By the time we finished dinner, we’d gone through two bottles of wine. I was feeling pleasantly lightheaded as we stood up to clear the table. Jenny had proven to be warm and witty, once we got past the awkward introduction. Still, I caught her giving me carefully guarded glances throughout the evening, and there was an underlying hum of tension between her and Jamie.
It was decided that Jenny would spend the night in Jamie’s room. He would sleep on the couch in the parlour, since the other bedrooms were still unfurnished. I was skeptical that all 6’4” of him would fit, but dutifully scrambled upstairs to set out fresh bedding for Jenny while the two of them finished clearing up. I felt a little strange, going into his room and touching his slept-in sheets. But it seemed prudent to give them a little time alone.
Jamie’s room was spotless, as always. His bed was already made, which made me smile for reasons I tried not to think about too deeply.
I pulled back the duvet, stirring up a puff of air that smelled faintly of pine, leather, and something baser that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Eau d’Scot, I thought giddily as I breathed it in.
“Focus,” I berated myself, and set to work on stripping the bed. But the scent of him lingered, warming me more than the wine had.
When the new sheets were on and the old tucked into Jamie’s hamper, I scampered to the stairs, avoiding the creaky floorboards by habit. I could hear Jenny and Jamie’s low voices from the top—with a tipsy sort of courtesy, I paused, not wanting to interrupt a serious discussion.
“So she’s English,” Jenny said. I froze, not even daring to breathe. They were talking about me.
“Aye. From Oxford.”
Glass touched crystal, a gentle clink, followed by a faint glug as liquid poured.
“And married.” Jenny’s tone was reproachful.
I didn't catch Jamie’s mumbled reply. I crouched down to carefully peer into the downstairs hall. They were just below the landing, backs to the stairs and fireplace. I slipped down the first set of steps to hide behind the massive chimney that blocked the landing from view, straining to hear.
Unnecessarily, it turned out—the volume of the conversation was on the rise. “Ye dinna ken? What d’ye mean, ye dinna ken?”
“A Dhia, Janet! I told ye, she works for me. I’m no’ going tae dig into her private life. It’s no’ my business!”
I could hear Jenny snort. “Well, she’s wearin’ a ring, or did ye miss that? I’ll tell ye, all of Broch Mordha and half o’ Inverness took notice. Geillis Duncan called me askin’ had ye got engaged, said ye’ve been parading her all ‘round the county.”
Jamie made a loud Scottish noise. “I didna miss it,” he said peevishly. “She’s only mentioned a husband once since she’s been here, and she used the past tense. Maybe he’s dead, maybe they’re divorced, or maybe she just up and left him. But if he’s still about somewhere, she’s certainly no’ interested in talking to him.”
“Have ye no’ just asked?”
That was enough of that, I judged. With a sense of bravado that could only come after three glasses of wine, I stepped around the corner of the chimney and cleared my throat to announce myself. They turned, Jamie looking guiltier than I’d ever seen him. Jenny was stone-faced.
“No, he hasn’t,” I said, my voice thankfully steady, if a little higher pitched than normal.
I descended the last few steps into the parlour with as much dignity as I could manage and sat down on the edge of the chaise. “My husband died. Last month. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. So I came north, looking for a place where I could...sort through it all, I suppose. Decide what to do next.”
“Claire…” Jamie breathed.
“I’m very sorry tae hear it, Claire.” I was relieved that Jenny wasn't overwrought—her tone was pragmatic, yet compassionate, in a way I very much appreciated. She poured whisky into the empty glass on the table beside her. “Here,” she said, holding it out to me. “Ye look like ye could use a dram.”
I took the glass gratefully and sipped it slow, steeling myself for the wave of questions.
“So then,” Jenny began. “Tell me about yer plans for the barn.”
Jamie looked just as wrong-footed at the sudden change in topic as I felt. Jenny slipped into the easychair, her eyes—blue, slanted, like her brother’s—warm as she met my gaze.
“I—er, well,” I stumbled, trying to refocus. “Jamie thought we’d finish up the conversion, so we can start taking bookings while we work on the rooms upstairs.”
I detailed the plans we’d worked on, rattled off the to-do list for the month and our progress thus far. And as I rambled, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jamie surreptitiously take Jenny’s hand and squeeze it.
It was past 11 when Jenny stood and announced she was off to bed. Jamie had just poured us both a second glass of his father’s fine whisky.
“Stay, Sassenach,” he said when I made a move to follow her upstairs. “Dinna let that go to waste—we’ve only so many bottles left.”
I acquiesced, unable to resist the golden liquid in my glass. He patted the arm of my favorite chair, now vacant. My head swam when I stood, and immediately I slid bonelessly into the worn tapestry. I was definitely approaching drunk.
“I love this chair,” I sighed, pulling my feet up onto the seat.
Jamie chuckled. “Aye, I’d noticed.”
We were quiet for a moment. I closed my eyes, enjoying the warmth of the fire he’d lit, as he did every night.
I opened my eyes again to see his serious expression.
“I am sorry. About yer husband, and about...well. The way people talk.”
“That’s all right,” I said softly. “I didn’t really mean to make it some big mystery. I probably should have just told you.”
I couldn’t meet his gaze any longer. The whisky was making me dizzy—or was it his intense stare?
“Why didn’t ye?”
I considered the question for a second. “I suppose...I felt like if I didn’t say it out loud, it wouldn’t be true. If I don’t call myself a widow, maybe I won’t be one.” I laughed a little. “That sounds stupid.”
Jamie leaned forward in his chair and hesitantly, he covered my hand with his own.
“It doesna,” he said.
We sat just like that til we finished our drinks, not speaking, not moving, connected. And long after I finally went up to bed, I could still feel the warmth of Jamie’s palm on the back of my hand.
The next morning, Jamie rushed around the kitchen, making toast and eggs and coffee—anything to avoid sitting at the table with Jenny and I. When the phone rang, he almost tripped in his rush to get out of the room.
“The kitchen things are in,” he announced as he hung up. He’d put in a special order at the hardware store in Inverness for appliances, cabinet fronts, and a sink that fit the barn’s rustic style.
“Why don’t I take the truck, go fetch it all?” I offered. “I can drop off the sander while I’m there, now that the floors are done. I’ve got some things to do in town anyway. You stay and spend some time with Jenny before she has to leave.”
To my surprise, he accepted, and quickly jumped out the side door to load the rented drum floor sander into the back of his truck.
“Clot-heid,” Jenny muttered, shaking her head.
“He’s embarrassed,” she replied.
She gave me a meaningful look, and I blushed.
“He’ll get over it,” she said, watching him out the window over the sink. “Will you?”
Her tone made her meaning clear. Is this some short-term way to pass the time, or will you help my brother see this through?
“My marriage was...not a good match,” I said carefully. “I’m sorry Frank is dead—he wasn’t a bad man, really—but I don’t miss the life I had with him. And being here, at Lallybroch, working on something real...well.”
“Good.” She smiled, but her eyes were serious. “I was no’ a fan of this enterprise when he cooked it up, but he’s in too deep to back out now. I dinna ken how he’ll manage, if it all comes out to naught.”
I had a feeling she wasn’t only talking about Lallybroch.
I returned from Inverness in the late afternoon, treasures tarped and battened down in the bed of the truck, to find Jenny gone and Jamie in a dreadful mood.
I could hear him cursing up a storm in the barn as I climbed out of the cab, a steady drum of Gaelic phrases punctuated with the occasional ominous crash.
“Jamie?” I called cautiously as I stepped inside the open door. “I’ve got the stuff for the kitchen, if you want to help me bring it in?”
His voice was coming from the bath, which was still down to the studs—the plumber was due to come next week, and then Rupert would help us drywall and lay tile.
“Is everything all right?”
“Fine,” he snarled.
I blinked as I saw the state of the room. Pipe and fittings were flung everywhere, and new holes seemed to have appeared in the pine subfloor—not all of them neatly cut. Jamie was on his hands and knees in the center of the chaos, one arm reaching down into the gloom below.
“Can I...help somehow?” I asked hesitantly. I hadn’t yet seen Jamie’s temper truly unleashed, but I had a feeling I was about to get a taste.
“This...fucking…” He lapsed into Gaelic again. Suddenly, he gave a wordless shout, and pulled out a piece of pipe that looked the same as all the others to me. Panting, he flung himself backwards, til he was sitting up against what would eventually be the linen cupboard.
I pursed my lips, surveying the sweat-dampened hair at his temples and anger-flushed face. He stubbornly avoided my eyes.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he snapped. “I canna afford to wait a whole blasted week for that mhac na galla plumber.”
“All right,” I said mildly, and sank to the floor across from him. “If you show me what you want, I’ll help you put the pipes together.”
Jamie sucked in a breath like he would shout at me again, but instead he slumped, letting the air out slowly.
“I’m sorry, Sassenach,” he grunted. “I just had a bit o’ bad news, is all.”
I didn’t respond, just waited for him to elaborate.
“The bank called. They got an offer to buy out the debt on Lallybroch.”
I blinked. “What does that mean?”
Jamie tilted his head back against the post, connecting with a thunk. “It means there’s someone out there who wants to take over control of my business loan—and would be able to set the terms as they like, more or less.”
“Aye, so it would seem,” he said dully. “Jenny said he called her last week, told her some ratchel nonsense tha’ I hadna paid the contractor for the work last summer, and asked her if she’d try to talk some sense into me about letting him invest.”
I was confused, and I knew it showed on my face.
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s a bit of a long story.”
I scooted across the floor to lean up against the wall beside him.
“I’ve got time.”