12-year-old Claire Beauchamp bounded up the steps of the schoolhouse, the weekend’s revelations still fresh in her mind and putting a spring in her step.
After some deliberation, Murtagh and Glenna had decided that they wanted to keep her.
Though Murtagh had been dour and unresponsive on the wagon ride from the stagecoach, unsure what to do with Claire and her glowing observations about every tree, cloud, and rabbit seen along the way, she had carried on as if they were old chums.
He had even less to say when he had presented Claire to his sister as the “lad” they had requested from the orphanage.
“Claire Beecham,” she had pronounced proudly to Glenna when she was asked for her name. “Not Bow-champ.”
“What difference does it possibly make?” Glenna turned back toward her brother, muttering about what she could with a grubby child that had holes in her stockings.
But Glenna had eventually come to tolerate her in the past few weeks, while Claire shared some quiet moments with Murtagh watching the sunset in the evening. Finally, they had shared the good news with her.
For the first time she could remember, plain old Claire Beauchamp had a home at Cragaidh. After countless foster families where the parents couldn’t care for their own ill children, let alone a scrawny English orphan, Claire was where she belonged. It was a wonderful fact she was reminded of every day as she gazed upon the beautiful blue vase on Glenna’s breakfast table.
Claire waved to Jenny MacKenzie across the schoolroom as she shrugged off her coat and placed her dinner basket on the shelf above. Amid a few mishaps, she and Jenny had gotten along beautifully since Claire’s arrival. All her life, she’d longed for a bosom friend, and she had a good feeling that Jenny might just be it.
As her classmates settled in, Claire noticed that her usual chair was occupied. Sat beside Jenny was a boy she’d never seen before, with cinnamon colored hair and a deep tan.
Claire raced to the desks, eager to ask the boy to trade seats with her. She tapped him on his shoulder, but he didn't seem to notice her, continuing instead to chat with the other lads in Gaelic, as if she wasn’t even there.
Impatient at his refusal to acknowledge her, she began tapping her foot, the rhythm picking up as the moments passed.
“Aye, just a minute,” he drawled, turning to face her for the first time. He froze as his eyes swept over her. “S—sorry, lass. I didna see ye there.”
Claire rolled her eyes theatrically. Of course he’d seen her. He’d just bloody ignored her.
“Dinna mind him Claire, that’s just my clot-heided wee cousin,” Jenny cut in encouragingly, glaring at the boy. “Back from a trip to visit his uncle in Paris.”
“James Fraser.” The boy’s voice deepened infinitesimally as he extended his hand toward her.
Claire arched an eyebrow, unimpressed. She opened her mouth to beg for a trade just as Mr. Bain cleared his throat to begin class.
Best not get on his bad side again.
She took the nearest desk available, directly in front of Jamie so that she could still be close to Jenny.
Claire tried to pay attention as her schoolmaster droned on. She was anxious for their worktime to begin so that she could study quietly and let her imagination run free.
She felt something brush her arm. It tickled, but the sensation disappeared just as quickly. Then the unmistakable feeling of a finger tapping her shoulder followed. She rotated her arm to dislodge it.
“Lass… Claire…” Jamie whispered behind her.
“Leave me alone,” she answered through gritted teeth, turning her head to the side. She heard the scrape of the boy’s chair as he startled at the sound of her accent. Great.
“Miss Beauchamp, is there a problem?”
“No, sir,” she responded meekly.
As she tried to carry on with puzzling out the arithmetic exercises before her, she felt a tug on one of her loose curls but tried to ignore it. A sharper one followed, along with a hissed whisper.
No. Not bloody that. Anything but that word that had been spat at her by countless asylum directors and murmured knowingly by overly-friendly orphanage patrons.
Claire stood calmly, chalk in hand. With a speed and force that surprised her, she pivoted and smacked her slate over Jamie’s tangled mop of curls. It made a satisfying thwack as it broke into two pieces against his apparently hard head, chalk dust settling over his freckles.
He looked up at her, stricken still.
“Claire Beauchamp, to the platform. Now.”
Claire exited the schoolhouse swiftly, Jenny close behind.
After three hours of standing with her nose in the corner, followed by missing the meal break to scrawl a half-hearted apology over the chalkboard repeatedly, she was fuming. She was mortified.
Just then, a figure stumbled out ahead of them, shaking his red hair out of his eyes. “Look, I really am sorry,” he said, the words tumbling out in a rush. “I didna mean to get ye in trouble.”
Claire turned her nose up in reply.
“Perhaps we could start anew? Like I said before, my name is Jamie.” Before she could react, he took her right hand in both of his.
Claire regarded him for a moment, then wrinkled her nose. “My name is Claire Beauchamp, and I don’t like you very much.” With that, Claire turned away briskly, accepted Jenny’s arm, and they marched back toward Jenny’s house, heads held high.
17-year-old Claire followed the pathway from the village toward home, still in awe. All that worrying, and the problem was taken care of. She reflected that she should have relied on God and her prayers more steadfastly, after all.
The apprenticeship with Dr. Gowan in Broch Mordha was hers. The other candidate had given up his own assignment for family matters, they’d told her.
Claire wouldn’t have to leave Glenna behind as her eyesight worsened, nor Murtagh in the aftermath of his mild heart attack and the stoop that seemed to increase by the day.
She'd been told repeatedly that the position she'd almost accepted was a fine opportunity, and that there was hardly a better learning experience for a woman to be offered. But it was all the way in Inverness, while Claire still longed for Broch Mordha.
Lost in her thoughts, Claire looked up again as she came into contact with a solid form rounding the corner of the shady, pebbled path. Lifting her chin, she met Jamie Fraser’s eye.
For once, the sight of him didn’t stir anger in her belly. She couldn’t help but smile as his palms settled on her shoulders to keep her upright.
For years they had competed at everything. The top marks. The best speeches. The most prestigious scholarships.
But Claire was now headed in the direction she’d always hoped. She could learn a bit more about medicine before heading to university in a couple of years, then study to become the doctor she’d always dreamed to be. And she’d heard that Jamie was well on his way, too. Perhaps it was time to put the rivalry to rest.
“Good evening, Jamie Fraser.”
Jamie’s eyes seemed to widen, then his posture relaxed as she greeted him, recovering his manners just enough to nod. “C-Claire. Ye seem to be in good spirits.” His hands fell to his sides, then tucked into his pockets just as quickly.
“Well, actually, I’ve just had the most wonderful news.” Claire rocked forward on her toes. “I’ll be able to stay in the village this autumn.”
The corners of Jamie’s mouth rose into a small smile. “That’s great to hear, lass. Congratulations to ye.”
“Thank you. I suppose I’ll be seeing you around, then?” Claire realized that might not be such a bad thing, after all.
“Och, a bit,” Jamie scratched the back of his neck. “I’ll be spending a good deal of time in Inverness, but I’ll be ‘round to see Mam and Da on the weekends, when I can.”
“Inverness?” Claire’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “What’ll you do there?”
“I’ve taken the schoolmaster position up there.” He hesitated.
“But Jenny said you’d be here…”
“My plans changed.” Jamie shifted awkwardly.
Claire gasped in understanding. “Jamie, was it you that gave up the apprenticeship with Dr. Gowan?”
Jamie swallowed. “Aye… I thought it’d be better for ye, to be around for Murtagh as he recovers.” He looked at the ground again. “And I’m no’ sure doctoring’s for me, after all.”
Claire raised her hand to his shoulder. “Thank you, Jamie. Truly.”
Jamie met her eye, cheeks red. “Aye, it’s nothin’.”
She shook her head, unable to stop the grin forming on her lips. “Well, best of luck, Jamie.”
“Claire, wait,” he called before she could get very far. “Do ye think… could we ever be friends, you and I?”
She turned back to face him, feeling her cheeks flush. “I’d like that, actually.”
Jamie’s chest rose and fell triumphantly as he grinned back at her. “Do you mind if I walk ye home, then? I feel we’ve a bit of catchin’ up to do.”
Claire nodded, and they chatted all the way back to the gate at Cragaidh, walking side by side. It was easier than she ever thought it’d be.
Neither noticed Glenna peer out the kitchen window at them curiously as Claire shut the gate and Jamie gazed toward the doorway even after she had entered the house. Glenna shook her head fondly at the memory that flashed through her mind, ever hopeful for her Claire.
23-year-old Claire looked out over Broch Mordha from the heather clad hill they had frequented as children. She sat cross-legged, plucking at the clover below her feet, mind racing.
It might be too late, she reasoned. Even if he recovered, what could she possibly say to him now?
Jamie had suffered a head injury playing recreational shinty with his university friends, a wound that was immeasurably worse than any damage her broken slate could have sustained, years ago. He had been sent home before the term’s end to convalesce, but what concerned the town doctor more than anything was the infection set in from the deep laceration at the back of his skull.
“Jamie Fraser is dying,” Glenna’s adopted boy, Fergus, had announced with little ceremony when Claire had arrived home for the summer.
It was all Claire could think about. Jamie lay at home, dying, and they hadn’t spoken in months.
She had been utterly unprepared for a marriage proposal from one of her oldest, dearest friends. She’d never seen him as anything but Jamie, her school chum. She hadn’t known if she could risk one of her most cherished attachments for a fleeting romance that might not last.
Claire had only seen him once more after that dreadful and teary day. Jamie had been resplendent in his traditional tartan and kilt, standing a head above all the others. He had walked her down the aisle at Jenny’s wedding to Ian, a sweet, if quiet, young man from Broch Mordha. While standing next to him had felt as natural as ever in their long companionship, neither had been able to cut through the tension between them to exchange more than a few pleasantries.
At the time, she’d heard things were becoming very serious between Jamie and Geneva Dunsany, another Englishwoman attending the University of Edinburgh with them. She was from the Lake District, and of means. Claire wondered if she would even see much more of him once the union became official.
Claire, meanwhile, had been seeing a charming history student, Frank Randall. He had entertained her with anecdotes about this uprising and that revolution, and had a promising career ahead of him.
She’d thought she would be ready to accept Frank’s proposal as graduation drew closer. But when it came, she had panicked at the last moment.
As she reflected upon her decision in the awkward days afterward, she realized she’d more appreciated the idea of Frank, as he was similar to what she remembered of her father.
Upon arriving home after graduation, Claire realized that every corner of Broch Mordha that she visited reminded her of Jamie.
The only place she hadn’t dared to go was Jamie’s home at Lallybroch. She wasn’t sure in what condition she would find him. Nevertheless, she had to decide what she wished to tell him. Would she just wish him well, then part ways again, leaving them each with only distant memories of each other? Or could there still be some hope for them? She would start small, if she had to. If they could only even be friends again…
The shuffle of footsteps behind startled Claire from her thoughts. Likely Fergus had come to fetch her – Glenna probably needed help in the kitchen, or Murtagh wanted her to fetch something from the village.
Turning, she saw a figure about two feet taller than Fergus; squinting upwards, she saw the familiar glint of auburn curls catching the sun's rays. With her heart suddenly sounding impossibly loud as it thundered in her ears, she scrambled to her knees. “Ja – you’re awake! You’re up!” With wide eyes, she looked behind him at the uneven path he’d just traversed to climb the hill.
Jamie squatted awkwardly to sit down across from her.
“Christ! Be careful!” Claire reached out to steady him by instinct, terrified that he’d lose his balance and it’d be too late before she could find someone to help move him.
She finally got a good look at his face as he settled. His skin was much paler than she’d like, and there were dark circles under his eyes that betrayed how much the climb had cost him. But the small smile he gave her revealed him to be in the same spirits as always.
“Hi,” he whispered.
“Hullo,” she answered softly.
Claire realized she’d just said more words to him than she had in two years.
Jamie studied her face, then met her eye. “How were yer travels home?”
“Just fine,” Claire nodded, feeling her cheeks grow pink. The relief of seeing him alright, combined with his mere presence, was making it hard for her to concentrate. “A train ride like any other.”
“And graduation? I suppose it was bonny. I’m that sorry I missed it.”
“Oh, but don’t worry about that, you’ll have plenty of time to make up your work and finish your degree in the autumn.”
He looked down at the view below them, then turned back with his gaze piercing into hers. “I canna say I’m verra concerned about that, just now.” He scooted closer to her. “Even after everything, I have no’ been able to stop thinkin’ of ye, lass.” His chin trembled.
Claire held her breath, not sure if she could believe her ears.
Jamie lifted her right hand and held it to his heart. “Claire, if ye still feel the same, ye must tell me, and I’ll no’ bother you again…”
She reached out and placed her shaking left palm to Jamie’s warm cheek. He leaned into it, eyes fluttering shut.
“Claire, would you reconsider becoming my wife?”
With a small sob, Claire leapt toward him, knocking him to the ground in his weakened state.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Their lips met at last, gently at first, but suddenly fiercer with reunion and possession. Still sweeter than Claire could have ever imagined.
She ran her hand through his hair, fingers finding the place where the shorn curls were growing back after his injury. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “About before.”
He shook his head, just barely. “Think nothing of it, lass. We both still had some growing up to do, aye?”
Claire tightened her grip on his hand. He was right, but she regretted that it had probably been more on her part.
Jamie must have seen the question in her eyes. “Gillian Edgars from uni wrote to me, said ye’d broken up with Randall, and no’ to give up on ye just yet,” the side of his mouth twisted upward. “Dr. Gowan found my recovery thereafter near miraculous.”
They stayed until sunset, basking in the privilege of touching, kissing, and dreaming together at last.
He ran his thumb over her left knuckle, where his class ring now rested. “We both still have a bit of studying left to do,” he reasoned at last. “Ye with medical school and I to grasp the running of things at Lallybroch.” Sitting up, he pulled her close, so that her head rested against his shoulder.
She buried her face there, where she could feel the vibration of his next words.
“Will ye wait for us, Claire?” The words were a thick swallow that she almost missed. “Even when the time comes, I’m no’ likely to be able to adorn you with pearls and such fine things.”
Unable to stop smiling, Claire shifted so that her forehead pressed against his. “I just want you.”