
Joe’s delighted revelation brought Brianna back to reality, and she watched through glazed eyes as he moved towards the radio, turning the volume up before joining her on the couch.
“Lady Jane loved this song. She’d hum it constantly, especially during those long surgeries.” Joe cast a wistful smile in her direction before taking another sip of his whisky. “I remember her saying this was a song you two loved to sing together.”
“We did,” She laughed a bit louder than normal in response, desperate to contain the rising tide of emotion in her chest. “With some lyric foul-ups on her end, I might add,” she continued before taking another long sip of her drink. “This is also the last song I remember singing with her.”
Joe’s brows furrowed as he placed his drink on the coffee table, settling back against the couch in anticipation of further elaboration. Brianna was already in the process of beating herself up for saying too much; nevertheless, she took a deep breath, doing her best to calm her rapid heartbeat before continuing.
“It was New Year’s Eve,” she began, nervously twisting the glass in her hands. “We’d had a big party, you remember. After everyone had left and Roger had gone up to bed, Mama and I put on some records to entertain ourselves while we cleaned up. The two of us were laughing and dancing, throwing the confetti we were supposed to be picking up at one another.”
Brianna paused at a vision of her mother in her gorgeous navy silk dress, the cowl neck perfectly contrasting the sleeveless design. Her carefully-styled updo had fallen loose, and the two of them had donned matching flushed cheeks from the booze and side-splitting laughter.
“One of the songs we played was this one. I usually sang the Cher part, since it was a bit more complicated,” Brianna laughed, “and by that night, we’d sung it countless times before. It felt like any other time, but that night she was so relaxed and free. That was when she told me that my father — Jamie — had the worst singing voice, and she’d always been grateful I hadn’t inherited that trait from him.”
Brianna would never forget the pure adoration in Claire's eyes in that moment, as if her mother had been waiting for eighteen years to share that bit of her father with her.
“That wasn’t long after she’d found out that Jamie was still alive,” Joe commented. She could see his mind piecing together the emotional ramifications of that time.
“Only a week,” she confirmed. “She was completely torn up. After Roger shared the news with her, it was as if this weight she’d been carrying in her body had finally lifted. I could see how happy she was, but,” Brianna swallowed, looking down at her twirling glass once more, “she and I both knew that her unwillingness to leave me was the one reason she wouldn’t go find him. We’d done a pretty decent job of ignoring it that evening, but as soon as she made that comment about my father and I saw the tears in her eyes, it was back.”
Tears suddenly filled her own eyes, and she shuddered as she prepared to wade through the final yet most difficult part of the memory.
“That’s when I saw it — the undeniable, powerful love she had for him. She’d shared pieces of him with me over the past two or so years, but it’s different to actually see it. The way her entire body softened at the mention of him, so comfortably herself. And I would be the one thing keeping her from having a second chance at that, Joe.”
Brianna took another sip, an opportune moment to gather her scrambled thoughts. “She grabbed my hand and pulled me in for a hug, and I remember how everything got quiet except for the song playing in the background. I got you to kiss goodnight, I got you to hold me tight ,” she sang shakily, feeling a little pathetic at how sad these sappy lyrics would always make her feel.
“I knew then that I had to do what I could to send her back to Jamie. I remember her face when we talked about it the following day. She’d never admit it, but I think she’d been waiting for me to say yes.”
Joe scooted to the edge of the couch and rubbed her back, letting a natural silence fall momentarily between them.
“I’m glad you shared that with me, Brianna.”
Brianna shared a natural half-smile in response, appreciating Joe’s ability to switch to her actual name in more serious moments instead of his preferred “Bee”, a nickname he’d lovingly bestowed on her when he first met her as a kid.
“I know I needed to send her back. But there are days where I miss her so much and I’d give anything to have her with me. And then, I feel guilty for wanting her back, because I’m the reason she was stuck here for so long—”
A rare name combination coming from Joe, only used in the most serious moments. He took her hand and squeezed it gently. “Your mother loved you more than anything in this world. She wasn’t stuck with you. You were her greatest adventure in this time. And like you pointed out, she would never have dreamt of leaving you if you had not been the one to give her that last boost of encouragement.”
She nodded as she wiped away a tear. “I know. I know all of these things. I just . . . I miss her.”
“I miss her too. Your mother was one of the best.”
Joe squeezed Brianna's hand once more before picking up his drink.
“I hope it was worth it,” she joked halfheartedly. “She loved him in a way I’d never seen her love anything else in her life.”
“Well, based on the stories your mother told me about him, he loved her just as fiercely.”
“Star-crossed lovers,” Brianna said with a slightly dramatic air as she picked at the fuzz on the blanket, though she couldn’t ignore the way Joe’s observation made her insides all warm and fuzzy. “I just hope she made it to him. I hope they had a good life together.”
“Well, you know,” Joe lingered, hesitant to continue his thought.
“Know what?” she asked, crossing her arms as she leaned into the couch.
“You still have Roger’s offer on the table. Why don’t you stop by the Reverend’s house with him after your trip to Edinburgh this summer? You can look through the boxes and see what became of your mother—”
"No,” she interrupted sharply, refusing to hear any more on the matter. “I’ve already said no to him, Joe.”
“I can’t chase after my mother’s ghost.”
“Brianna, you don’t have to live your life in the dark.” Standing up, Joe grabbed both of their empty glasses before heading to the kitchen. “Your mother had no choice in that area, whether it was through a promise she made to Frank or her struggling to decide when to tell you the truth. Don’t use excuses to hide the fact that you’re afraid. It’s okay to be, but be honest with yourself.”
As he walked away, Brianna rested her head in her hands, frustrated that he was absolutely right. Despite her fears, though, a plan was already beginning to form in her head, and she knew she'd only need to wait a few months to execute it.
What she didn’t know was that history had already accounted for her formulating this plan, and she had unknowingly begun a journey that would span both one and two-hundred-and-two years.