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A Beautiful, Wild Country

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The reception took place in the most incredible hall. Hundreds of antlers were hanging from every inch of the roof hanging over our heads, even encroaching on the wall space due to their vast number. It was the perfect setting for the evening and I finally started to relax, the main part of the day being over without any disasters. A smile warmed my face as I looked over at Geillis and Murtagh who might have well been in a room all by themselves. Even surrounded by their family and friends, they only had eyes for each other. Murtagh hadn’t let go of her hand the whole time during his speech. I had shifted my gaze from them to Jamie, at Murtagh’s side as always. He was looking up at his uncle with so much reverence, it almost made me tear up.

After the speeches had been made and we were all well fed and suitably tipsy, the tables were moved as Murtagh and Geillis took to the floor. The band that had situated themselves in the corner began to play a gentle Scottish folk song as the newlyweds swayed together, a hush coming over the crowd.

As we watched them move around the floor, the music began to speed up and other couples started to join them. I was aware of a hand on my elbow and I looked up to see Jamie smiling at me.

“Fancy it, Sassenach?” Before I had time to respond, the strength in his hands was guiding me out onto the dance floor and we settled against each other, one of my hands in his and one against his shoulder while his other found it’s way to my waist, his fingertips momentarily digging in before relaxing again. I tried to take a sneaky breath in to try and steady my heart that was trying to beat it’s way out of my chest.

God, I will be mortified if he can feel that.

“What does that mean? ‘Sassenach’?” I asked, looking up at him from underneath my eyelashes. His eyes narrowed and his mouth closed in a straight line, almost like he was embarrassed.

“I don’t mean ye any offence by it, Claire. It means ‘outlander’ or around the Highlands, it’s probably most commonly meant as ‘English’.”

“Suppose I can’t fault your observations there,” I said, dryly.

Not that he knew but the word had an extra sting to it, given my unusual upbringing. When my parents had died, I’d been left with my Uncle Lamb who was an archaeologist. Together we’d lived all over the world and I had able to experience things that few others had which I always cherished. But it also meant that I was a bit of a misfit. When I’d been accepted into Oxford, I found myself trying to conform to the status quo, to fit myself into the mould to make things easier. But it just meant that I was spending time with people I had nothing in common with, feeling more and more lonely. And then one day I’d been taking cover from rain in one of the quads and an umbrella appeared over my head. Joe had been one three black students in the entire university year and as we waited for the rain to stop, exchanging small talk and he mentioned that he had seen me sitting by myself in the lectures, it dawned on me that he felt quite alone too. And then a year afterwards, I’d found Geillis, a proud Scot living in England and having to deal with ignorant remarks. The three of us nomads began to make a home in each other and it had created a lasting bond.

Jamie cleared his throat and I could tell he was trying to find the right words.

“I dinnae mean it that way wi’ you. I only mean to say that yer… well, something new.” He sounded uneasy in his explanation and I smiled to let him know there was no hard feelings. “I’m just surprised that I havenae already met ye is all. I’ve heard yer name mentioned, of course, but they didn’t say ye were so… so-‘

“Heavy footed?” I interrupted, scared to let him finish. After the moment once the ceremony had finished when he’d touched my back, there had been a cloud hanging over us, thick and heavy. I’d had to shake visions of our bodies twisted together from my mind all afternoon and being this close to him wasn’t making it easy. But then, the fear that I had read his signals incorrectly, maybe interpreted them to mean a mutual attraction when he was just being nice, sat in my stomach. He smiled kindly at me.

“Yer a bonny dancer, Claire. And I meant what I said earlier, I’ll keep ye right wi’ the steps for all the reels and strathspeys, dinna you worry. I’ll hold on tight.”

The mere mention of him holding me at all made my head rush and I was at risk of losing my balance. Jamie’s grip tightened around me as a reflex and I found myself wanting to sink further into his hold. The last few hours of adrenaline paired with copious amounts of alcohol were finally getting to me. But they also made me bold.

Shutting up the little voice of self-doubt that was gibbering on at the back of my mind, I looked him straight in the eye, slightly increasing the pressure of the length of my body against his, one of my legs moving further in between his. In a moment of sheer bravery, I darted my tongue out of my mouth, wetting my lips.

“Promise?”

His eyes darkened as he looked at my mouth and I felt a little rush of pride. I was never one to be forward with things like this but the chemistry between the two of us was so strong, I couldn’t believe that he was oblivious too it. His reaction just confirmed my suspicion and I resolved to spend the rest of the night trying to stay as close to him as I possibly could. He slowly started to move his face closer to mine and I could feel his breath on my lips, my body silently screaming at him to close the gap.

Suddenly, an accordion blared an open chord and traditional Scottish music began to play. The tempo was much quicker than we had been dancing to and a voice cracked over the speakers.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please join us for our first dance! The Dashing White Sergeant!”

Jamie’s head flew back as he burst out laughing, looking back down at me with a mock-worried look on his face.

“Christ, they’re not letting us off easy for the first dance, Sassenach! Thought I’d be able to talk you through a Gay Gordons, ease you in a bit but seems no. Just listen to the woman and keep up,” he suddenly began to walk backwards and situated himself directly across from me. I realised that everyone was moving into groups, two bodies coming into line with me and we faced three others, Jamie in the middle like myself. More groups like us were forming all around the hall, conversations halting in their steps as everyone waited. Another accordion chord blasted through the hallway and Jamie’s blue eyes held mine as he bowed along with the other men, a smirk playing on his lips. Vaguely aware that the women were curtseying, I made an awkward attempt to copy them and on hearing the caller scream ‘Circle!’, both of my hands were grabbed by the people on either side of me and all of a sudden, I was being dragged to my left in a wave of bodies.

Straight away, I was confused. I could hear the woman calling out instructions but most of my group seemed to instinctively know what they were doing, giggling at my attempts to keep up. I immediately felt uncomfortable in myself but it quickly disappeared when Jamie grabbed my elbow with his hand and spun the two of us around, grinning from ear to ear as he did so. I quickly realised that nobody was laughing at me, they were just genuinely enjoying themselves and getting caught up in the festivities. I found myself being swept left and right by helpful hands as they tried to guide me through the steps, nodding with encouraging smiles. Laughter started to bubble inside me too as the absurdity of what I was doing hit me as I tried to muddle through the steps to the best of my ability. All of a sudden, I was being pulled under the arms of the people dancing directly in front of me and Murtagh, Geillis and her mother appeared as my row’s new dance partners.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Murtagh remarked over the music as he danced, surprising me with how light on his feet he was. The men of the party obviously had it easier being in flat shoes but one look at Geillis floating across the floor in their five inch heels put me immediately to shame. Growing up all over the world, I’d seen dancing in many different forms. But what Jamie had described as a contact sport had a fluidity to it and it seemed to come naturally to everyone taking part. Everyone except for me, that is.

As the dance continued and the partners kept switching, I realised that I didn’t know a single person that I was dancing with but surprisingly, I wasn’t worried. The feeling of rigidity and self-consciousness that usually followed me around had left and I felt light for the first time in a long time. It dawned on me that for the first time in what felt like forever, I was happy.

The music came to an end and everyone applauded each other and the band. My lungs felt like they were working a little harder than they wanted to so I extricated myself from the dance floor and scanned the room for a familiar face.

I found Joe leaning against the bar, a drink in his hand, looking like the epitome of sophistication in his dark grey suit. He moved to kiss my cheek as I leaned into him, wrapping my arm around his shoulders and squeezing, immediately feeling more relaxed.

“Quite the dancer, aren’t ya? You looked great out there, Lady Jane,” he raised his drink to me and I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at him. The nickname had begun in university and it had been harder to budge than I’d anticipated.

“You try it, it’s a lot harder than it looks,” I scoffed. “Hell of a lot of fun though.”

“I’ll wait for the boogie nights section of the entertainment, thank you very much. Anyway, it looked like you found someone to dance with all right. The best man and the maid of honour, very fitting.”

I could feel the blush in my cheeks, my eyes casting downwards.

“He’s nice. And not bad to look at. I don’t know though, I imagine he’ll have a few girls chasing after him tonight, he’s probably found someone who knows what they’re doing and can actually carry on a conversation without becoming a bumbling idiot.”

Joe’s shoulders dropped slightly and he regarded me with what looked like bemusement.

“Claire, when the hell are you going to realise that you’re a catch? You look so beautiful and you deserve to enjoy yourself! Frank kept you down for so long, it’s time to figure out who Claire Beauchamp is again. I think she’s a fox who should chase the ginger giant if she wants to.” Joe reached up to cup my cheek in his hand, looking at me sincerely. “Besides, the guy couldn’t take his eyes off you for the whole of the ceremony.”

“What?” I startled.

“Yeah, I got a good seat. Could practically see the lump in his throat when you appeared down the aisle. My best guess is he’s got his eye on you too. Case in point, he’s walking over here right now,” Joe’s gaze drifted over my shoulder and his hand dropped to his side as he straightened up, put on his best smile and held out his hand. Jamie appeared at my side and shook Joe’s hand.

“I’m Joe Abernathy, Geillis’ and Claire’s friend from work.”

“And school. We went to uni together,” I added, looking up to Jamie. Even in my heels, I had to crane my neck slightly to take him all in when he was this close to me. His arm brushed mine and I felt a jolt of electricity.

“Good to meet ye, Joe. I’m Jamie, Murtagh’s nephew.”

“Oh, I know who you are. You’re the guy who saved Murtagh’s ass from that stampede.” Joe laughed as Jamie nodded, smiling himself.

“I definitely haven’t heard that story.” Turning my body slightly more towards Jamie, I crossed my arms over my chest and raised an eyebrow at him.

“Well, there’s isna much to tell. We were camping, up near Aviemore, and one morning, I woke up to eh… relieve myself and when I came back, there was a group of stags running through the patch where we’d pitched our tent. I didna really think but I just started running towards them, waving my arms and making a hell of a noise. Try and deter them from smashing through, ye ken.”

“But you could’ve been trampled yourself!” I was impressed by his bravery, no doubt the reason that Joe had brought up the story. Here he was, so desperate for me to get back in the sack that he was trying to sell the guy to me and he barely knew him! He and Geillis must have discussed my lack of ability at length if they were coordinating their efforts like this.

“Stags aren’t aggressive creatures, Sassenach. But yon antlers could give ye a fair scratch if they caught ye at the right angle,” he gestured to the hundreds of antlers on the ceilings and walls, all looking suddenly more sinister and sharp.

“Good thing you’re in the presence of doctors then. Our Claire here has the steadiest hands in the business.”

I shot a look to Joe that said ’Stop talking me up, I don’t need your help’ and he cleared his throat with a smile.

“Excuse me Jamie, I promised Geillis I would try this Scottish dancing thing, God help my soul. It was nice to meet you.” And with that, he was away, moving into the crowded dance floor.

Suddenly nervous to be alone with him, I hugged my arms around my body. We had been so close to kissing before and I was now all too aware of the chasm of space that spanned between us, neither of us acknowledging it’s presence. But the heaviness hung in the air again and I felt my heart beat that little bit faster, the hair on my arms standing to attention as though they could sense the electricity between us.

“Cold?”

“What? Oh no, just… you know, erm-“

“Do ye drink whisky, Claire? A wee dram will warm ye up.” Moving past me, he put his hand on the bar. His chest was level with my face and I resisted the urge to take a deep breath in, to draw him into my lungs. He handed me a tumbler of golden liquid.

“Matches yer eyes,” Is he blushing? “It’s Laphroaig. Ever had it before?”

“Maybe once, Murtagh always gives me a taste but I never remember the names.” I admitted as I raised the glass to my lips. I sipped a taste and he watched me, a rueful smile playing on his lips. The flavours danced around in my mouth and I found myself really enjoying whisky for the first time.

Maybe it’s because of the Scottish God that just handed it to you.

Jamie took a much more respectable drink and we stood, just looking at each other.

“So Joe is-“

“A friend.” I immediately jumped in, instantly full of regret at my very obvious attempt to assuage any doubt he had regarding my single-ness.

“I was going to say a nice guy but I’m glad to hear it Sassenach.”

“Yes, it’s… good to have… friends.”

Oh God, please let the ground swallow me up NOW.

“Aye Sassenach, ’tis. To new friends.” He raised his glass and I clinked my own against it, draining the contents as if the alcohol would stop me from saying stupid things. The truth of the matter being quite the opposite.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Gay Gordons!” The caller announced across the hall. Jamie grinned at me and took the empty glass from my hand, setting it down on the bar behind me.

“Ready for another?”

“Again? I’ve barely got my breath back from the last one!”

“This one’s slower and not as complicated, I promise ye. And it’s just the two of us, no dancing with the whole room. Come wi’ me?” He held out his hand to me, the corner of his mouth quipping upwards. He looked good enough to eat. Of course, I placed my hand in his, letting him lead me wherever he wanted.

As we moved to the dance floor, he moved to my side and joining our hands together, his right hand taking mine and resting it on my right shoulder while our left hands joined at my left hip. Thankful that we were both facing the same direction and he couldn’t see the very evident signs of my contentment, a feeling of safety washed over me as he shielded me with his body. As nervous as I felt around him, I noticed that every time we touched, it seemed to disappear. It felt… natural. Like every time he held my hand or his body grazed against me, we were two people connecting after a drought of each other. He looked down at me and smiled slowly, his blue eyes sparkling again with the tension that had been present before. His voice was low, almost husky and his breath smelled like whisky.

Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, this man.

“Promised to hold onto ye, did I no?”