It was refreshing for Jamie to pull up to the Beauchamp residence without feeling like he was going to vomit.
Even after Claire had agreed to the blessed terms “boyfriend and girlfriend,” the first few “dates” of theirs had still made him nervous. He was convinced so thoroughly that he’d stuff it up, and there were so many times he thought he had . But somehow, Claire kept wanting him to come back. And so did Faith.
As he climbed the steps to their apartment, Faith was in the window, as usual, and Claire chased after her with sunscreen. He chuckled to himself, then the front door opened to a frazzled Claire, holding the open sunscreen bottle.
“Hi,” she said.
“Good morning,” he said.
“We’re a bit behind schedule,” Claire said. “She was very stubborn about breakfast this morning, so the time I allotted for sunscreen-protesting went to breakfast-protesting instead.”
“Dinna fash, Sassenach,” Jamie said, shutting the door behind him, then pecking her lips. “We’re no’ on a tight schedule.”
She smiled at him gratefully as Faith ran circles around the room, flapping her hands and squealing with excitement.
“Are you ready to go?”
“Other than Faith? Yes.”
“D’ye want me to try?” he offered. “The sunscreen, I mean.”
Claire blinked dumbly at him for a moment. “Oh, ehm, yeah, why not.”
“If ye dinna think — ”
“No! No, you’re right, she always listens better to you,” Claire said quickly. She handed him the bottle. “I’ll load up the car and get Angus vested.”
Before Jamie could protest, she was out the door with her and Faith’s bag, and Faith’s wee pink backpack that contained her tablet and headphones for the car. Jamie turned back to Faith, still running back and forth, and his heart skipped a beat.
He thought Claire would wait and see if it went well before she took off, but she just trusted that he’d be able to handle it. He felt warmth blooming in his chest.
“Alright, wean, let’s go.” Jamie stopped her in her blazing path by crouching to put a hand on her chest. “We have to finish wi’ yer lotion.” He knelt down in front of her and had to scramble to stop her from bolting again. “Hey, listen now. Calm down, lass.” She hummed loudly and tugged against his grip, giggling. “Listen to me, Faith. No lotion, no beach.” It was syntax he’d often heard Claire use with her. He said it again, and she stopped tugging.
“Ye hear me? No lotion, no beach.”
She stood still in front of him, and Jamie praised her as he brought a bit of lotion to her face. She jerked away at the last minute.
“Faith,” Jamie said, slightly more firm. “If ye dinna let me put this on ye before Mummy gets back inside, I dinna think she’ll want to take ye to the beach.”
Faith made a whining noise, jumping and flapping in distress.
“Aye, I ken ye want to go to the beach. I want ye to go, too,” he said, adjusting the tactic a bit. “If ye canna go, I’ll be very sad. There’s sand to play in, and so much water to swim in, and we’ll have lunch. Aye?” She whined again. “I know, I know. So ye have to let me put yer lotion on. Because I want to play on the beach wi’ my wee lass.”
She didn't whine again, just flapped her hands.
“Alright, here we go. Fer me, fer Jamie. Aye?” He brought the dollop of lotion closer, and she only flinched a bit. “It’s alright. I’ve got ye.” He gently cupped the back of her head with his empty hand, and she allowed him to continue.
“Good girl. Good job.”
Claire returned from the car then, and she made a satisfied humming sound at finding Faith behaving herself. She vested Angus while Jamie carefully finished with Faith’s face.
“Don’t let her touch her face,” Claire said quickly. “She somehow manages to get sunscreen in her eyes every single time because she’s always rubbing them.” Jamie nodded. “I’m going to sit in the back with her on the way there so she doesn’t. She’ll be very irritable all day and won’t have any fun.”
Claire continued to flit around the apartment, snatching things from all around that she apparently hadn’t put in her bag; her sunglasses, a granola bar, a reusable cup filled with homemade iced coffee, two reusable water bottles that clinked with ice. By the time she dumped those items somewhere in Jamie’s car and returned inside, Faith was all lotioned up.
“All done? Yay!” Claire signed her applause, and Jamie did the same. “Good girl.”
“Are ye bringing this or did ye have another?” Jamie said, holding up the bottle.
“No, that’s the only one, just throw it in the bag when we get to the car,” Claire said. She was bunching up a wee cover-up dress to put over Faith’s ruffled princess one-piece. “Here we go,” she said when Faith’s head poked through. “Okay, flip flops are by the door; go on.”
She looked up at Jamie as she led Faith to the door, and he followed, holding Angus’s leash. “Thank you,” she said, sliding her own shoes on as Faith fumbled with hers. “That went a lot faster than it could have.”
Jamie shrugged. “No bother at all.”
He supposed that perhaps eventually his presence would stop feeling like a novelty, and Faith would listen to him just as poorly as she did her mother. His stomach flipped at the thought, at the implication: Eventually, he’d feel like family. But for now, they might as well take advantage of her desire to please him, wherever on earth that desire came from.
Claire did indeed sit in the back seat next to Faith to assure she didn’t incessantly rub her face, and between her and Angus, Jamie supposed it was a successful venture. He conversed with her over his shoulder, and it was altogether a pleasant ride, though he wished he could hold her hand while he drove. Maybe Faith would sleep on the ride home.
When they arrived at the beach, Cupsogue, Faith did not protest for a moment about finishing her movie. She threw the tablet and headphones aside and yanked against her seatbelt. Jamie could not help but smile at her excitement, even as Claire sternly told her that she was not to run off. They managed to get her tethered to Angus before she could, and then they were making their way out of the parking lot, Jamie carrying all the bags on his own and Claire holding firmly to the leash.
They were there early enough that it hadn’t gotten too crowded yet, but they walked a long distance away from the parking lot, just in case. Jamie kept an eye and an ear out for any signs of distress. If Faith showed even the slightest bit of discomfort, he was ready to scoop her in his arms himself and drive them to the stables. He didn’t tell Claire, but he’d bought a small kiddie pool for a backup plan; it was under a blanket in the trunk of his car. If everything worked out, he could return it. Or maybe he’d keep it for another time.
When they finally settled on a spot, Faith didn’t seem the least bit distressed. They stepped off the walkway and onto the sand, and Faith immediately abandoned her shoes and squealed. Jamie bent down and picked them up, even with his arms full, tucking them under his arm. He noticed Claire had to significantly tighten her grip on Angus’s leash to stop Faith from yanking her and the dog away. When they stopped to spread out the big beach blanket Jamie had brought, Claire instructed Angus to calm Faith down a bit so that she could help Jamie set up without fear of losing her, though she still kept the leash looped around her wrist.
“Look, baby, beach towel. Like we practiced.”
With a buzzing hum, Faith skipped onto the blanket and sat down right in the center, Angus plopping his head in her lap.
Claire dumped the contents of her own bag onto the blanket, grinning sheepishly at Jamie. She left the buckets, shovels, and sandcastle toys out and stuffed everything else back inside. Jamie grinned. His girlfriend was a hot mess, and he adored everything about it.
Jamie pulled his shirt off and was about to ask Claire to spray his back with sunscreen, but he instead choked back an uncomfortable laugh at the way Claire was gaping at him. He was then seized with dread at the thought of what he would look like when she pulled off her cover-up to reveal her bathing suit underneath. Jamie cleared his throat, and Claire turned red.
“Get my back?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she stammered, shuffling around him and taking the can from him. She liberally sprayed the large expanse of his back, and then she hesitated.
“Would you, ehm...” Claire cleared her throat. “Could you do mine…?”
“Aye, of course.”
Jamie deliberately didn’t look at Claire as she pulled the dress over her head, choosing instead to focus on Faith playing with sand between her fingers. When next he saw Claire, he swallowed thickly. He thanked god that she was wearing a one-piece; he thought he might have fully lost his head if she’d been wearing a bikini. She smiled sheepishly and then turned around, pulling her hair off her neck and holding it on top of her head. Jamie gulped again before spraying the sunscreen, gingerly lifting the neck strap to get under it, and then rubbed the lotion in with a hand that he had to force to not tremble. The back was open, scooping down from the front to her mid-back. He forced himself to not look at the way her bonny arse peeked out at the bottom, or how her legs seemed to go on forever.
“Ye’re…” Jamie cleared his throat again. “Ye’re beautiful, Claire.”
He watched the blush bloom all over her exposed skin, and then she let her hair fall again. Jamie had the urge to run his fingers through it.
“Ehm, thank you,” Claire said, her voice small. She turned around, smiling at him, her face still red. “You’re ehm…you don’t look bad yourself.”
Jamie’s stomach flipped, and he thought he might tip over. He almost laughed; he hadn’t been sick to his stomach in anticipation of this day. What a fool.
Jamie nodded. “Aye. I mean, well, thank you, I mean.”
Claire giggled, the freckles on her nose and cheeks crinkling in the sunlight. “Are you all covered other than that?”
“Huh? Oh, aye. I’m good.”
“Okay, me too.”
She flashed her bright eyes at him, somehow even more honey colored in the sun, and he suddenly got the urge to kiss every one of her freckles. Instead, he busied himself with putting away his sunscreen, and then sat on the blanket beside Faith.
“Ye ever made a sandcastle, lass?”
Jamie then launched into his sandcastle lesson, informing both lasses that it was of the utmost importance that the sand be wet before packing it in, and then before long, he was going to and from the ocean with buckets of water so that Faith could construct her castle beside their blanket. They all helped, and before Claire could snap a picture of the finished product, Faith was squishing the sand in her hands and laying her entire body weight on the structure. Claire groaned that she should have taken off her cover up, and Jamie just laughed.
“Ye like that, eh lass?”
They spent the next several minutes just squishing the damp sand, Faith squealing all the while. The higher the sun rose, the hotter it got, so Claire untethered Faith from Angus, and the four of them walked toward the water together. Jamie fought the urge to laugh when Claire gasped at how cold the water was. She caught his smirk however.
“What? It doesn’t bother you at all?” She raised a brow at him.
“Nah. Doesna bother her either.”
Faith was yanking at both of their hands to get closer, but then as a wave came in, she squealed, running back and letting the water chase her. Jamie and Claire allowed her to keep doing this for a while, flanking her on both sides as she ran back and forth, Angus sitting dutifully despite how badly it looked like he wanted to play. After about the fifteenth time Faith had run back and forth, Jamie looked over her to Claire, nudging his head down toward Faith. Claire nodded.
With a playful growl, Jamie scooped Faith up from under her arms and ran right into an oncoming wave, causing her to shriek with glee. He didn’t get too far, only up to his own knees, and he glided Faith along the surface, letting her legs dip in and splash. After he swung her back and forth a few times, she began pawing at his hands, wanting to be put down. He went closer to the shore so he wouldn’t submerge her too deeply, and then she started tugging on his hand, making their way back to Claire. When they arrived, she put her hands up and moaned, jumping a bit.
She wanted him to run in with her like that again.
“Good luck, Soldier,” Claire said, shielding her eyes with her hand. “She’s going to make you do it until you collapse.”
If bringing this little girl joy was how he met his demise, well…Jamie was quite alright with that.
She was squealing in a way Jamie had simply never heard before. Claire had always said she loved the water, but he had no idea how much. She was positively thrilled by Jamie splashing her around, and she didn't even protest when he decided not to run back to the shore and instead sank into the water. Claire joined them then, so that Faith could swim back and forth between them, only a distance of about four feet. Both of them could still easily stand up at this water depth, so grabbing her if need be would be all too easy. Claire had even taken Angus’s vest off and let him join them, keeping him leashed to her lest some nasty Karen decide to report a disturbance from a non-service dog.
Jamie felt relaxed, at peace. He was just so god damn content to be here with them. He’d never felt such a sense of belonging with anyone but his own blood. He remembered a few nights ago when Faith had allowed him to lift her up so she could reach the sink, and now here he was, carrying her around the water, carrying her because she asked him to. It was almost too much to bear, the overwhelming joy and love in his heart.
At one point, Faith had taken to standing on Jamie’s thighs, holding his hands for balance, and then letting herself plop bodily into the water, where Claire would get her upright above the surface of the water again. She did this over, and over, and over, shrieking with glee every single time, Angus doggy paddling a safe distance away. It went on for hours, this unadulterated glee from all three of them. Four if you counted the dog.
In order to get Faith to stop her plopping, Claire took her in her arms to distract her with a bit of tickling. Then, she wrapped Faith’s legs around her waist and let her float on her back.
“She likes the weightlessness,” Claire said to Jamie, walking closer to him. “I do this when I’m in the pool with her and it’s almost time to get out. It calms her down after all the splashing and jumping.”
Jamie hummed in response, smiling down at Faith. Her eyes were squeezed shut against the sun, and her mouth kept twitching between different funny smiles. Her arms were splayed at her sides, fingers stimming slowly in the water. Her hair looked even longer than it normally did, spread out and straightened.
“Usually I’ll sway her, but we’ve got waves for that today,” Claire said with a smile.
Jamie’s own smile widened, his eyes crinkling. “Come here, Sassenach.”
Claire smiled crookedly at him as she sloshed through more water. Angus had given up on swimming, and Claire had allowed him to stay on the shore beside his vest. As Claire approached Jamie, he opened his arms, and she leaned into him backwards, Faith’s legs still wrapped around her waist. Jamie enveloped her in his arms from behind, holding her to him by the shoulders and stomach, above Faith’s legs. He felt, rather than heard Claire’s sigh; she relaxed into him, every one of her muscles loosening. Jamie kissed her temple and buried his nose in her salty, sandy wet hair. She gripped his forearms, rubbing them occasionally.
“She’s got the freckles, too,” Jamie suddenly found himself saying.
“Faith,” he felt himself blush. “Yer…those freckles ye’ve got, on yer nose and a few on yer cheeks. I didna think she had them too. It was just about the only thing she didna get from ye. But there they are.”
Claire hummed lazily in amusement. “Right. Mine are definitely more visible in the sun. Hers are invisible without the sun. It’s like sunshine charges them or something.”
He chuckled, rumbling his chest against her back.
“Sunshine,” he said thoughtfully.
“What about it?”
He kissed her cheek, squeezing her more tightly.
“Please don’t start singing,” she said, and Jamie wrinkled his nose.
“What’re ye talking about?”
Claire paused. “You weren’t…I thought…you know…” She stopped again, clearly waiting for him to catch on, but then she sighed reluctantly. “ You are my sunshine …”
Jamie tossed his head back in laughter. “I hadna planned on serenadin’ ye, but now I think I have to. Unless you’d rather go ahead.”
“Oh, God no,” Claire said. “To both options.”
Jamie would have liked to pinch her arse, but he didn’t want her jerking Faith, so he just grumbled in her ear. “Wicked besom.”
She hmphed , leaning into him again.
“Either way,” Jamie said. “I dinna need to sing it for ye to know it.”
From the corner of his eye, looking down at her, he saw that she’d broken into a wide grin.
Not too long after, the beach crowded up rather quickly, and when they tried to eat, there were families setting up their towels on either side of them. Faith grew more anxious by the second, trying to run back into the water for solace. They decided it best if they leave before she got worse, and even then, she was already crying, whether from the crowd, from the fact that she wasn’t being allowed back in the water, the heat, hunger, or all of the above. Angus’s ministrations kept her from slipping into a full meltdown while Jamie and Claire cleaned up as fast as they could, but they knew they were on borrowed time. The world was closing in on Faith and they needed to get her out before she started screaming.
She did start screaming, unfortunately, and Jamie did not hesitate to scoop her into his arms.
“It’s alright…” he soothed. “I’m sorry, lass. I’m so sorry. It’s alright…”
He knew they’d stayed past what would’ve been a safe time for the crowds. He knew, but Faith was so happy . He hadn’t been able to bring himself to tear her away from her fun. But they should have left an hour ago.
Even as he held tightly to Faith, he told Claire to sling a bag or two on his shoulder. Faith had her hands clamped over her ears as she screamed bloody murder into Jamie’s neck, and Claire coaxed her hands away to put her headphones on. They departed quickly once everything was ready to go, and Jamie could see the mortification on Claire’s face and the judgement on everyone else’s. He wanted to pummel them all, every single grown adult who threw dirty looks at a little girl, and at Claire , judging her parenting.
He kept walking forward, focusing instead on getting Faith away from the stressor. One foot in front of the other. During the long walk back to the car, Faith had carried on, though she was at least no longer shrieking. She was hitting Jamie, though, her tiny fists striking his neck, back, and face. Claire scolded her out of habit and then sighed in defeat; Faith couldn’t hear her with the noise-cancelling headphones on.
Back at the car, Jamie opened the trunk where there was a large, flat space. He put Faith down inside and handed her the bucket of sand he’d carried from the beach.
“Jamie, it’ll make a mess of your car…”
“Doesna matter,” Jamie said. “I ken it’ll help her calm down. That’s what matters.”
Claire sat behind Faith in the trunk, gently tracing patterns on her back over the towel that Jamie had draped around her tiny frame. He was attempting to engage her in the sand bucket, and Angus was applying deep pressure as well. It might take a few minutes, but she’d be calm eventually, sooner rather than later with all of them helping. Maybe they’d even have their picnic after all, right here in his trunk.
Jamie noticed Claire kept looking up at something behind him, more and more anger in her eyes with each glance. After perhaps the tenth time, Jamie looked over his shoulder to see an old minivan, turn signal on. They were waiting for his spot.
Jamie rolled his eyes and turned back to Faith, who was sticking her hands in the bucket and sputtering incoherently.
“They’ll leave eventually, Sassenach. They canna see yer evil eye from over here.”
He meant to lighten the mood, but Claire suddenly scooted out of the trunk and stood up. “You’re right. They can’t.”
She stormed over to the van, and Jamie was too busy with Faith to stop her, but he watched, eyes wide.
Claire knocked on the window, and it rolled down. “Hi. Are you waiting for that spot?”
“Alright, well we’re not leaving any time soon. Very sorry.”
“We just watched you come from the beach and put stuff in the car.”
“I understand that, but we’re not leaving any time soon.”
Jamie had a bad feeling about this.
“Well what’s the hold up?”
Jamie watched as Claire planted her hands on her hips, her back straightening; she was winding up. “The hold up is my child having an autism-panic-meltdown in the trunk. Don’t you hear the occasional screaming? That would be her. And I’m not going anywhere until she is calm. And I’ll not have this ugly, tin can, gas-leaking piece of shit breathing down my neck while I try to take care of my child. So get the hell away and find another spot!”
Claire stood back while the van rolled away, window still down, as the driver and the woman in the passenger seat shouted something about Claire’s language and calling security. Claire stormed back to the open trunk of Jamie’s car, and he gaped at her.
“Un-fucking-believable,” she seethed, sitting back down and taking up her previous task of rubbing Faith’s back without a moment’s hesitation.
Jamie blinked. “That was…”
“Liable to get the police on your doorstep since they took a picture of your license plate?” Claire said, cringing slightly.
“Incredible,” he finished, grinning crookedly at her.
He supposed that much of Claire’s life consisted of similarly telling people off; he himself had been prepared to tell off the whole beach for just looking in their direction. But that didn’t mean he didn’t fall instantly more in love with her for it.
“Cooking time” — as Claire had started calling it with Faith — that week produced quesadillas on Wednesday night. Claire could not actually recall ever giving Faith anything like it, and she was pleasantly surprised to see that she loved it. She hadn’t wanted any chicken in hers like Jamie and Claire had, but she was eating the salsa with the organic tortilla chips Claire had bought, so Claire was happy.
The following Saturday, they took Faith to a local playground. She wanted nothing to do with anything but the swing, so Jamie and Claire took turns pushing her, though after a while, she figured out that Jamie was stronger and therefore pushed higher, so she started whining whenever it was Claire’s turn. Claire gave Jamie a mirthful look, crossing her arms and stepping away.
“Go on, Soldier.”
Occasionally, Faith would scrape her feet in the dirt and get off the swing to run laps around the park, but then she’d be right back to the swing. Faith’s energy never seemed to run out, as per usual. Jamie and Claire conversed and teased and laughed all day as they alternated on the swing and watched Faith run around. It was a small fenced in park, so they didn’t feel like they had to chase her around, they just stood together by the gate, hands laced together, to ensure the wild thing didn’t try to pull a fast one before she was ready to go back to the swing. They’d brought another picnic lunch, and toward the end of the day, there was an ice cream truck that they were all more than happy to order from.
They were establishing a routine, Claire realized, stability for Faith to cling to, and perhaps for herself, as well. Over the month, their Saturdays alternated between “date days” and “family days,” which was just a date that Faith joined them on. And then of course Jamie came over to cook during the week and watch a movie. Jamie even continued to bring Claire breakfast and coffee at the hospital on occasion, even lunch some days depending on how forgetful she seemed to him.
It should have been strange to refer to this time as “family time”; Jamie was not family, not really. It should have felt like it was far too soon to be talking the way they were about Faith, far too soon to have her as involved in the relationship as she was. But it didn’t. Dating with kids usually entailed, from Claire’s observation anyway, leaving the kids totally and completely out of it until you were sure that this new guy was the right one.
But it had never been about that with Jamie.
Jamie had always belonged to both of them, perhaps Faith sooner than Claire. Claire had said, simple as she could put it, that he was “dating both of them.” But it felt so much deeper than that. Faith was intrinsically part of the development of their relationship; in fact, it wasn’t their relationship. It was all of theirs: Jamie’s, Claire’s, and Faith’s.
And maybe that should have scared her.
Maybe Claire should have felt terrified that after less than a month, she so thoroughly felt that Jamie belonged in their lives, that he always had and always would. Maybe it should have terrified her that Faith seemed to feel the exact same, in her own way. Sometimes, when she thought about it too much, it did terrify her. But when she allowed herself, allowed them to just be…
She was blissfully happy.
Besides, this had been building for far longer than the near month they’d been officially dating. They knew it, their friends knew it, Faith knew it. The second Jamie had stepped through that back door into the welcome center, this had begun.
And Claire was beyond grateful.
Jamie was over on a Monday cooking pasta carbonara, having set aside a portion of spaghetti to put with plain tomato sauce for Faith. They ate dinner and ice cream sundaes together, watched Cinderella together, and Claire put Faith to bed. When she returned to Jamie on the couch, he seemed very tense. Before Claire could ask if he was alright, he spoke first.
“A week from tomorrow it’ll be a month,” he said, almost blurting it out. “For…us.”
“Yeah,” Claire said, leaning her elbow on the back of the couch. “I know.”
“Since we dinna have plans fer Saturday yet, I thought we could…get dinner. At a nice place, but nowhere too fancy,” he said with a knowing look. “I’ve got a wee plan that I think you’ll like. Ye’ve never been down port, and it’s really great. Great food on the water, lovely scenery to walk around.”
Claire smiled. “Okay, that sounds great.”
Jamie broke into a smile, a nervous smile. He apparently wasn't done.
“And I…” He cleared his throat, breaking eye contact with her for a moment before forcing himself to look at her again. “I wanted to ask ye if you, uh…” He swallowed, wet his lips. “If ye wanted to…stay the night. At my place.”
Against her will, Claire’s mouth popped open, her tongue feeling dry. Jamie looked very much like he wanted to immediately take it back, but he bit his tongue, waiting.
“Stay…overnight,” Claire said slowly, carefully. “Overnight…for…?”
“Aye. Fer that.” Jamie was bright red. “Only if ye want to do…that. Only if ye’re ready.”
Claire simultaneously felt her heart flutter with soft affection and felt her core rush with heat. It was her turn to lick her lips, her grip on the couch cushion tightening. There were a million things her mind raced to say, all with varying levels of vulgarity, but instead, she said:
“Are you ready?”
“I think so.”
Claire arched a brow. “Think so?”
“Aye. No — I know so. I know. I am.”
All of the heat and fluttering bubbled in her chest, and she bit her lip to stifle a laugh. It was cruel to laugh at him right now, about this. She knew it. But he was just too god damn endearing for his own good.
“Okay,” she said with a chuckle. She reached for him with the hand she’d been resting her head in on the back of the couch. “Me too.”
Jamie exhaled tremulously with a crooked smile. Claire kissed him gently, keeping her hand steady on his face.
“It’ll be okay,” she whispered, nuzzling their noses together.
Jamie didn’t speak; he just nodded and kissed her again before folding her into his chest, holding her close. She breathed him in, that scent she’d become so familiar with (his cologne, a crisp, clean smell, but always something earthy lingering underneath), she traced the muscles of his chest under his shirt, listened to his heart, his breathing.
God, she was so ready.