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Renewal

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They didn’t speak much in the days after, beyond the immediate needs of food and work. Claire seemed distracted, and she took to reading in her bedroom in the evening instead of sitting with him by the fire. Jamie wondered if she was job hunting, now that she knew the dire straights the business was in; he walked in on her scrolling through her phone a few times, and she’d shoved it quickly out of sight, a guilty expression on her face.

It made him depressed, which in turn made him irritable. He picked fights with her, snapping whenever she asked a question or tried to help him on a project. He could see that he was pushing her away, but he couldn’t help himself.

At night, when she disappeared into her room, he would lie in his own bed and allow himself to pretend he hadn’t ruined everything. He pictured her beside him, remembered the velvet feel of her white throat against his lips, the curve of her waist in his arms. 

He always felt worse when he was finished, his seed spilled across his belly and cock slowly deflating in his hand, but he couldn’t resist the brief escape from reality.

After almost a week of torture, he was nearing the end of his rope. Claire had taken her little hatchback into Inverness, told him she’d be gone all day. She’d asked to borrow his laptop too. Guess that’s it, he thought, and braced himself for the resignation that was undoubtedly coming. 

He moped around the house, unable to concentrate on any of the urgent tasks that needed to be finished in the barn. By early evening, Claire still hadn’t returned. He couldn’t muster the energy to cook for himself, so he just ate a hunk of bread and slices of cheese straight off the block. Finally, he retreated to his room and changed into pajamas to read in bed. The book wasn’t particularly good, but the heroine had curly brown hair and was often described in various states of undress. He allowed his mind to fill in the rest.

It was half seven when her car finally came rumbling up the drive. Soon after, he heard the front door close and the sound of someone bounding up the stairs. Jamie threw the book into his nightstand drawer and crossed to the door just as Claire came bursting in.

“I think I’ve figured it out,” she said, pushing past him into the room. His laptop was balanced on her arms, open to a spreadsheet. She sat down on the edge of his rumpled bed, and he felt himself flush down to his toes to see her right where he’d just been lying, about to…

“Figured what out?” He hoped his voice didn’t sound too strangled.

She waved him over to her. “I fiddled with your budget projections. If we can cut a couple expenses and move up some of the timelines, I think we can make it work.”

Jamie was bewildered. He sat beside her, looking at the glowing screen in her lap. It was a document he’d created to track the cost of the renovations. But she’d removed some line items, and the income line was much higher than he knew it to be.

“I think ye’ve messed up the formulas somewhere.” He pointed to the number in question. “That’s thrice what’s in the account.”

“Well, for now,” Claire said timidly. “But I’ve found another investor.”

Jamie turned to her, shocked. “That’s what ye’ve been up to? Looking for investors?”

Claire shifted awkwardly. “Sort of.” She closed the laptop and put it aside. “I reached out to Frank’s solicitor.”

“The one that keeps ringing ye?” He couldn’t quite see where she was going with all this, but a sense of foreboding filled his gut.

“Yes. There was a problem with the life insurance payout. Frank had increased the coverage amount by quite a lot right before, and there was some question...but Mr. Alton said it’s all sorted now, and the money’s mine.”

And then it clicked.

“No,” he said firmly.

She ignored him, pressing on. “He’s got the check at his office now, he just needed an address to forward it on. I gave him the box number, so it’ll be here in the next few days. It should be enough to cover what’s left on the loan, and a little left over.”

“Claire, no.” His voice was rising now.

“I met with Ned Gowan, and he said he could draft up an agreement as soon as we’re ready. If I forgo the stipend and we start marketing the cottage now—”

“Dammit, Claire!” he shouted, rising to his feet. “Will ye listen to me?”

She stood up to match him, flushing with anger. “No, I will not!” she cried, voice shrill. “It’s my money, and I’ll use it for what I like! And I won’t sit by while you stick your head in the sand just because you feel guilty!”

Jamie could feel his desperation rising. “Claire, you have to think about this,” he pleaded. “This money is supposed to help ye build a new life.”

Claire stamped her foot, and he was horrified to see her eyes starting to shine with tears. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do!” 

He could see her trying to gather herself—she shook her head, breathed through her nose slowly.

“I didn’t earn that money,” she said after a moment, voice tight but a little calmer. “I didn’t want anything to do with it. But I can’t give it back, so if I can use it for a bit of good, to do something that makes me happy...why shouldn’t I?”

Jamie reached for her, and she didn’t pull away.

“And what if things go wrong?” he said softly. “What if...I fuck it all up?” He ran his hand down the length of her arm, until their fingertips touched. “I could lose Lallybroch, all yer money…”

And you , he added silently.

Claire squeezed his hand hard. “You won’t,” she said. “I know you won’t.”

She eyed him with her head cocked slightly, deliberating.

“I haven’t told you much about Frank,” she said, slightly apologetic. “But it might make all this a bit clearer.” She dropped his hand and sunk back down onto the bed, tucking her feet up. He sat down beside her.

“We were already on the rocks, before...everything. He wanted a child so badly and it wasn’t going well. He was ready to move on to IVF, but I wasn’t, and we were fighting a lot,” Claire said calmly.

“I walked in on him with a student, in his office.” Jamie’s jaw clenched, but he said nothing. “He was a history professor, see. I suppose I wasn’t really surprised, except he didn’t seem the type to let himself be caught.”

“Idiot,” Jamie muttered, and one corner of Claire’s mouth twitched upward.

“Maybe. Anyway, I started a big row when he came home that night, and told him I wanted a divorce. He didn’t like that idea much, and he ended up storming out.”

Her voice was starting to shake a little. Jamie laid a hand on her knee, giving it what he hoped was a comforting squeeze.

“He went to the pub, I’m told. Got pissed. And on his way home, he stepped in front of a truck.”

The shock of it made him flinch.

“It looked like he might have done it on purpose. That’s why Frank’s solicitor kept ringing—I had to give my testimony to the insurance company for their investigation before they’d release the money.” She took a breath. “And Frank didn’t die, not right away. He was in a coma for months. I didn’t really know what to do—I was so mad, and hurt, and it felt so awful to visit him with everyone at the hospital treating me like the grieving wife. So when he finally passed, it was...a relief.”

Claire started idly tracing the back of his fingers, eyes downcast. “I’d been going about in a fog for some time, even before,” she continued. “I changed my whole life for him, you see. I had no family, no close friends—it was just me and Uncle Lamb for so long, moving about, and then when I lost him I sort of threw myself into university. So when Frank and I got together and he asked me to come with him to Oxford instead of doing my foundation training...I just went along with it. I didn’t need to work, he said, he’d take care of everything. So I gave it all up, and I spent two years just trying to make him happy.”

Jamie wished she’d meet his eyes, but she just kept staring at their two hands.

“Nobody tells you when you’re getting married that your husband might die and leave you all alone. And when it happened to me, I looked up and realized I had nothing of my own. So...when I ended up here…” She shrugged helplessly. “Suddenly I had something I was working toward. Some agency, I suppose.”

Finally, she looked up at him. “I don’t think it’s so surprising that I don’t want to give that up,” she finished, her voice low. “Not when I have a way to hang onto it.”

It was her eyes, molten gold in the soft lamplight, that pulled him in, their gravitational force impossible to resist. Claire stayed perfectly still, expression, for once, unreadable. He could feel the tease of her breath on his lip as he leaned closer.

“Jamie,” she said softly, and her tone made him pause. “Jamie, I don’t think this is a good idea.”

He felt the harsh glow of embarrassment rising from his wame. “I thought—”

“No, I know.” She was blushing, too. “It’s just, if we’re going to really do this, be partners on this thing…”

He shrunk away from her. “Of course,” he said tightly.

She was still trying to explain herself, and he wished she would stop so he could get on with feeling sorry for himself. “It’s bad timing, is all,” she continued. “You’ve been such a good friend to me, and I don’t want to muck it all up, not when we’re getting so close to everything you wanted.”

Jamie had to bite back a laugh. Everything he wanted? She really had no idea. But he certainly knew what “friend” meant, and if that was how she felt...

He cleared his throat and stood up, backing away from her. 

“No, yer right. I understand.”

He was afraid to meet her eyes again, afraid that he wouldn’t be able to stop himself pleading her to reconsider. He turned away from her, fiddling with some papers on his dresser.

“Rupert will be here early to help finish the bathroom,” he said. “We can go see Ned Gowan on Friday about the contract.”

He could hear the bed shift as Claire stood up, recognizing the dismissal. She hesitated at the door behind him, started to speak, then stopped herself.

“Goodnight, Jamie,” she said finally as she pulled the door shut behind her. He made no attempt to reply.