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In With The New


"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!"

Claire was muttering her way up the stairs as she wriggled her covered wrist off her chiffon sleeve to check the time on her watch. 10:46 PM.

Great going, Beauchamp. She was fifteen minutes late.

Marching up with her huge leather bag dangling on the crook of her arm and her hand holding up a brown paper bag of sweets, she prayed hard that Faith would not fuss about how their five-minute agreement did not go according to plan once she sees the bag filled with four, four-finger KitKat bars, a pair bought for each twin.

KitKats have always been Claire's secret weapon when in her most desperate times. Although she saw to it that she did not spoil her girls with all the sweet treats in the world, there were times when she saw it fit to give them a little reward for being good girls, or a token for appeasement for any misgiving brought upon them, such as her breach of agreement tonight.

Moreover, after the long and tough month she and the girls were in, she needed something to keep them from any of the pain she was going through. Claire would not want them to bear in mind the mistakes of Frank—to not know the horror their mother faced when, after a shortened shift at the hospital, she arrived home only to see Frank and his lady colleague from university almost a month ago, sharing a few glasses of brandy and some intimate kisses by their house's fireplace—

None of him, hitting her temple with the base of her palm, none of him, woman. Get rid of that fucking bastard, get him off your head!

Claire scampered up the stairs until she reached the third floor of the apartment building, where her daughters (one sound asleep, the other probably thrashing on the living room because her Mummy is not home yet) were waiting with their Aunt Geillis. The apartment hallway was still well-lit even in the evening, so spotting the door with the room number 304 was not much of a challenge. When she saw the said door, it was as though her body gravitated towards it and in what seemed like a split-second, she was leaning against it, knocking on its smoothened surface with her knuckles.

The door flung open softly after a few more knocks, and she held her head out to meet Geillis eye-level, but was surprised when there wasn't a tall woman to meet her face to face by the doorway. Instead, she felt a sudden, tight clutch on her thigh.

"Faithie!" Claire gasped at the sight of wild red hair bouncing up and down beneath her, wailing and crying as she harnessed herself onto her mother's flanks, but a misstep suddenly sent the little girl stumbling on the concrete floor. "Oh, dear. Oh, no!" Claire immediately crouched down to pick up Faith from where she lay on her stomach. With a little grunt to pick up momentum, she lifted her daughter to be examined of any injury. Bruises? None. Cuts? None of that either.

Claire dusted Faith's pink sweatshirt instead. The injury wasn't anywhere extrinsic, Claire concluded, but she wailed as if she scraped both knees.

"You said five!" Faith wailed, worry filling her amber-brown eyes more than it contained disappointment. Before Claire could even reprimand her for opening the apartment door without even asking for adult assistance, she was already overcome by her own daughter's misery that instinct prodded her to pull the girl into her arms. The admonitions could wait a little bit longer, Claire supposed, but a broken heart couldn't. If a heart needed any mending, it needed that immediately.

"I know. I'm sorry, lovie." Claire crooned behind her ear, repeatedly stroking Faith's back in a slow, circular motions. "Mummy's here now. Shhh."

Maybe it was all too scary for the twins to be in an unfamiliar place all so suddenly; although the girls were very fond of their Aunt Geillis and had spent some of their days in her apartment for playdates, they never actually stayed the night in any place other than their house back in Oxfordshire. Growing up, Bree and Faith had the huge townhouse for themselves. The Randalls' Residence—or at least it was now Frank Randall's residence—was more than enough for Brianna and Faith had to run around and frolic; he would occasionally arrive from work with newly-bought toys and dolls that would match and fit inside their playhouse, and he even had an interior designer convert one of their house's spare spaces to be the girls' playroom.

School was also done within the premises of their home, as Frank thought it would be better for the two girls to have a teacher's full attention in their learning, much more be taught by one of his trusted colleagues at work who has a master's course in Child Education. He volunteered he'd cover all the fees for their homeschooling education, and Claire obliged to his offer, happy with how the private-teacher setup would save them both time from bringing the kids to and from school. However, the happy arrangement they all enjoyed for several years all fell into shards when Claire arrived home earlier than expected one July evening, and what greeted her was the sight of her husband making love on the couch with Miss Sandy Travers—Frank's lady colleague, and, as much as she hated to admit the truth, was also her daughters' private homeschool teacher for two years.

She'd always wondered how long did they keep this from her; Candy—or Sandy, rather, had been tutoring the twins since they were three, and visited home almost every weekday, even at times when Claire had night shifts at the hospital.

When she saw Frank thrusting his hips against that ugly, blonde wench that night, she couldn't escape the possibility that they might have had this illicit, amorous relationship for months, or worse, more than a year.

Of course, that was the last day of Sandy's homeschooling stint for the twins, as it was also the last day she saw Frank until the morning of the present day, when he stormed back inside the house with divorce papers, and a lawyer. Where he stayed during his month's disappearance, she didn't want to know. Sometimes, as Claire would recall, it felt like Frank had already given up on her a long time ago, and he simply had to look for a good enough reason to finally end things once and for all.

She didn't know what saddened her more, if it was the fact that she caught him cheating, or the thought of him deliberately doing every action to finally put their marriage to an end. Either way, it was clear that their marriage was already making a beeline towards its own downfall, as they talked through the phone, in the course of a month, exchanging spiteful words until Frank ended their eight years of marriage with the words: "Just sign the goddamn papers when I get there, I don't want this anymore."

Without a second thought, they both made their terms clear that morning: Frank insisting that they both lived separately and independently from each other, that their shared properties be transferred to the former sole proprietor, and the last one—which Claire appealed—that she would take full custody of the girls, not even requesting any form of alimony or financial support from her husband. She wished, however, while she eyed the lawyer's adept fingers tapping on the his laptop's keyboard, that Frank would object to her proposal, but he didn't.

In fact, he even had some time to spare to make a snide remark. "They aren't mine, anyway. Why would I even bother?"

Those words ultimately changed Claire's perception of him: from being the handsome and brilliant man she once loved, Frank is nothing more than a rotten son of a bitch. She was disgusted.

Facing Faith again, she pushed her thoughts away with a kiss on her daughter's forehead.

"I'm sorry, sweetie. I..." Claire sighed, her own soul craving for the same comfort her daughter asked for. "I know you want to go home, but right now, we can't. Not anymore. But soon, we'll come back to collect your toys, and your clothes, and—"

"No, no," Faith shook her head as she pulled herself away to look at her, iris to iris. Cupping her mother's cheeks with her little hands, she cooed against her cheek. "I just want Mummy. Just you."

She swallowed back the growing lump in her throat, not wanting to make Faith see her cry.

"And you have me, baby. Hush now, Mummy's here, okay? I'm here."

They remained in the middle of the apartment doorway for a few seconds, hugging and whispering soothing words, before Claire carried little Faith in her arms, the KitKat paper bag still clutched in one of her hands. Seeing that Faith's wailing state had now been pacified, Claire was relieved she didn't have to offer the sweets to her daughter this late in the evening.

"Quietly now, quietly," She whispered animatedly to the little girl's ear as she tiptoed into the room. "We don't want to wake up Aunt Geillis—"

"What on earth were ye thinkin', leaving me alone with two rowdy bairns fer hours?!" The person in question suddenly appeared from the kitchen, her strawberry-blonde hair bunched up to the top of her head in a black ponytail. "Ye've got us all worrit, Claire! I was about to call ye when my phone suddenly got spirited away by who kens who."

Claire made a sneaky glance towards the little girl in her arms and pressed a finger to her lip, making a 'shh' sound, and she mirrored her action. No telling, she touched the tip of Faith's nose.

"It turns out I've put the entire house on pins and needles, but thank you for always being the reliable one, Geillis. A place to stay is all we'll need for the next few days." She propped Faith back on the floor, thinking that she would scuttle back to the room and sleep now that she knew her Mum was around, but the little girl stayed by her side, hopping with both her hands up, quietly wishing for Claire to carry her.

"Okay, wean. Enough wi' the toting." Geillis crossed her arms towards Faith, who was not paying any attention to her. "Yer mam needs to rest, and so do ye. Off to bed wi' Bree now?"

"But—"

"I'll follow soon," Claire knelt down and clasped Faith hands with her bigger ones. Enclosing them together with her fingers, she blew a warm breath in the little space in between, sending her grinning from ear to ear. "If you need me, I'll just be here outside with Auntie G, sweetheart."

Faith made an ungraspable blubbering sound with her lips, before she hummed a nod. "Kiss kiss?"

"Okay, kiss kiss." Claire gave her little forehead a peck before she made a sprint to the spare bedroom Geillis prepared for the three of them. The door closed shut after Faith's disappearance, and the apartment was silent once again. Turning around to meet her best friend to make a proper apology for staying out late, Claire's lips parted, but then closed again, at the sight of the slender-bodied woman holding up a decanter of red wine. "What's that?"

"A beautiful bottle of cabernet sauvignon. What else does it look like?"

"I know what it is, G. But why take it out?"

Her green orbs rolled with slight exasperation after glancing over the decanter filled with a captivating shade of dark rufescent. "I ken it isna fit for the occasion. Be best if we had something stronger, but this is all that I have at the moment. I'm sure after a long day wi' Frank-enstein ye'd want to down a glass or two while I keep ye company, aye?"

"I don't think I should—"

"Ye have the day off tomorrow, don't ye?"

Claire breathed out forcefully; there seemed to be no other way but to accept her offer into drinking into the remaining hours of the night. Concerned of the emotional mess her friend was in, Geillis insisted that Claire should rest and wait by the kitchen counter while she took out two wineglasses from the cupboard, placing them haphazardly on the table. She then proceeded to pour the bloodlike liquid onto each goblet up to its distended midsection. "A toast to freedom," Geillis smiled as she raised her half-full glass of wine. The two ladies were now seated on either side of the counter, both their shoulders hunched over their elbows. "A heartbreak, but a victory nonetheless."

Claire raised it quietly, not having with her any snappy comeback to give, and downed the liquor in two big gulps. She was lonely and grieving to the core, but she can't seem to shed any more tears.

"I gather ye intend to be drunk tonight," Reaching for the decanter, Geillis frowned at Claire's empty wineglass as if she was considering heading out to the store just to buy an extra bottle.

"Could be," Claire made a lazy laugh as she tilted her glass for her friend to pour more of the wine in. "Could be not."

"Ye brazen wee hussy,"

The two of them had eventually emptied the wine decanter when Claire began to pour her heart out about what happened during the day. It didn't last long, she recounted; signing the papers together with Frank felt as if terminating years built upon vows of being together was as easy as snatching candy from a helpless baby. After meeting up with the lawyer to agree on terms and sign papers for custody, Claire packed most of her and the twins' clothes before driving her way over Geillis' apartment, although she told Frank she'd come back to check on other things and see if they would either be brought along or be burned to ashes. "It took me a while to arrive here because I went out to Westminster. I needed the time alone."

"And did it help?"

"It always does." Claire lips curved upward when she remembered the two chandeliers. "This time, I was reminded of how the people I have now are far greater than the ones I've lost. Faith. Brianna. And you, of course."

"Sycophant." Geillis' gaze shifted from her now empty glass to the four pieces of large travel suitcases lined up against the wall just beside the door leading to where Faith and Brianna were sound asleep. "Is that all of it?"

"I'm afraid not, there's still a few more left back at home." Claire mumbled, eyes groggy from both the wine and the tears. "I told Frank I'd come by sometime tomorrow to check on the few remaining items. Clothes and toys and some other things. Everything else that's left will be burned."

"Yer letting anger consume ye, Claire. I'd rather ye give them to charity. Or an orphanage." Geillis suggested matter-of-factly, "There are a lot of bairns who'd be happy to receive that beast of a playhouse. O' course that bulk canna be brought along wi' ye when ye travel to Boston, no?"

Of course, charity! Why didn't I think about that?  "Now I feel like an idiot for thinking about burning the bloody playhouse, in all honesty."

"I think it to be understandable. Ye've been in a fecking deep hellhole for the entire month, Claire, so if ye wish me to accompany ye in collecting those items in the morrow, especially that monster playhouse, I would. For the sake of your well-being."

She gave Geillis a look of disbelief, despite her kind and generous offer. "You're joking. Isn't it a full shift for you tomorrow?"

"Och!" In what seemed to be Geillis' fiftieth eye-roll, she slammed her palm against the counter. "Yer oot yer face, fer fuck's sake. Do ye even recall that we've been sharing the same 12-hour shift for two months now?" Geillis held the stem of her wineglass with a firm grip, as though she'd whack it against the table if Claire wouldn't take it away from her grasp.

Now she didn't know who was more drunk than the other. Was it her, or the ever-spirited Geillis Duncan, who was now giving her the middle finger. "Feck ye, fer leaving me Claire! Ye sexy piece o' shite."

Upon hearing this, Claire was not so sure whether she'd get mad at her, or laugh as she sputtered nonsense at her face. "Look, I understand you're disappointed, but I'd highly suggest you keep it low unless you want my daughters to begin cussing the moment they wake up." She shrugged, drinking the remaining contents of her wineglass. "I already told you about this last month, haven't I? We can't live here anymore, G. I'd barely thrive knowing that this place had been suffocating me for the past two years ever since F..." she struggled to mention the name, not wanting to recall, but she ended up forcing it out of her lips anyway. "...since Frank began to act differently."

The grief in Claire's eyes must have sent Geillis' head back in the conversation, since her brows softened, and were no longer arched as it was awhile ago.

"It's just... London reminds me of losses now, Geillie. My parents, my Uncle Lamb, my marriage, my husband, I seem to lose a lot while I'm here."

"But what does that make of me, then?" She asked. "I'm still here for ye, am I not?"

A tear fell down from the corner of Claire's eye. Her sweet, clingy bestfriend sure did not like parting with her, even if they both knew it was for the best. "I know you are, G. And I know you will be even if we're miles apart,"

Claire understood fully well that she can never blame Geillis for being a little proprietorial of her, for she had been the latter's first friend when she moved in from Scotland for medical school. They braved one class after another together, and have become each other's source of motivation and support as they pursued the dream of getting that license to heal. Claire recommended her a good place to stay during their freshmen years, somewhere just beside the university, which would eventually save Geillis from paying a hefty sum just for rent. For that simple gesture, the lady Scot was more than grateful.

During Claire's pregnancy, Geillis had been very generous to hand down her notes, and even visit her at home just to give her a recap in the day's lectures at times when her body was too weak to attend classes. Because of that great sacrifice she did just to make sure she passed the term, Claire had made Geillis not only her best friend, but also the godmother of the two little girls.

"I think I'm the perfect person to be their god-mam. Who else can better understand a Scot than a fellow Scot?"  was the first thing she whispered to Claire when she first saw the twins swaddled in her friend's arms. Oftentimes, she would even joke to her privately that people would probably believe it more if she told everybody she was the girls' father, and not Frank.

Now, Claire also thought the same; albeit single, her bestfriend did have a knack for parenting than Frank did over the past years of being married to him. Geillis was so great with the girls, constantly checking on them by crashing into the Randall Residence for a morsel and a playdate, or if the shifts at the hospital kept her from doing so, FaceTime always came in handy. Leaving London for Boston was going to be a breath of fresh air for Claire—a chance to start over with a clean slate. The only thing that might probably pierce her heart as she left was the fact that she would be living her new life without hearing the shrill voice of Geillis Duncan by the doorway, telling everybody to gather round for a good pie of pizza.

As much as Geillis didn't know what to do without Claire in the picture, she too felt that parting was necessary. "Ye really do have to go, I suppose." The blonde woman languidly crossed her arms in front of Claire. "Although I'm in no position to stop ye after yer wallaper of a husband put ye into this emotional wreck all these years, I really canna put into picture how life's gonna be wi' out ye, hen. Ye and the bairns have always been a part of the wee photo of the future I have in my heid, ye ken? If only Boston was just a block away...perhaps it would be bearable." She blinked up towards the ceiling, batting her wet eyelashes to dry.

"I'm sorry," Claire stood up from her seat and walked over to the other side of the table to pull Geillis to an embrace. By the time she had squeezed her tight enough as she cried, the other woman wept, hands flapping against Claire's fluff of hair. "I really am, Geillis."

"Will ye really manage? Not that I doubt yer spunk and moxie, but is it too soon to hop to the other side of the world on your own?"

"I know I can, hun." Claire heaved a deep sigh against the woman's blonde streaks. She surely was going to miss Geillis' hugs when she braves the new world.

Still flapping her hands on her bestfriend's brown tufts, Geillis stifled a sniffle. "Oh, I'm gonna miss doing this to yer wild mop of hair. What am I gon' do now? Canna stop ye."

"I'm sure Faith and Brianna's going to miss you bringing pizza over at home."

"Hah! Of course you all will." she pulled away from the tight embrace, holding Claire with both her shoulders, emerald meeting amber. "I guess I just have to make the last days count, huh. Treat ye to one last box of pizza before ye go. "

 


 

With both the decanter and wineglasses devoid from any liquor for nearly an hour, the two doctors were now sobering up; emotions were no longer at bay, and the matters discussed were no longer about the regrets of the present, but were pertaining to future plans.

"So ye already filed a letter of resignation last month, the moment ye decided to leave for good."

"I did," Claire replied. "Thankfully, finding a residency program in Boston wouldn't be so hard, given that we both passed the US licensing examination back in class."

"Saved ye trouble. At least Frank was useful in paying for school fees." Geillis slowly deposited the empty glassware go the sink and began to wash. "Aye, aye. So. What d'ye plan on the property ye'll be leaving behind?"

The woman behind her was twirling her curls with a finger as she recollected the plans she had initially. "The only property I own now is my car, since, well, the house is Frank's. I managed to find a buyer for the car last week, so I guess I'm no longer using it once I've finished hauling the other items from Frank's house."

"I can manage the selling for ye," Geillis volunteered.

"You don't have to—"

The soap bubbles in her hands went flying as she swiftly turned towards her. "I insist, Claire. You can go and focus on getting settled in your new city, get the lasses acquainted with the new environment and all. Ye can leave the papers wi' me here in London, and then I can meet with the buyer and just send ye the payment, unless of course if ye'd given the fellow yer bank account number." It turns out Geillis had planned much about how she could be of assistance to her, and Claire knew that when this woman insisted on something, there was nobody who could convince her otherwise. "Ye've got a lot on yer plate, so let me."

"Oh. Alright then, if you insist."

"Will tomorrow be the last day ye'll ever meet the F-word?"

Claire thought as she loved the way Geillis addressed him. F-word. I'll consider using that.

"I hope so. The divorce paper's on the works. It's going to take a few months, but it will be worth the wait. Right now, we've agreed into living according to the terms even as we wait for the court's verdict." which, Claire badly hoped would work out well. If there was one thing she didn't wish to relive, it would be to be bounded as his wife over again.

Geillis nodded at that in relief. "Ye are strong, Claire. Feisty. And with the wee lasses taking on ye, I can guarantee ye'd fair well in Boston. But, promise me one thing."

Claire arched a brow—the soft arches evoking such force of character. "What's it going to be?" She asked, and her friend's doe-like eyes narrowed towards her.

"Ye better promise me ye'll live a happy and full life, something that is much better than what ye experienced now." Geillis looked at her straight in the eye. "I canna afford to see ye in misery again, Claire. I swear, if I do find out ye're back in the same hurricane," Geillis was beginning to sound comically spine-chilling. "I will come find ye, and thump ye into my suitcase and bring ye and the bairns to the Highlands."

A loud snort. "Jesus H. Christ! And here I am thinking your words had some importance. The bloody Highlands, really?" Claire garbled a laugh as she playfully tugged on Geillis' long, blonde hair.

"Who needs a man? Ye'd never know ye'd be happier living among the coos up the glens. A sassenach wench living the authentic Highland life would be such a sight."

"Sassenach?"

"Someone who doesn't live in the Highlands, such as ye." she giggled. "An outlander, to put it simple."

"I'm that sassenach lady either way, Highlands or Boston. Doesn't make much of a difference, does it?"

"Doesna really. But I can tell ye'd fit in just fine in America."

In what became a long exchange of nods, Claire eventually sighed.

"I really am going to miss you."

They exchanged one more hug before Geillis goaded Claire up her chair and to her room. Claire whispered a quick "good night" to Geillis before the said woman disappeared into her own room. Carefully, Claire turned the doorknob, pushing it open to reveal the spacious futon mattress sprawled on the floor; its immense size was big enough to accommodate five average-sized adults, but the only occupants of the said beddings were two little girls. Both of them were huddled and covered in their blankets and pajamas in the far end of the huge square.

Claire hastily changed to her nightware of choice: a loose, grey university shirt from Oxford, and her silk PJs, to match her daughters' outfits. As soon as she was ready to hit the hay, she crawled onto the bed, and then towards the edge of the mattress, where Faith and Brianna were sound asleep.

"Five years went by too quickly. Did it not?" her hands gently pulled the blankets just enough to unveil their peaceful, sleeping faces—with tousled copper-cinnamon tresses bunched against the pillows where their heads rested.

God, they grow up so fast.

Brianna and Faith were fraternal twins, but for the untrained eye, it would seem as if they were identical because of the beautiful, slanted eyes and fringe of red they both shared. Apart from that, they had within them some unique, defining, physical features that could instantly distinguish one from the other; to name a few, Faith's eyes were like Claire's: an enchanting, smoky, golden-amber. Brianna's eyes, however, did not resemble much of her mother's, but of her unknown biological father, who seemed to have gifted her daughter with the most alluring pair of slanted, ocean-blue eyes. The way Brianna's irises shifted in color depending on the way light seeped through those azure spheres was remarkable in every angle. Funny it may seem, but there was a little part somewhere at the back of Claire's mind that would seldomly thank the man who helped her attain her dream of becoming a mother, and for bestowing upon her the most beautiful girls in the world.

As Claire remembered every bit and twinkle of memory, she also looked forward into spending the entire day with them come morning.

 


 

"KitKat!" Brianna shrieked in excitement at the sight of her favorite wafer bar, still well-kept inside its red foil wrapper. "KitKat, Mummy. Please?"

"Bree—"

"Please?" Her voice was sharp enough to break Geillis' glass flower face, that Claire had to put back the chocolate back inside the fridge, and crouch down before her. Clasping her hands with hers, and blowing soft breaths from the small openings the way she did with Faith last night was enough to calm her down.

"Mummy's going to give you the chocolate bar if you eat your breakfast first, baby." She blew onto her daughter's hand once more before meeting her eyes, blue irises glowing vehemently as the sunlight from Geillis' living room window illumined the place. "I promise you'll get your chocolate. Bree and Faithie gets their chocolate, alright?"

"Can I eat my KitKat first, before breakfast?"

Claire giggled, tapping a finger to Bree's nose. "Nope, not happening, sweetheart. Breakfast first, then dessert. Can you repeat that after Mummy?"

"Breakfast," She hummed in disappointment, but she obeyed anyway. "then dessert."

"Yes, lovie. You did good! Kiss kiss?" Without delay, Brianna gave her the smooch she asked for. "Yay, Bree! Always a good girl. Okay, let's go wake up Faithie—oh there she is!" Claire turned towards the one nearing the bustling area of the apartment, greeting her with a same gleeful, bright tone she'd use for her daughters. "Good morning, sweetheart!"

"Uhrrp." The other girl, Faith, sloppily dragged herself one foot after another while rubbing both eyes with her tiny hands. Her cropped auburn hair was just as disheveled as when Brianna first entered the kitchen, but Claire thought Faith's would be a quicker fix, compared to the other who had her long mane in the most troublesome of morning tangles and bunches.

"Oop! Here comes Baby Number Two." Geillis made a quick glance towards Faith, who clumsily bumped onto the wooden chair on her way to the breakfast table. While Claire busied herself in settling her children down on their respective chairs, explaining for the tenth time that the KitKats had to wait until they finished their meals, Geillis was occupied in cooking them a full English fry-up.

"Is it not ironic, how I'm the one cooking an English breakfast?" she glanced behind her shoulder to look at Claire, who had already been laughing at her laughable observation.

"It's for practicality's sake," The heat of the sunlight was beginning to pour itself down on the room, and so Claire decided to tie her wavy, brown hair up with a ponytail. "You know very well how I maintain a love-hate relationship with the kitchen."

"Oh aye, I ken how ye suck at cooking." It was a known fact between them both. "Ye better not rely on fastfood when ye are in Boston,"

Claire bawled at her, gaze still fixed onto Faith and Brianna. "God, no. Of course not! I'm pretty sure the place is good with lobsters and clams." She quipped, making a quick mental note to check whether her girls were even allergic to seafood.

"Mummy. KitKat?"

The banter between the two adults was put into a halt when another appeal for chocolate was made. Claire was no longer sure who among the two has asked for it, but the answer was clear:

"Breakfast," repeating things were surely exhausting, but never for these two precious babies. "and then, dessert."

 


 

The next five days went smoothly—except for that visit at the house. Other than her ruined marriage, all else worked out well. The kids were, to her surprise, were not difficult to convince. In fact, they were excited to experience the life in another world: a life that meant 'Disneyland was nearer', as she'd remember Brianna explain to her sister Faith the perks of being in America.

Claire was also not used to how her hospital shifts went by with not even the most toxic of schedules. After that little incident at the apartment door the other night, Claire had asked Mrs. Baird, the girls' daytime babysitter, to come by Soho instead of their house in Oxforshire to take care of the girls. She had been working with the Randalls ever since the girls were two years of age, as Frank and Claire were usually out for the day in work and in school, respectively. When she asked why she and the girls were no longer staying at their own townhouse, Claire was generous enough to enlighten her with what's happened between her and Frank.

She did come visit the house she and Frank had shared for the past years. With Geillis tagging along, their goal was to collect and sort out the things to be brought along with Boston, and the things to be given to the local charity. During her first visit, which was the day after she signed the papers with her husband, Frank was not there to greet them by the front door.

It was Sandy Travers.

"Oh, g-good day to you, Mrs. Randall." Growing pale by the second, the blonde homeschool teacher couldn't even look straight at Claire.

Geillis, however, was persistent in catching an eye. "Weel. If it isn't the couch-lapping, lecherous huir of a tutor. 'Tis yer house now, then?"

"I—" Sandy was appalled, and she did look like she wanted to cry.

"Listen, Candy." Claire narrowed and made sure she purposefully mispronounced her name, one hand placed on top of Geillis' shoulder to stop her. "I'm not here for any trouble. It's not my house now, but some of my belongings are inside, and I've come to take them with me."

The woman immediately nodded stepped aside, leaving them enough room to pass. "Do you need any help in getting things out?" She offered, but Claire declined, telling her to just sit on the couch by the fireplace, since that was where Sandy, at the graces of her then husband, moaned at every pounding thrust, screaming and panting while the poor, antique chaise longue creaked at every movement.

The moment she and Geillis have discarded most of the things from her former home—including that monstrous playhouse, she left, wishing that the couch cracked beneath Candy Travers.

The second visit, which was today, only involved a few items and books she'd soon instruct Geillis to ship over to Boston in the coming months. She prepared herself for when she'd meet Candy face to face again, but was taken by surprise to be standing in front of a tall man wearing a plain cotton shirt and a pair of strikingly blue trousers. His brown hair was neatly brushed up, and his dark hazel eyes hid beneath a thickly-framed eyeglasses. Frank may be a treacherous bastard, but he always had a good sense of fashion.

"You never told me about Boston," Frank glumly said as a welcome greeting when Claire appeared at the front door. Claire was unbothered by his presence, or at least she tried not to show it. Her heart had been shattered, yes, but every piece of it bore different emotions. Regret for what happened. Wishful thinking. Disgust. Desire, at times. Hate. Love. Vengefulness. Disappointment. Haunting.

She absolutely cannot put into one word what she felt seeing him, nor will she find such each time he appears before her. Brushing her hair back, she gave Frank an impassive look with her smoky topaz eyes, evoking no particular emotion that could be felt by the other. He didn't deserve to feel any that came from her.

"You don't have to know." Claire crossed her arms. "I never intended for you to know."

"Would you ask me how I found out?"

"No. Can I come in?" She attempted to cut through the door, but Frank blocked the path immediately. "Frank—"

"Mrs. Baird told me you've been looking for flights to Massachusetts. To Boston." He was forceful, wanting to draw out a word from her. Any word that could make them stop moving and just start having that conversation. "While I was gone, have you...been scheming on leaving?"

She turned towards him, utterly disgusted with the way he sounded so pained and betrayed. "You make me sound like I'm the one who cheated. What difference does it make? A booked flight can be cancelled, but what you sticking your cock in that woman? I'm not so sure."

He winced at the mention of his own demise. "We could have talked—"

"You moved out, you fucking bastard!" Claire gritted her teeth, eyes gazing from Frank and then towards the living room where the couch was supposed to be, but it was no longer there. "You left us alone for almost a month without us knowing when you'd come back! You never begged, never even asked for forgiveness."

"You wouldn't listen to me, Claire."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, why would I listen when you never even said anything?!" Claire pointed out, and upon realization of it all, Frank stood silently as he took back his words. Claire was right; he never said a thing. "When I saw you...you j-just stormed out with that Candy—"

"Sandy,"

"—and all you had to give me were your bloody phone calls for a month until you came back, with the bloody papers." Claire didn't even bother correcting her train of thought. Candy or Sandy, she was a homewrecker. "Tell me, Frank. Is that not a deliberate decision to leave me?" Claire was not having any of his attempts in feigning his sorrow, nor any of his hypocrisy. She may be pained by what has happened, by what she saw and experienced, but she spoke her heart out with no tears.

"If I didn't come back wanting divorce," Frank said in a low tone after she'd rest her case, "And I found you planning to leave for Boston. Could we have talked this through?"

That dawned on her. Maybe if Frank did come back sooner, perhaps they could have saved their marriage. Perhaps she need not move to Soho and just be living peacefully in Frank's house, as Frank's wife...

Claire instantly shook her head. "No, none of those what-ifs. What's done is done."

"So you wanted this too, then. This whole marriage falling apart."

Fall apart? Claire was so certain she never wanted any of that. Then what could have caused Frank to let go? Was it the fact that he simply grew tired of her? Or was it because the girls did not have anything of him, not even the hair, or the eyes, or the face? Did he let go of the family that they have both built simply because it reminded him of his own incapabilities?

Claire even didn't want to know what triggered his unfaithfulness. For whatever the reason was, the damage has been done by Frank, who had been found lolling on the couch with another woman.

"I never wanted us to fall apart, Frank." How on earth is he even making a pointless attempt in dragging me into this? "You almost gave up because of yourself. When you found out about your...your diagnosis, I held you. I held onto you, telling you how much more we could do even if this was our fate. I held onto you when we both stepped into that clinic of endless uncertainties, and I held onto you when we began to raise our own little family. But you..."

Claire swallowed momentarily, examining Frank's face, now filled with self-criticism. "...you were holding onto someone else."

"Claire—"

"And to remind you of something that's far worse? You disowned the girls." She persisted, boldly taking a step in front of him. "You said it yourself with your very own words, and this I now affirm: Faith and Brianna are not yours. So why bother?"

Without waiting for any of his responses, Claire paced inside, scanning the last remaining items she had wrapped in bundles upstairs. She only took the three bags labelled 'TO FOLLOW SOON', while the others left in a big air-conditioning box labeled 'JUNK', which were mostly just old toys, coloring books, stained beddings and tattered clothing, were left on one corner. Coming down from the stairs, she saw Frank watching two men from a delivery company bringing in a three-seater La-Z-Boy couch, the giant furniture wrapped in tight plastic as the two burly men lifted it to the empty living room. Frank was giving them instructions as to where the couch be positioned when Claire came behind him.

"Where's the old chaise longue?" She asked as she stood beside him while watching the other men fumble around the living room with the giant couch.

"Hm?" Frank shrugged while he adjusted his glasses. "It broke down two days ago. I had it replaced immediately, since it would be a sad-looking parlor without anything placed at the center. I guess we just have to go out with the old."

"And in with the new," finishing his own words made Frank tilt his head towards her. They glanced, and then stared intently, thinking how did they end up as strangers again after all the years they had spent living together. Claire cannot seem to touch him, or kiss him the way she normally would any time of the day, and so did Frank.

"How..." he paused, rethinking his own thoughts. Rarely did she see Frank be at a loss for words; for one, he was an intellectual who always had his mind alert. But this time, he just seemed to be all over the place. "...how can you ever forgive me, Claire?" The strain in his voice could be heard, and he indeed struggled with his words as his lean body stood still. "I understand it's the end of the road, but maybe at least we could part ways without harboring guilt or vengefulness. Perhaps it would be better for us to do so."

"All done, Sir." One of the men interrupted, clapping his hands off the dust. "I'll leave the unpacking to you, just as you asked."

Frank nodded politely as the men quietly exited the room, leaving him alone with Claire once again. He turned back, never the one who'd leave a question unanswered.

"It's too late to say sorry to gain back what was lost. But never to late to save us from the burden of carrying the dark past as we move along." He faced her entirely, his body directed towards her as he made a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry, Claire. I was wrong."

Maybe forgiveness was fair. None of her plans to move away, even if it meant being with Faith and Brianna, would work if she brought along a heavy and darkened heart.

But she had to be honest.

"I don't know if I can forgive you now, Frank. You might think me selfish, but I'm hurt. I need time. I—"

"It's totally fine, Claire. I, uh, understand that it isn't something forced upon."

It was during these moments, the calm after their fights, that they would both make things right with an embrace, and Claire wasn't used to the strange, perplexing feeling of her own body competing against her mind. A part of her wanted to pull him close, to bury her face against his chest as they comforted one another, and another part within didn't want to. Quietly, she picked up the bundles of items and headed straight right to the door.

"Good luck in Boston, Claire."

Although she didn't turn to see Frank say those words, she had the full knowledge that the small pace that sat between where they both stood would broaden and stretch all the more. Forgiveness may still be uncertain at this point. But perhaps, Claire thought to herself, if they allowed each other to live their lives, perhaps time would make her forget there's something to forgive.

"Goodbye, Frank." She finally said before heading towards her car, stretching the distance between him and her all the more as she drove past the house. She was determined to stretch that distance even more.

 


 

"This'll be yer new address, then?" Raising the phone to meet Claire's eyes, Geillis pointed to the little green message bubble. "This one, this Beacon Hill. The one ye texted?"

Claire snickered a laugh which was not even audible with the bustling movement and noise in Heathrow's Terminal 2. They have just checked in all of their luggage, and as soon as the last bag was deposited, they all went to meet Geillis before leaving. "For the nth time, G, yes. That's the address." Faith and Brianna were a few meters away, standing—hopping, to be more specific, from one tile to another, playing a little game of hopscotch. With matching mustard-yellow jackets and backpacks, the duo hopped like ginger Duracell bunnies.

"I just wanted to make sure I shipped yon package to the right place. Dinna want the boxes to end up in Hawaii or something."

"Very funny, Geillis." They spent the next few minutes idly standing, sometimes watching Faith and Bree be their usual, active selves, hopping restlessly across the tiled floor, until Claire broke the afflictive and torturing silence between her and her longtime bestfriend. "I guess...this is it."

"It probably is, aye." the two brought closed their distance, and embraced each other, knowing that they won't be able to do the same gesture of affection as regularly as they had been doing. "We're haftae gie used to phone calls, Claire. That or I'll move in to Boston, since I canna insist on ye to stay here."

"I'll take the second offer," she laughed, pulling away to call the two girls, who had been staring at the vending machine. "Bree! Faithie! Come on now, we'll give Aunt Geillis a kiss-kiss before we go." The two three-foot-five toddlers hopped their way back, giving her a kiss and a tight hug.

"Bye-bye, Auntie G." Faith spoke in a quiet voice as the older woman squeezed her tightly into her arms. Brianna, who just finished getting her hug before her sister, stood behind. With a wistful stare, she asked: "Who'll give us our pizza now?"

"Oh, lassie! Last night's pizza won't be the last ye'll ever receive from me." Geillis turned towards the blue-eyed one, gently adjusting her lopsided pigtails to make it snug and tight. "I'll still be giftin' ye with a pie from time to time. Especially when ye promise to be good lasses to yer Mam, alright?"

"I promise!"

"I promise too!" Faith beamed as well, sending both Claire and Geillis laughing.

"That just means I'm buying pizza for dinner when we get there," Claire lovingly patted the girls' backs, which indicated that it was their 'time to go' signal.

"Weel, I willna keep ye for long hen." Geillis had both her hands to her arms, embracing herself while the too little girls waved goodbye. Claire waved too. "I'll see ye soon!"

Oh, Geillis. She along with her children marched further into the building, towards the passenger gates, and shortly, towards the aircraft that would transport them to an entirely new world.

Let it be sooner.

 


 

 

Boston, Massachusetts

September 2018.

 

 

"Doctor Randall?" A man's voice approached her all so suddenly, she swore she could have spilled her coffee if the papercup didn't have its lid on. "Whoa, hey, easy. Alright, no harm done. Coffee's saved." He chuckled as he occupied the empty chair beside her.

Claire glanced to be greeted by a stocky black man, who appeared to be only a few inches taller than her. The first two weeks living and breathing in Boston's air, getting both her kids accustomed with their new cobblestone neighborhood, and getting all of her papers out and moving made it hard for her to register new people both in and outside the hospital, except for Joseph Abernathy, who did not only possess outstanding features, but also a knack for making friends. The doctors' lounge was their usual rendezvous place, and whenever their working breaks permitted them a cup of coffee, they would usually find themselves there.

"Joe!" She smiled, placing her cup of coffee on the lounge's table. "I would rather have you call me Doctor Beauchamp, if it's possible."

"Oh-ho. Who says it isn't? It's a free country, Lady Jane. I'll see to it I won't make the same mistake ever again," Joe quipped, leaning in closely beside her, "Doctor Beauchamp."

Had it not been for Joe's warm and affable character, Claire would still have been keeping to herself as she acclimatized herself in her new workplace. It would have gone that way if it weren't for their previous conversation about kids, which then led her into asking her colleague whether he could recommend a good kindergarten school around the place and Joe mentioned a few good recommendations.

"There was one private school I intentionally left unmentioned when you first asked me, Lady Jane" Joe told her while pulling something out from his white coat. "I left it out of the choices initially, since my judgmental-ass thinks that a proper Englishwoman like you might find outdoor kindergarten absurd. But here's the brochure."

The three-fold paper made a sharp thwack as it hit the table's surface. "A proper Englishwoman? I'm no such thing, excuse me! Now, let me see that." She made a stifled laugh, after catching a glimpse of the big Quiet Please sign posted on the wall behind the snackbar. Taking the folded paper into her own hands, she inspected the front page, bedecked with foliage and a few photos of children huddled together for a photo—one of these photos were smiling kids, lying flat on their bellies, in an actual mud pile.

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.

"Please don't tell me this is among your suggested kindergarten schools."

"I'm sorry to tell you that it is. God, you better see the look in your face, Lady Jane." Joe was dragging his chair closer to her. "Does the thought of mud and germs scare you?"

She read the top heading of the brochure, where the words LEOCH LEARNING FORESTS occupied the top-half of the page.

"Mud and germs don't scare me, but it might scare my girls! They haven't even played in the dirt, as far as I can remember." The thought of seeing Faith and Brianna's terrified faces while surveying the woods and crawling on the mud lingered in her head. Surely her girls would never end up in that cover page, because they'd be crying over a single smudge of dirt in their arm.

"Are your girls even kids? Or have they been spending their years over teatime?" Joe deadpanned, and after being given the silent treatment by Claire, he retorted. "Okay, I was kidding! I get it, LJ. It may be a big leap of faith for your homeschooled girls, but outdoor school helps a lot, if getting them well-acquainted with other kids their age is your goal. It has helped in building my Lenny's self-confidence and empathy for others."

"Your son's kindergarten years were from this school?"

"Affirmative."

"And did he like it?"

"Oh, that would be an understatement, Lady Jane. My boy loved it." Joe watched her peruse through the pages, looking through one page after another. "There was a drastic improvement in Lenny's confidence during his years outside with the other kids. It earned him good friends too, which led into improving his speech, his social skills, his great understanding for the bigger world. There's something remarkable about introducing your kids to the outdoors, you know. You're not just preparing these young ones for grade school. You're preparing them for the world."

He continued to talk, mostly about Lenny's experiences, which made it clear that he wasn't simply convincing Claire into trying something unconventional, but he was coming from experience. "But of course," he finally said after Claire gulped down what was left of her coffee cup, "That's one thing added to the list I gave you, LJ. How many did I give, five?"

Claire nodded. "This is the fifth."

"And that would be my last," Joe smiled, tapping her back. "Leoch is always, and I mean always, my trump card for every parent asking for a suggestion, you see. Try to be a little bit loose with the girls. I'm sure it'll help them warm up in their new home."

Forest kindergarten—or perhaps Joe's remarkable testimony about Lenny's experience—did intrigue her, as it was a not-so-conventional, yet a promising learning environment. After the two years the girls spent being homeschooled about the big world within the four corners of their house's quaint study, Claire wanted to conduct her own inquiry about the forest school Joe had been talking about. Holding up the brochure he left for her at the end of her twelve-hour shift, Claire made the drive past buildings until she reached the address indicated in the three-fold. When she reached the town of Wellesley, she reduced her speed along the highway until she saw the landmark: an archway slightly hidden in the red maple foliage, bearing the words Leoch Learning Forests. She maneuvered the car inside, seeing the wide, wooden barn gates pushed to either side of the road indicating that the place was still open.

The driveway had wooden picket fences on either side that led up to the establishment's receiving hall. There were no designated parking spaces, except for the wide empty spot of gravel and some patches of grass right in front the receiving area. She could see that the place was well-lit, but at the same time was certain that nobody was there to accommodate her when she'd enter.

I guess I'm just parking this here. Claire slowly stepped on the gas to park her car in front of a long, wooden trough resting sadly by the fence. Gathering her belongings, as well as the Leoch brochure, Claire stepped out of the car and began to walk towards the open entryway. "Is anybody here?" the sound she produced was faint in uncertainty. Maybe the receptionist had to take a dump? Was this place even open? Claire had only managed to squeeze in this visit because she knew her schedule in the next two days would not permit her to drive anywhere farther than Boston. She had some papers to settle, a few interviews with the hospital director, a movie date with her girls and—

"Could this be yer car, Ma'am?"

Her interior monologue was put to halt at the sound of a man's voice, and what came after that. There was a snort, a clapping of hooves, and the slightly pungent scent of horse. Then she remembered she parked her car right in front of a watering trough.

She made a brisk turn. "Oh, God. I'm so sorry, I blocked the—"

The sight that greeted her sent her to a halt. It was, as far as she could remember, her first time to see a majestic Friesian horse with her very eyes. It was rather a peculiar sight, seeing that the beautiful black stallion was sniffing the trunk of her car quizzically. Beside the monochromatic beast, however, stood a man who towered a few feet and a few inches taller than the horses' poll. By the looks of it, he had to be somewhere within six feet or more, and was no doubt a man who had a colossal, well-built physique. His right hand held onto the reins, while the other gently stroked the horse's shoulder.

But he was also, to her surprise, looking at her with a wondering gaze. Claire began to rethink if she'd seen that vivid shade of cerulean; it did remind her of her little Brianna's eyes, but then this was a tiny bit different. The way it glowed as it hit the sun's rays was unlike any other. Or perhaps it glowed differently because of the striking color of his hair—the thick, blazing curls of red—which had a slight shade of gold as the setting sun shined its rays from the red maple foliage behind him.

"Verra sorry to call ye so suddenly, Ma'am. Is this yer car right here?" He asked politely, still maintaining his position beside the horse. The way he spoke reminded her a lot of Geillis, and then she knew exactly why: he pronounced his words similarly, only with a lilt in his voice that produced a distinctive accent. And with the way he said the word 'car', the way he would naturally roll his 'r's, she knew that he was, obviously, a Scot: not just some man who had the genes, but someone who was born and raised in Scotland.

And if she were to put it in more specific terms, he was a handsome one.

What on earth was he doing here, with a horse?

"I," She breathed a whiff of the fresh forest air, but coughed when the foul odor of horse greeted her nostrils. "I, erm. I—" Another cough. "I wasn't aware the trough was being used,"

"Nae harm done," He didn't look mad about the car blocking the water trough, nor did he laugh when she hacked a terrible cough in front of him. But instead, he gave her a friendly smile, hand still patting the horse's crest. "The cars dinna come by the farm that much until classes begin, so I hadna taken out the wee parking posts for the time being. But if ye could just move yer car to the other side, ye'd do a great favor for Sleepy right here."

"Sleepy." The horse, Claire! Sleepy is the horse, idiot. "Of course," she said while her mind was in tangles at how a big horse had a soft name for himself. Sleepy didn't mind, anyway. He just kept his muzzle grazing around the lustrous surface of Claire's sedan, snorting and wanting to get rid of the metal object that kept him from his water break. "Is it safe to move with the horse? He won't bite me, wouldn't he?"

"Oh aye, wait a while." The man fumbled for a better grip on the reins before making a clicking sound, leading Sleepy to turn around and walk away from the car. The horse clearly didn't want to go anywhere further from the trough, so they simply kept a few meters' distance from Claire, safe enough for her to enter the driver's seat and maneuver the car slowly to the opposite side, free from any troughs or other items that might attract horses. Once she'd moved, the tall man had now led an excited Sleepy to his drinking trough, with the horse's black tail gently wagging in content. He turned around and looked towards her, giving her a happy thumbs-up.

The man seemed to know a lot about Leoch, with him knowing when cars flocked in and when the parking posts were needed to be brought out in the front. And although she didn't have much of a proof on whether a Scottish horse-wrangling giant wearing a loose black shirt and tight pants was the right person to ask about forest kindergarten before sundown, she simply had to push her luck.

"Sorry, I don't mean to interrupt you on a fine afternoon, but I was wondering if I could ask you a few things about this place?" Claire took out the piece of paper and handed it to him, his blue eyes squinting at the Leoch brochure. "I'm quite in a rush, and I can't find any of the staff inside. Not even the receptionist. But if you'd be so kind to tell me more about the place, then I'd be very happy."

He took the glossy folded paper from her, and looked at her momentarily with a soft expression. "That's alright. Ye wouldna have found anybody inside too. I'm the only person left to tend to the place this afternoon, ye ken. Was just giving the horse a wee ride so he doesna end up restless when he goes back into the stalls right before closing time, and then I saw a car entering the archway."

"Oh, erm. Thank you. Then this makes me all the more fortunate to find you here then."

He nodded. "Aye. So what d'ye want to know, Ma'am? Ye've got any bairns?"

"B-Bairn?" Geillis used this for the girls. "You mean, kids? Yes. Yes, I do. Twins, actually."

"Oh, that's verra bonny." He replied, gingerly rubbing the back of his head for a while, which exposed the taut muscles in his arm. He's scary huge, alright, Claire whispered in her head, thinking about how absurd it must be to be talking kindergarten matters with a man who looked as if he could pummel her car into a large pile of junk. For what it's worth, he might be a stable boy, and she was an obstacle to his last-minute duties.

But the man seemed willing to entertain her questions, flipping the three-fold open to present her a single whole page. "The program's best fit for three to six-year-olds, ken, and several bairns are assigned to one adult instructor, making it a 5:1 student-teacher ratio. Of course, if ye'd get yer twins enrolled, we'd group them together."

Claire found it amusing how he must have noticed her rolling and stretching her neck muscles, that he decided to scoot slightly beside her, just for her to keep her eyes on the brochure than to struggle tilting her neck towards his towering figure. After making a quick turn to check on Sleepy, who seemed content just standing beside the trough, he tapped on one portion of the brochure which showed the school's daily schedule.

"In a wee nutshell, Leoch simply takes learning outside the classroom, into the farm, and beyond towards the wee forests here. Instead of toying with those blocks and flashcards, the kids are exposed to the environment around them. We go in groups, collecting wee treasures, building small houses, have playtime in the yurt, and sometimes we get to interact with the farm animals."

Claire was nodding at him the entire time. "Farm animals?"

"Oh, just patting them coos, feeding goats and collecting chicken eggs. The safe ones that canna harm a soul."

"That's a relief," Claire crossed her arms as she looked behind his ruddy curls. The sun was now setting, and the place has gone one shade dimmer. He didn't seem bothered by it though, and neither did he give any hints that he and Sleepy were in a rush. "But... are there any accidents?"

"Accidents?" He made a Scottish sound that resembled a shrug. "That's inevitable in school, much more in an outdoor one. But dinna fash, the teachers here are trained paramedics. There are the occasional slips and falls, but nothing worse than that, I guarantee ye."

"Well, what about bites?"

"Bites?"

"The bites, from insects or the snakes in the forest... Is it safe?"

"Oh, them wee creepy crawlies, ye mean?"

She made an internal laugh. "Yes, those kinds of things."

"Och, nae danger, Ma'am. It's usually the forest that the parents are most afraid of, but it is just a heavily-shrubbed area within Leoch grounds." His finger now travelled from its rest on the brochure, and towards an enclosed patch of greenery on the far edge of the grounds. somewhere within the wooden picket fence behind her car. "And besides, if there's an emergency, we'd ken what to do."

"I heard you say 'we'," countless times, actually. He folded the brochure back into a smaller, rectangular piece and handed it back to her. "Are you perhaps a kindergarten teacher here?"

"Aye, one among the many." He said it with such sentiment and conviction, and Claire saw the glint in his eyes and the curve on his lips as he answered. He was proud of it. "Why? Ye were wondering how a stable hand kens about forest kindergarten all too well?"

"No, of course not." She laughed. "I just had never..."

"Never what, Ma'am?"

She made a side eye before giggling. "I never thought a sizeable man such as you would be hanging around with little children."

"Ah," He chuckled as he looked down, trying to examine his own size of a man. "There are a number of teachers who are big and braw too, Ma'am, it isna just me. Wait till ye see some of the other teachers, that is if ye do decide to bring yer bairns here when school starts."

Claire had a more questions that came after, and he was more than prepared to give her answers that it almost felt as though he had gone through the same set of queries that parents were mostly concerned about, but he didn't waver. He explained everything, bit by bit, with the flick of his hands and his low, accentuated Scottish timbre that reminded her a lot about a Highland warrior with his well-chiseled body and strong arms, and how the bulk of his thighs could be seen with the way his black riding jodhpurs were wrapped tightly on his legs. He could don a sark and a kilt, and look like somebody straight out of 18th-century Scotland.

"If ye'd oblige me with an answer, Ma'am," she had just tucked the brochure back inside her bag when he spoke. "I can tell this to be your first time wanting to enroll the bairns in an outdoor kindergarten school, and I admire your enthusiasm in exploring such. But what could possibly be your motivation?"

"What do you mean?"

He placed both hands inside his pockets. "Weel, ye just seemed verra interested about the whole idea of forest school, and much eager to get them in."

Claire wasn't sure if talking about Frank to a stranger was the best thing to do, but she did find it necessary to tell him a little of why she wanted to investigate a new way of learning. "I was...well, back with my former husband, I was convinced to get my daughters homeschooled. Not that I'm against it," She didn't even know why she had to clarify that to him. Perhaps because he was an educator? She really didn't know. "But maybe I was just unlucky with the whole setup and eventually I realized homeschooling wouldn't be the best for my daughters."

"I understand," he replied, no longer making an attempt to unearth any bit of detail from the past. "I hope Leoch shall serve the wee lasses its purpose when the time comes."

"Thank you. I really hope so too." 

She glanced up, seeing the radiant smile on his face that contrasted the dimming vicinity of the farm. It was eerily quiet around them, with nothing but the soft chirping of the birds and the occasional snorts that Sleepy would make behind them both.

He suddenly exhaled heavily. "Alright, Ma'am. It's getting rather dark, so I shall see ye to your car before I close this place down." He gestured towards Claire's sedan—the lone automobile in that area. She smiled, allowing him to guide her to her door, but before she could open it, she turned towards him, offering her hand towards him for a shake.

"I'm Claire, by the way." She cordially said. "Thank you very much for answering my questions for the day."

Albeit the place being dim, she could see his face brighten up at the mention of her name. Holding her hand with a firm, yet gentle grip, he introduced himself.

"Ah, Dhia. Where are my manners?" he muttered to himself, before giving her a proper handshake, his own hand wide enough to wrap hers entirely.

"I'm verra pleased to meet you, Claire," He rumbled with a low voice. "I'm Jamie."