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Which Will it Be?

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Even after four days of freedom, the concept still feels strange to me.

Looking either way before I cross the road, a bundle of papers in my hand, I half expect to see one of my Mother’s friends to be walking up the same road, calling my full name, and waving me over.

Blinking harshly, I realise the streets here in Edinburgh, Scotland, are much busier than the old, tiny village I’d left behind in Oxfordshire. Not only that, but I’m now hundreds of miles away from my overbearing Mother and her snooty friends.

Thank God.

I’m away.

Free.

In control of my life for the first time in my entire twenty-three years of existence.

Continuing to walk further along the street for another minute or so, I’m only stopped in my tracks when I see my own reflection in a hairdresser’s glass window.

It may have only been four days since I’ve fled home, boarded the next available train, and found myself in the heart of Scotland with nothing but a small, hot pink suitcase to accompany me. But I've decided to change my appearance rather dramatically in those four days, if I do say so myself.

First, and the most striking feature, is the new haircut I'm now sporting. Getting my hair chopped had been the first thing I’d done after stepping out of the train station, before even finding where I was going to lay my head for the night.

My Mother, Julia, had always kept my curly, brunette locks, long. Since I could remember, my Mother had often complained about the tight spiral curls decorating my head, unsure how to deal with them, and comparing my much more unruly hair to her own much sleeker, much shinier, much more easily manageable strands. The ridiculously long length of the hair on the old me, had meant the curls were typically weighed down, less frizzy, less of a nuisance.

But new me didn’t want to keep my hair long just for my Mother’s sake. I hadn’t wanted for a while, and now I'm coming to realize I don't have to.

The hairdresser I had visited on Tuesday was more than happy to chop the inches off, leaving me with a long bob, the longest strands just about brushing my collarbones.

Gazing at myself in the clear reflection, I self-consciously finger the ends. They no longer feel dead, dry and brittle, as if they’ll crack in half at any chance. Instead they feel soft and healthy. The same way my hips had felt as I’d pulled on a worn pair of tailored trousers this morning. As well as keeping a close eye on my diet (banning anything containing too much fat, too much sugar and too much salt), my Mother had forbid me from ever owning a pair of denim jeans, deeming them scandalous, but I would bet they’d fit snugly over my hips now, which have rounded out ever so slightly due to living on nothing but Mrs Baird’s famous beef stew.

I’m strangely proud of the new glow that surrounds me.

Strangely proud of myself.

It dawns on me how peculiar I must look having this epiphany, while looking into the hairdresser’s window. Especially when two heads sitting inside, with silver foils decorating their skulls, swivel to face me.

Smiling to them, enough to showcase my front teeth, I ponder for a second if I dare step inside. The stack of CVs, which I have painstakingly typed out and printed off at the local library yesterday, sit heavy in the palm of my hand.

I need a job, and need one quickly.

One that doesn’t pay too badly, and will help me begin to save up my own money, for my own future. I no longer want to rely on my family’s money to provide for me, to keep me.

But the issue is I can’t say I have a lot of experience… in anything really. I’m not so sure anybody wants to hire a strange English woman, who has just appeared in town out of nowhere, and who has no specialized skills or a trustworthy reference in sight.

Perhaps a hairdresser’s isn’t the best place to start. Surely they need women who know exactly what they are doing, or the basics at least.

No.

Nevermind.

Pulling my eyes away from the pristine salon, and back onto the crowded street ahead of me, I decide to continue on my path. A hairdresser’s won’t do, but for a second there, I had thought it nice to go somewhere to make female friends… or any sort of friends, actually.

---

The Mctavish bar sits alone at the end of the street, opposite a tailor’s shop. The outer façade of the bar is gothic and old fashioned, as is most of the buildings in the heart of Edinburgh, sitting only a walk away from the castle.

Climbing the door front steps, I hesitate before walking back down them, shaking my head to myself. Is this a good idea? Is a bar really the place for me to get my first proper job? I mean, surely they don't need somebody with a lot of experience, I’ve seen a load of young girls be hired at the pubs down home.

No, not home.

Oxfordshire.

I can do this in my sleep no problem; being polite to people, serving a few drinks, maybe even mopping the floors every once in a while… it can't be that difficult, right?

“Would ye mind getting that door for me, lass?” A voice behind me asks, making me jump a foot in the air. I spin, my papers flapping, to face the stranger.

A lanky boy, both of his hands busy holding a large brown box, looks back at me, his face hopeful. He throws his head back slightly, dislodging the floppy fringe that has fallen into his eyes, before he asks again.

“Did ye hear me, lass?” The box jostles in his hands, the items inside clanking together dangerously, as he tips his chin to the dark mahogany door of the bar. “My hands are full, ye wouldn’t mind opening it for me, would ye?”

“Um…” I start. “Y-Yes, of course.”

Tottering back up the steps, I wrap my hand around the metal handle, feeling the cold bite into my palm, and then pulling it wide for the lad to slip through.

“Thank ye kindly, Miss.” He says, winking as he brushes past, the upper bicep of his arm barely touching my hand.

“Y-You’re welcome,” I stutter out, but the boy has already moved on into the bar beyond.

Around the door handle, my fingers twitch.

Should I go in?

Is this my sign?

Did I look more like a nutter for holding the door open an excessive amount of time and letting in the September wind?

Probably.

With a soft shut, I allow the door to close behind me, sealing in my decision.

Straight ahead of me, I can see the long bar, where I guess the majority of the drinks are served. A tall, lone man stands behind it, his face obscured by the lanky delivery boy who stands talking, his box of goods resting on the countertop. A small number of men sit at either end of the bar, pint glass set in front of each of them, with varying degrees of amber liquid inside. Their necks craning upwards to watch the two televisions mounted to the walls. Each pixelated screen appears to be showing the run down medal table of the latest Olympic game day.

Taking a shallow breath, I put my right foot in front of my left. The two alcoves that surround the front of the bar door, peter out as I walk further forward, bringing me under the light, until I notice matching mahogany tables and chairs placed strategically around the bar floor.

“What can I do for ye, lass?” A voice calls out to me for the second time in a matter of minutes. This one sounds deeper, and more mature, than the one of the delivery boy’s. The man behind the bar asks, “Yer no’ lost, are ye?”

Walking right up until the marble edge of the bar digs into my hip bones, I shake my head. I can feel the soft ends of my new haircut swish around my jawline. “No, I’m not lost. I’m--”

“Are ye sure ye’re no’? A Sassenach like yerself? Far away from home, aren’t ye?”

“I-I…” I flounder. “A Sassenach?”

“An outlander,” the delivery boy, who up until this point has stayed silent, explains, “it means somebody not from Scotland.”

“Oh.” I swallow thickly; biting down on my lower lip and tasting the lemonade lip treatment I’d applied there this morning. “Well I’m not far away from home, I live here now.”

The man behind the bar, whose dark brown beard obscures the bottom half of his face, and whose dark brown fringe obscures the top half of his face, makes a surprised noise, sounding at the back of his throat.

“Good for ye then, lass.” His hands come to rest on the marble bar top, upturned in a friendly gesture. “Do ye want a celebratory drink, then?”

“No, actually. I-I'm wondering if you're hiring?” Laying my stack of papers flat on the bar, I mirror his friendly expression. “I need a job, and pretty quickly, so I--”

“Can I take a look?” The man gestures to the first printed out page on my stack. I’ve already handed out a number of those bloody pieces of paper to other retail shops and one café, but the bundle doesn't seem to be dwindling at all.

Nodding, I wait with bated breath as his surprisingly nimble fingers slide the page towards himself. His eyes scan across the page rather quickly, after all, there isn't much to read about, until he glances up at me, one eyebrow raised independently.

“Ye don’t have a lot of experience, lass,” he says, stating the obvious, “and no bar work at all.”

“I know but--” Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the two men at the right hand side of the bar side-eyeing me, becoming more interested as the apples of my cheeks blaze red. A trait about myself that I've always hated. “But I’m a hard worker, and a fast learner and--”

The owner of the bar, at least I suppose he is the owner, stares at me blankly.

“Lass, ye don’t have any experience anywhere,” he repeats.

“You needn’t say it so loudly for everybody to hear,” I hiss, close to stomping my foot.

Once the words are out of my mouth, I know I shouldn’t have said them, but my temper is prone to over spilling.

Another trait my Mother had detested.

“I’m sorry.” I wouldn’t sigh, or slouch further across the bar than my body wants me too. After two days straight, full of walking up and down strange streets, and praying for a miracle to change my life, I’m exhausted right down to my bones. Tired in a way I’ve never felt before. But I won’t show that to these strangers. It would be unladylike, as Julia would say so often.

“It’s just been a long day and--”

“Ye been searching for a job for a while?” The delivery boy, who I've almost forgotten is still standing there, pipes up.

“Mhm.” Two days isn't exactly a while, depending on your measurement of time. But it certainly feels like it when my feet are pounding the streets, breaking down the seams of the only pair of sensible maroon brogues that I had thought to bring. The other pair of shoes are black stilettos… and they aren't exactly made for walking long distances, or at all, really.

“Gan on, Murtaugh.” Aha, now I have a name. “I heard ye complaining the other night aboot how ye were understaffed and--”

“Shut yer mouth.” Murtaugh directs at the boy, who in turn just grins cheekily, not offended in the slightest, before turning his attention back to me. “There’s a little fire somewhere in ye, lass, and I like that.” He pauses for a second. A second that feels like an eternity to me. “When are ye free to come in for a trial run?”

“A t-trial run?” I lick my lips again, leaning over and allowing the bar to support more of my weight. “I’m free…” Did any day sound too eager? Am I supposed to sound eager? “Tomorrow.” Yes, tomorrow sounded perfect, somewhere in the middle.

I can see the bulge of Murtaugh’s tongue in his mouth, pressing up against one of his upper teeth, in thought. “No, I can’t let ye start tomorrow. It’s a Saturday, and no matter what people say in this town, I’m no’ completely ruthless, nor willing to throw ye in the deep end quite so fast.” His hand comes up to smooth down the wiry strands of his beard. “How does Monday sound?”

“Monday? Y-yes, Monday works.”

“Braw.” I watch as Murtaugh folds my pitiful excuse for a CV in half, then in half again and quarters until it resembles a triangle. “I’ll see ye here at 1 o’clock, lass, just after the lunchtime rush.”

“Okay.” I nod, sure my head resembles something akin to those bobble heads I’ve seen in gift shops across the world. “I’ll see you then.”

Collecting the rest of my papers, I turn on my heel, making back towards the door. Perhaps I should have left the rest of the resumes behind; after all, I don't need them now, do I?

I’ve done it!

I’ve secured myself a job… or a trial run, at least!

I feel as if I'm floating on top of the world. Nothing can stop me now. I’m doing it! Taking the first step to build a life for myself, and only me. A life where nobody is there to tell me what not to do.

A flood of confidence, like I’ve never felt before, surrounds me entirely. I can do anything. I can—

Speed Dating!

Unlucky in love and fancying a change? Mctavish’s Bar is proud to host a speed dating event!

When: Friday 7:30pm

Dress Code: Semi Formal (please no turning up in football shirts, ye will be turned away at the door.)

Ask away at the bar to be added to the list. Remember, spaces are limited.

Thank Ye.

The large blue poster, decorated in gaudy writing, catches my attention just as I’m about to open the door and step outside. It’s tacked to the back of the door, so no wonder I hadn’t seen it the first time I’d walked inside. Plus, the old me wouldn’t have dared give it a second glance, let alone be inside a bar to see it in the first place.

But the new me…

“Back so soon, lassie?” Murtaugh asks, as I walk back up to the bar. His hands are busy this time, polishing gin glasses until they sparkle. “Ye’re no’ here to change yer mind, are ye?”

“No. Um--” Murtaugh turns his back for just a second to place the glass onto the shelf behind. It’s enough for me to peer at his back pocket and see my paper CV sticking out of the top of it. Why is he choosing to keep it? To share with the other bar staff, so they can all laugh at me?

“I don’t bite, ye ken,” he says, spinning around to face me again, “ye can ask questions.”

“The speed dating poster.” I spit out, before my constantly second guessing ego can stop me. “I’ve just seen it.”

“And?”

“Are—are there any spaces left?”

I can’t believe you’ve just asked that, Beauchamp.

“I’ll double check.” Throwing his tea towel over his shoulder like they do in films, Murtaugh reaches underneath the bar, until his hand finds what he’s looking for. A clipboard. “Sorry, lass, there’s no—wait.” He turns the page over, eyes flicking quickly from side to side. “We had a cancellation, so there’s one space left. It’s yers if ye want it, Miss Sassenach.”

“Miss Sassenach?”

“Aye, well I dinna ken yer name yet, so…”

“It’s Claire.” I state proudly. “Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp.”

“Right, Miss Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp.” Procuring a pencil, Murtaugh scribbles something onto the clipboard. “I’ve wrote yer name down, so I guess I’ll see ye here tonight for the speed dating, and again on Monday for yer trial run.”

“Thank you. I—I’ll see you then.” Brogues slapping loudly against the wooden floor, I actually do make it outside this time, without having to turn back for a third chat. My legs are carrying me back along the way I’ve walked, and onto the next street behind, when my brain catches up with the fact I don't need to.

I’ve succeeded in my mission of getting a job. Well, somewhat, but every step counts.

I no longer need to enter another establishment, hand in a lone, single bit of paper, and have to hear, “I’ll pass this along to the manager.”

Instead, I can now make the journey back to Mrs Baird’s B&B, where I've been laying my head down for the past four evenings.

Checking my watch, as I head in the opposite direction, and down the rather steep hill (the burning in my thigh muscles thank me for that, but my rather weak knees, which are prone to popping out of joint every once in while, do not), I calculate in my mind how long it will take me to get dressed and get back to the bar before half seven.

It’s just gone two in the afternoon now, so I have plenty of time to wolf down some of Mrs Baird’s delicious home cooked food, shower, pick something ‘semi formal’ to wear out of my measly wardrobe, and catch a taxi ride.

While I’m at it, I knew I should probably carve out some time to sit on the edge of my bed, either fully dressed or still in my towel (I’ll decide at the time) and anxiously ponder over the big adult life decisions that I’ve made today.

Oh, and a nap.

Having a nap, in between all of that, sounds pretty good to me right about now.

Chapter Text

A pile of clothes lies haphazardly on the unmade bed, reflecting in the full-length mirror, as I pull my final item of clothing out of the wooden wardrobe.

Compared to my wardrobe back in Oxfordshire, I’ve hardly brought anything with me; just enough to fill a small suitcase, and now it’s showing.

Everything I own makes me look as if I’m trying too hard, as if I’m made of the inheritance money that I’ve been working on leaving behind.

Huffing, I make myself refrain from stomping over to the bed like a petulant child. Picking up the first dress that I’d tried on – a midi length red number with a large bow around the middle that accentuates my slim waist – I try to tell myself it doesn’t matter. I’d already had one existential crisis, while sitting on the edge of the makeup stool. I certainly don’t need another.

“Whatever is meant to be will be, Beauchamp.”

Once Mrs Baird had heard where I was off to this evening, (the no-nonsense housekeeper had scrounged the information out of me with the promise of homemade cheese scones) she’d been more than happy to ring the taxi for me herself. Swearing that she’d ring my room phone once the car was waiting outside.

Even though I’d been expecting it, I still jump as the old fashioned telephone rings shrilly, the sound echoing off all four walls.

“Yer carriage awaits ye lassie,” Mrs Baird jokes, the grin apparent in her tone.

“I’ll be right down,” I swallow harshly, I need a drink, something, anything to quench my suddenly dry mouth.

With shaky hands, I put down the receiver, picking up a tube of red, sparkly gloss, and painting the soft applicator over my lips. In my old world, my mother would never ever have let me wear something like this, something this bold on my lips. I’d been taught it was a whore’s colour.

But I had snagged the lipgloss out of a friend’s overstuffed makeup bag an age ago. I’d wanted to take more, had looked at the holographic bag spilling over with brightly coloured eyeshadows, blushes and lip pencils, with nothing but red hot jealousy running through my veins. But I knew exactly what would be said if I had descended the stairs, walked into the kitchen, and allowed my mother and father to see my heavily painted face.

Unladylike.

Whore.

Harlot.

Lady of the night.

Asking for it.

For years, the old me had stuck to the things she knew well, the things she’d been taught, but the new me was changing her ways. Painting my lips a daring shade to match my dress was just the first step.

---

“Where to, miss?” The taxi driver asks, as I strap the seatbelt over my lap, and wave goodbye to Mrs Baird, who is standing on the front steps of her B and B to see me off.

“The McTavish bar.”

The journey doesn’t take very long, ten minutes at the most, but I didn’t fancy walking back up that god forsaken hill for the second time in one day. Plus, the sun would be setting in about an hour’s time, and it wouldn’t be safe for me to walk the streets of a strange place alone.

Pulling the car right up to the front of the bar, the taxi driver kills the engine. “That’ll be eight pound, miss.”

Fishing a ten pound note out of my so small, it’s practically pointless, handbag, I hand it over, my foot already out of the car door and resting on the concrete pavement below.

“Keep the change,” I call, as I exit, and then really wishing I hadn’t said that once the car door was completely shut. I need every penny I have right now, until I start my shift at work, and can afford to have perhaps one or two extra spends. For a second there, I’d forgotten just how poor I am now.

The tall, smiling bouncer at the bar door doesn’t help lessen my nerves any. Especially, as he asks for proof of my ID, and I have to scurry around in my handbag once more, in search of the plastic card.

“Enjoy yer night, lass.” He says, smiling rather largely as he hands back over my ID. Nodding politely, I slip through the door he holds open for me, very aware of the heat of his gaze on my legs.

Why on earth he’d be staring at my legs is still a mystery to me. I cross the familiar floor, weaving between empty tables and chairs seated for two, which I guess must be for the speed dating event that is starting in about twenty minutes or so, and reach the bar.

Rather than standing this time, I slide my way onto one of the high seated bar stools, hoping I don’t look too much of a fool as I’d fumble my way into sitting upright. Those things are bloody difficult to get on and off.

A number of people obviously have the same idea. But whether they’re here for the speed dating event… I’m unsure. I wonder for a second if the bar is still open for normal, paying customers. I suppose so; after all, it is a Friday night, probably one of their busiest days of the week.

“Ye okay, lass? Ye look a little lost.”

Lifting my eyes from my lap, I find myself staring at a Viking of a man. His hair is a messy shock of red, with some blonde strands intermingled, small curls springing up behind each ear. I allow my eyes to travel further down his face and body. Taking in the dark blue pools of his eyes, the Romanesque of his nose, the fullness of his lips and just how sharp his cleanly shaven jawline is. A black t-shirt decorates the top half of his body, fitting snugly around the thickness of his arms, before it tapers off somewhere around his trim waist.

The marble counter top of the bar obscures the rest of his body, which I think is a damned shame, as something hot thrummed quickly under the pulse point of my neck.

It’s unladylike to stare, Claire.

“Sorry.” I say automatically. The words feeling physically stuck in the back of my throat. “It’s just been a strange day, is all.”

“A strange day, aye?” Mr fit bartender rests his toned forearms on the bar, bringing his face closer to mine. I can smell his aftershave - something warm and spicy. “Ye probably need a drink to fix that, then?”

“Mhm…”

“So what will it be?” As he tilts his head, the forelock of his fringe flops over to rest across his forehead. “Ye look like a white wine kinda lass, to me.”

“White wine?” I feel rather silly repeating his every word, but the butterflies in my stomach are making it hard for me to concentrate. “I don’t really drink a lot so...”

Why had I said that?

Mr Bartender doesn’t bat an eyelid. “How about I make ye something, and if ye don’t like it, I’ll fix it?”

I nod in agreement, forcing my lips to part and mutter, “okay.”

With a smirk, Mr Bartender is off, turning around to prepare my drink. For a second I stare at his back; the rounding of his broad shoulders, the way his t-shirt shifts, molding to his skin, as his back muscles underneath flex and relax.

Once I’m certain I’m drooling, I tear my gaze away abashedly. The bar is steadily filling up around me, with a number of women in short cocktail dresses and men in chino trousers. The sound has built steadily too; chitter chatter, the low hum of music, and the high pitched clanking of glasses, seem to be coming from all corners.

Breathing in through my nose in an attempt to calm my nerves, I practically choke on the strong scent of alcohol permeating the air.

What the hell am I doing here?

My mother would have a fit if she knew what I was up too.

How on earth am I going to take this job, surrounded by drunken customers, and disgusting smelling liquor, all evening?

The fit bartender is a plus but—

I’m have to work with the fit bartender.

Work with him, side by side, hip to hip.

The space behind the bar is only small. I can imagine myself having to duck under Mr Fit Bartender’s strong arms to grab another glass or a packet of crisps for a customer.

My God.

“One lady in red for a lady in red.”

He’s back, sliding a napkin with a martini glass placed on top of it, and making a word pun.

I stare at him, most likely open mouthed for a second too long, before peering down at the drink in front of me. The liquid inside of the glass is bright red, decorated with a pink sugar rim, that I know for certain will stick to my glossy lips.

Gripping the stem as delicately as my sweaty hands will allow, I hold it to my lips. “Might I ask what’s in it?”

“Ye may.” He laughs softly, but his eyes are still kind. “It’s a little dash of raspberry vodka, a little dash of raspberry liqueur, some cloudy apple juice, cranberry juice, and some cherry puree to line the rim.”

I can’t tell if the drink actually does sound delicious, or if it’s just the way Mr Fit Bartender is describing it.

The rim still hovers in front of my lips, untouched. “Will it get me drunk?”

Only three times in my life had I been drunk, and none of them good. For one, I had never been allowed to drink while at home, and two, the couple of times I had snuck a sip of alcohol here and there, it had never tasted nice. Rather like what I imagined paint strippers to taste like.

“Shouldn’t do.” The flat of his thumb and pointer finger comes to hover over each other in an invisible measurement. “I only put a wee bit in, something tae give ye courage before yer speed dating starts.”

“Oh.” With that, I put the rim to my lips and pull a sip of the cold liquid into my mouth. The sour flavour of the cherries hits my lips first, making them tingle, followed by the fruity raspberry that coats my tongue and slides down my throat nicely. It doesn’t taste like alcohol at all, but rather like juice or cordial.

“How is it?” For the cheeky smile playing about his lips, he looks pretty pleased with himself.

“Good. Dangerous,” I answer, setting it back down. I know if the drink tastes that good, I need to pace myself. “It doesn’t taste like alcohol.”

“Cocktails aren’t really meant tae.”

“Oh,” I say again, feeling very out of my depth. “How did you know I was here for the speed dating event?”

“Lucky guess,” he replies. I notice he isn’t serving anybody else who is sitting or standing at the bar. Instead, leaving that up to his other co-worker. Those endless blue eyes of his appear only to be on me. “A lucky guess for my lucky night.”

“Your lucky night?”

“Mhm,” he hums, not really gifting me with a straight answer. “Can I ask ye a question, lass?”

“If you want.”

God, do I really sound as eager as do in my head?

Leaning in closer than he had for all of their conversation, I get distracted by the shape of his soft looking lips, and the tag of his t-shirt that hasn’t been tucked in properly and is sticking out the back.

“What’s a Sassenach like ye doing around this neck of the woods?”

Opening my mouth to answer, (although why I feel compelled to answer a stranger’s question about myself, I do not know) I’m drowned out by somebody announcing the beginning of the speed dating.

“If the lasses could all take a seat at the tables, and we’ll get the lads set up in just a moment,” says somebody into an echoing microphone.

A scrabble ensues; excited mutterings, the fabric of dresses swishing against skin, heels clicking across the floor, wooden chairs being pulled out nosily and scraping along the floor.

“I guess our time is up,” says the bartender, one corner of his mouth lifting up in a lopsided smile. “Whichever lad ye pick tonight is gonnae be one lucky fella.”

Unsure what on earth to say to that, I answer his first question, the one I definitely have an answer for. “Escape.”

“What, lass?”

“I’m a Sassenach wandering about this neck of the woods because I chose to escape.”

---

Sliding into the last available seat in the center of the floor, I don’t dare look up to see Mr Fit Bartender’s reaction. After giving him my answer, I’d picked up my drink, and practically ran. Just my bloody luck that the last seat obtainable was in the bar’s direct line of sight. Hopefully, my date’s head will block it.

“Okay lasses,” the gentleman on the overhead microphone speaks again, “ye can see a piece of paper and a pen in front of each of ye. This will be how ye score yer five different partners out of ten. There’s a box for ye to write their names, and from then on ye can mark them on the categories; humour, likeability, dress sense, interest in ye and sexual chemistry.”

Sexual chemistry?

“Right, if each of the lads could take the seat closest to them, and from there, we’ll move in a clockwise position. Ye’ll each have ten minutes to chat, before ye move on and the timer begins… now!”

“Hi, ye alright?”

I feel like I’ve blinked and missed the dark haired man taking his seat in front of me.

Why am I doing this, again?

“Y-Yes,” I stutter out, reaching for the stem of my drink. I can do this. I can do this! Just after another sip, or rather mouthful this time, of my drink. “How are you?”

He grins, the sheer whiteness of his straight teeth almost blinding in the strobe lights passing overhead. “Better now I’m here sitting in front of you.”

I had heard a number of my ‘friends’ back home talk about men and their chat up lines. Thankfully, I’ve never been on the receiving end of one.

Until now, I suppose .

Pen poised, I risk another glance at my first date of the evening.

He winks at me, probably in a show of confidence, but all I notice is the purposeful cut through both of his eyebrows.

Does he really, honestly, think that looks good?

“I’m Claire, you?”

“Chaz.”

I press the nib of the roller point ball onto my piece of paper, starting to form the letter ‘c’, before my brain catches up. “Chaz? Is that your real name?”

“Well, no.” ‘Chaz’ takes a deep pull of his own pint. Some of the foam clings to his shallow cupid’s bow. “My real name’s David, but ye ken,” one of his shoulders comes up to just below his ear, in a half shrug, “all my friends call me Chaz.”

“Right. Chaz.” I draw out the ‘z’ as I write his preferred name into the first box. Once the pen meets the table, I have no excuse but to stick to it and carry on. “So what do you do for a job?”

It turns out ‘Chaz’ is a bricklayer by profession, a respectable job, but I’m almost certain within the first two minutes, that he isn't the man for me.

With not a lot of experience under my belt, I’m not really certain what I’m looking for. My mother had always told me once I’d know I’d know.

But I’m not exactly sure what that meant, nor do I really trust my mother’s opinions or way of thinking. Julia had been wrong about a number of different things; it was very well possible that she’d been wrong about this too.

So, instead, I’m choosing to go by my gut, and perhaps my heart, if it screams loud enough.

‘Chaz’ didn’t seem to fit properly in either.

At the end of the ten minutes, I’m sorry to say I’m glad it’s over. I know that’s rude of me to think. But those ten minutes felt some of the longest of my bloody life.

“Hope tae speak tae ye later, Claire,” he says, lingering above to place a kiss on my cheek. His lips are strangely cold, but wet, due to the beer he’s been slurping down. A very peculiar sensation, which I can’t say I’m fond of.

I hum noncommittally, wanting him to piss off so I can gift him with low scores.

“Ooh a two, really?” Another dark haired man, this one decorated in a number of visible tattoos, speaks over my shoulder.

My natural reaction is to slam my hand down over my scores, but I stop halfway there, when I realise the tattooed man is smiling in a joking manner.

He slides into the recently vacated seat. “I should probably make a better impression than that, if I don’t want to get a two either. I’m Dale.”

Taking his hand, which is hovering over the table, I shake it quickly, warmth blooming in my fingers and wrist from where his warm, and very alive skin, has brushed mine.

“Claire.”

“Claire.” Dale tastes my name on his tongue. “A bonny name for a bonny lass.”

Is that the corners of my own mouth that I could feel curling upwards? “You’re just saying that so I don’t give you a two.”

A surprised loud laugh bursts out of Dale, making the couples on either side of me, stop mid-conversation and peer over nosily.

“I like ye already,” says Dale, bringing his body further into the table, and laying his hands down flat. Instinctively, my eyes trace the clean, half moon rounds of his nails, and the teeny lines that decorate the bumps of his knuckles. “Go on and tell me more about yerself, Claire.”

---

Third time’s the charm.

That’s the old saying, isn’t it?

Right now, I can’t say I agree with that statement.

My second date with Dale had gone so well that I hadn’t wanted the ten minutes to pass us by. I’d spent most of our time together laughing my head off, throwing the questions Dale asked me right back to him, and simply forgetting that we were on a speed dating event, surrounded by a number of strangers.

He’d scored high across the board. Not number ten high, but not as low as a two, either.

Dale had made me feel good for the first time in a long time, and that was what mattered most.

“Sorry, what did you say?” I ask, as my third date’s lips move, but no sound comes out. It takes me a split second to realize he’s asking me a question, but I’d been so entranced by my own mind ramblings, that I’d tuned out.

“I asked where ye were from originally?” Date number three (also known as Harry to most) repeats.

“Oh, Oxfordshire!”

The drink that Mr Fit Bartender had fixed for me -- a lady in red had he called it? – has loosened my tongue ever so slightly. Even more so, as I polish the last of the drink off, the dregs slide down my throat pleasantly.

Maybe I should get another…

But the thought of going back up to the bar and facing the kind redheaded Viking again… it makes those butterflies currently lying dormant in my stomach, rise back up to the top.

By the end of date three, I’m attempting to suppress a yawn. I’m an early riser by nature, choosing to head to bed rather early in the evening, so I can awake nice and fresh.

Surreptitiously as I can, I pretend to be writing down my scores, whilst actually tapping the touchscreen of my phone to check the time.

Just after eight, it reads.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I twiddle the pads of my fingers against the edge of the wooden table, waiting, waiting, waiting.

Only two dates left.

Twenty minutes.

I can do that no problem. The hardest bit is over and done with by now, and in no time, I’ll be able to recuperate in the privacy of my own room at the B and B.

As if God upstairs heard me, date number four drags even more than all the others.

Matt is a twenty five year old accountant; blonde (with a sort of mullet growing out the back), rather on the short-ish side, and, in my not so humble opinion, a tad boring.

I’m one to talk; after all, I don’t think I have exactly the most interesting life to bring to the table. But at least I don’t go on for ten minutes straight about how much money I make, and why everybody should put money into an investing account the moment they leave school.

Who is he, anyway?

A wannabe Wolf of Wall Street?

Not that I’ve ever seen that movie, of course… Well, at least not under my mother or father’s watch.

I can’t believe I’ve had to give this man the time of day. Let alone allow him to be the fifth man, in my entire twenty three years of existence, to date me.

It’s safe to say I’m not sad to see Matt go, nor did he get very high, or even mediocre, scores across the board.

Propping my elbow onto the table, uncaring about social manners this late into the evening, I rest my chin on my fist as I listen to the microphone squeaking above. “Well--” A shuffling of the line, and the annoying crackling stops. “Sorry about that,” the man chuckles, his swallow audible across the speaker, “as I was saying, I hope ye lasses have all had fun tonight. But I’m afraid to say it’s almost over. So if the last lads of the night could please take their seats, we’ll get on with finishing what has been a braw event, if I do say so myself.”

The first thing I notice is the large hand coming, seemingly out of nowhere, to land on the back of the chair.

Next, I notice his height. He appears to be almost as tall as the Mr Fit Bartender, if not an inch shorter perhaps. His hair is gelled back away from his face, the light brown strands catching the harsh light.

“Do ye mind if I take a seat?” He asks politely, not moving an inch until he hears my answer.

“No, of course not.” Underneath the table, I kick out my foot just enough to reach the bottom left leg of the chair. I push it out enough to make it jump in his hand, the old wooden material it is fashioned out of creating a slight noise with the movement.

“I just wanted to make sure,” he says, as he takes the seat, and sticks out his hand. “I’m William. But all my friends call me Will.”

“May I call you Will?”

“If I find oot yer name, I might just let ye.”

He’s flirting.

“It’s just plain, old Claire.”

“Claire.” William repeats. “Well, Claire, ye’re certainly not old, and I don’t think the dress ye’re wearing is plain, so I’m gonnae have to say ye’re wrong about that.”

“I’m wrong, am I?”

Is this flirting back? Am I doing it right?

Why, out of all the time in the evening, am I choosing to second guess myself now?

“Aye,” William nods, sitting as far back in his seat as he can, making his long legs stretch out, and his knees knock against mine under the table. Probably on purpose.. “Ye are, Claire.”

It’s around eight minutes into our date, that I notice two things I hadn’t before.

First, William’s head of hair is a lot more reddish in colour than I had first anticipated. Yes, it has threads of light brown running through it, but the colour is almost certainly a pure red.

And second, a burning gaze feels like it’s zeroing in on the center of my forehead. William must be able to feel it too, but on the back of his neck, for he keeps turning around at something behind him, and then turning back to me quick sharpish.

It isn’t until Will shifts in his seat once more, uncrossing his left leg to replace it for his right, that I cotton on as to why I can feel somebody’s eyes on me.

The movement of Will’s head has made it possible for me to see straight into the bar again, and straight in the direct view of Mr Fit Bartender. Who, in turn, is staring right back at me.

In the back of my mind, I can hear Will talking, his mouth certainly moving to form words, and his hands coming up in a gesture of sorts. But all I can focus on is the bar, or more importantly, the man behind the bar.

None of the five men all night had made my stomach begin to flutter the way it did as I stare back at him, finding within myself some newfound confidence that I wasn’t sure I even possessed.

I’m sure I’d depleted all my confidence this morning, when I’d stumbled in for a job, and came out with a trial run and a place in a speed dating event, under my arm.

But apparently not.

Although, that could be the drink talking…

The more Mr Fit Bartender stares at me, the hotter I feel. It’s as if teeny, tiny pin pricks of heat are being pierced through my skin, causing my palms to sweat and my heartbeat to become erratic.

“Claire? Are ye even listening to anything I’m saying?”

I stutter out of my daydream, tearing my eyes away from the bar and back to Will. Will, who is so gorgeous it almost physically hurts to look at him.

“Mhm, you were talking about how you traveled to South Africa and then--”

“The America’s, Claire, not South Africa.” Will corrects, raising one eyebrow independently. His tone continues to be level, so I’m unsure whether he is truly unhappy with me for not listening, or if he’s just a smidge miffed. “I traveled across the America’s.”

“Right, yes, the America’s.” Licking my dry lips, I attempt a smile, hoping I don’t look deranged. “I’m sorry, Will. It’s been a long night, you know, and sometimes my mind just runs away with me and--”

“I canna blame ye, Claire.”

“What?” I blurt. Christ, I should have said ‘pardon’. Did he think me ridiculously rude now?

“I said, I canna blame ye.” Will repeats, a small smile forming across his lips. “He’s a handsome lad, don’t get me wrong, but…”

I’m certain one of them has lost the plot entirely now. Most likely me.

What the hell is Will going on about?

“But?”

“But I’d appreciate it if my date of the evening, stopped making eyes at my younger brother behind the bar.”

Chapter Text

“Y—Your brother?” I repeat, scolding hot heat rising to the apples of my cheeks. I feel stupid, so bloody stupid. “That’s your brother behind the bar?”

“Aye.” Will nods. “Our Godfather, Murtaugh, owns this place, so he got Jamie the job.”

Godfather.

Murtaugh.

Owns the place.

Jamie.

I feel as if I’ve forgotten how to breathe.

William’s words float about my brain - bright red and flashing, to grasp all of my attention.

Beneath the table, my toes curl in my shoes in anticipation. My entire body thrumming with adrenaline. I need to get out, get away, out, out, out, and into the beyond, away from—

“Times up!” A grin was apparent in the speaker’s voice. “If ye’s would like to make yer way to the bar area to mingle some more ye can. MacTavish’s Bar is open until two in the morning tonight, so go oot and enjoy yerselves--”

The noise is deafening, as a number of chairs scrape across the wooden floor at the same time. The girls eager to scamper into the women’s toilets and spill how their evenings were going with one another, while the men just need another pint and perhaps a cigarette or two.

“—thank you for taking part in this speed dating event and…” In the back of my mind, I can still hear the gentleman talking over the microphone, but I can’t—can’t—

“It was nice to meet you William,” I hear myself blurt out, shaky fingers wrapping around the smooth, cold texture of my patent leather purse.

“Claire--”

On shaky legs, I somehow manage to stand, which is a feat within itself.

“I have to go.” My smile feels wrong on my face; paper thin and abnormal. “But it was lovely to meet you and--”

“Wait, Claire--” William’s hand shoots out to latch onto my slight wrist, but I skitter past him too quickly. My tongue feels fat and dry in my mouth, my blood too hot, my heartbeat too fast.

I’m certain nobody but William notices as I dodge grinding bodies, pressing my hands flat to the back of the door, and pushing with all of my might.

Clean air, so cold it is crisp, bites into the bare spaces of my flesh, making it pimple up. I breathe in a lungful, holding it and letting it out with a loud, audible whoosh.

I do it a second time and then a third and a forth, before I feel a tad bit better. At least like my heart isn’t galloping in the back of my mouth, but rather in its rightful place in the center of my chest.

I still can’t believe I’ve done it.

Any of it.

I’d gone on a proper date, five of them in fact.

Allowed five strange men to talk to me, flirt with me, learn important pieces of information about me.

It feels strange to me that each of these men now know my birthday, for example; just one of the parts of myself that I’d chosen to share. My birthday is such a personal day, such a personal date, and yet I'd shared it with those five men as easily as I might ask a passing somebody for the time.

A passing somebody…

The bar door beside me bangs against the old brick wall loudly, making me jump out of my skin and lose my train of thought. Somebody, a manicured man and a woman wearing a short, black sparkly dress, has pushed it open, caught up in their own laughter.

I wiggle my way further into one of the alcoves as the snick of a lighter being lit echoes through the near silent street. I watch, feeling very much like an intruder, as the woman presses even closer to the man, gazing up at him with something indescribable written across her facial features. He bends down, cupping his hand around her unlit cigarette to prevent the wind from blowing it out.

The act made my blood thrum hot again.

My fingers dance in the crook of my elbow in want.

How wrong is it that I want to try it? To experience the sharp, bitter nicotine tang hit the back of my throat? To have a beautifully rugged man light the cigarette perched between his lips, pinch it in the soft pads of his thumb and forefinger, and then teasingly hold it before my dry lips?

A gust of unexpected wind blows in my direction, wiping out the cherry of the man’s nearly finished cigarette. Ash travels in every which direction, but he just laughs loudly, one arm wrapped around the fragile shoulders of his girl.

I blame the full body shiver that wracks through me on the wind.

I—I really need to get away from here…

---

William’s POV

Taking a seat at one of the only empty stools available, William folds his hands over the marble bar top and grins rather wickedly. “What’s that face for, brother?”

Jamie chooses not to answer, instead peering over the rim of the beer glass he’s filling, his face devoid of any emotion.

“So ye’re not gonnae answer now? Is that how we’re playing?” William goads. He can feel his left eyelid twitching with the force of keeping back laughter.

“How do ye want me to answer?” Jamie turns away for a split second to hand over the light coloured foamy alcohol, “That’s three pound sixty, mate,” before returning to face his younger brother. “There’s nothing wrong with my face.”

“I beg to differ.”

“Well ye can beg to differ all ye want but--”

“Yer two fingers are tapping away madly.” William states bluntly.

“What?” Jamie looks down to find his middle and ring finger attached to his left hand, are indeed tapping away against the fleshy part of his jean covered thigh rather rapidly. With an audible huff, Jamie tucks his hand into a fist, hiding it behind his back as if that would make any difference.

“Nobody else would ken that’s yer nervous tic, but I’m yer brother, I notice these things…”

Jamie’s tone is sharp but brittle all at the same time. “What’s yer point?”

“No need to have an attitude--”

“Ye sound like Mam.”

“—it’s not my fault that I’d been picked to speed date her.”

It’s almost comical how fast a dark shadow grows over Jamie’s features. The side of his jaw ticks, while his prominent brow bone furrows.

“I don’t have an issue with that.”

“Really? Because yer face says different and--”

“Could I have a dirty martini please?” A girlish voice rings out, stopping the brother’s conversation from going any further for a moment.

“Aye, sure.” Tearing his gaze away from their locked stare, Jamie pulls a clean martini glass out from under the bar, and turns in search of the gin. “It’ll be seven forty.”

While his back is turned, Jamie may be missing the flirty glances the girl is giving him; tossing her dirty blonde locks over one shoulder and then the other, as if she can’t decide which side would look best for Jamie’s viewing pleasure. But William certainly doesn’t miss her confident body signals. She’s a girl who knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid to show it.

William watches, amused, as she purposefully hands over her ten pound note, taking extra precaution to make sure her hand tangles with Jamie’s. She repeats the same routine as Jamie hands over her change in coins. Then, picking up her martini glass with what could only be described as a sultry smirk about her lips, the blonde plucks the cocktail stick with an olive skewered on the top, and wraps her lips around the oval shaped fruit.

It’s a painful few seconds as she chews, filler-enhanced lips smacking together, and then swallows with a faked moan.

“Thanks very much,” she says, smiling, but without any warmth in it, and then disappears through the growing throng of people. William has the distinct impression that if he hadn’t been sitting there, she would have stayed for much longer.

“She come here often?” William asks; glancing over his shoulder to make sure the lass has actually disappeared, and wasn’t just making the rounds.

“Aye.” Jamie stays silent for a beat, pressing his lips together until the flesh turns white. “What were ye saying, anyway?”

“Och,” William begins again, without missing a single beat, “about ye being jealous.”

Jamie places his hands on either side of William’s folded ones, leaning all of his weight into his wrists, and bringing his face closer to his brother’s, so that he could grit out, “I’m not jealous.”

“Okay, ye’re not jealous,” William repeats, rather enjoying himself. He’s had a pleasant evening all around; getting to sit with five beautifully dressed women, most of whom had been intriguing enough to catch his attention span. The other two, (dates number three and four) hadn’t been Will’s favourites, but that had just given him extra time to watch his brother watch the Englishwoman.

“Where’d she go tae, anyways?”

His younger brother is quite obviously trying to go for a nonchalant approach, removing any tone from his voice so that he doesn’t sound at all interested.

If it hadn’t been for the fact that the Sassenach and he had been partnered up, William knows his blood brother would have most likely been reacting differently.

With an apparent grin on his face, Jamie would have been telling his younger brother about the bonny Sassenach he’d served, how a woman like her didn’t deserve to be speed dating a bunch of strangers she’d never met before.

As if following an imaginary script, which they’d followed a number of times since they’d both discovered the wonders of a woman, William would agree with his brother, listening as Jamie announced (with a cocky glint in his blue eyes) that she should be dating somebody more like him.

Somebody who could appreciate her mind, as well as the thick shape of her arse and thighs that had been highlighted by the satin material of the red dress she’d worn…

Not that William had been looking… much. Perhaps he would have looked a bit harder if he hadn’t been so sure that his younger brother’s eyes were bugging outside of their sockets, and glaring into the bare back of his neck.

For a split second, William wonders if he dares ask Jamie, if, while Claire had been sitting at the bar, had Jamie taken notice of the curve of her tits hidden beneath the neckline of her dress?

Not wanting a split lip, or a sore jawline in the morning, William decides to keep quiet for once.

“How come ye want to ken where she’s gone but not her name? Hm?”

Over the top of the bar, William watches as Jamie wars with himself. He knows which side of his brother’s head had won, when Jamie shakes his head an infinitesimal amount, and presses the tip of his tongue to the inside of his cheek.

“What’s her name, then, Willie?”

Victory.

“Claire.” He makes sure to pronounce her bonny name, tongue coming up to hit the back of his upper front teeth, as he rolls the ‘L’ and drops the ‘R’.

“Did ye get her--”

“Did I get her number?” William fills in the blank, already pursing his lips together. “No brother, a skittish wee thing she was, leaving before I could even ask her for ye.”

Crooking a singular eyebrow, Jamie says nothing for a minute, choosing not to rise to his younger brother’s bait.

“I guess we’ll leave it in the fickle hands of fate, brother,” says Jamie, shrugging one shoulder, before moving his attention to another waiting customer.

Chapter Text

As I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror on Saturday morning, I’m met with two large, almost purplish in colour, eye bags sitting prominently beneath my thin skin.

Not really all that surprising, since I haven’t slept very well at all.

After practically running past the B and B’s reception desk, in case Mrs Baird happened to be manning it for the evening (I just knew she’d want any ‘wee’ detail she could get her hands on), I’d barricaded myself in my room, stripped off my cocktail dress and stepped gingerly onto the shower tray.

I turned the heat up up up, needing the water to wash away any traces of the night; the stares of strange people, the sticky aroma of the bar and the sheer embarrassment of what I’d done.

When my legs felt as heavy as my water laden hair, I slid down the glass, tucking my knobbly knees into my chest as my arse touched the bobbly, slip resistant material of the plastic tray. I curled in on myself, closing my eyes to block out the world.

I still couldn’t believe I’d done it; allow five men, strangers really, to sit and talk with me in hopes of getting another date.

Not a first date.

Another one.

I’d just speed dated five men, and to make it worse, I’d been caught by the last one making eyes at his brother.

I mean, yes, his own brother had been making eyes back at me. Inexperienced I might be, stupid, I was not. I knew Mr Fit Bartender’s eyes… no, wait, Jamie, William had called him.

I knew Jamie’s eyes had been on me, but… but I’d been doing it while on a date with his brother, his flesh and blood.

Red hot embarrassment ran through me again, as if it were a spiked monster. It’s spikes pierced every inch of my skin, my pores. From the top of my scalp, to the soles of my feet, hard and calloused with all the walking I’d been doing recently.

Or perhaps it was just the pressure from the now almost scalding hot water, raining down from the holes in the shower head above.

Afterwards, once dressed in a pair of well worn pajamas, I force myself to lay in bed normally, rather than pull the duvet up over my head and hide. An hour or so of television does nothing to help the mental image playing over and over again in my head on repeat, each time somehow worse than the last.

In the end, I slouch down the bed, and burrow the side of my head against the downy pillow, closing my eyes not because I am tired, but just in hopes of forgetting for just a second or two.

It’s not working.

I lay awake for another hour or so before the dark welcome of sleep claims me. An hour in which I can see the deep stare of William against one side of my face, and the deep, almost matching stare, of his brother on the other side of my profile.

I fall asleep with a twitch in my legs, remembering just how fast I’d propelled my way forward, across the bar floor, without allowing any time for anybody to follow me.

I should have known it wouldn’t be a peaceful slumber; instead I’ve woken up at random hours of the night, not knowing where the hell I am and with the angry screams of my mother ringing in my ears, as if she knew what I’d been up to last night.

My hands come up to curl around the cold, porcelain edges of the skin, as I take in a large inhale, hold it and then allow it to leave my lungs with an audible whoosh.

“Pull yourself together, Beauchamp,” I whisper quietly to myself, although the tiled walls in the bathroom make my voice echo all around. Ignoring the lackluster appearance of my skin, I continue to stare down at myself. “You’re alone, you’re safe, you’re free and you never have to see her again.”

The words still feel peculiar coming out of my mouth, even more so when I can see my lips forming the letters.

I’m about to force myself to repeat my newfound mantra again, when the shrill telephone begins to squeal.

As soon as I pick it up, I wish I hadn’t.

What happens if it’s somebody from the bar? If perhaps they’ve seen which way the taxi had taken me, gotten my room number from Mrs Baird, and…

What happens if it’s William from the bar?

What happens if—

“Good morning to ye, Claire, lassie.” Mrs Baird’s dulcet tones pour through the other end of the line. “I hope I haven’t woken ye up.”

“N—no,” I fumble out, the logical side of my brain only just catching up with what’s happening. I’ve stupidly fallen for the paranoia and anxiety that usually disturbed my mother. Of course nobody from the bar is going to find out where I am staying. I’m being silly enough to think anybody would even care that much.

“Lass?” Mrs Baird asks.

“Yes, I’m here! No you didn’t wake me up, Mrs Baird.”

“Well I was just ringing up to see if ye’d like any breakfast making? I managed to buy some of those large wild mushrooms from the market yesterday; ye ken the ones ye had on sourdough bread, yer first morning here? I was wondering if ye’d like--”

“Yes please, Mrs Baird.” I say, my throat thick. It’s been a while since anybody has cared enough about me to remember any little detail. Uncle Lamb had been the last, and he’d departed this world almost a decade ago now. “That would be lovely.”

“Good.” I can hear the swish of her fabric apron, most likely being tied around her plump waist, and then the dull thud of something wooden sounding being placed down. “If ye come down in about fifteen minutes, lass, it’ll all be ready for ye.”

With a heartfelt thank you on my tongue, I hang up, before scurrying around my room for something to wear for the day. I feel somewhat better for having something to focus on, no matter how tiny, and no matter that it will only take up half an hour of my seemingly long day.

The red evening dress, still lying in a crumpled mess on the carpeted floor, threatens to make my mind spin again. But rather than give in to it, I simply pick up the fabric between two fingers and throw it into the back of the old fashioned wardrobe. I’ll leave that to sort out once I have some semblance of sustenance in my system.

I can hear the faint sizzling of the frying pan as I cautiously pick my way down the stairs, the palm of my hand sliding along the wooden bannister with a steady sound.

The scent of wild mushrooms, and bacon too, permeates the air as I pass by the closed kitchen door, and walk into the dining room parlor. I nod a silent greeting to the elderly gentleman who sits at a table alone, peering up from his large black and white newspaper as I pass. I’ve seen him around twice in the past five days I’ve been staying at the bed and breakfast. Him, and the young mother with a toddler, but she didn’t nor her child appear to be around this morning.

Not a second later does Mrs Baird come bustling in; a tantalizing bacon sandwich with lashings of tomato sauce on one plate, and my breakfast choice on the other.

“Here ye go, my lassie,” says the hostess, procuring a clean set of cutlery, wrapped in a starch white napkin, from a pocket in her apron. “Eat up and I’ll make ye something to drink. Will tea be alright?”

“Perfect,” I answer, swallowing back the build up of saliva in my mouth, as I stare down at my plate in front of me; two thick cut, buttery slices of toast with mushrooms on top and a small tomato salad with balsamic dressing glazed over, peered back. “I can’t thank you enough, Mrs Baird.”

“Hush lass,” she pats my shoulder gently, smiling in that soft way of hers so that her round cheeks smush up into her eyes, causing a crinkle. “I’ll not be a moment.”

I’ve wolfed down over a quarter of my food by the time she comes back with a mug of tea, wisps of steam dancing from the pool of liquid.

“So,” Mrs Baird takes the empty seat opposite me, steepling her hands together. “How did last night go? Meet anybody ye thought worthwhile?”

A glimpse of red hair, and a tight fitting shirt flashes through my mind.

I push it away by taking a sip of my hot tea, and burning the tip of my tongue.

“It was nice to get out,” I tell her truthfully, picking up my knife and fork again and spearing a cherry tomato onto the prongs of my utensil. “But rather scary for my liking… I’m not sure I’d volunteer to do it again.”

The well worn smile lines bracketing Mrs Baird’s mouth appear as she smiles softly. “But ye did it, and that’s the main thing, Claire.”

“I know but--”

“No buts.” She argues, still grinning. “Ye did it, and looked as bonny as ever while doing it. I bet the laddies were falling aboot themselves to get to ye.”

“I’m not sure about that.” I can feel a blush rising up past my neck, probably in blotchy patches, and then settling across the center of my face.

Mrs Baird scoffs. “Tcha! Ye need to have more confidence in yerself, lass. Any laddie would be lucky to have ye, and until ye believe it, I’ll just have to keep telling ye.”

A compliment? By somebody who actually means it?

It’s been years since that last happened to me…

And confidence?

That’s something I’d never had.

“How are ye planning on spending yer Saturday, then lass? Ye start that new job on Monday, aye? Ye gonnae go and maybe buy something new to wear for it?”

Actually, that doesn’t sound half bad…

“I might.” I squish my lips together to the side in thought. “But I really should be saving my money and--”

“A wee treat canny hurt--” Mrs Baird turns to the elderly gentleman as he dusts up his crumb laden hands, folds up his daily newspaper and turns to leave. “—thank ye, Robbie. I’ll ring up later to ask aboot dinner. Anyway, what was I saying, lass? Och, aye. Gan oot and treat yerself.”

I guess it couldn’t hurt to get out for a bit. Maybe Mrs Baird is right; a little retail shopping would do my soul good. It would be something I was used to, familiar with. Something to brighten up my weekend before I head back into the unknown of the bar on Monday.

The bar…

McTavish’s bar.

Bollocks.

Feeling the back of my neck prickle, I push away my now empty plate and rise to my feet quickly. I need to get away for just a moment, or forever perhaps.

How on earth am I going to start work at the same place, the same bar, Jamie works at? The same bar where I’ve basically drooled in front of him?

“Thank you for breakfast, Mrs Baird,” I call, legs already carrying me away. “I think I’m going to—to go get some fresh air. I’ll—I’ll… goodbye!”

I’m out on the streets of Edinburgh before I know it; passing an old ruby red postbox, and an out of use phone booth, which has both of it’s windows smashed and smells strongly of fresh urine.

Turning a sharp corner, I take a perch on the first seat I find - a rickety old bench, with half the slates missing, and the other half growing a strange kind of green fungus.

My phone and purse sit clutched in my sweaty hand. They, and the clothes on my back, are all I had left of my identity; new or old.

And there, within itself, is the issue.

I’m back to acting like the old me - scared, insecure, unconfident, paranoid. I’d sat on the lumpy cushion of the second class train carriage, and promised myself I wouldn’t act this way. I’d sat on the leather of the hairdresser’s chair, and promised myself I wouldn’t act this way. I’d lay in my new bed, clean, and freshly laundered sheets, with a new town all around me, and promised myself I wouldn’t act this way.

There isn’t a soul around, but I straighten my spine, purposefully sitting up taller.

The new me in my head doesn’t slouch; she isn’t unconfident or unsure about herself. No, she holds her head high. Because nobody here, in this sleepy, and rather spooky town of Edinburgh, knows anything about her.

I need this job, more than anybody can imagine.

Years of living under my parent’s thumbs hasn’t prepared me for much. I know how money works, and I know how to save it, hence the tiny amount of cash currently sitting in my bank account. But it’s a little bit meaningless when I was gifted an allowance each month by my father, and a rather hefty one at that. I’d frivously been allowed to spend the pounds on whatever I fancied; new clothes, new shoes, a holiday (as long as it was supervised by my mother or somebody she trusted), a spa weekend… the list had been endless.

After I’d slammed the front door of our family estate shut, for the final time, dragging my meager belongings behind me, I knew the money in my bank account that rightfully belonged to my father would be long gone. I’d be cut off, and most likely right away before my little legs could even reach the city train station.

I hadn’t plucked up the courage to look until I’d reached the train station ticket stand. A speedy tap on my phone, pulling up my online banking account, showed I was correct. Every last penny that hadn’t been my own, had been drawn out.

While standing in the middle of a bustling place, full of strangers walking to and fro, I’d been left with just over £300. My train ticket out of Oxfordshire cost me a pretty penny, and although Mrs Baird’s bed and breakfast was reasonable, it wasn’t cheap either.

As of today, I have less than a hundred English pounds to my name.

If I can pass the trial run at the bar, and start working there properly, I’ll at least have something in my life that is helping me to bring in money to live off.

Nowhere else had offered me even a trial run… McTavish’s bar is my only hope, and even though my brain is fighting me every step of the way, I know I’ll need to suck up my embarrassment and go back.

Other than running away again, it’s my only option, and I’m certainly very tired of running.

---

A familiar pop song, with a very catchy chorus, plays overhead as my hands glide through the many fabrics hanging on the metal rail.

By the time I’ve walked to the nearest clothing store, my heart had calmed down, until I’m no longer aware how fast it had been beating in the first place. It’s helped that the clothing store feels familiar – from everything down to the layout, to the items in stock and even the young girls working behind the counter.

My feet carry me around and around the shop floor, caressing any soft fabric I can find, while humming along with the music to myself.

I’m just about to leave the store, when I spot a back left hand side of the shop that I hadn’t even bothered to look through. I hadn’t bothered to look out of sheer muscle memory. My mother had conditioned me to look past it, ignore, ignore, ignore.

But she isn’t here now, isn’t here to lead me away, or scoff, or shove another patterned (‘ladylike’) dress in my face in a way of distracting me from the tight denim hanging up.

“Is there anything I can help ye with?”

I swivel my head to find one of the clothing assistants standing beside me, looking expectant. I’m not usually one to ask the staff for help, that was my mother’s role, but knowing I’m out of my depth here, I decide to take a plunge.

“Yes, actually. I was wondering if you could help me find the perfect pair of jeans?”

The young woman smiles largely, nodding. “Of course I can. Do ye have a certain style or colour of denim that ye’re looking for?”

---

My God.

My mother (I really had to stop referring to her as that), Julia, detested using profanity, but holy shit.

Turning my back to the mirror, I crane my neck for the thousandth time, skating my hands over the rough material that molds to my hips and arse.

My very shapely arse.

I never knew my body could look the way it did currently; all curved hips and long legs.

I need these jeans.

They need to come home with me.

“Any of them any good?” The shop assistant asks, as I unlock the fitting room door, three different pairs of denim jeans in my hands. With no clue of my size, or what style I’d like (who knew there were so many; high waisted, low rise, skinny, mom style), I’d taken three different sizes into the dressing room with me, and come out having found the pair.

“Yes, the second pair,” I say, holding onto said hanger for dear life. Something inside of me tells me these jeans are meant to come home with me… but I can’t really afford to be spending flippantly. “But do you happen to know the price? I’m on a little bit of a budget so…”

“The high waisted Joni pair retails for £40, with ten percent off if ye sign up to our email service.”

I really shouldn’t.

They aren’t life or death.

Surely, I can live without them.

“I’ll take them.”

Willpower… I’ve never had much of her.

Chapter Text

One foot in front of the other, Beauchamp.

I’ve repeated the mantra to myself from the moment I’ve stepped over the threshold of the bed and breakfast and onto the street beyond, just after Monday lunchtime.

The morning hasn’t been too bad. I’ve always had a special knack for being able to block out the big picture, instead focusing on the smaller tasks. It’s probably a trauma response, now I come to think of it, but it works to stop myself from becoming overwhelmed.

After a small amount of breakfast and tea to line my stomach, I shower, apply a small amount of makeup to my face, clip back the front sections of my newly shorn hair and then shimmy my arse into my new favourite item of clothing; my denim jeans.

Pairing it with a versatile white blouse (probably the only sensible thing I’d thought to bring along with me), I admire myself in the mirror again, hands flaring out as I trace the edges of my newfound, soft curves.

Not too bad for somebody who is scared out of their wits, and faking every inch of her confidence.

Not too shabby at all.

But now, with every resounding thud of my brogue covered sole hitting the uneven pavement, my stomach jolts. The reality of what I’m doing, what I’m about to do, is beginning to set in.

The palms of my hands prickle, tiny pin pricks of sweat surging to the surface, but I’m unsure whether it’s nerves, or excitement. My mind is much too full to even think about trying to dissect that train of thought.

Up ahead, I can see the door of McTavish’s bar swing open. A lone gentleman steps out, bundling himself up in his coat to ward off the chill in the air, before walking right past me without a second glance.

Unlike the last time I was here, I’m not prepared to dawdle on the steps, arguing with myself about whether to open the door or not. Nor do I want to hang around people watching, allowing my brain to talk me out of showing up.

My need for this job, for the money and stability it will bring with it, will have to overtake all worries plaguing me.

With my head held as high as I can possibly get it without looking deranged, I jog up the well worn steps and push open the door. I blink harshly twice, forcing my eyes to get used to the light, much darker compared to the natural, watery sunlight outside.

I’m not sure what I’m expecting, however the bar is busier than I'd anticipated for a Monday afternoon. It isn’t as packed with pulsing bodies, as it had been on Friday night. But still, a decent amount of people, both families and couples alike, sit at the tables enjoying themselves while getting a bite to eat and a drink or two. I smile at one of the women sitting down, nursing a glass of something fizzy, as she catches my wandering eye.

Another flicker of my eyes towards the center spot of the bar, and something red flashes.

Well, not exactly something, but rather somebody.

Just my luck he’s working on my first day.

I’m acutely aware of him watching me as I gravitate towards him without any rhyme or reason. His blue eyes bore into mine, strong, steady and, in my opinion, rather unreadable. I know the reason for the stare. I’d picked up some of the psychology articles that had littered my father’s desk, in his study. Usually while I’d been waiting for him to speak to me, or even acknowledge that I was in the room.

A continuous human stare is used to assert dominance.

I look away first, but only for a split second. Not that it matters. That second is enough for Jamie’s subconscious to have the upper hand.

Today he’s wearing a hunter green colour, the style of the t-shirt just as tight fitting around his chest, and biceps, as it had been on Friday evening. I notice it brings out the blue in his eyes more, and sets off the dark auburn tones of his hair.

I might notice more about his appearance (made a fool out of myself by staring further, more like), but Jamie opens his mouth and speaks, distracting me.

“What are ye doing here again, Sassenach?” His brow furrows, the skin of his eyelids becoming hooded over. “If ye’re looking for Will, I’m afraid I have to tell ye he doesn’t work here, so just--”

“I’m here for my job.”

Jamie stares again.

A ghastly habit, as my mother would typically say.

“Y--Yer job?” He repeats my words, tone taking on an unsure edge.

I’m not very good at reading people. I’m unused to it, you see, never really needing the skill. But it strikes me then and there, that perhaps Jamie isn’t so keen on being kept out of the loop and in the dark.

“Mhm,” I hum, taking a little bit of comfort in knowing more than him, but trying not to let it show on my face. “Murtaugh offered me a trial run for a job on Friday.”

“My Godfather, Murtaugh?”

I shrug one shoulder, morphing my facial features into a ‘guess so’ expression. “Must be. I’m guessing there’s only one of him, since I’ve never heard the name before.”

“Aye…” Is it me, or does Mr Fit Bartender, Jamie, appear strangely distracted? “Friday, ye say? Like this Friday just gone? Speed dating Friday?”

Patience isn’t, nor has it ever been, a skill I possess, and now I’m getting a tad bit sick of repeating myself.

“Yes, speed dating Friday. I came by in the morning, enquired about a job, and your godfather told me to come by today, at one, for a trial run. I-I’m guessing he didn’t tell you?”

Jamie shakes his head, biting down on his plush bottom lip. Not that I’ve been looking at his lips enough to imagine how soft they’ll be…

“Nah,” he answers. “I haven’t been told a dickie bird, lass.”

He starts to turn on his heel, before remembering himself. “If ye just wait there, lass, I-I’ll… um… go get him for ye. No’ be two seconds.”

True to his word, I only stand waiting for a second or two, until Jamie reappears, waving me through the small cut out that serves as a gap to walk behind the bar.

“He’s in the back office,” Jamie explains; walking a touch ahead of me, before pushing open a plain mahogany coloured door. Murtaugh is seated behind the large oak desk that takes up the majority of the small room’s space, his arms crossed over his body, waiting.

“Good to see ye, lass,” is the first thing out of his mouth. “I wasn’t entirely certain that ye’d even show yer face again.”

“I told you I needed the money, didn’t I?” I say, trying to keep the bite out of my tone. I must not be doing a very good job of hiding it though, because Murtaugh’s left eyebrow rises up, causing extra lines to appear across his forehead.

“That ye did, lass.” He leans further across the desk, shuffling a pile of papers. “Jamie, lad, if ye could close the door, so me and Claire can have some privacy, please?”

I peek over my shoulder to find Jamie still standing there, one large hand gripping the gold door handle.

“Aye,” says Jamie, glancing over at me, and then back at his godfather, his face blank. “Ye ken where I am if ye should need me.”

Murtaugh nods his agreement; waiting until the door is firmly closed with a click, before turning all of his attention back on me.

“Lass, take a seat,” he offers, gesturing to the only chair positioned in front of the desk. I sit gingerly, feeling the ricketiness of the chair rock underneath my weight.

“So, ye’ve turned up today, which is the first good thing.” Murtaugh runs his fingers down the paper in front of him. “The next thing to do would be to fill oot yer contract; that way everything is spick and span for the government. So did ye have in mind how many hours ye’re looking at, Claire?”

All in all, it takes about twenty minutes for Murtaugh and I to fill out the contractual paperwork. I walk out of the back office, with a contract for a sixteen-hour working week – enough to dip my toe into the working pool, and begin the process of saving up money -- and a grin on my face.

Never mind that Murtaugh had looked at me funny when he asked my place of residence and I’d told him Mrs Baird’s B and B.

Obviously, he still thought enough of me to offer me the job.

With my excitement barely containable, I step up to the edge of the bar beside Jamie. He finishes serving up a customer, and then turns to me. “Everything go alright, Sassenach?”

“Mhm.” I ignore his use of nickname. “Your godfather says I can start today, if you’re willing to train me up.”

“Me?”

I’m close enough to him to be able to see the lighter ring of blue that lines the outer edge of his iris, and the soft wave of hair curling around his ears. My heart pounds against my ribcage, making itself known. Now that I’ve gotten the job interview part over, and stopped having something to focus on doing, my mind is beginning to work overtime again.

The very attractive man that I’m standing next to, that I’ve just asked to train me up, that I’ll be working with, doesn’t exactly help matters.

I feel like a stuttering mess around him.

“Y-Yes. Murtaugh says just to start with the simple things for now, so things like pulling pints and taking food orders and--”

Jamie bobs his head. “Alright, aye, we can do that. Pass me a pint glass and we can get started… um…”

“Claire.” I fill in. "Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp.”

“Well, Claire Beauchamp,” he repeats, taking my name in his mouth and claiming it for his own. “I’m James Fraser, but everybody calls me Jamie.”

“James Fraser… not McTavish?”

“Nope,” he says, offering up no other information. “Now pass me a clean pint glass from under there,” he points to the three shelves hidden beneath the marble bar, “ye see?”

I pick one at random, unsure if I’m correct or not. The only glasses I can confidently identify are whisky glasses for my father, and deep wine glasses for my mother. “This one?” I ask, holding it up.

“Nah, that one’s for putting pop in; coca cola, lemonade, iron bru… ye ken?”

Now I feel like even more of a fool.

God, who doesn’t know their pint glasses from their fizzy pop glasses?

Me apparently.

I dare to peer up at Jamie, still clutching the wrong glass in my dominant hand. I’m afraid that if I put it back down, I’ll either drop it, or even worse, there’ll be sweaty finger imprints all over it.

I’m not sure what I expect, but Jamie’s kindly expression staring back at me isn’t exactly it.

“Try the one beside it.” He suggests, subtly tilting his head to another stocked shelf full of tall, clear glasses.

Gently as possible, I put the delicate item back down, using the shape of my body to block it out of Jamie’s sight (just in case I have left imprints), and pick up the one he’s advised.

“That’s the one,” Jamie smiles, not massively, but just the corners of his mouth lifting, and my God… I feel an ache settle just under my breastbone, buried somewhere in my ribcage. I want so badly for him to do it again. “Now pass it up here and I’ll show ye what to do with it.”

---

“Okay, so I have one sausage with buttery mashed potatoes?” I glance down at one of the plates clutched in my hand, knuckles bone white. “And I have another sausage dinner, but this one with chips?”

“Mine’s the one with the mash,” the woman sitting at the table replies, pushing away her glass of water to make room for her plate of steaming hot food.

I place it in front of her, silently breathing a sigh of relief when the full plate makes it to the table without any spillages.

“Could we have some gravy as well, please?” Her husband asks, unrolling his cutlery from the clean, paper napkin square.

“Yes, not a moment,” I smile, feeling my cheeks round out into a well practiced fake smile. It used to be my polite, rich girl daughter smile, used when I was getting a pedicure, or waiting for the personal shopper to finish zipping me up in my expensive and personally tailored dress. But now I’m deciding to give it a new name -- my customer service smile. “I’m new you see,” I feel the need to explain, “so I’m only just learning how to carry everything across without dropping anything.”

“No bother, lassie,” says the wife, her eyes twinkling as she smiles. “There’s nothing wrong with learning a new skill or two. To better yerself and all.”

My smile widens, less fake and more genuine now.

“Thank you.” A breathy laugh escapes me. “I’ll be back in a moment with your gravy. Is there anything else I can get you both while I’m out back?”

“Nah, just the gravy will be braw.”

I nod. “Okay, won’t be a minute.”

Returning back to my new rightful place behind the bar, I find Jamie to be smiling at me… again.

“What?” I ask, hands coming to rest on my hips.

My anxiety is still ricocheting up and down my central nervous system, making my synapses snap and flash. But only if I stop long enough to think about it.

“Ye’re a natural is all,” says Jamie, eyes bouncing from where my hands have come to rest on my waistline, and then back up to my face.

For the second time today, I audibly flounder, unable to keep my awkwardness inside. The words I want to say, the ones portraying me as confident and sure of myself, get stuck halfway out of my mouth.

I certainly didn’t expect him to say that.

A compliment.

From practically a stranger.

I’m not sure I’ve actually had one of those.

Growing up, it wasn’t until I was about fourteen that I realized the ‘compliments’ that my family and friends gave to me, weren’t actually compliments at all; but rather small digs or sarcastic comments said only to provoke a response.

As it is the way of most upper class families - jealous of one another or at least bored enough (with both themselves and their lives) to think belittling somebody else is an idea of fun.

Well… at least the families I knew of.

The other places I’d frequented; salons, department stores, holiday resorts… of course I’d had the workers say nice things to me. Things like how well suited a certain dress, or how golden my complexion had become while sitting under the Caribbean sun…

But I’m also certain now that they weren’t the truth.

Their words had been meaningless, spoken not from the heart, but from the ego – an unspoken fear within them that I’d complain. Perhaps even they’d be fired if they didn’t treat me with the utmost respect, pamper me until I was nothing but swaddled up in fine layers of silk so that the harsh realities of the real world couldn’t touch me.

But Jamie doesn’t stand to lose anything by choosing to compliment me or not. He knows me not from Adam, and as it’s his Godfather’s bar, I think him quite safe from potentially being fired for any reason.

So perhaps he is being truthful, maybe he really does mean that he thinks I’m a natural.

I don’t want it too, but my heart does a little squeak and an unsteady thump at the thought.

“T-Thank you,” I respond, hoping I sound genuine. “I’ve never done bar work, so I’m glad you think so…”

Jamie cocks a hip, leaning further into the edge of the marble bar top. I can’t imagine it’s very comfortable. “Never?”

I shake my head, keeping silent.

“So why are ye taking a job here, at McTavish’s, if ye’ve never done bar work before? Do ye just want a change or…”

The fact that I’d told him on Friday night that I’d wanted to escape hangs heavy in the air; unspoken, untouched, but I don’t think forgotten.

But I’ve told James Fraser one truth, so what’s another one?

“I need the money.”

“Ah.” His chin tips up in a small nod, an understanding of sorts.

I can’t tell from his face how he actually feels; true understanding, or pity? But I’ve vowed to myself not to be bothered by what others think anymore, so why should the tall, red headed Viking in front of me be any different?

My lower lash line twitches as silence descends over us, and I fight to stop my body from fidgeting as it usually does when I’m anxious.

I’m not sure if Jamie is grasping for words the way I feel I am, but he speaks again nonetheless.

“Okay, so I think ye’ve got how to fill the beer taps, take orders and serve food, down pat. So why don’t I show ye how to make a few of the cocktails? They’re quite popular on the menu, so ye’ll most likely be asked to make one or two. I’ll set ye off showing ye some of the easier ones for ye to practice on, aye?”

“W--” My voice cracks rather embarrassingly, but I clear my throat and try again. “What happens if somebody comes in and asks for a cocktail that I don’t know to make?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Jamie assures me, procuring an empty glass from somewhere. “But if it does happen, ye can either give it yer best shot, or ye’ll be able to ask one of the other bartenders to help ye. Murtaugh never leaves any of the staff, except me, by themselves behind the bar. So ye’ll always have somebody, lass.”

I’ll always have somebody.

God, I wish.

“Right, okay, right right, okay,” I mumble mainly to myself. “What do you suggest we start with?”

Jamie twiddles the delicate stem of the glass around in his fingers. The movement is rather entrancing. “How about a pretty pink cosmopolitan?”

“A cosmo?” I ask, self consciously licking my lips. At least I’ve heard of the name, but I’m unsure where from. Maybe one of my so called ‘friends’ back in Oxfordshire had ordered one once upon a time? “Yes, okay, I’m happy to start with one of those.”

“Glad to hear it, Sassenach. Okay, so for a cosmo ye’re gonnae need…”

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry!” I exclaim again.

I’ve honestly forgotten how many times the phrase has slipped past my lips. But that’s what happens when you’ve managed to drop three separate glasses, and proceeded to watch them fall off the ledge, hit the hard, wooden, sticky floor and shatter into a thousand tiny pieces.

A thousand tiny, almost impossible to see pieces, which Jamie had quickly swept away with the assistance of a dustpan and brush hiding beneath one of the many shelves.

“It’s no’ a bother, Claire lass.” My heart does a stupid pitter patter at the sound of my name upon his tongue. “Ye’re still learning, remember?”

My fingers flutter around the over-the-half-way full bottle of expensive vodka, a small metal spout protruding out of the top to make pouring certain measures easier. “But--”

“Ye need to be less hard on yerself.”

That’s the understatement of the century, Mr Fraser.

“Everybody drops things,” Jamie continues. “Especially when they’re learning.” I watch the flexing of the back of his hands as he glides the sweeping brush across the floor, collecting debris. I cut my eyes away sharply when his come to glance up at me… Hopefully I haven’t been caught staring.

“In fact, lass, I still drop the occasional thing, and Angus?” Jamie scoffs over the sound of the glass shard hitting the bin. “Angus’ is the worst. He’s got fingers as slippery as butter.”

“Right.” I nod jerkily, wondering who the hell Angus is, and committing his name to my memory. He sounds like one of the other bartending staff that I might be working alongside. “D--Do you want me to pay? I mean, I’ve dropped three perfectly good glasses and--”

“Ye don’t need to pay for these practice ones.” Straightening his knees, Jamie rises back up to his full height. I’m not a small woman by any means, standing at around five nine, but he still towers over me. Strangely, I feel protected by that, rather than intimidated, as I had imagined. “But we charge a fiver for each glass ye break while working a proper shift.”

“A fiver?” I repeat. “Like five pounds? You’ll take five pounds out of my pay every time…” I can hear the pitch of my voice becoming higher, as I mentally try to calculate how much Murtaugh might deduct from my wage. I need every penny I can get, and yet… I’m a clumsy bugger…

A large, warm hand comes down to cup my shoulder.

I peer at the hand, my eyes widening of their own accord as my mind comes to the realization that it belongs to Jamie. His hand. The one attached to his arm. His very very attractive arm, with noticeable veins bulging against the skin surface and…

As if sensing my… fear?

Is this fear I feel?

Or something else entirely?

I’ve a funny feeling it’s something else entirely. Something that sets my body on fire.

Well, whatever it is, it must have been emanating out of my pores, because Jamie rips his hand away as if burnt. As if instead of his flesh meeting the material of my cotton blouse, he’s touched my bare skin and finds it ridiculously, scorching hot.

“I’m just joking, lass.”

“What?”

“I’m just joking about having to pay a fiver for anything ye break.” The tip of Jamie’s tongue pokes out from between his lips, wetting just the inner section, and leaving behind a natural gloss that I find my eyes unmistakably drawn too.

“You’re joking?” I say his words back to him, meeting his steel blue gaze.

“Aye, I’m sorry.” The coins that must be residing in his pockets jingle, as he shoves his hands into the slots. The movement makes his broad shoulders hunch over… I don’t think the posture suits him. “It’s a stupid joke. Ye said ye need the money, and I didn’t mean to scare ye, Claire.”

“I—I--”

“Forgive me, lass?”

Words, caused by the sheer panic (which is now beginning to dissipate now that my mind is functioning again and not just imaging flashing numbers), sticks in my throat, but at least my brain knows what to say.

“Forgiven. But don’t you dare do that again, Jamie Fraser.”

A breathy chuckle, and an ‘I won’t, lass’ pops past his lips, causing the tail end of my ponytail to stir. I hadn’t been aware of just how close we were standing, and make to take a step back.

“Don’t go too far.” I could swear his arm moves, from where it’s been pressing against the side of his own torso. As if he wants to reach out and grab something, but then thinks better of it, and decides to just keep his hands safely in his pockets. “I still need to teach ye how to make a strawberry daiquiri before ye go home for the day.”

I stand there, feeling rather like a lemon, as Jamie sets about bustling around me, grabbing a bottle of something dark, and another, taller, glass.

Like me, he seems to work better when he has a goal in mind to complete.

“Okay,” says Jamie, laying out all of the ingredients, and what I’m soon beginning to recognize as a cocktail shaker. “Come stand here, Claire, lass.”

I follow his instructions, pressing myself against the lip of the bar until my hip bones meet the hard marble material… and then something comes up behind me.

Similar to before, my mind has only a few seconds to process what is happening, before the sensation is taken away, and I’m left confused.

Jamie.

I’m sure he’d come up behind me, that his broad chest had grazed over top of my back, making the fine hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

I turn my head to the left, searching for him, only to find him passing a light amber coloured pint to a burly customer, in exchange for a gold coloured ten pound note.

“Thanks, mate, that’s braw.” I hear him say, over the sound of the till drawer opening, and the jangling of small coins. I blink, even rather dazedly for myself, as I watch Jamie deposit the change into the customer’s outstretched hand, swallow up the three steps that separates us, and then position himself behind my back once more.

Those forearms and hands of his, the ones I’ve been admiring all day, come around to the rest on the counter in front of both of us, boxing me in.

“I--”

“Start off with the strawberries, lass.”

An electric current shoots through my body as I feel his chest rumble with each passing instruction, pouring forth from his mouth.

“In the bottom of the cocktail shaker, they go,” he continues, unaware of my body’s reaction. My newfound body reaction. “Now the sugar, and the rum.”

“How much sugar?” I voice, quietly congratulating myself when I don’t stutter.

Jamie’s middle finger, which I notice for the first time is rather crooked, taps against the marble surface, indicating the spoon he’s laid out. “Two teaspoons worth, Sassenach.”

“Why do you keep calling me that?”

“Because that’s what ye are.” He says it so simply, both as a fact and a statement. “Pour the rum in.”

For the second time, I turn my head, but this time to peer over my shoulder. At him. My eyes bounce off his neck, which is in my straight line of view, and then upwards, to his face.

A face, which is neither grinning nor stoic, but rather, somewhere in between.

I curse myself again for not being able to read people better. But Jamie, himself, must not have that problem, for he knows exactly what I’m silently asking.

“Pour the rum until I say stop.”

When my hand doesn’t move to wrap around one of the two bottles of alcohol, Jamie speaks again.

“The dark coloured one.”

Inside the cocktail shaker, I begin to pour the dark coloured liquid, waiting until Jamie tells me no more. I wish I could say I’m focusing on remembering how to make the strawberry daiquiri. But that would be a lie.

I’m focusing more intently on the body heat traveling through Jamie’s fine t-shirt, and through my own blouse, before seeping into my skin.

When I pick up the second bottle of alcohol, (‘strawberry liqueur’, reads the wrinkled, white label,) and the shiny tablespoon, both of my hands shake. I over pour. Extra droplets of liqueur splattering into the cocktail shaker.

Jamie’s hand, which wraps around my own unsteady right one, is just as warm as before, and just as big. It practically engulfs mine.

I hold my breath.

“Don’t worry too much, Sassenach.” We lower the bottle together, listening to the satisfying clunk. “This one can just be a bit stronger than usual.”

Peeling his hand away from my bare skin, this time a finger at a time, Jamie snatches up a round, juicy, bright green lime.

For a millisecond, I feel as if I can breathe again.

But that breath is quickly stolen again, when Jamie’s other hand comes round my left hand side, picks up a knife, and begins slicing the lime right down the middle.

He moves as if I’m not there. As if his forearms aren’t rubbing against my bare elbows where I’d pushed up the sleeves of my shirt. As if his chest isn’t rubbing against my back, with every shift and saw of the knife.

“And then, ye squeeze.”

I stare, transfixed, as Jamie’s hand tightens around one half of the limes, causing the juice from the soft flesh of the fruit to drip and dribble. He catches two white coloured pips in the palm of his other hand, allowing the lime juice to coat both hands.

He’ll be a sticky mess at the end of it.

My heartbeat speeds up. I felt my cheeks flush red. My body feels strangely heavy… like I’m aware of it, in a different way than usual, for the first time in…

“Put the lid on while I wash my hands, Sassenach,” Jamie says, his vowels and consonants butter soft. “And give it all a good shake.”

A shake.

I can do that.

Especially, away from Jamie’s watchful eye, as he walks away to turn on the tap. At least I don’t need to worry about shaking the cocktail maker, which in turn will cause my body to shake… in turn causing my body to move against his…

“Once it’s shaken enough defant, I mean decant,” Jamie corrects himself, “everything into the glass.”

I do as asked, pretty proud of myself when the liquid slithers out a pretty pinkish colour. Pinching the stem of the glass between thumb and forefinger, I hold it up for Jamie to see.

“Verra good, Sassenach!” His praise sends a bolt of something peculiar through my body. “Ye can drink it if ye want.”

“Drink it?”

“Aye,” Jamie says, now flicking off the tap and drying his hands on a small, white, hand towel. “We’re done for the day, but ye may as well drink it before ye go home.”

I nod in understanding, still facing him, but leaning back upon the bar, as I take a tentative sip.

It isn’t half bad. Actually, it’s pretty good, if I do say so myself… with a little bit of a kick to the end of it, where I’ve over poured the strawberry liqueur. But I can’t say I mind all that much, not when it’s so fruity.

“It’s good.” I hold out the glass in front of me. “Want to try?”

Crossing the space between us, Jamie plucks the glass from my hand, and takes a drink; a much bigger mouthful than the one I’ve taken.

The way his lips curl up at the edges, I know he doesn’t mind the way I’ve created the cocktail, but I’m too focused on the bobbing of his Adam’s apple as he swallows, to filter any of his words.

I’ve never quite realised how attractive it is, something to separate his hard male body, from my soft female one.

Strangely enough, I have a sudden urge to push myself forward, and trace the pad of my forefinger along the harsh curve.

“How did yer weekend go, anyway?” Jamie asks, taking another slurp for himself, and then pushing the cold glass back into my palm.

I don’t know what urges me to look down while I take my own refreshment, but I wish I hadn’t when I can see the outline of Jamie’s lips pressed into the thin edge of the glass. I can even make out the tiny lines and creases that must run through those lips of his.

Beauchamp…

“My weekend? It was okay,” I say truthfully, reminded of sitting in the day lounge at the B and B, an old tabloid magazine in hand, staring out of the window as the unusually warm September wind blew inwards, disturbing my wavy locks. “I didn’t really do anything, went shopping for a bit… but that was about it. You? How was yours?”

Jamie’s face is blank again. I recognize it as tactically so, something my father had done over and over again when he was awaiting an answer (or, rather, a mistruth) for something he already knew the answer to.

My father had thought it a game.

A very funny one.

But I hadn’t.

I still didn’t like it, and certainly not on Jamie’s face.

I’m unable to form my features into blankness, it just isn’t in my nature.

My mother had always said one of my worst features was wearing my heart on my sleeve, but I found nothing wrong with that. In fact, I thought more people should do it more often… perhaps the world would be a simpler place then… a kinder place.

“What did ye go shopping for? Anything special?”

That isn’t what I expect to leave Jamie’s mouth, but I go with it anyway.

“I don’t really have the money to be spending.” Truthfulness… another top trait of mine… “But I thought it nice to get out for a bit, what with it being the weekend and all… I ended up buying these jeans.” My free hand, the one not clutching the now only half filled strawberry daiquiri glass, smooths down the curve of my denim covered hip, while I speak.

Beneath my armor of clothes, my skin begins to heat up as Jamie’s eyes follow the glide of hand, tracing my own body.

“So, how did your weekend go?” I repeat my question.

“Not bad.” Jamie shrugs. “I was here all weekend, really, cleaning up after the speed dating event, and then the Saturday night football game… just a typical weekend at work.”

“Oh, so--”

“I meant to ask ye how ye found the speed dating?” Jamie interrupts. “Get any numbers? Cue up a few dates to fill yer day off spots?”

Slurping down the rest of my drink, I cut my eyes to the side as I place the empty glass upon the bar. I don’t want to add a fourth, or was it a fifth, broken glass to my record. When I turn back to face Jamie, I find his eyes on my upper thighs. But they quickly move away back up to my face, as I begin to speak again.

“It was fine.” I allow my lips to squish up to one side of my face, in a sort of self deprecating wince. “But I didn’t get anybody’s number, and I certainly don’t have a string of dates waiting for me.”

Jamie’s mouth pops open, as if to say something else, but I’m over this topic of conversation. The rum and strawberry liqueur in the daiquiri has pleasantly relaxed my body, but not enough to make my mind hazy.

Actually, the alcohol has only made the exhaustion settling itself into my bones more apparent. I haven’t been sleeping all too well; what with the amount of worries on my brain. But now my trial run is over, I want nothing more than to lie down for an hour or two, and then slip into a hot bath.

Suppressing a yawn, I go to gather my purse and phone from where I’ve safely stored them under the bar for the day. “I really should be going, but thank you for teaching me, Jamie.”

“No’ a bother, lass.” He pushes away from the counter, as I straighten out my legs, and begin to walk through the gap in the bar. “I’ll walk ye oot.”

I feel my left eyebrow quirk up of its own accord, as we walk side by side across the bar floor, past the now mainly empty tables and chairs. “Are you allowed to leave the bar unattended?”

“Not really.” I see a miniscule smirk play about his lips. “But I just served Sean with his first pint, and he’s a regular, so he’ll keep a lookout while I’m away for a second.”

Humming in acknowledgement, my hand shoots out to grasp the brass door handle, but Jamie reaches it before I can get it myself. He leans casually into it, arm above the door frame, so I’ll have to duck beneath his arm to exit. It’s as if this is a daily occurrence.

Maybe it is.

Maybe he does this for every girl that passes by the bar.

Trying not to make a big deal out of it, I duck under his arm, jogging down the two steps, and then turn on my heels to look back up at him.

His blue eyes are already on me.

“Seriously, thank you Jamie. For being so patient and understanding when I broke practically everything around me and--”

His chin dips as he accepts my rambled thanks. “I told ye no’ to worry about it, lass. Ye’re still learning.” Reaching out his right hand, he points to the mobile phone resting safely in my palm. “I’m sure my godfather will be in touch with ye to give ye the weekly work schedule. If there’s any issues ye can ring him… ye have his number, aye?”

“Mhm,” I bob my head, searching for something else to say. “Guess I’ll see you for my next shift then.”

“If I’m working ye will.”

“Oh, of course. I—”

“Enjoy the rest of yer Monday, Claire.”

I understand a dismissal when I hear one.

Forcing my feet to move, I call over my shoulder a “See you, Jamie.”

I blame the alcohol in my system, which makes my heart rate seemingly skyrocket as I hear Jamie holler. “Sassenach?”

“Yes?” I turn fully, facing him head on.

“I like them,” he announces. “The jeans I mean. They must be worth whatever ye paid, because they make yer arse look phenomenal.”

And with that, he shuts the bar door firmly, unbothered by my gaping, jaw practically on the floor, expression.