The world was spinning.
Tentatively, I cracked open one lid and the resulting sunlight practically blinded me. I clamped my hands over my eyes and mentally cursed Geillis and Joe for pouring drinks down my throat all night.
“Oh God, this does not feel good,” I groaned to the room, shuffling my legs underneath the sheets to try and create any sort of tactile stimulus to distract from the raging hangover.
Almost on queue, there was a knock at my door and Joe entered without waiting.
“Good morning, sunshine! Don’t you look a vision,” he took a seat on the end of my bed and expertly dodged the pillow that I threw in his direction.
“I’m not speaking to you. What time is it?”
“Around 9.30am. You have to get yourself up, they’re firing up the hog pit.”
“Geillis and Murtagh ordered a pig for the guests staying over, remember? Perfect hangover cure, bacon sandwiches and maybe a little hair of the dog that bit you. Come on, get your ass up, I’ll see you downstairs in twenty minutes.” He got up to leave and I reached for aspirin and glass of water that was on my bedside table.
“Fine. But only because you were nice and gave me drugs to wake up to,” I grumbled, swallowing the pills and sending up a prayer that their effects would kick in quickly.
“Wasn’t me, LJ!” And with a wink, he shut the door behind him.
With a tremendous amount of determination, I managed to drag myself into the bathroom for a quick shower, scrubbing my hands over my face. The hot water made me feel more human and I brushed my teeth carefully, trying not to be sick. It was irresponsible to have gotten so drunk to the point where I’d needed to be put to bed. Frank would’ve been livid if he’d been here.
But he wasn’t here. And that was the important thing. I would never have gotten into that kind of state if Frank had been with me because I wouldn’t have been allowed to. For the first time in a very long time, I’d been able to really cut loose and enjoy myself, not constantly being reminded about how many drinks I’d had or how people would laugh if I danced to that stupid song from the radio. I looked at my reflection in the mirror, my hair an impossible bird’s nest of tangles, the bags under my bleary eyes a very clear sign of me dancing the night away. And I smiled.
Once I had cleaned myself up to an acceptable standard and pulled on my black jeans and white linen shirt, I jumped into my comfortable Nikes and swept my hair into a bun on top of my head. As soon as I opened the door, the smell of cooked meat hit me and I followed my nose downstairs and into a big room towards the back of the house. Long tables had been laid out as the guests who had stayed the night were busying themselves with grabbing plates and cutlery and heading out of the french doors, propped open to let the beautiful autumn air in. I grabbed a table and paper napkin as everyone else had and went outside to see an entire suckling pig being roasted over a fire pit. My mouth immediately filled with saliva as Geillis came up and kissed me on the cheek.
“This may be the best idea anyone’s ever had,” I announced to her, knowing that my hangover wouldn’t be around for long once I’d had some food.
“Well, we just thought it would be nice to see everyone in the cold light of day. The ones that can get out of bed, that is,” she smirked with a single nod at someone across the room who I took it was suffering worse than I was.
“I was very much on that team myself as of half an hour ago. Pain killers, water and a shower, in that order and now I’m eyeing up that pig.”
“Yes, Joe mentioned about your knight in shining armour putting you to bed. Not entire selfless though, I imagine he had been wondering what you looked like in your skivvies all night.” Geillis elbowed me in the stomach and the realisation hit me like a brick. I’d woken up under the covers in nothing but my underwear, my dress having been folded nicely on the chair in the corner of the room.
“Oh God Geillis, why didn’t you stop me from making a fool of myself? Was I that bad?” She put her hand on my arm and looked me in the eyes.
“Claire, your two friends got married. Ye had a great time, as did the rest of us and honestly, it was lovely to see ye be so free. Ye had a lot to drink, yes, but so did everyone else. There are a lot of people wi’ the boak this morning, trust me.”
Still, I cringed as I imagined all the parts that I couldn’t remember from the night before. A hundred hypotheticals ran through my head and felt myself starting to sulk, the hangover rearing it’s ugly head again.
“I need to eat and I need some coffee.”
As I thanked the man for the heaping bacon sandwich he’d put together for me, I turned to find a seat at a table inside and came face to face with Jamie.
“Mornin’ Ms Beauchamp.”
Oh God, he was being so formal. I must’ve really made a tit out of myself.
“Good morning Jamie.” I looked around him to find someone that I recognised, that I could use as a reason to excuse myself but both Geillis and Joe were conveniently out of sight.
“How’s the head?” He asked, his voice quiet with uncertainty. It was almost like he was nervous.
“Better after the aspirin. Thank you, I, uh… assume that was you? Joe mentioned that you helped me to my room last night, I’m afraid I don’t remember much.”
“Aye well ye’d taken yer shoes off and I couldna let you walk outside over the stones in your bare feet so I helped you through and up the stairs and then I said goodnight.” Maybe it was the hangover or maybe it was simply because I wasn’t a bit tipsy but the conversation felt stilted. The night before it was as easy as breathing but I was starting to feel like there was something he wasn’t telling me. Or maybe even that I had done something and he was angry with me.
“Oh well, thank you. I’m sorry if I cut your enjoyment short.” His face fell a little at my clipped tone of voice and I took a step past him. “I’m keeping you from getting fed, go ahead.”
As I tried to make my exit, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, slightly blocking my path with his body.
“Claire, would ye like to go for a walk with me tonight? Thought I could show you around the estate. Murtagh said you were staying tonight as well and I enjoyed speaking with ye yesterday.”
My shoulders relaxed a little as I realised that he was nervous, not angry. So maybe I hadn’t embarrassed myself quite as badly as I’d thought.
“I’d like that,” I smiled at him and he beamed in response.
“Great. I’ll meet you at the front door around half six?”
“Sounds good to me. Now, go and get some food, you must be starving.” I teased and received a wide grin from him.
“Always, Sassenach.” He moved to get food and I made my way inside, situating myself at a table with Geillis, Murtagh and Joe.
Back to being a Sassenach, that’s a good sign.
We spent most of the day in that same room, guests coming to say goodbye to Murtagh and Geillis as they set off for home. Jamie had joined us at the table and we spent the hours telling old stories about each other, Jamie and Murtagh constantly trying to embarrass each other each other although I couldn’t say that Geillis and I were behaving much better. I became aware that Geillis was keeping a close eye on Jamie and myself when we interacted, barely containing the look of joy on her face.
“And then of course there was the time that Claire knocked a man unconscious with only a wee keek at her tits!” Geillis’ crassness was one of the things I loved the most about her and in truth, I envied it. She was entirely unafraid to say and do what she wanted. Jamie’s jaw dropped and I put my hands up to stop the onslaught of questioning.
“What my dear friend and learned colleague fails to mention is that I was leaning over him to reach for his oxygen mask when he passed out, definitely not because he saw my chest,” I clarified. Murtagh tried to catch his breath once he stopped laughing and I threw an empty sugar packet at his head. “Not the first time you’ve got me in trouble with that story.”
“Oh Frank was a boring, old fart. He never saw the funny side of anything,” Geillis dismissed me and I shot her a look.
“Who’s Frank?” Jamie asked innocently.
“Old news,” I snapped, Jamie looking more closely at my face as my lips pressed together in a hard line. I faked a smirk, desperate to move the conversation on. “Anyway, let me tell you about the time Ms Duncan here got caught flirting with a porter to get her patient moved to a room closer to her car parking space.” Murtagh made a face.
“Excuse me but it’s Mrs Fitzgibbons now.”
I nervously fiddled with a curl that was hanging loose down by my ear as I stood at the front door of the house. It was 6.24pm and I was waiting for Jamie to arrive for our walk.
At around 4pm, it became abundantly clear that Murtagh and Geillis weren’t too fussed about the company of myself, Joe and Jamie anymore. The hand holding became arm stroking and as time went on, they retired to their room lest they begin undressing each other in front of us. We had teased them as they practically ran out of the room, hand in hand but really, it was sweet to see them so happy, so caught up in the beginning of the next stage of their story together. A little while later Joe left to catch the sleeper back to London and I left Jamie to go and freshen up for our evening appointment.
After a more thorough shower than the rushed one I’d had in the morning, I put my black jeans back on and swapped my shirt for a long sleeved thermal top. It was a dark grey colour with black stripes and the material clung to my body, accentuating the natural curve of my bust. Jamie hadn’t said where we’d be walking and I hoped my Nikes would be good enough for the trail. I slipped into my dark green waterproof jacket that I’d packed, after being told 100 times by Geillis that Scotland could experience all four seasons in one day, but the weather had been so beautiful throughout the day that I hoped I wouldn’t need it. It was the end of September and although the days still stretched in the sunshine, I knew that the evenings could be quite cold which was fine as long as the rain stayed off.
I had been ready embarrassingly early, forcing myself to sit at the vanity and swipe some mascara on instead of incessantly pacing the room, watching the clock. I hadn’t expected to be quite this nervous, especially after spending almost the whole day with him.
And with three other people, Beauchamp. Now it’s just the two of you, alone.
Now as I stood at the door, I took a deep breath and tried to steady my nerves. It was an utterly futile attempt as he came around the corner and smiled when he saw me.
He was dressed in dark trousers, obviously meant for walking due to the fact that they were made of a sturdy material. But these weren’t Grandpa’s old baggy walking trousers, oh no. They were tight fitting, clinging to the massive muscles in his thighs. I hadn’t really had a proper look at all of him before this point, I’d always found myself preoccupied with his face and under the bulk of his kilt and tweed jacket the night before, I could only really tell that he was very large. But seeing him walk towards me, noticing the material of his long sleeved white top stretch against his biceps, I noticed that he kept himself in great shape.
“Evenin’ Sassenach. Ye look lovely.” He took a step towards me like he was going to kiss me on the cheek and at the last minute, decided against it and gave me an awkward, singular pat on the shoulder.
“This old thing?” I tried to joke, pulling on the bottom of my jacket.
“Came prepared for the weather, I see. Smart woman. None sae used to it are quite as forward planning.”
“We do have weather in England, you know, Scotland doesn’t have the monopoly on rainclouds,” I snapped, sharper than I had intended. I was surprised at how on edge I felt but he smirked at me, not taking my comment to heart.
“I ken ye have weather Sassenach but the Scottish Highlands are something else. I can show ye if you like?”
He held an arm out to me and I linked mine through his as we began to walk in silence. Something about the physical contact made me relax, an unspoken secret between us that for the moment, our bodies seemed more comfortable with each other than our minds.
“Where are we headed anyway?”
“Dinna fash, am nae away to drag ye up Ben Macdui. I just thought I’d walk ye over to Linn of Dee so we could see the water and then maybe have a wee dram, if yer stomach’s feeling up to it that is,” he joked. I could feel myself blushing and the cringing that had been so prevalent earlier this morning came back with a vengeance.
I groaned. “I’m sorry, again. Did I already say sorry?”
“Ye did but I’m still no sure what for. I wasna exactly sober myself, Claire, I don’t imagine many were.”
“I just hope I didn’t do anything to make you feel uncomfortable. Or crossed any boundaries.”
He stopped walking and looked down at me, trying to hide his laughter from bursting out from behind his smirking lips.
“Just what do ye think ye did to me, Claire?”
“Well, when I woke up this morning, I had no recollection of leaving the hall. And I, uh, did wake up in only my underwear.” I couldn’t take him looking at me so I pulled, our arms still linked and we started to walk again, forcing him to look ahead.
“Claire, I unzipped yer dress, turned to face the wall and turned back only when ye swore to me that ye were under the covers. I then sorted yer bonny dress that ye’d left in a heap on the floor and by the time I went to say goodnight to ye, ye were already sound asleep.”
Relief washed over me like a wave and I held my free hand to my forehead, somewhat dramatically.
“Thank God! I had visions of me propositioning you and not behaving myself and-“
“Well, I didna say that ye were well behaved.” The smirk was back on his lips, I could tell without even looking at him. The cavernous pit in my stomach opened up again. “Shall I put ye out of yer misery?”
“I’m thinking of the old adage ‘Ignorance is bliss’, Mr Fraser.”
He snorted a laugh and we abruptly stopped walking as he took a step forward and turned to face me. The sun was beginning to set directly behind him, the light dancing over his hair. His face was kind, not mocking at all.
“Ye were verra upset wi’ me cos ye tried to kiss me and I refused ye,” he said in a simple statement.
“Oh,” I immediately knew that he could see the crestfallen look on my face, my stupid glass face that showed everything I was feeling at all times. “I’m sorry if I was rude. I must’ve just thought… well, I thought we were having a good time and the booze must’ve made me a little disinhibited and-“
“Don’t confuse my not kissing you with a lack of wanting to, Sassenach. I just generally don’t go around kissing folk who can barely stand.”
His hand came up to my face as his thumb gently stroked my cheek. Looking into his eyes, I felt my breath go short and his gaze darted from my eyes to my lips and back again, so quickly that I wasn’t even sure that it had happened.
“I’d like to kiss ye now, Sassenach. If that would be okay with ye?” My heart was practically thumping out of my chest as he kept his distance, not moving a muscle until I gave my answer.
“That would be okay.” My voice barely a whisper, his hands cupped my face gently and he bent down, hovering just before our lips touched. There was a palpable charge in the air and we both enjoyed the stillness, allowing the anticipation to build.
“A dhia, I’ve wanted to taste these lips.” His breathless words washed over me and I closed my eyes as he firmly placed his mouth on mine. Still for a moment, his hands moved into my hair as he deepened the kiss, sighing into my mouth. When his tongue flicked across mine, I made what could only be described as a squeak and could feel his mouth curve into a smile, not breaking contact. Every part of my body became more alert, more awake to what was on offer in front of me, my hands coming to his neck as I popped onto my toes, trying to get closer to him. His mouth moved in separate kisses from my lips to the corner of my mouth to my cheek to my ear and down my neck, my jaw hanging open with my eyes still shut. My hands grabbed at the hem of his shirt, fingertips hungrily grazing bare skin that had been hidden from them.
“Jamie-“ And his mouth was back on mine, the fire renewed. I reluctantly pulled away, his hands holding my hips against his as I leaned backwards, anchored to him. “Jamie, we’re meant to be walking, not making out like teenagers when we’ve barely left the house.”
His arms locked themselves around my waist, pulling me back to him as his forehead crashed against my own. He took a few deep breaths and looked me straight in the eye.
“Claire, Sassenach, I don’t mean to be too forward and tell me if I am but I’m of half a mind to suggest that the walk can get fucked and we go back to my place to have a… drink.”
His eyes darkened and I felt a delicious heaviness begin to swirl in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t help but smile at him, so beautiful in front of me. It broke my heart a little that I was leaving for home the next morning.
“Is it far to your place?” I replied as he grinned down and grabbed my hand, starting to pull me in the direction of the woods at the edge of the land.
“Five minutes. Enough of a walk for me.”