I would like it known, for the record, that I am a good traveler. I grew up trotting the globe with Uncle Lamb on his various archaeological and academic pursuits. I had traveled by train, boat, car, aeroplane, horse, and rickshaw. I never got air, sea, or otherwise motion sick.
I had always thought I was a good traveler.
Until my first marriage went to pot, however, I had never been on a bus. Not the kind of bus that travels up and down the coast, rather than from one block of town to another.
I had to leave Boston, and so I’d sent out my CV across the states and back to England and Scotland and France. I had accepted a position at the hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina, and now I needed to take my battered heart down there.
The plane was going to be very expensive considering the extra expense that my trunks would be. The train would accept my trunks, but the American train system is terrible. The bus had seemed an economical option until I’d arrived.
At first it had seemed fine: the bus had been half-empty and I’d had a row of seats to myself and it seemed we would be off on time. Then, two minutes before we were supposed to leave Boston, a whole crowd made as if to board the bus, making us late and losing me my extra seat to a young, dark-haired man.
Behind me, where once there had been no one, a young boy and the man who appeared to be his father settled in, the boy behind me.
He was a squirmer and kicked my seat repeatedly as he shifted and got himself comfortable. He stopped, finally and I settled back to watch out the window once we pulled out of the bus depot.
We hadn’t been on the road a quarter hour, however, when the boy started kicking my seat again with a monotonous regularity that comes of having an active boy sitting still for any length of time. I did sympathize with the lad, but the more damage that he did to my kidneys, the less I felt I could forgive him.
I began to mutter in French, this being an excellent language for cursing, and spoken by nearly no one in the United States, it gave me a vent for my frustration that would not offend my neighbors. After a few minutes, however, a voice piped up from behind me, young and English, to my surprise.
“Fergus, what does conneries mean?” it asked, pulling the expletive from my last muttered rush of French invective.
The young man beside me turned to face the lad at my back. “It means… bollocks, mon frère. More or less,” he said with a clear Parisian accent that made my heart stop.
I turned to see the lad glaring at me. “That’s not very polite,” he said, accusingly.
“It’s not very polite to kick the seat in front of you,” I rejoined.
“Willie, what did I tell you about sitting still?” a Scottish-accented voice said.
I wondered at this polyglot and looked at the man sitting beside the lad and blinked. I could swear I was seeing double, but as though in a carnival mirror. The lad was a small version of the man seated beside him, though he hadn’t his father’s height yet, and his father’s vivid red hair was tempered to chestnut in the younger version.
The father looked at me, apology in a pair of dark blue eyes set in a strikingly handsome face.
“I’m sorry miss. I’ll trade places with him. He can kick wee Fergus as much as he likes. I promise I willna do damage to your backside myself.”
There was humour in his eyes, more so than I might have had for a stranger teaching my child filthy French phrases (even if by accident) and with some squirming and a few more jabs at my backside, he and his son had traded places.
“My name is Jamie,” the father said, smiling at me. “That’s Fergus, beside you, and this is Willie, my son. We’ve been at the hospital in Boston seeing to Fergus’ hand.”
I looked at the young man to find that his right hand was missing, replaced by a hook.
“They are working on a prosthetic for me,” the young man explained, seeing my surprise. “For now, this is doing me well enough.”
“Was it Boston General? I used to work there, and they have an excellent prosthesis group.”
“Aye,” Jamie said from behind. “That’s where we were. Why do you not work there now, if you dinna mind my asking?”
“Oh,” I said, flushing slightly. “That’s a very long story.”
Jamie shrugged and glanced at his sons. “It’s a long ride.”
I shrugged. It didn’t really matter whether I gave these people my sob story- I was unlikely ever to see them again.
So I told them- told them about marrying one of my Uncle’s graduate students a month before graduating university myself. I told them about working as an EMT until he finished his PhD. I told them about realizing, sometime after he had graduated and moved us to Boston to teach at Harvard that I wanted to be a doctor.
I told them about his doubt. How that doubt and disbelief had followed me through my years of medical school like silent sabotage.
Sometime during this part of the story, Willie got restless. Fergus offered to play him in chess and he and Jamie switched seats with some shuffling and confusion.
Jamie was broader of shoulder than Fergus. Where the Frenchman and I had been able to sit together with a few inches of discreet space between ourselves, Jamie’s warm thigh pressed against mine, and his shoulder bumped me whenever the bus moved.
I found the experience disconcerting and pleasant.
“What then?” Jamie asked, able now to give me the undivided attention of those startling blue eyes that he shared with his son.
I continued the story with my final years in school and my residency- a time in my life when I barely slept, rarely ate, and almost never saw my home.
“I think it must have started then,” I admitted quietly. “I paid very little attention to Frank and our marriage during that time… one could hardly blame him, I suppose.”
“One could,” Jamie objected, stubbornly.
He’d had other women, and I hadn’t caught on until the last year of my residency when the end was near and I was finally able to take a deep breath and look around.
“I had a friend, Joe his name is, who suggested that I confront him about it. I did and he… well… he said I should have known. I should have seen. I should have done something about it if it mattered to me.”
Jamie made a noise in the back of his throat that might have been a growl.
“So I left him,” I said, reducing the months of tears and lawyers and nights at the bar with Joe, trying to talk myself out of it as he tried to keep me from doing so to a single sentence.
Jamie seemed to understand.
“I’m a qualified doctor now, and I needed work so I… applied. Everywhere. Now I’m going to the hospital in Wilmington to take up a position as a surgeon and see what life is like now.”
Jamie nodded quietly. We sat quietly for a moment and could hear Fergus explaining a gambit to take his own queen to young Willie.
Finally I broke the silence again.
“It’s not so unusual, and not so bad as in some cases. There were no children to disrupt.”
He gave a small laugh. “Is that your way of asking what mine and Willie’s story is then?”
I shrugged. “If you want to tell me.”
“It’s a long story.”
I glanced out the window where trees were whipping by. “It’s a long trip.”
Jamie sat quiet for a moment, not as though he didn’t want to tell her his story, just as though he were working it out in his head.
He’d just opened his mouth to begin, however, when a small, blue-eyed face popped up over the top of the seat.
“I’m hungry, Da,” Willie said.
I was, once again, caught by surprise at his South-English accent where his father’s was clearly from the north of Scotland.
Jamie got up and rummaged in a bag in the compartment before pulling out some sandwiches.
“Roast Chicken, aye?” Jamie asked, handing one to his son. “Roast beef for our Fergus, and corned beef for me.” He sat down beside me with his sandwich, then looked at her askance, realizing how rude it would be to eat in front of me.
“I could… erm… share?” he said, sounding awkward.
I laughed aloud and reached into my purse to pull out a sandwich of my own.
“Peanut butter and jelly,” I admitted with a small shrug, and Jamie grinned.
“My story then,” he said after chewing and swallowing a bite of his sandwich. “Well… Willie’s mother and I werena marrit. I didna know about him until a year or two ago. She died in an accident, and her will left me as the child’s guardian. His grandparents disputed it, and we spent the last 18 months in legal hell, but he’s mine now.”
“His grandparents are in England then?”
“Aye, they’ve money enough to visit him here though, dinna fash.”
I smiled at the phrase. “And how did you meet his mother?”
He sighed. “Her family was traveling in Paris when I was at the university there. I picked up a bit of money translating for tourists. She told me she was eighteen and wanted… well… it doesna matter what she told me. She lied- she was only seventeen- and I ran like mad when I found that out. Went straight out and joined the army.”
“Aye, not a proud moment for me. I might have known of Willie before if I hadna been such a coward, but it’s done now, and naught to do but move forward.”
I couldn’t help but agree with the sentiment, given my own situation.
“And Fergus?” I asked, glancing back at the Frenchman. “Another one from France?”
“Aye, naturally, though he and I were in the army together. He lost his hand in Afghanistan on our last tour. That was when I got out for good.”
Suddenly Jamie grinned. “Now we work for a wee paper you might not have heard of. The Onion?”
“You’re kidding,” I shouted in shock. Several of the seats around them turned to look at us, and I blushed brightly. “Sorry,” I said, softly.
“Did you tell her about L'Oignon?” Fergus asked from behind them.
“Do you really write for The Onion?” I asked, careful to keep my tone quieter.
“Jamie writes,” Fergus said with a grin. “I work in sales. Hopefully, once I can type with the new hand, I’ll do some writing as well.”
“Aye,” Jamie continued, grinning at my stunned disbelief, “we consulted a specialist in Boston, but we’ll finish everything out in Wilmington where we started. At the hospital there.”
I suddenly realized, for the first time, that I might be seeing these people again. The hospital couldn’t possibly be that large, and there was only the one.
“Bugger,” I muttered to myself.
Then I looked up into the handsome face of my new seatmate and friend and revised the thought. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to meet him again.
Suddenly, Fergus leaned forward around Jamie’s side to speak to him. The pair spoke too quietly for me to hear and both sounded a bit worried.
Turning back to me, Jamie gave a tense smile. “My sister was just taken into the hospital in Scotland for her third child. My brother-in-law just called… do you mind-”
“Of course not!” I said, not knowing precisely what I was agreeing to.
To my surprise, after a bit more shuffling, I found herself seated next to young Willie.
“Are you my Da’s new girlfriend?” Willie asked with the oddly uncanny perception of the young.
“Er… no,” I said, wondering how a statement that was completely true could sound so patently false when I said it. I remembered the warm touch of Jamie as we bumped against each other, and felt a shiver go up my spine.
“Why not?” Willie asked, those blue eyes so uncannily like his father’s looking up at me, wide with childish guilelessness. “He likes you.”
“Your father only met me a few hours ago. He neither likes nor dislikes me, he doesn’t know me.”
“He told you about Mummy,” Willie said. “That means he likes you. He wouldn’t have done otherwise. He never tells anyone about that.”
I blinked. It was true that Jamie and I had been more open with our personal lives than two strangers ought. I was surprised, however, that this child had noticed.
“How old are you, Willie?” I asked.
“And you’ve been with your father and Fergus…”
“Since I was five. I lived with Mummy and Grandmother and Grandfather before. In England, but Da’ told you all that.”
“Do you always eavesdrop on conversations?”
“Grown up conversations, yes. Da’ doesn’t know how not to say things in front of a child yet. Mummy and Grandmother would spell things so that I couldn’t understand them, but I’ve been able to read for ages!” He gave me a winsome grin that had a great deal of mischief behind it.
I couldn’t help but laugh. The child was charming, if too clever by half, and I found myself liking him.
“Are you excited for your new cousin?”
Willie thought about that one for a moment. “Yes, though I don’t think I’ll meet them for a long time. Da’s family doesn’t have much money. They won’t be able to visit.”
“Could you go visit them?”
“Probably not,” he said, in an offhand way. “We could have done, but Fergus’ hand is going to cost a lot of money.”
He was right. I was surprised at the child’s perception, but Jamie had mentioned that he’d been in legal hell for a long time. The child had been caught in the middle of a contentious lawsuit. Perhaps he’d picked things up from there.
“You should be Da’s new girlfriend. He hasn’t had one since I’ve been with him. Mummy had boyfriends sometimes, but Da’ never does. Even Fergus has a girlfriend, but she’s in Scotland.”
“I’m a bit old to be anyone’s girlfriend, my lad,” I said.
Neither Willie nor Claire had noticed that the two men had gotten off the phone and were listening to this odd conversation.
Jamie glanced at Fergus, who raised his eyebrows in a suggestive way.
“She did not say that she would be unwilling to be your girlfriend,” Fergus whispered.
“Did I say anything?”
“You did not have to, Ami. I can read it in your face.”
“Do hush, wee Fergus.”
Fergus and Willie bade their new acquaintance from the bus farewell, then stepped aside, ostensibly to manage their baggage, but in truth, to allow Jamie the space to say his own goodbyes.
“Do you think he’ll get her phone number?” Willie asked, watching the pair openly.
Fergus, who had been more circumspect, but no less avid in his observations, shrugged. “He will if I have anything to say about it.”
“Why doesn’t Da’ date more?”
Fergus looked down at the boy who had, in the past year, become both nephew and brother to him and wondered exactly what to say. How did he explain that the lad’s father had passions that ran as deep and solidly as bedrock, but he’d never found a woman who could rouse them? How to explain the emptiness for a man like Jamie Fraser in meaningless sex with women who did not inflame him? And then, how to say that without giving more information than the lad needed about his own mother?
“He has been very busy,” Fergus said, inadequately.
Those blue eyes that he knew well narrowed at him, and he knew that he had not fooled the child, who was too clever by half.
He was saved from further questions, however, by the boy’s father’s return.
“Did you get her number?” Willie asked without the grace of obfuscation.
Jamie blushed. “I did not,” he said, sounding annoyed. “The woman barely knows me. Why should she want to give her phone number to a complete stranger?”
Fergus and William exchanged a look that spoke to how foolish they considered Jamie.
Like a conjurer, Fergus withdrew a paperback book from his pocket.
“It would seem that your new lady friend left this on the bus. I think you should return it to her, don’t you?”
Jamie glared at his friend, who had been an accomplished pickpocket in his younger days, with suspicion. Fergus’ face showed nothing but guilelessness, which was practically a confession in itself, and yet he could not deny the disappointment that had flooded his belly as he’d walked away from Claire without any assurance that he’d ever be able to find her again.
As he turned to go back to her, however, Fergus piped up again.
“Ami, if you do not get her number this time, I shall go and get it for you the next time.”
Sometime in the middle of these prompts, I ended up changing perspective from first to third. I fixed a few of the earlier chapters, but these later ones actually work better in the third person, so I'm leaving them.
Claire sighed as she looked around her office, which looked as though a paper explosion had happened. She had only been at the hospital for two weeks, how could her office have become such a disaster so quickly?
“You are the disaster, Beauchamp,” she muttered to herself. “Don’t blame the office.”
It felt true as well. Though she had managed to become a doctor, and was proving more than competent here in her first placement, she was painfully aware that the rest of her life was in shambles. Her marriage had failed. Her desk was a mess. Her apartment was a mess. Her refrigerator had absolutely no food in it. She hadn’t even the vague hope of a new relationship, no matter what she’d thought when…
Perhaps she should invest in a vibrator. Some of her coworkers in the ER had sworn by them, even the married ones, though Claire had never thought she needed such a thing herself…
These musings were interrupted by a sharp rap on the door. It didn’t sound like a knock, but like someone was hitting the door with a metal implement. Claire was slightly annoyed that someone would bash their clipboard against her door, but asked whoever it was to come in anyway.
The door opened not to a nurse or one of her fellow doctors, but a young man with black hair and a charming smile whose left arm was raised to knock on her door, and ended in a metal hook.
“Fergus!” she said in pleasure. Claire had thought of that day on the bus several times since getting to Wilmington, but had heard nothing from any of the three men that she had met.
“Bonjour, Doctor Beauchamp,” Fergus said with an elaborate bow. “Today was my first appointment regarding the surgery for my prosthetic, and I thought that, since I was here anyway, I might drop in and see how you are doing. How you’re liking Wilmington.”
“Wilmington is lovely,” she said with a smile. “The job is going quite well. I haven’t met many people yet, but I’m sure that will come with time.”
“Has Jamie ever called you?” Fergus asked in an apparent non-sequitur.
Claire blinked. “Erm… no. I had thought he might but, after all, it’s not as though he really knows me. I’m sure he’s quite busy. Not easy to be a single father, after all…”
Fergus snorted. “I thought he had not. And he has me to help with his single father duties. William and I get on well, when he’s not being an unbearable pest.”
Claire grinned. “So… when he’s asleep?”
Fergus grinned back. “Yes, I like him very much asleep. Also when he’s at school.”
That made her laugh, and she realized suddenly that she hadn’t laughed since that day on the bus. And before that… she really couldn’t think when she’d last laughed before that. It had been ages. Probably not since the divorce proceedings had begun.
“Are you free tonight?”
Claire looked up in surprise, having been lost in her own thoughts. “Me?” she said, stupidly.
“Oui. I had a few questions about the recovery from my surgery, and you seem a knowledgeable source. I was thinking, if you did not have other plans, that you and I could meet at the pub on the corner when you get off? The day must nearly be over for you, surely.”
Claire glanced at her clock. “Jesus Christ, when did it get so late? Yes, I can probably leave in the next hour or so…”
“It would only be as friends. I do have a lovely lady back in Europe, so you are safe from me.”
Claire smiled again. “I never doubted it. All right, if you’d like. I’ll meet you there at around 6:30, will that do?”
It did solve one of her problems: the question of what to eat for dinner that night. The pub had an excellent kitchen.
“Tres bien. I look forward to it. Adieu, M’lady.”
Fergus bowed himself out of her office, leaving her laughing behind him.
Fergus sat at the bar spinning the stem of his wineglass in the fingers of his dexterous right hand and glaring into the dark liquid.
His frustration, as it so often was, was his best friend, Jamie. The man’s passions ran as deep as the Pacific Ocean and he was not the sort of man who should sleep alone, and yet he had done so for nearly two years since he and Fergus had fled to the United States with William.
Jamie had been seeing a young woman in Scotland when Willie’s mother had died, and had even spoken of marrying her to Fergus and his brother-in-law, Ian. Fergus had thought it a bad idea. Though Jamie and the lady seemed friendly enough, he did not believe that Jamie’s heart had been so engaged. As a devout Catholic, Jamie would not willingly divorce, but Fergus thought his friend would quickly come to regret the marriage and be unhappy.
The lady had left him upon finding out about Willie, however, and for all that Jamie had mourned the relationship, Fergus had breathed a sigh of relief.
When they’d come to the States, he’d hoped that this new leaf in his life would inspire Jamie to find love, and yet, in spite of the many ladies at their office who had made it painfully clear that they would be happy to be the object of his attention, Jamie had shown no inclination toward fixing his semi-permanent celibacy.
Until two weeks before on the bus, it seemed.
Fergus had never seen Jamie’s eyes light up as they had done when the curly-haired woman with the English accent had begun cursing about his son. Then, when she and the lad had talked together like friends, that light had softened into a glow that Fergus had seen only a time or two before: it was the look of a man seeing the thing he loved most in the world.
And yet Jamie, the coward, had not called her once they had separated. Well, Fergus had every intention of seeing his friend happy, even if he had to be led to it by the nose like a recalcitrant steer.
At that point in his musings, the object of his considerations appeared at his side and sank onto the barstool at his left.
“Bonsoir mon ami,” Fergus said.
“Bonsoir. Willie is with his friend for the night. How did your appointment go?”
Fergus shrugged and glanced at the clock behind the bar. He glanced back at the entrance and was pleased to see the curly head of Dr. Beauchamp turning about at the front as though looking for someone.
“It was not so bad. I think everything will be fine,” he said negligently as he waved to the doctor.
Claire joined them. “Good evening, Fergus,” she said. “And… Jamie. I didn’t realize you would be here.”
“Well,” Fergus said with a shrug, “I was also meeting Jamie here this evening, it’s true. However, I cannot stay. You two enjoy yourselves, mes amis. I shall see you both soon, n’est-ce pas? Bonsoir.”
He was away before either of them could object. He would see the pair of them together or die trying.
Claire glanced over at Jamie to see him glaring after Fergus.
“Look,” she said, feeling rather foolish for having hoped he’d be glad to see her, “I’ll go. You should… get back to Willie and…”
“No!” he said suddenly alarmed. “No, you needna go… I… well Willie’s staying at a friend’s tonight, so I dinna need to leave. If you… if you want.”
“Well,” she admitted slowly, “I don’t really have anything for supper at home. I’d thought to get a bite here, but if you-”
“A bonnie idea,” he said, quickly. “Let me.”
“No,” she said, “you don’t need to-”
“I want to. Please let me?”
Blue eyes looked pleadingly into brown and, after a moment she blinked.
“All right, I suppose. Thank you.”
He shook his head. “What would you like to drink?”
She glanced at Fergus’ abandoned glass of wine but decided against. “Glenfiddich, neat if you don’t mind.”
He grinned. “A lass after me own heart,” he said, broadening his accent absurdly.
She laughed quietly. She wasn’t though. She wasn’t after anything. If he was offering though…
He hailed the bartender and ordered two of the same. The spiky-haired bartender grinned at his accent and assured him that they had the spirit, and she’d have it out to them quickly.
“She’s flirting with you,” Claire said, nodding after the girl.
“Do you get flirted with so often that you don’t notice, or are you always oblivious?” she asked, smiling up at him.
Jamie shrugged. “Fergus would argue the latter. She’s just being polite. It’s her job.”
Claire knew it was her job, but she had also noticed the speculation in the girl’s eyes as she’d given Jaimie the once-over. In fact, Jamie was garnering no little attention from the entire bar. Most of the attention was feminine, but by no means all of it.
She wondered if she was getting similar attention.
The bartender returned with their drinks and a pair of menus that they perused in lieu of talking to each other. Claire made her choice relatively quickly and set her menu down only to see that Jamie had not been looking at his menu, but had been watching her from over the top of it instead.
His eyes flicked down to the menu as soon as she caught him, but the fact made her stomach give a pleasurable squeeze.
After a few minutes, he set his menu down as well, and finally looked at her again.
“What did you decide?” he asked, and Claire could tell that he, like her, was struggling for a conversational gambit.
“Spinach fettuccine alfredo. It’s good here. You?”
“Steak and chips,” he said with an awkward shrug- as though his shirt were too tight.
She smiled sadly. “You haven’t been in the States long enough to call them fries then.”
“I dinna think I’ll ever be in the States long enough for that.”
That made her laugh. Again, she was reminded of how long it had been. He always seemed able to make her laugh.
“Does Willie often stay with his friends?” she asked, grasping at another conversational straw.
“Aye, sometimes. Occasionally his friends stay with us, but it’s America and the South… two unmarrit men who live together? We’re rather suspicious, aye?”
“I suppose you are! But you might be suspicious in Europe as well!”
“Not in France, perhaps, but in Scotland, aye. We lived with my sister and brother-in-law on the family estate then, so no one noticed much. We have a wee house now. If Fergus and Marsali manage to work things out and get marrit, Willie and I will probably get a flat.”
Claire smiled, though she envied the little family and their network of support. Leaving Frank had left her drifting, alone in the world.
Suddenly, Jamie’s hand was on hers on the bar. She looked up into his face to see him looking at her intently. He didn’t say anything, but picked up his glass of whiskey and held it out to her. She picked hers up as well and touched the two together.
“To new friends,” he said, softly, and sipped
“New friends,” she murmured. And new loves, she thought, and sipped as well.
A chapter in which Wheel sort of makes a statement about Jamie's characterization in the books... but only a small one.
Jamie took a sip of his whiskey in turn.
“You just started your new job, aye? How is that?”
“It’s good,” she said, and it rang untrue even to her own ears. She looked into her glass and took a long breath.
“I’m really not good at things, you know? There are people who can learn any language they hear and have read all of the classics and make friends wherever they go and are just good at everything they put their hand to, but that’s not me. There are women who are able to have jobs and be good housekeepers and wives and mothers and manage it all together, and that’s not me either.
“I can’t cook. I hate doing laundry and washing dishes. The only reason my flat isn’t a complete disaster is because I’m never there. I have no life outside of my job, but that’s just it. I am good at one thing and one thing only: I am a healer. I want to lay hands on people and make them well and that is the only thing that makes sense to me now.
“I always wanted to be a mother, but I wasn’t even able to be a wife."
Suddenly she stopped and looked up from her drink, her eyes wide and appalled.
“Christ… I’m sorry. You didn’t need to know all of that. I must be tired to have run off at the mouth that way.”
Jamie stopped her by taking her hand.
“Dinna apologize. I think maybe you’ve needed to say it for a long time. What happened in your marriage wasn’t your fault, and I think you know it. From what you said before, you pursued your dreams and your passion, even in the face of your husband’s emotional sabatoge, and that’s brave. Everyone has the right to do that, and no one has the right to make them feel bad for it. You’ll be a brilliant mother, I think, when it’s right.
“As for the rest- not being able to cook or speak languages or make friends easily doesn’t stop you being a good person. You’re a good doctor, which I think means you have to be caring and organized and very very clever, and if you’re all those things, the other bits are just details.”
Claire stared up into his blue eyes for a long moment. She wondered how they could look like lakes and oceans and skies- impossibly huge and deep and limitless- and yet not make her feel small and helpless.
The moment was broken by the arrival of their meals, and the intimacy was shattered. They talked of generalities over their food then, but neither could seem to find a way back to that huge, quiet place that they had been before.
When they were finished and Jamie had paid, the pair of them stood and looked at each other for a long moment.
“Look,” Jamie finally began, “I know I didna call you, though I implied that I would… I picked up the phone to do it a dozen times, but always got scared and… well… If I had done would you have…”
“Yes,” Claire said, hoping it was the right answer.
Apparently it was, because Jamie suddenly grinned. “Oh… well good. So would you like… sometime perhaps… there’s a coffee shop in our neighbourhood. It isna Starbucks, and I like it. Would you like to go there sometime?”
“Will you actually call me to set up a time?”
Jamie blushed slightly. “Well… what about tomorrow? When you’re done with work. Around 6:30, like today?”
“That would be very nice. You’ll still need to give me the address. I don’t think you can get out of calling me.”
That made him laugh. “Naturally not. But then, once we’ve done that properly once, without Fergus’ interference, and if it goes well… do you suppose you might want to go on a proper date then? Maybe?”
Claire smiled up at him, charmed and warmed. “I think the chances are very good that I would.”
Claire blew into the coffee shop twenty minutes late with her hair standing out from her head like a dandelion puff, without makeup, and still frazzled from her last surgery.
She’d shot off a text to Jamie as she left the hospital telling him she’d be a few minutes late, but once she got into the warm, coffee-scented air of the shop his jewel-bright head and great height were nowhere to be seen. She glanced at her phone again to be sure she hadn’t missed a message and shrugged.
The girl at the counter was smiling quizzically at her, so she went up to order a warming drink, even if she wasn’t going to have her date.
“Does your masala chai come from a mix?” she asked, scanning the menu board. “Or do you steep it yourself?”
“Actually, we grind spices ourselves every morning for the chai,” the girl said, cheerfully.
“Really?” It was hard to find anywhere but an Indian Restaurant that did that, and Claire made a mental note of the coffee shop for future reference. “I’ll have one then, a medium please.”
“Milk and sugar all right?”
“Milk please, but no sugar.”
“For here or to go?”
Claire hesitated on that question. Just as she was about to ask for the drink to stay, the bell over the door jingled again and both she and the barista looked over.
It was Jamie, looking sheepish and apologetic, and to Claire’s surprise, Willie was with him.
The pair of them came up to her.
“I’m sorry, Claire, but Fergus had to work late and couldna watch Willie, so… well…”
“I don’t want to be at the coffee shop,” Willie said peevishly, his lower lip sticking out in an absurd pout.
“I’ll take mine to go,” Claire said to the barista, whose eyes were sparkling at the scene. “And a small hot chocolate for Willie.”
She turned and raised an eyebrow to Jamie.
“A black coffee, please,” he said, just a bit curt.
“And is there a play park nearby by chance?” Claire asked.
Jamie and Claire sat on the park bench together as the light faded and Willie ran about the playground equipment like a dervish.
He had finished his hot chocolate quickly and run off barely acknowledging his father’s injunction to “stay in sight.”
“It wasna exactly how I’d hoped this evening would go,” Jamie said quietly, not looking at her.
Claire shook her head. “I don’t mind. He’s a good lad.”
Jamie snorted. “When he isna being a pig-headed wee demon.”
That made Claire laugh. “I can’t imagine where he comes by his stubbornness. Fergus said it was something of a family trait.”
“Aye, I suppose I canna deny that, but the fact that he’s spoilt rotten canna be laid at my door.”
“No? His mother and grandparents were very rich?”
“Oh aye. Never said no to him about anything they didn’t. He’s having to learn limits with Fergus and me.”
Claire just shook her head and continued watching the boy. “He’s yours,” she murmured.
Jamie nodded, also watching his son. “Aye… and he’s bonnie and clever and canty and… and he’s mine.”
Without thinking, Claire reached over and took Jamie’s hand.
“I was about Willie’s age when my own mam died,” Jamie said, seemingly out of the blue. “No lad should grow up without a mother.”
“You turned out all right.”
“Aye, I did well enough, but…”
Claire squeezed his hand, and he shut his mouth on his next words and just sat in silence beside her, watching his son playing in the dying light.
It became, from then on, a standing tradition. Two or three times a week, Jamie, Claire, and Willie would meet up at the coffee shop and then go to the play park to allow Willie a chance to run around like a mad thing.
Sometimes there were other parents there. They never seemed to question that the dark-haired girl and the red-haired boy were the parents of the chestnut-haired lad.
Jamie and Claire talked of everything. Of Willie and his adventures. Of their friends and lives back in Europe. Of the lives that they were both trying to build in the United States.
Usually Willie was perfectly happy to run around in the dying light of the day, but one day, once the habit was firmly in place, he ran in only a handful of circles then returned to the adults with a pout firmly on his face.
“I’m hungry, Da,” he said.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m keeping you from you suppers,” Claire said. “You should-”
“You should come to dinner with us. Da has soup at home and there’s lots.”
Claire opened her mouth, but couldn’t think of what to say. She turned to look at Jamie, who was watching her carefully.
“Ms. Beauchamp might have other things she needs to do, Lad,” Jamie suggested.
“Do you, Ms. Beauchamp?” Willie asked.
“No, Willie, but your father might prefer not to have to feed me,” Claire said, glancing at Jamie, then focusing on Willie.
“You don’t mind, do you, Da?”
“Not at all. If Ms. Beauchamp would like to come over, I’d like nothing better.”
It became an additional part of their tradition: after going to the coffee shop, they repaired to Jamie and Willie’s house for supper. Sometimes Claire brought the makings of a quick supper, sometimes Jamie had something ready. Sometimes they were joined by Fergus, and sometimes not. Sometimes they watched TV together after, and sometimes Willie got out his school books and asked Claire about science and Jamie about math.
One night, after Willie had gone to bed, Jamie and Claire sat together on the sofa watching a classic movie on television.
“I should go,” Claire said, glancing at her watch. “I should… let you get to sleep.”
She didn’t get up immediately though. Jamie looked over at her and saw that she wasn’t watching the movie at all. She was looking down at her hands.
“You dinna have to go if you don’t want to.”
She turned to look at him, eyes wide.
“You could stay here… if you wanted.”
“Stay…” Her eyes flicked over the room.
“With me,” Jamie said, reaching over and taking her hand to draw her toward him.
Claire woke to a sensation that had once been familiar- that of a man in her bed, curled around her, and sleepily aroused at her back.
It was not Frank, however, but Jamie. The man who had entered her life so strangely, and yet had brought with him the family that she had always craved: a child in Willie, a sibling in Fergus, and the people in Scotland who she’d never even met.
And then there was Jamie himself: gentle, strong, and capable. Clever and funny. A man who listened to her tales of sickness and injury and never claimed that she should give them up for the simplicity of being cared for. He seemed to understand, as Frank never had, that she needed her work.
“Oh Jamie,” she whispered into the dark. “I love you.”
This stunning declaration was met with a quiet snore from behind her.
Claire hastily dressed in the clothes that Jamie had peeled her out of the previous night. She wanted to be out of the house before it woke. Fergus would understand (though he would be insufferable) but she did not want to disturb Willie’s sense of himself or his family if she could help it.
Luck, it seemed, was not on her side, for when she passed the kitchen, Willie was there digging eggs and milk out of the fridge.
He turned as she came into the room and smiled his charming smile at her.
“Do you know how to make French toast?”
Jamie woke terrified for Claire was no longer in the bed beside him. Would she have left? Did she regret the previous night?
He was up in a trice, wrenching up an old pair of flannel trousers as an afterthought to his son’s sensibilities, and was down the stairs in a moment only to find the object of his search and his son in the kitchen, egg to the elbows, and giggling madly.
He leaned against the door jamb and watched them for a long moment.
“Damn,” Claire said, flipping something over in the skillet. “I burned another one!”
“It’s not quite as burned as the last one,” Willie said, helpfully.
“Fine, you can eat it then,” she said, holding the skillet out toward him threateningly.
“What is going on here, you two?”
“Mum Claire and I tried to make French toast, but she’s not very good at it.”
Claire stiffened when Willie called her ‘mum’ and Jamie nearly choked on his tongue, but he kept his countenance.
“Well, since you two mad scientists have used all of the bread, milk, and eggs, we’ll have to go to the grocery, won’t we? And we’ll get some breakfast while we’re out. Now, go clean yourself up, you wee ratten.”
Willie skipped out of the room cheerfully.
Jamie turned to Claire who looked pale and uncertain.
“Are you all right, lass? You look a bit fashed.”
“You… you might say that. Jamie, I didn’t ask him to-”
“No, I know, Claire. He… he wants a mum, you know. And you’ve been… you’ve been wonderful with him.”
“He’s wonderful,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s easy. But I couldn’t take his mother’s place, that would be wrong of me. And… he has you.”
Jamie sat at the kitchen table and pulled her hand into his.
“But what if I needed you too? You could be mum to Willie, and sister to Fergus… and maybe something to me as well?”
“Something? What are you asking me, Jamie?”
“Wife… would you be my wife, Claire?”
She sat, still and silent for a very long moment before she nodded, just barely. Then, after a moment, her face broke into a radiant grin. “Yes Jamie. I will.”
From the kitchen door came a pair of twin whoops from Fergus and Willie.