“Are you fucking kidding me?” Jamie huffed, raising his wrist to eye level and checking the time.
Willie was so going to be late for school.
“William Fraser! Hurry up and get ye’re arse doon here!”
Willie came thumping down the stairs, the collar of his shirt all askew. There wasn’t anytime to gel his hair, of even get some porridge down his throat. Instead, as Jamie started the engine, and Willie buckled himself in, Jamie chucked him an oats bar from his back pocket. Half of it was squished and still warm from where his Da had accidently sat on it, but Willie didn’t mind. Ripping open the wrapper, he bit and then chewed absentmindedly as Jamie put his foot down.
Of all days… Jamie fumed. Why did they both have to sleep in today? This was the fucking whisky’s fault!
Talking to Willie’s teacher and Headmaster Mr Wellman would have to wait until after school now, and Jamie wasn’t sure he would be able to his keep his anger in check all day until three o’clock.
A quick kiss on his head, and a wave, Willie practically jumped out of the truck as it swerved to a stop. Jamie watched out of the window, making sure Willie made it across the school playground – the lucky sod managed to slip through the open doors in just the nick of time, before the old fashioned school bell rang to signal the beginning of classes.
Knowing his temper was a liability, and prone to over spilling, Jamie kept himself to himself for the rest of the day. The other farm hands had taken one look at the, what must have been, thunderous expression upon their boss’ face, and decided it would be in their best interests to not disturb, not get on Jamie’s bad side, today.
The only hiccup had been in the form of Ian, who had wandered down from his own plot of land, to help Jamie mend a broken wire in the fence. Assuring his best mate, and brother in law, he could do it by himself; Jamie had fetched his tools and begun. But Ian wouldn’t let up that easily. He’d taken Jamie’s advice and decided not to help, but rather thought it was a good time to prop his arm up against a fencing post and have a wee chat.
After the third or fourth time of Jamie hearing village gossip, and Ian complaining about the price of potatoes, he snapped.
“Ian, mate.” His voice was deadly calm, even to his own ears. “I. Don’t. Give. A. Flying fuck. Buy the tatties, don’t buy the tatties, grow them yeself for all I care! But will ye just shut ye hole for one minute!”
A short pause, barely even a breath, and then Ian was laughing, a full on chortle to himself.
God, give me strength.
Jamie breathed in through his nose deeply, nostrils flaring.
“What crawled up yer arse and died?” Ian asked, still smiling.
Jamie wanted to wipe the smirk off Ian’s face.
“Nothing,” he answered. “Just piss off and leave me alone.”
Ian crossed his arms, staring down at Jamie. Jamie stared right back up at him. If Jenny were here, she’d accuse the two men of standing out in the field measuring their own cocks. Jamie’s lips twitched at the picture of it all.
“Are ye gonnae tell me what’s wrong, brother? Or am I gonnae have to drag Jenny over here?” Ian’s fingers tapped against his inner arm as he waited for Jamie’s response.
There wasn’t anyway of keeping it secret. Ian wasn’t kidding; he really would march back over to his house, grab Jenny and make her wheedle Jamie’s problem out of him. It was the best out of bad situation; at least Ian wouldn’t threaten to knee him in the balls if he didn’t open his mouth and speak. At most, Ian would threaten to throttle him, or resort to wrestling about the grass, like they had done as bairns. But his poor balls would still be intact.
“Fine. Pass me the hammer and hold this straight, won’t ye, while I talk?”
“Do ye want me to come down there with ye?” Ian suggested, anger sitting tight across his face. “I’ll give the wee wench a piece of my mind…”
Jamie spoke louder than usual, to be heard over the consistent whirr of his drill. “No, it’s fine. I’ll sort it oot myself. But I’ll have to leave early to see the teacher before the bell rings, otherwise she’ll be scarpering off home.”
“That’s fine, brother.” Ian clamped his hand down on Jamie’s shoulder. “I’ll finish fixing the rest of the fence for ye.”
Seriously? Was the universe not going to give him a fucking break?
“What a bonny surprise!” Miss McKenzie stood to her small height, walking around her desk to greet Jamie. Her blouse was bright pink today; a fuchsia colour so startling it hurt Jamie’s eyes to look at. “Is there anything I can help ye with?”
Stop batting ye eyelashes like a cow for starters…
“Aye, I need to speak to Mr Wellman, and Willie’s literacy teacher, Mrs Kay, I believe her name is?”
“I can try my best! Is there something wrong? Something I might be able to help ye with, Mr Fraser?”
The way she uttered ‘Mr Fraser’ made Jamie’s skin crawl. Seductively, soft, lewd, almost. It had never been more apparent to Jamie just how young the poor lassie was.
Jamie shot a tight smile her way. “It’s probably best if I can just speak to Mr Wellman and Mrs Kay about it.”
“You wait right there, Mr Fraser…”
Surely nobody’s hips swayed that much when they walked normally. The position must be killing her back.
“And I…” She rounded her desk, bending over to reach for the phone. Jamie got a rather long look at her cleavage. “Will pull a few strings for you.”
“I can excuse him from the project if ye would like, Mr Fraser,” the literacy teacher offered.
Jamie shook his head. “I don’t want Willie to be excluded from the tasks the other bairns are doing. I just wanted ye to be aware of the problem, families come in all shapes and sizes nowadays.”
“Aye, sure. I understand. I’ll have a word with Willie, and… um… he can do the other parts of the project.”
“Make sure ye have a word with him separately.” Jamie said. “I don’t want any of the other bairns hearing and saying anything to my son.”
“Mrs Kay will make sure she’d discreet, won’t ye, Mrs Kay?” Mr Wellman had been firmly on Jamie’s side, since the moment Jamie had explained the problem. “None of the other wee bairnies will ken about it.”
Jamie gave him one quick, short nod, enough to let the Headmaster ken he’d heard him, but offered nothing else to say.
“We’re very sorry this has happened, Mr Fraser.” Mr Wellman laced his fingers together, leaning over to speak to Jamie. “I promise, at my school, we’re always trying to grow and learn. Mistakes happen along the way, as I’m sure ye’ll understand, but I won’t let this happen again.”
“I’ll take ye word for it, Mr Wellman.” Jamie made to stand. “Thank ye both for ye time.”
Both Mr Wellman and Mrs Kay stood, too. Mr Wellman stuck out his hand, and Jamie shook it half-heartedly.
“No bother at all, Mr Fraser. If there’s anything else, please never hesitate to ask Miss McKenzie or make an appointment with me, through her.”
I’d rather run over hot coals, and then drink a hot cup of horse piss, before I’d make an appointment with Miss Mckenzie…
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.” Without waiting for anything else to be said, Jamie opened the office door and strode out. The reception area was empty, a short relief, and so Jamie made the most of it, heading out of the door as fast as his legs would carry him.
The gates outside were deserted, hardly a waiting parent, or an excited child, in sight. Jamie had made sure to arrive early, so as to be able to talk to Mrs Kay, and then make it on time to pick up Willie. Quite obviously, Jamie had spent longer in that bloody office than he’d meant to. So caught up in his anger, he’d not even heard the bell signal outside.
So where was Willie?
Had he come outside, stood around waiting to see his Da, and then headed back inside when he couldn’t spot Jamie? Had Willie been panicked at being left behind?
Jamie was just about to retrace his steps back to the receptionist’s office, Leoghaire be damned, when a small voice shouted, “Da!”
A quick look over his shoulder showed Willie waving madly at him from the swing set in the playground. Another young lad stood next to him, staring at Jamie, and behind Willie stood…
Jamie’s long legs ate up the space in between until he stood in front of his son. Willie smiled at him reassuringly, his messy mop of hair all over the place.
“I hope you don’t mind,” her English voice rang out. “Willie couldn’t see you at the gates, so I offered to wait with him, until we could see you.”
She stepped to the side, moving out from behind the swing set, and walking to a stop at Jamie’s side.
Jamie couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Monday’s outfit of choice was a dress – long sleeved and tight fitting in the bodice, but skimming past her hips, before then flaring out towards the ground. The bright green colour of the dress, with patterned daisies running throughout, was distracting, to say the least. But not in the way Miss McKenzie’s had been… no, this time it had more to do with the woman wearing it than the dress itself.
With a lurch low down in the pit of his stomach, Jamie became very aware of Miss Beauchamp’s presence. He’d never stood this close to her. A few fleeting seconds as she passed through the door he held open, didn’t count.
A slight cock of his head, and Jamie had to stop his senses from overloading.
Today, her dark hair was piled high onto of her head; it only stood to accentuate the length of her pale, swanlike neck. Her perfume was the same one she’d worn in the meeting only a week ago. Yet somehow, even though they stood outside in a large open space and not a small, stuffy room this time round, Miss Beauchamp’s perfume still found its way into Jamie’s nose.
If he moved an inch, perhaps even half an inch, Jamie would be able to feel the heat of her arm pressing into his shoulder. Without the heels, she came up to his chin… Jamie’s lips twitched involuntarily at the thought of dipping his chin down ever so slightly and laying his lips upon hers. It would almost be too easy…
“Da! Do you think I could jump from this height?”
My God, he was still in the playground…
How long had he stood there not saying anything, but just simply staring at the bonny Sassenach beside him?
Willie had asked his question as he swung back and forth on the creaking playground equipment. Of course, the silly eejit wanted to ken if he jumped out of the swing and landed on his feet, would his Da still tell him off? Fergus sat next to him on the other swing, pushing his legs in and out, to make himself go higher and higher, faster and faster. At least he hadn’t wanted to pull any stupid stunts.
“Don’t ye even dare think aboot it,” Jamie warned.
Two toothy grins were shot back at him, full of mischief. Jamie was surprised to see how much a smile transformed Fergus’ face. He already was a very bonny bairn, and Jamie could see he’d grow into being a handsome lad, fighting off the lassies left, right and center. But the way his lips curved and his eyes crinkled at the corners? Fergus looked almost a carbon copy of his Mam.
The exact same smile was playing about Miss Beauchamp’s face, as Jamie turned his attention away from the boys and back to her. Feeling his gaze, she pivoted her body in towards Jamie’s. The heavy noise of her dress flapping in the sudden wind sounded a million miles away.
“Sorry.” Jamie shook his head. “I’m all over the place today. What did ye say again?”
She huffed a cute snort through her nose. “That’s all right. I was just saying I’d waited with Willie until you arrived.”
“Thank ye.” He smiled at her; hopefully without coming across as a madman, with the amount of teeth it felt like Jamie had on show. “I appreciate it, and… and the biscuits ye made us.”
Miss Beauchamp waved him off. “It’s not a bother, I’m glad you enjoyed them. Faith certainly enjoyed icing the tops. It kept her quiet for an hour, so really I should be thanking you for the peace and quiet.”
Jamie quirked his eyebrow. “Faith?”
“Yes, my daughter. My eldest.”
“It’s no possible, ye just don’t look old enough to have two bairns, let alone Fergus have an older sister.”
Miss Beauchamp let out a louder laugh this time. “Flatterer. I quite assure you I am, the wrinkles in my forehead when I frown will tell you that, Jamie.”
He opened his mouth once, closed it, and then opened it again.
“How do ye ken my name?”
A small moue of her mouth, and Miss Beauchamp cut her eyes away from his gaze, down to the ground. Jamie felt her shift her feet, testing the weight on each foot. When she finally did look up, it wasn’t to look at Jamie, but rather to where Willie and Fergus were racing each other on the wooden obstacle course.
“Hm?” Jamie prompted again.
“Because I just do.”
“Ye just do? That’s hardly fair, Miss Beauchamp. I don’t ken yer name, ye’ve not even told me yet, but ye ken mine?”
Those sharp eyes of her were back on Jamie. “My name’s Claire.”
“Claire.” He tasted part of her, her name, on his tongue. “Claire Beauchamp.” She sounded sweet. “So, Claire Beauchamp, how do ye ken my name?”
“Because, Jamie Fraser…” His eyes wanted to roll into the back of his head, at the way the vowels of his name fell off her tongue. Claire’s voice held a hint of amusement in the tone. “I’ve heard your name spoken since the first day you enrolled Willie in this school. Don’t you know the women here are like hyenas? Travelling together in packs, and then lashing out? I’d heard your name uttered a thousand times before I’d ever even seen your face.”
“Oh, and you think that’s funny, do you?”
“Yes, I do a little bit.” Claire’s eyes shone in the overhead sun, until she raised her hand, holding it above her eyebrows, to block out the light. “You would too, if you’d been there when they realised you were a single parent, no wife or girlfriend to speak of. It was like all of their Christmases had come at once.”
“And here I was,” Jamie said, a boyish smirk playing about his lips. “Thinking ye were a sweet and innocent Sassenach. I’m very rarely wrong, but,” he shrugged. “Apparently this time I am.”
Claire hummed noncommittally. “I guess that’s for you to find out later on.”
The wee vixen.
She was flirting.
Jamie hadn’t been sure at first. He’d been out of the dating scene for… well, since Geneva, really, for a number of reasons.
One, after Geneva’s death, Jamie had found himself in the sole possession of his baby. Geneva’s parents, Willie’s Grandparents, hadn’t been much of a help, other than the lump sum of money they’d gifted to Willie as a baby. They’d hated Jamie and Geneva’s relationship, which was made even worse when Geneva found out she was expecting William. A teenaged mother to be. The arguments and knife cutting words that followed would stay with Jamie for the rest of his life.
When Jamie and Geneva had broken up (not by Jamie’s choice, of course, he believed himself to have been madly in love), Geneva made the decision to move back to her family home down in England. She’d been eight months pregnant at the time. Jamie had never known heartbreak like it, watching as the mother of his child, and his unborn son boarded a train and trundled away into the distance.
Jamie had vowed to step up and be a Da, even from the moment Geneva had thrown the positive pregnancy test in his face, and then slammed the bedroom door.
Fatherhood had come at a cost, but Jamie wouldn’t change it for the world.
But the way Geneva and her family had treated Jamie still stuck with him. If by some chance Jamie got a spare moment away from Willie, dating hadn’t been something at the forefront of his mind. For a long time, the idea of approaching a woman, asking her out, opening his heart up to her… it had turned Jamie’s stomach. He wasn’t sure he could take it if his heart was broken into pieces again, if she hurled curses at him and broke down his character. But Jamie knew for certain he’d never be able to stand it if the woman in question did it to Willie.
A small string of one-night stands followed Jamie, but they’d been meaningless, a means to an end, a way to soothe an all encompassing burn. Jamie couldn’t even recall the last time he’d slept with a woman, or her name, or what she’d been wearing.
So to realize Miss Beauchamp was flirting, was a shock to the system. What was even worse was how much Jamie realized he liked it.
“Maman! Come on, your turn!” Fergus was calling out to Claire as he swung to and fro.
“I’m being summoned,” she said, feigning exasperation. “Hold my bag for me, won’t you?”
Claire placed the handles of her tiny, white handbag onto Jamie’s outstretched fingers. He wondered what Fergus wanted his Mam for, but it soon became clear when the wee lad hopped up and Claire took a seat on the swing.
“Not too high, mind, Fergus,” she warned.
Behind his Mam, Fergus pulled an over exaggerated eye roll only Willie and Jamie could see. Jamie had to stifle his laughter. That crazy bairn was in a league of his own.
Both of Claire’s delicate hands held onto the metal chain links on either side, as Fergus pulled her body back and then let go. Claire let out a whoop of joy as the momentum pushed her higher into the air, and then swinging back down. True to his word, Fergus hadn’t pushed her very hard; a gentle breeze would probably have moved her more.
Jamie held Claire’s handbag out to her son. “Here, Fergus, come hold this for ye’re Mam. I’ll give her a shove,” he whispered, only enough for the boy to hear.
“What are you doing?” Claire asked, eyes tracking him as he walked to stand behind her. “Don’t you even dare think…”
The only way to get the swing going in the first place was to grip Claire’s waist. Jamie had done just that, as quick as a flash, so he couldn’t overthink it and Claire wouldn’t twist out of his grasp. She screamed loudly, louder than Jamie had anticipated as she went flying into the air.
“Jamie Fraser! You bloody idiot!”
Laughter rumbled in his stomach, growing bigger and bigger, until Jamie couldn’t stand up straight for laughing. It must have been contagious; for Fergus and Willie were also laughing so hard tears were streaming down either laddie’s cheeks.
Unlike before, Claire had given up the pretense of crossing her ankles demurely in an attempt to stop her dress from flying up. Now, she flailed about, legs thrashing to reach the ground and still the swing.
When it eventually did stop moving, Claire stood on shaky legs, reached around the slowly swinging chain, and whacked Jamie’s upper arm.
“You’re a fucking idiot,” she declared, but there wasn’t a hint of malice in her words. Jamie saw for himself as her lips puckered and relaxed and puckered again, as Claire tried to stop herself from joining in on the laughter. She failed miserably, finally giving in and breaking out into a grin. The murderous expression she’d tried for also failed. Jamie, himself, thought Claire looked too bonny to look murderous, anyway.
“That’s a bad word, Maman.”
“Aye, well I think ye Mam deserves to swear, doesn’t she?” Jamie smiled at Fergus. “I did play a dirty trick on her.”
“Very dirty,” Claire agreed.
Jamie got the distinct feeling Claire would have said something else, if it wasn’t for Willie butting in and complaining he was starving. The lad even clasped his hands over his stomach for extra dramatic purposes.
“I suppose we should get home then…”
“Yes, yes, don’t let us keep you.” Claire turned to Fergus. “I bet Faith’s wondering where we are.”
“Och, shite. I haven’t kept ye two from her, have I?” Jamie asked, tapping his two fingers against his jean clad thigh.
“No, don’t worry. She walks home from school with her friend, Gail, I just pick her up from the house.”
Jamie nodded in understanding “Ah, good. See you tomorrow?”
“Depends when I’m scheduled to work,” Claire explained. “If not… I’m sure we’ll see each other around.”
Jamie tried his hardest to not let disappointment become clear in his features. “Aye, we will. Well, bye ye two.”
“Bye, Jamie, and you too, Willie.” She bid. “Have a good evening.”
“Ye too, Sassenach, and ye Fergus, lad.”
Claire might have thought she hid it well, but Jamie caught a mere glimpse of her secret smile at the sound of her new nickname.
Her smile … it pierced Jamie through his heart. If he wasn’t careful, that smile of hers was going to get both of them in trouble…