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Just A Friend

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Bank holiday crowds, on the whole, are hell.

And this one is rapidly turning into an even deeper level of purgatory. The hottest May for years in Scotland and I’m stuck at Glasgow airport with a dozen women, collectively known as ‘Geillis’s Hen Party Posse’, each displaying varying degrees of inebriation, hangover or general sleep deprivation, and all aiming for the luggage carousel showing the flight from Barcelona. Which apparently is where several hundred other disembarked passengers are also heading.

Eventually, I manage to get a view of the bags and cases slowly making their way around the belt. They’re pretty picked over by this time, apart from the couple of boxes covered in gaffer tape that always seem to be first off a plane—any plane—and last to be collected. They’re always there, on every flight. Why is that?

I pause from my musings to wave frantically at Geillis, who now has a trolley and is clearing a path straight towards me.

“I got us a trolley.” she informs me, stating the obvious. “I thought it’d be easier. Have ye seen ours yet, Claire? I canna see the others. They must have already gone through.”

“No,” I answer, keeping my eyes firmly on the little hatch, willing our bags to appear. All I want is to go home, put my sleep mask on and try and get some sleep. Three days in Barcelona celebrating Geillis’s forthcoming nuptials have worn me out, and, I glance at my watch, I am due in theatre in approximately seventeen hours time.

"It's there, it's there," Geillis points excitedly at the neon pink and green leopard print bag making its way towards us.

She makes a grab for it as I continue to look for my bag. Predictably, it’s one of the last ones on the carousel. I recognise it immediately from the piece of red gift ribbon tied to the handle of the plain black Samsonite. I load it onto the trolley and Geillis and I head through customs to join the rest of the posse.

We say our goodbyes loudly, with much hugging and kisses. A stranger viewing this scene might imagine we won’t be seeing each other again for weeks or even months. In truth, I’ll be seeing most of them in the next week or so at the hospital as our schedules coincide.

“Shall we two get a taxi, then?” Geillis asks me.

I start to answer as my mobile pings — a text from Frank...very nice, very caring, very predictable.

Darling, it’s been a long three days without you. I am ready to collect you from the airport if you would like. If not, might I see you later this evening? xxx

And that is very clearly Frank. Correct grammar and punctuation, even on his texts. I shake my head as if to drive away my inner bitch and pretend I haven’t read it. I will respond, of course, just later when I’m back at home.

So, I smile at Geillis and agree. “Of course, we can go halves.”

***********
As I walk into my flat, the peace and quiet and sheer bloody calm wraps itself around me like a swaddling cloth. It’s blissfully cool too, with all the shutters closed.

It’s not that I didn’t have a good time in Barcelona. It was actually great. But being in the company of others twenty four hours a day is wearing, much as I love them. And we all had to do everything together. No sneaking off for a solitary walk, or escaping to bed for a little siesta.

I deposit my suitcase by the bedroom door, slip off my converse, pour myself a glass of orange juice, settle down on the sofa and figure out how best to tell Frank not tonight without offending him.

Frank, Sorry but tonight isn’t —

I delete and try again.

Thanks for the offer to pick me up. I was already in the taxi when I got it. Can we give tonight a miss? Theatre in the morning and I’m knackered totally exhausted. You know what Geillis is like. Speak tomorrow, I promise. C

Frank knows what Geillis is like. Frank thinks Geillis is a bad influence on me, with her larger than life personality and wild ideas. I think Frank doesn’t really know me at all if he believes I can be influenced like that. I hang out with Geillis and my friends because they’re fun and we laugh… a lot.

Without realising, I feel my shoulder muscles relax as soon as I’ve sent the message. These are not good signs for my relationship with Frank. He’s investing far more into ‘us’ than I am willing to do. But as long as I’m honest with him…

There are advantages to being with Frank, of course. He’s punctual, very organised and a proficient and considerate lover. He always makes sure I come, even if I sometimes...er… exaggerate my reactions to hurry things along. So much for honesty, then.

I finish my orange juice and plan my evening. Four things to do - unpack, grab some food, shower and sleep. Not even going to wash my hair. That would really be too much effort, struggling with my untameable mane, and it’s going to be stuck under a surgical cap for most of tomorrow anyway.

It takes a bit of effort to actually move from the sofa. I could quite happily fall asleep there. But then I’d wake up in the middle of the night—starving hungry and still smelling of sweaty airports. Reluctantly, I haul myself into a vertical position and head for my bedroom picking up my suitcase en route.

Opening the suitcase, I am not greeted with the expected haphazard mass of sun dresses, t shirts and shorts—all with the evocative aroma of Hawaiian Tropic—but a layer of white dress shirts, immaculately folded and the faint scent of a musky cologne.

Shit, shit, shit!! Some else has walked off with my black samsonite with the red ribbon on the handle. My evening plans are rapidly going awry. I delve into my handbag praying that I kept my boarding pass with the sticky bar code luggage receipt. The relief when I find it lurking in the bottom of my bag is immense. Quickly I google the airline lost baggage number and dial.

After a few bars of some god awful plinky plinky hold music, I hear a recorded message. “Your call is important to us, please hold. Your call is important to us, please hold.”

Good to know, then back to the plinky plinky before another message. “The office you are trying to reach is now closed. Please try again during office hours nine am to five thirty. Thank you.”

“If my call is so important to you, why is no one there at six o’clock?” I yell down the phone, but the plinky plinky ignores me and continues its irritating melody.

I sigh. I don’t want to have to wait until tomorrow morning to sort this out. Besides, by nine am tomorrow morning, I will be somewhat unavailable - reshaping the hip bone of a seven year old boy. So, I have no alternative. I will have to have a bit of a dig around this stranger’s suitcase, looking for any clue or contact details.

As I start to have a feel around, it occurs to me that some stranger might, at this very moment, be doing exactly the same thing — having a poke around my suitcase in the hope of finding my details. No doubt judging me based on my choice of holiday attire. And, I suddenly realise, his judgement may well be coloured by the discovery of some items of a more adult nature.

I say ‘he’, based on the XL white shirts, the pair of battered jeans and faded Scotland rugby shirt, but I could be wrong. I don’t have to dig any further into the case as I spy, in a mesh pocket, a neat rectangle of card with a name — James Fraser — a mobile number and an email address.

Relief sweeps over me. Perhaps we can get this all sorted tonight. Unless this James Fraser lives miles away and was just passing through Glasgow on his way to, say, the Outer Hebrides. That could be a whole other level of problem.

I quickly reach for my phone. Another message from Frank awaits.

Are you sure, darling? I’m looking forward to seeing you. Would tomorrow evening work for you?

I ignore it for the moment. Let me sort my luggage issue out first.

I dial the number on the card and begin to pace around my bedroom as it rings and rings. I am just about to give up when, thankfully, it’s answered.

“Hello?” A female voice asks warily.

I clear my throat and put on my most pleasant phone voice. “Is there a James Fraser there please?”

“Ye’ve the wrong number.”

“Oh, sorry, I must have mis—“ I begin, but find myself apologising to dead air.

I try again, carefully comparing each digit to those written, very neatly, on the card.

“Hello?” The same female voice answers, more than a hint of annoyance in her voice.

“I’m sorry, but this is the number I have for James Fra—“

“And I already told ye, ye’ve the wrong number. Dinna bother again.”

In the days before mobiles, I’m sure this would have been accompanied by a deafening crash as the receiver hit the cradle. Pressing a soft key doesn’t have the same dramatic effect. But I get the message anyway.

So, new plan needed. All I can do is email this James Fraser and hope he actually has written down the correct email address. If not, I’ll have to sort it out with the airline tomorrow afternoon.

My stomach rumbles and I suddenly realise that I’ve not eaten since breakfast, unless you count the slices of fruit in my jug of sangria. I wander into the kitchen and peruse the contents of my cupboards and fridge. I’m not the most gifted cook, but I’m not too bad and can usually rustle up something edible and fairly tasty. The bread feels a bit on the dry side but will be fine toasted, and I know I have eggs.

I put a knob of butter in a pan and text Frank while I’m waiting for it to sizzle.

Think tomoz will be ok. Talk 2morrow. C

I don’t normally use text speak at all, but something about Frank’s perfectly formed text messages always makes me want to rebel. I can imagine him wincing right now. He’s a professor at the university and is forever complaining about the standard of literacy amongst his undergraduates. If he thinks he has problems, he should try dealing with junior doctors.

With my scrambled egg on toast all eaten, I focus my attention on the email to James Fraser. I write it quickly, brief and to the point: I have your suitcase and therefore presume you have mine, can we meet to swap them over and here’s my phone number.

The longing for a shower and then bed is now overwhelming. I strip off and bundle all my clothes into the laundry basket, tie my hair up with a scrunchie and step into my shower. This is undoubtedly one of my favourite places on earth and possibly the reason that I bought this flat. Large enough for two, I suppose. Although none have yet been invited to partake in this heavenly experience. Maybe I’m saving that for someone extra special. It has a huge overhead rainfall shower head and a handheld shower head too.

My indulgences are all in here — a selection of expensive shower gels, scrubs and lotions and an assortment of huge fluffy bath towels. I choose a lavender scented gel and scrub all traces of the day from my skin.

Wrapping myself in one of my pristine white towels, I slather shea butter lotion on my slightly sun-burnt skin, noticing the uneven red patches where the sun cream hadn’t quite reached but at least it’s not sore.

A quick check of my emails shows there’s no word from James Fraser as yet, so I decide to just settle down to sleep and leave luggage worries until the morning. Fortunately, I had changed the sheets before my weekend away, so I simply unwrap my towel, leaving it in a heap on the floor and slide into bed. The feeling of the cool, crisp bedding against my skin is wonderful. I assume a sort of diagonal starfish position, not having to worry about any other occupants. It crosses my mind whether to reach for the tiny vibrator in my bedside drawer, but I’m too comfortable and drowsy for that, so instead I check my alarm and settle down for sleep.

Chapter Text

Sunlight streaming through the shutters wakes me before the alarm. After the previous seventy two hours with too much alcohol, not enough sleep and shared hotel rooms, last night’s sleep was a solid nine and a half hours and I feel so much better for it.

Trying, for a moment at least, to ignore both the demands of my bladder and my desperate need for caffeine, I gaze up at the ceiling and contemplate the surgery ahead of me. Whilst it’s a comparatively routine procedure for me, I always think about the families — parents, grandparents, siblings. It’s an anxious time for them, never routine, a step into the unknown and they are putting their trust in me to look after their precious child. Their faith in me is something I take very seriously.

I have a ritual I follow every time before theatre. I take a few minutes to close my eyes and let the procedure play inside my head, my hands echoing the images in my brain. I trace the path my scalpel will take on the skin; I position, in mid air, the locations of the clamps; I work with my imaginary mallet and chisel honing the bone, the X-ray images clear in my head.

By the time I’ve finished closing the incision, the demands of my bladder can no longer be ignored. That’s my cue to get out of bed and start my day.

***********
Before I put my scrubs on, I pay a visit to the side room where Robbie, my seven year old patient has spent the night. His parents have already given consent for the operation, but I like to go and do a final check.

Robbie is sitting up in bed, a bit subdued but in good health. His mother is sitting expectantly, nervously playing with the skin around her nails. The foldaway bed has already been put away, but, judging by her red rimmed eyes, I don’t think it got much use. Robbie’s father follows me into the room, two coffees in his hands.

“Sorry, Doctor Claire,” he nods at the coffee. “I didna get ye one. D’ye want one?”

I let the doctor reference pass. As a surgeon, my title is no longer doctor. Officially, I am Miss Beauchamp, but prefer my juvenile patients to call me Claire. Quite a lot of the parents seem to call me Doctor Claire. I suppose they like the reassurance that I am actually a proper doctor.

“No, thanks.” I smile. “Are we all set then?”

They nod nervously.

“Aye,” Robbie’s father agrees. “We need tae get it done.”

“How long will it take?” Robbie’s mother looks directly at me, wanting a definitive answer.

I hesitate. I don’t like to give precise times. If the surgery goes longer then parents start to fear the worst, and that’s not always the case. So I give a vague answer. “‘Till lunchtime… you could always go and sit outside in the little garden, it’s a lovely day.”

His mother looks down at her hands and shakes her head. “No, I want tae be right here …”

She doesn’t finish her sentence, but she doesn’t have to. I know exactly what she’s thinking.

I turn to Robbie, blissfully unaware of his parents’ thoughts. He beckons me to him.

“When I wakes up,” he begins in a stage whisper. “Can I have a treat?”

“What sort of treat did you have in mind?”

“Can I have a MacDonald’s? But no’ a kid’s meal. I’ve never had a Big Mac.”

I glance at his parents who nod at me before I whisper back, “Of course you can, but don’t let nurse Geillis see, will you? She can be ever so naughty. She’ll be trying to steal your chips away, if you’re not careful.”

And with that, I stroke Robbie’s little cheek before saying my goodbyes and head out to get changed.

**********
Robbie’s surgery went to plan, no nasty surprises or tricky complications. I call in to check on Robbie’s parents before they head to recovery. They look totally different to when I saw them this morning. Still worn out of course, I don’t think they’ll sleep properly until their little lad is home with them, but their faces shine with sheer relief. I have warned them about the long road ahead, with many hours of physiotherapy and exercises, but, for today, I’ll let them have their moment of pure happiness. Reality will hit them again soon enough.

As I leave the waiting room, making my farewells, Robbie’s dad thanks me once more. I can tell he’s unsure whether hugging me is appropriate or not, so he settles for a handshake. His wife has no such qualms, wrapping me tightly in a hug, whispering her thanks until her husband reminds her that they need to be with their son. I point the way and head down to the nurses station.

Geillis is sitting there, looking very busy on the computer. I pull up a chair and sit next to her. The screen is filled with images of our weekend in Barcelona.

“What?” She looks at me as if I’ve accused her of something. “I’m on ma lunch, aren’t I?”

“How was your night then?”

Geillis beams from ear to ear— she’s like the cat who got the cream. “Nay bad, nay bad at all. After two nights away, Dougal realises what he’s got wi’ me, and he dinna hesitate tae show me, if ye ken what I mean?”

She winks at a poor medical student, who blushes and busies himself with a set of medical notes.

“Geillis,” I warn. “Behave yourself.”

“Anyway, pet, how was yer evening? Another tryst wi’ Professor Randall?” Her face says it all. Geillis thinks about as much of Frank as he does of her. Literally the only thing they have in common is me, and it’s getting pretty wearing.

“No, I was worn out and— oh, that reminds me.” I fumble in my pocket for my phone as I carry on talking. “I’ve got someone else’s suitcase. I hope they’ve got mine.”

I glance at the screen. Two missed calls and one message. All from the same number. All from the number I called last night, the James-Fraser-isn’t-here-don’t-call-again-ever number. Looks like this James Fraser has a jealous or suspicious wife-partner-girlfriend-housekeeper.

“Catch up later, Geillis, I need to deal with this.”

I rush back to my office to try and sort the suitcase problem out.

The message is brief and to the point.

Hi, Jamie Fraser here. I think I have your case too. Can we arrange a swap? I live in Glasgow. Hopefully you too. Where and when? I’m free after 5 today.

After five will work for me too, I just need to pop home and pick up his case. Now, based on his wardrobe choices and his one message to me, he doesn’t actually seem like an axe murderer or sex pervert, but you can’t really tell, so I think about a public location.

How about the benches by the cafe at Kelvingrove Park? 5:30? Claire Beauchamp

A couple of minutes later his reply appears on my screen.

Fine. See you then. I’ll be the one wheeling a black Samsonite. JF

**************

It’s another glorious sunny day here in Glasgow. Just ideal for going for a stroll in the park. I do feel a bit conspicuous with a suitcase trailing along behind me — kind of like an upmarket bag lady.

There are no other suitcases around, so I perch on a bench. I fire a quick message to Geillis, just so that she knows where to direct the police if I disappear and then wait. It’s not too bad waiting. The sun is still warm, so I stretch my legs out trying for a tan. With my eyes closed, I lift my face up to soak up the rays. I may get panda eyes with my sunglasses on, but I don’t really care. The warmth is so good and I can feel myself relaxing totally —

“Ahem.”

I am conscious of a shadow across my face. I open my eyes and quickly stand up.

He’s tall. That’s the first thing I notice. A good few inches taller than me, and I’m 5 feet 9. And broad. Broad enough to block my sun. His hair is red, very red and the sun behind him creates a fiery corona around his head.

He’s a Viking. A Viking in a navy blue suit and a crisp white shirt. How many of those white shirts does he own, I wonder?

“Claire Beauchamp, I presume. I recognise the case. That red ribbon on the handle, such a unique idea.”

He smiles, a lopsided half grin and holds out his hand for me to shake. “Jamie Fraser.”

“Claire Beauchamp,” I say somewhat unnecessarily as we shake hands.

He sits down. “So,” he begins politely. “I hope ye havena come far out of yer way.”

I join him on the bench.

“No,” I gesture vaguely to my right. “I live not too far from here. How about you?”

That lopsided grin appears again. “Nah,” he gestures to his left. “No’ too far at all.”

There’s an awkward moment of silence. We are not really here for small talk, but is it too rude to just dive in and do the swap?

“So,” Jamie breaks the silence. “About the cases…”

Apparently it’s not too rude.

“I ken ye have ma case there, on account of ma contact details being in it, but what about this one? How do I ken this is yers? Black Samsonites with wee red ribbons seem to be awfa common ‘round here. As proof, can ye mebbe tell me something that’s in it? Something identifiable?”

And at this, my mind goes blank, what did I pack?

“Er, denim shorts… black flip flops… white vest—”

“Weel, they’re all verra common. Is there anything a wee bit more… unique?”

Is it my imagination or is there a twinkle in his clear blue eyes as he says this? And then I remember exactly what’s in my case and start to blush.

“There may be some hen party bits and pieces in there too. It was my friend’s hen weekend, so I think there may be some, er, stuff from that, you know, er, handcuffs… shot glasses…”

He puts me out of my misery. “Och, that’s fine. It’s yers, right enough. Here ye go.”

And we do the exchange, just like in the spy movies. Except in those, the cases are filled with bank notes and the top secret blueprints for a submarine base, and not white dress shirts and an assortment of shot glasses shaped like penises.

Our phones beep practically simultaneously. I pull mine out of my pocket. Jamie does the same and glances at his phone.

Mine is a text from Frank confirming tonight’s arrangements “I’d better go. Plans for tonight, you know.”

“Snap. Plans here as well.”

“Goodbye then. I’m not sure whose fault it was, the mixup at the airport. So why don’t we both say sorry, or neither of us?” I suggest as I stand up and smooth the creases from my skirt.

“Sounds good tae me. How about neither?” He smiles again. “Ms Claire Beauchamp, nice to meet you.”

“Mr Jamie Fraser, likewise I’m sure.”

And with that we head off, me to the right and Jamie Fraser to the left.

************

Frank had said 7:30, and, sure enough, at 7:28 my intercom buzzes and I let Frank in. He arrives at my door carrying a large bunch of lilies and roses. No, not a bunch, I can’t describe it as a bunch… carrying a large bouquet of lilies and roses, beautifully arranged and hand-tied. Clearly not a supermarket purchase. Nor is the wine he also hands to me. A chilled bottle of my favourite Sauvignon Blanc, only available from quality wine merchants in the city.

Frank can be incredibly thoughtful and generous, and I am suitably grateful. I pop the flowers into the kitchen sink while I try to locate a vase big enough to hold them. He walks in as I’m scrabbling around on my hands and knees, bum in the air, head buried in the cupboard under the sink.

“So what are we having for dinner?” He asks as he pours the wine. “Are you cooking?”

I emerge victorious, having found the vase wedged between a bottle of sink unblocker and an unused can of spray starch.

“Sorry?”

“Dinner?” He repeats, helping me to my feet.

“I’ve not had a chance to cook. I told you about the suitcase confusion, didn’t I? Well, I had to get that sorted. I thought we could have something delivered. That’s ok, isn’t it?”

“I’m sure that will be fine, darling. What would you like?”

What would I like? What I would really like would be a huge, great pizza full of carbs and grease and pepperoni and cheese that pulls into strands when you try to take a slice. And to sit on the floor with the pizza box between us watching Netflix and drinking beer.

But, that is clearly a rhetorical question.

“Thai?” Frank doesn’t wait for my answer.

Thai is the only acceptable takeaway in Frank’s eyes, eaten at a table, on proper plates. I nod my agreement. After all, he’s brought me wonderful flowers, and a gorgeous bottle of wine. He deserves to have the choice. And I can have pizza with my friends any time.

“You ring the order through then, while I arrange these beautiful flowers.” I say and kiss his cheek.

And that is our evening sorted - takeaway, a couple of glasses of wine, Newsnight on the television and then to bed for a bit of sex.

So, that’s food, drink, mind and body all sorted. I should go to sleep feeling satisfied with everything. I should… shouldn’t I?

Chapter Text

You know, I’m a great believer in relationships. Relationships come in all shapes and sizes — take my relationship with Geillis, for example.

I met Geillis on my first day of postgraduate training at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. I was spending three months in orthopaedic surgery and she was just finishing her training as a theatre nurse. We somehow kept bumping into each other at social gatherings and found we had many things in common — a childish sense of humour, an intolerance of pomposity and snobbishness, and a love of cheesy rom-com movies.

From there, our friendship snowballed, and for many years now, I’ve called her my best friend. Even the arrival of a fiancé and her forthcoming nuptials haven’t lessened our relationship in any way. Our careers have developed in parallel too. So when a vacancy came up for a senior theatre sister at the Children’s hospital, I didn’t hesitate to recommend her for the post. We work well together. For all her joking around and flippant comments she is damn good at her job. And I love her.

I don’t think I love many people. I’m very fond of a lot of people, mainly my friends. But love? No. And certainly not the romantic, live-our-life-together type of love.

I see how it can work. I look at Robbie’s parents, for example. The way they are there for each other, supporting through all the worries with their son, their comforting touches and reassuring glances.They are a solid unit and I admire that.

I also see the way that Geillis’ face lights up when she talks about her fiancé, Dougal, and the way he watches her when we are all together in the pub. And I think it’s great, I really do.

But it’s not something that I’m seeking out for myself. I don’t think I’m cut out for that type of relationship. I don’t think there is someone out there, my soulmate, to spend the rest of my life with. And I definitely don’t think that I need someone else to complete me, make me whole.

That doesn’t mean that I’m a hermit. Far from it, in fact. I do date and enjoy it, but try to steer clear of any where-is-this-relationship-going type discussions.

It may well be to do with my childhood. I’ll admit, I’ve not had the most normal upbringing and that could have coloured my view of happily-ever-after love.

I’ve never been part of a conventional family unit. Well, I mean, I was for the first four years of my life —until my parents died in a car accident. And, at that age, how much can you remember? I do have some vague memories — rough tweed fabric against my cheek as my father’s strong arms lift me up, the smell of ‘Miss Dior’ perfume as my mother’s soft hands caress my cheek, the sound of laughter as we dance around the living room to Michael Jackson. But these are only fleeting recollections, ephemeral, gone in an instant.

All my real childhood memories are centred around one man — my uncle, Lambert Beauchamp. He, unhesitatingly, took me in when my parents died and became my guardian, my parent, my rock. He and I were a team, and I miss him every single day.

He was a confirmed bachelor, and I don’t mean that in a euphemistic way. He lived his life by his own rules and if he had been gay, he would have seen no reason to hide it. No, he had no need for romantic entanglements, no complicated relationships, no messy sexual encounters. He had two loves in his life — me and his work. He was a professor at the University, teaching archaeology and could, quite happily, get lost for hours in the bowels of the archives, studying ancient Somarian drinking vessels.

Growing up he was my role model, my yardstick against which to measure boys.

And over time, I've come to realise that I've always found myself attracted to the type of men which have certain ‘Lambert-esque’ qualities. Which leads me, I suppose, to Frank.

Just like my uncle, he’s a professor at the university. In history — more recent than Lamb’s studies only three hundred years ago, not three thousand. He’s single minded about his research, like my uncle, and he cares deeply about me, which makes me feel bad because I don’t feel the same way. Of course, I care about him, just not enough for a serious relationship that’s going somewhere.

All of this is a long winded way of saying what I’ve actually known for a while now... I need to break up with Frank.

*************
I’m just contemplating whether to brave the canteen or grab a sandwich from the hospital shop, when there’s a knock at my office door and a hand appears brandishing a couple of distinctive Gregg’s paper bags. This hand is closely followed by the rest of Geillis, who plonks herself down on one of my visitor chairs. A wonderful aroma of freshly baked goods wafts across the desk. My stomach rumbles in anticipation.

“Steak bake or sausage roll?” she asks as she places both bags on my desk, although she knows my preference.

“Ooh, how did you know I was just thinking about lunch?” I pick up one of the bags, the oozing gravy on its surface being a clear giveaway.

“We’ve been friends fer long enough,” Geillis smiles. “I ken what ye’re thinking. In fact, ye’ve something on yer mind right now. No’ a work thing. C’mon, spill.”

I swear, it’s uncanny. In the Middle Ages Geillis would undoubtedly have been tried as a witch. Her powers of deduction are that good.

I say nothing for a moment and focus on my lunch, blowing ineffectually on the hot meat filling.

“Weel? I’m waiting and ye ken I’m no’ a patient woman, Claire. This is tae do wi’ Frank, is it no’? Are ye planning on dumping him?”

See what I mean? Witchcraft.

“You make it sound so harsh. But I can’t carry on with Frank, he’s investing more into this… this—“

“Ye can say the word, Claire. Relationship… R… E…—“

“I know, I know. But I have to do something. I know Frank wants more than I want to give in this ‘relationship’.” I enunciate clearly just to make the point to Geillis. I’m not afraid of the word… I can say it.

“Anyway,” I add casually as I dab at the pastry crumbs with my finger. “I thought you’d be pleased. I know you’ve never liked him.”

Geillis tuts. “‘Tis no’ a matter of like. We jes’ havena got anything in common. He’s awfa serious and ye dampen yer personality down when ye’re with him. I’ve seen ye, ye canna deny it.”

I try to interject, but Geillis ignores my sounds of protest and carries on talking. “But it’s no’ jes’ Frank. Ye do this all the time, Claire. Whenever anyone tries tae get serious, ye run. What is wrong wi’ wanting a relationship anyway?”

“I have my work, I have my friends. I date, I go out with men, I have a good, if sporadic, sex life… and a trusty dual speed vibrator. What’s wrong with me wanting my life the way I want it?”

Geillis crams the end of her sausage roll into her mouth and chews vigorously for a minute. I pass her a paper serviette for her greasy hands. She gathers up the flaky pastry crumbs that have settled on her chest, wraps them in the serviette and pops it neatly in the bin.

“Ok, I get it. I’ll back off. But all I’m saying is dinna close yerself off tae the possibility of a real relationship, aye?”

Knowing she's gone as far as she can with this topic, she gets up and heads for the door. “Nae rest fer the wicked. Oh, and Claire, jes’ one thing…”

She pauses dramatically. “Dinna forget… ye’ve gravy on yer chin.”

And with that she disappears, leaving me with a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach caused by more than the calorie ridden pasty.

I am just settling down to dictate some patient letters when Frank texts to suggest dinner at my favourite Italian restaurant. This isn’t good. It’s a lovely restaurant, the kind of restaurant where special occasions are celebrated— birthdays, anniversaries, declarations…

So I have to lie… no, not lie, fib. I text back pleading a heavy day in theatre — aching feet, headache and so on.

His concerned response makes me feel bad. No need for fibbing, I do feel pretty shitty now. However, it also makes me more resolved to do what I have to do. I can’t drag this out, causing him more and more hurt. So, I invite him to my flat this evening instead.

*******

I have a final glance in the mirror in my bedroom. I do actually look a bit worn out. I haven’t really put any makeup on, just a touch of mascara and a slick of lipstick, which I have already managed to chew off.

My hair is, as per usual, a bit wild and untamed. I have a bathroom shelf full of products promising smooth and manageable curls, but have yet to find one that actually delivers on their promises. I tuck my hair behind my ears, pinch my cheeks to try to look a little less pale and head to the front door.

Frank is as punctual as ever. Unlike other things in my life, he’s always delivering on his promises. Which makes me feel even worse. I have nothing to accuse him of, no unacceptable behaviour— apart from wanting more than I’m prepared to give. That old cliché, “it’s not you, it’s me”, really is appropriate here. I’m going to try not to actually say those words though. He deserves more than that.

And so I take a deep breath and open the door. He stands there expectantly with two bottles of wine, one red and one white, in his hands.

“I wasn’t sure what we would be eating, so I got both just in case,” he volunteers as he walks in and leans close to me for a kiss.

I give him my cheek and make a fuss of taking the bottles from him to deflect my lack of affection.

He follows me into the lounge. I’m sure he notices that I make no offer to pour the wine. I set the wine on the coffee table and perch on the end of the settee.

Frank takes my hands. “Claire, darling, are you ok? Has it been a rough day?”

I shake my head. “It’s not been the best. Frank… I…”

I can’t even look at him now. I take a deep breath and plunge in. “Frank, I… the thing is… I don’t know how… I think we should stop seeing each other.” The words tumble out of my mouth like a deluge.

I finally look up as Frank releases my hands and walks over to the window. He stands still, his back to me, as if just taking in the view. Then he turns to face me, staring intently at me, scrutinising my face as if looking for a glimmer of hope. The silence is unbearable.

“Frank, it’s not you—“ I try to fill the void, by resorting to stale old clichés after all.

“Spare me that platitude.” He snaps at me. “We’re not fifteen. This was… is… serious to me, Claire.”

Frank now moves to sit next to me. His hand rests on my thigh, his fingers lightly drawing circles on my jeans. I watch for a moment. Am I supposed to move it? Should I remind him he no longer can touch me like this?

His voice softens. “I lo—“

“No, please, Frank. Don’t say it. Please don’t. You are such a nice man. You don’t deserve this.” Gently, I lift his hand and place it on his leg.

“Then don’t do it. Tell me, Claire, what do I have to do? What changes do I have to make for us to move forward? I’ll do it, tell me. We can make this work, I know.”

What do I say now? Anything I say will only hurt him more. All I can do is apologise and try to explain.

“I am sorry, really. It’s just, well, you want more than I can give. You think about a future—“

“And what’s wrong with that? That’s what most people want, Claire. Planning for a future together— a home, a family… our family.” Frank’s getting angry now, raising his voice.

“Please, I’m trying to explain. You want a future life together and I can’t give you that. I’m sorry that I’m hurting you.”

“Is there someone else? Is that what this is all about?”

I’ve been trying to remain composed, to give Frank the explanation he deserves. But this question annoys me beyond belief, as if I have to be one half of a couple.

“I can’t believe you asked that. No, it’s not about another man. I can’t be what you want me to be and that’s it.”

He stands up now, right in front of me. His hands are down by his sides, so tightly clenched into fists that his knuckles are white against the slight tan of his skin. For a fleeting nanosecond, I wonder if he is going to hit me. But, of course not, he’s just trying to gain control of himself.

“That’s it, then.” The words are spat out with venom.

“You know I’m sorry.”

He shrugs dismissively. “Of course. Well, goodbye.”

He makes for the door.

“What about the wine?” I indicate the two bottles, still on the table. It’s a pointless trivial comment, I know, but for some reason I don’t want him to think I expect to keep them.

Frank doesn’t even look over his shoulder. “Consider them a parting gift.”

And with that, he's gone.

I remain sitting motionless, processing what I’ve just done. It’s not easy hearing those words, but neither is it easy to have to say them. So many emotions are coursing through my body — sorrow, guilt, regret, self-reproach, worry. And in the midst of this maelstrom, there is one thing I can clearly recognise — a glimmering spark of relief.

Chapter Text

There’s something rather special about this time of year with the transition from spring to summer when everything is still so fresh and green. The long, light evenings make me feel like I’ve been given an extra couple of hours in my day.

My flat has a balcony. It’s small—just enough space for a bistro table, two chairs and a few pots of herbs—but I love it. I come home from work and sit out there, sometimes with a cup of coffee, sometimes with something a bit stronger. Of course this is weather dependent — I am in Scotland, after all.

But sometimes, like tonight, sitting on my balcony isn’t enough. I want to be outside in all that fresh air and sunshine. Plus, one of my neighbours has acquired a new hobby, apparently. It’s either learning the violin or strangling cats. Although it sounds more like the latter, I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt and say it’s the former. I have finally managed to identify the piece she’s having a crack at. It’s from ‘Frozen’ — ‘Let It Go’ and I really wish she would.

Besides, if I wander into the park, there’s a certain ice cream kiosk that might still be open. My mouth waters at the thought of their cherry bakewell ice cream. So, I grab a cardigan, keys and a bit of cash, and head out.

As I stroll through the park, I’m thankful that I brought my cardigan. The sun is still warm, but there’s a distinct chill in the shade. Not enough of a chill to put me off an ice cream, though.

The kiosk is just on the verge of closing for the day, but he spies me doing that stupid little pretend run that’s actually no faster than walking and waits. I smile gratefully as I hand over the money in exchange for a double cone. Turning away, I can hear the shutters closing.

There’s a bench nearby, overlooking the pond and still in the sun… unoccupied. I sit down ready to enjoy my ice cream in peace. After the cacophony of a violin bow being scraped painfully across strings, this is sheer bliss — only the sound of a few argumentative ducks and the occasional playful dog. No-one to disturb me, no-one to—

At first, all I can hear are two voices, coming from the path behind me. Nothing above a murmur — one low pitched, the other higher. I can’t make out what they’re saying. Not that I would want to. The higher voice, a female, is definitely getting louder now. She’s not happy by the sound of it. The other, clearly male, keeps to a calm murmur.

“Are ye telling me I’m imagining things, then?”

I can’t hear the response, but it’s obviously not to her liking.

“I ken she works fer ye. But she has her eye on ye. I’m no’ stupid. D’ye think I’m a mug?”

The voice sounds a bit familiar but I can’t place it anywhere. Perhaps we go to the same coffee shops or bars or—

“That’s it, James Fraser. I’m going, I mean it... Ye ken where tae find me… this is me, going… bye… I said bye. Fine, dinna answer me, then.”

The annoyance in her voice registers in my brain. I know why she sounds so familiar— it’s little Miss James-Fraser-isn’t-here-don’t-call-again-ever. Which means that, at any moment, one or other of them might be rounding this corner and think that I was eavesdropping.

Quickly I get to my feet ready to walk away —slap bang straight into Samsonite-owning Jamie Fraser. I take a step back. The first thing I notice is he’s not wearing a white dress shirt this time. He’s far more casually dressed in a plain white t-shirt… a plain white t-shirt now adorned with a large splodge of pink ice cream right in the middle of his chest.

“Oh, gosh, I’m — I’m so sorry,” I stammer apologetically as I fumble in my pockets for a paper serviette or tissue.

He looks up. The vexed expression on his face gives way to one of amusement.

“Claire Beauchamp,” he announces. “I didna recognise ye without yer suitcase.”

“I am sorry,” I continue to apologise as I pass him a somewhat crumpled but clean tissue.

He makes no attempt to leave, but settles himself on the bench and starts to dab ineffectually at the pink stain.

“Was it good?” He nods at the battered cone I am still holding.

“Oh yes, the best. I’d buy you one as compensation but they’re closed now.”

“It’s fine. If I feel the need I can always suck on ma shirt.” He looks down at the stain, glaringly obvious against the pristine white of his t-shirt. “Sae, how are ye doing?”

I perch on the bench next to him. Apparently we’re having a conversation.

“I’m fine, thank you,” I answer politely. “And how are you?”

“Me, I’m no’ sae bad,” He looks annoyed, then shakes his head and gives a little half smile. “Look, I’m sorry if any of that… er…weel, if ye heard any of that.”

Do I lie? Pretend that I heard nothing? I’m not a very good liar. Geillis always says that I have a glass face, you can see every emotion clearly etched on it and I think she’s right. So I choose to answer noncommittally.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s jes’...” he pauses for a moment, considering his choice of words. “Jes’ … tricky.”

He seems lost in thought. Maybe I need to remind him that his wife-partner-girlfriend-housekeeper has just stormed off and will clearly be awaiting some sort of reaction from him.

“Shouldn’t you be… ?” I gesture towards the path in the direction she must have taken.

“Nah, I’m no’ going after her… no’ this time.” He adds the last bit under his breath.

“Oh, ok.”

“That's what she wants, ye ken. The attention, me chasing after her, making promises…” his voice tails off as he realises what he’s doing.

He looks at me and shrugs his shoulders. “I’m sorry. I shouldna be blathering like this tae ye. I dinna ken why.”

I do. Sometimes it’s easier to vent, to get things off your chest, to a stranger rather than family or friends. You can pretty much say what you like, confident that it’s not going to come back and bite you, or spread like chinese whispers around your peer group.

“No need to apologise. It can be easier explaining things to strangers, sometimes.”

He smiles. “Ah, but, I dinna think we’re strangers. After all, I’m well acquainted with yer holiday… er...shall we say, accessories.”

If his intention was to make me blush, he’s succeeded. I feel myself redden. “It was a hen party. I had to get into the spirit.”

“So ye say.” He raises an eyebrow as if to question my explanation. “Och, dinna mind me, I’m jes’ teasing.”

I screw my face up in mock disgust and he chuckles.

“My mam told me never tae pull faces else ye’ll be stuck like that if the wind changes.”

I assume a serious expression.

“That’s much better, Miss Beauchamp,” his face becomes serious too. “But, aye, I get what ye’re saying— about talking tae people ye dinna ken. Ye’ve no horse in this race, as it were. Everyone else that I ken seems tae have an opinion.”

I’m suddenly conscious that the remains of my cone are still in my hand, now totally melted. Noticing my awkward fidgeting, he returns the crumpled tissue to me. I wipe my hands and deposit all the debris in the bin by the bench. He settles back, obviously keen to continue our conversation.

“Sae, are ye up fer giving me yer opinion then about ma situation?”

I’ve never thought of myself as an agony aunt, but I’m curious to know more about him. It’s reassuring to know other people have complications in their love lives too.

“I don’t know enough to give you my opinion, but feel free to unload, if you want to.”

He leans forward, his large hands resting on his denim clad knees and sighs. He has very nice hands with neatly shaped nails, no ragged cuticles or bitten nails. There’s a smattering of reddish hairs on the back. I always notice a man’s hands. Frank had very smooth, elegant hands with long, slim fingers. Jamie’s are much broader than Frank’s, which fits with his whole Viking throwback vibe. I force myself away from his hands and focus on what he's telling me.

“Ye see, ye get tae an age where all yer friends are in couples and having bairns. And ye feel that’s what ye should do, have a proper ‘relationship’.”

I inhale sharply at the way he says the word, so similar to my own thoughts. He glances at me, and continues.

“Ah, ye ken what I mean. And sae ye go along wi’ it when ye friends introduce ye tae a lass. And ye date… and it’s nice, but there’s always that feeling that they want something more, that they want the whole ‘relationship’ thing. They want more than ye can give. And that leads tae disappointment and arguments. They push, trying tae force ye to commit.”

He sits back and looks at me. “Mebbe it’s…och, i dinna ken. Jes’ ignore me. I’m a stupid dolt.”

“No, I don’t mind at all. Honestly.”

“I mean, Laoghaire is a nice enough lass, but it seems the more she pushes, the more I back away. It makes her more suspicious. If I dinna want her, then she reckons I must be after another. What do ye think?”

Do I tell him about her answering his phone? I mean, it seems like he’s coming to a conclusion all by himself. I decide not to volunteer any more information. And I know I said I wouldn’t give an opinion, but I just can’t help it. This is all too familiar to me.

“It is difficult but, ask yourself, is this fair to Laoghaire, or fair to you? Will this keep happening? I mean, I don’t know her, but will she be satisfied with what you are prepared to give? I think you already know your answer. And I think you know what you must do.”

He sighs again. “Aye, I do. But it’s no’ a pleasant thing, is it?”

I shake my head. The image of Frank’s devastation is still fresh in my mind. “It never is.”

The bench is now in shade, and it’s cooled down a lot. I shiver and wrap my cardigan tightly around me. Time to head home, I think.

“Aye, ye’re right. Time tae go.”

I’m not sure if he’s talking about the evening chill, or what he needs to do about the whole Laoghaire situation.

We both stand up at the same time. He extends his hand, and I take it in mine, which is more than a bit grubby and sticky, with the odd bit of tissue still stuck to it.

“Thank ye for listening, Claire, and fer yer opinion. It’s been a big help tae me. I dinna ken what it is but I feel I can talk tae ye. And I promise, next time, it’s yer turn. Ye can vent like ye want tae me and I’ll do the listening.”

“Will there be a next time?”

He smiles. “Oh aye, I’m sure there will be.”

Chapter Text

When I was a little girl, Uncle Lamb would sometimes take me into university with him. I would creep into the lecture theatre and sit at the back watching him as he enthused about Phoenician trade routes, or long gone military strategies. I didn’t really understand what he was talking about, but I loved it anyway. The passion he had for his subject matter thrilled me.

And once the lecture was over, I would join him in his office and we would squeeze together in an old armchair, drinking hot, sweet tea while he tried to explain the principles of a three thousand year old civilisation in words a seven year old would understand.

The armchair is now in my office at the hospital. It looks more than a bit incongruous amongst the standard NHS furniture. The rich green velvet fabric has faded to a shabby eau de nil colour and years of shuffling bottoms have left a large depression in the seat cushion. But I won’t have it reupholstered. I love it as it is. It’s a great reminder of my wonderful uncle. I sit in it and somehow it comforts me, like a soothing hug.

**********************
I glance at the clock as I walk into my office, paper cup of hot, sweet tea in hand, and head straight for Lamb’s chair. Gratefully, I sink into its depths and take a tentative sip of the steaming liquid before closing my eyes for a moment. The surgery was long; much longer than anticipated—having taken all morning and most of the afternoon, in fact. It had also been far more complicated—my original plans for keyhole surgery had to be changed, but, eventually, we completed the operation successfully. I’m always proud of my theatre team, but never more so than in situations like this.

And now, after hours of concentration, I feel in need of some light relief. I can go home, have a wonderfully reviving shower and then what? I know that Dougal is taking Geillis out for a meal tonight, so she’s not available. Mary and Anna are both working nights this week, so no joy there. Other friends live too far away for an impromptu midweek activity. I could go to the gym. I should go to the gym. Or… more likely, I’ll go home, have cheese on toast, a glass of wine and watch ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ for the fifteenth time instead.

I reach for my phone to check for messages. A notification for a Facebook friend request appears on my screen. I very rarely get new friend requests—other than the odd random gentleman hoping, I presume, to make some sort of connection. I always delete immediately.

And, yes, the request is from a gentleman—one Jamie Fraser. The profile picture is definitely Samsonite Jamie, even wearing the Scotland rugby shirt I fingered whilst foraging through his suitcase. I click accept. Why not? I don’t think I have anything too embarrassing on my posts. In fact, I don’t use it very often at all.

Neither, it seems, does Mr. Fraser. His cover photo shows a very youthful bunch of Scottish rugby supporters and his recent timeline seems to comprise mostly of being tagged in photos by Laoghaire Mackenzie. Is it my imagination, or does he have a resigned look on his face on each of their ‘selfies’?

My tea is cool enough to drink now without scalding my tongue. I put my phone down and take a large gulp whilst considering tomorrow’s workload. My job is a series of highs and lows. Today, for example, started as routine, slumped to a worrying low, before peaking at a very relieved high. Tomorrow appears to be an easier day, certainly—a review of patients’ case notes in the morning followed by an outpatient clinic in the afternoon. All follow up patients, and all doing well as far as I know, so tomorrow is shaping up to be a very good day.

I open up my phone again. Facebook messenger is encouraging me to ‘say hi to your new Facebook friend.’ Without thinking, I send a little waving hand emoji to Samsonite Jamie.

I have no sooner put the phone down than it pings. Waving hand returned. I smile. What are we… thirteen years old? Next I’ll be asking him out for an Irn Bru and a bag of chips.

Ping again.

You owe me…

Shit! The stain on his t-shirt, no doubt. I watch the dots on the screen. Perhaps he’s calculating the cost of a dry cleaner, or a new t-shirt.

You promised me an ice cream.

You up for buying one for me tonight?

I hesitate for a moment. I hope Jamie doesn’t think I’m after him or anything like that. I mean, he’s not really my type. As I’ve said before, I’ve always been attracted to academic, cerebral kind of men like Uncle Lamb, rather than Viking marauders.

And I’ve never subscribed to the idea that men and women can’t be friends. One of my closest friends at university was a man—Joe Abernathy. If it wasn't for the fact that he is currently three thousand miles away, working in Boston, I would be arranging platonic ice cream outings with him.

So, deciding I have nothing to lose, I type my response.

If you can get to the kiosk by 6:30, it should still be open

A brief pause, then the response.

Great. See you there?

****************

Even at a distance, I recognise him sitting at a table next to the kiosk. No white t-shirt today, it looks like some sort of check lumberjack shirt. I breathe a sigh of relief. Not what I would call ‘first date’ clothing. Which is handy, seeing as I’m wearing ripped jeans and an oversized Aran jumper. I’m clean, presentable and fresh-smelling but definitely not dressed to impress.

He stands up when he sees me and greets me formally with a handshake. His hands are warm and dry—no nervous, sweaty palms here, which is another good sign. His shirt is blue, red and cream flannel and actually quite hideous.

“I hope this ice cream lives up tae ma expectations,” he says with the merest hint of challenge.

I crane my neck and look him straight in the eye. “No doubt at all. Cherry bakewell, is it? Double cone?”

“Aye. With a flake too. Compensation, ye ken.”

He stands aside to allow me to make the purchases. Before accepting the cone, he picks up half a dozen or so paper napkins and stuffs them in the pocket of his jeans.

“I’m prepared fer ye now. Do yer worst, Ms Beauchamp.”

I ignore his clear inference and follow him to a nearby bench.

“I can manage to eat and walk at the same time, you know,” I say in mock indignation.

“Hm,” he replies. “All the evidence sae far suggests the contrary. I need proof afore I believe it.”

There’s a moment of silence as we both focus on our ice creams. I lick neatly all the way around, trying to prevent any rogue drips trickling down the cone. Jamie pulls the flake from his cone and consumes it in two mouthfuls. He looks at me and laughs.

“Caught me. I’m a bit of a bugger fer chocolate,” he mumbles before swallowing.

“Right,” he continues, much more clearly now. “I suggest we get all the boring stuff out of the way. Ye ken, name, age, family, job, blah, blah blah. I’ll go first, if ye like.”

I nod my agreement.

“Sae, I’m James or Jamie Fraser. I’m thirty years old. Since our last conversation I am most definitely single. I live in Glasgow, obviously, but grew up on a farm near Inverness. My parents still run the farm. I have one sister, Jenny, who’s married tae Ian, my childhood friend. I have one nephew—a grand little lad known as Wee Jamie and a wee baby niece, Maggie . And I dinna think it’ll be long afore they’re joined by others. They all live here in Glasgow. My job, weel, I have a business—FraserFood—recipe boxes delivered tae yer door.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve heard of that. ‘From farm to fork.” That’s you, is it?”

He smiles proudly. “Aye, it’s me and ma family. Looks like ma marketing manager is doing a fine job, then.”

“Oh, forgot tae say, after the blah blah, ye have tae tell one confession. Only a wee one, mind.” He takes a large mouthful of his ice cream.

I purse my lips. “Really, and what if I’ve nothing to confess?”

Jamie snorts with laughter and does a funny sort of blink, screwing up his face and closing both eyes. Is he trying to wink? If so, he’s failing miserably. I try to look angelic and sin free. Judging by the look of scepticism on his face, It doesn’t seem to be working.

“Sae, my confession is, dah-dah-daaaah,” he does a fake fanfare, trying to build suspense. “I wanted tae be yer friend on Facebook because I wanted tae see if there were any photos of ye in Barcelona, with all yer...er… accessories.”

I feel myself redden. I’ve just remembered catching Geillis on Facebook the other day at work and I’m pretty sure I know what’s coming next.

“Verra interesting… in particular, the one with ye and six penis shot glasses. How d’ye manage tae get two of them in yer mouth at the same time?”

I inwardly curse Geillis and her desire to live her life through social media.

“Excuse me,” I reply somewhat primly. “I don’t think we’re at the Q and A stage yet.”

“So,” I continue in a lighter tone. “Me. Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. I’m thirty two and I’m a paediatric orthopaedic surgeon, here at the children’s hospital. I love my job so much, I can’t begin to tell you. As of two weeks ago, I am thankfully single. I was born in Oxford and moved up here when I was twelve, when my Uncle Lamb became a professor at the university. He brought me up, you know. Raised me when my parents died in a car accident... I… er...I was four at the time.”

I can feel Jamie looking at me, but I can’t raise my eyes. Telling people about my parents never gets any easier, no matter how many times I say those words. I concentrate on picking bits of wafer off my cone and throwing them to the ducks loitering nearby, waiting for some sort of treat.

“So it always was just my uncle and me.” I carry on talking. “Then he died… seven...seven years ago…” I can hear my voice start to crack as I fight back tears. A hand creeps into my vision and I gratefully accept the proffered paper napkin and wipe my face.

“Och, lass.” He says softly.

I clear my throat. “I'm sorry. We were having a nice conversation and then there I go, getting all teary. It’s just, well, we were a team, Uncle Lamb and I… the two musketeers. He was my hero.”

Blowing my nose in a most unladylike way, I toss the napkin into the neighbouring bin.

“And that’s pretty much me. As for a confession, well… I suppose it’s kind of one.”

He raises one eyebrow quizzically, making a better job of that than the whole winking lark, I think.

"Ok, well, when I had your case, I tried to ring before I emailed you. I called the number in your case… twice. A woman answered and told me I had the wrong number—"

"Laoghaire."

"I know that now. But she obviously knew how to get onto your phone."

"Why did ye no' tell me?" He smiles as he says this. It's not a reprimand.

"I would have but you seemed to be coming to a conclusion anyway. No need to add more fuel to the fire."

"Happen ye're right."

He notices me shivering and gets to his feet. “Aye, there’s a bit of a chill. Fancy a wee walk tae warm up and we can carry on wi’ round two. It’s a quick fire round.”

I stand up and we move away from the pond. The ducks have already lost interest in us since they realise that we’ve nothing more to offer them. It’s pretty quiet in the park now, the cooler evening air seems to have kept people at home. The gravel crunching loudly under the soles of our shoes, I glance down and notice Jamie’s doing a sort of awkward stuttering movement with his feet. He’s clearly trying to match his stride pattern to mine. Which isn’t easy when his must be a good few inches longer than mine. Nice, considerate gesture, though.

“Sae, quick fire questions and answers. Ye can go first,” he says generously.

It only takes me a moment to think of a question that I have been wondering about ever since I explored the contents of his suitcase.

“What were you doing in Barcelona? I mean the contents of your case weren’t really fun-weekend-away stuff.”

“Nah, ye’re right. It wasna a holiday—flying visit only. I was there on business—talking tae a food wholesale company. Serrano ham, chorizo, saffron, that kind of thing,” he explains, a look of excitement on his face. “We’re expanding our range, starting with Spanish influenced recipes. A full three courses ready tae prepare, plus wine delivered straight tae yer door. Dinner party FraserFood style.”

He can’t stop smiling as he talks about these plans. And his hands move animatedly as he continues to elaborate on his new venture. His business is obviously his passion. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t got the desire for a relationship with a girlfriend—FraserFood seems to be his one love. No girl could compete.

He stops talking for a moment. “And here I am, boring ye.”

I shake my head. “Not at all, it’s really interesting.” I don’t have to lie. It’s the truth. My mouth is watering at his description of albondigas and flavoursome chicken and chorizo with cannellini beans. I’m ready to sign up for this delivery service any time.

“Sae, ma turn tae ask a question. Tell me, d’ye like this shirt?”

I try to stifle a laugh. The question is so unexpected and the shirt so awful. Trying to be diplomatic, I search for the right words, evading the actual question. “I’ve only seen you in white tops before, no colours.”

He sighs. “Ye’ve only seen me twice afore... anyway I dinna think ye need tae say any more. I ken ye’re being polite, but ye’re a terrible liar. I can tell by yer face ye dinna like this shirt. Laoghaire hated it, always made me change it. I did wonder if that was jes’ her being difficult. But apparently no’.”

“Sorry, I didn’t want to be rude.”

“Ye dinna need tae apologise, Claire. Being honest is a good thing, is it no’? And friends should always tell each other the truth. And that’s what I think we’re going tae be, Claire— friends. D’ye no’ agree?”

I crane my neck and look Jamie straight in the eye. “Yes, I do… friends.”

Chapter Text

And just like that, we’re friends, Jamie and I. It’s strange how quickly you can go from strangers to acquaintances to friends. After that walk in the park, something seems to have clicked with us, there’s an ease in our friendship that doesn’t happen too often. Despite our vastly different upbringings, we have many things in common: a shared love of irreverent comedy, a fondness for very good quality chocolate and wine and a determination to succeed in our chosen careers.

Of course, it helps that we don’t have the whole fancying-sexual-tension-romantic thing lurking in the background. As I’ve said before, Jamie is not my type and, judging by the pictures on his Facebook timeline, I am definitely not his, which appears to be doe-eyed, tanned, petite blondes— their pneumatic breasts frequently struggling to break free from their restraints. No tall, wild-haired brunettes with only-slightly-above-average breasts usually firmly encased in sensible lingerie.

I may even invite him to Geillis’ wedding as my plus one. We’ll see. I don’t think I’ll be dating by then, I quite fancy a few months without any of those complications.

********
One of life’s pleasures, for me, when I’m not on-call, is to walk to the local newsagents on a Sunday morning for the newspaper. If it’s fine, it’s another opportunity to sit on my balcony and read it at my leisure. A mug of freshly brewed coffee and a cinnamon bun enhances this experience.

Today, it’s not so fine, but sitting on my sofa while listening to the rain pounding against the window is pretty good too. I’m just about to start the crossword when my phone rings. I quickly swallow my mouthful of bun and glance at the screen—private number. I offer up a silent prayer that it’s not the hospital as I answer it.

“Claire Beauchamp?” The female voice sounds familiar.

“Yes.” I answer cautiously.

“Jes’ a wee word of warning. Karma can be a bitch, ye ken.” The voice grows louder and angrier. I recognise that tone, last heard berating Jamie. “Ye’ll get what ye deserve. Ye canna trust James Fraser, but ye’ll find out soon enough—the hard way, like I did… thanks tae ye.”

“Look, I—“ I begin, but before I can finish my sentence, she’s gone.

My initial reaction is irritation. Laoghaire, no doubt looking around for someone to blame for her recent break up, has cast me in the role of home wrecker, clearly using my carefully honed feminine wiles to lure Mr. Fraser from her clutches. Like Frank, she can’t quite believe that anyone could break up with her, without there being another waiting in the wings, ready and willing to take her place.

My irritation dissipates as I begin to see the funny side of this. She’s obviously thought long and hard about this—checking his Facebook friends, keeping records of his phone calls when they were together. Perhaps she sees herself as Jennifer Aniston against my Angelina. I hope Jamie can see this for what it is and laugh. Besides, in this scenario, that makes Jamie what? Brad Pitt?

*****************
Two days later, Jamie and I have arranged to have a quick drink after work in a mutually convenient bar. Summer has not yet returned to the city. Whilst not actually raining, the air is damp and there’s a definite nip in the air. I do a cursory check of the outdoor seating, just to see whether Jamie is heroically braving the elements, but there’s no sign of him.

I make my way into the bar and have a quick walk around before snagging a corner table. The seats are comfortable and it’s in a prime position for me to keep an eye out for his arrival. This bar has always been one of my favourites in the city. It feels grounded, like it’s been here forever. The stone walls and dark oak beams are unchanging and watching the inebriated trying to negotiate the uneven wooden floor on their way to the toilets always makes for good entertainment. In fact, people come from miles around to marvel at its very crookedness.

I check my phone for any messages. There’s one from Geillis, accepting my invitation for girls’ night on Friday at my flat. I reply and put the phone down just in time to see Jamie heading toward me. He’s obviously come straight from work as he’s still in his navy blue suit and white shirt. I’ve come straight from work too but am not nearly so smartly dressed. Having worn my blue scrubs all day, I’m now clad in jeans and a wrap around top which used to be orange, but has faded to a light amber colour. I feel somewhat underdressed next to him.

“Drink?” He asks, before even sitting down.

I nod. “I’m parched. Think I’ll have a shandy, please.”

“Lager shandy? Half pint?”

“Bitter,” I clarify, not being a great believer in girlie drinks. “And pint.”

He returns a couple of minutes later with a pint and a packet of crisps in each hand.

He takes a huge slug of beer. “Sae, what do ye ken? What’s new wi’ ye?”

And so, I recount my day of surgery to him. And, bless him, he looks interested all the way through my narration. He does turn a bit pale as I begin to explain my use of the bone mallet and chisel, and his crisps remain untouched, but he soldiers through.

“In other news,” I change the subject as his colour returns and he rips the crisps open. “I had an anonymous phone call from your ex, warning me about you and blaming me for your break up. But, never fear, I’ll get what’s coming to me when you do the same to me—“

A bout of coughing from Jamie breaks into my conversation. I get up and thump his back a couple of times. The coughing stops as he takes a swig of beer.

“Sorry,” he clears his throat and continues. “Crisp stuck in ma throat. She did what? How does she ken who ye are?”

“Presumably she kept a record of your phone calls and is monitoring your Facebook friends. Maybe you need to check your phone, see if she’s set up any other little apps so she can track where you are or what you’re doing.”

He shakes his head. “Aye, I’ll do that. I canna believe she would go tae such lengths. Although…” he pauses for a moment. “... mebbe I can. She was always the, er, suspicious type—asking me about women at work, convinced they were ready tae pounce on me. Perhaps I’m not the best judge of character, Claire. Ye need tae advise me.”

I laugh. “Ok. I’ll be your wingman, if you like. Or vet all your potential girlfriends. How about that?”

Jamie joins in with the laughter. His eyes twinkle and it’s funny the way he wrinkles his nose as he laughs.

“How about you? How’re the Spanish influenced dinners going? What are you up to?” I ask him.

“The plans are going grand. We’ve three dinner options planned out.” As usual, his face lights up as he explains the various menus to me.

“They all sound delicious. I’m looking forward to trying them.” And that's the truth.

“Weel, funny ye should mention that. We are looking fer people willing tae test them. How about it? Fancy trying one out? This week, mebbe? Free, of course.”

My weekend plans are getting better and better. Girls’ night at my flat could be turning into a bit of a Spanish fiesta, a mini replay of our Barcelona trip.

“I’d love that. Thanks. I’m having Geillis, Mary and Anna ‘round on Friday for a catch up. I could give you their opinion on the meal too.”

Jamie types something into his phone. “Great, I’ll sort it. So, good weekend plans then?”

“Oh yes, what about you?”

“Oh, I’ve got a sort of date type thing,” he mumbles into his pint and, to my surprise he goes a little bit red. Is he worried about telling me? Does he think that I will mind?

“That’s nice...isn’t it?”

“I dinna ken, really. I… I suppose so. It’s ma sister, Jenny’s, idea. A friend of hers from university. Ma sister canna quite believe that I’m no’ yet married and she keeps trying tae make it happen. And Jenny, weel, let’s jes’ say that she’s a force of nature. Ye dinna want tae mess wi’ her.”

***************
I’m not exactly the most gifted cook, but I think it would be hard to go wrong with the box of food and wine that Jamie has delivered. The asparagus is waiting to be cooked, the mouth-watering smell from the simmering chicken and chorizo fills my flat and bowls of juicy Spanish olives— some plain and some with garlic and chilli are dotted about the dinner table. Feeling inspired, I root out a large jug and begin to cut up fruit for sangria.

Like alcohol-seeking missiles, I’ve no sooner prepared the sangria when the doorbell rings. With many hugs, Geillis, Mary, Anna and I greet each other. I accept their gifts of wine, chocolate and flowers as we head into the flat.

As usual, everyone gravitates to the kitchen as I pass the drinks around, complimenting me on the wonderful aromas. Geillis’ stomach rumbles in eager anticipation.

When the four of us are together, the conversation flows as freely as the wine. Honestly, you would swear that we had not seen each other for months, when, in fact, I saw Anna on Tuesday in theatre, and squeezed in a coffee catch-up with Mary and Geillis only two days ago. The topics we cover are wide-ranging and random. Sangria and olives are accompanied by Anna’s search for a new flat, then the conversation turns to the destructive tendencies of Mary’s kitten as I serve the asparagus and Serrano ham starter.

For the main course, we have the tale of Geillis’ father refusing to wear a kilt for her wedding—he is prepared to don tartan trews but, according to Geillis, that will spoil the whole symmetry of the wedding photos. Neither, at the moment, seem willing to back down but, having known Geillis for so many years, it’s obvious to me who will win.

By the time I bring out the selection of Spanish biscuits and turrón, the conversation has moved on to men, more specifically Mary’s crush on a locum doctor newly arrived in the department. There’s a lot of good natured teasing about this—Mary seems to develop a new crush every couple of weeks, and why not?

Geillis drains her wine and turns to me. “Fantastic meal, Claire. Better than yer usual offerings.”

She pulls me close to her as she says this, and squeezes my arm to show she’s joking.

“Well, I have to confess. I did have a bit of assistance. I mean, I did the cooking, apart from the cookies, but everything came from FraserFood.”

“In that case, give me those chocolates back. I’m no’ sure ye’ve earned them.”

“But I have,” I moan. “I did all the cooking…and made sangria.” I reach across Geillis and help myself to another biscuit. They are melt-in-the-mouth delicious.

“It’s part of a new range they’re launching,” I try to explain as Anna and Mary start to squabble over the last biscuit. “Three course dinner party boxes. Everything you need. Jamie asked if I would test one of them out—“

Immediately Anna and Mary shut up, the last biscuit now abandoned on the plate.

“Woo-hoo,” Anna grins at me.

Geillis nudges me in the ribs. “Jamie, is it? And what else has Jamie given ye, eh?”

“Nothing, we’re friends, that’s it.”

“But we’ve seen pictures of him. Don’t ye want there tae be more tae it? I mean, c’mon look at him.” Now Mary joins in the questioning.

I sigh. “We can just be friends, you know.”

“Friends with benefits, mebbe?” Geillis isn’t giving up.

“No, just friends. Although…” my friends lean forward expectantly, perhaps awaiting some heartfelt confession from me, as if I’d suddenly realised my undying love, or, at least, a good bit of lust for Mr. Fraser. They’re going to be disappointed.

“...Although, I suppose you could say this free food and drink is a benefit. So,yes, I guess that makes us friends with benefits.”

Anna and Geillis look as if they don’t believe me, but say nothing. Mary isn’t prepared to drop the subject.

“So,” she starts. “So, suppose I meet yer—“

“Not mine,” I mutter under my breath.

Mary shrugs her shoulders and continues, “—yer Jamie Fraser. And suppose he asks me out and one thing leads tae another… ye’re telling us that ye wouldna mind?”

“No, I wouldn’t mind. Might be a bit awkward if you break up. I mean, can I still be friends with both of you?”

Geillis, laughing, joins in now. “Suppose our Mary marries Jamie Fraser and asks ye tae be a bridesmaid. Would ye mind then?”

I pretend to give this some thought. “Ah, now that does depend. Just how awful will the bridesmaid dress be, Mary?”

“Och, just hideous. We’ll be having a Disney themed wedding.”

All talking and laughing at once, we try to decide which would be the worst Disney outfit for a bridesmaid and finally settle on Moana.

I get up from the table to go and make coffee, but not before making one final statement on the whole platonic situation with Jamie.

“Look, I know it’s hard to believe, but I have no romantic interest in Jamie and neither does he. In fact, he told me that he’s got a date this weekend and that’s totally fine with me.”

Geillis grabs my hand in passing. “Ok, as long as ye’re fine. We jes’ dinna want ye getting hurt, Claire. We love ye too much fer that.”

I smile at my closest friends gathered around my table and feel a rush of warmth and love for them too. They’re my family, these girls, and, for all the joking and teasing, they have my best interests at heart.

“I know. Thank you for looking out for me. But, Jamie and I are friends, nothing more.”

And with that I head into the kitchen, giving Anna, Mary and Geillis, no doubt, the opportunity to continue to speculate about Jamie’s and my friendship. But really I don’t mind, they’ll get fed up soon enough when they see I’ve been telling the truth all along.

Chapter Text

I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye. A converted barn, situated at the end of a leafy country lane, surrounded by fields full of cows and maybe a horse or two. Jamie’s office will be at one end— all exposed beams with classic mahogany and leather furniture. Perhaps chickens will be roaming around outside as tractors pull up to deliver vegetables straight from the neighbouring fields.

This image begins to fade as I follow my Sat nav instructions and take the next junction off the motorway. Country lanes look to be few and far between in this urban sprawl. Signposts along the tarmacked road point to a series of industrial estates. At the fourth such sign, I’m instructed to turn left and in three hundred yards will have reached my destination.

Having parked up, I make my way towards the large, uninspiring building which resembles some sort of aircraft hangar. Its grey concrete and corrugated iron walls match the overcast sky and the roughly surfaced car park. The only colour in this landscape is provided by the bright orange FraserFood logo emblazoned above the loading bays.

There’s a single door to the right with an intercom. I press it and wait a few seconds.

“Hello, there.” A cheery voice greets me. “Can I help ye?”

“Yes. Hello, I’ve an appointment with Ja— Mr. Fraser, Jamie. It’s Claire Beauchamp.”

“Aye, come on through. Jamie is expecting ye. Down the passage and third door on the left.”

I step into a long corridor, painted an unoriginal white. Fluorescent strip lights hanging from the ceiling cast a harsh brightness. The floor is covered with grey carpet tiles.—the same as in thousands of other working offices across the country.

What sets it apart and brings character to the otherwise anonymous environment is the artwork. Colourful photographs line the walls — a bowl of strawberries, their red glossiness accentuated by the white porcelain; a perfect corn on the cob, rivulets of melted butter flowing around the kernels; a plate of steaming tagliatelle, the parmesan shavings falling gently onto the pasta. Then, as I move further towards the office, the photographs change to a series of images that I instantly recognise, La Boqueria, one of the food markets in Barcelona.

I pause for a moment in front of a picture of one of the stalls selling spices. Strings of different chillies cascade down from the metal frame of the stall. The vibrancy of that market was intoxicating, the noise, the colours, the aromas. I remember wandering from stall to stall snacking on fat, juicy olives, slices of spiced ham and wedges of refreshing melon, just soaking up that atmosphere.

My stomach automatically rumbles at the memory just as Jamie steps into the corridor.

He laughs at this unconventional greeting. “And good day tae ye too. Ye found us alright then?”

“No problem. Sat nav brought me straight here. It’s—“ I stop myself before I say any more, but, as usual, my glass face gives me away.

“C’mon. What is it? It’s no’ what ye were expecting, is it?”

“No— yes—no. It’s fine. It’s just, well, I was expecting something more, er, rural… rustic, you know.”

He sighs, but I can tell that he’s not offended. “What, ye mean like on a farm? Wi’ chickens running around? And tractors bringing the vegetables straight from the fields?”

I nod, feeling not a little bit foolish.

“And down a wee winding country lane, that yer lumbering great vans and lorries have tae drive along? Wi’ no easy transport links fer all the deliveries? And having tae deal wi’ all the food hygiene standards in some great old barn?” He laughs. “Trust me, it may no’ be photogenic but it’s the best place fer the business.”

He takes my arm. “Let’s go intae ma office and I’ll make ye a cup of coffee.”

My stomach rumbles once more. “Don’t suppose you’ve got any of those lovely Spanish biscuits too, have you?”

*********
The display of colourful photographs continues in Jamie’s office. I don’t recognise the scenes, but, I’m guessing these are more local— fields of corn bordered by old drystone walls, hedgerows bursting with dark jewel-like brambles. I pause at a picture of an ancient stone mill, the calm water of the mill pond reflecting the rundown building perfectly.

“That’s a bonny picture, is it no’?” Jamie’s voice is low in my ear.

I turn around. He is standing behind me, gazing intently at the picture.

“It is. Where is it? I’m guessing it’s somewhere here in Scotland.”

“Aye, it’s the old mill at Lallybroch.”

“Where you grew up?”

He nods. “Generations of ma family used that mill tae grind flour fer them and their tenants. It’s empty inside now. The wheel has long since rotted away. Jenny and I would escape there whenever chores were tae be done. She took the photo, weel, most of the photos here actually.”

I study the photograph more closely. “She’s very talented as a photographer. Is that her job?”

“She’d love tae have done that, but once she married Ian and the bairns started appearing, she hasna got the time. Mebbe one day.”

He moves past me towards his desk and I catch a hint of his musky cologne. I find myself comparing it to the slightly synthetic cologne that Frank always favoured. I decide that Jamie’s is preferable. It’s more real, somehow, earthy and, well, more masculine.

“... does that sound ok?”

I realise that whilst I was considering male scents, Jamie had been asking me a question. “Er, sorry, I was miles away. What did you say?”

“Am I really that boring tae ye?” He laughs. “I said I would make ye a coffee and invite Rupert tae come in and join us. He’s our Head of Product Development. Will ye no’ take a seat?”

I sit down on one of the chairs arranged around a circular meeting table and take a good look at the office while Jamie makes a phone call. The walls and ceiling are the same uninspiring white, livened up by all the photographs. There’s a couple of framed photographs near Jamie’s chair that seem to be more personal. I’m too far away to be able to see clearly, but they look like children... his nephew and niece perhaps?

Jamie’s ‘L’ shaped desk is made of grey wood, as is a tall bookcase and this meeting table. Simple, but clearly a considered purchase, no haphazard grouping of random furniture. The desk itself is remarkably free from clutter— just a laptop with two huge screens and a black leather document wallet. The contrast to the clutter on the desks in my office and home couldn’t be greater. Not that my clutter isn’t important to me—a collection of pots and dishes from my uncle’s archaeological digs plus a paperweight and letter opener that I remember, as a young child, at my parents’ house. Then I realise, looking at the family portraits surrounding Jamie’s desk, that he doesn’t need to gather mementoes from the past. He has a living, breathing close knit family creating memories all the time.

I’m well aware that most of my friends have more of a family than I have, or have ever had, and generally I’m fine with that. But every now and again it hits me right in the gut—this pang of...not loneliness, but more of being disconnected, rootless.

Before I can dwell on this, there’s a faint tap at the door. It opens immediately and a woman stands in the doorway. She’s easily past retirement age, quite short and… is sturdy a polite descriptor? Well, short and ‘motherly’ in appearance.

She’s very smiley too. Her eyes crinkle as she grins broadly before speaking. “Jamie, lad. I’ve come tae see if ye both want a coffee. I dinna mind making it. And mebbe a few biscuits?”

Jamie steps away from his desk. “Ah, Mrs. Fitz, how d’ye always ken what I want? Coffee would be grand. And fer ye Claire?”

“Coffee, please. Lovely. White, no sugar. Thanks.”

She looks at me for a moment before Jamie makes the introduction. “ Claire, this is Mrs Fitz. She’s worked wi’ me since I started and I dinna ken what I’d do wi’out her.”

He reaches across and pats her arm gently.

“Mrs. Fitz, this is Claire, a friend of mine. She’s been trying out our Spanish dinner party menu and has come tae meet wi’ Rupert tae give him her opinions.”

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Fitz.” I hold out my hand.

She takes it in both of hers. “And it’s lovely tae meet ye too, Claire.”

She turns away and heads out the door.

“Right-oh. Two coffees it is then,” she says clearly, then carries on muttering under her breath as she leaves. “Friends, is it, then? A bonny lass, sure enough…”

Jamie smiles apologetically. “Mrs. Fitz can be a bit, weel...she’s been working with me a long time. She’s like a second mother tae me…”

He leaves the sentence unfinished, but I know what he’s thinking. Why can’t people understand that we’re friends, that’s all?

*******
Rupert is a complete delight, but somehow not what I was expecting. He rushes into the office just as Jamie and I are drinking our coffees. Nearly as tall as Jamie but quite a bit broader with a large beard, like an overgrown teddy bear, and clad in a sweatshirt and baggy ill-fitting jeans, he looks as if he would be more at home on a rugby pitch rather than in a development kitchen. With Jamie now standing next to him, the office suddenly feels rather small.

Jamie makes the introductions and we settle once more around the table. Rupert places his notebook and pen on the table.

“Ye dinna mind if I take a biscuit or two, do ye?” He asks, with a smile. He knows how tasty they are.

Jamie and I shake our heads and Rupert reaches out and takes two in his large, fleshy hand. He starts to eat, sprinkling crumbs all over his notebook.

“Ye canna take me anywhere,” he says as he tries to sweep the crumbs into his hand.

Jamie laughs and playfully punches Rupert’s shoulder. “Weel, ye can… but only the once, mind.”

There’s an easy camaraderie between the two of them. I’m guessing that Jamie has worked with the same people for quite a while. It’s good to see.

Rupert swallows, picks up a tissue and wipes the stray crumbs from his beard. “Right-oh. So, Claire, thanks fer doing this—“

“No, I should be thanking you. It was a great meal.”

“Weel, glad tae hear that, but I would appreciate any improvements we could make. Is there anything we need tae change?”

I’ve been racking my brains all the way here, trying to think of something constructive to say rather than just reeling off a list of compliments, nice as that would be for Rupert and Jamie. And, honestly, I don’t know what more I can add. The food was excellent, the wine matched perfectly and the olives were a thoughtful addition.

I tell them all this and Rupert solemnly notes it all down. Sitting there, side by side, elbows almost touching, they look for all the world like two proud parents being complimented on their child’s talents. But they have every right to be proud.

“And nothing else?” Rupert persists. “Nothing we could do better?”

“Well, a couple of tiny suggestions. Maybe a few more pictures with the recipes would help. I’m not the most gifted cook.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Jamie trying to suppress a smile. He’s never seen me in the kitchen, maybe he’s imagining me as some sort of culinary disaster area. I vow to prove him wrong at some point.

“And,” I continue as Rupert scribbles in his notebook. “Perhaps add a couple of suggestions to complete the Spanish night. I made sangria to start the evening. Could you add a recipe for that?”

Rupert closes his notebook with a flourish. “Right then. Thank ye sae much fer that. Glad yer friends all enjoyed the food.”

He stands up, shifting the table as he does so.

“Weel, bye then, Claire. Lovely tae meet ye. Hope tae see ye again.” He shoots a quick look across at Jamie before leaving.

“Rupert’s a lovely guy,” I comment as the door shuts behind him.

“Aye, he is that,” Jamie shifts in his seat. “Listen, I need tae ask ye a favour.”

“Another one,” I joke. “Wasn’t the dinner party enough?”

I add a sigh, purely for dramatic effect.

“Ye can say no if ye want tae,” he continues. “But I was wondering… weel... Ian, that’s Jenny’s husband, his rugby club is having a charity dinner dance a week on Saturday. Jenny’s bought two tickets fer me and a plus one. D’ye fancy it? It would help me out of a wee bit of bother with ma sister.”

Now I’m intrigued about his “wee bit of bother” with Jenny. I don’t want to end up in the middle of some sibling squabble.

“How so?” I’m not giving an answer straight away. At least not until I know what the bother is.

“Jenny bought the two tickets fer me a couple of months ago. I think she was assuming I would bring Laoghaire. But ye ken what happened there. Anyways, she asked me yesterday about it, and ever so casually suggested I might bring Kelly— that was ma date the other night.”

The pattern of Rupert’s crumbs on the table appears to suddenly be of great interest to him. He studies them intently as he talks, his ears turning slightly pink as he does so.

“And?” I prompt him.

“And, I told Jenny that after Laoghaire and I broke up, I didna want tae disappoint her about the dinner and so I’d already asked ye tae come along. As a friend,” he hastily adds the last part.

So, what do I decide? I do love the opportunity to have a bit of a dance and rugby club dos are usually a bit of a laugh, in my experience. And of course, I know Jamie is offering as a friend, so I’m not worried about that.

“Why don’t you want to ask Kelly then?” I want the full story before I give him my answer.

“She’s a nice enough lass but I didna think we had any spark. Plus she was trying too hard. Fer example she asked me what films I liked, then when I told her, she was all ‘no way, they’re ma favourites too’.”

He adds gestures at this point, to demonstrate Kelly’s actions, one hand flapping excitedly, the other resting on my sleeve, lightly stroking through the fabric of my shirt. It feels—

“Apparently we have exactly the same taste in films, music, food, drinks, television and holidays,” he continues as he sits back and folds his arms.

“Sounds like a match made in heaven to me.” I joke. I can still feel the sensation of his hand on my arm.

He looks up at me and frowns. “I’m no’ joking. Ye would be helping me if ye came as ma plus one.”

“Ok then. I do know that I’m not on call. I can come and be your wingman, if you like. Just one question. What are your favourite films?”

“Star Wars.”

This wasn’t the answer I was expecting. He doesn’t seem like a typical fan. Maybe he has a dark side that I haven’t yet seen, with a secret stash of Star Wars figures and multiple light sabres.

“I’ve never watched any of them.” It’s true. I seem to be in the minority but I just don’t get the appeal.

“And I can tell from yer face exactly what ye think of them. But they’re classics, weel most of them, anyway,” he starts to enthuse.

I shake my head. I can’t see that he will ever convince me.

“Well, Sassenach, have I got a treat in store for you!”

And, worryingly, it seems that he’s up for the challenge.

Chapter Text

I don’t have a huge wardrobe but, generally, I can lay hands on an outfit for most situations. For work, if I’m not in scrubs, I tend to wear plain black trousers and a shirt; for relaxing, I have more than enough jeans, leggings and comfy sweaters; for holidays, I have the usual range of shorts, t-shirts and sundresses.

I realise as I flick through the hangers in my wardrobe that what I am missing are outfits in the ‘dinner-dance-purely-platonic-plus-one’ category. And, what’s more, I don’t actually know how formal this thing is going to be.

Jamie was no use at all when I spoke to him about it.

“What sort of thing will your sister be wearing?” I asked as we met for coffee and a bacon sandwich two days ago.

“I dinna ken. A dress?” He hazarded a guess, looking a bit perplexed that I would even ask him.

“Long or short?” I persisted.

“Yes.”

“Well, which? Long or short?”

“Aye, one of them.”

“What are you wearing then... kilt? Black tie? Lounge suit?” This might give me a clue as to the dress code.

“I dare say I’ll be wearing a suit and tie.”

And that was as much assistance as I got from him.

I make the decision to go short. Partly because I don’t want to feel overdressed on Saturday, but mainly because the only long dress I have in my possession was purchased for a university Medics’ ball in 2008. And it’s crinkly satin with a side split and a wide leather belt that went with an over the top diamanté headband around my forehead.

Obviously, I will never wear it again, but I’m loath to part with it anyway. It reminds me of my time at university. Plus, it may come in handy… for a fancy dress party perhaps?

********
Geillis has decided, on the spur of the moment, to ‘jes’ pop ‘round fer a wee glass of wine’. That’s just a cover. What she actually wants is a ‘wee glass of wine’ while supervising my dress selection.

She takes a sip and reclines on my bed, casting a critical eye as I pull a few dresses out of my wardrobe and lay them next to her. She’s not giving much away as she continues to study them.

“Well?” I stand at the end of the bed and stare at her, waiting for her comments.

“I canna give ye ma answer ‘till I’ve seen them all,” she replies.

“That’s it. That’s all my fancy evening dresses.”

She stares at me in disbelief, before gazing once more at the three dresses displayed on the bed.

“Ye dinna have any more cocktail dresses, then?”

I shake my head. “‘Fraid not. When I go cocktail drinking, I tend to wear something more casual. There’s not a great call for fancy frocks when it’s two for one cocktails at the ‘Slug and Lettuce’.”

She sighs very loudly and grimaces. We’ve had these conversations often enough over the years. She despairs about my lack of interest in fashion. It’s true, I can’t tell a Marc Jacobs from a Marks and Spencer. Well, I possibly could, but you get my drift. I tried to be fashionable back in 2008 and look where it got me— wearing a dress that resembled a sweetie wrapper with a headband that brought me out in a rash.

I sometimes wonder if the real reason that she has asked me to be a bridesmaid has less to do with being best friends and more to do with being able to control what I’m going to wear. I’m joking of course, it’s because we’re best friends— Geillis choosing my dress is just an added perk for her.

“So, I think ye wear this one.” She gets up, moves me to one side and quickly rifles through the wardrobe, giving a cry of triumph as she finds what she’s looking for.

I knew it—I knew she would remember that dress. She was with me when I bought it— a late night Sauvignon Blanc fuelled online purchase. She describes it as my “hello boys” dress. I’ve never worn it and this is not the occasion for its inaugural outing.

I mean, it’s a lovely dress— black with an off the shoulder bardot neckline and very, very form fitting. But totally not the message I want to send to Jamie.

I shake my head. “Nope… no way. Not that one.”

I point instead to a dress lying on the bed, originally bought for a hospital fundraiser last year. It’s very nice and infinitely more suitable— black with sparkly red splodges; a slight v neck and fitted bodice going into a flared skirt. It even has pockets.

Geillis raises her hands in exasperation. “Fine. Have it yer way. But, Claire, do ye no’ want tae mebbe try it?”

I grab the dress from her and stuff it back in the wardrobe, ignoring her last comment. But she doesn’t give up so easily.

“See what could happen, eh?”

I turn to face her. “I know what could happen. He’ll think that I’m after him and that I’ll be it. End of friendship.”

“But mebbe—“

I interrupt her. “No maybe about it. Besides all this is missing the point. I want Jamie in my life as a friend, the same way that you and Mary and Anna are in my life. I don’t want anything more from him. I don’t need any romance. Can you understand that?”

“Aye but—“

She’s still not willing to drop the subject and I’ve had enough. I drain my glass of wine and start to walk out of the bedroom.

“No buts. That’s it. Just drop it, please.” At the doorway, I pause. “Now, do you want another glass?”

She starts to follow me. “Of course. And sorry,Claire, I dinna mean tae annoy ye. It’s jes’—“ she stops herself before saying anymore.

“Ok... Shall we order a takeaway,then?”

As I head into the living room, with Geillis following, I’m pretty sure I can hear her muttering under her breath about taking chances.

***************

Jamie said he would pick me up at seven. I’m clearly still working on Frank time, as I’m ready with fifteen minutes to spare. I perch on the edge of a chair, trying not to crease my dress, smudge my mascara or run my fingers through my hair.

I must admit, I have enjoyed the whole formal dressing up process. It’s not something I do too often— my socialising tends to be of a more relaxed nature. But this makes a welcome change.

With five minutes to spare, the bell rings. I gather up my pashmina and clutch bag and make my way downstairs, my high heeled sandals making a clacking sound against the old floor tiles.

Jamie is waiting outside, next to his old french blue Triumph Stag sports car. Like he said, he’s wearing a suit—dark grey instead of his usual navy blue. Still with a white shirt and a rust coloured paisley tie. His auburn curls nestle against his jacket collar. He looks immaculate.

In a parody of a chauffeur, he touches his forelock, bows and opens the passenger door for me. “M’lady,” he adds with his customary half grin.

“Thank you, Parker,” I reply primly and arrange my skirt under me as he scoots around to the driver side.

I do like this car. It’s old, a bit threadbare in places and smells slightly of damp. But it positively oozes vintage style and glamour. Fortunately the hardtop is on as the clouds are gathering ominously overhead.

“I thought we were getting a taxi. Are you not drinking?” I ask as he starts to drive.

Keeping his eyes on the road, he snorts with laughter. “No’ drinking? What kind of rugby ‘do’ d’ye think this is? No, I’ll leave the car at the club and we can get a taxi, if that’s ok wi’ ye.”

We drive on in silence for a couple of miles. Not an awkward silence, just a we-don’t-really-have-to -make-small-talk kind of silence.

“I’d have thought you’d be wearing a kilt tonight.” I comment.

“Hmm, weel, I do like tae wear it fer special occasions, but, when the rugby lads get together, who kens what can happen. Trousers tend tae be the safer option.”

“You could always wear underpants,” I suggest.

He looks horrified at the suggestion. “Dinna be saying that tae a true Scot, Sassenach.”

“I consider myself suitably chastised.”

“Glad ye realise that.” He smiles and changes the subject totally. “Sae, on our table this evening, there’ll be ma sister Jenny and her husband Ian, and Rupert, ye ken Rupert, and his wife Morag.”

“Oh, so you know Rupert— outside of work, I mean.”

“Aye, we grew up together. And Ian too. Mind, he was a couple of years older than Rupert and me— same age as Jenny—and always used tae follow her around like a wee pup. I’ve only known Morag a couple of years though. She’s nice but verra quiet. She lets Rupert do most of the talking.”

“I liked Rupert.”

“He’s a great bloke. Best decision I made, asking him tae join me at FraserFoods. Ian’s a great bloke too. Ye’ll like him.”

Jamie pulls the car into the rugby club car park, and switches the engine off. He sits still for a moment, staring through the windscreen. I can hear music coming from the large marquee lit up with lanterns and residing on one of the rugby pitches. Even though it’s early in the evening, there’s plenty of raucous laughter coming from that direction too. No doubt the bar has already seen plenty of action.

“Well?” I elbow him in the ribs.

“Sorry. I was jes’ thinking about how best tae describe Jenny.” He turns and smiles. “She’s the best sister a chap could want and a true friend— once she gets tae know ye. She can be a wee bit, shall we say, prickly, at first. And she thinks she kens what’s best fer me, as only a big sister can. She thinks ma life is no’ complete… no’ wi’out a wife and a couple of bairns.”

“Have you explained that this isn’t a date… that we’re friends?”

“Aye, I’ve told her that,” he gives a little laugh and nods his head towards the marquee. “Sae she’ll most likely be in there right now scouring the place fer any suitable contenders.”

He gets out of the car and is at the passenger door before I’ve had a chance to unfasten my seatbelt and gather my pashmina around my shoulders.

“M’lady,” resuming the chauffeur role, he opens the door for me.

I clamber out, somewhat ungainly and wait as he locks the car. Even with my highest heels on, I still have to crane my neck to look at him as he stands up straight and adjusts his jacket.

“Shall we?” He gestures the marquee with his hand.

“God, yes. I could do with a gin and tonic. I’m parched.” Plus, I reckon I need a stiff drink or two down my throat before I meet Jenny. She sounds formidable.

“C’mon then.” And he leads the way into the marquee.

Chapter Text

Jamie leads the way through the car park. I tread gingerly, the combination of unaccustomed high heels and uneven ground—a potentially lethal combination. He turns and notices my dilemma.

“Here,” he holds out his arm for me. I smile and gratefully take hold of his forearm until we reach the comparative safety of the marquee.

Once inside, Jamie pauses and looks around, trying to find his sister. I look around too, not that I know what his sister looks like, but I’m assuming, based on her brother, that she’ll be pretty easy to spot in the crowd.

The room is full with a steady stream of people moving swiftly towards the bar and rather less swiftly back to their tables carefully balancing bottles and glasses. I spot, through a break in the procession, Rupert sitting at a table talking to a petite brunette, who I assume is his wife Morag.

“Look,” I nudge Jamie and point towards the table. “It’s Rupert and—“

“Aye, so it is.” And he deftly negotiates our way through the maze of alcohol carrying individuals to the table.

Rupert and his wife stand up as we approach and he greets us enthusiastically, patting Jamie on the back and kissing my cheek.

“Nice tae see ye again,” he says, smiling.

“Good to see you too, Rupert.”

Jamie envelopes Morag in a huge bear hug. Is this the usual greeting for Rupert’s wife? I glance at Rupert but he’s totally unperturbed by this display of affection.

Eventually, Jamie stands up straight. “Claire, I’d like ye tae meet ma sister, Jenny. Jenny, this is ma friend, Claire.”

The intimate bear hug makes more sense now to me.

Jenny holds out her hand.“Nice tae meet ye Claire.” She smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

“And you too, Jenny. Jamie has told me so much about you and your family. And those photos that you took, wow, they’re amazing.” I can hear myself talking over enthusiastically and force myself to shut up. It’s a habit I have when I’m nervous.

Physically, Jamie and Jenny couldn’t be less alike. With his curly red hair and tall stature, Jamie is some sort of Viking throwback, whereas Jenny’s straight brunette locks and petite, delicate features give her a fragile, almost doll-like quality. I feel like an Amazon standing next to her. As she continues to talk to her brother, berating him for his last minute appearance, I rack my brains. She reminds me of someone, but I can’t for the life of me think who.

Then it dawns on me. When I was a junior doctor working in Trauma and Orthopaedics, the matron there was a brunette too, whose air of fragility belied a rock hard will and determination. Her wards were run with military precision and, without ever raising her voice, it was clear that her command was absolute. She never shouted, she never belittled, but somehow everyone, even the consultants, knew exactly who was in charge. I get exactly the same feeling with Jenny.

A noise behind me rouses me from my contemplation and a large tray of drinks is placed on the table.

“Ian, man, did ye get me a drink?” Jamie laughs.

“But of course, and,” Ian turns to me. “I presume ye’re Claire. I took the liberty and got ye a gin and tonic—double, jes’ in case that was yer tipple. But it’s nae bother if ye dinna want it. I can go and get ye something else. I’m sure I can think of someone who will drink it.” He nods his head towards his wife and mimics drinking with his hand

“Cheek of the man.” Jenny playfully slaps his hand down and smiles. This time the smile lights up her whole face.

“No, gin and tonic is great, thanks very much,” I accept the glass gratefully and take a sip. Well, maybe a little bit more than a sip, but it is much needed.

“Seeing as yer man there canna be bothered wi’ the introductions, I’ll have tae do it maself. I’m Ian, Jenny’s husband and it’s a pleasure tae meet ye,” His introduction is full of real warmth.

“I was jes’ getting ‘round tae it,” Jamie says mock defensively and grabs a pint from the tray. “Anyhow, sláinte, everyone. Here’s tae a good night.”

**********
During dinner, I sit between Ian and Jamie who has Jenny on his other side. Ian is an absolute delight. He listens to my stories with genuine interest, laughing in all the right places and regaling Morag and me with tales of his son’s antics (‘Wee Jamie, jes’ as mischievous as his uncle ever was’).

Once dinner is over, Jamie and Ian spot an acquaintance on another table and excuse themselves. Jenny shuffles over onto Jamie’s newly vacated chair.

“Havin’ a good time are ye, Claire?”

“Oh yes, thank you. Ian has been telling us about your children. They sound like real characters. Just adorable.” And here I am, back to my nervous over enthusiasm. Just like that matron years ago, Jenny has the ability to do this to me.

Jenny gives a tight little smile that doesn’t linger. “Can I be honest wi’ ye Claire?”

My heart sinks. When someone says that, it’s never good. I mean, they never follow that statement with ‘your hair looks lovely’ or ‘the way you handled that developmental dysplasia of the hip was excellent.’ It’s always a criticism. Although I’m not too sure what I’ve done for Jenny to feel the need for such honesty, but I’m guessing it involves Jamie in some way.

“I ken Jamie invited ye tae come tonight as friends, before he met Kelly,” she continues. “But could ye no’ have stood aside and let him bring her as a date? He said he’d already asked ye when I mentioned it to him. But if ye’re just friends ye could have.”

I don’t know what to say. What can I say that doesn’t cast Jamie in a bad light with his sister? Jenny clearly wants there to be something between him and Kelly, which, based on what Jamie’s told me, just isn’t going to happen, no matter how much Jenny pushes. And I’m somewhere in the middle of this.

Jenny looks at me and I don’t think I have to speak. My glass face is doing the work for me. “Ah, I see.”

I spy Jamie making his way back to our table. He hesitates slightly as Jenny’s steely gaze falls on him, before continuing.

Jenny shuffles back to her chair, and pats the now vacant seat between us. He sits down and glances at us both.

“Have ye got something tae tell me, bràthair?” Jenny begins.

“About what?”

“About why ye told me ye’d already asked Claire when I mentioned asking Kelly?”

Jamie turns to me, as Jenny carries on talking. “Claire didna say a word about it. She didna have tae.”

I smile apologetically at him, but say nothing and take a swig of wine. This is between Jamie and Jenny. I’m keeping well out of this.

He sighs. “Jenny, ye wouldna let it lie. Ye kept telling me I should invite Kelly. On and on ye were. I had tae do it.”

“Ye said the date wi’ Kelly was good.”

“If ye think back, what I actually said was that the food at the restaurant was good. I didna say the date was good. That wasna good. We had a nice meal, then we shook hands and said goodbye. I made no promises tae see her again.”

“But Kelly—“

“Jenny, it isna going tae happen no matter how much ye mither. Ye dinna always ken what’s best fer me even though ye think ye do.”

I feel a hand on my arm and turn to find Ian sitting next to me once more. He jerks his head towards Jamie and Jenny. “I find it easier tae jes’ let them get on wi’ it themselves. This is what they’re like, wi’ the bickering. They’ll sort it out, they always do. That’s brothers and sisters fer ye.”

That familiar pang hits me for a brief moment. Of course, I don’t know what it’s like, this familial bickering or teasing, safe in the knowledge that you’ll always have their love. And then it passes.

“I suppose you’re used to it by now?”

“After twenty five years, I guess so. They were jes’ the same as children. See?” Ian points to my other side. I turn to find Jenny tenderly patting Jamie’s hand.

“Sae, Claire,” Jenny leans across Jamie to talk to me. “I see ye’re still drinking that horse piss. What say we send Jamie tae get us all some real drinks? I take it ye like whisky?”

Jenny smiles, and this time it’s genuine.

************
After that brief sibling squabble has been sorted, the evening can only get better… I think. Actually, it does improve. The combination of good whisky and a friendlier Jenny, and I begin to really enjoy myself.

The disco has started and the dance floor is filling up, mainly with groups of women while the men sit on the sidelines only venturing up once copious amounts of alcohol have been consumed and the DJ starts to play the classics— ‘YMCA’, ‘Night Fever’ and ‘Dancing Queen’.

We stay at our table, chatting, our voices becoming louder as the dance floor fills and the dancers begin to sing along to some of the songs. The singing rises to a crescendo for the choruses then rapidly quietening at the lesser known verse lyrics.

“D’ye no’ want tae dance? Jamie asks, a bit reluctantly, it seems.

“No, I’m enjoying myself here,” I reply and watch the relieved expression appear on his face.

“Unless, of course, you do,” I add teasingly.

“It’s no’ really ma thing. I’m no’ much of a dancer. Rupert and Morag enjoy it though.”

We watch for a moment as Rupert tries out some John Travolta moves. I pick up my glass and notice that it’s empty. That seems to be happening a lot tonight.

“I’ll go and get some more drinks,” I announce to the table.

“Let me,” Ian jumps in.

“No, you’ve bought more than enough. I’ll get these. Same again?”

Everyone nods and passes me their empty glasses. Jamie makes to get up, but I shake my head. “I’ve got this. Relax.”

I weave my way through the tables and lean at the end of the bar, money in hand waiting to catch the eye of one of the bartenders. Judging by the size of some of the orders being placed, I resign myself to being stuck here for some time.

A man squeezes next to me, mirroring my position— elbows on the bar, ten pound note in hand. “Snap!” He laughs. “D’ye think we’ll be served before last orders?”

I smile politely and shake my head, all while trying to breathe through my mouth. Even at this stage of the evening, his aftershave is overpowering, applied with all the finesse of a fifteen year old boy. I try to edge away from him a bit, although I do risk disappearing from the bartenders’ line of sight. He shifts a little closer to me which makes me a bit uncomfortable. It might be perfectly innocent, he might just be moving to try and get served quicker. I don’t really want to challenge him if all he’s trying to do is catch the bartender’s eye.

“I’ve no’ seen ye ‘round the club afore,” I catch him glancing at my ringless left hand. “Are ye here with friends or…?”

“Friends.” I mumble, trying to make it clear I don’t want to start a conversation and I turn my head away from him.

I feel a slight touch on the skin of my upper arm. Whether deliberate or accidental, that combined with his closeness, makes me feel even more uneasy .Instinctively I take a step back and my heel lands on someone’s foot.

A familiar voice whispers in my ear. “Oof, Sassenach, yer shoes are lethal,” and an arm snakes over my shoulder, pulling me towards his body.

In a louder voice, clearly aimed at the pest next to me, Jamie continues. “Ach, love, thanks for saving ma place at the bar. Tell ye what, sweetheart, now I’m here ye can go and sit down and I’ll get the drinks.”

He gives me a slight peck as I smile at him gratefully and make a quick exit. Walking back to the table, I can still feel the roughness of his stubble against my cheek. I stop myself reaching up to touch my face, and shove my hand into my pocket instead.

I sit down next to Jenny. “Jamie’s getting the drinks in.”

“Aye, he thought ye needed tae be rescued from that wee dickhead at the bar.”

“Yes, a timely intervention. Your brother’s a good pal.”

“Aye, he says ye’re good friends.” Jenny stares at me, as if searching for something deeper that I’m hiding.

“Yes, that’s it. Good friends.” I answer, confident that my face will tell the same story.