Was he imagining things, or had that been a date?
Had Jamie Fraser accidentally found himself on a date with Claire Beauchamp, without even realising it?
Could it count as a date if the bairns had been there, eating their respective body weights in sugar?
Had Claire thought it was a date?
Jamie needed somebody to whack him over the head, to stop the hamster wheel of thoughts from running a marathon. Surely Jenny would be willing.
He’d known Claire was flirting; Jamie would be stupid not to see it. She’d been flirting at the playground, and now again at the football pitch. He liked it; he liked her, his Sassenach. But what Jamie was going to do about it, he wasn’t quite so sure yet.
The organic fertilizer appeared to have done its job, the tilled soil looked dark and healthy with the right amount of salty grits embedded into it to help the growing process. But only time would really tell. The potatoes were sown first, as they would be the most planted vegetable of the year and often would need a lot of room to root and grow. Carrots were planted next, as were onions, bulbs of garlic, broccoli and beetroots.
While the lads got behind the tractors and planting machines, Jamie took his time planting the next batch of tomatoes in the newly constructed greenhouse. He hadn’t wanted to spend extra money on the four glass walls and glass paneled roof, but every time he attempted to grow something in the raised herb beds just outside the front door, they died without even sprouting anything. In the end, Jamie caved, and the greenhouse was erected in an attempt to save the poor sproutlings.
Miss Claire Beauchamp crossed Jamie’s mind now and then. And by now and then, he meant most days.
True to her word, Jamie hadn’t seen hide nor hair of her at the early morning or afternoon school gates. He knew she’d been at the hospital for the afternoons, but Jamie had no clue how Fergus got to school each morning. The same blonde haired woman, who Jamie had already seen once before, was there at the gates Monday through Thursday – taking Fergus’ backpack from him and chatting away animatedly. Jamie expected to see her Friday as well, but was surprised to see it was Faith who could be seen waiting for her younger brother.
The wee lass had managed to grab a seat on the metal bench, underneath a large oak tree, squeezed in between gossiping mothers who held squalling children in one hand and cups of scalding hot liquid in the other. She’d cracked open a book, Jamie couldn’t make out which one, but she appeared content enough – only looking up when the school bell signaled loudly.
While waiting for Willie (somehow his bairn was always one of the last ones out), Jamie took it upon himself to keep a close watch on Faith. She might have been nearly a teenager, but Jamie felt an overwhelming surge of protectiveness over Claire’s daughter.
Faith’s chestnut brown hair, so alike her Mam’s, was slicked back into a tidy ponytail, with what appeared to be a blue ribbon tied around it. She scanned the crowd quickly, bending her head back down over her book when she didn’t spot Fergus, nor did he shout out to grab her attention.
Jamie spotted Fergus before she did. He was walking side by side with Willie, something that was becoming more of a regular occurrence, Jamie had noticed.
Fergus did holler out to his older sister, waving his arm in the air to a greeting. Seeing her brother, Faith marked her page, tucked her book back into the leather bag sitting in between her feet and stood. She brushed something down from her school skirt, ensuring she looked as pristine as possible.
Oh, how like her Mam, she was.
“Da!” Willie came flying down the hill, school uniform all over the place, as if he’d been rolling around on the ground.
“Hiya, son.” Jamie picked off two separate pieces of grass from Willie’s shoulder. “Had a good day?”
“Oh, bonjour, Mr Fraser.” Her voice was softer than he remembered, almost swallowed by the noise of raucous children all around.
“Och, hallo ye two.” Jamie said. “Call me Jamie, won’t ye Faith, I feel old otherwise, lass.”
She nodded, almost shyly, hands clasped together in front of her.
“Have ye’s had a good day at school?” Jamie asked the three bairns surrounding him in a little group.
“Oui, merci beaucoup.” Faith answered, turning to her brother and prompted. “Fergus?”
“Aye, me too, thank you…”
“Fergus and I were partnered together for science, Da! We made slime!
“Did ye’s? Well, ye better not have brought any home. I’m not getting on my hands and knees to scrub it out of the upstairs carpet again.”
Willie giggled, remembering how much trouble he’d gotten into the first time around. But the fun had been worth it, and even more so to see his Da scrubbing the carpet furiously.
“Don’t worry, Jamie.” Fergus promised. “We weren’t allowed to take them home, Miss Monroe said so.”
“Bien.” Faith pursed her lips, changing her face to an expression much older than her actual years. “Maman had the same trouble with that slime.” She pulled a disgusted face, as if she could feel the weird texture on her fingertips. “She would have a fit and a half.”
“Yer Mam’s got the right idea, wee Faith.”
He wanted to ask… but dare he?
“Without me sounding like a madman, how are ye getting home safe?”
Jamie had tried to stage his question as least creepily as he could, if that was even possible. The two bairns didn’t even blink an eye, but Jamie rambled on anyway.
“I’m sure yer Mam has taught ye about stranger danger and…”
“Oh, you’re not a stranger.” Faith reassured him. “Mamam said so. She said if we were to see you, we were to say hello and not be rude.”
“Och, right…” Jamie wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. It hadn’t quite been the answer he’d been expecting.
Fergus bent down to re-tie his shoelaces, and tilted his head up, way up, to speak to Jamie. “Our Auntie Geillie picks us up. But we meet her at the corner shop for sweeties, instead of at the school gates on a Friday.”
Faith watched carefully, making sure her younger brother tied them properly. “Maman gives us pocket money, you see, for the chores around the house. Fergus spends his on sweets, usually sour ones so I can’t share.”
“Don’t ye like sour sweets?” Willie hadn’t even got the question fully out of his mouth, when Faith was shaking her head and pulling a face like she’d actually eaten one of the said sweets.
“Ugh, no! Disgusting!”
Fergus laughed at his sister’s reaction, but quickly hid his grin in his palm as she glared at him.
“Why, do you?”
“I think they’re nice, especially the blue raspberry ones! Don’t ye, Da?”
“Aye, I do. Think ye’re outnumbered here, wee Faith lass.”
“The blue raspberry ones are my second favourite, but I think I like the strawberry ones best.” Fergus chatted away to Willie. “Do ye think yer Da will let ye walk with us to the shop?”
“Hang on, I’ll ask…” He turned to Jamie. “Da? Can we walk to the shop with Fergus and Faith?”
“I suppose ye’ll be wanting some sweets as well, won’t ye?”
Willie had turned those cornflower blue puppy dog eyes on. The same ones Jamie saw when he looked in the mirror, bright and early in the morning, before all the stress of the day began.
“Fine.” Jamie conceded, hand already going into his denim pocket to check how much change he had left. “Is that okay with ye two?”
The grin on Fergus’ face said it all. Both boys ran ahead, Willie following Fergus, dodging parents and other children, to reach the shop on the hill. Jamie stayed by Faith’s side, walking at a much slower pace.
“So, if Fergus spends all his money on sweeties, what do ye spend yer pocket money on?”
Faith looked up at him, a tiny smile playing about her mouth, as if she’d not expected Jamie to talk to her – let alone ask her a question.
“Books, nail polish, new ribbons for my hair.” Faith twirled her fingers round the blue ribbon in hair in emphasis. “My favourite biscuits… Oh! And baking things! Cupcakes are my favourite thing to make.”
“Well, I think yer ribbons are very bonny, Faith.” Jamie saw her whole face light up at the compliment; it warmed his heart to see. “What’s ye’re favourite flavour of cupcakes to make?”
As they walked up the hill, Willie and Fergus turning back every couple of minutes or so to check they were still behind them, Faith chatted about her hobbies. Quite quickly, Jamie was learning she might be a quiet, shy child – especially around other children and adults – but get her in her comfort zone, and Faith wouldn’t stop talking excitedly.
Willie and Fergus had already ducked into the shop, just as Jamie and Faith crested the final stretch.
At the sound of her name, Faith whipped her head around. “Bonjour, Auntie Gellie!”
The blonde haired woman made her way over to them, slinking away from the wall, where she’d been leaning. “Our Fergus didn’t even see me, just ran straight past with the redheaded laddie.”
“Och aye, Willie’s mine.” Jamie stuck out his hand for her to shake. “I’m…”
Gellie took it, pumping firmly twice. “Ye won’t be Jamie Fraser, by any chance, will ye?”
“Aye, I will. How…”
Faith’s auntie shrugged “I’m just very clever…”
“Maman mentioned you!” Faith filled in the gap, ever so eager to help.
Geillie laughed, raising her eyebrows at Faith. “I think that was supposed to stay a secret, ye ken, lass?”
Faith’s whole face turned beet red at the realization, up to her hairline, even her ears were mottled red and pink.
Jamie nudged the wee girl with his elbow gently. He couldn’t wink to save his life (with either eye), but Jamie tried his hardest to soothe Faith. “How about we keep it a secret between us? I won’t tell yer Mam, if ye won’t.”
She was silent, not daring to say another peep, but at least Faith nodded her head in agreement.
“See? No harm done, Faith lass.” Geillie pulled out an edge of Faith’s ribbon, which had gotten caught in her hair bobble as she’d walked. “Do ye want some sweeties while we’re here?”
“No, merci beaucoup,” Faith said, shaking her head.
“Och, go on! Here!” In the flat of Geillie’s palm lay a pound coin. “Go in and buy a big chocolate bar for me and ye to share in the car. The fruit and nut one, if they have it, aye?”
“I have money, Auntie Geillie…”
“Don’t ye dare spend ye’re own money, my lass. Use this.”
Taking the offered money with another thank you to her auntie, Faith strode off through the same door Willie had disappeared through a number of minutes ago.
“A good bairn, aye? Both of them are.” Geillie said. “I didn’t get to introduce myself, Geillis Duncan, but ye can call me Geillie.”
“Aye, the bairns said on the way up here. Willie and Fergus wanted to share some sweets, and I wanted to make sure wee Faith was safe, so I walked up with them.” Jamie explained. “Hope ye don’t mind.”
“Och, no! Not at all!” Geillis waved his worries away with a bat of her hand. “I think it’s braw of ye, and so will our Claire.”
So will our Claire…
“How do ye ken Sassenach, then?”
“Claire? We work at the hospital together! Have since she moved up here, actually.”
“Aren’t ye related? The bairns called ye Auntie, so I assumed…” Jamie’s sentence trailed off.
“No, just best friends. Claire…”
“Da! They had those chewy bon bons ye like, so I bought ye some!” Willie came bounding out of the shop, carrying a white paper bag in either hand and stopping whatever Geillis had been about to say.
“Willie, what have I told ye about interrupting?” Jamie chided his son. “Say sorry, please.”
“Sorry.” Willie said sheepishly.
Geillis smiled at him. “Don’t worry about it, lad.”
“Good lad.” Jamie held his hand out for the bag of sweets. “But thank ye for buying me something. Pass me one out and then share them round, won’t ye?”
For once in their lives, he and Willie had been fairly early. The young referee had only just been putting down the training cones and mini hurdles, ready to put the wee lads through their paces.
“Sorry we’re late!” Jamie heard Claire’s English voice ring out, just as the bibs had been handed out and the boys were busy warming up with twenty star jumps.
“Och, ye’re fine!” Christopher called back, sending Claire a toothy grin. “Fergus! Grab a red bib for today!”
Walking closer to the watching parents, Claire put a hand above her eyes to block out the sun, making it easier to see people’s faces. Jamie waved his hand in the air to grab her attention.
“Ye okay, Sassenach?” He asked as she spotted him and began to make her way over to his side.
“Yes. Just a little bit…” Claire grasped a stray lock of hair and tucked it behind her ear, where Jamie noticed she was without any usual earrings. “Frazzled, you could say.”
“You can say that again.” Claire let out a deep breath, closing her eyes and letting them stay closed. Jamie had turned his body in towards hers, and laid a hand on her shoulder, before he even realised what he’d done.
“Are ye all right, Sassenach?”
She didn’t answer straight away, the thin skin of her eyelids fluttering as her pupils moved underneath. Jamie wasn’t sure if he should utter anything else or wait for Claire to get herself together. In the end, just as Jamie was about to open his mouth, she beat him to it.
“It’s that fucking school project.” Her words were so quiet, almost whispered, that Jamie had to press his body into hers. He tilted his head closer to hers, as much as possible without head-butting one another.
Jamie knew exactly what Claire was talking about. He had a strange, funny feeling in the pit of his stomach, almost the texture of oil, knowing what words were going to come out of her mouth. But he dared to double check anyway, hoping to God he was wrong.
“The one about families?”
Sassenach’s swallow was thick, thicker than usual. Her eyes had stayed shut up until now, but Jamie’s proximity to her meant he could quite clearly see the glossy sheen of her eyes when she did eventually blink them open.
“Yes, the one about fucking families. Fergus was so upset about this week’s homework… I… I didn’t even think we’d make it here today.”
Jamie had known what she was going to say, had seen it already unfolding, but it still didn’t hurt any less to hear the tremble of Claire’s voice, or know how upset bonny Fergus had been.
“Ye’re all right, Sassenach.” Jamie’s grip on her shoulder tightened. “Take a deep breath.”
“I feel like a failure. Like a shit mother.”
In the distance, the boys had begun running through drills of burpees and high knees.
“Don’t ye dare, lass! Ye’re not, are ye listening to me, Sassenach? Ye’re doing yer best and…”
“But it’s not enough, is it?” Claire questioned, her eyes searching Jamie’s, as if he held the answer. “How is it enough when my child’s crying his eyes out because his father is no longer around and I…”
Jamie’s anger built steadily, coming head to head with an inexplicable feeling sitting just behind his breastbone. “That is not yer fault. If Fergus’ Da is not around, that is not yer fault, Claire. Do ye hear me? Do ye?”
Claire’s words were definitely whispered now, only for Jamie’s ears to hear. “Yes, Jamie, I do.”
He wanted to glide his lips over hers, kiss the sadness right off of her face and make a goofy smile break out.
“Willie was the same, ye ken?” Jamie said, making his lips and tongue form a sentence, rather than let them get him into trouble.
Her eyebrows knitted in confusion. “The same?”
“Aye,” Jamie nodded slowly. The two fingers not spanning Claire’s shoulder and bare collarbone, started to tap out an untimed rhythm. “The same as yer Fergus, crying, upset, whatever ye want to call it. All because of that school project. I mean, he’s been alright this week because it’s about Da’s isn’t it, and he’s got me. But how do ye explain to yer ten year old bairn that his Mam topped herself and she isn’t here for ye to ask her stupid questions for a shitty little project?”
Cold fingers slide between his own much warmer ones.
He was at the football pitch.
He was outside, standing, taking in the fresh air and the vitamin D.
Miss Claire Beauchamp stood beside him; those were her bonny fingers interlaced though his own.
He wasn’t stuck inside that room, watching the horrific words pour out of Geneva’s Mam’s mouth, but never actually hearing her voice.
He wasn’t running up the stairs, feet slipping on the carpet, as he propelled his legs to go faster. He could make it in time, he could make it in time, he could make it in time.
He could save her.
“Jamie?” Claire tried again, this time placing her fingertips to his jawline and tilting his head down until every bit of his vision was filled with her. Sassenach. Her ever so disheveled hair, frizzy curls all over the place, and face bare of any makeup. The champagne silk camisole top, with one of the straps hanging down, her long grey cardigan, which was creased at the bottom, in her haste to leave the house and make it to the field on time. Even the casualness of her ripped skinny jeans, clinging to her lean legs.
“Fuck, sorry Sassenach,” he muttered, exhaling sharply through his nose. “I really didn’t mean to tell ye that, I just wanted to make ye feel better and…”
Claire’s arms were wrapping around Jamie’s broad shoulders, stopping him mid-sentence. She tucked their bodies in together until he could feel her soft breasts pressed up against his torso. But Jamie couldn’t smell any of her usual perfume. It didn’t permeate her body, nor transfer onto his cotton t-shirt. Claire’s hair smells vaguely like coconut, but not the usual strong hints of vanilla and chamomile that Jamie had come to expect and associate with his Sassenach.
“Don’t be sorry, it’s okay.” She promised, pulling back once to search his eyes before resting her chin on the ball of Jamie’s shoulder. “Are you okay? God that sounds like a stupid question, doesn’t it? Of course you’re not okay, I just mean…”
Only then did Jamie realize his arms still lay down by his sides.
Here, right in front of him, was the bonniest woman Jamie had ever laid his eyes upon, a woman who’d featured in his mind night after night. Her body as closer to his as it probably would ever be, and yet Jamie wasn’t touching her back, wasn’t offering her that physical contact Claire had so obviously needed in a difficult time like today.
Bringing his arm up, Jamie banded both around Claire’s petite waist, his right palm holding her hip to keep her steady, and his left, caressing the smooth plains of her back.
“Aye, I’m fine, lass.” He answered. “It happened a long time ago…”
“Doesn’t matter.” Claire squeezed him tighter. “Doesn’t matter how long ago it was, it still hurts. Trust me, I know. Does…” She stopped and then started again. “I’m guessing Willie doesn’t know?”
“No.” Jamie moved away slightly, creating a thin sliver of space between their respective torsos. As he did so, Claire’s arms slipped away from his neck, coming back to rest at her sides. He wanted, no, needed, to be able to see her honest glass face as Jamie told Claire the truth. “I’ll tell him when he's older, when he's ready, when he understands more. Understands why it happened and that it wasn’t his fault, or anything he could do, or…”
“That sounds like the right thing to do,” Claire agreed. “The things we do for our children, eh?” A small smile played about her lips. It was infinitely small compared to her usual grin, but at least it was there, it was something.
“Aye, I ken what ye mean. We do some mad stuff, don’t we? All in the name of love.”
“Oh, definitely all in the name of love, all right.” Claire gazed out at her boy running about the field, dry grass being trampled under his feet. “Sometimes… sometimes I think I love him too much.” She confessed. “Him and Faith. Like my heart will burst into a thousand pieces if I see him and his sister laugh at something silly one more time.”
“My Mam always used to say ‘there’s no such thing as too much love’, Sassenach.” Jamie shrugged his shoulders as Claire watched him out of the corner of her eye. “Our bairns need it to grow up happy, and some parents don’t have that love to give. They don’t feel it the way we do. So who cares if ye love them that little bit extra?”
Neither Willie nor Fergus scored any goals. In fact the match ended up being a nil nil draw between the red and the blue teams. They might not have scored any goals, but both boys were still happy enough, showcasing beaming smiles and covered head to toe in grass stains.
One of the other parents had brought with him a Tupperware of pre-sliced oranges, and Willie and Fergus went bounding over to him as he called all of the boys for a special after game treat.
“Thank you, Jamie.” Claire said, as she watched Fergus, standing off the sidelines, stuff an orange slice into his mouth, turn to Willie and pretended to grin widely with it. “For telling me about Willie’s mother, for listening to me, for… well for all of it, really.”
Jamie bumped his shoulder against hers gently. “That’s what friends are for, Sassenach.”