The relentless, staccato crack of rifle reports echoed loudly down the line of butts, and the wind carried the tang of gunpowder and smoke across the heather.
Enough years had passed—and Jaime had forced himself through enough shoots during the course of them—that he no longer startled at the sound, his stomach no longer turned at the smell. Still, he wouldn’t have enjoyed it, not as he once had, if it hadn’t been for the vision in front of him.
Steady and square-shouldered, Brienne moved with a formidable grace as she fired into the sky, exchanging guns with a lad from Winter’s Town as fast as he could load them. She hit more than she missed, to be sure, but Jaime was so entranced by her movements—the deft grip of her hands on the gun, the tight pull of her coat as she trained the barrel on her quarry, the tousled ends of her hair swinging with the faint recoil of every shot—that he had lost count of her take after the first dozen birds.
It was the fourth time in two days he had watched her shoot, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was, he reasoned, just as mesmerizing out here as she’d been in that tremendous blue dress a few nights before. Perhaps even more.
Brienne, on the other hand, was so absorbed in her task that she seemed to have forgotten he was even standing there. Only when a distant blaring of horns from the beater line announced the conclusion of the drive did she finally lower her gun and turn toward him, towering and triumphant, like Artemis in tweeds.
Before Jaime could say a word, the boy scrambled toward her, his arm outstretched for her gun.
“Well done, miss,” he said, beaming up at her as she handed over the rifle. “That was four more than yesterday afternoon.”
He couldn’t have been more than fourteen—and small for his age, at that—and his voice was thick with admiration in a way that made Jaime smile.
“Thank you, Podrick, but I wouldn’t have managed it without your help. You’re a champion loader.” Brienne gave him a kind smile, and the boy ducked his dark head, blushing. “You’ll accompany me again this afternoon, I hope?”
“Of—of course, miss. Thank you, miss.” He practically bowed as he backed away from her, and Jaime stifled a laugh.
In fairness, he could hardly fault the lad for being impressed by her. Everyone was. Sam Tarly had asked her for pointers almost as soon as he arrived, and she had reduced Lord Westerling to slack-jawed wonder. Even Lord Stark’s gamekeeper, a scarred, surly fellow who seemed to glower more than he spoke, had grunted his approval when he’d stopped to watch her shoot the day before.
None of them had mooned at her quite so obviously as young Podrick, though, and Jaime was almost sorry to interrupt it. But they had been lucky enough to wind up at the last in the line of the western butts, and Jaime didn’t intend to squander the opportunity.
“I believe it’s time for luncheon,” he said brightly, squinting in the direction of the wagons. They were too far away to see from that position, down the line and over the slight rise to their rear, but he knew they were waiting to convey them all back to the road. “Podrick, why don’t you run along with the guns? I have something to discuss with Miss Tarth, but we’ll be along directly.”
“Yes, milord.” Podrick’s good-natured smile was more knowing than Jaime would have expected. “I’ll tell them you’re just a few minutes behind me.”
Jaime winked. “Good lad.”
With one more grin for Brienne, the boy slipped his bag of supplies over his shoulder, picked up the second gun, and trotted off up the narrow path.
As soon as he passed out of sight, Jaime stepped forward, prowling slowly closer until he had backed Brienne up against the half-circle of the butt’s low stone wall.
“Jaime,” she chastened, her cheeks already tinged a charming pink from the wind, “someone will see.”
“Who?” He flicked his eyebrows toward the sky. “The birds? They’re welcome to watch, if they wish.”
The nearest butt was twenty yards away, and Jaime highly doubted Edmure Tully was still in it. Unless Lady Arya had managed to conceal herself in a thatch of shrubbery, they had as much privacy as they were likely to get anywhere on the entire estate.
It had only been two days, but he’d already become quite adept at capitalizing on such rare moments.
Jaime removed his fedora and tossed it on the wall, then settled his hands in the slight dip of her waist. Brienne made a half-hearted noise of reproach, but when he quirked his head and pressed even closer, she rested her palms against his chest with an indulgent sigh.
“You were a cracking good shot today, my lady,” he said, low and intent. “As always.”
Her forehead crinkled with his favorite exasperated frown. “I’m not a lady, Jaime.”
“You will be. My lady.” Jaime rubbed his thumbs in faint circles over the fabric of her coat, wishing they weren’t wearing so many damn layers. “Very soon, if I have my way about it.”
“Oh?” Her brow smoothed, and her mouth twitched in an almost-smile. “How soon would that be, exactly?”
“I thought the seventeenth of December might suit rather nicely.”
Brienne blinked in surprise. “That’s quite...specific.”
“Would you care to tell me why?”
“It’s our anniversary, of sorts.” Jaime bent his head closer to hers, intending to tease but nearly giving in to the urge to kiss her instead. He had taken pains to get her alone expressly for that purpose, after all. “I’m a bit wounded you don’t remember.”
“I’m sure I would, if we had one,” she argued, delighting him with her insistence. “We’ve only been engaged for two days, and it’s the twenty-se—”
“Of course we have one,” he cut in. “Surely our first meeting counts.”
“Our first…” She trailed off with a tiny shake of her head. “You can’t mean the day they wheeled you into Winterfell.”
“Indeed I do. What could be more romantic than wedding you four years to the day after you first loomed over me with that disapproving scowl on your face?” Jaime grinned at the indignant arch of her eyebrow. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m certain I deserved it. I was undoubtedly an ass.”
“You were,” Brienne affirmed, but her gaze had gone soft. “A quite insufferable one.”
“And yet, you love me,” he said, for what must have been the dozenth time in forty-eight hours.
“Yes, Jaime. I believe you know I do.”
He doubted he would ever tire of that answer—or the special smile that blossomed on her face when she gave it.
Smiling back at her, Jaime bumped his nose against hers. “Then have mercy on me and agree to my excellent plan.”
“A date alone hardly constitutes a plan.”
“Oh, don’t you worry. I have more. Or at least I will have, once I’ve asked the Starks if we can get married here.”
Brienne pulled her head back a little and peered at him with those wide blue eyes. “Here?”
“Here. If you don’t object, that is.”
“Here at Winterfell.”
He laughed. “Well, I don’t mean here on this moor.”
“But…” she spluttered. “Why?”
“Why not?” Jaime slid his hands around her waist, lacing his fingers together across the small of her back. “We wouldn’t be standing here without it.”
In truth, he couldn’t think of a more fitting place—a place that mattered more to both of them in entirely different ways. He knew Brienne wouldn’t want a large, grand affair any more than he did, and he sure as hell didn’t want to be married in town or at Casterly Rock. If she would prefer to have the wedding at Evenfall, Jaime would oblige her without complaint, but he saw a hint of something pleased beneath her shock that suggested she would not.
“Do you think Lord and Lady Stark would mind?” she asked quietly. “It’s an unusual request.”
“Of course they won’t mind. You’re practically a member of the family.”
Brienne dragged her teeth over her bottom lip in a way that made it very difficult not to kiss her. “They already have another wedding to plan. Robb and Miss Westerling—”
“You know Lady Westerling will have more to do with that than Lady Stark. And I thought they were getting married in the spring, anyway.”
“Yes, they are, but I don’t want to interfere. And they might think we’re rushing things.”
“Rushing things?” he repeated, smirking. “Four months isn’t exactly a short engagement. Besides, I’m sure a number of them share my brother’s sentiment that it’s...how did he put it? ‘About bloody time?’”
“I mean it, Brienne. I’ve waited long enough already. Far longer than I should have. I rather think they’ll be impressed I’m not dragging you to the altar before the week is out. Not that it isn’t an appealing option—”
“Absolutely not.” The color deepened in Brienne’s cheeks. “December is one thing, but if we got married now, people would think—” She shook her head. “They would assume it was only because something untoward had occurred.”
“Something untoward would have occurred if anyone in this household knew how to oil a bloody hinge,” Jaime growled, tipping his mouth close to hers. He had lain awake the previous two nights contemplating little else. “Even so, I’d take my chances, if you would allow it.”
Brienne hitched up her chin. “I would not.”
Jaime grazed his lips along her neck, taking great enjoyment in the tremor that rippled through her at his touch. He was willing to bet that she would quite enthusiastically allow it, under the right circumstances, but he had no intention of pressing her.
A few more months wouldn’t kill him. Probably.
“Hence my urgency to wed you,” he murmured into her skin. “You stubborn, honorable, exasperating woman.”
“I suppose I am,” she said, leaning away from his wandering mouth. “And yet, you love me.”
He looked up at her, grinning. “That I do. Most desperately. I would think all this begging might have made that clear.”
A soft smile curved her lips. “You’ve hardly begged.”
“There’s no need.” She settled her right hand more firmly against his chest, just above his heart. “I’ve already decided. If Lord and Lady Stark agree, then my answer is yes. I—” She swallowed. “Thank you for thinking of it.”
“You’re quite welcome, my lady,” he crooned, fighting an abrupt impulse to lift her off the ground. If he’d had more room, perhaps he would have—and swung her around, despite her assured objections, just to prove he could. As it was, he settled for tightening his arms around her waist to haul her closer. “And don’t worry about the Starks. I’ll enlist Lady Sansa’s help if I have to. She’s more than capable of browbeating them into it. Hell, she might even manage to convince them it was their idea in the first place, the sly little minx.”
Brienne laughed, sounding every bit as bright and happy as he felt, and Jaime couldn’t help but kiss her—sweet and deep and as intoxicating as the sunshine.
They were both breathless by the time he finally pulled away, and he noted with some satisfaction that her hat had fallen off.
Brienne didn’t seem to notice as she cast a regretful look at the path leading toward the wagons. “We should get going,” she said weakly, “or they might send Podrick back to collect us.”
Jaime hummed, knowing she was right and still not unwinding his arms from around her. “Well, we wouldn’t want to traumatize the boy. I think he has a bit of a crush on you.”
She frowned, but her ears had gone pink. “He does not.”
“I beg to differ. Not that I blame him, of course. He has exceptional taste for one so young.”
“Jaime,” she chided, but there was laughter in her eyes.
“Terrible, yes, I know,” he said, leaning in close. “So you’ve said.”
He kissed her again, intending it to be nothing more than a quick, warm press of his lips—promising another at the earliest available opportunity—but when Brienne’s fingers curled around his lapels, Jaime allowed himself to linger.
He’d waited a long time for that privilege. The others could wait a little more.