“Happy birthday, Jamie.” Her breath, smelling ever so slightly of tart apples, whispered hot over his lips.
“I dinnae ken what I did tae deserve ye, Claire,” he whispered back, one hand cupping her cheek, “but I dinnae think I care as long as ye’re mine.”
“I’m yours.” One by one, line by every elegant and heartfelt line, her words carved themselves in permanent ink on his heart. “For this birthday, and every one that comes after.”
Chapter 48 – Swimmingly
Saturday dawned hot and salty on her tongue. Outside, the indigo skies were streaked with salmon and butter, but Claire only had eyes for the ocean blue rapture praising her from under hooded lids.
“Christ,” Jamie’s chest was rising and falling rapidly. “What a way tae start the day.”
“Mmhh.” She licked her lips as she crawled up from her perch between his thighs.
His palm moved to cradle her face, a calloused thumb grazing over the soft ridge of her cheekbone. “Ye look like the cat that got the cream, Sassenach.”
“A bit too briny to put in coffee,” she countered with a glint in her eye. “But I like it fine just as it is.”
“Ye do, aye?”
“I do.” Pressing a soft kiss to his shoulder, Claire melted into his side, one arm and leg draped over his muscled front. “Or did you have the impression I wasn’t enjoying myself?”
“Weel, no,” the mattress dipped slightly as he angled his body towards hers, “but, it’s hard tae keep a straight thought when ye’re doing that wicked thing wi’ yer tongue.”
“I’d be doing it wrong if it wasn’t hard,” she smiled against his throat, delighting in the prickle of short, bristly hairs against her swollen lips.
Jamie chuckled, his large hands traversing the length of smooth skin down to her backside, kneading with gusto. “Who would’ve guessed ye’ve such a dirty mouth on ye?”
“That a complaint, Fraser?” Claire nuzzled the curve of his ear, inhaling the intoxicating perfume of silky hair and hot skin.
“Nah, jus’ an observation.”
“Good,” she said, softly nibbling at his earlobe. “Because you’re not really in a position to talk.”
“You’re rather vocal yourself, you know?”
“Am I then?” His wide mouth curved into that lopsided smile that always sent a tingle down her spine, blue eyes bright and mischievous. “Weel, I should think that a wee bit o’ moaning and panting comes wi’ the territory, no?”
“It does,” Claire agreed, her eyes following the trail of her fingertip as it traced the bow of his lips. “But I didn’t mean that.”
Catching her finger with his teeth, Jamie nipped gently, teasingly. “No? What then?”
“Aside from all those very enticing caveman noises you make, Fraser,” she raised her eyes to his, smiling, “you’re quite talkative during sex.”
He released the captured digit with a soft pop, the deep rumble of his bass tinged with genuine surprise. “I am? What am I saying then?”
“Well, I don’t really know—most of it is in Gaelic.” She’d noticed his tendency to fall into the language of his ancestors whenever he was deeply moved early on. “But given the circumstances, I’d guess you’re not exactly reciting the Holy Mass.”
The tremor of his laughter echoed in her own belly. “Probably no’.”
Humour lingered in the corners of their mouths as they lay in silence for a bit. Breathing each other in, they caressed skin and soul with loving hands and devotion radiating between them.
“You also say that you love me.”
His hand, large and tanned, and so, so gentle, covered the pale fingers splayed out above his heart. “Aye, weel…I do.”
“I love you too, Jamie,” Claire whispered, her lips seeking his. “More than I can say.”
“Ye dinnae need tae say it, mo ghràidh.” He kissed her and rolled them until she lay on her back, legs falling open in invitation, in anticipation. “As long as I ha’ yer heart, mine will ken the truth o’ yers.”
“Why can we no’ stay in bed again?” Jamie cracked one unwilling eye open, tightening his hold around her middle.
“What happened to your sunny morning disposition, Fraser?”
Both blue eyes now fixed on hers, the wide, sensuous mouth stretched into a grin. “That was afore I kent how much better it was tae spend ma time in bed wi’ you.”
“Charmer,” Claire said, her chest filling with a balmy, pleasant sensation. Kissing the tip of his nose, she wriggled out of his grip. “You don’t have to get up yet anyway.”
Jamie sighed dramatically, his head flopping back on to the pillow. “Aye, but it’s no’ the same wi’out ye, Sassenach.”
“Do you think pouting at me is going to work?” She smiled over her shoulder, working her tangled curls into a loose knot at the top of her head.
“Almost,” Claire said, leaning back to press another kiss to his lips. “But William insisted on making breakfast for you today, and if I don’t want this house to burn down, I’d better help him with that.”
“I cannae e’en be mad at ye fer abandoning me when ye’re being such a great Mam.”
The words—uttered so casually, so candidly—went straight to her heart.
When it came to William, Claire could proudly say that she’d always done the best she could, always acted on what she considered to be in her son’s best interest. Putting everything she had into motherhood—her time, her energy, her heart—she felt no small sense of accomplishment in having raised a remarkably bright little boy who was as sensitive as he was kind.
To hear Jamie call her a great mother, however, was more than just a simple validation. It was the cream-topped strawberry at a summer picnic—a treat she hadn’t known she craved until it passed from his lips to hers, settling rich and sweet and satisfying in the very centre of her being.
“What would you like?” Claire stood, grabbing the robe draped over the back of her armchair, the black silk whispering softly over her skin. “Porridge? Omelette? Or maybe those pancakes with peanut butter again?”
“What I’d like,” Jamie held the emphasis until she met his gaze, “is you—spread out afore me wi’ yer thighs around ma ears, preferably—but pancakes will do. Fer now,” he added in a voice that was as potent and heated a caress as fingers and tongue.
“All right.” Her voice was noticeably huskier, fingers trembling slightly as she tied the sash around her waist in a tight knot. “Pancakes it is.”
When Claire re-entered her bedroom a little over half an hour later, it was with a smile crinkling her eyes and a large tray bearing the buttery fruits of her labour. William, who for once hadn’t needed terribly much coaxing to leave his bed, followed on her heels carrying a large glass.
“I squeezed six oranges oot all by masel’!” he proclaimed with a dimpled grin.
William had indeed pressed the juice on his own, and Claire walked away with a slightly irritated sclera to show for it. Citrusy drops still burning in her right eye, several escaped curls, and the smears of batter on chin and sleeve all bore testimony to the battle of supervising an overenthusiastic sous-chef.
“Did ye now?” Jamie, now in boxer briefs and a navy cotton tee that made his eyes pop, accepted the juice with a proud, fatherly smile. “Clever wee man.”
“Here you go,” Claire said, placing the tray over his legs. “A protein breakfast for champions with a sweet tooth.”
He grasped her hand before it could retreat, pressing a featherlight kiss to the heart of her palm. “Thank ye, mo ghràidh.”
“The cakes are getting cold, Da,” Willie admonished as he climbed on the bed and into his father’s lap. His drooling focus directed at the stack of gold-brown deliciousness, the small boy didn’t notice the silent exchange of delighted surprise taking place above his head.
“Pancakes, lovey.” Smiling to her herself, then at Jamie, she adjusted the tray a little so both of them could eat comfortably.
“But they’re no’ in the pan anymore.”
She shook her head, chuckling, causing more curls to tumble down her shoulders. “You explain this one, Da.”
“Are ye no’ having any wi’ us?”
“Even if I didn’t need a shower as badly as I do, I don’t think there’s enough space. Besides,” she added, throwing him a wink. “I’ve already had my protein today.”
A dangerous glint flashed in those deep blue eyes when Willie twisted in his lap, explaining readily, “Mama had a banana.”
“I sure did.” Struggling to keep a straight face for much longer, Claire turned around and headed for the bathroom, shoulders shaking.
Freshened up and ready to face the day in an old pair of baggy jeans and a jumper, Claire left her bedroom—casting a glance at Willie industriously brushing his teeth—to find Jamie seated on the couch, frowning at his phone.
The tight set of his jaw and the tension rolling off his shoulders were sufficient indicators to signal whose text he was likely staring at.
“What does Rupert say?” she moved behind him, looping her arms around his neck.
It hadn’t exactly taken a rocket scientist to figure out that Jamie and Rupert’s dispute at the pub had been about her. Aside from confirming her suspicions the next day, Jamie hadn’t offered much in the way of explanation. She didn’t press him to talk about it, though, even if it was clearly bothering him. Knowing that he hadn’t yet told any of his friends about William, she could make a pretty educated guess about the nature of Rupert’s issues with her anyway.
He kissed her wrist and shoved his phone back into his pocket. “No’ much. Wanted tae ken if I’m in fer a game later.”
“Aye, we often go on the court—play basketball, football, or shinty sometimes—tae mix things up a little. Running laps fer active recovery gets old fast.”
“I bet,” she said, resting her chin on his shoulder. “What did you tell him?”
“Said I awready had plans.”
“Did you tell him what kind of plans?”
She heaved a small sigh at the underlying pain in his curt response. “It’s probably not my place to say this, but…” Jamie turned his face, rough stubble rasping delightfully against her cheek. “But I think you should talk to him. Explain everything. Tell him about William.”
“It’s no’ that I wouldnae ha’ done that, Sassenach, it’s jus’…”
“I know,” she said softly. “I know you didn’t want to dump all of this on them in one evening. And I’m sure you have every right to be mad at Rupert,” one hand wandered down his torso, taking hold of one of his, “I just…I just think it’s not worth it. He’s your best friend. Don’t let this misunderstanding come between you. Laoghaire’s lies have caused enough damage already.”
His throat dipped with a hard swallow against her arm.
“You don’t have to talk to him if you don’t want to. Just…just don’t shut him out. Give him the opportunity to apologise if he wants to, okay?”
“Aye.” The colour in his eyes deepened with a mixture of emotion she couldn’t quite put into words. “Aye, I will.”
“Good.” Brushing a kiss to his temple, Claire let go of him, walking into the kitchen. “Did you finish packing Willie’s bag?”
“I did,” Jamie said, typing something on his phone again before rising from the cushions to follow her. “Packed twa changes o’ swimsuit fer him like ye said. And ye’re sure he doesnae need goggles?”
“He hates them—they make his head hurt for some reason.”
She leaned into his chest, bathing in the warmth of his body and scent as his nose buried into the soft curls below her ear.
“Then I think we’re good tae go.”
As if on cue, small, rapid footsteps approached. “I’m done—can we go noo?”
“Aye, put on yer shoes, I’ll be wi’ ye in a second.” Squeezing her hip, he dipped his mouth to hers in farewell. “See ye later, Sassenach. Ha’ fun finding that anniversary gift wi’ Joe.”
Claire’s smile tightened at hearing her little white lie repeated to her. Knowing that she wouldn’t spoil Brian’s surprise for Jamie, however, made the momentary unease much easier to swallow.
“I will. Take care you two,” she said, standing in the doorway of the hall, watching as her son’s small, eager hand reached for his father’s, chattering all the while.
“Say goodbye tae yer Mam, wee man.”
“Bye my darling,” she said, returning the cute little finger wave. Looking at Jamie, she added, “Love you.”
Walking through the automatic doors of the Inverness Aquadome was like stepping into a chlorinated time capsule. Passing the big pillars to the left—still littered with a motley assortment of notices—Jamie was greeted by the once-familiar clamour of animated voices and wet, rubbery soles flapping against sky-blue tiles.
His wandering gaze had just landed on a wrought-iron basket, spilling over with faded swimwear and other items that had been left behind over the years, when William’s small voice piped up.
“The lady is waiting fer us, Da.”
Realising that they were holding up the queue, Jamie’s cheeks flushed with heat. “Oh…aye.”
He scrambled forward, muttering apologies as he fumbled for his wallet.
Admission for two paid and bag slung over his shoulder again, Jamie let his son tug him towards the locker rooms. The closer they got to the pool, the giddier Willie seemed to become, golden specks in his eyes sparkling with excitement. His own pulse, however, was picking up for different reasons.
As a child, Jamie had loved swimming just as much. He’d been fascinated by the way his hair would grow dark and soft in the water. Resisting the ache for oxygen as long as his small lungs allowed, he watched it float like kelp in the invisible current. As he grew older, faster, and bolder, that fascination shifted. How long could he withstand the burning for air? How deep could he push against the growing pressure? How far could he reach with one dive, one stroke, one kick?
Once he joined the junior alpine training cadre, taking another step towards making his dream become reality, swimming had become an obligatory but still enjoyable part of his regimen. Striving for a symbiosis of breathing and technique, Jamie hadn’t cared much about whether he was doing his rounds in fancy Olympic pools or whilst braving the baltic temperatures of Scottish lochs. In the water, he’d felt at ease.
After the accident, though, that changed.
With the repulsive moonscape on his back a constant source of self-consciousness, Jamie had given a wide berth to pools and anything where his scars would be on display—always keeping his shirt on if it couldn’t be helped. Even after getting his hands on a bodysuit that covered them up during scheduled training sessions, he just couldn’t shake the feeling of curious glances and pitiful eyes following his every move.
And yet, here he was. Sitting on a bench, wearing a blue shirt and trunks that matched the bright yellow lockers, unable to wipe the smile off his face. Regardless of how keenly he felt Claire’s absence—a hollow ache just behind his breastbone—his fingers and toes were prickling with excitement at the prospect that lay ahead. He’d get to spend his day with the boy whose bubbly laughter was the sugar in his tea, whose bright blue eyes warmed him like a shower on a winter’s day.
“Ye need tae take this aff.”
As he began to turn towards the boy in question, William’s remark only fully registered when little hands began to pull up the hem of his t-shirt. Before Jamie could put a stop to it, the fabric lifted, revealing the ugly truth beneath.
There was a sharp gasp of surprise, followed by a second that felt like being plunged into a big, black hole of icy nothing. The very air sucked out of his lungs, Jamie’s heart constricted, turning in on itself as if trying to hide itself away behind layers of muscles gone taut and rigid.
He closed his eyes, hoping that maybe—
“Wha’ happened tae yer back, Da?”
Of course, Willie would ask. Everyone who saw, did—even Claire. Although her reaction had kindled the hope that it was possible for people to see beyond the trauma he carried on his back, Jamie didn’t expect the same understanding or tenderness from anyone else. Especially not from a six-year-old boy.
“It…the…the accident,” he forced the words past a strangled throat, his voice hoarse and wobbly. “It was that accident I had.”
His answer was met with more silence, and Jamie squeezed his eyes shut tighter, wishing desperately that he’d had more than these six weeks with William; that he’d had the time to prepare them both for this conversation.
“Tha’ must ha’ hurt.”
Ye’ve nae idea, lad, Jamie thought bitterly. E’en worse knowing what I missed because o’ it.
“No,” Jamie said, a rueful smile curving his lips as he stared at his feet. “Now it’s only the memory that’s painful.”
He hadn’t meant to say that last part aloud, only realising he’d done so when a small, warm body plastered itself to his back, skinny arms coming around his neck.
Cheek pressed against his shoulder, William mumbled, “Mama will make the pain go away. I’ll help, too.”
“Ye awready ha’, mo chuisle,” Jamie’s tone was thick with emotion as he twisted around and drew his son into his lap, kissing the copper-haired crown, “ye awready ha’.”
Feet crossed at the ankles, Jamie reclined on the deckchair, one eye on Claire’s text—I miss my men xo—and the other on William splashing in the shallow end of the pool with the new friend he’d made.
He’d just sent off his reply and tucked his phone back into his duffel bag when a shadow fell over his face.
“I thought ye were gi’ing me shite when ye said ye’d be at the pool.”
A muscle jumped in Jamie’s jaw. Even if Rupert’s bushy-bearded profile hadn’t entered his peripheral vision, he would have known that gravel-pit voice anywhere.
“Weel, I dinnae usually lie, e’en when I’m mad.”
The lounger to his right creaked as his best friend’s weight sank onto it. “At least some things havenae changed.”
Glowering, Jamie sat up straight. “If ye want tae stir up the same shite again, Rup’—”
“Calm yer horses, a Ruadh. I come in peace.”
“Didnae sound like it.”
Rupert took a deep breath, not quite able to meet Jamie’s glare.
“I came because I wanted tae apologise—been wanting tae do that since Thursday, actually, but ye made yersel’ e’en rarer than…weel, than lately,” he ended, shifting nervously from one buttock to the other.
From the corner of his eye, Jamie could see William’s head bob up, nodding at something the other red-haired boy said to him.
“Ye didnae really gi’ me much reason wanting tae be around ye.”
“Aye…I ken that,” Rupert said, broad shoulders drooping slightly.
Seeing the physical impact from the harshness of his own words pained Jamie more than he cared to admit. While his anger at his best friend still sat like a bitter, acrimonious thing in his mouth, he could also hear Claire’s soft voice of reason, telling him that holding onto a grudge based on nothing but a misunderstanding wasn’t worth it.
He swallowed the bitterness, this time managing to keep the edge out of his tone. “Do ye, then?”
“Aye, I do,” his friend reiterated, raising brown eyes to blue ones. “I’m ashamed o’ the things I said.”
Placing his feet on either side of the deckchair, Jamie leaned forward, hands on his thighs. “Ye should be, Rup’. Some o’ the things ye said about Claire…jus’ thinking about it makes me want tae—”
“And ye’d ha’ e’ry right tae do it.”
“It’s no’ jus’ that, though.” Unfurling his fists, Jamie went on, “It’s that ye didnae e’en care tae listen tae what I had tae say. I would ha’ explained e’rything if ye’d jus’ trusted me tae do it in ma own time.”
Rupert opened his mouth to speak, but a small, excited voice beat him to it.
“Da!” William skidded to a halt in front of them, small chest heaving with rapid breaths. “Can I—"
“Oi, what did we say about running around the pool, wee man?” Jamie chided, his hand coming to cup the back of William’s ruddy head, drawing him closer. “We cannae ha’ ye breaking yer neck, or yer Mam will break mine.”
“Sorry,” Willie said, lowering his gaze. “I willnae do it again.”
Feeling Rupert’s eyes boring into him, Jamie squeezed his son’s neck affectionately. “What did ye want then?”
“Ewan is going tae get ice cream wi’ his Da—he says I can come wi’ if I like. Can I?”
Seeking Ewan’s father across the pool, they exchanged some silent paternal communication, and the deal was sealed.
“Aye, ye can go.” He made a grab for his wallet and handed Willie some money. “Jus’ one scoop, though. If ye ha’ too much ye’ll spoil yer appetite fer dinner.”
Freckled cheeks split in a delighted grin, and then William was off again—the five-pound note clasped tightly in his small fist.
“Fecking hell,” Rupert said, neck straining as his round-eyed gaze flicked back and forth between Jamie and William’s retreating form. “Tell me I wasnae jus’ seeing things.”
“Yer eyes are jus’ fine, man,” Jamie replied, slightly gratified at his best friend’s shell-shocked expression.
“Who the hell was that?”
“That,” he looked pointedly at Rupert, “was William.”
Thick, brown brows drew tightly together, then rose high to his forehead as understanding dawned. “William as in Claire’s…?”
“Claire’s son, aye—Claire’s and mine.”
Stunned silence followed this revelation, Rupert’s pupils flitting back and forth as he processed what he’d just seen and heard.
“How?” he asked after a short while, the confusion making his voice even deeper than usual. “How can that lad be yours? I mean…”
“Claire and I did…well, we did share a night if ye remember.”
“Aye—that would be obvious by now e’en if I hadnae known, but…” Rupert trailed off, his mouth pinched as if sucking on a lemon.
“Out wi’ it, man. Ye cannae make it worse than ye awready did on Thursday.”
“I was jus’ thinking…I ken it was yer first time, then, but…did ye no’ think tae use a condom?”
Jamie released a small sigh. “We did.”
Anticipating the next question, he held up his hand and said, “I cannae tell ye why it didnae work—neither can Claire. Mebbe it was too old, mebbe it broke and we didnae notice. It doesnae matter now.”
Hands folded in his lap, Rupert sat back a little, nodding at Jamie to continue with the rest whenever he was ready.
Bracing himself on his knees, Jamie’s jaw tightened reflexively as he launched into the story of deceit and maliciousness worthy of a Hollywood drama. That one lie had cost him more than just time. It had deprived him of his son’s birth, the first gummy smile, the first wobbly step, and so many other firsts that it soured his stomach just thinking about it. What was worse, though, was that it had cheated not only one, but three people of love.
When Jamie was done, Rupert stared at him—open-mouthed with disbelief.
“Sae what ye’re saying is that…that—what was her name? Laoghaire?—made all o’ it up?”
“Aye,” head hanging, he raked a hand through his half-dry hair. “She did.”
“The only thing that wasnae a lie was the photo she sent. Remember the one? The baby shower thing wi’ matching shirts where Claire was smiling like someone had jus’ gi’en her the greatest gift in life?”
Rupert gave a small nod, his eyes alert if a bit glassy as he listened.
“That’s verra real. I saw it masel’ in the wee photo album she made fer me.”
Seeing his best friend’s eyebrows rise in astonishment, Jamie confirmed, “Aye, that woman couldnae find me fer years—ye’ve nae idea how much she tried, Rup’—and she still made sure I’d ha’ something that would show me all o’ William’s history if she e’er did. She’s…” he lifted his eyes, chest glowing. “She’s incredible, Rup’. The best thing that’s e’er happened tae me.”
For a moment, Rupert said nothing, then dropped his gaze to the tiled floor, rubbing the back of his hand over his chin.
“I dinnae ken what tae say, Jamie.” He sounded strange—as if he had to speak past a tongue swollen double in size. “I wouldnae e’en ken where tae begin tae co’er what I need tae apologise fer, but…I am sorry, man. I truly am.”
“I ken, Rup’,” Jamie said, reaching for Rupert’s shoulder. “I dinnae blame ye fer it. If I’d told ye sooner ye wouldnae ha’ reacted the way ye did when Claire was suddenly in yer face.”
“Why didn’t ye?”
“I…” he paused, trying to find the right words. “I jus’ wasnae ready tae talk about it then. I needed tae wrap ma heid around it on ma own first. I mean, it’s no’ e’ry day that ye get another chance tae meet the love o’ yer life, only tae ha’ her drop a six-year-old intae yer lap.”
A hearty chuckle sounded from the other lounger. “Definitely no’ a common occurrence as far as I ken.”
“Weel, and then it was jus’ that I wanted tae get tae know William first—see how things would develop and all that. I had nae idea what tae expect.”
“Aye, I can imagine.”
“The more time I spent wi’ him—them,” he corrected, lips curling in a smile, “the more I fell in love.”
Behind the bushy black beard, Rupert’s mouth curved into an answering smile. “Mmphm. That’s plain enough tae see, man.”
“I jus’…it was a lot tae deal wi’, and I didnae want tae dump all o’ it on ye at once. I wanted tae do this properly—ha’ ye and the guys meet Claire first sae ye’d see how amazing she is, and then tell ye about William.”
Rupert sighed in answer. “If only we kent that things would make perfect sense afore we put a foot in our mouth, aye?”
“There’s jus’ one thing I dinnae understand about this…” he continued. “Why would anyone do such a thing? Keeping a child separated from its father?”
“I wish I had an answer tae that.” Jamie shook his head, sending a handful of drops flying. “I try no’ tae think about it. Claire said it wouldnae change what happened either way, and she’s right. We’ve wasted enough time thinking o’ things past, we want tae focus on what’s righ’ in front o’ us.”
“Fair enough,” Rupert replied, nodding as he rose to his feet, a warm smile playing on his lips. “Introduce me tae ma nephew, then.”
“Awright,” Jamie said, eyes blazing with pride. “Come and meet ma son.”