Jenny’s latest visit to Lallybroch started off on a markedly different foot from the last. I heard her car pulling up from the kitchen and jumped up to greet her. She grinned as I came out of the front door, opening her arms wide to accept me in a warm embrace.
“All set?” she whispered in my ear as she folded me against her. I nodded into her shoulder.
“Glad to have ye back, Jenny!'' Jamie called from the doorway behind me. “What’s all that ye’ve got?”
I pulled away and peeked into the car. The backseat was full of shopping bags.
“Bedding and towels, mostly,” Jenny said as she stepped up to hug her brother. “There was a sale on, so I thought I’d get some things for the photoshoot.”
Jamie made a Scottish noise in response.
“Claire, will ye help me put them in the barn?” she asked nonchalantly.
“Of course,” I said.
Jamie fixed us with a shrewd gaze. “I’ll take yer suitcase,” he said, having clearly divined that the two of us had things to discuss.
“Ta,” Jenny replied with a breeziness I envied. I really was awful at subterfuge.
Jamie smiled and gave us an ironic salute.
“So he kens something’s afoot?” Jenny asked me quietly when he’d gone inside.
“I think so.”
“Excellent,” she said, grinning. “If he took the bait, he won’t think too much about the photographer.”
Jenny had built in a few layers to the plan; I’d told her there was no way Jamie wouldn’t cotton on that I was hiding something, and a surprise birthday party seemed like an easy cover. If he was focused on that, maybe we could slip the arrangements with the magazine under his nose.
We picked up as many of the shopping bags from the car as we could and brought them into the barn. Jenny set the bags on the floor just inside the entry and straightened, hands on her hips, to appraise the changes to the interior.
“Ye’ve really made a lot of progress in here,” she said, admiring. “All the cabinets, the stove, the shelves...it looks wonderful.”
“I haven’t even looked at Jamie and Rupert’s work from yesterday,” I said. “They were putting in the heated flagstone and tile in the bathroom.”
“Well, let’s have a little keek, then.”
That evening, we three were sat in the drawing room once again, after-dinner drinks in hand.
“Jamie,” Jenny began pleasantly, “what do ye think of Ian and the bairns coming up next weekend? We could have a nice family meal fer yer birthday.”
Jamie’s mouth twitched, and he narrowed his inky blue eyes at his sister. “Oh aye, that’d be nice,” he said. “I’ve no’ seen the weans in months. The cottage will be finished by then, there’ll be room for all ye.”
“We still need mattresses,” I chimed in. “Jenny and I can go to Aberdeen tomorrow, pick up some things at Ikea. If you don’t mind staying here to supervise the countertop installation.”
“Aye, I can do that.”
“Good,” Jenny said with finality. “Then I can stay in the cottage tomorrow night and give ye yer bed back. That’ll give me a chance to see what we’re forgetting before John arrives.”
I watched Jamie sip his whisky, his eyes darting between Jenny and me. “That’s yer photographer friend?”
“Yes, Ian met him through work,” she said easily. “He’s based in London but he comes up here for shoots now and again.”
True enough—though I knew she was leaving out a rather crucial detail. Lord John Grey was not only a photographer, he was the owner of Country House magazine. We hoped he’d be so charmed by Lallybroch and Jamie that he’d feature the barn renovation. But we both knew it would take a little more than a pretty room to get the job done—a magazine of that caliber needed a story with a hook. And Jamie was bound to disapprove of our plan to capture John’s attention.
“When’s he planning to come?”
“Saturday’s the only day he has free, unfortunately,” Jenny said. “Hope ye dinna mind dealing wi’ him on yer birthday. But he’ll be done long before dinner.”
Jamie, thankfully, seemed to be losing interest. He waved a hand. “Och, that’s fine,” he said. “Sassenach, ye’ll take my truck tomorrow, then?”
I nodded, trying to cover my expression by lifting my glass to my lips.
I drove the truck so Jenny could make a flurry of calls on the road to Aberdeen.
“It’s a surprise, though, ye ken,” she said warningly into the phone. “Ye have tae keep yer gob shut.”
She finished with a torrent of goodbyes that lasted almost as long as the call itself, then hung up with a sigh.
“Well, that ought tae do it,” she said, smiling at me. “Mrs. Fitz is the biggest gossip in the valley. Between her and Geillis, there shan’t be a soul in the county that’s no’ heard about the party by teatime.”
Jenny had been careful to throw in my name as a co-host of the festivities in all her calls, I’d noticed. I knew what she was about—the area was abuzz with rumor about the nature of my relationship with Jamie. Hinting that I was throwing Jamie a combination surprise party/Beltane festival was sure to attract some looky-loos. And our plan hinged on a large contingency of locals showing up in their Highland best.
“So what exactly goes on at Beltane?” I asked.
Jenny smiled faintly. “Weel, nowadays it’s mostly an excuse for New Age-y folk to put on a spectacle,” she said. “But my mam loved to keep the auld ways. She and my da always put together a big feast for the farmers and villagers. It’s to welcome the start o’ summer, ye ken? So it’s a blessing of the crops, for a fruitful year. Ye build big bonfires and drive the kine through the smoke so they’ll be healthy and strong, couples jump over the embers to declare themselves, that sort of thing.”
“Jenny!” I cried, appalled. “Have you been telling people I want to throw Jamie a fertility festival?”
She had the decency to look slightly abashed. “Not in so many words, no…”
“Oh God.” I couldn’t decide whether it was hilarious or horrifying.
“Anyway, it’s no’ my fault the lad was born on the first of May,” she reasoned. “It only makes sense to do both together. Silly to plan two parties.”
“Sound logic,” I said tartly. Jenny giggled.
“It has tae be a big traditional Scottish celebration to catch John’s attention. He’s no’ agreed to publish anything, ye ken.”
I snorted, not wanting to admit she was right. Lord John had taken a keen interest in the dwindling of traditional Highland agriculture as small-time farmers were pushed out by industrial operations, and had published a number of articles featuring Highlanders working to maintain local country traditions. So Jenny thought we could present Jamie’s quest to save Lallybroch along those lines, showing his deep connections to the community and culture of the Highlands by hosting a big, traditional festival.
Jamie, of course, would never agree to positioning himself as some kind of hero. But we thought if we could engineer it to look like a spontaneous decision on John’s part to cover Lallybroch, we might be able to get Jamie to participate.
“And,” Jenny continued thoughtfully, “if some nosy buggers show just tae see if ye and Jamie jump the fire together, so much the better.”
I had to restrain myself from banging my head against the steering wheel.
The drive to Aberdeen was the last time Jenny and I had a chance to talk privately for a few days. What had seemed like a few final touches on the barn were actually rather time-consuming—we truly needed all hands to finish in time for John’s arrival. There were walls to paint, art to frame, drapes to hang, beds to make. The list of small tasks seemed to grow each night, no matter how many we accomplished during the day.
Come Monday, Jamie and I had to go into Inverness to sign the contract at Ned Gowan’s and then deposit my check, which had finally arrived at the post office, into the Lallybroch business account.
“Does it feel like people are starin’ at us, Sassenach?” Jamie whispered to me as we entered the bank.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I admonished, but a few heads were undeniably turning as we passed.
“Mr. Fraser,” a petite blonde called in greeting from one of the open desks at the front. She had a peaches and cream complexion and a plump face. I rather thought she looked awfully young to be a teller—certainly not older than 20.
Jamie smiled at her, though it seemed a little forced—or was that wishful thinking on my part?—and I followed as he stepped up to her.
“Hallo, Laoghaire,” he said kindly.
“Ned Gowan said we were to be watchin’ for ye,” she said, dimpling. Her watery blue eyes flickered to me for a second.
“Yes, we’ve a check to deposit,” Jamie said.
I made no move to take the envelope out of my bag, loath to hand over all the money I had in the world to a teenager.
“Aye,” Laoghaire said. “I’ll go get Himsel’.”
My lips were pressed in a firm line as I watched her stand, wriggle her tight pencil skirt down, and flounce back into the bowels of the building.
“Something wrong, Sassenach?” Jamie asked innocently. “Ye look a bit tense.”
Before I could answer, Laoghaire popped back into view. “Mr. MacKenzie will be out directly,” she said primly, and sat back down. But instead of—I don’t know, working?—she rested her pert little chin on interlaced fingers and looked up at Jamie.
“Is’t true yer hostin’ a Beltane festival for yer birthday Saturday?” she asked coquettishly.
Jamie’s eyebrows raised and he looked to me. I started coughing.
His eyes sparkled with suppressed mirth, and he blinked at me in a remarkable impression of an owl.
“Weel, Saturday is my birthday, true enough,” he said slowly, “but I’ve no notion of what Jenny and Claire here have cooked up.”
The girl eyed me speculatively, but we were saved from her further attentions by Mr. MacKenzie.
He emerged from the doorway, rolling himself in a wheelchair and smiling broadly at Jamie and I. He had broad, flat cheekbones and surprisingly long auburn hair, streaked with silver. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn’t put a finger on where I might know him from.
“Colum,” Jamie greeted warmly, reaching out to grasp the man’s hand as he came around the corner of Laoghaire’s desk. Colum touched his handbrake and then returned Jamie’s firm grip.
“Jamie, good tae see ye, lad,” he said, then turned to me. “And you must be Claire Beauchamp.”
I smiled and held out my hand to him as well. “Lovely to meet you, Mr. MacKenzie.”
“Come back to my office, we’ll get this all settled.”
“So. Ned said ye’d like to pay off the entire balance,” Colum kicked off the discussion once we were all seated round his table. A tray laden with a carafe of water, teapot, biscuits, and every damnable adornment possible sat between us, fetched ever-so-eagerly by the young Laoghaire.
Easy, Beauchamp, I thought.
“That’s right.” Jamie’s tone was friendly, but I saw a tension in his broad shoulders, and his crooked smile didn’t reach his eyes.
“I’m thrilled tae see Lallybroch getting so much outside interest,” Colum said, turning his grey eyes on me with a nod. “I ken Dougal will be pleased tae hear yer in better straights as well.”
My stomach dropped, but Jamie didn’t react.
“I do want tae suggest that ye think a little on whether ye’d no’ rather use the investment tae hire out more of the renovations, and keep the loan,” Colum continued. “Havin’ the liquidity will give ye some more flexibility, and ye’ve had nay problem makin’ yer payments so far. Leverage it, ye ken.”
“It’s an idea,” Jamie said neutrally. “But I’d rather own the asset outright. Keeping control of th’ place is important to me, as I’m sure ye can understand.”
The older man’s smile tightened. “Aye, I take yer meaning,” he said, voice even. “I ken my brother can be a bit...ah, forceful in his dealings.”
I barely stopped myself from gasping in recognition. Of course! The family resemblance was certainly strong—the two MacKenzie men shared many of the same features. Come to think of it, so did Jamie, though I thought his face much more refined.
Colum continued speaking, oblivious to my thoughts. “But he means well, Jamie—neither of us wants tae see ye locked in by this project.” He glanced at me, clearly unwilling to say more in my presence.
“I understand that, uncle,” Jamie said, clearly having to work a little harder now to keep his cool. “But with due respect, it’s my land, and it’s been my family’s land for centuries. I’ll no’ be selling it to Dougal, or anyone else for that matter.”
“Well, if yer sure…”
A small bit of warmth bloomed in my chest. It really was “we” now, wasn’t it? In all the drama of the last few days, I hadn’t fully appreciated that this was about to become a true joint venture. If all went according to plan, I would be tied to Lallybroch for a very long time. And , a voice in my head added, to Jamie.
When the time finally came, I signed over the check without a second thought.
As we left the bank and got into the truck we were both slightly giddy at what we had done.
“I cannae believe it,” Jamie said, marveling as he backed out of the parking space. “I dinna think I realized just how much having that loan was hanging over my head.”
He flashed a dazzling grin at me, and my heart leapt into my throat. “Who knew when I caught ye having a pish in my pines that you were just markin’ yer territory?”
It wasn’t a particularly clever joke, but the whole situation was just so astonishing, so outrageous that the laughter bubbled up inside of me, and I came positively undone. I was laughing in the way that hurts, tears streaming down my aching cheeks and ribs burning. Something about my hysteria set Jamie off as well, and he had to pull the brake to keep from rolling out into the street while we fell to pieces.
It took some time to gather ourselves. We would calm down enough to start catching our breath but one of us would start giggling again, and the whole process would be kicked off anew.
Finally, we pulled it together, still panting. Jamie looked at me, smile softening, and took my hand.
“Thank ye, Claire,” he said with a depth of feeling that stopped my heart, and then raised my hand to his lips.
The touch of his kiss on my skin couldn’t have lasted more than a second, but it felt much longer. When it was over, he placed my hand gently back on my lap and gave it one final squeeze before pulling away to put the truck back in gear.
We were quiet for the rest of the ride home.