Jamie was running very late.
He cursed Rupert and his heavy-handed pours as he ran to the truck. He felt absolutely wretched. Though he really couldn’t blame the hangover alone for that.
No matter how much he thought about it, he really couldn’t account for Claire’s rejection. He’d gone over every relevant moment from the past six weeks in his mind, and the idea that she really wanted to keep him at arms’ length made no sense. There were too many casual touches, shy smiles, jokes—and most of all, the way she’d held him on the bathroom floor.
Jamie flushed at the memory as he turned the key in the ignition—partly in embarrassment, but also with a glow of pleasure. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried at all, let alone in front of someone. But it had been a much-needed release, and he felt lighter than he had in ages when all was said and done.
So no, he didn’t buy it at all. That much he’d decided the night before, deep in his cups in Rupert’s shabby living room. He held that feeling close, a warm talisman in his chest. Because if he was right, that meant there was still a chance. All he had to do was stay patient—a simple solution, though not an easy one.
Jamie drove as fast as he dared to Ned Gowan’s office, but he still was almost 20 minutes late by the time he arrived. Ned and Claire both looked relieved when he blew in the front door; they each had an empty teacup before them, and had clearly been sitting uncomfortably for some time.
“Sorry, sorry,” Jamie said as he pulled up a chair beside Claire, leaving a bit more space between them than he might have done before. “Slept in.”
“That’s quite all right, Jamie m’lad,” Ned said amiably. “Can I get you anything before we start?”
“No, I’ll no’ hold us up more.” He leaned his arms on Gowan’s desk. “Let’s have it, then.”
“Weel,” the solicitor began, pushing some papers around on the antique wood surface. “Miss Beauchamp has told me a bit about how she’d like to structure the investment, and it’s fairly simple, as long as you agree with the terms.”
“Whatever she wants,” Jamie said automatically, glancing at Claire out of the corner of his eye.
“I don’t want outsize influence,” she said. “So Ned suggested making me something of a silent partner.”
“Ye’ll retain day-to-day control, Jamie,” Ned interceded. “With the caveat that Claire, Jenny, and Ian together can outvote you alone when it comes to sale, or else ye’ll have to buy them out.”
Jamie’s mouth tightened into a thin line. He wasn’t sure which thought was worse, Claire just giving him the money and having no say, or the three of them being able to force him to sell. Which he supposed meant it was probably a fair compromise.
“And the profits?” he asked.
Ned nodded encouragingly. “Ye’ll each get a percentage equal to your investment until the initial amount is paid back. So with the equity you and Jenny inherited plus your cash contributions, that works out to around forty percent to you, thirty-five percent to Claire, and a quarter to Jenny and Ian. Once ye get beyond that...”
Ned began explaining all the finer details of the arrangement, but Jamie couldn’t make himself concentrate. Truthfully, he didn’t care much about profit-sharing structures. He was too focused on the turmoil of emotions that constricted his chest. Guilt, yes, and shame, but underpinning it all a sense of gratitude that Lallybroch would still be his. He looked at Claire straight on, and was surprised to see she was already watching him. She smiled slowly, and the hold on his heart contracted further.
He reached for her under the desk, where Ned couldn’t see, and gripped her hand tightly.
Thank ye, Sassenach, he thought, trying to convey the depth of his appreciation through his eyes, and returned her sweet smile with his own.
It took an hour and a half to sort through everything, but by 11 o’clock Ned was shooing them out of the office, promising to call when the contract was ready for signing.
“By Monday,” he assured them as he waved goodbye.
In the meantime, Claire wanted to walk to the post office to see if the check had arrived yet. They’d come to town separately, so Jaime could have driven home, but the tiny flame of hope he’d nurtured wouldn’t allow it.
“I’ll go wi’ ye,” he said. He kept an eye on her face as he spoke, and felt the flame strengthen as he caught her pleased expression.
Despite the ever-present Scottish mist that hung in the air, the walk was pleasant enough. Claire’s curls, however, did not seem to agree. The moisture had made her hair frizz, and the tiniest of droplets collected on each strand like dew on grass. The effect was a soft silver halo around her crown.
“Yer hair is looking a mite wild, Sassenach,” Jamie chuckled, reaching out to swipe the top of her head.
She slapped his hand away. “Leave off!” she said, laughing. “You’ll make it worse.”
Yes, this felt right. The day before, he’d felt the need to put some distance between them to hide his gut-wrenching disappointment, and she had been clearly discomfited. But it seemed that both of them were ready to put it aside. Well, that was fine by him. It would be much harder to bring Claire around if she felt awkward around him.
He grinned at her and shoved his hands in his jacket pockets. “All right, all right, I’m done,” he said. What he really wanted to do was throw an arm around her shoulder as they walked, but he thought there wasn’t quite room yet for that kind of easy physicality. In time , he thought. He’d have to coax her out, draw her back to him. But he knew the connection he felt was reciprocated. It had to be.
They chatted comfortably as they walked, first about the progress they’d each made yesterday and then about his evening at Rupert’s.
“I knew you were hungover,” Claire said slyly.
“Weel, mebbe a bit.”
They’d arrived at the post office, and he held open the door for Claire to go in before him. She smiled in thanks, and he gave himself the reward of a discreet glance at her shapely backside.
God bless whoever invented stretch denim.
“Anything?” Jamie asked as she opened the box with her key.
She pulled out a few envelopes and started flipping through them. “Doesn’t look like it,” she said, sounding disappointed.
“That’s all right. I’m sure it’ll be here before the contract’s done,” he said.
She shrugged and closed the box.
“Should we pick up some things fer lunch?”
“Actually,” Claire said as they stepped back out into the street, “about that. Did Jenny ever get ahold of you?”
Jamie raised an eyebrow. “I saw she’d called, but I havena rung her back yet.”
“Oh. Well, I talked to her a bit last night. She said a friend of hers was visiting Inverness next weekend on a bit of a holiday. A photographer.”
Claire paused, and Jamie looked at her pointedly.
“I guess they were talking about Lallybroch, and he offered to take photos for the listing,” Claire continued. “So Jenny was asking me if the barn was close to ready, and said she’d be happy to come stay for the week. Help us put the finishing touches on it.”
“Isn’t that nice of her,” Jamie said dryly. “I suppose it’s no’ a bad idea.”
“Having professional pictures for the listing will make a huge difference,” Claire said, wheedling. “And free is a good price.”
Ever the thrifty Scot, Jamie could find no fault in that logic. “Then it’s settled,” he said.
Claire looked relieved. “Wonderful! Jenny said she’ll be here sometime this afternoon. We should get something for tea.”
The corners of his mouth twitched. So Claire and Jenny were in league together. Now there’s a dangerous alliance , he thought, amused. The prospect was slightly terrifying, but he had to admit it was also endearing to see Claire get along so well with his sister.
Jamie was particularly entertained by Claire’s complete lack of guile. As if he wouldn’t realize this for what it was—a thinly-veiled cover for the two of them to put something together for his birthday the following weekend. He’d have to ring Jenny in the car, let her know he saw right through their plan.
Eyeing Claire’s self-satisfied expression, though, he thought better of calling them out. Maybe it would be more fun to let them see their scheme through. He could play along.