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A Beautiful, Wild Country

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I smoothed my hands over my hips as I considered my reflection in the mirror. The deep red dress was fitted but not tight and matched the lipstick I’d quickly swiped on although I was sure it would be well worn off by the end of the meal and I knew I was always too lazy to reapply. Sitting on the huge four poster bed in my room, I fastened the clasps of my black heels around my ankles and felt a little twinge of pride that I wasn’t terrible to look at. My dark curls would do as they pleased as always and I’d resigned myself long ago to trying to fight them into submission.

I took a deep breath and thought of three topics that I could quickly bring up if there was a lull in conversation. I didn’t hate mingling per se but when all of your anecdotes came from gruesome surgeries, they were maybe best kept locked away until the rehearsal dinner was over. I didn’t want to be making a fool of myself in front of the happy couple’s families and if I found myself in a pinch, I could always tell them about the time Geillis fell off a table in front of our entire graduating class after a little too much drink.

***

“Here’s tae us! Wha’s like us? Damn few, and they’re aw deid!” she had slurred over the sounds of celebration, raising a hip flask to her mouth as the cheer went up. One of my favourite traits of hers was the speed that it took for her to slip into her native tongue. Usually when surrounded by other Scottish people or after one too many drinks, her eyes began to blaze as she’d start spitting fire about Scottish Independence, Westminster rule and her favourite topic, Bonnie Prince Charlie.

“Do you know what she just said cos I have no idea.” The mirth in Joe Abernathy’s voice was evident and I turned to see his eyes twinkling with amusement.

“Oh, leave her be. Must be hard being away from home,” I smiled at him and then at Geillis who was now stomping out the beat of the song that was playing on the tiny table that she was standing on. “But coincidentally, I don’t have a clue either.”

Joe snorted and then I watched as a look of concern started over his face.

“Maybe I should get her down from there before she-“

Geillis crashed backwards, disappearing from view with a small yelp as we rushed over to help her, only to find her snort laughing with her eyes shut as she gasped for breath.

“Please tell me someone saw that?! Arse over tit!” she cackled as we helped her to her feet. I stifled my laughter and tried to put on my stern face.

“Idiot, you could’ve really hurt yourself. I think it’s time for the three of us to head home,” I gestured to Joe with my eyes to grab our things and with a final wave to the party, we were out in the cold London air.

After a quick taxi ride and a short tumble down the street, we entered the flat that the three of us had shared through university. I noticed a tweed blazer draped across the back of one of the dining chairs and my metaphorical shoulders slumped, the real ones being too busy with propping up an almost unconscious Geillis while Joe locked the door behind us.

“I’ll get her into bed and you can deal with that,” Joe’s clipped tone told me exactly what he thought of Frank and I swatted them both into the hallway and squared myself up for the impending fight.

When I got into the kitchen, he was leaning against the cupboards with one hand while the other held a glass of red wine. He didn’t look up.

“Nice of you to join me. Finally,” he said with a little more venom than I was willing to forgive, taking an open-mouthed glug from his glass and still not meeting my eye.

“Join you? Do you even know where I’ve just come in from?” I seethed as I took a tentative step towards him.

“Well, from the state of Geillis, I’d say some club or other while I’ve been sat here waiting for you to come home so we could spend some time together.”

“I was at my graduation party, Frank. The one that you promised, hand on heart, to come to!”

His eyes met mine for the first time and I immediately saw the panic in them.

“Oh God, that was tonight? Bloody hell Claire, I’m so sorry! I completely forgot and-“

My hand immediately snapped to gesture for him to stop talking and to give him his due, he did.

“I don’t care anymore, Frank. I’m honestly just tired and a little bit drunk and I just want to go to bed. Are you coming?” I sighed as he gave an almost imperceptible nod and we walked to my room, the tension bristling between us.

***

The memory of the night shuddered through me and I shook my head as if it would clear it like an Etch-a-Sketch. Frank hadn’t been a bad boyfriend, he’d just been absent. At the time, I would file all the red flags in my emotional rolodex of reasons why we would never work out and not think of them. He was always on time for his lectures but he’d be late for dinner with me. He remembered all the important historical dates but that big brain couldn’t retain my birthday. For the longest time, I just thought that that was the kind of person he was, forgetful and absent-minded. But knowing what I knew now about pretty blonde students, I felt like a fool for not realising it earlier.

I shot up from my seat on the side of my bed and took three deep breaths to try and steady myself. No point in coming undone before having to spend the next few hours pretending to be a fully functional human being who’s heart hadn’t been broken into pieces. Leaving my room, I slowly made my way down the corridor and into the main hall, marvelling at the beauty of the building. The hall was filled with around thirty people, all dressed semi-formally for the rehearsal dinner. I noticed the men wearing sashes of tartan over their shoulders and marvelled at how many different patterns there were.

“Claire, how good to see ye lass!” Geillis’ father’s voice boomed across the large hall and a smile broke onto my face as I stretched out a hand towards Mr and Mrs Duncan.

“It’s so lovely to see you both, you must be the only two here more excited than the happy couple!”

Suddenly there was a huge discordant whine that made everyone hush and look towards the staircase.

As the piper began to play, Geillis and Murtagh walked down the stairs, hand in hand. You could feel the joy coming off of them in waves as they reached the bottom and were surrounded by their families and closest friends. When the song and the well-wishing ended, Murtagh raised a hand in greeting to the small crowd.

“Thank ye so much everyone that’s travelled from so far! We’re so glad that you could all be here with us for the big event tomorrow but for now, let’s eat!” A cheer rose from the crowd and we travelled en masse into one of the adjoining rooms where a massive dining table had been set before a roaring fireplace almost as tall as myself. It was warm, inviting and I immediately felt more at ease, almost enveloped in the atmosphere. I found my place setting and made my polite introductions to the people on either side of me.

“Glenna, it’s lovely to meet you. I’m Claire, Geillis’ friend from work,” I explained to the woman on my left. She had a round, kind face and the thought came over me that she’d be a woman who would make really delicious baked goods.

“I been hearing stories about you from Geillis and Murtagh for years, it’s so nice to put a face to the name,” she spoke in the same Highland lilt that I’d become accustomed to over the years of hearing Geillis on the phone to her family and then later spending so much time with her and Murtagh.

There was a flurry of activity as the few waiting staff that had been employed for the weekend set down our plates in front of us and I eyed it curiously.

“Its only haggis dearie, it wilnae bite ye,” Glenna teased.

Having lived with Geillis for years through university, there were many instances where her eyes had lit up as she made reference to some mythical beast from Scottish folklore or some tradition that I had never heard of, revelling in regaling us with stories from her home. Haggis was the one thing that she had emphatically implored Joe and I to try one day, promising that a sheep’s stomach filled with offal, spices and oats, as terrible as it sounded, was delicious.

“Well, I suppose… Over the top!”

A while later, I leaned back in my chair and resisted the urge to pat my stomach, feeling like it was going to burst if I were to take another bite. We’d had a starter of haggis with mashed vegetables, my companions correcting my guess of turnips and potatoes as ‘neeps’ and ‘tatties’. After that, beautifully braised lamb that we were told had been reared on the estate itself. And pudding was a delicious decoction called cranachan, my English accent not being used to the ch syllable and amusing the surrounding guests as it came out very much ‘cranackan’. Along with a considerable amount of wine that was being constantly topped up by the wait staff making it impossible to count how many glasses I’d had.

Once our plates were cleared, the table was laden with cheese, biscuits, quince jelly and grapes that we were told, again, had been sourced locally. Excited at the prospect of tasting more delicious produce, I told my stomach to stop with it’s protestations and became doubly excited when a beautiful crystal cut glass filled with a finger of amber liquid was placed in front of me. To the left of me, the sound of a knife clinking against a glass and the table quietened as we turned our heads collectively to the man that was standing from his chair, to the left hand side of Murtagh.

Oh my God, where have you been all my life?

He was, to put it simply, one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. At least six foot four and almost as broad as he was tall. The flames from the fireplace behind him lit his red hair beautifully and his big hands cradled his glass of whiskey as he cleared his throat and began to speak.

“Evenin’ everyone I havenae managed to say hello to just yet. If ye dinna ken me, my name’s Jamie and I’m Murtagh’s best man,” he grinned down at Murtagh who was looking up to him with a smile. “Welcome to Mar Lodge estate…”

What he continued to say, I don’t know. I was too distracted to be paying attention, my eyes dancing over his face and body. His mouth twitched into rueful smiles, his tongue darting out to wet his lips every so often and I became transfixed for God knows how long. He was a good speaker, I was aware that people were laughing to well timed jokes and what I assumed was gentle ribbing of the bride and groom to be. At one point, he moved his fingers through his beautiful hair and warmth flushed over my face, my breath catching in my throat.

What the hell Beauchamp, pull yourself together.

My eyes snapped to the napkin laid out on my lap and I tried to subtly take a deep breath. My breath caught again and I coughed quietly. When I looked back to him, he was looking straight at me.

The corner of his mouth twitched and his eyes narrowed slightly, all the while not breaking from the prepared speech that had the rest of the table hanging on his every word. The level of his voice heightened slightly as I became aware that he was still looking right at me while his hand slowly raised the glass he was holding.

I immediately became aware that everyone else at the table was doing the same and I hurried to join them, displaying all the grace of a hippo on ice. I couldn’t help myself and looked back to him only to be fixed by his piercing blue eyes as he smirked over the glass at me.

“Slainte mhath!”