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Renewal

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Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck.

I threw myself on my bed, burying my face in the pillows as the tears started to rise again. Had I made a huge mistake? 

Stopping Jamie from kissing me—because that was plainly his intention—had been harder than I could have imagined. But as he leaned in, all I could hear was Ned Gowan’s voice in my head.

It had been at the end of our meeting, after I’d explained my plan and Ned had given me what information he was allowed to give on the Lallybroch business structure. I had packed up all my notes and was standing up to leave his cozy office on the outskirts of Inverness.

“Miss Beauchamp,” he said, slightly hesitant. “I dinna mean to pry into yer...personal affairs. But I feel compelled to add a bit o’ advice—no’ as a lawyer, but as a friend, ye might say.”

I sank back into the chair, wary.

“It’s admirable that ye want to help the lad.” Ned’s reedy voice was firm, but kindly. “But I’ve seen many a tender feeling turn hard when money is mixed in.” He patted my hand in a grandfatherly gesture. “Tread careful, my dear, or ye may both end up with naught.”

I couldn’t pretend not to understand what he meant. I’d simply nodded, thanked him, and left.

I knew he was right. If Jamie accepted my proposed terms, I’d have a major stake in Lallybroch. How could we possibly explore a romantic relationship under those circumstances? Just the mere timing of his attempt to kiss me made me doubtful; was it really attraction or just down to the relief of being able to keep the estate? And even if he really did feel the same as I did, there was no way to tell if it would last. If things soured, he’d insist I pull my investment, and then he’d be right back where he started. Or worse, I thought—he might try to keep the relationship alive to ensure Lallybroch survived.

Simmering below Ned’s warning was a deeper fear, one I could barely even examine in my own head. I’d only just emerged from under Frank’s shadow. And as much as I loved Lallybroch already, it was still Jamie’s, not mine. Could I keep hold of this scrap of self that I’d recovered, in the face of the overwhelming magnetism that was James Fraser?

If I was serious about wanting to help Jamie get Lallybroch on its feet, and I was, I had to put my growing feelings for him aside. But resolving to do it and actually stopping him in the moment were two different things.

I sighed deeply into the pillow. Of course I’d had an inkling that he was interested—the man wasn’t exactly subtle—but tonight was as clear a confirmation as I was likely to get.

And what a thrill it had been, to sit beside him on his bed, heat radiating off him, his skin ruddy gold in the lamplight. I shivered, remembering the intensity in his impossibly blue eyes as he leaned in close.

“Dammit,” I grunted, muffled by the pillow. “Goddammit.”

I fell asleep in my clothes and dreamt I was drowning in a sapphire blue sea, until a column of fire appeared and took my hand, pulling me towards safety.

 


 

I expected the next day to be a continuation of the week before—with Jamie sulky and snippy. But he seemed more or less his normal self when he came down for breakfast. I had to tamp down the wounded feeling in my chest, telling myself that this was a good thing. Maybe his attraction really was a passing fancy and we could continue as friends with no tension.

The idea ruined my appetite and I didn’t finish my toast.

Rupert arrived as I was rinsing my plate in the sink, and Jamie bounded out to the yard to meet him.

“No rush, Sassenach,” he called over his shoulder. “We’ll get started.”

I took my time tidying the kitchen, trying to settle my disquiet.

By the time I made it out to the barn, Rupert and Jamie were placing the underlayment to prep for the flagstone we’d selected for the bathroom to match the original floor in the living room and kitchen. The room was a good size, but it felt cramped with the two men’s bulk—Jamie all muscle and leonine grace, and Rupert pure Highland bull. I slipped behind Rupert’s sizable backside as he squatted down to unroll the sheets. Jamie glanced up at me.

“It’s a bit tight in here wi’ the three of us,” he remarked mildly. “I reckon Rupert and I can handle this ourselves, if ye want to go back to the house and work on the listing. And maybe pick out some furniture?”

Ah. So that was how he planned to handle things.

I pushed down the bitter feelings—Jamie was right; the barn was nearly finished, aside from the floor and finish work in the bathroom and the countertop installation in the kitchen. It would be useful for me to spend the day writing the listing for the vacation rental site so we could get it up as soon as we got pictures. And with the endless supply of furniture collected by Jamie’s family over the centuries, we could get the house mostly furnished and decorated without buying new. But I couldn’t help the nagging feeling that he was just trying to get rid of me.

Outwardly, I just shrugged. “All right. Let me know if you need anything.”

“See ye fer lunch, Claire!” Rupert said cheerily. Jamie flicked a hand in a distracted half-wave.

Bastard, I thought, though I knew it was unfair. After all, I was the one who’d rejected him. Of course he’d want a little space today.

I spent the morning working in the study, crafting descriptions and hunting through the room's many nooks and crannies for old photos to add a sense of history to the listing. Adso curled up on my lap, sharp claws needling my thigh as I typed.

Some hours later, I heard Rupert and Jamie thunder into the kitchen, loudly joking in their broad Scots, followed by rattling as they pawed through pantry and fridge for lunch. Adso jumped off my lap to beg for scraps, but I made no move to join them. Don’t want to ruin the fun, I thought sourly.

By the time they’d gone back out and silence descended on the house once more, I had the listing written and my favorite photos scanned. I moved on to fiddling with the budget spreadsheet. We were scheduled to finish the last bits of the renovation by the end of the week, and then we could move in the furniture and take photos. The cottage would finally be available to rent, hopefully just in time to capture summer holidaymakers.

Getting bookings during the high season would be crucial to getting started on the next part of the project—adding ensuite bathrooms to all eight remaining bedrooms in the main house.

The funds from the cottage would hopefully be enough to get one more suite ready for guests. There was an existing bathroom in the main hall adjacent to my room, but the clawfoot tub was badly stained and there was no shower attachment; we would close off the hall door and make a new opening to connect it to my room, and then refinish the tub and add a freestanding shower. If we could get the barn booked for three weeks over the summer, we’d have the money to get the room done before the end of autumn. I would move to a different room, and with two spaces available over Christmas and New Year’s, we’d be able to keep rolling the booking money into the next ensuite.

It didn’t leave much left over for living expenses, but the Broch Tuarach estate had some of the best flat farmland in the area, and Jamie had negotiated good leases with tenant farmers on most of the acreage for the year. And I planned to eliminate my monthly stipend as a part owner of the business. With the produce from the kailyard and maybe some bartering with neighbors for other necessities, I thought we could make it work without taking out another loan that would leave Lallybroch vulnerable to Dougal’s grasp.

With a sigh, I saved the spreadsheet and closed the laptop. My back was cramping, and I stretched. The shadows outside were starting to get longer—I checked my phone and saw it was not quite four o’clock. Plenty of time to go through the furniture in the storage shed before I had to start dinner.

I picked up a stack of sticky notes and the sketchbook where Jamie and I had drawn the layout for the rooms in the barn. There were two proper bedrooms on the main floor plus the hayloft, which we’d decided could be a media room with a sofa bed. The living room would have at least one seating area, and Jamie had made rough-hewn shelves from scrap barnwood all along one wall that we would fill with books and decor. I’d also sketched out a makeshift entryway that would need a bench and some storage.

Some things—sheets, towels, and the like—we’d have to buy new in town. But I thought I’d be able to find most everything else either in the storage shed or in the higgledy-piggledy of the unused bedrooms upstairs.

The storage shed stood separate from Jamie’s workshop, tucked up against the stone wall that surrounded the compound. It was of a much later vintage than the house and the barn, but was still more than a hundred years old. The Fraser that had built it—and the later generations that kept it up—had done a bang-up job and it was warm and dry inside, despite its age. I thought at some point it could become another freestanding studio cottage, once we’d emptied it of its contents.

The furniture inside was a mishmash, mostly covered in heavy canvas sheets to protect it from dust. But Jamie, ever the utilitarian, had the foresight to sort everything into groups, tables with tables and beds with beds. I uncovered a herd of dining chairs and picked out six that matched, marking them with sticky notes. Jamie could help me move my selections over later.

The work was rhythmic and soothing, and I let myself be lulled by the repetitive actions. Pull off the canvas, inspect, stick, re-cover. Soon I’d reached the rows of shelving at the back that held boxes and boxes of smaller items. Each was labeled by contents in Jamie’s surprisingly elegant handwriting. Candlesticks. Tableware. Frames. The odds and ends that had been lovingly displayed by generations of his family, now hidden away.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I chided myself, forcing down the lump that appeared in my throat whenever I thought of all the people Jamie had lost. Their treasures would be back to pride of place soon enough, if I did my job.

I selected two boxes filled with popular novels from the last couple centuries for the living room, along with a selection of horse-related leather goods to display as a reminder of the cottage’s original purpose. I was tempted by a box of blue-and-white patterned bone china, which I knew would look charming stacked on the open shelving in the rustic kitchen, but I had a feeling it was worth far too much to let guests use unsupervised. Instead, I picked hearty stoneware that looked more like it was of 1990s origin than 1790s.

Satisfied with the selection, I picked my way back through the maze to the door. It was still light out—the days were already getting long this far north, even with a little more than a week of April left. But with only a half piece of toast to fuel me, my grumbling stomach was becoming impossible to ignore.

As I stepped out into the courtyard, a truck started noisily on the other side of the stone wall. My phone vibrated in my back pocket.

It was a text from Jamie.

Off to Rupert’s. Meet you at Ned’s office tomorrow at 9.

Well then.

 


 

The landline rang just as I sat down to eat my sad and slightly burnt ham and cheese toastie. Scarfing down the largest bit I could manage, I jumped to the small corridor, chewing industriously.

“Hello?” I said around my desperate bite.

“Claire? Is that you?”

I recognized Jenny’s voice instantly.

“Jenny, hi! I’m sorry, Jamie’s gone out to Rupert’s for the evening.”

“That’s all right, I’ll try his mobile later. Listen, I’m glad ye answered—I’ve an idea to run by ye.”

My eyes widened as Jenny walked me through her thoughts. And for the first time that day, I broke into a genuine smile.

“Oh Jenny,” I said when she was finished, barely containing my glee, “he’s going to absolutely hate that.”

Jenny’s idea had a lot of moving parts and we only had eight days to get everything arranged. Jenny rang off quickly to call Jamie and give him her excuse for coming to stay for the week—that she’d found a photographer who would do the listing photos for free, but the barn had to be ready by the following weekend.

“After all, it’s the truth,” she said.

She would arrive from Glasgow the following afternoon to help us get the barn photo-ready—but also to help me with all the arrangements. And with a little bit of luck, the two of us could set everything in motion before Jamie figured it all out. I had a feeling that if he connected the dots too early, he’d force everything to a grinding halt.

But if we could pull it off...we’d have a shot at blowing my summer bookings goal out of the water.