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Renewal

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The morning of Jamie’s birthday dawned bright and clear, for which he was sure Claire and Jenny were thanking their lucky stars.

He had awakened quite early, and he considered whether he ought to try to sleep a little longer—the day was bound to be a long one, if wee Laoghaire MacKenzie had been on the right track. And Claire’s face, of course, had told him that she had been. He had opted not to pursue that particular line of questioning with her or Jenny; if a few Beltane fires were the worst of what the two ladies of Lallybroch had planned, he was getting off lightly. He had fond memories of his mother’s Beltane festivities. And besides, he’d put up with a lot worse if it meant a chance to take Claire a-Maying.

He could hear someone bustling around downstairs, so he nixed the lie-in and got up to hunt for some clothes. He’d barely finished pulling on his trousers when a soft knock came at the door, and he called for them to enter.

Jenny and Claire’s eager faces peeked around the door, and they started to sing—Jenny in Gaelic, Claire in English. 

Latha —birthday to—bhreith...”

Jamie couldn’t help but laugh at the garbled, bilingual mess of a birthday song. But they soldiered on, pushing all the way into the room to reveal a tray of Chelsea buns.

The sight made his throat tight. “Just like Mam,” Jamie said when they’d finished singing.

“Och, dinna start greetin’,” Jenny chided, but she was smiling warmly and her eyes shone at the memory. “It’s no’ becoming for a man of twenty-three.”

He laughed and took a bun, biting into it with a groan. “Ih’s still warm,” he mumbled around the soft, yeasty bread.

“It better be,” Claire said, picking up one for herself. “We were up early enough to get them in the oven.”

“Now, finish dressing,” Jenny commanded. “We’ve lots to do before John gets here.”

“Nay rest for the wicked,” Jamie lamented, grinning at Claire. He gave her his mad-owl version of a wink, which never failed to make her laugh, and then stuffed the rest of his bun into his mouth. “Awa’ wi’ ye!”

 


 

After coffee and a couple more Chelsea buns, Jamie got to work on setting up the arbor. With all the rush to get the cottage up to snuff, he hadn’t had a chance to put it up, and he was determined to fulfill his promise to Claire before the photographer arrived. And with Claire and Jenny occupied with rearranging the furniture in the barn yet again, he could work in peace.

He’d set four corner posts in concrete earlier in the week and they were well-cured now, providing a sturdy base for him to attach the pergola top and the benches underneath. The sides were lined with lattice for the roses to climb, creating a dappled tunnel into the garden proper.

The work went quickly, and it wasn’t long before he was ready for the finishing touch: the simple arched garden gate that had been such a feature in his imagination. He dithered for a moment about whether to attach it to the side that faced the barn, or the one inside the garden itself, ultimately deciding on the former. It seemed like it would be easier to push the gate open out into the courtyard, if one’s delicate, opal-bright arms were burdened with a basket of harvested produce. Hypothetically.

He picked up the simple iron hinges and started marking where they would attach to the posts to hang the gate.

“Oh, Jamie!” The gasping voice was unmistakable, and he found he was smiling before he turned around.

“Ye like it?”

“It’s perfect,” Claire said, stepping up to run her hand over the rough-hewn wood of the as-yet-unhung gate. He’d been able to use reclaimed pine for most of it, and had weathered the new pieces as best he could to match. “Like it’s been here all along.”

“Will ye hold the gate up for me?”

The gate was heavy, but Claire was surprisingly strong, despite her slender limbs. Still, he did his best to work quickly as he attached the hinges, and she let out a sigh of relief when he told her she could release it.

“Where’s Jenny?” Jamie asked as he started packing up the tools.

“Cleaning up her things in the bedroom. John’s meant to be here around noon.”

Jamie looked up at the sky, considering the sun’s position. “So we’ve a bit o’ time, then,” he said. 

“Yes—I was going to see if you wanted to take a look inside, actually.” He could feel the excitement rolling off of her. Clearly she couldn’t wait to show him whatever the two of them had been working on.

Jamie hadn’t actually been inside the cottage for a few days—he’d been sent on errand after errand and given a number of woodworking tasks to complete in the shop, which he assumed was down to Claire and Jenny’s party planning. But now that he thought about it, he honestly had no idea what kind of state the barn was in.

“Suppose I’d best see it before the photographer does,” he said. “Lead on, Sassenach.”

Claire grinned and put her hands on his shoulders, frog-marching him to the door.

“Cover his eyes!” Jenny shouted from inside, and Claire, laughing, complied.

Jamie had to bend his knees a bit so she could reach, but he did it gladly. Her slender fingers and soft palms were warm across his eyelids, and the sun made rosy stripes across his vision where it shone through the edges of her fine skin.

She pushed him slowly through the threshold, warning him to step up at the right times. Staggering, he felt the floor go from stone to rug, and finally, Claire pulled her hands away.

Blinking, he looked around the cottage.

A Dhia,” he breathed, and his vision started to blur around the edges.

It was beautiful, he thought. The last time he’d seen it, the furniture had been haphazardly clustered in groups, rugs rolled up, boxes and bags scattered about. But now, books were on shelves. The long table was set with fresh flowers and tall candelabras. Pillows welcomed guests to sit on the deep velvet couch. And above the mantel, in pride of place, a still life featuring two yellow roses in a glass.

“What do you think?” Claire asked apprehensively.

Jamie shrugged helplessly, unable to find the words. Suddenly, it all felt real, possible in a way it hadn’t been just a week before.

“Say somethin’, ye numpty,” Jenny chastened, but her voice was thick.

“I...It’s…” He let out a breath and looked at the two women standing before him, both watching his reaction in earnest. 

“Thank ye,” he finally said, “both of ye.” And he opened his arms to wrap them both together in a tight embrace, willing them to feel everything he couldn’t say aloud.

 


 

Something prickled at the edge of Jamie’s consciousness when he caught sight of the expensive silver Land Rover coming up the drive through his bedroom window. How had Jenny said she knew this photographer again? Through Ian’s work? 

Jamie’s eyes narrowed as the driver parked outside the wall and walked through the stone gate. The man was slim and elegantly dressed, in a wool peacoat and dark wash jeans, and carried a leather messenger bag. His hair was dark and he moved in a distinctly graceful manner.

Jenny and Claire appeared in the courtyard, and the man smiled at them both. They converged in the middle of the yard, handshakes all around.

That too struck him as strange—if John and Jenny were friends, why would they shake hands?

The party turned toward the house, and Claire’s head turned up towards his window. She saw him and smiled brilliantly, then beckoned to him.

They were in the parlour when he came down, and he was suddenly glad Claire had taken a bit of extra time this week to spruce things up in there as well.

“Ah, Jamie!” Jenny said, spotting him on the stairs. “Come meet Lord John.”

Lord? Jamie thought, his skepticism intensifying.

John, who was sitting in Claire’s chair, Jamie noted with a touch of disapproval, stood up and turned to greet him. But as the dark-haired man met his gaze, the broad smile faltered, and for a split second he looked positively gobsmacked.

“Pleasure to meet ye,” Jamie said politely, reaching out a hand. “Jamie Fraser.”

It was enough time for John to recover from his funny turn, whatever that had been about, and force his smile back on. “John Grey,” he said, gripping Jamie’s hand. His long-lashed blue eyes watched him with a slightly unnerving intensity, and he still had a bit of an air of astonishment.

John kept hold of Jamie’s hand for a beat longer than was necessary, then seemed to catch himself again and let go with a muffled cough.

“Well, Fraser, this is quite the establishment,” he said, looking up at the intricately arched wood beams and aged bronze chandelier. “Your sister tells me all this is original?”

“Aye,” Jamie began. “The house dates from 1702, and the tower ye saw outside is from the 16th century sometime. But the land’s been in our family since the 1300s.”

John looked fascinated. “How marvelous,” he said. “I’d love to get some shots of all of this, before we get to the barn. Would you care to show me around, Jamie?”

Jamie was beginning to get the picture now. He looked to Jenny with an arched brow, and his sister bit back a grin. He had a feeling Lord John Grey had not been lured to Lallybroch solely by Jenny’s friendship.

“Yes, Jamie, give John a tour,” Claire urged. She, too, was smiling in a way that was supremely irritating. “Jenny and I can bring your equipment in from the car, John—we’ll just put the bags in the cottage?”

“Yes, yes, that would be lovely,” John said. “Thank you, Claire.”

“I’d be happy to show ye the place. But first, Claire, could I speak wi’ ye for a moment?” Jamie was already grabbing her by the wrist. “Take a keek around if ye like, John, I’ll no’ be a second,” he called over his shoulder as he pulled Claire into the kitchen.

“I dinna ken what you two are about,” Jamie whispered through his teeth, “but if you’ve promised John something…”

Claire giggled. “Of course not!” she responded, voice also hushed. “Though...Jenny did say she’d shown him a photo of the house when she told him about it, with you standing out front…”

Instantly he knew which photo it was. Ian had taken it during the demolition in the barn over the summer. Jamie was shirtless in the heat, pushing a wheelbarrow of debris across the courtyard with the manor house in the background. “Bride defend us,” he groaned. “Tha’ poor man.”

“He knows you’re straight, Jamie—he just appreciates an attractive man when he sees one.”

The second the sentence came out of her mouth, Claire clearly realized what she’d said. She went beet red and her hand twitched upwards sharply, as though she were fighting the urge to clap it to her open mouth.

His irritation promptly forgotten, Jamie raised a roguish eyebrow at her—he could be nice and pretend not to have noticed, but where was the fun in that? 

“Attractive, is it?” he repeated, grinning slyly.

She smacked his arm in rebuke. “Oh, sod off, you know you are.”

“Don’t hit me—yer the one who said it,” he teased. “Now go help Jenny wi’ the gear while I entertain His Lordship.”

She stuck her tongue out at him as she passed, headed to the side door, and he felt the familiar warmth in his wame. So she admitted to thinking him attractive. 

No’ a bad birthday present, he thought smugly as he stepped back into the hall to begin the tour for his newest admirer.

John had quite collected himself by the time Jamie led him back to the speak-a-word room, and he turned out to be a fine conversationalist. He was fascinated by all the books, just as Claire had been, and whipped out the camera from his leather messenger bag to start taking photos.

“Tell me, how did yer Lordship end up a freelance photographer?” Jamie asked, amused, as John lined up a shot of the bookshelves.

John heard the gentle ribbing in the question and grinned behind the lens. “Oh God, please don’t ‘Lordship’ me,” he laughed. “It’s a silly title. My brother Hal’s the posh one—Duke of Pardloe and Earl of Melton, MP in the House of Lords, all that. Thank heavens I’m a second son.”

Jamie chuckled. “Aye, I can imagine it’s a bit more relaxin’.”

“This was a titled estate, though, was it not?”

John was still photographing as he spoke, and Jamie noticed the lens pointing further and further in his direction. “Aye, though no’ since the ‘45,” he said, trying to ignore John’s less-than-sneaky tactics. “My ancestors were the Lords Broch Tuarach, though ‘round about here, they just said Laird of Lallybroch.”

“Why Lallybroch?” John asked as he very boldly pressed the shutter directly in Jamie’s face.

“Means Lazy Tower,” Jamie said, leaning away. “Broch Tuarach translates to North-Facing Tower, but it’s been a wee bit tilty for a few centuries, so I suppose an old nickname stuck.”

John let the camera fall so it was supported by the strap around his neck, and Jamie was relieved. “Charming,” he said with a friendly smile. “Shall we move on?”

The whole thing was just confusing. John made no attempt to hide that he was taking pictures of Jamie in addition to the images of the rooms. Was this some cockeyed scheme to put Jamie’s photos in the listing to attract a certain type of visitor? Or was John planning to use them for his own purposes somehow? But John was certainly not acting lewd in any way. He seemed genuinely curious about Lallybroch, asking Jamie probing questions about the renovation and its history.

As John asked to see the upstairs, it dimly occurred to him that Claire and Jenny hadn’t come back in from moving John’s gear.

 


 

By the time Jamie had finished showing John the main house, tower, and kailyard, he was starting to get a little irritated. They’d wasted almost two hours going through every room, even the unfinished ones. Jamie’s voice was hoarse from talking, and they were just now getting to the impetus of this whole thing. And where the hell had Jenny and Claire got to?

Still, he did his best to remain polite to John—after all, if he’d got this far, he was damn well going to make sure he got the photos for the listing.

John gasped in delight as Jamie ushered him into the barn.

“Good Lord, and you’ve done all the work yourself?” he asked, marvelling at the open space.

“Och, no,” Jamie said. “Claire’s been a huge help, and my neighbor Rupert gives me a hand with the labor now and again. Hired out the electrical and plumbing. And Ian and Jenny pitch in when they can.”

“Who did you hire to decorate?”

John was already lining up his camera as he spoke.

“Claire and Jenny did it. Just about everything in the cottage has been part of the estate, and Claire did most of the selectin’ from what we have in storage. Then Jenny helped her put it together.”

“And neither of them are professionals?” John’s impressed tone made Jamie’s chest swell with pride for the work Claire and his sister had done.

“No—Jenny’s a stay-at-home mam, and Claire studied medicine, of all things.”

“Well, it’s splendid, Jamie,” John said sincerely. “You’ve kept the soul of the place in tact. I have a feeling you’ll be booked solid for months, once we get these photos published.”

We? Jamie repeated silently, eyes narrowing as he considered John anew. All the detailed questions started to make a little more sense. If Claire and Jenny thought he’d let just anybody off the street invest in Lallybroch, they were sorely mistaken. John seemed a nice man, but Jamie was distinctly not interested in diluting his ownership further with more investors.

Still, maybe he’d wait until after the photos were done to tell him that.

 


 

John was just finishing his last few artificially lit shots of the cozy loft when Jamie heard a car approaching. He glanced out the window of the loft and, seeing Ian’s station wagon pulling up to the arch, grinned hugely.

“Excuse me, John—my brother-in-law’s just arrived,” he said, already starting to descend.

“Ah, Ian Murray?” John asked, sounding pleased. “I’ll just finish up in here and follow in a moment—I’ve not seen him in months!”

Lord John Grey was pushed entirely out of Jamie’s thoughts by the whirling dervishes that were his niece and nephew. 

His namesake launched himself at him with a wordless scream the second Jamie stepped out of the cottage, and he laughed as he patted the young boy’s head affectionately. At five, Young Jamie idolized his uncle even more than his own father at times.

“Good tae see ye, a bhalaich,” Jamie said.

“Birfday, nunkie!” Three-year-old Maggie was hot on her brother’s heels, chubby legs churning as she tried to keep up. Jamie kneeled down to open his arms to both of them.

Co latha bhreith, Jamie!” Ian’s voice called from somewhere beyond the mess of curly hair blocking his vision.

Jamie poked his head above the squirming children in his arms, grinning at his best friend.

“Ian, ye’ve got tae learn to wrap it up, mate! We’ll soon be outnumbered!”

Ian snorted, adjusting baby Kitty on his hip. “Och, stuff it,” he said, smiling at the scene before him. “Come take this wee ratten, my back’s achin’ something awful after that drive.”

Jamie pressed a final kiss to the tops of the dark and strawberry-blonde crowns before him, then stood to take Kitty from Ian.

“Mighty dressed up for a family picnic, aren’t ye?” Jamie remarked as he saw Ian’s outfit in full, tone droll.

His brother-in-law snorted, brushing a hand on his kilt self-consciously. “Och, ye know Jenny, any excuse for family photos.”

Jamie raised an eyebrow. “And surely it’s nothing tae do with Laoghaire MacKenzie askin’ me about Beltane?”

Ian smiled ruefully. “Damn, ye heard,” he said. “I told Jenny that’d cause a bit o’ clishmaclaver.”

Jamie chuckled and clapped his free hand on Ian’s shoulder. “Nay bother. I’m touched, really.”

“Ye’ll have tae get yer kilt on as well, I’ll no’ be the only—”

“Mam!” Young Jamie cried.

Jenny and Claire had reappeared at last. Jenny had a tartan blanket folded over one arm and Claire was carrying a rather large basket—presumably provisions for the late lunch they had planned. Claire caught his eye and she smiled tenderly at him and Kitty. Jamie felt his stomach flip.

Young Ian and Maggie ran to Jenny, and Kitty began squirming in his arms, reaching for her mother.

“All right, a nighean,” he soothed, raising his voice so the women could hear him across the courtyard. “Yer mammy’s back from her dastardly scheming.”

Jenny shot him a withering look and held out the blanket to him in trade for her youngest daughter.

 The sound of a shutter click made everyone look to the barn.

“Sorry,” John said, grinning as he lowered his camera. “Just couldn’t resist.”

There was a general kerfuffle as John greeted Ian warmly and was introduced to the children, who were very interested in his equipment.

“John, why don’t ye join us?” Jenny offered.

“Oh yes, we’ve plenty of food,” Claire jumped in.

That nagging suspicion woke in the back of Jamie’s brain again. If they were planning to ambush him about adding another investor, this would be the time.

“Oh, I don’t wish to impose,” John demurred, but Jenny and Claire would hear none of it.

“Ye’ll want to get some photos of the landscape, anyway,” Jenny said, her stern tone leaving no room for argument. “The light will be lovely by the time we’re finished eating.”

Jamie sighed. He really didn’t want to have to ruin the day with a blowout argument, but he really couldn’t see a polite way to stop the freight train that was already careening down the tracks. Maybe he could redirect a bit over lunch.

 


 

Claire and Jenny had picked the millpond as the site for the picnic, which offered Jenny the irresistible opportunity to retell the story of Jamie’s thwarted skinny dipping attempt for John’s benefit. John, for his part, roared with laughter, much to Jamie’s chagrin.

The spread was excellent, however, and despite the embarrassing stories, he was truly enjoying himself. The topic of investment was never broached, thank God, and John mostly refrained from taking photos after some initial snaps when they first sat down.

When they’d eaten their fill, Ian and Jenny, who had driven to the picnic spot, took the children back in the car to settle into the barn. Claire and Jamie took John on the long route back to the house on foot so he could take some landscape shots.

“Jenny was right, this light is incredible!” John called as he lined up a shot of the tower and house with the mountains in the background. The sun had started its long, slow descent, and the air had a golden-green quality of a late spring afternoon. The crags of the rocky peaks behind the house threw dramatic shadows. 

Jamie felt familiar pride rise in his chest, looking at the land—along with that unshakeable tinge of fear that always accompanied it. The responsibility was as vast as the valley itself, and he felt its constant weight.

He felt a small hand touch his shoulder, and he turned to see Claire’s soft smile. Her eyes, illuminated to glowing brilliance by the angled sun, were filled with encouragement, as if she knew what he’d been thinking. For his part, he could almost hear her voice in his head, too. Don’t be afraid, she seemed to say. There’s the two of us now.

Jamie reached up to squeeze her hand quickly in response. These tender moments between them, once so rare, seemed to be becoming almost commonplace since the investment was finalized. But despite the frequency, Jamie knew he’d never tire of the feel of Claire’s elegant hand, nor would his stomach ever stop flipping at the intensity in her whiskey-gold eyes when their gazes met.

The mile-long trek around the edge of the fields back to the house was pleasant in the sunshine, though a bit slower than normal with John’s many stops for photos. It was past five o’clock by the time the stone arch came into view. Smoke rose from the house’s chimney, and the smell of roasting meat was heavy in the air.

Jamie’s stomach tightened. He had a feeling he knew what to expect when they rounded the corner into the courtyard, and he only hoped he could hold it together. Claire was grinning like mad, and she almost vibrated with anticipation beside him.

Sure enough, when they stepped through the arch, a huge cheer shook the air. The courtyard was packed with people, all in their Highland best, calling out their enthusiasm at the sight of Jamie. A ceilidh band started playing, the fiddles and pipes and bodhran beating out a lively welcome.

Jamie was laughing without realizing it, trying to take everything in. The edges of the yard were thronged with tables groaning under the weight of food and drink, and someone had hung string lights all around. A dancefloor had been laid in front of the newly-finished arbor, and the band was up on a makeshift stage in front of the tower. 

“Yer all off yer nut!” he shouted at Claire beside him over the cacophony. She was laughing too, eyes bright.

“Happy birthday!” she responded.

Jenny was at their side suddenly, Kitty on her hip. They had both changed since they’d left the picnic, Jenny in a pleated skirt in the modern Fraser dress tartan and silky white blouse, Kitty in a tiny matching party dress.

“Ye’d all best get changed,” she commanded, grinning at the three of them. “This is a proper party, and I won’t have any of ye looking like ragamuffins. John, I took the liberty o’ rustling up an old kilt of our Da’s, if ye’d like tae try it on…?”

Claire took Jamie’s hand and led him through the crowd, which pressed in excitedly with well-wishes and attempts to start a conversation. But Claire was determined, and her polite insistence on pulling him through brought them into the relative quiet of the house.

She was slightly breathless as he shut the front door behind them. “Is it too much?” she asked him. Her cheeks were split by that same wide smile, but he could see the self-consciousness behind her eyes, and he crushed her to his chest tightly.

“I love it,” he said sincerely, pressing his lips into her curls. “But the twa of ye are mad as March hares, puttin’ all this together when ye had so much to do with the barn.”

Claire laughed, and the swell of her breasts moved against Jamie’s sternum in a most pleasant fashion. She pulled away much too soon for his liking.

“Go get dressed,” she said, already heading for the stairs herself. “I think Mrs. Fitz will riot if you’re not wearing a kilt by the time she’s done in the kitchen.”

“As ye say, Sassenach.”

As they separated into their respective rooms, Jamie let himself wonder just what Claire might have chosen to wear for the evening’s festivities. He hoped some Fraser colors might be included—though he thought she could do with a little less fabric than Jenny’s outfit. Beltane fires were remarkably good for keeping warm, as long as one had enough whisky and someone to hold.