KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOUR

I’ve never particularly liked weddings, so how the hell I allowed myself to be bullied into playing a part in this one is totally beyond me. The things we do for best friends huh? I stand fidgeting in my tux and adjusting my dickie bow, forcing a smile onto my lips as people file into the church.

I point blank refused to be a bridesmaid — I haven’t worn any type of dress or skirt for over 15 years and I’m not about to start now, so I’ve been given the usher duties of pointing guests in the right direction for seating, hand over an order or service, smile and repeat. I’ll be glad when the service is over and I can chill out and have a drink!

I realise someone is standing in front of me, so I plaster the smile back onto my face and look up into a face that mirrors my own; it’s so obvious that she doesn’t want to be here either.

“Bride or groom?”

She pauses for long enough that I begin to wonder if she’s even been invited. I may not be enjoying my best friend’s nuptials but I certainly don’t want it ruined for them by an uninvited gate crasher. My fears are calmed however when she mutters, “I’m Julia’s cousin but could I just sit over there at the back out of the way?” She points at a group of 3 chairs right at the back of the church, about as far away from the action as possible.

I hand her the order of service and tell her that yes, she can sit at the back, despite me having pigeon holed one of those seats for myself so I can make a speedy exit once the service is over. I notice that not only does she almost run to the seats but she chooses one that’s hidden behind a pillar where she can’t be seen but every time she hears new people enter the church she sneaks a look to see who’s come in.

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Her behaviour fascinates me and I can’t help wondering if she’s recently split up with a boyfriend who is also invited to the wedding; or maybe there’s a family feud she doesn’t want to get embroiled in? Whatever the reason she looks deeply unhappy and I actually come to slightly admire the fact that she’s putting herself through that misery for the sake of attending her cousin’s wedding. If I was that unhappy I would probably have stayed away and feigned illness instead.

As the last of the guests file in I notice her head poke out from behind the pillar just as a late middle aged couple enter the church. She ducks back into safety quickly but I can’t help noticing the look on her face in that brief moment; it seems to be a mix of fear and intense pain and I can’t help but worry a little bit for her as I hand the newcomers the leaflet and guide them to the bride’s side of the church. Julia’s extended family is large and spread out across the country, so there have been many loud and joyous greetings as people arrive, accompanied by lots of familial hugs and kisses; these two however find empty seats at the end of an aisle and sit down without so much as a glance at the other guests.

I look over at the pillar and see that the mystery girl is now staring at the back of their heads and her expression has changed again. She looks less scared but definitely pained and as I watch I’m sure I catch a tear slowly trickle down her cheek. I decide that I have to try to do something to help this poor forlorn creature but at that moment one of the other ushers comes running into the church to announce that the bride has arrived. David the groom jumped to his feet and the traditional organ refrain started up just as Julia and her dad entered the church. Flashing Julia a genuine beaming

smile I tell her she looks amazing, and then duck out of the way to the back of the church where I take one of the two remaining seats, slightly behind the mystery woman.

The service is actually quite nice and the vicar is pleasantly witty throughout her duties, so I almost don’t realise the ceremony is finishing and that I need to rush off to perform my next function. I jump up out of my seat and am about to make a swift exit when she also stands and I almost crash into her. I end up following her out of the dim church and into the bright sunlight where I almost run into her again, as she stops dead and bends double, taking huge breaths as if the atmosphere in the church has been starving her of oxygen.

“Hey, are you ok?”

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A few more gulps of air and she stood up, a faint apologetic smile on her face.

“Yes, thanks. Sorry I got in your way but I’m trying to avoid some people and wanted to get out before them. I think I might give the reception a miss or I’m going to have a full blown panic attack!”

“No don’t do that. I’m driving to the hotel now ahead of the rest to get the welcome drinks organised while they have pictures taken, then my duties are done for a while. Frankly you look like you could do with a drink, so why not come with me — the others won’t turn up for ages yet.”

She looked me up and down for a long moment, seemingly considering my suggestion, before nodding resolutely and agreeing that yes indeed, a drink would be welcome.

We were already sitting in my Jeep before either of us spoke again when she turned to me, stuck her hand out and introduced herself. “Sarah Williams, Julia’s cousin.” I took her hand in mine and noticed that although she seemed timid her handshake was firm and strong. “Andi Stevens, Julia’s best friend since college.”

We drove the short distance in near silence, until I pulled into the hotel car park where I headed round the back of the building and pressed the button for the garage door, pulling inside and hitting the button to close the door after us.

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I notice a huge sigh escape from Sarah and raise an eyebrow in her direction causing her to chuckle.

“Weird as this may sound, I may be locked in a garage with a total stranger but I feel safer than I have done since I arrived at the church!”

“I don’t want to intrude but do you want to talk about it? I think I know who you’re avoiding due to your reaction when they arrived – are they your parents?”

“Yes they are but no, I don’t want to talk about it right now, I’d much rather get a drink down my neck to calm my nerves.”

So without delay we exited the car and I led Sarah in through the crowded kitchen and into the bar area, where I unlocked the door into the back stock room and asked her what she’d like.

“Is it too early for a brandy?” she asked with a shy smile

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“It’s never too early for a brandy, especially if it’s medicinal!” I poured us two large bowls and waved Sarah to a stool while I perched on a crate of beer. As I chinked my glass against hers I smiled at her and said “Cheers, let’s hope this day gets better for you from here.”

Sarah took a long gulp before fishing around in her handbag and waving a twenty pound note at me. “Please let me pay for these, I don’t want you getting into trouble with your boss.”

I looked at her quizzically before I caught on. “These are on me and don’t worry, there’s no trouble to be had. This is my place and much as my bar manager likes to think he’s the boss, I’m the one who pays his wages.”

As if on cue I heard the door handle rattle and stood up to open it so that those stood outside could file in. I looked over at Sarah and asked her to give me a minute before turning back to the four other people now crammed into the small stock room, singling out my bar manager first.

“Gary – the glasses for welcome champagne are all laid out on the table at the back of the bar, you’ve got about 20 minutes before we need the fizz out of the chiller and we need to get the orange juice into jugs for drivers, non-drinkers and those who prefer bucks fizz.

Janet and Elise, I know you two will be fine to handle the bar on your own until the real party starts tonight and the extra staff turn up at seven but I want you to pay special attention to keeping the bar clean and making sure empty glasses are cleared and washed quickly.

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Josh, I want you at the front door with trays of drinks so that you can direct people to the cloak room etc when they come in. When everyone has arrived leave the champagne with Gary and help the girls behind the bar or collecting glasses.

The caterers need as much space in the kitchen as possible so please stay out of their way but be there to assist them if needed.

I don’t need to tell you that Julia is my best friend so today has to be perfect — make sure there are no fuck ups and there’s a bonus for everyone, now get the bar shutters open and let’s get this show on the road! Oh and Josh — for god’s sake tuck your shirt in!”

My team leapt into action and in a couple of seconds I was alone again with Sarah who was sat smiling at me.

“Wow, you seemed laid back and chilled earlier but you’re quite impressive when you go into Boss mode!”

“They’re a good crew, so they don’t need much managing to be honest. So has the brandy helped calm your nerves? You know everyone is going to start turning up soon and the bar and dining room aren’t so big that you’re going to be able to avoid them all night.”

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“I’m guessing they’ll leave directly after the meal and Julia has promised me that I’m seated as far away from them as possible with an easy exit route if needed.

“Give me their names and I’ll go and check for you”

Sarah scribbled the names Carol and Peter Williams down on a beer mat and I scurried into the dining room to check the seating. Heading back into the store room I noticed Sarah touching up her make up in a small compact — she’d obviously been crying and her eyes were red.

“You’ll be safe enough. You’re sat at the same table as me up by the top table; your folks are sat by the door at the other end of the room. There’s a door next to our table that leads though into reception, so you have an easy escape route if you need it. Do you actually anticipate them causing trouble?” This last question was as much for my own benefit as hers, I wanted to know in advance if there was going to be any bother in my hotel, especially if it was going to ruin Julia’s and David’s wedding.

“To be honest I expect them to completely ignore me the way they have for the last eighteen months.” And the tears started to flow again, so I wrapped my arms around her and gave her a big hug whilst telling her that everything would be ok, despite knowing that probably wouldn’t be the case.

I was very curious to know the details of their falling out but didn’t want to upset her further, so I refilled her glass and told her to follow me, leading her out into the bar area and into a corner where I waved her to a bar stool.

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“You can see everyone coming in from here and if you want to get out in a hurry, just walk out of that door sign-posted toilets; the door just past the ladies loos leads out into the garden and if you walk round to the right you’ll end up back at reception. Just grab any member of staff and tell them you need me urgently and they’ll come find me.”

Sarah wrapped her arms around me and kissed my cheek, thanking me for looking out for her. At that moment there was a flurry of activity as people started filing in through the doors having arrived from the church so I left her for a moment to make sure the champagne was flowing and everyone was ready.

The next hour was a blur as the happy couple arrived and everyone clamoured to congratulate them. The table set aside for presents was groaning under the weight and right on time the master of ceremonies (otherwise known as my brother Jake, who worked at the hotel part time) announced that people needed to take their seats for the wedding breakfast. I hadn’t clapped eyes on Sarah’s parents despite looking for them, so I swiftly grabbed her hand to show her to her seat.

We were halfway between the bar and the dining room when they walked in the door. Both stopped dead as they saw us and if possible their facial expressions grew even more sour than they were before, so I pulled Sarah into the dining room and got her seated.

“Happy pair aren’t they?”

“Oh yeah, they’re a bundle of light and joy!” she quipped back “You holding my hand would have just made them even worse — they disowned me for being gay, so they probably think you’re my girlfriend and will now hate you just as much as they hate me.”

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“Hey well what do you know? We have two things in common — we’re both gay and we’re both hated by your parents!” I was glad to see the smile creep across her face and she actually seemed

like she was starting to relax and for some reason I didn’t understand at the time, this made me extremely happy. Somehow looking after this woman just felt right and I hadn’t failed to notice that when she relaxed a bit she was attractive, so finding out she was gay pleased me no end. I still wasn’t sure why I felt so protective toward her though. To be honest I’d never really been one for long term relationships and all the heavy emotional shit that went with them, being much more into casual relationships or friends with benefits.

The meal passed with little drama and while dessert was being served I nipped out to the bar to make sure the champagne was ready for the toasts accompanying the speeches. After making sure all was in order I nipped into the ladies restroom and on exiting the stall I found the bride standing by the sinks waiting for me.

“Hi Julia! I hope you’re enjoying your day? Is there something you need?”

“I just wanted to thank you really. I couldn’t help noticing that you’d taken Sarah under your wing — I hoped you would, that’s why I arranged for her to sit at your table but it seems you took care of her even before we got back here?”

I explained about Sarah looking so sad in the church, asking whether her parents were really as bad as they seemed.

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“Ha!” Barked Julia “Bad doesn’t even cover it! I didn’t want to invite them today but she’s my dad’s only sibling so I didn’t really have a choice; to be honest I was hoping they’d decline. I don’t think my aunt used to be so staunchly puritanical, the rest of the family certainly aren’t, so I have no idea why she has that stick up her arse all the time nowadays. She’s not the worst though — Sarah’s dad has turned into a real arsehole in recent years and the man makes my skin crawl.”

“Well I’ll certainly do my best to see that Sarah has a good time but for now we have to get back for the speeches!”

I hustled Julia out of the bathroom and we retook our seats. The speeches were surprisingly short and funny with Julia’s father having us in stitches and the best man telling a couple of jokes that made Sarah’s parents blanch at the crudeness, which in turn had Sarah almost crying with laughter. As soon as they were over, Jake assumed his MC role and requested that everyone move into the bar area so that the dining room could be cleared and set up for the evening’s festivities.

I could see Sarah scanning the room and looking around, I noticed that her parents had already left the room. It seemed she was correct when she guessed they would leave directly after the meal and she looked much calmer now she didn’t have to deliberately avoid them and she felt free to join some other members of her family to catch up, so I left her to go and check on the staff to make sure everything was going to plan.

A few minutes later, I was just chatting to the band as they were setting up their kit when Gary came running into the room calling for me.

“I’m over here, where’s the fire?”

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“Sorry Andi but there’s a really loud argument going on in the carpark and it looks like that girl you were talking to is in trouble.”

We shot out of the door and as I rounded the corner into the carpark I could see Sarah’s father trying to force her into a car, while she was kicking and screaming, trying to get away.

“Stop right there before I call the police!” I shouted at the top of my voice “Gary, get the registration number just in case.”

Sarah’s mum was just standing there but her dad let go of Sarah when I shouted and she came running over to me, sobbing and rubbing her wrists where her dad had been grasping them.

“You want to tell me what’s going on?” I was nose to nose with her dad and I think he was startled by the anger in my voice. “start talking or I’ll call the police and get you arrested for kidnapping.”

“She’s my daughter so I’m not kidnapping her; I’m taking her somewhere safe, somewhere she’ll be looked after. This is a private family matter so I’ll thank you to mind your own business.”

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“I think you’ll find that your relationship is immaterial, it was obvious she was being forced against her will and she’s over eighteen and can make her own decisions. You see that CCTV camera up there? The whole episode will be recorded and there are several witnesses; I don’t like people causing shit in my hotel and that makes it my business.”

By this time Jake had also come outside to see what the commotion was and her dad was obviously more worried about my 6ft 3″ strapping, rugby playing brother than he was of me and Gary, so without another word he ordered his wife (who still hadn’t moved or opened her mouth) into the car and drove away.

“Ok, show’s over. Thanks all, now get back to your duties while I look after Sarah.” I took her hand and steered her around to the back of the building where the entrance to my private apartment is, opening the door and ordering her to sit while I ran back into the hotel bar for the bottle of brandy we were drinking from earlier.

When I got back to Sarah she was sitting in an armchair sobbing, so I dumped the brandy and glasses on the coffee table and knelt down next to the chair, pulling her into my arms while she cried herself out. When the tears finally dried up, Sarah pulled back and forced a half-hearted smile onto her lips that didn’t even come close to reaching her eyes.

“I’m so, so sorry about that; he said he wanted to talk to me, I thought maybe he’d had a change of heart and wanted a reconciliation. Instead he told me he was taking me to a place where they could ‘pray the gay out of my black soul!’ and he wasn’t taking no for an answer!”

“So I noticed. What about your Mum? She looks like she hasn’t voiced an opinion on anything in years.”

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“She’s totally cowed by Dad and just does what she’s told; he’s so puritanical I can’t even imagine how I was conceived! I suspect he’d be violent to Mum if she stood up to him but I have no proof of that, it’s just a feeling that I get, like the anger is constantly simmering just below the surface waiting to break free.”

We talked until Sarah was calmer, then I called Jake to make sure her parents had definitely left before suggesting we re-join the party.

“Actually I think I ought to go. I have a long journey ahead of me so I better check out the train times”

“You aren’t staying here tonight?” I queried.

“By the time I decided to brave it and come to the wedding the hotel was fully booked and I couldn’t find anything else local, so I thought I’d just head back.”

“The hotel might be booked out but I have a spare room here, so why don’t you stay with me? I can lend you some clothes for tomorrow if you want and I’ll run you to the station when you need to get your train tomorrow. Honestly, now your parents have left it’s safe to stay and I hate the thought of you travelling on your own when you’ve had such an upsetting day. You might as well stay and at least have some fun now the coast is clear.”

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Sarah came up with all sorts of reasons why she should go and not impose further upon my hospitality but they were all very half hearted, so with little persuasion we headed back into the reception.

The rest of the evening went smoothly with everyone having a great time. The caterers did just as good a job on the evening buffet as they did for the wedding breakfast, the booze was flowing freely and the band had everyone dancing.

Once people started to drift away late into the evening, Julia caught up to me at the bar. She’d changed out of her wedding dress into a little slinky red number and was positively glowing with happiness and more than a little tipsy.

“You know something Andi, you’ve been bloody brilliant today — you should add wedding organiser to your CV! On top of that I’ve only just heard about the situation with Sarah’s parents that you diffused earlier and I wanted to thank you again for looking after her so well today; mind you — I guess it doesn’t hurt that she’s of your persuasion?” And she winked theatrically.

“I’m glad you had a great day Babe and the way you look in that dress, I’m guessing David is looking forward to ripping it off you!”

“He better not rip this dress, it cost a bloody fortune.” Julia laughed but then her face turned serious “I’m sorry to have to say this but you won’t break her heart will you?”

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I was confused at this point as I had no idea what she was talking about, prompting Julia to sigh loudly and explain herself.

“Sarah, you dolt! I know you’ve helped her and all but I think she’s a bit fragile and the way she’s describing you to the rest of my family it sounds like there’s a bit of hero worship going on there. I don’t think she could cope with you shagging and dumping her.”

“Woah there! I haven’t so much as laid a hand on her! I offered her my spare room for tonight and a lift to the station tomorrow but that’s it — I honestly hadn’t even considered anything else.”

“Why? What’s wrong with me?” Julia and I both turned to see that Sarah had overheard the end of our exchange and now looked royally pissed off. “You know what? Forget it; I’ll just get a cab to the station.” And with that she stormed off toward reception.

“Oh hell! I’m sorry I got it wrong, I better go after her, I think she’s drunk.”

“No, you enjoy the rest of your night and say goodnight to your guests; I’ll make sure Sarah is ok.”

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I found Sarah impatiently standing at the empty reception desk, so I walked up behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist. It was a fond gesture but I also wanted to stop her being able to bolt again.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with you Sarah.” She started to try to squirm out of my arms but I held her fast “but the last thing I was going to do was take advantage of you tonight. One — because you’ve obviously had a lot to drink; two — because you’ve had a traumatic day; three — because this is Julia’s special day and to be honest, I’ve been so focused on making sure everything went smoothly that little else has crossed my mind; lastly — I’d actually prefer to get to know you better than have a night of meaningless sex with you. Now, if I let you go do you promise not to run away again?”

Sarah nodded and turned in my arms as I released my grip, burying her face into my shoulder to hide her embarrassment.

“Sorry, you’re right. It has been a stressful day and I am drunk and being silly, can you forgive me?”

Having steered Sarah into my spare room, I made sure she had something to sleep in and provided water and some paracetamol, then I wandered back into reception to make sure everyone was ok with the cleanup.

Julia and David were just saying goodnight to some family in the foyer before they all headed to their rooms and when she saw me, she gave me a sheepish grin.

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“Is she ok? I’m sorry I assumed you were going to sleep with her tonight and I’m also sorry I assumed that wouldn’t be a good thing for her, it’s just that I know she’s had a tough time and didn’t want to see her hurt any more than she has been.”

“Yeah she’s fine, all tucked up in my spare room and snoring like a warthog! I understand your concern but you know me — I don’t lead people on about my intentions; I’v always made it clear that I’m not up for a relationship. Having said that, I really think I’d like to get to know Sarah better, even if it’s only as friends. Is that ok with you?”

Julia and David both hugged me and confirmed that it was absolutely fine whatever I decided, as long as I tried not to break her heart along the way, then gave each other an unmistakeable look of lust before heading off to their own room for some wedding night passion.

The next morning was obviously tough for Sarah and her embarrassment was palpable in her tentative greeting as she emerged from her room, wearing a robe I’d left hanging on the door for her.

“Hey, how are you feeling? Tea? Coffee? Breakfast?”

“A cup of tea would be lovely and maybe something to eat would help this hangover. I really am sorry about the hassle I put you through yesterday; I knew I should have stayed away.”

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“Nonsense! Julia was really pleased you came and you managed to enjoy yourself despite everything, so it’s a good thing you came along; after all, you can’t avoid them forever. Why don’t you grab a shower while I find you some clothes to wear, then we can wander over to the dining room and let the chef cook us breakfast?”

Sarah and I weren’t too dissimilar in shape and size, so I managed to find her some three quarter length jeans and a tee shirt to wear, along with some walking sandals that were adjustable enough so that a small disparity in size wouldn’t be too much of a problem as long as she wasn’t planning on doing any serious hiking in them.

By the time Sarah emerged from the bedroom, her hair still wet from the shower, she looked much better than she had and seemed to have regained some of her confidence. I looked her up and down, trying to gauge the fit of the clothes but as my gaze reached her face I found her smiling coyly.

“Like what you see?” and a smile crept onto her face.

“I was actually checking your clothes; it’s kinda weird seeing someone else wearing them. Having said that, I’d be lying if I said you were hard to look at, especially since the shower seems to have brought you back to life; ready for some breakfast?”

Sarah linked her arm through mine, “lead on White Knight!”

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“White Knight?” I chuckled “Where did that come from?”

“Well you did make a serious habit of rescuing me yesterday; first from the church, then from my parents and lastly from myself, so yeah — I’d give you a seat at the round table and if you can handle my dad, you’re not going to have any problems with dragons!”

We were both howling with laughter as we sauntered into the dining room arm in arm and caught quite a few stares from some of the other guests. We howled even louder when Sarah overheard one obviously hungover woman mutter something about complaining to the management if we didn’t keep the noise down.

It was nice to just sit and chat with Sarah over breakfast without the ghost of her parents looming over us and we got along fabulously. I have to admit that I kept topping her tea up in an attempt to prolong her departure but it had to come to an end at some point. Sarah had a train to catch and the service was limited on a Sunday, so after a quick check online to confirm times, I drove her to the station.

We sat on the platform drinking bad coffee from paper cups when Sarah suddenly blurted out “I should have taken your clothes off.”

I snorted so hard I nearly had coffee dribbling out of my nose and when I glanced at Sarah she was blushing furiously as she dissolved into fits of giggles.

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“Your jeans! I should have taken your jeans off!”

This didn’t make the situation any less funny and by now we were both crying with laughter.

“These!” She managed to splutter out between gasps for air, tugging at the jeans I’d loaned her. “How will I get your clothes back to you?”

“I’m sure you’ll think of a way. I’d really like to see you again if that’s ok with you?”

The next thing I knew Sarah had thrust her phone into my hands and ordered me to type my number in, which I managed just as the train was pulling into the platform. After a brief hug goodbye, Sarah boarded just as the doors were closing and I stood alone as the train slowly pulled out of the station, a strange and unaccustomed sense of loss, or maybe loneliness settling on my chest as I watched it grow smaller.

I was roused from my reverie by my phone vibrating and pulled it from my pocket to find a text from an unknown number.

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“Dear Galahad, thank you for being my knight in shining armour, you really are a very special person — I can see why Julia picked you as a best friend. Can you be free next Saturday night? If so, please allow me to say thank you properly by cooking you a sumptuous banquet? Sarah x”

As I walked back into the hotel lobby, still chuckling about Sarah’s text, Julia bounded up to me like an over-excited Labrador puppy.

“So how did it go last night?”

“Huh?” was my none-to-eloquent reply.

“With Sarah you dolt. So did you two get jiggy with it or not?”

“No, we absolutely did not. She’s a nice girl; I just drove her to the station and she’s invited me for dinner next weekend.”

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“Is she cooking? You know she’s an absolutely fantastic chef right? She could have her pick of any restaurant kitchen to work in if she wanted, but for some reason she prefers to work in product development for a brand. Anyway, I need to pay our room bill and we need to get going if we’re going to catch our plane, I just wanted to thank you again for everything you did yesterday, for us and for Sarah. I’ll give you a call from the Bahamas to make you feel jealous!”

I was about to tell her that their bill didn’t need settling, that I was covering it as part of their wedding present. I was also about to ask her several questions about Sarah and to tell her that the last thing I wanted was an update on how their honeymoon was going, however I learnt years ago that when Julia was excited about something, keeping her still was about as easy as herding cats, so I watched her bound off and decided to let the receptionist deal with her.

The following Saturday I pulled up outside a quaint little cottage, in a delightful village, 15 minutes before I was due. I climbed out of the Jeep and stretched my back and legs. The journey had only been about 2 hours but I found myself getting increasingly nervous the closer I got and my body felt coiled like a spring. I’d been doing a lot of thinking on the drive and I still hadn’t decided whether this was a date or just a friendly thank you. We’d texted a few times during the week but I really wasn’t sure if the jokes and innuendo we’d shared was flirting or just banter. Oh well, I would just enjoy myself and take it step by step.

I was about to ring the doorbell when I saw a note pinned to the doorframe.

“Dear Galahad,

Welcome to my castle. This is a dragon free zone, so please leave armour and swords in the car. I’m around the back — just follow the path at the side of the house.

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Sarah x”

Chuckling, I followed the instructions and found myself in a large, well-tended garden; a small permanent gazebo about a third of the way down and off to one side. Looking around I could see no sign of Sarah, so I started to head toward the gazebo, when a noise caught my attention, so I stopped and listened.

“Son of a bitch, how the fuck did I get myself in this situation? This really can’t be happening, not today of all days, way to make an impression you imbecile…” the muttering continued but too quietly for me to make out the words, so I stepped around the gazebo and instantly burst out laughing at the scene before me. Sarah was lying down on a wide tree branch and looked like she could have climbed down easily, if her shirt hadn’t snagged on the branch above, which was effectively keeping her stuck in position.

“Have you been up there long?” I called out as I walked toward her.

“Oh crap! I was hoping to have extricated myself before you got here. Erm, just a few minutes fortunately but I do seem to be rather stuck.”

I initially wondered if she’d set the scenario up in order to be rescued again but she was obviously mortified, so this had to be a genuine mishap which was just hilarious.

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“Some fucking Knight you are. Are you going to lend me a hand or just stand there laughing at me?”

Eventually I wiped the tears of mirth from my eyes and hoisted myself up onto the branch behind her, leaning over her back until I could reach far enough to unsnag her shirt, then jumped down before extending my hand to help her down. Her descent was less than graceful and she ended up in my arms, slumped against my chest.

“What on earth were you doing up there?”

“I was trying to rescue my stupid cat, which as you can see didn’t need rescuing at all. He jumped down and buggered off, leaving me stranded! Thank god you didn’t change your mind about coming; I could have been stuck up there for days!” Sarah laughed

She pecked me on the cheek and took me by the arm, leading me into a spacious kitchen via the back door. All at once I was surrounded by wonderful aromas that had me salivating instantly and moaning in anticipation.

“Oh my god, something smells divine; Julia told me you were an amazing cook — smells like she wasn’t kidding. So what are we having?”

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Dinner turned out to be Asian spiced duck breasts, served with sesame chilli noodles and a crunchy coleslaw of mooli, carrot and bean shoots in light sweet / sour dressing. I had missed lunch to make sure I wasn’t delayed, so I demolished mine in record speed, sitting back and wiping my mouth as I watched Sarah finish her meal.

“You look like you would swoop on my plate if I turned the other way.” Chortled Sarah “Can I assume that you enjoyed it?”

“That would be a serious understatement. I can manage to feed myself but my cooking is pretty basic; no way could I cook something like that.”

Sarah laughed heartily but said no more until prompted by a raised eyebrow from me. “I was going to cook something complicated and fancy but ended up having to work this morning, so I chose this to cook instead because it’s actually really simple. I could show you how sometime if you like?”

It took a while for me to register the offer because I was too busy watching the way the last forkful of food was making its way between 2 plump lips and suddenly, completely out of the blue, the urge to feel those lips against my own was almost overwhelming.

Still unsure of just where our relationship was heading and not wanting to be presumptuous, I took a hasty swallow of wine to alleviate the dryness in my mouth and excused myself to visit the bathroom.

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Looking into the mirror as I washed my hands I silently shook my head at my reflection. I couldn’t fail to notice how damp my panties were when I’d used the toilet and it seemed that my thoughts were travelling at a million miles an hour.

In the past I would happily have acted on my baser instincts. I would have kissed Sarah and taken it as far as possible, regardless of consequences. I didn’t do relationships. Did I? Now I was nervous, was worried about Sarah’s opinion of me, wanted Sarah to like me, didn’t want to fuck things up for the future. WHOA THERE!! Future? Just where the hell had that little gem sprung from? Apparently my reflection didn’t have the answers either, so I finished up and walked back to the kitchen to join my host.

On finding the kitchen empty, I was just about to call out when I heard “Out here Galahad” from the garden, so I headed out and steered toward the flickering lights I could see coming from the gazebo.

“Wow. This is beautiful!” The gazebo was a brick built hexagon with removable windows on 6 sides and doors on the remaining side, which were folded back leaving the interior open to the elements. In the middle was a small fire pit set into a table and there were candles flickering from holders on the walls, making for a cosy and intimate setting. The table was laid out with various cheeses with

fruit, crackers and chutney and as I slid into the bench seat next to Sarah, she handed me a glass of deep red port.

“I’m glad you like my little castle, I spend a lot of time out here in the evenings, it’s a great space to think in. In fact I’ve been doing a lot of thinking out here in the last week.”

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Sarah turned to face me and looked deeply into my eyes before continuing, her face a strange mixture of trepidation and hope.

“I’ve been asking questions about you and I’m not sure what to make of the answers.”

I raised a questioning eyebrow. “What sort of questions?”

Sarah downed her port and topped our glasses up before continuing.

“You seem like a genuinely kind person and you are extremely physically attractive, so I was wondering why a couple of Julia’s other friends warned me off you last weekend.”

“Like who?” I must have visibly bristled at this; I had a fair idea of who it might have been but wanted to hear it for myself.

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“Karen for one. She basically told me that you are a dynamo in bed but a total heartbreaker. She called you a player with no sense of commitment.”

My mood slumped instantly and I laughed inwardly at my earlier debate about my feelings for Sarah. It seemed like my reputation had preceded me and doomed any chance I may have had anyway.

“Andi, look at me.” I lifted my eyes to meet Sarah’s, not sure whether I should try to defend myself or just leave. “I didn’t say I believed her; you have been nothing but fabulous to me and the way you looked after me at the wedding was nothing short of heroic. It did prompt questions though because I like to know what I’m dealing with.”

“Maybe you should believe her — it’s what she considers to be the truth and yes, I did break her heart apparently, so what can I say?”

“But if you were such a horrible person, why would Julia’s parents be singing your praises at every opportunity? Why would her brother be complaining that ‘all the best one’s are gay?’ if you’re such a lothario?”

I couldn’t help laughing at that and it helped to lighten the mood immensely, allowing me to drop my defensive stance and just talk honestly.

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“I knew Julia’s brother had a massive crush on me when we were at university but I had no idea he still felt that way. He was only 17 when I first met him and he was apparently devastated when Julia told him I was gay. I have always got on really well with Julia’s parents. Julia had an issue with an abusive stalker when we were at university and I looked out for her; in fact we always looked out for each other and we got really close. I think initially they thought we were a couple and kept waiting for Julia to come out, so they were really surprised when they came to understand that we were just the best of friends.

As for Karen, well she is a different story. She is telling the truth that I have never wanted or sought commitment in the past but I have never hidden that. I have had relationships that have lasted quite a while but they were never serious or monogamous for either party. I have always been up front and honest in my intentions and have never led anyone on intentionally. Karen and I got together at university for a while and despite me telling her otherwise, she thought she could change me. She decided that we were a couple after just two dates and demanded that I stop seeing anyone else. I refused and told her I didn’t want that type of relationship with her but she was like a dog with a bone and wouldn’t let it go.

It got to the point where I just started avoiding her because every time we saw each other we ended up fighting, then she’d be all apologetic and we’d end up having make-up sex, then the whole cycle would start all over again. I was twenty years old for Christ’s sake and I didn’t want to be tied down. Eventually it all came to a head when I was out at a local gay club with a girl and Karen came storming onto the dancefloor, drunk as a skunk and started attacking the girl I was with. Oh she yelled and screamed obscenities at me but she was physically attacking the other girl, so I lost it at her. I grabbed her and dragged her outside and said some pretty nasty things that left her in no doubt that I never wanted to see her again let alone have any kind of relationship with her. She spread some pretty shitty rumours about me after that and it appears she still hasn’t let it go all these years later.”

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