Colum MacKenzie, principal of Leoch Elementary School, looked at his watch for the fourth time and glanced across his desk.
Six chairs – five of which were occupied. Two by Ellen Fraser and her six-year-old son Jamie, two by Jessica Randall and her eleven-year-old son Jack – and one by Jack’s classmate Claire Beauchamp.
Jack sported a lump that would soon become a black eye – and glared at Jamie.
Claire looked bored and swung her legs absently.
Colum cleared his throat.
“Is your uncle always this late to appointments?”
Claire nodded, dark curls bobbing. “He insists I take the school bus, otherwise he’d always forget to pick me up. He’s a scholar, you know – the classics and such.”
“I love the Ancient Greek stories!” Jamie piped up from in between Ellen and Claire. “Hermes is my favorite!”
“Stop trying to impress her,” Jack glowered. “You’ve proved your point, Fraser.”
Jessica shushed her son just as the door crashed open. A well-dressed but disheveled man stumbled through and removed his fedora.
“Dr. Quentin Lambert Beauchamp,” he bowed to the room. “So terribly sorry I’m late. I’ve been translating an Assyrian manuscript and the time just slipped away from me…”
Colum stood and offered a hand. “No worries, Dr. Beauchamp – may I introduce Mrs. Randall and Mrs. Fraser?”
Lamb turned to the mothers and nodded polite hellos. “My – isn’t that darling boy the spitting image of his mother! Such fiery red hair – genetics is just a lovely thing!”
“Please sit, Uncle Lamb.” Claire’s voice was gentle but firm – evidently used to guiding her uncle back to the main topic of conversation.
“Yes, yes – hello, dear Claire.” He bent to kiss the top of her head, unbuttoned his waistcoat, and settled into the empty chair beside his niece.
Colum sat and tented his fingers on his desk. “Now that we’re all here – I’m hoping this won’t be a long conversation. But I never countenance violence at this school – especially violence that results in an injury. Therefore - ”
“I didna hurt him too badly – it could have been a lot worse,” Jamie interrupted. “My brother Willie showed me.”
“Hush,” Ellen hissed. “Ye canna talk like that, Jamie. Are ye no’ sorry for hitting Jack?”
“I’m not,” Jamie insisted. “He was being mean to Claire. And he wouldna stop, Mam.”
“Rubbish.” Jack balled his hands into fists – and his mother lay a hand on his arm to quiet him. “I was just making conversation with Miss Beauchamp.”
“That’s no’ true!” Jamie’s fair brows shot up almost to his hairline, his small voice pleading. “That *mac na galla* put his hand on her arm and she yanked it away and then he did it again and she asked him to stop and – ”
“Jamie Fraser! Language!” Ellen exclaimed.
“Did you just speak the Gaidhlig?” Lamb turned to young Jamie, whose smart uniform was a bit askew after the events of the day. “I’m so thrilled that it’s making a resurgence – ”
“Tell us, Claire.” Colum, exasperated, wished he was anywhere but in that room. “Your version of events, please.”
Claire nodded and licked her lips. “It was recess. I was outside reading my botany book, and then Jack tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up and he said I was a fair English rose very far from home, here in Scotland. I didn’t know what to say to that except ‘thank you,’ so that’s what I said and I went back to my reading.”
She paused. “And then he tapped my shoulder again and said he had been watching me for a while and thought I was pretty.”
Jack squirmed in his seat. His mother turned to him, dark brows furrowed.
“And how did that make you feel, Claire?” Colum asked gently.
She straightened in her chair. “Uncomfortable, Mr. MacKenzie. I just wanted to keep reading my book, but Jack wanted to keep talking. And I didn’t want to talk to him. Uncle Lamb says that it’s not rude to ignore someone when they’re being persistent – that the other person will understand. But Jack didn’t.”
“Aye, he didn’t!” Jamie interjected. “And then he lay his hand on her a third time and that’s when I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to leave Claire alone.”
“And just how did *you* get involved in all of this, Jamie?”
Jamie faced Colum directly, chin tilted – proud and defiant. “I’ve been watching Claire, too – but she’s never noticed me, because I’m in first form. But my da always says that it’s a man’s duty to protect women – to keep them safe from harm. And I could tell that Jack wasna listening to what Claire wanted. And he’s bigger than her and she couldna push him away. So I had to step in.”
“But how did ye ken that Claire wanted ye to help her, lad?” Ellen asked gently. “Why did ye have to use yer fists?”
Jamie shifted to face his mother. “I asked him politely to let Claire go. And he laughed at me – said I was just a bairn.”
“You are,” Jack muttered under his breath. “You had no right to interrupt my conversation.”
“I had *every* right!” Jamie exclaimed. “When a lady says she isna interested, that means she isna interested. That’s what *my* Mam has always taught me. I dinna ken what *yer* Mam has taught ye. But ye were no’ doing what she wanted.”
“Jamie – ” Jessica Randall’s voice was quiet, but firm. “That still doesn’t make it right to hit someone.”
“But how else would he listen to me?” Jamie’s voice was choked, and the poor lad sounded on the verge of tears. “I asked him to stop. She asked him to stop. And he wouldna stop. And I was – ” he swallowed. “I was afraid he would hurt her in some way. So I hit him, to make him stop.”
“Stop being so bloody dramatic,” Jack sneered. Jessica nudged her son to keep silent.
“That’s quite gallant of you,” Lamb remarked quietly, patting young Jamie on the shoulder.
“I didn’t need the help – but I appreciate it,” Claire said softly.
Colum looked from Claire, whose cheeks were a bit rosy with color – to Jamie, a bit nervous – to Jack, eyes cold and narrow.
“I think you should exercise restraint with young Master Fraser,” Lamb suggested quietly. “He was only doing what he thought was right.”
“I’m inclined to agree,” Jessica added, shaking her head at her son. “How many times do we need to talk about this, Jack – if people don’t want to engage with you, you can’t force them.”
“One way or another, I *will* get a response from you, Claire,” Jack pledged.
“No you won’t,” Claire insisted.
“I willna let it,” Jamie nodded.
Claire smiled at Jamie, and he flushed.
Colum thought for a moment. “I agree to go easy on Jamie – he was only doing what he thought was right. He can’t go unpunished for hitting Jack, but I’ll be very reasonable.”
Ellen nudged Jamie. “Thank ye,” he said softly.
Colum nodded. “And as for you, Jack – I’d like to spend some more time with you and your mother. I want to nip this antisocial behavior in the bud.”
Lamb, Ellen, Jamie, and Claire stood, thanked Colum, and quietly exited the room.
In the hallway, Ellen helped Jamie into his coat while Claire brushed stray crumbs off of Lamb’s jacket. Ellen turned to the eccentric older gentleman. “I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances – you’re raising a truly lovely girl.”
Lamb smiled, a bit uncomfortable at the praise. “I’m trying my best, Mrs. Fraser – Claire and I only have each other. And our books, of course.”
Jamie took Claire’s hand and led her away from the grown-ups.
“I’d like to have you and Claire over to the farm for dinner one night – if you’d be up for it, of course.”
“Oh, we’d love to!” Lamb’s smile extended from ear to ear, his heart warmed at the gesture. “It’ll be good to get Claire in a new setting. And anyway, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other in the months to come…”
They turned to see Claire and Jamie deep in conversation – her bent to be at his eye level.
“What do you suppose they’re talking about?” Ellen asked.
Lamb shrugged and put on his fedora. “We can ask them on their wedding day. Come along, Claire!”
Claire straightened to follow her uncle – but not before hugging Jamie and kissing his cheek.
Jamie watched Claire go, thunderstruck.
Ellen shook her head, smiled, and gently guided her son to the car.