She takes the quickest route, running up the steep steps at the side of Calton Hill, stopping at the railings to catch a breath, calm her pulse, and take in a misty winter Thursday in Edinburgh. The view's not brilliant from here.
It would have been nicer to wander slowly up the hill from the other side and savour her favourite city. But what was supposed to be a breakfast meeting just went on and on. Late… seems like she's always late these days.
She sighs, turns and starts the last flight, but there's no quelling the butterflies in tackety boots that have suddenly started fluttering and dancing somewhere round her middle. Breathe, Ella, breathe. She's going to be pink-cheeked and gasping by the time she gets to the top – not a good look.
James. They'd found each other on a "married and looking" dating site she'd joined one dull evening when she was working up here for a couple of months. Running her own PR agency means she's quick with words, and her witty, deprecating profile had attracted a full page of replies. She'd been surprised to find so many, even if they were mostly from sad guys who hadn't twigged that it was a way with words that would get her attention, not a blurry photo of their most outstanding asset.
James is different from the start. His messages are dry, witty, usually irreverent. He teases and taunts, inventing ludicrous stories about things she's doing in her daily life. His stated aim is to get her to call him an idiot by elevenses each day. He rarely fails. He's a spectacularly dull accountant, he claims, drives a Skoda, plays golf, takes his morning latte at home where he works as a management consultant.
Her first really big corporate client means she's working hard by day, doing overtime in a swish Edinburgh hotel by night. She critiques his website for fun and sends him a couple of pages of hints, to his mock horror. He gives her advice on handling a tricky finance director, about her audit, about difficult clients.
They correspond humorously through a brief but painful hospital stay for her, a family cruise on the Med for him, work appointments in London and Bristol and Bradford and Durham. On one memorable occasion they'd been within a hundred yards of one another, he in a coffee shop near her office, she unable to get out of her meeting.
They often speculate on how things will go when they eventually meet up for coffee and a bun. His proud, penny-pinching Scottish ancestry, he claims, would preclude any chance of doing the gentlemanly thing with the bill. Her natural reticence, she counters, would render her silent, they'd have to communicate in mumbles, grunts, and, in extremis, by text.
She reaches the top of the hill, stops for a minute. He's described himself as looking like a pint of Guinness – all in black with grey spiky hair. And there he is. Taller than she'd thought, a bit less geeky, looking at her with relieved recognition, eyebrows raised as if asking a question, and a broad smile.
"Hullo. I was expecting to get a text with a photograph of some cold feet."
"Sorry, sorry" she flusters. "Couldn't get out of my meeting."
He'd promised to respect her nerves and not touch her too soon, but she feels his hand gently touch her shoulder in welcome, then settle in the middle of her back as he guides her towards the view.
Her stay in Edinburgh has fostered a love of the soft Scottish accent that borders on fetish, and she's delighted by him. Woulnae. Didnae. Hadnae. She particularly enjoys the way he says "3.30" and begs him to say it again. They walk slowly through the drizzle. She points out the office she was in this morning, the hotel where she stays – they can see her room from here. He says it's amazing, he's been to Edinburgh so many times, lives only 30 minutes away, but he's never been up here, never realised there was so much space.
To her surprise, her nerves result not in embarrassed silence, but inane chatter. He must think she's an idiot. She was right about the eye contact thing, though. Impossible to look at someone about whom she knows so much, and who knows so much about her. If she looks at him now, he might just steal her soul.
He steals her hand instead. Long, cool fingers, no gloves. She takes another deep breath, tries hard not to shake her curly mane and gallop off across the hill, away, away from this man she's never seen, never touched, but who has shown such curiosity about her daily life; new contracts, difficult deals, disastrous dates; who's made her describe the type of kisses she likes to receive (and where) in minute detail, and who makes saucy requests for daily reports on the colour and style of her underwear.
He likes the sound of the purple ones she wears for press briefings and TV, and is delighted to hear that when she's really scared she wears her high gold Italian ‘f***-me boots', just to make sure.
The Hill's busy, despite the chill mist. He manages to find a quiet spot, turns her round, tilts her chin till she's looking straight into his eyes. His are serious and to her (admittedly paranoid) eyes, maybe a bit mocking.
"A kiss, then?"
Just the best kiss. He'll later describe it as a stunning, rest-of-the-world-disappearing, bluebirds-tweeting-round-his-head kiss. She just can't believe she's been brave enough to initiate it, but loves the soft warmth that spreads through her, the feel of his teeth on her lip, the way that he wants another, straight away.
After that, it's easier. They wander down the hill, chatting comfortably about business, glorious successes and heroic failures, till they reach what's become her favourite place for coffee with clients. In deference to her eye-contact dilemma he says he'll sit alongside, not opposite.
"Then I can fondle your knees…"
She notices his nice way with the waitress, a world away from the embarrassing, dismissive curtness that's been so often displayed at the business lunches she has to attend. It's only later she discovers that he's left-handed. Their seating position means he's eaten his soup with his right to avoid crowding her. She feels cherished, cared about. An unusual feeling.
The bill comes, and she pays, laughing that she's cancelled coffee twice already, so she owes him this one. Anyway, she doesn't want to put him in the embarrassing position of having moths fly out of his wallet – it would harm her image to be part of such a Scottish cliché – there might be clients watching. She checks the time, checks her phone, asks quietly: "What would you like to do now? Or do you need to get back?"
"Really? What I'd really like to do is take you where I can kiss you some more. Can we do that?"
They've been firing off email and texts for three months. They've spoken on the phone. She knows where he lives, where he does business, and it all checks out. It feels pretty safe, and anyway, she has a good feeling about him. She can't believe she's doing this, but she walks him to her hotel room.
Funded by the big bank employing her, it's on the top floor, spacious, with massive floor to ceiling windows and a view of the hill where they'd met. It also holds, she realises just a minute too late, a huge, huge bed that at that moment seems to fill the room.
"Wow. Some room."
"I'll just clean my teeth."
She escapes to the bathroom so that she can breathe, leaving him leafing self-consciously through a magazine. She notices his hands shaking. Can he be nervous?
Ella hasn't ever asked about home. He told her early on that his marriage just stopped working, not his choice. He can't leave but can't imagine the rest of his life like this. Finding someone else isn't easy, it's what's between the ears that attracts him, not that easy to discover on dating sites, and he doesn't want to stray too close to home. She's told him that she's currently single after the end of a long relationship. Her life's complicated, busy, and she's been too tied up with work to try.
She's back, minty-mouthed and nervous. His hard kisses seem to make her melt inside, his hand moving up and down, up and down her side. They've shared lots of flirty texts about whether he has a fluffy tummy for her to stroke, one of her favourite things. She pulls his shirt out from his jeans and slides a hand across his stomach. Yep, fluffy, she strokes gently as she unbuttons his shirt; James, meanwhile, seems pretty keen to get intimately acquainted with today's underwear.
And then it's easy, easy, easy. Rolling and kissing, touching and licking, each draping legs and arms over the other, they seem to fit together perfectly, laughing, comfortable, tender together. They leap nervously apart as someone tries the door, then collapse in giggles at the thought of two middle-aged people frisking nakedly in the twilight of a murky Thursday afternoon.
He's told her that flaws are what make people perfect, so he traces with his fingers her appendix scar, a childhood gash on her knee, the tiny recent surgery site at the base of her spine, still pink, a long deep scar under her right arm that she doesn't want to talk about. He declares her perfect in every way.
He showers carefully, says he won't kiss her goodbye, because he hates goodbyes and they'll meet again soon. Jingles his car keys impatiently as he descends in the lift. He'll be late, it's his turn to cook, his wife won't be happy. But who'd have thought his Ella would be so passionate, so willing this first time? Driving home, he stops to send her a text.
"Chambermaid says hi… and what were you up to at 4.30?"
She fills a deep bath, singing happily to herself. She'd expected to feel shy but he made it all fine. She slips into her cosy PJs, fishes a mobile out of her bag. Creatures of routine, they'll be concerned she hasn't phoned at the agreed time. She readies her apology. Late out from a meeting, a pain. She comforts herself it's not really a lie.
They agree ground rules. No hurting, no using, no lies. They don't belong to one another, they never will, but what they have can be special. No nosing around, what they choose to tell is what they know about each other. And at the end, a quick decision, a proper goodbye, not a lingering death.
"Nae problem, hen," he says, grinning.
He sends her beautifully described virtual gifts almost every day. Warm scarves knitted carefully from tender hugs because she hates flying, waiting with her boarding pass. Raspberry kisses that will fizz out of her bathroom taps when she cleans her teeth each morning.
She has new confidence, wins new contracts. She knows she needs to work hard, keep busy, but she finds herself smiling more, hugging herself with the delight of knowing someone cares.
He texts to say he'll be in London on business just before Christmas. He knows she's busy, but does she have any meetings she can move to be there too?
She dithers for ages, trying to decide whether to shyly knock on the door of a London hotel room or just go home. Surely this isn't who she is? A woman with a married lover. She walks slowly down Holland Park Road, and the wind makes her decision for her, blowing her closer to him and his hard hugs, long nuzzles, deep kisses.
He can't possibly know the delight for her of walking hand in hand along a busy street. Eating out, sleeping close, like a proper couple. She feels the warmth of him curled around her back, and wakes to find him beside her, his arms wrapped round himself like folded wings. He looks like a sleeping fruitbat; she tells him, and is rewarded with a kiss.
They've discussed their Christmas plans – busy time for him, quiet for her.
They agree a holiday purdah, no calls, but her phone beeps on Christmas Eve with a text indicating a voicemail. Her special present, it says, not to be opened till Christmas morning. She's in her warm bed when she listens to festive music and his soft familiar voice.
"Good morning sweetheart, and a very Happy Christmas to you. I'm sitting here at my desk thinking fondly of you cuddled up cosy and warm in your bed with the special people you love around you. You're such a lovely Christmas present, Ella. Just knowing you're there is the best gift I could ever have, and today of all days, I wanted you to know how special you are to me. Have a lovely day, sweetheart, enjoy every single moment. Lots of hugs from your Fruitbat."
Ella listens once, twice, once again and smiles. Gets on with folding his clean clothes into a bag, burying her nose deep into the heap of laundry, inhaling their familiar fragrance. Home. They smell of home. And that's what she hopes he'll remember.
She pads through her quiet cottage in thick woolly socks, remembering a time when the air was full of spices and the sound of their laughter as he stole festive goodies from the cooling rack.
She pulls on his favourite mulberry-coloured cashmere dress and velvet boots, packs up the car. The sky's heavy, looks like snow.
James lets the water flow over him and smiles as he thinks of his wife, his beautiful girl. He heard her leave very early, saw her as she stepped into her lover's car. It's been seven years now, but he loves the very bones of her, and their marriage works in every other way. She'll be back in time for their traditional lunch with the family and kids, happy and smiling. Perfect. His busy holiday, surrounded by friends and family.
Ella buzzes herself in with the familiar code, hands over a heap of jauntily wrapped staff gifts and goes through to his room.
At first he and Ella laughed when he got clumsy, forgetful, forgot first her birthday, then her name. Then came anger and frustration, and then he seemed to forget that he'd ever loved her at all. She doesn't speak about blood and scars and pain, her struggle to pay the care bills, or the hereditary disease that will gradually take his body, his mind, and eventually his life.
Her Stewart. Her funny, gentle, affectionate husband, still sleeping, as he will for most of the day. Her quiet Christmas with the people she really loves.