“I think I--hic—love you.”
The words tumbled eagerly over Jake’s lips and spilled into the air like offbeat tap dancers, a graceful quintet momentarily tripped by an unexpected step. Jake grinned sheepishly and dipped his head, sending sandstorm blond locks tumbling across the deep hollow of his angled cheekbones. A second hiccup followed the first, and his head bobbed in tandem with the sound. Even with his face downcast, Claire could see the upturned curve of his lips pinched in his profile. He was grinning again.
Claire and Jake had finished their picnic of fresh fruits and cheese nearly an hour before. Afterward, when the wine was empty, they lounged together comfortably under the brilliant kaleidoscope colors of the changing fall leaves. Together, they watched the sky turn from robin’s egg blue to cornhusk yellow. Jake had fallen quiet, as he often did—his back propped lightly against the crackled white bark and his long, nimble fingers plucking at the blades of sun-warmed grass that brushed against his knee, as familiar as if they were the strings of his guitar. Claire lay on her back inside Jake’s shadow, staring past his grinning profile to the sky. It was a spectacularly beautiful day in the simplest of ways—the kind that seems to want for daydreaming. The kind of day that was made of the stuff of dreams itself.
Jake slid closer to settle on his side beside her and stacked one canvas-clad foot purposefully on top of the other. Then, as though he were sipping bravery from the wind, he inhaled a lungful of fragrant autumn air. He turned his face to hers, giving Claire the full view of chiseled cheekbones cut alongside wide lips and curved beneath uncertain brows and gleaming emerald eyes. A third hiccup shivered through the air, but Jake was quiet. It had been a sudden declaration and Claire’s breath caught in her throat. The tap dancers, still suspended, hovered patiently in the space between them.
Claire might have thought the wine had tempted fleeting romantic thoughts to recklessness. Silly words on wine-soaked
lips often fluttered out into the realm of things said too soon, or too often. She would have thought that had they come from anyone else’s lips. But Jake was a man of few words. It was as if he cared for them so preciously that every uttered syllable was polished one at a time and strung together in a melody of perfectly chosen words. Jake was, like the day itself, beautiful and dreamlike and vaguely surreal.
As Claire studied Jake’s face, the lazy breeze yawned a tangle of silky hair across his forehead and buried one eye beneath the sandy desert of his hair. Without the paralyzing effect of both of his eyes locked on hers, Jake’s face was more tolerably handsome—only lightly skimming the edge of heart wrenching without plummeting over into the chasm of heartbreaking. He hiccupped again and inched closer, letting one arm slide across her waist so that his fingers found and then tugged playfully around a stray ribbon of her tousled red hair. His fingertips, surprisingly cool when they brushed against her skin, did not match the heat that pulsed through the sweetheart bodice of her pale yellow sundress where he lay against her. Claire felt her cheeks heat in rosy blooms despite herself. With Jake’s arms around her, his hands brushing across her skin, and eyes shining into hers, those five seemingly innocuous little words changed. They coiled and warmed into something deeper, thicker, and more masculine. Claire repeated them in her mind, words so delicious she could almost taste them. If it were possible, every inch of her body would turn as pink as her cheeks. If it were possible, she might be forever pink.
A new grin spread across Jake’s face, this one even wider than the first. It was coyer and more teasing than the hiccupping, bashful ones that had come before. The perpetual curiosity that occupied his emerald eyes sharpened. It grew more insistent and intense in the space between his breaths and her blushes. Matching pinprick dimples pressed into each of his cheeks—one right, one left. He had a way of looking simultaneously innocent and mischievous at the same time. He was irresistible, even when she didn’t want to resist.
“I mean,” Jake’s deep voice interrupted the quiet, stopped. He cleared his throat and propped himself up on one elbow. He pinned her effortlessly with those sparkling emerald eyes as his upper body towered over her. Claire was lucky she was lying on her back on the blanket of grass. Had she been standing she would have swooned to the ground in an instant. Jake hiccupped again, tucked his hair absently behind his ear, and kept grinning. One more blink and any residual bashfulness vanished from his eyes and his grin. “I mean, I love you.”
Claire turned from pink to red. If she could still her fluttering heart, she could speak. “Oh, don’t be silly,” she tried to sound playful, but her words came out breathless and rushed and desperate. “You’ve only had too much wine.” She wobbled her empty wineglass playfully at him as some kind of wishful proof. It clinked clumsily against the empty bottle, first a note too hard and then a note too soft.
“Nonsense, Claire Darling.” It was his nickname for her. Jake ignored the glass and lowered his face until it was close enough for Claire to see a tiny drop of honey billowing in a sea of brilliant green. Claire’s shadow stretched behind her as Jake leaned to cup her face gently in his hands. His deliberate movements were as smooth and graceful as silk. One warm hand slid to curl along the nape of her neck, the thumb resting lightly on the hummingbird beat of her pulse. The other still cupped on the curve of her cheek. Tiny fireworks sparked beneath her skin as Jake’s words closed the space between them.
“I’ve only had but a thimbleful,” he whispered onto the waiting petals of her lips.
And he kissed her.